Thursday, 3 April 2014

Spirits - a Short Story

And now for something completely different...
Fergus McCullen wended his uncertain way back to his bedsit illuminated by sulphur street lights forming orange pools on the pavement, the rain driving so hard it splashed back up off the slabs, but Fergus didn't mind. It was summer and the rain was almost warm for once, echoing his own warm and wet state of mind. He pished himself and the rain obligingly washed his trousers. He didn't have any underpants on. In each of his hands he held a flimsy loaded carrier bag, perilously close to disgorging its contents at any moment. He breathed a sign of relief at making it over the flyover, liquid sustenance intact. He should be home soon. Perhaps he would take that short cut across the wasteland. There shouldn't be anyone to give him gyp or rob his cannies at that time of night what with the rain pishing.
He trudged off the road just before a clump of trees and onto the unlit muddy path by the stream that led to the arse end of his estate. He felt weary and suddenly quite tired. These week long seshes were starting to catch up with him. He wasn't as young as he used to be.
Next thing he knew he had tripped over a tree root on the path and head first into the congealed stream, hitting his head on a half-submerged supermarket trolley on the way down. Somehow he managed to scrabble back onto the bank where he fruitlessly searched for his carrier bags, before realising to his dismay that they must have landed in the stream. 'Aye f***!' he exclaimed, sinking to his knees.
Fergus didn't remember how long he had been searching the stream using a large branch he had found nearby but he was sick of it. To make matters worse, some eejit was lying on the path getting in his way every time he tried to progress along it and giving the prostrate figure a kick didn't make the slightest difference.
The rain petered out and dawn slowly broke. A couple of drunken youths sauntered along. Fergus shouted out to them to help him find his cannies but they ignored him. They had however acknowledged the figure lying on the path and given it a testing kick. When the kick was answered with no response they searched the figure's pockets and relieved him of his loose change and a watch. Fergus watched them in disbelief as he recognised the watch. It was his pirate Rolex from his former landlord's trip to Spain. He looked at the figure on the ground. Same shirt as him, same trousers as him, same shoes as him, same face as him…? Fergus felt his face with his hands in growing alarm. 'Jeez, I am still me.' he thought with some relief. 'But who the f*** is that?' His relief quickly evaporated as a terrible realisation dawned upon him. 'Oh ma God! I'm deed and that's ma body o'er there!'
Fergus spent the next few hours rooted to the spot watching as a brown boxer dog eventually lolloped along the path and licked his body's face, shortly followed by its owner, a stout florid man with a shaven head and neck tattoos who, after prodding the figure with a Doc Martin, rang the Police on his mobile, his boxer dog still trying its best at resuscitation. Fergus watched as first the Police arrived, shortly followed by the Paramedics, and he was photographed, tagged and put in a body bag to be trolleyed into the ambulance. He snuck into the ambulance unchallenged and hitched a ride next to the CPR trolley to Glasgow Royal Infirmary where he was admitted to the Mortuary.
'Well that's a tenner you owe me Angus. Didn't I tell you we'd have the first one by 8am?'
'We don't know it's alcohol yet.'
'Ha! Smells like a brewery! Though it'll probably be the fall into the stream that killed him granted, but it wouldn't have happened if he hadn't been drunk.'
'That's cheating.'
'No, just extenuating circumstances. Tenner please.'
Fergus watched in horror as, bet honoured, they cheerfully set about scissoring his clothes off and joking about his lack of underpants and the urine they found in his shoes.
'We've got a right one here Prof. Can't even be arsed to go in the bushes. Bet his flat's in a right state.'
'Well PC Kirsty will soon find out and give us the low-down. Here's his ID in his coat lining. An off licence loyalty card, surprise, surprise. Looks like someone's already helped themselves to a watch and any small change'
Fergus watched as they set about disembowelling him, de-braining him and putting various other bits of him in specimen jars. His liver was a particular cause of jocularity, being enlarged to over twice its normal size, though his shrunken 'pea' brain was also scorned. They then added insult to injury by speculating his age at 55.
'But I'm 43!' he wailed.
He thought about his bedsit and suddenly found himself there amidst a scene of domestic devastation, no sheets on the stained mattress, old newspapers and dirty food containers everywhere, health hazard kitchen and bathroom, cigarette butts and pennies strewn, threadbare curtains dotted with cigarette burns from hours standing at the window. An absurd thought about 'tidying up' before PC Kirsty arrived occurred, but when he tried to open the cupboard under the sink to locate a decade old bottle of bleach he dimly remembered, his hand went straight through the knob and nothing happened. PC Kirsty arrived with a female companion and they both changed into white protective suits and, much to Fergus's affront, face masks, before beginning to root through the pathetic remnants of his forty three years, taking photographs and bagging and tagging anything either suspicious or otherwise of interest. They were more respectful than the post-mortem surgeons, albeit repeatedly marvelling at how people could get themselves into this state and how sad it was they seemed to be seeing more of this sort of thing these days, if somewhat disparaging about Fergus's evident inability to pay for his own funeral, judging by what they found. 'Well how was I supposed to know I was going to die at 43?' he thought bitterly. 'I'd have tidied up, bleached the sh*te out the bath and left you some friggin' teacakes if I'd known!'
