Archive for February, 2012

Me And Mrs Meinhof

Protest is when I say this does not please me, resistance is when I ensure what does not please me occurs no more.” – Ulrike Meinhof

It is difficult for me not to have both some admiration as well as sympathy for Ulrike Meinhof, especially after seeing the portrayal of her by the very excellent (and lovely!) Martina Gedeck in the recent German film The Baader-Meinhof Complex.  Gedeck herself explains that she found it intriguing to play her and to try to understand her but that it was in many respects a dream job for an actress.  Ulrike Meinhof can be characterised by her passion, her determination, and her clear belief that the end justified the means no matter what those means were.  I cannot help but admire her, I admire her ability to put literally everything on the line because the cause she stood for was sufficiently important in her mind.  I even admire her choice to choose her own fate, although I think more than a little responsibility has to be taken by the West German government for driving her mad by the conditions in which she was held that led directly or indirectly to her decision.  I would, I think, stop short of asserting that she was murdered within the prison rather than having committed suicide only because I don’t currently quite see how the deaths all fit together if planned by the government.

There is usually a clear polarisation of opinions towards Ulrike Meinhof, anyone to the right of a socialist is likely to brush off any of her actions as mere terrorism with no redeeming factors whilst anyone to the left is likely to have considerably more sympathy for her than that, whether or not they agree with the actions themselves.  Indeed when compared with Andreas Baader, a more abrasive figure, who may only have come round to the political side of things later on, Meinhof comes across as more thoughtful and ideologically committed someone who has made a conscious choice to follow her beliefs.  What is without question is that she inspired two generations of radical students to participate in a direct action that had not been seen in West Germany before or since.

As I approach the age that Ulrike Meinhof died so it makes me think on the contrasts between my own life and that of such a figure.  The difference between Meinhof and myself is a combination of opportunity, of bravery and single-minded political belief, (some might say dogmatism).  It just so happens that our politics are not that dissimilar which got me to thinking how her path ended so differently to the way I suspect mine will.  Meinhof has the classic bourgeois academic background of activism, getting involved in left-wing causes at university that then led to writing for one of the radical papers Konkret through which she met both her husband and Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin.  The beginnings of her more active engagement came in Berlin in 1968 at the time of the protests against the visit of the Shah of Iran to Berlin where fights broke out between demonstrators against the visit and the pro-Shah group sent to drown them out.  It culminated in one of the student protestors being shot and shortly after activist Rudi Dutschke narrowly survived an assassination attempt leaving him severely brain damaged.

I can’t claim quite the level of outward turbulence for my continued path to more engagement but having gone through political activities at university including writing for the college paper it was another Stop the War campaign the one leading up to the demonstration on the 15th of February 2003 (which was and remains the largest political demonstration in UK history) that cemented it.  My background is hardly that dissimilar from Meinhof’s other than the fact that due to certain external factors I did not follow the journalism path but ended up in a low level form in the sort of job and environment that pays barely lip service to the politics of my youth and thus sits uneasily at the arrival of each paycheque.  It is not tainted money, nor is there a great deal of it but it is precisely the sort of mundane middle-class existence against which I ranted and raged as a teenager, including a fight that resulted in my not seeing my father for some years.  I did not become a senior figure in any organisation nor joined any group that were especially militant, certainly not openly and deliberately violent.

Whilst was Meinhof who first used the name Rote Armee Fraktion and designed the now famous (at least across Germany) RAF logo:

     she played an active part in the activities of the RAF but her level of influence is seen to not have been such to justify the characterisation of the RAF as the Baader-Meinhof group.  Gudrun Ensslin who had left her husband and young son for Baader is most commonly considered to have been the lead of the RAF along with Baader but perhaps did not have the same profile or shock value to the public as the media exploited with Meinhof.  What such actions in the open might have had behind closed doors to the relationship between Ensslin and Meinhof can only be speculated on since those who might have been able to shed light on it are dead.

I found it particularly interestedly that in The Baader-Meinhof Complex it is shown that there is a clear moment of choice where, having helped organise the violent freeing of Andreas Baader from the research institute, Ulrike Meinhof has the option of staying behind and effectively claiming not to have been involved or to jump out of the window with the fugitives and become one of them.  There is a tangible pause in the film for dramatic effect as if witnessing each synapse in Meinhof’s brain working out the combinations for the decision she is about to make.  It is effectively the pivotal moment that which precipitates everything that is to happen next and could be regarded as the one that defined much of West German history for the next fifteen years.  I don’t know whether this is in fact how it happened but there must have been a time when the road forked and she had the option of continuing along the one she was on or taking the road less travelled, it is that one she chose and it did indeed make all the difference.  The consequences of  Meinhof’s decision on Meinhof herself were cataclysmic, but perhaps not as much as for those around her, since they led to at the very least a complicity in the deaths and the injuries of many but also the breakup of her marriage and the loss of her children who were removed by their father to prevent them being sent to a Palestinian orphanage.

Some might say that to define the difference between me and Meinhof is to ask the question of whether I in all conscience as a father could and would do the same as leave my children as she did for her beliefs?  This is a difficult question to answer in a specific binary one way or another.  What I can say is that I love my children and that I would miss them heart-wrenchingly were I not to be able to see them.  That much I can state unequivocally without any fear of internal contradiction within me.  What I cannot answer is given that love for them were I to think that the sacrifice that I would have to make for them by my absence were to create a better life for not only them but other children here and potentially across the country, continent or world would it not be an irresponsible act if I did not choose that course of action?  Naturally faced with such a situation you would have to be careful not to seek factors to justify a decision you might have already made in your own mind for which you need assuaging tenets to ease your conscience.  This is true of both sides of the argument and the question once confronted cannot be rescinded, were I to go I would have to have convinced myself that this would in the end lead to my children having a better future, were I to stay I would have to believe that in doing so it would be the right thing for them, and by extension therefore me, to reject that path.

