Tag Archives: Observer

After AV and election humiliation: what next for Clegg and the Lib Dems?


The result was crushing. A firm no to electoral reform and a pummelling at local level for Lib Dem councillors is a devastating double whammy. The road back to even slight popularity will be rocky and steep, with huge risks of even further falls on the way. The media were quick to pounce on the misery of Clegg and the tensions within the coalition. Whilst exaggerated, there is no doubt that the coverage accurately reflects a permanent shift in the dynamic of the parties in partnership.

Firstly then why was the defeat so bad? And why did the Conservatives not only escape punishment but considerably strengthen their position with gains? In many ways it is pointless to dwell on the results. What’s done is done. Liberal Democrats across the board are declaring the need to move on and get on with the job, seemingly out of bitterness, but also out of practicality and necessity. It is perfectly understandable however that some big names, such as Cable and Huhne, have lashed out at their Tory coalition partners in the dizzying spiral of disappointment and defeat.

They feel, rightly, that their party has become a human shield. They feel that they are victims of immense unfairness, ironic given that the core of their policies on tax, education and indeed the voting system, are intended to increase fairness. The Liberal Democrats had to enter into coalition with the Conservatives. Labour was never a viable or democratic alternative. A minority Tory government would have been ineffective and lacked any Lib Dem input on policy, whether as a restraining or creative force.

They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. Clegg would never have been forgiven had he passed up the chance to introduce a host of coveted Liberal measures. As I’ve argued before Clegg also saw an opportunity to open up politics. By showing that coalitions could work, the old seesaw between Labour and the Conservatives would be challenged. Consensus and cross party collaboration would produce broader ideas and solutions to the bigger issues, in a 21st century where ideology is far less important than results, to voters at least.

Where they went wrong is debatable. There are obviously a range of reasons. But primarily it seems to be that too much eagerness and what’s been described as “personal chumminess” between Cameron and Clegg, was on display. The broken promises therefore appeared to be callous and genuine deception, rather than an inevitable concession from the minority partner in coalition. On tuition fees the Lib Dems made the mistake of trying to claim that the new policy was a better one because of changes they instigated. They needed to make a greater show of their overwhelming reluctance to charge fees at all, whilst still championing the restraining measures for fairness that were their doing.

Ultimately it all comes down to Clegg’s economic gamble though. I am still not sure just how fully he buys into George Osborne’s interpretation of the crisis and his drastic solution. It may well be that privately Clegg still stands by his pre-election comments, that the deficit should be reduced gradually with a focus on growth in the short term.  Adopting the Tory approach could be the primary price of going into government for the Lib Dems. But publicly he has signed his party up to comprehensive cuts in public spending that are at odds with the instincts of most Liberals. And you’d have to say that Clegg must believe the Conservative plan will eventually lead to growth, because if it doesn’t his party will be battered once more come the next General Election.

Certainly earlier this year I wrote about a speech in which Clegg made the most compelling argument thus far in favour of extreme deficit reduction, which essentially boiled down to longer term sustainability and strength in diversity for the economy. I still think he may be torn though and that he might accept some of Labour’s arguments that claim a slower pace of cuts would have restored greater growth sooner.

With regards to the referendum on AV Clegg clearly made an error when choosing the date. The key reason for Yes2AV’s failure was that their argument became inseparably embroiled with party politics and the local elections. Clegg’s personal unpopularity rubbed off on the campaign for reform, mainly because of dirty tactics from the No camp. Yes2AV also made ridiculous unrealistic claims about accountability, rather than keeping their argument simple. Celebrities made a late push for reform at a rally but by then it was too late, the argument should have been made more forcefully outside of the political sphere weeks before May the 5th.

Of course the important and interesting question now is what do the Lib Dems do to recover? And how will this affect the coalition? Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of Britain’s third party, was on Question Time on Thursday. He spoke eloquently and with reason on foreign affairs, prompting cheers and claps from the bulk of the audience. But when it came to domestic politics he found himself bogged down by the harsh public opinion of Clegg, so very different from the polls after the TV debates over a year ago. He valiantly defended the courage of his party’s leader under fire but could only react with frustration when the audience flatly refused to hear him out.

Clegg continued to show that courage in an interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. Given the pictures of his gloom and the mountain to climb left by the results, Clegg gave remarkably assured answers and honestly asserted that he’d misjudged things, and that the Lib Dems needed to have a “louder voice” in the coalition. He spoke of the need to sing about the unexpectedly high number of Lib Dem manifesto policies being implemented. But in many ways all this was predictable and necessary.

