Subterranean

July 12th, 2018

Whilst the nation has been obsessed with leaving the EU, an issue of such importance that for forty years it was viewed with indifference or irrelevance by all, apart from a tiny group of zealots, who might more usefully have been employed, like King Canute, railing against the waves crashing against the coastline of these Sceptred Isles, things have been happening, bad things, most of which have hardly been touched upon, let alone analysed, assessed or dealt with.

I studied social science at London University, sadly, it is rare for professors or lecturers to pop their intellects above the academic parapet to try to explain the structural changes taking place in society; life and death things, such as austerity-driven, crushing poverty, the breakdown of law and order in some urban areas and the establishment of a drug-fuelled, gang-ridden group of outcasts, unconcerned and unaffected by the hike in business rates or collapse of the High Street, inveigling their wares into a captive audience of young people, dragging them towards a crime-infested, violent future on the edges of society. That, and, of course, the catastrophic fire at Grenfell, are rather more important than Brexit, you’d have thought?

Three distinct groupings now exist, without a political philosophy, at least not one that needs a Chief Whip to enforce, part of a dystopian, existential dynamic that has burrowed into the nerve-ends of communities, whilst Downing Street has rolled its’ eyes, shrugged its’ collective shoulder and tried to control its’ wayward ragbag of ambitious and frequently resigning ministers; the thought of Nero fiddling, comes to mind. No major attempt has been made to deal with the housing crisis or homelessness – despite it being central to the crisis in society. How many Housing Ministers have we had since 2010? Is it six or seven? Don’t ask anyone in a pub quiz to name them, I doubt whether Theresa May could.

Amongst the various sub-cultures in loose-knit cabals are druggies and their suppliers and dealers, then there is the underclass, sadly, often dependent on benefits, stigmatised and stereotyped, lacking opportunities for social or economic advancement or educational attainment, deeply affected by cynicism, alienation and peer group pressure, but now, nowhere near to inhabiting the bottom strata of society. Thanks to Labour’s huge investment in schools, there has actually been some worthwhile progress, although it has been  stymied by cuts and the Government’s fanatical obsession with free schools.

Now, we have a subterranean class, often living on the streets, frequently beset by mental illhealth, vulnerability, homelessness and stress. They were not there during the Blair/Brown years, they’re a product of austerity, indifference and the incompetence of Tory-dominated administrations since 2010. Or in some cases, the very drugs being marketed and distributed by dealers and their cohorts, who live, of their own volition, beyond the fringes of social control, with their own group dynamic, codes of conduct and malign influences.

Those in the subterranean class are not to blame, they’re not responsible for being in the gutter, they were pushed there and sadly, will remain there until major changes are made, mental health services are properly funded, outreach projects include safe, viable housing and those who see them as an irritant, start accepting them as a communal responsibility.

Ironically, this didn’t happen during the Thatcher years, when it was alleged there was no such thing as society; it’s happened during the Cameron and May years, they’ve pushed those at the bottom off the edge, outside the social mores and societal norms of the rest of us. They can’t stay there because there is such a thing as society and they are part of it.

They are part of us.


Freedom of religious practice….respecting the rights of others

June 27th, 2018

I once gave a talk on ‘the permissive society’ at a Day Centre for the elderly, having completed my unusually erudite and intermittently witty spiel,  I was at a total loss to respond to a woman who – without a hint of irony – complained about permissiveness on television: ‘I think it’s terrible,’ she said ‘the way young girls have sex stuffed down their throats!’

With the polarisation of society, it might have been more apt if she’d expressed concern about religion being stuffed down throats. Of course, that was not the topic, but it might have been – and there is a connection to permissiveness – or more properly, greater openness and tolerance in society. There has been a backlash from some with strong religious views – and others who have suddenly developed such views.

