Tag Archives: British culture

#UKIP Myth: Toy Story

When Leo sits down with his Toy Story jigsaw puzzles a cold hand grips my heart. Sunday evening, I want to feel cosy, and he brings out those garish, creepy figures.

But there’s no escape. ‘Come, Mummy,’ says my two and a half year old, extending the beckoning hand that can’t be refused.

toy story jigsaw

Added to the first horror of sorting out four jisaws that have been jumbled together, I then have to pore over every limb of these gruesome zombie like objects: the corpse with the drooping eyelid (Leo calls it ‘baby’); the giant locust crossed with the Incredible Hulk (Leo calls it ‘green man with yellow pants’); the sickly pink fluffy monster (‘teddy bear’ to Leo), the leathery octopus, the eight-eyed monster…. I want to hide these four jigsaws (once we start we have to do them all) in a cupboard, but his favourite babysitter gave them to him for Christmas, so it wouldn’t be diplomatic.

I wonder if this is how Ukippers feel about the European Union: weird alien creatures they don’t want to understand. And I sympathise.

But I have to learn from Leo who assumes that everything around him is animate, and in some way connected to the world he already knows, and so he can relate to anything. The doll is a baby, the eight-eyed monster is a different kind of frog.

Maybe even Farage is just a different kind of frog.

Maybe we can relate to the Other without losing ourselves.

#Pilgrimage in #Terror: Day 3

Day Three, For Dave Mugridge. Roncesvalles to Burguete.


Being a student suited Dave. We were all lonely, lazy and languid then. He inhabited benches, wrapped in a large grey coat. Looking at photographs now I see how young and blooming he was. The light shone in his mane of chestnut hair and the vivid blue eyes were fringed with long lashes. At the time, he seemed older than us, like a man who had Lived. Perhaps it was that his skin was slightly pock-marked from a brush with acne and that gave him a wolfish, battle-scarred look. We discussed literature and his sallies with girls over chocolate Hobnobs in those cold student rooms.

One day in his final year he paid me a visit in my room. The mist was hanging outside the Victorian stone windowsills, turning the afternoon violet. He was serious and awkward. In a low voice he told me he was ‘HIV Positive’.

‘Ah-ha?’ I said neutrally. I thought it was important to show that one of his good friends wasn’t alarmed or disgusted.

He looked at me bewildered. ‘Do you know what ‘HIV Positive’ means?’

Some fluke, some twitching in the DNA, gave Dave haemophilia back there in the embryo. Neither of his parents was a haemophiliac. When he was in his early teens, Dave had to have a blood transfusion. That was in the 1980s, when Mrs Thatcher was declaring, ‘There’s no such thing as society.’ Before Dave had ever kissed a girl, he was infected with Aids. Someone well-meaning gave him life and death.

After we graduated, Dave shared a rented house with a group of friends from university. They were turning into young professionals. He was not. He had enough money to live on and too broad a horizon. This group of student friends, spread between three or four rented houses, hardened into one of those adult gangs – Were they a Nineties phenomenon? – professionals who lived together, spent their Friday and Saturday nights together, and eventually married each other.

Between the members of his gang Dave moved like the invisible man, unable to drink as his liver weakened, entertaining them with stories of his own foolishness. We all heard about the latest woman to be the object of his love and desire. He would pursue to the point of intimacy and then flee in terror. Once a girl clung on and he couldn’t flee. But as the relationship developed he started to wash his hands obsessively, taking on a guilt and dirt that didn’t belong to him. ‘You can still use them for fantasies,’ I suggested. He laughed, shocked.

Dave didn’t work. While he still had compensation money he couldn’t take it seriously. He tried once. He bought a suit and worked in the Government Statistics Office. His boss was a nice, earnest man who had high hopes of Dave. But Dave had his own room and was thus able to put his head down on the desk and go to sleep in the afternoons. A week came when his boss wanted him to go to Wales to tell the civil servants there what the Stats Office was up to. Dave took the train and faced the row of grey suits. He had nothing to say.

Towards the end of our twenties, Dave’s compensation money began to run out. And it was this that forced him to use his talents. He taught English in the prestigious Catholic comprehensive that was educating Blair’s boys. But the virus started to kick in. A boy shouted at him in the corridor – ‘Aids man!’

Dave looked in the mirror and saw how thin his face was. But research had produced a miracle drug that kept men living years longer: it gave him cancer of the liver. He didn’t know this until April. He kept on going into school, facing classes. In the evenings he came home and threw his clothes on the floor in heaps, too tired to sort them out.