It is the sort of situation that I have not had to face and therefore wrestled with only in the hypothetical what if’s that we consider at times as we get older and the mental and physical strains of this begin to show us things we have probably left behind.  Most people accept this and move on with their lives, I cannot  state though that I do not see my life as having less meaning for having not spent more of it in direct activism rather than the indolence of premature middle-age.  Since as a parent failure goes with the territory such thoughts will always come to light at such times when I cannot see myself as making or having made a tangible difference to solve dilemmas even in the daily tedium.  Perhaps crucially unlike Ulrike Meinhof if I have been faced with the two paths in the road I had not the awareness to see it, there was no jump out of the window moment.  I have therefore continued upon this path well-trodden that of at times ever more defeated personal development caught up with fatigue and frustration at the world around me, wondering often wondering whether there had been a path further back that I missed, one which might, had I taken it, have made all the difference.

Song Of The Day ~ Ride – Leave Them All Behind

The recent violence in Syria is a terrible thing, of that there is no doubt, such senseless killing anywhere is a tragedy.  We have become used to civil wars in what are classified as Arab countries of late, first the relatively bloodless regime change in Tunisia followed by a more rancourous one in Egypt.  At this point all seemed to be going swimmingly, dictators who had ruled with iron fists were toppled by the will and action of the people who were prepared to be cowed no more.  It gave us all a sense of hope, a sense that if such things were possible in these repressive states then we too might rid ourselves of our oppressors.  The crucial point was that these seemed quite clear popular uprisings, the only resistance came from the regimes themselves and that was only to be expected.

The situation began to get more complicated when the ‘Arab Spring’ spread to Libya.  The prevailing opinion here was not one of surprise, why would it have been the Colonel had been portrayed as a bogeyman for years in the West and was the great bugbear until being usurped by Saddam Hussein.  I knew little of the nascent opposition in Libya, as I suspect most watching and listening to the unfolding news, but I do remember early on hearing about the humiliating withdrawal of British Special Forces agents (SAS & MI6) who had been captured by farm workers in the opposition-held area near Benghazi.  They had not made contact with the opposition forces, as was claimed their mission was, they were in the country with multiple passports and weaponry and appeared somewhat inept.  This was not just an embarrassment to the British government this showed something else, it showed the West was wanted to get involved, or was already in the process of doing so, to hasten things, to topple those whom they had tried to topple from outside for many years.  It didn’t sit well.  It made me wonder what was next.  That it was Syria right after Libya was no surprise at all.

I remember when Bashar-al-Assad came to power in Syria in 2000 following his father’s death.  He was not supposed to be president, he was an ophthalmologist and but for the death of his older brother would have remained so.  He was however touted as a moderate, someone who would loosen the grip on the authoritarian state over which his father had presided.  Indeed for the last 11 years Syria has been one of the quieter of the Middle Eastern nations one that has been something of a diplomatic bridgehead for many of the parties, close enough to the Arab world not to be regarded as a Western puppet as well as maintaining support from China and Russia whilst at the same time seeming to most of the Western world as moderate enough to be a useful broker along with Turkey with whom they also continued to have close ties.

However at the time of the Stop The War actions against the war in Iraq in 2003 I remember hearing it said more than once that whilst we had not stopped the Western forces going into Iraq we had stopped them thinking they could continue on into Syria which would certainly have been their next plan.  As Syria remained unmolested the interest in it appeared to have waned but it came back to my mind late last year.  I know that Syria is also an instrumental piece in the intifada against Israel, not a vocal opponent of Israel per se it gives clear support to the Palestinians from the reasoned position of supporting a dispossessed people.  This sort of intelligent criticism is annoying to the Zionists who must paint all opposition as vehemently anti-semite.

Barbara Walters conducted the first interview from a Western news agency, ABC on 7th Dec 2011 in Damascus and stressed she had been free to ask any questions she wished.  President Assad states quite openly that Syria is not a democratic country and that it is a dictatorship, which is an autocratic form of government where the power of rule is held by one person, (think of a monarchy and you’re on the right lines).  He draws an interesting distinction between dictatorship as a form of government and a dictator as a person and makes it clear that he feels he needs popular legitimacy to continue his role and that Syria is on the path to democratic elections before 2013.  In contrast to what I have heard of his father’s reign this seems no mean achievement or ambition.

The interview is not at all like later ones of Gadaffi who rants and rages and regales against those plotting his downfall with invective and hyperbole.  Perhaps this is merely the contrast in styles between a despot who has been so surrounded by sycophants for so long that he has gone quite mad and a civilised university graduate with an excellent command of English who seems quite at home with intelligent discourse and unflustered by an interviewer so clearly looking for a chink in the armour with which to make an exclusive..

President Assad claims that he retains the support of the majority in Syria, in response it is interesting that Walters refers to the demonstrations against him by people as evidence that he does not have popular support.  Were this to be sole evidence then many of the Western governments should have fallen during the height of the Stop the War campaign due to the mass actions on a scale not seen ever before in some countries.  Where were the UN resolutions for us, where the peacekeeping troops to help us transition to a new government?  I don’t know about the former but we know where the latter were, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan etc. etc.

