Books, movies, television 15/6/2014

Hello list

A quickie cos the baby's only just gone to sleep and I really want to read our script once more tonight before tomorrow's all-important Writers Room….

1. Very exciting times here at Spanner HQ, as we've just got the first draft script of the first episode of UNDERCOVERS Serious goosebumps. It's funny how, if you say a film is happening enough times, suddenly it is happening. Lizzie and I just spent the last week at Sheffield Doc/Fest having a squillion meetings (18 in one day, heaven forbid) with international broadcasters, working out how best to get this new baby of ours out into the world once it's fully gestated and safely delivered. It's an ongoing discussion, but one thing we're really excited about is a "binge cinema" release (organised by our distributor friends Dogwoof who helped propel Age of Stupid to No 1 at the box office) leading up to the telly broadcast. Neat link to...

2. Please buy tickets in the next few days to see Leave To Remain. It's that film made by Age of Stupid's exec producer Bruce Goodison, which I've gone on about on this list loads of times over the last 4 years as Bruce has struggled to get it funded, made and distributed. Many of you good people have no doubt contributed financially or with your skills. Now Bruce and his indefatigable team have finally got a cinema release sorted. It's screening this week only in Bradford, London (Clapham, Stratford), Oxford, Leicester, Norwich, Brighton, Birmingham, Bristol, Chichester, Nottingham and at a few film festivals. The full list is here: It's bloody hard to get a film made, and even harder to get it into the cinema, and even even harder if the film is about refugee children, so please please support their efforts by putting your bum on a cinema seat this week.

3. In other struggling-for-years-on-their-magnum-opus news, my old pal Helena Earnshaw has finally got her book finished and published. Here We Stand: Women Changing The World is "A fascinating and unique anthology about contemporary women campaigners and how they were changed by the process of changing the world." There's 17 women campaigners featured in all, of which three of us helped launch the book at the Hay Festival a couple of weeks below (see pic). You can buy the hard-copy or ebook version from all the usual places, or direct from the publishers, Honno, at:

Yours truly, Jasvinder Sanghera (heartbreaking extract below) and Liz Crow signing copies of Here We Stand at Hay

Cunningly linking points 1 and 3, there's an extract from the chapter about Helen Steel below. Yes, Helen who "stars" in McLibel and Undercovers… Everything's connected...

Onwards and upwards

Breaking the silence

Jasvinder Sanghera on how she emerged from a traumatic childhood to campaign against forced marriage and honour killings.


Tell me about that moment when you were faced with a photo of the man you were expected to marry.

The thing is, I watched my older sisters being married and taken out of education when they were fifteen. So when you’re growing up and this is happening around you, it doesn’t seem abnormal. So I didn’t have a great shock when my mother sat me down when I came home from school, a 14-year-old girl, and very tactfully, very matter of fact, presented me with a photograph of the man that I’d been promised to from the age of eight. I just listened, and she said she was going to put the photograph on the mantelpiece, and that over time I would grow to like him. Now, because we were never allowed boyfriends, it was almost exciting to be given permission to like somebody of the opposite sex. But I didn’t like the look of him: my first thought was, he’s shorter than me. And he looked much older than me as well.

I went to school the next day as normal, but when I hit 15, the pressure started to mount, because my mother was preparing the wedding. As soon as I finished my GCSEs, people started coming to the house. There was a big trunk and they started filling it with clothes and towels. People would bring gifts and the wedding dress was brought as well. This wedding was being planned and it happened to be mine and I had this bird’s eye view – that’s how I’d describe it. I was looking down, feeling extremely disconnected from it all. And that’s when I said, “I’m not marrying this stranger; I want to stay on in school.” I was a really bright kid, I loved English, I really enjoyed religious education. So that’s when I protested, and then I was physically abused, certainly psychologically abused. The emotional blackmail was horrendous – I loved my dad dearly, and my mother told me that if I didn’t marry this man my dad would die of a heart attack and it would be my fault. She also said that I’d ruin my sisters’ marriages, that their husbands would leave them and I’d cause shame for my family.

I should also say that my view of marriage was very negative. As a young girl I’d seen all my sisters suffering domestic violence. I’d be bundled into a car as a 10-year-old, and my mother would go to my sisters’ houses to rescue them, and they’d have black eyes, cracked ribs and all sorts, and my mother would talk them into staying in that relationship. She’d never bring them back home. And that was my perception of marriage as a young person growing up: you got married and that’s what happened to you.

