Thursday, 26 February 2015

Wall of separation – environment…

And I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled my land, and made mine heritage an abomination.

If the plethora of homogeneous portraits of a neatly-bearded Jesus are anything to go by – you know the ones: at the centre of stained-glass windows; coloured Catholic effigies; in Ladybird books… – the fading phenomenon that is ‘hipsterism’ didn’t originate in Shoreditch, in the 1990s; nor even in the 1940s, in America; but in downtown Nazareth, sometime around the year dot.

However, this doesn’t mean that there’s been the corresponding solid ecological patrimony you might expect (just the opposite, sadly…) at the sacred heart of organized western religion for the last two thousand years; nor that we particularly equate the church (more specifically, its ‘modern’ construct, the Church of England) with environmentalism. (Mind you, we don’t equate it with “a double upside down mocha macchiato with soy – low fat, no fat, no lid [and] make it taste like Christmas too”, either. Well, not really.)

Nevertheless, if the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter Who is my neighbour? is anything to go by, the Church of England is keen to make sure it now doesn’t get left behind in the race towards saving (what’s left of) our “green and pleasant land” – undoubtedly one of the many reasons Iain Duncan Smith (despite, or because of, his oft-boasted “Catholic background”?) rapidly attempted to bully yet another typically soft target he thinks(?!) won’t fight back. Methinks he may be in for a shock…

If the responses of the media and the PM are typical of our political culture, it is unfit for purpose. Thoughtful reflections on the electorate’s disengagement are conjured into party political statements to be rubbished on party political terms. Seemingly, the church’s views matter enough to raise alarm.
Malcolm Brown: Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Church of England

Perhaps it’s because we are so divorced from the natural world that we consider ourselves immune to the damage we inflict. As the Indian proverb says: “When you drive nature out of the door with a broom, she’ll come back through the window with a pitchfork.”
– George Monbiot: The Guardian

When even the Labour party’s Protecting our environment election ‘issues’ webpage – “A Labour government will re-establish Britain as a global leader on climate change” (which almost sounds like it’s going to try and increase pollution and levels of carbon dioxide and methane…) – has no mention of alternative power sources, but instead leads with criticism of “fun and optimistic guy” Dave ‘Hug a Husky’ Cameron’s only slightly more feeble, flood-diluted policies; and the Green party is struggling both with credibility questions and “discovering that the road from being, in effect, a pressure group that puts up candidates to being a party with real ambitions can be punishing”; I am both gratified and grateful that there is still an established, public-facing organization that has the confidence to talk openly and urgently about one of the most pressing problems we have to confront. (Frankly, the planet can just about look after itself; and will recover – or re-emerge in a different form – once we have disappeared in a large puff of smoke of our own making. But, as a species of temporary inhabitants, we are rapidly approaching the point of no return with regards to our own viability.)

According to its own guide and thematic groupings, below are the sections that the House of Bishops highlighted under ‘Environment’ (in bold – although, as before, I have expanded their extracts to show how they fit within the complete numbered paragraphs):

[2] Followers of Jesus Christ believe that every human being is created in the image of God. But we are not made in isolation. We belong together in a creation which should be cherished and not simply used and consumed. This is the starting point for the Church of England’s engagement with society, the nation and the world. All that we say here follows from this. Anglicans do not have a single view on which political party has the best mix of answers to today’s problems. As bishops we support policies which respect the natural environment, enhance human dignity and honour the image of God in our neighbour.

[27] It is vital to find better ways of talking about many fundamental questions facing us today. To name only a few of the major questions which contemporary politics seems determined to avoid, we need a richer justification for the state, a better account of the purposes of government, and a more serious way of talking about taxation. Most of all, we need an honest account of how we must live in the future if generations yet to come are not to inherit a denuded and exhausted planet.

[117] People will commit to the long term if they have a stake in it. Intergenerational justice depends upon sharing power and decision making now. By enabling people to build a stake in the communities they are encouraged to live, not only for the day, but for their grandchildren’s future – and, on behalf of future generations, to cherish the created order rather than viewing our environment as a commodity to be consumed.

To my mind, the preceding two paragraphs in the letter are also relevant – completing the ‘Our grandchildren’s future’ page:

[115] Our grandchildren’s future, not just the wants of the moment, must be factored into economic and political priorities. When prosperity – and, for the least well off, survival – appears to depend more on luck than merit and when rewards seem divorced from virtue, there is no incentive to invest in a future we will not ourselves enjoy. Why build the foundations of the next generation’s future if it could be swept away by the throw of the economic dice?

[116] This shows why economics must be understood as a moral discipline. A thriving economy needs investors who look to the long term. But when the economy has pursued short term profit and stopped thinking long term, people’s rational behaviour follows suit. It is hard to promote virtuous living when the shape of the economy sends a very different message about human responsibilities.

Reading these, it’s not difficult to see why the supposedly “quiet man” IDS exploded, is it? “Will no-one will rid me of these troublesome priests?!” The Conservatives seem to care as much for the environment, for the long-term future, as they do for the deprived and disabled (and about as much as I care for the Conservatives – ‘care’ is simply Not What They Do (not externally, anyway…)).

There are a couple of other paragraphs worth quoting from, I believe – before I go on to analyse my reactions to, and thoughts on, the bishops’ proclamation. Firstly, judging austerity in the section ‘Debt and a humane economy’…

[109] …Is it sustainable? Have the medium and long-term implications been taken fully into account so that the interests of our children’s and grandchildren’s generations are factored in?

…and, secondly, discussing ‘The campaign ahead’:

[121] We believe that these points are crucial if politics is to rise above its present diminished state. Indeed, we can develop those ideas further. In July 2014, the General Synod debated how the church contributes to The Common Good. That debate suggested some further signs that political policies were moving in the direction which this letter outlines. They included… Reflecting the obligation to secure the common good of future generations, not just our own, and addressing issues of intergenerational justice. This must include a responsible approach to environmental issues.

Returning to the “Indian proverb”, above, that George Monbiot quotes: around here, you would think that it would take real effort to be “so divorced from the natural world”; and yet, as I keep saying (increasing the dent in the nearest wall as I do so), we seem incredibly skilled at taking nature for granted. (Or are we simply taking the micturition: through habitual laziness and instant gratification…?)

So what is to be done to dissuade people from – or penalize them for (as this is where we really need a little proscription) – driving half a mile (or less) to the shop, to collect their morning paper or a loaf of bread; from driving their ill-exercised children short distances to the school or pre-school; or even, astonishingly, from transporting their dog in their 4x4 – which I have witnessed far too many times – to a nearby field for a short walk (and so that their pet can defecate all over some poor farmer’s crops, as well as the local footpaths), as they currently do…?

So, if those of us who live amongst some of the most beautiful and apparently idyllic fields that England has to offer, struggle to engage – for instance, why is there not a row of public electric vehicle charging points in the parking bay that stretches from the Peacock to the Reading Rooms: facilitating the hum of residents on their way to work…? – how do we genuinely and passionately reflect “the obligation to secure the common good of future generations, not just our own, and [address] issues of intergenerational justice”, in all that we do, as prompted by the House of Bishops? (And I don’t just mean rolling out detailed, beautifully-presented research on sustainability when we’re attacked by developers; only to then shove it in the back of a dusty drawer: never to see the light of day again.)

Well, I think together with “prompting” us, the bishops also go some way to providing the answer – and you do not need to believe “that every human being is created in the image of God” (or need to drive to church every Sunday) to subscribe. As they say: to begin with “we need an honest account of how we must live in the future if generations yet to come are not to inherit a denuded and exhausted planet.” To which I would add that we also need an honest account of how we must live now.

Being political issues, though, climate change, as well as how we deal with it, are often discussed in fudged, rhetorical terms – and yet, being also blatantly scientific issues, backed up with incontrovertible evidence, there is nothing equivocal about them. It’s like that lump you can feel on your breast, or on your testicle – you’re frightened of the consequences; and yet you’re also ‘happy’ to let it fester until the time you eventually turn up at the doctor’s: when you’re told it’s too late, and you only have a certain, limited amount of time to live. Is it laziness? Is it embarrassment? Is it a feeling of powerlessness? All of these things can be overcome. Trust me. But not by some eleventh-hour, suddenly-newly-developed miracle cure…. The cost of doing nothing is far, far higher than the cost of doing something. And we’ve known this for years.

Perhaps a better simile might be be realizing that your customary fifteenth gee-and-tee of the night ain’t right. There are, of course, twelve steps for that – and the solution (sorry) is in your hands. This time, though, maybe the ‘cure’ is more psychological than physiological…? Similarly, there are twelve steps that you can work your way through, as an individual, as a household, to do your bit for climate change. Before it’s too late….

And, if we all carried them out (in unison; in harmony) – building “the foundations of the next generation’s future” – and the Government incentivized them with enthusiasm, and sensible economic policies: legislating for reward, penalizing nonconformance, and thereby encouraging us with both carrot and stick “to cherish the created order rather than viewing our environment as a commodity to be consumed” – who knows what might happen…?

Undertake these things community by community (as I have pleaded so many times before – and which, as the Church of England has obviously also realized, is crucial) – ‘gamifying’ those neighbourhoods’, villages’, parishes’, districts’ efforts… – and I believe we’d wake up one morning to find that it hadn’t been quite as difficult as we’d envisaged (and we’d all be sharing cute little Tysoe Energy LLP electric cars, powered by the beautiful, sleek, new Edge Hill windmills…)!

Baby steps for individuals; but requiring a mammoth change in the way politics is practised in this country, if it “is to rise above its present diminished state”. That’s the real stumbling block: simply believing that change can happen; not being frightened of it; and knowing that you can play a part in it.

“We have lost faith in any of the large available understandings of how structural change takes place in history,” the philosopher Roberto Unger said in a recent lecture in London,“and as a result we fall back on a bastardised conception of political realism, namely that a proposal is realistic to the extent that it approaches what already exists.” This is the whole of British politics encapsulated in two lines: unless a policy looks exactly like what the mainstream parties are suggesting; unless it can be funded by minor tootling on existing tax instruments (and even that will be called a “raid”); unless it will leave the fundamental structures totally unperturbed – then it is the most outlandish idea that anybody has ever heard.
     Therefore, nobody in opposition… should ever get into a conversation about how they will fund something without first underlining that the way things exist at the moment is completely wrecked. The status quo is broken; it’s not even static, it’s constantly worsening.
– Zoe Williams: The Guardian

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Wall of separation – disability…

For various reasons, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, recently – even more so than usual… – including the superb 818-page biography (about the size of an HSBC ‘brick’) of J Robert Oppenheimer, Inside the Centre, by the philosopher Ray Monk – as great a work of literature, I think, as I have ever read. But what inspired this post was something a lot shorter: the Church of England House of Bishops’ ‘Pastoral Letter on the 2015 General Election’, Who is my neighbour? – which The Guardian welcomed as “a thoughtful and well-rooted Christian argument as well as a very different kind of political intervention”.

Although it has its faults (including the inconsistency of style you would expect of a committee-derived communication; and – to me – a strange mix of religiosity and plain-speaking commonsense), I found it rewarding and refreshing to read an ostensibly political message that:
  • was neither adversarial, arrogant, nor haranguing;
  • demonstrates a duty of care towards all fellow human beings;
  • makes “an overarching philosophical argument about the state of modern politics”; and
  • provides a coherent, sincere vision that no political party, to my mind, has come within a country mile of.
It is sad, though, that, immediately upon its publication, there was not only an instant – and ignorant – massed attack from many parts of the political continuum, accusing the church of being partisan; but also a parallel attempt by cynical – some may say disingenuous – politicians to render it, somehow, more pertinent to their ideology than their adversaries’.

Over the next couple of weeks or so (and possibly continuing up to the election itself), I will therefore try to delve deeper into this letter (all under the Wall of separation heading): examining (and meditating on?) some of its statements and manifold themes; and the way these contribute – subjectively, of course – to my feelings about, perspectives on, and connections to, current politics – in the same way, I suppose, as exegesis and hermeneutics are used to critically examine, and learn from, the bible and other religious and philosophical writings and scriptures.

Tara Flood, a Paralympic gold medallist swimmer, speaks for the entire disabled population when she says: “I want to live an ordinary life in a society that treats me as a human being.”

As it is a subject that is obviously close to my heart, as well as moulding the way I live, I have decided to begin with the emotive issue of disability – which is referenced in three paragraphs (quoted in full, below) in the bishops’ letter, all contained in the subsection entitled ‘The Person in Community’. (There are no such concerns, by the way, in the much shorter, less politically controversial, Catholic equivalent: released at around the same time. All its authors “suggest” is that, before voting, you ask “Where do your candidates stand on directly helping the poorest and most vulnerable people in the UK and also helping them to transform their lives?”)

[61] Most people, when asked, subscribe to some version of the idea that all people are created equal. Yet this is contradicted in the way that some categories of people are spoken about – people who are sick, disabled, terminally ill or otherwise unable to live the life that a consumer society celebrates; people who are unable to work, materially poor or mentally ill in ways which challenge “acceptable” ways of being unwell.

[62] There is a deep contradiction in the attitudes of a society which celebrates equality in principle yet treats some people, especially the poor and vulnerable, as unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed. It is particularly counter-productive to denigrate those who are in need, because this undermines the wider social instinct to support one another in the community. For instance, when those who rely on social security payments are all described in terms that imply they are undeserving, dependent, and ought to be self-sufficient, it deters others from offering the informal, neighbourly support which could ease some of the burden of welfare on the state.

[64] Restoring the balance between the individual and the community around them is a necessity if every person is to be truly valued for who they are and not just on a crude calculus of utility. It is vital to move beyond the superficial equality of free consumers in a market place of relationships and to see the virtues in the relationships of family and community which are given, not chosen.


That perspicacious and challenging phrase “a crude calculus of utility” hit me right between the eyes; and made me ruminate not only on who the “disabled” actually are – a clumsy but useful label, I suppose, for collecting together the diverse people who are impacted by restrictions (social or medical) “in the ability to perform a normal activity of daily living” – but what rôles we, as a general group, are ‘allowed’ to play in society; and, chiefly, if we have any marketable ‘value’ in a world ruled by capitalism. (And, yes, a battered copy of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists lies proudly near the top of my Matterhorn-like reading pile!)

Many people – especially those “hard-working” folk so beloved of our current main party leaders – are defined (and would define themselves) by their jobs (which may, also, of course, provide a shorthand method of categorizing their class, or societal ‘level’): but not many disabled people are, by definition (as well as by the constraints of the workplace), able to work (especially those claiming benefits).

If, as a genuinely separate grouping, the disabled are only seen as contributing to currently accepted definitions of society by also working – otherwise we are simplistically labelled “scroungers”, or decried as “a drain on the economy” – does that really make us ‘in-valid’ members of it if we are not employed (even if we had already contributed large amounts of tax and National Insurance over, say, a quarter of a century…)? Perhaps if welfare amounts were more attuned to the real-world (additional) cost of actually being impaired, then they would not keep us trapped in a position of meagre subsistence. And ‘higher-level’ benefits – such as PIP (Personal Independence Payment) – would not only truly contribute to that “independence”, but would also enable more active entry into ‘the market’: with payees using it, for example, to purchase care, lease Motability vehicles, and pay for adaptations to their homes.

The loss of employment after the fact, though – although (maybe) not as bad as the loss of a sense or other facility – has a devastating, explosive impact on that earned and earning identity (splintering it both inwardly and outwardly): especially if there is no chance (because of age, as well as impairment – although, in some people’s eyes, the two are not that different: a premature agglomeration of the sixth and seventh ages of man…) of returning to any form of work (although being disabled can be more than a full-time job in itself, for many…).

For instance, I have attempted to rebuild my persona (principally for my own desperate satisfaction) – especially its public-facing aspects – by producing this blog. Writing was always one of my major competences in employment (as a subset of wider natural and learned communication skills): and although the physical aspects of production are immensely painful and tiring – which then lead to the mental aspects also rapidly diminishing… – I can, however limited my capacities now are, carry them out in my own time (days and weeks, rather than minutes and hours; at three o’clock in the morning, rather than nine-to-five), sans deadline, sans supervision, sans inspection, sans employment. However satisfying, though, in its slow-mo accomplishments, it is no substitute for the camaraderie of the workplace; or the almost accidental absorption of additional aptitudes (never mind the necessary collaboration and quality control…). And it certainly does not pay as well….

The point I am trying to make here is that – although it does not fit the ‘norms’ of current employment practice (who is going to pay me the living wage for a couple of hours of self-selected ‘work’ per week; but not most weeks…?) – even though I am disabled, I still have a marketable skill, however much depleted. (And, even though Labour talk enthusiastically about “predistribution” – I cannot see this coming to my rescue: especially as it appears both extremely left-wing and, currently, completely without substance.) My intellect – although only available in disjointed, irregular chunks – is still some form of asset (as is that of my eighty-odd-year-old parents). However, there is no way – unless you count this blog as a ‘good’ (rather than just, ahem, good…) in itself – that I am adding much economic worth to society; nor does society, from its own perspective, appreciate me for it in any way. And therefore, because I am disabled, and because I am not appreciated, I am also not a voracious consumer (except of books). I am outside the wall – as the bishops say: “unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed”.

Timon will to the woods, where he shall find
Th’ unkindest beast more kinder than mankind.
The gods confound (hear me, you good gods all)
Th’ Athenians both within and out that wall!
And grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow
To the whole race of mankind, high and low!
– William Shakespeare: Timon of Athens

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Children (and childcare) as commodities…

It’s odd how, every time there’s a news item or report, like there is today, on the BBC website, about the rising cost of childcare, there’s very rarely any mention of either the fact that it really should be a formal part of the education system – and therefore a public service: there’s a reason it’s called ‘early years education’ – or the absolutely abysmal wages that most childcare staff get paid (especially when compared against others working in the education sector).

One of the major reasons for this increase in cost – although tucked away at the bottom of the BBC article – is that, as pointed out by the National Day Nurseries Association: “some parents are subsidising the cost of the government’s free nursery places [as] the money which childcare providers receive to deliver these free placements falls short by an average of £800 per child per year for each three to four-year-old place and £700 for each two-year-old place.” In other words, although the Government is subsidizing childcare, its payments don’t actually cover anywhere near all the costs of providing that childcare, or enough of it – only some small part – which, when staff are paid so little, shows just how tokenistic the Government’s measly efforts are.

And yet, referring to the Birmingham ‘Trojan horse’ row, back in June, last year, David Cameron said that “Protecting our children is one of the first duties of government…”. If that is true – and I, for one, believe it is (but then I couldn’t afford to employ a full-time nanny for my son; or pay fees for his education; nor was private education the one and only experience my family had…) – why is the UK’s childcare in such a mess?

As with most of government, nowadays, a large part of the answer to this question lies in the Coalition’s aims to subcontract out everything they can lay their hands on: including child protection – although, here, I am only concerned with early years education (which doesn’t, as some may think/wish, involve serried ranks of under-fives sitting at desks, memorizing their tables; but, instead, learning through what can best, perhaps, be summarized as planned play and interaction – both with their peers, and the adults looking after them).

The word ‘education’ seems to conveniently be forgotten, though (a bit like ‘sustainable’, when attached to development, in the NPPF), when pre-schools and nurseries are discussed by those not involved in their day-to-day running: as if such institutions are just glorified child-minding services – which is one of the main reasons why staff are paid such pitiful salaries; and not only is the National Minimum Wage the norm (although employees are then expected, in some private settings, to stay behind for ‘voluntary’ – i.e. unpaid – staff meetings: reducing their wages yet further…), but so, as a consequence, is the required level of qualifications (level 2 or level 3: which can now be fast-tracked). “The sector has suffered from stereotypical views that it is ‘women’s work that anybody can do’.”

On top of this – with “The care of young children [being] accepted as a vital social task for which well-trained staff are necessary” – there is lip-service paid to a need for early years educators with (relevant) degrees: which would raise standards (as well as wages: but be cost-effective, in the long-term) – but then nursery workers, as I have already said, are paid a great deal less than their equivalents would earn in industry (as well as the rest of the education sector): as the rates we pay per hour for the care of our babies and toddlers (although seemingly high, and ever-increasing) lack the government funding and support that is prevalent in mainland Europe: making it incredibly difficult for nurseries and the like to profit – especially in the short-term – unless short-cuts are taken.

According to Tom Rawstorne, in the Daily Mail (23 June 2011):

While the average UK hourly wage is £14.50, nursery staff earn, on average, £7.60 an hour. Managers are on £10.60 an hour, while the lowest paid get £6.40. Privately owned nurseries pay their staff the least: an average of £7.10 compared to £11.60 offered by local authorities.

He goes on to state that…

In 1981, only 24 per cent of women returned to work within a year of childbirth. Today, the Department for Work and Pensions says that more than three-quarters of mothers return to work within 12 to 18 months of having a child.

This is obviously driven by economic necessity – the need to survive and earn a living wage in times of austerity. However, it seems ironic that those people then paid to look after our children are not able to escape an even deeper version of the same trap. (Do we really value our children, and their wellbeing, so very little, when they are out of our sight…?)

Even though I – and I hope you – struggle to understand any justification for the privatization of childcare (indeed any part of education), too many settings are established and run solely as businesses, in response to this growing need: trying to grab a slice of the rapidly-expanding pie; but with profit coming before (or even instead of) care. Which is why our youngsters have become so commodified – unless you can find one of those rare community-led, social enterprise-based settings; or one attached to an enlightened primary school.

Go to a privately-owned nursery – the majority, I’m afraid (but not all) – and the chances are – should you be allowed to witness the daily goings-on – that anything moving and breathing (both kiddies and staff – who are predominantly female) will be treated with disdain: especially, as in many places with low wages, survival is guaranteed through gritted teeth, and emotionless graft, rather than vocational desire: resulting in “a culture of bullying that all-too-often exists among workers who are young and inexperienced”. This seems to be worse when the setting is part of a chain, or belongs to a large company.

As one employee I spoke to stated – with experience of both public and private sectors early years work:

The private sector is like the grey squirrel: eating all the food; taking it away from the increasingly rare red squirrel provision of the public and voluntary sectors; and destroying their habitat – all in the name of greed, not care.

The situation is not helped by the lack of understanding and thought shown, typically, by Ofsted; and their refusal to end outsourced inspections for early years education:

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said the decision was disappointing. “We have heard far too many reports of providers being visited by inspectors who possess little understanding of early years provision – and in some cases being unfairly graded as a result…”.

But this, again, shows how education for those below primary school level isn’t really seen or treated as education. It is a very poor (disowned?) cousin – not only with regards to funding – but in attitude and treatment. It is almost as if we are handing over our children before we head to work, and then forgetting about them, not worrying about the long days they experience without us. (No wonder boarding schools are so popular amongst the supposed elite.) Contrast this with the delightful forest schools of Germany and Scandinavia, for example (and the very rare true example over here) – particularly the enlightened Finnish education system – where children are remarkably happy, as well as intellectually (but maybe not – yet – academically) mature.

It certainly doesn’t help that the provision of childcare through Sure Start children’s centres has been slaughtered by the current Government – with a lethal combination of yet more privatization and a blitzkrieg against local council budgets – hitting, as always, those with the least resources; and leaving already deprived children with an even worse start in life. Thankfully, if he is to be believed, Tristram Hunt has promised, recently, “to double the number of childcare places provided at Sure Start centres to more than 118,000” if Labour wins this May’s general election. It’s nice to see my letter to Ed Miliband has achieved something…!

However, as I wrote there:

Whether by accident or design, Sure Start children’s centres – and the critical work they do – have remained invisible to those who don’t need and/or use them: and therefore aren’t seen as important as [the] NHS. However, they are fundamental to the wellbeing of many young children; and indispensable to their families. (Some of the centres even host those damned foodbanks.) They should therefore be a jewel shining in Labour’s crown just as brightly as Aneurin Bevan’s gift to the nation….

But there is next to no unionization in early years education (including Sure Start) – not only in the UK; but it is actively quashed in the US, as well – and those few workers who are members belong to a wide range of organizations: and therefore would find it hard to commit to any form of joint action (knowing, anyway, that to do so, would risk them losing their jobs). Voice – “the union for education, early years & childcare professionals” – won’t strike, though. And yet, like the recent NHS four-hour walk-outs, such action is probably exactly what is needed to attract the public’s attention to the little-known, but increasingly necessary services, that Sure Start provides (and which are being privatized, not very stealthily, just like the NHS); and to remind politicians of their importance.

It may also be what it takes for people to stop moaning about a service that, truly, costs them very little, compared to the value they gain from it (a bit like complaining that a Waitrose large coffee will now cost you the extortionate sum of 20p) – but I both admit and believe should cost them nothing, under an enlightened Government. It may also be what it takes for us to realize how little of what we pay actually makes it through to the pockets of those we entrust with our young children’s care; and how undervalued they are. It seems, though, that at the beginning and end of our lives, not only is care not really valued (often being provided by the lowest bidder), but neither are we.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Not necessarily a good thing…

Engaging in thoughts or activities that distract attention from pain is one of the most commonly used and highly endorsed strategies for controlling pain. The process of distraction appears to involve competition for attention between a highly salient sensation (pain) and consciously directed focus on some other information processing activity.

Fourteen years ago, after suffering with permanent pain that could only be controlled (but not eliminated) by medication, with side-effects that were – in many ways – just as bad for me (and probably more destructive of my health: chronic pain cannot kill you; only the resultant physical and mental stress – unless you deal with it…), I enrolled on a pain management course, at the insistence of a very wise, and considerate, medic – Dr James de Courcy: a genuine everyday hero. (There aren’t many: which is why I will always remember his name and kindly face.) Even though the first pain management programme was established in the UK over thirty years ago, in Walton, by the remarkable Dr Chris Wells, such facilities were still pretty rare, outside of the United States; and I therefore felt immensely fortunate to have been given the opportunity.

It takes a certain kind of person to go through such an experience successfully, though – especially as you have to, before making any sort of forward progress, dig deep (and honestly) into exploring every facet of your pain, and how it affects you. (More of an ordeal than an audition: when you would do anything to make your pain go away.) A good programme, though – and the one I attended (and then went back to talk on, many times), now called the Gloucestershire Chronic Pain Service, certainly was – will then, mentally, ‘take your pain from you’ temporarily: only handing it back, in stages, as you are able to deal with it. It will also help you learn to get to grips with the depression that is frequently – and not surprisingly – a consequence of living in a body that you are no longer at ease with – in fact, may feel at war with. (Yes: pain is partly experienced in the brain – where, cruelly, it overlaps with your emotional centres – but not in an ‘it’s all in your head’ way. You are not in physical pain because you are depressed: if you are depressed, it’s because everything, and everything you do, hurts like hell. Permanently.)

The biggest benefit of the programme, though – apart from all the non-drug-related techniques you learn: which soon become a routine, reflexive part of your life – is spending time intensively in the company of people with similar histories. (I was a relative freshman, though: with only just over four years of constant hurt under my collar; some brave souls had lived with unspeakable – and unspoken of – agony for decades.) An amazing, amazingly happy camaraderie therefore quickly developed: and, for quite some time after, we would meet up for monthly get-togethers – always smiling and having a laugh, despite the invisible challenges we all experienced, shared, and understood. It was good to know that you weren’t alone. It was also good that, if something was troubling you, even years later, the medical staff would welcome you back, unconditionally. (A ten-week course is one thing: but it takes a lifetime to learn how to live with something so disabling – especially as it never leaves you; but grows old with you; and grows as you get older.)

Coping is not ignoring. In fact, it is the opposite… [learning] to live with… pain in a realistic context… the beginning of a series of steps that give a sense of understanding and a type of control.

Many of the pain management – or control (as in commanding, directing, influencing, regulating, restraining, etc.) – techniques learned (not really taught) involve mainly…
  • exercise – good for releasing endorphins (as I have mentioned previously); as well as keeping you fit enough to cope (see the above quotation – written by a very great man indeed – which has become something of a Bardic precept: which is why it will probably crop up yet again at some stage…);
  • relaxationessential for coping: which is why I still have Dr Polly Ashworth’s calming voice on my iPod, to talk me through a well-rehearsed series of relaxation ‘exercises’ – although mindfulness has recently become predominant; and
  • distraction – as well as, probably more powerfully, a combination of both relaxation and distraction (which for me, frequently involves reading and writing – the more I am in pain, the more I tend to write…).
After all that is said, though – and done… – “Many wise, calm, confident optimists still have chronic pain.” And, just because you’ve managed – on a good day – to get out for a walk; read a whole book (Robert Graves’ weird, wise, but wonderful Seven Days in New Crete, the other day); gone through your breathing routines several times; doesn’t mean that the pain is any ‘better’. It will never get better, either – comparatively, and completely – but you can make it feel so: at least for a while; if you wish.

Even though it is not part of any pain management programme that I know of – because it is about tackling acute pain; although it does involve distraction – I had known about (mostly from hard-won experience) the “hypoalgesic effect of swearing [which shows] that the use of profanity can help reduce the sensation of pain” for some time – and remember having it confirmed, very late one sleepless night, watching an episode of MythBusters entitled ‘No Pain, No Gain’. What I didn’t know – and what comes as a great disappointment – is that “This phenomenon is particularly strong in people who do not use such words on a regular basis.” Or, as Dr Richard Stephens, from the University of Keele’s school of psychology – who came up with the idea for the study “after swearing when he accidentally hit his thumb with a hammer as he built a garden shed” – put it: “Swearing is emotional language: but if you overuse it, it loses its emotional attachment.” Bugger.

It seems now, though, that simply uttering “Ow!” (or your local derivative – most of these words being quite similar, aurally and orally, across the globe) has the same outcome: modulating pain – possibly – through a “simple sound that requires little articulatory control, while maximising volume output.” As the NHS Choices webpage that also reports the recent experiment – which was peer-reviewed – cautions, though:

The research team weren’t able to explain the biology behind their result, but speculated the automatic messages travelling to the vocal part of the brain may interfere with the pain messages. But this was speculation and is not proved by the study itself….
     Overall, we should take the results of this study with a pinch of salt. More evidence on the topic needs to accumulate before we can say vocalising pain helps people, or we can devise ways this could be useful to people in a healthcare setting.

Heinrich Heine when gravely ill wrote “Thank God that I have a God again so that in extreme pain I can allow myself to curse and blaspheme. The atheist is denied such solace.”

In a similar way to swearing, or just yelling meaningless expressions of pain; pleading to a god, or chanting a religious incantation – for example, the Buddhist ‘medicine’ mantra “Tayata Om Bekanze Bekanze Maha BeKanze Radza Samudgate Soha”: especially in its use of prolonged distraction (akin to mindfulness – see below) – although perhaps not strictly comparable – may help those who believe in some form of deity. But I do wonder whether such obvious “emotional language” (as Dr Stephens warns, above) loses or gains in power, as a result of its already deep meaning to the devotee. Perhaps what gives it such potency is a form of comfort, or conviction? Certainly, when shown images of the Virgin Mary, “Brain scans of volunteers who were subjected to electrical shocks revealed that Roman Catholics felt less pain than atheists and agnostics” – a source of pain relief that is not only “based… on the power of the mind”, but which must also depend on deep faith and veneration.

Research has also discovered that “Religious persons were less likely to have chronic pain” (or admit to it?); but that, when suffering such permanent pain, “Individuals… were more likely to use prayer and seek spiritual support as a coping method” – which is eminently understandable. Religion and spirituality may, however, cause an increase in pain in some: “perhaps by an unhealthy focusing on negative symptoms or through the physical manifestations of hysteria, as claimed by Freud.” And, “Although chronic pain patients today reap enormous benefits from the explanatory and therapeutic power of scientific medicine, science does not answer questions that are inevitably raised by the chronic pain.”

Perhaps then, all a pain management programme need achieve (on top of those rigorous scientific explanations and methodologies) – and which, I believe, from experience, they already do – is (especially for non-believers, such as myself) demonstrate a parallel method of invoking the psychological well-being and efficient coping strategies that come with (or are part of) faith: instilling a systemic/systematic belief in all attendees that they can reach Nirvana, and attain some form of control over their suffering – particularly through “consciously directed focus on some other information processing activity”. Relaxation and mindfulness (which can trace its roots to the Buddhist practice of Sati – one of the steps to enlightenment), I think, can be seen as analagous to prayer, in many ways – certainly to meditation. And sharing your experience with those with identical goals forms a congregation of intense support – both physical and spiritual – watched over, and directed, by the clergy of psycho- and physiotherapists, anaesthetists, and other specialists.

I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers.
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Strangely (to me), though, “suffering plays an important role in a number of religions” – but not just in trying to relieve it (compassion and charitable acts that I do understand, of course; and which, to me, are organized religion’s best aspects). Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition; and yet I am always horrified to see – usually, for Christians, during Lent; although other religions also practice such ‘purification’ rituals – photographs in the news of people (usually men; and that I can only describe as ‘fanatics’) trying to gain “spiritual advancement through… self-imposed trials (mortification of the flesh, penance…)”: scouring their own backs or legs (scourging their own souls) with what appear to be instruments of torture; or even going so far as to re-enact Jesus’ crucifixion. There is also a long tradition of religious fasting and other hardships: which are seen as (demonstrative?) steps on the road to some form of ‘higher’ meaning.

I would do many things to try and ameliorate the intense pain I suffer (which I do not believe is punishment from any sort of god: because I do not believe in any sort of god): but I do not hold that my experience of such continual distress and discomfort – “virtuous suffering” – makes me in any way a ‘better’ human being; nor do I believe that, were I permanently painless – i.e. ‘normal’ – I would deliberately subject myself to such flagellation to make myself one; or pay penance for what others tell me are my sins. Self-harm in any form is in no way “good for the soul”.

Surely, it is better to try and reduce the amount of suffering there is in the world? “Chronic pain is a major clinical challenge: across Europe approximately 18% of the population are currently affected by moderate to severe chronic pain.” So, if long-term pain affects you, personally, please see your GP for a referral to your nearest Pain Management Programme (PMP) as soon as you can. Or start by ordering yourself a copy of Robert Lewin’s The Pain Management Plan – which is often used as a self-help resource alongside many NHS-delivered programmes. Whatever your beliefs, such courses do help: and will provide you with strategies and techniques that will improve your quality of life, for the rest of your life. You certainly do not need to suffer in silence – or alone.

I hate pain, despite my ability to tolerate it beyond all known parameters, which is not necessarily a good thing.
– Hunter S Thompson

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Oppie daze…

Sometimes, you read a book; see, or hear, a performance; a play; a symphony… and you know it will stay with you for ever: not just because of the greatness of the work itself; the commitment and skill of those producing, directing or acting it; not even because it gets to the heart of being human; and leaves an indelible mark on your heart… but that all these things align for a rare, thrilling, extended moment: to make something unique; something very special indeed.

Sat in front of a raging log fire, two hours after the end of Oppenheimer at the RSC, I am still shivering from the moment the Little Boy bomb was dropped; and then the Little Boy himself – the remarkably controlled and composed Fred Barry, in this case – describing its impact in such riveting, harrowing, matter-of-fact detail; its repercussions. (What a massive and imposing weight to be borne by such young shoulders.)

Then I talk of Hiroshima …
And of horrors that cannot be spoken …
That can only be smelt.

Watching Tom Morton-Smith’s new great historical play – of impressive, lyrical Shakespearian depth and breadth – coincidentally, exactly seventy years after the firebombing of Dresden, truly brings home the horrors that can be justified in the name of war. No judgments are made, here, though – but consequences are examined – and we watch the mesmerising John Heffernan, in a career-making inhabitation of the title rôle, gradually sink under the weight of his responsibility, his confidence and arrogance, his belief – in himself; and his work – waning visibly throughout the second act: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The necessary atomic physics is beautifully and naturally integrated: not only in a series of interpolated ‘lecture’ scenes – “And if some aspect of the lecture doesn’t make sense, then perhaps we are getting somewhere…” – but in turning the whole stage-floor into a playing field of an all-encompassing mathematical blackboard, for the actors to work out their uncompromising formulas on: becoming more and more smothered in chalk… – especially useful during the quick-fire scene-changes and -overlaps that the drama commences with. Especial praise must be given to the lighting designer, Paul Anderson; the video designer, Karl Dixon; and Robert Innes Hopkins, the designer – their cumulative and cohesive work forms an intelligent, slick, and necessary foundation for the telling of the story; and, being in the gallery, I was fortunate enough to be able to have the best view of their shrewd mechanicals (as well as the single caption screen…).

Special mention must also go to Catherine Steadman for the Ophelia-esque rôle of Jean; but, to be honest, as great as the company is, Heffernan – who seems never to leave the stage – stands as a giant god amongst superhumans.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen an audience so rapt: all leaning forward in their seats; jointly immersed in some moving, deep silences… – and I don’t think anybody really wanted to applaud at the end. As great an event as it was that we had witnessed, had partaken in, clapping didn’t seem the right response. The eventual roaring and stamping was utterly deserved, though – in all quarters – and, if I can get another ticket, I will be back to put myself through the mill again; and to watch the cast open themselves up to the rawness and great pain that this work so perfectly captures.

By the way: that’s not to say that the evening isn’t infused with a neat vein of irony and humour. It’s just that the viciousness – the interplay of relationships; the objective of the Manhattan Project itself – eventually subsumes everything and everyone: “We’re all sons of bitches now [ripping] open the veins of God”.

There’s a shadow on his photograph on Tinian ’45
Smiling like a college boy who’s glad to be alive
But now he owns a factory and a store in Los Alamos
A wife called Beverly sells second hand Ford Motors

He may have taken pictures, been caught in Albuquerque
Flown in Great Artiste on a mushroom cloud
He may be a senator or a general or a turnkey
But I know he looks like Spencer Tracy now

And he cries all night…

And he may have been with Oppenheimer, shaken Einstein’s hand
Did we have to drop the bomb? You bet, to save this land
He was only taking pictures around the critical mass
While the troops on Tinian island sang ‘Follow the bouncing ball’

White Christmas

He may have been a nationalist, a physicist or a pacifist
But he’s just taking pictures and he’ll do it anyhow
Well, I have seen that movie of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde
And I know he looks like Spencer Tracy now

And he cries all night…
Tears falling down the streets
And he cries all night…
Oh, he cries all night

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Nearer, my god, to thee…

I’m making a lot of assumptions here – mainly because I was born with a brain between my ears (which I still, sometimes, make use of): and therefore do not understand (or grok) what it is to drive without a considerable amount of thought and concentration. (Mind you, in a similar, ahem, vein: you could say that I was also born with a heart behind my sternum: and therefore do not understand what it is to vote Conservative….)

My point of view – and possibly rampant, creative imagination – though, leads me to believe that I have just witnessed the following sequence of events (not for the first time; and certainly not for the last) –
  1. I am driving down the A422, at just under the speed limit – as there is a tractor, roughly a quarter of a mile ahead; and then there are several bends and junctions to be navigated. On the back window of my car, at eye level, is a blue sticker (in the all-familiar Pantone D154873D, in fact), with the words “DISABLED DRIVER” printed on it in white.
  2. Approaching rapidly from behind me (and it is school chucking-out time; and murky), without any form of illumination – maybe the driver does not know where his/her headlight switch is? – at approximately twenty miles per hour over the speed limit – is another vehicle: which proceeds to accelerate to within a few yards of the rear of my vehicle. It then brakes very hard (so that the bonnet dips very noticeably; and then wobbles back up).
  3. I therefore begin to lose even more speed – albeit without, yet, resorting to the brake pedal (which may result in panic: and is therefore a final, er, resort) – which leads to the driver behind me (in full nose-picking, phone-holding, chocolate-eating glory – I think he (in this case) might be driving with some other appendage…) appearing at very close quarters in my internal rearview mirror. (This one is young; and in a car with ridiculous tyres and suspension (I see, later). But morons come in all ages, sizes, and sexes; and all ages and sizes of car, too.)
  4. By this time, we are gaining on the tractor at some speed, even though I am still decelerating, and my right foot is hovering above the brake pedal. (By the way, the tractor – with a large trailer attached – is extremely well lit: including flashing orange beacons on top – which must, even in this gloom, be visible for miles.)
  5. The driver behind me makes several rude gestures (albeit still picking, holding, and eating). Impressive, I think. And I then dab the brake pedal very gently: as we are now within about fifty yards of said tractor/trailer-combo. This results in more gesticulating; and – aha: he’s found a light switch! – flashing of headlamps (which I have to intuit, at first: as I cannot see below the bottom of his windscreen in my interior rearview mirror – however, I can see at least half of his grille in my offside mirror: as he is veering all over the central white line – which is now solid, on our side of the road). What he is using to operate the steering with, I do not know. He is sitting very low and flat, though. Perhaps his seat has collapsed?
  6. Just as the tractor indicates left – and just before a blind left-hand bend – the driver behind me swerves out into the path of an oncoming Land Rover (decked in speckled and striped sticky-back plastic: so obviously going back to Gaydon). I close my eyes; remember I’m an atheist; but pray to God, anyway. I do not want to be a victim of dangerous driving for the fourth time. Neither do I want another six-hour-long operation on my neck. Nor to be paralysed, permanently, this time.
  7. I come to a steady, controlled halt.
  8. This time, the prat behind me was extremely lucky. (Perhaps there is a god of idiots; or of dangerous drivers? (Onan?)) The test vehicle from JLR had seen what was happening; and had slowed down enough, and made room enough, to let him through – now disappearing at some knots in a cloud of blue exhaust smoke. (“You may want to have your oil seals looked at – or your head gasket,” I think: my heart beating faster than Anastasia in Fifty Shades of Grey. (So I am told.)) A few weeks ago, one of his brethren ended up in a ditch, in front of a large lorry. Sorry to report, both I and the lorry driver were laughing, as we shuddered to a halt (mostly from relief, I think).

Now, that was how I experienced it. This is how I think the driver behind me saw it –
  1. Ooh. Red car. Like red cars. Not going fast. How fast?
  2. Ooh. Disabled sticker. This chocolate tastes nice with snot. Is Fred there? Tell him I’m on my way.
  3. Cripples can’t drive fast. Must get past. Speeeeeeed.
  4. I wonder where that orange flashing’s coming from. Mmm, chocolate.
  5. Go faster, you cripple. Mmm, snot.
  6. Aw sod it. Must go fast. Effing scrounger. Put foot down. Powwwweeeeeeer.
  7. What was that speckly-stripey thing?
  8. Faster.
  9. What’s that smoke?
  10. Must go faster. Oh, hello, Fred. Going to be a bit late, got stuck behind an effing cripple.
  11. 90 mph. Wow. Clever boy I am.
  12. Where is that smoke coming from? Funny smell. Blue. Cool colour.

Now, on a day when it was announced that several vehicles had been clocked driving at more than twice the national speed limit, last year, my questions are these –
  1. When was the disabled-only speed limit introduced; and why did no-one tell me about it?
  2. Am I the victim of idiocy (which now seems to be the norm with regards to speed – especially on the A422, and surrounding lanes), or discrimination? (I have the sticker on my car so that people leave me room, when I park – I have a similar one on the driver’s door: as I need a lot of room to get out… – not so that I can be targeted in supposed ‘games’ of dangerous driving. To be honest, people drove the same way when I didn’t have the stickers, though.)
  3. What are you supposed to do when being tailgated at or near the speed limit? (Having recently taken an advanced driving course with the Institute of Advanced Motorists, I don’t think there is consensus on this: although advice is to slow down, and let them pass. Some ‘people’ seem to enjoy it, though: so will tailgate you at any speed.)
  4. When did speed limits become targets to be surpassed (like Jobcentre Plus sanctions), rather than maxima?
  5. Have you ever considered that it is you going too fast; and not the driver in front going too slow?
  6. Do you know what the ‘two second rule’ is? And who breaks it?
  7. Do you know what is in front of the car in front of you; or behind you? What do you mean: “What tractor?”
  8. Do you know what the current speed limit is?
  9. When was the last time you read the Highway Code?
  10. Do you think this is funny?
  11. Do you suffer from motor accident-related PTSD?
  12. How much do second-hand tanks cost; and what’s their fuel economy like? What sort of licence do you need to drive them on a public highway; and will they fit in a disabled bay?
  13. As I assume my readership is of above average intelligence (in the way that all drivers – like me – are above average quality), will I ever learn the answers to all these questions?

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The disintegrating power of a great wind…

I had believed that the man of few words, Chris Saint, in his struggle to find another Stratford-on-Avon District Council seat – after what Preston Witts recently described as “a classic case of turkeys voting for Christmas – but with public opinion holding a gun to their heads!”: that is “the district council’s membership… being reduced from 53 to 36, as part of a cost-cutting exercise” – was to be parachuted into Tysoe, in readiness for this May’s council elections. But it seems that his popularity within his party (as well as without) – apart from his use as sacrificial mutton – has vanished like a man overtaken by an avalanche: meaning that his desperate declaration that he was ready to “lead the campaign for all other Conservative party candidates” has probably gone unheeded (and possibly with some derision: bringing to mind David Simonds’ inspired reversal – Not quite behind you, Tony – of the famous Churchill cartoon, by David Low).

