If So Many People Agree?

Monday 20th November

When people are asked by pollsters or in focus groups if they would agree to pay a bit more in taxes in order to have a decent NHS and improved schools and even more council houses  – they usually agree, and by quite a large margin.  And even when you talk to people, they almost all agree that taxes will have to go up.  In 2010, when the Tories came in to power, soon after the Economic crash of 2008, they had a choice – Austerity, which they of course chose, or they could have put up taxes.  At that point in time, with the air of crisis, it would have been accepted by most people that taxes would have to go up.  Of course, the Tories did put up taxes – VAT, their favourite tax.  And that is because VAT is an invisible tax.  Unlike in many European companies and America, this sales tax is not shown separately either in the pricing or your receipt.  So, although people know that they are paying taxes, they are not constantly reminded of how much, as they are on their monthly payslip.

But even so….whenever a politician even suggests that taxes should go up for ‘ordinary’ people, wherever you draw the line – there is almost an audible drawing in of collective breath.  The Press, especially, are vicious in their condemnation.  This is actually because they know that increases in income tax will hit the wealthy harder than ‘ordinary’ people.  But, we have all been cowed into being terrified of taxation.  And as a result, we face diminished lives, an NHS which struggles to even provide basic healthcare, overcrowded classrooms and dilapidated schools, social services that are barely even functioning and an old age where we will most probably have to sell our homes to pay for a private care home where the word ‘care’ should really be omitted from the title.

So why is this?  Why, when we are asked if we would be prepared to pay more tax for a decent system – is it, that A) nobody is actually proposing that, and B) if they are, then they don’t get elected.  Do people not realise that they will have to pay one way or another anyway?

And largely I blame Blair and Brown, who needlessly reduced income tax from 24p in the pound down to 20p, in a futile attempt to show that ‘New’ Labour were on the side of ‘ordinary’ people.  Just imagine what that extra 4p in the pound could buy now?  It is actually 20% of the basic rate of today.

I actually favour a far more graduated system of Income Tax, ranging from maybe 10% on low earnings and rising, say in 5% increases on each extra chunk of income.  The present system of a sudden jump to 40% is stupid.  Almost every company now runs Payroll through a computer programme, so the mechanics are no longer an issue.   I can remember paying 35p in the pound income tax.  And life still went on.

We need a complete overhaul of Income tax, not just tinkering at the edges.  But I am afraid that Mr. Hammond will leave tax rates as they are next week.  Our Politicians are too scared of a bad press to actually do the right thing.

The Precariat

Sunday 19th November

It started with Communist theory – the power of the proletariat.  These were the largely uneducated factory workers and peasants who were downtrodden by Capitalism and would, according to historical inevitability, rise up and take control of the levers of the state.  Well, it can be argued that this never quite happened.  Although the very fact of the Russian Revolution probably speeded up the introduction of Universal Suffrage.  And still, occasionally we hear the term ’Proletariat’, usually almost as a denigration – ‘the great unwashed’ – the masses who would rather watch Eastenders than a Party Political Broadcast (and who can blame them?).

But lately we have also heard the term the “Commentariat”; the journalists and those inside the Westminster bubble, who thrive on Political Gossip.  And make the news; the ones who tell us what is news, and put their spin on it.

But only yesterday I heard a new term ‘The Precariat’.  This is another euphemism for the very poor.  We have had the ‘squeezed middle’ and the JAMs (just about managing) – and now we have the Precariat.  Those teetering on the edge of disaster, maybe on zero-hours contracts or unemployed or disabled, often in rent arrears and living on payday loans and food banks.  Day to day scrabbling to survive, where any unexpected bill may push them over the edge.  But again, this term is a convenient label; used to describe a section of Society – but with no real attempt to address the root causes of their precarious existence.  The term rolls off the lips of Politicians or Social Commentators with a glibness which doesn’t even approach the seriousness, the desperation which this growing army of people are facing on a daily basis.

