The English Left is dead ~ Long live the Scottish Left

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of Alex Salmond (c) 17th September 2014

Alex Salmond on a good day

Tomorrow Scotland might decide to leave the United Kingdom, despite the increasingly dire warnings from top capitalists and other establishment figures. According to people who largely live in London, independence is okay for various small, poor countries but it will be an economic disaster for a relatively wealthy country. This is such an important thing to understand that these people have left the argument to the last possible moment. Almost as if they have been embarrassed into making it at all.

Meanwhile, absurdly, all the main English politicians are now offering some kind of sop to stay in the union, as if it is entirely within their gift. The proposals remain mysterious, like a small parcel accidentally added under the Christmas tree at the last moment, unwrapped and unknown. No sensible voter in Scotland can be expected to fall for the idea that the Tories can be trusted, let alone the LibDems, and certainly not on a promise of no detail. We have to feel sorry for the Scottish unionist who must now feel that her vote for the status quo has been furtively removed somehow.

Throughout all of this, something truly remarkable has happened to electoral engagement in Scotland. The record-breaking voter registration anticipates an exceptionally high turnout. The last elections in England ~ for the risible posts of Police and Crime Commissioners ~ proved that democracy can fail for want of interest. Here in Sussex the turnout was a meagre 16%. When people know that there is no political difference between the parties, they don’t bother voting. What is the point? In Scotland, there clearly is a substantial and very serious choice between independence and whatever the shifting positing of the No Campaign may be.

The English Left has overwhelmingly supported the campaign for independence. That’s despite its victory spelling apparent disaster for left-wing views in the rump UK. The reason is very simple but unspoken for largely superstitious reasons: the English Left is dead, we just haven’t had the funeral yet. A grave injury was given by Thatcher and then the Labour Party turned the knife repeatedly. It was a long, slow and painful death but, following the Green Council’s decision in Brighton & Hove to impose cuts to public services after all, the body was finally delivered to the morgue this year.

Although there remain still some loud voices, in the blogosphere or in trendy places to graffiti, articulating leftist thought, the organised Left is dead in England. Everyone is reading the same menu. Essentially it is a neoliberalist economic dish, served with various degrees of a smile. “Would you like a food bank with your poverty, sir?” The Greens differ on energy and defence policy but they too are funded by millionaires or people who work in private healthcare. The only anti-capitalist thing about them is the bit in their policy document which uses the phrase “anti-capitalist.

We want Scotland to leave the UK because we recognise that the mortal wounds inflicted on the English Left did not cross the border, that Scotland has consistently, for decades, been more substantially more socialist than England and we want to see an inspiring country on our border. This is our last will and testament. We hope that English politics will change for the better in the future, when Scotland forces us to see a choice over some issues. Like illegal foreign wars, for example.

An English guide to Scottish politics

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of five different coloured clothes pegs (c) 9th September 2014

Pick your peg

Many English people are deeply confused about the state of politics in Scotland right now. They know there’s a major vote coming up, which will allow the Scots to decide to quit the UK. That’s the easy part. The difficult part is all those differences of opinion being thrashed out in the debate. English people are not used to different parties having different policies. Down here in England’s deep South, it’s all about which coloured peg we want to hang our clothes on. All the pegs serve the same function with the same level of success and/or failure. Sometimes a shirt slips off the washing line but that is usually the voter’s fault for not hanging it up properly. The pegs compete for the clothes in various  meaningless way.

Before the Greens protest too loudly that they are substantially different from the other pegs, they had better remember what they did in Brighton & Hove. They chose to cut services so as to stay in power on the basis that they were nicer axe wielders than the other axe wielders. Scientists are still searching for a cigarette paper thin enough to place between them and the yellow or red pegs.

