Something lovely this way comes

The rise of populism is certainly disturbing to those of us on the political left or, as populists like to call us, ‘liberals’. A pejorative word imported from the United States, implying a kind of wobbly and infinitely movable moral centre. Apparently liberals are the human equivalent of cushions, bearing the imprint of the last thing to sit on them.

Populism is not harmless. In fact, it has rapidly become synonymous with the so-called ‘alt-right’, althought I prefer to call them neo-Nazis. Suggesting this to people on the right usually meets with howls of derision, accusations of innate woolliness, or much worse.

Public life is currently alight with talk of ‘post-truth’ politics. Apparently, it is fine to tell naked lies in public provided this wins elections, garners extra support and serves to batter opponents into the dirt.

Linked to this is the far right’s widespread loathing of experts. Lacking intellectual clout themselves most neo-cons seem unable to refute even the most glaring scientific truths on the basis of knowledge or reason, so they revert to name-calling, irrational outbursts or physical violence. Sometimes all three. Either that, or they prefer to couch their views in obscure online tracts.

Scrub the surface of these and you will quickly discover utter nonsense: the gibberings of the unhinged or very stupid. We should not be surprised that the neo-con version of intellectual debate is generally indefensible. ‘It’s okay to hurt people if it serves the greater good of a few elites’. And naturally, the people pushing these ideas either belong to such groups, or they would like to. Brutal aspiration is the downfall of the many for the pleasure of the few.

The far right’s dislike of reason is extremely counterintuitive, given Donald Trump’s love of social media. ‘Trump’s unholy tool’, wrote an Irish friend. I agree, but it would be very hard to create such a platform without expertise or access to a huge collective repository of knowledge. It seems that populists do not practice what they preach. Either that, or they are aggressively disingenuous. In other words, they do not believe their own lies.

It is tempting to stray into speculation at this point. In fact, I plan to do so. Post-truth politics, a visceral disrespect for socially progressive actions and an irrational hatred of human knowledge can be seen as the early death throes of an old, and very stubborn, order. One that will die with the acidic Mr Trump and his misguided hordes of stunned looked disciples. Of course, it will not disappear completely, but shall shrink back into the shadows from which it emerged, waving its ugly tentacles.

We are entering a new era of human endeavour. One which will eventually take us to the stars. I will not list the technologies involved in this, though that is not completely beyond me. I would rather write that coupled to this, we could rapidly see a huge backlash from those of us who value positive human attributes. What are these? Love, compassion, healthy communities, common ground, empathy … the list is very long, because the story of what it means to be human is similarly lengthy. Good for us!

I hint at a second Renaissance. Technological advances are not the whole of humanity, and we should remember that these can be coupled with leaps forward in the Arts. I hear the sound of hooves – can you? Something lovely this way comes.


Dear London Midland …

Train travel is not so much a journey, but a personal insult you pay for. I wonder what happened to customer service?

Dear London Midland

Storm Doris caused severe disruption across your rail network, and on 23 February between 17:30 and 19:30 I foolishly tried to use your dysfunctional service to get home from Coventry, to my home in Birmingham.

It was quickly obvious that no trains were running, but this was not reflected in the information you provided on electronic timetables, and even Network Rail’s smart phone app was no good. You seem to have reinvented the English language so that ‘Delayed’ means ‘Cancelled’, and vice versa, causing massive confusion and deep distress to commuters.

As a gesture of courtesy you might have laid on a replacement bus service, to help the thousands of travellers you casually stranded across your West Midlands network, but clearly this was not an option for you. Have you no manners?

I have used your dreadful, quasi-militaristic, broken-down excuse for a set of cattle-trucks for 13 years now, and I can clearly see you coming from many miles away. If anything so much as sneezes on your fragile network of foolery, it breaks down. If anyone complains about it, you do nothing. If passengers, the people who pay your salaries, so much as look at you, you run away screaming like a gaggle of wet-knickered hockey-footed Hell-bitches.

One day we will part company. I shall be happy, but you will not notice my departure. Ironic, given that your so-called profession depends on both arrivals and departures: two basic things you fail to get right on a daily basis.

I will not ask you for compensation, because you cannot afford the bill. Please do not acknowledge this letter in any way. I do not speak to idiots.

Yours disdainfully, J

Folk off and live …

It’s easy to forget that the British folk scene which I’ve dipped in and out of for many years now, has at least some historic and emotional links to the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s.

This is not the whole story, of course. People with even a cursory knowledge of music scenes will acknowledge how incredibly complex they can be, and how stubbornly they defy description. I will not get bogged down.

There is, however, a metric mega-load of difference between a traditional musician and a folk performer. Folk is something we can adopt for ourselves. A conscious choice, like buying a new coat or a bucket trip to Slovenia.

