“I see you neighbour!”

Life in lockdown

So what are you doing with your time in this period of enforced isolation?

I watch a lot of telly myself. I mainly avoid the news. What more can they tell you? Wash your hands, keep your distance. I don’t want to hear about the latest fatalities. I don’t think that helps very much.

However, I’ve been having this peculiar sensation whenever I turn the TV on. It’s the weird disconnect between what’s happening on the screen and real life.

Like all those scenes of people in crowded places moving way too close to each other. Or adverts for things that we can’t do, like going to the movies or on holiday. We won’t be able to go out for weeks, maybe months, and who knows when we will feel confident enough to get close to a stranger again?

All of a sudden the TV looks like some alien being that’s invaded my living room. It does its best. It’s like a chameleon. It tries to mimic my life and aspirations, but this coronavirus pandemic has blown its cover. It’s no longer able to sell us the illusion that it’s one of us.

Not that I’m all that bothered. It fills the time and offers cheap entertainment, and now that I can see through it, it can’t do me any harm.

Meanwhile there are other things we can be doing with our time.

Currently a friend of mine is dancing to retro electronic children’s music on a 1970s Fisher Price toy cassette player. She’s drawn a large rectangle on the floor with a marker pen, with diagonal lines across it, from where she does faux Isadora Duncan style expressive dancing: all extravagant arm movements, and winnowing hands.

I recommend it. She’s been inviting all her friends to join her. There’s a Facebook live streaming group dedicated to it. It’s very funny, and passes the time nicely, while giving everyone much needed exercise.

Across the way from where she lives there’s a student. She often sees him there, doing his exercises, or whatever, in his living room. Normally when the two of them catch sight of each other, they look away politely, in the traditional English manner.

On one recent occasion, however, while she was doing her wacky dancing, and he was doing his, they held eye-contact for a while, and then gave the thumbs up. “Yes neighbour, I see you,” she thought. No doubt he was thinking the same thing too.

I had the same feeling the other day, while out for my daily walk. Someone passed me on the other side of the street, another solitary walker. We were walking in opposite directions. We caught each other’s eye and waved. I thought I was recognising a kindred spirit, someone just like me.

Isn’t this strange? We are, most of us, more physically isolated from each other than any of us has ever been in our entire lives, and yet, on some mysterious level, we are more connected too.

We are none of us alone, even when we’re on our own.

If you’d like to join in with the Facebook group, here is the link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2870858142994421/

Written for The Whitstable Gazette 02/04/20 but not published. This will be my last piece for them for the time being.

If you would like to write to them to express your appreciation of my work, here is the address:

The Editor, Room B119 Canterbury College, New Dover Road, Canterbury CT1 3AJ

phone: 01227 475985

email: kentishgazette@thekmgroup.co.uk

fax: 01227 762415

(The editor welcomes letters on any topical subject, but reserves the right to edit them. Letters must include your name and address even when emailed and a daytime telephone number.)

Thanks to Isobel for the picture.

Data check

Making broadband free for all is eminently sensible

What is data? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself as currently I’m in the middle of changing my broadband provider.

For the last year I’ve had limited broadband: 18 gigabytes a month.

What you notice when your broadband is restricted is just how much rubbish there is on the internet. The reason you notice it is because you’re paying for it.

Every time you get one of those moving adverts which slows down the rate at which the page downloads, it’s eating up your data.

In other words, not only are the advertisers insinuating themselves between you and what you want to see, but you are paying for the privilege.

It’s the same with those adverts at the beginning of YouTube videos: you know, the ones where they say your video will start in 6 seconds and there’s a little timer in the corner telling you how long you have left to wait. That’s your data they are using.

Personally when I see one of those adverts I vow never to buy the product. So it’s a case of negative advertising in my case: the more they advertise, the less I want to buy.

This is true of all advertisers on the internet. They are stealing your data in order to throw unwanted material at you.

So what are we paying for exactly?

According to my on-line dictionary data is “the quantities, characters and symbols on which operations are performed by a computer.”

