Friday, 23 June 2017

Last Of The Summer Whine

August 25th 2014. It’s something I look back upon as a magical day, the culmination of another fantastic long weekend. Owing to the wettest carnival I had ever experienced, my cigarettes were destroyed, reduced to a soggy state, completely unusable. But it just became a comical scene in a weekend none of us will ever forget. Keith and I knew this couldn’t go on forever, but we were both enjoying ourselves far too much to call time on the “Clency and Keith Show” just yet. He’s five years older than me and I would often tease him that when he retired from the carnival life, I’d afford myself five additional years before following him from the stage.

photograph taken the day before of us at the Mastermind Stage had three generations of carnival goers in the same picture. We had reached the ultimate peak of our carnival experience. Our little troupe that had accumulated over the years continued to grow. 2008 had been just the two of us, but every subsequent year, somebody new would join our squad. They’d initially be sceptical; having previously endured an unpleasant carnival experience without us. However, we always insisted that nobody had done a carnival properly, unless it was with us.

So it came to pass as one by one, we added more and more to our ever-growing family of carnival regulars. And like clockwork, we’d use the Mastermind Stage as the meeting point before we would head off to other sound systems such as 4Play and the rest.  As I left my Notting Hill sidekick that evening, it had been on the same terms that we had done during the six years prior to that Monday: same time, same place next year?

Just over six months later, my dad passed away and overnight everything changed. I reflected deeply on the notion that “you never truly grow-up until you lose a parent”. Added to this was the looming reminder that I would soon be turning 35 years of age- something I had long regarded as being the symbolic start of “middle age”.  Analysing all of this together, I took a decision that I would no longer be participating in any future carnivals or festivals.  As I kept insisting, ‘Peter Pan’ was finally going to grow up.

What made the wound all the more painful related to the fact that my father’s birthday would always coincide with the period around Notting Hill Carnival. As I remember commenting in August 2015, it had always been such a happy time of year for me: sun shining, my dad’s birthday, football season starting and of course my carnival weekend. Now August felt like it would always be full of sorrow.

By August 2016 I had started to learn how to live with the loss. I even managed to summon up the spirit to spend the long weekend listening to soca thanks to my favourite DJ sending me over his mix from two years earlier. Unfortunately, this triggered a series of questions- will I come back to carnival? I didn’t say goodbye, do I need to return and do things properly?

Finally in March 2017, I reached a decision: I would participate in one more “wild summer” that would incorporate multiple carnivals and a festival weekend too. And then that would be that, I would carry through on my promise to turn my back on this stage of my life. I would do what I probably should have done when I had originally suggested it ahead of my 30th birthday in 2010: call time on my partying antics and grow-up (thank you Keith!)

Unfortunately as soon as I booked my ticket for the Detonate music festival in March, the questions were stacking up from friends. Why only one more summer? Shouldn’t I see how it goes and then take a final decision in September? The answer to that is probably something I have only stumbled upon relatively recently and I still don’t know how to adequately convey it, in terms of whether it is a negative or a positive attribute in my character. Nonetheless, it does go to the heart of who I am as a person.

I think the best way to describe the quirk is that I have always been someone who embraces something completely. So during the social drink-up’s and gatherings, it would never be a case of a glass of rum. It would have to be a bottle. When I became a Chagos activist, I wasn’t a part-time supporter who would dip in and out of the cause when time allowed. I fully immersed myself within the campaign, usually taking on far too much in the process. Indeed for several years people assumed I must be Chagossian because they couldn’t comprehend that anyone could be as dedicated without having a blood connection.

When I finally got into a habit of going gym, I couldn’t just be like others and go three or four times a week, I had to go consecutively for 117 days. And after starting the Labour door-knocking, it wasn’t enough to  do a bit of local canvassing in my neighbourhood. I had to go overboard and knock on doors as far as away as Bermondsey in south London, which coupled with my activities in Nottingham North, Nottingham South, Sherwood and Newark, meant I had clocked up an awful lot of miles by the time the election was over with.

Consequently I would never be someone who would be comfortable with “passing through” Notting Hill for a couple of hours on a Monday afternoon. If I am going Notting Hill, it would be the entire fanfare (most people think of it as a two-day event, but of course experienced heads like myself know that it starts on the Saturday night with Panorama) and would absolutely involve adding other carnivals to form the now infamous “bacchanal tour”.

