Pulling down the blinds – a true story

We are mid-way through a big house build project. As part of the build, we had the windows changed. The new ones really do make a difference to the noise from the road, but when they were fitted, the blinds in our bedroom were removed. The fitters put them up again, but inexpertly. So for the last few months, we’ve mainly just left them shut. It’s a bedroom. We’re generally asleep in there. The blinds are going anyway when the whole room gets redecorated.

Yesterday, the decorators wanted to check how much paint they’d need for the bedroom. So I opened the main blind. It’s not the first time I’ve done it, but the cord was so tangled I’ve tried to avoid doing it too often. Every previous time, I’ve carefully shut it again afterwards. Yesterday, I forgot.

Fast forward to the evening. Normally I’m the first adult upstairs, putting the kids to bed. Yesterday I was out at a community meeting, so it was my husband’s turn. Guess what? Annoyed that the blind was a) open, and b) not working perfectly, he yanked the cord and the whole thing came down.

By the time I came home, he was seething. It was the decorators’ fault, for wanting to look in the bedroom. It was my fault for permitting it to be opened rather than just switching a light on, and my fault for leaving the blind open when it was bedtime. He was ridiculously angry. I realised in part it was frustration with the build overall, and also that he hadn’t succeeded in fixing it back up and had broken our children’s reach-the-sink stool when standing on it to try. “I’m fed up with all this,” he complained. “Stupid blinds that fall off on me and I’ve had to throw a stool away because this room hasn’t been decorated yet.”

I picked up the blind, stood on a suitable-for-adults tough plastic stool and eventually managed to balance it on the top of the clips that hold it up – one had cracked when he pulled the blind down. It wasn’t perfect, there was maybe a centimetre of gap at the bottom where the cords had stuck and I could not get it flat, but it was maybe 99% acceptable given the imperfect situation.
“Don’t touch it again,” I told him. “It’s carefully balanced. We’ll need to get an expert in to set up the new ones when the room’s redone.”
“Don’t tell me not to do things I wasn’t going to do anyway,” he sulked.

About half an hour later, I was loading the dishwasher when I heard a shout. I ran upstairs. My husband had again pulled down the blinds.
“It was all wrong!” he said. “There was a chink and I wouldn’t have been able to sleep with all the light it would have let in.”
I was a bit cross. “Well now there’s no blind at all,” I said. “You’ve pulled two of the clips out of the wall and I’m not even sure if it can be put up again.”

It took me nearly 20 minutes – during which I heard again how it was all someone else’s fault except the actual blind-destroyer – but eventually, at nearly midnight, I managed to loop the cord over the remaining wall clips and suspend the blind. There was now a fifteen centimetre gap at the top of the blind. This was considerably worse than the balanced blind – perhaps 80% acceptable due to my hard work, but the best we were going to be able to make it. After all, neither of us are window blind fitters.
Until we actually went to sleep, my husband maintained that it would be easier to get sleep with the light coming in through a big gap at top of the blind than to suffer a tiny gap at the bottom.
Of course what we really need is to push on with the redecoration, and get new, tailor-made blinds on all three bedroom windows, that blend in perfectly with the rest of the room’s new colour scheme, but – even though we both know that – it all seemed to fly out the window when we got obsessed with a narrow focus on the short-term window covering.

What did we learn?:
* due to circumstances beyond our control, the state of the blind overall was not what we would want in an ideal world. But for the purpose we had – sleeping in a darkened room – it was sufficient;
* having the blind up was better than trying to cope without the blind all together which would have resulted in street and car lights visible all night and – when the bedroom light was on – greater exposure of us to the street outside while in our nightclothes or getting dressed;
* the option to purchase alternative window coverings was open to us, and always had been. We were not precluded from getting amazing curtains, it was just that having blinds made sense for those windows;
* in any case, we had already had the blinds fully operational for some time, and were going to purchase new ones when the room was redecorated in a few week’s time;
* besides, it was bedtime, you can only purchase window coverings if the shops are open or if you have the time to wait for internet purchases to be deliveries which tend not to be instantaneous (we’d still have been curtainless last nigh and probably a few nights more, even if the end product turn out to be great longer term);
* resolving the room’s need for redecoration soon would alleviate the whole window covering issue. Impatience with a bigger process was not only unhelpful but downright damaging to our interests;
* when something goes wrong unexpectedly, the people that caused the situation to occur may be multiple, but it is not helpful to blame others and refuse accept your own role in the process may not always be entirely positive, because that damages relationships;
* experts in something unrelated to the issue at hand – such as window fitters and decorators – can cause more problems when they wade into a similar but unrelated field – such as blind fitting – but non-experts will regard the two fields as indistinguishable and not understand why they got it so wrong;
* sometimes valuing what you have when it is 99% acceptable is better than demanding 100%, and risking bringing a whole structure down on top of you and ending up with something less good or no blind at all;
* there are people in life that – when something doesn’t work out as they wish – scream, shout, look to blame, look to say I told you so and that the whole disaster is not what they thought would happen. There are others that find an alternative stool to stand on and make the damned blind workable.