Fergus's funeral at the local crem two weeks later was no less a grim affair, only PC Kirsty, her companion and a locum vicar present as the service was mumbled with the greatest economy of tribute paid to a deceased known only in name and cause of death before the red velvet curtains finally closed on Fergus's life.
Having watched his bedsit being stripped into a skip, fumigated and redecorated ready for the next occupant and then the said new occupant whooping with glee at opening the door for the first time into their new bedsit before starting on the whiskey, Fergus found himself at a loose end. He was getting used to being dead now and rather bored. And god, did he need a drink, especially after all he'd just been through. He also found himself increasingly angry at being dead, and so prematurely, none of his childhood dreams of becoming a trucker realised. To the point he gave old Tam the hobo a good shove for outlasting him as he drifted towards his old haunts in the city centre. That man had hung about the precinct like the bad smell he was since Fergus was a nipper and must have sunk twice as much booze as Fergus including meths. How the f*** did HE get away with it?
Fergus finally entered the Mackintosh Arms, his favourite drinking den of old, until his friends de-friended him one by one forcing him to embark on a solo drinking career.
And blow me if that wasn't Bill Dunstan at the bar with a whiskey in his hand and wearing a pale blue suit. What was that b***ard doing in a suit? Bill had actually been that trucker that Fergus aspired to be. Before it led to an argument from which their lifelong friendship never recovered, that is. Fergus found himself salivating at the sight of Bill's whiskey. He could see it, he could smell it, he could almost taste it. It was within his grasp. He reached, but as usual his hand went straight through. 'Bill!' he shouted! 'Bill! Gi' us a drink, you tight b***ard!'
But Bill of course could not see Fergus, though he felt a shiver in the warm-bodied bar he couldn't explain as Fergus drew near.
'Bill!' Fergus struck him on the back, and again his hand went straight through. He thought he saw Bill's eyelids flicker involuntarily as he half turned. A thought occurred to him. 'Well ah'm no nancy boy, but ah ken what would happen if I walked into him.' Fergus tested out his theory and walked into the broad expanse of Bill's back.
Much to Fergus's amazement he could suddenly feel the glass as a real solid glass and pick it up with his hand. His hand??? He looked down and saw a far chubbier hand than his own and with cleaner nails lifting the glass to his lips. He drained the contents in one. Whiskey had never tasted so sweet. He ordered another and another, revelling in his new physicality. He ordered a home made lamb and ale pie. It was so long since Fergus had last tasted food, real food, even when alive. 'Steady on Bill. Dinnae forget that round of golf tomorrae' a face he did not recognise chided him. 'F*** off.' He replied cheerfully in Bill's voice then laughed manically at the sound of his new self. The strange face looked taken aback and then scared before hastily making its excuses and leaving. Wise man, thought Fergus. Then he went through Bill's pockets to find out how rich he was. He was gratified to find a roll of notes in his breast pocket. Several hundred.  And then another roll of notes in his trouser pocket. 
'Trucker, my arse!' he thought. 'But this one's for you Bill you old b***tard.' And with that, Fergus drained his sixth whiskey of the night, impressed that his new body was holding up so well. Several drinks later he treated himself to a local hotel and drank the mini bar dry, staying for weeks and taking full advantage of room service and satellite TV. A wife and some children he did not recognise eventually began visiting and repeatedly pleading with him to go home, telling him he wasn't well and that he'd had a breakdown. He laughed and eventually agreed to go home with them. He hadn't had sex for years after all and Bill's wife wasn't a bad looking hen. Let the revenge go on.
Fergus was impressed to find that he owned a fine 1950s art deco style home in the suburbs with a swimming pool, everything white and brand spanking new. His wife Kaitlin was pleasantly easy on the eye, her aquiline nose and short dark bobbed hair set off by designer suits which neatly encased her petite but bosomy figure. Way out of his league, he thought with satisfaction as she swept their people carrier into the driveway, he in the passenger seat. He could take or leave their two chubby couch potato boys whose only interest in life it seemed were x-boxes. 'They'll be boozers' he thought with satisfaction as he showered later in the en-suite, his unwitting wife waiting for him in the bedroom. He felt suddenly excited as he towelled himself dry. He had purposefully drank little this evening. It had been so long. At least five years. He cuddled up to Kaitlin in bed. 'I'm not sure about this Bill.' She whispered. 'You've been behaving so oddly lately and I still haven't forgiven you for abandoning us like that. You haven't even had that appointment with the shrink yet'
'Ssssshhh' he replied kissing her.
Suddenly there was a whoosh and before Fergus knew it he was ousted and standing outside the bed watching Bill whispering strangely emotional-sounding reassurances and promises into Kaitlin's ear as he slowly began to make love to her.
'You b***ard!' he screamed and launched himself onto the bed, but he fell right through it and the floor into the kitchen below. He was a mere spirit again.
