Jeremy Corbyn, beware the personality cult

The most memorable chorus at Glastonbury this year was undoubtedly the chant of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn.” Clips of the crowd singing the Labour leader’s name went viral. Something incredible has happened; June 8 saw the return of a populist Left in the UK. Odd, perhaps, that the shift was spearheaded by one of the country’s traditional parties, which tend to only dip one toe in the extreme while always courting the center ground.
Lacking support from media and even his own party, Corbyn was left largely to his own devices to get his message of hope and alternative governance across. He breathed that message into Britain’s dejected and forgotten corners and Corbynism blossomed into a chorus. He arrived back in parliament an easy-going celebrity, buoyant on a grassroots support and with a whole new Labour Party at his feet; one that belonged to the people.
Across the Commons floor, Theresa May is still standing, albeit with a slaughter date branded on her head. The raucous Tory backbenchers in the driving seat will put her to pasture (perhaps a nice wheat field?) in due course and replace her with another unelected Tory leader. In the meantime, however, they are back to focusing on destroying the country with their pursuit of a hard Brexit. They have decided no to heed the advice of trade experts, economists, academics, and (most) world leaders.
As a side, what era of British history do the rabid Brexiteers so desperately pine for? Is it the post-war idyll of village greens and local butchers? That would be apt, for British global trade was teetering on the brink then, too. But, however nihilistic their venture may be, Tory backbenchers are at least vociferous. The same cannot be said for Labour. Some of the 50 Labour MPs who voted against pulling out of the EU single market in yesterday’s vote were sacked by Corbyn.
Perhaps Corbyn is stifling them as a reprisal for their revolt last year, perhaps the unions are doing that for him, or maybe the centrists are still reticent to accept such a left-wing leader. Whatever the reason, there must be a compromise. The Labour Party as a whole needs to be more vocal. Corbyn needs more teammates.
Although he has support at a grassroots level and looks to be enjoying his new-found life as an internet meme, populism is a bucking bronco and personality cults are fleeting – like fidget spinners. I would ask whether those who voted Labour, voted for the party or for its leader? Furthermore, how many of you have fidget spinners? The latter being of personal interest.
While the populist bubble that holds Corbyn aloft is a truly admirable feat, it has the potential to leave him exposed in the Commons. A shift in public sentiment or a return to apathy would see the bubble pop and send the Labour leader tumbling back down onto an unforgiving terrain. To avoid that, he must continue in his public relations, a feature that really sets him apart from the Tory robots in the government benches. But he must also soften his back-bench in the event of a fall from grace.
Perhaps he should be careful where he points that pro-Brexit stance of his. It could take someone’s eye out.

Dis May

It has been a while since I’ve written anything serious. Seriously. But with just 24 hours until Britain’s electoral crunch time, I thought now more than ever would be a good time to continue that trend.

I’m writing from the standpoint of a British journalist working in a foreign, and soon to be more foreign, land – Spain. The UK is no stranger to Spain; Britain has a centuries-old official claim to the southern portion of the Iberian Peninsula, Gibraltar. Meanwhile, centuries-old Brits have an unofficial claim to the surrounding lands – the Costa del Sol, which in Lancastrian English means “the price uh’ sun;” a question we’re sure to answer in the upcoming Brexit negotiations.

But while Brexit gets passed around between campaigning politicians in the UK like a bottle of Tesco own brand champagne, for British workers in Spain, where there is no Tesco, it looms over the horizon of our livelihoods like an embarrassing itch. Could be nothing, could be fatal.

And this itch is scratched and scraped and stretched by the powers that be thousands of miles away, back home. Our futures working in a Spanish office with our Spanish friends drinking our Spanish beers and paying our Spanish taxes is now leverage in a political arena where we have little to no clout. We must sit and wait for the chess master.

At least I had the privilege to up and move to Spain. But what would await me should I be forced to move home? A village green stained with the blood of red foxes?

Even from Spain, we can smell the grizzly breath of the British tabloid media. It creeps into my office from time to time. Its rancid tendrils drift over the continent, picking up comments from Brussels to Berlin, before retreating across the Channel to twist and turn their meaning. It presents those skewed facts to millions, who drink it up like vultures feasting on fear.

A casual gander over to the Express and you’ll see some obscure former MEP from Slovenia SLAMMING Juncker. In the Sun, a comment made by Spain’s top diplomat turned into a call for war – UP YOURS SEÑORS, read the headline said – misspelled. According to the Mail (in fact all of them), the EU will be paying the Brexit bill. Propaganda.

