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Witches and warlocks

Time and time again we revisit previous times of our lives, especially when trying to come to terms with unprecedented realities.  Society works with precedent and continuity that allows people to negotiate their own individual identities.  We live in a society that fostered the culture of the one, and played down the importance of the collective, especially when people in positions of power declared that they can do more with less. 

One pandemic later, and we clapped at the heroes those we regarded as needy money-grabbers previously, those we acknowledge now, that we previously cast aside as low skilled workers.  One pandemic later, and social movements came to prominence, asking big questions about the criminal justice system and the way it interacts with those numerous people, that are not perceived as “mainstream”.  Across Western countries, people are registering the way the system is operating to maintain social order, through social injustice.  Each case that appears in the news is not an individual story as before, but are becoming evidence of something wider, systemic and institutional. 

Covid-19 affects people, and so we must maintain social distancing, cover our faces and clean our hands.  Clear advice from WHO about the pandemic, but people also die when they drown as refugees crossing troubled waters.  People also die when someone puts a knee on their throat (who knew?), people die when they have to deal with abject poverty and have no means to cover their basic subsistence.  People die, and we record their deaths but officially some of those are normalised to the point that they become expected.  Every year I pose the question about good and evil to a group of young adults who seem uncertain about the answer.   

I was recently reminded of a statement made a long time ago by Manos Xatzidakis in relation to the normalisation of evil: “If you are not afraid of the face of evil it means that you have become accustomed to it.  Then you accept the horror and you are frightened by beauty”.  When we are expecting death for seemingly preventable causes, we have crossed that Rubicon according to Xatzidakis. 

As a kid, one of my favourite stories was Hansel and Gretel.  Like all fairy-tales it has a moral signature and is a cautionary lesson.  In my mind it contracted the first image of evil, that of a witch.  The illustration made it very real, but also quite specific.  An oversized, badly dressed witch, with an unsatisfiable taste for children’s flesh.  It was the embodiment of true evil.  In later years, reading The Witches by Roald Dahl exacerbated the fear of this creature, seemingly normal but with layers of ugly under their skin.  The evil that was on the face of the beholder, their intentions clear and their behaviour manipulative but clear on their objectives.  This, I learn as an adult, is an evil that only exists in stories. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrjLNpfDTi0

This kind of witch, is a demonstration of the social vilification of women and especially those who actively try to challenge the status quo, but not the evil that runs in our societies.  The construction of social demons is a convenient invention to evoke fears and maintain order; well that is something a sceptic may say…but social scientists ought to question everything and be a bit of a sceptic.  In my version of the fairytale the wicked witch is pushed into the oven by Hansel and Gretel, the image of her oversized bottom sticking out, whilst the rest of her body is consumed by the flames. 

Admittedly, I was too old to get into the Harry Potter genre and read the books but the image of his opposition made it to popular culture. The “He who cannot be named” became another convenient, albeit complex, evil capable of unspeakable evils. An icon in its own right of the corruptive nature of evil.

 The reality of course is slightly different.  The big evils do not get extinguished with flames or other means.  They do not cease and there is not necessarily happy ever after; social injustice and unfairness is continuous and so is the struggle to fight them.  The victories are not complete, but gradual and small.  If the pandemic shows us something other than death and heartache, it is the brittleness of life and the need to ask for more in a society that is geared to prime individualism over social solidarity.  It is perhaps a good time, for those who never did, to engage with social movements, for those who left them to return and all find their passion of sharing human experience, that is predicated on equality and fairness.

Fairytales, are interesting insomuch of giving us some moral direction but they do not help us to understand the wider social issues and the actions people have to take. The witches out there may not carry brooms and mix spells in cauldrons but evil carries indifference, apathy and lack of empathy. As Edmund Burke said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”, now that is true evil. After all, is there such a thing called evil or are we content with finding easy answers?

  

A grand day out

https://letterboxd.com/film/a-grand-day-out/

Have you noticed how the news is reported these days in respect of Covid-19? Gone are the individualised and personalised stories of the casualties of this awful virus. Gone are the stories of individual and collective heroism of ordinary, actually extraordinary, people.  Gone is the mention of the R rate and the discussion around it. Gone are those pictures of the people that died.  No longer the headline, Covid- 19 is reduced to the middle order and consists predominately of the number of cases and the number of deaths. We watch these figures rise on a daily basis and we hear discussion about local lockdowns and areas with high incidents. We hear confusing stories about lockdown and then no lock down and then lockdown or is it partial lockdown and where exactly does it apply? We hear about areas that have high incidents where no action is being taken, well not yet anyway. And companies that remain open despite outbreaks only to be forced to close, let’s be honest, because of media scrutiny. We hear more from Nicola Sturgeon the first minister of Scotland than we do from our own prime minister.

