Sunday, 27 November 2011

We're in this together

'We're in this together.' It's what I said to my bank manager, Dave.

'Dave,' I said - I knew that was his name because he had it on a name tag on his jumper. 'Dave,' I said. 'I won't lie. This is going to hurt. But it would be irresponsible to do nothing. Difficult decisions have to be taken. We have to be grown up. We have to tackle things head on. Grasp the nettle. All that.'

He looked confused. I could tell I was going to have to spell things out. Literally.

'C.U.T.S.' I said. 'Cuts, Dave, cuts.' He was still looking blank. I tried not to sigh. Tried not to roll my eyes. I fear I might have failed. Anyway I struggled on. 'We have to bring expenditure down. We can't go living beyond our means. We've had the good times and now we have to pay for it.' And then I explained as carefully and as slowly as I could what the current economic situation meant for us both. Me as a customer of the bank and him as its employee.

 I told him that while yes, I had, technically, entered into an agreement saying that I would repay my mortgage over twenty years at £700 per month, the scale of the economic catastrophe facing us all meant that this was now unaffordable. It was unfortunate but now I would only be able to repay £500 a month for the next ten years. It was tough, but there it was. He looked incredulous at first. Then shocked. I couldn't believe he hadn't seen it coming to be honest. I began to lose a bit of patience. I might have become a bit snippy as I went on to explain that there were, of course, no guarantees that I wouldn't find this new agreement unaffordable too in the future. What with the current calamitous goings on with regard of the Eurozone sovereign debt problem, the parlous state of the national finances thanks to the last government, not to mention the way the public continued to vote irrationally on both X factor and Strictly - it was more than possible that what I might realistically be able to pay back ended up being nearer to £300 a month over five years. Really - with the way the world was going - he was lucky to be getting anything.

He was very quiet for a while. And then he started getting proper cross. Shouting, screaming, threatening to call the cops. It all got most unseemly. I couldn't believe his attitude. surely, he could see that an austerity package was not only desirable but a necessity now?

This conversation didn't happen. It's fiction. But you knew that. After all who actually gets to meet their bank manager in person nowadays. Now, you chat on the phone with a friendly guy from Mumbai or Wicklow or somewhere when you go to get your request for an overdraft turned down.

But nevertheless a similar conversation is taking place. The government - having signed up to pension agreements for millions of workers-  has decided to rip those agreements up because it's decided it can't pay them. To which we should all say tough.

Many public sector workers could have had higher paid jobs elsewhere but chose working for the state because of a desire to do some good and, yes, because of the increased security and better pension provision. If they sacrificed the chance to own a BMW 5-series in order in exchange for being able to turn the heating on in winter when they hit 65, then it seems fair to expect a government to honour its promises to them however hard that seems right now.

And actually it makes economic sense to keep pension agreements. It is, after all, only pensioners that are buying anything these days. From electric guitars to Harley-Davidsons to long haul holidays, it's only the OAPS that are spending. Any fiscal stimulus in the economy at the minute comes from the grey pound. (or from rich Greeks fleeing to London to avoid the psychic blow of having to pay tax) But like most of the Coalition decisions it's not about economic good sense. It's about undermining the public sector.

There's a lot of crap talked about how middle class we all are nowadays just because we all like wine and we all like hummus. The truth is that in all the things that count we're getting increasingly like the working class. And not even like the unionised and muscled working class of the 1950s but rather the insecure working class of the 20s and 30s. This government (and the last to be fair) are busy making casual labourers of us all. Freelancers of us all. A world where teachers, social workers, librarians, the people who process your council tax or run your sports centre - all as insecure in their employment as a 19th century docker regardless of what agreements governments signed up to.

If I had really had had a conversation with the mythical Dave the bank manager in any way like the one I describe, then obviously he would have had me arrested or sectioned. And then he would have taken my house off me.

The strikes on Wednesday are not about protecting cushy payments for state employees, they are about making sure governments honour their promises. Making sure they can't tear up treaties when it suits them without the consent of the people on whose behalf they made them.

And actually one set of public sector employees do get massively generous final salary pensions which aren't being threatened by austerity measures. MPs are alright Jack aren't they?  

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Beat Poets - doesn't mean beat poets

From the New York Times - An astonishing witness statement from US poet Robert Hass

And a genius idea at the end...

Poet-Bashing Police - From the New York Times


Berkeley, Calif.

LIFE, I found myself thinking as a line of Alameda County deputy sheriffs in Darth Vader riot gear formed a cordon in front of me on a recent night on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, is full of strange contingencies. The deputy sheriffs, all white men, except for one young woman, perhaps Filipino, who was trying to look severe but looked terrified, had black truncheons in their gloved hands that reporters later called batons and that were known, in the movies of my childhood, as billy clubs.

The first contingency that came to mind was the quick spread of the Occupy movement. The idea of occupying public space was so appealing that people in almost every large city in the country had begun to stake them out, including students at Berkeley, who, on that November night, occupied the public space in front of Sproul Hall, a gray granite Beaux-Arts edifice that houses the registrar’s offices and, in the basement, the campus police department.

