Monthly Archives: June 2016

Beyond Brexit

It has come to something when, five days since I woke up to discover that the people of the UK had voted to leave the EU, this news has now been relegated to third in my list of things that are keeping me awake at night.

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Firmly at the top is my incredulity at what is happening within the Parliamentary Labour Party. As a fully paid up Labour member, I am incensed that they have chosen now to mount their nefarious coup on Jeremy Corbyn. It has little to do with the referendum result – Corbyn after all succeeded in bringing two thirds of Labour voters with him into the remain camp – and everything to do with the fact that, for a range of reasons, a huge number of Labour MPs just don’t like him or what he stands for. Their numbers have swelled now, of course, with others making a frenzied guess as to the most likely winning side and plumping their allegiance there, and the leader of the Opposition, elected by an overwhelming mandate less than a year ago, is left clinging on by his fingertips. The PLP has yet to present a single alternative candidate for the leadership role, and polls suggest that even if they did Corbyn would still win the support of the members – and rightly so, from where I stand.

Then over in the Tory camp, we have had the resignation of Cameron (even though he said he wouldn’t) leaving us with the terrifying prospect of Boris Johnson for PM. He might not win, but our other options don’t exactly fill me with optimism: Theresa May, who wants to repeal the Human Rights Act, Michael Gove (or his successor Nicky Morgan) who have ripped apart our education system, or maybe perhaps Jeremy Hunt, who is still in the process of dismantling our NHS. I quite genuinely want rid of the lot of them, but given the state of the Labour party I can’t see that happening in a general election which could be called as early as October this year. In fact the only people who are likely to benefit significantly from all of this are UKIP, who despite the continuing odious behaviour of their leader are currently celebrating the validation of everything they stand for.

Which brings me to the fallout from that Brexit vote itself. Naturally, pretty much every major claim the Leave camp made is proving to be false – from that £350 million a week for the NHS, to the reduction of immigration, to improved fortunes for our fishermen, with more revelations coming out each day. Our economy is in dire straits, Osbourne is promising tax rises and spending cuts, and the EU seems intent on making an example of us despite the government’s continuing assertions that they can use this as leverage to cut a better deal.

More important than any of this though is that seemingly the vote to leave the EU has opened the floodgates to a torrent of racist and xenophobic abuse up and down the country. My own work recently on the resettlement of Syrian refugee families in Torbay has shown me how close to the surface these racist views have been hiding, waiting for validation that a hatred of ‘the other’ is not only ok, but a justified move in the name of self defence. That validation has been growing in the rhetoric of the Leave campaigners over the past few months, most notably that of course of Nigel Farage, and now that the Leave campaign has ‘won’ there are many who seem incapable of extricating that ‘victory’ from supposed proof that the rhetoric was actually fact, and that those who would never before have voiced their racist views in public can now do so with impunity.

As someone who generally has a pretty strong sense of self-efficacy, I have been almost completely floored by this barrage of contradictions to my conception of the world we live in. When I haven’t been frantically cross-referencing media sources to try to discern some sort of truth in the midst of it all, I have been scouring property websites for somewhere to hide on a distant Scottish loch, and eagerly encouraging my husband to renew his lapsed Canadian passport.

But actually, I quite like where I live. I am quite fond, despite all of its efforts to put me off, of the UK. And so, through stubbornness or denial or a combination of the two I will not, for now, be going anywhere.

There are, however, some things I need to do for myself if I am going to survive in this post-Brexit world:

1) See the result of the referendum for what it is

Despite the glee of many factions of the Leave camp over the narrowly won referendum, I do not believe that there is anything to celebrate here. That is not just because I staunchly believe that remaining in the EU was the best thing for our country, but because I believe that the vote to leave was a symptom more than anything of a broken society.

I wholeheartedly appreciate the motivations behind those calling for a second referendum – it is becoming increasingly clear after all that the Leave campaign was won on lies, and that no-one actually has a plan for what to do next. However I also believe that a second referendum would only succeed in disenfranchising further the millions of people who have voted for change, and whose trust for the political system hangs from a fast-fraying thread.

For what it’s worth, I’m not entirely convinced that we will actually be leaving the EU at all given the various barriers that still lie between our government and that decisive action, but we cannot simply ignore the seventeen million people who voted for that, however unfounded or misguided we might believe their reasons to have been.

