Saturday, 21 December 2019

Resolution Planning

Here’s a useful thing I didn’t know I needed: a visual calculator for checking that you’re not overloading an extension lead. Scroll to the bottom of the post to have a play.

The horror!

I need to sort out my office. It’s such a mess that my work is being impeded. I have piles collapsed into piles. Something must be done, and the preparatory work can’t wait until New Year. Tomorrow, I am going to start throwing out some of the rubbish. Once I’ve got rid of the old paperwork that clogs the empty hearth, and organised my paperwork for this year so that I can actually use it without having to search for every folder before every work day, I’m planning to put shelves up above my desk for the CDs that, at the moment, fill a very large box, taking up space on the floor.

That accomplished, I’ll be able to more easily tell which CDs still need ripping to my server, and they’ll look pretty. I also want to put a shelf up for the Bose music player that I have inherited from my father. It’s more than enough sound for my room, and it has the input module, with red/white audio sockets, so I can have it playing from a computer. The ultimate plan is to add a Raspberry Pi music player, with Volumio installed, so that I can play music from my server without needing to turn on a computer. Volumio is controlled through a phone and the Android app for it is available on F-Droid, so it’s perfect for me, but that’s a project for the New Year.

Anyway, I have worried about having a computer, a monitor, a router and a charger plugged into an extension, but the electricalsafetyfirst site has reassured me. Even with my monitor, a desktop computer, a router and a laptop plugged in, the total only came to 4A, which is less than a third of the safe load for an extension. I can go for a larger extension, such as this one, and still plug in the Bose, the Pi and another laptop, without getting near the 13A limit.

The Socket Calculator has been brought to you by Electrical Safety First.
For more safety information visit https://www.electricalsafetyfirst.org.uk

Sunday, 15 December 2019

We Win When We Try

Last Friday, the day after the election, in a fog of tiredness and sorrow, I went to work, where I dragged learners through English mocks, and fought to believe that anything can make any difference now.

One learner, who manages an incredibly demanding life of balancing the needs of various dependents with a zero hours care job, was late. When she came in, she was, as ever, flustered. She offered her apologies and said,

“I had to get on to the Universal Credit. They’ve only paid half my rent.”

I sympathised and pushed her work in front of her. She completed it in her habitual rush, with her usual betrayal of her intelligence, because her way of coping with a life of overwhelming economic and familial responsibility at too young an age is to do everything in a hurry, avoiding dangerous reflection. We discussed each answer, interpreting how she hadn’t read the questions fully or considered all the options in the multiple choice section, and how, with a few minutes’ care, she is perfectly capable of passing what should be, for her, the formality of this exam. She promised to be early next week, and to take a few minutes to become calm, but I expect she will rush in to the exam room late, pre-occupied by another crisis that she will bravely cope with, as she tries to make the space to better her life.

In the afternoon, she came back for the maths class. I had been preparing for this class for several weeks, laying the ground for nervous learners: it’s the one in which we move from basic calculation with decimal numbers to working with fractions. This is where people give up: they believe that ‘fractions are hard’, and that they have some innate inability to ‘do hard maths’ and this section of the course is always as much an exercise in boosting learners’ self-belief and reflecting on how much they have already achieved as it is about introducing new skills and understanding.

She and my other learner who had turned up – there’s a wave of colds and stomach bugs keeping children off school, and two other women were at home with sick offspring – have developed a friendship that is still at the stage of curiosity about one another. Off-topic discussions, pleasurable as they can be, are a headache for me, as I only get two hours each week to teach a demanding curriculum. I had given them their warm up task – a few questions on what we had covered the previous week – and checked that they knew where they were with it, and I left the room to go to the loo while they completed it. By the time I got back, they were discussing the election result.

I groaned inwardly, and cautioned myself to be like a fly fisherman with a bite: to let it run until I could feel they were tiring and then take control again. A few weeks before, as part of my duty to ‘promote British values’, I had used a voter registration poster in our English class for an exercise on identifying presentational features in a text. At the time, the learner of whom I am writing had asked me my politics and I had explained that I wasn’t allowed to say, and she had responded, after a discussion of why that was sensible for a teacher, that she reckoned I was for Corbyn. At the time, I’d congratulated myself on remaining neutral. Now, as I sat quietly, waiting for my opportunity to get them back on task, she said,

“I was right about you.”

She’d seen a photo on the local newspaper’s website, in one of the few articles the openly Tory-leaning rag had bothered to publish on Labour’s campaign, that had a picture of a group of Labour supporters gathering for an event in Ryde, smiling, comradely, happy, optimistic. At the back, peaking over the shoulder of the shorter man in front, grinning like a hungover idiot, I was clearly visible.

“You know I can’t talk about it,” I said, shaken.

“Yeah,” she said, “I voted for Boris. I’ve never voted before, but I voted Conservative.”

It was as if she hated me. I know she doesn’t, but that was how it felt.


I haven’t blogged about this election, beyond changing my homepage to a trite meme and linking to a couple of social media posts I’d heard about through the news. I haven’t blogged much this year, of course, but I did expect that, when the longed-for election campaign happened, I’d be leaping into prolix action, as I had in 2017.

Instead, I’ve been involved, ‘on the streets’, and through the Constituency Labour Party’s own systems. I’ve been the assistant secretary of the CLP for nearly two years, but that has, until recently, only meant being the keyboard monkey for the secretary and chair, both of whom have become friends. Just before the election started, however, the chair withdrew himself from consideration for the position of candidate, having been subject to sustained vilification, including threats to his family, since the last election, and the secretary got himself locked out of the Labour comms system for a mistaken breach of the opaque rules, which have more to do with internal politicking within the national party structure than they do with making the system work.

Thanks to these circumstances, my role became, accidentally, central. Over the last six weeks, I have probably written more words than in the previous twelve months. They just haven’t found their way here. The chair, who had become the new candidate’s campaign manager, told me, late on in the campaign, that his role was taking the fight to the Tories, and my role was galvanising the troops. I hadn’t been told that before, but had simply adopted the job that I didn’t see anyone else doing, or being in a position to do.

