Forever Bradford

May 20, 2015

redrosette-postIn a few days time, and after three and a half eventful years, I will no longer be living in Bradford. As I type this, the sun is shining and the skies are blue on a lovely May afternoon that is beginning to fade into evening. Given such a scene, it’s difficult to contemplate leaving: but I know that very soon I will embark on a new life in rural Cambridgeshire.

The reason for my move is economic. It is much more difficult to find a job in this region than it is in southern, sunnier climes. Cambridgeshire, or at least the part of it I will inhabit, has the benefit of being in London’s orbit without being too influenced by its proximity.   My new home has an extensive vegetable garden and views over flat farmland.   It will also be my first time living in the East of the country; I have lived in London, Yorkshire and various parts of the South.

A new experience and a new life: there is much to anticipate and enjoy. Already, I am looking forward to waking up in the morning and viewing the flat, open horizons out my bedroom window. Yet, I do have regrets about what I am about to leave behind.

My last days in Bradford may have been lived more intensely than previous, particularly during the run up to the General Election. While I wasn’t really involved in the General Election, I did some leaflet stuffing for Labour’s local election candidate. It was a miserable business on the evenings in which I participated: the winds were high and cold, it was as if they were pushing me and my fellow canvassers down the narrow streets lined with terraced houses made of alabaster brick. The evening sky had a blue sheen as if it had been frozen into place.

There was a particular art to stuffing leaflets: fold the leaflet in half, try and push through the slot quickly, avoid the barking dogs whenever possible. The weather and the drudgery of the task made partisanship fade: I passed by a Liberal Democrat activist who was embarked on a similar task and we greeted each other politely.

Election Day itself was thankfully sunny and warm in Bradford. My fiancée and I voted as early as possible and then went to Labour’s local campaign headquarters, which was set up in a local sports club. Red clipboards with sheets full of addresses were provided to teams of four, and then the teams dispersed to various neighbourhoods, knocking on doors, trying to ensure that those who had promised to vote Labour had the opportunity to get out and do so.

It was also a reminder of why the election was so important: some of the neighbourhoods through which I trod are among the most deprived in Britain. Unemployed or irregularly employed people were at home to answer the door. Some homes had iron gates on the doors and windows, with a notice indicating they had been repossessed. Some who answered our calls were migrants who barely spoke a word of English. One elderly gentleman whose home was surrounded by a colony of cats looked emaciated, nearly desiccated by time; an odour of stale cigarette smoke and mould hung over his residence.

Perhaps the most poignant reminder of how far from the luminous picture painted by Tory rhetoric that Bradford remains came from some very basic apartments made of grey brick. They were placed in a set of box-like buildings positioned at the end of a road that ran through a deprived neighbourhood. The apartments were immune to personalisation from the outside, except for one intrepid individual who put out a blue folding chair and some flower pots. I was informed that the inhabitants were mainly elderly, living on minimal incomes. The wind rose up again. It seemed a terribly lonely place, the only sound being with only the idle chatter of birds in some nearby trees.

As homes were visited the sheets were marked: Voting Labour, Not Voting, Voting Other, Not In. Then they were driven back to the campaign headquarters where yet another red clipboard awaited. Eventually, the sun set: there was a genuine chill in the air. Voters became annoyed with being pestered. It was time to dump the remaining red clipboards in and wait for the results.

I was fortunate to have a role in the local election, namely, I was a poll watcher: that meant I was given entry to the ballot verification process which happened on Election Night, and then to the count for the local elections the following day.   A friend stayed with my fiancée and I: we caught the exit poll on BBC just before departing for verification. We were floored: every last poll we had seen had indicated that a hung parliament was in the offing. We all thought that Ed Miliband was going to have to make a deal with the SNP as well as the Liberal Democrats: like many of us, I thought just do it, get it done, give Scotland a few billion, get Cameron out of Downing Street, it’s for the best.

Right up until the exit poll, this scenario not only seemed possible, but likely. But then the clock struck ten and its chimes shattered the fantasies of what tomorrow would bring: it was immediately clear that the Tories were going to form the next government.

As I drove to the large sports hall where the count took place, I pondered what had happened. It was dark: only the illumination of the orange street lights and the occasional sign of a petrol station lit our way. Could the exit poll have been wrong, I wondered.   Once a few results came in, it didn’t seem so. Had people been shy? Had they lied to the pollsters? Had our ground operations been ineffective? What happened?

I had a ticket which gave me access into the polling place: a plastic band was put around my wrist. A set of stairs and I was in the place where the counting takes place.

Americans and others may find the British system of counting votes to be archaic, but there is a certain charm associated with it. There are two distinct tribes: the first is the counters and their supervisors, the other, the politicians and activists. The politicians and activists all wore rosettes or buttons to identify their allegiance. The large number of people wearing purple UKIP rosettes disquieted me. Labour folk like me were in abundance as were grim looking Liberal Democrats. The Tories and Greens were also in force. Strangely, however, the red and green rosettes of Respect were few and far between: this seemed odd at the time given that George Galloway’s defeat was by no means certain or even predicted. Two bodyguards accompanied one Respect supporter who sported a grey beard, a hat very similar to Galloway’s and a long black overcoat. He floated around the hall like a listless shadow with his minions and then departed into the night.

On Election Night, the task insofar as the local election was concerned was not to count the vote, but to verify the ballots. The idea is to match up the number of ballots to the number of votes cast.

The counters are an interesting lot: they appear to be from every walk of life and of every age. One elderly lady who wore black plastic frame glasses on the end of her nose and a purple cardigan fascinated me. She had a green rubber thimble which she kept positioned on her thumb as she swiftly sorted through the votes.   My task was to stand in front of the counters and watch them as they worked. I also was there to get a rough idea of how well my candidate was doing. By my count, it was close: the area in which I lived was predominately Liberal Democrat, though UKIP appeared to be making significant inroads. A Labour candidate would find it tough going; nevertheless, it was tight.

It took time for all the black metal boxes full of the beige coloured ballots to arrive: the verification proceeded fitfully. More news filtered in: the Tory vote had held up, they seemed to have cannibalised their coalition partners. As a result, the Liberal Democrats would be lucky to retain 8 parliamentary seats. This spelled doom for the Liberal Democrat MP for my part of Bradford, though he had the slight consolation that his vote held up better than most: a decline of a little over 4 percent compared to a national drop of over 15 percent.

There were few places to sit in the hall. When exhaustion finally set in, I sat against the wall with a can of diet cola. Twitter was still bubbling and erupting: it looked as if we were headed for a Tory majority government. My feet were sore, the red rosette pinned to my jacket seemed rather like a symbol of noble defiance that in the end proved ineffective. The smiles on the faces of those who wore blue rosettes were impossible not to notice.

The verification finally finished after 2 AM. My fiancée and I went home: the streets were empty. Everyone sensible was asleep. The news came over the radio that in Belfast East, brave Naomi Long who had defeated the antediluvian Peter Robinson back in 2010 had herself been beaten by one of Robinson’s people. The night’s darkness hung like a pall over our route home.

I didn’t go to bed. Our friend was still up in our living room collating the results and I positioned myself on a sofa, slipping in and out of consciousness while watching the results. I woke up when Galloway was banished: this was a thrill for me, given how the Respect Party had been tweeting pictures of Galloway and his motorcade proceeding through the Manningham section of Bradford. Hubris had been followed by Nemesis with haste. I saw Labour seats in Scotland fall like bowling pins, knocked over by the yellow and black SNP wrecking ball.   Douglas Alexander lost to a university student. Gordon Brown’s old constituency changed hands.   Jim Murphy was booted.

Dawn came. My feet still hurt. I went upstairs and made coffee and tried to absorb the results. Bradford East, West and South had all gone Labour; but nationally, the Tories were headed for a majority of 12 with 331 seats, unless by some miracle the Liberal Democrats had somehow held onto some redoubts in the South West. But Danny Alexander was gone, Vince Cable was gone, it seemed unlikely that Andrew George would be spared.

We went to our count; again, I stood over the counters. In this case, we were watching various votes being sorted into particular piles for counting purposes. I watched the Liberal Democrat votes like a hawk, looking for any ambiguous or incorrect ballots being put into the bundles. The counters check each other’s work and sign off each pile. In the end there was only one item that was out of order: one Tory vote had accidentally made it into the Liberal Democrat stacks.

In the end, this count was one of the few Liberal Democrat triumphs of the evening: my candidate was beaten by 134 votes. UKIP’s inroad into certain working class areas was probably to blame; or rather, it was our failure to appeal to the same people. As the returning officer took the podium and read out the result, I cheered my candidate, and felt pain in my stomach as the Liberal Democrat’s superior tally was revealed.   I took off my red rosette and stuck it in my jacket pocket: there it has remained.

It had started raining earlier in the day, but by the time the count finished it was coming down in earnest. Radio 4 was full of prognostications about what the new, unfettered Conservative government would do. I thought of the people we met while canvassing: their lives would not improve. Rather, through schemes like the so-called “Northern Powerhouse” no doubt the Government will “outsource” the responsibility for these people to others and then outsource the blame for failure. As we drove, we passed by the office for our former Liberal Democrat MP. His staff were hastily clearing out their equipment and taking down signs: one well known local councillor was taking out plastic bags amidst the deluge.

