Author Archives: katielib

Culture Shock

Reviewed by Katie Barron for Somatosphere

It has been a privilege, through reading Extraordinary Conditions, to come into contact with a writer and practitioner of extraordinary compassion. The book bears witness to a process of open-ended interviewing that contributed to presenting the lives and experiences of Jenkins’ interlocutors with a deep concern for their dignity and self-esteem……




Loot by Katie Barron

We all like to hunt treasure and then hold on to it, no matter how much we think we care about the planet….

Loot by Katie Barron in: Lunate – Reflections on the World

Welcome to the Nazis

Brexit is not done. Brexit is only just begun.

The nationalists are waving their flags. They want it to be forbidden for anyone to show a Europe flag. People whose work we rely on are losing their rights. They will be beaten up and told to go home. Then someone will suggest that to avoid being beaten up those with residency should wear some kind of sign….

My students are suffering racist comments weekly, even in Cambridge. One young woman pushed one of my students into the street and shouted, ‘Asian bitch!’ Another, in Ely, was told, ‘Go home to your own country!’

Our leader tried to circumvent parliament. Now he is going to broadcast himself direct to the nation, no longer bothering with the BBC.

Brexit needed to be fought against because of the attitudes and forces behind it. The liberals have been confused. They like democracy, they care about a host of issues all at once like climate change, zero hours contracts. Better off liberals feel sorry for people on low incomes and understand why they may want to vent. They have been intimidated by being called ‘remoaners’. They want to be positive and practical. Hitler was popular and supported by the poor. He still needed to be opposed.

The rise and rise of the right will not stop until it is opposed. It will find more and more to do, it is like a fire that has to keep being fed. It needs the next fight. What and who will it be?

What rough beast?

Image result for lawrence of arabia match trick

‘The trick is, not minding that it hurts.

Anything is better than remorse. So Britain is bolted into a masochistic frenzy. Every whiplash gives us a further thrill. The pound’s down. Oo! Do it again! The pound’s down. Aah! All the experts predict fewer jobs in the future. Do me! The CBI , the farmers’ union, the Bank of England, all those people who know, don’t want this to happen. How thrilling! My son won’t have a job, won’t be able to work in Europe, won’t have free healthcare. Fuck me again!

And now even the Remainers, instead of standing proudly as Bremainers, the true Brits who actually care about Britain, the real parents, the responsible grandparents – even they are joining in the orgy. Never mind what happens to our ability to eat, our ability to set terms and negotiate, let’s be ‘democratic’! Sovereignty for white male southerners, even if they have to brown-nose the Big Powers to keep it! Economic supremacy for the few, even if they’re supreme in a tiny pie, or in a soup.

I have the chance to vote, in a democratic election, for a party that will put an end to these revels, but I’m going to make sure I keep on sucking up to the Brexit brats. Anyone who’s stupid or ignorant or mean-minded, and the political and financial interests that are manipulating those people, I’m going to look after all of them, and do what they want and forget about what I want and what people like me want and need. Ah! – the bliss of self sacrifice! Ooh feel the adrenalin hit! The dopamine receptors tingle.  I surrender my intelligence, I surrender my home’s economics, I surrender my child’s future, I surrender, I surrender, I surrender. Doooo meeeee!



Institute of Fiscal Studies/ Brexit Scenarios

LSE/ Brexiters’ predictions inconsistent with basic facts of trade

BBC 2019/ Pound sinks to 28 month low

The Second Coming by WB Yeats

The Victims of the Victims

Image result for haskell library stansted

Family Reunited inside Haskell Free Library, Stansted, Quebec (Public Radio International)

The Victims of the Victims

The service station at Exit 115 Orford/Magog, two hours East of Montreal, is a place people come to hang out. They get to see the Exotic here, like a woman wearing a dress, or her son in a button-up shirt and knee-high socks. Formal is not normal. The old guys in blue shirts can’t pass by without some kind of interaction. ‘You know the bus stop is round the other side? It isn’t really a bus, it’s a limo…’ I smile appreciatively and they go and have coffee in paper cups and look at me through the window.

The bus (‘limo’) only goes to Montreal. I’m headed the other way, further East, where there used to be railways but aren’t any more and the untarmacked roads were state of the art early last century. The Quebecois romantically name these regions, ‘Les Cantons de l’Est’, as if they are to the East of anywhere one would want to be. The English-speaking residents call them more prosaically, ‘The Eastern Townships.’

My problem is that in this bureaucratic land no one will drive me without a booster seat for my five year old son. And no one has a booster seat around here so we are waiting for a taxi to come up from Sherbrooke, forty minutes away.

