Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The End Is Nigh

I've enjoyed this domain, moregravy.info, but I'm not going to renew it on August 17th.  Google has made it too complicated, reminding me that I might prefer a Wordpress site. Before I knew it, I made one: russellcronin.com

I imagined a gradual, dignified withdrawal, but it proved very easy to import all the content from Blogger to Wordpress, so I am going to focus on the new platform from now on.

Portentously, these may be my final More Gravier words. These pages will evaporate when their .info domain expires. I registered it in August 2012, after my first cataract operation, as soon as I could see again through one eye. Five years has flown: phew!

It's been fun, but it's time to move on.
Nobody knows what I've been through, largely because I've kept schtum. When I do try to explain, I sound insane, not least to myself. Some smile kindly and nod as if to a batty relative; other fellow travellers shrug dismissively, as if my subjective experience is nothing special.

I have been directed toward certain sources of reassurance, online, but those sagacious women tend to talk in a language I don't share. Still, the likes of Denise Le Fay (my favourite 'ascension auntie') describe acute physical symptoms with which I am uncomfortably familiar. Increasingly since the Summer of 2014 and, since the turn of this year, more intensely and nearly all the time.

I'm not inclined to discuss these symptoms with doctors for the same reason I no longer monitor my hypertension. Having cheated death, I am not going out with a whimper. Surges of euphoria inform me that my smouldering sacrum is not myeloma; tingling thighs indicate neither neuralgia, nor paresthesia; the ever-present buzzing is not tinnitus. The headaches and lethargy I can cope with, if they are intimations of imminent transformation.

What I have chosen to write about was not what has been going on with me, but Heston Blumenthal's cheese sauce (you coat grated cheese with cornflour, add bouillon) and to do so under a name suggested by a couple of random foreigners who might have been taking the piss when they told me that 'russell' sounded in their language like, 'more gravy'. Of course, I have form for this.

Rather than get too personal, my blog page has been somewhat desultory and whimsical. I've used it as a place to store recipes and note places I would like to eat at: 'eateries'. Its index does represent my interests, sort of, initially in food. Last year was all about deceased pop idols, but this year has been businesslike.

For twelve weeks, I've published a 750 word blog post every Wednesday, re: diverse topics. I do it as part of my Universal Credit work search commitment, to advertise my skill and discipline as a copy writer, in case you might want to employ me. I will be better off it doing it under my own name at russellcronin.com

Wordpress is a more popular platform among advertisers on the freelance work sites such as Upwork, where I am currently compelled to compete for work with people who live much more cheaply than I can in Central London. They seem ready, willing and able to write, edit and proofread for next to no money. I expect my days of having to demonstrate 35 hours p/w job hunting to end soon, though, one way or another.

Claiming Universal Credit has not been a wholly negative experience. My work search coach, who at first seemed so tough and stern, has turned out to be only human, constrained by the system he is a part of, but motivated in general to do good. Still, I can hardly explain to him that I'm not too bothered about chasing temp. gigs in the global marketplace because I am preoccupied with embodying the new paradigm.

Even if I knew better what those words meant, how to explain to those trapped in consensus reality that what they perceive through their senses about the world in which they find themselves is illusory? 'Reality' is a collective hallucination. But our collective consciousness, shared via this internet noosphere, is changing, rapidly and dramatically.

This coming weekend, I shall undertake a visionary quest. My purpose is not so much to foresee the future as to draw a line under the past. When I embarked upon this journey, 20 years ago, rational understanding was the first thing to go. May whatever comes next be unprecedented.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Legalise cannabis to save #ourNHS


The most urgent issue in the forthcoming general election is the preservation of our National Health Service. If the NHS is the nearest thing we have in 21st century secular Britain to a National Religion, then Mrs May, the Vicar's daughter, is apostate. Her Governbent is hell bent on carving it up and flogging it off. 

If you missed Michael Sheen's speech about Aneurin Bevan, or such documentaries as The End Of The NHS before the election two years ago, watch Julie Hesmondhalgh fka Hayley Cropper declare, '30 days to save our NHS!' or catch yourself up at juniordoctorblog.com.

I've been a heavy user of the NHS since it saved my life in 2011, when a world class team of surgeons in North Bristol amputated my left hand, but managed to save my foot. Their top man, Lead Consultant, Tim Burge, ex-army, pioneered innovative plastic surgery techniques on the battle fields of Bosnia. That's what war is good for.

The NHS kept me quarantined for three months, with my own dedicated nurse, 24 hours a day. I had arrived from India with five varieties of NDM-1; two more than had previously been seen in a British hospital. Its a mutant enzyme that makes bacteria invulnerable to antibiotics. I was carrying super-immune cholera. You're welcome! Never mind my heroic contribution to the annals of microbiology, however, just consider the accommodation cost.

How much d'you reckon a private hospital would charge to implement such extreme infection control procedures? Now consider the potential costs of not containing that infection. My name might now be as well known as Typhoid Mary. Cholera Cronin, that would be me.

The clinical care I received was irreproachable, but there were aspects of my hospital stay that were a bit shit. They were the bits that had been privatised.

I don't just mean the entertainment consoles that are mounted over every bed, with pay-to-view TV and whatnot. You've got to pay to watch telly that's already paid for via the licence on the set back home, which you can't watch because you're banged up in hospital with nothing better to do than look at television. I refused, but my night nurse, Nathan, kindly bought me £10 worth of access over Glastonbury weekend.

Much more importantly, the food was rubbish. FFS, did Hippocrates not say, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food?" That should be clause two of the Hippocratic oath and yet my Consultants knew next to nothing about nutrition. "You are becoming anaemic because of the lack of iron in your vegetarian diet," I was told. "No," I corrected, "I am becoming anaemic due to the complete absence of dark green leafy vegetables in the diet you feed me."

Rather than provide nutritious meals, the NHS dishes out supplements in pill form. They believe in pharmaceutical solutions. "The drugs work," I was told repeatedly, as if it were an article of faith, but no one at the hospital explained how or why. Rather, they continued to offer me Amitriptyline - a 'tricyclic antidepressant' that knocked me out - twice daily after I stopped taking it, for the rest of my stay. I came home with a carrier bag full of drugs and spent a day online learning about them.

