Thursday, 25 January 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Apparently an opinion needs to be backed up with a report, so here it is.

The Last Jedi has divided opinion. Although I place far more importance on what is really happening in the world, part of me kind of understands the importance placed upon the Star Wars universe. I grew up in the 80s and my older brother was old enough to remember the the first Star Wars film coming out. I watched that film on TV when I was very small and grew up playing with the toys. The first film I went to see at the cinema was Return of the Jedi when I was six years old. Looking back and knowing a lot more now about my childhood psyche than I did then, I think, like many people have done with many different stories over the millennia, I lost myself in this fantastical Universe of aliens, heroes, villains and regular people finding they have magical powers (it still affects me now: the other night I dreamt I could 'force grab' objects and when I woke up, for a split second I wondered whether I really could!).

When the 'special editions' came out, I watched them back to back and, like most fans of the original trilogy, I ended up disappointed with the changes. When The Phantom Menace came out, I was really excited to see it and even convinced myself it was good - at first. I don't even remember going to see episodes II and III in the cinema - it's possible I didn't bother - but when I watched them later, I could only see the things I didn't like about them: the bad CGI, awful dialogue, plot points that affected the the original films and of course the awful Jar Jar Binks (and other less-mentioned but equally bad characters, e.g. Watto). But I own them on DVD, and I own the special editions, and I watch them from time to time and try to focus on the bits I enjoy and not the bits I think could have been done better. The Force Awakens was a relief. It's never going to be my favourite star wars film but I really enjoyed being introduced to the new characters and new worlds. I bought it on iTunes very early on and have watched it countless times.

I've seen The Last Jedi twice and loved it both times. I can't wait to see it again, I'll try to explain why.


There are recurring themes artfully woven into the story that hold everything going on in this film together.

Conflict and Decisions: 

Rey wants someone to help her to understand who she is and why and how to use her powers and while Luke is reluctant, Kylo is keen to bring her under his wing.

Luke has shut himself off: since RoTJ (when he was still very inexperienced and didn't know much about the history of the Jedi order), he has learned about the failings of the powerful Jedi council who allowed Palpatine to rise up right under their noses and he has learned about the origins of the Jedi order and feels that some of the origins - such as the Jedi being keepers of the peace - have been forgotten. He failed his family and he failed the galaxy by training Ben to use the force, only to see him take Snoke's side*. Now he sees this powerful young woman needing his help and questions whether he can do anything to help her and ultimately the galaxy.

Kylo Ren is battling the good in him - as shown in the moment he chooses not to destroy the part of the ship his Mother was in - with the knowledge that he has killed innocent people, notably his Father. He is also fighting incompatible feelings of inadequacy (compared to his idea of Vader that is probably based on minimal facts - he may not know that Vader killed Palpatine, for example), with an urge to prove his powers to himself, and to Snoke, who constantly taunts him.

By the end of The Force Awakens, Finn seemed to have decided which side he is on, but as the First Order show their strength, he gets cold feet. He wants to help but he's human, and he's scared of dying. DJ shows him and Rose that the Resistance also buy weapons of war from the wealthy people on Canto Bight and that doesn't help his indecision. The battle on Crait shows the point when he decides he is willing to die for the cause, only for Rose to 'save' him.

Leia feels she needs someone to step up into her shoes: perhaps simply fearful she might die in battle; perhaps she knows her time is coming to an end. But Poe, the hero most likely to be able to rally the troops, is still a trigger-happy ace pilot and isn't ready for leadership. Her frustration shows when she slaps him.

*We haven't yet seen exactly why Ben turned to the dark side but mentioned in Bloodline is the moment he found out that Vader was his Grandfather and it wasn't his that told him. When that truth was discovered (the entire New Republic senate found out at the same time), not only might he have felt betrayed by his parents and by Luke that they had never told him themselves, that event might also have been what alerted Snoke to Ben's existence, lineage and his potential.

Legacy and Weight of Expectation:

Parts of the way this theme is explored is meta: the expectations of this film and the questions the Force Awakens left us with mirror the legend of Luke and the Jedi order. How can everyone's expectations be satisfied? Is the praise and the legend deserved?