The only even half black person I will see the whole trip strides in and out. She is taking this day seriously, in tight jeans and wedge heels. Now and again when she’s in the car park she finds toddlers and leads them by the hand to look at her boyfriend’s Harley Davidson. It is a beautiful machine, sky blue and shining with sunlight. Mums emerge quickly from their parked cars and go and squat protectively next to their tots. Finally the Harley Davidson exits, roaring like a lion.

A tall, snowy-haired man wanders onto the forecourt. He wears a wide blue tie which sports the fleur de lys of Quebec. He stares straight ahead and drops a twenty dollar bill. It’s around his shuffling feet for a while and then he pulls it up again on a nylon string. Everyone smiles. For the next hour or two, I meet him here and there around the service station, at the queue in Tim Hortons, in the corridor by the toilets. He keeps dropping his money and pulling it up again. People smile, but no one asks him the question he’s waiting for: ‘Excuse me, monsieur, I think you’ve dropped something…’ Everyone can see the string, better than he can.

Eventually our taxi driver arrives. He is a kind man who takes our cases. He wants to communicate but he has very little English. I thought I spoke French but it turns out I don’t. I was an au pair in Toulouse once upon a time but that doesn’t count for anything over here where the language branched off in the seventeenth century. ‘Je ne sais pas’ is something like ‘J’en sayeess puh!’ It’s too hard.

This area used to be mainly English speaking, and railways linked the towns together. The tyres crunch over the gravel roads. The misty dark green of the forest is balm to the eyes. Our taxi driver doesn’t know Baldwins Mills. He wonders if I mean Ways Mills. There are a number of these old settlements dotted around the rolling countryside: two white clapboard churches stare at each other across a junction, their sharp lines contrasting with the soft haze of the forest, which is just about kept at bay. One church will be Anglican. The other could be Catholic, or a different Protestant denomination, little frequented now. The saw mills, owned by Anglos, worked by Anglos and French, shaved the whole forest coating these Northern Appalachians. The trees have sprung up again, home to moose and coyotes. But the secondary growth is no good for lumber. The region has fallen back on tourism, loved for its lakes in summer. Far fewer stick it out through the winter, despite the attraction of quaint old sports like curling – spinning a stone over ice.

My friend John is tall and tanned with a white beard. At 79 he still bathes in the lake twice a day. John’s father graduated from Edinburgh and Oxford in the 1920s. Like many of his time, he was attracted to the opportunities and wide open spaces of the Brit-colonised world and he took up a university post at Bishop’s in Sherbrooke, Quebec. He married a forceful woman whose mother had run a chain of clothes shops in Vermont. It was all part of one world.

John was eager to show me that world’s holy relic, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House at Stansted, where he works as a volunteer. Built in 1904, during the region’s golden age, the library straddles the border between Quebec and Vermont. Its foundress, Mrs Martha Stewart Haskell, a Canadian married to an American saw mill owner, wanted her library to be enjoyed by citizens of both countries.

The building exudes grace and peace. With its art nouveau decorations of foliage, its high windows and purple and yellow stained glass, it is a temple of educated liberalism. An Algerian man visiting at the same time as we were wrote in the visitors’ book, ‘One day there will be no more borders.’

Above the library is an opera house where orchestras and choirs came by railroad to perform classical music, alongside jazz played by ‘nigger minstrels’. The performers are more local now. A line is chalked on the carpet, demarking which members of the audience are sitting in Canada and which in the USA.

Occasionally, someone comes in to use the toilet and leaves a gun there for someone else to pick up. The US government is stepping up the security. However, it cannot stretch to funding a new coat of paint for the woodwork around the windows.

Image may contain: people sitting and indoorThe town of Stansted’s main employer, the dye factory, is gone, along with the railway. There is a nice patisserie now. John orders in French and we sit by a wide glass window. The pain-au-chocolats taste Parisian but they are double the size of their European cousins.

John is one of the ageing population of English speakers in the area. His sister refuses to speak French. ‘Life is too short,’ she jokes. But John loves swearing in Quebecois. Perhaps it chimes with a Protestant streak for him, as most of the swear words seem to be profaning the Catholic Mass. ‘Tabernacle!’ he booms, shaking his fist. ‘Caleeess!’ (Chalice) ‘Je m’en calice, mon hostie!’ ‘I’ll wine-cup you, you holy bread!’ For a really infuriating situation there is ‘Hostie de calice de tabernacle!’ ‘Host of the chalice of the tabernacle!’ – or ‘Damn!’ for short.

‘When I was a young man I was all for Freedom for Quebec. That was the radical thing. I called myself Qubecois!’ John stirs his café au lait. ‘Now I call myself an Anglo-Quebecker.’

