Sunday 31 December 2017

#IntellectualPanto? ‘Oh No It Isn’t’ | Jake and the Magic Money Tree

The few days between Christmas and New Year – or Crimbo Limbo as it’s now (apparently) known – are traditionally famous (at least for those privileged enough with the resources) for the eating of left-overs and a possible family trip to see a pantomime. With this in mind I decided to write my own panto story. Jake and the Magic Money Tree is the result (complete with references and links to other, I think, relevant ‘fictional’ pieces that I’ve written over the last few months). As her tweet on the 27th December suggestions the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries has some concerns about the falling intellectual standards of this particular genre. Thus:
      Nadine Dorries @NadineDorries
Left wing snowflakes are killing comedy, tearing down historic statues, removing books from universities, dumbing down panto, removing Christ from Christmas and suppressing free speech. Sadly, it must be true, history does repeat itself. It will be music next.

Twitter responded in its’ usual way and alongside general critique of all of these absurd claims many of those that tweeted in response deployed the obvious panto phrases (I’ve used some in my own story).  #IntellectualPanto was trending all day. Amongst my favourite contributions were:

“Quick Wittington”

“To be, or not to be.” “THAT is the question.” “Oh no it isn’t.” “Oh yes it is!”

“Gender, Class and Sexuality: viewing Cinderella through a post-structural cultural-feminist lens”

“Mother Proust”

So now, with no claims of being intellectual, but hopefully highlighting the pantomime that is Conservative Britain, I present, girls and boys, grown-ups and all the rest, for your end of Limbo Crimbo entertainment (well hopefully) …

Jake and the Magic Money Tree

I know a woman called Jess who lives with her son Jake. Jess is a nurse in a busy city hospital. She works on the gerontology ward most of the time but helps out elsewhere when needed. The days are long but Jess still finds time to tend the garden which, in order to supplement her wages – she hasn’t had a cost of living rise beyond 1% for eight years now – she recently turned over to vegetable growing. Jake, who is 13, helps with the planting and hoeing and generally spends most the money he earns from his paper-round on seeds and fertiliser.

Jess has never before been very interested in politics; having had neither the time nor the inclination. But everything changed in the middle of 2017 when Jake began talking to her about his school project on ‘Democracy’. The prime minister calling a snap general election put a new dimension on the work and furthered their joint interest in all things political. The infamous Question Time Election Special when Mrs May informed a nurse that there was no ‘magic money tree’ to provide the resources to increase her pay and that of other public servants received considerable attention in Jake’s project. Election over Jake and his mum continue with their political education and it soon becomes obvious that such a tree does exist but only to prop up the current government’s time in power. Funnily enough, and appropriately, the Conservative Party’s logo is a tree although later in the year there is some talk of re-branding, in the hope of trying to convince us all that the Conservatives are the ‘worker’s party’. Time for a song, or at least a poem (well it is panto):

Yesterday I bought a ladder,
Today I paint it blue.
Onlookers jostle to crowd around,
For of course they want one too.
‘This ladder is all that you need’, we’re told;
The rhetoric aimed to impress.
‘Step up and embrace opportunity,
The rungs of ambition your route to success’.
Like Jack with his beanstalk,
It’s all in the climb.
Social mobility,
The promise this time.
Yet, ladders can rock and ladders can fall,
They prove dangerous to those underneath.
To ascend safely might mean one goes-it-alone,
That, if the ladder’s not pulled out of reach.
Where’s there’s a ladder,
There’s sometimes a snake.
In this case . . . .

Despite the rhetoric though it’s clear to anyone who cares to look that across The Seven, or So, Ages of Man (and woman) life for most is hard and getting harder.

As the leaves from the trees with no magical properties, other than their natural beauty, fall, Jess and Jake are finding life particularly tough. Jake is having a growth spurt and has needed two lots of new shoes and football boots in three months, the washing machine has broken adding launderette visits to the weekly budget and even their own small kitchen garden has not saved them from a trip or two to the local foodbank. Ministers on the opposition benches challenge the government on their running of the country and although the government are forced to U-turn on many issues their voting down or abstinence from voting on issues such as the reverse of the public sector pay freeze (the Tories laughed when they won that one) and the horror that is Universal Credit means that life gets little better for the majority. It really seems as if the world is divided between The People Who Live In (and benefit from the magic money) Trees and those who do not.