We are sucked into a world of tourism, safe corridors and safe countries, lists and the plight of the aviation industry. We hear tourists moaning about self-isolation (I constantly scream at the tv you made that choice you ****). We are sucked into the debacle around schools and qualifications and returning to school. And we are told by Boris that we should all go back to work, back to the office. We hear of tourists returning on flights having contracted Covid-19 and passengers not wearing masks on flights. At the same time, we are told by bosses in the aviation industry that the industry is doomed unless something is done about it, this self-isolation malarkey really isn’t good for business. Once again, I shout at the tv (I don’t suppose you’ll be getting on one of those cattle trucks in a hurry you ***). Do I sound angry, I guess I am?

When the virus first struck, whenever that was, we all probably didn’t take it that seriously, serious but you know, not that serious. Then there was the lockdown, now that was serious, and it hit home how serious it was. Then we watched the tv and that reinforced how serious it was and if you weren’t a little concerned for yourself, your friends and your loved ones then you really weren’t in touch with reality. And then the economic costs started to rack up and that became really serious. And then, the government decided that since the NHS hadn’t been overwhelmed it was now permissible to open things up. And then, the government decided that it would pass the responsibility for the management of Covid to local authorities. And somewhere along the line, the responsibility for ensuring my safety, and yours became that of business. As long as businesses could assure us that they were Covid safe then we could go back to work and go shopping and eat out. In fact, you could eat out for 50% less in some places aided by a government scheme. A scheme to get businesses back on their feet which of course involved packing people in. Just how Covid secure are these places, well you take your chance, but you can feel assured.

I decided to venture out with my wife to get ourselves a new mattress.  The old one has had its day, we meet in the middle of the bed every night, whether we want to or not, the only solution, to try to sleep as close to the edge as you can and if possible somehow cling on. Time for a new mattress.  I’m not sure about these new-fangled mattresses (you know, the ones that come in a box and then pop out never to be returned to the box) and so rather than shopping on line we went to a store.  We entered the store, masked up as is required, to be greeted by an assistant who pointed to the hand sanitiser. “oh, that bottle doesn’t work”, she says, “try the other but you’ll have to hit it quite hard”. Oh well, at least she’s wearing a face shield and I notice the other assistants are doing the same, except that theirs are up, a bit like a visor really, as they hang about talking to each other. One saunters over to us and after a brief conversation leaves us to look at and try the mattresses. Now that sounds alright doesn’t it, except that not only was his face shield not down, he’d taken it off altogether and thrown it onto the bed. We kept our distance.  So, the markings on the floor suggesting 2 metre distance and the hand sanitiser at the entrance and the issue of face shields to staff are all Covid compliant but in operation, not really. Still we had a grand day out and felt quite assured.

As we hear the clamour to get schools back up and running, we hear about the plight of the school children and as a consequence, the voices and concerns of the teachers are drowned out.  As we hear the concerns of lecturers from their union, the lecturers themselves and even the medical profession, their voices are drowned out.  The only thing that seems to matter now is the economy and business. Those that run it are not on the coal face and will not be putting themselves at risk, but they tell us how we must all do our bit and return to work.  If you wonder how getting children back to school fits in, well parents caring for children at home are not in the office working.

I selected some passages from the government guidelines regarding Covid 19.

“The more people you have interactions with, the more chance the virus has to spread. Therefore, try to limit the number of people you see – especially over short periods of time”


“limit the number of different activities which you partake in succession to reduce the potential chain of transmission”


“group size should be limited to the minimum which allows the activity to take place”

Now isn’t that confusing. We must all get back to work and back to the offices and, yet the government’s own guidelines seem to suggest this should not happen unless absolutely necessary. How exactly does this fit with teaching and class sizes and the number of students that teachers interact with? The same applies to lecturers at university, of course they have the added problem that the students will have come from all over the country and then come together in a Covid -19 cauldron. Pack them all in but you can feel assured that schools and campuses are Covid safe (a bit like those planes returning from foreign climes).

I feel like I am in a socio-economic experiment. An experiment where I see the disadvantaged and weak in our society put at risk for the sake of business. Where the older generation are made to feel dispensable and unimportant.  Where figures are manipulated to downplay the seriousness of the problem. Die on day 29 after infection and you won’t be included in the Covid statistics.  I see an experiment where facts are bent, ignored, and a narrative that subjugates the truth to management and business ideals.  It looks like I’m going to be shouting at the tv for a very long time and I must be honest I really don’t feel very assured.

https://twitter.com/JeffOllerton/status/1301492068125224962/photo/1

Covid-Universities and what if

https://blackadderquotes.com/final-scene-blackadder-goes-forth

Over the past week or so there have been some mutterings about whether it is safe to open up universities. There is the advice from the scientific advisors (Universities get some Indie SAGE advice on reopening campuses in September)  and some thoughts from academics ‘Why universities must move all teaching online this autumn’.

As we move closer to the start of term, so my dread of what is ahead comes into sharper focus. I try to imagine what it would be like and try to reassure myself that the risk assessments have been done and the reassurances that the universities are Covid safe are true rather than simply fantasy and wishful thinking.

In this safe environment I imagine that the number of students and staff on campuses will be carefully managed as it is with many large stores.

I imagine that all staff and students will be wearing face coverings. This is not for protection of themselves, as the use of coverings is a somewhat altruistic venture, I cover my face and protect you and you cover yours and protect me.