Later, my fiancée and I had dinner in Leeds at a sushi restaurant. I kept checking my phone and tried to understand what had happened. I still am coming to grips with it, but I believe what occurred is that people saw the possibility of change, but they were sufficiently frightened by Tory propaganda to believe it would be dangerous. When you have little, you are naturally afraid that you will lose what tiny patch of this earth that you’ve acquired. Labour did best in places like London, i.e. cities that embrace change as a matter of course; Labour also did well in Bradford, a place where many had nothing to lose.

It was still raining when we finally returned home. I surrendered to fatigue and we went to bed early; as I pulled the duvet over me and listened to the rain falling, I realised it had been a depressing day, but a uniquely interesting 48 hours. I had pounded the pavements of Bradford, I’d taken an active if small role in its politics, I was witness to the process of democracy and saw its pitfalls up close. It was symbolic of my time in Bradford: I had a chance to live life intensely, passionately and full of purpose. I also got a chance to see the world just by living in one place, given all the cultures that inhabit its melting pot. I lived amidst the hills of Bronte Country as well as in the dining room of Café Zoya. I died a little when Galloway was elected in 2012 and my heart soared when Bradford City beat Chelsea. It hasn’t always been easy to live here, but it has been wonderful. If I find a life in Cambridgeshire, where the sky hangs low over the flat land, that is half as interesting as what I led in Bradford, I will consider myself lucky. I will never forget, and part of me will be forever left in Bradford.

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Review: Tony Benn: “Will and Testament”

October 6, 2014

Tony BennI owe Tony Benn a great deal. While he was Minister for Technology between 1966 and 1970, Mr. Benn created a British equivalent to IBM, International Computers Limited. Although its history was not trouble free, it was a success story; it was there that I began my working life after I graduated from University. It was there also that I was first introduced to the internet. In short, it was my experiences at ICL that enabled me to build my career and the interesting life that followed. Without Tony Benn, it’s entirely possible that I could have begun my journey at another point, but that’s not what happened. Tony Benn was a champion of modern technology, and thanks to him being the person that he was, I am the person that I am today. He encouraged me.

It was with this debt in mind that I went to see the cinematic précis of his life, “Will and Testament”. I had seen the build up to this film via social media: while I was certain it would be an excellent tribute, I wasn’t entirely sure what form it would take. In the main, documentaries tend to be somewhat staid affairs, their interest lay mostly in the material they present rather than the cinematography. “Will and Testament” is quite different: we are first shown a close-up of Tony Benn’s gentle visage as he stands by the shore on a grey day. He is old, but his eyes are clear and just underneath a layer of calm and tenderness is his obvious determination. We are shown other images: we see his home in Holland Park with its red front door slightly ajar. We see a virtual study, a façade with a fireplace and a variety of newspaper front pages hanging from the ceiling: they are the monuments to the media’s view of him, referring to him as the “most dangerous man in Britain” among other denigrating epithets. We are shown a representation of Benn’s office: the lights are somewhat dim, the state of the office is somewhat disheveled and dusty. There is a model Concorde on his desk, a small Union flag, an old fashioned tape recorder, and a mug with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament symbol and the legend “Make Tea Not War”.

With this stage set, we are taken through his life with the help of photographs and film clips.  First, we’re informed that his radicalism did not come from nowhere, his mother, for example, campaigned for the ordination of women. Benn’s convictions, we’re told, stem from a belief that all political questions are moral questions, and there is invariably a right and a wrong answer. He was taught that the Bible was full of struggles between prophets and kings, with the prophets always taking the side of righteousness. It was this side that Benn was encouraged to take.

Benn learned to fear and loathe war early in life; he saw it up close as a boy and while serving in the Royal Air Force during World War Two. This service was often unappreciated and forgotten: indeed, when he criticised the needless waste of the Falklands War in the House of Commons, Mrs. Thatcher suggested that he owed his freedom to speak to those who had fought for it.

It was the war that inspired him to go into politics, though it was not a particularly easy path for him: he inherited a peerage and had to campaign in order to be able to renounce it. From that point on, it could be said he was in opposition to the established order even when he became a government Minister.

Tony Benn and North Sea OilThe film presents some fascinating “what ifs”.  One of the most intriguing is what may have happened if Benn had continued as Minister for Energy.  He was responsible for the creation of Britain’s oil industry, and thanks to his efforts the UK reaped the benefit of what lay beneath the North Sea.  However, Labour lost the 1979 general election and it was Margaret Thatcher who cashed in.  Rather than save the money (as Benn intended) or invest it in modernising British industry (as Benn also wanted), she used oil revenues to fund unemployment benefit (after she caused British manufacturing to collapse) and tax breaks for the well off. We suffer from this legacy today; one of the questions which animates the Scottish independence movement is what precisely happened to the endowment that Benn arranged for them.

Another intriguing “what if” stems from Benn’s ideas on re-organising British industry. I suspect that his vision of full blown “workers control of factories” was probably a pipe dream, but a more collaborative model, as exists in Germany today, was definitely possible. Perhaps such a system would have had the same positive effects on British industry as it did on Germany’s and Japan’s.

The most moving part of the film covers the period just after he became MP for Chesterfield. This was at the time of the Miners’ Strike and his new constituency was directly affected by the turmoil. His response to the threatened extermination of the coal industry by Thatcher’s government may have been the culmination of his career: it brought together his compassion for the working class, his experience with the energy industry (he stated clearly that coal will be required when the oil runs out) and his tireless radicalism. We see the police beat miners with truncheons: this footage brought out gasps and sobs from the audience at the showing I attended. Benn forcefully spoke out for the miners at every opportunity, locking arms and marching with them in public shows of support. His dedication to the cause was obviously appreciated in the aftermath: in perhaps the film’s most beautiful scene, we are shown the annual service of remembrance for the Durham miners, which takes place at Durham’s gothic Cathedral. The miners carry colourful banners as part of the procession which represent their history and their heroes: among them was a deep crimson standard which featured Benn as one of their icons.

The film shows that Benn feared becoming a “national treasure”, i.e. someone respected but not taken entirely seriously. His kindly nature did lend itself to making him into the nation’s radical grandfather, who would espouse socialism as the answer in between being served the sprouts and the turkey during Sunday dinner. Towards the end of his life, he was thrilled by the receipt of a death threat: he hoped to remain “dangerous” and this ominous message was a sign that he had achieved this aim. When he passed, however, the nation, regardless of political belief, mourned.

I emerged from the film with a greater appreciation for Benn: I don’t believe he was always right, nor do I agree with him on everything. As Benn admitted, he made mistakes. He also didn’t always succeed in what he wanted to do: in the case of North Sea oil, this was to our cost.  However, he didn’t want his epitaph to be “He was always right” or “He always succeeded”, rather, he desired his tombstone to read “He encouraged us”. He remains a source of inspiration. He encouraged us. He encourages us still.

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Review: “Gone Girl” starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike

October 4, 2014

Rosamund Pike in Gone GirlSome films are meant to be taken at face value: a car chase is a car chase, an explosion is an explosion, and they are there solely to get the adrenalin pumping and to attract the eye. Other films are purposefully deeper: for example, the German film, “The Lives of Others” is designed to stimulate both thought and emotion. It’s a rare film that can be taken both at face value yet offers a great deal to consider. “Gone Girl”, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, based upon the best selling novel by Gillian Flynn, is of this extraordinary type.

“Gone Girl” tells the tale of a seemingly idyllic couple whose marriage takes a dark turn. Midnight crashes in at the moment the film starts: we see Pike’s porcelain complexioned, almost too symmetrical face and her fathomless eyes look up. We then hear Affleck’s voice narrate his response to her gaze: he wonders what she is thinking, and muses if he could obtain this information by cracking open her skull.

As this opening indicates, Affleck’s character, a failed writer from Missouri named Nick Dunne, is not a sympathetic one. He is self-indulgent and self-pitying. This may be Affleck’s best role to date: his air of scruffy bewilderment, which has followed him through his other roles, has perhaps found its ultimate expression.

His wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), is also not pleasant; the audience’s antipathy towards her is built up throughout the course of the film. At first, she seems to be almost a cardboard cutout of what a modern, trendy American woman is supposed to be: she is shown as always well turned out, never exceeds a size 2, is well educated, has a career (though it is not of sufficient consequence to intrude on the film’s narrative), and even accedes to misogynistic male fantasy. She is shown as being consistently sexually available and adventurous.

At first, Nick and Amy’s love story is literally saccharine: they share their first kiss outside a bakery, which in the process of loading its wares onto a waiting van, has blown up a storm of sugar. A powerful image: Nick gently touches the sugar that has accumulated on Amy’s lips before embracing her.

Amazing AmyThankfully, the film scratches this altogether too pristine surface and shows the pathology which lies underneath. For example, we are introduced to Amy’s parents (played by Lisa Banes and David Clennon), who are brazenly neurotic: they have authored a series of children’s books about Amy’s life, entitled “Amazing Amy”, and every volume they’ve produced is an improvement on the daughter they actually have. The fictional Amy is a virtuoso at the cello, while the “real” Amy gave up the instrument long ago. The fictional Amy played varsity volleyball, while her “real” counterpart did not excel.