BFF wanted

“You and me
We used to be together
Everyday together always
I really feel
That I’m losing my best friend
I can’t believe
This could be the end…”

The song, Don’t Speak by No Doubt, is about the breakup of a relationship. It’s about the end of love. When we think of love, we always think of sex, romantic love, or possibly family love. But the loss of friendship hurts too.

Do you have a BFF? Most people do, if you believe what you see in TV and read about in magazines.

I love my friends. I don’t see enough of my friends. Distance, and time due to childcare are mainly to blame. But I realised that, with the exception of my husband, no one would – if asked – name me as their best friend.
Those competitions? Win one for you and one for your best friend? Most of my friends would be surprised if I won the second one for them. They’d be touched but also embarrassed.
Oh.
Do I have that role in her life? She doesn’t in mine.

I have a good friend I see every day. She’s probably the best friend I have at the moment, although I know that the BFF spot is already taken in her life. We have much in common but enough difference to be interesting. She’s fun to talk with, hugely intelligent, entertaining, caring, endlessly kind. Now her  job has moved and within three months, they will have moved across the country.

I feel like I’m in mourning.
Oh, we’ll stay in touch, I have no doubt about that.
But it won’t be the same as the immediacy, the interweaving in each other’s lives that we have right now. I’ll help and support my friend through everything she needs over the next few months and beyond as best I can, just as we have done for each other over the last months and years.

But I think everyone needs friends close to them.
The internet is amazing, it keeps friendships alive, but you also need people close by that love you and care for you. You need to be able to help each other out in practical and not just emotional ways.

Part of me just wants to curl into a ball and cry. I need to shake myself out of it, go out and be me just as well as I can and hope that I’m lucky enough to find another friendship that feels as happy and easy as this one.
Part of the trouble is that by your 30s, finding friends is so often about breaking into long established friendship circles. NCT and school gates can help, but you have to want to do it and for others to be responsive to your overtures.

So, good friend wanted.
BFF wanted.
I can promise laughs, support, intellectual conversation and a fascination with the world. And cakes. And wine. And a need to exercise.
WLTM similar.

The Cold Shoulder

Another cookery post. I’ve been looking for ways to make the Sunday roast more exciting. We’ve tried not having a roast at all. We’ve tried whole and partial ducks, pork, beef and chicken. We’ve slow cooked, pot roasted and normal roasted.

Today, I tried something a bit different. My husband bought a bone-in shoulder of lamb and a bag of salad. He hates salad, so it was clearly aimed at me. But I turned that into the basis of a delicious meal for the whole family for Sunday lunch, but the title of this post is a clue – it takes rather a long time to cook at such a low temperature.

Slow-cooked Shoulder of Lamb with Salsa Verde

15 minutes to prepare, 4.5 hours cooking

1 bone-in shoulder of lamb (ask for one that serves about 4 people)
1 bag watercress and rocket salad
1 teaspoon chopped mint
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons lemon juice + set of a lemon if you are using fresh lemon
1 teaspoon child flakes
(3 anchovies, finely chopped)
Seasoning

Preheat oven to 200c. Snip the lamb all over with scissors to make tiny pockets in the meat and fat.
Put the mint and half the garlic into a bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.
Chop the salad down to chopped herb size. Put one third into the bowl, season and stir. Rub all over the lamb.
Put the lamb in the oven, ideally in a baking tray that has a rack in the bottom.
After 15-20 minutes, turn down to 110c. I know it seems low. Cook for four hours. (If you are brave try at 85c for six hours – not tried it myself, but a friends with a meat thermometer swears by it! This is why I called this the cold shoulder.)
Remove from oven, cover in foil and rest for 10-15 minutes. Watch out, the bone will be hot to touch.

Salsa Verde traditionally contains anchovies. If, like me, you are not an anchovy fan, this works just as well without. Mix the rest of the olive oil, the rest of the chopped up salad bag, the rest of the garlic, all the lemon juice (and zest if you have it), the chilli flakes, and a LOT of salt and black pepper in a jar. Lid on, shake this and put it in the fridge for use later. It comes out a gorgeous bright green colour.