I imagine that all thoroughfares will be marked and monitored. Social distancing is important, and we need to be at least a metre apart.

I imagine that the classrooms will be laid out in such a way that social distancing can be maintained and that the classrooms will be well ventilated, even in the middle of winter. I imagine all the chairs and desks and any other equipment will be wiped down after each session.

I imagine that face to face teaching will be limited and interactions with multiple groups of students will be severely curtailed to ensure lecturers are not put at unnecessary risk.  I imagine each class will comprise only a few students to minimise risk.

I imagine that anyone who is symptomatic will not attend a university and will after being tested self-isolate.  I imagine that all the people they have been in contact with will do the same for a whole, boring, 14 days.

I imagine that the universities’ management will be at each university, leading from the front.  They will be checking to ensure the safety of students and staff.  They will be mixing with staff and students, receiving feedback and continuously monitoring. I imagine the safety of the students and staff is paramount.

And then I think, what if…

What if campuses are a free for all.  Students can come and go as they please, there is no monitoring of volumes.  Or what if there is, but it is impossible to enforce with limited staff to do so. And those staff tasked with this endeavour are at greater risk due to the proximity with large volumes of students.

What if people decide not to wear face coverings or having got into the building decide to take them off or several people are exempt for some reason or another. Altruism has gone out of the window. I’m a criminologist and I know that people break the rules for all sorts of reasons and the only certainty is that some people will break the rules.

What if social distancing becomes all too difficult.  Many of us have experienced it in stores. A one-way system works for most, but a significant number just don’t abide by it, for whatever reason. People break rules.

What if the social distancing in classes is impossible, there just isn’t enough classes to maintain it with the volume of students on the course.  What if ventilation is impossible, other than air conditioning, some classes are in the middle of buildings. Who will clean the chairs and equipment after each class? Go to a restaurant and tables and chairs are wiped down after each use so who will do it at a university?

What if lecturers have to teach multiple groups face to face as there are not enough staff to spread the load. Teaching in a classroom for two hours multiple times in a day with different groups each time must surely expose lecturers to much greater risk.

What if students are of the age group where they are more likely to be asymptomatic?  How many that are infected might be at a university, spreading the virus around campus and around the locality.  Even if they are symptomatic, how likely are they to self-isolate? Judging by the street parties and illegal raves reported on the news, there is a good chance that some will break the rules. Let’s be realistic, if you are only likely to suffer affects akin to a cold, why would you be that bothered about social distancing or self-isolation?

And finally, what if all managers avail themselves of the much-vaunted government advice, work from home if you can. Leadership from the rear, the bottom line is more important than the safety of others.  We can of course dress this up in management psychobabble about what the students need.

Never mind, ‘Tally ho and all of that sort of thing and over the top we go’*.

* For those of you that are lost at this point it might be worth a visit to the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.

Road trip

In all fairness a road trip is a metaphor for life.  We live in perpetual motion, moving forward and going from place to place.  Our time is spent through journeys in our space, through the time of our lifespan. Alone or with others, planned or unplanned journeys are to happen.  That is life as it is.

Sometimes of course a road trip is nothing more than an actual trip in a countryside, quickly to be forgotten replaced by the next one!  On this occasion, I shall try to narrate it as it happened, as it is fresh in my mind and the images can be vividly recalled.  Maybe in future it would serve as a reminder, but on this occasion, it is merely a reminder of a very odd trip!  At this stage, I would like to state that no humans nor animals were hurt during this road trip. 

I am driving on one of the island’s country roads, the road is narrow going through the lush pine forest, some sycamore trees on the side.  The track is leading up and down the mountainous path.  The scenery is scenic and probably the reason people choose it.  The road alternates views from the forest, the valleys, the canyons and the sea in the distance.  Hues of green, and blue everywhere; and the smell.  The pines joined with thyme and other fragrant herbs, a combination that gives the air that scent I cannot describe. The light blue of the sky meet the Aegean blue in the distance.  

As per usual, on a road trip I prepare my maps, and plan the route in advance, but just in case I also keep an eye on the road in case there is a change.  On this occasion, the public works are working wonders; the street signs are non-existent so I opted out.  Interestingly instead of traffic information there were signs but not about the road ahead.  Somewhere is the midst of the journey there is the first sign about Jesus.  According to the sign “He is the truth, the way and the life”.  I am unsure about the destination, but at least Jesus is aware.  The next couple of signs involve Jesus and his teachings whilst the last one is making me feel a bit uncomfortable.  “Jesus died for your sins” it proclaims!  Ok fair enough, let’s say that he did.  Any chance of knowing also whereabouts I am and where I am heading.  The route continues with further signs until we come to a stop. 

Finally, more signs.  On this occasion there are some holy sites and monasteries.  One of them is of a Saint most revered that apparently most of his body rests in a nearby location, (minus an arm and a shin).  Later, I discover the Saint helps sick children and those who suffer from cancer.  Admirable, considering that he’s almost 300 years dead. Still no actual traffic information on the road!  At least the signs got me reading of a fascinating man long gone.  It is fascinating reading on beliefs and miracles.  Within them they hold peoples’ most secret expectations, those that under normal circumstances, they dare not to speak about.  This is a blog post for another time; back on the road trip and almost two hours on the journey.     