And so it goes on. With Christmas fast approaching Jess is worried not only about being unable to buy Jake even the smallest of presents but also about the lack of money for edible treats. Despite little shift in her wage packet the cost of food and clothing, the rent and the bills continue to rise and just getting by gets harder week on week. Jess knows that life is even more precarious for others. Her friend Sarah and her daughter Poppy are really struggling and many of Jess’ patients, who have contributed to society all of their lives, are now, she believes, neglected by the State. And there are others who have even less

A few days before Christmas and little able to stomach yet another bean and vegetable stew Jess recklessly scrapes the leftovers into the outside bin. She’ll scrimp and scrape a little in order to buy them something a little different tomorrow; maybe some mince for homemade beef burgers to have with chips made from their own King Edwards. 

In bed Jake can hear his mum crying. AGAIN. If only he could do more. Just a few months ago he’d wanted to be a footballer like all his mates but his ambitions have changed now and he’s decided to go to university and then to be a teacher or a doctor or maybe even a politician. He wants to make things better for his mum and for other families like theirs. He gets so angry when he watches the news. This evening there were clips from Prime Minister’s question time which took place earlier today: 50,000 people were left waiting no trolleys in hospital corridors last month”, said Mr Corbyn. And: "A+E departments are bruising at the seams because the government has failed to see people can get a GP appointment when they need one”. And: 2.3 million older people have unmet care needs”. Jake knows all this is true because his mum has told him. There is, she says, literally No Room at the Infirmary Rather than respond seriously and agree to do something about the problem the Prime Minister, as she always seems to do, points and shouts about how well the government is doing (IT’S NOT) and how badly the Labour Party did when it was last in power (BUT THAT WAS MORE THAN SEVEN YEAR’S AGO). Even worse, it seems to Jake, is the way that the politicians behave. They are SO RUDE, to one another. Last Christmas he and his mum watched a pantomime on the telly. He enjoyed it. But whereas the booing and cackling was funny in Jack and the Beanstalk he can’t understand why those who work in the Houses of Commons think the same is OK there. He hasn’t yet heard them say “Oh no it isn’t,” or “He’s behind you”, but he expects to every time he listens.

Eventually Jake sleeps.

When he wakes the next morning this room is darker than usual. He looks out of the window and is shocked to see a fully grown tree, so tall that although he leans out as far as he can all he can see is the trunk going up and up and up. Clambering out of the window and grabbing the tree, which he can only think grew from one of the beans from mum’s stew, Jake begins to climb and climb and climb. Eventually, after what seems like hours, passing through one particularly dense cloud Jake sees leaves just above him. As he gets closer he sees that the leaves are not ordinary ones but rather bank notes of various worth. Now he understands; it’s the magic money tree. He tries to pluck a few notes from the tree. Just a handful would be enough to buy a new washing machine and to get mum the new coat she needs. Jake isn’t greedy. He’s worried it might be stealing but doesn’t have to concern himself for long for however hard he tries Jake is unable to collect any of the leaves. The magic of the tree, and those who own it, are clearly working against him. Eventually he gives up trying to collect the money. Having come this far he keeps climbing.  

Later, much later, having worked his way through the thickly packed filthy lucre, Jake steps onto land. The surroundings are beautiful; the sea is blue, the trees and bushes covered in butterflies. He’s abroad somewhere he correctly guesses. A little way in the distance Jake can see a castle. The bejewelled gates open as he approaches and as he enters the building he can hear the noise of what he assumes is a party. Following the noise he comes to a banquet hall where some of the 1% are enjoying an opulent meal of succulent food and expensive wine.  The government ministers, the Party donors, the bankers and business people are too busy indulging themselves to notice a small boy and Jake walks through the room unseen. In the next room more of the ‘elite’ are tallying their tax-free assets. Looking around all Jake can see is piles and piles of money, shares and precious metals. And, even more strangely, in the corner there is a fat hen surrounded by golden eggs. Edging closer to get a better look Jake disturbs a particularly large pile of coins which clatter to the floor. Hearing the noise a few of the counters turn. They begin to chant:

Flip-fee, poke-oak,
We smell the blood of 99% folk.
Be they young or be they old,
We’ll not share cos it’s our gold.

