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If Writing is not Political, What’s the Point?

A recent blog post from Allison Maruska highlighted the dilemma that some writers face when exposing themselves via their blogs and social media. If potential readers get wind of my political beliefs will they decline to purchase my books?

Do the people I hope will buy my books need to know my thoughts on Donald Trump or just how many cups of coffee I drink whilst working on the next novel in the series? My views on creationism or climate change, or only how my latest research trip is going?

My question to people who struggle with these dilemmas is: “why do you write?” Because the truth is that all writing, if it is to mean anything, is of necessity political.

Is anyone in any doubt about Dickens’s politics? Or Orwell’s? Did Wells’s well known Socialism put people off his writing?

Of all genres, Science Fiction is, perhaps, the most obviously political. It’s basic plot involves an individual or group struggling against a regime with which they disagree. However the author chooses to present the two sides, which one is portrayed as the embodiment of evil and which as all that is good and just, he or she is making a political statement.

Neither the writer nor the reader can relate to the situation in an imagined world except by comparison with parallels in our own world. And it is how the author handles those parallels, how, for example, he portrays fear of “the other” as natural or irrational, that reveals his or her political stance on problems in the real world.

Which features of an invented religion are based on the beliefs of certain religions in our world? Are they shown to offer clear benefits to those who practice them, or are they revealed to be the cause of unnecessary suffering?

Even in romantic novels, which might be deemed by some as trivial, the protagonists have conversations and disagreements. The nature of those disagreements reveal, whether intentionally or not, the author’s world view.

When it comes to blogging, if your aim as an author is to show your readers the kind of person who wrote the book or books that you are publicising; if, in doing so, you hold back some essential part of yourself, are you not being dishonest? And if the reader discovers, through reading your book, a set of beliefs he despises is he not just as likely to reject you and your writing as if he made the discovery through your blog?

You might think you are protecting your “bottom line”, and, by extension, the welfare of those who depend on your income for their own security. The truth is, I contend, that you are not being true either to yourself or to your hoped for readers. If you are afraid, as Frank Sinatra put it, in Paul Anka’s words, to “state [your] case of which [you are] certain”, perhaps you are not meant to be a writer.

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Saturday Sound-off: Religion and Politics

I had planned to write a piece about austerity. Out of deference to the people affected by the terrible event in Kensington this week I have decided to hold that over to a future date.

There was another event that caught my eye however. Barely noticed among the hours of TV coverage and reams of newspaper reporting and comment about Grenfell Tower, came Tim Farron’s announcement that he was resigning the leadership of the British Liberal Democratic Party.

Mr Farron is a devout Christian who has made it known that he regards homosexuality as sinful. Despite that, on every occasion when laws about sexual behaviour and orientation have been under discussion in the House of Commons he has supported the right of individuals to make their own choices.

And yet, during the recent General Election campaign he was pursued relentlessly by certain elements in the media over his religious beliefs. At times in the past he has been guilty of evading such questions. He has explained this by stating that his Christian beliefs are irrelevant to his role as a legislator. His voting record confirms this.

His resignation statement makes plain his sometimes conflicting belief that, in a nation whose people observe many different religions and none, it is inappropriate for law makers to impose restrictions based on a single interpretation of the holy book of just one of those religions. It also demonstrates the anguish he feels as a consequence of that internal conflict.

I have written before about the suffering caused by religious fervour in the past. And we see it still, almost on a daily basis, in parts of the Middle East.

Across most of the UK in the 21st century we have removed the majority of those laws which were motivated by religious belief. The same is true of most modern democracies, although in some there are people with power and influence who still seek to have ancient explanations granted the same weight as scientific reasoning in schools.

I say “most of the UK” because there is a small part of the Kingdom where a fervently religious political party still insists on imposing restrictions on the rights of its citizens in matters of sexual orientation. Where, I wonder, is the media harassment of the leader of that party? Especially now that she is in a position to influence the governance of the whole Kingdom over the next five years.

