Austerity: A Modern (Un)Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there lived a woman called Helen. Helen was a fairly normal lady. She had two wonderful children, though she had sadly lost her prince charming. But she had a house, a life and was overall very happy with it.

Helen had an uncle, Uncle Banker, who was great. He threw lavish parties, got paid lots of money and generally had a great time. Helen didn’t really see much of him. He certainly never invited her to the parties with the rest of the wunch (for, of course, that is the collective term for bankers). But every time Helen saw her uncle, Uncle Banker said “don’t worry, Helen. If I’m doing well, we all do well. It trickles down eventually”. And he gave her a pat on the back, a wink, then went off to grab another magnum of champagne.

This continued for some time, until one day Helen got a knock at the door. It was Uncle Banker.

“Ah, right,” said Uncle sheepishly, “so there’s been a bit of a problem. Things went a bit awry at work and, well. I’m broke. Not only that, but I owe a lot of people a lot of money. I need your help.”

Helen agreed to do what she could. It was her uncle, after all.

“Atta girl,” said Uncle Banker. “And remember, I can make back all the money I owe, and then I can make back more money. We’ll all share in the benefits!”

Helen asked how much he needed.

“Ah, that’s the thing…” he replied sheepishly, before giving the amount.

Helen regretted asking how much he needed.

But Helen did what she can. She raided her savings, re-mortgaged the house, took out a loan and just about managed to get enough together. She was up to her eyes in debt, but she knew it was worth it. It was an investment.

“Wonderful, wonderful! And in return I want to introduce you to a dear friend of mine, Troy. I think you’ll get on, er, wonderfully!”

So Helen met Troy and he did seem wonderful. He was tall, handsome and great with money. He promised Helen things would be different. Things would change. That he’d help sort her debts out and give her and the kids everything they could dream of if they moved in with him.

Helen was hesitant. But she hadn’t really heard from Uncle Banker. She’d had a few phone calls cut short with a quick “don’t worry, I’m getting there. And when I’m doing much better, we’ll all be doing much better soon!”

But no money arrived.

After looking at all her bills, all the outgoings and wondering how she was going to make the repayments, Helen decided to move in with Troy. He’d be able to change things for her.

“Oh I’m so happy, you won’t regret it!” he said.

So she and the kids packed all their belongings into boxes and moved across to his house.

“Of course we’ll have to tighten our belts a bit, but don’t worry we’ll get through this. We’re all in it together,” he said, with a sympathetic smile. “Oh, and we’ll have to sell your house”.

Helen wasn’t sure. She loved her house, and it took her so many years to pay off her mortgage. Well, the first one.

“It’s a case of having to I’m afraid. We can’t afford the bills with all of our debts. We have to live within our means. Besides, my mate Larry is after a place, so he’ll take it off us!” said Troy.

Helen thought about it. It did seem a bit silly to be paying all that money out on a place that she wasn’t living in anymore… So eventually she agreed.

Troy handled the sale, and used the money to pay down some of Helen’s debts. But not much of it. Definitely not as much as she thought it would.

“Ah, you see it’s a tough climate, so Larry couldn’t give us as much as we hoped. But it saves us the running costs of the house, and it’s some money in our pocket, so it’s win-win!”

Helen wasn’t so sure. Her house was gone, at not even half the market rate. But what’s done is done, she thought.

“Oh, and I’ve got rid of the kids’ university funds. It’s about time they stop scrounging off us and make their own way in the world. They don’t pay anything towards the bills, so they shouldn’t expect a hand out”.

Helen didn’t think that was right. After all Troy and Uncle Banker both went to university without paying for themselves, and her kids had nothing to do with her financial situation. But, she guessed what’s done is done, so maybe it’ll make them work a bit harder. Make them pick a really useful degree so they can make money. That might not be what they wanted, but we’re all in it together, she thought.

The next morning Helen went to drive to work in her car. There was just one problem. It wasn’t there.

“Oh I had to sell the car, we couldn’t afford to have such a valuable asset just sitting there,” said Troy.

Helen explained that it wasn’t just sitting there, she needed it to get to work.

“But you can get the train!” Troy said.

