Month: January 2011

“There Must Be Some Kinda Way Outta Here”, Said Mubarak to Ben Ali

Will Hosni Mubarak be the next African dictator to fall? Will he be the second of them in a long line to fall in coming months?

Something miraculous is happening all across North Africa.

It started in December of last year, in Tunisia. A fruit and vegetable seller, supporting his family on a pittance, in an act of ultimate frustration with the oppressive regime immolated himself . And that might have been the end of it, but for new social media picking it up, and transmuting that literal fire into a fire of revolution.

It all sounds very grand. But the fact is that in less than a month, the people had risen up and put an end to Ben Ali’s brutal 23 year reign. Tunisia might be on the precipice of chaos, but it’s clawing itself back from the brink, and the people seem clear that they won’t accept another repressive, oppressive regime in its place.

But the truly amazing thing is that it didn’t stop there. The Tunisian people have shown that corrupt leaders can be overthrown, that the power of the people trumps that of the state. And the rest of North Africa, under a range of dictators, was apparently watching.

In Yemen there is rioting in the street. The Egyptian people are in all out revolution. And men such as Muammar Al-Gaddafi (Libya’s megalomaniac-in-chief) must be getting very worried.

And it is, I’m afraid, the response of the western world that has been most disappointing. At the height of the unrest in Tunisia, their former colonial masters France were offering police forces to prop up Ben Ali’s government. As the Egyptian people have been demonstrating in Cairo, the governments of the US and UK have been offering moral support for President Mubarak. For a people who claim to be civilised, for a people apparently willing to send armies into distant parts of the world in the name of democracy, we seem awfully keen to keep these oppressive dictators in place.

I guess the people in charge of western countries are worrying that a democracy there could lead to Islamic led states, but really that’s just the price you pay with democracy. In 2010, we elected a Tory government. I can’t put into words how much I disagree with them on multiple points. But in a democracy, that’s just the way it goes. And if you really believe that the people should choose their leaders, then this sort of attitude to revolutions is nothing but hypocrisy.

I’ve always been a bit sceptical of the idea of “We the People”. So often it seems to be used by a majority to excuse the discrimination against and oppression of a minority. But here, it genuinely seems to be the classic idea of people rising up against tyranny. North Africans are sick of being treated like slaves by their own government. And whilst I regret any loss of life that occurs in the riots, I can’t help but feel positive.

Mubarak is clinging onto power. He’s sacked his cabinet, and accused people of abusing the “freedoms” that he “gave” them. From where I’m sat, he’s clinging on by his fingertips only. The people won’t be satisfied until he stands down. And if this sort of democratic, popular movement idea spreads across all of Africa, then it might be the greatest hope the impoverished continent has had in hundreds of years. And shouldn’t that be something we all welcome?

So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is growing late…

And Osborne Starts to Sweat

Are you panicking yet, George?

Regular readers of this blog (if there are such things) won’t be surprised by my reaction to the latest political news to hit the press. Alan Johnson has resigned as Shadow Chancellor. Ed Miliband has replaced him with one of his competitors in the leadership race: the Rt. Hon. Ed Balls MP.

Given that he was my preferred candidate for the leadership, I’m obviously ecstatic with anticipation at this. In my opinion, it’s where Balls should have been from the word go- though I know there are probably plenty within the party who would disagree (I look forward, in particular, to discussing it with my fellow Sussex Uni Labour Society member Rob Brown, come Tuesday). Balls is an economic heavyweight, who has the qualifications for the job, and the tenacity to do it in opposition.

My opinion on Osborne  (economically illiterate, Thatcherite, trust-fund baby) is also not exactly secret. So I’m particularly looking forward to the first face off between the two. Given that Balls is the Labour MP whom the Tories are most frightened of, Osborne must be shitting bricks right now. Particularly after what Balls did to Gove in the few months he was shadowing the Ministry of Education. Balls has the economic expertise to cut Osborne’s nonsense to shreds, and the oratorical talents to have him cowering behind the dispatch box.

The corresponding promotion of Yvette Cooper to Shadow Home Secretary is also a triumph for the opposition. Placing one of the most prominent female Labour MPs (probably second, after Harriet Harman) opposite the woman who voted against almost all equality legislation to come through the House in the last government is sure to prove interesting. Added to that the fact that Cooper is similarly talented to her husband, Balls, and that a home affairs storm is brewing over both control orders and 28 day detention, she could be in for considerable success in the role.

The downside of all this, of course, is that Alan Johnson has retired from frontline politics. He will be missed, without a doubt. He embodied Labour’s roots entirely, coming from a poor background, and work in the unions, to be a political heavyweight. His absence from the frontbench will be keenly felt, and we are the poorer for it. But the Labour backbenches seem to be overflowing with political heavyweights lately.