I served the lamb in a couple of different ways, some chunks, some shredded. I added roasted butternut squash cubes (or mini roast potatoes for the kids), with steamed carrots and asparagus. And red wine. Absolutely delicious. The salsa verde really cuts through the fat too.

The Wall that Blinked

A short story written with my son, based on his day at school…

My predator had cyan eyes with purple dots on the irises. Each one shaped like the eye of Horus, they were red rimmed and had a feline black slit of a pupil. These were not the eyes of a creature you would want to meet on a dark night.
I was really proud of them.
They dried over the lunch break. During afternoon class my teacher Miss Bayer said that she was so pleased with our predator artwork that she would put the eyes up on the wall in the classroom.
I wasn’t too sure I liked this. Have you ever walked past a wall of eyes? If you are there with your friends, then it’s possible to think of them like so many miniature stained glass windows. If, like me the following day, you have left your violin in the cloakroom again and have to pass the eyes by yourself on your way to retrieve your instrument, they can be downright creepy.
They’re just paper, tissue, paint and glue, I told myself. I made a pair. I know that. But I still scurried to find my red violin case. I carried it in front of me like a shield as I went to pass them again. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the blink.
I froze. Stupid now I think about it, I should have run. But I didn’t. Down near the bottom of the display, a pair of luminous green eyes the shape of of an infinity symbol had definitely blinked. I waited. I could hear my heart beating in my ears.
Nothing happened. I must have imagined it. I bent to examine the eyes, smiling to myself as I recognised them. My friend Dean had made them, I noticed he had managed to get a splodgy yellow capital D around each of the teardrop-shaped pupils. It was his symbol. He wanted to write it on walls and stuff.  I’d told him that, if he did that, everyone would know he’s done the graffiti and he’d have to clean it off and the police would come to his house. He muttered that everyone knowing the graffiti was his was sort of the point, but I knew that he had thought about it again, and only actually practised it on the side wall of his own house. The yellow seemed to make the green paint glow. I didn’t remember him adding black paper eyelids but when the eyes blinked again, that’s definitely what I saw. I yelped. This time I ran.
I went to bed as normal, but I switched my light back on again when my mum went downstairs. In the dark, I could imagine that there were predator eyes on my bedroom wall too. Weird, glowing eyes, as if a thousand greedy animals were watching me, waiting for the moment that I would drop off so that they could gobble me up. I tossed and turned. I sweated. I drank a cup of water and had to go out to the bathroom. I must have fallen asleep, because I woke when my alarm went off. I was ok for about two seconds, but then I felt like a bubble of sick was rising all acidy in my stomach. I didn’t want to go to school ever again.
Mum had absolutely no truck with this at all, and packed me off to be eaten by the wall monsters.
“What’s up?” asked Dean. “You look poorly.” He had run to catch up with me on the footpath that led to the school gate.
I shrugged and put my hood up on my coat. “Tired.”
“We’re doing about prey today,” he said. “Blinkin’ shame if you had to miss it and go home.”
We hung our bags and coats in the cloakroom, and I nearly walked into Miss Bayer as she stepped out of the stationery supplies cupboard. She was holding a broken piece of wood in her hand. “The whole shelf’s come away from the wall,” she said.
“Don’t look at me!” said Dean.
She twisted her mouth in the way she does when she’s thinking about a tough maths puzzle. “I wasn’t,” she said slowly. It almost sounded like she added “but I am now”, but no actual words came.
We headed to class. I looked away from the wall of eyes. The last thing I needed was my whole class hearing me shriek.
Dean suddenly stopped.
I didn’t even realise until I was a metre or so in front of him. I turned back.
“Did – ?” he said.
“What happened?”I asked.
“Nothing.” He shook his head. He started walking away.
“What happened?” I asked again, bobbing along beside him like a rubber duck in the bath.
“I said nothing.” He didn’t look at the eyes on the wall, and he wouldn’t look at me either.
It was break time before he would admit that something had happened. Even then he pretended like it wasn’t a big deal. “It looked like there was a pair of eyes glowing at me, ok, but it was just the light. I’m not a nutter. I don’t do stupid stuff.”
Dean clearly didn’t want to talk about it, so we played normal games at break and lunch. As home time approached, I started to feel nervous. I didn’t want more of the eyes moving or glowing. I didn’t know what was going on with that wall. All I knew was, I didn’t want to be anywhere near it.
I dashed to be the first to go out to meet my mum on the playground, so of course I forgot my water bottle and had to go back. I stopped just before the place where the eyes hung on the wall. There was a shadow across them and the sparkle of the glitter glue that some of my classmates had used to make their predator eyes looked like malevolent glints in the semi-darkness.
I took a deep breath. I felt like my heart was going to hammer out through my chest. I felt light headed. I didn’t want to be there. I needed to think about something else. Miss Bayer’s words from that afternoon’s class floated through my mind. “Prey has two options for survival. Fight or flight.”
What I was feeling was flight.
When the orange eyes next to Dean’s blinking green ones started to glow, I felt something else. I felt anger.
I stormed to the stationery cupboard and flung the door open.
There was Dean, torch in one hand, my water bottle in the other. He was shining light through the holes in the wall where the shelf had fallen out. They lined up exactly with the orange and green predator masks on the other side of the wall.
“I knew it!” I shouted. “A blinking shame? No one says that!”
Dean looked a bit awkward, but then he grinned.”I got you though, didn’t I? You really thought the eyes were alive.”
I nodded. “You did. But I don’t know why.”
He pulled a face. “There’s just something about walls. I see a wall, I want to decorate it. You had to go and tell me the police would be on me if I drew on walls in public, didn’t you? So I drew on the one at home. And Dad’s grounded me.”
A shape loomed behind me, casting a shadow across Dean’s face. Miss Bayer appeared. “You two. I might have known. Dean – did you pull the shelf out of my cupboard?”
Dean looked a bit scared, but admitted it.
“Great, well, as you like decorating walls so much, you can help fix the shelf back into this one. Tomorrow. Now go on, home. Both of you.”
We hurried out onto the playground to find our parents. As I ran, I glanced back.
I was almost sure that a cyan and purple dotted eye winked at me. But that was impossible.

