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Corbyn, Conference, Commentariat

I haven’t said or written too much lately.

1) I’ve been thinking
2) I’ve been listening (to borrow from the new Labour leader’s speech)
3) I’ve been reading
4) And perhaps… I’ve been holding my breath

Conference is a beast. It’s long, it’s tiring – that’s democracy for you. Motions are debated and defeated or carried. People huddle furiously in corners, rewriting wording, writing words, lobbying, networking, finding the fringe. By the end, everyone is exhausted – which is more or less the point at which Jeremy Corbyn had to give his so-called make-or-break speech.

I am not uncritical of Corbyn. His attachment to mismatched jackets reminds me of English teachers from my 1970s childhood – but it’s not a deal-breaker and it’s shallow enough of me to even mention it. More substantially, the autocued performance in his speech today was a bit distracting. And the repetition about his mandate is starting to wear thin. Still, that’s nit-picking and I am glad I voted for him. Let Corbyn get on with his big tent, bottom up approach to policy and see where it gets us. It’s an experiment, there are no guarantees, but at least there is hope for a robust opposition and an alternative message for many of us – something that has been lacking for a long time.

I woke on the morning after the last general election fearful that the country I live in had gone mad. That my neighbours and colleagues were all closet Tories. That society was gone to the dogs and it was every woman, man jack for themselves. When I hear Corbyn speak, I see it is not so. When I watched people at conference today, getting to their feet, applauding, I feel it is not so. When strangers on Twitter confess to a tear in their eye when Corbyn speaks about mental health for all of us, I know it is not so. For now, that’s enough for me.

As conference wends its weary way home tomorrow, the commentariat will be left clucking for the next story. As autumn turns into winter Corbyn is not probably not knowingly going to give them one – they’ve had their initial feeding frenzy after his election, after all.

The fact is that true democracy is a cumbersome creature. It is based on consensus, collaboration, debate and negotiation. It can take hours to navigate and achieve – in action, its daily operation is boring, punctuated by the odd high (and low). Democracy in action is not the headline-grabbing duel that parliamentary ritual makes it out to be. It is not the abusive, name-calling, character-attacking charade that the print press constantly twist it into. Corbyn’s respectful approach will make the jobs of those attached to that modus operandus harder going forward. At the risk of using a double negative: I can’t say I’m not sorry.

For the first time in my life, I can actually see, hear and read what the Labour Party have to say for themselves, unmediated by the media. That’s a privilege; I intend to use it wisely. I hope I will not be alone.

JC: The Crucifixion

I often wake with ideas, most of which I forget, but the one this morning seems to have stuck. This morning’s metaphor was slightly muddled, but bear with…

I woke with a strong association between Jesus Christ, who I like to think of as a radical humanist activist and teacher (that’s courtesy of the philosopher Don Cupitt at Philosophy Bites) and the new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The similarities are obvious and go slightly deeper than their initials and a beard. The religious thing is trickier, as Corbyn is an atheist. In terms of the minor particulars, no-one knows if Jesus wore a vest, or if he refused to sing the Roman national anthem.

Jesus was popular with the people. He decried the money lenders and he defied the establishment. The powers that were back then in Jerusalem weren’t having any of it, so they arrested the trouble-maker at night but nailed him to a cross in broad daylight.

Jeremy Corbyn is popular with some of the people. And the majority of the media are keen to crucify his reputation and principles by butchering his interviews for decontextualised soundbytes, whilst incessantly ridiculing his values and beliefs. (I am aware the Garden of Gethsemene comparison would work better if the newspapers were less a digital creation and the news still broke at dawn with the paper hitting the mat).

The country could be divided down one line this evening: on one side those of us who couldn’t give a toss whether he moved his lips to music in a church with others, to those who feel that failure to fully partake of a musical ritual, whilst not wearing a suit, is an abomination on the face of this earth.

Is it the same line that divides those of us who think that refugees are first and foremost people and should be treated in a humanitarian way, or those of us who think it’s all a crafty ploy to get an easy life, and potentially smuggle in a member of ISIS whilst one is at it? Probably not, people are more complex than that… aren’t they?

If nothing else, Jeremy Corbyn’s election is serving to show me how this country sees things. Oh, and I never knew anyone could be crucified over a song.

Clearly I have taken a somewhat reductive approach to a burning issue, but I am boggled by how worked up people get about honouring war, the monarchy, and the singing of a rather rubbish song. I asked my children what they thought – they said they don’t even know the words to the national anthem. I think I’ll leave them in their ignorance, until they move into politics or the armed forces, or the guides.

Speaking Truth to Power

I have often found this phrase problematic: it sounds simple, but in practice it is not. It sounds like a grand gesture, but done in public, with resonance it’s the kind of act that rightfully ends up in a movie and in the history books. Public speaking of truth to power form definitive moments on which the world can eventually turn. Take Nelson Mandela speaking in his defence in court in South Africa on the 20th April 1964. He concluded his speech with these famous lines

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

The words above are beyond memorable. That day Nelson Mandela spoke truth to power. But the truth that he spoke, although political, and thankfully in public for posterity, was driven by an accumulation of smaller personal truths that, for many years, had no voice at all. It’s a speech everyone should read in full, and not just looking back to a different time and place, but mindful of certain parallels around the world today. The following extract illuminates the painful personal experience of black South Africans under white rule. It’s hard not to read it without imagining yourself experiencing it too. That, I think, is part of the point.

The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority. Legislation designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion. Menial tasks in South Africa are invariably performed by Africans.

When anything has to be carried or cleaned the white man will look around for an African to do it for him, whether the African is employed by him or not. Because of this sort of attitude, whites tend to regard Africans as a separate breed. They do not look upon them as people with families of their own; they do not realise that they have emotions – that they fall in love like white people do; that they want to be with their wives and children like white people want to be with theirs; that they want to earn enough money to support their families properly, to feed and clothe them and send them to school. And what “house-boy” or “garden-boy” or labourer can ever hope to do this?

Pass laws render any African liable to police surveillance at any time. I doubt whether there is a single African male in South Africa who has not had a brush with the police over his pass. Hundreds and thousands of Africans are thrown into jail each year under pass laws.

Even worse is the fact that pass laws keep husband and wife apart and lead to the breakdown of family life. Poverty and the breakdown of family have secondary effects. Children wander the streets because they have no schools to go to, or no money to enable them to go, or no parents at home to see that they go, because both parents (if there be two) have to work to keep the family alive. This leads to a breakdown in moral standards, to an alarming rise in illegitimacy, and to violence, which erupts not only politically, but everywhere. Life in the townships is dangerous. Not a day goes by without somebody being stabbed or assaulted. And violence is carried out of the townships [into] the white living areas. People are afraid to walk the streets after dark. Housebreakings and robberies are increasing, despite the fact that the death sentence can now be imposed for such offences. Death sentences cannot cure the festering sore.

Africans want to be paid a living wage. Africans want to perform work which they are capable of doing, and not work which the government declares them to be capable of. Africans want to be allowed to live where they obtain work, and not be endorsed out of an area because they were not born there. Africans want to be allowed to own land in places where they work, and not to be obliged to live in rented houses which they can never call their own. Africans want to be part of the general population, and not confined to living in their own ghettoes.

Nelson Mandela, through the ANC, gained a platform to speak his truth. Not so for the men thrown into jail in South Africa: beaten, abused, sometimes to death. Not so for the wives left behind. Not so for the children, denied an education. Yet some people may have spoken their truth, and gone unheard. Others may, from fear and self-preservation, remained silent. Who of us wouldn’t too? Nelson Mandela spoke for all of them.

I went to see The Scottsboro Boys at the theatre this week – based on the true story of 9 young black teenagers who were falsely accused of rape in Alabama in 1931 and sentenced to death. I am not an especial fan of musical theatre, but the subject matter and the reviews made me determined not to miss it. It is a great piece. I feel it is brave. I can see why it closed in New York after a mere 12 weeks.

There is one moment in the production that stands out, a moment of suspense, where one of the young accused wants to speak truth to power, the truth being the injustice of it all, the power represented by the only white cast member The Interlocuter. The moment is heavy with audience expectation. The truth suffocates in the accused man’s throat. In that moment, you get the sense of how almost impossible speaking truth to power is when the personal and the political come face-to-face. How the bravest of men and women can be overcome by the most urgent of imperatives: the need to survive.

