Friday, 29 November 2013

Coffee with Lexi

Recently I spotted a former colleague *Lexi in the street. 'I'm so glad I ran into you!' she exclaimed. 'Did you get my Facebook invitation?' I had to admit I seldom checked my Facebook invitations. 'I'm going back to New Zealand for my 30th birthday and I might not be coming back.' she explained. As it turned out, I could not make her leaving do, but luckily she was free for an impromptu coffee there and then.
Lexi still loved Oxford it seemed, but she was stuck in a dead end job and the immigration people were on her back again. In additon the latest boyfriend had just fallen through. On the plus side, the economic situation in her home town had improved in the seven years she had been travelling and she was very much looking forward to her 30th birthday bash. 'My parents have clubbed together to buy me a car and they will both be there for the first time in sixteen years.'
'How come?' I asked.
'Well they split up when I was fourteen, so I normally have two birthday celebrations, one with my mum and one brother and one with my dad and other brothers, the following night. Now they are finally talking to each other and being civil and I am so chuffed. It's almost as good a birthday present as the car.'
'That's great', I said.
'Of course, Dad's remarried now, so they'll never get back together again.. They fought like cat and dog besides, but I still never expected them to split up. Y'know, some people, that's just how they go on. Argy bargying all the time. They always used to pretend it was 'play fighting' in front of us, and I believed them when I was little, but then I realised there was more to it as I got older.'
'How did their split affect you?' I asked
'Oh I was a complete bitch to my mum for at least two years. I blamed her for everything. Even though I knew she wasn't to blame for everything. She was just there. But I had to show her much I was hurting. By hurting her, I guess. I mean the grown-ups are meant to be in charge, right? How could they f*** things up like that? How could they fail me and my brothers?''
'And your dad...?' I asked
'He lived round the corner with his new woman. Which was f***ing hard. I would only meet him in diners and give him a hard time. For years. But credit to him, he never refused to see me for his latest ear bashing and would listen patiently 'til I ran out of steam. And he let me have anything on the menu I wanted, which mum didn't.'
'What about your brothers?'
'Oh they would move to mum's for a while and then back to dad's at various times, then they each finally left home, the three of them being quite a bit older than me. I was my parents' 'bonus baby', the one who stayed with mum all the time.'
'Did your mum ever meet anyone else?'
'Yeah. About a year later. But I soon nixed that for her by making her choose between him and me. She never met another bloke after that. I feel bad about that now. I never thought about how one day I would be all grown up and she might be lonely. Now she's over sixty and I guess she'll be alone for the rest of her life.'
At this point, Lexi grew tearful.
'Now come on Lexi, she's had at least seven years to meet someone while you've been globetrotting. You can't blame yourself for any decisions that your mother has made. She's a grown woman.'
'Yeah. I s'pose so.' she agreed. 'It will be so nice to see the parents together for my party though.'
'Yes, it will. You can have full family photos again at least.'
'Oh I used to cut them up and splice them together anyway and pretend. It was such a relief when my mum finally stopped slagging my dad off and blaming him for everything except the weather. At first I used to join in because it felt good and he was someone to vent at. And it was the b***ard's fault that he had fallen in love with someone at his work and left us, but in the end it started to feel bad, as if me and my mum were slagging part of me off too, and I had to ask her to stop, especially when she said things like; 'I wish I'd never laid eyes on the bugger!'
'Where would that have left you and your brothers????'
'Exactly. She once let slip it was hard to look at me sometimes because I reminded her of him with the same eyes and mouth and how I looked much more like him than her. But she was in a very bad mood. I remember she'd had a patient die unexpectedly on her watch that morning.'
'Is all of this why you are so interested in self-esteem classes and motivational workshops?' I asked, remembering our last meeting where she was just about to drive off to a weekend in Bristol to unlock her true potential..
'Probably' she replied. 'I hadn't really thought about it, but a divorce definitely rocks your world and brings up some core identity issues and a person can spend years sorting their head out. The other thing is there's no one to talk to when you're a kid. Adults, I mean. No one wants to get involved and wind up piggy in the middle dodging the bullets between your folks. And  they're all terrified of saying the wrong thing so clam up or change the subject, just when a kid needs someone to talk to and help them make sense of things the most. You only have other kids to talk to who've been through the same. It's like some secret club you never asked to belong to. Even my nana would quickly change the subject when I tried to tell her how I was feeling or what was happening at home. Baking cupcakes was her answer to everything. They were yummy cupcakes.'
'What about your parents?'
'They were too wrapped up in their own problems and slogging it out in the courts with their divorce for ages. My mum also had to work extra shifts as a nurse to make the mortgage payments until she got promoted. All she wanted to do was sleep when she got home. Helping me with my homework or listening to me were not high on her list. In fact it was often down to me to do the shopping, do the housework and put dinner on the table for her. I guess I wasn't really able to be a kid any more once they split so I ended up with a bee in my bonnet about that too.'
'You seem in a good place now.'
'I am.' Lexi smiled. 'I mean sure it was sad about Mikey and me, but I bounce back far quicker from these kind of things than I used to. If someone's not quite right for me,  I figure that must be because someone even better is waiting in the wings'
'Do you think you'll ever have kids yourself?'
'Well that's the plan, but only when I've found Mr 100% Right and finished doing some living first.'
'So you're determined not to end up like your parents.'
'Not if I can help it. They were the prototype. I'm the finished product!' She giggles.'Sorry.' she added. 'I didn't mean to go into all this stuff. I don't normally.'
'On the contrary, it's fascinating' I replied. 'You could write a book.'
'I could.' Lexi smiled. Then, with a twinkle in her eye; 'I might!'
I wished Lexi all the best and we parted. Her Facebook page duly delivered photos of a beaming birthday celebration several weeks later, one with Lexi cutting the ribbon on her new car, one with Lexi cutting her car-shaped 30th birthday cake and another showing Lexi with an arm round each proud parent.
Although I didn't see Lexi that often after she left my workplace, Oxford suddenly seems very empty without her. She was a real ball of energy, always on the go and into everything from choirs and country rambles to am-dram, not to mention as many parties as she could fit in. Out to get the most out of  every minute of her 'British experience'. I also miss her refreshing Kiwi bluntness and how she would talk about anything and have an opinion on everything, yet display surprising largesse when anyone had an opposing view.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Little House on the Prairie revisited

