Writing: you have to love it

According to a recent poll, being an author is seen as the most desirable job in Britain. This surprises me a little and pleases me a lot. 60% of people in this country want to create art–or at least entertainment–with words. How wonderfully affirming this is. A nation of aspiring storytellers is an awful lot nicer than a nation of aspiring city traders, for example, or…shudder…government ministers. Then, trawling the cluttered waters of Twitter this afternoon, I came across this article, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/20/tim-lott-life-as-an-author, comparing writing to a horror film and proceeding to lay out the difficulties of the profession in the most cynical and angst-ridden terms. The article is by an established author, who concludes (sarcastically, I hope) by suggesting he’d rather become a taxi driver. I’ve known a few taxi drivers in my time and…no…I wouldn’t rather do that.

What a disappointing response. Okay, maybe on a factual level, it is true enough: writing can be a lonely occupation, it’s painfully hard to make any money at it, you often fret over the possibility that you might actually be pretty crap at it,  and, well, you spend a lot of time having conversations with people who don’t  exist. Or I do, anyway, but maybe that’s just me.

But setting all this aside, what really depresses me about this article–especially given that it’s published in The Guardian–is the way it pulls up the proverbial ladder. Man makes a living doing something he professes to love, then says, ‘Don’t follow me up here, kids, you couldn’t hack it.’ When I was a postgraduate I met a lot of academics who said the same thing, and it well and truly soured me. To my upstart and slightly rebellious eyes, this ladder pulling is one of the reasons why the great British class divide continues to be as strong as it ever was. Whatever the financial rewards, writing, like academia, is a job that brings a certain level of respect. It gives you a voice. It gives you an outlet for your intellectual energy. Being a writer allows me to say whatever the hell I want to, and I couldn’t do that when I was a local government wage slave. I tried it once or twice and the outcome was unpleasant, to say the least.

Saying to people who want to write, trust me, you’re better off not bothering is essentially the same as saying keep quiet and know your place. Or so it seems to me. Say it to someone who works for peanuts on a zero hours contract. Or someone whose boss humiliates and threatens him everyday. Or someone who breaks her back to produce the goods that others take the credit for. It sounds just plain smug. Instead, turn the argument on its head. You hate your job? Go home and spend a couple of hours writing at the end of each day. It will make you feel more human. It will help you survive.

Maybe I’m being naive. I’ve just published my first novel and am still gathering pats on the back from friends and relations. I have yet to make any money from it beyond a small advance, with which I bought a new jumper and took my other half out for a nice meal. The other day in the car, my son and I tried to figure out how many copies of the book I’d have to sell before it even became a minimum wage job, but I couldn’t do the maths (one of the reasons I’m a writer). I have no plans to give up my office job anytime soon. To make time to write, I have chosen to work part time- knowingly sacrificing my prospects for higher pay and promotion. I may never recoup that lost income. Or I might. At this point, it’s impossible to know.

But that’s not the point. You have to love it. That’s the only good reason to do it. I love the craft of writing, I love bringing characters to life, I love exploring the possibilities of lives that are not my own. I am one of the very few people I know who loves Monday mornings. I get a little thrill of joy when I switch on the laptop. Today I bumped into a woman I hardly know at the supermarket, and she congratulated me on my book. She told me she’s always sort of fancied writing, and so to her, and to the 60% of folk who said it sounded like a pretty decent gig, I say give it a try. Don’t give up the day job for it, but don’t give up your voice either.


Real men eat vegetables…


And so onto to the politics of food and manhood… Our almost twelve-year-old son Jamie is a confirmed vegetable hater. He is a little guy and not a very big eater, but will make a reasonably good stab at most things I present him with. With one notable exception: vegetables. He will, if forced, nibble a stick of raw carrot. He will eat vegetable soup as long as it is blended completely smooth with no chunks of anything that might resemble vegetable matter lurking at the bottom of the bowl. He will eat tomato sauce, but again, only if there are no bits of tomato showing. But that’s it. The first sign of pretty much any other veg on his plate, young Master McKinney rehearses the immortal words of Ori the Dwarf from The Hobbit: “I don’t eat green food!” Or for that matter, purple, or yellow, or red.