Furthermore, Nick and Amy’s marriage is tested by recession: both of them lose their jobs. Then Nick’s mother is diagnosed as having cancer, and as a consequence they then move from New York to the small Missouri town from whence Nick came. The “Missouri Nick” is shown to be more dissolute than the New York variant. Then, Amy disappears.

What follows could be taken at face value: a gripping thriller, a murder mystery, a complex plot laid by a psychotic criminal. But if one takes a moment to step outside the dramatic pressure of the narrative, it’s easy to see the film has many interesting things to say.

It says great deal about America’s media culture, its relentless drumbeat which most strongly echoes on cable television news, and how it can so easily dictate the public’s perception of events. If Nick is caught in an awkward selfie taken by an admirer, his forced smile is read by a commentator as a sign of complicity in his wife’s disappearance. His close relationship to his sister Margo (played by Carrie Coon) is interpreted by the same commentator as a sign of even greater depravity, i.e., incest. Having said that, the only kind of love that is shown in this film to be pure and unconditional is that between brother and sister: this is very rarely seen in modern cinema.

The film says a great deal about misogyny: Amy is the “Madonna-Whore complex” made flesh. Yet, she is privately, murderously scornful of men and how they classify women into categories such as “the cool girl”.

The movie expounds at length about the state of the American dream: couples have to look perfect, live in perfect homes, and have stories that can be read in popular tabloids or portrayed on television. This is a complete and utter sham: yet the public is also shown not to be sufficiently intelligent to perceive this. Rather, they consistently lap up fictions which inspire them to scorn, pity or envy.

Overall, however, this film may be mainly about lies: the lies that we tell ourselves, the lies that exist between people who are supposed to be honest with each other, the lies we present to the outside world because we fear that being authentic is also a recipe for ostracism. Because Amy and Nick are both liars, albeit of different types and depravity, they may be an apropos match for each other: in this sense, perhaps the film can be labelled a love story, albeit a very distorted one.

If the film has a particular weak point, it is its portrayal of law enforcement: the lead detective (as played by Kim Dickens) does question why the clues so neatly stack up and muses that everything is just a little too perfect. However, this moment of reflection doesn’t cause her to flinch from being absolutely certain of Nick’s guilt later on.  Towards the end of the film, the FBI are portrayed as being as gullible and indeed, stupid.

Nevertheless, this lapse in the narrative is easily forgotten thanks to Rosamund Pike’s extraordinary performance as Amy: it is by no means a simple matter to portray someone as psychologically distorted as Amy without becoming a cinematic cliché (e.g. a “bunny boiler”).  Somehow, she pulls it off, and does so with a pristine American accent (Pike is English).

It seems altogether proper that the film did not have a happy ending; it would have been very strange if justice prevailed in this twisted environment. In the theatre in which I saw this film, after the credits rolled and the lights went up, there were a few male voices that let fly with “psycho” and “bitch”. It was clear that they bought into the surface narrative, and had quickly scuttled back to misogyny. It is entirely possible to treat it as just a thriller, perhaps even a successor to Hitchcock’s works, and to rise and fall as moments are spattered with profuse quantities of blood. But films like “Gone Girl” hold up a mirror to our culture. Perhaps those who retreated to the surface narrative merely didn’t care for the ugliness they perceived; a pity, a true appreciation for this film may only arise from understanding its whole message .

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Badly Breaking

September 26, 2014

breakingbadRecently, I was introduced to the television series “Breaking Bad”. I’m not 100% sure why this had passed me when it was originally on the air; perhaps the hype surrounding it had the effect of blunting its appeal.

Nevertheless, it is an epic programme. The anti-hero of the show, Walter White, is a chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He decides that the only way to pay his medical bills and secure his family’s financial future is to go into the business of making and selling methamphetamines. His chemistry skills ensure that his product is highly sought after; the sordid business of drug trafficking leads Walter to make ever worsening choices, turning him from a good (if somewhat dull) and mild mannered man into a master criminal. It is a morality tale which suggests that we become either good or evil not necessarily because we are born a particular way, but because of the choices we make.

However, it is worth re-examining the pivot of the story: Walter needs money to stay alive and provide for his family. He only finds out how ill he is, despite suffering from a persistent cough, after he collapses at his second job at a car wash.  He’s whisked away in an ambulance to a nearby hospital: yet, he is so concerned about the cost that he asks the medic to drop him off at a street corner despite the fact that he is semi-delirious and can hardly breathe. Walter’s wife later arranges for him to see a specialist, she pays for the exorbitant initial consultation with a credit card; later, the cost of his treatment is estimated at $90,000, and as this is not covered by his dismal insurance policy, he is left to foot the bill. There is no indication of compassion on the part of the doctor, rather, the choice presented is “pay up or die”. This is the logic of a racketeer, not a physician.

In short, it is money which is the distorting factor in this story. It is money, and the lack thereof, that warps Walter’s values to the point he transforms from a person whose main purpose in life was being an educator into one whose trade is chemically induced misery and early death. He feels compelled to make a choice between himself (and his own) and the nameless consumers of his product. He has decided that the good of his community can go hang, he needs the cash.

Breaking Bad UKA cartoon which appeared on Buzzfeed brought home how easily a different set of policies could have easily changed the outcome of Breaking Bad’s story: it was entitled “Breaking Bad Anywhere But US Edition”. An alternate Walter is given the same diagnosis and expresses his fears that his family will be bankrupted. The doctor tells him not to be ridiculous, that the bills will be paid by the government as he is a citizen and a taxpayer. The alternate Walter expresses relief and decides to return to teaching chemistry.

It is a pity that many governments, including Britain’s, fail to see the point: if everything in life becomes a cash transaction, then money may become more important than the society it intends to serve. At the moment, we are seeing creeping privatisation of the National Health Service. Private companies are invited to bid for contracts to provide many public services, the most notorious of which is Atos, whose task has been to try and squeeze people out of their disability benefit. This has reached absurd lengths, including a blind woman being asked how many fingers the assessor was holding up. It’s clear that the consideration of Atos’ bottom line was more important to the assessor than actually treating the person in front of him as someone with a genuine disability.

Money has also been deemed more important than public safety. It was recently announced that Humberside Police is to cut 700 jobs, 200 of which are officers, in order to save £31 million. The new shift patterns which are likely to take hold may lead to additional sickness and fatigue among police officers, thereby less effective law enforcement.

The situation has gotten so dire that they stir the memories of those who remember when there was no welfare state or public health care system. Harry Leslie Smith, a 91 year old activist, warned the Labour Party conference that there was a danger that our “future will be my past”: and his past was one in which cancer patients screamed in pain because they couldn’t afford morphine, and his sister died in agony at the age of 10 due to tuberculosis because Harry’s parents couldn’t afford medical treatment.

"Keep your mitts off my NHS"

Back then, a time which Harry referred to as “uncivilised”, money held the same totemic force that it does now. All of life’s ambitions, all that one could hope or dream, was dependent upon lucre’s acquisition and preservation.

Earlier this year, I was part of a Labour Doorstep event, in which myself and another activist went from house to house along a suburban Bradford street and asked voters what their concerns were. One elderly lady, clearly infirm but nevertheless residing in a reasonably comfortable home, told us of her fears about the NHS. She expressed disgust with the government, stating that “they think money is what life is all about”. We agreed with her. What is more, in retrospect, focusing solely on money is self-defeating. The cuts in Humberside’s police force may push crime up, and that has a cost to the exchequer and the large insurance companies he favours. The Atos assessments which are incorrect will need to be re-administered and revised, and that has a cost too. In the fictional universe of Breaking Bad, the cost to the state of cleaning up after those left damaged or dead by Walter White’s methamphetamines is also high, likely much higher than actually treating the man. But as it is with love, excessive pursuit of a thing can cause it to flee from you.

We should remember that money is supposed to be a tool, a medium of exchange that takes away the necessity of barter. It is not to be racked up like points in a video game, nor is it intended to be used as a means of domination against those who are weaker or less capable. Such a perspective leads back to Harry Smith’s barbaric world of the 1930’s in which cancer patients’ cries echoed down the streets lined with impoverished tenements, and those without means were dumped into anonymous paupers’ graves after death. Justice in this kind of environment is merely the good of the strong, and we are one financial catastrophe away from total catastrophe. Such a situation is not just breaking bad, but badly broken: leaving us fearful of the Walter Whites, the Atos assessor, the privatised company that will cut costs and potentially service in the name of the bottom line. Fortunately, we still have time to choose another path; fortunately, we can select a good society as easily as we can place a cross in a box at the next election. We can abandon a fetish, for that is what the love of money alone surely is, and choose a better life.

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Stroke Ward

September 22, 2014

NHS WardThese people were young once. They had homes, jobs, families, arguments, dates on Friday nights and sleepy Saturdays that followed. They combed their hair that was once a colour besides grey, they watched television, they drove too fast, they drank too much, they washed their cars and did the shopping. Time seemed to be on their side, but time is also cruel: body parts wear out, the eyes dim, the lungs don’t suck in air as readily as they once did, and blood vessels harden. If one is unlucky, then parts of the brain will be attacked by a shadow enemy, leaving a patch of the mind shrouded in darkness either from a rush of blood or a lack of it. That which makes us human: our thoughts, our dreams, our perceptions are all under assault from a stroke. The wreckage washes up onto the Stroke Ward, where nurses, doctors, support staff and therapists are all lost in lightly masked perplexity as they try to reassemble the pieces.

