The Empathy Gap

We live in strange times. The old order seems to be breaking down around us. Those who in earlier times would have been treated as slightly loopy fringe politicians are now thrust into the mainstream, wearing their bigotry, hatred and malice like badges of honour. The establishment is a trapped in Amber, clinging to an old agenda while the world has moved on to other business.

What lies under all this seems to be a lack of empathy. In unstable times it is all to easy to blame the outsider, the foreigner, the poor, the unfortunate for the troubles that beset us. Especially when the media is content to peddle vicious victimisation as entertainment and blame the less well off instead of the corporate tax dodgers and billionaire bankers who actually caused this mess.

Misinformation and downright lies seem to be the order of the day. Blame the immigrant for stealing “British” jobs or sponging off the state. Ignore the fact that the vast majority of immigrant workers are tax payers and contribute upwards of £25 billion to the UK economy. Many of them are highly educated, multi-lingual.

We seem unable to see things from another point of view. Who knows why someone seeks a new life here? Persecution, whether political, religious or sexual may have driven them from their home country. Economic factors may play a part. Are we to begrudge someone trying to improve their life and that of their families? Many migrants send money home to help their families.

Too many of us believe the lies. It’s the legacy of the “Sod you Jack, I’m alright” attitude that has been the hallmark of neoliberalism since it came to be the new consensus back in the 80s. Except that it doesn’t work. Austerity was imposed as the only way out of the financial meltdown. But what it has in fact facilitated is the greatest shift of wealth from the poor to the wealthy since Victorian times. Public spending has been viciously cut while billions upon billions have been pumped into the banking system. Much of that money has ended up in the hands of a few billionaires. At the same time corporate tax dodging has become endemic. Billions in unpaid tax, yet the government does little to recover it, preferring, yet again, to victimise the less well off. In a third world country much of this behaviour would be called corruption.

All I’m saying is that a rush to judgement does no one any favours. Find the truth, dig a bit deeper and you may find the picture changes. Apathy and a lack of empathy. Don’t let those two things be our legacy. It’s less than 100 days to the general election. Register to vote. Look at the policies (www.voteforpolicies.org.uk is useful for that). Don’t just tow the party line. Above all, vote.

Autumn

The Indian summer splutters to a halt as October gathers it into a chilly embrace. Autumn arrives with a blanket of grey cloud and whiplash showers, stinging the cheeks, sending shoppers scurrying into doorways. Wind blown leaves smother the pavements in gold and orange and brown. Acorns and chestnuts underfoot. The year turns and the season changes and soon those hazy summer days will be a distant memory of ice cream and suntan lotion, of sand and sea and long, lazy evenings. Winter hoves into view on the horizon……

An open letter to Ed Milliband

Dear Ed,

You don’t seem like a bad bloke. I’m sure you entered politics with the best of intentions. To make a difference. To change things. That you ended up as leader of your party is a great personal achievement for you. I was prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Let me make my position clear. I’m 46 this year and have voted Labour all my life. I could never bring myself to vote Tory, they go against everything I stand for. But as the years have passed and Labour has drifted more and more to the Right, I have begun asking myself why I should continue to vote for the party you lead.

Under Blair the Labour Party retooled itself ruthlessly for Power. It ditched everything it thought a vote loser and nailed its colours to the Thatcherite mast. Hello Free Market. Goodby Nationalisation. Hello endless Credit. Goodbye collective responsibility. New Labour became the Tory party painted Red.

When you became leader you inherited a party grown fat and complacent. A party with a poor leader who seemed to think that people would vote for them simply because they weren’t the Tories.

As leader of the Opposition you had a chance to change things. The clue is in the name. Opposition. But as a party you seem lost, all too ready to endorse a policy of Austerity that has caused needless suffering amongst the poorest in our society. You seem bereft of original thought and new ideas. You cling to the new consensus as if any other way doesn’t exist. Where are the brave new policies? The radical alternatives? The energy? Certainly not on your Front Bench.

The lack of opposition to a ruthless, cunning, vindictive government has been staggering. One of the most unpopular administrations in living memory and you have barely landed a blow. You lead in the polls simply because people hate the Tories more. You are not an alternative, just the lesser of two evils.