You could say that, as an atheist I am seeking to impose my personal beliefs when I insist that religion has no place in politics. But, like Tim Farron, I have no desire to deny anyone the right to live by whatever doctrine he or she chooses to adhere to, so long as their behaviour does not harm others. And that is why I have such great admiration for this decent man who has presided over the re-birth of his party after the disastrous collapse in support following their performance as coalition partners from 2010 to 2015. I may not share his religious beliefs but I have nothing but praise for his honesty and integrity.

Do you agree that religion has no place in politics in a modern democracy or should our laws be determined by ancient beliefs? And, if so, which ancient belief system would you impose?

Saturday Sound-off: Weak, Unstable and Disunited

Once again Britain has shown itself to have become a divided society. Polarised between young and old, between those who see the advantages of being a part of the European Union and those who don’t, between those who believe in the entrepreneurial spirit and those who think the state should provide for all their basic needs. Long gone are the days when Labour and Conservative parties did well to achieve much above 30% of the vote, with the middle-of-the-road Liberal Democrats snapping at their heels with a vote share above 20% and ‘New Labour’ adopting many of their policies.

Mrs May gambled and failed to win. But nor did she lose, still receiving the greatest share of the votes cast and the largest number of seats in the House of Commons. She wanted “strong and stable”, a majority large enough to overcome what she saw as the flakiness of those of her colleagues who were less committed to her vision of post-brexit Britain. She hoped for a resounding endorsement of that vision from those she described as ordinary people “just about managing”. Now it is she who is just about managing to hold onto the vision. She now hopes to continue just abut managing for the next five years. That shows a degree of optimism verging on the arrogant.

Warning Signals

The people she will be relying upon to sustain the vision, the DUP, certainly share some of that vision. But already there are warning signals. Thursday’s result for the Tory’s was achieved in large part because of the success of their campaign in Scotland, masterminded by an openly gay woman, who is engaged to a catholic Irish woman. The fiercely protestant DUP have resolutely fought to maintain Northern Ireland as the only part of the British Islands in which same sex marriage is still not permitted.

It could be argued that the DUP are responsible for the breakdown of the power sharing arrangement under which Northern Ireland has been governed for since December 1999. The refusal of their new leader to step down whilst an enquiry takes place into the failings of an alternative energy project over seen by her when she was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment was the catalyst for the initial breakdown. Talks aimed at restoring the agreement have failed to reach a conclusion with the two parties to the agreement, the DUP and Sinn Fein, at loggerheads.

What this means for the rest of the UK over the coming months which will inevitably be dominated by the Brexit negotiations is hard to predict. The DUP oppose a so-called hard Brexit. Moreover, if, as seems to be the case, Thursday’s result was driven by an increase in the number of young people taking part when it is also true that young people are more disposed to remain in the EU, then it is reasonable to argue it represented a softening of opinion on membership of the single market. So, too, did the collapse of support for UKIP.

To many outsiders it seems as though May has spent most of her tenure as Prime Minister trying to put off a decision about how to approach the negotiations. She apparently made her decision to call the election whilst climbing a mountain in Wales. She still has a much more important mountain to climb. The election has not made that climb any easier for her.

Saturday Sound-off: The False God of Nostalgia

I watched something on television earlier in the week about Josef Herman, the Polish born artist who settled in South Wales where he produced iconic paintings depicting the lives of miners. The presenter and his interviewees, who included actor Michael Sheen, were full of nostalgia for the lost communities of the heyday of Welsh industry. I could not help recalling earlier works like “How Green Was My Valley” and “Rape of a Fair Country”, which deplored the destruction of the landscape brought about by industrialisation. It struck me then, how misguided is our love of nostalgia.

“How Green Was My Valley” has been exposed as a fraud, a novel written by an Englishman whilst serving in the British army in India and turned by Hollywood into a sentimental movie that created “a myth, a never-never land of pristine innocence ruined by the discovery of coal. His myth has generated more myths, of pits and singing miners and explosions, but it’s a good yarn.” [Meic Stephens, creative writing lecturer at the University of Glamorgan, quoted in an Observer article in 1999]

Last evening I attended a concert by The Black Family. For those who may be unfamiliar with this group of Irish musicians and singers, it consists of five siblings who achieved considerable success in the 1980s before going their separate ways as solo artists. Few will not have heard of either Mary Black or Frances Black. Once again, we were into the realms of nostalgia doubled; for the audience the songs with which the Black siblings achieved their original fame brought back memories of their own youth, whilst the songs themselves often recalled even earlier periods in Irish history, especially growing up in inner city Dublin in the 1960s and holidays on Rathlin Island, where their father was born.

