Thursday, October 23, 2014


Liberal Mondays 10c: Sal Brinton’s What the Liberal Democrats Stand For #LibDemValues

A fortnight ago I emailed all of the then declared contenders to be the next Liberal Democrat President with questions (below) about their personal political philosophy and our shared Lib Dem values, to be published here. I received Sal Brinton’s answers last night, and here they are now.

What I believe and why I can only be a Lib Dem:

Fairness and equality are at the heart of everything I believe in. Every child should have the best start in life, the opportunity to do what they want, even if it isn’t what everyone else wants, with the best skills they can learn. I want people to have the freedom to say and do what they want – but not to harm others. We need a successful economy, but not just for the few rich, for as many as possible, with a safety net for those that struggle. This isn’t just about holding back the worst excesses of the Tories, or preventing Labour controlling everything, it’s a philosophy, a way of life.

2. What Lib Dems stand for, and how we’ve shown that in coalition over the last four years:

Liberal Democrats believe that the best people to decide their future are individuals themselves. We believe that people should have the freedom to do what they want – as long as it doesn’t affect others negatively – and we want to make sure that they are given the best chance to do it. We also think that the state should provide the best support possible for everyone, but with the lightest touch that it can, and the state should protect people from those more powerful controlling them. Access to health, education, justice should be universal (you can’t reduce inequality without this), and we want decisions to be made as locally as possible. A vote for us is a vote for you achieving the best you can and want.

As liberals, we are often very hard on ourselves. Compromise in coalition has been tough, and we’ve made mistakes, but we need to remember what we’ve achieved. In coalition we’ve succeeded in making tax fairer by raising the personal allowance rate: giving every tax payer £700 per annum. We have started to reduce education inequalities through providing extra money for the most disadvantaged pupils and students, and the results are beginning to show it works. In the worst recession for decades, we’ve protected the NHS budget and insisted on proper funding for mental health services. We’ve given you, Alex, the freedom to marry Richard this weekend: achieving same sex marriage is core to our belief in freedom and equality, and we persuaded the Tories to support it too. We’ve protected girls from FGM, and provided 0.7% of GDP for international development, guaranteeing help for the most vulnerable people in the world.

Liz Lynne’s answers can be found here.

Daisy Cooper’s answers can be found here.

NB On Monday, the three contenders on the ballot paper were announced as Liz Lynne, Daisy Cooper and Sal Brinton. Linda Jack was unable to find enough people within the Liberal Democrats to support her nomination.

My Questions As Sent

I have two related questions for you. Both are more concerned with politics than process. One is after a short two-pronged answer from the heart – had I been able to come to Conference, I would have preferred to put you on the spot with it in person to hear what you instinctively believe. The other question is asking you to come up with a longer, more thoughtful answer on our values that you’d be happy having the whole party say (as if anyone could ever persuade us to stick to one hymn-sheet).

Question One: What You Believe

People say all politicians are the same. It’s hardest for us in Coalition, but there’s some truth in it when every party promises to give money to the low-paid and the NHS, or when every local candidate for every party talks about experience, hard work and listening to local people. So what really motivates you? What for you makes the Lib Dems different from any other party?

If someone asked you on the doorstep, the hustings or on TV to sum up in one or two sentences what the Lib Dems, uniquely, stand for – and then why anyone should vote for us – what are your answers?

Past answerers include Presidential contenders and London Mayoral candidates.

Question Two: What the Lib Dems Stand For

Looking for something that’s more than a slogan or a soundbite but short enough to get in one go, imagine this answer as about one minute of a speech, or a box on a leaflet (perhaps 150-200 words, but that’s up to you). As you will be the voice of the Party if elected, can come up with something you think every party member could be happy saying or printing to explain What the Lib Dems Stand For? Something to enthuse and inspire Lib Dem believers and at the same time to attract and persuade potential supporters?

How would you link what makes us different, our philosophy, to what we’ve achieved in government, and what we want to do next? However you want to put that together, as specific or as thematic as you like.

I start this as a meme that many other Lib Dems have answered over the past couple of years (if I ever get a wide enough selection in, I might publish a book of them!). If you want to see more about what that’s involved, here’s my own latest version, including links to where I’ve printed other Lib Dems’ ideas.

Best of luck to each of you.

I had also spent some time trying to think of a ‘nasty’ question individually tailored to each of you – which I did for the last set of Presidential candidates and, going back further, for Nick and Chris in 2007. You may be relieved to read that I’ve decided not to ask those this time as I was unable to construct nasty questions of equal balance: the best I could think of for one of you was much too gentle, and for another of you, too bare-knuckle brutal. So that’s your lot from me!

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Liberal Mondays 10b: Daisy Cooper’s What the Liberal Democrats Stand For #LibDemValues

Twelve days ago I emailed all of the then declared contenders to be the next Liberal Democrat President with questions (below) about their personal political philosophy and our shared Lib Dem values, to be published here. I received Daisy Cooper’s answers this morning, and here they are now.

Pithy -

We believe and trust in the power and potential of every individual to be whoever or whatever they want to be. We want to tear down the barriers in your way and we want to give you the tools and knowledge you need. It’s about freedom and we believe that to be truly free every person must be free from the shackles of poverty, ignorance and conformity.

What the LibDems stand for and how it relates to what we’ve done in government:

We believe and trust in the power and potential of every individual to be whoever and whatever they want to be. We want to tear down the barriers in your way and we want to give you the tools and knowledge you need. It’s about freedom and we believe that to be truly free every person must be free from the shackles of poverty, ignorance and conformity.

Individuals and communities must also be free from the crushing concentration of power in any institution wherever it exists – in the state, the media, in corporations or elsewhere; individuals should have the power to take the decisions that affect their lives.

Our vision of society is built on a ‘holy trinity’ of individual freedom, social justice and repatriating powers back to people and communities.

Labour believe in the power of the state, the Tories believe in the power of the markets, we believe and trust in the power of every individual to know what’s best – every individual like you.

In government, Liberal Democrats have given individuals the freedom to decide how to spend more of their money by increasing the point at which low and middle earners start paying tax.

By giving schools a pupil premium to help kids from the lowest income families, we’ve pulled down some of the barriers to children getting a good education.

And in all our efforts in government to break up the banks, reform the House of Lords and curtail the monopoly of the big energy companies, we seek to wrestle power out of the hands of the few for the benefit and use of all.

Liberal Democrats are committed to breaking up the fortresses of the rich, the powerful and the privileged and to fighting for a society in which individuals can take that power back and use it.

Liz Lynne’s answers can be found here.

NB On Monday, the three contenders on the ballot paper were announced as Liz Lynne, Daisy Cooper and Sal Brinton. Linda Jack was unable to find enough people within the Liberal Democrats to support her nomination.

My Questions As Sent

I have two related questions for you. Both are more concerned with politics than process. One is after a short two-pronged answer from the heart – had I been able to come to Conference, I would have preferred to put you on the spot with it in person to hear what you instinctively believe. The other question is asking you to come up with a longer, more thoughtful answer on our values that you’d be happy having the whole party say (as if anyone could ever persuade us to stick to one hymn-sheet).

Question One: What You Believe

People say all politicians are the same. It’s hardest for us in Coalition, but there’s some truth in it when every party promises to give money to the low-paid and the NHS, or when every local candidate for every party talks about experience, hard work and listening to local people. So what really motivates you? What for you makes the Lib Dems different from any other party?

If someone asked you on the doorstep, the hustings or on TV to sum up in one or two sentences what the Lib Dems, uniquely, stand for – and then why anyone should vote for us – what are your answers?

Past answerers include Presidential contenders and London Mayoral candidates.

Question Two: What the Lib Dems Stand For

Looking for something that’s more than a slogan or a soundbite but short enough to get in one go, imagine this answer as about one minute of a speech, or a box on a leaflet (perhaps 150-200 words, but that’s up to you). As you will be the voice of the Party if elected, can come up with something you think every party member could be happy saying or printing to explain What the Lib Dems Stand For? Something to enthuse and inspire Lib Dem believers and at the same time to attract and persuade potential supporters?

How would you link what makes us different, our philosophy, to what we’ve achieved in government, and what we want to do next? However you want to put that together, as specific or as thematic as you like.

I start this as a meme that many other Lib Dems have answered over the past couple of years (if I ever get a wide enough selection in, I might publish a book of them!). If you want to see more about what that’s involved, here’s my own latest version, including links to where I’ve printed other Lib Dems’ ideas.

Best of luck to each of you.

I had also spent some time trying to think of a ‘nasty’ question individually tailored to each of you – which I did for the last set of Presidential candidates and, going back further, for Nick and Chris in 2007. You may be relieved to read that I’ve decided not to ask those this time as I was unable to construct nasty questions of equal balance: the best I could think of for one of you was much too gentle, and for another of you, too bare-knuckle brutal. So that’s your lot from me!

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Monday, October 20, 2014


Liberal Mondays 10a: Liz Lynne’s What the Liberal Democrats Stand For #LibDemValues

Ten days ago I emailed all four of the declared contenders to be the next Liberal Democrat President with questions (below) about their personal political philosophy and our shared Lib Dem values, to be published today. I received Liz Lynne’s answers last week, and here they are now.

The Liberal Democrats exist to build a society where everyone has equality of opportunity, regardless of their background, gender, age, disability, race, sexual orientation, religion or belief.

We believe everyone has the right to be themselves and we work to make sure that no one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

I believe passionately that we are the only party who genuinely want to stand up for people who can't stand up for themselves. People who don't have a voice. That is why I became a Liberal and then a Liberal Democrat to change the lives of people, to work to make sure they have somewhere to live, ability to work, a decent healthcare system, a good education for all regardless of background and a fair social security system so that if they are unable to work they are not pushed into poverty. Everyone should have the right to be who they are without anyone trying to change them. Genuine tolerance of all who do not have the same beliefs as ours.

That is why I am proud of what we have achieved in Government. Turning the economy around, taking people out of tax at the bottom, raising pensions by at least 2.5% and putting the triple lock in, the pupil premium, a massive increase in apprenticeships, equal marriage, protecting peoples civil liberties. We have achieved a great deal but we could have achieved a great deal more if we had been governing by ourselves. We still have a long way to go before we have created a fair society and a stronger economy but by voting for us you will ensure that you will have people who are working towards that goal.

My Questions As Sent

I have two related questions for you. Both are more concerned with politics than process. One is after a short two-pronged answer from the heart – had I been able to come to Conference, I would have preferred to put you on the spot with it in person to hear what you instinctively believe. The other question is asking you to come up with a longer, more thoughtful answer on our values that you’d be happy having the whole party say (as if anyone could ever persuade us to stick to one hymn-sheet).

Question One: What You Believe

People say all politicians are the same. It’s hardest for us in Coalition, but there’s some truth in it when every party promises to give money to the low-paid and the NHS, or when every local candidate for every party talks about experience, hard work and listening to local people. So what really motivates you? What for you makes the Lib Dems different from any other party?

If someone asked you on the doorstep, the hustings or on TV to sum up in one or two sentences what the Lib Dems, uniquely, stand for – and then why anyone should vote for us – what are your answers?

Past answerers include Presidential contenders and London Mayoral candidates.

Question Two: What the Lib Dems Stand For

Looking for something that’s more than a slogan or a soundbite but short enough to get in one go, imagine this answer as about one minute of a speech, or a box on a leaflet (perhaps 150-200 words, but that’s up to you). As you will be the voice of the Party if elected, can come up with something you think every party member could be happy saying or printing to explain What the Lib Dems Stand For? Something to enthuse and inspire Lib Dem believers and at the same time to attract and persuade potential supporters?

How would you link what makes us different, our philosophy, to what we’ve achieved in government, and what we want to do next? However you want to put that together, as specific or as thematic as you like.

I start this as a meme that many other Lib Dems have answered over the past couple of years (if I ever get a wide enough selection in, I might publish a book of them!). If you want to see more about what that’s involved, here’s my own latest version, including links to where I’ve printed other Lib Dems’ ideas.

