London and the Railways – Time to Change Direction?


I’m a Londoner and I love my home city. But I very much fear that we are at the point of losing the plot with HS2 and CR2. These are not postcodes for the Isle of Lewis and Croydon but rail projects to link London and the North (HS2), and the north-eastern Home Counties with their counterparts in the south-east via central London (CR2).

The arguments in support of the two schemes are quite distinct. HighSpeed2, initially to Birmingham and then out and up to Leeds maybe and Manchester certainly and Sheffield possibly would move people between all points along the route at a faster rate than currently.  50% off of the journey time to Brum, 40 minutes from Brum to Manc. Inter-city double –quick.  Linked to the development are attractive economic growth figures – an increase in output in the West Midlands of up to £3.1bn by 2037 according to KPMG. This will “heal the north-south divide” and be “the engine for growth in the North and Midlands”.

CrossRail2 has blossomed following the progress and near completion of the east-west CrossRail1, and is championed by the government’s Treasury Infra-structure Team. This will link currently ill served population areas much more directly with London – particularly the Lea Valley in the north-north-east, and commuter Surrey and north-west Sussex. And all via Victoria to relieve the full-to-capacity Waterloo (which clearly has met its own, in terms of operational reliability).

But are the improvements in journey times posted by HS2 really needed? Current service levels are hardly pedestrian. The overall cost is uncertain and (on the basis of past large –spend, large–scale exercises) almost certain to increase significantly. Is the disruption – in demolished and blighted homes and spoilt countryside –  justified?

And CR2 may work for at the north-east end (for some it perhaps can’t come quickly enough),  could suppress  traffic growth at  Waterloo, and has parts of south and south-west London  spoiling for a fight (Balham and Tooting,  I’m  talking  about you), but resistance is strong in Wimbledon mostly, one suspects,  because the  published plans see the town centre turned into a building site for  10 years.

All piffle you might say. You can’t make these two omelettes without breaking eggs.  And look at the benefits of HS1 and The Elizabeth Line (as CR1 is to be known).

Yes, yes, alright. These projects have acquired the allure of success. And every large project probably always has generated resistance from those displaced, from slum clearances  to tranquil villages .  I am neither unconcerned nor dismissive of this, but my beef is that the stated aims of both projects will simply just not be realised.

I know that I am not alone in fearing that the net result will be to drag people and resources into the already bloated super-conurbation of London. I don’t think that is good for London, the south-east or the rest of the country.

If you cut journey times to Birmingham to under an hour, it becomes absorbed into the south-east labour market, and whilst CR2 is presented as being necessary  to cope with  pre-existing economic growth,  the reality  is that  it will be used as springboard for even further growth that could smother any extra capacity. It seems to me that whichever way you cut it, the fundamental problem of both the HS2 and CR2 projects is that the orientation is wrong. It’s stuck on “suck” instead of “blow”. I do not buy the argument that endless infinite growth is either possible or desirable for London and the south-east: The obese diner at Table UK, sitting opposite lean, hungry or even malnourished other regions.

The imbalance between London and the south-east and the rest of the UK is already arguably problematic.   Within London there are pressures on housing, education and services that will not be aided by increasing the intensity of commuter traffic and already-projected increases in population. And from a national perspective, if there is finance available and these schemes bring  benefits, , should not HS3 (aka High Speed North) get a priority call? How can it still take so long to get from  York to Liverpool? A hour from Leeds to Manchester looks decidedly slow.

The well being of us all is improved by turning the rhetoric of a Northern Powerhouse into a reality. There is enough wealth and resource to go round in this country of ours – if only we decided to distribute it right.

And in that very real sense, HS2 and CR2 are reflective of our politics as a whole.

This Picture is Worth a Thousand Words


A picture is worth a thousand words? No – this one is worth far more. This is the CWU’s newly elected National Youth Committee. As most readers know, my day job is working for the Communications Workers’ Union, so I say this with feeling: No pressure ladies and gents, but the future of the union lies with you.

This is not hyperbole. The average age of a CWU branch secretary is 53-and-a-half.  The average age of all CWU reps is 50.  “Young” for us is 29 and under.  They are the  leadership  of not just 18,000 of their fellow young members,  but  also  the  agents of  change,  the next generation,  the key ingredient  that  will take us forward.