West and Central Wight Event

Each day after work, once I’d done enough to be sure that I would know where I was for the next lessons, I turned off my work laptop and went straight on to my own computer, where I would often be trapped until after midnight. If the next day wasn’t a teaching day, I would be out with the Cowes and East Cowes branch, delivering leaflets door-to-door, or helping with the distribution of garden signs and posters to people who had contacted the party, asking how they could help. In the evenings, there were many events, most of which were a pleasure: I have spent more time in pubs over the last few weeks than I have for many years.

Campaigning in Newport

At first, it was exciting. I was surrounded by people who believe, broadly, in what I believe: that humans are only of any account if they serve the group; that selfishness is a moral and intellectual failure; that the dominant political and economic system is, without question, evil – childish, rapacious and evil – but that elation had, after the first couple of weeks, begun to compete with exhaustion. I did not, however, lose hope, but I began to feel a little let down by comrades whose belief in the coming victory of justice and good sense was tempered with caution.

Two things gave me a different outlook to the majority of people fighting for a Labour victory in this election: my Christianity and my disavowal of social media.

I am not an ardently practising Christian, but I came, through the nineties and noughties, to realise that I cannot escape my faith, and that the arguments against faith that were trendy in those decades, were, in the words of Terry Eagleton, a process of Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching against a system of thought that the neo-atheists wilfully misunderstood and misrepresented. Earlier this year, I joined Christians On The Left, and one of the results of that is that I have been receiving a remarkable set of emails, the 2019 Prayer Diary. Written by a theologian who only introduced herself as Hazel, they were wonderfully welcome at a time when I didn’t have the space to read my normal blogs and news for which I receive update emails that, through the campaign, I simply had to delete, to be able to keep up with my inboxes. Each day, though, I read her prayers, and then got on with whatever needed doing.

As for social media, I think my absence from it since July 2017 has given me the clarity to think for myself and to avoid the political panic to which I am prone and which, I think, guided many people in this election. The Tories are crisis capitalists: they thrive on the established P.R. tactic of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD). I suspect, without being in a position to offer evidence, that this was the election in which the capitalists realised their technological dream of controlling people’s reactions from within. I may expand upon that at another time, but I think that, accomplished as we in the Labour Party are at using social media to make ourselves feel effective, it means nothing unless the people who own the media are on your side.

…accomplished as we in the Labour Party are at using social media to make ourselves feel effective, it means nothing unless the people who own the media are on your side.

Actually, I did rejoin Twitter for the duration of the campaign. It helped me to keep up with events in the CLP, where a disparate set of groups, spread over the largest constituency in the country (by population), were arranging their campaigning efforts semi-autonomously, and were not always brilliant at communicating outside their social media bubbles. I tried to join Facebook as well, but was frustrated. I think my use of Firefox’s Facebook Container extension, coupled with a disposable email address and a phone number linked to a burner SIM card I had no intention of using again, tipped the creepy capitalist bastards off. I’m rather proud to have been blocked by Facebook before I posted a thing!

A facile pretence of utility and ubiquity have made social media essential in politics, and have, I believe, handed the reins of power over to a capitalist hegemony as completely as any other factor in this election. I had set up my home server, after two years of study and trial and error, less than a month before the election was announced, and would have been lost without the calendar, to-do lists and contacts server it hosts, but I was still obliged to use a Google calendar for shared calendaring with the CLP. We need to look at owning our infrastructure, but it’s a hard sell. People who automatically accept the ‘services’ to which they are tied by their choice of computer system and mobile phone have a hard time understanding that they are being used, when they have put so much effort into just mastering the technology that seeks to control them. The idea that it is escapable defeats them, as the idea that all politicians are not the same defeats people who are struggling to survive in an economic system that is tightening around their lives. There is a simple answer (simpler than the route of learning and self-building that I have used), but how many people will make the effort to do it?

Earlier this year, I read Democracy Hacked, by Martin Moore. A couple of months ago, I read, almost in one sitting, the Edward Snowden autobiography, Permanent Record and, just before the election was called, I bought The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, by Shoshana Zuboff, which I will now have the time to read fully. If you want to understand what has happened to democracy over the last decade, you need to read these texts. You do not control your data, and, consequently, electronic communication does not, any more, give us a full say in our democracy. We’ve overthrown one tyranny of informational cartels to replace it with another. We need new mechanisms of resistance.

I’m not keen on going into mainstream media’s role in this election. Enough people are already examining that, although I will add a couple of personal observations. Firstly, the full emotional crash of the exit poll was pre-announced by about twenty seconds, for me, by the smirk on the face of Andrew Niel as he talked over the countdown to it. Rattling through his bland script, he looked as though he had a hand stuffed down his truss, so excited was he by the predicted result to which he, I assume, had had early access. If you believe in democracy, honesty or truth, the BBC is not your friend, any more than Facebook is.

Secondly, it dawned on me, as I angrily skimmed The Guardian’s website each morning, that the key figures among its columnists and editorial staff are probably on a lot more than £80,000 per annum. I think their utter betrayal of democracy is a good enough reason to not ‘support independent journalism’ for another year. Let them take comfort from their massive wealth, their second homes and their positions of quisling influence.

There is a lot of commentary on the election leaping out and I haven’t had the heart to try to keep up over the weekend. Yesterday, Saturday, we met other Island Labour members in a Newport pub to have a bit of a thank you session, with the candidate, Richard Quigley, a gloriously happy, funny, clever and warm man, bringing his wife and daughter so he could say his personal thanks. Richard has been a pleasure to support in the campaign, as Julian, his manager, was in the last. In the pub, many of us were talking about how we are now facing the very real dread of the last restraints being released from the Tory plunder of our country’s assets. We’re thinking about the fact that we will not be able to afford ‘health insurance’ when the Fascists pocket the bribes from the Yank money and drug industries; we’re thinking about the fact that those of us who are in public service jobs will probably endure a continued slide into deeper and deeper working destitution, if we are lucky enough to keep our jobs. We are finding it harder to think without real, urgent horror of the fate of disabled people, homeless people, people who cannot find legal redress for rape or harassment and how soon it will be our turn to join them. It’s personal. Dying, untreated, of some wretched cancer, or living with pain that would be treatable if we were part of the 5%, now seems like our common fate.

