Saturday, April 30, 2011

Why vote?

Our local Green councillor is just what a councillor should be. When we asked if we could get some bollards put outside out house (to stop cars illegally parking on the curb), he got it sorted for us. He knocked on our door the other day and asked if there were any issues that concerned us. We told him we'd already voted for him, and then asked if he could get the double-yellow lines repainted in our area, and whether the council could do anything about a number of unoccupied shops (perhaps lowering the rents so they could get filled up). He listened, and I'm sure he'll try to do something about it. He's probably the first and only example I've ever had where politics appears to work.

At the national level though, I have little hope. Next week, as well as voting in council elections, we have the opportunity to vote about the way that we vote in future elections. We can replace our "First Past the Post" system with one which requires the winner to have 50% of the votes, and if no-one gets 50% then we take the second choices of the people who voted for the last-place candidate, and so on until someone gets 50%. I've voted for the Alternative Vote, because I don't feel that the current system accurately reflects society's views. We are a mainly left-of-centre country, but the left vote tends to get split between Labour and Liberal-Democrat, which means that the Conservatives can sometimes scoop first place because the Left can't agree. This certainly happened in my own constituency, where many of my ultra-lefty friends voted Lib-Dem: "I just can't vote Labour because of Iraq" they said with self-righteous idealism. And of course, their refusal to compromise meant that Labour went a few hundred votes short and the Tory chap got in. My kindly Lib-Dem friends have been very quiet about politics since the election. Isn't it horrible when your well-meaning intentions produce the exact opposite effect of what you wanted (£9000 a year university tuition fees, cuts to SureStart, the privitisation of the NHS and the education system etc etc)?

If you are at all unsure how to vote and find all the arguments pro and against AV too tedious or complicated to follow, then bear in mind this simple fact - David Cameron (and the vast majority of Tories) don't want it. They don't want it because they know their party will suffer. And if you are against David Cameron you should be for AV. It's as simple as that. Yes, we may end up with coalitions, and yes, coalitions can be annoying - but I'd rather have a coalition government (most likely made up of left-leaning politicians) than a single-party right-wing government every other time.

Yet it's unlikely that AV will pass. Most people don't seem to know what it is or care. And those who do are more likely to vote to keep the status quo. Others want to punish the Lib-Dems by voting against it (once again, thinking with their hearts not their heads). Even if by some strange chance it passes, it's likely that the Conservatives will put a stop to it, arguing that only a minority of people wanted it (which ironically is exactly what our current First-Past-The-Post voting system allows).

The vote has the potential to change British politics and ultimately, to make the UK a fairer, kinder place. If AV passes, the right-wing will have proportionally less power overall. We will become more like Europe and less like America. However, I don't think that is the path that we are on.

For the first three quarters of the 20th century there appeared to be a move in many countries towards increased equality and a kinder, fairer society. The gap between rich and poor was smaller than it was in the 19th century. Society found ways to look after people who were unfortunate, and in the UK the government incorporated progressive structures like pensions, universal education and the National Health service. All of this was made possible by making people pay tax - the richer you are, the more tax you pay.

But around about 1980, the rich people got clever - they started to find new ways to get their own way. Many rich people don't like paying tax - they don't see why they should have to look after people who are less fortunate than themselves. Their goals are simple - to earn more and more money, so they can pass it on to their children. And for them to get richer, everyone else must get poorer. This has resulted in political systems whereby rich people pay enormous dontations to political parties (usually right-wing parties, but often rich people hedge their bets and donate to every potential winner), especially helping to fund their political campaigns. When a party wins, it then needs to look favourably on its rich benefactors, passing laws that mean they pay less tax or making it easier for them to make profits. As a result, winning political parties will always put the needs of rich people first.

