Tuesday, 21 June 2016


Statue depicting, possibly, how UK voters feel, Copenhagen
Somehow, as I type this, it has become the 7th of June.  I started thinking about this during my month’s paternity leave over December and January, getting down a few thousand words at odd times of the night, at the kitchen table during the softly lit mornings when it felt mid-afternoon, or evening, or who knows when.  My initial ideas for an arc about the importance of Europe quickly proved too big, too unwieldy for the time I had and so were abandoned.

Then I tried again, sometime when things got a little easier, when we found the new rhythm of life.  That was better thought out, more realistic, but I lost interest.  Fundamentally I didn’t really have an argument and was largely swiping concepts from a Radio 4 documentary I’d heard while driving through Lincolnshire one Tuesday morning, the tempo of my prose as flat as the landscape. 

And so, here I am.  The 7th of June.  A Tuesday evening, the summer downpour leaving the garden feeling fresh and cool after the afternoon’s clamminess, the breeze comes through the French windows of the kitchen.  Part of my brain is contemplating the pre-six o’clock start for paid work tomorrow morning.  The rest of it is worrying about the 23rd of June.  

The referendum on our membership of the European Union is probably the most important decision we have faced in a generation and I seem unable to properly plug myself into what’s happening.  When I wrote far reaching, well researched, coherently argued pieces around the 2010 and 2015 elections I was watching an hour or more of news and devouring the BBC and Guardian websites every day as a minimum.  At the moment, I seem barely able to remember there’s a choice for the nation to make.

Of course, I have my excuse:  My son is almost six months old and while it is significantly easier than it was, there are scarcely any free moments in a day.  And that’s okay.  I would much rather spend half an hour playing with him, seeing his gummy grin as I enter a room, than contemplating the disaster looming.

But this is important, vitally so, and not just for me and the immediate future, but for him and for years to come.  Once we are out there will be no way back in.  In my overly privileged bubble it all seems obvious, but around the country I fear those who want to leave are gaining traction.  The Remain campaign is a shambles so every right thinking person needs to wade in.   I want to help, but how am I supposed to find the time and the head space to write for our futures? 


And there we go, it’s now the 15th of June and I got little further than the above.  I may not have been writing, but I did manage to pay closer attention.  Depressingly, the outcome seems worse than I thought.  I think the Leave campaign is going to just sneak a victory.  More interestingly, I think I have, finally, begun to understand why.

Both sides have tried to distil a hugely complex system into simplistic messages leaving factually incorrect sound-bites and we all spend time picking holes in each others’ supposed facts rather than addressing the fundamental motivation.  Which is easy enough to do.  Let’s debunk some of the arguments for Leave:

We all know that the £350m Boris Johnson so maturely carved into metal with a chainsaw and is emblazoned on the side of the Leave campaign’s bus is, at best, misleading.  The reality is that the majority of that money either never leaves the country or is reinvested back here as subsidiaries for industries such as farming or green energy or infrastructure projects such as introducing broadband to Cornwall, developing a number of centres for innovation at universities around the country, subsidising regional graduate employment programmes, rejuvenating the port of Sunderland, and hundreds of other projects. 

This leaves some £160million being invested into Europe each week.  Some of that will be used to support the EU’s infrastructure, but much of it will be used to invest into similar development projects for the poorer member states of the club.  By developing these countries, by stimulating Slovakia’s economy, for example, it improves the wealth, well-being and living standards of the population enabling them to buy more things off us (leaving aside the services we may sell to them in order to deliver on their projects).  The EU is a self-generating marketplace, an internal wealth machine.

Unlike some of the claims being made by Leave the EU does not prevent us from trading with anyone else.  Instead it enables it.  Yes, it prioritises internal European trade, in the same way that significant import tariffs to the USA encourage citizens to Buy American (not that it works very well, as many a Donald Trump support will tell you), but it also facilitates sensible trading deals with the rest of the world.  By acting as a whole we have a greater buying/selling power that supports our ability to trade with India, China, Brazil and America.  Any suggestion that operating alone we will somehow gain preferential treatment and overhaul the fact that Europe is by far our biggest market in a short space of time is hopeful at best and wilfully ignorant at worst.  The majority of the world’s significant trading countries have already indicated they would prefer to work with Britain as part of the EU, not as a separate entity.  Still, we could always sell financial services to North Korea in exchange for a tractor that breaks down after ten minutes.

Perhaps that’s who our natural bedfellows should be, after all one of the claims by Leave is that we need to regain our sovereignty.  We still have it, indeed thanks to the Maastricht treaty we have more ability to opt out of EU legislation than any other member.  Sure, our activities are governed, to an extent, by things like the Human Rights Act (which incidentally was originally written by British lawyers), and our laws cannot directly contradict EU legislation, but then this applies for members of the United Nations as well.  There are international laws which, if you don’t want to have to play by yourself in the corner, countries willingly sign up to, otherwise you’re completely on the outside of international society.  The question, for me, no-one seems to have an answer for is which rules do we want contravene?  What different laws do we want?  Removal of the right for trial by jury?  Get rid of carbon emissions targets?  Allow our food to be pumped full or hormones like all that cheap Argentinean beef everyone seems exited to have flown into the country by the end of the month?

