Into the darkness..

We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.

The words of the inspirational Martin Luther King seem a little hollow this bleak November morning.

2016 has not been a year to celebrate for me or for many of my like-minded relatives, friends and acquaintances.

The result of the US presidential election sets the tin lid on what has been a quite dreadful 12 months.

Intolerance, racism, bigotry, outright misogyny and small-minded nationalism have become the political norm on both sides of the Atlantic.

I can find few positives to take from Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, from America’s decision to elect Donald Trump ahead of the competent, experienced Hillary Clinton or from the general move of political culture to the right across much of Europe (what price Marine Le Pen and her fascist Front National sweeping France’s presidential elections next year?).

I’m tired of hearing how these votes are how the great unlistened to, the uncared for, the ignored are finally telling political elites they’ve had enough.

This is a failure not only of political leadership but of education and aspiration.

These are not votes for change, not votes to rip up the establishment and install a new more equitable order.

These are votes for a past we can never return to. The howl of anguish from mainly white men at an industrial and social world that has changed and evolved to mean much of their autonomy and power has been shared around with women and minorities of all hues.

Angry men – and women, it has to be said – who want to tear down the society they no longer control without any clue as to what horror might replace it.

Well, the rest of us are not going anywhere. Women, minorities of sexuality, ethnicity and religion. We’re here to stay. And the rights so ferociously fought for over decades will not be surrendered.

For those of us who believe in civil rights and equality for all, things have never looked more bleak.

But from the darkness must come light. It’s hard to find any hope in this most desperate of days, but find hope we must.

Again in the words of Dr Martin Luther King:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.

And I’m trying to find some inspiration in the words of JFk, one US president the world didn’t recoil in horror from:

One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.

How Brexit has freed the Tories to remodel the UK as anti-immigration – and why that can’t be allowed

The first tweet above was me on Sunday.

The second was me yesterday.

The third was me today after RTing a whole host of ever-more incredulous tweets on the insane direction in which the Government is now taking the entire nation to prove that “Brexit means Brexit.”

I have temporarily stopped punching myself in the face to have a furious shout at both telly and t’internet about just how mental this whole thing has become.

And while I didn’t intend to write about this whole debacle, here goes.

Between Brexit Minister David Davis telling us it’ll all be our own fault if Brexit is a disaster, the disgraced Cabinet Minister Dr Liam Fox deriding the UK’s business bosses as fat and lazy and his own Department for International Trade saying it’ll all be fine because the French want our jam, you’d be entirely right to think this government has completely lost its collective minds.

But the true nub of the matter has been laid bare by the speeches and interviews coming out of Hades – sorry, the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham.

Because no matter how much they pretend that it really wasn’t about immigration, it really is all about immigration.

That most slender of Vote Leave victories – remember, 52-48 percent on a turnout of 71.8 percent or 33 million voters – has been spun into a mandate to pull up the drawbridge and declare Britain not only Brexited but damn well closed.

So non-UK medics in the NHS are told they’ll be offski as soon as we train enough doctors to replace them. Which will be 2025. Or when hell freezes over, whichever comes sooner.

The loathesome and tiresome Andrea Leadsom says British teenagers can become apprentices in fruit picking to replace the 67,000 seasonal workers the agricultural industry needs annually, most of whom come from the EU for the season then go home again.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd threatens to jail landlords who rent to illegal immigrants while scaring away the foreign students upon whom our universities depend for their funding.

The hateful, anti-migrant rhetoric of Farage and his fellow travellers has become official government policy overnight.

Meanwhile, the Twitter account of the leader of the official opposition has had this to say on a day that’s seen the UK take an almost unalterable lurch to the right:

Vote Leave won a single non-binding referendum.

The Tories won a general election with the slimmest of Commons majorities.

Neither of those events gives the current Government a mandate to introduce policies and negotiate a way out of the EU that impoverishes the UK financially, culturally, morally and emotionally.

Immigration is not out of control in the UK. The way too many people react to immigration is out of control.

So, before Article 50 is triggered…

Before another half-baked anti-immigration policy is announced…

Before we reach a point of no return that destroys the social fabric of the UK, we need a general election that allows all of us a vote that might stop us falling off a very big cliff.

Because the alternative looks very bleak from here.

Edited to add this, written 70 years ago yet still so relevant. We really never ever learn, do we?

He ain’t heavy, he’s a Brownlee

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I’m not the only one who welled up at the marvellous sight of Olympic triathlon champion Alistair Brownlee helping his “wobbly” brother Jonny over the line after the latter almost collapsed metres from the finishing line of a triathlon in Mexico at the weekend.

If ever there was an example of both brotherly love and fantastic sportsmanship, it was summed up in the image of a clearly disorientated Jonny with his arm firmly around big brother’s arm neck guiding him home.

