Fear and loathing in Walthamstow
by SJ Griffin
[Update for mobile readers: This post is written by SJ Griffin, a woman who lives in Walthamstow, which ironically means Warm Welcome. She doesn’t usually talk about herself in the third person, although she is kind of enjoying it. That’s our secret, yes?]
I think of myself as a political writer in only a vague sense. On scale of nought to ten, ten being George Orwell and nought being EL James, I would say I’m a five and a half. That would put me someone where between Terry Pratchett and Richard Scarry, who asked the very pertinent question What Do People Do All Day?
If you’ve never been to Walthamstow or have access to the internet, the television or a newspaper you could be forgiven for thinking that what we do all day is sit around in our underpants posting vile abuse to our elected representatives and planning violent assaults on their homes. The truth is very different.
Let me tell you the truth. A truth that can be verified by witness accounts, facebook posts, photographs and the police. One of those truths.
Let me tell you about something we did, something that’s got a lot of people very frightened.
On the evening of the 1st of December over 250 local people assembled at Queen’s Town Road Mosque. They were a mixture of middle aged women, elderly Muslims, young parents, working folk on the way back from work and children – all people from a range of backgrounds, both socially and politically. And because this is Walthamstow, there might have been a hipster or two twirling their moustache or attractive fifties flare skirt, depending on gender. Or maybe both, all were welcome. They had gathered to walk to Stella Creasy’s constituency office, which was empty at the time. They were armed with a few placards, some featuring terrible Star Wars jokes – I apologise, candles and, heaven preserve us, post-it notes. Assembly complete, health and safety instructions imparted they ambled very amiably to the office with the police stopping the traffic for them where necessary so there wasn’t any unseemly running across the road in fear of life and limb. Then they congregated outside the office. They lit candles and listened to some people talking about why we shouldn’t bomb Syria and how lovely it was that everyone had gathered. Then came some milling around. There would have been some talk about how lucky they had been with the weather. Perhaps some compliments regarding the excellent cupcakes offered at the recent open day at Lea Bridge Road Mosque. Then a child had the idea of writing on post-it notes and putting them on the windows, which people did. Then everyone went home because the event was over. The whole thing was hastily organised in less than 24 hours, a dash to get a final chance for constituents to let Stella Creasy know how they would like her to vote, partly because she had been very open about not being able to make her mind up.
There we have it. A peaceful vigil.
We are all going to hell in a handcart! What a terrible, frightening occurrence! What kind of place is this Walthamstow where women in matching hat and scarf sets they crocheted themselves stand outside an empty office and write their reasonable opinions about killing people on brightly colour bits of paper that stick to things. How has this evil come among us? Who allowed all these people with their Scandinavian rye bread and craft beer to stand around with probably scented candles contemplating collateral damage and surgical strikes? Who on earth thought it right and proper that in these times of Islamaphobia and hate crime a large number of people from different ethnic backgrounds and faiths should come together and have a jolly nice time exercising their democratic rights and making new friends. Hateful. Vile. And what about this maniac rampant left wing vicar we hear about, stirring up hate so he can take control of the CLP, the council and probably the Hornbeam Cafe as well? Well, I’ve met him. He’s like one of those vicars from those cuddly Sunday evening dramas that used to be on the telly when I was a kid. There the jolly Reverends that want the lonely old people to have someone to talk to, single mothers to have a plentiful supply of nappies, a supply purchased after a whip round in the local pub and that new family at number six to be invited to the jumble sale. Even I liked him and I am highly suspicious of humans wearing dog collars in any context. In. Any. Context.
