Badly Breaking

September 26, 2014

breakingbadRecently, I was introduced to the television series “Breaking Bad”. I’m not 100% sure why this had passed me when it was originally on the air; perhaps the hype surrounding it had the effect of blunting its appeal.

Nevertheless, it is an epic programme. The anti-hero of the show, Walter White, is a chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He decides that the only way to pay his medical bills and secure his family’s financial future is to go into the business of making and selling methamphetamines. His chemistry skills ensure that his product is highly sought after; the sordid business of drug trafficking leads Walter to make ever worsening choices, turning him from a good (if somewhat dull) and mild mannered man into a master criminal. It is a morality tale which suggests that we become either good or evil not necessarily because we are born a particular way, but because of the choices we make.

However, it is worth re-examining the pivot of the story: Walter needs money to stay alive and provide for his family. He only finds out how ill he is, despite suffering from a persistent cough, after he collapses at his second job at a car wash.  He’s whisked away in an ambulance to a nearby hospital: yet, he is so concerned about the cost that he asks the medic to drop him off at a street corner despite the fact that he is semi-delirious and can hardly breathe. Walter’s wife later arranges for him to see a specialist, she pays for the exorbitant initial consultation with a credit card; later, the cost of his treatment is estimated at $90,000, and as this is not covered by his dismal insurance policy, he is left to foot the bill. There is no indication of compassion on the part of the doctor, rather, the choice presented is “pay up or die”. This is the logic of a racketeer, not a physician.

In short, it is money which is the distorting factor in this story. It is money, and the lack thereof, that warps Walter’s values to the point he transforms from a person whose main purpose in life was being an educator into one whose trade is chemically induced misery and early death. He feels compelled to make a choice between himself (and his own) and the nameless consumers of his product. He has decided that the good of his community can go hang, he needs the cash.

Breaking Bad UKA cartoon which appeared on Buzzfeed brought home how easily a different set of policies could have easily changed the outcome of Breaking Bad’s story: it was entitled “Breaking Bad Anywhere But US Edition”. An alternate Walter is given the same diagnosis and expresses his fears that his family will be bankrupted. The doctor tells him not to be ridiculous, that the bills will be paid by the government as he is a citizen and a taxpayer. The alternate Walter expresses relief and decides to return to teaching chemistry.

It is a pity that many governments, including Britain’s, fail to see the point: if everything in life becomes a cash transaction, then money may become more important than the society it intends to serve. At the moment, we are seeing creeping privatisation of the National Health Service. Private companies are invited to bid for contracts to provide many public services, the most notorious of which is Atos, whose task has been to try and squeeze people out of their disability benefit. This has reached absurd lengths, including a blind woman being asked how many fingers the assessor was holding up. It’s clear that the consideration of Atos’ bottom line was more important to the assessor than actually treating the person in front of him as someone with a genuine disability.

Money has also been deemed more important than public safety. It was recently announced that Humberside Police is to cut 700 jobs, 200 of which are officers, in order to save £31 million. The new shift patterns which are likely to take hold may lead to additional sickness and fatigue among police officers, thereby less effective law enforcement.

The situation has gotten so dire that they stir the memories of those who remember when there was no welfare state or public health care system. Harry Leslie Smith, a 91 year old activist, warned the Labour Party conference that there was a danger that our “future will be my past”: and his past was one in which cancer patients screamed in pain because they couldn’t afford morphine, and his sister died in agony at the age of 10 due to tuberculosis because Harry’s parents couldn’t afford medical treatment.

"My childhood was not an episode from Downton Abbey"

Back then, a time which Harry referred to as “uncivilised”, money held the same totemic force that it does now. All of life’s ambitions, all that one could hope or dream, was dependent upon lucre’s acquisition and preservation.

Earlier this year, I was part of a Labour Doorstep event, in which myself and another activist went from house to house along a suburban Bradford street and asked voters what their concerns were. One elderly lady, clearly infirm but nevertheless residing in a reasonably comfortable home, told us of her fears about the NHS. She expressed disgust with the government, stating that “they think money is what life is all about”. We agreed with her. What is more, in retrospect, focusing solely on money is self-defeating. The cuts in Humberside’s police force may push crime up, and that has a cost to the exchequer and the large insurance companies he favours. The Atos assessments which are incorrect will need to be re-administered and revised, and that has a cost too. In the fictional universe of Breaking Bad, the cost to the state of cleaning up after those left damaged or dead by Walter White’s methamphetamines is also high, likely much higher than actually treating the man. But as it is with love, excessive pursuit of a thing can cause it to flee from you.

We should remember that money is supposed to be a tool, a medium of exchange that takes away the necessity of barter. It is not to be racked up like points in a video game, nor is it intended to be used as a means of domination against those who are weaker or less capable. Such a perspective leads back to Harry Smith’s barbaric world of the 1930’s in which cancer patients’ cries echoed down the streets lined with impoverished tenements, and those without means were dumped into anonymous paupers’ graves after death. Justice in this kind of environment is merely the good of the strong, and we are one financial catastrophe away from total catastrophe. Such a situation is not just breaking bad, but badly broken: leaving us fearful of the Walter Whites, the Atos assessor, the privatised company that will cut costs and potentially service in the name of the bottom line. Fortunately, we still have time to choose another path; fortunately, we can select a good society as easily as we can place a cross in a box at the next election. We can abandon a fetish, for that is what the love of money alone surely is, and choose a better life.

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Stroke Ward

September 22, 2014

NHS WardThese people were young once. They had homes, jobs, families, arguments, dates on Friday nights and sleepy Saturdays that followed. They combed their hair that was once a colour besides grey, they watched television, they drove too fast, they drank too much, they washed their cars and did the shopping. Time seemed to be on their side, but time is also cruel: body parts wear out, the eyes dim, the lungs don’t suck in air as readily as they once did, and blood vessels harden. If one is unlucky, then parts of the brain will be attacked by a shadow enemy, leaving a patch of the mind shrouded in darkness either from a rush of blood or a lack of it. That which makes us human: our thoughts, our dreams, our perceptions are all under assault from a stroke. The wreckage washes up onto the Stroke Ward, where nurses, doctors, support staff and therapists are all lost in lightly masked perplexity as they try to reassemble the pieces.

The stroke ward I’ve been visiting is not in a particularly attractive hospital. An acquaintance of mine wanted a black marker to write under he plaque commemorating its opening by the Queen Mother that it hadn’t been updated since. The furniture is rough and ready, covered in cheap light brown veneer, and the apparatuses around the beds seem dated. A plastic container with a tube of unknown purpose looks like it has been hanging there since the 1950’s. The curtains around the beds belong in the windows of a Seventies bungalow. The paint on the walls is in that territory between cream and faded yellow, and the green linoleum floors have a gloss that has been acquired from many years of polishing and re-polishing. One rare nod to modernity is a combination phone and television for which one has to pay in order to watch anything, despite most of the patients having paid both taxes and license fees for most of their lives. Never mind: the LCD screen of the mini-televisions flicker annoyingly, so no one uses them. There is a vague scent of rubbing alcohol and bland hospital meals in the air.

As the evening comes in, the visitors begin to flow out, and there is merely the beep of a the occasional heart monitor which suggests all is well. The patients themselves are mostly silent, in some cases curled up in the foetal position. They were young once, and to the original position in which they entered life, they return.

Patients don’t often speak to each other. However, I saw one woman wearing thick glasses and dressed in a magenta top turn to another who seemed impossibly frail with deep set blue eyes and bony limbs and say reassuringly, “you’re getting better, darling”. They then talked about sleep: sleep and rest are the great healers in the Stroke Ward. Yet if a patient was to be hit by a stroke right then, it’s not at all clear that a doctor’s healing hand could stop it. Perhaps he or she could limit the damage, but no doubt harm would be done.

At the end of visiting hours, a matron shouts out “Time please!” as if she was taking last orders at a bar. She’s not the head matron: a poster on the wall indicates what the various uniforms mean. A head matron wears a blouse of black with orange piping; nurses wear dark blue, assistants wear brighter shades. The matron in this case is stuck on indigo.

“Time please!” she shouts again when visitors fail to leave. An older man in a white shirt and dark trousers kisses his wife goodbye and folds his gnarled hand tenderly around hers, their grandchildren dressed in jeans shorts and florescent tank tops depart. She looks longingly after them as they leave. The shadows lengthen, the golden sunlight which has been streaming through the window turns orange, and then starts to fade. A few patients are already asleep. Sleep and rest, yes. Perhaps lost abilities, like being able to stand or open an eyelid, will be within the gift of Morpheus. If not, the physiotherapist will return in the morning to challenge them to grasp the Zimmer frame and hobble slowly down the old green linoleum lined hall towards the nurses station surrounded by trays full of black binders full of patient cases. Old muscles will try to respond to the brain’s commands and desires: they were young once, surely enough of that spark remains to resume their lives for however long they have left.

