An MP that actually cares about her constituents. Definitely a rare breed.

Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland

I was so shocked when I read what my constituents wrote to me about the implications for them of the bedroom tax, and about how little they would have left to live on, that I decided during the week of the recent recess to see if I could survive on £18 a week, which is what they will be left with to buy their food after 1 April. That figure of £18 is entirely based on the experiences of my constituents, in particular women on employment and support allowance who are about the same age as me, but who had to stop working owing to chronic health conditions, perhaps after 20 years of working life. Out of their £71.70, they have to find £10 for electricity, £20 for heating—gas or coal—£6 for water rates, £4 for bus fares in the case of those who live in villages and have to get to the main town, and £10 for the bedroom tax, which left them with £23 for weekly living expenses.

That £23 has to cover more than food, of course. We did a calculation, and set aside £5 for all the non-food things everyone has to buy—soap, washing powder, washing-up liquid, toothpaste, loo paper—plus a small amount in order to save £50 a year for clothes or a pair of trainers, or in case the iron breaks. That leaves £18.

I therefore took up the challenge of trying to live on £18, and I want to tell Members what it is like. It is extremely unpleasant. I had porridge for breakfast every morning, as I usually do, but I make my porridge with milk; now I was making it with water. I had to eat the same food over and over and over again. Single people are hit particularly hard, because cheap food comes in big packs. I made a stew at the beginning of the week, and I ate the same food four nights a week. I had pasta twice a week. I had baked potatoes. I had eggs on six occasions. It was completely impossible to have meat or fish; that was out of the question. It was also impossible to have five portions of fruit and vegetables a week.

I therefore also have a message for the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Anna Soubry, who is responsible for public health. She was criticising people on low incomes for obesity. Of course people on low incomes are more likely to have that problem; they have to fill up on toast and biscuits.

I found myself waking up in the middle of the night absolutely ravenous, having to make cups of tea and eat biscuits. I had a headache for five days in that week, and I was completely lethargic and exhausted by 4 pm. Some people are on jobseeker’s allowance and are looking for a job. Looking for a job is a job in itself; it takes time and energy. The people whom DWP Ministers want to do workfare are being expected to work 30 hours a week, yet they are not going to have enough to eat properly.

Most shocking of all was the fact that come Sunday I ran out of food—there was literally nothing left to eat that night. If Ministers are happy with the notion that 660,000 of our fellow citizens are literally not going to have enough to eat by the end of the week, all I can say is that I pity them because they have no pity and no conception of what they are going to do to the people in our constituencies who will be faced with this bedroom tax.

The Minister has been very free and easy in talking about all these wonderful alternatives, such as the fact that people can move. In my constituency more than 1,000 people will be affected by the bedroom tax, but there are fewer than 100 smaller properties to which they could move. In my constituency, it is not possible for all these people to increase the number of hours they work, as seven people are chasing every job; people are in part-time work because they cannot get full-time work. Government Members have shown their complete ignorance of the benefits system by saying, “You just have to work a couple of hours a week on the minimum wage.” Of course that is not true, because these people would get then into the tapers and the disregards, and their benefits would be cut or they might find themselves paying tax. The numbers simply do not add up.

Of course some individuals or couples have properties that are larger than they need, but the so-called under-occupancy is in one part of the country and the overcrowding is in another. It simply is not credible to suggest that all the large, over-occupying families in London will move up to Durham, particularly given that the unemployment rate there is more than 9%. What would they be moving to? What would they be moving for?

I made a video diary of my week, so I got a lot of feedback from people affected by this policy. Interestingly, they said, “Yes, this is the reality of our lives. We are not able to survive properly now and things are going to get worse to the tune of £10 a week from 1 April.” In 2006, I did the same experiment under the previous Labour Government, living on benefits to see what life was like for young people on the lowest rate of income support. I found that difficult, but there was enough money to get through the whole week. I wish to point out to the Minister that we have reached a new low, because the £21 that people had in 2006 is equivalent to £28 now, and that should be compared with the £18 with which people are going to be expected to feed themselves.

The Minister has made much, too, of the discretionary housing benefits, which many hon. Members have questioned. In County Durham, £5 million of income will be taken out of people’s pockets and out of the local economy. The size of the discretionary fund is half a million pounds, so once again there is a huge gap between actual need and the resources being given to people to deal with it.

Many hon. Members have pointed out the unfairness of the policy for people who are disabled and need to sleep separately, be they adults or children; people who have children in the Army; foster carers; and separated parents. This policy is a fundamental attack on the poorest people in this country. People are going to lose between £500 and £1,000 over the course of next year, through no fault of their own. But the really disgusting thing is that on the same day that the bedroom tax is being introduced millionaires are being given a tax cut that will be worth £1,000—not over the year as a whole, but every single week.

Poem for the Hillsborough disaster by Carol Ann Duffy

Really touching poem by Carol Ann Duffy about the Hillsborough disaster. 

The Cathedral bell, tolled, could never tell;

 nor the Liver Birds, mute in their stone spell;

 or the Mersey, though seagulls wailed, cursed, overhead,

 in no language for the slandered dead…

 not the raw, red throat of the Kop, keening,

 or the cops’ words, censored of meaning;

 not the clock, slow handclapping the coroner’s deadline,

 or the memo to Thatcher, or the tabloid headline…

 but fathers told of their daughters; the names of sons

 on the lips of their mothers like prayers; lost ones

 honoured for bitter years by orphan, cousin, wife -

 not a matter of football, but of life.