Therefore calling time on my wild antics is a case of saving me from myself; in addition to growing up too. My personal history of carnivals is completely entwined with my dad, right back to August 1995 when he banned my 15 year old self from leaving the house as he knew I had conspired with friends the day before to be at Notting Hill on the Monday. Every year I would always text or call my dad after I had finished my fun. This served two functions, firstly to share my enthusiasm for what had always been a golden weekend packed full of momentous memories for me. But there was a second reason too, and we both knew it because he never stopped worrying about my welfare. It became an opportunity to reassure him, that I’m safe and sound and eagerly looking ahead to the next episode.

The hardest part of facing another carnival season is that element which will no longer be present; that end of the weekend conversation. It had become an outlet to share my euphoria with someone who could relate to my enjoyment, mainly because he’d done so many carnivals himself. Indeed, while we didn’t go together, he was at that final Notting Hill Carnival, accompanying his cousin who was visiting from Switzerland for the weekend.

It is somewhat daunting to appreciate that this will be a very different season. I won’t be using Tottenham as “my base” for example. Although fresh from my final festival two weeks ago, I approach Preston Carnival this weekend with optimism that even though it will be an emotional summer, it will be a great one. That some incredible memories are waiting to be created which will inspire stories for decades to come.  When I hang up my whistle and horn for good at the end of August, I’ll do so knowing I ended this chapter of my life the right way.

It didn’t feel right to end it as I did in August 2014 because I didn’t approach that day like it had been the end. This time, I know what lies ahead and can prepare myself accordingly. So that in September, I can look back without regrets. Hence, the only thing left to say is: let's do this!

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Here Comes The Door-Knocker

“You've got the gift of the gab, Clency!”

There I am, stood in what could only be described as an Arctic rain shower! I wasn’t queuing up for the turnstiles at the Emirates, nor waiting to get into a bar to watch us take on Leicester in a critical Premier League match. Oh no. I had found myself in Sherwood, east Nottingham, on my sixth door-knocking session in seven days. It’s all part of a campaign for a local candidate in a Council by-election next week. When I actually write all that down, it comes across as some kind of punishment from God. Only it has not been anything of the sort. Remarkably it’s the complete opposite and most bizarrely of all; I cannot fully comprehend how much fun it’s been!

So how did we get here? Well before my father so rudely interrupted my writing hobby a little over two years ago, I’d found myself completely gushing from an experience watching a fledgling political party break new ground 7000 miles away in Mauritius. I dreamed of an alternative vision for the UK and had become exasperated by a political consensus in Britain.  I yearned for a day where an electorate would have a clear and defining choice.

For so long as I live, I will never forget the moment I heard that Jeremy Corbyn was putting together a bid to become the leader of the Labour Party.  What followed would be something that I now look back upon as the “summer of love”, where an unstoppable force emerged from nowhere to complete the most wonderful and unimaginable political fairy-tale of my life.

I’d be here for days recounting the whirlwind of the past two years and extraordinary people I’ve met and places I’ve visited, many of which I’d never been to in my life before. One of my oldest friends even went so far as to refer to me as a ‘Corbyn groupie’, such had been my tenacity to attend various rallies around the country.

There’s no doubt in my mind that nobody else in politics today could have inspired me like this. There is only probably one other public figure who I have as much time for, and he is so suspicious of politics as a whole that my wishy-washy fantasy of him becoming the MP for the part of London where I was raised, has less chance of being realised than his own football team winning a trophy any time soon!

Of course, the history between me and Corbyn is well documented. MP for where I did all of my schooling, our paths would cross several years later as I found myself immersed in the Chagossians quest for justice. Observing his work at close quarters further inspired my own efforts while working on the cause. Succinctly, there is no other Parliamentarian today who has more integrity, compassion or strength of convictions to lead this country. No other politician can inspire as much hope behind a desire for change.

And how this country needs to change!

To where I now find myself, knocking on doors for a potential Councillor who has identical political views to me. It has been an opportunity to ‘test the lyrics’, so to speak, and ensures that when I am on the doorstep campaigning for the General Election next month, I am able to convey my arguments confidently. Why wouldn’t I? I am canvassing (albeit indirectly under the political system we have here) for a Labour leader who if he becomes Prime Minister, would be a dream come true for me.

