On cute little dogs and skirts caught in knickers – more thoughts around Brexit

The train rattles through the rolling English countryside, trees and hedgerows seaming the endless patchwork of fields. No matter how often I see this, I never cease to be amazed by the variety of shades of green nature has to her palette. Here in the deep south of England, one could be forgiven for thinking nothing much has changed in the past fifty years. A church spire slides past the window, then a dilapidated farm trailer surrounded by horses, and warm memories of childhood holidays bubble up. Once again I find myself pondering the vexed question of how I’ve ended up living in post-Brexit Britain. I watched the local news last night. Two ladies, barely any younger than my mother, were crowing with delight. ‘We’ve taken back our country’. It’s a phrase I’m growing to dislike more with every passing day.

The pace at which the world has changed during my mother’s lifetime has been phenomenal. When my parents were young, the crystal radio set was state-of-the-art. Now iPads and mobile phones are ubiquitous and no-one can remember how things were without them. There’s nothing in this world so inevitable as change, aside from death of course. Oh and taxes, unless you happen to be Google. We don’t like them much either. Taxes I mean, not Google. Lots of people have been liking Google since Thursday 23rd June. It seems they’ve been using it to find out things they might have done well to know sooner. “What is the EU” became a popular UK search, the day after a crucial referendum on whether to leave it.

Dislike of change seems to have clouded more rational considerations around Brexit for some of my generation and that of my parents. I have a sense that what those ladies on the telly really wanted back was their lives in a rose-tinted bygone age, rather than their country. But the problem with the past is it’s not there any more. It shapes our psyche. It moulds our future. We can revisit it with horror or nostalgia. We can run from it, pine for it or reinvent it, but we can’t get it back. And if we could, it wouldn’t be the way we thought it was.

Leaving aside downright lies about £350 million a week of extra spending money for the NHS, a certain sector of the Brexit campaign seems to have been fuelled by yearning for times long gone. Britain’s imperial past, for example – those heady days when Britannia ruled the waves, God was in His heaven and all was right with the world. I’m sure they were golden indeed, for a privileged few. Those who hadn’t been press-ganged onto one of Her (or His) Majesty’s ships, driven off the land to work twelve-hour shifts in the mills, hanged for stealing bread or transported to ‘the colonies’ could laugh all the way to the bank. I’m equally sure I wouldn’t want to go back there. For some, the preference is for life in Britain through two European wars. Everyone pulling together. The crime rate plummeting. All those troublesome young men herded to the slaughter, instead of roaming the streets at night. Children sent to live with total strangers, and none of those inconvenient checks to make sure they were placed in safe homes. Running between falling bombs of a night, then emerging from the air raid shelter to find your neighbours looting the rubble of your home. Halcyon days, just so long as you don’t have to live there. And what of those who hanker after the rugged individualism of life without welfare benefits or the NHS? After all, granny could always go to the workhouse if she got too frail to work. And so what if little Johnny died from some minor ailment because his parents were too poor to pay for the medicine? They could always have another child. Or maybe ten. Life was cheap, and there was no reliable contraception back then.

There are those who’d say I don’t love my country. That I’m not patriotic enough, because I refuse to toe the line of my-country-right-or-wrong. I’m not happy to lie down and accept that Brexit is a good idea, so I’m called a ‘sore loser’. In fact, the opposite is true. I love this country deeply. I love her tolerance, her community spirit and her passion for individual liberty – all of them values enshrined in the government’s Life in the UK manual, and under very real threat from Brexit. I’ve worked with one of her unique and poetic languages for many years. When I’m not teaching it, I’m weaving stories or writing poetry with it. My island home is breathtakingly beautiful. I sometimes wonder whether those who seek to peddle hatred in her name have any idea how wonderful she really is. But to love someone doesn’t preclude letting them know when they’re making a terrible mistake. If my friend’s about to leave the house with her skirt caught in her knickers do I love her better by telling her, or by letting her go out and be humiliated in the street?

I’m one of the two people in the country who didn’t watch England’s devastating defeat at the hands of Iceland earlier this week. The other was the friend with whom I’m sharing a caravan at the moment. She hates football. It felt like adding insult to injury, less than a week after the Brexit vote. Iceland? I mean, what’s that all about? The internet was alive with jokes at our expense the following morning. England’s being the only country to exit Europe twice in one week was the gentlest by far. I thought long and hard about it all, following a string of despairing messages from a friend. The England team’s full of pampered millionaires who’ve made a fortune kicking balls around. They think they’re the bee’s knees, and they come from a country that thinks the same way, so no-one’s going to to tell them different. The Icelandic team’s a bunch of passionate amateurs, managed by a part-time dentist. Perhaps it would have done our posh boys good to be reminded that they haven’t actually brought home much bacon of late. England hasn’t won a single major tournament since 1966. I was twelve years old then. I’m sixty-two. Fifty years. Maybe someone should have pointed out that their skirts were caught in their knickers before they left the changing room.