We must consider at this point that the West is in this regard also not really in a position of strength when it comes to arguments of popular opinion.  The Bush-Gore election is one of the many chequered US examples and in Britain 64% of the population who voted in 2010 did not vote for the current administration.  Why then are we immune from countries meeting to discuss how they will liberate us?  Is it because we have multiple men in suits rather than being countries that only have one?  Or is it because we the people are more cowed by the yoke than the Middle Eastern citizens and our staying at home comfortably numb is our biggest ball and chain?  If indeed Syria’s protesters are a vocal violent minority then Assad has as much right to put them down as Western governments do the G8/G20 protests, or the Occupy movements, one can condemn but only if condemning all state violence not merely someone else’s.

When Walters goes on to push for when presidential elections will take place she is forceful in her point that 2014 is not soon enough but Assad quite correctly says that they will have the parliamentary elections first which will determine the majority opinion and subsequent actions relating to the presidency.  This is perfectly acceptable, after all the anger and frustration in Britain was palpable when Tony Blair handed over the British premiership to Gordon Brown without a popular mandate or ballot.  Assad says clearly that if the parliamentary elections leave him with no mandate then he will not be taking any part in the subsequent presidential elections as he will have lost public support.  You could make noises about the chances of free elections etc. but like the freedom of the press argument the West is decidedly hypocritical in this.

What I remember of many of the dictators over the last years is how they met their ends, Saddam Hussein was killed following trial, very few seemed especially upset about this, certainly not his former masters in the US. Col. Gadaffi was killed very rapidly in the latter stages of the fighting in Libya in a hasty way that was I’m sure for many people rather convenient.  The trouble with toppled dictators is that they have at their disposal a large amount of information as to the affairs of their own state and the actions of those who would negotiate with it, much that might tarnish the images of certain states around them.  This is likely to be enhanced considerably in the case of nations with oil with whom many administrations will stop at nearly nothing in their efforts.  Of course this is nearly all conjecture, the truth may be nothing like this, it is therefore odd that it is all too frequent that those who might be able to divulge such information meet such speedy sticky ends.

I am not the only one articulating the slight raising of a quizzical eyebrow, neither Russia nor China have taken part in the calls for regime change in Syria and have openly stated that they fear that at the root of these calls is the attempt to replace the current administration with a more favourable one for the West.  The West certainly has form.

I do not wish to claim that I know what is going on in Syria, I cannot state that the opposition does not have a public mandate any more than I can state that Bashar-al-Assad does not.  I do not wish to underestimate the troubles in Syria or cheapen the loss of life that has already been too high. Without question there are many innocent civilians caught up in troubles not of their own making, the city of Homs is in crisis and is besieged such that those who might wish to leave cannot do so.  It is akin to the American policy in Helmand, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and on local issues right down to the police kettling protestors in riots and demonstrations, it isn’t right but where is the indignation there?  To hear Hilary Clinton question today why other Syrian cities are not doing the same as Homs if chastising them for their indolence leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth indeed.  The first reason is that if you sit in a safe city with your family secure and going about their business it takes an almost superhuman strength to wish to change this and even more so when you see the potential consequences of such actions.  The second is that it is grossly presumptuous that all Syrian cities should feel the same as Homs, do we know the ethnic makeup of Syria, is there a sectarian issue anywhere?  For a wealthy, comfortable woman to stand up thousands of miles from any conflict and pontificate about whose responsibility such matters are is at best crass insensitivity and political posturing.

I am presuming that my mistrust of the situation is down to my own propensity to believe in the evil doings of the West because I know more about them than I do the doings of a person who has always come across as mild-mannered and erudite.  It is the smoke and mirrors and the media whitewash that makes me deeply uneasy, it is by no means the first time we have heard it, the West preaching all the laudable tenets of representative electoral systems whilst themselves having some of the least democratic of all is nothing new and will continue for as long as the public in those countries remains anaesthetised by the right-wing press that props them up.  I cannot state that the West is directly involved in the Syrian opposition as it appeared to be pushing for in Libya, all I can say is that in the West there will be many people who stand to gain much from the deposing of President Assad. They cannot therefore be considered neutral parties and the idea of them not encouraging, if not in fact actively orchestrating the removal of the Syrian leader seems a little-more far-fetched than them doing so.  The speed with which they have established diplomatic relations with the opposition is in contrast to the reactions to Tunisia and Egypt which were much more hands-off and observational.

It just makes me wonder…

Song Of The Day ~ Gerry Rafferty – One Drink Down

Seeing the film Kidulthood brought back some very unpleasant memories and in truth made me feel deeply uncomfortable, my mind cast back to a time I have long tried to forget. This is not some attempt to portray my past as having been “in da hood” there were too many reasons why that was simply never going to be the case, not in the classic sense, but I was in a location and a social situation that was contradictory and ones where I could be comfortable in neither. In many respects I stood out sufficiently in both home life and school life to be more of a target than I might otherwise have been. you are not always able to choose your environment, nor for that matter the entirety of that for your children.

In 1980 we moved into a council flat off St. Anne’s Road, just around the corner from Latimer Road, a single parent family, 1 parent, 1 child. This was very different from the tranquil friendly atmosphere of East Chelsea where I was born and spent the first 6 or 7 years of my life in a childhood, not necessarily idyllic but sufficiently content for me to have no issues or angst regarding it either at the time or subsequently.  Where we moved to is an area still very much etched on my mind with all that is negative. The borough of the estate is Kensington, it is just off Holland Park Avenue, the postcode indeed the salubrious W11.  In most people’s minds this will conjure up pictures of multi-floored detached houses with large gardens and larger fences.  The preserve of diplomats, oligarchs and politicians, where we were this could not have been further from the truth.