In other words – and put more simply – it is language.

Just as the spoken word is language transmitted by vibrations in the air in the form of conversation, and the written word is language transmitted by inscribed symbols on the page in the form of literature, so data is the digital word: language transmitted by electrical signals through copper wire or fibre optics in the form of the internet.

And how much do electrical signals cost? The answer is, virtually nothing.

Data has no weight, no mass and no volume. It costs nothing to move around. It is free, or virtually free, and yet we are being charged to use it. The only cost is on the outlay, on the investment in the equipment. After that there is no work involved. It is all done by algorithms.

When Corbyn promised full-fibre broadband for all, free at the point of use, during the election, he was rounded on by the press. The Daily Mail called the policy “crackpot” and “communist”. Actually it was eminently sensible.

Currently just 7% of households in the UK receive full-fibre broadband. In Spain it is 71%. In Japan it is 99%.

No one argues with the idea that the state should pay for our road infrastructure, and that it should be free at the point of use. It’s the same with schools and libraries. Why not a national communication network, a language medium for the 21st century?

I only hope the next Labour leader, whoever it turns out to be, will continue with the policy.


From The Whitstable Gazette 05/03/20

The editor welcomes letters on any topical subject, but reserves the right to edit them. Letters must include your name and address even when emailed and a daytime telephone number.

Send letters to: The Editor, Room B119 Canterbury College, New Dover Road, Canterbury CT1 3AJ

Phone: 01227 475985

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email: kentishgazette@thekmgroup.co.uk

Couldn’t pay, wouldn’t pay, didn’t pay

The battle to defeat the poll tax

I’m reading an interesting book at the moment. It’s called Couldn’t Pay, Wouldn’t Pay, Didn’t Pay. It’s about the anti-poll tax campaign in Kent in the early 90s.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the most crucial year of the campaign, which included the famous poll tax riot which took place in London in March 1990.

Several prominent organisers were imprisoned for non-payment of the tax. It was called the Community Charge by Margaret Thatcher, but universally referred to as the poll tax by everyone else.

It was one of the most successful examples of political rebranding in modern British history.

The book is compiled and edited by Eric Segal, secretary of the South East Kent Trade Union Council. Eric was one of the principle organisers of the campaign, being the secretary of the Kent Anti-Poll Tax Federation at the time.

He was also imprisoned for his stance, spending a month in jail in August 1991. All elected officials of the Anti-Poll Unions, which had sprung up throughout the country, took their positions on the understanding that it could result in jail time.

Indeed this was the principle tactic of the campaign, the refusal to pay the tax.

We had our own little anti-tax group here in Whitstable. It was called Whitstable Against the Tax, which afforded the wonderful acronym WAT, a reference to Wat Tyler who had led the Peasants Revolt against the original poll tax in 1381.

He was killed by officers loyal to King Richard II on June 15th of that year.

We had our own newspaper. Called Wat Times, it was my own personal foray into the world of political journalism, and marks the first time I effectively put pen to paper.

Sadly all copies of the paper have long since disappeared.

The very unique thing that the Whitstable group did was to organise a march from Canterbury to London, following in the footsteps of Wat Tyler.

This led to a little straggling band of punks, hippies, socialists and assorted ne’er-do-wells, traipsing through the Kent Countryside for several days shouting pointless slogans to a string of sleepy villages.

What none of us had realised at the time was that, actually, most of Kent serves as a dormitory for London, and that large parts of the county are empty in the day time.

To mark the release of the book there will be an event at the Labour Club on Thursday March 12th. It will feature talks by Eric Segal and Nick Dent. It was Nick who organised the march to London.

There will also be songs by Nigel Hobbins, who was on the march with us, and who has written a song commemorating the event. Signed copies of the book will be available.

What the book reminds us is that you don’t have to rely on Parliament to oppose a government. It was the anti-poll tax campaign which brought down Margaret Thatcher. Full of maniacal confidence previously, she resigned in a welter of tearful self-pity in November 1990.

It was the end of an era.