Traditional performers do no such thing. They seamlessly grow up with their music, absorbing it from the communities they were born into: a luxury few of us have in our deeply fractured world.

A fish does not simply swim in an ocean. It is in some sense the ocean itself. When it dies the ocean remains but the fish returns to it, helping to generate biodiversity. This is an apt analogy for a life well lived. Something I call ‘folk-ways’: an authentic, joined-up existence. ‘No ocean, no fish’ is very logical, but how about, ‘No fish, no ocean’? It’s a less common perspective, but one relies on the other for its existence.

Sadly, folk-ways are easily (usually?) misunderstood, having been partially hijacked by well-meaning middle class liberals. This is doubly difficult for me, as I loosely belong to that group.

All the same, I know that ‘folk music’ (the phrase seems woefully inadequate), has its real roots in working class communities where people fought for self-preservation and self-expression every day of their lives.

I also know that ‘traditional’ can end up as shorthand for everything which real folk-ways are not. It sounds fusty. No-one wants to be a fogey, in the same way that no-one welcomes syphilis or bankruptcy into their world.

People might quickly conclude that folk music and its related traditions are completely irrelevant, having fizzled out years ago in remote rural communities. But this overlooks the rich vein of urban/industrial music which sprang from the desperate dirt of the Industrial Revolution, and continues its unexpected evolution to this day. We are not historians. There are no bones for us to exhume.

‘You thought I was dead’, whispers a secret voice, ‘But I’m part of you. You will eventually die, but I cannot vanish while there is something left to be said in the world.’ It feels truly mysterious.

All this brings me full circle. I’m making the point that in spite of outward appearances, the music I instinctively love is not white, middle-class or British. It is not Black, Asian or strictly regional either.

Instead it feels deeply ingrained, and as such deserves our respect because it belongs to all of us, and ‘folk’ is refreshingly free of copyright restrictions. These traditions come from the same source as ourselves, but they cannot thrive for long in a cultural void, a museum or someone’s grumpy little clique. You cannot bottle a storm, but you can sing one up. You can dance up a storm. You can become the storm.

Following folk-ways is unlikely to bring you much kudos in this wicked old world, but on a personal level it can hook you up with something older, wiser and infinitely larger than yourself. It’s called the Universe, and you may have noticed some of it on your travels. There is much more where that came from if you will only let it in.

A question. Would you rather stand alone on the shore of an ocean, or jump into it and feel that you are part of it for a while? Instead, you could live to be old and never get your feet wet. Most people make the latter choice. Don’t be most people.

Stock phrases

It’s everywhere, the ‘new speak’ of millennials. A vile mash-up of Americanisms, corporate language and what is laughingly and inaccurately called hipster talk. I find it about as hip as a well polished turd.

‘Like’ is an obvious target. The word drifted over the Atlantic on the Good Ship Facebook, and even 40-somethings use it now. Overheard conversations in public spaces are littered with what amounts to endless verbal ticks. ‘And I was like, “You should go out more”, like, and he was like, “I like, would, if I like, had more like money”‘. No, I don’t like it. I want my language back.

Literally is another one. In fact, it’s (literally) everywhere. I’ve lost track of people who are ‘literally on the bus’ or who ‘literally went out last night.’ Strangely, if the word is omitted sentences would still make perfect sense. Literally. I’m not talking about the apocryphal man in the street either. The last time I heard it was today, on a bus full of otherwise well-spoken university students.

‘In fairness’. I wonder why anyone would take pains to point out how fair they think they are compared to everyone else. It sounds vaguely aggressive. After all, do people use it to suggest that you have just been grossly unfair?

‘Yes, but in fairness …’ Perhaps there is a little-known crime in some obscure legislation, outlawing implied unfairness. If so, please convict me. I might get some peace in the slammer.

Linguists talk about discourse markers: words and phrases acting as conversational organisers and connectors. If I say, ‘So’ or ‘like’ I’m helping you to understand what I’m saying. Verbally reaching out and seeking validation.

It’s supposed to be pleasant and (cough) ‘normal’, but it isn’t. Instead, flurries of sos, likes, wells act as verbal fog, obscuring the very things people are trying to say. They are also downright irritating.

Guests on Melvin Bragg’s Radio 4 broadcasts, many of them scientists, regularly fall into the trap of littering explanations of tricky subjects with ‘so’. ‘So, so … string theory is hard to explain, but it’s like …’ Mother of God! I usually switch channels at this point or, better still, off. A pity, because I might learn something.

I could go on, listing myriad ‘business balls’ speak. Going forward, blue-sky thinking and, that other pernicious Yankee import, ‘Grabbing lunch’. I don’t grab it, I sit down and eat it.

Words reveal our inner selves and psychological furniture, but a culture which ‘grabs’, ‘needs’ and ‘gets’ is greedy and self-serving. ‘You need to do this’. Oh no I don’t. You’re trying to manipulate me. ‘Can I get a coffee?’ Sorry, did I hear you say ‘please’? Thought not.

Perhaps the solution is to abandon my scruples and join in. So, I was like, Oh My God! I need to grab dinner and, like, you know … get out more. Well, in fairness, why not?

Birmingham German Christmas Market twatfest

I don’t blog much these days but sometimes I feel compelled to write about something. It’s cheaper than psychotherapy, and I enjoy writing when I’m in the mood. Increasingly, however, I don’t have time. I’m learning chess (badly), improving my guitar playing and I have a large mandolin. I also commute. Hot damn.

As I write, Birmingham’s annual (themed) Christmas market is in full spate attended by thronging masses of over-eager shop-whores hungry for polished rocks, cheap wooden toys and various incarnations of fried meat slurry and sugar. Repeat this formula hundreds of times, add glitter, noise, novelty clothes made in Asian sweatshops by enslaved women, and you can imagine the Bruegelesque scene.

The marriage between this and alcohol is a miserable pairing, leading to once-a-year drinkers puking in the street, and the looming threat of casual violence. Sometimes it’s a bit more than a threat.

I tripped over this witch’s tit of a situation last Friday while drinking in my local. Admittedly, I should have seen it coming and stayed well away, but I’m a creature of habit. There’s little point visiting a pub in central Birmingham during the season of good swill. They’re massively overcrowded and, not to put too fine a point on it, full of hideously stupid ‘revelers’* who can’t revel (and become unraveled) without getting tragically pissed. It compensates for a complete absence of social graces.

I was seized with the urge to pee, so a friend looked after my rickety (and hard to get) bar stool, but when I returned from the gent’s cattle shed, a blazing hooley had already broken out between him, a craggy looking escapee from Jeremy Kyle, and her shriveled git of a hubby. Yelling and screaming she took exception to our very being – for no reason I could see. ‘Get your fucking hair cut, ponytail man!’ she shrieked like a harpy on a sugar-rush. I ignored her.

That wasn’t what she wanted of course, so she grabbed my hair, releasing a cascade of washed-out blonde locks, eliciting howls of rage from me. ‘Call the police I’m being assaulted’, I implored the critically overworked and underpaid bar staff. They were flummoxed and did nothing.

Not that I blame them one iota for someone’s utter lack of basic potty-training. The climax to this bitter harpy’s wargasm was to sling her pint over my friend and I. He caught most of it in his mush, and I got the comet’s tail on my hair and clothes.

My hair is now shiny and manageable (Because I Deserve it!), thanks to a gratis beer shampoo, but pride and confidence in fellow H-Saps is somewhat tarnished. Downright rusty in fact.

To cap it all, her Hell-hubby asked me outside for a fight. I doubt he’d have played fair, so I graciously declined his offer to get myself killed. A group of nearby lads looked ready to start a fight, fueled by oceans of German lager and a massive brain deficit.

Happily, once the scumbag duo from Hades saw that things were unlikely to go their way they cleared off. Welcome to Christmas. Peace, love and joy to all beings. But not those twats thanks very much.

I’m unsure how Christ would have reacted to this birthday bash, but I suspect he would disapprove of the turn things have taken. ‘No, no, NO!’ I can hear him say in loud Aramaic, ‘Do I really have to go through all this crap again just so you can understand what I meant?’ Sense is wasted on the stupid. If he’d stuck to carpentry none of this would happen.

*My spell-checker thinks this should be 'revealers'. And indeed, much was ingloriously revealed to me that I'd rather not know.

It’s time to oppose housing benefit caps

Believe me when I say I have little time to write blog articles. It might seem otherwise if you follow me on Twitter, but it’s true. On the other hand, it’s always fun to step aside and reel something off. Especially when it doesn’t fit with Twitter’s terse nature.

In other words, I have things to say about one aspect of the Welfare Reform Act 2012: probably one of the most heinous bits of legislation ever to hit the statute books, seemingly beloved of Tories and the right-leaning Labourites who consistently failed to oppose the Bill’s passage through in the Commons. Despite this being their actual job.

I’m talking about the government’s forthcoming housing benefit cap, which will apply to social housing tenants from April 2018 onwards. The driving force behind this, according to HM Government, is to ensure a level playing field between social and private sector tenants. And, of course, we have that old thing about reducing cash burdens on the public purse.