That propaganda holds people hostage and its is powerful. Our own prime minister daren’t denounce the degradation of women, racist fear-mongering, and breaches of privacy proffered by this putrid portion of the press.  Again, civilians have little to no clout in this arena.

In fact, the far-right press coins the language later to be adopted in parliament as if we live in some topsy-turvy world. It bemoans the bremoaners and belittles those who demand proof. Now MPs warn against catastrophizing and insist we need to get on with it.

The propaganda press drives the narrative in Britain to such an extent that one report prompted Theresa May to speak out against Brussels for shining a negative light on Brexit in UK media. It whipped the British public into such a fury over Gibraltar that the Spanish government had to allay fears over the rock’s fate.

A rancid spiral of sensationalism in UK politics and the country’s media would make the most hardened Brussels bureaucrat blush.

Things are only going to get choppier in those Britishest of Isles. No deal is better than a bad deal, says our leader, with her back turned to some of the most intelligent and experienced contemporary politicians on Earth. We will not pay a cent, barks the right-wing press.

But, whatever happens in the future (bad things will happen), the Brexiteers will never take responsibility for their actions. They will always point their crooked claw of blame at Europe.

Remember, just because a political party and its press wing mirrors how you feel or makes you comfortable in your own skin, it does not mean they’re in this with you. Those at the top will happily burn the bridges to the EU for you and walk away unsinged.

The stripes of the Union Jack melt from my skin in utter shame.

Wouldn’t it be nice to just stand back and take everything in with a long exhale? Or, I don’t know, do something crazy like run through a field of wheat.

When in Romania

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USR members in the Chamber of Deputies

“It’s like if you catch a robber in the act, and he gives you your stuff back, that’s still not okay.”

I was speaking to Adrian. He was tall, scruffy-bearded, and wore a knitted brown hat to protect him from the cold blue Bucharest sky. The swelling crowds that had packed the capital’s Victory Square several weeks prior, had abated. A motley gathering of Rezist activists had taken it upon themselves to keep the protest alive, however. The toots from the passing cars pointed to their wider support.

At the turn of the year, the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) exposed some of the ghosts wandering the Romanian halls of power when it attempted to push a new corruption law out as an emergency decree. The legislation would have absolved anyone who had defrauded the state for less than €44,000 ($46K). It was met with crowds of demonstrators in numbers unseen since the fall of Communism in this southeast Balkan state.

Pushing a law through the backdoor is nothing unusual for a Romanian government. This time, it was merely a misjudgment of a changing audience. The political generation gap that exists almost universally is particularly pronounced here. A tech-savvy, English-speaking, westward-looking youth are returning, or deciding to stay put, in growing numbers. They are less receptive to government propaganda that abounds in the media. The older generation, in contrast, born under the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, were largely confused by the demonstrations. Parents would question their children as they headed out the front door, armed with flags and placards. They´re simply not used to it.

The government’s grip on the media is astounding. The owner of two of Romania’s major TV channels, a former politician who is behind bars for corruption, still holds huge sway over what the average Romanian family sees every day on the box. Indeed, when the protests broke, the airwaves were chock-a-block with George Soros conspiracy theories- that old trope. Reports focused on some of the boisterous thugs in the crowd and tarred the whole revolt with the same brush. When President Klaus Iohannis, whose office is largely ceremonial, came out against the corruption decree, the media turned on him.

But the crowds persisted.

Several weeks later, the PSD yanked the legislation and hung their justice minister out to dry. The demonstrators called it a day. The robbers had given back the stuff.

But for many, it wasn´t enough.

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Rezist protesters at Victory Square, Bucharest

I asked Adrian what his group hoped to achieve from their presence in Victory Square. He told me Romania needed a transparent parliamentary system. Electronic voting, too, perhaps. How do you go about making the change? That seemed less clear.

An alternative political option is beginning to take root in Romania however, and one of its members, a clean-cut and well-dressed man, was stood watching my conversation – Cornel Zainea of the Save Romania Union (USR) party.

The USR shouldered its way onto the political scene when, in 2016, it landed 43 parliamentary seats_ 30 lower, 13 upper_ in the legislative elections, becoming the country’s third biggest party. It sought to change policies from the inside – a daunting task in Romania’s Parliament, with friends like those.

