Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Well, we say 'improve' and we say 'care' and we even say 'NHS patients' but let's not forget who and what we're dealing with. What that £60 million has actually gone toward, for the most part, is for-profit overseas online therapy companies and automated self-help programmes.
There's nothing quite like the Centre for Care Excellence posting ads on the tube to offer introductory discounts to an automated therapy website for NHS patients. It feels similar to getting 16.1 million Google matches for the phrase 'I'm insignificant'--a number equivalent to the entire human population of Cambodia.
Indeed, what better way to tell people who are crippled by a profound feeling of worthlessness just how much they mean to you than to sell them a subscription to a one-size-fits-all self-paced mindfulness website? Or for an additional fee, you can send an instant message to a 'trained therapist' in a contact centre in Mumbai. Please select from one of the following options. Text '1' for general worthlessness. Text '2' for workplace-related feelings of inadequacy. Text '3' for family or money-related anxiety. Text '4' if you've overdosed on cough syrup and have outstanding taxes.
Discovering that, far from investing in mental health care in any meaningful way, the NHS has sold the masses out to a robotic psychic hotline feels like getting to the middle of a bridge, but instead of a Samaritans phone you find a turnstile to the edge that accepts contactless payment cards.
Saturday, February 13, 2016
Monday, May 25, 2015
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Ed: I wrote, then forgot to post, this piece, about a month and a half ago. The election happened, the conservatives won, despite everyone's presumption, and we are on track for an EU in-out referendum in two years. The media have declared England the world power dead, that we're handing in our cultural dominance in exchange for the comfort and safety of insularity, and we might as well start a club with north Korea. At the time of posting Ireland is counting votes from their marriage referendum, and progress is looking likely.
Parliament has been dissolved in the traditional fashion. Hundreds of politicians have lost their jobs. Every party has jammed at least two leaflets a day through the door. Miliband and Cameron have been professionally insulted by Paxman. Snarky remarks and poorly thought-through policy promises have been flying around like gnats.
The anti-immigration rhetoric knob has been turned, yet again, up to 11.
I'm an immigrant, so it may not surprise you to discover that I find this kind of thing frustrating. But maybe not for the reasons one might assume. My reasons are not entirely altruistic, but I don't think they're rooted in bigotry or intolerance either. They are rooted in what I believe to be a completely rational, if rather selfish, appreciation for what is going on here in Europe.
I'm an American. One of the 'good ones'. I speak English, hold an advanced degree and work in higher education. I pay tax, shop at Waitrose and enjoy real ale. If I keep my mouth shut on the train no one gives me a second glance. I can pass for English.
Of course my colleagues and students notice my accent at work. My friends occasionally have an excuse to laugh at my ignorance when they discuss childhood TV shows and old pop music that I've never heard of. (For the record, dear reader, I don't get the impression I missed much.) I explain my origins at least five times a day for the first two weeks of every school year, a reflexive response to questions that I assume are asked out of courtesy. I don't mind, and nobody hugely minds me--at least not for my nationality. Very rarely a tramp on the bus or a drunk on the street will try to get a rise out of me, usually by calling me some variation on 'imperialist' as though I not only represent my entire country, but have some ability to control it. The two times I can recall this happening I have just walked past or pointedly sustained my conversation with someone else. It really doesn't keep me up at night.
What Does keep me up at night is my awareness that most people, at least in London, Don't lump me in with the 'bad ones'. That most people don't even think of me as an immigrant. My HR director completely forgot I was one until I showed up with my passport and a form to ask for an income confirmation letter for a visa. The fact that I'm married to a British citizen, in most people's minds, means I'm just about as English as Marmite, regardless of how often Border Control is in the news for breaking contracts and wrecking homes. "Yeah but you're, I mean, come on. You still can't vote? What? Not even in local elections?" "America still isn't in the EU." "Yeah but come on." "NATO, yes. I can request a missile strike, but not a Green Party candidate."
I do understand it, of course--America is the source of much of the world's generic culture, whether any of us like it or not. American-ness is a sort of cultural sponge cake that other countries may frost in their own unique way. Disney, McDonald's, Microsoft and all the rest are components of the minds of children the world over from the moment they're weaned, no matter how hard their parents try to avoid them. There's no escaping the American media machine--in the home, on the high street, in the classroom--not without going off the grid. Britishness may be smeared on top, but at the core, everyone with Internet access has a neutral American flavour.
