Archive for the ‘2017 minus’ Category

Twenty Years

Posted: 9 January 2018 in 2017 minus

Twenty Years. Time for a change. But that’s for later on in this post. You’ll know it when it comes.

Towards the end of 2016, as part of my blogging project that was a seventy-five day countdown to 2017, I wrote about what it had been like to have Michael as a big brother. I’d realised that although I write something every year on the anniversary of his death, I’d not written about his life. So I did, there.

But, I knew when I wrote it that I was only a couple of months away from January 9th, from the anniversary of the day Mike died. I wrote in that piece above,

I’d be lying if I said that I still think of Mike every day. I don’t. But every couple of days, something will happen and I’ll think of him. Someone will say something and I’ll remember my brother.

For obvious reasons, the memories hit hardest on January 9th, on the day he died. It’s twenty years today since he died. That’s still something that throws me. How can it be two decades since he died? And yet it is.

It’s just after noon on 9th January 2018, but spend a moment with me, back on the morning 9th January 1998: I’d gotten into work very early and, having dropped my bag at the office, was having a coffee across the road at my then favoured café. Thirty minutes or so later, just after eight, someone from the office came to get me; a call from Laura, “about your brother”; this was long before I had a mobile phone. I went back to the office with a growing sense of dread; a call from my wife, mentioning my brother didn’t sound like good news. It wasn’t; a call to the hospital led to a growing suspicion from the immediately understandable reticence of the doctor to tell me anything over the phone… and then the knowledge – the horrible, horrible knowledge – that my brother had died.

Not a good morning.

Mike was 38 years old, fifteen years’ younger than I am now. And that’s a thing you never get used to, never – that you’re now older than someone who was older than you. It’s a genuinely strange feeling, realising that; knowing that you’re seeing birthdays that he never reached, experiencing birthdays, anniversaries, life, that he never got to have.

And that’s leaving aside that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost to seeing Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know Mike. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone.

I’ve friends I’ve met over the past few years who I absolutely know Michael would have liked, and they’d have liked to have known him. I can easily see Mitch and Clara sharing a laugh with Mike; very easily indeed as a matter of fact, probably at my expense, the way you allow friends and close ones.

I can also smile, reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have, at various times, cheered him, made him laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation. He was my brother and I loved him – what else would you expect?

Where the hell have those twenty years gone? Of course, I know the answer to that: I look at my son, and know the final family photo taken of Mike was with Philip, when the latter was a little over two years old. And Phil’s now twenty-two, an adult, and he’s in Aberystwyth with his fiancée, far more interested in spending time there than with his old man. And of course that’s how it should be.

Still and all, where have the years gone?

Twenty Years.

I’ve said before – and I maintain – that it’s utter nonsense to say that ‘time heals every wound’. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close. What it does do, I rediscover with every passing year, is lessen the temptation to pick at the scab.

So with every year that passes, it hurts a little less… most of the time. Every so often, it bites; it hurts terribly, and I miss him so fucking much; his wry humour, the love of comedy we shared, the cool way he’d examine a problem from every side, then laugh and say “fuck it, go for it…”

Michael Russell Barnett wasn’t perfect, far from it. He loved puns, just didn’t ‘get’ comics at all, had problems carrying a tune in a bucket, and his enthusiasm for playing the guitar wasn’t in any way matched by ability.

Still, as a brother, Mike was as good as they get and if I’d have gone to Brothers ‘R’ Us, I couldn’t have picked better. He taught me so much, and I hope he knew how much I respected him as a person, not just as a brother. I was best man at his wedding to Lynne, and that he trusted me (at the age of 21) with that responsibility honoured me then, and it still does. I’ve many wonderful memories of Michael, but those few hours on the morning of his wedding when it was just me and him… ah, they’re memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

But they’re memories, and it’s time, long since time maybe, that I acknowledged that. Twenty Years.

I mentioned at the start that it’s time for a change. And it is. For the past twenty years, friends, loved ones, colleagues – they’ve all known: stay away from Budgie on 9th January. You don’t call him, you don’t bug him, you leave him alone. Let him remember his brother in peace. I’ve cut myself off from everyone, just for 24 hours.

No more. It’s been twenty years. Mike died twenty years ago today and I miss him, especially today. I miss him always, but today, it’s a bugger. But now I can almost hear him saying, Twenty years is long enough to mourn me on the day of my death; time to celebrate my life whenever you think of me, Lee. Whenever you think of me. And for once, brother, I’m listening.