The USR’s syncretic style, its emphasis on cleaning up the environment and dodgy bank accounts, won the support of over 600,000 people. The party is young, unorganized, but aspirational.

Over a beer and lunch just off Victory square, Zainea told me about his transition into politics from a comfortable software engineering job he shared with his wife, Alina. He had been involved with the Save Bucharest Movement under the direction of its mathematician-turned-politician leader Nicusur Dan, for whom he had limitless praise. This is a common pattern from the top down in the USR. Young professionals, not politicians, comprise the rank and file of the party. A blessing and a curse. The party is squeaky clean. A breath of fresh air in those haunted halls of power. But the USR members are having to learn quickly. They are up against the veterans.

The state media, in the hands of the government, gives little airtime to the USR, unless it’s negative. Yet the technocratic upstarts of the USR were ruffling the feathers in the Chamber of Deputies by holding sit-in protests, by filming procedures in the name of transparency, and by being vocal.

“They hate us because we are very different, we don’t respect the rules,” Zainea told me.

“And because [the USR] share what they see in the Parliament, they are honest with the people,” Alina chipped in.

With four years until the next slated elections, the USR must keep momentum.

It is battling external challenges from the PSD that are positively Trumpesque, but it also has to focus on keeping the party united. It is open to defectors, but wary of adopting some of their unbecoming traits. Further, in order to grow, the USR must expand its manifesto beyond environmentalism and corruption. It needs to win the vote of those under the sway of the state media. Its message needs to reach beyond the educated middle-class urbanites. The party must take on soaring poverty rates, inadequate health-care standards, the brain drain, apathy. No mean feat.

Zainea was acutely aware of all of this when he began his career in politics. He was under no illusion that the party could simply stroll to power. And yet he was determined to make change happen in Romania; so determined that he took the gamble of a career change and spent his life’s savings on the campaign that got him elected to party deputy.

Though the tide of demonstrators in Victory Square has ebbed, a youthful public eye holds a steady gaze over the government’s comings and goings, aided by the transparency efforts of the USR and Rezist. Both factions now must have faith that, when the time is right, those half a million people who filled the streets to shout down the PSD won’t only protest, but also vote.

Until then, the USR has to get itself ready to expose the robber the second they catch them in the act again.

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Cornel Zainea,  Save Romania Union, in Victory Square, Bucharest.

The UK’s latest Brexit fad, like a crap game of Monopoly, will be over half an hour. Hopefully.

My relationship with the UK is a bit like the kind of relationship you might have with a duty-free aftershave. It lingers, even if you don’t know how you feel about it. I like my country. But at a distance. Like how one observes a swan,  no closer than a nice two-hour Ryanair flight away from the long-necked nutjob.

But that swan (my country), for me (me), is now a distant speck on the horizon.

My future is presently being gently caressed by the soft, wrinkly and unelected hands of the House of Lords. That future of mine will soon be sent back to the soft, slightly less wrinkly, dirty mitts in the House of Commons. Passed back and forth like a yeast infection.

We’ll give your lot the right to live here when your lot give Jake the right to live there, they’ll say. I should note here that I’ve used my name collectively to refer to all UK citizens in the EU and not just me, whose name is actually Jake (although I fancied myself more of a Clive).

The UK is soon to the roll the dice in the biggest game of monopoly the world has ever seen, making the transition from Great Britain to Alright Britain. And just like with your average game of monopoly, someone is bound to lose their nut and trash the board about half an hour into the two-year negotiation timeframe.

I don’t want to play. Even if I get to be the hat, I don’t want to play. I’ll just watch, thanks.

If memory serves, living in the UK plays out thusly; you run down to the Spar on a rainy Sunday night to scout out a dented tin of beans in the reduced aisle and then you run back past a row of closed shops, dodging hordes of trembling elderly people and immigrants, before slamming your bedroom door and cracking into the newly purchased beans with an unclean plastic spoon whilst watching Netflix on your laptop which is actually just an old takeaway pizza box propped open against twelve bottles of piss. Rinse (if you can afford soap, you toff) and repeat.

Some of the details may be a little off. It’s been almost three years since I lived there.

Yet, contrary to what the Brexit press would have you believe, life isn’t all that peachy here on the continent. We do have great peaches, though. No, when I turned 26, my all-access public transport card went up from 20 EUR a month to 54 EUR. I kid you not. And, if anything, the people are too welcoming. Creepy.

Brexit is on the tip of everyone’s tongues, lest ye forget.

