Thursday, 26 May 2016

Why Referenda are Bad For Britain's Democracy

What could be more democratic than asking the adult population to vote on an issue rather than entrust our delegated representatives to come to a decision?

Whilst there has been several referenda on devolution and sovereignty issues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and those asking metropolitan areas whether they wanted an elected mayor of not, the upcoming EU referendum on June 23rd will only be the third UK-wide vote. The first concerned Britain's membership of the European Economic Community as it was called back then in 1975, but I was only 11 so not entitled to vote. Then we didn't have one until 2011 on the issue of a version of proportional representation called AV (Alternative Vote) replacing our first past the post system. Now I consider myself a political animal, yet such was the level of disengagement with the way AV was presented, that I can't even remember if I bothered to cast my vote. I wasn't the only one, turnout was a poor 42% (compared with 60-65% on average for a general election). This was generally felt to have been the result of AV being an inadequate voting system compared with all the proportional representation systems on offer and that even then no one really understood how it worked because the campaign to promote it was so lacklustre.

And now we come to the major referendum currently on the table, continued membership of the EU or to withdraw. I credit that whatever the outcome, the whole thing has been a disaster and weakened the credibility of british democracy. here's why:

1) The campaign isn't about the issue of EU membership at all:
Whatever the merits of In or Out has been partly sideswiped and colonised by the internal politics of the two major political parties. For the Tories, with David Cameron announcing he would not run for another term as Prime Minister after this one, there has been a power struggle to see who is in the best position to replace him when he goes. It's worth noting that if the vote is to leave, Cameron might have to go sooner than expected as he has nailed his colours so firmly to the Stay mast. That would only bring the whole succession battle forward and probably overshadow the mechanics of negotiating our way out of the EU as the country is paralysed without a leader and the bloody struggle to appoint one. So senior Tories have been positioning themselves in the referendum campaign with their eye firmly on the main prize beyond. The will he/won't he bated breath of which side Boris Johnson would side with went on for an age as Johnson made his calculations of support. Tory cabinet ministers in favour of Brexit screamed and shouted for their right to break cabinet unanimity and campaign for what they believed in, and having been granted that right have helped ratchet up the hysteria with attacks on their colleagues in the Remain camp and vice versa. If David Cameron imagined this vote to once and for all heal Tory divisions over the principle of Europe that first holed John Major's government back in the 1990s, he has been seriously mistaken. It's widened those enmities further and at a cost of degrading the quality of the debate. It's all got very personal and very stupid with appeals to an imagined Tory lineage stretching back to Winston Churchill. In other words, the debate has not really been about the EU at all.

Labour have performed no more credibly. The last referendum saw solid Labour support in Scotland wiped out by the simple fact Labour had joined with the Tories to oppose independence. Whatever the Scots thought of the merits or demerits of going it alone, they could not abide the sight of Labour and the hated Tories sharing platforms and singing off the same hymn sheet. "Red Tories" they called the Labour Party and duly annihilated them at the general election by returning just 1 Labour MP in Scotland. So Labour have been very careful not to make the same mistake again and alienate their support in England and Wales by being seen to be in close cahoots with the Tory government. Entirely understandable for a tactical point of view, but doing a huge disservice to the issue under debate, to go or stay in the EU. Labour as a party are contributing virtually nothing to the debate or the issue, beyond the efforts locally of individual MPs. A shameful dereliction of the democratic process by simply distancing themselves from the referendum.

2) Both sides of the debate are based on lies:
I am an avid 'Remain' voter, yet even I, along with every other pro-EU supporter I suspect, knows that the current EU is massively flawed. Just consider the EU's lamentable failure over the migration crisis, its impotency over Ukraine, its mutterings of admitting Turkey into the community despite it failing any standard of liberties and rights of free press and expression, etc etc. So we are voting to keep us in an imagined entity that doesn't in fact exist as it is currently constituted. We are voting for an ideal. On the other hand, since no country ever has left the EU, let alone an economically significant one as the UK is, nobody can have the first inkling as to what that means and how it will play out. For both the UK and the EU itself (it is not impossible that it could signal the break up of the whole Union). We just don't know, so every argument that avers that X will be a benefit of leaving and we will be better off regarding Y by going our own way has no basis in evidence. They are predictions and forecasts at best and entirely coloured by the ends they are seeking to secure.

This begs a question about all referenda; if the choice is between changing to something that has never been done before, (or to leave something as an exit which has never been tried before), is it even possible to posit and empirically back up arguments at all? In which case, how can you properly have a referendum on the issue?

3) Our politicians are not sophisticated enough to do justice to the arguments involved in the issue:
The inherent contradiction at the heart of any referendum question that threatens to tread new ground, makes it really tough for the public to grasp the issue. However, we are not being well served by our politicians and key society movers and shakers in helping us understand the issue any better. The level of debate has been risible. We've had spurious anachronistic reference to Hitler's likely sympathies with a European super-state. We have statements that the EU prohibit more than 3 bananas being bound together to constitute a bunch. We've had the appeal to UK house prices dropping significantly with an Out vote, or the price of your summer holiday increasing if we leave. Like that's the most important thing under consideration here. Politicians demean us the voters when they imagine they can appeal to us through such base and simplistic impulses. We're too ignorant to appreciate what will happen the Balance of payments, VAT revenue and the City of London's golden egg, so let's restrict it to the level of summer holidays since the public can understand that. We've had different sections of the military and security forces opine that our security will either be improved or degraded by the result of the vote. Each side of the campaign wheels out these expert witnesses that support their case and they just end up cancelling one another out and leaving us the voters contemptuous of them all.  If you've ever watched a US real crime programme and the court case where the two sides bring out their pet forensics expert and of course the two radically disagree on what the evidence tells them, so the jury are thrown back on their own instincts as to how to weight the two expert testimonies against one another. Well then you might as well not bother with specialist insight if we end up falling back on what our gut tells us. It's pretty much the same in this debate. I can't help feeling that while these talking heads have a right to hold a personal opinion informed by their professional experience, it probably shouldn't be offered as chapter and verse to us the public. That they do so is not their fault, they are called upon to do so by the politicians.

The upshot of all this? I am predicting a low turnout of similar magnitude to that of the AV vote. And that will be a terrible indictment not on public apathy, but on the performance of our politicians selling us the importance of this vote and the usefulness of referenda themselves, given their innate contradictions.

An undoubted fan of the European superstate 
 A non-compliant bunch of EU bananas
Quids in for car number plate manufacturers if we vote 'Leave'

Sunday, 22 May 2016

I thought I'd try and share an insight into some of the creative decisions that form part of the writing process. So I've reproduced a paragraph from my latest work in progress as it nears its completion and I'm just doing some editing, which in my case, more often that not means consideration of certain word choices. It may be for the sound of the word or the rhythm it brings to the sentence. Or, more often than not, for the echo to other words around it that its various shades of meaning might bring.

This section is from a story which considers all the ways parents try to get their reluctant young children to open their mouths to take in food. The story examines some of the lasting effects of those tactics on the psychology of the grown up child (one of which is an eating disorder).

Here's the text in full:

“Broom broom. The car wants to come into the garage Cassie. Open wide. Beep beep! Let the car in… Broom broom broom”. 
Our garage was overrun by rats. There’s no way on earth I would readily be so accommodating as to open either the back door to gain ingress, or the electronic open sesame for cars to coast in. Even though once I turned seventeen, passed my driving test first time of asking, and had gone and bought my own runaround, still I never parked it inside. That garage is a place of nightmares. In the small hours I could hear them scurrying on its flat roof which lay adjacent to my bedroom wall. Even in my lowest teenage moments, that period of revved up consideration of putting an end to this miserable existence of mine, the garage though it supported the sturdiest ceiling beam of the residence, could never play host to suspending a noose. I could neither bring myself even to enter the demesne of the rodents, let alone offer lifeless carrion me up for a murine meal. And since my oral anxieties closed off any option of overdosing on medicine cabinet mucilaginous tablets, my nascent suicide drive quickly ran out of viable solutions. My parents called in pest control to liberate and restore the garage into human hands, but the rats were back by the next spring. The exterminator shrugged his shoulders and proclaimed we possessed the perfect conditions that rats favoured. He indicated the path of their rat run, which consequently closed off the garden to me as well". 

1) "Broom broom broom"This was a very late edit as I added the third 'broom', partly as a rhythmic thing after 2 "Broom, broom" and 2 "Beep, beeps". But also I decided it offered the sense of a car revving its engine while outside the garage and this idea of revving became important in parts of the paragraph that followed. I think it conveys a sense of impatience.

2) "or the electronic open sesame for cars to coast in" Originally this was clumsily expressed as 'or the electronic doors that open sesamed for the cars to drive in'. The perverting of open sesame into a verb wasn't a problem for me, I do this quite a lot. It was more that the whole sentence just felt a bit clunky, so I streamlined it. I replaced 'drive' with coast, because 'drive' is repeated later and I try and avoid repetition of words as much as possible (except for sound purposes). It was tricky coming on the right word to replace it, I settled on 'coast' because it is the opposite of the impatience elsewhere in the piece (such as with the 3 'brooms' as above). 'Coast' suggests a relief, a cutting of the engine's freneticism, an exhalation of breath as finally the car enters the garage and the food enters the child's mouth.

3)  "That garage is a place of nightmares". In the end I left this unchanged. I thought about other words for 'nightmares', but horrors and dreads just seemed a bit too tinged with the supernatural and I very much wanted this to feel in the real world. I was thinking of changing it, since the next sentence started 'At night' and I didn't like the jangle of 'nightmares./ At night', but in the end I opted to change the 'at night' to 'in the small hours' which sort of echoes the small scurrying sounds of rats. All of this only came about because one of my editing drafts is to read aloud the work, and that's when I noticed the jar of 'nightmare/ At night. Without reading it aloud, I don't think it would have come to light. Rats of course eat anything and everything.

4) "Even in my lowest teenage moments, that period of revved up consideration of putting an end to this miserable existence of mine" The addition here was the word 'revved'. I knew the word had to come into this paragraph, but wasn't quite sure where. The sentence when she describes passing her driving test, getting her own car... was consciously breathless in structure, as the reader has to navigate a long sentence with plenty of commas to get to its end. It was in itself quite revved up in its rhythm, but to use the word 'revved' in there somewhere would have duplicated what the rhythm itself was achieving. So I felt the best place for it was to suggest an acceleration of her thoughts towards suicide, since such thought processes involve a certain tipping point to really become a solution in the mind of a suicide.

5) "though it supported the sturdiest ceiling beam of the residence" a minor change this from 'of the house' to 'residence', since technically the garage as a separate building could be viewed as not being part of the house. You might feel the same could be said that a garage is not strictly part of the living quarters either.

6)"overdosing on medicine cabinet mucilaginous tablets" an example of alliteration for the sound of the sentence, lots of fricative 'c's', plosive 't's', with bilabial 'm's' and the assonance and rhyme of cabinet and tablet.

7) "my nascent suicide drive quickly ran out of viable solutions". Originally I had the word 'practical' solutions. I felt this was a dull word and the beauty of 'viable' is that it has an associative meaning of viability of life, used of early stage foetuses, or just fitness to survive and grow in general, which is the very opposite of the snuffing out of life she is talking about through suicide. I liked the contrast. I did also consider alternatives for 'solutions', but didn't really find anything better. 'Remedy' I rejected because I want to present the character as quite reasonable and normal, not ill or mentally unbalanced in need of a 'remedy'.

8) "My parents called in pest control" quite a simple decision this one, as originally it was 'exterminators' but then I go on to use the word in the next sentence and again wanted to avoid repetition. The word 'control' also sums up what this paragraph and the whole piece itself is about, who controlled the spoon with the food being put into her mouth.

I hope that's been of some interest in some of the things writers think about when they drill down into the detail within sentences and particularly those to do with word choices. So many words have slight differences within the shades of their meaning and I love to try and set up resonances of two or more of those meanings, in this case how 'viable' is sued to cut against its own grain by being used in the context of suicide.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Dead Line - Flash Fiction

The hands were the last outpost of activity. Or rather the fingers gripping his pen. The rest of the musculature had withered through disuse. The mouth, that other outlet for words, had seized up through a wholesale aridity, dry river beds of sputum, meaning his desiccated lips were unable to form even the simplest phoneme. His legs stilled through stagnation in the chair, had now become paralysed with a deep vascular thrombosis. He could no longer feel his feet, uncertain and uncaring that he was receiving no proof of the floor pushing back at his undersoles for being in contact with one another. His abdomen, having initially echoed the current concavity of his sallow cheeks, had now blazoned its tocsin through distension, an ill-windsock of fetid air. A second, unadvised gastrulation returning him to a state of the scaffolded truss of the womb. His serpentine labyrinth of bowels having fruitlessly demanded their regular oblation, therefore began to devour him from within. While the sphincter had drawn down its shutter and closed for the business end, but only after its liquidation sale had left him marinading in his own soil in the writer’s chair. There was a deadline to be met after all. 

I have commissioned the above image as a T-Shirt design from the wonderful Little Appleseed.

It's a bastardisation of one of the tenets of Sergey Nechayev's "Revolutionary Catechism" which I use as the epigraph in my book "Not In My Name" in its original, unadulterated form for a book about terrorism. 

