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Mud, mud, glorious Glastonbury mud: why Laurie Penny's not working pro-Bono

Bono should find time in his busy schedule of high-profile philanthropy to pay the hefty tax bill he owes.

By the time you read this, I will be up to my navel in slurry. When I was first offered a pass to the Glastonbury Festival, I hesitated. I am not one of nature's happy campers. My idea of fun does not involve standing around in freezing sludge for four days with nowhere to plug in my laptop. It's going to be worth it, though, just for the chance to see Bono cry behind his wraparound shades.

The Guardian-reading left has a guilty conscience about Glastonbury, which is understandable, given that party-goers now pay £195 to do the song and dance of social awareness. Over the years, as the Pyramid stage has been taken over by bland, big-name acts, "Glastonbury isn't what it used to be" has become a rallying cry for certain sections of the British bourgeoisie, rather like "we're all doomed" or "you really shouldn't buy avocados from Israel". This year, however, there's a real protest going on.

Anti-cuts activists from the direct action group Art Uncut plan to disrupt U2's headline set, demanding that Bono find time in his busy schedule of high-profile philanthropy to pay the hefty tax bill they claim the band owes the Irish exchequer, which could certainly use the money.

Lurid blue hellboxes

This tiny protest has fascinated the press. It gives the lie to the Live Aid school of global justice, whereby wealth inequality is acceptable as long as the fortunate pay for the occasional fair-trade coffee or charity concert ticket; and the very wealthy can opt in or out of society as they choose. Art Uncut points out that tax avoidance (and evasion) perpetuate the very injustices that the saintly rich dabble in denouncing. It's about decency and fair play and sticking together. Which are as much part of the soul of the British left as flasks of tea, folk music and endless mud.

The endless mud is essential to the fun, for a very British understanding of the word "fun". When I last went to Glastonbury in 2007, sober and in charge of two young teenagers, it rained all weekend, turning the small Avon farm into a nightmarish collision between a messy Shoreditch warehouse rave and the Battle of the Somme.

Then, there were the portable loos. We are not going to discuss the loos, save to say that by the time I got to the end of the sodden, freezing, hour-long queue for one of those lurid blue hellboxes, there was not a hole, so much as a heap. I stumbled out after seven unforgettable seconds like one of those revivified corpses lurching out of upright coffins in that scene from The Mummy Returns, and retched emptily into the hedges for a further 20 minutes, at the end of which the prepubescent sister I was meant to be minding had wandered off to chat up a man in the falafel queue with Ian Brady eyes. This is the sort of thing the British call character-building.

The sister dragged me off for even more fun, which involved standing in a giant lake of groin-deep, ice-cold water with thousands of spaced-out teenagers listening to the Kaiser Chiefs whine about how terrified they are of the working class. Dante-esque red spotlights spun in tempo over the shrieking crowd. I had to escape.

Squeezing my way through hordes of revellers, I finally found the Left Field, the small political camp edged away from the main stages that the festival organiser, Michael Eavis, has described as the "heart" of Glastonbury. I sat down on a tree-trunk next to a filth-caked estate agent who shakily informed me that she had just had to cut her way out of her tent with a pair of nail scissors and swim to safety, after a mudbank collapsed.

Here, the ground was drier. A nice young man with dreadlocks gave us both some hot chai tea and a hug, before engaging us in a gentle debate about the nature of surplus labour. We shuffled into the acoustic tent to listen to a girl with flowers in her hair sing some offensively beautiful pop ballads.

The assembled hippies held each other quietly, refugees from the horror outside. And suddenly, I understood. Glastonbury isn't just about smoothie stands and mood music. It's a place where we remember what Britain has done best, over centuries of imperialism and bad weather.

We scrub around together in the horrible mud and try to create something fantastic enough to distract ourselves from the sanitation. Which we are not going to discuss any more.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue

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Can we morally justify rape dramas like the BBC’s Three Girls?

Violence against women and girls is often read as “gripping” or “compelling” in both fiction and non-fictional narratives.

Last week, over three consecutive nights, the BBC aired Three Girls: an unflinching drama based on the 2012 Rochdale Grooming Case, which exposed and prosecuted nine men for the trafficking, prostitution and rape of children. It is, of course, a terribly bleak story – one that is important not to shy away from. And yet when I first heard about the docudrama, it made me instinctively uncomfortable. TV has a wider social purpose beyond sheer enjoyment, but is the repeated rape of children appropriate material for primetime entertainment?

Violence against women and girls is often read as “gripping” or “compelling” in both fiction and non-fictional narratives. Child abuse, too, is something our society condemns but has an uncomfortable obsession with reading about in detail - you only need to walk into your local Waterstones to see a true life section crowded with children’s sad faces staring up from bestselling misery memoirs. I’ve written before, at length, about our cultural fixation on murdered, abused and kidnapped women and young girls, and the ethical questions they raise. Do we want to know the specific brutalities of this case because it is important to reckon with the reality of the situation, or because the shock factor fascinates us? Is it inherently unethical to treat the real traumas of children as spectacle? Aside from general distastefulness, what impact does making a drama about these assaults have on the real-word victims? What function does this particular story – with its narrative of the police officers too afraid of being labelled racist to bring the criminals (who were mostly of Pakistani descent) to task – serve in the current political climate?