The other day,  I bumped into to my head of HR in the lift heading to my job, where I work so I can pay taxes (the only difference being that I pay for Marisol’s new dentures, rather than Moira’s. Unless there’s a woman called Moira on the Costa del Sol who’s just got a new set of teeth, then I paid for Moira’s too, in that case). She greeted me in Spanish and caught my gaze (also in Spanish) and pulled the air through her teeth in that way that lets your interlocutor know you’re about to say the B-word.
“Hopefully they’ll figure something out, they have two years, I’m quietly hopeful,” I said, anticipating what she was about to say.
“Everything going well James? Sorry, two years? For what?” she said.
“It’s Jake, and nevermi- I thought you were going to mention- nevermind. ” I replied, wishing I had said Clive instead.

He Took the Pill and Waited (Writing Prompt)

Wrtiting Prompt: “He took the pill and waited”

Writing time: 3 hours

Editing time: cuppla bloody minutes

Mark took the pill and waited. He had never done it before; the truth is that he had never wanted to. He didn’t even like music festivals very much, and yet here he was as well. He had good reason, and bad reason, to be. He was here because Jessica, his girlfriend of 2 years, was there too. She came every year; this was his first.

She enjoyed this type of thing more than he did; drugs, clubbing, booze. He preferred Friday nights in with a bottle of wine, or Saturday nights out at Guliano’s, the Italian on the High Street. “The only decent carbonara I’ve had in the UK, they do it the Italian way- without the cream,” he said every time he proposed it to Jess, as if he had to justify taming her night.

And yet he loved her for her hedonism. Most of the time, at least. She was deeply ingrained in her group of friends, who made her very happy, which made him happy. Mark knew a few of them from school, but lost contact with most people in the town when he went to university. He sat on the outside of the group, usually, talking to one or two. The atmosphere was most often respectful but, disinterested. He sometimes felt hurt at the lack of attention she’d give him in these social situations.  He was sure they asked Jess why she was with him when he wasn’t there.

What Jess didn´t know was that whenever she went out with her friends, he would never fall asleep until he heard her come back in the door. As soon as she’d climb into bed- breathing deeply and reeking of gin, he’d finally doze off. The nights she didn’t come home were hell. Genuine hell. There is no way that she would ever do anything stupid, he knew that and believed that truly and thoroughly. It was his own problem. Given too much space, his brain had a tendency to wander. It was a master at painting scenarios in his head. Of Jess doing coke in some bathroom and keeling over. Or of Jess drunkenly being taken advantage of in a taxi. Or of Jess meeting some French hunk called Antoine (he even had a name for him) at The Den, booking a train to Paris to live with this turtle-neck wearing, poetry writing twat forever more. That there would be no French hunk at that shithole club was beside the point- his imagination was that good.

He could never tell her this, of course. He capitalised on her hangovers by asking passive aggressive questions about the night before, in the hope that she could tell he was struggling with something. To say it out loud would be to out himself as a psycho: goodbye Jess, goodbye stability, farewell self-esteem. She never clocked it, to his knowledge. In actual fact she did. But to her it was a minor issue.

One morning after, Mark let himself slip out of his mask. Jess had stayed on Stephen’s couch the night before (or so she said). He had no reason to not believe her. And, in truth, Stephen was pleasant in the eyes of Mark. Jess had known him since she was at primary school, her family were friends with his, they even went to the same university where they dated for three years. That was the hurdle (or mountain) that he had to mentally jump.

“Why did she still have to go for Sunday lunch at Stephen’s place like it’s some sort of fucking religion?” he had said. “Is it him who you message all the time? You probably tell him goodnight”. She didn’t talk to him for the rest of the day. Rightly so.

Mark used the thought of Stephen to torture himself at night when Jess was late home. “He’s better looking than I am, his arms make mine look like strands of wool, as does his no-doubt gargantuan penis,” and on, and on until Jess’ entrance into the bed snuffed out the darkness.

When Jess had courteously suggested the Mark should come to the festival, he said: yes. Stephen would definitely be there and he was the default tent-sharing option. With Mark there, however, everyone would think it abnormal if the couple didn’t share at tent. Mark even bought the tent to make sure they’d have to sleep together.

He felt terrible about this. Jess had no idea of his motives. If she found out, not that she ever could unless he said something—he was a good actor, by now—she would be perfectly in the right to break up with him. He would expect that, actually. Which made it all the more important to keep up the façade, to pretend to have fun, to try make conversation, even with Stephen if he had to. Most important and most secret of all; to keep an eye on Jess.