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of clothes pegs and Alex Salmond (c) 9th September 2014

Not the traditional picture postcard of Scotland

Scottish politics is very different. Firstly, the Green peg has betrayed the General Principle of Peg Solidarity. Most significantly, one of the pegs is neither the right shape, nor painted in a bright colour and, worst of all, keeps shooting his grubby little mouth off about topics which a loyal subject to the future descendant of Prince Harry’s father ought to know nothing about. He is called Alex Salmond and if the UK breaks up, it will all be his fault. In Scotland, he is  credited with mystical powers in Scotland, allowing him to appear on almost any show, whether it’s children’s TV or something aimed at adults who think they’re highbrow. Across Europe, he is credited with being the most successful politician of his generation. In England, most people only became dimly aware of his existence about a month ago. Just long enough to learn to hate him. Plus, if he wins, he’ll be conveniently foreign.

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of a blue peg, a yellow peg and a red peg (c) 9th September 2014

Pegged to the currency

Today three of the pegs suddenly announced they were heading North of the border to show just how exactly similar they were. Although they decided not to invite the purple peg. Only a week ago, they were begging the purple peg not to make the same trip. The purple peg is travelling to Scotland on its own and heading right into the area which most wants the breakup of the UK. Cynical commentators say this is because it wants to get rid of Scotland so that England can become purple peg heaven. The English view this confusion with alarm and hope the contagion doesn’t spread. Watch this space for further educational nuggets.

Comfort causes cancer

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of a fattie (c) 16th June 2014

Life is like a box of chocolates ~ it doesn’t last as long for fatties

This is one of those subjects which people like to become seriously upset about, if you make jokes about it. I’m not talking about cancer, I’m talking about being a lazy fat mound of human flesh which can scarcely flop from bed to sofa and back again. Long-standing readers will know that back in the day when I was still a married man, I too grew a little overweight. My wife talked me into going to Weightwatchers. Weekly, I would listen to little lectures on how many calories were in certain foods. One day, the teacher suddenly asked, “Who on earth can give up chocolate?

I’d long since stopped listening properly, I was sitting at the back, reading twitter, when this rhetorical question came in. I put my hand up. 25 dangerously fat women looked horrified. “How on earth did you manage that?” asked the teacher, the only woman there who wasn’t horrendously large. “I identified chocolate, crisps, cheese, butter and beer as my risky foods so I cut them all out and started walking into town every day, which is a six mile round trip.” They all burst out laughing. The teacher quietened them by saying, “It is so much easier for men…” I was the only man in the room.

That Weightwatchers class might have been populated by extreme specimens of humanity but it was hardly atypical. Instead of taking responsibility for their personal consumption, they preferred a fictitious version of calorie counting, a weekly solidarity session and absolutely no talk of exercise whatsoever. When I suggested to one woman that she need not walk all the way into town but simply to the next bus stop, she replied, “WHY THE FUCK SHOULD I?!” Why indeed.

Whether you buy into my rather snappy post title or not, whether you believe the earth was made in seven days or not, whether you are large or small, it is pretty clear that we are walking creatures. Our bodies are designed to travel overland, lugging stuff and chatting. We were actually built for the mobile web! We’re also bettered by skipping some meals and not eating altogether for a day at a time. Dress this up as fasting, if it helps you overcome your culinary salivation. Whatever gets you through the day and night of being uncomfortable.

You don’t need a ten thousand word essay to get this point. Remember reading that sea swimming is good for your circulation because the cold water encourages capillary growth? It’s all part of the same message, the one that says if you want a squalid, mentally confused and physically disabled end to your existence, keep going as you are. Wash down those chips with more beer! Eat whatever you like and never do anything which a machine can do better. Before the final decline, you’ll have plenty of time to watch people with Olympian bodies disport themselves in the name of pornography or corporate sponsorship. How could you ever get bored?!

The Rule Of Three

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of a man asleep on a pile of books (c) 3rd September 2014

A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures in the doctor’s book.

When I started the Common Professional Examination in Law, a lecturer at Sussex University taught us to remember the rule of three. “The first time you read something, don’t worry if you don’t understand it. A lot of law isn’t easy to understand. This is a tough course. Don’t expect to understand everything the first time around,” he explained. He continued, “take a break and return to it later. If you don’t understand it the second time around, you’re probably shattered from studying so hard. Force a good night’s sleep down your throat and return to the text in the morning. Chances are you’ll get it. You’ve all got good degrees and are highly capable students. If you don’t understand it a third time, it isn’t your fault. It is the author’s fault. They didn’t understand what they were talking about.” It was great advice and served me well. There was a little bit more, “This rule doesn’t apply to Equity and Trusts, which no-one understands all of, as proved by the two main textbooks on the subject, neither of which make complete sense.

