Style and the Middle-Aged Shopper

Blavinge tunic from the latest Gudrun Soden collection


The decline and fall of British Home Stores will come as no surprise to anyone who’s visited one of their provincial stores lately and noticed the worrying absence of customers, staff and stuff one would be seen dead in. It also speaks volumes about how the landscape of clothes retailing has changed.

The people who will probably mourn BHS most are a certain sort of older lady, the kind of person my mother-in-law was, looking for affordable basics that don’t change much from year to year. A swimsuit that fits, a pair of comfy slippers. Someone who, crucially, isn’t comfortable doing their shopping on the Internet. The kind of person who regards clothes as equipment rather than a statement of lifestyle.

But the show has moved on, often somewhat more quickly than the retailers. John Lewis stocks very little interesting stuff above a UK size 18. Marks and Spencer patronises the older woman with its hideous Classic range, dominated by swathes of what used to be called man-made fibres in inoffensive pastel shades. Laura Ashley hangs on in tourist hotspots where its iconic Englishness attracts well-heeled overseas tourists.

I hear that Austin Reed is in trouble as well. The last time I bought a Country Casuals outfit – the kind where everything matches – the bag, the shoes, the silly little hat, was for my son’s first graduation ceremony, and I felt embarrassingly overdressed. The ladies I meet for lunch – when they aren’t out at work – show up at quite nice places in sweatshirts and are as likely to carry rucksacks as handbags. People just don’t do formalities any more.

It embarrasses me to admit this, but when I recall doing my MA in Shakespeare Studies in Stratford-upon-Avon, I have almost as many fond memories of clothes shopping as I do of seminal theatre productions. That’s a mere five years ago, but when I went back there recently several of the places I used to mooch happily around had closed and others were under threat. Now if I want the luxury of a flagship store, my best bet is probably Covent Garden.

The need to “kick tyres”, as my husband puts it, hasn’t entirely vanished from clothes shopping. I find that the Internet is great for anything above the waist, but trousers are a much riskier business, often involving several trips to the Post Office with returns. Brand loyalty becomes more significant – if you know that Dash trousers are always comfortable, you are much more likely to stick with them, at least for the basics.

Capturing the boomer market is the key to survival in today’s retail landscape. Outlets for the younger woman proliferate and expire like mayflies, as they always have. But by the time I turned 50, I already had the distinct sense that I was being put in a beige box. Then – on the Internet, naturally – I discovered Gudrun Sjoden and fell in love. At last, a retailer that happily put plus-size and grey-haired mature models on its website, and sold clothes for them in the kind of colours that made my daughter roll her eyes and say, “You’re not going out looking like that, are you, Mum?” If I want to age colourfully, then I damn well will (though I admit the loud cerise leggings were probably a step too far, and they languish in the wardrobe). The message is as loud and clear as a Gudrun tunic – if you pigeonhole us, we’ll go somewhere else, and who cares what damn country they come from. It will take more than fond memories of the first set of bedding we bought when we got married, or BHS lunch in-store as a childhood treat, to get us through your revolving doors. Retail giants ignore the sixty-something woman at their peril.

Starting Sentences with “And”, and other unforgivable sins



Imagine, for a moment, that you are six years old and your family has just moved to a country where you barely speak a word of the native language. You are sent to school, itself a challenging experience as you struggle to interact with your new teachers and peers, who have never used any language other than their own.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, you are told that you have to take some very important exams in a few weeks’ time. Your parents, anxious to do everything in their power to maximise your chance of succeeding in your new home, have already bought the crammers and text books, although they don’t really understand what they are about and your teachers seem a bit hazy on them as well. You aren’t even quite sure what an examination is, but every couple of days your teacher takes a few of you out of the classroom – thickies like you who can’t write fluent, grammatical sentences – and makes you work through twenty questions in about half an hour. She tries to be nice but you can’t understand why she helps you the first time and then the second time she makes you do them all on your own, even though you don’t understand and there are lots of things you need to ask someone about.

You know the teacher is trying really hard not to be cross with you but you still get the feeling that she’s worried about you doing badly, and you’re really frightened that one day she will be cross, really cross, because you are so stupid for being six and not able to speak this language and understand what modal verbs and conjunctions are.

On top of all this, she’s taking the class in the school reception area. It’s really noisy and full of interesting things happening and you are trying hard not to turn round and look because then you get told off for not listening.

