OPINION: Coronavirus crisis, in crisis – do we have the strength for another lockdown?

Words by Ed King

Christmas is cancelled.

Or being split into three, to be exact.

The parasites of paranoia have carved our turkey into socially distanced servings this year, with support bubbles now dictating the one day my family always did well. And always did together.

It’s breaking my heart. It’s broken my family. The childhood joy I feel around Yuletide has been replaced by limitations and fear – with parlour games and presents being pushed into the cold by social isolation and shielding.

Whilst I understand why… be warned, if someone suggests a Zoom meeting on Christmas Day I’m going to start throwing sprouts (or maybe coals off the fire).

And that was all before Saturday’s announcement.

In case you’ve been living under a rock (not a bad place to be right now), on 5th November England is moving into another national lockdown – lasting four weeks or longer, we’re back to where we were in March and until at least the start of December.

Coronavirus has spiked over summer, and the precarious but pragmatic locally enforced ‘tier system’ hasn’t had the desired effect.

People are still getting sick. People are still dying. Potentially more than we can manage – 661 new ‘lab confirmed’ cases per day (Government, 1st Nov) are being reported in Birmingham, with over a million people across the UK having caught the virus since we started taking count, leading to nearly 50,000 deaths. That we know of.

But whether you’re the Office of National Statistics or Chris Whitty’s pocket calculator, the invisible beast is rampant once again. It’s a worrying and sharp upward curve – the trajectory of positive cases looks like an alpine skier’s Christmas wish.

So, it’s back to the short, sharp, circuit breaker approach to stem the contagion – a method already adopted by both our British Isle counter parts and most of mainland Europe. Lockdown, across the country. Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives. Game, set, match. God help us all.

I’ll be honest, I’m not happy about it. I’m not a lot of things about it. There are other words I could use to flesh out my feelings but I’m trying to stay on the right side of righteousness.

But I get it; I get the need for it. I support it, in my way. If it needs to be done, then it must be done. So, let’s do it as quickly as possible. And do it right.

And whilst the voice of reason rolls around my head, ‘coronavirus fatigue’ is spreading across the country in a way that ironically reminds me of the virus itself. I feel that too.

When we were first told to ‘duck and cover’ back in March, people responded. They shut their doors, they covered their mouths, and we all walked forward together in a show of unity that I never imagined I’d see. It was, despite all the horror, a beautiful sight – the innate goodness and kindness reaffirmed my sometimes ailing faith in the human endeavour.

It was not without its cost, however. To put it into a personal context, I lost £8000 as soon as the first lockdown was announced – by time it took me to drive from Stourbridge to Kings Heath. By the end of the week, I’d lost anther £2000. And I’m not a rich man.

Over the months that followed the goal post shifting cost me more that I can calculate – financially and emotionally, along with most of the country I started circling the drain. And I have not lost as much as many, many, MANY more people I both know and work with. I am one of the lucky ones.

But we did it. We did what needed to be done. And like the end of December dinner I hold so close to my heart, we did it together. It was quite an incredible sight to see too, the sheer fortitude that swept from bus stops to boardrooms was nothing short of miraculous. People showed their true colours and those colours shone bright.

Over the past, ghastly, few months, I’ve been amazed and made proud by people’s resilience during this pandemic – at their deep rooted kindness and adaptability. It’s been incredible and uplifting. It’s been inspiring. It’s almost been worth it just to see such compassion. It makes me want to cry a bit every time I really, truly, think about it. But it’s been awful, a waking nightmare. It’s destroyed lives…

…and now we have to do it all again.

I’m sitting in a pub writing this, my local, squeezing out the last drops of my Sunday and licensed premise camaraderie I’ll be able to enjoy for a while. It’s one of those pubs where they know your name and you can walk in alone. Where you’re always amongst friends.

All around me – amidst the conversations of armchair eugenics and headline politics, despite the sharp end of the stick breaking the ribs of the hospitality industry – I am getting a sense of that end-of-March solidarity. People are preparing for Thursday, for the lockdown, and their doing it with the honesty and humour that I saw back in spring.

So, again, I feel proud. Again, I feel fear. But if we can call on the inner core kindness that we found eight months ago… then again, I feel we’ll get through this.

And next Christmas I’m hiring a marquee, everyone’s welcome.

Ed King is a Birmingham born writer and editor-in-chief of Review Publishing, which publishes Erdington Local  – alongside Active Arts Castle Vale. To follow him (and his stories) on Twitter, visit www.twitter.com/edking2210

For more on Review Publishing, visit www.reviewpublishing.net/

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OPINION: Marcus Rashford has played a blinder helping the hungry children of Erdington

Words Adam Smith

If this was any other year, then Marcus Rashford’s campaign to fill poor children’s stomachs might have fizzled out faster than a flaming Turkey Twizzler in a Northern blizzard.

But this is 2020, a year none of us will ever forget, and the Manchester United striker has nutmegged the Government completely and touched a raw nerve with the British public.

Today is the first day of half term in world’s fifth largest economy and there will be children going hungry because our Government will not pay peanuts for dinners.

And in the great scheme of things the £20m needed to provide poor children with dinners for a week in England (Scotland and Wales are providing them) is the equivalent what can be found down the back of the Government’s sofa.

I understand the argument though – it is not up to the Government to provide children with school dinners during the holidays. However, we are not living in normal times.

Millions of people in the North are living under lockdown and are unable to work, those on minimum wage and who qualify for help are not even getting the full amount, so if there was ever a time for the Government to listen to a footballer’s humanitarian plea then this is it.

And considering the story has led the news agenda for six days now, I bet they wish they listened to the 22-year-old and did a U-turn as they did in the summer.

Figures released in the summer revealed the Erdington constituency had the fourth most schoolchildren in England eligible for free school meals, 33.8% of 15,932 pupils.

To put that into context, if you walk down Erdington High Street today, you WILL see lots of children who need free school meals and could be hungry right now.

However, top of the free meals eligibility league was Northfield (35.4% of 16,437 pupils), which is represented by a Kingstanding councillor.

