Monday, October 23, 2017

Songs for the apocalypse

Right now I'm so despondent about the state of our planet that I can't be bothered to rant. Instead, I've started compiling a list of songs that represent my feelings on where humanity currently sits, teetering on the brink:

Marillion: Season's End
Released in 1990, the clue's in the title. "They say it may never snow again in England".

Depeche Mode: Going Backwards/Where's the Revolution
A double-header from their 2017 opus, 'Spirit'. Two brilliant tracks, particularly the first: "We have no respect, we have lost control"; "We're going backwards, ignoring the realities". Each line more damning than the last.

Julian Lennon: Saltwater
Brings tears to my eyes. From 1991, when the realisation that "I have lived for love, but now that's not enough, for the world I love is dying" started to surface. 26 years on, things haven't got better.

George Michael: Praying for Time
George was pilloried for this song on its release back in 1990, because as a rich man he had no right to deny everyone else a slice of the pie. Yet his words are chillingly prophetic, chronicling the beginning of our slide into delusion: "The rich declare themselves poor, and most of us are not sure if we have too much, but we'll take our chances because God's stopped keeping score". "And the wounded skies above say it's much much too late, maybe we should all be praying for time".

a-ha: Living at the End of the World
From their 2015 album, 'Cast in Steel'. The clue is in the title - we in the west seem incapable of charting another course now. Certainly not if it inconveniences us in any way.

a-ha: Mother Nature Goes to Heaven
This came from their 2009 opus, 'Foot of the Mountain'. It's about the death of nature, eight years before reports revealed that insect numbers have declined by as much as 75% in the last 25 years. To quote a line from another track from Depeche Mode's 'Spirit': "We're fucked".

Queen: Hammer to Fall
Written as the Cold War reached its crescendo in the early 80s, it's now relevant again with the rise of Trump, Brexit, the Middle East and North Korea, with Putin in the background pulling strings here and there.

Aerosmith: Livin' on the Edge
Written in response to the 1992 LA Riots, it proves we've not moved on in 25 years. People are still judged by their colour, gender, race ("If you can judge a wise man by the colour of his skin then mister you're a better man than I") and creed, instead of being treated as individuals. I've been reading my US history, and it reinforces how we white, male Europeans have no idea how shitty the world is for so many people because they're neither white, male or European (heritage). But that doesn't stop us whining about our "hard" lives. Or voting for Trump or Brexit, come to think of it.

I'll no doubt remember more as time goes by, but for now when I want to despair, these songs are the perfect accompanient.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Darren

I subjected myself to looking at the comments beneath another Guardian piece on Facebook this morning, and one of the commentators stood out. His name was Darren, and he’s a committed Brexiteer. Darren is, sadly, typical of many people who have enabled the rise of Brexit, Trump and so-called “populism” in general.

I’m going to be nasty here. It’s not something I’m good at, and I feel uncomfortable writing this, but what drives me on is the fact that Darren and his ilk are nasty every single day of their lives. Darren’s arguments follow the cliché: facts and experts are bad, vacuous soundbites are good.

From Darren’s comments, I’m going to make the following assumptions about Darren and his type:

1. Darren says that he trusts Dave down the pub more than he does experts. When it’s pointed out his use of the internet (and a computer) to make this point is down to experts, he comes back swiftly with “but they’re not the wrong type of expert”. The wrong type of expert is – of course – anyone who bats for Remain.

2. Darren makes some valid points – about the 2008 crash. But Darren has decided that because ‘experts’ didn’t foresee the 2008 crash, they’re all greedy and that is what drives their support for the Remain cause. Darren glimpses that the world is not in a good place, but surely he cannot believe all the ‘bad’ people voted Remain?

3. Darren has made up his “own mind” over the last 20 years and “did not need no politician to tell me how”. He does admit that he distrusts British and European politicians equally and that the Tories are not his government. Yet I suspect Darren doesn’t see the irony in that by “taking back control” he merely transfers power from European politicians back to British ones. The fact that British politicians already have more power than he realises is - of course - lost on Darren. The fact our European members of parliament are elected using a more representative system than British MPs will also be lost on him.

4. Darren disregards people who argue against him as “a repeat and a bore and frankly just a puppet who just follows the European propaganda machine”. That Darren must surely read the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, The Sun or The Express, or listen avidly to the likes of Katie Hopkins or Nigel Farage on LBC, thereby swallowing their own distorted views of the EU, is presumably lost on him. After all, he makes up his “own mind” after reading papers owned by tax-dodging, non-resident billionaires who all backed Brexit.

5. Darren is adamant that the likes of Tony Blair, John Major and Peter Mandelson talking up Remain is proof they’re speaking up for their own benefit and not his. That may be true, but he’s obviously going to be in for a big shock when he discovers the Brexiteers have their own agenda too, and it doesn’t involve making his life any better (and why would it? These people have been making his life worse for years – why stop now?).

For example, Darren didn’t bother to look closely at the immigration figures and ask himself why most immigration comes from outside the EU. He also won’t want to acknowledge that pretty much all of this immigration occurs because there are jobs in this country that need filling, jobs he and I are either not qualified or willing to do. Dare we point to the rapid collapse of the NHS – with its sudden loss of imported talent as EU nationals understandably bugger off back where they’re wanted? – as an example.

6. Darren’s poor spelling and grammar betray his lack of education. This makes me sound catty, and perhaps I am. This is one of my main areas of prejudice. I hate ignorance, and I loathe ignorant people.

Here’s my rant. Darren is one of those people for whom nothing is their own fault. My guess is Darren opted out of his democratic duties by not voting for 20-odd years, but he made the effort to come out and vote in favour of Brexit. Darren doesn’t see the irony of propping up the out-of-date British parliamentary system by not even bothering to vote, then in a fit of pique decides to award additional powers to the very institution that is responsible for 90% of his woes.

I also suspect that if you mentioned to Darren that his lack of education might count against him (and be responsible for his own poor place in life), he will refuse to accept responsibility for this. Assuming he doesn’t reject all education as ‘elitist’, my guess is that he’ll point the finger of blame at his teachers for his educational failings. It couldn’t possibly be Darren’s fault, oh no.

I wrote this post a month or so ago, but now that the day of Brexit draws near, and having struggled to articulate my own sense of frustration and rage at the idiocy of so many people (the comments accompanying this BBC story have simply relit the flame), I can contain myself no longer.

Here’s the deal: if you want your lives to get better, stop beating a stick at the one political institution that had very little to do with your problems. Look at the government we elected on 38% of the vote. Look at our electoral system. Look at our politicians. Look at our mistakes, our follies. The future isn’t going to be golden because of Brexit, so who will you blame then? I know one thing for sure: it won’t be yourselves, and it won’t be the people who will bring us to whatever hellish future awaits us.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

In the absence of Bobby Ewing...

... What a few days. We're undoubtedly entering a dark time - the election of Trump is likely to be a tipping point, not the bottom of the pit we find ourselves in. But to counter it and perhaps begin the long journey towards a more progressive, equitable society, we need to face up to some harsh facts. First, we cannot do this without trying at least to bring everyone along. It's perfectly legitimate to look beyond the racism, mysogny, homophobia and general hatred out there to see at the centre of many people's lives are common feelings we all share: fear, despair, a sense of being left behind. The establishment - and like it or not, but Hillary Clinton was a major cheerleader for it - is now losing its grip, and while other establishment figures (Trump in the US, Brexiteers on this side of the Atlantic) have tried to cash in, they don't really understand who they represent. Over the next few years we'll get to see first hand what happens when these figures struggle to make good on the vague, grandiose promises they made in order to get their way.

They won't go away easily. They'll revert to type: pointing the figure at whichever convenient scapegoats dare to wander into their sights. They did this to get elected or win the vote in the first place, and they'll continue to mine those rich seams of "the other" in order to distract people from the fact they're the ones who can't deliver what they promised.

So how do we counter this? First, and let me be crystal clear on this, it doesn't mean accepting bigotry, in whatever form it shows itself. This means standing up for our friends and neighbours and - if necessary - shouting down the racists, homophobes, nationalists and mysognists. It also means trying to focus people's minds on the people in power - consistently reminding them that the Brexiteers, Trump and whoever else (Tory government, Republican legislatures) have all the tools they need to deliver on those promises, and calling them out when they try to deflect attention. This is clearly not a simple task, as people are easily distracted by the most attractive (and usually easiest) targets. But it must be done. People's focus must be trained on those in power - the ones making the decisions. Power comes with responsibility, and part of that responsibility is owning the power - if your decisions don't work out, look to yourselves instead of trying to blame everyone else (such as "metropolitan elites", eh Jacob Rees Mogg? You're the privileged one, don't try to shift the focus elsewhere.)

