Monday, November 23, 2015

the autumn statement: let’s all get depressed together…

There are at least THREE certainties regarding George Osborne’s Autumn Statement on Wednesday: a) it’ll be delivered with a confident smugness (to “loud encouragement” from his fellow Tory MPs); b) it’ll be clever and will see him producing one or two “rabbits out of the hat”; and c) it’ll be well-received by the predominantly Tory media.
Osborne is continuing on his “austerity is a necessity” crusade and has pledged to run a £10billion budget surplus by 2020. Local government (including welfare and social services), further education, the police, courts are all facing spending cuts of up to 30 per cent (and this comes on top of previous reductions) and, despite the government’s pledge to “protect the NHS”, there could also be cuts in some areas of public health spending.
The fact remains that, with the government’s comfortable majority in parliament, Mr Osborne can do whatever he likes.  

As Will Hutton outlined in The Guardian last week:
“The Conservatives’ choice is driven by a refusal to see any merit in public activity: in their worldview, the point of life and the purpose of civilisation is to celebrate and protect the private individual, the private firm and private property. The state should be as small as possible. It has no role, say, in owning Channel 4 to secure public service broadcasting; it will be privatised with scant care about its ultimate owner. Equally, there was no point in holding the 40% stake in Eurostar, forecast to generate more than £700m in dividends over the next decade and a good payback for £3bn of public investment. Thus it was sold for £757m in March, the government concerned to get the sale through before the general election. You could only proclaim a £2.25bn loss on the public balance sheet and the surrender of £700m of dividends as a “fantastic deal for UK taxpayers”, as Osborne did, if you see zero value in public activity.
“It is this philosophy that will drive the choices to be laid out on Wednesday. The spending of the so-called protected departments – the £189bn spent this year on the NHS, schools for five- to 16-year-olds, aid and defence – will rise in cash terms in line with inflation, but only to buy the same in 2019-20 as it does today, an unprecedented decade-long freeze in real terms. The block grants to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be hit slightly harder, protected only in cash terms, implying, after adjusting for inflation, a small real fall. The axe therefore has to fall on what is left – £77bn of spending by 15 departments along with non-school spending”.

The sad fact is that Osborne is hell-bent on reducing public spending to just over 36% of GDP in the last year of this parliament (without raising income tax)(or scrapping Trident!). This will inevitably result in too few nurses on a ward, too few police, too few teachers and too little of every public service. The cuts in welfare will hit the well-being of millions, including their children.
Osborne doesn't care about the consequences.
It’s all about political ideology.

One could highlight worrying issues in ALL those sectors facing further cuts but, just as one example, let’s look at the police service:
1.    If the predicted cuts of 30% do form part of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, then this would mean that funding for the police service will have been slashed by some 50 per cent between 2010 and 2020!).
2.    An estimated 17,000 officer posts were eliminated in the last round of cuts under the Conservative-led coalition government between 2010 and 2015 – and this level of officer losses could be higher at 30,000 in the next five years across the 43 police forces in England and Wales.
3.    Cuts will almost certainly mean a severe pruning back of neighbourhood policing and proactive prevention work which stops crime levels rising.
4.    It’s even been suggested (by Sara Thornton, chair of the body representing police chiefs) that a police officer may not attend every burglary in future – resulting in burglary victims even being asked to send evidence by email!
5.    I have a good friend who works in the police force and who is extremely concerned by the latest proposals. He is adamant that the on-going and disproportionately savage cuts to the police/council/criminal justice budgets will make it IMPOSSIBLE to be effective across the board.
6.    Only last month, Devon and Cornwall confirmed plans for reducing its number of PCSOs to ZERO. Many forces are stating Neighbourhood Policing is now a thing of the past. Pro-activity has almost disappeared.
7.    Studies show the majority of the public have no conception as to the true extent and effect of these budget cuts.
8.    Indeed, we’ve had a number of burglaries in our local neighbourhood over recent months. I haven’t got the figures, but I would be prepared to speculate that the number of burglaries has started to rise again. It’s almost as if “minor” criminals know full well that the police just don’t have the resources to cope – which therefore increases their chances of “getting away with it”. Continuing cuts will mean fewer officers and a pruning back of both neighbourhood policing and pro-active prevention work - which stops crime levels rising.

