The Christmas Dragon

A twist on an old favourite.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, a long time ago,

Everywhere in the country was covered in snow.

As the snow fell around, not a sound could be heard,

Not a squeak of a mouse or a chirp of a bird.

 

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care

In the hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there,

The fires were all out, for if you want treats,

It’s best to make sure Santa won’t singe his feet.

 

Our household had long since retired to their beds,

And pulled all their blankets up over their heads,

But I lay awake, for I so wished to see

A vision of Santa, with presents for me.

 

The cold nighttime passed, and I must have dozed off.

I might have heard something, a sneeze or a cough,

And a jingling too, from way up on the roof,

And a tapping that might be a small reindeer’s hoof.

 

But it wasn’t a noise that woke me with a shock,

But a feeling of heat coming up from my socks.

I sat up and saw, curled up right by my toes,

A tiny green dragon, with smoke in his nose.

 

He startled awake, and he gave a slight grin,

As he blew out a smoke ring and lifted his chin.

Do dragons bring presents? I thought to myself.

I thought it was Santa – or maybe an elf?

 

He took a small stretch, and he jumped off the bed,

And seemed to say with an incline of his head

That the stockings were filled: Santa’s work was all done.

But now Santa’s was ended, his own had begun.

 

Then quietly into the kitchen he stole

And turned a plum pudding from out of a bowl

He gave a slight snort and a jolly laugh too,

And he covered the pudding in flames of bright blue.

 

Then he crept to the fireplace, took careful aim,

And lit up the logs with a bright yellow flame.

Then he unfurled his wings, waved a cheery adieu,

And with a great WHOOSH! Up the chimney he flew.

 

And now I knew why, on a cold Christmas morn,

Our houses (and puddings) are toasty and warm.

So remember to give Christmas dragons a greeting,

Even if, nowadays, you might have central heating.

 

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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Liberal Angst Will Eat Itself

Being a self-confessed woolly liberal (the Guardian quiz confirmed it) I have a lot to feel bad about. If there’s one thing us liberals are good at, it’s feeling guilty. We feel bad for our class, racial, national or educational privilege (often, all of the above). We purposely choose houses near good schools and then feel bad that we’re not ‘supporting’ the sink school in a completely different area by sending our children there instead. We hate McDonald’s from an environmental perspective, but don’t want to criticize others for seeing it as a cheap treat for the kids. We eat quinoa because it’s supposed to be healthy, and then worry about its impact on Bolivian agriculture. We check labels for supply chain transparency and worry about being an inverse snob for refusing to buy fast fashion. (Never shop with us, it takes hours).  And over the last few months, my pincushion-like conscience has been prickled once again by something I hadn’t considered in depth before – cultural appropriation, and specifically, the contents of my jewelry box.

There have been a lot of articles on cultural appropriation (the Wikipedia definition is here; I found Derek Clifton’s article helpful). Others have summed it up better than I can – perhaps, as a white person, I ought to be cautious about even trying to define cultural appropriation. Leaving that aside for a second, a quick definition of cultural appropriation might be ‘the adoption of an element of someone else’s culture by privileged (usually white) people, and trivialising that culture by doing so’. A fairly straightforward example would be the use of a Native American ‘war bonnet’ on the catwalk – turning something that has a specific meaning in Native American cultures into a dumbed-down oh-so-alternative (and expensive) accessory for the very rich. Imagine Vogue writing that Buddhist robes are ‘all the rage at New York Fashion Week’ and that Summer 2016 will be ‘all about that sexy saffron vibe’ and you might get an idea of why cultural appropriation makes people cross. Similarly, pop music is often cited – Elvis was celebrated as the ‘King of Rock-And-Roll’ for doing what many African-American musicians had been doing for years, and Miley Cyrus managed to offend everyone on pretty much every level with her infamous twerk. So far there have been no statements about Victoria Aitken’s rapping being culturally appropriative – perhaps because everyone is too busy cringing – but it opens up some interesting questions. So far, so clear cut – cultural appropriation is a Bad Thing for the woolly liberal.

rihanna-mosque-00-600x450

Rhianna uses a mosque for a fashion shoot. Not OK.

