Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Churchill Question

Boris Johnson tweets that Winston Churchill 'saved this country from a barbaric fascist and racist tyranny'. Sorry, mate, but Winston wasn't up in Lancaster bombers risking his neck night after night like my old history teacher Bill Lanning. Winston wasn't held in a German POW camp like Michelle's dad Bernard. Winston didn't lose his mind while being tortured in a Japanese POW camp like my great uncle Sonny. Winston didn't crack the Enigma code like Alan Turing, who our great country persecuted to death because of his sexuality. Winston didn't lose his country and then join the Allies like those Polish pilots who flew during the Blitz. But it was Winston who excluded them from the post-war victory parade because they weren't British. He played his part. But it is ordinary people who win wars and ordinary people who suffer and grieve because they're fought.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Suffolk Punch Person of the Year 2018

It's been hard to feel hopeful about American politics for a long time. Well, two years at least. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with a handful of others who emerged during the mid-term elections, makes hope possible again.

Who is she? I didn't have a clue until just after her Democratic primary victory in June. Then I saw this engaging young woman on Stephen Colbert's show, I think it was, who according to the interview had caused the biggest electoral upset in decades. She was 29, or actually 28 then, and she called herself a socialist.

I knew that two years of septuagenarian Republican misrule in the White House had got America in the mood for a change. I also knew that Bernie Sanders had almost won the 2016 nomination, and stirred young American voters into a genuine semi-radical fervour, while campaigning under the socialist banner. But I wasn't expecting anybody else to get away with it.

Ocasio-Cortez was the real socialist deal as well. Joe Crowley, who she challenged in the primary, spent $3.4 on his campaign. Ocasio-Cortez spent $194,000 and nearly 75% of her donations were small contributions from individual voters. Less than 1% of Crowley's were. She won.

This approach to the funding of political campaigns, of course, dramatically reduces the opportunity for corruption by denying lobby groups access to the people in power. How different would America have been, I wonder, in the last two years if the NRA hadn't given hundreds of thousands of dollars to members of the Republican Party?

I knew that if we were going to win, the way that progressives win on an unapologetic message is by expanding the electorate. That's the only way that we can win strategically. It's not by rushing to the center. It's not by trying to win spending all of our energy winning over those who have other opinions. It's by expanding the electorate, speaking to those that feel disenchanted, dejected, cynical about our politics, and letting them know that we're fighting for them - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

In the November mid-terms Ocasio-Cortez faced Republican nominee Anthony Pappas, an economics professor at St. John's University, and won a seat in Congress with 78% of the vote. Pappas didn't vigorously contest the seat because Democrats outnumber Republicans by six to one in the district. But her win was still resounding.

Since her election Ocasio-Cortez' already-high media profile has gone stratospheric, partly because of her brave, principled, intelligent campaigning on a number of progressive issues (healthcare and the environment in particular); her visibility, for a politician still very new to the game, also trumps (if you'll pardon the word) everybody else's because of her skilled use of Twitter and Instagram. If recent Washington committees are anything to go by, Ocasio-Cortez may be one of the few people holding political office who knows what to do with a mobile phone. It's a shame she joins the President in that woefully exclusive club.

Predictably when an unapologetically clever young woman with good ideas emerges there is tremendous hostility. The conservative media and the more vituperative element of the Republican Party hate Ocasio-Cortez. They heap so much abuse on her you'd think she had declared herself a candidate for 2020. And that fear may be lurking in the back of their fetid minds: 2020 might be too early, but what about 2024? All the Democrats really need is a star to drive a truck through the discredited policies and personalities of their Republican rivals.

It comes down to misogyny, though, basically, doesn't it? Isn't that why commentators who defend a president with no rhetorical ability at all and a desperate need for a proof reader mock her intelligence? A woman isn't supposed to be as smart as she is. And if she is smart she's supposed to put her smarts in the service of maintaining the patriarchal system that views smart women with hostility and suspicion. She's meant to help prop up the unjust oppressive capitalism that still pays women less than men and doesn't want people like her in the boardroom. Which, if you think about it, wouldn't be very smart of Ocasio-Cortez at all.

