Britain outside the EU? Why not just head Down Under?

Wai-o-Tapu thermal wonderland, near Rotarua, NZ (lake of arsenic and sulphur!)

Over the last few weeks, despite 48 hours on aeroplanes, my husband and I have relaxed, unwound, found that we’ve been able to smile without complaints from facial muscles unfamiliar with the position.

Of course we’ve been back just more than 48 hours now, and I can already see the stress rising for my husband.  I have another 24 hours reprieve before its my turn, and I’m trying to make the most of the time available to me today.

The chance to take 3 weeks off is rare, especially in these straitened economic times when proving your value and how indispensible you personally are to your organisation’s success is equated with hours visibly in the office.  Being able to do so over Christmas, when everyone wants some time away, is doubly difficult.  So we had to book this time some months ago.

We’ve only really had access to Sky News and the occasional bit of BBC World, and I confiscated my husband’s work PDA, so we’ve been blissfully unaware of the news.  On return, I’ve just seen the Daily Express’s 24 page spectacular on how Britain should leave the EU, aimed, I assume to coincide with the EU Bill vote in the House of Commons today.
Take head, find brick wall, apply.

Well, I’ve spent my holiday in another part of the Commonwealth.  Does it show what Britain outside the EU would be like?
(Probably not, but it gives me the chance for a different take on a holiday blog post…)

New Zealand is very much like the UK with sunshine.  There are of course some differences, based on our observations:

1) the attitude to children is refreshing – they play outside, everyone talks to them and pats them on the head, they’re not regarded first and foremost as criminals waiting to happen.
The starting position is not that all adults around children are potential paedophiles.
It is simply not thought necessary to keep kids indoors for their own safety.
When needed, parents take responsibility for their children’s actions and support teachers and neighbours in expecting good behaviour and disciplining them.  This is simply not the case here – while there might still be children who, if they do something bad at school are a bit scared to tell their parents for fear of their disappointment in them, teacher friends tell me that more often than not these days parents are used by the child as a threat against the teacher…
But it’s not being in or out of the EU that affects this issue.

2) the attitude to nationhood is very different.
Everything is Kiwi this and NZ that.  Kiwiana, the celebration of all things New Zealand, is very popular not just for tourists but for New Zealanders on T-shirts, homeware etc.
The butt of NZ jokes is not England but Australia – in fact the Kiwis cheer on England in the Ashes.  This cricketing support for the sucess of what was originally the colonial country is not felt to be problematic for their own identity nor their fierce pride in national sporting success in other games.
NZ is not portrayed as innately superior or inferior to others, but as a young country and good place to be.  What it is not to be burdened with a successful past…
Children learn the national anthem (“God Defend New Zealand“) in English and in Maori at school, and sing it weekly.
Contrast this with nationhood in the UK.  We have more people, more complexity (local, regional, devolved, national, European and international political identities) but we seem somehow to expect citizens that are born here as opposed to naturalised, to somehow just know and understand it.  It’s not as if much clarity is provided by the press.  As the British system has evolved over millenia it is not simple, streamlined and created with a clear goal in mind – and yet we don’t explain our consitutional set up to ourselves.  This is clearly crazy.

3) the attitude to politics is…
impossible to compare.  Two weeks there, and what we noticed is:
i) politicians put great big photos of themselves onto the exterior walls of their constituency offices so everyone knows who they are and where to find them  -no one complains about this lowering property prices as far as we know!;
ii) the only policy that anyone can remember from the newly-elected mayor of Manukau is that he has made all the public swimming pools free for residents, the only part of Auckland Super-City to have this!;
iii) most ordinary people we met seem to think that the Wikileaked American assessment of the NZ foreign policy as reported in NZ press (that those in power were broadly supportive of the US while being vocally anti-American in the national press) was actually rather a sensible way of handling it.

4) the attitude to ethnicity and immigration is…
complicated.  My relatives have only once had “you don’t even come from here!” shouted at them – but they have residency and I understand in NZ this gives full voting rights.
But the truth is no one really comes from New Zealand.
Maoris have certainly been there longest (they came from Polynesia) and, unlike Australia, the colonisation of New Zealand was relatively peaceful and Maori language and culture is taught in schools.
For everyone else, while there may be some original POMs without choice, most chose to emigrate and the only question for those seeking to look down on more recent arrivals should be “wasn’t my parent/grandparent/ great grandparent just doing exactly the same thing?”
As for racism etc. I don’t know.  We were lucky enough not to witness anything first hand.

