By Milena Pek
The sound of a body falling into the water -
Is it different from the sound of any other heavy object?
What was on the mind of the Rapid Support Forces
As they were throwing the bodies into the Nile?
Or maybe they were not thinking anything
As when you throw rocks into the lake?
The three big questions arise:
led to the death of those people?
future awaits their families and friends?
In April this year, after 30 years of ruling Sudan, Omar al-Bashir was forced to resign. However, the military coup did not mark the end of the protests that had been rocking the country since December 2018. Back then they were hailed as ‘bread protests’, but they were much more than simple unrest caused by a temporarily poor economic situation. The Sudanese lost faith in their corrupt, incompetent government led by al-Bashir, who not only failed to improve the situation in Sudan, but was furthermore accused of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in 2009. The actions of his regime were also a factor in the secession of South Sudan, taking with it most of the country’s oilfields. This only exacerbated a dire economic situation still reeling from the civil war and numerous smaller conflicts. Omar al-Bashir’s rule in its essence is an example of how to ruin instead of to rebuild a country. The Sudanese government has been used to spending resources on security and defense, because of the civil war and multiple religious and ethnic issues. There has been an apparent institution failure in terms of managing the economy and keeping inflation in check. As a result, people took to the streets out of desperation. What they got- after almost five months- is a change which might not even scratch the surface of Sudan’s political (and thus also social and economic) issues.
The aspirations of the Transitional Military Council do not match those of the protesters, who demand a civilian-led government, while the junta “has no intention of holding free or fair elections”. It is apparent that a fully or even predominantly civilian government would pose a threat to all three: the military, the Rapid Support Forces (which were born from the Janjaweed paramilitary, notorious for its brutal engagement in the war in Darfur) and the intelligence service, which jointly helped al-Bashir during his tyrannical rule. The junta is most probably split into different and conflicting factions, as it initially accepted the conditions of the Alliance for Freedom and Change, the main opposition coalition, only to suddenly break the agreement and announce that the elections would be held within 9 months.
3rd June 2019 will forever mark a historic crackdown on peaceful protesters in Khartoum. Murdered, thrown into the Nile with "concrete blocks tied to their feet" or ‘merely’ raped (both men and women), most likely by the members of the Rapid Support Forces. It is difficult to cite specific numbers as reliable estimates are difficult to come by in the midst of this chaos, with the Internet blackout and media bureaus being shut down. Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise. Numbers tend to terrify, making us unable to comprehend the reality. The reality is harsh though and demands action.
What future awaits those who are still standing? Those still protesting, in spite of the massacre, in spite of the Internet blackout, despite mounting odds and finding themselves in a dire situation?
No easy answers there. The only easy thing would be to wait for the rival factions in the TMC to tear themselves apart with in-fighting, dragging the country with them into a spiral of chaos and a civil war .
A third civil war? More years of conflict? Wouldn’t one be more than enough? The Sudanese people know the bloody taste of a civil war very well. That’s why Ethiopia and South Sudan offered help with the negotiations between the junta and the Alliance for Freedom and Change. The Ethiopian proposal has been recently accepted by the AFC; on the day of writing (23/06/2019) we are still waiting for the TMC’s response.
Nonetheless, since the massacre the protesters cannot trust the TMC in any aspect. Its deputy leader and the leader of the Rapid Support Forces Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (‘Hemeti’), who is notorious for his involvement in the Darfur war, accuses “impostor troops” of the June 3rd attack. With the backing of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt (to only mention a few), the factions within the TMC know they are not vulnerable. On the other hand, there is the African Union, which suspended Sudan after the crackdown. However, this sole suspension is not enough to check the TMC’s abuse of power. We know how complicated the political landscape in the region is; eventually the AU might choose stability over a power vacuum (giving way to terrorist organizations) or another civil war; as they did in 2009, after the International Criminal Court indicted al-Bashir.
