Wednesday, 27 May 2015

So, are you going to wear that shirt?

Many of my friends from University days will recognise the question "so, are you going to wear that shirt?" I cannot quite remember the origin of the phrase, other than that it was addressed by a girl to her boyfriend on observing what he had chosen for an evening out. I think we all know what it means, but perhaps the non-British readers may not be quite so familiar with the full nuances of the question. Broadly, it translates to "Dear God! What the hell do you think you look like? There is no way I will be seen dead with you dressed like that. Go back to your room and choose something more appropriate. Now. Ideally ask me to come and tell you which shirt to wear."

I don't know whether it's a particular British thing, or an English thing, or just a passive-aggressive thing, but I do seem to experience a lot of this kind of question. Sometimes it's obvious what it means, other times less so. And sometimes it's a downright sledgehammer, that's abandoning all pretence of "passive" and moving directly to "aggressive". So today, I'm going to take a little tour through some of my favourite examples (with translations).

Are you going to eat all that cheese?
 - option 1: Don't you think you're more than fat enough already? I really think you should consider cutting back on your cheese intake.
 - option 2: I haven't bought enough lunch for myself, and I would really like to cadge some of your lunch, despite the fact that you have shown the foresight to buy enough food for the whole week, and I haven't even managed to bring enough for today.

Do you use that china?
 - My own life is so chaotic and my children so badly behaved, I find it incomprehensible that you might be able to use fine china in your lives. I am therefore going to assume that the fact that you have a glass-fronted cabinet full of Royal Doulton is just pretension on your part, and try and embarrass you about it, in an indirect fashion. [Note: this attempt fails, as we do use the bone china, and allow LittleBear to use it, on the grounds there's no point having it otherwise, and by treating him as a responsible human being at times, I find he behaves like one.]

Are you testing the new scientific instrument?
- I can clearly see that you're sitting at your desk, on a different floor of the building to the instrument in question, and therefore cannot possibly be testing anything downstairs, however, rather than asking you directly what you're doing or when you're going to start testing I shall be obtusely oblique, and leave you utterly bewildered about what the point of this question is. Other than nagging. I'm pretty sure nagging is involved.

Were you getting a cup of tea?
 - easy one this - please make me a cup of tea.

Does LittleBear still <fill in the blank>?
 - I believe my child is more advanced than yours and I am going to attempt to draw your attention to this fact in the least subtle way I can imagine, beyond actually pointing and laughing. The utterance of a question of this nature almost instantly relegates the speaker into the category of "parents I have no interest in spending time with". I don't need this rubbish. There are enough ways in which I can feel like a rubbish mother on my own thank you very much, I don't need anyone's help. Besides, today I am an absolutely bloody awesome mother, so there.

Do you let LittleBear <fill in the blank>?
 - this is a tricky one, as it can have two clear, and diametrically opposite meanings, that all depend on the intonation. If there's a slight air of incredulity, then we're looking at option 1. Option 1 is therefore much the same as my previous example. This is a parent (usually a mother) who wishes to claim the moral high ground for her parenting choices and condemn any other choices to the heap of neglect, stupidity or failure. She (as I said, it usually is) can bugger right off with her faux outrage at whatever it is you've chosen to do that she thinks is inappropriate. On the other hand, if there's a slightly plaintive tone, or a hint of desperation, or indeed simple curiosity, then we're firmly in the territory of option 2. Option 2 means you're talking to a normal human being who is looking for advice, validation, help or information. This is not a passive-aggressive question, it's just a question and should be welcomed with open arms (open ears?) and responded to kindly.

You don't actually wear leggings do you? With your knees?
 - this is one of the classic sledgehammers. Uttered by my "best-friend" at school. Perhaps the fact that she was 6 inches shorter than me and with legs of double the circumference might explain the source of the question, but still. With friends like her I really didn't need any enemies.

You can eat a lot can't you?
 - I have genuinely no idea what this meant. It was uttered by a Chinese work associate. It was uttered as I prepared a plate of fish pie and steamed vegetables. Did he mean I was fat? Greedy? Thin enough to get away with eating a lot? I remain mystified by it, along with some of his other declarations, such as "Why have you worked here so long?" and "Why don't you have a PhD? Everyone has a PhD!"

Have you put the bins out?
 - I know perfectly well that you haven't put the bins out, and I'm going to draw your attention to it, so that you can leap into action, rather than actually just being direct and asking you to do so.

OK, I admit it, the last one is me. I blame everyone else though. Their bad habits are rubbing off on me. Perhaps my late-May-resolution should be to try to be more direct. Sorry BigBear.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Always have an engineer among your friends

Yesterday dawned bright, if not exactly sunny, so LittleBear and I made a quick trip to 'Screwfix' to stock up on a wide variety of nails, screws, panel pins and drill bits before starting work. We weren't expecting Colleague and Wife until after lunch, so I needed to introduce a certain level of delaying tactics as well. There were only a limited number of construction jobs that could be attempted without our tame expert.

Step 1: bring the required pieces of timber round into the garden.

Step 2: learn to hammer with Daddy

Step 3: drilling holes to fit hinges to a door

And then the Construction Department arrived, and we could start in earnest with:

Step 4: assembling the walls onto the base, clamping and strapping before drilling and screwing.

It did all get a bit tiring though...

Step 5: hanging the door

It was at this point that the DIY skills required slipped beyond my reach. A paring chisel was needed. Knowledge of how to use a paring chisel was needed. Skill at using a paring chisel was needed. I knew it was a good idea to ask Colleague to help (and yes, the door opens and closes perfectly). 

Colleague did make maximum use of having a LittleBear to pass him tools, screws, clamps and straps.

Step 6: sawing the roof spars to fit.

Sawing was what LittleBear had been looking forward to more than anything, and Colleague duly taught him the single most important part of concentrating while building – sticking your tongue out of the corner of your mouth.

