A Death in the Family

August 10, 2015

AmeliaI was probably the last human being to see my cat Amelia alive. It was a bright August morning: the coffee maker was gurgling away as it pushed hot water through the freshly ground beans. The kitchen was imbued with the scent of banana flavoured porridge which was just out of the microwave. The sun was shining: I looked out the kitchen window and could see blossoms of magenta, white and blue in the garden, and the golden morning light blazing onto the flat land. Distant white windmills turned in the stiff breeze. It was difficult to believe that anything particularly bad could happen on such a day.

Dear Amelia sat on the windowsill, her black and white head bobbing along with my movements through the kitchen, her pale yellow-green eyes darting back and forth, trying to anticipate what I would do next. Amelia was a hunter and she didn’t care for being cooped up in the house, particularly on a morning in which the birds were singing and the grass was rustling with life.

I had a propensity to put Amelia’s looks into words. In this instance, her gaze said:

“I am such a good cat, if you let me out, I will come back, I promise!”

Hitherto, that had been the case. Certainly, she had given myself and my partner long, worrisome nights when she didn’t come back at dusk: however, usually there would be a cry outside my window at four in the morning. I would stumble down the stairs, unlock and open the door and her black and white form would power past me. Yes, she had been spending more time out as of late and a decision had been made to keep her in for several weeks: but she was restless and the summer sun was warm. So I opened the window: she leapt out and strolled across the courtyard in front of my home. She turned a corner, which indicated she was heading towards the front yard.

I never saw her again.

A full 24 hours passed and she didn’t return home. In the midst of our mutual fretting, my fiancee and I had some hope she would come back: after all, Amelia had once been a feral cat and she had recently developed a taste for the “fast food” provided by the various rodents and birds on our property. Several weeks ago, I saw her out on the lawn: she caught a field mouse and gobbled it up at speed.  It was amazing to see her in predator mode, considering how endearing and cuddly she was most of the time.

We thought perhaps she had gone on a “hunting trip”. Not too far from our home is a grove of trees which seemed ideal grounds for it: the trees are thick, old and dense. No doubt all manner of prey would be there. I thought of Amelia as a latter day Robin Hood, living off of the land in her own variant of Sherwood.

My fiancee and I went for a walk amidst the fields of sugar beet and rye. Eventually, we arrived at the grove: we called out her name repeatedly and loudly.  We got no response except the occasional bird singing, a cow mooing from a nearby field and the sound of the wind rushing through the trees. The grove itself was less idyllic close up than it was from a distance. People had dumped old furniture, including a sofa and chairs covered in torn red leather, into it. Old refrigerators and televisions were also present, as was a discarded car door. Indeed, all manner of rubbish was there, but no Amelia. We took a dangerous walk alongside an A road looking for any sign as cars and lorries zoomed passed us, whipping the air from behind us. The occasionally less than helpful driver honked their horn. I thought if Amelia had strayed anywhere near this road, she was doomed. As it so happened, we found nothing.

My fiancee then sent out Amelia’s photo to various veterinarians and a cattery in our area. Late on Saturday night, we received a response: apparently the remains of a black and white cat had been found on the A road. It was too dangerous to retrieve them at that point, but nevertheless, the vet would make every effort to pick them up in the morning. My fiancee succumbed to floods of tears; I felt a deep pain inside. What if I hadn’t let her out? Would she still be around? Was it really her?

I didn’t want to think it was her: after all, earlier on Saturday we had gone into town and our cheerful taxi driver, a man with silver wire frame glasses and grey hair, had told us that there were gangs of feral cats in the area. My disposition was instantly brightened by that thought: in my mind’s eye, I could picture Amelia encountering such a feline tribe in the undergrowth of sugar beet or rye around our home. After circling each other, I pictured her touching noses with a large ginger tom. Then they would go hunting together. I envisaged her running amidst a pack, sleeping in barns, living off her wits from that moment onward. Amelia the bold, Amelia the adventurer, I thought.

The email had punctured that hope. A restless night followed: I awoke from time to time, thinking in the darkness. What if I hadn’t let her out? Would she have escaped anyway? Was this inevitable? She had lost her fear of the road in recent days. But is anything inevitable?  The historian Dominic Lieven once said that most stupid school of history is the one that believed that what happened is what had to happen: was it just as dense to think that Amelia’s demise was preordained?

The dawn came and the vet called. Amelia had been microchipped a long time ago and it was this which confirmed her identity. To put it delicately, because of the speed at which cars had driven along the road, I was informed that we would not be able to identify Amelia via any other means. The vet tried to be reassuring: it was unlikely that she had suffered, rather, she had been taken from this life as suddenly as if she had been struck by lightning. This was scarce comfort.

Given the state of her remains, my fiancee and I quickly decided that Amelia should be cremated. I made up my mind that a small corner of the garden will be dedicated to her: her ashes will be buried beneath the roots of a white rose and a couple of other perennial plants. On top, wood chips will be scattered as a decorative feature and to prevent weeds taking root: smooth stones will be placed around the perimeter. Solar powered lights will be placed at either end of the memorial. As I write this, the plants are in pots; they have been watered and nurtured for their eventual destination. Next Tuesday, dear Amelia’s remains will arrive home and the plan will be implemented. The rose will hopefully bloom before the autumn frost, thus beginning her new life, one which will hopefully last for many, many years.