So all in all, a good day. A good day for Ed Balls; a good day for the party; a good day for the country; and a very bad day for Osborne.

The Fight to Save EMA

EMA is the latest target in the government's ongoing war on the poor and students

As I write this, a debate is going on in the House of Commons. It might not at first seem an important debate in the same way that, say, the debate on raising tuition fees was. But in this writer’s opinion, it absolutely is. The debate I’m referring to is, of course, the debate on the future of EMAs.

EMAs, for the uninitiated, are Education Maintenance Allowances. This is a payment of up to £30  per week given to further education students from poor backgrounds, to encourage and assist them in studying further. A fairly simple measure, I think, and one of the best policies that the last Labour government instigated.

The current issue being debated is the scrapping of that scheme. The government seems to be continuing its war on students. So many of the cuts that have so far been announced are going to hit young people the hardest. From the headline measures such as tuition fee rises and the cancellation of the BSF programme, to more behind the scenes cuts like the closure of the hugely successful Connexions centres. All of this whilst the bankers, who caused the economic woes that we’ve suffered recently and are still feeling the effects of, get off scott free.

I’ve seen a lot of misinformation bandied around lately by Tory supporters about EMAs. The most common seems to be that it bribes 16-18 year olds to go to school. My suspicion is that this comes from relatively well-off people.

I attended the Henley College, in Henley-on-Thames, which sounds a lot posher than it actually is. I myself didn’t qualify for EMA, but plenty of my fellow students did, and for those students it was less about bribery than it was about enabling them to attend. For a college with the wide geographic range of students like Henley College, transport was an issue. At further education level, there is no free provision of transport. And it can get damned expensive (God knows that mine was). For many students, EMAs were a lifeline which enabled them to actually get to college in order to study.

Aside from that, there are other costs in associated with studying beyond GCSE, which are difficult to meet if your family cannot foot the bill. Food, stationary, equipment. All of it costs money, which EMAs were designed to meet and help with. Taking that away, restricting it in order to save money at the expense of the poorest sectors of society, cannot be justified as anything other than a regressive move.

I could write about this all day, but instead I’ll finish with a couple of quotes:

Ed Balls keeps saying that we are committed to scrapping the EMA. I have never said this. We won’t.‘ -Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, in an interview with the Guardian in March 2o10.

I said we don’t have any plans to get rid of them … it’s one of those things the Labour Party keep putting out that we are but we’re not.‘ -David Cameron, Prime Minister, at a “Cameron Direct” event in January 2010.

The Lib Dems betrayed students and broke their pledge on tuition fees. Now the Tories are doing the same with EMAs. There is no difference, it’s just as regressive, just as harmful to the futures of students, and should be resisted just as hard.

I write, therefore I am?

Scribo ergo sum?

I’m a writer. Or at least, I classify myself as a writer. My criteria for doing so are fairly simple (I think): I write (specifically, fiction); I then endeavour to (and sometimes succeed in) getting that writing published; and I sometimes I get paid for it.

That, of course, isn’t anything like a definitive summary of what a writer is. Many different people will have many different definitions, as you’d expect. But I was thinking about this earlier, and wondering what is the minimum basic element for someone to be a writer?

I don’t expect much opposition to my saying that simply calling yourself a writer doesn’t make it so. That’s less a matter of defining a writer, but more a philosophical truth- if I say that I’m a dragon that doesn’t, unfortunately, make it so. I, and I expect most of my fellow wordsmiths, have encountered many a person claiming to be a writer, but who actually doesn’t write a word.

So I think I can say with some confidence that to be a writer, you have to actually write. But going deeper into that, what does the requirement actually mean? Is it enough to simply be literate. Given that the literacy rate in the UK specifically is 99% (and is similar for most of the developed world)* I think we have to be looking for a little more than that.

So if the ability to write isn’t sufficient to identify someone as a writer, then probably the fact you do in everyday life isn’t either. Most people would write something everyday, ranging from the schoolchild writing an essay on the discovery of inoculation, to the housewife (or husband) making a shopping list. And without setting the bar as high as producing literary masterpieces, I don’t think that a note to say “Dinner is in the oven” will make the person wielding the pen the kind of writer I’m trying to define here.

So now I’m onto the people who actually do write, seriously, with intention to be a writer. Is this at last the threshold? I think I’m into contentious territory here, but I’m not personally sure that’s enough. I’ve encountered a lot of people who would call themselves writers, and indeed who actively try to write. But too many of them don’t actually care about writing, don’t actually strive to write, or even make time to write. These are the people who don’t want to improve as writers, or people, but who just want to fit a particular image as a writer. The aloof bohemian, the quintesential creative.