The EU is not undemocratic, dictatorial or wholly populated by self-serving bureaucrats (well, no more than any other civil service, anyway).  The council of the EU comprises the President, elected by the other members of the council who are the heads of state, elected by us, the people.  The parliament of the EU which holds the council to account, negotiates and sets the laws are directly elected through proportional representation in each country.  That’s us.  We vote them in.  The bureaucracy that manages the whole thing, writes papers, produces the legislation is, like any other country in the world, unelected, yes.

Oh, but the immigration is out of control.  We need to gain control of our own borders.  The country is full, infrastructure and resources are over-stretched.  House prices are out of control.  Well, yes and no. 

The reason you can’t get an appointment at your GP or your kids may be struggling to secure school places is nothing to do with immigration, but policies of austerity over the last six years and a longer term failure to invest adequately in health, education and social care systems.  Wherever you live, if the EU immigrant population is removed then your GP practice does not magically become a wait-free experience.  Either you will see no difference at all because there still aren’t enough GPs working long enough or non-core hours to meet with demand or, if your practice is overwhelmingly attended by EU immigrants, then it will probably close because they’re funded by population head count and suddenly it isn’t viable.  Same with your school.  The biggest pressure on the NHS is an increasingly elderly population; on schools it is the congestion of young people into concentrated areas producing birth rate spikes and the system isn’t nimble enough to respond in time.  The same argument applies to any area of infrastructure you’re feeling the pinch on.  Net EU immigration to the UK has a peak annual figure of 180,000, a significant number, sure, but they’re not all living in your street.

So then we’re back to whether that £160 million a week would make all the difference.  Reinvest it in the NHS say Johnson and Gove as though we were voting for them and they had any right whatsoever to be making promises about what a post-EU membership Britain might look like.  Okay, so £160 million a week is in the region of £8 billion a year.  A lot of cash, but the annual budget of the government is £772 billion.  That’s 1%.  Given that the total deficit for NHS Trusts in England alone was £2.3 billion in the last financial year, this would just about haul healthcare out the red temporarily, but is barely a drop in the ocean of what’s required to reconfigure the whole service and create the sort of utopia yearned for.

Like benefits, there is no system of positive discrimination that allows EU immigrants to jump ahead of you in the queue for council housing.  There just isn’t enough available and hasn’t been since Right to Buy was introduced in the eighties and councils prevented from using the revenue to build more homes.  The government we elected in 2015 has pledged to extend this policy, forcing housing associations to sell their properties.  This shoves people into the private rental sector which, in London and many other metropolitan areas, is out of control.  Again, this is nothing to do with the EU, but the fact that we have a completely deregulated market with landlords able to charge what they want and a soaring demand due to there not being any council housing and young people being unable to afford their own homes.  This doesn’t happen in the rest of Europe.  It is a uniquely British problem.

Astronomical house prices, especially in London and the South East, are not the fault of immigration.  They can’t be both unemployed, living on benefits, coming over here to take the menial jobs the local population wishes they were above, and also be able to afford paying over the odds for property.  Again, this is a lack of regulation, a national mindset whereby we see our properties as our pension or inheritance cash for our children and grandchildren (too many elderly people rattling around large family homes), and foreign money laundering into premium London properties which then sit empty.  Again, not the EU’s fault:  Saudi Princes, Russian oligarchs and Chinese shell companies are not part of the club.

Illegal immigration and non-EU immigration are entirely different issues.  Those applying for visas get assessed in the system we would have even if we left the EU.  Those arriving illegally are fleeing a terrible life elsewhere and are coming to Europe for its stability and economic prosperity.  Okay, yes we can blame the EU for those last two.  But the problem is not confined to Britain.  We’re not even the biggest recipient of refugees.  Sweden takes more immigrants than any other EU state.  We don’t change any of this is we leave the EU.  We can change it by ending the civil war in Syria, by ending a police that routinely uses torture in Eritrea, by making sure homosexuals don’t have to fear for their lives in Uganda, and anywhere else that people are treated unfairly and life is horrible.  You end the refugee crisis by making the world a better place not by washing your hands of it.

But this is a great country, or it was. On our own, we were so much better.  Let’s be that way again.  When we joined the EEC in the 1970s the country was on its knees.  Industry already in terminal decline, Thatcher just put it out of its misery.  There’d been a three day working week because we couldn’t keep the lights on.  That posing led to the breaking up of the unions and the sale of the utilities companies.  The reason the French state provider is now one of our biggest providers of electricity and gas is because we voluntarily sold it to them.  Interest rates running at 22% (put that in your mortgage calculator and see whether you can afford it).  Sterling devalued.  A bail-out from the IMF that’s no different from the economic aid being given to Greece.  We deserved it, why don’t the Greeks? 

