Thin Skins And Male Tears: The Tragedy Of White Atheism

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Richard Dawkins is in the news again. This times it’s the Muslims. In September, Texas teenager Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for making a clock that — mainly due to being next to him — looked too much like a bomb; when Barack Obama asked to meet him, Dawkins speculated Mohamed ‘wanted to be arrested’ for exposure and cash. In the US, where police shoot young black and brown men for breathing too loudly, you’d think posing as a bomber would be high-risk, but perhaps your experience of anti-terror laws isn’t confined to jars of honey on domestic flights.

The last Texan to con his way to the White House had ideas the New Atheists quite liked, and this week Dawkins compared Mohamed to a child filmed beheading a prisoner of ISIL. (That both were Muslims is apparently incidental.) What’s striking about Dawkins and his fans at times like this is their portrayal of critics as fragile, oversensitive flakes in whose world dogma is king and emotion queen, despite flinching at the slightest rebuke. ‘That actually hurts,’ Dawkins told a friend after I called his tweets racist. Some people’s emotions, it seems, just matter more.

Continue reading “Thin Skins And Male Tears: The Tragedy Of White Atheism”

Thin Skins And Male Tears: The Tragedy Of White Atheism
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The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct

Based on a Facebook status.

After this week’s attacks, it seems some people do know what to say. First there are those who say the right response to massacres in Paris, Baghdad and Beirut is to shoot Muslims in their nearest towns, who are no doubt discussing how and when to attack mosques; some declare their intent to rejoin the armed forces where they are, while politicians say the same words their predecessors did last time round, which fed paranoid, racist fears and helped give birth to the Islamic State now bombing them. How much has changed these fourteen years, and how little.

Then there are those who see Muslims threatened and step in to defend Islam’s honour, claiming its true teachings could never inspire violence. We hear a lot about the true versions of religions — true Christianity, it’s said, never breeds homophobia — though they rarely seem to have had historical traction. The argument goes that no faith causes problems, only its corruption by people, politics and power — as if religions would be harmless if only they weren’t part of human societies. There it goes again, the True Faith being corrupted by a realistic social context.

It’s got a lot of slogans, this approach. There’s the statement bombings reflect extremism, not religion, as if can’t be both; the statement fighters for ISIL aren’t ‘real’ Muslims, whatever a real Muslim is; that since most aren’t killers, religion can’t be relevant; that those claiming responsibility for Paris and Baghdad aren’t motivated by their faith despite saying so, and would only ‘find another excuse’ if they didn’t believe in God. For many progressives, the only response to attacks on Muslims is that ISIL has ‘nothing to do with’ Islam, fundamentalism nothing to do with religion. Continue reading “The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct”

The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct

The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct

Based on a Facebook status.

After this week’s attacks, it seems some people do know what to say. First there are those who say the right response to massacres in Paris, Baghdad and Beirut is to shoot Muslims in their nearest towns, who are no doubt discussing how and when to attack mosques; some declare their intent to rejoin the armed forces where they are, while politicians say the same words their predecessors did last time round, which fed paranoid, racist fears and helped give birth to the Islamic State now bombing them. How much has changed these fourteen years, and how little.

Then there are those who see Muslims threatened and step in to defend Islam’s honour, claiming its true teachings could never inspire violence. We hear a lot about the true versions of religions — true Christianity, it’s said, never breeds homophobia — though they rarely seem to have had historical traction. The argument goes that no faith causes problems, only its corruption by people, politics and power — as if religions would be harmless if only they weren’t part of human societies. There it goes again, the True Faith being corrupted by a realistic social context.

It’s got a lot of slogans, this approach. There’s the statement bombings reflect extremism, not religion, as if can’t be both; the statement fighters for ISIL aren’t ‘real’ Muslims, whatever a real Muslim is; that since most aren’t killers, religion can’t be relevant; that those claiming responsibility for Paris and Baghdad aren’t motivated by their faith despite saying so, and would only ‘find another excuse’ if they didn’t believe in God. For many progressives, the only response to attacks on Muslims is that ISIL has ‘nothing to do with’ Islam, fundamentalism nothing to do with religion. Continue reading “The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct”

The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct

Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom

When Lindsay Lohan is declared homecoming queen in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls – a film about how beauty standards, inter alia, tear women down – she uses her speech to tell all her classmates they look nice. Jessica Lopez, who uses a wheelchair, has an amazing dress; plus-size Emma Gerber must have spent hours on her hair; Regina George, queen bee before a bus hit her, is wearing her neck brace like a rock star.