In my opinion, what it comes down to- whether we’re talking fiction, poetry, non-fiction- is to have something to say, and to want to say it well. The will to improve, the will to learn and be better. Because frankly, in writing, if you don’t make the effort you get left behind. Being published isn’t, I don’t think, the defining quality of a writer. Writing being in your soul is. Writing’s aim should be to entertain and to inform- to communicate.

If you don’t have anything to say, if you’re writing for the sake of writing, then I’m sorry but I wouldn’t say you were a writer. And on that note, having communicated what I wanted to say, perhaps entertained, hopefully informed- and probably alienated a fair few of  you- I shall end.

*Data from UNESCO’s Human Development Index, accessible from the Guardian DataBlog.

Hi Ho, Hi Ho

…it’s back to work I go.

Approaching the final push...

I’m now back in Brighton, ready to kick off the penultimate term of my undergraduate law degree. Which, from my perspective, is scary stuff indeed. It’s an odd feeling, being so close to the end, but having such a mountain to climb before I get there. It’s certainly going to be a busy term.

Aside from my dissertation (10,000 words), which is coming along slowly but surely, there are another three 4,000 word essays to write (one in each remaining subject- Evidence, Family and Law & Politics). As well as the usual lectures, seminars, reading, research, etc, etc.

Yeah, a fair bit to achieve this term academically. Then there’s all the extra-curricular. Namely, my writing and politics. On the writing front, I’ve been doing less since I started my third year, really. I still pump out the occasional short story, but not at anything like the rate I did in my second year and over the summer. And now I’m trying to edit this novel by March, it might be a bit of a dry spell as far as short fiction is concerned.

Politically? Well, I’ll still be involving myself actively in that, both in the Labour Society at university, and the local party (as much as I can). I’m not sure how much I’ll be doing, but I’m eager for a big push (particularly in regards to the 1p membership for under 27s scheme) in the run up to the local elections in May. So I’ll be doing my share- or at least trying to.

But mostly, I’m just a little bemused that the end seems to have sneaked up on me so effectively. There’s a bridge ahead of me, and I really have no idea what’s on the other side. Post-graduation, I’ll need either to find a job, or find some way of studying a masters. If anyone has any job offers for a left-leaning, rather-literate, soon-to-be graduate, I’m all ears.

So here goes. One more term of learning, and then another of examining. This is what the last two and a bit years have been leading to. Time to take it head on, and see how I fare.

More Than I Can Chew?


Time to break out the red pen!

Okay, New Years’ resolutions are supposed to be made at the start of the year (and I did make some then), but here’s a new one. And, from my perspective, it’s a rather big one.


A little while back, on this blog, I said that I was intending to redraft an old novel I wrote a few years ago, and hopefully get it ready for submission. Nothing has happened thusfar, but I think now I’ve found my inspiration to pull my finger out.

In the month of March, genre specialist publisher Angry Robot Books will be accepting unsolicited submissions. Now, I don’t overestimate my chances here. They’re bound to be absolutely flooded with submissions in that period, and there’s no reason to think that they would accept mine in particular. But nothing ventured nothing gained, and it does give me an incentive to get to work.

But here’s the difficult part. This novel is about 80,000 words. March is about two months away. And these next two months are going to be pretty busy on an academic front anyway. So it’s going to be a little tight. But I’m actually feeling exciting about it, and eager to get started. I’ve been reading through the beginning of the novel, and it’s not too bad, even if I do say so myself.

It was written about three or four years ago, and my writing has grown and changed massively since then, so there’s a fair bit of editing for me to do. But mostly it’s just rephrasing things. Removing extraneous adjectives, toning down the florid-ness, shortening sentences. The actual core story of it I still really like.

So there we are. My project for the first part of this year. Will I manage to get it done in time to submit to Angry Robot? I don’t know. It would be nice to, but in a way it doesn’t matter terribly. I just want to get this sorted, and to a position where I can submit it to publishers. My hope is that this will give me the incentive.

And, of course, that I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew…

Little by Little, Taking Ground

Labour made frankly fantastic gains in yesterday's local bye-election.

So the results are in from yesterday’s Windsor local bye-election, and it’s brilliant news for Labour.

That may need some explaining. After all, yes the Tories held the seat. Yes they did so with a majority of 481. Yes they polled 488 more than Labour. The exact results are as follows:

LAB: 149, LD: 156, CON: 637, IND: 47, SPOILT: 4

But what this signifies is incredible. An 11% gain for Labour, over the last election in 2007. 11%, in a Tory safe ward in the middle of Windsor. Eight votes off second place. 11% in very much hostile territory. If we can make these sort of gains there, imagine the gains we will make in May.