I honestly have no idea what the next few weeks will bring. The polls tell us this election is a foregone conclusion but they have been wrong about so many things in recent years that one can never truly take anything for granted anymore. What I do know is that I am going to throw everything I can (short of putting my day job on the line!) into this canvassing and see where it goes. Maybe this is the only time in my life I am ever involved like this and if that’s the case, I may as well put my all into it. Thus, I could look back in future knowing I tried everything. This doesn’t feel like a waste of time or a futile fight against a tide. It feels like my only chance to make something unbelievable, somehow become possible. I will dare to dream because I am honest enough to know that I don’t think anything like this will ever happen in my lifetime again. To coin a phrase my boss at work has a fondness to deploy, “I got one shot at this”. And judging by the feedback from some I have been out on the rounds with so far, I might actually be quite good at it too!

NB: It was always going to take something I felt super-passionate about to end my self-imposed writing exile.  I had spent the past two years after my dad’s untimely passing utilising my talents in other ways, helping my big sister edit her Midwifery thesis and assisting my Godchildren’s mother with her university assignments.  There were several occasions I thought I had come to the point where I would pick it up again, as early as the FA Cup final of 2015 in fact.  The adventures of Corbyn, became the fairy-tale that would’ve written itself, but still I couldn’t make that leap. Then there was brexit and the theft of Mauritian democracy, both of which equally riled me more than most will ever know. And yet it took being stood in an icy-rain shower on the streets of Nottingham to finally trigger the spark to write again….

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Goodnight Dad

I remember my dad saying to me a couple of years ago that he would not be around forever and I immediately insisted that he had at least another 15-20 years left ahead of him.  His untimely passing has come as such a devastating shock to us all.  There was no warning, no long goodbye, no chance to say farewell.  Two weeks on we still can’t make any sense of it.

And of all the days for us to receive the news on: March 12th.  It’s the date we all know as Mauritian Independence Day.  It was also the day in 1987 when my dad took us from our mum and we went to live with him.  Coincidentally this also happened to be on a Thursday.

My dad: the man who arrived in the country at the age of 14 and did something which really wasn’t common three decades ago- a stable parent figure raising a young family.  Gina, Michelle and I initially, but later on there were times when Tony would come stay with us for a while when things got too much with mum.

And things were hard for dad; really hard.  He lost his house a quarter of a century ago, just one of the many sacrifices that I could only truly appreciate the magnitude of once I had reached adulthood.  But he made the best of the hand he was dealt, there was the weekend trips to the seaside, the holiday camps at Pontins or Butlins and of course that never  to be forgotten two month trip to Mauritius.

I did three further trips to Mauritius with my dad, and there was also a visit in 2006 when our trips clashed coincidentally and wasn’t planned at all.  The first time we did a holiday just the two of us was in March 2007 when he was helping me to get my Mauritian ID card.  This was my 4th trip in two years so I was starting to get confident, but I soon realised that his wisdom and experience was so essential as I ran into wall after wall trying to get my citizenship.

The first time they told me I would not have the citizenship, we left the office building and made our way to Caudan Waterfront in Port Louis. I was convinced my dreams were over, but dad was so relaxed.  It’s like he knew this was not the end of it, and he told me that there is no consistency when it comes to Mauritian bureaucracy and that I should not give up.  So I didn’t, and a year and two months later I was holding my certificate of citizenship.

Even when I did trips without him, most recently four months ago, I never felt like I was alone.  One of the first things I always did whenever I landed in Mauritius would always be to buy a local simcard and send my dad a text so he had my temporary Mauritian number. Who taught me that trick? That’s right: dad, on our 2007 trip. I’d been racking up a fortune in roaming charges even for basic things like sending a text message and suddenly I was now able to call the UK from my mobile for peanuts!

I would always be able to have that security of knowing dad was never far away.  He may have been 7000 miles away in North London, but he was available instantly through a text message or in an emergency on the phone.  His guidance, knowledge and experience when it came to Mauritius would be so valuable.  As he always pointed out to me: I’ve visited Mauritius a lot in the last decade, but I’ve never lived there and he had that unique viewpoint.

A lot of people have told me I’ve been so lucky to have a relationship with my dad which a lot of people will never have, and it’s true, there is so much to be thankful for.  Yet equally I have often asked the question during the past fortnight that if we had a more conventional relationship, then maybe the pain would not be as sharp.  I would be mourning the loss of parent, but then I would not be distraught over losing such a valuable friend.

