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

Support for local fire brigades

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


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,


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.

The hard art of listening

We all have those friends, family members, colleagues. The ones who say “You know you can always talk to me”. Some of them follow this up with the bonus information that they are “a really good listener”.

And so you give it a try. You take them up on their offer – and what happens? You barely get to the end of your first sentence and they jump in immediately with their thoughts, views, opinions, their perceptions of what’s wrong, what you should do, say, think and feel. They are so anxious to provide you with the solution to all your problems that they become another one of them.

They are in fact, terrible listeners. If by chance you do manage to get a few lines out, they are sitting poised, coiled like the proverbial spring, willing you to stop talking so they can launch themselves at you. In this state they have actually ceased listening long ago and are merely waiting impatiently for you to complete your lines so they can fill the air again.

The worst offenders are the ones who use the smallest detail from your tale as a trigger to offload their own issues. And their problems are always bigger than yours, so don’t even try to get things back on track. Just excuse yourself as politely as you can and quickly as you can.

A word to the unwise – shut up. Stop talking. That’s the very least you can do. People that need to talk very often don’t always express themselves well. The running commentary in someone’s head that they have played over and over will habitually come out blurted, in a clumsy fashion and be as much of a shock to the person as anyone listening. But – it loses its power when said out loud.  Encouraging looks amid silence help to relax them into the sensation of talking out loud. Some call it active listening.

By getting used to actually giving voice to the things that have been bothering them, those tensions can be seen for what they are. A downward dialogue that deals despondency, but which shrinks – and with a bit of luck – evaporates on the outside. Maybe not first time; walls of sufferance are built over time and will not always be blown away instantly.

Very often too, the first statement is testing the water. Most people will not dive in with the biggest and baddest millstone they are carrying. A tentative opening line that is crushed by the oncoming juggernaut of a non-listener will guarantee the end of that discourse. Learning to listen well involves patience and self-restraint. If you really care about the person, that’s something you will rise to.

Listening requires you to stop processing incoming information with a view to responding. You don’t need to solve the problem for them. You don’t need to answer straight away. You often don’t need to answer at all. Therapies involving animals (dogs and cats typically) where people offload and what they get back is unrivalled attention a lick and waggy tail – do wonders. I don’t recommend people do this unless you know the other person very well…

I was on a train on the way back from London recently and overheard a valiant attempt at a pep talk. (I don’t habitually listen in to other people’s conversations, but when they are conducted loud enough for the whole carriage to hear, they’re fair game).

The lady on the receiving end of the pep talk was on the retreat almost from the get-go. She was reduced to ‘Yeah…yeah…uh-huh…oh yeah’ by the torrent of life changing observations from her companion. Eventually, her well-meaning friend was surprised she was getting off before their usual stop. The hastily concocted reason was grocery shopping. As she stepped off the friend said “Call me – call me – you promise?” It was an order, not a request.

I’m pretty sure that most times, the rubbish listeners are good people with good intentions. And they’d probably be affronted by any suggestion they were doing anything but trying to help. But they’re not helping. They really. Are. Not.

So if your pal is a bad listener, I guess you have three choices:

  1. Find a better listener to be your listening pal
  2. Tell your erstwhile pal to give you a good listening to for a change
  3. Do (1) but keep some minor titbits for your bad listening pal to chew over. After all, you don’t want to lose a friend completely, do you?

This blog was written in beautiful isolation. Now back to the maddening crowd…

Your servant


The youth of today…

I remember being the youth of today (yes, my memory is that good).

Having big dreams and ambitions but no money to fulfil them. Not being taken seriously by anyone over 30 as you didn’t look or sound the part. Being told you would learn what life was really about when you:

  • Had a mortgage
  • Had your own children
  • Had to pay taxes

What a crushing verdict and dispiriting message to receive. This, from people who despite believing they’d figured life out, didn’t seem particularly happy themselves. And not much has changed.

The cries of ‘what’s wrong with youth of today’ seem to be a never-ending echo down the generations. A kind of spiteful torch handed down as soon as the youthful zeal gives way to middle aged envy, regret and misery. It really isn’t their fault that your life turned out less than you’d hoped for you know.

The youth of today are pretty much the same as the youth of any generation since the war. Largely bright, kind and idealistic – with insecurities, a need to belong as well as a need to be different. Socially awkward, frustrated by the demands to remain a sweet child, yet grow up at the same time.

What gives particular ammunition and relish to the moaning middle-agers and the grey brigade of whinging pensioners are the tales of the nasty ones. Muggings, drugs, violence and general anti-social behaviour. These are seized upon and extrapolated to demonstrate what our young society has become.

And I agree. Some of these little blighters have never trodden the straight and narrow since they could walk. Give them help, support and every opportunity to turn it around. If all fails, get them off the streets.

But for the sake of sanity – remember they remain a small (but highly visible) minority. Putting them on the front pages, the top of headlines and the main topic of conversation simply exaggerates the problem and annoys the majority of good apples in the basket. Not forgetting that most of the low lives that pollute our society are well past their youth.

Our education system lurches from one inadequate posture to another. The rigidity of the war / post-war years, the “progressive” agenda (with alternative spellings for goodness sake!); the ‘everyone gets a prize’ anti-competition stance. Now we have the narrow, statistically-driven approach. Standard inputs designed to achieve standard outputs: University freshers, regular workforce fodder and those who will “never amount to much”.

The model consists mainly of cramming young skulls with retrievable facts. Exams as memory tests. League table results and monetary gain are the evidence of success. Thomas Gradgrind would be very proud.

It has to be said that the downbeat drums driving discontent among the young have grown over the years. I felt some pressure when studying for final exams at school, but nobody was pointing a spotlight on the scores like today. A top club replica football kit was pricy for my parents, but not the cost of a night out in London. And where bullying and intimidation in the playground or college could be left behind when you got home, now they can get you at every angle on your phone. The topics may be similar, but they have been amplified somewhat. Good for those level-headed enough to cope and/or with supportive families, but the transition is tough on those without.

The thing that threatens a teacup at the telly most is when our politicians start talking about ‘young people’. The drivel the spew out about the “importance of our young people” – “we want to look after our young people” – “it’s their future” and other tripe served up to make them appear concerned, tuned in and dedicated.

How is it that young people are more important than people of any other age? As well as being patronising in the extreme, it’s insidious targeting of parents and grandparents, rather than the yoof vote. We care as much about your kids as you do, so vote for us. If you believe that, you deserve everything you get from Westminster! Look where the money is invested, not the weasel words.

So what about the youth of today? Are they any better or worse than we were? Does something ‘need to be done’? Are we facing a crisis in the moral fibre and fabric of our society?

Well, no. I work with plenty of under 25s and don’t fear for my life, sanity or lunch money. I’m blessed with family and close friends of the same range and they’re as lovely and trustworthy as any of my peers.

In short, the biggest problem with the youth of today is the same as the biggest problem was many years ago – the rest of us. The demands, expectations, condescension and exasperation put a huge burden on them.

Yes, they can be annoying, capricious, contradictory and make you mad. You know what? So can I. And the same is true of plenty of 30-90 year olds. No generation has a monopoly on good or bad behaviour.

I’m just going to remember what an alternately charming little gent and irritating little turd I must have been from time to time. I seem to have turned out OK (others will have to ratify this). And the same will probably be true of most of our ‘young people’ today too.

Your servant