A good few years back, my daughter had a paper round. On her first day out, she came home with a bruised leg and torn trousers. She’d been savaged by the cutest-looking little West Highland terrier you can imagine. Appearances can be deceptive. Just look what a clever buffoon young Boris actually is. I knew the owner of said beast slightly, so I negotiated with her, having strategically withdrawn my threat to take the matter to the police. From that time forward, the paper was to be left at the gate. In an uncharacteristic fit of helpfulness, my husband offered to do the round one week while my daughter was on holiday. I explained in words of one syllable that he must leave the paper at the gate of that particular house, or risk being attacked. He was back ten minutes later, bleeding and outraged. There really was nothing to be said but I told you so.

I’m at one with many Brexiteers on the subject of the political elite in this country. No-one should be allowed through the doors of the House of Commons until they’ve had at least ten years’ experience of life as it is for ordinary people. No, I’m not siding with Nigel Farage’s disgusting display of personal arrogance in the European parliament. The man was a bloody stockbroker, what the hell does he know about how normal people live? Nonetheless, the route so many politicians arrive by – public school, Oxbridge, politics – does nothing to prepare them to understand the world as you and I experience it. The gulf has never been more evident than in the very public suicide attempt by the parliamentary Labour Party this week. While they’d have been best best employed in putting pressure on the Conservatives, they’ve instead focussed their efforts on staging an elaborate coup against Jeremy Corbyn, largely because the bulk of his support comes from ordinary party members. He’s not one of the generic political elite. He’s not ‘one of them’.

Faced with an ignorant and out-of-touch political elite, it’s small wonder so many people these days have lost faith in ‘experts’ – scientists, doctors, economists, people who’ve already been bitten by that cute little dog – the kind of irritating egotists who actually know what they’re talking about. Michael Gove put his finger on the public pulse with depressing accuracy when he declared that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. Even the Daily Telegraph lamented the anti-intellectualism of that statement. The truth is, the experts we’ve really had enough of are people like him. Here’s a man who decided he knew all there was to know about education because he once went to school. The experts we’ve had enough of are the ones who pontificate on subjects they know nothing about – the kind of ‘experts’ who tell us there’ll be an extra £350 million a week to spend on the NHS if we leave the EU, when there’s no evidence of any kind to support their assertion. The experts we need in the current crisis are the voices crying in the wilderness. They’re the ones who point out that the nation’s woes have more to do with austerity than the EU, or maybe that the cute little dog has very sharp teeth and is not to be trusted. They’re telling us loud and clear that our skirt’s caught in our knickers right now. We ignore them at our peril.

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Brexit – the post mortem

There’s an anarchist flag flapping black-and-red over the empty fountains as we walk down the hill, away from the barricades. Leon passes me in the crowd and turns to talk. He’s hyped up and he smells of booze, which is normal for him, even at this hour. The last time we met was at his wedding six months or so ago.

How’s Sally?

We’ve split up. She’s taken out an injunction.

Some things don’t surprise me any more. Further on and the girl in the camouflage jacket tells us to stop taking photos. The concept of an anarchist telling me what to do makes me smile.

Andrew’s skulking at the edge of the crowd, lean and lost. I like Andrew. He’s a vegan and a chronic addict. He gave me all his photography books not so long ago, because he’d sold his camera. This crowd are looking for a fight though, and violence seems incompatible with veganism, just as bossing people around is incongruous in an anarchist. You have to be better than them, beat them at their own game, he says. Two wrongs don’t make a right, I say. That one’s ingrained in my DNA. ‘Them’ eventually turns out to be a couple of dozen lager drinkers, who converge on the green behind the ridiculous barricade shortly after lunch, squabble amongst themselves about whether they’re EDL or South West Infidels and adjourn to the pub. So much fuss over a damp squib, and not for the first time I’m proud of the city I’ve chosen to live in. Bristol’s probably the only place on earth where a potentially violent political clash could be upstaged by a Naked Bike Ride. Yesterday, I had cause to be proud again. Bucking the trend towards fear and isolationism, my city voted solidly to remain in the EU.

I awoke to a strange new world yesterday, yet it was an oddly familiar feeling. It was more or less the same as waking up on 4th May 1979, to find Margaret Thatcher had become Prime Minister. It’s a helpless sensation. A knowing that something monstrously wrong has happened and there’s nothing to be done but sit back and watch the inevitable. A friend posted from Very British Problems on Facebook just as I was trying to take it in. “It didn’t go quite as planned” – Translation: I may have caused irreversible damage on a monumental scale. I wonder if that’s how David Cameron felt as he watched the pound plummet and listened to the governor of the Bank of England telling everyone to keep calm. He’s done the only decent thing and handed in his notice, but where does that leave the rest of us?

Some odd alliances have been formed during this war. Middle-class pensioners, media moguls, ex-stockbrokers and small business owners have fought back to back with those in the old labour movement, once their sworn enemies. At first I didn’t get it. Had the nation been possessed by some kind of mass insanity? Had we become like millions of mythical lemmings, all convincing one another that the cliff will set us free?

In fact, the seeds for Brexit were sown way back on that dreadful morning in 1979. Having ruthlessly twisted the words of St Francis of Assisi on the steps of Number Ten, Mrs T went on to crush the trade unions, robbing three generations of hard-working people of job security and rights in the workplace. Her government stripped the country of its manufacturing base, money became god, and human beings became resources to be exploited in its service. Like turkeys voting for Christmas, millions of ordinary workers gobbled up the line cynically peddled by politicians and the media. The trade unions were the bad guys. They were holding back economic progress with their unreasonable demands for fair wages and equitable working conditions. Successive governments toed the line too. Yes, we got a few gaudy trinkets in exchange, and I wouldn’t want to be without my iPad now, but in the long run it does no-one any good to sell their soul and their self respect.

