The Big Freeze

Monday 23rd January

I can remember quite clearly the Winter of 1963.  It started snowing in early January and barely stopped until some time in late March.  And although this little cold spell we have had seems cold it is nothing compared to that.  I was just 12 and in my first year at Grammar School and still in short trousers.  You might have thought that that experience would have hardened me to the cold, but no – I still hate it.

We had been visiting my Auntie Pam at Creeting St. Peters one Sunday and the snow started to come down in a swirling blizzard.  When it came time to leave the Morris Oxford was snowbound and Mum and Dad decided to walk the three or four miles back to Stowmarket leaving my sister and I to share a bed with my three female cousins.  We were there for a few days until rescued.

I can remember trudging to school through snow inches high, wet shoes and wet socks hung over the paraffin heater when I got home.  Terrible chapped legs where my shorts rubbed my cold legs.  I was small in those days, the smallest in my class – the runt of the litter (I think that was what they were calling me).  We still had to play football one afternoon a week even though the pitch was a frozen field of snow topped with ice, no mercy from Soapy Soames the Sports Master.  You could barely see the ball as we ran around just to keep warm, 22 boys chasing a ball because if you stood still you might freeze solid.  Then the luxury of a hot shower after, even if Soames and the girl’s Sports Mistress would occasionally peep in.  We used to hug the radiators as we got dressed again it was so cold.

Then the cold walk home with wet hair; day after day it went on, the snow turning to black sludge which built up in ruts and then froze into solid icy roadside mountains.  It put me off Winter forever, and as these sub-zero morning continue I can’t wait for a bit of rain and milder temperatures.

S – is for Split Enz

Saturday 21st January

I first saw, and heard, Split Enz probably in ’76 or ’77.  It was at The Roundhouse.  And they were incredible.  No other way to describe them, except maybe zany, brilliant or original.  They were dressed in strange multicoloures clothes and had hair sticking out in all directions and coloured bright green or red or blue or yellow.  It was hard to tell how many of them there were because they kept running around the stage and grabbing each other’s instruments, but maybe 6 or 7 of them.

They were definitely not punk, but they were way different from all the bands I had seen before (or since).  The songs were mostly fast and pop-catchy with quite crazy lyrics “Hermit McDermot” and “I see Red” and “Crosswords”.  One slow number was my very favourite song for many years “Wake Up Charlie”.  As far as I know they only toured England the once, being based in New Zealand. I started buying their records – not all available easily and taped them.  Now they are incredibly expensive on CD, often around the hundred pound mark (who pays that sort of money?).  I am very slowly buying them again.

The leader of the band was Tim Finn, later joined by his brother Neil.  When Tim left in ’83 the band called it a day, except for one re-union.  Neil then formed Crowded House, one of the most successful bands of the late Eighties and Nineties.  And both Neil and Tim’s careers have drifted into sort-of obscurity – maybe another re-union is needed.

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Brexit, What next?

Friday 20th January

So, Theresa May has spoken.  A long and fairly detailed speech as it transpired, but actually quite short on real detail.  And fine though her words, especially of co-operation and goodwill to the EU, were; they are simply aspirations.  There is no guarantee that they will be translated into reality when negotiations begin and in fact there is every likelihood that something, or maybe a whole raft of things will go wrong.

As predicted the sticking point is the Single Market.  If we want to sell goods freely and without any restrictions we will have to accept free movement of people.  Mrs. May seems to think that it is her destiny to obey the obvious xenophobia of a small majority of British people and at least attempt, if only on paper, to restrict immigration to the UK; therefore she has decided that we MUST leave the Single Market.  Also because she wants to be able to strike trade deals with other nations we will have to leave the Customs Union.  But she is also certain that she will be able to negotiate a new trade deal and a new Customs Union with the EU during the negotiations themselves, which will still allow us to make deals on our own.  Also she wants access to the Single Market without accepting immigrants.

Three points spring to mind.  I may be pedantic but as we are still a member of the Customs Union, and will be until we actually leave the EU, we are forbidden by that to negotiate ANY trade deals on our own.  Does that not preclude us from even beginning any negotiation for a trade deal before we leave the EU, even with the EU itself (minus us), while we are still in the Customs Union?