The efforts to give his party an individual and distinctive again will undoubtedly begin to heal the wounds of defeat. He needs to show greater reluctance when he must go along with Conservative plans, pick the Tory policies he does oppose carefully for maximum impact and point out measures that perfectly illustrate the moderating influence of his party. Clegg has already worked out that NHS reform is the best way to begin a recovery, threatening to block it and demanding changes are made to meet concerns. However what would really give the Lib Dems a distinctive voice back is to propose and explain policies they would be implementing without the Conservatives.

What I mean by this is to set out policies, on tuition fees for example, that the Lib Dems would implement if they had the ideal (but unlikely) scenario of a majority government. These policies should be calculated to appeal to Labour voters and those within Labour potentially open to coalition. The Lib Dems need to reach out to Ed Miliband or those around him with influence, to stop him pounding the human shields of the coalition as opposed to those in the driving seat.  A senior figure in the party, perhaps likeable President Tim Farron, should be chosen to run what would almost be an alternative Lib Dem opposition.

I accept this would be difficult to handle and could shatter trust and cooperation with the Tories. Many might say it’s impossible. But as long as Clegg and key Lib Dem ministers weren’t directly involved, the group did not challenge specific government policy and simply proposed Lib Dem alternatives not covered by the coalition agreement, there would be little the Tories could do to stop it. AV may be lost but the Lib Dems have plenty of arguments they can still make that are unique to them. They must take the philosophy behind AV, choice and fairness, and tie it to attractive policy. For example their manifesto went further on tax, transport, energy and the House of Lords. Choice is the key to freedom in a modern society and the Lib Dems must make the case for the state actively empowering individuals. The Liberals must show how they would liberate.

It’s probably better for Clegg to keep his head down for a while and continue to soak up pressure whilst his party recovers independently. Clegg’s popularity will take longer than his party’s to heal. But this does not mean he is the wrong man to lead it. He has for the most part taken bold decisions both in the national interest and to achieve greater fairness sought by his party’s voters. He has had to concede costly economic compromises, but to overcome these he must be bold again. Frankly after the tactics of the No Campaign, so wholeheartedly backed by Cameron, Clegg must dirty his hands a little. A louder voice will only convince dispirited voters if it hints at what the coalition is doing wrong because of the Conservatives, as well as what it’s doing right because of the Lib Dems.

A History of Contradictions: Freedom, Servitude and Niall Ferguson


Last week I rekindled my love for History and looked forward excitedly to the day I would begin my own studies of the subject. Attending a friend’s lecture on Freedom and Servitude at York University, I was reminded of the myriad of issues and possibilities that arise studying the subject, and the endless opportunities for arguing varied points of view. The lecturer did an admirable job, without a PowerPoint presentation, of skimming through an incredibly contentious theme of history in a thought provoking way. He never became boring or grating, alleviating heavy philosophy and figure based sections of his speech with lighter links to an interview with Kate Moss in Grazia about her idea of freedom and an amusing, scandalous Bible story used as bewildering justification for the slave trade for centuries.

I made my own notes and learnt that Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson described freedom as an under theorized concept; something which made a lot of sense. Like love or beauty, freedom is something easier to understand through experience and hard to articulate. Its vagueness adds to its allure though. Equally interesting is that some cultures, particularly in Asia, attach much less importance to what we in the West might term “freedom” or liberty. In Japan they have no word for freedom. Our guilt and direct experience of slavery has led to a freedom fetish in our culture, stemming particularly from the American fascination with it.

The lecture rose numerous other interesting points, which it is not my intention to delve into here. It highlighted aspects of history, such as Greek and Roman dependence on slaves, and the cultural slavery instigated by some tribes, never so much as touched on at school. But crucially its conclusion threw up a controversy, a set of conflicting views about the overall interpretation of slavery.

Traditionally it’s assumed that after the Declaration of Independence in America, the North phased out slavery, and the South didn’t, which led to Civil War and the North imposed the right way on the South. But the North continued to condone slavery in several ways and the push for freedom was far from strong and complete. Inequality would remain even as slavery faded, as any minor knowledge of the civil rights movement will reinforce. The challenge to conventional history then, was did Americans, be it the establishment or the majority or whoever, realise in some way that their considerable freedom depended upon the servitude of others? Just as Sparta’s mechanised and elitist form of society in Ancient Greece depended on the labour of enslaved Helots, did the blossoming prosperity of white Americans depend on the comparable hardships of their black workers?