Best of luck to each of you.

I had also spent some time trying to think of a ‘nasty’ question individually tailored to each of you – which I did for the last set of Presidential candidates and, going back further, for Nick and Chris in 2007. You may be relieved to read that I’ve decided not to ask those this time as I was unable to construct nasty questions of equal balance: the best I could think of for one of you was much too gentle, and for another of you, too bare-knuckle brutal. So that’s your lot from me!

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Monday, October 13, 2014


Those Five Reasons Why Mr Farage Wants A July 2015 Referendum In Full

So he can disenfranchise all the people on holiday in [shudder] Europe
So he can cut off any campaigning period in which people might ask questions and get themselves informed rather than just voting with years of newspaper prejudices
So he can promise to prop up a Tory Government of the far right… Then drop it after two months and run away laughing while Mr Cameron implodes
So he can exploit what he assumes’ll be the public mood at the highest high water-mark of his populist Party’s popularity before the inevitable consequences of failure to deliver or (worse) compromise with another party or (worse) with reality by having to make a single difficult decision prove he’s just the same as all the other politicians
…Er, that’s it.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014


Lib Dem Conference On TV: Watching Where the Money Goes

I’m usually busy at Liberal Democrat Conferences. Writing speeches – sometimes even getting called to make them. Writing chunks of policy – sometimes even proposing them. Not writing a blog looking at the telly, while policies I’ve had nothing to do with are debated without my vote or voice. One I’m in two minds over. One I’m proud of. One taking baby steps but going nowhere near far enough. One that’s OK but should’ve been inspiring. One that’s unjust, unaffordable and unworkable. And the big picture: the very few places where my party puts any money where its mouth is.

As my health has gone further downhill, in conference after conference I’ve made fewer speeches and attended fewer debates than I did five years ago, or ten, or twenty. It’s just a bit of a shock to go from steadily decreasing participation and days when I often have to stay in a hotel room rather than in the conference hall to zilch. Hopefully Richard and I will be back next year, more engaged once we’re married (though it’ll be much more expensive for me just as my low income’s been eradicated, thanks to government policies I can’t say I support).

But there is one advantage to watching this Glasgow Conference on TV. I would be sitting in the hall fired up and wondering if I’ll be called to make my speech, listening to dreary meandering mumbles with nothing to say even if they could deliver it, where the only message is ‘My view on this crucial national issue is incoherent but involves a mind-bogglingly dull special plea for my own little local area’ – and it’s not just the MPs, some of the ordinary members are just as bad. I would be thinking hard at the sodding chair of the session, ‘It’s one thing not to call me to make the brilliant speech I’ve crafted so carefully, but calling these ones instead is just insulting.’

At home, I don’t feel the urge to write a speech, I don’t have to worry if I can make it to the hall, and above all, I can record the debates and watch most of them with my finger on the fast-forward button!

In my breaks from Lib Dem Conference, I’ve also been watching Doctor Who – The Pirate Planet, starring Tom Baker and written by Douglas Adams. This brilliant story, is I have to admit, better viewing than pretty much any Agenda item bar the Presentation On Same-Sex Marriage, and its second episode was first broadcast on this night back in 1978. At the time, part of it was a satire about the idea of an “economic miracle” for which no-one has to pay. It also turns out (spoilers) that behind the exponentially increasing devouring of the resources of whole worlds is someone very old to whom no demand is ever enough.

So what’s been happening back at the Conference? You can read all the papers here, and catch many of the debates via the BBC. But here’s why some debates particularly caught my attention…

“One Member, One Vote”

I’m torn on this one. If party membership hadn’t been hollowed out, I’d be wary that these proposals sound like they’re about equality but actually even more heavily in favour of time-rich, money-rich people who happen to live close to the seaside (or, in this case, to Glasgow). The equivalent of electoral reform for the UK being to propose one person, one vote – as long as you can all pay a large registration fee to crowd into the same one polling station. In Glasgow. Or, discarding the party’s current constituency-based representative democracy model, like reforming the House of Commons by saying any UK citizen can turn up and vote there, as long as they can afford to pay to register and pay to stay in London. And I wasn’t totally convinced by the argument that our shrunken membership makes it less likely people will turn up to swing the votes, which seems like an argument that we should completely change the structures just to get no more people turn up anyway. That the proposals themselves were a badly-drafted mess from a Federal Executive that has been record-breakingly navel-gazing and incompetent in its faits accompli this year didn’t help.

And yet… I’ve had times when I’ve been to conference without being an elected conference representative with a vote too, and it’s even more frustrating than being a conference representative who’s not at conference as I am today. The amendments stopped the constitution being turned into incoherence. And the arguments on the OMOV side were simply far better, with too many of those against resorting to pathetic ad hominem attacks.

Watching from home, though, if every member is to get a vote not just if they attend conference but for the major party committees, the small changes in making conference easier to follow over the past few years need to accelerate mightily. During conferences, the party website must have a one-click ‘What is happening right now’ solution rather than a many-click ‘Somewhere here you can work it out’ puzzle box. The back-projections and the chairs of sessions need to give the site address several times during each debate and explain what’s going on in each vote, not just to make it clear to conference-goers rushing about, but to those more members we’re told will be freshly engaged and watching after OMOV. Announcing at the end what the votes have actually decided, rather than just reading out a list of numbers and letters, would help the TV watchers too.

In a spirit of helpfulness, here’s one I prepared earlier: Making It Easier To Follow Liberal Democrat Conference.

Towards Safer Sex Work

Twenty years ago, I was newly elected to the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee – the body that decides on the major policy proposals that go to Conference. I was the youngest person on it by more than ten years, the only out LGBT person on it (putting into perspective today’s debates over reducing ‘diversity’ to only one tick-box quota), and – the unique thing about me that most mattered to me and which made the difference on the Committee – by the reckoning both of those meaning it approvingly and those meaning it critically the most unfilteredly ideologically Liberal. One of the first policy papers that that year’s FPC discussed had something done to it that I can’t remember any other paper save election manifestos. Election manifestos come back several times for FPC debate because there’s so much in them and we need to get them right. This paper was sent away for redrafting not once but twice because it was simply too Liberal for the FPC. I can’t remember any other than wasn’t just redrafted a bit in committee, as was the norm, but rejected in total and sent away to be rewritten from top to bottom (possibly not the best words), then once we saw it again, told it was still too interesting and needed to be completely redrafted yet again.

The neutered and regulation-heavy paper that was eventually permitted to creep into Conference was titled “Confronting Prostitution”. I bear some responsibility for that overly confrontational language: I was the one who pointed out to the FPC that the title “Tackling Prostitution” might be open to ribald remarks and we should get our tackle out.

It wasn’t a bad paper. It advanced us well ahead of the other parties. But I always looked at it with disappointment, because the policy working group had followed its remit, followed the evidence, and followed Liberalism in drafting a civil liberties paper that the FPC gutted stage by stage until it was about ‘getting them off the streets’. When the first draft came to FPC, it was the only policy paper that was ever so unpopular that just one solitary FPC member supported it as it stood. You will not be surprised to read that it was not the only time in which I was in a minority of one, but it was the most significant.

So I was very proud to watch all of Saturday afternoon’s debate, to see how far we’ve come. I particularly recommend you read Sarah Brown’s speech, but I was really pleased at how sensible and Liberal the overwhelming majority of the speakers – and the votes – were, including protecting sex workers both from exploitation and from the state, rejecting the idea of reintroducing ID Cards but just for sex workers, and setting out the principle that informed, consenting sex should simply be legal and is nobody else’s business (even if it’s a business). Well done, Conference! I just hope now that the next FPC will not be as timid about the forthcoming policy paper as its predecessor two decades ago. So if you have a vote, vote for the candidates with some Liberal ideas rather than just a CV on their manifesto.

Doing What Works To Cut Crime

I liked this policy paper – it sets out a practical, evidence-based approach to cutting crime. But its piecemeal nature means it looks more like a compilation than a coherent whole. So I welcome the commitment to crime prevention. And civil liberties. And evidence-based baby-step liberalisation of our useless, gangster-boosting drug laws. And to the interests of victims.

But a bigger question that the paper doesn’t ask is that if we want fewer victims, what about the victimless? What about ‘crimes’ that are not about protecting any victim but only about the state victimising people that aren’t hurting anyone else? Because it’s not only criminals who attack you that can be bullies. The state can, too. And if you want to prevent crime, expand freedom, cut the ground from under gangsters and have fewer victims, then setting out the principle that ‘victimless crimes’ should simply not be crimes at all is something I’d like to see as the keystone of our next crime paper when it looks at evidence for how to implement that.

The Liberal Democrat 2014 Pre-Manifesto – A Stronger Economy and A Fairer Society

I wrote a little about this yesterday, looking at the Introduction and how that’s changed and improved on previous attempts – though it lacks a short, stirring rallying call of What the Liberal Democrats Stand For.

The whole thing’s pretty good. And I particularly liked Duncan Brack’s closing peroration in the debate (Duncan, if you’re reading, please send me your speech and I’ll print some of it in a Liberal Monday). I have to admit, though, save the much-purloined policy to further raise the personal allowance for the lower-paid, I’m a bit hard-pressed to remember a ‘wow’ policy. That suggests that its narrative isn’t all that thrilling. And then at the last minute, someone came along and diluted the best bit.

I might have been tempted to vote against it for the drafting amendment announced this morning: the problem with an amendment that’s accepted into the text at the last minute is that no-one gets to debate it or speak against it. Several years ago, there was a crappy Guardianista fad for “wellbeing”, a meaningless top-down political concept like a New Labour zombie. The Lib Dems made the great mistake of deciding it was the biggest of big ideas, with almost zero enthusiasm, and since then have sheepishly never mentioned it again because it’s a load of rubbish. Until this policy motion, when some utter fool wanted to add it and the bigger fools on the FPC let them. Worse, it means that the motion as passed says that the one big thing we’re really about is “above all to empower every person to realise their potential” – oh, and also “wellbeing”! Which is crud. It’s not one task. It’s two. It means the inspiring, Liberal, bottom-up idea that we are about enabling everyone to decide their own life is now knitting together with top-down Blairite mulch about how we should decide what’s good for people. As no-one mentioned it in the debate, proving yet again how pathetically uninspiring the idea is, my advice is just to pretend it isn’t there.

But at least the Pre-Manifesto remembered to talk quite a bit about the deficit, and didn’t pretend you can fix it while bringing in no new tax revenue at all and giving massive handouts to the wealthiest.

Did We Forget About the Deficit After All? The Big Four Spending Commitments

The Pre-Manifesto was very tough on the deficit this morning. Then there was a huge splurge this afternoon.

I’m not against huge splurges (no, titter ye not). But the Liberal Democrats have carefully costed our Manifestos for more than two decades to only promise what we can afford, even in the good times when the money was rolling in (though less than the Labour Government pretended). Now the money’s not just tight but gone, it’s all the more obvious where the few extra bits are going – while everything else gets slashed.

These four spending commitments are massive. And everything else will have to suffer.

I remember in 2001 – in what Labour told us were the boom years – I put out a really good leaflet across the constituency for which I was standing for election. ‘Follow the money’, I thought, and so this was all about the two biggest spending commitments in our 2001 Manifesto. On one side, a picture of me with local kids, with details of our proposals for children and education and how we’d pay for them. On the other, a picture of me with local pensioners, with details of our proposals for old people and pensions and how we’d pay for them.

I thought this was a great idea until a working person without kids told me angrily, “So you’re offering me nothing, then. I just have to pay for it all.” That should have occurred to me: I was a working person without kids. But though we’d said in our 1997 Manifesto that we’d raise the personal allowance for the low-paid, by 2001 we’d dropped that from our priorities to give a massive bung to pensioners. And back then that didn’t even include the earnings link and ‘triple lock’.

