Benjamin and the Frog. Hmmm… Sounds like a children’s story doesn’t it? Well it isn’t, having recovered from a really sleepless night and an exciting day in The Out, I thought I would tell you all about my meeting with poet, Benjamin Zephaniah at Blackfriars Arts Centre in Boston, and a meeting with a little frog the night before.

I was very excited that I was going to read my poetry to Benjamin Zephaniah. He is someone Colin and I worshipped from afar in the 1980s, those heady days of alternative cabaret and comedy. Tadpole and Co majored in disasters set to jazz and poetry, such as Herculaneum and the Titanic. These were surprisingly popular considering they were in very bad taste. Those days in the mid-eighties were brief but happy times brought to a premature end by the surge in interest in samba bands and the desertion of our percussionist, Richard Bett, aka Riccardo Thunderfingers. He was the only man I have ever met who was capable of sustaining a rhythm on congas whilst simultaneously being thousands of people going down with a ship or getting buried by volcanic ash.

Yes, we certainly did some crazy back stuff then. We performed music and poetry in gigs and literature festivals from Hastings to Edinburgh. Some of it was even quite good but it was the comedic disasters that earned us our Yorkshire bookings, courtesy of Wild Willie, and the opportunity to share the stage with such worthies as Henry Normal and Jo Brand. We never performed with Ben, but he was “Up there!” and when the opportunity came to meet him at Boston, read some serious poetry and discuss it we leaped at the chance.

The night before recording the interview I couldn’t sleep. I was nervous, excited and in that terrible place where the more you try to sleep the less likely it is to come. Add to that an annoying tune that kept running through my head courtesy of an advert on TV… you get the picture. Eventually I must have dozed off and about three thirty to four in the morning I was woken by a cat coughing. Now, when said cat is a Himalayan and there is a history of heart murmurs in the breed you worry, so I got up to check on him.

He seemed fine, but was scrabbling around his water bowl. Then he pounced on a blanket I had hanging over a box full of stuff I really ought to sort through, donate, throw away… you know the sort of thing. I lifted the blanket and in the semi-darkness of my Pusheen nightlight, I saw what looked like a pile of poop.
“Urgh”, I said, turning the main light on, but it wasn’t poop, it was a frog! We have an empty vegetable container we use for trapping and releasing flies so I grabbed it quickly and, with the aid of a piece of card, I easily caught the sleepy looking frog.

By this time Colin was up and about and wandered into the bathroom.
“You wouldn’t believe what I just caught in my bed room,” I said.
“Just a minute,” he grumbled.
He must have been half asleep because the surprise of finding a frog in the house didn’t register. Nor did he offer to do the gentlemanly thing and put it out for me. So here I was, standing in my nightie and slippers in the twilight before dawn, trying to unlock the front door while Froggie got more and more excited and jumped up and down in his box. He was released to the water feature by the pond (I know frogs hide in there). I was surprised that he made no attempt to escape after the first hop. I guess he is a very laid back frog and in my experience frogs are not scared of people.

P1060681

Now, I have no idea how a frog came to be in my bedroom, nor do I have any idea how long he was in residence. All I know is that he certainly seemed settled under the blanket and that one of the cat water bowls showed signs of dust-bunnies and what I assumed was a frog poop right in the middle. Cue vigorous cat bowl scrubbing and changing of water… I then went back to bed and caught about three hours sleep before I had to get up for an early start and our journey to Boston where we were due to read poems and discuss immigration, Pilgrim Fathers and Boston amongst other things.

I suppose I was a bit ring-eyed and stupid for my interview with Ben. It took me a long time to relax and come out of my shell, but he is a lovely, genuine man and seemed interested in my poems and Colin’s too. When it was all over the three of us chatted for a little while about the eighties, alternative cabaret and the parallel universes we seemed to exist in. Somehow we never shared the stage with Benjamin Zephaniah back then. Hopefully when the programme comes out, we will finally get that wish.