Step 7: fitting the roof

With the aid of a step-ladder (second only in excitement value to a saw), LittleBear was able to continue to pass tools to Colleague on demand.

Step 8: in which LittleBear has dinner and a bath, and Colleague and Wife nobly fit all of the felt to the roof, unassisted and un-photographed.

Step 9: finishing touches

And then, finally, LittleBear went to bed, having been carried outside in his pyjamas to see his completed playhouse, and I took Colleague and Wife out for a well-earned meal. And today? LittleBear's cousins have come to visit, and everyone had a chance to play...

(Smallest BearCousin is inside the playhouse, and I don't think her brother is stopping her from coming out. On the other hand, since his father is my big brother, it's entirely possible history is repeating itself in this photo...)

Friday, 22 May 2015

A swan (or an idiot)

For some time, we've been promising LittleBear his own wooden playhouse in the garden. And that time is now here. Having spent more hours than is in any way sensible choosing which playhouse to buy, I finally ordered one, and last weekend it was delivered, flat-packed.

I was extremely pleased that we managed to persuade LittleBear that the delivery of the playhouse was not going to result in a complete playhouse being immediately available in the garden. We explained that it needed painting first, and that it would take a while to build it as well. He announced that he wanted to paint it and help build it. In for a penny, in for a pound, and I agreed. More fool me.

Saturday and Sunday we therefore spent digging the flowerbed to lay with sand and paving slabs as a foundation for said playhouse. BigBear joined in, but promptly pulled a muscle in his glutes, leaving me and LittleBear to continue. LittleBear was in charge of the trowel and I had the spade, so you can guess where the bulk of the digging occurred. And I discovered how hard it is to push a wheelbarrow with a small person also pushing it.

I also, even more foolishly, decided to make progress clearing out our shed. I filled both of our cars with junk to take to the dump, and made a pile on the drive, with a sign inviting people to help themselves, consisting of timber, loft boards, copper pipe, insulation, grouting, tile cement and a wallpaper stripper/steamer. People duly helped themselves, and we disposed of the rest of the garbage at the dump. Unfortunately I also had an appalling Laural and Hardy-esque moment while carrying the loft boards to the front of the house. I picked them up... LittleBear asked me a question... I turned round... and I thwacked LittleBear in the head with the other end of the planks... Once we'd overcome the sobbing, the face clutching, applied a coldpack and had lots of cuddles, I was re-assured that I had not actually inadvertently blinded my son, or inflicted any abominable injury upon him. I felt physically sick when it happened however, and was reminded afresh just how precious, and small, and vulnerable my baby is.

Sunday, and the playhouse was delivered. Much excitement ensued, along with a little bewilderment. It did not, after all, look much like a playhouse. However, once tanked up on lunch, LittleBear was raring to start painting. And, to give him his due, he then spent a good two hours with me, using both roller and brush, applying "Seagrass" Cuprinol to the outer faces of the walls of the playhouse. OK, so he also put the roller down on my foot, painted the ground, sat in the paint tray and painted his own head, but he had a lovely time. And the Cuprinol is water washable.

What with work, and nursery, and not having BigBear at home on Mondays and Fridays when me and LittleBear are home, we promised we'd build the playhouse this weekend. In retrospect, as with so many of my DIY decisions, this was wildly optimistic, but I cannot bring myself to break a promise I've made to my LittleBear. Yes, LittleBear and I painted one side of four panels. Yes, that was a good start. But, there were also four roof struts, the base, two picket fences, plus support posts, four pieces of roof edging, two finials, a door, a window and thirty four pieces of window beading. Plus the reverse sides of the walls. And all of the wood needed two coats. And we were using two different colours.

And that is why I have spent every evening for the past six nights painting timber until 9pm. I am so tired I want to strangle almost anything that doesn't co-operate, and that includes the kettle, the car, LittleBear, BigBear, my colleagues, the computer, not to mention every other driver on the road.

The good thing is that my lovely colleague and his lovely wife are coming over to help build the playhouse. There's basically nothing about building with timber my colleague doesn't know, so I feel we'll be in safe hands. Plus I then get to go out for dinner with them afterwards.

And my LittleBear firmly believes he's painted his playhouse. I feel that between us we perhaps make a perfect swan - LittleBear gliding effortlessly across the surface of the pond, while I paddle furiously and madly beneath the water to maintain the illusion. Or perhaps I'm just an idiot.

I'll let you know how the playhouse building goes in the next installment...

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The General Election and Me

Everybody's so busy wanting to be down with the gang. "I'm conservative", "I'm liberal", "I'm conservative". Bullshit! Be a fucking person! Lis-ten! Let it swirl around your head. Then form your opinion. No normal, decent person is one thing, okay? 
Chris Rock, 2004

This is my blog, and I'm writing this for me own sake, partly to clarify what I actually think, and partly because writing something calmly, slowly and sensibly, with time to research and time to edit is considerably easier, and more therapeutic, than blasting out off-the-cuff rants on Facebook or the Guardian website. I'm going to write about two things. The first are the bizarre myths that seem to abound about socialism, the Labour party, and the previous Labour administration in particular. And the second is, well, pretty much everything else about the general election. The things I want for this country, the things I don't want. The things I'm absolutely bloody terrified that we're going to get and I can't do anything about.

I may lay myself open to being accused of setting up straw-men in what I write, but I promise that every single one of the things that I mention here I have read, either in a newspaper article or in the comments following it, or I've heard on the radio, or I've heard a politician say, or sometimes I've heard a normal human being say to my face. I'm not going to make anything up just for the sake of arguing against it. And I'm not expecting anyone to try and argue against what I'm saying, or tell me I'm wilfully misinterpreting their point. In fact, I actively don't want to start an argument, I just want to get it all of my chest. This is my blog, and I'll cry if I want to.