And here we inevitably arrive at the issue of international response and the question of whether we are really helpless in the face of this humanitarian crisis. Instead of just listing media responses and linking some fundraisers, I want to leave you with a few points to consider:
Firstly, the Sudanese have the agency to transform their country – after all, they have been relentlessly opposing the current system for the past few months, if not for years – but they need support from the outside. The transition needs to be supervised with care and attention to avoid another dictator, another civil war and yet another Myanmar with only nominally civilian-led government (the junta “made way for civilian government” in 2011 and since then we have been witnesses of the Rohingya Crisis and Aung San Suu Kyi’s inertia). The Western powers are in no position to be the Sudanese people’s 'saviours', but they are in a position to be their allies and they hold the moral responsibility to support a peaceful transition process. Not just with words and moves meticulously calculated to save their face, but with actions.
Playing it safe is not an option – if you are an international power, engaging itself everywhere around the world, you need to look at your impact. Realpolitik? Without considering civilians’ lives? Spending millions on weapons and humanitarian aid at the same time? Where is the logic?
Furthermore, it would be banal to say that at present the inter-dependencies between states around the world impede any crucial political moves in the region; few take their time to map out those inter-dependencies, as it is a brain-busting task, even on a superficial level. Believe me, I did try. Sudan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, the African Union, the UN, the US, the UK, Egypt, Russia, China, Yemen, Syria, Iran, the European Union, Ethiopia, South Sudan - it goes deeper and deeper, further and further…
Myanmar’s crisis (in which the UN recently admitted its “systemic failure” ) and the ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Syria provide vivid and painful examples of failure in international cooperation and of international institutions. In Sudan’s case, we could see China and Russia acting to block a statement condemning the killings in Sudan. They are two of the five permanent members of the Security Council, and hold veto power.
In the light of all that, it feels almost daring to ask: is there hope? What we know for sure is that there is no hope without action, and that silence and inaction are also acts of complicity.
We need to exercise responsible patterns of behaviour: checking whether charities can actually fulfill their pledges before donating to them or sharing blue pictures ‘for Sudan’ on Instagram Stories; doing basic research before engaging in political debates as if we already knew everything; holding politicians accountable and expecting genuine, constructive action from them instead of going the easier, safer way; paying attention to and backing positive internal developments; supporting unsweetened truth, hard facts, dismissing half-truths; cross-checking information in different sources; supporting responsible narratives in media whilst not neglecting uncomfortable details.
It is vital to underscore the value of responsible, effective journalism and reporting, as we could witness the media in Sudan being muted at the time of the crackdown. Gathering evidence demands strong will and moral conviction; something which Clare Rewcastle Brown, who uncovered Malaysia’s biggest corruption scandal, despite the fact that “the Malaysian government went to great lengths to discredit and intimidate” her, knows only too well. She commented in her interview for TIME:
Many journalists are doing their job while working on the Sudan crisis right now and they need our attention and support as do the Sudanese people. We have the moral responsibility to educate ourselves, a duty to responsibly share news coverage and information on the crisis with the world, as well as to try looking for other ways to help. Meanwhile, we need to remember that the situation in Sudan is very dynamic and the future unclear.
However, the time to act is now.
While writing this article, I collected information from Al Jazeera, the Guardian, BBC, CNN, France 24, the Economist (“How to stop Sudan sliding into war”), the Financial Times (“Sudan paramilitary leader Hemeti closes in on power”), the Atlantic (“Sudan and the Instagram Tragedy Hustle”), Human Rights Watch (“As Sudan Struggles, AU Should Press for Justice and Accountability”), South African Government News Agency (“AU leaders will not extradite Al Bashir”), the National Interest (“Sudan's Political Turmoil Creates Window of Opportunity for Washington”), TIME (“'It's About Right and Wrong.' In Conversation With the Journalist Who Exposed the World's Biggest Corruption Scandal”).
CW: This article includes discussion of deportation and briefly mentions suicide.
What sort of person is going to be seeking asylum? We first need to clarify exactly what an asylum seeker is; they are someone hoping to gain refugee status in the country that they are in. A refugee, as defined by the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, is a person who ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’ is ‘unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’. Put a bit more simply, a refugee is someone who is fleeing harm in their own country. Their home country is unable to protect them, so they are coming somewhere that they believe to be safer.
So, if someone is seeking asylum in the UK, they’re not just moving to the country for the sake of it. It is dangerous for them to go home. We can probably also state with some confidence that they not lived an easy life; they are likely to have fled from traumatic experiences. Many flee from war.