Haiku Wizard… My Poem published!

Are you a bit of a book fan? Are you randomly on Facebook at teatime one day, scrolling through…

That was me. And I don’t know about you, but when I see “writing competition”, “free” “about your favourite books” and “haiku” all together, I automatically think I Can Do That. And my brain switched to Harry Potter…

Why Harry Potter? Well, my latest writing project is middle grade fiction, and my son’s bedtime story has taken us right through Percy Jackson and the Olympians, all through Harry Potter and back to Rick Riordan’s world, this time with Heroes of Olympus. Harry Potter takes three times as long and includes linguistic fun (look at the character names) as well as great storytelling.

It was wizard fun.

So today my ten minute’s work haikus were published in The Story, Amazon Kindle’s new reading/writing themed magazine published via tumblr.

I am a bit excited- seeing my name there as the reader responsible, with a potentially worldwide readership, and for something fun is fabulous.

No, it’s not an agent, a contract, publication (and international acclaim for) my novels etc. but it shows me that out there, people to whom I am not related believe I can be creative.

So you have to celebrate the small things as well as the big.

Please go and enjoy my haikus here. You can read it without joining Tumblr (at least I could) but just in case, you can also read it below:

Harry goes to school, 
Learns spells, makes friends, finds the stone.
How did he survive?

Kids get petrified, 
Harry talks to snakes, and fights
Heir of Slytherin.

Prisoner on the run,
Time travel saves the day – Oh!
Harry’s Godfather?!

Boy wizard competes
In dangerous magic games
The Dark Lord rises.

Ministry take school,
Order fights the Death Eaters: 
Sirius Black dies!

Who is Half blood prince?
Dumbledore self-sacrifice?
This one makes least sense!

Deathly Hallows Three,
Voldemort or Harry dies
Which one do you think?

Cake with no eggs – apple and cinnamon

   

 Kids home ill today, which always ends up meaning baking. But without any warning of illness, I don’t have the right ingredients in. I don’t even have enough flour and butter, and no eggs at all…
But they’re ill and clamouring for cake.
Ok then. Let’s see if we can make a fabulous cake with only random ingredients…
And we can! This is an awesome, fruity, light cake. I was amazed!

Store-cupboard Apple and Cinnamon Cake

5 heaped dessert spoons of soft brown sugar
5 heaped dessert spoons self raising flour
3 heaped dessert spoons polenta
2 heaped dessert spoons natural fibre boost powder (Matt Dawson branded)
4 kids’ little fromage frais, apricot flavour
2 apples, finely diced
1or 2 dessert spoons cinnamon
8 dessert spoons olive oil
2 dessert spoons lemon juice

I mixed all the above together, and baked for 1 hour at 190c.

