Saturday, 25 June 2016

A cunning plan

I have a plan so cunning, you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel.

A plan so cunning, you can brush your teeth with it.

A plan so cunning....

OK, so it's not actually a plan as such, it's more a pipe-dream. Or a case of A la recherche du temps perdu. Just go with it for now. Humour me.

The first dust is still swirling in the air after the EU referendum, and already the leading proponents of Brexit (Johnson, Gove, Farage et al) are backing down on the things they claimed during the campaign. To absolutely nobody's surprise, that "£350 million we could spend on the NHS" is total balderdash. Which must be a bit annoying for the 80% of Leave voters who apparently reported that spending more on the NHS and less on EU membership was one of the most important factors in their vote. And it turns out that one of the most likely forms of "Exit", as explained by an Exit campaigning MEP, is going to be becoming a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) with free movement of goods and labour. That's right. Free movement of labour (otherwise know as "people" to you and me). Which is another of the single most important issues that we were told we were voting on. So, all the people who care passionately about reducing immigration, and spending more on the NHS by spending less in Europe have been lied to. They have voted for something that they couldn't have.

If I can be phoned up several times a day for years on end over the issue of having been mis-sold Payment Protection Insurance, it shouldn't be beyond the bounds of possibility to complain about being mis-sold an electoral choice in the biggest wool-pulling incident of modern times. This may not be what is usually meant by electoral fraud, but it certainly feels like fraud from here. The scale of the lies and disinformation is staggering.

So I propose the following...

1. The Tories sort out who is in charge Right Now. And if that means bringing Cameron back to tidy up the mess he created, then so be it. No fannying around until October though.

2. We (the UK) send a delegation to the EU, comprising the best political negotiators our cabinet has, and they sit in a locked room with the rest of the EU Council and they hammer out what our options are if we leave. I don't mean write the full treaty, I mean get the bare bones of whether we will be in the EEA (like Norway) or a completely separate nation that happens to neighbour Europe (like the Ukraine) and what the borders, trade tariffs, labour movement etc would be. Including our relationship to Scotland and N.Ireland if they were to secede from the UK. In fact, I think Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland should explicitly be present in the negotiations.

And I would expect our elected representatives to do their job in choosing what the best strategy would be for leaving, whether that be a Norway or a Ukraine route. I would expect (and you can laugh at me at this point) them to make the best decisions for us as a nation, for the people they represent, and not the best choices for their pockets or political futures. The plan they hashed out wouldn't be binding, but it would paint a picture of the truth behind what we could expect. And I want those politicians to stay in that room 24 hours a day, 7 days a week until we know what we could be getting. And then I want them to stay in there a bit longer and hammer out a deal for what changes we could see within the EU if we stay.

3. Then the politicians come home, and they sit down with both sides of the political divide and they draw up an unbiased document, upon which everyone agrees, within which the facts and figures of the best Exit they can devise are laid out, alongside the current facts and figures of the EU and the changes proposed. This is an issue too important to be divided on party lines, and too important to allow the back-stabbing, lying and viciousness this recent campaign has exposed. Our politicians are adults, they should be capable of agreeing a set of facts and proposals to place before the electorate. 

4. While the politicians are busy doing that, during their summer recess I reckon, since they don't really deserve a long holiday after the balls up they've made of the country, I want a full Register of Interests drawn up. I want every single group, team, club, organisation, research department, school, hospital, charity, company, trust, farm, fishery and factory to declare how much money they receive every year from the EU in grants, subsidies, funding, equipment or labour. We know how much we pay into the EU, we know how much we get back in rebates, but I don't think any of us know how much actually comes back in other formats. And I think we deserve to know. Until this week, I didn't know the EU subsidises free school milk for under-5s for example. And how many people actually know the scale of the funding of our film and television industry? I know I don't. I do know that 16% of our universities' research budgets comes from EU grants. That's quite a lot. Without it, will universities simply have to increase fees even further so only the very richest can afford a degree? Only by knowing where EU money is going within the UK can we have any hope of assessing whether it's making a positive impact on our lives.

5. Once steps 3 and 4 are complete, every household in the country will receive the mutually agreed upon fact sheet, and a list of the funding we as a population receive, broken down by geographical area if possible.

6. And NOW we get to vote. We get to vote on an actual, real question, with real facts about what we are being offered. We have voted on an abstract concept of nationhood, on vague ephemeral notions of "control" and "Britishness". People have voted passionately and with conviction on both sides, but with a horrible paucity of information about the shape of Exit. It's clear that a significant proportion of the country is dissatisfied (but not actually a majority remember - on a 72% turnout it actually works out that 37% voted to leave, 35% voted to stay and 28% didn't vote). So now we should get to choose between a real-world Exit offer, and a real-world Remain offer. All the people for whom immigration was the over-riding issue can discover what the immigration rules would be in each case before they vote. All the people who firmly believe the EU provides us with a great deal would have a list of exactly how much they provide us with. And we would all have a chance to decide whether the chance of gaining that which we desire is worth the things we will lose in return.

Told you it was a Cunning Plan didn't I?

It would have been nice if that had been what happened. Instead we got a divisive, vitriolic campaign that was in essence an amplification of an internal power-struggle within the Tory party, instead of a mature, informed debate about a matter of national importance.

I would like to think that when Boris says there's no need to rush into invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and that we should start "informal talks" he's also thought of my cunning plan. But that's because I'm a fantasist who's still in denial about the result of this referendum.

And just to give you a smile at the end, here's the extra bit, that I admit is even less likely to happen than steps 1-6. But a girl can dream, can't she?

