Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Welp, it's official

I'm old and out of touch. I do not understand Instagram.

Update December 2018: I also do not understand Snapchat, What's App, or if I'm honest, Twitter. I gave up on Facebook two years ago and do not miss it. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

how NICE

The NICE (the National Centre for Health and Care Excellence), guided by the Tory government, has invested over £60 million in recent months to expand and improve access to mental health care for NHS patients. With waiting lists for specialist services over six months long in most catchment areas and demand perpetually growing, this investment has been desperately needed. The prime minister and even some royals have come out recently in support of these improvements, and encouraged the people to try them. Isn't that Nice?

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

Christmas cactus

O Carl
You were never healthy or happy
In your glass ashtray
You flowered twice
O Carl
You were miserable in your window
I put you outside
Something ate you

Monday, May 25, 2015

letter I sent to my new MP

Dear [Newly-Elected local Member of Parliament],

I am surprised and confused by the recent doubling of immigration costs for non-EEA nationals as outlined on I would appreciate your help in clarifying and protesting the new policy that quietly came into effect after Parliament was dissolved.
I am your constituent, the wife of a British citizen, a gainfully employed taxpayer and dutiful NI contributor, and sick to the teeth of the regular introduction of ridiculous and demeaning new policies that seem designed to provide the state with infinite opportunities to extort or deport me on an ever-expanding list of technicalities.
I have been living, legally and without interruption, in the UK since September of 2009. I came here as a postgraduate student (Tier 4), transitioned awkwardly into post-study work (Tier 1, now defunct) and in April of 2012 married the man I'd been dating since 2004, a British citizen. We applied for FLR(M) in August of 2012, and after waiting for the better part of a year, in March of 2013 we were sent a new application form to fill in. Under the new (baffling) rules the qualification terms for Indefinite Leave to Remain changed from 5 years in any category to 5 years specifically under FLR(M), and now required a pointless and expensive biometric residence permit, with a note to the effect that the new regulations had been back-dated to include all applications made on or after 9 July 2012. (Had we applied one month earlier, I would have ILR by now, and would probably be able to vote next year. As it stands I won't be able to apply for ILR until 2017.)
The 5-year route to ILR includes a “restart” after 2.5 years, at which point I must reapply. If that means costs or waiting periods or access to the NHS have changed, so be it, I am treated as a new applicant. The immigration process makes one feel helpless at the best of times; the fact that UKBA crafted the 2012 policy so they could change the whole thing halfway through makes one feel absolutely exploited. What will happen between now and 2017? Will the 5-year route be extended to 10? 30? How many times will I have to fork over a month's wages, cross my fingers and wait, only to be sent a new application and more flaming hoops to jump through? No other legal fixed term programme, of which I am aware, has a trapdoor of this kind, or seems built specifically to be violable by the drafter.
The most flagrantly unethical aspect is the introduction of the new £500 “surcharge” to access the NHS for my next 2.5 years of probationary leave. I work on a PAYE contract for a royal university, and have done for nearly four years. Appropriate NI contributions are deducted automatically from my wages every month—nearly £3,000 a year. Moreover, I'm not affected by this because of some unusual technicality: The FLR(M) route requires a minimum taxable income, either on the part of the sponsor or the already-resident applicant, of £18,600 per year. I would not qualify for my visa if I were not already paying National Insurance. It is clear that the writers of this policy know perfectly well that they are charging me twice, and with reference to the extensive list of exempt categories (into none of which I fall) that the inclusion of settled, working taxpayers like me was deliberate.
When this political stunt was being discussed in the media in 2014 my husband raised this point with your predecessor, [Retired MP]. She communicated on our behalf with the Earl Howe who responded in September of last year to clarify that, as I was ordinarily resident in the UK, the new charges would not be applied to me, as they were intended to apply only to temporary migrants, not settled, ordinarily-resident taxpayers. I retain a copy of that letter and can share it with you if you deem it worthwhile. I would be fascinated to know when and why the plan adjusted to include families like mine.

My husband and I would appreciate your insight into what, if anything, can be done about this, and how we can prevent this situation from getting worse. Thank you for your help.

Points I didn't make [but really wanted to]:

"I would appreciate your help in clarifying and protesting the new policy that quietly came into effect after Parliament was dissolved [while everyone in the news was distracted by how much your recently-ousted party leader looks like Wallace.]

"I would be fascinated to know when and why the plan adjusted to include families like mine. [I will also be keeping an eye out in the post for my £500 refund. I'd prefer it in £2 coins, presented by the secretary of state at my place of employment, with tulips and a banner that says "We're very sorry, we forgot our vitriol affected real people."]"

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


A student of mine, a young man of 23, got married in November. This would be unusual under any circumstances--British undergraduates are not known for their nuptials in any case, but it's 2015--but what makes this all the more remarkable is that his wife is Canadian. 

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 going clubbing taking language classes. Au pairing is not a career--indeed, it's really not even a job--it's more of an apprenticeship. (Dear Reader, I'm sure you already knew this. Before I looked this up I'd assumed 'au pair' meant 'foreign nanny'.) Au pairs go into their placements knowing they will not make money--indeed, if they come out at the end of two years with more cash than when they started, it suggests they've been...up to something. 

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

Wow, this thing still works!

Did you know I had a blog? I'd nearly forgotten about it.

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!

These are actual highland cows, actually wandering around the village of Brockenhurst of their own accord, minding their own business. The New Forest (established in the 10th century) has always had grazing rights for the common folk on the common land, and while they now have cattle grids everywhere to keep the animals out of gardens and off of the A-roads, they have lived here and done as they pleased for thousands of years (that grass is not mown--it all looks like that from constant, careful nibbling) that the people are expected to look out for them, not the other way around. My travel was regularly interrupted by ponies, cows and donkeys in the road. And the odd pheasant.

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.

OH! and I should mention! I drove a car! On the Left! For a week! And I only panicked for like a third of the time. It only took me 5 years of residence here to build up the courage. I rented a Vauxhall Corsa--quite nimble and comfortable. 

A herd of Shetland and New Forest ponies, wandering around on the Common that these folks' houses back up on. I don't know if you, dear reader, have ever encountered a Shetland pony before, but I hadn't, and I Squee'd so hard that one of them actually looked up from munching for a moment. The little one on the right side of the photo is smaller than my desk. 

All right, enough "what I did on my vacation". Back to the important business of Plants. This year I'm of course raising tomatoes and courgettes. The snails have already destroyed the middle tomato plant in the picture, one of the courgettes (not pictured) and a dill that was actually fairly well established, I thought. They are mighty vicious little monsters. We kill the ones we find, and to make it easier to root them out and make the place unwelcoming we cut down and cleared out the ivy that had taken over the trellises long before we moved here. The motive was three-fold--the ivy was taking over and beginning to do structural damage, we wanted to reduce habitat for pests, and we want an area to put in a workbench. Bye-bye ivy.

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.