Second, it means acknowledging the current system is broken - and that it needs change. The trickle-down economics of the last generation have taken money away from the poorest and given it to the richest - that has to stop. Each alternative system will have its proponents, but it would be nice if - for once - we could find the best blends of all systems to come up with something that works for all. Somewhere between Thatcherism and socialism lies a system that could work for all - but it means sacrifice from all of us. Something that forces us to think ethically - do you really need a new sodding phone every single year? And if so, what's wrong with upgrading rather than buying a completely new model? And if you have to buy one, could you at least make sure the old one is properly recycled for your next phone instead of having its valuable minerals extracted before exporting the problem to a third-world country? The system should demand as much from its people as it gives in return - it should instil in people a sense of responsibility for themselves and what's around them, from their neighbours and employees to the planet.

And then maybe,  just maybe, we can start to fix our problems, and embark on a new voyage of discovery. Do you want to know what man is capable of? Look at the moon - we went there 40 years ago using computers less powerful than todays' calculators. That's what we're capable of - but it doesn't happen without hard work and sacrifice. And that's something that should apply to all of us.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Where's Bobby Ewing when you need him?

The Western World is crumbling. Democratic institutions are under assault from far-right politicians in both the US and the UK. The Washington Post reports how the Republican Party is now actively undermining the state in order to keep Hilary Clinton from the White House, and will continue to obstruct government should she be elected in much the same way it's blocked Obama for much of his eight years in office.
Meanwhile, in the UK, right-wing newspapers ferment hatred and violence in their apopoletic response to yesterday's High Court ruling that merely confirmed that parliament - which is supposed to be the nation's sovereign body after all - will need to approve the triggering of the Brexit process. The Daily Mail has reverted to type, delivering headlines that are more in keeping with its 1930s period when it was opening courting Adolf Hitler. The Sun has the nerve to blame "loaded foreign elites" for this latest development.
The Sun's line in particular reveals just how far we've descended into farce and chaos. The obvious riposte to its line is to point the finger at its owner, himself an Australian-born, US-resident billionaire who has openly meddled in British politics since the 1980s. We're told Brexit was an anti-establishment revolution, yet it's clear the referendum merely pitted one half of the establishment against the other.
Yet those who voted for Brexit can't - or won't - see this. It appears that once you've stuck your head in the sand over one thing (climate change anyone?), you don't remove it for anyone. I've been reading Robert Harris' brilliant trilogy of novels about Cicero and the last days of the Roman Republic. Our own democracy now stands on the brink of collapse.
Sounds overly dramatic? If so, why is Jacob Rees Mogg - a name that reeks of the establishment - allowed to write a piece in today's Telegraph that states as its headline, "We will achieve Brexit, even if it takes an election, a purge of the Europhiles or 1,000 new peers to get there." Talk about disrespecting the British institutions you claim to cherish.
In the US it's even worse - Trump was claiming the election was a fix and the polls inaccurate while he was losing, then points people towards them when he's winning. It's what he's done for years. His levels of hypocrisy know no bounds, continually rounding on Clinton's email server while no one points out he's due to stand trial not once but twice in the months following the election result. I could go on, but if you're not already aware of the double-standards being applied here, you never will be.
It's tempting to say the war is lost, that we will slide back into something akin to tyranny, but there's a silent majority of people out there well aware of what is going on. It's time we all woke up to the facts, and acted to preserve this privileged life we lead, before it's too late.

Friday, June 24, 2016

So, we voted for Brexit

They say it's the hope that kills you. When the polls swung back to Remain before last weekend, I actually felt relaxed for the first time in a long while. We had a lovely weekend too. By last night, it was being called for Remain, but the alarm bells were ringing. And after a sleepless night when I avoided keeping up with the results, the result was announced.

For the first time in a long while, the majority of people in this country have voted for something. Let's remember that. We live in a country where a majority government can be formed on around 36-37% of the popular vote. Where the Prime Minister can resign and a general election isn't automatically triggered, so the ruling party can continue unopposed with a new person in place.

In the meantime, we have been subjected to a tissue of lies and half-truths by both camps, but most specifically the Leave side. Nowhere is this more evident than their battle buses proclaiming the £350m a week we save on EU membership could be spent on the NHS. First, that £350m figure was disputed a long time ago, and yet continued to feature prominently on the Leave campaign, despite demands to remove it. And then Nigel Farage told ITV within hours of the Leave victory being rubber-stamped that it's not going to happen. That it's effectively a lie.

That's a new low for the political process in this country. First, you have the question of enforcement - why was the Leave campaign allowed to continue peddling the £350m figure even after it had been thoroughly discredited? And second, have you ever seen a government backtrack on a major election manifesto promise within hours of being elected?

For good measure we have a bonus too - that Nigel Farage is parading around like some kind of political establishment figure when the bald truth is that the only democratic mandate he has is as an MEP. He couldn't even get elected to the House of Commons and yet he continues to have disproportionate representation in the media.

The UK is now gripped in predictable economic and political turmoil, but most people don't care. An overwhelming majority of Leave voters were older than 50, many of whom can go to their graves thinking they've made Britain "great" again (deliberate use of the lower case "g") without having to see the full consequences of that decision. Of the working poor who voted Leave out of a misguided belief their problems are down to immigration and little else, they will no doubt be handed another piece of misdirection by politicians should the crows come home to roost as they appear to be doing. I wonder who will be next? Will it be another minority group, or will they go after the educated, or even anyone who dared to vote Remain?

The only hope I can see for the future of this country - one that is unlikely to come to pass - is if we demand that these new powers our politicians have secured for themselves come with significant strings attached. It won't happen, but it would be the only silver lining I can see on what is going to be a very black cloud. And my children have to grow up in this world.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A stark reminder

As the UK lurches towards Brexit, an act of self-destruction so breathtaking many in the Remain camp can't quite believe it's happening, I'm reminded of a single adage, "The more you learn, the less you know."

If we take that as true, then it goes without saying the less people learn, the more certain they are that what they know is the gospel truth. It's also why there's a clear majority of people with a lower level of education who are sat firmly in the Brexit camp, and no amount of arguing, statistics or even bare facts (assuming you can find any) will persuade them otherwise.

The less you've learned, the simpler life is. You can adopt a world view based on your own narrow field of experience and live secure in the knowledge that it's right. Anyone who doesn't agree with you is - to varying degrees (or even in a black and white sense) against you, and therefore not to be trusted. It's a child's view of the world, and when you come across an unremitting slew of negative headlines from newspapers like The Sun and The Daily Mail, you'll take them at face value.

For these people, life is relatively simple. They have their world view, and that's it. You're either with them, or against them. Nothing can ever be their fault, and so they're easily persuaded to blame external factors  for the woes in their life. No one wants to own up to their own failures, so targeting other groups, whether it's "scroungers" or "immigrants" suits this view just fine.

I should clarify: this has nothing to do with formal education or qualifications - many people with a desire to learn find that the school system doesn't work for them, and find alternative ways of educating themselves. It's about opening up your mind to learning in general, and being prepared to learn uncomfortable truths that often throw up more questions than answers, then learning to live in this bigger universe where there are fewer certainties (and, where you discover, you're increasingly removed from its centre).

That said, we're all culpable for the mess this country is now in. We've all become lazy, easily distracted. How many scandals have there been since the banker's crash of 2008? The banks got off scot-free, then the MPs with their expenses, and now the richest 1% appear to have slithered away after the initial hysteria over the Panama Papers. These days, governments have become adept at burying "bad news" behind other headlines, and we now believe that engaging with the political process involves shouting our opinions at each other on social media while occasionally clicking a link to sign our name - with the minimum of effort, naturally - to a petition. Five minutes later, what would have sunk governments in past eras is forgotten and brushed under the carpet.

For me, the EU referendum is yet another example of government playing distraction tactics. Quite frankly, the British people are nowhere near qualified to decide whether or not we should remain a member of the EU. I could compose a rant now about how all of the criticisms being levelled at the EU can equally - if not more so - apply to our own country and its government. If - or increasingly likely when - we Brexit, those criticisms will remain, except now we'll have politicans with more power and less accountability.

But these arguments - whether true or not - are irrelevant. To the person secure in their narrow world view, the idea that they might not be qualified to make a decision about this country's membership of the EU is preposterous. It's snobbery of the worst kind. It's the elite patting them on the head and saying, "There there, run along now. This doesn't concern you." The fact we all lack the qualification to make this decision - just as you wouldn't trust me with a life-changing decision to invest your pension - is not the point. Those with a narrow world view will immediately assume you're being patronising and demand their "rights" just to spite you, regardless of the broader consequences.

