Sunday, 23 October 2016

Review : Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson

The name Mara Wilson may not ring many bells for you, and that's part of the problem. A wonderful actress and more recently a very talented writer and storyteller, Wilson is better known as 'the girl from Matilda', 'the kid in Miracle on 34th Street' or the youngest girl in Mrs Doubtfire. It says something about the worth that we attach to child actors when we tend to forget what they're called - they are household faces not household names. And jesus - what a disservice that all does to Mara Wilson.

Where Am I Now? is really a series of essays rather than an autobiography as such, and they are glorious essays. Yes, you have everything that you'd expect - snippets of conversations with Robin Williams, behind the scenes secrets from the filming of Matilda and true and horrific tales of how Hollywood mistreats and misjudges young people, but it's in the more personal, universal stories that Wilson's skill as a storyteller come across. Cutting through the script read-throughs and red-carpet mishaps, we learn of how Wilson's mother died of cancer during her formative years. As Wilson tells us of how she lost her mother and the Tooth Fairy at the same time, the utter, gripping, private pain of it is laid bare but the way that she paints it all - sparsely and carefully - means that it's the more universal loss of innocence that lingers. Wilson has an obviously wide array of star-studded stories to call upon, and she could have given us a nice whirl through those without going any further, but with Where Am I Now?, we get true honesty.

Moving forward, Wilson applies the same level of honesty to the anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that she deals with. She tells of a childhood dream where she's confronted by unnerving figures moving closer and how she wakes describing them as 'her fears'. Anybody who has ever dealt with anything similar will recognise and value the clarity given by a child's voice. Through her writing, we're able to understand her situation, but importantly, it allows us to reassess some of our own experiences that might fit into a similar pattern.

As you can tell, I'm a fan of this book. I bought it for the same reason that so many will - because we grew up with those films and because I was intrigued. Having read Wilson's blog, I knew that I wasn't about to read some ghost-written cash cow of a book, but I was still wonderfully surprised. Living with depression, I've actually been going through a period of book blindness, and this is the first book that I've read in more than a year. It was a joy - partly because for the first time in ages, I was able to pick up a book and not feel daunted, and not feel like a failure when I put it down again - in no small part because Wilson's writing is so warm. But perhaps most importantly to me, Wilson talks of reading and writing as a child, and it reminded me of my own relationship with books, where they weren't work to be done or obstacles to overcome - when they were friends to escape with.

If you're looking for an insight of what it's like to grow up famous and part of the film industry, you should read this book - even in that narrow sense, it's great value. However, there are more treasures here. Mara Wilson writes with sometimes painful honesty on what it's like to deal with anxiety, to deal with loss and to deal with that tricky affliction that comes to us all - growing up. In Where Am I Now?, Wilson deals with all of these themes and more with great humour and humility. I for one hope that this is just the beginning, I'd very happily stand in line for a copy of What Mara did next.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Life in the hot-house

The new Dolly Parton album, released on Friday and well worth an hour of anybody's time has a song called 'Never Not Love You' which opens with the fantastic and Partonesque lines;
'I may not climb Mount Everest, 
win praise in others eyes, 
I may not win the Lottery, 
or win the Pulitzer Prize...' 
It's a pretty wide list of things, I'll admit. I don't know if anybody has done all four, and if they have I'd like to meet them - but it's a pretty rare thing nowadays, to list things that you probably won't succeed in. It felt fitting because for the past two weeks, we've all rightly been celebrating the incredible sporting achievement of hundreds of athletes who are doing things that most of us never will.

It's a well-trodden joke now, but I won't lie to you. Yesterday I found myself criticising Tom Daley's pike position, but it was a fleeting comment made between combing my social media accounts and eating crisps. I'd love to be somebody who didn't recognise the irony of it all, but I'm not. Like Dolly, I think we'd all do well sometimes to recognise the things that we're good at and the things we're not and try and find joy in that.

But Jesus, is it hard.

More and more lately, I feel like my generation (it may not be my generation explicitly) have grown up in a bit of a hot-house. Within an hour of waking up, I'll have realised that I can't sing like Cynthia Erivo, I'm not celebrating the birth of my first child, I haven't just been promoted at work, I'm not having a hashtag-epic time on a mini-break in New York and unlike Kim K, whilst my arse might do many things it's never going to break the internet.

