Monday, 27 June 2016

Such a local row/Changed, changed utterly

*EDIT* 29/06/2016, 12.30PM:

Honestly, what the Hell is going on? I won't post anything else until Ms Lewell-Buck's promised statement, but my Christ...

Original post of 27/06/2016 follows:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided; who owned
That half a 
rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting ‘Damn your soul!’
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
‘Here is the march along these iron stones’
That was the year of the 
Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

‘Epic’ by Patrick Kavanagh

At 7am on Friday morning last week, one hour ahead of Greenwich Meantime, I woke up in Venice, Italy, to prepare to take a flight back to Manchester. I had spent the previous five days, with my girlfriend, Kate, enjoying our first visit to one of Europe’s most well-known and well-loved cities. As we double-checked our passports and boarding cards, made sure nothing had accidentally slipped under the bed or been left in the wardrobe, we took the final opportunity to access free WiFi before we returned home, and were gutted to learn the breaking news that our country had decided, in the dead of night while we had been asleep, to exit the European Union.

We arrived at Marco Polo airport – a place far too small, hot and stuffy for the volume of tourists that utilise it – to an Italian news broadcast of David Cameron’s resignation. This was at around 9am, British time, and despite being unable to decipher the majority of the content, it was evident that in less than half a day, our county had begun to fall apart. This was a very different place to the one we had left on the 19th June, and we knew that the shit was only just beginning to hit the fan.

Venice, the city that gave us the great European traveller and internationalist, Marco Polo, when skies were bluer.

Fast forward a few days, to the Monday morning hangover after the extended weekend binge, and it’s clear that little, if anything, of what I have said in the preceding paragraph is hyperbolic. The Conservative Party has lost its cowardly leader and seems hell-bent on squabbling its way to ensuring that either Buffoon Borris or Anyone-But takes residency at Number 10 in the Autumn. Quite who this will be is, at this stage, anyone’s guess; but it is more probable that Tim Peake will discover rocking horses’ shit on the moon than it is that that person will actually deliver any of the so-promised money to those so-deserving public services.

For those whose research in the lead-up to the referendum constituted more than reading the Daily Express for five minutes in the queue at the barbers, it was abundantly evident that just because a few rich, white men plastered a tantalising figure on a big, fuck-off red bus, didn’t ever mean it was actually going to happen.

Alas, of course, this has led to the usual social media eruptions: both the justified and the childlike shit-slinging expected around these kinds of momentous events. All sorts of bollocks has been spouted on the blue-tops – I don’t really need to tell you much more about that – but it does bear repeating that ‘we’ Leavers are absolutely justified to Remain angry, upset and confused; that calling a Leaver ‘thick’ is not only condescending, it is deeply unhelpful; and that, above all else, we must, absolutely must, embrace the result, like the Weekend Warriors many of us are, and take our Resolve, firmly.

When the Vaporetto, the water taxi, I was aboard on Friday morning sailed away from the island of Venice into the open waters, its delightful spires and canals receding into the distance behind me, entering the choppy, tidal waters beyond felt massively symbolic and, well, frightening. I am shit-scared of what this vote will mean, in the short, medium and long-terms.

As we all did last Friday, I checked how my constituencies voted. The plural here is important, as I’m sure it is for many thousands of other people like myself who divide their time between at least two significant poles. In Cheshire West and Chester, where I voted at the last General Election and where I am ostensibly ‘resident’, a very narrow proportion – 50.68% – opted for the Leave vote. Chester is of course associated with WAGs, the Cheshire Set, the Duke of Westminster and being the prime shopping destination in the North-West, amongst other things. Put simply: it has money, and its Land Rovers and blinged-up residents puking Prosecco into the streets on Race Day aren’t afraid to show it.

But a mile or two south-east of the rapidly-expanding University, of which I am an alumnus of two degrees, lies the suburb of Blacon. Bordering the north-east Wales county of Flintshire (Leave: 56.37%), this large and often-forgotten enclave of Cheshire, commonly regarded if not factually then anecdotally as the most affluent county outside the Home Counties, was once the largest council estate in Europe. When I worked as a Volunteer Co-ordinator at the University of Chester from 2013 to 2015, I would always encourage my students to take up voluntary opportunities in Blacon: not out of some kind of Victorian act of philanthropy, but to help them see that, as they made their way to the city’s nightclubs on a Wednesday night for three years, just a few miles down the road to their glitzy new halls of residence were people whose very lives often depended on the generosity and support of social enterprises like the Blacon Community Trust. Ealier this year, BCT went into liquidation – a shocking indictment of the divide between the haves and the have-nots in this part of the country – but it’s okay because the Big Society is alive and well and we’re going to be stronger, more prosperous, and more in control outside of the devils of Europe with all of their shackles on our freedoms.

