Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Parallel worlds

The election draws ever nearer, and a Tory majority looks all but inevitable now. I hope I'm wrong (as I was wrong about No Deal Brexit happening at the first attempt earlier this year), but I doubt it.

The United Kingdom is now a country where people live in various stages of denial. The most delusional are those 42+% of voters who will put their cross next to Conservative candidates on Thursday. There is no doubt that the Tories have pulled out the 2016 referendum playbook (as written by their special adviser, Dominic "Once upon a time, spending three years in Russia would have automatically excluded me from any kind of job like this" Cummings). The level of lies and misinformation is now out of control - even for them, but this country - slow-cooked as it has been over the past 40 years by an increasingly right-wing, foreign-owned media - is now increasingly incapable of spotting the truth. Which of course is exactly what those at the top want.

Not that Labour deserve much credit. They continue to back FPTP because it's the only way they'll ever get to wield unshared power, and it's increasingly obvious that Corbyn and the Left have no interest in building consensus with even the moderate wing of their own party. They would rather labour (sorry) in opposition for decades at a time with the occasional once-in-a-generation shot at power than build a more gradual, nuanced programme through coalitions - not a good look if you're trying to present yourself as someone with the country's best interests at heart. "For the many, not the few" their slogan goes - except when it comes to making people's votes more equal, of course.

The Liberals for their part continue to be tagged with the stain of the coalition, and while I understand what happened and have forgiven them for their part in it, many haven't. Mostly those on the left who see the opportunity it provides to denigrate anyone who doesn't believe in the purity of their vision. That said, Jo Swinson has run a poor campaign - trying to make it all about her, forcing this 'Revoke Brexit' argument that has backfired spectacularly and burying the one true thing that might have cut through in these volatile times - the promise of genuine, deliverable political reform - as an afterthought when it should have been front and centre.

In my opinion, nothing will change in this country while our current electoral system is in place. Everything else flows from here - the media's hold on the country would be far less if the Tories were unable to govern alone - if nothing else, forcing political parties to broaden their appeal, while Labour's progressive programme might have a chance of actually succeeding (albeit over a more realistic time frame of 10-15 years to allow the infrastructure to be restored or built to deliver on its promises, many of which I agree with).

The problem is, just when FPTP's limitations are laid bare for all to see, the very real prospect of democracy being stifled to the point of becoming just a sham, as it is in so many other countries from Turkey to Russia, grows ever more likely by the day.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Broken record argument

Right now, new Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson is being attacked on both sides of the political divide, but mostly by Labour supporters who keep referring back to her record during the coalition years. Ironically, the party is under criticism for being softer on new Tory leader (and soon-to-be-unelected PM) Boris Johnson.

Labour's moral outrage is somewhat misplaced, in my opinion. For this one simple, incontrovertible reason: by refusing to implement any form of electoral reform, Labour is actually the Tories' biggest enabler. Simply put, the Tories (and Labour too, of course) would not be able to form a majority government on under 50% of the popular vote if we had a representative electoral system that delivered MPs to parliament in proportion to the actual popular vote obtained by parties.

In 2010, the Tories secured 306 seats on 36.1% of the vote; Lib Dems 57 on 23%. In a proportional voting system, they would have secured 235 and 150 MPs respectively. It's ridiculous to conveniently forget just how junior the LDs were in that coalition because of their relatively few MPs. Yes, they voted with the government throughout the five-year period, but that's because it's what governments do. It's also worth noting that most of the Tories original proposals for austerity were watered down by the LD presence in government before they came to parliament itself, which should be as clear as day for anyone who looks at the post-2015 record of the Tories, both when ruling alone and now in tandem with the DUP.

Let's also not forget that austerity in 2010 was a cross-party policy. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but we stood after the 2010 election being told the country was in economic crisis and close to going under unless economic cuts were immediate. Labour had also campaigned in 2010 on a platform of austerity - a more humane one maybe than the Tories, but austerity nevertheless.