And on Sky news this morning – a report about family rows over which TV station to watch.  The female presenter said why didn’t they simply each watch what they wanted on their own TVs.  When it was pointed out to her that many families only had one telly she was amazed, and voiced disbelief.   The voice of the Commentariat has spoken.  Such is the state of Modern Britain….

Zimbabwe – A Long Sad Story

Saturday 18th November

The early history of Zimbabwe is not well-known.  There were very few written records, and anyway – until the White Man appeared nobody in the West knew, or of course, cared.  Africa was (and still remains for most of us) a mystery.  There were several spoken languages in that country, even if English now predominates more and more.

In the late 1880’s, Cecil Rhodes; adventurer, businessman and, although he was a hero in Britain, exploiter in chief, obtained mining rights from one of the kings in the region and with the help of the British South African Police and his own private army took control of the country, naming it Southern Rhodesia and establishing the capital Salisbury.  There were several rebellions by various black tribes, but as in South Africa, white rule was brutally established.

The country was fertile and full of mineral wealth which was exploited by European settlers – though they called it development.  In 1923 the country became a self-governing colony of the UK.  Of course this meant white rule only; the blacks were considered too stupid or dangerous to be allowed to rule themselves, even though many blacks served and died for Britain in the two World wars.  In 1963 Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) gained independence and essentially black rule.  The ruling white Rhodesian Front in Rhodesia under Ian Smith declared Unilateral Independence and defied Britain to take back control.  Covertly supported by white South Africa and despite Sanctions and a Civil War, which lasted for 15 years, with two main groups, led by Joseph Nkomo and Robert Mugabe.  The blacks were winning and Smith made peace with some groups. The new Tory administration under Thatcher called a conference of the warring side to Lancaster House in 1979. Apparently she was charmed by Mugabe, and Independence was granted and after the first election Mugabe took over as Prime Minister.  His party Zanu PF has held onto power since, although there have been accusations of intimidation and vote rigging for years.  Mugabe basically created a one-party state and a policy of land redistribution ensued.  Many white farmers were killed, but many also thrived as cronies of Mugabe.  Corruption, as in so many African countries, has been the order of the day, and Mugabe has enriched himself immenely.

A week ago, Mugabe sacked his Vice President Mnangagwa, and a few days later the army detained Mugabe in a quiet coup.  The motives of his wife, the power behind the throne, Grace, are still uncertain.  There are hopes for a peaceful transition, but it looks as if Zanu PF will still be on control.  Free and fair elections are a rarity in Zimbabwe and despite some hope that Mugabe may be on his way out, as usual it is the people who will suffer.  This is definitely not the end of the sad story of Zimbabwe…


Friday 17th November

So, alone in the midst of all this chaos, Jane was floundering, helpless and hopeless. She had been in the darkness of the Mikado for too long; she had no idea of the time even.  She finished off the last cold dregs of her third or fourth coffee and emerged out into the sunshine of a lovely summer’s day.  It almost took her breath away, the sudden beauty of it all.  As she walked through Stowmarket, basking in all that sunshine, she realised that this was a precious moment.  No-one yet knew about her family; her father’s disappearance, her mother’s infidelity, her sister’s drug problem.  If she should bump into anyone they would just see Jane, loving daughter of successful solicitor, the girl who lives with her older sister in that big house just off the high street, you know, the one with the big white gates and the gravel drive and the tall fir trees.

In a few days it would be all over the local papers, and everyone in this gossip-driven town would know, they would snigger behind her back, they would whisper to each other – that’s her, the Wilkinson girl, yes, no not the older one, she’s gone off the rails they say, yes a terrible thing, her father running away like that, and they say her mother’s no better, been carrying on with her sister’s husband I heard.   Well I never, who would have thought such a thing.