It’s hard to know where this aversion comes from. As a family, we try pretty hard to eat well, without being obsessive about it. We eat  a lot of veg, creatively stir fried, grilled, curried, steamed, marinated, or just raw as it comes. I am a good cook, and my food tastes good. Our 7-year-old daughter Susanna wolfs down her own veggies and then smugly shows her big brother her plate. “See Jamie, I ate it!”

People tell me not to worry, he’ll get less fussy with age, he’s not malnourished, he’s fine, etc. I know there are millions of parents out there fighting their own battles with fussy eaters. I know that as parental worries go, it could be an awful lot worse. But I admit: it bugs the pants off me. We beg and wheedle. We bribe. We make threats: no chocolate, no video games, no rugby training, etc. We reward the rare occasion when he does manage to choke down a leaf of spinach or the tiniest bud of broccoli. Now that he’s getting older, we try to appeal to his growing sense of vanity: “You want to look fit, don’t you?” “You want to grow into a big strong man, don’t you?” You don’t want to end up looking like that, do you?” (pointing out Yoda or Gollum or any one of many wizened little veg-fearing characters dotting about town). We reason. We explain the science of vitamins and nutrition. We encourage him to help with the cooking and planting vegetables in the garden. Yes, we even grow our own! We’ve tried every trick in the book, and nothing works. Nothing at all. He’s clever and stubborn and incredibly consistent, and I am not Supermum. If there are any Supermums out there who know the secret for curing a confirmed vegephobic, get in touch.

In the meantime, my blender is my best friend. I will continue to render his green food invisible in soups and sauces, and repeat my tired old mantra: real men eat vegetables! Maybe he will one day.

Connectedness: why Pete was right and Maggie was wrong

UnknownA couple of events have set my mind going this week about the connectedness of things. The first was the death of singer, songwriter, banjo-player, activist and all-around outstanding human, Pete Seeger. My dad’s family were acquainted with him through the New York folk scene and through certain political affiliations for which Pete famously found himself on the wrong side of Senator McCarthy in the 1950s. So growing up listening to his records, part of me felt like I was listening to the voice of an uncle.

For me, his death feels like the loss of a direct connection to so many ideals that were and still may be good about America: acceptance, tolerance, peace, local action, community, and genuine interest in other people, whether they be friends or strangers. It is not true that these ideals are dead or dying, but certainly they seem to be less dominant in our media, in our conversations and in our ways of going about life than their opposites: suspicion, ignorance, environmental irresponsibility and looking after number one. And it’s not just America. Here too. Love her or hate her, very many people in Britain (yes, even in Scotland though a lot of idealists would deny it) have wholesale swallowed Thatcher’s message that there is no such thing as society. She was, is, and will always be wrong on that one.

The other thing that got me thinking about all of this was a seminar I attended yesterday about the most effective social policies to improve public health. It was given by John Frank, the respected Canadian professor of public health, currently working at Edinburgh University. Slide after slide of statistics and research from across Europe and North America demonstrating the connections between social inequality, poverty and isolation and poor physical and/or mental health. Facts, not hypotheses. Dry stuff, you may think. But as he spoke, it occurred to me: this is the scientific evidence to prove that Pete Seeger was right and Maggie the Milksnatcher was wrong. A folk song translated into social policy: look after children, help your neighbours, spread the wealth, accept that we do have entitlements (to a home, to warmth, to food, to education, to healthcare, to the protection of law, to freedom of thought and speech) before we have obligations, and we are all better off.

So I’m thinking about how all of these things are connected: how we treat each other, how we relate to other people and to our communities and our environment, and how we feel in body and mind. And I’m thinking how glad I am that old Pete outlived old Maggie, and that his view of the world will outlive hers. It has to.

