I woke at 3 a.m. one night last week, and scrambled for my bedside pad in which I jot down song/poem ideas. Rather than do my usual trick of making tiny tweaks then reverting them back and forth for a decade, I’m posting it now. It may get carved up for a song, or may not.
You tread lightly on the world.
You like to. You scorn roots.
One foot in front of the other,
you go now:
tread from ocean to ocean
in Brownian motion,
a ghost in the sunshine.
You photograph children;
You want none — you tread lightly.
You tread lightly on the world.
When the grass you stand on
when the gecko you startle
when your hollow in the bed
when your footprint in the sand
fills with sea;
when the daisies you flatten
take root again;
who will remember you?
(Anna said the last line is superfluous, because the act of writing shows the subject is remembered. I think Anna’s too subtle.)
I awoke this morning to the sound of rain on my window. This is a pleasing, musical sound and although it’s vaguely annoying to work during sunny days and find it raining at the weekend, that’s England for you. Mostly, I was just reassured that my nipples were accurate.
I tweeted yesterday that if my nipples itch, it will rain:
Renewing my subscription to @netmag. Unrelated, my nipples are really itchy where the rings used to be, which means it'll rain.
But my nipples haven’t always possessed paranormal powers of precipitation prediction. This appeared after two misadventures, one to each nipple. They were the mammarian equivalent to Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, perhaps.
I actually only have one and a half nipples now. My right nipple is a bit of a disaster. (And, for the avoidance of doubt, I mean my right nipple; it will be on your left when finally you and I are lying, brilliantly exhausted, with your tousled-haired head lying on my my chest, dear reader, as destiny commands us to do.)
In 1982, I was at school and my right nipple was a bit itchy (nothing to do with weather; an early chest hair was forcing its way through). I scratched it vigorously and, because I was a crazy kid with long black-varnished fingernails, my nail split the little head of the nipple in two and yanked a piece of it off. It bled a lot for a while. I won’t post a photograph of it, but to use a London skyline visual simile, if my left nipple is like a perfectly-domed tiny pink St Paul’s Cathedral, my right nipple would be the ugly brutalist splodge of The Barbican.
Seventeen years later, misadventure occurred with my left nipple. I’d had my nipples pierced as I was working up to going the full Prince Albert (or, as an extensively-pierced but malapropism-prone friend calls his, “a King Edward”). I’d gone to a posh piercing place in Soho where they froze it with a spray. As I was walking back to the tube, the numbness suddenly wore off and a wave of pain overwhelmed me; I clutched a lamp-post for support. “Are you OK?” asked a passing policeman. “Yes, I’ve just had my nipples pierced” I explained. He nodded as if he completely understood, and continued on his beat.
But that’s not the story. The second nork-cataclysm happened on a beach in Thailand with my infant daughter asleep in my arms. She must have awoken, looked up and seen the ring gleaming in the sunlight, reached up and hooked her tiny finger right through the left ring, and pulled. And pulled. And pulled.
It really is extraordinary how long a human nipple can be stretched. Obviously I had no ruler with me at the time, and even if I had, I would have had no inclination to take measurements, but I’d estimate my nipple extended to at least 3 inches before I managed to unhook her finger and then retired into the sea to allow the salt water to soothe the damaged flesh.
On my next trip to Soho, I had the rings removed. But since those misadventures, itchy nipples has become the unfailing harbinger of rain.
This year’s general election is going to be a close one, and a bitter one. For the first time ever, I’ve had representatives of political parties knocking on my door and, although none of the current crop of parties appeals to me, I told the last gang (Labour) that I’m sick of politicians (in this case, Ed Milliband) who react to the moral panic du jour with ill-thought out policies that appease the slack-jawed but actually cause long-term damage.
I’d vote for whoever had the courage to make policies based on evidence and long-term thinking rather than short-term headline grabbing, religious attachment to dogma, or the selfish interests of its core supporters. I doubt such a politician exists, but if any do, here’s my wish-list.
To support more older people, it’s obvious that we need more young people to work and pay tax. However, the birthrate in the UK seems to be falling:
The number of live births and the total fertility rate (TFR) fluctuated throughout the twentieth century with a sharp peak at the end of World War II. Live births peaked again in 1964 (875,972 births), but since then lower numbers have been recorded. The lowest annual number of births in the twentieth century was 569,259 in 1977. The number of births is dependent on both fertility rates and the size and age structure of the female population.The total fertility rate for England and Wales decreased in 2013 to an average of 1.85 children per woman from 1.94 in 2012.