*  * *

PhiI can see the wide expanse of the sea from this window, from one side to the other, and it is a deep grainy grey, here on the East coast.  They say the sea is blue in the Mediterranean, a deep rich blue – he had seen photographs and it didn’t look real; it was as if someone had coloured in a black and white photo.  His mother had an album of old postcards from the First World War and before that even, and several of them had been tinted by hand, boys in khaki uniforms with bright brown hair and rosy cheeked girls in yellow frilly bonnets smile out of a black and white world.  And that is what the Mediterranean looked like in those pictures.  Just too blue.  He had never been of course; he kept meaning to take June to France, or maybe Italy, but he never seemed to get enough money or time together.  And if he ever mentioned it to her she would just smile and say ‘that would be nice’ in that annoyingly distracted way she had, much as if he had said we should buy some new furniture or change the car, and his enthusiasm dented by her apparent lack of interest he would go back to my newspaper and then the moment would pass.

He had only ever known this North Sea, and that not very well either.  It is vast and unchanging and yet changing all the time as the sun when it breaks through the clouds sparkles and dapples on the ever-rippling waves, and the shadows of the clouds create darker patches of grey which race over the water, and sometimes the waves are quite rough and come crashing relentlessly in and then another day there are hardly any waves at all, just a placid lake of green-washed-with-grey water that shimmers and ripples in the sunshine.

But mostly it is a heavy brooding grey and the sky itself just a slightly lighter shade of grey which sometimes blur into each other, just as his memories are blurring into one another, he finds it so peaceful here, and sometimes he cannot really remember.  Come on Phil, now concentrate, he tells himself.

They had a holiday here, once, only once and he must have only been a boy of nine or ten.  It was so exciting – a real holiday by the sea.  They lived only a few miles from the sea, but this was the first time he had ever spent a holiday at the seaside.  And for the first time in his life he felt free.  He can remember running and running along the shingle beach and the gulls flying and swooping low over the dark greeny-grey waves.  Just running and running and the shingle never ended, there was no start or finish, just the release of running for running’s sake.  And each step he took his sandals sunk in an inch or two and he had to heave them out of the ever dragging-you-down shingle, but this became a pleasure in itself, this strange feeling of heavy-leaded feet, and he never tired of it, this running on the shingle and the sound of the stones scrunching under his feet, and the waves breaking a few feet away and the screeching of the gulls as they raced him along the beach.  And for once there was no parent, no teacher telling him not to do this, not to do that, no bullying and hiding from the older boys or Grice and his gang.

His Mum and Dad just let him be as they dozed in their deckchairs; his Mum with her knitting and a knotted hankie on her head; and Dad with the top button of his shirt undone, his jacket off for once and his head back basking in the sun, a small pile of cigarette butts growing beside his chair.  Phil was free at last, and he just ran across all that shingle with the gulls screeching and the clouds scudding along too, and breathing in all that sea-weedy fresh sea air.  He had never felt so free as he did on that holiday, and never since then either of course.  Too old for running now. He can’t imagine running at his age, too many years sat behind a desk, and he’d put on a bit of weight too; no longer that skinny boy of ten.  He just wants to have a bit of time on his own, a bit of time to think, a bit of time to himself.  He never seems to have any time on his own. That’s all he wants – just a bit of time to think.

I Have Lived many Lives – 2

Thursday 16th November

Was I ever really that carefree child, running through the fields of Summer sunshine?  Yes.  That is one version of my childhood.  Idyllic.  We lived in Suffolk.  A quite large council house on a new development, a green space in front of the house and fields behind us.  A large loving family around too.  And many times I must have been a happy little boy.  But….we are complex creatures.  And my happiness has always been tempered by maybe too much self-consciousness.  For years I insisted that I had an unhappy childhood; this sort of justified my faults.  Questions about my parentage still clouded my mind.  And then I became the naughty boy.  And where he sprung from I do not know; it is pointless to blame anyone else -which of course, didn’t stop me from doing just that.  My parents and school became a sort of enemy, to be thwarted whenever I could.  And I also became a liar.  A habit I have struggled to lose even in adulthood.  Famously I peed over another boy – a misdemeanour I have been reminded of ad-infinitum.

