Monday, 9 September 2013

Norfolk People's Assembly - David Peel

Economic recovery! What economic recovery? It's rich for George Osborne to start making boasts when people in Norfolk are facing another winter of choosing between putting food on the table or staying warm. 
Five million people in Britain are out of work - the real unemployment figure - and they are having their benefits cut. Of those lucky enough to be hanging onto jobs, many are now on zero hours contracts and don't know if money will be coming in this week or next.
Across Norfolk and the rest of Britain, in accident and emergency departments, doctors and nurses are warning now that if staff shortages are not addressed, people will die this winter. Our NHS, which is loved and cherished and was bequeathed to us by our parents and grandparents, is today in meltdown after just 65 years.
Even fire stations are being closed down, a decision that our firefighters have warned will cost lives.
Students are leaving university with debts they can never repay and in schools, the government is privatising education and creating a new generation of haves and have-nots.
Disabled people are abused in the street egged on by government campaigns about shirkers. They are told they are fit in dubious assessments and are ordered back to work, irrespective of the consequences. The consequences are that disabled people are dying. And Ministers have the nerve to shut our Remploy factory. What sort of a society are we creating? It's breathtaking and shameful.
Meanwhile, queues at food banks are lengthening, more people are sleeping in doorways, not enough homes are being built and even spare bedrooms are being taxed while MPs sabre rattle about a war we apparently can afford, outraged about a chemicals weapons attack when it turns out this country is a chemical weapons supplier.
Out here in the real world, millions of people are facing years of deeper and harsher cuts to their living standards and the public services they need and rely on. This so called economic recovery is just a game of lies, damned lies and economic 'indicators' played by people who have never known what it is to struggle in their daily lives, and never will.  
This week the trade unions meet to plan the defence of our hospitals, schools, and welfare services and fight these cuts. This autumn, teachers, fire fighters and post men and women will strike to save our public services. They cannot fight alone.
It is time for us to get off our knees and stand with them. If we don't, it will not be our generation that pays the price, it will be our children and our children's children. The Norfolk People's Assembly is the best chance we have of coming together to create a better future. We urge people to join us. 
- David Peel, Norfolk People's Assembly
On Thursday 12 September at St Andrews Hall, Norwich, local people, campaigners and trade unionists from across the county, angry and hurt by Government policies are meeting at 7.30pm to officially launch Norfolk People's Assembly against the cuts.
For more information, see:

Thursday, 22 August 2013

I am Simon Kerrigan

There can be few arenas more intimidating for a young cricketer to start their international career than the Oval in Kennington. The ground has been home to generations of Surrey cricketers since the early years of Queen Victoria's reign. In that time, it has been host to the first international cricket match in England, the first ever FA Cup Final, and a battery of anti-aircraft guns during World War II. The giant four-tiered pavilion looms over the strip and will be chock-full for every moment of the final Ashes test of the summer.

The huge crowds seen this summer are a far cry from the patchy attendances that mark the midweek games in Division 2 of the County Championship. It's in those low-impact surroundings that Simon Kerrigan has built a reputation for taking wickets under the radar.

In his breakthrough season, Kerrigan came from nowhere to take 5 for 7 on a disintegrating surface in the Midlands, and then topped it with a match-winning 9 for 51 against Hampshire at the end of 2011. However, as Kerrigan learned so cruelly this week, it's one thing to face down county players on helpful surfaces, and another entirely to step into an Ashes series that has seen more tension off the pitch than on it.

Kerrigan was presented with his first test cap by English cricket's most successful test bowler, Ian Botham, and waited patiently for his chance. Finally, Cook tossed him a buffed cherry and the torture began.

A succession of floating invitations were cruelly dispatched by Australia's Shane Watson, a man who is himself seen as something of an underachiever at the crease. However, in this match, he was finding the middle of the blade with everything. Kerrigan tried to vary his delivery, but Watson read him at every turn and creamed him repeatedly to the boundery rope. The nadir of a torrid day for the young left-armer came when he was no-balled for a neck-high full toss at eventual centurion Steve Smith. Predictably, that ball too ended up being smashed away for four.

Kerrigan's figures (8-0-53-0) might have been more reminiscent of Twenty-20 stats than a test debut, but he is known for being a resilient character. He bit back the frustration he must have felt, prowled the boundary rope fruitlessly for the remainder of the day and would have told himself that the next day would be better.

Except it wasn't. While Australia went on to score nearly 500 runs, Kerrigan was overlooked for the skiddy part-time medium pace of batsman Jonathan Trott, who then piled on the agony for the young spinner by taking the wicket that he couldn't. In the commentary after the game, Geoffrey Boycott remarked that if he'd got out to Kerrigan, he would have set himself up a noose in the dressing room.