We represent people in posts, telecoms financial and business services sectors.  And we are good at what we do.  Our membership density in the larger employers we work with is touching or over 90%.  For the private sector, with membership levels across the whole economy of around 16%, this is astonishing.

If you look at our core sectors,   we  surpass the  national average across private and public employers of  26%  trade union  density – we represent  around 30%  of all telecoms  workers and 50% of  all postal and courier sector employees1.

And we recruit. 12,000 new members in a year – 5,500 of them young workers.

So the future is not only in good hands but looking secure – right?


CWU membership has fallen from a peak of nearly 300,000 in 1998 to just over 190,000 now.  One employer, the GPO,   has now become dozens.  There are over 7 thousand telcos in the UK1.  The sectors in which we organise are increasingly and intensely competitive.  Theresa May  may talk  “one nation”  politics  but  the party which she leads rammed through the  ultra-hostile Trade Union Act – this is a government that can fairly  be described as hating who we are and what we do.

And recruitment? It is a fantastic achievement to   bring in so many new members each year.  But we lose still more.  And many new members are part-timers and those who leave are full timers. So money is tight. But incoming young members did exceed young leavers by nearly 3,000 last year.

So to hear a room full of young members (and those pictured necessarily exclude colleagues who  just couldn’t make the meeting) talk  about  their  experiences  at work and of the union,  about  how and why  they became more involved,  about the personal  struggles and  bad management   they already  have had to  deal with,  about their  abiding  commitment to workplace respect and democracy, decent  jobs,   wanting  to  make change  happen at work and in society,  is just the best  thing.

And of course they are not alone. Despite everything, there are still 6 million trade unionists in the UK, the country’s largest social movement by far. And the “union premium” is shown in higher pay and better conditions.

The media attitude to Trade Unions is downright contradictory: derided as irrelevant, unnecessary and marginalised generally, but purveyors of destructive power when we are driven to take strike action. That’s the narrative perpetuated in spite of days lost to industrial action being historically low, the likes of Sports Direct and Philip Green, Citylink and Hermes showing why capitalism can’t be trusted, and trade union campaigns on working time, health and safety, equality  and employment protection being adopted and accepted as the norm.

One thing is for sure: If unions didn’t exist, we would miss them in all sorts of ways we don’t even realise.

And one more thing for sure is that these young reps show we have a bright, hopeful future.

1 “Mapping the Future” (CWU, 2010 and 2015)

This piece also appears on the website of CWUYouth. To Join the CWU, click here



We Must Fight This Retreat From Britain’s Liberal And Open-minded Traditions (or Who Will Save Us?)


WE MUST FIGHT THIS RETREAT FROM BRITAIN’S LIBERAL AND OPEN-MINDED TRADITIONS.  There, I’ve said it. In fact, by using capitals, I’ve SHOUTED it. Just like the UK’s Sunday Observer did – heralding a virtually full-page editorial under this headline by quoting large chunks of it all over their front page. It. Is. Clearly. A . Big. Deal.

And it truly is. The Observer opines that there is “a gross whiff of xenophobia” and “an inescapable undertone of racism and intolerance.”

The cause?  Brexit. Of course.

In the newspaper’s habitually excellent writing, the government are characterised as “wreckers. They are reckless. They are irresponsible. They know only what they do not like.” “There is a clear tendency……to interpret the referendum results as an unambiguous support for a divisive, right-wing agenda.

The newspaper is, if course, absolutely right.  But, to coin a modern idiom, “No Sh*t Sherlock”. Of course Brexit has been crucial in all this – part catalyst, part catharsis, part turbo-charged accelerator. Of course we  – surely including  some  who  voted Leave – knew in our gut,  what forces had been waited in the wings –  swivel-eyed lunacy legitimised, bedlam being brought  home. That’s why as we struggled to comprehend what we collectively had done on that June morning, a sense of disgust, incomprehension and fear gripped so many.

So yes, Brexit is bad, but Brexit is real and in that sense nothing has changed these past three months.  So just what is the Observer going on about?

Might it be the slew of announcements from the Tory Party conference?  It certainly was a busy week for them in Birmingham.  I reckon Jeremy Hunt  owes Home Secretary Amber Rudd a massive “thank you”  as  her musings on  how businesses should name  all their foreign workers   eclipsed his lambasted  proposals that we would end the “reliance”  of the NHS on foreign  doctors post-Brexit.

