Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Magnificent murmurations

Yesterday I saw a massive flock of starlings - you can maybe just make them out in the photo above. It was absolutely incredible. I appreciate that one could not deduce this fact from the photo, so you'll have to trust me.

Every winter starlings form gigantic flocks which are known as murmurations. One of the biggest flocks in the country happens to be quite close to Bristol: up to one million starlings come together every evening throughout winter at a bird reserve called Ham Wall near Glastonbury.

I was at Ham Wall yesterday between 3pm and 4pm. During that time I saw three extraordinary ornithological sites: first, the starlings. Second, I saw a great white egret - there are thirteen of these in the whole of the UK; four of them live at Ham Wall. And thirdly, I saw a bittern. These were once extinct in the UK but they have recolonised and now breed in two or three places in the country. They're usually very shy and hard to see but this fellow flew right over my head!

Thank god for bitterns, egrets, and starlings. It's nice to know that, amidst all the scenes of environmental catastrophe, there are still places where nature can thrive. Just to reinforce this, I've made a list of some memorable birding moments that I've experienced recently around Bristol. It's worth reminding ourselves that we can still enjoy wonderful nature almost on our doorstep...

(Depressing aside though: as we headed out to Glastonbury to see the birds, we encountered a mighty snarl-up on the M5. We were a bit worried that we might spend the day in a traffic jam but, no, we soon realised that all the traffic was leaving the M5 and heading for Cribbs Causeway for the Boxing Day sales. Is the human race mad, or what?!)

Thursday, 9 December 2010

American History Y and Z

I am currently a little bit obsessed with the history of the United States. I've used this blog before to quote from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. If you want a good overview of American history then there is no better source.

This time, though, I want to refer to a couple of more specific histories. The first is Randy Shilt's And the band played on, a history of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. It's a thick tome but it reads like a thriller; I heartily recommend it. The tale starts in the late 1970s when a handful of Europeans and Americans started to fall ill and die in mysterious ways. (Some of) the medical fraternity really started to pay attention in the early 1980s when it became clear that gay American men were dying in greater numbers (and in the most bizarre and hideous ways - one guy died of a disease previously only found in sheep, many men went blind or suffered very distressing brain damage as the disease killed them).

However the AIDS epidemic is a tale of two tragedies. First is the horror of the disease. Second, and just as deadly, is the horror of prejudice and bigotry. For a long time it was just gay men that were dying. Then they were joined by Haitians and intravenous drug users. None of these groups count for diddley in the grand American system. So no one paid any attention - no media, no government officials, no one with any power to do anything...

Reagan assumed office as AIDS reared its ugly head, and his administration refused even the most basic funding to combat the disease. (He was spending all his money funding death squads in El Salvador, but that's a story to be told in a different history, thanks Noam Chomsky.) Indeed it was May 31, 1987 (near the end of his second term) before he even spoke the word "AIDS" in public". When he spoke, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and 20,849 had died. The disease had spread to 113 countries, with more than 50,000 cases.

The media were just as bad. With a few very heroic exemptions (Shilts himself, for instance) the media virtually ignored the epidemic. The impression one receives on reading this account is that this silence not only killed people in the 1980s but it is klling people now. If scientists had received funding, and the people had received education, then AIDS could have been stopped in its tracks. As it is, HIV has infected millions of people around the globe and it is killing them. The first world finally woke up to the tragedy (after respectable heterosexuals started dying, initially through blood transfusions) and AIDS is now somewhat manageable with modern drugs... but not in Africa.

And now for another tragedy. I'm two thirds of the way through Dee Brown's Bury my heart at wounded knee; I'm reading it in stages as it is one of the most harrowing books I've ever read. It tells the story of the "conquering" of the American West by the white man; and it tells the story from the perspective of the original inhabitants. As Brown himself puts it:
Americans who have always looked westward when reading about this period should read this book facing eastward.

This book is not a tale of two tragedies, it is a tale of many. Or, perhaps, it's the tale of one tragedy repeated over and over and over. Native Americans living their traditional lives encounter the white man, first as an oddity, then as an irritation, then as a threat, and finally as an inexorable and appallingly destructive force. There are many tales of great heroism, as tribes people give their lives to protect their family, their country, and their way of life. But you read this book with ashes in your mouth - for the story always ends the same.