7. This is a tricky bit. Trickier even than relying on politicians to make the best choice for us and not for themselves. Newspapers are not allowed to print any opinion pieces in the run up to the vote. They can report verbatim what the official representatives of the two campaigns say. Nigel Farage does not get to be an official representative. Ideally he should be locked in a padded cell for the duration, but I don't think I'll get away with that one. Meanwhile, the newspapers can report news and events. But they cannot report anything that is deemed by the Electoral Commission to be undue bias or influence in favour of either side. And if they do print anything untrue or against my draconian rules, then they must suspend their website for a day with a notice instead simply declaring they have breached electoral rules, and they don't print their newspaper for a day. Every lie loses a day of circulation. OK, so there's a few piffling issues with a free press, and overseas and on-line publications and the like, but I'm sure we can sort something out. If not, I'd be happy if we just implemented steps 1-6.

Friday, 24 June 2016

A different kind of grief

Just at the moment I am struggling with losses and sadness and grief. And the results of yesterday's referendum have left me wallowing deeper into those feelings.

I want to write about how I feel, but I can't find the words. I can't string together a coherent explanation of the rage, the disbelief, the desperation, the hope that somehow we can find a way to be a productive, open, free, welcoming country. That we can be the country that I once thought we were.

One of my over-riding feelings today takes me back to when TheEx walked out. I was left dumb-founded, blind-sided, disbelieving. I couldn't accept that 50% of a partnership (him) could dissolve it, without the other 50% (me) having any say whatsoever. And now my country is doing the same to me. 52% want to leave the EU, and the other 48% of us are left saying "wait, what, no, don't do that, I don't want that, I want to stay, we can make it work, don't leave, please, please, please." Now, as then, it's not up to me. All it takes is half, and it's over.

My feelings are not as intense, or as desperate as they were then(!) but the grief is there. And my mind is trying all the strategies it can to escape - I'm denying it's really going to happen, I'm wondering what I can do to change the path we're set on, I'm fantasizing about extreme alternatives, like my town (a firm pro-Remain place) declaring independence, I'm wondering if it's feasible to leave, to find a country that doesn't want to close its borders and seal itself off. I'm angry with the bigots and racists and ignorant, ill-informed fuckers who've done this.*

I lay awake from 4am last night, feeling sick with fear and anxiety, desperately hoping that the initial indications would somehow, miraculously be wrong. And I started planning where we could go. Australia or Canada? Too far from our families. BigBear lived in Germany for a while, and he has a degree in German (and Italian). But I speak NO German. I could limp along in schoolgirl French and probably improve quite rapidly. Or maybe The Netherlands. That's where BigBear's company has offices, and if they pull out of the UK, that's probably their European base. And the Dutch are quite understanding with people who don't speak their language well. Or various Scandinavian countries. Or Switzerland - we have friends there and some of them moved there with no German and almost no French. And then I thought about LittleBear, and I thought how worried I am about my introverted, emotionally-fragile little boy starting school, and I couldn't imagine the pain I would feel and the damage I might do to him taking him to a country where he knows no-one and speaks none of the language. I wept in the night as I thought of my baby's confusion and loneliness. I want to run away. I don't want to be part of a country that feels so alien to everything I believe in. I considered it after the last general election but was too gutless then. And I feel to gutless and scared now. Too scared of hurting my baby. Too scared of falling apart, of failing, of sinking back into a pit that I might not climb out of again.

This is what happens when I only have four hours sleep.

So please forgive me if I am over-tired and over-emotional about the outcome of this referendum. I hate what it seems to say about our country. I fear for the social, political and financial future. And I am grieving. It may not be the grief of bereavement or divorce. But it's grief nonetheless.


* And I'm angry even though I know that all 17,410,742 people who voted leave are not bigots and racists and idiots. It's just that an unpleasantly vocal proportion of them are. And, by the very definition of them being the vocal ones, those are the voices I heard. The voices that spouted the bullshit lies they'd been fed; the ones that believed every negative piece of crap ever written about the EU; the racists; the xenophobes; the people who point-blank refused to believe than an expert might actually know something. This is my rage, this is my fury, this is my release-valve to let out the steam so that I don't say this to the face of a perfectly normal, decent, honest Leave-voter who is no more racist or ignorant or stupid than me. If you voted Leave, I don't think you're racist or a moron. But I do think a lot of racists and morons voted Leave, and I'm angry with them.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Sick to my stomach

Anyone who doesn't suffer from anxiety may not understand this. But I actually feel sick and tearful today, because of this referendum. I am genuinely distressed about the possible outcome, not just because I care passionately about the issues at stake, but because I hate what this campaign has done to the political and social landscape of the country.

I've seen banners strung across the motorway bridge with a silhouette of a WWII plane and the phrase "Shoot Junkers Down".

I've seen lies, and racism and vitriol.

I've seen friends turning on each other as their political views diverge.

I've read and heard verbal abuse.

I've seen threats and vandalism.

I've read the heartfelt words of a man whose wife was murdered as she represented the people of this country.

And it scares me.

It scares me that no matter what the outcome of this referendum, the country has been riven by acrimony. We have been driven to bitter and deep distrust of each other, of our neighbours, of our politicians. As things stand, somewhere close to 50% of the population are going to be angry, disappointed or feel betrayed by what will seem like a failure to make their voices heard. 

And I can't imagine the genie being put back in its bottle. Tempers, emotions and convictions are inflamed, and having been inflamed, what will calm them? How will the rage and hatred I've heard and seen be quelled? How will passionate believers in the EU behave if they feel as though their future has been irrevocably changed for the worse? How will fervent supporters of an independent UK react if they feel as though their independence has been betrayed? Will we actually return to being a civil, respectful society who stop calling each liars and traitors? Will the racists who've been given license by the naked hatred on display retreat?

