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Strange Days – Corona Mania

We seem to have collectively stumbled into a dystopian novel. Or a disaster movie. It’s like we are waiting for someone to shout ‘Cut!’ and we can go back to normal life.

I had thought it would take a new world war to reduce the global population, exhume the negative energy within our species and level out humanity’s greed. That may still be the case, but this pandemic is giving us a pretty good dress rehearsal.

There is no other story in the news. It’s wall-to-wall corona virus. And as we increasingly work from home, with the 24-hour rolling news cycle it can become all-consuming. Family conversations, online chats and posts – there really is no escape.

And as we line up to condemn the panic-buyers and hoarders, we can’t help but glance at our own fridges, freezers and cupboards and wonder if we have enough. Should we fill our cars with petrol? Should we buy those unfamiliar rice sachets, that tinned meat, the long-life milk that always tastes so awful?

Our leaders really are in a no-win situation. Whether to go draconian or try to pace the hysteria. I’m reminded of the periodic snow plough arguments. How the UK is occasionally paralysed by infrequent snowfall, which results in mass calls for better preparation. To be followed inevitably by images of idle snow ploughs on every motorway “just in case” and the ensuing chorus of what a waste of money. Sometimes you really can’t win.

We are the rarest species. Capable of great achievement and great stupidity. Incredibly moving compassion and shocking selfishness. Some gaze admiringly at the great minds of the day and others lick their lips at how they can profit from others’ genius and the masses’ deepest fears. For every selfless good Samaritan lending a hand, there is a huckster ready to line their own pockets.

This crisis will bring out the best and worst in all of us. And whilst it will be tempting to make judgements on others, the recent commentary about mental well-being should be remembered: You really have no idea what someone else is going through or dealing with – so try to be kind. You see six loaves of bread in their basket and think them excessive; they see what they can afford, as they stress about feeding a family for the next week, with very little money.

It’s useful at times like these to reflect on some other things that we may all agree on:

  • Our stretched National Health Service staff are usually doing their very best to help us (whilst taking care of their own family/friends)
  • Most of us love our Mums, family and friends – and want them to be OK
  • We have absolutely got to try and find a way to have a laugh about all this – no matter how bad it gets, if we lose our sense of humour then we really are doomed

I remember when I first moved to Watford many years ago, I lived in a pretty crummy bedsit for a number of months. I had a single oven ring to cook and had to go to the launderette every Sunday to wash my clothes. I’d wander down the road with a black sack over my shoulder and sit there watching the spin cycles as the flies buzzed in the windows and the smell of washing powder filled my nose.

Why do I mention this? It’s because to this day I still appreciate having my own washing machine in my home. And I’ve always believed that a period of going without does you good. It really makes you appreciate things so much more.

So when this is all over – and it will be over – I hope that we emerge with a renewed appreciation of those simple things. Being out and about, meeting friends, going to the movies, getting together with family, having a holiday (whether an expensive cruise, or a modest weekend by the sea).

And even more – a hug, a kiss, feeling free and confident to just enjoy those simple pleasures that we took for granted, but will be recognised as precious again.

And – if you will permit me – to say that the world really keeps turning not because of bankers, IT experts, politicians, rock stars, football players or TV personalities.

It keeps turning because of the people that get up and go out to do the jobs that really make a difference to our day-to-day lives: the shop workers, the NHS (of course), the bus/train/delivery drivers, the public service workforce, the cleaners, the teachers – and anyone else I’ve forgotten who basically make life liveable for the rest of us.

Stay safe. Be well. Look after yourselves and each other. And let’s meet again on the other side of these dark days.

Your servant,

MC

Cool to be Kind

Kind people grow up generally influenced by their parents and immediate circle. Whether it’s by inheriting the values of kindness and generosity of spirit, or by their own inherent nature, despite their surroundings.

From the earliest moments of interaction with other types of people, their nature is assaulted. This can be direct, where their kindness is attacked, ridiculed or taken advantage of. It can also be indirectly, by experiencing the harsh nature of others. They will ask, “Why do they need to behave like that? Why can’t they just be nice?”