For many who've seen their lives get progressively worse, it's also a roll of the dice. No doubt helped by the government's loosening of restrictions on betting, we're slowly being conditioned to become a nation of gamblers. With that in mind, perhaps it's even more understandable that people who have very little are willing to jump into the unknown. And maybe they'll be proved right, but I doubt very much a Brexit is going to result in a country where the worker is better off, particularly one that's been so easily conned into leaving the EU in the first place.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A frightening end to 2015

Here, in the relatively balmy East of England, it's been unseasonably mild and dry over the Christmas period. In the north and west of the country, those rising global temperatures have seen a succession of fierce winter storms produce record-breaking rainfall and devastating floods. It's a repeat of what happened two years ago, although (at the moment) it's been the north west rather than the south west that has been afflicted.

This is climate change, happening now. Global temperatures are some way off the so-called "safe" two degree (Celsius) rise, and yet all over the world havoc is being wreaked as known patterns (El Niño) are being amplified by the modest rise in temperatures. Don't believe me? See this recent news report. This might explain why the recent Paris agreement claims it will limit global rises to "just" 1.5 degrees - if everyone plays ball.

The time for argument is over - it was over ten years ago, but the paid shills continue to muddy the waters when people and governments need clarity of thought. We can halt - and maybe even reverse - the effects of climate change if we act quickly and decisively, but I don't see it happening.

Taking the UK in isolation, first we have a government determined to kill renewable energy by removing its declining subsidies before it's ready to stand on its own two feet. And all so it can throw that money at fracking (never mind continue to heavily subsidise fossil fuels in other areas). Second, people are directing their anger at the wrong targets - the refugee crisis sees my Facebook timeline polluted with calls to divert our pitiful overseas aid to the flood victims. Third, the gradual erosion of personal responsibility and social cohesion means few individuals will accept responsibility for their actions. Even now we could all rally against government, take steps to reduce our own carbon emissions (fewer flights, less polluting cars, better attempts to buy local) and bypass authority completely, but no. People refuse to accept they have any effect on the environment around them (because sending billions of tons of a warming gas into the atmosphere will have no effect, sure!), and then use the weakest argument of all: "Nothing I do will have any effect, so why bother?"

The depressing thing is that many of us have resolutely refused to change one iota of our lives - in the noughties we didn't care because we thought it would affect our grandchildren. Even in this decade when it's become apparent that the threat is closer to home, we cared so little for our children that we refused to make any kind of sacrifice. But what about now? As 2016 comes into being, it's blatantly obvious that climate change threatens our own future. Surely even the most selfish of us must now realise that taking these long overdue steps is vital for our own survival, never mind those who come after us?

Every single person in the western world is responsible for this mess. We can all do better. We must all do better. Or there will be one element of justice in the horrors yet to come: we'll get to see the effects of our selfishness first hand.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Goodbye to Nan

About 15 minutes ago, my grandmother passed away. It's been coming for a while, she was 91 and the last few weeks have been particularly hard on my mother who has been in daily trying to make her as comfortable as possible at her hospice. So in one sense it's a relief for all concerned, not least of all Nan.

But that's not how grief works. I saw her a couple of weeks ago, when I was at least able to show her the monument in Western Australia to a group of settlers that included her father, whose name is immortalised in a part of the world where he was very happy (and where Nan herself was born back in 1924). For that I am truly grateful, as it means I have a happy last memory to look back on, to add to all the other memories from my 42+ years, not least of which were living just a mile away for 15 years in the middle of Wales just after my grandparents retired.

But that's not how grief works. The tears are now coming for the first time. I miss her already, even though I've not seen her half as much as I should have done. She was my last link to that generation, following on from my grandfathers (1905-1980 and 1920-1997) and grandmother (1909-1996), all of whom I still miss even now. I consider myself extremely lucky to have known three of my grandparents really well, and my father's dad slightly. I was also lucky enough to remember my Nan's parents too - my great grandfather Percy Pink (1898-1980) who is the subject of so many of my family history articles, and my great grandmother Annette Howell (1902-1991).

My only regret is not having discovered family history earlier. It's important to connect to your roots and your past. My family history isn't remarkable - resolutely British with a touch of Irish, and mostly working class. And yet there are such stories to discover - and it'll be the same with other people too. Hidden treasures waiting to be discovered. If you're reading this, and never thought to delve into your family history, do so now. You'll be surprised at what you might learn.

As for Nan, I so hope there is something else after this life, and that she's reunited with her parents, my grandfather, my uncle and her family and friends who've departed before her. I hope they can occasionally glimpse the world they left behind, and know how much we loved them - and still do. Goodbye Nan, I miss you already.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

I admire the Tories for one thing...

... They seem to be able to rile me with a new "initiative" every single day. Since gaining unfettered power on a popular vote of 37% and Commons majority of 12, David Cameron and his cronies have been quick to break pre-election pledges and make a mockery of their claims to have been the greenest government ever, never mind a "one nation" party.

Let this blog post chronicle some of the ways in which I've been both angered and depressed since they won the election:
  1. NHS - there's little doubt it'll be well on the way to being dismantled by the next election. Still, you've got to thank Labour and Tony Blair for their part in all of this, with the ridiculous PPI initiative that brought in short-term (and unnecessary) investment in return for crippling repayments further down the line.
  2. Cutting wind and solar subsidies - it's all very well arguing that the free market should support renewable energy, but then this government continues to subsidise polluting energy sources like fossil fuels and nuclear. One more example of how the Tories preach socialism for the rich, capitalism for the rest of us.
  3. Removing low-carbon requirements for new homes - just how f**king short-term are these bunch of shysters? Unlike the economy, the environment is going to go away. Climate change is kicking in, its effects are being felt everywhere, and yet you lot decide to ditch even the half-hearted efforts to improve things? And let's not forget that low-carbon homes are cheaper to run for their inhabitants, but do you see the pattern yet? This Tory government isn't interested in you or me, but only its own kind. 
  4. Allowing the use of bee-harming pesticides - another example of how this government is in big business's pockets. I wonder which Tory MPs or donors benefit from this decision? Because in a rational, sensible world, no idiot would allow these pesticides back given the sheer volume of peer-reviewed evidence proving the link between them and the collapse of bee populations. And again, this isn't me being all airy-fairy based on a love of how cute they are, it's based on a desire for self-preservation based on the role bees play in pollinating our food.
  5. Cutting benefits by £12bn - yes, time to hit the working poor. The rich have got fat on cutting employment rights and wages in order to line their own pockets, but while the benefits we've introduced to allow people to continue to live while earning a pittance may not be sustainable, you can't axe them without supporting working people to support themselves. And Osbourne's laughable "living wage" won't come anywhere near close enough to do so.
  6. BBC - it's not enough to dominate the media, the right have now turned their attention to the BBC. It's a thinly veiled decision designed to lever more political advantage to the Tory elite (and people like Rupert Murdoch, who seem to think he should control how we vote despite not living here or paying any tax).
  7. Hunting - that was shocking. But as soon as it became obvious they would lose the vote, Cameron puts it in mothballs. But like everything else in this country, the anti-hunting group (of which I am one) haven't actually won; this government will bring it back, and sneak it through if it has to.
  8. Inheritance tax - yes, let's increase this to £1m per family! A classic example of how we're not all in it together. If you're going to hack and slash to fix the public finances, don't then hand out tax breaks to those who don't need it. Particularly when this policy makes a mockery of the Tories' claim that they believe in rewarding hard work. Inheritance tax is like a benefit for the rich, but then we go back to George Monbiot's brilliant slogan: Toryism is socialism for the rich, capitalism for the rest of us.
There are so many other examples my addled brain can't keep up. But what I particularly hate about this Tory government is how despicable, cowardly, low and self-serving they are. The above makes me out to be some kind of left-wing nutter, but I occupy the central ground. Just because Thatcher and her legacy has tried to shift the argument to the right (so Labour occupying the "central ground" in 1997-2015 puts them to the right of my position) doesn't mean I should stand here and allow myself to be labelled left-wing. It's time we forced a shift back to the left, before we're all working 14-hour days simply to keep ourselves out of the 21st century equivalent of the workhouse, all to line the pockets of a tiny moneyed elite. It's so Charles Dickens, darling, and I can think of my grandparents and great grandparents turning in their graves at all their hard-fought gains being wiped out by a generation or two of selfish, short-term thinking on our part.

So remember this when you next look at David Cameron, his cronies or any bollocks spouted by the Tories when campaigning. You can distil their ethos down to this: SOCIALISM FOR THE RICH, CAPITALISM FOR THE REST OF US.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Charlotte Church

In this blog post, Charlotte Church responds to all those who accuse her of being a champagne Socialist, and who have effectively told her to shut up because "the people have spoken" by delivering us a majority government on 24% of the popular vote (or 37% if you want to ignore those who didn't turn out).