He never saw Bill in the Mackintosh Arms again and eventually found through trial and error that the only drinkers whose bodies he could hi-jack for any length of time before eviction were those of truly hardened drinkers whose strength of character and personality were too compromised and weak to fend off or eject him. Fergus took maximum advantage of his next joy ride - Pete, an out-of-work postman - jumping off the top of his tower block once he had run through the man's redundancy payment. He had once raped a girl anyway Fergus realised with a jolt when he had taken him over body and mind, so he deserved everything he got.
A retired Judge who had once given Fergus Community Service for theft and a binge-drinking female student followed next, whom he forced to turn lesbian for his delectation, greatly surprising the male students in her circle whom she had previously been both generous and enthusiastic about bestowing her sexual favours upon. Both ended up felled by alcohol poisoning and Fergus took great delight in visiting the local Infirmary to find out what the post-mortem surgeons made of both of those. Quite a meal as far as the girl was concerned, her pretty face making the national papers as a tragedy, not to mention a disturbing comment on our times. Fergus chortled to himself and resolved to look out for similarly stunning female students to hi-jack and hit the headlines with.
If Fergus had been better educated he could have fantasised that he were Zeus assuming different bodies and shapes, except they weren't exclusively his and moulded for his express use, but other peoples' and taken without their permission, but either way he was having a ball! Who would have thought that death would turn out to be the best thing that had every happened to him? Sometimes he didn't even drive his hosts to an early grave, but merely traded them in when he grew bored or their health started breaking down and he just couldn't be arsed to put up with a failing body, too sick even to enjoy a jar.
Regrettably his own neglectful boozy parents were long dead as he'd have enjoyed taking his revenge on them too. All those hours locked in his room and days only fed when they sobered up enough to remember. That was the thing about booze or even drugs. Children only get fed when their boozy or trippy parents are hungry and remember, and since they seldom are, going without becomes an occupational hazard. Eating out of neighbours' dustbins, or better still, from the bins behind cafes and restaurants almost became a way of life for Fergus.
But the Head Teacher who didn't believe him when Fergus tried to tell him what his home life was like was probably the next best thing. Thus was Mr Trevor Pangbourne's fate sealed. Luckily he turned out to be all too ready to have his retired body hi-jacked, having retired to the South of France for the sole purpose of drinking himself to death at a leisurely rate amid convivial ambiance and within sight of a mediaeval castle. The worst of it was, no ex-pat pal even raised an eyebrow as they toasted their late friend, which irked Fergus no end as he left the provincial graveside.
But his spell in the South of France gave Fergus an appetite for the travel he'd never experienced in life and he found that just by imagining a place he could be there, an advantage he didn't have when inhabiting an earthly body.
He was shocked to see how narrow his life had been in his filthy Glasgow bedsit on the dole and on his tod. Now he felt even more angry and cheated. The only certificate he had ever attained was his birth certificate. Ok, and death certificate. But what had his life amounted to? What had it all been about?
He felt an urge to return to the city of his birth. He felt sure that's where the answers lay. Invariably he ended up in the Mackintosh Arms eyeing up a brash shiny-suited young prospect who was regaling the saloon with his mobile phone Salesman of the Month coup, but whom Fergus sensed was already out of control. Multiple jars later and after a thrilling high-speed Police chase weaving dangerously around the ring road in the young salesman's Fifth Series convertible (Fergus had never learned to drive), he rounded the evening off in a head-on collision with a bus, hardly a dent incurred by the bus, but the poor salesman's bragging silenced forever in the concertina'd car, Fergus felt slightly guilty as he regarded the smoking wreck. How could he continue doing this having met the Pope on his astral air travels?
He shrugged. The salesman had annoyed him, rubbing his failure's red nose in the salesman's precocious success. He deserved it.
He wandered the streets and entered a hotel, peeking into various rooms for vicarious thrills. Then he came across an empty one and decided to treat himself. He had no physical need to lie on a bed but it was kind of nice anyway, so he did. Suddenly he noticed arms and legs emerging from the walls and as their faces appeared he recognised the victims he had joy-ridden into the ground, including the salesman from earlier that evening. They crowded in on him until their faces seemed only inches away from his. He felt suddenly fearful, then laughed. What were they going to do to him? He was already dead. Play their cards right and he might even show them how to enjoy themselves and dispel their bitterness towards him.
'McCullen!' exclaimed Mr Pangbourne, his face looming the largest. 'I think you'd better come with me young man. The headmaster wants to see you.'
'But you are the Head Teacher.'
'I refer to a headmaster of far greater authority than myself McCullen, for it is St Peter himself who wishes to see you.'
'And what if I refuse?'
'You'll be incarnated as an amoeba and have to start your chain of personal evolution all over again. An average of 10,000 lifetimes until you graduate to even the most primitive human life form again. And you know how you always hated doing homework.'
'Oh.' Fergus replied and, meek as a lamb, rose from the bed to follow Mr Pangbourne into the tunnel of light which now emanated from the hotel room's flat screen TV, his other victims forming a human cortege behind.
©Laura King