Where this quiet rebellion came from I do not know.  I was living more and more of an internal life, having secrets seemed the best thing in the world – my world, mind you.  And yet…I still sought popularity, especially at school, where I morphed into the class clown, who dared to cheek the teachers.  I am sure that I thought I was far cleverer than all of them.

Somehow I passed the 11 plus, even if this was questioned by the Headmaster.  And at Grammar School I continued being the joker, and adopted a policy of doing as little work, especially homework, as possible without being expelled.  I was caned almost every week, but considered this a small price to pay for my secret independence.  I had a paper round and would nick a Times every day, and read it under my desk while the teacher droned on.  I was already Political at 13 or so.

And then Puberty hit…and that life, while not over, changed again.

Y – is for Neil Young – The Brilliant Seventies – On the Beach to Hawks and Doves

Wednesday 15th November

There is something special about just the few individuals who are true artists and geniuses.  Even when Neil is depressed he creates superb music.  After the initial flush of success in the very early Seventies, it seems that Neil wanted to turn his back on fame and maybe fortune too.  He could have, I am sure, carried on creating beautiful replicas of ‘After The GoldRush’ and ‘Harvest’.  Or he could have continued sharing the credits and the applause in CSN.  But instead he produced a string of ‘downer’ albums.

‘Time Fades Away’ is an album of live cuts of unreleased songs recorded in 1972 and released a year later.  The mood is very different.  No longer hopeful, lyrical and gentle, but almost angry.  It seems almost like he was doing a ‘Dylan’ and telling his audience to look elsewhere for a hero.  In 1974 he released ‘On The Beach’, a desolate album of bluesy mostly acoustic tracks; in fact, three of the tracks are called …Blues’.  The cover shows Neil, his back to the camera looking out to the sea, with a half-buried Cadillac in the foreground.  And washed up seems to sum the mood of the album.  A year later and he released ‘Tonight’s the Night’, maybe his bleakest record to date.  It was recorded in 1973 before ‘On The Beach’ but the record company refused to release it until Neil finally won.  It sounds as if Neil and his session players were locked late at night and drunk in the studio and were bewailing the life they were leading.  In fact, they were grieving for Danny Whitten, guitarist of Crazy horse and a roadie Bruce Berry, both overdosing recently.

In 75 Neil released Zuma, another brilliant album featuring one of his best songs ‘Cortez the Killer’, which would go on to be a live favourite.  H teamed up again with Stephen Stills for his next album, the much gentler ‘Long May You Run’.  1977 saw one of his best records ‘American Stars and Bars’ the cover portraying the pun perfectly.  By now Neil seemed completely back on form, great melodies and great singing and playing.  Favourite songs – ‘Saddle Up The Palomino’ and ‘Like a Hurricane’.  A welcome return followed by ‘Comes A Time’ which was gentler, more like Goldrush or Harvest, a lovely collection of songs.  And Neil finished the decade with another collaboration with Cray Horse ‘Rust never Sleeps’ which has the stark feel of a live album overdubbed in the studio, it is full of classic Neil Young songs.  ‘Hawks and Doves’ completed the Seventies.  Another majestic album and quite country sounding. Neil was back on form and selling lots of albums again.  He had also released a retrospective double album in 1977 which featured several unreleased songs he had discarded along the way.

But as always with Neil, things weren’t likely to stand still.  The Eighties beckoned, and like many artists from the Sixties and early Seventies, Neil would find the new decade challenging – to say the least.

The Rohingya Disaster

Tueday 14th November

I have just watched the report on Sky news.  The first independent reporter to have actually seen first-hand the terrible fate of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.  I don’t know how anyone can watch this suffering and not be moved.  How can this be happening in the Twenty-First Century?  The female reporter, and I cannot recall her name, set out in a fishing boat from a beach in Bangladesh which is close to Myanmar.  They landed a few hours later on a beach in Myanmar.  It was absolutely crowded with barely clothed and starving people.  Babies were being born in these appalling conditions.  I have never seen such an appalling sight.