This brilliant post highlights two particular points for me:
1. The so-called "champagne socialist" tag is as low a blow as it's ever been. Why shouldn't someone who's done okay for themselves care about those less fortunate than them? Believe it or not, but you don't have to be poor to worry about the poor. It's to be expected that an ever increasing number of people aren't capable of expressing empathy for anyone other than themselves (and, if you're lucky, their nearest and dearest), but it also demonstrates a shocking lack of imagination. Can these people genuinely not envisage a series of events that puts them at the mercy of the welfare state? You'd think that if they had a scrap of intelligence they'd realise a functioning, caring safety net is a good insurance plan to have - just in case - but no.
2. More disturbing is the Welsh Tory leader's claim that - because "the people have spoken" - we should stop protesting. Thing is, Andrew Davies, the people did speak, but thanks to the ridiculous electoral system we have in place, only 24% of those eligible to vote were heard. Even if you ignore those who didn't vote - most of whom, I'm sorry to say, did their country and their forebears a great disservice by cheapening and weakening democracy in the process - then 37% is not a resounding mandate. It means the overwhelming majority of those who did cast a cross on their ballot paper did not vote for the government that's about to inflict its dogmatic policies on all of us for the next five years.

There's something else Ms Church's post does too: highlight that inaction is no longer an option for any of us. We've allowed this country to be subsumed by right-wing forces (including New Labour) for too long. It's been 36 years since Margaret Thatcher tried to destroy the concept of society by encouraging the worst in people. Rather than stand up for the rights and responsibilities bequeathed on us by previous generations, we've allowed ourselves to be bribed while turning a blind eye to successive governments squandering the country's resources to line the pockets of the rich. Our children are no longer taught to think, but merely to learn by rote in preparation for a life that sees us run on an ever quicker treadmill. We don't stop to enjoy life, or give a stuff about the damage we're doing to our family, friends and life itself with our wilful destruction of the environment. Yet all through this we live with an aching void that no amount of spending sprees or hours spent glued to our phones can ever fill.

I consider myself very lucky for my upbringing and my life so far. I owe it to those less fortunate than me to help where I can. It'll be small steps at first - donations to local foodbanks, moving some of my savings to a credit union so people near me have access to a safe form of credit if they need it - but I suspect as I feel myself giving something back, then something bigger will come from it. And God help you, Tory Party, because I sense that after being dormant for so long, a large section of society is waking up. And hell hath no fury like legions upon legions of ordinary people scorned.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Election... One more thing

Aside from the thrill of getting my Tweet to Adrian Lester outlining my support for 75% FPTP/25% PR Retweeted, that is...

Anyway, the final thing to talk about regarding the election is the polls. It turns out the fact they were all so far out is a big deal, because it could be argued that it influenced the final outcome. For example, had I known the Tories were six points ahead of Labour going into the polling station, I'd have probably backed the Liberal Democrats. How many Tory voters toying with UKIP might have actually gone through with their threat to vote for Farage's party?

The analysis of why the polls were so far wrong has been done (there's also a fair bit of stuff about whether or not all the austerity we've gone through so far was actually a valid economic argument, particularly given the fact we're still running high annual deficits and piling up the national debt like there's no tomorrow, which sadly for our children, there is). There's talk of an inquiry, and people are rightly asking if this isn't an area that ought to be more tightly regulated in the future (unlikely, given the Tories see regulation as a dirty word). But I can't help indulging a little conspiracy theory, and wondering if the Tories knew how inaccurate the polls were. Having them neck-and-neck with Labour suited their negative campaigning very nicely, as it must have firmed up a large number of their core votes when for the first time ever they were at risk from a party on the right. No, that's a step too far, even for them. Isn't it?

Friday, May 08, 2015

Electoral reform (again)

I don't hold much truck with those who claim the Lib Dems deserved the mauling they've received. I'm biassed, yes, but I didn't vote for them this time - the first time ever in a General Election. I think that might have been a mistake, but what I do think - and fear - is that by 2020 the British electorate - particularly those of us who "punished" the Libs for their role in the coalition - will understand exactly what they did for this country.

For me, the battle was lost early on - the one thing I wanted from this coalition was a new electoral system. But the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg in particular were outmanoeuvred from the start. They should never have acquiesced to the watered-down version put to the public vote, which was always going to end in failure. And that is why those who claim the public have voted on electoral reform and rejected it are wrong - this isn't a simple "in-out" question like that of Scottish independence, but a fundamental look at the way our voting system rewards a minority of voters time and time again.

In 1983, the SDP-Liberal Alliance polled 7.8 million votes at the General Election, 25.4% of the total votes cast. In return they received 23 seats out of 650, a mere three per cent of seats. This gross injustice is brushed under the carpet time and again - first by the Tories, and then by New Labour. If there's one thing I'll never forgive Blair for - on top of his actions in Iraq and elsewhere - it was reneging on the promise of delivering significant electoral reform. We still have the antiquated House of Lords, for Christ's sakes.

In the wake of yesterday's election result, the only conclusion I can come to is this. If we ever want to see effective change to the way this country is run, we first have to get rid of the current electoral system. That means not just going up against the government, but all its cronies too, including the national press, so much of which is anything but "free". If we can do that, then maybe - just maybe - we can start to change this country for the good.

In 2005 I discovered how the parties would have fared had even a small - 25% - proportion of seats been distributed based on the notion of Proportional Representation. Here's how the results would have roughly pared out this time.

Conservative: 295 Labour: 223
SNP: 50
UKIP: 21
Lib Dem: 18
Greens: 6
Others: 37

It would have forced the Tories to join forces with at least two other parties - presumably UKIP and one other if they lurched to the right, or Lib Dems and one other if they were to stay in the centre - to form the government. It's not that the pollsters got things wrong, but that the electoral system itself has so badly distorted the will of 63.2% of the voting public, who did not vote for the party now wielding power that is effectively unfettered.

I personally prefer the idea of STV or even 50-50 PR, but I can see how the above would at least smooth out some of the inconsistencies and force parties to work harder to win an absolute majority.

"It's almost certain we'll have another coalition..."

Not the first time I've been wrong, and won't be the last time either. Amazing how a minority of the electorate (36% this time round) get to choose a government for the rest of us. Not one single government in living memory has ever been elected by the majority of those who vote (never mind those who are eligible to vote), and yet this government - no longer fettered by the weak chains of the Liberal Democrats - will get to rule unopposed for the next five years.

I don't want to predict what our country will look like in 2020, but I can't help but feel it will be a nastier place for most of us. I may perversely be better off - assuming I'm able to keep getting paid to write, but I'd rather know that if things go wrong there's a system in place - one I've been paying in to for the past 21 years - that will support people in need who find themselves out of work, help them get back on their feet and into a new job without demonising them or putting them into a cycle of poverty. It would be also nice to think there's a NHS there too should it be needed.

I can see bubbles of anger starting to appear from those at the bottom - particularly the young. They look at my generation and those before me and ask themselves why - having taken advantage of free higher education and healthcare - we're happy to pull the drawbridge up behind us just so we continue to live at levels of comfort far in excess of what we actually need. There's a disturbing lack of empathy on show, and it's dangerous too - it's all very well bemoaning people less fortunate than ourselves allegedly eating into our personal wealth through taxation, but it doesn't take much these days to find yourself on the other side of the fence. It would be worth hammering that point home over the next five years to those who are lucky enough to avoid falling into poverty, but still so blinkered they can't see that there but for the grace of go they.

We live in dangerous times, but decency is still out there. Less than 50% voted Tory or UKIP, so we should not paint all of Britain as uncaring and nasty. We all know it's not true. But here's a warning for the elite: the time for electoral reform is nigh - you've had 32 years disenfranchising large swathes of the British public (forget UKIP's complaints about one seat for 12% of the vote; Liberals were given just 23 seats for 7.8 million - 25.4% - of the vote in 1983), and we won't put up with it for much longer.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

General Election 2015

Like so many people, I'm not sure who to vote for tomorrow. I'm pretty sure what I want to vote for, but this time round, none of the options on offer marry up with what I'm looking for.

It's almost certain we'll have another coalition, but the thought of that being led by the Tories again is anathema to me. I fell for the con trick in 2010 that they'd "fix" the economy, yet here we are, five years down the line and all their austerity has done is delay recovery and nearly double the national debt while the annual deficit remains unplugged. Christ, if that's economic competence then come back Gordon Brown, all is forgiven.