You arrive; by car, by plane, by train, by boat. I don’t think there is much I can say here that has not already been said about the heartbreaking manner in which people risk their lives to travel to the UK. Let us focus instead on what happens when they actually get here.
You must present yourself to the authorities immediately, or, if you’re in the UK and suddenly find yourself unable to return to your home country, you must inform the authorities as soon as you realise you are in a dangerous situation. If you do not do this, you can be arrested for being in the UK illegally and then forcibly deported. Whilst you can appeal this decision, if you lose your appeal you are unable to return to the UK for 10 years.
If you manage to present yourself to the authorities within the correct time frame, then you are given a place to stay and some money to live off. If you’re a single person, then you are given £5.39 a day to live off. If you’re lucky, then you will be allocated to one of the 24% of properties which are actually compliant with Home Office standards. If you’re unlucky, then you will be part of the 43% properties deemed ‘unfit for purpose’ or in ‘urgent’ need of repair. One property had a hole in the kitchen ceiling where water would ‘cascade’. As well as this, local authorities always have a key to your home and can enter at any point. The UK isn’t your home yet anyway; you are still waiting for a decision to be made. There is not a time limit on how long this can take, and the amount of people waiting in these conditions for over 6 months skyrocketed last year, so you’ll likely be living in poverty for some time.
This is the support that the government gives asylum seekers because whilst you are waiting for the government to decide whether your situation is perilous enough for you to stay, you are not allowed to work. However, if you’re lucky enough to be one of the 28% (in 2017) of asylum seekers that were granted the right to stay, then when that happy decision is made, you have 28 days before this support is removed, and you have to move out. If you manage to stay afloat after all that, you have 5 years of relative stability before you have to apply for leave to remain again.
However, this is all if you manage to avoid being detained, which can happen at any point in the procedure, usually because the government is going to try and deport you. However, it can also happen if you are arrested (which you can be for having a job), during a check in with immigration officials, or even as soon as you arrive. At any one point, there are between 2500 and 3000 people detained in the UK, one of the largest numbers in the EU. Roughly half of these people are asylum seekers. Whilst detaining someone is technically an administrative process and not a criminal one, many centres are run by G4S, a company which also oversees the running of prisons. You can also be detained in an actual fucking prison, one might say like a criminal. There’s no limit on how long you can be held in detention centres for either, although the government is trying to speed up the process. Not very successfully however; the first Fast Track system was ruled illegal by the High Court in 2015, as it automatically put people arriving from certain (read: predominantly non-white) countries straight into detention and did not grant them the right to appeal their case if denied refugee status. In 2017, 4 people took their own lives in detention.
In case this is not clear already, it is a legal right to seek asylum. And it’s not illegal to be refused asylum - literally all it means is that you weren’t able to meet the arbitrary criteria to prove you are a refugee.
Why, you might then ask, are we treating vulnerable people who are fleeing dangerous situations like criminals? Well, under the coalition government, a hostile environment policy was laid out by our current Prime Minister where the UK actively tries to make settling here as hard as possible. This was due to the lies which were told, implying that the UK was experiencing some sort of influx of settlers. This is not the case - even in 2015 where there was a relative surge of asylum seekers, reaching 39,000, this is nothing compared to the 103,000 claims that were received in 2002. This policy targets people of colour, encouraging authorities to single them out and perceive them as different. It also targets women, who often are unable to talk openly about the sexual violence they have encountered. When you vote for reduced immigration, this is what you are voting for.
Global patterns show that the numbers of displaced people are rising - from 1 in 160 people a decade ago to 1 in 113 today. Our current climate crisis means that the amount of displaced people is going to drastically rise - and people displaced by climate change are not currently even counted as refugees. It is obvious that our approach denies global patterns and attempts to criminalise a legal right. To suggest anything otherwise denies victims of their humanity.
It’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of a system which needs such total reform, but there are some people who you can support to make a change. Refugee Action are campaigning to lift the ban on asylum seekers being able to work, and the Unity Centre and Bail for Immigration Detainees both do important work representing and helping people in detention centres. There are links to these organisations below.