I relish the considerable crossover with other subjects in History; be it politics, literature or philosophy. And in philosophical terms the conclusion of the lecture could be boiled down to: can freedom exist without slavery, or vice versa? Something that’s always appealed to both the realist and idealist in me is that things can simultaneously be their opposites. By this I mean, as Orwell notoriously wrote in 1984, “Freedom is Slavery”. Perhaps one really cannot exist without the other. I think that when studying History it helps to remember that there will always be a contradictory view and that just because it might completely oppose the more sensible option, does not mean it does not have value or truth or validity. I’m not expressing myself very well, but hopefully my point will become clearer.

I’ve always admired the historian Niall Ferguson. I discovered him through extremely engaging programmes on Channel 4, about Empire, America and War. His ideas and theories challenge traditional views, and this is something the historian should always be looking to do. His interpretations of the past connect and enlighten our immediate future. Often his focus will be economic but he rarely alienates with too many figures. He simply selects the right ones to back the thrust of his story. For me he achieves all the things an historian ought to. This doesn’t mean his conclusions have to be full-proof. Indeed it’s because he recognises History is not straightforward and that it’s constantly evolving and full of contradictions, that I admire him.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/20/niall-ferguson-interview-civilization

In yesterday’s Observer Ferguson gives an insightful interview. The writer, William Skidelsky, does a superb job of marrying the probing of Ferguson’s personal journey with his world view. There is some interesting background to Ferguson’s works, which shed light on them. Overall it’s a fantastic article about the man as well as the ideas. He is truly a remarkable human being and looking suave at 46 I would go as far as to pop him in my exclusive idol drawer.

His latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is closely linked to an idea Ferguson has been espousing about History teaching in schools. The curriculum, most accept, is too narrow and sporadic. Students leave having studied Hitler countless times but with no clue of History’s broader sweep and its overarching connections. It’s something that puts the comprehensive school pupils at a disadvantage against more traditionally educated, public school types. I can personally vouch for this and as a keen History student would welcome the subject being both better taught and more attractive for future generations.

Ferguson’s new work is targeted at 17 year olds, he says, and it charts the ascendancy of the West over the East since Early Modern times. Ferguson’s recent back catalogue of works have focused on Empire and his views, particularly on the British and American systems, have been controversial. His fusion of idealism and realism is tremendously inspiring. What I tried to express earlier is brilliantly summed up in the conclusions to his work: for example, the British Empire did bad but also a great deal of good or Americanisation can be a force for immorality but also if applied more earnestly and thoughtfully, bring immense prosperity and freedom. I am generalising and simplifying, but as I said he is the best of historians; accessible but scholarly supreme, dynamic and revisionist but pragmatic.

I look forward to his latest work, both in TV and book form and wish him the best of luck with his crusade to evolve the teaching of his subject; just as history itself and his views have done.

Fairer Votes: Vote Yes on May the 5th


The expenses scandal revealed what was quickly coined as our “broken politics”. The unfairness and entrenchment of privilege has always been there in the system, but expenses united the nation in outrage. Even conservatives clamoured for change. In May, thanks to perhaps the most controversial concession to the Lib Dems in the coalition agreement, the country will be able to vote on a more proportional way of voting: AV.

My left-leaning friends cling to their idealistic love for fully fledged PR and ridicule AV. But whilst AV is not a perfect system, and certainly not completely fair, it is a giant leap that could shake up British politics and society. Nick Clegg knows this. It’s a stepping stone, albeit a baby one in the eyes of many, towards true democracy. It’s a real shame that the opening year of the coalition has tarnished Clegg’s public image so disastrously that he has been forced to withdraw from centre stage in the Yes Campaign. However the nature of coalition and the Labour party’s confusion and division in its response to a new hybrid enemy, has led to a curious campaign. It’s seperate in many ways from the old allegiances and loyalties; the same old seesaw between parties. Labour’s position on the referendum is unclear, despite their new leader backing Yes. The Lib Dems are advised to keep their heads down and beaver away in the background, and David Cameron is reluctant to unleash the Tories for a No vote, so as not to anger his Deputy.

The campaign then, foreshadows one of the key benefits AV might bring. A more plural politics, in which voters have a degree of greater freedom to back policies they support from opposing, rival candidates. And for those that worry about the weaknesses and instability of total PR, AV is a compromise they’ll struggle to argue with.

