A tyre washed up on the beach at Prestwick, Scotland. Photo: Getty
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Meet the women sailing across oceans to understand what toxins are really doing to our bodies

The aim of the voyage, and the play inspired by it, is to make “the unseen seen” and enhance understanding of what the chemicals we put into the sea and our own bodies are actually doing.

A group of women are assembled in the OvalHouse Theatre on a rainy evening in London to discuss a new theatre production, provisionally called SeaTown Ladies. We begin with a performance from poet Meg Beech, who pours out an internal-rhyme-laden polemic on the birth of a baby girl: “Minute old miniature goddess,” who “will spend life struggling / in debris of sanctified sexuality”. There’s a burst of whooping applause, and then Anne Langford of Likely Story Theatre Company stands up to tell us about the inspiration for the play. She had been on a walk, she said, in Wales, which ended at a pub. The pub had a picture on the wall of a group of women sailors from the early 20th century. They stood face on, chests thrown out, and heads up; legs firm and arms straight down by their sides, in skirts and gumboots. “They looked so bold and full of life,” Anne said. “Like people I wanted to know.” She went to have a closer look and saw that the photo carried a tagline: “Rude and Coarse Women”. 

Anne was intrigued by the disparity between what she saw when she looked at this picture – and what the caption writer had seen. Since she is a dramatist, she decided to explore this disparity by creating a play about women in a boat. And when she hit Google for inspiration, she came across Exxpedition, an all-female crew who will be sailing from Lanzarote to Martinique this November, to raise awareness of the plastics and toxicants in the oceans, and how this may be contributing to a rise in cancer rates among young women. Anne invited Dr Lucy Gilliam, co-founder of Exxpedition, along to speak to us and get our thoughts channelled in the right direction.

Lucy, dressed in a colourful jumper, stands up and starts telling us about the project, which carries the tagline “making the unseen seen”. The unseen that Exxpedition wants us to see is a combination of women’s bodies, which are disproportionately underrepresented in both research science and sport, and the thousands of toxic chemicals that pollute our oceans and marine life. These toxicants adhere to the plastic waste, much of which is so small as to also be more or less unseen, that also dominates our oceans (“There’s more plastic in some parts of the ocean than there is plankton,” Lucy tells us) and gets swallowed up by fish who mistake the plastic for food. The toxicants on the plastic leech into the tissue of these fish, and carry on up the food chain until they reach human bodies. Exxpedition will be trawling the ocean picking up all the plastic and micro-plastic they come across along the way and then testing it for toxicants. They will also be catching fish, assessing the plastic in their guts, and testing their toxicity levels. 

They will also be carrying out what Lucy calls “MeSearch”. Scientists estimate that we are all walking around with at least 700 contaminants in our bodies, many of which have barely been researched, but which may be carcinogenic, and also may be disrupting our endocrine and reproductive systems, potentially causing birth defects. When I meet Lucy earlier on in the day for an interview in a deli in Vauxhall (she brings along her own organic Marmite) she tells me about how scientists accidentally discovered that the Inuit living in the Arctic were carrying the highest levels of contaminants of any population. They had originally tested this population’s breast milk imagining that because the Inuit are not an industrialised nation, they could provide a negative control for research into the problem. But “because of the way that pollutants travel around the earth, industrial pollutants end up up getting deposited on the poles. And most of these industrial pollutants are persistent bio-cumulative and toxic, which means they build up in the food chain. And so people that are eating a diet that’s high in blubber and eating whale meat or seal, are eating loads of toxins.” So because we industrialised nations are pumping noxious untested chemicals into the oceans, babies in the unindustrialised Arctic are chowing down on POPs, PCBs and other incomprehensible acronyms? “It’s incredibly unfair”, Lucy nods.

Lucy is a microbial ecologist who specialises in greenhouse gas emissions in soil. She used to advise the government on climate change, biodiversity and food security, but she “quit all of that to sail around the world selling rum, chocolate and spices” with Fairtransport shipping, an organisation that runs the world’s only engineless sail cargo ship. She met Emily Penn, her Exxpedition co-founder while she was working at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on chemicals and nanotechnologies. At the time, Emily was campaigning on plastics with Pangea Explorations, an organisation that works on marine exploration and conservation, and which is providing Sea Dragon, the 72ft research vessel which will be used for Exxpedition. “We found that we had an awful lot to talk about,” Lucy tells me as she butters her toast. “I think from the first time we met we were saying how great would it be to put together an all women voyage”. They also decided that they wanted to use the expedition as an opportunity to raise awareness about toxicants in the ocean. Emily is friends with Kris Hallenga, the founder of the breast cancer charity Coppafeel, who developed cancer at the age of 23, and this relationship led Emily and Lucy to discuss the rising prevalence of cancer in young women. 