After he was taken into hospital his friend Adam walked into his room and found piles of jeans and good quality jerseys, full of moths.


‘It is a very kind act to take a friend’s hand and show him or her the pleasure you have in something,’ says Natalie Goldberg, the writers’ guru. This was Dave’s gift. His enthusiasms – about certain musicians, certain writers – made him almost frightened. ‘Will I talk about this?’ he hesitated. ‘Let me know what you make of him. I think – I hope you’ll like him.’

We discussed the then-popular TV adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, for an hour. ‘Do you think,’ I asked, always earnest, always wanting to know what happens after the end of the story, after the chicken has crossed the road, ‘Do you think they got on after they were married?’

‘Like rabbits.’

He was my personal tutor in culture, introducing me to the Shuttleworths and Colonel Blimp, and Queen (Mama, I don’t want to die. Some times I wish that I had never been born), and Star Wars. That was a formal event. I took a day off work and went round to his shared house in Kilburn. We sat in while the sun shone outside, munching houmous, pitta and iceberg lettuce, imbibing Luke Skywalker. Now and again he would freeze the video to check I was following, or draw out the hidden meanings. Then we walked on the mown grass of the park, near the railway line. Meetings always ended more subdued than they began, with him starting to talk about his troubles – love life, work, health – and then hating us both for the serious turn of the conversation.

I confess those depressed endings scared me off. There was a year when we lost touch. I am walking today partly for that.

Then April, the first spring of the new millennium, Adam appeared in the front garden. He brought a pale blue letter from Dave.

I visited him twice, but after that he didn’t want to see me. There were too many crowding for his attention, people who mattered more, and he tired easily.

He quite soon made the decision to give up the chemo. In his hospital bed he converted to Evangelical Christianity. His sister, who was already a convert, introduced him to a local evangelical pastor. This bible-based faith was something he had been putting off for years. In student days, he would get inveigled into attending evangelical dinners and then run away afterwards, traumatised. ‘Why does it bother you so much?’ I would ask him. ‘Just put it out of your head.’ ‘Yes,’ he would say, unconvinced.

It was awkward to get news of him in hospital. I didn’t like bothering the nurses and feared discussing his worsening condition with his Dad.

In the end there were letters: tiny skynotes, addressed in his own increasingly spidery hand. I felt as if I were receiving words from beyond the grave, so far apart were we in prospects and daily experience. I didn’t know what to say, twiddled my ink pen sitting in cafes, etching some kind of empathy onto the void of white A4 sheets or just nattering on about my day. Then back through the British postal service came these miracles. I treasured those letters as if they were love letters, knowing that one of them must be the last. And yet there was nothing intense written on either side – we had no great words to say – just a couple of friends continuing until the whistle blew.

Thank-you loads for your letter which reached me today. You continue to lead an interesting life but I hope it is not getting in the way of your writing… I am full of regrets that I haven’t achieved (written) more but I am currently collating everything… ‘Blasted’ is a good word to describe this disease. I feel very angry and frustrated at the loss which will take place when I die. Still I have nothing to be too ashamed of or regret I think… I am moving towards a sense that it is all God’s will really – hard to accept – but ultimately true...

Later, when the morphine doses were raised, the writing shrank to a minute size and he went over his letter underlining certain words in a different colour: I’m glad you write, it gives me simple plans to complete. I sometimes feel so sad but I’m sure I’m doing the right thing here. It’s hard to wait for the end, equally its scary to think about it – meanwhile when I put strategies into place to deal with these feelings hallucinations get in the way!…. Woozy, Dave. Woozy he may have been but the post-code was always accurate.

The last card is John Constable’s Hay Wain and it’s faintly baffling.

Dear Katy – he alternated between the ‘ie’ and the ‘y’ spelling – This card is taken from a postcard book bought from National Gallery by Claire for me – and it’s about the only one I could bear to part with because they are all so beautiful – wonderful colour reproductions of Renaissance stuff…. My story is not getting written. I seem to be very busy with guests…

With returned good health have come all manner of political difficulties dealing with family and friends – it seems tough on me but politics never goes away, it seems. Now the crisis seems to have passed no one, including me, quite knows what to do with me. I have a deep sense of frustration at still being alive, to tell you the truth, but perhaps God still has plans for me down here. I found myself evangelising a nurse today and thought ‘Lord, please make that my last one!’

love Dave

The grip with reality was loosening and yet I wonder if, in amongst the veins and the lymph glands brimming with morphine and toxins, you knew that that was your last card. It is the only one you signed with love.


