Hello real world


It’s been…. 2016. Those of you for whom it’s been a bad year will understand. I assume there must be some people – like Nigel “lightning rod of doom” Farage who’ve had a ball in 2016.

But really, has it been that bad? Compared to other years, I mean.

Because if you’ve even remotely been paying attention, you already knew before this year that sea life is dying out, that the obscenely rich are still getting richer, the polar ice is melting, the far right is on the rise in much of the world and that our own waste is choking us.

So my feeling that this year has been really rather dire comes, then, not from a reasoned weighing up of the state of the planet, but instead from the various channels that bring information to me on a daily basis. And they’ve been hammering away at death and disaster all year, from Bowie through Brexit to Trump. Admittedly I did actually seek out information about Brexit, because it directly affects me, but I never much liked David Bowie’s music, and I’m hoping very much that Trump will just turn out to be a damp squib – and of course if he isn’t I’m very unlikely to know much about it other than a sudden bright light.

And this trickle of depression from elsewhere has been bothering me, particularly as I’ve also had my own real concerns to deal with. But you know what it’s like. You don’t have time to think about this stuff. You just go on through your everyday life, tweeting and liking and hearting stuff, posting pictures of your food and telling people you’ve never met – and probably wouldn’t like if you did – more intimate things than you’d ever tell your best friend.

But over the last few days a few things have suddenly come together and forced me to take a closer look at my use of social media.

  1. I watched the latest series of Black Mirror. And just the first episode was enough to make me extremely uncomfortable about my unquestioning tapping of the “Like” button.
  2. I translated a report about social media use in journalism, which went into some detail about security issues, the tl;dr version of which is that your social media use pins you out and lays you open to examination like a medical specimen.
  3. A Facebook group for freelancers that I’ve been a proud member of pretty well since the start – and whose raison d’être is standing out from the run-of-the-mill groups where you just get whinging and complaints about unreasonable clients (answer: you’re a freelancer; you’re the boss; fix it) – has imploded into a series of petty squabbles and name calling. This has upset and disappointed me enormously, mainly because for several years now I’ve known that the answer to our problems as a species is mature thinking rather than juvenile reaction. And here are members of even this group behaving like a bunch of toddlers.
  4. But my reasons for reassessing my online presence are not all negative. Because another group – not on Facebook – that I’ve also been a member of for several years is running a couple of challenges this month. One is a “choose your own goals” thing that they do on a regular basis, and which I often intend to take part in but rarely do (largely because I waste too much time on Facebook). And the other involves doing yoga every day. Now this ties in perfectly with my current yoga practice, which is getting to be quite regular because I’ve got a foot injury and can’t do much else in terms of exercise at the moment. So I’m combining the two challenges and doing yoga and some other things – and also keeping off Facebook for those four weeks.

So that’s my thinking. I’m off Facebook, at least for this month, and – I sincerely hope – quite possibly for good. Instead I’m going to spend my time living in the real world, being present in my own life, writing words that are meaningful to me and trying hard to maintain Tree Pose for more than 3 milliseconds.


10 years later


Dear Leave voter,

Well, it’s been ten years since you voted to take Britain out of the EU, and I wonder: how do you feel about that choice now?

Because I remember watching the results come in on the night and hearing how “traditional Labour voters just aren’t feeling like the current system is working for them”. And thinking, every time, that that was about the saddest thing I’d ever heard. To me it beggared belief that someone in Sunderland could imagine that their ills had been visited upon them by the EU rather than the consistent and cynical asset stripping of the country by the Conservative party. That people in South Wales – the biggest recipient of EU spending per head in the country – could believe that they’d be better off without that funding was something I simply couldn’t understand. But you presumably could, because you voted to leave.

So, what was it that you understood? Because I pictured a number of pretty dire things happening, and as I watched those results come in I simply felt utter, utter despair.


But presumably you foresaw the unprecedented run on the pound that happened during the first two weeks after the Leave result. And you were sanguine about that because you’d also predicted the apparent economic upturn that then lasted for the remainder of that first year. During that period there was much talk about how much more cash the UK would have for things like the NHS, and that resulted in a small consumer-led boom.

And then the things that all of us on the Remain side could quite clearly see coming did indeed start to become manifest. Negative economic news began to be the norm. Nissan and the other car manufacturers withdrew from the UK. Why would they stay when there was no longer any market advantage to being in the country?

The City of London, which was, after all, a major driver of the UK economy, lost its position as the most important financial market in the world when the Brexit negotiations failed to secure the “passporting” rights it had previously had under the EU, and after about five years Frankfurt had completely taken over, with a concomitant nosedive in the financial sector.

Food became more expensive as EU subsidies were lost and some of the labour to cheaply pick the crops disappeared back across the Channel. Many farmers even went bankrupt in that horrible period before those hideously expensive internal subsidies were set up.

