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Posts Tagged ‘austerity’

Alice Golightly had the misfortune of surviving all her family. Husband, children, brothers, sisters, all of them had gone before her, so she sailed into her nineties alone as friends, too, old and new, fell by the wayside. Among the last of the plotter girls, she’d served as a WAAF, with Fighter Command, during the Battle of Britain. Then she’d worked forty years as a formidable secretary, in one of the great manufactories, now fallen to rust. She’d spent her retirement in the bingo halls, a cheerful soul. There were holidays in Blackpool, and Marbella,…

In wartime, she’d survived a direct hit on her bunker, helped pull others, less fortunate, from the rubble, never wondering for what purpose she was spared, what purpose, this long span of life. Only now did she fall casualty, still unquestioning of the rhyme and the reason of things. A copper broke the door in, found her sleeping the eternal sleep – by now a sleight, malnourished form, under hand crocheted blankets, in an unheated room. Less mobile, and confused of late, she’d been unable to work out how to make the pension go as far as was needed. The coroner concluded she’d been subsisting on a diet of raisins, and thereby succumbed to seasonal hypothermia.

After a blur of mergers and acquisitions, the newly formed, newly fangled energy company that had taken over Alice’s supply, had risen, as if by sleight of hand, and emptied her bank account in short measure. Then it disconnected her, when she could no longer pay. Alice had been sure it was a mistake. She’d always been able to pay her way before. Official letters had couched their threats in guarded and impenetrable legalese. Her own, spidery, handwritten replies spoke of confusion, openness and old age. There was also humiliation in her appeals for explanations in terms she could understand, none of ehich were forthcoming. She had never joined the online world, wary of clever people duping her out of money, and ruining her life. Always outgoing and spirited, the walls of her world finally closed in, and Alice Golightly was heard from no more. She might have made it to a hundred, if only we had let her.

Alice Golightly’s last act was to have the undertaker’s little ambulance block the road by her house, during her removal from this world. The traffic backed up and blocked the neighbouring street, which in turn, like a series of ripples spreading out, caused a minor hold up in the middle of town.

Now, the chief executive who closed the deal that indirectly caused the disconnection of Alice’s energy supply, was an unhappy man. Three times married, he was approaching as many divorces. His daughter, from his first marriage, was in therapy, and hated the ground he walked upon. His son, from his second marriage, was dropping tens of thousands in the casinos of Monte Carlo, and seemed bent on bankrupting him. The renovation of his Oxfordshire mansion wasn’t going to plan, and the taxman was on his back. He’d have to move more of his money offshore. Life really was a bitch right now.

As his limousine cruised through town that day, it hit the traffic indirectly caused by Alice Golightly’s last act, and a sat-nav diversion took him by a line of people queuing for food handouts.

“So many homeless,” he mused.

It never failed to amaze him how anyone could be so feckless, so lacking in the work ethic, or intelligence, or whatever, to say nothing of being so damned shameless, as to line up for charity like that. His driver nodded, not wanting to tell him these weren’t actually homeless people. They were more likely workers, working precarious jobs, yet who still couldn’t feed their families, or heat their homes. It was just the way of the world right now. But the chief was always right.

It did nothing to improve the chief’s mood, of course, seeing the ugly underbelly of the world this way. It always had him wondering by what misfortune he might yet end up there himself. It was a recurring nightmare of his. The limousine slowed to a halt in heavy traffic. He tried to avoid eye contact with the people queuing there, but his eye was indeed caught, briefly anyway, by a young girl in the line. She looked to be of his daughter’s age, and as pretty a girl as he’d ever seen. Scrub her up, swap her cheap clothes for couture, and she wouldn’t look out of place anywhere in his world, he thought.

Was it only money, then, that made the difference? What was the trick that had him destined for riches, and her,… well,… to stand in line like this? The girl’s expression was blank, betrayed no emotion. Except, suddenly, she smiled at something her neighbour said, then laughed out loud, holding her sides as if to contain a surplus of mirth that threatened to rock her entire being off the pavement. Her laughter moved him. It was so open, so light, so genuine. He could not remember the last time he’d felt that way. It saddened him too, that he would never see his daughter laugh like that, and when his son laughed – as he often did – well, that was only out of scorn.

The traffic eased as Alice Golightly’s final journey got under way. The chief’s limousine moved sedately on, and he settled back in the leather, caught up in a moment of deep introspection. Then it came to him, the solution to his unhappiness! What he needed, more than anything, right now,…

Was to buy himself a yacht!

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on pendle hill

Pendle Hill Summit, December 2019

It was about six degrees in town this morning, with a light rain. It felt bitter and unwelcoming. The parking machine took most of my change, leaving little for the homeless guy sitting there with the thousand yard stare, but he accepted my bits of shrapnel with more enthusiasm than they deserved, and he called me sir. The coppers were all I could muster as symbols of my solidarity with his lot, and I felt in the “sir” a rebuff, not from him – he was grateful for anything – but more from within myself, the distance it implies, between me and him. I have never been comfortable being called “sir”.