Erdington must be the only constituency in the country to have three MPs in the House of Commons. Labour’s Jack Dromey was elected by the people of Erdington in last year’s election, but in a strange twist of electoral fate we have two more elected voices who could shout for our area in Parliament.

Kingstanding Conservative Councillor Gary Sambrook rode into Westminster on Boris Johnson’s blue wave and was elected to represent Northfield. And Castle Vale Conservative Councillor Suzanna Webb took advantage of the Brexit / Remainer Tory civil war to replace former minister Margot James as MP for Stourbridge.,

A year after the election and both remain councillors, and therefore are supposed to be representing the area the best way they can. Both voted to stop feeding Brum children in the holidays.

From a quick glance at Hansard, it seems both are not raising Kingstanding or Castle Vale issues in Parliament – it is a bit like blagging your mate into a posh nightclub with a free bar and then not getting him a free pint because “it’s not the done thing”.

If you enjoy politics as a spectator sport, then this week has been great fun, seeing a working class Northerner run rings around politicians.

First there was the demand to feed hungry children, then the Parliamentary defeat and then, Britain being Britain, the avalanche of free food being offered by businesses across the country.

Seeing the amount of companies, councils, and charities answering the remarkable young man’s plea was a beautiful bright spot in a morass of COVID misery.

Erdington and Kingstanding did not disappoint either with cafes like Goodfillas and Stockland Café, and chippies like Reed Square, offering free food for children.

Goodfillers Cafe – Kingstanding / Kids can eat free (off the kids menu only and 1 meal per day) from Monday 26th to Friday 30th between 8am -1pm. Eat in only no takeaways

This was Pype Hayes fish bar Reed Square’s Facebook post: “We were shocked when MP’s voted down the motion to give free school lunches to deserving children throughout the October half-term holiday.

“Presently we’re witnessing first hand the devastation that the pandemic is causing to some of our customers finances due to job losses, reduced working hours therefore reducing their household incomes.

“As a proud member of this local community the team at REED SQUARE FISH BAR want to play our part. As such we will be offering each school age child a free meal, each lunch time next week with a choice of sausage and chips, chips and peas, chips and curry, chicken nuggets and chips. (one meal per child per lunch time).”

Have you ever known a chip shop sounding so angry? No, me neither. It was not so long ago politicians were demonising chip shops for causing our little cherubs to be obese – now the chippies are giving kids free food because the Government won’t… we are living in weird times.

Kingstanding Regeneration Trust are giving away 200 free meals tomorrow between noon and 2.30pm at George Road Baptist Church, Erdington – click here for more details..

And then there were the MPs who doubled down on the keep kids hungry policy. A North Devon MP attacked those businesses offering to help by saying they shouldn’t moan about being under COVID restrictions  – then Ben Bradley and Mark Jenkinson claimed mothers were swapping food tokens for drugs.

And now the defense is crumbling, with new Tory MPs feeling the white hot heat of Joe Public’s disgust as the man/woman in the street realised their taxes pay for subsidised meals – but not to feed the poorest children in society during a pandemic.

The Government is safe in power for another four years. But those Conservatives who are facing the ballot box next year are pig sick over the fowl up over these free meals. West Midlands Mayor Conservative Andy Street is a perfect example, he is up for re-election next May and he broke ranks to call on the Government to do a U-turn.

And then this morning, when the story could have run out of steam, Health Minister Matt Hancock did the PR equivalent of pouring petrol on the story and flicking a match at the media.

Hancock told us Boris Johnson had been talking to Marcus Rashford about the situation. Which was news to Marcus, so he tweeted immediately this was not the case.

New MPs usually pile on the pounds when they get elected, an endless round of free lunches naturally expand their waistlines. Then there is the subsidised food and drink in Parliament – a petition to stop this perk has got thousands of signatures.

The sheer disparity of well-fed politicians refusing poor children food is stark; it might not be as simple as that, but that is the perception. And it has enraged people, alongside MPs set for a 4% pay rise and private companies getting contracts worth billions of pounds to fail repeatedly at keeping us safe.

I qualified for free school dinners when I was a kid at Great Barr Comp. But my mom was too proud to claim them so instead of sitting with the cool kids eating chocolate concrete and pink blancmange, I’d be looking longingly from the ‘sarnie tables’ because I couldn’t face another lunch hour eating a drab crab paste sandwich.

I knew hunger as a child, as a teen, and as an adult when I worked in London – but what saved me in ‘the smoke’ was getting a press pass to Westminster.

All the food and drinks in Parliament are subsidised… by you. By the taxpayer. It was the cheapest place to get a decent pint and dinner in the entire city. What would cost £30 in St Stephens Tavern opposite Parliament would cost £7 inside those hallowed walls.

The food was fantastic too. And one thing’s for sure, there was not a Turkey Twizzler on any of the menus in Westminster.

To find out more about Kingstanding Regeneration Trust’s food giveaway visit www.facebook.com/events/2610523112591632

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OPINON: I love the Villa (more than my dinner) but I’ll NEVER pay £14.95 to watch a game on TV

Words by and pics by Adam Smith

On 18th October history was made in British football, and for my club Aston Villa.

Not the good type of history, like winning the league with a record number of goals, but the bad kind of history. The kind of history people will remember in the ‘that’s where it all went wrong’ kind of history. Like when an alcoholic remembers the first time they drank hand sanitiser

The Villa‘s game against Leicester was the club’s first ever to be shown on Pay Per View (PPV), at an eye-wateringly price of £14.95. It was not long ago when you could actually go to Villa Park for £15.

The Premier League Ripper-Offer-in-Chief, Richard Maters, justified the price saying: “we believe we have a good product.”

But it’s not, is it?

Football without fans is awful, it’s like watching park football. It’s like decaf coffee, like sex in a spacesuit, like listening to music with only one earphone working. Without fans, football cannot be fantastic.