This week I have been overdosing on True Entertainment (Channel 61's) back-to-back episodes of Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons as I battle the dreaded lurgy. I have thoroughly enjoyed this trip down memory lane as I have not seen either series since I was little. And for all the perceived mawkishness, both series dole out some tough love and some surprisingly gritty storylines crop up in Little House on the Prairie. Both series were hits around the world, especially Little House. People internationally it seemed, could not get enough of the portrayal of a happy functional family who stuck together through thick and thin, not least one assumes, if they did not have one of their own. Perhaps this had always been part of the appeal for me too I mused, since my own childhood home situation was far from happy. Both series were embarked on with trepidation after the mores of the 60s, but the TV companies had underestimated the public appetite for a return to the values and clear black and white morality of earlier ages, before the nuclear family began to be nuked and life became so ridiculously complicated.

Since the demise of these series in the early 80s, TV has largely returned to its assumption that only the salacious or an endless misery fest will keep up us glued to our screens. Not so for this viewer who yearns for more intelligence,  more imaginative use of language and better stories on screen.

By sharp contrast, the elongated commercial breaks on Channel 61 alternate between ever more gambling advertisements and ever more loan company advertisements touting loans for a mere zillion percent, with yet a third breed exhorting you to sue everyone for everything that's ever gone wrong in your life on a no win, no fee basis! - the complete opposite of the family values portrayed by the series they are screening! Is this sheer ignorance of their viewing public on the part of a new broadcasting kid on the block, or a cynical attempt to tempt those who wouldn't normally be interested in such dodgy money raising attempts to succumb?

Which led me to wonder how many people are taking part in online gambling to win enough to pay their bills, then getting into even deeper debt, necessitating yet another loan? Do they then fake an accident to sue for compensation? How does it work? In Victorian times people were sent to debtor's prisons for being in debt. Now debt has been rebranded 'credit' and individuals can only build up a 'credit record' by incurring and managing a sizeable amount of debt! Unless they fail, in which case they can now STILL obtain a credit card with a bad credit rating, if they're prepared to overlook the mere detail of a zillion percent interest.
What a crazy world of deferred consequences dressed up as advantages. And what an alarming thing it says about our country if our greatest home-grown products are now gambling, debt and sue-age.  Worse still, it's a bubble that's bound to burst when everyone is declared bankrupt who embarks down that slippery path to ruin.

Economically, we are meant to be in recovery now, yet at the weekend I find that Brighton has CLOSED its tourist information office, directing all the city's millions of visitors to a website address, and now London Transport has declared it is closing all manned Underground ticket offices within two years. Human beings are disappearing fast, but where to, and how is this helping the economy when more and more companies are seeking to reduce staff, even if they can well afford to continue providing human services (London Transport is not known for being broke).