Amid the ruins of this, my little market town, there has risen of late the paradox of a glittering high-rise that promises a “cinematic experience” and bowling, though these attractions have yet to appear. And of the quality-shopping also promised, over the years of this great carbunkle’s somewhat listless construction, only a Marks and Spencer food hall has opened. It sits uneasily like a top-hat among the ragged, alongside the vape-shops and the tattoo parlours and all the charity places.

Meanwhile I note the news-stands speak of war with Iran, the more right wing and tabloidy the title, the more strident and crass the headline, but whether to instil terror or glee I do not know. It will depend on your disposition I suppose. Me? I see only that the social fabric of the UK is in tatters, that it will improve not one jot in the decade to come, and the looming climate catastrophe is beyond help now.

Middle eastern politics never makes for comfortable reading and try as I might I’m not sure if we’ve been brought here by miscalculation or by artifice, for these are dark powers and completely beyond my knowing, but I do know another war played out as infotainment isn’t going to be fun viewing, and it’s certainly not going to fix anything that needs fixing.

Thus the New Year opens and leaves me casting round for a glimmer of hope and I am seeking it in the food aisles of M+S. A week ago I was on the top of a misty Pendle, feeling for a time that all was well. Everyone I met at 1800 feet looked fresh and happy, but that’s the tops for you and always worth the effort. It’s when you come back down to earth the shadows regroup.

I bought something for my tea, browsed the novels in Heart Foundation, but nothing took my eye. I bought a brew for the homeless guy from Gregs and walked it back up to the carpark, but he’d gone by then. So I sat in the car for a bit, watched the people cowed by winter and the flat murk that passes for daylight at this time of year, and I drank the tea myself. Milk and one sugar. That’s how I take it, but I had not stopped to think if it was all right for him.

It’s all very well, trying to help out a bit, but it’s better to pause and consider what it is that’s needed first. And maybe there’s no answer to that, no obvious place to start, which is why we’re going nowhere, and hope is so elusive.

Meanwhile I have snowdrops in the garden, green shoots appearing among the leaf-litter for the first time, and I sold another copy of The Inn at the Edge of light last night, which make two. Then I have seedlings of sweetpea to plant up for the windowsill, for planting out come spring, to bring some colour and the heady intoxication of their scent.

Small beginnings, but the best I can come up with for now.

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I suspect, like most of us who voted and campaigned on the Left, I’m still coming to terms with what happened last night. As the election results came in and confirmed a robust majority for the Conservative party, my initial reaction was one of shock and profound dismay. But more, there is this morning a feeling I no longer recognise my country, that indeed, both at home, and on the world’s stage, I am ashamed of what we’ve become.

My one comfort is I cannot say I did nothing, I cannot say I sat by, that I did not vote, that I did not stuff leaflets through doors, that I did not talk leftist politics on my blog. In short what I can say is that what’s coming is not my fault. But there’s no real comfort in that, and I’m sorry I could not have done more.

There was nothing wrong with what we stood for. It was just that Brexit overshadowed everything, and “getting it done” turned out to be more important to the nation’s addled psyche than anything else, plus of course an unspeakably vile media that demonised the Left’s every utterance. But the Left ran a decent, wholly positive campaign, and I’m pleased to have played my tiny part in it. As for the other lot, well, what did we expect?

My sense is that the Labour party has lost a good man in Jeremy Corbyn. It was for the ideals embodied in him that I have taken to the letterboxes over the years, and I suppose the danger now is that all those who, like me, were inspired by his more compassionate and cerebral brand of politics will turn away, tear up their membership cards, and cancel their subscriptions to the Guardian and Novara Media. But we mustn’t do that (well okay, the Guardian bears some responsibility and I’m sorely tempted).

Yet if we look back, significant changes have occured and the Left can build on those foundations. Strong, charismatic media voices are emerging, also the independent platforms to support them, though sadly, as yet, far from mainstream. Only if Labour returns now to being a Tory-lite party will I feel I have no one I can vote for, and that, I suppose, once again, is the battle now facing us – for the soul of Labour, indeed the soul of the nation. The Conservative party has no soul – no matter what bland platitudes it will utter today about healing the nation and being the people’s party – it has already demonstrated in spades its utter contempt for both.

The future? Well, the Brexit argument is lost and Brexit will happen now, at the hands of the most mendacious, vacuuous, right-wing administration this country has ever seen. The fallout of that separation will begin in January when the direction of departure is finally set and our passports turn blue. But it won’t actually be “done” for another decade. Brexit is just beginning and the only positive thing to be said about it is the incumbent administration fully owns it, must make it work and lead us all to glory as they’ve said they can.

Everyone else’s hands are clean of it.

As for the rest, who knows? The Conservative manifesto was notably light on detail, but they can pretty much do what they like with such a majority and we can only take the past decade as an indication of what that might actually mean in practice. And in practice it means more of the same, it means the brighter, more inclusive and compassionate future I had hoped for our country, and my children’s place in it, is held once more in check, but on the upside it’s all still there to fight for. Same as it always has been.

