Posts Tagged ‘charity’


George Orwell (1903-1950)

At eight p.m. on Thursdays, the British public applaud the National Health Service. They cheer, blow trumpets and bang their pots and pans. It’s a moving show of national unity and I’m sure it’s heart-felt, but it is also deeply illogical.

Since 2010 the majority of Brits have voted consistently to elect a Conservative government. This is a political party that is ideologically opposed to well-funded public institutions and seeks instead to replace them with private ‘for profit’ provision. As a result the NHS has suffered a decade of underfunding, and was in very bad shape long before this pandemic hit. This is no great secret. It is therefore logically inconsistent for anyone to applaud the NHS who has also voted enthusiastically to undermine it.

Perhaps I think about things too much, but it leads to other curious angles on current affairs. I’m speaking of the case of a ninety nine year old man, raising millions in support of the health service. He’s done this by walking up and down his garden, aided only by his walking frame. Along with our care-workers and clinicians this gentleman deserves our admiration. But in our rush to emotion, we risk  missing the point, that he should not have had to do it in the first place. That a vital public service relies on charitable fundraising at all is indicative of our national failure. That’s the logical way of looking at it – but we do not react to the world in logical ways.

That we turn out and vote at all is an illogical act. My one vote can make very little difference to the outcome of an election. But I vote anyway. Why? Because I align myself with a set of ideals that appeal to me on an emotional, rather than a rational level. And it’s emotion, rather than logic that’s the major call to arms.

Left-of-centre politics aligns with support for properly funded public services. That’s logically consistent. But that people can vote the other way, yet also revere the NHS, suggests we humans are capable of holding two opposing ideas at the same time. It’s called ‘Doublethink’, a term we first encounter in George Orwell’s chillingly dystopian novel 1984. Doublespeak renders us vulnerable to political manipulation by our being so easily accepting of a thing as factual, when logic would otherwise deny it.

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed,…

George Orwell, 1984

We are indeed strange creatures, gifted with the power of logic and reason, yet also blinded by and carried away by our emotions. To know, and yet not to know – at the same time – it seems, is to be truly human.


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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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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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booksI’m reading a lot at the moment, enjoying working through a pile of novels I’ve been acquiring, and promising myself I’d get around to one day. Well now I have. I should add I rarely buy novels from the bookstore now, or Amazon. Sorry about that Mr Publisher, but the economy’s still broken. I know, it’s my fault things are refusing to pick up because I’m not spending enough of my relatively piddling salary on consumer goods, but I really don’t feel like it. Since we’re all in it together, as our politicians are fond of reminding us, austerity remains my watchword! Alas, while indeed we are all in it together, to shamefully misquote from a particularly famous novel, some of us are clearly more in it than others. Thus the high streets of our little market towns continue their decline, and the busiest shops of all are the charity shops.

And since austerity, in my book, means doing for a couple of quid what any fool can do for a tenner, I’m a great fan of charity shops now. On Saturdays I’m often to be found in either the British Heart Foundation, or Age Concern mooching about in their entertainment section. My spending on pleasure has plummeted as a result, but paradoxically, the pleasure I’m getting has increased ten-fold. They provide an eclectic and at times a delightfully serendipitous experience. I’m told by the more stuck up of my acquaintances that charity shops smell, and I seem to remember they do – kind of mushroomy – but since I’ve no sense of smell, I really don’t care about that.

A while back, I took a chance on a novel by John Banville – The Untouchable. It’s one of his older works, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely. It cost me £2.00. That same trip I came away with a DVD copy of V for Vendetta (£2.00) and a Stevie Nicks’ 1981 album, Bella Donna, (£2.00). That’s a lot of bang for my bucks. Of course when you go into a charity shop it’s not a question of expecting them to have what you want – more a question of wanting what they have. And often I find that I do.

By contrast this weekend, I paid full whack for a novel which I won’t name because there’s nothing nice I can say about it. I got it from the supermarket, on impulse, because I liked the cover and it had glowing reviews from big newspapers, and the blurb sold it to me really well. But when I began to read the book, I realised what the blurb hadn’t told me was it was quite an old story, written about the same time as that John Banville novel, actually, except it had been flogged to me in a shiny new cover as brand new and the next big thing.

I didn’t enjoy the story. It was an interesting premise, but the telling of it didn’t sit well with me at all, and I abandoned it half way through. I have read more engaging tales I got for free from Feedbooks, and I am not being cynical when I say I could not imagine presenting such a manuscript to an agent nowadays in the expectation it would ever be published. Yet clearly it was. Twice. At intervals ten years apart.

The John Banville story was returned to the charity shop this weekend with a lot of other books I’ve enjoyed in recent months so others might enjoy them, and so the pounds in their pockets will go to worthy causes, causes other than attempting feeble CPR on a financial system that is in any case irredeemably broken, and would perhaps be better replaced by something else. The other one, the one I felt was a cleverly packaged deceit and which therefore so aptly represents the system that has led to these dire financial straits, went in the bin.

It was a weak and futile gesture I know, but I felt cheated by it, and it was the only way I could give it the Agincourt salute it so sorely deserved, except also to say I am even less likely now to be tempted back to the glossy rows of newly published titles in the bookshops and supermarkets. I would also like to urge you all to visit your charity shop, as they are often the only bookshops still open in our little market towns these days, fortunately also among the more eclectic and interesting, provided you have no idea what you’re looking for in the first place.

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Ebook readers like the Amazon Kindle are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. They’ve gone from the back pages of obscure tech magazines to the impulse buying hotspots of our supermarkets. They’re no longer clunky and butt ugly. They no longer eat batteries. They no longer require a degree in computer science to operate. They’re stylish, and they last for months between charges. And ebooks themselves are no longer the rare, experimental things they once were; most new titles now come in both paper and electronic versions.