It is also the place where students almost 50 years ago touched off the Free Speech Movement, which transformed the life of American universities by guaranteeing students freedom of speech and self-governance. The steps are named for Mario Savio, the eloquent graduate student who was the symbolic face of the movement. There is even a Free Speech Movement Cafe on campus where some of Mr. Savio’s words are prominently displayed: “There is a time ... when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part.”

Earlier that day a colleague had written to say that the campus police had moved in to take down the Occupy tents and that students had been “beaten viciously.” I didn’t believe it. In broad daylight? And without provocation? So when we heard that the police had returned, my wife, Brenda Hillman, and I hurried to the campus. I wanted to see what was going to happen and how the police behaved, and how the students behaved. If there was trouble, we wanted to be there to do what we could to protect the students.

Once the cordon formed, the deputy sheriffs pointed their truncheons toward the crowd. It looked like the oldest of military maneuvers, a phalanx out of the Trojan War, but with billy clubs instead of spears. The students were wearing scarves for the first time that year, their cheeks rosy with the first bite of real cold after the long Californian Indian summer. The billy clubs were about the size of a boy’s Little League baseball bat. My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down.

Another of the contingencies that came to my mind was a moment 30 years ago when Ronald Reagan’s administration made it a priority to see to it that people like themselves, the talented, hardworking people who ran the country, got to keep the money they earned. Roosevelt’s New Deal had to be undealt once and for all. A few years earlier, California voters had passed an amendment freezing the property taxes that finance public education and installing a rule that required a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature to raise tax revenues. My father-in-law said to me at the time, “It’s going to take them 50 years to really see the damage they’ve done.” But it took far fewer than 50 years.

My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.

NONE of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning. We couldn’t have dispersed if we’d wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. The descriptor for what I tried to do is “remonstrate.” I screamed at the deputy who had knocked down my wife, “You just knocked down my wife, for Christ’s sake!” A couple of students had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging. The line surged. I got whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm. Some of the deputies used their truncheons as bars and seemed to be trying to use minimum force to get people to move. And then, suddenly, they stopped, on some signal, and reformed their line. Apparently a group of deputies had beaten their way to the Occupy tents and taken them down. They stood, again immobile, clubs held across their chests, eyes carefully meeting no one’s eyes, faces impassive. I imagined that their adrenaline was surging as much as mine.

My ribs didn’t hurt very badly until the next day and then it hurt to laugh, so I skipped the gym for a couple of mornings, and I was a little disappointed that the bruises weren’t slightly more dramatic. It argued either for a kind of restraint or a kind of low cunning in the training of the police. They had hit me hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard enough to leave much of a mark. I wasn’t so badly off. One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.

I won’t recite the statistics, but the entire university system in California is under great stress and the State Legislature is paralyzed by a minority of legislators whose only idea is that they don’t want to pay one more cent in taxes. Meanwhile, students at Berkeley are graduating with an average indebtedness of something like $16,000. It is no wonder that the real estate industry started inventing loans for people who couldn’t pay them back.

“Whose university?” the students had chanted. Well, it is theirs, and it ought to be everyone else’s in California. It also belongs to the future, and to the dead who paid taxes to build one of the greatest systems of public education in the world.

The next night the students put the tents back up. Students filled the plaza again with a festive atmosphere. And lots of signs. (The one from the English Department contingent read “Beat Poets, not beat poets.”) A week later, at 3:30 a.m., the police officers returned in force, a hundred of them, and told the campers to leave or they would be arrested. All but two moved. The two who stayed were arrested, and the tents were removed. On Thursday afternoon when I returned toward sundown to the steps to see how the students had responded, the air was full of balloons, helium balloons to which tents had been attached, and attached to the tents was kite string. And they hovered over the plaza, large and awkward, almost lyrical, occupying the air.

Robert Hass is a professor of poetry and poetics at the University of California, Berkeley, and former poet laureate of the United States.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Rachel Connor on pair-bonding antelopes, Muggletonians, the genius of Julie Delpy and moving meditation.

It takes ten years. Jill Dawson said that and I believe her. She said that from the moment you decide to write fiction seriously to the moment when you've got something on the shelves that you can be really proud of is usually a full decade. And by that reckoning then Yorkshire based writer Rachel Connor is at least a couple of years ahead of the game.

I met Rachel when she came to the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank on one of the first courses we were running. That was a starting to write course back in 2003. Since then she's completed an MA in writing at Manchester University and works for the Arvon Foundation herself. And now there's Sisterwives a complex, compassionate, subtle, and seductive story about love and what it means to be human. And so, as is my wont, I asked her some questions and she gave me thoughtful and thought-provoking replies. And here they are:

Can you give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words (not 49, not 51...)?

Raised in Teeside, craved the city; studied hard, played harder. Embarked on world tour: Australia, Africa, Europe. Laughed, loved, adventured. In one year gained a PhD, two lecturing jobs and a baby. Wrote lots of academic stuff. Migrated to the hills, married, started writing fiction. Wrote a novel. Then another.