I COULD go on (and on!) about a whole host of other things that are likely to be adversely affected by the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement – all hugely important and all hugely depressing.
But, hey, what’s the point?
The Government isn’t listening (and the Opposition are arguing amongst themselves)… we might as well all give up.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

october-november 2015 books

More book stuff:
A Place Called Winter (Patrick Gale): This novel, set in the early years of the 20th century, tells the story of a gay Englishman who was ostracised by his family after an illicit affair and forced to make a new life for himself on the harsh Canadian prairies. It’s actually loosely based on the life of Gale’s own great-grandfather and compiled after he’d read a huge hoard of letters+papers inherited from his maternal grandmother). In the notes that accompanied my copy of his book, Gale readily accepts that, while he respected the “known facts, keeping real names, and houses and dates”, his story “inevitably… moved further and further away from reality”. As someone who has long struggled to come to terms with fiction (per se), I found the mix of fact and storytelling a little difficult to take at times. Nevertheless, it’s tender, compelling and beautifully-written book and one that I enjoyed reading.
Helena (Evelyn Waugh): I really should know better by now… when it comes to historical fiction (see Patrick Gale’s book above!). Evelyn Waugh is a favourite writer of mine and so I thought I’d “give it a go”. The novel’s protagonist is the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. In his introduction to the book, Waugh stresses that “this is a novel” and freely admits that “The Age of Constantine is strangely obscure” and that her life “begins and ends in surmise and legend” (we don’t actually know where Helena was born or when). History tells us that she was in Rome in 326 and that she went soon after to Jerusalem (by which time she’d become a Christian) and associated herself with building the churches at Bethlehem and Olivet. Frankly, I do struggle with historical novels (even if I did enjoy “I Claudius” on television all those years ago and, a little more recently, Melvyn Bragg’s brilliant book “Credo”!) and, although Waugh reckoned that there was nothing in the book contrary to authentic history or tradition, I found it all rather too picturesque and, at times, rather absurd. Predictably well-written… although, for me, lacking in Waugh’s normal wit and satire.
A Rose For Winter (Laurie Lee): I’d forgotten just what a brilliant writer Laurie Lee was. This book, written in 1955, tells of his return to Spain’s Andalusia (15 years after his last visit – Lee first travelled through Spain as a 19 year-old, in the mid-1930s, when he was trapped by the outbreak of the Civil War) to find a country still broken by that war. To say that Lee had a way with words would be a pathetic understatement… but he had a way of conveying a place and the people he met in a wonderfully warm and eloquent manner. Incredibly evocative and telling the story of a forgotten life (for instance: “There are bars in Algeciras where a glass of wine and a plate of shrimps cost only twopence; where it takes an hour spend a shilling; where a bootblack has only to see you to press drinks upon you; and where processions of strangers are forever offering you glasses of coñac with proud gestures of courtly friendship”). The Sunday Times described the book thus: “He writes like an angel and conveys the pride and vitality of the humblest Spanish life with unfailing sharpness, zest and humour”… and, for me, that describes the book EXACTLY. A simply wonderful book.
Sour Sweet (Timothy Mo): This is our book group’s next book. It’s initial setting is London’s Chinatown of the 1960s and tells the story of a family of Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong. The book’s chilling, dark side recounts husband’s reluctant involvement into the dangerous underworld world of the notorious Triads. However, the book’s shining feature for me was the resourcefulness of the family (especially his young wife), their domestic arrangements and their often comic dealings with British officialdom. Fascinating, scary, entertaining and frequently funny. I enjoyed it.
To The Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf): First published in 1927, this ‘stream-of-consciousness’ novel tells the story of a holiday at a family’s summer home on the Isle of Skye – Mr and Mrs Ramsay, their eight children and a few friends+colleagues. It’s initially set in the years just before WW1 and concludes ten years later. The book begins with a projected trip, via sailing boat, to the near-by lighthouse and although this is a recurring focus for the book, all this is secondary to its philosophical introspection – of thoughts, observations and perceptions. The book contains almost no dialogue and very little action, but flitters around the thoughts and emotions of its principle characters (especially Mrs Ramsay). I found it a little confusing at the start of the book (somewhat difficult to keep up with “whose thoughts are whose?”!), but eventually warmed to the task. A beguiling, rather beautiful, book.    