How do people who've lost their jobs or those who are so cash-strapped with bills, they have no disposable income left to spend on non-essentials or in the High Street, support the economy and its recovery? In the same week I read that one-in-five families now cannot afford to pay all their bills, a rise of 800,000 from this time last year, yet the government is still refusing to do anything to cap exorbitant rents, energy bills, rail fare rises and petrol prices.

What would Charles Ingalls do? Perhaps Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons can teach us how to be poor and build our own houses out of planks as well as how to have happy families.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Jill Phipps - my old friend

If I can never claim specialness for any other reason, I claim specialness because I knew Jill. Accidental martyr, Animal Rights suffragette, onetime proposed new addition to the canon of Saints. One who provoked extreme love and devotion on the one hand and extreme public controversy on the other (following her 1995 death crushed under the wheels of a lorry she was trying to dissuade from shipping live veal calves to Coventry airport for export). It has taken me far too long to write about my old friend. She of the girl-next-door looks with added luminescence. Ordinary, yet extraordinary. Conventional, yet alternative. I knew and loved Jill's mother Nancy too and her shy but equally passionate younger sister Lesley.

There was such a warmth about the Phipps family and how they welcomed every stray, whether it be animal or human, into their bosom and made them feel special. They had nothing but gave everything with a generosity of spirit seldom seen. I was not a stray as such, more a lost soul who sought to appease her conscience by doing something to help the animal kingdom, aside from being a vegetarian. To this end I joined Coventry Animal Alliance run by Nancy and helped man their stall each week handing out literature and collecting money towards animal rescue activities. Jill would often join us, with her cheeky smile and ready banter, sometimes with her lovely little boy Luke in tow. During the lulls in between customers we would discuss literature and lend each other novels. Jill was a voracious reader of both literature and newspapers and was always well-informed. She also loved cooking and I remember her giggling that she had made a veggie shepherd's pie so scrummy that she'd had to get up in the night and help herself to another portion! At our regular meetings Jill was often to be seen in the corner playing with the pet rat nestling in her dreadlocks. Her mother Nancy would regularly sigh; 'I don't know why you had to do that to your beautiful hair!'  Jill would grin good-naturedly. She hadn't washed her hair for more than five years either, but the 'self-cleaning' theory seemed to work for her and those locks not in dread were always radiant and glossy. Pale blue drainpipe jeans and a green oversized army surplus jacket typically encased what hinted at a model-girl figure.I felt awkwardly square by comparison with my conventional haircut, conventional clothes, day job in a card shop, and worst of all, extreme cowardice. I was in awe at the courage of Jill and her family in engaging so fearlessly in the cause of combating animal abuse, though I did take in a stray cat which Jill rescued and pressed upon me and Moggins the Mog and I became inseparable.

However getting arrested in a failing Birmingham fur shop (where the owner had pre-empted our visit by squidging eggs in the pockets of several fur coats so he could get us charged for criminal damage) was not my idea of fun on a Saturday. Nor were the harrowing and frankly terrifying hunt sabs through the Warwickshire countryside on a Sunday following a nailbiting drive in Jill's rusty old Renault, a wheel of which looked about to rust off its axle, where I tried to restrict my activities to the liberal spraying of Citronella to confuse the hounds, but was aware of a constant need to pee in my quaking terror (and the brutality of huntsmen is not to be underestimated when they spot anyone trying to spoil their fun - a couple of hunt saboteurs have indeed died as a result of such retribution). However I forced myself to do these things and when Coventry Airport started a live export trade of baby veal calves to Amsterdam, I was there at weekends when the day job permitted. However to my shame all I could do was burst into tears when the large Scanias rumbled along to turn into the high security gate full of scared and lowing baby calves. Jill and her comrades would stand in front of them until the Police dragged them away, but somehow my legs would turn to lead and root me to the spot, waving my Ban Live Exports placard futilely.