Having eaten too much food and drunk too much wine they are too full and lazy to be that bothered really and soon turn back to their greedy occupations. Tucking the hen under his arm Jake leaves the room to explore the next. Sick of being constantly poked and ordered to ‘lay’ the chicken happily submits to the journey, no doubt assuming that life with this child can’t be any worse than her current living conditions. Finding nothing but more piles of money and jewels throughout the rest of the splendid accommodation Jake quietly and carefully makes his way out of the castle. Having taken no money, no shares and no gold nor silver his slight feelings of guilt about leaving with the hen are dampened by both the hen’s sorry state – he’s sure that he and mum can take better care of her – and the absolutely, horrifically, gluttonous amount of food, wine and other riches for such a small amount of people.

Once out of the castle Jake runs as fast as he can back to the magic money tree. At first no one follows although Jake can still hear the chanting of those in the castle:

Flip-fee, poke-oak,
We smell the blood of 99% folk.
Be they young or be they old,
We’ll not share cos it’s our gold.

The descent down the tree is much easier and quicker that the climb up. Jake slips and slides his way down whilst all the while protecting the hen from any harm. Near the bottom he sees his mum waiting for him. She is shouting: "Careful Jake, they’re behind you, they’re behind you." Jumping from the final branch Jake picks up an axe he’s never noticed before and begins to chop. Cutting through the trunk like a knife through butter the axe soon does its job and as the tree falls it, and the ministers and millionaires who are clambering through its’ money laden branches, vanish as if they never were.

And the hen? Well she has disappeared as well. For of course it was all a dream.

Go on, I dare you… ‘Oh no it wasn’t,’ I hear you cry.

But sadly, ‘oh yes it was.’

But never mind because Jess has just had a call offering her a couple of extra shifts and later today the owner of the newsagents will ask Jake if he would like to help with the annual stock-take during his school holidays. So, for this, small ‘just managing’ family, Christmas, although still lean, will include a few, unexpected, treats.

Sadly, shockingly, this is not the case for all:

T’was the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the House (of Commons),
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The politicians were home, full of comfort and joy,
The gifts all well wrapped, from gadget to toy.
Their offspring snuggled up and warm in their beds,
With visions of excess upmost in their heads.
Elsewhere there are children less able to dream,
Of presents or turkey and pudding with cream.
Austerity bites for many this year,
Feelings of festivity banished by fear. . . . (for more see )