If not the point we joined the EEC, then further back?  Maybe, if we’re really honest the only thing we’ve ever been great at is our military forces occupying countries significantly behind us in terms of technological developments, raping their land for raw materials, shipping it back to the UK’s early industrial manufacturing sites (which were hardly the pinnacle of workers’ rights) and then forcibly selling back to the colonies at inflated prices.  Oddly enough I don’t think the rest of the world is going to let us do that again.

(And even if they did, it only ever benefited a small, extremely rich elite, not the masses).

Unfortunately Leave’s arguments may be utterly flawed, but Remain is no less sensationalist.  A complete financial apocalypse is not going to happen on the 24th of June, although we almost certainly will slide towards a deep rooted and extremely harmful recession which could cost the livelihoods of a whole generation of twenty-somethings.  World War Three is not around the corner, but it will play into the hands of an increasingly aggressive Russia and I wouldn’t fancy taking on the world’s third largest standing army (not counting the millions of trained reservists) with an aircraft carrier that has no compatible planes and a military force the current government has a habit of serving redundancy notices on while they’re in combat zones.

By giving just the negatives it fails to paint a picture as to the benefits of staying in Europe and nor does it address the fundamental reason as to why so many people are desperate to leave.  Yes, some people are xenophobic.  Yes, Boris Johnson only wants to because for some reason he sees it as a road to being Prime Minister and appears content to fiddle Nero-like while a fucked up country burns around him.  Yes, some businesses seem to think there are economic benefits to it, but presumably their margins will be found in screwing profit from the workforce; the boss of JCB is not Joseph Rowntree. 

But why do ordinary people want to leave?

I think for many it is fear of and a sense of being lost in the twenty-first century.

A lot of the economic arguments are about how corporations are run from abroad, for the benefit of shareholders not the local community that generate the profits.  They’re about an absence of job security.  It’s about an anonymous high street, about a shopping centre full of big brands somehow equating to rejuvenation even if you don’t have any money to spend.  It’s about call centres in far flung corners of the world, businesses moving their workforce to cheaper locations.  How we don’t make anything anymore, how work is an abstract concept rather than a satisfying labour.  It’s a lack of social mobility.  It’s about people seething at the fundamental unfairness of being stuck somewhere with no hope and even less prospects.  And it’s about being scared that things are going to be even worse for the next generation.

It’s about thinking that things used to better, when we were young, when we were carefree, because, you know, they always are when all you have to worry about is how much pocket money you’re getting, whether that girl who sits at the back of the bus fancies you, where the next pint comes from, whether you want chips on the way home or a kebab.  That isn’t the world changing, it’s just the shock of growing up and realising life as an adult is hard.

But none-the-less, I get all that.  I understand why people in areas that have been trodden on by successive generations of politicians, who have always been promised something better are really, really pissed off that better has yet to materialise.  At times it feels like the last politicians to make a substantive change to people’s lives for the better was the Atlee Labour government, doesn’t it, and that was a long time ago.  I’m sorry, though, none of that is the fault of the EU. That’s a globalised economy and in the USA, in Australia, in Japan, it’s no different.  It’s an adherence to a neo-liberal form of capitalism, as advocated by Johnson, Gove and Farage, that works for markets which need to make exponentially increasing profits at the expense of human satisfaction.

Leaving the EU won’t change that.

The sort of trade agreements being talked about optimistically by Leave are more of the same.  The rhetoric is about releasing the shackles on the market, letting capitalism drive down prices (maybe) with no consideration for personal safety, job security or the environment.

Lord knows the EU isn’t free from big business.  It bends too easily to pressure from lobbyists (but also often fights off the worst of them) and entering into discussions about TTIP was one of the worst ideas since trying to capture the Suez canal or introducing university fees.  But the EU does offer subsidiaries for businesses, it will support key infrastructure, it does help the market to help the people and that’s a far cry from what’s being proposed.

To fix all of this, to make it better, you don’t need a new European Union you need a new consensual global system.  Crazy as it seems I think we stand a better chance of doing that, no matter how almost impossible, as a part of something bigger than going it alone. 

And failing that how about we just concentrate of saving the environment?  Not much point having a world if it’s uninhabitable.  So, if Britain wants to be great again it needs a new USP not a new set of trading agreements.  We need to take leadership and develop true innovations in green technology, ordinary technology, financial services which suggest a different way of doing things is possible, a society which focuses on the benefits of all not just a few in the right place with the right friends.  And once we’ve done that for ourselves, let’s lead the way in Europe and from there, who knows where we could end up.

Today, for thousands around the country, life is shit.  It’s miserable, skint and we pine for something abstractly better.  We long for a past that never quite was, but you can never go back.  You just have to go forward, like cultural identities we continually evolve and a notion of Britishness is not the same today as it was when we were kids, and that’s okay.  That’s just life.  It’s hard, I know it is, and it’s scary and it’s easier to yell and vent all that pent up frustration against something which doesn’t really understand why you’re so upset.  I know all that, and it doesn’t necessarily make leaving the wrong thing to do, I just think most people are doing it for the wrong reasons. 

Leave is, essentially, offering more of the same and a sliver of hope that it will, somehow, be better than it currently is.  What we should be doing is hoping for better, having the system in place to deliver better and in the meantime having the security of the status quo.  Change is incremental not a lighting flash and to change we must Remain.




Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Boris' Legacy/London's Decline.

George Orwell keeps coming on holiday with me.

Last September amongst the faded vine wrapped quiet of a Tuscan farmhouse, I found a copy of Bernard Crick’s biography of Orwell, something I’d wanted to read for some time.  With my wife entering the heavy phase of pregnancy, it was a lazy break with much time spent on the veranda, coffee or beer to hand, the sun crawling through the sky, the book open on my lap and my thoughts dipping between Lancashire, Catalonia, Burma, Paris and London. 

Eight months later as the rain lashes against the cottage in the middle of Scottish nowhere and with the views of the Loch below, from whence the water runs to the sea and the Isle of Skye until the ocean beyond, I find myself thinking about Orwell again.  After the Second World War, Orwell retreated from London life to the remote island of Jura, supposedly because the air would be good for this ever-worsening tuberculosis, but also, I suspect, because he needed to the free of the city to write his masterpiece, 1984.  A novel with a world of beautifully realised, so distinctly different from ours yet where the evolution of it was evident, had to be constructed in isolation, away from distraction and poor influence.

It was surely no burden.   Surprisingly, for a writer of his generation, Orwell never seems to have particularly liked London, and it shows through his novels like Coming Up for Air, where the nostalgia for disappearing small town rural life is rife.  He was never Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene or any dozen others, separated to an extent by class (certainly by money) from many of his contemporaries, London’s charms were likely to be indistinguishable from, say, Wigan’s.

At one point, around the first half of the century’s first decade, I could see myself being like Orwell: resentful of London, but feeling saddled with having to live there.   It took me a long time to come to love the city, for many of the reasons everyone else who comes and tries it for a while leaves:  it takes ages to get anywhere, it can be busy to the point of suffocation, every little thing conspires to drain your wages away, the people are unfriendly, it isn’t interested in you.  It is easy to find yourself trapped between spheres, unable to know where you fit in.  Most of the bright young graduates moving to London to not join a bank find themselves on generous yet not ridiculous salaries, unable to fit with the monied ruling class who swank about town in taxis, drink cocktails in the most fabulous bars and somehow live just off Kensington High Street, or in Bloomsbury like it is still the 1920s.  Nor do they have much in common with those they are likely to live alongside, the people who are just normal in the city: those who work in shops, on the tubes, in normal offices in places like Tooting and Bromley, Acton and Romford.  Sure, there’s the artistic underworld, but even if you can get a ticket in, you are likely to find yourself sneered at for having to work rather than dedicate yourself to your creative muse.

It took me many years to get beyond all that, and to find myself comfortable in the city, at ease with myself, with friends living nearby, looking forward to the occasional hour long tube journey as an opportunity to read, and I began to fall in love with its wonderful reality rather than the facade most casual visitors see. 

And yet, in the past couple of years my relationship with the city has become strained.  We no longer get on quite as well as we used to.  There are times when we just won’t speak to each other, and neither of us can really remember what sparked to the spat.

And, to a large extent, it is all Boris Johnson’s fault.

Implausibly, he won.

Johnson is a “nasty piece of work”, as the BBC JournalistEddie Mair described him, who it seems will do anything to gain a moment in thelimelight.  He appears devoid of principles as his flip-flopping around whether to be pro or anti-Europe and whether he would contest a Parliamentary seat in the 2015 election show.  Both decisions are much more about his aspirations to be prime minister than any concrete ideology or wish for public service.  Privately he has been, allegedly, describing himself as bored by being London Mayor, once one of the top political jobs in the country and something he has manage to whittle down to an irrelevance while he focuses on the day job of promoting Brand Boris.  Somehow, despite his management through absenteeism, the most diverse city in the country voted in a blonde, blue-eyed Eton boy, twice, and he is now mentioned seriously in any discussion about potential leaders once David Cameron steps down sometime before 2020. 

Perhaps the most staggering thing about Johnson is his unashamed cheek.  During eight years in the mayor’s office he has latched himself onto numerous projects, often triumphantly proclaiming their success, none of which were started by him.  The bike hire scheme, so associated with him it is commonly referred to as Boris Bikes?  Instigated by Ken Livingston.  When the East London line extension opened in 2010, Boris rode the first train into Dalston Junction, proudly waving a Union Jack.  The work had commenced years previously with the final phase resulting in the closure of the existing line in 2007.  Anything Olympic related, from wafting another flag atop of red double -decker bus in Bejing onwards?  London secured the right to host the games in 2005 and the vast majority of work was already underway well before Johnson hitched himself to it.

His actual achievements are generally rooted in failure and corruption.  His restored routemasters introduced to replace the perfectly serviceable bendy-buses have a tendency to overheat in summer and cost significantly more than the original forecasts.  The hyped-up super cycleways are not only less extensive than promised, but poorly maintained, insufficiently segregated from traffic, frequently confusingly signed and with a tendency to disappear at major road junctions creating safety issues where ill-prepared riders find themselves thrust between an articulated lorry and a plumber running late.  Often they are little more than a smear of blue paint on the tarmac.  Johnson likes to portray himself as a cycling champion, whizzing down from his Islington home to City Hall, pausing to scream abuse at taxi drivers, but really it is all just part of a media image designed to highlight supposed quirks which make him a “laff”.