Refugee Action - https://www.refugee-action.org.uk/
Unity Centre - https://unitycentreglasgow.org/
Bail for Immigration Detainees - https://www.biduk.org/
*Illustration by Polly Burnay*
You were stood in the wings, gelled back bun and static electric nerves, waiting for the first step
you didn’t even notice the cramp,
Too focused on your first slow steps. The arrival of the swans is a deliberate dance,
Slow, winding, each swan debuting at the back of the stage, her own moment of beauty
in brilliant white. You’d thought the teariness was from the shouting and lack of sleep,
But you’d danced through the nausea, ran through sticky corridors to the disabled toilet,
The only one big enough to house you and your tutu,
Sat down with a sob your body had betrayed you again wet red embarrassment staining your
At this point, you remember the day your mother had dared to congratulate you on your womanhood arriving with some anger.
You start to think that this womanhood is actually a curse designed to rip through perfectly nice
white net tutus and why would you think any different, darling,
When you watched your thighs curve outwards with horror, watched your stomach gather fat like
an act of survival from the back barre,
Where the bigger girls went,
Where the mirror was more slimming,
And it was ‘just lose a little bit of weight for this exam girls’
And it was ‘I’ve had a fried egg for breakfast so I won’t eat today’
And it was ‘well I just don’t think it’s nice that two girls would do that together’
And it was ‘it’s easier to jump higher when you’re thinner isn’t it?’
And weren’t you good at painting it on? Your humanity in bronzer, blusher and glitter eyeliner,
your skin didn’t know what breathe felt like, didn’t know what mouth was if not to be painted and smiling,
Had the sex stripped out of you and exhibited, tucked away the blood and sweat,
put on a pair of shimmer tights that sucked in child stomach, draped our pubescent shoulders in chiffon and a push up bra,
femininity to be looked at, enjoyed- my awkward puberty was for your enjoyment.
Watch as they dance and shimmy!
‘Remember, cheeky faces girls!’
Not like this, not sat on a toilet 5 minutes before the next costume change, watching your womanhood stain the crisp white perfection you’d tried so hard to foster,
Not like this, with the tears that tug up your chest like eyebrow plucked from forehead,
not with two track marks running through the hours of brushing and bronzing and shimmering.
You thought you were so ugly,
and who wouldn’t, when you tried to stuff all this woman into girl frame.
I have good news, 12 year old me to whom this poem is addressed, sat on that toilet, wishing that this hot burn of embarrassment would stop stinging so much.
In 4 years from now, after a diet of no ‘bad’ foods and 100 sit ups a day you will walk out of a ballet exam where your skin was alight with enough,
You’ll buy a bucket of fried chicken and smile as the grease wipes off the lipstick,
You’ll know that stains wash out,
You’ll cut off your ballet bun,
*Illustration by Hazel Laing*
The New Year, to me at least, seems to be the worst time of year for everyone. We open with New Year’s Eve, consistently the most over-hyped party of the year. You can feel the static energy of people trying too hard to have fun buzzing against each other, and I don’t think I’ve been to a New Year’s party yet that didn’t end in either someone crying, or an existential piling of bodies in the toilet, or taxi, or bedroom, drunkenly confessing to each other that we have no clue where we’re going, or what we’re doing, or how we’re going to make ourselves happy this year.
And then, after the gruelling cold and darkened mornings that refuse to be lit by Christmas decorations, we blindly stumble into February. February! You tell yourself that this one is the shortest one, that it’ll be gone in a blink but then the sickly pink shadow of Valentine’s Day hangs over the whole month. When did Valentine’s Day start being such an important part of people’s social calendar anyway? Maybe as a result of university communities’ tendency to cling onto all and any form of holiday to create fundraisers, club nights and socials; something which I am definitely guilty of. The theme certainly leads to some good fun along the way, but there’s something about all of it which doesn’t stick right.
Both of these holidays are so awful to me, I guess, because they try to rush something which shouldn’t be rushed. Self-improvement is fab! Being in love is fab! But neither of those are things which can be timed, or planned, or squeezed into a schedule. Moreover, there’s a certain element of performativity in both of these holidays, perhaps most pertinent in the New Year’s Resolution. How do you change yourself for the better without doing it in a way which makes others feel inferior? Or, how can you be sure you’re changing for you, and not for the approval of your peers?