Monday, 31 March 2014

The 'Cinderella Law'

The emotional abuse or neglect of children is to become illegal if the proposed new 'Cinderella Law' is introduced. Crimes such as the withholding of love toward a child could become an imprisonable offence, carrying a sentence of up to ten years!

Goodness knows where this would have left my late father who, by and large, could only show affection to cats and whom I now firmly suspect was on the autistic spectrum. Would my sister and I have been taken into care?

On a more serious note, while the sentiment of stamping out emotional abuse and psychological harm is admirable, how on earth would it be policed and established beyond reasonable doubt, let alone enforced? Prior to which would be the more pressing urgency to have 'neglect' and 'abuse' legally defined and categorised, to exclude the parent who makes their child do its homework each night, refuses to buy it the latest branded trainers and disallows it to live on ice cream and marshmallows! (always a childhood dream of mine). Notwithstanding, there are plenty of parents who are simply not very good at parenting or have psychological impairments to expressing emotion like my father. They may not mean to ignore or act inconsistently to their children and their children may love them in spite of their shortcomings or, what may appear to outside eyes, a latter-day Dickensian scenario. Then there's the opposite scenario of 'loving neglect' - where children may have all the gadgets, holidays and ponies that money can buy - and a whole string of au pairs or nannies - just very little time spent with their actual parents. Sending children to boarding school too could potentially be classed as emotional neglect or abuse, depending on who you ask/which boarding school (an ex of mine was very badly affected by being packed off to boarding school from the age of eight). And what of all the ill-educated parents who have little idea of how to stimulate and intellectually nourish their children and consider that to feed, clothe and send them off to school each day is enough? From what I have read, this law almost assumes that all parents are middle-class and well educated, therefore any neglect must be deliberate.

Curiously however, there is no mention of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), the syndrome in which the resident parent effectively coaches or coerces a child into hating a formerly beloved non-resident parent (and sometimes that non-resident parents' entire side of the family) post divorce/relationship breakdown, using much emotional manipulation up to and including threats of dire consequences if the child defies them. Some resident parents even make false criminal allegations to paint their former partners in the darkest possible light or get them into trouble with the law.