If complimenting women’s looks on dressed-up occasions is sexism, a patronising well done for being acceptable, Fey suggests it can also be a gesture of solidarity, acknowledging the girls’ efforts to navigate beauty-policing’s impossible demands. (The ‘plastics’, it turns out, are more afraid than anyone.) When Lohan tells her peers they all look like royalty, breaking her tiara and dividing the pieces equally, it’s a statement of affirmation and sorority. I see you, big girls, butch girls, girls on meds. I see the best-and-worst-dressed culture and the pressure and the fear and how you’ve handled them. Here’s to us all for surviving.

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Not unlike Lohan’s character, Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom, negotiating for the first time the fraught terrain of acceptable public femaleness. Prior to her profile in Vanity Fair, featuring Annie Leibovitz’s photographs, Jenner was called an unconvincing imitation of womanhood. Post-bustier, having presumably sped through the goldilocks region of femininity sometime during hair and makeup, she will almost certainly be called an offensive parody of it. And so my guess would be that when someone at Jezebel wrote ‘You look great, Caitlyn! Can’t wait to see more,’ this – not the adequacy of her attractiveness – was the context.

With all the surgery, beauty treatments and airbrushing her millions can buy, Jenner certainly meets standards of gendered beauty few trans women can; it’s also true that lauding her for being pretty rather than brave displays a wide array of bigotries, and that trans activists may just have better goals than inroads with the GOP. Meeting an expectation, though, doesn’t make it less smothering. If feminist media is complimenting Jenner, my guess is that the aim might be to put someone agonisingly self-aware at ease, letting the anxious nerd at the spring fling know she looks nice when she arrives: not ‘You look great’ as in ‘Well done’, but as in ‘Don’t let them say otherwise.’ Continue reading “Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom”

Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom

I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?

I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse.

Specifically, I’m sorry some of its ideas inspire abuse. To name a few things:

I don’t feel personally responsible for these things – I’m not sorry in the same way as when I step on someone’s foot or guess a Canadian’s from the US – but I’m sorry it’s the case today’s atheist movement has inspired them. Simply being atheists isn’t these people’s motivation – atheism by itself prompts no more action than theism by itself – but the particular atheist school of thought we share, which came to prominence roughly in the last ten years, produced the ideas that inspire this abuse just as particular religions produce their own. Continue reading “I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?”

I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?

What NBC’s Constantine got wrong on Romanies and religion

Legend has it that before Christ was crucified, his executioners found a blacksmith to forge the nails. There are two accounts of what happened next, the first telling how God cursed the blacksmith and his kin the Romanies to wander the earth, forever denied shelter. The second – the one I was told as a child – says that the blacksmith forged four nails but only gave the Romans three, absconding with the one meant for the heart. For sparing his son that pain, the story goes, God blessed the Romanies, permitting them to steal from those who persecuted them trying to reclaim the lost nail.

Which version you tell reveals your views about people known to their enemies as gypsies. Which one is a revision of the other I don’t know, but the two competing myths offer a clue about my ancestors’ relationship with Christianity – in some ways a historical yardstick of their status in Europe.

A couple of weeks ago – on Hallowe’en, no less – Constantine‘s second episode aired. The series, despite its comic book source, feels like a far less inspired crossbreed of Doctor Who and Apparitions (Google it), and its race issues are doing it no favours: this episode in particular featured (spoilers ahead) a greedy, dishonest, sexually aggressive Romany woman as its villain, whose husband’s violence toward her seemed not to make her killing him by supernatural means any more morally complex. At one point the series lead, a white exorcist fighting demons through Catholic prayer, even remarked disgustedly: ‘There’s nothing blacker than gypsy magic.’