So many people have tried to be so supportive, giving the prep talk on bereavements.  But the truth is I’m very experienced when it comes to grief- I’m the one who lost two friends to gun crime, who lost all his grandparents in 2.5 years. The trouble is the one I turned to in all those dark moments is the one we are gathered here today to remember and I really need his help now because I really feel lost.

I caught some of the coverage of the Jeremy Paxman interviews this week, but couldn’t pay attention for more than five minutes.  This would be something I’d normally be able to talk to my dad about. I can’t follow any of the football and I can’t find any comfort in watching Arsenal.  It’s all just too painful.

Practically everyone knows me and dad had our moments down the years and indeed our relationship could be broadly broken up into three chapters: the era up to me leaving London in 2001, the period between when I was 22 and 27 and then the part since I was 28.  I take away positives from all three chapters, but it was definitely the last 7 years which were the best.  I saw dad more often than at any time since I had left London 13.5 years ago.

I was looking at Facebook the other day and found some messages between us from spring 2011, I had sent him something which I had written about the AV referendum. He was full of praise and even felt that I was educating him which I found surprising and I responded back to him that he had shaped my political outlook on life. I explained that if anything it was him who was continuing to teach me: well into my 30s.

But now that precious tuition has been closed down permanently, and it’s really scary.  We’re distraught that we will never hear his reassuring voice again.  We will miss his calming (he mellowed so much in later years) influence and wisdom.  And most of all we will miss the love that he had for us all.

I used to hate having the name Clency as a kid, which morphed into “Clency Jnr” and “Little Clence”. It sounded so condescending and patronising.  Now I am so proud that Michelle and I had his names from birth, because now that he has gone, he will live on. Quite literally.

When we met the funeral directors for the first time, I noted that the time of the service today was fitting.  3.45pm would normally be half-time in a traditional Saturday afternoon football fixture.  And for us, his children, this really is half-time in our lives. We now have to utilise all the expertise and knowledge that he provided us during the first half of our time on this earth. Now the second half begins and this 3.45pm ceremony serves as a reminder to us all that while we may feel like life as we know it is over, in many ways, it is only half-time. We must now pick ourselves up from this unbelievable shock and make dad proud of us: to prove to him that all the selfless sacrifices he made were justified.  That will be the perfect way to honour his memory and ensure that his incredible legacy will survive.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

End of the Road

10.45pm on Wednesday 6th October 2004.  My life was about to change and I didn’t even realise it.  I sat down and watched a documentary by the respected journalist John Pilger on the British Television channel ITV.  The content was on something I had only come across once in my life before, when my dad alerted me to a court case that had taken place some four years earlier.  The documentary was called “Stealing a Nation” and it was about the depopulation of the Chagos Islands and the injustice that continued up to the present day.

The following day I looked on the internet for more information and came across contact details for the UK Chagos Support Association (UKChSA).  It was the beginning of my time as an activist for the Chagossian quest for justice and a right of return to the islands they were illegally removed from.

Today that chapter comes to an end.  It feels weird.  It feels strange.  There are emotions of guilt and sadness, but deep down I know it is the right decision to take.

I had previously warned that working with the Chagos Refugees Group (CRG) after leaving the UKChSA could be one of those complicated scenarios.  It could be a situation where you have the best of intentions but ultimately cause more damage or at best add to the problem.  It is not why I got involved in October 2004.

Last summer I lifted the lid on the reasons behind why three senior members of the UKChSA left the organisation simultaneously.  I have always maintained that the organisation is not fit for purpose and should be closed down immediately.  It is not a message that I have ever deviated from over the past eleven months since that now watershed AGM in April 2014.

It is true that the UKChSA experience did leave a bitter taste in the mouth.  A long working relationship which came to such a thunderous end amidst recriminations, I would not be human to suggest that I did not have a sense of anger at the way things ended.  However this was always been so much more than individuals or a clash of personalities.  This was about good, honest people who sympathised with the Chagossians’ fight for justice and donated money believing that their contributions were being used to benefit a community that had been treated so shamefully.

I refused to sit back in silence while the UKChSA continued to plead for donations, when I knew that I had seen for myself practices which were borderline criminal.  Whether anyone listened to me, that’s their prerogative, but at least I knew that I had enabled them to make an informed decision.  If they still wanted to donate, well as the cliché goes: some people really do have more money than sense sometimes.

It is my insistence on ensuring that everyone knew the truth about the UKChSA that is a big reason behind things coming to a head recently.  They were not allegations fished out of thin-air, and every point can still be substantiated by the mountain of emails I have retained to this day.  Like the one from the treasurer asking for receipts for a football team which never existed.

