Referendum Groceries

We’ve had a lot of talk about the EU referendum in the UK of late, and much of it has been pretty nasty. Occasionally, when surrounded by argument, a person has to resort to a coffee and pastry to cheer themselves up: I did, and wrote this.

I’ve made a plan for this week, for this show-down’s not for me:

The bickering and posturing between rival MPs;

Mud-slinging in the media, both social and in print:

And prejudice from journalists once thought intelligent.

 

The Leave campaign yell: “If we stay, we’ll sink into the sea

Between the cost of membership and swathes of refugees

We’ll drown in Greek-style penury and then we’ll lose our jobs

Which will probably be taken by hordes of Turkish mobs

The politicos in Brussels will take our sovereignty

And force us to adopt the single Euro currency!

We’ll have no more such nonsense! And we strongly believe

We can pay for all our hospitals by simply voting Leave!”

 

And judging by their single bit of paper through my door

The Remain campaign’s main rhetoric is similarly poor.

“If you don’t tick the Remain box on June 23

Then our entire population will attempt to flee!

For businesses won’t deal with us: there’ll probably be war

Between Britain and the rest of Europe by June 24

There’ll be no more foreign holidays to Portugal or Spain

For nobody will let us in if we don’t vote Remain

The Scots and Welsh will both devolve and be off like a shot

And we hear that even Cornwall has a devolution plot

And lastly but by no means least – who do you want in charge?

Do you really want a country led by Boris or Farage?”

 

Meanwhile, arguments fly back and forth on Facebook and on Twitter

And many sound quite personal and not a little bitter

So I’ve made a plan for this week that will keep me quite objective

And ensure that I maintain a purely rational perspective.

 

I’ll start by having breakfast, and I know just what I’ll want:

An Italian espresso and a French almond croissant

Then I’ll stroll along the pavement in my shoes that came from Spain

(With my German car as backup in case of heavy rain)

On the way to work, I may decide to make a stop

And pick up my weekly shopping at the local Polish shop

I could buy olives (which might well be Cypriot or Greek)

Or a bar of Belgian chocolate to see me through the week

If I’m feeling decadent, Dutch waffles could be an idea

And for later in the evening, a Czech or Polish beer

And perhaps I’ll buy some port (exported by the Portuguese)

Which always goes quite well with slices of Danish blue cheese.

If I get a call, I’ll answer on my Finnish mobile phone

With a tune from Mozart (Austrian) as a tasteful ringing tone

My work will be obliged to let me leave when I am through:

Since the European Working Time Directive tells them to.

Finally, I might meet up for coffee with my mates

Who hail from all around the European member states

And as Thursday dawns, I’ll sink into my Swedish-made settee

And ponder what the EU has ever done for me.

Whatever your views on the referendum, please vote on the 23rd if you’re eligible – there is some impartial information out there. I found this lecture from the University of Liverpool very informative.

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The Doctor’s Lament

To be sung to the tune of Que Sera, Sera

When I was just a little girl

I asked my mother – what shall I be?

Can I help people when they are sick?

Here’s what she said to me.

“Join the NHS

You would be a good GP

A job and a family

Join the NHS!”

 

When I grew up and went to school

My teacher told us in History

Aneurin Bevan changed the UK

With a new policy

Called the NHS

All medical care for free

No health inequality

1948 – it’s the NHS

 

When I was in my early teens

I asked my teacher what I should be

“I like helping people, and I like science,”

Here’s what she said to me

“Join the NHS

You’re good at Biology

Make sure you’ve a good degree

Join the NHS!”

 

When I grew up and left my home

I studied medicine at university

It cost lots of money, I studied for years,

But here’s what they said to me

“Join the NHS

People always get sick, you see

They’ll help you pay back your fees

Join the NHS!”

 

Now I’ve a doctorate of my own

Spend all my hours in A&E

I see lots of patients, day after day

And I am proud to be

In the NHS

From scrapes to neurology

We treat everyone for free

In the NHS

 

BUT…

(this verse to be sung in a minor key)

Yesterday in the House of Commons

A politician called Jeremy

Said we should treble our working day

‘Do more with less – for free:

Or the NHS

Is consigned to history

We’ll bring in a PLC!”

So we’ve gone on strike.

We’re the NHS

Not a PLC

Healthcare should be free!

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.

One fish, two fish…

It’s National Poetry Day and party conference season here in the UK. Which naturally brought my thoughts to verse..

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.