I mixed the last of my icing sugar and butter together with some more lemon juice to make a toupee of butter cream icing on the top. It’d be great to kid myself that with the polenta, fibre powder and fruit this approximated to healthy, but it’s cake at the end of the day, and a lovely one too. After all, if you can’t have comfort food when you are ill…

Twinkle twinkle

Jake Goodman here again. I know you’re used to my usual stuff on sex, life and why I don’t have a toolshed (and if you are not, buy tickets for my shows!) but I’ve been watching the news and spending time babysitting my kids over half term.
I keep hearing that the EU stuff is all too complicated.  Really? Ok. So let’s have a sing song instead…

Twinkle, twinkle European stars,
We Brits don’t get just what you are.
We’ve been told that you’re a superstate,
Now we might make a big mistake.
Twinkle, twinkle little stars,
let’s talk about just what you are.

In the 1970s we were told,
About this project, big and bold.
Both YES and NO told us a Common Market,
Was not the end but just a start to it.
Heads of State and Prime Mini-stars
Working together as partners.

The laws that come from “Brussels” are
Made by lots of British stars.
Not laws made by “faceless bureaucrats”:
The people that say that are – not very well informed…
Council, Parliament, Commission,
The people there are from each member nation.

We elect 73 UK MEPs,
That is direct democracy.
We ask them to speak for us there.
Some will be wise and some won’t care.
They make the laws and are elected by you,
They sit with other parties of a similar view.

The Council’s filled with Ministers,
The brightest, shiniest little stars.
Ministers come from our government,
That you’ve elected so they can represent.
For each subject the expert one attends,
Debates, argues, drafts and then amends.

What about the European Commission?
Surely a democratic perversion?
It’s a civil service: makes it all work;
Collects evidence; runs programmes; gets people to talk.
Proposes drafts laws for the elected ones
To change and shape until they’re done.

If you don’t like it, you have a choice,
You’ve got a vote, you’ve got a voice.
But you should know what you have got
Before you throw away the lot.
You can live, work, set up in any Member State;
Criminals can’t hide when we cooperate.

You think there is too much “red tape”?
Health and safety, working hours? (Did we “gold-plate”?)
Foreign policy; some share a currency;
Agriculture; fair competition; fish in the sea.
Clean environment; a single market:
If you trade, holiday or buy: you’re a part of it!

We take for granted the benefit
That we get from our membership.
It’s easy to say it’d be ok,
They need us, it won’t get taken away.
But there is no guarantee
And that’s not good enough for me.

In these days of globalisation
It’s tough to be an isolated nation.
The EU exists, it won’t go away,
So it’s with these structures that you’d have to play,
To work out an alternative
Less say on rules, but more “sovereign”.

People say that what you are
Is an EU-USSR.
Or a capitalist conspiracy,
Or always voting against me.
But facts do not support that view
The question is what WILL you do?

You can’t be a superstate:
Refugees came, countries closed their gates.
The euro’s not a great success,
Southern Member States are in a mess.
But you are by far our biggest market,
We’d be mad to up and scarper.

There’s no other countries calling: “Leave them be!
We’ll offer better trade!” It’s a fantasy.
And there is no one clear view
Of what exactly we would do.
Those that promise Utopia
Seem to think its based in Westminster.

And being In matters to me.
Don’t diminish my identity.
Don’t blame problems within my nation
Just on EU immigration.
Twinkle, twinkle, little stars
Reach for them, hold on, they are ours.

Under Starter’s Orders

At the end of the day, having a single document setting out Britain’s special position with the EU is a massive achievement.
Very shortly, we in the UK will be involved in a referendum on whether to remain in or leave the EU.
It is not a waste of time. It’s not insignificant, not worth bothering about, a load of old rubbish.
It’s about Britain’s future standing in the world and whether we stand in isolation, looking across far oceans, or stand with our neighbours as well as doing the looking across oceans thing.
While the changes negotiated tonight might be the defining aspect of a REMAIN/ LEAVE thing for some, others are basing their views on other things.

Were facts the major driver, then the result should be an absolute trouncing of LEAVE, because REMAIN has the evidence of over 40 years of life in the EC/EEC/EU and the establishment on its side, and LEAVE has speculation and anti-establishment figures.
The “debate” between then-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Leader of UKIP Nigel Farage a couple of years ago showed that facts alone don’t win – Clegg explained with facts but Farage “won” in the eyes of the media and the public because his version of reality had been given so much airtime by the media and he spoke about it with passion.
So at present everything is 50/50 because REMAIN don’t have the media or the public’s hearts won at the moment.