At this point, a herd of cows who have been lunching on the side of the road, decided to take a nap on the road.  To be honest, it is only one of them who is blocking the way, but the rest are near idly watching.  At this stage, I come to a stop waiting for the cow to move.  The cow who was napping opened her eyes and looks at me, I look back, she looks away and continues to lay motionless in the middle of the road.  I briefly evoke the Saint.  Nothing.  I am contemplating Jesus and still nothing.  After some time, around an hour of cow staring I am going for my last resort.  I get out of the car and promise that unless the cow moves, I shall part with vegetarianism.  Now I am openly threatening the cow to eat her.  This is when nature retaliates.  A flock of goats join the cow.  They meander around me and the stubborn bovine.  The road is now akin to a petting zoo. 

I employ a trick I picked up from cowboy films.  I raise my hat, luckily, I am wearing a hat, weaving my arms furiously and making sounds.  The cow is despondent at first and the goats just talk back.  After a few minutes I have managed to get the cow to move and the goats are now at the side of the road.  That’s my opportunity to leave.  As I turn back, I notice another car behind me; they are also travelers who begin to applaud my efforts at husbandry.  The road is clear, and I am on my way. 

The next hour is less eventful although the road is still hairpinned; now it’s heading downwards and from the mountains its heading to the sea.  I arrive at the sea way over the expected time and I manage to find a spot to park.  One the wall, next to the spot someone wrote “you vote for them every four years like cows”.  The writing is black, so I assume an anarchist, or maybe the author had a similar driving experience to me, or it’s just an unfortunate metaphor.    The sea is cool and the views of the sea and in the distance a group of islands, spectacular.  There are hot springs near by but in this weather the sea is more than enough.  After all that drive, a stop at a local taverna is inevitable.  Speciality dish mosxaraki or beef stew!  I think the Saint is testing me! 

On the way back, the road is empty.  The cows rest on the side of the road.  I slow down, I look out…they look away.  At a local coffee shop a patron asks for the Covid-special coffee.  I suppose a joke about the thing that occupies everyone’s mind.  He doesn’t wear a mask and doesn’t seem to believe this pandemic “nonsense”.  I was wondering if he is related to the stubborn cow.  The trip ended and it formed another of those planned road trips.  There was nothing spectacular about it.  There is however the crux of my point. Like life, most of our roadtrips are unspectacular on their own.  It is what we remember of them that matters.  In the last months millions of people went into lockdown.  Their lives seemed to stand still; a road trip can also be a metaphor, provided we don’t forget the details.      

What is the value of your ‘yes’ when you never say ‘no’?

A good few years ago a senior colleague asked me that very question.  It was more of a statement, than a question and it was designed to make me think about how I approached work and perhaps more importantly how others saw me in the workplace. It fits very nicely with another saying, ‘if you want the job done, give it to a busy person’.  It seems there are those in the workplace that get the job done and those that don’t.  There are those that always say ‘yes’ and others that often say ‘no’. There are those that solve problems and those that don’t. Another saying from a senior manager, ‘don’t bring me problems, just bring me solutions’ sums up the majority of relationships in organisations. 

My experience of managers (both middle and upper) has been varied, but unfortunately most have fallen into the category of poor, bordering on awful. Perhaps that colours my judgement, but I do know that I’ve also had some very good managers.  The good managers always made me feel like I was working in partnership with them and, yet I knew who was the boss. I always tried to find a solution to a problem but if I couldn’t then the boss knew that it was a problem he or she needed to deal with, they trusted my judgement. Often what appears to be the most trivial of problems can be a show stopper, a good boss knows this.  If I said ‘no’ to a piece of work, then the boss negotiated which other piece of work would be set to one side for now.  Sometimes everything is a priority, and everything is important, it is for those at the most senior level to make the decisions about what will or will not get done.  Making no choice is an abrogation of responsibility, suggesting it is another person’s problem is just as bad if not worse.

Good managers understand how much work people are doing and trust their workers to get on with the job in hand. A good manager knows that even the most menial of tasks takes more time than might be imagined and that things rarely go exactly to plan.  There is always an element of redundancy.  When someone says ‘no’ to a piece of work they understand that there is a reason for that ‘no’ and rather than simply seeing that person as being difficult or lazy, they listen and seek solutions.  More importantly, they take responsibility for the problem, ‘bring me the problem and I’ll help you find the solution’.

As we move into a summer of uncertainty where the ‘new normal’ is an anxious time for most, where the ‘yes’ people are needed more than ever, and the managers need to lead from the front, if you are a manager, what will you response be when your undervalued ‘yes’ person says ‘no’?