For some people, it's all about the economy. That should come first. That means you vote for people who demonstrate little or no compassion or empathy. I'm indebted to the brilliant George Monbiot for this, but the irony of the Tories is that they are socialists at heart, except it's socialism for the very rich and an increasingly brutal, extreme form of capitalism for the rest of us. State-sponsored bailouts of the banks (and then allowing these failures to lecture us about the state of the NHS), subsidies for rich companies (under-valued sell-off of the Royal Mail, anyone?) - and all while slashing public services in the name of austerity and prudence when the sensible option is to ask us all - including the rich - to stop hiding money under our beds and pay a bit more tax. That's the problem with the rich, they won't find themselves lying on a bed in a crumbling NHS wishing they'd put more resources in because they'll be ensconced in a private hospital somewhere receiving the best care and screw the rest of us.

But ultimately, all the posturing and grandstanding the parties in this election campaign and yet the key issues are those being studiously ignored by all and sundry - the environment for one. Even the Greens seem incapable of delivering this message. Then there's electoral, political and constitutional reform. All brushed under the carpet. What happened to the Lib Dem? First Clegg squanders the chance to get rid of an antiquated voting system (ironically, it could be the chaotic outcome to this election that finally sees FPTP replaced with something - anything - more representative), and now he's stopped talking about it altogether. It's certainly not one of his "red line" policies.

I want to like Labour, but despite the doom-mongering from other quarters, it's not their economic competence that puts me off. I like Milliband, but it's clearly he's still in the thrall of New Labour, who are only slightly to the left of the Tories and who in past would have actually sat to their right. I can't vote for them after 13 years of wasted opportunities. I clearly won't vote Tory, and I can see right through UKIP. The Lib Dems no longer represent my views, and while I don't blame them for breaking their pledge on tuition fees (seriously people, the other parties have broken worse pledges over the years - Labour promised not to introduce them in the first place, remember?) their record in government has been shameful at times.

That leaves the Greens, who I thought I'd embrace with open arms, but even here I have reservations. Some of their policies are bat-shit mental and not thought through, but I guess they're not going to be involved in any coalition, so I suspect when the time comes I'll place my cross there to make a point more than anything else.

The system was broken in 2001, 2005 and 2010. Now it feels like it's broken beyond repair. I want a Labour-led government, simply to stop the Tories destroying what's left of the Welfare State. Economics be damned - I've seen little in the last five years to suggest Cameron and Osbourne can be trusted any more than Blair or Brown could have been (ironically, Brown's replacement Alistair Darling did impress me). But I also want a Labour-led government because it might - and this is said in hope rather than any expectation - lead to long overdue constitutional reform: end the House of Lords, implement a new voting system so you can vote for whoever you want without penalty, and perhaps rein in political donations to prevent parties being bankrolled by powerful, unelectable and unaccountable interests. Is that too much to ask?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sunny February days

Since we bought solar panels in 2013, my appreciation of the weather has changed. Yesterday was cold and chilly, but almost perfect blue skies saw the panels generate over 13kWh of electricity, which is the highest amount since October. It may still be winter - just ask the residents of New England who are buried beneath dozens if not hundreds of inches of snow - but seeing the panels generate this amount of electricity, coupled with the rapidly expanding daylight hours and even if spring isn't in sight, I know it's coming. And that feels good.

The dark winter months only really exist from about mid-November to mid-January - after that time the sunset pushes back rapidly and by now the sun is well and truly up by the time we rise at 7am each morning. Everyone suffers from SAD to some extent - and I'd urge everyone with access to today's beautiful blue skies to spend even just a couple of minutes standing outside feeling that warm sun on your face. Quell your chattering mind and just live in the moment - this is what life is for, these quiet, beautiful moments while you top up your Vitamin D levels and leave the day-to-day grind behind. Now, if you'll excuse me...

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in review

2014 has been an interesting year - one of downs and ups (in that order) from a work point of view, as has been chronicled elsewhere in this blog. While there's an element of uncertainty over one of my clients going into the New Year, the world won't end if that work does, although it will mean I won't be continuing the frankly stellar run of income (and the multiple juggling of balls on daily basis that goes with it). If I'm honest, I'm a little short of where I'd like to be in terms of repairing some of the damage done to the savings with the purchase of our new car, which - so far, touch wood, etc - has been a delight. But the fact this work is likely to be snatched away after a mere six months doesn't surprise me, and at least it's the usual tale of internal politics rather than a reflection of my work should it disappear.

I've learned a lot over this past year - including the fact I probably shouldn't be earning anywhere near what I have been doing as a writer. But then when I reflect on the aforementioned ball-juggling, it does make sense. The stress of being the sole bread winner is starting to weigh a little heavily on my shoulders, but I'm grateful I'm still in the position of being able to support my family with no outside help (car loans from parents notwithstanding!). I just hope I can keep it going into 2015 and beyond.

2014 won't go down in history as a great year, I fear. 100 years on from the outbreak of the Great War and our species continues to infuriate and delight in unequal measure. The conflict raging in places including Africa, the Middle East and even the fringes of Europe is proof that we're still failing to learn the lessons from history, and the outbreak of Ebola shows how skewed our priorities are - we could have had a great headstart on this, but man's greed and selfishness means this and other pressing problems (climate change, mass extinction event, anyone) continue to be ignored in the increasingly vain hope that they'll go away. The devastation in the UK earlier this year should be incontrovertible proof that sticking your head in the sand won't work, but still we do.

And yet, there have been glimpses of mankind's potential, nowhere more so than when looking to the stars. Europe landing a probe on a comet, the US successfully launching the first Orion (unmanned) flight ahead of a trip to Mars, and so many other breakthroughs. Life can be depressing, and it does get me down, but I'd like to think I'm learning to look more for the best in people.

With the space theme in mind, let me end my 2014 blog by sharing the following video with you, by Erik Wernquist. It's utterly inspiring, and if you want a reason to do more to save our planet so one day our children might get to see the rest of our solar system, this is it. Happy New Year.



Wanderers - a short film by Erik Wernquist from Erik Wernquist on Vimeo.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Well, that was fun...

... Yesterday we picked up the new car. Early signs are, of course, good. Time will tell if it's a good purchase or not, but hopefully the next few years at least will be relatively trouble-free on the motoring front. Plus I've managed to pair my iPod touch to its Bluetooth, so wireless music is now a go-go.

However, Saturday 25th October 2014 will not be remembered particularly as the day we upgraded our car for the first time in over 10 years. It will instead go down as the day Birmingham City Football Club suffered its worst home league defeat in history, going down 8-0 to the mighty Bournemouth at home. That's right, while teams like Crystal Palace and Ipswich can point to the quality of their opposition when looking back on record defeats, Blues will look to the south coast and beyond either Portsmouth or Southampton for theirs.

By the time I logged on to Twitter 20 minutes in to see how they'd started, Blues were a goal down and a man down. By half time it was 0-3, and then we had a penalty in the second-half, which we naturally missed. By the end, Bournemouth were hitting the woodwork at will in addition to providing the ultimate humiliation for our long-suffering fans. Naturally, our erstwhile owners out in Hong Kong will stay silent, keeping their heads firmly in the sand as the BIHL investment vehicle slowly crumbles into the dust taking my football club with it.

To be fair, I'm past caring. Since winning the Carling Cup three years ago, fate has claimed a rather heavy (and if I may say so, completely disproportionate) price for our solitary success. You kind of hope that we hit the floor with yesterday's result, but we all know it's another false bottom, and we'll soon be falling even further. After a while, it gets a little boring, and there's far more to life than following a rubbish football team. Like a new car.

Within the next 48 hours we hope to confirm our new manager. One crumb of comfort from yesterday's result is that the current caretaker, who put his hat in the ring last week, won't be getting anywhere near the job. I hope.

Friday, October 10, 2014

A new car

First, the good news. After 10 years, we've finally decided to wave goodbye to our VW Golf and move on up to an 11-month old Hyundai i20. It's like entering the space age will all the whizzy new tech they pack into cars these days, but ultimately it was the basics that swung the car our way over a brand new Dacia Sandero, which we also took for a test drive.

I'd been looking at the 0.9-litre turbo-charged version of the Sandero, but with none in stock (and none due until December apparently) we were forced to try the entry level 1.2-litre model instead. It was reasonably nippy in the low gears, but as soon as you hit fourth and tried to put your foot down it struggled and was clearly a poor second even to the 15-year old Golf. It left us feeling underwhelmed, but not surprised. As soon as I'd seen that the i20 was within our price range, I knew I'd have to try one.