What we are supposed to do, if we follow the advice that we have told ourselves since Jeremy Corbyn first gave us hope, is to pull together, look to one another, and begin to support those people already jettisoned by the Tories’ campaign of exclusion and abandonment. Some people are talking about it, but we all know that the Blairites will try another doomed and deluded attempt to drive the party into impotence by reopening the insane whinges they’ve been picking at since they were crushed in 2015. And, pathetic as their positions are, they have The New Statesman and The Guardian behind them, so they don’t have to be right, just shamelessly persistent.

So, I’m looking at my position. If infighting does get a grip, I may decide to not stand for local party office at the next AGM. Over the election, I have made new friends, or deepened existing ones, and the idea of becoming a social activist, working on practical projects, rather than just being a political campaigner, appeals to me. Food banks, advice and support networks, and care volunteers are all able to affect lives in a way that, while it is not as powerful as political office, is more useful than arguing over dogma and political tactics. And, if I convince a few people to see through the lies of the capitalist hegemony on the way, all the better.

One other thing is troubling me; an issue that is like the ticking bomb that fascists love to use to justify their cruelty. If, by some miracle, the vile Bozo Johnson manages to hold together a government for five years, the timeline for installing a government that will meet its responsibilities to the climate emergency before the deadline that scientists now say is the very latest chance to save human civilisation will be halved. We have to stop the Tories before then. We have to. I am ambivalent about Extinction Rebellion, but I think it’s all we’ve got left. We are into a period of resistance, not participation.

Let’s get back to my Tory voting learner. I can’t discuss her much more closely than I already have, but I can make some guesses about those things that drive her. Not ideologically racist, she has, I suspect, suffered humiliations at the hands of people whom she perceives as different, and came to the Island, partly, to get away from communities that are in turmoil and have been turned against one another by poverty and poorly resourced and led policing, social structures and political leadership. For her, Brexit seems like a triumph of the poor over the powerful: a reversal of the truth, as it turns out, but if your information comes from social media and tabloids, you can continue to believe that.

For her, also, they are all the same. It’s the FUD lie of lies, that says that politics is pointless and the safest and bravest response is to follow the herd. Political voting is confused with voting for a Love Island contestant, where the outcome is similar to a bet: you win if you back the winner.

In truth, of course, backing the winner in this election has guaranteed that the phone calls she gets, when she says, “Someone after money: they can jog on,” will increase. The waiting time for her Universal Credit will lengthen, the amount she is entitled to reduced, so her debts will deepen; the inadequate working protections she has at the moment will be removed one at a time, until she will be paying, not only for her work travel, but for her uniform, her equipment, and, finally, for the privilege of being employed.

She hasn’t yet noticed, I suspect, that the NHS has been privatised. The fact that ‘Boris’, as she calls him, lied about putting more money into the NHS hasn’t got through to her. They all throw figures around, don’t they? They’re all the same.

When she told me that she had voted Tory, I stared at her for a moment, taking in her beauty, her nicotine-stained front teeth, her bravely well turned out appearance that is testament to her courage, given the hours she works, and then muttered that I couldn’t get into it. It was an uncomfortable moment.

She got on with her work, doing well, grasping lowest common multiples and then comparison of fractions, but the moment must have lingered for her, as well as for me. I realised that, for her, I am part of the body of authority that keeps her working and working and working, denying her the right to gain full realisation of her talents and potential and, by confronting my politics, she was asserting herself; laying claim to a dignity she doesn’t realise I already see in her. She’s not to know that I earn less than her, and that, for all my education, I am as constrained and limited by the political and economic system as she is.

Finally, as we were summing up the learning at the end of the class, she brought it up again.

“It bothers you, don’t it,” she said, reverting to her mannered London speech, which is not how she usually talks to me.

I wanted to channel Jonathan Pie, and descend into a rant that would contain all the frustration and pain I had been feeling since ten o’clock the previous night, when Huw Edwards and Andrew Neil had gleefully pronounced my country’s doom. I stared into her eyes for a moment, trying to find the right thing to say. Nothing came.

In my struggle, I remembered Christians On The Left’s prayer email of that morning. I hadn’t absorbed it properly: I’d been too tired and too sad, but one line had jumped out at me:

Be still, and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10)

I stopped searching and words came.

“Your vote is your own choice,” I said. “It’s wonderful that you voted. The fact that you have voted, for the first time, is a really good thing. The more people who vote, the more powerful all our votes are. I celebrate that.”

I doubt I fooled her. I suspect that, given the struggles she has and the job she does, she is a perceptive person, who saw how much pain I was in. However, she smiled, packed her bag, and went on to her next obligation, her courage and dignity undamaged by our exchange, knowing a little bit more about maths than she had when she came in.

We win when we try.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Monday, 4 November 2019

We Are Storytellers: We Weave Our World In Narrative Threads

I have believed for a long time that the best way to understand how humans relate to the world is through stories. It’s a thesis that’s kind of a given in many fields, and the influence of structuralism, post-structuralism and other bodies of theory on my degree certainly exaggerated the idea for me, perhaps beyond a reasonable level, in my twenties and thirties.

However, with the collapse of the dominant, and patently false, hegemony of monetarism in economics, the idea of definition by narrative seems to be gaining a hold in that discipline. Barry Eichengreen’s review of Robert J. Schiller’s new book, Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral And Drive Major Economic Events, had me grinning with recognition. When I was at uni, the economics students would sneer at us Cultural History guys, confident that their subject was more the demanding and rigorous field. It’s nice to feel we may have been ahead of their game, and to recognise that, for all the damage their game does, it is, really, just a variant of ours: an ideology defined by its parables.

In the nineteenth century, the institutionalisation of scientific thought led European culture to attempt to reframe all its intellectual structures into new forms of quantitative expression in the search for certainty. What this shift gave the majority of us was the tyranny of the argument by authority: you cannot challenge a lie expressed in a graph unless you have access to the data, as well as the knowledge, and status, to re-express that data.