It added three hours to her daily commute, but Helen did get the train. After all, we’re all this together, she thought. But the ticket prices are huge. In fact, within a few months, she’d paid out more on train fares than she’d made from the sale of the car. When she mentioned this to Troy he just said:

“Well Larry owns the trains, and he has to make a living! After all, do you want his children to starve?”

Of course Helen didn’t.

“Good, because he’s a top bloke. Got great business instincts too – he’s the one that bought your car, and managed to sell it for nearly twice as much as he paid! Definitely the kind of savvy bloke we want to have around. I mean, if he can make that sort of money, it’s bound to trickle down if we hang out with him more.”

It was all getting a bit much. Helen had to say something.

“Look, it’s not my fault you’ve got all this debt, is it?” said Troy, getting very defensive. “You lived beyond your means! You shouldn’t have gone on holidays, or fixed the boiler back when it broke, or bought all those books and toys for the kids. I mean, you were buying them new clothes almost every year! You shouldn’t have let them grow like that. If you’d been smarter with your money, not overspent, then we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

That didn’t seem quite right. Wasn’t she in this situation because of Uncle Banker?

“Of course not! If you’d had the savings, if you’d made hay while the sun was shining, it wouldn’t have been such a big hit. And now you wouldn’t need to be living with me, sponging off the hard work of others. We’re lucky to have people like Larry – did you know he’s offered to take some of the burden? He’ll take some of your debt off you, and get your Uncle to pay him back directly. That way we get a cash windfall to pay some of it down.”

This seemed very nice to Helen. Maybe Larry wasn’t so bad after all…

“Of course, he won’t pay the FULL amount. For every £100 of debt he takes, he’ll give us £50. But still, it’s off our plate that way, and he gets to make a little something for all his work.”

But. But. But. Thought Helen.

“Look I’m not going to argue. I’m off out so you’ll have to take care of your own dinner. Oh, and I’ve had to sell the oven and fridge. I got great deal from Larry. But there’s bread on the side and water in the taps. That’s more within our means. Right – I’m off out for dinner with your Uncle and Larry, I’ll send them your best wishes!”

And so Helen sat in the kitchen with her kids, eating stale bread with water to wash it down with. But she had to. After all, they were all in it together.

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Brexistential Crisis

OK voting day. Whatever happens, after this we know where we stand.

So just enough time for one more long, long rant, to add to the others. And it’s a doozy. I’m sorry. But in the words of Mark Twain “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

So just lie back and think of England (and/or Europe), and we can get through it.

I’m voting Remain. This is perhaps no surprise. But what might surprise you is that I was genuinely open to either option going into it.

The EU is by no means perfect, some bits (TTIP for instance) scare the bejeesus out of me. But I did research. A lot of research. And I got lots of opinions from other people. And Remain is the only sensible option. Here’s my reasoning.

1) The EU have no reason to be nice to us if we leave.

In fact they have every reason NOT to be nice – they don’t want others to think they can go it alone too. We trade with them a lot, so they have an interest in setting up deals. But if selling a few extra cars comes at the cost of losing France to a Frexit too, then they’ll probably find somewhere else to sell to instead.

It’s like quitting your job in a dramatic fashion, smashing your bosses windscreen, telling everyone how shit you think they are, then asking if you can still come in and use your old desk. Even if some of the work you’re doing could be for your old boss, they won’t want you around distracting the proper employees. And they’ve still got a windscreen to pay off.

2) If we leave, we still want to be tied to the EU through trade.

The very best case scenario for the Leave campaign involves a trade deal with the EU. This means we would still be tied by all that “bureaucratic red tape” we’re trying to escape – we can’t sell them goods that don’t meet their standards, for instance, so we’d need to meet the standards. Just without any kind of say on what those standards are.

Plus we’d probably have to pay lots of money (as the non-EU countries under the agreement already do). But we won’t get a say.

So it’s like choosing to move from a full time contract at work to being a freelancer who does most of their work for them anyway. You do the same work, get the same results, but don’t get a say in the direction, or any of the cool bonuses, holiday pay etc that full employees do. Oh sure, there’s the chance you could get work elsewhere, but everyone else who’d hire you are too busy working with your old boss to notice or care you’re going it alone. You’re one person, no matter how good you are at your job, the 27 people at your old company combined are better.