But for me the aftermath was even better when the bantering brothers – whose talent and skill levels at a sport that saps both physical and emotional strength defy belief – downplayed events with such humour and affection that it made me actually laugh out loud.

Anyone who has a brother or sister will know that sibling rivalry is real.

Every time you’re good at something or something good happens to you, the person or persons guaranteed to bring you straight back down to earth with a snide remark or, worse, a dead arm, is your nearest and dearest.

And you return the favour – with bells on.

Woe betide anyone else doing something similar, though. That’s when that familial solidarity, honed by years of fighting each other but uniting against mum and dad or any other common foe, kicks in.

The Brownlee brothers are extraordinary athletes. Olympic champions. World champions. And they’re competing in the same event, big brother vs. wee brother.

What keeps their competitive natures from spilling over into animosity or resentment is the sibling bond shown up so vividly in that post-event interview: “Flippin’ idiot” said Alistair of Jonny.

That clip of Alistair hauling Jonny to his feet and virtually dragging him over the line should be shown on a loop to this jaded, cynical nation of ours until we finally accept and embrace that every so often we all need someone’s arm around our shoulder.

Dear teenage me, stop being such a feartie

Inspired by some of my old colleagues, who were in turn inspired by Victoria Beckham, I’ve penned a letter to my 18-year-old self.

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Me at 18 – this is the only pic I can find without going up the loft. Honest

Hi Frances

The nicknames will come, I promise, but sadly no one will ever embrace Frankie. More on that later.

Right now you’re an incredibly naive 18-year-old who is about to start college and embark on a career in newspapers. You haven’t got a single clue, but that’s ok. Neither does anyone else in your class. And you don’t know it now, but you’re about to make one of the most significant and long-lasting friendships of your life.

You chose journalism because you have a passion for writing, but somewhere along the way you’ll lose sight of that because words will become your trade, not your inspiration. Fortunately, there’s this incredible new invention coming along called the Internet and you’ll rediscover your writing mojo. Embrace it.

You’ll eventually lose the naivety. That bit won’t be pretty, but you’re more emotionally mature than you give yourself credit for. And you’ll always have humour to get you through the worst days.

Oh yeah, on humour – sometimes, no matter how funny you think you’re being, you should know when to shut the eff up. Timing is everything.

You’re not fat. Honestly, you’re not. You’re a wee bit plump. Try not to be quite so self-conscious – eventually communal changing rooms will die and you’ll be able to strip down to your scants without worrying about a judgmental audience tutting.

The chest region is, however, over-endowed and that’s never going to change so get measured properly for a bra much earlier than your 30s (!) and never ever skimp on well-upholstered lingerie.

Most of all, you’ll stop being afraid. Afraid of change, afraid of being on your own in the flat at night, afraid of being embarrassed, afraid to move away, afraid of a new job, afraid afraid afraid.

You will have a good career and be sensible – eventually – about your finances and mortgages and stuff. Then it will all go to glorious pot in your 40s but that will be even better because you will have stopped being so bloody scared of life.

Most of all, you’ll stop being scared of who you really are. You’ve always known you are a lesbian, but the very idea of even saying that word out loud has turned you into a bit of a baby bigot. Making snide remarks about other women/girls who might or might not be gay is not cool. You’ll learn that the hard way. So stop it now.

But when you do finally accept that everything – fun, joy, passion, love – is passing you by because you are living only half a life, you will be free. And you’ll get horribly hurt and do some horrible hurting of your own and all of it will be worth every miserable, splendid, unforgettable second because you’ll be yourself.

Appreciate your parents much more than you do – they are magnificent and you’ll only realise how magnificent when it’s a little too late.

Most of all, know that nothing in life is ever set in stone. No job, no relationship. Change will become something you embrace, not evade. And when the greatest change of all comes along, it will be because of the promise of all-encompassing love.

Grab that change with both hands. It will be the best thing that ever happens to you.

Enjoy the ride, Frankie. Okay, maybe that’s a nickname just for me and you.

________

Debbie also penned a letter to her 18-year-old self. Unfortunately, we don’t have a pic of her from that time… yet.

Dear Debbie,

You’re 18, what do you know? Actually you know a lot! You know that you value people above objects, you know that you want to make things better for everyone, and you’re already hoping that there’s a certain someone for you.

You’ll spend years having fun, taking wrong turns, trying to make up for mistakes that weren’t yours in the first place, and even when you’re having the best fun ever, you’ll worry that you’re not good enough.

Know three things:

Everyone round you will have more qualifications/degrees than you but you know as least as much as everyone else

Fighting for equality is never a lost cause – there will be rewards in the most unexpected places.

And hold on to the fact that the love of your life will find you and make you feel more happy and complete than you can ever imagine – at the exact point that you are able to accept that you are worthy of the happiness she offers.