The fact of the excluding quality of this Knowledge, Power, Institution Triangle has long been challenged as a weakness and, in the developing democratic crisis triggered by the insanely accelarated spread of knowledge created by electronic media, this weakness has become obvious. We need new ways to look at our power relationships, because the dominant hegemonies are, simply, wrong: garbled fables expressed in inadequate syntax and divorced from the lived experience of the majority of people who are subject to their institutional power.

To have value for the betterment of the human condition, stories need to be, at their heart, rooted in truth.

There is a corollary to this in my current reading: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For A Human Future At The New Frontier Of Power, by Shoshana Zuboff. Zuboff outlines and critiques the meteoric appearance of new institutions of power ruled by people who have understood the potency of the control of narrative but are enthused by the collection of data and its manipulation as their driving impulse. For the surveillance capitalists, the story is shaped not by its truth, but by its utility to the reinforcement of their power. This is a disaster, as it overwhelms the desire for truth that was the positive strength of the scientific revolution and harnesses the shadow power of story not as clarifier but as distorter or a frame of restriction: they are propagandists, not seers. Much as they like to present themselves as visionaries, they are, in fact, self-serving professional liars, trying to monopolise the greatest technological innovation since the printing press; turning the internet from a library to a totalitarian shopping mall (with a very large, slave-staffed brothel attached).


I haven’t blogged much over the last year. Grief and depression took away my hope and my curiosity for quite a while. Now, though, ideas are grabbing me again. There’s an election underway, and the hope of change hasn’t been crushed by the right-wing backlash, but sharpened by it; given focus. We need our stories and we must put our energy into shaping them, so that they are rooted, not in the pursuit of power, but in a respect for the primary importance of truth.

I don’t have access to the Schiller book through any library and can’t, this month, afford a copy. If anyone felt like being nice and chipping in for a copy for me, I’d be very grateful. Comment below.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Saturday, 31 August 2019

A Blogger Smashes It.

The blogger, Disappointed Idealist, only posts occasionally, but what he says on his blog often achieves what we all wish we could manage: to provide an overview of a situation while expressing his own views on the issues it raises. His real name is Julian Critchley, and I know him, because he was the Island Labour candidate in the 2017 election, and is our current chair. He is very strong on education, being an ex-teacher, and also has an interest in history, which often provides the context for his posts on current political events.

Today, the Island Labour group held a protest against our joke Prime-Minister’s assaults on democracy. Amanda and I have been away for a week and, I have to confess, I have kept myself in blissful ignorance, avoiding, as far as possible, any news. The anger just hurts too much.

So, we missed the demo today, as we are traveling home. However, I picked up the email notification of Julian’s latest post: the text of his speech at today’s protest.

For the record, as with several of his posts, this could have been written by me, if I were ten times the writer I am. I agree with almost every word of it.

“Welcome friends.

As a history teacher, I always appreciate historic parallels. In the church behind you, can still see where the Parliamentary soldiers chiselled off the King’s name while guarding him in Carisbrooke Castle.

Why did they do that? Because an unelected, arrogant, anti-democratic aristocrat had decided he could simply get rid of Parliament when it refused to give him what he wanted.

 
What lessons could that offer to Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, I wonder?
We’re here today not to chisel any pulpits or chop any heads. But that thread of English radicalism, and that commitment to democracy, is a thread which links us to our ancestors four hundred years ago.

 
There is a great deal wrong with our democracy – an unelected House of Lords, foreign oligarchs and criminals funding the Conservative Party, a press which would make Joseph Goebbels blush. But that makes it all the more important that we fight Johnson’s attempts to suspend the democracy we DO have – our elected representatives in the House of Commons.

 
You are part of that proud history of English radicalism, and commitment to democracy. You should be proud that you’re willing to get off your backsides to defend it.

 
You’ll note I said we’re here to defend democracy. That’s why I’m here. No other reason.

 
The right-wing press and the shocking liars and rogues around Johnson, are lying – as they always do – about our intentions. They want people to believe that we’re here solely about Brexit. They want to portray our outrage about their abuse of our democracy as just another anti-Brexit protest. They want Leave voting-citizens to look away or, worse, to support their assaults on our democracy. They want to drive a wedge through our society as deep as the divisions which separated those Roundheads and Cavaliers all those years ago.

 
Friends, we must not let them. That is why the Labour Party called this protest. Not as a remain protest against Brexit. But as a citizens’ protest – Leavers and Remainers – against an attack on our democracy.

 
I honour those Leave voters here today indeed. That, my friends, is real moral courage. That is real principle. To stand up in protest against Johnson’s attack on democracy, even knowing that it is intended to deliver the Brexit outcome you want, is a principled stand which we should all applaud, and I do so now.

 
Yet let us also be honest with ourselves. There are few Leave voters here, compared to those who support remaining in the EU. On an island on which 62% of the population voted Leave.

 
Why is that? Are Leave voting citizens any less democratic than Remain-voting ones? I don’t think so. How have we reached a point where so many of our fellow islanders, with whom we agree on so much, feel unable to come to a gathering to defend democracy?

 
Everyone acknowledges that our society is horribly divided – certainly more divided than any time in my lifetime. This issue of Brexit has divided friends, families, communities and political parties. I am sure I am not alone in cursing David Cameron and his arrogance for unleashing this tempest of division before walking off to leave others in the mess he created.

 
Yet while we all agree that society is divided, how many of us take responsibility for our part in actually deepening those divisions? How many of us ask ourselves what we have done to try and heal those divisions?

 
I voted Remain. I would vote remain again. I hate Brexit, it’s causes, its lies and its consequences. I hate everything it says about us as a country. But after my initial grief – and it was grief – I accepted the result of that referendum. I supported the Labour Party’s policy of seeking a compromise outcome which minimised the harm, while recognising the outcome of the referendum.

 
It’s why I utterly reject any calls to simply revoke Article 50, or to cancel Brexit. The people gave that decision, and only the people can reverse it, either in another referendum or in a General Election. Anything else is just as much an attack on democracy as what Johnson is doing now. Because democracy cuts both ways. It’s not only worth defending when it serves my purposes. It’s worth defending even when it goes against what I want.