One of the things the No campaign is trying to do is paint AV as an incomprehensible leap into the unknown and endless hung parliaments. In yesterday’s Observer, Andrew Rawnsley expresses far better than I the strengths of AV and the futile, silly objections of the No camp.

I urge you to read his article and consider it carefully:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/20/andrew-rawnsley-electoral-reform?INTCMP=SRCH

Also watch this video from the Yes Campaign that makes the broad appeal and positive tone of the message crystal clear.

http://www.yestofairervotes.org/pages/people-say-yes?utm_medium=email&utm_source=yes&utm_campaign=20110221peoplesvideo&source=20110221peoplesvideo

Basically be part of history and vote Yes for the better.

Two Eds really are better than one


It has been one of those weeks in politics. As well as dull but incredibly important legislative procedure on issues like voting reform and the EMA, there have been the scandalous, newsworthy, headline-grabbing stories which get everyone interested and have the potential to set the tone of debate for the foreseeable future. On Friday the big story was supposed to be the once charismatic, fallen and tainted PM Tony Blair giving evidence for a second time at a historic war inquiry. Instead both of the major parties faced employment crises that sent morale on an undulating, yo-yoing rollercoaster ride.

At the end of that ride it seems Labour, against the odds, have emerged with their heads held high and full of hope. The resignation of David Cameron’s long-term spin doctor Andy Coulson proves them right on a point they’ve been making in Opposition for months. With little policy of their own to use as ammunition against Coalition cuts, Labour have relished the niggling issue of Coulson’s shady past at the News of the World. By finally quitting Coulson has reinforced Labour’s attempts to expose the “new” politics of the coalition as the same old dishonest, elitist governance of old. Coulson may have tried to serve his employer well one last time with the timing of his announcement, shrouded as it was in theory by the gargantuan story of a Labour frontbench reshuffle so soon after the selection of the original line-up. But for the moment at least it’s Labour that are buoyed by events and the Tories feeling somewhat dejected.

Back in October I aired my views on this blog about the announcement of Ed Miliband’s first Shadow Cabinet. To me the appointment of Alan Johnson was a mistake, and far be it from me to blow my own trumpet, but events have proved my initial musings correct. Johnson went from gaffe to gaffe, showing a worrying lack of knowledge for his brief. Labour continually failed to land palpable hits on economic issues, despite a plethora of targets laid bare by Con-Dem cuts. Meanwhile Ed Balls, after a dynamic and impressive leadership campaign, languished largely unnoticed as Shadow Home Secretary. No one seemed to be pro-active enough to take the fight to the Conservatives on damaging policies in a noticeable way. Balls’ wife, Yvette Cooper, also wasted away shadowing the foreign office brief, despite widespread backing in the party and the potential for public support. The only Labour frontbencher scoring economic points was Shadow Business Secretary John Denham, and even he has left glaring gaps in his arguments and been error prone.

Alan Johnson’s sudden resignation due to personal issues so soon into his new, vital job may be a blessing in disguise for Labour and everyone wishing to see credible Opposition to Coalition cuts. Despite the mistakes, Johnson has once again proved in his short tenure his capacity to be likeable and approachable to ordinary voters. The revelation that it was in fact his wife having an affair, not him, ensures the prospect of return to the Labour frontbench in a smaller, popular role in the future. With Johnson’s static, timid fiscal presence brushed aside though, Labour can at last forge a bold new and distinctive direction on all things economic.

I praised Ed Balls during his leadership campaign for going a long way to reshape his bullyboy image. More than any other candidate, Balls looked as if he’d give Labour a truly individual position on policy. Continually described as Labour’s “attack dog” Balls will now have much greater freedom to bite at the heels of the Coalition. As Shadow Chancellor he’ll have to respond to hot, topical issues like tuition fees and bankers’ bonuses; fresh and emotive in the public consciousness. He’ll also have to start winning the argument on growth and investment vs. spending cuts.

Already though he has shown signs of defending Labour’s past record more effectively, explaining his decision to now back the plan he once opposed to halve the deficit within four years, by citing better figures driven by Labour’s spending whilst in government. He’s also been wise to already criticise the government, not for risking a double-dip recession, which looks unlikely, but for wasting an opportunity for greater growth and wider prosperity because of ideological decisions. And growth, Balls will emphasise, is the swiftest, most sustainable route to deficit reduction.