5) the attitude to faith is different.
While no more than about 20% of people attend a Christian church service regularly in the UK, it is thought to be closer to half of the NZ population.  And that’s before you look at other faiths.
We occasionally tie ourselves in knots in the UK about our Scots-crushing national anthem (looking worldwide, aren’t they MEANT to be embarrassing?), or what a song for the millenium should look like (even a decade or so on, I’m not sure that the sentiments of “Imagine” actually are any better than the winner “All you need is Love”), can you imagine the furore if we did actually try to change it?  Traditionalists -v- modernists would be nothing compared to having a mention of God -v- not mentioning God – nightmare.

6) So could the UK be more like NZ outside the EU?
And would anyone want it to be?
Leaving aside the completely different economic strengths and weaknesses which actually power this argument…

In any case I’m not exactly sure what the country the Daily Express wants the UK to be would look like.

The things I thought were positive about life in New Zealand came either from its geographical location (good weather, lovely countryside, spectacular landscapes, lots of beaches, proximity to Asian markets for goods), or from marginal policy differences (how the education system is run giving more freedom to teachers to teach, and an insurance based health system that’s more affordable).

We can do nothing about the UK in the sense of the first of these (unless we employed magical giants to tow us elsewhere on the globe?) and very little that the EU stops us from doing that we would want to do in the second sense (neither how schools systems nor health systems are run is covered by the EU).
In terms of our wider institutional set up, yes the EU does affect the UK and sometimes things are not set up exactly how we would’ve designed them from scratch in a UK-only situation.  But we rarely vote against, not because the UK is a poor or weak negotiator but because it is a strong one that achieves its main objectives and recognises the value of being inside pissing out, so to speak.  This is clearly no longer considered enough for the Daily Express – but it is hardly the tyranny portrayed.
But how free is NZ to do its own thing?  NZ is part of the Commonwealth and the UN and the WTO, is bound by international courts, the law of the sea, has a free trade agreement with ASEAN and many other countries, ANZIL and PILON… in fact it is not an island and a law unto itself but a fully-interconnected part of the world.

Anything else about NZ that is conforting for the UK citizen looking for the famliar abroad?

They drive on the left.  In the UK there’s a constant euromyth that the EU might FORCE us to change that (not that the EU can do that anyway, I hasten to add…).
They still teach French, though as a third language in schools after Maori and English (but with an increasing emphasis on Japanese and mandarin Chinese).
European goods are still available – albeit at a hefty mark-up.

Being on the other side of the world (and having travelled via the USA), I noticed how European we are as a family.
Although having lived abroad ourselves we could probably easily slot into an expat community just about anywhere, we are just more comfortable living in Europe.  I love its sheer diversity, and if you want to read more of my reasons for loving the place, you can do so here.

I don’t want to conclude this other than in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, so here goes:

Are you disillusioned with Britain in the EU, which is after all your country and your constitutional situation to be proud of but you may have decided you don’t like (NB I can’t see how that point of view should automatically be thought to make you MORE patriotic than someone that does like the UK consitutional set-up?)?
Well, if you are under 45, in a wanted profession such as teaching or policing, attracted by the picture of a country painted here which is different but not too different, why not consider a move to the other side of the world?
It’s got spectacular scenery, it’s part of the Commonwealth, and it’s a generally lovely place to be.
It’s not right for me, but then I’m a European at heart.
But are you?

Today in a Haiku

(image, bizarrely from California State University Long Beach!)

While English haiku tend to be 10-14 syllables, the classic Japanese haiku is 17 syllables.
On Twitter earlier, I took up @MyWordWizard‘s haiku challenge:
“Got haiku? We’d love to read it. Submit @MyWordWizard at #poettalk #poems #poetry #poet #writer #haiku”

I may submit it to their site, but then it occured to me – can you better this?  Can you sum up your day today in a haiku?

Here’s mine:
“Sitting at home with toddler, /toys on floor, food in hair,/
what bliss./And mess”…

Brussels mon amour

 photo from fab site

Have just had a day working in Brussels for the first time since February 2007. 

The sun was shining, it was warm, I even managed to squeeze in a swift coffee in a street cafe (cheers Jon!) before dashing to the Eurostar that takes me practically door to door and just about got me back in time not to be fined by the nursery.