The army (which is still partially in control and practically untouchable) is conducting a policy of ethnic cleansing, burning villages, killing and raping: driving, so far, an estimated six hundred thousand people into neighbouring Bangladesh, itself one of the poorest countries in the world.


Aung Suu Kyi, the (almost) leader of the country is still denying that this is happening.  And there is growing pressure on her to intervene.  We do not know the internal power struggle in Myanmar, but her reactions so far do seem incredible.  Bloody Religion again.

But what can the world do?  Myanmar is a closed world.  But surely we must do something to at least help the Bangladeshis to deal with this huge influx of desperate people.  And we must share their plight and try to bring some change.

This is the link to watch the report.


100 years on

Monday 13th November

The battle for Paschendale had just started, but hundreds of miles away events far more important were happening.  The Russian Revolution was starting.  Well actually, these things can rarely be fixed to a specific date.  In a way the Russian Revolution started in 1905, twelve years earlier.  That revolt was crushed, but it did not kill the idea, and Lenin and Trotsky went into exile, and started planning.  The World was at War, in February the already shaky Russian Tsar abdicated and a provisional Government took over – but local Soviets were formed by the Bolshevicks and a power struggle ensued against a background of terrible defeats by the Russian Army on the Eastern Front.

There was a civil war which the Red Army eventually won.  A peace was concluded speedily with Germany and Soviet Russia was established.

And yet….in the news, practically nothing.  Why is that?  Okay, the Revolution eventually failed in the 1990’s, but it was still a monumental event.  In many ways it was the constant fear of Revolution in the West which allowed change to take place here.  Without the Russian Revolution we may have still have had the old Tory world of deference and mass poverty.  Our politicians always had one eye on Russia.

I have read extensively of the Russian Revolution.  It still fascinates me.  And almost the best read is actually Solzhenitsyn.  His series ‘The Red Wheel’  is a wonderful triumph.  He only completed three books before he died, taking us from the start of the war from a Russian perspective and into April 1917.  But the author takes us into the lives of the rich and powerful and also ordinary people.  It is fiction, but seems more real than the dry Historical tomes available.

And even today, the shadow of the Russian Revolution still hovers just over the Horizon.  The fear of ‘the mob’, the realisation that you can only trample on people’s faces for so long.

Unless you understand History, you are bound to repeat it….

The Final Battle

Sunday 12th November

The final battle will not be, as Star Wars would have us believe, between Good and Evil, or even Christian Values versus Muslim Fanaticism, as the Daily mail would like us to think, or even between Capitalism and Socialism.  It will actually be a battle between Ignorance and Enlightenment.

2016 was a watershed year, both in Britain and the USA.  For a long time, I struggled to understand just what the hell was going on.  How could people have been so stupid?  To have voted for Brexit, to have believed that even if there was 350 million a week (actually about half of that amount) that the Tories would ever spend it on the NHS, to have fallen for the charms of Farage and Boris rather than the words of Obama, Carnage and Osborne predicting economic chaos.  And in America, to have fallen for the bombast and crudeness of Trump.  How could this have happened?  And the answer is Ignorance.  Now, by ignorance, I do not mean that people were stupid – though some may have been, I mean the willful ignoring of all common sense, the wallowing in a mud-bath of glorious bigotry, the tribal collective security of the mob.

As a teenager I used to sometimes go to see Ipswich play soccer.  And yes, I often succumbed to the sexist and abusive chanting of the crowd, but occasionally I turned my back on the pitch and watched the supporters instead.  It was almost one homogenous mass, swaying on the (then) terraces, united in hating the opposing fans as much as loving their own team.  And it was this tribal ignorance which both the Brexiteers and Trump so successfully tapped into.  Suddenly the politically correct doors were flung open and racism was okay, dressed up as it was in phrases like “concerned about immigration”. I can remember Farage talking about Immigration and saying that “the people at home will know exactly who I am talking about”.  As did every Sun and Daily Mail headline as they screamed about traitors and freedom from the EU tyranny.  But it wasn’t only the ignorance of ‘Working class voters’ (if there are any left), it was also the willful ignorance of Middle Class Tory Britain and well-heeled Republicans in America which secured those victories.  Pandora’s box was opened.  People who had felt ignored for years suddenly had a voice.  Blair and Obama had promised change, but little had changed for far too many.

