A Time for Courage

April 7, 2019

One of the most alarming statements British politicians have made in recent days can be summarised as follows: if we don’t do Brexit and quickly, massive unrest will be the result.  To put it another way, this argument states that if we don’t give in to the demands of extremists, they will create havoc.  There is some evidence to support this point of view: recently, “pro-Brexit” sabotage devices were left on train tracks in Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire.

I recall the 2005 film “V for Vendetta”; when I first saw it, I found its premise somewhat far-fetched.   The idea that Britain, which had so long resisted the siren calls of extremists, would suddenly elect an upstart fascist party (called “Norsefire”) and surrender its liberties seemed pretty ridiculous.  On the other hand, as the eponymous character V reminded the public, they were confronted with a “myriad of problems”, including war and disease. 

An old saying reminds us that the difference between fiction and history is that fiction has to be believable.  Britain has ceded a great deal of power to the far right of the Conservative Party not because of any cataclysm but because of one gigantic policy mistake, namely, to run the 2016 referendum without any safeguards (e.g., a 60% threshold or a second confirmatory referendum).  Not everyone who voted Leave is a racist or extremist, however, extremists believe that Leave’s victory indicates that the country agrees with them.  Hence, they tend to mask their demands behind phrases such as “Will of the people”.

No one who has any serious expertise in economics, diplomacy or politics believes leaving the European Union will be good for Britain.  Already investment is freezing, and billions of pounds have been shifted abroad. The fragile fabric of the United Kingdom may be torn asunder: advocates of Brexit forget that Scotland, Northern Ireland, London and Gibraltar all voted solidly to remain. Britain is an international laughing stock: the New York Times ran an article suggesting Britain has lost its collective mind and there is little disagreement.  Our parliamentary debates are punctuated by cartoon characters such as Mark Francois who invoked Christ to blaspheme a measure intended to inject some sanity into the Brexit process.   The Conservatives continue to run scared of extremists, saying that we must do as they command, lest they bring more havoc.

But if we enact Brexit out of fear rather than logic, what happens afterwards?  The tell-tale sign of an extremist is their inability to be satisfied by meeting their demands.  The reason for this is straightforward: an extremist tilts towards windmills.  When utopia is not achieved, the simplest thing to do is to try and find another target, another obstacle in the way of perfection being achieved.  Today, it’s the European Union.  If we execute Brexit and things don’t get better, tomorrow’s target could be the immigrants who are already here.  They have already be singled out for abuse. After them, who knows who may be next?

There are disturbing precedents.  Comparisons to Hitler are frequently overblown.  I am not suggesting we are about to fall into the grip of fascism; however, it is worth noting how the Nazis got into power.  The Nazis did not win the German parliamentary election in November 1932, the last before they took power in January 1933: on the contrary, there was a 4 percent drop in their vote share.  The Communists achieved the biggest gains, based on a 2.54% swing.  In the aftermath, more traditional conservatives led by Franz von Papen decided to give in to Hitler and make him Chancellor, mainly in order to prevent the Communists from gaining power.  They also believed that they could not access mass support without working with the Nazis.

This was a grave error: the centre of politics shifted to a new extreme.  In the short run, German democracy and civil rights were uprooted; eventually, millions were murdered.  The Nazis did not build utopia: rather, they gave humanity a new and terrible knowledge of what horrors it was capable of committing.

I repeat: Britain is not in this space.  History rarely repeats in the same way; it is the patterns of history that are worth noting. Extremists put forward a proposition, more conventional politicians lose the will to stand and fight.   In the pursuit of a quiet life, the politicians think if they give in, at some point the extremists will get bored and disappear.  But political anger is not always sated by achieving one reform or another.  When the demand cannot be met, such as getting society to throw its gears into reverse to back into a golden age that never was, the anger will remain.  We already see signs of this in the illogical proposition that “No deal is no problem” and its advocates not being deterred by facts.   No matter what happens, there will be a hard core that will stay enraged.   Sometimes, it is the role of democratic politicians on all sides to say “no”, and to call out the demagogues for precisely what they are: peddlers of illusion and disappointment.  In an era still haunted by the murder of Jo Cox and death threats being spewed on the internet every day, courage seems to be shorter supply than usual, though there are exceptions such as Jess Phillips. However, if we don’t want to go down the well-worn path to a dreadful conclusion, we need to find many more avatars of courage.

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Brexit Blues

March 28, 2019

On the basis of indicative votes, we now know what Parliament wants, or rather, what it doesn’t want to do with Brexit, which is anything.  There is a distinct absence, a lack, a void.  It’s great for nihilists but no one else.  We are no nearer a resolution to Britain’s current crisis than we were previously. 

All this would be more acceptable if it didn’t have an impact on people outside of the Westminster bubble.  However, farmers think in 18-month cycles: can anyone tell them with certainty to where their goods will be sold and shipped in 2020? Can industrialists plan out production?  Can anyone starting out a business today know if they can hire specialists from Spain or Denmark in 6 months’ time, let alone a year? 

Uncertainty is the bane of investment: all investment is a calculated risk.  The risks teeter into unacceptable without knowledge of the marketplace or business environment.  Those who cheerfully advocate for a no-deal Brexit seem to lose this fact amidst their enthusiasm for burning bridges with our nearest trading partners. 

I have personal experience of what uncertainty is doing to the economy: I am presently unemployed and have been so for nearly 6 months.  Brexit is not the sole author of this misfortune, and indeed, I’m lucky compared to many.   Nevertheless, Brexit has added a layer of difficulty to my job search and employment history.

I joined a Dutch firm in 2016, just prior to the referendum.  At the time, this company was very well established in London: in some respects, it still is.  However, after the referendum, there began a slow shift, which was clearly an attempt to de-risk the situation.  My boss was based in London: in a restructure, her role was moved to Amsterdam and she was let go.  Similar moves occurred throughout the business.  As I looked around me in my office, I was keenly aware of colleagues who had come to London from all over the European Union; their roles were quietly and slowly shifted or eliminated.  The centre of gravity tilted away from London, taking employment and employees away with it.

Eventually, I changed jobs.  Fortunately, my new role was with a company whose main focus was the UK.  However, there were risks there too: materials necessary for the company’s production were stockpiled in anticipation of trade possibly being cut off.  Furthermore, my role was made redundant after 6 months: the company moved the team I had assembled from working on a riskier area, which I represented, to a more established one.   The word “Brexit” was not mentioned: it didn’t need to be.  When uncertainty becomes part of the landscape, it shifts a business’s calculations, whether consciously or unconsciously.   Fear of the unknown pushes decisions more towards hunkering down, rather than expansion or trying new things.  I was granted a reasonable settlement: I am nearly at the end of it.

The job hunt, to say the least, has been daunting. I have a PhD in Creative Writing; I am towards the end of my studies for a second PhD in Engineering.  I have worked in IT for 23 years, leading teams which have developed e-commerce solutions.  I have worked in project management for over 20 years.  I am a skilled communicator and writer.  I have German and Dutch language skills, management experience, plenty of good references.   I am an expert in online communities. For the past 6 months, I have sat down nearly every day, gotten on my proverbial bike, and looked for work.  I have had some interviews: nothing has worked out.  I have noticed that the number of opportunities has been shrinking.  I see this on a day to day basis: as risk heaps up, so does the unwillingness to invest in new ventures and people.  More and more, it seems like firms are just replacing vital personnel that they lose through natural attrition.  I don’t recall a job hunt where as many positions I’ve applied for have simply been withdrawn because they decided not to proceed with hiring at all.

I must add a vital caveat: I was a witness in a high-profile court case, and thus anyone Googling me may find that reference daunting, even though I did nothing wrong.  While that might explain some of the rapidity in rejections I’ve received, it doesn’t explain the overall apparent contraction in the number of roles.   I should add that Brexit is not the only reason, but it is an important factor which is making the entire business environment much sourer.

I know that I am fortunate.  I have prospects; my education and experience should see me through eventually.  My family will help me to the extent they can.  However, not everyone is as lucky as I am: what happens to them?  Brexit has not made their lives any better; the dithering in Parliament is toxic, slipping a slow poison into the economy’s bloodstream.  It doesn’t need to manifest in anything as dramatic as a full-blown crash.  Rather, it alters the course of investment; money and production are shifted abroad.  People are forced to accept lower wages and / or more uncertainty.  Businesses rein in their investment strategies.  Then lo and behold, we find that we have less than what thought we did, we find that the economy is less than what we planned it to be.  There is no £350 million per week for the NHS, and companies wonder why they should come here when they get clearer access to the European Union’s market by investing in business-friendly Ireland or the Netherlands.  Young talent from all over the Continent will then go to Amsterdam and Dublin.  London fades.  Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool also diminish.  When that occurs, where will those wealthy individuals who led the headlong charge out of the European Union be?  What comfort will be empty slogans such as “Take back control”?  Will anyone say to the likes of John Redwood, who complained that Remainers had something against freedom, “freedom to do what”?  How many lives will be impacted before the final reckoning comes?  What will the cost be, and who will pay?  I suspect it won’t be the Jacob Rees Moggs of this world, but rather it will be the warehouse operator in Leeds, the engineer on the factory floor in Swindon, and yes, the IT professional in Cambridgeshire.  We are all going to pay or are paying for someone else’s fever dream; the best we can hope for is that we all wake up before we fork out any more than we already have.

