Like B*Witched and the SDP, I am far greater than the sum of my parts

Playing Top Trumps inside your own head.

Susan Calman: she's much greater than the sum of her parts. Photograph: Getty Images

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I love Twitter. I really do. Little fills my heart with joy more than disseminating pictures of cats dressed in funny costumes. I think it’s what the inventor of the internet would’ve wanted. It’s also easy to get used to the concept of “less is more” with Twitter. A mere 140 characters to discuss important political issues? No problem. It’s simple to vacuum-pack your life philosophy into one tweet. What could possibly go wrong? The obsession with reducing complex issues to a bite-sized morsel hasn’t been all fun. Disappointingly, some seem to believe that social media have led to a reduction in the capacity of the public to understand more than one idea at a time. Suddenly simplicity is the key to explanation.

I have personal experience of this particular trend. I’m often asked in interviews what it’s like to be a Scottish, female, comedian, ex-lawyer lesbian. I always answer that I’d find it more difficult to be an English, male, comedian, ex-lawyer lesbian and then I wait for the laugh from the journalist asking the question. Sadly, like summer in Scotland, it never comes. Of course, I’m being flippant, after being asked what is, in essence, a stupid question.

What I’m really being asked to do is play a game of top trumps with my own head, to simplify myself into one banner headline. Sort of what you’d have to do at the world’s least exciting speed-dating evening. But how do you start defining what you are? Is my being Scottish more important than the fact that I’m a feminist? Is being gay more influential within my own psyche than being a comedian? Does the fact that I’m an ex-lawyer with a degree in constitutional law mean that I have more sympathy with politicians? Usually I give a long and involved answer to the journalist who’s dissecting my political make-up with the sharpness of a scalpel made from marshmallow, only to read the final article, where my analysis is summarised with the sentence: “Calman likes cats.”

Whenever it seems that I’m required to create a Venn diagram of my mind, I remember the greats. The Nolans, the Jackson Five, B*Witched, the SDP. All examples of people who, when they worked together, were greater than the sum of their parts. And that’s what I am. A girl band comprising one short woman who can neither dance nor sing. I should enter Eurovision.

But back to the problem. Can I really say I’m more Scottish than gay? Is that even possible? I can’t discuss my queer politics without remembering I grew up in Glasgow in the 1980s where being gay was as easy as being a vegan in an abattoir.

What about being a woman in comedy? I’m often described as a “female” comedian, as if that adjective is required in order to prepare the audience for what might occur. It’s not really required in other jobs. Oh look there’s a “lady teacher” or a “woman accountant”. It’s a subtle way of introducing to an audience the notion that I don’t deserve the full title. Like giving someone beans on toast and then, when presenting them, whispering, “Sorry, they’re own-brand.” My gender obviously influences what I say. I can’t, for example, bemoan how difficult it is to be a white, straight, middle-class man in today’s society. (Apparently it’s really tough – at least, that’s what I keep hearing.)

If I say I’m Scottish first and foremost then I’m accused of being parochial. If I’m gay first (or a premier gay, as I like to call it) then I’m angry and man-hating. If I say that my legal background is most important then I’m dull. And if I say that the comedy is the most important thing, then why would anyone listen to a foul-mouthed clown?

It’s not possible to dissect myself, like an attention-seeking Mr Potato Head, into the sum of my own parts. The obsession with the 140-character Twitter summary of one’s identity just leads to descriptions sounding like a personal ad. “Late 30s gay scots lady, interest in law, GSOH”. The complexity of the human mind can’t be reduced to a one-word description. If we allowed ourselves to breathe, then perhaps we wouldn’t be so disappointed about other people we meet or vote for. We don’t live in the world of Mr Men, where I can wear a badge that says “Little Ms Scottish” or “Little Ms Lady Gay Comic”. I wish I could. But it’d have to be a really big badge.

Susan Calman is a comedian, and more

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

Photo: Getty Images
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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.