From The Whitstable Gazette 20/02/20

The editor welcomes letters on any topical subject, but reserves the right to edit them. Letters must include your name and address even when emailed and a daytime telephone number.

Send letters to: The Editor, Room B119 Canterbury College, New Dover Road, Canterbury CT1 3AJ

Phone: 01227 475985

fax: 01227 762415

email: kentishgazette@thekmgroup.co.uk

“The Most Unpopular War in History”

The Phrase International Community means Britain and America

Fierce Writing

Noam Chomsky interview in two parts.

Published in the Big Issue in the weeks preceding the global anti-war march, February 15th 2003



Bush wants the same thing as Ronald Reagan did back in the 1980s, writer and commentator Noam Chomsky tells CJ Stone. He wants to control the world’s energy, and keep his own people in check in the process…

Big Issue Feb 3-9 2003

Big Issue: Given that there is no credible link between Saddam Hussein’s regime and Al Qaeda, why, therefore, do you think we are going to war?

Noam Chomsky: Well, first of all, the war might create a credible link. That was the basic import of the material that was leaked from the CIA to Congress in early October. Other Intelligence agencies are saying the same thing. They pointed out that they have no credible link at present, but if…

View original post 3,288 more words

Brexit Blues

It’s finally done, and we’re out – but I fear for our country

So that’s it! Britain has left the EU.

After the interminable debates in the media and the chambers of the Houses of Parliament; after the almost permanent protests on the pavement outside; after the endless posts on social media, the deed has been done and we’re out of the EU at last.

Well not quite. There’s still the little matter of a trade deal to be negotiated. Boris Johnson has promised that it will be complete before the end of the year. But Boris is notoriously imprecise when it comes to such matters. It might be the end of the year. It might be the end of the decade for all we know.

But, symbolically at least, we have passed a milestone and we are no longer in the EU.

Our MEPs are coming home. It’s the end of the gravy train for them. No more bottomless expense accounts. No more free lunches. No more European jollies in the City on the Marsh.

I can’t say that I’m all that excited. Although I voted to leave – for good, old fashioned socialist reasons (the EU is a rich man’s club) – I have no reason to celebrate the form that Brexit is now likely to take.

Already there are speculators placing bets on the collapse of British Industry. The privately-educated Toffs who run the country have their money tucked away in off-shore accounts. It’s fairly clear that their view of Brexit is that Britain should now become the money-laundering capital of the world, with the added benefit of a captive population of desperate labour ripe for exploitation.

I fear for my country, I really do.

Foodbanks are on the rise. Homelessness is on the rise. Inequality is on the rise. There are beggars in every town.

In the North the shops are boarded up and industry has long-since fled. There’s nothing left to do for the youth but to smoke skunk and inhale laughing gas.

Meanwhile London is in the midst of a property boom. Multi-billion pound complexes are springing up like lego-brick fortresses along the banks of the Thames, while the poor are being culled.

There’s an army of low-paid workers commuting in at dawn every day to do the menial tasks that keep the city alive.

The sky is full of cranes. Supercars squeal through the fashionable streets, with nowhere to race but from one traffic light to the next, with no other purpose than to show-off to the neighbours.

Saudi billionaires are digging beneath the foundations of suburban avenues in order to accommodate their home cinemas and indoor swimming pools.

Russian oligarchs are buying up football clubs and newspapers.

Our trade union rights are up for sale, our labour laws and consumer protections subject to future trade deals.

In place of the welfare state we will have lottery funding. In place of education we will have reality TV.

But at least we will have our country back.


From The Whitstable Gazette 09/01/20

The editor welcomes letters on any topical subject, but reserves the right to edit them. Letters must include your name and address even when emailed and a daytime telephone number.

Send letters to: The Editor, Room B119 Canterbury College, New Dover Road, Canterbury CT1 3AJ

Phone: 01227 475985

fax: 01227 762415

email: kentishgazette@thekmgroup.co.uk

Anti-war march through Canterbury

A tale of two rallies

I went on the anti-war march through Canterbury on Saturday 18th January 2020.