No more talk of politics for a while. I’m heartily sick of it.

On second thoughts, I’ll leave the last word to George:

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Mosaic (1)In light of the upcoming UK election, I’ve been poking around the Internet absorbing political discourse outside of the mainstream. But whether you’re skimming the pithy, potty-mouthed missives of the social-media comment boxes, or the more long-form partisan essaying (like this one) on WordPress, it’s apparent there are crackpots at all levels, and on both sides of the political divide. And worse, once we enter the online world, all we end up doing is living in a bubble of our own prejudice.

So who do we listen to for a balanced view when so much of the mainstream print media is unashamedly right wing? Can we even trust the BBC, when their flagship current affairs programmes make a point of “reviewing” those unashamedly right leaning print headlines? Do we go with our brains, or our gut? Is our vote not swung more by the cut of the candidate’s suit, regardless of what they actually say? Is it worth voting at all?

On the one hand, politics is a dirty business, where what is right and proper is often sacrificed on the dubious altar of Realpolitik, where monumental complexities are brushed aside by fatuous slogans like, “Get BREXIT done”. So perhaps we are wise to keep our distance. But on the other hand politics determines the course of all our lives, so is it not as well to at least keep a weather eye on which way the wind is blowing? And anyway, we can’t help but be involved; that gold-plated super-car purring around Knightsbridge, and the homeless man begging in the boarded up doorway of a once prosperous provincial town? both are the consequences of political decisions taken over the last decade, and we have all played our part in that, either by the votes we cast, or by our apathy in not bothering to turn out and vote at all.

Is politics just too complicated to analyse intellectually? Admittedly my own views are partisan and simplistic. In any nominal democracy I see there is a party of the poor and a party of the rich, and then there’s the money. The party of the poor implement policies that direct the flow of money towards the poor and the services that support them, while the party of the rich do the opposite. Since there aren’t that many rich people, the genius of the party of the rich is to convince the poor to vote for it, and to blame their resulting impoverishment, the decay of their public services, and the wasteland of opportunity for themselves and their children on immigration and the scourge of the “foreigner”.

I’ve noticed when my left-of-centre colours are revealed, and particularly in recent times when people have become less reticent about giving offence, I tend to hear the same words: communist, terrorist-sympathiser and anti-semite, all within about ten seconds. The first two of these I find ridiculous and quite shallow, while the latter I find hurtful. But any attempt to deepen discourse and explore what might lie behind these vexed issues is met only by a hardened dogmatism.

It seems that once we have chosen our colours, we tend to stick to them. I have no doubt the party of the rich will do well in this coming election, even though they offer only more of the same. The message of the party of the poor offers far less suffering, but, incredible as it might seem after this lost decade, I fear not enough of us have suffered deeply enough to be receptive to their message, or the boldness of their vision.

Of the party leaders, I am told Boris Johnson is charismatic and affable, and I’m sure he is. But when I point out his widely reported shortcomings, to say nothing of his colourful and often outrageous pork-pies, they are celebrated as merely Boris being Boris. Of Jeremy Corbyn, I am told: “I could never vote for him”. Why? Because he’s useless and scruffy, and not sufficiently “prime-ministerial”. True, his suit, like mine, is more M+S than Jermyn Street, but he seems perfectly well turned out to me, and no one who has held his own fractious party together under three prime ministers while demolishing the majority of the latter administration in the 2017 election can be dismissed as entirely useless either. As for not being prime-ministerial enough, well,… its clearly a matter of opinion, but opinion – ill informed or not – does seem rather set against him.

As for the actual policies proposed by Corbyn’s Labour party – things like free superfast broadband for all, a national education service, re-nationalisation of privatised utilities – I’m told by armchair economists, we could never afford such utopian marvels, that the country would be ruined, that there is no “magic money tree”, which is all to suggest that staggering levels of poverty and the ruin of our national institutions are inevitable and a normal consequence of world affairs, all of which to my eyes suggests we are already bankrupt, both morally and fiscally.

When I ask, did the Conservative party not find the fabled “magic money tree” and shake it down for a billion pounds to purchase the support of the Ulster Unionist Party in 2017, that staggering sums of money can in fact be found under certain circumstances – and all this after denying the health service much needed investment – I find the discussion once again runs foul of entrenched dogmatism. It’s just too complicated. Instead we hear: “Get Brexit done”, “Delay and dither”, “Oven ready solution”. Such slogans solve nothing, but like all slogans they are effective in drowning out intelligent discussion.

The lesson in all of this, of course, is that the majority of voting in this coming December’s election will proceed along the usual entrenched lines, that the outcome – be it another hung parliament or a landslide – will be decided by a handful of floating voters in marginal constituencies who are seduced down from the fence to support one side or the other.