What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

My best friends know I secretly, or not so secretly, want to be a writer when I grow up. Well, don’t we all? It’s like saying you want to be a musician or a dancer or a professional athlete. Most normal people look at you, raise an eyebrow and say “Good luck with that.” Most normal people wouldn’t bother. But having proved long ago that normality isn’t always my strong point, I have kept writing. Perhaps most surprising to me is that I still love doing it, even at eleven o’clock at night when I have put in a full shift at the office, cooked dinner, hung out the laundry, tucked in the kids and done the rounds at the supermarket. The desire to just create– to weave words and to imagine myself into someone else’s life–is a very good source of fuel. A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a publisher about a novel I’ve been working on. I’ve had a few of them. Publishers are a pretty hard-nosed lot and they don’t do false praise. I’ve never had one rip me to shreds, and I’ve had enough ‘Hey, we really like this but it’s just not quite us,’ notes to give me enough self-belief to keep going. Finally…an email that didn’t come with that inevitable BUT. It had an AND. AND we want to publish your book. Unexpected. Expected…maybe, because I know I can do this…but never quite believed. So…here I am. At the age of 42, I can finally say I know what I want to do when I grow up, and that I am doing it. Details of the book to come…still working through the business end of the deal. I may never make enough money at it to give up the day job, but who knows… Now I can keep going. I am so glad I never listened to the normal people.

In the Rough: Taking it Slow on Scotland’s Wild West Coast


Lonely Planet has rated Scotland as one of the top three countries in the world to visit in 2014. (see http://www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-tips-and-articles/lonely-planets-best-in-travel-2014-top-10-countries). Between the Commonwealth Games, which take place in Glasgow next summer and next September’s independence referendum, there is no doubt that 2014 will be an exiting year for visitors and possibly a life-changing one all who live here. But what I love best about Scotland are its quiet fringes, where some of the best events have been crafted by the glacial forces of nature and time.

Drive about three hours north and west of Scotland’s post-industrial central belt and you find yourself in a watercolour landscape which seems to have been crumpled by the hands of a giant, spread out, crumpled again and torn into long, wrinkled fringes. Between the relative metropolises of Oban, Fort William and Mallaig is an area sometimes referred to as The Rough Bounds: a set of peninsulas separated by deep lochs and so tangentially linked to the mainland that they are nearly as remote as the Hebridean islands to the west.

Travelling with young children has always felt like a balancing act between excitement and frustration: the vicarious joy of their first experiences can, I have to admit, be tempered by impatience to escape buggy-friendly paths and toddler-friendly eating establishments. Travelling in Scotland with young children adds a further dimension: the inevitable challenge of finding things to do when the rain comes hammering down.

At eleven and six, after years of being coaxed, cajoled, dragged and sometimes carried through woods, along beaches and up hills, my kids have at last become outdoor people. They mountain bike, swim in the sea, scramble up rock faces, hike like troopers and don’t melt in the rain. So for the mid-term break this October, we loaded up our little Skoda with four mountain bikes, boots, woollies, waterproofs and food and headed for the Rough Bounds.

Our destination: Moidart, a land of ancient gnarled woodlands, silvery beaches and bubbling rivers, about thirty miles west of Fort William. Take the Rathad nan Eilean—the Road to the Isles—to Lochailort and turn south.  Our home for the week was a self-catering apartment at Kinlochmoidart House: a classic example of a Scots Baronial-style Victorian estate home, complete with characteristic turrets and crennellated rooflines, tucked below the hills at the head of Loch Moidart.  This being the rutting season, small groups of red deer had gathered in the fields around the estate, the stags strutting and bellowing and butting heads well into the night.

