Monthly Archives: August 2011

That’s just plain wrong…

In another life, I spent 2 years studying a pretentiously-named Masters course called ‘Process Consultancy’. It’s the art of consultancy. Being a consultant is a shit job. It’s the worst thing of all. You’re essentially there – an outsider – to tell them what they’re doing wrong. You might see 99.9% good things, but all they want to know is what’s wrong. No. Their bosses want to know what’s wrong. More often than not, they already know what’s wrong and the bosses want YOU to tell the people on the shop floor. The only good thing about it is that you can tell them and run away.

A life before that, a useless woman told me I was a ‘systems’ person. By this, she was insulting me and saying I was good with paperwork and computers and maths and finance, and not people. She meant she was a people person and I wasn’t. She was wrong. I can be a people person, but I believe work is work and I have no time for philosophy and moaning about it or being a dog in a manger or complaining or whingeing or unions. I believe in doing what I’m paid to do and doing it in the best way I know how.

I got better at being a people person. I learned all about shadow sides and blocks to improvement and emotional intelligence and hierarchies and all the reasons people have for NOT changing.

The best activity I did as a consultant was ask people to pair up. People hate interactive training, so I was onto a losing trend. I asked them to spend a minute looking at each other. They felt deeply uncomfortable. But this is what consultancy or appraisal or assessment is. And it’s not just a minute.

Then I asked them to turn their back on their partner and change five things about their appearance. They had a minute.

What you learn is that people take stuff off first. Off come glasses or shoes, ties or watches. You ask people to change, and what they do first are superficial and obvious things. Some people find it really hard. Some people enjoy it. Most people don’t know where to start and some people refuse to take part because they think it is a game and games are pointless. They couldn’t possibly learn anything from a game!

Then they have to turn around and spend a minute identifying the changes their partner has made. And I never tell them what’s coming next.

Most people, once their minute is up, change right back. They put their glasses back on, they put their tie back on. They roll their sleeves down. In other words, they just go straight back to where they were. That’s what happens in most companies.

“Change!” they say.

And employees do it.

And then when it’s all over, they go back to how they were.

Then I ask them to turn their backs and make five more changes.

Some people find this utterly impossible. Beyond rolling up trousers, taking off a shoe, taking a tie off, putting their glasses on their heads and pushing up a sleeve, they don’t know what to do.

It goes two ways. An innovator will start to pick things up. They’ll pick up a file or a book, or a handbag or put on a cardigan or jacket. And then others will copy them.

Then you turn round and notice the changes. Life is like that. Someone innovates and very quickly, everyone copies. And, at this point, people start doing things like taking new stuff on. The people who thought it was a rubbish game are a bit more excited because someone fun like Ms. Claire or Ms. Liz, my dear more-facebook-than-real friends, will have been the ones to have stuck a post-it on their head or picked up a chair and used it as a hat. Innovation and change can be fun, you see! It’s liberating. It’s freeing. It gives you permission to go a bit mental and think outside the box.

Finally, the third time you do it, everyone is innovative. Everyone is into it. No-one is embarrassed. People copy. People innovate of their own spontaneity.

This one game taught me a lot about change. Like there’s some stuff people just won’t change. Some people take off wedding rings or ties, but to others, that’s too much. I never saw anyone get naked. Social boundaries, personal beliefs and your own morals stop you doing some things.

But to change, we need a reason. Nobody really changes because they want to at work. They might evolve a bit. They might change or evolve at home. Girls say ‘I fancied a change’ and come home with bright red hair. We tend to evolve kind of slowly. We grow. Some of us, anyway.

Some people don’t. These are the people who like the status quo. Not Status Quo. That’s different, though kind of the same. They haven’t changed much either. Some people like things the same. They don’t want new phones or ipods or touch screens or job evolution. They like the security of knowing things are the same. They don’t even want to grow or evolve.

But few of us want to change because we think we could be better. It usually takes being told. And this usually involves a boss, because if a colleague says it, you’re just going to ignore it. Or it involves a consultant, who is essentially a mouthpiece for the stuff your boss would love to say but won’t or can’t.

And there’s a reason for this. Feedback is HARD.

Some people focus on the one negative and turn it into a crisis.

Some people ignore a really big negative and ignore your views.

Nobody, but nobody likes getting feedback unless it is feedback that says: “You’re fabulous. You’re wonderful. That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.”

But most people aren’t at the top of their game. Even £30,000,000 footballers need to get feedback.

Most people give feedback like Alex Ferguson is alleged to. They point out all the faults. They have no sense of how to do it in a way that makes people want to change or develop. They call Alex Ferguson ‘the hairdryer’ because his feedback is so virulent in face of failure. People call Simon Cowell for his feedback style, and yet he’s usually pretty fair. Sometimes, he gets his own personal issues into it, about Louis Walsh – and then it’s not so good. The trouble is, unless you say everything’s wonderful, people boo you and you upset the target of your feedback, when all you really want is to help them improve.

I’ve seen it myself. Most people – most managers, most people who have to tell you how to do a thing better – are absolutely and utterly useless at giving feedback. Often, they tell you stuff that’s actually their own fault, like you didn’t do it how they wanted it. This means they haven’t communicated with you properly – and yet it becomes your fault – as if you’re a mind-reader.

And my thoughts on the best feedback?

Say nothing. Let them talk. They’ll mostly tell you everything they did wrong and more. You can soften this by getting them to be a bit gentle on themselves. And your job is to get them to focus on the big changes that would make the most difference, and help them realise their evolution. Usually, they’ll tell you exactly what the problem is with their own work – and they might even tell you why those problems exist. You can start with:

“Well, you need to do this…” and put them into defensive mode or on the attack. Mostly they’ll hate you and never do it.

Or you can go with:

“So how did that feel?!” and they’ll spill on everything that wasn’t so good.

And the key question?

“So what would make the biggest difference?”

Sometimes, you aren’t going to like what they’re going to say. They might need more time, or three clones, or a slave, or more money, or a better computer – but the one thing that’s always true? The thing that would make the biggest difference is THEM, and if you allow people to, they’ll make the changes and the biggest differences themselves. This is why I’m not just a systems person.

Sometimes, though (and if you know about personality theory, that’s your X theory that people are essentially benign and good) they just need a gigantic kick up the arse because they’re lazy, bone-idle and the hand-holding does not a stitch of good because they’ve just not valued what they were doing. THEN they need the hairdryer.

I can do the ‘so what would make the biggest difference?’

but my favourite is when I have to say: “But essentially, you’re stealing a living.” I usually couch this with “I’m not being funny but…”

Sometimes, I add: “If you don’t have your whole heart in this, or your whole game, you’re cheating people. You’re affecting people’s lives. If you don’t do this right, they’ll suffer. I can’t live with that, even if you can.”

I wish all people were X people and you could just give them a little time for thought and they’ll tell you what’ll make the differences. But I like it when they’re Y people and I can just bollock them.

If you don’t read Dilbert, you should. He taught me everything I know about bosses, consultants, workers and dogs. My uncle says I’m like Dogbert. I guess I am.

This strip perfectly illustrates how feedback can go soooo, sooo wrong. It’s the kind of feedback I wish I could give to someone who really deserved it.

Dilbert.com

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And now for something completely different…

… In the next few weeks, I’m hoping a new venture will take off. I’m not telling you what it is yet because I don’t want to jinx it by talking about it before it’s actually all carved in stone (p.s. did you know the definition of ‘sincerely’ is ‘without wax’  sin cire because they used to use wax to fill in the gaps in marble, so ‘without wax’ means ‘no faking’… I might start signing all my letters ‘yours without wax… etc’ just to be over-intellectual) and if it goes a bit pear-shaped as some of my plans sometimes do, then I hate it when people say ‘And what happened to that?’ – although, to be fair, it’s only when my plans rest in other people’s hands that they go pear-shaped.

Anyway, suffice to say it will involve my great loves (and hates) writing, the Internet, news, English and French. How’s that for lucky? I need a break anyway.

I’ve actually never believed in luck, or talent, just hard work and determination. I don’t believe in success just landing in people’s laps. I have also come to believe that in this life, it’s never what you know, but who you know. And who you know is never a matter of chance. People think ‘Oh, she’s lucky because she knows such-and-such-a-body’ and it’s all as if I’ve just got naturally great connections. It’s not. It’s because I work them. I network, baby. Knowing someone who knows someone is always the way to get somewhere else. People think it’s luck. It’s not. I cultivate those connections. And not by schmoozing, but by working. I’ve always thought if you do a thing for someone for free and you enjoy doing it and give your time as freely as you can, they’ll always repay you in triple, quadruple. I know I do. To those friends and family who’ve been there for me, I’d do pretty much anything for them. If I can do it, I will do it.