And what an experience. Aside from the slick look and feature-packed interior, this car's 1.2-litre engine was streets ahead of the disappointing Sandero's. It exceeded the Golf for responsiveness, is much easier on the fuel consumption (£30 a year road tax? Thank you very much!) and was comfortable to drive for both of us, with plenty of adjustment options.

So the deposit has been paid on a stardust grey coloured model which is due to arrive on Monday. We'll take that for a test drive and give it the once over to confirm we're happy with it, then the excitement and waiting begins. Like all consumer purchases, it's the buzz of the buy and the impatience that's infectious - I swear I've not felt this kind of anticipation since I was a boy waiting for Christmas Day 1985 (ZX Spectrum+). It's nice to know that at age 41 the inner child is still in there somewhere, behind the greying hair and creaking knees!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Moving on up (again)

Once again, the work pendulum swings, but this time it's in an upward direction, despite my pessimistic forecast from earlier this year. I suspect people will be fed up of hearing the same old story (even I admit trawling through older posts that it's starting to wear a bit thin). All I can say is that God help me the day things really do nosedive and don't improve because by then I shall either be eaten by wolves or burned to a crisp (see Hilaire Beloc's brilliant cautionary tale about Matilda).

Anyway, I digress. Things have picked up thanks to the continuing generosity of the people I currently work for and the acquisition of not one, but two unexpected (but entirely welcome) new clients. The first is 1&1 Internet, and I thank Richard for including me in his blogging team going forward. The regular work basically replaces all of the work I lost when Dixons pulled the plug on its Advent and Sandstrom websites last December.

The second is a set of playbooks - I won't reveal the topic or client for confidentiality reasons - but not only do I have 15 days guaranteed work over the next two months, there's the potential of more to follow going forward.

It's a bit of a shift from my usual work, I'll admit, but for any writer to survive in these times they need to accept corporate commissions, and I'm immensely grateful for these two bits of work as they've made this month the best one of the year so far, with both September and October pretty much guaranteed to be very good months too. And if the 1&1 work continues into next year, I'll hopefully not be hit too much when it comes to the now-obligatory lean months of January to April.

Now all I have to do is get a grip on the finances and start putting some money back into the savings...

Friday, July 25, 2014

It was 20 years ago today...

... on Monday, 25th July, 1994*, that I started work for Future Publishing in Bath. A fresh-faced (and soon to be bitter-and-twisted, but that's another story) graduate had fluked his first job after interviewing well one day after graduating from Lancaster University with a 2:1 in History.

I remember the interview better than I do my first day. I wore a suit - a hand-me-down from dad - and it was a hot day. I remember arriving at Bath Spa station, and I also remember killing time by wandering through Bath where I discovered a great second-hand record and CD shop (one of many in Bath at the time) in The Corridor. A quick Google search reminds me of its name: Rival Records (see here). I also remember catching a peek at the great Clive Parker - the person I was to replace - on the streets of Bath. He didn't know me from Adam, so I didn't bother him.

Anyway, I digress. I kept my expectations low, and then went into Future's main offices in Monmouth Street for the interview - ironically, the company has revealed in the past month it's selling up those very offices. ST Format, the magazine in question, were on the first or second floor in those days, and I interviewed well against the other two candidates, largely because I was the most "normal". And also because the editor - Trent - and I got on very quickly to talking about football. I'd end up living in Twerton, 100 yards from Bath City's ground where they were sharing with Bristol Rovers (his team). Blues were newly relegated to the same division, and I'd spend many Saturday afternoons cheering on the Gas.

Anyway, so I got the job (when I called to chase it up a few days later, Trent sounded very nervous and I could barely understand a word he said. I assumed I'd not got the job, signed on the next day and came home to find a letter offering me the position of Disk Editor for the princely sum of £9,000 per year (£10,000 after a three-month trial period). Despite living in an expensive city, I found dismal digs in Twerton for £164 a month, which left me around £320 a month to live like a king. And yes, dear reader, I did.

The day after I started, the owner put the company up for sale. I tried not to take it personally, and in many ways our days under the ownership of Pearson were the best. Certainly after the management buyout the company expanded too fast and paid a heavy price when the internet bubble burst in 2000. Up until that point it had been young, dynamic, and constantly exceeding sales targets and expectations. Salaries weren't great, hours could be long, but it was to all intents and purposes like living at university, only getting paid for it.  I made many great friends too, and felt like part of a great big family, albeit quite a dysfunctional one at times.

Future was a creative, buzzing place in those days. I'd have enjoyed my first 18 months more if my personal life hadn't got in the way, but despite my bitter and twisted moods, I survived and although ST Format went down the pan I was de facto editor for its final five issues and went on to bigger and better things. Internet Special Projects was one, then - after a very brief stint on PC Review - I moved away from computing to become Production Editor on Cult TV (this deserves a post all of its own, which I'll do one day).

After Cult TV, which was the making of me as a sub, I scuttled back to computing and the magazine that would become my spiritual home: PC Answers. For the first time in my career - which was now around four years old - I was on a title that was successful and growing. We had a great 18 months, during which I became Deputy Editor, but after being overlooked for the role of Editor when it came up, I gained my promotion on sister title Windows Answers, which was relaunched as Quick and Easy Windows, and - without putting too fine a point on it - flopped.

I escaped after a year, back to PCA whose sales had dipped as the company as a whole got caught up in the bursting of the dot.com bubble. Thankfully, fixing PCA was a simple job - I just reapplied what had worked previously, and the whole team worked tirelessly to turn things round. At a time when Future needed us most, PCA delivered in spades: 40,000 plus monthly sales (including over 12K subscribers) and one of the company's ten most profitable magazines.

After two years, I felt a bit stale, plus the shock of the company's troubles had shaken me from my complacency. Rather than seek a job elsewhere in Future - and I was offered one or two - I took the plunge, and on 1st January 2003 went freelance. Financially speaking, I've never looked back. Yet.

Despite all the recent uncertainty, I think I've earned the right to bask in a little bit of nostalgia after two decades of making a living - and a good one, I dare to say - at this. For a career I only fell into through a series of happy accidents, it's been kind to me on the whole. I might be pushing my luck, but here's to hopefully pushing it far enough to celebrate 25 years in the business in 2019...

*It's entirely possible I might have started a week earlier than this - Monday 18th July - but I can't honestly remember.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The decline of the Co-op

First up, I will not abandon the Co-op in all of its guises at this moment in time. But reading some of the comments to the Guardian's latest report leaves me fuming. The first one is this: "The prices they charge in store are very high, all because they have a geographical monopoly over those who don't have private transport, like the Tesco Metros and Sainsbury Locals."

Perhaps the prices they charge in store are high because they actually pay a fairer whack for those goods in the first place? That's the point about ethics, fairtrade, organic and so on - it costs more to produce and buy, therefore you can't expect to pay rock-bottom prices for it.

For me, this comment highlights just how disconnected with reality so many people are. It also highlights how big business has won the war. In the end, it wasn't communism or some rival political manifesto that did for us, but rampant capitalism instead. The endless cycle of driving things down - not just prices, but wages, education, democratic rights, and so on - so that the few at the top can cream off obscene sums of money at the rest of our expense while we all dutifully allow ourselves to be bamboozled by the distraction techniques on offer.

It's like the whole UKIP argument - blame the economic migrants instead of the businesses employing them for minimum wages while allowing the taxpayer to pick up the tab in terms of tax credits. Yes, many of these people coming in are on "benefits", but how else would they survive on such meagre wages?

And of course, underlying all of this, the environment. We're systematically destroying the very thing that offers us a habitable place to live, again to line the pockets of those at the top whose riches are so obscene they lost touch with reality a long time ago. Seriously, after the first £1m, what's the point? To just keep piling up money on top of more money at the expense of everyone else - seriously, just how low can you go?

Not low enough, it seems. Just shave another 5p off the cost of something at the checkout, don't ask awkward questions about where that saving is made (hint, not at the expense of the big business's bottom line) and carry on with your blinkered lives.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Great Escape

When I started supporting Birmingham City in 1980, we were a club famed for its successful scrapes against relegation: the 1920s, 1930s, 1960s and 1970s. That carried on into the 80s, where we managed four narrow escapes, but ended in 1993 when an offside goal from Paul Moulden gave us a 1-0 win over Charlton to stay in the (old) Second Division.

Yesterday, for the first time in 21 years, we performed another Great Escape. Let's be honest, before yesterday we were dead and buried. We went into our final match, at bogey club Bolton, needing a minimum of a point and for other results to go our way, specifically a Doncaster loss at Leicester. Ironically, playing our last match away from home was actually an advantage - we've set a league record of 18 games without a home win, and lost our previous two matches (2-4, 0-1) to slide into the relegation zone.

