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Stewart Hotston

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

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Culture

There are no easy solutions

WARNING – I’m cross and may well also be imperious and condescending in what follows.

Hard problems are hard. They can be complex, sophisticated and often intractable. I work in an environment where projects typically take months or years from start to finish and involve dozens of people from multiple groups – many of which have conflicting aims and agendas. My main role is to bring these people together and keep them together throughout the time necessary to get complicated, difficult projects done and to find ways to reconcile many situations where there’s no good answer, where someone doesn’t get their way (or multiple people).

I say the above not to sound great but because my experience of the world is framed from this kind of experience I tend to assume everyone else views the world this way. I realise, if only from watching people’s responses to the Brexit process that most people don’t live this kind of experience.

This week Hansard published a report suggesting that a growing number of people would settle for a strong leader, a benign dictator if you will and after I’d stopped despairing I wondered why people might be feeling like that.

I was reminded of a number of conversations I’ve had about how parliament has operated in the first quarter of 2019. Many, many people I come across are despairing of how the Brexit process has gone – they lament the foolishness, the self-centredness and apparent dimwittedness of our parliamentarians.

I want to propose a counterpoint to this – as part of a larger discussion about difficult subjects being difficult. From my perspective parliament has done exactly what it should have done through this process. It has taken on what is a very, very hard problem – how to deliver something most people don’t want and just as many people don’t understand and a similar number can’t say what they want. In taking this on, Parliament has, in my view, adequately reflected the country and the constitution has performed admirably. It has held off an executive which has authoritarian tendencies (if one is being generous one might suggest this is driven by frustration at the challenge of the problem). It has been unable to make up its mind – which if one reflects on just how close the vote was is pretty reasonable. It has broken along the lines of the issue – not ideology (although that has driven individual pockets of action). All in all, our system has delivered to us exactly what it’s designed for – representation. You might think it should deliver what you want, or perhaps ANY decision – but that would be its failure.

BUT I think there’s more to say on this. Brexit, like many technically hard problems (and I mean that in the philosophical sense in which there may be no answer we can derive that we can know to be optimal or even satisfactory) is a challenge for which there isn’t an easy answer.

I have witnessed over the last few months a growing demand that someone ‘DO SOMETHING ALREADY’. I want to push back against you if this is your feeling. You are wrong to ask for this. Not only that, but you are endangering the very systems designed to ensure we make the best decisions we can. You might complain about the people engaging in solving our problems as being venal, corrupt, imperfect or worse. Fine, that’s probably true to a greater or lesser degree. However, you are wrong to suppose those elements are the sole driving forces behind the apparent chaos of the process we are witnessing.

We are witnessing this process through a glass darkly. 24 news cycles might suggest we have insight into what’s going on but we really don’t. We’re as far from seeing what’s being calculated as we ever were. Distance has been replaced by obfuscation – leaving us right where we started before continuous coverage. It is a mistake to think that because you’ve read about it you have any real idea of what’s behind decisions presented to us.

Secondly, people are flawed. However, they’re no more flawed than you. If you think otherwise, I’ll show you someone with the really dangerous flaw of not having any self-awareness. The systems we generally agree make for good decision making factor these in – not to rule those foibles out but to ensure they have as little impact as possible. All people try to find ways around these rules (whether you’re illegally downloading music, speeding or deciding on a hostile immigration environment, the calculus is strikingly similar). The rules exist to hold us back, yes, but they also help us avoid the mistakes others have made or foreseen could occur without them.

Thirdly – solving hard problems takes time. No one person can resolve them, no simple answer will unlock them and no short-cut will deliver what you want without hurting everyone else. The art of diplomacy is helping everyone win when everyone knows they won’t like such an outcome. It’s why negotiating trade deals, climate change agreements and large commercial contracts take years to close. People work hard throughout that period in small incremental steps not because they’re slacking but because THIS IS THE ONLY WAY to success.

The excuse that people are tired of the process is really an admission that they themselves aren’t really capable of engaging in the same level of depth. At best it’s a failure of imagination wrt how difficult problems can be and at worst it’s an arrogance nearly always unsupported by that person’s own life achievements (and yes, I am being deliberately dismissive).

The complaint that those involved are morons…well it’s harder to argue that’s at least partly true. However, it is also often a shorthand for saying the problem’s simple and we should get on with it…by which we mean the world should like we want it to and no one else matters. This is a selfish, shortsighted view and one I have time for than being ‘tired’ of the whole thing.

The idea that simply refusing to compromise will win the day? Sigh. It does explain why so many families have kith and kin to whom they’ve not spoken to for years. Even if you can get away with such relationship destroying misery…well good luck next time and good luck when you need someone else to aid you.

So…long story short. Please relish this process, or at the very least understand it is very, very hard and what we’re witnessing are our systems working very hard to manage that somehow. British democracy is working well. British politics is being disrupted and tired ideologies on both left and right are being torn to shreds. These are all good things and we would really run a mile from morons who say ‘if we had a monarch in charge it would be better.’