All this reminded me, too, of that Python sketch in which three men vie with each other with stories of childhood hardship in working class homes.

Our whole political discourse seems to be imbued with this kind of false nostalgia. Britain’s decision to exit from the European Union was driven by it. The appeal of Jeremy Corbyn’s rhetoric is in large part because it harks back to an age when the gap between rich and poor was less marked than today. That, too, is something of a myth. It is true that the gap has widened significantly in recent decades but that was after a rare period of narrowing. Compared to, for example, Victorian times, the poor throughout the developed world are immeasurably better off than they were. Much better off in fact than the characters depicted in either of the novels referred to above.

Even terrorism, such as that which erupted in Manchester at the start of the week, seems to be driven by nostalgia; a desire by misguided young men to return to a time when people were cowed into obedience to a god who required them to deny their natures, when women knew their place as the chattels of men and those who dared to resist were subjected to humiliating punishments.

The truth is that you can not turn back the clock. The past was never as rosy as it is sometimes painted and was often a dark place where evil reigned supreme.

Vast numbers of people are far better off than their ancestors. Much of the prosperity we enjoy has been bought by mortgaging our future, by much greater environmental damage than either Richard Llewellyn or Alexander Cordell could ever have imagined. By all means let us learn from the mistakes of the past, but let’s stop looking back and remember that the future belongs to our children.

Saturday Sound-off: Mixing Politics With Other Work

This recollection is provoked by the news that the MP for Tatton, George Osborne, has been appointed to edit the London Evening Standard whilst maintaining his seat in Parliament and his other highly lucrative, if part-time, jobs.

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My 1981 election leaflet

In the 1980s I decided that, if I wanted to change the world, it was time to stop moaning and get involved in politics. I joined the Liberal Party and stood for election to the County Council. I didn’t make it at the first attempt but four years later – in May 1985 – I was successful. I became one of four Liberals holding the balance of power between 36 Labour and 35 Conservative councilors.

It was a large county. About a quarter of the population of over 800,000 resided in the city of Kingston-upon-Hull. Grimsby and Cleethorpes formed the next largest centre of population. Scunthorpe was also included within the county boundary as were three other sea-side resorts, the port of Immingham and eight or so medium sized towns.

Back then the County Council had responsibility for Education – schools, colleges and adult education; Social Services, including childrens’ homes and old people’s homes; Economic Development, which included responsibility for a small airport; Libraries, Police and Fire Services, Weights and Measures inspectorate and the maintenance of major roads. The Authority employed in excess of 20,000 people in these important activities.

The four of us decided from the outset that we would not form a coalition with either of the other two parties. Instead we insisted that every decision must have the agreement of a majority of members. It didn’t matter how that majority was constituted so long as two of the three parties were in agreement. Of course, that meant we had to be represented on every committee, sub-committee, and ad-hoc panel or consultative body.

Airport management

To begin with it didn’t look as if the commitment would be too heavy. The council worked on a 3-monthly cycle during which each main committee and the full council met once. So, two committees plus full council would mean twelve meetings a year, one day a month to take off from my job. But the Education Committee had two large sub-committees, one dealing with schools and the other with everything else. And there was a sub-committee of Economic Development to deal with management of the Airport. So that doubled the commitment to two days a month. Still quite doable.

But Schools Sub-Committee members were expected to meet with the governors of the schools in their area. If a school was facing a possible upheaval of some kind there would be meetings to be had with governors, teachers’ representatives and parents. If an employee was accused of some misdemeanor he or she had the right of appeal to a panel including councilors. Recruitment to fill vacancies in senior positions in the Authority was undertaken by a panel including members. And I’ve posted elsewhere about the panel of members, advised by staff, who determined which young people could and which could not receive a grant for their third level education.