That’s what our political masters are asking Key Stage One children and their teachers to do. I’m learning Italian at the moment and it’s really hard. Even if I was in a quiet, very dull room, I would struggle to take an exam in Italian grammar. And I am a motivated, fairly bright grown-up.

Should primary school children be learning grammar at all? I can see two sides of this question. As a child of the 60s, and a school librarian, my emotions come down in favour of kids learning to enjoy the English language and feel confident using it in creative ways before we worry too much about the nuts and bolts of sentence-building. However, I’m also aware that my daughter, who is a gifted linguist, really struggled to take her German beyond GCSE level because she hadn’t really been taught English grammar, let alone German grammar, in a structured way. She pulled through and has recently finished six very rewarding months at the University of Vienna. But that experience gave me some sympathy with my Italian friends who are rather horrified by the lack of grammatical grounding in English schools.

Beginning a foreign language myself in middle age has been a real eye-opener. I’ve realised that you can reach a level of basic competency within a few months, mainly on the basis of rote learning and guided repetition in a very limited selection of scenarios. That will get you through the holiday basics, if anyone abroad has the time and patience to listen to your struggles rather than switch to English. If you are really determined, you may be able to reach this stage of competence on the Internet alone.

But to go deeper, to reach the point when you can really engage with a language and culture, does require some knowledge of grammar. In some languages word order is everything; in others you need to make sure that noun (male/female, singular/plural), adjective and personal pronoun all agree – and learn all the exceptions that have crept in because they sound so much better (yes, Italian, I’m looking at you). This sounds incredibly dull, and few of us could claim that grammar drills are our favourite way of spending a spare hour, but it leads to windows opening on a completely different view of the world.

There is also a more abstract pleasure in discovering how different nations have tackled the challenge of forming words into a logical structure that enables people to navigate reality with clarity. So I came rather late to the belief that grammar is important, and can be interesting and even enjoyable to study. Grammar is right at the interface of the controversy over whether we allow language to evolve, or try to impose order upon it. I’ve realised that Italians codified and organised their language in a very precise way into what is, basically, a simplified and evolved form of Latin. English, by contrast, has been far more promiscuous in its borrowings and bodged solutions. That is probably what makes it such a difficult language to learn.

What worries me about the testing regime being imposed on children in schools by our present government is precisely what bothers me about the proposals to turn every school into an academy. I say this as someone who now works for an academy trust and has so far found it to be a liberating experience. It’s not a bad idea in principle. But it’s not right for everyone.

It seems to me that by insisting that young children master English grammar at such a sophisticated level, we are pandering to people who want to cling to a fantasy that the whole concept of Englishness is an easily defined and codified matter. We are telling them that there is only one way to tell a story, think a thought and construct their own view of reality. It’s particularly ironic and sad that in these times of multi-culturalism, we’re being so incredibly prescriptive about how six year olds should express themselves, and putting teachers under so much pressure to make them conform.

What would I like to see happening in primary schools? I’d like teachers to be trusted to know what works best for their pupils, and if they were paid a bit better and respected more, that wouldn’t hurt. I’d like them to have more time, so that if a child comes out with a sentence like, “I goodly hided it,” they can explain that although it follows some grammatical rules, and sounds rather charming, it’s not what English people usually say, and that such a disconnect is not another reason to groan and put your head in your hands, but the kind of interesting, human oddity that makes language learning so intriguing. I’d like children to realise that if they make a mistake people will correct them, but it’s not an examination, and if they keep on trying they will get it right. Anyone who’s learned a language will know how easy it is to be rendered mute by fear of making a mistake, even after hours of practice, when faced with a real live foreigner, and yet we’re asking children to overcome this fear of sounding silly in an artificially high-pressure and high-stakes environment.

If children must be drilled in examination conditions, I would like schools buildings to be less crowded and chaotic. You can’t concentrate if you are learning in a reception area, or the end of a corridor. It’s like giving people German lessons in the middle of Waterloo station and shouting at them for being distracted by the loudspeaker announcements. I’d like every school to have a fully staffed library and for children to have time to browse the stock and talk to the librarian about what they might enjoy. That means far more relaxed timetables. You will not get a seven-year-old Star Wars fan to try something else in five minutes a week.

