politics

Two topical stories released this month

Two of my short fictions have been published this month, Evidently Lovestruck in the first issue of Truffle Magazine, and Twelve Weeks’ Rest in volume 2 of the first issue of Untitled:Voices.

I felt a twinge that might not have been indigestion. There was a chance I was believing my own fairytale.

Evidently Lovestruck is flash fiction (about 300 words) which originated from a word-list challenge from a couple of years back – you know how I love them! I think it was a list of words that President Trump had (or was rumoured to have?) banned so it’s an eclectic mix and took me in unusual directions. Given that I’ve spent the bulk of the last 24 years on one university campus or another, it’s no surprise that it’s set at a university, and as my background’s in physics the tongue-in-cheek jibes at love across the STEM/Arts divide are probably not that surprising either. It came out at the beginning of June, which people keep telling me is Pride Month. When I was an undergraduate and first starting (unsuccessfully) to submit stories to competitions in the late nineties, I think having a gay couple at the heart of a story like this would have been seen as political, potentially controversial – what point are you trying to make by having them be the same sex? As it happens my first submitted story was about a same-sex couple (female, since you ask), but then I was trying to make a point. Whereas when I wrote this quirky little campus romance, the two characters that popped into my head both happened to be male and I liked the way they went together. It never crossed my mind that this was anything out of the ordinary (which indeed it isn’t now, thankfully), until I thought back on how far we’d come.

Untitled_Voices_Post_OutNow

The other story that came out this week is Twelve Weeks’ Rest, which was written during (and is about) lockdown, and is much longer (nearly 2000 words). It’s about trying to look after your health when the management see you as a human resource, not a person. It’s about hidden key-workers, the ones in warehouses that people forget are at the other end of their online order when they’re shopping for essentials. It’s also about sisters looking out for each other. It’s dedicated to (and sadly inspired by) Sister Number One. I was angry when I wrote it and I think that comes through, but I hope a bit of humour sneaks through too.

She says it like she’s disappointed in me, which she probably is. A loyal employee would tell the government to stick its shielding programme and carry on working.

You can read Evidently Lovestruck for free online at Truffle magazine. For Twelve Weeks’ Rest you can either read it on the website (be aware that it’s 4 pages long so you have to keep going back to the top to move on) or download both volumes of Issue 1 at the main Untitled:Voices page – they are free, but Untitled are asking for donations to the Stephen Lawrence Trust.

Some thoughts on censorship and debate

I am what you might call a fan of free speech. I err on the side of people being able to say pretty much whatever they want, as long as they can’t say the bad stuff with impunity. I appreciate subtlety. I infuriate people frequently with my ‘it depends’ – maybe I’m a little too fond of nuance but everything happens or is said in a particular context, and I think there’s a worrying tendency lately to forget or disregard that, and to want to see everything in stark, simple terms.

Take the ‘statue wars’ in the UK. Tearing down statues does not erase history. Both the erection and the destruction or removal of the statue tell us something about the prevailing mood of the time. They’re symbolic, that’s the whole point, and therefore symbolically removing them can make sense. Do I think all statues of ‘questionable people’ should be torn down? No. Partly because I’m not sure who gets to decide what ‘questionable’ means and partly because we’d end up with no statues at all, except the one of Paddington Bear in the station he was named after, and there are better things to do with the time, money and energy we have available. It reminds me of something Billy Bragg said at a gig many years ago, it’s all very well smashing in a McDonalds as a representative of global capitalism but there’s another branch round the corner, and before you’re halfway across town you’ve encountered six more and run out of steam and maybe you’d have been better off doing something more productive about it all in the first place.

Leaving statues up and defending them at all costs can lead to erasure of history. Churchill is a case in point: inspiring wartime leader he may have been but he was also responsible for famine in Bengal and some heavy-handed tactics against strikers at home. Yet any attempt to point out his flaws and failings is seen as denial of his achievements, as though one cancels out the other. They are both true. Either looking up to someone as a hero or decrying them as pure villain misses the truth of their humanity. As former US President Obama said this week (himself a role model for many despite leaving Guantanamo Bay untouched) the world is messy, there is such a thing as moral complexity. People are rarely all good or all bad and once you start trying to find ‘pure’ people to have statues of, you start tying yourself in philosophical knots about why these ones are ok despite the inevitable flaws and these aren’t. Here’s a thought: why don’t we openly talk about all the aspects of someone’s character, and when as a society we decide that the good no longer outweighs the bad, take the statue down and say why we’re doing it. Debate and discussion don’t seem to get much of a look-in in modern life, unfortunately.

I haven’t read the JK Rowling stuff that’s caused such a stir, and I don’t intend to. I don’t read her novels, she isn’t a politician, I don’t need to know what she thinks about anything. However, I can’t escape the fact that there has been uproar, and some people at her publisher are saying they won’t work on her new book. I confess my first thought was that it’s a job, you don’t get to choose which bits you want to do. Then I thought I’ve clearly been living in a Tory town too long, and surely that’s the point of a union. I thought about Lancashire mill-workers who underwent hardship themselves rather than deal with slave-picked cotton during the American Civil War, because they felt strongly enough about it. I thought about how various staff at the publishing house would have to meet or speak to an author to ask or answer questions, discuss a marketing plan etc, and how I’ve sat at work in the past hoping I don’t have to join a meeting with a particular person who’s a friend of a friend at home and who I find odious – above all, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to stay professionally detached, that my personal feelings would come through and reflect badly on me. So after brief thought, I could see a few reasons why those publishing staff might revolt, and good luck to them. The point at which I’d worry is if they tried to prevent other staff who didn’t feel as strongly, or were happier about separating the creator from their work, from working on it.

I have mixed feelings about the blurring of the line between art and artist. For instance, everyone now knows that Eric Gill sexually abused his daughters which obviously entirely changes how a viewer sees or interprets any of his depictions of them. But does it – should it – change their views of his other work? And should we tear it all down and hide it away, or keep it on display with a note on context, or simply brush his biography under the carpet as some seem to advocate? The Guardian had an interesting article on this a while back. If he was still alive I doubt there would be quite as much debate about it, I have to say, but with a dead artist the argument can be made that we’re neither rewarding nor punishing him by our actions and so it’s more down to how the art itself makes people feel.

Which brings me to the litmags. If you’re running a small literary magazine with no pay then the main perk is getting to publish exactly what you want, and by extension not publishing whatever you don’t want. Nobody has any kind of a right to be published by your magazine, and if you want to never publish anyone called Tom because someone of that name bullied you at school, that’s your prerogative (depending on the jurisdiction you may have a hard time defending it legally if it’s a stated aim, but that’s another matter). However, I’m seeing again (it arose a couple of years ago and I’m sure I wrote about it at the time) statements on Twitter saying that ‘abusers’ and ‘bigots’ will never be knowingly published by certain magazines and if they have unknowingly published them, please let them know so they can remove their work. The aim, it seems, is to ‘not give them a platform’ – I’ll come back to no-platforming in a moment but take it at face value for now. You may have overlooked a term that’s offensive to particular groups and you weren’t familiar with it and would never have accepted the piece if you’d known the connotations. Fine. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, and certainly when this flared up a couple of years ago the main fuss was about elements in the life of the artist, not the work itself. So if there’s nothing offensive in the work, that means you’re objecting to the writer as a person. Again, your prerogative – they’ve been rude to you, you saw some views you didn’t like on Twitter, by all means don’t publish them. The bit that makes me uncomfortable is asking people to shop them and taking their work down retrospectively, it veers a bit too close to witch hunt territory for my liking. What evidence do you require? Could I contact you and make up a story about a rival and make you take down all their work? Do they have a right of reply?