No matter how many times everyone involved with the English Premier League (EPL) say “it’s the best league in the world”, it does not make it true. The Premier League is not even the best league in England, the Championship is way more exciting. And fair.

As a fan, the EPL is awful, we get ripped off at every turn and turnstile. Tickets are way cheaper in Germany, France, and Spain, and fans abroad can watch their teams play on terrestrial TV. We can’t, not since Sky made us pay for top flight football. In fact, our international counterparts can even watch English football teams on their TV for free… but in the UK, we cannot.

Champions League games used to be broadcast for free on ITV, but then because BT wanted more Internet customers they bought the rights – now, instead of a generation of youngsters watching inspiring English teams’ exploits for free, the Champions League now is the preserve of a tiny amount of people compared to ten years ago.

Even the term ‘product’ turns my stomach, like when football clubs began calling fans ‘customers’.

Calling someone a customer implies there is a choice to be made, but a real fan cannot swap teams. I did not choose to be a Villa fan; I didn’t have a choice. My great grandad preordained it, or maybe my great great granddad – by the time my nan and granddad were queuing for tickets in the 1930s they were both already from Villa families.

And even if I was an orphan, I grew up in Perry Barr, where the club started, and most my friends are Villa. My funniest memories are shared experiences with all them going to, or coming back from, watching the Villa – sometimes even what happened on the pitch is included in my mind’s mosaic of being Villa.

That’s why when a glory hunter tries to wind me up, I don’t care. I feel sorry for them. Yeah, you have your memories of watching a league win on TV… I’d rather have mine of not sleeping for two days after Villa got to the FA Cup Final for the first time since 1957 (when my granddad died two days before the cup final) in 2000, thank you very much.

My point is, I don’t have the choice to watch the Villa or not. But I do have the choice how to watch them, and where to watch them. And I choose never ever to pay £14.95 to watch them in an empty stadium. Or a full stadium, because when life returns to normal the FA are not suddenly going to stop PPV are they? Their Trojan horse/cash cow hybrid is here to stay. 

I would rather choose to stream the game for free via one of the multitude of Middle Eastern based websites, that have sprung up to allow us just this option. I have plenty of friends who do.

The fact that these websites (and somewhat more dodgy streams) exist is part down to the geo-political spat between Qatar and Saudi Arabia makes it even funnier when the ‘global game’ is shoved in our face.

Who usually clinches the top spots in the Premier League? Usually the club whose owners own the most fossil fuels, that’s who. Human rights violators have earnt a seat at the top table of our game. So, if the other side of the ‘global coin’ is easy-to-find streaming sites then it shows the football money men can’t have it both ways.

But now, I can’t even watch games that kick off after 8pm in a pub because I’d miss the end of the match – thanks to video assistant referees (another nail in coffin of football, along with tackling being banned and drop balls mysteriously disappearing) the games last too long and will not finish before the 10pm curfew.

It cannot be a coincidence when pubs had to close at 10pm, and households were forbidden to mix that, PPV was suddenly announced. The beautiful game’s bean counters have been itching to do this for years.

And what better than a national crisis to take advantage of?

When an NHS nurse is risking life and limb to fight COVID-19 and wants to watch their team after a hard shift, the Premier League decides this is the time not let them watch their team for free. This pandemic has shown the true colours of so many people, organisations, and companies. The Premier League have shown theirs.

The Premier League now can be added to the list of wrong ‘uns – along with bog roll hoarders, bog roll price hikers, and that Facebook friend with mush for brains who keeps on sharing those generic “I’m not wearing a mask” statuses.

My friend pays good money for his Sky Sports subscription, and generously gives me his password. (I’m enraged on behalf of his wallet he is now expected to stump up even more money to watch games he would expect for free.) The broadcasters obviously did not mention their plan to charge per games when he or any other customers signed up for a year or 18 months.

So, I don’t blame anyone for streaming Premiership games online ‘illegally’ – part of me thinks those people who show a match on their Facebook Live are cyber freedom fighters.

If a skint dad wanted his Villa mad kids to see the last day relegation decider against West Ham, but could not afford Sky or a trip to the pub, then I will lose no sleep if he finds a way, anyway, to have that bonding experience with his kids.

Personally, I don’t use the streaming sites – I’ve got a works laptop and don’t want it riddled with viruses. The editor might presume I got them through watching porn.

But one thing is for sure, £14.95 to watch a game of football on TV is more disgusting than anything in my search history.

I won’t degrade myself. And the Premier League should have more respect for all of us football fans.

For more on Aston Villa, visit www.avfc.co.uk

To find out more about the Premier League, visit www.premierleague.com

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OPINION: Invest in live music, not the pub

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Profile pics by Chris Neophytou

Imagine if the government invested in the soul of the nation.

‘If music be the food of love, play on,’ wrote Shakespeare.

I’m talking about music. From the point of view of a musician and gigaholic.

Music makes the world go round,” sang the Hamilton Brothers.

What I’ve witnessed over the past few months is a series of missed opportunities. ‘Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but foresight is better,’ taught William Blake.

Can we move forward from now, into the festive season, and reengage musicians? We can’t lose this precious part of our culture – live music. A lack of opportunities in the past few months has meant that brass players lips crumble, violinist fingers are stiff. All musicians – the well-behaved ones at least – are struggling.

It’s apparently too dangerous for musicians to be doing what they do, entertaining us all, bringing us all to a higher state of consciousness with harmonious sounds and that. Especially singers (yes, singers are musicians). Singing in groups is considered a ‘higher risk activity’ by the government, because of the potential for aerosol production. Don’t get me started on those pesky woodwind instruments. Ignore the hundreds of people protesting on the streets, Dominic Cummings on his roadshow of potential infection, or the big queue in Lidl – “there’s a flute player in this place! Shoot them! Or open a window for better circulation!”

At least I’ve had some gigs, I guess. I can’t complain, but I think I’m allowed to be somewhat sardonic. I’ve had a few livestreams, a handful of small outdoor gigs paid by the magic Arts Council England money tree of ‘please don’t forget us next year, we’re doing our best.’ Grateful. Honestly, very grateful. Here comes the cold now, where do we go?