And yes, I would like to see children taught grammar – there’s no harm in telling them what a noun and a verb are, but let’s get the basics in place first, so that when they do find themselves needing to know about subordinate clauses they are already writing complex enough sentences for the device to make sense. We learn by doing things, not by cramming theoretical questions under pressure. I hated every minute I spent learning French at secondary school. Now, over thirty years later, I’m revelling in discovering another European language. Education isn’t all fun, of course – our kids need to learn self-discipline and realise that. But there is a time and a place for everything and the best people to judge when that is are not politicians, but teachers.

And I can still remember having to write numerous times in an exercise book, at the age of seven, “I must never start a sentence with ‘and’.” And you know what? I just did. And the sky did’t fall in. If it was good enough for William Blake to do it when he wrote “Jerusalem,” it is hardly going to lead to the downfall of England’s green and pleasant land.



Wir schaffen das

As I write, news is coming in of a series of explosions in Brussels. First the airport, now the metro. It looks as if the Euro-capital could well be facing its own 7/7. We don’t know yet how many people have been killed or injured. But in a way, that’s not the issue. Every fatality is devastating to the people affected, but even if nobody died the mission would be accomplished.

These people are called terrorists for a reason. What counts, even more than the carnage, is the chaos – cities in lockdown, major transport hubs evacuated, countless business arrangements thrown into chaos, yet more intrusive security checks, leading to more people deciding that overseas holidays just aren’t worth the hassle any more. Not just overseas, either. Even as someone normally fairly sanguine about the statistical probability of being caught in a terrorist incident, I’d rather not be in London on 23 April this year, when St George’s Day coincides with a huge celebration of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary.

Our plans and aspirations are constrained by fear. And that affects more than our diaries. It affects the way we feel about other people, particularly those who don’t look like us or share our religious views. Do we batten down the hatches? Do we talk about swarms, waves and invasions, rather than human beings? Do we build fences or reach out in solidarity?

There are no easy answers to these questions. We have to control migration somehow. And what we are seeing unfold in the chaos of Lesbos and Idomeni today is the direct result of the EU’s inability to confront that question head-on and make decent, effective and humane arrangements for processing asylum seekers and economic migrants a long time ago.

I’ll be honest, and risk the trolls – sometimes I’ve breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of fences going up across the Balkans, and sighed in irritation at Amnesty International and the UN going on about people’s human rights under international law. How much easier it would be to say they are all potential terrorists, don’t believe a word they say, dismiss every picture of anguished women and bewildered children as bleeding heart liberal propaganda. Say that we’re in a different world now and the rules put in place after the Second World War don’t apply, maybe don’t even matter any more.

Say Merkel was an idiot. Say Trump is a monster but you can see where he’s coming from. Say it’s all very well being worthy but your sister’s kids are in a school where most of their classmates don’t speak a word of English. Say we’re being overwhelmed. Say it’s not our problem.

Except you can’t look at Paris and Brussels and get away with saying that any more.

We can’t change what is happening in Brussels right now, but we can change our attitudes. We can say the EU is under siege and we have to keep pulling up the drawbridge, even as we know the smugglers will find another route and more people will die. Tough shit. Or we can look at the values that we hope still define us as Europeans, values that even now are potent enough to attract untold numbers of hopeful  migrants to our shores. That some human beings, regardless of their faith or appearance are decent people, and others are liars and ideologues. That we mustn’t let our prejudices govern our actions, but hear them out and give them the opportunity to put their case in a court of law before we condemn them. That desperate people still have some dignity. That we can find a way through this, or at least we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to try.

And then we can, as a European community, pour everything we have into Greece to finance the armies of lawyers, border patrols, interpreters and humanitarian aid workers that will be needed to treat refugees decently and humanely. The deal with Turkey is anything but perfect, but right now it’s a start and it’s the best we have.

If we put up more walls, within ourselves and also across our continent, the terrorists have won. They have reduced us to their values – their nihilism, their lack of empathy, their irrationality, their inhumanity.

Brexit  matters; it is nothing less than a fight for the very soul of Europe and our identity as world citizens. Sometimes I wish I could turn away, say the EU is going to the dogs and we are better out of it, that a bright future of non-engagement and independence awaits England – and it will be England, not Britain – elsewhere.

And other times, I don’t want to say anything. Not in public at least. Because someone will troll me, accuse me of being a hypocrite, a champagne socialist, or whatever hateful term is in vogue right now. I’ll be patronised, accused of being naive to have any ideals left.