I don’t like no-platforming as a response. I’ve spent most of the last 24 years studying or working at UK universities and every so often you hear that some student union or other has decided that someone or other shouldn’t be allowed to speak at their event. Most of these turn out to be a storm in a teacup that’s being wilfully misrepresented as ‘no-platforming’ but a few are genuine. I can understand that at a particular event you might be worried about a fight breaking out (context, see) but in general I think shutting down debate is a bad idea. If the person’s ideas are self-evidently ludicrous, let them expose themselves as fools, you could even help them along with some well-chosen questions. If you’re genuinely worried that exposure to these ideas might persuade people to join the dark side (whatever the dark side is in your opinion, in this situation) then it’s better to have them in the open being challenged than for their ideas to filter through quietly with no opposing voice. Shutting people up also lets them be portrayed as martyrs, as people who were so dangerous they had to be silenced, which only adds to their appeal.

There will be many people who disagree with this post but I think we’ve established that I’m ok with you having different views from me. When I was an adolescent I wanted all my rock heroes to live up to my expectations but one after the other they blotted their copybooks. For a while I stopped listening to interviews on the Radio 1 Rock Show. Then eventually I realised that if there wasn’t a single member of my own family that I agreed with on everything, I wasn’t likely to find a stranger that made the grade. So there are bands where I will only ever buy a second-hand album, won’t listen to them on Spotify or buy their merchandise, because I don’t want to give them money, but I’m not going to stop listening to them. I’m not even going to deny liking their music (Motley Crue are first on the list, since you ask). People are complicated. That goes for me, too.

Grayson Perry on masculinity

I knew very little about Grayson Perry (other than that I wasn’t keen on his art) before I happened to catch part of his Reith lectures, ‘Playing to the Gallery’ in 2013. I sought out the rest on catch-up, read something he’d written in the paper when he made a TV programme about men and maleness, and added his 2016 book The Descent of Man to my To Read list as soon as I heard he’d written it. Having finally got it out of the library in January, I read it quickly and with great interest, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the thorny topic of gender in the modern age as well as anyone interested more broadly in contemporary politics and society. I don’t have to agree with him on everything to applaud the kind of book he’s written and the approach he’s taken, though I think I do agree with his assertion that “I think we like the idea that gender is in our genes because it is convenient, it lets us off the hook.”

I’d like to think gender was irrelevant in modern Britain and I’ve refused to join women-only groups in everything from the Institute of Physics to the local branch of the Labour Party, so I’m not a habitual reader of gender-focused texts. I don’t, for that reason, know if The Descent of Man is a good example of its kind, but for the general reader like me it seemed a thought-provoking introduction to the topic. The tone of the book was none too serious, which helped. His comments on the parents of Islington made me laugh for instance, how they undoubtedly claim to bring up their sons as tender and gentle, away from gender stereotype, “I’m sure they do, and the young men in question are probably delightful,… and I’m pretty sure their mothers still do most of the childcare and housework or employ other women to do it.”

I thought Perry’s identification of Default Man was interesting, the white middle-class heterosexual male who is (as a broad group) at the head of all things, from banks and universities to media outlets and politics. Everyone else is measured against them – neutral means what Default Man uses, does, wears, like the uniform of the sober suit with a tie (colourful clothes are suspect), and anything else is automatically Other. Once you look at society with Default Man in mind, lots of things start to make more sense. As well as Default Man we have the Department of Masculinity, a member of which provides the voice in your head telling you not to be a “sissy”. Which, he argues, leads to confusion and aggression and worrying about what other people think. Or in other words Toxic Masculinity and its detrimental effects on mental health.

We need more public intellectuals if you ask me, we’re losing the art of debate and the ability (maybe even the desire) to question things. They might not cover a topic from all angles and they will bring bias with them, consciously or otherwise. They haven’t always found solutions, even if they think they have, but they’ve thought about it, asked some good questions, and made us think about it too. So hurrah for a potter with no qualification other than that of being a man himself, daring to provoke us into thinking and talking about what it means to be a man in modern Britain.

Class and the BBC

Monitoring the class background of BBC employees strikes me as an over simplistic and probably counter-productive way of aiming at greater diversity in journalism, though I do agree that the BBC’s viewpoint does seem overly narrow (London-centric and middle class) at times.

In his Alternative MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh television festival, Jeremy Corbyn has apparently suggested that the BBC should analyse the social class of its workforce. None of the reports I’ve read about the event this week say whether he set out how this should be done, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Apart from the research that suggests there are now seven identifiable class groupings in Britain rather than the familiar upper-middle-working, how easy is it to spot where the boundaries lie and at what point does someone move from one to the other?

At university I met a couple of people who’d been to state school (at which they’d learnt Latin) and came from, as far as I could tell, solid middle-class (certainly wealthy) backgrounds. Would they tick a diversity box because of their school? At my fee-paying school I knew people on assisted places (like me) and scholarships. One girl, whose strong accent our English teacher used to complain about, was from a single-parent, unquestionably working-class, household that had no previous brushes with higher education. Would she be overlooked in the diversity game, seen as privileged like the chap who pointed out in The Guardian that though he was seen as a ‘public school Oxbridge type’ when he worked at the BBC, he’d achieved success from a poor background via grammar school? Are we intending to punish people for their achievements?

I find the obsession with widening access to Oxbridge annoying and wrong-headed, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t do your utmost to get more working class teenagers in there, and then say anyone who’s been to Oxbridge isn’t who you’re aiming your diversity scheme at. In my opinion, it’s not so much where you studied as what your attitude is and whether you notice that not everyone in Britain’s having the same experience. My dad argues that once you go to university you’re no longer working class, and while I agree with him that you might have moved away from your origins to a degree, you haven’t necessarily moved towards anywhere in particular. Spending time with family and keeping in touch with old friends should keep you in tune with your roots even if you don’t fully fit there any more, giving you an awareness of issues that someone who’s fully distanced themselves (or was never there in the first place) won’t have.

I don’t like quota systems, whether they’re for female candidates in Labour’s internal elections or working class employees at a publishing house or the BBC. Unfortunately they’re easy to measure and they’re visible. Those in charge can be seen to be tackling some perceived deficiency, without anyone necessarily digging any deeper into how much good the policy is doing. I would be among the first to say that background matters, and that the BBC (and The Guardian, and probably other national news outlets that I don’t engage with) suffers from a lack of diversity, but unless they’re going to devise a questionnaire asking whether your childhood treats included tinned fruit and Blackpool Illuminations, and what your siblings and in-laws do for a living, instead of just asking which school you went to, I don’t think class-monitoring is the way forward.

Long Road From Jarrow by Stuart Maconie

I went to see Stuart Maconie talk about this book at last year’s Ilkley Literature Festival, an event which was entertaining and informative, and far too short. I finally got the book out of the library in January and it’s one of those that halfway through, I wished I’d bought it instead.

In October 1936 a couple of hundred unemployed men from Jarrow on the south bank of the Tyne marched to London to hand in a petition to parliament. The background is complex, but after the closure of a shipyard (added to other national problems) there was seventy percent unemployment in the town, and the men were asking for a proposed steelworks to be situated near them to provide new jobs. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful, and they weren’t the only men to march at that time, to highlight unemployment. For some reason, however, possibly to do with embedded journalists, a coincidence of date with the first BBC TV broadcasts, and being accompanied for part of the way by fiery local MP Ellen Wilkinson, the Jarrow Crusade (as it’s usually known) has lingered in the collective memory.

Or it has in some parts of it, at least. Stuart Maconie is something crucial in the Ramblers’ Association, as well as being an author and popular BBC presenter, so looking for a challenging walk in the autumn of 2016 he realised recreating the Jarrow marchers’ route would be perfect, and would allow him to ask people along the way what they knew about the crusade and what it meant to them, eighty years later. Not much, was the most common answer, though he did run across pockets of memory and enthusiasm.

You either like Stuart Maconie’s style or you don’t, and I do – it’s largely chatty and friendly (jovial, even) but there’s a vein of politics running through it (he describes himself as “unashamedly of Attlee’s patriotic leftist strain”) and he does get angry at the state of the country both now and in the time of Jarrow. I got angry too, reading it. There is a chapter for each day of the march, but in among the curry house recommendations and pop culture trivia sparked by towns and villages he passes through, there is enthusiastic historical and geographical information about the route. He also brings in snippets of history or broader context where necessary, and takes the odd bus or taxi detour if there’s somewhere of relevance nearby.

The book is as much about people as places, and he chats to lots of locals in pubs and on Twitter as he’s on the way, and gets their take on the area (and Britain) now as well as their thoughts on the original march. There are also interesting encounters in local museums, with the Dean of Ripon cathedral, and two MPs (Tracy Brabin and Kelvin Hopkins). As all this took place only a few months after the EU referendum, it’s got Brexit running through it. Maconie voted remain, but he shows a good understanding of why so many of his northern neighbours didn’t, and a frustration with the metropolitan elite who still don’t get it.

I don’t agree with all of his analysis (and I certainly don’t agree with all his musical views), but I think this is an interesting, well-meaning book. A worthy successor to JB Priestley’s English Journey in fact, which he mentions a couple of times himself. If you know quite a bit about English working class history, you might not learn any new facts (other than the possible name of the dog accompanying the Jarrow Crusaders, though that seems to be disputed) but by explicitly using the contrast of then and now it makes you think about contemporary events and circumstances in a different light. Aside from that it’s an entertaining travelogue through some less than obvious holiday destinations like Luton, Bedford, Barnsley and Darlington.

Brexit and the collapse of planning

The quagmire of negotiations, the dangerous farce that is the Irish border question, every day we’re told of new and apparently unexpected complications of Brexit. Each time, a chorus of people ask what Leave voters were thinking – didn’t they work through all the knock-on effects in their imaginations, like mental chess? Didn’t they think ahead and realise how complicated it would be, what a bad idea, how practically impossible? This chorus doesn’t appear to be asking what David Cameron was playing at, or why there were no detailed plans in place for what would happen in the event of a vote to leave the EU. They don’t ask how on earth our political systems managed to let the referendum happen when there was no plan for one of the two outcomes, or how come Cameron was allowed to abdicate responsibility as soon as he’d landed the country in the soup.

There are several scenarios I can think of, to cover David Cameron’s disregard for consequences:

  1. Knows that we can’t/won’t leave the EU, but poses the question anyway. No planning required; even if Leave wins, we won’t be leaving. But Remain will win anyway, so no need to worry about what to do if public opinion shows a leaning towards Leave.
  2. Intends to leave the EU if the vote goes that way, but doggedly believes it won’t as he has never met anyone except a few cranks in his own party that would vote Leave. Arrogantly (and incorrectly) assumes no planning required, simply because the messy and complicated reality of leaving the EU won’t arise.
  3. Doesn’t seriously consider the question of whether we’d leave the EU or not. The vote will go the right way, and life will continue as before. No planning desired, as it’s a waste of time.

Given the eventual outcome (narrow victory to Leave), any one of those positions would have left him in shock on results morning. In the first, he’d have to face a hostile public and tell them that despite the vote, we’d be staying put. Who knows what uproar there’d be, it’s not as if we never have riots in this country. In the third scenario he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place: stay put despite the vote (see scenario 1) or leave the EU, which he hasn’t planned for and didn’t think (judging by his personal campaigning) was a good idea.

Scenario 2, which is the one Theresa May’s government has behaved as though we were in, seems to me the scariest and most chaotic. That would be like me asking my friends and family if I should go on a sponsored walk or blindfold myself and throw knives at OneMonkey from across the room, to raise money for charity. If by some fluke they selected the latter, they’d be shocked if I said I was going to do it (because I’d promised) but I’ve never thrown a knife before and didn’t know whether I could get OneMonkey any protective gear in time. If I was perplexed at why they’d choose that option when they must be able to spot some pitfalls, I think they’d be justified in turning round and telling me they didn’t think I was stupid enough to suggest it if I didn’t know what I was doing.

You may believe all voters should avail themselves of all the facts and check out all claims made by politicians before voting, but you must know in practice it doesn’t happen that way in any UK election. Protest votes, party loyalty, the least worst option – I’ve voted based on each of those myself. Then there’s image and spin, some last-minute interview or soundbite that catches a voter’s imagination and sways them one way or another. There’s gut feeling, some idea you haven’t seen conclusive evidence for or against but that you hold onto nevertheless. There’s the complicated battle when a voter has too much information, weighing up the bits they do and don’t agree with or stand for, to see which aspect seems the most important; I don’t even agree with all of Labour’s policies and I’m a member of the party.

During the referendum campaign it wasn’t easy to get hold of facts anyway. Both sides, from all parties, seemed to be falling back on the usual meaningless soundbites and overinflated claims. The £350m written on the bus was clearly tripe and although I’m not saying 100% of the electorate spotted that, I don’t know anyone who believed it (Leave voters included). Remainers seemed to base all their arguments on how rosy it was already and why we’d be fools to give that up, which doesn’t work if the people you’re addressing don’t believe it’s rosy now. Very few people engaged in proper debate (a general problem in modern life) and I don’t remember any politicians giving serious thought to what the country would look like afterwards, whether the vote went their way or not. If they did, they didn’t share it with us.

Planning for an eventuality seems to have become synonymous with expecting it to happen, with all the resulting public hysteria. I would rather live under a government that had plans for what to do in the event of nuclear war, famine, an energy crisis, even if with hindsight it’s seen as (thankfully) a waste of time and money. I would argue it’s rarely a waste anyway because it gets you looking at resources and reliance, gaps in infrastructure etc that you wouldn’t otherwise focus on. But when it’s a situation of your own creation I don’t just think it’d be nice to have a plan, I think it’s damned irresponsible not to.

Maybe if someone had sat down with a pencil and a used envelope and had a ten-minute brainstorm about, say, possibilities for the Irish border should a referendum come out in favour of Leave, we’d have been spared the whole sorry episode.

Working Class Writer? Class, Education, Politics and the Arts

You can’t say the post title didn’t warn you what’s been on my mind lately. Some of it’s pre-election frustration and my disbelief at, among others, the bring back grammar schools brigade, because of course none of their children would ever be relegated to the non-selective school, in the same way presumably that their children will never need to use a library (or the NHS) so it’s ok to wreck them for everyone else. However, the topic of working class writers has been bubbling under again, partly via Dead Ink crowdfunding a book of essays on the working class called Know Your Place and some Twitter discussions that arose from that.