Sitting Bull

The book contains photos of many of the main protagonists and I find myself repeatedly drawn to look at their faces. These are heroes, heroes the like of which we may never see again. Their experience as humans could not be more different from my own yet, although I cannot imagine what it would have been like to live my whole life on the prairie, I am immediately drawn to the nobility and purity of their fight. They knew things about life, and love, and land, that white people may never know. That they were defeated in battle is all the more tragic, for the winners are now inevitably and completely defeating themselves...

Monday, 20 September 2010


Let me tell you about yoga. Forgive me if I sound like an insufferable hippy. (I'm really not. I wear socks with sandals really rather infrequently. And I dislike reggae intensely.)

Four years ago I thought yoga was for girls. I play football, end of story. Despite this, for various reasons not worth sharing now, I started to go along to yoga classes to support my partner. Six months later I was still going, and really enjoying it. Nonetheless my practice at this stage was a little sporadic, and yoga was languishing a long way behind football in my set of priorities.

Then a year ago I attended an ashtanga yoga class. It was 1 1/2 hours of serious work-out and I left shattered and very very intrigued. Over the last six months I've started to do ashtanga yoga regularly and now, it's fair to say, I LOVE IT. There are times (and I don't say this lightly) when I'd rather do yoga than play football.

My God.

Let me explain the attraction. Firstly the physical side of things. Football is great because it clears my mind, gives me an outlet for my physical energies, and leaves me mellow yet somewhat elated. Yoga also has that effect on me. Particularly ashtanga yoga which is more strenuous than other forms of yoga, and so appeals to my desire to be physically stretched. It gives me the high.

I also have a sense of progress. I am no natural yogi; I am bony and angular and not naturally flexible. When I started I had trouble sitting cross-legged. Yet now I can sit with cross legs, I can touch my toes with ease (even put my palms on the ground), I can stay in a head stand for a couple of minutes... in short, there are a multitude of postures that were once beyond me and now are quite achievable.

It has benefited my health. I used to suffer from chronic lower back pain but yoga has now got that under control. (As it happens I have had back troubles again recently, of a different sort, but this seems unrelated.) I have noticed a dramatic increase in lung capacity (all the positions in yoga are coordinated with the breath, so one learns to regulate one's breathing and to breath more deeply). The other day I swam a kilometre for the first time in my life (I'm shit at swimming); this was with almost no swimming practice, but lots of yoga.

I have much more control over different parts of my body. Whereas playing football benefits only a subset of the muscles in the body, yoga does the lot. Before I did yoga there were whole areas of my body that were weak and unutilised - that I didn't know were there. Now I have awareness of these areas, and can use them (for instance when lifting heavy things, instead of busting my back like I used to).

Yoga isn't just physical though. It also challenges and benefits my mental/ spiritual side. Firstly this takes place through regulating the breath. I have learned to breath deeply and slowly, thereby lowering the heart rate, and naturally calming the mind. This aids concentration and eases stress: when we're stressed our breathing tends towards shallowness and hyperventilation; by dealing with the physical symptoms of stress, some of the mental symptoms are also relieved.

Yoga also builds awareness of the present moment - what the Buddhists would call "mindfulness". Yoga requires awareness of one's whole body and full involvement in the here and now. Just as when I play football I am entirely focussed on the game without thought or worry of the past or future, so too in yoga I am freed of these distractions. Yoga seems somehow more beneficial though, because my mental state remains calm. (I'm not calm when I play football!)

I used to meditate regularly, but since having a child have found this very difficult. My yoga practice is a pretty good substitute. I find that the physicality of it allows me to maintain concentration in circumstances when I find sitting meditation impossible (e.g. with the child charging about the place). Many of the benefits of meditation - a calming and clearing of the mind, an awareness of the present, etc - can also be achieved through yoga.

