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WEEKLY RANT: Bullying Charities into Silence

June 12, 2014

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I came across a pair of absolutely outrageous stories last night.

The first is that Chris Mould, chair of the Trussell Trust, giving evidence to the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector yesterday, said that the charity decided to tone down its criticisms of the benefit system after they were threatened by officials. He said that in a face-to-face conversation in March 2013 with “someone in power”, he was told that he must think more carefully otherwise “the government might try to shut you down”.

He gave a second example. In 2011 he received a phone call on his day off “from someone in the Secretary of State’s office which was basically to tell me that the boss was very angry with us because we were publicising the concerns we have over the rising number of people who were struggling as a consequence of delays and inefficiencies in the benefits system”.

The Trussell Trust has long been a thorn in the government’s side, what with their insistence on gathering data on food bank use and then having the temerity to publish it. Their reports are a boil on the nose of the heavily airbrushed front cover model on the Coalition’s “Things Are Getting Better” weekly gossip magazine. The government’s counter-argument, that food banks generate demand for free food, is proved manifestly absurd by the fact that a referral is needed to use one and a voucher is used which records the reasons for the referral.

According to the shadow Employment Minister, Iain Duncan Smith has already forbidden Jobcentres from referring to the Trussell Trust by using their voucher scheme, because they contain a questionnaire on the back which records the reason for the referral. They now use their own vouchers which do not record the reason. What other possible justification could there be for this but the suppression of the true statistics?

Also yesterday, Conservative MP Conor Burns, reported Oxfam to the Charities Commission for its new campaign, which draws attention to poverty and homelessness. He says it is overtly political. The charity refutes the claims. Burns is right, of course. Pointing out inequality, the disgrace of people living in poverty in the world’s sixth richest country, is political. But it is not party political – or it shouldn’t be.

Burns’s complaint quite simply means that highlighting the plight of this country’s poor – which is not only Oxfam’s right, but its duty – is tantamount to anti-Tory rhetoric. His gripe, therefore, contains the implicit admission that the Conservative Party are neither dealing with the underlying issues, nor do they intend to. Otherwise, the response to such a campaign, would be “yes, we know; it’s unacceptable; we will do anything we can to deal with it”. But such a response would be very tricky, considering that charities now openly criticise this government’s policies for, not only ignoring the issues, but exacerbating them.

Iain Duncan Smith already refuses to meet the Trussell Trust, claiming it has a political agenda. Four years on from Cameron’s Big Idea: the Big Society, the thing he was going to spend 100% of his five years in power making a reality, of government working with the charitable sector to redress inequality, they instead find themselves at war with it.

This is totalitarian tactics, pure and simple – ironically resulting from the coalition of the UK’s two, ostensibly, “libertarian” parties. Any evidence which goes against the propaganda the government wishes to project, this offensive and mendacious narrative of perfect recovery, is threatened and bullied away. It is the political equivalent of installing spikes in front of buildings: an unwillingness to deal with any root causes; just a cruel, violent attempt to make the resulting misery invisible.

As many of suspected, Cameron’s Big Society has turned out to be precisely what its initials suggested. A load of BS.

Dried butter bean, tomato and garlic casserole

June 5, 2014

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Some of you expressed a wish to know how this is made. So, here goes. It is really easy, but has a couple of preparatory steps, which mean you have to plan for it. It’s a great source of nutrients like potassium, magnesium and iron, one of the most protein-packed legumes, a very slow-release carbohydrate, ideal for people controlling their blood sugar, vegan, gluten-free and very, very tasty. It can be eaten hot or cold. It is also cheap.

500g dried butter beans
(you can get them in most Turkish markets, large supermarkets and health food shops)
1 tomato
1 onion
4 cl. garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cups sieved tomato
1 cup hot water
dill or parsley
salt
pepper
sugar

Soak the beans in water overnight. Then rinse them, put them in a pot with cold water and bring to the boil. Boil for 20 minutes and drain.

In your multi or blender (or chopping everything finely) make a rough chunky paste of the tomato, onion, garlic and olive oil. Add the beans to a casserole dish with a lid, add the paste, the sieved tomato, water, chopped up dill or parsley (whichever you prefer, both work well and give a different slant to the dish), salt and pepper to taste, and a pinch of sugar and stir to evenly distribute.

Pop in a preheated oven (between 180° and 200°C depending on your oven) and cook for 1 and 1/2 hour. Unless your casserole lid is tight-fitting or you seal it (see below), check halfway through and add a bit of hot water if it looks like it’s getting dry.

Enjoy!

TIPS TO ELEVATE IT

1. Make a plain pastry from flour and water and seal the casserole lid around the edges, cook on a lower heat (150°C) for two and a half hours. Melts in the mouth.

2. Add a handful of sundried tomatoes and a small chilli to the blender when you make the paste. They really give the dish a zing.

3. Chop some good quality, gamey sausage into the casserole for a more carnivore-pleasing result.

4. Crumble some feta on top after serving. There are good vegan alternatives available.

Dried butter beans look like this. The recipe works equally well with dried lima beans or fagioli, but adjust cooking time for smaller varieties.

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WEEKLY RANT: Ukip and the dangers of sophistication

May 29, 2014

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There has been much in the media about why Ukip did well in last week’s elections elsewhere, but not in London. “London is out of touch with the rest of the country” is the claim. As if elections are not an aggregate result which consists of individual decisions capable of being affected by different circumstances in different areas.

Adjectives are being advanced to explain the conundrum: London is “sophisticated”, “cosmopolitan”, “media-savvy”, “bohemian”. They often drip with a venom that would suggest that these are all bad things to be. Someone even suggested during a papers review the next day that Londoners are “overeducated” – presumably this is what happens where one who had aimed for “just educated enough”, overshoots into some thoroughly ghastly state of being too well informed. Well, replacing The Crucible on the schools curriculum with Run For Your Wives should soon take care of that.

All these hypotheses ignore two important factors: First, if Ukip’s policies were thorough, well argued and coherent, presumably they would have been even more successful with the sophisticated and media-savvy. Second, Ukip achieved results below its national average in many other cities and also Scotland.

Another popular theory is that London is doing better in the economic recovery, so of course Londoners are less worried and selfish about it in the bargain. This is also misconceived. Recovery is an average. Kensington and The City may be doing incredibly well, but areas like Tottenham, Hackney or Ealing have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. And, since London is much more expensive, poor people in London are suffering a much more dramatic squeeze than anyone else. The idea that the electorate in Tottenham rejected Ukip because they are more well-to-do than leafy villages in Oxfordshire where Ukip did well, is manifestly absurd.

The most obvious reason of all has been almost completely ignored. People who live in areas where those of different races, religions, nationalities and cultures live together in, broadly, mutually beneficial harmony, are more likely to see Ukip’s apocalyptic warnings for what they really are: an enormous pile of alarmist xenophobic horseshit.

The following statistic was mentioned during the BBC’s election night coverage: in areas where more than 75% all-white households, Ukip experienced a notably higher uplift. This is because fear as motivator works best when amorphous and diffuse. And people are much more likely to vote for measures which propose to victimise a general, anonymous group, rather than one which includes friends, colleagues, partners and neighbours whom they know and respect.

I am reminded of what Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis said:

“Nazism, fascism, racism and every other anti-social and anti-human mode of behavior are not products of ideology, do not contain ideology and neither do they constitute ideology. They’re the expression of the beast within all of us growing unchecked, when its barbaric and inhuman presence is aided, enhanced or facilitated by sociopolitical circumstance.
“The only antibiotic against this beast within, is education. I am talking about real education and not the irresponsible education of indiscriminate information which actually supresses restless and critical thinking. I am talking about education which does not rest on its laurels and does not create complacency in the student, but instead propagates questions and insecurity. This kind of education is not favored by political parties and governments, because it produces free-thinking and unruly citizens, who are of no use in the lowly game of politics.”

Perhaps that is what they mean by “overeducated”.

Anywhere I go, I long for someone

May 24, 2014

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This piece first appeared in the New Statesman.

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Welcome to Easyjet flight 5156 from Mykonos to London Gatwick. My name is…” I zone out. Meaningless information I have heard five dozen times before, about the flight duration, the cabin crew and the weather back home.

The weather back home is what it is. Knowing about it after boarding is pretty pointless. It’s not as if I could magically produce an umbrella, a cagoule and a pair of galoshes from the matchbox hand luggage, which their rules allow as a carry-on. What are the current rules, anyway? Smaller and lighter than the average adult Madagascar marmoset, after a light meal, I think. The inexorable journey towards a dystopian future in which, if you choose a budget airline, all you will be allowed is a G-string made out of your passport – everything else attracts a small charge.

The weather back home… Is London now officially “back home”? Or is Greece, still? I am suddenly steeped in the duality of existence that plagues all immigrants. “Every time we say goodbye, I die a little”, muses Ella in my mind’s iPod. I have been dying a little, regularly, for twenty-three years now. Every time I leave each place I call home, the excitement of seeing family is marred by the anticipation of missing friends and vice-versa. I am never truly fully present in either place. Anywhere I go, I long for someone.

A woman who looks like Sue Pollard is showing me how to fasten a seatbelt. The illusion is helped by the bright uniform and the Nottingham accent. You pull the strap to tighten it, do you, Sue? Thanks. I flash back to that first flight to London Gatwick, in 1990. A continent of possibilities stretched before me. Granted, some of the possibilities were terrifying, but you don’t think about those when you’re nineteen. A neat little, multilingual, cocky bundle produced by the European Project. A proud European citizen, who travelled around and chose the UK to study and make a life for himself.

Why did I choose the UK? London seemed to me so supremely civilised; so fabulously cosmopolitan. You could wear and do whatever you wanted and nobody batted an eyelid. Later, I discovered this also meant you could get mugged in the street and nobody batted an eyelid. As my English improved it allowed me to strip away veneers of civility and recognise they occasionally hid thoughts that were ugly, imperial, patronising, racist, snobbish; it allowed me to know the difference between politeness and politesse. But you take the rough with the smooth and, on the whole, I remain convinced that the UK is, at least to me, the best country in the world. Although, lately, I find myself adding “just about” to that statement.

I remember that first night in the tiny, squalid bedsit on the Seven Sisters road. I remember how astonishingly bold I felt. I was the imperialist now. I would conquer this city. But I also remember my instant shock at the price of food, accommodation and transport. The realisation that the money I had believed would last three months, would stretch to maybe four weeks. If I was really careful, which I wasn’t. I remember the predictive ache of how much I would miss Greece – condemned, as I was, to stay away for nine cruel years, by a brutal army service that did not recognise objectors. What would I do without the sand, the rock, the fig and prickly pear, the way the sunlight turned the sea to blood at sunset, my mother’s cooking?

I do the cooking for my mother these days. That gift was one of the first things Alzheimer’s stole from her. All she has left now is the love she put into every meal, but none of the knowledge. The knowledge survives in me. Every grain of salt and cumin, every clove of garlic, every sliver of octopus, every silly superstition that will prevent a bèchamel from curdling; they live on like squatters of my soul. My mother’s condition has complicated things considerably. It has added to every trip the feeling that I am abandoning her, vulnerable and confused.

“Please stow away your emotional baggage in the overhead compartment”, says Sue. Soon, Easyjet will be charging for that, too.

The plane is rattling down the runway now; the fillings in my teeth are shaking loose, it feels like. As a “seasoned flyer”, I consider it my duty to play cool, in order to counterbalance the adrenaline of fellow, infrequent passengers freaking out. I put on an air of calm, maybe even yawn a little – that’s how blasé I am about all this. Inside me, meanwhile, a little child is screaming: “PLEASE GOD MAKE IT FLY”. The adult in me (it is crowded in my head) silently responds: “stop dithering, you prat; you’re an atheist”. This is what it means to be a seasoned flyer. You’re still just as petrified, but you are vastly more experienced at covering it.

The little child, I should explain, is me on my first flight, at the age of six. Mykonos to Athens on a little 30-seater with massive propellers – was it a Cessna or a Saab? – terrified but also excited. Why are my ears hurting? Free orange juice? And a boiled sweet? Wow. Then, from Athens to Patra by car and on to the ferry to Ancona. A two-week family Christmas road trip through Italy and France beckoned. My first taste of travel. My first taste of Europe. My first realisation that a border is just a line – you cross it and nothing changes. No, everything changes. You are in another world, which is both exactly the same and entirely different.

And I find that “terrified but also excited” is still the mingle I experience, each time I leave home to go home. Only, each time for different reasons. Will I get that West End part I’m up for? Yes. It was a good audition. Will my father still be alive the next time I return? No. Pancreatic cancer is swift like a scythe. I won’t even make the funeral. Will people think I gained weight or lost weight, during my absence? Probably both. Will this feeling of duality ever subside? Never.

The only certainty which remains inside me, unshakeable like a granite monolith, is that I am a product of both countries now and I am a richer man for it. And, if I may eschew my British humility and embrace my Greek boldness for a moment, both my countries are richer for it, too.

Sue interrupts my daze. “Do you require a landing card, Sir?” I don’t know. Do I? I recently read that a Home Office spokesman said: “We are focusing on cutting out the abuse of free movement between EU member states”. I wonder what that means. How can I abuse my legal right? I wonder where that leaves me. Whether in six months, or a year, or five, I will be asked to pack a life’s worth of belongings and leave the country in which I have lived and worked and fallen in love and watched cricket and gone on marches and got drunk and cooked my mother’s recipes and helped make what it is, for twenty-three years.

I wonder if those who delight in dehumanising immigrants realise how much more of a conscious choice it is for someone like me to love this country and see it as my home. And at what personal cost.

Sweet heaven, I think it is Sue Pollard!

Controlling Immigration; The Snake-Oil of Our Times

May 4, 2014

This piece first appeared in the New Statesman on 8/5/2013.

Today, I watched as a monarch, wearing a crown encrusted with more than 3,000 precious gems, announced to a group of lords and bishops what “her” government’s plans for the Parliamentary session were and granted them God’s blessing. Later, in the ironically named House of Commons, the Eton-educated, millionaire grandson of a baronet, a direct descendent of King William IV and fifth cousin of the aforementioned monarch, gave further details. If this is a democracy, it is cleverly disguised on days like these.

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Tightening control of immigration, as expected, occupied centre stage. Piecing together leaks, briefings and subsequent announcements, this appears to include restricting benefits and healthcare (presumably to address the relevant “tourisms”), access to driving licences, forcing landlords to check a tenant’s immigration status, ensuring surviving foreign spouses do not collect pension benefits to which equivalent British spouses would be entitled. In the analysis which followed, we were assured repeatedly that all this had nothing to do with the recent surge in Ukip’s popularity.

Do I have a problem with a bill designed to “ensure that this country attracts people who will contribute and deter those who will not”? Absolutely not. Similarly, I would have no problem, in principle, with a Bill designed to ensure that the eastern grey kangaroo ought to be a protected species in Hampshire. Is there any actual evidence that either is a real problem which merits legislative priority? Absolutely not.

Evidence from the DWP on the relative burden imposed by EU migrants on welfare is unequivocal: of the 1.8 million non-British EU citizens of working age living here, about 5% claim an “out of work benefit” compared with 13% for Britons. And what about other services? Unsurprisingly, since the majority of migrants are young healthy adults, research shows that they impose a disproportionately small burden on health and education.

All the much ballyhooed “health tourism” costs the NHS between £7m (according to the Health Minister) and £20m (according to the Prime Minister). How much money would you need for the administration of a system in which every doctor and nurse, in every practice and hospital, would be made to check the nationality and immigration status of every potential patient?

All in all, a comprehensive study of the last wave of migration from countries which acceded in 2004 demonstrates conclusively that year after year they contributed to the public purse roughly 30% more than they cost. In short, they are a huge asset. How is it, then, that we (I am one such migrant, albeit from a different era) find ourselves in the eye of a political storm and the target of sustained attack?

It would be facile to say that the answer is Nigel Farage. He has merely acted as the catalyst, by stepping into an emotional vacuum left by mainstream parties. The British economy is in deep distress and crying like a baby, not conscious of or unable to express the source of its discomfort. The other leaders were standing over the cot arguing about whether it is hungry or thirsty or teething or has colic. Farage has stepped into the nursery picked it up and put a dummy in its mouth. The dummy will do nothing to address the underlying problem, but it is comforting.

Like a Snake Oil salesman, he has rolled into a village with all sorts of problems and has offered an illogical but easy panacea. Unemployment? Lack of economic growth? Unfairness? Corruption? Arthritis? Unrequited love? Try some of this Bash-A-Foreigner ointment and everything will be dandy – or your money back.

The real problem arises when Cameron, who purports to be the village pharmacist, decides it is too difficult to disabuse people of this notion and easier to get into the Snake Oil racket. It legitimises the confidence trick and emboldens the charlatan. All Farage needs to do is make the – now legitimate – claim that he sells The Original Snake Oil. Avoid Imitations.

And the confidence trick is a rather gigantic one. The OECD says income inequality is growing in this country faster than any other rich nation in more than 40 years. The richest 300 people in the world possess more wealth than than the poorest three billion – the equivalent of the populations of the UK, the US, India, Brazil and China combined. The annual income of the 100 richest people could end global poverty four times over. Stocks in the UK and the US hit pre-crisis peaks, but nothing is “trickling down” and absolutely no action has been taken to avert another shock which will kick us like a FTSE in the Nasdaqs.

At a time like this, when we all sharpen our elbows and worry increasingly about securing a more equitable slice of the pie, a job which pays a living wage, care when we are old or sick or both, a safety net of kindness, an education and a future for our children, the idea that the people standing in our way are fictional Romanians and foreign widows is not only daft, but immensely dangerous. Roll up, roll up.

David Cameron cleans up

April 3, 2014

It is such a shame that the Conservative Party cleared the Internet of all their pre-election materials. On a day like today, when yet another minister is made to apologise and return money, I would have loved access to those delightful CAMERONCAMs – a series of video blogs made by our then-future-soon-to-be-ex Prime Minister. Especially the one where he explained how he intends to clean up politics while putting a load in the dishwasher.

Oh wait…

Turns out it was a load of bullshit.

 

Tony Benn: Ask the powerful five questions

March 14, 2014

Ask the powerful five questions:

WHAT POWER HAVE YOU GOT?
WHERE DID YOU GET IT FROM?
IN WHOSE INTERESTS DO YOU EXERCISE IT?
TO WHOM ARE YOU ACCOUNTABLE?
HOW CAN WE GET RID OF YOU?

Only Democracy gives us that right. That is why no one with power likes democracy and that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it – including you and me, here and now.

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Shakespeare wrote “no legacy is so rich as honesty”. Tony Benn left an entire country wealthier with truth.
No sadness here. Just gratitude.

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