In spite of the late season, and the reported apathy among business leaders and voters in general, the coming election is an important one, both for the UK and, indirectly, for Europe. It’s like a boxing match into round-fifteen when we’re so punch drunk and weary we’re barely on our feet any more, capable of only one last shot, so we’d better make it count. It will determine whether the majority of us continue to limp along the same old lines of interminable declinism, or we try another way. At this stage, I am by no means optimistic. Still, we should vote as we see fit. Indeed, come rain snow or shine, we must all turn out on the 12th and vote or, whatever the outcome, we will have only ourselves to blame.

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grayscale photo of human lying on ground covered of cardboard box

Photo by THE COLLAB. on Pexels.com

I caught the train at nine. It was smooth, sleek, and spotlessly clean, purring into the station bang on time, just like they do in Switzerland. There was plenty of room on board, though it was peak commuter period and we were heading into Manchester. I paid with my smart-phone, tapping it to the reader on the seat-back, and the seat folded down for me to use, smooth as silk, invited me to stretch out, to settle in the air-conditioned cool, and the train moved out with barely a sound.

They used to be so expensive and so rough I’d rarely ever take one, but now you’d be a fool not to. Much better to leave the car at home, not because the roads are so busy any more, because they’re not; it’s simply a relaxing way to travel, and the service is so frequent you never have to wait more than a quarter of an hour. It truly is the height of luxury, and cheap as chips. I’m told tourists the world over admire our rail-network. And if you’ll forgive me a moment of jingoism, it makes me proud to be British. Not that it was always like this.

It’s free to stand of course, and I did wonder about doing that, journey time into town now being only around a smooth ten minutes, when it used to take nearer a very jerky thirty, and most of that would be standing up because there were always too few carriages, and the old timers remind me we still had to pay the regular fare whether we go a seat or not, and all of us squished in like sardines. I didn’t suffer that indignity very often because mostly I used to drive, sit nose to tail on the M61 instead where the journey time could be anything up to an hour. It’s a wonder we put up with it, but I suppose we’d no choice back then.

My fellow passengers looked well dressed, clean, healthy and happy. It makes a difference, having a bit of money in your pocket. It took a while for things to pick up this way, but over the years I’ve watched that standard of living – modest though it is in most cases – piecing back people’s self respect, people’s dignity. But it’s also their sense of security, don’t forget. It’s hard to smile when you’re always looking back over your shoulder, worrying you’ll get fired for taking so much as a pee in work’s time. So all we fear now are the age old bogies of death and whether our kids will pass their exams, while from what I can gather, in the old days people were afraid of everything. Even rich people were afraid, though mostly what they were afraid of was being poor.

I remember my grandmother telling me how, well into the twenties, people used to go hungry even when they had a job. Wages were so poor they couldn’t afford to eat, she said – and even though she and granddad were both putting in sixty hour weeks, they could barely keep body and soul together, and that’s what finished him in the end. By the time he was forty, he looked seventy. It got so bad the charities had to set up food banks to stop people starving to death. It was like slavery, I suppose. Can you imagine that? It must have been so hard, so undignified having to go cap in hand for a free tin of beans. But what else could people do? I would sooner have died, but that’s easy for me to say, looking back from the luxury of these more enlightened times.

And there’d be people without homes, she said, though I’m not sure I believe that. Indeed a lot of what Gran told me about those days I take with a pinch of salt. I mean, I can’t imagine anyone letting things get so bad. They lived out in the open – these homeless people – summer, winter, rain or shine, lived in doorways or the better off had tents, the numbers rising year on year until you were stepping around them, even in the provincial market towns. But you’d see them out in the countryside too because they’d be set upon by yobs in towns and it was safer for them, out in the green – though many of them starved to death there for want of coin, or they froze in the cold snaps and Gran said the council would have to go out and collect the bodies.

I do remember there being really poor people, back when I was a kid and how all the cars stunk and belched gas, and I remember too my dad arguing with the landlord over the rents that kept going up and up, and having to move around a lot because they could kick you out for no good reason. Landlords could be the worst kind of scum back then, empty a man’s pocket before he’d even bought bread for his family.

We should be grateful I mean that our parents’ generation took the stand they did, or where do you think we’d all be now? Still, you wonder if you’d have the determination yourself if you were nailed to the ground by such grinding poverty all the time. I suppose if you were hungry enough, and living in a tent,…

But just listen to me, harping on about the old days, like I ever had it bad myself.

 

 

 

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Will we crash out of the European Union without a deal? Will we get a deal that resembles staying in but then has us wondering why we came out? Will we get a vote on the final deal, with an option to call the whole thing off? And if we do, will we stay or will we vote again to leave anyway? And what about the Irish border problem? How on earth are we going to solve that? Will there be a general election before BREXIT hits the fan? And will that make things better or worse? And if the other lot gets in, what will they do about BREXIT?