We’re reaping the whirlwind now. Millions of angry and alienated people have voted Brexit, in the mistaken belief that they were voting against their oppressors, and in the midst of it all I have a fearful sense of deja vu. Astute politicians have once again manipulated the impotent fury of the disenfranchised to their own ends. Nigel Farage, an ex-public-schoolboy and former stockbroker, has posed as man-in-the-street-cocking-a-snook-at-The-Establishment, and Boris Johnson has played the buffoon so well he’s in serious danger of becoming Prime Minister. Between them, they convinced millions of fearful, angry people that to vote Brexit was to ‘take back our country’, whatever the hell that means. It certainly impressed Donald Trump, and that can never be a good thing. But the cracks are beginning to show. Before lunch time yesterday a dedicated Brexiteer of my acquaintance was calling Nigel Farage a liar. The morning after, and he was telling the world it was ‘a mistake’ to claim we’d get £350 million a week extra to spend on the NHS by leaving the EU.

The cracks are also beginning to show on the Remain side though, and this worries me more. I believe all human beings to be of equal value, regardless of nationality, gender, religion or any other barrier we choose to throw up. This was the basis for my Remain vote. Yes, I’m disappointed that those principles lost the battle on Thursday, but I’m not looking to pin the blame on anyone – except Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson of course. When we lump together a whole category of people – be it Muslims, refugees, benefit claimants or anyone else – and blame them for ‘the problem’ we stir up the kind of trouble that leads to MPs being gunned down outside constituency offices, refugees being left to drown in the Mediterranean, or Jews being herded into cattle trucks and sent to concentration camps. Yet before I’d reached the bottom of my after-lunch cuppa yesterday, two good friends had advanced the suggestion that a group I myself can be lumped into – older people – should be blamed for Brexit. I took issue. I sobbed my heart out the day Margaret Thatcher was elected, and again yesterday morning. I’m ashamed to be part of the generation that sold neoliberal economics to the world. I’m truly sorry so many of my contemporaries are too selfish to grasp the repercussions of Brexit for their children and grandchildren. But I didn’t vote for any of it. I’ve spent more than fifty years swimming against this particular tide, and I’m more or less destitute as a result. I won’t be branded with the same iron as those of my peers who stand to profit from this debacle. I refuse to be held responsible for something I’ve fought with every breath in my body. But at the same time, I’m not going to be goaded into falling out with friends who’ve spoken rash words from a place of frustration and disappointment.

Andrew’s anarchic comrades sought to impose their rules by force. They wanted to crush the violence of fascism with a superior violence of their own. In the event, a Naked Bike Ride upstaged the whole show, and humanity won the day without a punch being thrown. We imperil everything the Remain campaign stood for if we start pointing the finger, if we buy into the same fear and hatred that sparked this pseudo-revolution. Human history has shown time and again that fear and hatred are always the problem, never the solution. Martin Luther King once said hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that, and we’ll do well to remember those words if we want to build something beautiful from the wreckage that will inevitably trail in the wake of Brexit.

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Pandora’s Box

I take a deep breath and plunge my raw hands into the murky water. Somewhere above my head, my brothers are wreaking havoc. I’ll get into trouble for that, I don’t doubt. I’m the oldest, and I’m the girl, so it’s my job to peel the potatoes when I get home from school, and it has to be done properly. I pull the last, elusive spud out from under all the peelings. The water runs icy off my red-raw hands. The knuckle of my right index finger’s cracked and bleeding, yet I can’t even consider putting warm water in the bowl. I asked once why I had to use cold, even in the depth of winter. I might as well have asked if it was OK to bludgeon the vicar to death. You don’t peel potatoes in warm water, my mother said. That was the end of the matter. Now comes the moment I hate most of all. I have to drain all this freezing, muddy water out of the bowl without blocking the sink with peelings. I’m eleven. My hand isn’t big enough to hold back the detritus the way I’ve been taught, so half of it’ll all end up in the plughole. I’ll have to plunge my sore hands back into the water and fish the peelings out, shred by icy shred. My friend’s mother uses an old colander. I watched her one day when I went to tea, and it looked so easy. I told Mum about it when I got home. I thought maybe the idea had never occurred to her. She sighed and shook her head. Apparently, that’s not The Right Way to do it.

I grew up with some odd ideas about right and wrong. Fast forward fifty years. I’m washing dishes in my own kitchen, and I plunge my hand into scalding water to fish out a plate. It’s wrong to add cold to the washing up, even if it’s blistering the skin of your fingers. In a lifetime I haven’t fully outgrown that one, though it serves no useful purpose but to make my life more painful. The England of my childhood was full of set ideas of How Things Should be Done. Our way was The Right Way and everyone else was just wrong. After all, we didn’t subdue an Empire without slicing bread correctly, or serving afternoon tea at the proper time.

The ongoing ruckus over the EU referendum will mercifully end at close of voting today. Recriminations and reverberations will doubtless rumble on for years whichever way the vote goes. Thus far I’ve kept my head more or less below the barricade. I’ve watched instead, with morbid fascination, as the two sides have polarised, growing ever more hysterical. The assassination of Jo Cox last week seemed the hideous, yet inevitable catharsis of so much fear and hatred.