We are Spartacus: the publishing industry and race

As one of only a handful of non-white authors on the British crime fiction map, I thought it might be worthwhile spending a moment reflecting on the worldwide rebalancing touched off by the George Floyd killing in America. Fear not. There’s no need to put on your tin hats and dive for the trenches. My purpose isn’t to haul anyone over the coals. But there’s little doubt that some of what I say might make for uncomfortable reading. More importantly, I will ask you to reflect, at a personal level, on what we mean by systemic inequality, particularly as it applies to the publishing industry.

Screenshot 2020-06-30 16.14.40

First, some background. My parents are from the subcontinent. They came to the UK in the early seventies, lured by the immigrant dream. The streets of London may not have been paved with gold, but they were paved with opportunity. My father, who was not literate, spent his life in honest labour, in an industrial bakery, while my mother raised children, demonstrating the much-lauded immigrant work ethic by slaving away at her sewing machine every hour she wasn’t feeding us or stopping us from poking each other’s eyes out with eraser-tipped pencils. She instilled in us the need, above all else, to study, to educate ourselves, to progress.

So far, so good.

But what if I were to tell you that my parents were, in a broad sense, xenophobes, too? Not overtly. They didn’t oppress anyone; or traffic slaves across the oceans; or pillage defenceless communities for profit. But their attitude towards black people – cultivated by the insular world they had grown up in – was, at best, indifferent, or, at worst, mistrustful.

Here’s a simple, unpalatable truth. Racism, in its most basic form, is a feature of most societies. It shouldn’t be. But it is. A simple example illustrates my point.

The outpouring of angst and handwringing currently gripping the world has seen celebrities across the globe express their views on racism (rightly so), only for some to discover that a seat on this particular bandwagon can be an uncomfortable one. In India, numerous Bollywood stars were called out for the disparity between their #blacklivesmatter tweets and the fact that they had fronted campaigns for skin-lightening creams. Across the subcontinent, lighter skin has traditionally been valued (usually alluded to in matrimonial ads by the rainbow-bending adjective “wheatish”), so much so that white foreigners, especially Brits, are treated with overt deference, while black people are routinely afforded a lesser welcome. An odd perversity, given that it was the whites that pillaged the subcontinent for three centuries while, with those of Afro-Caribbean descent, one might assume Indians would evince a colonial-era solidarity.

Let me be clear: this idea of a sort of universal xenophobic instinct does not in any way excuse or mitigate the horrors of the slave trade, or the enormous, long-term damage done to black people because of that terrible practice. Nor does it justify the entrenched, systemic prejudice that continues to colour western societies, prejudice that culminates in overt racism of the kind that permits white American policemen to routinely kill black men with little fear of reprisal, and prejudice of the less obvious kind that serves to keep black people ‘in their place’. My point was merely to demonstrate that, in the wider, global race equality agenda now under discussion, we all have a part to play.

Part of the issue is that many well-meaning efforts to redress the balance are hampered by a profound lack of insight into how unconscious bias can affect the lives of people of colour, in a million different, small, but, ultimately, debilitating ways. The problem is further hampered by an education system that often fails to properly tackle the ‘race issue’.

Yet, the problem must be addressed. Because the world has become a smaller place. The goldfish bowl has shrunk and we are now all swimming in the same seas. It behoves us to make the effort, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is also the most effective means of progressing humanity towards a more equitable, more meritocratic, global society. If the Covid-19 pandemic has proven anything, it is how interdependent we are.

Coming, now, to the publishing industry. Cards on the table. Since my first book was published six years ago, I have received tremendous support from my agent, publisher, critics, bloggers, readers, event organisers, and crime writers. My experience is not typical. A simple look at the statistics tells us what we already know. Any way you slice it and dice it – diversity of publishing staff, published writers of colour, books featuring characters of colour – the industry is dominated by white thought and enterprise. Some of this can be ascribed to the fact that, in terms of population, BAME communities, by definition, are a minority. You wouldn’t expect there to be a 50:50 split along these dimensions. That isn’t the issue. The problem is the entrenched attitudes that make it so damned difficult for writers of colour to break into the industry and then to enjoy the same rewards and freedom of expression that is accorded to their white counterparts.

The world’s most successful crime writer, James Patterson, became famous with a series about a streetwise black detective, Alex Cross. James Patterson is not black. Nothing wrong with that scenario, in my opinion. Authors should not be constrained by artificial constructions of propriety. But, if the industry is being honest with itself, it will acknowledge that a writer of colour attempting to do something similar – trying, as it were, to write outside of their cultural straightjacket – is rarely accorded the same privilege. Questions of ‘authenticity’, ‘voice’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ suddenly come racing to the fore, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters questioning our right to go to the ball. Asian writers, for instance, are often expected to pen literary tomes about colonialism or exposes of the immigrant experience. Again, nothing wrong with that, and, indeed, brilliant writing is regularly published exploring those themes. But there are so many other stories that we would like to tell. White writers can be published writing about matters far outside their experience – wizards, serial killers, aliens. But for non-white writers, the same consideration is much harder to find. A lot of this is not the result of overt racism, but rather the mindset that accepts as perceived wisdom the idea that profitability comes almost entirely from white authors writing white stories, or writers of colour writing stories suited to their ethnic background. This thought is so prevalent in the industry that it may as well be an eleventh commandment.

