Category Archives: Books

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

 

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#Pilgrimage in Terror: Day 1

September 2002. Disillusioned with protesting against the ‘war on terror’, Katie went on a 13-day pilgrimage in Northern Spain.

Day 1: Invasion

File:From Citadelle, Saint-Jean-pied-de-port 01 HDR (1873202026).jpgOn the railway platform at Bayonne we were all waiting in our different ways for the train that would take us to St. Jean Pied de Port (‘St John at the foot of the pass’) and the start of the pilgrimage route. One man was smoking a pipe and his wife, a cigarette. They wore chic red rain gear. I wondered how they would make it, with smokers’ lungs, over the Port de Cize, the mountain pass that had brought the Romans and Napoleon into Spain, and now pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.

We strung ourselves out along the platform. We were all clearly walkers, with our backpacks and boots. We couldn’t hide from each other that we were all starting off on the same rather zany commitment of time and energy: a pilgrimage. Even today, even when lots of the walkers on the route are atheists or agnostics, it isn’t quite like just setting off on a hike. The modern tradition of the route says it will change you, it will give you some kind of experience of truth or happiness or peace. Paolo Coelho and Shirley MacLaine are but two of the more famous writers who have talked of mystic experiences on the way to Compostela. And that made us all a little sheepish standing there, made it difficult to strike up a conversation, as if we were all sitting in a therapist’s waiting room.

Our train crawled into the station. It hadn’t been painted for years. It made me think of the Harry Potter train, taking us into the time-warp of walking, into a world where the rules are different. Very soon the land began to rise around us as the train rattled on, winding tighter and tighter into the Pyrenees. Grassy banks sloped up at forty-five degree angles from our window, waving bunches of trees at the top. A light misty rain blurred the distances.

Opposite me in my compartment sat a young Englishman, just out of his teens. He was well built, with close-cropped hair. I could tell he was English because, apart from pale skin and shyness, he was studying a copy of the bright green laminated guidebook produced by The Confraternity of Saint James, a British outfit headquartered in Lambeth.

Chugging round tight valleys in the Pyrenees, I wondered if the young man opposite me had met the same lady in mauve that I had met in the Confraternity’s Lambeth office. He certainly had great respect for the guide, which he was poring over. Would he like a conversation or would he think talking to fellow English spoilt the atmosphere?

The ticket inspector entered our compartment. This created more awkwardness: the embarrassment of making those strange French sounds in front of a fellow Englishman. So we both of us confined ourselves to the relatively uncontroversial ‘Merci’, with just a glimmer of the vomit sound of the French ‘r’. The inspector didn’t bother looking us in the face, but examined our tickets disapprovingly from above a bulbous nose.

Having survived that incident together, we started to exchange bits of our lives. Alec was at ‘uni’ and seemed anxious. He only had enough money for two weeks’ walking and he wanted to get as far as Burgos, 257km according to the guidebook. I would never be able to walk that fast. Ah youth and maleness!

‘And what made you decide to do it?’ I asked.

‘Character building. That sort of thing.’ He was looking down. ‘I want to test myself. My Dad was in the army.’ So that explained the haircut. ‘He’s always told us that it’s important to have challenges in your life.’ Pause. ‘How about you?’

There I was, a recent peace demonstrator, walking against war, and in the very first moments of my pilgrimage I’m alone in a compartment with a soldier’s son. What magnetic material had they planted in those laminated bright green booklets to bring unlikely people together?

Faced with the politeness and forthright decency of this young man, my anti war arguments dissolved on my tongue. ‘I just wanted some time to reflect,’ I said, ‘Deserter!’ ringing in my ears.

I moved the conversation on to discussing the two routes over the Pyrennees into Spain: Napoleon’s conquering one over the mountain and Charlemagne’s path of retreat down in the valley. To my surprise, Alec agreed with me that the lower route would be enough of a personal challenge for the first day. Neither of us had done any training before we left, he because he was working day and night and I because I hadn’t managed to get organised.

But when we reached the tourist office in St. Jean, which was flooded out with pilgrims of all nationalities, their pilgrim staffs rolling over the floor and the shiny new rucksacks obstructing all passage, we were commanded to take the upper path, the ‘Route Napoleon’. The woman behind the desk raised an eyebrow and completely failed to comprehend when we suggested we might follow the modern lorry driver’s route. Brushing aside our qualms she told us to stay the first night at a hamlet called Huntto and attack the pass tomorrow. She pointed out the way on her map and showed us where, tomorrow, halfway along, there was a water fountain and shops. This I translated for my friend.