There are many things that annoyed me about Brussels when I lived there – from the randomness of the cobblestones which procluded heels on all but the most important occasions, to not being able to buy stamps anywhere but the post office which was never open when I was free to go, to the need to return to the UK to go “proper clothes shopping”,  the water supply being so cleaned with chlorine to meet water quality standards that it upset my skin (and my husband’s), to the weeks of delay to get cable TV fitted…

But I loved the restaurants, the people I met including some of my truest and best friends, the real sense of community in being an expat, the sort of apartments available on a reasonable budget when compared to London, the way that TVBrussel kind of made sense after midnight even though it broadcasts in a language I don’t speak, the sort of jobs I did when I lived there – which I’d find nigh on impossible to do these days when I work part-time.

Oh Brussels I’ve missed you. 
Even though your metro system got so messed up earlier that I almost missed my train.

I really enjoyed the meeting I was at too – a combination of Brussels residents and interlopers like me, but conducted in a proper Brussels Eurocrat manner, recognition of each other’s expertise, positivity, genuine seeking of a conciliation and compromise helping each as much as possible to get what they were looking for. 
It can be hard to explain sometimes why that is a good thing when to many people here in the UK compromise is a dirty word, and the word Brussels is itself anathema.

Life in the UK is good, familiar, I know (roughly) how to handle local bureaucracy (probles here tend to be less with public authorities, more with the private companies that – oh, I’ll post about Northern Rock another day…). 
But life in Brussels was fun, oddly exotic and dipping my toes in the EU politics pool again today just reminded me why I enjoyed it so much before.  Perhaps more so now, having had a break from it all.

A recurring theme of my personal reflection blog posts is that I have a life with a husband and a son and a house and a job and that these things are good and I would not have it otherwise.  Life in Brussels now would not be the same as it was for us before as we’re parents and the hard bits of life (which to be honest are mainly logistical!) would still be with us. 
And -as the second earner- the idea of upping sticks to Brussels because I might want to is just not realistic.

But today, just for a minute, I felt properly like EU me again. And I liked it.

I wonder whether our toddler would be good at Flemish?        

PS apologies for the stream of consciousness style, but the title should’ve been a warning 🙂

Ceci n’est-ce pas une maison…

Argh.  We’re having a real computer-says-no day. 
The house we’re buying is brand new, and was added to the post office database two months ago at our request.  But trying to get internet mail order delivered, or insurance quotes… 


Husband: “Hello there, we’d like a quote for house insurance on our new house, please at [this address]”
Agent: “that house number isn’t on our database, sir”
Husband: “that’s because your database is out of date. Can you add it manually?”
Agent: “but there’s no house with that number on the database”
Husband: “it’s been on the post office database of addresses for over two months.  Your database is out of date”
Agent: “There’s no house of that number on our system, sir.  Can you contact the post office and get it added?”
Husband (slightly exasperated by now): “but it’s on the post office database. You can go on the Royal Mail database and check it for yourself – I’ve done it and it is”
Agent: “well it’s not showing up on our database, you’ll need to ask the post office to get it added”
Husband (through slightly gritted teeth): “I HAVE had it added.  It’s on the database from the post office, and what’s more I’ve managed to get quotes from other companies who apparently have more up to date databases”
Agent: “but it isn’t showing up on our database”
Fortunately at this point my husband simply stated his disappointment and explained that as they hadn’t updated their database of addresses and there was nothing that either we nor they could do, we’d have to take up a policy with another company.

Well, that’s a shame.  We’d been happy with the policy we’d had from that particular company, but they’re losing our business because their computer said no, and they clearly don’t update their databases as often as their competitors.
Which company was it?  I’m sorry, I’m not going to say more than I have already…

Fluctuat nec mergitur…

I just learnt via that rather fabulous India knight’s Posterous blog that it means “tossed by the waves, she does not sink”.

Sounds like a motto. 
Yeah- definitely a motto rather than a tattoo.
I think India made the right decision that it doesn’t have a tattoo’s worth of cool about it.
(I wanted a red rose around a cross on my ankle when I was 18 and dating a heavy metal fan, but was far too sensible to mark my body permanently.  The coolest tattoo I’ve seen was a colleague’s of a tiny gecko running across her foot).

Besides, unless you’ve a particular bond with Paris, it’s a bit weird to brand yourself with the city motto…
Is there anywhere that has a non-pompous or non-marketing derived alternative city motto?