A terrific article by Laura B. McGrath, associate director of the Stanford University Literary Lab, in a Jan 2019 issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, entitled “Comping White” identifies the true nature of the problem. Paraphrasing her research, it goes like this: publishers buy new books by comparing them to books that have been successful. Is this the new Harry Potter? Is this the next Gone Girl? Given that the majority of books are white, the process becomes a closed loop, a vicious cycle. The industry buys and promotes white books because they sell. White books sell because they’re the only books the industry buys and promotes. Do you see the problem?

Making the gatekeepers more diverse, McGrath argues, will have only a marginal impact. It’s the system that’s at fault. The same applies to practically any walk of life that you might care to name – hence the reason so few people of colour in boardrooms, or lecturing at top universities, or opening Michelin-starred restaurants. White people have done all those things successfully before, so why take a chance on the unproven?

Until we change this structural, often unconscious, bias, all the current furore around race will do little to improve the prospects of the average BAME person.

Can readers help? Of course! By voting with their feet. By buying books written by authors of colour, readers signal to publishers that they won’t be put off by a ‘funny-sounding’ name on the cover, or a protagonist who doesn’t share their own cultural background. The only bar should be quality.

In an ideal world, a good story, well told, should stand on its own merits.

What else can we do? In my opinion, people shape people. If we want better, more thoughtful attitudes in the industry, we must all stand up and be counted. Solidarity is the name of the game. A solidarity of thought that acknowledges that a genuine change of perspective is needed. From agent to reader, all along the chain. What we need, in other words, is for all of us to stand up and say: ‘We are Spartacus.’

Vaseem Khan, author, Midnight at Malabar House and Baby Ganesh series

London, June 2020

Parole in Lockdown

Photo by Jayakumar Attoor from FreeImages

It’s a sad fact of life in and after lockdown that everything is a bit rubbish. We have called groups of friends a few times to chat via Zoom. It’s nice to see everyone but the conversation doesn’t flow. You can’t pick up the cues to detect who wants to speak next and if everyone talks at once you can’t hear anything. Zoom quizzes are fun, but, for the same reasons, they lack the banter of a real pub quiz and are therefore focussed and functional. A couple of times we have sat down as a family to watch streamed theatre performances. They were very good but it’s not the same as a night at the theatre and, without the atmosphere of a live performance, you might as well watch a TV drama which has been written for the medium through which it is presented. Things which were once simple are now complicated – you need an appointment to go to the tip for heaven’s sake! And while Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer is quite amusing, it is no substitute for the live international football that the Euros were promising.

On 23rd March 2020, the Parole Board made the decision to postpone all face to face hearings with immediate effect. The decision was inevitable – prisons had closed their gates to visitors and it was no longer possible for members and witnesses to travel the country for hearings. A couple of weeks of frenzied activity followed as cases were reviewed. Some were deferred, some were decided on the papers, others were converted to telephone or video hearings. Since then, I have participated in 20 remote Parole hearings, all conducted by Skype / telephone. So, has the Parole process, like so many other things, become a bit rubbish?

The simple answer to that is, surprisingly, no. Remote technology has been available to the Parole Board since I was appointed ten years ago. A new “Parole Hub” had just been established and its virtues were extolled at my initial training. The idea was that the panel would convene in a suite in London while the prisoner and witnesses would join via video link. It was to be the future. In reality, hub hearings never took off in the way that was hoped. While the Parole Hub has been running continuously, only a few prisons have the necessary technology. Most cases were considered too complex to risk making a decision without seeing the prisoner. Any suggestions of learning difficulties, mental health problems, serious or unusual offending meant that cases were deemed unsuitable to be heard remotely. Despite expressing a willingness to conduct hub hearings, I have only done two in ten years.

All that changed on 23rd March. If we had deferred every “complex” case, we would have a massive backlog by now. Instead, after the initial confusion of the first couple of weeks, the Parole system has adjusted. We are now hearing just as many cases as we would have expected in normal times and the backlog is reducing rather than increasing. Telephone hearings are by no means perfect. Sometimes the line crackles and you have to ask people to repeat themselves. Sometimes participants disappear altogether. In one of my hearings, the chair vanished for 10 minutes but after a few frantic e-mails he was able to re-join. Sometimes witnesses don’t pick up the non-verbal cues that they have answered the question and ramble on for longer than they may otherwise. As a result, remote hearings tend to take slightly longer than face to face hearings.

But there are advantages too. In my experience, telephone hearings start on time – everyone logs on when they are supposed to, no one gets stuck in traffic. From a personal point of view, I can wear what I like, I can get up and stretch, I can drink coffee and eat snacks during the hearing, all without looking unprofessional. Hearings may take a little longer but I don’t have a long drive home afterwards, so they are less tiring. If one of my hearings is cancelled, it is relatively easy to find another one to take its place because I’m no longer restricted by geography – I can pick up a vacancy anywhere in the country. And remote hearings cost the tax payer a lot less in travel expenses and hotel costs. As long as solicitors are able to consult with their clients by telephone prior to hearings, they are able to represent their interests effectively. Several of my remote hearings have involved vulnerable prisoners, with learning difficulties, mental health problems, physical health problems and dementia. Prior to 23rd March, none of these would have been considered for remote hearings but in most cases, despite these challenges, the prisoners were able to participate just as effectively as they would have been in face to face hearings.