Women are having children later. Tellingly, Coalition austerity policies – a prime example of dogma over evidence-based policymaking – are likely to be contributing to the lower birth rate. The UK government’s Office of National Statistics writes:
Other factors which could have had an impact on fertility levels in 2013 include:
uncertainty about employment and lower career and promotion opportunities (such as temporary, part-time, or zero-hours contracts), which can significantly reduce women’s demand for children (Del Bono E, et al.,2014; Lanzieri G, 2013)
reforms by the Government to simplify the welfare system, which have resulted in some significant changes to benefits that may have influenced decisions around childbearing. The changes were announced in 2011 and 2012 and included; reduced housing benefit from April 2013 for those living in property deemed to be larger than they need. Children under 10 are expected to share a room, as are children under 16 of the same gender; removal of child benefit where one parent earns over £50,000 from January 2013 and a 3-year freeze on payments for those eligible from April 2011; and a cap on the total amount of benefits that working age people can receive from April 2013, so that households on working age benefits can no longer receive more in benefits than the average wage for working families.
Therefore, the current austerity policies will have a long-term effect of reducing the workforce so making more elderly people dependant on fewer working people. Without immigrants working here, this will result in cuts to the services the elderly receive, or a higher tax burden on those in work, neither of which are desirable – particularly to the successors of the current Conservative government for whom elderly people are more likely to vote, and for which tax reduction is an article of absolute faith.
Immigration also brings us skilled workers. A good friend of mine works recruiting nurses from overseas for a big, nationally-known UK hospital. She doesn’t do this because she is part of a dastardly plot to flood Britain with highly-trained, hard-working Filipinos whose English language is better than that of many “indigenous” residents (to get a visa, non-EU applicants are required to achieve a higher score in their English language tests than EU applicants for some odd reason). No, she does this because hospitals need nurses, and there aren’t enough British nurses.
5,778 nurses were recruited from overseas in the 12 months to September… This compares with a figure of just 1,360 reported by 40 trusts in the previous year. Experts said a lack of trained British nurses meant hospitals were forced to hunt abroad for trained staff, with the costs of global trawls vastly inflating the cost of recruitment. Hospitals pay managers and recruitment agencies to go abroad to seek out staff, while offering bonuses to nurses who come here. In total, 91,470 nurses – around one in seven of those now registered to work here – trained overseas, official figures show.
Why? The Telegraph – a highly conservative newspaper – reports
The surge follows cuts to NHS programmes to train nurses in this country, with 10,000 training places cut since 2010.
Anecdotally (from my friend who does the recruitment), many British people don’t want to become nurses. The Royal College of Nursing (the profession’s representative body) notes that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, said in his 2011 autumn statement
all public sector wage rises should be capped at an average of one per cent for two years from April 2013. This comes after a two year policy which saw all NHS staff earning more than £21,000 facing a pay freeze, while those earning up to £21,000 received an award of £250 in both years.
the supply of nursing staff is being seriously threatened as NHS organisations attempt to save money by cutting posts and by the reduction in commissioned training places for nurses. Commissioned places for pre-registration nursing has fallen by nearly nine per cent from 2010/11 to 2011/12. This is particularly worrying at a time when 12 per cent of the nursing workforce is aged 55 or over and a quarter is aged 50 or over.
Both the RCN evidence and the staff side evidence draw on results from a joint trade union survey of members which found that almost two thirds of nurses said they had seriously thought about leaving their job, and a third would leave for a post outside the NHS. The top two reasons for considering leaving the NHS are stress/workload and staff shortages. Two thirds of respondents said morale had declined in the last 12 months, while 71 per cent said staff shortages have frequently occurred in their workplace over the past year.
The starting salary for graduate nurses is £21,338 (with an additional £4076 for inner London, as if the extra £78 week before tax makes up for living costs there), but it’s a 3 or 4 year degree course to get there. The current government raised the cap on university tuition fees, so the tuition alone for a 4 year nursing course could come to £36,000 – for a £21,000 pre-tax salary. If the government were genuinely concerned to reduce reliance on overseas nurses, it would either raise salaries, or subsidise tuition fees for socially vital jobs, such as nurses. But it won’t, because it’s unable to make sensible policies that might have the desired outcome due to its dogma of not interfering in markets, and its antipathy to the public sector.