The new river crossing, the Emirates Air Line cable car which links the North Greenwich Peninsula with Canning Town, two points already conveniently linked by the Jubilee Line, is a £60million tourist attraction no-one visits and locals avoid – much like the planned Green Bridge could become.  That scheme seems to be proposed as both privately owned and publically funded, with security guards intended to keep people moving amongst the flora and fauna.  It whiffs of scandal before a single foundation has been bored. 

What he can be said to have achieved is to fundamentally change the horizon of London.  Walking through one of the South East’s many parks atop hills the view into town is different.  Before 2008 one could easily spot the clustered towers in docklands and the scattered few in the centre of town, the Gherkin, tower 42, the old post office tower, centre point.  Now, not only is the financial city packed with staggeringly high towers, but so is Wandsworth, Battersea, Lewisham and most other town centres.  The air above our heads is getting packed with glass and steel, much of it not actually needed, empty office spaces and flats somehow acuminating value, all of it actively changing the look and feel of the City, some of it determined toattack the people who built it, like some sci-fi version of a seventies’ disastermovie where concentrated sun congeals into a laser like focus on the streetsbelow.

But probably Johnson’s most serious failing is his lack of moral perspective.  This is after all someone who had a rival beaten up for money, although that was before he was mayor, and beat up a Japanese school boy.  He seems to never miss an opportunity for some cringeworthy gaff that endears him to people who think politeness is over-rated while really acting a cover for his own narcissism and inexplicable belief that he is somehow deserving of the highest offices.  Probably it is how, under his watch, London has started to lose its soul.

So, the housing crisis isn’t directly Johnson’s fault, but it has happened on his watch and the curious by-product of the traditionally more affluent areas of London becoming ghost towns, places where the global elite park millions of pounds worth of bricks alongside their Maserati, is the surging gentrification and transformation of everywhere else.  Gentrification is, of course, just change and places like Brockley are just returning to their affluent beginnings: grand four storey houses are scrubbed up and returned from flats to single occupancy, but with it comes CCTV cameras and high front hedges or locked gates to keep the rest of the neighbourhood out.  Previously the last affordable bastion of affordable zone two London which few could find on the map, now we see a craft beer bar opening followed by yet another deli or coffee bar and me meeting people in Cardiff talking about it as somewhere their cousin who works in advertising aspiring to move to.  In the wake of every new business something else has to close, maybe the fancy dress shop, or the paint merchants, and with their disappearance goes the livelihoods of the people who worked there.  The new businesses aren’t for them, they’re for the new people.

My wife mocks me, pointing out I am claiming affection for a society I was never truly a part of.  I might have chatted with grave diggers and sparkies and alcoholics and gardeners while pumping bar, but I was doing a masters degree at the time.  But she misses the point: yes, I do like the better choice of drinking venues, the nicer and more plentiful restaurants, and not glancing over my corner when crossing open spaces after dusk, and at the same time I worry about where all the people who were here before went.  For everyone I know locally who I like, there’s someone else, a pop star or an investment banker, with whom I struggle to relate.  These are the people who move somewhere and then start demanding change to fit their idyll, it inch towards the places they have been economically kicked out of. 

If you liked it enough to move here, stop trying to turn it into something else – if only because it rarely works.  It seems that for every non-chic site - be it a garage, a carwash, the sorting office, the technical college, the office furniture retailer with sporadic opening hours – there will be calls for it to be closed and replaced by a gym, a Waitrose, another restaurant, a high-end butcher.  The garage I always used was forced out by increases to land rents and then the property put up for sale.  What have we got in its place?  Some one and two bedroom flats and a Sainsbury’s Local to complement the one a few hundred metres away over the railway tracks. 

I think Johnson is emblematic of how London has shifted over the last eight years.  It feels a bit more of a selfish city.  It feels like it is interested in only helping and being for those of a certain sort.  It feels like it is only slumming it in zone two, in the Mayoral office, until something grander, more prime ministerial comes along, and it will stop at nothing to get there.

So it is with relief that Johnson is gone, at least from local politics.  But there’s a risk that we’re about to replace one blonde buffoon with another.  Okay, maybe Zac Goldsmith doesn’t wear the same facade of being a drunken simpleton, but he brings with him the same sense of entitlement, the same self-serving policies, the same aloof disparity for ordinary people as Johnson.  The son of a billionaire whose only job outside of politics was as editor for a magazine owned by his uncle, Goldsmith is running a vile campaign, following Lynton Crosby’s usual strategy of flinging the equivalent of a dead cat on the dinner table every day.  It gets people talking about the dead cat, even if it turns out to be a fake, but then you move on to the next moggy’s corpse before anyone has time to ask what you were doing with a dead cat in your jacket pocket in the first place.  It might win elections by keeping youropponent on the defensive and persuading the public of their, real or imagined,faults, but by using Sadiq Khan’s religion as a divisive issue and throwing outunsubstantiated accusations of association with extremism it is nasty, petty,and lacks for moral fortitude that real debate instils in worthy winnersWe can do better.  We can be better, surely?