However, having read a lot of articles on cultural appropriation – and the inevitable below-the-line comments that accompanied them –  I found myself following my usual trajectory from ‘how terrible’ to ‘oh God, have I done that without realizing it? Does that make me a bad person? Help!’ Sure, I hadn’t done anything as daft as dress up as a ‘Pocahottie’ for Hallowe’en (as well as anything else, the ‘hottie’ ship has well and truly sailed) or had the Mahabharata tattooed across my backside because the writing looked pretty, but there are a lot of grey areas to think about. A lot of the music I love is made by people who have different social, national or ethnic backgrounds and experience to my own – is there a problem with my listening to K’naan when I am not myself a Somali-Canadian? I hope not.  Is there a problem with my learning flamenco if I don’t have Spanish Gitano blood? I hope not, just as I hope there wouldn’t be a problem with anyone of Spanish Gitano descent learning Irish dancing if they fancied it. However, there are even greyer bits of grey areas. I saw a slew of comments on a cultural appropriation article debating the usage of the word ‘ghetto’, a term which has become associated in the last 20 or 30 years with American – usually Afro-American or Latin American – urban culture. A quick Google of the word ‘ghetto’ reveals some deeply misogynist lyrics I won’t reproduce here, a discussion about the origins of gangsta rap, and photos of people (of all colours) in baggy shorts wearing a lot of jewelry. In the more mainstream sense it is used to describe a poor urban area, specifically in the USA, populated by an Afro-American and/or Latin American minority. However, the word ‘ghetto’ originates in 12th Century Venice and refers to an area in which Jewish people – also an oppressed minority – were forced to live. Discussions flew back and forth on whether it was really appropriate for non-Americans (my italics) to use the ‘ghetto’ term. Could a Venetian be accused of cultural appropriation by referring to an area of their city as ‘the former ghetto’? It was all too confusing.

saints bracelet And then there was my jewelry box. Being frankly too old and too skint for bling, my jewelry box wasn’t likely to be a cesspit of cultural appropriation. Then I remembered a ‘saints’ bracelet’ I’d bought from TopShop ages ago. Originally, the bracelets came from the Catholic tradition – my own – as an aid to prayer, but I’m pretty sure that TopShop (or the magnificently named ‘bling, inc’) weren’t really expecting their customer base to see it on their shelves and think “that’ll come in handy during Mass!”. Did this mean I was guilty of culturally appropriating my own culture? Did it trivialise my own culture if I, as a now- not-really-a-minority-and-at-least-middlingly-privileged sort, wore a saints’ bracelet? Would it be disrespectful to Catholics who were still oppressed, even if I wasn’t?

Ready to implode with liberal angst, I remembered a wise statement from an Indian friend who had passed a rather lovely salwar kameez on to a white British colleague. “She originally asked for it to wear on holiday in India,” she explained, “which made sense – she was wearing it in context. Then she started wearing it when she got back, which was OK if a bit impractical. But it does grate a bit when she wears it down the pub to get pissed and tell everyone who will listen how authentic she is.”

So, perhaps the shorthand for it all should be “wear stuff that you like, have some respect for the context, and don’t be a prat.” I think that’s easy enough for most of us.

A Letter to the Education Secretary

My child is not a genius. He’s fairly bright at best,

He doesn’t have attainment medals glowing from his chest,

He’s pretty well behaved – at least, I don’t hear that he’s naughty –

He’s not a music prodigy, or known for being sporty.

He’s reading not too badly, can decipher what’s on signs,

His writing’s not too scrawly if he keeps between the lines,

He doesn’t have additional needs as far as I can tell,

And up to yesterday, I thought that he was doing well.

 

But then I got the test results, and thanks to you, I’ve learned

That instead of being proud, I really ought to be concerned.

A five year old that reads and writes seemed pretty good to me –

(Even though he gets confused between the letters B and D)

But it seems he’s way behind, and the levels that he meets

Only indicate a future washing cars or sweeping streets.

His spelling should be perfect, and he should be writing prose

That echoes that of Dickens’ or Edgar Allen Poe’s

He should know abstract maths and science, engineering too,

And write in perfect cursive – which I know that I can’t do.

 

And since he can’t, say experts, then the problem lies with me:

I clearly feed him crap and let him watch too much TV

I believed it when the experts said I ought to give him space,

To let him do the things he likes and learn at his own pace,

I didn’t teach him how to read before he started school,

Because they said I’d do it wrong and he would look a fool,

I don’t know what the others did, but rest assured, I see

That my five year old’s a failure and the fault is down to me.