If there is something positive for the young spinner to take away from this game, it is that you only get one debut, and not all stages will be as prominent as this one. Other illustrious names, such as Shane Warne, took time to bed in at international level before going on to become legends of the game. At just 24 years old, there is plenty of time for Kerrigan to make a name for himself with England.

Most of all, I feel for him today. Which of us hasn't started something new and been embarrassingly poor at it, or proven to be talented at something in low-pressure surroundings only to choke when we are suddenly the centre of attention? I know only too well how awful it feels to fail to deliver under pressure. It takes strength of character to bounce back and prove your doubters wrong; I really hope that Kerrigan will do exactly that.

So I'm looking forward to a moment in the not too distant future when I see a young English spinner uproot the middle stump of a world class batsman. When he does, I'll smile, because I know he's taking that journey for me too.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Four Thousand Words reviews 'Ink', by Amanda Sun

Author: Amanda Sun
Publisher: MiraINK
Published: July 5th 2013
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought

Add It: Goodreads, Amazon UK, Amazon US

Note: This review was first posted on Faye's blog, 'A Daydreamer's Thoughts', which comes highly recommended to all readers of fiction.  Thanks Faye! :)

On the heels of a family tragedy, the last thing Katie Greene wants to do is move halfway across the world. Stuck with her aunt in Shizuoka, Japan, Katie feels lost. Alone. She doesn’t know the language, she can barely hold a pair of chopsticks, and she can’t seem to get the hang of taking her  shoes off whenever she enters a building.

Then there’s gorgeous but aloof Tomohiro, star of the school’s kendo team. How did he really get the scar on his arm? Katie isn’t prepared for the answer. But when she sees the things he draws start moving, there’s no denying the truth: Tomo has a connection to the ancient gods of Japan, and being near Katie is causing his abilities to spiral out of control. If the wrong people notice, they’ll both be targets.

Katie never wanted to move to Japan — now she may not make it out of the country alive.

** CAUTION ** This review contains spoilers ** CAUTION **

A girl, ordinary but special. A boy, misunderstood. Two dead mothers. Special powers. Fighting. Tears. A bag full of ‘My heart soared and I knew I couldn’t live without him’ cliches. Welcome to Young Adult Paranormal Romance fiction review.

In a genre where vampires, werewolves, zombies and faeries have received critical attention from every possible angle over the last few years, publishers are desperate to find something new and interesting, so Harlequin Teen must have been very pleased to find first-time author Amanda Sun’s novel about kami, spirits from the Shinto belief system, which in this particular incarnation take the form of individuals whose drawings come to life.

To walk us through this genuinely intriguing premise, we are introduced to spunky-but-vulnerable blonde-haired orphan gaijin teenager Katie Greene, who is living in Japan with a nondescript aunt due to an improbable set of circumstances with her extended family and US Social Services following the death of her mother. When she meets Yuu Tomohiro, a slouching, distant anti-hero who nonetheless guards an improbable heart of gold, she unwittingly stirs his kami blood to the point where dark and dangerous things start to happen.

So far, so good. Katie is a likeable if slightly bland main character, but Sun’s initial steps seem uncertain ones, with a notable over-reliance on colour as a visual medium in many scenes, including the one where we first meet Yuu. In the space of a few short paragraphs, we see his then-girlfriend’s black book, pink-and-silver nails, his own navy blazer and copper hair, and so on. The girlfriend is swiftly removed from the picture, and a pregnant might-be-girlfriend is introduced and immediately discounted within a few pages. This leaves the way open for Katie and Yuu, though their initial fleeting hints of romance are somewhat untidy, veering from the Bridget Jones-esque moment where she climbs a tree to prove to him that she can make an exit (simultaneously displaying her underwear to all and sundry) and a scene immediately afterwards where he tries to walk into her to intimidate her into leaving him alone.

Yuu is a vast disappointment as a love interest. He is an example of the stock teenage ‘bad boy’ mould, constructed directly from lazy cliches. In two consecutive scenes, we see him beating up boys much younger than him, and then when he thinks nobody is watching, he helps an old lady onto a train. Despite numerous references to how troublesome and dangerous he is, Katie is intrigued by his non-existent sense of mystery (where does he go when she’s not around?) and stalks him around the neighbourhood until she discovers that he breaks into a fenced-off archaeological site in order to be able to draw his magical sketches without attracting undue attention. Given that both his personality and his magical powers are still almost completely unexplored at this point, the idea of a dangerous guy who finds redemption through drawing sadly reminded me of the villain Raymond Calitri from the most recent film version of ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’ (2000). Calitri is an unintentionally comic figure, a supposedly vicious killer who nonetheless finds time to talk at length about his interest in carpentry. It is not a welcome comparison.