This is not like any general election I have ever participated in. There is no way in which even if your side doesn't win, at least they'll have some representation in the future. At present Labour, Lib-Dem, Green and SNP politicians represent their constituents, even under a Conservative majority parliament. If 51% vote "Out", that's not 51% of the country leaving the EU, it's the whole kit and caboodle. And that very sense of all-or-nothing seems to me to have had an impact on the tone of the opinions expressed. Each side knows they have everything to lose, or everything to gain. There is no reassurance that we get to vote again in five years time if things aren't going well for the country. There is nobody to hold to account if it turns out we made a poor decision. We can only blame each other. And that scares me.

I was about to publish this, when I stumbled upon someone expressing the same feelings as me, that seemed worth sharing. And she gets to the heart of it. I am afraid. Not of immigrants, not of the EU, not of the financial ups and downs that may lie ahead. I am afraid of what we have become and what we may become. 

No matter what tomorrow morning brings, I hope we can weave our country back together with tolerance, respect and humility. 
 

Monday, 20 June 2016

I'd swear by it

I have a vague glow of achievement in Having Got Things Done this weekend, tempered by the looming presence of A List, very little of which has been accomplished.

On the credit side...

I cooked roast lamb and it was delicious, and LittleBear tried a (microscopic) piece of it.

I have done the ironing! This is a bi-annual event and liberates infrequently-worn sections of my wardrobe.

I have arranged to have two people come and inspect the back garden to quote for a new patio and purchased and laid an interim slate-chip area with stepping stones for bare feet. So now I can actually invite friends with small children round without fearing for them playing in a large gravel patch that the cat was using as a litter tray, or playing on the (sodden, muddy) tarpaulin covering the "litter tray" and held down with a rusty garden fork. I probably won't maim or injure any small children now. Yay me!

I've finally made a start on digitising the family's communal diary from our holiday cottage. I currently estimate I'm 13% of the way through volume 1. Of 9.

I've managed to fill, drill and re-thread the aluminium frame of the shower screen so that I can re-hang it, but not actually managed to re-hang it. That requires two people, ideally one of them not being LittleBear. In fact, ideally, I'd rather LittleBear wasn't present at all. Because I have an unfortunate tendency to swear, creatively and volubly, when attempting to insert screws into recalcitrant objects, in tight spaces, when the object is held by a second pair of arms that don't seem to understand simple instructions like "Move it that way a bit, no a bit more over there, not there, there". It would be much easier if I had two pairs of arms. Or had married someone with better telepathic skills, and then I wouldn't have to resort to swearing*.

I've been for a run. And I didn't have to stop for a breather part way. And, inspired by this success, I have signed up for a 10k in September. In Rochdale. Those with a passing familiarity with English geography may be aware that Rochdale is in a part of the country known for its hills. I do not live in a hilly area. I live in an area that's barely not under water. I fear I may have just agreed to something very, very foolish.

And on the debit side...

Oh, sod it, I can't be bothered to list the thousand and one things I haven't done, because there are too many of them, and they're too tedious and depressing and the more I get done, the more gets added to the list and it never bloody ends. I'll ignore the list of crap I haven't done and carry on feeling good that I've managed to get anything  done.



*I have, so far, mostly, more or less, managed to avoid swearing in front of LittleBear. There was the occasion that we went to visit my cousins in Brighton, and BigBear instead went to watch his beloved football team play. Since they were playing in Brighton, this was a Cunning Plan. Except the fact that they were playing meant what felt like 90% of the roads in Brighton were closed, especially the ones that would take me to my cousins' house. So, after depositing BigBear somewhere near a football ground, I asked GrannyBear to map read. And when she failed to tell me which way to go after having been given at least three and half seconds' warning, I yelled "Oh, for fuck's sake!" And shortly afterwards, a little voice piped up from the back seat, "fuck's sake!" LittleBear was approximately 18 months old at the time, and, despite apparently having the memory of an elephant, has not managed to retain this gem. But I have no desire to tempt fate by allowing him to witness me undertaking tricky and rage-inducing DIY.

Incidentally, I feel I'm in fine company with the swearing - my cousin maintains that she first heard the word "fuck" from our grandmother (perhaps when older than 4 however. Or eighteen months). And I fondly recall, in my teenage years, rather rashly saying to my mother, "you must be fucking joking". To which she responded, utterly dead-pan, "I'm not fucking joking. I don't fucking joke." Which stopped me in my tracks. I'd still rather wait a decade or two before hearing that from my son.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Getting my teeth into it

I've mentioned before that I find it really hard making phone calls*. And I don't mean that I forget, or can't find the right number, or any physical, practical reason. I mean I am paralysed into inactivity by anxiety. I will literally do anything other than pick up a phone. This is why the cat has nowhere to go in August when we go on holiday. This is why we don't have a new patio. This is why the central heating still makes a strange clanking noise. This is why I haven't been to the dentist in two years. I don't mind going to the dentist. My teeth are in reasonable condition, my dentist is friendly and good. But I have to phone them to make an appointment, and I've somehow let 2 years slip past.

But now, prompted by the fact that I really need to get LittleBear registered at a dentist, and by the fact that I will pick up the phone for LittleBear's well-being when I'm quite prepared to neglect my own, I phoned the dentist.

And do you know what happened?

I got lectured by the obnoxious, snooty, holier-than-thou bloody receptionist.