Incomes are low because of austerity policies, and housing is preposterously expensive in the UK because there’s an inadequate supply. It’s my belief that the main reason for this under-supply is the ideologically-driven “Right to Buy” sell-off of social housing by the Thatcher government – councils who owned social housing were required by law to sell it at deep discount to tenants (and weren’t allowed to use the funds raised to replenish the housing stock).
Whatever the reason for the under-supply of housing, though, if the government really wanted to reduce the housing benefit spend, it would simply cap rents. Housing Benefit is nothing more than a government subsidy to landlords, who charge high prices because they know the government will pay them. If rents were controlled, the housing benefit spend would reduce. But it wouldn’t dream of doing so because that would be regulation in the free market (it’s religious dogma that the invisible hand is always right, whether it pickpockets your neighbour and hands her purse to you, or pokes you in the eye). It’s also the case that landlords tend to be Conservative voters. Upsetting loads of nurses and public sector workers is one thing – they mostly don’t vote for the Tories anyway – but landlords are part of the clan who rule us. After all, Charles Gow, the son of Mrs Thatcher’s Housing Minister during the council house sell-off, owns at least 40 ex-council flats on one South London estate.
Politicians of all political hues seem happy to talk tough on immigration, as if it were a bad thing rather than an economic necessity. They all seem to agree that austerity is required, while pumping billions into the City under the cloak of “Quantitative Easing” (which has failed, according to its inventor). This nutrient-free flatulent miasma of stupidity appeases the Daily Mail and Express readers, yet it damages the country.
Give me some joined-up, evidence-based thinking, and you’ll get my kiss on election day.
Update 7 Jan: Great minds think alike. From the Daily Telegraph (of all places!) on 5 Jan, Ten ways we could fix broken Britain suggests paying people to do degrees we need, more tenants rights, more housing (and using the tax system to punish those who sit on land reserves, like supermarkets or volume builders), and other sensible policies like tripling the congestion charge and legalising drugs.
As regular readers may recall, I don’t send paper Xmas cards, because I’m a miserable bastard. With friends and family scattered all over the place, it seems daft to me to send bits of paper to landfills across the globe via plane or road. So instead, I bung the amount I’d spend on paper and postage to a charity where I think the dosh is better spent.
Happy Consumerfest or whatever-you-celebrate. My plans are to get through the weirdness of the first Xmas when my Dad won’t be getting pissed on all my red wine; not put on any of the 6 kgs I lost this year; get healthy enough to go back to kickboxing; record more of my backlog of songs I’ve written; and continue whingeing to make the web better.
(This is sort of a public service announcement as I get lots of visitors who come here from a search for “multiple sclerosis”.)
I’m a bit grumpy today, not just because I’m in bed with a temperature of 38.7, sweating and occasionally coughing so hard I eject alarmingly yellow blobs of what is presumably some gelatinous form of plutonium, but because I should be at the airport flying to Oslo (where my employers are headquartered) for a meet-up with my excellent team-mates and the notoriously Epicurean office Xmas party. But I’ve elected not to go.
“What’s that?”, you cry. “You – Bruce – who plays punk guitar, does kickboxing and wrestles poodles (and wins!) have turned into Shirley Temple!” you mock.
Here’s the reasoning, in the hope that if you are a merry new recruit to the world of MS (I’m a veteran of ’99), it’ll be some help to you.
When you’re newly diagnosed it’s quite normal to be in and out of your neurologists’s office so often that the staff greet you by first name and soon start darting into stock rooms or crouching behind desks as you approach. You’re new, you’re worried and every tiny twinge sets of your anxiety. Later on, particularly if your kind of MS is cyclical remitting-relapsing, you might breathe a sigh of relief and start to think ‘I won’t let this diagnosis change me!’ and potentially push yourself too far. It’s not a good idea to be an MS hero.