Pale skinned Christianity, virtuous and pure, versus Romany witchcraft’s exotic evil – this is an opposition I know well. Continue reading “What NBC’s Constantine got wrong on Romanies and religion”

What NBC’s Constantine got wrong on Romanies and religion

The making of two ex-Muslim mastheads: how would Roy Lichtenstein paint an Asian woman?

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All three new additions to our site will by now have settled in somewhat; I’m lucky enough to have known two of them, Hiba Krisht and Heina Dadabhoy, quite well before they joined FtB. In the best-part-of-a-year between our hivemind’s decision to invite them and the actual debut of their blogs – it took so long because our site redesign went on forever – Hiba and Heina’s names became inseparable, which was something of a problem when they both commissioned me to create their mastheads (right). Since readers seem to like the banners, I thought perhaps I should write about the time I spent on them.

The common ground is inescapable. Both Heina and Hiba are ex-Muslim – more precisely, atheist – women of colour; both are feminists; both live in the US. They’re both queer, both polyamorous and both twentysomething; both are former hijab-wearers; they even have somewhat similar first names. (Would dubbing them the H-bombs be in bad taste?) When it comes to branding a personal blog, uniqueness is the order of the day – so the challenge of bannering-up both Heinous Dealings and A Veil and a Dark Place was always going to be distinguishing two writers I’d grown used to mentioning side by side.

Thankfully the likenesses are superficial: study their work and it’s clear each is their own quite different blogger.

Heina was a Sunni Muslim, Hiba a Shiite. Hiba is a Lebanese Arab; Heina, ethnically south-east Asian, is a Desi. Heina was born and raised in the US; Hiba is a several-times migrant.

Hiba’s writing tends toward the long-form, often centred on personal narrative. Heina’s is more typically about current events or blogosphere controversies. Heina’s voice is more conversational, often referencing comments or directly addressing readers. Hiba’s is more literary (her posts have been printed as-is in journals). Hiba, an academic and professional translator, relies mainly on turn of phrase for colour. Heina, a cosplayer in her spare time, draws on memes, gifs and pop culture.

Heina’s persona is distinctly ironic, dripping with snark. Hiba’s is known for being gutwrenchingly sincere. Hiba’s apostasy plays against the backdrop of her middle eastern taste in art, food, clothing, even grammar; Heina’s aesthetic – lipstick, heels, polka dots – is hard-femme Americana.

How do you represent these sorts of differences in two 728x120px images?

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Heina’s image could be read as a rejection of her roots – her A-line dresses and nail polish as aspirational, 1950s symbols that they are of idealised suburban whiteness. But an ex-Muslim who blogs on racism isn’t someone running from their background, and what feminist – actually, what woman today – dresses as a fifties housewife except on purpose? It’s a wardrobe filled with the intent to ironise, hijacking iconography meant to exclude women like Heina. She might as well, it struck me when she asked for a blog header, insert herself into Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings of pale, thin blondes – so I decided I should do just that.

Like most pop art and like her, Lichtenstein’s work is tongue-in-cheek. Filled with soap opera heterosexuals and exclamation marks, it’s as much a camp performance of his era’s gender politics as her look is – but that being so, he never to my knowledge painted anyone who looked like her. That raised a problem: with no precedent, how do you paint an Asian woman in Roy Lichtenstein’s style?

Some liberties were taken. The famous Ben-Day dots in his work were originally developed as a means of saving coloured ink while shading, so always appear on a white background there. This works for the pinkish hue of Caucasian faces, but trying to represent Heina’s skin tone that way in early versions left her looking zombie-like, so two different tan shades were required. Nor did Lichtenstein ever, to my knowledge, paint people with curly hair like hers or mine, and the resultant line work uses a technique more mine than his. Still, it seemed to work. (If you’re wondering why Heina’s hair is purple, it’s because its actual colour would have rendered as an amorphous black blob… as well as just because.)

Of course Heina, who broadcasts her opinions, had to have a thought bubble in live transmission – and of course her blurb had to be drawn like Lichtenstein’s narrative boxes. My hope is that the finished banner is as witty, camp, colourful and recognisable as she is, and her readers’ responses suggest it succeeded.