Saturday 23 December 2017

'T'was the Night Before Christmas' | a version for 2017

T’was the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the House (of Commons), 
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The politicians were home, full of comfort and joy,
The gifts all well wrapped, from gadget to toy.
Their offspring snuggled up and warm in their beds,
With visions of excess upmost in their heads.
Elsewhere there are children less able to dream,
Of presents or turkey and pudding with cream.
Austerity bites for many this year,
Feelings of festivity banished by fear.
Less space or desire to write letters to Claus,
Keeping warm and fed gives these people pause.
Whilst the cosily comfy bemoan the absence of snow,
The homeless and hearth-less hope for winter sun glow.
On the streets next to veterans sleep workers and others,
No security, little safety, no fairy god-mothers.
In hostels, on tube-trains, on sofas, in cars,
Rest some hidden from stats but not from life’s scars.
The lucky watch ‘Finals’ featuring dancing and cooking,
The opulence shameful if only we’re looking.
Whilst children go hungry and foodbanks are cleared,
Salsas of all types are practised, then cheered.
A national disgrace I’m sure you’ll agree,
Even though some see it rather as opp-or-tun-ity.
But charitable needs rising at such a fast rate.
Is surely symbolic of a callous, broken State?
Still, the bongs of Big Ben ringing out for the holiday,
Show our strength to the world lest admiration should slip away.
Add to this a blue passport, another icon of democracy,
Sorry. NO. I’m NOT sorry. It’s pure idiocracy.
Thank your god, or your neighbour, for those that do care,
Whose work – paid or unpaid – may save some from despair.
Volunteers who give time, others whatever they can,
Public servants on duty whether woman or man.
When we are lonely, or poorly, or helpless, or scared,
These people ensure that our burden is shared.
And at Christmas when good humour is expected of all,
There are many who need support or else they might fall.
In this, as with other things, the media can aid, 
But often the alternative’s the result I’m afraid. 
The constant good cheer plus the smulchy productions,
Result in list upon list of inappropriate instructions.
Add to this royal weddings, Brexit boastings and more,
And the ‘news’ becomes very little more than a bore.
The alternative outlets help to challenge the worst,
With suggestions the mainstream’s bubble has burst.
There’s still more to do and there’s trolls all about,
Both sides of the pond users misuse and flout.
Thus, to add to material struggles galore,
There’s hate, there’s abuse, there’s violence and more (... and not only online).
So tonight whilst we dream of Santa’s attention,
Spare a thought for the topics that need more than a mention.
A plethora of concerns, most not touched upon here,
We all must get active; make twenty-eighteen the year.
A calling to arms then, to fight the good fight,
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Saturday 2 December 2017

Misbehaviour (in Parliament), Money, Media | three stories for November 2017

As part of a November Short Story writing challenge - 30 short stories in 30 days - I have written a number of political stories. I have already posted some on this blog. See the following links if you would like to read them. Topics cover the NHS, homelessness, austerity in general and more:

Here are another three.

The first I wrote following the behaviour of some members of the government whilst the Leader of the Opposition was replying to Hammond's November 2017 Budget. 


What surprises me the most is how really, really cold, absolutely freezing in fact, it is down here. Everyone knows that it’s supposed to be hot. Unbearably hot.

I’m not a fool and was well aware of the likelihood that this would be my final destination. I packed appropriately and, being a cold blooded being, I was actually looking forward to feeling comfortably warm for a change. But now I find that in fact what I need, and haven’t got, is a thick winter coat and a scarf.

Looking around me it’s clear there are more surprises each of which make me shudder. Without going into detail it’s seems that being in hell is indeed an individual experience. Tailored to the hates and fears of each individual inhabitant it’s Room 101 on a larger scale.

I see others I know for bad (or maybe not so bad depending on your perspective) behaviour grows and festers and it’s rare for infected apples to remain in the singular. Everyone I see is experiencing their own specific underworld which I can observe but not participate in should it result in a more favourable experience for me. There are overlaps of course. I don’t regret my life. It was fun whilst it lasted but already I can tell that the eternal reflection I have just begun will become wearisome soon enough. That and the braying.

I spent my political life as a brayer. After all shouting down the opposition is what it’s all about - for who cares that austerity continues to more negatively impact on the lives of those already most disadvantaged; who cares if one’s party has failed every debt and deficit target it has set itself; who cares that there are four million people on the NHS waiting list and that overworked healthcare professionals are preparing themselves for more crisis to come; who cares that real wages are lower now than they were in 2010; who cares about no commitment to sprinklers in high rise tower blocks; who cares …  - as long as one slings as many insults as possible at those across the dispatch box that’s all that matters.

Yet, maybe not.

For now it seems I’m stuck, not in a pleasantly warm inferno, but rather in a fridge like pit surrounded by brayers to which I am unable to respond. My head hurts already. But, what the hell, if you’ll pardon the pun, for at least I’ve got a whole heap of money that I squirrelled away in a paradise tax haven. Ohh….

The prompt for the second story was (amongst other things) an advert in the Evening Standard earlier this week asking for donations to ensure that children in London don't go hungry see


The world is divided it seems between those who live in trees and those who do not. 

