Category Archives: Opinion

Weirdo, Mosher, Freak: The Legacy of Sophie Lancaster

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This past Bank Holiday weekend marked the seventh anniversary of the death of Sophie Lancaster. In the early hours of Saturday 11th August 2007, Sophie was kicked and stamped into the coma from which she would never recover. Sophie was attacked along with her boyfriend Robert Maltby in a park in Bacup, Lancashire by three teenage boys who were heard abusing them for how they were dressed. The gang went for Rob first and, when Sophie tried to protect him, they turned on her too. Rob was also beaten into a coma but he survived, just barely. On 24th August, after doctors confirmed that she would never regain consciousness, Sophie’s family made the decision to turn off life support. She was 20 years old.

The violence of the unprovoked attack is as shocking now as it was then. Details released by Sophie’s mother Sylvia following her death stated that one of the attackers had stamped so hard on Sophie’s face that the imprint from the design on his shoelace was imbedded in her cheek. After she died, Sylvia released the now infamous photograph of Sophie taken in hospital after the attack. Bruised and swollen, with tubes in her mouth and nose, it is only her dreadlocked hair that identifies that girl as the slight, smiling young Sophie Lancaster from pictures taken before the attack. The photograph launched the story into the national press. Soon afterwards, Sylvia set up The Sophie Lancaster Foundation (S.O.P.H.I.E), and in 2009 the Foundation became a national registered charity, devoted to challenging prejudice and intolerance towards people from alternative subcultures.

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Seven years on, I still find Sophie’s death heartbreaking and the savagery of the attack on both Sophie and Rob incomprehensible. Like Sophie, I became immersed in alternative culture from a young age, identifying with the darkness and the drama of the music, clothing and art of the goth and metal scene. Dyed hair, heavy makeup, leather and fishnet, dog collars and big boots – I found self-expression in the creativity of dressing up, making and remaking myself and my image in a way that helped me make sense of who I was and how I felt comfortable in the world. There was the occasional bullying at school for how I looked but, thankfully, it never became serious. At college I met more people into the same music and at university I found an inclusive scene that embraced all kinds of alternative subcultures and lifestyles.

During that time I was lucky to get away with just verbal abuse and having the occasional object thrown at me (once, rather bizarrely, it was a mobile phone, launched hard at my head with a string of abuse from a passing car). Some of my friends weren’t so lucky. Coming home from a rock club in the early hours of the morning with a group of friends, five or six years before Sophie’s death, one of them said that he would go the local 24-hour garage to pick up the obligatory post-club cigarettes and Pringles. The garage was less than a ten-minute walk away along a main road, a journey that all of us had made countless times before. When the front doorbell rang a short time later, I looked down the hallway and saw him rush into his bedroom at the front of the house. Then I heard his girlfriend scream. I walked into my friend’s bedroom to see his t-shirt pulled up and blood running down his side – a group of three strangers had attacked him on the way to the garage and one of them had stuck a knife in his back, just below his left shoulder blade. He said that the gang had started shouting abuse at him when he walked past them, mocking how he looked and calling him a ‘freak’, before jumping him. It was actually the long black leather duster coat which they mocked him for that had stopped the knife going in further and possibly saved his life.

Sobriety happened immediately. As a couple of friends took him to the hospital, I remember sitting on the stairs trying to process what had just happened and  being completely unable to comprehend how anyone could do something like that. How could someone possibly be incited to murderous rage because they don’t like or understand how another person chooses to dress? It’s one thing to hurl an insult (or a phone) but something else entirely to stick a knife into someone or, in Sophie and Rob’s case, jump up and down on their head until they lose consciousness. The gap between the two suddenly seemed terrifyingly small.

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Sylvia Lancaster speaking at Haslingden High School, Sophie’s high school, in 2014.

Sylvia and S.O.P.H.I.E (Stamp Out Prejudice, Hatred & Intolerance Everywhere) have worked relentlessly since Sophie’s death to promote understanding and tolerance of alternative subcultures within schools and communities.  Working with Huthwaite International, the Foundation run educational workshops aimed at challenging the perceptions of young people about those around them who look differently and live alternative lifestyles. With the help of funding in 2009 from The Lancashire Criminal Justice Board, the Foundation was able to develop its range of teaching resources and training courses for teachers and youth workers. Sylvia frequently goes out into communities to talk about Sophie and regularly appears on television and in press interviews about the work of the charity and their fight against hate crime.