The EU did – as it had made clear it would – penalise the UK in every possible way during those leave negotiations. The single market became a thing of the past, and the markets that had previously been available to small and medium-sized businesses were no longer there. So yet more companies went to the wall, with yet more jobs lost. And yes, some companies managed to negotiate new markets in places like China. But even the Chinese preferred to deal with a larger economic bloc.

Overall, you see, I’d say that things became much worse for the ordinary Brit. The manufacturing industry disappeared completely; the removal of EU labour laws meant still more zero hour contracts and pitifully-remunerated jobs; housing became still more of a luxury, and even today, the UK has higher food prices than anywhere on mainland Europe. And the NHS that you were so worried about? Smashed up and sold off to Tory chums of the Tory government. Now you need expensive private health insurance to give you even minimal cover for hospital visits, and with wages being lower in real terms than they were before the referendum many people simply can’t afford that.

But you couldn’t see that coming, could you?

And one more thing that you apparently couldn’t see coming… the number of refugees and immigrants changed not at all. The immigrants already in the country had to be allowed to stay, and the UK continued to be a Mecca for ill-educated, low-paid foreigners to fill those jobs that no British person could afford to do. The only thing that changed was the ethnic make up of the immigrants; now they’re more likely to come from Thailand than from Poland. Consequently there are far more non-Christian, non-white faces behind hotel reception counters and serving in shops. Of course first there were what became known as the Refugee Wars, in which the French took a very gleeful attitude to simply waving refugees across the Channel – after all, why would they bother to stop them in France, inside the borders of the EU? But I’m not sure I believe that story that the French set up special trains from Nice and Marseille straight to Calais. Or that canny Frogs were doing a roaring trade in leaving old but well-insured boats handily positioned along the north French coast.

But then I’m out here, looking in. Just like I was before the referendum. I thought that the EU was the way to go, and I’ve done what I needed to do to make sure I stayed out here. And from here, the UK looks like even more of a sinkhole of exploitative employment practices and unbelievable gaps between rich and poor.

And yet that’s not quite what you wanted, is it?

If I remember correctly, you kept wittering on about taking the country back.

About making Britain great again.

About a return to the days of the Empire.

Only, after ten years, I’m wondering exactly when you’re going to start on that?

Because at the moment you seem to be struggling just to survive.










Why David Cameron is a fool

…other than for the obvious reasons, that is. And it’s not just him. I hadn’t seen this coming either. I’d always thought that if the UK was given a referendum on EU membership they’d vote to stay. Because I knew that big business would want to remain, and I thought that would be enough.

Sadly I miscalculated.

So did David Cameron.

And yet, he ought to have known better. Because he’s going to be in the unenviable position of being the Prime Minister who took Britain out of the EU. And the reason for that is the disgusting tactics that he and his friends and cronies on the right wing have been using for years to get and keep themselves in power: jingoism, racism, fear and lies.

And the problem with this kind of tactic – as politicians in 1930s Germany learned only too well – is that there’s always some vile being who’s willing to go even deeper into the filth at the heart of the human psyche. There’s always someone who will say the unthinkable – and believe it at least to the extent that they won’t back down in the face of minor public revulsion, until eventually it becomes normal to express such thoughts. There’s always someone who will tell a bigger, more extreme lie.

So when conservative with a small C meets UKIP with a large helping of ugly, in a question relating to nationalism, there’s only one way it’s going to go.


But it’s not even as straightforward as that. If we assume that David Cameron really does want the UK to remain in the EU (and he’s a Tory, after all, which means that you really can’t believe a word he says), then he’s been viciously stabbed in the back, presumably by the modern equivalent of Sir Humphrey. Because it was Cameron who announced the date of the referendum, almost certainly following consultation with his advisors. He probably thought “23 June, yes, that’s fine, then we can pop off and have a jolly good holiday afterwards and come back and get on with being part of Europe”.

Only if you look at the polls, they’ve lurched towards Leave since early June. Since 2 June in fact. Since the 90th birthday of Her Majesty. Giving us yet another chance to wave the flag as we sink slowly beneath the waves.



On the importance of realism

Isn’t it about time we stopped kidding ourselves?

I’ve done a fair bit of travelling this year, and I’m beginning to wonder how many more times I’m going to be able to take a plane without becoming one of those people who gets dragged off by security staff, shrieking and in handcuffs, before it’s even left the tarmac.

It’s not that I have a fear of flying. It’s that I have a very strong aversion to bullshit. In this case, the fake sense of security provided by the safety briefing.