For instance, I know in the media, it’s not talent that gets you published or on television, it’s knowing the right people and being prepared to work hard and take low-paid jobs as stepping stones for bigger things. And it’s being honest. Even if it’s being honest about what you can’t do. I’ve got a few friends who say ‘how do you get published?’ – and it’s as if talent will out. It doesn’t usually. People look to JK Rowling (who tells a cracking great yarn, captured the zeitgeist but did little else than farm a very well-told quest) and say ‘oh, she got published’ – as if you can be published just by being a good writer.

Yet when I look at my published stuff, it’s always come through recommendation. I never sent anything to anyone and said ‘what do you think of this?’ and got it published. I was asked. And I was asked because I’d done it somewhere else for free first.

Take my education writing. First I did some work for a consultant in Lancashire. Lovely guy. I did quite a lot of stuff for him at a time when everyone was whinging about the new National Curriculum. I might moan a lot in reality, but at work, I don’t moan. Often. No point. I just do it. Whatever it is. Because I’d done a favour for this guy, he asked me to write a column for a magazine he edited. I did. Then another editor read it and liked it, and she said she’d give me £125.00 to write another one. I did. A whole £125.00 for an article. Whoo!

I wrote about ten in total.

When I got another job, I started writing things and giving them out for free. I did some work for my boss and she passed it on to her boss. They liked it. So they asked me to start writing for the Department for Education, and I did. I didn’t get paid, but it was good work.

Then I got asked to write by someone who knew the big boss. And then by someone else. And then I got a phone call to do some work on a textbook. I only wrote four chapters, but it was real writing. A real book. None of this internet malarky. A book with my name on it. Albeit with other people’s names on it too.

I’ve never solicited writing particularly – although if I am doing something already and another opportunity comes up to do something in the same line, I’ll put my name forward. I do a lot for free. That takes up a lot of time. I don’t care. If I painted (which I do) I’d do that for free. If I could write and never need money, I’d be happy as anything. Unfortunately, I need to pay the bills from time to time.

I’m not, and I never have been, a talented writer. I’ve been a dedicated, hard-working writer and I’ve been a poor writer. I think we’ve all got a niche in life, and if we’re lucky, we get to do the things we love. All work should be vocational I think, but in practice it doesn’t work like that. I wish good writers got published, but they don’t always know how to network in such a way as to draw their work to the eyes of the people in control. It’s going to get harder too. Kindle, whilst making publishing available to all, will quickly be trial by self-marketing to most. And most writers can’t market what they write. That’s why publishers were invented. Soon, we’ll need online marketing to draw attention to online writers.

Anyway, suffice to say with this new work, I’ve been thrown right in at the deep end – albeit with a very nice lifeguard watching over me  – and if I didn’t know how SEO and RSS and Mailchimp and all manner of stuff worked already, I’d be drowning, not swimming. Thank heavens for my eager curiosity! Luckily, my suck-it-and-see motto has worked well so far.

Wish me the Best of British and I’ll let you all know as soon as it’s more firm what my new project will be! See you in the ether some time soon!

Let’s have a mass debate*

* this is my favourite line from a pretend-old-lady. EVER.

I’ve got in a right load of argy-bargy this week over stuff and a lot of it boils down to the same one thing: what we do has an effect on everything on the planet. The second thing is you can present people with as much evidence as you like to support your argument and if they won’t believe it, they won’t believe it.

I think, in essence, I’ve become an individualist. What we do as an individual has repercussions and consequences, good or bad. The choices we make on a minute-by-minute basis affect other lives. However, I’m also of the belief that we are all part of one big organism: the world – and that organism is part of other, further organisms.

Imagine it this way. Some of us are just cells in a body doing our own thing. We are part of a liver or a kidney and we just fit in and do our jobs. Sometimes the organism we’re part of does shit things to us, like a man who drinks a bottle of vodka every day. I guess the Libyans feel a bit like that right now. Sometimes, the organism is super-healthy and super-effective, like Finland or any of the other Nordic countries that top the world leagues on everything. Conservative Socialism at its best. You pay a lot of taxes and the state looks after you.

Sometimes, you can be a tiny cell in a healthy body and you can cause all kinds of damage and mayhem. Anders Brievik is such a cell. He destroyed the other cells around him and spread a little illness among them. Luckily, Norway is healthy enough to cut out that cancer and deal with it and continue to grow and be healthy, hoping Brievik’s ideas don’t spread like a disease.

Some of these cells fight against each other, like a huge immune system reaction. Only time will tell whether the good cells or the bad cells will win.

We are both significant and insignificant as cells. We can be cancerous or we can be extremely beneficial. We can just play our part in the universe. We are minuscule. Our bodies themselves are made up of 10 trillion cells. But it only takes one to go bad and infect another and before you know it, if you don’t have enough good guys fighting back, you’re dead. It’s an example to me of how the tiny can bring down the mighty.

Sometimes, no matter what our head knows is good or bad, our cells rebel. Whatever it is that causes cravings and addictions or habits – whatever those little neural pathways are that drive us to do things we know aren’t good – they happen at a micro-level as well as a universal level. No matter what our logical neo-cortex might tell us, our lovely little amygdala stops that information getting through to our primitive little reptilian brain and boom, we’re smoking a cigarette or driving when we meant to walk, or bitching about someone, or any of the other nasty habits we have as people. We have a whole festival about this – how many people on New Year’s Day make resolutions? Some thoughts trying to overcome some actions. People are like that too.

But most of us just can’t do good all the time, not even if we try hard. Most of us are governed by habits and behaviours and blinkered thinking – including me. I guess only people like Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama truly have more days when they did more good than bad in the world.

And we don’t always think about the consequences of what we do. For instance, if I drive instead of cycling, I use a little bit more oil, force the world further down the line of dependency on oil and also exhaustion of oil. And sometimes, we mean to do good but we accidentally do bad. For example, bio fuels seem like such a good idea. No dependence on oil. No dependence on Gulf states. The end to oil wars and tyrants in the Middle East. But then someone in Brazil decides to change their crop to bio fuel and all hell breaks loose. They’re not contributing to the food pot, and although I’m buying less oil, I’m perhaps starving someone. Tomatoes and carbon footprints are another one. If I buy Spanish tomatoes, sure they’ll have come further and have a colossal carbon footprint but then if I buy English ones, they’ll have needed greenhouses and light and energy and actually have a larger carbon footprint. Peat is the same. People are saying we should get rid of peat-based composts and there’s all kinds of mis-information coming out about how it’ll increase the carbon emissions and wreck biodiversity. But it’s a huge dilemma. Peat bogs add to methane emissions, which damage the environment. By allowing some poverty-stricken, peat-rich countries to use it as a resource, we empower them. But if we boycott it, we have higher methane levels and keep some countries poor. Sometimes, you can’t do right for doing wrong.

The worst is, the more you read, the more you muddy your own head and thinking. The more you try to do good, the worse you get at it. The more you try to convince others, the more entrenched they get in their own thinking. Everything is so complicated!

Take dogs, for instance. Dogs are a huge drain on resources across the world. They shit everywhere and their shit is not good shit. You can’t compost dog poo. They don’t work any more, by and large, they just sit around. Sometimes they look pretty and that’s a bonus. Really, if we want to do good by starving people, free up resources and land, we should get rid of domestic pets. You know it makes sense. If I didn’t own two dogs and a cat I could donate £10 a month to a worthwhile cause. That’s £120.00 a year, and over a thousand pounds by their lifetime. It cost £200 to vaccinate Basil to get him over here and then he died 6 months later. That was £200 that could have gone to feed people in Darfur or help a neighbour out of trouble. Tilly, God bless her, doesn’t even do anything useful apart from bark at stuff. She’s a bit like an early warning system. The only trouble is, she warns you of everything. She’s not a useful dog. All she’s doing is consuming resources. The food she eats means that wheat and meat products have to be grown specifically for animals rather than people. If all the pets in the world were outlawed, we would have no problem feeding everyone. It’s cruel, too. A human home to a dog is no more than a big bird cage is for a bird. It’s a prison. Let’s not even talk about keeping gerbils and rats and snakes and mice and hamsters in little glass prisons for our own entertainment and because we can’t love each other enough as people that we need to bring an animal into the home to teach ourselves how to love unconditionally. Dogs are pack animals. They are social. Yet they are usually kept as single animals and left for most of the day. If you count the hours you’re asleep or at work, keeping a dog is cruelty. You’re putting it into solitary confinement. Sometimes, pet breeding is cruel. Tilly is an example. She’s pretty but she’s of a breed that is so greedy it’s untrue. She has inherent ear problems and problems with her eyes. She might get all kinds of spaniel ailments. All dogs, really, should be mongrel dogs. Selective breeding is something we don’t allow people to do – Hitler and his Aryan policies weren’t exactly popular. But that’s fine for domestic animals. We breed some for violence and then condemn them for being aggressive. We breed some for racing and then forbid them from racing. We breed some for hunting and then never allow them to do it, shouting at them if they run off, following their instincts. Instincts we gave them.