Well, pubs are open. Great. And musicians are able to play in them, following some volume-related rules.  But that’s not really the investment in the soul I had in mind. Pubs are a chance for this full time musician to go out with his band ‘Jobe and the Spotify Playlists’ – doing requests for the ‘loud drunk guy at the front’, who shouldn’t be raising his voice anyway, but he’s bigger than me and the bouncer hasn’t spotted him yet/this pub forgot to hire security.

My experience in the pubs has been stressed landlords trying to tame insatiable extroverts and more covid-19 deniers than you can shake a Piers-Corbyn-branded stick at (I could have chosen any number of Covid-19 deniers). It’s a place for extroverts to get their fix, and the amount of antisocial behaviour I’ve seen at 21:55 because it’s kicking out time has been rather laughable. I proudly nurse my pint knowing I can stay past 22:00 curfew – I’m working!

I can see my musician mates disappearing off to ‘retrain’ under the reign of Rishi Sunak. Whether he did or did not say that people in the arts need to go and find a proper job, we’re just generally hot and bothered about the whole malaise of the situation.

Goodbye fellow musicians. Part of me wants to say ‘yey, more work for me’, but losing my band and playing to backing tracks actually makes my skin crawl. “Please!” I plea to my drummer (percussionists also considered musicians), “don’t become an itinerant electrician in Bedfordshire! You’ll be too tired by to gig on a Friday when you get back to Brum. Oh, and I need this amplifier pat tested.”

We’re quite harmless, actually, us musicians. We might complain about not being paid enough, and, no matter how much you’ve paid us, if we don’t get a free drink from the bar your name is besmirched for life. We all keep a spreadsheet of scrooge-oriented venue managers…

Anyway, we’re harmless.

On the 6th of October, there was a protest gathering of over 400 musicians in Parliament Square. They formed an impressive orchestra and blasted Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’ from The Planets, Op.32 at the politicians, who must have enjoyed a rather delightful evening concert for free. See? We can’t even protest, right! Lorry drivers strike by not driving. Teachers strike by their absence, shutting down a school. Us musicians strike by “ooh come on let’s have a ruddy good jam session, that’ll learn ‘em!”

Just imagine if the government invested in venues over this period, ready for the world to return to normal. Clean, socially distanced, even folk-club style. All people welcome. This could be a chance for people to listen to new music, or old music in a new way. You can actually pay attention to the lyrics for once! Dancing from our seats, doing the sit-down shuffle, and practicing to become the best ‘hummers’ in the world. May I suggest Puccini’s ‘Cora a bocca chiusa’. Or be inspired by the vocal acrobatics Bobby McFerrin.

I guess the only profound quote we can be left with now is that of Jim Bowen, the host of the 80s darts-themed TV gameshow Bullseye. After the players had lost, the curtains would draw back to reveal a speedboat, a car, or a “beautifully crafted Wedgwood Dinner Service set.” “Let’s see what you could have won,” Jim would say.

We’ve invested in health. We’re investing in economy. Let’s not forget the soul.

Let’s see what we could have won.”

To find out more about Jobe Baker-Sullivan, visit www.facebook.com/jobesullivanmusic

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OPINION: When someone says rape…

Director of the NOT NORMAL NOT OK campaign, which challenges sexual violence within the music industry, Ed King explores the difficult first reactions to a victim’s cry for help – and the importance to see beyond them.

Words by Ed King

I want you to remember your best sexual experience. I want you to relive, in every detail, the most pleasurable and safe experience you have ever had with a lover.

I want you to remember where you were, what you wore, what you had to eat and to drink. I want you to remember what they wore, until they wore nothing. I want you to remember what they ate, what they drank.

I want you to remember ever step of the sex itself – every physical touch and every emotion that went with it. I want you to remember what they did first, what they did last. I want you to establish a timeline. I want you to remember the strength of their body, if their skin was hot, cold, rough, or smooth.

I want you to remember if, at any point, you smiled.

Now I want you to go into the street and tell the first person you meet, a stranger. Tell them everything.

Now I want you to do the same for your worst sexual experience.

___________________

This is an exercise in empathy I saw the Birmingham based Rape & Sexual Violence Project (RSVP) organisation deliver, to a group of venue operators and licensees at a South Side Pub Watch meeting. It was a ‘tough crowd’, fidgeting through a hot afternoon and a meeting they were obligated to attend. But this stopped the room. This made us think. Can you imagine actually doing that…?

The idea is to put yourself in the position of a victim of sexual assault – to better understand what they would have to go through just to report what had happened to them. Just to start a criminal investigation, to hold a rapist to account, to get justice. To stop it happening again.

It gets worse for victim too, this is only the first step – next is a line of cross examination to see if they would be a viable voice in court, with all the clichés and rebuttals that circle cases of sexual violence like patriarchal vultures.

Did you lead them on? Did you know them? Did you act like you wanted sex? Were you drinking? Were you high? Was your clothing too sexy? Did you laugh at their jokes? Did you actually say the word ‘no’…?

But the RSVP exercise has stuck with me as a powerful way to put yourself in this terrible situation, even by proxy, and to encourage even if only a thin line of understanding – something that can clarify the pain and process a victim of sexual violence will have to go through when they report what happened to them. Just in reporting it. Not the violence. Just the admin around it.

This pub watch meeting was nearly two years ago now, but the exercise came back into my head recently after I saw someone shout rape on social media – receiving a rather immediate and short sighted response, calling for ‘evidence’, from a prominent member of the local music scene.

Now this is not an attack on anyone for involved in this conversation, debate and open discussion is healthy. And there is a side of me that says fair enough, evidence is important. Crucial in a courtroom. As a journalist reporting on anything, not just cases of sexual violence, I would be screaming “facts, figures, and cross referencing,” into my laptop.

Also, to be falsely accused of sexual violence must be a terrible experience – it does happen, you can’t and shouldn’t say it doesn’t. People of all genders and identification, of all ages, of all strata in society, are capable of lies.