“I don’t think it’s all down to genetics,” Lucy says. “I think there’s an element that is about toxics and environmental exposure and alongside that we’re also seeing what I think of as essentially like cancer in the world’s oceans: plastics and pollutants [are] building up to enormous levels in the environment and we wanted to tell a story that really joined that up, that drew a parallel between ocean pollution toxics in our body and what that means for humanity and the diseases that we’re getting.” So they set up their organisation and started recruiting for crew members, who have ultimately ranged in age from 24 - 65 (the oldest crew member was one of the original women who protested at Greenham Common), and come from around the world. Their first applicant was Sierra Campbell, who had grown up on a farm that was downstream from a pharmaceutical company. She developed ovarian cancer when she was 14; by the time she was 21 she had had most of her reproductive organs removed. Next to get in touch was Anna Karmen, a Swedish research scientist who works with a UN project called Safe Planet, which tracks twelve key toxicants in blood that indicate a “body burden” of industrial pollutants you’ve been exposed to over your lifetime. She offered to analyse the blood of all fourteen crew members. They will be receiving the results on the 14 November, the first day of Exxpedition, and exactly a month from when I meet Lucy. Is she nervous? “It’s a little bit scary”, she says, but “the interest of getting and analysing the results removes some of the fear”. For Lucy it’s more about questioning how she feels about her lack of choice in having been inevitably exposed to theses toxicants, and what she wants to do about it now. “Are we more in favour of these international regulations, do we want to change the things that we’re putting in our body, putting on our skin?”

For Laura Coleman, director of ONCA, an environmental arts charity, and another member of the crew, to think about the chemicals inside her and how they relate to how she’s been living her life is “very scary”. “Since I’ve started this project I’ve just gradually stopped using anything because I look at the ingredients lists and I don’t understand any of it. It’s so baffling. And so many of those ingredients have potentially negative impacts on our health”. It can be paralysing, she says. “I think it’s very easy to say, ‘there’s chemicals everywhere. We’re all being infected, everything gives you cancer’, and that just terrifies people”. So for her, testing the crew’s blood, although personally scary, “is about finding a way to reach people’s hearts and really think about how we can progress in the future in a positive way. I think focusing on the individual stories of the fourteen women on board could be a very powerful way to present female role models who are willing to looking inside ourselves and look at the stories that have built up over our lives in our blood.”

These questions have taken on a whole new relevance for Lucy since she found out that she was pregnant. “I’m a little bit freaked out getting my toxic results and being like, “oh god what’s that going to do to the baby?”. No one really knows, because the majority of medical trials “are on fit young men”. Women are less researched, partly, Lucy says, because “things can just be dismissed as ‘women’s problems’”, as peripheral and inessential to humanity. “Taboos around things like having periods […] it’s just kind of dismissed as the curse, it’s one of those things, but how much money really gets spent in actually understanding what’s going on there?” As Lucy and Emily tried to find the answers, they were struck by how hard it was – so part of Exxpedition is to be “a platform to discuss these issues and to be able to educate ourselves and then to be able to share the conversation with other people”. It was for this reason she felt it was so important for the crew to be interdisciplinary (they will have artists, activists, scientists, technology developers, policy-makers, nurses, psychologists on-board): together, Lucy hopes that they might be able to design solutions, and “build things that enable us to have more control over our bodies, or to be able to direct research to things that we feel are important”. 

So what can we do in the meantime? “I buy natural fabrics, a lot of recycled things,” Lucy says. “Synthetic clothes can be treated with flame retardants and cotton is one the most sprayed crops globally.” Although, she says, as a continually broke campaigner she doesn’t buy clothes anyway, “so if anyone wants to sponsor me in organic clothes, they are so welcome!” She laughs and takes a bite of her toast. “There are some things that I think about”, she continues, “and there are other things that are so beyond my control, like [tap] water, that I try not to concentrate on them too much. I think being vegetarian, not eating meat, and doing my best to buy organic dairy products [makes me less susceptible to toxins]”.  Food is a major source of what we’re exposed to, she tells me, as are the products we put on our skin. “I don’t use deodorant. I just don’t find that it’s necessary. And there’s lots of ingredients in there that I’m just like oh I don’t want that being absorbed into my body. Your skin can absorb a hell of a lot” – 70 per cent, to be precise. Lucy says that industry is slowly bowing to pressure to become cleaner and greener. There are EU regulations and UN agreements with which industry must comply. And there are organisations working to design out waste and convince businesses of the benefits of a circular economic approach towards products – Lucy mentions the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a good example of this approach.

But for now, Lucy’s just looking forward to getting out on the water. “I can’t wait to be on board,” she beams. “I like being in the middle of the ocean.” When I ask why, she pauses for a long time, before finally producing a long list. “It’s peaceful it’s not stressful, it’s quite beautiful, when you’re sailing at night, all of the stars”. She tells me about anchoring at the deepest point of the Atlantic and going swimming. Being out there, she says, makes her “feel rooted in the universe”. I reflect that this is the perfect way to be feeling, when you’re considering the connection between the cancer in our bodies and the cancer of the oceans. I hope they come back with some answers. 

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder