Yesterday morning was crisp and cold. Classic January. It was minus six I’m told by friends who have sophisticated electronics in their cars. Bloody freezing my hands told me by the time I got to the cash machine on the corner. I found my gloves and decided to take the scenic route into the city. The sky behind me rippled with dawn as I cut through Rosa Parks Lane. A man came running up the hill towards me on Stokes Croft. Ragged dreadlocks. He looked like he’d slept on the street. He fist-bumped the guy in front of me, smiled a good morning to the girl on my left.
Hey, I’m real. I’m not frozen!
Sometimes it’s just good to be alive.
Today the sky’s a sludge-grey blanket. No sunrise, just a reluctant dispersal of darkness. This city was European Green Capital last year. The hoarding at the crossroads shouts at me as I pass.
2016 – It Doesn’t Stop Here
Red-trousered greenwash, someone’s graffitied in bright red letters. Fellow Bristolians will understand the reference. The air’s catching at my throat as I head through the heart of St Pauls. This neighbourhood parties late and wakes late. There’s almost no traffic so early, but a fug of fumes still hangs in the air. It smells like gridlock, with not a vehicle in sight. Further on and I take a short cut through the shopping centre. It’s eerie when the crowds aren’t out. A briefly-abandoned temple to consumer culture.
On the bus at last, I notice again today that the engine cuts out every time we stop. Yesterday I thought there was something wrong with the bus, today I can’t work out if the vehicle’s designed this way, or whether the driver’s been instructed to switch off to reduce pollution. Good on someone either way, but given the quality of the air, I can’t help feeling it’s shutting the stable door about forty years too late. I get off the bus at the top of the hill. The air feels cleaner and I expand my lungs. At least my grandchildren aren’t inhaling so much poison up here. I think back to the smogs of my childhood. The smell of coal smoke through the wet wool of the scarf my mother wrapped tight over my nose and mouth as I left for school. Everyone knew the London air was poisoned by the smoke of thousands of fires. You saw the smuts on walls and pavements, and the evidence was there in your starched handkerchief every time you blew your nose. Today’s poisons are more subtle. You can see where you’re going of a morning, and the chemical haze that shrouds the city as I look down from the crest of the hill doesn’t show up in every tissue I use.
I’d hate to be a politician. People have suggested down the years that my views on feminism through pacifism to green issues and social justice might make me suited to the role. I can’t think of anything worse. Imagine having to make huge, life-changing decisions on behalf of millions of people. I’m a people-pleaser. I consult the TV schedule before I phone my mother, in case I mess up Holby City. It takes more brass neck than I’ll ever have to assume you know what’s best for everyone else, and something worse to act as if you know how to achieve it. You surely have to be a control freak. A sociopath. I’m not certain who first suggested anyone that power-hungry should automatically be debarred from public office, but think Donald Trump and you’ll see the wisdom.
People who crave control have an eye to the big picture. They’re often pathologically incapable of understanding the effects of their actions. Empathy isn’t in the repertoire of the CEO or the career politician. They just don’t need it as much as those of us better connected with reality. I’ve no doubt Tony and George W expected go down in history for taking out Saddam Hussein. They will of course, but likely because of the havoc they caused rather than as saviours of the world. When it comes to the crunch, freedom ain’t worth the paper when there’s no water, no electricity, your kids are getting shot by marauding gangs and ISIS is being born.
If you look back a paragraph or two, you’ll see I said I’m a people-pleaser. I said it as if that made me the opposite of a control freak. I’m clearly better suited to politics than I pretend. After all, if you’re to have so much as a sniff at power you’re going to need to please one hell of a lot of people. People who fund you. People who vote. People who own newspapers and produce television programmes. You’re going to have to engage the full panoply of the people-pleaser’s armoury. You’ll need to lie, schmooze, compromise and manipulate. You’ll have to pretend to be someone you’re not, to believe things you don’t, to hate things you love and to like people you despise. If you do it well, you’ll forget where you came from in the first place. We people-pleasers are nothing if not control freaks. Think it’s all about selfless concern for others? Sorry, what we really want is for everyone to think we’re wonderful. Needs must, and a full-blown people-pleaser will stand every principle he ever had on its head for a single taste of that.
For so long now I’ve been wringing my hands over the callous disregard David Cameron and his cronies have for ordinary people. I’ve expended gallons of virtual ink railing against injustices perpetrated by this government and the last. I couldn’t understand how they slept at night while ninety people a month were dying after being assessed as ‘fit for work’ under their new guidelines. I didn’t get why they would accuse food banks of scaremongering. I was confused by their attempts to redefine child poverty. I didn’t know how David Cameron could stoop low enough to joke about ‘a bunch of migrants’.
On a sunny Saturday I’m drinking coffee in good company when the conversation strays into politics. It often does when I’m around.
I think David Cameron’s just a bit stupid.
I’m going to stop right here and confess the thought had never occurred to me before. I’ve always assumed our politicians to be intelligent people who had major issues around integrity. It had never entered my head to see it any other way. But what if David Cameron’s just plain thick? What if he can’t see that his policies are appalling and cruel? What if he doesn’t have the capacity to grasp the consequences? It’s a far from comforting idea, but at least it makes sense.
In all my life, I’ve never been more convinced of my own rightness than I was in my thirties and forties. Questions and uncertainties were swept under the carpet. I was grown up. I had life figured. Joining an eighties-style house church didn’t help. I swallowed right-and-wrong-us-and-them-hellfire-and-damnation stuff by the bucket. Believe six impossible things before breakfast? Toss me a dozen and watch me choke them down. It was people-pleaser heaven for a while, but it didn’t take long for the cracks to appear. My certainties were often off the church’s piste. I simply couldn’t stomach their monstrous god, whose delight was in sending sinners to hell. After all, some of those sinners were the people I loved best and I didn’t want to do heaven without them. The edifice finally disintegrated when the pastor’s wife got it into her head that I was embroiled in a lesbian affair. With no right of reply, I was ignominiously thrown out of the church. I’m ashamed to say my inner people-pleaser was mortified anyone could even think it of me.
The last time I spoke to said wife was when she pronounced her judgement on the stillbirth of my youngest daughter. I think she was one of those people whose world view never was ruffled by reality. Maybe I’d have ended up the same way if life hadn’t backed me into so many corners. I’m not proud of my self-righteous phase. I was immature. I thought being an adult was about having all the answers. I did a lot of damage. Now I’m a grumpy old woman who has no idea what she’s talking about, and I’m proud of that.
All the same, I can’t help wondering whether a lot of politicians aren’t stuck in just that self-righteous phase. David Cameron’s not yet fifty, and George Osborne not forty-five. From where I’m standing they’re little more than children. Neither has experience much beyond the world of power and politicking. Why am I surprised by their lack of intelligence? Their world’s about schmoozing, manipulation and arguing black’s white to get what you want. Small wonder they’re out of touch with a reality where flesh-and-blood people get hurt by their decisions. Where our beautiful earth’s dying from their refusal to bite the bullet of man-made climate change. Why would they be bothered by the suffering of people who were never going to vote for them in the first place? Why worry about green crap? It’s only going to annoy people you need to please. When you know all the answers, why should you go through all the hassle of putting stuff before parliament rather than slide it past on a statutory instrument? It makes perfect sense when you’re blindly convinced you’re right.
There are daisies in the lawn outside the building where I live. It’s January. The Zika virus is on the march. Daisies and mosquitoes thrive on climate change, people less so. Still politicians are failing to offer any coherent response. There are good intentions of course. Greenwash comes in trousers of many hues. There are climate change conferences and European Green Capitals. It pleases people to think something’s being done. No matter whether our main concern is the economy, global warming, the refugee crisis, the NHS, something else or all of the above, we’d prefer to believe our political leaders when they tell us they know best. The sad truth is politicians are human though, and as such they’re no better than the rest of us. They’re idols with feet of clay: immature, self-righteous, people-pleasing and not very bright to boot. No matter how full of good ideas, they need to be held to account, lest they forget they have no right to the power of life and death over the rest of us. After all good intentions, greenwash included, are the paving on the road to a place nobody wants to go.