From New Labour's target that 50% should get (and pay for) a University education, to The X Factor's third-place SHAME of having to go back to NORMAL LIFE - getting by and doing good has never been undervalued so much. You have to be amazing, or worse, 'awesome'. If Mo Farrah can win the double double, then who on earth am I?

Well, here's an answer. I'm somebody who is trying hard and doing alright. I hold down a job and I do it well. I go to the gym. I manage to not be an absolute shit to people working in shops, which as I know, isn't a gift everybody is blessed with. I try and make time for people and sometimes I succeed. I'm a great laugh at a party, and I try and let other people get a word in edgeways after I've had a few wines.

None of this means that I begrudge anybody their success. If you have a baby and you're proud of it and you want to plaster the wrinkly little bugger all over Facebook, I'm joyous for you and you should do it. If you've passed your Driving Test, you rake in the likes all day long - you deserve it. When I reached my weight loss target, basking in the social media afterglow was bloody well delicious. The problem is, nobody ever posts on Facebook when they've had a bit of a cry and they're feeling better, thanks. Nobody posts on Facebook when they're treating themselves to a brownie because its a Thursday. Nobody posts on Facebook when they've successfully talked themselves into going to work. And let me tell you, if you did post those things, Facebook would probably filter the hell out of them.

It's all fine - we just need to be more aware of it. I'm not about to go all pious and say I'm deleting my apps and putting on a bonnet and waiting for my husband to come home - what's the bet that if I deleted Twitter, Justin Bieber would totally get his thing out again, and hell, we're all human. But we all need to have in mind that it's all really warping. My Facebook feed is a neat little digest of 600-odd people's 'best bits' reels, it's just that they're all playing concurrently. Just as one person is celebrating their wedding, another has passed an exam, another is at the best party, like, ever... and I'm sitting on the 184 back to Radstock trying desperately not to breathe in the fumes of the poor bastard in front of me.

I'm 24, I'm paid pretty well to meet people all day long and try and save them money on their banking, savings and insurance. That money pays the bills, it pays for holidays and it'll pay for my wedding next year. My life isn't an endless whirl of glamour, but I'm getting through the days and I've got prospects.

If you, like me, have spent too many hours scrolling through Facebook feeling like chopped liver while everyone else is out living their best life, just remember that whilst Dolly's right, and we may not win the Lottery or the Pulitzer Prize - we're getting on with shit and we're doing alright. A big pat on the back to you, my friends.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

No, you're not racist for wearing a poppy.

It's that time of year again, kids. Just as we get ready for the latest tranche of Facebook posts about towns and cities in the UK banning Christmas trees because they supposedly offend non-Christians, our bullshit meters are tested by the natural pre-emptive - defiant posts about how people are wearing a poppy in remembrance regardless of whether it's racist.

Let me say one thing. Wearing a poppy isn't racist. It's a personal choice that lots of people make to remember those lost in War. When it comes to questions in this area, there are a few we need to consider.

Are you wearing a poppy?

Are you doing something that could otherwise be considered racist whilst wearing said poppy?

If the answer to both of those questions is yes, you're probably being racist, but just doing the first one whilst going about your business isn't racist at all. So, you're safe. If you're popping to Asda to buy eggs whilst wearing your poppy, you're in the clear. If you're digging the garden and wearing your poppy, you're probably alright. If you're calling somebody the n-word whilst wearing it, the poppy is the least of your worries.

I'm probably not alone in getting annoyed about this. EVERY YEAR we're subjected to the lazy kind of clickbait from groups like Britain First, trying to convince normal British people that their sensibilities and way of life are under threat - and here's the thing, it isn't. It's so ludicrous. No, you're not going to be called a racist for wearing a piece of paper pinned to your shirt. It is still, gladly, very rare that anybody would burn a poppy wreath, and the same tawdry story has been doing the rounds for years. Councils are not banning remembrance.