Twenty Years.

Rest easy, brother.

A few years ago, after I posted something similar to the above, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened. Both asked what had happened. Here’s what I put up in response..

Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked to write something about him; And, here’s what I wrote:

Michael Russell Barnett
20th November 1959 to 9th January 1998

“On Thursday, Mum took me shopping. It sounds
harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?”

– o –

When I was at Manchester Polytechnic, ostensibly studying for a degree, one of the highlights of my time there was getting a letter from Michael. Full of gentle humour, the letters showed a literary side to Michael that can still reduce me to laughter 15 years later. The above line was written as he was recovering from his first heart operation.

Reading through the letters recently, what surprised me wasn’t so much the realisation that Michael was only 23 or 24 when the letters were written, but how much of my own writings have been influenced by Michael’s style.

Michael taught me so much, from how to play backgammon to the skills necessary to cheat at cards better than our younger brother; from how to scan a line when writing a lyric or poem to the proper glass out of which to drink scotch – “one with a hole at one end and no hole at the other.”

I’ve often said that Mike was my hero. And he was. The courage he showed throughout his illnesses and operations, the way he dealt with people and the way he supported me in all I did was everything I could have wished from a brother. We shared a particularly dry sense of humour and it was rare that a few days went by without one of us calling the other to share a joke or to tell the other a particularly funny story or a funny event that had happened to us.

Yet of all the memories that spring to mind about Michael in the 33 years I was privileged to have him as my ‘big bruvver’, four stand out as clear as day…

– o –

“Dear Lee, How are you? I hope you’re getting down
to it. And getting some studying in as well.”

– o –

August 1983
I’d driven up to Harefield to visit Michael before his first op. He was in the ward and when he saw me, he grabbed his dressing gown and we headed for the café. As we were leaving the ward, a nurse rushed past us and went to the bed next to Michael’s. We didn’t think anything of it until another nurse, then a doctor, then another nurse, pushing a trolley pushed past us. Naturally concerned, we headed back into the ward to see them crowding around the bed next to Mike’s. The curtains were quickly drawn and Michael suggested we leave. At that moment, we realised we’d left Michael’s cassette recorder playing.

In the sort of accident of timing that only happens in real life, Michael reached out to turn the cassette recorder off just as the next track started. The song was by a band called Dollar.

The title of the song? “Give Me Back My Heart”

We barely made it out of the ward before doubling up…

– o –

“I’m looking forward to our engagement party. My only problem
is how to ask Jeff for a day off on a Saturday. I suppose on
my knees with my hands clasped together as if in prayer…”

– o –

Wednesday 9th October 1985
Lynne and Michael’s Wedding Day. As their Best Man, I’m theoretically responsible for getting Michael to the shul shaved, showered and sober. Failing that, it’s my job to just get him there. Anyway, Mike has a few things to sort out at their new home, so I tag along and we spend a few hours together. Precious hours that I wouldn’t swap for anything. We tell jokes and pass the time, two brothers out together letting the rest of the world go by.

We get to the shul and get changed into the penguin suits. Flip forward a couple of hours and Lynne and Michael are now married. Mazeltovs still ringing in everyone’s ears, the line-up has ended and we poor fools still in morning suits go to the changing room to, well, to get changed – into evening suit. For whatever reason, Mike and I take the longest to get changed and we’re left alone for five minutes together after everyone else has left.

As a throwaway line, just to ease our nervousness for the forthcoming speeches, I make a comment that I’m sure glad I’ve got everything with me: “Suit, shirt, shoes, speech…” Mike grins and repeats the mantra. “Suit, shirt, shoes…” There’s a horrible pause followed by a word beginning with ‘s’. But it’s not “speech”, it’s a shorter word.

Mike looks at me in horror, and I’m beginning to realise what’s going through his mind. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your speech,” I tell him.

“I know exactly where it is,” he says, making me very relieved for a moment, before continuing, “it’s in my wardrobe at home.”

After another split-second when we struggled not to crease up at the ridiculousness of the situation, Mike took control in that calm way that he had. He borrowed a pen off of me – the pen that he and Lynne had given me as a thank you for being Best Man – instructed me to get a menu and then stand outside the door and leave him for twenty minutes…

An hour or so later, after I had given my speech, Michael stood up to make his. He started off with a line that fans of Rowan Atkinson would recognise in a moment : “When I left home this morning, I said to myself ‘you know, the very last thing you must do is leave my speech at home’. So sure enough, when I left home this morning, the very last thing I did was… to leave my speech at home.”