Why should I read Sisterwives?

I'd like to think it has all the elements of a good story  secrets, conflict, characters who undergo journeys, learn and change. But it also asks questions about what it is to be human and to live together: what is fidelity? Is it possible to be faithful to just one person? and other more ponderous things like the place of faith and spirituality in our lives; the challenges and benefits of living in a community and how we pull of individuality and desire.

What are your personal feelings about polyamorous relationships?

If you're asking if it's for me, then no! I see that for some people there might be benefits, but I couldn't cope with the sharing. I'd be constantly comparing myself to the other wives. I'm fascinated by it, though, for all that. desire and intimacy can't always be placed into neat boxes in the way that traditional western marriage (or cohabitation) requires us to do. Monogamy might be tough, but it tests us. Those vows, rules, boundaries    whatever  are socially constructed. But the commitment (whether public or private) forces us to hold in check our impulses, egos, our individual desires and to consider someone else's needs as much as our own. For that reason I think fidelity is as much a spiritual issue as it is a social one.

Any reaction from within the Mormon community?

I've had a few excited messages on Twitter from people who've stumbled across a mention of the book. So we'll see. It's a big debate in the States - there's a campaign to legalise polygamy - but it's only fundamentalist Mormons who actually practise plural marriage. I can see that the book could be open to criticisms of glamourising polygamy and obscuring how women can be oppressed by it. But I also want to show how those power dynamics can be subverted. The other thing to say is that although I draw on Mormonism, I weave in other faith systems too, borrowing bits from Quakerism for example, and the history of seventeenth century English dissenters. The Muggletonians are my favourites.

What are your hopes for this book?

That someone buys the film rights for vast sums of money. No, in all seriousness: mostly I'd like the book to make people think, to ask themselves questions about human relationships and love and desire. And acknowledge that these things are more complex than our socially engineered structures allow them to be.

Are you working on another book?

Yes - in between working for the Arvon Foundation, and family life, and the multifarious tasks involved in launching a first novel with a small press. It's still early days, so I'm tentative. The new novel takes its inspiration from real people and places, so in that sense it's very different to Sisterwives. it's set in Glasgow in the early 20th century, so involves some research as well. My biggest decision so far is around viewpoints: whose is the story?

I  know you also write radio plays, what excites you about that form?

I love that compressed form in which to tell a story - so different from the expansive nature of a novel. I love the open possibilities that radio offers, the ability to travel anywhere in time and space. When I'm writing radio, it feels much more like play, somehow, than the novels I write. I give myself permission to unleash the child in me - I'd love to inject more of that into my fiction. But mostly I like the intimacy that radio can engender with the listener. I think it suits my writing style.

Who - in life or in writing - do you admire and why?

Julie Delpy. She's got it all: she's a hugely talented singer-songwriter, actor and director. I first saw her in Before Sunrise years and years ago. I love that film and its sequel Before Sunset and discovered that Delpy and Ethan Hawke both collaborated on the script. Nothing much happens - in both films, like in a classic modernist novel, they wander around European cities, talking - so the dialogue is everything. Genius.

What do you think about the Man Booker prize? Does it even matter?

I zoned out of this year's readability versus quality debate. I just couldn't engage with it. I certainly don't feel the Man Booker is a guarantee of quality, though what's worrying is that there are swathes of readers who faithfully work their way through the shortlist, thinking it's a benchmark for the best writing out there. But the very concept of literary prizes is bizarre when you think about it. On the basis of decisions taken by a chosen few, a small number of novels get a huge sales boost and literary careers are cemented. that said, if I won the Orange Prize, I wouldn't be complaining.

Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten?

Honestly? Doing the same thing. Still writing, and balancing that with something out there in the world - whatever that is - teaching, working with people in some way. I'd like to have another novel (or two?) in print. I'd like to have a few radio plays broadcast. There's very little I'd want to change. Apart from maybe allowing myself more time off...

Recommend something...

Five Rhythms movement. It's a form of free dance in which there are no set steps but you follow the music though a 'wave' flowing into 'chaos' and eventually into stillness. It can be done by anyone, no matter what their age or physical ability. I've found it to be an amazing experience.. Sometimes it's just a brilliant workout - like being at a nightclub with none of the drawbacks like being hit on or drinking too much. Other times (at the risk of sounding like an old hippy.), it can be like a form of moving meditation and unlock stuff you didn't know was there. I've had some of my best insights while dancing. The first time I did it I was on a huge high. Then I went home and cried hysterically.

I'm not really selling it am I?

No, not really... finally, tell me something I don't know.

Kirk's dik dik antelopes - native to eastern and southwestern Africa - are the smallest breed of antelopes on the planet (they grow to a maximum of 70cm). I once fell out of a tree while observing them in Kenya. And here's the thing: they find one mate and pairbond for life. None of your polyamory for them...

Sisterwives is published by Crocus Books...