As you probably know if you have it, MS is a disease of the auto-immune system. In highly technical terms, think of an MS person’s immune system as being like a crowd of drunk Millwall FC fans waiting for the opposing fans to enter their stadium. When they see the opposition, they’ll beat them up. But once the opposition is defeated, they’ll very likely smash a few windows, beat up some police, their own friends, set fire to their neighbours’ cars and then turn on each other.
Getting even more scientific, there are no police or windows in your immune system, so it will attack your nerves instead, stripping their myelin sheaths which will never regenerate.
As I write this, my eyes hurt if I move them left, right, up or down. This isn’t much fun – you tend to turn your head instead of having to move your eyes which makes you look a bit like a robot in a sci-fi film. But when this happens to me it’s a warning signal. One of my first MS presentations was going effectively blind in my left eye because of Optic Neuritis, which is an inflammation of the optic nerve that makes your eyes painful and vision darkened. (Mine was dealt with by injecting anti-inflammatory goo just behind the eye, a procedure which was pretty low in chuckles.)
I also have an increase in what I call “fizzy fingers” (due to my incorrigible love of alliteration). This is when my fingertips feel numb or full of “pins and needles”. I always have this to some extent – it’s why I can’t play guitar properly any more – and, to my eternal regret, it’s my own fault. When I was eventually diagnosed (3 years after the optic neuritis) my hands were basically not obeying orders – my handwriting was a scrawl, I couldn’t do my own buttons up etc. But I heroically soldiered on before eventually being admitted to hospital and being put on 1000mg of steroids daily in the medical equivalent of tear-gassing the rioting Millwall fans and shutting your immune system down so it can’t do any more damage. But the damage already done can’t be reversed.
So these days, when I get a little bit of a cold I soldier on. But when I start to get other more sinister signs, I give up and take to my bed. While I know that my team mates would love to sit in a room with me and my pathogens, inhaling the gift of a Christmas fever to take to their loved ones, and I understand that the ladies of Oslo have spent many weeks putting up welcoming street decorations, I’m vegging out until the auto-immune Millwall fans go back to their mums’ houses. (From 15 years’ experience, a couple of days.)
It’s not worth being heroic when the risk is irreparable damage (and I have 2 dependant kids, too). Your MS will be different; your level of heroism may be different. Good luck and take care.
After posting my old song Speed Of Light which contains the delicate phrase “fucking in the summer rain”, I remembered this poem that I wrote about the same incident, with slightly more genteel vocabulary.
It’s part of the same series of poems as It is a hot evening in July that I wrote to try to capture a precise moment in time or emotion.
Moments 3 (10.7.87)
The lethargy of evening
insects in the long grass
the langour and the language
I will not find a meaning
I will not bind my feeling
soft rain silvers cobwebs
on the stone for Stan and Ellen
that we lie upon all grassy
when the world gives up its whirling
for an instant small as insects
in the calmness after climax
in the stillness of the twilight
we are here
Here’s the eulogy I delivered at my Dad’s funeral last Thursday.
Jeff Lawson, or (“Grandpa Fifi” as my kids called him, as when they were little they couldn’t pronounce “Jeffrey”) was born on D-day to Jim and Elsie. He spent his first few years with his brother Colin up in the North East for a while. One of his earliest memories was of running away from home, and getting on a bus to go and live with his Auntie, who spanked him and immediately put him back on the return bus. When his father retired, the four of them moved way down south to Southampton where he mostly lost his Geordie accent, although it returned after a few on the rare occasions when he’d had too many glasses of beer.
As a teenager in Southampton he developed a love of music, also shared with his younger brother Colin, and won a twist competition at the hop in the early 60s. In your order of service, you’ll see photograph of him and Colin’s wife Barbara shaking their booties at Jeff’ 60th birthday party.
He was the first Lawson male for generations not be a coal miner, and moved to London to join the civil service. After some time being generally groovy (see the photos in your Order of Service), he met Anthea and they married, honeymooning by being posted by the Civil Service to Aden, South Yemen, where I was born precisely 8 months to the day after the wedding. (They told their parents that I was premature).
On returning to the UK, they lived in Hastings where Guy was born, and then they moved to Birmingham where he and Anthea brought us up. Times were hard, so family meals were supplemented with home-grown vegetables that were planted in Party 7 beer cans, empty 7 pint beer cans that spontaneously appeared in the kitchen over the weekend.
Guy remembers that, when he would walk us home from the bus stop where we’d meet him after work, he’d always discover a stash of sweets hidden in the undergrowth somewhere by a mysterious person known as the Magic Man, whose identity is still unknown to this day.
We remember his proud acquisition of a music centre in the 1970s, where he would listen to ELO, Abba and Alma Cogan through headphones and “sing” along.
His singing style was unique – he never believed changing pitch was as important as maintaining a high decibel count. He nevertheless never tired of telling his family that some young girl had once told him he had a lovely voice. And so he had – when he wasn’t singing.
An example of his non-singing voice was when he had to go to a training course in Edinburgh, and he recorded a series of stories about an Octopus named Oscar on his cassette player for them to listen to every night before bed during his absence.
Jeff worked for many years for the Civil Service as a Welfare Officer – a kind of staff counsellor – along with John who later became his next-door neighbour. In his spare time he used to enjoy music, gardening and amateur dramatics, as well as brewing foul-tasting but strong beer.
Tim, a schoolfriend of ours, recalls “Saturday afternoon, I’d peddled to your house to find you and your dad sat in the back garden “testing” the home brew. I remember it getting very giggly. I think we had about 3 or 4 pints each. Guy had to go to bed after 2 pints”. On his way home, Tim was arrested for being drunk in charge of a bicycle. Two other friends of mine crashed their bicycles into a steel gate on a building site – there was no fence around it, just a free-standing gate.
In the late 80s, Jeff separated from Anthea and moved to London, settling in Eltham with his new partner, Big Bruce (so named because I’m “little Bruce”) and his dog Digger of which he was exceptionally fond.
Jeff found life as a Civil Servant dis-spiriting, although he loved the Royal Parks that he helped administer. So, as soon as he could, aged 50, he retired and the last 20 years of his life were full of activity – caring for his mother, Elsie, who moved in with him, holidays (lots of holidays!), acting and directing at the Bob Hope Theatre, listening to children read at a local school, judging gardens and volunteering to use his counselling skills at Stepping Stones, a support service for those with life-limiting illnesses at Greenwich & Bexley Hospice. Ann from Stepping Stones wrote to us saying “we have so many wonderful memories of him over many years working together – in his easter bonnet and dressed up for Christmas and yet so sensitive and compassionate with all our users.”
Four years ago, the day after his mother’s funeral here, Jeff had heart surgery to replace a valve. Once he’d recovered from that, he took us all to a large villa in France where we spent a lovely summer holiday – although the restaurant meals meant he couldn’t indulge his love on elaborate and detailed menu planning.
He remained healthy for most of his retirement – as recently as Christmas he was at our house with Anthea and her new husband for Xmas dinner, and – although he was suffering from leg pain that made it difficult for him to walk – treated the family to a weekend at Centreparcs in June for his 70th birthday. After his admission to hospital, he was still texting Guy and me to arrange to visit Centreparcs again at Easter next year “when I’m better”.
His death was sudden – he’d been discharged from hospital. We were on holiday at the time, at a place he recommended, and using a map he’d sketched for us. We didn’t cut the holiday short; he’d have hated us to, especially as Dalyan was special to him.
We’re comforted by the fact that it was sudden, swift and at home; he was a private man who hated to be seen frail and would have hated to “become a burden” as he would have put it.
We remember him with love, and are grateful that you are all here to do that with us.
As the proud owner of a teenage girl who’s turning into a fine young woman, I’ve reflected on the various stages of parenthood:
spending 49% of salary on baby food, and 49% on nappies
grazed knees and reassurance
helping with homework
realising you’re unable to help with homework
pretending not being sad when they say they hate you
making them work for relatively trivial amounts of money so they understand that money is valuable
being polite to spotty herberts with ludicrous hair and unstable voices (Teenage Boys)
“this is a house not a hotel”
The daughter is pretty well-equipped for adulthood. She already excels in many aspects of the curriculum at Bruce’s Finishing School for Modern Young Ladies® – she can fart outrageously, think deeply, belch loudly, accept differences, kickbox and knock down arse-gropers, play guitar, say “no”, say “fuck off”, spin out a really good joke to entertain both friends and eavesdroppers on a bus, get a paedophile deported, support her friends, swear inventively and hold her vodka down.