Characterisation is easily the weakest part of Sun’s debut. Without much effort on her part, Katie soon garners an alternative potential love interest called Jun, but he is suitably interchangeable with Yuu, given that the two have the same magical powers, the same interests and the same dependable white-knight qualities that seem so out of place in seventeen-year old males. Fortunately, Sun makes sure to avoid confusion between the two by giving them different coloured hair. The background characters are treated in a similarly off-hand fashion and seem about as substantial as the paper creatures that the kami create in the novel.

Since reading ‘Ink’, I have seen several online comparisons between it and the ‘Twilight’ series, a comparison which is to a degree inevitable given the subject matter and the lack of freedom that an author has to really explore their themes if they want to attract the attention of a major publisher these days. I cannot comment on the comparison as I have never read any of Stephanie Meyer’s work, but in common with the first ‘Twilight’ movie, the first half of ‘Ink’ moves at the speed of continental drift. However, unlike the first ‘Twilight’ movie, the midpoint in ‘Ink’ sees a dramatic improvement when the kami premise is explored and the characters actually start to do things.

Notably, there is a scene where in a bizarre attempt to force her away, Yuu takes Katie to a love hotel, treats her aggressively and kisses her forcefully. Without wishing to make light of the seriousness of the situation that Katie finds herself in, I have seen this referred to repeatedly online as a rape scene, and I can assure any potential reader that ‘A Clockwork Orange’, this is not. The truth is that the scene, like much of the novel, is so emotionally unengaging that I found myself wondering why it appears at all.

It is a tremendous shame that this sense of inconsequentiality pervades the novel to such an extent, given that Sun’s writing style is generally very good. Her dialogue is believable and enjoyable, and she does an excellent job of capturing Shizuoka through Katie’s eyes. Her use of pathetic fallacy is one example of technique applied subtly and unobtrusively. The settings, such as ‘the stomped-down grass and broken branches’ of Toro Iseki, or the ‘barnacle-encrusted base of the snaking orange hallways’ of the Itsukushima shrine, are distinctive and effective.

If my disappointment at ‘Ink’ is palpable to you, you should be aware that as a 35-year-old man, I am not the likely target market for this book. Nonetheless, I was quietly optimistic that ‘Ink’ had the potential to be genre-defining in the way that ‘The Hunger Games’ or ‘Divergent’ were. While it would do the book a disservice to describe it as an opportunity lost, it would be true to describe it as an opportunity that is not fully realised, for while the action scenes in the second half are well-observed, the characters left me feeling largely ambivalent and the romance seems thoroughly contrived. While I would certainly read more fiction by Amanda Sun, I would expect that the subsequent volumes in this particular series will pass me by.

Before I finish, I would like to make a special mention of the ‘Ink’ cover art, which on my pre-release copy is absolutely beautiful and one of the reasons I was attracted to reviewing it. Suffice to say, if Katie had been formed as well by her actions in the novel as she is captured in brush stroke on its cover, ‘Ink’ could have been something very special indeed. Sadly, it seems like it was not meant to be.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Next Big Thing

I took this idea from another would-be writer who was responding to ten questions from an online reviewer about her current work-in-progress. It's April 2nd, the weather in the UK is shit and I feel that the political changes that the country is undergoing are dangerous and far-reaching, and will have devastating consequences for some. All the more reason then to find positive things to talk about, and it's with great pleasure that I give my responses to the ten 'Next Big Thing' questions :)

1. What is the working title of your book?

The working title is 'What Comes From The Earth', a reference to both the miners in the novel and how humanity is born from the soil and returns there when we die. Death is central to the novel, and it comes swiftly and violently. While I like the imagery, I feel that it's a bit of an ugly title, but I haven't come up with anything better yet!

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

I wanted to write a story about trade unionism and what it's like to be a rep, but as I'm an international officer, I also wanted to set it somewhere abroad where the story would be an interesting one. I was very touched by the stories from South Africa of the miners who were gunned down by police in August 2012, and it was a story that seemed to sum up a tension at the heart of a country, as well as a class struggle which any British person will immediately recognise. It was an easy decision to set the story there.

'What Comes from the Earth' is set in rural South Africa

3. What genre does your book fall under?

It's a rough attempt at literary fiction - but I suppose if it had a genre, it would be a thriller, albeit a low, slow-burner with plenty of implied threat to the main character.

4. What actors/actresses would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

In the spirit of the endeavour, I'd want the film to be filmed on location with unknowns - maybe real life locals - playing those roles. If Hollywood insisted (oh glorious day), I would probably choose Don Cheadle to play Sithi. I loved him in Hotel Rwanda.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A man defies forces of chaos on all sides and learns about leadership and loyalty.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I'm incredibly excited and keen to get it out there for people to read, so I'll be self-publishing as soon as two of my readers give me thumbs up that they'd spend £2 on it. In truth, I fully acknowledge that this won't necessarily be a book with a mainstream audience, so just being well-written may not be enough to attract a mainstream publisher. You never know, though...