I like open democracy. I dislike monarchies of all forms and the Sultan of Brunei should remind us just how dangerous they really are. Soooo, could we all agree that open democracies are worth cherishing and protecting from their detractors?

The alternative Non-fiction authors list

So this has been a challenge. I’ve struggled – realising a little about my preferences for non-fiction and, frankly, the absolute dearth of mainstream non-fiction by POC that isn’t somehow about race or the impact of colonialism. I probably need to say that when I think of non-fiction I don’t mean self help or biography. I mean either skirting the academe or thoroughly enmeshed within it. I mean philosophy, science, mathematics, history etc.

I googled ‘author’ for the picture for this post…the entry is a white male…because of course it ****ing is. However, this isn’t a post where I rant about the racist skew of search engines. It’s not even a post where I rant about how the academe is basically skewed towards white people (men) or how we can lament how it’s easier for a white person to get commissioned to write about non-white issues than it is for those being written about. For instance, I can’t/won’t write about Henrietta Lack’s because it’s a white person who was entrusted to write her story (even if, hint, hint, you should totally read it).

I promised a list of non-white authors who wrote non-fiction I, personally, think you need to encounter. Some of this is inevitably about race and empire but much of it is not.

Man, beast and zombies by Kenan Malik

There ain’t no black in the union jack by Paul Gilroy

Life on the Edge: the coming age of quantum biology by Jim Al-Khalili

Why I stopped talking to white people about race by Renni Eddo Lodge

I know why the caged bird sings by Maya Angelou

Orientalism by Edward Said

The Emperor of all maladies by Siddartha Mukherjee

What young India wants by Chetan Bhagat

What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami

New Daughters of Africa, edited by Margaret Busby

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Lastly, and because he had a massive impact on my life: The wretched of the earth by Franz Fanon

Captain Marvel has a problem

The problem is not with the film – which is an excellent entry into the series. The problem is with the standards it’s being held to.

Apparently she’s ‘not emotional enough’, ‘not vulnerable enough’, there’s not enough interiority, there’s not enough for us to know who she is as a person. These criticisms have come from both sides of the aisle and a surprising number of them have come from people who you’d think would take a moment to listen to how they sound when read out loud.

I’ve read that it’s no Black Panther, as if every film has to be that one (and let’s set aside the issues with that comparison for a moment – we’ll come back to it).

At the same time she’s ‘too powerful’, telling girls they can take on ‘200lb men’ and therefore has no dramatic tension.

My response to these criticisms can effectively be summed up as ‘sexist much?’

I did think about taking each of the, by turns, more or less subtle sexist tropes reviewers and commentators have rolled out to justify why this can’t possibly deserve a bunch of plaudits but hey, I’m going to have a rant instead.

Carol Danvers doesn’t need to impress you. She doesn’t need to prove herself. She’s a character with a military background who’s fought her way to being taken seriously by being disciplined, risk taking, self controlled, brilliant and defiant. She hasn’t done it by taking on your advice about being personable, vulnerable or seeking to please decision makers. One of the most insidious forms of control men use on women (and whites on non-whites) is to demand that not only do they do it better than their peers but that they have to be nice and never get angry while they do it. Don’t get angry when you’re treated bad, don’t object to dismissal, don’t vent when the mediocre are promoted ahead of you or when the very design of the system prefers others. The risk of being emotional (or at least showing how the system being stacked against you makes you feel) is always weaponised against you.

‘Ah,’ they say. ‘We were right to distrust you, you’re clearly not in control, you’re clearly a risk.’ And when you’re pleasing, they say ‘well they’re eager to please, they probably can’t stand up when they need to.’ The structure is to provide no route to winning trust because it was never going to be given in the first place.

Carol Danvers achieved being a fighter pilot despite that environment which the film makers deliver without being ‘on point’, without sticking in your face.

And what about Tony Stark? Or Thor? Overpowered much? Check. Brooding idiots much? Check. Refusing to be vulnerable? Check. Called out on it….oh, is that tumbleweed?

The double standards about Captain Marvel are everywhere (except for the wonderful Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo who review it as if it’s any other film). It’s dispiriting to see women demanding Carol Danvers display an emotional core they don’t ask of Bruce Banner or Steve Rogers. It’s less surprising but just as annoying to see men objecting to her power, to the fact she’s not epitomising some socially constructed feminine ideal (and if otherwise utterly brilliant Wonder Woman has a fault, apart from it’s unnecessary third act, it’s this – Gal Gadot’s body is as much the star of the film for the camera as is the character).

This film is political – it says women don’t need mens’ permission to be themselves, they don’t need society’s permission and they don’t need other womens’ permission either. They can be good, bad, strong or weak all by themselves.