When I restarted cycling lots more earlier in the year, my gears didn’t really work. So I attempted to fix them. The attempt was unsuccessful. So I had another go at fixing them. This time, the fix seemed to work for a little while, but then the gears started to slip just like before and pretty soon I was back to only three working sprockets in the rear cassette. So I stripped the bicycle down, cleaned every last part in the gears and attempted a third fix. This did not work. Applying the Rule of Three I concluded, “Let’s get out of here, these gears are busted.” Reading up on the subject I discovered one remaining possible explanation ~ the sprockets themselves were too worn to hold the chain. One new cassette later and I am once more cycling with all my gears. Suddenly I understand what was wrong with almost every bicycle I have ever owned. Metal actually does wear away.

The Rule of Three says that if you fail to achieve an apparently straightforward task three times in a row, then the task itself is broken. Do not waste any more time on it! This Rule of Three is unrelated to the rhetorical three, The C++ three, 6th Century Vedic mathematics, the rule of aeronautical descent, capitalist analysis of mature markets or the Wiccan Law of Return. They all have notable exceptions.

My Rule of Three applies to every task, except those involving some form of self-help therapy. For example, you might feel the urge to rescue yourself from the sauce you rely on to the point of addiction. After three attempts to quit drinking you fail to conquer the urge to get drunk every night. This isn’t really an exception though, because self-reform isn’t a task. It’s a process. You’ll need the Rule of Seven for that.

How to withstand dentristy without anaesthesia

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of a dentist

Dentists ~ see how they loom

I write these words sitting in a hard chair in the dentist’s waiting room. The nearest chair to the door. Just in case there’s a fire.

Not that I’m a coward. Far from it. I shall be refusing the anaesthetic. For a root filling. That’s how hardcore I am.

You may depend upon it, Sir,” opined Samuel Johnson, “knowing he is to be hung in the morning will concentrate a man’s mind wonderfully.

The condemned man waits, savouring his last few moments before the pain, the suffering and the inevitable rite of passage. We all have to die, we all have to lose teeth. The only true freedom, according to our most unhelpful philosophers, is the ability to choose when and life’s great unpleasantries occur.

I’d love to claim, genuinely, that I have always refused proper pain relief because I’m driven by the most profound philosophical understanding of life, the universe and everything. The truth is more prosaic. Something in my constitution says that I need double dosages of all drugs, for them to be effective. The after effects take longer to wear off. The pain induced by the dentist’s drill is temporary in nature. As soon as contact between the grinding bit and your tooth ceases, so does the pain. I can then enjoy the rest of the day, untroubled by numbness and comforted by the massive endorphin rush created by enduring the treatment.

The trick is to take yourself to another mental place for the brief duration of the work. I’ve had a dozen or so fillings and I can tell you, hand on heart, that the pain isn’t that bad. It’s a bit like when the school bully grabs your testicles and lifts you up the wall by them. You’re going to need to shift your focus to your place of safety for the period of the attack and the chances are that you will survive.

I wish I could say the same for a root filling. About twenty years ago a different dentist cleaned out and filled one of my bigger teeth’s roots. I felt everything. It was pain beyond belief. There was nowhere else for my mind to run to. Agony filled my consciousness. The only question was whether my young ego was stronger. It was and I walked away on air that day.

* * *

I write these words numbly at home, having probably chewed off half my face by now. The dentist refused to treat me free from modern medication. He said it was unethical. When I told him I’d already completed the same procedure without it, he demanded to know the name of the dentist. “Not for a root filling,” he said, “good God, no!

He did agree to minimise the dose so that I wouldn’t be too numb for too long. So I could feel some of the grief but not all of it. It’s every bit as much a part of the sensual world as bathing in milk, scoffing chocolate or blowing yourself stupid with drugs. Just without the pleasure.

How much did the Greens spend to get Caroline Lucas elected?