 

You told us in the news last night that kids need to be smart,

To concentrate on SPaG and STEM and not on books and art,

Our children should learn more and more, enjoy themselves far less,

And the best way to ensure this is by giving them more tests.

Well, Education Secretary, I guess I don’t agree

For knowledge for its own sake’s an important thing for me

I want my son to love to learn, be curious, be keen –

Not just be another product of the UK’s test machine.

 

So when my son looks scared at every piece of work he gets,

When he only reads and writes under the greatest of duress,

When his teachers are burned out and stressed with no time to inspire,

And you tell the schools they’ll close unless results keep getting higher,

When all the joy of learning’s gone and there’s no time for fun –

That’s the kind of education you’ve created for my son.

Black Friday

Here’s one of my verses I wrote in response to ‘Black Friday’ last year – I think it still applies..

Feral Brioche

Every year I swear blind that I’m going to be more ethical in my Christmas shopping, and most years I end up just swearing – not just at the consumer madness of Black Fridays, Cyber Mondays and the like, but at my total inability to make anything that doesn’t turn into a complete disaster. Hence this festive verse…

I’m going to have a really right-on Christmas this year.

The news is full of pictures of the mobs that flood the stores

To get their Christmas presents slightly cheaper than before

They push and shove and jostle and they thump the other shoppers

They might commit a murder that’s unnoticed by the coppers

Cause a bit of bloodshed’s worth it for a cheap computer game

The kids all want that console, and it’s not a time for shame

The people don’t know what to do, should they join in or sneer?

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Parenting manuals part 1

This of course bears no relation whatsoever to the numerous pregnancy manuals out there – honest…

YOU’RE PREGNANT!!

Two lines on a stick – you’re feeling all aglow

A little overwhelmed, since there’s so much you need to know.

You’ve never had a child before, and don’t know what to do –

Well, help’s at hand! This little manual is just for you!

I bet you think you’re fat – You don’t?

Well, that will all change soon

When your belly starts to swell like a gargantuan balloon

Your boobs will hurt, your ankles bloat, you’ll have a double chin

You might as well throw out the clothes you wore when you were thin

You’ll feel so sick and miserable, it won’t be any fun:

But isn’t it the most fantastic thing you’ve ever done?

Have you seen the midwife? Well, you’d better get there quick

There’s much more to being pregnant than just peeing on a stick

You’ll need plenty of advice so that you know what to expect

And of course, you’ll need a birth plan that the hospital can check.

First, let’s look at your diet. Time to shop for healthy things:

For Baby won’t do well on burgers and fried chicken wings,

Or tomatoes, peanuts, oranges, hot chilis or white bread,

Or onions, garlic, pâté, fish or cheese – eat grapes instead!

Fruit juice is a no-no since it gives you diabetes,

And as for tea and coffee – well, they’re just as bad as sweeties!

(and you can’t have those either..)

Try some gentle exercise like walking or a swim:

For Baby won’t be happy if you’re sweating in the gym

And as for weights, or five a side, or going for a run

You must think of the baby – now’s not time for having fun!

Have a nice lunch with your girlfriends or some me-time just for you:

But don’t forget your partner, cause it is his baby too!

He can decorate the nursery in shades of blue or pink –

He’ll feel better if he’s useful while you’re puking in the sink.

Why not take on a project like a scrapbook or a rug

You can do it while in labour – much more natural than drugs!

You might find yourself with cravings – these might be just what you need

If the craving that you have is for a toasted sunflower seed

But as for all the others – no! That chocolate just won’t do

Your body is just kidding when it wants what’s bad for you.

Make sure you have a bag that’s packed and ready in the car

For the mad rush to the hospital while hubby’s in the bar

Now’s the time to think of nappies (cloth) and breastfeeding (essential)

For when the baby’s here – cause any choice will drive you mental

Just follow all of our advice and we can guarantee

That you will be the finest Mum that anyone can be!

Built-In Obsolescence

My phone broke!80s phone

What a bloody joke!

I hadn’t had it long.

Spend fifty quid on phones, you don’t expect them to go wrong.

I hadn’t stamped upon the screen or flushed it down the loo,

I hadn’t done much with it, except make a call or two.