Along with education, the main cause of the Foundation is their campaign to have UK Hate Crime legislation extended to include people from alternative subcultures, lifestyles and dress codes. Sylvia is a member of the Hate Crime Advisory Board, working with a variety of organisations to help them shape their policies and procedures in relation to hate crime. In April 2013, Greater Manchester Police became the first UK police authority to add alternative subcultures to their list of monitored Hate Crimes, meaning that crimes such as the attack on Sophie and Rob will now be recorded as a crime in the same way as disability, racist, religious, sexual orientation and transgender hate crimes. Warwickshire Police followed suit in early 2014 and, in July this year, Sylvia and the Foundation’s campaign manager Kate Conboy-Greenwood met with Norman Baker MP, Minister of State for Crime Prevention, to discuss the under-reporting of hate crime and what can be done to support victims more effectively.

The alternative community continues to stand alongside Sylvia and the Foundation. In 2009 Bloodstock Festival renamed one of their stages The Sophie Lancaster stage and the Foundation frequently has stalls at music festivals and events across the country throughout the year, selling merchandise and providing information about their work. Lots of musicians and artists have shown their support for the charity in the press and by wearing official S.O.P.H.I.E wristbands. Earlier this month alternative band Bad Pollyanna released their official S.O.P.H.I.E. charity single ‘Invincible Girl’.

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Courtney Love wearing her official S.O.P.H.I.E wristband onstage in London.

International music merchandise retailer Backstreet Merch stock the official charity merchandise and cult UK make up brand Illamasqua donate £3 from each sale of their jet black S.O.P.H.I.E Eye Colouring Pencil to the Foundation. In 2009 Illamasqua also commissioned Dark Angel, a short, animated film about the attack featuring music by Portishead. The film premiered in Manchester and was shown on MTV to raise awareness of the work being carried out by the Foundation.

Support for S.O.P.H.I.E has also come from poetry, theatre and radio. In 2011, poet Simon Armitage wrote a collection called Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Ted Hughes Award for Poetry. The poems are spoken in the voice of Sophie, before, during and after her attack. Black Roses was performed as a BBC radio play, with the poems intercut with prose taken from Sylvia’s recollections about her daughter. In March this year, the Foundation, along with Goldblade’s John Robb and MP Kerry McCarthy held a Black Roses listening event followed by a discussion on Hate Crime in The House of Commons. That evening, Black Roses was performed at the Southbank Centre. The play was simple, powerful and devastating to watch – when it ended, the audience sat in silence for some time before a quiet applause began. Black Roses was followed with another Sophie-inspired radio play, Porcelain: The Trial for the Killing of Sophie Lancaster, earlier this year.

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Rachel Austin as Sophie and Julie Hesmondhaigh as Sylvia in Simon Armitage’s Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster.

In a society where social media has pushed image to the forefront and is constantly giving us new ways to judge, hate and unite against each other, the work that S.O.P.H.I.E is doing, particularly with schools and youth groups, is as important now as it has ever been. In June this year, Sylvia Lancaster was awarded an OBE for her work over the last seven years towards a more tolerant and safe society for those people who are seen as ‘different’. Whereas there can be no doubt that she would prefer to have her daughter alive than to have the letters after her name, the recognition is well deserved and the legacy that she is building for Sophie is one that will hopefully make a real difference to the lives of many.

 

LINKS:

The Sophie Lancaster Foundation website (Registered Charity Number 1129689)

Donate to S.O.P.H.I.E by texting SOPH05 £, followed by the amount you wish to donate to 70070

Buy official S.O.P.H.I.E Charity merchandise here

S.O.P.H.I.E on Facebook

S.O.P.H.I.E on Twitter

Watch Illamasqua’s film Dark Angel here

Listen to ‘Invincible Girl’ by Bad Pollyanna here

Read about Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster here

Read about Porcelain: The Trial for the Killing of Sophie Lancaster here

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Medical research is not funded by selfies

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My facebook timeline was flooded with selfies this morning. Bare-faced, no-filter (ahem) selfies, posted by friends in the name of cancer awareness and asking others to do the same. In my usual bleary-eyed, early morning confusion I couldn’t understand why, on a social networking site where most of us scroll mindlessly through the interminable selfies of the people on our friends list every single day, another selfie would help cure cancer. By mid-morning (OK, by midday) I was more awake but still none the wiser.

