Friday 1st May
I’ve been thinking about what to put in this first bit of writing for a long time. Our mind writes for us! I think writing is worth pondering in itself. Why do I feel compelled to write? Mostly, I do this in shortform every day at regular intervals on Twitter, Facebook and in my day job (which is writing comments based on policy on planning applications). It’s pretty performative stuff, all told, although of course I do only put stuff up I actually believe in. It does seem like writing comes from an egotistical and fairly self-centred space. I do tend to take the Cartesian approach. I did Philosophy A Level and I remember we watched this (in hindsight) quite funny video of Descartes sitting in his aristocratic bed and questioning all things, it just made him look like a privileged white European bloke, getting up at midday for his daily think. Because thinking is surely central to writing? I went to one of those Guardian Masterclasses in London a while back, it was on writing a novel and was hosted by Tim Lott, who wrote a small column for the Family section of the Graun for a while, but he was going through a divorce at the time and it was all a bit morose, but the thing I remember most was him saying that basically most of writing is thinking abstractly as the key aspect of your work day. I mean, there are literally billions of people who – with work, childcare and other essential responsibilities – simply do not have the time to do this thinking, let alone the writing. Then again, there have been loads of really great writers who have just snuck it into their daily schedule and produced, well, literature. (The obvious example is JK Rowling, although I have never read her books as I am more of a sci-fi than a fantasy person, and I have a dislike for anything hyped.) As I’ve already said, I tend to write non-fiction, but when I think about formalised non-social non-work writing, I tend to think in more fictional terms because of my primary motivations in life. I am a fairly unreconstructed idealist when it comes to social and political things. That means I think in a utopian framework. You can construct an entire world in your head that grapples with the vision and realities of living in a community, but it begins to get to you that you aren’t actually writing any of this shit down, it’s just a daydream. Is this ego? Or is it just wanting to share your perspective on the world with the hope that someone else agrees and wants to do something about that? I mean, that’s why I got into politics, to get together with others and push for our common visions, dreams, utopias, alternatives to the way things are. So I guess what I am saying here is that, for me, all writing is utopian. It is an attempt to get your utopian vision of the world across to someone else. There is also the question of legacy, and I do think that is a primary motivation too. I find this is wrapped up with mortality. “When I’m gone, what will be left?” is the line of thought. With a bit of perspective, you can look at this as a very selfish impulse, but also, we all want a meaningful life, that our actions were loving, kind, helped people, gave people a perspective, made an impact. That must be a large part of what drives writers, that they are thinking that – overall, perhaps discounting the indulgence of sitting still thinking all day! – they are providing something unique and socially useful. And people who read books, love them and learn from them will agree to that I’m sure. But I’m not sure that this is “legacy”, it’s just “useful at the time”. Maybe that is a more humble way of looking at it, but part of me really desires to “outlive my death” through my work as some writers have. As I type this, Anna is singing “we’re going on a bear hunt” to our daughter Erin. I am getting distracted by this! So:
1) It is hard to find time to write.
2) Most writing is done in your head
3) My writing is always from a utopian impulse.
4) A lot of writers want to change people’s way of thinking, teach them and provoke an emotional reaction in the here and now.
5) Some writers want to have a “legacy” so that they can somehow “survive eternally in print”. This is a heavy burden to carry for most and I think I probably need to get rid of this idea myself to take the pressure off myself.
8 minutes left of my half an hour! One of the things I was thinking before I started this is how easy it is to do the first thing, but much harder to do the second thing. It makes me think, weirdly, of the band Stereophonics. Anyone who has been following indie/rock music since the mid-1990s that the first Stereophonics album, Word Gets Around, was lyrically brilliant. There’s a theory that gets trotted out that you have 18 years to create your first album, and only 1 or 2 to create your second album. Stereophonics’ second album was OK, but by their third album they were already just creating bland MOR songs that said nothing about them and who they were as people as their first album did in capturing what it was like to grow up in Wales, the local personalities, the ways that people talk, etc. I am also doing Couch to 5K at the moment and I just did my third run. I felt great on the first run, OK on the second one (slightly worse) and then I could barely make it through the 60 second jogs on the third run. I think I have had a fear of stamina for a long time. The idea that I could write a novel, or do anything in a sustained and controlled way like this, is kind of scary, because it requires your whole person, which isn’t something I or anyone is comfortable giving out most of the time. So I guess this project is an opportunity to provide structure and maintenance for me in my writing. I am worried the open free expression I have committed to may just be 31 blogs that read boringly and don’t provide insight, so I think what might make me more comfortable – and motivated to continue! – is just firstly putting down what I think about the world, to describe my worldview in terms of philosophy, religion, politics, etc. This might also create a number of things I can spin off from and write about. I do have to leave the door open to the idea that I will have something desperate to write about that doesn’t follow on sequentially from what I have said before, but mostly I will be doing this as a continuous piece of writing. 53 seconds to go! Aarrghhh. What do I put here? I think I peaked a little too early there. Anyway, this was a first stab, let me know what you think on social media and I will see you tomorrow for the next installment of my #MayWriteABit!
Saturday 2nd May
Start at the top and work your way down is a maxim I tend to go with, not least because I think the utopian impulse is built on this. And it does seem to me that the absolute top is God, or heaven, or nirvana, or any spiritual or religious idea of perfection, holiness, goodness, sanctity. This might immediately put people off, but please bear with me. This very plausibly could be a two-parter, as there is much to say!
My religious background is a lot to do with my left-liberal parents. My parents met in Sierra Leone when my Dad was working for Student Christian Movement (SCM) and my Mum was taking what we would now call a gap year from her studies at a small college in Nebraska, USA. My dad ended up moving away from Christianity to atheism, but my mum was a believer and churchgoer up until her death through complications of Multiple Systems Atrophy (MSA) – what we thought was Parkinson’s disease until a post-mortem was conducted on her brain – in 2010. So, Sundays growing up we had a choice – either go to church with mum, or stay home with dad. For most of my early teens, I chose the latter while my two older sisters went to church. It was only when my sister invited me to go to a Bible study (when I was about 15, I think?) that I started to become interested in religion, but more accurately more interested in philosophy and theology. I went to a church camp and did the whole “giving my life to Jesus” thing, but I was always a bit of a sceptic, even when surrounded by evangelicals and wanting desperately to believe it all. I think it was only towards the end of my time at university (circa 2006) that I realised that I needed something spiritually wholly different than orthodox Christianity. When I moved to Bristol in 2008 (after time spent on a liberal Presbyterian summer camp in Minnesota, USA), I found a contemplative “post-evangelical” emerging church community called Foundation. This is where I met a lot of people who felt pretty similar to me – burned by dogmatic belief but wanting something nourishing and communal still. I was then, in the words of the great Richard Holloway, probably “dancing on the edge” of Christianity. The services were non-hierarchically organised and sometimes very unorthodox with loads of use of film, music and involving a lot more questioning and doubt, but perhaps a lot more simplicity in their spiritual direction of travel too. Sadly, Foundation kind of fizzled out, arguably because people ran out of ideas and energy. It has since been reborn in a different form but life circumstances make me less inclined to make appearances, and I do feel it is a bit more orthodox and churchy now, which turns me off a bit.
Anyway, I suppose all of this is just a long-winded way of explaining that for me, religion and spirituality have always been a choice. It’s probably not good to compare myself to my two sisters, but I think it is interesting that one of us is probably still sort of “in the fold”, another is an atheist (I think? I haven’t asked her) and now I am a sort of woolly agnostic deist. Let me unpack that!
There is a lot of religion out there to choose from, but frankly I have always been more interested in the questions than the answers. I look at the world and see profound beauty and immense power, but I think God Themself seems very like my parents in Their approach – unpreachy, letting us make our own decisions, not uncaring about our plight, but certainly not really someone who intervenes. I have in the past struggled with the problem of evil, but mostly I just put it down to the fact that it’s not much of a world if we don’t get to make conscious decisions about what to do with it. That can result in the Holocaust, but it can also result in the invention of the printing press or
Jesus seems to be a good bloke, but there are lots of things I disagree with that he said…and that’s OK? I mean, he said a lot of Premier League history-making shit too, but I think his followers probably just misunderstood who he was and embellished a few things. It was clearly a great idea that was born, an idea that will forever be the centre of any spiritual insight – love everyone, act justly, create community together to support one another, etc. – and I am reminded of a quote from a Jeannette Winterson book called “Written On The Body” where she talks about the first disciples. I apologies for taking time out to find it, but it was such a marvellous thing to find it again as I first read this when I was doing Cultural Criticism in my first year at Cardiff (2002):
” The earliest pilgrims shared a cathedral for a heart. They were the temple not made with hands. The Eklasia of God. The song that carried them over the waves was the hymn that rung the rafters. Their throats were bare for God. Look at them now, heads thrown back, mouths open, alone but for the gulls that dip the prow. Against the too salt sea and the inhospitable sky, their voices made a screen of praise. Love it was that drove them forth. Love that brought them home again. Love hardened their hands against the oar and heated their sinews against the rain. The journeys they made were beyond common sense; who leaves the hearth for the open sea? especially without a compass, especially in winter, especially alone. What you risk reveals what you value. In the presence of love, hearth and quest become one.”