As the nurses and staff continue to busy themselves, it’s clear there are Eastern European, Filipino and London accents all removed far from home. A nurse with a strong Polish accent visits patients one by one and calls each of them “My darling”. She asks if they are comfortable. Pillows are adjusted. Then the day shift changes in a locker room back into their civvies after handing over to their nighttime counterparts. A junior doctor looks like she hasn’t slept in 48 hours, her eyes are filled with weariness as well as compassion: whatever makeup she wore at the start of her shift has faded away, slight and honest blemishes are apparent, a thin layer of hair covers her upper lip, the stethoscope remains tied around her neck like a talisman yet it also looks as if it’s ready to strangle her. But her evident fatigue doesn’t matter: she downs a coffee and continues to grapple with the shadow enemy, the disease which can hit the memory, the reflexes, the balance, the face. But in the end all she or the nurses can do is wait, administer medicine and painkillers, write reports, and keep a steady watch.

In the day room there are stacked up chairs in leaning towers and racks full of pamphlets from the Stroke Association for both patients and carers, trying to wrap up trauma in a package of reassurance. There are too many posters hanging in the day room which read “If it matters to you, it matters to us”. This contrasts with the hard edge in the voices of some of the staff. The razor of frustration cuts through the veneer of service: sometimes there are just too many questions, too many demands, too many doctors whose natural urge is to pass out in a chair in a day room and recall what it was like to be a vibrant undergraduate who could go out to the pub on occasion and becoming a doctor seemed to be a prospect without downsides.  “Time please!” may be just as much a plea as well as a command.

Celebrity Masterchef is on the television but no one is watching the obscure luminaries make a mess of a prawn cocktail, not least by trying to fry shellfish in vinegar rather than oil; rather, a black wheelchair with one female patient is set facing the window. She is dressed in pale nightgown, has white hair and is perched up on her elbows on the arms of the wheelchair. Perhaps her positioning in the room is thoughtless: all one can see from her vantage point is another wing of the hospital which is clad in brown plaster. Perhaps it was merely so the patient could feel the remaining rays of the sun on her face, presumably a joy for someone who is mainly confined within the rabbit warren of the ward.

One by one the last wakeful patients get ready to sleep, the final few stubborn visitors depart after saying “I love you” once again, white cotton pyjamas are donned, eyes shut. To sleep, perchance to dream and to heal. Maybe tomorrow, maybe it will be time to liberate oneself for the strange tang of the hospital food, the stringent regulations of visiting hours, the indignity of needing help to go to the bathroom. Perhaps one can go home to family and friends and a familiar bed and no longer have one’s nose pressed up against the facts that they’re no longer young and all that they were has just been under threat. In dreams, maybe they are still young, driving a polished blue Morris Minor down a country road which passes by Whitehaven and its dramatically inclined view of the sea, and picnics are consumed in green meadows as the summer sun comes streaming down. Maybe tomorrow, the distance between dreams of the past and the living now will be less.

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Saying Yes

September 17, 2014

Black Union FlagI can imagine what the remainder of the United Kingdom would be like without Scotland. Once the divorce became final, no doubt the country would be sombre, an emotional state brought about by the departure of a certainty. I suspect that an updated Union Flag would reflect the prevailing melancholy: the simplest change would be to replace the royal blue of the Saltire with the black of Wales’ St. David’s flag. This revised banner, however, would look like the drapery for a funeral when it is deployed on occasions of national importance. Good taste would dictate that “Rule Britannia” could be never sung again at the Last Night of the Proms: perhaps it will be replaced by a tearful rendition of “Jerusalem”. No doubt there would be some clamour among expatriate Scots for access to channels from the new Scottish Broadcasting Service so they could sing along to “Flower of Scotland” at their own Prom. When the UK Prime Minister goes to Brussels or Geneva for summits, he or she may be a diminished figure: I can imagine the shifty glances exchanged once their Scottish counterpart arrives on the scene. It may very well be that in a fit of pique, the remainder of the UK will decide to leave the European Union. The bustle and colour brought in by European immigrants to cities like London and Manchester will soften and fade. It would be a quieter country, to be sure.

North of the border, it won’t be an endless festival either. I fear that the Scottish National Party has been wildly optimistic in many of its predictions: first, the timetable for divorce is much too aggressive. It took the Czechs and Slovaks three years to split Czechoslovakia in twain, the idea that Scotland could be out by 2016 is probably laughable. Given the constraints imposed by having a currency union, the most likely monetary outcome will be a separate Scottish pound whose value is pegged either to Sterling or to the Euro. It may very well be that Scotland’s negotiations to enter the European Union will be messy: Europe is full of separatist tendencies, such as the Flemish nationalists in Belgium, the Northern League in Italy, and perhaps most pertinently, the Catalan independence movement in Spain. Spain, Italy and Belgium thus have no incentive to make it easy for Scotland to enter the EU, lest it provide an example to their restive factions. Meanwhile, uncertainty and turmoil may eat away at Scotland’s economy; furthermore, if America begins to export the oil and gas it extracts via fracking, the value of North Sea oil could fall, thus punching a hole in Scotland’s budget.

All of what I’ve described is pessimistic, but is entirely possible; it’s not often that a newly independent nation gets to bathe in the golden sunlight of good fortune. The United States initially suffered from endemic crises, brought about by the inadequate Articles of Confederation. Ghana’s promising start was tripped up by economic mismanagement and a coup d’etat. I recall visiting the newly independent Slovakia after the “Velvet Divorce” and it seemed shellshocked: for years after the split its politics were dominated by a thoroughly unwholesome demagogue named Vladimir Meciar, whose favourite scapegoats for his country’s plight were the Hungarians and the Roma. The streets of Bratislava, even on a summer’s day, seemed like they were lingering in the aftermath of a trauma. What Slovakia needed was time, a robust set of policies, and engagement with the European Union: now Slovakia is by and large a success story (indeed, Meciar’s party failed to enter parliament in the 2010 election), and its future seems relatively bright. No doubt it would be the same for Scotland: after a period of shock, there would be an adjustment, and the country would move on. The Scottish National Party hasn’t said this, rather, they’ve suggested that independence is a magic formula for economic renewal: separation may indeed lead to this rebirth, but the medicine is quite bitter and unlikely to be fast-acting.

Having said all this, is the pain worth it? In my opinion, yes: worthwhile change is often wrenching and sometimes requires a wholesale break with the past.

It’s clear that the present order is not sustainable. Citizens participate in elections, yet the governments they elect continue to harm them. This situation is particularly acute in Scotland; a few days ago, I saw a film which showed the operation of a Scottish food bank. Malnourishment is rife, indeed, the individual running the food bank described how one woman was so ravenous that she started taking cans of beans off the shelf, opening them and eating their cold contents.

Inside Maryhill Food Bank – Yes Scotland

Such a situation in a wealthy country, and particularly one in which substantial banker bonuses continue to be paid, inspires disgust and despair: it also speaks of the failure of a political system to cater to its constituents. Scotland used to return upwards of 20 Conservative MPs to Westminster (in 1931, it elected 50): in the last election it sent only one. Yet Scotland is mainly run by a Tory-led government which continues to inflict privation and misery via policies such as the “Bedroom Tax”.

Under these circumstances, a break is not only justifiable, it is required. We should be thankful that this rupture is occurring within the context of a referendum, not via violence on the streets. Perhaps just such a dramatic divorce will force the Establishment in the remainder of the UK, which has hitherto been deaf to the cry of the destitute, to confront the threadbare reality of their constituents’ lives and to do something about improving matters, lest further eruptions are provoked. Certainly, Scotland’s departure will at least provide a salubrious jolt to the powers that be: they will be reminded that if the electorate ever got truly fed up with them, they could be swept away in the blink of an eye.

Once Scotland gets beyond the pain of separation, it has reason to hope, although continued reliance on oil and gas is probably not sensible given how these commodities fluctuate in value and will eventually run out. However, there is plenty of potential for expanding the use of renewable forms of energy such as wind and tidal power. Scots are among the best educated people in Europe, with a reputation for excellence in science and engineering: these talents should be further encouraged by policies which promote entrepreneurship. Once out of London’s orbit, there is no need for the country to metaphorically tilt as it does, drawing talent towards the south of England. Rather, skilled people could be incentivised to gravitate towards Edinburgh or Glasgow.  Already there is reason to believe, as evidenced by the excellent Scottish Review of Books, that a new flowering of Scottish culture is on its way.  Yes, change will hurt: there will be years of uncertainty, mistakes will be made, no government is run by clairvoyant geniuses, perhaps there will even be a full blown economic slowdown. There may even be moments of deep doubt.  But as the United States, Ghana and Slovakia have shown, liberty is worth it: paternalistic elites are shown the door, and those who are most likely to be concerned with the fate of the nation are granted the task of guiding it. Yes, those of us who live south of the border will look at the black in a revised union flag and see a void: but necessity created this vacuum, for it is necessity that seems to be saying “Yes”.