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When it came to Hiba’s blog, the task was the same with one added constraint. First, create something to symbolise A Veil and a Dark Place; second, make it instantly different from I’d done at Heinous Dealings.

Hiba is middle eastern rather than Asian, more literary than Heina and less western in terms of reference points: it made sense immediately that her banner would feature Arabic. The language’s script is exquisitely ornate, resembling embroidered latticework or chain mail when densely spaced, and while initially I wondered if using it for an ex-Muslim blog was ethnocentric, it struck me that doing so might actually combat the conflation of Islam and Arabia: unlike most current or former Muslims Hiba actually is an Arab, and associating an atheist’s blog with that spidery lettering seems like a way of reclaiming it from fundamentalists.

The phrase in the texture of the letters was meant to be the blog name, but annoyingly my laptop managed to unravel it somehow, and I’d likely have to study Arabic myself to rectify this. I’m convinced no colour suits its writing better than inky black, so wanted originally to keep the banner monochrome; for the lower portion of text , I was also tempted for a time to use Trajan Pro, that most Roman of fonts. What stopped me? Well, although both those concepts would differentiate Hiba’s blog from Heina’s, another ex-Muslim got there first.

Maryam Namazie’s banner is a thing of beauty – to imitate it even by accident would do all parties involved a disservice. Moreover, her blogging style and Hiba’s are very different, and it occurred to me her monochrome text suggests the matt black clothing of Islamist theocracies she rails against. Hiba’s subject matter is more personal, and her fondness for middle eastern art made me think the burnt yellow of Lebanese spices would fit. (When in doubt, my mind defaults to food.) For the typeface in the blog name’s second half, I went with Lato.

The pseudo-Arabic letters of ‘a veil’ are my own work, thus unique to Hiba’s blog, and took many hours of tweaking once I’d found actual Arabic characters to base them on. (Making the ‘v’ work was especially taxing.) For a while I messed about with colour fields and added details, but in fact I think the motif is so strong that other details would overpower it, and ‘floating’ on a white background means the banner looks centred above Hiba’s posts. (Like mine, it’s not really.)

Since the new blogs went up, I’ve been commissioned to do similar work for other people. I can only thank both H-bombs for coming to me, and I’m thrilled that on top of being their colleague, I got to support what they do.

Update: Hiba responds here.

The making of two ex-Muslim mastheads: how would Roy Lichtenstein paint an Asian woman?

The Dawkins Cycle: an infographic

There are stages, I’ve noticed, to every Richard Dawkins Twitter storm. It starts when he says something crass about a sensitive topic. (Child molestation/rape/‘all the world’s Muslims’.) People whose ally he’s supposed to be get annoyed. Often they blog about it; often he trends. (‘Your a dick’ tends to get tweeted a lot, too.) Dawkins becomes tetchy and berates them for being PC/absolutist/illogical/unable to think. International media takes notice and reports the argument. Dawkins publishes a response at RD.net, often referring to ‘a storm in a teacup’ or insisting – despite being a professional communicator – that the rest of the world was at fault for not grasping his true meaning. People at wit’s end tend to give up at this point, but eventually he mouths off on something else and the cycle repeats.

I’ve come up with an illustrated guide.

(On the other hand, there’s this.)

The Dawkins Cycle: an infographic

What actually happened at Edinburgh Central Mosque

At Patheos, JT Eberhard writes of a young British couple jailed for a year for harmlessly pranking mosque members with ‘easily removable’ bacon, whose small child will suffer in foster care while the parents ‘rot in jail’ ‘because this building and the people who own it are special’ – a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ for what was only strictly speaking vandalism.

There’s another story about three hooded white supremacists who trespassed on private religious property to intimidate Muslims, harassed the only man inside as he tried to pray, threw objects around and desecrated the area to cause occupants distress, humiliate them and make them feel unsafe. I find this one more plausible.

According to reports from yesterday and earlier today, three people were just convicted of a ‘racially motivated attack’ at Edinburgh Central Mosque on January 31 2013.