We have been waiting for Luke's reaction for two years and I thought him tossing the light sabre over his shoulder was brilliant and the scene of Rey following him around the island while he caught fish and milked some sort of sea cow showed him in slightly-crazed hermit Jedi mode, like Yoda on Degobah: starved of social interaction, cantankerous and a bit awkward. People who hate this film wanted to see Luke 'ignite the green' and take out hundreds of First Order troops and battle dark side force users. But what we got was unexpected and I think far more interesting for that. Some have said Luke is not a hero, but he used force powers we've never seen before to not only allow the remaining resistance fighters to flee but also to inspire people across the galaxy to rise up and fight the First Order. Those kids, telling each other the legend of Luke Skywalker might be future Resistance fighters or even Jedi but they are also us as fans, watching the films, reading comic books and playing star wars video games, talking about the Jedi Knights and creating our own legends about our heroes. (We could also speculate that when Luke gives himself up to the force, he could potentially be releasing his power back into the galaxy that may become manifested in other force-sensitive characters.)


Traditionally in Star Wars, we see a small band of rebels succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds and after a while, that gets predictable (we knew in Rogue One of course, that they would pull it off). People have criticised the Canto Bight sequence as pointless but it is important for a number of reasons: we see child slaves and get a sense that it's not just our shrinking band of heroes we should be hoping to save; DJ overhears the Resistance's plan and tells the First Order which allows them to reduce the Resistance to almost nothing; Finn learns more about the galaxy that will ultimately help him choose to stick with the resistance.

And that's not the only bit about failure. Luke tells Rey about the Jedi Order's failure to even detect Palpatine, let alone stop his rise to power. We see how Luke failed Ben and nearly killed him. Poe fails to learn how to follow and how to lead until it falls to him because there's no one else left for Leia to turn to. Snoke fails to see that Kylo Ren is going to kill him (I'm still not 100% convinced his spirit is dead but he looked surprised by Kylo's attack!). Kylo Ren fails to sense that Luke isn't even there on Crait. Yoda talks about lessons we learn from failure.


I wouldn't have minded if there'd been less humour in The Last Jedi but I liked what was there. At the beginning of the film, I was so tense: I was excited but worried it wouldn't be a good film. The opening scene with Poe taunting Hux settled my nerves with some - in my opinion - well-placed and well-executed humour, and I feel that way about most of the humour in this film^. Yoda's "Read them have you? Page turners they are not!" is a particularly memorable line for me.

^All of the original films used humour in tense moments and the opening gag from Poe could easily have been something Han Solo might have come out with while stalling for time ("....we're all fine are you?" / "Threepio you tell that slimy piece of worm-ridden filth he'll get no such pleasure from us."). And there were cheesy gags in those films too. Humans make jokes in real life during difficult times. Trust me on that: my Mum died last year and we made jokes in difficult situations to help us through.

Scenes / ideas I loved

I've already talked about a few things I really liked but here are more.

I really like the new force powers. Snoke connected Rey and Kylo's minds, I guess assuming that Rey would lead them to Luke, and/or would come to him and he could turn - or kill - her. I thought Luke's astral projection was amazing: I didn't see that coming. Each of the originals introduced us to new force powers (mind control and choking; moving objects; lightning) and, just like humans are continually getting beating world records and using science to find new solutions, force users are able to learn new ways of harnessing the force.

I like grumpy, reluctant Luke. He had a brief dalliance with success as a hopeful, youthful hero, then set about learning more about the Jedi and the force. He failed with Ben's training and feels, understandably, that he is to blame for everything that happened thereafter. Coupled with what he learned about the past failings of the Jedi, he decided that even if the Jedi were to again become the peacekeepers they were once meant to be, he certainly wasn't the person to do it. Imagine feeling you're the only Jedi in the whole galaxy? And one whose Father caused so much death, fear and suffering: Luke could have had legitimate reasons to worry that an extremely powerful dark side-user (Snoke, rather than Kylo) could turn him to the dark side too. The pressure these things would put on anyone would be incredible, especially if they didn't feel they were up to the task.

The fight with the praetorian guards was a triumph of choreography. It was great to see Kylo Ren and Rey working together, and it was actually a twist when they then didn't team up.

I loved Yoda's appearance, his laughter as he destroys the tree (which Luke thinks contain the ancient Jedi texts) and his ideas about the Jedi teachings which both tell Luke he needs to use what he has learned but also not be too reliant on old theories that might be open to interpretation (another possible meta point, which could be referring to fans who've pored over the old non-canon novels).

Adam Driver is particularly good. It must be really tough to play a tortured, complicated character without coming across as over-the-top and he nails it. Mark Hamill is really good too. I totally believe that is Luke Skywalker even though everything has changed for him. I wasn't so keen on Carrie Fisher in TFA (where I thought Harrison Ford stepped uncannily into the shoes of an older Han Solo, I didn't feel Carrie Fisher came across like Leia) but in TLJ, Leia was back. Kelly Marie Tran is really good and plays a very likeable Rose Tico. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are also good, although I think it was always going to be tough to match their brilliant performances in The Force Awakens - I need to watch TLJ a few more times to make a judgement on that. Other notable performances include Laura Dern and Andy Sirkis. 