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Revisiting “Four Weddings and Funeral”

March 25, 2019

I remember the first time I saw “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.  I was visiting the Cheshire town of Wilmslow, and it was being shown in an old movie theatre in the centre of town.  I speculated that the theatre hadn’t changed much since the 1920’s: the seats were worn, and the floors were sticky from spilled soft drinks and sugary popcorn kernels.

I had heard a great deal about “Four Weddings”, but not being a romantic comedy sort of person at the age of 21, I wasn’t the first in the queue to go see it.  However, the newspapers and television were all proclaiming its brilliance to the point my curiosity was sparked.

I found the film absolutely charming.  In 1994, when the film was released, I was still relatively new to living in the UK. I had some experience in matters of the heart, but these were largely tinged with regret and disappointment. I had just graduated from university and was both optimistic and uncertain about what course life would take.

Four Weddings presented a hopeful thesis, that somehow knowledge of one’s true love would arrive like a thunderbolt.  Once that person had been found, life would never be the same.  The path of life which had hitherto been relatively lonely would be traversed, hand in hand, with the other.  Looking back, I realise some of its elements were more subversive than they appeared at first glance: John Hannah’s and Simon Callow’s characters were in a loving same-sex relationship described as a “marriage”.  This did not disturb the heterosexual characters, rather, their love was seen as having equal weight and worth.  I don’t recall this being particularly controversial at the time.

Four Weddings also shows a time when “normal” people could live in London: Hugh Grant’s character doesn’t appear to be well off.  He can’t afford a reliable car and lives with his sister Scarlett.  Scarlett drives an old Mini.  Yet, they seem to be living in or near the centre of the city.  London seemed like a place where one could experience life, rather than the overstuffed pressure cooker it is now.

Overall, it was a happier time, certainly a gentler time, perhaps a less divided epoch, a period when we were more receptive to romantic thoughts and feelings.  Somehow, it didn’t seem silly; love was possible, if not certain.  We could be lifted out of conventionality by its grace.  All we needed to do was to be open to the possibility, wait, and it would come.

Time moved on, but the movie remained embedded in my brain: its theme song, a cover of “Love is All Around” by “Wet Wet Wet” would ignite memories of the film whenever it played on the radio.   I have loved, been in love, and been made eloquent and struck dumb by it.  It would be lovely to say that the thesis of Four Weddings was true in its entirety; however, fiction often dissolves in the acid of time and real life. 

Nevertheless, there was something wonderful about the recent 14-minute short film entitled, “One Red Nose Day and a Wedding” which was made for charity.  The director of the original film, Richard Curtis, gathered a surprising number of the original cast, including Andie McDowell (Carrie), Hugh Grant (Charles), and Kristin Scott Thomas (Fiona).  At first I didn’t recognise James Fleet (Tom) behind a thick beard.   Ms. McDowell is now aged 60; Hugh Grant is 58.  Nevertheless, they wear their years lightly.  Carrie and Charles are portrayed as having a daughter, played by Lily James.  She is marrying another young woman played by Alicia Vikander; Ms. Vikander’s character is Fiona’s daughter.  I smiled when this plot came to light: it showed the premise of the original film had kept up with the times, that love was what mattered, regardless of what form it took.  They had retreated somewhat from the original “thunderbolt” thesis: instead, the characters described knowing each other, and connecting in love when they held hands.  The word “thunderbolt” wasn’t used.  The ceremony was presided over by the awkward Father Gerald (Rowan Atkinson) who perhaps represented the previous era, as he had comedic-levels of difficulty getting his brain and words around two women marrying each other. The wedding was followed by a hesitant if sentimental speech by Charles, interrupted by his brother David (played by David Bower) providing cues in sign language.  The scene dissolved into the characters dancing, a whirl of white flowers and linen curtains. 

This visit to the past and present seemed all too brief, the characters left the stage too soon.  It would have been interesting to find out how love endured given all that time and fate had thrown at them.  Did Charles and Carrie have to go find a house in a quiet suburb somewhere, as London became too expensive?  Fiona was portrayed as dating Prince Charles at the end of the film: what happened?  Was Ms. Vikander’s character a result of that relationship?  Who in the world did Anna Chancellor’s character (‘Duckface’) marry, and why did he look like a latter-day version of Dr. Strangelove?   These, sadly, have to fall into the realms of speculation.  It was a sketch for charity, after all, and not intended to expand much upon the plotlines laid out in 1994.  I doubt a full sequel will ever be made, nor do I think we’ll pass this way again.  Perhaps it’s just as well: this is a harder, less sentimental age.   Weddings are more manufactured than ever; with rare exceptions, love appears to have been drowned in popular culture by the altogether less committal just “fancying each other”. 

I’ve arrived at the age of 46.  I have seen enough of life and love to know that it’s never quite as simple as one hopes.  The path I’ve followed is jagged, pockmarked with potholes and blocked at times by high mountains; it sometimes feels like I’ve made terrible mistakes just as often as good decisions.  But perhaps the obstacles presented by real life mean we desperately need the gentility that Four Weddings still represents: the capacity for one’s heart to be touched, for belief to be reaffirmed.  I still feel that desire swell whenever I hear “Wet Wet Wet” proclaim that “love is all around”, and see the first flowers bloom in the spring, hinting that it is wedding season.  Perhaps one day we will return to a kinder time when we have more space and capacity for sentiment.  I hope so.

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The Decline and Fall of the Tory Empire

March 24, 2019

The last emperor of the Western Roman Empire was arguably Romulus Augustulus, whose reign began in 475 and ended in 476.  He was deposed by the Germanic barbarian chieftain Odoacer; according to legend, the warlord “took pity on (Augustulus’s) youth” and let him live. 

I’ve always wondered what the people around Romulus Augustulus thought; did they and the people who lived in the Roman Empire believe that the regime would revive and continue?  Could they not see that their world was coming to an end?  Or could they simply not conceive that there was an alternative to Rome?

Much of the leadership of the Conservative Party has supposedly been educated in the classics; Jacob Rees Mogg has used Latin on Twitter, Boris Johnson inappropriately used the word “Carthaginian” recently to describe Theresa May’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement.  I wonder if their myopia is similar to those around Romulus Augustulus: their world is coming to an end and they don’t realise it.

The Conservative Party has some young, talented MPs: however, they are far too liberal for the party they represent.  They tend to be anti-Brexit, and thus despised by the party’s rank-and-file membership.  It says something that two of them, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston, felt the need to abandon the Tories for the new Independent Group.  What remains is fiercely Eurosceptic and damn the consequences.

The consequences for the future of the Conservatives will be dire: young people are by and large Remain voters.  They generally do not vote Conservative; the Conservatives have given them no reason to change their opinion.  Promising to fill gaps in food supply with high fructose corn syrup and chlorinated chicken may have something to do with this.  It says much about Leave being an enthusiasm of a previous generation that they brought forth Tim Martin, the owner of Wetherspoon’s, who looks rather like “Father Jack” from “Father Ted”, as their spokesperson to appeal to young people.  Those young people who do support Leave appear to be dodgy, such as Darren Grimes who was fined £20,000 for helping illegally shift funds around in support of the Leave campaign.  Furthermore, there is no reliable economist who believes that leaving the EU will brighten the prospects of the young.   Indeed, they may diminish them, and on a personal as well as financial level. 

I have had the pleasure of teaching university courses: a number of my British students have formed relationships with partners that came from the European Union.  It was entirely possible for say, an English student to fall in love with a Polish one, and for them to live together in a cramped city bedsit for 6 months to see if their relationship was sufficient to withstand the accommodation.  Only true love survives sharing a bathroom and being elbow to elbow in a grimy kitchenette on a consistent basis.   Having endured, these couples would marry (or not), and in many cases, go on to have happy lives.  By dropping out of the European Union, this scenario has become more difficult.  Couples who already are together have had to fill out extensive forms so one or the other can remain in the cramped bedsit and leave their half-empty bottle of shampoo next to the drain.  Young people will remember this on top of the other more practical difficulties: finding their blue passport requires going into the longer queue, finding jobs are scarcer, finding that good food is more expensive, garbage food is all that can be afforded.   Why would they vote for the party that visited this misfortune upon them?  Why would they vote Conservative?

Brexit is only part of the picture: it is clear that the outer limits of free market ideology were reached long ago.  The Economist ran a cover not long ago decrying the “Rise of Millennial Socialism”.  There is a reason why Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn appeal to the young: return to the couple in the cramped city bedsit.  Their prospects of being to save up enough for a home are bleak, and they are saddled with debt to pay for the education which enabled them to get a job which paid for the bedsit at all.  Meanwhile, they can easily see how wealth and power is being concentrated into a smaller group of people at the apex of the economic pyramid.  These new economic overlords do not feel the same sense of obligation as the “Robber Barons” of the 19th century did to give back to society in the form of public works: for example, thanks to Andrew Carnegie, we have Carnegie Hall and Carnegie Mellon University.  There is no Bezos University being built in the Lincolnshire fens.