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Review: “Blithe Spirit” by Noël Coward, starring Angela Lansbury and Charles Edwards

May 25, 2014

Blithe Spirit ProgrammeIt’s difficult for me to say when I first became aware of Angela Lansbury. Perhaps it was due the Disney film “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” in which she played the trainee witch Eglantine Price. It may have been when I saw her on television in the long running series “Murder She Wrote”. She certainly caught my attention as Raymond Shaw’s domineering mother in the 1962 film, “The Manchurian Candidate”: her speech about making “Martial Law seem like anarchy” chilled me to the bone. On the other hand, I was captivated by her luminescent beauty when she portrayed Princess Gwendolyn in Danny Kaye’s 1956 comedy, “The Court Jester”. All told, she has been a constant on my television screen and in the cinema; any film or programme that featured her was indicative of quality.

She is now 88 years old. However, if anyone thought that the years she’s accrued would deter her from continuing to captivate audiences, they are mistaken. She is now on stage in a new version of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” and it’s obvious from the get-go that her powers remain undiminished.

I was fortunate to have a very good vantage point for all the action: I sat in the front row. I believe this was the first time I’ve ever had such a close up view of the actors. From that angle, one can see the greasepaint and little flickers of emotion playing out across the protagonists’ faces. In a lesser production, this could shatter the illusion; in this instance, proximity enhanced it.

“Blithe Spirit” is the tale of a middle-aged novelist named Charles Condomine (played by veteran actor Charles Edwards) who is living quietly with his somewhat prim and regimented wife Ruth (portrayed by Janie Dee) in a small village in Kent. Charles and Ruth have a comfortable relationship, seemingly devoted though devoid of passion; they have seen and experienced enough of life to realise that it’s sufficient to have a partner that is not constantly irritating and upon which one can rely.

Seven years prior to the events in the play, Charles was married to a much more physically accommodating and vivacious, if less reliable, woman named Elvira. Elvira died after a bout of pneumonia, apparently from a fit of laughter while listening to a comedy programme on the radio.

Charles wants to write a murder mystery with a medium as a main character; as part of his research he invites the eccentric Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury) to dinner and encourages her to perform a séance. Ms. Lansbury fills the stage the moment she steps onto it: I found that my gaze was solely fixed on what she was doing, and I was hanging off every word she said. She found the right pitch and timbre for her odd, wise yet endearing character which made her three dimensional as opposed to a cardboard cut out. A lack of depth and interiority can be a temptation in “drawing room comedies”, some of which are more about the delivery of witticisms than the development of characters and plot. Ms. Lansbury also displayed her continuing talent for physical comedy: as part of going into a trance, she moved about the stage, waved her arms and did high kicks worthy of a Monty Python sketch.

Madame Arcati’s gyrations, incantations and table tapping yield a terrible mistake: they summon the ghost of Elvira (played with sultry panache by Jemima Rooper) to come back into Charles’ life.

Charles EdwardsIt’s at this moment that the character of Charles comes into his own: he presents the dilemma of a man who essentially has two wives, one living and one passed on, possessing contrasting virtues, both present at the same time and both wanting him to themselves. He intimates that he feels terribly guilty about the death of one wife, and yet he says he doesn’t want to be unkind to the one who is alive. That said, the play is sufficiently honest to show a moment in which Charles makes it clear that he would like both wives to be around, engaging him in a sort of cosmic ménage a trois. Charles is also insufferably vain throughout: it’s unclear if his concern for either wife stems from actual love, his desire to maintain his self-image or just to stop being nagged. The play suggests it’s a combination of all of the above, with love being the lesser ingredient in the mix.

Charles as the play’s locus is one of its few features which truly date it. “Blithe Spirit” was first performed in 1941 and thus some of its sexual politics are archaic; nevertheless, there is a gleam of awareness that radiates from the dialogue. For all his self-love and his wives’ supposed love for him, Charles is a relentlessly hapless character, and whatever he attempts to mollify one wife only serves to irritate the other; Charles Edwards expertly captures this wretched bewilderment, vanity and self-delusion in his performance.

The other characters are just as well drawn and portrayed: Ruth may be stern and unyielding but she is not a stereotypical harridan, rather, she is someone who has had to learn to stand up for herself after being mistreated far too often. Elvira at first appears to be a male fantasy, an eternally youthful and voluptuous sexual partner, but this façade eventually drops as she’s revealed to have ambitions, schemes and inconsistencies. The relations between men and women are shown to be a battle, unequal because of the times in which they live, constantly churning and only bearable because of the laughter that can be had through tears and the cosseting provided by bourgeois comforts.

This potent elixir is delivered via Noël Coward’s skilful writing, his humour providing the sweetener that makes the bitter medicine palatable. I laughed quite a lot during the performance, I thought about what the play was really trying to say only afterwards. While it was on, it was a raucous romp, but long after the last bow was taken, it moved me.

Some may say that this interpretation reads too much into Coward’s work: however, it must be noted that the play doesn’t come with a stereotypically happy ending. Rather, all the characters are sent back into their corners, alone, whether in this life or the next. Love does not triumph, neither does virtue; it’s doubtful either exists in this play. Rather, there is a brief, misogynistic paean to personal liberty, a hasty exit, and the curtain falls.

I have heard rumours that this will be Ms. Lansbury’s last outing on stage; after this, the fine thread she has woven through our culture may finally taper out. It could be said that “Blithe Spirit” is also about saying “farewell” and the realisation that a conclusion inevitably comes to any state of affairs. Given this, perhaps she could not have chosen a better work with which to exit.

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A Triumph of Youth

May 24, 2014

Vote 2014 MontageI often find myself in London the day after a major British election. I was here when it was confirmed that Boris Johnson had been re-elected as Mayor; it was as if some hidden force was compelling me to press my nose up against that spectacle. At just about the time that the result was announced, I walked past a storm grate from which a powerful stench arose: it seemed as if the city itself was suffering from terrible flatulence. When Tony Blair triumphed in 1997, I was staying at my parents’ London home: it was a summer’s day brought forward to May, and the sun was so radiant that the blue sky had turned almost white. I remained glued to my television set throughout the day as Blair proceeded to Buckingham Palace and then on to cheering crowds at Downing Street. Now that the 2014 local election has concluded, perhaps strangely, I am here again.

Whenever I arrive in London, I’m struck by the tremendous contrast it provides to other parts of the country. Bradford was once a very rich city: the Victorian homes in Manningham made of alabaster stone tell the tale, as does the resplendent St. George’s Hall in the centre of town, which resembles a Roman temple. Wool made the city fabulously wealthy, but then the textile industry disappeared; what remains are monuments to those boom times. The alabaster terraces in Manningham are now homes to immigrants from Mirpur and other parts of Pakistan who live a stone’s throw from a fast food establishment selling fried chicken. There have been worse times and better times since the term “Bradford industrialist” passed out of common currency, and there are signs of life in the city still, but nothing like the city’s original prosperity has returned as of yet.

London, on the other hand, is currently in the midst of a boom: this is not just evident in the numbers of people queuing to buy overpriced latte in Starbucks at Kings Cross, it was obvious in the cafés full to overflowing near Covent Garden, the little boutiques filled with irrelevant bric-a-brac that were making smartly-dressed professionals reach for their credit cards, the young people hanging off the base of the plinth at Trafalgar Square, smiling for selfies taken by the latest 4G phones to be posted on Twitter with the hashtag #bankholidayweekend. Pass by and roll on to neatly pressed streets; prior to coming down to London, I’d seen a Bradford Moor laundrette entitled “Clean Scene”, the windows were clouded with steam and the white paint on the establishment’s sign was peeling. In London, I passed by the “Celebrity Dry Cleaners”, its obsidian sign was lit with neon. Some people in dark suits, others in bright blue or purple or white tailored shirts stood outside of pubs, smoking and drinking pints of ale. I arrived at one place that not only served a range of foreign lagers, but also fine wines, gourmet cooking and Cuban cigars. No doubt the young woman in a black and yellow dress in that establishment who was chatting earnestly with a middle aged man with sandy hair who was trying to balance a conversation on one hand and glance at his Blackberry in the other felt their conversation was important. Perhaps it was: but it was a scene so full of lucre it seemed untouched by politics.