Did this mean he didn’t trust her? He supposed so. He often worried he loved her too much, but he also worried that he was just controlling. The irony was that whenever he had a dark moment, where a sort of grief boiled up at the imaginary scenarios he so masterfully created in his head, he knew it meant nothing. And yet, if he was alone, they had genuine mental consequences. He felt under attack. Fighting against his own brain to keep his head above sanity.

– – – – – – –

He took the pill and waited. He bided his time, holding it in his teeth for a minute or so, but the taste was so awful and, unable to spit it out without making a scene, he swallowed.

Sat in a circle in Mike’s tent, Jess and Stephen, Mike and Isabel had all done the same. Jess was sat next to Stephen, rather than himself, Mark noted, and she had linked her arm under his. Nothing, he thought, look at Mike and Isabel, try to make conversation with them.

They were too busy kissing. Mark couldn’t hear what Jess and Stephen were talking about, so he couldn’t properly join in. He found himself awkwardly poised in the group of friends, as if nobody actually wanted him there at all. He didn’t want to be there, but we’ve touched on that.

Half an hour passed and Mark had literally not said a word. Would anybody know if he left? He wanted to, but his desire to watch Jess was stronger. He felt a cold pang go through his stomach and down to his knees. Did it feel good? He didn’t really know. Everybody was by now looking at him, so he got up to leave the tent.

It was confusing outside. The overcast sky betrayed a setting sun. People were walking through the gaps between the rows of tents, tripping over guy-lines and singing the songs they expected to hear that evening. He felt sick, and spinny. He didn’t feel good; he knew that for sure.

He needed to leave. Find a porta-loo, sit down for a bit, just get out of whatever patch of air he was currently in. He trusted Jess again, he was being stupid before.

He wandered out, trying not to make eye contact with any of the fellow revellers. He trudged down the stinking, muddy trail to the row of stinking, muddy porta-loos. A queue, of course. He waited in line.

His head was thumping and waves of nausea lapped at the back of his eyes. He felt like death. Did Jess feel like this? Oh, fuck- Stephen! He’s probably shagging her already, he thought.

He locked the plastic handle and sat down on the seat. He definitely felt like he was going to spew. His hands were in his head and… wait.

He pulled his trousers down and pulled them back up and pulled them back down.

He threw up between his feet, into his boxers.

“Y’alrite mate?” someone called from outside.

He struggled a “fine” and drifted off.

No messages, no missed calls. To be fair, only an hour had passed. He tried to wipe his boxer somewhat clean. Thankfully it was mainly cider, but the smell of it made him gag again.

His head was, by now, pounding, but he okay. Okay enough to walk back up to the tent, at least. It was dark now and most of the revellers he saw sat outside their tents earlier were at the main stage. He was sure that people were looking at him worriedly as he clambered back up to Mike’s big orange tent. It was empty, of course. He looked around, saw Jess’ crumpled bottle of Strongbow, her cigarette butts and her jumper.

He picked up the jumper and smelled it. For a moment he was comforted by the smell of the perfume he’d bought her for Christmas. “She wouldn’t wear it if she didn’t love me,” he thought. He no longer had the mental strength to paint the horrific images of Jess’ dead body, or Jess kissing Stephen, or Jess meeting Antoine in his head. He simply stumbled next door and climbed into the tent he had bought for them.

He stared at the ceiling, counting the squares on the roof of the tent, flicking his lighter on and off, until he burnt his hand on the metal. He hated this. Really hated this. Perhaps I should just go, he thought. Leave now and see if Jess even bothers to text me in the morning. I bet she wouldn’t, he lamented.

He pulled the sleeping back over his head and held his breath for as long as he could. He might as well be at home, he could be with his brother, at Guliano’s, or watching Netflix.

The tent unzipped and he held perfectly still. A long drawn “Heyyyy” issued from Jess’s contorted mouth. She smiled at him and passed out.

He pressed his hand to hers through the sleeping bag and fell asleep.

 

 

What happened to 11? (Writing Prompt)

Writing Prompt: “What happened to 11?”

Writing time: 2.5 hours

Editing time: couple of minutes 

“What happened to eleven?” she asked, from the corner seat of the living room– her seat. She didn’t look round at me anymore when she asked, because after 40 years of asking me the same thing by now it was more a question for herself. What pained me was that each time she asked nowadays it was followed by an exhausted sigh that seemed to drag her closer to death. She was close enough to death, already.