And I think possibly my favourite ever moment in any star wars film was Holdo tearing through the star destroyers at light speed. When the First Order said she was preparing to jump to light speed and we saw the Raddus turn I knew - but was astonished by - what she was going to do, and the way it was executed with the silence heightening the visual impact of the moment was astonishing. I honestly don't ever remember feeling so amazed by any scene in any film I've ever watched.

Things I didn't like (as much)

I don't hate the Canto Bight sequence as much as a lot of people but it could have been done better. I really liked the idea of seeing the wealthy people in the galaxy: apart from politicians in the prequels, we haven't seen anything of their world but there was something a bit tacked-on about it. I liked the fact that the mission failed and I liked the ideas it gave Finn about the galaxy. I thought the Fathiers looked pretty good for CGI creatures but the scene when they run through the casino doesn't really work for me. 

I'm still not keen on Hux. We're not meant to like him of course and he's not there on merit (his Father was a general so we assume he's sort of inherited his reputation in some way) but he seems like too much of a cartoon villain to me. I like Domhnall Gleeson but I don't think he's right for this part.

I wasn't too keen that everyone in that docking bay was knocked out and most killed but Finn and Rose were fine. I've tried to tell myself they were protected from the blast because they were already on the ground, but whatever, it still seemed a bit unbelievable - even in a film where people can use their minds to communicate across the galaxy!

I wasn't keen on the Maz Kanata scene, it felt a bit shoe-horned in. I wasn't a big fan of Maz in TFA: although Lupito Nyong'o is really good, to me Maz is too obviously CGI. Perhaps Rian Johnson feels that way too, which might explain her brief appearance via hologram.

Although I liked seeing Leia use the force, the way she moved through space wasn't great for me. I'd have preferred more visible effort or at least for it to be less straight, less Mary Poppins.

It took me a while to think of all these negative points. None of them impacted my overall enjoyment of the film.

Final Thoughts

The Empire Strikes back, partly due to good writing and excellent editing and partly due to luck (sometimes with creating a song or a painting or a film, it all just comes together), is probably as close to a perfect film as Star Wars is ever going to get. I think. I find it impossible to be objective about the original trilogy because I grew up with them and I still love almost every minute of all three films (the originals, that is - there are definitely quite a few minutes in the special editions that I don't like). The corny gags, Threepio's annoying ways, plot holes later inadequately explained away, none of it matters because I will always be that little boy, escaping the bullies and other worries by immersing myself in the possibilities of this fantastical galaxy.

When watching a new film for the first time as an adult, it's difficult to be subjective like a child can be. But we can try. And if we don't want to try, that's fine - perhaps for some people star wars will always be in the past and maybe they need to accept that and move on and let the next generation enjoy star wars the way we did. It's ok to not like something but try not to spoil it for everyone else. Big budget films need broad appeal. Star Wars can't be written to appeal only to the fans who grew up with the original trilogy: it also needs to appeal to fans who grew up with the prequels and it needs to win over new fans too. Star Wars fans in their 30s and 40s aren't enough. Some critics seems to have a very rigid view of what a star wars film should be, or perhaps they've read all the non-canon books and see Luke differently - but unfortunately those are no longer relevant to the story of this character. Perhaps Luke doing something unexpected to inspire kids across the galaxy was an intentional metaphor for Star Wars doing something different to breathe new life into it. I know for certain that if we always got what was expected - based on past films and canonical stories - the films would get very samey and quite boring and I don't want that. I think Rian Johnson and the other creators and editors of TLJ have made a film that is new and different and expands the lore and yet it is all done in a completely Star Wars way.

I saw it the morning it came out and by the second time I saw it, I was worried that the online criticism would spoil it for me but it didn't at all. For what it's worth, after watching it twice, I give The Last Jedi 4/5 and I can't wait to buy it and watch it many more times.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Try again, and again, and again.

Crying at my desk again. Took my glasses off, wiped my eyes, put them back on. Try again. And again. And again. And again until it, or I, am done.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Parenting (and grandparenting) in the 21st century

The rising costs of childcare while wage growth continues to stagnate has been a big topic lately, and the reliance on grandparents for help with childcare has been part of that. But for many, this is not an option. And I think our story, and many like it, will increasingly become the norm.