Let's just imagine, for a second, that rather than our country being involved in some kind of crackdown - that these things, these detritus Facebook posts are actually just the urban legends of our times. Before Facebook, we told stories about Shelley's cousin's half-sister getting pregnant because she shared somebody's bath water. Now, we see the same kind of rubbish going round and round, regardless of how many times it's been debunked or derided.

Let's just all try and play our part in not spreading the ill-informed contagion. And besides - I don't have the time, I'm making gluten free mini-cakes for my WinterFest party, AND I DONT CARE IF U THINK I'M RACIST (share if ur brave enough).

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

When will the LibDems 'woman problem' end?

Note : I've had this post written for a little while but haven't posted it. I'll explain why I have decided to post it today.

When will the LibDems 'woman problem' end?

1. When it's no longer acceptable for a female candidate to be told to wear a certain kind of bra to make her bust smaller and reduce any 'distraction'.

2. When we act firmly and quickly against instances of harassment ensuring that the party can rightly be called a safe space.

3. When we stop assuming that we elect women to parliament by moulding them in the image and style of the sitting MP they're succeeding.

4. When we focus on 50/50 representations in all areas of our party - not just our candidates lists.

5. When our members call bullshit on male candidates spreading pregnancy rumours about opponents during selection campaigns.

6. When leadership schemes focus on building a CV to help get people elected rather than building a wardrobe of brightly coloured cardigans and matching accessories.

7. When we offer real support (and yes, I mean financial support) to those who might not otherwise be able to afford to run for office.

8. When we require gender balance instead of zipping (they're NOT the same thing).

9. When casual 'banter' about sexual encounters in online forums is seen as the seedy throwback that it is (yes, I am talking about 'LibDem Chat-up lines', 'jokes' where you ask if somebody would like to take your deposit aren't funny, they're grim.)

10. When selection panels are properly trained and are made aware of what is and isn't an acceptable question to ask a prospective candidate - this includes Local Government.

11. When we stop excusing bad behaviour because 'it's just his way'.

12. When we accept that the fact that the vast majority of our organisers are men is a real problem.

13. When we realise that getting women elected isn't about taking glossy photographs and offering them leaders visits - it's about giving their campaigns early money and expertise to get a fair chance.

14. When we stop choosing failed and disgraced ex-MPs over new and exciting female candidates.

15. When we enforce a responsibility to report any inappropriate behaviour - putting the focus on the onlookers, not the victim.

I've had this written for a little while and add to it occasionally. I hadn't posted it, because like many others, I don't like the idea of speaking ill of the party that I care about. The Liberal Democrats get enough shit in the press without me pitching in.

That said, there comes a time when the shitty deal that so many of my friends and colleagues have gotten becomes more important. Of course it's important to stand by your party and defend it, but it's more important to stand with those that our systems are failing.

During the leadership campaign there was talk of a 'Morrissey 2' report, which is an interesting idea. I have one point to make. Morrissey 1 might have meant that we employed a Pastoral Care Officer, but if it's successor doesn't call for root and branch reform of our party, I question what impact it will have. The Morrissey Report is great, but what difference does it make to a local branch populated by old men? What difference does it make to the way that we treat our female parliamentary candidates? What difference does it make to how we campaign for female candidates?

If I had to answer my own question, about the LibDem 'woman problem', it would be to say this - we'll start to solve the problem that we have when we stop pretending that it doesn't exist and start looking it in the face and frankly, that better happen fast because I know of plenty of people who have had just about enough.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

On endings

A good friend of mine messaged me yesterday. He was writing something about what Charles Kennedy's death meant to him. He hadn't met Charles, and joined after Charles' time as our leader had finished, but the point he made was incredible. It was Charles Kennedy's leadership and principles when opposing Labour's position on civil liberties that had made my friend a liberal. The other incredible thing, was that in checking through what he'd written, he had actually addressed part of the piece to a wider audience and accidentally addressed part of it to Charles himself. It is striking that this kind of thing so often happens. In discussing the death of somebody that we were touched by or care so much about, we very often veer away from the task and end up having that last (or first) conversation we'd always hoped to have but which sadly now won't be possible.

Like my friend, I never met Charles Kennedy. It's one of the reasons that I didn't say anything about any of it until yesterday evening. Whilst we live in a world that has grown used to the comforting hum of social media in the background, I didn't think it was my place to say anything at that point. My colleagues who worked with and cared for Charles on a personal level deserved that space to react, respond and most importantly, to remember their friend.