I was deliberately leaving this post for a week, post election, to allow for some clarity and time to think. In the course of that time things have changed and not for the better. A week is a long time in politics, and in that week I have come to terms rationally with my own disappointing result. It could have been worse of course but it wasn’t great. I will start there because emails and phone calls I received after showed that voters were more upset by the result than I was. You don’t fight an election to lose although you might fight it to “fly the flag” in a seat where you see little chance of success.

Bearing that in mind, when things go to plan there is always the chance of a political upset. Not so in the recent General Election. A few seats swung by a small margin between the first and second placed political parties last time round. One or two targeted seats were won by huge effort, others were lost despite it. On the wider front, analysis showed both main parties increased their share of the vote dramatically and squeezed third party, smaller parties and independents out –
resulting in hundreds, if not thousands, of lost deposits nationwide.

“Good,” say some (usually left-wing) activists. “They should shut up, or grow up and join one of the main two parties.”

“Good,” say some journalists. “It shows they are irrelevant.”

I say “Bad!” because democracy suffers the more we polarise party politics. There is no room for the Middle Way or for rational discussion. There is only “What can we do to win Murdoch’s readership?”

In Britain we have been brought up to believe consensus politics is bad and certainly coalitions have always been bad for one of the partners but many other countries cope really admirably with their hung parliaments. It filters out extreme policies and wild swings one way and then the other. It better represents democracy.

The trouble is that the system we have and the influence of hard-hitting political journalism on the results is actually polarising our nation at a time when it badly needs to be united. This takes many forms, but the most extreme example for me this time round was the treatment of Tim Farron on television. This man, a decent and honest working class liberal Christian, has effectively now been bullied out of his leadership position simply because he is decent and honest. He did not lie about his Christianity, nor did he allow his Christian beliefs to define him but he was castigated for those beliefs. Those of us within the Liberal Democrats who identify as LGBT or allies had no issue with Tim’s Christianity but the media did.

A defining moment of journalistic nastiness was Andrew Neil’s so-called “interview”. On the proposed referendum on BREXIT terms, Farron was constantly shouted down mid answer and then blamed for running out of time. That way, the party policies were kept under wraps and a whole political party made irrelevant to those who did not know the policies. It is easy to suggest after the event that he might actually have done better to walk out saying “I thought this was an interview, not a speech by you.” It might have got him press coverage for what he wasn’t allowed to say.

I would have been disgusted by Andrew Neil’s arrogant and rude interview technique whichever leader he had turned his venom on. His approach is often boorish and I have to say extremely narcissistic. I am really so sorry that Mr Farron feels he has to leave the political stage because of this bully. I am even more sorry that there will be political activists out there in the main two parties who think it is fair game to be intolerant of religious differences. Now the same blinkered journalists are trying to make out that the election was about BREXIT; it wasn’t, for vast swathes of people it was about social justice and the Labour Party were not the only proponents of that. They just cashed in on a lot of tactical votes.

Finally, I honestly believe it is time for the BBC to move away from pretty graphics, endlessly looping sound bytes and egotistical, bullying presenters and move back towards what the licence fee we all have to pay was intended for – public SERVICE and public INFORMATION. There should be no place for the cult of “The Great I Am” in an organisation that claims to be politically neutral and every place for informed comparison of policy differences. This is happening on the internet through new apps which will, in time, make main stream journalists superfluous unless they grow up and stop showing off. Democracy is not about THEM. It is about the people.

Imagine the situation. You have a serious medical condition that holds you virtually bedridden for most of the time. It is an invisible illness that saps every ounce of your strength. You are painfully thin. Sometimes you can’t lift a fork to your mouth to eat and even if your carer does it for you you can’t swallow your food without a huge effort. You can’t have a bath without help because you no longer have the strength to get in and out unaided. You are only free from pain when you sleep and the pain stops you from sleeping. Your GP has retired. The new one doesn’t want to know.

For years you have been receiving Disability Living Allowance then with one slip of the pen you are thrown into the category of “new case” and new rules come into play. Despite the reassurances you have had in the past and old rules that the DWP stuck to for a while you now have to prove your level of disability, that you are unfit for work and deserve PIP at both levels. A “nurse” comes to assess you at home where you are so ill with a migraine that you can’t even speak, let alone answer the questions.

