Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Going Home

Not so much a poem as a few impressions following my recent visit 'back home' to Northern Ireland...

(my hometown Ballymena)

Pack Up Your Troubles

Wide, sweeping rain-lashed roads of few cars and limits and still fewer speed cameras
Alternate with narrow mud-flicking lanes of interminable bends, hills and dips
Weather passes through many moods in a day
Growing Ulster grass in iridescent green.
Character farmhouses vie with abortion bungalows
For landscape dominance. 
Even in designated areas of outstanding natural beauty.
Even on the breathtaking North Antrim coast
Unless boarded up to await the wrecker.
Brave new brutalism straddles traditional towns
Carved up by evermore glistening tarmac roads
To the point they are hardly recognisable as the places I once knew.
These days depressed by out-of-town shopping developments.
Poor Antrim. That county town wears more of a frown when it should be the jewel in its county’s crown.
Lottery-funded vandalism abounds in what lucky heritage is left standing.
Now a giant £8.50 each to the Causeway from a trendy new black hole in the hill.
Yet traditional values remain in the people themselves.
Shirts and suits are still commonplace and women take their sartorial seriously too.
Nuclear family fall-out lags behind that of the mainland
Drug and binge-drinking rates also woefully lacking while belief remains big
No one apologises for themselves.
The Nor’n Irish know who they are.
And their hospitality is second to none.
(just don’t overstay your visitor’s welcome)
Todays ‘troubles’ are more manageable and gone is many a pub I could pass saying ‘So-and-so was shot there by the you-know-who in 1977’
Some people even stay out ‘til after ten now.
Ulster, country of contrasts, province I grew up in, I love and value you but wish you would too, before you’ve sold out entirely to the Emperor’s Clothes of the new.
Tradition is what you do best so capitalise on your USP
(not a new terrorist wing)

It could be Titanic for tourism, but in a good way...


Monday, 22 October 2012

Of Course Our Politicians Deserve a Pay Rise!

If this government is to be believed, the country is in an economic mess because we employees have too many rights, disabled people have too many benefits and there's planning laws to prevent building on the green belt and the unregulated building of monstrous light-blocking, home extensions.

Then there's the fact we have far too many libraries for our country's level of literacy.

Nothing to do with the politicians and (as yet) unprosecuted bankers then...? Or that rather expensive war we've just had? Or the big corporations who make a mint out of Britain whilst hardly paying a penny in tax?
Or the refusal to stamp out health and benefits tourism to bring us in line with pretty well every other western country?

I really do resent the way these times are turning me into a political animal against my will, though I continue to have no party politics as such ('least of the evils' doesn't quite cut it for me). I just know injustice and hogwash when I see it.

Furthermore I've yet to see a single Tory action make a blind bit of difference to the economic situation in real terms. Where are the affordable business rates for shops? Where are the bank loans for small businesses? Where is the nationwide audit to find out what skills and services our nation is actually short of/which areas most need employment so efforts can be directed in the right places? There are only so many novelty shops full of pink fluffy nonsense that can be sustained.

I have no answers - the politicians are paid to come up with those. I am just a question machine. But let's keep on asking the questions until our 'public servants' are forced to come up with some acceptable answers and be accountable to their electorate as they should be. Plus if they want that 40% pay hike that is being bandied about, they need to earn it. I suggest the introduction of 'payment by results'.

As for the Andrew Mitchell 'Plebgate' affair, some of us were actually more bothered that this politician gave £16m of taxpayer's money (ie OUR money) to a Rwandan dictator mate for reasons, and presumably a backhander, known only to himself.

Or else, let's have a general strike so they listen.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Why I'm Glad Jim Didn't Fix It For Me

Like most former children of the 60s/70s or 80s I've been feeling pretty shell-shocked (or should that be shell-suit shocked) by all the revelations concerning the late Sir Jimmy Savile in the past week.

When rumours first began surfacing shortly after his death last year, I thought 'How ridiculous - someone is obviously out to claim a few quid from his estate'. Though certainly I found it odd that a TV legend of such fame and riches had died alone, possibly several days before being found. Did the man not have a  housekeeper to take care of him at the very least? But having seen and read so many authentic-sounding and cross-referencing accounts of the horrors he allegedly visited on young innocents in the past few days, my cynicism and disbelief has turned to belief.

With little to do in my village in Northern Ireland, no one tried harder than yours truly to get onto the 'Jim'll Fix It' show with various childish dreams detailed in finest handwriting on finest Basildon Bond, but I'm starting to feel more than relieved that the little kid from Ulster didn't catch his eye.

In the same week I read a pop star's candid confession that he probably bedded scores of underage girls in his 70s heyday, but if they threw themselves at him and looked old enough to know what they were doing, he didn't tend to ask for an ID card.

But Sir Jimmy was no handsome young pop idol in the early 70s, but a middle-aged, cigar-smoking, wackily-dressed oddity with a big nose, yellow hair and teeth to match. I find it hard to believe that he could have been the genuine object of any teen fantasy. What he did have going for him and what we all bought into was his ability to make a child feel special. Important. Particularly if they came from a household where they received scant attention from adults except in my case to be told to 'get out of the way' or 'stop being a nuisance.' That red chair and that 'Jim'll Fix It' badge, with Jimmy congratulating you in his deep self-assured Northern accent and making you feel you were the most important kid in the world on national television, (and let's not forget with only 3 or 4 channels to choose from in those days - half the nation really WERE watching including all your schoolmates, family and teachers), was the next dream you had if you hadn't won a Blue Peter badge or got a painting into the Take Hart gallery.

