Helping the Unemployed

Once there was a man who wondered, very briefly, if he could do anything to help the unemployed. That morning he drove his foreign built car to the train station, because the council could not afford to run a bus. On the way he stopped for petrol, and paid at the pump, then listened to a privately downloaded song whilst observing all the potholes that the council couldn’t afford to repair.

He parked in a car-park, without staff, and entered a train station without staff. He brought a ticket from a machine, then wondered why he bothered because nobody bothered to check it. At work he made an executive decision to outsource more jobs, because it saved the company money, and delegated someone else to tell them. That was when he thought about the costs to the individuals, but not for long because his boss gave him a bonus. He celebrated by taking the boss for a coffee at a global chain, that paid no tax in his country.

On the way home, he drove past dozens of small empty shops then brought groceries at a supermarket, queuing for the self-service till because the manned ones were not manned. At home he checked that his email to confirm his discount for paying his council tax bill by direct debit then booked his holiday on a foreign owned credit card through a foreign owned agency, that paid no tax in his country.

Finally, he sat down in front of his television, built overseas and purchased online, to watch a debate about unemployment in the absence of the quality programmes that companies could no longer afford to make. After his second beer, both imported, he had a question for the politicians so took out his phone, made by a company that paid no tax in his country, and sent a text that asked: “What are you doing about it?”


Pardoning the Suffragettes

It is a century since women were given the right to vote in the UK. Not all women, just those over the age of 30 who owned land or a home. It followed a long campaign that perhaps began with the formation of the Women’s Suffragette Committee in 1867. Over time some supporters became more militant, fighting, causing explosions at Westminster Abbey and other places, including the Chancellor’s house, and burning down properties. These activities deter the current Home Secretary, a woman, from offering a pardon to the suffragettes.

In recent years pardons have been issued to the soldiers executed for cowardice in World War I and men jailed for being homosexuals. The difference is that arson and violence remain on the statue books. If a seventeen-year-old today began attacking people and burning houses, it is unlikely that he or she would escape punishment because they campaigned for a teenager’s right to vote.

Yet, in a week when the heckling of MPs was described by the latest victim as the lifeblood of politics, it is worth remembering that this was the only crime of many suffragettes. They interrupted political debates to state their case and were violently removed, despite having the right to a peaceful protest. That deserves an apology, at least, and we should all be grateful that someone was brave enough to fight for equality.

Don’t trust the banks

Old people used to keep large quantities of cash under the bed, claiming it was to pay tradesmen. It seemed odd because banking was easy in those days. You went down your high street and saw a branch manager, who knew you by name. He kept your money for as long as you wanted and even paid some interest.

Today the branch has closed, and the friendly manager retired to the grave. For your convenience there is telephone and internet banking to help you deposit cash. When you do, the bank regards it as a suspicious transaction, and threatens to suspend the account that you are paying for. Three years pass. In the absence of interest payments, you consider spending the money so contact the bank only to be told that the account is dormant. To reactivate it you must prove your identity using various security procedures designed by the bank for your protection. You really can’t be bothered so you leave it for longer.

Fifteen years later you desperately need the money. The advisor, not the same advisor because they only hold a post for fifteen months on average, tells you that the money has been claimed by the British Government and donated to a charity of their choice. This is the same government that is heavily in debt and unable to fund a decent health service. In vain you protest about theft, saying that you never agreed to hand over the money and that prefer to pick your own charity. The bank relents and allows you to withdraw most of the money, minus their transaction fees. They send you a cheque, although you requested cash.

Eventually, via a fee, you have the notes in your possession. You spend some on a box and put the rest inside. Then you clear a space under the bed and finally understand  why the previous generation didn’t trust banks.

Change the Date

This week I am supporting calls to change the date of Australia Day.

26 January has only been a public holiday in all states and territories since 1994. It marks the proclamation of British sovereignty over what is now New South Wales in 1788. For the next 146 years the newly arrived convicts fought frontier wars with the indigenous population, killing at least 20,000 and introducing diseases such as smallpox to wipe out many more. Despite giving indigenous people the vote in 1965 and apologising to them in 2008, the government still feels it is appropriate to hold a national day on the date of the invasion.

This year, for the first time, the Australian Capital Territories, has declared a public holiday for Reconciliation Day in May. It is not difficult to change the date of a holiday, Easter shifts every year, and there are many advantages in moving Australia Day. Falling at the end of the long school holidays in most states, and in Week 1 of the Queensland term, it is not well positioned chronologically or financially for families wishing to travel. Imagine the tourism benefits of a break during a busier working month.

The people becoming new citizens today, in ceremonies around the nation, will pledge to respect the rights and liberties of the Australian people. Who are the Australian people? The descendants of those who arrived 50,000 years ago or of those who came 230 years ago?


The disabled Field Marshal

This week my short story “The Crimean Centaur” appeared in the Doctor Who charity anthology, Time Shadows Second Nature. All proceeds benefit CODE. The story features Lord Raglan, the British Commander in the Crimean War, memorably portrayed by Sir John Gielgud in The Charge of the Light Brigade, which is 50 years old this year.

When researching Raglan, I discovered that he only had one arm, due to an injury at the Battle of Waterloo. Few contemporaries commented on this. We keep talking about diversity and equal opportunities in our society, but it is difficult to imagine the modern British Army appointing a one-armed man to lead a combat force or the Metropolitan Police hiring a disabled Commissioner. Sir Edward Bradford, who lost his left arm to a tiger, led the Met from 1890-1903.

One interesting fact about both Raglan and Bradford is that they communicated directly with their men and earned their respect. Bradford visited police stations and spent time talking, and crucially listening, to constables. Raglan spent most of his time in the Crimean fighting the bureaucracy that denied crucial supplies to the army. He personally rode through the snow to deliver warm clothing to the wife of a corporal who gave birth in a tent. Soldiers spoke highly of him, but the press did not and their accounts have, over time, proved more influential.

Raglan’s chief tormentor was William Russell, correspondent of The Times. Russell was played in The Charge of the Light Brigade by TP McKenna who later stared in Doctor Who.


Jack London in London


Today, 12 January, marks the birthday of Jack London who was born Jack Chaney in San Francisco, 1876. Three of his works have had a profound influence on me. White Fang, first serialised in 1906, and Call of the Wild, 1903, were the most significant works of fiction that inspired my PhD about wolves in folklore. Also in 1903, London released People of the Abyss, a non-fiction account of his time amongst the London poor in the previous year.

His first call was to Johnny Upright, alias Sergeant Thick, who was involved in the Jack the Ripper case and, like many others, was accused of being the Ripper. Other Ripper suspects mentioned in the book include Thomas Barnardo the child catcher, William Wynn Westcott and Algernon Swinburne. Fourteen years after the Ripper murders highlighted the poverty in Whitechapel, little had changed. London’s authentic account of the people he met is a tragic piece of history but it also offers some pointers for today.

This week has seen controversial comments about the homeless in London. Two quotes from Jack London are relevant and I quote them in memory of one of the few writers to successfully write both fiction and non-fiction.

After witnessing an argument about immigration he comments,” Sweating, starvation wages, armies of unemployed, and great numbers of the homeless and shelterless are inevitable when there are more men to do work than there is work for men to do.”

Then, after witnessing the Police harassing the homeless at night, “And so, dear soft peoples, should you ever visit London Town and see those men asleep on the benches and in the grass, please do not think they are lazy creatures, preferring sleep to work. Know that the powers that be have kept them walking all the night long, and that in the day they have nowhere else to sleep.”