In the Dark Times, will there be singing?


This Christmas my standout gift was an illustrated edition of Wordsworth’s autobiographical masterpiece, The Prelude. Wordsworth grew to adulthood in turbulent times, witnessed the French Revolution first-hand and, upon returning to England, became so disillusioned with English politics that he found himself in a church surrounded by people praying for a British military victory in the ensuing war, and petitioning God for the opposite outcome.

The Prelude, written primarily for his friend and soulmate Coleridge, tells the story of his life and spiritual education, from a childhood spent in the natural beauty of the English Lake District through college education, youthful adventures in London and on the Continent, the discovery of his vocation as a poet and the revitalisation of his inner life as part of a small circle of loved and trusted friends (plus his devoted sister).

What struck me about this poem written over 200 years ago is its feeling of immediacy. Many of the struggles Wordsworth goes through – the idealism that burns and is crushed, the confusion about the direction his life should take, and the powerful pull of his homeland, are fresh and contemporary. This great work, regarded as a pinnacle of high culture, has the freshness and vibrancy of a modern blog. Its central theme, of a passionate and sensitive young person working out their place in a turbulent world, has never seemed more relevant.

The other cultural experience I will draw on in the dark months that probably lie ahead comes from the opposite side of the high/low culture divide but I find it equally moving and powerful. It’s the elegant perfection of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing in Follow the Fleet, and the words and haunting tune of the great musical number, Let’s Face the Music and Dance.

There may be trouble ahead
But while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance
Before the fiddlers have fled
Before they ask us to pay the bill and while we still have the chance
Let’s face the music and dance

I’d forgotten how dark the setting of this diamond is. First, the political situation in 1936, when the movie was released, was ominous in the extreme. Secondly, just before Astaire launches into his musical appeal, Ginger’s on the point of throwing herself overboard. This, and the melancholy threaded through the exquisite melody and deceptively insouciant lines, gives this “cheap music” (Noel Coward’s line in Private Lives) a real emotional charge. It seems a perfect fit for this edgy New Year’s Day when any celebrations we feel are overshadowed by what is to happen in Washington on January 20th, and much else besides.

One of the most depressing political developments of 2016 was the increasing tendency to mock culture as the fiefdom of a privileged elite. There’s nothing new about this; the Nazis did it too. Why bother with the past? This is an increasing tendency in extreme political circles on both the Left and the Right. It has to be resisted at all costs. It is our ability to envision and create things of beauty that makes us uniquely human, that gives us empathy, courage and hope. The defiance of Irving Berlin’s lyrics speaks to the human spirit, which can manifest itself in forms and circumstances that seem trivial and banal, but are anything but.

In England we live in a culture controlled by a vicious tabloid press and a culturally bankrupt broadcasting scene that has thrown up the horrors of reality TV. Our Government starves local authorities of the resources they need to keep libraries and museums open and gross social inequality bars the way of many talented young people from underprivileged backgrounds into the arts. But the human spirit will not be daunted by such short-sighted blindness; people will face the music, they will help to write it in new countries and new societies (as Irving Berlin did), and they will need it to survive.

One final thought. We can often feel overwhelmed by horror, unable to decide what to do to make the world better. The answer is simple – find what you do best, and do it with all your heart. That was what Astaire did, what Wordsworth did, and what I will continue to do in my own work in 2017. Like the words of Irving Berlin’s song, this will turn out to be more powerful than you could possibly imagine.

See also: In the dark times, will there also be singing?





If you want me, I’ll be in the cave


The Muskrat – illustration by Tove Jansson from Finn Family Moomintroll


For the last few weeks, depression has had me in a gradually tightening grip. It started with the Brexit vote. Like many others, I spent too much time online, stayed up too late, and then couldn’t sleep. I caught a heavy cold, which worsened on a complicated trip abroad. Several challenging weeks at work ripened it into a severe chest infection; I worked on regardless until the schools I work at shut their doors for the summer holidays. Then I collapsed, and for the last few days even getting off the sofa has been a struggle.

I expect most people who know me will be unaware of all this, partly because socialising falls off in August anyway, and also because I’ve learned to hide it pretty well. If I told them I’d likely get sympathy, which I don’t particularly need or want, though I’d receive it graciously, I hope. Fact is, given the state the world is in, depression seems like a fairly rational state of mind to me right now. But also, the pattern I’ve just described tends to recur every summer. I finish work, I catch a cold, I go into my shell. Everything slows down.

I’ve started to regard this as a positive development. That’s not Pollyanna speaking; it’s based on my experience of previous slumps. If I’m going to go to ground, better to do it in August then in September, the most demanding time of year for anyone who works in an educational setting. It’s almost as if my mind and body have subconsciously co-operated to get it out of the way at the least harmful time. I could beat myself up staring at the overgrown garden or the list of unanswered emails. It wouldn’t make me feel any better or get well any faster. So what would help?