It never occurred to us to wonder about his private life and if we did, it was of course filled with charitable endeavours. He had no time for anything else. Naturally he loved the LADIES as he took pains to make clear at every opportunity, but he had marathons to run and programmes to present.... And  if I briefly wondered as an adult, I probably concluded he must be asexual. An eccentric, happy to be so, though in retrospect now, it is easy to see that even at his most charming and charismatic,  there was something unnerving and a little creepy about gimlet-eyed Jimmy in his latest novelty shell suit, something which we chose to believe was just our imagination, rather than a gut feeling.

I have read he was the originator of public charity marathons in this country, now more popular than they have ever been, invented discos, and raised over £40m for charity over the course of his lifetime, so perhaps he had a few achievements that no one can take away from him. He was also Mr Clunk-Click, warning us to 'belt up' on every trip as the seatbelt law was brought in, so he undoubtedly saved a few children's lives, amidst the children's lives that he ruined.

At the beginning of the week, I wondered how he reconciled the evident dark side of himself with the Saint Jimmy myth? Mid-week it occurred to me that perhaps he took the view that the amount of good he did outweighed the bad and that's how he lived with himself. Now I wonder if the whole charity thing was a giant cover to make him 'untouchable' on top of the evident boost to his legendary ego, and he didn't have a conscience to be accountable to, though it would be appalling to think that there was no sincerity whatever in his charitable works.

Some commentators have observed that we are judging him by standards which didn't exist in the 50s, 60s and to some extent 70s. But I can't agree with this. Since when has child abuse or rape been acceptable, let alone legal? And 16 has been the age of female consent in England since 1885, so Sir Jimmy couldn't pretend he didn't know. Indeed one of his victims stated, the first question he asked was her age so he knew she was 14 before he assaulted her. Sure previous generations used to try and pretend child abuse didn't exist and bury their heads in the sand, but that didn't mean it was any more acceptable (or legal) in those days, just that it was harder to get yourself listened to, or action taken, and because no one wanted to believe it was true, not least when a famous person was involved, a child was liable to be branded a fantasist or told to stop telling lies, not necessarily because they weren't believed, but because that's what it suited the parents and/or authorities to believe. And perhaps if they'd survived a war, they particularly didn't want any further emotional traumas to contend with or spoil their vision of a post-war utopia.

In the reality TV era, it really is impossible to convey how exciting the idea of getting onto your favourite TV show was in the late 70s/early 80s. But that oft-anticipated journey from the sweet exhilaration of being CHOSEN to dance on Top of the Pops or have your greatest dream fulfilled on Jim'll Fix It, only to be utterly soured by the horror of finding out what you'd actually been chosen to experience doesn't bear thinking about, much though I don't suggest it happened to the majority of participants. But the story of how this happened to Claire McAlpine, the young Top of the Pops dancer who committed suicide, apparently as a result of her experiences at the hands of Savile (and others), was particularly heartrending. Nor had I previously realised that she and some of the other dancers were so young. They had always looked much older to me watching ToTP as a child.

The other story which shocked me was of the girl taken out of a children's home for a 'treat' ride with Savile in his white Rolls Royce, who kind of expected she'd have to pay for it in some way and wasn't particularly surprised by the 'payment' demanded, even though she didn't want to. In her world there was evidently no such thing as an adult being nice to you if they didn't expect something in return. And no choice about what form that reciprocation would take.

Since the revelations, there have been calls for a BBC investigation, calls for Savile's former bosses to be held to account, though some key individuals like Douglas Muggeridge (controller of Radio 1+2 1969-76) are now dead, with other voices demanding; 'What criminal proceedings can you possibly bring against a dead man?' (ie what's the point?)

Well I suppose the point of an investigation is so that Savile's victims finally have acknowledgement and possibly some sense of justice or closure to see the truth come out and lessons are learned for the future. That is, that no celebrity is ever allowed to be 'untouchable' or beyond reproach ever again, no matter how much time he or she devotes to charitable works. Not that it would be easy in any case in this mobile phone era where future celebrity abusers are likely to be snapped in action pretty quickly by the humblest children's home inmate.

And if he post-humously loses the 'Sir' and his charities are forced to drop the Savile name, that too will serve as some kind of satisfaction that he got comeuppance. In addition his estate (or the BBC) may choose to offer some token of compensation and rightly so in my view. In response to the protest 'It's unfair to accuse a man who is no longer alive to defend himself', ordinarily I would agree. Except that in this case it has become increasingly evident that Sir Jimmy would have made sure that no victim stood a chance of coming forward and being believed whilst he still walked this earth, and if  public denials and charities vouching for him weren't enough, he could access and afford much better law than any of his victims could. His victims wouldn't have stood a chance in any courtroom and they knew it. Even newspapers would have risked damages they could ill afford or a dramatic drop in circulation if the public were unready to believe any hidden truths about such a popular figure who had done so much for 'charidee'.

In truth, part of my sense of shock stems from the fact that if the allegations are true, Sir Jimmy has betrayed all children who ever looked up to him or loved his shows.