Is Captain Marvel any good? For me? Yes, I think it’s up there with Thor Ragnarok. It’s not about men struggling to find their purpose, it’s not about bromancial conflict, it’s not about who’s got the bigger dick powers. She’s not a genius, she’s not a billionaire, she’s not a member of a royal family and nor is she destined for greatness. Like Captain America, she’s someone who fought hard for what was important to her, struggled with being accepted BECAUSE of what she wanted in life and overcame on her own terms. It is the best origin story since Captain America – the first avenger and in large part because it follows many of the same beats. However, it doesn’t need a love interest like Steve did and she isn’t actualised in finding a lover to give her meaning.

It’s also about imperialism and in that sense it’s a direct counter to Black Panther. One of my problems with Black Panther is that it’s basically the same old ‘a son ruling by divine right has a crisis but overcomes his enemy to establish that he is the right person to RULE EVERYONE ELSE AS A TYRANT.

Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse and now Captain Marvel have both demonstrated a new story – the everyperson overcoming because they are who they are and that’s like us (mostly). You may be the type of person who wants ‘the special’ to rule over us or prove they’re the right person to be in charge but me? I like democracy thanks and I like being able to think for myself and change the world around me. Hey, you probably dislike The Last Jedi for the same reasons – because a nobody changes the world and the maverick (man) bungles it every step along the way. If you are, please let me have your vote because you don’t really want it do you.

In terms of what the film says to my daughter Captain Marvel is better than Black Panther. In terms of what it says to my son, it’s better than Black Panther.

As a film? I think it’s really hard to compare them – they’re not the same thing. One is a large sprawling dynastic epic the other a small, almost parochial story about the right to be who we want to be. It’s like asking which of The Magnificent Seven and Ghostbusters is the better war movie.

Go see this movie – it has amazing role models (and I don’t just mean for women). Go see it because it’s full of joy. Go see it because, frankly, I want to see more movies like this and I want to rub it in the faces of the giant man babies finding ever more spurious and tiny handed reasons to object to anyone other than them being portrayed as godlike.

Why you shouldn’t want a TV debate

I keep seeing people saying we should have TV debates between leaders. They say it like it’s crucial to our democracy that the senior ranking MPs of the two main parties have some kind of face off in a TV studio. I see arguments in the media that it is madness not to have them perform like monkeys in front of the nation so we can say to ourselves ‘they won’ or ‘they lost’.

Personally I think it’s a terrible idea.

I like the fact we’re in a representative parliamentary democracy. I like all three of those words.

I like representative because it means the people who represent us at a local level get to make decisions on the basis that we trust them to do their job rather than jumping at every jumped up moronic plebiscite we’ve had this week. (Can you tell I’m a remainer?)

I like Parliamentary because it means we aren’t ruled by a president (god forbid we have a sodding king by another name). Most people sing I’m the king of the castle and reference chopping of the rascals head…I sing it the other way around. Just ask my kids if you don’t believe me. I’m a radical republican (not a Republican!) and anti-monarchist. Parliament is a system whereby decisions are made by consensus building and an executive not a single leader.

I like democracy because it means, in practice, that if you dick me around I can vote you out. I like that. I like how it’s overseen nearly every major social innovation around equality and rights in the last 200 years.

Together we should be thanking our lucky stars and doing everything we can to support that system. By support I mean rooting out corruption but also communicating positively with our representatives and supporting them socially, emotionally and also letting them know when we disagree with how they’re representing us. (We really shouldn’t be threatening them or sending dick pics or whatever other mad stuff people are probably doing right now).

How exactly does a TV debate help this? Does Corbyn win? Can May? I don’t see it, I also don’t see how them winning helps the parliamentary system maintain its strengths, checks and balances. Sure, it helps media sell advertising space, but their arguments for why we want them only work if we have a presidential system. Which we don’t. Only a few thousand people get to vote on May and/or Corbyn. It’s likely not you. It isn’t me. I vote for an MP who works in the executive. I believe I’ve even had some wins on subjects I’ve written to them about (repeatedly, patiently and, I hope, not too madly).

For all the many flaws with our system that I’m sure people will take time to internet explain to me, our system is pretty good. It could be better for sure. But it could also be worse. We could have an orange proto-fascist in charge deciding things by executive order. Our current set of politicians might not be of the calibre we want, but they’re not, on the whole, massive racists or misogynists or basic corrupt bastards. Some are, but you know what, most of them aren’t – my MP, for instance, isn’t any of those things.

We should not be clamouring for a presidential system or supporting cynical moves to make it appear to be one thereby undermining a consensus driven executive.

Just my two pennies.

An angry writer

Brexit was a wake-up call for me. Trump came later but I still wasn’t done grieving for the world I knew by then. I have to say I was so angry I didn’t know what to do with myself. The Brexit results – 24th June 2016 – were delivered on my birthday, so as someone who loves mixing with other cultures, values the freedom to move throughout Europe and who believes in the rule of law (and that law serves us and helps reign in our worst impulses) the vote to leave symbolised so much more than the catastrophe that’s unfolded since.

This is a long way of saying that what I’m interested in writing about has changed.