I will never forget.  Amelia was my first cat. I remember when she and I were introduced: she was nervous, she had issues with her spine, she didn’t quite saunter so much as wiggle. She inspired me: when she would roll around on the bed as if she couldn’t get comfortable, I thought she was saying that it was her “pyjamas, they’re too big“. And when she went out, it was to do her “little cat errands, including looking around, collecting leaves and chasing frogs“. She was hesitant, pretty, funny.  If I put food down for her and then made the slightest noise or disruption, she’d run away from the bowl, no matter how hungry she was.  She was also extremely affectionate: there were many occasions when I’d lay on my back, she would climb up on my chest and rub her head up against my hand.

We bonded in other, more unusual ways. One time when she was ill, my fiancee and I decided to take Amelia to a holiday caravan in Cumbria for a few days. We rolled up a big fluffy duvet on the front passenger seat (I imagined Amelia saying “Everybody talks about the Cloud, I have one“) as she couldn’t stand to sit inside a kitty carrier, and she sat there for the entire 90 mile trip. In order to keep her calm, I narrated the journey to her in a soft voice. She eventually fell asleep.

Every morning, she waited for me: she and her fellow cats, Thomas and Sarah Jane, would look up with me with big eyes the moment I opened mine. I’d stretch, groan, put my feet on the floor and put on my robe, and we would all go down, more or less in company, to the kitchen where tins were opened and chicken and liver were put into ceramic bowls.

My other cats are shell-shocked. Not long after Amelia’s disappearance, Sarah Jane tried to tell me something: when I came home one evening, she came right up to my car door, let out a cry and tried to lead me somewhere. But the place she was leading me to was nowhere in wide circles. She’s extremely clever: via these circles, I eventually realised, she was trying to indicate Amelia’s absence. Similarly, Thomas has been very reluctant to set foot outside the house.

They will recover in time, as will my partner and I. I will look at old photos of Amelia on occasion and remember her lying on her back showing off her furry belly and waving her paws at me. I will look out onto the garden at night, see the solar powered lights shimmering in the darkness and remember how she made my life brighter. Some might say that Amelia was “only a cat”; those people probably have never had a pet in their lives, nor experienced the unconditional love that one can bring. Amelia’s passing is a death in the family; I only hope that there is a great beyond in which she has opened her eyes onto a fresh morning, past all care and pain, and she can play in the light forever.

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July 21, 2015

Labour Rosette and TieDemocracy, contrary to what some may think, is not just about mentions in the press, appearances on television or cleverly contrived advertising campaigns. Often, its processes take place in humble locations among relatively small groups of people: just so, otherwise supposedly representative government would become solely a product of the media, who would spoon feed us their perspective along with whatever messages were being conveyed.  It can be argued that one of the reasons why the Tories won the 2015 General Election is precisely because too much of politics was conducted on the minefields the media constructed.

Last Friday, I joined a substantial group of Labour supporters and activists at a suburban venue for the leadership hustings. The walls of the crowded room in which the event was held were adorned in a shade of buttermilk yellow, and there was a folding table at the back which was set up for a raffle. A fire door was propped open for ventilation purposes and so that those dependent on nicotine could easily slip out for a smoke. Representatives from all the leadership contenders, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall sat at a table at the front: it seemed very distant from the gilded halls of Westminster, but all the better for that. Although I had made up my mind, I was interested in what they had to say in support of their chosen candidates. Furthermore, I wondered if I would get a sense of who was making an impact and who wasn’t.

The representatives were all fairly animated about their chosen candidates. I can’t say that the audience overtly bubbled with enthusiasm: the closest that we got to a slight simmer was in response to some of Corbyn’s policy positions. There was time for questions from the audience, and I asked the following:

“Being Labour leader is not just a policy job….the party is one of the most complex and diverse organisations in Britain, and being Labour leader is preparation for managing one of the most complex and difficult organisations in the world. What skills and experience does your candidate bring to the job to deal with this challenge?”

Jeremy Corbyn has been an MP since 1983, but has no experience in management; his representative hedged by saying that he would introduce more democracy into the party. Fine, but performance reviews and decisions on allocating resources can’t always be put to a vote: people management and organisational capacity will be required. Liz Kendall’s representative emphasised his candidate’s lack in this regard by suggesting that experience was overrated. Andy Burnham’s advocate briefly mentioned his experience in government before submerging into rhetoric about leadership; this was probably wise given that it was on Burnham’s watch that a disastrous Private Finance Initiative was set in place for my area’s main hospital. Yvette Cooper’s ally hit the target by saying she had run an £8 billion department and then proceeded to list her management credentials.