After finding a more modest pub for dinner, I thought a bit more about the election. All told, it had been a great result for the Bradford Labour Party: Councillor Mohammed Shafiq of Bradford Moor was returned to office, though by a tiny margin of 56 votes. Rizwana Jamil took the previously Tory held ward of Bowling and Barkerend by a massive 1669 votes, securing 56% of the total. And Naveeda Ikram, who in addition to being councillor for Little Horton, also was Britain’s first female Muslim mayor, romped home with 76% of the vote. Overall, Labour managed to regain control of the council.

There were other reasons to be happy with Bradford’s result: the Respect Party, or as it’s known these days, Respect (George Galloway), didn’t pick up a single seat. The UK Independence Party, far from accruing massive gains everywhere as was suggested by its acolytes at the BBC, was confined to Keighley West.

These results contained some disappointments. For example, I was very impressed by Labour’s candidate for Bolton and Undercliffe, Frank Dignan. He’s a barrister, well spoken and very articulate. Unfortunately his voice won’t be heard on the council this time around. In my own ward, Labour was also unsuccessful. Also, I don’t like that UKIP have any foothold whatsoever. Nevertheless, the “UKIP surge” simply didn’t happen: yes, there were some wards in Bradford where they came second, but there were also many in which they didn’t compete at all. All they have now is that one individual who will probably approach Bradford City Hall and find he has no allies in the chamber; he may even have problems figuring out where to hang his hat. No doubt his interventions will be few, his voice, largely ignored. It will be a long, possibly embittering term in office.

The HamiltonsPerhaps, however, he doesn’t qualify for the moniker of the “saddest” member of UKIP; that may be Neil Hamilton. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Hamilton, he along with his wife Christine, is more a reality television personality than an actual politician. The couple were infamous for providing documentary maker Louis Theroux with one of the weirdest of his “Weird Weekends” in which Christine made her unseemly attraction to Mr. Theroux quite plain. More seriously, the Hamiltons were implicated in a Cash for Questions scandal prior to the 1997 election. At that point, anti-corruption campaigner Martin Bell arrived wearing his white suit, and rather like a latter day Gandalf, drew the poison of the corrupt couple out of their Tatton constituency. Nevertheless, the Hamiltons were unable to take the hint that a period of prolonged if not eternal silence would be apropos. They left the Tories, joined UKIP and subsequently thrust themselves back into the limelight. Hamilton just tried to win a council seat in Wandsworth; he only accrued 396 votes, which presumably were from people who had never heard of him. He appeared on Channel Four News after this resounding defeat and spoke of the environment in London being challenging as so many of its denizens had been born elsewhere. The word “cosmopolitan” was also thrown into the mix. This impolitic outburst followed similarly simultaneously flattering yet denigrating comments by Suzanne Evans, a UKIP spokesperson, who said that her party had problems gaining support from the “educated, cultural and young.”

Bradford and London are very different in terms of wealth, both are united by being “young places”. Bradford’s demographic profile makes it one of the most youthful places in the country, London is a place to which the young gravitate and which engenders a youthful, open outlook. The comprehensive rejection of UKIP by youth in both areas indicates that it hasn’t much of a future. Its insular, backward looking philosophy doesn’t fit with the Bradford denizen whose parents came from Mirpur or Bratislava; it doesn’t sit well with the owner of the Celebrity Dry Cleaners who probably has to navigate every sort of accent and language in order to find out whether he ought to apply starch or not. It doesn’t make sense in a world that is ever more driven by interconnected technology and international trade to pull up the drawbridge and tell everyone to go away.

I lingered in the pub for a time last night and drank a pint of golden ale. As I sipped it, I noticed that from the polished wood beams above me hung flags of many nations in preparation for the World Cup. The flags of Bosnia, Italy, Nigeria, Greece, Ghana, Croatia, Japan, to name but a few, were there. Beneath, young people of varying ethnicities, accents and professions were talking and flirting and glancing at mobile phones and sipping on pints of lager, glasses of wine and bottles of mineral water. I had been feeling the past week’s labours and the difficulties of the day’s travel catch up with me; this scene was invigorating. I reflected: far from being an outlier in being “educated, cultural and young”, perhaps such scenes are indicative of where Britain is going. Perhaps far from a surge, what we’re witnessing from UKIP is one last great howl of reaction before modern, diverse Britain finally triumphs.

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Switched On

May 19, 2014

naveedashirtSigns of the imminent election can be seen throughout Bradford: a drive down Upper Rushton Road provides ample evidence of support for Labour’s Councillor Mohammed Shafiq. A few diamond shaped orange Liberal Democrat signs are present along Harrogate Road. Yesterday, I drove through Toller ward and was almost overwhelmed by the number of red banners featuring the visage of Councillor Imran Hussain. In Manningham, a small lorry slowly carried along a massive red, green and white sign advertising the Respect Party, which has apparently been renamed “Respect (George Galloway)” in order to remind people whose party it is. In Little Horton, t-shirts favouring Labour Councillor Naveeda Ikram are all the rage.

At home, leaflets from every political grouping imaginable have been shoved through my letterbox, including one from an obscure anti-EU and avowedly xenophobic group of which I had never heard. I performed an experiment with a UKIP leaflet by placing it in one of the cats’ litter trays; they subsequently avoided it, presumably because they thought it was already full.

Feline diffidence aside, this election is crucial for Bradford: at the moment, no party has overall control of the city council. While there are more Labour councillors than any other grouping, this state of affairs makes running the city more tricky than perhaps it should be. Nevertheless, the Westfield Bradford shopping complex is presently being built; the much maligned “Hole” has been filled with a large construction site. On a bright Spring Sunday afternoon, the City Park, also completed by the current council, is a pleasant place where families gather and wade in its vast pool. Should Labour win a majority, there should be more to come; perhaps the council will build upon the emergence of locally-designed products such as the NFC Ring, and bolster the city’s reputation for creating wearable technology.

That said, elections are often unsatisfying spectacles from a technologist’s point of view. A lot of lip service is paid to the digital economy and many politicians are avid users of social media, but a true understanding of modern technology’s potential and pitfalls is not widespread. Furthermore, there have been a lot of false dawns and unfulfilled promises: for example, David Cameron visited Bradford some time ago and pledged super-fast broadband for the city. This has only been partially delivered, and what we do have is due to Virgin Media and the city’s existing cable television infrastructure. The rollout of its rival, BT Infinity, has been botched: many exchanges are fibre enabled, but in order for residents to take advantage of it, work needs to be done at the various junctions. This is by no means uniform: far too few green boxes have the bright sticker saying that it has been set up. The result is a crazy quilt of services, not truly prevalent super-fast availability with proper competition to hold down prices.

Our current national government is not just clueless about broadband on a local level. They also don’t understand that a national plan for faster broadband is necessary to compete in the “global race” which has been so prevalent in Tory rhetoric. South Korea, for example, has started rolling out 1 Gbps broadband throughout their country. Google Fiber is delivering 1 Gbps speeds in Kansas City, and will soon be bringing the same to Austin, Texas and Provo, Utah. Google and South Korea both understand that it’s not possible to have a digital economy without a proper digital infrastructure. In contrast, Britain’s Conservative-led government hasn’t actively courted Google to get them to extend their Fiber service to Britain’s cities; it would be a great boon to otherwise economically struggling towns in the North. Furthermore, considering the taxes that Google should be paying to the Exchequer, it’s the least they could do. Instead, the present government would rather spend £43 billion on new high speed rail services. While high speed rail is often impressive, and is widely perceived as the latest fashion accessory of a modern country, it doesn’t pass the test of a cost-benefit analysis. The current plans for high speed rail are London-centric: they will not extend to places like Wales and Cornwall, which are some of the most deprived regions in Europe. Indeed, by improving the links to London, this may not act as an incentive for businesses to relocate elsewhere, but rather, may cause more economic activity to tip towards the capital.

Admittedly, a national scheme to roll out 1 Gbps broadband would not be cheap; the nearest comparison we have is the National Broadband Network project which was proposed by Australia’s last Labor government. In order to provide high speed broadband to all, it was estimated that the cost would be in the region of £17 billion. Assuming that Australia’s complex geography and vast size incur exceptional costs, it is likely that it would be far cheaper to roll out a similar scheme in Britain; even if inevitable overruns meant that it cost the same or even more than Australia’s plan, it would still be far cheaper than high speed rail, and furthermore, it would be an improvement that reached every corner of the country.