So those were the stats (I won't add that we were on a horrific run of form). We battered Bolton first half, but failed to score, so it was inevitable they'd get the first goal on 57 minutes. Then Doncaster conceded a soft penalty and Leicester scored to lead 1-0, so now we only needed to equalise to stay up. Except we promptly conceded a second on 76 minutes.

So, with 14 minutes plus stoppage time to go, we were 2-0 down. Based on our previous form we were relegated. But the 4,000 travelling support lifted the team, and amazingly we pulled one back just two minutes later through talismanic striker Nikola Zigic. But we couldn't force the equaliser as the clock ticked down, until the board went up - six added minutes!

Three minutes in, Lee Novak swung in a poor cross, it bobbled a bit, Jordan Ibe fired the ball in, it ping-ponged up in the air and Nikola Zigic headed downwards towards goal. One Bolton defender deflected it up with his foot, another - wearing a face mask - nodded it away from under the bar. And there was Paul Caddis, to jump like a salmon and nod a neat header from all of one yard out into the back of the net.

Cue delirium.

Full match highlights here:



Or just listen to the mayhem via the Sky Sports Newsroom here:




The weird thing is, we've all compared this to winning the Carling Cup in 2011. For the future of the club, it could prove critical seeing as we're hopefully going to change hands this summer. There are big questions to be asked over the next few months, the club will be ripped up from top to bottom and we could simply find ourselves relegated next season, but at his point, the feelings of ecstacy are only just starting to dim.

Some facts that might explain why we feel like we do:
1. Finally won a nail-biting survival battle for the first time in 21 years. 20 years ago we were relegated to League One with 51 points on the last day, so maybe there are parallels with what happened two decades (two decades? Gulp!) ago.
2. This was how we should have felt three years ago, except we were relegated in the last minute in our Carling Cup winning season, again with a points tally (39, would have been 40 if we hadn't been chasing the game desperately) that would have seen us safe nine seasons out of 10.
3.  This season we've stayed up with 44. That's pathetic, frankly, and we don't deserve it (but then would Doncaster have deserved to stay up having also only got 44 points?). But seeing as we've been relegated with larger points tallies, perhaps that's the point - we were owed this one, for 1994 and 2011 (and possibly even 2008 too).

From a personal point of view, I've not been feeling great lately, so it's a timely reminder that sometimes, just sometimes, Birmingham City FC can lift your mood.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Scared

Today's news about Future caps off an "interesting" six months workwise. It began in early December when I lost one-quarter to one-third of my income overnight after a corporate client suddenly decided to drop the websites I was helping to run. I've still not recovered financially now, although I am coming to terms with having to earn less, with belt-tightening very much in place.

Since then I thought I'd plugged some of the gap with more corporate work through another agency. Unfortunately in the past few weeks I've discovered not only have they decided to go in-house with the copy writing I was expecting to do, but the other corporate client I was working for have also effectively dropped me too. So from two corporate clients on 1st December 2013, I currently have none.

Things have shifted in the editorial sphere too. There's less work around, and budgets are being trimmed. I'm aware that my markets are shrinking, but when I look around to see what else I could write, it feels like the opportunities aren't there either. How many times have I managed to branch out and secure a toehold in other areas only to have the door eventually shut in my face?

I've no idea at the moment how Future's planned restructure will affect me personally - I know a lot of good people are going to be facing the threat of losing their jobs. From a selfish point of view this might mean more freelance work going forward, but it might also mean those people who've lost their jobs will be at the head of the queue for not just that work, but also be in a position to take the work I'm already doing. It's been 11 years since I was full-time at Future, and over eight years since we moved away from Bath.

I recently tweeted that 2014 felt like a watershed year, "and not in a good way". Recent events do nothing to assuage me of that fear. Is this the beginning of the end for me as a writer? Come September, both girls will be at school and Toni is facing up to the likelihood of having to work part-time just to make up the shortfall I'm currently facing.

The big question is, if I give up writing, what other job could I do? And will I be employable? I'm not necessarily afraid of finding myself doing something else for a living, it's the fear that I might not actually be able to find another job to go to.

I know this blog has recorded many such fears over the years, but this time it feels different. And a hell of a lot scarier.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Wakey, wakey...

Today's Independent carries a worrying story about the dangers to the world's wheat crop through a virulent mutation of "wheat rust", a fungal disease. It follows on from a more encouraging story last week from National Geographic that revealed that despite being infested with the same pests and diseases that are wiping out bees across the globe, Kenyan honey bees are so far proving completely immune to them.

Both stories are linked - they reveal how our industrialised approach to agriculture is starting to catch up with us. Successive generations of bees have seen their immune systems weakened by poor husbandry and increased stresses, much of which can be traced to pesticides like Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, which incidentally are doing as much damage to us as they are to bees.

I think most reasonable human beings accept that we have an effect on the environment around us. I'd like to think most people can make the connection between the billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases we emit each year (while simultaneously chopping down vast swathes of forest that would help to absorb at least some of those gases) and climate change. There are still a vocal minority of frankly idiotic people who deny this, who claim it's all some global conspiracy despite the evidence in front of their eyes. I accept we've gone too far now to reverse or halt the effects of climate change, that our legacy to our children will be an unhappy one - even if we were to somehow develop magical climate capture technologies that allowed us to continue burning fossil fuels, what about the rest of the damage we're doing?

Everything is geared towards globalisation, from our energy and food supplies to economic systems. Even at a local level it's plain to see centralisation of services and power is bad, if only because individuals cannot possibly manage or micro-manage counties or states, never mind countries or blocs of countries like the EU. Yet we persist in this fallacy that big is better, that endless rounds of "efficiencies" and "savings" produces better (or even equal) quality.

We can all see this, and yet we choose to ignore it. For all the hot air blown about climate change, the fact is that taking steps to transform ourselves from this unsustainable way of living can't do any harm, but would - even if climate change somehow proved to be a fallacy - make our lives much better and more sustainable in the long run. Oh, and we'd be saving money too. But then if people can't see what's happening in the world around them, I'm probably expecting too much of them to see the cold, hard cash they could be saving by adopting a more responsible approach to the way they live their lives.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Bye bye garages

It appears work is finally starting on demolishing the garages at the back of our property and replacing them with three affordable homes for council tenants. This day has been coming for a long time, but we've all been caught on the hop somewhat.

This morning, a letter came through our letterbox informing us about the start of construction and the need to remove everything that's attached to the back of the garages (our back fence). Again, we've known this was coming, which is why I've already had one major clearout of the lean-to shed ahead of dismantling it.

Unfortunately, work to demolish the garages apparently started on Monday, 3rd March. Don't worry, though, because the letter isn't dated Thursday 6th March, the day it was actually delivered. Oh no, the letter is dated 3rd February, which is strange because until yesterday we didn't know the letter existed.

Now, this means I'm going to have to hope they don't start smashing up the garages today and then I can try to take down the shed over the weekend, yes? Well, no. Thing is, I had a minor op on Wednesday - nothing serious, all planned, but the end result is I'm technically out of action until next Wednesday. So now I've had to call in my father-in-law to help remove it on Sunday - he's 70 by the way, and really shouldn't have to get involved with this kind of stuff. I might also ask my next door neighbour to help - he's around the same age. Bit pathetic, me, 30 years their junior watching them do the work I should have been doing if I'd only been given even a fortnight's notice.

EDIT: good news. The site manager has been round personally to see me. Not only will I not have to worry about removing the lean-to shed this weekend, I won't have to worry about removing it at all. They've decided to keep the back wall of the garages when they demolish the rest - the height will be reduced (but only slightly, staying at around 2 metres), and the lean-to shed will be reprieved permanently. He apologised for the ham-fisted nature of the letters (written for five different sites, so totally generic) and the late delivery of them. While it would have been nice to have known all this from the start, I'm just happy there will hopefully be a silver lining to all of this. And once that work is done, we'll be secure in the knowledge no more development will be forthcoming at the end of our garden. And the height of that wall will definitely help!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Three years ago, today...

... this happened. It blew the universe apart, at least that's how I reconcile myself with what happened afterwards, but the fact that in 2011 Birmingham City won the Carling Cup can never be erased from the history books. Below is the video that finally brought home the magnitude of this event to yours truly:



Birmingham City vs Arsenal Wembley [BRMB] Tom... by ChrisWembleyBlue

Monday, February 10, 2014

Time to stop pandering to climate change deniers

Unbelievably after all this extreme weather we've been facing, those who refuse to accept man-made climate change are still trying to say it's not happening. But there's a crack in their arguments. Many of them now grudgingly accept that the climate is changing, even if they're stubbornly clinging on to the fact it has nothing to do with global warming.