After the hustings concluded, I was left in no doubt that if Labour members voted with their hearts that Corbyn would be their choice. His appeal is definitely emotive: his advocate appeared to suggest that if only we could somehow be ideologically pure, that this would attract millions of votes from those who felt that they no longer had an ally in the Labour Party. This position was presented as something akin to cosmic truth, despite the fact that post-industrial Britain may not contain those voters any longer; indeed, an approach for the digital age may make much more sense than continuing to wish for the world of 1945.

If Labour supporters voted with their heads, Yvette Cooper would be their pick. At the hustings, heart won over head by a fair margin: I am pleased, however, to have voted with my head. Perhaps oddly, voting with my head also did my heart good.

Though I disagreed with the outcome, it was an illuminating evening: the issues had been ventilated, and the qualities of the candidates were laid out for the membership to mull over. Should such an event be repeated throughout the country, and I believe that is the intention, whatever choice that is made will be an informed decision: it would be tough for a Labour Party member to say that they were walking into this election blind unless they were doing so on purpose.

It was also brilliant for another reason: a recently elected councillor had a word with me as I was going in. He asked if I would be interested for standing for a council seat. As it turns out, there is will be a special election next year, and all 3 seats in his ward are up for grabs: he was hoping I could be persuaded to join him in contesting one of them.

At first, I was startled. After all, I have only lived in Cambridgeshire since the end of May; however, I had noticed that many of the issues that existed in Bradford, in particular the problems of housing, education and poverty were solely not confined to Yorkshire. Sadly, deprivation is on the march throughout Britain, and it has blighted many communities that the Tories would rather hide behind the veneer of a supposedly burgeoning GDP and enhanced employment statistics. If the Labour Party exists for anything in particular, it should be to stand for the truth about the real state of Britain. Yes, the wealthy are more dazzlingly well off than ever before. Yet Ofsted reports from some of the schools in Cambridgeshire are far more dross than glitter: battered by a new curriculum and starved of resources, they are finding they cannot do more with less in the face of increased expectations. The education these children receive is also not necessarily preparing them for careers which would improve their immediate prospects. Rather, many are doomed to be eventually stuck in menial roles in call centres and supermarkets, not able to take full advantage of the resources of intellect and imagination that nature granted to them and achieve a more prosperous and fulfilled life.

Another hard truth: the life of the poor is slowly degenerating into the Hobbesian mantra of “nasty, brutish and short”. Being on the dole is seen more as a crime than a misfortune: Victorian rhetoric about “self-help” and regarding poverty as some sort of moral failing has made a comeback albeit via the medium of so-called “reality television”. This dogma in its first incarnation did little to improve the lives of those subsisting on uncertain wages and living in slums. Surely the Labour Party needs to expose this truth as well, using the life experiences of people like Harry Leslie Smith to make it clear as to where the Tories are taking us.

Another truth is that none of what ails Britain is going to be fixed by merely trusting the market. The Tories haven’t got an alternative. The unfettered free market, red in tooth in claw, was tried in the 19th century and it not only led to a staggering gap between the rich and poor, but periodic economic depressions which made poverty even more fearful and desperate. There has to be a counterbalance, a leveler: it should be an energetic and forward-looking state which intervenes to ensure that no part of society is left behind as the market does its work.

All the leadership candidates, in one way or another, stand for this: Andy Burnham embraced Harry Leslie Smith at the last party conference, Yvette Cooper is particularly strong on Scandinavian style policies for families, Jeremy Corbyn offers a socialist prospectus, even Liz Kendall, supposedly the most right wing of the lot, doesn’t want trade unions to be weakened further. However, when we finally pick a leader, that individual won’t be able to change the party’s prospects by themselves: rather, it will be incumbent upon every activist and supporter to take a stand too. It will also mean standing for local government seats, even if at first the prospect seems startling.

I spent the better part of the weekend filling out the required form, which can be daunting if your mind is plagued with a quote from Erasmus: “Prepare therefore to be entertained with a panegyric…on myself, that is, upon Folly.”  Nevertheless, I have detailed my experience and interest in the role. People I respect have reviewed it and pronounced it more than sufficient: I’m in the editing phase where I leave it aside for a brief time.  I will look at it once more and submit it. On Thursday there’s a “taster session” at the town hall: I’ve not been there before, but in my mind’s eye I see an impressive 19th century monument to civic pride, the outside adorned with stout columns and red brick, with a semicircle of oak desks arranged at its heart. If I work assiduously, get nominated and then elected, perhaps one day I will return there to sit at one of those desks. If so, I will take a deep breath, put all my heart, mind and soul into the effort and take a stand.

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A Time of Chaos

July 2, 2015

Summer in East AngliaEast Anglia’s summer is at its height. The flat land doesn’t readily retain its temperature, so the evenings are generally cool: the moment the sun tucks in over the horizon, the heat left over from the day rises up from the lawn and the fields full of growing sugar beets. An open window lets in fresh breezes and the sounds of cars traversing a nearby country road. In contrast, when morning approaches, summer’s intensity strikes quickly; the first rays of dawn appear not long after 4:30 AM. Occasionally, my cat Amelia will cry out to me at that time: having spent a night out hunting, she wants to get back into the house before the sun rises. I open a window on the ground floor: immediately I see a black and white blur zip past me and she lands on the carpet with a soft thud. Amelia then looks up at me with her yellow green eyes and drops a dead mouse near my feet. I tell her thank you and get the garden shovel to perform another impromptu burial near the rose bushes.