There are still those warning against the potential problems of two Eds at the top though. The primary fear is a return to the Blair-Brown standoff that came to define and overshadow New Labour. This concern adds the extra interest of a helping of recent political history to the mix of this story. Will Labour repeat past mistakes, despite Miliband’s proclamation of a new generation? Even if the new team propels Labour back to government, the same old potentially lethal questions will hang ominously over the partnership between the leader and the treasury.

However I think the doubters are at the very least premature to suspect Balls of wanting to derail Miliband’s revival of the party. Despite the fact he ran for leader, it’s no secret that the job Balls has always wanted is Chancellor. Finally in a position to seize his goal, he is unlikely to turn his fire on his own party. Much more likely is that Balls will electrify the chamber, as one Labour source believes he will, and unleash an avalanche of devastating balls of criticism at the government. He’ll add much needed guts and yes, “Balls”, to Labour’s Opposition. He’s already proved his aptitude for Opposition politics during his leadership campaign.

Balls’ wife will also have greater opportunity to play a key role, replacing her husband as Shadow Home Secretary. She’ll no doubt start picking apart government policing plans. But once again Ed Miliband showed a disappointing lack of courage with his emergency reshuffle. Already he’s failed to take climate change seriously or offer serious backing to voting reform or a graduate tax. And by handing Balls Johnson’s old job, not his wife, he once again missed an opportunity to make his generation truly a new one.

Failing with his initial selection of a cabinet though meant he simply had to give the role to Balls. Who will, I believe, do a genuinely excellent job and accelerate Labour’s journey back to power. The two Eds plan to have adjacent offices and the fears of a Blair-Brown fallout seem unfounded to me. Nevertheless they will not disappear and had Miliband boldly plumped for the equally qualified Cooper, he would have avoided the shadow of New Labour he is so desperate to escape.

Students, Strategy and Style – Sunday Links


In today’s Observer Barbara Ellen gets the issue of the Coalition’s plans for tuition fees spot on. Firstly she rightly insists that for too long the student community, traditionally a proactive, revolutionary portion of society, has remained dormant on the issues of the day. Even before the programme of cuts now being initiated there were challenges like climate change that a youthful generation ought to be passionately highlighting en masse. Finally on Wednesday students will march through London and I will be among them. Those who dismiss the march as futile miss the point. If you cannot be idealistic and stand up for lost causes as a student then what hope is there for the rest of society? And as Ellen points out, the rest of society is about to feel hard-hitting cuts too. Crucially though she insists that the government strategy of portraying students as some sort of better off elite that should cut back with everyone else is misguided and wrong. Yes students may not feel the bite of recession as strongly as some more deserving groups of the poor and deprived, but this does not mean we should accept a deal that is still unfair to students and does not even fix any problems. The withdrawal of public funding for universities announced in the Spending Review means that the rise in fees will simply plug a gap and not secure the future high quality of British higher education. The Coaltion’s constantly repeated promise that greater help than before will now exist for the poor under the new system also misses the point and is simply a smoke screen. The wealthy politicians at the heart of Coalition policy cannot comprehend how fees and debts of £9,000 a year could put off a potential student. It’s also a harsh reality of such means tested funding for poorer students that some genuinely deserving talented scholars will miss out and others who do not need the money will find some way of benefitting. It also ignores the bulk of students from ordinary families who will be too well off to qualify for financial aid but nowhere near the sort of level where they can comfortably pay their own way. The heaps of additional stress alone added to the application process will deter sixth formers from applying. Ellen makes so many good points and destroys the coaltion argument as to why these proposals are necessary and fair. They neither do what is necessary or ensure fairness. Even the raising of the salary threshold, above which debts must be paid back, to £21,000, is not as progressive as the government would have us believe. This is still an average wage and aren’t graduates meant to lift themselves above average? Surely they should only start paying back when their education has delivered its promised benefits? Read her article, which expresses far better than I why students should march in outrage at the creation and protection of elites.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/07/tuition-fees-jon-snow-kate-middleton

A leading article in the Independent on Sunday points out the highly risky phrase “we’re all in this together” frequently deployed by the Prime Minister and his Chancellor. As the tuition fees situation and other cuts show, we simply aren’t all in this together. If cuts and taxes have been aimed at the rich, they have been balanced by other concessions to soften the blow. For example the bank levy is a token gesture when the savings the banks will make from a cut in corportation tax is considered. And as this article points out the Prime Minister must be more considerate in his decision making at a time when millions will feel the pinch as a result of his cuts. Paying a personal photographer is a luxury; the sort he has ranted against, an inefficiency that shows his detachment from the reality of most voters.