The crucial issue, however, is whether the quality of our decisions is affected by our new way of working. That remains to be seen. We will have to wait for the statistics to see whether we are more risk averse and reluctant to release from remote hearings. Time will tell whether serious further offences by prisoners on Parole increase. In theory, the fact that we don’t know what the prisoners we are dealing with look like, may help to reduce unconscious bias and make our decisions fairer. It is very difficult to tell whether someone is lying to you, whether you can see them or not. Not being able to see the “whites of their eyes” is unlikely to make much difference to whether or not we are fooled by prisoners who present themselves well but have made little genuine change to the risk they present.

So remote Parole hearings are probably here to stay. While face to face hearings will return for the most complex and vulnerable prisoners, the majority will continue on the telephone or video link. COVID-19 has forced technological change on the Board in a way that the Parole Hub did not. This may be a good thing or it may not – we will have to wait and see.

“Things you need to know about criminology”: A student perspective – Natalie Humphrey, 1st Year student

Vincent van Gogh – The Prison Courtyard (1890)
We are all living in very strange times, not sure when life will return to normal...but if you're thinking about studying criminology, here is some advice from those best placed to know!

The most important module to my understanding of criminology is: At the beginning of the year I believed the True Crime module to be the most important in understanding why crimes are caused. However, I quickly learned that these are not always the best source of information! The Science module is the basis of Criminology in the first year, laying down where it emerged, with Lombroso and Bertillon. I believe these figures are important to understand to grasp criminology.


The academic criminology book you must read:
The SAGE dictionary of Criminology has helped me with the basics of the subject. If there was something I became stuck on, this book would usually have an explanation for it. It also has examples which make it much easier to apply

The academic journal article you must read:
Attitudes towards the use of Racial/Ethical Profiling to Prevent Crime and Terrorism, by Johnson, D et al.(2011)
I came across this article when researching my Independant Project on racial stereotyping. It goes into the systematic racism that black people face and how disproportionate racism truly is. With more recently, the George Floyd case, this is still a very prominent article that is true to date

The criminology documentary you must watch:
I am a lover of many true crime documentaries and am always first to watch the new one that has been added to Netflix! The famous ones, such as Ted Bundy’s confession tapes, are fascinating to me, Bundy especially. However, there are many injustices that need to be addressed, not just the notorious serial killers. Jeffrey Epstein’s new documentary is very important in understanding sexual abuse that happened to over 200 underage girls. Athlete A also shows the sexual abuse of underage girls who were part of USA gymnastics.

The most important criminologist you must read:
Becker stood out to me this year as a very important figure. Understanding how young people are so heavily influenced by the labels people and society give, so much so it can shape their lives. Even older people can be easily labelled. This was quite surprising to me at the beginning of my studies.

Something criminological that fascinates me:
DNA and fingerprinting are fascinating to me. I find the science behind the discovery of what occurred at a crime scene and how they unpick it very interesting. This is definitely something I would like to study further.

The most surprising thing I know about criminology is:
It is a much wider subject than I first thought, it involves so much more than you could imagine. It questions everything in society.

The most important thing I've learnt from studying criminology is:
I have learned how unjust our criminal justice system is and how much, we as individuals, stereotype every person we meet. I’ve become more aware of this and have a better understanding of what needs to change.

The most pressing criminological problem facing society is:
Racism is a massive problem today. The racism black people face, especially in the US, is hard to understand as a white woman, but difficult to even contemplate people are treated in such ways. George Floyd, as I mentioned before, was killed because of his race. Problems like this would not happen to a white male, especially when his alleged crime was not violent. Young black men are labelled by the media to be seen as a thug and dangerous, causing many to be assumed of acts they just would not commit. Jane Elliott’s experiment on racism and eye colour from the 1970s is still a lesson that needs to be learned today!

When family and friends ask, I tell them criminology is:
Its more than it seems. Most just think it's about crime, which yes it is, but there is so much more to it. It is not one subject, it is so many put together. Science, psychology, sociology for example.


Zombie Apocalypse

In post-war cinema, movies became part of political propaganda, especially when the creators did not want to tackle directly on a particular issue.*  The use of metaphors and euphemisms became part of the story telling especially when the creators tried to avoid strong opposition from censors and political groups. This allowed social commentary to be made under the nose of “puritan” critics! Visual semiotics in modern cinema revealed a new reality in social symbolism.   

One of those symbolisms was the living dead, later known as zombies!  Zombies appear on the screens in the late 40s and 50s but predominately appear with the name in the 70s.  The critics show in their representation of apathetic citizens who are not alert to the dangers of communism.  Originally the zombie and the alien body-snatcher became metaphors of the red danger in the US at the time of McCarthyism. The fear of communist expansion was fertile ground to play with public fears.  It became evident that a good citizen in order to avoid zombification has to take up arms and resist the menace.  Inaction is accessory to the crime of overthrowing the social order. 