We’re almost clocked two months into the new year, and after speaking to friends about their current personal outlook, the overwhelming response is that of unfulfilled potential. They’ve given up on their resolutions, they’re behind on work, they’re not making enough new friends, they’ve not done their washing up for a week and are hoarding 90% of their flat mugs on their bedside cabinet. Whilst I’m sure this essay sounds somewhat tired and overused in its advice, I’ve found that the impending climate catastrophe has installed a somewhat cheery nihilism in me: does any of it really matter?
The answer: yes and no. The universe will generally stay in balance whether you get a 2:1 or pass, the sun still rises and sets even when the dishes are dirty and you are loved and valued regardless of whether your social circle is shrinking or expanding. But if nothing matters, then surely everything matters! Every essay you write is a positive output. Even if all you do is shower today you’ve still showered. A baby step is still a step moving forward.
Because, my dear reader, every morning is a blank slate! Screw the new year’s resolution; we can reinvent ourselves every day, because there is nothing that you have done the previous day which forces you to act the same way the next. As was so aptly put by T.S. Eliot in his story ‘The Cocktail Party’, ‘What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them…To pretend that they and we are the same is a useful social convention which must sometimes be broken’. That is, if you’re feeling stuck in a rut, just get really existentialist about the whole thing! You’re a shifting, changing, wonderful being and you have no obligation to better yourself in the same way that you owe it to no one to be the same person day in day out.
And yes, that may even mean that January 1st is a huge day of change for you and that February 14th is when you turn your head to matters of the heart, and if that is the case, then congratulations on mastering the system. Personally, I wrote one resolution on the 1st and 16 more on the 12th, and I felt all the more better for thinking of new ways I could improve. I know of others who won’t change then because they are happy within themselves, and don’t feel the need to change. We choose and decide what constitutes our own success. We need to keep telling ourselves that.
*Illustration by Isi Williams*
As you will have probably seen already, the supermarket Iceland has recently released a Christmas advert which has been banned from airing on TVs nationwide. The advert in question is a short film named ‘Rang- tan’, which aims to show the role that palm oil has in deforestation. The short film is touchingly dedicated to the 25 orang-utans that we lose every day.
The advert itself is a promotional ad for Iceland’s plans to remove palm oil from all of their own brand products, making it the first major UK supermarket to do so. Therefore, the ad’s removal from TV seems pretty unfair - after all, no one is really in doubt that deforestation is bad for the environment. Moreover, the article was removed for its political nature, suggesting that the ASA (Advertising Standards Agency) seemed to think that deforestation was a contested political idea, instead of a heartbreaking reality. A petition to get the advert on TV reached 700,000 signatures. The video itself has over 13 million views on Facebook.
However, there is more to this story than initially meets the eye. ‘Rang-tan’ was not banned because of the messages in the advert itself, but because of its association with Greenpeace, an overtly political group. This is something that was almost inevitable; after all, Greenpeace had already run the short film on their own platforms before it was picked up by Iceland. It’s hard not to be somewhat suspicious of Iceland’s intentions through this - after all, the advert has undoubtedly received far more coverage due to being banned than it ever would have done if it had simply run freely on TV.
It’s important to note how worthy a cause palm oil really is. The effect that palm oil farming has had on rainforests and the orang-utan population has been devastating, with the top three countries contributing to palm oil production destroying 270,000 hectares of forest per year to clear space to plant palm trees. Moreover, the use of carbon-rich soils (or peatlands) to plant them really ups the carbon output of such farming, making them the second highest product in terms of carbon production. The burning of these peatlands also releases a dangerous haze into the air, the result of which leads to 100,000 deaths in Southeast Asia every year. Only 15% of native species survive this treatment to the land, and many native peoples have been forced out of their homelands to make way for this process. The effects of palm oil are much worse than just the orang-utan population; its contribution to human rights violations and greenhouse gases are hugely significant.