Thursday, November 12, 2015


I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see John Crowley’s film “Brooklyn” (Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Toibin’s best-selling novel). It’s the story of an educated, reliable and hard-working woman who journeys from post-war small-town Ireland to New York. It’s about leaving home+family and setting out into an unknown world; it’s about the initial home-sickness; it’s about getting on with life; it’s about gradually finding new-found optimism; and it’s about finding love.
I’ll say no more to avoid *spoileralerts*.
Unusually, perhaps, it’s also a film which focuses on the female point of view. Saoirse Ronan is simply wonderful as the main character, Eilis (she reminded me why I love my half-Irish wife so much!)(as if I needed reminding) and I thought the entire cast (including Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters) was excellent  - well-observed, sensitive and, on occasions, very funny. Among the highlights for me were the scenes from the Brooklyn boarding house (with Julie Walters as landlady) – with the girls sitting around the dinner table (no boys!). All quite brilliantly portrayed. I don’t want to say much more for fear of *spoilers*, but I also thought Emory Cohen (as Tony) and Domhnail Gleeson (as Jim) were both perfect.
I also loved some of the female fashions… and, with the film being set in the early 1950s, a couple of the outfits reminded me of my mother Mary (when she “dressed up”!).
It could all have been pretty maudlin and dour (leaving her mother+sister in Ireland, struggling on arrival in New York etc etc), but it wasn’t at all. It was a humorous, uplifting, happy film.
I absolutely loved this film… it was pretty perfect as far as I was concerned (but, hey, I am bit of a softy at heart!).
PS: if you live in Bristol, you’ve got until 19 November to see it at the Watershed… and I think you should!
PPS: the ONLY slight downside to the afternoon was that it was shown in the Watershed’s rather small Cinema2 (with seating for perhaps 80?) – which has an aisle on one side only… tickets were completely sold out in advance and so, almost inevitably, it was a case of latecomers battling to find the only remaining seats  in the dark (which were, of course, at the very end of the non-aisle rows… with all the disruption that that entailed!).  

Saturday, November 07, 2015

he named me malala

I went along to the Watershed yesterday afternoon to see Davis Guggenheim’s film. Yes, we all know that Malala Yousafzai is a truly inspirational figure - a teenager who won the Nobel Peace Prize while still studying for her GCSEs in Birmingham. I knew the film would make an impressive documentary… but I was somewhat taken aback by its effect on me. Yes, I know I’m a bit of an old softie (“The Railway Children” gets me every time), but I found myself surreptitiously trying to dry my moistened eyes through large tracts of the film!
It was good to be reminded that, as a 15 year-old (before she was shot in the head), she had already been a powerful campaigner for the rights of girls to be educated (in fact, she was a campaigner for girls’ education from the age of just 11!). The story of her grotesque shooting on the school bus, her survival, her remarkable recovery, her articulation and her continuing, global campaigning are truly staggering… and she’s still only 18.
Maybe it’s because I’m the father of three wonderful daughters but, for me, one of the most powerful aspects of the film was Malala’s relationship with her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai – a wonderful, gentle and wise man (who, amongst many other things, set up his own school… and, despite his stammer, has been a passionate, articulate speaker against the Taliban’s radical, ideological version of the Islamic faith)(the film includes lots of footage of him speaking at various rallies in north-west Pakistan). Malala’s father has not been the person pushing her to take a stand on issues, he has simply been someone whose passions and concerns about the world have inspired her.
Malala’s father named her after the Afghan folk heroine Malalai – a Joan of Arc figure who rallied Pashtun fighters against the British in 1880. The same moral courage and heroism is alive well today, thanks to Malala Yousafzai.
It’s a wonderful, moving, inspiring film about the strength of the human spirit and about having the bravery and courage to do something about it.
As she has said: “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world”.
Amen to that.
PS: another film that I/we had wanted to see was “Suffragette”, but the nearest cinema (within easy walking distance) was charging £13.40* for the privilege of watching it in their “Director’s Hall” (with a free drink and popcorn!)… so £4.50 at the Watershed felt like a bit of a bargain! Actually, the main reason for posting this note is that the Cinema De Lux DID do special rates for oldies like us - £13.20, instead of the full £13.40 price. A WHOLE 20p saving!! Whoop, whoop!
We’ll no doubt end up getting the DVD.   