The City of London has “Domine dirige nos” (Lord lead us, something the bankers should’ve been looking for a bit more I suspect), Rome has “Senatus Populusque Romanus” (the senate and the people of Rome – that’s the SPQR you see everywhere), Amsterdam has Heldhaftig, Vastberaden, Barmhartig (“Valiant, Determined, Compassionate”), bestowed on the city in 1947 by Queen Wilhelmina although the marketing board seems to prefer “I AMsterdam”…   which is suspiciously similar in tone to Berlin’s “be Berlin”.

Still, let’s be unsinkable like Molly Brown. It’s not a bad way to go through life.

Can 2010 be a bit less complicated?

Looking around the blogosphere, it seems that many bloggers stop at New Year to reflect on the year they’ve had, and their aspirations for the coming year.  I’ve decided I’m going to do the same, in the hope that writing down some thoughts will make everything a bit less complicated.
I’m going to make some predictions and comments on the coming year, some personal, some bigger picture.

So 2009.  According to the Facebook statuses of many of my friends, very few people seem to have enjoyed 2009.  I’ve had better, to be honest.  If you look at it objectively, there’s a list of the most stressful things you can do in life and over the last couple of years I’ve done most of them: starting from autumn 2007 I’ve had a baby, we had a death in the family, I had a car crash and resultant injury, had a serially ill child, supported my husband through a career change, returned to work after maternity leave, changed job, handled complex situations at work, moved house, worked outside work hours and without work paying for it towards a qualification… I think I can be forgiven feeling a little stressed…

There have been good things too.  I’ve met some really nice and interesting people, found a lovely house which we’ve helped design so it feels like it’s especially for us, my son  has grown into a lovely toddler, my husband and I have passed the three year anniversary happily, David Tennant was in just about every TV programme over Christmas and I’ve started writing this blog on my very own website which has brought me into contact with some people I’d never have met without it and with whom I’ve done weird things like the euroblogger’s Skype meet-up…

So what does 2010 hold?

1) I will move house.  Again.  Hopefully I’ll not need to do so again for 20 years.
We spent most of 2009 moving house. At least that’s what it’s felt like.  Hopefully in three weeks time I can log on from my own, new house.  It’s so exciting!

2) I will complete my CIPD Certificate in Training Practice.
Did you see my description of myself as “almost a trainer” in the “About Me” blurb? 
I started my professional training qualification in 2006, but had to take time out because of maternity leave – I now need to complete my assessed project by March this year – so that’s a clear deadline.
Wish me luck – and if you need a trainer with my expertise, please do get in touch…

3) There will be a General Election in the UK
There has to be, constitutionally, at least every 5 years, and that’s June this year at the latest.
You know the old joke “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in“? 
There are some differences between the approaches of the main parties (of course if not enough people turn out to vote in each seat under the first-past-the-post system, it’s not just the views of the candidates of the main parties you need to look for…) but there are certainly some similarities, not least in what is being spoken of in terms of cutting public services.  
It’s not clear who is intended to deliver services or ensure that public money is being spent properly by the service deliverers if they are not public servants, but it is clear that no one in the public sector can be complacent that there will always be a job for them, and the pension’s probably not going to remain a golden asset either over the next 40-odd years. 
Elections offer a chance to redefine government-servant relationships, and I understnad that this thinking is underway so I really hope that the role of the civil service and public services are being properly thought out and not just seen as a wodge of public spending to be slashed.

4) International and EU issues will matter even more…
The outcome of the climate change talks in Copenhagen showed that acting big gets you a seat at the top table – the players in getting the deal that mattered were Obama for the USA (population 304,059,724) with the leaders of South Africa (pop 48,687,000), India (pop 1,139,964,932), Brazil (pop 191,971,506) and China (pop 1,325,639,982) . 
While the South Africans have a relatively low population to be part of this grouping, with South Africa and Brazil representing developing continents and growing populations, getting a deal meant having them there. 
But continent-wise, Europe is absent from the top table.
North America, South America, Asia, Africa but the fifth Olympic ring is completely absent. 
Now look at the Daily Mail’s reporting of the deal…

Copenhagen climate change summit delegates have recognised a US-backed agreement on climate change, passing a motion this morning.
The decision follows a US-led group of five nations – including China – tabling a last-minute proposal that US President Barack Obama called a ‘meaningful agreement’.
The fudged deal – backed by Britain, America, South Africa, India, Brazil and China – came after a day of bitter rows and divisions in which the United Nations talks came close to collapse.