The stroke ward I’ve been visiting is not in a particularly attractive hospital. An acquaintance of mine wanted a black marker to write under he plaque commemorating its opening by the Queen Mother that it hadn’t been updated since. The furniture is rough and ready, covered in cheap light brown veneer, and the apparatuses around the beds seem dated. A plastic container with a tube of unknown purpose looks like it has been hanging there since the 1950’s. The curtains around the beds belong in the windows of a Seventies bungalow. The paint on the walls is in that territory between cream and faded yellow, and the green linoleum floors have a gloss that has been acquired from many years of polishing and re-polishing. One rare nod to modernity is a combination phone and television for which one has to pay in order to watch anything, despite most of the patients having paid both taxes and license fees for most of their lives. Never mind: the LCD screen of the mini-televisions flicker annoyingly, so no one uses them. There is a vague scent of rubbing alcohol and bland hospital meals in the air.

As the evening comes in, the visitors begin to flow out, and there is merely the beep of a the occasional heart monitor which suggests all is well. The patients themselves are mostly silent, in some cases curled up in the foetal position. They were young once, and to the original position in which they entered life, they return.

Patients don’t often speak to each other. However, I saw one woman wearing thick glasses and dressed in a magenta top turn to another who seemed impossibly frail with deep set blue eyes and bony limbs and say reassuringly, “you’re getting better, darling”. They then talked about sleep: sleep and rest are the great healers in the Stroke Ward. Yet if a patient was to be hit by a stroke right then, it’s not at all clear that a doctor’s healing hand could stop it. Perhaps he or she could limit the damage, but no doubt harm would be done.

At the end of visiting hours, a matron shouts out “Time please!” as if she was taking last orders at a bar. She’s not the head matron: a poster on the wall indicates what the various uniforms mean. A head matron wears a blouse of black with orange piping; nurses wear dark blue, assistants wear brighter shades. The matron in this case is stuck on indigo.

“Time please!” she shouts again when visitors fail to leave. An older man in a white shirt and dark trousers kisses his wife goodbye and folds his gnarled hand tenderly around hers, their grandchildren dressed in jeans shorts and florescent tank tops depart. She looks longingly after them as they leave. The shadows lengthen, the golden sunlight which has been streaming through the window turns orange, and then starts to fade. A few patients are already asleep. Sleep and rest, yes. Perhaps lost abilities, like being able to stand or open an eyelid, will be within the gift of Morpheus. If not, the physiotherapist will return in the morning to challenge them to grasp the Zimmer frame and hobble slowly down the old green linoleum lined hall towards the nurses station surrounded by trays full of black binders full of patient cases. Old muscles will try to respond to the brain’s commands and desires: they were young once, surely enough of that spark remains to resume their lives for however long they have left.

As the nurses and staff continue to busy themselves, it’s clear there are Eastern European, Filipino and London accents all removed far from home. A nurse with a strong Polish accent visits patients one by one and calls each of them “My darling”. She asks if they are comfortable. Pillows are adjusted. Then the day shift changes in a locker room back into their civvies after handing over to their nighttime counterparts. A junior doctor looks like she hasn’t slept in 48 hours, her eyes are filled with weariness as well as compassion: whatever makeup she wore at the start of her shift has faded away, slight and honest blemishes are apparent, a thin layer of hair covers her upper lip, the stethoscope remains tied around her neck like a talisman yet it also looks as if it’s ready to strangle her. But her evident fatigue doesn’t matter: she downs a coffee and continues to grapple with the shadow enemy, the disease which can hit the memory, the reflexes, the balance, the face. But in the end all she or the nurses can do is wait, administer medicine and painkillers, write reports, and keep a steady watch.

In the day room there are stacked up chairs in leaning towers and racks full of pamphlets from the Stroke Association for both patients and carers, trying to wrap up trauma in a package of reassurance. There are too many posters hanging in the day room which read “If it matters to you, it matters to us”. This contrasts with the hard edge in the voices of some of the staff. The razor of frustration cuts through the veneer of service: sometimes there are just too many questions, too many demands, too many doctors whose natural urge is to pass out in a chair in a day room and recall what it was like to be a vibrant undergraduate who could go out to the pub on occasion and becoming a doctor seemed to be a prospect without downsides.  “Time please!” may be just as much a plea as well as a command.

Celebrity Masterchef is on the television but no one is watching the obscure luminaries make a mess of a prawn cocktail, not least by trying to fry shellfish in vinegar rather than oil; rather, a black wheelchair with one female patient is set facing the window. She is dressed in pale nightgown, has white hair and is perched up on her elbows on the arms of the wheelchair. Perhaps her positioning in the room is thoughtless: all one can see from her vantage point is another wing of the hospital which is clad in brown plaster. Perhaps it was merely so the patient could feel the remaining rays of the sun on her face, presumably a joy for someone who is mainly confined within the rabbit warren of the ward.

One by one the last wakeful patients get ready to sleep, the final few stubborn visitors depart after saying “I love you” once again, white cotton pyjamas are donned, eyes shut. To sleep, perchance to dream and to heal. Maybe tomorrow, maybe it will be time to liberate oneself for the strange tang of the hospital food, the stringent regulations of visiting hours, the indignity of needing help to go to the bathroom. Perhaps one can go home to family and friends and a familiar bed and no longer have one’s nose pressed up against the facts that they’re no longer young and all that they were has just been under threat. In dreams, maybe they are still young, driving a polished blue Morris Minor down a country road which passes by Whitehaven and its dramatically inclined view of the sea, and picnics are consumed in green meadows as the summer sun comes streaming down. Maybe tomorrow, the distance between dreams of the past and the living now will be less.

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Saying Yes

September 17, 2014

Black Union FlagI can imagine what the remainder of the United Kingdom would be like without Scotland. Once the divorce became final, no doubt the country would be sombre, an emotional state brought about by the departure of a certainty. I suspect that an updated Union Flag would reflect the prevailing melancholy: the simplest change would be to replace the royal blue of the Saltire with the black of Wales’ St. David’s flag. This revised banner, however, would look like the drapery for a funeral when it is deployed on occasions of national importance. Good taste would dictate that “Rule Britannia” could be never sung again at the Last Night of the Proms: perhaps it will be replaced by a tearful rendition of “Jerusalem”. No doubt there would be some clamour among expatriate Scots for access to channels from the new Scottish Broadcasting Service so they could sing along to “Flower of Scotland” at their own Prom. When the UK Prime Minister goes to Brussels or Geneva for summits, he or she may be a diminished figure: I can imagine the shifty glances exchanged once their Scottish counterpart arrives on the scene. It may very well be that in a fit of pique, the remainder of the UK will decide to leave the European Union. The bustle and colour brought in by European immigrants to cities like London and Manchester will soften and fade. It would be a quieter country, to be sure.

North of the border, it won’t be an endless festival either. I fear that the Scottish National Party has been wildly optimistic in many of its predictions: first, the timetable for divorce is much too aggressive. It took the Czechs and Slovaks three years to split Czechoslovakia in twain, the idea that Scotland could be out by 2016 is probably laughable. Given the constraints imposed by having a currency union, the most likely monetary outcome will be a separate Scottish pound whose value is pegged either to Sterling or to the Euro. It may very well be that Scotland’s negotiations to enter the European Union will be messy: Europe is full of separatist tendencies, such as the Flemish nationalists in Belgium, the Northern League in Italy, and perhaps most pertinently, the Catalan independence movement in Spain. Spain, Italy and Belgium thus have no incentive to make it easy for Scotland to enter the EU, lest it provide an example to their restive factions. Meanwhile, uncertainty and turmoil may eat away at Scotland’s economy; furthermore, if America begins to export the oil and gas it extracts via fracking, the value of North Sea oil could fall, thus punching a hole in Scotland’s budget.

All of what I’ve described is pessimistic, but is entirely possible; it’s not often that a newly independent nation gets to bathe in the golden sunlight of good fortune. The United States initially suffered from endemic crises, brought about by the inadequate Articles of Confederation. Ghana’s promising start was tripped up by economic mismanagement and a coup d’etat. I recall visiting the newly independent Slovakia after the “Velvet Divorce” and it seemed shellshocked: for years after the split its politics were dominated by a thoroughly unwholesome demagogue named Vladimir Meciar, whose favourite scapegoats for his country’s plight were the Hungarians and the Roma. The streets of Bratislava, even on a summer’s day, seemed like they were lingering in the aftermath of a trauma. What Slovakia needed was time, a robust set of policies, and engagement with the European Union: now Slovakia is by and large a success story (indeed, Meciar’s party failed to enter parliament in the 2010 election), and its future seems relatively bright. No doubt it would be the same for Scotland: after a period of shock, there would be an adjustment, and the country would move on. The Scottish National Party hasn’t said this, rather, they’ve suggested that independence is a magic formula for economic renewal: separation may indeed lead to this rebirth, but the medicine is quite bitter and unlikely to be fast-acting.