Well I for one have had enough of arguing with them. It doesn't matter that they ignore the 99 per cent of peer-reviewed scientific studies to concentrate on the 1% (never mind the batshit conclusions made by people with dubious - or even no - scientific credentials). They need to start facing up to the facts, or perhaps even answering some questions of their own.

Here's the critical question. Where does all that greenhouse gas that man emits every year go? You know, the billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from energy consumption, transport, food production, etc. Then the billions of tonnes of methane and other greenhouse gases also emitted every year by the same processes, driven by a global population of over 7 billion humans.

You see, how can you ignore all those emissions? 150 years ago there were less than a billion humans on the planet. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, but emissions then were a mere fraction of what they are now. Furthermore, 150 years ago there were a hell of a lot more carbon sinks in the world, including vast swathes of forest, to absorb those emissions too.

So we have two indisputable facts: one, emissions of warming greenhouse gases caused by mankind and its related activities exist and are clearly substantial, and two, the carbon sinks that would normally absorb at least some of those emissions are either gone (deforestation) or reaching capacity (oceans now becoming acidic as the concentrations of carbon dioxide in them increases). So, climate change deniers: where are these emissions going?

It's the only way you can argue with these people - ask them where the emissions go. And I wish more people faced with these idiots would do just that.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Battered and bruised

That's how the west of Britain must be feeling as storm after storm lashes these shores. Many of these storms have been notable events in themselves, but to find ourselves getting lashed again and again would, you think, finally focus politicians' minds on the fact that the effects of climate change are now beginning to make themselves very clear. Extreme weather events are on the rise - as we get lashed, half of America freezes while California is trapped in record drought conditions where there may not be enough water to go around. Australia bakes year after year, and other areas get similarly battered too.

And yet, our government is pressing ahead with fracking. Those who are successfully blocking solar and wind power projects will find it a lot harder to block frackers who have the might of the UK government behind them. Perhaps they'll realise it might have been better all round to have accepted these renewable projects, as their drawbacks seem to pale in comparison to what fracking will bring.

We're now clearly on the brink of a cliff - decades, maybe even just years away from a catastrophic series of events that will change life as we know it. Clearly the weather is going to get more challenging, and so will growing food. We're on the cusp of a mass extinction event and the whole thing just makes me so angry as well as sad and frightened. We've had two decades to come to terms with the fact we're damaging the planet and we've all collectively stuck our heads in the sand over it. But why should my children and your children bear the brunt for our selfishness? And why, even now, are politicans burying their heads in the sand? Ignoring common sense, continuing to peddle an economic system that's based on a deluded notion that you can grow indefinitely, building yet more concrete for ever-growing numbers of people without thinking about the long term consequences?

I once compared this planet to the last days of Krypton in Superman. They too ignored all the warning signs, thought they could meddle with nature without a thought for the consequences. The only problem is, I don't have the skills or the technology to provide my children with an escape route from this madness. Once again I find myself wondering how I ended up on this woe-begotten ride, and whether I will ever be able to find a way off it.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Mortified

I write this having just found out - through Twitter - that a close friend has been in hospital for the past five days. I only recently visited him at his home and knew about his chest pains and the likelihood it would be followed up, but to find out this - and that I was unaware of it - is mortifying. I mentioned in my last post that I feel like I'm having to run faster to stand still, that I have to bury myself in work to keep my head above water, and this is what happens when I spend too long not paying attention to what's going on in the real world.

Obviously the important thing will be to find out if he's okay or not. But to discover that - because work picked up last week and swamped me - I've missed out on being there for him is a wake-up call I really must heed.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Review of the Year, 2013

So here we are, last day of 2013. This post is inspired by my very good friend Cav Scott, whose own top 10 moments of the year are not only far more interesting than anything I could muster, but proof he's definitely on the right career trajectory!

But to return to my self-indulgent review of the year. For once in my life, I'll try to keep it relatively short:

1. Work: down, then up, then stratospherically up, then down again. Long story short, I end the year much like I began it, with the loss of a client. Sadly, unlike the beginning of the year, this client was my single biggest one, and the bombshell was delivered two weeks after we'd had a hugely productive meeting where it appeared 2014's plans were rubber-stamped.

Still, I enjoyed the brief four-month period of not worrying about where next month's paycheques were likely to come from.

2. Work: the realisation I have to work harder to stand still, and that it's a trend unlikely to get better any time soon. This fact was driven home by this news story here - brought sharply into focus by the events of step 1.

3. New bathroom: long overdue, paid for out of savings and a very generous donation from my wonderful in-laws. The only irony? The old bathroom had literally just been demolished when the fateful phone call regarding the loss of major client came through.

4. Solar panels: a bit of a punt, and for a short time felt like a major mistake. Thankfully, the spectacular last four months of 2013 helped cushion the blow and ease the transition - now it's reassuring to know my bills are coming down and there's a minor injection of cash every three months. Hopefully by this time next year the mortgage will be back to where it was when we got them.

5. Car: is now on borrowed time after running up two separate bills worth £900 over the space of two months. Its borrowed time may, however, be extended if I feel unhappy at wiping out most of the rest of my ISA to pay for it in the current work climate.

6. Family: girls are growing and developing fast, a source of constant joy (and occasional irritation and grief). Harri's latest hip scan indicates possible trouble further down the line, but nothing major for now - the fact she turned six was a major shocker for me (all those years waiting for her to reach the "Now We Are Six" age, and suddenly she's there!). Mimi's starring role as Mary in the nativity was another highlight. Toni's craft business is also snowballing - hopefully she'll be able to start contributing financially again when both girls are at school (next September!).

7. Me: Part of me wonders if I could have followed Cav at least a little way into his exciting world, but a recent Facebook quiz (yes, I'm aware of the irony of trusting anything on Facebook) suggests my brain is actually 69/31 in favour of the technical side rather than the creative one. That revelation took me aback, as I'd always considered myself an imaginative type, but it probably explains my aptitude for writing practical tutorials, fiddling around inside PCs and providing technical support for readers and customers. Strange how it took me to the age of 41 to find that out! Otherwise I have so little time these days I sometimes feel I merely exist. Read some books, watched a lot of TV, played the occasional game of football, fiddled with a media server setup, is my life really so thin?

As for 2014, the usual over-arching dream applies - win a large sum of money to free up time and relieve the stress of worrying about money. At least that bit can be cut and pasted into next year's review... In the meantime, Happy New Year to those few souls who stumble across this!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Money in, money out

From a work perspective, September and October have been simply spectacular, the equivalent of three really good months crammed into two. I'm mentally tired, but pleased the work's been there and while November looks like being a much quieter month, I'm still hopeful it'll be a good to really good one. So that's the big plus - after eating into my savings over the past six months, I look like being in a position to put some back.

On the other hand, somebody tipped off my house and car, and so unexpected bills have suddenly started piling in too: a grand total of £900 on two major car repairs, a service and its MOT, which has finally convinced me that after nine years it's time to replace the car, which will - along with the bathroom we hope to have refitted before Christmas - wipe out all of my ISA's savings. So that will be need to rebuilt ahead of changing the car - hopefully around next April so I can claw back a bit of the £900 I've spent.

Then there's the water treatment plant. Out of the blue came the call that it was time for its service (£185) and since then it's needed a major repair that's doubled that cost. It's worth it - it's 15 years old, and the repair/service will hopefully give us another 3-5 years at least from it.

Then my computer died towards the end of September. I'm awaiting a new motherboard as it was under a year old, but in the meantime splashed out £210 on new components. And this month I had to spend out £100 on a software upgrade for a piece of work I've just completed. Again, totally worth it from the amount of money I'm earning, but not the best timing. Just for good measure, my trusty Mac keyboard (nine years old) has also given up the ghost, although replacing that only cost me around £17.

I've also had to shell out £100 on materials to replace the felt roof on Toni's workshop, but to be fair that's coming out of the bonus I usually give her based on how much I earn each month. As you can imagine, she's done quite well out of the last two months too!

So to cut a long story short, it appears I've racked up over £1,500 in unexpected bills over the past couple of months - and all of that occured weeks before I got paid for any of the work I've done! Thankfully the first big chunk for September came through today, so I can pay next month's bills and start paying back into my savings what I've had to borrow. And the latest quarterly energy statement reveals that over the past six months the solar panels have saved me £80 on last year's bill (of course, the actual amount may be a bit higher after the energy rises earlier this year, while the panels were only contributing for 4.5 months of that period), so - coupled with the first FIT payment (around £150) that's due soon, it's not all bad news. But it would be nice if November brings no more nasty surprises, so I can pour money back into savings to not just pay back what I've borrowed recently, but also to rebuild what was lost over the previous few months too.