Authors such as Jesmyn Ward, Hari Kunzru, Paul Beatty, Colson Whitehead and Octavia Butler have taken me on a journey – and there’s probably no better phrase than they’ve awakened me. I feel like I’ve often felt the revolutionary impulse, but given I’m a banker with a family and house you could be very much forgiven for thinking if I did have it, I’ve certainly not lived it.

Richard Sennett writes about this in his book, The Corrosion of Character, where he says that in a highly regulated work environment, we no longer have to have moral expressions because so much of what we do is decided for us. I agree to some extent – the main issue for me is that the possibility of expressing our morality is shrunk to simply what we think in private with it taking a HUGE energy to get us over the threshold that leads us to act beyond the routines we have in everyday life.

The last two novels I’ve written have had anger at the heart of them. The first is looking at the cost of being free in contemporary society – what do we give up for convenience and what happens to us when that convenience is used against us? My thesis is that we’re so enmeshed in the web of making daily life more bearable (in the face of intense pressures to work and perform according to society’s norms) that when we do have to go against that flow it can unravel our lives almost instantaneously.

Zygmunt Bauman writes about how there is an implicit morality running through this conformity and that if we do deviate it’s seen as being a sign there’s something wrong with us rather than with the thing we’re fighting. In other words, as victims or resistors – we are seen as the problem – especially if it’s the mainstream we’re struggling against.

My current WIP is about slavery – openly about slavery and its evils both for the owners and the enslaved. It’s about why slavery ends, why it persists and questions whether equity for the enslaved can be achieved peacefully.

I’ve also written three short stories for publication in the last year. ALl three have been shot through with anger – in the characters, at the worlds they live in and with what options are available to them.

All of the above deal with injustice of some sort explicitly. I would wager it’s utterly impossible to write about the micro-aggressions that make live incrementally more stressful for less privileged people meaningfully in a book as simply part of the story rather than the driving narrative. The refusal to give up a seat, the cat calling, the drive by racist chant, the being followed around a super store or the soft exclusion from social activities. When writing, one feels the need to make the point, so larger, more obvious issues tend to get focussed on, but it’s the micro-aggressions that frame the entire debate; they provide the psychic landscape for the larger events to occur without shocking us into action.

Consider the murder to Kamal Khashoggi – it’s been shocking but in part only because we’re aware of it after a masterful media campaign by the Turkish government. Don’t get me wrong – what has happened is absolutely awful – but check out the Committee to Protect Journalist‘s project and you’ll see literally hundreds of murdered reporters just from 2018 alone. Where is the outrage for their spent lives?

Through this process I’ve realised that the writing that most excites me carries a sense of righteous anger with it. Anger at in justice, anger at oppression.

Don’t get me wrong – it also carries hope that we can overcome, that we can keep fighting back the darkness in our souls, but first ANGER.

I’m just plotting out a novel (in between working on my actual WIP) and it will be explicitly about truth and why we want journalists to shut the hell up with their insistence on shining a light into dark places. It’s obvs sci fi – but it’s also obvs about who we are right now, today.

I don’t think anger can be sustained without it becoming bitterness – so I want to channel it into my writing and into, more active perhaps, forms of protest. But I want to persuade others to act, not simply act myself and it seems to me that putting stories out there which remind us we should be outraged, that help up empathise with others and which show us evil can be fought back and the good fought FOR might be the most useful thing I can do.

Please, please, please go to the CPJ’s website above and look at their resources/advocacy requests. If one of you does this I’ll feel like I’ve done something to make the world a better place today.

Why identity matters to us all but may stop you selling your stuff to others

My last three long works have, or are going to feature a multiplicity of genders, races and that’s by design. On the completed side, there’s a hard science fiction novella featuring an all female cast and a novel with multiple sexual identities across the main characters. My current WIP is a long work – which is based in a society where gender fluidity is the norm and slaves are identified because they’re non-gendered.

I’m happy with these stories, love what they’ve allowed me to explore and I’ve deliberately chosen to construct them in this manner.

I’ve adopted this approach because I want to tell stories with these characters at the heart of what I’m writing – to explore their challenges and, in no small part, to allow me to work through the issues such ideas bring up. I’m not preaching to anyone about it and, to be honest, I’ve worked pretty hard to make these characters meaningful in their own sense – so that it’s not a side show that all the characters are female, or that there are people of every skin colour present. They’re there because they are – not to make a point, not to fulfil a stereotype or satisfy an agenda.

Yet this week, as I prepared for a number of panels in the upcoming FCon, I was reminded by one of the panel members as they discussed their experience of the world of publishing, just how hard it is to get from the word on the page to the audience. Furthermore, just how much hostility there is for all of the ideas I’m loving writing about. Homophobia, transphobia, plain old racism and deeply rooted sexism and misogyny appear to be present at almost every gate to getting stories out there (except self-publishing, because then you can just get on with it).

There’s a reason why non-white people are voted off Strictly and it’s the same reason why marketing people are wary of stories that are going to exclude possible audiences – because it hurts sales. It’s collusion with those forms of oppression – collusion with those ignorant hateful attitudes for sure, but it’s something else too.