Apparently since I haven't been for two years, I don't deserve to go any more. And they're not accepting new NHS patients at my dental practice, so I'd have to register as a private patient. But just this once, she'll graciously deign to allow me to have a dental check-up as I'm entitled to under the National Health Service that I pay for. As long as I never, ever, ever leave it so long again. So now I'm really pissed off at being told off by someone who is employed as a public servant to help people, and I'm pissed off that my own anxiety and inability to phone for an appointment created this situation, and I'm pissed off that if they have a policy of denying you treatment after two years then the least they could do is send a reminder to that effect. And, worst of all, I know that I'll find it even harder to phone for an appointment next time, because my fears of "getting into trouble" have been realised, and I'll dread the thought of it happening again.

For those of you who don't know what fear and anxiety and panic feel like: my hands are sweating and slightly shaky, tears are welling up in my eyes, and I'm battling to hold myself together, just from one conversation with one receptionist. I already don't want to go to the appointment because I'll have to check-in with the same receptionist. I'm already dreading making another appointment in 6 months time. I just want to cry. I want it all to go away. I don't want to have to talk to other people. I don't want to be me.

I did get an appointment for LittleBear though. So that's something.




* I seem to have mentioned it more than once: here, here, here and here

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

The EU

Every time I start thinking about writing about the EU referendum, I become despondent and don't bother. Because there's so much already been written, and so much utter rubbish being talked, and so much hypothesis disguised as fact that it hardly seems worth adding to the volume of noise blaring out on the subject. On the other hand, my mind will keep nattering away with my own thoughts, so I might as well give my mind access to my fingers and see if it can type something coherent.

One of the other reasons I haven't written anything is there didn't seem much point. I'm not going to change anyone's mind. I'm not really in a position to inform anyone of anything. Everyone I hear talking or read about seems to already have a firm, unwavering opinion and to stoutly believe they are in possession of The Truth. But then I started to hear more normal human beings saying "I'm not sure yet, but I think I know which way I'll vote, maybe." And so, though I'm not hoping, expecting or wanting to change anybody's mind, perhaps I'll prompt some thoughts, or help at least one person focus on the questions that matter most to them, and realise which way they want to vote. I don't want to decide for anyone, and I don't lay claim to being right. But at least I've thought about how to think about it.

First up, I'll put my cards on the table. I'll be voting "Remain". I personally think that the EU is a good thing, and that we as a country are an important part of it, and it is an important part of us. And when I've balanced up the arguments as rationally as I can, I still think that. You might not agree with me, and that's fine. As long as you promise me you've thought about it really hard, because this isn't a "do you prefer chocolate or vanilla?" kind of question. This is a potentially fundamental change to our country's position and interactions with the world.

Risk

This is at the heart of the problem. The whole decision is one big risk. Whatever left, right, middle or purple say, nobody knows what the impact of leaving the EU would be. It's very similar to the Scottish Independence referendum. The SNP could lay claim to all the wonderful things they'd like to see happen if Scotland were an independent nation, but without actually launching off and having a go, it was impossible to say in advance what currency they would use, whether they'd be in the EU, what would happen to the division of the national debt, and a host of other questions. Because until you leave, you don't negotiate all the terms. There's no pre-nup on international treaties. And it's the same with the EU. We can't hammer out some "let's pretend" agreements on trade and immigration and free movement with the rest of the world so we can see what they're like before we leave. No other country is interested in investing years of civil service and diplomatic effort in writing new treaties and agreements just in case we decide to leave the EU. It's a blind jump into waters of unknown depth.

Given that nobody knows what the impact of leaving the EU would be, all we can honestly do is try to balance the risks and decide if they're worth it. And not just one or two of the risks, but all of them. And not just the short-term risks, but the long-term ones. Every person who votes, or indeed chooses not to vote, is making a decision that could echo through the generations.

Trade

If we remain in the EU, not a lot will change. Our current trading agreements will stand, the EU (with us as a voting member) will continue to forge new trade agreements.

If we leave... we will  have to form new trade agreements with other countries. And those trade agreements will be based on how strong our negotiating position is. The strength of our negotiations will depend upon the size of our market. NOT the size of our economy, which is big, but the size of our market. Broadly speaking, the size of our market is the size of our population, which is small (on a global scale). Having a large economy does mean our population is likely to have more money to spend, but even so, we will be limited by the number of people. How many widgets does one person need after all? I found a video clip of Ngaire Woods from Oxford University talking about the issues of re-negotiating trade agreements. It was simple and yet also alarming. Alarming not because she forecasts doom, gloom and catastrophe. She merely points out what we'll have to do, and that we don't know how well it will work. That strikes me as a pretty big risk, and one I'm not sure is such a great one. Our side of the negotiating table doesn't look that strong.

Immigration

This is a hugely emotive topic. And it affects different people to different extents. Some parts of the country have a combination of a high immigrant population and low employment, which breeds resentment and division. Other areas, such as the one I live in, have high employment and a high immigrant population. A world-class university does not remain world-class without bringing in the brightest and the best from all over the world. So my experience of immigrants is completely different from the next person's. Mine is a positive experience. And in my job I see daily how important and useful the free-flow of students and academics around the EU is, and how important the collaborations and joint funding ventures are. And I materially benefit from EU funding that allows universities and institutes all over the EU to buy scientific instruments that I build. And the cold, hard truth is, as I believe I keep mentioning, we don't know what will happen to those funding arrangements and joint ventures if we're on the outside. My company certainly won't be sponsoring another PhD student, nor running EU-wide post-doctoral training courses.

I also have another vested interest in defending the value of inward migration - I am the daughter of a migrant. My family has ebbed and flowed across international borders since at least the 1700s. I find it sad to think that so many people resist the idea of the free movement of people within the EU, because it doesn't just mean foreign nationals coming here, it opens the world to us, it allows us to seek homes and jobs and lives and joy across a glorious, open, varied and rich continent. How can the freedom to do that be so terrifying? We may be an island nation and therefore geographically insular, but we don't have to be mentally and emotionally insular as well.