Myths, legends and superstitions

Labour's recession

Apparently, the recession that started in 2008 was all Labour's fault. All Gordon Brown's fault. All Ed Balls' fault. Even our Noble Leader David Cameron referred to it recently as "Labour's recession". Now he (I desperately hope) has to know better and is just being mendacious. Everyone else who touts this line? I don't know. Are they so insular they failed to notice the global financial crisis? Do they think that Gordon Brown invented credit default swaps? That Ed Balls convinced Deutsche Bank to invest in collatoralised debt obligations? That Labour fed the Wall Street greed for free money until it invented a ponzi scheme so grandiose that when it fell it took the banks themselves with it? Do the rest of Europe blame Gordon Brown for their recessions too? And the US? I never knew he was so powerful. Yes, the global financial meltdown happened while we had a Labour government, but I think it's fair to say that it would have happened whether we'd had Labour, Conservative, Green or Monster Raving Loony at the helm.

I do thoroughly recommend reading "The Big Short" by Michael Lewis if you want to learn more about the horrific, blinkered, mindless banking practices that were going on prior to the crash.

Conservative recovery

And obviously it was only the Conservative Party that dragged us out of the recession. Wasn't it?

Here's a graph of GDP growth rates from 2008 to now. The last general election was in May 2010. By which time we were already out of the depths of the recession, and the GDP growth rate was positive again. Under the Labour Party. But apparently that doesn't count. It was the Tories wot did it.

Historical Data Chart

And, as I recall, it was only in retrospect, after some minute analysis of the figures, that it turned out that George Osborne hadn't taken us into a double-dip recession. And again, only by the skin of his teeth that he dodged the triple-dip.

Socialism is not Communism

I've lost track of the number of people who've equated socialism to communism and then leapt from there to declaring that anyone who wants a socialist paradise wants Pol Pot, Stalin or Chairman Mao at the helm. Surely there has to be the equivalent of Godwin's Law, where you can declare someone to have lost an argument on the internet if they invoke the dictator of a repressive regime?

I know that people are using hyperbole on the internet, but really, if your best criticism of a socialist government is that it might be like Pol Pot I think you need to stop and look around at some broadly left-wing governments around the world. I don't seem to remember Finland being infamous for its Great Leap Forward, or for its single-child policy. I don't think anyone was horrified to discover the Killing Fields of Denmark, or the gulags of New Zealand. It's entirely possible to have a left-wing, egalitarian society with high social spending, a high standard of living and a high happiness index.

David Cameron is good for businesses

Now, I'm not exactly an expert on this, but I can see a distinct chasm between being good for businesses and being good for people. And perhaps Cameron is good for businesses, but if he is, I fear that it's at the expense of people. The massive proliferation of zero-hours contracts for example (I'm struggling to find accurate figures from the Office for National Statistics on this, so can't be more accurate than the fact that the number of such contracts has increased markedly).

The company I work for may need to employ a technician soon. We could, and probably will, employ one full-time person. But then, we're relatively decent human beings. Instead we could employ two people on zero-hours contracts and offer each of them 18 or 19 hours a week. We wouldn't have to offer them hours when we were light on work. We wouldn't have to pay as much National Insurance, as we'd only have to start paying once the pay went over the lower threshold for each person. We wouldn't have to offer them any hours at all when they were sick. Overall, it would cost us less. It would also get two people off the unemployment register, and off some benefits. So that would look good for the government. But it would also bring in less tax and NI to the exchequer as they'd both have their personal allowance before paying tax. Not so good. And neither of them would be earning a decent wage, or have job security, or sick-pay. If we were bastards, we could save pennies and screw people. But it would be good for business. Not for the people involved, but at least the business would be doing OK. And that's what matters, right?

Then there's "welfare-to-work", where a company gets to have an employee, but doesn't have to pay them. The poor sap who works for you is doing so only because if they don't they won't get their benefits. That's not having a job, that's indentured servitude. Basically, if you can't get a job, the government then owns you. Yes, it's good for business, who get something for nothing, but it doesn't seem to be very good for the people involved.

Benefits Scroungers

"I work hard and pay my taxes, I don't see why I should support all these people who are too lazy to get off their arses and get a job". Because, obviously, the only reason for getting benefits is not having a job. And the only reason for not having a job is being too lazy. If you can be bothered, I recommend the Institute of Fiscal Studies report on benefits in 2014. I've taken the data from Table 3.1 of that report and used the abomination that is Excel to create a nice chart for you:

("Other" is currently my favourite category. It's a Christmas Bonus. "The Christmas bonus is the only national benefit not included in any of these sections. This is a one-off payment of £10 to the recipients of certain benefits in the week beginning the first Monday of December." It's 0.08% of the benefit budget.)

The individual breakdown of each of those sections is itself very interesting, but it made for a rather busy chart, and it's all there in the report I've linked to if you want to read it. The point is, we really don't spend that much on the unemployed. Nor, as it turns out, do we have "the most generous benefits system in Europe". As a percentage of GDP we rank quite low in Europe in fact (with apologies for the poor quality of the image).

Social security

We spend a lot on our elderly, and our sick, and our disabled. Personally, I think that's a good thing. Particularly because it's only a matter of time or luck or both before we all fit into one of those categories.

Who exactly are the scroungers? Me? I get child benefit, and 15 hours of pre-school childcare a week. My mother? She gets a state pension, and a bus pass, and a winter fuel allowance. My father in-law? With his pension, and his arthritis, diabetes and cholesterol medication. My friend? Being unable to work while being treated for breast cancer at the age of 21, but having had a zero-hours contract, so no right to sick-pay. Another friend? In a wheelchair and with no use of her hands after an horrific car accident, but still working as a teacher, despite needing carers at home and school.

And as for that "hard-working" trope - we spend 16.67% of our welfare budget on supporting those whose income is inadequate to provide them with the basic necessities of life. They do work, but it's still not enough. I wonder if this could have anything to do with Cameron being good for businesses but not so good for people?