Within a couple of months, I weaned myself off all pharmaceutical drugs in favour of cannabis. I made green ghee from the spoil of other people's crops and cooked with it. Rather than risk using addictive opioids with their undesirable side effects, I managed my pain with my own medicine, made from donated plant material. Its side effects - munchies; drowsiness - are pleasurable, too.

So, IMO, the problem of funding the NHS could be solved at a stroke by legalising cannabis. I'm not the only one saying it! Even if we don't follow the example of Colorado, where tax income from legal marijuana sales is directed into funding local schools, legalised cannabis will alleviate pressure upon the NHS, practically overnight. Not only will chronically ill people have immediate access to effective medicine, but alcohol-related casualties will soon start to decline.

None of the major parties agree with me yet, although the Greens and the Liberal Democrats are getting there. Big Pharma and other vested interests who make hefty campaign contributions fear nothing more than legal cannabis. At this election, however, it's them or us.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Grazing On The 'Gras

 Asparagus season is go & it's a gusher!


One day in the middle of my recent meditation retreat, I was gratified to be offered fat spears of asparagus, seared, cold and dressed with olive oil as one of several side dishes at lunch. I was surprised to see asparagus so early, since the season doesn't officially start until St. George's Day, April 23rd.

Living as we do in the perpetual now, with seasonality apparently a thing of the past, one may purchase neatly-packaged Peruvian asparagus tips in the depths of winter (Morrisons had Mexican in Febrary). I won't pretend that I never succumb  - I can resist anything but temptation - but it's just not the same. English asparagus is strictly a seasonal crop, available only for a couple of months, until Midsummer Day.

M&S: 2 for £4; Delia's Foaming Hollandaise
Domestically-grown asparagus has to be better, if only because it hasn't been subjected to extremely cold temperatures while being air-freighted from South America. Thanks to this country’s mild climate, English asparagus is plump and sweet, with more purple anthocyanin and green chlorophyll. As soon as the sun does start to shine, however, asparagus starts popping. Asparagus spears can put on up to 2cm/hour! And shone it jolly well did over the fortnight before Easter.

Great 'gras is not the exclusive preserve of the Brits. Any lush country with a similar, Maritime climate will do. Visiting Wellington, NZ, I was so thrilled to find bushels of asparagus in a local supermarket that I staged an impromptu Asparagus Fest, a medley of recipes that inevitably included a velvety soup and my favourite, griddled 'grass with Hollandaise. My Kiwi hosts were, I think, impressed. Or bemused. I couldn't rightly say.

Back home, I looked up Charlie Hicks' inimitable market report to learn that, indeed, 'some pretty fine weather has worked wonders with the early asparagus crop.' You may remember Charlie from the Radio 4 show, Veg Talk a dozen years ago. Since then, his sidekick, Greg Wallace has become an unlikely Big Hitter on YouTube while Chazza has carried on the madcap greengrocery, describing himself as a Costermonger.

As any costard worth his cotchell may say, when it comes the growing 'grass, you ain't seen nothing like the mighty Chinns. John, the patriarch, made his name in the Wye Valley with spuds. He started doing asparagus a dozen years ago and pioneered 'reverse season' asparagus, a late crop that spears from the beginning of September until the end of October, sold by M&S. In 2010, John grew an experimental crop of white asparagus, a little patch of privilege among the 850 acres of the green stuff grown at Cobrey Farms near Ross, which it said in the local paper, employed 'up to 700 people, mostly east Europeans, to gather it in.'

Morrisons: 2 for £3; store bought sauce
John's sons, Chris & Henry - the second generation of the Chinn Dynasty - are equally innovative. Chris took on the white asparagus, growing the first British commercial crop in 2013. It was acclaimed by The Observer as, "the finest asparagus this country has ever produced," while The Telegraph  quoted the asparagus buyer for Tesco, who said: “ People who have tried the new white variety say it is the finest asparagus this country has ever produced." I guess it was fine, but has yet to catch on.*

Harvesting asparagus is labour intensive semi-skilled work with a sharp knife in a field, but growing white asparagus is laborious in the extreme. You keep it anaemic by blocking its sunlight, piling up earth around each spear as it springs from the ground. I'm not saying it's wrong, but I've not had any for ages. I am, however, curious to try the purple variety, called Burgundine that Henry Chinn has grown in Suffolk. Since Henry also supplies Morrisons & Sainsburys with their packaged asparagus tips, I might not have to visit Borough Market to come by some.

Of course, asparagus is not just a Chinn thing, nor is it the exclusive preserve of the Wye Valley. In the Garden of England, Evesham, the Great British Asparagus Festival runs through the season, climaxing at Asparafest - Worcestershire's Aspara-tastic Music & Food Festival! - over the first weekend of June. Its mascot is Gus, a man dressed as a spear of Asparagus. He's there to lead the revels, reminding up that British asparagus is a fleeting thing and to gorge upon it whenever the sun shines until the Summer Solstice. See you there, spear suckers.

*BLOG UPDATE: Charlie Hicks hits Hereford in May's Total Produce Market Report & visits Chris Chinn at Cobrey Farms, showing Chris harvesting the white asparagus, so you can see what a palava it is.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Election Torpor


The Prime Minister, having said she would not call an early general election, has done so. Never mind that her predecessor brought in a rule that Parliaments must run for the full five years in order to prevent precisely this kind of cynical opportunism. There is a provision that early elections can be called with the consent of two thirds of MPs. Since politicians are always interested in gaining power, this was no impediment.

This lust for power also means that a pro-EU coalition is unlikely. Since the referendum, I've been of the opinion that the vote should be confirmed by an election in which the two main parties can present their distinctively different (sic) plans for leaving the Union while minority parties who insist that the UK must remain could agree not to compete against each other. Instead, Remainiacs will vote Lib Dem in England and Scots Nat in Hibernia.

Ms May cited Brexit (I dislike that term, but whatever) as her reason for going to the country. She bangs on about strength & stability, but who really believes her? Not Peter Hitchens, the reactionary commentator for whom I nurture a perverse regard.  'Why a snap election? Ask the 30 tories facing criminal charges...' read the headline of his opinion piece in The Daily Mail (I despise that newspaper, but still).