(And while I'm on the subject of immigration, Boris and his chums' claims that Turkey and Macedonia and whoever else are going to join and promptly "swamp" us with immigrants is, as with much of what Boris says, utter hogwash. No country can join the EU without all existing member states agreeing to it. Which includes us. At the moment. So if we don't want Turkey in? Turkey doesn't get in.)

It's the Economy, stupid

I don't claim to know a huge amount about the intricacies of economics. If I'm honest, I'm not sure most economists know much about the intricacies of economics, given how often they get their predictions wrong. The one thing I do know is that stock markets are nervous. They're jittery and capricious. They panic. And they really, really don't like uncertainty. So I think it's a fair bet that if we vote to leave the EU, the FTSE will duly panic and we'll see a fair chunk of change wiped off the value of the stock market. Oh, and the pound will probably become a lot weaker than it was, because currency trading is also a dark and mysterious world in which uncertainty is frowned upon*. Some of you might be thinking "so what? Who does PhysicsBear think she's talking to? I don't own stocks and shares, what does it matter to me?" Anyone with a private pension should care. Or with parents with private pensions. Because that's where they're invested. 10% off the value of the FTSE is 10% lost from your pension fund. It would (probably) be a short-term effect, so might be a risk worth taking. Unless you happen to be about to draw your pension, in which case now would be a really bad time for it to collapse in value.

There's a special term for a fallacy in economics I didn't know had a name. It's called the lump of labour fallacy. It applies in particular to the concept that foreigners are "coming over here and taking our jobs", and makes use of an erroneous assumption that there are a fixed number of jobs available, a fixed "lump" of work to be done, and that any immigrant gaining work here is doing so at the expense of some poor John Bull who was more deserving. In fact what happens is that immigrants arrive, the economy grows and there is more work to go around. Which is a good thing. Isn't it? Slamming the door in the face of the EU does seem to risk losing that influx of labour and talent, and shrinking the economy. And the statistics are quite clear on the subject. Immigrants, especially EU-immigrants, make a net contribution to the exchequer. They contribute more in tax and national insurance than is paid out in benefits. We are richer by virtue of EU immigrants than we would be without.

"Sovereignty"

I put that in inverted commas, because there are two things that seem to get modged together under that word. And having a friend with a keen legal mind who has hammered one of the things home for me, I wouldn't want to muddle the two here. The first is actual sovereignty. This is a technical term and refers to the control we wield over ourselves by virtue of our Parliament. We still have that. We've always had it. We have never lost and are not going to lose our sovereignty. EU laws and regulations only apply here because an Act of Parliament allows them to, and we can always walk away, as we are being given the option to do now. We are not Poland, and the EU is not the USSR. Leaving would not be some symbolic reclamation of our sovereignty. We never lost it.

What I think people who bandy the term around are often talking about is the sense that we are being ruled from elsewhere, by people and nations we did not choose. And I take exception to that as well. We elect MEPs to the European parliament, and if you don't vote in those elections - why not? We, in the guise of our government, also appoint EU commissioners. Admittedly some of those end up being weasels like Peter Mandelson, but they are at least our weasels, and if we don't want weasels, that's up to us to do something about it. And finally the leader of our government represents us on the European Council. We are not some annex of the EU, being dictated to from "over there". We are part of the EU, a full member, with just as much say as everyone else (and some extremely flexible powers of veto as well).

While we remain within the EU, we are part of the law-making process. Remove ourselves from the EU and we risk being required to meet EU laws to be able to trade freely, without being able to have any impact on the writing of those laws. (This is the position Norway is in). So, yes, outside the EU we might have more control over our laws, but equally we might find ourselves bound by EU laws and with no influence over them, which seems about as far away from "taking back control" as it's possible to get. In fact it sounds a lot more like rolling over and asking to have our tummies tickled.

On this issue, and I apologise if I sound like a stuck record, nobody knows what the impact of leaving the EU would be, but the risk is that we lose control of the law-making process without escaping from its reach. 

Peace in our time

Unlike some of the more extreme opinions expressed by some politicians, I don't think leaving the EU will spell the end of all that is good and noble about Europe or democracy or western civilsation. And I don't think we can necessarily ascribe the 70 years of peace, after a thousand years of wars, solely to the existence of the EU. After all, it's a bit hard to rewind time and have another go at the post-war years without the EU. But the closer we are, socially, economically and politically, the less likely, I hope, we are to resort to war as a solution to a problem.

The aspect of our potential departure from the EU that gives most pause for thought in terms of peace, for me, is the effect on the Good Friday Agreement. It took a long, long time, and a lot of bloodshed before there was finally any semblance of peace in Northern Ireland. And the peace agreement that was forged was dependent upon an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. If we choose to leave the EU, and implement tighter border controls, that will have to be a closed border. Otherwise with RoI open to the EU, and us closed, we have to close the border to prevent the free-flow of all EU nationals into the UK. Now I don't for one moment suppose that as soon as we close that border, The Troubles will begin again in their full horror. But we will need to re-negotiate the terms of the peace accord. And we will risk disagreement, anger and bloodshed. Feelings still run high on the subject of Northern Ireland's position within the UK. I remember only too clearly what life was like through the eighties, being evacuated from train stations because of bomb threats, what felt like daily reports of bombs and shootings and danger. I hope we never return to those days, and I don't imagine leaving the EU would precipitate such levels of violence. But again, it's another risk because nobody knows what the impact of leaving the EU would be.

And let's not forget Scotland. If the popular vote in Scotland is in favour of remaining in the EU, and yet the UK as a whole vote to leave, it basically gives the SNP carte blanche to call another election on the subject of independence. And I doubt if they'd vote to remain united outside the EU. So a vote to leave the EU risks the dissolution of the UK.