Holland Park Avenue is a dividing line, I have no reason to suppose that has changed either, on the one side the great houses of the very wealthy, the comfortable, overlooking the park and with CCTV cameras, well before these were usual, adorning the imposing walls with their glass shards and barbed wire to keep the riff raff out. Whilst on the other side it is as close to bedlam as I ever wish to get, populated by the very riff-raff the other side wishes to keep at greater than arms length. Anyone aware of West London and the A40 westway will have seen the 3 large foreboding tower blocks that are the Edward Woods Estate, large brutalist carbuncles that wreck the otherwise comforting mundanity of the landscape. We lived in the shadow of these in a series of blocks a mere 9 storeys high.  For me home life was as unyielding as school life but at the other end of the spectrum, I was mocked at school for being from the wrong side of the tracks and beaten up at home for being at a posh school.  This is not unusual this just happened to be the areas in which I stood out, children find the differences and pick away at the seams until the underbelly is revealed, at which point the knives come out, they always do.

This is all a contextual preamble to the description of why Kidulthood was such disquieting viewing for me and I suspect others like me. Sometimes in spite of all your parents do, or how comfortable your home life may be behind the front door there is no getting away from the world in which you are forced to live with your peers. The plight of Katie in the film is testament to this, being a fish out of water is not just psychologically damaging but it frequently lends itself to the worst treatment at the hands of the children with whom one is forced tot share space, be it at school, area around home or both. When the world of the parents is so divorced from the daily life you are forced to lead the sense of alienation from all sides is inevitable and there are many ways in which this can manifest itself be it trying to fit in by joining gangs etc.  This is often the case for young boys who are seduced by the idea of being protected and principally belonging.  For young girls the ingratiation with the opposite sex in order to garner some friends and respect amongst the cooler and older of the peer groups is equally common. If a child remains disenfranchised the playground demonstrates that akin to the Serengety plains with the perceived weakest of the herds picked off by the bullying predators, the pain may be more metaphorical but it is no less damaging and all too often the final result is the same as the last and most extreme option for escape remains suicide.

In the case of such an occurrence all parties will be shocked. Parents will be astonished claiming they didn’t know things had got so bad, and hurting that this should not be just something that happens to children in the newspapers.  Fellow pupils will be astonished as the reality of life not being as it is when playing dead in the playground comes a little closer, but as Kidulthood shows it is more the ones who do not stand up to the bullies who suffer the perceived consequences of their actions, the bullies themselves have often long since abdicated responsibility and perhaps those left know that their buffer from the same treatment has been eroded.  Teachers will be astonished because they often don’t notice the quieter ones, the bullied ones, because those are the ones forced to avoid the teachers for fear of incurring more wrath from their persecutors if they are seen to be “grassing”.  As class sizes increase and do so more in the denser-packed ill-resourced inner cities so the simple logistics dictate that you cannot know everything about everyone and can only be largely reactive rather than proactive.  In the case of severe bullying this is inadequate and an explanation not an excuse but the teachers themselves cannot entirely, if at all, be blamed for it.   All parties will feel ashamed, all parties will lose a little of their humanity and in many cases their innocence, all parties will be forced to continue life with the thought nagging away at them as to what they might have done differently. It is all too late by then but tragically the lack of lessons learnt merely allows  the cycle to continue.

Righteous indignation on behalf of the establishment is very often a front for the covering up of the embarrassment of another failure but it should not be mistaken for a genuine desire to address the very fundamental problems of inner city depravation.  To characterise teenage suicide and wider troubles as something surprising is to mollify the lives of all of us, to make us believe that generally our children are safe, were we to know the reality we might start looking for reasons why and therein lie the roots for social change which cannot be allowed to happen.  We must also take responsibility for it since it helps us to believe the myth, helps us eat our breakfast whilst we send our children to school, helps us run our day without wanting to check in on our children’s welfare every hour.  As a parent deep knotted fear is an everyday thing, we anaesthetise ourselves just to get through from one day to the next.

As a film Kidulthood would I’m sure make interesting viewing for anyone, it is well-scripted and well-acted, the story illustrates well the very arbitrary nature of circumstance and the cyclical nature of bullying and violence. There is no glorification of that violence, though much is depicted, the nature of it and what it stems from are all too real for young people not just in West London but across Britain. The plughole like vortex that sucks more and more people in to its continuation is very well-handled. This should not be seen as an over-dramatisation, I only wish it were.  The riots last year should be a clear gauge for those who wish to believe that things have changed, the lid on the inferno will not stay on for ever and when it doesn’t we are all going to get burnt a little.

For many viewers the film may represent the sort of unhappy viewing and elicit pontifications of how things aren’t what they used to be after the war and kids these days run riot. These are the debates that can take place at distance from such affairs. There is some truth in that things were not the same back in the 80s, gun crime was not as rife in the area, though knife crime, violent assaults and muggings were certainly commonplace, I know this only too well from personal experience.  The perception of adults was also not quite as polarised as it seems to be now, back then being caught by an adult was something everyone sought to avoid whilst now it seems almost a necessary right of passage. The lack of respect is not new merely the way in which it is articulated. This is probably just as much to do with the removal of adults from children’s inner circle as it is anything else. Families are no longer as tight knit, nor necessarily so geographically close. Parents are often forced to work longer hours, teachers to deal with bigger classes and neither side is allowed to exercise the sort of discipline they once were, some of which is a good thing. I have heard the argument that children these days have more rights than ever before and this has led them to be a great deal more secure in the knowledge that not much can be done about their behaviour.  There may be some truth in this but to my mind only in conjunction with the other factors listed before. A more comprehensive and consistent approach to things from family and schooling prresents more of a united front and backs up either side.