This one reads the Morning Star,

This one does not drive a car.

Say! what a lot of fish there are!

One fish bends a journo’s ear:

“There weren’t so many here last year!

The Tories will have much to fear

Because there are so many here!

Here and there are lots of new fish:

(Hiding somewhere is a blue fish)

This fish is called Jeremy,

And few fish are as red as he.

The red fish all applaud with glee

Whenever they see Jeremy.

For he rejects austerity

Because it isn’t fair, you see.

Jeremy has a grey beard

And many blue fish think him weird.

“Jeremy!” the papers sneered,

“No proper leader has a beard!”

What will the red fish now agree,

At their meeting by the sea?

A fish steps up and takes the floor,

She’s one we haven’t met before.

Here is a chance to prove her worth

By showing how we save the earth.

(And don’t forget what this could mean

When lots of people voted Green)

Will she talk of car emissions?

Will she talk of air conditions?

“Please save the planet,” this fish begs,

“By avoiding milk and eggs!

Meat-eating is just for jokers,

And carnivores are worse than smokers!”

Oh well, they still have Jeremy –

Those cheery red fish by the sea –

Who does not like austerity

And wants to set the workers free

By making all the rich fish pay.

But will they pay up? Who can say?

Let’s say goodbye to all the new fish

And go North to see the blue fish.

Here things are a little tense,

Here they’ve built a great big fence

To keep all the protesters out

In case they might throw eggs and shout.

But here are lots of fish in blue,

And some have brought their spouses, too.

One fish gets a little hot:

“We’re not nasty – no, we’re not!

Whoever says so is a Trot!”

One outlines her policies

On migrants and on refugees:

“Of course we wish them every cheer –

We just don’t want them coming here.”

One dislikes the poor and needy:

“Frankly,most of them are greedy.

The reason that they have it rough

Is cause they don’t work hard enough!”

One proposes downing tools

And selling hospitals and schools.

(The doctors might get quite upset

But none of them are striking yet)

Oh dear! The blue fish do seem cross:

Let’s have a listen to their boss.

“We have to make the people see:

They should not vote for Jeremy!

His policies are far too weird

And most of all – he has a beard!”

Oh, what a lot of fish to see

In the North or by the sea.

Some are mad and some are glad

And some are very, very bad

Is politics a sort of fad?

I don’t know. Go ask your Dad.

(with apologies and thanks –  again –  to Theodor Giesl, aka Dr Seuss)

Green Eggs and Cam

David Cameron visited Edinburgh last week for a chat with Nicola Sturgeon, and the papers naturally speculated on what sort of conversation they might have. While I have no political affiliation with either of them, I couldn’t help thinking that their discussion might have gone a bit like this..

Cam I am.

I am Cam.

Did you vote for Cam I am?camiam

I did not vote for Cam I am!

I do not like that Cam I am!

I’d rather eat green eggs and ham!

Would you vote for me, says Cam?

I would not vote for Cam I am!

Would you vote Tory with a fox?

I won’t vote Tory with a fox,

I will not tick the Tory box.

Will you vote Tory here or there?

I won’t vote Tory here or there,

I won’t vote Tory anywhere!

I won’t vote Tory with a fox,

I will not tick the Tory box.

I’d rather eat green eggs and ham!

I won’t vote Tory, Cam I am!

Would you vote Tory in the rain,

Or on a bus, or on a train?

Would you vote Tory in the post?

Would you vote Tory on the coast?

I won’t vote Tory in the post,

I won’t vote Tory on the coast.

I won’t vote Tory here or there,

I won’t vote Tory anywhere!

I won’t vote Tory with a fox,

I will not tick the Tory box.

I’d rather eat green eggs and ham!

I won’t vote Tory, Cam I am!

But would you vote for Milliband?

I would not vote for Milliband,

I don’t think he could lead the land.

Now there’s a point where we agree,

The English think the same, you see.

We Tories talk about it lots –

That Labour’s not the best for Scots.

Would you vote for Mr Clegg?

I would not vote for Mr Clegg

However much the Lib Dems beg.

I used to like him long ago,

But then he changed his mind, you know,

When he scrapped his policies

Regarding large tuition fees.

But I won’t vote for Cam I am,

I’d rather eat green eggs and ham!

Would you vote for UKIP, Sam?

Stop it! Stop it! Cam I am!

I won’t vote UKIP! I’m not crazy,

And neither is my sister Maisie!