You are given a painkiller and it takes seven attempts to swallow it. The “nurse” notes this down as “Capable of swallowing, drank a glass of water in my presence.” Your carer, when attempting to answer questions is repeatedly shouted down and told to “Shut up and let her answer”. Every question is a trap, every answer is a minefield and you are given the very lowest benefit level possible and you are now subject to regular “assessment interviews” because of her skewed and unfair assessment.

You phone a stranger, reaching out in desperation because you can’t cope with the stress of the next interview. All that stranger can advise is that you record the interview. Let them KNOW you are recording it for your records (or for the Press perhaps). She will try and contact them to delay, rearrange or reconsider your case but has been told they will not discuss anything due to confidentiality.

This is a situation that is playing out day after day across Britain as a group of “Jobsworths” being paid to do the ugliest job possible do their best to deliver efficiency and cut benefit bills. Everyday, sick people are being driven to desperation, some contemplating suicide even, because of CAPITA’s Disability Assessments and Disability Work Assessments.

“Was this the creation of wicked Conservatives?” you might ask. No, it was the brainchild of a Labour minister but they did nothing to stop or reverse it. Somewhere in this cruel scenario that plays out like a Kafka story the people have been lost, humanity and compassion have gone out of the window, common decency is moribund if not dead. It is a scenario that probably costs more to administer than it could ever save, even if those people did not desperately need the help that a decent society should ungrudgingly provide.

Never mind Theresa May’s “money trees”, what we have here is a screening process that probably costs more to deliver than it actually saves. We witness untold pain and suffering caused to vulnerable people. There is actual fear of the bullies (and yes they often are bullies) employed to enforce benefit cuts on people with terrible and almost totally incapacitating conditions they never chose to have. Does this make you feel proud to be British? Personally, I think politicians of both Red and Blue varieties should hang their heads in shame at this vicious travesty of justice.

Please share. Please comment if you have been treated in a similar way. Somehow we HAVE to make them leave their ivory towers at Westminster and listen.

There is a dubious mindset that winning is all, to the victor come all the spoils, that it doesn’t matter how you win so long as you do and all the world loves a winner. That way lies madness. A certain billionaire has just found to his cost that while money can buy prestige and position and incitement to hatred can win votes it can only bring a Pyrrhic victory. One billionaire is much the same as another in my book and you can’t force people to love and respect you in this life but I have to confess to feeling just a little bit sorry for this one. I’m sure it wasn’t what he was promised by his backers nor did he expect such a huge reaction against his victory. Here is a man who wants to be adored by millions and yet the streets are empty for his biggest ever moment and full of pussy power demonstrators the day after.

I am also saddened by the way some people I thought I knew have embraced a philosophy of hating those who disagree. Of course those people are not presently marching in protest. I don’t know if they would be marching had the outcome been different and I don’t think they will ever understand why millions are. To call everyone who disagrees with his method of winning or with the madness of hatred a “loser” or a “dangerous leftist” and maintain that you despise “leftists” loses sight of the fact that many of these people are not adherents of the left wing at all. They may be disillusioned conservatives, some are even Republicans; they may be Democrats who feel that what amounts to an act of treason robbed their own candidate of victory; finally, they might even be centrists appalled by unholy alliances of religion and politics on both sides.

That’s right, many of them are centrists like me; conservatives with a little “c”, liberals with a small “l”. In my country the word liberal is not yet an insult although I will happily wear the insult “Libtard” as a badge of honour because it means I reject the politics of hatred and division. We have a fine liberal tradition in Britain dating back centuries and we are justifiably proud of it. We are also proud that we have stood up to hatred and racism in the past – as the underdogs and on our own for several years I might add – and we don’t want to see the sacrifices of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents forgotten. Many of them suffered or even died to maintain Europe’s freedom from a Third Reich that thrived on hatred. We honour them for it. That does not make us “leftists” or “losers”.