Sadly it is not a view that is shared any more.  Others feel that because the long awaited Feasibility Study has been completed, it is a delicate time and I should effectively refrain from repeating the truth.  This doesn’t sit easily with me.  My experience of working on this cause at different levels, including the executive committee of the UKChSA, means I know precisely how things work.

I know that when the Chagossians are in the news, as they have been recently, there is a natural spike in interest.  Inevitably this leads to the UKChSA being contacted in the same way that I found them all those years ago.  To suggest my silence under such circumstances would be unethical would probably be the understatement of the decade.
I cannot do it.  I will not do it.

I got a lot of stick down the years from friends who never got their head around my passion for helping the Chagossians fight back.  My response to them was always that I thought that maybe one day it would help me get to heaven.  To ask me to be complicit in a conspiracy to bury the truth from my time at the UKChSA completely undermines that.

Olivier Bancoult and Sabrina Jean are good people.  Whatever they’ve done or continue to do have always been in the best interests of Chagossians all over the world.  I understand the reason why they think it’s for the best for me to tone down my vocal opposition to the UKChSA.  I strongly disagree with their view, but I understand completely the reasons for their position.

I am just sad that it means I can’t continue to work on this cause anymore.  I can’t highlight the Chagossian quest for justice under those restrictions because I know that my efforts will benefit the UKChSA by raising awareness and they will reap the rewards of that.  It doesn’t matter that I am not personally financially benefiting from the arrangement, I would be no better than anyone who I had spent the past year exposing.

It was an unbelievable dilemma to be placed in.  On one side I could break a promise I made to Sabrina years ago that the only way I’d stop being an activist is when the Chagossians had the right to return the Chagos Islands.   Alternatively I could keep that promise, but help to conceal a dirty little secret about an organisation I no longer worked with or the reasons why I believe that the organisation should be closed down.

Today it is the end of that road and I am officially a former Chagossian activist.  I hope the Chagossians secure a right of return and I wish everyone connected to the CRG well.   If anyone asks me about the cause, I will be unable to help.  This will be the post that I circulate as my response to the questions that will inevitably arise.  I just hope that everyone understands the reason behind why I have taken the decision I have.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

An Alternative Utopia

It’s been almost three weeks since I returned to Britain after spending 34 dazzling days on the tropical island of Mauritius.  Perhaps the most satisfying element of the holiday revolved around the fact that even after ten years across twelve visits, I still explored new experiences.  Whether it was catching a bus on Christmas Day, enjoying a party on a Catamaran late into the night or raving in a sugar cane field under a full-moon.

I booked the flight for my adventure in July, so it was something of a treat when I realised that the Mauritian General Election would be taking place during my stay.  I had of course experienced my first Mauritian Election during my 2010 visit, but it was something I observed from a distance.  I witnessed some local canvassing in and around the Grand Baie area, but the event largely passed me by.  I was distracted by preparations for my impending birthday party and not even my Politics-addiction would impose upon that.

This time around was a completely different story.  I ensured that I explained to as many friends as possible from the moment I arrived that I was eager to experience how elections were conducted in the land of my father’s birth.  Fortunately for me, a friend of a friend (Kugan Parapen) has been involved in working with a relatively new Political Party called “Rezistans ek Alternativ”.  I was invited to come along and assist in their preparations a couple of days before polling day, an opportunity I seized without a moment’s thought.

As the name suggested, Rezistans were aiming to offer a new and alternative vision for the people of Mauritius.  They were firmly entrenched on the far-left of the political spectrum, so it didn’t take long for me to quickly find myself on the same page as the Party.  Pro-wealth redistribution, anti-communalism, protecting workers rights and measures to combat global-warming: this was a Manifesto that I could fully subscribe to without exception.

Although formed in 2005, this was the first time that their members could stand because candidates were not required to declare their ethnicity.  This was a huge step in the right direction- moving the Republic away from the perils of communalism, the origins of so many problems during the first three decades following Independence.

I was deeply impressed observing this refreshing voice in Mauritian politics.  Not just because they had produced a list of policies which I found myself in full agreement with, but also because they had captured the imagination of younger voters and engaged disenfranchised parts of the electorate across the country.  Everything about them reinforced a notion that they were a breath of fresh air.