Following a diligent investigation by Channel 4 News of the Conservatives' election expenses, it looks like charges will be brought against enough Tory MPs to significantly erode their Parliamentary majority. By calling an election now, while the Labour opposition under Jeremy Corbyn is apparently in disarray and her party is ahead in opinion polls, May hopes not only to consolidate her power, but to destroy the opposition. But she is deluded.

As Hitchens observed a decade ago, polls are no longer devices for measuring public opinion, but for influencing it. Much like the BBC, polls were perceived as 'impartial oracles of the truth by most people who read them.' No doubt many still pay attention to opinion polls and the BBC, but not me

The final straw came last year, when BBC Political Editor, Laura Keunssberg, ignored the passage of the Housing and Planning Act - effectively ending Council Housing - in favour of more tiresome sniping at Jeremy Corbyn. I complained, but the Beeb had so many similar complaints that they ignored the specifics of mine. So I threw out the telly and obtained a rebate on my license fee.

Whatever opinion polls and the BBC say, Labour under Corbyn can win this election and I hope they do. However, I am unlikely to vote. I plan to be away from home on polling day and getting a postal vote seems like too much effort, just to waste it. Usually, I opt for one of the 'other' candidates. In 2015, I was one of 72 who voted for Lucy Hall, whose big idea was to more directly represent her constituents by polling us electronically before every vote in the House.

One time when I did vote for the eventual winner in my constituency was in 2010. I was persuaded by Nick Clegg that his Liberal Democrats would abolish Trident and introduce proportional representation to make votes matter. Ahem. I feel especially cheated by Sir Simon Hughes because, a year before that election, he said to my face that the Labour Party were Tories in disguise. Then, his party got into bed with actual Tories and enabled their frightful agenda.

Hughes lost in 2015 to Neil Coyle, the ex-Southwark Council Labour candidate who is heavily implicated in the social cleansing of my neighbourhood. An unreformed Blairite, Disloyal Coyle is one of the red Tories to whom Hughes referred and one of Jeremy Corbyn's most vocal critics. I cannot support Corbyn by voting for the odious Coyle,  but I've found another way to express my support for Jezza: at the bookies.

Paddy Power gave me odds of 17/2 on Jeremy Corbyn being the next Prime Minister (at the time of writing, he's come in to 8/1). I opened an online account with a £10 bet and was rewarded with £30 in free bets, all of which I've placed on the same proposition. I stand to win £340 on June 9th and will be laughing all the way to the Job Centre.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

My Left Hand

I want it back (stain = beetroot)

The sixth anniversaries of my injury and the subsequent amputation of my left hand passed on the meditation mat in the Dhamma Hall at Splatt's House with a photo on the wall before me of the Mahabodhi Temple, near where it occurred in Bodh-Gaya. I got a little upset. "Anicca!" the teacher told me. Impermanence. "It's in the past." "Not in your past though, is it?" I snapped.

I told him how, during Vipassana instruction, I forgot my hand wasn't there and felt it as vividly as the one that remains. 'Vipassana' means, to see thing as they really are, but I was feeling things that are no longer there. Things like fingers and a thumb. "But it is quite normal," the teacher told me, "phantom limb pain." "In your experience?" I demanded. To which he  gave his usual admonition, "No thinking!"

A kind man and a dutiful teacher, he came and sat with me at lunch. The food served at Splatts House is wonderful. It could see me through any crisis. The teacher reminded me of his expertise, working for the Red Cross with amputees in Afghanistan during the 1980s. They would pick up Russian butterfly bombs found in the fields. 80% of the amputees he worked with had no phantom pain. Their brains are wired differently.

"It's all in the mind," the teacher told me. I had already warned him that amputees - speaking for all of us! - don't generally appreciate being told about our injuries by the able-bodied. I wasn't going to go there again. "Never mind that," I said. "What interests me now is why you're not eating this butternut squash lasagne?"
"Why?" he asked.
"Because it is superb," I told him.
"In that case," he said, "you may have my portion."

At the end of the course, silence lifted, one kindly fellow brought up  a film he'd seen on BBC4 about phantom limb treatment. "This isn't the chat about V.S. Ramachandran's mirrored box tricking your mind into thinking the remaining limb is the missing one, so you can scratch it?" I cautioned him. Able-bodied people, especially those who enjoy the work of Dr. Oliver Sacks, find the phenomenon of phantom limb hallucinations fascinating. Those of us who experience it find it frustrating and tedious.

The best advice I received about phantom limb came from my first prosthetist, himself an amputee. He lost a leg in the Omagh bombing as a seven year old. "I've turned it to my advantage," he told me, making and fitting artificial limbs. Think of one's stump as a telephone exchange box, like those one sees in the street with their doors open, dozens of wires bundled up inside. They are like severed nerves, still trying to complete the call that was so brutally interrupted. As phantom limb pain continuously replays the moment of trauma, never mind anicca, for some amputees the injury exists in the permanent present.

Happily for me, I don't have that problem and I use meditation rather than opioid pain killers to manage the stump pain. I did have pain of the phantom variety for a couple of years, but found it strangely reassuring. I have no memory of the incident and mine host did not want to admit liability, so pretended that I'd done it to myself. However, my body knew better and it told me what had happened. I could feel my missing hand burning onto the shower tap.

Another topic people like to bring up to amputees is whizz-bang prosthetics, such as the Bebionic 3 bionic hand or the Deus Ex, which make Living With Future Prosthetics seem cool, rather than part of a sinister Transhumanist Agenda. The problems from my POV, though, are that they're heavy - functionality adds weight - they cost more than the NHS can afford, and they will never be as good as the real thing. I want my lost left hand to regenerate.

Otherwise, there's hand transplants on the NHS. I qualify and spoke about the possibility to my team at Bowley Close, the amputee rehab. centre in Crystal Palace. I went off the idea of having someone else's hand attached to my body, which will never accept it unless I take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of my life. I'd delayed the referral by not yet booking a blood test and decided on the mat not to bother.
Regeneration it is, then.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Gone Fishin'

Each IMC has a Dhamma Pagoda like the original in Rangoon.