The underlying reasons for other behaviours can be complex. Whether it’s a nasty, aggressive or indifferent underlying nature – or the product of circumstance/nurturing influence. The arguments to support the theories behind not-so-kind behaviour go wider and deeper than their kind counterparts. Why? Well that’s an interesting question.

Maybe it’s because the standard narrative we tell ourselves is that people are generally nice and good. So any deviation from this means that “something has gone wrong”. And whether it’s a selfless, genuine wish to help, or a holier than thou busybody with a sledgehammer, the notion is that there must be a reason, from which a solution can be found and the person set back on the straight and narrow.

Alternatively there may be an inherent balance of nature in all of us. And the kind people just happen to have managed to shift the balance to the positive, keeping their own jealousies and darker nature in check. So those who appear cruel, violent and/or aggressive have either chosen or are victims of a prevailing imbalance towards the negative. With this, comes again the notion that something can be done to restore the balance back to the positive side.

Then there is the value of consequences. If the result of good, kind behaviour is peace of mind, equity before your eyes and fairness, then that would seem to be the virtuous circle we are all looking for. However, if good behaviour brings bad results, what’s the point? More persuasively, if trampling over others get you the rewards with no bad outcomes, then why not?

Loss of faith can bring a dramatic change in behaviour. Not just in religious faith – the faith that parents, teachers, leaders are held in often drives good behaviour because we want to please to impress, to emulate what we perceive to be right. If that faith is shattered then it takes a very strong individual not to become disillusioned. Cut free of dutiful ties, the search is on for new boundaries.

So – what are kind people to do? Resign themselves to a lifetime of being taken advantage of? Of being the perennial good old, reliable type? Content themselves with virtue being its own reward, whilst watching the less virtuous ones grab fistfuls of fun, favour and financial gain? When framed in that way, it is tempting to see the kind people as mugs, suckers, the ones who get continually overlooked, downtrodden, out of pocket, luck and season.

Is it possible that there is a diminution of kind people as one generation succeeds the last? Certainly accusations of entitlement have been made about Generation Y (also known as Millennials). Their alleged lack of patience for the good things in life without first putting in the hard work has been attacked by previous generations. Not an inherently unkind state of mind, but certainly less considerate – on both sides.

I like to think of myself generally as one of the kind people. Do I get taken advantage of? Occasionally, but it usually only happens once. The next time a known freeloader comes my way, I step aside and let them find a new schmuck. I’ve learned that ‘No’ can just be ‘No’ – without a supporting spiel about why not.

I also genuinely believe that the alkaline nature of kindness will always prevail in the end. When I listen to the too-cool-for-school, achingly hip types pouring scorn and contempt over those they perceive to be lesser types, I know that level of acid will eventually poison their own well. That sourness among surly saps is fun for a while – it brings the reassurance of one’s own cleverness and reinforces the idea that the sneering ones are at the top of the social tree.

But eventually they will want love. They will want affection and belonging. And they won’t want to continually have their sharpest wits on charge to keep it. That’s where they will find that the vitriol repels those who can give genuine love. That’s where they will find that they need to put their claws away and discover their own kindness to be peacefully free.

And that’s where they will find me and my kind. Patiently waiting for them to learn the virtue of kindness, which we already know to be true.

MC

[A version of this blog by the same author was previously published]

Australia – a cousin’s pain

Part two of my world walk back in 2004/05 was walking from Melbourne to Sydney. Just a slice of the island continent as I had to juggle airline dates. It turned out to be some of the best days of the whole trip.

In the couple of months I spent walking along the Olympic and Hume highways from town to town, I got more offers of free nights, free food and warm support than any other place. They put me on the radio, in newspapers and magazines and were incredibly supportive as I covered just over 500 miles on foot for the Australian Cancer Council charity.

Naturally, they took the piss. I would have been gutted if they hadn’t. I’d arrive in town to be greeted with, ‘Oh not another bloody pom’ and be sent on my way the following day with ‘nothing to pay mate’.

The country was awesome, the people more so. To this day it’s the only place I could ever imagine living if I had to leave the UK.

Which is why along with millions of others, I’m heartbroken to see what’s happening down under with the horrendous bush fires. The Aussies are a hardy, resilient bunch who will come through this, but even for them it’s devastating to see the destruction to homes, nature, wildlife and the long-term impacts to their way of life.

The Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has been criticised for many things before and during this crisis. What stood out for me was his assertion about the balance between climate change and a healthy economy. That there was a necessary level of damage to be done to keep business and jobs in place.

It was an interesting echo of the words of the fictional US Vice President in The Day After Tomorrow who claimed that the fragile global climate was not as important as the fragile American economy. Hollywood will always embellish and accelerate stories to entertain us, but these words from a global leader show more than a grain of truth for the screen writers.

I’ve always steered away from the idea that we need to “save the planet”. We don’t. The planet will defend itself against us and rise again after we are gone. The ever-burgeoning natural landscape around Chernobyl shows the earth’s resilience. We can starve ourselves out of existence and this planet will float on through space, with a new start in the centuries to come.

Ideally, we would be accelerating the development of renewable energies to reduce and ultimately remove the dependency on fossil fuels. Given the all –permeating power of the vested interests on that score, it’s not surprising that progress is patchy. The Middle East in a world no longer dependent on oil? Well they’d continue finding ways to kill and destroy each other, but not hold the world to ransom habitually whilst doing it.

The latest round of climate change talks in Madrid last month kicked the un-recycled can further down the road. The next red letter day for this circus is Glasgow, where no doubt hot tempers, warm words, lukewarm enthusiasm and cold calculation will result in another deferred decision.

Back to Australia. It is a cruel, nightmare situation for a country and people that I really love. They were among the first and worst to suffer from the depletion of the ozone layer, identified in the late 70s. Yes, as a developed first world country they probably used the same damaging products and practices as the rest of us, but felt the brunt sooner and most severely.

Now it seems they are at the brunt again, as the doomsday scenarios depicting Mother Nature’s wrath at our profligacy come to fruition.

To help immediately, here are some contact details:

Support for people in communities affected by the fires

https://www.redcross.org.au/campaigns/disaster-relief-and-recovery-donate#donate

https://www.salvationarmy.org.au/donate/make-a-donation/donate-online/?appeal=disasterappeal

Support for local fire brigades

https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/volunteer/support-your-local-brigade

https://www.rfbaq.org/donate-to-rfbaq

Good wishes for better days and lots of love to our cousins down under.

MC

Boris Johnson – an awesome responsibility

He’s done it. He’s only gone and done it. Boris Johnson who has spent his entire life defying political gravity has secured the biggest Tory majority since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 victory.

What are we to make of this? How did he do it? What kind of Prime Minister will he be with his own mandate and unfettered by knife-edge votes? And can we really ‘move on’ as a nation?

Firstly, the notion that he took a gamble by calling the election doesn’t really stack up. An election was inevitable; it was just when it could be manoeuvred to happen. His gamble was prior to that with the clear-out of the ‘Remain’ Tories (similar to Thatcher’s expulsion of the ‘wets’) and alignment to the Leave camps.

In truth, it was an easy calculation: he had been the face of the Leave campaign so presenting himself as a reformed Remainer would have been a stretch too far even for this maverick.  Perhaps more telling was the sight of Jeremy Corbyn doing acrobatics to keep his own tribe in line – it didn’t work for Theresa May, so Johnson reckoned a strong leader with clarity was the better bet. And there were millions of Labour Leave voters to be chased.

The biggest factor was the Brexit Party standing down their candidates for the 317 seats already in Tory hands. Nigel Farage was the real kingmaker of this election. By giving Johnson’s Conservatives a clear run on their own seats and taking a bite out of the Labour heartlands Johnson owes him big time.

The stats tells us (courtesy of pollster to the stars Sir John Curtice) that 70% of Leave voters went for the Tories, whilst the Labour Party only gathered 50% of Remainers, the rest divvied up to the other opposition parties. On such calculations are victories made.

What kind of Prime Minister do we now have? That’s the biggest question. We have to remember that Johnson was elected mayor of London twice – not something achievable by a gunpowder-and-red-meat-eating hang ‘em and flog ‘em merchant. He was happy to attend Gay Pride, surrounded himself with a cosmopolitan entourage and mixed easily with market stall holders and city slickers.

