I was invited, along with other spa club members, to take part in a Channel 4 documentary about intergenerational inequality. It’s a horrible sounding phrase – in a nutshell: Richard Branson is entitled to a state pension and a free bus pass.
It’s a subject that exercises me, so I looked into it. It was to be a Current Affairs programme, directed by Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator. The Spectator? Really? I looked him up, and was flummoxed that a person who cares about inequality – an advisor for the Centre for Social Justice, no less – could be a supporter of the Conservative party. I wrote in to lodge my concern, and express my own views:
‘It’s extremely clear to me that this inequality exists and that my generation – I think I can just about be included in the term ‘baby boomers’ – have robbed our children. I’m not sure what kind of personal story you’re looking for though, and wonder about the choice of director since Conservative policies have caused or at least grossly exacerbated the problem. Also, by putting the call out to spa members I wonder if you are already hoping to bias the story? I guess most of us are pretty well-heeled (not me!) and there may be even deeper inequalities within each generation than across them.
‘Whereas I had free higher education, my son will have to begin his career with an enormous debt, then do an unpaid internship if he wants to be considered for the best jobs. Whereas I was able to pursue an artistic career because culture used to be valued for its own sake and the welfare state offered a measure of security to those in insecure careers, my son has to think in terms of financial rather than social or spiritual reward. Whereas there used to be plenty of casual work available, my son has to compete even for a low paid job. There were no such things as zero hour contracts when I was his age. There were no young people begging on the street. Tenants had better rights and more affordable rents. You could even squat. Since I was his age the first rung of the ‘property ladder’ has climbed higher and higher out of reach. I wonder at what age he will qualify for a pension? Or a free bus pass?! How much longer will I survive and need looking after than my own parents did? And how much less help will there then be from the NHS?
‘Not only have older generations created an economic nightmare, but we’ve devastated the planet – sucked up finite resources, killed a few species, melted a few ice caps, punctured the ozone layer, and filled the oceans with plastic and nuclear waste. I wonder which generation will have to suffer the consequences and sort it all out?
‘But this isn’t a personal story, so it probably won’t liven up your programme!’
I wound up speaking to the researcher, and tried to explain my hesitation, my view that Thatcherite policies and economics had something to do with the problem, and that my emphasis would be on the greater inequalities across and within generations: there’s a wider gap between rich and poor now than there was fifty years ago. (Britain is one of the most unequal countries in Europe; we follow close on the heels of the USA in all things it seems.)
With great charm the researcher assuaged my concerns, and by the end of the phone call I’d agreed to go and be interviewed. She especially liked the bit where I’d said that there was inequality within the baby boomer generation, because for me the state pension seems to be an ever receding goal; I’d discussed it with an older friend, who thought she was probably born in the perfect year: 1948. The NHS came into being at the same time and paid for the care of mother and baby.
As I rehearsed what I’d like to say about it, I remembered my song ‘Sorry Kid’ which perfectly expresses my feelings on the issue. I shot off an email offering it to them, then got completely carried away. I pictured myself and my piano under the spotlight in a darkened room, flanked by Andy Davis on guitar and Si Fish on kaboodle (assuming they would have agreed to it). The music scene is such an important part of Bristol, why shouldn’t there be an artistic response to the question? I wondered about the fees I could get for Si and Andy, and about making sure I’d done all the paper (screen) work to protect my rights!
Why d’you want to do it? asked my son, ever anxious for my welfare. Because I’m a communicator. I like an audience. This’ll be tens of thousands!
In preparation for meeting Fraser Nelson, I read some of his work. It didn’t seem particularly Tory. He writes of the poverty trap, for example, and understands it. I couldn’t argue against any of the pieces I read.
So what is this outfit the Centre for Social Justice? They have a glossy website, awards dinners, a picture of Saint Bob being Master of Ceremonies. It was instituted by Iain Duncan Smith to put ‘social justice at the heart of politics’. Yes that’s the * Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith who was Cameron’s secretary of state for work and pensions. The one who tried to force people into working for no pay but was scuppered by the European Convention of Human Rights, and when the case went to appeal he tried to change the law. He has a conscience, then? He did resign over Osborne’s punitive austerity budget, after all.
The CSJ is a charity and it works with other charities. It produces ‘evidence based reports’ – an absolute avalanche of nicely designed print. It has identified five drivers of poverty: Family breakdown, Educational failure, Economic dependency and worklessness, Addiction, and Personal debt. At first glance I saw little criticism of current government policy except in the structure of the welfare system.
Here’s an example:
‘Across the UK the CSJ has found the main reason for hope is the work of the voluntary and community sector… They uniquely achieve what the state and the private sectors cannot.’
Cannot? Will not, rather.
‘Social justice is not achieved by focussing on the poverty line or tweaking the benefits budget.'
The benefit budget needs more than a tweak and no, it requires political will.
‘Instead, it requires unleashing the work of change in people’s lives to create in them opportunities and hopes for the future, as well as a level playing field for positive choices.’
I’m sorry but that last sentence doesn’t even mean anything. How can you create an opportunity ‘in’ someone? What the fiddle faddle is ‘a level playing field for positive choices’? It’s hogwash, and an insult to the English language.
That’s a typical Tory approach, I thought: abnegate social responsibility and tell a smartly dressed lie. It reminded me a bit of slaver Colston’s alms houses and schools, and all the churches Bristol traders built as a salve for their guilt; using a proportion of their ill-gotten profits to secure a bit of Heaven.