Sap's rising, Easter is in the air and I'm going meditating. I don't know what the Universal Credit rules are regarding holiday breaks where one has no internet access, but I'll inform my coach tomorrow that my relentless work search shall temporarily cease. I imagine they will suspend payment which, since UC is worth a tenner and change a day to me, will add about a hundred quid to the cost of the 10 day retreat.

I've written before about my powerful experience of Vipassana meditation, when I sat my first course at Dhamma Dipa. The piece was actually commissioned for propaganda purposes as an account of how I, as a meditator, had survived near death in India. What I actually delivered was a psycho-dramatic account of events that led up to My Vipassana Initiation, like a pustule coming to a head, to be squeezed out over ten days of strict silence with up to ten hours of meditation each day.

I got fully onboard with Vipassana and served at the Centre for six months as 'Kitchen Coordinator'. I sat my second course within a few months of my first, during which I received some guidance from the Assistant Teacher (A.T.) that blew my chattering mind. He told me to treat it like a telly I wasn't watching, or trivial background muzak that was distracting, not interesting. "Ignore it," he told me, "and get on with your meditation."

This revelation, that the running commentary in my mind is not necessarily me, combined with an effective technique that enables one to directly experience anicca, as sensation, kept me entrained in that school for seven years. These days, if asked, I would say, 'go back to the breath;' keep striving for unified consciousness before attempting insight meditation. But then, I no longer sit with Goenka; the piece commissioned from me at the end of 2014 was actually a farewell note.

Vipassana, Goenka-style, had served me well and seen me through the most challenging times, although it might also be argued that it led me into them, too. Vipassana was my purpose for visiting Bodh-Gaya six years ago. I meditated in the temple complex, yards from the shrine, where Gautama achieved his enlightenment 2,500 years ago, only hours before I received a massive electric shock in the shower of my newly-built hotel room.

Among many consequences, I went blind with cataracts. For three months, I couldn't see my hand if I held it in front of my nose. The local Buddhists, a couple of streets away, were most helpful. Every day, early, a young initiate I'll call Toby knocked on my door and led me to their shrine room for morning meditation. Seeing how still I sat, Toby asked me about Vipassana and I advised him to gen up on the web site and sign up for a course, if he liked.

A while later, the subject came up again. Toby told me, he had looked at the web site, but he had also asked advice. He did not say who from, but I suppose they were robed. Toby was told, spiritual education is only valid in a religious context. What Goenka teaches is Buddhism, but he's not Buddhist and so is not qualified to teach. Vipassana is, correctly, a Theravada Buddhist meditation practice and, if my young friend wanted to learn it, he should go to Thailand and sit with monks. 'Ri-ight,' I thought to myself, 'religious people say, this is a Cosa Nostra!'

It would not be right to criticise Goenka, after all that he taught me. I won't go into the details of what led me to conclude that my time as his student was over. Ultimately, I did not belong in that sangha. Eventually, I remembered another Vipassana teacher, from the same Burmese school as Goenka, who had split with him. That is where I now sit, at Splatts House in Heddington, Wilts.

Some three years after my exchange with the young man who led me to practice Dhamma every morning while I was blind, I sat my first course under the aegis of Mother Sayamagyi. She was rarely glimpsed then and passed away in January, but her benevolent presence was very much felt throughout the centre and I trust it still is. The courses are conducted by Roger Bischoff. His opening words are, "We have come here together to practise the Theravada Buddhist meditation of Vipassana." Doh!

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

A Pair of Phenomenal Women

This week's blog delves into the recesses of my CV to celebrate two extraordinary women - both now deceased - with whom I had the privilege of being professionally associated. 

 

Image by Celine Marchbank; Tulip documents her mother's demise.

Sue Miles died back in 2010, aged 66. Not only did she have lung cancer, apparently, but also a brain tumour. How very Sue, to have a second fatal illness as back up, in case the cancer was taking too long.

Leslie Kenton died unexpectedly, but peacefully in her sleep, aged 75, at her home in New Zealand on 13th November last year, of 'natural causes,' appropriately. She was all about natural causes, not to mention effects, was Leslie, with whom I collaborated on a Juice book in 1996.

Sue Miles was a proper caffiene addict: her skin was coffee-tinged. She was the first person I ever met - I struggle to think of the second - who had an espresso machine plumbed into her domestic kitchen. Because she couldn't be forever refilling a reservoir, or farting about with stove top coffee pots. Sue needed her drug of choice to be on tap.

My association with Leslie bought me limited cred. with the raw foodies because of Raw Energy, the truly seminal bestseller that she published with her daughter, Susannah, in 1984, which advocated a 75% raw diet. Still, when I visited Leslie's cottage on the Pembroke coast a decade later to work on our project, the raw food lady served me sausages.

Imagine Sue & Leslie encountering each other, perhaps at some fabulous party in the Seventies, while Leslie was re-inventing Health & Beauty writing in terms of diet & lifestyle in Harpers & Queen magazine and Sue was Time Out's first restaurant critic. Both had residual American accents and alcoholic fathers. Sue's dad was US correspondent for the Daily Mirror and she grew up in Hollywood. Leslie's father was Stan Kenton, the jazz pianist and band leader, who sexually abused her.

On the wall of the loo at Sue's house in Camden was a letter from Albert Goldman, scurrilous and profane biographer of Elvis, fishing for gossip, re:Lennon. Her ex, Pearce Marchbank, had told Goldman that it was actually Sue who had introduced John to Yoko. Did she wish to tell him about it and, if so, could she give him a sign? "Yeah, I'll give you a fucking sign, buddy!" cackled Sue, making the universal FU gesture.

With her first husband, Barry Miles, Sue had run the gallery where Yoko met John and had generally hung out at the groovy, swirling epicentre of swinging London before getting into cookery. As one does. Aged 19 and new in London, through a mutual friend, I got a job washing up in her kitchen at L'Escargot from its opening night in June 1981. Word was, Sue had talked a callow young Commodities Broker, Nick Lander, into buying the gaff!