It’s also not a free market.  A free market implies that a superior product would overtake an inferior one once it was available.  If someone had a better idea than Amazon, they would find it tough going to get it deployed: first, they wouldn’t have the scale.  Second, they would likely have to pay their full tax bill, as opposed to Amazon which can shift its assets across the world to avoid paying anything.  If the entrepreneur with a better idea than Amazon failed, the heavy hand of the state would be upon them to find any paid employment; Amazon gets courted and feted by governments begging for their investment.  Rather than a “free” market, ours is a captive system, which was heavy on the laissez faire, to the point that it ignored lessons from statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt who taught that capitalism needed to be tightly controlled, lest the public suffer.  Never mind: the economic policies of the Conservatives appear to be based on the premise of paying lip service to the worries of the young and then promptly doing nothing about them.  Again, why would any young person vote for this?

The Tories may comfort themselves with the thought that as people get older, they tend to become more conservative in outlook.  That is more likely to be true in a scenario of younger people settling down and accumulating wealth: the aforementioned policies of the Conservative Party are making that nearly impossible.  Again, there is no incentive.

I once told a Conservative that Brexit had meant that they had eaten their future all in one sitting.  He didn’t care for my saying this, but he didn’t argue.  I have to wonder if someone at one of Romulus Augustulus’ feasts stood up from the table and said, “Stop, stop, cannot you not see our world is dying?”  If they did, I haven’t yet found a reference to it.  I suspect that such a person would have been a minority, surrounded by people who were still picking the choicest bits off the carcass of the regime that was perishing in front of them.  Eventually, there is nothing left to consume; Odoacer comes knocking at the door and doesn’t always take pity.  Time runs out, things pass.  The end of the Tory Empire is in sight: yes, the blue rosettes are still pinned to lapels, the MPs still hold their seats, they still have grand offices of state and are whisked to meetings in large black automobiles.  But what is certain today turns to dust unless one is willing to adapt to the present and future.  The Conservative Party has shown no willingness to do so.  Sic gloria transit mundi.

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Explaining Brexit

March 18, 2019

New Yorker Cover

Sometimes it takes an outsider’s point of view to see a situation more clearly.  Recently, the New Yorker magazine starkly showed how the United Kingdom is now viewed by the rest of the world.  On its cover was a rendering of Big Ben: its venerable dial was open, and a hysterical cuckoo had popped out.  The Mother of Parliaments appears to be losing the plot: it’s clear what it doesn’t want, it’s less clear what it does want.  Theresa May is adhering to Einstein’s definition of insanity, repeating the same process and yet expecting different results.

I have lived in the United Kingdom since 1988; I recall the Poll Tax riots.  I remember the protests against the Iraq War.  I don’t recall Britain being ever so angry and divided: Leave versus Remain, old versus young, city versus rural.  I also don’t recall a time when facts were ever so secondary to raw emotion, particularly on the Leave side.

How did we get here?  Why is our political system simultaneously in freefall and meltdown?

I think we can begin by examining what has happened to the global economy since (approximately) the late 1970’s.  It used to be that if you didn’t have a university degree, you could get a job at a factory, and that factory would give you a decent wage for working on assembly line, putting together anything from cars, to television sets, to widgets. Working this way, you could sustain, more or less, a reasonable lifestyle.  Britain’s inability to control inflation eroded this, however, up until the middle of the 1970’s, most working people experienced a steady improvement in their standard of living.  The last time inequality went down in the United Kingdom was under Harold Wilson’s Labour government.

The world changed: deregulation and privatisation were factors.  Also, vast new swathes of labour, from China to Eastern Europe, opened up due to capitalist reforms and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Another key element is technology: thanks to robots, it became possible to produce more stuff with fewer workers.  The remaining workers needed better skills and more education. 

Governments, blinded by the idea that globalisation and technology are good for everyone, rushed headlong into programmes to stimulate both.  Meanwhile, the ability to achieve the material progress to which people had become accustomed slipped away.  The promise underlining nearly every Western society was, “Our children will have it better than we do”: while these kids have smartphones, this promise of progress is largely no longer true.  People perceived to be elites told those disadvantaged by change that there was no alternative.  Anger was a result.

Meanwhile, not everyone had it so good under the previous order. They began to demand change: ethnic minorities, women, the LGBTQ community, and others all began to push for their rights.  The laws relaxed, eased and moved in the direction of equality, albeit equality appears to be a journey rather than a destination.  Those bewildered by the collapse of the previous economic order may have associated social changes with the deterioration of their economic situation.  This impression was probably enhanced by the same elites saying again in the name of equality and justice, there was no alternative; in that instance, the elites were right.

Monty Python once illustrated the distance between the elites and those resistant to change by deploying a curious inversion: they did a skit which showed a typical Northern scene. In it, Graham Chapman is drinking a glass of ale, dressed in braces and a sporting a working man’s mien.  Terry Jones is dressed as a frumpy housewife.  There is a knock on the door: Eric Idle shows up wearing a grey suit and tie.  His hair is long.  It quickly emerges that it is Graham Chapman who is part of the elite, albeit speaking with a strong Yorkshire accent. He has written a play about a “nymphomaniac homosexual killer involved in the murder of a well-known Scottish footballer”. It’s due to be performed at the National Theatre.  Eric Idle has just come from Barnsley, where he works as a coal miner.  Chapman’s character suffers from a dramatic seizure of writer’s cramp; Idle’s character retreats out the exit shouting that there is “more to life than culture…there is good honest sweat”.

If anything, the distance between these two Britains has grown since the sketch was first performed.  Those left behind became more susceptible to the siren songs of demagogues: Vote Leave promised that they could “take back control” via the magic of departing the European Union.  The European Union has admittedly not helped itself by being a rather dull and distant institution: generating rules for regulating trade, as would be necessary in any long-term economic relationship, is not a likely recipe for generating affection. The British are anarchic souls as it is, and bristle against rules they perceive to be unfair; tabloids looking for cheap headlines exaggerated and distorted the impact of the EU’s rules.  The vicious brew boiled and overflowed in June 2016. 

Now we are met with reality versus expectation: Vote Leave’s promises cannot be achieved.  There is no magic formula for “taking back control”: the EU is not the source of the problem.  Yet, some feel compelled to follow this bitter illogic to the end.  Others want to say, “stop the madness”.  The noxious mixture is not soluble; hence Parliament cannot make up its mind, whether to indulge fantasy to breaking point, or gather its courage and tell the public they’ve been sold a pup.

Theresa May has only made matters worse.  If she had any sense, she would have realised the folly of trying to bring about the impossible.  Furthermore, as neither David Cameron nor the leaders of Vote Leave had a viable Brexit plan, she could have said to Liam Fox, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, et al, and said, “Go away and form a viable Brexit plan; if you can come up with one which will satisfy the country and pass muster with the EU, then I’ll trigger Article 50.”  The end result of this would have been likely some squawking, but nevertheless, it would have kicked the issue into the long grass for a sufficient amount of time for the heat to dissipate. Furthermore, she could have introduced measures under existing freedom of movement rules, such as Belgium has, requiring any EU migrant to secure a job within 3 months else they have to leave.  This sense of control would probably have the effect of taking even more heat out of the issue before May was able to cancel Brexit altogether.

Instead, she chose to trigger Article 50 without any idea of what kind of agreement would emerge at the end.  This is rather akin to jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, thinking that there must be a haystack somewhere below.  She has run in fear of the far right of her own party which is still trying to catch unicorns with a butterfly net and insists that the mythical beast is just over the next hill.  She is also fearful of the DUP, unreconstructed doctrinaire religious fanatics directly from the 16th century who merely have upgraded their wardrobes.

So here we are.  No one in charge has the courage to call out the situation for the madness that it is.  Until someone does, the insanity will continue.  One of the oldest democracies in the world has been laid low by its failure to deal with the consequences of change, and its inability to summon up the courage to stand up for facts versus feelings.   The consequences are still being counted and not just in terms of the economy.  Scotland is being dragged out against its will: that may very well tip the balance in favour of it becoming independent.  Northern Ireland may opt to join the Republic: this is unlikely to be an easy process, and I suspect that the men of violence will come back if it happens.  Gibraltar will be isolated.  In short, things will get worse, and the United Kingdom we know and have loved with all its imperfections and problems may be no more.  Is it worth it?

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Transparently Love

March 15, 2019

People Holding Hands

I am not a fan of the Amazon series “Transparent”; I live in a country whose government is presently going through a nervous breakdown, so watching the neuroses of others played out on a screen is an unlikely form of entertainment.  Also, the revelations about Jeffrey Tambor’s conduct towards women makes the programme less than comfortable viewing; I’m also uncertain that a non-trans actor should be playing a trans role.

Nevertheless, there is one part of one episode that I saw which deserves praise, because through words and acting it captures something increasingly rare: genuine tenderness.