Our accommodation, The Turret, was once part of the servants’ wing and boasted quirky period features including a walk-in larder in the kitchen, Victorian wall tiles in the dining room, oversized bathtub (brilliant for slipping into steaming peat-stained water after a day of tromping in the hills) and a hidden doorway (now leading to the next-door apartment) in the hallway. It was well equipped with everything you need for a week, including a large and diverse library of books, games, television and DVD player, and plenty of wood and coal for the fireplace in the living room. There are electric radiators in all rooms, though these are not particularly efficient and the tiled hall floor is cold underfoot: slippers and cozy clothes for evening lounging with a bottle of wine or a malt whisky are a must!

But you don’t visit the West Highlands to sit in the house, no matter how palatial. Mid-October brings the peak of autumnal colour and often some of the best weather of the year. It is one of the best places in Britain for outdoor activities, space, solitude and that all-too-rare sense of wildness.

Cycling along Glen MoidartCycling: The single track road leading up Glen Moidart is excellent for cycling, up along the river to where the pavement ends and the dirt track leads steeply uphill. This is perfectly accessible for mountain bikes and leads further through the glen to a small hydro-electric station fed by a reservoir amongst the hills above. Spend some time scrambling around the hillsides, looking back out over the glen and keeping an eye out for golden eagles, red deer and other wildlife. Moidart has countless quiet little single-track roads like ribbons over the moorland, all good for cycling. If you have mountain bikes, try the dirt track from Arivegaig, along the shores of Kentra Bay, where we saw a sea eagle being run out of town by an angry mob of gulls, and up through the woods to The Singing Sands.

Walking: there is no better way to absorb a landscape than to walk through it. There are literally dozens of walks to meet all tastes and energy levels: from the boggy hillsides of Ben Resipole to Tolkein-esque rambles through oak and birch groves which are some of the last remnants of the temperate rainforests which used to fringe much of Atlantic Europe. The views change with every step. Round a corner and the islands open out in front of you, the mountains of Eigg, Rum and Skye puncturing the horizon. The Silver Walk from Dorlin Beach is a spectacular coastal scramble through woodlands, hugging the shore of Loch Moidart. Look out for sea eagles gliding between the tops of the high trees on the little islands opposite the path.

Castle Tioram on the shores of Loch Moidart

Another lovely walk starts at Polnish on the A-830 between Lochailort and Arisaig: a well made but somewhat muddy path through woods and over stony hillsides of the Ardnish peninsula to the ruined village of Penmeanach. The village was abandoned by its residents in 1940, but a stroll amongst the little stone walls, now overgrown with brambles, evokes a life now difficult to imagine. One cottage has been maintained as a bothy, and is a popular overnight stop for walkers and kayakers.

Shell sand beach, GlenuigBeaches. On a warm sunny day at Glenuig or Dorlin or the Singing Sands at Kentra, you would be forgiven for thinking you’d washed up somewhere in the Carribean.  White shell sand and water that is so clear you can look down into it from a hillside above and watch fish swimming, seals, the occasional otter or in summer months the massive shadow of a basking shark with its gaping (toothless) mouth. The beach at Dorlin is overlooked by Castle Tioram, the ancient seat of the MacDonald clan, brooding on its own tidal island which you can walk onto when the tide is out.  A bit further north, toward Morar, is Camusdarach beach, made famous as ‘Ben’s Beach’ in the classic film Local Hero.

Wildlife. There is wildlife hide at Garbh Eilean on the shore of Loch Sunart. We visited twice and watched Common Seals leaping out of the water, apparently for the pure joy of being alive in such a place. We saw herons fishing and flapping amongst the trees, and then a sea eagle swoop down from the high hillsides to check them out. Otters are seen here regularly, though we were not lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one this time. Look out for a little curved back followed by a long tale swishing in the water. To see a wild otter is a moment of pure, delightful magic.

Sea Kayaking. This land of broken shorelines, sheltered bays, secret beaches and shimmering water seems to have been made especially for the kayak.  For those without their own boats, try the Arisaig Sea Kayak Centre.