As a lighter aside, there is an amusing story about how gentleman actor John Le Mesurier (he of Sergeant Wilson fame in Dad's Army) was walking past a giant poster hoarding of Jimmy Savile at a railway station exhorting 'This Is The Age Of The Train' from a British Rail poster in the mid-70s when he shocked his companion by exclaiming 'C**t! in a very loud voice. Did he know something we didn't...?

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Design for Living

This weekend I watched a particularly odious episode of Location Location Location where a northern self-employed dad and his graduate daughter traipsed around London looking for the ideal one-bed flat for her in preparation for starting her first job. It had to be in a certain area, have certain period features, have the light coming in from a certain direction in the mornings and not be too far from the tube station, lest daddy's little darling have too risky a walk home at night. Oh and be under £200k (dad's only stipulation since he was paying), with some decent night life nearby. After an exhaustive search Phil and Kirsty hit upon the ideal flat. Except that it was in Tooting. Kimberley stuck her bottom lip out before being persuaded to revisit the other flats in more desirable areas. Finally she accepted that the others were shoe-box like in proportion compared to the Tooting flat and she must prepare to make what was evidently the first compromise of her young life.

Eventually Phil swung the deal and won a smile from the little madam. Poor daddy got nothing, not even a thank you, let alone a hug and a 'You're the best daddy who ever lived, ever!)

Today I read that parents and grandparents are being encouraged to raid their pension funds to get their offspring onto the property ladder. Well obviously, they weren't going to do anything better with them, just squander them on heating, lighting and food, that sort of frippery. Luckily many pension funds are locked down with tight conditions and huge early release fees to save those parents and grandparents who would be so foolish as to listen to Nick Clegg from themselves. But it's not just about the undeserving Kimberleys of this world who've yet to do an honest days' work and seemingly take familial handouts and free flats for granted. Helping youngsters pay ever more exorbitant prices for ever smaller properties is helping no one and coming generations won't stand a cat in hell's chance of getting anywhere near the bottom rung of the property ladder, let alone on it, even with the family's entire piggybank of savings and pensions heaped upon them. Then there's that pesky student loan to pay back before they can properly start their adult lives. Small wonder that the marriage age and first child age is also rising ever upwards.

With all these factors in mind I ask:
  • Why isn't the government acknowledging that this artificially overheated housing market has to stop and cannot continue indefinitely? 
  • Why isn't the nation going on a house-buying strike to shake the market up?
  • Why aren't buy-to-let house sales/mortgages and second homes being banned? Or at least supertaxed, with that tax being used to subsidise new social housing? 
  • Why isn't more being done to bring the estimated 750,000 existing empty properties back into use? 
  • Where is the rent-capping seen in so many European countries which enables tenants to comfortably afford to rent knowing they have security against unreasonable rent hikes and are not at the mercy of market forces or unscrupulous landlords? 
  • Why are non-UK residents able to buy property in UK or even claim social housing, sometimes above those UK citizens who have been on council waiting lists for many years?
  • Now it's hard to obtain a property for less than £250k in many towns and cities, surely it's time to raise the stamp duty to apply only to properties of £500k+ or discard it altogether?
And why aren't these measures being considered before the more outrageous notions of forcing elderly people out of their family homes, some of which may have been in their family for generations or building on the green belt and allowing unregulated back garden developments? As for the 'mansion tax' on properties of £1m+ proposed, that assumes that somone living in such a house has assets to go with their bricks and mortar. Not always the case. Not only is there much genteel poverty around, but sometimes what started off as a relatively modest family home may have jumped from £30k to £1m in the space of forty or so years purely because of the location of it, not because the house itself is in any way grand or mansion-like.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Keep Death Off The Roads!

The recently reported rise in road deaths on Brtain's roads, particularly among young men, and the current government rumblings about turning all urban areas into 20mph zones to counter it

has sent me musing on the public information films of my childhood and wondering where they've gone if the government truly gives a fig.

I was further shocked to read today that a young driver whose reckless behaviour led to a family of four being killed when he clipped their car in his hurry to get to work on time, causing it to flip into a reservoir by the roadside was only sentenced to FOUR years in prison. That's one year per life. He also lost his driving licence for a mere four years (scarcely an inconvenience to a man in prison). Bulging though our prisons may be, what kind of a sick joke deterrent is this, let alone example to others? What about drivers who cause death through careless or dangerous driving losing their licences for life in addition to receiving the sentences they would receive for any non-car manslaughter? Wouldn't that threat be more incentive to better driving than any number of exorbitant speed humps, cameras, islands or limits, not to mention more cost-effective?

To nanny-state the entire population through changing the road system owing to the actions of an irresponsible few feels insulting to me as a responsible driver/cyclist/pedestrian, who does not drink, take drugs, suffer from road rage, take foolish risks, treat my indicators as optional extras, so why should my use of the roads be impeded and compromised on account of those who do?

As one who lives next to what has been termed 'Britain's most Dangerous Road' (the A4074 between Oxford and Reading) and who experienced an horrific car crash only yards from my home killing three people on the Jubilee bank holiday weekend (albeit not 16-24 year olds on this occasion), I feel increasingly strongly that public information campaigns and penalties would be the most effective two-pronged attack against irresponsible road use and thus the best use of my taxes.

Not only are we bereft of public information films shaping our formative years these days, we are distracted by a multitude of media to plug our senses into, tuning out of the real world and our responsibilities in it both to ourselves and to other people. Pedestrians crossing the road without looking because their mobile phone or ipod are far more fascinating than their life have become a daily hazard in the last 5-10 years.