Of late you seem to think that making the Labour Party seem more like the government is the way to win at the next election. Who is advising you? Coco The Clown? Do you seriously think a clone of this vile bunch of Blue Meanies will do this country any good? Climbing in to bed with Robert Murdoch to win the approval of the red tops? Come on Ed. What happened to your principles?

The final straw came this week with your witless, ill-advised publicity shot for The Sun. That the leader of the Labour Party could endorse a “newspaper” that does so much to spread hatred, division and downright lies beggars belief. It shows either a naïveté that calls your judgement into serious question, or that you are listening to your spin doctors more than the people who might actually vote for you.

At a time when engagement with politics is at an all time low, when the lunatic Right gain both credibility and votes due to low turnouts at the polls, did you seriously think that this was a good thing to do? Did you think at all?

So, Ed, I’m afraid that I can no longer call myself a Labour voter. The constituency I live in is Tory and UKIP territory anyway, sadly. Labour usually trail a distant third here. But even so, I would love to see a Labour government elected with real alternatives to the way this country is being run. But I don’t think you, or your team are the men for the job. The opportunity has passed. We head for another hung parliament I think.

As for me, I’ll support the party with a manifesto that contains real radical thinking. That does offer a real alternative to the establishment. A party with fresh ideas and a new approach. And the colour of that party is Green.

Good luck Ed, you’re going to need it.

Treading the Boards

Firstborn had a bit of an adventure this summer. She’s 10 and a bit of a song and dance merchant, attending Stagecoach every Saturday and generally singing whenever she gets the chance.

Back in May we heard about open auditions for Annie The Musical at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham. Firstborn, despite having missed out on a part in a local amateur production of The Sound of Music, decided she would like to go for it. So, dutiful father that I am, we trooped off to Birmingham one Sunday. She was nervous, naturally, but determined, especially as we found that her cousin had won a call-back for the next round of auditions the following day.

But, talent will out and she too got a call-back. The next day the whole family went back to Brum, dropped Firstborn off, wished her luck, and wandered the city centre for a few hours. We received a couple of texts telling us they were sending people home, but that she and her cousin were still there. Eventually I had a phone call to say come pick me up. She nonchalantly let slip that she had a part as a “principle orphan”. I told my wife and Secondborn. Happy as we were we had no idea what it meant!

Fast forward to August and we said goodbye to Firstborn for a couple of weeks, while she stayed with Grandma and Grandpa for the rehearsal and performance period. The house was certainly quieter without her, and Secondborn missed her sister quite a bit. But it was easier for Firstborn to travel by train with her Grandpa into the city. And secretly Grandpa loved being able to look after and help one of his granddaughters.

I have nothing but admiration for her. She went into those rehearsals not knowing anyone but her cousin, in an unfamiliar city and she worked her little socks off. The cast of over 100 young performers (eldest aged 21, youngest aged 9) had 12 days to learn the show from scratch and then perform it five times for paying audiences. No pressure then!

I can honestly say that she loved every single minute. First night came and I and the Good Lady Wife sat with hundreds of other proud parents and family members, each waiting to see their child shine on stage. And boy did they shine. We had no idea what to expect. Would it be no better than an amateur production? Would things go wrong, words be forgotten? Not at all. The cast were superb, belying their ages with mature, funny, heartfelt performances. The show was a triumph for all concerned and you could tell from the delighted scream that went up from the cast after the final curtain that they knew they had nailed it.

Spotting Firstborn amongst the orphans on stage, putting her all into every minute she had up there, was something none of the family will ever forget. She was in her element. We took Secondborn along to the Saturday Matinee, along with Grandma and Grandpa. It was all very emotional. But in the best way possible.

Firstborn had the best summer ever. Her first trip abroad. First time travelling by plane. First time in a real, proper theatre, performing for paying customers. It is something she will remember for the rest of her life. As well as being a massive confidence boost.

Whether a career on the stage beckons is debatable. She loves being up there, picks up dance steps in next to no time, and can carry a tune. So we’ll see. Even if she just enjoys it as a hobby it’s a way for her to be creative and express herself. And we all need a way to do that.

So yes, I’m proud of my little girl. I certainly wouldn’t have the nerve to get up on stage. I’m quite content to watch her shine. Our own little star.

Break a leg and knock ’em dead kiddo.