Hidden in the middle of a forest in a place that most of us don’t know about there are some magical trees. The trees are strong and beautiful. Their roots are firm and well nourished. Their trunks solid and eminently huggable. The branches of the trees are full of golden leaves that never fall and fruit that never goes mouldy. Rather the leaves and the crop grows and multiplies so that the value of the trees, and the comfort they provide, increases day on day. Only a few very powerful, and already rich, people live in the trees and thus it is only a small minority that have access to the magical benefits that the golden leaves and fruit provide. This ensures that these individuals are able to keep their power and that their lives are chock-a-block full of the things that they are able to exchange the leaves and the fruit for. Sadly though the magic does not always influence the tree people’s behaviour for the good and so whilst many of them do everything they can to ensure that they have more leaves and fruit than any one person can possible need they tend not to think much about those who have very little.

Away from the forest, in the rest of the world, life is very different. Increasing numbers of those who do not live in the forest of magical trees are struggling to survive. More and more of them are having to decide whether to spend what little they have on food or on heating, on accommodation costs or on clothes. This is true (although some of the tree people do everything they can to deny it) of many who are working, including nurses and police-officers as well as those who have jobs in shops and offices and elsewhere.  Sometimes the problem gets so bad that the people who do not live in trees have to miss meals or rely on the help of others in order to feed themselves and their children. Some even lose their homes and end up living in cramped and unsafe buildings or have to make their home on the streets.

So when the people who live in trees tell the people who don’t that they need to manage their money better; prioritise their spending; and look after their pennies so that the pounds will look after themselves the people who don’t live in trees despair. For if all your money goes on the rent and on the bills and how can you possibly nurture pennies in the hope of discovering the self-sufficiency and self-care that pounds are supposedly capable of?  

The solution of course is obvious. The people who live in trees merely need to tell everyone else where the forest is so that the trees can be shaken for the good of all, so that the magic can be shared. Sadly this seems to be too complicated a concept for the people who live in trees who instead spend their time trying to persuade the non-tree dwellers who have a bit more than others to give to those who have less.

This means that the divide between those who live in trees and those who do not is getting bigger, and bigger and bigger the country and the world over. It can’t go on.

The need for a critical view on the mainstream media is more and more obvious. This was in my mind when I wrote this third story. 


Mr Flopsie is content with his lot. He lives a mostly comfortable and largely stress-free life in the bottom of The Grand Magifico’s top hat. Along with his doe Barbara – funny name for a rabbit but she likes it well enough – and their thirty-eight children Mr Flopsie frolics all the live long day in the green fields and burrows concealed within the silk topper. With few predators to bother him and enough grass, hay, fruit, vegetables (he especially likes spring cabbage) and fresh water, which an unseen hand regularly delivers, life, he believes, is good enough.

And what of the price for this, if not luxurious, at least tolerable, incarceration? Once a day, twice on Wednesday’s and Saturday’s, with a reprieve on Sunday, Mr Flopise is pulled from the hat by his ears to a chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ and loud applause from an audience of girls and boys, and their parents and friends, in various theatres across the UK. Despite some who might argue otherwise our hero is indeed a sentient creature but The Grand Magifico is a fairly gentle jailor and being the subject of almost daily manhandling and group voyeurism seems to Mr Flopise a fair enough price to pay for the continued wellbeing of himself and his family.

At the end of each show and when left alone Mr Flopsie ventures out of the hat on his own accord to explore the wider surroundings. More often than not this is The Grand Magifico’s dressing room, now and then the theatre stalls (a treat which generally results in strange but interesting additions to his diet). These trips are important as they enable the fluffy rodent to further his education. As a travelling show-person the magician is provided with different reading material wherever he goes depending on the political inclinations of the theatre owners, cleaners and handy-people. This makes for a confusing learning experience for Mr Flopsie for no sooner has he has read and digested (often literally) a newspaper and made his mind up about the important issues of the day he will have his beliefs and opinions challenged by a different publication. Despite wanting to discuss the knowledge he acquires with Barbara and the kits Mr Flopsie soon realises that the often contradictory messages he is reading not only leave him confused but also make him seem rather stupid if he repeats these all as fact.The most distressing competing stories are those that focus on people who in some ways are different to the expected norm and / or disadvantaged in some way or another. In a number of the papers he reads these individuals are blamed for, it seems to the increasingly confused rabbit, all the problems in society, whereas in others their lifestyles and problems are treated with more respect and empathy.

