Friday, 19 February 2016

R.I.P. Harper Lee - Author of 'To Kill A Mockingbird'

When I was 14 years old, we read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time. When we read it in class then, we didn't fully appreciate the book as a whole - only the final few chapters that covered the trial, and the result.

Then in Year 10, we read the book again, at GCSE level. And we gained a new understanding. That long first half of the book, which at one point we had considered dry, was in fact Atticus Finch preparing his children, Jem and Scout, for what was to come. For the inevitable result of the trial. Raising them to be mature enough to want to fight so hard for justice and yet be prepared for when it wasn't served.

I owe a lot of that understanding of the book to my English teacher, Miss Hildyard, but equally, what she instilled in us was a new, more well-rounded appreciation for this story, and for Harper Lee's writing. To this day, I don't think any of us that were studying it at the time don't still hold a similar affection for it.

My GCSE English Class
Sometimes, you can study a book for English Literature, and have lots of the enjoyment of it sucked out through the endless analysis.

Not To Kill A Mockingbird.

Harper Lee's first, and best-known, novel, remains to this day, one of the most fascinating and brilliant books I've read. In many ways, it is just the story of two children, and yet it also teaches, fundamentally, that we should always stand up for what is right.

There are so many brilliant quotes from it that I could name. Lee's evocative and language-rich spin on the well-known phrase "put yourself in their shoes" springs to mind.

But one that I think has had a big impact on me, and indeed my phliosophy, is this:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” - Atticus Finch.

That is something that I often think about. That just because the odds seem impossibly stacked against you, that is not a reason not to try to stand up for what's right. Atticus Finch may be a work of fiction, but that by no means makes him any the less of an inspiring figure. Someone who stood up for Tom Robinson when no-one else would. My friend John (dead-centre, arms folded, in the picture above) once referred to Atticus as his 'hero'.

Mockingbird was published in 1960. 3 years later was the march on Washington. Another 2 and the Voting Rights Act was passed into law, after decades of campaigning and struggle by countless civil rights activists.

Nelle Harper Lee lived a long, and really, a relatively private life. When asked, a few years ago, why she never wrote another book (Go Set A Watchman was an earlier draft of Mockingbird), she responded "I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again." That's quite something.

Though at 89, she is hardly as young as the many British stars who we've parted company with since the start of the year, it still feels sad to know that she is no longer with us.

R.I.P. Harper Lee.

And thank you - for standing up for what's right.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

"Lower Than Vermin"...?

If I wanted to privatise a much-loved public institution, knowing that doing so would be politically toxic, what would I do?
Well, demoralising and overworking the very people who work for that institution would be a good start.
Because then, if I did that, those people might be overworked. They might start underperforming. Lots of them might begin leaving the profession.
Public satisfaction with this public service would hit all time lows. "It's not what it used to be...", people would lament, they endure pain and people die around them due to the service's inefficiency...
Then one day, I'd make an announcement. "This service has been a loved and treasured institution for many years. But it is clear that, however brilliant an idea, in these difficult times, and with record dissatisfaction despite our continued investment, that the service is simply not able to cope with the demands of the 21st Century."
"We have therefore taken the difficult decision to move to a private, insurance-based system. We believe this is the best way to ensure everyone receives the standard of service they deserve."
Of course, there may still be some outcry. "What if we can't afford insurance?", some may say. "Don't worry,", I'll reply. "The very poorest will have their insurance covered by benefits".
Most of the upper classes won't care. They've rarely used the service anyway. Many of them will in fact benefit from this initiative - they have shares in the insurance companies ready to provide the service.
The middle classes will lament the loss, but acknowledge the difficult times we're living in. It'll be difficult, but they can afford the insurance. And hey, if the poorest still have their benefits, they'll still get what they need, right?
But soon envy will start to set in. "Why should I have to work my arse off to get the money to pay insurance for me and my family, while that lot still get it for free?"
So the benefits are cut. No longer a provision, but a subsidy. "It's a question of fairness", I would say.
Soon people are starting to give up more and more to afford the insurance. Missing that holiday here, or if you're poorer, skipping that meal there.
Insurance costs start going up. Those who have been skipping meals, or putting off having to use the private service in an attempt to save money, end up needing it even more when they finally go. A few more people die, or end up in chronic pain, because they don't want to spend money on expensive insurance unnecessarily. A few people decide they don't need insurance anyway. They'll be fine - they're young, they're healthy, they keep fit..
Some charities are set up, but those working for them are volunteers, and not fully qualified. They can't meet the demand. They can't provide all that's needed.
And one day, if they've lived that long, grandparents will be telling their grandchildren: You know, when I was little, we got all this for free. It was considered a right..."
Oh look, Jeremy Hunt has just imposed that new contract on the junior doctors without negotiation. The aim is to create a truly 7-day NHS.
Ah, good old Mr Hunt. Isn't it great we've got a Health Secretary so committed to the NATIONAL Health Service...?