Four commodities contribute to the overwhelming majority of all deforestation worldwide - they are beef, palm oil, soybean and wood products. Whilst palm oil ranks number 2 on this list, beef lists at number one. These four commodities destroy around 3.83 million hectares of deforestation per year - thats a space the same size of Switzerland. Yet, out of this 3.83 million, 2.71 million hectares are destroyed to create pasture for cattle to graze on. That’s 71% of forest destroyed, for beef. Moreover, this does not translate effectively to calories. Palm oil has 0.8 grams of carbon dioxide per kcal consumed. Beef has 52.3 grams. That difference is huge.
I’m not suggesting that Iceland stops selling beef. But they could be doing more. For example, they have rolled back their vegan range in order to sell more meat products over the Christmas period. This shows that their move to accommodate those who choose not to eat meat was more of a food trend than a vital change we should all be looking to make. If Iceland really cares about making an environmental impact, this should be reflected throughout all their ranges, not simply cherry picked to fit in with what’s in style.
This advert is reflective of a problem that comes up time and time again when large companies try to incorporate activism into advertising campaigns. And the effect is not entirely negative; the advert has brought the issue of palm oil to the public eye, which is a valid cause. There has even been an example of children recreating the advert in their lessons, a heartwarming example of its far-reaching effects. But we should be careful to examine these campaigns with a critical eye. Whilst they can bring about positive change, it’s worth remembering to see them for what they really are – good advertising.
The Union of Concerned Scientists have some great resources on climate change and deforestation: https://www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/stop-defores...
At the spot where Quartermile meets the Meadows, there are a series of murals themed around the area. One of those murals is dedicated to Muriel Spark’s ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ - a book that is as devoted to Edinburgh as it is to the characters and plot. ‘They were crossing the Meadows,’ the mural speaks, ‘a gusty expanse of common land,’ referring to Miss Jean Brodie’s set of girls. Their destination? ‘The Old Town, for Miss Brodie had said they should see where history had been lived’.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is only a short novel, but the character of Miss Brodie in her prime is one that has stayed with me, and the hearts of many in Edinburgh - so much so that she is as much a historical figure as she is fictional character. This year marks the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, and as a result, a lot of light has been shone on her work, as well as many creative projects springing up around the novel, which was Spark’s most popular work. An exhibition of her personal belongings this year showed a telegram written to Spark from Maggie Smith, who played Brodie in the 1969 film adaptation of the book, thanking her for ‘creating such a wonderful character’ for Smith to play.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Miss Jean Brodie has such resonance as a character is because it is likely that she could have existed. Based off Spark’s own teacher, Miss Jean Brodie represents one of many women who had lost beaus in the the First World War, and were now living in ‘spinsterhood’. The war itself acted as a springboard for female empowerment - from the hoards of women going to work in munitions factories to projects like the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, which saw the growth of 14 all female medical units working all over Europe in military hospitals. Moreover, the Sex Disqualification Act of 1919 prohibited married women from working, leaving widowed women some of the few who were allowed to have economic independence through their work.
Yet previously, being widowed was not the key to female liberation that it is sometimes viewed as. Outside of very wealthy women, spinsters often went into workhouses and lived in absolute poverty, as late as the turn of the 20th century. This is not an image of particular dignity, and is definitely one that would have existed in the public memory. Yet Miss Jean Brodie is a regal figure in the face of what once would have been a life-shattering situation. She runs her classroom under her own rules, disregarding any sort of guidance from the educational board. She has multiple affairs with male teachers. She tells her ‘set’ that ‘these years are still the years of my prime,’ which she defines as ‘the moment one was born for’. The idea that value in femininity is something which dies as you age is a concept that our society is struggling to shake off today, yet Miss Brodie outwardly rejected it decades ago. She is the sort of teacher and role model that all young girls need.
This is all well and good, I hear you cry, but Miss Brodie was a fascist! That’s the whole point of the book! And yes, this is true. Miss Jean Brodie’s big secret (of sorts) is that she was a fascist. However, she can still be admired despite her political leanings. She speaks frankly and openly and never shrinks her views to be more pleasant, in one lesson dryly stating, ‘phrases like 'the team spirit' are always employed to cut across individualism, love and personal loyalties’. This is not a woman who shrank her views to accommodate men. If anything, she embraced masculine strength in her political views, without sacrificing her femininity. Obviously this isn’t meant to be an endorsement of fascism. But Brodie’s personal philosophies - especially those of women’s agency - can be praised outside of her politics.