What do you think? 

Possible coda for the above story:

His literary agent prised the pen from the author's cold, dead hand and set it on the writing desk. He shuffled the sheaf of papers straight and slipped them into a manilla envelope. He smiled at the thought that the publishers had little chance of getting their advance back as it would go into the marais that was probate. How were they to know what he held in his hand was the final work? he could claim it was an old manuscript found beneath dust on the author's shelf. He would pocket all the proceeds, save for an honorarium to pay for the author's pauper's grave. A writer's final resting place marked without any words at all. 

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Squid Ink - Flash Fiction

The sea was a perpetual whirring roil of motion. Shoals and schools of corybantic choreography. Treasure hunts for shiny stones on the seabed, or the come hither siren tease of pearly mothers. Spawns and other pregnable culch-ures. Procreation and the anti-creation of predation, rapturous raptors going about their annihilating antics. Squid-I took my place in this tumultuous orchestration. Staking my mood from the ambiance of my surroundings. Cooling my blood to blend in with the sandy bottom, or raising my temperature to bouquet the riot of colour of the underwater flora. Else I fire my ink-jet heels to make good my escape, nebulising the senses of my would-be consumers. But then my nervous system was struck by a notion, what is it about this world that constantly makes me need to escape? Why cannot I just reside contentedly within it? Why do I have to cast small simulacra of myself to stymie my foes, when each exudation only weakens me, dilutes my being? They munch me in effigy anyway.  A sudden impulse made me fire my ink when no pelagic guzzler needed blotting. I watched the chromatic mucus shape and form my feelings, but not just through the usual matching pigmentation, rather they agglomerated into words. Until they diluted and dissipated on the gentle sway of the underwater swell. I fired them again. Different words coagulated before again dispersing on the undertow. I watched the iotas of my verbiage diffuse further afield and I saw it brought discomfort and unease to the marine life who encountered it. Mildly toxic it seemed to perfectly encapsulate my temper. I used some of my appendages and appurtenances to inscribe into the sand and grit of the seabed, before inking in my words there and passing rocks over to hold the type in place beneath. No fish prey or predator dared disturb my reverie of penmanship. Amid all the pother and bustle, I had discovered the peace that lies at the heart of the ocean.  The ink concentrated, the thoughts magnified, my blessings countable against each one of my tentacles, finally I had come into my own against the backdrop of the eternally teeming crowd.  

Monday, 9 May 2016

Rock Against Racism - A Music Video Playlist

Punk rock had very close ties with reggae. Groups like the Clash had grown up in multi-racial communities and been heavily influenced by reggae music and culture. Reggae DJs played the music before the live bands in punk clubs. Both were music of protest and in the late 1970s there was plenty in Britain to protest about. Another protest group were the far-right political party (and in true Nazi tradition street fighting thugs) The National Front. With the state of the UK economy they were beginning to make some political headway with the usual dreary simplistic argument of immigrants taking British jobs. Music turned its force on them partly due to a spark from their own industry. Eric Clapton, who seemingly was oblivious of the Afro-American blues roots of his own music, made some inflammatory anti-immigrant and racist statements from the stage during one of his gigs. David Bowie's iconography of the character of the Thin White Duke was also unfortunately timed, as he rode around in a limousine like a 1930s Fascist dictator from Mitteleuropa.

There's a very good retrospective here containing some wonderful photos, so I'm just going to present videos of some of the bands who were involved, many like Ruts and Misty in Roots who went up and down the country touring with Rock Against Racism. It's impossible to measure what effect the campaign had, but it was most definitely a battle for the hearts and minds of British youth, to stop them being won over to the National Front's cause. When the whole country swung to the right with Mrs Thatcher, the National front beset by splits and personality clashes faded away. But they were replaced by other fascist and far-right groups and of course the anti-immigrant argument is being loudly trumpeted today by mainstream politicians. Time for another Rock Against Racism? I can't quite see any of the Simon Cowell created bands carrying it off.

How many of the below bands do I possess albums of? All of them excepting Sham 69...

1) The Clash - "White Man In Hammersmith Palais"
Of all punk bands, the Clash were most heavily influenced by reggae, producing their own reggae originals and covering reggae classics. Their song "White Riot" was influenced by the 1977 Notting Hill riots when the Caribbean carnival erupted in violence at police treatment of the community.

2) Misty In Roots - "How Long Jah"
It's ironic but Misty in Roots played more RAR gigs than anybody else, yet initially they were never part of the main stage, but a sort of side act on a flat bed truck at the head of the anti-racist marches preceding the gigs. Seems just a little bit like segregation to me. But they more than most had direct experience of racial violence when their manager was beaten into a coma by the police at an anti-racist march in their home town of Southall, West London.

3) The Ruts - "Staring At The Rude Boys"
The Ruts came from Southall as well and were close band mates with Misty. Their sound was heavily influenced by reggae and like Misty they were solid supporters of the RAR campaign playing up and down the country.

4) Steel Pulse - " Handsworth Revolution"
This song preceded the Handsworth (Birmingham) riot of 1985. People could see what was happening and tried to alert us to the situation, but seems no one in authority was listening. With songs like "Klu Klux Klan" and "Drug Squad" they painted the experience of the Afro-Caribbean community in the late 1970s better than anybody.

5) Tom Robinson Band - "Winter of '79"
Tom Robinson Band were perhaps the most overtly political band that emerged from 1970s punk, fronted by a gay guitarist-singer, they sung songs for all oppressed and minority groups.

6) Sham 69 - "If The Kids Are United"
Sham 69 were a working class band who sung about beer and fighting and attracted a far-right skinhead following. It took a lot of too-ing and fro-ing to get lead singer Jimmy Pursey to agree to play a RAR gig, as he himself had received death threats. It was crucial when the band did eventually play, as it forced their fans to confront the message of the concerts and see the multi-cultural nature of the bands.

7) Aswad - "Drum And Bass Line"
Aswad were from West London and when they weren't away touring they would go to the local playing fields and play football every Sunday, the same pitches my team played at & occasionally we saw them down there.

8) Stiff Little Fingers - "Doesn't Make It All Right"
Hailing from sectarian Ulster, SLF lived in the middle of another low rent form of apartheid that separated two communities there. This is a cover of a Specials' song, one of the best anti-racist songs ever written. Check out the original version if you get the chance.

9) Elvis Costello & The Attraction - "Two Little Hitlers"
Yep Elvis played an early RAR gig, before jetting off to the US and making strange Country & Western hybrid music.

10) Au Pairs - "Steppin Out Of Line"
Another new wave band that fused rock with reggae and dub. Singer Lesley Woods gave up the music business to become a lawyer. oh well.

11) Specials - "Racist Friend"
The Specials were a living, breathing embodiment of anti-racism. A multi-ethnic band playing Caribbean influenced Ska but with lyrics pertinent to the situation out on the streets of the UK. They became best known for their excoriating comment on post 80's riot-torn Britain "Ghost Town" and "Free Nelson Mandela"

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Monolith - Flash Fiction

I was quarried from the seed of my stonemason father
And domesticated at my mother's hearthstone
I was anchored by my foundation stone
Safely buttressed by my stone fortifications
Until my father was epitaphed on his headstone
The copestone of his workshop fell on him stone dead
I lost my bearings with this degaussing of my lodestone
My mother draped in constricting grief like a millstone around her neck
Whereupon I became precipitantly blunted scissors to stone
I was angularly gouged by my kidney stone
I was acidly etched by my gallstones
Sticks, stones and brickbats did break my bones
Though I remained stone-deaf to those concussing chiders
People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, my windows were all put through anyway
In vain I tried to acuminate myself at the whetstone
Stonewashed drainpipe denim, dressed to kill
Only to be pip pipped by my peach stone
And de-pithed by my cherry stone
These stony-faced partners rejected me from ever becoming their clingstone
I scourged myself with a pumice stone
My own stonewalling body made it like drawing blood from a stone
I self-medicated the pain and became stoned immaculate with alchemical powders
But instead of sinking like a stone
Lift the stone and it's no longer woodlouse me that crawls out
I had been emboldened by my idiomatic stones
From somewhere I pulled out a modern day philosopher's stone
And stone the crows, my ship had come in
Petrified no more by my own stone cold failings
Now I was as polished as my gemstones
Apprised by others according to my precious stones
I positively scintillated from my gemstones
Treasured for my precious stones
I want Ray Winstone to play the part of me in the movie
But under no circumstance will it be directed by Oliver Stone
But the stony-hearted users in the guise of being a friend
Pebble dashing their blarney stone hard luck stories at me
The mephitic whiff of brimstone accompanying their devilish smiles
The road to hell is paved with stoney-eyed intention
My well of ever spouting ambrosia swiftly became sown with stone
Within a year I was back stony broke
But their demands never slackened, immuring me beneath my own foundation stone
My rolling stone stilled, moss gathered upon the inscription of my headstone