PAS can happen to children of any age - it is merely the tactics which change. The good news is that PAS is provable by means of The Warshak Test, a psychological test developed by leading PAS authority, Dr Richard Warshak, which could easily be insisted upon by a judge in cases where mediation is refused or a child is reported as not wishing to see the non-resident parent. The resident parent could then face losing their maintenance payments, and potentially custody of the child or a prison term in extreme cases if it is proven that they are deliberately psychologically harming their child by obstructing a relationship with the non-resident parent out of their own need for revenge or spite, rather than acting in the child's best interests, (and why on earth are children still not required to appear in UK family courts?) How is a judge supposed to establish the truth from a third party report, or even the hardly unbiased word of the resident parent, who may be largely responsible for the child not wishing to see the other parent?!

I believe that stamping out the emotional abuse of PAS would be a much easier ask for the family courts to address than the decidedly grey and uncharted territory of how much parental love and attention is enough to produce a healthy, happy and productive new member of society.

Some childcare experts would furthermore argue that, at the lower end of the scale, being allowed to get bored or frustrated sometimes is an essential part of child development in its own right as the child who is never allowed to grow bored or frustrated never fully develops their creative side or the resilience and independence they will need to survive adult life.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Slain by Mr Brutus (for daring to ask about a pension)!

It's been a harrowing few weeks. First I was jubilant at landing a Property Manager job in charge of 121 properties in Brighton and Hove on two sites (one a former Victorian seafront hotel), office to myself, entirely in charge of my own workload, minimal red tape, ok starting salary and commission.
My new employer? KF Properties, owned by Keith Freedman, devisor of Brutus jeans and Trimfit shirts in the days when teenagers were newly invented and needed something to wear in-between Teddy Boy and New Romantic, who subsequently decided to go into property and now owns properties in a number of locations including Germany - strapline - 'accommodating the world'.
Then, just as I was getting my teeth into the role and getting to know my new residents and contractors, dismissal, purely because I dared to ask if KF Properties provided a pension (would this even have happened if I were a man?). On this basis, I was told that I 'obviously wasn't going to be staying if I wasn't happy and should therefore leave as my line manager Jitendra Patel ('JP') did not want to have to keep recruiting new property managers'. This made no sense to me as what did he imagine he would have to do all over again by dismissing me? And I was later informed he had already gone through four in two years, so surely it must have occurred to him that there might be a long-term staff retention issue which needed addressing.

But needing the job I was still happy to sign the contract and commit to staying for the foreseeable future (no employee can surely promise to stay beyond the foreseeable future), not least for the sake of my CV and not wishing to look like a job hopper. As for how long I stayed after that, well that was surely up to my new employer as much as myself, commitment being a two-way street.

Maybe I should have spotted the warning signs. It was a strange interview. I had been told in two separate emails to wait in my car outside the premises and Mr Patel would come and summon me when he was ready. I duly replied with details of what car I would be waiting in and arrived ten minutes before my interview. I waited, and waited, and waited. Until 20 minutes into my interview, I ventured out of the car, walked up to the office and tentatively rang the bell, expecting that the previous interview must have overran. Mr Patel answered the door looking harassed and told me I was late. I apologised and told him I had been advised in two separate emails to wait for him to collect me from my car. He then said he had been out looking for me (not true as I had anxiously been checking at momentary intervals to see if anyone was approaching the car). We moved on to discuss the job and he showed me round. Before the end of the interview he invited me for a second interview, after which he spent five minutes advising me on how to buy the cheapest rail ticket to reach their Head Office in London,

During the second interview at their head office in London, I met JP and Mr Brutus himself, Keith Freedman, who displayed the laconic air of a retired rock star who didn't have to try too hard, in a black laminate and leather-chaired board room whose walls were lined with Trimfit shirts and Brutus products. The interview was fairly informal, more of a chat about what they needed, rather than a grilling. After Mr Freedman left, Mr Patel detained me in the boardroom to tell me about the problems he had had with his previous property manager. Apparently she had thrown out all the office furniture and replaced it without his consent, double-locked him out of the Brighton and Hove office when he tried to visit and refused to meet with him on Saturday mornings as required. Moreover he alleged she had done very little of the work he had asked her to do and standards were sliding and the property vacancy rate was rising. I was suitably appalled and assured him he would have no such problems with me. He did look a bit pained when I presented my full-price rail ticket for reimbursement, though I explained that I might not have made the interview on time if I'd waited for an off-peak train.