As I say, it was a familiar opening to fans of Rowan Atkinson. To everyone else, it was merely a clever start to a speech. To everyone else that is, except our mother. Mum, you see, knew exactly how the speech should have started and there was a classic moment – thankfully caught by the photographer – when she realised that he wasn’t joking – he really had forgotten the speech…

– o –

“Last week I graduated to hair-CUTTING. Next week, if
I’m lucky it’ll be cutting the hair on someone’s head…”

– o –

July 1997
After Mike’s second heart operation, Laura and I took our then 20 month old son to see him. Michael had often told me that being a parent was a mixture of joy and heartache but that he was absolutely revelling in being an uncle. When we got there, he insisted on going outside with us, for Philip’s sake, he said, but I suspect that he wanted to go outside as well, ‘breaking parole’ if you will. He took Philip by the hand and went for a small walk with him.

Looking back, watching Mike and Philip walking together, and a little later, Michael holding Philip on his lap, I remain convinced that it was at that moment that Philip started his adoration of Michael, a feeling that lasted after Michael’s death.

– o –

“Did you go to shul in Manchester. Hmm – is a shul in
Manchester called Manchester United?”

– o –

December 1997
The last big family occasion was on Boxing Day 1997. It had long been a family tradition that the family got together at Lynne and Michael’s on Boxing Day and this year was no different. The last photo I have of my brother is of Michael lifting Philip to the sky, the pair of them laughing out loud.

He looked so well, having regained all the weight that he’d lost through his illness, still with a very slight tan from the holiday he, Lynne and the boys had taken in late 1997.

That’s how I’ll remember my brother, full of life, laughing and surrounded by his family.


2017 plus 01: Happy New Year

Posted: 1 January 2017 in 2017 minus

Happy New Year.

That’s all I can wish you, really; oh, I can use other words. I could go on about how and what I wish you in detail. But at the end, all I can wish you, and and all of you reading this, is that you have a good, happy year.

Here, have some ‘2017 around the world’ fireworks. 


2017 minus 01: A green light

Posted: 31 December 2016 in 2017 minus, life, personal

As I write this, it’s about eight hours until 1st January 2017. And, right about now, people are either making or reviewing lists of potential new year resolutions, and then removing items until they’re left with a couple they think they can keep.

I’ve never gone in for the whole ‘new year resolutions’ thing; I’m not sure why, especially since I spent a chunk of my life making To Do lists at work and taking inordinate joy in crossing off the items one by one. 

But new year resolutions? No. Not since I was a kid and maybe not even then; the memories blur with some things until I’m not sure what actually happened, and what I think might have happened.

(And no, it’s not the “it’s just an arbitrary noting of the calendar, and even the calendar is arbitrary” concept that stops me. Oddly, I’ve noticed that people who do say that seem to have no problem accepting birthday presents. And for my mind, you don’t get to celebrate your birthday, or someone else’s birthday, or even the annual commemoration of a death but then also moan about other people making a fuss about one specific day like New Year or Christmas. Not without being even more a hypocrite than we all are in our daily lives.)

I think with me it’s more that while I’m ok with self-imposed deadlines and time pressures, I am – these days – less eager to subject myself voluntarily to other people’s deadlines.

But people make all sorts of new year resolutions. Like saying they’re giving up drinking alcohol. Or that they’re going to lose weight.

Or that they’re going to stop smoking. 

As long as anyone I’m still in contact with has known me, I’ve been a smoker. I started around age 18 and notwithstanding a couple of half-hearted attempts, I’ve smoked pretty much ever since. And, given the above, it won’t surprise you in the least that I’m not about to give up smoking in about 8 hours.

To be honest, there’d not be much of point since I stopped smoking about a month ago, on 1st December 2016. Well, half an hour before 1st December 2016 to be precise. But the decision was made even longer ago, about six weeks before that.

In early October. While in Liverpool.

As I say, I’ve tried giving up smoking before; the last semi-serious attempt was about four years ago. I went ‘cold turkey’ with an e-cig… for a few weeks, and I hated every minute of it. I told everyone at the time that I was stopping, announced it on social media , made a big fuss of it; I thought that peer pressure would help me if I wavered, would keep me off the smokes and oh, I pretended I was ok with it, but close friends knew I loathed giving them up and it didn’t surprise anyone when I returned to the Silk Cut. For whatever reason*, it didn’t work. 