These are just some of the questions boiling in the mix right now and so dominating government and media energy you’d be forgiven for thinking all the other problems have gone away. But your average citizen, having cast their vote, and thereby collectively agreeing to bring this thing on, is now relegated to a position of powerlessness, unable to expend their pent-up energies doing anything other than shouting at the telly. I think this sense of powerlessness is having a demoralising effect on the nation’s soul, or at any rate it is on mine. The lessons of past crises tell us it’s better to feel one is doing something, even if it’s only to grant us the illusion of preparedness, like the way our grandparents melted pots and pans, supposedly to make Spitfires.

But what can we do?

Most of the scenarios I’ve played forward suggest an immediate, short term crisis, followed by a longer term decline of living standards, and that’s without being unduly pessimistic. Come hard or soft BREXIT, there is an overwhelming sense the future will be a lot smaller than it was, while for my children, now young men just starting out, I fear there is no future at all, at least not in terms I understand. At twenty two, I relished my chances, my opportunities, but now the best option for our youth is to put on a backpack and go bum around the world, see what there is of it, because there’s nothing left at home worth saddling up for beyond minimum wage drudgery. But then, even without BREXIT, things weren’t looking too good anyway, so what’s the difference? And maybe that’s why BREXIT happened in the first place.

There’s not much we can do about that longer term decline but, short of running to the hills with all those sharp knived Preppers, we can at least take small, practical, sensible non-weaponised steps to minimise the personal impact of the crash and ease ourselves into that brave new post-BREXIT world. For my own preparedness I began a BREXIT cupboard some time ago, adding an extra meal into the weekly shop: dried stuff, tinned stuff, cereals, porridge, and lots of custard! I’ve also brushed up on things like how to make your own bread. I think we should plan on having two weeks of non-perishable meals in reserve.

Britain’s is no longer self sufficient in producing food, you see?  it’s actually down to about 75% at the moment. It’s not that we’re going to starve, exactly – I mean we won’t – but there’ll be shortages and all of that made worse by the media screaming PANIC, and that’s even before the lorries carrying the stuff we don’t grow ourselves get bunged up at the Dover-Calais crossing. (Even I know Dover-Calais is the pinch point of Anglo-European trade)

But I predict fuel will be a bigger problem. Our refineries have been in decline for decades, so we’re now a net importer petrol, diesel and aviation fuel. The question is how much of that comes from the EU? I don’t know, it’s hard to get at the actual figures, but it doesn’t take much to trigger a fuel crisis – just a whisper in the raggedy arsed press will do it. Anyone in doubt should read back over the September 2000 shortages to get a feel for what that might mean. And roughly, what it means is if you rely on a car to get to work, by the second week after BREXIT, you’ll have run out.

I don’t suggest stockpiling petrol because it’s dangerous. I keep a can for my mower, and I’ll make sure it’s full. I have a spare car, and I’ll make sure that’s full too, but that’s the best I can do. If you’re in work and commuting by public transport, you’ll be okay. Rationing will favour the public transport system. Emergency services will be okay too, designated filling stations being declared strategic and ringed off by cop-cars – at least that’s what happened last time. The rest of us are on our own.

When I’ve run out, I’ll be taking time off work, book some holidays, and I’ll spend them tidying the garden or something, by which time, hopefully, there’ll be some sort of organised rationing. I’ve no intentions of queuing around the block for hours like I did in 2000, and fighting for every last drop.

I haven’t gone the whole hog and factored in prolonged power cuts and such-like (we’re not exactly self sufficient in power generation either), though I do remember the ’74 miner’s strike, so it may be worth stocking up on candles and camping gas. But that’s for a really hard BREXIT and will be the least of our worries. In that scenario, along with empty supermarket shelves and no fuel for transportation, the government’s own planning suggests we’re about two weeks from a state of emergency. I don’t know what that means, never having lived through one.

We managed it in 1939 of course, but Britain was a very different country then, and the enemy was easy to spot, plus we had those glorious Spitfires to rally our spirits. Now it’s hard to say who or what the enemy is, where it’s coming from and what possessed it in the first place. But I’m hoping, worst case, that by the time my BREXIT cupboard is empty the Red Cross will be delivering food parcels – maybe even out of Brussels!

I know that’ll stick in the craw of many, but I’m not proud. In spite of everything, I remain a European man. But another lesson of those power-cuts in the seventies was that I used to enjoy them. If you’ve a candle, you can read a book, and if your car’s no petrol, you can take a walk.

So, chin up. Keep calm, and carry on.

 

 

 

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What bit o’ brass there is these days,
Has been raked up by the few,
While bits of grubby copper’s
All that’s left for me ‘n you.

An’t gaffer’s got us number see?
So we’re at ‘is beck and call.
We’d gladly tell him t’ shove it
But we’ve got no rights at all.

So he’ll call us up in’t morning
With a measly bit of time,
Then tell us when we gets the’er,
He’s gone and changed ‘is mind.

So we sez, what about us travel, like?
And he sez don’t come that with me,
There’s plenty more where tha’s come from,
So tha’ mun take it, or tha’ mon leave.

So we fairly tugs us forelock, like,
And we quietly slings us hook,
While us thoughts is turning darkly,
To the pages of us book.