The pilgrims had marched out of Roncesvalles before dawn, leaving the monastery emptier than an empty building, scoured and sterilised, all atmosphere washed away by the nightly flow of guests. The massive interconnected cloisters stood stony silent among their groomed lawns. As it was a special holiday and there were many visitors, the museum was shut. In a telephone box near the restaurant three Filipino women were trying to sleep. We were disappointed, Sandra and I, that there wasn’t more of a gung-ho saint-thumping Catholic ambience, something to give us instant spirituality. But then maybe the point of a pilgrimage is to start from a state of godlessness and move towards God…

#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….

Christmas Rape

Thomas Nast added the North Pole and the elves’ workshop to Father Christmas lore

Boxing Day 2015, Blairgowrie.

This morning we were in Grandad’s bathroom doing nappy change. ‘Mummy,’ says Leo, ‘Why did you pack a stocking?’ ‘So you could put it out and Father Christmas could put presents in.’ ‘I don’t want presents! I don’t want Father Christmas to give me presents!’ The tears rolled over the bright red cheeks. He had been okay about it yesterday, but now he was blotchy and shaking.

It’s true that his bah-humbug mum had filled his stocking entirely with oddments purchased at closing time on Christmas Eve in the charity shops of Blairgowrie (Raspberry Capital of Scotland). But I don’t think it was just about the quality of the gifts. Leo had been interested enough in the plastic fish holding an anchor in its fins and the miniature elephant asleep in a box. Knowing my son, I think it was about self-determination: I hadn’t properly asked him if he wanted to hang up a stocking, we had just done it, and he’d gone along with it without knowing what it was about. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said now. ‘You don’t want presents from Father Christmas, I’m sorry.’

And I know the feeling. There’s a heck of a lot of Christmas that I don’t want and did anybody ask me? Did anyone ask me if I wanted my head buzzing with Frank Sinatra’s  tinkety-tonk from end Nov to 24th Dec everywhere I go? Did anyone ask me if I wanted to intone ‘While shepherds watched…’ or eat brussels sprouts? Did anyone ask me if I wanted that egg cup, that biography, that scarf? Did anyone ask me? And there’s my honourable Scrooge Within who doesn’t enjoy blowing a month’s child tax credit in a week…

I miss my Dad. He brought a rich, velvety gloom to every part of Christmas, sombre tones between the tinsel. The Christmas cards would start to arrive: ‘Oh God! They had us to dinner five years ago and we still haven’t had them back. It’s awful!’ As the card season wore on, ‘We haven’t sent them one.’ Sigh. ‘Too late now!’

He would fry his nerves doing all his shopping on Christmas Eve and then deliberately exhaust himself by not starting present wrapping till gone ten o’clock. By that time we would have had the family row, the only part of Christmas he joined in with a passion. On Christmas Day, if he could find no other excuse for misery, Dad would develop toothache, at its worst the year we stayed with a friend in the country and there were no painkillers for miles.

Sometimes when you lose someone you love you would be willing to have any piece of them back. If the only Dad I got was the toothache spectre in the corner, I would opt for that. But it’s not just that I want him back, I also need that uninhibited party-pooper. By the time the 27th came, and we were preparing for yet another set of family friends or lonely hearts to eat turkey risotto or cold ham, my Dad would burst out: ‘I would like some peace!’

In this time when foreign policy is not going my way I find myself wondering if there could be some link between my Dad’s ‘peace’ and the pipe dream of world peace. What if we just did less? What if we gave up that positive idea that ‘there is always a solution’. What if we chose to endure adversity with the same bitter gloom that my Dad used for Christmas? What if that turned out to be the less harmful option?

Here in Blairgowrie, like everywhere, we’ve had the Strictly Christmas Special, the World at War, an Andre Rieu concert and a black and white Christmas Carol. Today, St Stephen’s Day, when we could be meditating on the poor saint getting smashed to death by stoning, we have done the Perth panto, with puns, dames and local lyrics to well-known numbers. It’s like we’re trying desperately to distract ourselves from some unpleasant truth. What is it? Winter? The sure knowledge that we will have flu in February (with and without the jab)? Or war? – that as we sit at our family tables our taxes are paying to blow other similar families to bits, physically and psychologically? But the chin-up grinning goes back a lot further even than this ‘War on Terror’ that we’ve been befuddled into staying in for fifteen years.