In Series 3, in an episode entitled “The Open Road”, the son of Jeffrey Tambor’s character is on a road trip with a trans woman (played by Trace Lysette) of his acquaintance.  They are on a strange sort of pilgrimage: the son has a son of his own, whose mother just committed suicide.  He’s going to break the bad news.  Ms. Lysette’s character is there to provide moral support. 

During the journey, they tire and pull over to swap places.  As they do, they spot a disused playground in the distance.  They quickly decide to break in. 

Chemistry and sexual tension between the two characters had been on a low simmer to that point, but it is in the playground that it begins to boil and overflow.  The two characters, who are ostensibly on a very serious and grave mission, play like children: shouting down slides, running with abandon through sandboxes, climbing monkey bars.  The regression into childhood perhaps is what uncorks the potential for tenderness.  Adults grow a thickened skin, become wary of sentiment, often lose the ability to play, and thus find it difficult to shed enough reserve to be genuine.  In this era, perhaps we are too baked into our shells to be childlike and surrender to wonder.  In this scene, the actors do so.  In particular, it is obvious in Ms. Lysette’s longing glances at her counterpart, the innocent smiles, and then eventually their shared kiss, hesitant at first, and followed by shared looks of revelation and joy.  In that all too fleeting moment, it’s clear: the characters feel for each other.

Of course, this being “Transparent”, the scene is entirely ruined.  Ms. Lysette’s character is the much braver of the two; she confides that she has HIV but there is medication available for those in long term relationships to mitigate the risks.  It’s clear that her prospective partner is too neurotic and squeamish to countenance the possibility of something long term, and certainly not something short term with someone who has a disease.  The delicate moment shatters, the mood is lost, the two break apart, ostensibly never to come back together.

What makes the writing and acting particularly beautiful – and this is a word I use advisedly – is that it shows something about love.  Not just how delicate it can be, but also, how at its core is the concept of acceptance.  Ms. Lysette’s character bared all her secrets; what the character of the son couldn’t do is see that as a way of saying “I love you: I accept you as you are, neuroses, sadness, and all.  Please accept me as I am: love me too.”  The scene disintegrates because the son lacks the perspicacity or maturity to do so.  

Nevertheless, it is instructive: so much of romantic writing in books, plays and movies, focus on a magic moment: somehow a realisation occurs that the other is the right person, the intended one.  However, perhaps “Transparent” can teach us that romantic scenes should be focused on the acceptance of another, which is a far greater statement.  Acceptance means that the other is taken wholesale, with their virtues and flaws: dressed to the nines, and in a t-shirt with holes in it, stumbling unkempt to the bathroom at 3 AM.  It means one is accepted for remembering to bring flowers home for an anniversary, and for forgetting to pick up milk from the corner store on a regular day.  It means that in good health or ill, the person is accepted: whether their nose is running, or they just completed a run. 

In just this brief scene, “Transparent” brought this to life: it was daubed in the vivid colours of an afternoon underneath the western sky.  It was beautiful writing and acting, and for a shimmering moment, it showed what a glow of romantic hope in a weary world can look like.  For that, the cast and the producers should be complimented.

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On the Campaign Trail

April 8, 2016

Rosette & ClipboardThe dark clouds obscured the twilight. Rain was falling steadily, large drops bounced off the hood of my olive green jacket. I accidentally cut my finger: it didn’t hurt, but it was one of those irritating lacerations that wouldn’t stop bleeding. I covered it with my thumb as I grasped my stack of leaflets tightly. My colleague and I continued our steady pace up the street: folding the unbloodied leaflets, approaching the door, stuffing the newsletter through the letterbox.

My colleagues and I have been doing this since the selection meeting in January: gathering after work on evenings and weekends, grabbing a clipboard and leaflets, saying “Let’s go”, and then knocking on doors or dropping newsletters off. Some of these occasions are blessed by the sun and warmth: one afternoon, the breeze was gentle, the street was bathed in golden light, the sky was a sharp, crisp blue. A young lady who was unloading shopping from her minivan asked us to convince her to vote for us. By the end of the discussion, she gave each member of the team a hug. The hawthorn was in bloom and the birds were singing.

Some of these afternoons have been dark and cold; ferocious winds blew us down the street, the rain saturated the upper layer of the leaflet stacks.  Sometimes there’s the cool indifference of the apathetic: “no, I don’t vote, they’re all the same”. Sometimes this apathy is militant: “I don’t believe in voting.”

But we put on our jackets and trainers and meet again, collect our materials, take a deep breath and say “Let’s go”. Yes, some may not believe in the process, but the process exists nonetheless: surely it’s wiser to take part in it? After all, even the apathetic pay for government. Perhaps meeting us and talking will crack that particular ice: in many instances, I have heard residents say they haven’t met a representative of local government in over five years.

Again, take a deep breath and say “let’s go”. Each conversation is a job interview: yes, you may not agree with Jeremy Corbyn on everything. However, this election is about who you think will most effectively represent you at the local level, to get the traffic sorted, the schools improved, the litter cleared and the police more visible. If we’re elected, this is just the start of a change: we want to be effective representatives, to govern well, to be your voice. We will work hard to be worthy of your trust. We will work hard to make this city a fairer, better place to live. Sometimes hugs accrue in response, sometimes a smile and a nod, sometimes the door is shut. But we meet again and carry on, the team revisiting every inch of the ward which we know so well: from the community centre which was converted out of a former farm, to the large supermarket bustling with Sunday shoppers, to the new build homes living in the shadow of a Victorian water tower. We know the grand homes that circle the main park in a crescent, the flats with the beige letterboxes, the modest terraces on tree lined avenues. We’ve traded hellos with the fellows stuffing kebab shop menus after us and chatted with elderly residents in their homes and spoken with the young mums pushing baby carriages. We’ve talked about everything from antisocial behaviour to zebra crossings, recorded the concerns, thought about what we can do if we’re successful. Afterwards, there’s mugs of tea and perhaps if we’re a bit indulgent, chocolate digestives to go along with them.

We’re a little under one month out: whenever possible, we get together and keep going. Take a deep breath and proceed up the next street. This city is our home and we want to make it even better: how can we help? What can we do to make government, that often unseen, yet powerful influence, be more useful and efficient? The rain may come, the winds may blow, but we’re still out there: jackets on, red rosettes affixed, next time with bandages at the ready tucked into the bottom of trouser pockets. If we’re successful, it will not stop there. The leaves will eventually turn colour and fall, intermittent snow may drop from leaden skies after homes are decked out for Christmas but we’ll still be out on those streets: democracy after all doesn’t finish after voting, rather, it continues via the representatives listening, learning, relaying.

Get together, for “by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”, and keep going. My red trainers will probably need to be replaced soon and holes are showing up in my jumper. Cuts quickly heal and fortunately being in the rain and cold seems to have boosted my immune system. Despite the vigour I feel, I’ve been asked why I’m doing this, usually when I’ve ended up particularly rain-sodden or windswept: after all, I’m devoting what little was left of my free time to this endeavour, and if I’m successful, I will be giving up even more. My reasons are straightforward: if we don’t take part in democracy, it dies. Indeed, we’re seeing signs of terrible rot in the pervasive inequality as exemplified by the Panama Papers: if we don’t apply the corrective of our votes, a two tier society will only take firmer root.  Certainly, winning a local election won’t solve the problem by itself, but it can be a first step. While perfect might not be achievable, better certainly is. Things can be run more efficiently, effectively and fairly.  In that hope, I’ll keep meeting with my colleagues, we’ll proceed down the ward’s streets, talking, stuffing leaflets, communicating, connecting. There will be more mugs of tea. Then we’ll plan for tomorrow.

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Bernie Sanders and the Half-Breed Blowhard

February 1, 2016

Author’s note: recent comments by Donald Trump’s spokesperson about other politicians being “half-breeds” reminded me of how the “Death Eaters” in the Harry Potter series focused on the necessity of having “pure blood”; apparently J.K. Rowling thought the same:

JK Rowling Quote 

Ironically, Trump’s mother was born in Scotland, hence he’s also a “half-breed”. The following story arose from ruminating on this further.

Bernie and TrumpBernie never became accustomed to the noise of the bus engine. He had rolled up a grey acrylic blanket and pressed it up against the cool window and then lay his head on it. Though his eyes were shut, he couldn’t sleep. Every time the bus accelerated, the engine revved, and the resulting vibration shook the entire vehicle.

The bus revved yet again. Bernie grimaced. He knew, in principle, how the engine worked: fossil fuel flowed into the engine, combusted, and pistons moved up and down in response. More carbon was pushed into the atmosphere and the world suffocated a little bit more.

Bernie winced. He wondered if anyone would observe him sleeping: perhaps the small flock of journalists or his staff? Certainly, there was Megan, his aide: she wore power suits and cream blouses and her auburn hair was so straight as to seem like it had been pressed with a steam iron. She seemed to be there whenever he opened his eyes, telling him about some appointment or another. With his eyes shut, he knew, he was just another old man, asleep and dreaming.