But I won’t vote for Cam I am,

I’d rather eat green eggs and ham!

You won’t vote Tory, so you say –

Try it, try it, and you may.

Try it and you may, I say.

Cam! If you will let me be,

I will show you. You will see.

Say! I know the answer, Cam –

I cannot vote for Cam I am.

I won’t vote Tory in the post,

I won’t vote Tory on the coast,

I won’t vote Tory here or there,

I won’t vote Tory anywhere

I won’t vote Tory with a fox,

I will not tick the Tory box.

I will not vote for Milliband

I don’t think he can lead the land.

I will not vote for Mr Clegg

However much the LibDems beg

I won’t vote UKIP, I’m not crazy,

And neither is my sister Maisie.

But lots of Scots seem to agree

That they quite like the SNP:

They do not like austerity

They are so good, so good you see!

Oh well, says Cam, farewell then, Sam.

I shall go off and watch West Ham.

(Or was it Chelsea…?)

(With apologies and thanks to Theodor Giesel, aka Dr Seuss)

Prejudice, Elections and Eavesdropping

Eavesdropping on conversations can be rewarding and annoying in equal measure.. here’s my metaphorical take on some of them, and on some of the more irritating leaflets we’ve had through the door lately.

“So it seems like we’ve got new neighbours. Well, to be honest I’d only seen the removal van until last week, but I got a note from the couple inviting us round for their housewarming barbecue on Saturday, which was nice. Yes, I know, it is unusual, isn’t it? But I thought it was a nice gesture, if a bit over the top. But that’s not the problem.

The thing is that they’re short-sighted.  Now, you know me, I’m not sightist in the least – but I got the shock of my life when I saw both of them wearing glasses! It’s certainly going to take a lot of getting used to and I’m not really sure about going to this barbecue now. By all accounts, they socialise with other short-sighteds and a lot of them wear glasses too – I’m beginning to feel like a minority. It feels odd to think I might be the only person with 20/20 vision in my street, now that the Wilsons are thinking of downsizing, and we’re getting more and more short-sighteds looking around the houses. Some of them like to put large numbers on the door as well, you know, as a sort of adaptation thing? The neighbourhood won’t look the same at all.

I’m a bit worried about the effect on the schools, to be honest. Of course I work with a few short-sighteds,  but they’re very discreet about it in the workplace – most of them wear contact lenses so you’d never know, they’re more like us in that respect. I don’t mind short-sighteds with contact lenses at all, but with all the laser eye surgery available, there’s just no need for glasses any more, is there? It’s a bit medieval if you ask me. And they even make their children wear these things! Poor mites, it’s not their fault. But I think the parents really need to take a look at themselves, making their kiddies wear those heavy things on their little faces like that. Take a look at themselves! See what I did there! Ha ha!

Oh dear, I shouldn’t laugh. Naughty me. Anyway, there’s the adaptation – the short-sighteds have to sit near the front in class, PE lessons are a minefield because they have to consider the short-sighteds and their glasses all the time, and I’ve heard that some of them need specially adapted books with bigger letters, eye checks at schools and the like, which is another expense that the taxpayer doesn’t need. I’ve heard that in some parts of the country, they have really hardcore bespectacled people who claim that laser surgery doesn’t work for them – do they call themselves astigmatics or something like that? I lose track. I don’t know much about it but it doesn’t sound like it really has a place here, does it? I mean, did Queen Victoria wear glasses?  No. I’m just not comfortable with it all.

Of course I’m not prejudiced. I have to say that the short-sighteds I work with have been really pleasant, but they’re discreet – they’re not really the same as short-sighteds with the glasses, are they? They say that short-sighteds tend to be better at working with screens, and the programming jobs are filling up with short-sighteds, but you can’t deny that it’s taking jobs away from the ordinary sighted people. Funny how there just seem to be more of them these days: there are parts of London that are practically short-sighted ghettos, with those big glasses everywhere. I went through one of those areas once: it was horrible, like being in a town full of owls. I remember there was only one short-sighted in my school – poor lad, he got beaten up all the time for being a four-eyes, it was a shame. Not that you can say that these days, the PC brigade would be on you like a shot.