But as Ms Rudd’s ideas were discussed, dissected and disposed of, evidence of one of those post-referendum changes was apparent on social media.  Ok, social  media is  notoriously irrational, but comments in discussion threads about the echoes of pre–war Nazi Germany were certainly disturbing, although perhaps the comments themselves  recalled for me haunting texts like The Secret Purposes or Dominion .

But over the last couple of days, discussions with EU-born UK-resident friends has validated the on-line gloom (or is it vice-versa?). These are people whose roots here are established over decades, whose children were born here, whose contribution to our communities is objectively considerable. But they struggle to remain physically upright in the teeth of a gale of media-driven hostility, under a cloud of deliberately cultured uncertainty, clearly distressed and possibly depressed by the feelings of abandonment.

But this is not the target or destination for the Observer’s epic editorial.  Yes, Brexit is bad, the Tories are worse, and the third part is that Corbyn needs to lead.  He needs to lead because, goodness knows, we must have an effective opposition.

The Labour leader’s position on and contribution to the Brexit debate has been subject to many, many debates.  One thing I think we can safely assert is that his stance on this is not going to be changed by a newspaper editorial (however impassioned and erudite).

So has the Observer’s grand eloquence been to no avail?

I think not, and here’s why.

Despite my wry “nothing new here” assessment, the Observer raises two really important points.  This first, positively, is to link our struggles and debates today with those of over two hundred years ago when Thomas Paine wrote “The Rights of Man”. The connection is valid and timely and reminds us that these are not trivial matters and we are not the first generation to have had to deal with them.

The second, less positively, is that the Observer editorial could have been subtitled, as is this piece, with “Who Will Save Us?

Well, we have a right to expect good governance, and some laws to encourage that.  We have a legitimate expectation of strong leadership, and there can be no doubting the support for the leaders of both main parties from their peers. I believe too in an empowering state (along with, it seems, the Prime Minister). But ultimately, we cannot rely or expect anyone to do more to rescue us – if indeed we need rescuing – then we ourselves.

It is the behaviours we model, the way we act, the choices we make, the interactions we have with each other. We have (usually) direct personal control over these things. No-one can take that responsibility away. But it is also a huge opportunity and power for good.

How ironic that the most potent defence of collective ideals and values lies in individuals’ acts of affirmation, resistance, solidarity and common humanity. There still has never been a more important time for decency, determination and hope, and these are all things we can deliver, irrespective of the Brexit vote.

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post


Unpaid Interns – Still with Us, Still an Issue


“Be an intern for us!” opened the email that had plonked into my in-box.  That made me pause – interns had been almost eclipsed in my mind by zero- hour contracts, Sports Direct and other precarious and/or unsavoury employment models .

But you do remember interns?  Or rather remember all the fuss about unpaid internships?  Ringing a bell?  We used to think this was scandalous and shouted loudly about it.  We still do think it’s a scandal, but somehow don’t seem to be so bothered – or are we just fatigued?  Have enough employers woken up smelt the coffee, and paid their interns to blunt to edge of our argument and anger?

Interns are still a big issue in the UK. The Sutton Trust reckons one-third of all internships are still unpaid, yet according to YouGov only 4% of us can afford to do that.  Is the sad truth that  the concept  of  doing unpaid work  to  get  your foot half on the ladder is firmly  embedded in many sectors – and with  so many  other battles to fight and injustices  to right,  it has  fallen off our campaigning agenda.

This is understandable but it is a debate that must not die. Unpaid work was and is and will always be problematic. All most of us have to sell is our labour.  And we need to generate income to live. So a set up that makes unpaid work the unavoidable entry point pulls the rug out from anyone who can’t afford to work for free.

Somehow this has become a “good thing” – look at what your interns can do for you purrs Business Insider.  Getting paid?  Well, it’s just a choice you make, swaggers Forbes Magazine.

But look again at the excellent briefing material produced by campaign group Intern Aware, the TUC and National Union of Students.  Employers still are prone to not pay interns but treat them as workers (a definite no-no to be exposed), and the reasons to pay interns are overwhelming, including the notional cost to graduates.