The engine revved once more. Bernie was tempted to open his eyes and look out at the scenery. However, this was western Ohio, and he knew that all he would see were endless flat horizons, a few homes, and only a few trees just beginning to be touched by autumn’s bright colours. Winds flicked at the dry stubble of harvested corn.

He sighed. In his younger days transport was so much easier. He had a Nimbus 1000 broom tucked away in his closet, next to his collection of faded white canvas sneakers. He’d open the closet, extend out his hand and the broom would rush to be grasped by him. Involuntarily, Bernie would smile. Then he’d open the window to his bedroom, breathe in the cool night air, hop on, and then fly out towards the smoky Manhattan skyline.

“If you want to lead a Muggle life, you have to live like a Muggle,” a memory whispered.

Bernie fell into sleep fully and the grey mists around the memory lifted. He could see a face framed by a long grey beard. The accent was British: English? The brown eyes twinkled. The man wore ornately woven silver grey robes that flowed to the floor.

“Yes, Professor Dumbledore,” Bernie had replied. He was seated at a wooden desk; his crimson and gold tie was loose around his neck. His wand, made of polished cedar with a hippogriff feather core, rested in front of him alongside an open Potions book. He knew that his worn and dog-eared copy of “Democracy in America” was tucked into the pocket of his brown leather satchel resting at his feet.

“You can do great things, Bernie,” the Professor continued, “special things, even things that are seen as magical…but they don’t have to be magic.”

Bernie had nodded in reply. When was this? It was a very long time ago, to be sure. It must have been his third or fourth year at Hogwarts. His memory extended further back to a day when an owl had alighted on the windowsill of his family’s apartment in Brooklyn. The window was open, the endless noise of traffic and honking horns rose from the city as did the scent of burning fuel. Golden sunlight bounced off the buttermilk coloured walls of the kitchen. Bernie had been sitting at the table that had a red and white checked cloth covering it, fishing out the last Corn Flake and the final drops of milk out of a white ceramic bowl with an oversized spoon. He’d heard the flutter of wings and turned to see where the sound had come from: the owl had light brown feathers and was clutching a parchment envelope in its beak. It blinked its big dark eyes, waiting.

“Papa,” a voice said. It was his older brother Larry. He too was finishing up his cereal: he had curly brown hair, wore a grey shirt and was pointing at the bird with his spoon.

Papa put down his copy of the New York Times: his silver wire frame glasses were perched on the end of his nose. He looked at the owl.

“Ah, it’s come,” Papa said mildly. He got up and went over to the owl and took the envelope.

“Thank you,” he said to the bird. The owl dipped its head and flew off towards Manhattan. Papa cracked the red wax seal on the letter and read it. The sunlight shone through the parchment, illuminating delicate black calligraphy.

“What’s going on, Papa?” Bernie had asked.

“It’s a letter, Bernie…you’re going to school.”

“P.S. 197?”

Papa had chuckled. “No, Bernie…not there.” Mama looked at him: her deep brown eyes were downcast.

Papa told him that he was a wizard. Mama wasn’t one, so Papa had decided to lead the “Muggle life” in Brooklyn.

“What does Muggle mean?” Bernie had asked.

“Non-magical,” Mama had interjected. There was a dissonant note in her voice; it was usually so musical.

Muggle. Bernie didn’t like the word. Surely we were all equal.

Papa told him other things. The old cherry wood wardrobe with the slightly cracked mirror and the tightly locked door in the spare bedroom was a portal to England.  Don’t worry, Bernie was told, Larry would be there to help him get settled.  A hat would be placed on his head and he’d be placed into a “house”; really with his brains he should get Ravenclaw like Larry did.  Professor Dumbledore was the best headmaster there had ever been; you’ll recognise him, he looks a bit like Rabbi Silverstein.

That September, there had been the stepping into the wardrobe with Larry, the darkness, the scent of dust and mustiness, the slight whooshing sound, and stepping out into a London morning from a broom cupboard.   Bernie was wide eyed: he looked up and saw the sun gleaming through the glass and iron roof.

“King’s Cross Station,” Larry told him. “Come on.” They ran towards a giant black and red train, hissing with steam. Kids in black robes and coloured ties, carrying huge amounts of luggage were talking with parents in strange accents. Birds were in cages. Cats meowed.

“Come on,” Larry repeated. He produced two tickets from his pocket: they were also made of parchment, stamped on in crude black letters, “Hogwarts Express”. Larry and Bernie jumped onto the train and hustled their way down the corridor; after a quick search, they found an empty compartment. The compartment smelled like an old library to Bernie, with that slight vanilla tinge of ancient books.   The other kids filed onto the train, laughing, jabbering, talking. A whistle blew. Bernie pressed his face up to the window.

“We’re about to leave,” Larry explained.

A young girl knocked on the compartment door. She seemed to be about Bernie’s age and had frizzy red hair. She wore a similar outfit to Bernie: black gown, white shirt, black necktie. Larry gestured: come in. She nodded, opened the door, shut it behind her, and sat opposite Bernie.

What big brown eyes she has, Bernie thought.

“Hi,” Bernie said.

“Hello,” she said in her strange accent, “I’m Molly. Molly Prewett. Who are you?”

“Bernie,” he replied.  “…this is my brother Larry.”

Larry gave her a small wave.

“Bernie,” she repeated. “Where are you from?”

“Brooklyn.”

“Where’s that?”

“New York. America.”

“I’ve never been to America.”

“I’ve never been to…where are we going?”

“Scotland. ”

“Yeah.”

“Do you know what house you want to get into?”

“Not really…Larry is in Ravenclaw, he’s really smart…I don’t really know much about the others.”

Molly looked down. “I’m hoping for Gryffindor.   My parents were in it.”

“Where are they?”

Molly met Bernie’s gaze. Her eyes glistened. “They couldn’t make it today.”

Bernie shifted slightly in his seat. “So what’s so good about Gryffindor?”

Larry spoke up. “It’s for the recklessly brave people.”

“Courageous, one might say,” Molly interjected.

Larry smirked.

“I don’t think I’m that brave,” Bernie said.

Molly reached across and grasped his hand; Bernie nearly jumped. “I think you could be, Bernie,” she said.

“Senator?”

No, don’t disturb me now, Bernie thought.

“Senator?” More insistent this time, he noted.

All right.

Bernie opened his eyes.

“Yes, Megan?” he asked.

“We’re just pulling into Dayton, sir. Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“That’d be great, thank you. Black, no sugar.”

Megan proceeded gingerly down the bus to get the drink. Bernie stretched out his arms. A slight click. He could have said a charm and made all his joints supple again.

“If you want to lead a Muggle life, you have to live like a Muggle…”

Yeah. No magic. Or at least not that kind.

“Megan!” he shouted down the bus, “please get me an aspirin while you’re at it!”

Bernie had been to a lot of universities over the past 18 months.   They mostly fit into the same pattern: the carefully trimmed lawns, the main administration building suitably grand, often with Romanesque pillars, inspiring the standard issue awe. After the use of an Obliviate charm to wipe out his magical past, he’d gone to the University of Chicago: he was just another skinny kid with glasses, wearing blue jeans and an old sweater and carrying a dog-eared copy of “Democracy of America” in his bag. He’d become another student. Life carried on.

The bus pulled up in front of the auditorium, the brakes screeched. Bernie got up and pulled his grey wool jacket on around him. He felt the slight bump from his inside pocket against his chest. His wand was too potent to be hidden anywhere else.

“We’re here, Senator,” Megan said. Bernie nodded.

“All right, let’s do this,” Bernie said, clapping his hands together. Staffers, invariably young, bright eyed, fresh faced all looked at him and smiled. The boss was going to do this. He was going to turn the tide.

If only I was so confident, Bernie thought. It was like America wanted to drink deep of fear and anger. He took a deep breath.

“I think you could be brave, Bernie…” Little Molly’s words echoed in his memory. He didn’t believe her when she said it, but when he felt the Sorting Hat wriggle on his head, he looked directly at her. She was already sitting with the Gryffindor; it had taken all of five seconds for her to be placed there. Her eyes were bright, her lips upturned in a smile.

“Interesting,” the Sorting Hat had said, “a fine mind like your brother…hard worker…you could be brave…GRYFFINDOR!”

Molly had jumped up and clapped. Bernie smiled in reply.

Bernie and his staffers ascended the stairs to the auditorium. Like a plague of Cornish pixies, members of the press corps were floating around him, peppering him with questions, shoving microphones and cameras in his face.

“Senator! Senator! The latest poll puts you ten points behind! What do you have to say?”

“Is this a failed crusade, Senator?”

“What will you be telling us tonight?”

Bernie exhaled. It was one of those moments in which he wished he could fish out his wand and cast a Silencio spell. No. Dumbledore had said he could do “things that are seen as magical…but they don’t have to be magic….”

Bernie paused at the top of the stairs, and turned.

“Before I go in,” he said, “there is one thing I’d like to say.”

Be brave, Molly’s voice echoed in his memory. What had happened to her? Oh yeah, in third year, she’d fallen in love with that Arthur guy with the messy red hair. Oh well.  She’d never have walked along Brighton Beach with him, eaten a salty pretzel, nor gone to synagogue, nor married him underneath a white canopy. Ah, but that was when he truly believed. Those days were long gone.