And it will only be through Enlightenment that Ignorance will be reduced (defeat may never be entirely possible).  The final battle will be hard and long-fought, it will only be won by the young.  My generation has had to learn not to be racist, not to be homophobic, not to be sexist.  And yet many have still not really absorbed these lessons – they may agree with them when asked.  But secretly they still hate gays, they really don’t like black or brown people, and as for women – well, the less said the better.

But we must not despair, things will change – the pendulum will swing back again.  We just have to make sure it swings back far enough that Ignorance never succeeds again.

I Have Lived many Lives – 1

Saturday 11th November

As I look back over the years, with still a few more to come hopefully, I realise that I have lived many lives already.  And each one seems almost independent of the others, existing like insects in amber, frozen in time and trapped in their glassy smooth shells; fossils of a former species of me.  Memory is a strange thing.  Why is it that we remember clearly some things and others are lost to us, impossible to recall at all?  And I am never sure if I am really remembering the event itself, or the fact that I have remembered it many times before, and I may simply be remembering the memory of remembrance.  Like a hall of mirrors when you see a recurring mirror image getting smaller and smaller with each reflection, or a TV image of the TV itself and the screen begins to break up as the density of lines coalesce., so our memory may wear itself out, or dim with each dredging up of the wreckage.  And why when we try to remember specific events, like the retelling of a story, things get exaggerated, conversations less remembered, more invented and yet, we cling on to the memory, or maybe the memory of a memory – because that is all we have to remind us that we maybe once existed at all.

My mother has a photo of me, aged maybe four or five.  I look angelic, which is a bit of a surprise to me.  Maybe I once was.  This life is the hardest for me to recall.  Apparently, I was fostered for part of the week until I was maybe four.  A long story, suffice to say that I do not remember this other possible mother at all.  Or maybe I do.  Sometimes I have the memory of a woman, my mother or the other woman (who knows), saying that I had to go back to my mummy now.  And I am not even sure that this memory is real, or one I made up when I discovered that I was sort of fostered during those very early years; years which everyone tells us are so important to our development.  So, this photo – the earliest of me I think.  I am wearing tartan trousers which look a bit big for me, (but for years I know I was small, smallest boy in the class until I was about fourteen when I shot up, so maybe all my clothes looked too big for me) and I am seated on a stool.  The photo was taken in the house next door to my Nana’s where we were living, in Mrs Chenery’s house.  Her daughter Grace had a box Brownie camera and I think that she took the picture.  It is in black and white of course, but I have a feeling that the trousers were green.  All the photos of me as a young child, and there aren’t that many, show me as smiling ecstatically.  So, was I really ever that happy-go-lucky child?  I don’t think so.  Maybe having your photo taken was such a rare event that you were conditioned to smile like a loon.  Actually, my own grandchildren do that even now, so maybe it is something deeper, a desire to please the adult with the camera.  Or am I thinking things through too much – usual problem.  So, despite my complicated parentage I appeared to be idyllically happy as a young child.  I was doted on by my parents, and my Nana and Grandad.  I was taught to read and write and tell the time before school at five.

The only event to blot my horizon was the arrival of my sister.  I knew my mother was going to have a baby, but I don’t think I ever associated her large tummy with the event.  I can remember going to Ipswich hospital to collect both Mummy and my sister.  Long green painted corridors which seemed to go on forever and slightly downhill too.  Then the taxi ride home. I can still smell the leather seats. My Mummy holding a white shawl which contained my sister.  I ran out of the taxi and up the path to the front steps where Nana, Grandad, uncle Raymond and even maybe the Chenery’s were waiting.  I was so excited, I wanted to tell them, to show them my sister. But they completely ignored me.  As they cooed and hands pawed the white shawl I drifted behind their backs and sulkily into the house.  Life would never be the same again.