If you recognise this state of mind in yourself, I could advise that you get hold of Matt Haig’s wonderful little book Reasons to Stay Alive a model of compassion, common sense and realistic assumptions about the concentration span of anyone afflicted by depression. It should be available on what is left of the NHS. I’ve also learned to me very leery of any heroics regarding medication. If you need to boost the pills and your GP agrees, don’t just dismiss that and try to tough it out. I’ve always been very conservative about any kind of medication, to the point of almost collapsing with pneumonia before admitting that a course of antibiotics might be helpful. Antidepressants have had a very bad press in recent years and it’s fashionable to assume Big Pharma is out to get you. But they certainly beat being paralysed by suicidal misery.

That said, once basic functionality has been addressed (and that can be as basic as a daily shower and regular meals), there is a case for looking at the advantages of a period of withdrawal. What can I still do? I can read – maybe not the intellectually demanding stuff I think I should be reading, but I can revisit loved children’s books, discover new ones and absorb a few insights from that much-maligned genre, the self-help manual. I don’t mean the kind that promises to make you perfect in 7 days, I mean something from the popular science section that catches my eye concerning habit change, productivity, or self-control. If you pick up just one or two insights from each one and let them marinade in your apparently addled brain, you may be surprised by the way they come to your aid under stress at work in a few weeks’ time.

This year I’ve been working my way through the Moomins, a pretty good self-help manual in their own quirky way. I’ve read Boel Westin’s biography of Tove Jansson which has deepened my love and respect for this wonderfully wise and insightful writer. I’ve realised that for a practising school librarian, I’ve fallen shamefully behind on actually reading contemporary children’s fiction – somehow it got lost between the cataloguing and the overdue letters, so I’m addressing that. And a lot of the time, I’m just thinking. It pays off. Last year, it was a very similar fallow patch that opened my mind to a possibility that seems obvious now – that I’m lactose intolerant – but it wasn’t nearly as clear when I was trying to figure out why I had such awful IBS. And it was a few weeks of downtime that helped me break the dairy habit that had been sustaining me, but at too great a cost.

So I’m depressed. It will pass. I will reach the point, quite soon I hope, when I can actually look forward to going out and doing things (or even finishing that DVD box set) with enthusiasm and pleasure. For now, I’ll go into my den and wait. See you in September. Hopefully.

Entitled little snowflakes – or tomorrow’s democrats?


One of the many things that has saddened me over the last few days of post-Brexit chaos has been some of the invective directed at young people. Their generation, already facing much lower prospects of home ownership, secure employment and freedom from graduate debt than their parents, now face having to live with the consequences of a momentous decision that will affect them for decades to come.

Little wonder that they are taking to the streets in protest; yesterday a “March For Europe” in Central London, predominantly supported by young people, attracted international news coverage. And the inevitable comments, such as, “The vote was to leave the EU – that’s democracy for you. Get on with it, stop complaining.”

To address this remark to the 16 and 17 year olds who were denied the opportunity to vote in the referendum is offensive and hypocritical. Our society is fracturing down multiple fault lines at present and it seems to be open season for opposing groups to hurl insults at one another across the cultural chasm that divides them. Insulting and negative language towards young people (sometimes accompanied by outraged claims like, “They want to stop old people voting!”) are one manifestation of this. Articles about the grief they are experiencing invite mockery and abuse. None of it is helpful.

Grief comes in multiple varieties and it is a futile exercise to rank them in order of severity. If we have a generation capable of feeling genuine dismay at the turn that our national politics have taken, and they are willing to take to the streets peacefully in protest, that’s a very healthy sign.

Maybe papers like the Guardian are adding fuel to the flames by running pieces on anguished liberals, but better that than front pages based on lies and racist propaganda. It is also an oversimplification to assume that everyone protesting yesterday was demanding a rerun of the referendum. Some will hold that view, but others will be marching simply to show solidarity with the European ideal, or to support the argument that a decision of this complexity and importance should be debated by Parliament, not outsourced to an easily led angry public mob.

A sense of entitlement and a conviction that you are the centre of the universe and always right is not the sole prerogative of the under-25s. If you want young people to understand the responsibilities of democracy, you don’t let their leaders abuse its privileges and then tell said youngsters to shut up and suck it up. You give them the vote.


The Dangers of Democracy

People don’t always know what they want. They just think they know. And even when they are absolutely sure they know, what they want is often not what they need. Every democracy has to wrestle with this reality. When they are on the stump, the things we demand from our politicans are passion, conviction, charisma and authenticity. We want them to make us feel better about themselves and they future, or at the very least persuade us that voting for them would be an act of enlightened self-interest.