It seems we’ve never been more conflicted about what it means to be British. A couple of years ago, Michael Gove, then the Education Secretary and now a prominent Brexiteer, announced that schools should be teaching ‘British values’. A straw poll conducted by a friend on Facebook at the time produced such diverse suggestions as greed, cricket, imperialism, binge drinking, exploitation, football hooliganism, shooting peasants (not misspelled) and complaining about the weather. The Daily Telegraph at the time published a more conventional list, including the rule of law, personal freedom, private property and the monarchy. I suspect Britain First or the EDL might add drinking lager and harassing people in the street.

As an erstwhile teacher of English as a foreign language, I’ve helped a few students prepare for the government’s Life in the UK Test. The official test handbook, available from HMSO, tells prospective citizens ‘there is no place in British society for extremism or intolerance’. It cites what it calls the fundamental principles of British life – democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and participation in community life. It also teaches would-be citizens a number of useful things about British culture that even us lifelong Brits don’t know. In fact, a 2012 survey for Channel 4 suggested that 7 out of 10 of us would fail the test. It’s heavily based on knowledge of the UK’s long and illustrious history (the book’s words, not mine). The Battle of Trafalgar’s right up there. Not a word about The Beatles.

The city I’ve made my home has a tradition of street art, another aspect of British culture that doesn’t loom large in the Life in the UK test. A few weeks ago, a stunning new piece appeared. It features Donald Trump and Boris Johnson locked in an intimate embrace, and suggests that this might be the future for a UK marooned outside the European Union. Bristol has a soul generous enough to laugh, but not everyone’s so sanguine.

The fear I’m sensing round me now is a familiar one. I started school in north London less than fifteen years after the end of World War II. My best friend’s parents had been refugees from Nazi Germany, and on Jewish religious holidays the classrooms in my primary school were half empty. It would have been natural enough to have bought into the unease that accompanied so much change. Yet the same mother who taught me that potatoes must be peeled in cold water also taught me tolerance. She taught me respect for those who’d fled war and persecution. She encouraged me to buy unfamiliar ice cream from the Jewish corner shop. She taught me to me speak politely to the ladies who phoned their meat orders to the kosher butcher with a number only one digit different from ours. My mother assured me that, had the Nazis won the war, I would never have been born. Instead she would have fought to the death for the freedom to welcome strangers, to refuse prejudice and to treat other members of the human race as equals. She laid the foundation for my core belief that all human beings are of equal value, and to this day I’ve found no good reason to question that principle.

So many people are afraid now. The flames of fear are fanned daily by media, politicians and big business, concerned only to sell themselves, so it’s small wonder so many people whose lives have disappointed them are swept up in the tide. Immigrants are the ones stealing jobs and depressing wages we’re told. It has nothing to do with companies out to maximise profits by buying us at the lowest possible price, without regard for our humanity. Thus the dispossessed find they have someone to blame at last. Here’s someone more vulnerable. Someone who can’t fight back. For too long we’ve ignored the impact of this fear. Now it’s spilling over as hatred, and we find ourselves living in a country where a man with a history of right-wing allegiances and fragile mental health has been pushed over the brink. Thomas Mair has taken the life of Jo Cox, a woman who devoted her life to the principles of caring and equality, because he perceived those very principles as a threat.

The referendum campaign has opened up Pandora’s box, and whichever way the vote goes today, we’d do well not to try to put the lid back on. We’ve seen an unholy alliance of Britain First, UKIP and the EDL campaigning for Brexit alongside Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Somehow immigration has become the hot issue, based on fears whipped up by those whose interests are best served by setting the rest of us against one another. In reality, the alienated supporters of the extreme right would be best served helping to rebuilding the shattered trade union and labour movement alongside the rest of us, without regard for the nationality, skin tone or beliefs of their fellow workers. That way all of us will end up better off in the long run. But to work together will take courage, dedication and a determination to face down fear and prejudice. Those are values that demand co-operation, rather than the ‘take back our country’ mentality of the Brexiteer. They’re principles that transcend national boundaries and bring people together rather than setting them at each other’s throats. In today’s world, it seems those are risky values to hold dear.

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The beauty of hindsight

The churchyard may not be the best place for it, but Amelie and I jump up and down and hug each other anyway, right in the midst of the funereal crowd. I’ve just filed past an open coffin for the very first time in my small, sheltered life, and emerged from the church to a message from the letting agent. The paperwork’s all gone through. They’ve accepted my unconventional financial status, and they want me to sign the lease as soon as I’m able. Even Joe, whose birth father’s final farewell we’ve been attending, joins the celebration of my first step to freedom. Later he’ll write in the house warming card from all my colleagues. Home is where the heart is, and your heart’s been here for some time. I’m coming home to the city I love at last.

A week on, and I don’t feel quite so confident. I push the key into the lock of the peeling brown front door and turn it. Nothing happens.

It’s the wrong key! This isn’t my house at all.

Have you tried turning it the other way?