(*Qute possibly, it was that I didn’t actually want to stop smoking.)

OK, skip forward to early October 2016; I was travelling to Liverpool for the funeral of a close friend’s father. I picked up an e-Lites Curv, more out of curiosity than anything else (though I’m open to the argument that I’m post-event rationalising a desire to give up.)  I thought I’d try it out for 24 hours and see. Within 24 hours, I’d come up with a plan that I hoped would work. It was basically this: figure out what didn’t work last time and don’t do that.

So, for once, I was sensible, and set myself weekly targets: I’d continue to smoke, just cutting down the amount of time every day I smoked cigarettes and slowly, day by day, increase the amount of time I used the ecig. The aim was to cease smoking around the house – not in it but even around it – by November 11th, and to stop smoking, to smoke my last cigarette… the night of 30th November 2016.

And so it was.

And so it turned out to be.

Around 11:20pm on 30th November, I walked back to the house, lit my last cigarette, smoked it, stubbed it out as I got near rhe house… and haven’t smoked a cigarette since. A few people knew, and I told a few more over the past month, but I didn’t make A Thing of it for several reasons:

  • Who knew if I’d manage a few days, let alone longer?
  • I didn’t want to tell anyone until I’d gotten over the cravings for a cigarette
  • If I did ‘fall off the wagon’, I could easily self-excuse it if no-one knew, and I could restart the following day, if I wanted.

Well, now it’s been a month, pretty much, and not once during that time have I missed smoking. Not once.

Oh, I’ve missed some of the habits around smoking. Over the years, friends who’ve given up have told me they miss putting the cigarette out. With me, it’s been the opposite: I’ve missed lighting a cigarette. Well, I’ve missed lighting lots of them, but that’s starting to fade now, I’ll admit, as I’ve delevoped new habits, like changing the battery and swapping over a new ‘butt’. And checking the green glow to see if it’s blinking and if the battery needs changing…

Am I an ex-smoker? I honestly don’t know. I don’t feel like an ex-smoker, to be honest. I still feel like I’m taking a break, and merely waiting for the inevitable craving to hit me; there’s a part of me that is convinced I’ll succumb to the temptation. 

But I’ve been waiting for the craving to hit me and it hasn’t. At all.

But yeah, I’m not smoking at the moment, and haven’t been for a month… haven’t been for almost half the time I’ve been writing this series of ‘countdown to 2017’ entries.

So, that’s something.

Thanks for sticking with me throughout this countdown to 2017. I hope I’ve not bored you too much. Not sure if there’ll be an entry tomorrow but there’ll probably be something new on the 2nd.

Happy new year, people, however you celebrate it.

Originally, when starting this run of blog entries, I intended this entry – what’s turned out to today’s anyway – to be the last one in the series. 

For two reasons, that’s not the case. 

Firstly, and most importantly: as plans stand, I’m going to do what I did after the 2015 general election countdown: keep it going for a bit after the event has ended. I’m not sure for how long I’m going to continue daily blogging, although for various reasons, none of which I’m going to go into here, I think it’s been good for me to get back into the habit of writing something for public consumption on a more or less daily basis. (I say ‘more or less’ because of course, I’ve cheated throughout this run; there’ve been old fiction, and the Saturday Smile entries to give me a break every few days.)

Secondly, and less importantly when it comes to why I’m writing this entry today not tomorrow, on the last of the “2017 minus…” entries, tomorrow’s being saved for something special, something I’ve been hinting at on my Twitter feed occasionally…


…and which only a few people know about so far. So, that’ll give you something to look forward to, nu?

What else is there for today?

Well, some more about what’s planned for this place once the close turns midnight in about fifteen hours. 

For the first ten days or so, I’ll probably use the “2017 Day xx” format; seems sensible given the previous few dozen entries and it’ll keep me posting daily. Having that daily countdown, or at least a numerical reminder, was a definite aide to ensuring I posted something every day. I’ve no real plans on what to write about in 2017; if anything springs to mind, let me know? 