Today we have even less money. We’ve restored the policy of cutting taxes for low-earners – and made it a reality for millions despite the Tories wanting a tax cut for dead millionaires instead and Labour opposing it because they want government hand-outs only to the people they say deserve it rather than letting all the low-paid keep their own money. But that wasn’t a choice between generations. Something for children; something for working people; something for pensioners; now something for the NHS for everyone.

I just don’t think this can hold – because four massive commitments of extra cash is too many without squeezing everything else until it pops. And one of those four is not like the others. Only one has had no hard choices at all – just constant rises.

Age Ready Britain

Back when I was healthy enough to stand for elections, I went through an assessment to see if I was politically fit to be a Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate. I passed with flying colours, and can still remember my going all Churchill to the assessor role-playing an anti-asylum-seeker voter on the doorstep (as well as remembering that I’d only use the word “refugee”). One of the parts of the approval process of which I most approved in turn was the point where you had to prove you had a Liberal brain by identifying a party policy that you disagreed with and explaining why. I think at the time it was something about well-meaningly bossing young people about – a “wellbeing” policy, if you will – and, if I thought today about which I considered our most wrong policy, I would quite happily blast that Blairite twaddle of a “wellbeing” paper out of existence. But as it’s already been wiped from everyone’s memory through its very blandness, I would answer that the policy I most disagree with is one that has been made even more disagreeable today.

Our policy on pensions is generous, warm-hearted, well-meaning and attractive.

It’s a shame that it’s completely out of touch with reality.

This morning, the Liberal Democrats voted for a Pre-Manifesto that constantly repeats that it is all about “the next generation” and uses that as a primary argument for reducing the massive deficit between what the government spends and the money it has – that we must spend less now rather than saddle ever-increasing debts onto the next generation.

This afternoon, the Liberal Democrats voted for our biggest spending commitment not only to remain humungous increases for pensioners when every single other group in society is suffering cuts, but to put that vast and ever-increasing cost into law so that it can never be changed.

Completely unworkable.

The first time I ever spoke on what might be called the party ‘establishment’ side, after many years of being the radical outsider, was sometime roughly around the year 2000. It was in a debate on pensions that saw the unlikely bedfellows of young people, the party Leadership and elderly members of the House of Lords on one side, with middle-aged Parliamentary candidates on the other. The Parliamentary candidates wanted to restore the link between earnings and pensions because it was very popular. The rest of us said that it was a mistake to make that a principle because we could afford it today – as we then thought, not realising that even in the boom years the Labour Government was already running an unaffordable budget deficit – because there would come the twin pressures of an ageing population and a less rosy economy, and then we’d be stuck with a policy that wasn’t affordable. I can’t remember precisely my age, but I can remember my speech’s opening line that got people’s attention (and got a few boos):
“Conference, I’m twenty-eight. And I want a pensions policy that doesn’t make me pay through the nose and then go bankrupt before I get anywhere near claiming it.”
Back then, sense won the day. Somehow, between then and now, as the nation has got older and the economy has gone down the toilet, as the side that won back then have been proved right, we’ve gone ahead and gone for the unreal option anyway.

A ‘triple lock’ on pensions ratchets up without end, so that whatever happens to wages, or inflation, or the nation’s finances, however children or working people or people on benefits or services or anything else under the sun suffer, one group alone will forever get more and more money even as that group gets bigger and bigger.

We promised it at the last Election. We were wrong.

We’ve delivered it in government. We were wrong.

Today, we’ve proposed locking it into legislation so that every other group, every other service, every other dire need must always by law be subordinate to pensioners not just not contributing much to the cuts, not just staying still, but getting more, more, more while everyone and everything else gets less, less, less. We are stupidly, impossibly wrong.

With today’s pressure on the public finances, this is not merely utterly unworkable but utterly unjust.

I argued for pensions increases and other spending to help pensioners back in 2001. I meant it. It was the right thing to do when we could (seemingly) afford it. I didn’t argue for massive age discrimination and a huge and ever-increasing transfer of wealth from the current generation and the next generation to pensioners who will never be all in this together even when we can afford none of it. Because I’m an idealist, not a complete fantasist.

The Party Leadership and speakers in the debate today told the brave souls who stood up against this dangerous absurdity that they were wrong to say that ever-increasing numbers of pensioners getting a never-ending increase above the country’s wealth was unaffordable, because we just don’t understand the numbers. They didn’t say what the numbers were. Because… Because… Because… It’s magic! Government spending is still way above the money it takes. Everything and everyone else is struggling to keep their heads above water. The benefits bill is being slashed and people having their benefits cut or cruelly taken away altogether – the one exception being the vast majority of the benefits bill, the vast majority of benefits claimants, all of whom get much more than any other benefits recipients. They are the pensioners. But pouring extra cash into by far the biggest chunk of the benefits budget is “affordable”, we were told, and we just don’t understand if we say the emperor has no money to get clothes.

How stupid do they think we are?

One MP replied to criticism – from the unlikely bedfellows of Liberal Reform and a leading member of the Social Liberal Forum – by saying that we shouldn’t turn this into a fight between the generations. Well, that’s exactly what you do say when you’re the victor enjoying all the spoils, but not when you’re the side left bleeding and looted. Behind the scenes, they spin something else: not that it’s right, but that “pensioners vote”, so we need to throw money at them even if we have to mortgage the next generation’s future by borrowing half of it and mug the current working generation for the rest.

Ever wondered why the Tories so readily went along with a massive bung to pensioners – and took the credit? Maybe some of it was that when they got into power Mr Cameron still wanted to detoxify them and saw pensions as a totem that they were now the Nice Party to one group, at least. Before they rediscovered their taste for celebrating kicking the poor in the nuts. But why, do you think, were the Tories so happy to increase pensions while they slash and bash every other benefits claimant? It’s not rocket science, is it? Yes, “pensioners vote”. Pensioners vote Tory. Our most unrealistically expensive policy has been to make everyone else suffer, infamously cutting at our own core voters, to give a massive advantage to the Conservative core vote. For which the Conservatives get all the credit and we see our vote, as it always is, weaker the older the voting demographic gets.


There are several good ideas in the Age Ready Britain Paper. There’s also the biggest infection of any policy paper this Conference of, yes, more twaddle about patronising “wellbeing” again, which is just a neon light for me to say that if I had been at Conference I would have urged the other Liberal Democrats to hurl it out and shred it, and start considering fiscal reality, fairness and the next generation’s future.

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Monday, October 06, 2014


Liberal Mondays 9: Nick Clegg on Today (Today) #LibDemValues

I’m not at Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference in Glasgow this week. It’s the first I’ve missed in about twenty years, and I am missing it – Richard and I would love to be there, but we’re getting married in twenty days’ time and just don’t have the time or the money. Following it on TV, one person who you can’t miss in Glasgow is Nick Clegg. This morning he was interrupted – I can’t say interviewed – on the Today Programme, so his latest answer on what the Lib Dems stand for is the latest of my Liberal Mondays quotations…

The Limits of the “Centre” and the Bigger Limitations of the “Interviewer”

Some of the random shouting by the random talentless hack from their researchers’ random shouting points and the Labour Party’s random propaganda points on Today this morning involved sneering at “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” and shouting at Nick Clegg,
“Where is your core identity? What is it that the Lib Dems stand for?”
Obviously, none of the random shouting involved listening or engaging with the answer – yawn, he’s answering the question, bored now, time to hear my own voice again – but I’ve managed to piece together what Nick was allowed to get a word in edgeways with in his latest short summary of what the Liberal Democrats stand for.

Earlier in the interview, Nick summed us up in part with a line that doesn’t appeal to me at all, but here goes:
“The Liberal centre ground is where we’ve always been anchored, and where we’ve sought to anchor the government.”
I love the word “Liberal” – but I suspect those who aren’t tribal Liberals, which would be probably in excess of 99% of the population, don’t really respond to a tribal label. Only a minority, too, might respond to a concept, like “Freedom”, but it’ll be a lot more than those that identify with the label. Instead, the concept is “Centre” – which is meant to sound like ‘at the centre of things’ (if only one centre among, er, several in the same place?), but just sounds to me (and I suspect to almost everyone) like a statement that we don’t stand for anything of our own, splitting the difference between the others, neither one thing nor the other but somewhere… Quite a long way behind these days.

To be fair, there are advantages to the “centre” message. It lets you say your opponents are extreme and that only you are reasonable (isn’t really true but which might persuade) or that only you can rein them in (which is really true but which no-one believes). Nick came through with this strongly when contrasting the LiberaTory Coalition with what the Tories are gagging to do if they get “in power on their own” without us to tell them “No”: he focused on last week’s Tory Conference ‘Osborne bombshell’, where the Chancellor wants to abandon taxing the rich more (such as by the Liberal Democrats getting Capital Gains Tax raised above the previous Labour Government’s rich-bribing low level) and through eye-watering cuts alone
“only ask the working age poor to pick up the tab for the mistakes made by the bankers and the black hole in the public finances”.
What you might call the Tories’ “No-tax bombshell”.

The weakness in the “centre” came when Nick tried to attack Labour in the same way, claiming that “Labour move rapidly to the Left”. I don’t think they’re moving anywhere. They’re just a frightened vacuum. And though Nick drew attention to Mr Miliband’s cowardly and incompetent inability even to mention the massive deficit left by Labour, that cowardice and incompetence isn’t red-blooded Leftism. It’s the biggest symptom of an inability to make up their minds about anything at all in the face of a terrifying reality that would tear them apart. But that doesn’t fit with us being ‘somewhere in between’. Nick wanted people to give us credit for “holding firm”, I suppose in a rebuttal of “the centre cannot hold” – but that only opened him up to the interviewer’s sole moment of demonstration that she wasn’t merely a non-Turing-compliant iDevice programmed to shout a limited number of dumb phrases on repeat:
“Holding firm is not an ideology.”
Though I wait for any Today presenter ever to ask what either of the other two stand for and cut them off when their only answer is ‘Labour would tax you more and be nice to poor people and immigrants’ (the latter two points of which, unfortunately, aren’t even true) or ‘We’re shit, and we know we are, but oooooh! The Tories! Scary!’ (which is all true, but still gives me no reason to touch them with a barge pole and has nearly killed Labour in Scotland).

Nick Clegg’s Answer To “Where is your core identity? What is it that the Lib Dems stand for?”

“I’ll tell you exactly where we stand, and I feel this has always been the case.

“On the Left you’ve got socialism, the Labour Party, which is all about the state telling people what’s good for them; you’ve got the Right, the Conservative Party, that basically wants to keep the pecking order as it is.

“What has always distinguished British Liberalism, and I feel this very strongly, is an absolute, a huge emphasis on opportunity – that what everybody in politics should be about is trying to spread opportunity, such that everyone can get ahead in life, can live out their dreams, can use their talents to the greatest possible extent.

“And that’s why if you look at the signature tune things that we’ve done – I mean, don’t listen to the words, what we’ve done, our actions, judge us by our actions – whether it’s the massive expansion in apprenticeships, the huge transformation of the tax system so people on low pay keep more money as they work, or the very heavy emphasis on early years education, childcare, putting money into schools that cater for disadvantaged children.

“All of that is about opportunity.”

That is much better, and I’m glad Nick got to say most of it.

It feels recognisably Liberal in spirit as well as in label.

It’s something that Nick clearly believes, and is right at his heart, and that always helps when a politician says what they believe.

Though he didn’t say “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” after the sneering, it chimes right in with that while sounding much more positive and definite than “Centre”.

And it links all that to our priorities in government.

It’s in many ways the same sort of thing I’ve been trying to do with my What the Liberal Democrats Stand For series, unifying ideology with our record in practice (latest version here; version with explanations here).

Any Liberal Democrat could say it themselves or stick it on a leaflet and not feel, ‘Oh, well, if I really have to.’