I was told I would know by the end of the week if I had the job. On Friday at 4.50pm, I finally had the call saying I had the job and could I start the following Tuesday? I said yes and accepted the emailed offer letter in writing (no mention of pensions), but it did state that that there was no sick pay scheme, which didn't bother me unduly as I am seldom sick. JP seemed delighted and said he would have my contract ready in a few days, but not to worry, he would make sure I got paid. He had also arranged to have the property manager who had retired a few years before to come in two days a week for the first month to help train me.

I started on the Tuesday and met Peter L, a charming gentleman of retirement age who had apparently left because he wanted to go part-time and they wanted someone full-time. He seemed to think that KF Properties were a good employer once you got used to their 'funny little ways', but had always had his own property management business with his son as well and also wanted to spend more time with his wife in their retirement, so full-time was not for him.

The first few days were pretty full on as I got on top of all the phone messages, emails, assorted admin and building works and then proceeded to get to grips with the lettings side as well. I let my first flat within days and was busily getting all the other vacant flats up to scratch. Some things about the job surprised me such as the website inferring that all KF properties were high-end, but the Brighton and Hove ones were actually quite basic and the former seafront hotel had faded floral communal carpets which looked forty years old if they were a day and were curling at the edges and worn on the stair treads, a scruffy carpeted 60s lift, mismatched chandelier bulbs and a rear elevation which had not been painted or had its windows cleaned in years. (strangely, the tenants seemed to be expected to clean their own exterior windows, even at high level, and quite rightly were complaining about this). However I thought better of tackling anything more than the chandelier bulbs in my first week, most of which were not working in any case, leaving one lobby in almost complete darkness and a risk to Health and Safety.

 JP seemed pleased with my progress and I met with him on Saturday morning. He brought my contract but neither of us had time to look at it as we had so much work to discuss. He asked me to check it and I could return it the following Saturday when we met again. I finally had time to read it after the weekend and was surprised to find there was no pension provision and no mention of one for the future, not least in light of government requirements to bring one in. I questioned this and a few minor points in a friendly letter making it clear I was entirely open to negotiation, albeit letting a duty phone allowance (for the phone I was expected to carry and respond to 24/7) and the requirement I could do no work for any other party while I worked for KF Properties pass. I was also apparently not allowed to take a day off for the three months of my probation, which seemed a little unreasonable, but a job was a job and a recession is a recession. However the codicil asking me to sign away my 48 hrs European working rights was labelled as 'optional' and I was invited to cross it out if I did not want to sign it so I did. JP later let it slip in a somewhat hysterical phone call that this clause had been rather less than optional.

I emailed my points to him and went to work next day, thinking no more about it, then at the and of the afternoon read his reply, which answered each point until the last point about pensions where he gave me one week's notice to leave!

I pleaded with JP to reverse his decision and then received a phone call in which he seemed to assume that because I had only served a week and was on three months probation, I had no employment rights and he could treat me how he liked with no comeback. I pointed out that he still needed a valid reason to dismiss me and there was such a thing as an 'automatically unfair dismissal' and he shouted me down on this.  Plus how could he dismiss me for wishing to question a contract (which he had asked me to check) when I was presumably expected to negotiate rent raises from the tenants? There was no reasoning with him though. Apparently the great man had also spoken and dismissed I was.

However being tighter than his own 'crotch-crushing' jeans, I was still required by Mr Brutus to work my week's notice rather than being paid to leave immediately.

That last week was particularly difficult as I served the tenants and contractors each day trying to be cheerful and professional and solve as many of their problems as I could and accomplish as much work as I could until the end (it wasn't their fault they were about to lose their latest property manager after all), but the few people I told at the end were extremely shocked. As for me I am still in shock and my polite request for a settlement agreement has fallen on deaf ears.

I certainly never expected a multi-million pound jeans tycoon and property mogul to behave like a cowboy. Then again, with no mention of Health and Safety either (normally the legal bane of one's life in property management) perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Nicer Than PIE