Had Labour implemented the long-overdue reform of the electoral system during its 13 years in power (as opposed to offering it as a last desperate fig leaf to hold on to some form of power after it had lost the election with 258 seats on 29% of the vote) then perhaps we wouldn't be here now.

For starters, the Lib Dems could have formed a coalition government with either party without involving other groups (such as the SNP or Greens or - God forbid - UKIP). And second, the Lib Dems' 150 MPs would have given them much greater clout in any coalition government. Austerity could have been watered down further and the Tories held in check. Instead of both major parties being infiltrated by extremists who realised the only route to power was through Tory or Labour, calmer heads would have prevailed with the LDs as a moderating influence. And smaller parties like the Greens would of course have better representation and the opportunity to bring their programmes to greater prominence. Perhaps the broadcast media would have been held in check too, forced to choose from a wider range of views instead of constantly favouring extreme left and right positions.

But let us not forget why this didn't happen. Because Labour is more interested in securing single-party rule on under 50% of the popular vote than implementing a representative electoral system.I would have preferred the Lib Dems to have sided with Labour in 2010, but I knew it was morally tricky: the Tories were the single biggest party by far, and had a bigger mandate. Labour had been in power for 13 years by this time. The country wanted a change. Hindsight tells us to be careful what you wish for, but back then the New Labour project was at an end. And Labour has no one to blame but itself.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Brace yourselves...

... Here comes No Deal Brexit. In hindsight it was inevitable: a ruling party hijacked by extremists both within its own ranks (the European Research Group, or Jacob Rees-Mogg and his plucky band of right-wing disaster capitalists) and without (the DUP, which serves to prop it up in government as we saw by the way in which the government survived a vote of no confidence immediately after May lost the vote on her deal). All, of course, aided by an opposition led by a man who is unable to hide the fact that at heart he's secretly a Brexiter too.

Most of today's politicans are pygmies, incapable of putting the country before their own narrow party interests. People are literally going to die after 29th March as a direct result of our crashing out of the EU, but they don't care because they stoked the fires of nationalism and populism in the run up to the June 2016 referendum and now they're in thrall to the flames, unable - or unwilling more like - to put them out despite the fact Brexit is clearly an act of self-harm unparalleled in this country's history.

It's another abject example of humanity's failure to understand that you can never appease extremists enough. The seeds of this particular example go back to the 1990s and the Tory Party's shift to the right, and in some ways Labour's own shift to the right too, which mirrored the Democratic Party in the US, which in turn forced the Republicans to the right.

This is the problem with outdated electoral systems like in the UK and US. Only two parties can ever win, and so after trying unsuccessfully to crash the system using new vehicles, extremists periodically reverse themselves into the two major parties and then use their particular talents for intolerance, dislike of facts and tactics of reducing everything to emotive, simplistic slogans to undermine those parties from within.

Britain has been in decline since the crash of 2008, and the two-party system has perpetuated that. It's also proven that 40 years after the emergence of Thatcher and Reagan, we've normalised right-wing politics as the new "centre". By all rights, I should be a Labour supporter, but the party's failure to address the electoral system during its 13 years in power coupled with Corbyn's clear reluctance to embrace the issue means I will never vote for them, just as I won't vote Tory. Regarding Corbyn, his brand of politics will never attract more than 40% of the vote, and he needs a system that could deliver him unfettered power on that minority vote; problem is, it's more of a one-and-a-half party system these days, with Labour only electable in living memory when it embraced right-wing thinking. But Corbyn doesn't see that, of course.

But this is all now academic. I have to accept the fact I live in a country - and indeed continent and world - that is becoming increasingly intolerant by the day. Never mind the abuses in Palestine, that's no excuse for the rise of anti-semitism, with Jews once again a convenient target for the extremists to point out to deflect attention from the real issues (never mind their own shortcomings). Racism, bigotry and all the other horrible tendencies of human behaviour are on the rise, and if it wasn't for my love of family and friends I'd probably smile bitterly at the thought of the much greater reckoning waiting for us all as we fiddle as the planet starts to burn.