So it comes as no surprise that it is fairly easy to forget that I'm foreign, that I'm subject to border control, that the new stringent, bigotry-based laws that even now are shattering families throughout the country apply to me too. In many heads I'm Not some undesirable outsider. I'm from where TV is from, and that's welcome in every living room, and nearly every bedroom in the country.
But herein lies the rub. When the conversation about immigration overlooks or excludes me, the conversation about immigration is weighted unfairly. Yes, some immigrants come from poorer countries and are here to work hard for a better life, even if it means their work undermines wage laws and other employee protections that unions strive to uphold. Yes, some immigrants come from fundamentalist countries and have the potential to be radicalised and make trouble. Yes, some immigrants aren't a gift-wrapped Thoroughly Positive Contribution to British Society. But I'm here, taking up space and air, and I didn't fly over here to rescue everyone. I could have gotten a decent job in the US but I took one that a British candidate probably qualified for. I could have found a house in the US but I moved into a terrace on a nice street that a decent British family probably deserved. I could have worked for a company with a health insurance policy and had reasonable access to healthcare in the US but I pad out the NHS's waiting lists instead. I didn't come here to work selflessly for the benefit of Queen and Country. I came here because I liked a boy. I still do.
But when you consciously or unconsciously omit Americans, Canadians, Australians, South Africans, New Zealanders and other English-speaking, wage-earning, ready-out-of-the-box 'good ones' from the equation and focus only on people who may require a bit more effort to get settled then your find yourself spouting vitriol about 'immigrants' when what you mean to get purple-faced about is 'people from poor, Eastern-European-but-Newly-EU countries who now enjoy freedom of movement throughout the continent and are coming here in droves' and 'people desperate to get out of less-developed nations who exploited a loophole in UKBA's Tier 4 (Student) Visa programme by being accepted to imaginary universities and then disappearing into the ether, we hope not into human trafficking but it is hard to say because our border agency has done a terrible job of keeping records for the past ten years'.
The trouble with the first group is that clamping down on the borders in the usual fashion will do absolutely nothing to stem the tide (moving from Romania to Britain is now basically the same process as moving from Mississippi to New York--a bit culturally jarring, perhaps, but you don't need to ask anyone for permission unless you're on parole) and trying to stop it only demonstrates UKIP voters' incomplete understanding of the current state of the EU. Yes several new member states of the EU are economically very weak, are haemorrhaging unskilled migrants and have the potential to collapse and bring the Euro down with them, and (yes) it was probably not a good idea to let them in in the first place, but (yes) they did meet the basic entry requirements and (yes) it was hard to justify keeping them out when we let in Spain and Greece but (also yes) if Britain voted to leave the EU our economy would collapse so there's no point in threatening to leave. What might be useful is to work to strengthen the EU and improve its laws and the consistency of enforcement among all member states, but to appease the purple-faced screamers without all the effort of diplomacy we've passed laws that unconstitutionally bar non-wealthy people from living in the same country as their non-EU spouses. This is like throwing rocks at a dog after your brother punched you. I can see that you're mad, but this isn't addressing the root problem, and you're hurting someone who had nothing to do with it.
The trouble with the second group is that ultimately they weren't immigrants, they were criminals, and they were able to get away with it not because the country didn't have enough laws, but because the border agency wasn't enforcing them. UKBA was supposed to check the legitimacy of these schools and they didn't. UKBA was supposed to keep an eye on where people were coming from and where they were going and they failed. UKBA got a rousing shake-up and things have, from what I've come to understand, improved somewhat, but the solution to this problem was never to charge students and residents without indefinite leave an NHS subscription charge, nor was it to charge these people at the point of provision of care. But this is what the anger over this condition was somehow used to justify. Nevermind that a significant proportion of NHS employees would have to pay this surcharge. Nevermind that hundreds of thousands of immigrants already pay their fair share for the NHS with their National Insurance contributions and income taxes. Nevermind that students are not a significant drain on the NHS, and non-EU students basically bankroll UK universities.
But round and round we go, where the people's anger at circumstances they can't control leads to them cracking down where they can, but shouldn't. Americans really aren't that much of a problem around here, but most of the law changes have negatively affected us and in no way addressed the issues that Conservatives are angry about. This is how the Tory government managed to impose some of the strictest migrant controls this country has ever seen while watching their net immigration quadruple.
