Monday 31 October 2016

Bless Us Everyone | Tales of Halloween Past, Present and Future

A story for Halloween written with apologies (and thanks for the quotes in italics) to Charles Dickens.


Last night I had the strangest dream.

It was All Hallows Eve so perhaps not surprisingly there were ghosts involved. Usually I sleep undisturbed so can only put the dreaming down to the especially tasty piece of rich Stilton that accompanied my port following my lunchtime steak pudding and treacle tart and custard. The Members Dining Room at the House does a great range of nosh and I dine there frequently. I was back in my seat just in time to vote against the latest suggested hike in disability benefits. Well the incentives to work really do need to be clear don't you think?

So anyway, I'm asleep - not just in reality but in the dream itself  - and I'm woken by a large, but somewhat translucent, bloke, standing at the foot of the bed and introducing himself as the ghost of Halloween past. I know, I know, unbelievable tosh but bear with me it's a strangely entertaining tale.

The ghost's aim, so he said, was to remind me of Halloween back in the day. I'd forgotten what fun my twin brother and I had curled up with mum under the bed sheets telling scary stories and making spooky shapes on the wall with our torches. Dad was usually at work in the pub, following his day job at the docks. The games stopped when we moved up from primary; me to the grammar and Paul to the secondary modern. Things were never the same between us after that. He still lives close to mum, who's a widow following dad's early death, which is good because I'm too busy to get down much. I offer to help financially but they both shun my generousity. Stupid, really stupid. After all I've got enough. I claim more in expenses than Paul earns in a year. There's a rumour going round that there are going to be some restrictions on what we request in future. Bah, humbug, I say. We work hard enough, surely nobody could begrudge us.

The next thing I know I'm being woken from another deep slumber by a second apparition, this time promising me an insight into the most significant events in the All Saints' Eve of the moment. It's another large one, this time with a huge orange head that looks rather like a hairy pumpkin. He seems to have come with a warning and repeats over and over: 'It doesn't matter what you do or who you do it to just be careful which email server you use'. Very odd. More than ever I'm convinced now that this experience must be diet related; may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.

The final visitor - this time  a vampire type, terrifying and yet seductive - arrives some time later. I'm getting fed up now as I've another full day tomorrow including a couple of crucial business meetings and a supper date in the city. The focus of this vision is Halloweens to come and before I know it we are in the centre of my constituency. We pass the local NHS hospital although it appears derelict with boarded up windows and doors. The high street is somewhat changed too with every other property either a food or clothes bank. Spoils the look of the place rather and surely not necessary for if they want to die, then they had  better do it and decrease the surplus population. 

I'm left alone for the remainder of the night thank goodness, and my rest is peaceful. On waking I'm refreshed for all is well with my world. Bless us everyone. 


Sunday 30 October 2016

The Power of Stories | Some Personal Feelings on I, Daniel Blake

Keith Oatley (2010: unpaginated  'Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact' New English Review) reminds us that in the preface of Oliver Twist (first published as a serial 1837-39) Charles Dickens wrote IT IS TRUE. In his tale of thugs, street gangs, prostitutes, cruel government officials, a few kind people and orphaned Oliver, Dickens set out to highlight the ‘unacceptably horrifying images of contemporary life'. Dickens’ writings did not eradicate poverty or cruelty, but he had influence, and some people reading his work for 'entertainment' might not have been aware of such experiences without Oliver Twist and similar.  

Recently in an interview about his film I, Daniel Blake, the latest in a large number of politically influenced works, director Ken Loach said 'If you're not angry what kind of person are you?'

Whilst in London last week I saw I Daniel Blake. I went prepared and shared my stash of tissues with the 60 something woman sitting next to me. The young man on my other side had brought his own. From the many reviews and responses I have read it is clear, despite the occasional denial or critique, that not only is this film having a huge impact on most of those who see it but it also very obviously speaks to the experience of far too many individuals and families living in poverty and dealing with a complex, harsh, and often nonsensical benefit system.  