It isn’t perfect. In my own What the Liberal Democrats Stand For series, I’ve made a point of saying what we stand for – and Nick had already done his knocking copy, and been told not to talk about the others, but us. So starting with another attack on them was a mistake. It was a mistake because it made the statement about them.

Nick, next time you do this, if you must waste positive time being negative, take a tip from the “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeahhhh!” pre-chorus that propelled She Loves You irresistibly to Number One. If you stick otherwise to exactly the same words, then at least let your opening be “The Liberal Democrats are about opportunity for everyone.” People listen to your first line. Make it the most important and the most appealing.

And though your actual one-line sum-ups of the Labour and Conservative Parties were both fine, your first words about them were Centre-propagandist dumb:
“On the Left you’ve got socialism, the Labour Party…”
No, Nick. You haven’t. Leave the word behind. Labour left it behind more than twenty years ago. People so terrified that Ed Miliband is a revolutionary socialist coming to chop their heads down to size will not be voting for us anyway. The vast majority simply will not recognise that as reality, just as Mr Miliband is too frightened to recognise reality. He is not a socialist. He is not anything. He is a pitiful vacuum.

I nod to “trying to spread opportunity, such that everyone can get ahead in life, can live out their dreams, can use their talents to the greatest possible extent.” That’s my inspiration too. I recognise the issue that’s been closest to your heart since before you became Leader in talking with such passion about opportunity and about early years education. I just wish that for all the investment, the passion and the genuine commitment, you could say the word “education” without having cut the ground out under you biggest priority by everyone else hearing “tuition fees”. And you were cut off, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you would have got round to mentioning the environment after criticising Mr Cameron for not talking about it any more.

And it’s a shame that the “interviewer” gave one of her many parroted lines from the Labour Party press office in ruling out any examples of what we’ve done in office connecting to what we believe by saying as ‘fact’ that it’s just a Conservative Government with our support. Too many people believe that. The BBC presenting a stupid Labour lie as a fact doesn’t help. But though you won’t convince everyone – or, I fear, anything like enough people – by saying ‘here are our values, and here’s how we’ve put them into practice in government’, you need to keep at it. Because only saying either without the other will give far fewer people even than that a reason to vote for us.

Possibly wise to find a better phrase than “don’t listen to the words,” though.

How Nick Today Was Better Than Nick On Other Days

It’s not what I would have said. But it’s in tune with what I would have said, and recognisably from the same sort of ideological place. And while it has its own weaknesses, it’s much better than some of Nick’s (and others’) previous statements of what we stand for. I’ll be kind and not repeat what he said in his second debate against Nigel Farage – focus-grouped to death, palpably making him uncomfortable, and the least Liberal ‘statement of principles’ I’ve ever seen from a British Liberal Leader – but it compares very well with the messaged-to-death message at the last General Election, for example. That brought everything down to one word: “Fairness”.

Now, I’d say that Fairness is certainly among Liberalism’s crucial concepts, but on its own it’s just not the one thing we’re about. Fairness should be in the service of something else. Nick says “Opportunity”. I can go with that. I’d say “Freedom” – and it’s always depressing and also a bit bizarre when I’m the only Liberal who seems to be saying that. But it wasn’t just that “Fairness” was only our number one in 2010 because it was what the focus groups said: it was, like several other things in that Election, a hostage to fortune that sounded good during the election but killed us afterwards. It’s absolutely true that throughout the LiberaTory Coalition Government the Liberal Democrats have made the cuts and hard choices fairer than the Tories wanted. But without a Tory Government to measure that against, nobody sees it. It’s absolutely true that the gap between rich and poor – which the previous Labour Government made wider and wider with their doubling tax on the poor and bungs to the rich – has fallen under the LiberaTory Coalition Government, fallen sharply, for the first time since I was at primary school. But when that proof of fairness comes not in the happy way – by lifting everyone up, but those at the bottom most – but in the painful way, by everyone suffering but taking most from the rich and protecting the poor, then nobody feels that it’s “fair”. Because no-one who suffers ever thinks it is fair for them to suffer. It’s a risk to say the one thing you stand for is Fairness even if you’re awash with money, because no effing voter is ever grateful. But to say the one thing you stand for is Fairness when you know that the most you can do is make everybody hurt in the fairest way is pretty close to suicidal.

Where you’ll find the closest relative of Nick’s Today statement today is, unsurprisingly, in the Liberal Democrats’ new Pre-Manifesto, and in Nick’s Introduction to it. As is usually the case, the section on what we stand for is relegated to a ‘personal view’ by the Leader, as if presenting it as actual philosophy or, worse, ideology for a party would send readers screaming to the hills. As is always the case, this is written in part by Nick, in part literally by a committee (the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee, if you want to tell them what you think of it), partly by staff and partly by another committee whose names you’ll find at the back of the booklet. But of course it’s Nick’s every word, officially. Comparing what Nick says in the booklet in these three pages with what he said on the radio in three paragraphs gives you an idea of what’s really closest to his heart.

For me, the Introduction to the 2014 Pre-Manifesto is one of the best that the party has produced. I think – after usually complaining that they’re far too short – that it should really have a short version, probably on the front or back cover. Here’s one I prepared earlier. But it’s persuasive, it’s distinctively Liberal, and the middle one of the three pages gives our policy priorities for the future in a way that fits seamlessly into what we’re about. But without a summary or a short version, it’s not quite clear that there’s one word that motivates it – which is probably quite right, as complex politics don’t usually reduce to just one word. Mine is “Freedom” and, hurrah! for the first time in ages, that appears there quite a lot. Nick’s is “Opportunity”. So does that. Yet though Freedom would be my one word, I’ve more often summed us up with three: “Freedom, Fairness, Future”. Between those, I can pull out most of our policies, as well as thinking they work as a buzzword condensed Liberalism (and, yes, I’m a sucker for alliteration too). So it’s notable that “Future” starts out as the main buzzword in this Introduction, repeated three times in the first line alone. Then, on the middle page, it becomes “the next generation”, repeated in six of the seven priorities and, though in different words, what the seventh is all about – as were most of Nick’s examples in his interview. Then “free”, “Liberal” and “opportunity” all stand out several times, the latter prominent but noticeably less than in Nick’s speeches, but the meaning of all three driving the first and third pages just as the next generation drives the priorities. By contrast, Fairness doesn’t actually appear on its own as a positive noun, instead standing at the back as a few slightly embarrassed adjectives. I hope to get time to write about the Pre-Manifesto in more detail, but if I can’t, it’s interesting that I’ve gone from unusually critical of the centrality of Fairness to the Liberal Democrat message to making it unusually prominent, just by staying still. I suspect Nick is more comfortable using the word closest to his heart this time round.

Today Is So Yesterday

It’ll still be on the iPlayer for a bit, but I wouldn’t bother listening to the whole ‘interview’. And not because of Nick.

Some journalists – by which I mean presenters, not journalists, as they neither write anything nor ever find anything out – want nothing other than to be the next Jeremy Paxman. This is a crapulent ambition, as the old Jeremy Paxman had been an unwatchable panto caricature for decades before he retired to spend time with his many-times-larger-than-any-politician-public-salary millions. Unfortunately, one of the worst examples of this disease is the Today Programme, once a flagship for holding politicians to account and now an unlistenable presenters’ masturbation demonstration with no interest in presenting or prying out information. The ‘big beast’ interviewers, or interrupters, have spent decades now doing nothing but making up their minds about some tiny fiddling point and then constantly repeating it until either the interviewee ‘admits’ to it – which lets them crow – or gets fed up and asks why they’re obsessed with some tiny fiddling point that no listener gives a toss about – which lets them say no-one answers their questions. Or they just talk over people so they never get a chance to answer a question because, oh, anyone else but their own voice is so boring, right?

Evan Davis had been a breath of fresh air: a journalist who knew what he was talking about and who used that to listen to answers and engage intelligently with them, which made him able to genuinely interrogate his subjects and inform his listeners. He’s been recruited to replace Mr Paxman, which suggests Newsnight is acting on a long-buried desire to become a critical news programme again instead of a long-running ‘argument’ sketch that shows why Monty Python were so wise to do a limited run. I’d like to hope that Mr Davis becomes a great success and a household name, making other presenters wish to be the next Evan Davis instead. It’s not a very confident hope, though, because to know what you’re talking about requires both talent and a lot of hard work. It’s far easier to just shout random things your researchers have told you and not let people finish the answers that you’re too stupid to understand anyway. Who does that inform, exactly?

This morning some talentless hack ‘interviewed’ Nick Clegg. I can’t remember her name. I doubt anyone else can. She may as well have come from the same mould as so many ambitious but lazy men and women who want to be Jeremy Paxman. Her equally lazy researchers had given her several stupidly untrue statements to shout and then shout again when Nick contradicted her with something boring like facts. And she got bored when he started answering her questions and decided it was time we heard her voice again. It’s all part of the Today Programme’s inevitable transmogrification into Thought For the Day, the part of the programme I always turn the volume off for and put on a music track instead. Before long they’ll decide that politicians, alternative views and tedious facts only get in the way of not just three minutes of semi-religious inanity but the far more important three hours of presenters’ egos. Someone with very ill-thought-out opinions says something bland and obvious in a monologue for which no-one can hold them to account: bishops today, Today presenters tomorrow. A radio shouting in a human ear, forever.

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Sunday, October 05, 2014


Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – Who’s In the Wrong? Ron or Hermione?

Are you a cat person or a rat person? As forced polling choices go, that one would have a particularly predictable majority answer. But like a lot of forced polling, my answer to the pollster would be, ‘Can I have another choice, please, because anything but rat isn’t good enough?’ and my real opinion would be that I’m more a people person. There’s a related row in the comments to the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Tor re-read. It’s really ‘Are you Ron or a Hermione person?’ and, spoilers, I’ve had some thoughts about the moral responsibilities here…

If you’ve not read the book – well, this will make less sense, but you can still read it as a summary of some of my ethical reasoning. In short (spoilers), we have three kids in a wizard boarding school: Harry, Ron and Hermione. Their friendship is tested in this book of the series when Hermione buys a huge, aggressive cat that has it in for Ron’s small, cowering rat. It later turns out that all is not as it seems, and that the rat is not only more scared of something else than the cat, but not a rat at all. But in the meantime, Hermione keeps being what I will charitably describe as careless, and eventually the inevitable appears to happen: blood and cat hairs are found where the rat should be. Afterwards, Ron and Hermione don’t talk to each other except to snipe.

Here’s what I said on the Tor re-read comments thread…

I don’t doubt that Ron should try to be nicer to Hermione, because he’s her friend. It’s hard to do, but he should still make the effort. But blaming him alone for not doing so is blaming him for not being massively morally superior to Hermione, whose behaviour is despicable. It holds them to ridiculously different standards. And every time I re-read these chapters, I pay more attention to the details and find myself getting more furious with Hermione.

Let’s go through the levels of moral culpability here.

Cat Vs Rat

A cat attacks a rat? As everyone says, that’s just what cats do. That is a fact that everyone knows. ‘Everyone’ certainly includes Hermione, because it’s at least as true in the Muggle as the wizarding word, and even if she’d somehow never even seen a cat-vs-mouse cartoon and was preternaturally unobservant in her Muggle childhood, Ron has pointed this out to her many times. So were things as they seemed, there would be no moral culpability on either animal.

It turns out later that things are not what they seem. So we can re-examine two moral actors here. The cat is probably (though, awkwardly, never stated as such in the text) half-kneazle, a magical creature that senses dodginess in some ill-defined way, and is going after a disguised human it knows to be no good. We certainly know that “Scabbers” is morally wrong in hindsight. Without knowing for sure about Crookshanks and about what level of intelligence part-kneazles have, we can’t say whether this is just an animal acting on a slightly more sophisticated instinct (and therefore has no moral bearing) or something closer to a person acting as a vigilante (which is a whole other moral debate).