The media we deserve? Scots have a right to better

Several media-related items have caught my eye over the last couple of days – and not always for the right reasons.

The media has changed dramatically since I got my first job as a junior reporter on a local newspaper back in 1984.

How news is delivered, how readers access it and the 24-hour all-consuming news cycle available at the flick of a thumb is a world away from this cub reporter nervously clutching her notepad and hoping her Teeline shorthand was literally up to speed for a job on a weekly paper.

The long decline of Britain’s print media over the last two decades has been well documented. The necessarily slower process of producing a print publication means it’s impossible to provide something as immediate as that breaking news bar on 24-hour news or instant flashing updates on a phone or tablet.

But I have always thought there is still a place for newspapers, particularly local newspapers that are often talismanic in their own communities.

Like this arresting page in Brighton’s Argus on Saturday, skewering the lack of government response to the shambles that is Southern Railway.

Anyone unfortunate enough to have to travel on this godforsaken service (including my missus who pays an eyewatering £3k annually for the “privilege”) will know full well the frustration and inconvenience caused by months of ongoing disputes between the company and its staff.

The Argus is attempting to do what all good local newspapers should do – get the views of all sides in an issue of crucial importance to local people and businesses (the unreliable rail service is playing havoc with Brighton’s economy during its boom summer months) and then asked the politicians in charge what they are going to do about it.

The failure of the new Transport Secretary Chris Grayling or any of his junior ministers even to bother replying to the newspaper was lampooned mercilessly with a blank page and an excoriating editorial. That’s good local journalism.

As is this “spiked” piece from the Leicester Mercury earlier this year. Written by one of its award-winning columnists, the article savagely criticises the paper’s own management for their attitude to online content and their reliance on “clickbait” and irritating mobile ads to drive traffic to the paper’s website.

The piece didn’t make it into print because, while it’s not often that editors spike a columnist’s offering, most editors have a healthy sense of self-preservation and are unlikely to indulge such an attack on their bosses.

But kudos to Lee Marlow – now let go by the Mercury, of course – for having the balls to say what most folks working in newspapers actually think about how their products are being managed.

Which brings me to the sad case of Glasgow’s Evening Times, which has been – along with its sister papers, the Herald and Sunday Herald – decimated by job losses in editorial over the last decade and a half.

The lack of the most senior and experienced journalists is the only explanation I can find for the appalling absence of editorial judgment in this article (one among many I could point to).

I am not going to get into the whole story of how Rangers FC imploded in 2012 and were – depending on your affiliation – liquidated, relegated, demoted, re-born, whatever.

Instead I want to focus on the insulting, disgraceful and blatantly untrue statement that, minus a Rangers in Scotland’s top flight of football, the game itself was “phoney” – that is, bogus and therefore any titles and cups won were without merit.

That sort of cheerleading and biased content (complete with missing apostrophe on “let’s”) can be found on a thousand fan blogs, messageboards and fanzines – where it belongs.

Not in a newspaper that purports to have a shred of credibility.

Sports pages have always been partisan, blowing the trumpets of individuals and teams within their circulation area. The old joke about the Scottish football writers following our beleagured national team when they actually won the odd game or two was that they were “fans with typewriters”, something that could fairly be levelled at England’s newspapers these days.

But the old school journos were never afraid to dish out criticism where it was warranted and still manage to maintain friendly and positive working relationships with players and managers.

No one would have been likely to stand accused of being no better than a fanzine writer.

Away from Scotland’s print media, the lack of credibility and complete absence of impartiality stretches to BBC Scotland’s sports department.

Why else would this nonsense have appeared on its website after Joey Barton – a footballer more famous for what he does off the pitch – made his Scottish league debut for Rangers on Saturday? No wonder there was no byline to reveal which writer had to humiliate him or herself creating such bilge.

And, of course, it was Sportsound, BBC Scotland’s flagship sports programme, that once hosted the most infamous verbal punch-up ever between two of its own journalists on which one was the biggest Rangers fan. Laughable as that clip is, it’s not even vaguely funny.

There has been much talk in Scotland of a “Scottish Six” – a BBC Scotland-produced and presented Six O’Clock News that will better reflect the “national” news as it relates to Scotland. 

The ability to hold those in power to account is the most essential part of journalism. Local newspapers should reflect every part of their community. The BBC has a duty to be impartial and to represent all licence-fee payers.

The Argus demonstrated its side of the bargain on Saturday. What price anyone at the Evening Times or BBC Scotland’s sports department doing the same any time soon?

PS I have huge sympathy for everyone still working in newspapers, particularly my old colleagues at several Scottish publications. It’s a bloody hard job and often thankless, too. But the sort of content I’ve highlighted here is insulting not only to readers but also to those who commission it and those who write it. Just as well my days in newspapers are done, though… #unemployable

Labour – a party still worth saving? The answer has to be yes

Yesterday I broke the habit of a lifetime and joined a political party.