However it is not the Transport Select Committee's job alone to stop the needless slaughter. It is also the responsibility of every last one of us - road users all - irrespective of which capacity. With this in mind, I e-mailed the Committee, proposing a National Road Safety Competition where people like myself could submit ideas for TV adverts and campaigns in order to feel we all had a stake in taking personal responsibility on the roads with prizes and the top ad suggestions being turned into real TV ads. Perhaps the DVLA could make a contribution from each driver's road tax towards this competition/any campaign.

If like me you grew up in the 1970s/80s I'm willing to bet Green Cross Code ads with David Prowse (otherwise known as Darth Vadar), not to mention many other ads such as 'Think Bike!', 'Clunk Click', how to use pedestrian crossings and general safety ads formed the daily basis of your TV diet. There was even the 'Tufty Club' which we could join to let a cartoon squirrel edutain us about road safety! Memorable, weren't they? It didn't matter that they were as cheesy as hell. So long as we got the message, job done.

In the mid-90s I worked for the Driving Standards Agency when the written part of the driving test exam was brought in. Making the driving test harder definitely drove up driving standards. For a while, but to temporary effect I fear.

Meanwhile I had a two line e-mail reply from the Transport Select Committee Chairperson Louise Ellman MP thanking me for my ideas but without commenting on any of them (I thought at least she might do me the honour of stealing them and passing them off as her own, not least as they would have saved the government a shed-load of money on nationwide traffic-obstructing measures.) Oh well. I'll save that killer TV ad for a mover and shaker who really does care about preventing death on the roads.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

My Mixed Olympics

It is great that so many British nationals won so many medals at the 2012 Olympics, but I for one am relieved all the noise and hysteria which meant I found it more tolerable catching glimpses from the living room doorway rather than watching it properly, is finally over, not to mention the ruinous over-expenditure at a time when our country can ill afford it, and which may never be recouped for all the talk of how it would bring far more money to Britain than it cost (nonsense if all the half-empty hotels, eateries and attractions are any indicator). In fact the 45% drop in tourist numbers to Britain during the games was allegedly worse than the tourist drop which immediately followed the 7/7 London bombings.

Nor was it a Peoples' Olympics when so many people were denied the chance to purchase last minute tickets (affordable or otherwise) despite the obvious acres of empty seats visible on screen and small businesses who tried to join in the Olympic spirit to boost trade were swiftly stamped on by corporate concerns, no matter that these corporate concerns had actually paid very little towards the Olympics in real terms compared to the taxpayer and were in turn trying to dodge paying tax.

It might have offered up more razzmatazz than any previous Olympics but for me, momentous events should actually contain moments of gravitas, dignity and silence rather than endless shrieking and whooping, hysterical commentators and blaring pop music at every opportunity, thereby undercutting the genuinely extraordinary achievements of the athletes.

Dictionary definition of the word 'ceremony': 'The formal or ritualistic activities conducted on a solemn, important or state occasion'
(*note the words 'formal' and 'solemn'). Which, granted, you might not expect the opening and closing 'ceremonies' of the Olympics to have in spades as they are naturally more in the nature of 'celebrations' than 'ceremonies' but certainly the presentation of the medals should have been formal and solemn with no silly posing or biting the medal afterwards. As for the athletes constantly brandishing and flashing cameras and handycams as they made their way to the central enclosure during the closing ceremony - what next - a bride doing the same as she sweeps down the aisle for the biggest day of her life? It is for other people to take this kind of footage, not the principal players.

The sporting costumes were also hideous and made our athletes look like they'd been to the pound shop rather than purchasing highly expensive aerodynamic kit made employing the latest high-tech space technology, which it probably was. The women were defeminised, the men turned into alien life forms, particularly the cyclists. Mr Federer was the smartest turned-out sportsman of the lot and I was almost sorry he lost to the sartorially-challenged Andy Murray (albeit ever so slightly glad that Andy finally got his own back after such a long run of bad luck against his Swiss nemesis).

There was no classiness about this Olympics beyond the VIP Zil traffic lanes (also stolen from the British taxpayer). It was loud, vulgar and unashamedly corporate, and what THAT says about Britain to the rest of the world, I shudder to think.

The untold side of the Olympics was that a number of East Enders who were promised that their homes wouldn't be swept away to facilitate the construction of the Olympic village and stadia (as the Chinese suffered for the Beijing Olympics) saw that promise dishonoured when 425 council tenants lost their homes to be re-dispersed across London losing their community and ending up worse off financially. But hey, they were only council tenants, so who cares, right? Other losses included the treasured Manor Gardens allotment which had previously survived two world wars and lay on ground gifted to the community in perpetuity at the turn of the 20th century, so who was the 'London Development Agency' to place a compulsory purchase order on it? A listed theatre was another casualty to make way for luxury flats as part of the gentrification of the Olympic area (presumably 'listing' now stands for nothing when it comes to protecting a valuable piece of our heritage). So the character and community of the Olympic area has been irretrievably changed forever, and who is to say for the better if it is now to begin pricing its natives out? This process certainly leaves any green credentials claimed by Locog open to question. Ironic then that a celebration of the working man and England's green and pleasant land, not forgetting history, played such a pivotal role in the opening ceremony, albeit in a very twisted version of British history conveniently omitting any controversial bits.