Most of that last paragraph didn’t make a lot of sense, did it? Apart from the dog collar bit. I suspect that’s because there’s too much truth in it. Terry Pratchett wrote that ‘a lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on’ and in the last three days a lie has gone round so fast Justin Gatlin wants his drugs back. I’m not going to bother to repeat it here. Many people far more powerful than me have already done that. Some of them, like Bonnie Greer, were quick to retweet the right story, others just did the first retweet and ignored the request to retweet the truth. And others still, like Tom Watson, are repeating the lie and conflating the issues today. I can’t tell you how sad and disappointed Tom Watson’s words made me as a new Labour Party member. I voted for him in the leadership elections, evil three pound entryist that I was. And yes, I did vote for Jeremy Corbyn. And my continuing support for him is the only reason I’m still a member of the party at this point. If you think that makes makes me a dangerous lunatic you can stop reading if you like. I don’t mind. I’m not, if it helps.
The real issue here is not my hurt feelings. It’s not even the hurt feelings of people on that vigil who have been reduced to tears because of how they’ve been misrepresented and hounded, exhausted from trying to get the real story out there. No. The real issue is the assault on the right of ordinary people to express their political views, the attack on democracy in local politics and the undermining of free speech. Are those things really so frightening? Of course they are.
So, let’s add the overcoat of reasonably-informed opinions to those boots of truth we popped on earlier.
I think that the real abuse that MPs are receiving while utterly disgusting is being used to discredit the imaginary threat posed by more left-leaning elements of the Labour Party. A fake Facebook account was used to start the furore about the vigil on Tuesday, originating from an IT worker in Leeds or a maths teacher in Orpington depending on how Sherlock Holmes you want to be about it. Neither of those men are anything to do with the vigil or the local Labour party.
I’ve had to block people on Twitter, mercifully I’m not on Facebook, and I think this is a reasonable response to trolls. If it is something more serious I think you should report the matter to the police, or the Labour party if they are a member. And please, let’s discipline any Party members who are engaging in this abuse. Stella Creasy has already done great work fighting online misogyny, even getting jail time for one man which was miraculous given the circumstances. Let’s follow that lead.
I think that the number of Labour Party or Momentum members threatening MPs is probably the same as the amount of people who think that Peter Andre is odds on to win next year’s Booker Prize. Lower actually because, somehow, I can see that happening.
I am certain that no one on the vigil made any of the alleged abusive calls that frightened staff in the constituency office on the morning of the debate. I hope that the minute that tweet went out they stopped and everyone felt much safer. I do hope it didn’t make things worse. I do hope it wasn’t used as evidence that the peaceful vigil was a horrifying rampage that was continuing on into the bright morning of our brave fight against the new fascism. Oh.
I think that rather than the Labour Party helping to fuel the desperate chip paper shortage we’re all suffering as a result of this bullying story rolling on endlessly, they should focus instead on, oh I don’t know, who’s funding ISIS? They should try and have a bit of a look at the tax credits U-turn and it not being a U-turn, just a bit of a break in a lay-by for a wee and ham sandwich on the way to Britain becoming the smallest state since Caractacus Potts discovered Vulgaira. They should see if they can peer at the ongoing refugee crisis, on the 300% increase in hate crime, on cuts to the police force, on the crisis in secondary schools, on the increase in borrowing. Please, someone, just pick one. Or is the choice so overwhelming that like a kid in a sweet job you just can’t make your mind up whether it’ll be the drowning child or the woman with MS trapped in her own home who hasn’t seen another live human being for six days or the woman in a man’s prison you’ll stand up for first? You remember how to stand up, don’t you?
I’m not linking to any stories about those issues. You can go out there and find them if you want. They’ll be buried somewhere, in the hope that you’ll be distracted by the terrorist sympathising, communist, militant Death Force stealing the labour party, hell bent on destroying anyone to the slightly to the right of Dennis Skinner.
Is any of this vile abuse? It’s so hard to tell nowadays. You might think I’ve been a bit mean about Tom Watson and Stella Creasy. I’m pretty sure when gangs of white men were ripping the hijiabs from Muslim women on Boundary Road and pushing the women into paths of passing cars the vile abuse bar was set much lower than it is now. Now the bar is set around ‘you look like an egg’. No one with features looks like an egg. Even Humpty Dumpty didn’t look like an egg.