The clouds dissipate as my son goes to sleep and my wife heats up soup.  The sun is warm through the windows.  The mountains become clear again as though emerging from a fog of disillusionment.  Maybe we should run away to the countryside.  Maybe we should abandon the city to its own, self-induced mess.  But Orwell didn’t see 1984 as a judgement, but rather a warning.  Perhaps we should see Johnson’s reign of the capital in the same way.  If you want a fool in charge, you get eight years of stagnation and nothing.  Instead you can have something else, something better.  Maybe the clouds will lift and the light of hope and inclusiveness will return to London.  Maybe, and for the time being I’m not giving up on my home.          

Monday, 30 November 2015

Sons or Daughters (Ages of David, Part 8 of 8)

My wife is pregnant. 

I am going to be a dad.

Any moment now.

This is not a decision we took lightly, nor one taken simply because it is what we feel we ought to be doing.  My wife’s career is important to her.  We both have reservations about adding another soul to a planet already over-stretched, about bring someone into a life which – in all probability – will offer harder choices and a more complex existence than we, to date, have experienced.  And yet, beyond just an idle curiosity of what our spliced genes would look like, we actively want to be parents.

I want to be a strong father, a good husband.  I want to provide for and support my family.  I don’t want to let them down.

But I also don’t want to let myself down.

I sometimes feel that there is nothing I can invent, no fiction I can construct which is worth anyone’s time to read.  I find writing this blog, dramatising my own life, covering up all the scars with words, much easier, and at times more satisfying.  Its readership is reasonable, if not stellar, but significantly higher than those who read the stories stored on my hard-drive.

In other words I am devoid of inspiration but there is only so far I can go in trawling my own life for material.  My wife and unborn child did not sign up to become characters for me to manipulate.

Writing takes significant amounts of time.  I fear that time being eroded by the arrival of a child.  At the same time, I welcome the time being stolen from me.  It gives me a legitimate excuse to give up, to surrender the fact that I am, quite simply, not good enough.  And never will be.  No-one will begrudge me giving up what increasingly feels like a hobby to spend more time with my son or daughter. 

All of which is making me sound like a total twat.


I am in my study.  The music plays loudly.  The screen blinks as words fill it.  Outside dusk has fallen.  My wife lies in the bed in the next room, her laptop open, resting with the cat curled up tight to her thigh.  The world is calm.

I consider writing an imaginary vignette to compliment the true-ish stories I’ve been telling. 

I think about taking my son to the playground in the park, feeling the gentle smack of the swing being pushed out by my gloved hands.  The rush he feels as he shoots once more into the air never quite knowing if this time he will fly free, but somehow trusting he will always come back to my hands.

Or teaching my daughter how to ride her first bike, feeling the tremble in her hands as I steady her balances and then that surge of pride as she wobbles decisively over the horizon.  That I know she will be able to do anything she wants if we are able to set her on the right path.

Or a thousand other situations which may or may not ever come to pass.

Maybe I should dramatise the joke my wife and I keep telling, that on the morning after our child’s birth I will take to the Hilly Fields stone circle and raise it aloft in the dawn, promising it the kingdom of south east London.

But these are just fictions and this is real.  This is happening and I cannot possibly, truly, understand what it will be like until it does.  I need to just stop making stuff up and focus on real life.


It sounds like I’m not excited, which isn’t true.  With every inch my wife has expanded there has both been a spark of nervousness but also a touch of a thrill.  There have been those moments when your gut somersaults, your heart pinches and the sheer miracle of it all bites: hearing the rapid fire heartbeat at ten weeks, like a terrified mouse, gave me a sudden realisation that it was really, truly alive.  That first time I felt it move, swirl and wriggle, in my wife’s stomach, as it took a twisting escape from the pressure of my hand.  And a hundred, thousand other times.

But I am worried I will fail either it or myself.  Maybe I put too much emphasis on my need to write, but at the moments when the words come together the scars are entirely gone and I feel whole.  When it is a battle to get anything that makes sense out, they weep pus and guilt. 

I am, I realise, utterly ridiculous.  My own parents had far realer difficulties in bringing up their children.  From my touch and go birth onwards, my own Dad had to deal with a, at times, pretentious and precocious son with strange interests whose ambition left his ability far behind and who had a tendency to wallow in frustration.  Dad responded by instinctively doing everything in his power to provide all for his children.  In contrast, I’m moaning about losing a few hours a week to pointlessly put words into a computer hardly anyone ever sees anyway.  My problems are miniscule compared to so many in the world.  If I can be a fraction of the father he has been, my child will be off to a brilliant start.

Earlier in the year I re-read some of Harvey Pekar’swonderful American Splendour stories.  Pekar was never a professional writer.  He worked by day as a file clerk in veterans’ hospital, finding splendour in the life and struggles of the every day.  His comics were his creative outlet which kept him sane, even finding a way to come to terms with his cancer treatment. 