Social housing tenants who signed up after April 2016 will find their benefits capped to the same level as the Local Housing Allowance received by private sector residents, and this could also affect vulnerable people in sheltered housing schemes, though at time of writing it looks like Theresa May might row back on this side of things.

Killing older people through deliberate neglect isn’t a good look. I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not. After all, if you’re old, ill and depend on sheltered housing to survive, where will you go when it closes? We are talking about housing of last resort.

The upshot of capping housing benefits in this way is that it will disproportionately affect people under the age of 35, as very soon this age group will only be able to claim the shared accommodation rate: an amount considered to be just enough to rent a room in a shared house. Lucky them. The rub is that most of the people in this category are in work, defeating the lazy stereotype promoted by the mainstream media and central government, that they are ‘spongers’. This is complete nonsense, and it is part of a deliberate narrative designed to demonise social tenants.

That’s the bare bones of it, and if you search online you’ll find various briefings, articles and discussions prepared to go into much more depth than me. My point is that the impacts of this on under-35s will be huge, because from April 2018 the housing benefits most of them receive will fall short of the cash they need to pay the rent. And this is without factoring in what could happen to people who depend on sheltered housing.

The worse case scenerio which we’re heading for at the speed of light, is that droves of younger people will find themselves on the street or, at best, living from hand to mouth in small rooms on whatever funds they can scrape together. I would be extremely surprised if housing benefit caps didn’t lead to a massive spike in homelessness, along with all the burdens this will place on strained local services.

Things are already bad. You don’t need to read statistical releases to find this out. Just take a walk through the streets of any large city in the UK, and you’ll notice every other doorway is freighted with rough sleepers and people who have fallen on hard times. It’s hard not to evoke Dickens at this point, and while we haven’t yet reached such staggering scenes of poverty, we’re already well on the way.

On a personal note, it’s galling that this policy has not been directly opposed by the Labour Party who voted in droves to shepherd it through Parliament. Either they are incapable of understanding the long term impacts of such policies, or massively self-serving. I’ll leave it up to you to decide what to think, but if something isn’t done to nip this policy in the bud, people are going to die in doorways.

Remember that the Westminster Government’s austerity cuts are currently closing down hostels, women’s refuges and youth centres. Social services are at breaking point, and the National Health Service is dying on its feet. While it’s true that some support services remain intact, this situation is changing year-on-year.

Ironically, the Westminster Government says it wants to cut costs and ‘change behaviours’ – but this approach will backfire over time, as social costs quickly mutate into cashable costs. The two are always inseparable.

In other words, poverty, disease, ignorance and despair are hard to deal with, create concrete problems for local communities and eventually need sorting out through social policies. We already have something designed to do this: it’s called the Welfare State. We should defend it at all costs.

Mr S reaches out

I haven’t known S for long, but he’s a safe pair of hands. He’s had a varied career and tells tales of working on motorways, driving heavy goods vehicles and travelling around the country. There is asphalt in his voice and good kind earth beneath his feet.

S works for the civil service now, in an open plan office. Greying strawberry blonde hair dangles down his back in a long straight ponytail, and he regards me with the sad astute eyes of one who’s seen too much, but remained unbroken. He doesn’t just look at you, he looks inside you as if searching for something.

People like S are uncommon here, and it’s surprising how village-like a large city can be. There are people here who rarely leave Birmimgham, and some who never have.

S told me a story. I can only paraphrase it.

‘I was walking home from work and … do you know the place?’ He described an area I know well. It’s trendy and surrounded by public buildings. Not very open plan.

‘I saw this young couple. They’re in their 20s, I suppose, and you don’t often see couples like that sitting homeless on the street. They’d been sleeping rough.

‘My conscience kicked in, and I felt like I couldn’t walk past, so I spoke to them. They had a history of living in care homes, but they’d somehow met and fallen in love. I gave them some money … reached out a bit. It just seemed right somehow.

‘The young women fell pregnant, but she lost the baby. Gave birth to it on the steps of that building.’ S went on to describe where it was. I think I know.

‘All that was left there was a streak of blood which a cleaner mopped up the next day. No story left to tell about the dead child. Just a bit of blood. Nothing left.

‘Well, you’d never guess. I lost track of them after a while, but the other week I saw them walking along hand-in-hand, smiling. “S! Hello, how are you!” They’d got themselves somewhere to live. I don’t know how, but the young woman said, “You gave me hope, and I felt I could carry on.”‘ He gave her hope. Hope.

This probably counts as a happy ending. But in this era of iPads, apps and ‘always on’ technology, some people fall off the radar. Their lives are invisible to most of us. Unless, of course, we choose to open our eyes, reach out and give them hope.