Having said all this, no major political party in Britain has made broadband an issue in the same way that Australia’s Labor Party did in the 2010 election. Nor has any major political party addressed the major economic changes and challenges which are on their way due to new technology.

raspberrypiWhen the Raspberry Pi single board computer was introduced, it was perceived as a product which would revolutionise technology education. It was thought that a cheap, accessible computer would make it much easier for children to learn how to code. This is true, but the Raspberry Pi, a British invention, has had far greater significance than perhaps was originally intended. This past February, I attended a trade show; I was informed by a gentleman who worked for one of Europe’s most prestigious and stolid passport agencies that they used the Raspberry Pi to develop prototype printing machines. At around the same time, I was told by one of my most forward-thinking technology partners that they believed that future of innovation lay with individual inventors and groups of like-minded inventors (henceforth called hackerspaces) using tools like the Raspberry Pi. This partner also imparted that a lot of companies suffer from an innovation gap: namely, when a scientist in a large firm has a great idea, often this is stopped at the point when the boffin is asked for the potential return on investment. A boffin being a boffin, this is often a puzzling question, as to him or her innovation for its own sake is worth having; furthermore, many boffins simply cannot calculate the return on investment for a particular innovation as it may be unknowable. Indeed, a truly bold innovator will often fly in the face of conventional wisdom. For example, prior to the release of the iPad, Steve Jobs was told that tablet computers were a waste of time. After all, Apple had failed to make money on a previous effort, the Newton. Microsoft had also tried to develop tablet computers and suffered disastrous results. Nevertheless, Jobs believed the innovation proffered by the iPad was worth having as it would revolutionise the market: he was right. But Jobs was a one-off: innovation often remains stunted in corporate silos which are desperately trying not to offend conservatively-minded shareholders.

However, as the Raspberry Pi makes it cheaper for larger concerns (like a passport agency) to innovate, it also makes it easier for individuals and hackerspaces to create inventions which could make their way into mass production. Individuals and hackerspaces can be commissioned to innovate, thus leaping over the current innovation gap. This economic change is empowering: it means that there will be vast networks of craftspeople throughout the world who operate in symbiosis with large firms to deliver the latest and greatest products. This is not a revolution confined solely to the field of electronics engineering, Levi’s is also utilising this model to create new clothes. That said, the current government doesn’t appear to understand or appreciate this enormous change in innovation, development and production. Thanks to the present government, the craftspeople are going to find it much more financially onerous to access higher education at a time when it should be made ever easier to obtain. On a more basic level, the national curriculum as proposed by Michael Gove hasn’t adapted to this changed environment; most children do not receive a Raspberry Pi along with their textbooks. The current government has also not commissioned a new series of standard contracts like the Lambert agreements in order to facilitate contract negotiations between the craftspeople and larger firms. Tax policy is also not geared towards this paradigm shift; it should be. Additionally, the significant breakthroughs in science created by British universities such as graphene are not supported properly. In the case of graphene, China has over 2000 patents utilising this ground-breaking material, the United States, in excess of 1700: Britain only has 50. As these examples illustrate, the government should be there as a partner and facilitator; however, the prevalent ideology of the current regime states that all one needs to do is abscond from the marketplace and all will be well. This ideology is buttressed by hypocrisy: the Tory-led government has actively intervened in the housing market, creating the sugar-rush sensation of prosperity caused by a house-price bubble.

The 2014 campaign has not been animated by such long-term issues: the appalling, yet colourful bigotry of UKIP candidates throughout the land has obscured the intellectual poverty of the current Conservative-led government. Their sole idea is to continue to privatise instead of build. This propensity has been taken to absurd lengths; Michael Gove’s Department of Education has proposed privatising child protection services, which would instantly change their mission statement from the simple, wholesome purpose of helping children to making money for shareholders. The Tories’ Liberal Democrat partners would like us to focus on the tax breaks they secured for the lower paid, though their backing of higher tuition fees has laid a bear trap for the innovation economy we need. This is not to say Labour is perfect: it has its share of technophobes. But at least Labour has one idea that marks it out, which shows that it is the party most capable of being “Switched On”: it believes the state should take an active role. It means that with Labour, education stands a chance of becoming more accessible and relevant, it means there is the possibility that HS2 could be cancelled and National Broadband implemented, it suggests that the necessary foundations for the future economy could be set down. The election of 2014 is a crucial milestone in this journey. So, on Thursday, I’ll get up early, feed the cats, drink my coffee, and get dressed; hopefully it will be a bright morning as I take a brief walk to my polling station. When I get there, I’ll present my polling card and take up a pencil to mark my ballot; it won’t take me long to tick the boxes beside the names of the Labour candidates.

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At the Midnight Veterinarian

January 25, 2014

thomasboxIt was serious. Normally, a litter tray at the end of the day is a mess, but this time, it was a horror show. My fiancée had called me down to take a look: up until that point, it had been a normal work day, with its usual hastily consumed cups of coffee, teleconferences and writing documents and emails. I had driven home and changed into more comfortable clothes; I anticipated nothing more than a little dinner, a little television, another check on work e-mails, and then a chance to sleep.

Our cats are an important part of such evenings: they often process like actors on and off stage, casting a glance at us before departing the tableau. Our cat Amelia is the shy one: the slightest noise or disruption will make her scurry for cover. Another cat, Sarah Jane, is the stubborn and clever one: if I’ve shut the doors and windows, she will examine every last exit and entry point to find a means of escape.

Thomas, a stray who turned up on my doorstep in March 2012, is the soft one. He will often come for affection to either myself or my fiancée, and nuzzle his black and white head up against a hand. He is profuse in his purring and strangely not averse to remaining in close proximity to humans for extended periods of time.

All three are valuable. All three are loved. When my other half called me down to look at the litter tray, she had that odd lilt of forced calm in her voice that indicated panic.

The litter trays are in a spare bathroom on the ground floor. When I arrived, my fiancée showed me one of them: rather than normal urine, there was a profusion of blood.

All I could say was “Oh no.” We humans are actually rather tough creatures, capable of adapting to extremes: we can consume poisons, say, Carling Black Label, in quantities that would kill more sensitive creatures. We can adapt to temperatures that many animals will eschew. We also recover from illnesses better than many other mammals. The contents of the litter tray looked like the result of a kidney problem: for a cat, such issues can be fatal.

At first, it was unclear who had done it. I found Amelia on our bed, she looked nervous, but no more so than usual: she rolled around on her back which is her way of asking for a tummy rub. Sarah Jane sat at the top of the stair, her usual place, looking as watchful and thoughtful as ever. I noted her step as she bounded toward her food bowl: normal. Only Thomas seemed subdued: the look in his eyes was sad. My other half concurred: something wasn’t right with him. When I picked him up, he let out a little yelp: this was atypical. My other half and I looked at each other. It was him.

I retrieved our blue and white cat box: it was stored in an outdoor closet and was cold and needed to have some cobwebs wiped off of it. My other half found an old red towel to line it. She gently urged Thomas into the box: being so agreeable, he did not resist.

It was close unto 7 PM: our local veterinarian shuts at that time. Nevertheless, it was worth a try: my other half had gotten a urine sample which she placed in a small glass jar. The rain was falling gently; my street in Bradford was lit solely by the limited reflected light from the windows of the houses which line it and the orange street lamps. We put Thomas and his box on the back seat of the car. I turned the key and we drove as the rain continued to fall. I put on a classical music station: the orchestra playing, the engine grunting were the only noises which penetrated the silence.

My mind was reeling. Had we not put down fresh water for him? Indeed, we had. His water was changed more or less every day. Could it be an infection? Certainly: but hopefully a shot of antibiotics would clear that up. Cats can get cancer: did he have that?

We arrived. A middle aged woman with sandy hair and wearing a brown coat and a purple scarf sat in the corner of the waiting room: she was dabbing her eyes with tissue. Another man with short grey hair came out of one of the examination rooms: he went over to her and spoke to her, then disappeared back inside.

We tried to see the vet: eventually we were greeted by a nurse wearing navy blue scrubs and holding a large glass bottle with a purple and white label. Her expression indicated deep annoyance.

“Can you not analyse the sample we gave you?” my other half asked. I added that it would be useful to find out if any hormones were within so we could make sure it was Thomas who was having the problem.

“You’ll have to come back in the morning,” she told us.

“Are you sure it’s safe to wait that long?” my other half asked.

“You’ll have to come back in the morning.”

The nurse then returned to the examination room. I looked into the cat box: Thomas was sitting quietly, though his eyes seemed wide, glassy. I pushed my fingers through the metal bars and stroked his head: he purred lightly, as if he was chuckling through fear. The man finally emerged from the examination room. He had a few words with the woman who had been crying. Whatever had been done in this case, I presume euthanasia, was finished. The woman got up, looked at us and said, “You wonder if it’s worth it.” They departed.

There was nothing to do. We drove home; the rain was falling steadily. I let Thomas out of his box in the front hall. He quietly padded his way towards the living room. My fiancée suggested we make him drink: I made a cocktail of 1 part milk, 3 parts water, which I held in front of him. He drank. He drank his fill and lay on a beige ottoman, his eyes three-quarters shut. I stroked his head.