The breakdown of social cohesion and inclusion by its very nature destroys social responsibility, you only have ownership of that which affects you and you affect, if society distances itself from you you will cease to engage with it.

Song Of The Day ~ Tracey Ullman – Breakaway
I wake up to Radio 4’s Today program every morning during the week.  I’ve found that far from making me turn the radio off or feel roused from sleep rudely by someone else’s idea of what constitutes music the news and debate engages me to enough of an extent that I do not slip back to unconsciousness.  The Today program may not be well known outside Britain but it is BBC radio’s flagship news program and has many items in more depth than they are given anywhere else.  It is a highbrow program 3 hours long and generally the hosts of the show are some of the heavyweights of the corporations broadcast journalists, such as John Humphrys, and in truth if I want to know for sure whether or not a politician is talking bullshit Humphrys would be my go-to man.  It tends also to attract senior figures in politics and the world beyond for interviews and comment except a certain number of times a year when they feel got at for being asked questions they don’t want to answer.

Last month I started the week hearing the last three items and these together formed an interesting trinity juxtaposed as they were to one another and the current world at large.  It was like a microcosm of what is wrong and the contradictory nature of those that have made it so on a far wider scale.

The first item referred to the Squeezed Britain report, according to which 5.8 million households struggle to keep up with bills every month.  An inability caused by earnings growth being well below inflation.  Matthew Whitaker from the Resolution Foundation who were responsible for the report was chosen to comment on it.  Whittaker stated that in addition to the wage:inflation ratio  that many of these households cannot spare money to save and therefore perpetuate their lack of any safety net to cope with changes in circumstances or the financial climate.  Whittaker’s answer was that government should be looking at tax credits, benefits, education and some redistribution.  When asked about whether the tax system now was fit for purpose Whittaker responded that over last 30 years the gains from GDP growth have been concentrated at very top 10% of the population.  All this seemed a pretty fair summation of the state of affairs for the poorest 10% of the population in contrast with the richest 10% highlighting the vast differential between their daily lives.
The second item on the program related to an organisation called Magic Breakfast which helps schools in the running of breakfast clubs to ensure children have a sufficient and nutritional breakfast before lessons start.  According to the organisation they have a waiting list of schools looking for their help.  Carmel O’Connell the head of Magic Breakfast was interviewed alongside Jill Kirkby, formerly of the Centre For Policy Studies, now writing for the Conservative Home blog.  What Ms Kirkby’s credentials were for giving vent to her opinion on the topic was not clear and it was not pressed by interviewer Justin Webb.  [Indeed Justin Webb’s participation in this interview did him no credit and resulted in my sending a complaint to the BBC that the interviews were not even-handed.  You would have been forgiven for thinking this was a different person to the one who had caused controversy suggesting that people who supported the Conservative Party should not be allowed on the BBC and calling Tracey Emin a ‘Tory stooge’.]

Carmel O’Connel’s argument was that hunger and malnourishment were a barrier to education and that the financial position and time constraints of parents should not put the children at a disadvantage.  Their service has proven popular enough that more schools wish to take part.  Jill Kirkby’s counter argument was that were breakfast clubs to become the norm they would take over the duties that parents should be fulfilling.  She went on to question whether it was really about pressure on families as a decent breakfast such as porridge and an apple was not expensive.  She went on to claim that if parents were not providing this sort of breakfast then they should be fetched into schools in order that they can be given a lesson on spending priorities and what they should really be spending their money on.  Justin Webb here was not constructive is suggesting that this was all more a matter of convenience than necessity.

In truth if a family were to have enough money to feed their children and were choosing not doing so and making no alternative arrangements this would not be a matter for a quiet chat about spending priorities this would be something for a Social Services investigation about child abuse, and such abuse would I doubt be at all confined to the poorest sections of society. Would it not be worth firstly ensuring that those children who are given the opportunity to have a good breakfast are given it and subsequently the reasons why they have not been before are investigated?   To dismiss with a haughty slight of hand the first hand information Carmel O’Connel gave that upon visiting certain houses the cupboards are bear was not only to illustrate the problem of poverty and social exclusion but in addition the ambivalence felt by the comfortable that has caused it.

The final news item was one dealing with the government’s planned cap on benefits, one that they have still not managed to railroad through parliament yet.  Stephen Timms Labour’s shadow employment minister said that Labour were broadly in favour of the cuts but that they should stop short of applying if it would make families homeless thereby potentially costing more than it saved due to the necessary rehousing of said families by local authorities.  Timms said that rather than opposing the bill Labour would be concentrating on their amendment to the motion as outlined to prevent this sort of homelessness.   This at a time when already the Conservatives have been calling for anyone associated with last Summers riots to have their benefits stopped and to be evicted from their council housing.  Leaving aside the disgusting snobbery this shows in the assumption that those rioting were all from a background of welfare and council contributions it fails to address what would happen to those who are not.  Would they have their wages stopped, or be evicted from their parents houses or private rented accommodation?  Is rioting  as well as breakfast now like saving an entirely middle class preserve?