Whether this entails wearing a burka or niquab, a sheitel or headscarf, there has been greater polarisation between those with strong religious beliefs – and those without. Sometimes, I feel religion is used as a crutch to seduce the vulnerable and those at a low ebb; in the 1970’s in the USA I saw young people befriended on the streets of New York by followers of Sun Myung Moon and Scientologists, later, at a ‘Christ is the Answer’ presentation in a huge marquee in Washington DC, we were emotionally blackmailed by adherents, who asked us to stand up and give ourselves to Christ, whilst dramatic music was played over loudspeakers, anyone not standing at the end was made to feel like the devil incarnate.

Recent problems in the UK relate to Ofsted inspections of Muslim and Orthodox Jewish schools, where inspectors complained of historical texts being redacted and a failure to include in lessons details of gay and transsexual lives. Concerns were also expressed about safeguarding issues. Secular inspectors versus religious schools, an inevitable recipe for conflict. As with all things, common sense should prevail, schools should be allowed to follow their religious beliefs whilst ensuring pupils are safe and receive an excellent general education, with sensitive issues taught in a sensitive way.

A clearer example of religious intolerance arose recently, an El Al plane was delayed for an hour when two Orthodox Jewish men refused to sit next to women. Maybe they needed a lesson in the overriding requirement for mutual respect and good manners.

Many religious communities and groupings reject the liberal values of the West; yet they enjoy the lifestyle, healthcare, ability to travel and comforts of 21st Century living.

We must protect religious freedom and the right to worship – but we also have a duty to regulate society in order for all groups and individuals to live freely, as long as they obey the law and respect the rights of others. Freedom of religious practice should not be at the expense of others, it should be a role model for a pious, respectful life, not a recipe for conflict with non-believers.

The great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob made a unique contribution to civilisation – the 10 Commandments, received by Moses – still form the backbone of the Judeo-Christian hegemony of Western society. But, let’s be honest, if any of those great prophets were able to return and see our world, they would have a great deal more to learn from us, than we, from them. That’s not to denigrate the vast contribution made by them – just imagine the very first thing that Moses would google: The Exodus? A hundred tasty recipes for manner from Heaven? Maybe, he would get hooked on Facebook or other social media, one of the things that binds us with our forebears is communication.

Religion is a roadmap that can point us in the direction of happiness and fulfilment, but reaching the destination is the objective, not obsessing with the way to get there.

Those unduly concerned with the minutiae of religious dogma, may smell the sweet aroma of what’s cooking, but are unlikely to actually get to taste it.


Michael Desmond

June 14th, 2018

This is the verbal equivalent of a quick selfie; in a society where fame feeds on itself – and not necessarily talent – it’s sometimes useful to be anonymous. But we need to stand up to be counted, where necessary, which, quite frankly, is most of the time.

I live in Clapton, North East London, represent Hackney Downs on Hackney Council and was Labour candidate for Faversham and Mid Kent in 2015 and 2017.

I’m not a fan of Brexit and put together Society Syndrome’s little anti-Brexit ditty ‘Little Englanders’, which can be found on You Tube. My general views are left of centre, but fairly moderate – apart from when it comes to Arsenal supporters – but we won’t go into that, we can be a little tribal in North London. I believe in the greatest good for the greatest many, as long as it is not at the expense of the few.

In any pluralistic democracy, everyone should seek to play a part, each grain of sand, together, comprises a beach.

Feel free to join us in building a useful sandcastle, seeking to protect the vulnerable and creating a more peaceful, tolerant society. Each year, we arrange a Have Your Say event for 16-19 year olds, whatever your age, if you want to help us achieve our goals, please contact me.

Donald Trump need not apply.

 


Averting the Brexit Disaster – A People’s Referendum when Terms of Departure are Known

June 10th, 2018

Brexit, if it happens, will be a disaster – the only question is just how much of a disaster. The siren voices of the Bank of England, every living ex-Prime Minister, “experts” and the vast majority of MP’s have been forgotten, dubbed fearmongers, or worse.