Alec was keen to get to a supermarket and stock up on provisions. I on the other hand was dreaming of a sit-down lunch with meat and potatoes. He was a little hesitant to abandon me in Saint Jean but I reassured him, so he shook hands with me and strode off. Over the next days of the walk I soon lost touch with him, polite and upright as he was. He rose each day with the earliest and launched off into the pre-dawn, swinging a plain baguette. I’m sure he reached Burgos and will do well.

In contrasting style I lingered in the mediaeval fortified town of St. Jean, eating a pricey meal of a whole duck with chips. It was late and I was the last person lunching, upstairs over a bar, with red and white checked paper tablecloths for company.

The town’s chief business seemed to be starting pilgrims on their journey. There was an entire market for pilgrims’ staffs. I wanted one of these, as I had read that they were a deterrent to dogs. I chose one with a spike. This was a bad mistake. The shock and ring of that spike on dry roads was to persecute me up and down dale for two weeks. But I clung to the thing in the hope that it would scare off territorial beasts who might waylay me at the gates of far-flung farms.

Before leaving St Jean, I climbed one of the stone staircases up onto the massive walls. Hills stretched away in all directions, blue and mushy with mist.

I had decided to dedicate each day of my walk to an aspect of the ‘war on terror’. I was hoping to find insights as I walked.

The theme I had picked for today, September 5th, was the plight of the Iraqis. Troops were already massing in the Gulf before I set off.

From my position on the fortifications, I gazed down on terracotta roofs, which the rain had stained dark red. Each had its own sliver of garden running towards the wall, dripping and shiny with the recent showers. Some were striped with different shades of green, the foliage of tomatoes, marrows, beans. Others had grown wild, but even those showed some sign of human providence – a walnut tree or an apple tree, a little easy nourishment in these pockets of land.

I could not think about a dry place. I could not think about suffering and fear. I could not think about hunger and the worry of parents. I could not both be here and somewhere else. How strange it was to be attacking a country so far away, none of whose people I had ever met, let alone hated. Here was full of enjoyment and there not. I chose here. I chose with an uneasy feeling of guilt.

So it was with a heavy heart and confusion, together with my usual expectant fear of dogs, that I crossed the river over the mediaeval bridge and followed signs for Huntto….

#LibDems: Death of a Class

In 1997 I had the honour of being a journalist at the Financial Times. One afternoon we were summoned by our chief exec to the large lecture hall to hear a presentation he’d entitled ‘The Cascade’.

Long-standing foreign correspondents, eminent leader writers and small fry such as myself, a sub editor somewhere towards the middle of the second section, sat in the half dark while flow-charts flashed across a screen. It was in the days when Management was still on honeymoon with PowerPoint.

On the CE’s screen, boxes were arranged in pyramid formations, with vertical lines joining them up. These pyramid shapes appeared to be what had given rise to the CE’s title ‘The Cascade’.

The presentation centred around who was now reporting to whom in some new structure, of little interest to the journalists who ethically kept away from the commercial departments and simply reported to their Managing Editor of the day who operated like a ship’s captain, making instant decisions that commanded instant respect.

Now and again the CE mentioned his new word: ‘Delight’. Then he would click on a box, which would magically open up to reveal an inner core of bullet points – how that department was going to ‘delight’ its ‘stakeholders’. When we got finally to the Editorial box and the click was made there was just one item: Free Giveaways.

‘How are we to delight our readers?’ asked the CE. This was a rhetorical question. He didn’t await the journalists’ views. Instead, he reminded us that recently the FT had offered free gold-plated pens to readers.

We should have walked out then.

It was business doing the two fingers to the professional classes, on whose expertise that business depended.

I had already encountered management bullying and disrespect in smaller financial magazines: well-educated apprentices working all hours in the hopes of being kept on, only to be fired and replaced by a new eager apprentice; long-standing reporters constructively dismissed over tiny errors. Coming from a private school and Oxford, I had already by age 25 seen the necessity of joining my union.

But this, in front all the journalists at the Financial Times, when that paper was probably at the height of its prestige (the year it told the City to vote Labour), was an insult on a new scale.

It should have been a call to arms for the entire intelligentsia. But the intelligentsia has stayed mute about its own interests as a class, its members by long British tradition ashamed to be middle class, instead joining in others’ narratives, either sycophantically identifying with the toffs or sentimentally identifying with the remnants of the working classes whom they are now rapidly joining, to nobody’s benefit. It is this unwillingness to identify with the middle classes, in both Liberal Democrat politicians and their natural voters, the educated middle classes, that has led to the demise of the Party and, with it, a class, a way of life, a way to make a living.