So that leaves the two human owners. We know that Ron and Hermione are friends and are supposed to care for and respect each other (and, hopefully to a lesser extent, care for and respect their pets). We also know that they both believe their pets to be, respectively, rat and cat – they are not at this point aware of the true facts. And we know that both, as well as being emotional teenagers, are also pretty intelligent and unusually capable of logical reasoning for their age (it’s tempting to put more responsibility on Hermione here, but remember Ron and chess).

Consequences Vs Intent

There is one partial justification for Hermione in moral theory, but it happens to be a moral theory I think is a load of rubbish. If you happen to believe that you can only ever judge by consequences, then any level of behaviour and intent isn’t just forgivable but ethically good as long as it works out all right in the end, however unlikely that may have seemed in advance. You can be selfish, vindictive, cruel, hateful, utterly reckless or solipsistic, but if the outcome by some miracle turns out to the good, that makes you and your intent morally right. That to me is pure sophistry or, in plainer language, utter cobblers. It’s reasonable to say to a person who is selfish, vindictive, reckless or any of the rest that they were in the wrong but, no harm done, you won’t be as harsh as you would had something terrible actually happened (whether they wanted it to happen or just didn’t care). But that doesn’t make their actions and intentions moral.

In this case, even if you go to the extremes of saying that because Crookshanks didn’t actually eat Scabbers and so there were no bad consequences at the point Scabbers disappeared, that still means that for consequentialists Hermione is not ‘good’ but only partially in the wrong. She has still already been wrong for repeatedly ignoring her friend’s wishes, showing him a complete lack of respect, and invading his privacy and letting her pet tear his clothes (which his family can ill-afford to replace and which the very well-off Hermione doesn’t offer to) and bloody him. Those are already factual consequences. Being wrong about what appears to be the final act doesn’t change any of them. Even to a consequentialist, Hermione is still morally culpable for all of that.

But for me, morals depend on intent and actions and not merely accidental results, so Hermione is far more in the wrong.

Acting Like Only You Matter In the Whole World

Ron and Hermione both believe their pets to be ordinary animals. They both know what cats and rats do both in general and in their particular case – Crookshanks has repeatedly attacked Scabbers. Ron has many times told Hermione to keep her cat away from him and his rat because of this. Hermione not only ignores this, but actively brings her cat into Ron’s bedroom, making it impossible for him to have any safe place. Hermione is utterly despicable here. She repeatedly ignores Ron’s expressed feelings and wishes and invades his privacy to underline that, making it clear she has no respect or empathy for him, makes no offer of restitution when her cat wrecks a poverty-stricken student’s clothes (in the aim of killing the poverty-stricken student’s pet, which she can afford to replace and he can’t). Then she thinks it’s all about her and her solipsistic wishes when he dares to complain. I wouldn’t have waited until my pet was apparently killed to wonder ‘Is this person who never listens to me and constantly puts her slight whims above actually hurting me really my friend?’

It is completely foreseeable for Hermione that her cat will attack Ron’s rat. It’s foreseeable because she knows about cats and rats, because Ron’s told her, and because she’s seen it happen herself several times. And yet she still keeps bringing her cat to Ron, not making any effort to control it, and then blaming Ron. I don’t think victim-blaming is the most morally despicable thing she does, but it’s one of them, and her snobbish ‘I am superior to you so I am always right’ attitude only gets worse after what the evidence suggests is her cat completely foreseeably killing his rat.

When Ron is blamed afterwards by some readers for not going out on a limb to make it up with her, I’m with Rancho Unicorno and Gadget above on this. Hermione’s been to blame for ages. It looks like the obvious thing that her cat’s been trying to do for ages while she stands by and helps it has happened, and she refuses even to admit the possibility for weeks.

So does she show that, having been utterly horrible and reckless to him over his pet and his wishes for months, she’s still Ron’s friend and does actually have some respect for him? No. Obviously. She tells him she’s superior to him and that only her views count. Again. Obviously. She keeps making decisions for Ron and Harry without even having the decency to tell them. She knows they’re not going to tie her up or stun her to stop her, so she’s simply a coward with no respect for her ‘friends’ by going behind their backs and not even trying to hear their point of view. All through these chapters, she acts in every way as though only she and her opinions and feelings matter, and that Ron and Harry are dirt. I suppose some people might say ‘But girls have more feelings than boys!’ as if sexist twaddle is an excuse.

If you believe in consequences being the only (shaky) basis of ethics, then you have to absolutely condemn Hermione at this point, because she’s wrong about the broom being dangerous and so she’s upsetting Harry and depriving him of his property for no reason at all. Because I think intent and actions are the moral elements instead, I’d give Hermione slightly more leeway here, as she’s doing what she does partly out of concern for her friend based on a very logical, reasonable worry. It’s just a shame that she says she must be right and his opinions aren’t worth a twig whether the evidence is on her side or against her, which means it’s not actually about logic but about her need to say she’s the superior one.

In the next chapter, of course, it’s Ron who makes the crucial move in offering to help her, and Hermione who implicitly accepts that her cat killed his rat, which she must have believed all along and simply refused to admit, so her determination to show no remorse or even concern was even her knowing she was wrong. He immediately implicitly forgives her by saying it’s OK. So there’s proof about who’s the moral one – he doesn’t even wait for a full admission of guilt, much less a public one, but how can you forgive someone while they’re still twisting the knife?

Real-life Examples (or Personal Bias)

Here’s a real-world example about Hermione’s behaviour before Scabbers’ apparent death (one which I’ve only thought of now while actively searching for a real-life analogy, though I can’t say it might not have subconsciously biased me). I am heavily allergic to dogs. If I visit a friend who has a dog, I will wear clothes that I don’t mind stripping and putting in the wash straight afterwards, I will dose myself with extra antihistamines, and I will ask them if they could try to keep the dog off me if possible. I do not blame their dog if it jumps on me, though I will get up and try to move away. If my friend, knowing all this, suddenly broke into my flat, brought their dog into my bedroom, and let it shed hair and saliva all over me and my bed, them blamed me if I protested, I would question if they were really my friend. If I then came out in a really severe allergic reaction, I would blame them. If medical tests later revealed that the allergic reaction was caused by, say, food or an insect bite, I might feel a bit awkward and blame my friend less, but I would still think they had no respect for my wishes, health or privacy and had put me in what they could foresee as danger, even if by luck they didn’t actually hurt me physically – just emotionally.

Now here’s another real-world example which I’ve often considered and scorned in quite a lot of people (to give more of my moral bias) for Ron’s and Hermione’s respective feelings in the aftermath. Claiming ‘Ron is the mean one because Hermione is upset’ is based on no morals, just that whoever proclaims themselves most hurt wins, whatever the causes of their feelings. Ron feels upset because he’s lost the pet he’s had for many years (which he can’t afford to replace) and because his (financially comfortable) so-called friend repeatedly ignored his expressed feelings and wishes and invaded his privacy to underline that, making it clear she has no respect or empathy for him; but Hermione just feels upset because her friend is as a result confronting her with the truth about her own behaviour, making her feel guilty and bad. One of these things is not like the other.

I will be getting married three weeks from today. There are people who have strained every sinew to stop me getting married while loudly arguing that I and my fiancé are intrinsically wrong, evil and fundamentally not as good as them. While I have done nothing to interfere with their rights, I have responded on the evidence that they are homophobic bigots. Many such people then shriek that it is awful to call someone a bigot, and that because they have been made to feel bad they are the real victim here. They are not. This does not make their feelings of hurt and shame any less real, but neither does it wipe away the truth that they are being made to feel bad because they’ve been bad – which means they deserve to feel bad, and deserve no sympathy for being hypocrites when they say ‘But what about my feelings?’ after spending so long completely ignoring those of their victims.

Neither, in this case, does Hermione.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014


Doctor Who – The Mark of the Rani and Time and the Rani

I’ve been watching Sylvester McCoy’s first story as the Doctor this week, inspired by Time and the Rani turning twenty-seven years old last Sunday and by the BBC celebrating this happy anniversary the day before with another new Doctor, Peter Capaldi, playing the spoons. It wasn’t the most promising debut for Richard’s favourite Doctor, but over the years I’ve come to find a lot of fun in it, most of all revelling with Kate O’Mara in her villainous star turn as the Rani. And who’d have thought back then that Sylvester would star in bigger films than any of Kate’s?

It didn’t seem at the time that Time and the Rani would mark the start of one of Doctor Who’s most fabulous eras – and that heralding another – but it did. I’m not just fond of it for that, though. I’m fond of it because it’s ridiculously bright and cheerful, because I can rouse myself shouting at the screen over its politics, and most of all because some of the bits that most embarrass other fans are absolutely bloody hilarious – and are meant to be.

So I dug out a pair of old reviews, almost the oldest I’ve written that I still have copies of, and read what I had to say about the Rani’s twin mid-’80s TV escapades. They weren’t good. The stories, nor the reviews. And I hesitated before republishing them not just because I’d do very much better today should I manage to get my finger out, but also because it seems unkind so shortly after the sad news has broken of co-author Jane Baker’s passing (following that six months ago of Kate O’Mara). But Time and the Rani Part Two was first broadcast on this day in 1987, and Doctor Who online lists tell me that this is also the birthday of Gary Cady, who caught the thirteen-year-old me’s attention without knowing why in the Rani’s first story back in 1985, so it’s as appropriate a day as I’m likely to find.

These twin reviews were published in September 1995, shortly after the release of the two stories on VHS, in Liberator Magazine 231’s idiosyncratic review section. After all this time – blimey, nineteen years – I can’t quite understand what I was thinking by picking these two stories to review. I have a nagging memory that I’d heard a rumour both Kate O’Mara and Colin Baker were celebrity Liberal Democrat supporters and used that to justify their getting a place, but what my real reason was eludes me. Perhaps the two VHS releases just came out the month I fancied writing Doctor Who reviews. Perhaps I was aiming to write several pieces in the run-up to the no-doubt fantastic TV Movie due the following Spring (a clue: doubt, though I did better immediately before it aired with a review of Survival). But while I used to write reviews mainly to evangelise to a Liberal audience – how unlike today’s blog – and remember, for example, proselytising several Babylon 5 and The Avengers releases, these reviews had a very different agenda. To crit-fic my own motivations, I suspect I was writing about how bad the writers were because it was easier and more fun to write snark than to find an interesting way of praising something I loved (or even a sympathetic way of criticising something). So now the reviews look more to me like bad writing, and I feel I’ve learnt better since. Or you may feel I’ve lost the knack of writing a short review when spending a year chipping ten thousand words out of a novel-length block of notes will do.

Doctor Who – The Mark of the Rani
“What’s he up to now? It’ll be something devious and overcomplicated – he’d get dizzy if he tried to walk in a straight line…”
The Rani, a new renegade Time Lord played by Kate O’Mara, gets all the halfway decent lines in a generally weak script, and usually at the expense of the Master. Given some of the worst dialogue ever heard in Doctor Who (“Unfortunate? Fortuitous would be a more apposite epithet,” he quips at one point, apparently playing Just a Minute in a story that might have been tolerable at that length), Anthony Ainley falls to the occasion and gives his worst performance as the Doctor’s very arch arch-enemy. He all but twirls his moustaches in capering villainy as the Doctor is strapped to a table sent hurtling along a railway line…

Set in Nineteenth Century Northumberland, this story tries hard to convince you it knows a lot about the period. Sadly, it’s too late for Luddites, George Stephenson didn’t do half they claim and a few of the other characters mentioned – such as a passing inspiration of geniuses – weren’t alive at the time. Colin Baker is excellent and endlessly watchable, his portrayal of the Sixth Doctor being much-underrated, but even fairly high production values, sumptuous location footage and Gary Cady being one of the sexiest men ever to appear in the programme can’t rescue a story damned by a silly plot and an earnestly awful script.