In rich western societies, we look at the elections that happen in much poorer, unstable countries like Zimbabwe and Iran and we snigger when we see how corrupt they are - when the votes are clearly rigged. We pity countries like China and North Korea that don't even have a proper democracy. Yet are western democracies really so much better when political campaigns are funded by the donations of a few extremely rich people with vested interests who then call in favours?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, very few people had the vote. Women certainly didn't, and it tended to be the province of rich men. Now we have a situation where we think we have the vote, but we can only vote for a narrow range of options, and the winners will not put our interests first anyway. It is somehow ironic that we are made to think we live in free societies, and that elections matter. The reality is that the people in control have simply become much better at hiding it.
Opting out

I'm not much for Royal events. In 1977 (for the Silver Jubliee) I caught measles aged 5 and missed the only street party I could have attended. While everyone else in the street had fun outside in the blaring late 70s summer, I was tucked up on the sofa with a blanket over me and the curtains closed. One of the kindlier neighbours came in and hung some bunting across the ceiling for me, but for the majority of the day I was left alone, desolate and mortified. I'm sure that day was crucial in developing a self-fulfilling sense of expectance of exclusion which has continued throughout my life.

I have little memory of the 1981 Royal Wedding - as I've mentioned elsewhere, the 1980s were a decade-long depression for me, and this wedding is a useful marker of the start of it. Sham wedding - sham decade. Even the wedding photos lied. Diana was the same height as Charles.

He is totally standing on a box.

Coming back from a nice holiday in Italy, with no internet or tv for a week to saturate my palate, I was prepared to give the Kate/William wedding a chance, but after watching the news the day before, and seeing screaming Royalist American tourists, whipping themselves into a frenzy of hysteria, along with the sycophantic, endless media coverage, I decided enough was enough, and made the choice to switch off. This was not going to be 1977 all over again. I was going to opt out of our National genuflecting Love-in on my own terms.

So while half the country was rapt in front of the television, watching how Kate Middleton was "now no longer a commoner" (in the exact words of one broadcaster), me and my husband drove the car out to the middle of nowhere and climbed a great big hill (Nicky Nook Fell), then ate a bar of chocolate when we got to the top as a reward. We'd expected to be alone, but you'd be surprised at how many other people seemed to have had the same idea. Whole families of people who didn't care that much about the Royal Family, escaping society for a few hours.

By the time we got back it was all over.

My husband told me that one of his friends was in the ironic situation of being given the day off work to watch the Royal Wedding, but he'll also have all the days after that off work too. He's been made redundant as of today due to the cuts.

I expect William and Kate will have an absolutely lovely life. No cuts there.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Inadequate in Italy

Finally got my PC out of the repair shop, with a new non-sticky keyboard. That was the most expensive smoothie I (didn't) ever drink. The one bright side was that while it was being repaired, I was on holiday in Southern Italy. We'd meant to go there back in 2003 but due to British Airways and their threats of strikes, we'd cancelled it and gone to Brighton instead. So 8 years later, and finally we get there, and made the most of the week by going to Naples, Sorrento, Pompei and Capri. We had heard lots of scare stories about Naples, but it proved to be charming, if a little dirty. It seems to have a little problem with litter collection and graffiti, which is a shame.

Capri was full of bored-looking women with bad face-lifts carrying designer handbags. There were a couple of over-crowded touristy bits, so we decided to go and visit Tiberius's villa instead, which was up on a cliff-top and well away from shops selling designer clothes. As a result, we had a nice, if exhausting visit. It would have been hideous otherwise.

In Pompei I had the ignominy of being told off by an Italian tour guide for allegedly trying to jump a queue to look at one of the rooms in an old building. Considering I had spent the week in a state of shock at how Italians do not seem to know how to queue (the "queue" for the boat I got to Naples was 26 people wide - I counted), this felt particularly unfair - and I wasn't even trying to queue-jump. Fortunately, my husband is more quick-witted (and sharp-tongued) than me, so leapt to my protection. Anyway, here are some of the poor bodies of Pompei.

The food all week was sumptious. Strawberries were bigger, sweeter and redder than anything I've eaten before. The bread functioned as a meal in itself. The Mozarella cheese was a revelation - it actually tasted of something. And their ice-cream and coffee made ours seem like a pathetic approximation. The British have copied an American trick of trying to make up for the lack of quality by just giving you more of everything. I saw no fast food places, no American chains. Such places would be given short shrift.