3) Immigration isn’t a bad thing

You can be forgiven 100% for thinking it is. We’re fed a daily diet of stories designed to make us think immigration is bad. But the best analogy I ever read for it online (I can’t remember where otherwise I’d link to it) was it’s like having a cake cut into ten slices – the bankers and media-moguls take nine slices, then say to you “hey, that immigrant is trying to take your slice”.

Immigration causes a net gain to our economy – they put in more than they take out. And they take out less per head than us citizens do. They don’t drive down wages. They make our country and our culture richer. And it works both ways – we have people disappear over seas too, to places like Spain. In fact, we’re basically trading pensioners and their assorted health costs for young, smart, eager workers putting into the economy. Bonus.

And any student of history can tell you that this is a scary path to go down. It’s what happens in fascist countries – men arrive and tell you all your problems are down to a group of people, but if something could be done about them everything will be better. It’s not true. It’s never been true. And it can’t be allowed to change.

We say it’s not a race thing, it’s a broader problem with “them trying to come over here trying to get something for nothing”. It could be anyone, of any race. But then Nigel Farage, when called out on why he’d rather have Germans living next door than Romainians, replies “you know the difference” and it starts to set alarm bells off. Then the “Breaking Point” poster for Ukip this week was almost exactly the same as a poster by the Nazis. They chose Jewish people.

You are not racist just because you vote Leave. I cannot stress that enough. There are other reasons to hold that view. However, I do think all racists will vote Leave. And that says something to me.

The problems we do have are down to poor government. We don’t have enough houses, because the government hasn’t built more. The NHS is struggling, because of lack of investment (after all doctors aren’t striking because of immigration, in fact 26% of doctors are born abroad). And we live under austerity because the government gave £500 billion to the banks, not because of the small amount we pay to EU workers (£530m in 2013 – but again they put more in than they take out).

I think fascism has never really got a grip in the UK because we value fair play. We’re the country who perfected the queue for heaven’s sake. We have a strong sense of what’s right. When the American troops came over during WW2, we treated them the same whether they were white or black. They were people doing a job, and deserved our respect. Plus we absorb new parts of other cultures rather than shun them. Just look at our language, a melting pot of bastardised phrases, loanwords and mixed etymologies that make it so wonderful.

We’re told every day by tax-avoiding media moguls that immigrants are after our money. And if you’re told something often enough, you can’t help but start to think there must be truth to it. But when it comes down to it, I think we Brits don’t like bullies. We value fairness, and if someone wants to come along and share those values, work hard, and make something of themselves, then they’re welcome with open arms. And don’t let anyone try and change that.

4) If in doubt, look at who agrees with which side

Everyone who knows anything seems to agree with Remain. Scientists. Economists. Every financial institution. Every former Prime Minister, the majority of parliament, almost every single international politician. Basically anyone who’s job it is to know what they’re talking about.

I’m as happy as anyone to take an unpopular opinion if I think it’s correct (come on, I’m a lefty in naturally-conservative England) but to stand up in the face of all those people saying something will be bad and only having the defence “no it won’t” is just the political equivalent of the Black Knight from Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

What’s worse is the active anti-intellectualism being pushed. It seems they can’t disagree with Nobel prize winners, respected economists and professionals who’ve spent their entire academic career study these sorts of issues, so they’ve taken the route of saying that people are sick of experts, and tired of facts. The Colbert Report was meant as satire, it wasn’t a guide to winning an argument. This is not only an insult to the British population, it’s scary. Gove was crying yesterday that Remain are like the Nazis, where he’s telling us to believe the Party line despite, ignoring the facts, the experts and reasoned arguments. We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

Even if I didn’t have other reasons, this alone would be enough to make me vote Remain. It genuinely scares me that this is considered reasonable political discourse. I thought we were better. No, I know we are better. So we can’t let it win.

So there it is. My full rant in all its glory. Disagree with it. Share it. Print it out and put it on the fridge if you want. Just make sure you go out and vote.

And preferably vote Remain.

Civil War – Why I’m Team Cap

I’m somewhat of a Marvel fan. Admittedly I’ve never actually read a Marvel comic or graphic novel, but that shouldn’t stop me from having an opinion. After all, Jeremy Hunt doesn’t let a complete and utter lack of experience in healthcare hold him back from telling doctors how to work.

What this does mean is that for the most part, my only real knowledge of Marvel is what I’ve picked up from films, computer games and what I can remember from 90’s TV shows. So what follows is entirely based on those.

When a Captain America film was first announced, my response was an awkward shudder. Oh God, that’s JUST what Marvel need, a pretty boy running around in red, white and blue punching bad guys with the awesome power of jingoism.

I went to see it (I place being a nerd far above fear of being a hypocrite), and was genuinely surprised when I enjoyed it. No, more than that. I loved it.

Most super hero origins revolve around a protagonist with great powers having to find their heroism. Iron Man is an arms dealer who sees the damage his weapons do and vows to do better. Thor is a god who loses his power until he becomes worthy. Spider-man uses his power to win money, before realising he has the responsibility to do more with it. The X-Men need to convince Wolverine to care about helping people and join the team. It’s the same basic mixture, it’s just the decorations that vary.

Captain America was different. Here we have a scrawny little kid who won’t let that hold him back from trying to do some good. He knows his contribution might not be much, but he’ll do anything he can to make it, from lying to enlist, to throwing himself onto a grenade to save his squad.

Captain America wasn’t super-powered and needed to find his heroism. He was a hero looking to find his super-power.

But when he gets those powers he doesn’t become a superhero overnight. He’s still that small kid with self-esteem issues. He gets roped into being a morale-boosting performer, thinking it’s really the best he can be doing and the most difference he can make. It takes time, and help from friends, for him to realise that he can actually be so much more. And that really struck a chord with me.

Admittedly you don’t have to be Freud to work out the psychology of me liking the story of a scrawny kid with low confidence becoming a superhero overnight and actually mattering. But we’re all in that position. We might not have super powers, but there’s so much good we can do to change the world in our own small way. We don’t need guys in suits flying around acting like heroes. We need more of us to simply say “I don’t like bullies” and do whatever we can to stand up to them.

That’s why, going in to Civil War, I’m definitely Team Cap.

I Love Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers

Having finally re-watched it I can categorically say that I love Age of Ultron. Love it.

I thought I might from the first time I saw the trailer. The delivery of the line “there are no strings on me” gives me goosebumps every time.

What follows has major spoilers, so you’ve been warned.

Age of Ultron has got a great central theme to the plot – looking at what the Avengers can do to make the world safe, and in the process make themselves unnecessary.

It’s got moments of just pure joy. The team mocking Captain America for his goody-two-shoes attitude to swearing. The competition to move Thor’s hammer (and the look on Thor’s face when Cap shifts it). And nerdy discussions of the limits of the hammer (“If you put the hammer in an elevator it would move, but an elevator’s not worthy…”). It’s all just wonderful.

I love how it sets up Iron Man and Captain America as opposites. Captain America spent the whole of his previous film shutting down an attempt at a world-spanning weapon platform with the potential to go wrong. Iron Man starts this film attempting to build a world-spanning weapon platform that, well, goes wrong. This shows different world views that can possibly never be reconciled. Which is super-useful with Civil War just around the corner…

But the number one reason I love the film is Hawkeye.

The whole way through the film we’re given every foreshadowing cliché to suggest that Hawkeye is going to die. He’s picked out as the weakest link at the start and injured, showing his fragility. His family are introduced, showing his humanity. He has “I’m too old for this shit” style discussions, “I’m thinking of getting out” two-days-from-retirement-style discussions. Hell, there’s even a moment where Thor steps on a toy and there’s literally a broken home.

He survives the film’s big battle, he’s just about to make his escape on a lifeboat. Then we see a child been left behind. And with a resigned sigh Hawkeye walks back into the fray to save him.