Having said all this, is the pain worth it? In my opinion, yes: worthwhile change is often wrenching and sometimes requires a wholesale break with the past.

It’s clear that the present order is not sustainable. Citizens participate in elections, yet the governments they elect continue to harm them. This situation is particularly acute in Scotland; a few days ago, I saw a film which showed the operation of a Scottish food bank. Malnourishment is rife, indeed, the individual running the food bank described how one woman was so ravenous that she started taking cans of beans off the shelf, opening them and eating their cold contents.

Inside Maryhill Food Bank – Yes Scotland

Such a situation in a wealthy country, and particularly one in which substantial banker bonuses continue to be paid, inspires disgust and despair: it also speaks of the failure of a political system to cater to its constituents. Scotland used to return upwards of 20 Conservative MPs to Westminster (in 1931, it elected 50): in the last election it sent only one. Yet Scotland is mainly run by a Tory-led government which continues to inflict privation and misery via policies such as the “Bedroom Tax”.

Under these circumstances, a break is not only justifiable, it is required. We should be thankful that this rupture is occurring within the context of a referendum, not via violence on the streets. Perhaps just such a dramatic divorce will force the Establishment in the remainder of the UK, which has hitherto been deaf to the cry of the destitute, to confront the threadbare reality of their constituents’ lives and to do something about improving matters, lest further eruptions are provoked. Certainly, Scotland’s departure will at least provide a salubrious jolt to the powers that be: they will be reminded that if the electorate ever got truly fed up with them, they could be swept away in the blink of an eye.

Once Scotland gets beyond the pain of separation, it has reason to hope, although continued reliance on oil and gas is probably not sensible given how these commodities fluctuate in value and will eventually run out. However, there is plenty of potential for expanding the use of renewable forms of energy such as wind and tidal power. Scots are among the best educated people in Europe, with a reputation for excellence in science and engineering: these talents should be further encouraged by policies which promote entrepreneurship. Once out of London’s orbit, there is no need for the country to metaphorically tilt as it does, drawing talent towards the south of England. Rather, skilled people could be incentivised to gravitate towards Edinburgh or Glasgow.  Already there is reason to believe, as evidenced by the excellent Scottish Review of Books, that a new flowering of Scottish culture is on its way.  Yes, change will hurt: there will be years of uncertainty, mistakes will be made, no government is run by clairvoyant geniuses, perhaps there will even be a full blown economic slowdown. There may even be moments of deep doubt.  But as the United States, Ghana and Slovakia have shown, liberty is worth it: paternalistic elites are shown the door, and those who are most likely to be concerned with the fate of the nation are granted the task of guiding it. Yes, those of us who live south of the border will look at the black in a revised union flag and see a void: but necessity created this vacuum, for it is necessity that seems to be saying “Yes”.

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Review: “Blithe Spirit” by Noël Coward, starring Angela Lansbury and Charles Edwards

May 25, 2014

Blithe Spirit ProgrammeIt’s difficult for me to say when I first became aware of Angela Lansbury. Perhaps it was due the Disney film “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” in which she played the trainee witch Eglantine Price. It may have been when I saw her on television in the long running series “Murder She Wrote”. She certainly caught my attention as Raymond Shaw’s domineering mother in the 1962 film, “The Manchurian Candidate”: her speech about making “Martial Law seem like anarchy” chilled me to the bone. On the other hand, I was captivated by her luminescent beauty when she portrayed Princess Gwendolyn in Danny Kaye’s 1956 comedy, “The Court Jester”. All told, she has been a constant on my television screen and in the cinema; any film or programme that featured her was indicative of quality.

She is now 88 years old. However, if anyone thought that the years she’s accrued would deter her from continuing to captivate audiences, they are mistaken. She is now on stage in a new version of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” and it’s obvious from the get-go that her powers remain undiminished.

I was fortunate to have a very good vantage point for all the action: I sat in the front row. I believe this was the first time I’ve ever had such a close up view of the actors. From that angle, one can see the greasepaint and little flickers of emotion playing out across the protagonists’ faces. In a lesser production, this could shatter the illusion; in this instance, proximity enhanced it.

“Blithe Spirit” is the tale of a middle-aged novelist named Charles Condomine (played by veteran actor Charles Edwards) who is living quietly with his somewhat prim and regimented wife Ruth (portrayed by Janie Dee) in a small village in Kent. Charles and Ruth have a comfortable relationship, seemingly devoted though devoid of passion; they have seen and experienced enough of life to realise that it’s sufficient to have a partner that is not constantly irritating and upon which one can rely.

Seven years prior to the events in the play, Charles was married to a much more physically accommodating and vivacious, if less reliable, woman named Elvira. Elvira died after a bout of pneumonia, apparently from a fit of laughter while listening to a comedy programme on the radio.

Charles wants to write a murder mystery with a medium as a main character; as part of his research he invites the eccentric Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury) to dinner and encourages her to perform a séance. Ms. Lansbury fills the stage the moment she steps onto it: I found that my gaze was solely fixed on what she was doing, and I was hanging off every word she said. She found the right pitch and timbre for her odd, wise yet endearing character which made her three dimensional as opposed to a cardboard cut out. A lack of depth and interiority can be a temptation in “drawing room comedies”, some of which are more about the delivery of witticisms than the development of characters and plot. Ms. Lansbury also displayed her continuing talent for physical comedy: as part of going into a trance, she moved about the stage, waved her arms and did high kicks worthy of a Monty Python sketch.

Madame Arcati’s gyrations, incantations and table tapping yield a terrible mistake: they summon the ghost of Elvira (played with sultry panache by Jemima Rooper) to come back into Charles’ life.

Charles EdwardsIt’s at this moment that the character of Charles comes into his own: he presents the dilemma of a man who essentially has two wives, one living and one passed on, possessing contrasting virtues, both present at the same time and both wanting him to themselves. He intimates that he feels terribly guilty about the death of one wife, and yet he says he doesn’t want to be unkind to the one who is alive. That said, the play is sufficiently honest to show a moment in which Charles makes it clear that he would like both wives to be around, engaging him in a sort of cosmic ménage a trois. Charles is also insufferably vain throughout: it’s unclear if his concern for either wife stems from actual love, his desire to maintain his self-image or just to stop being nagged. The play suggests it’s a combination of all of the above, with love being the lesser ingredient in the mix.

Charles as the play’s locus is one of its few features which truly date it. “Blithe Spirit” was first performed in 1941 and thus some of its sexual politics are archaic; nevertheless, there is a gleam of awareness that radiates from the dialogue. For all his self-love and his wives’ supposed love for him, Charles is a relentlessly hapless character, and whatever he attempts to mollify one wife only serves to irritate the other; Charles Edwards expertly captures this wretched bewilderment, vanity and self-delusion in his performance.

The other characters are just as well drawn and portrayed: Ruth may be stern and unyielding but she is not a stereotypical harridan, rather, she is someone who has had to learn to stand up for herself after being mistreated far too often. Elvira at first appears to be a male fantasy, an eternally youthful and voluptuous sexual partner, but this façade eventually drops as she’s revealed to have ambitions, schemes and inconsistencies. The relations between men and women are shown to be a battle, unequal because of the times in which they live, constantly churning and only bearable because of the laughter that can be had through tears and the cosseting provided by bourgeois comforts.

This potent elixir is delivered via Noël Coward’s skilful writing, his humour providing the sweetener that makes the bitter medicine palatable. I laughed quite a lot during the performance, I thought about what the play was really trying to say only afterwards. While it was on, it was a raucous romp, but long after the last bow was taken, it moved me.

Some may say that this interpretation reads too much into Coward’s work: however, it must be noted that the play doesn’t come with a stereotypically happy ending. Rather, all the characters are sent back into their corners, alone, whether in this life or the next. Love does not triumph, neither does virtue; it’s doubtful either exists in this play. Rather, there is a brief, misogynistic paean to personal liberty, a hasty exit, and the curtain falls.

I have heard rumours that this will be Ms. Lansbury’s last outing on stage; after this, the fine thread she has woven through our culture may finally taper out. It could be said that “Blithe Spirit” is also about saying “farewell” and the realisation that a conclusion inevitably comes to any state of affairs. Given this, perhaps she could not have chosen a better work with which to exit.

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A Triumph of Youth

May 24, 2014

Vote 2014 MontageI often find myself in London the day after a major British election. I was here when it was confirmed that Boris Johnson had been re-elected as Mayor; it was as if some hidden force was compelling me to press my nose up against that spectacle. At just about the time that the result was announced, I walked past a storm grate from which a powerful stench arose: it seemed as if the city itself was suffering from terrible flatulence. When Tony Blair triumphed in 1997, I was staying at my parents’ London home: it was a summer’s day brought forward to May, and the sun was so radiant that the blue sky had turned almost white. I remained glued to my television set throughout the day as Blair proceeded to Buckingham Palace and then on to cheering crowds at Downing Street. Now that the 2014 local election has concluded, perhaps strangely, I am here again.