All kids knew who Mary Whitehouse was when I was growing up. She was that interfering old biddy-body (and self-appointed chief of the Viewers and Listeners Association, which she founded), forever on the telly with her 'Clean Up TV' campaign railing to stop us kids hearing any rude words or watching or hearing anything else we shouldn't. In short she was out to spoil our fun and make us conform to white middle-class Christian values just like hers.
She was a figure of widescale derision, perhaps hardly surprisingly when she demanded that the word 'knickers' be removed from the Beatles 'I Am A Walrus' prior to broadcast on TV, complained about Mick Jagger's suggestive microphone positioning and as for Chuck Berry - he could keep his disgusting 'Ding-A-Ling!' to himself, stateside! All these and more legendary demands for 'public decency' long before two young comedians thought to wind her up with their TV comedy show The Mary Whitehouse Experience.
Now I read we children had reason to be more grateful to this retired RE teacher than we imagined as she was the one who exposed that PIE (the Paedophile Information Exchange - yes they really were that blatant back then) was being partly funded by government money and even had supporters from within the Home Office. Not only had PIE hitched its bandwagon to The National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty) where it found naive support among some now-senior political figures (sic recent scandal), it had attempted to do the same with feminism and the Gay Liberation Front. In an age of 'anything goes', it chanced its arm to sneak in and pretend to be a valid maligned minority group arguing for its rights to be recognised and enshrined in law just like any other. Not to mention the rights of children to sleep with ancient raddled adults (don't remember waving my junior placard on that particular protest).
Had Mary Whitehouse not shone a timely torch on PIE and their activities, who knows how much further PIE might have got?
Here is a chilling BBC interview with two of the proponents of PIE arguing for the age of consent to be abolished, incest to be legalised, and claiming that it is child molesters who are the dodgy ones out to exploit children - 'paedophiles love children' - the term paedophile meaning 'lover of children'. The interviewer seems worryingly out of his depth too in coming up with effective counter-arguments or killer questions.
Of course even in this area Mary Whitehouse did not always get her moral compass right.  When her National Viewers and Listeners Association decided to dish out annual awards to what they considered fine and upstandingly wholesome British TV shows, Jimmy Savile won one for 'Jim'll Fix It' and Mrs Whitehouse was quoted as sighing; 'If only they were all like that nice Mr Savile.'
How she must be turning in her grave now, poor dear.
At the end of the day though Mrs W was proven right in her suspicion that standards were in steep decline. Nowadays you don't even have to wait for the 9pm watershed to witness scenes of gratuitous sex, violence and swearing on TV. Then computer games, the internet and mobile devices came along. Now any individual of any age can watch anything, anytime, almost anywhere. It's like the nation has lost any sense of responsibility towards its young or vulnerable. Either that or I am getting old and this isn't really happening. On the flip side at least most youngsters know what a paedophile is these days (without it having to be explained to them by a broadcaster) and forewarned is forearmed. The law also takes paedophile crimes seriously nowadays as oppose to just sweeping them under the carpet and encouraging any victims brave enough to come forward to just forget about it as the law would have done in the 70s and 80s. Though as broadcaster Matthew Parris opines, plenty of right-minded individuals were as horrified by PIE in the 1970s/80s as we would be today, and it is thanks to their efforts then that PIE was eventually forced to officially disband in 1984, mission for acceptance, legal rights and protection for their activities unaccomplished. Thankfully.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Afternoon At The Psychic Fair

I've always been fascinated by saints, angels and all things spiritual or psychic, so naturally I felt compelled to go along to the Mind, Body and Spirit Show at Hove Town Hall last weekend when I saw it was on.

Happily my boyfriend is willing to try most things once, not least where lunch is involved! Having dandered around all the crystal and angel stalls and consumed said lunch, we decided to have a reading with one of the psychics, Ann Sinclair (pictured). Unfortunately she didn't do couples, so since my boyfriend has had such a tough time over the last few years I gave the reading to him in the hope he might derive some comfort from it.

He received advice that a deeply worrying situation at work should be resolved by early summer and also that his estranged daughters had been misinformed about him, even more so than he knew, with one of them more set against him than the other.

Ann went on to say that one daughter would eventually realise that all was not as she had been told and want to see him again and that the other would follow.

He left feeling comforted as he has effectively been denied a voice where his children are concerned and has never been given an opportunity to talk to them.

On their side it is entirely understandable how his daughters would never consider their own mother might be less than honest with them, presumably in a bid to deter them from seeing their father and cause them to believe he was a worse man than he is.

We then bumped into some old friends of my partner's at the fair whom he hadn't seen for ages, so a very pleasant afternoon.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Universities - Widening Horizons or Offering Narrowing Horizons...?