Which leads me to another aspect of the Olympics which made me uneasy. The dishonesty of portraying our nation as a nation of absolute abundance at a time when it is anything but. Nor is it anywhere near as free as it gave the impression of being, if still free-er than all those unfortunate nations whose athletes had western freedoms somewhat unfairly rubbed into their noses by a string of undiplomatically-chosen songs in the closing ceremony. Though it also crossed my mind this might be a sneaky ploy to encourage oppressed athletes to defect to UK in order that 'Team GB' wins even more medals next Olympics!

But for all this, the whole shebang admittedly turned out better than my cynical predictions of four years ago, and it's undoubtedly served to cheer a depressed nation up (providing we don't think about the cost), but for how long? What will the real legacy be? Apart from a rather funny sitcom entitled '2012'.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012



I’m a failure as a woman – I don’t hate myself like I should

I don’t wish I looked like someone else, I quite like my food.

I don’t flaunt myself in skimpy tops and crops and then bemoan

The quality of male life I attract is akin to that beneath a stone!

I have confidence my body clock won't detonate if I don't reproduce

I don't mind getting older as long as I don’t resemble a moose.

I'm a failure as a woman - I don't agonise about my weight

I don't regard the currents of my exes with red-misted hate

I'm a failure as a woman – I don’t read our magazines

That pose as our friends while undermining our self-esteems

Telling us what to think, do, fear and wear this season.

I choose sanity, free-thinking individuality and reason.

I’m a failure as a woman – just don’t conform to the norm

Though I do have a hang-up about my lack of insecurities...

©LS King 2012

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Panda Awareness Week etc

What better week to return to blogging than the first ever world Panda Awareness Week?

Who would have thought our OxFringe show Panda Pride! would have led to it and BamBam and BooBoo's world dominational aspirations weren't just a pipe dream?
; - )

Seriously, it was a most enjoyable debut show and made the Oxford Times, but I doubt it held quite that much sway! Besides which, our pandas rather prided themselves on their rarity, and being lazy, decided they rather liked captivity and having 'servants' (aka zookeepers) too. If only they could get their paws on more doughnuts (the proper ones with jam in, that is), their lives would be complete. Well almost.

Anyway, Panda Awareness Week - surely more uplifting than National Continence Week, though personally speaking, I like to hope I celebrate that particular week every week!

Funny how some charities/causes get a day dedicated to them and others a week, a month or even a year. I wonder why that is. Who decides which cause merits what?

Following our brief surfing of the panda zeitgeist, aside from sorting out and amalgamating my many hundreds of electronic files from over the years into meaningful folders and subfolders and binning the rubbish (can't believe I used to be so untidy!), I have begun work on a World War I screenplay which I hope to have finished in time to attract TV commissioners for the centenary of the outbreak of WWI. Am not going to say too much about it at this stage for obvious reasons except that it is inspired by an aspect of the Home Front which has seldom been covered before, but owing to this factor, requires many times more research time than writing time.

Another reason for my recent blog-lag is that so much terrible stuff has been going on with the banking crisis/recession, I didn't want to pen any more depressing posts about it, looking at the more-than-enough postings I have previously written on this subject. Suffice to say that my own bank accounts and credit card are well away from the big 4 banks and have been with the Co-Op for some years, so I reckon the most positive contribution anyone can make is to vote with their feet on the matter and kick these financial institutions in the bottom line! Notwithstanding, I may have to revise my policy following the recent Co-Op funeralcare scandal. Are there no companies left with ethical credentials to be trusted I wonder?

I once started writing 'The Armchair Anarchist' about all the things an individual could do to make the world a better place if they were as lazy as me, but somehow it never got finished surprise, surprise, and meanwhile the world became a great deal more complicated as derivatives and hedge funds and Russian-doll like bodies which swallowed one another until the original could no longer be seen, let alone held accountable for anything, became the norm, among many other fiendish schemes designed to scramble our brains into spaghetti as we try to keep a grip and make sense of it all. Perhaps 'The Armchair Analyst' would be more useful now, to share tips on how to stay sane when all around us has gone mad.

So, I am going to try and raise the number of more positive postings from now on, though I cannot promise to forego the odd rant entirely!

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Panda Pride! OxFringe 2012

It all started with a throwaway comment in a cafe about how Edinburgh Zoo must be bankrupting itself renting two giant pandas for £300k each per panda per year, and how pandas were now earning as much as some investment bankers, let alone humans! 

Four months later my friend Oliver Gozzard and I are set to don giant panda suits to explore the 'panda pound' in a hopefully packed Turl Street Kitchen, Turl Street, Oxford, on Sunday 3rd June 6pm-7pm as part of OxFringe 2012. 

As well as exploring the 'panda pound' our furry heroes and natural clowns of the animal world naturally get up to some mischief as they set about obtaining their Oxford degrees and resisting human pressure to procreate. 

Or official description as follows: 

Oxford Botanic Gardens hire two giant pandas, BamBam and BooBoo, to boost visitor numbers. However, the dizzy duo refuse to behave, quickly descending into rare bud binges, stem addiction and, tragically, panda poetry - before asserting their rights as a persecuted minority and giving world domination a go. Panda-monium ensues!