Poor sales mean businesses stop making money and then people lose their jobs and whatever progressive hopes and ideas they had lose their channel into the public debate.

You can hate gatekeepers because they are the unwilling (I hope) face of society’s wider nastiness – they’re the people we see – the casting agents wanting young beautiful (by their standards) women to portray having sex with maverick older white men as the dominant picture of success. Literary agents who only want fantasy stories about the orphaned wunderkind who comes along to ‘magic/assassin/mythical’ school and beats everyone at their own game and changes the world within a context of hetero-normative relationships and maintaining the status quo of those in power…again.

Yet they are just that – gatekeepers – they understand the calculus and often, regardless of their personal preferences, are completely powerless to affect any change.

Do I wish they were braver? Of course I do (and the completed works of my own I’ve listed above have found homes), but when being brave gets your head chopped off does that have any point? Sometimes I think yes – better to resist fascists than capitulate. However, other times I think better to make small compromises on the promise of making the other side move at the same time. Sometimes not ceding the floor is the right thing to do just as much as sometimes you have to rip the other side’s face off or die trying (metaphorically of course, although I’m a sword fighter…so…I think it’s probably ok to punch nazis since they want to stuff me in a gas chamber).

I’m not going to stop writing stories with themes that I’m passionate about – with characters that I deliberately want to see from all edges of society who aren’t secretly super powered divinely ordained kings of old (which is why, incidentally The Last Jedi is brave enough to kick your faces in – who the hell wants to discover the galaxy’s fate is actually in the hands of a divinely chosen single fricking family??? I thought we were done with divine right…right?)

However, I think I need to acknowledge that many people out there aren’t going to want to read them – because I don’t judge my cis or trans characters. I don’t tell you that there’s a moral choice between hetero, homosexual or other identity. I’m interested in what those perspectives tell us about who we are for their own sake.

I wish I knew how to say this better. Sometimes people want to be homemakers. Sometimes they want to be part of a team and sometimes they want to self destruct. It’s these nuances that make writing (and living) so interesting. They don’t always fit in with the dominant narratives our society feeds us as ‘natural’ but screw that – shouldn’t we be questioning what we believe is natural, shouldn’t we approach our comfort zones and disrupt them? Isn’t that part of the point of fiction?

I hear the ‘I just want to be entertained’ argument a lot. Generally that’s code for ‘I want to escape to a fantasy that suits my prejudices’, which is of course why so many people hated TLJ – because it punctured the idea that maverick men can save the universe alone.

I’ve had this discussion with my kids – that films should make us FEEL something. That we should be wary of being manipulated by how other people tell stories but we should remain open to being moved to wonder, sadness, joy, despair and rage. Stories that deliver us out the other side having only confirmed our unspoken prejudices are, generally, unrepresentative and regressive (and I’ll debate that with you all day long) – stories that leave us washed out, excited, exhilarated, worried, scared, hungry and angry – those are the ones worth something.

I hope to write those stories. Sometimes I think I manage it. Regardless of that, I hope you can be brave enough to buy stories that aren’t obviously about people like you, that aren’t showing you nothing but a blurred out mirror with only the bits you like reflecting back.

Why? because then my friends who write together with those buy, market and publish those stories will be able to justify changing the world – because you’ll have done it first.

GUEST POST: on the NHS by Dave Palfreyman

I generally avoid talking about Brexit, I don’t consider myself an expert, there are many more educated on the subject than I. what I can talk about is the NHS. with 24 years service I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years and managed many transformation processes. Like everyone else in the UK I am also a user of it as much as I’m an employee of it.

The brainchild of Aneurin Bevan, then Deputy leader of the Labour party in 1948, the NHS is now in the top five largest employers worldwide, it rubs shoulders with the US Department of Defence, McDonalds, Walmart, and the Chinese Army. We treat something like 1 million patients every 36 hours. It costs us approx. £2.4billion per week to do that. Those who are good at maths will have already worked out that this is about £125billion a year. That is some serious money.

The Health budget in 2016-17 was 19% of the national expenditure so the government of the day understandably want to make it as efficient and effective as possible.  The single biggest problem that we the NHS face is that of constant demands for reform and scrutiny. We have no issue with scrutiny. We should seek to improve our game, but reform, dear gods, another one? The problem is that we never stop getting reformed. The NHS reals from reform after reform after reform, like a punch drunk boxer. staff constantly have to deal with reversed decision making that leaves them feeling uncertain and vulnerable. Not an ideal situation to be in when you have others to look after.

We spend millions on change every year. The costs associated with investigations and reports from Francis report, the Cavendish report,  the Keogh report and the Berwick report etc, make your eyes water.