Well, I’ve identified a few more than five drivers of poverty. There are dozens, ushered in by a succession of right wing governments (I include Blair’s, because he did so little to reverse the damage begun by Thatcher). Many of the policies that have degraded the fabric of society, and ruined other social contracts than the one between the generations, were indeed decided by people who grew up in the glory of post-war socialism – that golden age which produced the NHS we will probably soon lose. But Thatcher wasn’t a baby boomer. Labour wasn’t working, so she tripled unemployment in her first year. That was two million people. Unemployment was quite useful because it kept inflation down, for a while.
Deregulation, that’s the big one. Since Thatcher’s financial reforms, banks can invest in whatever rubbish will make them a short-term profit, while remaining coupled to the high street banking needs of the general population so that their survival is a political necessity. That’s not even a free market. Individual bankers carry on creaming off their outrageous bonuses while doing nothing whatever for society as a whole. For society the result is economic instability. In times of bust, the poor come off worse. It’s Biblical – even that which they have shall be taken away.
Here are a few other poverty drivers:
Financialisation of the economy, the selling off – at a loss! – of public assets (including housing), the knobbling of trade unions, house price inflation (caused by unrestricted bank lending), tax cuts, public spending cuts, abolishment of tenancy rights, lottery funding to replace government funding, over emphasis on defence, – all these were bound (designed) to transfer wealth from poor to rich – and to keep it there! None of this was inevitable.
Other culprits – globalisation, multinational corporate power, technological advance – have simply not been accommodated or responded to with any concern for negative outcomes, including Biblical environmental ones.
For family breakdown read ‘communities destroyed by de-industrialisation’. For educational failure read ‘underfunded schools’. For addiction read ‘the existential despair of the powerless consumer’. For economic dependency read ‘needing money for absolutely everything including water’. For worklessness read ‘robots even take jobs away from immigrants’. For gross personal debt read ‘exploitation’.
I gathered that the general CSJ idea is that people should ‘work their way out of poverty’. Here’s my question: how the fuck are you going to work your way out of poverty if there aren’t enough jobs, and if the jobs there are don’t pay proper wages or give you regular hours? We can’t all be entrepreneurs.
Maybe I’m being unfair. Perhaps the CSJ’s ouptut requires closer study?
Let’s take personal debt, as most of us do. Not everyone realises that about 97% of money in circulation is created by banks and based on debt. Debt makes the world go round; people are encouraged to get into debt – it’s become a normal fact of life for what politicians like to call ‘ordinary’ people.
Instead of thinking about redesigning the way money is created, regulating the banking system, regulating money lending practices, criminalising extortionate interest rates, restricting the advertising of credit, increasing people’s ability to pay by creating jobs, or reducing the need for credit by designing a benefit system which ensures that people’s basic needs are met regardless of whether or not they work, the CSJ suggests countering the problem of personal debt by ‘Investment in Alternative Financial Institutions’, helpfully dubbing them: ‘AFIs’.
Hey, that word alternative sounds great! – Credit Unions? Local Exchange Trading Mechanisms? Time Banks? That’s what we need, I thought – to decouple local economies from the mainstream and the global.
Not a chance!
What the CSJ suggests here is investment in banking that takes account of the poverty of consumers in its provision of financial products and services. It means to replace one form of debt with another. That simply accepts poverty and makes a profit from it, as Wango does, only on more humane terms.
In the latest report I found comments like this:
‘… there is not a set list of products and services people on low incomes need, but rather things that they want to be able to do, such as pay for food and clothes or have enough money to repair their boiler no matter when it breaks.’
Well, yes, they seem to have grasped something there (though is ‘having enough money’ something you ‘do’?). In other words, the sorts of products needed by people on low incomes are food and clothes; the sort of service is fixing the boiler. Forget your financial bollocks, they need higher incomes – adequately paid jobs, or adequate welfare, or a bit of both.
The ‘Centre for Social Justice’ was beginning to sound like Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Peace’ – Newspeak. I’d read enough, because it dawned on me, finally, that my own message about inequality was unlikely to survive the directorial cut of a guy who advises this lot, regardless of his eloquence or sincerity. He won’t see what I see.
I’d already decided to withdraw my participation before discovering the email saying thanks but no thanks for the song. No comment about it. And after I’d written to say that I wouldn’t be taking part after all and apologising for wasting her time, the charming researcher didn’t even reply to say: ‘Thanks for letting us know’. Ah, she’s only charming as a means to an end, whereas I spent quite a bit of time on this for nothing but a say, because I care about the subject. Perhaps that’s an example of intergenerational inequality – the corrosive effect of policies put through by a party which encourages competitive ambition and the pursuit of profit above all other considerations, and whose only generosity is to take tax off charitable donations, giving businesses an extra way of avoiding it in return for free PR. Don’t these people get it? Inequality makes life worse for everyone, rich and poor alike. Lack of money causes misery, but money doesn’t make you happy, especially if you have no time left in the day for simple courtesies. Love makes people happy. Kindness, caring, generosity, togetherness, contribution, community.
Government should work for everybody. But over three quarters of the electorate didn’t vote for the latest shower, which proves that democracy is in tatters – and democracy, proper democracy, is the only force which can counter inequality, bringing in government which represents and serves the poor as well as the rest.
I might have managed to say some of this but it wouldn’t have got into Fraser Nelson’s programme. Out of a population of 64 million you can always get a few people to say what you want. Other people’s words are material, then it’s a case of decontextualising, cutting, pasting and reconstructing. If I want a voice, I’ll have to make my own programme. In the meantime, all I’ve got is my song, Sorry Kid, for which proper recording is pending. Here's a rehearsal, a few years old now.
* I was going to write ‘millionaire’ but the word has lost its ring. To be a billionaire is now the thing.
Since this Brexit business I’ve been following the news as never before; time and again my jaw drops and my lips part, but no laughter comes out. Satire was already dead, so what’s new? I can’t work it out. Was it reborn and did it die again? Politicians have always got away with bollocks – but perhaps not this quantity of bollocks, perhaps not so day after day after day.