There’s nothing I can add regarding 2016 now that others haven’t written about with more skill and knowledge. Maybe later, maybe in 2017 when I can look back and say “that’s when it happened, that’s the important moment above all.” Thing is, at the moment, I don’t think that can be said. We can’t even say what was the point at which the Brexit vote was lost (or won, depending on your view). Nor is there any agreement regarding what was the crucial element was that lost former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the White House. I mean, I don’t think any other democrat would have done better; come to that, I don’t think Bernie Sanders (only nominally a Demcorat at best) would have come close. But no, even there, there’s no broad agreement what single cost her the election.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the lesson of 2016: things aren’t simple, things aren’t one thing or the other. Everything, everything, is a confluence of multiple events. There’s no single reason why anything happens. Everything has to be placed in context, and nothing and no-one exists in a vacuum, shorn of other people and events.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc rarely applies in life, at least that’s not the only reason. But if we greet 2017 in any way, it should be that, Ockham’s Razor notwithstanding, simple answers are not inherently good because of their simplicity; they’re just simple. And complex problems require complex solutions. There’s no shame in admitting “I don’t know”; I’d be grateful if politcians and leaders admitted “I don’t know…” a bit more often… as long as it’s followed, of course, with “…but I’m going to learn.”

Thanks for sticking with me thus far.

See you tomorrow, for that announcement. 

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

2017 minus 03: erm…

Posted: 29 December 2016 in 2017 minus

Well, it had to happen, I guess. I’m just glad it didn’t happen until now. 

I expected it to happen weeks ago, a couple of months ago, to be honest, but no. It’s today.

I started this blog entry with something in mind, got 100 words through it, then realised that I had nothing really to say on the subject that I’d intended to write. OK, that’s happened before. Not a problem. I try something else. And, indeed, something else when that entry petered out as well.


Nope. It’s not there. Today… the words aren’t there. And that’s what I mean about having expected it to happen some time back. Because when I started this seventy-five day countdown to 2017, I wasn’t actually convinced I’d be able to do it. I figured something would occur a third of the way through it, or maybe half-way through and I’d find some excuse or another to take a few days off. It’s happened before, and it wouldn’t have surprised me at all for it to happen this year.

But it didn’t. There’ve been seventy-two entries thus far, one a day, every day. 

Until today.

When I have just three entries left.

Odd thing is that I have tomorrow’s and Saturday’s entries pretty much blocked out. Neither is completely written yet but I know what I’ve planned for them, and I know what I want to say in each. It’s kind of amusing in one way or another that the final ‘unplanned’ entry is the one that lets me down.

I’ve nothing to add on UK politics right now. That’s not quite true; there’s plenty I want to say, but nothing I want to write right now. I’m tired of British politics this year, and I’m happy not to write anything more on the subject until next week. Same applies to US politics. The idea of President Trump still makes me sick up a little every time I think of the orange poltroon being inaugurated, but there’s plenty of January, three weeks or so, in which I can express my upset and anger.

London? Well, I’ve written a bit about London over the past few weeks, and there’s plenty I wanted to write about – including some stuff on the London Underground… but I’m really not in the mood today.

Part of it is just that I’m tired. Not of the blog, which in and of itself surprises me, but I’ve had a few bad nights’ sleep and that’s probably got something to do with my head being a bit foggier than usual.

But I’m suddenly reminded of a question I was asked once upon a time when I did an #askbudgie hashtag on Twitter. Possibly knowing of my friendship with a Mr Gaiman, I was asked

If you were one of the Endless, which one would you be?

My answer at the time was truthful. 

I think like most people, I feel like different aspects of each of Endless at different times… As a general rule though, I don’t ever really feel like a character created by someone else. I’m more of a self-made person who has a healthy disrespect for my creator.

I think it still applies, in the main. But only in the main, self-deprecation and all. 

But, just for fun, why not, budgie…?

So, what do each of The Endless mean to me? What elements of them do I recognise in my own character? Or at least, do I have anything to say about the concepts?

(At this point it occurs to me that some reading may not have any clue what I’m talking about. OK, very quick explanation. Neil Gaiman wrote a book entitled Sandman, in which he created The Endless, seven characters that embody universal aspects. So, Destruction does not represent destruction; if you’ll forgive the Brexit is Brexit reference, Destruction is destruction.)

I’ve never been a huge believer in ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’. To a large – though not unlimited – extent, I think it’s bunk. Note that I don’t say ‘people make their own fate’; I think that’s equally as nonsensical as to suggest that others determine your destiny. However, individuals have some say in their own decisions, as do others have influence upon individuals. Entirely free will isn’t even an illusion, as I’m unaware of anyone who thinks they have entirely free will; but habits and societal constructs restrain many from actions which other societies might encourage. And freedom of action does not mean freedom from the consequences of those actions, anyway. But no, I’ve never thought that my life, nor my eventual end was destined to be whatever it ends up.  