Isn’t that brilliant? It speaks to me of giving your absolute all for a cause. I don’t think I could ever do that with Christianity, not because the core truths aren’t great, but that by subscribing to it I am saying something about myself politically that I don’t want to say – that I believe that there is always a reason for everything and that it’s all part of some wider plan. Beyond the laws of the universe, I just don’t believe it is. So, my spirituality really got enveloped into a different institution, if you like – the Green Party. Foundation was my transitional stage. And, in many ways, political parties are exactly like churches or religions. My old voting reform friend David Gould said they are cults and he isn’t completely wrong. The Green Party is perhaps more like this than most – we have a philosophical basis, a central dogma/truth (“you can’t have infinite economic growth on a finite planet”) and it definitely allows me the ability to be like Winterson’s pilgrims. Its core demographic is an interesting spiritual mishmash of Quakers, liberal Christians, out-and-out atheists, and open humanists – the sort of mixture I can get along with. We have a minute’s attunement before we make policy. It’s probably not healthy that my religion is politics (or maybe “political change/activism”) but that genuinely is where my heart lies now. So, in conclusion, I am an agnostic when it comes to whether there is a God (I lean in a sort of Pascal’s Wager way towards yes, mostly because of my background) and if there is a God, I think it’s definitely a deistic, non-interventionist God, where the beauty and the truth is wrapped in the creation and revelation is simply our subjective readings of that creation and the engagement with our consciousness that we have been given. However, I am regularly spiritually and emotionally moved in ways that aren’t to do with the creation, but to do with human charity, poignancy and struggle. That’s my 30 minutes up!
Sunday 3rd May
I feel like I left yesterday’s writing quite abruptly on the subject of what I am moved by. So maybe I should just make a list of things that I am/have been moved by? Here goes:
> The music video to Hurt by Johnny Cash
> Andrea Bocelli singing Nessum Dorma at the King Power Stadium after my team Leicester City had won the Premier League
> A particular scene in A Quiet Place towards the end (if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean) – I saw this before and after I became a father, and I got it more the second time
> There are lots of film scenes, in particular moments in these films: Super 8, E.T., Toy Story 3, In America, I’ve dried up, but a lot of my learning comes from how I feel in these moments
> My daughter smiling at me for the first time really got me! (Pretty much everything she does gets me, to be fair.)
> A blog my friend Steve wrote the other day about collecting his father’s possessions from a care home after he’d died.
I feel like a lot of these are quite “blokey” moments. So I guess this blog can be about sex and gender? Why not, we have to go there sometime.
I am probably more on the sensitive side, but I still have a lot of frustration/anger that spills out at fairly regular intervals that could be said to be unchecked masculine stuff. I believe gender and sex are really hard to define and for that reason I think it is utterly wrong to try to pigeonhole people into binaries that don’t fit our lived realities. I am incensed by the way in recent years the gender “debate” (it’s not a debate, just as debating another minority group’s shared characteristics is not up for debate) there has been this extreme fundamentalist vision created by men like Graham Linehan and the like, who don’t really give a shit about people’s feelings or finding common ground, but just want to tear apart people’s sense of their own identity. It’s not difficult to find empathy for people who feel deep down they are not living in the world in the way they want to. No one transitions between genders lightly. The scaremongering around “men” (i.e. trans women) entering “women’s spaces” (i.e. cis women’s spaces who don’t recognise trans women as women) is horrific and should be condemned. I’m not sure where I’m going with this, I’m just saying what I think and what I think society should accept. Those people who are saying that we shouldn’t recognise trans and non-binary identities and that they are not valid will I think find that they are on the wrong side of history.
I cry a lot. It’s not usually because I am sad, it’s nearly always because I am moved. As time has gone on, I have become more and more comfortable with this and I actually wear it as a badge of honour. Mark Kermode talks about this a lot and quotes Roger Ebert who said that cinema is a “machine that breeds empathy”. I do find it quite hard to empathise with other people sometimes (i.e. people who I consider to be just being stupid and ignorant), but I think cinema does help me to fine-tune that impulse and understand it. One absolute masterpiece I watched recently was the film A Separation which is set in Iran and follows a couple going through a divorce. It is so finely written, every aspect of the film promotes that Ebert maxim – you can understand each character’s difficulties, there is no black and white, everyone is just struggling to survive and do what they think is best. I think that is immensely powerful as a message. However, I think this genuine desire to see things from other people’s points of view is ruthlessly exploited in society by the Government and by large employers. We had to go to Tesco earlier (I hate Tesco, but the local chemist where we buy nappies is shut on Sundays and we had run out) and the cashier we had was wearing a t-shirt saying “We’re all in this together”. Little things like that just HUGELY wind me up – because we’re not, the person wearing the t-shirt is not experiencing all this in the same way I am, and neither are care and NHS workers. The rich can retire to their country estates, the poor are forced to live in one room. Anna says I am becoming a middle-aged complainer, and she’s right. I hate that I can’t push our daughter in a buggy on our daily walks because there’s not enough pavement and not enough dropped kerbs to access that pavement. This comes back to me to the values that society holds. Western (neo)liberal capitalism is what we base everything on, which is kind of “as long as someone is not hurting anyone else by doing something, it’s fine” (never mind that the fact capitalism silently kills people everyday as a result of its unrestricted amoralism). I think utilitarianism has a lot to answer for as it suggests that the pragmatic delivery of multiple pleasures is the goal of society, and not the common good of all. (I’ll wait for a liberal to rush in and tell me this is an incorrect interpretation!) If we truly valued the common good, we would publicly state that getting parked cars out of residential communities would be a fundamentally good thing for everyone in terms of livability, air quality, ability for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate the streets safely and easily, climate change aims, etc. So I am pretty fixated on the massively overcrowded streets near me, but I haven’t seen anyone else who is particularly, or at least no active group that wants to change this situation (even if lots of people don’t like it). So I think this blog has meandered (3 minutes to go) and again I haven’t felt like I have said that much that makes it very coherent, but I think you can see that for me the emotive side comes out in two ways in particular: 1) when I am watching films and 2) when I can see the things that frustrate me on the hyper-local level. Perhaps in my next entry I will discuss how I think this second aspect can be approached on a community or societal level. I recently wrote a 14,000-word master’s dissertation on the socio-political viewpoints of urban pedestrians, but for me the most interesting part of (which I didn’t have space to say much about) is the theory of agonism. (No, it’s not as painful as it sounds!) This theory is fascinating because it suggests that we actually NEED conflict. With 30 seconds to go, I guess I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow! So long.