Secondly, if we have access to the Single Market we will certainly be treated as though we were still in the EU, accepting free movement of people and all the EU rules without having a say on those rules.  We will also have to contribute; how much is up for grabs.  If we leave the Single Market and wish to trade with Europe we will almost certainly have to accept tariffs at a minimum of 10% and in some cases higher but will not have to accept free movement.  We will also have to accept all the rules and regulations currently and in the future which the EU wishes to impose on imported goods.

But….thirdly.  Mrs. May has said that we will still accept the brightest and best immigrants (who is to decide this?) even from Europe after we have left.  David Davis in the Commons shortly after also assured MPs that where there were shortages of labour we would also accept EU migrants.  So…..

What the hell was the point of leaving anyway…

PS…any new trade deals with US/Australia/China or anyone else will not only be difficult but will inevitably mean more immigrants from those countries.   The only change will be that we will be obliged to set up a huge bureaucracy to administer these EU and other immigrants.  Numbers will only go down when the UK is no longer an economic destination, which incidentally, if as predicted we suffer economically by leaving the EU, will not exactly be the best result.  But hey, at least we will get rid of the f….king foreigners….hahaha

Everything Good Is Bad…

Thursday 19th January

Not literally of course; a child’s smile, a little kindness and many other ordinary things are absolutely good.  But, strangely almost everything which begins by being such a good idea ends up either going wrong or having unintended consequences.

Harold Wilson, on resigning in 1977 I think, was asked what he thought the greatest danger for ordinary people would be in the future.  He replied “Affluence”, which at the time seemed a strange answer, but what he was observing was the thanklessness of people.  The two Labour Governments of 1945 and 1964 had achieved so much for ordinary working people, dragging them out of abject poverty, raising living standards massively and improving life chances for millions.  And what has happened to all those who did well and maybe bought their own houses; they have largely turned their backs on fellow strugglers.  Things would get much worse of course after Thatcher and again now, where it is dog eat dog and the devil take the hindmost.

And two other great “liberating” decisions have had unexpected consequences too.  Back in the Fifties Marriage literally meant forever, couples wouldn’t have dreamed of splitting up; you made your bed and you would just have to lie in it.  Of course, there were an awful lot of unhappy marriages, and the relaxing of the Divorce laws and the subsequent acceptance by Society that Divorce was okay meant that many of those unhappy people were released from bad marriages.  But now Divorce is so commonplace that even when young children are involved it is often the first rather than the last resort.  And this from a twice divorced man too; I almost regret the fact that Divorce was such an easy option.

The Pill which was a great liberation for women soon became a pressure for young women to have sex maybe sooner than they wanted to.  And it took away from men the responsibility for precautions.  In the Seventies you almost assumed that every young woman was on the Pill, and if not why not.

Almost every Act of Parliament has unexpected consequences and pretty soon gets amended, often time and time again.  Almost every new Government comes in promising to reform some legislation recently passed.  Maybe we are just hopeless at actually framing legislation, or is it that every decision seen as good has a habit of turning out badly?

Anyway…not much we can do about it except keep smiling.

So, It Is Now Getting Serious

Wednesday 18th January

A recent analysis of Donald Trump was that people took him literally but nobody took him seriously; when in fact we should have taken him not literally but very seriously.  We all thought (hoped, prayed) that as the gravitas of his election dawned on both him and the Republican party that all that rhetoric, all those stupid tweets, all that bluster would be replaced by a calmer, more considered and more reasonable Donald.  Fat chance of that, if anything he is getting worse, picking fights with the Afro-American community and the Chinese.

Likewise in a strange parallel the same can be said of Mrs. May.  All she told us for a while was “Brexit means Brexit”, a nonsense if ever there was one – and no-one really took her seriously.  There were so many possible shades of Brexit, membership or access or associate membership of the Single Market; the Customs Union whereby no paperwork has to accompany goods moving from country to country, the European Court of Human Rights which isn’t actually a part of the EU but which can hand down judgements affecting Britain…and so on.  Surely, we all thought, wiser heads would prevail and she wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Well she has well and truly pulled the plug, and the water though only just beginning to trickle will soon pour out in a flood – no lifebelt – and no chance of rescuing baby now.  We never took her seriously.  Brexit will indeed mean Brexit – a complete exit from the EU and all its ramifications.  What is less clear is how she even begins to think she will get a good deal on trade, which of course she promises.  There is no way the Europeans will allow us access to the Single Market without tariffs, especially as we are demonstrably wooing America and Australia, and probably China, soon to agree new trade deals outside the EU.