Whenever I arrive in London, I’m struck by the tremendous contrast it provides to other parts of the country. Bradford was once a very rich city: the Victorian homes in Manningham made of alabaster stone tell the tale, as does the resplendent St. George’s Hall in the centre of town, which resembles a Roman temple. Wool made the city fabulously wealthy, but then the textile industry disappeared; what remains are monuments to those boom times. The alabaster terraces in Manningham are now homes to immigrants from Mirpur and other parts of Pakistan who live a stone’s throw from a fast food establishment selling fried chicken. There have been worse times and better times since the term “Bradford industrialist” passed out of common currency, and there are signs of life in the city still, but nothing like the city’s original prosperity has returned as of yet.

London, on the other hand, is currently in the midst of a boom: this is not just evident in the numbers of people queuing to buy overpriced latte in Starbucks at Kings Cross, it was obvious in the cafés full to overflowing near Covent Garden, the little boutiques filled with irrelevant bric-a-brac that were making smartly-dressed professionals reach for their credit cards, the young people hanging off the base of the plinth at Trafalgar Square, smiling for selfies taken by the latest 4G phones to be posted on Twitter with the hashtag #bankholidayweekend. Pass by and roll on to neatly pressed streets; prior to coming down to London, I’d seen a Bradford Moor laundrette entitled “Clean Scene”, the windows were clouded with steam and the white paint on the establishment’s sign was peeling. In London, I passed by the “Celebrity Dry Cleaners”, its obsidian sign was lit with neon. Some people in dark suits, others in bright blue or purple or white tailored shirts stood outside of pubs, smoking and drinking pints of ale. I arrived at one place that not only served a range of foreign lagers, but also fine wines, gourmet cooking and Cuban cigars. No doubt the young woman in a black and yellow dress in that establishment who was chatting earnestly with a middle aged man with sandy hair who was trying to balance a conversation on one hand and glance at his Blackberry in the other felt their conversation was important. Perhaps it was: but it was a scene so full of lucre it seemed untouched by politics.

After finding a more modest pub for dinner, I thought a bit more about the election. All told, it had been a great result for the Bradford Labour Party: Councillor Mohammed Shafiq of Bradford Moor was returned to office, though by a tiny margin of 56 votes. Rizwana Jamil took the previously Tory held ward of Bowling and Barkerend by a massive 1669 votes, securing 56% of the total. And Naveeda Ikram, who in addition to being councillor for Little Horton, also was Britain’s first female Muslim mayor, romped home with 76% of the vote. Overall, Labour managed to regain control of the council.

There were other reasons to be happy with Bradford’s result: the Respect Party, or as it’s known these days, Respect (George Galloway), didn’t pick up a single seat. The UK Independence Party, far from accruing massive gains everywhere as was suggested by its acolytes at the BBC, was confined to Keighley West.

These results contained some disappointments. For example, I was very impressed by Labour’s candidate for Bolton and Undercliffe, Frank Dignan. He’s a barrister, well spoken and very articulate. Unfortunately his voice won’t be heard on the council this time around. In my own ward, Labour was also unsuccessful. Also, I don’t like that UKIP have any foothold whatsoever. Nevertheless, the “UKIP surge” simply didn’t happen: yes, there were some wards in Bradford where they came second, but there were also many in which they didn’t compete at all. All they have now is that one individual who will probably approach Bradford City Hall and find he has no allies in the chamber; he may even have problems figuring out where to hang his hat. No doubt his interventions will be few, his voice, largely ignored. It will be a long, possibly embittering term in office.

The HamiltonsPerhaps, however, he doesn’t qualify for the moniker of the “saddest” member of UKIP; that may be Neil Hamilton. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Hamilton, he along with his wife Christine, is more a reality television personality than an actual politician. The couple were infamous for providing documentary maker Louis Theroux with one of the weirdest of his “Weird Weekends” in which Christine made her unseemly attraction to Mr. Theroux quite plain. More seriously, the Hamiltons were implicated in a Cash for Questions scandal prior to the 1997 election. At that point, anti-corruption campaigner Martin Bell arrived wearing his white suit, and rather like a latter day Gandalf, drew the poison of the corrupt couple out of their Tatton constituency. Nevertheless, the Hamiltons were unable to take the hint that a period of prolonged if not eternal silence would be apropos. They left the Tories, joined UKIP and subsequently thrust themselves back into the limelight. Hamilton just tried to win a council seat in Wandsworth; he only accrued 396 votes, which presumably were from people who had never heard of him. He appeared on Channel Four News after this resounding defeat and spoke of the environment in London being challenging as so many of its denizens had been born elsewhere. The word “cosmopolitan” was also thrown into the mix. This impolitic outburst followed similarly simultaneously flattering yet denigrating comments by Suzanne Evans, a UKIP spokesperson, who said that her party had problems gaining support from the “educated, cultural and young.”

Bradford and London are very different in terms of wealth, both are united by being “young places”. Bradford’s demographic profile makes it one of the most youthful places in the country, London is a place to which the young gravitate and which engenders a youthful, open outlook. The comprehensive rejection of UKIP by youth in both areas indicates that it hasn’t much of a future. Its insular, backward looking philosophy doesn’t fit with the Bradford denizen whose parents came from Mirpur or Bratislava; it doesn’t sit well with the owner of the Celebrity Dry Cleaners who probably has to navigate every sort of accent and language in order to find out whether he ought to apply starch or not. It doesn’t make sense in a world that is ever more driven by interconnected technology and international trade to pull up the drawbridge and tell everyone to go away.

I lingered in the pub for a time last night and drank a pint of golden ale. As I sipped it, I noticed that from the polished wood beams above me hung flags of many nations in preparation for the World Cup. The flags of Bosnia, Italy, Nigeria, Greece, Ghana, Croatia, Japan, to name but a few, were there. Beneath, young people of varying ethnicities, accents and professions were talking and flirting and glancing at mobile phones and sipping on pints of lager, glasses of wine and bottles of mineral water. I had been feeling the past week’s labours and the difficulties of the day’s travel catch up with me; this scene was invigorating. I reflected: far from being an outlier in being “educated, cultural and young”, perhaps such scenes are indicative of where Britain is going. Perhaps far from a surge, what we’re witnessing from UKIP is one last great howl of reaction before modern, diverse Britain finally triumphs.

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Switched On

May 19, 2014

naveedashirtSigns of the imminent election can be seen throughout Bradford: a drive down Upper Rushton Road provides ample evidence of support for Labour’s Councillor Mohammed Shafiq. A few diamond shaped orange Liberal Democrat signs are present along Harrogate Road. Yesterday, I drove through Toller ward and was almost overwhelmed by the number of red banners featuring the visage of Councillor Imran Hussain. In Manningham, a small lorry slowly carried along a massive red, green and white sign advertising the Respect Party, which has apparently been renamed “Respect (George Galloway)” in order to remind people whose party it is. In Little Horton, t-shirts favouring Labour Councillor Naveeda Ikram are all the rage.

At home, leaflets from every political grouping imaginable have been shoved through my letterbox, including one from an obscure anti-EU and avowedly xenophobic group of which I had never heard. I performed an experiment with a UKIP leaflet by placing it in one of the cats’ litter trays; they subsequently avoided it, presumably because they thought it was already full.

Feline diffidence aside, this election is crucial for Bradford: at the moment, no party has overall control of the city council. While there are more Labour councillors than any other grouping, this state of affairs makes running the city more tricky than perhaps it should be. Nevertheless, the Westfield Bradford shopping complex is presently being built; the much maligned “Hole” has been filled with a large construction site. On a bright Spring Sunday afternoon, the City Park, also completed by the current council, is a pleasant place where families gather and wade in its vast pool. Should Labour win a majority, there should be more to come; perhaps the council will build upon the emergence of locally-designed products such as the NFC Ring, and bolster the city’s reputation for creating wearable technology.

That said, elections are often unsatisfying spectacles from a technologist’s point of view. A lot of lip service is paid to the digital economy and many politicians are avid users of social media, but a true understanding of modern technology’s potential and pitfalls is not widespread. Furthermore, there have been a lot of false dawns and unfulfilled promises: for example, David Cameron visited Bradford some time ago and pledged super-fast broadband for the city. This has only been partially delivered, and what we do have is due to Virgin Media and the city’s existing cable television infrastructure. The rollout of its rival, BT Infinity, has been botched: many exchanges are fibre enabled, but in order for residents to take advantage of it, work needs to be done at the various junctions. This is by no means uniform: far too few green boxes have the bright sticker saying that it has been set up. The result is a crazy quilt of services, not truly prevalent super-fast availability with proper competition to hold down prices.

Our current national government is not just clueless about broadband on a local level. They also don’t understand that a national plan for faster broadband is necessary to compete in the “global race” which has been so prevalent in Tory rhetoric. South Korea, for example, has started rolling out 1 Gbps broadband throughout their country. Google Fiber is delivering 1 Gbps speeds in Kansas City, and will soon be bringing the same to Austin, Texas and Provo, Utah. Google and South Korea both understand that it’s not possible to have a digital economy without a proper digital infrastructure. In contrast, Britain’s Conservative-led government hasn’t actively courted Google to get them to extend their Fiber service to Britain’s cities; it would be a great boon to otherwise economically struggling towns in the North. Furthermore, considering the taxes that Google should be paying to the Exchequer, it’s the least they could do. Instead, the present government would rather spend £43 billion on new high speed rail services. While high speed rail is often impressive, and is widely perceived as the latest fashion accessory of a modern country, it doesn’t pass the test of a cost-benefit analysis. The current plans for high speed rail are London-centric: they will not extend to places like Wales and Cornwall, which are some of the most deprived regions in Europe. Indeed, by improving the links to London, this may not act as an incentive for businesses to relocate elsewhere, but rather, may cause more economic activity to tip towards the capital.