Let me end by saying that I'm still shit at yoga. Or, to be more precise, I still can't do the vast majority of the poses in the ashtanga "full flow". Of course, that doesn't really mean I'm shit. Yoga is refreshingly non-competitive. While I admire very talented yoga practitioners (see video for an extreme example), a good session of yoga for me can be much more modest yet still push my physical and mental boundaries, and bring just as much benefit. With this in mind I'd recommend yoga to anyone, no matter what their state of physical health, for they will surely benefit.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The worst night of my life

Let me share the worst night of my life. It was, I think, in February 2009. It played out very similarly to other nights of that month, and the previous, but this particular night I cracked.

My son, you see, was born the previous August. My first child, fruit of my loins, apple of my eye, love of my life. So, indeed, he continues to be. Those first months were hard, but wonderful - adrenalin is a wonderful thing! By December we were struggling. The adrenalin was used up and his sleeping - patchy at best - was deterioriating dramatically.

Around New Year a pattern was established where we put him to bed around 8pm, with us hitting the sack as soon as possible after that - 8:05, 8:10... Sometimes he'd start crying before we got to sleep, other times it would be a couple of hours. In any event we lay down in a state of tension, knowing that the best we could hope for was sleeping until 11pm. For the rest of the night we were woken at about two hourly intervals.

Our initial approach was to work together to get through the night - trying to give each other support. We took it in turns to get up and soothe him. Some nights I'd take him out for walks in the buggy to try and rock him to sleep. But we were in a cold snap and this wasn't so effective (I walked one night from 2am to 3am in below freezing temperatures and returned home with a bright eyed little boy with no thought of sleep).

We realised that we couldn't sustain this so we decided to split the nights in two. I slept with the little fellow on a mattress downstairs in the lounge. We'd stopped feeding him at night, so I didn't have to wake Mum up if he started crying, I could deal with it myself and let her sleep through. Then, the first time he cried after 4am, I'd take him upstairs and she'd take over for the rest of the night.

Some nights were better than others, but none of them were good. One night he refused to sleep in any position other than strapped to me in a sling so I gave up and watched movies perched on the edge of the settee (he wouldn't let me lean back!) until it was time to hand him over.

On the awful night, though, I was too tired to face that and I was determined to get him to sleep. He'd woken me around midnight I think, I guess for the second time that night. I'd soothed him and he'd quitened on my shoulder and started to drift off. Then I gently put him down on the bed.... and he'd started to scream. I repeated this, I think, about seven times over the course of the next hour. Waiting longer and longer before I lay him down, until I was CERTAIN that he would stay asleep... except, of course, that he didn't.

I was starting to feel desperate; I was exhausted and I was acutely aware of a strong feeling of hatred towards this screaming baby. The last time I lay him down, and he started to cry, I had a sudden very clear and distinct vision of picking him up and flinging him with all my might at the wall of the lounge room. Sitting here, writing this, I can still see that image in my eyes. It was a tipping point and it could have gone either way. That vision scared me so much that it jolted me out of my exhaustion and I picked the child up and took him up to his mother. It was two hours early, and I knew that these months had taken a much worse toll on her than on me, but I was scared of what I might do.

I woke her, and told her that I couldn't go on, and she understood immediately. It was OK and I went downstairs and fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning though I woke with a new knowledge of myself. I knew that I was capable of terrible things if pushed far enough. True I'd stopped before I did anything awful, but only just, and perhaps only because I had someone to turn to.

* * *

I share this because, after talking to others, I've realised that such an experience is not uncommon for new parents. People don't want to talk about it because it's scary and horrible, but I think it's important to know that others have been through it.

Such an experience also demonstrates how vital is is for us to have support, and to try and arrange our lives so that others can take the strain for us before we reach that point of no return.

Such an experience renews my admiration and respect for single mothers.

Such an experience gives me a great feeling of sympathy, empathy even, for the parents who in their desperation have tipped the other way and done something awful. I think of news footage of mothers being led into a court. Such horror.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Teenage sex

It's a great title, isn't it? Whets the appetite! God knows we see it used that way often enough. Under-age sex is one of those standard topics that newspaper editors recycle whenever public moral outrage seems in danger of dying down and threatening sales (there are a bunch of others: drugs destroying young lives, youths destroying old lives, immigrants destroying British lives,...)