  • Chelsea Lambie (18) received a twelve month prison sentence sentence in a young offenders’ institute after denying involvement despite CCTV footage.
  • Douglas Cruikshank (39) received nine months in prison, having pled guilty and received nine months.
  • Wayne Stilwel (25) also pled guilty and received ten months’ imprisonment.

Quite a few secularists I know have described this story in terms similar to Eberhard’s, calling these ridiculous punishments for hanging bacon on doorknobs and causing ‘religious offence’.

I’m not going to debate the merits of the sentencing specifically – partly because that would become an abstract discussion of the prisons system, ‘hate crimes’ and the use of authoritarian penalties against them, and partly because there’s lots of information I don’t have. I haven’t read Sheriff Alistair Noble’s judgement, so don’t know if details influenced him that haven’t made the news; I don’t know what previous convictions Lambie, Cruikshank and Stilwel had, if any; I don’t know how their prison terms compare to those for similar harassment in non-religious contexts, assuming that comparison is useful here. Edit: Lambie is reported in the Daily Record as having been fined shortly prior to this incident for verbally abusing and harassing a Pakistani shopkeeper; Stilwel was breaching conditions of bail for a previous misdemeanour.] (Helen Dale, a lawyer operating in Scotland, also tells me ‘all custodial sentences in Scotland are automatically reduced by half as long as you don’t do something like try to set a prison guard on fire’.) 

But the view that nine to twelve month sentences were obviously, categorically ridiculous, and that the right response to what they did (as Eberhard put it) would be to ‘fine them £20 and make them polish the door handle’, relies on seeing it how he does as a trivial and harmless prank by innocent-enough young vandals. Reports suggest to me that this is extremely inaccurate.

From what I’ve seen, there’s no evidence Lambie and Cruikshank were a ‘UK couple’. Reports refer to them as a ‘pair’, which doesn’t imply a relationship, and the BBC, the Edinburgh Evening News and the Scotsman all describe the former being arrested at ‘her boyfriend’s’ home: if this was Cruickshank, presumably he’d have been referred to by name and the two would both have been arrested there. While Lambie is noted to have a ‘very young child’, Eberhard’s emphasis on this and her perceived relationship with Cruikshank suggests the sympathetic tableau of a nuclear family broken up by injustice.

This doesn’t sync up with reality. Lambie was by all accounts part of the far-right Scottish Defence League, as according to the Edinburgh Reporter and the Scotsman were both Cruikshank and Stilwel. The SDL is a regional offshoot of the English Defence League, whose own ex-leader describes it as having been dominated by violent neo-Nazis and which has been linked to numerous arson attacks on mosques. (‘Religion is so persecuted’, Eberhard writes mockingly. While that may not be true in general, UK Muslims are targeted systematically as a religious group by the racist far-right.) Ties have also been found between the SDL and white supremacist British National Party, whose current leader started out in the National Front.

When Lambie’s mobile phone was examined by authorities, sent messages reveal her having bragged of ‘Going to invade a mosque, because we can go where we want.’ She and her accomplices hoped to intimidate worshippers by telling them they’d entered it unbidden – orders of magnitude more disturbing, fairly obviously, than an immature couple’s misjudged practical joke. According to the Scotsman, ‘a man who was inside the mosque praying [described by EEN as the only person in the building] . . . heard something hitting the prayer room window’, and judging by EEN’s reference to a ‘glass partition’, this was an interior window. Whoever threw uncooked bacon at it, which had been bought a few hours beforehand, did indeed invade the premises.

The Edinburgh Reporter adds that the man had already ‘noticed the trio at the door appearing to wave at him and (assuming they were coming in to pray) returned to his worship’. Rather than ‘hanging bacon on door knobs and tossing a few strings inside’, Lambie, Cruikshank and Stilwel – all of whom were hiding their faces under hoods – threw an object at the window of the room where they knew he was. I can’t speak for JT, but if three hooded strangers walked into my private building, found me alone and started hurling things in my direction, I’d feel attacked.

