The Lie of the “Northern Powerhouse”

The Northern Powerhouse brings to mind the coal burning days of old. Of industry and progression. Of manufacturing and textiles and everything in between. It was a concept developed by the coalition government (2010-2015) to try and boost entrepreneurial endeavours and transform the north into a hub of industrial and innovative excellence.

But was there ever any real determination to make sure that the plan became a reality, and that government would stick to its vision of a brighter and stronger future for the north?

An article released in today’s Guardian claims that “almost half of new jobs in England in the last decade were in London and the south-east, despite only a third of the population living in that region”. In the last decade, 1.8 million jobs were created in London and the south-east whilst only 0.6 million jobs were created in Yorkshire and the north-west.

The north-east has fared worse than most regions with a mere 1% of the total number England’s job increases. The area also has the lowest average disposable income.

The north has been let down by the governing politicians of the last decade and the term rendering the phrase “northern powerhouse” little more than a term to throw about when doing the election rounds. It placates by offering a vision, but the reality is that there is very little substance in it.

It is not only ruling governments which have let down the north. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the party historically known for championing the working people of the northern territories, has often been hailed as more of a “metropolitan socialist”, focusing his energy in the capital.

Is it so surprising then to see the “red wall” of the north being dissolved by suspiciously highly-funded Conservatives?

But will the Tories boost the north as Boris Johnson seeks to “level up” the country, or will they fall short like the governments before them? The closure of multiple automotive manufacturing plants in the face of Brexit and the general downturn of trade expected as a result of leaving the European Union predict a slowing of the economy and therefore not much hope for drastic change.

Fiction & non-fiction

Reading is an experience. A channel to another world. Whether that other world be fictional or rooted in fact, seeing the world throuhh different eyes is refreshing, challenging, thought-provoking and wondrous.

Fiction books should be new. When tumbling into another world of endless possibilities, the smell, the feel and the crisp pages should all feel untouched. It makes me feel like I am the first to experience the universe on the other side of that book cover.

Non-fiction books are sometimes better used. History books, for instance – bent spines, dog-eared pages and a little yellowing goes a long way. The reader(s) that have come before have left their mark and I hope that through those used pages comes not only the knowledge of the book, but something more from those who passed the book down. Vestigium, perhaps.

Fiction interprets, emphasises, dissects, peels back the layers and wonders about the real world. It also adds to it by creating new myths and provides new outlooks.

Non-fiction shows the world how the world and society came to be, what it is and where it may be heading. To write good fiction, it is good to know the facts. And can’t we say that fact is sometimes even more extravagant and more incredible than fiction could ever be?

Private health

I was happy when told that I was going to have a spinal injection. Sciatica has been torturing me since October of last year. Walking has been reduced to a painful hobble. I wake multiple times every night with pains shooting down my leg. My fiancee and I are going travelling soon and I worry that we won’t be able to enjoy it if I can’t get around.

The NHS could not perform the operation. Instead I was referred to a private hospital on the Sussex/Surrey border. I was surprised by the hospital. And a little unnerved. The reception desk was busy with people who looked like they should be on the reception desk of upper class hotels. I was directed upstairs. The corridors were wide and empty save for a cleaner and a mother and daughter who were talking amongst themselves. When upstairs I was shown to my room and given spa-style flip flops and a dressing gown. I had the room to myself. I also had a TV but couldn’t be bothered to look for the remote and partly scared that I would hit another button by accident which would send the staff running.

A lady promptly came by and asked what sandwich I would like to have after my procedure. Coffee or tea? I gave my order and sat down to read while I waited. A nurse came in and took my vitals. She was chatty, which was nice, but it slowly dawned that where I was used to care, I was experiencing something like customer service.

Half an hour later I was shown to the surgery room. There were five or six nurses talking and checking equipment at a leisurely pace. The procedure started. I felt the pressure in my spine for a few minutes and then it was all done. I was rolled onto a wheelie-bed and taken back to my room.

I was in there for two minutes before my sandwich and coffee was bought in. Along with bourbon biscuits and a glass bottle of water with the hospital’s insignia on it. Twenty minutes later I was bored so I got up and changed back into my civvies. I walked to the ward desk and asked to be discharged. The lady obliged and five minutes later I was out.

I don’t understand private health care. It has done great things for people by giving them quick access to procedures and treatments which would otherwise have taken months or longer.