Things I voted against

I think that you can probably guess that I didn't vote for the Conservative candidate in my constituency*. There were a lot of reasons for this, some of them almost certainly emotive, some of them almost certainly a product of my upbringing. Some of them were underpinned by a sense of injustice and inequality, and a desire for this country to be a fairer place for everyone. I know that there are Conservative voters out there who voted that way because they want the same things that I want, and think that the Conservatives can provide that. I'm not claiming a monopoly on compassion or fairness or equality. But I am trying to explain why I don't think the Conservatives are the party to create an egalitarian society.

* Do you see what I did there? I didn't vote for David Cameron, or Ed Miliband, or Nick Clegg, because they weren't standing in my constituency. I voted for a parliamentary candidate in my constituency. And since my constituency is a safe Conservative seat, a fat lot of difference it made.

Taking from the poor and giving to the rich

In 2011 the VAT rate went from 17.5% to 20%. VAT is a regressive tax - it takes no account of your ability to pay, your income, or your needs. In fact, it disproportionately affects the poor. In 2009/10 the poorest 20% spent 8.7% of their gross income on VAT whereas the richest 20% spent only 4.0% of their gross income on VAT. (Andrew Barnard, Steve Howell and Robert Smith (2011). Effects of taxes and benefits on household income Statistical Bulletin - 2009/2010. Office for National Statistics, p. 14.)

In 2013 the upper rate of income tax (for income over £150,000) was cut from 50% to 45%. That's for the top 1% of earners. The Conservatives propose that they will raise the higher rate income tax threshold. Only 14.7% of taxpayers currently pay the higher rate of income tax. That's the best-paid 14.7% of the population. When we're "all in this together", couldn't the top 14.7% of the population perhaps be in it with us? 

The "bedroom tax" or under-occupancy penalty has been a big stick with which to thoroughly beat a small problem. Those occupying social housing are, almost by definition, at the bottom of the heap. The stated aim was to encourage those "under-occupying" their homes to move out, thus freeing up larger homes for larger families in need of social housing. In England there are 180,000 tenants under-occupying two-bedroom homes, but only 85,000 smaller homes available. So at very best, if you moved as many people as you could, with no new tenants involved, you'd still have 95,000 tenants who couldn't move, because there was nowhere to move to. Those are totals alone, taking no account of where the homes are and whether it's in any way feasible for people to move to them. So the poor have a choice to move (either impossible or unlikely) or pay up.

Eroding my freedoms

As soon as she got the keys to the department back, Theresa May started talking about the Communications Data Bill again. I'm not sure I can begin to explain my deep distrust of any government that wants access to so much data about its populace. This would require ISPs and mobile phone companies to keep records of everybody's internet activity, email correspondence, voice calls, internet gaming, and mobile phone messaging services and store the records for 12 months.

Then there's the Human Rights Act. This brought the enforcement and implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic courts. And it isn't as though the rights we're talking about are obscure, or unreasonable:

- The right to life
- The right not to be tortured
- The right not to be a slave
- The right to a fair trial
- The right NOT to be punished if you haven’t broken the law
- The right to private family life
- The right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
- The right to freedom of expression
- The right to marry and start a family
- The right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions
- The right to education
- The right to free elections
- The right NOT to be given to death penalty

The convention guaranteeing these rights has been in force since 1953. We're not just threatening to scrap the Human Rights Act, but also to remove ourselves from being signatories to that convention. In other words our government wants to breach international law and renege on a fundamental international convention. And if we do that, what's to stop other, genuinely repressive regimes doing the same, safe to argue "but the UK did it"? I never trust a government who repeals legislation designed to protect the people, or writes new, more draconian legislation with the assurance "it's OK, we won't abuse these new laws". Perhaps it's not the current government we need to worry about? Perhaps it's more important to accept that one or two people may get away with something slightly unsavoury rather than risk many people having their freedoms curtailed?

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemöller                         

I do thoroughly recommend reading "The Rule of Law" by Tom Bingham (that would be Lord Thomas Bingham, KG PC QC FBA and variously Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and Senior Law Lord.) Even for the layman, he explains beautifully and succinctly the role of the law and of government in both making and being bound by the law.

I'm not sure that I really believe the argument that this is an issue of sovereignty either - the HRA allowed the government get out clauses anyway - it says that the government can't interfere with your rights unless it's a) authorised by law, b) necessary, c) in a proportionate manner. Which is a pretty broad set of conditions to let them do what they want. I also don't buy into the idea that the HRA makes it easier for "bad people" to seek protection and prevent the government protecting us from their "badness". If someone commits an act that is against the law of the United Kingdom, prosecute them for that crime. If you just don't like them, or don't like what they say, tough. And if you don't like the way our Supreme Court is interpreting the HRA, with its exhortation to take into account rulings from Strasbourg? Tough again. The separation of the judiciary and the executive is a fundamental tenet of a democratic society, and I certainly don't want politicians taking judicial decisions. So I refer you back to Thomas Bingham again, who was instrumental in incorporating the ECHR into British law and also setting up our own Supreme Court. I trust him considerably more than I trust any politician, of any party.

Handing power to corporations

The TTIP really, really worries me. There are some fundamental asymmetries in it that I would hope would worry most people. Like corporations being allowed to sue governments, but governments having no recourse to hold corporations to account. And there are a great many of our rights, standards and protections that would be thrown away to satisfy large foreign corporations. Our food standards, health and safety standards and employment protection laws are much more stringent than those in the US, and yet the current proposals would have us "harmonise" our laws to the same standards as those in the US. And every single estimate, from the most pessimistic to the most optimistic, says that signing up to the TTIP would cause job losses in the EU. 