Hope to see you there if you will be in the vicinity. Admission £7 or £5 (concessions and pandas). Available from or on door.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Why I'm Giving Up Alcoholics

For someone who drinks some six units of alcohol per month if that, and comes from a family tradition of a sherry or two at Christmas (to the extent my grandparents probably spent more on replacing the stagnant bottle each year than they did on content consumption), I seem to have known a disproportionate number of alcoholics in my life.

Housemates, colleagues, boyfriends, best friends, others. All undetectable as having a problem to begin with, have entered stage left to recite their part in that ongoing production that is my life, some to eventually disgrace themselves and exit stage right, others to eventually recover to feature in Act 2 and beyond.

Until recently I have always endeavoured to be understanding and sympathetic about alcoholic dependency, taking the view; 'There but for the grace of God go I.' And having survived a pretty challenging upbringing myself, not to mention a difficult young adulthood, I could so easily have turned to drink (or worse). It was all around me after all, along with the entreaties to get it down me from my peers. I have also known my share of despair and loneliness, have suffered yawning chasms in confidence, have endured ill health, have been bullied at school and occasionally work when younger and generally felt the desperate need of some kind of anaesthesia to get me through. To inure me against the harsh realities of life, if not absolve me of responsibility for myself and actions entirely during the times I have felt like giving up.

I understand all too well the reasons why some people feel the need to drink often and copiously. I've felt the same need for something to serve all the functions that alcohol can. Before it starts to take over and potentially destroy. It can be a tough life and 'deal some pretty mean blows' as a friend recently observed.

It doesn't help that we live in a country which recognises alcoholism as a disability and bestows generous benefits on those incapacitated by it, which rumour has it, many do not use for medicinal benefit.

Somehow an inner inkling that alcohol might add to my problems rather than solve them and coming of age in a pre-alcopop era where you had to get over the horrid taste in order to form a habit conspired to keep me from temptation, and books and old films (and chocolates) became my refuge when times were tough.

I certainly don't think I could have kept my intake moderate if I'd allowed myself to develop a taste for it though, hence my empathy for those who come to need a drink as oppose to wanting a drink (the definition of alcoholism).

But years of experiencing alcoholics benign and bad, and my favourite type, reformed, have led me to several conclusions: -
  • Alcohol seldom makes anyone funnier, sexier or cleverer, just louder and more deluded about their powers in this respect.

  • All alcoholics are inherently selfish. Everything revolves around them and their access to supply and if you become a threat to that, watch yourself. In the worst cases, other people and their needs scarcely form a blip on their radar as far as the alcoholic is concerned, even though they may display symptoms of guilt, remorse or self-loathing when in certain frames of mind and use such to reassure the other person that they are sorry and genuinely do need them. This makes alcoholics supremely time consuming and often high-maintenance as well. Ask yourself if investing too much in them is the best use of your own life, mindful that excess alcohol can impair memory so how much of the time/energy you devote to them do they remember in any case? They may swear they love or value you, but make no mistake, they love and value the bottle far more.

  • The 'sweeties', ie those who turn into the human equivalent of cuddly toy bunnies with the batteries running down with each glass to eventually fall asleep on your shoulder, whispering affectionate endearments and reliant on you to ensure they get home safely can be endearing sometimes, and are probably worth retaining friendships/relationships with, but too often and this too becomes wearing.

  • Those who turn either verbally or physically malicious and hate-fuelled or controlling when drunk need to be ditched, the sooner the better. They will either value you enough to get help as a result of the shock of your rejection or continue their descent to a place you wouldn't want to accompany them to. These personality types may or may not be psychopathic but why take chances? Parents with children need to be particularly careful about granting such individuals/partners second and third chances and taking them back. It is worth bearing in mind that even the founder of The Samaritans Chad Varah opined that it was impossible to help a psychopath and advised walk away, and he was not known for giving up on people with problems. Not that all psychopaths are alcoholics or vice versa, obviously.

  • Heavy drinkers are more prone to cancer, impotence, stroke and dementia than the rest of the populace in addition to liver failure and sudden death through alcohol poisoning, particularly if binge drinkers. New research shows that low level brain damage begins in the right frontal lobe area which houses the emotional quotient (EQ) governing not just the bit of the brain able to fall in love, but memory, empathy, response times, impulses, common sense, self-control and behavioural boundaries among other useful brain functions. The brain, being the world's most brilliant computer, will forge alternative neural pathways and circuitry to bypass the damaged areas to the best of its ability but once it becomes too badly damaged in its own right to continue, a major health failure will occur, often disabling the alcoholic for life if not killing them. This is the future for the average alcoholic who refuses to use their IQ to rescue their EQ and take action against their dis-ease, particularly if they compound the damage by smoking to restrict the blood flow and atrophy the arteries.
To summarise, I have a new personal policy where I'll hold onto the friends I have who have triumphed over or assumed control of their alcoholism through strength of character and determination, have learned life's lessons through a major health failure, or who are making strenuous efforts to seek help, but those who cannot be bothered to help themselves or take their lives and friends seriously have wasted enough of my life.

No longer will I allow myself to be heartbroken and sleepless over the often otherwise highly-intelligent and talented individuals I have known throwing their lives away, or naively optimistic enough to believe that maybe I can make a difference or inspire them to wish to recover and that their alcoholism is a temporary state.