The current legal position  leans more towards the Forbes’ view of the world, than mine.  Yes, there are paid internships  across a range of sectors, but there is still no standard template.  Size of employer does not seems to be the determining factor – small London based charities such as the Point of Care Foundation  (POCF) seemed to decide that if  there were to be internships, then they would darn well be paid. However, creative outfits like Bombus – whose email grabbed my attention – didn’t. So I did a little digging.

The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that size does matter. POCF have 12 employees – Bombus only 6.  It is arguable that the affordability of paid internships is determined in the space between them – but therefore inarguable that larger employers could and should pay their interns.

But given just how small Bombus is – net assets of scarcely more than £100k, – surely their unpaid internships would prove to be nothing more than a ruse to increase resource for free? “ In terms of studio production time and administration it’s actually quite a costly exercise for a small company such as ours. Our interns do not arrive in the first week equipped with the level of quality in their hand-making skills to be able to offer ‘labour’ to us,” said a company spokeswoman.

“We advertise the intern scheme locally only for obvious, practical reasons. Yes, we post it on our social media and our blog but effectively, the intention of that is to give our customers and users an insight into our company and how we operate. Our studio is in a rural location, not served by any public transport. All transport costs are reimbursed in full to our interns.

Our intern scheme is there to support especially local design students and graduates who are often required to fulfil a curriculum module of workplace experience. We offer a hands-on, highly practical and fully-mentored 2 week internship, involving all aspects of our design and production methods, potentially giving them valuable skills to include on their CV for their future career paths.

And yes, often we do ask some interns to join us on a fully-paid position on either a part-time, full-time or temporary basis, depending on the company’s requirements at that time.”

It seems to me that Bombus make an important point well.  It’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it. A good quality internship consists much more than money, and the cost employers are prepared to bear is found not just in pay rates.

But this is an extremely limited illustration. And the candid nature of their response to my enquiries shows a self-confidence that I often find lacking in business.  There is a clear agenda for government here  – to provide a platform of employment standards that all employers are expected and supported to meet, to ensure young adults leave school with the right skills and knowledge, to ensure that there are enough routes into the labour market so that local internships don’t become a Hobson’s Choice with their quality  being a matter of  discretion not obligation.

That’s surely all common sense isn’t it?

Why Trade Unions Need the Young Pregnants (and how they can get them)


Speaking at a Unions 21 meeting on how to best use digital information, TUC communications  chief Antonia Bance  linked shocking headlines lines on discrimination related to pregnancy at work to the young workers we need to  recruit to survive as a movement,  and who just happen to be pregnant in significant numbers

Young workers are a notoriously and persistently a hard demographic for us to recruit as a recent TUC report emphasised only too clearly.  So, argued Antonia, if we could tailor our recruitment message to be particularly appealing to young pregnant female workers – just the group who know from other research are facing bullying, harassment and discrimination at their workplace – we would be pushing at more or less an open door

Tailoring recruitment in this way is just one avenue that is being pursued under the TUC initiative. But let us suppose we have done the tailoring and are reaching out.  What message are we giving?  What service are we offering?  What is the follow up when someone clicks the button or image on their smart phone to say “yes” I am interested; “yes” I need help.

Because offering help is not the same as providing it. When someone clicks on that button, we  need to be able  to respond in a meaningful way. (Don’t, for example,  print foreign language recruitment  fliers when  there is no one at the end of the recruitment hotline who can speak that language)

Let’s take now the situation of a pregnant worker in a franchised shop, restaurant or other business unit. She sees the advertisement on her smart phone and clicks to respond.

First problem: where does that response go?  Our trade union movement is too fragmented and, in my own view, too reluctant to truly collaborate, to offer a clear-cut route to advice and support.

But let’s say we have reached a level of understanding that means a number of unions have collaborated effectively. We have a common entry portal.  We offer a nuanced service so that basic advice and information is free, but when it comes to something more meaningful or more detailed, there is a requirement to enter into a more formal commitment.

Such an arrangement can and has worked in other environments. The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions initiative was predicated on just such collaboration.  The nuanced membership regime that our own National Union of Students operates with its NUS Extra Programme shows how you can differentiate between levels of service and levels of membership.

So having seen how we can deal with the “reception” side of the equation, what happens when we turn our attention to the transmission – a pregnant worker who has made the call?