My theory is that the Christmas story is even scarier than the Crucifixion. Maybe we can just about get our head around someone, finding himself in a hairy situation, threatened with death, deciding to Tell the Truth, let go of control and take what comes. Sometimes people do have these moments of courage. But to be a god, who could stay up on a cloud twiddling a harp, and deliberately choose to get down here – knowing how it’s likely to end – that is too scary. And not believing in God doesn’t really protect from the story. The point is that, if there were a god, we think he might do that.

We think he might do that – suggests there’s a part of us that’s choosing to be here – not just the one in Denial, and the Lizard Brain with its survival reflexes, some other bit that actually chooses this.

Why on earth?

War on Terror: the Score

Autumn 2001

st martins

On Sunday 7 October 2001 the Coalition for War on Terror began bombing Afghanistan. On the Monday afternoon, two weeks later, a cricket scoreboard stood on the steps of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, recording the number of civilians killed as a result of the bombings. War on Terror, it said, the score.

There were three sub headings: ‘Killed’, ‘Refugee’ and ‘Starving’.

The board stood there every Monday, from two o’clock to six o’clock, until Christmas. The numbers were a foot high, white on a black ground to show up on failing autumn afternoons, and visible from across the square, a pitch length away. Red double-deckers passed, and tourists on their way to the National Gallery or the theatre district; and limousines with darkened windows, headed for Whitehall. As the afternoons darkened, the numbers climbed.

I stood beside the board. This demonstration was my demonstration. I still have problems explaining it to myself or anyone else. My friends were surprised. So were my family. ‘We’ve never seen you like this before.’

I had never been an activist – except once as a teenager in the 1980s I sat down in the middle of Oxford Street over something to do with Libya, I didn’t really understand what.

My jobs didn’t stand out as social conscience jobs. First I was a reporter for Investors Chronicle, helping the rich to get richer with tips on investment trusts. Then I was a Classics teacher in a private school for girls. The closest I had come to activism was being in the union at Investors Chronicle. Now I might be moving leftwards, as I was in adult education, but I never thought of my anti-war demonstration as left wing – at least, not originally.

It was like a reflex action to do that demonstration. It was difficult for me to explain it, because it was so obvious to me. People who supported the war were the ones that needed to do some explaining, in my view.

If there was no other consideration at all, simply the name of the campaign was an insult to human experience. War, against Terror? Only people who hadn’t suffered war and had no capacity to imagine it could talk about war as if it wasn’t in itself terrifying. Only very powerful people could get away with such a contradiction in terms. In fact, the use of such a phrase was a subtle intimidation in itself, a throwing one’s weight around, a saying what the hell one liked. It reminded me of the sinister nonsense in Orwell’s Animal Farm: ‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.’

On Saturday 20 October, while US Special Forces were attacking sites in southern Afghanistan (‘The Pentagon said US troops had met only slight resistance,’ said the BBC), I was in a van with Stan and his wife, edging down Regent Street, a cricket scoreboard lying on sacking in the back. Everyone seemed to be out shopping. It took us half an hour to make that quarter of a mile through walls of cars and taxis. The American troops in Afghanistan probably met less resistance than we did.

The verger of St Martin-in-the-Fields showed us where we could store the board, which was six foot high and ten feet wide, beside the stairs going up to the bell tower. When we had the board safely settled, Stan and I shook hands. ‘I hope it works out for you,’ said Stan. ‘It’s a sad business.’ He put a few coins into the church collection box and left to go back to his workshop in Leicestershire where he could get on with making normal scoreboards.

On the Monday, two weeks after the start of the War on Terror, the demo began. It was lunchtime. A Mexican was sitting on the steps eating chips. I asked him if he would mind helping me move the board. He put his chips down and we shifted it together. We propped it up against the railings in front of the church’s portico. We tied it in place with ropes that attached to hooks Stan and his men had nailed in the back of it. It was conspicuous. The whole top end of Trafalgar Square could see it.

The Mexican went off and bought another load of chips and came back and sat in front of the board scoffing them. ‘I am hungry today,’ he said.

I arranged the glossy white numbers on the board. I’d never seen a cricket scoreboard up close. It was clever. The numbers you didn’t need you hooked up, the numbers you were using stayed down. Two weeks after the start of the bombing my figures were:

Estimated Dead, 750

Refugees, 300,000

Starving, 400,000.

On that first day the board drew anger like a magnet. Men stuck their heads out of vans and cheered at the figures. Cheered at death. ‘How come they can bomb us but we can’t bomb them?’ they called as they waited at the traffic lights, and then screeched away when the light went green.