So be it. A friend of mine was lamenting recently that she couldn’t source any Europhile posters to put in her window. Where are the slogans of the pro-Europeans? Is it all too complicated to boil down to a few powerful words?

I think we already have our slogan, but because it isn’t in English, we didn’t recognise it. And like all the best slogans, it’s very simple.

Wir schaffen das.

We can do this. We can make it. Together.

Or at the very least, we can try.



The Doctor’s Precious Creature – “Hell Bent” reviewed

capaldiOne of the pleasures of fan fiction is the opportunity to rework the conclusions of story arcs that we find deeply unsatisfactory. Stephen Moffat gets to do this in canon, and very publicly. He’s particularly fond of re-imagining some of Russell T Davies’s most enraging storylines, and does so with audacity and style. The most memorable example of this was retconning the destruction of Gallifrey two years ago in The Day of the Doctor. And in last night’s finale he turned his hand to the other great tragic narrative of the RTD years – what happens when the Doctor loves one of his companions too much to let them go without a fight.

In The Winter’s Tale, faced with a dangerously paranoid king convinced that he’s being cuckolded, Polixenes remarks,

This jealousy
Is for a precious creature: as she’s rare,
Must it be great, and as his person’s mighty,
Must it be violent

So ’tis with the Doctor, but for jealously read grief. This spectre always hung over the love story of the Doctor and Rose – what on earth would he do when he lost her? In Hell Bent, Moffatt follows that line of reasoning to its logical conclusion; we see a vengeful Doctor teeter on the abyss of madness, shoot one of his own people in cold blood and effectively stage a coup on Gallifrey. Those expecting Star Wars space opera were to be disappointed, however. In the second act, with the reappearance of Clara, the epic became a chamber piece. To the Doctor, the destruction of the universe was merely the means to an end; he wanted Clara back from the dead.

The change of tactic was probably the biggest weakness of the finale, and the cynic in me suspects that budget constraints also played their part (the Matrix set had a very reused look). With a bit more build up, filling in the situation on Gallifrey that gave the Doctor such confidence in his supremacy, the switch might have been less jarring. But ultimately, the Doctor tends to check his altruism at the door when he hits home turf. He might like the trappings of guerilla resistance in the badlands, but consolidating regime change isn’t really his thing.

So Clara is snatched from the jaws of death. The Doctor is going through something of an “it’s all about me” phase – that’s natural, if you’ve been banging your head on a very hard wall for billions of years on your own. He’s extremely scary, and Jenna Coleman’s acting conveys her fear overcoming relief, combined with a certain anger at the violation of her parting wishes and the Doctor’s habit of objectifying lesser species. Clara is not the type to become a player in the Doctor’s personal drama. She demonstrates compassion, but demands self-determination.

It’s impossible to view what follows without recalling the fate of Donna Noble, the point at which many of us, even his most ardent fans, turned against the Tenth Doctor. Indeed, the way that Clara turns the Doctor’s planned mind wipe back on him was one of the most strongly feminist scenesI’ve ever seen on Doctor Who. Physician, heal thyself. The world is full of men objectifying women and wearing blinkers, and probably almost as full of women enabling them to do just that. Clara’s having none of that shit, and shows how far Moffat has come since creating the wish-fulfilment fantasy of River Song.

I understand the charges of misogyny levelled against Moffat, but I don’t endorse them. I think he might well be the first to admit that he struggles to write nuanced, compelling characters, particularly female ones, which isn’t the same thing. We live in lazy and strident times when people tend to confuse the inability to convey all the complexities of human diversity with the personal endorsement of prejudice. Moffat under pressure falls back on lazy stereotypes and well-worn tropes – he’s not alone in that. There were times in the 2009 Specials when RTD seemed to be capable of little in the way of dramatic development other than showing David Tennant looking sorry for himself.

Moffat has the ability to recognise his weak points and surround himself with talented people who can do a better job. Series Nine has been particularly strong in female participation, both on and off the screen. Many show-runners would have balked at giving the plum job of a major character exit to another writer; not only did he do that, but he then gave Rachel Talalay a free hand directing the finale.

He also places enormous trust in his actors. Moffat’s scripts sketch in character, so their role in fleshing out is particularly crucial. In Series 9 I think he’s been well-served in having a leading man of Capaldi’s experience and stature. Not every Doctor could have carried so much on his shoulders as silently as Capaldi did in the opening scenes of Hell Bent. (Loved the Morricone callback in the line-in-the-sand scene, by the way). This should go down in legend as the Heinz-Tomato-Soup Western of Doctor Who.