Of course it is wonderful if she is now receiving a tailored, co-ordinated, coherent service. But she is now exposed, still worried, her employment perhaps increasingly precarious as a very real fear of being victimised takes hold.

Here we need to acknowledge some of the methodology used by the Public Concern at Work charity that recognised explicitly the risk/likelihood of victimisation.  However, whistleblowers in many circumstances are protected under law whereas raising concerns about discrimination at work is not yet a protected characteristic.

There is an obvious and immediate step forward that can be achieved were legislation introduced to expand the remit of the Whistleblowers Act to include complaints about denial of a statutory right (such as payment of the National Minimum Wage) or unlawful discrimination.

That could be reinforced by giving Employment Tribunals the power to compel reinstatement, or award more significant compensation (although awards for discrimination are currently uncapped, precedent constrains the amounts actually cited).

There could even be a dismantling of the procedural and cost barriers that act as a disincentive for employees to pursue Employment Tribunal claims – if there was the political will.

Quite apart from the absence of a progressive political climate  which  might  make such  reforms to employment protection legislation  possible,  is it not also the case that prevention  is so much better than cure?

Whatever sanction is imposed on the perpetrator; the pregnant worker who has been bullied and harassed has already suffered. Much better   to create an environment in which the likelihood of harm is greatly reduced.

“Hear, hear” readers exclaim – but how is this to be done?

This is where the political climate is surely benign. Most if not all reputable employers would agree that discrimination is wrong and that includes acts against pregnant workers.  It is not just an ethical or legal question, but a financial and operational  one too.

So a declaration of best practice for pregnant workers should attract widespread support.   And the combination of a desire to do right with fear of being caught out doing wrong is a huge fillip  to compliance.

And to emphasise the importance of this as an issue, employers   can achieve  a “kite mark”  as a recognition of their good practice.  And why would any woman, especially of child bearing age,  want to work for an outfit  that  is not accredited under this scheme.

So we design-in good practice. And we spread from large employers   through trade confederations and  other routes to  smaller ones and eventually to all employers. So that even the pregnant worker in the franchised, small workplace, has confidence that her employer, her manager and her colleagues understand, intuitively, what is required.

It is a real indictment that so much of this remains to be achieved. It is wasteful economically and destructive in human terms.  It is also unnecessary and avoidable. And it can change if we want it to.


Safe Spaces and the “Right” to be Offended


The “safe space” debate has been given new life at the start of this fresh academic year.  Theresa May condemned them as a restriction on free speech. But NUS vice-president Richard Brooks defended the policy – “some people have more equal rights than others.” This is one issue that is not going to die down any time soon

Following this path,  this morning NUS President Malia Bouattia defended the position  on  BBC’s Today  programme   by correctly  pointing  out  the contradiction  –  I might say hypocrisy –  of those who have so much power and influence, and use it  to create a climate of fear, balking at attempts  by those without such advantages  to assert the right to  a safe space

In my experience, it is not just what is being said, it is how language is used too. The most violent language does not need to contain graphical images or a torrent of swearing.  Similarly, foul words can be and are used for comedic effect.  An angry tone can turn the most innocuous expression into something destructive.

By the same token, just because a racist, homophobic or sexist argument may be presented with intellect, charm, and self-deprecating humour, it is no less offensive.

I championed safe spaces as a students’ union officer many years ago, and I use them now to encourage under-represented groups to become active in my union.

We said “No” to racists and racism, to sexist homophobic rants. We called it “No platform” not “safe spaces” (The mood of the time is captured here)  And in my time, it generally worked, possibly  because it was a clear and narrow  definition.  Debate was lively but kept within reasonable bounds.  And now,   in a  male dominated  organisation,  we  run  networks for young women members and the feedback  we  universally  get  is  positive – these safe spaces give  under-represented groups space  to  breathe,  freedom  to  talk,  the  real ability  to  organise.

So, especially in a general atmosphere of intemperance a cacophony of intolerance, the need and value for safe spaces is real.

But as an active member of Liberty and former press regulator,   I know the value and limits of free speech.

And in adopting   a cast-iron mantra  of democratic self-determination, are  we not uncomfortably close to the point at which  those within a self-declared safe space become as xenophobic, and as angry and as intolerant as those they are seeking  refuge from?