My favourite Sue story is the one when Alastair cut his finger off. Alastair Little, Sue's co-Chef, was accident prone. One hot night he stood on the hoist to open the heavy trapdoor in the Greek Street pavement, which swung back on its counterbalance and severed the tip of his finger. I was delegated to phone Sue at home, asking her to come in and cover for him. "That bastard," said Sue with characteristic tact and diplomacy, "he's done this deliberately to spoil my night off!"

I met Leslie on the phone early in 1994, when I wrote a weekly 'food gossip column', Gastropod. When some re-packagings of her books were re-marketed in January, I took the chance to tell her that she was a heroine of wagamama where, I informed her, there was a 'Raw Energy' section on the menu. "Actually," she told me when we eventually sat opposite each other at wagamama, "that phrase is my trade mark."

At Glastonbury Festival in 1995, I implemented a juice bar, a pretty radical proposition, which sufficiently impressed Leslie to bring me in as her co-writer on Juice High. I spent a weekend at her Pembrokeshire place planning it and we went on a short tour together to promote it, when published in the Summer of '96. Our Manchester appearance was cancelled by the IRA.

Before Leslie moved down under, we had lost touch. Sue, I introduced to Emily Green, but I rarely saw her; then, not at all. Though hardly friends for life, both these women deeply impressed me. It was my pleasure to have worked with them.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Start Working For Free


Freelance writer sites are wrong.


My Universal Credit work coach suggested I pitch for writing jobs online, via Fiverr, 'the world's largest freelance services marketplace for lean entrepreneurs.' The reason they are so lean, I suppose, is because they can't afford to eat. Minimum payment for any job - or 'gig' - is only $5 and Fiverr takes 20% commission - one of those five bucks.

As Fiverr is a global marketplace, one competes with people in far-flung corners of the former British Empire, who are not so much lean as downright skinny. Still, their written English is OK and they are willing to work for next to nothing. Talking of which, some online hucksters suggest the easiest way money may be made, selling digital services through Fiverr, is by outsourcing the actual work via SEO Clerks.

Fiverr is like a brothel: sellers flaunt their wares - or 'gigs' - for buyers to choose. In order to catch the eye of a horny john, however, a whore needs a decent ranking. "So," comments my UC work coach, "you work cheaply at first, to build  a reputation." It is not so simple to get one's first gigs, though. A Top Tip for new sellers on Fiverr, unofficially, is to ask friends to pretend to buy your services and then leave glowing reviews. If you don't have friends, set up bogus accounts.

Appalled by the amorality of  Fiverr, I looked at Upwork, where freelancers bid on jobs posted by prospective clients. For instances: 'The rate is 1.5$ per 100 words you write'; 'Total pay for the two 1000 word articles is $5'; '$2.40 per 400 word article.' Crumbs! I asked on the popular Facebook page, Stop Working For Free, 'Can anyone suggest UK-based freelancer sites that may offer more realistic rates?'

The answer was an emphatic, NO: 'Freelancer sites, in my experience, all suck,' said one. 'Stay away from the freelance writing sites. Please,' beseeched another. 'They don't pay more than peanuts and they never will.'

Thing is, as any fool knows, only monkeys work for peanuts: 'I need native English writers - $13/1000 words. Please note that we have very high editorial standards compared to most other blogs. Article must be 100% original. This is a ghostwriting position and I will retain all rights to the work.' Buddy, if you expect to pay me £8.50, net, to craft 1,000 words, how high can your editorial standards really be?
 
On Twitter, the Writing Gigs feed offers, 'an opportunity for those who have writing skills and want to make up to $79 per hour... We have unlimited work load and you can work at home remotely, part time or full time.' It's URL defaults to a 'job application' form that lets one choose how much one wants to be paid for however many hours one is disposed to work. Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?

Completion of the form leads to, MasterWritingJobs.com, which hosts a very persuasive video, enticing wannabe writers, irrespective of experience, to sign up for as much well-paid work as they can handle. 'Now Available In: England. With 16221 Facebook Fans'. All you have to do is pay £27.50 (equivalent) to access their 'dashboard'.

'The intro, 'are you ready to make $2000 to $10K just by writing from the comfort of your own home,' was enough to know it's a scam,' was one comment on the absolutewrite forum. 'It certainly has all the hallmarks of a scam: hard sell; limited opportunities countdown; offers lots of money really quickly,' said another. 'I sat through the really long hard sell video so you don't have to,' said a third. 'Save your $34.00,' was the consensus advice. In fact, you'll save more than that if this iteration of the scam is exactly like it's predecessor, Real Writing Jobs!

Earning real money writing from home - or anywhere, on my laptop! - remains an implausible dream. Still, while there's evidently no shortage of budding writers, how many can write engagingly? Similarly, there's plenty of prospective clients, but where are those who recognise quality and are prepared to pay for it? Not at masturbatingjobs.com, that's for sure: 'No actual jobs at this site. Use Upwork instead because it is free, you can filter out the dross, and they have 1,000s real jobs that you must be qualified for.' I hear that!

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Playing Property Roulette

Pullens, 10.06.86, when voting Labour may have made a difference.

Likesay, I own my home. I exercised my right to buy my council flat at the turn of the Millennium, when Blair's government first capped the discount to long term tenants. Word went around our Pullens Buildings, Victorian tenements near the Elephant & Castle, to act now or forever lose the chance to betray one's principles. I duly qualified for the full 70% discount, thank you VERY much.

Our buildings were saved from demolition by squatters, following a legendary battle vs. bailiffs backed by cops in the Summer of '86, but now we're a Heritage Conservation area. South Wark recently valued my place at £430,000, but the more desirable flats regularly achieve £480+. I saw a Facebook post from two years ago, when the record stood at £365,000. Our flats have been earning leaseholders, like me, a grand a week!

According to one analysis, I should thank Thatcher for making me rich by bringing in the right to buy. I'm not going to apologise for having taken advantage of the circs. as they presented themselves, but I did not buy into the Tory mindset. Never say never, but I have yet to leverage the equity in my home to become another blooming property developer.

I have exploited my capital asset by travelling on its rental income. In late 2010, I found a reliable tenant and went to India for six months. Only I neglected to take out travel insurance and came home in four months, badly mangled, with bits blown off. It is quite a tale. Being able to recuperate in my very own home, surrounded by good neighbours, some of whom I've known for decades, has been a major factor in my recovery.