Once they are in power, however, they need to call on very different qualities, because politics is the art of the possible. They need to be good negotiators, strategic thinkers, team builders and able to compromise whilst selling us the belief that said compromises are not only necessary but what we wanted all along.

It is rare to find a leader who can embody all these qualities – normally, at best, we have to settle for about half of them, the rest supplied by a skilfully selected staff. The moral gyrations this produces has been the stuff of many great comedies, from Yes Minister to the more acerbic and cynical The Thick of It. And in practice, what tends to happen in a healthy,  mature democracy is that we oscillate between the media-friendly Tony Blairs and the dour, steady going Browns.

People who appeal to simplistic emotions to get into power may well become demagogues once in office, dismantling the machinery of dissent before disillusion with their promised utopias sets in. At the other end of the extreme, an excessive pragmatism on the campaign trail can make a politician unelectable – it did for Ed Milliband.

True to Miranda’s law of alternating political extremes, Corbyn was swept into leadership of the Labour Party on a tide of longing for clarity and authenticity. The second they got in spades, but it paralysed him as a leader. Sometimes the only way to get anything done is to muddy the waters and plunge right in, selling a compromise as a triumph. That is anathema to an idealist unable to select the least worst way forward and commit to it, at least publicly, taking the electorate with him.

Corbyn appears to be a decent and principled man, and because of that he was too conflicted to throw himself 100% into claiming that staying in the EU was the best way to protect the interests of the dispossessed and underprivileged, though given the current set of circumstances and the ghastliness of the alternatives, that was undoubtedly the case. Unable to compromise on the socialist Utopia he saw beyond the theoretical fall of Brussels, he has left the people most in need of the Opposition’s support exposed to a Government that can only exacerbate their problems. He has to go, and that’s the tragedy of democracy.

Rerun the Referendum Petition – To sign or not to sign?


Petitions are, inevitably, proliferating. The one to rerun the referendum is enjoying huge success and I’ve been linked to it several times. However, I’m not signing it.

I would love to feel that this would make a difference, but I honestly don’t. I’d go further, perhaps with a bitterness that will fade with the passage of time – I actually think this superficial accessibility to the corridors of power via social media has done a great deal to bring about the idea that “we’ve all had enough of experts.” To prolong this bitter, divisive debate further would be utterly futile and counter-productive. It would also wreak yet more havoc on the British economy.

What does offer a sliver of hope is Matthew Parris’s piece in Friday’s “Times” (now sadly behind a paywall again) pointing out that a large majority of MP’s were in favour of Remain, and the triggering of Article 50 has to be approved in Parliament. Boris Johnson’s stalling on the timescale and Cameron’s decision to stay for a few more months may be the first stage of the mother of all staring contests. Yes, the people have spoken and if they rioted in the streets on the grounds that Parliament has broken faith with them, that could get messy. But given a competent leader of the opposition, something sadly lacking right now, such feelings of rage and betrayal could be turned on those who deserve to bear the brunt of them, the promoters of neoliberalism and austerity. Already it is blatantly obvious that Brexit will not deliver the domestic changes people naively hoped for when they made their decision to squander a protest vote. Riots might not be the worst thing that could happen to the country if they are aimed at the right issues.

Of course, Brussels will talk tough but privately they are absolutely shitting themselves. They know that others are eager to follow Britian’s lead in this and that the break up of the EU is a real possibility. Getting the people to vote for Brexit was tough enough. Getting Parliament to vote for it will be infinitely more difficult. Yes, MPs will worry about their voters and their constituency associations, but there could well be a General Election within the year and in the bloodbath that would result from that, all bets are off, including the guaranteed survival of the major political parties in their present form.

As for letting the people speak, we should learn from the Germans (Hitler used referenda three times, and the last one led to depriving the German people of the right to vote at all). If we are going to pay people who know what they’re doing to govern us, our job is to vote for which ones, not to bully them once in power into delegating their job to us.

If to be an intelligent, well-educated person is to belong to an elite, I make no apology for outing myself as one. The shameful thing is not that such people exist but that the slow attrition of state education, public libraries and affordable higher education over the last 30 years has taken away the opportunities that once were available to able working-class people to join their number.

And one I do think it’s worth supporting:



The Big Red Button

Christmas Invasion 13

A great big threatening button which must not be pressed under any circumstances, am I right? Let me guess. It’s some sort of control matrix, hm? Hold on, what’s feeding it? And what have we got here? Blood? tastes it. Yep, definitely blood. Human blood. A positive. With just a dash of iron. But that means… blood control! Blood control! Aw! I haven’t seen blood control for years! You’re controlling all the A positives. Which leaves us with a great big stinking problem. Because I really don’t know who I am. I don’t know when to stop.