Day trips. Catch the ferry from Kilchoan in Ardnamurchan to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. Have lunch at the Fish Cafe just next to the Mull ferry terminal: recognised as one of the best seafood restaurants in the UK. Langoustine and Cullen skink to die for. Tool around the Ardnamurchan peninsula: the most westerly point on the British mainland. The lighthouse right at Ardnamurchan Point is a massive pillar of tawny granite designed by Allan Stevenson, uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson, in 1849. If you are of a romantic frame of mind, climb down the rocks toward the crashing sea and watch the sun set over the islands. On a clear day you can see the hills of Harris rising from the sea far to the west. The hills of Eigg and Rum from Ardnamurchan

Local food. If your perfect holiday includes endless culinary choice within walking distance, the Rough Bounds are not the place for you. But the local seafood—once so difficult to buy in Scotland because it was almost all exported as a matter of course—is increasingly available and as fresh as it comes. The langoustines, scallops, mussels, smoked salmon are all on offer at a variety of pubs dotted between Mallaig and Mull. We ate at the Glenuig Hotel, which prides itself as one of Britain’s greenest inns and serves a small but good quality menu featuring local produce. The smoked mussels were delicious, and the venison burgers were tender, tasty and presented with a lovely pile of salad and potato wedges. The hotel is situated on a lovely little tidal inlet, just a short wander from yet another white sand beach. It has a beer garden for the mild days and a wood burning stove inside for those days when additional coziness is required. Mallaig offers a little more choice. We kept with the traditional option: haddock and chips from Jaffy’s Seafood Shop, and in my book they rivalled the best I have had anywhere.

The fabric that holds this region together is the land itself: the playful arrangement of mountains, water, forest, green fields and moorland, painted in so many shades of what I always think of as the colours of Scotland itself: russets, blues, purples and greens. The light and the clouds are restless and delicate, and so affect the look of the landscape that you can never look at the same view twice. Move slowly through this place, breathe its air into your lungs and take time to watch the light change over the land. This is a place where the headlong rush of life stops and you can just be for a little while. Look around. There is so much to see.

Some essentials:

Transport. They say everywhere is within walking distance if you have enough time, but in the Rough Bounds, your own wheels certainly help. You can travel to Lochailort, Arisaig, Morar and Mallaig by train, and there are minimal public bus services, some connecting with ferries, throughout the Rough Bounds and surrounding islands.

Maps. Invest in Ordinance Survey maps of the area and investigate paths and walks. Walkhighlands.co.uk is my favourite website for walks all over Scotland, and there you can print maps, routes and tips for transport and local amenities

Shopping. Fort William is well equipped and there are smaller shops in Arisaig and Mallaig. Acharacle, the largest village in Moidart, has a small shop which can provide you with most essentials. There is an even smaller community-run shop in Glenuig. But don’t run out of toilet paper at eleven o’clock at night and expect a 24-hour supermarket to come to your rescue! A little forward planning goes a long way.

Get out in it. The West Highlands have weather in abundance. It is the weather that produces some of the most glorious skies and landscapes on Earth. If it rains, snows, blows or shines, get out in it. As Sir Rannulph Fiennes so eloquently put it: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” 

A prayer for America

Newtown, Connecticut, December 14 2012. Another terribly ill and angry person with an armoury of guns. Another day in America. Even from the relative safety of the other side of the Atlantic, I am still all too capable of imagining a man spraying bullets into my daughter’s primary one class, killing every single child and their beautiful young teacher. An old high school friend wrote on Facebook about her fear that it could be her children’s school next. It could be any school in America. As a mother, that kind of fear doesn’t bear thinking about.As an American, albeit one who has been outside looking in for eighteen years and a bit, I do think about it. Like most Americans, I wonder why these shootings happen with such frequency. I wonder why a country which prides itself so intensely on its democratic freedoms and the rights it guarantees its citizens, and which holds up its dreams and ethics like beacons for the rest of the world to aspire to, tolerates these horrific events.  I wonder how we can finance seemingly endless wars to combat extremism elsewhere in the world but foster it so unquestioningly within our own communities.