 
That compromise position has been squeezed and squeezed. Not just by the headbangers and fascists of the ERG and Farage’s Brexit Party demanding their hate-filled little-England fantasy. But there has been just as much intransigence, hostility and even contempt from some of those who refuse point-blank to accept the outcome of that vote in 2016.

 
Many – most, actually – of our politicians have decided that rather than seek to heal the divides and find compromise, they will instead just pick a side, and encourage the escalation of hostility. It is a dangerous game when our political parties no longer even attempt to represent or speak to half the population. It is dangerous indeed when or society becomes two mutually loathing, resentful tribes; occupying the same country, but not sharing it.

 
We will always have differences. But long ago we chose to manage those differences through democracy. Through regular votes with elected representatives in Parliament, we accept the rule of the majority while still protecting the rights and interests of minorities. That’s democracy. That’s why we’re here. That’s what Johnson, that cynical liar and fraud, is now threatening. And without democracy the future is dark indeed.

 
I started with some history. Let me end with a quote from the leader of those Parliamentary soldiers who chiselled that pulpit in there, Oliver Cromwell. He had won the war, and was desperate to, as he put it, “heal and settle”, the divisions of the nation. Yet everywhere he turned, on his own side as well as on his enemies, he found a refusal to do so.

 
Addressing Parliament, Cromwell said : “Here is a great deal of “truth”… but very little mercy. They are ready to cut the throats of one another….Look on this nation. Look on it! ….Every sect says “Oh give me Liberty”, but give it to him and to his power he will not yield it to anybody else.

 
To Cromwell, the answer to those divisions was found in one institution. The very institution we are here to protect.

 
He said “Whatsoever is done without authority of Parliament…. will neither be very honest, nor to me very comprehensible’.

 
Well I agree with Oliver. The only hope to heal the divisions of our nation is through democracy. The democracy of our Parliament, the democracy of our people and the democracy our ancestors have fought for from the Levellers to the Chartists and the suffragettes.

 
We are a divided nation, but let us begin the process of healing by uniting around that one, vital principle: our democracy.”

Monday, 3 June 2019

“that’s not us…”

WordPress once again limits as it promises to expand. I can’t just reblog this post, despite adding their privacy-smashing plugin, Jetpack.

Never mind. Please click on the link above to read a beautiful short post about the soon-to-be closed experiment in joined-up care services that has been running in Soham, Cambridgeshire. It was a pilot scheme based on the Burrtzorg model of nursing, in which self-managed, multi-disciplinary teams are located in the communities they serve, to increase access to services and to simplify processes.

In my public service job, three front-line staff are accountable to a management team of five with a support team of three. I’m not saying it’s a total disaster -you work in the structures that are willing to employ you and I have had a lot of kindness and support from all levels of colleagues – but it can’t be efficient.

Self-management of professional services has to be the way to go for a more efficient model of local government. Small is beautiful because it refines service delivery to the personal level. In Soham, the social workers, community nurses and other professionals know their clients before they are clients, reducing the likelihood of many of them becoming clients. It is a community being given the power to influence its service delivery.

The Neighbourhood Cares blog isn’t large, probably because they are busy and don’t have much time for blogging, but they do seem to have a message to spread. It doesn’t hurt that they seem to have a few rather good writers among them.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Back To Square One

Well, here she is, the new dog, to fill the aching void left by Tia, the Golden Dog, who was killed in a road accident on 15th December last year, after only thirteen months living with us. I can’t believe it was so short a time.

The new dog was named Buttercup by the rescue charity, but I wasn’t shouting that in the park, so we’ve renamed her Flora. Don’t let the look of innocence fool you; she’s a terror. The picture also gives the impression that she can read and is therefore a doggy prodigy: nothing could be further from the truth. I am fairly convinced that we’ve taken on a canine cretin.

In fairness, it is still only about four days since she left Romania, was transported hundreds of miles, separated from her litter mates and dumped in a house with two strange humans and a cat. She’s entitled to be a little disorientated.

I was working on the day she arrived and had an evening class as well, so wasn’t home until about half-past-nine. By then, she’d bonded with Amanda, and wasn’t about to spread the love. We’ve had a difficult weekend of adjustment. Flora hasn’t got the hang of me yet, and howls whenever Amanda goes upstairs, or pops out of the house. I’m supposed to completely ignore her and let her come to me. She’s shown some curiosity about me, but hasn’t decided I’m her friend yet. I don’t take rejection well, and am finding it quite difficult.

Amanda is working this afternoon, so I’ll be in the house with Flora going spare for her favourite human. To remind myself that it is worth it, I have made a gallery of pictures of Tia, to which I linked in the first paragraph of this post.

For now, I just keep thinking that I’m a cat person. Yes, since Tia died, I’ve missed the walks, and the devotion of a trusting dog, but I am finding all the adaptation a real headache.

Flora is quite pretty though, and I love the way she hasn’t quite grown into her paws yet. I’m sure we’ll be best buddies before long.


Thursday, 28 February 2019

A Confusion of Griefs

My father died on November 30th. He had been ill for five years, with one of the exotic derivatives of leukaemia that can be emolliated for a time, but will triumph in the end. We were very lucky that the care, for him and us, during his illness, was wonderful. He was treated in a well-funded Macmillan Centre in a large NHS hospital whose excellent condition is due, no doubt, to it being in a Tory semi-marginal constituency. He died there, with an attentive palliative care team staffed by nurses and a consultant he had come to know and who treated him as a friend. Everyone should have such care.

My mother and I were with him when he died. He’d been unconscious for a couple of days, stretched on a bed that was almost too short for him, his head and shoulders raised, his mouth open, a tube in his nose quietly hissing oxygen into him. Every few hours, his painkillers would begin to wear off, and he would rise towards awareness, wave his hands feebly and move his jaw. I was thrown into panic by this activity, pestering the nurses, or trying to dab at his mouth with a wetted sponge, making useless attempts to comfort him. My sister, Charlotte, my mother and I stayed in the room overnight the night before. They slept on chairs and I had a pillow on the floor, and, horrible as the situation was, we were close in a way I don’t remember us being for many years. He was a missing part, just a bodily presence, although we spoke to him, telling him we loved him very much. In one of his periods of stirring, Charlotte said, “We are so lucky to have you as our father,” and I wept silently, so as not to upset him.