REMAIN have to explain why all the rights and benefits we have now as EU citizens are not guaranteed if we vote to be no longer part of the EU club. They have to sell the good things about membership, which have been ours since before I was born, to a public that has been told little about these things as coming from our membership and only really told about the EU as a faceless bureaucracy to fight against.
They have to sell membership of an outer rim of the EU (not Eurozone, not Schengen) for the privileged position it really is (after all, keeping currency and border controls have been two of the main issues under debate so far in the media during this renegotiation).
They do need to talk about business and prosperity, and the fact that if trade with non-EU countries is going up while we ARE a part of the EU, then the idea that it is somehow being held back is nonsense (trade not being a zero sum game). It is also true that the EU helps us guarantee that our working hours and wages are not something that we should be giving away to give businesses an edge against each other – it is therefore in the interests of those that work as well as those that employ for us to remain in the EU and ensure that competitiveness is not at the expense of the workforce.
They need to talk about democracy – there’s a false belief that laws are foisted on us by foreign faceless bureaucrats and “quisling” Brits. In fact, the EU has the Member States’ Ministers/ Prime Ministers or Heads of State as the Council, and the directly elected Members of the European Parliament as the two bodies making most decisions, plus the European Commission (Commissioners appointed by the Council and endorsed or not by the European Parliament, staffed by civil servants who compete for jobs there in open competition from right across the EU Member States) which produces the draft laws which are then negotiated by the Council and Parliament. It’s not identical to Westminster – both chambers at EU level are filled with individuals that have been elected! – but that doesn’t make it less legitimate in democratic terms. What it does mean is that the public of the EU ought to be taking the European Parliament elections seriously and not using them as referenda on the performance of their own national governments…
But there’s a heart issue too and it is something that REMAIN must articulate properly.
It is patriotic to believe that being British is a great thing. Being privileged enough to be born in the British isles or of British parents is great, and it is one facet of who we are and confers some rights and privileges as well as responsibilities.
We are also European (and I’m using that word correctly to refer to citizens of the EU, not just residents of a continent) with the rights and privileges that come from that, as well as responsibilities, and I don’t want to lose out on that aspect of my identity. I’m happy with the responsibilities that go with that too. The idea that my children and grandchildren would be more hemmed in, and be less able to consider Europe as a whole their continent to live, work and travel in, is terrifying.
The Germans are not less German by being European, nor the French less French nor the Dutch less Dutch – are we really to think that being British is such a weak thing that we are less British for being European too? How can that really be a patriotic stance?

LEAVE will try to say that all the things we have as a Member State are still possible if we vote to leave, that we can be given all the good things without being part of the club.
The EU bureaucrats that our politicians and civil servants cannot at the moment best as a member of the club will roll over and grant us privileged access if we leave, apparently. We have 44.6% of our exports of goods and services trade going to the EU (2014, source ONS), 48% of Foreign Direct Investment to the UK coming from the EU (source HoC Library paper 06091). The UK receives 3% of goods exports from the EU (I don’t have a figure for the services side, and the source for the 3% is NIESR), so the UK would not automatically have the upper hand in any negotiations and it certainly does   not equate to ‘them needing us more than we need them’. Indeed, even with the generous parameters used for the Open Europe simulation of Brexit negotiations (which included retaining Freedom of Movement for EU citizens which those supporting LEAVE don’t generally like), the sheer cutthroat nature of the process shone through – each Member State’s representatives have to get a deal that their voters at home would tolerate.
LEAVE will try to say that there’s a shining bright world out there that we are being denied, and that we can both shut it out and be part of it.
Some admit that we’d need migration, even retaining Freedom of Movement in return for single market access (as Switzerland and Norway do and as the Open Europe Brexit exercise simulated), others talk of the UK  being “full” – but that’s two different visions of life outside the EU that cannot coexist.