Lies, damned lies and statistics

There have been a lot of numbers bandied about, by both sides, about the costs and benefits and risks of leaving the EU. Boris and his magic £350 million seems to have lodged in everyone's minds, despite being repeatedly disproved. I think I may have said this before, but nobody knows what the impact of leaving the EU would be. And while we may "spend" less by paying less into EU coffers each year, if the price of that is a reduction in the size of our economy, then we could still lose out overall. It's simply not possible to pluck one figure from the air and announce that that single figure represents the net effect of leaving the EU. Both sides have tried, and it's risible. The subject is too large, and too complex, and (dare I say it?) nobody knows what the impact of leaving the EU would be. The interactions of exchange rate, stock market, trade deals, inward investment and immigration have too many variables to genuinely predict what would happen if we left. The one thing that's certain is that the amount we pay in to the EU is far from being the whole picture. And to claim that it is is not dissimilar to announcing that you'd like to pay less income tax because then you'd be "better off". You may well be, in an immediate sense, but if everyone paying less tax then impacts the ability of the country to support its own infrastructure, then you've merely shot yourself in the foot as your health, welfare, defence, environment, transport and education systems disintegrate.

Rallying calls

One of the big problems I perceive with the ability of either campaign to get their points across is that they're rather damned into hyperbole and threat. The Leave campaign has to convince us that we're in a terrible state and the promised land is but an 'x' away. So they spend their efforts sowing discord and disharmony. Persuading us that all ills can be laid at the feet of immigrants and bureaucrats.

Meanwhile the Remain campaign has to try to persuade us that the green we can see on the other side is not grass, but mould and slime and all things unspeakable, so they spend their efforts sowing fear and panic about what might happen. Persuading us that the world, or at least western democracy, will end if we leave the EU.

They're both wrong.

Do you know why?

Nobody knows what the impact of leaving the EU would be.

The thing is, Leave has one big thing on their side. Try chanting this...

What do we want?
More of the same!
When do we want it?
Oh, anytime would be fine, we're generally OK thanks.

Now try this...

What do we want?
Change!
When do we want it?
Now!

See? It's so much easier to campaign for change. So much easier to be convinced that things could, would or should be better. If there is anything in this country that dissatisfies you, then you are open to being told it could be better. Even if the things you are told are not true, or not guaranteed (or even likely) to happen, they are seductive words, murmuring in your ear.

The argument cannot be won or lost on what will happen. In truth it can only really be argued on the basis of what might happen, and what the inherent risks are. We risk a damaging recession, a prolonged period of economic uncertainty and weakened sterling, decreased inward investment, a shrinking economy, the dissolution of the union and continued regulation from a body within which we have no say. At a more nebulous level we risk becoming more insular, inward-looking, nationalistic and tribal. I use none of those terms as compliments. On the other hand... it might all be fine. For me, the risks are too great.

I vote Remain.


* In fact, as far as I can tell, estimates vary on the impact on sterling from the optimistic 5% drop in exchange rate, through to the pessimistic 20% drop. Neither seem great to me.

Junipalooza!

On Sunday, I had a Day Out. I went to London for the day, with my friends, leaving BigBear and LittleBear at home. Where did I go? I went to "Junipalooza", a Gin Festival celebrating World Gin Day.

It was perhaps the most hipster-ish location and occasion I have ever attended, in Tobacco Docks in East London, with bare brick archways, tables made from reclaimed pallets, and not a clean-shaven man in sight.

It also had a LOT of gin. And I'm not talking about any run-of-the-mill gin here. I'm not even talking about Slightly Posh Gin here. You can forget your Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire and Hendricks. You can even forget my gorgeously pretentious Christmas gin. These were gins that were seriously small-batch, artisanal, hipster-heaven. There were gins with honey, gins with lavender, gins with quince, with strawberries, with liquorice, with wormwood, with salt, with oranges, with sloes. There was a man who'd started his own distillery 8 months ago after being caught by his boss bringing his home-distilled experiments to work for his colleagues to try. Fortunately he worked in a brewery and his boss saw this as a new market to explore, and not dangerously intoxicated employees loose on the shop floor.

At the entrance to the tasting rooms, there were piles of tasting cards - one per distillery often, rather than one per gin. A nice picture of the bottle on one side, and some notes on the back. We each picked up a deck of cards, and I slid mine into my back left pocket. As I tried a gin, I'd find the card and slip it into my back right pocket.


Right-pocket gins

Before you become horrified at how many gins I tried, I should point out that... some of those distilleries offered more than one gin, and I did indeed try them. Twenty-two in all. I think. Now you can be horrified.

If you want to be really impressed, you should see how many I didn't try:


Left-pocket gins

Perhaps one of the most entertaining aspects (and there were many - after the first 10 gins, most things were entertaining) was the delightful range of national stereotypes exhibited...

- there was a Swiss distillery, offering four different gins. And the lady in charge made us line up and hold our glasses out in a row. We were only allowed to try the gins in the correct order and only after we'd listened to what she had to tell us first.

- there was a Swedish distillery, also offering four different gins. The man in charge there just poured four glasses and let us try them in whichever order we wanted, adding tonic when we wanted, not when we were instructed it was permissible.

- there was a Spanish distillery, whose representative couldn't understand why anyone would want to add tonic to perfectly good gin, and who admitted they only sold their gin from one shop in Cardiff.

- there was a British distillery, proud of the fact that their new gin is being aged in wood taken from the HMS Victory. That's right, the British are taking artefacts from one of the most important ships of our entire naval history and using it to make booze.