My other half watched us. I wasn’t paying attention to her gaze, I was continuing to pet Thomas and praise him, telling him what a good boy he was and that we didn’t want him to go anywhere.

I remembered when he first showed up. It was in that peculiar March of 2012 when we had a burst of warm spring sunshine. There was a red folding chair set out on the decking: my first sight of Thomas was him sitting on that chair, his paws folded, his face tilted towards the sun as if he was trying to get a tan. He was very friendly: he had no hesitation in approaching us. He ate all the food we gave him. He kept coming back. My other half once examined his paws and found they were covered in callouses, indicative of a wandering lifestyle.

My other half, fearful of becoming attached to him, named him “Tom”, as in “Tom Cat”. I started calling him Thomas after the Apostle, the only one of Jesus’ original followers who went outside the Roman Empire, and thus had travelled far. My partner asked our neighbours about his origins and confirmed he was a stray.

The warmth of March was followed by a vengeful blizzard in early April. Just as the storm hit, I ushered Amelia and Sarah Jane inside, and then Thomas showed up at the back door, crying to be let in. I opened the door. He’s lived with us ever since.

Now when I awake in the morning, usually Thomas is laying there at my feet or on my back, along with his sister Sarah Jane, waiting for me to descend down the darkened stairs to the kitchen to feed them. Once that task is done and I’m typing on my laptop, he will often leap up beside me with a quizzical look on his face, almost as if he’s asking if he can help.

thomascakeattackAs I looked at Thomas laying on the ottoman, his face serene yet somehow suffering, I wondered if all that would be gone. I knew that if consulted others, many would say, “He’s just a cat”. Perhaps he had more personality and eccentricities than most: after all, he has a passion for eating cake. But to many, he would still remain “just a cat”.

I thought Cocteau would disagree, after all he referred to a cat as the soul of the house. Thomas in many ways had added warmth to the spirit of my home. Open a window, could it dissipate into the winter air?

“It’s a pity that they don’t have midnight vets like in much of America,” I said. I was sure that if we were in London that there would be one, but it seemed unlikely there would be such a place in Bradford. The lights in the houses outside were going out one by one, the rain continued to fall, people were going to sleep. Would there be enough demand to sustain such a place?

My other half tapped her iPad: as it turned out, there was one less than 4 miles away. She phoned up: both our jaws dropped at the price of an appointment. My inner Yorkshireman cried “How much?!?” but then I looked at Thomas. Although I quietly wished for an Animal NHS, I said “Let’s do it.”

Thomas went into his box again. We drove along the A6177 Ring Road, and then through the middle of Bradford itself. Though late, the lights hadn’t gone out. I thought: Thomas is a Bradford cat, born and bred. This may have been the only time he’d be taken through the middle of his city. I tried to push such thoughts aside. Some of the other drivers drove at 100 miles per hour and abandoned the idea of using turn signals. The roads glistened with rain and street lights. We finally found a big sign marked “PDSA”, the animal hospital. Without much care for tidy parking, we pulled up.

The animal hospital looked like a large bungalow or a small school in the darkness, albeit it was surrounded by a high metal fence. At the door ahead of us was a large, middle aged man wearing a tan coat; a younger man with greasy hair and wearing a plaid shirt carried a cardboard box. He had a cat in the box. It was scratching, gasping and shrieking in pain.

The door buzzed. We stepped inside. There was a aqua coloured waiting room, the colours made harsh by the fluorescent lights and the late hour. The room was lined with hard wooden benches. We informed the young nurse behind the desk that we had arrived. Thomas sat quietly in his box. The other cat continued to shriek. Two other young men were there, holding an Alsatian who was obviously suffering from a broken paw.

One of the doors to the examination rooms opened: the young men were called in and they carried their dog gently in to be seen. The other cat continued to cry out and try to claw out of the box. My other half spoke to the cat owners: apparently their pet suddenly had been unable to move her back legs. There had been no symptoms, no warning. There was only that piercing cry which punctuated the air every few seconds, followed by gasping and scratching.

Thomas was alarmed. At every cry, he perked his ears up. He himself did not cry. He merely looked through the bars at me, as if he was seeking reassurance.

“It’s going to be OK, Thomas,” I told him. Then the cry rang out again.

Finally, we were called in. My other half did the right thing by letting the other cat go ahead of us. The door of the examination room shut. The cries became more intense as presumably the cat was lifted out of her box and she was examined.

I could only catch snippets of conversation, namely, “This is very serious”, “it’s a blood clot”, “there’s not much we can do”. The cries got louder. The young man whose cat it presumably was, left the room, his eyes glistening as much as his greasy face.

Then, silence.

I heard more snippets: “It happens all of a sudden, it’s unfortunate” “That was her blanket, she can keep it” “No, we don’t want to dispose of her” The door opened and the middle aged man stepped out. Laying on the table inside the examination room, I saw a little white and tortoise shell form, partially draped in a brown blanket.

The door shut. The man went to the nurse. “How much do I owe you?” he asked.

“That’s £232.50.”

He had to run to a cash machine to get the remainder, but left £90 behind.

It was well past midnight and I had been up since 5:30 AM. The adrenalin was pumping, but nevertheless, there was a heaviness in my eyes that was proving difficult to ignore. I pushed my fingers through the bars to stroke Thomas again. He purred slightly.

We were called in again. The examination table had been wiped clean, the streak marks of the disinfectant clearly visible. I placed the box on it.

The veterinarian had bright red hair and wore dark blue scrubs: she had a no-nonsense manner about her. It wasn’t that she was lacking in compassion, I presume the previous patient had forced her to push her emotions down. Thomas stepped out of his box to face her. She then administered a rectal thermometer. As I gently held Thomas while this occurred, I mused on the fact that I’d probably have precisely the same expression on my face as he did if it was happening to me. His yellow-green eyes were wide with shock.

His temperature was normal. The vet thought it would be best to give him some anti-inflammatory drugs but first she took some blood to test his kidney function. We’d have to wait another thirty minutes. She shaved his ankle, took the blood and wrapped it in a blue velcro fastened bandage.

Back to the hard benches: the young men with the dog had returned without their pet, they were apparently waiting for x-rays. Another couple came in: a young, skinny blonde woman and her boyfriend, a friendly, effusive Yorkshireman with close cropped black hair. They were carrying their cat in brown plastic carrier box. The cat looked dishevelled. The gentleman told us that they were from Armley in Leeds: he said that he thought that their cat had either fallen into a can of diesel or worse, had been doused in it by some kids. I mused aloud as to what kind of animals would torture a cat so.

We were called back in. Apparently Thomas’ kidney function was normal: the vet injected him with the anti-inflammatories. The details of his treatment would be transmitted to our usual vet in the morning.

The bill was in excess of £200. I could almost hear my debit card creak as I paid: I wondered if this is what the future of healthcare would be like without the NHS. I remembered the last time I sought help from American doctors, namely to get a Whooping Cough vaccine: the cost at that time was $80. I then looked at Thomas again. It looked as if he was asking to go home.

We did. By the time the front door was shut and locked, it was 1:30 AM. Thomas was persuaded to consume some more fluid and went to sleep. The next day we returned to our usual vet, who was apologetic. Thomas received a further injection of antibiotics and a course of anti-inflammatory treatments. Several days after his ordeal, he is back again to greeting me in the morning, his face arched upward hopefully as I enter the kitchen, and he tries to interrupt me as I work. Those who have never lived with a cat would say in the final analysis that he is “just a cat”. He is “just a cat”: but that doesn’t mean he is incapable of feeling happiness and pain, enjoying life or finding it a misery, being ill or being healthy. It also doesn’t preclude him from the possibility of feeling deep emotion for those who care for him; our usual vet speculated that male cats often suffer from “stress related” conditions which can trigger such blood letting. We had been away quite a lot over the holiday period and Thomas has abandonment issues. If I am in a room where there is a shut door between him and I, he’ll often scratch at it frantically, demanding to be let in.

Regardless of his capability (or not) of loving in a human way, it definitely doesn’t preclude him from being loved by the humans who care for him. The trip to the midnight vet would seem madness to some, but as I type this on a tranquil Saturday morning and the cats lay sleeping in the hall, all is well. Thank goodness.

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A Sensible Surrender

January 3, 2014

Marijuana PlantThe so-called “War on Drugs”, at least as an exercise in law enforcement, may be drawing to a close. On December 11th, Uruguay legalised the trade and possession of marijuana for recreational use. On January 1st, the state of Colorado permitted its sale for the same purpose. On January 2nd, the conservatively inclined Fox Business Network sent a reporter to a Colorado facility which was growing marijuana: the somewhat bleary eyed and distracted owner suggested that fourteen other states were likely to follow in his state’s footsteps and another two were contemplating loosening legislation to allow its consumption for medical purposes. It was also mentioned that the potential value of the market was in the region of $2.5 billion. On the same day, Fox Business’ website reported that the shares of a company called MedBox, which manufactures marijuana dispensing machines, were up by 57%.