It hasn’t even entered my head. I’ve lived more than twenty-six years in the same house. Is there more than one way to turn a front door key? Apparently there is. Moments later my prosaic daughter and I are standing in the middle of the narrow lounge. It smells of stale curry. It looks naked, and about as vulnerable as I feel right now. We unpack the brand new kettle from its Tesco bag, fill it and make tea.

I’ve always been good at making tea. It’s a Pavlovian response. Give me an existential crisis and the first thing I’ll do is put on the kettle. In my twenty-six-year former home, it was a full-blown ritual involving a proper pot and exactly the right amount of tea. You can’t beat a ritual for creating order when everything’s falling apart round your ears. These days I’m happy with mugs and teabags. On a good day, I might even stretch to coffee.

I admire the black, Edwardian fireplace. It was almost completely concealed by a huge sofa when I came to view the house, but this and the pine stairs were the things that sold the place to me. It’s probably as well I don’t know now quite how much tea I’m going to be making over the next few years. The mugs we’re drinking from are the cheapest Tesco had to offer. I have two green camping chairs and I feel like a princess. I’m starting from scratch in the heart of the city, which is no mean feat for a fifty-two-year-old woman who’s lived most of her life in semi-rural Wiltshire. Soon my husband’s going to start bombarding me with letters – up to four a day, until he meets someone else. Then, while he’s still in full flood, I’m going to happen across Charlie who’ll blow my fragile security to kingdom come. All that’s brooding on the horizon for now. At this very moment I’m more bothered by the fact that I don’t own a decent potato peeler. A few weeks down the line and I’ll be called ‘shallow’ for just this, by the man who never peeled a potato in the thirty-two years we lived together.

The first night in the city. I got married when I was nineteen, and I’ve never lived alone in my life. The cacophony of sirens and the passing express trains that rattle the cooker are no substitutes for the dog dreaming of rabbits, children waking from nightmares or a teenager stumbling in at one in the morning to tell you they’ve won a telly in the works’ Christmas raffle. My twenty-six-year home always teemed with life – cats, dogs, neighbours, children, friends – as well as the family, of course. I’m not used to my own company, and I’m not sure I like it. It would be so easy to go back, if it wasn’t midnight. If I could put all the grief behind me. If I hadn’t burned my boats. In the clear light of morning it’ll look different of course, but right now I’d give my eye teeth for the smallest familiar sound or smell.

I close the front door behind the man from Telewest and switch on the telly my daughter and son-in-law have given me. Ah, Telewest, you were so much better than Virgin Media. For the first time ever, the remote is under my control, but before I’ve flipped the channel I realise my son-in-law’s actually on the screen. He’s washing Roman pottery behind Tony Robinson on Time Team. You couldn’t write life. It’s my first glimpse of the synchronicity in all this. Life’s way to tell me whatever the future, there’s no going back to the past. It’s broken and buried, and unlike the pots, it’s best left where it is.

The first few months in my little house pass in a bubble. It’s as if nothing can touch me. I grow potatoes in the rock-hard soil of the tiny back yard. I watch rubbish on telly and find myself looking forward to long evenings in my own company. I borrow the neighbours’ cat and she sleeps on my bed when they’re out. I eat poached eggs every night and lose two stone. Is that a new diet book, still waiting to be written? Thus I start to believe it must’ve been entirely his fault the marriage didn’t work.

What I can’t yet know is I’m about to lose the job that brought me here, or that the loss will start the chain that leads to Charlie. I’ll think I’m doing fine by then. A man the one thing lacking in my life. The missing piece to make my world complete. How immature and selfish will I be to place that expectation on another?  He’ll not be mature enough, no more will I. Nor will either be sufficiently unselfish to avoid dependence on the other. It’s a meeting that will half destroy the both of us. An unmitigated co-dependent nightmare. But this too will one day be a step on in the story, and time will come I’ll learn how to be glad.

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The interplay of light and shade

There’s a lark somewhere. I can hear her singing her tiny heart to shards, and I sweep the cirrus sky for the speck that will show me where she is. Hovering on the wind high above her nest, she’s invisible to my naked eye. And now I think of you. I was walking this very path, my heart in tatters, numbed by the senselessness. I wanted to write a poem to speak to your short and magical life. It seemed that first line came from nowhere.

It’s hard to believe that was almost four years ago. Years when the sun has continued to rise and set, the new leaves have burst yellow on the oaks every spring and the bluebells have nodded oblivious in their shade. Years when I’ve caught glimpses of you everywhere, yet known you’re no more visible to me than the lark. Years when others I’ve loved have left too, each departure opening the wound afresh, yet each of their leavings was more timely than your own.

I grumble at the excess light in the photo I’ve just taken. It’s my own fault. I got the settings wrong, and I’ve bleached out all the texture in the sky. I’m an apprentice photographer these days, fascinated by the interplay of light and shade. Too much of either and the shot will be out of balance, its subtle beauty lost. Darkness, I’ve discovered, matters just as much as light and often more. Without it, all you have is a blank page.

I grew up in horror of darkness. My parents left a light on at night in deference to my fear. It was a big concession from two people who’d lived through the blackout of the war. Darkness, like sex, was a subject much avoided during my childhood. I learned to sing of light from my first day in Sunday School. Take my little light round the world, I’m gonna let it shine … The shadows at the heart of the Christian message were often glossed over. A mystery too deep for a child. Nonetheless, Good Friday drew me like a moth, its love and cruelty beautiful and unbearable all at once. Love to the loveless shown … See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingling down … I learned the beauty of the shadows long before I began to cry myself to sleep from the pain.