Rather we need to look at those reasons, and look at how we address them moving forward. We also need to seriously shake up our politicians and our press, who have wilfully moved from barely acceptable propaganda to outright lies in order to deceive and manipulate the population. Those are not the foundations on which a democracy survives, and all of us deserve better.

2) Re-evaluate my political engagement

Since I was elected to my town council last May, I have been directly involved in politics in a way I haven’t been before. As a teacher, I was always politically engaged – keen to work with the unions, and to recognise that being a public servant was not just about the very important business of teaching itself. I worry, though, that in local politics my view has become narrowed.

You would not believe the amount of things a town council has to do in the wake of government funding cuts, and the upshot of that is that a group of volunteers who care passionately about their community are being kept extremely busy just making sure no vital services fall through the gaps, with very little time or energy to engage in the bigger picture of the real forces that are making everyday life so very difficult for so many people.

I don’t think I’m ready to step down from being a town councillor quite yet, but I do want to become more involved with my local Labour party – perhaps even actually switching my allegiance to them as a councillor rather than continuing as an Independent. More and more I believe that it is Labour’s vision, on a local and a national level, that will really make a difference to communities like mine. Though of course that vision at the moment is under threat, and unless Labour can maintain the commitment to progressive politics rather than returning to a dance around the centre line with the Tories I may have to have a serious rethink.

3) Join those standing up against racists and bigots in pursuit of a tolerant, inclusive society

It drives me to distraction that this even has to be a ‘thing’, but there is no doubt that our society is currently experiencing something of a free-fall into the past as far as equality is concerned. The myriad of incidents that have been reported in just the past few days are no doubt only the tip of the iceberg, and whilst I have yet to witness anything myself there is no way I will be ignoring it if I do.

In the meantime I have a safety pin firmly attached to my lapel, and I will continue to support and promote the groups who are working tirelessly to ensure that the bigots do not win.

4) Take a step back from social media

There is a difficult balance to be found, here, between making sure I am as informed as I can reasonably expect to be and not getting completely suckered in to the internet at the expense of the real world. There are so many incredibly complex, multi-layered issues to grapple with, and there will be for some considerable time to come as all of this crazy takes its course. I need to somehow accept that there is no panacea for my aching brain to be found amidst the conflicting words flying around the world wide web, and that if I am going to maintain some semblance of sanity I need to take a step back and trust that somehow good will prevail. If it doesn’t there’s always that loch.

5) Make time for the things that are important in my life

Friends and family, and my writing. When all is said and done it comes back to these.

I have lots of events to look forward to over the next few weeks where thrashing out the truth in all the chaos can be done over a cold drink rather than through a keyboard: who knows, we might even be able to talk about something else!

And then there’s Arthur of course, who is most definitely getting frustrated with the political monolith that has inserted itself so ungraciously into our lives. Whilst it is his future I am most afeared of in the middle of the night, I clearly have a responsibility not to let it impact unnecessarily on his present – and to be present, both physically and emotionally, as much as I possibly can.

And finally there is writing, and the plans I made for summer before this cataclysm hit. Those poor novels are still languishing on my hard drive, and I can’t let political turmoil be just another excuse for not showing them the light of day.

For better or for worse, we are living in interesting times. It is up to us – as it has always been – to make the most of them.

 

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“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

It has been a strange few days. The EU referendum result has ignited such shock, grief and anger – not just amongst me and my friends, but amongst many millions of people in the UK and beyond.

I have spent hours dwelling on the impact that impending Brexit will have on the life of this little one – the identity shifted, the opportunities missed, the unity unknown.

We had to escape on Saturday morning, taking our van to a campsite not far away but far enough to immerse ourselves in nature for a while. It didn’t entirely drag me away from social media and its outpouring of emotion, analysis and dismay, but it stopped me from going completely mad.

There was something strangely comforting about the fact that most of the weekend was mired in cloud and slow drizzle, belying the forecast of sunshine we had been looking forward to all week. It was as if the universe was grieving with us for all that we have lost.

And then this morning the sun came up, and bathed our campsite in warmth and beauty. We went for a swim in the sea, cool and invigorating, and I began to see things with fresh eyes.

I still believe that something terrible has happened to our country, but I am beginning to see the referendum result as a symptom rather than a cause – and as a call to act, for all of our futures.

Looking at this boy, poised and full of wonder at the heart of an ancient tree budding with new life, gives me hope that we, too, can find a way to bring ourselves back from the winter that has befallen us.