Right First time. That’s one of the many ethos’ of the NHS to which we aspire to, but sadly despite our best efforts, we occasionally fall short. We waste millions a year on dispensing medication that does not get used and has to be thrown away, supplies that are past their best before date gets destroyed despite still being in a sterile packaging. We lose hundreds if not thousands of hours on missed appointments, waiting lists though significantly better than two years ago are still pretty high for some services. more so when you talk about children and adolescent mental health services, because its funding is peanuts by comparison. Trying to get appointment with the GP is a nightmare and we the patient often feel like we are not listened to leading to frustration and anger.

We are often told the NHS has too many managers, yet the Kings Fund analysis suggests we have has less than is required for this size of company, particularly given the complexity of health care.,  Cost improvement savings are often born by the management teams rather than the front line services. Twice I have “taken one for the team”, and agreed to be redeployed to protect front line staff and services putting my livelihood on the line for sustained service delivery.

When we as customers are not happy we complain. When it comes to the NHS  we demand that our MPs sort it out, who then demand reform, and around we go again.

What’s in it for me?  Well, the flag ship service obviously is its critical care departments, including good old A&E. If you are critically injured you can expect the best possible treatment. The NHS will do its utmost  in trying to save a life no matter the cost. After that, the NHS offers a bewildering array of services from regular health screening to palliative care, and everything in between. We have become all things to all people. It is the envy of the world, and we are proud to be number 1 in a list of the top 10 health services in the world.  But it comes with a hefty price tag as I have already said.

Paying for it long term is a constant issue for the government, and the NHS.  recently the NHS Confederation has said it needs an increase of five percent per year to meet the demands currently placed upon it, and none of the parties in the last election proposed those sort of numbers. That big red bus was nothing more than a figment of our imagination.

The House of Lords NHS sustainability committee in 2017 said we need a 2.4% increase just to stay in line with current inflation. Over the last few years we’ve had about 1 – 1.5% I think we got .4% this year.

So what is the answer? Well the simple answer is if we want a free health service like the one we are familiar with then we have to pay for it in taxation, possibly a further few pennies in the pound. We could reduce the amount of services we currently get for free, and pay for them through private health insurance, this already happens with dentistry, and most social care. Or we could just scrap everything except critical care.  That would certainly put a lot more money in the government’s spending pot. But that does not help older people that have retired and have no money. We would see mortality figures rising sharply over winter.  I believe the UK does want an NHS and it is prepared to pay for it, so we are stuck with option 1.

Long term funding not just for the next 5 years needs a consistent sustained increase to remain offering the services we currently are able to access. We have been cutting for so long that services are failing and failings at best mean long  delays or appointments getting cancelled. At worst it could, and has led to failure of care that has had catastrophic consequences to peoples lives.

After all that what’s the conclusion?

Yes more money would be helpful,  but that’s only half the story. we the NHS recognise that we are not perfect. Sadly we are prone to human failings, however we make every effort to learn from our mistakes and attempt to prevent them happening again. We should be accountable to the government for the delivery of public services but we need a buffer that protects us from the eb and flow of political manoeuvrings so we have time to make sense of the latest round of changes we’ve just gone through.

What really is not helpful is another reform. Please, no more. A cross party governance process that has a single vision and direction with some stability  would give us a chance to consolidate the changes that are constantly being imposed so that we can develop and improve. Consider the NHS as an oil tanker, which you are asking us to manoeuvre like a speed boat. Go easy, handle it with care, after all its 70 years old you know.

 

We need to talk about race

I’ve just finished the book that is the image for this post. It’s a book I read in one sitting today, sat on a plane that hasn’t gone anywhere because of unidentified baggage that needs to be removed…the sweet ironic serendipity of that occurrence is not lost on me.

It’s a book that’s given me some language for feelings and experiences I’ve had throughout my entire life – stuff that I’ve not been able to articulate properly, scenarios that I’ve entered into time and again and thought were perhaps unique to me. Turns out they and the feelings they provoke are not unique to me at all.

A little then on what’s going on from reading this book.

I grew up in a school where I was the only boy of colour. There was a Hindu girl called Aneeka. Later on there were a couple of other people of colour four/five years below me. When they arrived, the four of us were dragged into a new lunchtime club whose only participants were those of us who weren’t white. The person running it told me they’d written to my parents but hadn’t heard back. When I asked my mother about this she angrily responded that she didn’t want me going to it. I didn’t understand why then although I already thought it wasn’t relevant to me and didn’t go back for my own reasons. I experienced a lot of racial hostility growing up – not least from the kid next to me writing NF on everything I owned whenever he got the chance (I was clueless what it stood for and found it hilarious that he was so insistent on writing such nonsense on my pencil case, my skin, my books). I managed to avoid getting beaten up for being brown more than I got beaten up – most often I’d just start talking about how beating me up wouldn’t make them feel better and they often just walked away. Having said that it didn’t always work.

I didn’t know any other brown people, didn’t know anything about Indian culture – didn’t eat curry at home until I was 15 because my white father didn’t like it (except he did and ate it on the sly for years until my mother caught him…you can imagine the row that provoked, and the liberation afterwards. It’s almost comic now). I remember finding a book of racist jokes in the glove compartment of the car – not that the jokes were ‘racist’ the title of the sheets of paper with literally hundreds of racist one liners was ‘racist jokes’.