However, if we do that, every single one of us will have to look a dog or cat in the eye and know it has to be exterminated. We made them dependent on us 12,000 years ago. We’ve got a kind of symbiotic thing going on. They teach us how to love and respect animals (in most cases) and nobody can put a quantity on how much joy a domestic animal brings.  Humans are more of a drain on resources and maybe we should exterminate any of those who are a drain on the world’s resources. Hmmm. Are we really saying it’s usefulness about pets that makes them a drain? If so, loads of people aren’t useful. Let’s cull them instead. I love the dogs and cats more than I love most people. Nothing gives me a smile like seeing how happy Tilly is to wake up each morning. That is better than all my medication or pills. When Foxy gets the mads and races about, he makes me laugh. When Molly jumps out of her skin, she makes me smile. I love all these animals. They love me because I feed them (sometimes – though that’s Steve’s job!) and take them places or brush them or take them to the vet… I’m under no illusions that their love is ‘cupboard love’. But their presence is a reason I get up in the morning. They bring out the good in me.

You see. Complicated.

My solution to these dilemmas is just to accept them as they are and make it a little better. I know I can’t change the world, no matter how I try. However, I can influence the people nearest to me and spread my circle of influence a little wider as time goes by. Read 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and you’ll know what I mean. That guy is WISE. Influence what you can, where you can, if you can.

I think, if I had to choose a motto we should all live by, it’s actually the Hippocratic Oath. Do No Harm. If we could all live by that, the world would be a better place. Unfortunately, we’re not all very good at being our own moral compass. As the Dalai Lama said:

“As human beings we all want to be happy and free from misery.
We have learned that the key to happiness is inner peace.
The greatest obstacles to inner peace are disturbing emotions such as
anger and attachment, fear and suspicion,
while love and compassion, a sense of universal responsibility
are the sources of peace and happiness.”

I’m tired of anger directed at me by people who think they are right because they have some sort of moral upper hand. If your life is filled with anger, it is filled with hate. I run the risk of ending up like Yoda and saying ‘and that way lies the Dark Side’. But it does.

Here’s to being Cassandra all over again…

What I said would happen yesterday with the promotion of bad history as an argument about David Starkey was well born out yesterday. It fell into a black and white argument with both sides being absolutely and utterly deluded, racist, small-minded and pathetic – reason had no place in it at all. Well done DS and well done Nabil Abdul Rashid. You both pushed black/white tensions up a notch.

I feel defensive of being white – I always have. I feel the weight of my white ancestors on my shoulders. Luckily I’m a woman and this makes me feel a little better, because my type have been a persecuted minority, and continue to be so. Heaven forbid I should a white man. I’m suddenly responsible for everything after the outbursts yesterday online. This is what I said about skeletons falling out of the closet. 500 years worth of skeletons about slavery and racism and mistreatment and black holocausts and hideous crimes perpetrated in the name of expansion all fell out of that closet. Boom boom boom boom boom. All rattling their bones and providing visions of Christmas future if we don’t deal with our sins. The problem is, when a person of any colour starts dragging the skeletons out of the closet, the other colours go to their closet and drag a few out, until all that happens is a big tumbling pile of bones of ancestors is on the floor and we’re all using them to hit each other with.

Yesterday, I saw vile and nasty racism from white trash who should know better. I laughed when some of the black champions of history mentioned white advancement, because it sure as hell doesn’t seem like we’ve advanced very far. Do they watch Jeremy Kyle? Most of his clients are one colour, and it’s not black or Asian. We’ve all got the rednecks, the white trash, the trailer trash, the racaille, and it’s vile and ugly because it’s like a nasty cliché of how we’ve failed as people.

But then I heard just some of the most outrageous statements I’ve ever heard about black history – which made me laugh out loud and then stupidly try to challenge. Maybe I could have patronised these people, continued to let them believe nonsense and silliness, treated them like Jake when he gets argumentative or like Steve treats me when I get argumentative and just gone ‘Okay’. But I can’t. Because every misunderstanding spreads a little lie that sits on the racist cracker. And let’s get this straight. Very few people in England believe it was one race or another. Nobody’s saying it’s white or black. I’ve not seen many statistics, and the ones I have seen are that it’s poverty that’s the over-riding factor. I don’t want to get into the causes – manifold as they may be – of that poverty – but that’s the uniting factor. And race shouldn’t be the dividing factor.

Despite this, I heard sub-Saharan Africans say many, many times that the Moors were black. This was a really big fallacy spread by the response. And I know about the Moors. I know a lot about the Moors because I’ve got 20,000 words of my own research I wrote about them sitting waiting for me to get my arse in gear and write a story about Sigilmassa. I know about the Maghreb. I know about the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians and the Imazighen and the Arab settlers and the spread of the Moorish dynasties and then their decline. I also have some great Moroccan friends whose roots are bedouin Imazighen of many varieties. They had fun teaching me ‘berber’ words and Arabic words and I walked with them through the Atlas mountains and they told me their view of the Maghreb, on the Arabic world, on Morocco, on life. We spent three days just walking and talking. I’m a curious girl. I ask lots of questions. I want to know stuff.

Let’s take Zinedine Zidane as an example, since he’s one of the most famous ‘Berber’ faces. I hate that word, but he is an example of your typical ‘Moor’. He’s an Algerian Kabyle. Now excuse me for stating the obvious, but nothing makes Zidane black, unless he goes for a little make-up. If he said ‘Is it because I is black?’ like Ali G, we’d all laugh, just like we do at Ali G, because like Ali G, he’s not black. In fact, he shares more of an appearance with Ali G than he does with Nelson Mandela.

But yesterday, sub-Saharan Africans are getting all their knickers in a twist about the Moors, feeling forced to say they were black. That’s news to all the Alis I met who weren’t black in the slightest. And yes, there were black skinned people as part of this ‘Non-Homogeneous’ group (I pointed this out a million times yesterday) but the Moors looked to Mecca. Their towns were built on Islamic principles. Their language is Arabic. Their scholars weren’t African in view or belief, they were Persian, Middle Eastern, Arab – call it what you will. Their names are Arabic and their whole world was Eastern looking, not Southern looking. If not in skin colour, in culture, in belief and in society – they were Arabic.

I am willing to accept that Islam and Arabic unite some north African countries with some sub-Saharan African countries. There are large Muslim populations in many Eastern African countries. But the Maghreb people – the Moors – have more in common with their Persian relatives than the Somalis, genetically speaking. The only things that unite a Moroccan with a Somali is religion and language, not skin colour. And yet there are hundreds – and I’m not kidding – of comments from black people yesterday, all militant about the Moors being black. And not a bit black. All black.

This kind of skewed history comes from white mouths, Asian mouths, black mouths – anyone who wants to twist history to suit their view. And yes, blacks, like women, were repressed for a long time (blacks less than women, by about 3,000 years, but I digress…) and their contribution to history has been both written out and white-washed – and didn’t exist in the first place – just like peasant history doesn’t exist and women’s history doesn’t exist – because we were too busy living  and being repressed to go round contributing to art and literature, music and philosophy. No offence to any one other than white intellectual men, but by and large your achievements are minimal. Blacks, women and poor people didn’t create a Beethoven or a Michelangelo or a Leonardo or a Shakespeare because we were too busy being repressed, and just because I can find some semi-okay poetry from someone in a skirt in the Seventeenth Century doesn’t mean it’s as good as Donne or Shelley. I can’t champion it because it’s rather pedestrian. Jane Austen is funny, but she isn’t Shakespeare or Shelley because her experience was ‘the drawing room’ – and as much as I’d like to, I can’t go around saying Shakespeare was a woman or that Shelley was a black because they weren’t, and it just makes me look like an idiot with an agenda if I try.

Yet this is what was happening yesterday. I totally get that blacks have a right to be angry. 500 years of subjugation will do that to a person. Let’s talk about the patriarchs who deliberately wrote women out of religion and law, shall we? That started 3,500 years ago and we’re still suffering. Don’t you men know it!

But all these skeletons were just coming and coming as people dragged them out of the cupboard. For your Hitler and Stalin, I give you one Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe. I give you Pol Pot and Chairman Mao (let’s not spare the far east, hey, as we’re dragging out the skeletons?!) For your slavery I give you Darfur and civil war and Rwanda and Chad and South Western Sahara. For your slavery, I give you female circumcision. Ad infinitum in a universal tit-for-tat. Ironic considering the original poster said he didn’t want that….