In 2010 Caroline Lucas became England’s first Green MP, winning the parliamentary seat for Brighton Pavilion. This chart shows the votes cast for and cash spent by each candidate. Officially.

Bar chart showing votes cast and official party spending in the Brighton Pavilion general election 2010

Votes cast and official party spending in the Brighton Pavilion general election 2010

Right-wingers in the Green Party have been driving left-wingers out over the last two years. Most departures are voluntary but there are one or two recent notable exceptions. Councillor Ben Duncan offended Caroline Lucas by tweeting that he explained to his son that soldiers were hired to kill. He has been expelled from the Green Group of councillors on Brighton & Hove City Council. The future of his PR job with London Green MEP Jean Lambert now hangs in the balance, for the same reason. Ben Duncan’s treatment has been viewed by many key activists in Brighton as a particularly ugly example of everything that is wrong with the party’s public relations.

Amongst them is Chris Barclay. He is a former party treasurer (as I am, too). Mr Barclay has been suspended from the party pending disciplinary proceedings which aim to expel him. His moral crime is publicly asking how much money Caroline Lucas spent on her election campaign in 2010. He alleges that almost every resource of the national party was thrown into the Brighton Pavilion election, though that expenditure was declared to the Electoral Commission as being spent elsewhere. That is an allegation of electoral fraud. If there is evidence to substantiate the allegation, we can expect to see Sussex Police taking an interest in the matter.

For months, Chris Barclay has been challenging the Green Party’s financial integrity, using internal channels. When Caroline Lucas publicly declared that she wanted Cllr Duncan disciplined, Mr Barclay made his concerns public. No-one in the party, officially or unofficially, has formally responded to Mr Barclay’s questions. The allegations, which are confirmed in Mr Barclay’s comment (the first on this post), essentially are:

  • 6 party officers (some on full-time salaries) worked almost exclusively for Caroline Lucas’ election “short-campaign” but only £1,903 was declared for staffing costs.
  • The staff employed in this way were the Campaign Director, Constituency Coordinator, Publications and Events Manager, Press Officer and Researcher, in addition to the local party’s own administrative worker, who was heavily involved.
  • Many of these party officials were paid around £30,000 pa pro rata. The Campaign Director’s salary was closer to £40,000 pa.
  • The maths of official hours put in is inevitably way in excess of £1,903.

In private conversations, Green activists fall into two camps about this issue. Either they clam up or they claim that, ‘we’re fighting the good fight, we’ve got to break the rules to get into the Westminster club’. It’s an argument that can only work with the converted.

Whether or not former Green Party members are willing to swear formal statements saying that such and such a person only ever worked for Caroline Lucas in 2010 remains to be seen. If they do, Caroline Lucas may face a much harder question and answer session than that dished up by the audience on Question Time.

The bigger question is how much does it cost to win an election to Westminster? The three established parties all have the advantage of massive economies of scale. The system is geared for their convenience. If having an incredibly popular candidate isn’t enough and half a million quid is needed too, the UK can hardly describe itself as a democracy.

John’s Camping closes in August

Photograph of Nikki, John and JoJo ~ the staff at John's Camping, on 29th June 2014

Nicky, John and JoJo ~ the staff at John’s Camping

After half a century of helpful, friendly and personal service to the good citizens of Brighton, the owner of John’s Camping is to close his doors for the last time next month. John Holden, pictured left with his daughters, is long since past the age when most people wish to retire. John and his family were offered a very good price for the freehold of the shop. He has found trading in an internet age not as easy as before but nonetheless has competed wherever possible.

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of John, of John's Camping, 29th June 2014

John Holden

John’s store ends its days on Brighton’s London Road, which is heavily populated by supermarkets. Their steady march to high street domination is not the cause of any celebration. Where they are soulless corporate behemoths, John was the very opposite. Everyone entering the store was made to feel like they were specially regarded. I’m quite sure that John, Nicky and JoJo didn’t know me from Adam but they always created the impression that they were pleased to see me again. That was as true when I discovered the sad news of their impending closure as it was when my folks first walked me through their doors in New England Street when I was just a few years’ old.