I handed over £25 to become a registered supporter of the Labour Party so I can vote in the upcoming leadership election and try to restore some order to the party and provide genuine opposition to parliamentary politics in the UK.

I spent the first 27 years of my working life as a journalist. Call me old-fashioned, but I never thought it appropriate or savvy for anyone working in the media to be a member of a political party, any political party, because hostages to fortune and all that.

Times have changed – boy, have they ever.

Disclosure: In my voting lifetime, I have voted Labour, Green, independent, hell even SNP on one occasion that still brings me out in hives. However, I haven’t put my cross beside the Labour party since the 2001 general election. The war in Iraq and the blatant disregard for the overwhelming public opposition finished me with Labour.

Until now.

I was 14 when Thatcher’s Conservatives came to power. It took 18 long, long years to unseat the party that considers itself the natural rulers of Britain.

The Blair years have been dissected in enough detail everywhere else. Suffice to say, there are a whole lot of good things – a whole lot of poverty elimination, a whole lot of equality giving, a whole lot of equitable redistribution through tax credits etc – that put plenty in the plus side to try and balance the dreadful deficit that is Iraq.

I don’t want – nor do I have time – to wait out another generation of Tory rule while the Labour party destroys itself from top to bottom, left to right and every nook and cranny in between in a factional war.

The EU Leave vote still devastates me a month on. I want, need, demand a coherent, strong opposition in parliament to hold the government to account on every single decision, every step they take toward Brexit and toward whatever economic calamity they are going to visit upon ordinary people.

Endless protests in Parliament Square won’t achieve that.

So, having bitched and moaned and, yes, even cried, yesterday I swallowed hard, got out my bank card and joined the Labour Party. If you have £25 and you care about democracy and stopping the onset of one-party rule in the UK*, I hope you can do the same.

Right now I know next to nothing about Owen Smith, who is challenging Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership, aside from the fact that he‘s against Brexit and pro a second EU referendum – which does endear him to this committed europhile.

Smith has about six weeks to convince me and thousands of others he has coherent and workable policies that appeal to a broad swathe of voters, that he has the backing of the parliamentary party, members and activists, and that he’s serious about both opposing the current government vehemently and actually winning power to put his own policies into action.

It’s a big ask. I hope he’s up to the job because the alternative under the frankly hapless Corbyn is a continuation of the all talk, not action that means nothing to those of us who want a credible opposition and those who desperately need that opposition.

Because otherwise we’re looking at the next decade of this…

 

*I realise many of my friends and families have zero interest in the future of the UK because their focus is on an independent Scotland. This is for those of us for whom that is not an option.

 

Caroline Aherne – the queen of comedy we’ll miss forever

2016 has been a truly awful year and today it just got a whole lot worse with the dreadfully sad news that Caroline Aherne has died at the age of 52.

There will rightly be acres of tributes to a woman who can genuinely be called a comedy genius.

The Fast Show and Mrs Merton made her name, but it was The Royle Family – written with the equally brilliant Craig Cash – that cemented her reputation for comedic inventiveness and innovation.

A family of legendary sloth sit on their grotty couch in a smoke-filled living-room, watching crap telly shows and nipping at each other.

You couldn’t even really call it a sitcom because not much ever happened. And so no one quite knew what to make of it when it first turned up on our screens in 1998.

Plenty of folks hated it for what they perceived to be crudity, for its glorification of laziness, for its lack of action.

To me, they missed the point.

The Royle Family was nothing more than a joyful and affectionate tribute to the minituae of British working-class family life, already long gone by the time it first aired in the late 90s.

We laughed because we recognised ourselves and our loved ones in the characters, in their interactions with each other, in the tiny, daft frictions and affections of family life, in all their flawed and faltering attempts at getting on with things when dealt a pretty shit hand in life.

Caroline and Craig’s writing was always near the knuckle but never malicious; bitingly funny but never cruel; acerbic but always affectionate. These were her people, she came from them and she loved them – and by extension, she loved us. And we loved her back.

In my opinion, the 2006 episode The Queen of Sheba, in which Nana – played by the marvellous Liz Smith – dies is quite simply one of the finest pieces of British television writing, beautifully acted by everyone involved and reducing me to helpless tears every single time I watch it.

It dealt with loss in a way that was decidedly unsentimental but still managed to break the hearts of everyone who watched.

I never met Caroline Aherne, but I felt that I knew her because her writing was so honest and so from her heart that she made you feel as if she were writing those lines just for you.

Rest in peace, Caroline. You filled our viewing lives with joy.

May you always wear scarlet ribbons.