I can understand that MPs might feel intimidated in the current climate on social media. It’s hard putting yourself out there and saying what you think about things. Particularly serious issues like war and terrorism. There is no place for nuance or dialogue. I feel intimidated writing this. I’m contemplating taking bits out in case I get humiliated on social media by real players with hundreds of thousands of followers and contacts in the press.In fact, I have. There was a genuienly amusing joke in here. It’s certainly not a good frame of mind to be proofreading in. Why do I feel like that? I’ve just witnessed my friends and neighbours get smeared by almost every major news outlet and suffer that smear being repeated by MPs, journalists and commentators even though the story has been refuted time and time again. And again.
Oddly, the BBC are pedalling the lie, while bizarrely broadcasting the truth at the different times. It’s as though two parallel universes have collided and the Earth-456 BBC that isn’t terrified of losing its funding and understands what the actual definition of impartial is, is operating at the same time as our Earth BBC, the organisational equivalent of Dobby with a sock allergy.
It’s unfair to single them out though, the big lovable barrel of fish that they are. Vigil organisers are being door stepped by the Daily Mail, local people being chased by ITV, the Times, the Telegraph, Huffington Post and too many others to give free publicity to.
There are differences between us and those intimidated MPs. For one, this is not our job. These are our homes, our families, our lives, you’re poking around in. Although to be fair you are also targeting us at work. Two, we don’t have the support of a party behind us – Tom Watson made that clear this morning. Three, we don’t have press officers to fend of rabid Mail writers. Four, we don’t have contacts in the press that we’ve been cultivating for years and years for just such occasions as this. Five, there is no Momentum group in Walthamstow and if even there was, most people at the vigil wouldn’t be in it anyway and so wouldn’t benefit from any support or solidarity it might dare to offer. We are just ordinary, hard-working people trying to participate in a democracy. If the MPs feel intimidated, imagine how we feel.
And then imagine, if you dare, the very real horror when Louise Mensch was deployed yesterday, appearing on a Facebook thread like a next generation Brimestome missile sent by SkyNet to blow up the William Morris Gallery as retribution. She’s “archiving” our tweets apparently, appearing to all intents and purposes like she thinks she’s helping Stella Creasy to build a case against us. I can’t imagine why having found herself deluged with mainly reasonable tweets expressing disappointment in her political performance, when people are telling her that they can’t vote for her any more and when she’s one half of a Margaret Thatcher meme Stella Creasy MP would think it sensible to chum up with a woman who makes Donald Trump look like the love child of Mother Theresa and Friedrich Engels. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t think its helpful, actually. Never have the words “for a column I’m writing on Sunday” held such menace. I get a slightly hot, sick feeling in my stomach when I think about it, like I’ve eaten the dietary equivalent of Justin Bieber album. If only we had our own pocket version of Alistair Campbell on hand to distract everyone by inserting his tiny genitals into the rotting mouth of a dead cat. I believe that’s the latest fashion in political spin.
Clearly, this is all some kind of madness. Remember that time people in Walthamstow made the international news because they lifted a whole double decker bus off a cyclist? It’s only a matter of time before someone fixes the video of that herioc act to play backwards, so it looks like we’re putting the bus on the cyclist on Hoe Street rather than lifting it off in spontaneous outpouring of community spirit and human decency:
What to do now? Let’s carry on, even though it’s hard. Carry on sticking up for each other. Speaking up for what we believe in. Those fish and chips will need wrapping eventually. When this has all moved on, when they’ve forgotten about whether it was outside a house or an office, when they can’t remember whether Paul S Jakubovic is a sock puppet or a real man, we’ll still remember. We’ll remember what happened when less than 300 people in Walthamstow held a peaceful vigil. We’ll remember the truth.
I’d like you to remember it too.