Name some working class writers, came the challenge. The names of various successful novelists were bandied about, but did they count? They were in varying degrees superficially middle class (wealthy, university educated). Did they think of themselves as working class any more? Would society let them get away with it if they did?

Non-British readers will no doubt be puzzled at this point but despite attempts to declare the UK a classless society (aka we’re all middle class now) class still matters here, it still has a major effect on your salary (even given similar levels of education), your educational opportunities in the first place, and even health prospects. So yes, it’s more complicated than it used to be (the BBC identified about seven social classes a couple of years ago) but it’s still there casting a shadow over most people’s lives.

Which brings us back to the working class writers thing. If someone grows up in a working class family, goes from their comprehensive school to university and graduates with a decent degree, does that automatically make them middle class? Well, Nathan Connolly who runs Dead Ink would argue no, as in this piece he wrote last week. That would be to deny the background and the upbringing that shaped them before they arrived at university. On the other hand it’s hard to argue with any conviction that you’re working class when on the face of it you’ve got a salaried graduate job and can afford an avocado whenever you fancy one, however much your attitudes, politics, outlook may align with siblings or cousins that didn’t head down the higher education path. There will undoubtedly be accusations of false claiming of credentials, like the outbreak of Mockney a few years ago. Kit de Waal, celebrated author and outspoken champion of working class writers suggests embracing the dual identity with no excuses and no shame, but you need to be pretty confident to do that (another trait that graduates from working class backgrounds are said to lack).

Where are all the working class writers then (as Kit de Waal asked last summer, in fact)? Are they looking at the quinoa in their cupboard and simply not feeling comfortable with calling themselves working class any more? Some will no doubt have intentionally left the working class behind via education, though the long tradition of self-education in the working class shows that the two don’t have to go together. Some may well be plugging away under the radar, not shouting about their class background and not writing anything that highlights it. The rest, however, are probably struggling to get a foot in the door because of lack of contacts, cultural capital, or money.

In Nathan Connolly’s piece from last week that I linked to earlier, he mentions setting up Dead Ink because he couldn’t afford the unpaid internships in London that were apparently essential. So many fields in the arts seem to rely on unpaid internships (and in London too) it’s no wonder the arts are dominated by people with money behind them (there’s an interesting paper called Are the creative industries meritocratic?, which you can access here). I was told in passing last week that I was at a serious disadvantage trying to get involved in the arts without a car – getting to performance venues (and home at the end of an evening, when any public transport is likely to have thinned out or stopped), school visits, distributing leaflets/brochures or attending meetings with publishers/agents/promoters. It may well be true, but that’s another obstacle if you don’t have money behind you. I know a couple of people who have a driving licence but no car, but without even trying I can think of 10 more in my immediate family/closest friends who’ve never learnt to drive in the first place (with maybe 8 or 9 who drive and have or share a car).

In conclusion then, working class writers might be out there but are probably struggling. When the only people who get a voice are the wealthy, we’re in a bad way so we need to fight for libraries, fight for a level playing field in education, and build a flourishing cultural hub outside of London (Northern Powerhouse, anyone?). By the way, the Labour manifesto mentions banning unpaid internships. I’ll just leave that thought with you.

Never mind Article 50, won’t someone think of the environment?

Acres of coverage today for the ‘news’ that the UK is leaving the EU. We knew that already, it will take ages to sort everything out. Ultimately not much will change. Meanwhile outside the arena of UK navel-gazing there are some changes being made that deserve a bit more coverage. Trump tinkering with energy and environment policy matters to all of us because whatever trading bloc we do or don’t belong to, climate change is something we need to be doing something about. We don’t get to opt out of European temperature rises because we’re no longer in the EU, and Trump doesn’t get to build a wall round America to keep extreme weather or rising sea levels out.

29570143

Read my review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, New York 2140. Then read the book itself. Then think about what you can do to make a difference.

Week 12: In which I am both witty and political

This was the week leading up to the first Newsjack deadline of the season, and by season I mean time of year not series. Newsjack is a BBC radio comedy sketch show with a completely open submission policy, meaning absolutely anyone can send in a sketch or one-liner as long as it relates to the week’s news somehow. Traditionally I dip a toe in the comedy water by sending one-liners to the first couple of episodes, before I work myself up to a sketch later on. None of them have been successful so far but I entertain myself (and occasionally OneMonkey) while I’m writing them, so it’s not all wasted effort. This week has been tricky as reality has largely moved beyond satire, which hasn’t left much to write about. I’m persevering, however.

I did try to ignore the whole Presidential circus but I didn’t quite manage, thanks to Twitter and Radio 4. I unfollowed a few people on Twitter because I couldn’t stand any more hourly updates on Trump. I’m British, I don’t tend to follow American politics, in the same way I don’t follow French or German politics. I keep half an eye out to get fair warning of anything that might have global ramifications, but honestly I’ve never even bothered to watch all the rigmarole of a new PM arriving at Downing Street, I’m certainly not going to watch a foreign leader getting sworn in.

In my attempt to avoid too many news bulletins this week I may also have missed the point of the women’s march. I was genuinely moved and amazed to see so many people take to the streets, but I’m not entirely clear on what they were there for, or rather they didn’t all seem to be there for the same thing. From the people I follow on Twitter and a few things I caught in the Guardian and on the BBC I picked up the following reasons:

  • because no genuine feminist would stay away;
  • to point out they didn’t vote for Trump;
  • to reclaim public space as safe for women;
  • to protest gun crime;
  • to protest racism;
  • to promote gay rights;
  • to state that their son has been brought up in a civilised way;
  • to point out they are a man who’s been brought up in a civilised way;
  • because all their friends are;
  • because it’s Saturday (OK that one might be a King Missile reference to lighten the mood).

Maybe I missed the ones protesting at the women who’ve been killed in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria etc at least in part due to the (apparently sainted and beyond criticism now) Obama administration, and the ones protesting at Britain and America’s close alliance with that staunch defender of women’s rights, Saudi Arabia. Maybe I was too busy noticing all the loud, comfortable, Western women in pink hats who were shouting a host of different messages. But hey, if we could get that many people behind an actual campaign, say to alter a policy or stop a war, I think they could change the world.

Ken Livingstone entertains Ilkley

An hour in a surprisingly less than packed King’s Hall with Ken Livingstone and we learn that (to summarise) pretty much everything that’s wrong with Britain can be blamed on Thatcher, bankers, and tax-dodgers, and most things wrong with politics (and in particular the Labour party) are Tony Blair’s fault. Which I think we already knew so it was a largely convivial evening among friends, marred only by interviewer Ruth Pitt’s insistence on asking several questions about Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of the Remain campaign. The referendum is long over, time to deal with the aftermath not endlessly dissect the handling of it.

Except as Ken pointed out early on, politicians need to learn from history, so perhaps dissecting it is a good thing in principle, just not in a relatively short interview. He also pointed out that because scientists tend to speak in cautious terms, politicians don’t tend to listen to them, and not many politicians have a scientific background so they remain technically unguided on many science-based issues (climate change is his biggest worry in this regard). In one of many memorable phrases of the evening (several of which it’s probably not a great idea to repeat) he said that when he was young, politicians were old, ugly and dull, concentrating on policies. Thanks to Blair (naturally) it’s all focus groups and telling people what they want to hear, with many MPs going from university to advising an MP to becoming one themselves. “They’ve never run stuff,” he complained – few ex-councillors, trade unionists, even small businessmen compared with say 30 years ago.