The Groyne Lighthouse, South Shields: blasting off to God-knows where

Despite all of my affiliations to this part of the country, I was naturally more eager to find out how South Tyneside had voted. A lot, and I really do mean a fuck load, of the conversations I had had in the months leading up to the vote in places in South Tyneside had centred around a bluntness which pointedly said ‘Out.’ I am all for a person consulting a number of sources, doing independent research and coming to a reasoned decision which is contrary to my own. However, what struck, and continues to strike me, is the simplistic conviction with which some people in Shields told – tell – me, forcibly and staunchly, ‘Out.’ A good proportion of this flat, monosyllabic invocation is followed by the clich├ęs: ‘We can’t take any more’; ‘What have the government done for us, though?’; ‘Why should they, in Brussels, dictate our laws?’

A compelling argument by John Tomaney, Professor of urban and regional planning at University College London, which was published online last week by the Northern Correspondent, questions the usefulness of referendums. Tomaney says:

“Referendums come with problems. How can complex constitutional questions be reduced to simple “Yes” or “No” answers? Can citizens reasonably be expected to grasp arcane technical details? Citizens may end up voting on matters other than at hand, perhaps to punish the sitting government.

In South Tyneside, as in vast swathes of other areas of the UK (notably, those once-stable areas of industrial prosperity), the electorate have done just that: punished the sitting government. This has been a protest vote attached to no real protest; a rock hurled through a window with the hurler unaware of the address of the building or what the rock might subsequently damage when it’s smashed through the glass.

As a writer whose current (and likely future) practice is fundamentally concerned with trying to capture, via poetry, some sense of the zeitgeist (as well as the history and heritage) of South Tyneside and the wider North-East region, it is distressing to hear of places like Hartlepool, where 69.6% of people flicked the collective Vs.

Writers need to make money, so it is not cynical of me, but simply astute, to have vested interests in the impending opening of two new libraries/arts and cultural centres: The Word in South Shields and Storyhouse in Chester. As a citizen, this perhaps jars: my library(ies) should be free places of civic accessibility, in which critical debate, open dialogue, research and creativity are fostered.

In spite of its recent nomination as one of the UK’s best buildings at the 2016 RIBA awards, local feeling, at least on our good friend Facebook, towards Hebburn’s new £11m library is antipathetic, speaking of a wider local, regional, national and international malaise towards any “box” which does not generate revenue.

Hebburn Central Library: just a box?

How many local authorities do you know that have built not one, but two new libraries and a new swimming pool, amidst the longest, deepest period of economic uncertainty in post-war Britain? South Tyneside Council, when they open The Word later this year, will have done just that: proven investment, despite central government funding cuts, to both the educational and health and wellbeing developments of its residents, has provided facilities which local people do little but moan about, while rates of obesity soar and anti-intellectualism proliferates at a time when intellectualism is most needed.

I am not saying that a library or a swimming pool is a magic bullet: South Tyneside’s problems transcend both of those things; with roots of inequality stemming back to at least the 1970s. Nor do I think everything they do is wise: the car parking charges, frankly, are ridiculous and should be revoked instantly. At risk of sounding like a serial Shields Gazette angry-man-letter-writer, who, realistically, will pay to park in South Shields town centre to go shopping when there are no shops worth spending money in?

Haven Point swimming baths, South Shields

All of this brings me back to the referendum, with a sense of empathy for those who decided to vote differently to myself. When your once-thriving high street (King Street, South Shields – seriously: not the kind of welcome you want to a town) is little more than a chain of Greggs bakeries and Clinton’s Cards (here y’are, pet: have a cheese pasty and some mushy sentiment to make you feel better about yasel); when your homes are unaffordable or your streets tired and dirty; when you see crime and drugs and are affected by them; when your industry has long-gone, along with it your area’s binding sense of purpose; and all you’re left with is a zero-hours contract in a call centre, it’s not a surprise you will use your one big chance to yell a massive “fuck you very much” to the people in charge, half of whom probably couldn’t point to South Shields on a map.

If you want the bite-size video version of the utter disparity between the everyday person in South Shields and those people who claim to represent them from hundreds of miles away, look no further than this clip of arch-Tory, Jacob Rees-Mogg, canvassing in South Shields before last year’s General Election. I don’t know JR-M; I’m sure he’s a decent enough bloke and I don’t want to single him or anybody else out, but is it – honestly, genuinely – a surprise that people are at best reacting by voting to leave the EU, often with little to no understanding of what that means, and at worst turning to UKIP and even more scary factions of the far-right in order to vent their decades-long and largely legitimate frustrations?