When a conservative news network changes the discussion from how to ban a thing to how to make money off a thing, one can be reasonably certain that a paradigm shift has become inevitable. Marijuana will probably be legalised in most countries: the ones that do not do so will be the outliers. This is all well and good.

My opinions on this subject are subject to certain caveats. I am not speaking from an experienced point of view: I have never smoked pot nor do I wish to do so. This is in spite of fact that I lived in the Netherlands in the late 1990’s, a time when “Dutch” was a direct synonym for “liberal” and “tolerant”. Admittedly, I was there for work rather than bohemian purposes; yet, I may have been one of the few foreign residents of Amsterdam who didn’t partake. Being a non-consumer of the product, however, may have sharpened my awareness of its presence. There were many places in Amsterdam which reeked of it: not only did it emanate from the infamous “coffee shops” even in the early morning, it was openly smoked in the streets by passers-by. I intensely dislike the scent of it: I recall my first whiff of it making me sick to my stomach, and this trigger still remains with me. The effects of extensive marijuana smoking are not necessarily pleasant for everyone. I once saw a young man who obviously got a bad batch: after he finished smoking, he sat down in the middle of a central thoroughfare and essentially had a nervous breakdown which manifested itself in the form of hysterical screaming. Eventually, he had to be gently but firmly led away by the Amsterdam police. Despite the distaste informed by my experiences, I would rather that it was out in the open and legal. I believe the problems one can associate with smoking pot are rather similar to another form of substance related recreation: I find how people get drunk to the point that they vomit in public repulsive too. However, at least when discourse turns to those who drink excessively, we generally speak in terms of it being a public health issue. We tend to bring in doctors to pontificate rather than police. We now have an opportunity to move matters on in a similar way in regards to narcotics. We should be asking what is it about modern life, what ennui that lay therein which drives people to abuse themselves in particular ways? Can we construct frameworks, such as minimum pricing, which will allow us to control consumption? What can we do to ensure that vulnerable people, like the young man who lost control completely, receive adequate care?

Beer ReturnsSo long as the anarchy fostered by illegality remained, we were not in a position to ask and address these questions effectively: rather, we were left with the threat of prison, as if humanity could be punished into sensible behaviour. The fateful experience of America with alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s and 1930’s should have proved otherwise; all that fatally flawed experiment did was create a market for poisonous moonshine and made petty gangsters into millionaires. Governments throughout the world have spent billions of dollars in re-learning this particular lesson. The changes put in place by Uruguay and Colorado suggest we’re now at a moment analogous to when Franklin Roosevelt made it legal to drink 2% beer: this small crack in the legal log jam opened wide shortly afterwards.

Fourteen states, $2.5 billion market size: the main danger of legalisation is that the engine of capitalism will start to pick up steam and companies will advertise a particular reefer as better, stronger, and more long lasting in its effects. The facility visited by the Fox Business reporter looked potent enough: my understanding is that the hemp plants raised for this particular purpose give off intoxicating vapours on their own. Furthermore, the reporter and the owner were in an enclosed space. Given this, I was surprised they weren’t experiencing the munchies. I also didn’t expect them to be as lucid as they were. Nevertheless, a reporter from a widely-watched television network visiting such a place is progress of a kind. No doubt a politician will visit such a farm soon and praise the imagination and industry of the growers and may seek campaign contributions. Perhaps a more substantial lobby for Marijuana growers will form in Washington, which will desire tinkering with standards to allow newer, stronger blends to be put on sale.

Yet, this is better. It’s definitely preferable that the sometimes nauseating churn of politics and business happens instead of a young man on a Detroit street corner is thrown in jail after a random stop and search during which he’s found to have a plastic bag of the stuff in his pockets. It’s better that producing pot is no longer racy, but regulated. It’s better that we start having support groups come out in the open for those who wish to give it up. It’s progress, but the kind that comes with caveats, which tends to be the hallmark of a genuine improvement. Yes, the stubborn or the puritanical might construe this as a form of surrender: but giving up when the stand that one takes is proven to be ridiculous is a victory for common sense.

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Happy New Year

January 2, 2014

2014numberNew Year’s is, by and large, tinged with regret. If the year has been particularly difficult, there’s marginal relief to be had at its conclusion; if the year has been splendid, then there’s sadness at leaving it behind and some trepidation as to what the future may bring. Either way, it represents the outer frontier of the holiday season: beyond it, alarm clocks, early mornings, hastily consumed cups of coffee and the commute back to work all beckon. The lights come down, the trees are set out as rubbish, the stores start aggressively marketing Valentine’s Day wares, the holiday season is tucked into the space of memory, revisited mainly when photo albums are opened. Christmas 2013 is finished; the realities of winter remain. As I write this, I am sitting in New York, and a blizzard warning is in effect for this evening. Tomorrow I’ll go out into what the storm leaves behind with my Bradford City scarf tied around my neck and hoist a snow shovel to help ensure my parents’ car isn’t trapped on the driveway.

As I attack the drifting snow, I will remember that Spring will come. There will be trips to the garden centre for pale green seedlings, which always seem so frail in April. The sun will eventually linger into the evening. It will be possible and preferable to sit outside of Nando’s at Bradford’s Centenary Square and have lunch; it will eventually be right to wear sunglasses as I consume my Extra Hot Butterfly Chicken. For the moment, that scene seems a distant dream, something contemplated as one tries to hibernate in the dark or watches the tiny flakes of white descend en masse.

Moreover, January is the poster-child for austerity. Pay day was just before Christmas; the feeling of being flush is gone, replaced with wondering how one is going to stretch one’s finances to the end of the month. According to the Financial Times, British consumer spending in Q3 was up 1.7% though wages only increased 0.2%. This is the month when plain white and brown envelopes are stuffed into mailboxes, the black sans-serif text showing one’s address providing little hint of the cheque coming due. Television and the press encourage us to go on diets: what remains of the turkey is sealed in plastic containers and stuck in the back of the freezer. If Charles Dickens had given us a portrait of pre-transformed Scrooge in January, no doubt the miser would be portrayed as smiling through the month. His view of December’s profligacy, in his mind, would no doubt have been vindicated. It’s no wonder that many Christmas songs plead for the feeling to extend throughout the year, or for it to be Christmas every day.

Dick ClarkSuch pleas are bound to fail. Eventually, we face New Year’s Eve: it’s no wonder so many people get drunk on the night. I happened across one New Year’s Eve television programme which showed a correspondent in Miami who was obviously inebriated. He wandered aimlessly around a hotel with a roving camera team. He made a point of speaking, albeit with slurred and disconnected words, to young women who were all in a semi-state of undress. They appeared to be no more sober than he was. I could easily imagine him waking up the next morning with a damaged career as well as a hangover. Another reporter was in a New York dance club: he was accompanied by women who looked like they were extras from Robert Palmer music videos with their slicked back hair, bright red lipstick, limited dance movements and absolute silence. One of them poured cheap champagne out as freely as if it was water. My father changed the channel and found a testament to how these New Year’s programmes have become ever more mired in mediocrity: there was a show entitled “Dick Clark’s Rocking New Year’s with Ryan Seacrest”. Dick Clark, the long time host of “American Bandstand” (a programme similar to Britain’s “Top of the Pops”) had presented a New Year’s show right up until the year of his death. He was an American institution and presented the New Year with skill and brio. His successor, Mr. Seacrest, as the title of the programme indicates, obviously lacks Mr. Clark’s talents; indeed, this is one of the very few television shows to my knowledge which refers to a deceased host in order to maintain its attractiveness. Mr. Seacrest also made the ill-advised choice of inviting Miley Cyrus, who wore an oversized white fur coat and a vacant expression. Fortunately, the last ten seconds of all the programmes were the same: at Times Square, the lighted crystal ball descended, the crowd chanted the countdown from 10, the ball landed and a sign reading “2014” lit up. Sinatra’s “New York, New York” rang through the air, couples kissed and confetti fell. My family raised a toast. Then my father switched the television off and bid us all good night.

This New Year’s Day, I went to see the New York house in which I spent a good part of my childhood. To get there, I took a long walk in the early twilight. The wind was biting cold: my Bradford City scarf, my coat and my gloves weren’t entirely sufficient in keeping it out. I passed some familiar landmarks on the way.  There was the County Club, which was set on a vast golf course: it had not given up the ghost on Christmas just yet, the wreaths and garlands were hung out across its freshly painted white walls, each tied up with a large bright red bow. Turn a corner and walk further along, and I found a large school which I never attended, but nevertheless, was a familiar landmark. It was built probably in the 1920’s: it was made mainly of red brick, but its height and tall windows spoke of an era that was far less concerned with energy efficiency. It was topped with a white tower that would not have been out of place atop a New England church. I wondered if it was still open, given how difficult it would be to keep heating such a place: I later found out, to my relief, that it was.