Severance

Before long I was taking two, sometimes three, days off every week. My employer was remarkably generous in granting me this much time off for what the contract of employment defined as ‘public service’. The deal was that I continued to receive full pay so long as I returned to the company any allowance I received from the council for carrying out those duties. After a year and a half I was asked if I’d prefer to leave. I was offered a very generous severance package which I am still reaping the benefit of 30 years later.

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Aerial view of Grimsby docks. Image from Cycling Weekly

The council embarked on the full scale reorganisation of the schools in Grimsby which involved closing every existing school and opening a bunch of new schools covering different age ranges. Every teacher in that part of the county had to accept early retirement or apply for a job in one of these new schools. The process began soon after I was elected with a consultation exercise in which the nature of the proposed change and the reasons for it were explained at a series of meetings. Feedback from the consultation was debated and the proposal document amended accordingly. Once the plan was approved by the Department of Education at Westminster it had to be implemented. Councillors sat in a long series of meetings with governors to choose heads and deputy heads for the new schools.

The work of a councilor, in these circumstances, did indeed become almost a full time job, for a while at least. For the first 6 months after leaving my job I worked unpaid for the Party, as election agent for the District Council election and the General Election that followed a month later. My wife and I decided to find a shop – a disastrous venture the details of which have no place in this post. I got a part-time freelance job as a feature writer and advertising sales agent for a regional business magazine.

All of this recollection is provoked by the news that the MP for Tatton, George Osborne, has been appointed to edit the London Evening Standard whilst maintaining his seat in Parliament and his several other highly lucrative, if part-time, jobs. He is the same age as I was when a county councilor. Several former editors of the Evening Standard were interviewed on the BBC last night. At least one suggested that the job could occupy up to 100 hours a week. I dare say the job that Osborne has taken, though described as Editor, is much reduced from what the person with that title formerly had to undertake. Even so, I don’t envy him trying to juggle the demands of both roles. He has to survive until May 2020 unless he decides to resign from one or other post before then.

Will he last three years? I’m not a betting man, but I am inclined to think that he will not. What do you think?

Malnutrition and Indolence – Lessons for Today

In my previous post I postulated that poor diet in expectant mothers and infants had, in the past, a role in preventing the poor in Ireland from improving their conditions. But can it also explain the lack of aspiration evident among the poor in modern developed economies?

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Concentrated orange juice was provided free of charge to pregnant women and infants in Britain during and after World War II.

The British government during World War II was concerned to ensure that expectant and nursing mothers and infants received proper nutrition despite the food shortages and rationing that characterised the war years and those immediately following. They would have been ignorant of the relationship between diet and brain growth. But they were certainly concerned to prevent diseases, like scurvy, associated with vitamin deficiencies. Concentrated orange juice, cod liver oil, and free school milk all served to ensure that my generation, and our mothers, had access to nutritious foods.

The same wellfare foods were also available to the ‘baby boomer’ generation that followed. And concern for diet informed the decision to provide free meals to school children who met the criteria of a simple means test, and continues to do so throughout the UK.

The first 3 decades after that war were characterised by full employment and the rapid expansion of educational opportunities. The causes of the rise in unemployment in the 1980s were undoubtedly economic. But, whereas in the 1950s & ’60s young people were not only willing, but eager, to seek opportunities for self improvement, through education, training and migration to regions at home and abroad where well rewarded work was available, subsequent generations of the poor seem less inclined to show such initiative. Schemes intended to help are all too often either abused or viewed with resentment.

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Does poor nutrition mean some children’s brains aren’t able to assimilate information?

A woman residing in North America, commenting on my previous post, suggests that similar problems of apathy and even hostility towards formal education exist there, too. The ‘dumming down’ of the school curriculum there, she argues, is not “that students don’t care about education, but that their brains aren’t functioning enough to be able to assimilate the material.”

The effect of non-nutritious additives, fats and sugars in causing such comparatively recent phenomena as ADHD, obesity and diabetes is well understood. Are we missing a trick in not ensuring that expecting and nursing mothers and infants receive the kind of foods that will maximise the ability of those infants to develop their full potential as human beings?