And then there are the secret courts that will convene to settle disputes between governments and corporations. That's right, secret courts. Courts in which corporations can sue governments for acting in any way that prevents the corporation from making a profit. Yes, I did just write that. We would not be able to write into law anything, no matter how important, that prevented a corporation with a contract under TTIP from making a profit. Even if that law was "don't release toxic sludge into our waterways". And the court in which the decisions about these situations would be made would be secret. Even the UN are now piping up and pointing out it's not a good idea and it probably undermines the principles of democratic government, not to mention those pesky human rights again.

Then there's the creeping privatisation of the NHS. I am not rabidly anti-capitalist. I'm quite happy that there are businesses and services that operate best when market driven. But I am absolutely certain that neither health not education come into those categories. If I buy a sofa and it turns out to be a shoddy, I may be out of pocket, but I can easily choose not to buy from ShoddySofas Inc again. I can tell my friends about them, write reviews, wave placards outside their shops or complain to Trading Standards, and aside from the cost I haven't exactly ruined my life. When it comes to being treated for cancer however, I don't want profit to be the driving force behind what treatment I receive. I don't want my doctor to go for the cheap option in the hope of making a bit more money. If it's not quite good enough, I don't get to have another go. There's no review I could write, or replacement sofa I could buy that would get me my health back. Sure, the doctor might decide that maybe costs were squeezed a bit too low this time, and will improve things for the next person, but it's a bit late for me. For the most part, you get one chance at life, and it's not worth using that one chance allowing some huckster to see how much money he can squeeze out of it. The single most important driving force behind healthcare should be the outcome for the patient, not profit.

Things I'd like to vote for

        I kept the faith and I kept voting
        Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand
        For theirs is a land with a wall around it
        And mine is a faith in my fellow man
                                       Between the Wars Billy Bragg 

A fairer electoral system

You may have noticed my little dig above about the fact that I didn't vote for any of the party leaders. I don't particularly want to vote directly for the Prime Minister. I don't have any problem with the Prime Minister being selected from the ranks of the majority party or coalition of parties. What I do want is that my vote is actually counted, and makes a difference. I don't want any more absurd imbalances between votes cast and seats won. I don't want to try to second guess what other people in my constituency are going to vote so that I can try and make a tactical vote to oust an incumbent that I'm not happy with. I want to vote. I want to vote in a meaningful way. I want to vote with my convictions.

I'll give you some stupid statistics now to illustrate my point. In this election, the swing of the popular vote was as follows:

Conservative    +0.8%
Labour             +1.4%
SNP                 +3%
LibDem            -15.1%
UKIP               +9.5%
Green              +2.8%

And yet the change in numbers of seats was:

Conservative    +28
Labour             -24
SNP                 +50
LibDem            -48
UKIP                +1

It doesn't really matter who you support, surely anyone can see how ridiculous that is?

Our current system of First Past The Post has favoured both sides of the political divide at different points over the years, but I assure you that this isn't something I've only started complaining about now that it has favoured the party I don't want. I've been bleating on about this for years. I voted for AV when we had a referendum, but was angry at the time that we were being offered a poor relation of electoral reform, and it was obvious at the time that AV wouldn't win enough popular support. The Conservatives lived up to the promise to provide the LibDems with a referendum on our voting system, but in the most neutered and useless way possible. And the LibDems caved and didn't manage to get a vote on PR put before the people.

Obviously, there are drawbacks to Proportional Representation too, but it isn't as though democracies all over the world haven't been grappling with this issue and coming up with variations that counter many of the issues and yet deliver a proportional, fair, balanced system. Like the MMP used in New Zealand, or the PPP used in Germany. Or indeed the AV+ system that was suggested by the Jenkins Commission. If we're going to go to the trouble of setting up a commission on reforming our electoral system, the least we could do is listen to its conclusions isn't it?

A fairer taxation system

Contrary to what a lot of online writers seem to think, I would not do anything I possibly could to avoid paying tax. I would not shift my wealth offshore. I would not find interesting loopholes that allowed me to transfer my house to my cat. In fact, I would be happy to pay more tax for high levels of public services. I'd rather pay more tax for a sound, reliable, efficient health service and education system, than pay less tax and watch the health service be farmed out to companies wanting to find ways of making a profit from treating our ill health.

I'd like a genuinely progressive taxation system, where the rich paid more, and the poor were supported better. I'd like a system of taxation and welfare that didn't lead to increased numbers of people needing to rely on food banks to eat.

A strong welfare state

I'd like a change in mindset, so that the default assumption is not that anyone who needs help from the state is a scrounger, a layabout, lazy, feckless, stupid or selfish. Where has our compassion gone? How have we reached a position where there seems to be such a vociferous anti-benefit media? How have so many people apparently forgotten how easy it is to be sick, disabled, alone, vulnerable, broke, unemployed, hungry, cold or weak? How easily it could happen to any one of us. How valuable it is to have a safety net that is there to catch each and every person who needs it.

I'm going to finish with an anecdote. Anecdote is not evidence, but it can be illuminating.

There were two men, both of them immigrants to this country.

The first man was a highly skilled, highly educated man who worked as an engineer, before moving to work for the National Economic Development Office. He wrote speeches for government ministers, he drafted recommendations for the Department of Trade and Industry, he battled to improve the efficiency of our heavy industry during the 1970s and 80s and thus save jobs and livelihoods. He married and raised two children who both went on to read Natural Sciences at Cambridge University before becoming professional physicists in different fields. 

The second man was an economic migrant to this country, coming here from Africa because the opportunity for work was so much better here. He became terminally ill some years after immigrating, and though he considered returning to Africa, he had a wife and children here, and access to free and excellent healthcare. He was unable to work due to ill-health for the best part of a decade, cost the NHS many hundreds of thousands of pounds, finally dying after three weeks of very expensive treatment in an intensive care unit. He left his widow and children with no visible means of support, and as he'd made insufficient National Insurance contributions during his truncated working life, his widow received only a reduced widow's state pension. 