I sat down in front of the board to munch on some hula-hoops and heard a voice above my head: ‘You make me want to vomit.’ I looked up to find a man in a black turtleneck and a cream suit standing over me. He had jewel blue eyes and the sort of blemishless older-man face that would look perfect in an ad for Evian water.

‘Person is too good a word for you,’ he went on. ‘You’re not humane. You haven’t an atom of humanity. You aren’t worth the space you stand on. You make me RETCH!’ I stood up, in case he actually was going to be sick. Evian Ad gestured at my estimate of the dead. ‘What about the thousands the Taliban have killed? They built a stadium just for public executions. But you don’t care about that, do you?’ His mouth was creased nearly into a smile. His face was so inscrutable I actually wondered if in fact he was on my side and just mimicking what opponents might say.

A bearded man detached himself from the passers by and hurried up the steps. ‘She has a right to say what she thinks.’

Evian continued with his struggle to find an insult equal to the task: ‘You’re like those skinhead yobs that live off social security and then go off to Afghanistan, paid for by the British government, and then, when a few of them die, they complain!’

Protester against war equals unemployed person equals skinhead yob equals soldier who doesn’t like it when his friends get killed. An instinctively Tory part of my nature wanted to shout, ‘I’ve never taken hand-outs!’

‘She has a right to free speech,’ said the bearded guy.

Turtleneck pushed off.

‘Are you okay?’ asked my supporter, before carrying on on his way.

A handsome man in a tweed jacket trotted up the steps. ‘Can I have one of your leaflets?’ I was glad and smiled at him. He ripped the leaflet in half and gave it back to me.

A ginger-haired man in a barber charged up the steps and changed the figure for the dead himself, from ‘750’ to ‘7,750’, on the basis of out of date statistics from New York. At this I snapped. ‘If you want a demonstration about the dead in New York, you can pay for a board and you can stand next to it all day in the cold!’

He leant into my face. ‘It’s people like you that make this country what it is today.’ We looked at each other for a moment, both of us startled because it was such a cliché. Then he added: ‘Liberal and weak!’ – and skimmed along the steps and out of sight without ever bending his knees, so firm, upright and disciplined was his posture.

After a couple of weeks I got a helper. She was Flora, a Catholic lady – ‘But I don’t like to push church things on people.’ She had endured the Blitz. ‘People these days just don’t know what it’s like to be bombed!’ She wore gloves and smart coats, always just the right coat for the weather that day, and she beamed at people as they passed. The angry men shrivelled up. From her gloved hands my leaflets flowed out into London. She could get rid of 400 in a day. And she never took breaks.

Flora and I compared notes on the kinds of people who took leaflets. We both noticed the same trends. People that were dressed in bright colours, whether men or women, took leaflets; similarly people that wore hats, whether wacky or traditional. Smokers were big takers of leaflets. A smoker juggling ciggy and lighter, with a mobile phone gripped in the crook of his neck, would still somehow find a finger free to take a leaflet. Although he was on the phone, his eyes would clock Flora or myself and react.

Expensively and conventionally dressed men and women were less likely to take leaflets. In this group, the women were more closed to it than the men, and younger women especially so. A young professional woman with smooth blonde hair and a trim grey or navy suit would never, but never, take a leaflet

Men with facial hair, like the brightly coloured people, were more likely to take leaflets. I remembered that the man who had supported my right to free speech on the first day had worn a beard; and the man who had offered money had had side whiskers. There seemed to be something beyond co-incidence here. But what was it that connected these things? Where in the brain was localised that small bundle of grey cells that chose to read political leaflets and grow facial hair?

As the autumn evenings drew in, people became less certain about bombing Afghanistan, and less interested. The white numbers continued to climb.

The snows fell in Afghanistan and the valleys started to be cut off. Flora took to wearing a fur hat on our afternoon stints. The thousands who arrived in the refugee camps were given one blanket each. One blanket in a mountain winter. There were different reasons why people were fleeing but the most common was ‘the bombs’.

In November one of our government ministers rang the vicars, concerned that my demonstration was a ‘security risk’ for the church. He also thought that my estimates were inaccurate and misleading. The red-haired vicar came out to see me on the steps. He reassured me that he himself did not view me as a security risk, nor did he really believe that the minister did. He was disappointed in the minister. ‘We’ve worked with him well in the past on gay rights. I am a bit surprised.’ Still, we had to take the suggestion seriously. Could I make some kind of risk assessment which he would present at a meeting of the vicars?