Song Of The Day ~ New Order – Blue Monday

The Condem Demolition  Tory-Tory general wankers government’s spending cap apparently has widespread support amongst the population according to BBC sources today.  The figure of £26,000 effectively represents 2 adults working 40 hours a week at the minimum wage of £6.08 an hour.  Apparently there are many people surprised that we were not already capping payments at this level, as if surprised that the people on benefits should earn minimum wage at all. [This is already below the living wage campaign figure of £7.20 an hour outside London which would work out at £30,000 for 2 adults earning.  The Living Wage Campaign quotes David Cameron as having said “An idea whose time has come” in 2010, of course in 2010 David Cameron was looking for election so is likely to have said whatever it was he felt people wanted to hear.] According to the Office of National Statistics (a government department) the average weekly expenditure for a family is £552.30 in London, £387.20 in the North East and £467.50 as a national average.  Extrapolating the figures out for annual expenditure in London this makes £28,719.60 already above the government’s proposed cap of £26,000 unless they’re planning to have some London Weighting scheme.

Given that there are nearly 3 million unemployed in the UK, although the TUC estimates that the true figure is over 6 million taking into account those off the radar such as in short-term and part-time contracts.  The Office of National Statistics (We’ll call it ONS because we’re going to refer to it a fair bit!) estimates 8.4% of the population.  The population of Metropolitan London is 14 million, which taking the ONS figure of 8.4% makes 1,176,000 people unemployed.  Let us assume that there are a lower percentage of unemployed in London than some deprived areas of the North so we’ll lessen the figure to 1 million.  Taking the UK population as 60 million, which is the usually accepted estimate, this means that around 2% of the entire population will not have enough to live on in London alone and with the average income of the South East as a whole being over £27,000 annual expenditure the 2% is a conservative estimate.  According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation with the recent years rises in utility bills, transport costs the average family actually needs an annual income of £29,000, their report says that official inflation over the last decade has amounted to 23% while food has gone up by 37%, bus fares by 59% and council tax by 67%.

I’ve tried to do some basic calculations which are in no way exhaustive but I wanted to get an idea as to how problematic the government’s plans would be rather than merely being annoyed that they should cap them at all.  I have looked on Right Move for the monthly cost of a 3 bedroom house or flat within 5 miles of Lewisham as many of the areas there are cheaper than more central parts of London or others that are not frequently on fire.  The cheapest I found was a flat for £895 a week in Lee SE12, this would be an annual expense of £10,740.  Let us assume that Housing Benefit pays all of this money.  Unemployment benefit currently pays £67.50 a week which makes £3510 x 2 for 2 adults in the average family – £7020.  A Guardian article in May 2011 used a Halifax report itself using ONS data on family spending which said that the cost of maintaining a home was a little over £9000 a year however this was including £3500 a year as mortgage payments (I envy those paying only £291 a month for their rent/mortgage!) so removing the mortgage expense that leaves £5500 cost of running a home leaving £1500 left over from the £7000 we calculated earlier.  Are you still with me?  £1500 /52 then divided by 5 for the working days in a week makes just over £5 a day which makes £2.50 per adult per day (nothing at weekends better stay at home).  Ah shit but the Guardian/Halifax/ONS statistics don’t include food, or transport, or clothing or anything at all to do with children, that’s a bit of a shitter isn’t it?  You’d better not work in Central London either because a weekly Travelcard for Zones 1-2 (assuming that if you live in our flat in Lee you walk to Lewisham to save that £5 a week extra you’d be paying for Zone 3.)  So £29.20 for the travelcard is unfortunately more than the £28 odd that you have for the week between you, so you need to work locally, and walk everywhere.

Now I know the whole country’s figures seem skewed towards London and the majority of the population do not live in London and besides we’ve already demonstrated that the total benefits don’t cover London expenditure so let’s look at somewhere else.  How about Burnley?  Leaving aside the fact that I wouldn’t live in Burnley if you paid me £6750 a week there are some who do so let’s examine their costs.  The council tax is much the same as it is in London with the cheapest in Burnley borough being £1225 annually.  Rent is a great deal cheaper with the lowest 3 bedroom place I could find at £365 a month but of course we’ve already sectioned off housing costs to housing benefit so that doesn’t really matter as a change in our calculations.  Assuming that the household bills for a 3 bedroom house anywhere are roughly the same we’re still left with the same sort of expenditure as we were in London.  Jobs might be easier to find within walking distance but food is unlikely to be cheaper nor clothing hence you’re still down to £2.50 a day for each adult without food, clothing, transport costs or something like a TV licence.

Let’s go a step further and say that the household does earn the maximum £26,000 and removing the £5500 for household maintenance, moneysupermarket estimates that a family of four would spend around £100 a week on an average shopping trolley.  This of course would mean £5200 a year, whilst you might be able to make some economies on that let’s take the figure for convenience and round down to £5000 a year if you’re being a little thriftier each week.  So with your £5500 household expenses and £5000 food costs we’ve spent £10,500 this sounds more like it, we’ve over £15000 left and paid the main stuff.  Of course we’ve not yet paid transport so let’s say we live in Burnley where the cost of living is cheaper than London.  A 1 day pass for the busses in Burnley is £4 a day, now obviously you need to travel a little to look for jobs, do the shopping and collect benefits and the like.  So that makes £1040 per person so we’re down to £13000.  The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that the average amount of money spent on children is £57 a week, which may seem a lot for people who do not have children but factoring in uniforms, books, general clothing, school trips and other extra curricular activities the figure becomes fairly likely, unless of course we want ou children to suffer for the “sins” of their parents.  We’re going to presume that the children are not of nursery age or needing nappies or more than average childcare due to disability and special needs so let’s take this £3000 a year figure off our total and we’re down to £10000 a year which is just under £100 per adult per week.