Ken Livingstone partly ascribed the rise of Jeremy Corbyn (which came as a surprise to him) to the anger of working class voters all across the Western world, veering either to the left or the right but not sticking to the centre: both Trump and Sanders in America, Podemos in Spain, Marine Le Pen in France for instance. He reckons that if Corbyn wins the 2020 election (which Livingstone believes he can) it will be the most significant election since 1979 and could/should herald real change. He did also point out that some of Corbyn’s ‘extreme’ policies were considered perfectly reasonable by previous governments (not only Labour!) and some of his own far-fetched GLC ideas of the 1980s are now accepted by the mainstream (like gay marriage, which was eventually introduced by a Tory government, unthinkable 40 years ago). He gave us an insight into long-running media smear campaigns and what dissenting voices have to put up with. It’s enough to put you off getting involved in politics in any way.

I’m not an uncritical fan of Ken Livingstone, though we share many political views. While I hadn’t heard of Jeremy Corbyn until he stood for the Labour leadership last year I’ve known about Ken for most of my life (you’d have to ask Big Brother for a rough estimate, but I think it’s since the days of Michael Foot) so it was interesting to go along and see him this evening, being largely amusing and laid back, making serious points, and not being afraid to speak his mind, as usual. And anyone playing the ever-popular Ken Livingstone Hitler Bingo would have scored in the first five minutes. If I was part of the Labour top team I think I’d consider measuring him up for a gag.

New story (don’t mention the referendum)

It’s National Flash Fiction Day today, so the Flash Flood is on (and judging by the ferocity of the rain this could soon be true outside as well). I had a story called King of All I Survey released as part of it this morning, and though it’s about being the outsider and the scapegoat, it’s got nothing to do with the EU referendum (promise).

Readers with good memories may recall that back in March I was reluctantly veering towards a Leave vote and looking for reasons to stay in the EU. I never found any beyond the university funding I’d already mentioned, and when I thought about the EU Commission and the fishing policy, TTIP and the way Greece was bullied it all pointed one way. On Thursday I voted to Leave.

I don’t often do out and out politics on here (most of you are interested in books and writing, I imagine, and don’t necessarily agree with or care about my left-wing leanings) but I briefly wanted to say, particularly to all the international readers, that Brexit is a lot more complicated than the mainstream media would have you believe, the Leave voters are not a homogenous mass, and it will all be fine.

We all get tribal and defensive at times, but we belong to many intersecting tribes at once and it depends which one we feel is under threat as to which one we feel strongest about at the moment. So international socialism might get trumped by national interest, workers’ rights in your own country then win out over party allegiances (hence I railed against the official Labour Remain campaign) etc. Right now it looks like it’s time to band together with anyone who’s being reasonable and be a stronger voice than the racists, xenophobes and unpleasant little loudmouths making some people’s lives a misery. Hope not hate.

You may now return to your reading…

Bradford’s Buzzing: a weekend at the literature festival

This weekend OneMonkey and I went to a few events at the second annual Bradford Literature Festival (which a friend of mine this week suggested should really be known as a festival of ideas as there’s a lot of current affairs programming in it). The events covered authors talking about writing (and reading, and the power of libraries),  political discussion facilitated by academics, a social history of coffee and Islam, and how the historical King Arthur may well have been based in York. Quite a contrast, and a nice illustration of the variety on the programme (though as another friend complained yesterday, there isn’t enough science or philosophy). The city centre itself was packed, helped no doubt by the dry, mild weather which broke out into sunshine occasionally. A long way to go perhaps, but it feels like Bradford is on the up.

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

Variety, as embodied by my Bottle o’ Bangles

Writing and Adversity was a panel of three writers. Andrew McMillan is a poet from South Yorkshire with a noticeable accent, which is refreshing (I don’t run across many successful poets though, maybe none of them sound as posh as I expect). Melinda Salisbury writes high fantasy for young adults, where the main teenage character is a ‘real’ girl who’s easily manipulated and sometimes a coward, not one of these carbon copy sword-wielding heroines. Jerry Pinto from Mumbai has written all sorts and sees himself primarily as a poet but was talking about the autobiographical novel Em and the Big Hoom which took him 25 years to write, inspired by his mother’s depression. They talked about writing through and about adversity based on work with ‘challenging’ children or young offenders, and their own writing drawing on their own lives.

Trying to take unobtrusive notes during an event means I’ve jotted words and phrases that struck me but not necessarily who said them, so apologies for the largely unattributed nature of this. Nevertheless, among the ideas that were thrown around by the panel were:

    • How do you know your story is worth telling if your sort of person is never represented in books? (Which became a short diversion into diversity in publishing)
    • There is a certain amount of arrogance needed to write for others to read: you are saying this is worth your money, more importantly this is worth taking some part of your short life to read.
    • Non-fiction doesn’t require plausibility, but if you turn your experiences into fiction you have to come up with plausible characters, which can make you cut half of what made those people interesting to you in the first place.
    • If you want kids to read, ban books (Jerry’s dad banned the buying though not the reading of books and they therefore attained status as illicit items).
    • If you want adults to read, don’t try and tell them reading is a great improving, moral endeavour. It’s another flavour of having fun, like dancing.
    • The personal must become universal as you write it, the more honest and specific you are, the more general appeal it has (Andrew doesn’t enjoy writing, often finds it painful but then that emotion comes through to the reader).
    • There is a difference between Poetic Truth and What Really Happened Truth (Andrew quoting an Irish poet whose name I didn’t catch) and sometimes you can pin down the former without having to rigidly stick to the latter.
    • If you want to know who you are, write something. Writing can help you come to terms with something even if you never show that writing to anyone else. It can allow you to look back and say it wasn’t that bad, here’s the moment of beauty in it. Jerry also mentioned a kind of distancing, being able to revisit the memories of his mother slashing her wrists again, and cleaning up the blood and calling the police – attempted suicide still a criminal offence – by telling himself he’s writing fiction and his job is to get words down on the page.
    • Art comes in the calm aftermath of the storm, what you write in the middle is too raw. You have to take out some of your own pain to leave a gap in which the reader inserts their own painful experiences. Catharsis occurs for the reader when they bring this pain to the reading and find release.
    • Writing about the bad stuff can be seen as either exorcising demons, or losing a part of yourself. However, the sea feeds the iceberg even as other bits of it are breaking off (i.e. you’re continuing to build up other experiences and store up new bits of yourself)

 

A thought-provoking hour and a half. As was the next event, but that was on quite a different topic.