But the bigger problem – the much more serious, pressing, and pertinent issue – are all the cases of rape, sexual assault, violence, cohesion, abuse, and manipulation that never get reported. With all the sexual aggressors that continue to normalise their heinous actions because the victim is too scared, too wounded, too vulnerable or unsupported to go through the reporting process.

People of all genders and identification, of all ages, of all strata in society, are capable of causing pain too.

So, what do we do?

Being involved in the NOT NORMAL NOT OK campaign has been, and remains to be, a significant learning curve for me – there was a point when I may have been the one calling for something to back up someone’s claim. Although I would like to think I would have done this at a later stage, off social media, and only if it was relevant for me to do so (i.e. not challenging someone who I didn’t know about something I was not privy to).

Plus, working with RSVP and the sexual violence and modern slavery team at West Midlands Police has helped me shape my understanding – something not everyone gets the chance to experience.

But the first step to take around cases of sexual violence is relatively simple.

You listen.

Start there. Listening helps.

Listening empowers people to recall and recant the most hideous of experiences, and to find strength to do it clearly – explaining the facts, figures, and ‘evidence’ that someone at the appropriate stage will be looking for.

The point of right and wrong, of truth and lies, is a few steps down the line. And we’re only at the first – you rarely know the veracity of what anybody is telling you, about anything, from an opening statement. You certainly don’t know it from a post on social media.

Walking into this conversation immediately asking for proof will not help someone to deliver information, to explain the situation – it will only help silence them and countless other victims who need support and who need to be heard.

So, again, listen. Start there. Don’t shut someone down because you don’t want to hear what they have to say, or because you hold crossed fingers that it will turn out to be untrue.

And if it helps, use the RSVP exercise – put yourself in the position of someone who has experienced sexual violence and has found the strength to talk about. To speak out. To challenge it. To seek help and to seek help for others.

And if you are still stuck, ask yourself this – if you were sexually assaulted, or raped, and you finally found the courage to tell someone about it…

What would you want their first response to be?

Ed King is the campaign director for NOT NORMAL NOT OK, challenging sexual violence in the music industry – from dance floor to dressing room, everyone deserves a safe place to play. For more on NOT NORMAL NOT OK, visit www.notnormalnotok.com

If you have been affected by any issues surrounding sexual violence and want to seek advice or support, visit www.notnormalnotok.com/category/support-advice or email info@notnormalnotok.com  

To seek help, advice, and support from the Rape & Sexual Violence Project, visit www.rsvporg.co.uk

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OPINION: Will your relationship survive another lockdown…?

Words by Adam Smith

Has your relationship survived 2020? If it has you deserve a medal. But could it survive another lockdown?

Romantic relationships are hard enough to maintain anyway but throw in a bomb like lockdown and they can crumble. Relationships have been put under more pressure than any time in living memory. As the old saying goes ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’

Anyone stupid enough to try and have two relationships in these days of mobile phones, social media and GPS locators must be mad. But as any cheater will tell you, it is the unplanned, the emergency situation which will scupper the most expertly weaved web of lies.

I know a fella who had a brain haemorrhage and woke up with three women around the hospital bed, if ever a man had a reason to fake amnesia it was him. I bet the nurses were gawping at better drama than in the nearest theatre.

The hardest days for bigamists in the year are Christmas Day and Valentine’s Day, excuses need to be made, meticulous plans need to be created and car-break downs invented.

Unexpected turns of events create hard choices. The lockdown announcement was a historically bad day for cheaters, and their partners. I’ve heard stories of cheaters leaving on that Monday night, not to be seen again until the post lockdown removal of personal items from the family home.

Cheaters were forced to play the worst ever game of stick or twist.

Those in two relationships were forced into a decision they had not planned to take so soon, or so definite.

I know someone whose wife left him to shack up with her other guy, another left immediately taking the kids and then using that they had moved in with her self-isolating elderly parents stopped the other parent from seeing the children.

On that lockdown Monday night the country was in shock and as usual the messaging was not clear; on Radio 5, a guest said children of divorced parents would have to stay with the parent they were with for six weeks sending listeners in blended families into an instant tailspin. The amount of arguments that bad piece of info would have created is incalculable as the message was unforgivable.

We have lived through an incredible and unique time which will never be forgotten, all relationships were tested, forged or forgotten. Many got through by the skin of their teeth, if both people are burying their heads in the sand then they probably will limp along fine together.

I’m pretty sure loads of women lost respect for their hipster fellas when they got obsessed by trying to make the perfect sourdough brioche – and plenty of men got jealous how Joe Wicks got their ladies moving in the morning.

I know one woman who has decided to leave her husband because he first believed “5G fries brains” then started banging on about COVID being a hoax – and for the cherry on the conspiracy cake, he now thinks Bill Gates wants to put a microchip in him via a vaccine. “I’ve realised the man I married has turned into a knob,” she said, which I’m not sure is actually grounds for divorce but I’m glad I’m not in his shoes.

And then there is technology’s effect on relationships, like when my friend’s extra-marital dirty talk was exposed after Apple synced devices and his son started getting sexy texts from his mistress. Or the guy who went upstairs to watch some porn on his phone not realising the sound was coming out of Alexa in the kitchen.

We are all different and everyone’s pandemic has been different; I know people who loved having a few months off to pursue their indoor passions. And some relationships thrived because the habit and routine of never being there was broken. One dude reignited his relationship with his wife because he was furloughed and enjoyed being able to spend time with his Mrs… oh, and the lockdown meant he had to stop seeing his mistress.

The sex toys industry saw sales rocket during the lockdown – as couples made their own fun to ease the boredom. Singletons now have an option, the new generation of sex dolls giving people the chance to live the plastic fantastic.

A bloke I know hires out ‘Amber’ for £200 a week or £500 for the month. He assures customers there is no wear and tear, and he gives her an antiseptic bath on return. Parts of her body are even guaranteed till 2040. No human on earth can guarantee they will be around in 20 years, let alone their genitals will be in working order.