We keeps this little book dost see?
Stops us burstin’ into flames.
Don’t let the bastards grind you down,
But tha’ mun write down all their names.

It’s not like tha can do ow’t else,
Or like tha’s ever gonna win.
But when tha’s passin through them pearly gates,
Tha’ mun quietly hand it in.

No, there’s not much brass around these days
And its been taken by the few,
While bits o’ grubby copper’s
All that’s left for me ‘n you.

Peter Loo

1819

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A small market town up North, far less prosperous now than it once was. It was the place to go when things were needed that the corner shop in my outlying rural village could not provide. But nowadays the town does not provide that either. I mostly order my needs off the Internet, and the postman delivers.

In memory, probably rose tinted, it was a prouder place back then. Do I imagine that on Saturday afternoons people would dress up to go shopping? Men would wear clean shirts, jackets and aftershave, ladies their fashionable dresses, high heels, and lipstick. Film actresses have walked Market Street in their finery on the Saturday afternoons of my childhood, crossed the road by Woolworths on their way to Boots. Marylin Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall. I have seen them all on the catwalk that was the pelican crossing by the old Town Hall.

There were innumerable family businesses here, names over doors that had stood for generations – bookshops, shoe-shops, florists, shops for artists, photography shops, all gone now and the town has dissolved into a place of thrift, of bookmaking, of pawn-brokering, e-cigs and of bargain booze. And in their passing something has happened to us.

I don’t know when it happened, or how, or why, or even what I mean exactly. It’s more than money, more than the economy. It’s hard to put a finger on it. I could use a word like respectability, but risk accusations of elitism and a hankering after the nineteen fifties, when working men still doffed their caps to toffs.

As I walked Market Street this afternoon, I heard a group of women plainly from a hundred yards away, fag-raw voices much amplified by alcohol. I thought they were fighting, but they were simply talking, oblivious to the obstacle and the spectacle they created on the pavement. Of course such unselfconsciousness can be argued as a virtue, not caring to live one’s life through the eyes of other people, and hurrah for that, I suppose, but at the risk of sounding like an insufferable snob, there was something unpleasant about their laddishness, something embarrassing, even threatening. Oh, I’m sure had they read my mind, intuited my feelings they would have given me the finger, and well deserved.

Grace. I think it’s the loss of grace I mean – the grace of the actress, of the ballroom, of the dancer – it’s gone from all our lives now, though I’m aware of how ridiculous that sounds. Yet I still search the crowd for it – in vain mostly – seeing only rags instead of finery, and stout, hideously tattooed stumps in place of dancers’ legs. I have largely withdrawn such sensibilities into imagination, hesitate to express them.

And charity shops.

We have a lot of charity shops now, a dozen at last counting. They are the only places capable of thriving, the only reliable landmarks on the high street – all else is pitifully feeble, ephemeral. They smell, don’t they? I used to find it off-putting – something unclean, I thought, and for a long time resisted the plunge – just one more step in my own fall from gracefulness.

It helped I could find decent books in there, good novels, literature, a handful for a fiver and just as well in straightened times – for such an appetite would cost fifty quid from a bookshop and quite out of the question. But there are no bookshops any more.

I like the Heart Foundation. Their books are well ordered, easy to scan, always a generous selection. And that’s where I saw her.

She was tall, slim, a voluminous cascade of seemingly luminescent blonde hair falling down her back. She had an upright posture, head balanced with a dancer’s poise, chin up, directing her gaze as she swept the titles with a leisurely, bookish grace. She wore a pair of snug blue jeans and a green shirt over a cream camisole – not a young woman by any means, forties perhaps,… and so far so much of a cliche.

The movie cute-meet would no doubt have been our fingers reaching out for the same title, something by Sebastian Barry perhaps – always a hard find in a charity shop. Our fingers would brush, then we’d each draw back with an embarrassed laugh.

“After you,” I’d say.

She’d smile, blush, reveal endearing dimples and a row of Hollywood perfect teeth. “No, you first. I’ve read it anyway. You like Barry?”

And thus we would connect, two lost, bookish souls finding succour among the cast offs in this wasted northern town, which seemed at once less wasted for her presence in it.

Poise. Yes, it was her poise that caught my eye, her arm gently reaching up to the book-shelf, something of a reserved curve to it, ending in a languorously relaxed hand, only the index and middle fingers forming a stiffly extended double pointer as if to aid in this most delicate act of intimate divination, or to bless.

Stillness, grace, presence. She had presence. But what was she doing there, a woman like that? She was quite, out of place, out of time.

I was beside her at the bookshelf, but only for a moment. No cute-meet here. I felt my presence as a vulgar intrusion upon such grace and visceral femininity. I feared her effect on me could not go unnoticed, that I would disturb her, make her uneasy, that her grace would stiffen, become angular with suspicion, that by observing it, I would destroy it.

I felt stung then by something very old, a feverishness overcoming me, ancient but familiar. I have taught myself over the years of useless infatuation, successfully I believe, to see women as human beings. It’s what they want, they tell me, this elimination of objectification. But without the object, the symbolism also dies, and love is next to divinity. Yet here was one out of the blue coming at me as a goddess again.