However to be too non-judgemental about alcoholism to my mind risks insulting the alcoholic as a helpless victim incapable of turning their life around, even offering complicit approval for them to carry on killing themselves through smiling support, via this act of passive suicide or possibly late self-abortion...

Friday, 9 March 2012

The New Elizabethans

I thought I would reproduce my nomination to Radio 4's The New Elizabethans in honour of the 60 most definitive British figures during Queen Elizabeth II's sixty years on the throne.

The late great Quentin Crisp was not just an Englishman, a Gentleman, a Wit and 'Britain's Stateliest Homo', on queenly par with any real-life queen (as if that weren't enough). He was that even rarer creature - a British philosopher - who endorsed the philosophy of 'being' as well as just 'doing'. He preached the gospel of the individual and how we are each so much more than just a job, just a gender, just an income, just a sexuality.

A true ambassador for Britain at its eccentric best, his style, good manners and dignity in the face of adversity and the trauma his uncompromising 'otherness' caused him in a climate of strict illegality were inspirational and he shot from being a nobody (or even the British equivalent of an 'untouchable') to a celebrity at the age of 66 when his autobiography 'The Naked Civil Servant' was dramatised, becoming a surprise TV hit, starring the then little-known John Hurt.

Being so English, it is supremely ironic that it was only when Mr Crisp emigrated to New York in his early 70s as a result of his late-life success, that he became truly revered and appreciated for the 100% British treasure that he was.

He refused to fit the category of 'gay icon' though as he did not believe that homosexuals were any different from anyone else and to ghettoize themselves or demand elevated rights was wrong. This did not always make him popular, but he was used to that. The core of everything he stood for was as follows:

'When You Know What Your Style Is, Then You Will Know Who You Are...'

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Landlords Then and Now

Gone are the days of the late 70s and 80s when according to a friend who was a student at the time, a landlord could pick up a terrace in the north for between £5,000-£8,000, so that even a landlord of fairly modest savings or a small inheritance could quickly amass four or five of them, cram them full of students and never have to work again!

I never cease to be amazed what fond memories many of the parents I speak to in my job at a university seem to have of these near-slum dwellings, often with only one gas fire in the living room as the sole heating for the entire property, no shower and 1950s-flowered walls and leftover furniture crawling with damp, as they marvel at the comparative luxury of the power-showered houses their own university-age youngsters are about to move into.

In the good old bad old days of student housing holes in floors abounded, wiring crumbled in the hand and dangerous water heaters pumped out carbon monoxide. As for energy performance certificates and carbon reduction, these concepts were but a distant dream. Then a succession of Housing Acts and rising consumer expectations came along to spell the end of the glory days for many slum-standard landlords whose whole purpose in life had been to spend as little as possible on each property, though the knock-on effect of this (and probably the bit most fondly remembered by the parents of today's students) was the knock down rent most students paid of between £6-£30 per week, depending on region.

Of course these Housing Acts took some years to take effect with some landlords even now, getting away with renting seriously sub-standard housing, particularly to the broke and desperate and illegal immigrant workers.

At the other end of the spectrum, some would say local authorities have now gone too far with HMO licencing even forcing landlords to replace perfectly good locks for those which might actually compromise the crime-safety element of the house, even if they slightly increase the fire-escape times (not as vital as it used to be with modern fire detection equipment installed giving more notice). Many local authorities are also condemning perfectly good study bedrooms as being 'too small' when no tenant has ever complained about the size and the rent charged is commensurate to the size of the room and they typically also have use of a communal lounge. This reduces the number of rentable rooms per property/the affordability of the house per se and makes the landlord think twice about continuing if he is to lose a room. Six person property landlords with two spacious bath/shower rooms including WC's are also being asked to provide an EXTRA WC, which again the tenants have never asked for (ironic when an airline can get away with one WC per 50 passengers). All this cost has to be absorbed somehow, yet affordable rent becomes ever more pertinent in these constrained times.

Where the modern landlord is concerned, the costs of becoming a landlord have now risen to the point that many would-be landlords are deciding against it, or retiring early as the profit margins grow too narrow to make it worth their while with the high cost of the property itself, exorbitant buy-to-let mortgages, the ever rising burdens of tax, insurance, licensing fees, refurbishment, maintenance, maintenance contracts for fire safety, electrical safety and gas safety. The cumulative effect of so many costs is to remove a lot of good landlords from the market as the bad ones don't tend to be those who pay insurances, costs, maintenance or fees if they can get away with not doing so.

Landlord's mortgage companies are also starting to insert impossible clauses such as the following from the Nationwide, which no landlord/letting agent could accept when their first duty is to their tenants and the legally-binding tenancy contracts they have with them.

"ln the event of the property being repossessed by a mortgagee of the landlord to ensure that vacant possession of the property is given with a reasonable period"

Or this one suggesting that the tenant should pay any mortgage arrears belonging to the landlord!

"lf the tenant receives notice from a mortgagee of the landlord that the landlord's mortgage account is in arrears then to make payment of the rent to such mortgagee until the arrears are paid and the landlord hereby consents to this arrangement".

Landlording particularly grew in popularity during the pension fund plunders and Lloyds name scandal of the 90s as those of middle-income who thought they were making reasonable provision for their old age had a horrible shock and realised they needed to invest in something they could count on as a return for their old age. With property prices on the up after the last slump, this became bricks and mortar. This trend became fuelled still further by the explosion of TV property programmes suggesting that becoming a property developer/landlord was easy.

