It was a drizzly day in Didsbury, near Manchester, in February 1889. (Admittedly the "drizzly" part is artistic license, but if you go to Didsbury in February you'll see what I mean.) Emily Williamson - who definitely is deserving of a statue - was sitting with some friends discussing the hat situation. Specifically the fact that the fashion of the day required that hats be adorned with feathers from exotic birds. Thus leading to a dramatic decline in the numbers of such birds. They decided to act, and formed The Plumage League. In line with all good ideas, the aims were simple and clear:
- that Members shall discourage the wanton destruction of birds, and interest themselves in their protection; and
- that Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for the purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted.
In 1891 the Plumage League amalgamated with the Fur and Feather League, which had been started in Croydon by Eliza Phillips (another statue please), to form the Society for the Protection of Birds. The "Royal" endorsement came a few years later. And so was born an organization which has improved lives for millions of birds and people over the years. To my shame I know little about birds, but when I look at what the RSPB has done with Rainham Marshes near the Thames in Essex, I'm blown away. They bought the marshes from the Ministry of Defence in July 2000, and then spent years clearing the accumulated military ordnance and rubbish from the site, before restoring the marshes to their original natural state. Over 280 species of birds have been spotted there in the past few years, plus 33 types of butterfly, and don't get me started on the numbers of water voles. A glorious visitor centre serves copious cups of tea and buttered scones and generally educates people like me who know very little. Much more importantly, the volunteers there guide school trips around the marshes so the next generation can continue the stewardship of the environment. Some things are just brilliant.
(As an aside, when I started this walk I determined to learn to take good photographs of birds and generally learn about them. I've lamentably failed. The quite expensive and generally rather intimidating camera remains unassembled. Still, I continue to appreciate the birds from a position of ignorance.)
None of us like injustice. A story from one of my co-walkers, told in an entirely matter-of-fact manner when we were discussing the dreaded "B" topic. About 10 years younger than me (but looks 20 years younger!), he's lived nearly his entire life in the UK. "Nearly" because he came to the country as a child of around 10, when his parents emigrated from another European country (one of the older members of the EU). And then, about 4 years ago, he spent two years working in the US. Just to reiterate: he's spent pretty much his entire working life in the UK, built a family here, paid his taxes, contributed to British society in dozens of ways etc. He retained citizenship of his country of birth and so under the pending Brexit situation, needed to register for some kind of long term permit to stay. But...was told that the rules state that he is required to have been in the country continuously for the past 5 years, and so will need to wait another 3 years before he can be granted the permit. How to make someone feel unwelcome for no reason beyond unthinking bureaucracy. This is what Brexit is doing, even before we've gone there.
I was honoured to be joined the other day on the walk by an old friend, Paula Ensor. She flew in from Cape Town, where, until recently she was the Dean of Arts at the University of Cape Town. Paula is a remarkable woman who played a key role in ending apartheid. I hope that one day she will write her story (Paula - if you're reading this that's is a gentle way of saying that you must write your story - hardly any of the women who were involved in that struggle have documented what they did!). We talked about many things during our three days together, and of course cervical cancer came up. Paula posted a note on Facebook, but as I can't work out how to put in a link to that, here's the relevant extract:
"In the midst of the chatter and the walking, a persistent message came through from you: a determination to raise awareness about cervical cancer as an entirely preventable disease. I listened hard, and realised that while I understood the causes and risks of HPV and cervical cancer (having been diagnosed may years ago with HPV myself), I knew precious little about the burden of the disease in South Africa. So I promised to make it my business to find out. I contacted researchers and health professionals (to whom I am very grateful for their time and patience), and I have discovered that in 2018 cervical cancer was estimated to have taken to nearly 5600 women’s lives. Cervical cancer is the second leading cause of female cancer in South Africa, and the first most common cancer in women aged 15-44 years. It is the most prevalent form of cancer amongst black female South Africans – ten times more prevalent than amongst white women. This discrepancy speaks to racialised socio-economic inequality and stark differences in access to health care provision in South Africa. The burden of cervical cancer on South and Southern African women is complicated by the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, and a health care system which is in all too many places over-stretched and dysfunctional. I have learned about the nation-wide immunisation programme initiated in 2014 for grade 4 (9 year old) girls in all public schools. I am now much better aware of just
how limited regular screening opportunities are in South Africa for women, and how low the uptake of screening is. This is not only because of shortages of health professionals and clinics, but also of adequate laboratory facilities.