I blame Norwegian Air. Their ridiculous animated version takes the whole thing to the ultimate pinnacle of farce. The happy smiles of the mother and child as they go calmly through the evacuation procedure make the whole thing seem like just another fun ride at Disneyland. This is so clearly not an emergency. Let’s face it, in the real world the two of them would most likely be screaming while other passengers trampled over them in their eagerness to escape.

But it’s not just Norwegian who are at fault.


This is a Ryanair safety card. The three pictograms centre left, showing things prohibited during an emergency landing, represent:

  • false teeth and glasses
  • high heels
  • earrings

Srsly? The plane’s coming down at an insane angle, the alarms are shrieking, the passengers are hysterical and you expect me to remember to take my earrings out?

And then there’s my favourite bit, when the stewardess says “In the unlikely event of the plane landing on water…” and then proceeds to tell you how to put a life jacket on while you think about the emails you forgot to send before you turned your phone off. No. Let’s have the truth. Let’s have her saying “In the unlikely event of the plane landing on water, we’re all going to die horribly”. I don’t know about you, but I’d happily pay more for my ticket just to hear that in a safety briefing.

Of course there is a possibility that this honesty might put people off flying. Which would be an excellent outcome, given that we need to be reducing the number of flights we take. In any case, flying is actually an incredibly safe means of transport. We don’t need safety briefings when we’re flying. Do we have a safety briefing when we get in a car, stressed and tired and distracted, and drive ourselves down a crowded motorway at 130 kph, surrounded by people who aren’t very good drivers even when they are sober, in vehicles that last saw a mechanic six months or more ago? And yet in the really quite likely event of the car bouncing off the crash barriers and spinning across three lanes of traffic, would you know what to do? Well, die, obviously.

Because we do stupid, dangerous things every day. And yet in the modern world we somehow think that we’re protected from them just because we’ve got ABS and animated smiling mothers and children and a safety briefing that wouldn’t help us even if we did listen to it because people panic and explosive decompression doesn’t leave you much time to pass the straps twice around your waist.

And let’s not forget that we’re only on the plane because we’ve tacitly agreed to the paper-thin illusion that security scans actually prevent terrorism. Yet I can think of a handful of ways that I could cause chaos in an airport or on a plane, even with much stricter security procedures.

If people accepted the possible consequences of their actions, then the world would be a much better place.

On 23 June, the jingoism constantly hosed over the British population by the likes of the Sun newspaper will finally have its inevitable result and the UK will vote to leave the EU. A dose of realism right now might save us all.


Behind you

For an OU course, Start Writing Fiction.

Assignment: Pick one of the characters from the opening video, Keeping track of useful details. Write a short character sketch – no more than 200 words – in which you concentrate on appearance and any particular mannerisms you noted.

Actually, it’s a bit more than 200 words, and it’s probably more about the narrator than the girl, but it ran away with me.


Behind you


It amuses me to observe her as she observes others. She sits in the centre of the café, so absorbed in noting down the traits of the people in her line of sight that she doesn’t think to look behind her, where she would instantly spot me, watching her every gesture and smiling.

She is young, this girl, no more than early 20s, and the fresh curve of her cheek and the eager way she bends over her tatty notebook with each new inspiration remind me of myself at that age.

She has skin the colour of milky coffee, smooth black hair tied back into a short, neat pony tail and wears clothing that seems somehow too thin for the season. But perhaps she is one of those trusting souls who leave their coats on the rack beside the door. I’ve never been able to, myself. This is London, after all, not some village in rural… what is she, Indian? Thai, perhaps? I can just make out that the characters she is so diligently scribbling in her notebook are not English. But she’s most likely a local, like me – as far as anyone is ever local in London – and simply confident in her youth.

I find myself wondering whether, in another 20 years, I will be even more cynical and defensive than today. And I look over my shoulder, just in case that older me is already there, making notes.


In response to a free writing prompt. (Instructions: write for 15 minutes – more if the fancy takes you – don’t plan, don’t cross out, just write.)

I originally intended this to lead up to the revelation that the main character had caused some kind of road accident due to her inability to see that colour, but I quite like the way the tension increases without any neat ending.

19 minutes’ worth.




I haven’t been able to see that colour for 28 years now. It’s not that I ignore it, or I’m scared of it, or even that I dislike it. I just don’t see it.

I know, I know, it sounds mad, but believe me, there’s a good reason for it. Oh, you know? Of course you know. That’s why you’re here. To try to help me. But I don’t need helping. Honestly, it’s really not a problem. And besides, don’t you think they’ve tried before? After the… other incidents? You know that too? Well why are you still sitting there, then? Wearing an understanding expression that I don’t believe and a cord skirt that – frankly – is most unsuitable for someone with your hips.

Rude? Well, perhaps I am being. But wouldn’t you be a touch put out if someone came and pried into your private thoughts and said they were going to try to fix a problem you really didn’t see as a problem?

Oh, you think it is a problem? Well, that’s your prerogative, of course. But I really would rather that you didn’t call me Maria, if you don’t mind. Yes, I know it’s my name. Of course I do. I may not be able to see orange – oh yes, I can say it, I just can’t see it – but I do know my own name. I simply don’t like people to call me by it, that’s all. What should you call me? I’m sure that’s in your notes too. As will be the fact that Maria was my mother’s name as well.

No, no, I insist. You started it, after all. You started asking about my ‘problem’, as you so charmingly put it. So I’ll tell you. I don’t see orange – not I don’t choose to see orange, regardless of what your predecessors have scribbled in their uniformly illegible handwriting – I don’t see it because of what that colour means to me. That colour is my mother, Maria – yes, I do have to continue, I do and I shall – that colour is my dead mother, dead these 28 years on the 14th of March. Because she was wearing an orange dress. An orange dress – I am not shouting, you’re the one who’s raising her voice – an orange dress with slightly darker orange flowers on it. When she threw me into the water from that boat.

I don’t care if you do get someone in here to restrain me. I’ve started so I’ll finish. Isn’t that how it goes? Orange dress, orange flames behind her figure as I surfaced from that freezing dark water. And an orange lifejacket on the steward who fished me out of the water and hauled me onto the lifeboat. The one functional but severely overloaded lifeboat to escape from that death-trap ferry.

The orange lifeboat.

A disclaimer about Sweden

I’m likely to say some fairly rude things about Sweden here, at times. I’m not Swedish, and nobody is forcing me to live in Sweden, so I see that there’s a strong argument for me keeping my opinions to myself.

But what I find most annoying about Sweden is not the things it gets wrong; it’s that it gets so much stuff right! Which means that the things it gets wrong – almost all of which other countries do better – are very frustrating.

This is a beautiful, large, empty country with plenty of natural resources and a generally well-educated population. And yet…

Anyway, that’s for the future. Here are just a few of the things that are good about Sweden.

1. It’s empty

I mean, really, really empty. This photo was taken in early September, in southern Sweden, on one of the most popular coasts in the country for tourists. The sea was warm enough to swim in, but there was nobody around but me.


On the same basis, there’s very little traffic outside the major towns.

2. It’s clean

Probably as a corollary of the fact that there aren’t many people here it’s noticeably cleaner than, for example, the UK. There’s almost no litter along the roadsides, even on the motorways. The streets are clean, the buildings are clean, and people will generally walk out of their way to use a bin.

3. There’s a lot of wildlife

Even where I live, right in the south, deer and moose are common. It’s not unusual to see them pottering about in the daytime, even, and at night it’s sometimes difficult to cross my garden without terrifying/being terrified by some kind of large mammal.

There’s also often a variety of birds performing acrobatics and screeching in the field next door (ornithologist I am not). Yes, it’s a big country, but essentially animals here simply aren’t being wiped out in the same kind of numbers as in the UK, either by traffic, construction or the “guardians of the countryside”.

4. You can go anywhere

Sweden has a thing called Allemansrätt (literally “Everyman’s right”). This gives you the right to enter anyone’s land, providing it’s not their garden. You can also swim in any lake and boat on any water, providing you’re using an unpowered boat. And you pick any flowers, mushrooms or berries that aren’t legally protected.

Obviously this originates in the fact that Sweden is a country with a harsh climate – it’s simply not humane to insist that people have to walk around someone else’s land if they’re going to freeze to death by doing so. But it’s interesting that it’s still enshrined in modern law.

In practice, much of Sweden is actually covered with impenetrable forest so it’s kind of irrelevant. But I live in the soft south and it’s nice to be able to just set off for a walk in the countryside without having to find a public footpath first (although such things do exist too).

5. Everyone speaks English – really well

I know that as a linguist this shouldn’t be on the list, but sometimes – especially when you’ve spent all day working in your other source language – you really just can’t find the words. So when you’re there struggling to remember how to pronounce the registration number of your car to a mechanic, it’s good to just be able to do it in English.

This facility with English is partly down to the education system, but largely – I am assured by Swedes – the result of the fact that TV programmes here are subtitled rather than dubbed. This means that many children have a good grasp of basic English (or at least American) even before they start school.

6. There are no poor people

Obviously this is rubbish. There are poor people in Sweden, it’s just that there are fewer of them per head of the population than, even the poshest bits of the UK. There are rich people here, too – even obscenely rich people. It’s just that there are fewer of them. The vast majority of Swedes (and even second-generation immigrants) have an extremely high living standard. It’s a great country to bring up kids, should you be that way inclined, because they really will find both a job and a house when they grow up. How many other European countries can say that?

7. They do really good cheesecake

Nuff said.