But unfortunately, that’s what happens. My main concern was that the video would go viral. Luckily, it didn’t (or hasn’t so far) and therefore hasn’t attracted the bigots from either end of the spectrum all trotting out myths and lies about history and social demographics to suit their argument.

It’s so ironic that ‘we’ ‘get rid’ of Al Qaida – Bin Laden is assassinated and the alleged kingpins in the Al Qaida network disintegrate – Muslims are killed on the streets in the riots and show England how to truly do community and belief and came out to defend their England – and as the universal racist zeitgeist turns from Islam, DS seems to a little inadvertently and possibly very consciously, spearhead the new racist zeitgeist – black against white. Ironic, because these are the two communities most poor and most troubled. Poor White working class boys and African-Caribbean boys are the two most underachieving groups in Britain. Interested to know who achieves the best? Why Far Eastern boys of course. The Chinese, the Malaysians, the Koreans – their achievement outstrips everybody else’s, followed by Indian boys whose achievement is not far behind. The only way we can all aspire is if we end the tit-for-tat blame game and the blind allegiance to racism from whatever side we come from. People of all colours do shite things to each other. For every high achieving Chinese boy, there’s one who runs up massive debts or falls in with Chinese gangs – for every Indian who becomes a surgeon, there’s one who’ll steal a car from his family in B&Q. People are people, as Depeche Mode once said, and the more we try to categorise ourselves, the more damage we do.

A little hope for the morning from Mr Bob:

The Blame Game

It’s begun. In the aftermath of the riots, everyone who’s anyone comes out of the woodwork to blame everyone else. The poor blame the rich. Labour blame the Con-Libs. The Lib-Dems blame the Tories. The Tories blame Labour. Black people blame white people. White people blame black people. Adults are blaming teenagers. Teenagers are blaming adults. Parents blame their children and children blame their parents.

It’s the fault of Capitalism for putting shops on display. It’s the fault of the recession (and therefore the Governments and institutions who steered the world into it) and it’s the fault of unemployment. It’s the fault of the police. It’s the fault of the ex-Government for tying the hands of the police. It’s the fault of the CPS who won’t hand out tougher sentences. It’s the fault of Kenneth Clarke for not wanting prison as the only solution to crime. It’s the fault of soft society. It’s because we need Sharia Law. It’s because we don’t have enough CCTV. It’s the faults of the schools for being off. It’s the fault of the internet and blackberry. It’s the fault of the decline of the churches and the governments who let them. It’s the fault of the schools for not teaching kids to be moral, responsible individuals. It’s the fault of the parents who let their kids go out on the streets. It’s the fault of the kids who don’t know right from wrong. It’s the fault of the middle-classes, since many of the crimes seem to be perpetrated by them. It’s the fault of the student protests for showing kids how to get organised. It’s the fault of the immigration policies. It’s the fault of immigrants. It’s the fault of whites. It’s the fault of integration. It’s the fault of the class system. It’s the fault of MTV for giving people the attention span of gnats. It’s the fault of bands who encourage rioting and looting. It’s the fault of the government doing ‘too little, too late’. It’s the fault of having 10 other kids to look after. It’s because we have police brutality. It’s because we don’t have police brutality. If you’ve not got power, it’s the fault of the people who have power. If you’ve got power, it’s the fault of the people who had power before you. It’s the fault of the banks and it’s the fault of money. It’s the fault of the politicians who got off scot-free. It’s because we don’t have National Service.

It’s your fault for being rich

It’s your fault for being poor

It’s your fault for being white

It’s your fault for being black

I watched David Starkey’s outburst with embarrassed horror. He doesn’t surprise me though. The Daily Mail once called him ‘the rudest man in Britain’ so I take everything he says as a bit OTT and an attempt to give a bit of a show. He was also utterly terrible in ‘Jamie’s Dream School’ – although everything offends me about most of what Jamie does – I don’t even like his cooking – he should get that right before he moves on to improving education with his big cow-sized tongue in his man-sized mouth. But David Starkey is a little bit right: there is an MTV Cribs culture on the streets which is all about money and possessions. I won’t say it’s black or white: it’s a culture in which money is easily gained through fame rather than talent. People forget the MTV Cribs stars have earned their right to these houses with some degree of talent or at least business acumen. I don’t like Katie Price one bit, but she’s a hell of a business woman. Everyone knows I hate Victoria Beckham, but good luck to the woman, fame and notoriety are her thing and she’s good at getting it despite having very little talent. Reality TV shows us that we can become famous for nothing and more importantly we can become rich. I’m not blaming it on that, that’s just how it is. Maybe someone will say it’s the fault of ostentatious wealth and show – it’s the fault of people like Kerry Katona and Katie Price and Wayne Rooney who make it look easy to make money for doing very little.

Then there are the reactions to David Starkey’s interview – one of which I watched this morning. It should have been good. It was a black man talking about how blacks are not to blame. But it wasn’t good. It did just what Starkey did, which was fling a bit of opinion about without any real fact. Plus, some of it was wrong. DS might have been morally outrageous, but he wasn’t factually wrong, and people got caught up in his ‘racism’ rather than his somewhat unclear OPINION that being materialistic in the style of bling-bling wannabe Jamaican (but really American) rappers and the fact that this has been universally adopted is to blame for the riots. Bling-bling, by the way, IS via Jamaican sub-culture and America. What this video did was become equally racist and outrageous. It was not as bad, but it still wasn’t listening to what DS had said, just like everyone else who wants to take what he said about a particular type of (and I’m being really careful here, because it’s neither white nor black nor Asian) culture that has become socially acceptable and edit it to show him coming across as SUPER-racist. Ironically, the (black) woman did much better at explaining what he meant once she got over her own outrage. It’s about materialism, not colour.

For one, the guy adopts a view that the Moors – which he equates with Africans – added a lot to the world. They did. But they weren’t a homogeneous group of people. Mostly, they were Arab settlers moving along from the Caliphates as Islam spread. I can accept Islam had a lot to offer the world, not least mathematics and science, but you look at a list of famous ‘moors’ (and I’m not accepting Othello, as his only example of a Moor, since he’s fictional!) and the names are mostly Islamic ones. There were Berbers in there and there were some Africans. But one thing is for sure, their influences were middle eastern and Islamic, not African. They looked to Mecca and they brought the Persian empire into North Africa

Unfortunately, the guy goes on to talk about Jamaica and Australia as if English (and therefore white) people had the soul claim to looting and pillaging from other nations. Let’s get something right. Everybody does it. Everybody has done it through history. Violence, murder, genocide, robbery, riding roughshod (how I love that phrase) over other cultures, inter-tribal warfare (and I mean English). Maybe we English could blame it on the Danes. After all, they looted from us way before we ‘looted’ Jamaica (and to be honest, we built rather than destroying… talk to the Spanish and the Conquistadors about real looting of wealth and possessions. I’m sure the Aztecs won’t be holding the English responsible for the looting of Techoctitlan. And on that note, much of Spain and Portugal have dark eyes and hair because, guess what, their Moorish ancestry makes them part of the people who the guy claims to be a part of… Maybe, if we’re talking about colonialisation, we should look to the Romans, who in fact gave us much of this language called ‘English’ – likewise the Viking raiders. Few Celtic words exist anymore and nothing exists of language before Old Norse, Old German and Latin. Not one word we use in every day life in England is actually an ‘English’ word, other than perhaps some place names.

Yes, white people took part in colonialisation and slavery, but so did most cultures, bar a few distant tribes in the Himalayas. Talk to Genghis Khan about colonies and expansion. Talk to Caesar about it. Talk to Alexander about it. And yes, talk to us about it. But don’t talk as if it was ‘done by’ whites and ‘done to’ Africa – when much of the expansion of the Islamic empire in the Seventh – Eleventh centuries made their way into Africa, following the Romans, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Egyptians. Moses led slave tribes out of Africa. Everybody has done it and everyone will continue to do it unless we stop this blame game.

Neither is England responsible for the class system. You can look elsewhere for that. Yes, we have classes and it’s not perhaps the way forward, but class systems exist in other systems. Ask the Tutsi and the Hutu.

Neither do I think it fair to look to the Moors and say we Europeans were still ‘bashing each other over the head with clubs’ when Greek civilisations had medicine, theatre, philosophy, art – and the Egyptians and Mayans had astronomy and astrology which impacted on Greek then Roman culture, which has shaped Southern European life. It’s a shame this ‘intellectually circumsized buffoon’ tries to use recent black history to justify his claims without thinking about what England was and how it came about. He does the same things he accuses DS of. And yes, DS should have thought about what he was saying.