Claims that he believes in nothing but himself, has no principles except those that will win him the day have lingered for some time, but it’s not exactly unheard of in political circles. And he has made some pretty bold promises that he won’t be able to hide from in the months and years to come.

His majority also gives him some wiggle room with the factions. The European Research Group (ERG) with their rabid tweed and Burtons brigade are now less influential than they might have been. They will no doubt continue to huff and puff about a pure Brexit, but they are never going to vote against legislation that brings them the prize of an exit from the EU. As Farage mentioned this morning, ‘half a loaf’ being better than none.

The trade deal that follows our exit will be hard fought and the 11-month deadline seems nigh on impossible. Johnson will have the nominal advantage that the EU will want a deal too. And his ability to shift blame to the other side in the event of a no-deal scenario or (more likely) a further extension of the transition period will also no doubt come into play. If one year becomes two or even three, he does at least have the security of a 5-year term. If deals with the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand et al are sealed within the period then there really could be a Boris Brexit Bonus (I’m really sorry for that one…)

There is – say it quietly – another possible persona that emerges. Johnson could actually turn out to be that One Nation Tory. He has dozens of latterly Labour strongholds now as part of his national constituency. Those voices – lost to the Tories for decades after the Thatcher years – will now expect a fair deal. If Johnson actually delivers investment and policies that meet the expectations in those areas of the country, this could be the first of a hat-trick of victories.

If he can bring a sense of fairness to the areas whose Brexit vote was an agonised cry of protest, he really will become the ‘Heineken Tory’ who reaches parts other Conservatives cannot reach. His tactic of multiple alignment, rather than commitment to any one group brings the flexibility. He can put on the tuxedo for the City lunch and within hours be in wellies chatting in the mud with the farmer or on the quayside with fisherman. Is it smoke and mirrors? Is it a convenient, insincere deception?  But ultimately, if it provides the means for a better life for communities across the land –  does it matter?

Perhaps most infuriating for his critics is he managed to present himself as change. A new broom. A fresh start. He infused enough of the electorate with a sense that we are now embarking on a new direction, a clean break from what has gone before. Undeniably he was part of the previous government – although made sure he was never too closely associated with what never quite became ‘May-ism’.

Boris Johnson now has his own mandate. His own manifesto ratified and a brand new 5-year term. He now has the awesome responsibility to deliver on the various promises made. It is a domestic and global agenda that will be a seismic shift in our nation’s direction and destiny. There will be mistakes, disappointments and very high-stakes battles along the way.

Brexit is now settled. UKIP/Brexit Party won the 2014/2018 European elections. The nation voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. 80% voted Labour and Conservatives in 2017 on their commitment to deliver Brexit. And yesterday’s general election couldn’t have been clearer with the choices.

The future of the United Kingdom is less certain. Scotland’s vote to stay part of the union in 2014 was against the backdrop of remaining in the EU. They voted 62/38 to remain in the referendum. It’s hard to dispute that leaving the EU is a sufficient change to warrant another independence vote. The loosening of the ties that bind Northern Ireland also raises the prospect of a united Ireland being back on the agenda.

The global climate change conversation will continue to grow. The erratic, distracted US Presidency has empowered both Russian and China to upset the old order. European allies may ironically provide a better bulwark in the years to come. Boris Johnson is stepping into a very hot kitchen with little prospect of many quiet days to come. He will emerge from this as either a great leader spoken of for generations to come, or vilified as a charlatan, a failure who hoodwinked the country for his own ends.

I wish him well and hope for the first outcome. Everyone deserves a chance – especially one who has been given a resounding majority from the country. I’d also like to think that only the most tribally biased would want to see our country fail, just to prove a political point.

Your servant,

MC

The case for voting Labour

I voted Labour once. In 1997 for Tony Blair, with the NHS in mind. Very soon afterwards thought to myself, “Well I’m not doing that again”. And that was before Iraq.

I do have this deep rooted feeling that every generation needs to experience the crushing disappointment of a Labour government. How those high ideals can evaporate under the pressure of high office whilst sky high expenditure brings once again the high tides of national debt. And as hangover follows indulgence, the Conservatives come in to sort out the mess.  So goes the perpetual national tale.