The almost total lack of gun control is the most obvious part of the problem; I have no problem nailing my colours to that mast. No citizen should be able to walk into a store and buy weapons designed for war. Designed for, to use a scary little euphemism, ‘clearance work’. How can anyone feel safe or free knowing that their neighbours are in possession of such things? I despair for my American friends who understand this, and also for those who don’t.

But I also think guns are symptoms of a bigger and thornier issue: power. There is something in the American cultural discourse which is obsessed with power: horsepower, buying power, media power, electronic power, firepower. The trouble is, in the most powerful nation on earth, there are an awful lot of powerless people. Six and seven year old children, yes, but the powerless also include people with mental health problems and long term health conditions, who don’t receive decent care because it doesn’t exist or because they have no insurance to pay for it. The powerless include people who are unemployed or on very low incomes, caught in the poverty trap. The powerless include soldiers who have been chewed up and spat out by war and left alone to piece themselves back together. The powerless include those who, due to the circumstances of birth or bad luck, will only ever be able to look on and wish they had what others have.

That kind of inequality is the real killer, and is even more entrenched and pervasive in America than guns and those who use them. Those with power care very little for those without. Too many people in power don’t listen to cries for help. So some of those who feel a lot more powerless than they actually are lose faith in democratic means of effecting change and begin to arm themselves. The gun lobby preys on this loss of faith; in the name of American freedom, it inspires people to prepare for the breakdown of American democracy.

So many people have offered prayers for those who died in Newtown and all the other places where mass shootings have occurred. It is a genuine expression of solidarity and of sympathy. But I wonder- and by this I mean no insult to my friends who are believers- if whether this turn to prayer also a search for power. Maybe people pray because they feel they have no other meaningful power to change things for the better.

The solutions to these problems lie down here on earth. One day they might be found in rational discussion and genuine commitment to understanding people who scare us or whose views our different from ours. They might be found in giving a genuine helping hand to people who are ill and angry and disillusioned. They might be found in accepting that the Founding Fathers were not thinking of semi-automatic handguns when they wrote the Second Amendment. They might be found in sharing out the power a little bit more. They might also be found in stepping outside the entrenched debates and the nets of power, and trying to look at things from a broader perspective.

So after Newtown, I will offer only a single prayer for America. It’s to no god in particular, and it’s not even in my own words. It was written by Robert Burns, the Scottish poet who understood a lot more than I do about power:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

Mrs Happy

Just because it’s good to remind myself sometimes, here are some ordinary everyday things that make me happy:

Walking up a hill/through the woods/on a beach/away from it all

Cooking for my family

Weather. Pretty much any weather except sideways sleet.

Singing harmonies

Wearing flipflops

Big waves

Soft snow

Catching up with old friends and realising they haven’t changed in 20 years

When my kids voluntarily hold my hands in public

The smell of gorse blossoms and pine trees

Having a good man around the house

Picking vegetables from my garden

Meeting people who are genuinely but not obnoxiously eccentric

The first sip of coffee in the morning


Music most people think of as weird hillbilly shit

A pile of muddy boots by the door

Never having watched a full episode of the X Factor or I’m a Celebrity…

Having a house full of kids who are playing happily without anything involving electronics or batteries

Finding a funky bit of clothing in a charity shop, and it fits

Watching a good game of rugby

Splattering through mud on my bike and getting some on my face

My neighbour’s cat, Felix, who purrs whenever I pick him up

That little rush of excitement at the start of a movie you really want to see

A bath before bed

Driving my little Skoda on a country road

Seeing a really cool bird, like an owl or a dipper

Book shops

Feeling really knackered after a good run/swim/hike

Reading something I’ve written and liking it

A group hug with Claire, Eileen, Elaine, Sylvia and Karine

Leaving work at the end of the day

Looking back over my long list, and realising there are a lot more things I could still put on there.

5 Reasons for Marching

30 November 2011. The largest single day of industrial action the United Kingdom has seen since the 1970s. I was on strike, as were school and nursery, so the kids and I went into Edinburgh to take part in the march to the Parliament at Holyrood.