Long may she put a chill up their spines, I say.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Suffolk Punch Person of the Year 2018.

Monday, December 17, 2018


Uncomfortable birthdays...Little Harrowden Primary School...the tin-legged farmer and the willy incident 

Tomorrow I will be 54 years old. Sixty in six years, if I make it that far. Fuck, where did it go? I can still remember the school playground at Little Harrowden Primary, and most of the kids running around in it. I remember how we used to be able to see the flame burning in one of the high silver towers of Corby steelworks tiny in the distance if we stood in the right place. Ten years later steel in Corby would be dead because of Margaret Thatcher's march of progress.

I remember standing with the rest of the school in the playground watching an eclipse of the sun. The admonition of the teacher that looking directly at the sun would blind us never left me; I am still, even today, awestruck by the terrible power of a star that can blind you from 93 million miles away. And when I picture that playground I still see the farmer who owned the adjoining fields, Mr. Belgrove, chasing Robert Tilley back through the gate aiming a kick of his tin leg at the boy's backside because he'd ventured into the fields, calling him a dozen names none of us had ever heard before as he tried to catch him.

And before those memorable scenes from a childhood that still seems within touching distance came the willy incident. That was in the older part of the school, near the bottom of School Lane, where there were buildings that were easily 100 years old, if not more, with girls and boys toilets of similar antiquity across a tiny playground used only, I believe, by the first years. So when the willy incident happened I was probably 5 or 6.

I had been to the toilet. When I came out I was met by three girls in my class who asked me to show them my willy. Never one to turn down a reasonable request, and as keen to make people happy then as I am now, I did as they asked and took my little pre-pubescent willy out. And wouldn't you know, all three girls ran off screaming and crying and reported me to the headmaster. I can't remember how much trouble I got in, but I probably had a serious talking-to at least.

It's so weird, with my 54th birthday coming fast over the hill, to think that that happened half a century ago. It's weird, and a little sad, although the memory is a warm and funny one. What's even weirder is that my mother died when she was 54. So I will be as old as Mum. I'm sure that happens all the time, but it shouldn't when the child is still young enough to recognise most of the current pop stars.

Friday, December 14, 2018


This week I've been learning about Blaze Foley. There's a movie about him directed by Ethan Hawke, a name I usually take to be a fair indicator of quality when it's attached to a product; it's out in America now, I think, the film, but when and if it will get to the UK I couldn't tell you. Maybe we'll see it on Netflix. They have a lot of Ethan's stuff.

But back to Blaze. I'd never heard of him until I read about the movie, and I've been listening to country music for forty years. In fact, one of the first albums I ever bought was Guy Clark's 'Old No. 1'. I also realized, early, mainly thru cover versions of his songs by other artists, that Townes Van Zandt was a genius, and a better poet than any of the boring versifiers they foisted on us at school, except maybe Shakespeare, although then I didn't realize how great Shakey was.

Townes' albums, for some reason, were hard to get in Wellingborough, where I grew up. He didn't get played much on Radio 2's Country Club programme either. It was the cooler Bob Stewart show on Radio Luxembourg that gave Townes at least one full concert that I can remember. Unfortunately the reception on those old pre-digital radios was terrible at night when you listened to faraway stations. Townes might have been singing on Mars.

I don't remember Blaze Foley ever being played on the radio stations I listened to, and he definitely didn't get onto British tv. His music, when you listen to it now, makes that seem like a grave historical injustice.

He's fucking great, don't you think? And while he was working his ass off in the US we were being forced to listen to Crystal Gayle and Billie Joe Spears. But when you read just a little about his life, his obscurity becomes less surprising.

According to Wikipedia, the masters of his first album were confiscated by the DEA. The masters of another album were stolen from a station wagon Blaze was living in. A third album was lost until years after Blaze died.