Britain?  My understanding from the press was that Britain was not part of the deal, relucantly accepted it as better than no deal at all.  But we weren’t part of that deal. 
Now, no doubt some people here would look at the South African population size and say Britain has a bigger population than that and should have been at the table.  But we share policymaking decisions with neighbouring countries on subjects that affect how we can respond to climate change, and we’ve agreed with them ways in which we will act together – that’s via the European Union.  If we get our act together, in sheer numerical terms we’d warrant a place at the decision-making table, all 499,800,000 of us – third largest population bloc after China and India. 

Copenhagen should act as a real kick up the backside to those that don’t want us to act together as a European Union on the world stage – if we don’t, we don’t count. That’s it.  The Commonwealth’s not a real alternative – India was at that top table in its own right, not representing the Commonwealth.  In any case it’s hard to believe that the sort of people that advocate Commonwealth over EU would see India speaking for them in the international environment in any case, they probably imagine that the UK could successfully lead the way internationally without the need for a power bloc to back up our international standing.  
But Copenhagen showed a new set of powers – not the old cold war blocs any more but a multilateral world where being big matters.  The USA and India are not out to protect the UK’s interests, but the EU is, not least because a powerful Britain is a key market and a defence leader for the other Member States. 
So the choice is EU, or insignificance.
Somehow, I think I’m going to want to be involved in this.   

5) We’ll take some lifechanging decisions…
We gain more family down under this year, but lose family in the Midlands.   This changes our lives as well as theirs – not least because at least one holiday in four will now need to be on the other side of the world. 
As a minimum, I’m going to lose some weight.
But whether it’s jobs or the size of our family, given our ages (mine, my husband’s and our son’s) decisions we make now will affect us in the long run.  I just pray that God is with us as we make them.

6) And I’ll keep writing…
I’m enjoying having a public space in which to comment on things that interest me.  Hope you’ll keep reading.  And a very happy new year.

Penelope Trunk unpacks a difficult issue

Penelope Trunk didn’t mean to do us a favour.
She may be a famous social network expert (over 20,000 follow her Twitter feed, me included), known for the combination of business and personal tweets she makes, but it’s one tweet combining the two that has caused controvery both in the USA and here in the UK too.
Last week she tweeted: “I’m in a board meeting. Having a miscarriage. Thank goodness, because there’s a fucked-up three-week hoop-jump to have an abortion in Wisconsin.”

There’s been a rush to judge her, and she’s now written a “Comment is Free” article for the Guardian explaining that she’s not a monster.  She already has children, hadn’t intended to be pregnant, was at great risk of having an unhealthy baby, her partner doesn’t believe in abortion and frankly pregnancy and miscarriage screws with your emotions.  She didn’t mean to trivialise miscarriage or indeed abortion.
I’m witholding my judgement on all that.  I think the wording of the tweet came across as callous, but miscarriage messes you up a bit – I guess she deserves the benefit of the doubt.  She certainly doesn’t deserve the death threats.

What she’s managed to do, without really intending to, is to bring the intensely personal grief of miscarriage into the public domain.

Because a miscarriage is intensely personal.  And because it’s personal and tragic, you’re not “meant” to talk about it.
And most of the time you just have to get on with it.  One Evening Standard columnist talks about the choice between passing it off as flu or strapping yourself into a giant pad and heading off for that meeting anyway – as if having to ignore the little tragedy is a price women just have to pay for the chance of being in the workplace.  I tried it – you are not necesarily going to be able to do this and act normally!

And all the while the extent of your loss is obvious to you – the dull stomach ache, the parody of a normal period, stuff that I barely want to recall let alone write about.
Your body responds to being pregnant- for anyone that hasn’t had it it’s rather unpleasantly like the worst PMT you’ve ever had: heightened sense of smell, weight gain, really uncomfortable breasts.
And you can get all that even if you miscarry, continue to have all that even when losing what could have been your baby.
Actually the weight gain is a complete pig of a reminder.  You can’t help but think about Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII who is known to have had a number of miscarriages.  And she became bloated and unhappy and Ann Boleyn managed to tempt her husband away from her. I hate the way miscarriage can make your mind work.