I think there are so many emotionally charged issues that any incumbent lawmaker needs to address and for any one political party to lay claim to personal moral viewpoints is simply WRONG. It doesn’t happen here. Maybe it would if we were a nation of proselytising evangelicals, but we are not. We respect freedom; we do not take arms up against people whose morals we might find lacking or whose religion is different from ours. We do not take away choice from desperate women – whatever our personal views – because we know the alternative to choice is something far worse for society; criminal behaviour, neglect, death and people in abject poverty. There are a lot of things wrong in this world, but they will not be changed by screaming abuse or sanctioning violence and exclusion of whole groups of people different from ourselves in some way.

I could go on and on but I won’t because it saddens me too much to see people sinking to such depths of anger. All I ask is that we just pause for a minute and think about the refugee crisis and terrorism. Where does the money come from for terrorists? Where do the arms come from that they buy with this money? Who suffers most in any war? Who profits most from war and division? Why are there so many refugees? Why are civilians consistently being bombed? Who stirred up a hornet’s nest by declaring a war on terrorism in the first place? What is that one word that is at the root of the West’s obsession with the Middle East? Can we actually do without it? If not, why not?

I want to finish by directing you to an article written April 29th 2013 by Janice Harper Ph.D. in Psychology Today:

The Fertility and Futility of Hatred – When hatred fills our hearts, it grows, but to what end?

Please read it, whichever side of the divide you stand on. It might persuade you to drop that hot stone before it burns your hand badly…

I spend a lot of time on Twitter. I always have. Twitter has an intellectual beauty and simplicity that speaks to me and has none of the artificial, ad revenue induced limitations of Facebook. If you want your content to reach a lot of people then judicious use of hashtags and pinned tweets will do just that. It is also annoyingly possible for people to list you and read content without having to follow anybody at all. This one-sidedness of Twitter seems a little hard-bitten to me. Usually if somebody follows me, I will follow them back if they seem reasonable. I don’t then un-follow them. Having said that, there are some folks who can’t abide clutter and a busy Twitter stream can appear very cluttered indeed. There are those people who don’t follow anyone at all, yet seem to have followers and do frequently re-tweet what you post. They achieve that using their own curated lists and hashtags in case you wondered. I follow a lot of people because I consider it common courtesy to follow back but I don’t follow everybody and in today’s blog post I want to deal with that first; in other words, when a follow on Twitter is not appropriate, when to mute and when to block.

Let’s take the no follow option first. I see increasingly numbers of people with an “egg” for a profile picture, no personal details and no tweets displayed on their profile. There are two main reasons for this. The first and most innocent reason is that they are new to Twitter – and we were all newbies once so you will see 5-10% follow-back on these profiles. The second reason (and the reason I will now not follow an empty or light profile) is that some of these people are scammers operating below the radar using lists and direct messages. Follow them and you will immediately receive a message asking you for an action that involves sharing something. Whether that something is money, assistance or information, these empty profiles are on the make. This is the realm of the beggar, the hacker or the 419 scam. I avoid them.

Some people will post an attractive picture, possibly of themselves but usually of a model or minor celeb, then they attract followers by posting and reposting the useless “trash” that clutters timelines. These posts are usually click-bait, badly spun articles on interesting themes that send you away to ads that often refuse to switch off. You are downloading malware at that point. This is a good point at which to use the “mute” function. You can mute someone who posts trashy or suspect content that clogs up the flow but there will always be someone else who innocently reposts it because it looks fun. That is the nature of click-bait and here is where the “block” function is very useful. Just please make sure you are blocking the right account or you will continue to receive trashy posts from other friends and followers. It is the original person you need to block, even if you are not following them, because you are getting the rubbish second-hand.