I don’t agree with the BSP, Clear Vision For Britain and the sightists, of course, that they should be forced to have laser eye surgery or deported. Of course that’s a bit extreme, but I do think USEE talk a lot of sense.  We’re not asking them to leave, just to pay the extra taxes it takes to keep them. Let them have their own specially adapted schools that can really deal with the children with glasses properly – and give jobs to the specialist short-sighted teachers – rather than having this invasion into the mainstream schools. Yes, you can have your glasses, but no tax breaks, and keep the opticians to specialist short-sighted areas where they’re most needed – we don’t need them on our high streets, do we? And I don’t think it’s wrong when employers put their foot down and say – nobody wants to see glasses, or outward signs of short-sightedness, it’s contact lenses – which are an option – or you go into a specialist, short-sighted industry. I mean they have laws about that in other countries, don’t they? I don’t really think we should be so accommodating towards the glasses-wearers – it’s not about tolerance, it’s about saying no to extremism, isn’t it? No, I really do think I’ll be voting for USEE, this time round. It’s not that I don’t think the short-sighteds down the road are lovely people; I just worry about how things are going these days. I think normally sighted people have been overlooked for too long – it’s time we were really seen properly for a change.

Oops, did it again, didn’t I? Naughty me!”

brioche in glasses

It’s a sad fact that prejudice is alive and well, however silly it may be – and around election time there are plenty of people trying to prey on fears of ‘otherness’ to gain votes. Fortunately there are a lot of people and organisations who try to challenge this. Here are a few:

European Network Against Racism

IMADR (worldwide)

International Disability Alliance

International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission

Totalitarianism in Thomas the Tank Engine

Simple stories of little engines on the Island of Sodor. Could there be a political subtext? Or have I just read them aloud once too often?

Few people in the English-speaking world will be unaware of the Thomas the Tank Engine series, where a fictional island based loosely on the Isle of Man is populated almost entirely by talking steam trains with human-like faces. This series, which began in 1946 as a series of whimsical tales for children written by a country vicar, has mushroomed over the years into a huge franchise that the reverend could hardly have imagined (and apparently disliked). The talking steam engine has featured in a television programme, been relocated to an Appalachian village for a Hollywood film, and been the subject of a huge spin-off series of books featuring tractors, barges and diggers. There have been studies showing that the “cheeky little tank engine” is a comforting focus for children on the autism spectrum. But as I settled down to read yet another book from the modern series to the mini-brioche, my inner academic surfaced once again, and the totalitarian subtext became disturbingly clear…

We begin with the first page of the book “Thomas” and the introduction of a concept which is prevalent throughout the series – the desire to be a Really Useful Engine (sic).

Thomas - Right-to-Buy adherent?

Thomas – Right-to-Buy adherent?

While the phraseology appears innocuous enough, a glance at the context reveals an underlying reinforcement of post-Thatcherite societal norms. Thomas surmises that only with “his very own branch line” can he be valued as making a true contribution to society – without this sense of individual ownership, Thomas feels invisible in the social structure of the Island of Sodor.  Was this subliminal propaganda for the Right To Buy policy? Perhaps.  And yet, Thomas is no oppressed hero for the masses. The property owning (or kulak) class, represented here by Gordon the Express Engine, is relentlessly mocked by Thomas without apparent provocation – or punishment from the real power, the Fat Controller (Sir Topham Hatt in the – ostensibly – more politically correct US version). We shall examine his role in more detail later.

Furthermore, if Thomas is supposed to represent the proletariat striving to make good, we see no solidarity with the truly oppressed – the Trucks.

The Trucks - systematically oppressed

The Trucks – systematically oppressed

These anonymous figures function as a universal scapegoat, to an extent that draws chilling parallels with the Cultural Revolution.  The Trucks are rarely even mentioned without the disapproving epithet ‘Troublesome’ – an echo of Mao’s ‘class enemies’? –  and are blamed automatically for every mishap on the line. Once again, “Thomas” sets the tone here. On hearing the news that another engine has derailed and that a breakdown train is required, his first reaction is to blame the trucks – “Bother those trucks and their tricks!” This is reinforced by the ‘official’-style figure of the Driver, who states that the accident was the fault of the Trucks without seeking a fair hearing from their side. Outright victimisation of the Trucks is the norm in this series – in the later story “Gordon” , we see Edward the steam engine behaving aggressively towards the Trucks, and although their obvious distress is noted – “’Oh!’ they cried, “Whatever is happening?’” this is not only dismissed as harmless horseplay but is positively encouraged between the engines. When they attempt revolutionary activities (pushing Emily into a pond) we hear nothing of any subsequent attempts by the governing powers to find the root of the issue – we can only assume that a depressing cycle of arbitrary arrest, show trial and punishment ensues.