Leaving aside what I think of the word ‘mainstreaming’, the Mainstreaming Hate Speech discussion was about the rise of the far right in Europe (though it was pointed out that it’s not only happening in Europe. And I don’t just mean Donald Trump). Three Professors, a diplomat, a local author and the head of an NGO, plus a roomful of thoughtful and interested people who were let loose with a roving microphone for half an hour. Could have been chaos but it was well chaired and polite, with a whole host of interesting points made (and AA Dhand was in the audience, Bradford pharmacist by day, noir author appearing in The Observer in his spare time). I did make some notes but as some of it strays into contentious issues and I don’t guarantee I’ll represent it accurately I’m going to take the easy way out and skim over most of it. As with the earlier event I’ll throw a few topics out there that came up:

  • The far-right doesn’t create ideas in a vacuum, they’re echoing what’s in society.
    All societies are tribal to some extent, and are suspicious of The Other.
  • Bigots shouldn’t be banned (e.g. NUS no-platform): let them speak then expose and hence humiliate them in front of society (OneMonkey kicked off the round of applause at this point).
  • Interact with people who aren’t like you, don’t walk away from people who don’t share your views (I find this one hard, personally). Bring things into the open and discuss them. Build bridges, talk, stop living in your own culture’s cocoon.
  • Protesting has its place, but if shouting and screaming wouldn’t stop you being an activist it won’t stop your opponents either.

 

They talked among other things about the misguided Prevent strategy, media portrayal of Muslims, and what it means to be a British Muslim. Mention was made of one of my favourite news stories of recent years, where the mosque in York invited the lads on the far right demo inside for tea and biscuits. How very British, everyone said (though I wonder if it’s really How very Yorkshire).

Tea

Tea, still nicer than coffee despite being a relic of imperialism

Tea may be very British but coffee is from the Yemen, apparently (the plant is originally from Ethiopia but as I understand it the drink originates in fifteenth century Yemen). OneMonkey doesn’t even like the smell of coffee let alone the taste, and I only occasionally break out the jar of (Fairtrade) instant, but we do like a bit of history, so The Muhammadan Bean: The Secret History of Islam and Coffee sounded like a treat. Abdul-Rehman Malik was a most enthusiastic and engaging speaker with a love of coffee that added sparkle to his talk. We got a sprint through fatwas, riots, sieges, the spread of coffee via medieval universities in the arabic world, and coffee houses in seventeenth century London. I love the idea of Turkish coffee houses with storytellers, musicians, chess-players, and the democratising effect of rich and poor mingling to enjoy their (apparently affordable) drink. I’m really looking forward to his BBC Radio 4 documentary (also called The Muhammadan Bean) this autumn.

dragon

Finally we went to Pennine Dragon, a talk about King Arthur and historical evidence pointing to him being Arthwys, a 6th century king based in York. OneMonkey (proud Geordie) was disappointed that he wasn’t from the north east, but slightly mollified by the idea that Avalon might be a place on Hadrian’s Wall. Simon Keegan didn’t claim to be the first to notice Arthwys, but earlier historians as he put it ‘say oh yeah there’s an Arthwys who lived at the same time as King Arthur but it can’t be him, he’s northern’. I’m not going to rise to that one, I’ve had a lovely informative weekend and it’s time to settle down with a cup of tea.

The Establishment by Owen Jones

Owen Jones is northern, a socialist, and he writes for The Guardian. I even agree with his viewpoint a fair amount of the time (both in this book and in his articles). I should have loved The Establishment, but unfortunately I didn’t – something about the way it’s put together got my back up and made me start picking his arguments apart. If it does that to a comrade (yes I am using that in a slightly tongue in cheek way), how far will it go towards persuading an adversary?

The premise of the book is that a small, influential band – the big players in the commercial world, the media, the City – bypass democracy by having a quiet word with our elected politicians so they can have things their own way, no matter what the people want. In essence there is (so the theory goes) a prevailing ‘establishment’ viewpoint and to rock the boat is to invite reprisal, from being missed off someone’s Christmas list to being hounded by an unsympathetic and less than straightforward media. In many ways reading The Establishment (subtitled ‘and how they get away with it’) was like having a concentrated dose of Private Eye (and will be familiar territory to Eye readers) but with added sensationalism that fell somewhere between That’s Life and Our Tune. For me (and maybe I’m hard-hearted) the laying-it-on-thick sentimentality of the section about one woman’s loss of a son at Hillsborough undermined the very real tragedy of that day for her and her family, as well as the important point Jones was making about the shocking behaviour of the police and media.

When it comes to the webs of power and the shadowy connections between politicians of all stripes, corporate interests and high-profile journalists there are things that should be pointed out more widely, there are definitely things to worry about, and there are things I think shouldn’t be allowed (Gordon Brown’s wife apparently being high up in a financial PR firm when he was PM and had recently been Chancellor, for instance). Some of it comes across here as a bit conspiracy theorist though: this MP was seen having dinner with a family friend who works for this big firm who would benefit from a change in the law! The scandal is not that this group of people who went to school or university together, or worked together in their first jobs, are still friends now that they’ve diversified into government, lobbying, the BBC etc (I’d be more worried if they claimed not to be) but that so many of the influential jobs in the Westminster-media bubble are filled by such a small pool of candidates from such similar backgrounds.

The book sometimes got a bit repetitive (maybe in some cases he was just trying to ram a point home) and while it’s clearly been a long time in the making, with copious research and a long programme of interviews with influential people, it felt like the end product had been thrown together in a hurry, with the same sentence appearing in two consecutive paragraphs or a sentence both beginning and ending with ‘in 1994’ for example.

Where the book is stronger is the ‘Conclusion: a democratic revolution’ chapter. This is where the author’s passion comes through in a coherent argument about why anti-establishment types need to present a proper alternative, not just rail against what’s there now. I wonder how different this (and several arguments earlier in the book) would have been if there was the slightest hint that Jeremy Corbyn might be about to become Labour leader.

In short, while I applaud the intention, this book just didn’t do it for me. I’m not saying don’t read it (I still learnt a few things from it), but I recommend that you read some Owen Jones articles from The Guardian, read some Private Eye, and if you want to know about vested interests and spin, read the marvellous novel The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey or, even better, A History of the Protestant Reformation by William Cobbett (which I’ve written about here).

The EU referendum, identity and economics

First and foremost I’m from Yorkshire then I’m British. Not English – unless someone is trying to ascertain I’m definitely not Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish – and certainly not European.

Last year when there was talk during the election campaign of an EU referendum, my position could be summarised as don’t rock the boat. It didn’t seem to be hurting anyone, the public on the whole don’t have the knowledge (or the interest) to make an informed decision, and it would probably cost a lot of money to disentangle all that bureaucracy. If the referendum was tomorrow though I’d be voting to leave. So what’s changed?

I still don’t feel like I’d be making a properly informed decision. So far it’s all been sleight of hand or scaremongering on both sides, as far as I can tell. All the arguments for staying in that I’ve heard don’t seem to need us to be in the EU – yes they probably would be the case if we stayed in but it would also be perfectly possible if we came out. Except the university funding.

I don’t usually mention the day job around here, but I work in a support role at a university. We do get EU funding, we also have a whole bunch of students from the EU who only have to pay ‘home’ rated fees and would in future presumably have to pay international rates, not to mention the staff with an uncertain future because the freedom of movement would (presumably) end. Our Vice Chancellor was one of the signatories to the Sunday Times letter saying the UK should remain in the EU, and the official position of Universities UK (the industry body, as it were) is to remain. All that weighs heavily on me. And yet…

State Aid, that’s the big one for me. It seems to be a fundamental tenet of the EU that governments should not be able to assist their country’s businesses. I was vaguely aware of this rule in terms of renationalising the railways (which I’d love to see, the sooner the better) and the inaction on our teetering steel industry. However, this week in the day job I saw some funding council advice on what might constitute state aid, and how we need to be careful about consultancy work and spin-off companies (because we get government funding but would be assisting private companies), and it brought home how all-pervasive this is. I don’t see what’s so good about free markets anyway.