The crucial element here was that it represented something new.  Not simply the same personalities rebranded under a sparkly redesigned logo, but a genuine collective of individuals who thought they could offer an alternative way of running Mauritius.  They were not ex-members of MMM, Labour or MSM who had left (or been expelled) for example.  They were a welcome relief in a Republic which had been dominated by two families, the Ramgoolams & the Jugnauths, who had shared power since Independence from Britain in 1968.

Rezistans went on to secure 3.5% of the vote on polling day, a remarkable achievement considering this was the first time they had contested elections nationally.  Kugan himself secured 6.5% in his seat of Quatre Bornes and the organisations most experienced figure achieved over 8% in their constituency.  It is an incredibly solid platform to build upon in years to come, not just in 2019 but in subsequent contests as well.  I had to explain to Kugan and his friends that in Britain a relatively new political faction, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), had taken far longer to make such an impression on a national scale.  Indeed it is only some 22 years after being created that they are on the verge of making an impact at a British General Election, which is scheduled to take place in May 2015.

Aside from the fact that both parties are relatively new, Rezistans and UKIP couldn’t be more different.  UKIP positions itself very much on the hard-right of the political spectrum.  They would screech in horror at the policies offered by Kugan and his colleagues.  Naturally this relates to the idea that in the UK the political debate has for over three decades taken place on the right of the spectrum.  In Mauritius, as I have noted previously, the opposite is true where a traditional culture of political debate on the left exists.

I saw Kugan again around a week after the Mauritian Elections and I explained that I felt inspired by how he and other like-minded individuals had shown such tremendous initiative to work so hard to project their alternative vision of what Mauritius should look like.  Kugan had spent some time living in the UK during a period studying at Warwick University, and I joked that he should consider visiting us again in the UK soon to show us how we too could replicate what they had achieved in Mauritius.  But just how feasible is such a prospect anyway?

Britain has been dominated by two parties for almost a century, albeit not quite the family dynasties that exist in Mauritius.  Nonetheless, they are two very imposing institutions which would initially suggest that what Rezistans did in Mauritius could not possibly be replicated in the UK.

Or could it?

Data from the 2010 British General Election suggests that maybe Britain is crying out for a Kugan or a Rezistans to offer a new direction.  I have written previously about the need for a break from the consensus-style politics which have poisoned the British political landscape since the mid-1980s.  Yet even more alarmingly is the fact that the number of people on the electoral roll register who did not even register a vote in 2010 would significantly outnumber the tallies of every other political group on offer in the UK.  That would include UKIP who stood in the same election.  This is a shocking revelation and shows just how many people are currently disengaged from the political process in Britain.

Kugan and Rezistans showed how offering an alternative message, entrenched in strong left-wing values, can reach out and invigorate sections of the electorate to become involved in the process again.  This was especially true of younger voters.  It’s a proportion of the electorate which poses an enormous problem in the UK, for example: at the last election fewer than 50% of voters under the age of 35 actually voted.  This was part of a national turnout of 65%, and if we analyse the figures for voters between the ages of 18-24, the figures are even more astonishing where the figure falls to below 45%.  Even that was propped-up by male voters because a snapshot of female voters under the age of 24 shows the figure slipping beneath 40%.

It’s unrealistic to suggest that a new Party could be created tomorrow and would have enough time to make an impact at the British General Election in less than 15 weeks’ time.  However it is not so outlandish that a Political Party started soon could make an impact in 2020, in time for another General Election.  Rezistans ek Altenativ offered a brand new vision for Mauritius and came from nowhere to snatch 3.5% of the vote in their debut national poll.  It wasn’t a stroke of fortune and may provide hope for us all.  It can inspire like-minded individuals to come together and work towards offering an alternative direction for Britain, something that resonates with left-wing voters who otherwise feel ostracised.

It might amount to a proposal which inspires many of the near-16 million voters to engage once again.  

Saturday, 13 December 2014

A Tropical Earthquake

Voters in the Republic of Mauritius went to the polls earlier this week to vote in the tenth General Elections following independence in 1968.  There was a lot at stake.  The governing Labour Party led by Dr Navin Ramgoolam sought to become only the third Prime Minister of Mauritius to secure three consecutive election victories, something first achieved by his father almost forty years earlier.  More significantly, huge constitutional changes were on the table which potentially would have led to the creation of a second Republic.

Mauritius has had a President since becoming a Republic in March 1992, a role which had largely been ceremonial and was a position appointed by the serving Prime Minister.  In many ways it was a role like a Monarch in many other countries,  with duties confined to receiving guests and dignitaries during official State visits.  Ramgoolam proposed fundamental changes to the role which would have included more powers, immunity from prosecution and critically would have resulted in the President being directly elected by the Mauritian electorate with a seven-year term of office.

Opinion polls and most people on the island that I had spoken to since my arrival at the end of November suggested that Ramgoolam was on course to secure a comfortable victory.  However, as results begun trickling through on Thursday lunchtime, it was soon becoming apparent that a stunning upset could be on the cards.  One by one, declarations showed that an Alliance led by Sir Anerood Jugnauth's Militant Socialist Movement (MSM) were securing emphatic victories across Mauritius.  By mid-afternoon it was clear that Jugnauth would indeed be forming the next Government of Mauritius and that ambitious changes to the Republic's constitution had been overwhelmingly rejected by Mauritian voters.  Jugnauth's Alliance had won 47 of the Parliament's 60 seats- a landslide of earthquake proportions.

Yet an even bigger story was brewing, one that even two days after the results were announced leaves most Mauritian's still scratching their heads in disbelief.  Late afternoon on Thursday, reports began emerging that Ramgoolam was in danger of losing his Parliamentary Seat of Pamplemousses and Triolet- one of the safest seats for the Labour Party in Mauritius.  Initially it appeared that Ramgoolam had hung on but by early evening it was clear that the Prime Minister was in severe danger and facing a crisis of monumental proportions.  Confirmation finally arrived at dawn on Friday that the defeated Prime Minister had lost his seat by almost 3,500 votes: a huge margin.

I have attempted to relay the significance of the events to friends and family back in the UK, highlighting the landslide of 1997 as being comparable to the verdict of Mauritian voters this week.  But even this example does not truly illustrate the devastating nature of the result since despite the Labour Party's huge 179 seat majority in the British Parliament, they were never able to unseat the outgoing British Prime Minister John Major who held on in Huntingdon.  These are "safe seats" and it is unthinkable that a Prime Minister can lose his own Parliamentary seat.

Astonishingly this is not the first time that such a dramatic punitive act has been dished out by Mauritian voters.  Back in 1982, Jugnauth ended the political career of Ramgoolam's father, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, with an unprecedented "whitewash" as the Government were swept from power securing no seats in the new Parliament.  The election is referenced as the "60-0" and was the last time a Mauritian Prime Minister was unceremoniously evicted from his own Parliamentary seat.  The irony has not been lost on many since the Ramgoolam family must collectively be sick of the sight of Jugnauth due to this being the second time such a historic outcome has been secured by a party led by him.

I have been disappointed that the news from Mauritius has not received wider international media attention, with little reports on the events so far.  It is true that Mauritius is a relatively small nation, but this was not a routine election and the ramifications of the week's events will be felt for many years to come.  Prior to publishing this post I checked the BBC's website to establish if the story had finally made its African news section.  I am incredibly surprised to learn that some 48 hours later, the story has still not been circulated on the platform.

As political earthquakes go, this is one of the biggest I have ever experienced.  I was too young to personally witness Ramgoolam Snr losing his Parliamentary Seat.  I did however watch live on BBC Television as the outgoing Defence Minister Michael Portillo lost his seat at the 1997 British General Election.  Up until now I would say it was the most historical political event I had ever witnessed although for me personally, the events of 48 hours ago eclipse that moment.  Mauritius has decided and I had a front-row seat to witness a very tropical earthquake.  Watching the declaration at Triolet will be something which will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Why Do We Tolerate Mental Health Services Reaching Crisis Point?

My trip to Mauritius in 2010 was an adventure like no other and undoubtedly one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life.  A three-week break which coincided with the Mauritian & UK General Elections and included my notorious ten-day long 30th birthday party.  Yet it was a conversation with my dad on the eve of the British General Election that was almost certainly to provide the most treasured of memories.

Here we were: sitting on a balcony overlooking Grand Baie, accompanied by a bottle of mineral water which he had filled with coconut water that had been mixed with Goodwills Rum; our conversations drifted and eventually arrived onto the subject of his two late brothers- Alex and Claude.  My two uncles, practically unspoken about within the family circles, mythical creatures I had heard snippets about from time to time.  They had both committed suicide.