There was a rally at the beginning, and a rally at the end. In fact, strictly speaking, it wasn’t a march at all, but two rallies, it’s just that, in order to get from one to the other, we had to walk through the city.

The fact that we were all walking in the same direction at the same time, carrying banners and chanting slogans, was purely coincidental.

Two people objected to our march along the way. One of them shouted the name of Tommy Robinson, that well-known anti-Islamic activist who has just endorsed the Tory Party.

The other shouted “USA! USA!” Like that, repetitively, like a football chant.

Which says it all really. Let’s not bother to look at the facts. Let’s just pick a side and support them, like you would a football team.

But the truth of the matter is this, that the extra-judicial killing of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani on Iraqi soil, which has ratcheted up tensions in the Middle East once more, bringing us to the brink of war, was illegal.

That makes it a war crime. It was not done in self-defence. It was planned months in advance and carried out using high-tech subterfuge.

After the assassination I watched a BBC documentary about Suleimani. It told of his rise during the Iran-Iraq war. That was the furnace in which his reputation was forged.

In those days Saddam Hussein was an official ally of the West, and his use of chemical weapons ignored. Later those same chemical weapons were used as justification for the invasion of Iraq. When asked how they knew Saddam had chemical weapons, certain people no doubt muttered quietly to themselves, “because we’ve got the receipts.”

One thing you notice whenever you see programs about Iran, they always start the story in 1979, with the revolution. That’s when all the trouble began, they suggest.

They always fail to mention that after WW2 Iran was a democracy. Unfortunately it wasn’t the right kind of democracy. It tried to nationalise the oil industry. That lead, in 1953, to a British-American coup, followed by almost three decades of brutal dictatorship by the Shah.

It was only then that the Iranian people rose up to overthrow their Western-backed oppressor; something we in the West have forgotten, but the Iranians have not.

The rally at the end took place in the Friend’s Meeting House. Speakers included Dr Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, Cllr Aram Rawf, Shabbir Lakha of the Stop the War Coalition, and ex-Labour candidate and Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Hugh Lanning.

Hugh’s speech was particularly moving. Readers may know that he has recently lost his wife, so when he talked of the grief that ordinary Iranians would face in the event of a war, he was speaking directly from the heart.

This is another thing that those who agitate for war tend to ignore: that it is always ordinary people who suffer and die as a consequence.

Linocut Exhibition at the Horsebridge

Cutting away the surface to let light into the world

The highlight of last year’s carnival fund-raisers was the auction, organised by Julie Wassmer and myself, and held in St Peter’s Hall on Cromwell Road.

A number of prints were sold, including two linocuts, one by Ben Dickson, the other by Ben Sands. The Ben Sands was kindly donated by his son, Mat, and fetched the princely sum of £150.

My sister bought it. I’m looking at it now. It’s a black and white scene of Morris Dancers outside the East Kent on May Day 1987.

The dancers are leaping into the air, their feet off the floor, while the crowd looks on, clutching pints, or laughing and joking amongst themselves.

The image is taken from the far side of the road, outside the British Legion. There are two cars in the foreground and a couple of people trying the cross the road.

It’s a wonderfully evocative piece of work, vibrant and alive, full of incidents and wonder, all captured in exquisite detail.

You can read the faces of the characters in the crowd, and even the sky seems alive, as if the sky itself was part of the dance.

Ben Sands died in January 2016, but this year marks his centenary, in honour of which there will be a major exhibition around his birthday in July, which Mat and I will be helping to organise.

Meanwhile there will be a number of Ben Sands’ linocuts on display in a large group show on at the Horsebridge from the 11th of January till the 2nd of February.

Curated by Ben Dickson, it will feature works by linocut artists from around the country, including a number from Whitstable. There will be an opening event at 3.30 on the 11th where people can meet the artists and discuss their work.

The reason they are called linocuts is that they are cut into linoleum, but the technique works with other media as well, including wood and vinyl.