Parliament has just decided on two major issues, about which I was encouraged to write letters to my MP, and did. But although she found the time and energy to diss the party leader and resign from her position in the shadow cabinet at a time when the country needed ‘a strong opposition’, my MP isn’t in the voting vein. No it’s not her fault that she can’t fully participate in the legislature – she’s having cancer treatment, but, bloody hell, it isn’t fair is it? If an MP is ill, why is there no system for counting in her vote? A stroke of personal rotten luck has disenfranchised an entire constituency. Not only is my own vote completely useless, and always has been, in fact I might as well wipe my arse on it, but my MP’s vote is useless! How powerless can you get? I carry on voting, I carry on signing petitions, and carry on carrying placards, knowing that the biggest demonstration in world history made not a shred of difference.
So Trident goes on. Proportional representation remains a dream. Corbyn is vilified for not being well enough dressed, for comparing Islamophobia to anti-semitism, for thinking that nuclear weapons are dangerous. May is welcomed in as a safe option – a woman who said without hesitation that she was prepared to annihilate 100,000 innocent men, women and children. Well, she’s used to thinking of people in terms of figures and doesn’t seem to have much of a handle on humanity. How could you find a worse wally for a foreign secretary? He calls black people piccaninnies! Hang on, I’ll write that again. Our foreign secretary calls black people piccaninnies! Never mind that his only experience of negotiating with Germans came off with three never to be used second hand water cannon, never mind about his naked dishonesty and sedition during the Brexit campaign, never mind that he was a Bullingdon boy – the club whose members trash restaurants or, say, set fire to paper cash in front of a homeless person for a joke. Who knows, Johnson might also have put his johnson into a dead pig’s gob. At least we can be sure Theresa May hasn’t done that. No, no, she’s a Christian, like Blair. Oh, what the hell, Blair, May, Johnson, they’re all very well dressed, that’s the main thing.
In what way has Blair been held to account for Iraq? He hasn’t even apologised. He would do it again, he says. He says it in public, without a blush. Even after the Chilcot Enquiry. He’s a lawyer and he thinks the Iraq war wasn’t illegal, so maybe it wasn’t, but it doesn’t take a GCSE in Law to fill in the blanks between the United Nations Charter: war is only legitimate in self-defence and as a last resort; and the Chilcot enquiry: Saddam Hussein was not a military threat, war was not a last resort, Blair promised Bush ‘I’m with you whatever’. Whatever. These things are written in black and white and freely available to anyone who can read. But it takes years of study and experience and letters like QC and LLD after one’s name to be able to argue that black is white, and if black is white, then all those words just vanish.
So Blair is still free. Still sleeps at night, presumably, the ex peace envoy and philanthropist. Still draws a government pension of 70k. Still earns an obscene fortune doing obscene deals for human rights abusers and banks. Still owns millions of quids’ worth of property in this outward looking modern democratic country where a few years ago an eighteen-year-old girl was sentenced to ten months in prison for moving two left-footed trainers from inside a looted shop to outside the looted shop. If they’d been a pair of leopard skin kitten heels, maybe she’d have got off. I know it’s not Botany bay for stealing a loaf of bread, but it’s not ‘going forward’. Imagine. Ten months in prison. Awful. She didn’t even take them home.
So now we have a new Prime Minister, and phew, it wasn’t Andrea Leadsome because she did a decent thing, just as Cameron did a decent thing, abandoning the mess he created. For a moment, there, I thought May might be an improvement. She started off as though she’d signed up to the wrong side – it was all about the burning injustice done to ordinary, working-class, poor, black, female and otherwise disadvantaged people, injustice perpetrated by the government she’s just served in for six years as home secretary. (Who is ordinary anyway?) She clearly doesn’t care two hoots for the truth. Will we hold her to account when she fails to deliver any salve for her own government’s injustice? We don’t usually do we?
What has the Conservative Party done for women? she asked. ‘It keeps making us Prime Minister’! No, Theresa, it didn’t make me Prime Minister did it? It made you Prime Minister. You. And that other one. That’s the royal ‘us’ you’re using there. Spot the difference.
Am I alone in finding her first performance at Prime Minister’s question time utterly cringeworthy? She tried to be funny. I suppose Tories can unite behind any old leader, because they have no principles to compromise. As long as the leader wears nice shoes and the subsidised House of Commons claret is up to par. It’s easy, just as it’s easy to take responsibility when you don’t give a shit about other people, and those so-called tough decisions simply aren’t tough if they don’t affect you in any way whatsoever – financially, emotionally, morally.
Mrs May, she sounds like a Happy Families card. She is the captain, and the ship is sinking, and I want to jump out. It’s one way of dealing with net immigration – make this country such a crappy place to live in that anyone who can will fuck off.
So that’s a summary of the last few weeks in old Blighty. But then, life up close went on as usual, making one wonder if these elected ones actually do anything at all. Perhaps it’s just a sideshow, and the real damage is done by the civil service anyway.
Oh no, I’ve just listened to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign launch. He says that Labour’s opposition efforts took the edge of the chancellor’s deepest cuts. I can’t help believing him, probably because he’s honest. He’s certainly one of few exceptions to the rule that only power-greedy ambitious narcissistic manipulators become powerful. I can’t vote for him, because I’m in the Green party, and even if I’d joined the Labour party instead, I’m too poor to spare the £25 bunged on by their executive committee in effort to nobble him – yet another jaw-dropping insult to democracy in these jaw-dropping times. But I hope he wins. I don’t care what the papers say.
What the papers say is half the problem. It injures one’s health to be connected to all this political nonsense and terrible news, especially if one’s sense of humour is comatose. The most important event didn’t really need to be reported – it was literal hot air: Tuesday 19th July was the hottest July day on record, and probably won’t stay the hottest for long. Westminster fiddles while the earth is burning.