As I consume a cup of coffee and a bowl of banana flavoured porridge, the sun fully shows itself. The golden light which first tenderly touched the horizon and then crept over the garden turns more intense. The skies are a pure blue. The heat which was warming after a chilly night becomes uncomfortable. Indeed, by the time noon approaches, it feels rather as if the sun is a hammer and the ground is an anvil, being made yet more straight, more flat by the relentless pounding.

When the evening comes again, it’s time to get out the hose and water the hanging baskets full of bright peonies, daisies and lobelia, and ensure the vegetable plants in the greenhouse have all they need. Once watered, the somewhat metallic scent of chlorophyll and compost combined fills the greenhouse: life is fecund and burgeoning.

I have no neighbours living nearby. Life on the farm is just my fiancee, our cats and me: the postman brings letters and packages, but apart from this, our isolation seems to be more or less complete, with one exception. A black metal satellite dish is perched on the corner of my home, pointing towards the clear skies; it pulls down all the news from distant lands. Isolated as we may be, as peaceful as these days spent amidst the clover and dahlias have been, it’s impossible to escape the impression that this is mainly a time of chaos.

The attack in Tunisia was particularly chilling. A little over one year ago, my fiancee and I stayed in precisely the same hotel where the terrorists struck. We walked along the same beach, ate in the same restaurants, ordered coffee on the same terraces. I feel badly for the victims; I also feel tremendous sympathy for the staff who looked after us. They were friendly and hospitable: they were helpful with every request, made sure we were never thirsty or hungry.  We had good meals there served with an excellent Tunisian red wine. We took a day out to linger in the hotel spa: we spent several hours floating in a salt water pool. From that vantage point, we could see the beach and the azure waters of the Mediterranean.

When we got bored of the hotel, we went into the town of Sousse. I was tickled by the prominent sign advertising the offices of the Tunisian Workers Party, complete with hammer and sickle; it showed that Communism, so discredited elsewhere, had found new life in a democracy which had yet to reject it. We walked along Sousse’s narrow streets: every shopkeeper we encountered claimed to have a relative in Sheffield. One trader put a hat and scarf on my head before I could say anything; we gently rebuffed him. Sales techniques aside, we spent a pleasant afternoon drinking coffee and watching the bustling town getting on with life; we had no sense that Sousse was on the verge of chaos. On the contrary, little touches like the pharmacy with glass counters and a green neon sign and the plentiful red billboards urging people to buy mobile phones suggested that it was moving ahead. The prominence of the French language on signs gave the country a truly European feel; it was possible to believe that after a time and more hard work that Tunisia would achieve a European standard of living.

However, there were also scenes that were more troublesome: we happened across a bus station behind the open air market. Calling it a proper bus station is probably giving it too much dignity: it was a series of cracked concrete islands marked with blue and white signs. Ordinary people waited to board ancient buses. The vehicles threw up dust as they arrived and departed, adding a brown haze to the scene. The buses’ diesel engines groaned. My mouth was dry. Yes, the weather-worn fellow who wore stained brown trousers and smoked a strong cigarette at the bus stop could vote: but could he afford to go into the pharmacy and pay for the latest medicines? Could he get on the internet with a new mobile phone? And if he got there, what would he see? Some roadside signs suggested that a new life in Canada was possible, ring the toll free number: who was taking up that offer?

Monastir Tunisia MosqueThere is also the lure of tradition. Whilst in Tunisia, I bought a ceramic tile which had the first verse of the Quran painted onto its surface. As I don’t read Arabic, I made sure to check with Arabic speaking friends later on to ensure it wasn’t actually a brownie recipe. By far and away the most impressive buildings I saw in Tunisia were the mosques: you can have your mobile phone or perfume pulled out of a glass cabinet, but this was where the quotient of majesty lay, apart from what nature had to provide. Having asked what a seemingly beneficent God wanted of them, it appears that some Tunisians accepted the answer provided by malevolent men. For a time at least, the hotel in which we stayed will fall silent, the waiters will have much fewer guests to serve the fine red wine, the hawkers and traders will have fewer people to convince that they have relations in Sheffield and upon whom to try out their Bruce Forsythe impressions (“To see you, nice!”). Work will dry up. People may go hungry; they will become angry and wonder who to blame.

There is chaos elsewhere; the satellite dish continues to draw in news from Greece. On the farm, it is easy to believe that the most important currency is the mixture of sun and rain that nature provides. Without it, we don’t have an economy at all: there is no grain or sugar that eventually gets processed into a pain au chocolat that is eaten by an investment banker at his City of London desk. That said, it’s the numbers that the banker enters into his computer that apparently matter most: no vast lorry loads of bills are shipped backwards and forwards, no Scrooge McDuck style vault sits on top of a hill, rather it’s all data which slips via cables and servers from point to point. The olive trees in Greece still grow in the Mediterranean sunshine, the clear seas lap at its shores, but because the virtual tally of the nation’s wealth in a collection of international databases kept on servers in ferociously air conditioned rooms is beyond empty, ill fares the land.