Monday 4th May
Anna bought me an SD card for my phone because I keep filling up on photos of Erin, so I was hunting around for the little metal pointy thing you use to get your phone to open and I stumbled across the headphones that came with my phone. “Great, I can use these for my Couch to 5K” I naively thought. If you were out in Eastville Park at around 7.45am today you would have seen a guy yelling “STUPID FUCKING HEADPHONES KEEP FALLING OUT!”. I will be returning to the over-ear headphones for Wednesday’s run. This serves as an intro to our topic today: the political theory of agonism. On first glance, people probably think this sounds quite painful and negative, like a belief that we should all be in agony! Far from it. I first came across this term when reading for my very first essay on my MSc Urban Planning course, in relation to the structures that may be used to create neighbourhood planning. In essence, there have been two prevalent planning theories of community/political engagement in the last 20 to 25 years: Patsy Healey’s “collaborative planning” based on Habermas’ ideas around communicative practice and the ideal speech situation. This theory argues (or perhaps, in line with its precepts, suggests!) that bringing diverse people into communication (i.e. talking in a room) can create a consensus on issues where initially participants diverge. This may not happen in one meeting, but it can happen. This relates quite well to the sort of democratic principles that the Green Party has espoused for its entire history, that consensus is preferable to than majority voting and definitely preferable to dissensus or conflict (these are subtly different terms). If you go to a Green Party meeting, there are many signals that this is how we want to work, there will be instances where no vote is taken and the discussion that has occurred takes as read the conclusions that members have come to. It can work really really well, and when it doesn’t work, you fall back onto majority decision-making (i.e. raising hands). On a micro-level (e.g. Bristol Green Party) this is much more likely to be effective than on a macro-level (e.g. the whole of Bristol, or even the whole of one ward or district). I have some positive experience of this. When I was a councillor, we brought together people (about 30?) who were concerned about one community member’s desire to build a house behind theirs on some open land. Introducing deliberation as a key value of the meeting was key, with everyone being asked to slightly rein in their strongly held views (there were equal numbers on each side of the debate, as I recall) and what occurred was a sort of gentle recognition that the idea to build there would just not be a good thing. This was helped by the potential house-builder being a member of the community, a reasonable person and a listener. And this is the key problem with collaborative planning – it doesn’t allow for the differences in wealth, status and class that already exist (and persist) in society. It suggests – and New Labour were quite key to pushing this as a model in communities – that everyone is an equal stakeholder. Well, that’s bollocks isn’t it? Because a black working class disabled lesbian female minimum wage retail worker does not have the same power and privilege as a white upper middle class abled-bodied heterosexual male chief executive of a business lobbying group. And there’s the rub. Because as long as these inequalities are not addressed at the macro-economic (i.e. state) level, any collaborative framework will naturally cohere to dominant economic and social orthodoxies. The idea that we can just work out these stratospheric differences with a bit of a chat is not only naive but also insulting to people who don’t have the power and privilege to perhaps even be present at the meeting. So, what is the alternative? How do we get a peaceful and respectful decision-making process without disallowing and denuding those who have been sidelined by society? How do we allow for rancour, shouting, anger and deeply held views to be heard and taken into account without the whole thing descending into a fight? The key here is in acknowledging that agonism is not antagonism. An antagonistic discourse would be what I kind of just described. It would be an unstructured rant which, although maybe 100% accurate, true and relevant, does not allow for the possibility of a sustained critique between different groups. Agonism, on the other hand, suggests that groups (or even just individuals) in society can agree a sort of “constructive adversarialism” whereby differences and hegemonies (i.e. dominant power structures) are acknowledged, and different strategies for change are thrashed out. This theory wasn’t born out of planning, by the way. It arose through the work of Chantal Mouffe, a Belgian political theorist who works at a university in London (I forget which) and wrote a book in the 1980s called Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. I haven’t read it, but I have read her later work where she expands on the agonist idea at length in books such as Agonistics and For A Left Populism. 4 minutes to go. This theory is applied to the EU and in many other contexts to suggest the way forward is to work out ways to challenge the dominant economic paradigm of neoliberal capitalism. Reminding myself of that book title makes me think that “left populism” could be a good thing to talk about in my next blog. But, in conclusion, I think we need to move away from the idea that consensus is always possible and that agonistic discourse is the way forward, and it also is a way for constructing alternatives to the hegemonic forces at work in society. Here’s the Wikipedia article if you are interested and want to learn more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agonism
Tuesday 5th May
I am drinking a beer at 4pm on a Tuesday (started work early today!), so what better subject to talk about than left populism? Populism is a word that has been ubiquitous over the last few years, so much so that the Guardian did one of those multi-nation case studies about its effect. Most people associate it with people like Trump, Farage, Johnson, Putin, Orban, etc. but this is of course only one element of populism. You could call it rightwing populism, but even that is too simplistic as in some countries, it expresses itself in things like the 5-Star Movement (Italy) which has an interest in environmentalism and e-democracy. I recently watched Tiger King on Netflix (who, apparently, hasn’t?) and it reminded me that there are a whole set of people that have socially liberal views on some things and still want a small-state and less government interference. Libertarianism actually exists. Libertarianism isn’t always populism though, which Wikipedia defines as ‘a range of political stances that emphasise the idea of “the people” and often juxtapose this group against “the elite”‘. At the risk of being too simplistic, this does generally fall into right populism and left populism, although arguably the rhetoric employed by a mainstream party like the UK Liberal Democrats around the 2005-2010 period had elements of a ‘centrist populism’ or, as some Lib Dems like to label themselves, ‘radical centrism’. (Personally, I think this is nonsensical, but let’s not get too sidetracked into my issues with the Lib Dems!)
So what are right populism and left populism? Right populism is more authoritarian in its belief in institutions and markets but still holds a belief that these have been corrupted in some way by an elite (e.g. Farage vs the EU) and need to be taken back by the people. Johnson has been successful in claiming this ground from Farage in the UK context simply because Brexit was a massive single issue that could contain the rhetorical contradiction of a strong UK economy and a horrific EU bureaucracy (they are interdependent). Left populism, on the other hand, takes aim at different elites – the people who manage the economy, such as billionaires and lax tax regimes. It is not intrinsically eurosceptic or protectionist, but instead targets the elite in whatever ways are suitable within the context it is working. It is not anti-statist as I understand it – in the case of successful examples like Podemos and Syriza, it is far from being anarchistic or critical of using state apparatus, even if it sees social and political change coming ‘from below’ not above. It sees the building of movements – separated by issue, but united in common desire – as the central focus and as its theory of change. The two successes already mentioned came about as a result of the combination of the financial mismanagement and austerity measures in the period since 2007. Podemos were helped by the main centre-left’s blandness in Spain (and they capitalised on some of the regionalist autonomous struggles). Syriza were helped by the EU effectively trying to bankrupt Greece unless they implemented austerity measures (the EU sadly won this argument with Tsipras giving in and Varoufakis, er, starting his book tour!). So should we be in favour of left populism? Is it a sustainable form of politics and does it have wide enough appeal to continue to carry votes at the ballot box beyond its contextual birth in the post-crash world?
Personally, I think it is a vital tool. The progressive side of politics (it’s hard to deny there are two ‘sides’ of politics, really – even if some people try to) do need to use the rhetoric of the people against elites to energise their voter bases. It is surprising that this railing against the system and elites wasn’t more central to the message of Corbynism in the 2019 General Election, as my friend Adam Ramsay has written here. The problem with the UK context is the first past the post system forcing people to fit into a big tent party like Labour that is a bit centre-left and a bit radical left. I would argue that only a proportional voting system allows the right dynamic for left populism to gain a sustainable foothold in electoral politics. In Germany, there are three left parties: the SPD (centre-left), the Greens (centre-left to left) and the Left (the left!). They go up and down with each election, but because the right can’t always get a majority, their politics is able to find voice. And each of these groups – at least on paper – represents key aspects of progressive politics: SPD (organised labour), Greens (environmental capital) and the Left (radical movements). The key task for each of these parties then is to develop broad platforms while, to some extent, stealing each other’s rhetoric and messaging to try and broaden their appeal without losing their core vote. Doesn’t that sound FASCINATING, UK people, compared to what we have? In this system, left populism will be more likely to be found in the Greens or in the Left, but it is interesting that parties in the UK like Plaid Cymru and the SNP have been able to capture a bit of that nationalist mood because of their context of faraway English dictat. The SNP are currently calling for a citizen’s income, which in itself is an interesting ‘straddler’ of the left-right divide: rightwingers want it because it cuts benefits bureaucracy, leftwingers want it because it offers everyone dignity to pursue their interests without being in poverty. The SNP (and the Lib Dems!) calling for this now is clearly in response to the economic effects of the pandemic, but this does show that populist measures like this can also be incredibly practical. It is the movement of left populism (which I’d argue the Green Party represents most closely in the UK context) towards the practical implementation of those policies, that is the key movement in most societies in the Global North and is the cause that many of us will continue to champion. Perhaps then, my next blog should be about the avenues for Green/left influence and why there is always a need for a small, radical leftwing party within the UK system. I guess this is me saying I am returning to my comfort zone, but they can’t all be challenging pieces to write! 🙂
Wednesday 6th May
After Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, a bunch of people left the Green Party (and a number of other smaller leftwing parties) to get behind him. The context of the rise of Corbynism was a pro-austerity Ed Miliband-led Labour having their urban seat majorities affected by the anti-austerity Natalie Bennett-led Green Party. 1.1 million Green votes didn’t achieve any additional seats due to the ridiculous first past the post electoral system the UK uses, but it did force Labour to engage with the leftwing arguments the Greens had been making and adopt some (but not all) of their sensible policies: bringing the railways back into public ownership, opposition to austerity and – belatedly in 2019 – the Green New Deal (which had been drawn up by Caroline Lucas and other key green economic thinkers around the time of the financial crash).
This paragraph in itself demonstrates the need for smaller, radical parties in parliamentary systems. (I would argue – as a dual US-UK national – that this doesn’t apply to the US pres system, where there is one big head-to-head, not 650 individual head-to-heads, although I would vote for a less wacky Green for positions at the city level in America.) Simply by voting for a smaller party, you do a few things, some of which are not generally understood by most people:
1) You increase their national vote share which allows them to gain more “short money” (for more on this, start here). In the Green Party’s case, that means Caroline Lucas has more people supporting her in her vital work. This is a Good Thing and can only produce better scrutiny of the government on key progressive issues, something that Labour often fails to do on a range of issues (e.g. Brexit).