Sunday, February 15, 2015
Of course they got married so they could stay in the same country. They are in love and didn't want to lose each other. As someone who spent four years on Skype, shunning friends and family alike every evening so I could talk to my Boy before he fell asleep, I can appreciate the sentiments that led to their decision. The idea of being forced apart by factors beyond your control is terrifying, and long distance is agony--not just for the intimate relationship, but for every other relationship with which it interferes. It may seem impulsive to marry someone you haven't been with for more than a few years, but on the other hand it is downright stupid to abandon a relationship with someone you genuinely care about because of paperwork.
Alas, paperwork, as soulless and feeble as it may appear, can mean the difference between marital bliss and crushing emptiness. A month after their wedding they applied for the FLR(M) visa, the one I hold, and this Friday they were rejected. My student and his spouse appeared in my office at ten in the morning, red-eyed and panicked, unable to comprehend what had happened and terrified of what this means for their future. They are nice young people, both native English-speakers, from good families and with good prospects. They are young but she's a successful au pair and he's halfway through his BA. Neither are criminals, the validity of their marriage is not in question, their supporting documents were in order and they did everything by the books. What happened, then?
They aren't wealthy.
I learned that the young lady in question is here on a Youth Mobility Scheme visa, which is designed to facilitate short-term jobs for young people from Nice Countries (except America) who want to enjoy some time in the UK. It gives you two years' entry clearance, at the end of which you are expected to go home more worldly and mature from your British experience. ("Youth Mobility: Sophisticating the Savages, One Au Pair at a Time"). The visa, like every visa designed for young people, cannot be extended or transferred into any other merit-based category, and is specifically designed to compel the youth to leave or (let's be honest) marry a citizen. Love is an acknowledged side effect of youth, and by extension, youth mobility.
The Au Pair system, as I've come to learn, is a home-stay cultural exchange opportunity based on interactions with children. An au pair is treated like a favourite niece--she is given an allowance, but she is fed and sheltered by her host family. She then shares her time between taking little Tarquin and Isabella to the park and
So when my student's wife applied for her marriage visa she declared, truthfully, that she was given pocket money amounting to £90 a week, and that her other expenses were covered by her host family. She has been offered £22,000 a year as a full-time nanny by another family, contingent upon her successful transition into a suitable visa category. My student, of course, is a student, with all of the associated loans and costs.
Their rejection letter included a reference to her pocket money and the amount in her bank account, which fell well below the £18,600 minimum. Because she hasn't already started her well-paid job, despite the fact that her application included a bona fide copy of her offer letter and she has applied from within the UK, it was not considered relevant. The rejection also included a note to the effect that since she's from a politically stable country she doesn't qualify for asylum, and since she's been in the UK less than 5 years she probably still knows people in Canada and can re-integrate fairly easily. Furthermore, they say, it is not in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights article 8 (right to family life, right to live with your family) because it's not an insurmountable obstacle to the pursuit of their family life, because if he wants, my student could just drop everything and move to Canada to join her.
My student is halfway through a 3 year degree programme. It would be a huge imposition to make him abandon that to leave the country to join his wife, and it would have a grave impact on his career prospects. Plus his student debt would not be forgiven, and would all be for nowt. If she is sent back to Canada they will be compelled to spend at least the next year and a half separated, or until my student can find a well-paid full time job. My student is a prop maker for theatre--for him to find a full-time job that pays more than £18K a year straight out of undergrad is not only highly unlikely, but for his career path it is also typically undesirable. Props students often want to freelance for a few years after they finish school, to figure out which field or medium they are truly passionate about.
The big point that they seem to be glossing over, though, is the fact that their matrimonial unity in Canada is entirely dependant on Canada accepting my student. The border agency has conveniently left that bit out--just saying 'well you could just go there, you know' doesn't actually mean he can just go there, you know? They've blindly lobbed the ball toward Canada's fence but not actually into their court.
My student is a British citizen. Not just born and raised, but his family has been British since long before Ireland split in two. For his own state to tell him "we don't want your wife, so why don't you just leave?" is a callous disregard for his rights and the state's responsibilities to the maintenance of those rights. I don't understand how the current laws were passed, and I certainly don't understand how the people who passed them sleep at night.
In the process of writing this I've come across numerous state-drafted documents that, over the course of hundreds of pages, fail utterly to convince me that they're not violating the EU Convention with these new immigration laws, and dozens of newspaper and legal journal articles that agree with me. Indeed, I haven't seen anything published by anyone aside from the state that agrees this is fair or reasonable. You can't restrict basic human rights to the wealthy, or even the middle class. This campaign of policy rewrites and imposition of insurmountable and unnecessary obstacles to the cohesion of working families is not just unethical, it's illegal.