Slowly, slowly Mr Flopsie begins to work out that rather than believing any story at face value he needs to collect as much information from as many sources as possible before he comes to a conclusion. He learns that just because a publication is popular doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the most trustworthy and the day that someone leaves the computer on before going home opens his eyes to alternative sources of information. The development of Mr Flopsie’s critical thinking skills, and his ability to, at least some of the time, identify fake news, has additional and broader impacts. As he starts to understand the significance of media bias and political spin Mr Flopise also begins to re-evaluate his own life choices and chances. Chewing on his night-time carrot late one Friday night he wonders if the life he has been persuaded is all that a rabbit of his standing and status can expect and hope for is indeed the limit of his opportunities.

A little late for the matinee performance the following day The (actually not so) Great Magifico forgets to check his box of tricks before going on stage. He is left then with a fair amount of egg on his face when he reaches deep into his top hat only to extract with a flourish a rather wilted cabbage. 

Tuesday 21 November 2017

The Seven, Or So, Ages of Man | a 'story'

I am more than 2/3rds of the way through a November writing challenge: write a short story every day of the month. I few of my pieces have an overtly political focus including this one I wrote yesterday. It's about austerity and other injustices. 

The Seven, Or So, Ages of Man

On the morning Robert (Bobby) Adam Wilkes is born the mid-Manchester hospital where he is delivered is feeling the strain. With winter on the way there has already been a rise in admissions, with the growth in need likely to increase even further in the coming weeks.  In addition, as it’s early on Saturday morning, the hospital has not yet recovered from the Friday night rush. To add even more to the pressure – with more and more healthcare professionals leaving the NHS plus a serious problem in recruitment, including of midwives – the maternity unit (in line with other departments across the hospital) is understaffed.  Despite all of this the staff pass none of the strain they are feeling onto Bobby’s parents and by breakfast time the proud new dad is ringing round to let family and friends know that ‘mother and baby are doing well.’

Robbie Jones can’t think of anything worse to do on a Saturday than visit a new baby in hospital. But mum has promised that they can get a taxi to the pitch after they have coochy-cooed (why do adults do that?) his new cousin who is named after great grandpa just like him. So he shouldn’t be late for the match. Well he hopes not. Everyone thought that the school league wouldn’t happen this year but the dads and mums from schools across the city all chipped in to buy kit and pay for the hire of the coaches needed to travel to away-matches. Robbie saw his mum give some money to Ms Kelly the other day. He thinks that was for art stuff. He doesn’t like art much but his brother does.

The hospital pick up is Robeel Baqri’s last fare before he can get some much needed sleep. The Friday overnight shift is a good one because he has only one lecture that day and can get a bit of kip beforehand. He has an essay to write this weekend and so could have done with not working but he doesn’t want to end his degree with any more debt than what he will owe for his student fees. He wasn’t on the rota the night of the attack at Manchester Arena but like most of his cabbie colleagues he got in his car and ferried young concert goers and others around the city and beyond for several hours. His weariness, coupled with the sorrow he felt, nearly reduced him to tears, when on his way home a group of lads, not much younger than him, shouted: ‘Why don’t you go back where you come from? We don’t want you here.’ Right then Robeel would have given anything to be ‘back home’ in Bradford giving his little sister a cuddle. Walking on with his head down he flinched when an older man touched his shoulder. ‘Sorry mate, sorry, just wanted to say, take no notice of that lot. Ignorant, absolutely ignorant.’