It seems that she was either always a secret Brexiteer, maybe even part of the coup along with Boris to both topple Cameron/Osborne and to leave the EU, or she has decided to bow to the Eurosceptics in her own party; maybe deciding that the old Remainers will be less trouble than the Leavers. Maybe she has an eye on the next election, where she hopes Labour will still be in disarray and the effects of leaving still not felt during the transition, and Donald smiling and rubbing his hands as he eyes up Britain being completely swept up in the American sphere of influence.

Tristram Hunt; Saint or Devil?

Tuesday 17th January

Probably neither, but Labour do appear to be in trouble.  The poll-ratings, ever unreliable – but what else do we have except a sickening gut feeling that they are probably right – are slipping with each new report.  And Labour aren’t helping themselves; when do they ever.  The supposed re-launch (how many do we need) of Jeremy, where he is going to a-la-Trump, say it like it is, and present himself as an anti-establishment NEW figure, is flopping before it has even started.

The recent history of left-wing politics, both here and abroad has been riven with schisms, arguments and a lack of a consensus that has given the parties of the right an open field.  None more so than here in Britain.  How is it that the Tories, although massively split over Europe can still come together and be running with a policy which more than half of them totally disagree with?  And yet Labour with sliding ratings and a population crying out for some leadership are stuck in the blocks and squabbling about the type of running shoes we should wear and who should wear the vest.

And after last year’s botched Leadership challenge it seems we are in for yet another attempt to embarrass the leadership, or to try to save the party – you pays your money, you takes your choice.  It now seems likely that a succession of Labour M.P.s are going to resign and force a string of by-elections, which Labour may well lose, the latest being Tristram Hunt.  It may just be co-incidence; Hunt has been offered a great job running the V. & A.; Andy Burnham wants to be Mayor of Greater Manchester, Sadiq Kahn thought he could be more effective as London Mayor.  It may be because of boundary changes; Tristram’s seat is proposed to disappear altogether.  It may be the fear of possible de-selections, or it may well be the fear of a catastrophic wipe-out of Labour in 2020.

Those supporting Tristram might argue that he is trying to bring the party to its senses and to ditch Jeremy sooner rather than later.  The latest rumours are that Jeremy will probably resign in a year or two making way for a younger more dynamic voice of the left.  Who knows?  Maybe there will be a completely new re-alignment of the parties of the left, a resurgent LibDem party and UKIP, despite its flirtation with Racism, becoming more left-wing as the SNP ended up becoming.  But I doubt it.  I think we are in for at least ten and maybe far longer years of Tory rule.  In the end Jeremy may not actually be so much the problem as a symptom of the disease; the public have fallen out of love with Labour, new and old.  Though strangely the things they care about are exactly the same as Labour values.  But after 2016 nothing is the same, all old certainties are gone.  We wait with trepidation the unfolding of events – Donald in the White House and Theresa in Brussels.  At least no-one can say that Politics is boring now.

The NHS – Possible Solutions

Monday 16th January

The NHS is in crisis.  It has been for years really, but three factors have contributed to create the perfect storm.  Firstly and most importantly, funding.  Despite Cameron promising 50 billion more for the NHS (an election promise quietly forgotten) the NHS has received just around inflation increases for at least 6 years.  It seems the dim distant past when Gordon Brown promised to raise spending on the NHS to European levels, and to his credit he went some way towards this, but we are falling back as each year passes.  Secondly, what the NHS can do, or rather our expectations of what it should do are increasing.  Thirdly, the population of the UK has increased by 3 million in the last few years, and yet no extra money has been made available for these extra patients.

Solutions?  Well, before that we have to decide one fundamental question, do we want a first-class health system?  If so it will have to be paid for, and that will mean higher taxes (even under Thatcher we were paying 25% basic income tax, now only 20%) or some form of compulsory insurance; both of which of course will mean the public paying for it in one way or another.  The second question is what should the NHS be;  should it be there for every ailment, or just for serious sickness?  Should it, for example, be offering IVF treatment (is not being able to conceive actually an illness?) should it be doing cosmetic surgery unless after an accident, should mild hearing disorders be treated on the NHS (after all we pay happily for private dentistry and spectacles) and so on.  I am sure everyone will have different opinions, but a debate wouldn’t be a bad thing. Thirdly we must seriously join up the NHS with Social Care, far too much money has been wasted on re-organisations already, but the two are intractably linked and must be treated as a whole.  One other thing should be considered, a total ban on all agency staff.  This will probably need a couple of years lead-in time, but it is a nonsense that the NHS is paying 50% extra for agency nurses when they cannot recruit the same nurses because the pay is too low.