Be brave. OK.

“The polls are not everything. They are not going to deflect us from telling the truth. The American people deserve better than fear and hatred. They deserve better than to hear that they ought to put up walls against their neighbours, that the answers to their problems lay in blaming others. We are one country, and we will keep talking about solutions for the whole country. Thank you!”

Bernie turned, pushed open the auditorium’s doors with one shove, his shoulder clicking again and he stepped inside.

“Really, Senator, it’s not that bad.”

Bernie was seated in a chair, a white barbershop smock tied around his neck.   A young blonde woman wearing sepia lipstick was bustling around him, applying pancake makeup.

“Megan, some looks can’t be improved,” Bernie interjected, “Get me out of here.”

“You’ll look washed out on television if you don’t do this. Pale. Sick.”

Bernie sighed. He had worked towards this moment, as unlikely as it had seemed. The other guy represented everything he’d fought against for his entire career. The other guy was more than a person, he was a series of ideas, very bad ones. Now he’d have a chance to argue against them.   Maybe, just maybe, the force of reason would prevail. Maybe, just maybe, light would banish the darkness.

Papa hadn’t understood Bernie’s career choice. “You have such a gift…” Bernie was told he could have a career as a Potions Master. He’d once tried to create a Liquefied Rainbow elixir, so he could make one shine near Molly’s doorway. Theoretically, he’d just have to place one drop on the side and it would arch in front of her as she stepped out. However, he’d misunderstood the metric measurements and created such a powerful rainbow that it shot through the glass of the classroom and illuminated the sky over Hogwarts for a good hour. “Merlin’s beard, Bernie!” the Potions Master had exclaimed; he was a flurry of brown tweed as he rushed to look out the window. Bernie had been scared, oh no, will I be expelled? But, then the rest of the students emerged into the courtyard, looked up and smiled. Despite himself, the Potions Master had smiled as well. Bernie then allowed himself to grin too.

Gone, all gone. Now there was the scent of makeup and powder, the steady hum of the air conditioning. The light of the room seemed less vivid than memory.

“You are well prepared for this, Senator.” Megan said.

True. He’d gone to the home he’d made among the green forests, tall mountains and clear lakes, not quite like Scotland, but there was an echo of that beauty. In a remote hotel, he had practiced in the dining room, which had a big blue and white sign at the back advertising pancakes with maple syrup made from local trees. He and Steve and Barry and Megan had tried to answer hard questions, and interspersed the replies with jokes. They’d talked until Bernie’s throat hurt, soothed with cups of chamomile tea and then they talked some more. The day faded into night, the dining room was illuminated with fluorescent lamps and eventually the coffee wasn’t keeping them awake. To bed, to bed, they said, and back early to argue some more. Then came the moment when they couldn’t think of anything else to say. Ready.

“I’m done,” the makeup artist said.

Bernie grinned. “Thanks for doing your best, I’m sorry that the canvas isn’t as good as the painter.”

The artist smiled. “Good luck tonight, Senator. ”

“Thank you.”

“There’s a lot of people out there,” Megan said, “mostly students, and we know they break in your direction.”

Bernie nodded. They were standing behind the thick blue curtain. Apart from a few flickering screens and the lights of the amplifier equipment, it was dark. The faint scent of electricity and dust was in the air. He shut his eyes, exhaled.

“When will my family be here?” Bernie asked.

“They’re due to arrive just before the debate begins, Senator,” Megan replied. “Sorry, we’ve had problems with air travel recently.”

Get a broom, Bernie thought wistfully. He nodded.

It hadn’t been easy to lead the Muggle life. Everyone has secrets, he pondered, but being able to levitate furniture and yet shifting it by hand, even when his knuckles hurt and his shoulder strained, was stretching a secret to near breaking point. He’d done it, however. The wand stayed tucked in his inside pocket. Sometimes, when he was alone, he’d take it out, admire its polished surface, feel its willingness to cast spells. He checked if he still had the necessary flick of the wrist. Always, yes.

Footsteps. Bernie detected the sound of several sets of expensive shoes pounding against the hard wooden floor.

“He’s here,” Megan said softly.

Bernie looked.   He’d never met the other guy before. He wanted to believe that there was a spark of humanity in everyone and all of us had merit and worth. If we traveled down the back alleys of individual pain and hatred, Bernie thought, we would find that the tendency to do evil stemmed from illness, a distortion of the soul, not a birthright.   Surely that had to be so.

Difficult. The other guy swaggered in: his footsteps swayed as he stepped forward, like he was an experienced gunslinger entering a saloon in an old film. His chin, jowly, was tilted upright. His grey blonde hair (was it real?) was tousled on top of his head. He was sweating slightly; the makeup artist had rendered his flesh tone a peculiar cross between orange and pink. An overwhelming blast of rich sandalwood cologne emanated from him, mixed with the scent of his wool suit.   A small American flag badge was pinned to his lapel. The brightest thing about him was his red silk tie: it was finely woven and brilliantly reflected the dim light. His small eyes glittered in the dark. Bernie thought of nocturnal predators he’d seen in nature documentaries.

“Senator,” the other guy said.

Bernie nodded. Ten points up in the latest poll and this guy knows it, he thought.

“Senator,” Megan whispered and nudged him slightly. The moderator had taken his seat at a long desk in front of the stage. The moderator, Bernie noted, was a slim, grey haired man who wore black plastic framed glasses and a dark suit.

“We’re on!” a voice whispered in the darkness.

“Welcome to the auditorium at Wright State University, here in the beautiful city of Dayton, Ohio,” the moderator said, “for the first of our Presidential debates…”

“May the best man win,” the other guy said. He smirked.

Be brave.

Bernie delivered his opening statement with more force than he intended. It was wrong, terribly wrong, he said, that so many people were struggling while billionaires at the top of the heap were getting an ever increasing share of the country’s wealth. His plan, he added, would redress the balance and restore the middle class, which would bring justice for hard working families.

As he spoke, Bernie thought of how many times he had said something similar. How many times had he tried to be just? Be brave. Be just. Try to make the world better. He’d lose his temper and swear sometimes. In the evenings while he was at the University of Chicago while laying on his creaking, thin dormitory bed he’d pull his wand out of his jacket and think about how he could make injustice disappear like magic.

No, he’d led a Muggle life and thus had to live like a Muggle. The wand stayed tucked away. The copy of Democracy in America became more faded and worn. A quote stuck with him, “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.” He had to keep trying. He’d march, he’d speak, he’d protest, he’d run for office. In contrast, Larry had never gotten over Hogwarts and went back to England to try and lead the Muggle life there.

Bernie could have waved his wand and made the audience believe. But that wasn’t his life. He had to use words, thoughts, reason. He finished, his throat a bit sore, with a “Thank you.”

“Thank you, Senator,” the moderator said. He nodded at the other guy.

The other guy began by talking about making America great again and Mexico paying for a wall to imprison its own citizens. It was the same nonsense as he had said so many times before. Bernie listened carefully. What made it so powerful? Why was he ten points ahead in the polls? He didn’t dare look at him at first, lest somehow the incoherent nonsense would impact his own train of thought. Rather, he peered at the audience: semi-concealed by the darkness, he could see hopeful faces, various ages and races, people in white t-shirts, tan jackets, wearing colourful jerseys.   As the other guy spoke, their expressions softened, they began to applaud the ridiculous sound bites.

What? Bernie turned to look at his opponent.

Wisps of black smoke were coming out of the other guy’s mouth as he thundered on about the iniquities of the current President, foreign policy, foreign workers. The smoke was slowly sliding across the auditorium floor and swirling around the audience. They were breathing it in.   The smoke touched the television cameras: they were unmoved. The smoke penetrated them.

Bernie looked intently at the other guy. He was still speaking, the smoke that was coming out of his mouth was becoming more intense. Wait a minute.

Bernie reached into his inside pocket, grabbed the wand, flicked his wrist, and shouted “Tempus!”

The audience froze. The other guy stopped speaking. The quiet was deafening; even the air conditioner had halted due to the spell.

The other guy smirked. “I wondered when you’d figure it out,” he said.

“You!” Bernie said. “Who are you, really?”

“Oh come on, Bernie, think back. You’ve seen me before.”

Bernie studied his face. Yes, subtract the years off, go back to a day when the blonde hair was authentic rather than plastered on, the same arrogant air: yes, he had seen him.

Bernie remembered during his fifth year when a group of new students were brought in before the Sorting Hat. One blonde boy was actively punching the brown haired boy next to him in the arm. “You’ll never be anything, Longbottom!” he’d shouted in a New York accent, “you’re a loser!” Dumbledore stared at him fiercely over the top of his glasses.

“Donald!” Dumbledore shouted, “stop that at once, you’re next!”

Donald froze, his eyes were wide. He nodded.

Professor McGonagal held up the Sorting Hat as Donald slowly took his place on the dais. The hat took one look at Donald: “You don’t need to put me on his head, Professor: SLYTHERIN!”