The process of extrication with its’ inexplicable twists and turns has been less of a rollercoaster, more a downward spiral – pity the farmers of Kent trying to bring in their harvest of strawberries with no Bulgarian pickers to help them, or their long-suffering neighbours towards Dover, who may face congestion caused by trading restraints and problems collecting duties, the likes of which they’ve never experienced before – a recurring nightmare which should, at least, keep psycho-analysts in business for a while.

The biggest problem will not be shortages of doctors and nurses for the NHS, we can recruit them from outside the EU, which might not please every former UKIP voter with an ingrown toenail; the major risk is not even the border in Ireland – it’s quite possible a fudged solution can be found  – though to risk the Good Friday Agreement in any way is so irrational, future historians will have to grapple with it, should any universities have the funds to employ them. The biggest risk is to the economy; it could, literally, collapse. We have an enormous national debt and public sector borrowing requirement, our economic insulation is about as good as a tarpaulin during a hurricane.

I estimate there’s a 30% chance of catastrophe – house prices in London and the South East collapsing by about 50%, parity between the pound and dollar, food prices doubling, car manufacturers moving to more fertile shores and interest rates rocketing. Of course, that is the worst-case scenario, but what major company fails to carry out a risk assessment, before taking the risk? The best-case scenario would be if our invisible earnings hold up, tourism flourishes, or we find a niche market as an offshore tax haven, something that’s anathema to most of us, but could appeal to a few Russian oligarchs.

When the referendum was held in 2016, there was little talk of the customs union, European Free Trade Association, even the Irish border was hardly mentioned; all we saw was that famous battle bus with its’ promise of a huge NHS dividend if we left, like going into a restaurant without looking at the menu, we then discovered as we sat down, there was nothing palatable, in fact, the menu was blank and hadn’t even been written.

We all have a much better idea now, we understand some of the options more clearly. The vitriolic anti-immigrant vote has crumbled, UKIP has been through so many new leaders, they’re starting to advertise the position at the local Job Centre as a regular vacancy. Sadly, those being made redundant by the swathe of high street redundancies as numerous retailers go bust, may not think it’s much of a job.

Moderate Tories who supported Remain must show some backbone, standing up to their whips office, making clear their concerns,  rather than quibbling over trifles. Donald Trump is hardly angling for custom from us should we leave, rather, he’s put up barriers and promoted protectionism. So much for our great hope of more world trade outside the EU. When circumstances change, politicians should take note and learn from them, rather than burying their heads in the sand.

Once the terms of our potential departure are known, we need a People’s Referendum to make a final decision, let those who were too young to vote before, but whose lives will be more affected than anyone’s, have their say, even those 16 plus should have a vote – they did in the Scottish Referendum.

Its not too late to make our voices known, now we have an idea of the song we’re singing, nothing in a democracy is set in stone – apart from the perceptions of those Little Englanders David Cameron kowtowed to, that got us in this mess in the first place.

Surely, with apologies to Laurel and Hardy, it’s one fine mess we need a chance to get out of: the clock is ticking; we need another vote soon.


We Must Reduce Knife Crime and the Carnage It Causes…

June 5th, 2018

I was recently asked by Anti-knife UK to speak at their demonstration outside Downing Street; meeting relatives of victims, seeing the training shoes of some laid out in front, made a profound impact on me – and all of the others attending. We cannot allow hatred, violence, bitterness and revenge to tear us apart: here are the main points from my speech:

SPEECH ON KNIFE CRIME, OUTSIDE DOWNING STREET, SUNDAY, 3rd JUNE 2018

  • The Nightingale Estate, Clapton which I represent on Hackney Council recently experienced a terrible incident; a gang of youths fighting with knives and machetes, one was so seriously injured, he stumbled into a doctor’s practice adjacent, dripping blood, which understandably frightened the staff and other patients.
  • Such scenes have become almost common place this year, gang fights, tit for tat reprisal stabbings, drug dealers’ feuds, issues of “respect” – or just, for some, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • In April, the murder rate in London overtook New York! That’s one record we do not want to hold.
  • We held a meeting on the estate where there’d been the gang fight and stabbing, some parents said their children were too frightened to go out to play, the GP surgery dealt with the injured boy, but there was blood all over the place – on the floor, on the counter. What a sight for waiting patients to see!
  • There are answers to the current problems, we don’t need to wring our hands and put up with this.