There is a much more annoying use of the “block” function. Some people on Twitter are plainly self-important, rude and selfish. They will follow you, then un-follow when you follow back. You may not know unless you use an un-follower app like who.unfollowed.me on Twitter. If you do and you un-follow then re-follow them thinking they made a mistake they will block you. I know, somebody in my circle of friends has done that to me years ago. I have never had an unpleasant dialogue with him and in fact I have no idea why he should have blocked me all those years ago except that I re-followed him. What a gutless thing to do! There was never a cross word exchanged, no spam involved and it is a total mystery to me, but he does have a LOT of followers. How do I know about this unreasonable action? You are notified if someone has blocked you if you ever visit their profile. That means you can’t read their stuff and they don’t have to see yours. It is a blunt but savage weapon that some “people collectors” use freely. They are important celebrities in their own little bubble and you are not. Annoy them with a re-follow and they will sting you hard using a function that is meant to protect. I know, and I am not impressed, in fact I blocked him back only this week.

So when should you use “block”? I use it on empty profiles that I find frightening. I am not prepared to elaborate on that one much, but I don’t want to be listed and possibly stalked by people whose tweets I can’t read. There are some dangerous groups out there. You will know them by their followers and possibly who else they are following – I always check it out. I also use “block” on people who spread hardcore porn on unconnected hashtags. I don’t usually see much porn in my stream and what I do see I generally just ignore, but there are a lot of apparently Russian porn accounts set up with English sounding names. These routinely tag “adult” pictures with proven successful hashtags that guarantee RTs – often from groups of writers, musicians, sportsmen and artists who use automatic programs to grow a following. Of course you also have the choice to report but the report options are limited and the nearest to hashtag abuse is “spam”.

The other use I make of “block” is for foul language related to hate speech and incitement to violence. I don’t mind people who disagree with me, I will interact with anyone politely, but when I see rudeness, disrespect or hate speech I hit the “block” button. I don’t use it too much because it can lead to account reviews and suspension of an individual. Just because you don’t like someone doesn’t mean they deserve a ban but nor do you have to endure viciousness. How you use Twitter is your own affair. It is a valuable tool for communication and, let’s face it, that’s why we all sign up. If you choose to be interactive you can make lots of friends and enjoy the experience. Thank you for reading. Have fun but be safe!

Well the easy answer is because that is her nature. Life as a writer would be infinitely more easy if our characters were less complex. If Midge were heterosexual that would throw open a much larger readership for me for a start. Schools and Christian readers would not be taken aback by her love for another women for example. Yet she would blend unseen into the infinitely large pile of boy meets girl romances. If she were to be a lesbian on the other hand that would make her life much less complicated for her and for my novel too. There would be a ready made niche audience of lesfic fans who I suspect would be somehow much more comfortable with her sexuality. There would be fewer triggers in the story although, for me, it would be less true to life and less interesting. Midge is neither gay nor straight and that shapes her life in unexpected ways. Although she is obviously drawn to women emotionally she enjoys the company of men as likeable human beings and has a strong sex drive which is modified by the era in which she was born. There will be those readers who say she always was a lesbian and just had to discover her true self; there will be some who castigate her for marrying a man just as there will be those who condemn her for being unfaithful to Richard. So why did I write her this way? Was I trying to be trendy?

In answer to the first, my writing tends to be character driven. I believe that our characters exist in some hidden dimension of space or time waiting to speak to those who will be most attentive to their needs. Maybe some will see that as paranormal; I think it more likely that it is a product of our own psyche, our conscious beliefs and our unconscious dreams. When a character like Midge is “born” she takes over the writing of the story and leads it down paths a little different possibly from those we had planned. I could no more force Midge to be gay or straight than I could force myself to eat melted blue cheese on cornflakes! She has a voice of her own and her scenes were almost dictated to me, as distinct from scenes I wrote for other characters after in depth historical research.

Was I trying to be trendy? Absolutely not. The concept of “bisexual being trendy” is really limited in my experience to the young and famous. For most honestly bisexual individuals it is not an easy label to take on or live with. The ideas many people have about bisexuals derive from sources that have a strong agenda. I won’t go into that now, but I will reference a superb book that addresses many of the misconceptions about bisexuals. This comes from my review of Purple Prose on Goodreads:

“Bisexual is not a “one size fits all” label. Being bisexual is not about being confused, trendy, greedy or dishonest. Bi-phobia and bi-erasure are institutionalised everywhere. Bisexuals are often, but not always, monogamous. They might identify as straight or gay/lesbian their entire lives but they know they have romantic feelings towards both genders and indeed sometimes to people whose gender falls outside the binary norm. A bisexual friend once said to me “I love a person, not a gender.” For those individuals who fall into the “monosexual” category gender assumes an overwhelming significance in partner choice. For bisexuals it does not – a person is loved for more than their intimate parts, their masculinity or femininity. This should be liberating. Often it is not.”

