Manchester

It hurts more when it’s close to home. When lives are lost in faraway parts of the world, people on social media ask why we pay less attention to those tragedies than ones which happen nearby. And they’re right, of course, a human life is a human life, those who are close to us are not more valuable than any other. But the fact remains, whether it’s fair and just or not, that it hurts more when it’s close to home, when we can imagine it happening to us.

Manchester is not my home now, but it was for over a decade, from age 18. It is the place where I found my closest friends, some of whom live there still. It is the place that took a shy, miserable teenager, and showed him how joyful life could be. There was no better city to be a young music lover. My life in Manchester revolved around concerts, record shops and nightclubs, at venues from the tiny Star and Garter to, inevitably, the Manchester Arena.

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The many ways a life can unravel

I get a lot of people coming up to me for a chat when I’m with my daughter, so it wasn’t a surprise when we were sat in the cafe and a woman, perhaps in her sixties, wandered over to us. Her opening gambit was to stare at my daughter in a mildly unnerving manner, which worried me a little, but when she started talking to me it was the usual questions “what’s her name?”, “how old is she?” and so on.  This woman had a tendency to repeat herself, and her memory seemed like it might to be starting to go a little, but it wasn’t the difficult conversation with the crazy stranger I had been concerned it might be.

A few minutes later, a man she was with, a little younger, wandered over too, his conversational skills consisting mainly of non-sequiters like “we’ve been to Derby on holiday”, but he was pleasant enough, and my daughter happily munched away on her croissant while I chatted with these strangers. Presently the man wandered off, and the woman seemed as if she was going to leave too, but changed her mind. She started to talk about the man, it becoming apparent he was her son. “He has that Aspergers, have you heard of it?” “It was hard, because they didn’t know for a long time” “It was hard”, she kept repeating.

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Bringing up a child in the time of Trump

This is not primarily a political blog, but in times like these ignoring the political situation should not be an option. The first week or so of Donald Trump’s presidency has been worse than I possibly imagined, and my expectations were extremely low. More concerning even than any of the individual policies he has put in place, is the disregard for the rule of law and the constitution. It is also very apparent that our own government here in the UK is not going to do anything to stand up to him, regardless of what he does.

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So I joined a few thousand of my fellow citizens at a march in Leeds last night, protesting against Trump’s travel ban, the man himself and our governments craven subservience. I’ve been cynical in the past of marches, protests and petitions, believing there is little chance of them having any impact. I’ve come to realise though that, although protesting has only a tiny chance of making a difference, sitting on my arse doing nothing has absolutely zero chance of making a difference, so I know which I’d rather be doing right now.

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Blog – In defence of uncertainty

My social media feeds have started to depress me recently. So full of people with such strong opinions, but often with little to back them up. Social media has been like this for some time of course, but the current political turmoil in the UK has made it even more prevalent. Some people have got into the habit of posting and sharing any meme, quote or article which seemingly supports their point of view, without considering whether they specifically agree with that particular meme/quote/article, or even whether it is factually accurate.

My own politics are left-leaning, and nearly all my Facebook friends and the people I follow on Twitter are also lefties, at least to some extent, so most of the nonsense I see comes from my own side. I expect the Tories and Ukip to lie, distort and mislead, but I (perhaps naively) expect better from people I, mainly, agree with. I often find myself starting to write long-winded responses to posts I feel to be misleading or inaccurate, even if I agree with the broader point being made. I usually abandon halfway through, because I’m not sure a social media argument has ever led to someone changing their opinion or admitting they were wrong.

What surprises me more than anything though, is the certainty with which people express their opinions. It’s rarely “I think this…” or “I believe that…” but more often “THIS IS HOW IT IS AND ANYONE WHO THINKS OTHERWISE IS A ****”. This may well be a case of the pot calling the kettle black, as I may previously have been one of the most argumentative, opinionated, people around, but I think I have (mainly) grown out of that by now.

This certainty of opinion is by no means limited to politics. As a parent, I’ve been astonished by the vehemence with which some parents claim that their style of parenting is the only correct one. As a music lover, it’s amazing how often you see people insisting that one album or band is definitively, empirically better than another, when what they really mean is that they personally enjoy it more. Friends of mine will recognise the irony in me saying this, as I have spent most of my life giving such definitive opinions on music myself . I’m fairly sure I once told one of my friends that Trompe Le Monde couldn’t be her favourite Pixies album,as it had to be Doolittle or Surfer Rosa.

The older I get though, the more I realise that, I don’t really know all that much about anything. As a parent, I’m pretty much making it up as I go along, and what I have learnt probably only applies to my own child not everybody elses. When it comes to politics my opinions are based on a little bit of knowledge and a lot of gut instinct.  There may be a few subjects I know more about than the average person on the street – music, cricket, porters (the beer not people who work in hospitals), the history of the papacy (long story). Even with these subjects there are thousands of people who know more about them than I do.

There is so much to know in this world, that we cannot expect to understand more than a tiny proportion of it. That knowledge makes me aware that I could be wrong about almost anything. For example, I truly believe that Brexit will be disaster for the UK, as should be clear from the piece I wrote on Friday. But, I’m not an economist, or a political expert, and even those people often get things wrong. We could turn out to be fine. I think it unlikely, but I can’t claim it’s impossible, or that I’m certain I am correct.

So, I try my best not to express my opinions with too much certainty, as they could well be wrong, but I often fail to meet this standard. I still find myself expressing very strong opinions on the qualities of particular football players, even though I watch so little football nowadays that Gabriel Agbonlahor could be better than Pele for all I know. I’m sure there are plenty of other occasions where I present unfounded opinions as definitive without even realising I’m doing it.

But I try, and I think the world, or at least social media, would be a better place if we were all prepared to be a bit more uncertain, to admit that we might sometimes get things wrong, and that those we disagree with may sometimes get things right. I’m not suggesting anyone abandons their deeply held principles, or that we should not defend those principles with passion and vigour,  but most of our viewpoints are based on a mixture of principle and judgement, and it’s those judgments can be mistaken.

It’s not as bad it sometimes seems though. The people who shout the loudest on social media, and take up a disproportionate amount of its’ virtual space, tend to be those with the strongest opinions. They are not the majority, though. I remain convinced that most people are, like myself, certain only of their uncertainty.

Anyway, in case this piece came across as a little holier-than-thou, here’s a list of things I’ve got wrong over the years, to get the ball rolling. Not exhaustive of course, I don’t have all day.

  • I remember saying that it wasn’t possible to be a good person and also vote Conservative. I disagree with the Conservatives policies as much as I ever did, but I no longer believe that voting for them means you are irredeemably evil (although I suspect some people I know may still think that is the case).
  • I voted Lib Dem in 2010. That didn’t turn out well. Although I could be wrong about being wrong of course, as we don’t know how things would have turned out otherwise.
  • I never thought that I’d get married. Initially because I didn’t want to, latterly because I just didn’t think it would happen. The day I met my wife I went from being almost completely sure it wouldn’t happen to being almost completely sure it would pretty much instantly.
  • I thought there was no way that Donald Trump would be the Republican presidential nominee and as recently as this morning thought that Boris Johnson would be our next Prime Minister.
  • I thought that Stephen McPhail would become one of Leeds United’s greatest ever players (bit of an obscure one for the non-football fans amongst you).
  • I thought I would never listen to country music, or jazz.
  • I thought that Ipods would never catch on, and that Iphones would never catch on, and that Ipads would never catch on, and that Apple Watches would never catch on (I may still be right about the last one of these).
  • I thought doing a maths degree would be the easiest option, because I was good at it at A-Level.
  • I thought I would never get tired of going to Glastonbury, but I did. I still plan to go back when I have my mid-life crisis though.
  • I thought moving into a house with three flights of stairs between our bedroom and the kitchen when my wife was heavily pregnant was a good idea.

Turns out that thinking of all the things I’ve been wrong about is both worrying and strangely reassuring. I wonder what I’ll be wrong about next. And if anyone who reads this blog or who I know in real life would like to remind me of other things I’ve been wrong about…maybe don’t bother.

Blog – I See a Darkness

Since I became a father, it’s not that unusual for me to be awake at 4.30 in the morning, and this morning was no different, just not for the usual reason. Normally I would have just closed my eyes again, having woken that early with no toddler screaming, but today I thought “just a quick look at my phone, to make sure we’ve voted to remain”. Instead, my bleary eyes saw the horrific sight of a jubilant Nigel Farage and the words “Britain has voted to leave the EU”

There was no getting back to sleep after that and I was alone with my thoughts for a while, until my wife awoke a little later . She knew just from the look on my face what the result had been. We lay there, shell-shocked, devastated. We knew it might happen, but we never really believed it would. The prevailing feeling in my family, my friends on social media, my colleagues at work is a  kind of grief. The slogan of the Brexiters was “Taking Back Control”, but it is we, the 48%, who now feel that we have lost our country.

I’ve been alternating all day between anger and despair, having never expected this outcome to hit me this hard, perhaps because I never expected this outcome at all. More than the economic impact of leaving the EU, what saddens me is what it says about our country. I’ve always believed in countries co-operating to make the world a better place rather than isolationism, and considered myself a citizen of the world rather than just the UK, but apparently the majority of my countrymen do not agree. I have no hatred for those who voted out, just disdain for those who have led us down this road for cynical reasons, but I must say I’ve never been less proud to be English than this month, with football supporters fighting in France, the murder of Jo Cox, and now this.

So, I’ve felt pretty down today and have been listening to Johnny Cash’s version of ‘I See a Darkness’ a great deal. It’s not, lyrically speaking, particularly relevant to the current situation, but its’ tone and mood seem apt. At times I do see a darkness. I see a darkness in my daughter’s future, as I wonder what kind of country and world we will be passing down to her. I see a darkness for my career prospects (my wife and I both work at a University, heavily reliant on EU research funding). A darkness for our employment rights, our public services, our small businesses under a government led by the likes of Johnson and Gove.

But I also have hope. We may soon be led by the worst government of our lifetimes, with more power than any other government in our lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean we cannot fight them, or that we must stop trying to make this country the country we want it to be. We must not, and we will not.

There are two lines in ‘I See a Darkness’ that often stick in my mind:

Well you know I have a love, a love for everyone I know. And you know I have a drive, a drive to live I won’t let go

And those lines ring true, even today. We have the people we love, we have music and we have hope. And no referendum can take those things from us.