And what about swingers? How can you socially distant swing, surely that can’t be a thing?

The oldest profession in the world cannot be done at a sweaty social distance either. There were fewer happy endings in Erdington massage parlors during lockdown than in an entire Scandinavian detective series.

However, for a shocking amount of people the prospect of another lockdown means sheer misery. Of all the crime in Erdington in September 25% was domestic abuse.

Relationships with cracks in them got a severe testing in 2020 and some would have resulted in violence for the first time. Whereas others would have given the abuser more time and opportunity to hurt the one they meant to love.

How did my relationship get on during lockdown…? We couldn’t see each other because of underlying health issues so absence made our hearts grow fonder.

We attempted Zoom dates and I tried to recreate a nightclub in my room by flicking the light on and off and putting a plant in front of my laptop, I think it terrified her.

(WARNING: The following video is not suitable for children… or most adults) 

So, we went old school and spoke over the phone from then on – agreeing never to mention it again.

I would never be as daft to offer pandemic relationship advice, if I did the combined energy of my exes rolling their eyes might tilt the earth off its axis. So, I will leave it to Stephen Stills: ‘Love the one you’re with.’

If you believe you are a victim of domestic abuse, you can seek help and advice via the freephone 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline is 0808 2000 247

For more information visit www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk

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OPINION: Local news, for local people…

Words by Ed King

You’d be forgiven for immediately thinking of Royston Vasey, with all the menacing euphemisms and dusty shelves from the League of Gentlemen’s local shop. For local people. Of course.

Yet there’s a truth behind the dark humour, a wonder in civic pride – albeit one cruelly distorted, as Tubbs and Edward murder workmen and deliver the most macabre of toilet humour. But as the residents of the fictional and isolated town profess, and what is mirrored by many of us less sinister residents in less sinister suburbs, they are proud to be local.

And I am proud to be the editor of a local newspaper.

I am proud to be let into the lives, hopes, and ambitions of people who live and work on the same streets that I do.

I am proud to be local. The name of our newspaper is no accident.

And I’m not the only one. In our midst we have national journalists who have come back to Birmingham to report on the areas they’ve grew up in and around – and won awards whilst doing so.

We have internationally touring creatives on our team, who return to the postcode of their birth to rest their head after every Polish folk festival or Salzburg concert hall.

We have writers who live abroad but pen content about our small corner of the world, and who do it with love – if even from afar.

We have people who have dedicated their professional lives to promoting local services and endeavours. We have local partners, local contributors, and local volunteers. We have people who care about their area. Because they’re local.

There is an argument that such focused loyalty could turn into hyper-local jingoism, in the wrong hands. Pride can dangerous too. But whilst the roots of our efforts are embedded in celebrating and challenging what is on our immediate doorstep, everyone is welcome to the conversation. We never exclude. Local is not only a birth right, it can be delivered through open arms and a morning “hello” to your neighbour. All you have to do is care.

But in journalism there has been a growing gap between the people who read a publication and the people who reside in the areas the publication’s masthead declares they cover.

I’ve seen other Birmingham media feature stories from across the pond, for example – and how relevant is North American clickbait to the people of this city? Or clickbait from London, for that matter. Or Manchester.

It is also worth noting that the ‘largest’ newspaper in our city sells around 15,000 copies of each issue. As of 2020, the population of the West Midlands was recorded as being over two and half million – with over a million living in Birmingham. Now how does that work…?

This is where we come in. Since the pre-sedition days of the Grub Street press to the advent of Facebook groups with a place name in the title, local news matters. And the wider the gap left by our peers, then the more reason and necessity there is for us to do what we do. Which is a job, challenge, and opportunity we relish. And one we’d do regardless.

So… wavy dream sequence… back to the dark stone, moors, and pursed pipped repression of the TV show that started this article. And don’t get me wrong, that’s the riskiest piece of Kendal Mint Cake you’re ever likely to buy.

But to be local is a good thing.

To love your area is a great thing.

And to be part of the collective voice – one that rises from the community you live in and one that celebrates and challenges the issues that affect the streets you live on – is a precious thing. It is something to cherish and something to be proud of.

This is a local newspaper, for local people. I’m a local editor. And, as I stated nearer the start of this article, I’m proud of that too.

To follow Ed King on Twitter, visit www.twitter.com/edking2210

For more on Review Publishing, visit www.reviewpublishing.net

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OPINION: The Economic Impact of COVID-19 – A Birmingham View

Words by Ifor Jones – Head of Partnerships, The Pioneer Group / Picture of Birmingham skyline by Luke Matthews, profile pic courtesy of The Pioneer Group

As the economic impact of the COVID-19 lockdown has become clear with the threat of a tsunami of redundancies across the West Midlands I couldn’t help but reflect on what I experienced first-hand with the closure of MG rover first hand back in 2005 with 6,300 redundancies being made.

This had a profound economic and social impact on local communities which was mitigated by the action of the MG Rover Taskforce. I led the community support strand of the Taskforce which started with mobilising advice services to work in tandem with JC plus and the Learning Skills Council and progressed with a community regeneration programme supporting grass roots organisations and focusing on providing support for workers and the MG Rover community.

The following sets out the learning and the lessons which arose from this tragic time which I feel are very relevant to the potential impact of COVID-19 across the City.

In the lead up to COVID-19, statistics for the first quarter of 2020 confirmed Birmingham’s comparatively high unemployment claimant rate (9.3%) compared to other major English cities.

The figure had been relatively stable but began to increase during 2018 in the wake of benefit changes connected to the roll out of Universal Credit.

It is my assertion that, when considering the potential impact of COVID-19, we will see two distinct cohorts within the unemployment claimant count for Birmingham.

  • Longer term cases clustered in geographical hotspots or demographic characteristics such as youth unemployment, BAME groups and people with disabilities.
  • Those who have lost their jobs as an economic consequence of COVID-19, across a range of sectors and impacting on an even wider cross section of the working population.