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The project was begun during Nanowrimo'12 and the first draft will be finished during Camp Nano'13, so about six months.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Shamefully, I haven't read the book, but there are a lot of similarities to the movie version of 'The Last King of Scotland'. The setting will be broadly similar and there is the same sense of a strong protagonist and a strong antagonist playing off one another while a wider crisis looms in the background.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

All of my Nano and my reading group friends have played a part in inspiring me. I just hope it's as good a read as they deserve.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

I'm a first time author with a genuine story to tell - and I'd love this to be the start of a long and successful writing career.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Some Thoughts on International Aid

At the time of year that I find myself bound for distant towns and cities to attend the biannual UNISON International Seminar, I realise that there are many things for which you can justifiably attack our government. They've run a sinking economy into the dirt, ostracised us from Europe and are still trying to introduce competition to the NHS so that they can create an insurance-based health system similar to the one in the US.

So yes, you can knock this coalition for many things, but on the matter of international aid, the coalition policy appears to remain steadfast. In fact, all three of the major political parties in the UK agree on at least one thing - namely, a firm commitment to meeting the United Nations target of 0.7% of each country's Gross National Product (GNP) being ringfenced for the purposes of international aid.

International aid, along with immigration, is one of those issues that makes policymakers twitchy. One cannot be too harsh on the subject without alienating the sections of one's electorate with personal and business connections abroad, but one also cannot be seen to be entirely in favour of aid without due cause, as this might risk losing the votes of those who don't understand why we appear to be gifting money to other nations - particularly when our own needy are growing needier by the day.

As international officers, how do we help people understand the necessity of international aid? Nationally, UNISON publishes the following advice to members. We know full well that our members in the UK are suffering greatly under the horrific mismanagement of our economy, but we also know that people join unions in a spirit of solidarity - when you need help most, all of us will stand behind you. Therefore members need to understand that while Britain is ailing from the effects of punishing and unnecessary austerity, workers in other nations are going through the same thing. It is only by building solidarity and cooperation that bypasses borders that we can hope to resist the massive neoliberal global attacks on our public services.

Let's establish a few facts. The actual amount that Britain spends annually is in the region of £8bn, or £137 per person per year. This equates to a little over 0.5% of our GNP, so if we are to meet our target, we'll have to find another few billion. It is worth mentioning that only a handful of Nordic and central European nations actually achieve the UN goal. The US, in comparison, gives a paltry 0.2% of its GNP in international aid each year.

What is aid used for? Ostensibly, the UN goal is that the money be redistributed from wealthy nations to poor ones in order to reduce poverty. That's a very noble goal, but also a very general one, and there are many better ways to use money than simply donating it to other nations. Just because we accept the notion that we should find this money and use it to alleviate suffering worldwide, there is still a debate about how that should best be done. We, as trade unionists, should be shaping the debate about how our money is spent.

We know better than most that the best use of a limited resource is to focus it in areas of great need. We know from experience that using the money within existing networks in local communities, asking them what they need and helping them to build their own organising capacity, is the most efficient model to use. To help us remember this, we use a time-honoured example: Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and he will feed himself for a lifetime.

Critics of international aid argue that DFID (The UK's Department For International Development) is not transparent and that giving money to foreign governments creates dependency. We must be careful, certainly, that we don't simply create duplicate networks to those already used by governments and NGOs to carry out functions that should be performed by governments. We should also be concerned at the ways in which the money reaches the beneficiaries. By routing 40% of our spend through organisations such as the World Bank and the OECD, we risk creating political conditions on the recipients of aid, and thus potentially spreading neoliberal tendancies further throughout the world.

However, the concept of tied money is not a new one - and while it is ideal to meet the target without imposing conditions, we must also consider that foreign aid budgets are easier to sell politically if we can show that there are benefits to the UK too. DFID contracts are still awarded overwhelmingly to UK firms, and while not all trade unionists will agree with me, I believe that we can still improve relations with other nations, assist them in ways such as improving their infrastructure and benefit from cheap goods in return.

One of my fellow attendees here at the International Seminar suggested that we stop referring to international aid as aid. He has a very good point, and one that had previously been unmentioned by anyone else up to that point. Part of shaping the debate is controlling the language that is used (if you want evidence of this, note how the proposed forthcoming changes to council tax legislation are referred to as the 'bedroom tax' by opponents on the left, and the 'spare room subsidy' by supporters on the right) and by taking away the notion of 'aid' and replacing it with something that recognises the true role that it plays.