Both those men were my father. There are two sides to every story. There are always shades of grey between the black and white extremes. Neither the Conservatives, nor Labour, nor any other party has a monopoly on good ideas, bad ideas, dangerous plans, self-interest, compassion or intelligence. I'm just more afraid of what a Conservative government might do than I am of any other major party.

Sunday, 17 May 2015


I'm tired of being responsible.

I'm tired of organising.

I'm tired of

Clearing up
Washing up
Putting away

I want to go on strike. I want to stop. I want a break. I want to not have to just keep going round the same endless cycle every day, every week, every month.

I couldn't be arsed to put the laundry away all week... all that happened is I had a 3 foot pile of laundry to put away this morning.

I couldn't be arsed to organise an online food shop this week... all the happened was we ran out of food and I had to go to the village shop for things for dinner most evenings.

I want to stop and not have everything stop around me.

I don't want to stop. I want to make, to do, to be, to achieve. I want time to make. I want an opportunity to achieve. I want to take a deep breath and just... be.

I don't want to stop. I want to play. I want to giggle, and cuddle, and read, and play, and draw, and paint and imagine. But I also want to sit and have a cup of tea and read my book.

I want someone else to do all the boring shit.

But mostly... I want to sleep.


Thursday, 14 May 2015

The London Aquarium

Because BigBear and I are complete softies... actually, because I am a complete softie, LittleBear has a Half Birthday. It struck me that having a birthday in November rather confined presents and birthday-outings to two, rather cold, often dark and wet, months of the year. And a year is also a very long time to wait between birthdays when it's a third of your life. So, in May, LittleBear has a half birthday. The presents are very modest (two Bob The Builder vehicles bought on ebay and a sticker book) and mostly it's about having an exciting outing.

LittleBear's current total obsession is with all things ocean related. Penguins? Orcas? Whales? Sharks? Jellyfish? Anglerfish? Eels? Crabs? Polychete worms? All of them, and more. And an almost infinite variety of imaginary creatures, like the Mantet Chompet Shark, or the Jack Chemical Whale, or (today) the Polychete Shark. All of LittleBear's creations are the biggest, heaviest, longest, fiercest, most dangerous in the whole world, ever. Did I mention he's competitive? On the upside, I can now guarantee myself nearly an hour of nearly peace-and-quiet by allowing LittleBear to watch an episode of David Attenborough's Blue Planet. Sod this Waybaloo nonsense, or CBeebies, we want orcas playing catch with a sea-lion...

So, today, I took him up to London to the SeaLife Aquarium. That requires nearly an hour on the train, then two tube rides and a short walk. And BigBear couldn't have the day off because he had Important People To Have Meetings With. Ah well, I arranged for GrannyBear to meet us at Waterloo, only 25 minutes by train from home for her.

Things I did wrong:

  • I did not allow more than an hour for the 6 mile journey from home to the railway station by car.
  • I assumed I would be able to park in the station carpark.
  • I left the window open at home, and only realised once on the train.
  • I did not take head-to-toe waterproofs for us to walk half a mile in London in May.
  • I failed to find the short route back from the Victoria Line to Kings Cross.

The net result of these errors was that we missed the train, not just slightly, but by half an hour, I had to carry LittleBear on my shoulders for just over half a mile from where we finally managed to park, I had to phone my neighbours in a panic and ask them to go round and close the window, we all got rather wet, I had to carry a small boy for even further, this time in the rain, then we missed the train home. And then I had to deal with a small boy sobbing "but we'll miss the next train too, and then we'll never get home!" in the middle of Platform 8 of Kings Cross as we watched our train pull away.

The up-side of this final episode was the very, very nice station manager who took pity on my exhaustion and my poor boy's desperation and asked me for my ticket so he could hand-write an endorsement on it to allow us to travel First Class on the next train. He then escorted us back to where we could see the departure board to wait for the platform of the train to be announced, and checked we were happy on our own before getting on with his day. It restored my faith in humanity. As did all the people who gave up their seats on the tube so me and LittleBear could sit down. People are nice after all.

Things I did right:

  • I went to the London Aquarium. It is fabulous, and going on a rainy weekday during term-time is clearly the time to have unfettered views into every tank.
  • I took LittleBear's ear defenders. London Underground is loud. Very loud. LittleBear does not like loud noises, and would have been unbearably unhappy if he'd been exposed to them.
  • I took a sticker book for use on the train.
  • I got lucky in having a little boy who listens to me, holds my hand at all times when told it's important and doesn't vanish into the seething mass of humanity that is London.
  • I took a LOT of snacks with me to keep us all going.
  • I took a complete change of clothes for LittleBear so that when he poured a mug of milk all over himself, I could change him into something dry (that could then get rained on).

My other notable discovery for the day was that I have a much higher pain threshold than I used to. My arm, back, shoulder and neck muscles were burning and screaming in desperation as I hefted 16 kilos around, in the rain, in addition to the rucksack of "stuff" that is essential for any trip out, but I didn't consider stopping, because getting my LittleBear home, safe, and as dry as possible, was more important.

Next time I might go on a slightly drier day. And take BigBear with me, so he can carry his son enjoy a day out with his family.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Bookending a decade

The journey from 30 to 40 has not been how I imagined it would be. I have changed in more ways than I know, and yet still remain at heart the same "me" I always was. In many ways I am probably a better me and a more honest me. I am certainly a happier and more secure me than I was at 30.

There are two events that neatly bookend my journey from 30 to 40. In my own mind they are milestones that bear the witness to how my life was at those moments. There is so much captured in those moments that epitomises who I was.