Perhaps it was the arch of a set of trees or the fact that some of the houses hadn’t changed, but I clearly recalled being a child and going trick or treating on this street. I remembered carrying a plastic basket shaped like a Jack O’Lantern and knocking on unfamiliar doors. I remember Almond Joy and Hershey bars being deposited into my basket, to be consumed as I watched television later in the evening.

Further on, and more familiar houses lay ahead. However I noticed there were quite a few which had changed: some had been extended, others completely rebuilt. The Fords and Dodges which were parked outside the houses of my youth had been replaced with Audis and Volkswagens. The area had gentrified. Finally, I found my former home. Or rather, I found the address.

The home I was looking for was a compact house, painted beige with dark brown shutters. It was barely two storeys: upstairs was confined to my parents’ bedroom and a small lounge. There was a full living room in which our oversized Christmas tree usually sat. My strongest memories are of the kitchen: my parents put in a bay window and placed the kitchen table right by it. I remember sitting there on winter mornings with the radio on: I would look out at the snow falling and wondering if I had to go to school or if the school would shut due to the weather. I remember the excitement I felt when my school’s name was announced, the scent of my parents’ coffee, the soft light of the kitchen reflecting off the yellow linoleum floor.

But the kitchen was gone, the house was gone: what faced me was not a compact suburban home, but rather a three storey behemoth, done up in dark brown render with white window and door frames. Even the prominent sycamore tree in the front yard, under which I had sought shade in the summer, had disappeared; it had been replaced by a driveway that was set in a gentle arc in front of the house. I saw nothing of what I once knew.

Perhaps I should have expected as much. I thought if I looked at my old home I could somehow commune with myself at the age of 10. If I could have stepped into a time machine and visited him, I perhaps would have spoken of Yorkshire and provided reassurance as to where he was headed. Maybe life would have been more certain with such information. But at that moment I couldn’t connect the structure with anything that remained in my memory. Everything had changed.

Matt Smith recently reassured us during his final moments on Doctor Who (before he turned into Peter Capaldi) that we all change, and it’s OK. Indeed, everything changes, and it’s OK. But this is not necessarily the “OK” that arises from it being beneficial, it is inevitable: we are set to change. 2013 ends, 2014 begins and brings change. Perhaps the best of 2013 will continue: perhaps 2014 will present an opportunity to remedy what was worst about last year. The holidays are over, it’s back to work: while there is no assurance that 2014 will be better, easier or happier than the year that has just passed, at least there is a chance to make it so. When we come to New Year’s again, yes, there will still be regret: but perhaps we’ll have begun to forget who Miley Cyrus is, the Miami correspondent could be stuck in Cleveland and more monuments to greed, stupidity and avarice might have come down. With these bright possibilities in mind, I say, Happy New Year.

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Review: “The Spirit of 45″ directed by Ken Loach

July 10, 2013


The Spirit of '45 [DVD] (DVD)

Director: Ken Loach
Starring: Tony Benn
Rating: Exempt

List Price: £14.99 GBP
New From: £5.14 GBP In Stock
Used from: £7.33 GBP In Stock

Ed Miliband has just announced revisions in the Labour Party’s relationship with the trade unions. Previously, affiliated unions automatically donated part of their members’ dues into the party’s coffers. The forthcoming changes mean that this will have to be a conscious choice by each individual member.

This represents a dramatic shift: there was a time, not too long ago, when such a move would have been seen as preposterous. The Labour Party was the political wing of the trade union movement: if you were a worker who toiled in a coal mine or a steel mill, there was no other way to improve your lot apart from joining with others in a trade union and voting for a Labour MP who would represent your interests.

Since then, the vast industries which once comprised Britain’s industrial might have mainly vanished. I recall watching a replay of an “Election Night Special” from February 1974 in which Alastair Burnett reeled off result after result. He not only made a point of saying the constituency name, but also stating what the primary industry of that area was. Steel, coal, textiles were all mentioned. Nowadays, we have an economy that is mainly built on services and shopping; the trade unions have been emasculated by Thatcher’s labour laws. The Labour Party is not as naturally linked to the unions which remain, and there are smaller parties like the Greens and the TUSC which vie for the hard core union vote.

It’s perhaps apropos that we now have Ken Loach’s film “The Spirit of 45″ to give us a glimpse of what we’ve lost. I first saw it in the theatre at Bradford’s National Media Museum: the audience was mainly of an age group that could remember the mills and vast industrial concerns around Bradford in operation. After the film ended, there was a round of applause. It was a rare accolade as one could hear sadness and regret as well as appreciation.

Loach first provides us with a salubrious reminder of what the world of the 1930’s was like: there was widespread squalor, the poor lived in vermin-infested houses, unemployment and irregular employment were rife. It was a world in which people used the pawn shop as liberally as some nowadays use payday loans to overcome problems in cash flow. It was a time in which if you purchased medical treatment, the doctor would often send around debt collectors to ensure you paid for it.

World War II demanded maximum effort from everyone: a new egalitarianism emerged from the conflict. Furthermore, Churchill was forced to form a wartime coalition that included Labour ministers. They ran many key sectors of the economy: Ernest Bevin, for example, was responsible for production and manpower. Given this, Labour was more strongly positioned than they perhaps realised to win a famous election victory in 1945.

Loach reels off the Labour government’s great achievements: key industries, transport and health were nationalised. Nye Bevan created the National Health Service and decent public housing. By the time Labour left office in 1951, Loach suggests, vast improvements had been made: the song which echoes in the background suggests that “life is a bowl of cherries”.

We then jump to 1979 and the election of Margaret Thatcher; what was built up post-1945 is shown to be torn down. Miners are beaten for protesting pit closures. The free market runs rampant: bankers show up in Ferraris. Perhaps the most eye watering statistic lay in the number of pit closures: by 1994 there were only 14 coal mines left open.

Loach suggests that the last stand should be made over the National Health Service, the one legacy of 1945 that remains with us. We are shown a montage featuring groups such as UK Uncut; today’s Labour Party is disdained as being “middle class” rather than “working class”.

I enjoyed the film and it does fire one’s imagination: the unlimited greed of the 1980’s would have been greeted with disgust in 1945. One wonders how we get back to such societal norms. I also wished that I could vote for Clement Attlee, as his unassuming, almost twee demeanour was a mask for sincere, principled radicalism. However, the film does gloss over some key facts.

First, the 1945 Labour government achieved much, but it would be incorrect to assume they established heaven on earth: the film is honest enough to state that nationalisation happened “the wrong way” in many instances, namely state bosses replaced private ones. Also, during this time Britain was bankrupt and had to go cap in hand to the Americans for a loan; the effort required to secure this support killed John Maynard Keynes, Britain’s chief negotiator. The role of Marshall Plan aid in rebuilding post-war Britain is also excised.

Additionally, the fact that rationing was still in force until the mid 1950’s is similarly brushed aside. Housing developments didn’t happen quickly enough: squatting, even on former army bases, was rife.

Barbara CastleFurthermore, by jumping over most of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, Loach completely overlooks key events like the struggle between Harold Wilson’s Labour government and the trade unions. Neither Barbara Castle nor “In Place of Strife” are mentioned. One can argue that these ruptures within the framework of a functioning social democracy are preferable to the anarchy and squalor of laissez faire policies, but nevertheless, to ignore them entirely weakens the argument. It also means that Labour’s evolution into the party it is today is more inexplicable: an uninformed viewer would wonder why Labour “dropped” the unions. The truth is, and Ed Miliband appears to understand this, that as work has evolved, unions have evolved too and with it, so has the Labour Party. The mass industries of old no longer exist: there are more self-employed people than ever before. Small businesses, i.e. ones which are not conducive for the growth of mass trade unions, predominate. Labour has had to manage the rather difficult feat of maintaining one foot in the past while taking a step towards the future. Loach does not explain any of this.

Nevertheless, one can look on in something like wonder and even envy: the idea that there was full employment, the chance of a decent home without a heavy mortgage, a reasonable standard of living available to most and a societal emphasis on equality, does make the world of 1945 seem appealing. But perhaps what is most alluring about this era lay in what the 1945 Labour government inspired and fostered most: hope. We live in an era of unbridled cynicism: we accept that things are the way they are and this is how it will always be. This was not always true, and belief has managed to lever off foes like the Nazis and raise up institutions like the NHS. If we did have some of the Spirit of 45, the future might be altogether brighter: because it would not only seem possible to do better, it would be a direct goal.

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

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