I think there are three key reasons why parents raising young children now have a more difficult and costly experience of organising childcare than their parents and grandparents:

  • Income vs cost of living: housing costs have risen far more quickly than wages, meaning that for most modern families, both parents need to work at least most of the week if not full time
  • Centralisation and availability of work: it is now more common for us to take up completely different careers to our parents and more work is now concentrated in cities and large towns than ever before, meaning that more people are likely to move away from the family home 
  • The above factors are also key reasons that people are now older when they become parents and that means their parents are also older and their health may mean they are less able to take on childcare responsibilities.

All three of these factors are part of our story.

I grew up in a working class household but the sort of work my dad, grandparents, great-grandparents etc all did when they left school just didn't exist anymore and have never been replaced. I was all too aware of the struggles of working class people as industry collapsed under Thatcherism and so I went to University and at the earliest opportunity, I got a job in Manchester and moved here. After various career-related moves and delays (I was made redundant aged 30 and had to start at the bottom in a totally new career), we now have a house and a two-year-old boy.

Sadly, my wife's mum passed away nearly ten years ago and my own mum died earlier this year. Although my mum at least got to know our son as a baby and toddler, she wasn't well enough to play a bigger role in his life. My parents' house is nearly an hour's drive away (sometimes more, depending on traffic at the time) and my dad is losing his confidence behind the wheel - particularly as the traffic around Manchester seems to get worse every year. And as an old-fashioned working dad, where my mum did the majority of the parenting, he'll probably never feel comfortable or confident enough to take on any kind of 'grandparenting' role at least until our son is quite a few years older.

My wife moved up from Somerset for a job here in Manchester.When we do see her dad and step-mum, it's usually for a weekend or even a week, and they have been able to look after our son for a few hours during the day, or have kept an ear on the baby monitor after we've put him to bed. It may be that they are still fit enough to look after him for longer periods when he is old enough to be happy with that himself but due to the distance, it will never be a regular thing.

I do have friends whose parents are able to look after their children, some on a regular basis but I probably know more who don't have that option due to some or all of the factors mentioned above. And I'm somewhat surprised that for all the popularity of the topic in recent times, I haven't read very much that discusses how, unless our economy and the geographic distribution of employment opportunities re-balance, parents are going to be less able to rely on grandparents for childcare.

It is also worth pointing out humans are instinctively social and for the vast majority of human history (and it is still the case for many), large family groups have lived in close proximity and one of the benefits of those groups is the sharing of childcare responsibilities. So what we are currently seeing is not unusual, in fact society urgently needs to address the issues that are making us less able to enjoy the benefits of having our families around us.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

We need more funding for services and better education on mental health.

I am suffering with depression. Having experienced it in the past, this time I spotted it early but was still powerless to stop it happening.

It feels like there's a mild fever dream playing out in my mind whenever I'm trying to think or focus. It's noisy but at the same time silent: only I can sense it as it scrabbles around in my brain. And all the while I'm trying to hold down a stressful job and be a good parent and husband.

I was hoping anti-depressants would help. In the past, I've preferred to push on on my own: managing to carry on working and inflicting my ill mind on friends (not that I talked to them about being ill) until, eventually, coming out the other side without having to think about when it might be safe to come off the tablets. This time I have a little boy at home whose future could be affected by having a less able parent, and unlike during previous episodes, work is more difficult to manage when I'm unwell (and taking time off would just give me something else to worry about). Unfortunately, the side-effects were making everything much harder. You know in films where someone is possessed or inhabited by a demon or they have a horrible illness inflicted upon them by a curse or something and the only cure is something that looks even more painful? Well Sertraline was a bit like that for me. I had sickness, diarrhoea, blinding headaches, dizziness and when I read there were more side-effects to come and that some could last for weeks, with some potentially lasting until after I'd stopped taking them I knew I couldn't continue. It's hard enough trying to get through the day while doubting your ability to do your job (due to life-long and deeply-embedded self confidence issues) and being unable to focus on a task for long enough to complete it (I'm procrastinating right now) without feeling physically dreadful as well.

For some people, the symptoms won't be so bad and for others, it might feel worth it. I've come to realise that although I'd dearly like to erase parts of my history so that the way I acted in the worst periods and certain things I said or did could be forgotten by anyone who witnessed me in those phases, I have managed to get through without medication in the past. And wiping history is obviously impossible (I am so lucky that social media didn't exist when I was a teenager and in my early 20s - I would probably have had to disappear to rid myself of the shame of it all).

Having done a lot of thinking and a little digging, it's become clear to me that both my Mum and her Mother had mental health problems so it's perhaps not such a surprise that I have too. I have thought a lot about my childhood in recent years (in fact I'm a bit worried by how fixated on my early years I have become at certain times) and there is no question in my mind now - and I've doubted myself all my life so I have not come to this conclusion lightly - that as a child, when I cried far too easily, felt lonely, struggled to sleep at night and worried about things small children shouldn't be worrying about, it was - at least partly - because I was depressed.

I feel a crushing anguish when I think about that little boy suffering for so long and I want to go back in time and talk to him about it and get my parents to see that I needed help. My parents had a lot going on: their own health concerns and big financial difficulties being the two major themes. But I would like to think if my son was mentally unwell that my wife and I would both be aware and would make sure he saw an appropriate professional.

Today at the train station I heard some high school or possibly sixth form girls talking about someone at school: "...someone took her favourite pencil and she started crying!" I would like to have heard at least one of them say "Why would she be upset about that; maybe she's not well?" So finally, I have arrived at my point: children need to be taught more about mental health from an early age. I'm not expecting children and adolescents, who have enough on their minds, to suddenly become junior psychologists overnight but some awareness would go a long way. If my teachers had a better understanding of possible childhood mental health issues, they may have raised concerns with my parents. I hope that these days, with everything else they are expected to do in terms of safeguarding, teachers might be more likely to spot potentially unwell children and help to ensure that the matter is being dealt with.

There is a huge amount of money spent and lost in our economy to mental health issues. A little money spent on research, better funding for mental health services so that people are seen earlier and treated earlier would save a lot in the long run.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Take me to your ('moderate') leader

They still think they're the voice of reason in a (constantly expanding) room of deluded fools but, as many before have asked: show me your alternative. I still meet Corbyn detractors who idolise Blair, or talk of Ed Milliband's time as the halcyon days of sensible opposition. Let's compare recent leaders for what they were/are:

Tony Blair: successful, war monger, Thatcherite.
Gordon Brown: smart, out-of-date, inflexible.
Ed Milliband: decent, conflicted, push-over.
Jeremy Corbyn: principled, genuine, improving.

Blair is a Thatcherite. Whilst New Labour initially reached out to everyone, there were no long-term solutions for post-industrial decline and their (seemingly keen) embrace of deregulation ensured the global financial crash brought down our economy, and hit the poorest hardest (you understand I'm not blaming Labour for this: but they didn't take the opportunity to reverse the deregulation started under the conservatives - in fact the tories cheered as Brown announced the removal of further regulatory control). It was under his leadership that the Labour party moved to within a sliver of the electoral spectrum from the conservatives and created the opinion that "they're all the same" which eventually, under financial strain, would lead to UKIP, Brexit and Corbyn.

Brown is a smart man, albeit one who listened to the established neoliberal 'experts' and chose to dismiss any cautious voices. Even if I disagree with some of the decisions beforehand, his reaction (along with Alistair Darling) to the financial crash avoided much more disastrous immediate consequences and briefly returned the UK to growth before the Tories chopped down the forest. But he was out of his time: Blair's media persona worked well as television moved into the era of 24 hour rolling news; Brown wasn't comfortable on camera and came across as dour - ironically his personality would have been suited to the austerity politics brought in by his victors.

Milliband found it hard to balance his progressive, socialist ideals with the party powerbase who were willing to besmirch their own economic track record by agreeing that austerity was the only way to fix the broken economy. He wasn't a leader behind the scenes, he wasn't sure how to defend the Tories' attacks on Labour's economic credibility, and we only saw rare glimpses of the sort of leader he could have been.

Corbyn never bought into Thatcherism and he opposed the Iraq war. These two key areas meant members saw him a clean break not only with Labour's recent failures but as a fresh option that might appeal to an apathetic electorate. His detractors saw him as a relic, clinging on to a failed socialist ideology. They felt he was unelectable and they told the world that nobody in their right mind would vote for him. He struggled to begin with: the vast majority of the PLP didn't want him; he was not used to appearing in the media; his internal opposition controlled communications and he had a hard time competing with the tories' savage and well-drilled spin artists.

While the unpopular establishment told a disenfranchised population how to vote in the EU referendum, Corbyn was portrayed as a loose cog in the remain campaign. Whether he truly believed the UK should remain part of the EU or not is uncertain: critical in the past, he would now claim he is broadly in favour. It would be true to say we didn't see the passion that we have seen since Theresa May called the election - although during the EU referendum campaign he was undoubtedly hindered by an uncooperative Labour press office.

In those early days, it seemed the only way for the left to succeed would be to carefully position a younger, more dynamic successor who might be more palatable to the sceptics in the party. Instead what seems to have happened is the resignations designed to bring him down have played into Corbyn's hands. He may have had to turn to new and unknown MPs to fill his shadow cabinet but they performed very well and Labour managed to force the government into u-turn after u-turn on key policies. As the membership grew and Corbyn survived repeated internal attacks and a defence of his leadership, he has grown in stature. Perhaps it is the confidence gained in these successes that has helped him to handle himself in interviews and at the dispatch box in a way that suits him and promotes his authenticity.

Brexit continues to be an area of uncertainty: Labour appear to be trying to walk a tightrope between supporting the outcome of the referendum and keeping disgruntled remainers onside. Whatever Corbyn's true opinion on the EU, it must be recognised that somehow, perhaps by accident, he has, so far, been able to appeal to both remainers and Brexiters (though clearly not everybody in either camp). There is more work to do: remainers are beginning to question the certainty of Brexit, given the sheer ineptitude displayed by the Tory government, and so - as appears to be the case at the Labour conference - Labour need to show they will do what they can to keep us in the single market at least.

There are no strong centrist challengers being touted, as far as I have heard. Since the last round of coordinated internal attacks failed, Corbyn's brand of genuine, progressive, compassionate socialist politics has confounded media commentators and 'moderate' Labour members alike. Some fail to see that it was Thatcherism and New Labour's embrace of it that brought down our economy and gave us the widespread disillusionment which led to Brexit, Whether they like it or not, we need a fundamental shift in British politics: tinkering around the edges of dogmatic neoliberalism will not reverse the damage done by the tories to our public services, job security and wages and to the lives of the most vulnerable.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Oxford Road, Manchester: how one road can be so important

This is another of my rare departures from Politics (although politics doesn't escape completely!). A project at work (which I won't link to, in order to keep this blog and my opinions neatly separate), looks at Oxford Road in Manchester and the people who live, work, study and spend leisure time there and in the immediate vicinity. This made me think about my own relationship with the road and it's incredible how much of a story there is to tell.

Manchester was a revelation: moving here changed my life. From feeling like I didn't belong in the town I grew up in, with little or nothing in common with my peers, here – on or within a stone’s throw of Oxford Road, I found myself at home. 

I moved into a shared house in Chorlton, a kind of student house for recent graduates. One of my housemates worked at the University on Oxford Road and so did his girlfriend*. These new friends welcomed me to the area and introduced me to, directly or indirectly, to almost everyone I now know in Manchester. In those early weeks and months, I went to see bands including Elbow and I Am Kloot at The Main Debating Hall and The Hop and Grape (now Academy 2 and 3 respectively). I ended up invited to be in the audience at the Dancehouse Theatre for the filming of the music video for Elbow's re-released 'New Born'. I chatted with musical heroes from The Charlatans in The Academy and resisted bothering Supergrass in Big Hands. I was testing my expanding musical tastes (and inadvertently damaging my hearing) at Electric Chair in Music Box. All on Oxford Road.

My ex-housemate's *ex-girlfriend introduced me to some former school friends of hers who had just moved to Chorlton. Almost overnight I became part of their larger friendship group and part of their band. We went on to play in Oxford Road venues The Thirsty Scholar, The Attic, Academy 3, The Oxford (that was a rubbish gig), Jabez Clegg (almost on Oxford Road), The Font (close enough), The Greenhouse (there or thereabouts), Saki Bar and The Whitworth. I bought my two electric guitars at Sound Control (now a music venue) and Johnny Roadhouse. 

For a while after being sacked from my first proper job (their loss), I worked at the University - on Oxford Road  - and had an office to myself with the internet, a set of pc speakers, mind-numbing tasks to perform and no one checking up on me. I whiled away the hours finding new music via burgeoning online tools (this was long before Spotify, YouTube or even MySpace) and emailing friends in similarly menial jobs. Although I was quite poor, I felt young and life, on the whole, was a bit of a lark. 

In 2004, at one of the band's many gigs (on Wilmslow Road which, as if we needed more, is the continuation of Oxford Road), a work colleague of one of the band (who, let's remind ourselves became a friend thanks to my friends who met at the University on Oxford Road) brought along a friend who had recently moved to Manchester for a job, at the University on Oxford Road. Although we weren't really introduced on the night, we started dating soon after (our first date was also on Wilmslow Road).

As my life turned part of one group to being part of a number groups of friends, Oxford Road continued to play a significant role, though not always positive. My girlfriend was taken ill and needed an operation, at St Mary's on Oxford Road. The following year, after being badly let down by her supervisor, she almost failed her PhD (at the University on Oxford Road). Another year later, however, she resubmitted and passed and we celebrated with bottle of prosecco in Kro 2 - on Oxford Road (Sand Bar wasn't open yet; it wasn't quite noon). Despite having her PhD, however, Manchester turned her down for the next opportunity she applied for an instead, she took alternative opportunity in Edinburgh where we spent the next three years.

We visited Oxford Road a couple of times during those three years: once to celebrate her 30th (at the KroBar on the Science Park, just off Oxford Road), and again when we broke up the journey back up north by spending the last night of our honeymoon in the Midland Hotel (ok so the Midland isn't on Oxford Road but it's really really close!). Shortly after returning to Manchester I got a job at the University (on Oxford Road, of course) and on my daily walk down Oxford Road, I couldn't help but notice the huge increase in homelessness in Manchester, with many people sleeping under the Mancunian Way than there had been before we left. Oxford Road had changed in just two years of the Tory-led coalition government (there is is: the only political bit!).

Knowing we were planning to buy a house and start a family and with many of our friends already settled down and rarely making it into town, the two of us spent the next year making the most of our last year or so of 'freedom' in Manchester. Highlights included the Dot to Dot festival (set in several venues on and around Oxford Road) and Adam Buxton's 'Bug' at the RNCM (on Oxford Road).

Our little boy's first trip into Manchester was to a baby sensory group at the Whitworth Art Gallery (on Oxford Road) and our first night out together as parents was to see Gaz Coombes at Academy 2. I'm still working on Oxford Road and hope to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. Alongside her main job my wife also teaches and supervises students here.

Oxford Road brought us together and it's hard to see a time when it won't play a significant role in our lives.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Left vs Centre (my longest ever post: lucky you!)

Ever since the chasm in UK politics started to open up between the left and the right, I've often been surprised to find that people from similar backgrounds to myself and who traditionally vote Labour hate the rise of the left. After the snap election, some of those people had a change of heart but for many their anti-Corbyn views are stronger than ever and some say they would not vote Labour again under the current leadership.

I recently had a brief debate with one such person - lets call her Ms X - who felt that the left had abandoned aspiration. Aspiration had got Ms X from her working class background to where she is now: in a middle-class career with a middle-class lifestyle. The message was that everyone should aspire to 'better' themselves and the Labour party should be the party to help them to do that. I (and I wasn't alone) countered this idea by pointing out that there simply aren't enough middle-class jobs for everyone and not everyone wants to do them anyway. Sadly we didn't have time to debate further. I was left feeling that Ms X was puzzled by my alternative views. I hope I backed them up with enough clear knowledge to show that I wasn't simply a crazed Corbynite. Perhaps not; perhaps Ms X was puzzled as to how I could hold down my job while suffering while suffering from delusions.

I have a similar back story to Ms X: working class background; first in my family to go to University (not quite true: my Mum had gone back into education and enrolled the year before I did thanks to my artsy three years at college); moved from a small provincial town to a metropolitan city and now have a middle-class job and a middle-class lifestyle. Growing up, my parents were (and have always been) Labour voters. They were also Christians and while I don't share those beliefs, I do share the strong morals and underlying messages of equality and compassion espoused by true Christians (I say "true" Christians because if any Tory or Trump supporter claims to be a Christian, they need to read the bible and actually take it on board).

I grew up in an area with no grammar schools and that meant the affluent and the less fortunate all attended the same schools (I accept of course that some people would not move to that area as a result). A pupil who had spent their childhood being shifted around council estates in Chorley and Coppull could sit next to a child whose parents had a big detached house in Charnock Richard (ooooh) with land and their own horses. Of course, the children tended to feel more comfortable in friendship groups which more-or-less conformed to their parents' societal status. But to an extent, they understood how each other lived and the divisions were more nuanced: what sports you played, what hobbies you had, what music and clothes you liked. The differences were as much down to preference as wealth.

The grammar system divides children at an early age into the successful and the unsuccessful. From that point on, the differences can become deeper and more important. The grammar school children would go to University; for the state school children it might feel like University and the sort of career opportunities more available to them thereafter were out of reach. I went on to college where there were the majority who wouldn't go on to University, but also many who did and so for me, University felt achievable.

In the last 30-40 years, the UK has been in the grip of neoliberalism which (whether they like the word or not), is the basis on which both Labour "moderates" and the centre right build their policies. What we have learned in those decades is that neoliberalism is not compassionate and its principles do not align with the notions of collective endeavour that rebuilt the UK after the war and made it economically strong. The rich have become far richer and far more influential, while the poor have become disenfranchised, ignored at best and often vilified as spongers, a dirty underclass whose lives are worth so little that their safety is compromised in the name of saving/making a few quid (see Grenfell). The Labour centrists (for want of a better term) might feel a little sympathy for the poorest people and as they've done before, might secure the welfare safety nets and schemes aimed at helping people to help themselves. They might take some steps to make sure they're safe at least. The right would not feel sympathy and would continue to shrink the state and erode support for anyone struggling to get by.

It is important to note that for a decent chunk of my young adult life, I too was dismissive of the class I had left behind. I didn't fit in at school and while throwing myself into my new life with middle class friends in a middle-class area, I had a similar level of derision for those I had left behind as they had had for me. I absorbed the easy rhetoric that was all around (not coming from my new friends, I should add) about unemployed benefit 'scroungers' without engaging my brain long enough to do some easy logical thinking about why people might not - as far as we could tell - aspire to what we consider a better life. Thankfully I don't recall sharing these opinions widely, and I was always charitable (possibly more then than ever: I had spare time and causes I wanted to help) but it took time to replace the ideas that sheer proliferation had implanted in my head.

Ms X and I are no more worthy of praise for aspiring and achieving than anyone else is to blame for being unemployed or struggling with insecure work. Some people have opportunities presented to them. Some are shown that they are achievable. Others are neither presented with nor made aware that opportunities could (or at least should) be within their reach. People need to feel that there is a future for them. It would help if they felt represented. Politicians and media pundits are too white, too male and too middle-class: at present the left is led by white middle-class men but the ethos of their policies is inclusive and at least there are prominent female, working class and black and minority ethnic MPs coming to prominence in the party since Corbyn became leader. At the moment, we live in a country where Angela Raynor's outstanding performance since becoming a shadow minister has been broadly ignored because she has a regional accent. This has to change.

We desperately need to address the uncertain future for our large working-class population: there are not enough 'middle-class jobs' for all of the middle-class and working-class people in the country. My family laboured in mills, mines and factories and it was workers like them, not clerks and bankers, who grew our economy into one which could support everyone in it. We can't build an economy around middle-class jobs with too many people fighting for them and only the scraps for the rest. The 'gig economy' is regressive. More and more people are self-employed, which effectively means there is no minimum wage, no paid leave, sick pay, maternity pay or pension schemes, no health and safety and no maximum working hours (if someone needs to work 100 hours a week to make ends meet, their physical and mental health will suffer - and what if they're drivers or working in construction?). We need a strong industrial strategy, with well-paid and secure work for millions of people. We would need to invest heavily and we might see the economy take a temporary dip (undoubtedly a smaller one than 2007/8/9) but if more people are earning more, they will pay more tax and need less benefits and they will spend their disposable income, which will grow the economy. And as we have seen exports fall with the decline in industry, we would expect to see growth there too.

It is still not clear to me why people like Ms X are so put out by the current Labour leadership. They are very defensive of New Labour, but so are the left. In fact, people such as Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are far more likely to defend New Labour's economic record than the previous party leadership. Let's not forget the confused, apologetic austerity-lite offered by Milliband and Balls. It wasn't until the last days of campaigning before the 2015 general election that I heard either of them challenge the notion that Labour caused the global financial crash. When it finally came it was both half-hearted and way too late.

One of the most glaring issues in my view, is that there really hasn't been an alternative. Had the "moderates" had anything to offer, Corbyn wouldn't have stood a chance. But having lost the previous two elections, the other leadership candidates seemed to be offering more of the same. Many still can't take Corbyn seriously but only he was the only one who offered something exciting and hopeful that potentially appealed to the public and could repair the damage caused by neoliberalism. We are where we are because of the financial crash and the failure of austerity policies. Centrists didn't see Brexit coming. The establishment didn't see Trump as a serious contender. The "moderates" believed that Corbyn would be a complete disaster and yet, despite their repeated attempts to bring him down, he came within a whisker of winning the election. Centrists feel there's a place for an anti-brexit party but the Lib Dems actually ended up with a reduced vote share (albeit while winning a couple more seats) with a centrist anti-brexit manifesto.

The assumption is that a compromise from the centre is the wise and sensible thing to fight for. But UK politics has moved so far to the right in the last few decades that we have to move it back to the left in order to reduce inequality and disillusionment. We've tried centrism and it left us with a handful of unspeakably wealthy people and a huge number homeless and hungry. We can't fight populism from the right with more unpopularity from the centre. Let's try something different.