And the grief.
It’s the grief that’s hard to explain. What are you actually grieving for?
And that’s where the abortion point comes back into play.  It would be quite hard to explain to people who only really think of a six or seven week old embryo as just a ball of cells that your mourning a life that didn’t get to happen.
You’re grieving for what might have been, upset that all the excitement, the future planning that you’ve done explicitly or subconsciously has just come to an end.
I’m not sure whether medical staff still refer to miscarriage as spontanteous abortion, but some of the older literature does and it seems to assume that comfort can be draw from the fact that it occurs usually because there was something wrong with the developing embryo.  For what it’s worth, no it doesn’t make you feel much better.
Your hormones have also got all geared up for pregnancy and the shock of their readjustment leaves you on the verge of tears a lot of the time.

Then there’s the guilt.
It feels like everyday there’s a new new story about something terrible that you could do to your unborn child that would result in loss or permanent disability.  And when the miscarriage starts you wonder – what if I hadn’t carried that box? What if I hadn’t had that glass of wine/ piece of blue cheese/ dodgy prawn/ slightly undercooked bacon?  What if I’d managed to lose the weight? What if I’d taken the exercise a bit easier, or done a bit more?
What if I’d managed to be less stressed?
So again that conspires against anyone talking about it.

I’ve not really experienced the relief that Penelope Trunk describes, but then she’s over 40 which brings greater medical risk, and already has the number of children she wants.  And although the language she used to express her private thoughts was what really shocked (convention has it that every child should be wanted, miscarriage a tragic loss not something to be celebrated) it is legitimate to feel like that.

Family planning is still a modern phenomemon – in our want-get society of instant gratification we forget that this stuff is not easy.
Even in my grandparents’ generation not every child was expected to live to adulthood, and having ten children was not just about a lack of contraception but an acknowledgement that not every pregnancy  would result in a child and not every child would make it through childhood.  The whole process of conception, pregnancy and raising small children is a real reminder that while we might try to live ordered lives there’s a wild, uncontrollably biological side to our lives and we have to accept and live with the consequences of what happens to us.

At my age and when you have a child of toddler age, you and the other mums you know are likely to be trying for a second child (possibly third if real gluttons for punishment – the quantity of work per child is not simply twice as much but apparently much more even though you know more what you are doing). And, if you get talking about it, you discover just how many people you know that have had a miscarriage.

Penelope Trunk says “it’s part of being a woman”.  I think I know what she means.

Why we need Wandsworth’s services here too…

You know that expression “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone“?
It’s beginning to feel a bit like that since moving out of Wandsworth.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad we don’t live in London any more. Yes I miss my lovely church, the playgroup friends my son and I had both made, the common on which we walked through the seasons, the proximity to gastronome’s delight Northcote Road and the copious and regular buses that eased the morning commute.
But we barely used facilities after 8pm (you don’t when you have to be home with a baby) so access to the West End, concerts, restaurant deals etc. had started not to matter.  And everything’s so expensive in London! 
I like the feeling of cleaner air in my lungs, having a garden, being nearer to my family, neighbours that say “hello” even if they’ve not met you before, a much bigger selection of shops nearby, proximity to the sea etc. etc.
Life is not all fab in the provinces. Much will be improved when we’re not renting but living in our own house – I didn’t believe I’d have got as used to owning as I have. Needing a car offends my greener sensibilities, And even with the new trains, the trebling of my commute is a bit of a bugger. But I’ve great hopes for the new bus system that’s proposed and fully intend to get involved in the consultation on that and anything else to help this town handling taking on another 29,000 houses in the next 20 years.

But the big thing I miss is the efficiency of Wandsworth Council.
I know it sounds daft. 
There may be readers in London falling off their chairs in disbelief.  May be it’s just that we’d got used to how they do things there.  May be it seems better in retrospect – but may be it really is good? 

We’ve moved into a beacon council area and I’m finding contact to let the local district council know we’ve done so incredibly frustrating. Phonelines that allegedly open at 8.30 but are still not open at 9.30, very long response periods following email contact (having tried by phone, I emailed – got an autoreply but who knows when I’ll get a proper response).