I can’t remember the first person I heard of who’d died. I remember being very aware of the concept of death very early on in my life, though. Ashkenazi Jews are traditionally named after those who have died, so you grow up knowing that you were named for someone who’d died. My grandfather died when I was 17, my grandmother when I was 19, but I’d been to ‘the grounds’ (a colloquialism for the cemetery) from the age of about 15. As this blog annually commemorates the death of my brother in January, I’d be a fool to deny that death has played a part in my adult life.

I rarely remember dreams; nightmares, yes, but dreams of the less unpleasant type, no. Occasionally, yes, of course. But rarely. It’s nightmares I remember, clearly and in detail. I’d rather not, to be honest. 

There’s not much. to say about that others don’t demonstrate on a weekly, if not daily basis. The destruction of intangibles, like hope, and wishes, and rights, and democracy around the world, does far more damage in every time frame (short-, medium- and long-term) than the destruction of tangible objects. It’s astonishing to me that people survive such destructions, and what’s more thrive in resistance to it. But what’s almost worse to me – as a concept – is when destruction stops short of complete, when something is permanently maimed, damaged for all time. Complete destruction allows for the cauterisation of a wound, perhaps. Stopping short, allowing a faint ember of hope that will forever be denied? That is when destruction becomes malicious, becomes cruel. And that can move me to tears. 

Desire is overwhelming. It’s not a want nor a wish, but a need. I’m genuinely in awe of people who are that open, that honest and that authentic to admit their desire for a person (or people), or a lifestyle. 

The flip side of desire, and I’m equally in awe of people who are that open about Despair as well.

What was once delight is now delirium, at least in The Endless. The latter is more appropriate for the 21st century. A long time ago, at the height of The Troubles, it was said that if you weren’t confused by the situation in Northern Ir3eland, then you didn’t truly understand it. I think the same now applies globally. It’s impossible not to be delirious if you’re attempting to truly understand global politics nowadays. Politics was never simple, but now too many regard you as delirious if you try to acknowledge complexity, let alone highlight it.

Huh. That’s today’s entry.

Something else tomorrow, in the penultimate entry of this run.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

The more I think about the Voter ID laws proposed for the UK, the angrier I get.

I use the word “angrier” quite deliberately. This isn’t something that ‘upsets’ me, nor that ‘disappoints’ me. No, it angers me. It angers for me for several reasons that I’ll get to in a moment after a nauseatingly sweet story from more than a decade ago, from April 2004 to be precise, that I related once upon a time in another blog when it happened, but it’s too good not to repeat now.

So, April 2004, I’m reading The Times, and Philip – not even 9 years of age – is reading the headlines, getting me to help him with any hard words. Back then, I was determined that he’d have a decent vocabulary growing up, so we’d regularly read the front page of The Times together. On this particular occasion, he picks up on the story that the then Home Secretary was trying to get ID cards introduced, at first on a voluntary basis, but to be made compulsory in the next ten years or so. 

He’s mildly interested in this story even at 8 years old because he’s just got his first formal ID card: a library ticket with his name and his signature on it (!) He’s very proud of that, and I am as well.

So Philip asks a couple of intelligent questions about why ID is needed at all, and then we play a game about what ID he knows I already have. And then, after having examined my driving licence, he asks why it has a photograph on it. The following conversation takes place:

Philip: But even if you have a photograph, someone can still pretend to be you.
Me: Yes, but a photograph makes it more difficult.
Philip: But if someone really really wanted to, they could still pretend to be you, even with a photograph.
Me: You mean, someone would choose to be as ugly as me?

There’s a slight pause before:

Philip: Yes, you’re right Dad. No one would choose to look like you.

At which point I’m coming to the conclusion that they made a mistake when they stopped us parents sending them up chimneys.

But back to the government’s proposal, which have garnered some publicity the past couple of days since they announced them. Basically, what they’re planning is to trial the Voter ID system for the 2018 council elections (at the 18 councils identified as most open to electoral fraud), and then – if all goes well – introduce it nationwide for the 2020 general election. The piece in that link makes it clear that it’s already been introduced in Northern Ireland and it would be remiss of me not to say that a) I was entirely unaware of that and b) I had no idea how it’s working in practice.

That said, Stephen Bush of The New Statesman has written a piece on Facebook giving his views, and I’m struggling to find anything to object to in it; I’d go further: I don’t disagree with a word of it. If it was on the NS‘s site, I’d just link but since it’s Facebook, here’s the entire piece. It’s short, but worth reading.