A few libraries and leisure facilities aren’t going to get us out of this mess. Long blog posts by privileged people like me aren’t going to get us out of this mess. And, I feel I have to say it: a second referendum is not going to get us out of this mess. Democracy, like it or not, must be respected. If a second referendum were to be held (and the idealistic, opportunistic part of my brain says maybe, just maybe we can do all of this again in a month’s time and get a different outcome) there would be blood on the streets which would make the riots of 2012 look tame.

The fact is, we are now in the deep throes of that Monday morning hangover. This country, this England that I live in and am from, which was part of a ‘United Kingdom’ and a ‘Great Britain’ (though those labels will surely become as redundant as Hameron in the years ahead) is now, to quote Yeats, “changed, changed utterly”. Where we go now, how we adapt, what even happens for the rest of this year, is entirely up for grabs. It will be both fascinating and terrifying to watch and be a part of.

As a primer, as something to do to feel productive, to not just whine on Facebook, I have written a letter, copied openly below, to South Shields MP, Emma Lewell-Buck. I suspect that this referendum, which it goes without saying will be studied in history lessons by our children and grandchildren, has not only fractured this country permanently, it has become the catalyst for whatever prevailing order comes next and arises, Phoenix-like, from the ashes. The choices are never straightforward or binary, but it seems to me that, as individuals, constituents, workers, artists, dreamers, worriers and citizens of this country, we can continue fighting with each other and playing into the hands of the far-right, or we can seize this as an opportunity: to think about where we really want our country to be, both as the ‘independent’ nation it must necessarily now become, but as a small island on the outskirts of a changed Europe. I see democracy, social and environmental justice, and opportunity and fulfilment for all; it’s just right now, I see it through the billowing smoke of the burned-out husk that was, once, my united kingdom.

Dear Emma,

I am writing to you as a born-and-bred Sanddancer, a 2015 General Election Labour voter, and most of all, as a concerned citizen of this country.

At the referendum last week, I voted to remain in the European Union. I was, as I’m sure you were, shocked and saddened to learn that 62% of people in South Tyneside had chosen the opposite of me. The country now feels like a diminished and divided place: many of my family members and closest friends are gravely worried about its future as a result of this disruptive campaign and its already-apparent fallout.

A confession: though born in and from South Shields (and regularly back in the area to visit friends and family and attend meetings at Newcastle University, where I am enrolled as a postgraduate student) I currently live in Chester, having first moved nearly a decade ago to pursue my undergraduate degree, broaden my horizons and see a different part of the country.

Despite my current status as a non-South Shields resident, I retain immensely important familial and professional ties to the town and wider borough and region. I hope that will not dissuade you from answering two of the questions I have which stem from my anxieties about how South Shields moves forward in the future, given the current national context.

1.      Last summer, I paid £3 to elect Jeremy Corbyn as the party’s leader. I have not since committed any further – to joining the party – having been put off by the in-fighting and lack of stability that I have perceived in the past days, weeks and months. Do you support Jeremy Corbyn to remain your party’s leader, and if not, why not?
2.      Why do many of the people I speak to in South Shields tell me that the Labour Party is “out of touch” with the “ordinary, working person” of the town?

Emma, I am gravely alarmed that the 62% Leave vote in South Tyneside is just the beginning of bitter, spiteful resentment that may yet manifest in much more ugly terms. How do you propose to convince me to join the party and work with you, and/or your colleagues elsewhere in the UK, to unite and strive for a fairer society when it appears that your party is in absolute disarray?

I am immensely proud to be from South Shields; to be writing about it for my PhD thesis; to be involved in arts projects based in the town and the region; and to regularly visit my family, who are, and always have been, here. But I am worried that my fellow Sanddancers are rapidly losing faith in you and the wider Labour movement: I fear that this may drive them further to the right, into the arms of despicable ‘politicians’ like Nigel Farage, with his corrosive message.

Please, let me know what you intend to do to heal some of the evidently-gaping wounds that our hometown, and the wider country, is so divided over right now. I imagine that you may well direct me to my own MP, Chris Matheson in Chester, but the reason I am writing to you is that I am much more intimately connected to South Shields. To paraphrase the Birmingham poet, Roy Fisher, Shields is “what I think with”.

South Shields is somewhere I always enjoy returning to: for its stunning coastline, its delicious food, its arts and entertainment, its sport, and above all for the ‘craic’ of its friendly, multicultural population. But right now, when the majority of the people in the town appear to stand against the values I hold dear in a European identity, with all of its associated advantages, I’ve never felt more ambivalent about the place I still, despite everything, call home.

I look forward to your reply in due course.

Yours sincerely,

Jake Campbell.

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