Last week, somewhere between the fake news and the news about the fake news, I heard a story I really believed in.
I met a woman called Lauren. We shook hands and sipped on tea. And Lauren began to talk.
Lauren’s story is a heartbreaking, life-affirming, stuck-in-your throat, Russian doll of a story. Because Lauren was a friend of Jo Cox. Because Lauren is working impossibly hard to carry on the amazing work Jo began. Because Lauren is keeping the fight and fire of Jo alive by raising money for refugees and raising awareness around loneliness. But that isn’t the story.
The story was tucked deep inside our conversations, under layers of talk about policy and commissions and NGOs.
The story was actually about a shitty banner.
Lauren had made a self-declared “shitty banner” when she went to the Trafalgar Square Jo Cox memorial service. She found an old sheet; she wrote #moreincommon on it. By her own admission, it was a pretty crap banner. But she took it to Trafalgar Square anyway. And then she waited. She looked around. Was she actually allowed to do this? Was her shitty banner a legitimate contribution, or would it condemn her to eternal shame? Was she someone who actually had a message?
And this is the story: Lauren took the banner out her bag and (with shaking hands) she tied it to a railing. The End.
Most women, I’d argue, naturally assume their contribution is a bit, well, crap. A bit of a shitty banner. What have you actually got to offer? And would it make any difference anyway?
Because, in that one moment – that briefest of stories – she became someone who made banners, she became someone with a message she was prepared to share with the world and she became someone who was willing to put herself out there.
There is a Shitty Banner story in all of us – for many, buried under the weight of fear and self-doubt, buried under all the stories of responsibilities and day-to-day drain of life. Most women, I’d argue, naturally assume their contribution is a bit, well, crap. A bit of a shitty banner. What have you actually got to offer? And would it make any difference anyway? Maybe someone’s already had that idea, or maybe they’d find a better way of saying it or doing it? You probably wouldn't be very good at it anyway. But our shitty banner is that faint voice of self-belief; it’s that toe in the water; it’s that old sheet from the airing cupboard that morphs into a statement of who you are and what you believe in.
And it’s the granting of permission. Creating that banner means you have given yourself permission – you can be that person, you are that person, go and hang a sheet from a railing with your heart written across! It doesn’t matter if it’s a sheet! Or the writing is a bit slanty! That’s who you are and want to be – allow yourself to be that person.
There were bigger and bolder banners, Lauren tells me. They’ll always be bigger and bolder banners, I say. But that’s the thing about shitty banners: they’ve got nothing to do with anyone else. Will we allow ourselves to sell up and move to Barcelona, or quit work and retrain as a criminal physiologist, or finally say no to the arsehole in your office? Will we be prepared to put what we care about out there, on a limb, not caring what others might say and might do? Will, as my wisest of all friends says, we get out of our own way?
Meeting Lauren is a story I told countless times in the following days and I began to prepare my own shitty banner. Unlike Lauren's, it’s still hidden in a rucksack and my hands are still too shaky to get it out. Not here, not yet. It still need crafting, altering, amending. But I’ve got my sheet. I’m adding the final touches. I’m almost there.
And so to Lauren: your shitty banner worked. It had a real impact. There’s another woman here who is about to get hers out, hands shaking, breath holding, too.