I’ve become more comfortable parting with real money for virtual Kindle editions. They’re usually a bit cheaper, but the main attraction for me is I can be reading that book moments after I’ve paid for it online, any time, night or day, rather than having to wait several days for the postman to bring it. It just magically appears via this thing called Amazon Whispernet. I no longer feel conspicuous in the office at lunch time, reading my Kindle. There are several of them around now, and I’m no longer ridiculed as a “gadget man” when I get mine out. And speaking as a writer, I write exclusively in the electronic format these days, because without it, I’d have no readers. You don’t need a publisher to get your book on a Kindle, you see? You can publish it yourself and distribute it worldwide, easily, and for free.

However, for all of my enthusiasm, there’s a downside, and it has to do with the natural life-cycle of a paper book, one that’s reached a balance over the centuries, but which the ebook looks set to wipe out. And I’m not sure it’s a good thing.

With a brand new paper title, we buy it and it we read it, then we hang onto it for a bit, maybe for years, perhaps re-reading it occasionally, or we might lend it out to a friend. Or, if it’s not a book we particularly value and it’s just taking up shelf-room, we may gift it to someone, or pass it on to a jumble sale, or a charity shop. From here it begins life in the second hand market, exchanging hands maybe dozens of times for a fraction of its original cover price, until it eventually falls apart and goes for pulp or landfill.

But even softbacks are surprisingly resilient, persisting in perfectly decent condition for decades. Hardbacks can last centuries. The lifecycle of a paper book can be a long one, during which the book has the potential to touch the hearts and illuminate minds of dozens of people who happen upon it. This is the charm and the romance of a paper book, also the charm and the romance of second hand bookshops where these ancient vessels are traded.

With an electronic text, however, there’s no material content, nothing to be physically traded. Another crucial difference is that, unlike that paper book, which would be labourious to copy, an electronic text can be copied instantly, and as I know from personal experience, pirated with ease. In order to safeguard against this, most new commercial titles come with electronic protection built in – known as Digital Rights Management (DRM) – which prevents the text from being easily copied and passed on. Publishers argue they have no choice but to do this, otherwise the pirates would have a field day with every new title that came out, seriously damaging the revenue they could expect to earn. But DRM also means that having bought that book, even as its owner, you’re not in control of its destiny.

It’s your book. You paid for it. But its lifecyle now starts and ends with you. You can’t lend it out to someone else. I know someone’s going to tell me this isn’t strictly true, that there is a way with a Kindle edition of re-assigning a title from your Kindle to someone else’s for a limited period – 2 weeks, I think – during which time that book isn’t available to you. But you can only do this once, and 2 weeks isn’t long, and what if you don’t finish the book in time? And what if you don’t want to lend it out, but actually give it away?Sorry. DRM won’t allow you to do that.

It’s not difficult then to imagine a future where there are no paper books any more – no more dog eared copies of our favourite authors to be discovered in the charity shop. These works, securely DRM’d would still only be available, at full price, online. If you wanted something from an author but didn’t want to pay the full cover price for an old book, well,…

You’d have to cross over to the dark side.

Naturally, the hacker community can strip off DRM protection in a jiffy, and crank out freely copyable versions of any book they like. But this is more clearly an illegal act, a deliberate infringement of copyright – in other words piracy. But it could be that this is a crime DRM technology forces upon the book reading, book loving community. Books, as vessels of knowledge and emotion will be lent among friends and they will be resold, and they will be given away, because that has always been their nature, and the restrictions of DRM technology may simply be sufficient to bring out the anarchist in all of us.

What does this mean, I wonder? Will future e-book reading devices have software built in to sniff out suspicious text, remotely delete it, or flag it up to the ebook police? Do they have it already? But it’s such a complex business, staying one step ahead of the hackers – and is it really worth it, financially I mean? Does it not risk making the ebook more expensive than a paper book? With a paper book, you don’t need DRM. In passing a paper book on, you no longer have it. Problem solved.

There’s an argument that says DRM is ultimately self-defeating, and should be discontinued, that its benefits, in terms of restricting piracy, are far outweighed by the draconian restrictions it imposes on legitimate purchasers of the material. But what if the publishers persist with it? Can we imagine a black market in Chik-lit? Or Twilight books, or Harry Potter? Can we imagine our otherwise respectable wives and girlfriends sneaking down back alleys, disguised in trenchcoats and dark glasses to get their pendrives topped up with dodgy holiday reading from lit-hacking kids with shifty expressions – and all the time the threat of incarceration or a crippling fine at the hands of the ebook police? Never has reading sounded so adrenaline pumping and dangerous!

I’m still not sure I like the idea of building up a book collection I cannot see or touch, one I have no power to lend out or sell on as I please. I don’t want to pirate the titles in my book collection, but I feel I should have the right to lend them out or give them away. I’ll also be sad to see the demise of the charity shop’s book section, from where I get most of my fiction these days. Having said all that, as I write, I’m aware I have about twenty books in my pocket right now, books I carry with me everywhere on the Kindle App of my iPod Touch. I take it out, click it on and in a moment I’m flicking through my book collection. Does it really matter that its virtual? What’s more important, a bookcase at home you can run your fingers over, or a library you can carry around in your pocket and browse any time?

This is an interesting period – a period of transition in the book reading and book writing world. The conservative in me wants to urge caution, to charm you with the romantic allure of an old fashioned book, and tell you we should we should all stick to paper while we can. But the progressive in me is fascinated by the potential of the ebook.You can, for example, access the whole of the world’s classical literature for free. Not a single title need elude you.

And for the paid stuff? Well, DRM or not, that Amazon Whispernet is still very seductive!

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