I melted away unseen.

What was all that about?

Chapter one, I think, that’s what all that was about!

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mazda southportFull moon and a Spring tide draws me to the coast. The coast for me is Southport, North West England, a place you rarely catch the sea – at least not splashing up against the promenade, even at high tide, so the opportunity is not to be missed. I have in mind an hour’s stroll along the front, and some sea air, but I am an hour late in arriving and the tide is already on its way out, a slow peeling back of muddy foreshore puncturing my boyish optimism.

Instead I am faced with a dilemma. To park on the promenade for just an hour now is over a pound. I fumble for change, but it seems an extravagance given the receding tide and the all pervading mood of “Austerity”. Do I stay, or do I just go home? I split the difference and drive to the Ocean Plaza instead where it’s free to park so long as you intend buying something.

I buy coffee.

Two pounds buys a medium Americano at the Pausa Cafe  in Dunelm Mill. Luck gets you a balcony table overlooking fabrics and curtains. The coffee is really good.  I come here a lot on wet weekends – for the coffee, not the fabrics.

When I sit down I’m thinking about the work in progress, a novel that seems intent, as usual, on self destruction about three quarters of the way in. Such single minded preoccupation is irrational when it doesn’t matter a damn if it’s ever finished or not, and will in any case never make me a bean. It’s just a vast puzzle to be solved, something satisfying only to my convoluted psyche, the end result being something I have made and can post online. And it gets me out of bed.

A couple of overnight pings in response to a sample posted on the blog have revealed potential avenues for exploration, and I’m thinking about those. My thanks to elmonoyd on Wattpad, and Steve on WordPress. I make notes, add them to the mix, let them stew. Then I fall back on the secondary preoccupation: the apparently perilous state of Western Civilisation, its dearth of progressive leadership, its alarmingly retrograde motions this past twelve months, and its lack of answers to the most pressing questions of our times.

What now after the collapse of Capital?

The world is disintegrating on so many levels, and no one knows what to make of it, let alone what to do. The best us Brits can come up with is Brexit, God help us, but that’s like sawing off the branch we’re sitting on. Me? I’m done. All I have in mind now is a little cabin in my back garden, so when retirement comes, soon I hope, I can sit in it and make writing the sole purpose of my life, instead of just a hobby.

My solution to the world’s ills then will be to get up at nine in the morning, instead of six, and never have to commute another fucking mile – a sort of wry three fingered salute. Of course there will be no more purpose in this than there is to my writing now. But I feel too old these days, and too muddled to make a difference to anything more worthy. I see my life’s challenge as simply not to waste any more time moaning about stuff I cannot fix.

But there’s a snag, and it’s to do with the energy of reaction. We’re ten years into a recession, though no one’s actually calling it by that name. In the broader picture it is the sudden acceleration of a decline that’s been steadily ongoing since the seventies – in practical terms by this I mean the availability of well paid work for working men, and free education so the sons of working men can aspire to better paid middle class work. Irt is the struggle of the majority against the minority.

But that’s all over now.

Think about it.

Things are no better, ten years on, employment trends being to divest the employers of all responsibility for employees, while driving wages down to Victorian levels that fall short even of subsistence. In the mean time it overhangs everything, like a chest infection, every breath we take a reminder of its cloying presence, that foul delusion of our times: Austerity.

Is my little cabin still a viable proposition? Sure I can build it, but can I really close the door on a world gone mad, retreat into my fantasies? On the one hand I don’t see why not since I can do nothing about any of this. Putting the world to rights is for the pub, and self indulgent blogging, but on the other hand it seems morally bankrupt to turn my back when the generation I have nurtured in hope and optimism is left with no future and no credible leadership of any colour at all, and there is only the turmoil of populism and layer upon layer of toxic social media to inform opinion.

What the hell?

Suddenly I’m aware the old girl at the table behind me is talking too loudly and has nothing nice to say about anyone. Then there’s a sharp mouthed mother shouting abuse at her child for dolloping something on the table. A baby squeals loud for hunger, for comfort, for sleep. It seems my troubled thoughts are sending waves out into the world, unsettling it. Time to move on before I bring the ceiling down as well.

I look in Pound Stretcher and Matalan while I’m passing, further justifying my free parking, but they are drab and uninspiring this afternoon, and I don’t buy anything. I never do. I cannot help but think big out of town shopping centres like this will all be gone soon – nothing to sustain them with the world and his dog on minimum wage. Then all we’ll have will be our threadbare highstreets with their thrift shops, their pawn shops and  their pay-day loan sharks.

And coffee shops, I hope.

I return to the car the long way via the end of Southport Pier. It adds perspective, and a glimpse of emptiness, of infinity.

It begins to rain.