There’s a valid point about the museums being full of looted stuff – I’m not even going to say anything much about the Elgin marbles. But Egyptian pyramid looting was going on to such an extent 2,500 years ago that the Kings were buried in tombs hidden from sight. Thus the tomb of Tutankhamun was only ‘discovered’ in the last two hundred years because it had to be so well hidden.

The guy talks about gangs, too – and he’s wrong about everything. Gangs didn’t start with the Corsicans after the war – or Italians or anything else. Documented evidence exists of gangs back in Victorian England – such as the Scuttlers in Manchester. And that was mainly a working-class thing sure. You don’t see gangs of the aristocracy because they serve no purpose.

Plus, I REALLY take issue with the fact the A-Team weren’t black. Sure, three of them weren’t but nobody would question BA Baracus’ skin colour. Nonsense. Iraq? No. Looters of the Cradle of Civilisation happened thousands of years before we did. If you want to know about the destruction of cities, find out about the real archaeology of Jericho, destroyed 3,000 years ago several times.

He talks too about how white guys are the ‘shooting spree’ people; I guess massacres in Rwanda, in the DRC, in Chad, in Somalia, in Sudan, in Ethiopia, in Eritrea, I guess that’s white-on-black crime??! Yes, the Western ‘white’ world has done atrocious things. Stalin and Hitler are easy to identify in this pack. I guess Idi Amin means nothing to this guy though. Or maybe he’s an intellectually circumsized baboon too. We can all find examples. We can all cast the blame about. Ultimately, not one of us is able to escape historical blame for anything. We’ve all done shit to other people. We’ve all ancestors who’ve participated in atrocities in the past.

Rap music – a conscious and intellectual movement? I’m guessing the Sugarhill Gang were philosophers then? I know some of what Melle Mel did was social criticism, but the early rap tracks with disco backgrounds weren’t political and certainly not particularly intellectual. Neither were Motown or Sugarhill records owned by white people. Not a one of us ‘whiteys’ are going to claim musical superiority. We didn’t even invent Morris Dancing (moorish dancing… you see…) and yes, a whole load of it is cultural, political and wonderful – but that doesn’t mean there’s not rappers glorifying gang warfare and ‘fuck tha police’ – you can’t just write NWA off when Dr Dre is arguably the most significant producer and artist to come from rap, up there with Jay-Z, who, guess what? Perpetuates the same myths of guns and glory. Don’t get me started on the glorification of Tupac and Biggie – you can’t just claim rap music doesn’t influence lifestyle and pretend Tupac didn’t exist. His continually high record sales prove otherwise. And yes, their biggest buyers are white people. No doubt. But the whole guns and mindless deaths lifestyle – wherever it came from – does exist and there are as many black rappers perpetrating those myths as challenging it. Our only significant white rapper – Eminem (I’d like to count Vanilla Ice and Snow but it’s against my sensibilities) – is on a black man’s label. So don’t get me started about how the blacks in music are hard done to and how rap has been much maligned. I agree with the irony of ‘Guns Don’t Kill People (Rappers Do)’ from Goldie Lookin’ Chain:

Gun crimes, stabbin, and burglarisation,
Its on a rise all across the nation,
The safety’s off and the pistol is aimed,
Yardies and the Mafia always get blamed,
Politicians are shamed, and they haven’t got a clue,
Rap is more deadly than fucking Kung-Fu

The irony being that it’s not rappers but guns and that rap is a convenient scape-goat but it does, and you cannot argue with this, glorify the rags-to-riches story, create macho men and have little place for women. Rap is angry and rock is angry. White boy music is angry. We’re all angry.

Luckily, this clip redeems itself by taking some responsibility. But even then it becomes a blame game. It’s black rappers’ fault. It’s the fault of black comedians. He makes then the mistake of saying black people ‘accept’ bad white rappers. Excuse me? You embraced Vanilla Ice then? I seem to recall in 8-Mile Eminem had to cut his place despite being white. And let’s not talk about MC Hammer, shall we?

He goes on to talk about Bollywood, but this too is completely unresearched and unhelpful. The ‘whitening’ of Bollywood stars is well-documented. It’s a major media issue for India that they favour lighter skinned actresses and actors. If you’re Sri-Lankan dark, don’t think about getting a job in Bollywood. Kareena Kapoor, Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra – these aren’t girls who look any more Indian than an average Spanish or Latino girl looks Indian. Shahrukh Khan isn’t a very dark looking fella either.

I don’t think this blame game is okay. It’s making things worse. We all need to look inwards, at ourselves, and we need to look to the future, not the past. We can keep looking to the past, but someone like Starkey or the guy in the response because all those nasty skeletons in the closet keep falling out of it and someone always wants to know who put them there. Behind those skeletons, there are more skeletons and more skeletons.

The only way we stop it is if we close the door on it and move on. It’s time to stop blaming each other. It’s just inflaming hearts and minds and fuelling the fire of arguments to come.

Absolutely bone tired…

… so much that my fingers won’t work properly and I bet my brain isn’t either. I wrote that brian, so I know my fingers are tired.

Mostly this is because I was having a very bad dream and I woke up at 5:30. There was a strange dripping noise outside, it was hotter than hell in my bedroom and I was sleeping with the enemy – a mosquito who has been siphoning off my blood willy-nilly these last few nights. I lay awake for a bit and decided to go to the toilet. I’m 38 and have old lady bladder.

Then Fox decided it was food time, so any hope I had of going back to bed and going to sleep was not going to happen. I was wide awake.

I spent a good few hours writing – working on a little something that I’ve got up my sleeve – and by the time Steve and Jake got up at ten, I’d probably done three or four hours or so. Then when the rain stopped, I went out side for a bit of digging. I ended up clearing half of the brassica patch and built up such a sweat I’m surprised there was anything left of me. Apparently, it looked like I’d stuck my head in a bucket.

After that, more writing. I wonder sometimes at this notion of ‘writers’ block’. The words can’t come out of me fast enough. My fingers can’t go fast enough. I’m trying to do a million things at once. I’ve got all sorts of formatting things going on and about a hundred windows open and everything’s beginning to take shape. Just.

I know I’ve got a million jobs to do – there’s still a hell of a lot of weeding, still a hell of a lot of writing to be done. I’ve got to get my arse in gear tomorrow, because it’s hotting up again, and the soil was so damp and lush to dig today that it surely will be back to its usual hardened self by the afternoon. Write or weed? Write or weed? I wish I had two of me. I’ve got pears and peaches and tomatoes and courgettes and potatoes to sort out for the freezer, and I’m wondering how all of it will get done. Bills to pay, shopping to do – and I just know tomorrow isn’t going to be long enough. Please God, let me wake up tomorrow and there be a neat and tidy version of me standing at the end of the bed waiting to go. I want a me for the kitchen, an inexhaustible me for the garden – a me with good knees and a me who is sweat-free and burn-proof (I’ve got a nice line of sunburn across my back!) and I want a me to do some designs and a me to write and a me to do research and proof-read. A me to go shopping and pay the bills and a me to pick the rest of the pears and tomatoes.

Anyone got any good ideas on cloning?? And if you do, can you let me know how I can make a bit better version of me?

I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace

Eighteen years ago yesterday, three air cadets died in a helicopter accident at Llyn Padarn in Wales. One of them was my cousin, Mark. One was one of my sister’s best friends, Amanda. The other was a boy from Horwich.

My sister had gone with the air cadets to RAF Valley in Anglesey. Mark was with her, along with his best friend Chris. They’d been a good few times before, and always had a great time. They got to go up in planes and see how it really is in the air force.

We lived a different life from Mark and his sister Charlotte who lived on the other side of a main road dividing our estate up. Mark was the same age as Abi; Charlotte the same age as my younger brother Alastair. We weren’t close close but we saw Mark and Charlotte more times than any of our other cousins. Both Mark and Charlotte were bright, sociable, polite and friendly. Charlotte is one of the most lovely, gregarious, wonderful women now: she’s always absolutely radiant. Mark would no doubt have been a man of the same character, not unlike his older namesake, my other cousin Mark.

I was working in an Italian restaurant that summer and I’d gone to work knowing that four cadets and three Air Force men had gone down into the lake and were presumed ‘missing’. I hoped and prayed for their safety. My first worry was that it was my sister. We weren’t so close as we are now, but I don’t know how I’d have gone on without her. We got a phone call to say it wasn’t Abi. I was so relieved. I didn’t even think of anyone else – I was that relieved. Only moments later did I step outside my selfish gladness to think that someone‘s kids were missing and that it could be people we knew and loved. I never feel so hopeless as when I’m waiting unable to do anything, so I went to work anyway. I listened to the news all that afternoon. First came the names. Mark Oakden. Amanda Whitehead. Sarah Coker. Chris Bailey. My cousin. Two of my sister’s closest friends and a boy I didn’t know.