But what does that say about how we are treating our NHS? I say our NHS because we pay for it. It is a service of our financial outgoing and therefore we have a vested interest in its welfare.I would rather have doctors and nurses treat me as a patient with genuine care and compassion, than be treated like a customer using a service for the benefit of a survey – which arrived on my phone via text two days later.

Perhaps I am bringing bias to the entire experience. After all my time in the private hospital was pleasant. But care should not be costly. Care should be free to all (yes, through taxes) and it should never be abused through privatisation (which is statistically proven to provide worse service in terms of overall health.)

In an unchecked market, privatisation breeds competition at the cost of care levels as companies try to save money.

The NHS might be a money pit. But it is meant to have money poured into it for the betterment of treatment. Anything else would be negligent to our health. If someone wants to increase my tax to fully fund our public services; take my money.

Privatisation

The public services are the heart of this country. We rely on the police to uphold the law when we become victims and when others do wrong. We rely on the NHS to save our lives, cure our ailments and provide care. When we have a child, the doctors and nurses of the NHS bring it into the world. When our relatives die, doctors and nurses make sure that they go with dignity. Could we ask for anything more?

Indisputably, Austerity has done incalculable damage to the public services. Police budgets have fallen by 19% since 2010 despite a (albeit sometimes slowly) rising GDP. Police numbers have been slashed and the remaining numbers are stretching themselves across an expanding population. Because of this, the standard of policing is going down along with morale within forces throughout the U.K. This means that the quality in policing is in decline.

There are fewer bobbies on the beat thus reducing community policing effectiveness. This would usually be apparent by a reduction in the levels of gang affiliation and thus criminal acts such as knife and moped attacks. Community policing is also speculated to help in the war against terrorists.

It has now emerged in the ‘i weekend’ that businesses are now paying for police paroles. Easyjet, ASDA, development giant the Berkeley Group and the Westfield Shopping Centres are a few.

Whilst this might seem innocuous at first glance, it is indicative of the pursuit of private interests in what should be a publicly financed, impartial and equal policing system. To bring in corporate interest is to essentially allow bias into the process as well as taking members of the police away from communities that would be better served by community police initiatives.

There is no widespread collective effort to battle the privatisation of public services because the change is happening incrementally. That is the evil of gradualism; people are less likely to notice or even care about change if it happens slowly. It stops becoming the evil you see and more about the evil you had no idea existed until you are being asked to provide medical insurance forms when you go into A&E.

In 2012 the Health and Social Care Act was passed which allowed “any contract over £615,000” to be tendered out to private companies. As Paul Gallagher writes, the process of privatisation has been aided with the passing out of multiple contracts worth around £128m under the watch of Health Secretary, Matt Hancock.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that we might be seeing the Americanisation of our public sector.

Crawley Creeps, Vol.11

The kettle clicked and Troy busied himself making cups of tea. Marcus sat at the kitchenette table, dozing. Hitesh sat opposite flicking through a dog-eared health and safety manual.

‘I saw a documentary about some cargo trains in China,’ Troy said, putting a cup of tea in front of Hitesh.

‘You still going on about this?’

Hitesh cupped the piping tea and glanced at the electric radiator panel. The orange light was on but Hitesh had yet to feel any heat.

‘Yeah. Of course. I get scared thinking about it. It was huge. I’ve never seen anything like it before.’

‘All kinds of companies run trains up and down the track.’

Troy shook his head and slumped in a plastic chair. Marcus plucked his mug from the table. They drank their teas and went through a brief plan. When they were finished they cleaned their mugs and headed back out into the cold.

Marcus stuck a key in the lock of a large storage container, opened the doors and flicked on the light. A dull bulb eeked yellow and stained the space with shadows. Marcus pulled out a generator and wheeled it outside.

‘It’s fucking freezing,’ Troy said. He rubbed at his arms and jogged on the spot.

‘Let’s get working then.’

They rummaged and pulled out two work-lights from the racking and headed out. The generator stood in the weak glow beyond the doors.

‘Where’s Marcus?’ Troy asked. Hitesh looked over to the toilet cabin. There was no light on. He turned and looked down the sides of the container whilst Troy looked through the kitchenette window. ‘Not in there.’

Hitesh cupped his mouth. ‘Marcus!’

Only the sway of the unseen trees and wind brushing against the small compound answered. Troy walked over.