Italian people are generally better dressed than English people, and wear better fitting clothes. I felt dowdy all week, I needed a hair cut, and every time I took my cap off, my hair had flattened into an unflattering non-style which have rendered all photographs unprintable. So it was a consolation to come back to England this afternoon and resume my rightful place among all those lumpy red faces wearing sacks and gorging themselves on McDonalds. We may not be a very stylish nation, and our food is generally a terrible (expensive) disappointment. But at least we know how to queue.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Sticky keys

I regret buying a Marks and Spencers strawberry and banana flavour smoothie drink on Thursday for lunch. I had set it down next to my laptop.. you know what's coming next... when as a result of a weird body spasm, my hand flung itself out involuntarily, and I knocked the bottle (opened of course), sideways. It gratefully emptied itself all over the keyboard.

I had a little cry and then set about trying to mop up the mess. Fortunately it didn't cause the laptop to explode or anything, but I wasn't able to get out much of the goopy stuff that had slid in the gaps at the edges of the keys.

The next day, my laptop felt OK, though some of the keys felt a little old. However, after a few hours, the heat melted all the congealed smoothie drink, creating a kind of evil paste under my keys. Some keys now pressed down in slow motion, like old lady's skin.

I tried removing the J key to clean underneath, but I haven't been able to put it on properly. It's on, but not fully on. I've only had this laptop for a year. I can't predict whether I'll a) live with it b) see if I can pay to get it cleaned or c) buy another one.

And it's an expensive lesson, but I won't be leaving any smoothie drinks near it again.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Weekend in Holland

A glamorous university friend who has spent his life moving between the UK, Vancouver and Holland is now in Rotterdam so we went there for the weekend. It is always nice when someone knows the area and can drive, as you get to see so much more than when you are a regular tourist. We spent Friday in Amsterdam, Saturday in Rotterdam and Sunday in Delft, then back to Amsterdam.

Dutch people (and Europeans in general) feel very "foreign" to me. Even though they are geographically very close, I feel that I understand Americans much more (though understanding doesn't neccesarily mean "approving"). It's probably due to the shared language and the fact that so much American tv and film is drip-fed to British people from an early age. Europeans though - I can't make them out, and it's not just the language. I can look at a Brit (and to a lesser extent, American) and instantly be able to make numerous judgements about their social class and their values. But with Europeans, I come up against a blank wall. I can't tell who's rich and who's poor (there don't seem to be any poor people - at least, not ones I can tell - maybe it's due to the higher taxes they all pay, resulting in wealth being more evenly distributed). And they all have weird fashions and hair - including the men. A lot of them look old-fashioned - sometimes as if they've stepped out of the 1950s. While others look futuristic.

Amsterdam is especially disconcerting. I am always terrifed of the trams and bicycles, which seem to share pavement space with pedestrians. The fact that they drive on the other side of the road means that I sometimes don't even realise they are coming, and that ringing sound is a tram/bike which is on a collision course.

Actually it wasn't transport that I needed to worry about this time. It was blue cheese. On Friday evening I had a blue cheese salad. Then on Saturday we walked across a bridge in Rotterdam (past a man surrounded by police who was in the middle of a suicide attempt, with ghoulish people taking photos of him) and visited these houses in Rotterdam.

At first I thought it was the funny angles, but once we came out of one of them, I started feeling ill and getting stomach cramps. I ended up having to urgently use the loo in a random gym. I felt a bit better after that, and we spent the rest of the afternoon on Rotterdam's gay beach, warding off interested nudists (I took my t-shirt off to meet them halfway but that was as much as I could offer).

In the evening we had a meal in an Italian restuarant and I had pasta with a blue cheese sauce. About halfway through I started choking. Somehow, the blue cheese sauce had glued itself to my throat and was blocking my windpipe. I tried coughing, but it wouldn't clear. Apparently I was turning purple. I suddenly felt rather odd, like I was slipping out of consciousness, like someone was turning the volume down on the world around me. It felt sort of nice, and I wondered whether that was what people who do auto-erotic asphyxiation are trying to achieve.

Everyone around me looked panicked, and luckily at that point I managed to dislodge whatever was at the back of my throat, and things went back to normal. I've seen people choking in restaurants a couple of times, and always felt sorry for them - as it's physically painful, but also socially rather embarrassing. I'm glad I survived it. Death as a result of blue cheese does seem to be a rather silly way to go.