A Precedent for What’s Next

In 2005, MG Rover at Longbridge closed with the overnight loss of 6,300 jobs. Further job losses in the supply chain pushed this figure to over 8,000.

However, a significant number of workers were able to retrain to change their careers; undertaking academic vocational training. A report indicated around 4,000 (63%) of former MG Rover workers found new, mostly full-time, work. Approximately 25% of these workers were earning more with over 50% of them earning less.

Strong partnerships were key to the management and mitigation process, especially in relation to the social and economic impact of such a significant plant closure.

In a two-year period, I witnessed a shift from crisis management to sustained economic and social strategies for recovery. At the heart of this was a collaborative approach coordinated at different levels, from the very local in Longbridge and Northfield to across the city, region and nation as a whole.

My engagement through a localised team in the City Council was to co-ordinate the initial crisis response regarding advice and community support delivered in partnership with agencies such as JobCentre Plus and The Learning Skills Council. This was complemented with the support of organisations across the voluntary and community sector and, most critically, the MG Rover communities themselves.

Mobilising a response to administer change at pace was critical, as was building relationships with the workers and MG Rover to ensure engagement with and wider community buy-in.

The lessons that were learned, that can help us deal with the anticipated fallout of COVID-19 include:

  • mobilise interventions at pace working with both cohorts – existing and new claimants
  • get new cohort of unemployed into training and work as soon as possible
  • quickly intervene with training agencies and providers for re-skilling
  • ensure personal contact with individuals whether through advice and support or training
  • recognise importance of welfare advice and wellbeing services and administering benefits quickly
  • use opportunities for public service employers to take on and train former MG Rover workers, for example the city council created opportunities in youth, leisure and community development services
  • work in partnership – at regional, city and local levels – with public services, employers, community and third sector agencies
  • provide community support in the moment of crisis – e.g. helplines, social events, funding for holiday breaks
  • create a strategy for inclusive growth e.g. local area regeneration – Longbridge transitioned from a centre of economic activity of regional and national significance to an important local centre with a mix of new housing, retail, public services and some retained manufacturing.

Ifor Jones is Head of Partnerships at The Pioneer Group – for more on The Pioneer Group, visit: www.pioneergroup.org.uk

The Pioneer Group is a member of the Erdington COVID19 Taskforce, facilitated by Witton Lodge Community Association.

Established in April 2020, the Taskforce is a network of local organisations from a wide variety of sectors, working together to support people who have been adversely affected by the pandemic.

To access the online address book and database of local support services compile by the Erdington COVID-19 Taskforce, visit: www.erdingtonlocal.com/covid-19/local/support

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OPINION: …and you’re worried about a statue?

Words by Ed King / Pics by Paul Ward – all photography in this article has been taken from Snapshots of Mumbai

I used to live on Cecil Road. At the end of Cecil Road was Kitchener Road. Running parallel to Cecil Road, and perpendicular to Kitchener Road, were Fashoda Road and Manila Road.

Every one of these roads is named after a murderer, or where many murders took place.

And each terrace house that sits behind their names, be it full of second year students or people on remand, are an epitaph to evil. And Imperialism. And to Empire that stole a third of the world, then sold it back piecemeal at a charge.

How does this happen? What possible reasons could there be to celebrate such cruelty? Let’s backtrack… let’s look backwards to move forwards, to see the patterns. Let’s understand some history before we compartmentalise modernity.

In 1601 a group of London merchants set sale aboard a fleet of grand old ships called the Hector, Red Dragon, Ascension, Guest, and Susan – bound for the East Indies, a place we now recognise as India and South East Asia. White British men with their eyes on fortune and glory. White British men with privilege – a word you need to remember when talking about Britain’s colonial history.

Their mission was to trade, and their reason was that the Dutch, Portuguese, and French merchants were beating them to it – charging them a high price for goods a new society was beginning to enjoy. And to feel was their right to enjoy, be it gifted by God or the court. But it was trade that galvanised the request to take bullion abroad and exchange it for silks on the road. It was about competition, and greed – two more words to remember.

So, in one decree the East India Trading Company was born – and over the next 400 plus years would use their Amazon approach to the Elizabethan marketplace to end up controlling half the world’s trade.

What began as a royal charter to circumnavigate the prices of spices, silks, coffee, and cotton from mainland Europe, would turn into a centuries spanning race for control of international territories – one that would end in monopoly, slavery, a New World Order, and the backbone of what we purport as ‘democracy’ – after some savvy North American think tanks helped coin a new meaning. And wars. And bloodshed. And all the unspeakable horrors that occur when you believe God isn’t watching.

I know there’s a lot to research here, and I am not an academic man. But we all have a responsibility to ourselves, to learn. To keep learning. Then to pass on truth and knowledge. And as most of us walk around with the world’s largest library in our pockets that’s a pretty good place to start.

But there’s another point of understanding we need to address. Something I need to recognise too, as I become involved in conversations that are long overdue and fundamental to any future that can call itself equal.

There is a thing about being British. And white. And male.

And until the widespread media reports of recent weeks, it’s a word that that is not often acknowledged as it really needs to be. Just like the names of the roads where I used to live.

Privilege.

A hierarchy formed through history and hubris; a position stolen by my forefathers and endorsed by every silent generation that came afterwards, including my own.

I have it. My father has it, as did his father beforehand. It is impossible to be British, male, and white, and not have it. You can deny it all you like; all your heart wants to. But it’s there. We’re born into it. The world around us was built on it, by powerful people who can get away with murder. Who have roads named after them.

I’m not condoning acts of social disorder or violence, but crimes need to be challenged – whether they happened weeks or centuries ago – and their perpetrators need to be seen as the criminals they are.

Maybe some of us need to live in fear for a while too; maybe some of us need to know what that’s like. To be unsure of what the world could do to you without consequence. To walk down a road and not feel safe. To sit in a job interview and know it’s not your experience that’s the problem. To not get served in a bar, or a restaurant. To get heckled from the stands. To get spat on, to get to get punched. To have your last cries for help, for mercy, squeezed from your windpipe by a man with a badge.