The Daily Mail readers and trolls who slithered over to the Guardian comments pages to support the state in their pursuit to bar poor people from the country by any means possible as usual base their arguments in xenophobia and presumption, not in a basic understanding of their own rights as citizens. No, Mrs. Student does not have the inherent right to move to the UK. But Mr. Student does have the right to live here, and he has the right to have his wife with him. No, the state is not required to allow her to claim benefits or offer her anything at all. But it makes no sense to prevent her from entering the country on the basis of perceived risk the taxpayer if she is legally barred from claiming public funds. Yes, the state has declared that they want to reduce immigration in real terms. But that does not give them the right to dissolve and scatter the legitimate families of legitimate British citizens to achieve that aim.
Sunday, June 01, 2014
Heck, let's be honest. I'd completely forgotten about it. It wasn't until last week when I was reminded of a smart-assed post I wrote in 2006 about lemon-flavoured toothpaste that I thought to look it up, and look at it again. I'd imagine by now the three or four people who once had it bookmarked in their browser have deleted the entry in some tidy-up or other, but on the odd chance someone feels inclined to look... Hi!
So. What have I been up to since the last time I wrote a letter to the void? I...went to the New Forest for the first time, and loved it. Spouse and I went for our 2nd wedding anniversary this April. It was really lovely. I even took pictures. Have a look!
The best thing, though, that the New Forest offered? SPACE. We could walk for miles and see horizon in every direction! We could pull off the road and just look! It was Quiet and open and natural and just wonderful. We managed to get there at just the right time, before all the families with small children showed up and made the wildlife all sticky, so it was like adult swim--a place that is usually full of screaming children that for a brief, beautiful window, grown-ups get to enjoy.
I tried my hand at foxgloves this year. I really like them! I planted them last summer and overwintered as the packet said they didn't mind. They lost a bit of foliage but did fine, and actually this photo is a little old--the rest of the foxgloves have sent up stalks and bloomed, but the azalea is a little past its prime now so I figured you wouldn't mind a picture from last week when both were blooming happily. Peony because it's that time again. I quite like what my camera did with this picture, though I should mention the colours are all wrong. The peony is a gorgeous red, not toner-cartridge magenta.
Sunday, February 16, 2014
It is a photo series by artist Chuck Close, the fascinating face-blind painter of large-scale photo-realistic portraits who is known to see the human face as an intricate landscape. The two-foot Polaroids are expertly executed, as one would expect, and powerfully raw and human, as per the typical audience response, but viewing these images led me along a train of thought that has grown more acute and coherent as the days have passed. I would like to identify and expand upon it here. I'd imagine my thoughts on this topic are quite similar to those of pretty much everyone else ever, but I'm going to write them down anyway.
In my head, Oprah Winfrey is, and has always been, about 37 years old. When I first became aware of her I was about three, so she would have been 34, but as her show came on after Sesame Street I was usually too busy playing with Lego on the floor to think of her as anything other than the non-Muppet but pretty lady mom watched after she came in from a walk. I knew that the neighbourhood child-minder had to change the channel when her husband came home if Oprah or the Cosby Show were on TV, but I didn't know why. It took until I started Girl Scouts to really get my head around the idea that Ms. Winfrey was a well-respected talk show host, businesswoman, and role model for the women and girls of my era. I too respect her and am awed by the media empire she has constructed against such remarkable odds.
But that's not the point. Oprah was in her thirties when I was a child, and now she is sixty. I am twenty-nine, or thirty years and nine months younger than her. I am perfectly fine with the idea that I am twenty-nine, and am hunky-dory with the idea that I will be 30 before the year is out. I can account for all of my years and, while I'm not necessarily proud of all of them, I can acknowledge that they all contribute to who I am now, as I write this sentence. Wrote that sentence. Anyway. The fact that I have aged thirty years in the past thirty years makes perfect sense. The fact that Oprah Winfrey has done the same thing is completely incomprehensible to me.
There is much to be said for and about airbrushing. Make-up, good lighting and the Wacom tablet have all had their part in keeping Oprah looking like she did the first time I stood in front of the television and really saw her (and my mom called "you make a better door than window!" from the sofa). But there is something else. Once I started kindergarten I didn't regularly watch her show (my mom, as a nurse, has always worked bizarre enough hours that she was occasionally home when it broadcast, and we occasionally watched) and by the time I reached high school I was far too cool to watch TV with my parents (except Buffy). As of university I was too sophisticated to watch television at all, and after a few years of skipping sofa time with my house-mates in order to catch Ben on Skype before 2 a.m. GMT I realised that I didn't understand how to turn tellies on any more. I went from being out of touch as a point of arrogance to being out of touch because I can't muster the enthusiasm to catch up. I've figured out how to watch Jon Stewart on the computer. I'm satisfied.