Andrew Norfolk, the Times journalist who first exposed the Rochdale case and spent years facing its horrors head-on, had concerns over such a topic being turned into television. “When I first heard that the BBC had commissioned a docudrama, my initial shock that the corporation would choose to tackle such a controversial subject was swiftly replaced by wariness,” he explains. But his concerns were not that such a programme would become voyeuristic. “I feared that innate squeamishness would result in a sanitised exercise that shied away from uncomfortable realities.”

“More fool me. Three Girls pulls no punches. It tells a raw, harrowing story in a way that makes for searingly compelling drama,” he goes on, adding that the writers succeeds in turning “such bleak misery into three hours of gripping television drama”.

Norfolk, of course, has first-hand knowledge of the show’s source material, as well as the experience of trying to open the public’s eyes to unspeakable crimes. Viewers will never have this. As someone removed from the reality of the Rochdale case, those familiar words “gripping” and “compelling” make me squirm, especially when paired with such unimaginably damaging experiences for the real life young victims.

The first episode of Three Girls explores the actual abuse at the centre of the Rochdale case. It follows Holly, who meets the headstrong Amber and her vulnerable younger sister Ruby, and starts hanging out with them at a take-away shop, where an older man known only as “Daddy” plies them with free food and vodka to gain their trust. It’s not long before we witness Holly being raped in a grim, long scene. We then see her assaulted again, before watching her perform a “prozzy dance” for her horrified father. It’s unbearably sad watching.

It’s certainly true, then, that Three Girls is “harrowing”, but why is “harrowing” as a concept read as automatically valuable? The Daily Mail called it “spellbinding”; many other outlets saw the first episode’s brutality as “brave”. Some headlines were far more discomfiting: the Huffington Post rounded up the “most disturbing moments” from the drama in a sensational listicle, while the Telegraph and extreme right-wing sites took the opportunity to push their politics with headlines like “How poor white girls were sacrificed on the altar of multiculturalism” and “BBC’s Muslim Rape Gang Drama Skirts Religion Issue”.

But the makers of Three Girls seem more aware than most of the troubling potential for sensationalism a drama about Rochdale might have. In a blog post for the BBC, Head of Drama Hilary Salmon explains how they justified their decision to explore the violence of this particular case due to the story’s capacity for social change.

“There are many true stories that an audience might be interested in reliving through drama but the ones that really resonate and arguably deserve to be made are those which can change an audience’s perception of the victims because, for all the media noise, their true voices haven’t yet been heard.”

“The voices of the children abused and exploited in Rochdale had not been heard,” Salmon continues. “How did they feel while all this was happening to them and how do they feel now?”

She adds that public perception of the young victims was disappointingly regressive:

“[Whistleblowers] worked tirelessly to change the perception of these young girls in the eyes of the authorities just as we have tried to do for audiences through the drama. A perception that the girls were simply displaying a lifestyle choice and didn’t need or want protection. Never mind that they were 13, 14, 15 years old at the time and had such low self-esteem that free chips and alcohol would turn a grubby room at the back of a kebab shop into the equivalent of a clubhouse.”

The first hour of Three Girls asks the audience to confront the realities of the assaults on these young victims. Then it puts its most shocking moments to good use. The following two episodes explore the aftermath of the case: how a culture of disbelief silenced the victims at its centre, and how forcing the children to repeatedly relive the acts, only to be ignored, traumatised them as they became adults. How victim-blaming attitudes saw abused children officially declared criminals, and the babies they bore taken away by child protection services. How it was a culture of demonising working-class teenage girls, rather than the fear of racism, that saw the victims belittled and dismissed again and again.

We see explicit discussions of all these complex problems. The adult moral hearts of the show, NHS sexual health worker Sara and police officer Maggie, constantly condemn the culture of misogyny and classism that allowed this abuse to flourish. There are whole scenes dedicated to exploring how the race of the perpetrators does not reflect Muslim culture as a whole. And, most importantly, the perspectives most frequently and sensitively explored are those of the victims themselves, retrospectively giving them a voice. The script manages to do this without veering into preachy public service announcement territory.

Three Girls a masterclass in how to explore violence against girls without objectifying the victims - an area in which other modern TV series and films are lagging depressingly behind. (I’d still advice viewer discretion in watching the first episode, but the more brutal scenes in the programme serve a specific purpose.) I only hope other writers can hold the same aims. Three Girls shows how you can move beyond just “gripping” and “compelling” to find stories that shift social narratives by changing audience’s beliefs, before they’ve had a chance to look away.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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