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/leading-articles/leading-article-tread-carefully-mr-cameron-2127297.html

Matthew d’Ancona also discusses Tory strategy in The Telegraph and insists that the failings of their plan at the last election highlight why those hoping for a right wing replication of the Tea Party activism gaining success in the States right now will be disappointed. He is spot on when he points out that Cameron’s popularity surge dissipated when the Tories switched tack to warning of the deficit and an age of auterity to come. At the time I viewed the sudden shit in rhetoric as a shameless u-turn, when in Opposition Cameron had often supported Labour’s actions to avert financial meltdown and had not mentioned the deficit before. In his attempts to distance himself from Labour and simply offer the change, any change, that the electorate so desperately wanted, Cameron moved his modern, detoxified Conservative party to the right and this may have cost him outright victory. There will be no repeat of the Tea Party here, not a credible one at least, and the Lib Dems ought to halt any drives to return to radical Thatcherism, or what is perceived to have been her legacy.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/matthewd_ancona/8114949/The-Tories-need-to-be-more-Michael-Palin-than-Sarah.html

My final link is a well written investigation into the resurgent popularity of the flat cap and its history over the years. I recently purchased one and I’m planning to team it with my scruffy beard for the student march on Wednesday. I’ll probably look more like the farming yokel than the celebrities seen sporting them though.

http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/article/TMG8108321/If-you-want-to-get-ahead-get-a-flat-cap.html

Have a good Sunday, hope everyone has enjoyed the fireworks.

Canny Clegg is no closet Tory


A leading article in The Observer today, linked below, argues that Nick Clegg is not simply a Conservative in disguise, adopting Cameron’s austerity drive with relish, but a pragmatic visionary with the aim of transforming British politics. On this blog I have long argued that Clegg needed to have the resolve to make the Lib Dems a serious, credible party of goverment in order to smash the Red and Blue seesaw of power at Westminster. This article in the Observer wisely points out the risks the Lib Dems face, of abandoning the bulk of their idealistic, protest vote, but also point out the necessity of a better politics, in which coaltions are effective and commonplace and policies are not beset by tribal division and disagreement. This better politics requires the Lib Dems try and seek a new wave of support, and I can only hope the British people recognise the fairness in Clegg’s vision for a political system that isn’t simply a two-sided battleground and back his party at elections. As I’ve said before Clegg and Cameron’s partnership has not brought instant honesty and reliability to Westminster, but the presence of a third party in goverment does reperesnt revolutionary, progressive change that ought to halt the worst of right-wing Tory policy and be good for fairness in the future. Nick Clegg is a political pragmatist who deserves to be admired for setting about changing his party and the country in the most idealistic and liberal of ways; by breaking an established mould. Whether his economic gamble proves right or wrong Clegg has rightly gone for the bigger prize of political regeneration, that ought to ensure the country is governed more progressively and democratically in the future.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/19/observer-editorial-liberal-democrats-conference

Guardian Summer Short Story Special


Inspired by the Guardian’s Summer Short Story Special, showcasing established writers as well as competition winners, I have dabbled in a summer based work myself. It is influenced by general events in my life, a failed outing this weekend, as well as the short stories on the Guardian website and reading a bit of Hemingway (certainly isn’t as concisely expressed as his work). Being a fan of David Mitchell I particuarly enjoyed his offerings based on characters from Black Swan Green, with The Massive Rat from last year’s entries especially pleasing me. Booker winner Hilary Mantel also has a story entitled Comma and the competion winner’s tale, called Jellyfish, is a very well written piece simply expressed set on a beach, as mine is. Hope it isn’t too bad.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/series/summer-short-story-special

Summer’s Last Hurrah

“I’m sorry about your parents” said Frank, gazing at a darkening sky and enjoying the feeling of her warmth at the base of his neck.

“You’ve nothing to be sorry for” replied Emma, looking back towards the brightening bulbs of the promenade and twirling her fingers in the soft curls of his fringe. “Things just happen. And I think it’ll be ok”.