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of JoJo of John's Camping (2) 28th June 2014

JoJo has served us beautifully over the years

John started his business on the Lewes Road in 1964, moved to premises on New England Street where he traded for 34 years and has been on the London Road for the last ten. Although he was reluctant to move to London Road a decade ago, preferring to remain in the ex-British Rail staff cafe, demolished to make way for the redeveloped corporate zone behind Brighton Railway Station, it proved a profitable move with far more in the way of passing trade. His arrival there held out the promise that the London Road wasn’t destined to remain forever the shitty end of Brighton’s commercial stick.

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of Nikki, staff member at John's Camping (c) 28th June 2014

Nicky

John has sold the freehold but doesn’t know what the new owner intends to do with the building. He suspects that the space upstairs will be turned into flats. He’s now holding the grandest of all closing down sales, with bargains a-plenty. Whereas they could easily sell most of that stuff for twice the sale price on eBay, they’re choosing to give it away to the good folk of Brighton for truly rock bottom prices. Everything must go!

Brighton remains a town packed with independent retailers and gains much of its character from it. All things must pass and John’s Camping appears to be proof of that. Although those of us who can remember his previous stores may well view the closure as little more than the passing of our own time, nonetheless John’s final day trading will mark the end of a much loved era. It will be farewell to one of our most faithful friends.

Close To The Wind left me close to tears

cover shot of Jon Walter's Close To The Wind

Published on 3rd July 2014

It’s been a very long time since I read a novel in one sitting. Yet Jon Walter’s first book, Close To The Wind, induced me into fervent page turning behaviour. Pretty good for a children’s story. I tore through it so eagerly that I began to wonder if someone had been playing mischief games with the pagination. Suspenseful and subtle, Close To The Wind sensitively takes a small boy’s sudden relationship with his Grandfather and sets it off against an archetypal war zone. We find ourselves wondering whether there really is much difference between one refugee or another but the fortunes produced by the vagaries of fate, family and friendships.

Pitched for boys aged eight and over, Close To The Wind treads confidently through the nether world between childhood’s trust of all things adult and the first steps into a young man’s realisation of life’s complexities. We enter young Malik’s life as it hangs in the balance between a war ravaged land and the prospect of safety abroad. We follow his disgust at sleeping in abandoned houses, his horror of soldiers and his fear of failing to make the boat away. Kept strong by his faith in his Mama, Malik views every challenge as merely an obstacle to being reunited with her. He reminds us, even as he travels further away from home, that blood bonds run deeper than other loyalties, that we belong to other people, not specific places.

Portrait photograph of Jon Walter

Jon Walter

This is a tale told in a young person’s vocabulary. Yet it is magically descriptive and evocative for all ages. It is both detailed and beautifully non-specific. Malik could be escaping almost any country on the planet and going to almost any other. Thus, Walter’s story telling hangs on the tale itself, on the meaning of what it is to lose almost everything and flee, on the value of what is most precious, rather than on historical or geographical anchors. The story shines through and lights up the darkest of subject matters.

Close To The Wind is published by David Fickling Books and available in hard cover or kindle. The Sunday Times named it as its Children’s Book Of The Week (there’s a rare link from me to a paywall site). The cover price for the hard back edition is £10.99. Highly recommended.

Proposal for a Brighton hill climb cycle race

Brighton is famously hilly and cycling is very popular in the town. We have a council which is dominated by two parties which are sympathetic to cyclists: Labour and Green. Both have made efforts to give cyclists their own lanes on the roads. We have a sporting population which has taken to its local marathon with the same enthusiasm that our tourists take to our otherwise hedonistic culture. What we need is a world class cycle race.

Bottom of Elm Grove, Brighton

Bottom of Elm Grove, Brighton

With every cycling race, the watching crowds most enjoy the hill climbs. As the Tour de France kicked off in Yorkshire, all the best photographs were of the men of steel and two wheels powering up some the most atrocious slopes in England. Although our Brightonian streets can’t match Holme Firth for distance, we have no shortage of roads which are steep enough that only the most fanatical cyclists take them on. The sort which would bring out the crowds, the sponsorship money and the world’s best competitors. If only there was such an event for them to compete in.

Southover Street, Brighton

Southover Street, Brighton

When I was a teenager someone told me about an event of the sort I’m describing, which they said was called “The Hills Of Brighton.” I’ve searched in vain for records of this event and drawn the conclusion that it wasn’t anything the slightest bit official. Apparently the route forced the riders up all the steepest hills in town and then out to the Northern approach to Ditchling Beacon and round the entire circuit seven times. My friend picnicked on the steep slopes around the Beacon and watched the cyclists slaughter themselves each time they came around. He said the event was abandoned because of a lack of entrants the following year.

Albion Hill, Brighton

Albion Hill, Brighton

Cycling is much more popular than it was in those days. Mountain biking has taken off. There are lots of riders who relish a murderously difficult gradient. We could present them with a series of these challenges. I wouldn’t want to claim to have worked out the best route but for starters it could include having to ride up Combe Road, Elm Grove, Islingword Road, Southover Street and Albion Hill, in that order. They could come back down each road they’d just ascended. Obviously, we’d have to close the roads to traffic that day, to give the cyclists both sides of the road. One side to go up, one to race back down.

Bottom of The Drove, Brighton

Bottom of The Drove, Brighton

On the other side of town there are some outrageously steep streets too. Such as New England Road and The Drove. The latter is so steep that I once fell off my bike riding down it. Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list. But just imagine the atmosphere likely to be generated amongst the car owning middle classes of Muesli Mountain (Hanover)! They would lap it up and forgive the riders for closing them to traffic to the day.

Ditchling Bostall is steeper now that the cart levels have been removed

Ditchling Bostall is steeper now that the cart levels have been removed

So what say you, oh blogosphere? If we want this, we can make it happen. Let’s use the hashtag #BHRace when discussing on social media.

Does the Archbishop of Canterbury hate nature?

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of a grouse (c) 6th July 2014

Target of Justin Welby’s anger

Whilst fretting about why the Archbishop of Canterbury hasn’t replied to my correspondence, I began to research what he has been up to. Not much is the short answer. In his pre-religious past however, his life was a little more interesting. We all know that he made a small fortune when working in the oil industry. What’s less well known is that he enjoyed so-called country sports. That’s a euphemism for blood sports. He’s on record confirming that he once went grouse shooting. Recently he declined the honorary post in the RSPCA which is traditionally given to whosoever gets his cushy number.

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of a pigeon (c) 28th June 2014

No relation to Brian Pigeon

Sending him a message by carrier pigeon now looks like an ill-advised error. I have a vision of him firing on all incoming flights from the roof of his pompous cathedral. Probably he’s a bit too old for that sort of carry on. He probably just loiters by the flying buttresses and takes aim from there. Whether or not he has personally killed my trusty companion, Terry, pictured here, I cannot say. What I can be absolutely sure about though is that he has not replied to my correspondence. I’ve tried every method of contacting him, I’ve tried every form of flattery and cajoling to obtain a response. But nothing.

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of himself on the way to the pulpit (c) 6th July 2014

Scrapper Duncan goes to work

Despite preaching a homily two Sundays ago on the virtue of patience, the lofty Welby has tested mine to destruction. All my effort at communing with his has been rejected out of hand. Perhaps he is scared of me? After all, my religious duties revolve around mocking his. That and surviving the hell fire that comes with the job. My congregation is substantially larger and more demonstrative. I’m going to assume that he doesn’t want a consultancy on my clergy stand. Fuck him, he’s not wanted anyway.

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of his sermon in 2012 (c) 6th July 2014

My religious duty is to survive this

People standing beside me when I give my annual sermon are often always injured. Forgive me, I won’t go into details. It takes courage, fortitude and a strong faith to keep preaching when people are throwing explosives at you. I didn’t expect Welby to accept my offer. It was rather more of a gift of good intentions. Although our take on the Gospel is so very different, our preaching has one thing in common. Afterwards no-one can remember what either of us have said.

However, in my case that’s because it isn’t physically possible to concentrate, let alone actually hear me. In Welby’s case it’s because no-one’s listening.