Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Bradford and Provident: Good news/bad news

I have just read an article in Bradford's local newspaper, The Telegraph & Argus with the headline: "250 new jobs as loans giant Provident Financial expands"


I must confess to experiencing mixed emotions about this news. On the one hand, in August 2012 there were 20,056 Jobseekers Allowance claimants in Bradford. This rate is higher than the Yorkshire & Humber regional and UK averages. Bradford's unemployment rate is c.10.9 per cent. So any news about an increase in employment opportunities in the city must be welcome, right? Apart from the fantastic museums (Bolling Hall, the Industrial Museum, the National Media Museum) and the glorious Alhambra Theatre the city is a rather depressing place to visit and certainly enjoys little in the way of retail opportunities. Manufacturing has long gone and Bradford's status as the world capital of the wool trade - Worstedopolis - is an historical footnote (its legacy can still be found in the wonderful old Wool Exchange that now houses what I think is the most delightful and charming branch of the Waterstones bookshop chain ). Hence the expansion of service industries, including finance, should be appreciated by such a tired old city.

However, Provident's growth in Bradford makes me nervous because they are providing minimum effort, high-cost loans. The operations of such firms are well documented, most recently in a BBC Panorama programme. In his wonderful but disturbing 2011 book, The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Road-Wigan-Pier-Revisited-The/dp/1908238011/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1352215364&sr=8-2Stephen) Stephen Armstrong charts the rise of the mainstream moneylenders and has this to say about Provident Financial:

"A £500 loan ... means paying back £910 at an APR of 272.2 per cent. People borrow for little things - food and kids' clothes, racking up debts for everyday items. Agents offer fresh loans a couple of weeks before old loans are paid off and - although technically they are not supposed to let loans stack up - are quite happy to run two or three loans side by side. They're pain on commission, after all. ...
   ... Provident's hugely successful financial results link two groups of people: the 2.4 million desperately poor who have to borrow short-term cash loans on their doorstep at enormous interest rates (a number slightly larger than the population of Paris or Toronto); and Provident's shareholders who, with corporation tax falling from 28 per cent to 26 per cent in April [2011], saw their earnings rise 16 per cent." 

(Armstrong spent a long time in Bradford and writes passionately about the problems which the city and its people face. The book is highly recommended as a worthy successor to George Orwell's masterpiece.)

Now, it is all too easy to say that Provident and other mainstream lenders (Armstrong discovered that Wonga.com has an APR of 4,124 per cent) are merely offering a convenient service. If there was no demand, there would be no supply.

However, I would argue that it is important to look at the reasons for demand in the first place. Why do we find it so acceptable to read statistics that in 21st Century Britain there are 2.4 million desperately poor? Again, I turn to Stephen Armstrong:

"According to the Organization for Economic Development (OECD), children in the UK have the lowest chance of escaping poverty out of twelve rich countries that were studied. In the UK 3.5 million children live in poverty - 1.6 million in severe poverty. Almost half the children in the UK with asthma come from the poorest 10 per cent of families. More than one million homes in the UK are currently classified as being 'unfit to live in'. These are all the deserving poor - in that they deserve better."

Making it easier for them to take out high-interest loans to meet short-term cash-flow problems is not a long-term solution. Poverty on such a scale is everybody's problem, everybody's responsibility. It is ultimately the responsibility of a government which should be spending, not cutting during a recession: public sector investment means people in work with money to spend.    

Moreover, the people who take out these loans are just as likely to be in  employment as on the dole, but their income is unable to keep up with their expenditure on necessities. Food and fuel account for the biggest proportion of expendtiure by poorer households (at a time when the prices of food and petrol have seen some of the biggest increases), while they also spend the most on high tarrif pre-paid gas and electicity meters and must depend on Hire Purchase (it is not known as 'The Never Never' for nothing) for basic household goods such as televisions and washing machines. As Armstrong notes, 'Item for item, its costs more to be poor'. Save the Children call this the 'poverty premium', meaning that the poorest families often pay the highest prices for food, gas and electricity. This is why it is so vital that Britain now goes beyond the minimum wage (which was one of the greatest acts introduced by the  Labour government since the welfare state and National Health Service) and adopts the Living Wage which will help to ensure that working families are able to maintain a decent standard of living. 

What is most ironic about this news in The Telegraph & Argus is that the Conservative Party enjoys, like Wilkins Micawber, lecturing us about the economy, and that balanced books and deficit reduction is the means to achieve financial bliss. Mrs Thatcher always claimed that she ran Britain like a household. And yet it is this government's policies that are increasing personal debt and forcing people into a situation where they must turn to money lenders for help. Perhaps I am missing the joke here.

I also force a nervous smile at the fact Provident's new location will be in the former Sunwin House department store building and which was recently the home of discount clothing store, TJ Hughes. It may expand into the adjacent building that currently houses the travel agent Thomas Cook which is due to close. Where major retailers once stood tall and proud (I have fond memories of visiting Santa's Grotto in Sunwin House in the 1970s) money lenders now make their home (the term "carpetbaggers" springs to mind.)  

Bradford does need jobs. It need investment. It needs some TLC. It needs to attract organisations that will make a valuable contribution to its economy and not encourage more personal debt. Money lenders are not providing real investment; they are preying on the vulnerable and weak, and making them even more vulnerable and weak. It is a sad reflection of the times when we are asked to rejoice when a high-interest money lender is expanding its operations in an already depressed city.             

Tender Melancholy

A man knows he is getting old when .... (work in progress. More will be added as the ravages of time take their toll)

he walks by the Student Union and no-one gives him a flyer for a rave night

his trips to the barber become infrequent, but gradually quicker

the barber stops sweeping the floor around the chair after cutting his hair

the barber asks if he would like to have his eyebrows trimmed

he goes to a barber rather than a unisex hairdresser

he can no longer stay awake to watch Election Night coverage on TV

he can no longer stay awake past 10:30pm to watch Newsnight

he starts noticing mothers rather than their daughters

his family start to think that slippers are a good Christmas present for him

he starts forgetting people's birthdays

he starts forgetting his own birthday

he seriously considers entering a Reader's Digest Prize Draw

he finds the jokes in Reader's Digest cutting-edge

he watches The Mighty Boosh and says, 'I don't get it'

he looks forward to watching repeats of George and Mildred 'because it's a classic'

he goes on a day trip to Scarborough and all he wants to do is find a cafe for a 'nice cup of tea and a sit-down'

his students say 'wow, I wasn't even born then'

his students ask, 'what was the Cold War?'

his students ask, 'what's a VHS tape?'

the Conservatives with whom he argues on Facebook were not even born when Thatcher was destroying the country

he visits museum exhibitions about the 1970s and feels homesick

he is the only one in a room of one hundred students with a pen

he is asked, 'you still use powerpoint?'

he thinks Clouds are white fluffy things that float in the sky and inspire poets

he discovers that he is now older than his teachers were when he was at school

he starts saying 'Christmas is really for the kids, isn't it?'

he starts complaining, 'these singers today, I can't understand a word they're saying'

he schedules his day around Bargain Hunt

he schedules his day

he watches The Sweeney and The Professionals on ITV 4 and feels sad

he starts making lists of ways he knows he is getting older ...

Monday, 5 November 2012

Mum's Handbag

My family and close friends will agree that I am easily irritated: cyclists who think the Highway Code does not apply to them; taxi drivers who think the Highway Code does not apply to them; self-checkout lanes in supermarkets that never save time and are always demanding you remove the last item you placed in the bag; telephone menus and holding messages where all calls are important; people who use the word 'like' incorrectly for, like, reacting to something; CJ from Eggheads. Though often annoyed I rarely hate. Hate is a strong, negative emotion that gives rise to pain and turmoil.

However, I do hate – nay, loathe with passion – my mum’s handbag. A shiny black leather affair, my mum’s handbag is seemingly bottomless, and has been constructed with so many pockets that it resembles a Chinese puzzle box; and finding anything in this bag requires the ingenuity of the Bletchley Park code-breakers, the nimble fingers of Lang Lang, and above all the patience of Shakespeare's gentle stream. This handbag has the capacity to cause mania in all who dare to enter; has a demonically-possessed handbag ever been documented? It is the devil's work and belongs in a steel cask where it can do no further harm.

So, you can see straight away that I genuinely and sincerely hate this handbag, and I have told my mother on many occasions that once she passes away, this handbag will be placed ceremoniously atop its own funeral pyre and burnt while I and the other long-suffering members of my family dance and whoop. We will recreate The Wicker Man with the handbag substituted for Edward Woodward.

There is a serious design flaw in this handbag: it has too many pockets, and for my dementia-suffering mother and my family who must care for her, too many pockets are a BAD THING. As anyone coming to terms with a relative with dementia will know only too well, having too much of something is difficult to manage, for dementia lowers the capacity to make choices; and so in the end the dementia patient makes no choice, or the same choice as yesterday (in terms of food to eat, for example, or clothes to wear); or, in the case of my mum’s handbag, the choice of a pocket for some titbit of information that has been jotted down on a scrap of paper and then hidden somewhere safe. Hence, looking for something in The Handbag becomes a repetitive act; zips are opened and closed, Velcro tabs are ripped and mended as the contents of said handbag are spilled to the table/chair arm/floor - packets of cigarettes and a lighter, inhalers, bus pass and disabled badge for the car, bank-book, two purses and three wallets containing bank cards, mobile phone top-up cards and, for some bizarre reason, my name card from my old job at Nottingham University.

But most of all there is paper – a lot of paper. And it is not neat paper, folded, clearly labelled and therefore useful; rather we find in The Handbag hastily-torn scraps of paper festooned with series upon series of apparently random numbers. Telephone numbers? Lottery numbers? PINs? Who knows? We don’t, and my mother has certainly long ago forgotten their meaning or function.

And yet my mum will not, under any circumstances, relinquish The Handbag. We have tried to wean her off it and we have even spent a lot of money buying replacement handbags with only one pocket that should be easier for her to use. But such efforts are to no avail. The Handbag remains by her side day and night, within easy reach in case she needs to check the location of her mysterious Scraps of Paper. Even on a fourteen hour flight to Taiwan my mother repeatedly checked the contents of her handbag. Why, over the Himalaya she suddenly felt an urge to make sure she could find her front door keys, I will never know. Experience now tells me that she was anxious – this was a long way for her to travel and was naturally nervous – and she was in the early stages of dementia when such behaviour seems both bizarre and irritating.

I am still coming to terms with my mum's dementia. In fact, my therapist says I am grieving for a significant loss. My mother has changed certainly since my father died in 2004, but most noticeably in the last twelve months. It is difficult for any child to watch their parent become old, vulnerable, weak, confused, child-like, often angry and depressed. In addition to learning how to interact with my mother and her problems, I am also learning about myself, though I still question whether I have the patience and tolerance to be the son I wish to be at this moment in her life. It is a daily challenge. It is not easy to feel that the child is fast becoming the parent.

Something else occurs to me: The Handbag is important for my mother as it represents for her normality and independence, both of which are quickly slipping away. The bag is her possession and it contains more of her possessions that we cannot and certainly should not try to take away from her. She tells me that she is trying to pretend that she does not have dementia, and perhaps the Handbag is one way of doing so. Just as much as I try to come to terms with her dementia, so I need to understand better the symbolism of the bag, how it reflects her thinking, daily struggle and fight for individualism.

I hate the dementia - The Handbag - with its clutter and confusion, muddle and mayhem; but I do and for ever will love my mother. No matter how irritating she becomes, how angry, distressed, bitter, upset, confused, depressed or sick, she is still my mother. Neither the dementia nor The Handbag can ever erase that bond.

Freedom of Speech and Protest in Bradford

First written 12 September 2010

As I write this in Taipei, Taiwan’s ever more breathtaking capital city, the temperature is quickly climbing to the mid-30s, and we depend on cool, but dry and defiled manufactured air for sleep. We are currently sandwiched between two typhoons, though the local weather forecast reassures us that we will not feel the effects except for some thundery showers. In the heat, girls’ shorts are getting shorter and tighter, and I have realised that the true measure of getting older is when you start to look at the mothers instead of the daughters. Meanwhile, Taipei bustles along on its capital city business, and the news is of unemployment levels, concerns about the cost of the ‘Flower Expo’, and the usual round of elections, scandal, infidelity and corruption (this time within the Taichung police force). International news is largely non-existent, except on ICRT, a local radio station where the heavily American-accented presenters present heavily American-accented news.

Today, however, my thoughts are elsewhere. It is Saturday 28th August 2010, and it is only 6am. In my hometown of Bradford, the city in which I was born, nurtured and schooled, and which I left with a smile and a determination to never look back, it is still Friday 27th. On Saturday, Bradford will host what are amusingly called ‘static demonstrations’ by the English Defence League (EDL) and Unite Against Fascism (UAF). The EDL had planned a march through the city, but a citywide petition put a stop to it. For the first time in its one hundred day history I can applaud the actions of the Conservative-LibDem coalition government. In preventing the EDL from marching the government has not only prevented the ugly face of mass politics from getting uglier, and hence no doubt has saved a lot of innocent people from insult and injury; the government has also listened to the people. The petition was organised by Bradford’s Telegraph & Argus, the only local newspaper I have read wherever I am in the world.

The prospect of the march has filled columns in the T&A for several months and has generated much correspondence to the editor both for and against. Few, if any of the letters published in favour of allowing the march to proceed claimed to support the EDL and its overt racism. Instead, the correspondence tended to profess defence based on the right of free speech in a democratic society: As liberals, are we not undermining our own principles by denying to the EDL the same rights we champion for the minorities they attack?

Freedom of thought and speech is a precious commodity. We do well to fight for it, claim it, protect it and advocate it for those who in too many places around the world are denied a voice in the name of national development, religion or security. Voltaire was correct: ‘I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ But he was only partly correct, for those who campaign for a blanket freedom of speech as a universal right to say whatever one wants whenever one wants miss an important caveat: With freedom comes responsibility, especially for the welfare of one’s fellow men, and especially for your neighbours. Freedom of speech does not and never should be used as a licence for hate, abuse, intolerance or incitement which is precisely the agenda of the EDL.

Bradford was once a proud city. You can see it in the very architecture of the city, especially around Little Germany, Bank Street, the Wool Exchange and City Hall. Their Gothic texture reveals the stature that Bradford enjoyed as a 19th Century powerhouse – Worstedopolis – which rivalled both its near-neighbour Leeds and the cotton capital across the Pennines. Bradfordians born today are in illustrious company: J.B. Priestley, W.E. Forster, Titus Salt, Richard Oastler, Frederick Delius, David Hockney, Edward Appleton. We can also just about lay claim to the Bronte family, and as the birthplace of the Independent Labour Party. Radical politics are in the very fabric of the city.

Visiting the city today it is difficult to sense this pride or any awareness of ownership. The much discussed regeneration of Bradford is frustratingly sluggish, with large holes in the middle of the city irritating the locals on a daily basis. Talk of a reflecting pool near City Hall cannot compensate for the city’s erosion since the 1980s. The old Odeon Cinema, once a dominating display of grandeur and where I first queued to see Star Wars in 1978 is now the proverbial blot on the landscape, left to turn green in its retirement. The Odeon’s deliberate decline is a disgrace, as is the refusal to rescue it, and successive councils should look upon it with shame from the City Hall across the road.

Yet one source of continuing pride is Bradford’s multi-cultural and cosmopolitan character. Any journey through Manningham, Great Horton or Leeds Road will demonstrate the colour and vibrancy of a city which, although it has serious economic problems, has reason to celebrate its multi-ethnic character. By 2001 Bradford had the second largest Asian population in a UK city, and only 18.9% of the total population are from South Asia. Members of the EDL do not need to worry; the white population is still dominant, comprising almost 79% of the population. Contrary to Daily Mail-style horror stories, the ethnic minorities also work, pay their taxes, raise families and face the same problems as everyone else; while welfare dependence and social ills such as crime and drug abuse can be found in all communities. These problems do not care about the colour of your skin or the original home of your parents. And we must not forget that Bradford's textile industry, the foundation of its previous prosperity, was partly built on immigration - from the Germans who settled here in the 19th century to the South Asians who kept the mills working throughout the night in the 1960s and 1970s.

If Bradford cedes to racism, allows the thuggery of fascism to raise its ugly and violent head in the city, uses a minority population as a scapegoat for the plight that successive councils, governments and businesses have failed to deal with, the struggles that generations of working class men and women, including members of my own family, fought both in the streets of Bradford and in the killing fields of Europe and Asia will have been in vain. While it is no longer fashionable nor ideologically sound to profess that working classes of the world should unite, they should nevertheless understand, sympathise and tolerate the problems faced by their working class neighbours wherever they are from or the colour of their skin. Hiding behind the veil of free speech is not only moral cowardice, it is shameful and demeans those individuals and groups across the world who are denied the liberty to speak and publish freely.


Bradford did not let me down; the ‘static demonstrations’ passed off relatively peaceful with the eruption of few incidents. Bradfordians came together in a peaceful manner to demonstrate their solidarity against both groups who wanted to march on Saturday 28th. It seems that the city of my birth still has fire in its belly and a commitment to peaceful living after all.

Surviving Crohn's Disease in Japan: An Awfully Big Adventure

In July 2006 I almost died.

I woke up in my hotel room in Tokyo with severe abdominal pain that intensified as the day wore on. My initial reaction was to dismiss it as one of my 'episodes' - a small blockage probably caused by something I had eaten the night before. After all, I had neatly tucked away a feast of the most wonderful, the freshest Japanese food, much of it raw and from the sea, all washed down with Asahi beer and warm sake. Was I now paying the price for my indulgence?

I was used to having episodes: they were debilitating, annoying even, but I always got over them in a day or two. I knew what to expect, but this was unlike anything I had experienced before. It seemed there was nothing I could do to relieve the pain and the overwhelming nausea.

Nevertheless, I was determined to enjoy my last day in Japan. This was the first day Ming-Yeh and I were alone and had planned to see the sites before we flew home to China the next day. I had to be ok. Moving around only made it worse, and the nausea and a desire to vomit were paralysing. Having almost collapsed in the street, we decided to head back to the hotel.

Normally, sleeping helps. Sleep as much as I can and then I will awake pain free. Not this time. No matter how I lay in my bed I could not get comfortable and relax. I closed my eyes but could not drift off.

Rolling around in the bed, clutching my stomach, I somehow sensed the end was near. I vividly recall thinking, ‘If this is my time to go, so be it. I just want the pain to stop.' And then perversely: 'What a wonderful way to go - in a hotel in Tokyo. How very Hemingway.’

At midnight, we decided we could take no more, and Ming-Yeh asked the hotel to call an ambulance. Neither of us can speak Japanese, but we were comforted by the fact that the ambulance driver knew about Crohn’s (I always had to provide lengthy explanations in China which I am sure were garbled in translation). After struggling to find a nearby hospital that could cope with the 'English patient,' at 1am the ambulance whizzed me through the surprisingly crowded streets of Tokyo with sirens wailing and the driver politely requesting other road users to 'please move to one side'.

At the hospital, a series of scans and X-rays revealed I had a twisted and perforated bowel, a fatal condition without immediate attention. My trip 'home' to China the next morning would not be happening; instead I would be having emergency surgery. I was given pain killers and sleeping tablets and was finally able to drift off. What I dreamt about I cannot recall, but I do remember it was a pain free and very deep, comfortable sleep. I learned later that Ming-Yeh had spent the night on a couch in the waiting room.

The surgery was a success, and the doctors showed me the photos to prove it. A huge segment of bowel was removed, and we got to see that too, in a small bottle that the doctors exhibited the day after my operation. With a mask on my face to help me breathe, two tubes draining the wound at my side, and the anaesthesia making me semi-conscious, I feigned interest in seeing part of my anatomy before my cloudy eyes.

The skills of the doctors and the tenderness of some of the most beautiful nurses I have ever seen helped me to a swift recovery without any major incident occurring. During morning rounds the doctors discovered fluid in my stomach and decided it had to be released. ‘Oh no,’ I thought, ‘back to the operating theatre’. But I was wrong: the surgeon decided to release it there and then at the bedside. As one reached for a scalpel and started to cut, another doctor expressed amusement that I had started to sweat.

Being in hospital for ten days gave me the opportunity to learn a little Japanese. I also tried a new Japanese diet: Miso soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a plate of green mush that even the doctors could not identify and refused to eat. I also had time – a lot of it: time to read, rest and above all think. It was strangely calming being in hospital in a foreign country; I could converse with neither the other patients nor the staff; there was no television, radio or internet; no English-language newspapers easily available; no mobile phone. I felt thoroughly cut-off and isolated ... and it was wonderful. All I had to do was catch-up on my reading, gaze on the orange tree outside my window, and meditate. I cried a lot; I cried when I realised how lucky I was, when I remembered how much I love Ming-Yeh and thought about what she had been through, and when I thought about the possibility of having to do it all again some day, because Crohn's is a bugger - it sneaks up on you when you least expect it and hits you between the eyes. This means I have to enjoy and be thankful for every day I am not in pain or discomfort, and remember that having to rush to the toilet a few times a day is a minor inconvenience compared to almost dying in Japan.

To survive life in China I always told myself that the little challenges, the annoyances and the frustrations were all part of the adventure. My trip to Japan had certainly been an adventure, never to be forgotten, but certainly not one I would like to repeat.