I remember the normal fights I had, the ones that are about growing up, about nothing more than being a boy, in school with lots of other people with hormones. But I also remember the calls of paki, nigger, twix, that I smelled of shit, of curry, that I should wash better because i was dirty.

I could go on.

I remember the people who were racist because of ignorance rather than hatred – those who thought my ‘eyes shined’, that my teeth were whiter because i was brown, that I must be able dance well or have a bigger penis. That they didn’t see me as brown or black, that they didn’t like blacks but I was ok, ‘not like them’. That I must know ‘XYZ because they’re one of your lot’ or that I’d be good at this subject because my lot are.

More recently I’ve also experienced the opposite – the people who wonder why I don’t speak Urdu or Hindi, who realise I’m a ‘coconut’ and stop talking to me. I’m not trying to virtue top-trump here, but I’m stuck in the middle. Belonging to neither side properly. Heck, I’ve got six different nationalities in me – the largest two being Jewish and Italian…not that racists realise they’ve got more than one reason to despise my very flesh for the crime of existing. Miscegenation is something most racists don’t realise I’m also the guilty product of. Quite where I’d be sent to if ‘sent home’ I don’t know…Poland maybe?

I also remember being friends with people, with having good times where it didn’t matter that I was brown. (I shudder to write that). Kids have a keen sense of difference but not context, so in many cases although they’re aware of the differences, they have no measure of significance – you’re different to me because you’ve got blue eyes, you’re smart, you’re rich and you’re brown – they’re all true and all unremarkable. I remember being punched out of nowhere in a pub and a dozen people standing up and surrounding me – letting the aggressor and their three mates know in no uncertain terms they’d better leave or end up in the ground. All while I stood there wondering what the hell had happened.

I was brought up in a home where race wasn’t talked about. It still isn’t. I think I’m probably fine with that at the moment.

Taking a look at myself in the light of this book I see how I’ve grown up trying to be safe – and I mean that literally – to build a life where I, Stewart, was unassailable. Where I could weather the hostility of public places like trains – such as people asking if I was sure I meant to enter first class.

I come at life therefore with the scars of not belonging, of having been rejected simply for existing. I think these lead to a certain set of triggers that I’m generally aware or and I believe that, most of the time, I’ve turned to strengths.

  • I find it hard to accept people lying to me. Maybe not uncommon and it’s something I can forgive but it’s also liable to induce blind rage in me because I experienced so many friends at school be friendly only to then use that friendship as a way of getting in with others by racially abusing me.
  • I expect not to be listened to – now, you might think I’m very well listened too, but I’m not talking about actuality here, I’m talking about what’s in my head. This is a subtle one – it’s the ‘why would we listen to you’ point. Now, I have a generally too high opinion of myself – but I think that desire to be smart, to know stuff, to be in control (oh so much control) comes directly from the desire to be safe from those who’d harm me.
  • I find it hard to be open about my insecurities – I find that I’m ready to read teasing as a personal attack more than others. I look at some of my best friends a observe how much they tease one another and I know people don’t tease me the same way and I wonder just how prickly I am because my default is to assume people want to hurt.
  • I find it hard to take sides. I am indifferent to conflict – at ease with it because I’ve experienced so much of it. This marks me out on its own. However I’m also an inveterate refuser to take sides and to hide the truth. I have experienced this only confirming my fears about being rejected because I have a tendency to test whether people want me for myself or because they want me on their ‘side’.
  • I have a sleeping anger (see above) – although part of that is a Hotston thing I see in all the members of my family. It’s a flash bang kind of anger and it really rarely shows itself. I’ve never, ever, entered into violence on the back of it, but it’s there and its horrible. I’ve used it to very positive effect throughout my life – whether negotiating big deals or dealing with bullies. Anger, on its own, isn’t a bad thing.
  • I’ve gotten used to caring about stuff most of my friends don’t care about (in the same visceral way). I have friends who care more if I swear than about the subject I’m swearing about – if you see what I mean? Their cares come from a place of such mundanity that they have literally no way of accessing the more primal, existential issues I find myself dealing with.

The above are the big, obvious ones. I find that the stuff Eddo-Lodge is writing about is so much more sub-surface. It’s the everyday micro-aggressions of white men and women who think they are the norm, that my colour is an exception, that I’m probably muslim, that I’m probably unsafe if I’m angry, and why am I angry anyway, why can’t I speak about my outrage in a calm, rational way? And if I can do that, it can’t be that serious after all can it? It’s the fact that racism is structural. That I always have to justify why it exists, to prove that people are being racist not just in themselves but also within their organisations. There are the times where because I’m so primed to see it that I’ve called it completely wrong (as my good friend Ned will testify over a specific event in Denmark many years ago). That moderates are the worst. That moderates think we should obey the law and everything will be ok…as if Stephen Lawrence was just an unfortunate event and not a sign of deeply rooted state sanctioned racism. That somehow there can be reverse racism…there can only be racism if power is involved, otherwise its simple, individual prejudice. Racism, in my mind at least, involved power, involves groups of people impacting others’ lives purely on the basis that they don’t like their appearance.