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

Learning democracy

The unschooling diaries: week twenty-three

Today I took Arthur to vote for the fourth time in his three and a half years. The most recent was only a few weeks ago – another referendum, then on the mayoral system in Torbay. It was clearly fresh in his mind as we walked down to the town hall today as when I told him we were going to vote he said “We’re going to vote? Again?”

He wanted to mark the cross on the ballot paper. I couldn’t quite bring myself to delegate that task to him – not yet – but it made me smile that he was so keen.

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He’s starting to learn what it’s all about. He has a head start, I guess, having a mum on the local council. Last Spring he spent hours with me delivering leaflets around the streets of our small town, and he has been to a fair few council meetings since, generally letting the talk wash over him but still with a creeping awareness that this is how decisions are made: that people get together, and they talk, and they work out the best way forward.

We’ve talked about the national picture too – he knows when conversation between me and Leigh is heating up politically, and he always asks shat it is we’re talking about. And we try to explain, as simply as we can, why we feel so strongly about the things going on in the world around us.

It is vital, I think, that our children are aware of – and engaged in – the democratic process. When I have wobbles about not sending Arthur off to preschool it’s one of the big selling points for the life we have chosen: he may not yet fully understand it all, but this immersion in the workings of our society is definitely seeping into his psyche.

After we voted today, we sat with our coffee and croissant in our favourite local cafe and the mood was reflective. I could swear there was a part of his mind that was pondering the impact that all of this would have on his future. Maybe not quite consciously, but still there was a sense of the importance of what we had done.

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I may be reading too much into it, but whether Arthur is starting to get the hang of this whole democracy business or not it is him – and all of our children – that this is all about. I felt this more keenly with the EU referendum than with any of the other votes he has cast with me.

If the people of the UK have chosen to Leave the EU (I am nervously watching the first results roll in as I write this and they are not looking good), then it is likely to have a dramatic impact on the life that my son will lead. We will have choices to make, as a family, about where we want to live: I am not convinced that a post-EU UK will be a good fit for any of us. Even if the vote leans towards Remain the months and years ahead are going to be difficult. So much fear and xenophobia has been stirred up by this divisive campaign that I worry about the tensions that will embed themselves if people feel that their voices have not been heard.

Whatever lies ahead, though, I want Arthur to be entering into it as informed as he possibly can be, and with a sense that he has an important part to play in deciding his future and the future of his country.

Amongst the many, many articles that I have read over the past week, there is one that stood out and made me fear for that future. It was the story of a woman whose son had come home from a school assembly about the referendum and told her that she should vote Remain. The details of what had led him to think that are open to debate and somewhat immaterial, but her reaction floored me. She was ‘disgusted’ that her eight year old child had been exposed to discussion about this political event, indeed about politics in general – in her own words she said:

I was so shocked because I have never voted in my life and I keep that stuff away from the kids.

I mean, what?

I’m not advocating schools (or anyone) politically brainwashing kids, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the issue here. What this woman seems to have taken umbrage with is the very notion that her son should be educated about the politics that underpins every single aspect of his life – and that is intrinsically linked with her own complete disengagement from the democratic process.

One of the most compelling arguments I have heard from Leave campaigners surrounds the undemocratic nature of the EU. That in itself is open for debate, but is surely a moot point if even within the UK people are opting out of democracy.

Our young people need to understand how the decisions made by different tiers of government impact on their lives – and in order to be able to do that they need to be invited to consider and discuss the choices and challenges we are facing.

I am looking forward to seeing how my continued discussion with Arthur unfolds. I do hope, though, that it’s against the backdrop of unity rather than division.

 

On words, and truth

This past week, for me as for many others, has been almost entirely consumed by the EU referendum.

I have been pretty certain of how I would vote since the idea of a referendum was even mooted – I feel more European than I do British, and the thought of walking away from an institution that has successfully secured peace on our volatile continent, and has always been there as a buffer to protect us from the increasingly right-wing leanings of our government, just does not sit easily with me.

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Still, though, I have wanted to put my conviction to the test – both as an individual and as a town councillor I have wanted to ensure that I am not missing a trick: that I am not so blindly caught up in an emotional response to this seminal issue that I skirt over the facts, and promote a stance that is, in fact, not in the best interests of me or my community.

I expected to discover, as I delved deeper into the realities behind the propaganda, that things were not as clear cut as my gut was telling me. That whilst there were good reasons to Remain, the Leave camp would also have compelling evidence to support their point of view. After all, there are many people just as passionate about getting rid of the EU as there are about staying within it – almost exactly as many, if the polls are to be believed.