At the time I remember admiring his resilience; the fact that, even in his darkest moments, Harvey Pekar never gave up on his writing, on his life.  He kept picking away at the scars of his soul and the society he saw around him, needling away until the crisp crust split and the truth underneath drizzled out.  But, sometimes, that’s a release I crave.  To stop picking at my flaws.  A part of me wants to have permission to not feel guilty about not writing, about not necessarily doing anything other than being a man, a husband and a dad.

And part of me is terrified that, should I stop, that will be the end of me.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

35-ish (Ages of David, Part 7 of 8)

‘I think we should try to make a baby.’

‘What?’ I reply from underneath my cagoule’s hood and glance around at the rain sodden Welsh hillside.  ‘Right now?’

‘It’d be a bit chilly,’ my wife of five days says.  ‘But maybe in the autumn when we get back from Vietnam?’

‘Uh-huh,’ I say, remembering a similar conversation and trying to figure out exactly how I feel.  ‘That’s, er, that’s sooner than we’ve previously talked about.’

‘Is it?’

And, actually, I realise that it probably isn’t.  It’s just that we weren’t terribly specific and it’s so easy to wilfully misunderstand things when you want to.  My wife continues to talk about our future and I use the rain as an excuse to sink a little back into myself.  I am torn.  I want, so desperately, to please her and yet the idea of having a child in a little over a year’s time seems ludicrous.  I am just coming to terms with the idea that I am effectively halfway through life with little literary output to show for it, and I haven’t realised yet that my work is about to stall as inspiration rushes away from me.  I don’t for one second believe I am ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood.

But it is not solely my choice.  And it certainly isn’t my body.

The idea sinks in more as we drop down off Pen Y Fan, following the bridleway to the ruined buildings overgrown with greenery at the head of the small dam.  It isn’t as horrifying as I first thought.  It grows and images form in my mind, spreading like tendrils through my life map.

‘I guess I just thought we’d have more time to, you know, just be husband and wife, before we became mum and dad too.’

She smiles and I can’t not respond.


The bathroom door closes and I find myself not sure what I want the outcome to be.  Over the past couple of months, I have oscillated between excitement and hesitation.  There have been moments, sometimes crucial moments, of doubt.  Aside from questions around my own suitability as a parent, it’s a hard world out there.  Growing ecological problems, an economy latched onto the hope that capitalism is somehow endless, that it is possible for growth to be infinite, while we live in a society that, occasionally, seems to embrace hate and aspire to social exclusivity.  One that is more than willing to trample others in its race to the false summit.  Who would want the gift of life in such circumstances?

‘Come and look,’ she calls, so I go upstairs to join her staring at a soggy piece of card.  Slowly the colour changes to something definite.  She looks so pleased, I can’t help but get swept up in it too, but also it feels remote.  There’s a clear change, but an abstract one too. 

The next day we head to Normandy for a few days cycling.  Immediately, my wife notices a difference.  She has less energy, finds herself struggling more than she would do normally.  She can already feel the changes in her body.  Something is taking shape inside her.  Meanwhile, I feel detached.  It is, obviously, happening to me too but I, simultaneously, am excluded.


It is summer by the time of the second scan.  Seeing it, hearing its heartbeat for the first time helped it all to feel real, but during the lull in-between it has started to disappear over the horizon again.  I can see the physical changes occurring to my wife, but still I struggle to fully understand them – and consequently to completely understand how I feel about it.  I do want this, I tell myself, but I worry that it is just me saying it.  I’m worried about how much I am lying to myself:  That really I am afraid of what it will do to my life, that its own life will be as muddled as my own.

I haven’t written a word for weeks.  I sit upstairs at the computer, looking at the white glow on the screen and nothing comes out.  There is just the void, barren and uncaring.  I fear that’s what is growing inside me.

The technician scans the baby several times.  No longer just a foetus, it is taking on humanoid shape.  Its profiled head is luminous and ghostly.  A nose, a forehead, lips and eyelids.  It is beginning to look real.  I squeeze my wife’s hand and feel a knot of nervousness scrunch in my gut as the technologist returns from her computer and looks again.

‘Where has it gone?’ she mutters to herself.

‘What?’ I ask, immediately assuming something is wrong.

She thinks she has seen something called bright bowel.  A brief moment where the bowel glowed like blood.  This, she concedes, could have been a mistake since she can’t replicate it, but it could also be a soft sign for all sorts of things.  Some relatively benign.  Some significantly more serious.       

‘Don’t google it,’ I tell my wife, knowing full well that we both will do.  Cystic fibrosis.  Cytomegalovirus.  Trisomy 21.  Intrauterine Growth Restriction.

The next few days are tense.  I reappraise the questions I’m asking myself.  It becomes no longer about whether I will be fit to have a child, but whether I will be capable of caring as much as could be required.  I fail to answer myself.

Another scan, this time at the bigger hospital with a consultant operating the machine. 

‘Nothing,’ he says.  ‘There is nothing there, nothing to worry about.’