So I was not trying to be trendy and by being honest rather than reductionist in my writing I was probably always going to limit my book’s audience but if one person reads The Wings to Fly and says “I know that girl, she is like me” or “she is like my friend” then it will have been worthwhile. Sometimes life does not fit into convenient pigeonholes and neither do heroines in fiction.

Yesterday’s post raised a few red flags, I know, because I used a Gary Glitter song to illustrate the primal effect of repetitive chants and as an example of entitlement leading to abuse. There were some more serious but less emotive points that I wanted to make too and I felt they would be better in a second post.

I have always been concerned about the bigger issues when it comes to politics. When the environment comes up I am likely to be angry about fracking or anything that is destructive to the planet. I am less angry about “eyesores” in posh areas or dog poop on pavements. These are the little things we can probably live with. As someone who was brought up as a Christian (High Church Anglican in fact) I consider we are stewards of the Earth and, in the manner of Saint Francis, that all its inhabitants are our brothers and sisters. As the dominant species it is up to us to act responsibly as protectors of other animals and not behave like mindless bacteria intent on eating up every resource and pushing Nature out of existence. Those are things that I believe very strongly and they lie behind my personal stance on alternative energy, on population growth and on sustainable farming and industry. We have to make careful, moral decisions on matters that affect not only future generations but the entire ecosystem because the World has no choice. We do.

Anything that falls short of this has to be contested. However conscientious you may be when it comes to singing hymns or paying your tithes it all matters little if you subscribe to unnecessary and polluting energy sources for financial gain. It is possible to heat our homes and power our businesses with the natural energy of wind, water and sunshine. It is possible to develop synthetic fuels to keep our aircraft flying without causing damage. Even more to the point, it is possible to take polluting petrol and diesel engines off the road and use electric and clean burn fuels. I would go as far as to say it is our Christian DUTY to protect our planet for all its inhabitants. Believe you me, any high-tech interplanetary rescue mission in the future will not be for working people like you and I. We are collateral damage in a game played by the rich and powerful as are all living breathing organisms on land or in the sea.

When I was active in politics we were often asked our views on contentious issues, pro-life being a big one at many meetings. Personally I would never have had an abortion unless I would die without one, although these days to be honest it is not an issue for me. However I believe these issues are personal and in Britain ideas on abortion, animal rights and Israel are just not party political. This has helped us avoid the mess the USA is currently in where a group of right wing, climate sceptical, patriarchal rich men want to dictate to ordinary folks. They have latched onto abortion as a way to get the orthodox Christian vote and proceed with the most offensively Un-Christian programmes imaginable.

Yesterday, following some tweets in support of John Pavlovitz, I was unfollowed by a fellow author who is a Christian. I can only guess why and perhaps I am wrong in my assumption, but I would like to ask him and others like him the following questions:

How Christian is it to persecute strangers (immigrants) when the Bible says we should care for them?

How Christian is it to refuse healthcare and assistance to the poorest and most vulnerable in society?

How Christian is it to tell a young girl who has been raped that she can’t have an abortion and then refuse to help her bring up the child because of her “immoral behaviour”?

How Christian is it to tell a woman carrying a dead baby inside her that she must risk death just to carry it to full-term and then have a “natural birth” of a rotten corpse risking further life threatening infection?

How Christian is it to deny climate change in order to make money from oil, or to sell arms to oil producing countries that routinely finance terror or kill civilians?

How Christian is it to risk the Earth for personal gain by denying that humanity has so far played a major part in raping God’s Creation?

I will leave it as that. I don’t want to be part of any foolish gang that wishes to gamble with the world’s future for the sake of greed and says “Just pray, everything will be OK.” I think more is expected of us, don’t you?