No one’s quite sure what would happen in terms of our economy either.
We’re told that the rest of the world will want to trade with us if we are outside the EU. No doubt it is partially true as we’d still be a market of 70 million. And yet America wants the UK to remain in the EU. 32 of 50 Commonwealth states already have free trade arrangements in force or agreed with the EU, they’re not a British Empire and Australia (which considers itself an Asian economy these days and said they saw no advantage to the UK leaving the EEC back in 1975) had one of their former DPMs has explained why Australia also wants the UK to remain in now… In fact, there’s not really a clamour of countries saying please leave the EU and trade with us.
I think people who clamour for free trade deals only might not know what a trade deal really is these days… Iceland might have a trade deal with China while there is no UK or EU deal at present, but it is the TERMS of a trade deal that matter – the Iceland deal is hardly equal terms between the two parties. It is ludicrous to believe that the UK representing a market of 70 million would obtain better terms than a bloc negotiation of half a billion people. Of course it is not just the free trade aspect that matters in trade deals – the major elements are about standard harmonisation – exactly the “red tape” element of the EU that those supporting LEAVE most dislike!
LEAVE say that decisions need to be made at Westminster, and yet are the same people calling for this denounced Westminster as corrupt only a couple of years ago. The same thrill of being anti-establishment that was prevalent n bringing down politicians then is being harnessed now. When its people within Westminster feeling it, that’s practically zen… But being anti-establishment is both a blessing and a curse: the public’s innate conservatism carried the anti-AV referendum result last time there was a nationwide referendum vote so there is normally a bias in favour of the status quo from voters.
No one is willing to talk about what role xenophobia is playing in all this. From the assumption that the whole of Romania and Bulgaria would “flood” here when freedom of movement was allowed to those new Member States to refugee crisis from Syria, the idea that we are somehow special and should be able to lock ourselves away from the world is based in fear, not outward looking openness to the world.  The coordinated attacks on women in Cologne have led to an unpleasant attitude among some politicians here that that EU membership equates to ‘lock up “our” women because the Muslims are coming disguised as Syrian refugees’. Never mind that only three of those arrested are recent arrivals in Germany, nor that refugees are excluded from Freedom of Movement, nor that refugees don’t get German passports for ten years…
We need to learn from history – and yet a quick look back shows that LEAVE are using  the same accusations (higher prices, lower wages, NATO not the EU stops wars between its members, we’d be better trading with the Commonwealth) as NO did in 1975. LEAVE are doing without much challenge being made against them, partly because it seems that journalists themselves don’t seem to know enough to challenge it.
But then, when they are challenged publicly, those doing the challenging are accused of being in the pay of the EU. It cannot be the case that exposure to something and learning how it works automatically means that person is biased in its favour. If that were the case, no one arguing that Westminster should be supreme should be allowed to do so if they’ve ever worked there, and if that sounds ludicrous, then that’s because it is.
They also say that there would be a second referendum, with a fantasy story that a vote for LEAVE now would somehow result in a “better” renegotiation down the line after which they could then vote REMAIN. Nonsense on toast. The only way to get change in the EU – as Margaret Thatcher knew – is to be firmly committed to being in and then fighting for change for the good of all, not just your little corner. With so much change in the world right now, we should be keeping our friends close not alienating our nearest neighbours.
Basically, LEAVE is trying to sell a utopia without being able to agree even between themselves what that looks like.
And worse, the generation that already got the chance to vote on this is the one most likely to vote LEAVE and to actually turn out to do so. Young people 18- 29 are 63% in favour of REMAIN, versus 37% LEAVE, but are much less likely to turn out.

There’s one referendum, just one, and we’re under starter’s orders. If you are lucky enough to get to vote (and loads of people affected don’t, from Brits living in other EU countries to EU citizens settled here, and 16-17 year olds who were enfranchised for the Scottish Independence Referendum), please use that vote wisely.

 

#500 words Harry Potter fiction

Trying to persuade my son to enter the BBC Radio 2 500 words competition this year, I came up with this to show him how easy it is to write 500 words…

When I woke up this morning, I was Harry Potter. I knew that was my name before I even opened my eyes. When I did open them, the bedroom was all fuzzy. Someone had cast a spell that blurred the world. I took my glasses from the bedside table, then everything looked normal. Only it wasn’t. This was an ordinary bedroom in suburban house. A toy aeroplane hung from the ceiling. This wasn’t right. Not for a wizard. This was a house for muggles.

I reached under the feathery pillow. My wand. Once my fingers closed around the holly wood, I relaxed a little. I might not know what was going on, but at least I could defend myself.

There was a rectangular plastic and metal device there too. It lit up when I touched the front of it with my wand, but not even the relashio spell would make it give up its contents. It just flashed “swipe to unlock”.

I sat up. I was wearing pyjamas. They looked a bit like my quidditch uniform. There were muggle clothes – jeans, t-shirt, pants- in a heap on the floor. My school robes hung on a hook on the back of the bedroom door. I slipped out from the bedsheets and flung the black cloak of my uniform over the pyjamas. Again I felt better, more like myself.

I could feel eyes staring at me. “Homenum Revelio,” I muttered, waving my wand. Nothing happened. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. If that spell didn’t show it, a thing, not a person was watching me. I turned towards the door but as I did so, a flash of white caught my eye. An owl. A cuddly snowy owl was perched on the bedpost at the foot of the bed. I picked her up and stroked her smooth, silky wings. “Hello Hedwig.”

I had no idea why she had that name. It sounded like a mistake. Hello Bodyclothes, hello Footshoe.” Not my choice, but Hagrid knew his creatures and it certainly fitted her style.

I was expecting the door to be locked. All those years with Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had led me to expect this of muggles. It opened without even needing the alohomora spell.