My first memory of Charles Kennedy is in fact my first memory of David Heath. I remember in the dim and distant past seeing a newspaper with the two men front page - not a national newspaper, just the Somerset Standard. Charles had come to visit Frome and I knew even at that age that it was a big deal. A couple of years later, many people in my town took to the streets to protest Tony Blair's plans to invade Iraq - they joined people around the country doing the same thing. They joined the hundreds of thousands who did the same in London - a march that Charles so famously addressed. Very rarely does it happen that we feel that wherever we might be in the country, we're joining with people right across our islands in standing up for something that matters. I'm just glad that we had somebody so passionate and so eloquent putting forward a liberal argument.

We all know what happened in Iraq. A very wise person on Twitter yesterday pointed out how different our world might be had Charles Kennedy's argument been taken on board. Instead, we await the report of the Iraq Enquiry - one that has been used as a political football for long enough.

The other ending that I want to reflect upon is the result that we saw this time last month. Charles Kennedy, like so many Liberal Democrat colleagues, lost his seat in Parliament. Results aside, the most difficult thing for me to come to terms with is the impact that those losses will have on the lives of people up and down the country. The Liberal Democrats, under Charles Kennedy, before that and since that, have always gone to bat for the people who find themselves without a voice. I've made the point before, and I'll make it again. The reason that I joined this party is because on the council estate where I grew up, no politicians knocked on our door. Hit hardest by successive Conservative Governments that ignored and vilified single parent families, we were left behind.

It's those people that Charles Kennedy fought for. People like my Mum, and like my family. It's people like those that need us now more than ever. So many seats across this country fell to parties who don't work for local communities, but who have enough money to pay the postman to deliver their leaflets. I'm proud to be a member of a party that doesn't just pay the postman to push glossy leaflets through doors. I'm proud that in the Liberal Democrats we knock on those doors, we build lasting relationships and we work to make a difference.

Shortly after he lost his seat, Charles said something that he knew to be true - that our party would rebuild, regroup and return as a strong and battle-ready force for good in British politics. It's a point that is a real testament to his own humility - that even in defeat, he could see the wider picture and look forward. If there's one thing I know to be true, it's that if we go out there and do that work, if we go out and meet people and learn what matters to them, what worries them, we will come back stronger and fitter - ready to make a real difference to peoples lives.

I never met Charles Kennedy. I don't have any funny anecdotes. But one thing I know, is that far from the House where such moving words were said today, people up and down the country are missing him. People he never met and never had contact with, but people who knew that Charles was on their side. Let's reach out to those people and consider the future we want to build together. Our country needs more Charles Kennedy, not less - so let's work in tribute to a fine man, a passionate leader and a friend to so many.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Goodbye to all that

In May of 2011, I was elected to Mendip District Council and became the youngest person ever to be elected to the authority. I could barely think as they were counting the votes, and by the time the result was announced, I could do nothing but cry. Cry with relief, exhaustion and confusion at everything that had happened. Election campaigns, as many of you will know are (as a good friend once said) the best of times and the worst of times. They're incredible. There's no feeling like being involved in something that you're so passionate about, side by side with others who are equally committed. That accepted, they're so draining. I love knocking on doors and chatting with people, but doing it for hours on end is incredibly tiring - you can't help but start to be dead behind the eyes by the time you've finished.

During my time campaigning for public office, and whilst a Councillor, I've done some things that will never fail to make me grin from ear to ear. What's more, I've worked with some people who have become my best friends and who inspire me. Before I was elected, Helen Sprawson-White and I joined a campaign to protect Frome Library from funding cuts coming down the line from County Hall Conservatives. That campaign was successful, and I'm proud of it. When the Conservatives tried cutting funding for Young Carers, I campaigned against it and they backed down. I'm proud of that, and I'm proud that at last year's Autumn Conference the LibDems committed to rolling out Pupil Premium to Young Carers to ensure they're given better support in school. When Council Tax Benefit was cut, I worked with my colleague Claire Hudson to make sure that the Council removed discounts for empty and second homes rather than cutting support for the most vulnerable. My colleague Adam Boyden has to be one of the best people I've worked with - he's reached across party boundaries to tackle fly-tipping and he's helped with my own casework when I wasn't well enough to do it myself. It's to these people and others that I owe a great debt of gratitude.