Have we perhaps lost the plot somewhat? There is a world of difference between feeling threatened and being offended.   And surely in a democracy, we have the right to be offended?

Well yes and no. Where is the dividing line between being offended and feeling threatened?  And that’s the crux of the debate.  The media is full of stories of  alleged misjudgements on this,  with people, plays, gigs and debates banned first  on grounds that  they  would contravene the safe space policy  but  then, more worryingly,  because of fears by  university administrators of  reputational, financial and legal  consequences.

And that’s the often  unappreciated  worm eating  away  at the  good intentions and  principled debate around this issue – who  truly  benefits  from a messy  debate on safe space?

Progressive ideas and the very notion of diversity itself end up getting  trashed and undermined –  sometimes  by  over enthusiastic  or uncritical  supporters – and the little power  we have asserted for ourselves seeps back  to the already  rich  and  powerful.

And that is the key issue for me: What is the balance of power in society? Anti-discrimination, anti-hate legislation is good and important, but even if it was perfectly framed and universally implemented, it would not be enough to create a sense of safety, tolerance and respect. You need determined government action  for that.

I think you can’t and shouldn’t vaccinate or insulate yourself against being offended. But in these highly insecure times, you can’t be surprised if people try. Safe spaces are surely a symptom more than anything else.

  This piece also appears in the Huffington Post


Is the National Trust at War with its Tenants?


 At a crossroads? The NT is at loggerheads with its tenants’ organization.

Photo credit: Emma Durnford, Getty Images


Trouble is brewing at one of Britain’s best loved institutions. Papers released last week show that the stage is set for a showdown between the Board of the 4 million-strong National Trust and the only organization exclusively representing the Trust’s tenants, at the former’s AGM next month.

In 2014 the Board decided to end 14 years of funding of the Tenants’ Association of the National Trust (TANT), saying that it was no longer appropriate to treat it differently to other tenants’ groups, and pointing towards fee-paying subscribers as the way forward.

Surely fair and reasonable? Not everyone thinks so and you can see why. TANT’s case is based on value-add. It’s great but challenging being a NT tenant they argue. Beautiful buildings but also frequently run-down and high maintenance. Also many properties are “working buildings”, being key parts of the Trust’s operational – and income generating – estate. TANT says they make sure concerns are raised and acted upon before they brew up into costly legal, regulatory or reputational problems. All for £15k a year (or around  0.0003% of the 2015 NT’s rental income.)

Oh this is crazy, you may be thinking. Even if this is imperfect, why try and fix something that is clearly not broken.

But there are other arguments. The Board’s position is that they are not providers of social housing, that there are other stakeholders, that TANT would speak with more authority if they did so on behalf of a paying membership.

Whilst you can see from the maths that each tenant would need to fork out only £3 a year to match the central soon-to-be-withdrawn funding, that is not the issue. Becoming a member-based organisation dependant on subscription income may be desirable in pure democracy terms but it is not cost or challenge free. Crucially, the overheads inevitably increase and the focus of the organisation as a service provider (delivering value for tenants and the Trust) is diluted by the distraction of having to organise to recruit and retain members.

The Trust have been quite cute here, offering assistance on an “in-kind” basis that could easily add up to more than the current annual grant. But the net result is the likelihood that the ability of tenants to raise issues and seek a non-fuss resolution will be reduced.

TANT claims a degree of bad faith here in being blocked out of the all-member Trust magazine, not being given any advice on independent fund-raising, and denying access to the addresses of tenanted properties. The Trust has issued a lengthy statement in support of their position

This fear is perhaps confirmed by the Board’s decision on who to support in the annual elections to the NT Council, which in turn appoints the governing body – setting aside the unfortunate all male, all white recommendations (hardly reflective or encouraging of diversity in the organisation!). One of those not supported for re-election is a senior officer of TANT (who happens to be a woman).

The Trust seems to me to be in a difficult position, vulnerable to the suggestion it seeks to be less accountable, inclusive and representative rather than more. This would be a shame because modern Britain needs the National Trust and the many things it does uniquely well more than ever.

So I’m going to do something I’ve never done before in my 15 or so years as a Trust member: Vote at the AGM. After all there’s no point complaining that democracy doesn’t work or that change is impossible unless you use it to try to make a difference.