In Shame I talk about how my mother would say that you have to think of your husband as a pan of milk. You put a pan of milk on the gas, you turn the gas on, and when it rises and it’s going to bubble over, your job is to blow it down and to keep it calm, regardless. And that would be the analogy she would use, so no matter how abusive these husbands were, it was my sisters job to stay there, to make it work. Because divorce was a huge cause of shame and dishonour for the family. Everyone in the community would be telling them to make that marriage work.

When you told your sisters you were not going to marry this man, how did they react?

Every single one of them said to me, “Teri ful lagi yah,” which means, “Have you got flowers attached to you; are you different?” They had to go through with it, so why was I any different?

Why were you different?

My mother had to go to hospital to have me because I was born upside down. All her other children were born at home, and she was frightened of hospitals. So she would remind me from a very young age how I was difficult from birth, how I’d been born upside down, and landed on my feet. She’d constantly remind me of this difference. She used to call me a tomboy. Also I have a mole on my right cheek and none of my sisters have that. In our culture that’s a bad sign, and she constantly tried to wipe it off. I used to say to her, “Mum, you can’t wipe it off, it’s there.” And she’d scrub and scrub. When we went to relatives’ houses or weddings, she’d try to cover it in powder. She said, “It’s because you’re different.” So I used to think, from the age of eight, that I might as well push the boundaries, because I’m different anyway. I think her telling me I was different helped.

So your family locked you up in a room, and said they wouldn’t let you out unless you agreed to marry this man. You managed to escape through the window. Where did you go?

I ran away to Newcastle with a friend’s brother, Jassey. We literally closed our eyes and said, wherever our finger lands on the map, we’ll go there. The thing is, I ran away hoping this would demonstrate to my family that I didn’t want to marry a stranger, and they’d let me come home. That’s what I wanted. Looking back, I was very naïve. Me and Jassey slept in the car for a number of weeks; we’d wash our faces in public toilets. I remember one night wanting to sleep on a park bench because it was more comfortable than the car. You have to remember that my family life had been comfortable. We were warm, we were fed, and all of a sudden I was so uncomfortable, and also being exposed to a world that I’d never been allowed to be a part of. I really struggled to get used to my freedom and independence. I didn’t know how to manage that. I was extremely vulnerable. I was reported missing by my family and the police requested that I ring home. So I rang home and said to my mum, “Look, it’s me, I want to come home.” And she said, “You’ve got two choices. You can come back home, but marry who we say – or from this day forward you are dead in our eyes.” And I chose the second option.

Jasvinder Sanghera is a survivor, campaigner and author. She is the founder of award-winning charity Karma Nirvana, the leading national charity for those affected by forced marriages and honour-based abuse. Karma Nirvana is now in its 21st year. Her book, Shame, about her own experience of forced marriage, was described in Parliament as a “lethal weapon”. Jasvinder has won many awards and accolades for her work, including Legal Campaigner of Year 2013, one of the Guardian’s most inspirational women in the world 2010,Ambassador for Peace Award, and Pride of Britain Award. Jasvinder continues to campaign and work tirelessly for the protection of victims, providing support to thousands every year through the unique Honour Network Helpline. This has led to critical new legislation making forced marriage a criminal offence from 2014. Jasvinder was honoured with a CBE in 2013 for her ground-breaking work.

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Against the odds

Helen Steel, one of the “McLibel Two”, on standing up to one of the world’s largest corporations, and dealing with the aftermath of her relationship with an undercover policeman.


George Ritzer [author of Globalization] said that from very small beginnings you created a worldwide movement. After Eric Schlosser interviewed you about the trial he decided to write Fast Food Nation, which went on to become a global bestseller. Naomi Klein’s No Logo also covered the trial. Then we had the success of the film Supersize Me, and the Slow Food movement, and José Bové’s protests in France. Do you think you helped to catalyse a mass movement, a mass resistance to fast food and everything it represents?
I think we were part of it. Certainly the trial helped to achieve much wider exposure of the issues. London Greenpeace didn’t initiate the criticisms – those were being made by experts in their fields before LGP came along – but the trial brought the criticisms to the wider public. Obviously the trial received international media publicity, and also there was a mass defiance campaign with millions of the leaflets handed out around the world, in much greater numbers than before the case started. That really helped spread the debate about the fast food industry and the effect it’s having on society.