And while too many landlords have their down side (ie not leaving enough affordable property in the market for first time buyers), they still serve a function for students or for those who cannot afford to buy in any case, yet have no chance of progressing on their local social housing list (and I was on my own local council social housing list for the best part of 10 years with scant progress, until in the end I had to look to alternative solutions.) The only problem is that even reasonable rent will now swallow up an individual's salary to the point they can ill afford to save for that 20% minimum deposit. And since Margaret Thatcher's 'Right to Buy' scheme for council tenants from the early 80s, vast swathes of social housing have left the housing stock pool never to be replaced, resulting in today's drastic shortage.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Dying for Compassion

Anyone who considers that Assisted Dying can be legislated for with the subsequent legislation faithfully adhered to without dilution or abuse has only to look to the British Abortion Act of 1967 which stipulated:

‘Abortion is legal when a pregnancy is terminated by a doctor, and where two doctors certify that one of the following conditions is met:

a) risk to the woman's health or the health of any existing children of her family (within a 24 week time limit)

b) risk of grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman (no time limit)

c) risk to the life of the pregnant woman (no time limit)

d) substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped (no time limit).’

and observe how abortion has subsequently degenerated into a ‘woman’s right to choose’, despite no great change in the Abortion Act, bar the termination time limit moving back and forth as technology advances and more is discovered about foetal viability at each developmental stage, and despite a smorgasbord of contraceptive options available to the modern female which were largely unavailable to the 1960s female.

A former neighbour of mine worked in an abortion clinic where it was not uncommon to have clients walking in for their 4th or 5th abortion. Some were unusually fecund, it is true, and no contraceptive seemed to work for them. Others were so casual about the subject of contraception, they simply shrugged when they found themselves pregnant again and no amount of education or free contraceptives seemed to change that, even though they were not seemingly educationally-challenged. One particularly memorable case involved a high-earning woman who demanded an abortion because being pregnant would interfere with her skiing holiday which would then cause her emotional distress!

So if it is seemingly impossible to get the populace to observe the rules of the Abortion Act and maintain a high level of respect for human life, why would they pay any more heed to an Assisted Dying Act?

While something undoubtedly had to be legalised regarding abortion owing to the estimated 15% of maternal deaths caused by back street abortionists, Assisted Dying is something that many people are requesting through fear of infirmity in one of the most ageist societies in the world and where many still have no access to full palliative care or anyone capable of allaying those fears. These individuals may or may not end up in the physical state of decline they most dread or in the hands of uncaring carers who malnourish them, but increasing numbers are taking no chances and killing themselves or flying to Switzerland whilst still in good health. Is this to be encouraged?

These are the issues that need to be addressed first before we even think of making Assisted Dying legal. Moreover doctors are not trained to kill but trained to treat. There is something deeply wrong about asking them to turn into assisted killers, not least if they have sworn the Hippocratic oath; ‘First do no harm.’

And there really aren’t enough Harold Shipmans (thank goodness) to spawn such a perverse twist in the medical profession.

In the real world, doctors unofficially up the morphine/equivalent on a regular basis in a dying patient in the full knowledge that this will probably hasten the end, but the compassionate thing to do is ease the patients’ pain to the best of their ability. However they will seldom act against the wishes of the patient or their families (ie keep them alive at any cost), unless keeping them alive at any cost is the patient’s or familys' wish, particularly in a terminal case.

In many instances, it is plain for all to see, not just doctors, that the patient is fading away literally and losing their interest in the world and the dying is a natural process when someone reaches a certain point in a terminal illness, a natural process of letting go made easier by being as pain-free as possible in calm and caring surroundings.

However if we cannot guarantee the calmness and caringness of the surroundings or the total pain management, I believe that’s where a lot of the fear creeps in, whether rational or irrational. This society also seems to have lost its ability to deal with death and dying per se. Hence palliative and geriatric care units are often under-resourced, compared to children’s or heart departments, where there are higher chances of happier outcomes and greater success rates. Cottage hospitals – ideal for the dying – continue to be closed in their droves with their human contents transferred to vast impersonal general hospital blocks where they are more likely to be ignored or overlooked rather than properly nursed and comforted.

Finally there will never be a shortage of greedy relations out there, not to mention insecure elderly people (sometimes in the same family) who fear they are ‘a burden’, whether or not that is a figment of their imagination. Who will protect the vulnerable patient from having assisted dying foisted upon them or being scared or coerced into it as being ‘for the best’, whether or not they are competent or confident enough to express their own true wishes?

More outrageously we might even begin to hear of the loving grandparent suffering no more than the usual minor ailments of ageing who knows that the only way for their grandchild to afford to go to university would be for the grandparent to die and pass on their inheritance early and because Assisted Suicide has become legally and socially acceptable by then, no one bats an eyelid when they request medical assistance. As for the grandchild, they wouldn’t even have to send a thank you letter for this supreme act of sacrifice! You do get parents and grandparents who will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure their offspring never hear the word ‘No’ these days.

So my message to the government is to hold fire on an Assisted Dying Act until all of the above are fully considered and debated, not to mention the moral and religious angles. For now the law is far better left to judge on a case-by-case basis where a loved one has helped another loved one die, and use their discretion as to whether each case is murder, coercion-in-disguise or a genuine act of compassion in accordance with their late loved one’s wishes