I think I’m either going to detach completely, or look for the good news, or at least try and focus on things I can change. ‘Be the change’ as Gandhi might have said. Small acts of kindness. Sorting out the recycling. Boiling one cup of water if I’m only having one cup of tea. And yes, I’ll carry on voting, writing letters, signing petitions, waving placards and handing out leaflets, because the alternative to Project Hope is despair, and there’s simply no point in that.
Last Friday morning, after very little sleep, I awoke to the devastating news with a feeling of dread sickness. Not for the first time. I felt exactly the same sense of doom and dismay when Thatcher won the general election in 1987 and again when Major won in 1992. The electorate has once again been conned by demagoguery and lies, by an appeal to the worst in human nature. Then it was greed. Now it’s prejudice. Once again, the poorest people have been made promises that the Savile Row suited elite have absolutely no intention of keeping. And politicians, with a few exceptions, are still a bunch of bastards. And they deserve the two fingered salute.
It’s absolutely pointless to blame the electorate for delivering this verdict. Something so complex and nuanced as our relationship to the rest of Europe can’t be reduced to a binary question. There are never enough choices on the ballot paper anyway, never a ‘none of the above’; but this time, there needed to be a Reform option at least. There are many perfectly respectable reasons to reject what the EU has become. Perhaps it will reform in response to Brexit, a potential positive from which, however, we are unlikely to benefit.
No, the responsibility lies firmly with those individuals that the public elected in the trust that they would govern the country responsibly. Instead we have selfish careerist professional politicians who have no regard whatever for our welfare – and though we endured the coalition government on the basis that it was favourable to stability – there has been scant regard for stability at this time of palpable crisis. This cock up is the fault and responsibility of the Government and the Tory party. For all his education, for all his superior knowledge and intelligence, David Cameron was monumentally stupid to put the country at this risk.
The media also must share in the responsibility, The Sun and The Daily Mail of course, but also the BBC, which over recent years has revealed itself to be little more than an establishment apologist. In its pretence of balance the airtime was divided between right wing versus even more right wing.
Of course, I’m sickened by the racism that’s been expressed, but I’m also appalled by the snobbery of some Remain voters. It must be clear by now that I voted Remain, but I haven’t forgotten how it was a subject up for discussion. There might have been a gut feeling one way or the other, but there wasn’t an obvious answer. There were many issues. It involved a computation and balancing of seriously contested points. Yes, it’s very annoying that the vote of someone who considers and weighs the issues had equal value to the vote of someone who didn’t know the EU from their arse. But there it is. That’s democracy. It’s always been like that, or we wouldn’t have had Thatcher. Democracy isn’t necessarily such a great thing. The Nazi party was democratically elected. Trump might be democratically elected. A decent democracy depends upon such things as an uncorrupt press and decent free education, which in our case we have not got. And hindsight is wonderful, but a division of opinion was on the cards, it was on the polls, we all knew it would be close. Far from blaming 52% of the electorate, the majority, we Remain voters might just as well blame ourselves for not talking them over, for not listening to their concerns.
I have an Irish passport, and before last Friday I’d already decided that if we voted to leave Europe, I’d leave Britain. But for all its faults, I love Britain, although I’m not sure any more what it means. Now, after four days of waking up to this nightmare, I’ve decided to take a more measured approach. Seventeen million people are not racists. A small percentage of our population is racist and racist feeling has been drummed up by a very small percentage – by three disgusting people whose names I’m not even prepared to type. People had different reasons for voting to leave the EU. For example anger, hopelessness, frustration, for example a sense of identity and pride and fairplay, for example hopes of a substantial cash injection into the NHS, fears of job losses to migrant workers. There’s real poverty in this country, side by side with rampant consumerism. There’s carelessness, there’s a loss of faith in voting, yes, there is little Englishness and xenophobia, but there’s also a hatred of bureaucracy and coercion, a standing up to bullying, and a fed-upness of being fucked over by uncontrollable forces. And there’s a cluelessness about how the world works, which is actually worldwide and general because nobody really understands Economics, which is why we’re in thrall to this unpredictable (and unsustainable) monster called ‘the markets’, and how we’re persuaded to buy ‘austerity’ and bankers get away with daylight robbery on a massive scale. And people had different reasons for voting for Remain, not all of them as pretty as Internationalism, Human Rights and Co-operativeness over climate change. Business interests perhaps, a bet, a holiday home in the sun? Anyway, on Friday morning I felt that I didn’t recognise my country, my country that had delivered this sickening result, but now I’m realising that over- generalisations are unhelpful and untrue, and there’s something about it I do recognise at last, in amongst all those different reasons.
I’ve been attached to the internet like a maniac, looking for solutions, looking for someone who knows the answers, hoping for a reversal in the face of what at the moment appears to be economic suicide and international disgrace, (and the terrifying possibility of a new Government even worse than those we’ve already suffered in terms of the erosion of workers rights, cuts to public funding and lack of concern for the environment). Can the House of Commons vote against it? The House of Lords? Can we have another referendum now people are more aware of the ramifications? (As if!) What about the Queen – what on earth is the point of her? Can Scotland save us? Apart from some good jokes – ‘I preferred it when all those celebrities were dying’,’48% Sense and Sensibility, 52% Pride and Prejudice’, ‘It’s an Eton mess’ – I haven’t found anything or anyone to give me confidence or hope, except Nicola Sturgeon! Gosh, it must feel good to be Scottish at the moment. I’m relieved that Jeremy Corbyn is hanging in there, and I like the response of Caroline Lucas – ‘progressives need to be working together’ – but it doesn’t seem to be happening. Yes indeed, now more than ever, we need to build bridges not walls, (except for a few affordable houses). This is no time for being scared. It’s time for being brave, resourceful and together. Together in both senses of the word – solid and rational; and not blaming each other for problems caused by greater forces than any of us could control.