He suggested the Global Responsibility Allowance - a term that recognises the need to move away from seeing this money as something we own and give away, and more as a commitment to assisting the developing world with their own self-improvement, if not for its own end, at least in return for access to their markets. Whether this could be sold to the general public may be another matter - but it certainly couldn't hurt to try.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Some 'Facts' about the EU

I read an article today about the YouGov poll which has shown that since 5 January 2013, outright support for a British withdrawal from the EU has reduced sharply from 51% to less than 42%, with a rising number now supporting Britain's place at the heart of Europe, at least dependent upon a renegotiation of our position in it.

The EU is one of those strange subjects - almost no-one knows anything about it, but everyone has an opinion on it. UKIP would supposedly pull us out of it, despite the fact that it's the only part of politics where they wield any genuine influence. Labour admit they were wrong about it, but don't seem to know where they currently stand on it. Dave and his backbenchers quarrel over it all the time, and the promised referendum on continued membership still looks about as likely to arrive as the Rapture.

The thing that annoys me most is that amongst all the intelligent debate, there are a number of people who will insist on presenting their opinion as fact. For your benefit (and not least my own), I have done a little bit of research on the opinions of one 'elsyd', who does just that on the article above. Hopefully, it will answer some of those nagging questions that you always see thrown around in Facebook debate.

CLAIM: Britain's net contribution to the EU is in excess of £50 million a day.

ANSWER: False. The enclosed graph from the BBC shows that the UK contributes a net 3.5bn Euros per year, or approximately 9.831m Euros a day. Still not chicken feed, but let's at least be accurate. To give the figures context, the UK receives approximately £550bn in tax revenue each year, meaning that net EU spending accounts for less than 0.63% of our national income annually - akin to a person on an above-average income buying a Starbucks coffee each day. Or to express it exactly, we are contributing approximately 16 Euro cents each day for each person living in the UK.

There are those who will argue the value of what we receive, but just some of the potential benefits we receive in return for our money are that we avoid having to pay potential trade tariffs on new trade agreements, there are no legal obstacles for those who wish to set up businesses in any EU country, we receive subsidies for farmers and fishermen (though many will question the appropriateness and value of these), and we also gain a political union that can stand up to China, USA, Russia, Brazil and India in the global war for resources. As part of a bigger power base, the UK is more likely to be globally influential.

CLAIM: Auditors have failed to sign off account EU spending for the last 18 years.

ANSWER: True. This article in the Telegraph shows that the EU had an overall error rate of 3.9% in 2011, which is too high for the European Court of Auditors to sign off. The European Commission nonetheless point out that the error rate does not mean the money is lost, because when fraud or irregularities are detected, the EU claims the money back from the member state.

CLAIM: Britain cannot control immigration from EU because of open border regulations.

ANSWER: EU citizens have the unrestricted right to live and work in the UK where non-EU citizens require authorisation before taking a job. This is a strange thing to make an issue of, as citizens from outside the EU can still live and work in the UK if they fulfill certain criteria. The jury is out on whether this is a good or bad thing. Immigration brings skills that UK workers do not have and increases the flexibility of the labour market, but it also puts greater pressure om infrastructure, such as the housing market and the NHS.

CLAIM: Apart from Belgium, Holland and Malta, Britain has the highest density population in the EU, and is rising dramatically due to immigration.

ANSWER: True, or at least according to Wikipedia. The enclosed page gives these statistics. However, the UK has the second highest population in the EU too, so perhaps this is not surprising. As a comparison, Greece has one of the lowest population densities, so it cannot be suggested that low population density in itself is something to aspire to. Nonetheless, all the main political parties seem to be in agreement that the level of immigration should be controlled somehow.

It should be mentioned that there are potential benefits to high population. Many immigrants are young people looking for work, and this article from the Guardian suggests that this could help avoid shortfalls in pension liabilities that will be experienced in other nations where the numbers of young people are falling.

CLAIM: In excess of 500,000 Polish migrants alone are known to be in the UK (2011 Census).

ANSWER: True. The BBC have released the following figures from the 2011 census, showing that an estimated 579,000 Poles live in the UK. Once again, it is difficult to see the significance of this figure, particularly given the previous articles about how the population in the UK is set to grow to approx 77m by 2060. I am privileged to know several Polish people who work alongside me in local government, and the following Wikipedia page lists many individuals of Polish descent who have made significant contributions to the UK - including Labour leader Ed Miliband, who was born to a Polish mother.

CLAIM: If we left the EU, many of these jobs would be available to the British unemployed. Where sufficient British skilled workers are currently not yet available, visas could be issued to EU workers, as is the case for non-EU migrants at present.