Today’s Doctor Who viewers may be interested to know that The Mark of the Rani is currently one of the stories being shown in rotation on the Horror Channel (as well as available on DVD and in the VHS department of a charity shop near you), so you too can get wood with Mr Cady. It also looks like the primary source of one of the recurring gags in Steven Moffat’s first TV Doctor Who work (as well as inspiring him to write every single female character since he took over the series as the Rani).

The paradox about The Mark of the Rani for me remains that the worst thing about it is also the best, and to take it out would make the whole thing unwatchable. This story’s a tipping point for Anthony Ainley’s Master, up ’til now veering between cracking and creaky performances while saddled with increasingly absurd schemes, then here a career-worst for character and actor and made the butt of all the jokes. You wonder what the programme thinks it’s doing to its lead villain, but his nadir gives the Rani a massive boost. She’s mostly written as coldly clinical, but those bitchy put-downs give her a character – as well as enabling viewer belief in her efficiency that simply wouldn’t have been possible had she gone along with the cackling idiot. Yet I can’t help thinking something’s gone a bit wrong when you need to invent another Time Lord to act as the voice of the viewer, and when even her best line’s stolen from the Police.

Doctor Who – Time and the Rani
“I have the loyhargil! Nothing can stop me now!”
The Rani is back, unfortunately bringing with her the same authors, Pip and Jane Baker, once infamous in British TV sci-fi for writing the worst Space 1999 story. Here they have a (synthesised orchestral) stab at doing the same for Doctor Who.

Kate O’Mara’s first appearance as the Rani, in which she acted, got her a role as Joan Collins’ sister in Dynasty. She returns with big hair, big earrings, big shoulderpads and a style so over the top it’s out of the trench and half-way to Berlin. Playing in effect a fusion of both evil Time Lords from her last story enables her to survive perhaps the most ludicrous Doctor Who script ever written, apparently based on a half-read article in a dentist’s waiting-room science magazine, with extra bizarre technobabble and a side order of more ‘geniuses’ – even a giant brain on top – because the authors again mistakenly hope it may rub off.

This is the first story with Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor… After which, he gets much better, though he does bring some fun moments first time out. Guest stars such as Wanda Ventham and Mark Greenstreet look rather embarrassed (although considering the latter’s appearance in Brat Farrar just before this, he was probably used to it). On the plus side, while the theoretically far superior earlier Rani story tries hard to be serious and is rather dull, this is immensely colourful and entertaining, in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category.

Worth watching if you like pretty special effects, because you have to see ‘Colin Baker’s exit’ to believe it, but most of all for Ms O’Mara’s hilarious impersonation of Bonnie Langford.

And I didn’t even spot at the time how dodgy its politics were, which would at least have been topical for a political magazine. Oops. In brief, think of the alien ‘hero’ as Nigel Farage.

You can read my lovely Richard’s far more enthusiastic and far more interesting review of Time and the Rani at The Very Fluffy Diary of Millennium Dome, Elephant.

At the same time as watching Sylvester’s opening story, I’ve started reading several books about or starring his Doctor. There may be more on those stories later… And though they’re all you’ll find of her in the regular TV series, the two stories above weren’t all there was to the Rani, either. Kate O’Mara came back for an even camper charity mash-up with EastEnders (no, really), in which a very respectable actor plays her henchman Shagg, then a semi-licit audio play that I can’t honestly recommend, and was due to return to the role again for Big Finish’s official Doctor Who audio series. In interviews she always said she loved the character and wanted to do more with her, and it seems behind the scenes she was just the same, giving her blessing when she knew she wouldn’t be able to do it for a new incarnation of the Rani to take over later this year. The Rani’s also turned up in the pages of several novels and short stories, as well as one 1986 book by Pip and Jane Baker themselves that had eventually more than a little to do with Time and the Rani

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Friday, August 29, 2014


Adventures On Holiday In Hospital

It’s the end of Summer – traditionally, as Doctor Who’s back – so how was your holiday? Did you go anywhere nice? We went to North Yorkshire for a week, which is relatively usual, then I spent all of mine in hospital, which isn’t. When I’ve not blogged for a while it’s often due to some of my many long-term health problems, so I’ll try to make light of it by saying afterwards that “my health has been worse than usual – as usual”. That week and all the last seven weeks have made this weak gag rather less funny.

I’ve been so ill – and still not quite back even to my normal levels – that I’ve not really known what to write to explain it when I eventually got back to the point when I could. At one point I determined to let absolutely everything out, and drafted a long blog post going into all the gruesome details, including the things that are always wrong with me and how they all fed into each other… But in the end I bottled it. I felt too exposed, and as an excuse told myself that no-one would enjoy reading it. But I’m aware some people have been worrying, and probably more since Richard outed my hospitalisation this time last week, so here’s the very long but hopefully more entertaining and definitely less soul-and-body-baringly invasive version. Are you sitting uncomfortably? I am…

This Is the Important Paragraph – You Should Probably Skip the Rest

The first thing I should say is that while this was intensely awful at its worst, like all my other miserable long-term conditions (and the bonus ones that frequently pop up to join them), its effect was low quality of life rather than life-threatening. So that’s one awkward question you don’t have to ask. The worst effect of it was that my lovely Richard, who has more than enough to cope with anyway, had to work seven hours a day visiting me and more in his ‘time off’ answering all the questions from family and friends that I wasn’t able to cope with. So he deserves a medal and really, really needs an actual holiday. If you happen to be in touch with Richard, please be especially nice to him, as he’s been having a particularly knackering time and, unlike me, can’t spend days in bed after swallowing fourteen pills (my apogee combination of antibiotics, painkillers, especially good hospital painkillers and ordinary prescriptions – I’m down to a smaller number now).

It hasn’t been terribly pleasant for me, either. The week in hospital – for all my terrible health, the first actual hospitalisation of my adult life, though I spent months there as a kid – was of course the worst, involving amongst other things very, very much more pain than I’m used to coping with, almost complete physical incapacitation, humiliation and discovering that I do have some physical vanity after all on getting an unexpected and upsetting blow to it – which like several other things is still not mended. But in some ways the most difficult thing to deal with wasn’t the most intense part but the very slow recovery.

One of my ways of coping with the way ill health usually knocks me out at random is, after the Ray Milland alcoholism film The Lost Weekend, to tell myself my incapacitated time was a Lost Morning, or a Lost Day, or a Lost Week, so that by naming it I can mentally file it away and not dwell on it. I can’t just dismiss a ‘Lost Month And A Half’, especially when both Richard and I are getting rather stressed now that our preparation time for our wedding, which had been going all right, has been cut in half. I suspect this may make me still more wary in future of booking anything; other than my income being technically zero (sorry, Richard, again), I am forced to miss so many things that I’ve paid out for even with my ordinary health problems that I sometimes get to the point where I rarely leave the flat – or get too stressed that I might not be able to when needed (yes, I am listening to the complete works of Kate Bush and feeling jealous as I type). So if you’ve ever wondered why I don’t seem to be about at a Lib Dem Conference, say, then tell me I’m looking well when you eventually see me, there’s a strong chance that I may have been mostly knocked out in a hotel room for the previous forty-eight hours and, on getting out for an evening or an afternoon, be what’s technically termed ‘faking it’. That’s when I don’t just turn entirely inward as a way of coping, a strategy that did at least get me through a week in hospital without going berserk.

I said there’d be entertaining bits, so I’ll tell you that I’ve learned two ‘Be careful what you wish for’ lessons that many a man would grip a monkey’s paw for: one of them isn’t printable in this less TMI version, but the other is ‘I wish it would seem like time on holiday went more slowly’. Well, it certainly did that.

So, Back in Mid-July… The Prologue and the Hotel From Hell

OK, preliminary rambling over, here’s the abridged version of what’s been going on. Back on Sunday July 13th, I started feeling ill, painful and swollen, recognised the symptoms as a nasty infection I’d had once before (though as it turned out to a tiny fraction of the severity), and rather than putting it off as usual because I tend to hope anything new will just go away, decided to deal with it if it hadn’t passed by after I’d slept on it. So on the Monday, with it all much worse, I got a taxi – with a non-stop-gabbling taxi driver so loudly and horribly a Kipper that I wondered if he was a method-actor testing out a stereotype – to seek medical advice, seeing a very nervous doctor who gave me what turned out to be seriously feeble antibiotics. Still, I spent the week mainly trying to rest in order that we’d be able to go on our holiday. I didn’t go out; I missed a pre-booked book evening in town with Neil the Husband In Space and Jenny Colgan; the swelling got worse, but with the (duff) antibiotics, constant paracetamol and not moving the heavy flu-like symptoms seemed to be retreating slightly. What could possibly go wrong? Having fooled myself things were improving, Richard drove us up to Stockport in a nightmare journey of traffic jams in order to see my parents, for whom I looked much better (see ‘faking it’).

The next twenty-four hours were when everything that could went rather wrong at once. As well as getting increasingly feverish as a side-effect during the journey up, the main infection was getting more and more painful while swollen and constricted in a car seat, and I wasn’t able to get any sleep. So that night I was pretty much exhausted – which was unfortunate, as we’d chosen a hotel at random and turned out to have booked into the worst hotel in Stockport. It seemed almost funny at the time. It looked astoundingly like the hotel from Doctor Who – The God Complex, complete with the same cream doors and red paisley carpet, except that even they’d not been able to find a hotel so stuck in the 1950s that it still had a lift with hand-pulled outer shutters and inner cage. It must be thirty years since I was last in one of those (probably not since they pulled the old Hazel Grove Co-op down). It was absolutely sweltering that night, and the place had no air-conditioning, so I did what any rather odd person running a fever and feeling rather out of it would do: reeled around the place after midnight Tweeting that I was trapped in a Sapphire and Steel story. You can read this improbable timeline here: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten (three, five and eight are my favourites).

Not the most entertaining of the photos, but the one that shows lift, carpet and cream.

It got a lot less funny when we tried to sleep. However loud the storm outside, even with the window propped open the crack it would allow, the temperature in the tiny room was soaring and so was mine, so despite my pain and tiredness I was only able to get a few short stretches of sleep. Now, I ordinarily tend to sleep badly, but most days keel over for a couple of hours in the afternoon to deal with it; when I’m short of sleep even in relatively normal health I tend towards testy, headachey, incoherent, unsteady and vomiting (and all without touching a drop). This will all be a bonus later in the day.

The Day It All Went Down

And so we crawled out of bed on the morning of Saturday July 19th, me in a much worse state but Richard also deprived of sleep both by the heat and a feverish fiancé, and more worryingly the one who had to do all the driving. We planned to take some stops along the way from Stockport to Sutton-Under-Whitestonecliffe; as it turned out, the traffic again did that for us, with more massive tailbacks, another long trip taking twice as long as it should, and my trying not to say anything about the effect it was having on me when there was nothing either of us could do about it. One thing I should have done was taken off my shoes and towelled my feet; we’d been out in heavy rain for a couple of minutes in the morning, and I was very soggy. But even bending was by this point excruciating, so I suspect I also caught a chill which may not have helped later.

At long last we arrived at our destination. I got out of the car and went into the office to say hello and get the keys to our self-catering cottage. I was aware at the back of my mind that I was feeling very unwell indeed, but kept standing, bantered – faked it – and it was fine. I was fine. I’d just get my clothes off, dry off and have a sit-down without being jammed into a car seat, have some water and a couple of paracetamol and I’d be fine. We’d got there. We could relax.

I literally collapsed within two minutes of opening the cottage door.

Now, I’m frequently tired and ill and in pain and have to lie down for a couple of hours. Most afternoons, probably. And I label this ‘collapsing’. I think I need to find a new word. Because having held off the worst while doing the bits I absolutely needed to, like travelling, seeing my side of the family and being in public, something suddenly snapped. I fell onto the bed and couldn’t get up.