And Oprah was on the whole time. Until she wasn't. I didn't watch her show after about 1991, but I of course remained aware of it. Oprah is part of the American cultural landscape, and one of the country's premier exports--it's difficult to not be aware of her. But I didn't see her. It was only this week, when a Buzzfeed link to the above-mentioned Vanity Fair slideshow gave me pause to look that I viewed that all-too-familiar face, and really saw her again. And I saw a little old lady.
And it scared the hell out of me.
To be fair, I saw a little old lady who is in very good shape. I saw a little old lady who is only four years older than my mom, who is decidedly not a little old lady at all (well, I have to admit she's always been petite). But I saw evidence that Oprah has aged--that while I wasn't looking, she kept going. Under the make-up, under the good lighting, under the fact that I hadn't watched her show in twenty years, every day that I've been alive has been a day for her too.
I'd imagine we all entertain a funny notion that the actual, calendar time between birth and age fifteen is quite different from the span between the ages of twenty and thirty-five, but that has nothing to do with the range between forty-five and sixty, or seventy to 100. What do I mean. I own, and still wear shoes that I've had since I was an undergrad. I still rock a few pairs of underpants from 2002. I don't think I've changed all that much, in terms of my personality, shape or even haircut since I was 20. Others may disagree, and if I stopped to think about it I would probably concede that I'm really not the same kid on a student visa to Canterbury who started this blog but overall I'm still me. I've had the same partner, and now spouse, since late 2004. I've gotten fatter, had some dental fillings and moved house eight times but The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is still my favourite book. Kristen the 6 year old who started first grade after 6 weeks of kindergarten is a very different person from the 15 year old who couldn't really understand that the boy she liked was gay, but the 20 year old who became acutely aware of what reverse-culture shock felt like still doesn't feel at home in America and still thinks steel-toed boots can be cute. Years have gotten closer together, and ageing has slowed down. Undergrad still has some immediacy to me, despite the fact that I started it twelve years ago. In those twelve years the babies of several high school classmates have been born, started to talk, tie their shoelaces, understand algebra and grow hair under their arms, and in those same twelve years successful women in their 40's have endured menopause, watched their kids graduate university, downsized to a more manageable two-bedroom with a garden, turned 60 and taken early retirement. But I have been...me. I feel like I've held a level age for a while now, since I realised that I wasn't just an adult, but a fully fledged grown-up, somewhere between 23 and ten minutes ago when it dawned on me that adulthood is neither so glamorous nor so dull as I once expected.
I suppose this is the twentysomething, thirtysomething mesa, the established point that youth strives toward and dotage remembers fondly. This span that I'm going to assume lasts until the first AARP letter appears in the mailbox is a point when time doesn't seem to pass, a bubble wherein you don't feel like you're growing up or growing old. But every so often you catch a glance outside of this membrane and discover that for other people, time is passing. Your neighbours' children stop crying so much. Oprah Winfrey's laugh lines get deeper.
Grandma is still old. I think she's always been old. She's been old to me since the day I was born, though I'd imagine she didn't feel that way in 1984. I'm okay with turning 30, but weirdly 1984 doesn't feel like 30 years ago. 1970 does. Somehow I've skipped the Noughties--2014 holds the same place in my head as 2004. A few weeks ago at work I wrote the date as January 27, 1999. When I caught myself I exclaimed, "wow, how did I manage that? I was five years out!" which led my students to burst out laughing and remind me that no, 1999 was more like fifteen years ago, and maybe you should have your head examined.
It is only a matter of time, I suppose, before my parents are old. It will probably be some time after that when I'll notice, or believe it. I'd imagine I won't be eligible for retirement until I'm well into my 80's, so hopefully the age at which 'old' takes hold will keep up. I don't think Oprah is slowing down, and doubt she will any time soon. While I don't doubt that the point of Chuck Close's photo series was to force the viewer to see familiar faces honestly and clearly, I also don't think that I, her fans, or Oprah herself particularly want to see or believe the full effects of sixty years on her skin. I also doubt I'll look anywhere near as good as her when I'm the same age, though only time will tell.