I adopted Alex as my middle-name in my early-teens despite knowing so little about him.  I was fascinated as my dad began filling in the vast gaps, a picture painted of two individuals that I bore an uncanny resemblance to.  Alex would take my dad to the West-End clubs and was always the life and soul of any party.  Claude was quieter but intelligent and ultra-aware of the world around him, whose ambition and focus would mean he was always setting himself targets and deadlines in life.  It was a surreal conversation: hearing about two uncles I didn’t know but somehow had cloned in terms of my characteristics.  I can still picture my dad smiling at the end of the conversation; he appreciated the irony of how things had turned out too.  The spirit of two tragic souls had somehow found an outlet in me.

Claude had taken his life long before I was born while Alex died when I was two.  Alex collected the rent on behalf of his flatmates to pay the landlord where he lived.  He had his eyes opened to gambling by my dad who introduced him to the world of horseracing.  Alex developed a taste for his newfound pastime and enjoyed some good days and bad days, but there were no obvious signs that he was in any danger.  One day Alex lost more than he could afford to lose and made a calamitous decision to use the money he had collected on behalf of his landlord to try and win the money back.  He lost that money too, was too embarrassed to tell anyone so electrocuted himself.  This became a Lebrasse family folk tale with the moral of the story being that ‘you never ever gambled’.

What was essentially a very simplistic explanation about something enormously complicated was further compounded by the fact that me and nearly all my cousins attended catholic schools as children, where such naked indoctrination knew no boundaries.  Life was deemed sacred and people who committed suicide were almost certainly doomed to burning in hell for undertaking an act they had no right to sanction.  By my mid-teens I had a very narrow grasp of suicide and a profound lack of understanding which led to me viewing suicidal people with contempt.  Shameless attention seekers who wreaked untold grief upon the people they left behind.  It was probably considering an issue like assisted suicides that really unsettled my catholic vision of the world.  I could not comprehend how it could be wrong for somebody to wish to have an end to their suffering, and yet my catholic education told me that they had no right to take their own life.  But who has the right to demand that their suffering should be prolonged?  Who has the authority to condemn any creature to such a fate?

When I was 21, my godson’s mother told me she had lost her sister in similarly traumatic circumstances, intentionally consuming alcohol while on anti-depressants to instantly stop her heartbeat.  I allowed my mind to wander beyond the rigid parameters that had defined my understanding of what suicide means and to consider in very different terms the situation that leads to somebody taking their own life.  Of course this coincided with a period in my life where I had begun to reject the catholic teachings on a whole range of issues from abortion to homophobia to birth control, so I was open to having my perception of the world challenged and scrutinised.

It’s laughable to think that if Claude had taken his life just over a decade earlier, he would’ve committed a criminal offence.  In fact it’s only relatively recently that the subject of suicide escaped its pariah status as a social taboo, and I often reference Gary Speed’s death as an especially important stage in that evolutionary process.  It was the first time I could detect the issue of physically healthy individuals taking their lives being analysed as a consequence of a mental illness.  It was reassuring and as tragic as Speed’s untimely passing was, it was a significant milestone. 

Much like the day when society realised that if somebody observes that they can hear voices from within their head, they are unwell and not possessed by Satan as had once been suggested.  We can talk about suicide and we can refer to the deceased in terms of being a victim.  We no longer have to pander to stereotypes and entertain the notion that the individual is a coward or selfish or both.  But ignorance of mental health illnesses continues to be a significant problem in Britain as I have mentioned previously.  More men under the age of 45 die from suicide in the UK than crime or natural causes and it is a problem which disproportionately affects a larger number of men.  Yet to pigeonhole the issue would be to demonstrate an inept failure to grasp how it affects far too many.  Such as the 30 women a day who attempt suicide while in abusive relationships, or the 34,500 children who contacted Childline in the 12 months to April 2014 with concerns about suicide.  Or how the current Government’s ruthless austerity programme has led to some very alarming cases of suicide surfacing, a result of the incompetent assessment procedures managed by ATOS.

It is all the more distressing when we appreciate just how stretched mental health services in England and Wales are due to funding cuts.  That should be a national scandal, but as a nation we never seem to react when these deplorable measures are taken.  Instead we reserve our outrage for when Christopher Clunis randomly attacks a commuter at a tube station.  Something has seriously gone wrong when a tax over a pasty gets more attention than the state of our mental health provisions reaching crisis point.  We’d never tolerate other healthcare services being similarly slashed, so why do we accept it for mental health services?