Since 1997 I have seen more restructuring flow charts than I’ve had hot dinners. I moved into teaching but it made no difference. Skilled labour is replaced with unskilled labour. Inspections and targets are used to bully teachers, but doing well by those measures is no protection against sacking. Teachers at every level of the education system including university lecturers are forced to re-apply for their jobs. In my sector, Further Education, most colleges have a cull every summer. The result of all this is that the hirers and firers, the managers, practise bullying and favouritism on a grand scale. End-users suffer from the instability and the lack of motivation and skill in staff and the amount of sick leave.

Anything that can call itself a profession has been attacked: the civil services, the social services, the police, the military, the creative industries, academia, librarians, medical practitioners. Professionals have lost job security, pension and prestige. Doctors are well paid, but we don’t train enough doctors, so opportunities within the NHS are limited if you are British. Lawyers can survive because they have private clients, but the underlying justice and prestige of the legal system is eroded by the lack of Legal Aid and thus also the lack of test cases involving poorer people feeding into Common Law. Scientists and engineers can get jobs in industry, but who will educate the next generation of scientists?

I come from a family that has done just about all the professions connected with words and reason, counting over the last few generations a lawyer, a vicar, an archaeologist, writers, editors, a Maths teacher in a secondary modern, an actor, a master of an Oxford college, a History professor (and some of those have been women). My uncle was the first to leave, setting up his own business in the 1980s, trading in books, caught by enthusiasm for Thatcher. Now I am switching to business too. I am the main carer and main provider for my son and I think I have a better chance of developing an income stream going forward, and having time with him, even having some kind of pension, if I let my spare room and self-publish my own text books. I may not have sufficient business in my background for it to work. No guarantees. No doubt the Tories will self-righteously approve of my insecurity – professionals brought down at last.

I won’t have time to write novels about the state we’re in that can’t get published because Waterstones wants to run a limited number of titles, mainly celebrity cookbooks; or to be an activist in a Party that has to work twice as hard as the main parties for every vote; or time to try and influence public opinion and society at all.

Here ends the chattering classes, the chatter and this blog.

Adventures in Tory Land: Democracy in Middle England, comic tales of the canvassing trail, is available on Amazon.com for £2 here: http://amzn.to/1GpXY1F

Or, if you want to twang your heartstrings more, listen to ‘What I Did for Love’ sung by Engelbert Humperdinck on youtube: http://bit.ly/1JBe0Wi

Leo and #Justice

Leo has been asking me ALL DAY, ‘Why does Mr King hava go to jail?’

‘Because he took some money’ is not enough of a reason for Leo.

And because I’m a Liberal parent, I’m just not gonna say ‘because he is a BAD MAN’. I’m not going to say it, although it might reassure Leo.

So why does Mr King, the smuggler in Graham Greene’s The Little Steamroller, have to go to jail?

Is it because he was grumpy?

Mr King is grumpy (Ardizzone)

Mr King is grumpy (Ardizzone, from The Little Steamroller, by Graham Greene, 1974)

Is it because he lied?

Mr King lies to a customs official (Ardizzone)

Mr King lies to a customs official (Ardizzone)

Is it because he crashed his car and lost his hat?

The Little Steamroller deliberately crashes into Mr King's car (Ardizzone)

The Little Steamroller deliberately crashes into Mr King’s car (Ardizzone)

Leo just can’t see stealing some gold and hiding it in some toy bricks as nearly as awful as having your hands ‘tangled up’ and being locked up in a cell without Mummy and Daddy, with no one to talk to and where you can’t get out. The only way out for us, at teatime, bathtime, bedtime, was to enact a role play where one of us would be Mr King. We said sorry, we gave back the gold, and then the policemen mended our car and our hat and we went home and had tea. But the hand-cuffs were insupportable. When I tried to mime wearing hand-cuffs Leo simply shouted ‘No!’

The day has been torture, and Leo has won. Because I don’t know why a punishment should ever be more painful than the original crime.

As Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado says, let ‘the punishment fit the crime’. By the way that was a brilliant production by St Albans Chamber Opera in March. They’ve another opera coming in May. http://www.stalbanschamberopera.org.uk/

BabMikadoTeeth
His teeth, I’ve enacted,
Shall all be extracted
By terrified amateurs.
(Cartoon by W. S. Gilbert)

#Orwell Prize: othering our fellow citizens

When will the educated in this country stop treating poor people like an insect under the microscope?