For two hours I couldn’t move except to weakly reel about when being in one position was too much. I was in suddenly unbearable pain of several types (one of the worst of my usuals, stomach like a bag of knives, coming in just when I didn’t need it). For the first half-hour I couldn’t get my teeth to stop chattering enough to speak. I was shaking, sweating and running a high fever. I threw up the painkillers within minutes of taking them, babbled incoherent guilt to Richard when I could get words out through my shudders, and kept telling myself that I was just too exhausted and if I could only get to sleep, I would get better.

That didn’t happen.

After two hours of this, I gave in and rang 111, because I didn’t want to trouble them with something that wasn’t very serious. I could still barely speak and hardly move at all, and they sent an ambulance immediately. It turns out they thought I was very ill indeed, and it turned out they were right. I’ve only once before been taken off in an ambulance as an adult, when quite a few years earlier I was having several hours of chest pains (which fortunately were just a combination of asthma and muscle spasms). I was given gas and air that time, which relieved the pain and was very jolly (for me, at least. They didn’t give Richard any to relax him, so he was dreadfully worried). So I was a bit disappointed when the gas and air this time made the pain only slightly less intolerable, and that only in the moments I was actually breathing it in. They offered me morphine, which I’ll admit I was wary of but was fantastic (kids: don’t listen). Or at least let me slowly start to cope. I was rushed to the hospital in Northallerton, with Richard – who fortunately knows the area – following in the car (not a great time for him after two days of horrible drives). He stayed with me through all the initial hours of pokes and proddings until I was consigned to a ward about 1am.

I didn’t take any photos that evening, or for the next few days, which is just as well.

Hospital #1

I was given rather a lot of drugs through two different drip-feeds and as a consequence got more sleep that night. In fact I can’t tell you a great deal about the Sunday, as I was constantly dipping in and out of consciousness, and couldn’t actually move without a lot of help – still less make much sense – until the Monday. I do remember using the counter on the electronic box that combined my twin feeds to calculate the time and then counting slowly for the half an hour until three o’clock when I was sure Richard would come. He was stuck in the car park and got in about two minutes past; he was the first to arrive at visiting hours (and the last to leave, but I won’t talk about an excessively rude nurse noting that as the others were very much nicer), but I was not at that point coping well and nearly cried when he didn’t appear on the dot, as I wasn’t up to devising any other coping strategy, then nearly cried again when he appeared to look after me. It’s startling how much hope you can build up on one tiny thing when you’re in an awful state.

The Saturday night and through the Sunday was pretty much all a blur, often a distressing one, certainly an uncomfortable one, but above all a relief. Asked by the ambulance crew to rate my pain level out of ten, I’d given a nine because, you know, nothing’s perfect and you always have to assume something better can come along. My gratitude at it settling to between a five and a seven – and I often get a five at home – was inexpressible. Even when I found myself turning my list of all the things usually wrong with me and all my prescription medication into a sort of ritual chant I could repeat while semi-conscious as what seemed an endless file of doctors and nurses would ask the same questions and be taken aback at the length of the litany detailing my long-term health issues from literally head to toe…

…Even when – throughout the week – they’d always wait impatiently to the end and then say, “Are you diabetic?” (the politer ones) or “Aren’t you diabetic?” (the more supercilious ones), because, y’know, that’s one that’s really easy to forget, isn’t it? Well, no, I’m not, and as I have so many things wrong with me I have regular blood tests – and still many more in the hospitals – I’m regularly aware that I’m still not. And as the various consultants ruled out more and more potential causes of what was wrong with me, despite diabetes actually having no possible bearing on my infections, over and over they kept asking, “Are you diabetic?” and I kept hearing, ‘We are frustrated and feel we lack control of the situation because we should know what’s causing this and don’t, but you are very fat and we wish to reassert our control of the situation by blaming you for it.’ And over and over I kept saying, “No, I’m not diabetic,” and I kept meaning, ‘I am in hospital and very ill and feeling that I have very little control over my life at the moment, but I assert control over at least being adjusted to being very fat, and up yours.’
“‘The sky appears to be reflective,’ Holmes replied, more hesitantly than usual. ‘Perhaps, like Dante’s inner circle of Hell, we have ice above us. If you look closely, you will see a reflected glow from something over the horizon. The nearest Earthly equivalent would be the lights of a town or city.’ He coughed. ‘I am merely speculating, of course. It could be an incandescent chicken the size of the North Riding for all I know.’”
That’s a line from Andy Lane’s very entertaining Doctor Who: The New Adventures – All-Consuming Fire that would go through my head each time, stranded in the North Riding with far less mental faculty than me, let alone Sherlock Holmes, and feeling the same overwhelming fish-out-of-water helplessness, with a certain degree of satisfaction that the doctor was similarly stumped. The spontaneous combustion plot was rather less comforting to think of, with the fever I was running (but you can’t have everything, and oh look, I was prefiguring another Victorian spontaneous combustion Doctor Who story just last weekend).

Another sudden collapse of self-image: usually I eat to cope. A lot. The doctors may have deduced this. Richard brought grapes, chocolate, goodies of various kinds (and two very lovely cards), and I just had to ask him to take most of them away again. Not because I was ordered not to eat them (except for the points when I was), but because I realised that I had absolutely no appetite whatsoever and it was too distressing to be reminded of it. I have a massive amount of stomach problems, but this was the only week I can remember when my appetite just went utterly flat. I was aware that with every hospital meal I had to force myself with every forkful, and still left bits (I do not leave food), simply because I was aware I had to eat and willed myself sternly to do it. Not even a giant incandescent chicken could tempt me. The week’s single happiest moment when Richard wasn’t there was being woken at 6am on the Thursday and realising that I’d been in a vivid dream of food, which meant that there was a chance I was becoming me again.

One thing that I held onto – other than Richard – was my befuddled brain playing Doctor Who. One story above (literally, it occurs to me) all: another from the same range as All-Consuming Fire, this time Russell T Davies’ brilliant first official Doctor Who, 1996’s novel Doctor Who: The New Adventures – Damaged Goods. There will be spoilers if you’ve not read it. Because I was surrounded my curtains and full of drugs and exhausted, and until Richard brought in my phone I had no distractions or diversions, all I could do was fall asleep, or lie awake looking up. Looking up at the large panels of the ceiling, like a big noughts and crosses board. And vividly remember how noughts and crosses keep featuring through the book with what eventually turns out to be exactly the same hallucinatory importance I was experiencing. Although it was published the same year my most bedevilling health problem started, at least as a long-term health issue it’s a better one to have than young Steven Jericho’s: in a story of terrible bargains, happy blow jobs, families, death and war, the most haunting aspect is the endless visions of noughts and crosses that Gabriel Tyler receives without rest from his separated, unknown, hospitalised twin who can do nothing every day but stare up at his own noughts and crosses board. Uncannily, not only is the bulk of the book set during the same week of the year that I was in hospital, but it was during that very week this year that Big Finish announced they’re adapting it as an audio play. But like Gabriel’s, my visions of noughts and crosses came first, and knowledge of their significance afterwards.

Noughts and crosses – filled in one nought and crossed drip-feeds (only one showing)

By the Monday, my brain and body were starting to function. Though I preferred being on average more conscious than unconscious, this wasn’t all good. The worst moment… Worse than when I was admitted – because that was a relief from pain. Worse than grumpy nurses trying to take my two gowns and telling me off for not bringing my own pyjamas – because I don’t have pyjamas, doubly not when on holiday, because I was too swollen to get anything over my legs, and I needed two backless, impossible-to-fasten-yourself gowns for courtesy’s sake, as I’m a naturist but am aware non-nudists didn’t want me flashing or mooning them as I tottered to the loo. Worse even than Tuesday when I hit ‘peak swelling’ at a huge, painful and absurd size – because I’d been inured to this being what I was ill with. The worst moment of all when I was in hospital came because I was able to clean myself. I’d been drenched in fever-sweat and unable to move for two days; when, in not a great twist, the cannula on the back of my hand ripped free while I was dozing, it at least meant there was a point when they had to disconnect my drip-feeds and I seized the moment to ask if I could have a shower. I was terribly weak but just determined enough to stagger to a bathroom, pull off my gown, and… Though I’d been conceptually aware of it, this was when I got the real blow to my vanity: there is just one part of my body that I like, and I’d never realised just how much of my limited self-esteem balances on it until I suddenly saw what a wreck the hospital had made of it. It’s still not right, but that initial shock in the mirror nearly stopped me coping. It’s the bits you’re not prepared for that tip you off the deep end. Partly as a way of mentally striking back with a physical change under my own control, and partly just because I didn’t have the energy and co-ordination to use a razor for several days, I decided then to grow a beard until I’d recovered. I have, of course, still got it. Sorry, Richard.

Monday was also the day I changed hospitals. The one in Northallerton had mostly very friendly nurses and a cheerier ward, but it did turn out to have one serious disadvantage: a great many specialists all coming to see me and none, apparently, talking to each other (several of them even to me in my enfeebled state worryingly but plainly not having a clue). So let’s say that I wasn’t very happy when one decided seemingly at random that they should operate and told me, as if that wasn’t enough, that I couldn’t be sewn up but would just have to have a nurse pack the wound daily for a fortnight until it healed of its own accord. And let’s also say that I wasn’t very confident when another sent me for an ultrasound scan (on top of the x-rays, direct physical examinations of every kind and everything else I’d had) and those scan results said that there was absolutely no need to have an operation, because the assumption on which they’d based that decision was entirely wrong. And I wasn’t very happy at all when I was told I’d still be having the operation, pointed out the contrary information from later in the day, and was told that the doctors knew what they were doing.

It turns out it was rather lucky that they didn’t have a theatre available and sent me to a larger sister hospital.

Hospital #2

Almost everything about the second hospital in Middlesbrough was less good. Twenty-five miles further north, in a town neither of us knew, so that rather than Richard being able to drive there in ten minutes it would take an hour, making a full seven-hour day for him to visit me for my five hours of blessed company. The hospital itself bigger and grimmer and the ward much more – disrupted, I’ll call it, and not say anything of the distressed or distressing other patients. The bed… I’ll come back to the bed. The hour’s ambulance ride there, which was excessively painful just as I was levelling out (though the paramedics were lovely).

None of that matters. Because the best thing about the second hospital is that there was one consultant who saw me each time. One consultant, rather than half a dozen who only saw me once or twice each and made on-the-spot contradictory decisions. One consultant, who took the time to explain what was going on at every stage. One consultant, and this is less important but reassuring, who looked rather like Roy Marsden’s before he was eaten by vampires. One consultant, who most importantly of all had a f*****g clue and who on taking the notes from the hospital that had referred me for what I’d already weakly suggested and which his actually reading and cross-referencing them confirmed was a wholly unnecessary and dangerous operation, came remarkably close to expressing his professional opinion of some of the previous hospital’s personnel’s judgement and told me that I would definitely not be going into theatre that night, and detailed precisely why not.

So the second hospital was able to tell me that I had two infections, named, interrelated and both very bad and with pretty horrible direct effects and heavily flu-like side-effects, but that I didn’t in fact also have the other one that a random consultant had just guessed at. Reassuring to know precisely and definitely what was wrong. Slightly less reassuring that, after they also ran all the possible tests all over again to see what caused it, I predictably came up zero on the forty-six or so most common possibilities, which at least means they were able to confirm I’m not at all infectious to anyone else but also means I don’t know what esoteric cause to avoid and so that it might just strike again at random.

By contrast, perhaps the least appealing thing about the second hospital was the bed. Every bed in the ward had a whiteboard with the patient’s name above it. Every bed was a modern grey plastic creation with a wide frame and remote control elevation the patient could operate to get out of bed more easily or raise their pillows. You can see where this is going, can’t you? I was put in Bed 13, which unlike all the others in the ward never had my name put above it, and again uniquely was a narrow old iron frame which I had to clamber out of before they lowered it to change the bedclothes because the crank was too violent. Not that that occurred to the student nurse who, bored with listening in on rounds, idly kicked at it until the constant jolts of pain across my face prompted the senior nurse to stop her.