I carried on rearranging the table in her home, I needed to freshen the flowers, check the post, make some tea for us both before we sat down together to look through the photo album again. Just like we do every night now that Mum can’t do these things by herself. I feel as though if it wasn’t for that photo album she would have died by now.

I passed her the tea, “here you go, Mum,” I said, brightly- trying to distract her from eleven.

“Milk an t—,” “Milk and two sugars, Mum,”. I was too tired today to recount the script.

She had gotten worse lately, so I’d come in to check on her after I finished work. The nurses would do the morning check, and the social worker popped in for all of two minutes in the early afternoon. They were out the door before Mum had time to clock they were there: “How are you doing Jean? got your album Jean? good. Taken yer pills? I’ve popped some bread on the side for you, and some mags, Mike will be by after work, Jean, so I’ll leave you to it”. Lovely people, social workers, but easily jilted.

The album itself was a colossal thing, about the size of a paving slab. The cover was swirled with teal and purple dye, in that late 19th century style, and gold claps framed the corner. “Photos,” was elaborately engraved, also in gold, across the top. The pages of carefully glued photographs were divided by thin sheets of delicate paper- not a rip even after all these years. Each photograph had an immaculately handwritten footnote, and a number.

It was mystical. As children, my younger brother and I were never allowed to touch it. In fact, Mum kept it hidden from us in the laundry closet, on the shelve above the boiler, underneath the clean towels. Almost every night I would climb onto the boiler, trying not to slip on its olive coloured insulation and carefully pull it out, before sneaking back to bed.

It was better than any novel I had ever read; a dive into my real family history. Upon peeling open the front cover the album exhaled an ancient, musty breath, inviting you to observe the life within. Movement and smiles, sternness and joy, jubilation and grief. Unknown faces and long dead pets: “Jerry”, the gleaming Collie on the beach, number 6.

Number 15, my debut in the album, aged 3 propped against a white fluffy rug and the first photo in the album to be taken in colour. My hair was thick and dark, and my eyes were piercing blue.

Number 24, Mum and Dad’s wedding photo, stood outside the church, top-hats clutched in front of groins, Mum holding me. The church driveway was dotted with confetti and everyone apart from my Mum was gleaming, she looked miserable.

Number 27, my brother, James, as a new-born, propped up against me, aged 6.

It was controversial in my family that I was born before my Mum and Dad married. I was never told anything about the circumstances, but the album told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Apart from when it omits the truth.

Mum had got as far as picture 12, old friends having a Sunday roast, smiling and passing food over the table. They had obviously frozen for the photo. She went through it chronologically several times a day. Usually she’d linger on 12 with her hand placed flat on the previous page where photo 11 used to be, as if she could conjure up the missing image if she stared intently enough at 12. As if removing her hand would reveal it was there all along. It never did reappear, though. Lifting her wrinkly hand off it revealed nothing but a square of evidence of the original colour of the page; a light shade of brown. Underneath the devilish patch: “Jean and Harry’s wedding, St.Johns, Aldersham, 1960.”

As a child, photo 11 was the most curious chapter of my nightly reads. I was never told of who Harry was exactly. I knew he was my Mum’s ex-husband, but I could never verify anything else; firstly, because I didn’t know how my Dad would react—he never so much as mentioned Harry and, secondly, because I wasn’t meant to be looking at it in the first place. Their silence felt like betrayal to me. I had just as much right to know about our family history as anyone else, why was I being kept out of the loop? Since when did Mum live in Aldersham? To me, life started and ended with Mum and Dad, my Mum and Dad.

Harry made no more appearances in the album, and, when I was around 12 I made the decision to kill him off from my favourite novel altogether. I didn’t like seeing the picture of them both, married. It had no place in my history and was obviously a mistake. It just made no sense.

It was meticulously planned, the excision, I must say. I selected a day to fake illness. A Thursday, because a Maths test was scheduled for that Thursday, so I thought I might as well maximise my profits. Mum and Dad both went to work and James went off to school as normal. I stayed at home.

My memory of that day is visceral. I had cornflakes for breakfast, an extra-large helping, since no-one was there to stop me. I remember sitting in the kitchen alone and watching the green bird-feeder outside undulate in the wind. It one was one of those overcast days where morning turns to afternoon with no trace. I only had Harry on my mind. I took the album out of the laundry room and brought it downstairs to the living room. To have it so obviously out in the open, rather than under my covers, gave me a rush of adrenaline. There it was. Photo 11. Harry was taller than Dad, had thick, dark hair, a thin face and was handsome. Mum beamed at the camera, her wedding dress oozed downwards and outwards in a smooth triangle. All detail was lost in the flash. I recognized Grandma and Grandad, stood by Mum’s side.

The operation was simple and I did it without thinking. Dad’s letter opener, which was always on the chest of draws in the hallway, acted as the perfect scalpel: out with the cancer. I laid the photo on the side and put the album back in the cupboard, making sure to leave the towels exactly how I’d found them.

I remember the feeling of the photo in my hand as I walked down the path that went along the other side of the garden fence. Although I didn’t want to look at it anymore, I was ironically careful not to bend it. I took the shortcut, down the muddy verge, using the exposed tree roots as make-shift stairs. I then headed back up to path through the patches of wild garlic; the smell of which still haunts me. I got to the bridge and walked to the very middle with military precision. I leaned my elbows on the barrier and took one last look at the photograph. I suddenly felt a little bit sorry for Harry. I was his executioner; he was no longer welcome in my family album. No longer welcome in my mind; how little I knew of how he would occupy it every day thereon after.

I let go.

The photo swam through the air, this way and that, before landing face up on the water. I clearly remember seeing Harry’s dark hair, his ill-fitted suit and his beaming smile being pulled away in the current, forever gone. Good. Done.

Mum was at photo 57 now and looked over at me and smiled. Watching her in her failing years, I had got used to her formula; about one minute per photograph, with the exception of 24, which was a little longer. 11 was always the longest, though. Once, she spent over an hour staring at the patch of brown, tracing her finger underneath the footnote continuously. “What happened to 11?”, she’d mutter to herself, “what happened to you, Harry?”

“WHAT HAPPENED TO NUMBER 11?!” The shriek from upstairs sent chills down my spine. I was in the living room watching the news with Dad.

“WHERE IS IT!? OH JESUS, WHERE IS IT?!”

Dad put his tea down got up of the sofa reluctantly- “always something Jean”. Through the ceiling I could hear wailing, followed by my father’s feeble attempts to calm her down.

“It’s gone, Matthew, it’s gone!!”, Mum yelled.

“What’s gone, Jean? Tell me what’s gone?”

“Eleven, it’s gone. Harry, it’s gone”.

Suddenly the conversation dropped. I could tell that Dad was controlling the proceedings now, like he did when he deemed that things had gone out of control.

They both came downstairs. Dad entered the living room and let my Mum go in ahead of him. I pretended to watch the television, as if I had no idea what was going on. But the stares were too much.

“What happened?” I ventured.

“You did it, didn’t you? That was the only one”, she said. Her calmness disturbed me. I could see the anger physically shaking her from inside.

“Do what?”

“See, he didn’t do it, Jean, now leave it”, Dad said before sitting back down and watching the television. I could see his mind was still occupied. Mum was stood by the door, shaking her head and staring at me. I was too scared to waver my gaze. As long as I stared her down, I was innocent.

Her eyes were pulverised red by tears. She made to say something and stopped halfway.

Without moving and clearly wanting the ordeal to end as much as me, Dad shot out a slow, punctuated, deliberate sentence.

“Jean, don’t you dare”.

Mum was at photo 82 now, my son, Theo, propped up with his older sister, Eddie. It’s the newest photograph in the album. I suppose it will be the last on my mother ever sees. Because we don’t know how long she’s got, we try to bring the kids round every Saturday morning. It’s the same story with the same story; Eddie sits on Grandma’s lap and helps her turn the pages of her album. She’ll often be bored by picture 10, but he is sweet enough to know that this is way Grandma Jean likes to do it. Theo is old enough now to have a peep, too, but he’s more interested in Grandma’s varicose veins.

The kids distract me from the chores of that album. An album that I know back to front, side to side. I can visualise every single image in my head from 1 to 82, including 11. The one that I removed out of childish vengeance, out of selfishness and lack of self-awareness. I removed the only photo of my Mum’s first wedding, the only photograph of Harry that Dad had allowed her to keep. Because of me, Theo and Eddie will never know what their grandfather looked like.

Happiness Within Earshot of War

It was a situation I was used to. An event hall is an event hall after all, and photographers face the same obstacles in each one; tripping tablecloths, floral centre pieces, stray lawn chairs, loose wires, red and green lights. The tiered floor led down to the stage. On every table crumpled cigarettes lay in glass ashtrays gasping their last breaths.