First they were just missing. One of the cadets was assumed to be alive. I thought it must be Mark. He was such a strong swimmer. He swam for Lancashire. If anyone could have survived, it should be him.

At 10 pm the names of those who hadn’t survived were released. Sarah was safe. Mark, Amanda and Chris were not.

It was a hard weekend. The press hounded my Uncle Geoff and Auntie Tina. Everybody was utterly shell-shocked. Nobody expects teenagers to die. Then came the memorial service. There isn’t a person there who can listen to Last Post without weeping. Abi and I were among the first out of the church because we were sitting with Mark’s family. My Nana is the favourite sister of all her siblings, I’m sure. She was a rock to my uncle and aunt. We were right up there with my Nana. Because Abi was in uniform and the first out, the Daily Mail snapped a picture of me with my arm around my sister; she was weeping and I was too. Gratuitous sales at the expense of personal tragedy.

The ceremony was well attended – it felt like the whole town turned out. I can’t remember who it was – one of the padres I think – he gave a speech that offered a little consolation. It wasn’t holy. It wasn’t filled with trite, religious meaninglessness. He said we should look up to the chemical trails, because Mark, Amanda and Chris were like that – just because they were gone, didn’t mean they didn’t leave signs of their lives upon our hearts. I can never look at chem trails without thinking of this and thinking of the marks they left upon our hearts.

The worst is always afterwards – when the shock has dissipated and you’re left coming to terms with how the universe, how any God could let this happen – how cruel life can be.

Mark’s GCSE results came a couple of weeks after his death. Top marks in all his subjects. No doubt he would have gone on to do the same at A level and degree. He wanted to be a pilot and I know he would have been. He was determined. The motto of the RAF is ‘per ardua ad astra’ – through hard work to the stars. He was an embodiment of that.

I can’t say as much about Amanda – it wasn’t like I moved in the same circles as my sister. I know that on that day three families had the hearts torn out of them. I know that friends realised how fragile life is and how cruel the world can be to take such good kids from the planet.

However, a poem quickly did the rounds – something that had a tremendous significance for everyone who knew Mark or Amanda. It was written by John Gillespie Magee, and is the official poem of the Canadian Royal Air Force amongst others.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I have trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

The idea of seeing beauty rather than tragedy is so important in this poem, and I think it should be important to all of us. In amongst all the aftermath of the riots, it’s also important to remember there are lots and lots of wonderful, admirable teenagers out there – not least those who go on to live having faced such sadness so early in their lives.

After the riots…

There have been lots of clean-ups and things seem almost back to normal. Politicians are bickering about who caused this… Thatcher with her community smash-and-grabs, Labour with their reign of throwing money at problems, Police who were ‘too timid’… everyone else is to blame.

However, as I saw yesterday, a reminder of a little something:

“They steal from the every day person on the street. They do so and excuse their behaviour as if theft is acceptable. They steal because ‘everyone else does’. They try to say it’s poverty that’s made them steal. They moralise and say there’s nothing wrong with what they’ve done. They seriously don’t expect to go to prison. They outraged every single person in Middle England. Their values seem so far adrift from ours that it’s almost ludicrous. They seem like another species whose moral values about theft are so far removed from real Middle England life that it’s almost shocking to wonder how it got this way. They take advantage. They use every excuse in the book. They don’t own up.”

Politicians, that is.

How ironic the expenses scandal came first. We see their behaviour modelling something endemic in British life. Now, I’m in no way excusing what has happened as if Johnny Hoodie on the street smashed Currys windows because David Chaytor had provided a terrible example. But it’s endemic. It’s systemic. I’ll just remind you that Chaytor stole £13,000 from the English public – that we know about – and some of these muppets on trial for theft have stolen things as trivial as a £7.99 bottle of wine. Hazel Blears, oh she of the ‘failure to pay Capital Gains Tax’ – paid over £13,000 back. Because it’s acceptable our politicians should say ‘Can I pay it back then?’ having got away with theft for a long time. It’s not acceptable that Johnny Hoodie should be able to say ‘Can I get off if I give back what I stole?’

Not that this is a moral argument about theft. We all do it. Whether it’s surfing the net on work time, it’s taking a roll of sellotape for your child’s art project, it’s robbing two million from your bosses or it’s robbing the public. Theft is something we do. Nobody is honest nowadays. And that includes me.

Really, what we need to do – and what some people have said that we are doing – is change our ways. We need it to bring communities back together. We’ve seen the photos of the clean-up. We’ve seen Sikhs protecting their temple, the mosque, the church. We’ve seen white people going out to stop EDL movements. We’ve seen Muslim men fill the streets. If anything, this had the potential to make all those ‘immigrants’ we’ve seen as troublesome feel part of the community. Polish girls jumping from burning buildings, Malaysian students robbed in broad daylight, Muslim men killed as they protect their community. If anything, these riots proved it wasn’t about race any more. I saw a white ‘mum’ in Salford (and I use the term incredibly loosely in that she’d squeezed out her progeny in the same way even crocodiles are capable of doing) saying she was doing it because of Mark Duggan’s shooting.

Just to put white Salford women in perspective for you… a few years ago, I had a delightful Sri Lankan student. He was 5 years into the asylum process. His father had been killed by Tamil activists because his father was a politician. His mother was a lawyer, but she wasn’t allowed to practise over here. He had seen more violence than you or I will ever witness. Just after they were granted asylum, they were then moved from the pleasant-ish house they’d been in into a council house in the shadow of Salford Shopping City.

I drove to see him a couple of days after his move. The street was filled with people sitting outside. It did look like a scene from The Wire. They were drinking cheap lager at 3 in the afternoon, smoking weed in the street. I walked up and banged on the door – fearing that my car would be vandalised or robbed within the hour. The 5 young white men (again, I use the term loosely – I want to say rats, but even rats aren’t so small-minded) who were in the garden next door smoking huge joints – obviously on benefits, obviously not working, obviously dealing drugs as well as smoking them, were interested in my arrival.

“Who are you?”

“I’m a teacher.”

“I thought you was a solicitor.”

“No. Just a teacher.”

“What do you want with that immigrant scum?”

“I teach the boy.”

“Do they pay you?”

“Of course.”

“Fuckin’ bunch of immigrant nigger scum. As soon as they got here, we smashed their back window. Teach them immigrants to come here.”

“Oh, I bet that scared them…”

“Yeah… you don’t see them now, do you?”

“Just so you know… that young boy’s dad… he was shot in front of the boy. He was 11. He’s seen more guns and violence than you could ever show him. When someone kills your dad in front of you, a bunch of thick shit white niggers from Salford aren’t going to scare you. Dickheads!”

I walked off, quickly.

By the time I’d got to the bottom of the street and got in my car, they’d roused themselves out of incredulity and were coming to see me off. I found out my student and his family had gone to stay with family elsewhere. This wasn’t asylum, it was torture.

Anyway, that’s a small, atypical bit of Salford for you. And when you see Waynetta Slob defending a black guy shot in London, then you know maybe this isn’t about race so much any more.

The riots could have done many wonderful things; but I suspect people will just go back to the same ways. The people who came out on the streets to clean up will soon forget about their community and what it means to them. The scars are very superficial. Some commentators have said it’ll bring out a Blitz mentality which will unite us. It won’t. World War II was 6 years. The Blitz itself was months upon months of nightly terror. The riots are too insignificant to bring about the lasting sense of community that’s emerged in the last two or three days. It was nice to see Muslim standing next to African-Caribbean standing next to Sikh standing next to white. This is how England should be. But it won’t be long before we all go back to watching the news, blaming immigration and each other because the one thing we need can only be inspired when we’re under siege. Pride in community should be so strong, yet it only comes out at times of trial – that’s a shame.

Individuals make up communities. Communities make a nation. And that’s how we make England strong.

Just in case you haven’t seen the wonderful ‘mum’ in question, she’s here, along with another great Salford man blaming the Polish. I suspect the Polish have taken his job because he can’t read too well. But that, of course, is not his fault. That’s your fault. Somehow. Yours and the Polish people’s fault.

Whilst this video embarrasses me a great deal, I think it shows a lot about how far people’s moral compass is out of kilter. I also wonder if the BBC didn’t have a hidden agenda, since so many of the BBC workers are reluctant to move to Media City – i.e. Salford. Well, if you were a well-to-do media luvvie from London, would you want to move to live next door to people like this??