ANSWER: Potentially, it would be possible to set up an arrangement whereby every immigrant, wherever they were from, would require a visa to work in the UK. However, immediately leaving the EU would not guarantee that many of the current immigrant population were forced to leave the UK - many could expect to receive visas by virtue of successive generations living and working in the UK - and as 'elsyd' himself implies, this does not guarantee that UK workers could be found to fill the gaps.

The counter question I would ask is that if you have a worker in post, who is diligent, effective and contributes both to your culture and your economy, why would you seek the upheaval of replacing them en masse just because of their nationality? Then again, perhaps we could find jobs for them in the new, massive, bureaucratic visa service...

CLAIM: There is a serious housing shortage in the UK which requires building on swathes of Greenfield sites. If we were not in the EU, many existing homes would become available, thus protecting our countryside.

ANSWER: Once again, this seems to imply that as soon as we left the EU, we could force large numbers of people to become immediately homeless, necessitating their swift return to the country of their origin. Leaving aside how ridiculous this suggestion is, we could instead look to articles such as this one, which suggests that greenbelt policy has more to do with boosting house prices than protecting the countryside. Then there are BBC articles that suggest only around 10% of land in the UK is 'urban', and that even less than that is actually built on. The one fact we can agree on is that if the population really is going to jump by 17 million people in the next fifty years, they will need homes to live in, so someone had better start building them, pronto.

CLAIM: Uncontrolled numbers of Bulgarians, Romanians and Roma Gypsies will have freedom to come to Britain at the end of this year.

ANSWER: As those nations become part of the EU, they will gain the right to move and work anywhere within Europe, as any other EU citizen already has. Some are likely to come to Britain, with the positive and negative impacts that have already been discussed. The Independent may like to suggest that Romanians in London are either 'beggars, pickpockets and prostitutes', but this ignores the fact that as with Poles and many other races before them, most of those that come here will do so to work and offer their families a chance at a better life.

CLAIM: EU migrants have the same access to benefits as UK citizens – jobseekers, housing, etc.

ANSWER: Partly true. However, the implication here is that anyone can stroll out of the EU and demand a huge house and limitless benefits without ever having worked in the UK. This presentation to Islington council makes it clear that those who have never worked in the UK are likely to have 'no recourse to public funds' (i.e. they are not eligible to receive benefits) and that the UK already has the right to restrict access to the labour market in the UK under existing EU treaties. This means that the UK can freely decide to restrict people from working, and by default, restrict their access to benefits.

CLAIM: The tremendous pressures on our NHS, Schools and Transport would be considerably reduced, if we left the EU.

ANSWER: The answer to this is far more complex than a simple statement of this kind can address. If fewer people lived in the UK, there would be less need for infrastructure, but also fewer taxpayers paying for it, and if all the foreign nurses employed in the UK were asked to leave the UK immediately, this would leave the profession in crisis. You could respond with a similarly incongruous argument - namely that the NHS, schools and transport could all do more if they received more funding, so logically, we should automatically increase the tax rate to do this.

CLAIM: UK trade is declining with EU whilst exports are growing to emerging economies such as China and India.

ANSWER: Figures from UKTradeInfo suggest that for the last two years, UK imports and exports both inside and out of the EU have remained largely static - significantly, long term trend data is not easy to come by, so this is surely a generalisation. The sentiment that 'elsyd' is expressing - that it is advantageous for the UK to trade with emerging economies - should not be taken to suggest that we do not benefit from trade with EU markets.

CLAIM: The EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has all but destroyed our own Fishing Industry. Free from EU rules we would be able to resurrect this great, renewable resource.

ANSWER: Short of sending out warships, it is hard to see exactly how we could protect our fishing waters. Regardless, it could be argued that the CFP has played a role in protecting future fish stocks through a number of policies which are explained in detail here. With many of our stocks already overfished, it is not as straightforward as simply leaving the UK and sending boats back out to sea.

However, there remain stories about boats dumping dead fish back into the sea, and CFP will retain its status as a contentious cornerstone issue of the UK's place in Europe.

CLAIM: As a member of the EU, we pay huge subsidies to French farmers. Is it not time we supported our own agricultural industry?

ANSWER: France receives farming subsidies, as does the UK. However, the figures show that like the UK, France is a net contributor to the EU.

CLAIM: Our country is virtually governed, not by British Law, but by EU regulations, including many of the idiotic rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. If we left, we would be free to keep the 'sensible' ones and create a 'UK Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.' Britain would then be free to legislate in the interests of its own people.

ANSWER: Ah, damn those human rights...if only we didn't have them, there'd be none of this nonsense requiring employers to pay a minimum wage, nothing obliging them to provide a safe and comfortable working environment and nothing preventing governments from installing whatever crazy laws they wanted, without anyone being able to do a thing about it.