None of this will alleviate the current crisis.  Before we go any further we must give an immediate cash injection.  There was no shortage of money in 2008 when the banks went bust.  Most trusts are deep in debt and we need a fresh start and new budgets unemcumbered by past errors.


Sunday 15th January

Growing Up Can be Painful…

Jane grew up in this protected and protective bubble, which she never even knew was around her.  They just were; her sister Harriet and she, there, safe inside the bubble.  Her father the solicitor, unbeknownst then to the girls, was becoming more and more involved in sorting out the financial irregularities of his cronies.  And the long hours he spent in his office meant there must have been a lot of irregularities to sort out; and even when he was home, at weekends or holidays, there were always those late-night phone calls and visits he had to make – when, even on a Sunday evening – he would disappear for hours with some unnamed client or other.

“Spot of business to sort out, don’t wait up for me.” He would remark as he got into the Bentley at some ridiculous hour.

The girls never questioned this, (nor did their mother wait up, as far as the girls could tell, they would hear the click of her bedroom door closing shortly after tucking them in) it was just what Daddy did; maybe everyone’s Daddy did it too, who knew?  And their mother; she just ignored him, acted as if it was perfectly normal to get up halfway through a meal, and drive for miles down winding country lanes to sort out ‘a little bit of business’.  But their mother had always seemed as if nothing mattered that much to her, June seemd a bit semi-detached about most things, she had her friends she would meet in town, or most likely in Ipswich or Norwich, and she simply never seemed that concerned whether their father was around or not.  Likewise, she seemed content to leave the two girls, often with her sister, their aunt Julie, but sometimes even the cleaning lady would be dragooned in to be a quasi-childminder, while she sauntered off for lunch or drinks with her friends.

*  * *

But June, though appearing so nonchalant was always watching and waiting, she knew it would happen sometime soon; she had seen the way Ted looked at her.  The family used to see her sister quite a bit while the children were small, sometimes at their tiny terraced Council house in Bury Road, but more often at their own place.  Phil liked to entertain, and even if it was just June’s sister and mother over for Sunday lunch he would open a bottle of red wine, and always liked the table to be set properly, with a white damask table cloth and their best cutlery.  He would go and collect them all in the Bentley, his pride and joy.

June had passed her test and was quite happy to use the old Austin, until Phil traded this in for a little Morris Oxford which suited her better with its dark green leather seats and shiny walnut dashboard.  She loved the freedom having her own car gave her.  As soon as the girls were off to school she would just get in the car and drive, often with absolutely no destination at all, just driving for the heck of it, just to get away.  Anywhere away from the house, this too large house with its far too many rooms to get lost in; it was always Phil’s house and she was feeling increasingly a stranger in it, even the girls seemed strangers to her some days.  But secretly she was always hoping she might see Ted – just a glimpse would do.  She would deliberately drive past Spikes lane in the hope of seeing him, sometimes stripped to the waist working in the fields, his bronzed shoulders shining and turning in the sunlight; she would sit in the car, bewitched and simply watching him go about his daily work.  He would be on the tractor, bouncing along in the hard metal seat as the big wheels slithered and slipped over the freshly ploughed furrows, quite oblivious of June driving past (and driving herself to distraction too, by the way).  Occasionally he would spot her, and wave and smile, but he never came over.  Was he deliberately ignoring her?  Was he simply playing her along, keeping her safely at a distance but dangling on a string, just waiting for him to give a tug?  She was never sure, and that was the mystical hold he had over her; he always had that mischievous glint in his eye anyway, as if you never knew, but might well suspect, just what he was thinking..