Details of the National Trust AGM are at

A version of this article also appears in the Independent

For Freshers and Their Parents Everywhere


York Minster from the City Walls (Credit: John Lawson, Getty Images)

My mother cried when I went to university at York. My father looked a bit pinched. It wasn‘t the place, it was the going.

I’m sure they could not have known for sure how convoluted regular contact would become. Queuing with a pile of coins cupped in both hands by the three payphones either after six or at weekends. Cheap rate as opposed to peak rate, you see. No mobiles. No skype. No answering machines even. No, they couldn’t have foreseen that level of detail.

I think it was possibly some anxiety about the unknown. Dad didn’t go to university. Mum studied in the city where she lived, and she was looking to escape unhappy school days and stifling home life. But their first-born, going to the other end of the country (although as we all know York is an island of the south marooned in North Yorkshire), leaving behind (they thought) an idyllic set up at home? How could he? Would he be ok? Worry, worry and tears.

I just couldn’t understand this at the time. This was a biggish deal, sure, but it was something that had been planned, talked about, I was ready and raring to go. Hell, it was their idea in the first place..

But maybe, maybe it was a self-centred fear.

Perhaps they knew that it wouldn’t just be the lengthening distance that made for tenuous conversations, a strained relationship. Perhaps they had a fear of being left behind or a fear of being left out?, Perhaps, based-in-their own ignorance, fear for me.

Chances are they may well have been right: I didn’t give the tears much more than a passing thought. I didn’t look back.  I didn’t come home. Too youthfully arrogant. Even  the predictable things that went wrong came as a surprise.

With our young daughters, we  made a weekend return  to  York,  wandered the walls and snickleways, did the Jorvik  and embedded in their young minds  that  going to  university  was a natural, unavoidable  stage in life. Then along came the hike in both student numbers and fees that made old thinking largely redundant.

But that was before Heslington East. Langwith and Goodricke  were still where – in my mind – they always will be. When there  were  still only  six colleges,  when  York  was just  our place, and not – as Wiki now says – a global powerhouse  amongst academic establishments.

And delightful as it is, York isn’t York any more either. No cascades of cyclists tumbling over Skeldergate Bridge  when Pilkington’s knocked off –  or pouring out of hte BR  engineering works.  Coal dust in the air as you walked from campus down Hes Road into town in winter.  No whiff of cocoa and burnt sugar when the wind blew inwards from Terry’s and Rowntrees. Flood marks and an inescapable smell of damp in the old Odeon cinema

Years later and I find myself leaving our eldest in Edinburgh on a bleak late September afternoon. She kisses and hugs me goodbye on Waverley Steps. I am caught by surprise and have to hold back at the tears. Watching the city disappear from the train, I feel that unique bittersweetness and finally begin to understand a bit more about both parenting and life.

A version of this article first appeared in yu magazine

Shocking – Syria and the Dehumanisation of Misery?


Aleppo, November 2014, Credit: Getty Images, Baraa Al Halabi

Did the picture of Omran Daqneesh shock you? Upset you?  The images and story of “The boy in the ambulance” surely pushed buttons in most of us, highlighting graphically the desperate siege of Aleppo and its residents, screaming “look at this, you must look at this”  in an anaesthetised or uncaring world.

But here’s a thing: Would all the people (including me) who are upset by this photo give a thought about his life/welfare/education/family/prospects if he hadn’t just been pulled out of a pile of rubble?

That’s the view from some of those who know much more about all this have been critical. “Self-serving weepy obsession,” to paraphrase one comment from a close friend who has spent the summer volunteering in a refugee camp. Tough words, but quite apart from editors and readers not really caring, can a child really give consent for their photo to be used like this?  Is it right to use photos of traumatised bodies for shock value? Isn’t it just dehumanising? Children,  like Phan Thi Kim Phuc,  photographed in similar situations have said they have never been able to escape the legacy of the published images

But there is a larger point here too, ironically illustrated by  the juxtaposition  of two  editorials  in Friday’s Guardian – one on  Omran  Daqneesh  as  a  wake-up  call  on Aleppo,  and the other  on race equality in the UK.

I share the view – put forward by my friend (who happens to be white) – that victimisation and dehumanisation is a problem area for our media. It’s not just that there are rarely stories of middle eastern children who aren’t living in a refugee camp or covered in blood – it is more that such a lop-sided view is dehumanising and arguably teaches us to see black and middle eastern people only as either victims or perpetrators, never as full human beings – as bodies first and people second.