Running a little late after stopping for a chat with his mate Robeel, who he met the morning after May’s horrific terror attack, Robert John Phillips (R. J. for as long as he can remember) hurries into school to change into his shirt and boots. He loves his primary school teaching job, including all the extra-curricular activities and is enjoying all the preparation for the Winter Festival as much as the Kidz League refereeing.  He knows he is one of the lucky ones, having secured the position before graduation. R. J. is anxious for the future though, for even on his, and his police-officer partner’s, comparatively good wages, he cannot imagine how they will ever save enough for a down-payment on a home of their own.  Not surprising the seven year public sector pay gap and its impact is a regular, if not popular, topic of conversation in the staffroom.

After cheering on the twins at their Saturday morning match Rob Grannum drops them home and travels straight on to work. His two jobs – fulltime on the building site and three evenings a week in a local pub – plus the hours that Louise does at the supermarket means that this year they will be able to afford a few Christmas presents for Jenny and Paul. This is a huge relief after last year when his zero hours contract for a rival construction company was often close to just that: zero hours. Counting his blessings Rob thinks back to the conversation he had last night with the Scottish guy he’d not seen in the pub before. Life is so shit for so many people right now.
Rabbie Campbell is worried. Yesterday was his last day at the factory and he has very little left in the bank. He’s heard others say that everyone is only ever one pay-check away from homelessness but naively never thought it could happen to him. Good at his job he’d risen to floor manager but this could not protect him from the ‘Brexit effect’ already impacting on some industries. He went online last night to put in his application for Universal Credit and was shocked to discover it can take up to six weeks for first payment to be received. With this in mind he probably shouldn’t have gone to the pub but the drink dulled his fears for a little while and he’s slept quite a bit of one day away. Opening his post Rabbie comes across a flyer from one of the city’s homeless shelters asking for a donation, the irony of which is not lost on him.

Feeling the cold just a little Bob Bolitho puts his collection tin down in order to rub his hands together. Having recently retired he is keen to do his bit for society. If he’s honest he’s not sure how he feels about charity donating. Given that the UK has the 5th or 6th – the politicians can’t seem to make their minds up - richest economy in the world shouldn’t the state be providing for those in need? His friends know not to get him started on this topic nor the issue of tax avoidance and evasion.  But having paid his dues throughout his working life Bob feels justified in his anger at this, and the threatened closure of his local library, and the reported rise in people both attempting and completing suicide, and the rising number of people living on the streets, and so on and more etc. etc., blah di blah di bloody blah. This is why he’s doing what he’s doing today. It makes him feel just a little bit better.

Having given a small handful of change to the chap collecting for homeless folk Robert Kowalski enters the bank to deposit a portion of his pension. When his beautiful wife Margita died last year he’d expected the pain of her loss but not the penury from the cost of her burial. Of course they’d seen the adverts on telly for funeral plans but had preferred to save as they’d always done. He’s pretty sure that the pay-out from any one of the celebrity promoted plans wouldn’t have covered the bill anyway given that -  he knows now but didn’t then - funeral costs have risen every year for well over a decade and in just one year between 2015 and 2016 increased ten times more than the cost of living. Not wanting to burden his children with a similar financial responsibility Robert – he’s always corrected anyone who has tried to shorten his name – has, for the last few months, been putting by a little extra each week.

Bert Edwards picks the already read but carefully refolded copy of the Manchester Evening News up from the hall mat. Mr Kowalski – they’ve been neighbours for years but remain on family name terms – always drops his through his letter box towards the end of the afternoon. Increasingly Bert’s not sure he really wants to read the paper as it seems that every day there is more bad news. Today, the local items on cuts to public services, on cases of crime motivated by hate and the list of items required by the city based food-banks upset him a lot. On the day on which he becomes a great grandpa for the fourth time he should be celebrating Bobby’s arrival not fretting about his future and the world in which he will grow up in. Putting the paper aside Bert picks up the paperwork he was previously reading. It looks like the only way he can cover the costs of the care home he’s considering is to put the house on the market. . . . 