Some politicians and commentators still hold to the view that the poor are to blame for their own conditions. They make a distinction between those they refer to as the ‘deserving poor’ and those they regard as ‘undeserving‘. Could it be that people who fall into this latter group are suffering from the kind of dietary deficiencies that have been shown to be responsible for an apathetic attitude, low IQ and an inability to take action to lift themselves out of poverty?

General Practice: Unable to Cope?

I have been shaken recently by claims that in England you might have to wait 2-3 weeks for a GP appointment. The most recent instance was during an interview on the BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ programme yesterday evening, Dame Julie More, the CEO of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, remarked, in what was little more than an aside, that she had spoken to a patient in A&E that morning who had stated she had been told by her GP there was a 3 week wait for an appointment “so I’ve come here.”

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It is no wonder that A&Es up and down the country are under such pressure if they are, in effect, being utilised as a substitute for the traditional family doctor. Waiting more than a few hours for an appointment seems impractical. Either your symptoms will have got much worse making your case an urgent one, or they will have disappeared. I feel fine now, but I could be dead in 3 weeks time. If my demise is preceded by symptoms of ill health I will want those symptoms to be assessed by a professional as soon as possible.

I can recall a time when you could walk into a doctor’s surgery during morning or evening surgery hours and expect to be seen within an hour or less. At other times the doctor would be conducting home visits. In the early months of 1961 I contracted a nasty cough. I visited our doctor’s surgery and was diagnosed with Bronchitis. I remained in bed at home for several weeks, during which the doctor made several visits. He eventually revised the diagnosis to Whooping Cough.

the-doctorI have been looking at articles on-line dealing with recent developments in General Practice. In a paper published in The Lancet in April 2016 researchers from Oxford University noted that, between 2007 and 2014 “average consultation rates over the 7 years, [rose] 10.5% from 4.67 consultations per person per year in England in 2007/8 to 5.16 in 2013/14. [Clinical workload in UK primary care: a retrospective analysis of 100 million consultations in England, 2007–14, published online in The Lancet on 6 April.]

Interestingly, this compares to figures gleaned from another paper dealing with the history of General Practice in England, this one published by the BMJ in January 2006 entitled A century of general practice by Zosia Kmietowicz. Discussing the years immediately following the creation of the NHS it states that “The average number of times a patient consulted their general practitioner rose from 4.8 a year in 1947 to 5.6 in 1950

At that time GPs made many more home visits than they do today: “In 1953, general practitioners were estimated to be making between 12 and 30 home visits each day and seeing between 15 and 50 patients in their surgeries.” As this article in The Daily Mail on-line from February 2016 says, the BMA has advised doctors to reduce or eliminate home visits – a service that was already much reduced by 2007.

GP surgeries today would be unrecognisable to the family doctor that cared for me back iin 1961. These days they operate with several doctors sharing a practice. They also employ practice nurses, receptionists and probably have a Practice Manager to look after all the paperwork. They also, of course, have the kind of diagnostic equipment that, if it existed at all 56 years ago, would have been available only in hospitals. All of this is surely intended to reduce the work load of hospitals.

According to Zosia Kmietowicz’s paper, by 2002 general practitioners controlled 75% of the NHS budget. Am I being too controversial in suggesting that, rather than forcing patients to attend hospitals, they should be using that colossal financial power to provide a better service in the communities they are supposed to serve.017

The problem, of course, is that we are all living longer. At the time of my birth, in 1941, I could have been expected to live until I was 60. My wife, born in 1945, would have been expected to live until she was 67. We have already lived an extra 15 and 4 years respectively. Fortunately we both enjoy reasonably good health. Many of our contemporaries are less fortunate and have already survived conditions that would undoubtedly have killed them in past decades. That is the result of the many treatments and diagnostic tools available today that did not exist just a few decades ago. Meanwhile, whilst the number of GPs employed in England increased between 2004 and 2014, that increase was insufficient and numbers have since fallen slightly.

General Practice remains the first point of contact with health services for most people. It cannot continue to be so if it is not possible for that contact to take place within a short time of the onset of symptoms.