Rather as you'd expect from a tasting of a huge range of drinks, there were some that I thought were glorious, and some that I wouldn't touch with a barge-pole. Salted, smoked gin is definitely Not My Thing. I also got a bit tired of the number of gins which were trying to lob extra, and strange, flavours in to make them stand out from the crowd. There's a reason juniper is the dominant flavour in gin. It's because it's gin. So please leave the honey at home, and the dodgy fruits, and (for me) the lavender. At the other end of the spectrum, there were a lot of competent, general-purpose gins. They tasted of gin. They were smooth and unsurprising. And they probably suffered from being compared to so many other gins. Each one alone would probably have been a delight, and a drink to wallow in, had it not been standing in comparison to a dozen others, just as good.

I did discover further ramifications on my peculiarly malfunctioning sense of smell. Despite the fact that I have witnessed a return of my ability to detect my son's flatulence by aroma alone, my sense of smell is clearly still deficient. For example, while others ooohed and aahed over heady aromas and subtle bouquets, I was limited to the more pungent ingredients when breathing deeply from the neck of the glass. There was at least one gin that smelled like little more than rubbing alcohol to me*. And, in my bĂȘte noire, I couldn't smell the lavender at all. But when I tasted it? The more subtle flavours exploded and caught me by surprise. It was most disconcerting. And I really didn't like the lavender.

I returned home calm, mellow and relaxed. And it wasn't just the gin. Having an hour on the train in each direction to drink a cup of tea and read my book was almost as big a treat.

And then LittleBear was scared of Unspecified Things in the night, and after an hour spent trying to persuade him that his room and his bed really were a lovely place to sleep, I ended up with a small body pressed against me in my bed, had rather too few hours sleep, and spent Monday exhausted and crabby. So much for a restorative day out...



* And it didn't taste much better. But then, it was the twenty-first gin I tried and my palate was a little, shall we say, weary, by then.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Comedy and tragedy

There I sat, playing a game of "Dinosaur Race" with LittleBear. Surprisingly, this does not involve me having to run up and down pretending to be a dinosaur, it's actually a board game that finds yet another permutation on the "teaching children to count and pattern match" board games churned out in apparently infinite variety by Orchard Toys. I heard a peculiar yodelling noise, but the radio was on, and the front window was open, so I shrugged and went back to my Pachycephalosaurus. Then it happened again. And I realised that perhaps I recognised the dulcet tones of BigBear.

I trotted upstairs to check what was going on, confident that I was imagining things. To my surprise I found BigBear trapped in the shower. Stark naked. Holding a mostly-detached bifold shower door in both hands, to prevent the whole thing crashing down. Detached enough it couldn't support its own weight. Attached enough it couldn't be removed. Off I scampered to find a screwdriver to finish the detachment, trying not to laugh too much at the predicament BigBear had found himself in. And I grovelled on the floor of the shower removing the final screws, until BigBear asked, rather plaintively, "could you at least pass me my pants?"

Fortunately we have alternative washing facilities, so BigBear was able to retire, dignity somewhat restored, to shower in peace un-assaulted by malevolent, malfunctioning bathroom fittings. The rest of the day passed relatively uneventfully.

I woke with a start in the early morning. I'd heard a noise. Listening again, I heard the faintest high-pitched keening noise, so I leapt out of bed and dashed into LittleBear's room... where he slept peacefully and quietly. Stumbling back into my own bed, I heard the sound again, and realised that it was in fact a rather peculiar whistling-out-breath snore of BigBear's.

Aside from featuring instances of me hearing a faint noise and it turning out to be BigBear, nothing much seems to tie these two events together. You're beginning to wonder if I've lost the plot completely. Well, no, not completely.

The thing that connects the events is in fact the broken shower door. Because I then spent the next hour and a half lying awake plotting in my head the various manoeuvres I would need to undertake to mend the shower door. Whether I would be able to drill out the sheared off screw. Whether the soft aluminium would withstand that. Whether the door could be mounted back to front, or upside down, to make use of different mounting holes that haven't already been chewed up. Whether it would be possible to hold the shower door in position and screw it in place single-handed, or I'd have to wait for a weekend so BigBear could help. Whether I should Get A Man* In. Whether in fact the whole shower door should be condemned, and a new one bought. In which case I'd definitely  need to Get A Man* In, but it wouldn't need to be a full-blown bathroom fitting man*, except it would need to be someone who'd definitely be capable of forming a watertight seal because I am categorically NOT returning to the nightmare days of water oozing out around a poorly fitted shower door and dripping through the downstairs ceiling. And. And. And. Round and round in my head for an hour and a half. How many different ways is it possible to think about removing sheared stainless screws from an aluminium channel? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Five minutes of giggling at BigBear's discomfiture was categorically not worth a non-functioning shower, 90 minutes less sleep than I wanted, and all the stress of getting the bloody thing sorted out.




* Or woman.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Bright Side of One

 I've written before about all my reasons for not having more than one child. Actually, when I say "all" the reasons, mostly I mean the sleep. It's always the sleep. I am inhuman when deprived of sleep. I'm probably also inhumane when deprived of sleep. But whenever I've written about it, it's always been in a rather defensive manner. As though I have to justify why I only want one child. And that's probably because I've been defending the decision to myself, as much as to anyone else. Just recently, all those defensive thoughts have been triggered again with the news that one of the last* of the "only child brigade" from our original ante-natal classes has taken the plunge with a second pregnancy. I am genuinely delighted for her, and yet now find myself isolated in my only-child-ness, and tempted to dive back in to defending myself, explaining the post-natal depression, the anxiety, the sleep-deprivation-hell, the strain on my marriage, all the terrible things that stop me having a second child. As though more than one child is the promised land, and I have to explain away my refusal to accept two children as my salvation and remain aetheistically one-childed.