He smiled reassuringly and twisted to look up at her, wondering what to say next. He had raised the subject to try and steer the conversation towards them, their relationship, his head in her lap on the sand in the half-light of this August evening. The simple perfection of this moment. To voice his contentment outright would spoil things, possibly scare her off. Nevertheless he had to let her know how happy he was, living a moment sketched in his mind a thousand times.

“I just can’t imagine letting things get to that stage with anyone, like what’s the point in arguing and how could you with someone you felt like that for, someone you loved? I’d like to think I’d stop things before they were that bad. Life’s for moments as amazing this”, he squeezed her fingers between his and ran his hand gently over the flank of her leg in that way he knew she liked, “no point in being miserable when things can be this great, when I can get this lucky.”

That might have overdone it. He knew one of the things she liked about him was his laidback, carefree attitude. She could be sure he wouldn’t get too emotional or demanding like boyfriends of her friends had done in the past. Recently he’d been struggling to hold back this sort of outburst, to tone down his obvious ecstasy in her company. But he needn’t have worried.

Emma bent down to kiss him. First lightly and affectionately on the forehead, a stamp of her gratitude and care, and then a longer, lingering stay on the lips, charged with a lust that grew each day as her confidence increased. She too had been pondering how to express her happiness at the way things were turning out, the way they were right now. Like Frank she tiptoed round the reflection of this moment, careful not to shatter it with hollow, stumbled over words and packaged phrases. Beyond the untameable ripple of her smile whenever she saw him, she was wary of articulating her feelings for him when she did not know what they were. Besides this shared chapter of their lives was closing and to him she might just be a pretty girl, long coveted but quickly ticked off as a summer fling.

Now though as kiss followed kiss and their scents mingled with the sea air lapping in off the waves, Emma felt satisfied that Frank shared the significance of the present, the distance of the past and non-existence of the future. Frank too knew that she understood his contentment and shared it on some level. Happy to be a source of her happiness he lay back and a let a guilty smile detonate an ooze of smugness across his face. Amused by the particular lines and craters left by the aftermath of the explosion in his features, a snorted giggle escaped from her mouth.

“What?” he said, sitting up and grinning cheekily at her embarrassment.

“You” she teased, pushing him back down only for him to snatch a kiss from the tips of her lips.

“I’m happy. Think I’ve lost the knack of sadness.”

“S’pose that’s got something to do with me, has it?”

Emma blushed as Frank parted unruly strands of her hair with his fingers, so his eyes had a clear, brisk march to hers. Frank felt unusually bold, spurred on by the stirring of desire below the belt and cleared his throat to reply bluntly.

“Yeah. Everything. Nothing could make me sad with you.”

Emma felt the tell-tale redness spill across her cheeks, accompanied by a warm glow somewhere inside. At first she tried to check for clues in the lush browns and bright whites of his eyes, signs of mocking or deception. All she found there was light, a light that added to her awkwardness as well as her certainty. She would let Frank be her first by the end of the summer. But all that could come later. For now this sudden glimpse of emotion and her automated response of cynicism made her regret the shy, downbeat reply, inspired by thoughts of her parents.

“Time. Time makes you sad and bitter.”

To his credit he knowingly laughed away her evasion, pulling her to him.

“Good job we don’t have much left then.”

The two of them collapsed in a bundle of kisses and squeezes. Sand painted a dull grey by the frowning sky squirmed beneath their writhing feet and toes. A plodding jogger glanced their way from the squelch of the wet sand at the water’s edge and a family group executed a wide arc to pass the shameless lovers respectfully. Thoughts and memories of lost loves drifted in the minds of the parents like dying waves.

*

Lawrence wasn’t so sure it was time. Sure you needed some, a brief window in which a seed could be planted, germinate and grow and then rapidly rot and fester. But in the grand scheme of things, in the spins and rotations of planets, the rise and fall of governments, the birth and death of ideas, on any meaningful scale, the time it had taken him to succumb to bitterness was a mere blink. In fact emerging from the line of lights of the shorefront, from the flashing and pulsing of colour by the fair to the gentle gloom of the beach, it had taken him just seconds of recognition to be overwhelmed by dark resentment and every negative feeling he had been hiding from.

There was no doubt it was them, immersed in an intimate moment of romance, the sky itself bending into a dome of soft privacy. Away to the right the last embers of the setting sun shone orange behind wispy clouds but here, suspended above them on the beach, the clouds were a deep veil of purple enclosing the space for them and them alone. Or so it seemed to him. The sound of his own rushed, shallow breaths reminded of the present and prompted him to locate little Katie, just now dashing onto the sand, floating with joy, excitement and mischief in her white dress.