 Over this great city, light after long dark;

 truth, the sweet silver song of the lark.

First Collection ~ A poem about tired life and struggling Greece

My first collection of poetry, Fragments of Urban Life: a kind mess is now complete and submitted to the university – finally! Definitely in for an exciting and equally disappointing road ahead. But to celebrate the mild achievement of completion – here is a sample poem:-

Distance in writing

The words breathed on the page and I lost them. But where were my eyes? Too outside myself, or too deep inside. My voice became ostracised. 

For me, the narrative voice and distance of the narrator is one of the most interesting aspects of a poem or novel. A text should be like an entity of its own; and the voice that it uses to speak to and engage with its audience is incredibly important in order to create that hook that will hopefully bind the reader and the text together in that private, intimate relationship, where the reader is captivated and unable to stop reading until the very end.

In my poetry, I find that the narrator is often very intimately connected with the subject, but comments as if a distant observer; yet the intimacy is still subtly apparent.

Even when I write in the first person, the narrator seems to pull back from the action and is caught up in thought and observation of the moment rather than focusing on what they themselves are doing.  This is definitely true of my poetry, anyway. My prose is in too much of an early stage for me to have really played around with style and figured out a narrative voice that works for me and my subject.

Other than placing my narrator at a distance from the subject, however, I do not distance myself from my poetry or try to cover myself up. Some of my poems are very contextualised and based on real-life memories and situations; others are entirely factual; or ideas or fantasies in my head; and sometimes it is an unbalanced mix of both in one poem. This is difficult, and I can understand why a lot of writers do try to erase themselves out of their work and distance themselves entirely. But, I feel this is fruitless as if you were meant to be a poet, you will always come out of the text in some way or another. The pain of  showing a poem to someone always makes me flinch in the most pleasurable of ways.

———————————-

I think the way Jack Vettriano explores distance as an artist is stunning.

Somewhere on the other side of this wide night                                                             and the distance between us, I am thinking of you.                                                       The room is turning slowly away from the moon.                                                               — Carol Ann Duffy                  

Sardines to poems – Goldberg, O’Hara and changing meaning

This painting by Modernist Artist, Michael Goldberg inspired one of my favorite modernist poets, Frank O’Hara to write ‘Why I am not a Painter’.

The artist started off inspired by some sardines but as the painting changed it came to resemble something entirely different with only the word ‘SARDINES’ remaining. Whilst the resulting poem, is not my favorite O’Hara piece, I do love this idea of layers and fluidity of meaning during the creative process.

Why I Am Not a Painter
by Frank O’Hara
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is 
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a 
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.


Students – Please go out and vote in Local Elections tomorrow!

Tomorrow, activists up and down the country will be setting their alarms for 5am to deliver ‘Good Morning’ leaflets to residents up and down the country. Many of them will continue with little rest until polling stations close; and finally at 10pm, tired and weary they will make their way to the pub. But some of you may be feeling disillusioned with our political system at the moment, and resolving to simply not vote. They’re only local elections anyway right?

STUDENTS and Local Elections

It is a known fact that a lot of students do not vote in local elections. Local politics isn’t the most exciting and interesting prospect, and in many areas they are made to feel unwelcome and not part of the community. Councillors know students are not permanent residents so give them the least attention – so why vote? I can completely understand why you wouldn’t, even if the reason is just because it is bang in the middle of essay and exam season. But before you decide there is no point in voting, ask yourself: do you not want the area where you live to give you the best student environment possible? Local issues such as safety, rented accommodation, parking, and public transport impact on you a great deal during your three years at university so why not go out and vote for the best person to manage that for you?

Remember, representing a political party or not, local election candidates have different agendas to the national candidates; and you might find that the candidate for a party you wouldn’t expect to vote for in a general election might have the right ideas for how to make your residency in your university city a whole lot better.

People died to make sure anyone irrespective of gender, race and social status has a right to vote and have a say in how the national and local community is run today. So make sure you use it!

More info can be found here:

And don’t forget all the candidates in your area will be up on your local council website.

My book of 2011: One Day

ONE DAY by David Nicholls

If I was to choose one book that really stood out to me this year. It would have to be One Day by David Nicholls. It is beautifully written and you really do come away feeling like you have been close friends with Em and Dex, Dex and Em for years. My copy is tatty and falling to pieces already because it has been passed around and read by so many people. I’ve been baffled by the number of male friends who have read it and commented on how good it is – my dad even loved it. Very strange. I am the kind of person who cannot even vaguely name favourites for literature and music because there is just so much that I love from all different time periods and genres – it just depends. But this book is definitely climbing up there. It might not be a truly stunning piece of work worthy in comparison to the works of say T.S.Elliot, but I can say with almost certainty that I will pick it up and read it a few times in my life, which is something I rarely do. Maybe it is just because it is so easy to read and connect with.

I watched the film for the first time over the summer when it originally came out and it was ok, but as these things usually are, it does not really do justice to the book. I watched the film again this winter and did enjoy it more the second time around, but it was only because I had the thoughts of  the characters from the novel in my head while I was watching it, and came away desperate to read it again. It is the narration, and what the characters are thinking that makes One Day so amusing and endearing and this is hugely lacking in the film.

Either way, on print or on the screen, Nicholls has given us a fresh, modern-day love story, that seems classic and timeless at the same time. I expect to see this novel being studied in Contemporary Literature classes in the imminent future, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did last the test of time and is studied  in universities  for years and years to come.