2) You build support in a constituency for future elections so the Greens can make the case that they can actually win there in 1 to 2 elections’ time. My own constituency of Bristol West is a case in point. In 2010, the Greens got about 2,000 votes. But due to the unpopularity of the Lib Dem Coalition government, the incumbent Lib Dem leaked thousands of votes to the Greens in 2015. If the Greens hadn’t even stood or got NO VOTES AT ALL in 2010, there would not have been any credibility to the idea of winning in 2015. Of course, the Greens didn’t win in 2015, but they are now unquestionably in second place in that constituency, so there is a possibility in 1 or 2 elections time of getting a Green MP. None of this could have happened without people voting Green in 2010 (and 2005 too!). If you don’t ever vote for the change you want to see, you will never see it. It also isn’t a wasted vote – as this paragraph has evidenced.
3) As described above, you may force the other parties to think twice about their approach to electoral politics. In 2019, Molly Scott Cato MEP stood in the Stroud constituency and spent the entire campaign fending off calls for Labour to not stand because the Greens would “split the left vote”. Never mind the fact that this is a patronising and undemocratic position to take, the fact that Labour lost that election may make them think twice about some of the larger strategic questions of how to convincingly beat the Tories and elect a progressive, green government sometime before we disappear into the sea. (Admittedly, this one is a long shot given Labour’s past record, but one can hope.)
4) As also mentioned above in the Corbyn example, you may shift the policies of the other parties. The Labour and Lib Dem 2019 election manifestos were massively influenced by the green agenda which, admittedly, was because of the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion rather than the Green Party’s voters being a direct influence. However, in 2015, the Labour Party went as far as to set up an “anti-green unit” to try to shift their rhetoric towards green issues. Consider the alternative – another election goes by without substantial debate on the most important issue facing humanity – and you begin to see why political pluralism and radical smaller parties are necessary.
5) You can elect local Green councillors. Under first past the post, this is the only level (other than the sadly now defunct European elections) that Greens can quickly get people into positions of influence. The council I work for elected 3 Greens in 2019 because people were tired of the status quo. Voting Green may not influence your local area this time, but the margins of victory in council elections (due to poor turnout) are often very small. (I think I was elected by under 100 votes, and was expecting a different party to come second than actually did!) As we increased in influence in Bristol, a number of our members who weren’t standing in “target wards” began to get a little bit worried they might actually win the seats they were standing in! And this makes a massive difference. Cities like Manchester or Birmingham are basically one-party states with no opposition. Constructively critical opposition is a vital part of the democratic system. Greens deliver great opposition and in some places, are now ready to govern.
Finally, a couple of points on tactical voting (read more about Duverger’s Law here):
1) You only get an average of about 12 general elections to vote in in your life. Why waste those 12 opportunities? Use your vote to vote for what you actually want, or you’ll never get it.
2) If Labour and Tories continually get votes from people who just want to keep the other party out, they will never value you and will continue to use you and abuse you (frankly!). Your vote is precious. Make them earn it by withholding it if you think there is someone or some party who would be better.
Voting for parties tactically has sometimes got a place. For instance, in the last Metro Mayor election in the West of England region, I gave my second preference vote to the Labour Party because they were most likely to be in the “play-off” with the Tories and obviously I would prefer Labour to them. I could have just left the second preference column blank. This is the only electoral system under which I would place a tactical vote, because all other systems are covered by what I said above, or are proper preferential or proportional systems where your true preferences will be carried into the results…and influence them! Out of time. Phew!
Thursday 7th May
I realise my last post was a very biased but of course deeply felt piece of propaganda. Perhaps I should row back a bit and think about genuine routes to change. This is I think (as I said in my first post) a utopian impulse. Let me try and trace some ways that we can actually improve societal structures and political systems.
1) One way is through a more anarchistic appreciation. I really like the ideals of anarchism. The biggest anarchist influence on me is the Ursula Le Guin novel The Dispossessed, I thoroughly recommend it, whatever your political values. Anarchism doesn’t, in my view, succeed as a worldview for tackling systemic problems at the macro stage (you have to get inside it to do that – more on which later). However, I think it is the strongest motivation for localised action to directly improve community and people’s lives. In distinction to socialism, its ambivalence/hostility to the state means that it isn’t an “asking” philosophy, it’s a “doing” philosophy. The mutual aid groups that have been set up because of the pandemic are loosely an anarchist idea: if you don’t believe the state will help you (and it may be undesirable that it does), you have to set up your own mutual aid arrangements. This can only really work at the local level, although of course good practice can be shared. So this is one route to change: just start organising to care for people in your community and provide an arena for strategic action.
2) Another way of making change is through religion. Many faith communities have incredibly strong social bonds amongst people from a wider area than an anarchist collective (as described in 1)) might be able to draw and this results in greater social action (e.g. organising food banks, social action projects like The Noise, community iftars, etc.). I remember talking with my friend Mark once about how only a macro-level religious motivation would provide sufficient motivation to globally upturn the economic system quickly enough to supersede capitalism. It seems unrealistic that a post-Englightenment world could return on a mass scale to religion, but successive new age communities have sprung up. If there was one with credibility and simplicity, it would be interesting to see how this fared. Surely we are in a moment where “slow living” and “community bonds” are absolutely being taken up, but this is happening generally not just through churches, mosques, synagogues, etc. From my own experience, church communities do seem to be best-placed to take action, they just need increased mobilisation – and politicisation.
3) Another route to change is of course the well-worn reformist party political route that, generally speaking, I favour. I spoke about this more in my last blog post. There are good reasons to be demoralised by this route, but also many avenues for change, particularly on the local level. Which leads onto…
4) We need a proper recognition of the role of “civics” in terms of our engagement with local governance structures. Without people standing up at the local level to fight things, it is hard to see how anything will change. This “civic organising” is relatively strong in Bristol where I live. People turn up at council meetings to make their case to the Mayor and council. If you follow your “local political Twitter”, the anger and frustration are evident in the populace at the slow pace of change. Traditional campaigning through petitions and direct action at council meetings is absolutely essential, but too few people take this up as a positive pursuit rather than just as a reaction to something they don’t like. A big part of this would be helped by…
5) Proper civic and political education in schools! Students should be taught between 11 and 16 about the political system, why parties take particular positions rather than others, the concept of media bias and what the motivating factors are for prevalent media sources/journalists, and different theories of change. Too much is taught about all of this, without any critical engagement WITH it. I’m fortunate that I did media studies at school, otherwise I wouldn’t have had any foundation for critiquing what I was reading. And of course it helps if we have…
6) Much more ability for journalists to be investigative, questioning and constructively critical of powerful figures and organisations. The current media landscape severely restricts the range of questions that journalists are able to countenance as part of their reporting. Recently, there has been a breath of fresh air at the local level with the advent of Local Democracy Reporting. This means that there will be at least one person in every locality questioning why politicians and councils are doing things. They turn up to meetings and report (on Twitter and through BBC and other local media channels) what is actually going on in area. This is absolutely invaluable and has caused some annoyance in the Labour administration in Bristol as the scrutiny they are now being placed under requires them to have an answer for their positions!
7) The final theory of change I will talk about is a bit more wishy washy, but perhaps the most important. Whether you’re religious or not, the entire mindset we bring to the world is the most important factor. If even 5% extra of the UK population, for instance, decided that they were going to spend ten minutes each day in quiet meditation (I don’t do this myself, I’m giving it as an example!), it would have demonstrable benefits in terms of the way we all are able to cope with the world and engage positively with these other 6 methods of getting change. I’m not sure how this gets rolled out, though. Any ideas welcome!
So those are my seven routes to potential change. They are:
1) Anarchist-inspired community/collective organisation and mutual aid
2) Faith-based social action
3) Reforming the system from within by getting involved in party politics
4) Civic organising to challenge and critique local governance decision-making
5) Civic and political education in schools
6) Creating more space for investigative, questioning and critical journalism
7) Some kind of mindset change within each of us as individuals
Now, I’m not saying that we are all going to do all of these. I’m saying that most of us are probably involved in one of these, and we should be encouraged by that fact. It also requires flexibility. If you live in a village, the church might be the best way of contributing to change. If you are put off by anarchism, why not campaign for media reform or better political education? If you cannot manage any of these due to time constraints, perhaps doing number 7) for you involves simply being open to other people in a way you haven’t been previously?