I've considered moving, but continue to live in my over-valued gaff because I like it here, #SarfLDN. The people are more tolerant, I speak their language, and the food is better. Besides, whatever my mission might be, I suspect that it's specific to this location. I'm not selling up because, if I had the money, I should like to buy a nice flat of my own, like the one in which I currently reside. I do not wish to re-mortgage to buy another flat, somewhere cheaper, and don't even talk to me about AirBnB!

Peoples' memories are short. Few remember the last significant property crash, 25 years ago. In London, the 2008 shenanigans arrested market growth for a couple of years, but the madness soon resumed. In South Wark, the Labour-led Council that was elected in 2010 initiated a massive programme of urban renewal that involved the social cleansing of local estates. Rents in the new developments, even those that are supposedly 'affordable', are sky high and there are next to no new 'social rents' (i.e.: Council flats).

The reason I got my gaff valued is because I face a bill for £13,117.27 (including fees of £375). The Council will lend me the money to pay its bill, secured against 3.05% of the equity in my flat; the interest is determined the amount its value increases before it is sold. However, although hardly anyone seems to believe it, even London property prices may tumble. By exercising the 'equity loan' option to pay this bill, I have entered into a game of property roulette with South Wark, praying for a  crash.

Housing is such a massive problem in London because of the stinking thinking that surrounds it. More than a place to live, one's flat is an investment vehicle or a rung on some notional ladder. That's why the Elephant is being filled with residential towers that locals cannot afford to live in. Still, that situation can quickly turn around. Most of those new flats have been bought off plan by foreign speculators, who expect to see a profit before they pay the balance. When the market stalls, they will write off their deposits and precipitate an avalanche.

Maybe I'm mad, but I am playing a long game, gambling that by the time I come to repay South Wark, the loan will be worth considerably less than the sum I borrowed. If I'm wrong, 3.05% is not a bad interest rate. It may be that London property continues to defy the laws of nature indefinitely, but I've been forecasting an imminent collapse for years, now. Surely I can't go on being wrong forever?

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Not My South Wark


#NotMySouthWark dot guv.


I am much better off than most people - never mind most Universal Credit claimants - because I own a flat in Central London. The unseen assessors who administrate UC can't seem to get their heads around it. Three times, I've been asked at the Job Centre about my residential status. Why have I not applied for help with housing costs? It is because I am a mortgage-paid leaseholder, thank you VERY much.

As such, I don't have to worry about paying the rent, which I am glad about, since that's the biggest glitch in the system. I do, however, pay service charges, including an extraordinary one of £13K+. I'm sure your heart bleeds for me. As I pointed out to a former neighbour and ex-squatter who now lives as a rentier in some rural idyll, her bill for the external renovations will be less than a year's rental income at market rates.

I might be blamed for the lack of affordable housing, because I legally stole my Council flat. I would have to plead guilty, although I am not ashamed. Still, I would argue, the true culprit is Southwark Council, which is engaged upon a programme of urban regeneration, creating a new quartier, 'South Central London', based around a 'skyscraper cluster' at the Elephant & Castle.

Within weeks of taking office in 2010, the new Council Leader, a barrister called Peter John, cut a deal with the lead developer, LendLease. Not only were they sold a large tract of Central London, then occupied by the Heygate Estate, at a knock-down price, but Southwark also agreed to clear out the riff raff before demolition could commence. Basically, they gave it away. Peter John was rewarded for his perfidy with a junket to Cannes and an OBE from the Tory Governbent.

In 2009, the Council moved from the old Town Hall in Camberwell towards the City, to its shiny new office block at 160 Tooley Street. It bought the building in 2012 and then flogged off the old Town Hall to be turned into a Groovy Centre. Somewhere along the line, Southwark ceased to be a representative community organisation and went comic book corporate: it turned into South Wark.

The new idiocy was confirmed on TV when South Wark CEO, Eleanor Kelly, featured in an episode of the Channel 4 series Undercover Boss. She revealed that, although she is paid close to £200,000 per annum to run our borough, she sees herself primarily as the mother of a handicapped teenage daughter. Another highly important ancillary job, apparently, is to appear in promotional videos for LendLease.

In 2013, South Wark responded to central government spending cuts by insisting that even the poorest people in the borough must pay Council Tax. One may claim a reduction via their clunky 'MySouthwark' web site. The man who put his name to the demand is one of those plutocratic Local Authority officers listed on the annual Town Hall Rich List as earning over £150,000. I wrote and asked him to justify this new feudalism. He did not reply.

My other household expense, the Service Charge, is estimated at the beginning of each year and eventually balanced with a further payment. However, due to institutional incompetence, South Wark can't keep track of these extra payments. With predictable monotony, it spits out threatening letters about imaginary arrears.

Following the latest erroneous missive, I wrote to the Collecting Officer, informing him that I would henceforth levy my own administrative charge of £50 for each unnecessary response. He wrote back, saying the error was with me. I replied, correcting him and attaching the first invoice. He said, 'The Council does not agree with you that you can invoice it for responding to an email which was a response to a correspondence received from you clarifying the Council’s position with what happened to your payments.'

He also said, 'I clearly advised in my email the reason behind your payments being misallocated was your error and not the Council’s and that the issue has now been rectified.' I suggested that, if the error was with me, he should ultimately be able to explain to the Judge how 'you were able to remedy it at your end without me doing anything other than advise you of it?' I added another £50 to the bill and updated the invoice to £100. There has been no further response.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

I, Daniel Blake Too

#WeAreAllDanielBlake - "I am Spartacus and he is a mad Scotch bloke!"

Asked if I've seen that Len Loach film, I quip that I am living it. Besides, I don't have spare cash for the cinema. Still, one can now watch it online for free, so I did.

The film accurately portrays the workings of a system that's compartmentalised, so decision makers have no interaction with those whose cases they adjudicate. They have no discretion, only data in the form of ticked boxes. At a work capability assessment, I'm asked, "can you walk a hundred metres unaided." My answer is, "yes, but..." But there is no space on the form for, 'but,' so no mobility allowance for yours truly.