Gordon – kulak representative?

Yet ‘Thomas And Friends’ also casts a critical eye on the Tender Engines – sending the message that over-achievers must be cut down to size, and that total conformity must be adhered to at all costs. Gordon the Express Engine is shown as ‘a proud engine’ that is mocked by the others.

Notably, it is Gordon who is the only engine to express any degree of recognition of the trucks’ plight, albeit with a dubious moral disclaimer – “Don’t play around with the trucks, Edward. It isn’t wrong, but we just don’t do it”. Admittedly Gordon displays snobbish behaviour in other areas – he pours scorn on engines who shunt trucks based on their position in the class system, and defends outmoded convention (again echoing the ‘Olds’ of the Cultural Revolution) by declaring that Henry should stop whistling at stations. However, Gordon’s supposed redemption by suffering the mockery of others after a humiliating accident is one which cannot withstand any degree of liberal scrutiny. Humiliation is used as a tool of the State to ensure conformity.

The Fat Controller wields absolute power on the Island of Sodor, though satellite regimes are alluded to at the Quarry (Miss Jenny) and the Mountain Pass (the Thin Controller).

Fat Controller / Supreme Leader

Fat Controller / Supreme Leader

It is the Fat Controller who dispenses bounty or punishment as he sees fit; it is the Fat Controller who determines the function of each of the engines; and it is the Fat Controller who ensures that the engines maintain absolute obedience to the regime – or, as he himself puts it, “Engines on my railway do as they are told!” The ‘Thomas and Friends’ series can show the Fat Controller in the Benevolent Dictator role– sourcing ‘special Welsh coal’ for the ailing Henry, or accommodating the refugee engine Oliver – but his absolutist style of government is apparent throughout the series. His own story (“The Fat Controller”) tells of his suppression of a strike – the striking union of Tender Engines are replaced by smaller engines who pledge total obedience to the regime:

“’If I choose you, will you work hard?’ he said.

‘Oh Sir! Yes Sir!’ peeped the little green engine.”

The tender engines, meanwhile, are imprisoned and basic utilities withheld – “There was no coal for them, no washdown and they missed their passengers.” The eventual collapse of the strike, along with the subsequent “re-education” of the strikers, is achieved by humiliation and deprivation of basic rights –illustration of a state ruled by fear. The Fat Controller states again and again throughout the series that non-conformity will result in exile, at the very least – “Only Really Useful Engines can work on my railway!” We can only speculate at what form of gulag-like ‘education’ programmes might be employed for habitual dissenters.

Nowhere is the totalitarian ethic more apparent than in the stories of Jack the Front-Loader and Alfie the Excavator, two Stakhanov-like figures with a near-obsessive devotion to manual labour.

Jack and Alfie - idealised worker figures

Jack and Alfie – idealised worker figures

These propagandist tales go even further than the utilitarianism demonstrated in earlier ‘Thomas and Friends’ stories:  demonstrating to workers that work must be an ideal in itself, without reference to personal reward or to the purpose of the work done.

“Jack and Alfie were loading the dump truck, Max. Dust and dirt were flying everywhere. Work had never been such fun!”

In each story, the absolute work ethic is augmented by a theme of self-sacrifice – Alfie risks himself in a building declared unsafe by the Foreman to rescue a family of kittens, while Jack endures significant injury in holding up a damaged bridge to save Thomas. It is made clear that while his peers admire him for his heroic act, and while the State is prepared to cover his medical care, he must expect no reward or special recognition – indeed, his only reward is to stay with the Pack and be allowed to continue his labour.  Consistent with the ‘idealised worker’ model used by many totalitarian regimes, Jack is keen to be part of the collective, work as hard as possible without question for the good of the State, and provide unthinking devotion to the State’s ideals. The workers of the Pack are all shown as productive, but Jack and Alfie’s preparedness to sacrifice themselves unquestioningly for the good of the  State is presented as the ideal to which all workers must strive – even as Really Useful Engines.

So amid this propaganda, what subliminal messages are being fed to impressionable minds? Will they latch on to the Thatcherite theory of property ownership, the class struggle against the Tender engines, the systematic legalised oppression of the Trucks or the unquestioning ethic of the Pack under the totalitarian regime of the Fat Controller?

I posed this question to the mini-brioche.

After some thought, she sighed. “It’s just a story. Trains don’t actually talk in real life, you know.”

Oh well. It’s still better than Barbie.