Can anything positive emerge from this chaos? a) it must! b) Tories out, Progressive coalition in? c) it’s clear we can’t leave everything to these elected individuals any more. We have to get local and we have to get involved. If harder times are coming we need some ideas about: growing food, planting trees – apple and plum trees included, regional regeneration, looking after the local environment, alternative currency systems, small co-operative business, looking after each other, healing the rifts in communities, recycling and reusing waste, for example. I don’t necessarily have the ideas, I just know we need some! If we’re going to lose car factories – let’s make bicycles! Offices are emptying – let’s live in them!
A friend said to me, ‘the Brits are great in times of crisis.’ I hope it’s true. My feeling of Britishness has to do with a good laugh through a stiff upper lip over a nice cup of tea. It’s probably nostalgic and mostly to do with language, so I’ll finish with a beautiful poem that can’t be faulted, except that it was written when ‘man’ meant ‘person’. It expresses better than I ever could the gut feeling that prompted my vote, my sorrow at the result and my hope that we can heal our divided society.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
EXTRACTS FROM THE BEGINNING:
- MAKE THE BEST OF A BAD JOB
Georgina was ever the optimist. She was immune to Chance, and would like to think she could treat those two imposters Triumph and Disaster just the same (though she hadn’t yet had enough of Triumph to fully test the hypothesis). When bad things happened, she put up, shut up and got on with the job, whatever it might be. She believed in making the best of it, refusing to tolerate unhappiness of any kind. In this spirit she had sailed through the ups and many downs of her career; and almost as smoothly braved the death of her mother and then her father, and in between these commonplace tragedies, weathered the nasty dose of breast cancer fate had thrust upon her.
She had been a positive kind of person for as long as she could remember, long before emerging into adulthood from a peaceful and protected childhood in the middle of this prosperous rainwashed country of ours. Perhaps it was an overhang from her parents’ generation, with their stiff upper lips and Dunkirk spirit. Or perhaps it was a result of her privileged character-forming education. Or perhaps it was the character she’d been born with, written indelibly into her genes.
Her career was no cause for regret. She had used her talents and her time on more important things, such as family and friends; and if it was true that she’d wasted them, well it was her own fault, on the whole. The deaths of her parents were regrettable but unavoidable events which had happened at about the usual time – you can’t expect to live half a century without losing someone you love. And she told herself that the cancer was a useful and necessary wake-up call, emphasising that she must enjoy every second of however may seconds were left to her. If she hadn’t had cancer she wouldn’t be taking such good care of herself, and if one had to get cancer, hers was definitely the best cancer to get. Furthermore, if it was her destiny to die sooner than she wished, well she’d had a happy childhood, wonderful schooldays and a jolly nice life, and no-one could ask for more than that.
There were other things, however, that she did not so readily understand.
She didn’t understand why her son Charlie had decided to live with Jim, his father, or why her daughter Joni had chosen such a bland and uninteresting boy to go to Peru with, and then been so angry at Georgie on the day she left; not realising that the five months before they would see each other again was a gaping chasm of time, assuming of course that they would see each other again, which none of them could take for granted. After that she would go to University, and things would never be the same again. It was a point Joni had incomprehensibly missed.
She didn’t understand why the architect firm whose reception she had organised for over ten years had ‘let her go’ while keeping the assistant she had herself interviewed and chosen. Was this last-in-last-out policy fair or usual? And why was fate so wayward that Georgie had received the news of her dismissal two little weeks after her father’s funeral, and on the same day as her boyfriend or whatever else you could call him – the man in her life, though he wasn’t a man in Kipling’s sense of the word; the companion, though he was a bit more than that; the friend, though he had behaved in a rather unfriendly manner throughout all five years of their friendship (if that’s what you were calling it); the lover who hadn’t loved her very often; Kevin was his name – Kevin had finally decided to call it a day and because he was calling it a day she was going along with it, but when she had called it a day he’d not listened and carried on ringing her up and bringing flowers &c as though nothing untoward had happened, though at that point he’d contrived to ruin two of her most valued friendships. The whole Kevin story was just one more bewildering example of her inability to be content with a man, which was something she refused to think about, along with the fact that those two cherished friends had decided to back him up and weren’t contacting her any more.
Why her parents had moved to Bristol was yet another mystery; leaving their spacious historic red brick house on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon, with its outdoor swimming pool, its swing, its climbing frames, and elm tree stumps, and replaced all that with this crumbling Regency terrace on a busy main road through Clifton? Though admittedly somewhat stretched by tourism, Stratford-upon-Avon had still been a pretty town in those days, while Clifton used to be decidedly down at heel. And why had they then insisted on staying long after it stopped being convenient and when they couldn’t really afford it any more, and as a consequence lost half of it to tenants and then to buyers, and had to cram their entire material world into half as much space? The sensible thing to do would have been to sell up, set light to the rubbish or stick it in storage if they really couldn’t face losing it (though they were about to lose a lot more than a few dusty old souvenirs), and buy a nice bungalow in Brighton or somewhere. Georgie could imagine Maureen and Larry in a bungalow by the sea. They’d have been cosy and happy, amongst one or two special ornaments and photographs. They could have gone for walks along the coast, and watched waves splashing against rocks. They could have breathed in good lungfuls of fresh salty air, lived on fish, lived a bit longer probably – fish, sunshine and fresh air being major allies in the fight against degenerative disease. (These three were all on her own list of Staying Alive.) But instead, her mum and dad had been cooped up with redundant objects and papers, slaves to asthma, coughing and sneezing and prone to flu.
By the time they started getting properly ill they’d moved into the dingiest dampest part of the property, where one room was stuffed to the girders with furniture they had no use for and boxes of stuff they never looked at. It was the basement, but they called it the Garden Flat; it was the garden that had drawn them down to it, that and the fact that you didn’t need to climb anything to go into or out of it. By then her mother’s stroke and her father’s arthritis precluded any gardening and the outside had turned into a wilderness of brambles and ivy. Georgie sighed as she stared through the French windows at the greenery, wet and darkly glossy in the winter sunshine. She must do something about that. And about everything else – the boxes and the furniture. It belonged to her now – to her and to Will, her brother, who was too busy and too living in Brussels to help. It was lucky really that she had nothing else to do, which was another thing she didn’t really understand.
She struggled with herself about whether to ring Jim, a battle she fought regularly, as she didn’t want to expose herself to his unkindness, or breathe down Charlie’s neck, or annoy anyone.
Charlie was out. He was fine. Jim was fine. Georgie told him she was fine, in case he was interested.
‘Have you heard from Joni?’
‘Nor have I. Should we worry?’
‘It’s been three weeks.’ Georgie regretted her slightly wingeing tone. Jim reacted with impatience.
‘I’m sure she’s fine. She’ll call us if she isn’t.’
Georgie wasn’t reassured, but she was pleased he’d said ‘us’.
‘I’m happy that you said ‘us’.’
‘D’you think she only calls you?’
‘No, I meant ‘us’ not ‘me’. Not you, I mean.’
‘You seem to think I have no input.’
‘No, I think the opposite. You seem to think I have no input.’
‘Georgina I’ve got things to do. But I’ll let you know if Joni calls, OK?’
It must be her fault, she thought, that they couldn’t communicate.
‘Jim, I think it’s great that Charlie wants to spend time with you. You know I think you’ve been a wonderful father don’t you?’
‘Georgie, I’ve got things to do.’
Ah, he called her Georgie and not Georgina. She must be thankful for that.
Oh, here it came again! The sudden gush of heat, in her breast and shoulders and neck, rising and all pervading, flashing into her cheeks and forehead, under her hair, and bursting into sweat. She fanned herself with a photograph. Five minutes later she was shivering. It was cold and she hadn’t packed enough cardies. She didn’t own enough cardies. She’d only recently recognised the significance of cardies because she’d only recently been thermally challenged – unlike a jersey which wrecks your hairstyle and scratches your face, you can slip a cardy on and off with ease.
When her mother died her father had simply avoided the question of what to do with her clothes. They were all still intact, still in the flat somewhere. Georgie wondered if she might find a cardy of her mother’s she could borrow. ‘Borrow!’ she thought sarcastically. ‘I promise I’ll give it back!’
The wardrobe smelt of lily of the valley, of dust, mothballs and furniture polish. And it smelt of the past because it had always smelt of these things. She was shocked to feel a sense of guilt on opening it. Its contents were secret and forbidden, more so even than those of the letters she had read. Clothing is more intimately personal, perhaps, being of the body not of the mind. She saw a summer dress she remembered – a full cotton smock hand made and worn by her mother sometime in the seventies when such things were briefly fashionable. It saddened Georgie that her mother had kept it long after she could have worn it, and that no-one would wear it now. She took up the flowered cotton in her hands and buried her face in it, stroking her cheek with the cloth that her mother had chosen, cut, sewn and worn, that had touched her and moved with her. She breathed in its scent as if she might smell her living mother, but it was faintly chemical, it was only an object after all. She let it go, smoothing out the crease she had given it.
And that was when, with a shock of recognition that made her gasp, she saw the cello case. ‘Oh my God, ‘ she whispered, staring in disbelief. ‘Oh my God, they kept it.’ Without ever mentioning that it was there. Expecting her to retrieve it? Willing her to ask about it? They kept it in a place where they might see it every day, but Georgie never would.
She reached down for the handle. Awkwardly she manoevered the case out of its home amongst shoes and bags, tugging it between dresses and jackets, polythene sliding over polythene, coat hangers jangling. The case was in perfect condition, just a little dusty. She rested it on the floor, tentatively undid the catch and lifted the lid. There lay the cello like a sleeping beauty, unconcerned, shining, waiting for its moment, beside the bow which was still secure in its velvet loop, though it had lost some hair. Gently she lifted the instrument from its coffin. She drew one finger down the glossy burnished surface of its belly, and let it rest on the fattest string. The string was rusty, but it murmured – bottom C, very flat. She adjusted the endpin, sat down on the bed, wedged the cello’s wooden body between her thighs and hesitated. How long ago? It must be thirty-five years. Oh so many! No it couldn’t be so many! The knobs creaked as she adjusted the tension of the strings, gingerly testing each with a finger tap.
For a moment she thought that nothing would come to her hands. Silently she decided she must lay it down, she must forget again what she had already so studiously forgotten. But without her willing it, some unconscious force came to her aid. Something touched her left fingers and placed them against the strings, something leant against her right arm and encouraged the bow across them. Sounds came out, scrapey and ancient, but singing, just about.
It was the first tune she had ever played properly, taught by someone who had taught her so many things. It caught at Georgie’s heart, confusingly. She hadn’t thought about that someone for a long long time.
‘Full fathom five, thy father lies. Of his bones are coral made. Those are pearls that were his eyes. Nothing of him which doth fade but doth suffer a sea change into something rich and strange. Sea nymphs hourly ring his nell. Ding dong ding dong ding. Ding dong ding dong ding. Ding dong ding dong ding. Dong dell.’
Through decades of rust the cello’s plangent tones called everything back to her, all at once and as it was. The pinks and creams of her bedroom, her dolls, Silas, the dark wood flooring and the home-made rug, the view from her window of silver birch and elms, her satchel, annuals, fountain pens and dog-eared exercise books, French and Latin, the smell of talcum powder and lemon soap, the wobbly landing, the glossy wooden staircase and the front hall full of coats and hats and wellies, the glass shelves, the kitchen table, the Welsh dresser, parquet floor, bookcases, sofas, huge sliding windows and the garden, the apple trees, the pool, the summer house. Will.
Her mother, her father, fixed in that special time and place. Swimming in gold, drenched in heat.
She could picture it all so clearly it seemed absurd and impossible that it had gone. And that strange person had gone – blotted out of memory.
Come on Geegee don’t waste time, she thought. This is nothing to do with anything at all and there’s work to do.
She laid the cello carefully back in its case, and knelt down beside it, wrestling with unnameable feelings.
In your programme about the preventive efficacy of Tamoxifen and Raloxifene you have done a great disservice to your female listeners by not outlining other non-toxic measures which can just as well reduce the risk of breast cancer. Someone briefly mentioned exercise and diet – but these – and many other factors, can be absolutely critical, as well as reducing rather than increasing the risk of other life-threatening diseases. If you wish to enter into correspondence I can provide you with links to evidence. The risks of these drugs were not adequately described and there was no reference at all to women’s experience of them. In my view – which none of your experts expressed – the use of Tamoxifen as a preventative measure is a cynical gesture by a petrochemical industry which has itself increased the risk of breast cancer by inundating our food and water with biologically active chemicals. ICI owns Zeneca – the sole distributor of Tamoxifen! I speak as a breast cancer survivor – an intelligent woman and a regular listener to Radio 4 – who could probably have avoided contracting the disease if only I had known what I now know. It enrages me that Inside Health is involved in the promotion of dangerous and expensive drugs, when it should be informing people on how to improve their health and well-being.
Bristol Muso Blues
Once I had a band, ooh baby, how I loved them to play
But here in the City of Music, bands just fade away
When Rachel bowed her fiddle, Lord she was adored
But in Paris and Rome and Vienna she gets her bed and board
I fell in love with my bass man, he played so sweet and free
But his bottom line was way way out; he wouldn’t get no fee
My drummer, he was a straight guy, yeah he’d beat no retreat
But he swings with every combo in this old town, can’t keep time just for me
I got the Bristol muso blues
We’re paying the pubs to let us sell their booze
I got the City of Music muso blues
Too much talent, not enough careers
Too many songs sung to not enough ears
Jan’s got a little behind at the Cori; there’s a waiting list
One day she may let us play there; meanwhile she’ll let us get pissed
Oh there’s such a happening scene here, it’s booked three years ahead
What’s the bloody point of a photo shoot, by then we might be dead
I got the Bristol muso blues
Too many shows too few reviews
I got the City of Music muso blues
Oh Lordy Lord just do those sums
There are more performers than seats or bums
We need the gigs to sell our tunes, gigs tunes are supposed to get
But who wants to punt for a tune anymore, you can rip off the internet
Hundreds of friends on Facebook, oh Lord what are friends for?
For loving your song, for coming along, for putting their names on the door
I got the Bristol muso blues
Too little Venue, too much news
I got the City of Music muso blues
Too much work for not enough wage
So many players there’s no room on stage
It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, so I’m squeaking all day long
I’ve got no time to play my scales, or write my bloody song
I got the Bristol muso blues
To pay the rent we’re all cleaning loos
I got the City of Music muso blues
It’s the city where bands decline and fall
If you can’t play for love then you won’t play at all
Love In A Wet Climate
In America it’s what you got
On the Continent it’s a cute culotte
But in Blighty hot is a lovely pot of tea
With our stiff upper lips and ironic smiles
With our ruling arses on their stately piles
In this sceptred isle and its miles and miles of sea
In a wet climate you learn
Hearts don’t really burn
Your boy scout is prepared to take plan B
Play may be delayed
You’ve got to shower proof your parade
And you might as well stay indoors and watch on TV
Who said the English were free?
Well the southern soul really struts and frets
With its raging bulls and its castanets
But the Pom never gets upset so easily
Though his blood will rise for an Elgar tune
Those satanic mills are just Mills and Boon
And the moon in June is clouded in mystery
In a wet climate you learn
To wait for your turn
Manners maketh you mind your queue and pee
Ooh but the weather
Brings all kinds of people together
At least you know how to moan passionately
How can you relax in your wellies and your mac?
How can you not be cynical when your boys are in Iraq?
And when the sun comes out you know the rain will soon come back
In a wet climate you learn
Hearts don’t really burn
It’s a figure of speech in a tongue full of poetry
From a land that made the NHS and The Beatles and the BBC
Shakespeare, Blake, Jane Austen, Captain Mainwaring and Basil Fawlty
Clinging to the wreck of its history
God save our gracious queen! (Freddie Mercury)
You might not have it made
But it’s how fairly you played
And you’ll make hay in the rain if needs must be
Though you know it’s in vain
Who’s as romantic as we?
I used to turn heads in the street
And everyone thought I was sweet
But that was before the change
I used to be eager to please
I’d lie back and say cheese
But that was before the change
Now no-one can see me
And nobody needs me
Its freed me to fester and rage
No longer a flower
I fruited and turned sour
But I’ll find my power in the change
I used to be courted by men
Who I thought were my friends
But that was before the change
I’d feel distressed and debased
When they spoke to my chest and not my face
But that was before the change
When all that counted
Was I fit to be mounted
And made up and made to behave
Now alas I’ve no choice
Might as well raise up my voice
And rejoice in the change
La la la la la la la la la la la la
Wish I’d known as a girl
What a crone of the world
Understands of her worth
All that sugar and spice
Was an unholy price
For a hole in the earth
All that sugar and spice
Was an unholy price
For a hole in the earth
Never Ending Love
When my day is done
When all my tears are shed
When solitude is closing
Like a winding sheet around my bed
When lovers have all gone
Never to come again
When life itself abandons me
What will I do then?
I’ll see the world has been
Heaven for a fool
I’ll listen for the still small voice
I sang about at school
I’ll know that all things must
Crumble into dust
And in your never ending love
I will put my trust
I’ll have to put my trust
Your hair is gonna curl
When you see what we did to the world
When it was our turn to play with it
It’s your turn now
We got it too hot and the sea got too high
And we tore a little hole in the sky
And we finished the oil and we borrowed the trees
And we’ve gone and lost some songbirds and butterflies and bees
We got it rather dirty and a bit more bloodstained
And we took it all to bits that don’t fit together again
And we wrote our names on the DNA
And we swapped tomorrow for today
I’m sorry baby I’m sorry kid
We didn’t mean to do it
But we did
We wanted love, we wanted to be free
Instead of love we made pornography
After two world wars we wanted peace
So we put our wars futher east
We wanted to end hunger and poverty
Our credit cards were free
I’m sorry baby, I’m sorry kid
I wish we could undo what we did
I’m sorry baby, I’m sorry kid
Please undo what we did
Sometimes when she woke up, when her mind was still dreamy and fluid, she believed she was lying in her childhood bedroom as it used to be. The door was to her left, the casement window ahead of her, by the desk, the cupboard to her right (with its door reassuringly ajar, to prove that the cyberman wasn’t hiding in it.) From her cosy cocoon of sheets another universe spun out. She felt she could get out of bed, walk three steps to the window and open the curtains onto the back garden. There would be the trellis and the swing, the row of elms and the fields beyond. She could picture doing this vividly, imagining the movement of her body and the texture of the wooden floor. She could count the spots on her curtains, she could see precisely its shade of cobalt blue, bury her face in its fibres and smell its bricky scent. She could leave her bedroom, walk four steps along the landing, pass down the uncarpeted staircase, glancing out at the front garden as she passed a small round window to her right, to reach the lobby and the hall. She could visit each room in turn, in detail, and in the garden there’d be grass and flowers, clouds and sky. So vibrant and solid and sensual was this house and its gardens, and the views from every aspect, and the smells in the kitchen (bacon, chocolate whip, ribena) and the books on the shelves, and the grain in the parquet floor, and the smudges on the window panes, and the pencil marks on the wallpaper where one of her sisters had scrawled ‘Poo Winnie’; she felt that it must exist, it must still exist somehow, somewhere. But the council had knocked it down to make way for a supermarket carpark.
When she opened her eyes, and came back to the present, to her real bedroom – the double bed, the door to her left, the windows looking onto a road – the change was physical and sudden, as if she’d been tossed and spun through a time vortex and her stomach blenched in a kind of fourth dimensional vertigo.
Once in her passage through this memory house, she’d tried to move a book. She’d taken it from the shelf, smelt it (paper, printing, hot plastic), flicked through it, watched the dust eddying out, and placed it carefully on the dining room table. When next she looked, it had sprung back to its original position. As an experiment, she’d tried to break a sugar bowl. It bounced. Nothing was breakable there. Nothing could be changed. And she never saw another person, she was always alone in the house, and if she looked down, she saw not feet, but floor.
If she tried to remember a person in such detail as she remembered this house, she only managed glancing, vanishing slices of them, or else they were still, as in a photograph. In fact, she couldn’t distinguish between memory and photograph. Or maybe the image was neither – it was invention. She wondered why this was, when she could easily animate her memory with other living things. People are too mobile, too growing, too changing, yes, but also too individual, perhaps.
These thoughts came back to her when finally she discovered what had become of Paul Fox. The carefree twenty-something PhD student – the man who’d bought her tequilas, carried her sleeping bag, drunk coffee with her, helped her onto buses – had become the major shareholder of an arms dealing firm, with interests in Angola. Her soul revolted. There was a picture of him shaking hands with other bloated suited millionaires.
She wondered if this future had been latent in him. If she’d looked more closely, could she not have seen the clues? Was his greed, which now clothed him in a supersize Armani suit, was it evident in his relish for burritos, his generosity in the pouring of drinks? Or the arrogance, which now snarled his features into contemptuous folds – could she have deduced it from his confidence, his decisiveness, his certainty – the very qualities that had attracted her and made her feel so safe with him so far from home? Had he actually changed, or had his natural development been distorted by events? She’d thought him kind and just. He cared about politics. He hated Thatcher and opposed the Falklands war.
The new information changed her memory of him. Now those fond recollections which had dawned on her at the Glastonbury festival were tarnished. Because the past may be fixed, but history changes. She’d known this in theory – probably at ‘A’ level she’d learnt the precept – but now she understood it.
These thoughts disturbed her.
Inside every young person is an old one waiting to come out. To know someone takes time; maybe it takes all the time you’ve got. Maybe the reason youth is so desirable is that people can hide in it. Maybe her failure to find a soulmate was nothing to do with luck; maybe she couldn’t deal with knowing someone. Did she know herself, for instance?
Once she’d seen a photograph of Hitler as a young man. He’d been quite handsome, sexy even.
It was safer plumping for an older man, she thought. As long as he didn’t use Botox.
When I met Randy Newman after his thrilling performance at The Sage earlier this year, I was so confused and excited that instead of getting him to sign one of his albums and giving him one of mine, I got him to sign mine and then couldn’t give it to him because it would have been rude. Yertiz!
His music – just his voice and a gigantic Steinway – made us cry. Feels Like Home was my favourite. He is a genius.