Rebellious, isn’t it, to smoke inside nowadays? Well, how apt. We were in the city of Baalbek. Nestled in Lebanon’s North Bekaa Valley, this Iranian financed, Hezbollah controlled corner of the country is a launching pad for soldiers sympathetic to the Syrian regime.  That very afternoon, before the show, the streets were clogged by a funeral procession for a returning local.

But the flow of people across the mountainous border is far greater from the other direction. Over a million Syrian and re-re-located Palestinians are in Lebanon seeking shelter from the war next-door. Some of these people were sitting on the lawn chairs around the round tables, crumpling cigarettes in to the glass ashtrays and moving the flower pieces in order to see each other better in the red and green lights.

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Selfie. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

A crowd had gathered in Baalbek’s function hall to see the final show of a year’s worth of film, theatre and music workshops facilitated by the NGO Better Together: Search for Common Ground. The program saw young Syrians and Lebanese come together to tell their stories of escaping war and accommodating those who have, respectively. As the name suggests, Better Together: Search for Common Ground seeks to iron out the tensions that inevitably arise when communities are involuntarily thrust upon one another.

Readers of Western media are, by now, accustomed to the images of those escaping terror; children peeking from behind tarpaulin doors, families being hauled onto dry land from rickety vessels, bodies on the sand. However, this event endowed the young participants with new creative skills and returned the power of representation back to those affected. This wasn’t swampy Macedonian fields nor was it hysterical parents. This was black-tie, crisp shirts, special occasion head-scarves, heavy make-up, laughter.

One film, done in the style of an old silent movie, told the story of a Syrian girl and her father’s struggle to earn money selling milk from their cow. The father became exhausted so the daughter started to sell milk herself, too. To avoid damaging her father’s pride, she would do it secretly; getting up early to milk the cow, walking to the shop and returning before her father woke up. The secret was out when the father found his daughter collapsed outside. She was stricken with exhaustion, too. Escaping the war is often just the beginning of the struggle.

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Green Light, Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Official discourse in the West is preoccupied with refugees on the move and how we divert these humans humanely.  We’re less bothered about the sedentary people in the refugee camps within ear-shot of the Syrian border. They’re safe, what more do they want? Refugees face the constant threat of fading into a statistic. For most Europeans, the humans who inhabit the camps that litter the Levant as well as the migrants trudging through the Balkan barriers are merely faceless blobs on a map.

I sat down next to Mahmoud, 21, who told me that in the dead of night in Baalbek, he can hear the dull thudding of shells on the other side of the mountain. His besieged home town, Zabadani, where the majority of his family remain, is a mere 32km away from our conversation. He made the difficult decision to leave two years ago. He told me he taught himself English by watching super-hero films, which became evident from the Hollywood twang in his voice as he reeled through a list of people he knew working at the NGO Action Aid. He wanted to see if I knew any of them. It’s a small world for the Syrians in Lebanon. There are restrictions on who is allowed to drive, curfews, and most of the jobs on offer are badly paid, arduous and illegal—something that the recruiters of Jihad use to their advantage.

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Mahmoud, Copyright: Jake Threadgould

However, Mahmoud tells me that although it can be boring from time to time in Baalbek he at least has more to do than he did in Zabadani. He spends his days making films, taking photographs for Action Aid, playing music or otherwise “just doing as much as I can before I go to sleep”. He has aspirations to join his brother in Germany but, without the means, for now he is just trying to stay busy. For Mahmoud the show was an opportunity to break his routine and to forge friendships. How necessary companionship is.

But that night in Baalbek wasn’t just an opportunity to celebrate conviviality; it was an excuse to party. Shoulder to shoulder, arms around shoulders and, at one point, a tower of three people on each other’s shoulders. Mahmoud captured that for me on my camera as I no longer had free reign of my arms. The dancing was ferocious and the smiles were contagious. I stood still and took in the screams of joy, the greedy embraces and the dripping mascara. This was a shared history. A shared story. Perhaps the most important of our times.  Step outside the hall and the empty streets filled with rain. Drive for half an hour East and the streets are stained with blood.

This night to forget reality, if for just a couple of hours, was a night to remember. People are people, after all. What we have in common is revealed in the way we deal with the obstacles put in front of us.

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Party in the Bekaa, Copyright Jake Threadgould