“Now you remember,” Donald said.

“Yes, I do,” Bernie replied. He held his wand at the ready. It was warm, prepared for combat. “You chose to lead a Muggle life but use your magic. That’s cheating.”

“It’d be stupid just to sit on all that power.”

“That’s why you were allowed to go bankrupt four times and you didn’t lose your fortune,” Bernie added, “that explains why you’ve had so many people eating out of your hands. That’s how come you’re ten points ahead when all you’re saying is garbage.  That’s how come you got so much adoration despite being so damn terrible.”

Donald grinned. “Terrible? I’m the best. And I learned from the best.”

Donald rolled up his sleeve, undoing the gold and diamond cufflink that secured his white Egyptian cotton shirt.   There was a tattoo of a black skull with a snake as a tongue.

The Dark Mark! Bernie thought.

“Voldemort is dead!” Bernie shouted.

“Oh Bernie, he may be dead, but his ideas live on…and I’m going to fulfil his vision of Muggles serving magic. Accio, wand!”

A black wand flew out of the darkness into Donald’s hand. He touched the tip of it to his tattoo: the snakes moved on his forearm, slithering and writhing. Bernie heard the distant sound of thunder.

“This ends now, Bernie,” Donald said.

“Yes it does. Stupefy!” Energy flew out of Bernie’s wand.

Donald deflected the shot. “You’ll have to do better than that.”

Expelliarmus!” A red bolt blasted forward.

Again, a deflection: the bolt slammed into the ceiling, leaving a slight scorch mark. “My turn,” Donald said, “Avada…”

Stupefy!” The spell hit Donald from the audience, square in the chest. He fell, stunned, silent. It reminded Bernie of a tree collapsing after it had been chopped down. Donald landed on his face.

Bernie turned. Who did that?

“Hello?!?” he shouted.

Footsteps resounded out of the darkness. A figure slowly emerged into the light. His saviour wore a royal blue “Bernie 2016” cap, a denim jacket, a brightly coloured patchwork dress. A brilliant shock of frizzy red hair flowed from out under the cap onto her shoulders.

Bernie gasped. “Molly?” he asked.

She pulled off the cap. Yes, she had aged, but the hair, the smile and the eyes were the same. For a moment, he saw the little girl who sat across from him on his first train ride to Hogwarts.

“Hello, Bernie dear,” she said, her eyes twinkling, “it’s been a long time.”

They sat together on the stairs leading up to the platform. “You got married?” Molly asked.

“Yes, twice. Fortunately, it took the second time.”

“Grandchildren?”

“Yes! And you?”

“Me too.”

Bernie couldn’t restrain the question any longer. “How did you know to come here, Molly?”

Molly reached out and touched Bernie’s cheek. Her fingertips were cool and delicate. “I didn’t, dear. I just wanted to see how you were getting on. You’ve been so brave.”

Bernie smiled. “I’m so out of practice.”

“Never mind.”

They paused.

“What are you thinking about?” Molly asked.

“It’s funny how I’ve tried to turn my back on the past…but the past always pivots with you, you can’t get rid of it.”

“It’s for the best, dear, would you really want to forget?”

Bernie smiled and clasped Molly’s hand. “Nah.”

Molly grinned, then nodded towards Donald. He was still on the floor, face down, with his sleeve rolled up. “What should we do with him?”

“Well, we can’t let a Death Eater become President of the United States.”

“No, we can’t…my son is an Auror, should we call him? Should we get Donald sent to Azkaban?”

“No, that would create too many holes, too many questions…besides it’s his ideas that are truly dangerous.  We need to find another way.”

Molly stood. Bernie got up as well. They aligned themselves to be side by side, like the two children they once were. Together, they contemplated Donald’s still form.

“Poor, poor Donald,” Molly said.

“He’s not poor. He used magic in the Muggle world to take things that didn’t belong to him. Property, people, money.”

“He’s poor in this sense, Bernie dear, he never did anything honestly. Even his hair is a lie.” She pointed at the top of Donald’s head. “Look at that preposterous thing.”

Bernie pursed his lips.

“I have an idea,” he said.

Donald awoke. He was still on stage. His sleeve was intact. Had he blacked out? Had he revealed himself to Bernie? Didn’t seem like it, Bernie was still talking about his socialist, “We Are the World” crap. The audience applauded.

Must have been a dream, Donald reasoned. Have to stop drinking that stupid champagne that’s only $300 a bottle. It isn’t quality.

“Would you care to reply?” the moderator asked him.

Donald whispered to himself, Confundo. The power wouldn’t come. What?

Instead, he spoke normally. Mexicans are a damn burden, he said, sending rapists and criminals across the border. We need to keep Muslims out.  We need to make America great again. We’d win so much that we’d get bored of winning.

But the audience wasn’t responding. The women’s hearts weren’t beating faster. The power wasn’t reaching out to the television audience.

What?

Bernie whispered the counter spell. The audience was looking at Trump with glittering eyes. There was Molly, in the back row, her Bernie 2016 cap pulled down tight on her head again. He gave her a slight nod.

She whispered “Deprimo” and the air conditioner began to blow onto the stage with extreme force. Papers blew up from the moderator’s desk and the podiums into a storm of the printed word.

“We seem to be having a technical problem!” the moderator shouted.

The wind rose. The flagpoles positioned behind the podiums fell over. The power of the wind buffeted the set as if invisible fists were punching it.

Donald tried to crouch out of the way. There was a tearing sound: his blonde and grey wig ripped off his head and blew up against the nearest wall. It stuck; its artificial fibres were hopelessly tangled.

Bernie nodded slightly. Molly stopped. The wind ceased. Donald stood motionless on international television, now bald. The dome of his bare pink head glistened with sweat in the bright light. His eyes were wide. For a moment, Bernie saw the little boy that froze in fear before Professor Dumbledore.

Donald let out a blood curdling and incoherent yell. He ran off the stage, his heavy footsteps audible as he exited as fast as he could. Bernie took his place back at the podium. He saw Molly smiling at him in the darkness. As he gripped the podium, he thought, “this is happening…in this moment, right now, I may have become President.”

Be brave. Be just.

Bernie took a deep breath.

“Well,” the moderator said, straightening his hair and glasses. He looked at Bernie with a questioning gaze. What just happened?

Bernie tried to look reassuring: he smiled. “Well, Coop,” Bernie asked, “does that count as a forfeit?”

“I think so, Senator…thank you to you, and to the audience here in Dayton.”

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Refugees Welcome

September 3, 2015

Aylan KurdiThe story could have had a different outcome. With an alternate set of policies and priorities, 3 year old Aylan Kurdi might have lived. He could have settled in Bedford or Peterborough, gone to school, torn holes in his navy blue jumper, gotten scrapes on his knees after falling off his bike, done well on his GCSE’s while his parents worked in a local hospital or supermarket. He could have become a doctor, lawyer or engineer. He could have paid taxes and served as a school governor.  He could have touched lives and made them better. He was full of potential. But this isn’t the world he was living in: his fate was to end up on a Turkish beach, face down, looking more asleep than dead as the cool waves of the Mediterranean washed over him.

Britain is completely absent on the issue of Syrian refugees. It would perhaps be a bit more comforting to attribute our reticence to the grey, dull machinery of a decrepit and cash-starved state which is slow to action: under those circumstances, the spark of determined leadership can put matters right relatively quickly. However, Britain is not there because the Conservative Party and specifically David Cameron do not want us to be there. Indeed, the Prime Minister is much more concerned about maintaining the good opinion of the far right of his own party and outflanking UKIP than in doing what is morally correct. Let’s be clear: the far right of the Conservative Party is so opposed to migration that they genuinely believe if these desperate refugees show up on our shores that the government’s duty, except under extraordinary circumstances, is to send them back to the hell from which they just escaped. When challenged, the Tory far right and their acolytes repeat meaningless mantras, which are subsequently parroted by the Prime Minister, that state that the best way to deal with the problem is at source. Given how Syria has shattered into a myriad of blood spattered fragments, this is a nonsensical argument. In their view, is the average Syrian and his or her relations, who merely want to get on with their lives, supposed to hide in a foxhole until the war is over? Apparently so: trouble us not, they say, we’ll send the bombers (which have no decisive effect). Meanwhile, they suggest, just endure the pain and the trauma, live in shelled out cities, dodging genuine barbarians who want to destroy culture as well as people, and with no prospect of a better life for the foreseeable future. There’s no such thing as society except in the vacuous slogans of the Prime Minister which are used to justify benefit cuts. It’s your problem.

However, the refugees are not like the poor or disabled that can be bullied by the likes of Iain Duncan Smith. As they have nothing to lose, they have even less to forfeit by ignoring the likes of Andrew Mitchell and Bill Cash, and by thoroughly disregarding the puppet strings they’ve attached to Cameron. Rather, they will take to their heels, to bicycles and barely functioning cars, and to boats braving the dangers of the cruel and open sea in order to escape. Mealy mouthed and impotent platitudes about dealing with the problem at source will not deter them: eventually, many will stand at Calais, look across the Channel, and think about how best to get to the tranquil shore of England. Cameron may think he is doing what is necessary to manage his own party and defeat UKIP: but his inaction does absolutely nothing to address the reality of the refugees nor even correctly acknowledge the problem with which Britain must contend.