I have come to realise, over the years, that like it or not, I represent some part of the system that silences the truth on the tongues of people for whom the system has minor regard. This is an uncomfortable fact. Yet it is fact, and as such I have a responsibility, small as it is, as personal and non-political as I feel I am, I still have a responsibility to speak out. I am saying it clumsily. It sits clumsily still with me because it’s easier to remain ignorant, to stay silent. James Baldwin, the American writer, can say it better, I hope.

In his 1949 essay ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel‘ he excoriated the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe for her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the essay Baldwin is clear: it is not enough for a writer to describe the horrors of the world, overlaid with righteous indignation in order to comfort the readers. Baldwin believes such novels ’emerge for what they are: a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American Dream.’ Baldwin asks why is that we are ‘so loath to make a further journey… to discover and reveal something a little closer to the truth?’

This is the power of the uncomfortable and paradoxical truths that Baldwin believes ‘will free us from ourselves’.

This is the truth to power that we need to speak: other people’s truths to our own power – power that we often blindly leave in the hands of those who misuse it.

The Scottsboro Boys with guards and their lawyer

Postscript: I’d like to name these young men and their position in the photograph, but black history recorded by white people is often a victim of disregard for the status and dignity of each individual concerned. As if, to quote Nelson Mandela above, history does ‘not realise they have’ names, lives, loves. For now, here stand:

Olen Montgomery
Clarence Norris
Haywood Patterson
Ozie Powell
Willie Roberson
Charlie Weems
Eugene Williams
Andy Wright
Roy Wright

I find myself wondering if Scottsboro Boys, the musical, would have passed the James Baldwin test. I think, perhaps, yes. And I also wonder: who do I speak for and to?

Scary Things

A week is a long time in politics. Last Friday my heart was breaking that the majority of good people in Scotland voted to maintain the status quo, proving the science on bias in decision making is nearly always right. My heart was breaking, and my mind was fuming as the Westminster elite, who had shamelessly manipulated the media discourse over the last couple of weeks of the Independence campaign, entirely for their own benefit (and not that of Scotland) immediately altered the conversation from one of further devolved Scottish powers to English votes for English MPs.

That long sentence shows that I still cannot speak of it, not really. Not without getting almost incandescent with fury and indignation about how easily the establishment continue to distract and manipulate the majority.

Anyway, now all the conversation is about air strikes in Iraq and whether they will be expanded to Syria. I have views on this, I am just not sure exactly what they are. I could not help but wonder how the wife of the captured hostage Alan Henning felt about the vote yesterday. My heart goes out to her, him, and their family and I hope his story turns out better than that of others. I just can’t understand man’s inhumanity to man. Do we learn nothing?

Coincidentally, this morning my daughter decided she wanted to draw ‘scary things’ and a quick google came up with some inspiration. She did this freehand whilst I was busy with the other child. It’s a pretty horrible image, and depicts, for me, the truly ugly side to some humans’ nature. Some people are just better at hiding it than others, I suppose.

scary things

From Garage to Dubstep

There’s this really cool lady who I work with. We started teaching at the same time and, unusually, in the same room at the same time – she was numeracy and I was literacy. I’ve not shared a room that successfully since.

Now we travel together each week on a new journey, and I am not sure I would be able to do it without her.

On the way there we are all about the music (it’s ours kids and we might not give it back); on the way home it is the oppressed masses, the exploitation of women and banging on David Cameron’s shiny door to point our fingers in his spam face.

Anyway Fay: this one’s for you. And it’s for me. We are halfway to being blue ducks…

What Gordon needs is a little fizz

According to a scientific report today (that I consider wholly worthwhile!) a lot of the flavour to be found in champagne is delivered by the bubbles themselves. So they aren’t just empty vessels then…

Having considered this phenomenon, I have decided that is what our own dear Prime Minister needs. I call him dear because his wife practically insisted upon it in her warm-up cheerleading for Gordon himself. Call me a wizened old witch but why do they think Sarah Brown, eloquent though she may be, should be the one to tell us why we should all love Gordon like she does. Wheeling out the mrs is a bad move. He also trundled out his eyesight, or lack thereof and the “vayue” of the NHS. I am sorry the man is blind in one eye, but I don’t want to hear about it as political issue. There’s a chance they are taking equality and diversity a tad too far, even for my libertarian taste.

Why can’t Gordon pronounce his double “ll”s? He pronounces them as “y”s. Fifteen biyion pounds, a briyiant idea, the miyions of people… He’s in good company though, my 5yo does exactly the same.

Gordon is a conundrum. I am sure he is a decent bloke and he talks a right lot of sense. I am not sure his sums add up and I have hated the constant re-regulation under Labour over the years. My hair stands on end when I hear what he said about “children giving birth to children” and the idea of a homes for them. In practice there are mother and baby units for them already and I baulk at the idea that all teenagers need extra help to be good parents simply because of their age. I teach parents 19 and under. I worry about certain aspects of their lives but, hand on heart, it is rarely because of their parenting skills. In fact, his whole section on teen “tearaways” smelt of scapegoating in the extreme. He spoke of crackdowns on estates too. How would you feel tonight if you are a teen parent living on an estate? Entirely unlikely to have listened to him in the first place I’d warrant. Shameless guillotine crowd pleasing Gordon! The man is of the manse and a puritan at heart and he lacks the real flavour that comes with some fizz.

I have tried hard but I conclude, regrettably, that he comes across as cold as charity.

He’s gonna “say the words”


I love you!
That the world is flat
That God doesn’t exist
That oil is going to run out next week…
or perhaps
Marry Me?

No, apparently, and according to the news last night and this morning Gordon Brown, Labour Prime Minister, is going to say the words:- “public spending cuts”.

We are also told today, the first anniversary of Lehman Brothers collapse, that we must never let another bank fail. Maybe I am simple folk but we will be taking money away from our services in the future having propped up the banking system last year and although I have listened to a lot of explanations as to why this had to be so – I am still not feeling it.

Allowing such a powerful section of society to fall on its knees at the temple of Mammon and our fundamentally not understanding how it works (and why should we, as they sliced and diced to minimise their risk which they weren’t underwriting themselves anyway!) has come round to bite us badly in our collective bum.

Reportedly first to go is the extension of maternity pay from 9 months to a year, although parents may now have a choice as to who can take the leave (and pay). What will be next is anyone’s guess although the benefit bill will surely be re-crunched. I’m not saying that all cuts are necessarily bad, being a lean and mean governing machine is in all our interests surely given the mind-boggling amount of UK debt. I will confess though to a selfish thought as I wonder what impact it might have on our good ship as we work respectively in housing and adult education…

The Lib Dems reckon they can make the necessary savings without cutting front line services – that’s going to be interesting. I don’t know why I have bothered mentioning them though, if David Cameron is not nailed on to end up in No. 10 at the next election, then I am going to eat my laptop; possibly a more palatable meal than the “words” Gordon will be eating this afternoon.

The Worship of Mammon - Evelyn de Morgan

"The Worship of Mammon" - Evelyn de Morgan

MP’s Expenses – Day Three Thousand and Ten

Or does it just feel like that to me?

Of course, like all right-minded citizens I find the whole saga outrageous but I am now at a point that I can only describe as acceptance, just like many of those transgressing Members of Parliament.  If they had not accepted that the whole warped system was there to top up their salaries to the max, whatever whichway they could, we would not be reading about shopping lists as diverse as Aspidistras – Zebra rugs, with chandeliers, Ikea napkins and horse shit in between.

Some of these people’s actions are frankly bordering on the criminal and there is a healthy sprinkling of fraudsters in there too.  On the other hand some of them have been more mindful of the public purse .v. their needs and wants, and for those MPs, who did not play a system ripe for the abusing, I have a good deal of respect.  Hazel Blears and her ilk should be richly rewarded with the public toe up her bottom when her seat next comes up, so, enjoy being a public servant whilst it lasts love!

My final point before I wrap up the brief rant, is that I keep hearing bleatings about none of it happening if MPs were being paid commensurately with the private sector.  What nonsense  – they are different.  They perform different functions in society and there is no reason why the pay should be in the same ballpark.  There will be those that trot out the line about “attracting the best candidates” but I promise you it is a red herring and a good MP would never be in it for the money. I work in the public sector, I have worked in the private sector for more money and less reward.  You makes your choices and you pays your prices (unless you are in the Houses of Parliament) and then we pay for it through the nose.

Your average MP?

Your average MP?