For all his warmth and moments of utter brilliance, Matt Smith never quite nailed it for me. I know he has his fans and I can see why, but I wonder, in hindsight, if he was a little too lightweight to wrest character and presence from Moffat’s sometimes formulaic scripts. Peter Capaldi has become a towering presence, inhabiting the role and showing a deep vulnerability without mawkishness and sentimentality. He also pulled a stellar performance out of Jenna Coleman – it got better and better as the series went on, and I’m sure she will remember her time with him as a career-defining masterclass in the craft of acting.

Ultimately finales are about style as much as substance, and this one delivered. Ironically, for a man accused of misogyny, it was strongest on the traditionally feminine virtues of grounded compassion, comfort and the kind of intimacy that makes it possible to say what must be said without fear or favour (a quality demonstrated by Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, particularly when played by Judi Dench). Plus a subversive little dash of girl power. The universe is filling up with powerful women willing to take the Doctor on, and some of them have their own TARDIS.



The Ordeal of the Doctor


“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” – Hamlet, II.ii


The Doctor: [last words to sleeping Amelia Pond] It’s funny, I thought, if you could hear me, I could hang on, somehow. Silly me. Silly old Doctor. When you wake up, you’ll have a mum and dad, and you won’t even remember me. Well, you’ll remember me a little. I’ll be a story in your head. But that’s OK: we’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know, it was the best: a daft old man, who stole a magic box and ran away. …..
The cracks are closing. But they can’t close properly ’til I’m on the other side. I don’t belong here anymore. I think I’ll skip the rest of the rewind. I hate repeats.

Doctor Who is a strange beast. If you try to explain the plot of the latest episode to a non-viewer their jaw will slacken and they will probably roll their eyes, wondering how such bullshit could appeal to an apparently intelligent and critical person. Yet occasionally it throws up a episode of such complexity and poignancy that it gets under your skin completely, keeping you awake at nights and haunting your waking hours. Such epsiodes are usually the ones where the Doctor suffers deeply. Peter Capaldi recently observed that the character is steeped in melancholy, and he’s spot on. The Doctor is perpetually on the run, from himself, from his past, from his powers and his memories. To be trapped alone with nobody to bounce off would be his ultimate nightmare.

In last Saturday’s remarkable episode, Heaven Sent, that’s exactly what happens to him. Mourning the death of his beloved companion – itself a remarkable departure for the show – he finds himself teleported into a castle haunted by a hideous, silent enemy, bereft of all his usual supports – companion, sonic screwdriver, the TARDIS. His grief is raw and initially expressed as vengeful, furious bravado. He finds strategies to help him survive, such as reconstructing the TARDIS control room, and his lost companion, in his mind. That helps, up to a point. But ultimately, he’s completely alone. If hell is other people, then the Doctor’s is the opposite.

And hell it is. But this realisation only creeps up on us slowly and horribly, and therein lies the episode’s power. Because the worst thing about hell is not the wheels of fire and vats of boiling pitch, it’s the idea that it never, ever stops. Most of the Doctor’s problems, no matter how overwhelming, are solved within 45 minutes, or 90 at most. The viewer unconsciously imposes that template on his predicament. He’ll find a way out. He always does. We crave that release, when the Doctor wins and we can switch off the TV and make a cup of tea. But I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers nights in childhood spent working my way up into a state of existential terror at the thought of eternity – the scary thing about it being that it is eternal, and if it ever ended, what would come after it?

Eternity – we use the word so casually, don’t we? When the Doctor was trapped and tortured by the Master for a year, that was bad enough. But that was a walk in the park compared to this nightmare. In a stroke of scriptwriting genius reinforced by some remarkably chilling and creative camerawork, Moffatt slowly steers us towards the unthinkable; the Doctor has already been in this prison for 7,000 years. And it gets a lot worse before it gets better.

What would that do to a human, or even an alien being? We think we can imagine it, but we can’t, we really can’t. We are talking God-like timescales here, as the Doctor endlessly repeats his ordeal, rebooting himself again and again, each time chipping away with agonising slowness at an impregnable wall barring his escape. The Doctor’s old friend Winston Churchill had a famous saying, “Never give up. Never, never give up. Never, never, never give up.” And for all his intellect, courage and fierce restlessness, that’s the only possible hope of release from torment for the Doctor here.