Firstly:  Theresa May must reverse the police cuts she made as Home Secretary. In 2010 she agreed to Treasury demands to reduce the police budget by 18%; police numbers fell from 144,353 in 2009 to 122,859 in 2016. That is not acceptable. The first duty of government is to defend and protect its citizens.

Secondly, we must take a stronger line on drill music and incitement to violence. Inevitably, as young people’s attention span reduces, catchy, sassy lyrics with jokes about revenge and stabbing can get their attention. They are sick and evil. They need to be stopped.

Thirdly, Councils have hundreds of civil enforcement officers who issue millions of parking tickets – around 3.5 million a year in London alone. The Community Protection Scheme incorporated in the Police Reform ACT 2002 enables them to deal with a range of environmental offences – they should work with the police and protect the community. It’s appalling that the millions earned by Councils punishing motorists for parking on a yellow line or outstaying a permit are prioritised over the safety and needs of the community. Public safety must come first.

  • There is insufficient research into the causes by academic institutions – although I agree with a professor from Birmingham University who reflected that Benjamin Franklyn’s axiom: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” should be a guiding principle of 21st Century crime policy.
  • We need to look at all related issues – group dynamics, parental control – and, yes, punishments: I saw a gang of youths jogging down the street last month having – presumably – been looking for someone they wanted to attack, apparently holding weapons, nonchalantly getting into their cars and driving away, when they couldn’t find him.
  • Let those who use knives fear the consequences. But let them also understand and perceive the implications: mothers losing sons, sisters losing brothers, a knife is a personal form of weapon, a gun – however bad – is a mechanism which can be used to kill. To stab someone, is a horrendous act which shows a contempt for life and humanity – not just the victim’s; their family, YOUR family and society.
  • Those here today who’s families have suffered bereavements or who have children who’ve been seriously injured know the pain. We must counteract hatred by instilling values of decency, respect – and also the notion of proportionality.
  • It’s fine to argue with someone, not to stab, maim or kill them. Life is precious.
  • We need to encourage all communities to take responsibility for their young people – but equally – for young people to take responsibility for their own actions.
  • They do know the difference between right and wrong. Let’s stop all the hatred, violence and bitterness and move towards a more peaceful, civilised society

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Art of Conversation

June 28th, 2017

What do you talk about? Work, the weather, love, sex, tv, music? Do you enjoy juicy gossip about celebrities or friends? How much do you even remember of what people say to you – or you say to them?

It’s alleged that women use 20,000 words a day, men 7,000. How many in a lifetime? Apparently in the region of 869.3 million. Which is quite a lot.

With the onset of social media, the art of conversation has taken a downward turn, often as not, you’ll type a meaningless platitude to a mate, rather than stimulate or interest a new friend at the bus stop of life. I spoke to an architect on the tube the other day – quite nonchalantly, really, which led to a further friendly conversation with an elegant French woman. The architect probably designed elegant buildings, mind.

It was unfortunate I had to get off before the conversation really took hold, but it was pleasurable saying interesting things to interesting people. About politics, recent tragedies, Brexit – in three minutes, several columns of a decent Sunday newspaper could have been filled, not only was I interested in what they had to say, they were equally keen to hear from me.