My mother lost her father a few weeks before my second birthday. At first she didn’t believe me when I told her years later I could remember him. He was dying of lung cancer. I can still see the room they took me to. I described it to her, and she had to admit I was telling the truth. My father’s mother died when I was five, so by the time my mother lost her best friend I was no stranger to grief. I was six years old, going on seven. I heard the phone ring before I’d even finished getting dressed. I heard my mother’s howl of anguish. My father came into my room a few minutes later. I was knotting my green-striped school tie in front of the dressing table mirror, as if it were any normal morning. I thought for a moment.

That means I’m never going to see her again, doesn’t it?

There’s no need for you to worry about that.

His words told me he thought me too young to grasp the concept of death. Years later I came to see he was afraid I did understand, and he didn’t want to deal with it. My mother’s grief, on the other hand, overwhelmed the household. It was a darkness of tears so deep it left no room for smaller mourning. Her friend had died of a heart attack we were told. It had come out of the blue, although she was barely thirty. It was a long time before it dawned on me that the true tale may have been a deal darker.

Embracing darkness doesn’t come easy. In a world obsessed with image, grief and shame are private matters, unless they’re plastered across the front page of a tabloid newspaper. It seems we love nothing better than the spectacle of other people’s pain and humiliation. Perhaps the vicarious suffering of a celebrity funeral, or the self-righteous glow of watching another’s fall from grace help us to hold our own shadows at arm’s length. Bad things are not supposed to happen in our well-manicured universe, so we make believe they don’t. At least not to us. Then the ultimate sin becomes to be caught in a moment of weakness.

It’s a glorious spring afternoon. I’ve been granted a couple of hours’ freedom and I’ve spent them in the bluebell wood. The wood has become my safe place during the dark days and I emerge into the sunlight like an owl at noon. I’m walking back to Mrs P’s, ready to serve afternoon tea, and reflecting that all the beauty I’ve imbibed over the past few months has done nothing to shift the knot of fear in my gut. I’m outside Sister Rose’s house, one of my many temporary refuges on this terrifying pilgrimage, when the light dawns. I’ve walked away from Charlie five times in the last two years. I’ve fled half way across England to escape. Nothing in my life is as it would have been if I hadn’t met him, and dozens of other people have been impacted by my choices, but I’m still trying to pretend none of this ever happened. I want to hold light without the darkness. I don’t want to admit my own shadow side. Not even to myself. Especially not to myself. I’m so afraid people will hate me for my darkness I’ve completely forgotten that those I love have seen me at my worst, and not one of them has turned their back. I’m the one who’s scared of my own shadow.

I’ve lived most of my life in mortal terror of upsetting people. What will people think? I grew up with these words ringing in my ears, the acid test of good or bad behaviour. The worst thing I could ever do was to offend someone, or to let them down. But in truth it’s impossible to please everyone. It was trying to please Charlie got me into this mess in the first place. You can’t be an angel all the time, sometimes you’re going to get it wrong, and the world won’t end as a result. My path takes a new twist at last.

The lark stops singing and plummets from the wide light of the Hertfordshire sky to the shade of her nest in the undergrowth. She’s safe there. Too much light is a dangerous thing when you’re tiny and vulnerable. I take one last photo of the shadows on the footpath and turn for home. Not my own, but yet another temporary pillow on the journey. I remember you used to talk about living life in colour, and I understand a little better now. Colour and light shift from white to black and back through the whole spectrum of the rainbow. Everything belongs. And light without darkness is nothing at all.

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Of fish and bicycles

Poor, hapless Amy. She’s the kind of woman no red-blooded man would want to end up with. Quite frankly, she’s let herself go. She’s messy, disorderly and loud. She likes a beer and a raucous sing-song once in a while. She’s always singing round the house. She never has meals on the table on time. She doesn’t iron shirts properly. In fact she’s not seen the bottom of the ironing pile in months. She seldom gets her hair done, and never puts on lipstick to greet her man after a hard day at the office. Worst of all, she sometimes spends the whole day in a dressing gown. Small wonder her long-suffering husband has embarked on a torrid affair with his glamorous secretary. Georgie’s everything Amy isn’t. Efficient, elegant and self-effacing. The perfect little woman. She’s half Amy’s age and she’s all over Jim like a rash.

Yes, it’s Saturday afternoon and I’m watching black-and-white kitchen sink dramas on the telly. How better to while away a tired hour or two when you’ve been blasted out of bed at five, ready to capture the dawn on camera? This particular film, Woman in a Dressing Gown, was made when I was three years old and the world was a quite different place. Everything seemed black-and-white back then, and I don’t simply mean the cinematography. I can predict the dramatic denouement before I’m half way down my first cup of tea. Two women fighting over the greatest prize life has to offer. A man. And not even a particularly good one. He lies, he cheats and when his son calls him out he resorts to physical violence. I’d get shot of him if I were you Amy. You’re better off without him.

Amy’s making an impassioned declaration of independence now, and I’m on the edge of the sofa cheering her on. Then Jim plays his trump card. What’s she going to do without him, he asks. What on earth will she live on?