I realise that I have been pretty solidly focused on number 3) for the last ten years, largely to the detriment of all of the others. I am currently questioning that. With a new baby comes less time to spend on multiple pursuits and a necessary narrowing down of efforts. This kind of self-reflection is something we probably do quite irregularly. It was some old Greek who said “an unexamined life is not worth living”. I think it’s time to examine mine.
Friday 8th May
Or, alternatively, don’t change a thing. Here’s a thought experiment. Say that you found a job on your 18th birthday that pays about average wage that you like and you have inherited a house or a flat that is perfectly comfortable and close to your work. (This is a thought experiment, obviously this isn’t what the vast majority of people do.) Now imagine that you don’t change a thing. You read the news but it doesn’t really move you to do anything differently. You’re friendly with your colleagues at the office and might go out for the odd drink with them, but you otherwise keep yourself to yourself. You enjoy your job but you aren’t really bothered about career progression as you just see it as a hassle. You go and see your parents or your siblings at the weekend. You don’t really want a relationship as you are quite happy watching Netflix or TV and think it would get in the way of that. Effectively, you are perfectly content and do not desire anything new or fresh to occur, you are perfectly happy with the day-to-day existence that you inhabit.
To most of us, this sounds horrific as a way of life because there is no variety and nothing interesting going on. There are probably a fair few people living this life. Conversely, Immanuel Kant was keen on an idea: universalizable action. Ethically, you should act as you would expect everyone else to act in the same situation – a sort of extension of that old saying “treat others as you’d like to be treated”. What would be the consequence if everybody lived their life as “universalisable action” or as “change nothing”?
The risk here is to say that the world would clearly be much better off if everyone treated everyone else as they would like to be treated. However, this saying is too vague and too hard to practically pin down. Say you pass a homeless person on the street – does this universal law of ethics means you are duty bound to help that homeless person right there and then, just because you can imagine how you would like to be treated if you were in their position? The world is a big and complex place. If every time you were made aware of some sort of human suffering (as surely this is where Kant is going with his ethical maxims) you contributed time or money, you would soon be exhausted. This, in many ways, is what happens in progressive activist circles. People have too much care or at least too much moral/ethical conviction. “What a disgusting thing to say!” I hear you cry. But if you think about it, it’s not disgusting, it’s self-preservation. There’s no use in us all being exhausted and unable to function – then we’re no use to anyone. It is possible to intellectually know something is wrong or needs to be addressed without personally committing yourself to address it. Just today I saw a horrific video of a man being tasered by police in front of his child. It’s probably the most outraged I have been for a while, but how am I going to act on that? This video was filmed in Manchester – it is impractical for me to get involved with the specific case. The broader issue? Sure, I could campaign solidly for police to not routinely carry tasers in the UK, but am I about to drop all the other issues that I care about for this issue. I see people like Peter Tatchell who pretty much dedicate all their waking hours to campaigning, and it just seems impractical for where I am in life right now. So why do I hold in my mind that this is the kind of thing I should be doing at all times? Damn you, Kant!
Equally, I am not sure I could live in the “change nothing”. Obviously there are people who are just getting on with living their lives and trying to be happy and enjoy things, but I think most people do have at least a charitable side to their personality and will support an organisation (Cancer Research is an obvious example) where they have been affected by that issue. The central question here is: is just going about your daily business enough for any of us, or do we ethically have a responsibility to be an activist or a campaigner – if there is nothing stopping us from being one? The direct result if we became the “change nothing” person would be an OK atmosphere, but also a load of systemic issues that weren’t being dealt with and mounting inequality and climate change. That is just as undesirable a situation as activist burnout.
So what is the balance to be struck between these two extremes and how do you choose what you should do in life? At the moment, I am finding it really hard and there is a strong temptation for me to just drop out of political commitment and just focus on caring for Erin and spending time with Anna with any extra hours that the day brings. It is hard for me to accept that this is an acceptable course of action, but I don’t think many people reading this who have had kids (and many who haven’t) would say it is an ethically questionable choice. But it is the “easy path”. And I don’t think life is about taking the easy path. Because if you just stick to that “change nothing” easy path, you don’t experience things that you could. I can imagine myself on that path from about the age of 22 when I moved to Manchester. I could have become that person – go to work, come home, see some friends maybe, but not really contribute to anything. It is easy to wonder what might have been. (I would certainly be getting more sleep now! WHAT a WHINY thing to say!) So I guess I can’t do it. I can’t take a step back and do nothing. Kant has got under my skin. My motivations must engage with some structure or process or cause or thing that is ABOVE MYSELF. It wouldn’t be selfish not to at this stage, but I just don’t think I would be – in the terms of social media memes – living my best life. And, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about!
Saturday 9th May
I don’t know what I want to write about today, nothing is popping out at me. The two things I am thinking about most in terms of “non-work work” (if you get me?) are how many emails I have got (I haven’t properly been through them since the end of March, really!) and how a councillor candidate campaigns for election during a lockdown (with great difficulty!). These aren’t really enough as subjects to write about, because the first one is just something that needs doing, and the second is something that I shouldn’t really put out on a public forum as, you know, elections are competitive things and any REALLY good ideas risk being stolen by other local wannabes! I know politics shouldn’t be like that, but it unfortunately is and there are so many examples from my 10 years of involvement of people telling others things that need to be kept in confidence and are then leaked.
Perhaps instead I should tell you about some things that have helped me to start to refocus on what I want to be doing during the next period.
Firstly, I made a word map from the titles of all of the interesting words from book titles on my shelves. I know I know, this is an odd thing to do. The loose idea is to go through all of the words and pick out those I am most interested in and want to push into in terms of my politics and writing. But frankly, it’s just sat there gathering dust at the side of my desk. I also have a bunch of academic papers I have come across through my degree that I want to do the same with. The idea is “use mass information to focus on pick out specific interest”. I’m not sure why this appeals to me as a process, but it does. I like looking at a totality and figuring out where to start, I guess. I am still interested in academic study, but it’s Anna’s turn now (if she wants to) and so a PhD isn’t on the cards, but I am always fascinated by these “independent scholars” you see around the place. I wonder whether I could just start writing journal articles and see how far I get with getting published without the need to be a professional academic. It can take months putting together an article and the process is one I enjoy, even when stretched out. So that’s one option!
Secondly, I did have the idea to do more podcasting. I currently have a podcast with my friend Robbie which is focused on new programmes and films on Netflix UK. We have fun recording it but don’t really promote it, although I don’t think it’s bad. I think if we both had more time, money and motivation, we could probably get it to be reasonably successful on the podcasts charts and stuff but we’d need to do it more regularly and slightly more professionally and set up websites, social media, etc. I am probably less into TV than Robbie and Robbie is less into films than me, but that makes it just about work. It’s also a good way for me to keep up with what is new on Netflix and I have seen things that I otherwise wouldn’t have that were really good. Overall, though, I want to try my hand at setting up my own podcast. At the beginning of the year I was thinking about a film podcast based around home viewing. I’ll see far fewer films in the cinema due to childcare responsibilities so I had the idea to do a sort of “6 months late” film review when things come out on digital/DVD. Then the coronavirus happened and no one is seeing anything in cinemas, so that makes it more tricky right now. I would also want to engage the Bristol film scene to get contributors, and it would just require loads of work to make it happen, particularly now when you can’t meet anyone. I would also be interested in starting a generic green politics podcast, but I think there are already some good ones out there. Mine might just be interviews with Bristol Greens, which wouldn’t be too hard to set up at all and might get more of a following in the circles I’ve been building up for a long time (10 years). It would actually be minimal effort too. Or it could just be a podcast looking at each of the Policies for a Sustainable Society policy chapters and talking through the implications Green policy would have if implemented. So this might be something to float with others.
Thirdly, I am thinking about how to blog and what to blog about. This project will come to an end and then I would probably like to continue, having built up my blogging stamina. One idea I had was a utopian cities blog. Bill Bryson talks in The Lost Continent about a fictional town of Amalgam, USA, where all the best parts of all the small towns he passed through would be present. There is a case to be made for a blog that takes different aspects of good cities/communities and focuses on each one. For instance, one week would focus on the city with the best trams, the next would look at the city with the most green spaces, etc. and conclusions would be drawn about how the city got to the top position, what civil/political factors influenced those decisions, and how cities elsewhere can get there. This would be a very fun experience for me and is something I am interested in definitely setting up and seems to be the most easy to pick up and stop depending on other factors.
Finally, I am also thinking about my own ability to think creatively and write fiction. This isn’t something I probably have the headspace nor time to really do properly, as it doesn’t come naturally to me in the way this form of writing does. I do struggle to draw characters, for instance, as I am more based around ideas. I have never tried screenwriting though, which involves a perhaps less pronounced level of detail and more ability to editorialise rather than allude. I have an idea for this, but I’m not going to share it here as I need to keep it in confidence for now.