In our throwaway society, conversation has become disposable, but it shouldn’t be: it should rest within our conscientiousness, halfway between lust and hunger, a combination of intrigue, inquisitiveness and nosiness. I normally don’t have the faintest idea who anyone is on the underground or overground, a scintilla of info is inordinately satisfying. Not for any particular reason, other than this:

Many of the millions of words we utter are spurious, repetitive, forgotten, almost from the point they spring from our lips; but if you strike up a dialogue with someone you don’t know about something you’re thinking about, you are far more likely to feel the burr walnut warmth of a social glow, rather than the staccato plastic of vacuous waffle.

Try telling your partner or a close friend something different from the norm, they’ll wonder what pub you’ve come from.

We need to reinvent and re-energize the art of conversation; as social animals, if we continue typing into our smartphones ad infinitum – as I am now – our evolutionary direction will be towards platitudinous rhetoric, as incongruous as a wet biscuit dunked in a hot drink, and as soggy as the outcome.


Lambs to the Slaughter?

May 21st, 2017

The history of the world, according to Marx, is a history of struggle; you could well argue, the history of wit is one of images – particularly pithy, provocative images in historic tomes like Punch which have contributed to the gaiety of the nation for centuries. George Osborne’s first act as editor of the London Evening Standard was to appoint a new political cartoonist.

Cartoon’s lampoon arrogance, deflate pomposity and (hopefully) reflect an amusing angle on an issue or situation. We were going to use one to reflect my opinion of Brexit – unfortunately, it was considered inappropriate to use during the election and banned.

Fair enough. There has to be sensitivity – maybe, it will be saved for the Brexit negotiations. As things stand, I think the cartoon reflects a perception of where Hard-Brexit Tories are leading us. This is not an election blog. If you are fainthearted, pretend it’s an episode of Dr Who and hide behind the sofa – or look through your fingers at the image attached.

It’s only a cartoon. Any connection with living people or sheep is purely coincidental. Or as Stephen Fry used to say in some episodes of Black Adder: Baaaah!

Here’s the link:   lambs

Postscript

Following the appalling terrorist outrage in Manchester, it’s very fortunate this cartoon wasn’t used. Not because it has any connection; but at a time of national mourning, additional sensitivity is required.


Prepare for a Bumpy Ride

April 4th, 2017

How many people claim: ‘I don’t need this’ or ‘I could do without that’ when things go wrong? They don’t like hassle, aggravation or stress; nor do I. But sometimes a ‘quiet life’ becomes a euphemism for an unfulfilled, unrequited life.

I recently met a Mediterranean taxi driver (on the coast, not in the Sea), who asked us to fasten our backseat belts (unusual), drove carefully (unique) and treated us to his philosophy of life (traditional amongst cabbies worldwide): essentially, he wanted a quiet life, worked for himself whichever hours he chose, chilled out when he wanted, avoided the rat race. Unfortunately, he’d just had a fierce argument with some French passengers about a small proportion of his last fare, which had flustered him. He was so pleased to pick up an Englishman, who valued fair play (and fare pay!), was under the jurisdiction of the Mother of Parliament’s and knew the rules of cricket.

‘The U.K.,’ he said ‘left a good impression on its former colonies – a well-run civil service, proper schools, decent postal service: the French left chaos in theirs…’ (see how an argument over a fare can affect historical analysis?).

It might be true – or partially true – but public services in the UK are now under-valued and threadbare. Participants in our Mother of Parliaments fiddled their expenses, the Royal Mail charges a king’s ransom for a first class stamp.

I thought about what he’d said as I paid him. Yes a quiet life, everything going smoothly, an easy ride, benefits blood pressure and possibly life expectancy. But we sometimes need a little adventurous excitement, adrenaline-hits or challenges, initiatives that can succeed or fail, risk-taking with a view to bettering ourselves.

Yes, drive carefully and put on your seatbelt. But don’t complain if there’s a bumpy ride ahead. It’s what life brings. Just hope your personal suspension – family, health, finances and friends – eases the way.