Here’s a little more background to Councillor Saint’s – deserved? – plight, from Preston Witts’ ‘special report’…

There have necessarily been major boundary changes, and councillors are having to fight it out among themselves to become the official candidates for their parties. For Cllr Saint this has not proved as simple as he might have hoped.
     He had already been defeated 25-0 in a vote among ward members following his bid to become the Tory candidate for the safe and expanded seat of Ettington. The victor there was Cllr Philip Seccombe, who currently represents Brailes.
     He was also beaten by former Tory leader Cllr Stephen Gray (Long Compton) in his bid to get the new Brailes and Compton candidacy. And then, just before Christmas, he lost out to local businessman Bart Dalla Mura in his attempt to win the candidacy for the new Red Horse ward….

… and it’s that last fact that woke me with a start from my depressing, now-happily-mistaken belief; and gave me hope – despite me standing quite a long way to the left of Bart (politically: which is why this was news to me, no doubt… – not literally: which, presuming he’s behind the till, would probably mean me standing somewhere between Barn Grounds and Lane End Farms; or, more likely, on Clopton Bridge).

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about my definition of an ideal politician (and, yes, I know that sounds like an oxymoron):

If politicians – at all levels: from parish councillors to prime ministers – want to (and they should…) be held accountable, then they should not either need – or mind – being reminded of this, from time to time. They also should not act as if any contract they have with their voters ends the moment they gain power.

And this is – firstly – why I have faith in Bart doing a good job as our district councillor, when I am not remotely of his political ilk. Working in – and, most importantly, interacting on a regular basis with a large proportion of – our community means that he will, I hope (that is, not too tainted by his party membership), be more, ahem, representative than the average district councillor (especially one like Chris Saint: who seems, to me, to have been more interested in making deals, and getting his name mentioned – and not always in a good way – but you would obviously have to confirm that opinion with the worthy burghers of Tredington, Ilmington, Newbold; oh, and, of course, Shipston).

All Bart needs do to prove his worth, therefore (apart from, of course, continuing to run one of the best village shops I’ve ever encountered), is to use those regular interactions with his electorate – and the evidence they provide of our needs and wants as residents – wisely, publicly, consistently, and coherently. He wouldn’t even need to conduct dedicated surgeries – although wouldn’t it be nice to have a regular constituency-related cup of tea with him, say, every Friday morning? (Hint, hint.)

Evidence, for any action, fact, plan, etc. is fundamental – and nowhere more so than in government: which affects every nook and cranny of our society. For example, if research demonstrates (which it does) that the accelerating growth in the number and usage of food banks is caused by an increase in benefits sanctions (as well as falling wages); and that benefit fraud is utterly miniscule – and will remain at that same miniscule level, whatever policies or targets you do or don’t implement (but that the use of food banks will increase concomitantly) – what is the point of implementing them? (An honest answer would be that there isn’t one – or that the Government is actually trying to wipe out a strata of society by stealth… – it is merely to sway opinion, and/or to make the Government look busy. The current political answer, though, is that it deters others – whoever those “others” are – and encourages ‘scroungers’ back into (non-existent) work.) Why not, instead, go after those who break the law with deliberate and serious intent – for example, those who actively avoid paying tax – and thus bring substantially more badly-needed money rightfully back into the economy?

In Monday’s Guardian, Zoe Williams wrote of ‘The strange new world of evidence-free government’:

From the point of view of governing… – it is illogical to make significant changes without research…. If you are taking even a medium-term view, it makes no sense to change systems without evidence….
     I begin to wonder whether the real radicalism we observe… is not political as much as formal: government with only the shallowest roots and no eye on the future, whose only interest is near-term PR wins. Is it a feature of coalition or of the new Conservatism to have no interest in an action’s consequences? Hard to say. But it is the antithesis of conservatism.

And I think it imperative that this axiom – that “it is illogical to make significant changes without research” – should be learned and repeated at all levels of government (and be at their heart): whether it be encouraging wind- and solar-power, to protect future generations’ enjoyment of our beautiful (whilst it remains so) planet; containing the rate of growth of our villages, for sustainability’s sake; or managing the economy in such a way that our rulers are not merely concerned with instant gratification and point-scoring. (In fact – digressing slightly – if I had my way, political parties would have to survive on their own merits (presuming they actually have any) – themselves governed by something like the comparative advertising rules which disallowed (in the UK, until 1994) ‘knocking copy’ disparaging your competitors – rather than simply whingeing all the time (often untruthfully) about how it was all the previous incumbents’ fault. And yes, I know asking for honesty, decency, logic and common sense in politics is about as pragmatic as asking louts not to litter; or most drivers on the A422 to obey speed limits… – but a bard can have dreams, can’t he…?)

Secondly – getting back on topic – as well as gathering useful evidence, I would guess that the other half of my reason for having “faith in Bart” (T-shirt, anyone?!) chimes with many who support the idea of ‘mixed-member’ proportional representation: i.e. that if you have a good local (independently-minded?) spokesperson, then you would vote for them whatever their party; knowing that, nationally, you could then vote in line with your political allegiances. Good community service does not rely on political leanings; and can be – at least on the ground – quite neutral. Sadly, our antiquated ‘first past the post’ system – as well as probably leading to an endless stream of meaningless coalitions – neutralizes any chance we have of casting ballots that reflect such logic.

I do hope, though – with the taste of political success Bart will no doubt be rewarded with, come May, in Tysoe’s Tory heartlands (standing for the Conservatives at any level, here, is something of a turkey-shoot) – that it will not go to his undoubtedly wise head; and he will not be tempted by the trolling-spoon of two political posts (on top of his successful day job): i.e. representing us at both district and county levels – a vogue for which many of our local councillors seem to be keen; and which only adds fuel to the already-well-stoked fires of cronyism and political élitism. (Mind you, if you can be Mayor of London and an MP at the same time: what’s to stop you from adding county, district, town and parish councillor to your portfolio – especially if you pay so little attention, and put so little time and effort in to each rôle…? You might as well be party leader, as well. (But, please, for heaven’s sake, not Prime Minister… – that is the stuff of which nightmares are made.))

In my earlier post, I wrote:

What I’m trying to get at – always naïvely hoping that others will try and live up to the expectations I have of them: because I would expect nothing less of myself (i.e. the curse of the idealistic perfectionist) – is that those curiosities (or nonpareils) who are voted in because they really do want to deliver what their constituents want and need, will always feel that – whatever public and private good they actually deliver – they are not doing enough; and what they are doing is not to a high-enough standard.

I therefore trust – remembering that my party membership card is of a different hue – that, however high those “expectations”, this is how we will learn to think of Bart’s political service to us; and that I have not misapplied my faith in either his abilities or his motives. We shall see.

To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.
– Adam Smith: The Wealth of Nations