“Henry Porter. I was wondering what had happened to you.” Downstairs in the kitchen, the witch was at the stove, stirring a pot of lumpy grains. Orange and green dots studded the mixture and a pile of chopped fungus lay on a wooden board. She added a handful. “It’s nearly lunchtime. It’s risotto,” she said.

I was beginning to think I had been hit with a confundus curse. Nothing was making any sense.

“You fell asleep as we left the studio tour. Daddy thought it was best to put you straight to bed.”

I felt my stomach drop with disappointment. “I’d better get dressed, then.”

She waited until she thought I had gone upstairs. “Finite incantatum,” she muttered.
Then I knew everything.

EU politics 101: what is the EU?

Guys, we need to talk. There’s this referendum on Britain’s EU membership coming and there’s a lot of people out there who basically don’t feel they know enough about what it is they’re being asked to vote on when they’re being asked to REMAIN or LEAVE. Some people are dead certain one way or another, but why? What is it they know?

I used to teach politics to adults who needed to know how government really  works. So, here’s the basics. I’ll probably add to this as we go on…

Is the UK actually in the EU?
Yes. The European Union is the current name for the political and trade bloc that dominates the European continent.

There are 28 countries in the EU:
Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

But we’re not in the Euro?
No. Not everyone does everything: 19 of the countries have a common currency, the Euro, and so are more closely integrated on monetary policy.
Also, some of the countries have a common border control area called Schengen… more of that later.

Why did we join in the first place?
Let’s step into history for a moment…
From about 1950, European countries started to work together to pool resources that they had previously used against each other to wage war, starting with the European Coal and Steel Community, then establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957.
The UK joined the EEC in 1973, referred to as the Common Market (a mistranslation of the French term march common which is better translated as single market).
A Conservative government took the UK into the EEC, but negotiations for this started in the 1960s. UK membership was vetoed twice (by the French!) in 1963 and 1967 because General De Gaulle did not believe Britain was sufficiently committed to the project, having established the alternative European Free Trade Area (EFTA). When he resigned in 1969, the way was clear for the UK to join the EEC.
The UK joined because:
– it was losing its empire (India, Burma and Ceylon all became independent in the 1940s) and the Commonwealth was less economically important to the UK than the continent on its doorstep;
– in the Cold War world, as clearly demonstrated by the Suez Crisis of 1956, Britain had lost its great power status and could not rely upon its “special relationship” with the USA to assert its power internationally;
– the EEC’s economy was growing faster and more successfully than the UK had previously believed would happen.
Basically, it is not the case that the UK was doing fine before membership and was suckered in.
There was a referendum (a commitment by a Labour government) in 1975 – the UK voted to stay in. The electorate voted ‘Yes’ by 67.2% to 32.8% to stay in. The actual wording of the official pamphlet used by the government can be seen here. The EEC was described as having the following aims (from the Treaty of Rome):

  • To bring together the peoples of Europe.
  • To raise living standards and improve working conditions.
  • To promote growth and boost world trade.
  • To help the poorest regions of Europe and the rest of the world.
  • To help maintain peace and freedom.

So we joined an Economic Union, not a political one?
I’d say it was pretty clearly political. Commitments to bringing together the peoples of Europe and maintaining peace and freedom were pretty political as aims…
After the 1975 referendum, successive British governments – using their legitimate position though representative democracy – signed Treaties that changed the name and exact nature of the EEC.
Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Single European Act in 1987, introducing majority voting in the Council (ending the veto-all-areas).
Conservative Prime Minister John Major agreed the Maastricht Treaty which in 1992 introduced three policy “pillars” – Justice and Home Affairs, Common Foreign and Security policy and the single market bolstered by Economic and Monetary Union; as well as the name change to the European Union.
Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed the Amsterdam Treaty which sorted out a lot of the procedural difficulties that arose from Maastricht Treaty including identifying just one high representative for foreign and security policy, introduced EU-level labour market policy, integrated the Social Chapter, attached a range of fundamental rights for citizens and widened the role of the European Parliament as a co-decider of legislation (with the Council which represents the governments of Member States, not the Commission).
There was a lot of fuss in 2002-2004 about a second Treaty of Rome, a European Constitution, but although negotiated, it was never ratified, as several Member States voted No. Instead, the Reform Treaty, the Treaty of Lisbon came into force in 2009. It gave more leadership of the EU to the Council, with a named President chosen by the Heads of State and Government, and to the European Parliament.
Although the Treaties govern EU law making across the Member States, there are various opt-outs and opt-ins for different countries, and the UK is the major beneficiary of this flexibility.

Next… What everyone knows about the EU…