Now before we go on we need to tackle the ‘But’, there always is one.  You have to bear in mind that the £26,000 figure is including ALL benefits available, many of which you would only receive if you meet all the criteria for them so let’s see what we can build to make up this figure.  If you take the Income Support/Job Seekers Allowance or whatever the feck it’s called now. £67.50 per week x 2 adults makes only £7,020 per year and we’ve already established that this alone would not be at all sufficient to survive anywhere in the country, even in Burnley!  The standard Child Benefit figure of £20.30 for the first child and £13.40 for any subsequent one would give you a total of £1752.40 a year [remember though the Joseph Rowntree figure of £57 a week – the same report states that Income Support allowances provide between 57 per cent (children under 11 years) and 82 per cent (children aged 16 years) of what is actually being spent on children in families who are on Income Support.]  To build our total benefits we also have to factor in Housing Benefit.  So it’s back to our terraced house in Burnley where this eats up another £4750 of our money, coupled with our Income Support and Child Benefit we’ve found £13,500 odd for both adults and their 2 children so far only half of the amount being capped.  Somehow we need to find some reason for the other £12,000+, knowing the benefits system in the past this will be no mean feat especially given the culling of benefits for the disabled.

If we go back to our calculations of the maximum £26,000 to start with which we’ve whittled down £5500 for household maintenance, £4750 for rent, £5000 food costs, £1000 transport,  £2600 conservative estimate for our children, we’re nearly at £19000 in total so far so already well above the £13,500 we’ve found on standard benefits.  We’ve not looked at clothing yet which obviously is difficult to get a real figure on but the ONS family spending study gives the figure of £23.40 making £1200 odd so we’re now over the £20,000 mark.  The same study includes £5 per week for health and £10 a week for education, we’ll consider this as £7.50 since we have already added money in for children, this makes just under £400.  What we’ve looked at so far I would certainly classify as the bear essentials and that makes a whisker under £20,500.  As it stands then with £5500 remaining this works out to £7.50 per adult per day with only the basic essentials paid in a home that has to be at the very bottom end of the rental market.  Taking into account the Halifax/ONS figures do not include replacement of any appliances or those unforeseen things that come with a big hit we’ve some elements of random expenditure that might occur but in my figures here I’ve tried to stick to thinks that would be unavoidable expenses at this point.  If you were to include other “normal” costs then the picture starts to become much more complex.

Were you to factor a car into the equation the AA estimate that the standing costs (Tax, MOT, Insurance, Breakdown cover) of a car worth under £12,000 when new to be around £2500 and 22p per mile for fuel, tyres, replacement parts etc.  If you were to live 10 miles from work this would mean £982 per year for the commute alone.  The ONS study seems to back this up with an estimate of £64.90 a week on transport (personal and public) which adds up to just over £3300 per year.  It would be as well if you didn’t smoke, were you to have 2 packs a week this would set you back £780 a year if a pack of 20 costs £7.50, if at that price you smoked 20 a day that would be £2737.50 so you’d probably have to cut out some food or sell a child since chimneys and mines are no longer an option.  Don’t forget these figures are effectively only for one person.  If these two things were brought in we’re over our threshold of £26,000 again so let’s leave them out for now.

We are yet to consider entertainment (let’s presume the amount we’ve calculated for children includes their entertainment) the ONS 2011 study on family spending gives weekly figures of recreation and culture at £58.10 and restaurants and hotels at £39 and alcohol, tobacco and narcotics at £11.80 per week.  This seems high on the restaurant side, as this would represent one trip to a restaurant a week and there are many of us not on the minimum wage who can’t afford that, it seems reasonably generous on the entertainment side too (by which I mean the way it will be viewed by those who think the £26000 figure is acceptable).   You can’t have your cake and eat it in this scenario though because that figure on entertainment comes out at over £3000 a year whilst the restaurants total is over £2000.  Drugs of any legality come to over £600 which bearing in mind some smoke and/or drink whilst others do not seems about right to take as a lowish estimate which I’m trying to do to avoid any accusation of artificial inflating of the numbers.  It doesn’t take a professor of Mathematics to work out we’re already over the threshold again if we factor in the non-essentials in combination with each other.  And this is using the example of the lowest costs of essentials such as rent.  Doubtless the supporters of the cap will claim the economic austerity means that entertainment is a luxury the tax payer can’t afford since benefit payments cost the country £150 billion a year, more than is made in total tax revenue.  Somehow the money has to be found and if it is at a deficit then savings must be made somewhere.

So how might we prevent this deficit?  How about the tax evasion for starters?  Figures range from £15 billion at the conservative end of total benefit expenditure (tax evasion being around 3% of total tax liabilities – while benefit fraud accounts for 0.8%) to nearly £70 billion at the top end according to the Tax Justice Network.  Even if you take a billion to be 1000 million (rather than 1 million million) the 15 billion divided by 3 million unemployed would enable a payment of £500 a year to each person.  However you’ll not be shocked I’m sure to know that the same columnists who call for capping benefits also make quotes like “Tax avoidance isn’t morally wrong. It’s perfectly sensible behaviour.” [Toby Young – The Telegraph February 2011].  Nice work if your accountant can get it.  On the same BBC program the 2011 figures for the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of the banks bailed out by the taxpayers which made pre-tax losses of £766 million and at the same time paid out £785 million in bonuses.  Again do we need the professor of Mathematics?  I suppose this is really chicken feed when you look at the total bailout of the banks which at it’s peak comes to £1.162 trillion, enough to pay for the benefits at their current level for a good many years without any tax revenue at all.