The government has suggested this strike is the work of militants and old-school class warriors- and of course there were some of those there, along with the new-school class warriors of the Occupy movement– but they were very much in the minority as we made our way down the Royal Mile. The people in the streets of Edinburgh were head teachers, who have never voted to strike before in the history of their union, university lecturers, nurses, care workers, museum workers, court staff, local government workers and managers alike. I’m guessing at least 65% of us were women. Some very well paid, some very low, most probably about average.

The lack of informed discussion in the media and in the chambers of government is frustrating. The ease with which public sector workers have been demonised for the failings of bankers and politicians of all parties–is infuriating. The failure of the chattering classes to demand a more intelligent debate is typical.

So all we can do is try to articulate our own reasons for lining up behind the union banner. These are mine.

1) Pensions. The issue at the heart of the dispute but possibly only the last of many  straws. The argument is that if you live longer, you should expect to work longer. Well, okay…provided you are healthy. A great many people are not, at 67. And what if you’re not fit enough to do your job? You leave work (because it’s pretty bloody hard to find alternative employment in your 60s, ask anyone who has tried it) and go onto benefits? Public spending goes up instead of down. And the move to the career-average earning from the final salary scheme…God help you if you’ve chosen to work part time for even a relatively short chunk of your career to be an active rather than an absent parent.

2) These pension cuts will affect women more severely, and in far greater numbers, than they will men. This is a reversal of the Equal Pay movement by the back door.

3) Public sector pensions are still better than private sector ones. Well…yes, at the moment. Folks in the private sector have it rough these days as well. (Some of them. The bankers still have it pretty good.) So what? I don’t want the people who are teaching my children, patrolling my streets or looking after me in hospital to be so demoralised, angry and worried about poverty that they can’t do their jobs well.

4) We public sector workers are taxpayers too. In some parts of this country, we amount to the MAJORITY of the working, tax-paying population. If you push us into poverty- either through pay caps in a time of of ever-rising inflation, job cuts or pension cuts, you cut your tax income. Which leads us on to…

5. The Paradox of Thrift. Cutting too hard too fast at a time of high inflation and high unemployment is very likely to increase public debt over both the short and longer term, rather than reduce it. Even the IMF says so.

These were just a few of the things going through my head as I waved my Unison flag today, and as I read some of the more reactionary newspaper commentary and Facebook posts afterwards. I’ve been reading a lot of economics articles and research these days- intellectually, I am reassured that there is evidence to back up what I believe in my core to be correct. It felt correct to be part of that torrent of bodies flowing down the ancient Old Town street. It feels correct that Jamie and Susanna now understand what a strike is, what it’s like to march and sing and raise their voices, what a union is (or at least should be) and what a picket line is. For their sakes, I hope they never have to stand on one for more than a single day.

Quiet complicity

I stirred up some hornets at work today.

My employer, like so many now in the public sector, is bringing in a new system for assessing the performance of staff. For better or worse, annual incremental pay rises will now be linked to performance. This morning I had my first look at the bit of paper which will form the basis of employees’ annual appraisal, and there in hard black print, are the following words:

If no increment is being awarded please select the reason below: Minimum time not met – Maternity  leave 

I sat there blinking at this for a moment, then popped my head up above the computer screen and said, “Hey guys, have you read this?  This can’t be right.”

“Rebecca,” my colleague asked me with a sly grin, “do you have something to tell us?”

“No, I most certainly do not. I am not pregnant and have no plans to be ever again.” I felt my voice rising and cheeks flushing. “That’s not the point.”

The point is that to deny someone the chance of a pay increase because they have taken the maternity leave to which they have a right is, in my mind, quite certainly illegal under UK Equalities legislation. There is no reference to paternity leave or any other type of family leave which might be taken by either a mother or a father. Only maternity leave. Only leave taken by women.

“I’m raising a complaint about this.”