I saw a particularly great example of this a couple of months ago in the Australian newspaper. Their front cover advertised a full-length feature article inside entitled "The Yes Generation". OMIGOD, boys and girls saying "yes" to sex?! Let me buy that paper! Tell me more!

Except that when I turned to the article in question and waded through the preliminary sensationalist gumph, it turned out that the article was covering recent scientific research into the sexual behaviour of teenagers today and - wait for it - it turns out that there was no evidence whatsoever that teenagers were having more sex now than in the past. Headline news! Teenagers are having sex at about the same rate as they've always been!

An interesting subtheme in the issue of teenage sex is its relationship to class. There is a strong emphasis in some newspaper coverage of the issue of the wayward morals of the working classes; or, more precisely, of the unemployed classes. One has images of an army of sixteen year olds pushing prams across council estates and rubbing their hands together gleefully at the prospect of a life on benefits; their lives subsidised by that most feted of tabloid archetypes, the hard-working British taxpayer.

I came across an illuminating take on this subject in the classic novel "Germinal" by Zola. "Germinal" was written in 1885, with the events described therein being set about twenty years previously. Zola's concern is with a group of miners in northern France, and he chronicles their daily struggles in a way that reminded me of Dickens. Like Dickens he has a lot of sympathy for his subjects, although Zola makes less use of caricature than Dickens - his sympathies are held in check by his desire to describe his subjects accurately and without prejudice. (The other similarity is that, like Dickens at his best, "Germinal" is a belting good read.)

With regard to sex, then, Zola writes bluntly. The youth in "Germinal" take their pleasure when they can. They creep out of their over-crowded homes in the evening and copulate in back alleys, and in the waste ground round the mine. They are promiscuous and irresponsible, and entirely free of a good example - their parents' primary concern in all this is the worry that they will end up with pregnant daughters unable to work, and then nine months later another mouth to feed. The people in these villages are viewed by the middle classes as little better than animals for their lack of morals, and their utter surrender to their carnal desires. Yep, the same sneering attitude, just 150 years earlier.

What makes Zola's treatment of the subject interesting, however, is that he understands that this is more than a moral issue. The people in these villages work the mines from the age of six or earlier. They work long long hours in terrible conditions for a pitiful wage that barely covers their food bill. (Zola describes how some of the women are forced to pay their grocery bill by prostituting themselves to the grocer.) When the villagers organise to try and force an improvement to their situation, they are opposed by the mine owners, the police, and the state. In other words they are locked into a life of unrelenting wage slavery, with no prospect of any escape.

The only recourse one has in this situation is to take one's pleasure where you can find it. So the men spend too much of their money in getting drunk and buying favours of prostitutes, the teenagers take their pleasure with each other (and the women and children have very little pleasure of any kind). It makes a lot of sense; Bernard Shaw was another who saw the logic in this outlook - consider this speech from "Pygmalion":
What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I'm one of the undeserving poor: that's what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he's up agen middle class morality all the time. If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: 'You're undeserving; so you can't have it.' But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving...
It is interesting to observe that the insight of Zola and Shaw still holds true today. Despite what the tabloids might say, there is clearly NOT an epidemic of teenage sex in modern society; as the research I mentioned above suggests, teenagers are having sex about as often as their parents did when they were young. On the other hand, if society is worried about teenagers having sex, then it would be as well to recognise that the primary motivation is, more often than not, a lack of alternatives. People living on estates in Britain might be materially better off than miners in 19th century France but still, if you've got no money in today's society, then you are nobody. You have nothing to do, and nowhere to go. Better get your fun for free (e.g. via sex) or cheaply (via booze) or you'll have no fun at all.

The media's obsession with an absence of morals in the young and the poor is a big old red herring. The real issue is the lack of opportunity for whole sections of British society, and the complete lack of interest that recent governments have had in changing this state of affairs. Far easier to point the finger of judgement at today's teenagers, than to put energy into providing them with real opportunities for self-improvement.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Heathrow immigration horror

Today I saw an awful thing. I was making my way through the passport control at Heathrow airport in the mental haze which normally engulfs me in this sort of setting: my brain goes into "hibernate mode", and I enter a sort of protective fog that muffles the relentless sensual stimulation that seems to be mandatory in the modern airport.