My slightly thoughtless way of coping was to tell Richard this was because in 1958 the last person whose name had been put on the board over Bed 13 had died before the night was out, and they’d never changed it again. He didn’t think this was very funny. The number, the nameless horror and the ancient frame did give me the sense that I was incarcerated in a half-finished Christmas script by Mark Gatiss, though.

In bed in hospital

The bed’s plastic mattress and pillows were no doubt practical for cleaning, but when I tend to get quite sweaty just as a matter of course and was mostly feverish while incarcerated, it meant the plastic would heat up against my skin like a furnace and I’d simply pour. One night I woke and was so sopping wet with sweat I had to plead with a nurse to change the sheets at 3am, which was one of my more mortifying moments and made rather worse when it transpired there were no spare pillowcases. I said I couldn’t sleep with a sodden rag under my head, so… They took it and left just the bare plastic pillow. That didn’t help. Should you ever find yourself in a similarly untenable position, here is my tip: ask for a large towel. Pillowcases they may not have had, but an intrepid nursing assistant found me a proper bath towel rather than the tea-towels they give you to dry with in the bathroom and I wrapped it snugly round both plastic pillows. Being considerably thicker than the cases, it was much more comfortable too, and psychologically it was a small victory.

Things I Learned From Hospitalisation

Gosh, I’m going on a bit, aren’t I? It’s therapy.

Much like discovering that Carry On Doctor is still a documentary.

It was a small, private act of protest. Both hospitals were festooned with signs saying that mobile phones were not to be used. Stern admonitions were given on admission. And I couldn’t get a signal in the first one, anyway. But after Richard tried to ring me on the ward phone number he was given and was told off because he should have rung my mobile – seriously – I relaxed a bit about occasional surfing to relieve the stupefaction, though I’m afraid I didn’t look at any messages because I just didn’t feel I could cope. And part of this was finding a rogue copy of Carry On Doctor online and slowly buffering it through the night as cheer in my most miserable moments.

For me, Carry On Doctor’s one of the best of the series, and definitely the best of the non-historicals – though the ending is in some ways more disturbing than chopping the villains’ heads off. It makes a brilliant use of a brilliant ensemble cast, and you can really see it as a big relaunch for the series at a new studio but doing what they’d been most famous for. You can see it this Sunday morning on Film4 (and no doubt every other week on some channel).

I saw that film!

What I didn’t realise until I watched it illicitly in hospital was how half a century later it’s still uncannily Cinéma Vérité. Though the thermometers are smaller these days, even the wards still look the same, only split into half-length and with Sky Sports screens dangling above you that I would regularly switch off and that orderlies would be commanded to switch on to try and get me to pay for them. I even had one of the original beds. The only thing that let down the documentary realism was Frankie Howerd being woken at 6am. No, not that part – I was woken every night at at least 2 and 6 (or 12 ½ p in new money) as part of having my blood pressure checked every four hours, which they’d always be surprised to see going sharply up or down but which I could reliably chart by how close they measured it to my last having had fabulous morphine derivatives and whether my pain score was a manageable four or a pump-popping seven. What I found incredible was Mr Francis Bigger wanting to get back to sleep (“Sleep’s good for you!”) only to be interrupted immediately by more crashing about from the guy doing the washes, and the vacuuming and the tea. It’s nothing like real life! They always gave you at least twenty minutes to start to nod off again before the next noisy interruption. Though our tea ladies were always very kindly, and I was always very apologetic when I couldn’t force myself through a full meal. Oh, and that sadly the only seriously hot nurse I saw was only in my ward for a couple of minutes while he was helping transfer a patient, and at a point where I was physically about as far from a Sid James reaction as I’ve ever felt. So no lovely pair there.

On a related note, day staff seem to have no idea what night staff do, as the question “Did you have a good sleep?” is one you can’t answer politely when you’re not only deliberately woken through the night on hospital policy but also constantly woken by patients being trollied in, patients being ferried out or patients being distressing in any number of ways (especially one night, where the suffering of one man was too near the knuckle and I had to go and sit in a loo down the corridor for half an hour because otherwise I couldn’t have dealt with my own). At no point did I ever have anything approaching a good sleep, though in the first night and day there was a long stretch of intermittently blessed unconsciousness and really excellently hazy painkillers.

In hospitals there is also a different meaning of “comfortable”: you are never remotely comfortable, but what they want to know if your pain level is copeable or if they have to hit you on the head with a mallet to stop you screaming the place down (see ‘distressing patients’).

If you have many prescriptions, you must remember to bring all the right drugs in in the right combinations on admission even if you’re passing out with pain.

The nearest I had to a proper row was with the pharmacist in the first hospital. I’d just grabbed one of everything to illustrate what I take, not expecting to be kept in for a week. This meant that the drug that I use in an unusually small dose because I’m prescribed it for something completely different to most people confused her. And then, as I take 2.5-3mg (depending on how badly I’m doing) in a combination of 1mg from one bottle and 0.5mg from another, she only let me take 0.5mg as I’d not actually picked up both bottles. As I need a small but not that small esoteric dose for an esoteric condition, that was no bloody use at all. I preferred the pharmacist in the second hospital, who I first saw scurrying about bent over in an amazingly disreputable manner before he eventually introduced himself. I remain suspicious, not least because he was the only staff member there in the sort of white with green flashes uniform seen in the likes of Doctor Who – The Ark In Space or The Invisible Enemy, and looked uncannily like a cross between Ewen Solon and Charles Kay, who acted in just that sort of TV in just that sort of period. So perhaps he didn’t actually work there, and was just a ’70s method actor pretending to be on set. Or, as he claimed to be a pharmacist, on drugs.

Richard – My Lifeline and Escape Line

I have always known that Richard is the most marvellous person and the most perfect partner in the entire world, but now I have objective factual evidence.

He gave up his holiday to spend every minute (and more) of the five hours allowed each day to come and comfort me – even when I really wasn’t in a good state for company, hospitalised 250 miles from home, and an hour’s drive each way for him. I am still pathetically grateful, to say nothing of what a lifeline he was at the time. He was always the first to arrive and the last to leave, and every day the only visitor who stayed right through. He is, objectively, better than everyone else and the most attentive visitor by a mile. Subjectively, he talked when I wanted him to, he was silently supportive when I needed him to be, and he was adorably affectionate. And from what I could hear of everyone else, he had far, far better conversation. Though I probably can’t go into detail on the parents I wanted to scream at to shut up, or the elderly sister who got bored of an old man just out of surgery not being a performing seal and told her husband to prod him to wake him up. Luckily for her, I was too feeble to prod her by hurling the bedside cabinet I had to hand.

And on one night I was greeted by an older gay man who’d had no visitors and was in a lot of pain talking on the phone to a friend about how the only thing that helped him cope was the gay couple in the opposite berth who were being lovely in holding each other and talking all evening and generally being the most couply couple possible.

Perhaps the thing I should be most grateful to my beloved for is the bit I didn’t see. I absolutely couldn’t cope with anyone else when I was in hospital, however much I love them – though it has been nice to see some of my family since, along with two lovely men who’ve visited me in my lonely flat – and he stopped me having to do so. He stopped well-meaning but just too much people contacting me in hospital, only brought in the messages he knew I’d want, and spent most of the remaining hours of his precious ‘rest’ time when back at the cottage on the phone or on Facebook updating people, reassuring people and answering endless questions from people, all so that I never had to. I love him so much.

I think of him standing at the ward doors him wielding his iPhone and roaring,
“You shall not pass!”

And yet I’m the bearded one in the abyss.

Absolute proof that Richard is the best. Please be lovely to him.

I take back what I said about pharmacists and the worst part in hospital, though.

On the Friday morning, the helpful and competent specialist told me they were going to discharge me. He told me that they’d have kept me in had I lived locally, but that he knew we were on holiday (ho ho) and that we were only booked in where we were staying until Saturday morning. On balance, he thought it would be better for me to get home on Saturday rather than Richard have to find somewhere else to stay, get time off work and them not really be able to do much more for me in hospital except pump me full of drugs and rest. So I was warned not even to think of doing anything for a fortnight (and my usual recovery time is twice medical estimates, because I have so many things wrong with me ordinarily, which has of course been proven again since) and that I was being discharged not for being better but for being on balance manageable. At the time, I was much less feverish than when I was admitted, but actually much more swollen (that having got much worse before starting to improve) and still just as weak.

Where the hitch came was with the ‘pumping me full of drugs’ part. I was told I’d need three different sorts of painkillers and antibiotics to take away with me, and that the hospital pharmacy would send them up. This was about 9am. I was told to expect them between 12pm and 2pm, and a kind nurse said Richard could come in early. This was fortunate, as he ended up staying longer than any of the other days as the time dragged on, and on. They stripped my bed and remade it, as I’d be out straight away… Which became a problem as it got later into the afternoon, when I got weaker and shakier but had nowhere to sleep, caught in a no man’s land where I was neither discharged nor not discharged. Or, as Richard described me, as I changed from patient to impatient. It was the promise being broken: I’d coped with being there all week, the first time I’d been hospitalised for about thirty years as opposed to all the many times going in for tests and consultants, and it was immensely draining but I could shut off enough bits of my mind to get through. But so close to escape, and just finding that always out of reach, that drove me up the wall.

When 4.45pm and the pills eventually came and I tottered weakly out of the hospital to see it for the first time – and disappointingly find that what looked like a scrap-metal sculpture of Gonzo from the window was just an interestingly-but-less-interestingly-shaped tree from more accurate angles – I was more than slightly frustrated. Tip for unblocking hospital beds: don’t let hospital pharmacies delay patients from being discharged by eight hours for no reason at all.

Still, you wouldn’t believe the sense of escape when Richard drove me away from there, despite all the pain. Just seeing anywhere else. Now there was an adrenalin rush.

Aftermath Still-during-math

I had hoped we might get one tiny smidgeon of holiday on the Saturday morning by visiting York – lovely town, our favourite chippie, the Fudge Kitchen – but I was very evidently in no fit state, and still in way too much pain, quite apart from still having a severely suppressed appetite. On the bright side, by leaving early, we seemed to miss most of the traffic and to our great relief had a far less hellish journey going back to London.

That, of course, was only the end of week two of my double-infection. It’s now nearly the end of week seven. I’m looking a little more me, and feeling a lot more me. I’m back to eating far too much food – but still not really up to much of the walking I’d been doing to try and keep my weight in check. It’s been pretty rough in between, though.

Week three I went out just once that wasn’t to the doctor, and of course overdid it with catastrophic results. Much the same happened in week four, but the swelling was a lot less as I moved onto my fourth course of antibiotics (same as the third course I got from the hospital pharmacy, far more effective than the utterly rubbish first week’s variety, and I never knew what the serious second stuff they pumped in intravenously was), so I was quite confident I could be getting out more. Obviously, in week five I moved from merely still weak and feverish to the full-on flu-type attack and was far more ill than I’d been at any time since about the third day in hospital. So that was… Bloody terrible, actually. Week six I was still very knocked out but got a few things done, and at last the multiple massive cannula bruises all along my left hand and arm have vanished.

Now late on in week seven, the former massive cannula bruise on my left hand has even stopped hurting. The swelling hasn’t, though. Both types of swelling are much better, but they’re still ‘tender’ (or just plain sore, depending), and while about a twentieth the absurd / horrific volume at peak, still noticeably inflamed. I finished the fourth course of antibiotics last week; I saw the doctor again this week; I’m on the fifth course of antibiotics. He’ll see how I’m doing in a fortnight.

On the bright side, I’ve managed to get some things done this week though still very far from catching up any of The Lost Month And A Half, and most of the ill hours I’ve had to write off as ‘Lost Time’ this week have been my standard, familiar illnesses and not the one that slaughtered me a month and a half ago, so that’s encouraging, isn’t it?

In our own bed one month after hospital

Whatever the doctor says, maybe this’ll work: the beard’s coming off tomorrow.

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