Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Beckenham Library Gave Me Power

I grew up in the London Borough of Bromley. As a teenager, I don’t think that there could be a more dull place to exist.  Hanging out outside HMV in Bromley High Street and buying clothes in Cromwell’s Madhouse in The Glades shopping centre was as good as it got. I lived in Beckenham, where we had a swimming pool and a library. Lots of parks though, lots of parks. A townie nightclub in Beckenham which was raided for underage clientele with humorous coverage in the News Shopper, and an over-25’s night club (called ‘Jazz’) in Bromley. Slammin! I ended up escaping, at weekends and school holidays, to the exotic climes of New Cross and Camden, before moving away at n-n-n-n-nineteen.

Living there, I discovered politics. It was clear that we lived in a two-tier area, where social injustice rarely mattered to the Conservative MPs and Borough Council (I wrote to them from time to time), and there seemed to be an attempt to glorify in the ‘Victorian Family Values’ much-loved by the Tories at the time (Our local MP, Piers Merchant, he did his bit, and took a mistress, like all good Victorian gentlemen). Single-sex education was very popular there: I went to a ‘School for Boys’, a maroon-blazered comprehensive with delusions of grandeur. We played rugby and hockey. We wore suits to sixth-form.

And nothing ever happened. At all.

It just made me so angry. Like The Adverts’ Bored Teenagers we needed excitement and danger, and a reason to exist. I could’ve gone so many ways, I reckon. Ideally, I would have studied hard and all that stuff, but that was never for me. I discovered music, like The Clash and The Pistols and The Manics and The Levellers and Public Enemy and Credit To The Nation and Asian Dub Foundation and Blaggers ITA , and the NME and the Maker were full of politics and against the Criminal Justice Bill (later, Act, 1994). It was a time to get involved. I joined the Anti-Nazi League. I subscribed to private Eye and read The Guardian and The Independent every day. I went to loads of socialist festivals and drank lots and formed a band and skived off school to read books in the library and wrote polemic lyrics and bad poetry. I thought, maybe that I could change the world.

I went to Swansea University, to study politics. I was quite firebrand, very vocal about my hatred for the Conservatives and the Telegraph and The Times and The Sun, and was probably very rude to anyone who suggested otherwise. And then, on that glorious day in May 1997, towards the end of my first year, we got them out. We got them out! My first vote in a general election, and we’d got rid of the Tories. And then we all got complacent, didn’t we...

So, some fifteen years later, here we are with a Conservative-led government again. And it’s all going badly wrong again. Cuts in all the wrong places. Sleaze. Big businesses with sweetheart deals to save them billions in tax, while people at the other end of the social-scale are arguing with the government over pounds and pence. Disability benefits and social housing and education and the NHS are being cut and yet the money could be there, if there was even a tiniest swing from have to have-not. That Vodafone cash would go a long, long way to safe-guarding more public services than closing a bunch of libraries ever will...

I went to a comedy thing the other day. Are they called gigs? Or is it show? Oh, anyway, it was brilliant. And proof things haven’t changed. The opening act was a singer / poet / crazy lady with glitter in her hair called Brigitte Aphrodite. She performed a song about how growing up in Bromley is the most boring thing ever. My life flashed before my eyes. I bought her single. It is good.

Brigitte is touring with Orpington’s finest, Josie Long. Josie has over the years made a transition from comedian to political comedian, involving herself with campaigns such as UK Uncut, a pro-tax protest group who have sadly been given an undeserved reputation as anarchists, and now her own Arts Emergency organisation, fighting against cuts in Arts Education.

Josie was brilliant, and inspirational, and I left the show feeling so utterly invigorated. I can make changes. I can do things. I can change opinions. I can no longer afford to be complacent. I’ve never known any public figure to share all my political viewpoints, from the militancy brought on by the Royal Wedding to the love of Nye Bevan.

Socialism, as a pure form, is essentially being nice to other people, and sharing what you have. I encourage my two-year-old kid to do these things all the time. I hope he never forgets.

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