Admittedly, a national scheme to roll out 1 Gbps broadband would not be cheap; the nearest comparison we have is the National Broadband Network project which was proposed by Australia’s last Labor government. In order to provide high speed broadband to all, it was estimated that the cost would be in the region of £17 billion. Assuming that Australia’s complex geography and vast size incur exceptional costs, it is likely that it would be far cheaper to roll out a similar scheme in Britain; even if inevitable overruns meant that it cost the same or even more than Australia’s plan, it would still be far cheaper than high speed rail, and furthermore, it would be an improvement that reached every corner of the country.

Having said all this, no major political party in Britain has made broadband an issue in the same way that Australia’s Labor Party did in the 2010 election. Nor has any major political party addressed the major economic changes and challenges which are on their way due to new technology.

raspberrypiWhen the Raspberry Pi single board computer was introduced, it was perceived as a product which would revolutionise technology education. It was thought that a cheap, accessible computer would make it much easier for children to learn how to code. This is true, but the Raspberry Pi, a British invention, has had far greater significance than perhaps was originally intended. This past February, I attended a trade show; I was informed by a gentleman who worked for one of Europe’s most prestigious and stolid passport agencies that they used the Raspberry Pi to develop prototype printing machines. At around the same time, I was told by one of my most forward-thinking technology partners that they believed that future of innovation lay with individual inventors and groups of like-minded inventors (henceforth called hackerspaces) using tools like the Raspberry Pi. This partner also imparted that a lot of companies suffer from an innovation gap: namely, when a scientist in a large firm has a great idea, often this is stopped at the point when the boffin is asked for the potential return on investment. A boffin being a boffin, this is often a puzzling question, as to him or her innovation for its own sake is worth having; furthermore, many boffins simply cannot calculate the return on investment for a particular innovation as it may be unknowable. Indeed, a truly bold innovator will often fly in the face of conventional wisdom. For example, prior to the release of the iPad, Steve Jobs was told that tablet computers were a waste of time. After all, Apple had failed to make money on a previous effort, the Newton. Microsoft had also tried to develop tablet computers and suffered disastrous results. Nevertheless, Jobs believed the innovation proffered by the iPad was worth having as it would revolutionise the market: he was right. But Jobs was a one-off: innovation often remains stunted in corporate silos which are desperately trying not to offend conservatively-minded shareholders.

However, as the Raspberry Pi makes it cheaper for larger concerns (like a passport agency) to innovate, it also makes it easier for individuals and hackerspaces to create inventions which could make their way into mass production. Individuals and hackerspaces can be commissioned to innovate, thus leaping over the current innovation gap. This economic change is empowering: it means that there will be vast networks of craftspeople throughout the world who operate in symbiosis with large firms to deliver the latest and greatest products. This is not a revolution confined solely to the field of electronics engineering, Levi’s is also utilising this model to create new clothes. That said, the current government doesn’t appear to understand or appreciate this enormous change in innovation, development and production. Thanks to the present government, the craftspeople are going to find it much more financially onerous to access higher education at a time when it should be made ever easier to obtain. On a more basic level, the national curriculum as proposed by Michael Gove hasn’t adapted to this changed environment; most children do not receive a Raspberry Pi along with their textbooks. The current government has also not commissioned a new series of standard contracts like the Lambert agreements in order to facilitate contract negotiations between the craftspeople and larger firms. Tax policy is also not geared towards this paradigm shift; it should be. Additionally, the significant breakthroughs in science created by British universities such as graphene are not supported properly. In the case of graphene, China has over 2000 patents utilising this ground-breaking material, the United States, in excess of 1700: Britain only has 50. As these examples illustrate, the government should be there as a partner and facilitator; however, the prevalent ideology of the current regime states that all one needs to do is abscond from the marketplace and all will be well. This ideology is buttressed by hypocrisy: the Tory-led government has actively intervened in the housing market, creating the sugar-rush sensation of prosperity caused by a house-price bubble.

The 2014 campaign has not been animated by such long-term issues: the appalling, yet colourful bigotry of UKIP candidates throughout the land has obscured the intellectual poverty of the current Conservative-led government. Their sole idea is to continue to privatise instead of build. This propensity has been taken to absurd lengths; Michael Gove’s Department of Education has proposed privatising child protection services, which would instantly change their mission statement from the simple, wholesome purpose of helping children to making money for shareholders. The Tories’ Liberal Democrat partners would like us to focus on the tax breaks they secured for the lower paid, though their backing of higher tuition fees has laid a bear trap for the innovation economy we need. This is not to say Labour is perfect: it has its share of technophobes. But at least Labour has one idea that marks it out, which shows that it is the party most capable of being “Switched On”: it believes the state should take an active role. It means that with Labour, education stands a chance of becoming more accessible and relevant, it means there is the possibility that HS2 could be cancelled and National Broadband implemented, it suggests that the necessary foundations for the future economy could be set down. The election of 2014 is a crucial milestone in this journey. So, on Thursday, I’ll get up early, feed the cats, drink my coffee, and get dressed; hopefully it will be a bright morning as I take a brief walk to my polling station. When I get there, I’ll present my polling card and take up a pencil to mark my ballot; it won’t take me long to tick the boxes beside the names of the Labour candidates.

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At the Midnight Veterinarian

January 25, 2014

thomasboxIt was serious. Normally, a litter tray at the end of the day is a mess, but this time, it was a horror show. My fiancée had called me down to take a look: up until that point, it had been a normal work day, with its usual hastily consumed cups of coffee, teleconferences and writing documents and emails. I had driven home and changed into more comfortable clothes; I anticipated nothing more than a little dinner, a little television, another check on work e-mails, and then a chance to sleep.

Our cats are an important part of such evenings: they often process like actors on and off stage, casting a glance at us before departing the tableau. Our cat Amelia is the shy one: the slightest noise or disruption will make her scurry for cover. Another cat, Sarah Jane, is the stubborn and clever one: if I’ve shut the doors and windows, she will examine every last exit and entry point to find a means of escape.

Thomas, a stray who turned up on my doorstep in March 2012, is the soft one. He will often come for affection to either myself or my fiancée, and nuzzle his black and white head up against a hand. He is profuse in his purring and strangely not averse to remaining in close proximity to humans for extended periods of time.

All three are valuable. All three are loved. When my other half called me down to look at the litter tray, she had that odd lilt of forced calm in her voice that indicated panic.

The litter trays are in a spare bathroom on the ground floor. When I arrived, my fiancée showed me one of them: rather than normal urine, there was a profusion of blood.

All I could say was “Oh no.” We humans are actually rather tough creatures, capable of adapting to extremes: we can consume poisons, say, Carling Black Label, in quantities that would kill more sensitive creatures. We can adapt to temperatures that many animals will eschew. We also recover from illnesses better than many other mammals. The contents of the litter tray looked like the result of a kidney problem: for a cat, such issues can be fatal.

At first, it was unclear who had done it. I found Amelia on our bed, she looked nervous, but no more so than usual: she rolled around on her back which is her way of asking for a tummy rub. Sarah Jane sat at the top of the stair, her usual place, looking as watchful and thoughtful as ever. I noted her step as she bounded toward her food bowl: normal. Only Thomas seemed subdued: the look in his eyes was sad. My other half concurred: something wasn’t right with him. When I picked him up, he let out a little yelp: this was atypical. My other half and I looked at each other. It was him.

I retrieved our blue and white cat box: it was stored in an outdoor closet and was cold and needed to have some cobwebs wiped off of it. My other half found an old red towel to line it. She gently urged Thomas into the box: being so agreeable, he did not resist.

It was close unto 7 PM: our local veterinarian shuts at that time. Nevertheless, it was worth a try: my other half had gotten a urine sample which she placed in a small glass jar. The rain was falling gently; my street in Bradford was lit solely by the limited reflected light from the windows of the houses which line it and the orange street lamps. We put Thomas and his box on the back seat of the car. I turned the key and we drove as the rain continued to fall. I put on a classical music station: the orchestra playing, the engine grunting were the only noises which penetrated the silence.

My mind was reeling. Had we not put down fresh water for him? Indeed, we had. His water was changed more or less every day. Could it be an infection? Certainly: but hopefully a shot of antibiotics would clear that up. Cats can get cancer: did he have that?

We arrived. A middle aged woman with sandy hair and wearing a brown coat and a purple scarf sat in the corner of the waiting room: she was dabbing her eyes with tissue. Another man with short grey hair came out of one of the examination rooms: he went over to her and spoke to her, then disappeared back inside.

We tried to see the vet: eventually we were greeted by a nurse wearing navy blue scrubs and holding a large glass bottle with a purple and white label. Her expression indicated deep annoyance.

“Can you not analyse the sample we gave you?” my other half asked. I added that it would be useful to find out if any hormones were within so we could make sure it was Thomas who was having the problem.