Why cats don’t worry about the Meaning of Life

March 15th, 2017

The huge gulf between the cognisant, social and intellectual skills of homo sapiens and other species leads some – including me – to suppose there to be a Grand Spiritual entity who provided the r & d, cells, dna, water and other materials that enable us to exist, then (fortunately) left us, pretty-well to our own devices, enabling free thought, action and (if you’re a Catholic) guilt.

Whilst there is an enormous gulf between us and the most intelligent of other species – apes, dolphins, UKIP voters (I jest) – there is also a massive gap between, say, ants and cats. The former can work as a team, have instincts and skills, can lift up to 100 times their body weight and achieve communal goals; the latter purr.

Cats are social, react to changes in weather conditions, relate to each other sexually – if, occasionally, in a less than PC way – and communicate their feelings quite forcefully, hunger with a miaow, irritation by a scratch. They do not necessarily worship a celestial being, wonder how they got here or what their purpose is, nor laud their superiority over other less intelligent animals. We do.

Is the intellectual gulf between ants and cats any less than the gap between men and apes? A cat can’t do more than its brain enables it to – although brain size is not the main determinant of capacity or skill, most animals have around three times the behavioural skills of insects, despite their brains being hundreds of times bigger. According to Scientific American magazine, a cat’s brain has a thousand times more data storage capacity than an iPad and reacts more quickly.

It has always been a deep-seated desire to explore boundaries, find out where we are in the universe as well as who and what we are. Ultimately, as innovation and scientific progress transform daily living, work and social practices in the developed world, it is essential that less rich countries are not sidelined or left behind. As we move onwards, progress must benefit every corner of the planet, if it does not, hatred, bitterness and other base instincts will attack our culture creating conflict, chaos and fear.

We can actually learn from ants – working together for the common good, a weight on our shoulders, maybe, but one well worth carrying. As for cats: maybe there are times they wonder where they’re going, more often than not, towards the next meal. We worry too much about the inconsequential, most of us are well fed; it’s about time we directed our thoughts and actions to those who are still starving in the 21st Century, whichever corner of the globe they inhabit.


Would YOU want a special relationship with Donald Trump?

January 30th, 2017

Over a million people petition Parliament objecting to the new, accident-prone, US President being rewarded with a State visit to the UK. Does the Queen really want to entertain him? True, she’s put up with a variety of questionable characters in the past, ranging from Nicolae Ceausescu and Saudi potentates to a Chinese Communist leader with a slightly different idea of human rights to our own.

But America – Leader of the Free World – has been hijacked by a man who does not see humanity as we do, who believes in “America first” when we live in a world that should come first. In ceremonies for new immigrants in the UK, I’ve talked about the importance of family, community and country; not just country. Global warming has no borders, nor does respect for victims of war, abuse or injustice. Refugees are not pawns to be traded as part of a businessman’s powerplay, they are the desperate result of fanaticism, hatred, callousness and intolerance.

Britain has a proud tradition of accepting refugees, asylum seekers and victims of persecution, we have Nobel laureates who came from that background, people of integrity, substance, intellect and erudition. Unlike a US President, willing to turn his coiffured head away from them. Being a businessman may involve doing deals, but you cannot deal with a nation’s conscience by overriding it’s tradition of tolerance and justice.

John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, captured the pain, anguish and suffering of farm-workers migrating to California from other US states, dubbed as “Okies” (ie from Oklahoma), by intolerant Californians, starving in migrant camps, lucky to earn a dollar a day picking peaches or cotton. Prejudice knows no bounds between countries, continents – or even within a country. Has Donald Trump read that great book? Maybe, I’ll send it to him as a gift, possibly delivered through Amazon, by a migrant employee.

Theresa May wants a special relationship with someone to replace our valuable one with the EU. It would be better to have another referendum than shake hands with a man for whom decency seems forgotten and tolerance a form of weakness. What is the world coming to when a xenophobic Trump/Farage axis is able to make such headway? As Edmund Burke famously said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Nuff said, Donald?