I'd love to say I told you so, but given I and my family will be swept up in all that is to come, why would I? You'd only string me up for having the audacity to have kept my eyes open these past 10-20 years while you stuck your blinkers on and blindly told yourself it was all okay really.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

As 11th November 2018 approaches...

In September 1914, my great grandfather was - so family legend has it - shipped down to the recruiting office by his Boys' Brigade leader in Romford, Essex. Percy - aged just 16 - subsequently enlisted for the Great War, lying out his age on the form. Thankfully at some point they must have twigged his real age as Percy didn't actually go abroad until 1917 when he was legitimately 19 - fought over in Mesopotamia. Came back a changed man, particularly after witnessing disabled veterans getting beaten up by the police when protesting in London shortly after the war. Even went as far as to emigrate to Australia, although my great grandmother who followed him out there couldn't settle and they came back when my gran was just three years old. Wouldn't talk about it during his lifetime like so many others.

That war was the ultimate in utter waste and folly. Hope we all remember that on 11th November when commemorating the 100th anniversary of the armistice in 1918. It was supposed to be "never again" for a good reason.

Of course, the seeds for World War II were already being sown as the victors - including Britain, France and the US - hammered Germany in the peace negotiations. And yet, here we are, not 100 years since the end of World War II, standing in a world that - as predicted by many in the aftermath of the economic crash of 2008 - lurches ever more towards fascism. Brazil has elected a fascist government, the US increasingly resembles Hitler's Germany in its early years, the far-right is on the rise across Europe and the UK allows an advisory, ill-prepared and marginal referendum result tear its very fabric apart. And all without holding the real culprits for our collective misery to account. T'was ever thus, but you'd have thought after WWII we'd have learned the lessons of misplacing our anger. It seems I gave humanity too much credit.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Fascism has arrived

Let us be very clear. The United States is now well on the way to becoming a fascist state. Perhaps the most frightening thing about what is happening on the ground in the US - and over here with Brexit - is just how many people are actively supporting this dismantling of democracy. They are fouling the legacy our grandparents' generation left us after World War II by forgetting the lessons of the past and repeating them. Have no doubt that there is now a clear example of a new evil rising in the world.

I could sidetrack now and talk about broad strokes of black and white, how the democratic norms were hardly white given the west's track record in interfering in the affairs of other world states for its own gains. This is not the time, because if we're not talking about black and white or good versus evil we are definitely seeing the blackest evil rising swiftly.

Make no mistake, Donald Trump is an Adolf Hitler in the making. Once upon a time we could read histories of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s and wonder aloud how a man like Hitler was allowed to come to power. Now, in June 2018 we can wonder no longer.

The last few days have seen harrowing pictures of children being separated at the US border from their parents, to find themselves being kept in cages in conditions reminiscent of concentration camps from history. The response from those who actively - and uncritically - support Trump? They shouldn't have broken the law.

How do you respond to that? Perfectly, thanks to this tweet:

But however powerful this is, it will not penetrate the minds of these people. We have now arrived at the point where words and even marches may not be enough. Direct action will be required and things will undoubtedly get worse before they get better. But can we learn the lessons of history and hold firm against these forces, or will we find ourselves repeating history, hopefully with fascism defeated, even if it means the United States and United Kingdom - and maybe others - must learn an abject lesson we handed out smugly to the Germans and Japanese in 1945.

With a bit of luck we'll come out the other side without triggering an Atom bomb or two in the process, ready to confront the looming crisis of our time - the rapid warming of our planet's atmosphere. Only humanity could find endless ways to distract itself in the foulest possible ways in order to avoid facing up to its responsibilities. Fingers crossed.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Albums from my youth, part 2

Following on from my last blog post...