Thursday, October 29, 2015

welsh pilgrimage…

When they first got married, my parents rented part of a house in Handsworth, Birmingham from a Welsh lady named Ella Northwood. This lady became a great family friend and my brother and I subsequently came to know her as “Auntie Ella”. My parents later bought the house (for £300!), but our association with Ella remained for the rest of her lifetime.
Ella came from the small Welsh village of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant in Powys and I well remember visiting her there on a fairly regular basis during my childhood.
Well, yesterday I decided to drive to Llanrhaeadr on a day-long mini-pilgrimage. Moira and I have visited perhaps only two or three times together over the course of the last 40 years or so (staying overnight at a guest house on one occasion), but the last time I was there was over 15 years ago, in 2000, with my brother Alan - just a few months after my mother’s death the previous August.
It was very strange walking through the village again after such a long time. Many things hardly seemed to have changed at all and yet, of course, everything HAD changed.
As a child, when we first visited Ella, we used to stay in the tiny home of her mother and father, Mr and Mrs Howell at the top of Park Street. Ella's parents both worked for the Post Office. Her father drove a post van; her mother was a postwoman and her WALKING round in the hills and valleys of rural mid-Wales was an incredible 17 miles a day! I probably first knew her when she was in her late fifties (but I always felt she looked much older?) and she certainly continued her daily round until she retired. I remember her as being thin and wiry, and that she walked with a slight stoop (something to do with carrying mailbags perhaps?), but obviously VERY fit!
Ella eventually rented a house at the bottom of Park Street, where we used to stay quite frequently in my youth – but it’s now in an awful state (huge screen at the front, plus large tarpaulin hanging across half of the front facade, plus a disintegrating roof etc etc). Apparently, according to the woman in the newsagents, it’s been like that “for several years”.
So sad.
One of the main highlights of our stays used to involve visits to the impressive Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall (about 4 miles out of the village) – one of the “Seven Wonders of Wales”, with a total drop of over 70metres (in three stages – the largest about 40m).
As you might imagine, my trip yesterday triggered lots of different memories, including the following (thankfully, my brilliant brother Alan has been able to clarify a few of the details – he’s a bit like our mother when it comes to such things, thank goodness!):
* I can well remember the small living room and the range at Mrs Howell’s house – and the iron (literally iron!) she used to heat up on the range!
* When I was about 10, I recall giving Mrs Howell a small drawing of the waterfall (quite detailed I seem to remember) and she kept it on the wall next to the range.
* At about the same time, I also remember once finding a “Roman spear head”(!) somewhere in one of the field beside the waterfall (ok, I admit I WAS slightly embarrassed when someone pointed out that it was from the top of some old railings!).
* We used to play cricket on the severely-sloping field at the back of the Howell’s house and tennis (of sorts) on the village tennis court at the back of The Wynnstay Arms Hotel.
* I recall taking part in the village carnival (in 1964?) vaguely dressed as one of the Beatles and carrying a small plastic guitar!
* I can certainly recall the steam trains at the near-by station (and subsequently seeing their rotting carcasses following the Beeching cuts of the mid-1960s).
As I walked through the village yesterday, I realised that I’ve known Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant (and the land around the waterfall) for over 60 years (blimey!). They remain amongst my fondest childhood memories.
I wonder how many more times I will get to see these places?
Photo: Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall.
PS: Ella's husband, Charlie, died towards the end of the war (this information is ALL down to Alan!). He was born Robert Charles Northwood 28/04/15 in Cleobury Mortimer and educated there, but ultimately joined Birmingham Police. Married Ella Howell (nurse at Birmingham Infirmary - Dudley Road Hospital) 05/08/39. Enlisted Royal Artillery 15/10/42. Their son Roger (Charles Roger) was born 04/06/44. Lieutenant 292521 'Charlie' Northwood died from injuries 27/11/44 and is buried at Venray Cemetery Netherlands. Like so many war stories, all very sad.
PPS: photo link on facebook to Llandraeadr-ym-Mochnant/Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall album.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

foyles… and other bookshops

Moira and I have been regular customers of the excellent Foyles bookshop ever since it opened in Quakers Friars, here in Bristol, five years ago.
It’s a lovely place – one that makes browsing pleasurable (they also have a comfortable café… although the quality of their coffee, to my mind, leaves much to be desired!).
Sadly, the extent of the titles stocked seems somewhat limited – a situation no doubt echoed, at least to some extent, in bookshops throughout the country – and invariably one ends up having to order specific books.
Well, we’ve just discovered that Foyles will be re-locating to a smaller (sorry,”cosier”!) shop in Cabot Circus. As their publicity confirms: “we’ll be honest: we’re moving to a cosier shop, and that means we’re having to do some work to trim back our shelves a little – which will give more focus on the books that our readers really want to read” (… shorthand for “more popular”?).
In these days of Amazon (and their "tax-avoiding" status!), I suppose we should just be grateful that we still have Waterstones, Blackwell’s and Foyles in Bristol.
Foyles clearly acknowledge that many people enjoy the convenience of ordering books online and are keen to underline that: “Our range doesn’t end at the end of our bookcases though – Bristol will be the second shop in the chain to adopt our brand new instore digital ordering platform, via which customers will have easy access to over half a million titles”.
Unfortunately, it’s a double-whammy. Not only will you have less chance of them stocking your book, but also the alternative click+collect or order online facility will almost certainly be more expensive than an Amazon alternative. Ironically/incredibly, today's situation (where buying in store or online or click+collect is the same price) is slightly better than it was a couple of years ago (see my blog post of January 2013) , when it was actually cheaper to click+collect or order online from Foyles than to buy it from their bookshop!!
We’ll continue to buy our books from a bookshop whenever possible – even if it doesn’t make economic sense – because we just love bookshops. The sad fact remains that perhaps within 20 years, bookshops are likely to have become an absolute rarity… our grandchildren’s children will be asking their parents to tell them stories of the days when people actually used to buy books from bookshops. No way!
PS: When our children were growing up, I have lovely memories of spending several hours of Saturday mornings with them at the wonderful Book House bookshop in Thame, Oxfordshire (and it’s still going strong:

Sunday, October 25, 2015

september/october 2015 books

More book stuff:
Oxford Fall (Veronica Stallwood): After reading a fair amount of non-fiction recently, I decided that a crime novel would make a “pleasant” change (especially as it was based around Oxford)! Well, it proved to be a massive disappointment. I found the “plot” painfully contrived and hugely unconvincing. The main character (Kate Ivory) is an author who takes a temporary, summer school job in an Oxford college. When one of her students (knowing that she’s writer) suggests that “I suppose you only write well when you are truly inspired”, our Kate replies: “If you want to earn a living as a writer, you have to produce a book when it’s needed. Inspiration rarely comes into it”. Well, for me, this summed up everything about the book (Kate seemed to be speaking on Stallwood’s behalf)… inspiration certainly didn’t come into it!
Lenin’s Kisses (Yan Lianke): This is our book group’s next book. This long book (500 pages) was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. It’s an extraordinary novel. It tells the fictional story of a small, remote village populated almost entirely by disabled people (197 blind, deaf and disfigured citizens) who enjoy a peaceful, mutually supportive life out of the sight and mind of the government… until their crops are wiped out by an unseasonal snowstorm. It’s at this point that a county official dreams up a scheme (a travelling freak-show!) intended to raise money for the village’s citizens and for the district (and for the county official, of course). But I don’t want to spoil the story, so I think I’ll leave at that… It’s a satirical, political fable which “movingly chronicles the price that Communist China’s rush to get rich has exacted from its vulnerable rural majority” (as the Spectator put it). Although it took me some time to really “get into it”, it’s a brilliant, thought-provoking, hugely-inventive and ambitious novel (well translated by Carlos Rojas)… which echoes many of the greedy characteristics of our own western capitalist society of today.
Notes From A Big Country (Bill Bryson): Published in 1998 (some 2-3 years after Bill Bryson had returned to New England after spending nearly 20 years living in England, UK), this is a collection of articles from his weekly column in the Telegraph. I do like Bryson. He seems a really nice bloke… and he writes very amusingly and his stuff is ridiculously easy to read. It reads a bit like Alistair Cooke’s “Letter from America”… My only concern is that it all seems to be SO easy… I read his “take” on computers, bureaucracy, politicians, the environment, shopping and the like and think: “I could have done that!” He also has his moments of being a bit of a grumpy, moaner – just like me! We could be brothers?
One day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich (Alexander Solzhenitsyn): I first read this book some 40 years ago (the only other Solzhenitsyn book I’d read was “Cancer Ward” in 1978). It’s set in a Soviet Labour Camp of the 1950s and describes a typical day of Ivan Denisovich, a typical prisoner (he was accused of becoming a spy after being captured by the Germans as a prisoner of war during World War II. He is innocent, but is sentenced to ten years in a forced labour camp). Solzhenitsyn, himself, was in such a camp (arrested in 1945 for making derogatory remarks about Stalin - where he stayed until he was released in 1953, on Stalin’s death). As you imagine, it’s bleak, cruel, unremitting and very, very cold (they’re only exempt from working if the temperature gets below minus 41 degreesC!). It’s about survival, making the most of the appalling daily food “allowance” and avoiding the wrath of the guards. Denisovich counts the days until his release (3,653 days) - although he acknowledges that he’s unlikely to be allowed to return home to his family… simply to be sent into exile. Powerful and frightening, but also a testament to the endurance capacity of the human spirit.
Bernice Bobs Her Hair (F Scott Fitzgerald): It took me ages before I read “The Great Gatsby” (only a couple of months ago) and so thought I’d follow it up with another one. This is a book of short stories. Essentially, they provide a snapshot of America in the 1920s – albeit the America largely inhabited, it seems, by twenty- and early thirty-somethings and about square-chinned, successful males and beautiful women and their mutual quest for living the “high life”… or maybe I’m just too cynical! Very readable.