As a County Councillor, I worked with local people and politicians from other parties to have the 267 Bus reinstated to Rode and it still makes me smile to take the bus through that village today. As a County Councillor, I was able to put questions to our Police and Crime Commissioner, asking her what she would do to tackle FGM - not just in Bristol - but in rural areas where such issues are too often ignored or assumed not to exist.

I'm proud of many of the things I've done and I've enjoyed my time as a Councillor, but I can't pretend that public office isn't taxing. I can't pretend that I've found every minute easy or simple - it hasn't been.

That's why I've decided not to stand for Council again in May. I've done my four years, and I've enjoyed them. To be chosen by the people you grew up with to represent them is one of the greatest privileges a person can ever have, it's one I'm thankful for. I'll be working in Somerton and Frome to make sure that we bolster our position in Local Government as well as electing David Rendel our next MP. David isn't flashy, he doesn't pull gimmicks - but he cares very passionately about local people. He's a good man and I hope that local people send him to Parliament on our behalf.

I don't honestly know what my next step is. As I'm finishing my degree, I'm entering a period where I have to consider my future career and all of the options open to me. Whilst I have an inkling I might end up running for office again at some point in the future, I'm so happy that I can move forward in the knowledge that at least in some small way, I was able to stand up and make something of a difference. I think that's probably all we can ever hope for in life, so thank you for allowing me that.

I'll still be blogging (for blogging read ranting) here, so watch this space.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Why are Good Energy penalising their most efficient customers?

A year or so ago, we decided to switch energy supplier away from British Gas. We weren't alone in doing it, at the same time many people got fed up with the offers from big energy suppliers and switched to smaller outfits to get better deals. At this time we decided to switch to Good Energy, partly because of their links with the National Trust (never a bad thing) and partly because I reasoned that with Good Energy we could play our part in investing in renewables, and partly because over the long haul I tend to think that renewables will end up being comparably cheaper than fossil fuels. The switch from one to another was seamless, and we've been happy enough with their service.

Yesterday we received a letter from them telling us that they were cutting their unit Electricity price by 2.1% - 'Huzzah!' I thought - look who was right all along, yeah? No. So it turns out that whilst cutting their Electricity and Gas prices, they're increasing their daily Standing Charge from 18.86p per day, to 23.47p. Now, for most people, bills will go down regardless. The cut in the other two prices will mean that they easily save more than they get charged in the change in Standing Charge.

What this means though, is that people in our position are actually penalised. As the letter says, 'The result is that we are lowering our unit electricity prices by 2.1%. However, as you are a low user of electricity, and because our standing charges need to go up, you will see from the enclosed Price Change Notification, that as a result, your overall bill will rise.'

If I'm honest, I'm a bit baffled. We're a low use of electricity for exactly the same reason that we decided to go with Good Energy. We're careful with our electricity usage. We wash clothes later in the evening, we switch lights off, we use timers. It isn't by accident that we're a low user of electricity - in a world with very finite resources, I don't think we can afford not to be low users of electricity.

The change in payments isn't really what I'm moaning about here. We're in a lucky enough position that we can meet our bill payments, and more than this, because Good Energy didn't ask for a meter reading last year, we're currently in credit on our account. The people I feel for are those who are low users of electricity for other reasons. Logically, those who will use less energy are those living in smaller homes or living alone - many of these people will be elderly. I don't see why those people should be penalised.

Good Energy, according to their website, are committed to building a green energy future. To me, a key part of that green energy future has to be convincing people to live efficiently and leave as little a mark on the planet as possible. Quite why, in a year when they're cutting unit prices, Good Energy believes they should penalise exactly those customers who are making that effort is beyond me.

As I said, it isn't about me. It's an issue of principles. We'll only tackle the coming energy crisis if we're all a part of the solution. It seems that perhaps inadvertently, Good Energy are moving in the opposite direction.

*Every sigh*