Since EU law is created from a consensus based on member law (something that the UK contributes to), it is arguably more democratic than anything we have in the UK. Yes, it still makes silly mistakes, but those are inevitable in any legal system and a system external to the EU would not make the UK immune to this problem.

CLAIM: The EU is moving towards a Federal State of Europe, with ever greater fiscal and political integration. Britain’s ability to rule itself would disappear and we would be ruled by the bureaucrats in Brussels.

ANSWER: Those would be the same MEP bureaucrats that we...elect democratically on a regular basis, correct? Fiscal and financial integration does throw up some minefields (e.g the Euro, common interest rates) but these are not a cast iron argument against integration. You could argue, for example, that integration of members states hasn't worked out too badly for the US.

There are genuine questions to be answered about the UK's role in Europe, and we cannot afford to let our biased newspaper owners and editors to own the debate. I don't claim to have the answers, but I can at least frame the questions. For example, large numbers of us would apparently prefer a renegotiated relationship with the EU. What, then, should we be negotiating? It is perhaps ironic that Germany, the country traditionally viewed as the one that gets the most benefit from the EU, is its biggest contributor.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Some Advice for the Men of OK Cupid

Yesterday a friend of mine sent me a link to a Tumblr blog called 'Nice Guys of Ok Cupid'. I'll do you a favour and sum up the content, firstly because I don't want you to immediately switch to that blog instead of this one - it's the social media equivalent of a car crash, horrific, terrifying and compelling all in the same breath - and secondly, because I think I might have something genuinely positive to contribute to the debate. No, really. Stay with me.

OK Cupid is a dating website in the US, and it gives people the usual opportunity to create a profile with a picture and some text. The site also offers some assistance with creating the right impression for your future beloved by giving members all sorts of loaded questions that seem to be there for the sole purpose of giving people a chance to embarrass themselves. 'Nice Guys' is the work of one woman, who finds and posts the most humiliating and excruciating male profiles by men who claim themselves to be 'nice' in one breath, while then disproving this (occasionally spectacularly) with the rest of their profile.

I'm not going to analyse the blog itself in any detail. I encourage you to read it, especially if you are a young single man who is bewildered at your lack of success with women. Think of it as a 'how-not-to' guide. But don't go yet! I have some advice for you first. It may not prove to be useful for you, but like all the best advice, it's free, and offered with a genuine intent to help you. And if you're want to know my credentials, they are that despite being a chubby, badly-dressed dumbass without two pennies to rub together, I still managed to find someone who loves me :)

This is a dating profile

First things first. Basic housekeeping will reap rewards in the long run. America is a big country, and there are a lot of single men out there. You may be fortunate and blessed with a huge trust fund, the enduring looks of Brad Pitt and Channing Tatum's abs, but the fact is that most of us are average in most respects, so while we may not immediately stand out for our qualities, we can at least minimise the things we do badly. So here's a checklist:

- Use a good picture of yourself. You want to look your best, so style your hair, and put on a shirt. Use the best camera you have. You want the picture to be as high-quality as possible and show you looking clean and respectable. Don't wear sunglasses - you aren't Horatio Caine. Let a girl see your eyes, and a genuine smile. If you're in doubt, ask one of those 'friendzone' female friends to take the picture for you!

- Learn to spell (or at least use a spellchecker.) Yes, I know that textspeak is the language of a new generation, but there really is no excuse for poor spelling. I'm not going to lambast you for the odd typo, but some profiles are almost unreadable. You're creating an image here that shows off your positive attributes - and that image is that you're of reasonable intelligence, and take the time to do things well when they matter.

- Have something interesting to say. This is critical, and I really get the feeling that some people sit down to prepare themselves for failure. Think about it carefully. If you wanted to sell a car, would you list it in the newspaper as 'One car for sale, nice'? If not, why would you list your main quality as 'nice' in an 'About Me' section? Give yourself something to work with, and talk about your alloy wheels and your swish decal. In short, talk about what you like, and more importantly, why you like it.

Remember that this is a shop window for your thoughts and feelings, but shouldn't be seen as an opportunity to project your feelings onto others. Contrary to popular opinion, women are not all shallow and superficial bitches and sluts. Which leads us nicely onto...

- EMPHASISE THE POSITIVE. I cannot repeat this one often enough. There is a reason why Facebook does not have, and never will have, a 'Dislike' button. No-one is expecting you to be a robot that has no negative aspects to their personality, but at least serve up some positive ones first to balance them out. Don't get onto contentious subjects like whether you are anti-abortion or whether non-Christians will burn in hell. At this stage, you have a chance to talk about the things that you are interested in and passionate about, and can share with someone else.

Your basic rules for things that go on your profile should be: if they are positive, likeable qualities, or they are funny and self-deprecating, they should go on. Everything else should be saved up for when your prospective beau has already gotten to know you a bit.