‘Maybe he’s taking a piss.’

‘Marcus!’ Hitesh called again.

‘Or playing a prank.’

Hitesh doubted it. Marcus wasn’t a joker. He was grumpy to the point of morose and the only time Hitesh had known Marcus to laugh was when his ex-wife asked for a divorce.

‘There,’ Troy said, pointing to the mass of shadows that was the treeline. Marcus’ orange clad form could just be seen slipping between the trees, away and up the steep incline.

‘Marcus! What the hell are you doing?’ Hitesh called.

‘We can see you, you bellend!’ Troy shouted through laughter. Hitesh wasn’t laughing. The orange form didn’t turn. Didn’t react. Just trudged upwards. The darkness swallowed him a few seconds later. Hitesh pulled his torch from his pocket and clicked it on.

‘He’s just pranking us,’ Troy said.

Hitesh’s beam caught something moving. Another. And another. Everywhere he pointed the beam was another one. A man carrying a dog lead and clad in a heavy wax jacket. Another man in pyjama shorts and a T-Shirt. A woman wearing a nightie turned transparent by rain. An old lady with a bend at the top of her spine pushing her almost double stomped the ground as she ascended.

‘Jesus fucking Christ,’ Troy whispered.

All the people were heading toward the top of the ridge.

Capitalist Dystopia

Is capitalist-dystopia its own genre?

Dystopian works feature many end-of-the-world themes. Nuclear fallout, volcanic eruptions, solar flares, the heating of Earth’s core (because of solar flares), the slowing down of Earth’s liquid magma, the uprising of machines, asteroids, alien invasion, climate change. And of course, my favourite: zombie virus.

Last year I read Paulo Bacigalupi’s, The Water Knife. A novel based (as the name would suggest) on corporate interests battling for water rights in a world which has been ravaged by climate crises, and is now facing drought.

The whole way through Bacigalupi’s novel I found my mouth parched by descriptions of dry and arid lands, of characters longing for drink and the constant awareness of rationing what little water is available. But more than anything, I was intrigued and appalled by the depictions of corporate greed and consequential foul-play.

Is this the kind of future with which we should become accustomed?

Spurred by The Water Knife, I read Bacigalupi’s other dystopian masterpiece, The Windup Girl. In this novel, Bacigalupi creates a world bashed and beaten by corporate espionage which takes form in the poisoning of crops, (leading to something horrendous called “blister rust”) outperforming one another by creating genetically modified food and by using money to influence politics.

In both novels (and throughout the Ship Breaker series), the planet has essentially been ruined for financial gain. That ol’ bird, Capitalism. Not the kind of capitalism that frees the shackles from the poor mind you, more the neo-liberal, unchecked-market kind of capitalism.

George Orwell showed us a world ruled by Communism and it could be said that Ray Bradbury introduced us to the world of rampant capitalism with the focus on fast rides and fun times, but the works of more modern writers feels less like a prophecy for the not too distant future and more like something that could take place with the signing of a few pieces of trade legislature.

For example, Catherine Webb/Clare North’s 84K shows a Britain at the whim of mass production and insurance companies who dictate what level of existence is given to people judged by how much money they earn or how much money they owe. Need I say more?

A more comic approach to rampant capitalist-dystopia is Max Barry’s Jennifer Government. Neo-liberalism has won and the world is split between corporations to the extent that all life is split between corporations to the extent that to be employed is to take the corporate name, for example; Hack Nike. The government and police, on the other-hand, have become something that more resembles charity than any real form of leadership. If people want crimes investigated, they must pay.

Science-fiction and dystopian-fiction does the wonderful thing of attempting prophecy. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is more relevant now more than when it was written, especially given the advances in biotech taking us ever closer toward designer human beings. With that in mind, are we much removed from the capitalist dystopias as portrayed by so many other dystopia fiction novelists?
Motor insurance companies monitor drivers through apps in order to gain data. This is done with the premise of decreasing insurance costs depending on how you accelerate, decelerate, how sharply you brake and your average speed. We already allow devices to count our steps and monitor our sleeping habits in order to improve our overall health. Are we really that far from allowing insurance companies to monitor our health so that they can determine our general health habits? And how would that effect our insurance costs? And what other information can be garnered from such apps?