Electric Boys, Funk O Metal Carpet Ride
I found out about Swedish funk rockers the Electric Boys when their single Electrified appeared on RAW Power in 1990 or 1991. I then obtained a track - Into the Woods - via a covermount cassette from one of the metal mags (possibly RAW, possibly Kerrang, possibly the other one whose name escapes me right now).
The Electric Boys introduced me to the concept of signed bands that didn't have chart hits (although Wikipedia tells me they did have a minor US hit - #76 - with All Lips 'n' Hips from this album. This lack of success bewildered me, particularly after I fell in love with Mary in the Mystery World from their follow-up album, which I purchased on 12". Then, glory! On a trip to Newtown with my brother I discovered both Electrified and Groovus Maximus - its follow up - on CD for £3.99 each. Needless to say, this freshly minted student (thanks to a well-paid summer job surveying Powys' rivers on behalf of the NRA - no, not that NRA) snapped both up.

Aerosmith, Permanent Vacation
I discovered Permanent Vacation in the summer of 1990 - it came into my life at a particuarly difficult time (read, typical teenage crisis) for me, and can remember listening to it on loop for a few weeks at least.
By this point I'd already "discovered" the band through Walk This Way (with Run DMC), Pump, Greatest Hits and even Done with Mirrors, the previous album and flop. Yet Permanent Vacation sticks in the mind for the reason above, and represents a band on the way back up. As I recall, the single Dude (Looks Like A Lady) was re-released in the UK after Love in an Elevator to become Aerosmith's second UK top 20 single, which probably explains how it came to my attention.

Thunder, Backstreet Symphony
This album sticks in my mind because I might have bought it in Swansea in late 1990 after travelling down for a university interview. I'd arrived by bus, but after the (one and only) bus back failed to show up, I was forced to ring home and wait for my mother to drive all the way from mid Wales down to Swansea to pick me up (sorry mum!). While I sat in the train station waiting and reflecting perhaps on being truly alone and stranded for the first time in my life (there were fewer trains and I wouldn't have had the money to get one anyway), I listened to this album on cassette for the first time. By this time, four singles had already been released from the album so it wasn't completely new. Among the many highlights was the song 'An Englishman on Holiday' - a great send-up on the Boozy Brits Abroad culture that was fast developing. There's little about Britain or England to be proud of right now, but I remember feeling absurdly pleased that this rock group was unashamedly showing off its roots. I'd eventually see them live at Donnington in 1992.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Albums from my youth, part 1

The world's going to shit, and I find myself retreating more and more into the past as some form of escape. Having ripped just about every CD I now own, I realise I've got a chronicle of my life in there, and in particular the formative years of 1988-93 when I grew my hair and fell in love with hard rock and heavy metal (albeit with a major splash of poodle hair rock, as I like to call the US market during this period).
So here's part one of some of my favourite albums from the period, in no particular order and with a few comments thrown in for good measure. Don't hold your breath for part 2, God knows when it'll arrive.

Queensryche - Empire
I was introduced to Queensryche when the single Empire was climbing the US Top 40 and I was staying up late (or recording on VHS) to watch the Casey Kasem video countdown along with RAW Power on late-night ITV.
I subsequently bought Silent Lucidity and Best I Can 7-inch singles from the bargain bin in Woolworths and the Empire CD became one of my early CD albums when I spotted it going cheap on a market stall. I may have made up the last bit.

Def Leppard - Hysteria
I "discovered" Def Leppard when Rocket was heading into the UK top 20 in late 1988, but let my interest lapse until the aforementioned RAW Power  played two songs in January 1991 in tribute to the deceased Steve Clark: Pour Some Sugar on Me and Love Bites. My first copy of the album was second-hand vinyl from a record shop in Llandrindod and the album has been with me ever since. I bought a copy on CD a long time ago, of course, but my "rabid" collecting phase was with the two follow-ups, Adrenalize (all but the first single on CD, plus the album) and Slang (all the CD singles as well as the album).

Quireboys - A Bit of What You Fancy
Good old London pub rockers, these. Modelled on Rod Stewart and the Faces, circa 1991. Hey You and I Don't Love You Anymore got me hooked and I bought my first copy of the album on cassette in 1990. Their followup took an age to arrive - I only ever bought the two CD singles - and by that time the boat had sadly sailed.

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


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


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.