Rebellion, insolence, sedition which we ourselves have ploughed for, sowed and scattered

I’m watching what is happening in England through a computer screen which removes me somewhat from it. Much of it horrifies and alarms me. I’m watching youtube clips of men arrested for smashing windows with golf clubs who are then saying ‘what reason do you have to arrest me?’ to the police. I’m watching cars being smashed, businesses destroyed.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – author of one of the most powerful books of our time – might not say this is a black swan event – but there’s a bit that seems to fit for me – the posthumous rationalising of events as if they were predictable. Lack of jobs, poverty, lack of opportunity, a trigger event initiated by the police – all being used as reasons for the behaviour we’re witnessing. The media are to blame for spin. The shops are to blame for putting stuff in view. Labour are to blame because they created this culture and made policing weak. The Tories are to blame because it always happens on their watch because they give the police too much power. It’s the fault of the police. It’s the fault of the parents. It’s the fault of the schools. It’s the fault of new technologies allowing all this to happen.

The problem with all of this rationalising is that it doesn’t take into account personal accountability and morality. And this is what we have: a mass of ungovernable people who have either lost their sense of personal morality in the heat of the moment (not unlike so many other people who get caught up in the heat of the social zeitgeist, where genocide becomes acceptable, at the far end of the spectrum, or where far right parties get voted into power) or a mass of ungovernable people who can’t think for themselves because they are so overwhelmed by greed and moral indignation. Sociology tells us to group people, to link social events to social causes. But it doesn’t look at the individual, as if the individual has no free-will whatsoever. To me, social explanations such as poverty or unemployment is a problem for one great big reason: they see us a mindless herd. Maybe we are. Maybe that’s where it all went wrong.

Where are we as individuals if we have no sense of right or wrong, or no sense of consequence?

I can rob this shop. I can get carried away by the heat of the moment. I can subjugate my values for the brief euphoria of lawlessness. I can smash its windows because it feels good. It gets rid of some of that anger about ‘The Establishment’. I can steal all the things I never could afford. I can finally have the thing I wanted for so long. What I covet can be mine. In my miserable life, I can finally think someone’s handed me a lottery ticket to get those trainers I wanted, a new laptop, a new blackberry.

or…

I can think. I can rob this shop, but this guy who owns the shop – he’s going to suffer. Maybe his insurance won’t cover it and he’ll end up out of pocket. Maybe everything he’s worked for will be destroyed. I can imagine the guy’s face as he realises his living has been destroyed. I know he’ll never feel the same again. It’ll take a while for him to get the insurance, and they’ll look for every opportunity they can to rip him off, because they’re a business and that’s what they do. He’ll suffer, whilst I’ve filled my pockets with his cigarettes and his cash. Maybe he won’t be able to pay for food tonight. Maybe he’ll break down. Maybe this will push him over the edge. Maybe he’ll sink into depression. His insurance premiums will go up, through no fault of his own. He’ll put prices up. Either that will drive people to cheaper places where they can soak up overheads, or he’ll have to live in poverty. If insurance goes up, prices go up. My own friends and family will have to pay more. I might steal this £200 from the till now, but every time I buy a can of coke from this guy in the future, I’ll have to look him in the eye and know I did wrong by him.

And I make the right choice.

I can square up to the police and throw a petrol bomb. But that man is just a man. He’s protecting the country because he’s paid to. I might not like what he stands for. I might disapprove of their politics, but he’s just a man. He’s a man who maybe doesn’t believe in how the police operate all the time, but he knows overall they do more good than bad. By a long shot. He himself remains dignified and composed and doesn’t launch a petrol bomb back at me. I allow my emotions to run free, but I don’t expect him to have emotions. Or I expect him to control them. He’s just a man. He might disagree with my politics. He might have come from Irish immigrants forced from Ireland due to famine. His ancestors might have been born in workhouses. His family might have pulled themselves out of the gutter. Maybe he wants to petrol bomb me because he thinks I’m disrespectful scum and I’m creating a world that he doesn’t want his kids to grow up in.

So I do the right thing.

I remember that this is my community – my home. It might not be much, but it’s what I’ve got. It’s what my family fought for. It’s what they tried hard to get right. This is the park I played in as a kid. How devastated would I have been to see it ruined? This is the church I went to. I might not believe in God, but it’s where my Mum goes every Sunday and I respect that. It means a lot to her.

So I protect my community, my home. I take personal responsibility not to commit a crime and I know that if I steal, if I vandalise, if I destroy, it’s myself I’m hurting. Because I am part of this community and what I do to it will hurt me. I know I’m part of a bigger picture and I know my part in it.

Where is this kind of thinking? Where is empathy and insight? I can blame the big things, the institutions and governments, education, parenting, community, religion. But at the bottom of it all, we are individuals who make choices. At some point, sociology forgets that. The media forgets that.

When I was face to face with the teenager who stole my camera, he was full of excuses of poverty and being wound up by a group. He was too poor to repay me, so he said. He didn’t want his picture taken. Allah (!) didn’t believe in it. Society and sociologists and religion gave him ready-made excuses which he trotted out. It took a while to cut through these social excuses to make him see what he’d done. He’d damaged the good work his mosque had done to integrate. He’d let down his family. He’d victimised a woman who is the same size as his mum. He’d stolen a camera full of ebay stuff I was going to sell, so I didn’t make money that week. He’d been part of a hundred-strong group who were inciting a fight in times where people carry knives and heaven knows what else. He cried at the end.

But the worst thing is, despite him crying , I know he’d do it again. That voice that I provided for him is missing or else he wouldn’t have done it in the first place. And that’s the real problem. There have always been people without their own moral voice that says stealing is wrong (because it hurts someone else) but that’s what’s wrong, to me. All these people with no moral voice to tell them what they’re doing is wrong. They cite poverty and unemployment and tension and police brutality as if they are living in Syria. They are not. I look at other news and see the world falling apart – so it seems. Famine in Somalia. Civil dispute in Syria and Libya. Economies in free-fall. I know we’re not going to get through this with a smash-and-grab mentality. So why don’t more people think like I do?

What’s missing seems to be two-fold: altruism and empathy. I see so much anger, so much rage and so much selfishness in the news reports about London – there’s one solution. Empathy. When you empathise, your anger dissipates. When you empathise, you want to help others. When you empathise, it allows you to balance the needs of others against your own and then be altruistic. But this is down to the individual, not society. Society can’t be responsible for teaching everyone to empathise. I can imagine the scorn with which that would be greeted: National Programme to Develop Empathy. You can imagine the derision from the media. I can imagine the derision from myself! But that’s what we need.

Another life ago…

… this plain little sparrow met an exotic hummingbird.

His name was Jewels. He wrote beautiful spidery words in white ink on black paper – words that entranced me and have stayed with me forever.

I met him in Brixton, in a radical bookshop on Railton Road. He was small, probably five six, and delicate and wiry. I was smaller, only five two, and thin from a year of living as a student. He was Venezuelan and tanned – the tan ending where his cycle shorts began. I was this little white goth creature – hadn’t seen the sun in years, and still hooked on alabaster make-up. He had fabulous, lush lips which were pierced twice, and dark eyes; his nose was pierced too – in the days before I knew people did such things. No-one I knew had their lip pierced. He was from another world. He had an eagle tattooed on his chest and some other interesting ink. I was as yet ink-free. Strange how two such creatures should find company in one another.

He lived in a squat on Effra Parade – just down from the bookshop, and I ended up staying with him too. I knew as soon as I met him that this was someone with a story to tell, someone interesting. His place was a tiny four-room flat with no furniture. We travelled light in those days. Now, it’s swanky apartments that sell for £300,000 – no bigger than the place he had. Brixton at the time was this run-down, cheerful place. You got off the tube at the end of the Victoria line and it was like coming into another world. There were greengrocers selling Caribbean foods and reggae shops thick with a marijuana haze. The streets were like some amazing circus. You could walk down Electric Avenue and feel, on a sunny day, that you were somewhere else entirely. A different planet.

I don’t remember much – sadly – and I wish I did, for it now all seems like a dream – but I know he used to cook me thick pancakes in the morning. We drank milk and orange juice – he was the first guy I knew that wasn’t interested in drugs or alcohol – and we ate good stuff, all cooked on a calor gas camping stove. In the days, we’d go to the parks – Richmond most often – and we’d walk through Camden or Clapham. We’d go to the bookshop or to Brixton cycles when it was still on Coldharbour Lane; on the days when he was working on the building site, earning enough to last him a year back in Venezuela working at a bird sanctuary, I would go to the museums and art galleries. I remember going to the Natural History museum and getting back that night and talking excitedly about it all.