And just don’t get me started on the rubbish – we’ve got the weirdest recycling policy here: Wandsworth gets you to bung everything in one bag (delivering endless rolls of orange bags to your door) and collecting weekly, with a very extensive range of things that are accepted for recycling. My town gives you a medium-sized blue crate and a very restrictive policy (newspaper but not paper, no envelopes, no plastics, no tetrapaks, no shredding…), only collects every other Friday (and even then it’s only if you’re actually in the town centre) telling you that the rest can be handled at supermarkets and the local dump (sorry, recycling centre).  And the dump is tiny – the queues there at the weekend are unbelievable, the parking access is crazy and it barely seems to be able to handle the waste from the town the size it is.  Somewhere else is definitely going to be needed when the town expands.

I’m not at all bothered about the political complexion of the Councils – actually I think they’re broadly similar. 
But we’re paying about twice as much in Council tax for a property in the same band. 
I’m sure the Council does try to keep costs down and to soend money wisely.  It’s just that I really don’t think the services are twice as good here as they are in Wandsworth. (Yes, I know that services that I benefit from directly are not everything that the council tax charge covers but even so that’s one hell of a difference!)

I guess this bothers me because I want to feel confident as a resident that the decisions around the huge expansion of the town will take into account everything I would want them to.
I’m not sure quite sure what that would be yet but off the top of my head (and my husband’s, in between watching the X Factor) decent, affordable, regular public transport; communities with soul meaning things like light, spacious common gathering places not just shops and roundabouts; decent primary schools with enough places in communities and within walking distance; high quality childcare that enables rail commuters to get back to do the child pick-up without having to leave the office before 5pm; more department store being tempted into town; serious waste recycling with weekly collections of both normal waste and recycling (which should be allowed to be as much as a household produces not just one box-full); compulsory eco features in any new building developments (solar panels, rainwater harvesting etc.); green spaces… and achieving some of that will need to be about judicious spending of public money.
At some point I’ll put a bit more thought into that list.  

I think the main point for me is that the local government initiatives that are getting the headlines are the ones in Hammersmith and Fulham, or in Barnet.  Some seem so obvious you wonder why they’re not a normal part of planning deals, like the linking of provision of transport services and local facilities such as a library to the building of a massive new shopping centre – others I must need to read more about because what I’ve seen so far sounded like a policy of allowing people to pay more to shift themselves up the planning queue?
But while Wandsworth hasn’t really got huge shiny initatives like that, what it does have is the lowest concil tax in the country.  How?
I guess it might have is stonkingly good procurement contracts that mean that the services get delivered, and low levels of corruption (which a former councillor friend tells me can be an issue in local politics).  Of the two, the contracts seem to be key.

It’s never going to be a winning electoral slogan (“vote for me and I’ll revolutionise council procurement policy”) but if it could mean lower taxes people could be won over, I reckon.  Or leave more money available for doing all the good things you want done locally.  Or both.
And for a town with a big future ahead of it, doing what you do well, and using decent contracting to keep a handle on the things you get others to do for you – hmmm. 
I wonder if the Council here’s considered a trip to Wandsworth to see how it can be done?

How sure are you? Pascal and “Bad Conscience”

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I was just playing on Twitter, retweeting the occasional thing I found interesting, typing in bad French with no accents on my letters in response to some, the usual. I found a Tweet that caught my interest and followed the link through to a blog.
It was called “Bad Conscience“, and linked on the sidebar to “Bad Science”, the Ben Goldacre site that picks apart the media’s lazy approach to science reporting. So that’s good. Presumably inspired the name.
It’s the 201st most read political blog in the UK, apparently.
The first article looked like it might be worth reading, so I was about to add it to my RSS feed to read every so often at my leisure.
Then I spotted the strapline.
Straplines are important. I know mine’s not perfect yet: “Politics, Europe, Parenting, Faith, Life… because the most interesting things need deep thought and high heels“… I’m working on it still – after all I’ve only had this site a month.

So what’s the big deal? Well, the Bad Conscience website strapline was that old punk slogan “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine“. That’s fairly definite. Can’t get clearer rejection of the Christian faith than that.

For me, there’s a key point in history on which everything rests.
If Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead then that is the most important thing that has ever, ever happened. If he was who he said he was, did what I think – based on all the available evidence – that he did, then it matters.
Everything else – exactly which creation myth you believe in, what your priorities need to be in life, all that sort of thing suddenly becomes clear, and you are free.

If you’re unsure that Jesus was who Christians think he is, then fine.
You could always try an Alpha course if you don’t know enough to make a decision, but if courses are not your thing, I’d urge you to do some reading. Particularly if you are someone that thrives on intellectual persuasion. Try Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God” as a much better starting point than the perhaps over-simplistic Alpha course.