It’s not just agonising, it’s unthinkably dull. Even though he doesn’t apparently remember each Groundhog Day – unlike Bill Murray, he can only learn through cryptic clues left behind and hope he’s bright enough next time around to decode them – the Doctor is left in endless stasis, solitary confinement with no-one left to celebrate or mourn him. We don’t realise until we see this how totally he defines himself through the responses of others. In this respect, he’s analagous to the Christian God, who would rather expose his beloved child to human cruelty than exist in an echo chamber of solitude.

In fact, as the thousands of years stretch into billions, each day adding a new copy of his own skull to the pile on the seabed around the castle, the resemblance to Dante’s Inferno seem to deepen. At the deepest level, that netherworld was composed not of fire but of ice – an eternal adamantine place of stasis. The fiery torments on the upper levels are reserved for lesser sinners.

After hell comes purgatory, the long upward spiral of redemption as the sins of the flesh are burned away. There seems to be an echo of this as the Doctor repeatedly drags his dying body up flights of stairs to the teleporter where the cycle will begin again. To keep the monsters at bay, he must confess his sins, and each time the relief is temporary. The Veil will still get him in the end.

Is this ultimately a redemptive narrative? Time will tell, because when the Doctor does break through and discover his long-lost home world on the other side, he’s out for blood. And his endless, eternal torture chamber shrinks to a disk he can close up and hold in his hand. It’s impossible to believe that so profound an ordeal hasn’t affected him. And us, indeed. Everything about this strangely beautiful, yet deeply disturbing hour of television, invites sober reflection, from the echoes of Hamlet and the slow-motion dream world of Inception to Murray Gold’s Beethoven-influenced, funereal score.

If you poke the plot too hard, it will probably collapse like a house of cards into impossibilities. But the same could be said of the mythos underpinning most major religions, yet the power of such stories shapes billions of lives daily. Sometimes what matters most about stories is not how possible they are, but how deeply they affect us. This particular one will haunt my dreams for many nights to come.

Ever Wished That You Were Better Informed?


Is anybody out there who remembers the slogan., “Did you ever wish that you were better informed?” You might recognise it as a line from the Billy Bragg song, “It says here…”, a coruscating exposure of the British press from the 1980s that, sadly, is as relevant now as it was then.

It was also, roundabout that time, the slogan of the “Times” advertising campaign. A few years earlier, the grand old Thunderer emerged from a long and damaging journalists’ strike to be snapped up by News International.

Last week I decided I’d run a little experiment. I’d pick a long running, dramatic and very important and contentious breaking story and I’d follow the coverage in all four of the so-called “quality” British dailies on line. That’s The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph (informally known as the Torygraph for obvious reasons, and The Independent). Three of these are privately owned. The Guardian is run by a trust, which allows it to be the voice of progressive politics in England, at least compared to the other three. The Indy, as its name suggests, prides itself on its political impartiality – in fact, it’s pretty centrist. It’s also well-meaning, somewhat incoherent and, if its website’s reliance on recycled YouTube oddities and very old op-ed pieces is anything to go by, struggling. It runs a little 40p a day sister paper, the i, which I buy for the crossword. I happen to think it’s also very good value as a newspaper for that price, but this is incidental. It’s the puzzles wot count.

I cancelled my subscription to the Telegraph after the last General Election. I never expected them to be a beacon of progressive politics, in fact I read them to give me an opposing view because it can get a bit intense in the old Guardian echo-chamber at times. But e-mailing everyone who’d ever ticked a box on one of their mailing lists and actually telling them to vote Conservative was a step too far for me.

So last week, I dropped in as a non-subscriber, and found their coverage of the Greek crisis scrappy, frequently misspelt and generally unimpressive. Their rolling blog had no sense of drama or urgency whatsoever, which considering the nature of the unfolding events, is quite an achievement.

The Guardian, inevitably, was drawn to the narrative of plucky-little-Greece, the mouse that roared in the Eurozone’s corridors of power – and eventually, in the case of Yannis Varoufakis, out of them on on a powerful motorbike complete with blonde partner on pillion. I found their blog punchy, genuinely informative, compassionate yet mostly analytical, and above all, riveting. Though in all honesty, I think the coverage of the New York Times, Bloomberg, and the FT considerably better.