Not being massively clued-up on all of this I do keep wondering if I’m misinterpreting the (sparse) things I’ve read. After all, shouldn’t Jeremy Corbyn want to leave the EU if it’s as bad for socialism as it seems. Yet all the things I’ve read from the official Labour camp so far seem to talk about not the EU that exists (perceived in the UK at least to be overly bureaucratic and corrupt, whatever the reality) but some fantasy version that we could have if only we stayed in and spoke nicely to them. And after Cameron’s Tory point-scoring opted us out of all the main facets of the EU, it’s hard to see what’s left for him to want to cling onto.

I’m willing to be persuaded to change my mind, in fact I’m actively seeking reasons to stay in (the cost of disentanglement and the reduction in EU students still worries me). Until then, much to Big Brother’s disgust and my dad’s bemusement, I’m on the side of Michael Gove. Not a phrase I ever thought I’d write.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: Postcapitalism

Paul Mason from Channel 4 News was at the festival this afternoon to talk about his new book PostCapitalism (he didn’t want to talk about ‘socialism’ because he says his ideas are not like the socialism we’re used to, yet it apparently fits in with the utopian socialist trajectory begun in the 12th century). You can imagine (if you’re at all used to me and my ramblings) that this is just the sort of thing I’d love on a Sunday afternoon. I did enjoy the hour he spent in the King’s Hall more or less lecturing on his pet topic, but I remain unconvinced. And I am, as you may already know, not all that keen on capitalism.

He talked about the sharing economy, and mentioned Wikipedia. I thought ok, people do that for fun, for free, and other people use it but it’s not a widespread model surely. Then he talked about Linux, and Apache, and how large parts of the ‘real’ (capitalist) economy rely on them, and I thought maybe he has a point. There is more to global transactions and society these days than handing over money for stuff.

He talked about the erosion of workers’ rights, and the nature of precarious living, the recent rise of the left in Europe, and the boom-bust economic cycles of the last few decades. Lots of things that left me with more questions than answers. Like how do creative types manage to feed themselves when everyone’s sharing their digital content (photos, music, films, e-books) online for free? He also talked about things like the massive bureaucratic hurdles that make it hard for credit unions and peer to peer lending to get going, meaning we all still rely on the old-fashioned banks.

I would like to read his book, it sounds like it’s full of thought-provoking material, but at 17 quid for a hardback I think I’ll go for the sharing economy approach, and wait till I can borrow it from my local library.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations

Or An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, as it seems to be called. I read this a couple of years ago (another illustration of the benefits of free out-of-copyright books for e-readers) but with all the Corbynomics kerfuffle it seemed a good time to mention it.

I read it in the spirit of Know Your Enemy, since Adam Smith seems to get blamed/credited with everything free market from Thatcher onwards that I oppose, but I was pleasantly surprised. His views were not quite what I expected, I even agreed with a fair bit of it (though some might have worked with a smaller population and a different system of banking etc but isn’t applicable today. And sometimes he seems almost naive in thinking people will do what’s fair or best for the country rather than what provides most short-term advantage to themselves).

He’s by no means a socialist but the provision of a living wage and progressive taxes seem to fall naturally out of his style of pragmatism. He doesn’t have much time for the idle rich, or greedy merchants who whisper in government ears to make sure their own interests come before those of the nation. Which I’m sure would come as a great disappointment to half the people who point to him as the foundation of their economic beliefs, but haven’t actually read this book.

What’s the moral of this tale? That Tories aren’t always as bad as you think? Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far… However, go to the original source whenever possible, that could be one lesson to learn. Like reading Corbyn’s economic policy for yourself instead of believing the doom merchants.

The Corbyn effect: when the political becomes personal

Some of the socialist and working class history books on the shelf of JY Saville

I’m feeling optimistic at the moment, generally sunny and bright and like anything is possible. These things are never simple, we all know that, but I can attribute part of it to Jeremy Corbyn (he’s not the messiah he’s a very lefty boy). Tenuous, you may say, trying to drum up a bit of blog traffic by latching on to the man of the moment, but regular readers should know I don’t have much appetite for that, and you don’t have to know me long to realise I’m a socialist (honestly I can bring politics into most conversations, appropriate or otherwise), so it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out I’d be supporting him.

It’s quite sad how refreshing it is to listen to a politician that sounds like they believe the words coming out of their mouth, and seems like they might actually have some principles they might stick to. I’m not saying politicians can never change their stance on anything, we all change our minds, maybe we’ve heard new evidence or thought about some consequence that never occurred to us before. All too often though, politicians seem like they’re swaying in the wind of public opinion. Honestly, I don’t care if you agree with me, I’d rather have a good lively debate, but you can’t do that if your heart’s not in it. I’d got a bit sick of politics, full of the same old insincere voices, wealthy and isolated in the Westminster bubble, until Mr Corbyn leapt into the leadership contest (wealth of Corbyn unknown but seemingly immaterial as it isn’t coupled with an I’m all right Jack attitude).

People are saying yes but would you want him as PM. To me that’s missing the point. It’s not that the socialists of England are only happy when they’re on the losing side, clearly winning an election and getting to put all these ideas for a fairer society into practice would be brilliant, but winning isn’t an end in itself. Pretending to be a branch of the Conservative party in order to trick a few floating voters seems pointless. Much better to be in opposition but standing up for what you and some portion of the electorate believe in. So I’m optimistic, the fifty shades of Tory politics of the last few years might be on its way out, we might get a debate on what Labour (or anyone else) stands for in the 21st century, and I might be able to vote with my conscience instead of tactically, holding my nose as I make the pencil cross. I’m fired up again (me and 50,000 other people, apparently).

While I’m feeling so good I’m getting stories finished, I’m entering writing competitions, I’m submitting to magazines more than I have in ages. If I make any money out of this sudden proliferation of work, I’ll have to send Jeremy a few quid for his leadership campaign as a thank you.

Calling Westminster, can you find The North on a map?

On my Twitter profile I summarise myself as ‘Writer. Reader. Northerner. Rocker.’ and anyone who’s been around this blog a while can testify that most of my ramblings and rantings fall into one (sometimes several) of those four categories. Today’s rant will mainly be about the north (like the one I had back in 2010 about the BBC programme about northern culture. This one involves the BBC too, tangentially); southern or overseas visitors may prefer to leave now.

Last week the Deputy PM launched a thing called TechNorth, which apparently is going to result in a ‘northern tech hub’ like the one in East London (TechCity), only incorporating Leeds, Newcastle, Sunderland, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and the Tees Valley. So far, so what? Well ordinarily I’d shrug and ignore it, but it’s not the thing itself that’s riled me so much as the way it’s been put across (and indeed, reported by the BBC). It’s a bit like those chaps down in Westminster think The North is a culturally uniform, tightly-compressed area with everything in common and no diversity of problems at all. As if Leeds isn’t already doing really quite well thank you, and The North East isn’t suffering from years of under-investment and the collapse of traditional industries that will take more than a token tech hub to put right.
Map of mainland UK

Let’s start with a brief Geography lesson (and it’s not like I know this stuff, I looked it up on a map the same way a policy wonk could). How far apart do you reckon Liverpool and Newcastle are, as the crow flies? Would you refer to a world-class tech ‘cluster’ if it included both Edinburgh and Aberdeen? Actually that may be a bad example because Scotland also seems to suffer from the undifferentiated lump syndrome in Westminster so let’s try this: how about if it included Bristol and Nottingham? To put it another way, according to the AA distance calculator Liverpool is closer to Oxford than it is to Newcastle, Sheffield is closer to Cambridge than to Sunderland, Newcastle is closer to Edinburgh than to Sheffield, and Manchester is closer to Aberystwyth than to Newcastle.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the quote on the government website claims TechNorth will be “a world-class tech cluster spanning 5 cities in the North” then mentions six northern cities and a cluster of towns (Tees Valley). The BBC goes one better and ignores Sunderland and the Tees Valley altogether, mentioning only Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle in the article I read.