So I did not immediately clock the little scene that was playing out next to my queue. Indeed I was almost under the nose of the barrel-chested customs man, before I realised what he was up to. He was perched on the side of a table, arms crossed high up that expansive chest, belt shining, big bunch of keys hanging off the side (probably a squawking radio in there somewhere); in short, successfully giving that impression of being slightly oversized that comes so naturally to officers of the law, and their ilk.

He was gazing down at an unfortunate couple who'd obviously been dragged out of my queue for some irregularity. The first words I heard him say were "all I'm asking is for you to be honest with me..." The sort of on-the-face-of-it decent, reasonable request that is another speciality of officers of the law. Reasonable, that is, until you think what their request implies. What will happen if you're honest with this man? What will he do with your truth? If you've got nothing to hide, then you've got nothing to fear, right? So the (faulty) logic goes.

"I just want to know if you've been earning any money.... So you've been earning £25 a day, for the last nine years.... In a kitchen..." His volume as oversized as his chest, his voice rang out as my queue passed him by; I couldn't hear the responses of the couple - they were just ordinary-sized.

I didn't want to make them feel objects on display but, still, I turned as I passed to properly look at the couple. And as I saw them clearly for the first time - focussing on them not on the immigration officer - I suddenly felt sick. They were of South-East-Asian appearance, a man and a woman, in their forties I would guess. But it was the look on their faces that caught me; they were caught, and I could see the fear in the tight muscles of their face and the aliveness in their eyes, as they sought desperately for some escape.

I didn't hear them make a sound; I barely saw them make a movement. They weren't causing a fuss; I don't know what their story is. I imagine that they've spent nine years in this country making a very marginal living and now, finally, for whatever reason, they want to go home. But in trying to board that plane, they've crept out of the shadows and into the full glare of our immigration system, and now what they want and what they were planning is a matter of no consequence. Because someone noticed that they have an out-of-date stamp on their passport, now other people will decide what will happen to them. Other people who, god damn it, should not have the right.

I wanted to shake my head at what was happening, but I didn't want the couple to see and think I disapproved of THEM. I didn't want them to feel like the inhabitants of this island are as heartless and inhuman as the laws that govern them. So I did nothing and went on my way, sick and unseeing. I write this just a few hours later, and God knows where that man and woman are now. I hope with all my heart that they are on their way to their desired destination; I fear though that they are in a cell somewhere or in an interview room with a barrel-chested immigration man who just wants them to be honest...
* * *
I got to the front of the queue, was processed, and found acceptable. My reward: entry into the duty-free/ restaurant area that precedes the boarding gates. Everywhere there were people pulling their little suitcases on floors of shiny white tiles, browsing aisles full of single malt whiskey, or celebrity magazines, or high-quality leatherware. There was an oyster bar, and a steak house, one wall was covered with the picture of a naked lady (some actor; she looked familiar) sitting on a couch with her legs crossed and wearing huge green jewels.

I ate a sad dinner in a sushi bar where plates come round on little tracks, and the walls are covered with different ways of writing the characters "YO!". I walked past a Bulgari shop where I could buy a £7000 watch, or a £10 000 necklace with BULGARI written in big letters across the front of it. Shiny, shiny, shiny, people, people, people.

I remembered a documentary I watched a couple of nights ago about the swingers club Plato's Retreat. People who'd visited Plato's in its heyday were interviewed, and they told stories of wild nights eating, drinking, dancing and fucking at Plato's. A couple of people talked about "the mat room" - a big room with no furniture but an almighty great mat on which an orgy took place every night: dozens of bodies writhing around taking their pleasure any way they could get it. One woman, a regular at Plato's, said she found the mat room "a bit full on"; she preferred to take her men one at a time....

If Plato's Retreat is a metaphor for our big shiny consumer society, then that shopping area in Heathrow felt like the mat room. Take your pleasure any way you can get it. But God help you if you don't pass the entry test...

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Catholic Workers and AWE

Last week-end I pootled up to Oxford for a Faith and Resistance Retreat organised by the good folk from the Catholic Worker.