“You’ll have to come back in the morning,” she told us.

“Are you sure it’s safe to wait that long?” my other half asked.

“You’ll have to come back in the morning.”

The nurse then returned to the examination room. I looked into the cat box: Thomas was sitting quietly, though his eyes seemed wide, glassy. I pushed my fingers through the metal bars and stroked his head: he purred lightly, as if he was chuckling through fear. The man finally emerged from the examination room. He had a few words with the woman who had been crying. Whatever had been done in this case, I presume euthanasia, was finished. The woman got up, looked at us and said, “You wonder if it’s worth it.” They departed.

There was nothing to do. We drove home; the rain was falling steadily. I let Thomas out of his box in the front hall. He quietly padded his way towards the living room. My fiancée suggested we make him drink: I made a cocktail of 1 part milk, 3 parts water, which I held in front of him. He drank. He drank his fill and lay on a beige ottoman, his eyes three-quarters shut. I stroked his head.

My other half watched us. I wasn’t paying attention to her gaze, I was continuing to pet Thomas and praise him, telling him what a good boy he was and that we didn’t want him to go anywhere.

I remembered when he first showed up. It was in that peculiar March of 2012 when we had a burst of warm spring sunshine. There was a red folding chair set out on the decking: my first sight of Thomas was him sitting on that chair, his paws folded, his face tilted towards the sun as if he was trying to get a tan. He was very friendly: he had no hesitation in approaching us. He ate all the food we gave him. He kept coming back. My other half once examined his paws and found they were covered in callouses, indicative of a wandering lifestyle.

My other half, fearful of becoming attached to him, named him “Tom”, as in “Tom Cat”. I started calling him Thomas after the Apostle, the only one of Jesus’ original followers who went outside the Roman Empire, and thus had travelled far. My partner asked our neighbours about his origins and confirmed he was a stray.

The warmth of March was followed by a vengeful blizzard in early April. Just as the storm hit, I ushered Amelia and Sarah Jane inside, and then Thomas showed up at the back door, crying to be let in. I opened the door. He’s lived with us ever since.

Now when I awake in the morning, usually Thomas is laying there at my feet or on my back, along with his sister Sarah Jane, waiting for me to descend down the darkened stairs to the kitchen to feed them. Once that task is done and I’m typing on my laptop, he will often leap up beside me with a quizzical look on his face, almost as if he’s asking if he can help.

thomascakeattackAs I looked at Thomas laying on the ottoman, his face serene yet somehow suffering, I wondered if all that would be gone. I knew that if consulted others, many would say, “He’s just a cat”. Perhaps he had more personality and eccentricities than most: after all, he has a passion for eating cake. But to many, he would still remain “just a cat”.

I thought Cocteau would disagree, after all he referred to a cat as the soul of the house. Thomas in many ways had added warmth to the spirit of my home. Open a window, could it dissipate into the winter air?

“It’s a pity that they don’t have midnight vets like in much of America,” I said. I was sure that if we were in London that there would be one, but it seemed unlikely there would be such a place in Bradford. The lights in the houses outside were going out one by one, the rain continued to fall, people were going to sleep. Would there be enough demand to sustain such a place?

My other half tapped her iPad: as it turned out, there was one less than 4 miles away. She phoned up: both our jaws dropped at the price of an appointment. My inner Yorkshireman cried “How much?!?” but then I looked at Thomas. Although I quietly wished for an Animal NHS, I said “Let’s do it.”

Thomas went into his box again. We drove along the A6177 Ring Road, and then through the middle of Bradford itself. Though late, the lights hadn’t gone out. I thought: Thomas is a Bradford cat, born and bred. This may have been the only time he’d be taken through the middle of his city. I tried to push such thoughts aside. Some of the other drivers drove at 100 miles per hour and abandoned the idea of using turn signals. The roads glistened with rain and street lights. We finally found a big sign marked “PDSA”, the animal hospital. Without much care for tidy parking, we pulled up.

The animal hospital looked like a large bungalow or a small school in the darkness, albeit it was surrounded by a high metal fence. At the door ahead of us was a large, middle aged man wearing a tan coat; a younger man with greasy hair and wearing a plaid shirt carried a cardboard box. He had a cat in the box. It was scratching, gasping and shrieking in pain.

The door buzzed. We stepped inside. There was a aqua coloured waiting room, the colours made harsh by the fluorescent lights and the late hour. The room was lined with hard wooden benches. We informed the young nurse behind the desk that we had arrived. Thomas sat quietly in his box. The other cat continued to shriek. Two other young men were there, holding an Alsatian who was obviously suffering from a broken paw.

One of the doors to the examination rooms opened: the young men were called in and they carried their dog gently in to be seen. The other cat continued to cry out and try to claw out of the box. My other half spoke to the cat owners: apparently their pet suddenly had been unable to move her back legs. There had been no symptoms, no warning. There was only that piercing cry which punctuated the air every few seconds, followed by gasping and scratching.

Thomas was alarmed. At every cry, he perked his ears up. He himself did not cry. He merely looked through the bars at me, as if he was seeking reassurance.

“It’s going to be OK, Thomas,” I told him. Then the cry rang out again.

Finally, we were called in. My other half did the right thing by letting the other cat go ahead of us. The door of the examination room shut. The cries became more intense as presumably the cat was lifted out of her box and she was examined.

I could only catch snippets of conversation, namely, “This is very serious”, “it’s a blood clot”, “there’s not much we can do”. The cries got louder. The young man whose cat it presumably was, left the room, his eyes glistening as much as his greasy face.

Then, silence.

I heard more snippets: “It happens all of a sudden, it’s unfortunate” “That was her blanket, she can keep it” “No, we don’t want to dispose of her” The door opened and the middle aged man stepped out. Laying on the table inside the examination room, I saw a little white and tortoise shell form, partially draped in a brown blanket.

The door shut. The man went to the nurse. “How much do I owe you?” he asked.

“That’s £232.50.”

He had to run to a cash machine to get the remainder, but left £90 behind.

It was well past midnight and I had been up since 5:30 AM. The adrenalin was pumping, but nevertheless, there was a heaviness in my eyes that was proving difficult to ignore. I pushed my fingers through the bars to stroke Thomas again. He purred slightly.

We were called in again. The examination table had been wiped clean, the streak marks of the disinfectant clearly visible. I placed the box on it.

The veterinarian had bright red hair and wore dark blue scrubs: she had a no-nonsense manner about her. It wasn’t that she was lacking in compassion, I presume the previous patient had forced her to push her emotions down. Thomas stepped out of his box to face her. She then administered a rectal thermometer. As I gently held Thomas while this occurred, I mused on the fact that I’d probably have precisely the same expression on my face as he did if it was happening to me. His yellow-green eyes were wide with shock.

His temperature was normal. The vet thought it would be best to give him some anti-inflammatory drugs but first she took some blood to test his kidney function. We’d have to wait another thirty minutes. She shaved his ankle, took the blood and wrapped it in a blue velcro fastened bandage.

Back to the hard benches: the young men with the dog had returned without their pet, they were apparently waiting for x-rays. Another couple came in: a young, skinny blonde woman and her boyfriend, a friendly, effusive Yorkshireman with close cropped black hair. They were carrying their cat in brown plastic carrier box. The cat looked dishevelled. The gentleman told us that they were from Armley in Leeds: he said that he thought that their cat had either fallen into a can of diesel or worse, had been doused in it by some kids. I mused aloud as to what kind of animals would torture a cat so.

We were called back in. Apparently Thomas’ kidney function was normal: the vet injected him with the anti-inflammatories. The details of his treatment would be transmitted to our usual vet in the morning.

The bill was in excess of £200. I could almost hear my debit card creak as I paid: I wondered if this is what the future of healthcare would be like without the NHS. I remembered the last time I sought help from American doctors, namely to get a Whooping Cough vaccine: the cost at that time was $80. I then looked at Thomas again. It looked as if he was asking to go home.

We did. By the time the front door was shut and locked, it was 1:30 AM. Thomas was persuaded to consume some more fluid and went to sleep. The next day we returned to our usual vet, who was apologetic. Thomas received a further injection of antibiotics and a course of anti-inflammatory treatments. Several days after his ordeal, he is back again to greeting me in the morning, his face arched upward hopefully as I enter the kitchen, and he tries to interrupt me as I work. Those who have never lived with a cat would say in the final analysis that he is “just a cat”. He is “just a cat”: but that doesn’t mean he is incapable of feeling happiness and pain, enjoying life or finding it a misery, being ill or being healthy. It also doesn’t preclude him from the possibility of feeling deep emotion for those who care for him; our usual vet speculated that male cats often suffer from “stress related” conditions which can trigger such blood letting. We had been away quite a lot over the holiday period and Thomas has abandonment issues. If I am in a room where there is a shut door between him and I, he’ll often scratch at it frantically, demanding to be let in.

Regardless of his capability (or not) of loving in a human way, it definitely doesn’t preclude him from being loved by the humans who care for him. The trip to the midnight vet would seem madness to some, but as I type this on a tranquil Saturday morning and the cats lay sleeping in the hall, all is well. Thank goodness.

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Me And My Blog

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

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