*  * *

Jane was Harriet’s responsibility, especially as June was almost neglecting the girls; she had to take her to school and collect her, and often look after her until either her mother or her father got home.  She didn’t really mind, Jane was more fun than the other girls at school, and she would always let Harriet decide what they were playing.  Harriet used to make up the games and Jane would sit there and expect Harriet to come up with all the ideas, sometimes she would ask if they could play a favourite of hers, and then out of kindness Harriet might let her have her game; it didn’t really matter; they were all Harriet’s games really.  Jane liked it best when Harriet made up a story and they would pretend to be other people, like in a play.  Harriet would be the Princess, with her flowing gown and a tiara (an Alice band) of real diamonds, Jane would be the huntsman who falls in love with her.  Sometimes Harriet would have to prompt her with the right lines, or show her how it was done, but Jane was always happy to follow her lead.  Or they would play chase through the bedrooms upstairs, or hide and seek all over the house and garden.   They never played with other children after school, they were always alone, together alone.  Their house was in the middle of town, near the shops and there was too much traffic, and besides Jane was her best friend as well as her sister, so they felt they only needed each other, sisters and best friends forever.

*  * *

S is for Paul Simon – Graceland and Beyond

Saturday 14th January

Paul was adrift in the Eighties, like so many great artists of the Sixties and Seventies.  ‘Hearts and Bones’ had flopped and he felt he had lost his inspiration and was considering retiring.  But Paul has always been a musical magpie; most artists are but Paul had been accused of stealing the music for Scarborough Fair, and of using Urumbaba for their Pan Pipes on ‘El Condor Pasa’.  And he achieved maybe the greatest steal of all with Graceland.  He had been listening to some very raw tapes of South African groups and decided that was the key to his next album.  He travelled to apartheid South Africa despite a cultural ban, and recorded with a few African Musicians.  With Pauls vocals and melodies the mix was irresistible and ‘Graceland’ would sell 14 million and be his greatest album.  In many songs he basically sang over the top of traditional African rhythms; many accused him of using these musicians – but he paid them well and later brought them to New York and toured with them.  Without Ladyship Black Mombaza ‘Graceland’ would have lacked two songs, but they alone could never have written ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Their Shoes’.

Paul followed this with ‘The Rhythm of the Saints’, another attempted steal from South America this time.  But the songs were more complex and lacked something; somehow he couldn’t perform the trick twice.  He then got involved in writing a musical called ‘The Capeman’ about a Puerto Rican young murderer in 1959.  He worked on this for several years and when staged it flopped and closed after 2 months, Paul losing millions.  But Paul released an album ‘Songs From The Capeman’ and sings most of it.  I love this record, it is superb, full of diverse songs and is very sad – but again it more or less flopped.

Paul has released the occasional record since, but they all seem flat; there are one or two good songs on each record but it seems that Paul’s heart isn’t really in it any more.  He seems to be constantly searching for a new sound but it doesn’t matter, Paul has given us a handful of wonderful records that stand alongside anything Paul McCartney or any of the other Sixties stars have achieved (with the possible exception of Joni, Dyland and Leonard).

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And He Isn’t Even President Yet

Friday 13th January

I watch the TV and seriously wonder if I am dreaming.  You couldn’t make this up; if I had written a book, even five years ago, about a bullying obscene character who insulted Muslims, groped women and attacked everyone and anyone who dared to criticize him and yet still became President, I would have been laughed at – “don’t be so ridiculous” – and even I would have to agree, it was just impossible.  But of course, unless I am actually dreaming my life away, it is true.

And the man (I hesitate to use the word) isn’t even President yet.  He has managed to fall out seriously with his own Intelligence organisations, even accusing them of leaking the latest allegations (apparently a compromising sexual tape in the hands of Russia) about him.  When he started out, nobody gave him a hope in hell.  But one by one he bullied and dominated the Primaries and eventually and reluctantly the Republican party fell into line behind him.  Tribal politics won over commonsense; it was better to have a bad Republican President than a good Democrat.

And we all hoped that it was all bluster, the stupid idea of a wall between Mexico and America, the cosying up to Putin, the slashing of taxes for the rich….and all of the bullying speeches; we all assumed really that surely when the reality dawned on him he would change, he would soften, he would become reasonable.  Some hope.  We are in for at least four years of this nonsense.  Just how much damage he will do, to America, to its reputation, to International Trade, to the planet – no one has any idea.

People keep saying that someone will bump him off, and actually you wouldn’t put it past the CIA if they thought he was a danger to America.  He has both houses behind him so he could undo most of what Obama struggled to get done.  We just have to wait and see….but don’t hold your breath.