I’ll get a job.

You can see the pity in their eyes, Jim and Georgie. Poor deluded Amy can’t even look after her own husband. She’s not going to last five minutes in the real world.

My mother-in-law was the world’s worst cook. She’d been a full-time housewife for the best part of thirty years when I met her, so you’d think she’d have got the hang, but in truth her heart was never in it. I loved my mother-in-law far better than her son if I’m honest. There were three things made Grandma smile. First was her grandchildren, the second her Tuesday afternoons at the local baby clinic, but the third was talking about her life before domestic drudgery. You see my self-deprecating mother-in-law, whose scattiness made her the butt of every family joke, had once held down a highly responsible job in the Education Department of London County Council. There she’d helped to organise the evacuation of thousands of children from wartime London by day, whilst standing fire watch on St Paul’s Cathedral by night. She’d seen a deal more active service than her husband, who’d spent his war on an artillery range on Salisbury Plain. Maybe Amy would shine too in a different environment.

For Amy and my mother-in-law marriage was a stark transaction. Grandma married late, and I think she had cause and perspective enough to regret it. Not that she once complained. One didn’t in those days. Amy was educated with marriage in mind. It’s hard to believe any parent would deliberately deprive their child of a good education, but the past was a different place. I’ve had more than one friend whose father decreed that the only skills she needed were cookery and shorthand typing. Shorthand? Where’s that going to get you these days? So there’s Amy, smack in the middle of telling Jim she doesn’t need him, when she comes up against the truth. In marrying him, she’s sold her life, her independence and all her dreams for a band of gold and a share in Jim’s wages. Without him, she’ll starve. Small wonder she and Georgie are squaring up to slog this one out. Sold a romantic ideal that was really no more than a precarious meal ticket, the lot of the average 1950s woman was not a happy one.

Of course, the lily-livered waster does exactly as I knew he would in the end. Georgie’s the loser, and no-one’s meant to feel sorry. She’s a woman who failed to understand her place. She got above her station and took what she wanted, although why the hell she wanted Jim is beyond me. She walks off the set, aloof and slightly sad. As befits a woman fallen from grace, she’s doomed to spend her declining years alone in the corner of a dusty office, with nothing but her shorthand notebook and a typewriter for company. As for me, I can’t help imagining how things might have been if Amy and Georgie had thrown Jim out on his ear and joined forces to launch Amy’s singing career. With her voice and Georgie’s organisational skills they couldn’t have gone wrong. Sadly, 1950s scriptwriters weren’t noted for thinking that far outside the box.

I don’t know its origin, but I first saw it scrawled on the wall of a toilet somewhere around 1976. A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Some years later the saying was purloined by a purveyor of Irish stout, and I have to confess that I now own a chopping board with the words emblazoned across it. Be that as it may, I’ve never forgotten my first encounter. Need is not good for any relationship. You’re my world … sang Cilla Black. I was still in primary school then. Need feeds the romance industry. Need and possession. I’m your woman, and you are my man … I can’t live, if living is without you … But despite the promise of happy-ever-after, marriage has always been a harshly practical arrangement. All down the years women like Grandma and Amy have traded their lives for the promise, only to end up dependent upon that most unreliable of beasts: a man.

Money. In the world as we know it, money buys freedom.  Yet the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. St Paul’s words, not mine. Well not his precise words obviously. He didn’t speak English, although I’ve known people who’d be surprised to hear that. For something that doesn’t exist, money causes a lot of trouble. Take Amy’s conundrum. She needs Jim because he brings home the bacon. He also brings home tea, milk and sugar, of which they’re getting though an awful lot right now. During one melodramatic climax, Jim sends Georgie to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. This is a British film after all. But seriously, can’t he even boil a kettle?  Amy drags her twenty years of shared experience with Jim into the fight. Now, if he’s prepared to deceive her to get what he wants, I don’t think all that matters much to him. He’ll do it again in a heartbeat, mark my words. The only thing keeping the two of them in the same room is Amy’s dependence on his pay cheque. And the demands of the script of course.

I’ve written before about money. It takes more faith to believe in the existence of money than in a god who sits on a cloud hurling thunderbolts all day. Nevertheless, like children at a pantomime we suspend disbelief and clap our hands because we can’t picture the world any other way. In a moneycentric universe people become commodities, and Jim’s a pretty valuable commodity to Amy right now. Sadly, she has far fewer bargaining chips than he does, and those she has aren’t in good shape. She’s a terrible housewife, and she’s let herself go physically, to boot. All-in-all, she’s dismally failed to uphold her side of the marriage deal. Seeing as the screenplay’s by a man, I’m surprised he hasn’t written her out already.

Charlie’s attitude to money was refreshingly straightforward. Money equalled booze, and he’d think nothing of clearing every penny in the house for another drink. You know where you stand with a man like that, even if it is in the shit. His predecessor was more complex. It took time to understand those Andy Capp impressions he used to do – lying all day with his dirty boots on the arm of the sofa. Now I get it. He didn’t want to share his money with me, or with his children. The solution was simple. Don’t bring home any money. The traditional marital deal collapsed spectacularly, but instead of insisting on a new one I tried to uphold both sides single-handedly. The burden broke me. This is not the place to talk about the shifting boundaries of relationships in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. That’s a post for another day. All I’ll say now is that a fish has far more use for a bicycle.