Properly speaking it is known as relief printing. The body of the medium is cut away to leave raised areas which are then inked up and pressed against paper to leave a printed impression.

There’s a wonderful quote from Ben Sands from an interview in 2003 which describes the process:

“Automatically, with practice, your mind sees that block as a field of solid black… when you start cutting you start letting the light into the block and revealing the world you are going to present to the public. Because you are letting light in all the time, every cut you make lets another streak of light in….”

I like that thought. Isn’t that what all art is in the end: a process of cutting away the surface to let the light into the world?

It reminds me of the song by Leonard Cohen:

“Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in….”

I’m looking forward to seeing lots of light at this exhibition.


From The Whitstable Gazette 09/01/20

The editor welcomes letters on any topical subject, but reserves the right to edit them. Letters must include your name and address even when emailed and a daytime telephone number.

Send letters to: The Editor, Room B119 Canterbury College, New Dover Road, Canterbury CT1 3AJ

Phone: 01227 475985

fax: 01227 762415

email: kentishgazette@thekmgroup.co.uk

Carnival Fundraiser Scrooge

It was my good friend and Carnival associate Belinda Murray who pointed out the resemblance between me and the figure of Scrooge in a recent Christmas advert.

Maybe you’ve seen it. Scrooge is seen rudely stepping passed people in a typical Victorian Christmas card scene. There’s a mother with her child looking in a toy shop window, and a busker playing a jaunty tune on his fiddle.

Scrooge does his “bah humbug!” routine, recommending a lump of coal for the child and deliberately kicking the busker’s hat, before looking into the shop front of a well-known high street opticians.

There are free offers in there, which, of course, makes him appreciate the joys of Christmas. He drops some coins in the busker’s hat and does a high kick, before declaring “Merry Christmas” to the people on the street.

He’s wearing a top hat and has long, white hair and a thin beard and he does look a little like me.

Coincidentally the Whitstable Carnival Association are holding a solstice benefit in St Mary’s Hall, Whitstable, on the 20th December, featuring Ivan’s All Stars and the Native Oysters Band.

We’re calling it the Bah Humbug Carnival Fundraiser. We named it that before anyone noticed the resemblance between me and the Dickensian character in the advert, I hasten to add.

I must admit I am a bit of a Scrooge. I don’t really like Christmas.

I like the idea. It’s a festival of light in the darkest part of the year, a festival of plenty before the lean months ahead. It celebrates the birth of a magical child in the depths of a cave.

That story is very old. It goes back to at least neolithic times. Many gods are said to have been born on the 25th of December. That’s because, three days after the Winter Solstice (the longest night) the Sun makes its first visible move on the horizon and the days become longer.

The magical child is the Sun, reborn every year in the depths of winter.

To the ancient people this would have been a matter of life and death. That’s why the festival is full of lights. They are the lights that keep the darkness away.

Midwinter is a reminder of death, and Christmas is a reminder of the life that is born again every year.

So I like that idea. What I don’t like is the rank consumerism of its modern incarnation, and the corporations’ push to commodify the festivities.

The old line, “peace on Earth and good will to all men,” (an old Viking Yule-tide greeting) has now become “more wealth to the rich and good sales for all brands.”

It doesn’t teach our children how to love and care for each other. It teaches them to love possessions and be greedy.

So me, I intend to raise a glass to the return of the Sun at the Solstice benefit on the 20th December.

I intend to make light of it. I will probably be dressed as Scrooge.


From The Whitstable Gazette 12/12/19

The editor welcomes letters on any topical subject, but reserves the right to edit them. Letters must include your name and address even when emailed and a daytime telephone number.

Send letters to: The Editor, Room B119 Canterbury College, New Dover Road, Canterbury CT1 3AJ

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So you don’t like Jeremy Corbyn

So you don’t like Jeremy Corbyn.

How do you know you don’t like him? Have you met him? Have you spoken to him? Did he come round to your house and kick your dog?