In the small hours of the morning, with just my mother and me in the room with my father, Charlotte having popped home for a few hours’ rest, I noticed that he wasn’t breathing anymore. It was that simple. After a controlled bedlam of nurses checking we were right, I closed his mouth, and a nurse switched off the oxygen, and my mother and I sat in silence with his body.

“I wish I could cry,” she said.

Over the rest of the weekend, we clung together, my mother, my sister, Amanda, our friends Vanessa and Pete, my niece and nephew and I, going through photo albums, walking the dogs, and coming to terms with a world without him.

Amanda and I had to return to the Island. I didn’t want to take too much time off work, as I had learners coming up to exams, and they needed my support. We returned to Bury St Edmunds the following weekend, though, and took part in the preparations for the funeral. Then we came home for another week, before the long drive back up to Suffolk for the weekend of the funeral, which was scheduled for that Monday.

Our car had developed a fault, which we had had fixed on the Island, but which had left the computerised engine management system messed up. On the Saturday morning, in bright, sharply cold sunshine, Amanda and I drove up to the Peugeot garage on the Morton Hall estate, and booked the car in. It was so cold that we stopped in a pet superstore place and bought Tia a coat, because we were worried she would be too cold on the walk back to my parents’ house. Then we ambled back through the leafy estate, letting Tia roam on a long lead, the grief of our loss a gentle topic of careful discussion, but feeling peaceful in the glorious winter weather.

Back at the house, my mother was worrying about my father’s office. He had kept the most bizarre things: hundreds of old coins; documents without any filing system; cuttings from newspapers about people we didn’t know, and instruction booklets for devices we had never come across. We’d spent the previous Saturday trying to make some sense of it, and Charlotte had dug out all the documents she needed for the registration of his death, and for the other annoyances of bereavement, like re-registering the car in my mother’s name, transferring the joint bank account to her and adding his investments to the estate, so that his will could be processed. Amanda and I spent an hour with her, in the office, trying to calm her nervous rummaging, and prevent her from messing up what order Charlotte had been able to impose.

We were rescued by Charlotte phoning to ask whether we wanted to go for lunch in town. The day remained bright and lovely and we leapt at the distraction.

While I searched for gloves and changed my shirt, I heard a commotion downstairs. My mother had accidentally let Tia out of the front door and she had done one of her disappearing acts. By the time I’d got my boots on, Amanda had already gone out of sight, chasing after her.

I ran across the square and through the alleyway that leads from the new estate where my parents’ house is, onto the industrial estate behind it. The A14, the major road through East Anglia, runs past the estate, on a raised bank with wooded sides about ten metres high. Because of the trees, and the good insulation of the houses, it’s easy to forget it’s there: like all nuisances with which you live, you either get driven mad by it, or zone it out, and I am good at zoning out nuisance.

Over the noise, however, I thought I heard a scream. I was behind a warehouse where I had walked Tia late the previous Sunday, and I ran back round to where I had a view through two industrial buildings to the housing estate. A man in mechanic’s overalls was walking hurriedly across the square. I ran towards the alleyway, but before I got there, through another gap, I saw Amanda carrying Tia and I registered, without absorbing it, that Tia’s head was lolling from her arms.

By the time I got back among the houses, and ran up to the house, Amanda had laid Tia down by the front door and run in, shouting about needing a vet. I knelt down beside the poor, broken dog, and, I think, saw a moment of consciousness before she died. There was blood around her muzzle, her tongue was hanging out and her neck was skewed in a position that said it was definitely broken, but she retained her beauty and her face was still the face I had come to love over the past thirteen months.

I shouted into the house to Amanda, “She’s dead”, and was humiliated to realise I’d wailed it. I buried my face in her fur, and there was no movement. She was warm, but lifeless.

It seemed one thing too many. For a moment, I considered running away. I am a selfish man at heart, and I had been at a high pitch of anxiety since my father’s illness had got worse, months before. For the past two weeks, since his death, I had been promising myself that, at the funeral, I would put this period of unhappiness and tension to rest, and return to sanity, calm and a life of hobbies and good living with a renewed sense of the basic rightness of life. Kneeling in front of my mother’s house, beside our dead dog, that seemed to be a future that I had just lost.

I think, though, that you do find the strength to do what needs to be done, in moments of crisis. My mother was distraught, although, as always, she wasn’t crying, but trying to behave with dignity. I got up and hugged her, and then went upstairs to find Amanda, who was crying on our bed. I comforted her, and cried with her for a moment, and then went downstairs again to my mother.

I phoned Charlotte, and then my mother and I took Tia round the back of the house, through the car park and into the garden. Through my reassurances, my mother took control by trying to organise, and she said that we could bury Tia in the top of the garden. I pushed Tia’s tongue back into her mouth, and arranged her head so that she looked as though she was sleeping, and then I suggested we go inside.

I made tea and Amanda came downstairs. Incredibly, she had managed to compose herself. I loved her so much just then. She had wanted a dog for so long, and when it had finally become realistic, she had worried and fussed over the process, and had been surprised, I think, that it had been a joy, rather than the disaster she had expected, in her anxious approach to life. I knew, though, that she would be thinking about my mother, who was preparing to bury her husband of five decades in two days, and was trying to control the impact of this new calamity, that seemed to confirm her natural pessimism. Two sides of her character – her anxiety and her impulse to care about the feelings of others – were at war, and her selflessness triumphed.

Charlotte arrived. I asked her to stay with Amanda while my mother and I took Tia’s body up to the top of the garden. We got a spade and a shovel from the shed and dug a hole in a patch of ground that my mother had only cleared of weeds that autumn, and which she was planning to use for climbing plants. When it seemed deep enough, I laid Tia into it, arranging her as best I could. When my mother asked me whether I wanted to start filling in, though, I said it could wait for an hour or two. Tia was still warm. “I don’t want those nightmares,” I said.

Tia in her grave, just to prove to myself that she’s really gone.