Perhaps an unusual way to pass the week-end given that I aint Catholic, and I dislike working :-) Moreover, although I was brought up a believer, I have lapsed spectacularly and have no intention of unlapsing...

The good thing about the Catholic Workers is that they don't give a monkeys about any of this. They'll work with anyone, whether they have a God or not. In fact they're possibly better understood as a rather unusual kind of anarchist group - the kind that goes in for spirituality as well... George Woodcock in his classic book "Anarchism" discusses the Catholic Worker in terms of Tolstoy's anarchist principles:
Perhaps the most impressive example of Tolstoyan influence in the contemporary Western world has been ... the Roman Catholic group associated in the United States with the Catholic Worker...
In recent times, in the UK and elsewhere, the Catholic Workers have been among the most committed and consistent of anti-war and anti-military groups. Members of the Catholic Worker have done hard time in the UK for opposing the Iraq war, and the war machine associated with it.

So this was a retreat with a difference. We spent the Sunday enjoying the sunshine and discussing the impact of the first Plowshares trial 30 years ago. Three of those present at the retreat had participated in Plowshares actions, all of them serving many months in jail in the US, Ireland, and the UK.

On Monday we adjourned to Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE). Three of those present broke into the base to express their opposition. Members from the Trident Ploughshares group were also present blockading the base. While this went on the rest of us (having arrived late after a nightmare traffic jam) vigilled at the gates of AWE.

AWE is a huge establishment, and it is currently receiving extensive investment. Capital works at AWE are currently in the region of £1 billion per year - a new laser system is being built, as well as a hydro-testing plant; the figure of £1 billion p.a. does not take into account investment associated with the renewal of the Trident weapons system which will cost tens of billions; no belt-tightening here.

By vigilling at the gate of AWE we sought to remind ourselves, and those passing by, of the real purpose of AWE. It exists to build weapons of unimaginable destruction; weapons that, if used, must inevitably result in death and misery for tens of thousands of human beings. I held my son in my arms and felt sick at this monster that we have built, and which he and others will have to face in years to come.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Decommissioners are free

This is a long-overdue update on my last posting regarding the Decommissioners. They were found not-guilty, and all are now free!

Full details can be found at their website, linked above. I'll shortly be putting up another post detailing more recent actions, in which I played a part. Resistance to the war-machine continues...

Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Decommissioners

Some good friends of mine are currently on trial in Brighton. One night in January last year they entered the premises of EDO-MBM, an arms manufacturer, and smashed the place to smithereens. There were no employees around at the time - there was no intimidation or violence, just the destruction of property.

The backdrop to that night's events was Israel's murderous assault on the residents of Gaza. That assault had been underway for some days when my friends entered the factory; they, along with millions of decent human beings around the world, were appalled at what was going on. They knew that the company EDO-MBM - who owned the factory - supplied Israel with components for their weaponry. With world leaders squirming away from taking material action against Israel's barbarism, my friends stepped into the breech. They acted as best they could to prevent further blood shed.

My friends are heroes, and my earnest hope is that they will be acquitted. You can follow how the trial is going here.

(As an aside: it is nearly eighteen months since my friends took action to save lives. All of them have suffered serious disruption to their lives through court-ordered curfews, court appearances, police raids etc. One, however, has suffered more than all the others: Elijah James Smith has been in jail on remand since the night of the action. His treatment is a disgrace, and a shocking indictment of the British justice system. Although I fervently hope for a "not guilty" finding, it's terrible to think of the privations that Elijah has endured. No verdict can give him back the last year and a half.)

Friday, 9 April 2010

Fostering with Bristol City Council

My partner and I recently applied to be foster carers through Bristol City Council. In January we were told that our application would not be accepted, and we should wait for a couple of years before reapplying. The reason given for this decision was that my partner had suffered from (at times severe) post-natal depression between January and April last year.

I feel strongly that our experience of applying to be foster carers was deficient on a number of fronts, as I will explain below. This article should not be construed as an attack on individuals working within Bristol Social Services; rather I wish to give some constructive criticism of the systems that are in place for fostering children in Bristol (and possibly elsewhere).