But the more I dug, and read, and reflected, the more I became convinced that not only is remaining in the EU the right thing do, but that a huge number of people who are planning to vote to leave are doing so not because they believe that it will lead to a better future, but because they are fed up with the status quo.

They are fed up of there not being enough money to go round, of our resources not being enough to sustain us, of other people deciding their destinies. With this referendum, they have been offered a scapegoat: and bolstered by the lies of the Leave campaigners they have been fuelled to protest against this (to them) faceless organisation that (they believe) has done far more harm than good.

Except they are participating in a ‘revolution’ led by the very people who have the most to gain by reducing their voice even further, and they are protesting against a reality which doesn’t actually exist.

Take fishing, for example.

This is probably the key issue for voters here in Brixham, and the reason why even breathing in the direction of the Remain campaign gets you labelled a traitor and an enemy of our community. When I started looking into what it was that had prompted the fishermen to bedeck their boats with the livery of the Leave campaign, I was almost certain that this was one area where I would be proven wrong: everybody knows that our fishing industry has suffered at the hands of the EU, right? Meaning that, surely, leaving the EU would solve all their woes.

Except the reality isn’t quite that simple.

There is little doubt that, over its lifetime, the fishing policies introduced by the EU have had a negative effect on our fishermen. However, the policies were introduced in response to very real concerns about over-fishing – the impact of which has a potentially devastating effect on both the environment and fish stocks, and therefore on fishermen themselves.

Since Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight campaign the Common Fisheries Policy has actually been subject to considerable reform – and is one of the best examples of how we as a member state of the EU can affect change from within. The figures now actually point to a real growth within our fishing industry, which is heavily reliant on the EU as a market for its exports.

There is still a problem with quotas, but the allocation of these is within the hands of the U.K. Government – it is them that have chosen to favour the huge commercial players at the expense of smaller-scale fishermen.

I completely understand why people in the fishing industry might want to use their referendum vote to retaliate against past injustices, but I do not believe that their position reflects the current realities. Given how many other areas – the NHS, the arts, scientific research (to name but a few) – will suffer if the UK votes to leave the EU, a Leave vote as a protest seems a very, very risky move to make indeed.

This whole issue of risk seems to be the thing that the referendum is hinging on right now. The Leave camp have somehow manipulated themselves into the position where to support them is the maverick move, the thing to do if you are fed up with any aspect of your life within the current system. Nigel Farage, with his hate-fuelled political career, is on the verge of precipitating the biggest shift in our government in my lifetime: he has made people believe that this is the only real opportunity to effect change that we will ever be offered.

But let’s just leap forward thirty-six hours to Friday morning. Let’s imagine what that vote to leave would really mean. We would have not only rejected the views of our current Prime Minister – someone who, on the vast majority of issues, I am utterly polarised from – but we would also have rejected the views of the vast majority of our academics, our business leaders, our artists, our scientists, our health practitioners, our trade unionists. The only group who would be united in celebration of this outcome would be UKIP, and in a blur of fear and propaganda they would have leapt from being a minor political force to the key drivers of our future as a country.

I really hope that is not going to be the case.

There is no doubt that Europe is not perfect, but no aspect of our political system really is. If we vote Leave, we are decisively saying to all of the European countries who want to be our friends, that we have no regard for them – and we have no regard either for the myriad of experts and professionals who have been warning us that this is a very bad idea. And that vote to leave would be conclusive: whatever the consequences there will be no going back, not without convincing the rest of Europe that despite us shunning them so hugely we deserve to be welcomed back into the fold.

If we vote Remain, we are putting our faith in unity. We are recognising that, in the words of the late Jo Cox, “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”.

There is still a long way to go before this European Union that we are a part of is the perfect fit for all of its members, but those are words that I would like to strive for, and a truth that I believe is the key to the future of our world.

 

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“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

I will never get bored of watching these two together.

Arthur loves his dad so very much, and it is wonderful after the hecticness of the past few months to be able to slow down, and breathe, and revel in each other’s company.

Now that we are past the intensity of Leigh’s med school training, I hope that we have worked out a way forward that will allow for more moments like this, where father and son can just hang out and enjoy the day to day.

He is only going to be little for such a very short time, and we fully intend to make the most of it.

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

A cut above

The unschooling diaries: week twenty-two

Excuse the incredibly specific focus of this post, but there were a couple of moments this week that reminded me why I love the unschooling approach to learning new skills.

Months ago now, I first started trying to teach Arthur how to use scissors ‘properly’. It felt like one of those seminal fine motor skills, one of the things that pre-school teachers tick off to show progress, one of the milestones that parents proudly share on social media.

And he just wasn’t having it. He was fascinated by scissors, but every time he picked them up he seemed sure to injure himself. Any attempt to encourage him to use them more safely was met with a blank stare, and generally prompted him to give up and go and do something else instead.

So I stopped bothering. We had plenty of other things to focus on, and this particular one just seemed a bit dangerous to pursue any further. But still it would niggle in my mind: just one of the many skills through which I was failing my child by not pushing him to master it as early as possible.

And then this week, whilst we were making a congratulations card for his dad, he came across some foam letters and asked if he could have his scissors. I queried what he wanted to do, and he said he wanted to cut them up to ‘make other letters’ – an idea we’ve been playing around with at breakfast time with his alphabites cereal. I handed the scissors over, resisting the temptation to tell him how to use them, and watched amazed as he carefully placed his finger and thumb inside the handles and demonstrated complete control over the task he had set himself.

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He did it again yesterday, finding some tissue paper and asking if he could do some cutting. And again he was careful and precise and achieved his self-set goal. Admittedly he was using his other hand this time – he’s taking a while to let go of his ambidexterity – but I figure he’ll work that one out too in his own time.

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I’ve started to notice the same tendencies when it comes to Arthur’s approach to drawing. Again I have been trying for ages to push him towards a ‘proper’ pencil grip, and again he’s resisted my efforts, preferring instead a resolutely clenched fist.

But a few times recently I’ve looked over when he’s been scrawling out circles on his easel and I’ve realised that he’s chosen to adjust his grip all by himself.

These are very precise skills I’m talking about here, but they are precisely the ones that I worry about with an unschooling approach. Sure, it’s great for the broad brush strokes of independence and creativity, but what about those things kids have to just know?

The more I learn about how Arthur learns, though, the more I feel a creeping confidence that unschooling might just be a cut above for developing those skills, too.

And relax… (sort of)

On Thursday evening, I wrote until my brain could take no more and went to bed frustrated.

On Friday morning, I got up in time to shower and feed and dress Arthur and I before we had to leave the house just after half past eight, managing to squeeze a couple more hundred words in between it all: but still it wasn’t enough.

Once Arthur had been safely delivered to his gymnastics class, I sat myself down with my laptop. I was surrounded by screaming kids and chatting mums, and had just under an hour to bring my story to its conclusion. And with seconds to spare before I wrapped Arthur up in a cuddle and we continued with our day, this happened:

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Having set myself a somewhat cursory target of 90,000 words, and broken it down way less rigidly than with my first two novels, I was a little intrigued to discover that as I approached that magic number the story did appear to naturally be coming to a close. I had been all prepared, after the two ‘deadline extensions’ I already given myself, to move the goalposts yet again even after that progress bar had turned its satisfying deep green. But, as it turned out, only 784 additional words were needed before I could safely say that the first draft was done.

It’s a good feeling, coming to the end of a first draft. Even now that I understand just how much work goes on after that point – way more, actually, in terms of both hours and mental exertion – it still feels good to get all of the raw material out of my head and onto (virtual) paper.

And so, to an extent, I can now relax. Except, of course, I can’t.

Along with all of the other endless jobs on my to-do list, I have set myself a bit of an epic mission for this summer. It’s the mission that, if I’m successful, will take me beyond the realm of ‘someone who writes’ into the heady heights of ‘professional writer’.

It is the mission to get published.

I’m keeping an open mind at the moment about how that will happen and with whose help, but it really is time I started to take things to the next level. I haven’t had the confidence before now to really push it, and even now I’m quaking in my boots a little.

But I’ve written three whole books.

And whilst they all still need a bit more work, I have reached a point where I don’t think I can justify turning my attention to another before the ones I’ve written are given a real opportunity to shine.

So there won’t be much relaxing here. There will be lots of research, and investigation, and soul-searching, and letter-writing, and self-promotion. But hopefully by the end of it, once this latest first draft has sat for a while and is ready for me to turn my attention to it once again, I will have a much clearer idea of where it’s all going.

That’s the plan, anyway…

 

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