Realistically, I think my best ideas are the ones that I can do with minimal need to maintain the pace and stamina of the work: the podcast about Bristol Greens and the blog about “creating Amalgam”. One is an outwardly facing communicative format, and one is a bit of analysis and fun. I think that’s what I am realising – that I need something outward, even if my instinct is to go inwards and just talk about things I am interested in. I need to hear other people’s perspectives. So, I guess, I should just act in getting on with these!
Sunday 10th May
Today’s topic is INBOX ZERO. If you don’t know what it is already, you can probably guess. It’s where you deal with all of your emails and there’s nothing there.
As I reported so “interestingly” yesterday, I hadn’t checked my emails properly for yonks, due to dissertation, parenting, work and frankly not getting many that are that important and so not being bothered to check! I kind of feel in the last few years that WhatsApp has replaced email as the best way of having a conversation with people you know through an organisation or social group – it’s quicker, more convenient. However, for certain information, it probably is worth keeping email. One of the things I use email for is to send myself things I want to look at later, or that I see at work but might be relevant to the non-work world. In effect, I use it as a to-do list and so ironically that is why I don’t look at it – who wants to actually get down to doing things?!
So, anyway, last night I did my emails (great Saturday night, eh? Anna was watching some fake Eurovision thing on YouTube, I made the right choice!). There were perhaps one or two emails that I needed to action something, and a large number that were things like planning applications for the ward I am standing to be a councillor in (for some reason, I am just filing these as if I am going to go through them at some point in the future? Strange behaviour!) and articles I had sent to myself while I was researching my dissertation to file (I have in mind that I am not going to have access to the university’s resources soon, so I need to save a lot of journal articles on things that I am interested in and may want to write about!). But, largely, my inbox was full of annoying little things that I didn’t sign up to and I am not interested in. The annoying thing is, that even if you go through and unsubscribe and deal with all the emails, you still have little outstanding bits and bobs which mean you can’t get to inbox zero. Added to that, on Gmail (which I use), you have five different inboxes, so I current have 23 in Primary, 0 in Social, 1 in Promotions, 10 in Updates and 0 in Forums.
Here’s a further categorisation:
> 1 sharing a #MayWriteABit post!
> 1 person in touch to argue with me
> 5 about union stuff
> 1 about accessing work on home computer
> 4 about Green Party campaigning/work
> 1 about RTPI membership
> 1 email chain (5 of them) about a DJ set I did on Twitter for #BristolDJsUnite
> 7 about a potential camping expedition with some friends (may not happen of course)
> 1 is some thoughts about theology I sent to myself
> 1 is a community newsletter
> 2 about the film podcast (sent to myself) I talked about yesterday that I wanted to set up
> 1 is from an ex-colleague at TravelWest explaining how I can get a loan bike (I don’t need it, so I’ve actually just deleted this one)
> 1 is a list of festivals I would go to (not this year obviously, boo hoo) that I sent to myself
> 1 is a link my dad sent me of some of our wedding photos
I don’t really know why I shared all that. Is it interesting? Probably not to you, but it is to me, because all of these little contacts are thoughts for creating a better life. The last item on my list has actually been sitting in my inbox since the 7th January 2018 (sorry Dad!). It was a great day of course, but part of me must feel that I’m not ready to look at it. I must have just ignored it and thought “I can look at these later” but then because of the amount of activity in my inbox, I never got round to looking at it. I’ve just this second clicked on the link, and I notice I have actually already bookmarked this link in my browser, so I don’t need to email. It had been sitting there since 2018!!
Why do we do this? Why do we keep things that are obviously important to us but don’t prioritise acting on them? Is INBOX ZERO actually desirable, or are we better off having a bit of untidiness, a number of loose ends, a feeling of incompleteness within our psyches? Personally, I love the idea of INBOX ZERO because it suggests a few things to me about myself if I manage it. Mostly, it’s that I am competent – I am able to action things when I am made aware of them. This might involve a long-winded discussion over what to put in a leaflet, or it might be something as trivial as a Google Alert for something I am interested in being read, absorbed and filed in my memory banks. Either way, I have dealt with it, it is gone, it is not my responsibility any more. There is a sort of despair behind this though, isn’t there? It’s almost like an addiction or at least addictive behaviour: “if I just do this one thing, I’ll have accomplished everything, I’ll have completed life” – as if we’re playing Sonic The Hedgehog on the Mega Drive in 1995. I remember when we played Lemmings as kids and my oldest sister getting annoyed when I was going through all the levels and asking her how to complete them, she was going “I’m the one who stayed up late at night figuring all this stuff out!” Now, this is probably partly the resentment that comes with being the oldest child and having to be responsible for everything, but I think it rubs off on the youngest child potentially even moreso. Because you’re never the first to be given responsibility, you crave it…
If I read my Enneagram, I figure that I am a Reformer or a ‘One’. This means my Holy Idea is Perfection. My basic desire is goodness, integrity and balance. It’s almost like my email inbox is one way of showing my integrity and balance – that all the bits of voluntary work, scribbled thoughts and ways of building a utopia – are acted on through this arena, even if not immediately (or not, in the case of the wedding photos, a couple of years). It is my way of keeping order. And INBOX ZERO is indeed my Holy Idea of Perfection – if I ever manage it, I will probably not believe it is a perfect moment because I wouldn’t then be able to feel like I was acting with integrity and balance in all things.
Monday 11th May
Health. I have managed to make it 11 days without talking directly about “our current circumstances”. Simon Mayo uses a nice euphemism, he says “what with one thing and another”. Health to me is feeling very good in yourself. Oneness, wholeness, contentment, these kinds of things. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, it is the idea of “shalom”, peace and wholeness. I am fortunate in that I have never really had any serious health concerns. At the moment, my main health concern is underlying tinnitus. I blame the band Mogwai for this (!), I saw them in the Cardiff Students Union in about 2004 and they were extremely loud, but actually it is probably cumulative. Weirdly, I only got persistent tinnitus when I got a horrendous cold when I was in Lyon on our planning course field trip. I remember feeling so shit, and the blocking of the airways has seemingly just persisted since then. I don’t really notice it any more, it’s just a faint background noise.
It’s interesting that I have immediately talked about unwellness and ill-health. The emphasis in public policy has notably shifted in the last several years to an emphasis on preventative, proactive public health initiatives. I did some work when I was working at Swindon Council (1-day a week paid internship) looking at how health & wellbeing policies can be applied to the planning system and it was surprising just how many interventions are possible with a little thought, right down to the design of buildings mitigating the potential for domestic abuse. Because of course the health of society isn’t just based on biological wellness, but also the structures necessary to restrain the effect of violence or abuse of individuals, which massively adds up as a public health cost.
The current crisis has shown us that preventative action in public health is always much much more effective (I am so happy New Zealand exists) and that the way that a government approaches public health in the “good times” clearly has an impact on the ability of a society to adapt. Even regularised occurrences (e.g. the winter flu bug) have shown that the government does not understand the first thing about investment and how the outcomes and preparedness we need are simply not possible with a stripped back state. I would argue that the two real arbiters of improved public health are economic and spatial interventions:
1) If people do not feel they can survive without working, they will either continue to work until their mental health deeply suffers, creating greater burden on health services, or simply remain unemployed and spiral into a more vulnerable position. The Citizen’s Income or Basic Income is a massively important policy. It suggests that everyone deserves a safety net. It’s controversy is that it is paid to everyone, but purely based on economic cost, it would be cheaper to administer than the benefits it would replace. It would also not replace all benefits, as not all benefits are to do with social security but to do with the additional costs of living for certain people (those with children, disabilities, etc.). I believe this would be the number 1 intervention that would change the health of society for the better.
2) Reducing the amount of traffic on urban roads and streets would do wonders for improving air quality through cutting pollution. It is probably a cliche, but air pollution is an invisible killer, with thousands of people in the UK dying each year as a result of the effects of air pollution. But the real reason for this are the proactive benefits. The leading reason people don’t take up cycling is due to the danger on the roads. Providing more space for cyclists and pedestrians enables people to feel confident and comfortable in choosing a different option and further legitimises the closure of specific routes to motor vehicles. This is something I will be an advocate for for as long as the necessary infrastructure is not there and I have breath in my body because it opens up cities to being so much more good to live in for all of our mental health.