If you think Christians have got it wrong because you if you think Jesus was just a historical figure, or a myth that never existed, that’s ok, it’s your choice… well, that’s ok if you’ve bothered to look at the evidence and you’ve found nothing to convince you that he was more than he was just another rabbinical teacher.
I personally find it hard to come to that conclusion based on what the gospels say that he said (as CS Lewis put it “either he was mad or he was God”) but if you approached the history with an open mind, knew that there were some non-gospel sources too (not just Jospehus whose work may have been amended later) recognising the limitations of first and second century historical records and the purposes of writings at that time and the way that rabbinical teaching worked, then there’s little more that I can say.

If you think he was the prophet that Islam identifies, or the not-quite-what-a-Messiah-should-be-error of Judaism, then I guess you’ve done the kind of thinking that I’ve done and come to a different conclusion.

But to put a line up in public that says in effect that you know that Jesus died for someone’s sins, but that you reject the idea that it was for you? Why would you do that?
i) you’ve reviewed the evidence that’s available and you’ve come to the conclusion that Jesus was real and believed that he was dying for people’s sins, but of course he didn’t rise from the dead;
ii) you don’t really know much about any of this and just think it’s a witty thing to write;
iii) you don’t like the idea that God holds people to account and would rather be held responsible for the consequences of your sins than have anyone pay that debt for you, or for those who sin against you;
iv) you really don’t care whether Jesus was real, a myth, what he said or didn’t say. It’s all a long time ago and we’re very sophisticated now and have digital watches and the internet. Pretty good for fish that grew legs, huh?
v) You really do think that Jesus died for someone’s sins, but this simply doesn’t and won’t apply to you…

But how sure are you?
Probably the most sensible comment that can be made- if you can even conceive that once, in the whole of history, a man died and came back to life having said he would do so and why- was by Blaise Pascal. 

Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, bless yourself with holy water, have Masses said, and so on; by a simple and natural process this will make you believe, and will dull you—will quiet your proudly critical intellect…Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.

Essentially, if you’re not sure, you’ve less to lose by choosing to believe (Mother theresa is clear in her letters that that’s a choice she made when she could no longer feel God talking to her so I don’t feel that’s living a lie or in any way to be sneered at). 
But Pascal explains it much better and you can read the key paragraphs on Wikipedia
(NB every so often people try to come up with a “knock down” argument against Pascal’s wager.  sometimes they misunderstand: he’s not trying to “prove” God. Dawkins argument is overcome by Pascal himself and Richard Carrier’s argument assumes it’s the doing good and seeking out truth elements that would bring pleasure to the god he mentions – which is not the justification by faith salvation that Christians believe in and so I wouldn’t be making his wager!)

According to Wikipedia:

“Historically, Pascal’s Wager was groundbreaking as it had charted new territory in probability theory, was one of the first attempts to make use of the concept of infinity, marked the first formal use of decision theory, and anticipated the future philosophies of pragmatism and voluntarism”

but if you are finding all that a bit heavy going, Terry Pratchett does a brilliant comic version in his book “Hogfather” (ISBN 0-552-14542-4 please do buy it!)…

“This is very similar to the suggestion put forward by the Quirmian philosopher Ventre, who said, “Possibly the gods exist, and possibly they do not. So why not believe in them in any case? If it’s all true you’ll go to a lovely place when you die, and if it isn’t then you’ve lost nothing, right?” When he died he woke up in a circle of gods holding nasty-looking sticks and one of them said, “We’re going to show you what we think of Mr Clever Dick in these parts…”

The key point is that, as Pascal points out, there is no “I’m not playing” option.  In deciding our position on faith, and on Jesus, we are all in effect placing a wager on who he was and what he did. 
If God demands perfection, is the source of all that it good and pleasurable and sin separates us from him, and if Jesus was God paying the price of that sin for us then it’s the most important decision you’ll ever make. 
And it’s not just a case of betting your life.  
Choosing that separation will never make you happy and filfilled.
I don’t think that having a faith automatically makes you a credulous fool.  Sometimes, if you’ve reviewed the evidence, thought freely and come to the conclusion that the evidence shows X to be fact as far as it is possible to accertain, then to disbelieve would be the position that was not that of a freethinker.
So if Jesus died for someone’s sins, why not yours? 
If you’re aware now that there is a wager that is part of this life, how sure are you?