Today's effort isn't as explicitly political but .... My prompt for this one was Anti-Bullying Week (13th-17th November) and you may recognise the title from the late Jo Cox MP's maiden speech. Here's the link if you'd like to read More in Common

Monday 13 November 2017

Loneliness - Austerity - Kindness (some connections) | and a story (Kind Hearts and Brunettes)

In September I wrote a short story about random acts of kindness. Follow this link for the tale and for some detail on the TwentyFour Stories project; a significant act of kindness indeed.

For World Kindness Day (13thNovember) I decided to develop the story of one of the characters in my original tale a little further. Also, in my mind, as I was writing were various articles I have read suggesting that loneliness in the UK is becoming an epidemic. In 2012 Patrick Butler wrote of the link between austerity, isolation and loneliness: 

We suspected austerity was going to be bad, but we didn't know how bad. Now, as services are withdrawn and benefit changes come into force, we are beginning to find out…. Researchers interviewed more than 70 vulnerable people living in the borough [of Camden], focusing on three groups: disabled residents and carers; young people; and families on low incomes….

A disturbing theme to emerge was the prevalence of fear and uncertainty. Words such as "isolation," and "loneliness" recur, especially in relation to families with children aged under five, and disabled people "trapped" at home by cuts. The threat of being uprooted from the borough (which has the fourth highest private sector housing rents in the UK) by housing benefit caps provoked terror.

Here then the argument is that austerity can lead to loneliness (along with other material, social and emotional inequalities). More recently others have written about this with reference to the lack of and impact on essential services.  Here is a quote from an anonymously authored piece on the importance of libraries (many of which are currently under threat of closure):  

… libraries are so much more than books. They have ebooks, audio books, academic journals, online resources, online driving tests, genealogy research. They play host to art classes, carpet bowls, tea dances, cafes, dementia support sessions. They provide a space for carers to meet, and people to be part of a community when they may otherwise be socially isolated. I’ve lost count of the number of customers who have told me, “You are the only person I have spoken to all day”.

And here some quotes from an article on the significance of loneliness both to our health and wellbeing and to the current pressure that the NHS is under:

The estimated 1.1 million Britons to be lonely are 50% more likely to die prematurely than people with a good social network….

 “Social isolation and loneliness are akin to a chronic long-term condition in terms of the impact they have on our patients’ health and wellbeing,” ....

“GPs see patients, many of whom are widowed, who have multiple health problems like diabetes, hypertension and depression, but often their main problem isn’t medical, [it’s that] they’re lonely.” ….

“Loneliness can sometime be the face of more serious underlying issues and should not be disregarded as a minor problem. GPs should be alert to any underlying mental health problems such as depression,” said Caroline Abraham, Age UK’s charity director. GPs should do more to direct lonely people to services that can support them, she added.

NHS England agreed with the RCGP chief that GPs spending time with lonely people was a good use of their time.

“Older people can sometimes decide to soldier on through illness, which can then lead to more serious health problems,” a spokesman said. . . .

But Stokes-Lampard added that GPs needed to have less pressurised schedules so that they had enough “time to care” for socially isolated patients.

Other research by the Campaign to End Loneliness found that 52% of lonely people miss being together with someone, 51% miss laughing with someone and 46% miss not having a hug.

In my story my aim is to highlight how loneliness is an everyday experience for many and to reflect on how small kindnesses can make a difference. My intention is NOT to suggest that such acts should replace political change. For as we increasingly know austerity isn't working:

The story begins thus: 

Kind Hearts and Brunettes

Since Lou’s death, twelve long years ago, Mick has lived alone. Each other’s first love they hadn't spent a night apart for more than four decades when she died. He feels her loss keenly; still. The children keep in touch but the contact is somewhat sporadic. They all three live far away with their respective families and Mick sees them only on high days and holidays and not always then. They’re busy after all. Even when they do meet up it’s rare that the whole clan, which includes seven grandchildren, all get together. Mick wouldn’t admit it to any of his loved ones, or indeed anyone else, but he is lonely a lot of the time. On occasion he weeps a little and has thought about telling his doctor about this out of character behaviour. But not wanting to waste her time he keeps it to himself. . . . 

If you would like to read more - it's not very long - please go to: