Language as a Flower

The occasional writings of Catherine Rogan

Grenfell Tower

On the train to London this morning I saw the smoke from the Grenfell Tower fire hanging in the blue sky like a dirty thumbprint on a postcard. The early-morning reaction was a numb horror. Now what? Why don’t we keep the flags at half-mast, roll up all the minutes’ silences and never speak again?

I was in London for a training course. None of the delegates from Hammersmith and Fulham Citizens’ Advice (the nearest bureau to the fire, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) doesn’t have a bureau) turned up. We hoped it was because of transport, or maybe they are all hands on deck right now. I still hope so.

As I write we know that twelve people are dead. That number will likely rise. We know that hundreds are homeless. Not just homeless, they have lost everything. I once advised a man who had lost everything in a house fire. It was horrendous. He could talk about benefits for maybe six minutes at a stretch, but then he would have to relive some part of the day the fire happened. He lost everything. Clothes, photos, mix tapes, ticket stubs. A lifetime.

Grenfell Tower was a social housing. Most of the residents will be lower income (although London boroughs are pretty choosy about their social housing tenants), you can read RBKC’s information on the social housing waiting list at https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/housing/social-housing/local-housing-information, you can see they prioritise working households and that unless you have a particular priority need they are unlikely to be able to offer social housing ever  (for comparison, in Woking the average waiting list for a flat is 2-3 years, 5-6 years for a house.) You can see from the previous link what their housing stock is. There aren’t 127 spare social housing tenancies for them to offer. With the world watching maybe they will move some mountains, but likely they will ‘discharge their homelessness duty out of area’ – send people somewhere cheaper.

We’ll find out in time what caused the fire, and what caused it to spread so quickly. High-rise tenants know that flats are meant to contain a fire for long enough for the fire service to arrive (this is why residents were told to stay put). Years ago there was a fire in one of the flats that overlook the train track going into Waterloo. The affected flat was gutted, the one above was fine. Grenfell Tower was not meant to happen; whether it happened because of negligence, or cost cutting, or something else is a matter for an inquest. Whether it would have saved lives had residents’ concerns been heeded, or whether fire service cuts cost valuable minutes and allowed the fire to spread – those are also matters for an inquest.

In among the horror, the terrible stories, there is the bravery of the firefighters – people who run towards danger. The pictures of them physically and emotionally exhausted tell more than words every could. There are the tower’s Muslim neighbours, waking early to eat before a Ramadan sunrise, who offered food and aid to those who needed it. Temples, churches and mosques have thrown open their doors, donated clothes and food are piling up. North Kensington Law Centre, whose offices are next door to the tower, will be open tomorrow, operating out of a community centre. People will pull together, people will help.

This may be a bit disjointed. I’m still feeling numb that this could happen again. But I will speak. If this tragedy was in any way preventable, if it could have been mitigated in some small way, if lives were lost on the altar of ‘protection of the public purse’, then I, and many others far more articulate and involved than me will speak. Loudly.

For now, all we can do is our best for those who have lost homes and loved ones. If you

can afford to donate, you can do so at https://thekandcfoundation.com/

 

(16/06/17 Note, the word “inquiry” has ben replaced by “inquest”, as an inquest is what is is needed.)

Advertisements

1984 – The Sequel: 2 nineteen 2 eightifurious.

With heartfelt apologies to George Orwell…

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Marie logged on to her MiniJust terminal. She knew she had precious few minutes to get work done before the afternoon five-minute hate. How quickly things had changed! One minute you work for the Department of Justice and spend your time putting off inquiries into tribunal fees (to be delivered “in due course”), the next minute you are shovelling piles of pictures of Lord Thomas of Cwmgeidd down the memory hole.

A siren blared and everyone in the office turned to the telescreen. The words “Enemies of the people” flashed up and were followed by unflattering stills of Lily Allen, Gary Lineker, the Judges of the Supreme court…

Marie despised this part of the working day. She feared her hate wouldn’t appear enthusiastic enough. She could only manage a “grrrr” while colleagues shouted “Lefty traitor!” “Jug eared fuckwit!” and “Crisp eating wanker!”

Privately Marie missed Walkers crisps, now considered a degenerate food. The Victory seafood flavoured starch-based crisped savoury snack weren’t a patch on a nice bag of prawn cocktail. She would never voice this out loud, of course.

The five-minute hate over, she returned to her computer terminal, to go back over old judgements removing any reference to the European Court of Justice, or to European law, or human rights. Or the Bill of Rights. Or the Magna Carta. Where this, as it often did, left a gaping hole in the judgement, she was encouraged to invent a precedent that the necessary legal principles could be derived from. She had been praised for her own little eco-system of believable but easily overturnable jurisprudence, the actual judgements going down the memory hole with everything else.

The tannoy crackled into life. “Marie Jones, to room 3.25.2 immediately if you please.”

Marie froze. She felt the eyes of her colleagues upon her. What had she done? Had her hate not been hatey enough?  Had someone grassed her up for the time she called the Victory British Spiced Poultry Stew by its old, banned name, Chicken Tikka Masala? Nervously, she walked to room 3.25.2. She knocked on the door and entered.

“Marie…”

It was department leader Fisher. A middle-aged man in a Victory wool-style suit and square glasses.

“Is everything alright, sir?”

“Can I speak with you freely?”

Marie sensed a trap, but no way out of it, so just raised one eyebrow in a gesture that was non-committal enough to not self-incriminate.

“Marie, your work has attracted some attention. You have attracted some attention. I wouldn’t say this to just anyone, but there’s a private club for like-minded people. We’d love to see you there.” He handed her a card with an address on it. As her eyes met his he tapped the side of his nose.

“It’s a private club, you understand?”

Marie returned to her terminal and as soon as she had memorised the address on the card, she threw it into the memory hole.

That evening, she found her way to the club, having taken a circuitous route around town. She knocked on the door and after a minute of, she presumed, being examined by CCTV, she was admitted. The club was, in décor, like the bar of a budget heritage hotel, all flocked wallpaper and cheap chandeliers.

“Marie, you made it!”

Fisher approached her with a tray of canapes.

“Try one.”

She nibbled a triangle of toast.

“That’s… that’s not Victory yeast extract inspired savoury spread?”

“No, it’s the real thing.”

“Marmite? But how?”

“I know a guy. Let me show you around. Gin? Not the Victory stuff, the real stuff.”

“I don’t drink gin. Not unless there’s nothing else.”

“Then maybe… Whisky? From the rebel People’s Republic of Scotland?”

“You have real Whisky?”

“I’ll get you a glass.”

The whisky was good. It warmed her from the inside. The smokey, complex flavours reminded her of what she had missed. Was it really only a month since they’d triggered article 50?

She waltzed around the warm, bright room from one person to the next. They all had something in common – they had links to Europe. A Latvian nanny, a cousin in Berlin. Even a French wife. There was a disenchantment with the powers that be that could not be voiced elsewhere.

“You fit right in,” said Fisher, refilling Marie’s glass.

“How did you know you could trust me? That I hate what’s happening, that I voted Remain?”

He pulled a picture from his pocket. Marie, twenty years and thirty pounds ago, holding a placard that said “Stop the fees.”

“That was 1998. Everyone was against student fees.”

“Not everyone had a placard. From the Socialist Workers’ Party…”

She sipped the whisky, and the light began to dim from the room, until she was in blackness.

When Marie opened her eyes she was in a small room, 5’ by 5’ with concrete walls. A woman cowered opposite her.

“Don’t hurt me, please?”

“Theresa May? Is that you?”

“Take what you want, just don’t hurt me.”

The figure opposite wore dirty, ragged clothes. She had bound her feet in strips torn off her skirt, and had smeared mouse droppings on the makeshift shoes in a tragic parody of leopard print.

“All I said to Nigel was that it wouldn’t hurt to have a parliamentary vote. I mean, the Supreme Court said we had to and I’m sure it would have gone our way. And now I’m here. Did He send you?”

“No. My head’s throbbing and I’m not sure what’s going on.”

“You’re in a bad place. You’ve pissed Him off, if you’re here.”

The door opened. Wordlessly, two men walked in and picked Marie up by the armpits. As she was carried down the corridor she could hear the Prime Minister’s pleading voice. “You’re going to see Him! Put word in for me. Tell Him old Theresa ain’t so bad. Tell Him. TELL HIM!”

A door slammed behind her. She was in a brightly lit room. In front of her, with his back turned, was a man in a tweed jacket, a pint of bitter on the table in front of him. Cigarette smoke plumed above him.

“Marie. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

The voice was not what she expected. Less plummy and more… Leicestershire. The man turned around.

“A lot about you.”

“Gary Lineker?”

“Don’t look so surprised, you’re a clever girl.”

“But you’re…”

“Enemy of the people? Come on. I tweeted bland, easy to agree with statements that gave people a chance to feel like they were rebelling. Every retweet I got was someone unthinkingly putting on an act of resistance, while never challenging the status quo. Think about it. If you wanted to control society wouldn’t you want an agreeable voice of mild dissent to distract from the real revolutionaries?”

“But you’re football’s Mr Nice. You’ve never been booked in your entire career.”

“I never needed to be booked. Why would I go in two footed when I had useful idiots to do my dirty work for me. Why would I risk my Achilles when I knew Gazza would risk his for the cause? Of course it was all more straightforward then. You knew who your enemy was. Nottingham Forest. Now… now things are messy.”

“Do you hate the European Union?”

“I don’t hate. I just do what’s best for me.”

“What did they pay you?”

“Did you never think Leicester City winning the English Premier League was… an impossible dream?”

“So who’s pulling the strings, Mr Lineker? Donald Trump?”

“That barely-sentient Wotsit? Don’t make me laugh! I may as well tell you before I kill you. The man behind all of this is…”

“Marie! Marie! Wake up!”

“Oh, darling, I was having the most awful dream.”

“You were screaming in your sleep. Can you tell me what it was about?”

“The UK had just triggered article 50 and we were living in an Orwellian dystopia… and…”

“Don’t cry darling, it was just a dream. Brexit is going swimmingly. Our jam exports are through the roof, and standards of living are almost back at 1867 levels. We have trade agreements with North Korea, Kazakhstan and that island with all the crabs, and our new “constitution-lite” is really taking the misery out of making laws.”

“You’re right darling, I’d never question the wisdom of the people who voted to leave, given all the thought they put into that. It just felt so real. I’m so sorry.”

Marie chided herself. Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of her nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. She had won the victory over herself. She loved Brexit.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is a work of satire. I think Gary Lineker is ace and would be happy to stand in front of him with a rifle come the glorious day. I have no reason to believe he is a kingpin in a huge right-wing conspiracy and I am writing this disclaimer of my own free will. Come on the Foxes!

For the further avoidance of doubt, the above disclaimer is still satire. Gary Lineker is great, and I would follow him into the quagmire of a glorious revolution, but fuck Leicester City, right? Marching on Together! *Does Leeds salute.*

A Question from Andrew

Andrew, from South Wiltshire, has taken to twitter to ask this question

Twitter post from Andrew Murrison MP that says "If judges can frustrate a referendum outcome, why not the result of a general election that isn't to their liking?"

 

Great question, Andrew! What has become apparent over the last couple of days is that many, many people in this country don’t really understand constitutional law so it’s great that Andrew is trying to better his understanding!

The United Kingdom has an uncodified constitution: that is, unlike the US we don’t have a handy document called “the constitution” that we can look at.

The US constitution

The US constitution, yesterday

That doesn’t mean to say that we don’t have a constitution! That would be silly! No, our constitution derives from many, many statutes, starting with the Magna Carta and ending (for now) with 2013’s Succession to the Crown Act. There are two very important principles that hold up our constitution – parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law.

I’m sure you know what parliament is, Andrew, as you are part of it! But for any boys or girls reading who aren’t sure I’ll explain. Parliament is the House of Commons, where our elected representatives, or MPs, sit, and the House of Lords, where appointed representatives sit. Only parliament has the right to change the law, and it can change any law it chooses. This is what parliamentary sovereignty means: the executive (that is the Prime Minister and the ministers in the cabinet) can’t just make or abolish laws because they feel like it. They need to get parliament to agree. This is important because we only usually have elections every five years, and you can do a lot of silly things in five years if no-one is there to put checks and balances on your power! MPs are also there to put forward the best interests of the people who voted for them – their constituents. If MPs don’t do that then next election their constituents might vote them out. I’m sure Andrew isn’t too worried about this, he may be too modest to say that he has a large majority so his constituents must like him very much!

One of the things the executive can do without asking parliament is to make or break international treaties. They do this using a power called “the Royal Prerogative.” It is called that because the powers belong to the Queen but by convention she lets the executive use them on her behalf. Now you don’t say this, Andrew, but I think the referendum you are talking about in your tweet is the referendum  about membership of the European Union. In this referendum the people who didn’t want to remain part of the European Union won. The executive wanted to start the process to leave the European Union without asking parliament. They thought they could do this because they thought it fell within the royal prerogatives regarding treaties. Some people including a lady called Ms Miller thought that parliament should be asked first. The court agreed with Ms Miller. You can read the judgement here. The principle of the Rule of Law means we are all equal in front of the law, even the executive when they are wielding the Queen’s Powers. You might have heard some of your colleagues who are happy about the high court result quote Lord Denning – “Be you ever so high, the law is above you.”

I know that you want to leave the European Union, Andrew, and from your tweet it sounds like you are worried that the court is stopping the UK from doing that. Well you will be pleased to hear that you needn’t worry. All the court said was that parliament must be asked first, as it will have the effect of changing the law in Britain. So (unless the government appeals against the decision and wins, which might yet happen) all it means is that you and your friends in parliament will get to talk about leaving the European Union and what it might mean for your constituents, and to vote on it. I think this is a much better idea than rushing into things, don’t you?

But to answer your question, the only reason the court have could answer the question in the first place is because they had jurisdiction to do so. Both sides agreed that this was the case so there weren’t any legal arguments about this, but most lawyers will agree that the extent of a royal prerogative is something that the High Court can decide upon.

The result of a general election isn’t, normally. I’ll let you into a little secret, Andrew, I’m not really a big fan of the Conservative Party, and when the results of the last election came in I was quite sad, because I personally don’t think that the Conservative Party are the best people to run the country. If I had written to the High Court and asked them to change the result because I didn’t think it was right do you know what they would do, Andrew? They would laugh. Probably not to my face as judges have very good manners, but behind my back they would think me extremely silly. Because “I don’t like it,” or “Andrew doesn’t like it,” or “Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd doesn’t like it,” are not legal arguments. There might be a legal argument if someone had broken the rules of the election, but we are lucky to live in a country where we have very well run, rigorously observed, elections. We are also lucky to live in a country with a strong, independent judiciary – that is another of the checks and balances of our constitution.

So don’t worry, Andrew, after the next election (which might be sooner than we thought) if your constituents still like you as much as they did last time you will still be their MP, no judges are going to get rid of you and install a judicially preferred candidate.

I hope this answer was helpful to you. If you would like to learn more about the constitution of the United Kingdom then wikipedia has a very informative page, or perhaps one of your parliamentary colleagues will be able to help.

Best wishes,

Catherine

 

Which side are you on?

photo01_0

I think we can all agree this year has been pretty fucked up.

This year, but also “my entire life” for me is divided into before and after. And the dividing line was the murder of Jo Cox. Yesterday the by-election for Jo’s Batley and Spen constituency was won by Labour. The other major parties chose not to stand out of respect (something I personally don’t agree with, but I understand and appreciate the gesture.) A handful of far-right parties did contest the by-election, That they all lost their deposits is a glimmer of hope in this car crash of a year.

Shortly before Cox’s murder, I put up a “Remain” poster in our window. My partner, James, took it down, he was worried about getting out tyres slashed or something. I scoffed at the time, but on the 16th June I decided he had a point. That was one week before the referendum. Like many people I stayed up for as many referendum results as I could. I watched the pound plummet as the Sunderland result came in. I gave in at about half three and went to bed. When I awoke, bleary eyed, the next day I reached for my phone to check the result.

“I’ve already looked,” said James. “I’m sorry.”

The economic, political and legal implications of Brexit are, at the time of writing, a complete fucking clusterfuck. There is plenty of commentary more erudite than I could supply on the constitutional implications. It all terrifies me. But a more urgent problem emerged.

For a vote that “wasn’t about immigration” it sure did release a lot of racism. Hate crimes increased. The right wing press, always unpleasant, got nasty. Wen I was a child, there was an idea that you could only be “properly British” if all of your grandparents were born here. My Grandfather (pictured above, coming over here and marrying our woman (a.k.a my Grandma) having navigated a Lancaster Bomber throughout the war) was Polish. The rhetoric wasn’t aimed at me, it was aimed at second generation West Indians and Pakistanis. But it still hurt. And now it’s back and this time it’s personal. Now it is aimed at Poles.

Not just at Poles. There’s a general, almost scattershot racism. Not most people but enough. You can’t tell who’s going to tear off someone’s hijab or punch someone in the face. Years ago I had an odd (and heatwarming) experience. I’d bought a few tins of beers from a corner shop. The (Pakistani) shopkeeper started to talk to me in Polish. I had to explain that I wasn’t Polish, well I was a little bit, but not much, and I can’t speak the language. A few other encounters in London where people have asked if I speak English have made me realise I look a bit Polish. My nose is somewhat Polish. My skintone (I’ll take the palest foundation you have) is. I have (as does my 15 year old son) my grandfather’s eyes. And that is why, on the rare occasions I catch the tube, I ostentatiously read something in English. No Kindle on the tube. A paperback, with an unequivocally English cover. As a last resort I have my accent. Flat Yorkshire vowels that are unmistakably English. I feel it’s a shitty escape, to have been born here. But I won’t take a beating for  a principle. I never felt that way before June. Before June it amused me to be mistaken for someone “really” Polish. After June it scared me.

And then things went full Berlin 1938 (you should never go full Berlin 1938.)

Things like the idea of keeping a register of foreign workers and forcing employers to publish how many of their workplace are foreign have almost slipped out of memory, because there’s constantly new and more awful stuff to get your hear around. This week:

  • Guildford Tory councillor Christian Holliday started a petition to have support for EU membership classified as a crime. (The local Conservative party withdrew the whip pretty damned quickly, to be fair)
  • The Sun has called for the dental testing of child refugees (which doesn’t work, incidentally (no pun intended)) with the headline “Tell us the Tooth” and a picture of what they claim to be a 38 year old “posing” as a child (they used the same free software that thinks my son is 25, and I am either 17 or 42 depending on the lighting)
  • Former England striker and crisp spokesperson Gary Lineker has been vilified (by The Sun, of course) for defending child refugees. Apparently he has to be 100% neutral while working for the BBC. I’m sure we all remember that period when The Sun refused to pay Jeremy Clarkson large sums of money for his shitty, ill thought out, right-wing political opinions because he was working for the BBC at the time.
  • People are actually boycotting Walkers crisps because of Lineker. I am eating double, in solidarity.
  • The Daily Express criticised Lineker for “pedalling [sic] lies about migrants” and we had to declare satire dead.
  • The far-right candidates in the Batley and Spen by-election actually heckled her successor as she paid tribute to Jo and her family.
  • Oh, and a Polish woman on BBC Question Time said she felt unwelcome since Brexit so the audience showed her how welcome she was by booing her. That showed her!

So yeah, I’m done with unity. I never really got on board with “moving on”. There’s two sides here, those who have compassion for a young person fleeing unimaginable horror and those who don’t. Those who embrace other cultures and new experiences and those who don’t. Those who see other humans as brothers and sisters, no matter where they are from, and those who don’t.

And it matters to me now. If we are to be friends still. Which side are you on?

A Sheffield Number

April 15, 1989

*Grandstand theme tune* (sing it to yourself in your head: Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun duuuuuuuun duuuuuuuun, dun dun dun dun dun dun da da!)

“Hello, two of our greatest sporting events dominate Grandstand today. One is only just beginning, the other is reaching its climax. It’s FA cup semi-final day, and Hillsborough as it has so often before provides an impressive setting for Liverpool versus Nottingham Forest, a repeat of last year’s enthralling semi, at the same venue. Villa park stages the other semi-final, Everton versus Norwich City.”

It’s semi-final day I am watching the large and slightly faded TV in my nan’s house. Sat on the brown velveteen settee beneath the cuckoo clock, bare feet on the thin carpet over the concrete floor, I have decided I want Liverpool to win. It’s an easy choice, not only are Liverpool in my top ten clubs (below Leeds, of course, but above Juventus) but Forest are manged by Brian Clough who was terrible at Leeds and we don’t like him. The other semi, well, it would be nice for Norwich to get a final but a Liverpool derby, that’s surely what we want. Not many girls like football, Dad says, but Mum used to go to Elland Road with Grandpops when he was alive, back in the Revie years. She says maybe I can go when I’m bigger and if they go up, which they might with Wilco in charge. Mum says you get more nutters in the lower leagues.

Hansen’s playing. First appearance this season! A few minutes in, there’s fans the wrong side of the perimeter fence. “Bloody scousers,” says Dad, “they’ll be kicking off.” Southampton, the teleprinter tells us, go one up against West Ham.

Back at Hillsborough, something’s wrong. Some people are on the pitch. Lots of them.

“Pitch invasion, it’s not right,” says Dad.

Mum, a veteran of the Scratching Shed end, isn’t so sure. “It looks like something’s wrong. Maybe we should turn it off.”

We don’t, not when the ref ushers the teams off the pitch. We continue to watch, to listen to John Motson’s commentary. “And there are clearly a number of fans seriously injured…

“I have to say that this was cause as far as we know not by misbehavour, except that the reason it happened, was that one of the outside gates here, was broken, and non-ticket-holders forced their way in, and overcrowded the section of the Leppings Lane end, occupied by the genuine, authentic, ticket holders.”

Some people are on the pitch. In recovery position, or not moving at all. Fans in the upper level pull people up to safety. Other fans climb the perimeter fencing.

“There has not been to my knowledge, a loudspeaker announcement in the ground…”

A memory ignites. Four years ago but to a ten year old in the dim and distant past. Some people are on the pitch. Behind them a terrace burns orange. Odsall. I scan the TV pictures of the Leppings Lane end for signs of fire but there are none.

“…There’s no question now that the problem was caused by non-ticket holders, forcing their way through a broken gate…”

Advertising hoardings are torn down for use as stretchers. Held up by eight or ten fans they look like little insects among the chaos. My Mum is mouthing to my Dad to turn the TV off but no-one can tear their eyes away from the pictures.

“I’m told without tickets.”

A blue wall of police are on the halfway line, between the Liverpool end and the Forest end. The nets have been taken off the goals at the Leppings Lane end where the Liverpool fans are.

“There was one moment, a few seconds ago, when a section of Nottingham Forest fans did taunt some Liverpool fans who raced down the pitch and at the moment the police have formed a barrier… to stop the Liverpool fans from going down there.”

The Liverpool fans have a reputation, but who doesn’t? The South Yorkshire Police have a reputation as well, even I know that.

“Desmond [Lynham] is down at pitch level.”

“I’ve been hearing the points of view of so many Liverpool fans, there are people in tears here, people who don’t understand the situation. There’s been no violence as far as the Liverpool fans are concerned, they simply said they got the wrong end of the ground. Too many tickets were given for that end of the ground and furthermore the gates were opened, tickets were not inspected and too many of their fans were allowed into the ground. There are grown men coming by me in tears. Exhausted, troubled, concerned that they’re going to get the blame for this again when their behaviour has been sound and solid.

“You had a little boy with you didn’t you? Is he OK?”

Men with tickets, stubs intact, tears streaming down their hard faces. The man’s little boy is OK. I wonder how little he is, to be allowed to go to a cup semi-final.

“As to whether the game will go on, that seems doubtful, although it hasn’t been officially called off.”

Some people are on the pitch, being taken away in ambulances.

“55 minutes later and the pitch is being cleared… I’m told that nobody from the football association or from the local police is in a position to comment at this stage.”

I don’t know at the time, but the police are busy, taking photos of discarded beer cans. Briefing the press and the Prime Minister.

“I have to draw a certain comparison with Heysel.” No you don’t. No you shouldn’t.

I don’t know at the time, but somewhere in Sheffield there’s the body of a fourteen year old boy, cold blood being tested for alcohol.

“To our knowledge there was no fighting or rioting, it was a case of those without tickets being allowed into the ground.”

I don’t know at the time, but one day I will have a son, and he will be older than that poor dead fourteen year old ever got to be, before the truth will out.

“The behaviour of the Nottingham Forest fans has been impeccable”

On the Nine o’clock News women line up at Lime Street Station. Waiting. To see who comes home and who doesn’t.

“We have a number for those of you worried about loved ones, a Sheffield number.”

At bedtime my mum hugs me extra tight.

 

 

 

 

Afterword

The sections in quotation marks are taken pretty much verbatim from the BBC coverage of the day. First John Motson, then Desmond Lynham. Both audibly upset by events. To modern eyes it seems unreal that they kept the cameras rolling. There was some litigation from relatives of the dead and injured who were traumatised by watching the BBC footage. The courts decided as they didn’t view events “through their own eyes” they didn’t have a case.

I hope I’ve made it obvious that any comparison with Heysel is erroneous. It is included purely as it was part of the coverage and to show the way the narrative changed through the day, in particular to start to push the blame onto the Liverpool fans.

I’m fairly sure I started watching the semi final. In fairness to my Mum and Dad, if I was we switched off the TV when it became apparent people were dying. It may well be I only saw the news coverage. Regardless, it stayed with me. I re-watched the original BBC live footage to write this, so I could write it as if watching the events live. That wasn’t easy. Also I feel I should make it clear my Dad never said any of the things in the piece, this is a fictional Dad for narrative purposes only. My Dad’s sound. My Mum really is a veteran of the Scratching Shed end though.

The reaction of the people of Liverpool to the terrible events of Hillsborough is inspirational. The community spirit aspired for in the home counties is for some reason derided when it happens on Merseyside. Liverpool mourned, but also organised. Liverpool fought, fought hard for justice. Lawyers, campaigners, and most of all family members of the victims worked over 16 years for justice. I did my law degree in Liverpool and came out of it with an inescapable commitment to social justice law, in no small part from the inspiration of the Hillsborough campaigners.

I’ll leave you with the words of Paul Routledge, writing in The Mirror in 2009. “If 96 had died at Ascot, they’d have had justice”

J496

Check out James Buys Things!

My partner has started his own blog. When we need something new around the house (which we have a lot recently as we’ve moved), rather than just picking the first thing that comes up on Amazon (as I would) he researches all the features, all the reviews, and buys the best one.

So far he’s blogged about our vacuum and microwave. Coming soon will be the telly and then he’s going to help me pick a new laptop for writing.

His blog is at https://jamesbuysthings.wordpress.com/

It’s Thursday Night, it’s Seven o’clock

For Proust it was the smell of a Madeleine. For me it’s Kym Sims’ only UK top ten hit, Too Blind to See It. Or, for that matter, any other of the many bouncy, hi NRG pop hits of the early 90s, all of which can take me back to my mum and dad’s front room, curled up in the bay window by the radiator. YouTube is a goldmine. The second top ten of 1992 was by no means a classic, but if pressed I could sing along to each song, and could repeat the trick for most weeks of the early 90s.

At the end of January 1992, although I didn’t realise it at the time, I saw the band that would eventually change my life. I don’t remember the first time I saw Manic Street Preachers on TV, but I know exactly when it was – 30th January 1992.

I wouldn’t get properly into the Manics for a few years yet. In January 1992 I wasn’t much into music – my main concern was updating my Match magazine wallchart, carefully writing the scores and moving the little cardboard tabs (94 for of them – one for each team in the league) into the correct slot for their current league position. The posters on my wall were Gary Speed, Lee Chapman and David Batty. But still, each Thursday, at seven o’clock, after tea and after convincing my mum that yes I’d done my homework, I would without fail watch Top of the Pops. And all those years later when I watched the performance on YouTube it clicked – I was 13 and subconciously at least, the little topless, Welshman with “You Love Us” scrawled on his chest in lipstick had made a lasting impression.

Everyone thinks that their teenage years were a golden age for popular music, but mine really were a golden age for popular music.

By the 90s the ubiquity of the music video meant that TOTP had long since dispensed with the strange and slightly sexist interpretive dance routines of the likes of Legs and Co. The frankly creepy (and it turns out we weren’t just imagining it) presenters of the 70s had been replaced and instead of lip-syncing, performers would sing live, albeit to a recorded backing track. This was a compromise to enable the show to get “serious” musicians on, while still being agile enough to react to the week’s chart.

But TOTP’s heart was its democracy.

Look back through the archives and you see some era-defining moments, but you’ll also find the one hit wonders, the novelty records, the also rans and flashes in the pan. Seal’s gentle, romantic Kiss from a Rose was in the same 1995 show (in full below, featuring Craig McLachlan in an… interesting outfit) as the Out Here Brothers’ (heavily edited) anthem to oral sex Boom Boom Boom and Julian Cope’s lovely Try Try Try. The most featured artist over the show’s 42 years was the terminally unhip Cliff Richards.

There were moments of controversy, all the more thrilling for their teatime timing. The Shaman’s 1992 dance anthem Ebeneezer Goode (sample lyric “Es are good! Es are good! He’s Ebeneezer good”) was later revealed by the band to have a subtle pro-drugs reference.

The most complained about TOTP appearance of all time was from my leibligsgruppe, the Manics. In 1994 they performed Faster, from their acerbic, bleak album The Holy Bible. Their heaviest sound was accompanied by a military dress code. This time singer James had a shirt on, but literally 25,000 people rang to complain about his “paramilitary style balaclava”. I’m assuming they were from places that don’t get many paramilitaries, as I’ve never seen a member of the Real IRA with their name written on their ski mask in tipp-ex like a slightly dangerous toddler.

Thursday evening for many teenagers wasn’t complete without their dad tutting that it wasn’t proper music and what the hell’s he wearing?

TOPT left me, I didn’t leave it. By the late 90s and last days of Britpop it had moved to Friday nights, I was now old enough for it to be pre-pub TV (TFI Friday for post-pub). This new slot clashed with Coronation Street, and ratings declined. Then the charts got small. In 2005 MP3 downloads counted towards the chart. This reflected the way people bought music, but left the chart at the whim of internet campaigns and advert soundtracks.

In 2006  the weekly show breathed its last. It lives on in our hearts, and in clips on nostalgia shows on BBC 4.

A few weeks ago I went to see my beloved Manics at Cardiff Castle. The same night the boy band One Direction played Cardiff Millennium Stadium. As I rushed out of Cardiff Central in my Manics t shirt and tiara, I nearly ran into a 12 year old girl in her 1D top and deelyboppers. We gave each other a comradely nod. Did she realise I was a terrifying vision of her future? Or was I? In 24 years time will she be going to see the 15th 1D farewell tour? Or will she be going to see what I would call a proper band? Because I never looked for serious music, for guitar music, it came crashing into my living room: shirtless, balaclava’d, angry and thrilling.

I asked my son where his friends listen to music. He said Spotify, YouTube. He listens to Radio 1 “when he doesn’t want to listen to tunes”, the once tastemaking music station now a pillar of inane “banter”. Later with Jools Holland is (like vinyl) “for old people”, MTV full of reality shows. Spotify recommends music he’ll like based on what he likes, YouTube suggests the next video on the last. There is no room to be shocked into new tastes.

Tempting as it is to say “bring back Top of the Pops”, I’m not sure we should. The top 40 today isn’t the top 40 of twenty years ago. Downloads changed everything. There are three Ed Sheeran songs in the charts at the time of writing, that would never have happened in the days of walking to HMV and buying a 7”.

Teenagers today have a hundred and one things they could be doing other than sitting down and watching BBC1 on a Thursday night. Music is everywhere for them, in the background of games, on adverts, on blaring out of tinny speakers on their phones. One thing they can do that I never could is – with one tap of their phones – tell all their friends about the great track they’re listening to. They can hear something they like on the tannoy in a shop and have bought the album in seconds. So maybe there is hope, maybe this organic sharing of music will be more democratic still, without the gatekeepers of the record companies and broadcasters. Maybe they’ll discover punk rock on their own.

But to be on the safe side, I’ve got a Clash CD  earmarked for the school run.

Mayday parade

I rarely write poetry, but when I do it’s usually about the post-industrial decline of the north. Back home in Ossett, the mayday parade was always a bit of a big deal, and used to go past our house. I wrote this about a year ago, not long after I went to visit the mining museum and the old mill that was a jeans factory burned down (those events are unrelated to reach other). For the record I came up with “poundland JFK” long before Russell Brand came up with “poundland Enoch Powell” but it’s not a massively inventive turn of phrase anyway.
Happy Mayday, whether you celebrate it as international day of the worker, a pagan event or just a long weekend.

Mayday Parade

Not New Orleans but we have transport links
to both the M1 and M62.
Not Mardi Gras – We keep the old Gods here
Up North: Fertility and workers’ rites.

The May queen and her attendants hurtle
towards womanhood in bridesmaid dresses
teenage me sneered at stunted ambition;
this will be the best day of their whole lives.

Local MPs “invited to attend”,
the mayor struts like a Poundland JFK.
The maypole bought by public subscription
when the old one rotted from the inside.

Once banners read “We export to the world!”
now riding past the burnt out mill sits our
May queen in made in China finery
Desolation reflected in young eyes.

‘Zine scene

Before Christmas, Terrible Beauty, a Manics fanzine which had been on hiatus for a while, put out a request on twitter for people going to gigs on The Holy Bible tour to send in reviews. As you will know if you know me, I was very much going and I’m not going to turn down an excuse to write about the Manics, so I volunteered. It wasn’t the same review I wrote for the blog, partly because I don’t like to recycle stuff but mostly because it’s a different audience – many of whom were probably there on the night or at least at some point on the short tour. The theme of my review (if it can be said to have anything so grand as a theme) was that the gig was not so much a look backwards as a trip backwards in time. For a moment (possibly due to heat exhaustion) I believed myself to be a teenager again – the effect wore off about halfway down the steps to Chalk Farm tube station.
Today is my partner’s 40th birthday. Unrelated to that, I took delivery of a special window-cleaning handheld vacuum (Nicky Wire would be impressed, although he probably already has one). I looked in the newly-vacuumed mirror and furrowed my brows at all the grey hairs I suddenly have; when I relaxed my forehead the lines remained. I was feeling a bit old. And then the post arrived, and there was the copy of Terrible Beauty. And when I read it about twenty years dropped off me again.
Terrible Beauty is a traditional, cut and paste fanzine – and by cut and paste I mean using scissors and PVA. There is a piece in the ‘zine about how few paper fanzines there are out there and it’s true. To a certain extent the internet has replaced fanzines. Fans can blog, chat on forums, pin pictures to Pinterest or Tumblr, write (occasionally horrifying) fan fiction on LiveJournal, tweet or (like me) bore their Facebook friends with their chosen obsession. The photocopied fanzine feels like something from a bygone era. Fanzine’s are entwined with punk and riot grrrl, but this takes me back to the 90s and, bizarrely enough, Elland Road – home of Leeds United. Leeds United fanzine The Square Ball is now a slick, professional-looking affair (although still not afraid to ask difficult questions of the club like “what the actual fuck is going on?”) But back in the mid 90s when I was a season ticket holder it was a wholly more anarchic publication full of jokes borrowed from Viz, cartoons and vulgar (but hilarious) insinuations about then recent turncoat Eric Cantona. Football fanzines remain – Chris Mason, who’s amusing yet heartfelt love letter to 2007 album Send Away the Tigers is in Terrible Beauty, writes of his non-league fanzine – but football fans have a natural weekly meeting point. Music fans are at gigs all too rarely and when they are they want to enjoy themselves not shuffle around selling photocopied pamphlets.
Manic Street Preachers aren’t the only band to have a somewhat obsessive fanbase, but it’s unsurprising that a band that proclaimed “Libraries gave us power” attract an articulate, intelligent bunch of devotees, and the quality of the writing reflects this. The Manics scattershot intellectualism has acted as a further and higher education (much further and much higher) for their fans and there’s an undercurrent of art and politics in anything Manics fans come together on.
I’m an adult – I’m 36 and my son is not much younger than some of the young fans I chat with on Tumblr and twitter. What is it about Manic Street Preachers that make me forget that? When I was young, say 19, I really thought I could change the world. Like the band, I’ve got older, plumper, had kids, bought vacuums – what Sylvia Plath wished to be spared from, the relentless cage of routine and rote, grinds one down. But then I listen to the Manics and feel that, in a small way, I could change the world. Just a little bit.
Terrible Beauty is a beautiful reminder of what can be achieved with a small group of people, some words, some photos and a pot of glue. A PDF, or a flashy website just wouldn’t quite be the same.
Long live punk. Long live ‘zines.

