Saturday, 29 November 2014

Saturday Interview: Cath Elliott

Cath Elliott is a Unison activist and feminist commentator from Suffolk. Having taken a bit of a break from blogging at Too Much to Say For Myself, you can usually find Cath tweeting away about The Apprentice and Question Time, among weightier matters.

How and why did you get into blogging?

In 2007 I was invited “above the line” on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site. Up until then I’d been commenting regularly on CiF under the monicker ‘MsWoman’, but the then editor, the late Georgina Henry, liked my contributions so much she invited me to write for the site. I think after a while of writing for CiF I realised that I had a lot more I wanted to say than either CiF or Sunny at Liberal Conspiracy, who I was also writing for by that point, were prepared to publish, so I set up my own blog – too much to say for myself.

What was your best blogging experience?

One of the main highlights for me has to be the amazing people I’ve been privileged to meet as a result of being a writer, some of whom I’m now proud to be able to count as friends. Being shortlisted for the Orwell prize in 2011 is my top blogging moment though, and I think it’s a real shame that the Orwell prize have now dropped the blogging prize. I think bloggers or citizen journalists or whatever you want to call us make a hugely valuable contribution to the political discourse, and the Orwell and other journalistic prizes should find a way to acknowledge that.

Have you any blogging advice for new starters?

Don’t let the haters put you off. I’ve had more than my fair share of online abuse in the past, but the rewards of writing online still outweigh all the crap that comes with it.

And why did you stop blogging?

I haven’t stopped blogging, I’m simply on a break at the moment.

I’ve been incredibly busy in the last couple of years, both personally and workwise, and I have to admit also a bit stumped as to how to go about explaining it all ... so thanks for giving me the opportunity here Phil.

I think I’ve found it really difficult to go from almost living my life online, which is how it felt for a while, to needing some privacy while I dealt with some very personal issues. But in a nutshell, in the last eighteen months or so my mum has died, which completely threw me for six, my marriage has ended, I’ve come out to my family and friends, moved in with my partner Linda, and moved house twice. See and who says middle age is dull!

Obviously I needed to give my four adult children time to adjust to all these changes, and I didn’t think me blogging about it or doing some big public coming out story was going to be particularly helpful to them or a sensitive way to approach things. But it’s been a year now, so here I am and ready to get back into it.

Having said that, a four weeks ago two police officers turned up at our house to tell us the terrible news that Linda’s son had died, suddenly and unexpectedly. So at the moment my time is taken up with supporting Linda as best I can and trying to deal with all that comes with something as shocking as this. And in the near future I’m going to be learning everything I can about how the inquest system works, because that’s something we’re going to be facing in the next six months as we try and make sense of what happened to Dan.

Do you find social media useful for activist-y things?

Yes I do, but I think there’s a danger of people becoming too reliant on social media to the detriment of other forms of activism. I don’t think for instance that an online petition, no matter how many tens of thousands of signatures it has, will ever have the impact that those same tens of thousands of people taking to the streets could have.

Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Robin Morgan and Karl Marx.

What are you reading at the moment?

California, by Edan Lepucki. I’m going through a bit of an end of the world/apocalypse phase at the moment, so on a similar theme I’ve recently finished Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which I can’t recommend enough. Oh, and I’ve also been doing #readwomen2014, so this year I’ve been reading only women authors which has been great.

What was the last film you saw?

Pride. And yes I did cry.

Do you have a favourite novel?

I have a long list of favourites, but if I have to whittle it down I’d have to put Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, and The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb in my top three.

Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

Bizarrely, considering the kind of writing I do, I’m not much of a reader of non-fiction. I dip in and out of non-fiction books and tend to read chapters and passages rather than whole books from start to finish. Fiction on the other hand has a much greater influence on me and always has. I remember reading James Baldwin, Alice Walker and Marilyn French as a teenager, and I think it was those authors who had the biggest influence on how I think about the world.

How many political organisations have you been a member of?

The Labour Party Young Socialists, the Labour Party, the SWP, the Anti-Nazi League, the Anti Apartheid Movement, Rights of Women, the Fawcett Society, Abortion Rights, the CPSA, UNISON, and the NUJ. I think I’ve also very briefly been a member of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection and the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, oh and Baby Milk Action. The list is probably longer, but you’d have to check that with MI5 …

Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

Yes, free speech. One of the first pieces I wrote for Comment is Free was about the need for limitations to be placed on free speech, but the responses I got to that post genuinely made me rethink my position. Now I don’t think any opinion or thought, no matter how abhorrent, should be deemed too dangerous to be allowed to be expressed.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

Feminism and socialism.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

Fascism, sexism, racism, misogyny, homphobia. Basically any set of ideas that places any one group of people above any other.

Who are your political heroes?

Tony Benn, Aung San Suu Kyi, Frances O’Grady, the American freedom riders, any trade unionist operating in a country where trade union activism is outlawed; basically anyone anywhere who’s prepared to stand up against fascism and repression.

How about political villains?

Thatcher, Stalin, Blair, Bush, and those, too many of whom are sadly on the left, who perpetuate misogyny and rape culture though either their words or their (in)actions.

What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

Ending violence against women and saving the NHS.

If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

Ending the privatisation of public services and safeguarding the welfare state.

What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

Men, capitalism and global resource shortages.

What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Don’t compromise your integrity.

What is your favourite song?

It has to be REM. Either Country Feedback or It’s the End of the World as We Know It – I have that as my ringtone.

Do you have a favourite video game?

Sonic the Hedgehog, although to be fair the last time I played a video game was when a Sega MegaDrive was considered state of the art.

What do you consider the most important personal quality in others?


What personal fault in others do you most dislike?

Cruelty and falseness: I’m not impressed by people who put on an act to try and impress others.

What, if anything, do you worry about?

It would be easier to ask me what I don’t worry about. Seriously, I worry about everything, and if I find myself not worrying about anything I then worry that there should be something I’m worrying about and I worry that I’ve forgotten what that is. I’ve recently read that people who worry too much don’t live as long as those who are a bit more carefree, but I’m trying not to worry too much about that.

And any pet peeves?

Bad grammar, untidiness, impoliteness, the proliferation of hideous made-up words like ‘incentivise’.

What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Chill the fuck out.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

Reading. I’ve always been a reader, hence my earlier career in bookshops and libraries. And more recently I’ve taken up swimming. Initially it was part of rehab following hip surgery, but now I do it because I enjoy it.

What is your most treasured possession?

My mum’s writing desk that she inherited from her mum.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Soap operas, reality shows, cigarettes, trains, Jacob Rees-Mogg.

What talent would you most like to have?

I’d love to be able to sing. In tune. I love listening to music, but when I try to sing along the noise that comes out bears no resemblance whatsoever to what I’m listening to. I’d probably have done well in a band like Crass or Slipknot.

If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true - apart from getting loads of money - what would you wish for?

For my children to be happy and fulfilled in whatever they choose to do with their lives.

Speaking of cash, how, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

I don’t think I would change much to be honest. Once I’d bought the inevitable house with a swimming pool, gym and hot tub and ensured my children had enough to give them financial security I’d probably donate most of it to Rape Crisis and other end violence against women organisations.

If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Marie Colvin, Kate Atkinson and Jill Tweedy, three women I hugely admire. I’m not sure the evening would be much fun for them though, as I’d probably spend most of the time picking their brains for writing advice.

Next year: will Labour win?

I suspect not, and sadly even if they do I don’t think they’ll deliver what we need.