How could anybody with so much talent, you wonder, have so much bad luck? when artists with so little talent become global superstars and make vast fortunes writing terrible songs? It seems with Blaze -- and I never knew the guy so I'm drawing conclusions from what I read -- that his obscurity, while living, was partly at least the result of a chaotic lifestyle and a self-destructive streak. Bad luck has to be a factor too. Some people just don't make it.

But as Blaze (played by Ben Dickey) says in the movie, 'I don't want to be a star, I want to be a legend.'

Congratulations, man. You have people in other countries digging through your archives and telling each other stories about a crazy genius who lived in a tree house and covered himself in duct tape. I think you made it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Poem: For Harry


The old woman who lived in the corner house
on my route to school used to frighten me.
Her legs bowed out at angles from each other
when I saw her go to get the morning paper.
The gap was big. You'd kick a football through it.
Her spine curved forwards, and her clothes hung off her;
they were dark clothes, the fabrics worn with age.
Her skin, when I dared to look, was yellow,
and stretched across her hollow cheeks like paper;
it might tear if you didn't touch it gently.
She was creepy to a young boy, spider-creepy.
Those legs, with their knees bent wide--I'd seen
old people walk, but none had walked like that.
Mum told me poverty had wrecked her bones,
but that rickets, in the Seventies, had gone for good.
I think that she was giving comfort only
to a scared, small boy. Mum voted Tory then,
but she joined the Wellingborough Communists,
and talked of class war, just a few years later.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Library Wants Me After All. Well, Sort Of.

I just got an email from Northampton Central Library inviting me to interview for a volunteer post.

I applied to be a volunteer at the Library before I saw the permanent vacancy. I then applied for that, and, as my regular reader will know, I didn't get it. The cynic in me says my offer to work for them for nothing probably didn't advance my cause terrifically well.

The email about the volunteer post says I might not get that either. I have to discuss with them my interest in the post, and they have to decide whether they can match me to a particular role.

It feels like I'm applying for the secret service. The Library is about book-lending, IT, education, and arts events primarily. I'm a published poet and erstwhile tutor and arts event curator writing my arts blog on a Lenovo laptop. How much more suitable for a job could a person be?

But it doesn't matter, because I'm not going to the volunteer interview anyway. I am too proud to run the risk of being turned down twice by the same employer. I don't want to give them my hours for free, either, when they weren't prepared to pay me.

I'll go and volunteer somewhere else while I have a little time on my hands, somewhere they won't make me jump through hoops for the privilege of doing them a favour.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Signing On

It's signing on day again. This afternoon I have to go to the Job Centre and have something called a work booklet inspected by a Job Centre employee, who sits on the other side of a desk in an open-plan office where everyone nearby can hear what you say. As usual on signing on day, I woke up this morning with a dark mood hanging over me like those personal thunder clouds in the old cartoons. I hate signing on. I don't know anyone who likes it.

I have been writing in my work booklet for the last two weeks. The first section I wrote in is called 'I will'. In that, I recorded my plan of action re: 'jobseeking' for the fourteen days between appointments. The second section is called 'What I did and what was the result'. It's like primary school all over again, except I'm no longer a child.

If the details I have entered into both sections are approved, the Job Centre employee signs their name in an indecipherable squiggle at the bottom of the page and I am awarded less money for a week than I was earning for one shift at the warehouse.

It's usually very civilised, as long as you play the game, keep your temper, don't give in to the sometimes overwhelming feelings of embarrassment and shame caused by the situation you're in. If you let it get to you, or if, as I have seen on a couple of occasions, sheer desperation drives you over the edge -- some people in there are hungry, facing homelessness, some actually are homeless -- there are always plenty of security guards on hand to bounce you out of the building.

The system protects itself. You, unless you're docile and obliging, are on your own.

But, according to a man I heard in a hospital waiting room earlier, people like me are lazy and work-shy, content to let everybody else keep the country running while we lay in bed until the afternoon and smoke and drink all day. So if we find the fortnightly signing on appointment a bit of an ordeal, we bring it on ourselves.