So if you've followed that advice, your profile should contain a picture that any girl would be proud to show to Mom, and be completely free of negative statements, but nonetheless still hint at your individual qualities. Now let's look at a few essentials for taking it to the next level.

Questions about race/homosexuality

You may not have noticed, but even in our modern, enlightened societies, women are not treated equally to men. No, don't try and argue with me because of something you saw, heard, read or experienced - accept it, because it's true. The reason that this is significant is that women are more likely to feel an empathy for other people who have also experienced prejudice, so if you make negative comments about people from other races, or people who are gay, be prepared that she might have a ton of reasons to disagree. I'm not going to attack you for the way you feel, but instead suggest that you challenge yourself. Make a friend who is black, hispanic or gay, and once you have spent enough time with them, ask yourself if they way you used to feel about that group is still reasonable.

Addendum note: some men seem to be quite open with their opinion that racist jokes are funny 'because they're jokes'. Well, I have a black friend who thinks that jokes about white men who can't get laid are funny too. The good news is, you're both wrong. Read on to my comments about RESPECT, below.

Questions about weight, leg shaving and any other aspects of physical attractiveness

If you publicly answer the question, 'If one of your potential matches was even slightly overweight, would this be a dealbreaker?' with a 'yes', I'm tempted to salute you for your honesty. However, if you are serious about finding someone special, you will help yourself by stacking the odds in your favour. Obviously, there has to be a physical attraction to facilitate the whole relationship process, but when you grow up, you'll find that people are about more than their weight, and by immediately writing off someone without getting to know them, you might well be missing out.

One question that appears to fox men regularly is: 'Do you think women have an obligation to keep their legs shaved?' Hint: the answer is NO. And the reason for this is that women don't have an obligation to do anything. If you were asked, you might politely and tentatively express a preference for women with shaved legs, which is perfectly reasonable. But if that girl you like doesn't want to shave, you can't make her.

Addendum note: No-one is obliged to have sex with you. Ever. No matter how nice you've been, or what you bought for them. If being nice and buying presents are your route into someone's affections, then I wish you the best with that. However, if it doesn't work out for you, then you can't complain that you're owed something that you aren't. Be an adult. Mark it down to experience, learn from it and move on.

Questions about previous sexual partners/supposed promiscuity

As with the previous point about appearance, be careful not to offend people by stating your preferences and values. You might prefer a woman to be relatively sexually inexperienced, but suggesting there is a set number beyond which a woman has had 'too many' partners will not win you friends, much less love.

On a personal note, if you find someone who entertains you, interests you, is physically attracted to you and could love you, what does it really matter who she's been with previously? How much can you really expect from someone else before what you asking becomes unreasonable?

Final thoughts

RESPECT WOMEN - For this, you could substitute women for 'other people' for much the same effect. A breakdown in mutual respect is one of those factors that makes the world seem a harsher place than it used to be. But it doesn't have to be that way. We are all trying to fit so much into our short time here that we forget to observe the little kindnesses that make for a better day for all concerned. So stop using terms like 'bitches' and 'sluts'. You're never going to use them in a positive context, so why use them at all? Even if someone legitimately mistreats you, you will be happier if you just shrug your shoulders and walk away.

But so many of these profiles express hatred and bitterness towards women that there needs to be some specific advice relating to this. Part of being a man means accepting that women have certain corridors of power that you can't access. You can beg and coerce and manipulate all you want, but a girl who doesn't want to sleep with you isn't going to sleep with you. Rape is a deplorable crime that is all about seizing the power that an individual feels they are being denied. When it comes to sex, women have the power. As a man, you will live a happier life if you accept this.

Ditch the notion of the friendzone. It's unhelpful and fails to acknowledge that friendships are good, regardless of who they're with. Doing this will help you appreciate people for who they are, not what they can do for you. If you were only being nice to the girl in the hope that she'll sleep with you, you weren't really being nice. Accept this.

RESPECT YOURSELF - If I could give you one piece of advice that will make you more successful in every aspect of your life, this would be it. I'm not talking about the 'self-confidence' spouted by self-help books that sees people talking to themselves in mirrors, but just having a genuine sense of who you are and the space that you occupy. Ditch the 'nice guy' persona, and become a respectful guy instead. Listen when people talk. Be kind without needing a reason why. I'm not saying that you shouldn't defend the things you love or that you should let other people take liberties with you, but you should be willing to compromise where necessary.

If you think that women are bitches because they lead you on, just don't let them! If you don't want to spend your weekends listening to women complain about their boyfriends, no-one is making you listen. Stop thinking of yourself as a victim and get a hobby. It will make you seem more interesting, and give you something else to do and to talk about. Have your own life, and live it without worrying about why you don't have a girlfriend.