This is close, in my view, to some views on black deaths in police custody. It is not difficult to see why the Black Lives Matter campaign has such a strong resonance in the UK and why race quality is rightly rising up the political agenda.

My Calais correspondent argues that the photos of Omran Daqneesh show how as a middle-eastern person, he has less of a right to privacy and to consent than a white child would.  That he’s presented as a symbol, not a human being. That using traumatised and injured people for shock value is dehumanising and creates the troubling narrative described above.

I understand but think there’s another view: newspapers should be slow to sanitise the horrors of war. There is a duty to hold a mirror up to the world for their readers. And the strangulation of Aleppo and its people still hasn’t attracted the attention it should or needs. Public interest trumps consent on this one I think. It is not good that it takes bloodied kids being pulled out of rubble to get enough focus, but sadly not surprising.

I agree about the (sometimes unintended) presumption of victimhood and the consequences of that – but how else, in reality, to report Aleppo right now? Not at all would probably be the dominant view. I also disagree that there is an absolute right to consent.

Sometimes, the circumstances make consent impossible. Sometimes there is no realistic right to privacy – including when there is an overwhelming public interest.

Shock tactics have always played a role for in political debate. Facts and policy arguments may engage your mind and change what you think.  But images are more likely to change how you feel.  And for better or worse, how you feel is more likely than what you think to make you act.

This article also appears in The Huffington Post. An appeal to aid Aleppo is here. You can support humanitarian work at the Calais Refugee Camp here


Points of View: Me and St George


(Lyme Regis 2016, credit: Richard Bridges)

 This photo caught my eye. “So crowded” was my first thought. I looked again. Felt uneasy. Felt guilty. Felt confused.

It’s not hard to work out why. This is reality not an air-brushed brochure. The beach isn’t pristine, the clothes are not haut-couture and the bodies aren’t air-brushed.

But the chaotically packed sand, the brawny sleeveless t-shirted chap in the foreground (“big bloke in wife-beater shirt” said one commentator), the fluttering cross of St George. Martin Parr, welcome to Britain 2016.

But let’s not jump to conclusions too quickly. You can try to play “Where’s Wally” by looking for a can of Stella somewhere, but I think your time would be better spent.

Take the man in the foreground – and I am sorry Sir, but I do not know you or who you are. But actually, he is helping his small son – almost out of shot, dressed in an Arsenal kit (not a fashion crime, as far as I am aware. Unless you’re a Spurs fan).

And try as you might, I couldn’t find a can of Stella, or a knotted hankie. But I do see people reading books and newspapers and actually not doing any harm to anyone.

I know some people get very uncomfortable about these sorts of images – just as many did about Parr’s seminal work “The Last Resort”. There is nervous well-to-do middle class laughter about peole we presume are less well off, less cultured, less confident or adventurous than us. And then some guilt because we might be responsible. But I think it is wrong – indeed patronising – to generalise in this way.

No, my unease about this photo comes from two places. First, I can see no non-white faces. Ok, this may be indicative of my urban multiculturalism, but the lack of diversity is really striking. Discombobulating almost.

And then there is that flag. Oh how things have changed in the last month with that flag. When I was a kid, the Cross of St George meant trouble.  It had been colonised, taken over paraded by the far right of the day. Then came less worried times. The people as a whole made a determined effort to repossess the flag for everyone.  We collectively rejected a national symbol being the private property of an abusive small minority – or maybe in times of prosperity, such things become less important.

But now? Now I am not sure.  Post –Brexit  don’t we feel ill-at-ease?  My foreign-born friends are (mostly) palpably worried, anxious, and careful. Racists and xenophobes seem emboldened even though I am sure most people who voted “out” would absolutely reject such intolerance. How do we react to icons that have become tarnished in this way? How can we live with them as we did before? How do we stop ourselves possibly over-reacting and placing our own fears and presumptions at the doors of innocent others?

Questions, questions. I do think  Martin Parr would have been happy  to  have taken that photo, and  to feel  a link with  the Thatcherite  backdrop of  “The last resort”. There is no doubt we live in challenging times. But rather like that Guardian “Points of View” advertisement, we need to be sure we see all angles before jumping to conclusions.

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post