The Christmas Invasion is probably my favourite Doctor Who episode ever. It’s so full of hope, confidence, positivity and humour. Oh, and David Tennant, which always helps. The kind of telly that cheers  you up, and boy do we need a bit of that right now.

Funnily enough, I found it popping into my head yesterday when I read a Matthew Parris piece in the Times yesterday (I would link to it, but it’s probably back behind a paywall). He pointed out that actually Article 50, which actually sets into motion the process of Britain leaving the EU, will have to be invoked by Parliament which, I think most of us would agree, is barely in a fit state to keep the country ticking over, let alone deal with a decision of that magnitude at present.

Of course, the people have spoken, and turned out to be idiots in at least 50% of cases (I’m allowing a little wiggle room for those who actually….y’know…..thought about Brexit before deciding they would take their country back. I could find it in my heart to respect, and in some cases, even like those people).

It was my son who pointed out in a phone call, just before both of us came close to tears, that while delivering his so-called victory speech, Boris Johnson looked white as a sheet. Might just have been lack of sleep, I suppose, but it also occurred to me that that is the look of a man locked in a room with a Big Red Button and the people outside (looking, I can imagine, a little like David Tennant 10 years ago, in his dressing gown and jim-jams and that expression on his face which could turn on a sixpence from jocular pop-cultural references to ice cold, dangerous fury) saying, “Well, go on then. You’ve had your cheap voodoo. Worked like a dream, didn’t it? So, are you gonna press it?”

And suddenly, it hits him, what would actually happen if that finger went down on said red button. We would probably need the Doctor to sort it out, and unfortunately he’s turned out to be a fictional character.

Most big-name politicians are gamblers at heart. They tend to be remembered for their last and worst decisions, the gambles that didn’t pay off. With Blair it was Iraq. Once the IRA start bombing us again, maybe a few of us with long memories will remember how hard he worked to broker the Good Friday Agreement that has now been so casually imperilled by people who aren’t racists, honestly, they just have a problem with brown people living next door.

Cameron threw the dice once too often, and yesterday saw where that gets you. He bowed out with dignity and at least the semblance of statesmanship, I’ll grant him that.

What are we left with? Boris and the Big Red Button, that’s more or less it.

And already the Cornish are saying, “Excuse me, we are still going to…er….get all that money the EU used to give us, aren’t we? Because you promised….” The first of many such hopeless pleas, no doubt. And Farage didn’t even wait for the final result before he started backpeddling on the notorious money that would be diverted from greedy Brussels bureaucrats straight into the coffers of the NHS. Turkeys, meet Christmas. A long German word beginning with “S” comes to mind (it was also a rousing number in Avenue Q, that’s the kind of pointless digression the magpie-minded Tenth Doctor would have relished).

I’ve already heard of a couple of people who voted Out and are now having second thoughts. Both intelligent and principled, as a matter of fact. And I wonder, did we just want to strut our stuff a bit, and say, “You just wait until we press the big red button, then you’ll be sorry.” Sounded so good, didn’t it?

A long time ago, my marriage hit a very rocky patch. Things festered and deteriorated until my husband said, “Go on then, leave. Go upstairs now and pack. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

I stayed. And I’ve never regretted it. We raised two fine, clever, decent young people, neither of whom can contemplate a long-term future in in this country any more. Even as my heart breaks a little, I admire them for that.

And meanwhile, the EU waits for the finger to fall that final centimetre, to connect with that BRB and give us the new dawn that we were so sure we wanted.

In that brief distance lies our one and only hope. It isn’t much, but since the TARDIS isn’t at our disposal right now, it’s all we’ve got.

A Day of Infamy

How to deal with this blackest of days?

First, to despise Farage even more than I thought possible. A victory won without a single bullet being fired? Ask Brendan Cox about that.

Second, to keep my head down and keep quiet until I can think straight.

Third, to thank God that, whatever happens, we own our home and we are reasonably good at growing our own food. We have money tucked away in various places but who knows how much good that will do us in a few years from now?

Fourth, to recognise that reading the Guardian is probably not good for my mental health right now.

Fifth, to resist the temptation to get pissed. It never helps.

Sixth, to go to the gym because if I don’t look after my health the NHS won’t be around for much longer to do it for me.

Seventh, to return with renewed determination to learning a foreign language, if only as an act of protest.

Eighth, to spend the day working my butt off in the school library. Ignorance and prejudice got us into this mess and education is the best way out of it.

Ninth, to self-identify as European. I no longer want to claim any public allegiance to my country.

And tenth, to be there for my kids and try not to embarrass them online.