And this positive outcome, whilst no doubt party because of events at a national level, I believe is every bit a testament to Labour candidate Laura Binnie’s efforts. She led the Windsor CLP (and one hanger-on; yours truly) in a number of canvassing efforts, trying to bring out the Labour vote and let people know that the bye-election had been called because the previous Tory councillor had been to one meeting in the last year.

And actually, there was another Labour success last night. In the Prime Minister’s own constituency of Witney, Labour took a council seat in a bye-election, where the Tories didn’t even field a candidate. Now, I’ve been looking into this, and apparently the previous councillor in that ward had been removed for not attending meetings. A running theme, perhaps? I wonder how many other Tory councillors in safe seats just take the money and don’t do the work. Just wondering.

But this is my testament and salute to the Windsor Labour Party. Their 11% gain has been earned through sheer hard work and effort. Laura was an upstanding candidate, and anywhere else but Windsor she would have taken the seat. But she isn’t anywhere else. She’s fighting for the people of Windsor, and letting them know that Labour is there for them. As I’ve already mentioned on this blog, I think that’s downright heroic.

And the seat will be up for election again in May. I certainly hope Laura will stand again, and I hope the new Councillor Natasha Lavender (CON) will take note, that Labour’s gains will not stop at this. Labour is finding its voice in Tory heartlands, and it’s going to get very loud.

VideoVista January Issue

The Last Exorcism (2010)

Yup, it’s that time of month again. The January issue of Tony Lee’s fantastic DVD review webzine has gone live, and it contains a review by yours truly.

This month, I’ve reviewed “found footage” style horror film The Last Exorcism, for all of you lucky people. This film sees a disillusioned priest and exorcist, who decides to do one last job and allow a film crew to see how he does it, in order to expose the shams. Or at least, that’s the plan until strange things start to happen with his final case.

Please take a look at my review, and at all the others. And I’m always pleased to hear what you think, if you want to comment on this blog about it.

Also, I’ll have another review coming up on Tony Lee’s other review webzine, The Zone, shortly- so keep an eye out for that.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Team Binnie, ready to pound the streets of Windsor in pursuit of a Labour victory.

Yesterday, I went canvassing with the lovely people at Windsor Labour Party. It was cold, windy, and it even snowed, but it was still brilliant to be out on the streets of Windsor, putting leaflets through doors and trying to drum up support for our candidate in the Park ward bye-election, Laura Binnie.

The bye-election itself has been called not, as the Tories would have everyone believe, because the previous councillor got married and moved away. No, this guy turned up to only one meeting in the last year, and the Tories wanted him out of the way prior to the local elections in May. So he’s basically buggered off after doing sod all, and taking the taxpayers’ money for the pleasure.

But the whole event got me thinking; Labour don’t really stand much of a chance in the bye-election. Laura is a great candidate (who, if she’s elected, won’t be taking her allowance), and the Tory candidate is a 21-year-old student with no experience and clear aspirations to be a career politician. But because of the area, the odds are still stacked against us.

It’s no different here in Wargrave. Down in Brighton Labour is a real force, and the party is a thriving. Up here, it’s just the few and the faithful. Coming from an area which is predominately Labour (Warrington), when I first arrived here the experience of being in Tory country was strange and dissociating. Even though I wasn’t overtly political back then, I was painfully aware that most people around here were not the same as me in some way.

But since I joined Labour, seeing the raw enthusiasm of the party members around here has been inspirational. It’s given me a realisation that the steepness of the hill isn’t what’s important. It’s not just the hope of reaching the top that keeps us climbing, but because it’s who we are. In less impenetrably metaphorical terms, we aren’t party members only when we think we can win, but rather because we believe certain things and would believe them no matter where we were.

And in the end, maybe there’s more value in being a Stranger in a Strange Land, a red in a land of blue. Up in the North West, there’s less call for Labour activists. Down in Tory heartland is where we need to get the message out, that there is an alternative, a fairer way to run the country. And when we do make our breakthrough, it will be all the sweeter for the effort.

So here’s to the Windsor Labour team. If you’re a registered voter in Park ward, Windsor, then get yourself out to the polling station on Thursday 6th, and vote for Laura Binnie. Each vote can make a difference.

State of Imagination #1 goes live!

State of Imagination #1 (January 2011)

What a way to start the new year!

Shaylen Maxwell’s new literary online magazine, entitled State of Imagination, has just gone live with it’s debut January issue.

And, the reason I’m trumpeting this so loudly, is that it contains a story of mine!

Yes, State of Imagination #1 provides a home for my short story “In King Midas’ Court”, which sees a UN investigator arrive at a gold manufacturing facility in the Amazon, to investigate its miraculous claims and the rumours behind them.

The magazine is free to read, and contains a wealth of other fiction besides mine, so please do take a look, and let me know what you think of “In King Midas’ Court”.