This would appear to suggest that whilst the current government is in charge simple arithmetic just isn’t going to cut it.

Song Of The Day ~ The Joy Formation – Whirring

Reasons To Be Cheerful

For some time now the things I have done within my working day but not directly related to the IT work I do generally have been more rewarding. I feel useful in my union work and have been part of setting up and participating in committees at a national level within this part of my day. I also serve on two workplace committees locally, something my line manager sees as interfering with my day job. I find this a little ironic since I would have thought being part of university administration and governance would be seen as a very integral part of the day job. I do it anyway which says much about my relationship with my line manager as anything. One of the committees looks at funding worthy schemes in the local community with a sum of money made available for such purposes by the university following the savings they had made using a tax loophole that they were going to pocket until we got wind of it! I could choose to see the amount of money as small in comparison to the university’s turnover or even the amount of money they deducted from staff following our day’s strike in November but it would be churlish and a disservice to the causes not to try to make sure the money is well-spent and furthers the inclusion of disenfranchised members of local society.

We fund two particular schemes within two of the most deprived areas of the town (the town has 4 out of the top 10 most deprived wards in the county) these provide drop in centres for people to access internet, legal help, meet the local fuzz and just have someone to talk to. This is done almost exclusively through the funding of the council and donations such as ours but would not function without a truly astonishing level of work by the people, or sometimes person, running the schemes. We also receive bids for up to £1000 from a variety of projects from around the borough. It is often difficult to whittle it down to within the amount of money that we have available and it is quite a responsibility to know that you control the well-being of such causes for a period of time. Sometimes schemes such as chairs for a village hall or money for groups that are somewhat niche and already well-served, like scouts for example, or where there are other parties who could and should be more active, may have to be given only a portion of or no money if it enables the schemes that are unlikely to receive little external help. A decision of whether able-bodied people have somewhere nicer to sit juxtaposed with funding a project getting teenagers off the streets and into groups where they can learn and be given opportunities for wider involvement is a bit of a no-brainer, at least in my mind. Fortunately in other cases we are able to give all the requested money to a project that is clearly going to make a tangible difference. Today I got to witness one of these.

Music therapy is something I have been aware of for a while, in fact I knew someone from college who had gone into this field, but whilst on paper it looks clearly laudable and valuable you cannot really get a feel for it or the difference it can make. As I had made the case for the funding of the scheme at the committee meeting I was dispatched to hand over the cheque and do the publicity bit. No big Comic Relief style cheque in this instance but one no less important. Visiting a very grateful centre armed with some funding to help them they invited me to stay for the morning session. I was only too pleased to grasp an opportunity not to have to return to the office and I thought it might also be interesting and valuable to report back on what our donation was going to be used for. I do not find it terribly easy to know how to sit with people that have in some cases little and in some cases no standard method of social interaction, you feel a bit of a spare part and ill-equipped to be of any use. You also don’t want to disrupt the equilibrium or the routine of something they clearly look forward to. It is not a question of not wanting to be there it is one of not wanting your presence to be a negative factor. For the majority structured linguistic verbal and written communication are their only ways of being understood and in truth I’m very often not especially at home with new people regardless of the group or the location, it usually results in my saying nothing or babbling incessantly. However structure in this way is a very subjective concept it just means parameters that we acknowledge and are comfortable working within. It is easy in this sort of context to see just how alike we are with all people regardless of their personalities, our diversity is what makes us interesting but sometimes it can make it a barrier to communication. I might be interested to know someone from Outer Mongolia but if neither of us can speak one another’s language then we have to look for other methods of communication and recognition and the same is true for those with physical and mental conditions that make their communication less conventional.

The more enthusiastic participants to a great extent remedy your passiveness and any unease by engaging using the instruments they have and at times singing loudly. The structure of the sessions involves introduction of each member of the group to one another followed by free play and one-to-one attention and assistance to each in turn and at the end a group farewell focused on each individual member so that all feel they have their own personal time as well as that within the group. I was included in the welcome and farewell songs and acknowledged and made to sing during the session and felt only the embarrassment I have felt in many such team-building exercises! Only in this case people were pleased to see me. It is a stimulating environment for them, you can see this in their engagement and each has their own way of expressing some form of enjoyment, some interact directly with the session leader and even those of us observing, others are intent on their instruments but can replicate pitch showing capacity to listen, comprehend and an ability to reproduce, something many people would struggle with. I am told that some of the current group have been together for 3 years whilst one is quite new but this friendly atmosphere is evidently conducive to relaxing and being part of things and some beam from ear to ear for the entire session, it is an infectious pleasure.

At the end of the session one young man who had taken very little open part in the session said “no” very loudly and forcibly when told it was time to sing the farewell song to him. I found myself somewhat disappointed too, and this was not related to the fact that I had to return to work. I can see how leading such a session must be a challenging but so rewarding a job, it will be highlighted every day what a difference you make to people’s lives and how you are able to get through to someone who would otherwise be locked within their own world. We are pack animals, we work together, protect each other and have something to learn from each member of those around us. The simple unadulterated fun that this group demonstrated shows me how much we get bogged down in daily crap and fail to spend any time just appreciating other people’s company and making music or conversation with them, being glad that we are here is something we forget and showing others we are glad they are here is perhaps an action we should communicate a great deal more often. So who is it that really lacks the capability to express themselves…?

Song Of The Day ~ Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter