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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Billy King

Number 238: April 2016

[Returned to related issued on Nonviolence News]

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts –

Every season or stage in the year has its plus points and minus points. In the spring, we look forward to summer, warmth [in Ireland? – Ed] and long evenings. In autumn and winter we, or certainly I, look forward to curling up with a good read or a good film (occasionally, my partner would say not enough), and the enjoyment of simply being home. In the spring, daffodils and narcissi are for me the harbinger of the summer to come. I always regret the end of daffodils, and deadheading them (so the goodness of the plant goes into the bulb and not producing seed) is a task I do but do reluctantly, saying goodbye to a good friend I won't see for a while. There is also an element of the end of expectation, and, just as other plants are growing in the garden, so are the weeds....reality does not usually live up to expectation. Farewell my friends, see you again next year.....

Incoming messages
I got made redundant again. I may write about that experience, and compare my two experiences of it, sometime. But here, as an unemployed person (in the sense that no one is paying me for anything) I wanted to write about the basic income proposal and how it makes sense.

I am 'signing on' as unemployed to receive for six months my contribution-related unemployment benefit (they call it 'Jobseeker's Allowance'); my partner is working so I'm not entitled to anything else. Depending on how thick your skin is, the process of signing on in the UK system is demoralising. The staff are reasonably pleasant but each fortnight I sign on I have to prove (with detail) three things I have done each week to obtain a job. When I couldn't remember a detail I could see it is the brief of staff to disbelieve claimants until proved otherwise, they have to record detail.

Years ago when I last signed on, a group 'signed on' in quarter hour slots. Now you press a button to queue up, and then your number is called to have an individual interview. So, despite the attempt to individualise it (actually to put pressure on you to apply for jobs) you are really and actually a number in the system, however pleasant the staff. When sitting opposite the 'Jobs and Benefits' staff person you then have to detail the half dozen things (in addition to what they consider 'normal' job searching which they will previously have listed) that you have done in the fortnight.

I want to get another job. At my age, without too long to go to retirement age, it's a bit more difficult; technically, no one can discriminate against you but in reality many employers would. If I work 16 hours or more in a week then I have to sign off the dole. In terms of national insurance contributions towards a pension, signing on or having a job will do the trick, but if I got part time or freelance work then that could be problematic. And, I can earn the princely sum of UK£5 (a sum that has remained unchanged since the 1980s) before they take everything off me. So there is zero incentive to pick up part-time or freelance work. This will change a bit when the contested Universal Credit system in the UK hits Norn Iron – trying to simplify things is not a bad idea, it is cutting payment levels which is unjust and unfair.

'Basic income' (also called unconditional basic income, see here for an exploration in the British context) is a system where everyone gets a small income, enough to survive on at a minimal level. After that any income you make is subject only to tax. Obviously there would be still welfare benefits for dependent children, people with disabilities etc. But there is no distinction between being in and out of work. If this existed there would be a real incentive for me to pick up whatever part-time and freelance work I could get, and in this kind of situation I can imagine that, for many people, such employment could grow into a part-time or full-time job. It would be actively encouraging people to get work with a carrot and not a stick. Experiments with basic income show some very positive results.

Basic income makes sense. It is not by itself a passport to a more just society but it is a passport to removing the stupid stigmatising of the unemployed, and to encouraging individual enterprise. And that makes sense from everyone's point of view, both society and the individual who happens currently to be 'unemployed'.

Athens of the North
I have been doing a few presentations and explorations for relative newcomers from outside Norn Iron about the history and culture of Belfast, and the North and Ireland in general. In a presentation of not much over thirty slides, and a couple of sessions of an hour and a half each, it is difficult to cover the whole of Belfast and Irish history so I have naturally had to be very selective. One thing I did cover was the 1792 harp festival which helped preserve traditional tunes which otherwise would have been lost (thanks to Edward Bunting who was commissioned to record them) – the venue for this, the Assembly Rooms, still exist, to me possibly the most important cultural building in Ireland. This was the time Belfast became labelled as 'the Athens of the North", e.g. a beacon of culture and learning. OK, that was the 1790s.

There is occasionally debate about the extent to which Belfast was really an 'Athens', and how long for – did it extend far into the 19th century after the Act of Union? Certainly Protestant politics in general, and Presbyterian in particular (following quite extensive involvement with rebellious activities) quickly went in a more conservative, and reactionary British/Unionist direction (a positive orientation to Britishness is also possible). Nevertheless a certain amount of liberalism and even radicalism survived. Occasionally today the analogy is used about contemporary, bankrupt, Athens – to be the (contemporary) Athens of the North is not exactly a compliment, though the state of the Norn Iron economy possibly warrants it.

We can all dream I suppose. I dream of a day when once more Belfast will be a seat of learning and radicalism, and not radicalism of the sectarian sort. When it can lead other parts of Ireland in progressive political thought. When it shows a concern for the future which extends beyond petty self interest. Unfortunately, this isn't going to be the score in my lifetime but, who knows, my dream may one day become reality. When it was 'the Athens of the North' it was a bustling town – 20,000 or so inhabitants in 1800. Now it is certainly a city, though also now nothing like the size of Dublin (briefly in the early 20th century Belfast had a greater population than Dublin, now it's probably half the size, not having grown so much). If it does get there, well, I would like to be around to watch, and it would be worth watching. Sigh. It's a big dream though considering where Belfast is today, a mixture of the good, the bad and the occasionally ugly.

The Dubliners: A gender analysis
Well, what next, you might ask? An analysis of the Pope's Catholicism (actually, could be interesting), or Ian Paisley's Protestantism (I think I'm arguing against myself here, that is also fascinating). Regarding the Dubliners, of course it's bleedin' obvious, a group of bearded males who were very much part of Irish pub culture. How could they not be anything but very masculine?

The problem is, what is 'masculinity' and where does it shade into machismo or misogyny? All right, too, we shouldn't judge the past, in this case 1962 plus when the Dubliners began, by the standards of today. Except to some extent we do, and we should. Yes, we have to understand why things were the way they were in the past but that doesn't mean that we think they should be the same today, or would behave as people behaved then.

I grew up with the Dubliners, metaphorically speaking, and being into folk and trad they are a key group in that scene over a half century (they were officially wound up in 2012). But I confess I find listening to some of their songs difficult because of the gender bias in them, even where those songs come from or speak of a previous era.

I have a few other albums but recently picked up in an Oxfam shop a 2 CD set collection of The Dubliners "The Wild Rover" (2001) and I'll contain my comments to songs that are on that. Perhaps the most egregious example of machismo, and by extension misogyny, in this collection would be 'The Molly Maguires' who were Irish secret societies on both sides of the Atlantic, Ireland and the USA, but in relation to the song presumably referring to the coal mining Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania, who at times used violence against the oppression of the mineowners. So far so mixed. But in the song it goes "Make way for the Molly Maguires / They're drinkers, they liars, but they're men." Right. So presumably they go home and beat up their wives when drunk and then lie about it the next day? I don't know much about the Molly Maguires, and nothing about them individually. Maybe they were extremely gentle with their families. But the words of the song I find objectionable; it is all right to be a drunk and a liar if you are 'a man'. Yuck.

'The Gentleman Soldier' is another song I have difficulty with. You might say it is a cautionary tale about an already married soldier sleeping with, well there wasn't too much sleep involved, having sex with, a young woman one night. For him it it was a one night stand and he takes no responsibility for his action in presumably making her pregnant. If the cautionary aspect is to warn the young women of the time against one night stands, it might be considered legit. Except the tone doesn't sound like that. It sounds like it is poking fun at the naivety of the young woman in thinking the man will stand by her; "She had a little militia boy / And she didn't know his name". So it is a song about a soldier having, admittedly consensual, sex but abandoning his pregnant lover and poking fun at her and her naivety. Charming. The same theme is replicated in "Home Boys Home" where it is a sailor who makes a woman pregnant with twins; it purports at the end to be a cautionary tale, "Never led a sailor lad an inch above your knee', but the tempo and tone clearly indicate it is nothing of the kind.

'Dainty Davy' is the only song ostensibly written from a woman's point of view on the album although in 'High Germany' a soldier's lover is not keen to accede to his request to go off with him as he travels to war. The Dubliners were capable of imbuing their songs or ballads with considerable atmosphere and even empathy. Luke Kelly in particular, I would say, could put tremendous emotion into songs, added to by his distinctive voice.

Other songs on the album deal with the male experience but not in a macho way, e.g. 'Fiddler's Green' is a fisherman's idea of heaven or "Schoolday's over" (English/Welsh mining song). Some are nationalist staples, and/or support Irish violence against the British occupiers, e.g. Johnson's Motorcar. Some could be considered anti-war ('Button Pusher' and 'Johnny McGorry'), or anti-Britain's wars ('Saxon Shilling'). The odd one might be thought politically progressive ('Free the people'). But between songs supporting violence and the ones above supporting misogyny, well, it kind of spoils my listening. Sometimes it would be much more comfortable not to be politically aware and just take it as it comes.

- - - -

Well, that's me for now, April was a cool month and grass hasn't really started to grow yet. But the summer is i said at the beginning, expectation is usually better than reality. See you soon, Billy.

Who is Billy King?
A long, long time ago, in a more innocent age (just talking about myself you understand), there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train' and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor around with you).

Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little about horses even if someone with a similar name is found astride them on gable ends around certain parts of Norn Iron).

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