I am also aware of how few people respond to me when I bring these issues up. Of particular disappointment to me is how few Christians (and I am one, so not singling them out except that I am a part of that community) seem to have any awareness of the issues and, worse yet for me, any apparent care for them. This isn’t a post designed to have you come up to me and say any of the following by the way:

  • I’ve been meaning to talk to you
  • Sorry
  • I’m supportive

Mainly because a lot of people in my life are supportive and do talk to me about these things and humbly and humblingly try to work out how to walk this path with me – they’re just not Christians – which, as I say, is a particular disappointment.

I’m suddenly at 1700 words and realise I could write and write on this subject but I’m not sure I could shed any light. Eddo-Lodge’s book has made me realise that so many of the things that make me angry are about those tiny little actions that confirm you’re being judged on how you look. That these triggers can flip me over a table. They help explain why I’ve spent so much of my life driven to succeed – because I want to have enough to be safe. How sad is that – that I can’t be happy except that I think I’ve got enough buffers to be safe. I’ve read books on the holocaust and on slavery and how racism, fascism and the like grow from minor actions to ways of oppressing millions because ordinary people didn’t object. I look at those paths and see my own self sitting precariously exposed, the first in the line for if the majority decided those who weren’t white needed to suffer.

It’s why I mourned the brexit vote because it was driven by fear of the other for so many people, because it was a siren call to people who were closet racists to be more open about their hatred, to embolden them.

Britain is racist. Beyond the normal facts that we all harbour prejudices. It is structurally racist. Now – it’s so much better than almost every other country on earth – don’t get me wrong. BUT. I see in Eddo-Lodge’s book a reflection of myself that made me weep on the train home today, because I suddenly see that when I was angry because I was being singled out for being a trouble maker, or for refusing to conform to a white idea of normality, it was just that – because somehow I was resisting being turned into something I’m not. That it’s ok to be me.

I’ve been joking for some years with white friends of mine about my colour, openly talking about the skews against me and in their favour simply because they’re white. Many of them can now talk back to me about it – we’ve all been on a journey to where that’s possible. They’ve been respectful to me in that journey because none of us had the vocabulary to talk about it meaningfully when I first realised I needed to talk about the subject. It’s a difficult balance. I joke about it often because to challenge each and every instance in which I see those prejudices expressed would be exhausting beyond belief. Humour is a much easier and communal response even when I’m actually deprecating my own position. Fortunately, I’m a successful bruiser of a man who’s also pretty confident in who he is – so I can roll with it and be provocative and see fumbled attempts at entering that debate without losing my shit.

Ok, this is now officially too long for a blog post. You want to talk about this? Talk to me in person because this is important to me and I will make time for you 🙂

Slavery and economics

Today I bought myself a couple of books on slavery – not novels or histories on different slave systems through the millennia but actual books on how people who kept slaves went about keeping slaves.

The most interesting one is by Jerry Toner although attributed to the Roman cipher of Marcus Sidonius Falx. It’s called How To Manage Your Slaves and considers subjects such as

  • when they should be allowed to have sex
  • how to be a slave master
  • when to buy
  • what makes for a good slave
  • why they shouldn’t all speak the same language and,
  • why freedmen are a problem

It’s tongue in cheek but also solid history (as Toner is a fellow of Classics at Churchill College, Cambridge).

I’ve bought this not because I’m about to go out and re-enact the plot of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout but because I’m developing a pitch about a society whose economy and culture relies on slavery. It’s not enough when world building to know you’re against slavery. I want it to feel authentic. I want you to know, when you read it, what slaves deal with beyond simply being someone else’s property.

Having said that, the subjects covered by Toner are ones you’ll find discussed by economists lamenting people not doing as they’re supposed to right across the world. When people try to design our societies, the language and categories they use for ordinary people are, frighteningly, close to those slave owners use for their slaves. Where capitalism is more unfettered this is often especially the case – where workers are resources like light, space and licenses they are also worryingly open to being treated as if they were just that – inanimate resources. In this light, the best worker is the one who doesn’t get pregnant, doesn’t need lunch, doesn’t want to unionise and certainly doesn’t get sick. I’m reminded we should always be careful of ‘liberalisation of employment legislation’ because it’s really just code for ‘being able to treat workers as commodities’ and that is the very definition of being a slave – being someone else’s property.

My pitch, a fantasy novel with gods and magic, is obviously fiction – but it’s going to have economics, politics and people desperate to find their way to being human and not someone else’s commodity. Part of me hopes that when the book’s written and assuming the pitch is successful, you’ll imbibe my warnings about those who would make us slaves and hold in your minds the actions you might be called on to make if you want to remain free.

 

 

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