It's also deadly in their pass/agg. use of scrupulously polite language. They refer to you as, 'Mr,' while talking to you as if you're a child. As his neighbour, China, tells him, "Dan, they will fuck you around, I'm warning you. Make it as miserable as possible. No accident: that's the plan. I know dozens who have just given up."

Daniel is a carpenter, the kind of tradesman I admired while working with my hands, but "dyslexic when it comes to computers." I am fairly literate, if not quite a code wrangler. I did learn .html, twenty years ago, in order to compose rudimentary web pages like those that survive in Pot Culture and my archived food blog, Gastropod. But when web design moved on, to forms and php, I did not follow. Instead, I mostly did manual jobs which left my mind free for other considerations. I did not anticipate being maimed.

Daniel scored 12 in his assessment, three short of qualification. I scored zero in early 2013, meaning that there's absolutely no physical impediment to my working full time, despite losing my left hand less than two years previously. I still have the right one, after all. I can sit at a desk, even if I can't stand on my reconstructed foot for too long. My benefits advisor, bless him, suggested that I appeal. Naively, I told him I couldn't see the point. It's not as though the discrepancy in my case was marginal.

"In that case," he told me, "our conversation is over and you'll be meeting my colleague, who administrates the JSA." Our convo. had reached the point where we had agreed that I should refresh my qualifications, perhaps as a proofreader. I had identified an online course that cost a few hundred quid and might take me six weeks to complete. "Forget it," said my new advisor. "We haven't got a few hundred quid to spare, unless paid work is guaranteed, and you haven't got six weeks. You need to start applying for jobs straight away."

My dealings with these two chaps were cordial. Both are old school, around my age, with careers in the DWP that stretch back to the halcyon days of the DHSS. Neither was happy with the way things were going. "I'm not here to find you a job," the first told me, exasperated. "My task is to ensure that the incumbent Minister doesn't look too incompetent, however unworkable his new rules might seem."

More than a month after being struck off ESA, I saw him in the street. He asked how it was going. It was awful, applying for jobs as an under-qualified fifty something with a sketchy work history. "I did try to warn you," he said. "If you'd appealed, we would have had a few months to work something out. Still, perhaps you can get back on the sickness benefit on other grounds?" Such as? "You might be depressed," he suggested. "Nobody could be surprised, after all you've been through, if you were." Looking me in the eye, he added, "and nobody can prove that you're not!"

Daniel Blake describes himself as, "a sick man looking for non-existent jobs that I can't take anyway. I'm just wasting my time, the employers' time, your time. And all it does is humiliate me. Grind me down to the point where you can get my name off those computers." Hashtag, WeAreAllDanielBlake.

Spoiler alert: Daniel's heart attacks him, finally, right before his appeal is to be heard. Whatever comes or goes, that won't be my story. I may be damaged, but I am not frail. If what does not kill you makes you stronger, I am superhuman.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Back On The Chain Gang

The Universe forced my hand, now Universal Credit insists I shine my light.


Following a brief spell of employment that now seems like an hallucination, I am back at Kennington Park Job Centre Plus, where all has changed. I now go up the fag stench stairs to the first floor, where we abide by the code of Universal Credit. If I obey the regulations scrupulously, on March 5th I shall eventually receive payment.

Under the old rules of Job Seekers' Allowance, I contracted to apply for a specified number of jobs each week, which was relatively easily done: search the Universal Jobmatch online to choose a few positions I wouldn't mind filling, in the unlikely event that they were disposed to take on a sarky, middle-aged left trans-radial amputee, & fire off my exhaustive CV, with a more-or-less facetious covering letter. I never had a reply.

Now, though, I'm expected to prove I spend 35 hours each week actively looking for work, or striving to improve my income. Seeking jobs must be one's full time preoccupation. Failure to demonstrate that I've done sufficient job seeking by filling in my online Journal could eventually result in a 'sanction'. This means I may be punished by not receiving any money for a month or more. That will teach me an important life lesson, no doubt.

"You get a bit of leeway for the first few weeks," explained Moses at my first work search review meeting, "but then they start to get heavy." I sat across the desk, relishing his choice of pronoun. Not, "we," and certainly not, "I," even though it was he and his colleagues who would be applying the weight. I briefly considered a quip about Nazi concentration camp guards, but thought better of it. Even though Moses had criticised my journal keeping and said my CV was useless, I didn't want to fall out with the fellow.

His name is not actually Moses; that's the person I was supposed to meet, as it had been on my previous appointment, the commitments meeting. On that occasion, another chap conducted the meeting instead of Moses and so it was this time, too. I suggested in banter that Moses was a mythical figure, but he seems more likely to be their Trainer. Neither geezer was local: the first was #NorfLDN, with a faint whiff of Gooner; the second from the Near East, plausibly Crackney. Nobody wants to be seen administering Universal Credit on their own manor, innit.

'Moses' told me I'd better re-do my CV: 'Change your format. Only put 3 of the most recent jobs. More in-depth profile based around your strengths.' He told me that Arial is the only acceptable font for a CV, but mine is in Liberation Mono. Arial is not among the suite of fonts offered by LibreOffice Writer. 'Moses' told me to follow the guidelines in a pdf document that he displayed on his desktop, but was unable to send me and seems beyond the ken of Google. Still, I shall comply, Google Docs willing, and thereby create fresh fodder for this, my blog, which is hereby re-launched.

'Moses' told me to play to my strengths, which consist of stringing words together like the ones you're reading, but I stopped trying to get paid to do that aeons ago. Which is not to say I haven't pimped myself out as a copywriter over the years because, believe me, I know copy. I craft the wittiest copy, as everybody agrees, at very reasonable rates. But one has inevitably dealt with sub-literate nitwits who feel their opinion of words' meaning and use of language is equivalent to one's own. In which case, they may as well write the damn thing themselves. No doubt they will pay themselves more promptly.