I wrote five pages examining the demonstration from every possible angle of risk. I said that the people who had been angry with the demonstration had never shown any signs of being violent; that they had been respectable (in a sense), prosperous citizens, unlikely to resort to terrorist tactics. I also wrote to the minister saying I was sorry that the estimates were inaccurate and misleading. I had hunted on every relevant government website and had been unable to find any figures for dead or injured in Afghanistan. Could he help me with more accurate information?

The vicars allowed the demonstration to continue, and I continued to have to rely on estimates cobbled together from news reports. There were a few British and American soldiers now among the figures for the dead. It was tough, building statistics this way, because I couldn’t avoid the anecdotes that brought the numbers to life. One boy arrived in a refugee camp having lost all his family. He was clutching a pet bird. I kept wondering what would happen if the bird died. As our allies, the Northern Alliance, gained the upper hand, there were increasing numbers of Taliban prisoners. Whether all those ragged men had really wanted to serve the Taliban dictatorship we couldn’t know; but they did surrender. The Northern Alliance shipped them to prison in metal boxes. In one trainload, all died of asphyxiation except three who shared a hole in the metal, by which they took it in turns to breathe.

Numbers are clean and seem mutually exclusive: the number alive, the number dead. But life is a long drawn-out struggle with death and towards it. The slowness frightened me; the families that had nothing much to do in the refugee camp except look into each other’s faces and watch each other failing. As winter deepened, the babies and the old people couldn’t hold on.

The cost of a winter’s supply of food for every person in Afghanistan was a fraction of the cost of bombing them.

We stood beside the cricket scoreboard distributing leaflets while junk food wrappers blew up and down the steps. More nutrition in one central London bin than in some households. An ex-marine passed us sometimes and waved.

At dusk homeless people crept in and squatted beside the scoreboard as if it would give them shelter. A woman in a mac with pale brown skin and large dangly earrings passed. ‘Do you know a café?’ she said. ‘There used to be a café round here, an arty sort of place where you could meet people, get a drink and talk. Do you know where I mean?’

Another man came dancing up the steps with his arms opened wide as if he was going to embrace the scoreboard. ‘Why should I give love to everyone?’ he called over the roar of traffic. ‘They haven’t given love to me.’

‘They killed everyone in Babylon,’ came a voice, speaking with a cockney accent, as if chewing on a sticky bun. ‘They poisoned the water with wormwood. I know about wormwood. I know what it does.’ A young man in an arty brown bobble hat stood directly in front of me with his hands in his pockets, motionless as a statue. His almond grey eyes were clear of any emotion. ‘It makes you nervous and restless. You can’t sleep, you can’t do a single thing. I know about it from my past lives. That’s why I’m different from my brethren. They only have faith but I know.’

‘Which church do you go to?’

‘Kingdom Hall.’ He saw that I didn’t understand. ‘Jehovah’s witnesses. But I’m different from them. I know everything of what has happened. I have the keys to my past lives. Angels gave me the keys.’ He didn’t blink, but at the end of each statement something flickered in his eyes as if he was testing whether I would believe him. I nodded. ‘If he had only answered my letter. If Tony Blair had only answered my letter.’

‘Yes, he didn’t answer mine either,’ I commiserated.

‘If he had only of had audience with me, none of this would have happened. I know about demons. I’m stronger than what they are. I’m stronger than every single demon. The devil tries to frighten us but he is the weaker one. A demon attacked me when I was born. He tried to take my life and split up my family. He gave me drugs. But I am stronger. He tried to get to me through noise. He made the people next door make noise all the time to drive me out. That’s how I came on the homeless scene.’

In his arty hat and suede jacket he made it sound like the coolest scene in town.

What had begun as a grandiose speech about the world had ended up as a description of the specific problems of his own life. Listening can have this effect, of creating a turn. Writing can also turn things around. I wondered if I was in need of some kind of turn myself. I was perhaps not as far away as I would like to think from the pathetic grandiosity of Mr Bobble Hat. ‘If he would only of had audience with me,’ was something I was capable of thinking, even if I wouldn’t say it.

After all, what did me standing on some steps in a pinky-orange suit next to a cricket scoreboard actually achieve?

By the end of December, the civilians dead from direct attack in Afghanistan stood at around 4,000 on my count and at around 5,000 in a study I eventually found reported on the net compiled by Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Jersey. The civilian dead in Afghanistan had outstripped the dead in New York.


#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

#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?

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Tory themes

When I try to put myself in Conservatives’ shoes, when I’m writing, I find certain themes keep coming up:





Any others that other people can think of? Any explanations for this? Let me know! Katie