And I use the singular advisedly!

Yesterday evening the Orwell Prize shortlist was announced at a drinks reception at Westminster College in London. There was a wide diversity of journos there, including visitors from India.

While we held our breath for the shortlist, Stephen Armstrong (@roadtowigan) spoke about his #Unreported Britain series published @theguardian.

One story was that one in five people don’t have access to broadband. Another was that in Paisley a lot of people don’t go to the dentist, for fear of having to pay charges.

A man in a smart white shirt stood up and shouted (with authority, because he grew up on a council estate in South Wales) that lots of men are scared to go to the dentist anyway and people on council estates in Paisley don’t need anyone’s pity.

At which Stephen @roadtowigan hastily denied feeling any pity, only admiration for people’s courage and community in the face of adversity.

Right.

1: Not going to the dentist ain’t a story in Paisley. So why is it a story for the Guardian?

2: Why the f**** can’t both Guardian journos and readers alike put 2 and 2 together and work out that lots of people, especially poorer people, won’t have computers or internet phones? Why is that news to them?

3: ie Whence this carefully crafted ignorance leading to a carefully crafted innocence? – which is in itself surely a designer item akin to the real Gucci handbag or having one of the first iphones?

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!

The Nice Lady, by Asbjorn Gundersen, in Adventures in Tory Land

The Nice Lady, by Asbjorn Gundersen, in Adventures in Tory Land

To buy Adventures in Tory Land by Katie Barron, click here: http://amzn.to/1GpXY1F

#Tory Myth 3: Life is Tragic

I hope I meet Byl Wringe again some day. Last heard, he was teaching Philosophy in Turkey.

When we were students together he had a moustache he fiddled with. We were Young Fogeys, at the end of Thatcher’s era. Byl said he couldn’t be a Christian because Christians denied Tragedy. But things do go wrong, he said. The centre doesn’t always hold. To deny that fact is to deny also the vulnerability of the world, which is its beauty, its lovability.

Believing in Tragedy is believing that irresistible forces meet immovable objects, that there are problems that can’t be solved. In the tragic world view, Economic Growth is pitted against Environmental Protection; Housing against the Countryside; Employment against Inflation; Human Rights against Human Responsibilities; Security against Peace.

Poster for Sophocles' Electra, performed by students at Kings College London in 1989

Poster for Sophocles’ Electra, performed by students at Kings College London in 1989

That’s what the Ancient Greek Tragedies did. They took abstract nouns and hurled them at each other. Antigone can’t reconcile Respect for the Dead with Respect for Authority. Electra’s love for her Dad drives her to hate her Mum. Pentheus is torn between sensuality and dignity, in the end literally torn.

What’s the answer to these clashes of opposites?

‘Sacrifice!’ say the Right Wing. ‘One Good has to be sacrificed for another Good!’ (Oddly, it’s often someone else’s Good that has to be sacrificed.)

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?

Possibly a transformation of both?

What if transformation were possible? What if reconciliation were possible? What if there were solutions?

‘Love hopes all things.’

What if the tragic outlook missed a trick, turned out to be a little wooden, seeing the murdered tree of the cross, and not the dynamo that was forged?

Byl, are you out there?

Buy Adventures in Tory Land: Politics in Middle England at amazon.com/co.uk or click here:

http://amzn.to/19GvXqE

A new take on mental health

In One Swift Summer, a London park is a collection of human souls suspended in space, watching each other, occasionally interacting and colliding, starting to matter to each other. Above them, other beings, followers of an utterly different existence (`this unspreadsheetably wild otherness’) soar and swoop, build a nest in a listed building, feed their young, are persecuted by a gardener, are saved…

The hero of One Swift Summer, ex sex worker, ex murderer, ex jailbird, has redeemed himself and gradually redeems others, through selling them ice creams and through his art: `By drawing swifts, I draw our thoughts, which fly here in our inner sky, no less large, no less blue….’

In amongst his wisdom learned the hard way there is also humour, as when an American tourist asks for a `large’ ice cream and is fascinated by the smallness of his helping, vows to tell everyone back home not about Kew’s majestic rare trees but about the size of a `large’ ice cream in these parts…
One Swift Summer teems with quotes you want to pin on your bathroom mirror. It is the answer to a life `stuck on the District Line, stuck on Sudoku.’ Read it on the train, read it instead of Sudoku.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/ONE-SWIFT-SUMMER-R-Askew-ebook/dp/B006AXFPEM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1422534250&sr=8-1&keywords=one+swift+summer