And my colleagues’ heads disappeared quickly behind their own computers, eager perhaps to dissociate themselves from the rebel in the corner.  “Ooh,” said one, like she was trying not to laugh, “good luck with that.”

To give my employer the benefit of the doubt, this is a careless oversight rather than a blatantly discriminatory move against women. I certainly hope so, anyway. And I hope they are willing to rewrite this without any kind of protracted argument. But all day I’ve been riding a wave of indignation, partly at the words on the form but also at the failure of some of my colleagues– my FEMALE colleagues–to display the same anger that had so overwhelmed me. Why didn’t their jaws hit the desk the way mine did?

And I can’t help but think that it’s because we have become so afraid, as employees and as a society, to speak up against the injustices that are done to us by those in power that we pretend we don’t see them. We are going to wake up one day soon and find that all the things our grandmothers and grandfathers fought and sometimes died for are gone. Things like equality and fair pay and workers’ rights. We don’t speak up because we’ve swallowed a myth. The myth is that you can always achieve more. You can always improve. With right attitude and the right gadgets you can always please more people with less money, less time, less medicine, less service, more more more for less less less. You can split yourself into ever tinier bits so that you can do right by your boss, your customers, your children, your partner, your 1,752 Facebook friends, your dog, your cat, and last but of course not least yourself, all at the same time. You can have continuous economic growth without some fundamentals eventually drying up and breaking down. Over the last day or so, I’ve heard a lot of people saying that Steve Jobs made the world a better place. Without denying the genius of the man and his inventions- one of which I am now typing on- I have to wonder: did he really? Is the world really a better place because you can take all your work home with you on your iPhone?

To be quiet in the face of overt injustice is to be complicit in it, so goes the saying. A voice in my head tells me I shouldn’t publish this particular blog. I could get hauled over the coals for this. Another, stronger voice, which sounds curiously like that of my dear late grandmother Lucy- who never learned to bite her tongue-tells me I have to.


So speaking of turtles and the things that hold you up… My grandmother Lucy died last week. She had a certain force about her, something commanding and elemental, like gravity. Something that let you know that she was the centre of her own particular universe. I am just a little fragment thrown out there into space. My orbit takes me far away sometimes, but never so far as to be beyond her reach.

Sometimes, I have to admit, her glare was too bright for me. Her opinions, unfiltered as they mostly always were, could burn and her wisdom was best absorbed in small doses. She taught me that a grandmother’s love can be critical, as she corrected my pronunciation (she so preferred rounded East Coast vowels to my flat western tones), my use of cutlery or the way I brushed my hair. She taught me that you can’t hide anything from your family- most memorably by unearthing an illicit bottle of vodka in the process of cleaning out my closet when I was in high school (I should have known better- she always cleaned out my closet when she visited).

She taught me how to find my contrary streak…after all, I think I inherited it from her. She taught me a lot of other things too…fundamental rules for life. Commandments without the God part. You can’t argue with them, because they are as truthful as the sun. Here are some:

•                Christmas presents are more gratifying after breakfast….after the dishes have been washed, dried, put away…and then one at a time, so that that unwrapping becomes a gruelling, day-long ritual which does justice to the money and effort expended in buying them and wrapping them in the first place.

•                Spices should be stored in alphabetical order.

•                A Dustbuster is a household essential.

•                Never, NEVER cross a picket line.

•                A woman’s handbag should always contain chewing gum, a little notepad and pen, and a perfumed handkerchief.

•                To play Scrabble- but not well enough to beat her.

•                That it is almost impossible to like someone whose political views are very different to your own.

•                That you should always make sure your floors are clean before going away on a trip.

Lucy– Lux–the star at the centre of our little world, she casts a very bright light which will shine for a long time. My orbit will always be shaped by her force. Every time I find myself sweeping the floor while the family waits impatiently in the car for me, and every time I correct Jamie when he says “I done it” instead of “I did it”, and when I walk out on strike, as we most likely will this winter in protest against the public spending cuts in the UK, I will think of her and smile and know she has made me what I am.