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Penny for a thought: Laurie Penny, 'Penny Red: Notes from the New Age of Dissent'

(Pluto, 2011; 224pp; £12.99)

Laurie Penny aka “Penny Red”, first grabbed my attention earlier this year with her heartfelt and well-constructed articles about the student protests. But it was her twitter feed on 27 March that confirmed me as a big fan. This was the day of the anti-cuts march that saw protests all over London. I don’t quite know how she did it, but Penny seemed to be everywhere, giving an honest and unique perspective that we never saw in the mainstream media.

So it’s an absolute pleasure to have been given Penny’s fine collection of articles as a gift, and an even greater pleasure to review them for Peace News. Some people are put off by Penny’s sometimes emotional writing, but I love her passion, wit and intelligence, which are all in evidence here. The pieces are separated into several sections. Part one is taken from her blog posts about the recent demonstrations – one even posted from the middle of the November student protest while she sheltered from flying glass. This is Penny at her most emotive, telling us what she saw and felt with clarity and compassion. I found the descriptions of shivering schoolgirls, youngsters burning placards to keep warm in kettles [police cordons] and being beaten by police, intensely moving. The fact that she isn’t afraid to write about the minority of protesters who were violent in later demonstrations, makes her journalism all the more trustworthy.

The remaining articles are more reflective, but no less angry. I particularly enjoyed the series of pieces addressing feminist issues. I sometimes feel that modern feminism has given in to mainstream culture, so it’s refreshing to see a young woman tackling plastic surgery, the Sun, burlesque and the fashion industry. Penny writes with a barely-controlled rage, but never loses her sense of humour. This is best illustrated in a discussion about vajazzling [ie the application of glitter and jewels to a woman’s waxed mons pubis] which she suggests is sold “as if what women really need to empower themselves is not education and meaningful work, but genitals that resemble a traumatic, intimate accident in a Claire’s accessory shop.”

Other sections look at policy (Atos benefits tests, education, internships) and culture (a nice series exploring the political ramification of particular works of art, fiction and film). She wraps up on a note of hope, with articles about inspiring people and movements such as Brian Haw, UK Uncut and the Really Free School.

This is an excellent collection for both the well-informed and the newbie activist. I may not always agree with Penny (she won’t get me approving the use of the word “cunt”, though I do admire her for trying) but I am always inspired and impressed by her. This is without doubt my book of the year. Buy it now. You won’t regret it.