There didn’t seem anything else to do, so we went ahead with our lunch plans, walking into town. To get out of the estate, we had to pass the path that Tia had bolted up, onto the A14, and Amanda found that hard. She explained what had happened and reproached herself for chasing an excited dog, when she should, she felt, have hung back, waiting for her to come back to her. I doubted that Tia, once she had given way to curiosity, would have noticed, but I didn’t try to contradict her then. The man in overalls I’d seen was a mechanic in the garage by the main road, and Amanda and I dropped in to thank him. He was kind and sympathetic, but embarrassed, and I said to myself then what I would say many times over the next few weeks: she was just a dog.

My father’s funeral was on Monday 17th December, 2018, at half-past-two. If that seems a little histrionic in its precision, my excuse is that such details matter, two months on, as it all begins to feel a little distant.

By the good offices of the church warden, Teresa Goodenough, who is a long-term friend of my mother’s and a true Christian, we had been allowed to hold it in the church of Fornham All Saints, the village in which my parents lived for twenty years, although they had ceased to be parishioners when they moved into town, and transferred their worship to the cathedral, which was more accessible to them as my father grew frailer. Kindness surrounded us in the arrangements. Two friends of my father’s officiated: Canon David Crawley, who is the Anglican chaplain at the hospital where my father died, and Revd. Michael Edge, a neighbour of my parents who is a retired cleric and who used to visit my father at home to read with him and, it seems, chat about memories of the Church of England.

My cousin, Nicky, and her husband, Chris, stayed with us at my mother’s house the night before. They’d travelled up from Devon and the meal we shared on the Sunday evening was a joyous affair, with Charlotte and Eden (my niece) joining us. Later, we got out the photo albums again. I think I may have been obsessing slightly. I had been busy throughout the fortnight since my father’s death, burying myself in Labour Party stuff and trying to shut things out, and I felt now that I needed to throw myself into some role of mourner-in-chief.

In the morning, my uncle and aunt came over from Norwich. Charlotte, Eden and Ruben (my nephew) arrived mid-morning and then Vanessa, Pete and their daughter, Maya, turned up. It was another lovely, bright winter morning. The house was full of flowers and cards and the sense that my father was a man widely loved had begun to seep into my grief.

Charlotte and Amanda had taken my mother dress shopping on the Saturday and had had a proper girls’ day out. The pain of losing Tia was still hanging over Amanda and me, but we had been able to hold it off, at least around my mother; to keep the focus on her.

At the appointed time, the undertakers’ car turned up and Charlotte, my mother, Amanda, Ruben, Eden and I piled in. It was all a bit of a daze. You see funeral processions and you try not to stare, but it’s one of those experiences that can never feel entirely novel when it is finally your turn to sit ashen-faced in the extended Mercedes: it is too familiar as an observer. Our route was by ring roads, round the back of the sugar-beet factory and through Fornham St. Martin, all golf-courses and flat-pack housing estates, and so arriving in the centre of the village, outside the church, was like stepping out of a mundane world and into a picture-book one. Fornham is not what it was when my parents lived there, but it is still beautiful, and the church is like an archetype of a village church.

Going in was a shock, though. It was filled. Teresa was rushing about, organising more seating. In the end, just shy of two hundred people were packed in. My father had been a founding member of the St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir, and a couple of dozen of them packed the choir stalls. Amanda and I were sat in the front row to the right of the aisle, while the rest of the family sat to the left. I stared up at the East window and prayed to the picture of Christ there.

The vicars and Charlotte had asked me whether I wanted to do a reading. I hadn’t wanted to do a eulogy: how could I sum him up? Chaotic, honourable, loving, daft, pompous, kind, gentle, brave and funny: none of it would have sounded like the stuff of a loving son. It would have sounded like a performance. I had latched on loving, and chosen the only text that came to mind at the time they asked: Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13, on love. I’m not actually a huge fan of Paul, but he is very good on love, and it has been the front page of my website for over a year, so I know it. It seemed right.

When the time came for me to read, I got up and walked to the lectern and just kept my head down. Revd. Michael had printed the passage out for me in large print, and I took the sheets out of my pocket, laid them on the lectern-top and read. A sort of grace seemed to fill me. I didn’t rush, or falter, and, when I reached the line saying that love “…endures all things,” I looked up, straight at Amanda, willing her to feel the comfort of this truth. She was crying, though, with her head bowed, and so I looked down again, and read on.

On Christmas morning, my mother and I went to the eight o’clock communion in the cathedral. We walked up in frost-sharp air, and took our places in the sparse congregation. It was a beautiful service. The sermon, by the Dean, the Very Revd. Joe Howes, was casual, chatty, included some good jokes at his own expense, but made a wonderful point about, I think, rebirth, although I cannot now clearly remember. (I have emailed him asking whether he can recall what his sermon was and will update this if he gets back to me). It felt as though he had addressed himself to me. By the time we took communion, I was in a real state of prayer; calm and settled, the whirring calculation of my brain stilled.

We walked home through the Abbey Gardens and the sun was white-bright turning to gold on a perfect sheet of frost. In the middle of the gardens, we stopped to look round, and to appreciate the beauty of the morning, and I revelled for a moment in the aftertaste of prayer. Then, my blogging head kicked in and I got out my phone and took a few photos. These are the results.

Still, the grief muddled on, the great sorrow of my father’s loss overshadowed by the petty grief for a slaughtered pet. During the previous week, back on the Island, attending training at work now that classes had ended for the term, and filling the rest of my time with computing tasks to keep myself busy, I had become angry about it, and then worried, that I was not grieving appropriately. Nevertheless, we had a happy Christmas day with Charlotte, Eden, Vanessa, Pete and Maya round my mother’s table, doing it all with a sense of duty that, despite the circumstances, turned into joy. At one point on Christmas Day, my mother said to us, “Mike would have loved this,” and that made it feel alright, being happy, so soon.