So, what of Amy? She’s got her man and they’re walking hand-in-hand to the rosy glow of renewed romance. I doubt it’ll last. Amy’s not going to fall in love with drudgery any time soon, and Jim’s highly likely to fall in love with the next pretty secretary. Money, need and fear of the unknown will hold them together for now, but they’re fragile threads. I’ll give it a year. Perhaps next time they’ll make the right choice. Then Jim’ll be on his bike.

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Sympathy for the devil

It had to happen sooner or later. After all, the truth will out. This week, along with most of the population of the UK, I’ve been outed as the waste of space I truly am. Yes, I confess I’m a low achiever. I’m not a millionaire, and apparently this means I hate enterprise, hate people who look after their own families and … know nothing about the outside world. To be honest, this came as a bit of a surprise to me. Not the part about not being a millionaire. Running a small enterprise in my line of work isn’t going to get me there any time soon. But up until yesterday I’d at least been able to believe that one of the reasons I wasn’t a millionaire was that I’d made a considered choice to put my family before my career. As this choice involved looking after three children and a man with a debilitating mental health condition on a shoestring budget for more than twenty years, while at the same time juggling a string of jobs in youth work, education and social care, I’d also fooled myself that I knew a fair bit about the real world. Good job Sir Alan Duncan was there to set me straight.

I really, truly wasn’t going to blog again this week. Yesterday’s post drove me to the edge of distraction. But while I was wrestling with a handful of the trivial matters that occupy the feeble minds of us low achievers – theology, domestic abuse and addiction in this case – brave Sir Alan was rushing to the defence of poor, beleaguered David Cameron, a man whose tragic fate it is to be caught in the wealth trap, according to Charles Moore, writing in the Daily Telegraph. Naturally, it’s well beyond the capacity of someone such as myself to empathise with a man like David as he struggles to look after his family in these trying times. I’m all eaten up with envy, and I hate anyone who has got a hint of wealth in them. As a writer and an English teacher I don’t much like that sentence either if I’m honest, but the words are not mine and I suppose my aversion merely serves to highlight my inability to enter into the spirit of achievement.

This is not the first time I’ve written here of the dearth of empathy that plagues the world of the rich in the twenty-first century. It’s a tough call to be wealthy, and money doesn’t always make people happy. Pity poor Ethan Couch, an American teenager whose ‘affluenza’ caught the sympathetic ear of a judge after he killed four people and delivered life-changing injuries to two others while driving erratically. A psychologist told the court he’d had such a privileged upbringing that he was unable to distinguish right from wrong. I’m assuming his family paid said psychologist handsomely. Then there was Elliott Rodger, whom I’ve written about before. He killed six people and injured fourteen more, just because he thought he had a right to have sex with anyone he chose. Poor little rich kid. Yet in the face of all this, it seems the wealthy actually believe they’re better human beings than the rest of us. Jacques Peretti wrote for the Independent after spending time interviewing the super-rich for a BBC television series, The Super Rich and Us. He argues that the fallacy of moral improvement that comes with money has been used to justify inequality. The rich sincerely believe it, and they want us to sincerely believe it too, and guess what? We do. If we don’t achieve the unachievable, we’ve failed. It’s a rigged game. And there you have it, my fellow low achievers. Sir Alan, David, all their cronies and partners in crime, they sincerely believe they’re better human beings than you and me. And who are we to argue?

I’ll confess now that envy, combined with my soul-searing hatred of anyone who has got a hint of wealth in them (and of that appalling phrase) may have led me to make mock of the existential angst of the super-rich. In truth there’s good evidence that wealth blinds its owners to their common humanity, and to the suffering of others. An article published in Psychology Today in 2012 cited research that suggests empathy is more highly developed in us low achievers. We’re better at understanding one another because it’s a skill we need to survive when we know nothing about the outside world. David Graeber, writing in the Guardian in 2014, argued that working class people care more about their families, friends and communities. In aggregate, at least, they’re just fundamentally nicer. One of the smartest moves of those who consider themselves our betters has been to chip away at working class solidarity – crushing trade unions and ripping the heart out of working communities. The crisis in Tata Steel in Port Talbot has revived vivid memories of the destruction of the South Wales coal industry for me. But I’m a low achiever, and a woman to boot. What would I know?

Sometimes I just have to fall back on the frivolous issues that occupy my low-achieving mind. After all, even poor David’s not averse to a bit of theology when it suits his purposes. His Easter message this year cited the Christian values he likes us to believe our nation is built upon – responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, pride in working for the common good, and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and to our communities. I’m not sure how much of that goes on in your average tax haven, but who am I to comment? What I am sure of is that the religion he freely quotes to his advantage began in response to the teaching of a man who said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. And yes, I know religion’s been manipulated by the wealthy down the years to keep simple-minded low achievers like myself under the thumb. David’s still doing it now. But you know what? I’d rather have empathy and solidarity than all the money that’s been salted away in offshore accounts in the history of the human race, and if that makes me a low achiever, so be it. I’m proud to be that way, because when it comes to the crunch, what can anyone give in exchange for their soul, their empathy or their connection to the human race?

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