What next?

Billy Bragg said something recently which struck a chord. He said that you think of your parents as the roof above your head and your children as the foundations below. Or words to that effect. When his mother died, he suddenly found that there was blue sky overhead. Which was a new feeling.

The reason it struck a chord is that my mother has been back in hospital, with another UTI. This one has hit harder and she is very frail, although improving. But my fear is that she may not be with us for much longer. Each infection knocks her for six and her immune system is weakened. Plus there is the spectre of a form of dementia lurking in the shadows. We await the neurologist telling us more. We seem to have done a lot of waiting these past few weeks. Waiting for the anti-biotics to kick in, waiting for her to get better, to be more like her old self.

The fear is that her future now lies in a care home of some description. We had a look at one recently. Despite it being a nice place, I found it depressing. People living out their twilight years with little or no independence, some barely aware of where they are. I can only hope my mother doesn’t fall into the latter category.

I phoned the hospital today and was told she had been moved onto a Rehab ward, which is a sign she is improving. But she will never be as she was. She can barely walk, has lost so much weight she is not much more than skin and bone. Her dentures need refitting. She is forgetful and confused at times.

Where she goes from here remains to be seen. Whether the infection occurs again will determine what happens next.

You always think of your parents as a constant in your life, a fixed point, an anchor. Once they go you find yourself cast adrift. Luckily I have a loving family around me. They will be my anchor.

The future is uncertain

So, the drugs do work after all.

After a couple of weeks in hospital (tough, tough weeks) my mother is herself again. But only after they switched her anti-biotics. The first lot didn’t work.

I says she’s herself again, but she’s still very frail. But she’s stopped seeing and talking to people who aren’t there. Which is a good thing.

Walking is more of an effort than ever though. A next up is a home assessment, where they see how she is back in her own environment. After that? Who knows?

The future is uncertain.

Mother

My mother is not well. She’s in hospital right now and has been for a week. She was taken in after becoming confused and convinced that there were people in her flat. It turns out she had a urine infection that caused hallucinations. That can happen in the elderly apparently.

The problem is, after several days of anti-biotics, she’s still confused, still talking to people who aren’t there, still having trouble remembering. The CAT scan has revealed “some degeneration, but until we can sit down with a doctor we don’t really know what that means. Or the long term implications.

She’s frustrated and wants to go home, but that’s not an option right now. It’s upsetting seeing her like this. It’s hard to keep reassuring her that she’s in the best place and that we all want her to get better. Because I’m not sure she’s going to get better.

She’s 89. She’s barely able to walk under her own steam and now she isn’t even sure what’s real. It’s a shitty hand to be dealt.

I just want my mom back.

A Good Lyric

On Friday I saw one of my favourite bands in concert, Counting Crows. Adam Duritz, singer and lyric writer, has a great voice and they have a body of work spanning 20 years to draw upon. He’s a story teller really, and his lyrics reflect that. I have always been drawn to a good lyric.

Lyric writing is a different discipline to poetry, although obviously the two are linked. Lyrics have to work with the music. Those who have tried to set poetry to music have usually made a bit of a hash of it. But a great lyric writer can stir emotions, be they anger, sadness, joy or melancholy, as well as any poet. People often cite Bob Dylan’s lyrics as poetry but they are not. They are great lyrics and divorced from their musical setting they lose something.

Glancing through my music collection I come across story teller after story teller: Elvis Costello; Dylan; Leonard Cohen; Richard Thompson; Bruce Springsteen; Ryan Adams; David Bowie; Kate Bush; Jarvis Cocker; Johnny Cash; Donald Fagen; Van Morrison; The Decemberists; Beth Orton. All of them have written great songs.

I have a mind like flypaper and can remember great swathes of lyrics, especially of the artists I hold most dear (Costello; Weller; Springsteen; Bowie; Counting Crows). Sadly I cannot hold a tune to save my life!

Don’t get me wrong. I like some big, dumb, pop songs too. But a great lyric can move you. For instance, Counting Crows alone have in their repertoire a handful of songs that I would gladly listen to over and over again: A Long December, Round Here, Mrs Potter’s Lullaby, Hard Candy, Miami.

In fact, I think I’ll dig those CDs out and wallow in a good lyric.