So I’m beginning a programme of watching classic movies with her. Not worthy art films, just those that have a different view of life, are surprising, or beautiful, or don’t portray women as idiots or trophies to be won, or simply those you’ll feel embarrassed saying “I haven’t seen that” at a student party.
Here’s a list so far:
Some Like It Hot
The usual suspects
Evil Dead 2013
The Big Lebowski
Un chien Andalou
Triumph of the Will
Kind Hearts and Coronets
Your recommendations (with a line about why) would be highly useful.
My university friend Richard was doing some paperwork at his house and found a magazine published in the late 80s with three of my poems in it, each of which I’d written to capture one single moment or emotion. For no other reasons than it’s fun for me to rediscover my younger self, and because right now it actually is a hot evening in July, and also because I want to pretend to be all sensitive’n’shit, here’s one of those poems:
It is a hot evening in July. You and I
lie, naked, on the bed. My cigarette smoke
dances in the sun’s fading rays, and hangs in the air
like angels, waiting. Are you awake?
Yes, it seems that you are.
You run your fingers through your raven-black hair,
slowly. Your eyes are half-closed. Your eyelashes are long.
Your skin is pale, glazed with sweat. Your lips are wet.
Stubble in your armpits. Nipples dark, erect.
One of your legs gently massages the other, so slowly.
I lie back, exhaling slowly, and kiss you.
But you do not kiss me.
I have often noticed this: you will reciprocate,
but not initiate. A clock ticks somewhere.
You retain fragments of a fractured innocence:
You remind me of a fallen angel. There are no words.
A smile comes to your lips and I say, What’s funny?
You do not reply.
It is a hot evening in July.
It is a hot evening in July:
humid; quiet. You sigh.
We breathe heavily, in unison.
The sound of next door’s radio
floats languidly through our window to the world.
You hum along, inaudibly. I light another cigarette as
you shift to your side to face me. I stare at the ceiling
and send a smoke ring drifting
which hangs over your head and dissipates.
Your hand rests on my stomach, your head on my chest.
My free arm around your shoulders.
I can hear your heart beat.
I can feel your heart beat.
Somewhere a clock is ticking.
You look up and smile to me; our eyes are solemn.
And then you kiss me and I could cry.
It is a hot evening in July.
As we approach a council and European election in UK, and are a year away from the General Election, the government is crowing that its years of austerity politics have put Britain right again. House prices are booming (in the South East) etc. 1.2 million new jobs are (apparently) created (but what kind of jobs?). “Welfare has been capped and immigration controlled, so our economy works for those who play by the rules”, say the Conservatives.
It doesn’t feel like a Golden Age of prosperity here in my past-its-heydey suburb of South Birmingham. Our high street supports two family butchers, and a greengrocer. But there are also two slot machine shops, several discount shoes and cheap clothing shops, as well as a slew of charity shops and places to sell gadgets/ jewellry for cash.
Here are some photos of my local high street; it takes 10 minutes to amble along this route – approximately 400m to walk up, cross the road, and walk down again.
There’s an Oxfam charity shop:
A shop selling plastic stuff and canned food for a pound:
A PDSA charity shop:
A cheque centre (for cashing cheques at a commission) next to an “Entertainment centre” (where people can buy sell phones, games consoles, DVDs etc):
A British Heart Foundation furniture and electrical store, where people on low incomes can buy cheap used furniture:
A branch of Pound Stretchers:
“Money for Gold Rope” where you can sell your jewelry:
Debra charity shop for cheap used furniture:
Cash converters, where you can sell your TV, DVD player. There’s always a queue to sell at weekends:
A Marie Curie cancer hospice charity shop next to a British Red Cross charity shop:
Acorns Children’s Hospice charity shop:
BetFred bookmakers, next to Scope charity shop:
Albemarle Bond pawn shop:
Bright House, a shop that provides “high-quality, branded products to credit-constrained customers, through affordable weekly payments. Our bespoke credit management processes enable our customers to get the goods they need, in a way they can afford”. It’s basically a high-interest hire purchase shop; the front page of their website today advertises a “representative APR of 64.7%”:
British Heart Foundation charity shop:
Charity shops do great work, and I love poking around them for CDs and books. But when most of your high street is charity shops, it’s difficult to believe the triumphant cries of “recovery!” from the millionaires in government.