So why should I consider going red again as I step into the voting booth for this Christmas election? Is my inner leftie surging as I drift further into middle age? Where does this motivation come from?

Well, there was a real catalyst in the summer.  A moment of great clarity. When the scales fell and the tectonic plates in my mind clattered into a newly forming shape. It was announced that the toilets on our local beach were to be closed.

Now I will grant you that there have been more seismic events in our national life than this. But in one of those mundane-speaks-profound instances, this spoke to me of a greater truth and lie that has been allowed to prevail for far too long. The online news article told us that we can’t afford to keep them open.

Of all the bullshit stories that we have been fed down the years, this represents the truth that if you tell a lie big enough and often enough, people will believe it. OF COURSE WE CAN AFFORD IT. We are one of the richest countries in the world. In a lifetime of travelling I have wandered through some of the poorest nations and found a state and sense of dignity and propriety that puts this nonsense beyond shame.

There was a time – within my lifetime – when we had enough police officers. When there were fire stations in every town. When raffles were for the extras at your local hospital, rather than the basic equipment and products. When schools had the books for the students. When taxes paid for the services and goods we expected.

The “rationalisation” of services, contracting out of food, cleaning and other central services from both companies and councils were all geared towards the great gods of efficiency. So after the service staff have been sacked, the work given to the lowest bidder who gives not a fleeting damn about quality – where is the reward? Where are the benefits of these greater efficiencies being enjoyed? Well it ain’t you and me…

There is a capitalism that works for the many. Which provides a reasonable dividend for the masses; care and protection for the weak, vulnerable and faultless poor. But that version of capitalism is dead. The rampant, ever-spiralling pyramid of money- grabbing, power-hungry tiny circle of obscenely rich have a lofty view. They are less discreet than ever before, so sure are they in security of their position and future that they no longer need to enjoy their wealth and power in the shadows.

Every company powered by private money has squeezed their workforce for years to maximise profits for those who really don’t need any more. The passing reference to pension funds being wrapped up in those same corporates doesn’t wash. Shareholders have been rendered impotent by lock-in clauses, feeble legislation and ‘regulators’ that are a bunch of bean-counting jokes.

And the very cleverly constructed system of fluidity in their power, moving capital via corporates from continent to continent. Over cocktails, they bait the nominal ‘leaders’ whose diminished roles as presidents and prime ministers reduce them to a bitter competition to attract investments from these global oligarchs.

I am an optimist. I lived in a time when the Berlin Wall seemed destined to divide Europe forever. And when South African apartheid appeared unbreakable. Things can change. And they will again.

But the illness that attends our national life seems to warrant severe medicine. The staggering levels of mass inequality are a disgusting indictment of governments of ALL shades leaving too many behind.

It appears that only a shock to the system will do the trick. A genuinely socialist radical agenda being implemented? A turning back of the tide of fiscally centre-right policy application back towards collectivism? Public ownership, the restoration of union power? Well, it worked after the war well enough. Some of those triumphs of post-war British socialism remain with us today, the NHS being foremost.

In truth, the agenda for change put forward by Corbyn’s Labour Party is moderate by European standards. How often have we marvelled at the Scandinavian social care, with dignity, security and welfare maintained for all its citizens? You know how they pay for that? Well it’s the working population paying up to 50% of their income through taxes to finance it.

So that’s the challenge – can we as a home-owning, low-tax preferring society accept that we will keep less of our earned money for the greater good? Can we adapt to the notion that whilst we won’t have big slices of the pie during our working lifetime, that we can rest assured our dotage will be spent without fear of the ‘eat or heat’ dilemma?  That’s a BIG mind shift.

Corbyn’s ill-advised ambivalence over Brexit has exposed his shedding of the ‘conviction politician’ image. Tony Benn would never have surrendered his principles so easily. I understand Corbyn’s need to shore up the huge divides in his party, but it’s a chronic failure of leadership that may cost him dear.

IF Corbyn and McDonald could galvanise the country and deliver a genuine Brexit, alongside social justice and restoration of fairness across our land – even their rosy-eyed Europhile members would forgive all. And I would cheer them to the echo.