No. You saw him on the telly. He was bit scruffy and he didn’t know how to do his tie up properly. He didn’t bow his head enough at the cenotaph. He didn’t sing the national anthem. What else do you know about him? He’s an anti-Semite and a terrorist sympathiser is he? Google it. Where can you find an actual anti-Semitic or pro-terrorist statement? You can’t, because there are none.

You like his policies. You want railways and other utilities back in public hands. You don’t see why foreign-based state-owned rail companies should be taking profits from our subsidised rail system. You want to see our Health Service properly funded. You don’t want to see it sold off in a trade deal with the Americans. You don’t want to see our nurses using food banks. You think that corporations that use our infrastructure should be properly taxed. You are against tax havens and tax cuts for the rich. You are fed up with foreign wars.

But you don’t like Jeremy Corbyn.

Shall I tell you a secret? We don’t live in a democracy. You think it’s one person, one vote and that the will of the majority should prevail? It’s not. You get your vote, your thirty seconds of choice, between the man with the red rosette and the man with the blue rosette, but it’s the will of the most well-off that prevails. Power resides in the hands of those who have the most wealth, and governments do their bidding, not yours. So the choices you get are the choices between one set of wealthy people’s priorities and another, between one brand of free-market capitalism and another: between the blue Tories and the red Tories, Tory-heavy and Tory-lite. Your choices don’t come into it.

But you don’t like Jeremy Corbyn.

We’ve had relentless negativity about him since he first appeared on the scene. Why would that be? Maybe it’s because he’s offering you a real choice. For the first time in a generation, those are your priorities being set out before you, as a set of policies, not those of the wealthy elite. The same policies brought to you by the 1945 Labour government, and by governments across the Scandinavian world. Not extremist policies: Social Democratic policies. Policies that are known to work. So, unable to attack the policies, they attack the man.

It’s been non-stop, day-in and day-out, since he first won the Labour leadership, from every branch of the establishment. From the BBC, from the Guardian, from the government, from members of the Labour Party, those whose career trajectory has been knocked off track. From the Daily Mail and the Sun. Is it any wonder you don’t like him really? If the BBC told you that cornflakes were bad for you, and repeated this message every day for five years, chances are you wouldn’t like cornflakes either.

A friend of mine asked me why the Labour Party didn’t pick a more charismatic leader, a more handsome leader, someone who looked good on the telly?

That’s because we were fed up with Tory-lite. We were fed up with only getting the choice between one form of free-market capitalism and another. We were fed up with being told that if you didn’t pick the policies that suited the wealthy elite, you wouldn’t get into power. But what’s the point of power without principles? Tony Blair got us into power. He was handsome, charismatic and he looked good on telly, but look where he took us: into an illegal war in Iraq that has caused devastation across the Middle East, and terrorism across the world.

He also, coincidentally started the process of privatising the NHS. In other words, Tony Blair was a Tory, not a socialist.

Meanwhile Boris Johnson is refusing to talk to Andrew Neil, refusing to meet the public except in carefully stage-managed photo-ops, refusing to take unvetted questions from the likes of you and I. He’s being sold to us like a commodity, like a soap powder brand or a type of washing up liquid. Get Brexit done. Get Brexit done. Hands that do dishes. It’s an advertising slogan not a political platform. How many of you know what his actual policies are?

So this is my appeal to you. So you don’t like Jeremy Corbyn. Fair enough. But let’s look past the individuals and instead look at the policies. Take a look at the Labour Manifesto, then take a look at the Tory Manifesto. Weigh them up and consider them. How many of these policies are for you and your family, and how many are for the wealthy elites?

Meanwhile, to get a sense of what the Tories real priorities are, try these few sample facts out for size (follow links for verification).

Since being in power the Tories have:-

  • increased the wealth of the richest 1,000 people in the UK by 183%
  • increased homelessness by 165%
  • increased foodbank use by 3,800%
  • increased the national debt by 80%
  • increased outsourcing to private companies in the NHS by £15 billion (since 2015)

And you say you don’t like Jeremy Corbyn? Maybe it’s time think again.

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