The government’s plan to pilot the use of photo ID to cut down on electoral fraud has many on the left worried that the proposal is actually a ruse to decrease the number of Labour voters who are eligible to vote. Are they right?
The first thing to note is that while there is a very small number of electoral malpractice cases – fewer than 100 – some of which count as an electoral fraud, they involve matters unrelated to the wrong people voting at polling stations. The most frequent crime is putting false signatures on nomination papers, after that breaking expenses rules, and lastly making false claims about other candidates.

The most recent high-profile cases of electoral fraud involved false claims about a candidate (Labour’s Phil Woolas against his Liberal Democrat opponent in 2010), postal vote fraud (Birmingham, 2004) and bribery and spiritual influence (Lutfur Rahman, 2014).

In none of the cases would a stronger ID requirement have detected or prevented the crime.
Of course, some people will say “but what about the criminals we don’t catch?” The difficulty there is it is hard to see where this fraud is taking place. In all those cases, the result itself was a sign something was up. If someone is rigging results, they are doing so in a way that produces outcomes entirely in keeping with national swing and demographic behaviour. Other than the thrill of the chase, it’s not clear why someone would do this.

What we do know from the one part of the United Kingdom that has voter registration – Northern Ireland – is that it makes it harder for poorer people to vote as they are less likely to have the required ID. That’s why after their pilot (back in 2002) they introduced a free ID card.

There is, however, a strong argument that elections need to command a high level of public legitimacy, making the case for ID stronger. But there is a wide suite of measures the government could bring in alongside this change that would achieve that while lessening the impact of having an ID. They could, for instance, make it so you are automatically enrolled when you pay council tax, a water bill, a heating bill or any other charge that comes with a fixed abode. They could roll out a free photo ID for elections.

But as they are doing neither, it feels fair to say that at best the government is relaxed about making it harder for supporters of its opponents to vote and at worst is actively seeking to do so.

As I say, I can’t find anything to disagree with in there. The main point – that this is a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist – is made. But the final bit is what makes me angry though, takes me from upset to anger: it feels fair to say that at best the government is relaxed about making it harder for supporters of its opponents to vote and at worst is actively seeking to do so.

It does feel fair to say that; in fact, it feels unfair to look at it any other way. The government has seen how Voter ID laws have been used in the US, to restrict poorer voters from going to the polls and have thought “ooh, that’s a good idea, let’s try that here…”

Two things jump out at me regarding the proposal; well, one thing jumps out and then a consequence that I think is inevitable. But first let me say that I, as an individual, don’t have any huge problem with carrying identification. I already carry around several pieces of ID from choice, from my bank cards, to various forms of ID, including my driving license. And on occasion, when it’s been required, I’ve been more than ok with showing my passport as identification. That’s me. And if it was a purely voluntary identification scheme, with a guarantee that it wouldn’t be made compulsory, I’d sign up for a Voter ID in a heartbeat, as I would with any identification scheme.

But that’s the problem: it wouldn’t remain voluntary. For a start, any compulsory identification scheme should be free of charge to the user at the time of issue and usage. If the government wants voters to have identification, it should, amend must, supply that identifation, free of charge. (Yes, I know it’s not ‘free of charge’; taxpayers pay for it, but I’m quite ok with that. That’s why I said “free of charge to the user at the time of issue and usage”.)

Not only would it not remain free to the user – no government is going to pass up the opportunity to charge cardholders for it, and even the cost of a tenner would raise several hundred million pounds – but the UK government – every UK goverbment – has wanted to introduce ID cards for decades. This would be the first step into making identification cards compulsory for everything; it’s a very short walk from voter ID to prescriptions to claiming benefits to… what? You’d have to show your ID when applying for jobs? For exchanging properties? For renting? 

I’m often disappointed in the UK’s government actions; more often I’m upset by them. This proposal angers and disgusts me. 

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

I meant to tell this story before Christmas, on the eve of Chanukah, but just plain forgot. But since it came up a couple of times over the festive break, I figured I might as well tell it now.

