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Reform Magazine | November 20, 2017

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Editorial: Things they’ve said about me

One of the odd things about having written books is hearing people talking about you in public. And how wrong they can be. A review on Amazon claims that I am a writer for Monty Python, which is flattering but, so far as I can remember, inaccurate. I have also been taken for a minister, a Methodist and ‘a juvenile, liberal, cardigan-wearing leftie’. I haven’t worn a cardigan for decades.

But it’s in statements of interpretation that commenters and reviewers seem to be most wrong. I’m not talking about the Guardian reader who, responding to an article of mine, mistook me for ‘some prat’. That’s a perfectly understandable mistake. What I have in mind is, for instance, the former MP Jonathan Aitken’s response when I discovered, writing about the Clapham Sect, that William Wilberforce was involved in re-enslaving freed slaves after abolition. Mr Aitken considered my claim a politically-correct hatchet job, when, so far as I was concerned, I was bringing to light a matter of record about a man I admired tremendously.

Or there was the reader who called my A Short History of Christianity shameless Christian propaganda, when I would say that the book, which I wrote 12 years ago, came out of the profound disillusionment with Christianity I felt at the time.

These are all people I’ve never met, but last month I marked our silver wedding by wrongly assuming I knew what my partner’s celebratory drink of choice would be. D’oh! Luckily she then wrongly guessed my favourite sitcom, so we’re kind of quits. What do you know? Not as much as you think you do, it turns out.

That’s the thinking behind Reform’s new column, ‘I am…’. How easy it is for writers and commenters to hold forth on important subjects involving other people’s lives, to share their thoughts on poverty, addiction, migration, dementia, nursing, homelessness. Some are better informed than others, but as long as we’re talking about things outside our own experience, we will misunderstand and make false assumptions. In ‘I am…’, people who are used to being talked about in the media tell their own stories, and we get to hear them from the people who know best. This month, a nursery worker shares some of the reality behind that familiar phrase ‘zero-hours contract’.

Niall Cooper, who has given his own page in Reform over to this, will be back in his own right later. For now he will be helping Reform with ‘I am…’, which is fitting, because he taught us the slogan which is one of our inspirations in creating it: ‘Nothing about us without us is for us.’ As Bob Hoskins used to say: ‘It’s good to talk.’ And as St James kind of said: ‘It’s better to listen.’

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This article was published in the September 2017 edition of  Reform

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