I am not sure that we all fully understand what is about to happen. The Syriza-led government apparently believes that the force of its reasoning and moral compulsion will win the day: Alexis Tsipras has stated that refusing the deal from the creditors provides an ideal position from which to negotiate with Greece’s creditors. This might have been a sustainable point of view prior to Tsipras being reminded by President Hollande, Prime Minister Renzi and Vice Chancellor Gabriel (among others) that voting “No” would result in ejection from the Euro. Nevertheless, the Greeks are apparently flying in the face of what they are being told; Greek voters interviewed on BBC’s Newsnight still seem to think that “No” is not the end. Perhaps they cannot believe that for the sake of numbers being transferred around from computer to computer by cables made of wire and thin glass that an entire people will be dumped into penury. This, however is the point where the virtual meets the real: unless Greece says “Yes”, it will be ejected from the Euro and pushed into bankruptcy and default. A return to the Drachma will not yield paradise: the currency will be inflation prone in the first instance, and as Greece’s economy is by no means self-sufficient, devaluation will sink living standards even further. Yes, a devalued Drachma could make Greek holidays and products cheaper: this will perhaps allow a recovery in time, but how long “in time” means is anyone’s guess. As this is all being done in a rather haphazard rather than planned manner, this is a recipe for anarchy.

Yet, as Tsipras reminded his people on television the other night: the sun still shines. It radiates its glow onto East Anglia, Tunisia and Greece. Nature carries on, oblivious to the chaos that people create for themselves; simultaneously people are not aware that they are mainly the authors of their own misfortune, attributing their fate to vague or actual deities like market forces and Allah. It’s depressing that we don’t currently realise this, nevertheless it also means that the future is always yet to be written.

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Yvette & Tom

June 17, 2015

Yvette CooperThe nominations for the Labour leadership and deputy leadership elections are now closed. As much as one may wish for more contenders to enter the race, rules are rules: one can’t write in “Keir Starmer” or “Dan Jarvis” on the ballot. Despite the many reservations which I’ve articulated previously, I’ve had time to think about for whom I will be voting.

I don’t believe Andy Burnham is the answer to Labour’s problems: previously, he has fired off a rhetorical salvo or two which have landed direct hits on Tory targets. However, I am not sure that he has a firm grasp on the fundamental issues with which Labour needs to grapple so that the party can be successful. What may be even more damning is that having given his candidacy further consideration, I can think of little else to say about him.

I don’t believe Liz Kendall is an optimal choice either: I think she has completely ingested Conservative narratives and wishes to adapt Labour policy to suit Tory predilections rather than create a viable alternative. Also, being Labour leader is just as much about party management as it is about providing inspirational leadership. My understanding, informed by well-placed sources, is that she is a prickly character: this is unlikely to work well in a scenario in which it will be necessary to influence and persuade colleagues to embrace change. Rather, were she to become leader, she may tire out the party to the point that it would be glad to be rid of her by the time 2020 comes, even if that meant defeat at the polls. Both the country and the party can ill-afford such an outcome.

I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn would be the right pick. My research indicates that he is honest and principled: however, when I consider his qualities, “pragmatic” is not a word that springs to mind. Some battles are worth fighting until the last ditch; sometimes it’s better to walk away and avoid potential traps. Some opponents are irreconcilable: bringing some on board will be necessary to build a winning team. I don’t get a strong sense that he would be sufficiently practical as leader to make these necessary judgments; I also don’t have a firm impression of his managerial style. Were he to be put in charge, no doubt there would be a rose-tinted honeymoon in which the certain parts of the party revelled in the clarity of his beliefs: meanwhile, the ruthlessly hardheaded British public would likely switch off the moment the moniker “loony left” was applied.

This leaves Yvette Cooper. She isn’t a flawless candidate: she’s part of the “Generation F” of Labour ministers, namely those who were unceremoniously booted out of Government in 2010 (to be fair, so is Burnham). In my opinion, she needs to be much firmer with her interlocutors in the media. However, she does have one quality which perhaps has been underestimated at first glance: she apparently knows that there’s no substitute for being there. For example, when Naz Shah faced a tough fight in Bradford West, Yvette was on the scene to help; it may have been this timely intervention which earned Yvette a nomination from both Naz and Judith Cummins, MP for Bradford South. Furthermore, Yvette has stated she will make addressing child poverty one of her top priorities; this is certainly a desperate problem throughout Britain. Finally, because she has positioned herself more or less in the sensible middle of the party, she is in an advantageous position to speak to every part of it. No, she is not a perfect choice: she doesn’t offer Dan Jarvis’ biography and there will be no summer of love for her ideology.  However, sometimes it’s more important to be practical than romantic: I will wholeheartedly give my first preference vote to her.