The sense of relief I feel is so great I am giddy on my feet.  But the relief is sharpened too.  I immediately realise that I do not so much feel it for myself but for my unborn child.  I care about it more than I do myself.  And that is the moment everything draws into focus.  I am not ready to be a Dad – no-one ever, truly is.  I am detached from the process of growing a baby because I am one body removed, just like everyone else.  However, I do care for it, suddenly and surprisingly strongly.


But no words come and wife grows and I feel as though I fail us.

The air has turned cold tonight for the first time this year.  My breath hangs in the dark two o’clock air.  Someone from our NCT group gave birth this morning.   We are well and truly in the drop zone.  Labour could commence at any moment and I am hundred miles away, drunk outside a pub.  I am a useless excuse for a man, I think, followed by something more profound I tell myself to remember and write down later.  I plan to use it here, in this paragraph, but it is gone, fleeting on the winter wind.

My scars itch with guilt and the demons under my skin writhe around looking for a route out.

30-ish (Ages of David, Part 6 of 8)

Before I even open my eyes I’m wishing I was still asleep.  There’s a burn in my brain and an acidy fire in my gut.  It feels like my memories are combusting.  My mouth is heavily dry, my tongue scuzzily fuzzed over.  I really need to pee.  Slowly I peel my eyelids open, the summer’s morning light doesn’t sting but it does all look out of focus.  There’s a half empty bottle of California rose on the bedside table, which is surprising, not least because I don’t have a bedside table.  It takes the realisation that the pillow is a paunchy yellow to fully comprehend that this, probably, isn’t my bed.

Unsurprisingly, on that basis, I am not alone, but the heavy breathing suggests that I am the only one in the waking world.  I slip out from under the covers, relieved to see I am at least wearing boxers, and go in search of a bathroom.  I’m lucky; it’s directly opposite the bedroom, across the hall, the door ajar.  The stinking wine heavy piss is long and, eventually, a relief.  There’s no toilet paper.  Afterwards I splash some water on my face, but I can’t get it to run cold.  The clammy warmness doesn’t alleviate my symptoms.

I go in search of a glass, wandering through the flat in just my underwear.  I find the kitchen and pour myself some more lukewarm water, glugging back the whole glass in one and refilling.  My mouth feels less rancid.  Just.  I take my water to the window.  We’re high.  Maybe the sixth floor.  The flat looks out on the greyed out grass of a communal area and other blocks smudged between the raised train tracks.  I’m not entirely sure where I am.  South of the river, I think.  There was definitely a bus ride.

I don’t think it is as bad as it could be, but I can’t rightly remember.  There’s another two empty rose bottles on the table.  There are also a pair of man’s trainers which aren’t mine.  Momentarily I panic that it may be a boyfriend, but then I remember mention of a flatmate.  Less dangerous, but no doubt equally less keen to discover me, without clothes, early in the morning.

How early, I wonder and glance at the clock on the cooker.  It says 16.32.  It can’t be afternoon, I think.  It’s too quiet. 

I creep back into the room.  On the bedside table is my watch, next to an empty wineglass.  Just after six.  I get back into the bed, feeling too dreadful to contemplate anything else.  The girl rolls off her back, onto her side and I look at her face and try to remember.  Her hair smells of cigarettes.  I turn my face to the ceiling.  In the corner, by the window, there is a black patch of mould.  The sheets feel greasy.  What, I think, do I do now?

Go to sleep, my body answers for me, encouraging my eyes to close.

‘That was a narrow escape,’ she says.  I don’t reply, unsure what to say.  Was it?  I’m not sure I know the answer.  ‘I mean, this could be really awkward right now.’


‘Well, goodbye then.’

‘Oh.’  I open my eyes and sit back up.  ‘Goodbye, I guess.’

I get dressed quickly, deciding as I do that this suit has definitely seen better days.  I pause at the door, wanting to find some witty respite or at least some way for this not to be quite so humiliating.  I can’t think of anything so I leave.

‘See you,’ comes the voice along the corridor.

Downstairs, passing through the door that doesn’t securely shut, I suddenly remember arriving via a hole in the fence by the road rather than through the estate.  I find the gap and squeeze through it, jumping down the last few feet to the pavement making a passing dog walker jump.

‘Sorry,’ I mutter but he just scowls.

I’m still not sure where I am, but start walking anyway.  The morning is already warm and I feel empty, deflated of food and energy, but with an empty walk is what I must do.  After a while I find a road I recognise, round the back of the refuse centre you pass on the train between New Cross and London Bridge.  The faint waft of composting rubbish floats on the air.

This is not exactly my finest hour, but by the time I have arrived home I am at least starting to feel human again, and there is something from all the tumbled up emotions that I can feed off.  I shower, make myself two sausage sandwiches with brown sauce and a pot of coffee and go to work, funnelling all the weirdness into words on the page.  Several hours of writing flow effortlessly, the click-clack of the keyboard creating a stomach settling rhythm.

Early in the afternoon she texts me.  Do I want to meet for a drink later?   I politely decline.  Her response is furious and so I keep on typing.