At night, we’d buy some juice in the newsagent opposite, then cross Dulwich Road and lie in Brockwell Park as the sun went down, lying on the grass talking some shit about the world looking at the stars. He told me if I ever needed, I could look up at the stars and know that somewhere he could see those same stars too, and that the same stuff made all of us. Sometimes, we’d walk down to Clapham and meet friends there, eating pink and yellow rice from a Turkish take-away. Sometimes, we’d stay in and read to each other, talking about all kinds of stuff: the New Model Army, riots, Marx, war, violence, de Sade, tattoos, South America, nature, the downfall of humanity. I love those times at 18 or 19 when you are just discovering the world and beginning to see it for what it really is – before you’re too jaded to be excited, and whilst you’re still naive enough to think you can make a difference to the world. I became an even more staunch vegetarian and shared his disgust for Thatcher.

He was quiet in most ways – like he let me do the talking – but then when he would talk – it was always interesting. I could listen to this guy for ever. I don’t know how we got to talking about it, but he said I would always be a fosterer, picking up the waifs and strays, and never have anything of my own. He was right. I don’t know how he knew that. He told me I was rare in that I wasn’t afraid to let go – and that was what he liked about me the most. I bleached his hair in the bathroom – long, blonde curls. I wore his cut-off jeans and he wore my t-shirts. He pierced my ears again. He was the utterly perfect Yang to my Yin. Him: tanned, blonde and exotic – a listener; me: pale, jet black hair and unusual – a talker. But it wasn’t always so clear cut. He was quiet and thoughtful in ways that most men I knew were not. He was soft and poetic, yet he could shift ten tonnes of shit on a building site. He was intelligent beyond words, yet he’d never been to school. He was an amazing cyclist, yet you would not have pegged him as an athlete. He taught me Spanish and I introduced him to Shakespeare.

I got my first tattoo because of him. With Jewels, it had to mean something, like a totem of yourself, an emblem. It was something I’d not really thought about before. Everyone I knew with tattoos had the standard skulls or hearts or crosses. I found Louis Malloy – oh he of television fame – and asked him to design me a Pegasus. It cost me £80 and took five hours. Nobody else had ink like it. That was my little tribute to Jewels, in a way. It’s funny how it still means as much to me now as it did then. I’m just as interested in mythology. It has an appeal to me I can’t explain. Perhaps it’s the story in me. And Pegasus meant and means many things to me – not least the stars I know I can look up to and know he sees too, wherever in the world he is. Legend has it he sprang from the blood of the Gorgon Medusa – she who would turn men to stone, and also the symbol of Virago books – a publisher always close to my heart. He’s a symbol of poetry, of inspiration – having created Hippocrene, source of the fountain Helicon – life blood of the Muses. A creature only ever tamed by one man. And perhaps not tamed as such – more of a willing partner. It’s also not far from my Sagittarian symbol – the half-man half-horse. It means a lot – that idea of the freed spirit, of inspiration, of poetry and mythology

I love the fact that we shared letters and poems and bits of things from books. I’ve still got all his letters. He used to post me letters in re-used envelopes and I ended up with an odd assortment of envelopes all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, when he was back in Venezuela, he would send me postcards and I like to think every urge I got to travel came from him too.

We went many places together, and I’m sad to say we lost touch in about 1997 – ish. Days before internet addresses and facebook. I wish I still knew him. He never was surprised by anything I was or became or said. I learned a lot from him. He took me to places I never knew existed and I learned never to be afraid of anything. He taught me how to see the beauty in life as well as understand its problems. No man in the world was ever so delighted to see an orchid or a bird, and yet still so angry about society and social injustice.

I like to think he’d love what I’m doing now – not that I ever sought his approval, or he sought mine. He once wrote ‘Cities interest me not’ and told me that the beauty of a hummingbird is that whilst it takes, it gives life. He said it does so with grace and without abuse. It shares freely but takes only what it needs. He said that should be our purpose on the planet. Wise words.

But last night, a series of events began to spill out from Tottenham and Brixton once again made it back into my consciousness. They call it ‘rioting’. It’s not. It’s looting, I guess.  The French call it pillaging – and it’s that more than anything. Robbing in the aftermath of an event. Opportunism. But looting is too political a word for what is happening. A man is shot by the police. A protest takes place. At some point, it moved from being political to being mercenary. This is no Notting Hill. This isn’t Brixton 1981. At the time, there was a recession – a time not unlike this one. There was high unemployment and institutional racism was endemic. The police were a racist, homophobic bunch of thugs as opposed to today’s forces, stymied by political correctness, afraid to mention skin colour even when it’s the fastest way to identify someone. Most of Brixton was a huge slum. It was still like that in 1990 when I first went there.

Not unlike the events of the weekend in Tottenham, there was a flashpoint in which police brutality was suspected – which acted as a trigger for further violence. Brixton 1985. Broadwater Farm 1985. Toxteth 1981. Handsworth 1981. The list goes on. Unemployment. Race issues. A flashpoint. A trigger. A riot.

Part of me – the radical bookshop me – would want to blame it on politics and poverty and heavy-handed policing. Part of me wants to see it as something akin to the Revolution in France – the poor majority uprising. But then the internet and modern technology lays everything out to bear in lurid detail. And then you can see your own truths – make of it what you will.

So I saw rioters ‘queuing’ (how orderly!) to get in JD sports in Tottenham and coming out with bags. In fact some people brought suitcases to fill. This is so far removed from race riots or social unrest that I want to go and slap these people. It’s not about destruction, but about filling your pockets. It’s not about chaos and anarchy and ‘fuck the police’ – it’s about getting some nice Adidas trainers. Other shops looted include H&M and Carphone Warehouse. Get yourself some nice gear for free. I despise this. In many way, real rioters, filled with anger and a need to get it out of their system have at least something to stand for. Their values, if not their behaviour, are understandable. Their need to speak out, if not through the ‘right’ channels, is obvious. I get that. What’s happening in Syria, in Libya, in Egypt, in Tunisia… I don’t want to tar these ‘riots’ with the same brush.

For what I saw in that clip about JD Sports was an ugly reality about England. People without the balls to break in themselves. People with no political anger, no sense of self-righteousness. People who are like those who steal the spoils of war. And that disgusts me to see. Opportunist scavengers. They stand for nothing except a short-cut to selfishness. This isn’t about anger, it’s about greed.

And what’s most horrible is knowing that Brixton, with its strong sense of self and community – a place in which the police were outsiders – is once again under attack. This home of mine for a little while in my life, this place in which I learned more in weeks than I did in school, this is at the mercy of these opportunist scavengers, picking over the bones of other people’s battles. The media are little better.

The trouble is that I looked at the streets of Tottenham and Wood Green and Brixton – unrecognisable from the Brixton I once knew. The old flat on Effra Parade is now neat apartments that sell for a quarter of a million. There’s a M&S and Curry’s and all kinds of mainstream shops. And a huge part of me thinks where there’s shops, there’s money. There’s jobs for the people around. Someone has to work there. And if the customers are only migrant, transient, coming from other places, well the money is going to local businesses and even if they stop at M&S to buy a sandwich, well, they might nip into the local fag shop and buy a can of coke or pay to park – all of which is in some small way paying back to the local community. But you can’t tell me all these businesses have shops without clients. Look how quickly Bury town centre closed up shop when everything moved. A part of it died within a year. So don’t tell me it’s about poverty. It can’t be. JD sports don’t stick a shop in Tottenham if it isn’t going to make money. That’s life. And whilst their profits will go to national companies and national landlords, they’ll still be paying some local taxes as well as employing locals.

Some have said it’s all about Mark Duggan – the man shot dead in Tottenham – but his own family have asked for these riots not to be connected to him. I can’t decide if it’s in part an uprising waiting to happen (at least the first bits in Tottenham) or if it’s entirely mercenary – just an excuse to lash out thinking because you’re in a crowd, you won’t get caught or punished. I feel for the communities torn apart by mindless acts that are nothing to do with the real community there. It’s as if a whole load of Serbians flew into Syria just to kick off and make trouble.

The papers are quick to cast the blame at socialism or conservatism. It’s either Labour’s fault or it’s the Con-Lib’s fault. What gets me is that there’s no personal accountability any more. At some point along the line, it became acceptable to blame politics, as if politics is in some way divorced from the people it represents, turning us into mindless automatons who are not able to control our own destiny.

I do wonder though, what with the falling stock markets and ‘turmoil’ in the financial world that emerged in the later parts of last week, if this is connected in any way. No-one in Tottenham will say their behaviour is as a result of downgraded economies in the world – and yet it does make me wonder.

And it all brings me back to the choice of song to go with this piece – a song Jewels quoted in a letter I’m just re-reading. Apt that the first thing I read should be by a punk band called Conflict, in light of what’s happened.

“Emotions, if used responsibly, will light the spark for all to see:  the start of our mass unity”