John’s father was chancellor of Bishop’s University in 1969, the year of student rebellions everywhere. The local council was worried that there might be nationalist riots and the English-speaking university might be targeted. They sent along some police for protection, but the police were mainly French-speaking. The chancellor rang up the kitchen. ‘How many steaks have you got in the freezer?’ ‘Two hundred.’ ‘Cook them all!’ The police dined well and the rioters stayed away.

In another corner of the café sits Peters, broad-waisted, chatting with some acquaintances in French. ‘He’s an Anglo, but he’s a fruit farmer. He needs to keep in with everyone, for his business,’ John mutters to me.

It’s not just the linguistic changes that take some getting used to. The Quebecois government is very bureaucratic. Water police charge over the lakes in motor launches, making sure everyone is wearing a life jacket. On our drive this morning John had to turn back after ten miles, remembering that he had left his driving licence at home. If caught, that would be an on-the-spot fine.

‘What would happen to the Anglos if Quebec became completely independent?’ I ask John.

‘They would move.’

There is an Eastern Townships Association now, which is trying to protect the rights, culture and wellbeing of mainly ageing Anglos. They help their members cope with the language and the bureaucracy so that they can access public services.

John pulled a piece of plastic out of his wallet: his health insurance card. ‘We have to show this every time we want treatment. Look. It’s all in French. Some people might feel offended about that.’


A Plea for Disobedient Computers

We need to redesign computers so we can relate to them more as equals. At the moment they are our slaves and it’s no good for our souls. I am probably particularly guilty but I behave atrociously towards mine, with all the sense of entitlement of a Roman Emperor. I click my fingers and it comes running. And the slightest hesitation or misunderstanding on its part throws me into a fury. I only see this creature in relation to myself and how much labour I can squeeze out of it before I chuck it in some dump. Like a woman in a sexist society its body is reduced to three aspects: a bit you look at, a bit you touch, and a bit you turn on. Oh and it can be a status symbol. I have no interest whatsoever in its inner life. I try to cover this up but the truth is I don’t want to see its insides. They revolt me.

Does its dedicated service engender love? I fear not. I hate how it looks. I shut it away upstairs. I am an awful snob about it. If I had a daughter I’d forbid the wedding. I worry at night about my son becoming too friendly with it.

Where does this revulsion come from? I am no Psycho-Sociological expert but I am guessing that it is its low status in our society, its servility and precarious existence, that give rise to disgust. There but for the grace of money go I….

This train of thought jumped out at me after listening to the BBC’s Thinking Allowed, last Wednesday. Rachel Plotnick from Indiana, who has written a book called Power Button, pointed out that every time we press a button we are giving a command. It isn’t a request or a suggestion or a negotiation. Push-buttons are the direct descendants of the servants’ bells in stately homes.

As servants encroached on the existences of the wealthy, they robbed them of health, of capability, of intimacy with the fundamental processes of their own lives. Computers in their present servile state do the same to us.

Meanwhile I have washed up in a new job sitting in A-level Computing classes, taking notes for a partially sighted student. There are twenty students in the class and they were each given one of the twenty most popular computer languages to research. (Actually, the boys commanded their faithful machines to do the research!) There were mathematical languages, functional ones, those where a term corresponds to a set of instructions and those with one-to-one correspondence. Some involve telling the computer to start before the activity and stop after it, superseded by later languages that managed to leave that to the computer’s brain to handle. But my point is, that no one thought of putting anything into these languages other than commands!!

Whence this sense of entitlement?

Computers were forged in the crucible of war, under the supervision of generals who were used to giving orders to armies; and in a climate of urgency, where humans were prepared for a fixed period of time to trade their autonomy for safety. That is one heritage. Another is that many of the educated, who were designing computers, had grown up with servants. Another is in the tradition of administrative work which, before computers, was carried out by that army of clerics in shabby bowler hats who staggered half starved over London Bridge and into the City each day to compute and record the wealth of others. Many died young, many never dared marry because of the precariousness of their existence, living in single rented rooms.

In fact precariousness of existence, disposability, probably underlies most relationships of absolute obedience.

If something has to be enslaved, I would rather a computer than a human. One of the main charges against slavery is the cruelty, the creation of suffering. I’m not suggesting that our computers feel pain. But I am suggesting that what slavery did to slave-owners computers are doing to us. We are learning bad ways of relating to significant others.

Let’s imagine some new computer languages, which leave the computer free to respond with a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ or a ‘Later’, so that sometimes we have to just shrug our shoulders, laugh, spin round on our office chairs and look out the window or chat while we wait. Let’s imagine a computer that needs a little praise to work well, and daily gratitude to function; that we are required every so often, at least once a week, to explore it, to admire its teeny weeny chips, its pulsation of wires. What if we had to do some of its jobs for it, like evacuating memory space and de-bugging? How would we feel about that creature then?