Yvette’s deputy should be a complement and a contrast. Yvette can use guile and diplomacy, her deputy ideally will be ready to attack with a ferocity that would be unbecoming of a future Premier. There is one Deputy Leadership candidate who has proven he can fulfil this function: Tom Watson. He was relentless in pursuing Rupert Murdoch; in this, he was right. Furthermore, he has a talent for making good use of the internet. If he were elected to be Deputy Leader, I believe the Labour Party, thanks to his stewardship, would be encouraged to up its online game accordingly. Similarly, he is one of the very few MPs who understands the digital economy and the value of open data: this means he can act as a conduit for old Labour to a new era.

Tom WatsonTom is not without his problems. He was damaged by the expenses scandal: in 2009, he allegedly claimed £4800 for food, and between 2005 and 2009, along with Iain Wright, MP for Hartlepool, he claimed £100,000 for expenses associated with renting a flat . More recently, he had to resign from his role as deputy chairman of the Labour Party in 2013 due to his supposed involvement in the fracas regarding the selection of the candidate for Falkirk. There is a perception, rightly or wrongly, that he is a bruiser equipped with a sharp pair of elbows. If he became Deputy Leader, no doubt the tabloids would have a field day, particularly the Murdoch titles which are still smarting from the wounds he inflicted upon them.

However it is Tom’s toughness, for lack of a better term, which our present era requires: he is a natural choice to instil much needed discipline in the party. This in turn would free Yvette to focus her energies on tackling the Tories and presenting herself as an alternative Prime Minister.  With any other potential leader, it is difficult to see Tom as being the right fit: but given their aptitudes and interlocking qualities, he and Yvette appear to be ideally matched.

Having said all this, I hope that they realise the challenges that lay between them and ultimate success. Social Democracy is not a growth industry in Europe: it’s apparently being replaced by knee-jerk populism and far right gibberish. UKIP is a leading exemplar of this trend. Furthermore, it is very likely that the Liberal Democrats under Tim Farron will tack left and crowd into Labour’s natural space. The Green Party will also be there to pick up disaffected left wing votes. Scotland remains a particular challenge: it may be necessary to create an operationally and politically separate Scottish Labour Party that associates itself with the rest of Labour in much the same manner that the Christian Social Union in Bavaria associates with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Navigating these difficult issues will require patience, guile, honesty and yes, a bit of brute force. If Labour picks Yvette and Tom, it will get a team that has the best chance of finding a way through.

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The Beige Flag of Neutrality

June 12, 2015

beigeflagIf the summer of 2015 has a motif, it is apparently leadership, or the lack thereof.

Labour’s leadership campaign tediously malingers. It’s already clear that the candidates don’t yet inspire any great enthusiasm from the British public. Andy Burnham presents himself as being a world apart from the elite, but his career has been solely in politics: there’s no dash of real world experience (a la Alan Johnson) to add an earthiness to the mixture. Yvette Cooper suffers from a similar problem; also, she has a tendency to retreat into a shell of rehearsed phrases when hit with questions by the likes of Andrew Marr. Liz Kendall apparently believes that Labour should become a pale pink imitation of the Tories; she acts like cuts are less painful if done with blunt scissors. Jeremy Corbyn is by all accounts a very nice man and scrupulously honest (he claimed only £8.70 worth of expenses in 2010), however his appointment as Labour leader would probably be as electorally disastrous as the selection of Michael Foot (who was also nice and honest) for the same post in 1980. Mary Creagh may not get enough nominations; if that happens, it may very well be justified: her unique selling point is that she represents Wakefield. In all cases, there’s a lot of acknowledgement that Labour has a problem (Creagh is right in saying Labour is “analog in a digital age”), but not a great deal in terms of solutions being offered. The present field makes me nostalgic, neuroses and all, for Gordon Brown. Brown had a coherence, force and appeal that none of current contenders seem to possess. Whenever I’m asked who has my vote, I feel like unfurling a giant beige flag indicating my fervent neutrality.

“Who leads?” is not just a question with which Labour is grappling. In the United States, there are currently 14 “major” presidential contenders with more likely to pile in. Rather like cable television stations in that country, there’s a great many choices but nothing one would want. Hillary Clinton can’t rail against the Establishment: she has long been part of it. Bernie Sanders is the American equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn, someone who reliably speaks his mind but has difficulty getting the wider public to swallow his ideas: to borrow an old show business phrase, he doesn’t play in Peoria. Martin O’Malley is nearly unknown outside the state of Maryland and lacks the back story and charm of Jimmy Carter, the last governor to surge from obscurity to the White House. Lincoln Chaffee’s main claim to fame is having been a Republican who realised after 8 years that the GOP didn’t want a moderate from Rhode Island in their ranks.

On the Republican side, you can have any flavour you want, so long as it’s Tutti Frutti. There is everything from aspiring dynasts like Jeb Bush to union-busting headbangers like Scott Walker to a son of immigrants fearful to talk up immigration like Marco Rubio, to a surgeon, Ben Carson, who obviously wandered into the wrong room, to Dubya’s Attack of the Clones-esque sequel Rick Perry. If these choices were items on the nation’s computer desktop, it would be click, hold, drag and drop right into the Recycle Bin. Again, if asked to choose between any of the contenders, I’d unfurl an even larger beige banner. Perhaps this is more disturbing, as unlike the Labour leader, the next President will have the power to blow up the world.