When it comes to corporate influence, are we that far removed from the landscapes of Bacigalupi and Barry when we already witness the political might of the NRA and oil conglomerates over presidential candidates in the United States? What is to stop such forces from gaining more momentum under Trump?

Capitalist-dystopia is so effective because it allows us to entertain the future possibilities of an ideology with which we are already attached. These novels should have the same kind of resounding clout as George Orwell’s warning of Communism faced by the world post World War 2.

#fiction #dystopia

Muse

The world is cheering. Air parted by clapping hands and screams of joy. I stand in the middle of the field along with so many others and stare as Muse soars for the celestial heavens.

A handful curse the ascent. A preacher has materialised from the wood work and is running a sermon on heresy. She’s got a crowd and they cluster round her like iron filings caught in a magnets grasp. Anyone who turns their eyes to the sky would see this was mans pinnacle achievement. Disbelievers be damned.

The Muse vessel is pushed by a billowing snake of hydrogen surging the ship into the sky and through the atmosphere. It was as if mankind had awakened some elemental being, born from the baked earth but destined to transcend.

A local production company had erected a huge screen in the middle of the field. It shows the Chosen Ones. Sixteen hundred colonisers sitting in rows. Cheers and smiles can be made out through faceplates. Tears of happiness and fear. Some raise their hands treating it like the single biggest and most expensive roller coaster ride the world had ever seen. Which, of course, it is. And why not? They have a ticket into the history books, they are going to have statues erected in their honour in every country on earth.

The first colonisers.

Lucy clasps my hand. Her eyes are skyward, her face a mask of anxious hope. Her sister, Freiya, is a Chosen One. Her name had been chewed over by the Muse mission databanks and ejected at the lottery. She had the right “genetic qualifications”. No history of hereditary disease in the family, no psychiatric problems. Good blood. Her father a Ghanaian athlete, her mother a diplomat for the Australian government. Mixed. Strong. My wife could have be one of them but they didn’t allow more than one member of any family.

Good.

I can’t imagine watching Lucy being shot away from me. To experience the frightful nothingness of space and to start anew on Tierron whilst I died here on Earth.

Muse is in its final arch. I can’t make out the vessel from this far down so I watch the new image on the screen. A zoom shot of the outside of the vessel. Sun shattering against the external mounted solar panels, friction scorching the outer hull. A diamond in the blue sky. My wife squeezes harder, the breath catches in my throat and I feel tears stinging behind my eyes. A voice comes over the loudspeakers.

‘Ladies and gentlemen. The Muse Project has le-‘

Explosion. Highly volatile fuel burns white across miles of airspace as if a star has erupted into being within our atmosphere. Stunned silence. A hiss of static from the dead camera feeds. A thud in my finger. Broken. But the pain is distant, as if it had happened to someone else.

I turn to Lucy. Tears tumble down her cheeks. I can see the quick intake of breath fill her chest before she screams. The sound is pure agony. I move to hold her but she drops to her knees.

Above, debris shoots to all points of the compass.

The screen changes. A face. Everyone knows him. He’s crying. His voice is coarse with pain.

‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ People’s screams and pleas and sobs ebb away as they turn to the screen, wrenching their eyes from the flower of debris descending back to earth. Lucy doesn’t look. She stays on the floor and screams into the dust.

‘The Muse Project…has failed.’ A hush blankets the crowd, a few whimpers that sound like wounded animals. The preacher on the far side doesn’t miss a beat and fills the stunned silence with a screech of laughter. I glance over, someone is moving toward her, shoulders hunched. I don’t care. I don’t feel anything. I turn back to the screen.

‘It is with a heavy heart…that I tell you now that this project was humanity’s last hope at survival.’

A ripple of confusion, a few exchanged glances.

‘You were told this was to be the biggest colonial effort that mankind has ever attempted, the next big step as humanity reaches into the galaxy. You have been told a lie. The Muse Project was an arc mission. A mission to send survivors to Tierron. A last ditch attempt to save humanity’s future…away from earth.’

A woman screams. A man next to her plucks up a camping chair and hurls it at a bank of electrical equipment. Everyone ducks as gunshots fire out. Pockmarks pepper the crying man’s face. He keeps talking.

‘The Agriculture Initiative has failed. The last remaining stocks—‘

Another man kickd the generator and the screen goes blank. I wrap my arms around Lucy’s waist and pull her to her feet.

We run for the treeline.

The world is about to tear itself apart.