Just as he reaches the child a jet starts shooting down the street. Hawkeye moves his body to protect the child and… Quicksilver sacrificed himself to save them both. And as he repeats for the third time their traded barb to each other – “didn’t see that coming?” No. No I didn’t. It’s beautiful. Perfect. Pure Joss Whedon. The kind of thing that makes me love and hate him in equal measure.

And that is why I love Avengers: Age of Ultron

Enough

Last night I had a dream where I spoke with Neil Gaiman.

Stories of other people’s dreams are always terrible, but please bear with me. I’ve never even met Mr Gaiman, but apparently when my subconscious wants to tell me something, it has decided that he is the go-to voice of wisdom who might be able to Yoda me to a better way of thinking.

That, or he might be my spirit animal.

This conversation never actually happened – I can’t stress that enough. It’s a dream, and completely fictitious. But also as a dream, it seemed to reveal a far deeper truth than any amount of reality ever could.

So here’s roughly how the conversation went:

Me: Does life have to be so tough? Is it even possible to juggle everything? To have that successful career in meaningful work that pays well? To go places, do new things, meet interesting people? To eat well and stay fit and healthy? Well… to get fit and healthy?

Then add in all the other things that make a truly fulfilling life – friends, family and the things that matter. All while trying to find some time, any time, to write?

NG: There’s always time to write. Maybe not time to write well, but there’s always time to write something.

Me: But did you ever feel like this? Did you ever feel that something’s got to give? Did you finally get to the point where enough is enough?

NG: When I started out things were tough. Really tough. It felt I was working every hour. Even at weekends all the fatigue and feelings of having the weight of the world on my shoulders would mean I could never relax. It was always Saturday for recovery, Sunday for existential crisis about what I was doing with my life. And roast dinner.

Me: So what changed?

NG: Me, I guess. I wanted it all. The high paying job. To be seen in influential social circles. To write. To make a difference. And some money.

Until one day I took a day off to just sit in a library. I love libraries, always have.

And I wrote.

I started short stories, I began writing books, and I attempted articles galore. But I just kept writing. And all the while I was waiting for that inspiration. That spark that would grow into a muse of fire. And eventually something came to me. So I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote some more.

What came from that day was hugely important.

Me: Was that when you started Sandman or something?

NG: No, no, the spark itself eventually never went anywhere. But the idea that came with it has never left.

Me: What was that?

NG: Well there I was, sat in my local library with a packed lunch of a packet of smashed up Frazzles and a home-made cheese sandwich that had gone slightly curly around the edges by the time I remembered to eat it. I’d grabbed a coffee from a local greasy spoon café at around midday to keep me going (which had about 16 sugars in to cover the taste of the polystyrene cup). The whole day had cost me next to nothing.

I’d just spent the most wonderful day pursuing a dream, and the world hadn’t fallen down around me. So I thought, what if I could repeat this tomorrow? And the next day?

We tell ourselves that we’re important. Which of course we are, in our way. But in the great scheme of things we aren’t that necessary to the universe. The world will carry on without us. So our job should be – has to be – to make the best impact we can in the flowing rivers of life, while not getting swept away in the current.

Suddenly I wasn’t Atlas. I was free.

So I asked myself, how much money would I need to make to make that day, which was one of the best of my adult life up until that point, a recurring event? If I was able to cover my rent, food, bills and spend every day doing that, wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Everything else is me doing something I don’t want to try and show off to other people – the expensive meals, the new gadgets, the need to show off.

When we meet people we we want to know what they do for a living, and hope we can work out their wage as an indicator of their worth. But while they’re doing something for their living, I could be doing something with my living. Spending every minute of every day with the freedom to do what I want, unencumbered with the worry I could earn more doing something different.

When it came down to it, my happiness, my actual get-up-every-morning-with-a-smile-on-my-face happiness didn’t need much at all.

You say enough is enough. Maybe it’s time to think that enough may actually be enough?

The Abominable Bride

There’s been lots of debate already about the latest episode of Sherlock. Arguments that it doesn’t make sense, that it’s pretty sexist, and that it was pointless because nothing really happened…
So I wanted to write down what I thought it all meant. To try and work through my own thoughts, and I thought I might as well put them up here for debate.
I thought the Abominable Bride was absolutely brilliant.
 
Firstly, and this seems to be being glossed over a lot, is that none of it was real. Well, Sherlock was on a plane, and got off it. That’s it. Everything else, every other scene was taking place entirely in his mind. Maybe – maybe – the the scene where he hands over the list what drugs he’d taken, too. Maybe. I’m not sure. But I don’t think that matters too much.
 
So what we’re left with is Sherlock trying to use a 100 year old crime that’s somewhat similar to his current predicament to work out how Moriarty survived. Everything that’s said, every action, takes place entirely within his own head.
 
The Abominable Bride is clearly a case he’s looked into before in some detail, and never been able to solve. Still, as the episode starts he’s replaying everything he knows. This time he has to solve it. It’s not just some thought experiment, or curious puzzle like before. Now it’s life or death. It can help him stop Moriarty.
 
So he goes through all the steps. He eliminates the impossible and whatever remains, however unlikely, is the truth. He works out how the bride was able to stay alive and enact her bloody revenge on her husband. Mystery solved.
 
But then, there’s the other mystery. Where the guy was visited by the bride and killed, even after she’d already killed herself (for real this time). That doesn’t really fit in with his first theory. Upon further inspection, the answer makes no sense.
 
So he works on the theory some more. And this time he uncovers a female conspiracy to use the legend of the bride to exact revenge on those who’ve wronged them and he catches them at a meeting of their secret organisation.
 
The scene where he meets the group of women is a really important one. A lot of people seem to be criticising it as a man telling a group of women what feminism is, and explaining their struggles to them.
But it’s not real. This is all in Holmes’ head, and didn’t really happen.
 
It’s not him mansplaining feminism to a group of women. After all, none of these are real women. In fact, the episode makes a point of showing that every woman there is someone from Sherlock’s real life. Someone his brain can call in to fill a crowd of women. All people he knows and has met before in his real life. It’s a man explaining feminism as he sees it, to himself. It’s more Mark & Jeremy voice-over than Victorian TED talk.
 
And it’s not just any man. It’s a self-confessed sociopath who finds it difficult to understand, let alone relate to, other people. It’s his brain trying to make sense of the feminist movement (which of course, makes a LOT of sense, so it’s easy for him to accept). As he points out in the episode, he’s a specialist so only learns about things when he needs it. Understanding feminism might never have been something he’s devoted any thought-power to as he’s never needed to. But now, faced with a crowd of (fictitious) women, by working it through out loud, he understands and it makes sense to him. And it has the added benefit of tying up his new theory for the crime nicely. Job done. There’s just one slightly problem with it.
 
It’s all total bullshit.
 
In fact, in the episode itself part of his subconscious – Moriarty – completely calls him out on it. He says it’s not grounded in fact. It might make sense as a logical argument, but there’s no evidence to support it. It’s kind of a nod to the story ‘How Watson Learned the Trick’ which is a self-referential parody-esque critique of the entire Holmes way of solving crime. Just because you can infer something, doesn’t make it true.
 
The conversation with Moriarty is basically his own brain calling him out on his entire theory. Maybe even his entire way of life.
 
It might be that his brain is getting a bit confused too. He’s (possibly) under the influence of some pretty heavy drugs.
 
The key mystery seems to be made up of two different cases. In the Sherlock Holmes canon, The Five Pips is about a man receiving five orange pips from the KKK as an indication he’s going to be killed. So maybe his brain is grasping at straws and may have accidentally confused the two old cases. Or intentionally tried to link them in Holmes-esque ‘there’s something deeper going on’ kind of way.
 
This also explains the women appearing in the Klan-like outfits for no apparent reason. It’s not saying that Suffragettes were some kind of sinister underground cult. It’s Holmes trying desperately to make things fit in a way which makes sense. After all, his ability to stop Moriarty may depend on it.
 
By the end, Holmes hasn’t fully solved the case of the Abominable Bride. He maybe has an answer, but not the answer.
 
But while he isn’t able to solve the initial case that he was trying to, the act of trying gives him the insight and confidence to believe that Moriarty is dead. Which was the whole point anyway.