It’s not all gloom and doom. The choices for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party are genuinely interesting: there’s Rupert Murdoch’s nemesis Tom Watson, the digitally savvy Stella Creasy, and Ben Bradshaw, who somehow managed to turn Exeter into a Helm’s Deep of red marooned in a vast sea of blue. All three are interesting; all three have something to say and possess an appeal that reaches beyond fringe meetings at Labour Party conferences or Fabian Society shindigs. But it’s a very strange situation in which the bottom half of a leadership combination is actually more fascinating than the top, rather as if an American Vice Presidential nominee was more qualified, intriguing and well spoken than his potential supervisor. That happened when Dick Cheney ran alongside George W. Bush: the results were catastrophic. The last time the Democrats experienced the same situation was in 1988. Then, the venerable Lloyd Bentsen was ostensibly going to report to Michael Dukakis. They didn’t win, sparing the Free World from bursting out laughing at the spectacle of Lloyd calling Mike his boss.

Why do we have such a dearth of leadership or find it in the wrong places? Perhaps the blip that was Chuka Umunna’s leadership campaign tells us something: shock, horror, he actually has a private life and dates women. Somehow this was worthy of media scrutiny to the point that he felt the only way he could maintain a modicum of dignity was to withdraw. This stems partially from media bias, but also from the laziness that plagues much of modern journalism: if they can exaggerate, obfuscate and imply sexual or financial impropriety from something that’s facile to uncover, that is much easier than investigating what is really going on.

Perhaps people have become jaded about the potential of politics to effect change. There was widespread astonishment at the levels of turnout for the Scottish referendum in 2014: 84.5% of those who could vote, did so. Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised: it was a clear political crossroads in which a vote determined the fate of the country. Few elections just as obviously offer the prospect of momentous change, even if they will result in such a shift. It’s much easier to think all politicians are the same, the system is rigged, you fought the law and the law won.  With such a prevailing attitude, it seems like too much trouble to attend meetings, knock on doors, stuff leaflets through mail slots, i.e., all the things that will get you selected as a candidate. After all, even if you do all that and sacrifice free time and shoe leather, what chance do you have of making a difference? Those who remain regardless of these perceived obstacles are the few political enthusiasts who are decidedly not part of the mainstream; this grants a certain level of expertise, but may also curse many candidates with a distance from a discourse that would connect with the wider public. Perhaps the biggest danger of Liz Kendall’s candidacy is that if the main political menu only offers different flavours of Tory, then the talent pool could very well narrow further.

Perhaps I am to blame. Or rather, people like me. I have never stood for anything apart from one post within a trade union, I generally dislike meetings, I have chucked rhetorical water balloons at the Establishment for years without taking on any particular responsibility myself. At best, my targets were briefly doused or made a touch uncomfortable, but undeterred. I and others like me should remember: if we don’t like things, we should become part of the process and not be disheartened by setbacks along that road. We don’t have to hoist the beige flag of neutrality forever, we can run up colours of our own. I fully intend to do so…as soon as I figure out how that’s even possible.

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Eastern Promise

June 5, 2015

cambridgeshire-summerTwo weeks ago, my fiancée and I piled our remaining belongings and our grumpy cats into our aged French car; we then left Bradford. A fortnight is a stutter in time, barely a blink of an eye in the context of a year: yet Yorkshire seems a lifetime ago, shaken out of memory like a shifting pattern in a kaleidoscope. Now when I wake up in the morning, it feels like the large bedroom window, the garden I see out of it, the roses I planted (one of them white in memory of my former home) and the straight line of the distant horizon have always been part of my life.

There is plenty of evidence that this is not the case: a fair number of boxes still remain packed. The lingo in our home for a freshly unpacked carton is “I killed a box”; their murder is cause for celebration as each slaying is a symbol of settling in. Nevertheless, every morning over the past two weeks has provided a fresh game of “Where the heck is that” – whether one is trying to locate clean boxer shorts, an egg whisk or a long departed remote control. Broadband only arrived a few days ago and the aged, sturdy walls of the house prevent strong signals from penetrating throughout, a situation only slowly being remedied with strategically placed WiFi boosters. The connection to the satellite dish in the breakfast nook is dodgy, though its inability to receive Channel 5 could be better thought of as an unintended yet benevolent form of editorial control. Though a forwarding address has been put in place and registration with our new GP has been completed and final bills have been paid and direct debits redirected, it will take a bit of time for all the changes to wash through and finalise. Magazines will go missing. A few circulars of no consequence will be delivered before the advertiser gets the message. Despite these rough edges, a pattern can be discerned: given time, the last remnants of the move will be swept away and summer will largely be spent in the garden and on the lawn, connecting with nature in a way that wasn’t possible back in Bradford.