He states momentously that the slices of meat, which stuck to the window and door handles, would have been simple to remove. If someone were to break into his house and smear doorknobs and walls with faeces, cleaning it up would be equally simple; it would also be humiliating and distressing. As a vegetarian, having to handle raw meat would cause me the same kind of disgust. As an atheist, of course I don’t think Islamic pork taboos are sensible or philosophically sound, but mosques have every right to abide by them. Invading someone’s private building to strew the area in it and force them to handle it against their will, knowing it will cause them humiliation and distress, is still an act of harassment.

I’ve written plenty in opposition to public censorship on grounds of ‘religious offence’. A religious ban on bacon from shared secular space would have me up in arms. But one doesn’t have to accept religious doctrine to see desecrating private houses of worship as an intimidation tactic; look at how the Nazis went about it. (I remind you, before I’m accused of Godwinning, that the perpetrators belonged to a group with clear neo-Nazi ties.) This, on top of invading the building to make those there feel unsafe, throwing objects around and harassing someone alone there.

Whatever we say about the sentencing, this wasn’t anything like as trivial as Eberhard and others have suggested.

What actually happened at Edinburgh Central Mosque

Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you.

 Explicit racial slurs and similar nastiness follow.

This will be the last thing I ever say to you.

Recently grandmother, you tried to find out where I live. That I don’t want you to contact me should already be clear: in four years at university a bus ride from your home, despite repeated invitations, I never visited; when we’ve been together with relatives, I’ve avoided you; when you’ve tried to converse, I haven’t reciprocated. You’ve given me cash and I’ve donated it, sent me cheques and I’ve recycled them. It seems that you now want to send me more in spite of being told not to, and all the evidence I don’t want a relationship with you.

If you’re getting this message, it’s been relayed to you. Online, where what I write is published, thousands of people are reading it. None know who you are or anything about you, so nothing will come of this; I’ve hesitated to write it even so, but it’s obvious you’ll keep harassing me unless I go on public record telling you to stop.

You strike me as a bully, grandmother – snobby, controlling and contemptuous of everything apart from what you assume to hold status. You show particular contempt for foreigners and anyone ‘coloured’ or ‘nigger brown’ enough for you to deem them foreign, complaining ‘masses of Japanese’ (discernible, you insist, by their eyes) can be found in your nearest city, refusing continental food because of non-existent allergies; for ethnic Jews, warning me once that someone’s name was Goldstein, and for ‘gippos’ even though your mother was a Romany.

You show contempt for any woman not thin, youthful, white and femme enough – including, as it happens, most women I’m into – and for the children in your family born out of wedlock. As for the men I’m into, you call queer people ‘peculiar’. You show contempt for my whole generation and most born since the 1960s, describing us as ill-mannered, our clothing as scruffy and our English, since you’re not familiar with it, as meaningless. (As a graduate in literature, your mourning ‘the language of Shakespeare’ tells me you know little about him or it.) You show contempt for people claiming benefits, as your daughter and I did when she raised me, accusing them of ‘putting their hands out’ while you live off yours in old age.

Worst, you’re contemptuous of anyone who disagrees with you, laughing at, patronising or ignoring them. When you heard I wrote for a living, you commented I never seemed to say much; I don’t talk to you because I don’t waste words. You epitomise the figure of the senior bigot, obsessed with manners but oblivious to your own spite, and unlike some I’m not amused by it. Nor will I insult people your age, many of whom have inspired me, by putting your toxic outlook down to being 93.

Being the only one who won’t oblige you has made me a villain. Family members caught in what they see as the crossfire of two warring relatives have called me heartless for trying to indicate passively that I want you to leave me alone. This message might be heartless, but if so you’ve left me no other option, aggressively dismissing every signal I sent that I didn’t want to know you. The only reason others have been caught amid anything is that like a possessive ex, you’ve refused to let go.

This isn’t a warning or an ultimatum. I’ve quit Britain for central Europe and don’t expect to return while you’re alive. If I do you won’t get my address, and I’m now self-reliant enough to avoid staying with relatives at the same time as you. We won’t meet again, and I’m not interested in hearing from you.

If this is upsetting, you should have considered that people you insult, attack and treat with broad derision don’t have to accept it. If it’s only registering now that keeping a relationship with an adult might involve respecting them, too bad. You’ve had too many chances as it is.

Goodbye, grandmother. Enjoy your remaining years.

Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you.