Oh, just before I get to that, Chanukah/Hanukah/Hannuka… which is it? Short answer: any and all. Thing is, however it’s spelled in English, it’s a Hebrew word, and transliteration from Hebrew is always difficult, in part because English doesn’t really have a single letter, or even pair or letters, to always denote the hard “ch” sound. I tend to use “Chanukah” because that’s how I first learned the transliteration. Americans tend to use Hannukah, or drop the middle ‘n’. Mark Parisi nailed it in the cartoon over to the side…

So… if you’re Jewish, and it’s Christmas time, sooner or later, you’ll be told that you should celebrate Christmas. Not only because it’s so far removed from Christianity, but because people – often from the best of motives – genuinely believe that Christmas is solely about peace and goodwill to everyone and who wouldn’t want to a) share in that and b) promote that to everyone else?

The problem is – well, one problem is – that Christmas is, well, Christmas. It’s functionally and mostly inseparable from the birth of Jesus, and while I share Mitch Benn’s view on the modern True Meaning Of Christmas (below) I’m Jewish; growing up in what is still at least nominally a Christian country has led to some… interesting experiences at Christmas. 

For a start, there were my schooldays. Unlike my lad, I didn’t go to a faith school, or at least not one that was specifically and solely aimed at one faith. I went to local junior and senior schools which while – again nominally – weren’t specific to any faith, we had C of E assemblies and the whole paraphernalia that accompanies that. And, of course, come December, we had the ritual of endsuring Christmas Cards. And yes, I sent them, and received them. There was, of course, a little postbox in class and everyone got the same number of cards. Everyone got 29 cards… and was delighted to get those 29 cards and you never really realised you only got those 29 cards because you were a child and there were 30 in the class.

Well, I say ‘delighted’. Even as a relatively small child, as a Jewish kid in a Christian country, whose classmates knew you were Jewish, you quickly discovered who were the dicks in the class. You might not know yet who’d be your ‘friends for life’ but you discovered who the dicks were. They were the kids who sent you Christmas cards with Jesus on them. 

There were plenty of cards you could have been sent. Some had Santa on them, some had a robin redbreast, some had holly, some landscapes of snow covered valleys and hills. And some had the baby Jesus. And there was a pretty much 100% correlation between those kids who didn’t like you and those kids who sent you ‘baby Jesus’ Christmas cards.

But, I digress. 

For some time, when I was on CompuServe, I helped run their Jewish Forum. For the main part, it was an enjoyable experience. Occasionally you’d get someone coming into the place merely seeking to cause trouble, often by attempting to proselytise but that was only to be expected. On the whole, Jews not only don’t proselytise, but take a rather dim view of those who do. We tend to work on the principle of “look, we don’t tell non-Jews they should be Jewish, so we don’t take it when non-Jews tell Jews they shouldn’t be, especially when in the past, the telling Jews they shouldn’t be has been accompanied by punishments, torture, screaming and, you know, killing us.

The lady I ran the Forum with was an teacher in the United States, but whose children attended a different school from the one at which she taught. (I’m embarrassed to say that I just typed “at which she teached” before my mind went NOOOOOO! and I caught it…) Anyway, moving swiftly on. 

Anyway… comes parents’ evening and C (her initial) went along with her husband to her chidren’s school where she was informed, rather disappointingly, by her child’s teacher that her kid “didn’t partake in the Christmas celebrations and didn’t want to take part in the nativity or anything!” C, assuming the teacher had just missed the point, said “well, no. She’s Jewish, and we don’t celebrate Christmas at home.”

Teacher: Well, maybe you should.
C: I don’t think so. As I say, we’re Jewish.
Teacher: Well, if you celebrated Christmas at home, she would fit in more at school.
C (now getting exasperated if not actually annoyed): As Jews, we celebrate Hannukah but…
Teacher: But Hannukah is just the Jewish Christmas, isn’t it?
C: Not really, no.
Teacher: Isn’t it?
C: No. Christmas is about peace and good will to all men.
Teacher: Yes, and…?
C: Hannukah is about picking up a sword and defending yourself against people trying to impose their religion on you.

C smilies sweetly.

Teacher: Ah. Oh. [pause] Right, so, let’s talk about her math homework.

And that’s how I want to respond every tine someone tells me Chanukah is the “Jewish Christmas”. Yes, there are presents exchanged, although Chanukah tends to be more about giving presents to children over the eight nights of the festival. It’s not exclusively about children, but the focus is more on that. So yes, it involves exhanges of presents, and it’s an opportunity – as many religions have, suggest and mandate – for people to kick back and chill out at the end of the year.

What Chanukah is not, most decisively though, is “the Jewish Christmas”.

See you tomorrow… as we near the end of this seventy-five day countdown…

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.