[1] Forms versus interviews

In April 2009 we contacted Bristol Social Services about fostering, and a few weeks later we lodged our application; this was done via a one hour interview, conducted by a social worker in our home. Over subsequent months we filled out a number of different forms, as did several referees, and our doctors. In December 2009 a second interview was conducted by the same social worker (duration roughly thirty minutes) who took some more notes. Then in January we received a phone call telling us that our application had been rejected.

Over the nine months of the application process we were in contact with one social worker for a total of ninety minutes. This period of time was deemed sufficient to assess our ability to foster children. Clearly the application system relies far more heavily on information gathered via forms than it does via the interview process.

This fact was brought into relief when our social worker explained that she would need to write a memo with regard to one aspect of our application (I forget exactly which one) which would then be passed to her boss who would discuss the memo with HER boss, and the pair of them would then decide whether or not the application could proceed. So two people who have never met us discussed a memo written by someone who'd been in our company for an hour, on the basis of which discussion a conclusion about our fostering ability was drawn. Am I alone in thinking this absurd?

Fostering children is a human activity; forms can help but they can't tell the full story. In order to make a proper assessment of our suitability to be foster carers two things are required: the first is time. The managers at Social Services will no doubt protest that their workers don't have the time to conduct lengthy interviews with every John Doe who walks through their door. I don't doubt that; but they'd have a lot more time if they filled in less forms.

The second vital requirement is the good judgment of the social worker conducting the interview; the only person to actually meet us! This worker should be trusted and empowered to use that judgment. In fact it would be better if there were more than one worker involved. This must be an improvement on managers with memos.

[2] Motivation in the system

Perhaps this is a good place for me to reiterate that I am NOT seeking to attack social workers. They have an impossible job; they are no doubt over worked. I have no complaints about the individual worker who oversaw our application.

A social worker's job is impossible because the consequences of anything going wrong are momentous. The damage that may be done to a child placed in a bad home doesn't bear thinking about. The papers are regularly filled with stories of social work gone wrong, and the opinion-makers are ever ready to condemn any hapless social worker who errs in the line of duty; working in Family and Childrens Services must feel like negotiating a mine field.

And this metaphor clearly informs the way the system works: every fostering placement is a potential mine ready to blow a social work team to smithereens. So what then is the motivation for that team to place children in the community? If a child is already in a care home, then a social worker risks a hell of a lot in approving their move to a foster home... and what do they gain?

Far better to pore through those forms in the hope of finding some reason to reject a fostering application. You've been depressed? We can't have that! And the social worker breathes a sigh of relief...

But now here's a question: does this system really operate so as to maximise the well-being of the children involved? In light of the impossible situation that social workers find themselves in, one must recognise that social worker teams are compelled to look after their own well-being too - and this is quite a different thing.

All those forms are the paper trail that will get them out of jail (maybe literally) should anything go wrong. A social worker wants to point to a form and say "look, she was depressed, that's why we rejected them." Compare this to the alternative: "although she'd been depressed, we talked for several hours, and I was convinced that this would not be a significant impediment to them fostering." In the current climate that won't save their skin if the shit hits the fan.

But now think of the child sat mouldering away in a care home wishing for the chance to have a normal family life for a little bit of time. We're told that foster carers are really needed; that there are kids in exactly this situation. How is this system helping them?

[3] Trial by process

Nine months to make an application to be a foster carer (or more precisely to START such an application) is too long. The one positive that came out of our application being rejected is that we were both relieved to put an end to dealing with such a ridiculous bureaucracy.

Those nine months consisted of filling in forms, of ringing up offices and leaving messages asking for updates on what was happening, of generally being mystified and perplexed. One might argue that there needs to be a fairly high threshold for foster carers - they need to show that they're in it for the long haul. I don't disagree with this, but that threshold should not be a bureaucratic one.

The application process as it stands does not test one's ability to parent children, it tests one's ability to interact with a lumbering bureaucracy. To cope with rules and regulations imposed from on high. To cope with not knowing who is responsible for what, and what decisions are being made by whom, and when. And, of course, to cope with forms.

It is worth noting that over the nine months we spent applying to be foster carers we received absolutely no encouragement from Family & Children's Services to persevere through the process. Outside of the two interviews, there was virtually no human communication beyond a couple of answering machine messages and a single email.