I was on a course in Manchester for my new job working in a bank when I heard the news on my hotel room TV. Our beautiful Jill had been crushed to death by a lorry driver who claimed not to have seen her. Her weeping mother Nancy was interviewed. I was in bits and struggled to absorb any information on my second training day.From that moment on, Jill's death became a media circus with every newspaper from the Coventry Evening Telegraph onwards writing endless articles about Jill, her family and animal rights. I bought them all. Some were quick to condemn a young mother for taking part in direct protest, but actually Jill had spent years following the birth of her young son Luke, focussing on more passive means of protest for his sake, and nothing was more important to her than Luke. It was only because the Coventry live exports were happening on her own doorstep that she became more involved. Jonathan Miller wrote a particularly vile article in which he pretty well accused Jill of throwing herself in front of the lorry deliberately for her own 'vainglorious' purposes. But even if there were the slightest grain of truth in this absolute lover of life (and her family) deciding to sacrifice her life for animal rights, such was Jill's humbleness, there is no way she could have anticipated how her death would have gripped the public imagination as it did, therefore no incentive to be 'vainglorious'. In fact for months afterwards we all kept looking at each other and saying how astonished she would have been.

Later at the inquest two policemen who tried to insist that Jill had deliberately thrown herself in front of the lorry were disproved in their assertions by CCTV footage showing otherwise. Despite the assistance of Michael Mansfield QC though, a verdict of 'accidental death' was eventually returned.

There then followed the battle of Coventry Cathedral. Such was the public outpouring of shock and sympathy at Jill's death, it quickly became obvious that her local parish church in Hillfields was woefully inadequate to contain the number of mourners who wished to attend. Canon Paul Oestreicher visited the Phipps to offer Coventry Cathedral for the service, and was roundly slated for his Christianity by the local Tory MP (ironically named John Butcher) in particular, who felt that a single mother from a council estate did not merit such an honour. The good Canon, supported by other high-ranking clergy, refused to be cowed, and the service went ahead. Some of the more thoughtful media opined that actually it was Christianity which had turned its back on animal welfare and buried its head in the sand on animal issues, having been at the forefront of Victorian reforms such as the foundation of the RSPCA, and frankly, the least it could do to make some small reparation would be to pay tribute to a young woman who was in effect, doing their Christian works for them, even if she never declared herself a practicing Christian. Ironically Jill had also carried out a number of peaceful all-night vigils for animals outside that very cathedral, for some of which I and others had joined her. Personally I agree with the latter opinion and also Harry Enfield's lovely article that he was happy that nought.point whatever percent of his taxes had gone in supporting an unemployed young woman who devoted her life to raising awareness of animal abuse and then actually doing something about it on his behalf. It was those who just sat on their backsides on benefits that he had a problem with.

The cathedral funeral on Valentine's Day 1995 was intensely moving and did not turn into the 'political protest' that local politicians tried to use as an excuse to ban it, but a beautiful and completely apt farewell to a soul who shone a great deal brighter than her detractors, and to whose utter goodness I could only aspire. Film star Brigitte Bardot and MP Alan Clark attended and Ms Bardot made a moving speech in which she promised 'to make things happen for Jill'

My late friend was now officially public property, but I didn't mind. Humble as Jill was, she too would have wanted something good to come of her death, albeit unintended on her part.

Protests naturally stepped up a few gears as a result of Jills' death, and veal calf exports from Coventry Airport ended months later, when the aviation firm belonging to the pilot responsible for the veal flights, Christopher Barrett-Jolly, went bankrupt following accusations of running guns from Slovakia to Sudan in breach of EU rules. In 2002 Mr Barrett-Jolley was charged with smuggling 271 kg of cocaine from Jamaica into Southend airport and is now serving a 20 year prison sentence. The continuing level of protest was such that several local councils and a harbour board banned live exports from their localities. All live exports of calves later stopped due to fears of BSE infection. In 2006 this ban was lifted, but Coventry Airport pledged that it would refuse requests to fly veal calves and has so far honoured this. So the battle against live exports goes on, but not at Coventry airport. However for those lacking the stomach to protest, they can at least feed their stomach locally-sourced, free-range organic meat, if not become a vegetarian. No demand, no supply. Besides which it is hardly environmentally friendly, let alone humane, to fly either live animals or dead ones around the world.

*Note: A nameless individual did the sums during the Coventry live export protests and found it could not possibly be economically viable for Mr Barrett-Jolley to bear airport, plane, crew and fuel costs to fly baby calves to Amsterdam alone, so was his live export business Phoenix Aviation merely a front for earlier drug smuggling and gun running activities, in view of his later convictions? In which case the Police operation to enable him to fly at all costs in the face of protest (and a plane operated by him also crashed with the deaths of 5 crew during his live exports from Coventry Airport, so Jill was not the only victim of Phoenix Aviation), would have made the Police an accessory to his criminal activities! We may never know. And the debate about whether taxpayer-funded Police should ever act as a private security force to controversial businesses liable to attract public protest (or if they do, for how long), goes on. Certainly the good people of Coventry paid a high price for its live exports phase. In more ways than one.