On Boxing Day, Charlotte had us round to her house for a meal. Eden was there as well; a quiet, amused presence, treating life like a humorous spectacle, as is her manner. At some point, I must have looked around the room, at these four incredible, brave, kind women; my mother, my wife, my sister and my niece, and realised that, despite the double blow I had suffered, my relationships with them had been strengthened, not harmed, by our shared sorrow. In any loss, there is something to be gained, if you can find it, and, for me, this closeness was like a reward for my not having given way to my grief. I hope the same is true for them. I know that Amanda feels our relationship has been strengthened by the last few months’ turmoil, because we can discuss such things, and Charlotte has made cautious overtures to me as well, but I worry about my mother.

I wish she could cry.

I’m still worried that I haven’t grieved properly. I’ve done some research, and discovered that the advice is so consistent that it must be a reliable consensus: there are stages; they are not written in stone; everyone grieves differently. It all begins to sound a little lazy, as if the universality of loss has reduced the incredible unreality of someone you love no longer existing to a set of bullet points on a web page or in a leaflet that gets misfiled in a health centre.

What nags at me is how sharp my feelings towards Tia are, compared to my feelings about my father. She was just a dog. I can rationalise it by realising that, despite my policy of optimism throughout his illness, I had five years to understand that my father would not be with me forever, whereas Tia’s death came out of the blue, when I was already vulnerable, but it still feels inappropriate, like a betrayal.

I am NOT calling her Buttercup.

In the months since the funeral, I have returned to work, continued to tinker with computers, attended Labour Party meetings and enjoyed social events. Life goes on. Tomorrow, Amanda is going to the mainland to pick up a puppy, Buttercup (that’ll have to change), from a rescue charity in Hertfordshire. Life is beginning to regain its balance.

Perhaps, for me, that is how grief will complete its form: there will be no great epiphany of feeling; no peak of anger or denial or bargaining or depression. Perhaps I will just slide slowly on to the acceptance. Perversely, though, I feel short-changed, and I feel as though I am somehow failing my kind, generous, unfailingly loving father, by not being racked by a sharper sorrow. It makes me wonder whether there is something wrong with me: something missing.

A month ago, I was worried enough about this to begin the process of seeking counselling. Through an employment support service, I have applied for an interview with the public mental health team. It is a service overburdened with supporting people in real crisis on austerity-slashed budgets, but I am told that I have as much right to seek assistance as anyone else. I hope I am not just being self-indulgent. I suppose I will find out.

There is one last event for me to record. A week and a half ago, we went back up to Bury St Edmunds, for the burial of my father’s ashes. On the way, half way round the M25, a fault light came on, and the car slowed to a crawl. I managed to nurse it to South Mimms service station where we spent an anxious couple of hours waiting for the rescue service.

It felt like a repeat of Tia’s death: another focus for my grief overcome by circumstances. In the fluorescent-lit hell of South Mimms, Amanda and I sat gloomily pondering our failings, unable to communicate. My anger was growing and I went outside, abandoning her, and walked to the trees at the edge of the car park and howled. Finally, I remembered that employment support had given me a phone number for a mental health crisis line and I had put the number in my phone.

The woman who answered listened to me patiently for a couple of minutes and then took over. Where was I? Was I safe? Where was my wife? Was she safe? Suddenly, prompted by her questions, my arrogance dissolved and I understood that nothing mattered as much as my responsibilities to my loved ones: my care for Amanda and my duty to her feelings. I thanked the counsellor, rang off, and ran back to Amanda.

Calmed myself, I was able to calm her, and apologise for my selfishness. Over the past five years, she has never once complained about spending almost every holiday with my parents, about driving up to Suffolk every weekend for two months without a weekend to herself, about having her grief for Tia buried beneath my father’s death. I couldn’t put into words how much I wanted to thank her, but she understood, as she has understood everything. We put our coats round ourselves, huddled together and waited together, accepting that what would be would be.

We were driven to Bury in a lorry, with our car bouncing on the flatbed behind us, by a cheerful driver who played Russian rock music all the way there. Some of it wasn’t too bad. We arrived at about two, and my mother, who we’d phoned when we realised we’d be late, had waited up. The house, which I have never really liked, felt like a warm coccoon, albeit, still a beige one. We settled into bed with a sense of renewed well-being.

The weekend passed pleasantly enough. We put the car back into the Peugeot garage, managing to get through the reminders of our last walk with Tia before her death, and then met Charlotte in town for a coffee, a wander round the market and then lunch at Pizza Express. My mother was in good form, her memory sharper than it had been recently, the terrible weight of her stoic grieving less evident. She was, however, dreading the burial.

Monday came, and we drove out to Fornham in my mother’s car. It was a wet, cloudy day. There was just us, the two vicars, Revd. Edge’s wife, Teresa and her husband Allan. We had a short service, led by Canon Crawley, in the chapel to the side of the church. My father’s ashes, in a pine box with a brass name plate on the top, sat on the altar rail as Revd. Edge read a beautiful reading from Isaiah, which he had chosen.

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the sheet that is spread over all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
    Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
    This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Isaiah 25:6-9

Then, guided by Canon Crawley, I carried my father’s mortal remains outside, round the church, to a small plot beneath the east window. A hole had been dug, and lined with fake grass. After the familiar litany about ashes, I knelt down and placed the box into the hole, touched, but not overwhelmed, by a sense of the true awe of death. I was conscious of the sense of a performance and annoyed with myself for that. I forced myself to forget that there were people watching, and took care to make sure that the box was level, and square in the hole. My father, who liked his pencils lined up on his desk and his jackets hung in ordered rows in his wardrobe, would appreciate that. In that moment, I felt love for him, and I suddenly had tears in my eyes.

When I stood, Canon Crawley said, “Let us pray,” and we said the Lord’s Prayer. I had to keep wiping tears from my eyes, but I didn’t sob. When it was over, I kept staring down, into the hole, slightly horrified by what I had just done; the finality of it; trying to remember the promise of eternal life that Revd. Edge’s reading had so beautifully described. Someone was at my side, putting their arm around me, and I was moved beyond words to discover it was my mother. Charlotte and Amanda moved in close and we all held each other.

The grave is to the east of the church, beneath the window that depicts Christ the Redeemer. It will get morning sun, and it is large enough for my mother to join him there, when her time comes. Beside it, an old choir friend of my father’s is buried.

It is enough.

Michael Edward Mason

20th April 1937 – 30th November 2018

How I remember him.