OK, so it looks like they’re not sure where these places are or which ones we’re talking about, but what about comparisons to TechCity? “The government says it will spend the same amount on TechNorth as it has on Tech City” says the BBC article that admittedly I’ve just claimed isn’t perfectly accurate. However, let’s assume it got that bit right. A bit of poking around on the internet has failed to provide me with a figure, but that’s not necessarily important. TechCity is based in Shoreditch, East London (and this is where I confess that my knowledge of London is about as solid as Westminster knowledge of The North, but I’ll do my best) which I gather is part of the borough of Hackney, population c.214,000 and an area of 7.4 sq miles. If I point out that Sunderland, the least populous of the 6 cities, has a population of 276,000 can you see where this is going? They’re going to invest the same amount of money in a population of 3.74 million spread over c.940 sq miles as they did in one small part of London. This is The North, of course, and things are cheaper up here (though probably not at Harvey Nichols in Leeds) so perhaps I’m being unfair.

Grumbling quietly to myself (and OneMonkey) for a few days, it was almost as if Number Ten was listening, because before I’d finished writing the foregoing rant, our esteemed leader had taken himself off to Leeds to announce HS3. Apparently it doesn’t matter that The North is a rather large area because the government are going to connect it all up with high-speed rail and make it feel like everywhere’s practically next door. Except of course they aren’t, and I’m not sure it would be a good idea if they did. What they actually seem to be proposing is knocking a small amount of time off some of the intercity journeys, so that Manchester to Newcastle would still take longer than Leeds to London.

What no-one (except most of the people commenting on the BBC article) seems to have spotted is that in the modern world it shouldn’t be necessary to physically travel to a different city to work there. In fact from an environmental (and city overcrowding) point of view it might be good to move away from that idea. Perhaps it’s simply that the Westminster crowd can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to live and work in a city, in the same way that I just don’t get why anyone would want to live or work in London, but I know I wouldn’t be alone in rejoicing if I could be set free from commuting into a city every working day. Give us rural broadband, spend a bit of money maintaining the existing train lines and reopening a few stations that fell under the Beeching axe. The current proposals are patronising, badly thought through and have an air of ‘Crumbs! There’s an election soon – when did we last take any notice of The North?’. Such is my opinion, anyway, but as those outside the M25 might have spotted, northerners are a varied bunch.

Thomas More’s Utopia

I’ll refer to it as Thomas More’s Utopia because, despite the modern meaning of the word, it wouldn’t be for everyone. For a start, they have slavery. However, given it was written in the 16th century there’s still a lot in there to learn from, and if you replace the word ‘prince’ with ‘prime minister’ I would endorse a big chunk of his advice to anyone ruling a nation (Messrs Cameron and Osborne, please take note. Or perhaps someone could give Ed Miliband a copy).

If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s couched as a conversation taking place between More and a well-traveled man who has found through vast experience that the most contented and best-governed nation in the world is the (fictional) nation of Utopia. He then explains to More and his friend why it is that Utopia is so great, and how it differs from England or other European nations of the time. This includes its justice system, foreign policy and welfare system, parts of which are now in place, parts sound ludicrously old-fashioned, and most of it I’m sure would have been thought mad (or subversive, or both) in the 19th century, let alone the 16th.

I believe it may have been written in Latin, so possibly depends on the English edition you get hold of, but I found it surprisingly easy to read, of great historical interest, and it shone a light on the great constants of socialist thought (for Utopia is a recognisably socialist nation, for all its oddities of antiquity).

Utopia is a book I vaguely intended to read in my late teens, but put off by the idea that it might be hard to read because of its age, and potentially long and dry (it turned out to be neither), I never got round to it. Being of Yorkshire birth and ancestry, naturally the prospect of free e-books piqued my interest so when I did get my e-reader a couple of months ago, I went straight to the online repositories of out of copyright books. A combination of resurgent interest thanks to Jonathan Rose’s book (The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes), and the ease of carrying several long books at once, plus a novel for light relief, means that I’ve been reading all sorts of books I never quite got round to at nineteen, as well as ones that weren’t on my radar back then. I’ve particularly been enjoying John Ruskin lately, and for that alone I salute the rise (but never the domination) of the e-reader.

A History of the Protestant Reformation by William Cobbett

A history of the Protestant Reformation sounds like it should be dry, dull, of narrow interest, and not at all relevant today. Which is why I’d like to tell you about this book. William Cobbett is marvellous, sadly not as widely-known as he should be, and an inspiration. If he were alive now he would be blogging and tweeting every moment of the day, trying to bridge the ever-present gap between truth and the population at large. This book is written in Cobbett’s usual style, not so much conversational as like the man who corners you at a gathering and begins a lot of sentences with ‘And I’ll tell you another thing about…’; it’s certainly not formal and dusty, though he does like to cite references (primary sources if possible so you can go check for yourself) and he gets himself wound up to a pitch and repeats things sometimes (this was serialised, too, so no chance for him to change his sections around later).

The main spur for this book was the ridiculous and appalling anti-Catholic laws still existing in England in the early 19th century (some, like no Catholic or spouse of a Catholic can be the monarch, are in place even now). The point that tells you the most about Cobbett is that he and all his family were members of the Church of England, he had no personal axe to grind but he saw an injustice and he couldn’t resist bringing it to public attention, questioning it in a reasoned and logical manner, and campaigning for its end. Although the book, and the creation of the Church of England, are nominally about religion, Cobbett argues persuasively that it’s all about greed, power, corruption, and land-grabbing. Everything rides on a political agenda.

It’s the same today, which is why Cobbett’s book is still relevant. Not only did I learn some unsavoury things about the Tudors, but it made me think in a joined-up way about the things I already did know, which was part of Cobbett’s point – you don’t have to hide unpleasant truths, you just have to present them in such a way that people are unlikely to go ‘but hang on, didn’t he also do…?’ and want to dig deeper. How many contradictory things do governments say on a regular basis, and how many laws or policies are formulated ‘after careful consideration of expert evidence’ meaning ‘we read it, it didn’t fit our pre-formed ideas or political goals so we discarded it’?

If you’re not interested in religion, or you’re not British (or Irish – they came under the same heavy-handed laws at the time, of course), or you’ve never heard of William Cobbett, it doesn’t matter – you might not be familiar with all the players but the game itself may be enlightening. I would also suggest that if you enjoyed Josephine Tey’s unusual detective novel ‘The Daughter of Time’, this might appeal to you in that same spirit of painstakingly uncovering historical facts that weren’t hidden, but have just been publicly contradicted so often that ‘everyone knows’ the complete opposite.