Turning Thirty

Just before I turned thirty, I went on holiday. It was a fantastic holiday, to Jordan, with GrannyBear, BrotherBear and TheEx (who was still FirstHusband at the time, though only just). It should have been a glorious holiday, and in many ways it was. We landed late at night in Amman and drove straight to Madaba. From Madaba we went to Jerash, Irbid and Umm Qais, then the Dead Sea, Kerak, Petra, and finally Aqaba. We spent nearly two weeks seeing the most fabulous places, hiking round Petra, walking in Wadi Rum, diving in the Red Sea. To see where Moses first saw the Promised Land, to stand where Jesus cast the devils out into the Gadarene swine, to float in the Dead Sea, to stride down paved roads first walked by the Romans, to climb through crusader castles, to walk through the dunes where TE Lawrence walked, to dive in sparkling water with beautiful fish and coral - all of these were magical and wonderful experiences. And there isn't a single person to whom I've spoken about this holiday that I haven't said "Go to Jordan! If you get the chance, just go, you won't regret it". There are so many civilisations whose paths have crossed Jordan, so much history, so much natural beauty, that to not go when you have a chance would be a travesty.

And yet...

And yet...

I also hated it. In retrospect I now know that what was happening to me was acute anxiety. At the time all I knew was that I felt physically sick. I felt as though there was a tight band around my chest and I couldn't breathe. I felt as though sometimes my heart would be racing and sometimes missing a beat altogether. I felt boiling hot and yet shivering with cold. I felt like crying. I felt like curling up in a small ball and never looking at the world again. I felt terrified.

BrotherBear is the master of "winging it". He is the antithesis of me in this regard. He was happy to arrive at Amman airport at 10pm with no hotel booked in advance. He was happy to have no itinerary, but to just go wherever the fancy took us. He was happy to shrug and say "it'll be fine". GrannyBear and I were not. We need plans. We need certainty about where we will be sleeping. We need to know where our next meal is coming from. We need security. So BrotherBear relented and booked a hotel for the first night, and on our first morning we made a plan of where we would go, and when. We already had our list of "unmissable" things, so it was a matter of moments really to turn that into a plan. That helped calm me a little. But, in truth, that wasn't the heart of the matter. The uncertainty had unsettled me, but it wasn't what was making me anxious. It would be many months before I realised what had been making me anxious, many months before I discovered that it was anxiety that could create such strong physical reactions. Only when I sat in my doctor's surgery explaining the same symptoms again, did the penny drop. Looking back, it was obvious...

"Don't bother putting her on the hire car insurance, she won't drive."
"She's fine, she's always like this"
"You won't try diving. You'll just snorkel"
You can't...
You won't...
You don't...

Day by day, word by word, bit by bit, TheEx was telling me, and the world around me, that I wasn't good enough. That I wouldn't try things. That I couldn't do things. That I wasn't worth it. And I believed him. Who knew me better after all? He must be right. Every doubt I'd ever had in myself was reinforced. Every fear, every question, every aching uncertainty was hammered home. He didn't create the self-doubt, or the lack of confidence - the seeds were always there, as perhaps they are in all of us. He watered the seeds and helped them to grow and flourish.

Three months after we got home from that holiday, TheEx left. The next few months of prolonged "leaving" continued the verbal assault, but with more venom and vituperation.

"You've always been a disappointment to me, because your lack of confidence means you underachieve."
"You have no empathy"
"I never loved you, I just felt sorry for you"
"You'll never get your chartered status"
"I deserve better"
You're not...
I want...
You haven't..
I can...
You don't...
You can't...
You aren't...

My mind can rationalise away all the things he said. I am a Chartered Physicist now. I'm the R&D manager of a high tech company. I've made scientific breakthroughs that were world firsts. I have a wonderful, loving husband and son. I have a home filled with warmth and comfort and love. I have an incredible collection of loving, funny, supportive, glorious friends. None of those things would be the case if there was a grain of truth in what TheEx said. But I cannot un-hear those words. They lurk inside and feed the demons. I have not found a way to expurgate them. I have found ways to laugh at some of them, and perhaps that's the answer. To see the utter absurdity in the barbs and rise above them. Because I cannot un-hear them.

Later began the slow process of rebuilding. Of learning to hear and believe the truth in the words of love and kindness from my friends and family. Of discovering who I was again. Of finding the person I could be. Of trusting enough to love again, and be loved. And one day my mother told me that she had her daughter back again. That I now came into a room with a smile. That I was sure of my opinions again. That I could and would talk volubly and eloquently about anything and everything. That the unsure, withdrawn daughter that I'd become had gone.

I am still a work in progress, but the ten years that followed have brought me to a very different place.

Turning Forty

The year that BigBear and I turned 40, we had a party. We held it half way between our own birthdays, partly to make it a celebration for both of us, and partly because trying to have a party in  the garden, in England, in either March or October is just a stupid idea. Half way between is summertime and much more conducive to garden parties.

It rained.

Rain aside, the day was filled with everything that my life now holds. The nucleus of my day was of course my own little Bear Family, BigBear and LittleBear, but I was also surrounded by friends who'd known me for twenty years, a chaotic riot of small children and copious food and drink. The food plans were marginally shambolic, but it didn't matter, there was no-one to tell me I'd done it wrong, or over-catered, or under-catered. My lovely friend Tigger toddled off to the local shop with her two baby tiggers to collect missing ingredients; the equally lovely Piglet arrived with MrPiglet and their baby piglets, bearing food that she'd made; more booze, flowers and chocolates flowed into the house in the arms of friends from near and far.

Our newly-engaged friends sat on the sofa together looking adorably in love.

Our newly dog-owning friends brought their (immense) Husky-Malamute puppy (puppy! ha! It was a wolf!) with them, only to have my pathetically-timid cat viciously chase it away.

Our friends in Switzerland flew here just for the party. And they brought me a bottle of Tanqueray. As if I needed more than just their presence.