And if you don’t believe there’s a balance that needs to be reset, Google each of the names I mentioned at the start of this article – those proud men and moments of history that still pepper UK cities. Whose names are remembered but whose actions we choose to forget. Men with privilege, granted by a world that hid its horror behind their own.

Lord Robert Cecil. Lord Kitchener. The Fashoda ‘incident’. The Battle of Manila.

Murderers and murder, adorned on the roads where I used to live – on street corners near primary schools and pubs. In the edge of our blind eyes every single day.

…and you’re worried about a statue?

Ed King is a Birmingham born writer and author of Snapshots of Mumbai.

For more on Snapshots of Mumbai, published by Review publishing, visit www.reviewpublishing.net/snapshots-of-mumbai

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OPINION: Black Lives Matter protest in Birmingham

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Chris Neophytou & Jobe Baker-Sullivan

As far as I’m concerned, the police in America might as well be a terrorist organisation.”

I was spellbound by the thousands of people who gathered in Birmingham for the Black Lives Matter protest. There were people of all ages and races. There were children, and even a few pet dogs. It was in response to George Floyd’s death – which has caused shockwaves in cities around the world. I was proud to be there for Birmingham’s show of solidarity.

Initially, it was a scary experience. On my way to Birmingham Library, where the speeches took place, I was handed a slip of paper from an organiser with ‘advice on arrest’. I became anxious as the crowds gathered momentum – lest we forget, there is also the possibility of being infected with coronavirus.

But the intention of this protest was noble.

People chanted in full voice: “George Floyd, remember his name!” organically, along with other slogans. There were signs containing anti-establishment messages, messages of hope – some tongue-in-cheek, some with wise quotations. The one that resonated with me was the powerful, ‘They want our rhythm not our blues.’ As a musician, I believe that a vast amount of popular music owes a lot to talented, pioneering yet anonymous, often intentionally uncredited, black musicians. And as a white musician, I believe we stole their music but we didn’t alleviate their sorrow.

By chance, I spotted some people I know from Erdington. Pastor Rasaq Ibrahim from the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) joyfully handed me a free face mask, before disappearing into the crowd to give more to strangers.

Feeling fully equipped, having brought my vinyl gloves and voice recorder, I joined the crowd outside the library to hear passionate speakers selected by the Black Lives Matter group using a portable PA, often doubled with a megaphone. It was only audible if you were very close to the action, but people were happy to start chants in their own pockets of activity. I caught most of the speeches, with various speakers commending the multi-ethnicity of the crowd, the fact that this protest cannot be the last, and getting the crowd to kneel as a gesture of solidarity.

The fight is not black verses white; the fight is not black verses Asian. The fight is not black verses any race. The fight is against racists,” one speaker sermonised, followed by rapturous applause.

A couple of hours later, we marched, from Centenary Square, along New Street, to protest symbolically in front of the Lloyd House Police Headquarters.

An acquaintance of mine spotted me in the crowd. Like all the following speakers, she is black and wishes to remain anonymous. She is from Castle Vale: “Everyone’s out here. Black, white, Indian. Fighting for the same cause. It’s like the most peaceful protest I’ve ever been to. The message is clear. All anybody wants to have is an enjoyable life, and some people are robbing them of that.

Me personally, I feel like Black Lives Matter is inclusive to everyone as well. As far as I’m concerned, the police in America might as well be a terrorist organisation. The George Floyd incident was filmed, but it’s like, this has been going on for decades. This protest is saying, stop it. Just stop.”

I too had fear that this day would not remain peaceful, having seen the news of tear gas and looting in America. Trump’s response was to threaten to send in the army to cease the unrest, yet here in Birmingham I see an army of well-meaning citizens mobilizing to bring positive change.

One man, from Moseley, tells me: “As you can see, everybody’s behaving and respecting. Not many police officers. In general, I’m quite blown away because also, nobody with grey hairs like us! The majority of people are under 30. It’s mixed like hell mate! Proper mixed… It’s been an excellent day, a great day.”

We stopped our conversation to admire the marching crowd as it circled around Colmore Circus. Buses had come to a stand-still, and cars sounded their horns as they drove by in solidarity.

This is different from every other one [protest] because it’s worldwide. And it’s unfortunate that the people who commit the crime are telling other people to be peaceful!”

Another male I knew from Erdington was a little more sceptical of the speakers present at the protest: “to be honest, I think it’s just a façade. There was no direction on the mic in what they were saying. There were people on the mic saying: ‘if you’re not down with XYZ then you’re not XYZ’.”

Black Lives Matter itself as an organisation is not without its criticisms. It has been accused of being militaristic, police-hating, and has had a history of confrontation in the public domain – a prominent Black Lives Matter activist and writer, Shaun King, was banned from Facebook in 2016. Although King’s censorship was later redacted by the social media giant and labelled ‘a mistake’.

But whilst agitation can be seen as an important part in evolving debate, it can also lead to messages getting blown out of proportion in a media frenzy – a difficult balance no doubt Black Lives Matter, and many activist groups, will be all too familiar with. And if you need an example of how this can go wrong, just Google ‘Katie Hopkins’.

But the response to the George Floyd murder, for that’s what it is, has been the most recent flashpoint of a whole history of anti-human abuse. Black lives do matter, and as offensive as it is to even need an organisation to clarify that the conversation about race needs to be kept alive, by everyone.

And personally, from my corner of the crowd and community, it was important for me to be part of this historic event in my own city. And as a musician, and a human being, I can only pray that finally a change is going to come.

For more on Black Lives Matter, visit www.blacklivesmatter.com

Jobe Baker-Sullivan is an Erdington based musician and arts ambassador, leading the Erdington Arts Forum and the Active Arts Evenings of Creativity. For more on Jobe Baker Sullivan, visit www.facebook.com/JobeSullivanMusic

For more on the Erdington Arts Forum, visit www.facebook.com/groups/cafeartsforum/

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