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stannesIt’s sad the way our highstreets continue abrading to rags under the slow, austere grind of what is now fast approaching our lost decade. I have not been to Saint Annes on Sea since the nineties so, when I returned this week, I found the changes here particularly striking. It was always a very well heeled town – ladies in fur, trailing strings of cute Dachshunds, and old gentlemen in blazers with regimental badges sewn into their top pockets – I exaggerate of course, but I think you know what I mean.

Today I counted eight charity shops, and noted with some sadness the boarded up remains of JR Taylor, which I’m informed closed in January 2015. JR Taylor was an upmarket, independent department store, much favoured by the affluent middle class of the region. Back in the day I remember admiring a jacket here that would have cost me a hundred and fifty quid. I put it back, being more of an M+S man by instinct. I note the very serviceable jacket I’m wearing today however came from a charity shop. It cost a fiver. Note also, dear reader, I’m carrying a couple of paperbacks, also charity shop finds, having spent a pound on what would have cost me twenty quid in a bookshop. Perpetual austerity certainly alters ones perspective on value, so perhaps I’m as much to blame for the decline of the highstreet as anyone..

I have made no other purchases, so it’s been a cheap day out.

I’m still in work, not struggling, especially, but I’m fortunate in that respect, and you think twice these days when, contrary to the official employment figures, half the country seems out of work and chasing the same small pool of rat’s arse service sector work. Clearly there’s not the money any more to support the likes of a JR Taylor, nor indeed any of those traditional household names for very long.

Names familiar since childhood have been replaced with e-cig shops, cash converters, and no win no fee solicitors. Opiates, Pawn and “sue the pants off anyone in the hope of a windfall, for sure as hell it’s the only way you’re ever going to feel better and make any money”. It’s the same in every other provincial town, certainly in the North of my knowing, but seeing it here in St Annes today saddens me. I had been hoping for – I don’t know – an oasis of genteel refinement amid the desert of eternal austerity.

Our towns complain loud and daily of the message we are now firmly a minimum wage, dead end society, void of future, void of hope, at least in any material sense. Meanwhile, our children, enthused by fresh degrees in this and that, are weighted down with the slavery of State sponsored debt while competing even to stock the shelves of privateer supermarkets and to shift iPhones on commission, at the mercy of the Spivs who own them. Throughout long, soporific Powerpoint Presentations, in league topping colleges and Universities up and down the land, they were promised the earth, and then betrayed.

If you’re reading this while sitting anywhere between the eastern boundary of western Europe and the Pacific Coast of the USA, you’ll know what I mean. And I say this not as a political statement, nor less a rallying cry to the forces of opposition – such as they are – but more as an observation, and perhaps a little detached – at how remarkable our fallen position, and how understated it is in the usual media.

Capitalism has failed as an economic system. I don’t think there’s anything controversial in saying this now, no other conclusion to be drawn. It crashed and burned in 2008, wiped out with it the entire western world, at least in so far as we were led to believe in it, and certainly for the working person and the middle ground of the middle class, and that’s ninety percent of us in the same boat now, disenfranchised, and with the scales of delusion removed from our eyes. The rich of course will thrive under any circumstances, so they may not even have noticed yet the gatherings of the thrift-shop ragged at their gates.

So, I turn my back on the old town, my memories of better times, tuck my dog eared paperbacks under my arm, and I make for the sea, for the pier where there is still the cheery ring and zing of  slot machines, the scent of beef fat and chips, and a nostalgic tiddley-om-pom-pom from an electronic busker on the promenade.

The tide is out.

It goes out a long way here and comes in fast, revealing both the pristine hope of renewal with each ebb, yet also the fleet footed treachery that might befall the unwary at times of flood. These are the time’s we’re in. It is what it is, and we must deal with it as best we can.

I buy ice cream and sit down to think, venture a photograph of the pier, which I imagine I could Romanticise with the use of a digital filter.

That’s the advantage of a seaside town I suppose. You can always turn your back for a while on the decay of the interior, gaze out to sea and dream of better days, perhaps even filter out an uncomfortable reality with the combined distortion of imagination and technology. These are uncertain times for sure, unlike any I have known. There is an anger, and a sense we are being taught the language of blame, as politics lurches into the quagmire and the rabid slogans of the right, and the left still can’t get itself in gear.

I hope our young are immune to hatred, that the crass incitements of the bigots and the racists, and their appalling media, who blame it daily, as they have for a hundred years, on “all these damned foreigners comin’ over ere”, fall on deaf ears, and we, the old and the middle aged who, I’m afraid to say tend to be more often vilely bigoted and racist, will die out before we pass on our unwholesome views and genes.

But damn, it could be so much better than this! I mean, we’re human, and it’s never going to be Shangri-la perfect. But this is heading in the wrong direction entirely.

As I sit in pale sunshine on the promenade, a woman passes with a string of dogs, cute little Dachshunds – at least in my imagination. The dogs are circling, creating an unholy row as they snarl and yap at one another. They entangle her legs, threatening to trip her over. She admonishes them to no effect. The racket drowns out even the vaguely cheerful tiddley-om-pom-pom.

A cloud takes the sun, and casts a chill.

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