I know it’s not in warranty, I know I’ll have to pay

I know I won’t get cross if I’m without it for a day.

I had visions of mechanics with tiny phone sized tools

With HNDs in phone repair from specialist phone schools

Who could put it on a platform and take it all apart,

And replace a mini cam shaft to make its engine start.

I might even get a coffee, if they smile at me and say,

“It’s quite a quick repair, love. We’ll soon have you on your way.”

But though I looked around and trawled the Internet for ages

There isn’t one phone garage listed in the Yellow Pages.

I consulted all the paperwork, which said to make a call

To an 0800 number listed somewhere in Bengal

Except there was one problem, which you’d think they might have known:

You can’t exactly make a phonecall if you have a broken phone.

There was only one thing for it. I wandered into town

And picked out a likely phone shop from the thousands all around

A twelve-year-old approached me and he asked if he could help.

I said “I’d like my phone fixed, please,” and then he gave a little yelp.

“Repairs?” he said, in tones reserved for dog shit on the floor,

“I didn’t think that people bothered with them anymore!

No, it’s much better for you to invest in something new:

Take this one, for example. Let’s see what it can do.”

He held up a bit of plastic that looked much like my old phone:

“If you purchase the right add-on, this one turns into a drone!

The basic pack allows you to watch films and browse the net,

It takes selfies, does accounts and tracks appointments with the vet,

It has email, Facebook, MySpace, Netflix, Windows version 10,

And you can use it as a notebook with a phone-adapted pen!

If you already have a contract – and I assume you do –

You can purchase it today for ninety-eight pounds ninety two.”

“But what about my old one?” I asked, “Where will it go?

I’m sure there’s not much wrong with it, for someone in the know.

It seems a shame to chuck it out, when we hear every day

That we really should recycle rather than throw things away.”

He looked a bit bamboozled and then he shrugged and said,

“I fear environmental stuff’s a bit over my head.

You could always check our website and drop Management a line,

I imagine that they deal with questions like this all the time.”

And so I thanked the twelve year old – though I declined the sale –

And went home to compose a suitably insightful mail.

I told them my dilemma and I offered a solution

Which might reduce their costs and offset much of their pollution.

“Just offer to repair your phones, and everyone will see

How ecological a manufacturer can be!”

They did reply eventually. They said it was a shame,

But repairs don’t turn a profit if you’re in the mobile game.

And so I have a broken phone. I’m not too sure what’s next,

But forgive me in the meantime if I don’t return your text.

Laundry

10th October is World Mental Health day. Depression is something that many of us will experience at some point in our lives, but is still something of a stigma, with many people feeling they need to manage on their own. I’ve tried to encapsulate a little of what it feels like.

You ought to know I put the washing on

In those few hours when you both were gone

And I, left in my usual cocoon –

The emptiness I craved, my cosy tomb,

With none to disappoint or to offend

None to stand screaming devil tears

When I’d forgotten something never said,

A friend uninvited, a party not arranged

For not-your-birthday, for failing time and time again

To bear you a living playmate like the rest,

And never knowing how to treat a guest.

None to set a stony face, resentment showing clear

That belies the words – “Your mother’s not herself,”

Oh you try, you try:

But I can feel the hollowness of the words I hear

And wonder if you really believe them.

And none to scold me gently on the phone:

“I haven’t seen you, it’s a shame,”

A clumsy ‘how are you’ that sounds like a j’accuse

And I retreat with some mumbled excuse.

No people to offend, stand in their way,

Park badly in the next-door parking bay,

Miss their invisible disability

Or fail to know they’re worthier than me.

No-one suffers the fact that I exist.

And so you went, left me alone

Gave me the space I begged for

“You don’t have to do anything”

And I can’t believe that either:

Or bear for to see you paper calmly over the cracks

To do the Herculean tasks that I can’t face,

And all without an effort, without sound,

While selfish me lounges tearfully around,

Too lazy to know what brings me to this state.

And so I did the washing, proved my worth,

Put towels on the line, and rinse, repeat,

Made beds with laundered, fresh-air-smelling sheets

In the hope that it might, just perhaps, atone

For all the hours I have been undone

And answering ‘What’s wrong?’

With ‘I don’t know’ –

Small gratitudes that your clean T-shirts show.