Like most people, I drink beer, and I eat pizza and crisps. Diet and lack of exercise is a massive factor in not having good health. At the moment, I am doing the Couch to 5K programme and it really is working for me. Frankly, I am not cutting back on the dietary stuff (I have really been enjoying it!), but I am finding that my cognitive abilities are vastly improved by 20-30 minutes of exercise. The reason I didn’t do it before now is that I can excuse it because I have to cycle the first bit of my commute and that will do (and that my commute is 2 hours a day and there isn’t time for more exercise in my day). I am thankful that I have been able to see how exercise makes me feel well and hopefully, if/when we come out of this pandemic, we will all be able to keep good habits and expand our physical wellness to improve our mental wellness. I think that’s all I have to say on health, at least for now!
P.S. I still like Mogwai.
Tuesday 12th May
So long, Frank Lloyd Wright. Today I wrote comments on a building designed by FLW! I’m pleased that there are great and visionary architectural thinkers, and it does make me think a bit about the kind of home I’d like to have. I haven’t ever religiously watched Grand Designs, but there is definitely appeal to me of observing what can be produced aesthetically and environmentally if money is, seemingly, no object.
I have always enjoyed living in terraced houses because they are compact and cosy. On the other hand, they tend to be poorly insulated and there are not many places to put anything. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it means downsizing possessions in a Marie Kondo style (I am big into Kondo!) but one of my great annoyances in life is trying to find anything in our cupboard under the stairs or as we call it “the cupboard of doom”. There is something about the closure of every object having its place in a household. (It makes me think of Everything In Its Right Place by Radiohead.)
I remember reading about the footballer Michael Owen (I think it was him) buying up an entire row of terraced houses in Chester for his family. I have had a few experiences of community houses and of course sharing private rental housing over the years, and I think what I like best is the feeling that you live on a street with like-minded people, but not a formalised communal living space beyond the street. For me, the decisions of the post-war era around using streets predominantly for storage of private motorised transport was the biggest mistake we ever made for the wellbeing of our communities. It stopped our streets being a commons, a place for our children to play, a place to hang out and chat to neighbours. We are really fortunate that we live on a cul-de-sac of 6 houses, but there are still 2 cars regularly parked in the street. The reason for this is that the streets are so crowded with cars near us that there probably isn’t anywhere else to reliably park.
What is it that makes people so irate about parking problems in their street? I guess it is simply that we have been taught to think that if we return from a long day’s work at 5pm (or thereabouts), we should have the luxury of an easy end to the commute without fuss or delay. I am constantly wondering about the best way to break this ideal of car ownership. I have never owned a car and, if we continue to live in a city, I never want to. I just don’t see why it is necessary when there are so many other ways to get around. When Erin is old enough to be taken to places other than school and left there, most people would assume we would need a car. But I simply do not think that is the case. If I want her to have a full appreciation of the need for better, more prolific sustainable transport options, I should keep her from instituting her own familial taxi service, right? I know this is probably easier said than done, but it comes back to how much we value the planning of journeys and how much we enjoy journeys themselves, not just the destinations they propel us to. Making time for slow travel seems to me a brilliant idea. Yes yes, I get annoyed by having to travel an hour to my work in Clevedon and an hour back, but the alternative of having to concentrate hard for all of that time (by driving) strikes me as so much worse.
Sorry, tangent there – I want to talk about how to break car ownership. I think the key aspect is to come up with simple community-orientated scheme. One idea I had was for something called “2+2”. The idea is that 2 people who don’t own a car (but want regular access to one) are partnered with 2 people who do currently own a car (but don’t use their car on a daily or even weekly basis and want to stop paying so much for insurance and upkeep). In this model, everyone gets access for a week at a time, or a pre-agreed system (i.e. alternating weekend access, and a booking free for all in the week, or weekly access). The flexibility desired can be pre-worked out. The vehicle used would be one that is already owned by someone in the group, and all four users would need to sign a contract saying they had no other access to a car. The drawbacks are that you don’t necessarily know the people you are going in with, which means any arguments that occur are difficult to resolve easily. But for each group, you would be taking one car off the road. Of course, that car would probably be bought and go back into circulation somewhere else, but this isn’t necessarily a problem if that person lives in a rural area with a private driveway (for instance).
Car clubs already exist of course, but their models are based around casual, hourly use at the moment – it is not economically viable for me to drive one out of Bristol to take a weekend away somewhere. The only way this would change is with a vast injection of cash into the number of available vehicles and a massive cash incentive given to people who promise to sell their car and use the car club instead. You are always fighting a tide of apathy when many people have the money to have a piece of metal sit outside their house, and it’s probably already been paid for (i.e. a sunken cost).
I constantly go back to the approach of places like Amsterdam where they progressively removed parking spaces over a number of years. I wonder where all the cars previously parked in central areas of the city then went? Presumably they were just parked in suburban or rural streets or driveways instead? But it happened. It actually happened. So it is possible and we can do it.
How predictable was it that I got distracted from housing into transport?! I just think the connections between places are the key and have such major impacts on quality of life, health and wellbeing and feelings of safety, security and community. We all need a bit more of that in urban areas.
Wednesday 13th May
Oops. Too busy to write on this day!
Thursday 14th May
I missed yesterday’s writing – shock! horror! – because I did a LOT of exercise. This was partly due to us deciding to take an electric car club to Brean Down and have a picnic, a walk with a friend, and also because we wanted to watch a film in the evening (Jupiter Ascending, Eddie Redmayne is hilarious in it, I’m not sure intentionally!). We actually didn’t finish the film (no spoilers!) and this bugs me. I am a big film fan, but weirdly since the lockdown have felt unmotivated to watch so many films. It’s almost like my cinephile habits evaporated when the conventional multiplex world of film came to a spluttering holt. I suppose I could write today about why I love film – hooray!
As you might have gathered, I like structure and order and stats and geekery and lists, but I also like opinions. There is no medium greater for these things than cinema. The structure and order are provided by the release schedule (which I monitor religiously here – even if it’s very sparse at the moment and now includes on-demand releases, which feels wrong!) For stats, there are all kinds of things you can find out on IMDB, not least the YEAR in which a film was made. This might seem obvious, particularly if you are looking up a current film. However, it isn’t when you consider that the majority of “touted” films (i.e. chin-stroking ones with hidden depths) tend to get an outing on the film festival circuit before they are shown on general release in your local multiplex or (more realistically) arthouse cinema. This means you can anticipate films of ALL kinds (not just biggies like Star Wars, etc.) for a long time before they are released based on a few things: director, screenwriter, poster, trailer (if you don’t mind spoilers), stars, hype from those critics who have seen it. This anticipation is simultaneously one of my favourite feelings in the world, but also the most terrible thing as well if the film ends up being less than an 8 out of 10 when you finally see it.
Take a recent example, and probably a lot of people’s last “pre-lockdown cinema trip”. Parasite was just massively, massively hyped if you follow the film release schedule in any way. It was an Oscar contender (and obviously won a lot, including the big prize of Best Picture), so it was being mentioned for months while awards season played out. It was released in UK cinemas in the week of the Oscars, so many people didn’t see it (myself included) before the big night itself. This strikes me as a really bad deal and I do not see why it should be so. It was also a film that was not immediately placed on the multiplex circuit, which meant I actually COULDN’T see it in its week of release – I was busy and all of the nights I COULD make it to the Watershed were sold out. Thankfully, it then got a wider release because of its success, but think of all of these stages of anticipation I went through, not least of which was my wife going to see it at Babycinema before I did! The horror!
Anyway, this is all a roundabout way of saying that films aren’t always released in the year that they are actually given, so Parasite is a 2019 film and there are still films being released into UK cinemas (or streaming services, currently) that are 2018 films. There’s a really great film critic on YouTube who goes under the name YourMovieSucks. When you look at their site, it looks like one of those crappy American movie review sites that is just really annoying, but it’s truly brilliant even if the guy’s voice is annoying. I don’t always agree with him, but you can guarantee he will have watched a really good film you have just seen at some film festival 10 months ago and will give a thoughtful, if irritated analysis. What I particularly like is that he does his best of the year review videos when he has watched all of the films he thinks COULD be good in that year, so for instance his top 10 films of 2007 came out 6 months ago. These are longer videos but they are really worth watching if you want to get some interesting and unknown films under your belt and widen your horizons and perspective from multiplex fodder.