Piglet and MrPiglet brought their event-shelter with them, and put it up, effectively covering the whole garden to keep us all dry. So we sat outside despite the rain and we talked and drank, and drank and laughed, and laughed and ate, and ate and talked. At one point, sitting outside sheltering from the rain, I saw BigBear waving to me from the window, gesturing that we should come into the dry. I waved merrily back, assuring him we were fine. Later I looked around and realised BigBear was the only adult inside. With 7 children under the age of 6. Perhaps he had been drowning not waving? He seemed to survive the experience.

This was my life at forty. A home filled with love, laughter and books. A life filled with friendship, compassion and support. A marriage of equals, with mutual love and generosity. Motherhood, with all its challenges, rewards and adoration.

And this was my party.
Nobody belittled me.
Nobody scoffed at me.
Nobody made me feel as though I wasn't good enough.
I was happy.
I was loved.
I was me.

So here I am, now. A bit broken, a bit mended, a bit more me, a bit less certain. A lot happier.

I wonder what happened to the 18-year old girl who left home to take up an industrial placement as a software engineer on the other side of the country having never written any software. The 19-year old girl who flew to Kathmandu on Bangledesh Airlines for three weeks without having a clue what she was going to do when she got there. The 20-year old who took up playing rugby on a whim because it seemed like it might be fun. I hope, and think, she might still be in here somewhere. She was already hiding by the time I went to Uganda. I'm not sure quite what happened. I know TheEx was part of it. I know that going to University and discovering that amongst the very best I was only mediocre was part of it. I know that the fearless girl that I was has become more and more anxious over the years.

I wish I could go back to Jordan. I wish I could have that holiday again, but this time without the anxiety, without the pain, without the fear. I wish I could be brave enough and strong enough to do it the way BrotherBear can, to wing it, to be unafraid, to know that things will be OK even without a meticulous plan. I don't think I will go back. I think I will go forward. One day I will go to Angkor Wat. One day I will go to Machu Picchu. But I might just start with Norfolk.

Friday, 1 May 2015

It could have been me...

Today I read a newspaper article that broke my heart. It was a story that I missed when it must have first happened. Two years ago, a 6-week old baby was found dead on a pavement in Edinburgh. Apparently well looked after, the only explanation anyone can think of is that his mother hoped someone else would find him and look after him. Today he was buried. With no name. With no family. The only, single, heartbreaking redeeming feature is that 200 people came to his funeral, to pay their respects, to say farewell. The police are still trying to trace anyone who knows anything about him.

I've been reduced to tears before now by stories of illness, maltreatment or neglect of children, but something in this story pierced me to the core. This baby was nourished, cared-for, and probably loved. And yet his mother couldn't, or wouldn't look after him. She didn't beat him, or starve him, or abuse him. She left him somewhere, dressed, fed and safe. She may well have thought she was doing the best thing for him.

And in my innermost heart I know I was only a very few small steps from being that mother.

I remember walking along a pavement with LittleBear in a pram, wondering how bad it would really be if we stepped into the traffic. I was fortunate that it was a fleeting thought, that in truth my life and my baby's life were still too precious to me to ever truly consider such an act.

I remember a dream? A nightmare? A waking hallucination? I imagined that while I went to fetch a trolley at the supermarket, leaving LittleBear in the car, someone stole my baby. I was imagining this almost as a relief - I would be spared from being responsible, from having this huge burden of care, and sleeplessness and desperate cluelessness. And then, I became overwhelmingly and almost uncontrollably distraught, desperate to have my baby back, frantic that he would need feeding and I wouldn't be there, terrified that I wouldn't be able to convince the police that the baby that they had recovered was mine. How would I prove LittleBear was mine? And it was all in my mind. However, it was a moment that helped me to realise how much I couldn't bear anything to happen to my tiny, helpless little baby.

I remember phoning BigBear at work, in tears, utterly convinced that LittleBear hated me, and that I couldn't do it any more. I couldn't keep caring for him because he would never love me. And BigBear came straight home, and helped draw me back out of the pit into which I had talked myself.

I remember countless nap-times when I would phone one of my two dear friends (henceforth known to readers of this blog as Piglet and Tigger. They will know who they are). I would simply talk, and weep, and they would listen and assure me that I was OK, LittleBear was OK and that it would all get better.

I remember sitting on a sofa at an NCT friend's house. Two of us were there, feeding our respective boys. I (as seemed to be normal at that point) was in tears and asked, in desperation, "What if I always feel like this?" My friend gave the sweetest, gentlest smile, shook her head, and said with complete calm and confidence, "You won't".

I remember phoning our family support worker in tears, desperate for help and support. This was not the first time I'd done so. On this occasion the conversation then continued like this:

Maria: Is BigBear with you?
PB: Yes.
Maria: Can he hear me?
PB: Yes.
Maria: You need to get yourself to the doctor. Will you promise me that you'll phone your GP in the morning? Get an emergency appointment.
Maria: Tell him that I think you have Post Natal Depression. Tell him that you need help. Take BigBear with you.
Maria: Are you going to be OK tonight?
PB: I think so.
Maria: Are you worried that you might hurt LittleBear?
PB: No, never!
Maria: I'll call you tomorrow to see that everything's OK. Is that alright?
PB: Yes, that's OK.

Without BigBear, without my mother, without Piglet and Tigger, without my NCT friends, without my health visitor, without Maria, without my GP, would I really have had the strength not to simply give up? Even with the immense network of love and support I had, I was frequently utterly certain that LittleBear would be better off with someone else. That I was neither good enough nor capable enough to actually care for him.

If I had been just a little bit less fortunate, a little bit less loved, a little bit more alone, I could so easily have continued to believe that LittleBear would have been better off without me. I could so easily have acted on that belief. The thought that another mother did act on that belief makes me weep.

I know that I'm projecting my own feelings and experiences onto a story the truth of which I will never know. Maybe this mother was nothing like me. But she was a mother, and for some reason she left her baby. Whatever the circumstances, whatever the reason, it is a heartbreaking event.