A few years ago there was an unofficial facebook campaign intended to raise awareness about breast cancer – women were encouraging each other to post the colour of their bra in a veiled status update along the lines of ‘Red’ or ‘My favourite colour is black’ or whatever. The idea was that people would see this happening all over their timeline, would ask what it was all about and then the person who had posted the status would let them know that it was about promoting breast cancer awareness.

Quick and simple. Awareness spread. Warm feelings all round. Marvellous.

I received four of these covert inbox messages from women on my friends list, with an instruction about what to put in my status in order to pique people’s interest. However, only one of these private messages referenced raising awareness of breast cancer. The other three said that this was a fun joke intended to confuse men and generally ‘get some LOLs’. Similar campaigns happened over the next couple years – where do you keep your handbag? ‘I like it on the floor’, nudge nudge, wink wink. Again, the emphasis was on confusion and primarily the confusion of men. Yes, men get breast cancer too but how would a nonsensical status update about the colour of my bra help a guy find the information he needed about this, should he be concerned? Wouldn’t women reading the status updates be better served by a link to details of how to check their breasts for cancer? The intention was good but somewhere along the line the message had been lost.

That’s not to say that I think these campaigns were ultimately pointless – anything that gets people talking about cancer awareness is, of course, a good thing – but the lack of a direct link to a cause WILL lead to the dilution of the message. And cancer isn’t a saucy, suggestive, Carry On-style joke. In 2011 (the most recent official statistics available), 331,000 people were diagnosed with cancer in the UK alone and 159,000 people died from cancer in the UK in the same year. Making a bewildering statement about the colour of my underwear just didn’t seem action enough to me.

Facebook has, perhaps inevitably, become a haven for pious armchair activism. The idea that if you ‘like/share if you agree’ then you are actually contributing to a cure for cancer or to the eradication of the fur farming industry or similar is as absurd as it is self-indulgent. The message is that just one click of your mouse (So easy! You don’t even have to move!) can save a life.

It can’t. It doesn’t.

Working in publishing, I am very aware of how important social networking is when disseminating information but what saves lives is directly engaging with the causes that you feel strongly about – fundraising, protest, sustained comprehensive awareness campaigns and the support of intensive medical research where appropriate, alongside support of local hospices who work closely with terminally ill patients to help manage their physical and emotional needs in the last years of their lives. Your picture of a skinned dog, prefaced with a sad-face emoticon, is more likely to get people to hide your updates in their timeline than jump up and do something about it, nor does your willingness to post such an image make you a stronger advocate for the cause than someone who chooses not to. Similarly, just because a trend says that it is about raising cancer awareness doesn’t mean that you have to blindly follow suit. It is important to question if what a campaign is encouraging you to do is actually helping the cause to which it has aligned itself. HOW does your selfie with no makeup on raise cancer awareness or contribute to a cure? The bare-faced female selfie movement has been gathering speed for a while now, as a backlash against the endless tweaked, filtered, camera-over-the-head selfies that flood the internet, themselves the spawn of the photoshopped, fantasy images of women with which we are relentlessly bombarded by the media. This is a good thing – a reminder of what women’s faces actually look like without a half-inch of makeup and the Amaro filter on – but, when it comes to finding a cure for cancer your face is not your most powerful (or your most sustainable) resource.

By all means, post your selfies. Just make sure that you also tell people why you are doing it, link them to some useful information and put your money where your lipstick-free mouth is.

USEFUL LINKS:
Make a £3 donation to Cancer Research UK by texting BEAT to 70099
Cancer Research UK
Marie Curie Cancer Care
Macmillan Cancer Support
St Luke’s Hospice

This post is also published here: The Huffington Post UK.

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