So, what do I like? My home territory is science fiction – it’s difficult for it not to be when I watched the Back to the Future trilogy a million times as a kid and The Matrix came out when I was 15 years old. Of the IMDB-listed genres, I also particularly like documentaries and dramas. I am less keen on horror. It’s not because I haven’t seen a few great horror films (The Blair Witch Project, REC and The Cabin In The Woods are favourites), but because I often find myself laughing at it rather than being scared by it. I also don’t really love conventional comedies because usually the humour is out of step with my own, either through being too-over-the-top or not-over-the-top-enough. I like to watch foreign language films but find myself lost in a sea of content and find it hard to sort the wheat from the chaff in this world. This is never the case with sci-fi – it’s REALLY easy to tell what will be a bad sci-fi movie, not least because the critics will absolutely pan it unlike other genres where if something isn’t very good, it’s still get a 2 out of 5. I think sci-fi, fantasy and horror (the speculative fiction genres) get a bum deal from the film critic world. Because they require a greater suspension of disbelief, it is more difficult for critics not to lambast them. I really like sci-fi dramas, or films like K-PAX or Sound Of My Voice that set themselves up as mysterious and leave the viewer to decide on the claims of their protagonists. Films can leave us all with a sense of wonder and empathy. That’s really why I love them.
Friday 15th May
It’s Friday and so it’s time to crack open a beer and relax a bit. I am really struggling to maintain my motivation to write at the moment when there are other things to do in non-work time, but the discipline of it is good for me. So I thought this one could just be a list of my favourite beers that I take the whole half-hour to write. I have deliberately chosen not to include ales, bitters and stouts (and obviously not ciders or any other alcoholic beverage). This is purely a list of lagers and pilsners, which is generally what I drink because I like the taste more – shoot me! I have only chosen beers that appear on YouGov’s most popular 100 beers list here. So without further ado, here’s the list in ascending order…
MY TOP 25
25. Carling – piss
24. Stella Artois – almost piss
23. Foster’s – Australian piss
22. Coors Light – American piss, but I have some loyalty as it’s
21. Budweiser – “king of beers” my arse, maybe those that taste like water
20. Bud Light – drank it in the Isles of Scilly so I have a weird soft spot for it
19. Oranjeboom – we used to get this from the cornershop when I was a student because it was cheap as chips, there’s a reason for that
18. Carlsberg – defines “beer mediocrity”
17. Grolsch – ditto
16. Sol – meh, drink it in the sun, it’s alright
15. Tuborg – main memory is serving it to thousands of punters when we did Workers Beer at Glastonbury, pretty anonymous though
14. Corona – I feel sorry for it, probably higher placing because they are flogging it for cheap now so I am happy with drinking it for that reason
13. Peroni – my mother-in-law loves it and it does make me feel suave and sophisticated
12. Amstel – jumped numerous places in this list because of THAT Jeff Bridges ad, so I’m superficial, sue me!
11. Beck’s – marketed well on the German Purity Law thing, can’t shake the nagging sensation that it’s overrated (even in this list)
10. Red Stripe – BRISTOL! ST PAUL’S CARNIVAL! Otherwise, nothing special
9. Heineken – Dutch and likable
8. Kronenbourg 1664 – Eric Cantona and just a slight edge over many competitors
7. San Miguel – this is the SECOND most popular beer in the UK after Guinness, but can anyone explain why? For me, it’s just vague associations with Spain and nice can design…or something
6. Tiger Beer – associated with curries out, which jumps it numerous places up the list I’m sure
5. Asahi – a rare treat, very dry, very nice
4. Duvel – this is a Belgian beer that we drank a bit in Belgium (Antwerp and Brussels) so it has fond associations for me, quite surprised it makes the top 100
3. Birra Moretti – they do this on draft in the Greenbank and it makes me feel Meditteranean
2. Estrella Damm – they do this on draft in the Greenbank and it makes me feel Catalonian
1. Pilsner Urquell – they do this on draft in the Watershed and they pour it in one of those wonderful thin tankard sleeves and it tastes wonderful while watching a pretentious film, this is the beer experience I miss the most
Timothy Taylor and Samuel Smith’s – both dirt cheap lagers when you buy them in pubs, fond associations with Sinclair’s Oyster Bar in Manchester and of course the Llandoger Trow/Old Naval Volunteer in King Street, Bristol
Not on the list, but personal favourites
Offshore – this is a Sharp’s brewery pilsner/lager that they have on draught in the Turk’s Head, my favourite pub in the UK (and also the most southerly pub!)
Kirin Ichiban – they serve this on draft in the Greenbank and it is lovely and dry and drinkable and I miss it!
Not sure they’re lagers?
Leffe – drinking this right now! But it says it is a blonde beer, I’ve never learned what counts and what doesn’t
Staropramen – more of a wheat beer? Unsure
Never tried/can’t remember trying
Saturday 16th May
I am officially bored with writing every day. Let me put my finger on why. I have covered a number of topics but none in any great detail so I can’t point at any one of my pieces and be particularly proud of them. They are not journal articles that are referenced, well-considered and watertight, so they lack a bit of pride in that regard. It’s also because the pieces are not going towards one strand of thinking, on one subject, so there’s no target audience, so I am less inclined to keep wanting to write them as they are largely just to myself. I need things to feel like they have a point, and I’m unclear as to what mine is now, beyond the writing itself. It is also just a bit unnatural to write every day, you should write more on one day out of every 4, say, than write a tiny bit on every day. People say that a tiny bit a day is good practice, but I think that’s rubbish. I have always been a sprinter not a marathon runner. I remember when I hit puberty and got much worse at sport because I lost any semblance of stamina and just wanted to sprint everywhere but couldn’t more than about twice without getting knackered. So I think I am generally a “purple patch” writer – I will have phases of intense activity and then not do anything for ages.
So, yeah, I really just want to give up this project. I am really good at starting things, but terrible at finishing them. The determination just drains away from me when I realise that I am only doing something for myself, and no one really cares either way if I complete it. It must be so good to be a novelist who has written one or two best-sellers because you know you have a captive audience that you are writing for and who expect you produce something. I think I would thrive on this kind of pressure, but I can’t see a circumstance where it would be possible to build that kind of anticipation for my writing in a wider audience, it’s really hard to attract an online following and particularly if you don’t have the backing of a media outlet or academic body.
The one recent example where I persevered with something beyond the point where I internally wanted to was in learning to drive. I needed to fail on my first driving test to get better. Fortunately, on the second test it was so obviously one thing that I was (quite harshly) ajudged to have done wrong that I left it feeling confident that I would be able to pass the third time. After a false start on the third test (I thought I’d booked it for a specific date but evidently hadn’t!), I felt more comfortable and didn’t get any major faults. There was no question that I needed to persevere for family reasons, and that was the main force influencing me. With writing, it’s an additional extra that I don’t need to survive or take on as a responsibility because I have a steady job and career path. The phrase “starving artist” is supposedly apt because if you force yourself to live vulnerably, it makes you work at the thing you really want to do, at least in theory. I actually found that when I tried to do that (this was when I first moved to Bristol and didn’t have a job) it didn’t work at all because I hadn’t had enough life experience to write about anything meaningful to any level of depth, nor the first understanding of how disciplined you have to be if you want to produce results on a regular basis. It’s so easy to say to yourself “if it wasn’t for this and that and this, I’d be able to write so much more” when the reality is that without it being a paid profession, you would probably still struggle for motivation. There’s a quote about this from a song called An Episode Of Sparrows by The Paperbacks
“Thoughts scrawled on discarded receipts on the backs of cash-handling procedure sheets on unpaid breaks in highlighter pen but then the senses overload, a fog rolls in…and then arriving home so tired tonight that I don’t think that I’ll bother to write, but the crest of ideas neglected like this will find expression in dreams, dense dreams…”
I feel like when you’re working dead-end retail jobs is when you have the best shot at getting your writing act together (those “scrawled thoughts” mentioned above), but this quote is a warning that you will be too tired to functionally do it. This is what I worry about with my own writing exploits, that work, parenthood, relationships and other commitments will always be the thing that stops me from plunging into a major writing project. The problem is, you don’t know how good you might be until you make a major commitment to it, and you also don’t know if you’ve “left it too late”. I could carve out a chunk of time (2-3 hours?) each weekend – if Anna is OK with that, of course! – and do that for 6 months but will it produce anything tangible or worthwhile? It’s hard to say.
So this has become a much more personal reflection than I perhaps intended, but does seem to begin to articulate my frustration at wanting more hours in the day to do all of the things that I want to do. I am going down to 3 days a week soon at work, but this is to take on more caring responsibilities (I am really pleased to be able to do this!) not to make space for other/new projects. Erin will obviously get more and more articulate and so I am greatly looking forward to it, but it also makes it less realistic that I will be able to use much more time to do some of my ideas for blogs/projects. I guess it is just important to keep my ideas at the surface and in some semblance of order so I can dip into them whenever I get a sliver of time of an evening or weekend. I still have 3 minutes left of today’s writing, and so I will use it to think again about what I really want to do with these slivers of time. Writing is thinking, remember.
Sunday 17th May
On this day, I decided to change to a writing project (utopian cities thing) rather than put up my entries up here. So, half an hour of writing to sort that out!