It turns out that McDonald’s were spying on London Greenpeace. Can you talk about that?
In the pre-trial hearings McDonald’s served four witness statements from private investigators who said they’d been to meetings of London Greenpeace. They applied for their names to be kept secret, but in the end we succeeded in getting the names disclosed, and it was clear that they’d attended a lot more meetings than they’d covered in the statements. Eventually we realised there were at least seven private investigators over an 18-month period attending our meetings. Also the documents showed they’d stolen letters that had been sent to the group and made comments in their notes about the security of the building. We cross-examined them about it and one of them admitted that he’d broken into our office, using a credit card to get in through the lock. So they were using all sorts of underhand tactics. One of the female private investigators had a relationship with one of the men in the group. I was totally disgusted when I found out about that. This was before I found out about my expartner being an undercover police officer. She remained in the group after the writs were served and was spying on our discussions about how to fight the case and the campaign.

One of the female spies broke ranks and joined you as a witness in court.
Yes. By some amazing coincidence, she ended up on a nutrition course with Boo Armstrong, the sister of Franny, who was making a documentary about McLibel. The woman, Fran Tiller, ended up talking to Boo about how she felt really bad about what she’d done, spying on campaigners, not knowing that Boo’s sister was connected to the case. And when we spoke to Fran she said she was absolutely willing to give evidence in court. She’d never felt comfortable about what she was doing – she actually thought the work we were doing as a group was good and shouldn’t be interfered with.

Were you aware that some members of the group seemed a bit… different?
When you’re working with other people you don’t want to be suspicious of them, it can be really disruptive. But there was something a bit strange about some of them. They didn’t seem to have any real politics. But there was nothing we could really put a finger on. It was my partner, who turned out to be an undercover copper, who first pointed a finger at the McDonald’s spies. He phoned me one night and said that he’d been followed home, and then we tried to check out what was going on. One of the spies left soon after that, he may have realised he had been rumbled, but others continued and we didn’t find out until the trial.

Your partner at the time, John, was an undercover police officer working for the Special Demonstration Squad [SDS, a unit set up by the Metropolitan Police to infiltrate British protest groups, from 1968 to 2008]. So as a campaign group, you were being spied on not just by McDonald’s, but by the state as well. Did you ever have suspicions about John, or did that revelation come much later?
It was years later. John got involved with London Greenpeace not that long after I got involved, coming to meetings on a regular basis. And he would regularly offer to drive people home afterwards, which turns out to be a common tactic, because it’s a good way to find out where people live. I was usually the last person to be dropped off and we’d end up having long conversations, getting to know each other quite well – or so I thought. We became closer and he asked me out a few times. We ended up in a relationship and became very, very close in a short space of time. I was surprised by how intense the feelings were, which is something the other women have said as well [the women who were manipulated into having sexual relationships with undercover police spies]. It seems the officers have been extensively trained in how to lie and manipulate emotions – they are very skilled at it.

After a while we rented a flat and lived together. We talked about buying a place somewhere rural, growing our own food and having children. Then he disappeared leaving a letter saying he had to sort his head out. He came back shortly after, but appeared to be going through some sort of a breakdown which continued on and off for the rest of our relationship. His story was that he had no one left in his life, that all his family had died and he had no siblings. The only other woman he’d loved had left him. He said he was terrified I was going to do the same thing. So his solution was to walk away from me to prevent it happening. He kept going and coming back and it was very draining emotionally. When he disappeared the final time I worried that he might even kill himself. The breakdown seems to be part of their exit strategy, because they did it to the other women as well. It’s partly to do with making it believable that you’ve disappeared. If you suddenly vanish and don’t contact anyone, people wonder what has happened and might become suspicious. But if you appear to have a mental breakdown before you go, they are more likely to think that explains your disappearance…

The whole thing was highly manipulative. I became really conscious of that when I re-read his letters recently, reading about his family and how he’d been abused, and now knowing that it wasn’t true. These were not love letters, they were like psychological warfare – breaking you down so that you can’t operate.

Helen Steel is a parks gardener in London and a union rep in her workplace. She has been active in environmental and social justice movements since she was a teenager. The 1990s saw Helen (and Dave Morris) fighting a high profile battle for freedom of speech, after McDonald’s tried to suppress leaflets criticising the company. McLibel became England’s longest ever trial and was also declared “the biggest corporate PR disaster in history.” At the age of 24, Helen began a relationship with a close friend who was also politically active. He disappeared two years later and she spent years trying to find out what had happened to him. 18 years later Helen found out that he had been an undercover policeman, spying on her and other political campaigners. In 2011 she and seven other similarly deceived women began joint legal action against the police with the aim of preventing this abuse happening to anyone else.