Instead, I am going to celebrate all the reasons why having only one child is lovely, and is working for me.

- When LittleBear charges into our bedroom and clambers into bed with us, if I don't have to go to work, I can stay there playing for as long as he likes, making a den under the duvet, chasing dinosaurs across the pillows, building imaginary Lego or holding a birthday party for a cuddly cheetah. We've been known to play in bed until 9:30 before the rumbling of my LittleBear's stomach drives us downstairs for food. It is one of my favourite parts of the day.

- After lunch, LittleBear and I curl up on the bed together and read. It's called "Cuddly Story Time", and I invented it to replace naps, when naps were abandoned but Bears were still tired. We read whatever LittleBear wants, for as long as he wants. Usually it's about an hour of uninterrupted reading, with my warm, snuggly boy tucked under my arm. There are no arguments about what we read, no wrigglings of bored children who want a different book. Just me, my bear and happiness. And a cup of tea, in case I start nodding off in the warm coziness of it all.

- When LittleBear learnt to ride his bicycle it was with both his parents standing by, watching, admiring, picking him up, launching him off and giving him our undivided attention. When he wants to go out riding round the village for no particular reason, we can just jump on our bikes and go.

- LittleBear has never appeared at the top of the stairs with blood welling up on his arm because his younger sister has scratched him.

- I have never had to wear a baby almost constantly to prevent LittleBear from smothering it with a pillow**.

- I never have to negotiate who gets the pink plate, or the orange cup, or the first slice of cake, or to sit in the front seat, or to lick the spoon, or to ride on the blue swing, or any of those other negotiations that multiple children require.

- I don't have to worry about doing untold psychological damage to LittleBear because he starts to wonder if I have a "favourite" child. He can always be my favourite.

Essentially, I can give my son all the undivided attention that I want. I can be the best mother I know how to be, by being a mother to only one. And just because other parents can, and do, handle all the tough parts of having more than one child, doesn't make them better than me, it just makes us all different. There are indubitably joys to having more than one child. But today, I am going to stand up and be proud of the joys of having one child. This is my path, this is my son, this is my family. And we're having a lovely time being us.


* There remains one other "only-childer", but it is not through her choice or intention, only a very sad set of circumstances, but it is her story and not mine.

** Really. I haven't made that situation up. It was awful for the family involved.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Don't do as I say, or as I do

Last night was tough, and served as another reminder, in case I needed one, that being woken in the night is Not My Thing.

LittleBear had a nightmare. "Was it about dinosaurs?", I hear you ask. He does, after all, absorb vast quantities of information about terrifying pre-historic beasts. It was not about dinosaurs. Or sharks. Or tigers. Or saltwater crocodiles. Or any other animal from a wide range of predatory, carnivorous creatures with which he has a fascination. No, he had a nightmare about being eaten by a table. Which I find both sad and sweet at the same time. At 1:30am, I found it mildly exasperating. As is ever the way, I had hurtled out of bed and had my hand on the door before I was even really aware that there was a small voice crying out for his Mummy.

I cuddled my baby, stroked the hair back from his face, and tucked the duvet closer about his warm and dozy body. He was barely awake, but still scared and confused. I reassured him and murmured that all was well, and that he should think about something nice instead while he fell back asleep...

Ten minutes later I was more than mildly exasperated to be summoned back and informed, by a slightly less drowsy child, that "it hasn't worked Mummy. I can't stop thinking about what I don't want to think about". At this point, I did something very, very, very foolish. I suggested he do what I do. I suggested he think about the game we'd been playing today (Bob the Builder and his machines building a giant aquarium to house every species of shark in the world, since you ask), and plan how we'd continue it tomorrow. And the reason this was so foolish? Because it doesn't work for me. In fact, when I wake with a start, or can't sleep, or am worried, and I try and distract my mind by thinking of something interesting or fun, my dear, treacherous brain gets so carried away with the excitement of it all that I gradually become more and more and more awake and alert.

So it shouldn't have been much of a surprise that half an hour later, I was called again, by a bright-eyed, awake, enthusiastic small boy who informed me it was a bit too dark in his room, and could he please have just a little bit more light?

Nor it should have been a surprise when a further ten minutes later, the same small boy summoned me to declare he needed a wee.

By this time, I was basically completely livid. And I'm still proud of myself in a "this is how it feels to be a real grown-up" kind of way, that I did not direct my ire at LittleBear, who continued to get cuddled and loved. Instead I was much more mature, and snapped at BigBear when he offered to help, and mentally cursed him and his own struggles with insomnia as being the entire cause of LittleBear being awake. Nothing whatsoever to do with my stupid suggestion. Because not only am I mature, I'm also entirely rational and reasonable in the middle of the night.

By 2:45, I had LittleBear tucked up in bed again, and I sat on the floor beside him, one arm tucked round him, my head resting on his pillow, feeling the warmth of his breath on my face. I held him close and promised him that I was always there if he needed me, and would always come if he called me, but could he please, perhaps try not to need me for the rest of the night?

And so I went back to bed. And lay awake attempting to list as many different species of shark as I could.

great white, megamouth, tiger, lemon, sand tiger, blue, nurse, grey, black tip reef, white tip reef, oceanic white tip, whale, bonnethead, scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead, goblin, tassled wobbegong, cookie-cutter, bowmouth guitarfish, six gill, seven gill, sweeper, saw, basking, bull, epaulette, leopard, mako, lantern, greenland, spiny dogfish, thresher, horn, angel, porbeagle, swell...*


Because Bob's aquarium needs filling.

Thanks brain.



* Yes, I have read a LOT of books about sharks with LittleBear.