My trip to London last week included participation in a conference. The Brighter Futures Symposium: enhancing opportunities for all in higher education was the fourth in a series of day conferences aimed to 'stimulate discussion, critical thinking and knowledge between the academy, policy and practice' with a specific focus on the experience of Black and ethnic minority students and staff. In my paper - The Power of Stories: using auto/biographical and creative approaches to explore and highlight the experiences of BME students and staff in HE - I argued (amongst other things) for the need to tell research and scholarly stories in different sorts of creative, accessible ways, not least in order to reach a broader audience than the traditionally academic. Loach could have directed a documentary. He has done in the past. If you prefer this genre visit Peter Stefanovic's Facebook page for real world examples of the social and political concerns highlighted in I, Daniel Blake and other similarly important issues. Based on extensive research the film (just like Oliver Twist) was a wonderful example of how the stories of real world experiences can also be powerfully told through film (and literature). 

I did feel angry when I left the cinema. I also felt ashamed; ashamed to live in a society where increasing numbers of people live their lives in such hardship, ashamed that some still deny that this is happening. I also felt humbled.There is great warmth in the film and many examples of loving care for others; determination and resilience; strength of character; humour.

Please go and see I, Daniel Blake. Don't forget your hankies.

Friday 14 October 2016

Prohibition 2020 | A Horror Story of the Future

Unless we are very careful.

In the summer of 2020 a law was passed which made the cooking and eating of jam illegal. Offences were punishable with large fines. Some perpetrators were even incarcerated in prisons more overcrowded than ever before because of both the rise in hate crime and the vigilant policing of anyone thought to be other from the tabloid media's definition of normal and acceptable. The popular Great British Bake Off (GBBO) had moved from the BBC to Channel 4 a couple of years previously with careful re-branding highlighting developing feelings about the status of the nation. Countrywide Rolling, Acidifying and Proving (CRAP) didn't survive for long though as the Victoria sponges and bite sized tarts just weren't the same without a generous dollop of strawberry or damson. For a while there was some bemoaning the loss of the weekly references to soggy bottoms and well roasted nuts but sorrow for a programme loved for its double entendres, as much as its baking tips, was quickly forgotten as there became much more important things to worry about. Strictly Come Dancing - another family favourite - survived, but only because it became easier for a politician to secure a credible mandate following a passable Paso Doble than through doorstep canvassing or coherent policy pronouncements.

Things had been going downhill since spring 2019 when a few folk inexplicably still felt like victoriously and joyfully proclaiming: 'we have got our country back'. Just who  'had' the country before had never been clear. In fact the rot had begun to show even earlier with the crisis in the NHS evident following cut after cut of cradle-to-grave services and a lack of dentists, nurses, paramedics and theatre staff resulting in lengthening waiting lists for the little that was still free for all. And it could only get worse given the government's inaccurate predicted rise in 'home grown' medics (required to carry their passports, in addition to their stethoscopes, to prove it) to replace those who after years of healing Britain's sick and ailing had been rudely dismissed. There were similar staff shortages in the tourist and catering industries and in farming. In one way this was fortuitous as people of all ages needed to work extra hours in extra jobs to ensure they had more than a zero hour working week.

The constant smearing of the opposition who challenged the hollow claims of those who shouted such things as - 'we can help the poor', 'we are NOT the nasty party', 'we know what we are doing' - only resulted in entrenching racism, sexism and other such bigoted and discriminatory views. The time wasted challenging the attacks and the prejudice gave those in power the space to become even more powerful. The result was longer food bank queues, greater levels of homelessness, benefit cuts and increasingly bizarre taxes which led to some elderly people having to leave the homes in which they had lived at least half a lifetime. Unsurprisingly levels of mental ill-health soared, not least amongst children whose lives lacked creative play and artistic opportunity as their timetables were packed full of tests and other measures for selection. Fewer and fewer benefited from further and higher education the costs of which were out of the reach of most. Just as well perhaps as academics, like other public sector workers, spent more time on justifying their national identity and their roles than in doing their jobs.

For the richest 1% life hadn't changed that much. The denial of the minority to accept the reality of life for the rest was evident in their 'let them eat scones' response to reports of Breadline Britain, proclaimed with no sense of irony.

Alongside all of this the ban on jam making and tasting was one example of the establishment's fear of the simple pleasures in life. First such experiences were ridiculed, soon they were outlawed. Yet, where there are rules there is resistance.  And so, over time, in all communities across the now sad and isolated small island, more and more people came together to chop and to boil fruit, to bottle produce and to savour the fruity creations. No one was left out if they didn't wish to be with sugar full and free varieties in all the glorious flavours imaginable. In this way hope was once again nurtured and shared.