But it could have been different: it’s worth noting that one European nation has shown courage and leadership: Germany. Given its history, this may seem peculiar, or perhaps it can be seen as an ultimate act of atonement. Angela Merkel is by no means some sort of soft-hearted leftie: she is a conservative, and as the Greeks discovered, a hard nosed one at that. Yet she has some sense of moral responsibility. She invoked the conscience of her nation and threw open the doors to 800,000 refugees, which constitutes 1% of Germany’s total population. This is an astonishing act of generosity: so far, objections to this policy have been relatively muted.  Individual Germans have responded by opening their doors to Syrian refugees.

The people offering homes to Europe's refugees

Perhaps oddly in this day and age, Merkel leads, the country understands and follows. Again: where is Britain? As we are nowhere, it is no wonder that Mrs. Merkel and the other European heads of state who are directly contending with this issue are annoyed with Cameron.  It’s also not surprising that they have let the Prime Minister know that so long as his inertia continues, his wish to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the European Union will fall on deaf ears.

It could have been different: we need to accept that the choice Britain made in May was desperately poor. For the sake of argument, had we ended up with a Labour and SNP coalition government, it’s nearly impossible to see them reacting in the same way. The tug of conscience would have dragged a Prime Minister Miliband, backed by a Foreign Secretary Alex Salmond, in the direction of sense and compassion. At the very least, Yvette Cooper’s suggestion of letting in 10,000 refugees wouldn’t have fallen on deaf ears. Charities and local government would have worked together to set up reception points, distribute food, ensure sufficient help. Aylan Kurdi may have had somewhere to go and perhaps traveled in greater safety. He could have ended up in Bedford or Peterborough and his Mum and Dad could have gotten jobs and paid taxes and contributed to society. What is more, Aylan and many more like him could have had a future: Britain would not have lost out from granting the opportunity. Indeed, Britain didn’t certainly end up the poorer from extending a helping hand to many persecuted minorities in the past; perhaps the worst aspect of our current Conservative government is that they have induced us to forget ourselves.

It could have been different, but it isn’t. Aylan will probably not be the last refugee whose sad remains will be washed up onto a sun drenched Mediterranean shore which starkly contrasts the grim harvest that each rising tide will bring. David Cameron will continue to look irritated at being asked about Syrian refugees. Ill-tempered and ignorant British tabloids will stoke fears of being “swamped”. Brainless populists will speak of a country that’s too crowded, apparently to the point where there is no longer room for a touch of humanity. Germany and Sweden will look like beacons of hope and liberty in comparison to our morally bereft island. The Tories will not care: they will hope that their hard-heartedness will appeal to the darker instincts of the British public and reinforce the message that there is no such thing as society, it’s every man for himself. We will be less of a nation that can hold its head high, less of a beacon of hope, less of an avatar of liberty: it’s every man for himself and all that Britain is worth to anyone is what they get out of it. It still could be different, provided the rest of society pulled together in opposition to the state and its malignant doctrines: but it’s difficult to see how.

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The Very Model of a Modern Labour Candidate

August 13, 2015

Labour LeafletsMy black suit was clean and pressed. My white shirt with a herringbone pattern embedded into its weave had been ironed. A silk maroon tie was neatly tucked underneath my stiff collar, tied into a Windsor knot. The head of fresh red rose was pinned to my lapel. I had shaved around my beard that morning and I still felt the slight sting of the lotion I applied afterward. I was nervous, I was hopeful: it was a sunny, warm August morning and I was about to go into the offices of Unite the Union to be interviewed to be a potential Labour candidate for next year’s local election.

Becoming a candidate isn’t merely a matter of putting in an application and hoping for the best. This is just as it should be: before the party is going to expend money, time and commitment on someone, it needs to gauge the potential candidate’s willingness and ability to reciprocate the party’s efforts. In my black leather valise, I carried with me a printed copy of my CV, my application form, the novel I’ve written and the academic textbook to which I had contributed a chapter. My British passport was carefully tucked into a plastic pocket. I was fully prepared to be questioned deeply, to have my credentials checked and to be scrutinised to the core.

Every potential candidate is vetted by a panel from outside the constituency. In my case, I was questioned by three people from constituencies directly adjacent to my own. The room was dark pink in colour, the blinds had been drawn to keep out the heat, and the golden light of the day poked through via slender gaps. The relatively dim light gave the room a somewhat subdued air, which lent itself well to the seriousness of its purpose. The panel introduced themselves, hands were shaken and we began.

I was asked the basics about who I am and why I wanted to be a candidate. I spoke about the work I had done with the UCU union and my commitment to working in the community. In particular, I have served as a school governor for the past several years: my hope was and remains that I can use my knowledge, experience and skills to the benefit of the area which I’ve made my home.

Notes were taken, the panelists nodded, a few smiles appeared. We talked in detail about some of the problems of the area: parts of it, it was said, have unemployment in excess of 20 percent, and many of those who are out of work lack fundamental qualifications. How would I try to address this?

Although technically my council (Peterborough) falls into the “No Overall Control” category, it is run by the Conservatives. I said if I was elected that my first priority would be to ask the council what on earth they were doing to address these problems. Were they providing retraining schemes? While council budgets are being cut, there is a level of discretion that could be applied, furthermore, it wouldn’t be in the Conservative Party’s interests to cut off their colleagues’ prospects of regaining an overall majority. This would entail a less sharp edge to the cuts that Peterborough would likely face, in which case, how is this advantage being used to the benefit of people in the city?

Second, I would ask what was being done to partner with local businesses and third sector organisations to help these people get back into employment? The Tory propensity is for dull, unimaginative government that seems to have one policy, namely, trusting the free market and doing little else: I assume that what they are doing is quite limited.

We moved on to other topics: did I understand what the Group Whip did? Yes, I had two tools as a councillor, a voice and a vote. The voice was for my constituents, the vote was to help the party to help my constituents. I was asked what I would do if policy didn’t match with local priorities: I talked about my experience in forging agreements between groups with differing interests and the art of compromise.

The interview became fun: smiles became more prevalent, we talked about the weaknesses in the Northern Powerhouse programme and how it was actually intended to absolve central government from its responsibilities. One thought occurred to me which I then expressed: it’s time that Labour became the party of the digital economy.

The Tories have cast their lot with the financial industry: witness the hedge funds which donated to their recent campaign. They believe only in intervention when it shores up banks. Meanwhile there are many digital entrepreneurs, small businesses which pay their full share of taxes who cannot get access to capital to expand their companies; this capital is often sucked down the plughole of speculation about esoteric matters such as the weather in Iowa. I know of an inventor who needed substantial capital to be able to manufacture his advanced product in Britain: he was on the international news, his invention was hailed as a step forward. However, he simply couldn’t get the capital to build his facility in England. As a result, he was forced to turn to Chinese factories. Had he been able to do so here, no doubt there would have been highly skilled, well paid jobs that would have arisen as a result. The Tories would shrug and say that it’s just the free market at work; Labour can come up with a better, more active response.

It’s not as if Labour and the left doesn’t have a history of supporting innovation: Harold Wilson spoke of the “white heat” of the technological revolution. Tony Benn created International Computers Limited and supported the development of the Concorde. In America, Obama has shown there’s a great deal of mileage to be the candidate of technology: among the major donors to his campaign in 2012 were Microsoft and Google. This contrasted positively to Mitt Romney’s contributions from Goldman Sachs (it must be said that Goldman Sachs hedged their bets, however). In Australia, the last Labor victory was achieved in part to its support of a programme for a National Broadband Network: the government was later felled by infighting. Labour in the UK needs learn from the examples of others, reclaim its heritage, and become the party of the technological progress again.

After I finished speaking, I feared that I might have said too much: after all, the role I was putting myself forward for was to serve the community at the ground level. If I am successful, my priority will be to get school roofs fixed and streetlamps mended, to help local businesses get on their feet and people back to work, to stand up for those left vulnerable by cuts and victimised by the vicious policies coming down from central government. I was asked to leave the room while the panel discussed my interview. For those few tense minutes, nerves took hold again: after all, politics isn’t just about presenting a clear argument or having facts at your command, rather, it’s also entails ensuring that these land in a way that is interesting and compelling.

The door opened. The panel quickly put me out of my misery and told me that I had been accepted; they were kind enough to add that they thought I was “engaging” and would make a “wonderful candidate”. I thanked them profusely, told them I looked forward to the campaign,  shook hands again, and then stepped back out into the bright August sunshine.

The next stage will involve being adopted by a particular ward. But that won’t come until September: by then, the bright sunshine will start to fade into memory, the trees will begin to turn colour, and there will be many weekends spent walking up and down the sidewalks, wearing out shoe leather, speaking to voters and handing out leaflets. I hope to be the very model of a modern Labour candidate: while part of me will enjoy the languid days of August, the most exciting times are yet to come.

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Me And My Blog

Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

By the Blog Author