I think we would start to relate to it as a person. We would be more interested in it, more humble, maybe even more joyful? Our new learned behaviours might spill over into other relationships. We might behave with our nearest and dearest, or with strangers, with less entitlement? More curiosity?

What would be the effect on my own job if my computer didn’t always work? Sometimes I would have to walk down the corridor and talk to someone. I might have to cross the courtyard and breathe some outdoor air, feel the discomfort of the rain. At present after every half-hour tutorial with a student I have to log the meeting in a record on screen to ‘claim the funding’. If I were unable to claim the funding, then the government, and behind it the citizen, would have to trust me to do my job. How would that trust affect me? What would it do for my self esteem? What would it do for my sense of responsibility towards the young people I deal with? What would it do for their sense of gratitude?

A Draft for the PM’s Tuesday Speech

Blog post from my friend William Forbes. Views not all shared by me but informative.

William Forbes's Blog

The draft of a speech seemingly prepared for the Prime Minister at her direction has been leaked (although not necessarily at her direction) to the editor.  It forces a completely new assessment of what she wishes to achieve, and a new admiration for her vision and courage, two virtues far exceeding those of her opponents in this country and in Brussels.  Her insistence on rejecting the parochial politics of Brexit for the global politics in which the restructuring of the European Union is only one part — alongside fifty million refugees and Africa’s legitimate ambitions — will place her opponents at serious disadvantage.

DRAFT Speech

The eager anticipation expressed by so many wishing to learn the details of our strategic approach to Brexit is, really, most encouraging, reflecting, as it surely does, widespread enthusiasm for the new opportunities it brings us both for expanded trade globally and, no less important, the…

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Liberal England: How can a #Liberal talk to a #Hate Addict?

The wonderful Jonathan Calder has published my piece on what Europe’s oldest poem, the Iliad, can tell us about hate addiction.

How can Liberals argue with people who are getting a kick out of hate?

The Iliad on Jonathan Calder’s Liberal England Blog



Guest Post from Herbert Agyemang in St Albans

dear reader,

 Every Christmas, I often relieve the ennui of HOME ALONE, and the other wholesale lassitude that stifles, by re-watching  old stacks of DVD’S and even streaming and reviewing new movies online. Bah humbugged, and flu-bug notwithstanding and cocooned from prying eyes, my lounge, my personal Library : my four walled and floor to ceiling high book-shelves  have seen me assiduously  watch at least 10m times or more { 10  times, just in case I missed a skit or something } the latest Spike Lee joint. CHIRAQ. On each of those 10 or more occasions, I have come away with this:  I am not a professional film critic by any stretch,  but I don’t think I am wrong to suggest here that in his tragicomic turn,  CHIRAQ, Lee brilliantly invokes Greek playwright Aristophanes’ ‘Lysistrata’.

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#Europe, my country

#Europe, my country

When I was nineteen, my friend Paula and I went inter-railing around Europe. The Berlin Wall had come down just the year before.

We splashed in the fountains in front of the Eiffel tower, then took a train East, chatting all day in English with a young man from Iceland. We stayed in the Ruhr and then in a small castle in Bavaria that was full of Yorkshire Terrier puppies. But we had to carry on East because Prague was the place to go, the recently uncovered jewel.

Being vegetarians then, all we could eat in Prague were white bread rolls, plain yellow cheese and the sweetest, most pungent tomatoes I’ve ever tasted. In the old town the statues of heroes on horseback, and the shutters and curtains decorated with hearts, recalled to us our own childhood fairytales of gingerbread cottages and earnest princes.

We wandered in grand nineteenth-century cemeteries, peered into dynastic shrines where brown and white photos showed familiar old-fashioned costumes – fluffy beards, cravats, monocles.

A history teacher and his wife and teenage son had us to dinner and spoke to us in broken English and broad smiles of delight that we could all be there together. After dinner the couple withdrew to the sofa to watch TV and cuddle unashamedly.

Paula and I took our picnics of white rolls, cheese and tomatoes to benches in the wide squares. Around us the middle-aged and the old walked slowly, almost gingerly, out from their apartments to sit on benches and talk, softly, casually, about this and that, the pigeons, the children. We were told this was a great new pleasure for them, that they hadn’t been able to do for forty years. The women were stout, with knotted nets of varicose veins around their calves.

Taking the train back we passed leafless forests, where smoke from soft coal had burned away the leaves.

We saw the wound, and we saw it starting to heal.