Sooner than soldier on as a word smith, as I entered my seventh set of seven years more committed to an occult path than a career in consensus reality, I chose to do manual work, mostly for a Yoda-like Jack of all trades from Lee Green. But to be a handyman one needs a pair of hands and I find myself one short. Still, I can type with the stubby digits of  my remaining hand, made for stabbing keys. Blogging the experience of claiming benefit must count towards my weekly work search commitment by showcasing my skill over 750 words. At least, that's what I'm planning to tell 'Moses' when I next see him.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Times I Saw The Clash #3, 26.01.80


Bankrobbers: 16 Tons Tour @ Deeside Leisure Centre, Chester. 

 

No longer quite so Bored With The USA, The Clash had been over there and got clobbered up with their engineer boots and retro suits.  Sartorially, the Last Gang in Town now looked the business and, as a live act, The Clash took no prisoners.

 

'London Calling' had come out in time for Christmas, but no-one gave me a copy. Following disastrous A level results the previous Summer, I had eventually been dispatched to Merseyside, where I lived with my Granny Peggy at 39 Greenbank Drive, Pensby, Heswall, Wirral while attending the Sight & Sound College in Liverpool, where I was supposed to be learning to touch type. The 'college' was upstairs in a City Centre office building, not too far from Mathew Street. If I went to The Grapes at lunchtime, I probably would not return to the S&S for the afternoon session.

Swimming back there in memory, I remember a lad, one lunchtime, the image of Sid Viscious. He had the hair and the white tux, modelling the classic Rock'n'Roll Swindle look, like Gavin Turk's Pop waxwork a dozen years later. This was in the pub in Matthew Street, within spitting distance of Eric's, the punk club in a basement opposite the car park where The Cavern had been back in the days of The Beatles. He may well have been affiliated with Probe, the intimidatingly hip record shop where the late Pete Burns was a frightful apparition behind the counter.

Away from home as a grown-up, technically, dressed in my dead dad's old suits and accompanied if not quite chaperoned by my cousins, Jayne & Lynne, driven by Jayne's future husband, Dave, I was let loose on Liverpool. Eric's is legendary, not least for its jukebox, which occupied a dingy corner near the coat room that frequently flooded and contained an amazing collection of crude, swampy rockabilly. Holly Johnson - shaven-headed, clad in furry cowboy chaps - was on the door!

I'd like to reminisce about classic gigs at Erics, but the most famous name I can conjure is Wreckless Eric and I'm sure Mr Goulding would be the first to admit that his unique hit, Whole Wide World, as good as it goes, hardly qualifies him as unforgettable. My quintessential memory of live bands at Eric's was Mick Hucknall's punk group, The Frantic Elevators, who put out several singles on Eric's eponymous record label. After one performance, as I recall, the bar staff improvised an encore of their own, banging tin trays on their heads, like Bob Blackman singing Muletrain on Opportunity Knocks, whose demented tray bashing act had been revived by the Saturday morning kids' TV show, Tiswas.

Not my actual ticket!
So, anyway, we got tickets to see The Clash play this ice rink at Deeside and Dave drove us there. Dave's  memories of that night were probably sharper than mine when we reminisced about it, not so long ago. He married Jayne and their kids are grown up, now. My cousin, Lynne, came too, with her mate, Lynne's  story was not to be so happy and it came to a sad and premature end a few years ago, R.I.P.

According to Dave, the ice on the rink, which had been boarded over for the show, melted and we paddled about in inches of melt water, but I don't remember getting my feet wet. Perhaps that's why I didn't get too close to the stage? The closest I got was towards the Mick side of the stage (Joe's right) but mostly I  remember the group of us being  huddled together, a bit back from the action, but with a decent view of the stage.

The sound was boomy for Mikey Dread, who opened the show. Mikey, who had a great dub reggae album, Dread At The Controls, performed without a backing band, facing a hall full of punks alone onstage, toasting, barely audibly, over a muffled backing track. The audience was not impressed and started throwing missiles, to the point where the Rastaman retreated into the wings. But then, the reggae police arrived. Four of them skanked on from stage left, clad in voluminous overcoats, with hat brims tipped low and bandanas over their faces, although there was no mistaking who they were. (Actually, there was: in the annals of Clash lore, Kosmo Vinyl has noted how the heavy disguise enabled himself, or other crew, to deputise for band members - hello, Mick - who weren't really into what became a regular feature of Mikey's set on that tour.)

I cannae find a setlist for this particular show, but imagine it followed the pattern of the average for the tour as determined by Setlist.fm: possibly opening with Clash City Rockers and definitely not closing with White Riot (I am informed). Outstanding in the dim light of my memory are Mick singing Stay Free, a sentimental song from Give 'Em Enough Rope that had been a sixth form anthem, and a majestic, Police & Thieves. It was probably the first time I heard, Armagideon Time and my first hearing of, Bankrobber, if they played it. They may well have been joined onstage by Mikey, who produced it and memorably toasts on the flip side of the single that came out later in 1980, Rockers Galore UK Tour. When he played Glastonbury in 2004, Mikey Dread delivered a spiffing version of 'Robber, in memoriam Joe before following him to the grave four years later, felled by brain cancer. 

Since his death in 2002, Joe Strummer has undergone beautification as a saint in the punk pantheon. While, I yield to none in my reverence for Strummer as an icon of righteous indignation ('Stay angry! Keep fighting!') we all know that Mr Mellor's daddy was far from being a robber of banks. Joe spoke in a peculiar West London accent that didn't sound entirely natural, because it wasnae, any more than 'Strummer' was his real name. As Strummer was a poseur, he was prone to being hoist with his own petard. Most hilariously, he instigated a boycott of Top Of The Pops, because it was uncool. Consequently, ToTP celebrated Bankrobber getting to no.24 in the pop charts with Legs & Co. acting out the lyric dressed as sexy bank robbers. Like trousers, like brain, innit.

Speaking of trousers, I had a red pair frequently worn with the souvenir t.shirt from this gig, like those some of the kids have on in the video, below, with the chunky red lettering. Both items - along with my two tone 'Jam' shoes - were in my suitcase, which got nicked out of Steve Blackbourne's Renault 5 in Italy, whence we drove (he drove; I am eternally the passenger) that Summer for the European Cup in 1980; the one with the tear gas drifting onto the pitch in Milan. At least, Steve went for the football. I was only there for the violence.