What is more all interaction (via message and in the interview) was based on what official information was missing, and on those aspects of our domestic situation that were perceived to be potential problems. The idea that we might have had something positive to offer was never explicitly recognised.

[4] Depression

Some background: my partner suffered post-natal depression from January until April 2009. The depression was mainly triggered by severe and prolonged sleep deprivation (our baby was waking us sometimes six or seven times a night). The depression ended when our baby started to sleep through until 5am, and as a result of medication and therapy that my partner sought out when she realised she was becoming depressed.

It was a horrible depression. It was also a very reasonable response to a fairly hellish situation. My partner identified that she was depressed for herself, and she sought help quickly. But it's interesting to see where that label got us. If she'd stayed at home, cried a lot, neglected the baby, and shouted at me, then Family and Children's Services would probably never have heard of what had happened.

But, although she cried plenty, she didn't neglect the baby or shout at me, instead she did her best to face up what was happening to her. Calling her experience "depression" helped her to deal with it. It helped her to get the attention that she needed from doctors. It gave her (us) a framework within which she could process her emotions, and her distress, and find some healing.

The problem is of course that, in the eyes of many, depression is a pathology. It's a box that can be ticked on a form; a reason that can be given for a rejected application. Never mind that it's just a word that describes - very inadequately - a vast range of human experience.

To be fair to the social services, they did delve into what my partner experienced. The motivation for the second interview was for the worker to explore past episodes of depression that my partner had experienced (and that had surfaced in a doctor's report). In the interview our worker asked questions about what happened, and asked us how we thought we would cope with the stress that fostering might inflict on us... And then a memo was written, and "no" was the deafening reply. One can't help but think that the writing was on the wall as soon as the box was ticked.

[5] The ideal carer

The depression issue was just one area where somehow our family situation didn't conform to the model that the system has in mind. (For instance, the social worker expressed some bemusement when we explained that we lived with a friend.)

If you live in Bristol you may well have seen posters and adverts across town (on the side of buses and bus shelters especially) encouraging people to adopt. They make a point of saying that ANYONE can adopt - you might be a single black Jewish lesbian pensioner... it's all the same.

But if you've been depressed any time recently, then don't apply. And who hasn't? If, as I suggest above, the system is geared towards finding a reason to reject somebody's application, then who will pass? Clearly the system very much has a certain type of person in mind when they envisage a foster carer.

For instance I would contest that the experience of being depressed may well be an advantage when it comes to being a foster carer. It is part of the range of human experience; it may well be the experience of a child in care. Being able to understand what is happening to you when you are depressed, and figuring out how to respond is a skill of immense value.

But how do you quantify such a thing? Certainly not through a form. The system as it stands wants matchstick men for carers; human experience is an aberration, a pathology...

[6] Some suggestions

It seems to me that the system of fostering children needs improvement. Here are some specific suggestions:
  • people who want to be foster carers should be interviewed properly, and fully, and by more than one person.
  • the application process should not require nine months of bureaucracy.
  • social workers at the coal face should be given full and proper training so that they feel confident and empowered to make decisions. Using memos to pass decisions to management should be eliminated.
  • social workers should be supported and encouraged to give children the opportunities they need. They should not be stretched so thinly that they spend all their time covering their own back.
  • the box-ticking approach that results in a pathologizing of life experience should be eliminated.
Undoubtedly these suggestions require funding. I take it to be a self-evident truth that providing children with good, safe homes is an absolute priority for any civilized society. If the government needs to sack some bankers, or cancel some wars in order to make enough money available, then they should get on with it.

These suggestions also suggest a change of attitude from the wider public (and, in particular, the media) to the job of social work. We should not be so eager to stick in the knife (via media witch hunts, or lawsuits) in the event of something going wrong; rather serious consideration should be given as to how the system can be materially improved. That, at least, is the aim of this essay.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Death in the family

Two of my best friends lost their baby daughter very recently. Sophia, the woman in question, is writing a blog to help her cope with life after Salome. Read it. Read it especially if you need reminding what are the important things in this world. Read it if you are given to complain about stupid bullshit little things, those stupid things that sometimes make us forget how fortunate we really are...