Lawrence darted after her, dusting himself down to weave between the crowds, suddenly conscious of a collision he must avoid. A group of pensioners gawped at him as he bobbed by on tip toes, surely marvelling at the relentless boom of his heart that he could feel galloping away in his chest, frightened into overdrive by the horrific hypothetical scenarios conjured in his mind’s eye. Soon there would be enough room to burst into a sprint but Lawrence was mindful of how far the sounds of his beckoning pleas might carry, how self-involved were they during such blissful embraces? Would Emma, or even Frank, recognise his voice as he breathlessly moaned at Katie’s innocent impulses? She was tottering towards the water but then to Lawrence’s alarm veered suddenly away, propelled by a tiny splash of chilly froth, up the beach at an angle towards the canoodling couple. In a panic Lawrence launched himself at full throttle down the last stretch of sloping descent to the beach and did not slow his pace on the sand despite the vast plumes left in his wake and the difficulties of staying balanced on two feet. In seconds that seemed stretched into hours Lawrence was at Katie’s side and firmly guiding her by the hand away from an unbearable impact towards the safety of the sand strewn steps.

“Lawrence! Lawrence! The water’s cold and you can see it’s muddy in the dark. Muddy like Mummy said even when it’s dark.”

Lawrence grimaced as Katie began her chirping flow, flinching in particular every time she brightly announced his name to the entire coastline. In this state he could not tell if she was being especially loud or not, let alone whether Frank and Emma might’ve heard. He could feel his pulse gradually calming as the two of them climbed the steps and set off back in the direction of the hotel, but he was also still clearly transmitting a panic to Katie.

“What’s wrong Lawrence? You said you’d take me, sorry I ran. You like to chase me, don’t be upset.”

Was he upset? Lawrence knew that little shake in Katie’s voice well by now, knew she was on the verge of tears without proper intervention. He steered her to a quiet bench and sat down in readiness to console, only to notice the streaks on his own face, brimming uncontrollably.

“Don’t cry Lawrence” mumbled Katie, the sight of his tears bringing her own closer and closer. She didn’t understand, she’d never seen him like this for the whole summer. He’d only ever been a calm, smiley presence, good at reading to her and helping her learn and she was always angry when she caught Mummy telling Daddy he could be “useless” at looking after her. Lawrence was Katie’s friend.

Lawrence turned his face away from Katie. This wasn’t good, he’d have to minimise the damage now if he were to keep his job with the family. He’d grown attached to Katie and even Ben when he wasn’t trying to drop him in it, and he could think of no better paid way of keeping busy and away from everything. And yet everything had followed him here, everything was curled on the beach beneath the stars oblivious of the depressing ripples caused by their happiness. Lawrence was going to wait till Emma and Frank had parted for university before sending his confession letter, penned over an agonising three nights. He planned to be travelling Europe filling his head with the future whilst she digested the news. He didn’t want to hear her shock or disgust or whatever she would feel, just jettison the feeling and leave it with his old life. Now he had seen her again and his long absence (nearly two months now?) had done nothing to dilute the pain of seeing them together, nothing to convince him of a future without her. Of all he had left behind and had to learn the hardest thing was not hearing from her, sharing their perfectly balanced conversation, even if she was always, forever ignorant of his feeling for her. He had left because he could no longer take the unknowing blows struck each and every day by her as she grew closer and closer to Frank. He had allowed their friendship to become so precious to him that it was toxic.

“I’m fine Katie, I’ll be fine, and it’s nothing honest. Beautiful night isn’t it? All those lights stretching on and on.”

This didn’t help. Painting a picture of a beautiful evening merely reminded him of the romance in progress on the beach, a romance he had never experienced and more painfully never would with Emma. Lawrence stifled a giant sob and spasm of tears, spinning Katie round to look along the front as a distraction.

“Yeah it is nice.” The poor girl rightly wasn’t convinced. Lawrence took a deep breath and kept Katie transfixed by the twinkling lights and a reminder of what fun they’d had that day, whilst he composed himself. Then he scooped her up back to the hotel, sought out the envelope addressed to Emma and left it out ready to post. Before bed Katie had checked Lawrence was definitely alright and she had seemed reassured by his answer.

“I’ll be fine Katie like I said. In time I’ll be okay, time will heal me.”

“Well we’ve got lots of that.”