So, next time you’re walking across the Meadows, take a moment to remember Miss Jean Brodie in her prime. Remember that whilst Edinburgh’s history is often white, male and oppressive, there lies hidden stories of women who led by example, even if we have to look to fiction to discover them.
*Illustration by Claire Sandford*
The St Trinian’s series was based off a series of cartoons by Ronald Searle, who sought to show an alternative to the pristine, snobbish image of private school girls in the UK. His cartoons depict a delightfully dark side to the girls that attend the school, as they correctly identify the poisoning of a fellow student as Deadly Nightshade, get patted down for weapons, or inject their sports competitors with a mysterious syringe. These girls aren’t just riotous and wild - they are truly criminal in their rejection of the prim and proper girls that the real St Trinian’s girls would have been.
If we take a look at what the cartoons have to say about education, it is interesting to begin with the teachers. The cartoons are in keeping with the films, as Miss Fritton jovially allows the girls to continue with their menacing ways, even cheerfully praising them as she goes along. The other teachers, however, are subject to the girls’ evil tricks. Importantly, the teachers seem to offer no sort of moral education whatsoever, something which definitely is the most unique trait about the school. Again and again, this lack of moral education is what brings the school into the public eye as the rather bleak and faceless image of the Ministry of Education tries to shut it down. St Trinian’s is denounced as a bad influence.
Yet even the real St Trinian’s, housed in what is now St Leonards Hall, at the front of Pollock Halls of Residence, held some ideas about moving education beyond the curriculum. Miss Lee, the headmistress there, focused on a development of self, instead of school-imposed discipline. St Trinian’s has never been an institution of hierarchical power.
The school’s rejection of all elements of power can be likened to an anarchic way of thinking. Ms Fritton is only held up as a leader in any sort of hierarchical manner due to the fact that she spreads chaos further and further - aside from that, the school lacks any real hierarchy due to the lack of authority that the teachers hold. More importantly, St Trinian’s is not only an anarchy, but a feminist anarchy. The school’s interaction with the outside world is mainly with men - be it the Minister of Education that runs throughout all of the St Trinian’s narrative, or the dodgy drug dealer who the girls sell their homemade vodka to, or the Annabelle’s father. All these men try to control them in some way, try to make them fit into their notion of what a woman should be. In many ways, these men are trying to offer some sort of dated moral education that the school refuses to impose.
Yet the school does not create evil women, despite their criminal undertakings. In the 2007 film, what struck me the most was that the girls were all a family - a family of very successful women. They made profit through their scientific findings, were clearly skilled enough at chemistry to master explosives (queue the epic, ‘you were only meant to blow the bloody doors off!’ line), and were able to rob an art gallery - skills which see the strong willed head girl Kelly Jones go on to work for the Secret Service after she graduates. And despite the intense clique-ing of the school girls, they are supportive of each other. They have friends across cliques. And they can work together - especially when it comes to protecting the one space they have that lets them be free in their identities: St Trinian’s.
It is of note that the identities expressed in St Trinian’s are often ones that women are mocked and belittled for - Geeks, Emos, even the ‘Posh Totties’ would undoubtedly come under fire for embracing their sexuality in a modern day school. Yet these women support each other in their different expressions of womanhood. It most definitely echoes the words of anarcha- feminist Emma Goldman, ‘I demand the independence of woman, her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases.’ All types of women are accepted, and the only criticism of such acceptance comes from the outside word, the world run by men.
So why does it matter that the girls of St Trinian’s fit to the ideals of the anarcha-feminist movement? Well, alongside the fact that it was one of the highest-grossing British films in recent years, the tradition of St Trinian’s continues to show young girls that there is a way to exist successfully outside of society’s expectations. Even though the 2007 film came under a lot of criticism, the dismissal of it as a ‘chick flick’ failed to recognise that it was teaching young girls to stand up to authority, to support each other despite differences. In the 1960 film Miss Fritton explains that ‘In other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into the merciless world.’ Thank goodness we have St Trinian’s to remind us that ‘when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be unprepared’.
*Original St. Trinian's Illustration by Ronald Searle*