asparagusNot long after we arrived, my fiancée and I went into the garden: we found that potatoes and asparagus were growing there. The asparagus was particular cause for excitement: it generally takes years for it to yield a crop. A slight unearthing and a poke with a trowel indicated that the potatoes would be ready in a matter of weeks. Last weekend, we had fresh steamed asparagus for dinner. Additionally, we have planted a raspberry bush, carrots, tomatoes, chillies and sweet peppers. Aubergines and courgettes will follow soon. Fresh herbs are in a pot near the front door. Every day as I go outside, I look up and take into account the combination of rain and sun, hoping for the best. Around our home, fields full of rye, peas and rapeseed are being cultivated by our landlord: in two weeks, it’s been possible to discern the crops’ burgeoning. Yet summer seems all too brief a season in which the processes of growth and harvesting will take place. This is despite Cambridgeshire being extraordinarily fertile: it is like one could plant a stone in the ground and it would sprout leaves. But how fecund will it remain? The heat and sunshine of the past week almost seemed too much and digging in the garden became a dry, dusty business and the stale scent of barren earth stuck to my clothes. Only cool soothing rain provided reassurance: when it fell, the lawn exuded the scent of fresh grass, as if the earth itself had exhaled.

Probably thanks to their new proximity to nature, the grumpy cats are less irritable than when we departed Yorkshire. My cat Amelia has wandered around the garden a few times, attending to her little cat errands while patrolling the perimeter. I have seen her hiding underneath a bush, her black and white head tilted left then right. Her yellow-green eyes scanned the grounds as if to reassure herself that all was well. Having done so, she then emerged and delicately trod on the tips of her paws across the lawn.

When one needs relief from nature, there is the nearby village. It is quaint without being cloying: there’s a set of 19th century cottages, a Chinese takeaway of last resort, and an old petrol station that has been turned into a dealership for restored classic cars including a black Rover P5 which glints in the afternoon sunlight like it had just rolled off the assembly line.

The local pub serves as a cake shop as well as post office and dry cleaner. In terms of convenience, it can’t be bettered: what other post office is open on a Sunday, closes at 7 PM, offers homemade pies and has fine ale on tap in the next room? The postmaster is a kindly woman with close cropped blonde hair: when I had an urgent package to send, she told me that she would drive to the next town to ensure that it got to its destination in a timely manner. This was entirely unnecessary, the recipient could wait; nevertheless, she did it. I thanked her profusely.

After I left the pub, I thought about how prior to moving to Cambridgeshire that I was curious about the East: unlike Yorkshire, Lancashire or Cumbria, there’s no widely established reputation for the area. What are the people like? What is the character of the East? What binds the people who live there? Perhaps it is the flat landscape of the Fens which unites the region: earlier this week, a fearful wind blew up, ripping through trees and causing them to fall over and block the roads in some places. Perhaps living close to nature and knowing with how fickle it can be leads to an awareness of the value of calm, kindness and courtesy which contrasts with the environment’s vicissitudes.

Calm and courtesy prevailed at a meeting of the local branch of the Labour Party. My fiancée and I were welcomed by the officials and we met our recent (unsuccessful) Parliamentary candidate, who may have lost the election but certainly gave no impression of being defeated. We talked about Bradford’s politics and our election night; our new colleagues told us about theirs. They had a surprise triumph in one of the local contests: the freshly minted councillor was faultlessly unassuming, fully aware of the challenge that lay ahead in serving his constituents and eventually being re-elected. Labour Party meetings in Bradford had only lasted an hour at most: this one was more like a social occasion, many cups of tea and glasses of water and soft drinks were drained as we spoke at length. In total, the event lasted approximately four hours. By the time it was over, the sun was down. We went home: in the darkness I missed the turning to our home several times. When we finally arrived, we hastened to bed and slept for a solid nine hours.

It would be tempting to assume that the East is some kind of utopia: as much as one might think so when looking at an ancient abbey or drinking a pint of dark mild, it is not. It is not immune to the problems which plague the rest of Britain. My fiancée and I saw a protest in one of the larger municipalities against NHS privatisation. We have encountered Farage’s toxic influence in casual utterances about foreigners and ethnic minorities. On the edge of the quaint but not cloying village is a set of modest bungalows which speak of limited incomes. It is tempting to drive down a country lane and see vast fields full of blooming rapeseed and think that the golden blossoms somehow represent wealth, but recent falls in commodity prices tell a different story. No place is perfect, and my palate still sometimes craves the spicy flavour of Bradford’s intensity and diversity. Nevertheless, Cambridgeshire and the East have swiftly become home. The seasons will turn: the trees will change colour, maybe a light snow will eventually fall on the flat fields. I’ve been reliably informed that the Fens regularly imports weather from Norway across the North Sea, and it’s relatively easy to envisage how bitter winds will smash into anything standing out amidst the flat landscape. But we’ll adapt. The cats will huddle in warm corners, the broadband will hopefully continue to work and the sky blue Aga should keep the kitchen snug. I’ll stand at the living room window and remember summer and working in the garden. I’ll also remember that the promise of the East is not that life which is perfect.  Rather, there is a chance of a good life: so far, it is.

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

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