And that leaves the Times. Alone among the four, they had a paywall, but you get 30 days for a quid. In the interests of impartiality, I signed up.

The following comments will probably strike many readers as naive. Yes, I knew this was Murdoch’s paper. Nevertheless, I found the amount, and the tone, of anti-BBC material utterly appalling. Not only for its own sake. I never expected Murdoch, or indeed the sainted Guardian, to be completely unbiased. What horrified me is that on the Sunday the Greek banks closed and the referendum was declared, their priority was a long article telling people how to avoid the licence fee completely by downloading exclusively from iPlayer and watching content online.

Such blatant self-interest frankly makes me despair of the British press. At least the Sun and the Star cheerfully admit they’re the scum of the earth. The Times have a couple of columnists worth a look, and in fairness they published an intelligent analytical piece by John Humphries, whose son lives in Greece. But any hope I had that News International regard the Times as anything other than a political megaphone for their own interests was very quickly banished.

If they ever do manage to shut down the BBC, God help us all. Already I am turning to overseas newspapers for intelligent coverage of just about anything, including my own country’s politics. The Economist also deserves an honourable mention.

Have you ever wished you were better informed? Billy Bragg moaned that the English papers were Tory. At least that can be called some sort of principled position. Most aren’t even that these days.

Take Us With You, Scotland.

Picture from the Guardian.
Picture from the Guardian.

I must have lost my head. Or should that be “ma heid?” I’ve just signed an utterly preposterous petition – proposing that the North of England secedes to Scotland. Part of me said, “don’t be daft.” And then I reflected that there are a great many ideas that seemed daft when people first came up with them. Scottish Independence, for instance. Not in my lifetime.

The world is changing, very fast. I hardly feel I can keep up with it, and I’m only 56 years old. I have two young adult offspring who are already way ahead of me on political matters, who keep me in touch with reality. I don’t mean the reality that nothing can ever change, that the Tory press will always manage to pour their poison in people’s ears, that this little island of us will diminish on the world stage, not only in influence but in morality. That big business always wins.

I look at these 56 SNP MPs descending on stuffy Westminster like a Blackpool girls hen night, ruffling feathers, eating chips on the terrace, taking selfies, shaking things up. I look at UKIP imploding. I look at that circle of red, London, in a sea of blue, and I wonder if I really do want to retire to the South of England. I also wonder why people aren’t rioting on the streets of London now, and feel that if they have any plans to do so they’d better get out and bloody do it now before the Tories classify any form of protest as terrorism and make it illegal, and terrify the BBC into not mentioning demos until they are over and done with, and only mentioning the policemen that get hurt, and nobody else.

And I see an alternative. I see hope.

Not hope, realistically, that Britain will ever be divided by a line from the Dee to the Humber, and north of it will be a liberal paradise. But hope that it is still possible to want something better, and to think outside the box.

Thank you Scotland, for showing us the way. I am tired, it’s late, and I’m less coherent than I might be, so I will end with the words of my son, written on his Facebook page last Friday. I am so proud of both my kids. They have joined the Labour Party this week. I don’t feel able to follow suit at the moment, first we have to figure out what the Labour Party stands for. But if the SNP ever open a southern branch, I’ll be first in line to sign up.

I’ve seen many calls for the Left to organise today. And they are absolutely correct. But at times like this, just as important as organisation against our foes is solidarity with our friends.
Someone you know is already suffering as a result of Tory policy. Even more will feel the brunt of it soon. In hard times we have a tendency to retreat into ourselves, only expressing a communal spirit in collective anger – but just as important is being there for those close to you. For those with precarious or zero-hours employment, who don’t know where their next meal will come from. For those who have had their benefits cut off because the Jobcentre wouldn’t believe that they had a mental illness. For those who can’t afford to live in their own homes anymore because of rent increases and punitive disability taxes. For those who are facing right-wing racism and xenophobia. For those who can no longer afford legal aid or adequate healthcare.
For the next five years, we must address these injustices through both mass organisation and local aid. The Conservatives are fighting tooth and nail to abandon those who it is a state’s duty to support. We mustn’t let them do it. We must resist all that has been done already and all that lies down the line. And we must refuse to abandon or to be abandoned. Remember, many people you know are or will be fighting their own battles – don’t let them fight alone.