Thank you NHS

When Prince George was born I was pretty grumpy. I’m a republican at the best of times and the (soon to be repeated) wall-to-wall contraction-by-contraction coverage really annoyed me. I went online to a feminist knitting forum I frequent to complain that the birth had been at the la-di-da £5,000 a night Saint Mary’s Hospital. The forum (mostly US women) replied “Wow, that’s so cheap.” And they’re not kidding.

I have taken the NHS for granted. It’s just always been there for me. It cut me out of my mother’s abdomen when I was the wrong way up. It straightened out my sister’s spine. It put me on the pill. It safely (for me and for him) delivered my son. It has inserted (to date) three IUDs into my womb and (most recently) it picked up the pieces when I, showing off in front of my son, fell off a bouldering wall and managed to smash up my ankle really quite thoroughly. Never mind all the vaccinations,  scans, smear tests, check-ups and doctor’s appointments.

It did all these things regardless of my employment status, or my ability to pay. While there were ways in which I could have felt better supported in the first hours, days and months of my child’s life at no point did I think “this whole experience would have been better if it had cost the same as a large, brand new family car”.

There’s a tendency to imagine that the harried nature of A+E, the overworked nurses, the cancelled appointments are somehow the fault of the public sector. It’s a slow retreat from socialised medicine – “maybe if we had internal markets, maybe if there was competition”, “people can pay for the dentist, people can pay for glasses”. We can and should expect better from our NHS – with funding. My time in A+E was a drug addled odyssey (Me on morphine: “that was really quick!” My partner, exhausted: “We’ve been here four bloody hours!”) but even through the dubsteb beats of most of a canister of gas and air I could see they were over-run, and with a lot of people in worse nick than me (and I was not in a good state). I don’t imagine for a second there’s any difference in insurance-led health systems except a bottleneck on admission where they check credit card details. Do you really believe that nurses in a profit-led healthcare system have the time and/or inclination to sit and chat, to make a cup of tea? The private sector cherrypicks the profitable parts of healthcare, giving up when the going gets tough.

I don’t really do national pride, my being British is an accident of birth, nothing else. But I am proud and passionate about the NHS. My mum joined the NHS when I was about eight as a receptionist, and retired from it many years later as Head of Planning and Performance for a large trust. It’s not just the patients a socialised medical system works for – maybe that rise through the ranks could happen in the private sector but not very often.

The number of times I’ve seen people ask for medical advice on internet forums is astonishing. But I’ve stopped saying “go see a doctor” because too many of my US friends can’t. They can’t afford to. You have a weird lump in your boob, but you need to get your car fixed or you’ll lose your job. You feel yourself sinking back into a downward spiral of negative thoughts but talking to someone? Maybe you can get therapy when you get a better job! Seizures? Can’t get them checked out, your insurance won’t cover it. When my sister had her spine sorted out there was another girl having the same surgery. The family were American, they’d moved here (permanently) because back home they couldn’t afford the surgery. They were a nice, middle class family – who in their birth country could not afford to stop their daughter becoming a hunchback.

It’s only in comparison to this that I luxuriate in my free GPs appointments, free contraception. Nye Bevan said “The collective principle asserts that no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.” When I was first recovering from my ankle surgery I looked at the scars, the swelling, the lumps of titanium pushing out against the flesh with sadness – I used to have nice ankles. Now I look down and think “there’s civilisation”.

Thank you NHS.

The inspiration for this post:

Actor Michael Sheen,  made this brilliant speech about Nye Bevan and the NHS. It really is great, I recommend you watch the whole thing. It’s only a matter of time before the Tory knives come out for him (spoiler, he lives in LA! Which is probably nicer than where you live! OK he does that for work and to be near his kid, but it’s sunnier there than Newport. How dare he?! Champagne socialist!) He also presented a brilliant programme on the Chartists on BBC2 Wales last week, which you should also watch. And watch The Damned United while you are at it. It doesn’t have anything to do with the NHS but it’s a great film.