As the paranoia leading to the red danger subsided, the zombie metaphor began to lose it potency and it become a cult population for those who love watching “B-movies.” In the 80s and 90s, zombie movies became aligned with the impeding doom of the millennium and technological bug that allegedly was coming to wipe out civilisation as we know it.    

In the new century, zombie became a representation of those who succumb to technology and become its blind users.  Generations Y and Z were accused of spending more time than before on game consoles, surfing the web and becoming “couch potatoes.” The gamers who binge on games for days, losing all other engagements with life until the game is completed.  The motionless body of the gamer sitting in the same spot, non-engaging in conversation, was likened to the brainless zombie who slowly moves in space with no volition and conscience. 

More recently, the zombie movie genre promoted the idea of a global medical pandemic, mostly caused by a virus that mutates people and turn them into flesh eating abominations!  The virus breakout of the zombie disease became so convincing that a concerned member of the public back in 2011 asked Leicester City Council about their preparation in case of an invasion. Of course, at the time, cultural sociologists argued how zombies are a representation of “the other” in terms of race, nationality, and of course gender.  Whilst others saw them as a representation of end of days, an eschatological message that bring an end to life as we know it. 

Therefore, in the situation of Covid-19 the contagion of the potent virus that can kill some whilst others carry it without even realising it, brings to the surface the zombie fears Hollywood warn us about.  In a recent survey a third of US believe that the virus was created in a lab, and whilst most people according to WHO acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic there are those who question its existence. With opinions divided about the causes of covid19, life in 2020 appears to be a prequel to a post-apocalyptic reality.

Back in zombie movies and we are coming out of a lockdown when cities and towns feel deserted like 28 Days Later, people came out with protective masks like in Resident Evil and became frightened of the invisible threat like in every movie in the genre.  Back in 2011, we laughed at the question “how ready are we for a zombie apocalypse?” Maybe if we asked is there a likelihood for a pandemic we could have planned and prepared for now, slightly better.  There are great lessons to be learned here and possibly we can establish that when we are looking at healthcare and services, we cannot do more with less!  Just whatever what you do, do not take lessons from Hollywood!   

Until the next time! 

*At this stage, I would like to apologise to my younger colleague and blog comrade @treventoursu who is far more knowledgeable than myself on movies!

Ignorance is bliss: the problem with education

I woke up this morning with a feeling of the weight of the world on my shoulders. My problems are insignificant compared to many others, but I did think, wouldn’t it be nice to get off this merry-go-round. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could stop thinking about the injustices in the world and the part I play in them, how the problems might be solved, how best I can do my job online and give all of my students what they need, how best I can deal with tricky relationships at work and do my best for all concerned How I might ensure that my family are looked after and take on significant responsibilities in looking after the interests of an elderly relative whilst ensuring fairness all round. How can I do the right thing and not send myself into bouts of depression?

And as I thought of all of these things I came to an interesting question.  Is it better to be ignorant, inept and irresponsible?

If I was ignorant, if I didn’t bother to watch the news, to critique, to engage in discussion, to think about the social world and my place in it. If I was to carry on in blissful ignorance of what is going on around me would I not be happier? If I am not aware of social injustices, then it would be easy to take a stance that what matters is simple, law and order for instance.  I could become a Sun reader, more interested in the pictures than the content. The headlines would capture my imagine for a nano second and I could simply agree about how terrible this or that issue is before blissfully moving on to something else. I don’t know what everyone else is complaining about, I’m alright Jack, or should that be Jill, I must stop thinking.

If I was inept, I make a bit of an assumption here that I’m not, I guess others will judge, then that ineptitude would ensure that I wasn’t given any responsibilities, well none that really mattered. Cock things up a few times and suddenly you find that nobody wants to give you the work and nobody really wants to do any work to deal with your ineptitude, and nobody thanks them if they do.  In other words, you are ‘quids in’, minimal work and nobody on your back. Couple this with blissful ignorance and life is so much easier.

If I was irresponsible, or at least seen as that, then I wouldn’t be asked to take on responsibility and all of the ramifications that go with it. No longer asked to do something that is important and has significant ramifications if you cock it up. That takes us back to ineptitude, being inept leads to no responsibility, being irresponsible gives the appearance of being inept. If I am blissfully ignorant of what people might think of me or what I might have cocked up, then no need to worry.

The only fly in the ointment here, is that in being educated, I am able to write this blog. I am able to place myself in society and sadly acknowledge my part in it. I pride myself in doing a good job and I don’t shy away from responsibility although I might get there kicking and screaming at myself for the angst and inner turmoil it sometimes creates. Knowledge is powerful, education gives you knowledge and self-awareness. The greater the knowledge the greater the self-awareness, the greater the self-awareness, the greater the thirst for knowledge. Unfortunately, there is nothing blissful to be found there though.

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