It was fine for academics to engineer university education to suit themselves and their research, writing, lecture tour and sabbatical activities in the past when Universities were free for students to attend and even paid students to attend them via the student grant
However now that British Universities are not free to attend and fees have recently risen by 200% for the majority of students, and the process of turning students into those demanding creatures known as consumers is well underway, how much longer will students put up with the fact that a three year degree could easily be condensed into two years for most degree courses, thus saving students precious money and resources? 
Not least when you consider that with holidays taken out, most British universities are spending no longer than six months of the year engaged in actual teaching/lecturing activities and even then, not equivalent to the timetable demands of a school, unless of the intense nature of a medical degree, which may require placement shift work in addition to conventional tutoring.
Some OxBridge academics in particular teach for as little as 15 hours a month on full-time salary, with the rest of the time devoted to their own academic activities. They are not even required to share the financial fruits of any academic success with their College or University, much though their College may benefit from the kudos of their incumberance. 
Would it also surprise people to know that the majority of OxBridge academics are not actually OxBridge graduates themselves? Which isn’t to say they are not generally high-quality academics, but it’s the brand that you are primarily buying into with OxBridge, and the networking towards your future you will be doing whilst there. Elitism? Certainly. But that is the brand being sold here. You want redbrick values?  Choose a redbrick! Don’t choose Oxford and then bleat to the Daily Mail about its inherent social unfairness, though things have opened up somewhat for those lacking in silver spoons at birth over the last 30-40 years.
While the cost of becoming a graduate has gone up, the value of being a graduate has simultaneously gone down, resulting in higher numbers of graduates flipping burgers or emigrating. Ten years ago a typical graduate starting salary was £21k. It is now £14k. If they can get a job. Supply is beginning to exceed demand as the rate for university entry carries on rising though demand for graduates of the less popular subjects such as chemistry is still high.
Meanwhile the international students relied on as cash cows are seeing high-quality universities going up in their own countries offering a cheaper alternative closer to home. There are also internet degrees as well as the more established alternatives such as the Open University. Even home students are noticing they can get an English-speaking university education in the Netherlands for up to two-thirds less cost than in England. Apprenticeships and traineeships are being resurrected with some companies offering new recruits free training to degree level in their field as part of the package, particularly companies such as accountancy firms.
It is time UK universities started waking up and smelling the coffee re the future. The current level of graduates is unsustainable on so many levels, not to mention failing to turn out the right numbers of capable and cultivated individuals in the right areas for the country's benefit, being top-heavy in some subjects and bottom-heavy in others. They also need to decide if they are corporations or educational institutions as the two do not marry well and have completely incompatible agendas. Oxford and Cambridge will doubtless survive, but some will definitely be closing their doors in the coming years if they are not providing the USP of a gold-standard education and have no kudos, quaint pretty buildings or useful social network to offer either.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

An Abundancy of Redundancy (aka An Embarrassment of Poverty) But Does It Have To Be Like This?

Visiting my widowed mother in Ireland last week, I happened upon a dusty but trashy looking old paperback in a bookcase called 'How To Be Rich' by J. Paul Getty. I picked it up and was surprised to find it a riveting read, elegant in its straight talking economy of words, as it detailed Mr Getty's rise to success from his early wildcatting days as an oil (black gold rush) seeker in early 20th century California through all his subsequent triumphs and failures along the way, refreshingly devoid of business bullsh*t speak, but sharing his business wisdom with all who wished to learn.

Naturally I had heard of Mr Getty (one of the world's wealthiest men), but I had never paid much heed to him or his life, except to recall he was also renowned as a miser, even turning his house phone into a payphone to deter guests from taking advantage.

Yet reading his book, one of the most startling passages of all went as follows:

'Labor costs are also high but I've often observed that the man who complains the loudest about excessive wages is the same one who spends fortunes on advertising and sales campaigns to sell his products to the millions. How on earth he expects the workers who form the bulk of those millions to buy his chinaware, garden furniture or whirling spray garden sprinklers unless they are well paid is beyond my comprehension. Labour is entitled to good pay, to its share of the wealth it helps to produce. Unless there is a prosperous 'working class' there can be no mass markets and no mass sales for merchants or manufacturers - and there will be precious little prosperity for anyone.'

How has Britain so seemingly neglected this absolute bedrock of a truth to eat out its own heart? Everywhere around me I see working class jobs disappearing fastest of all as shops either close down or become self-automated and once-safe council clerk jobs, librarian jobs and bank jobs are also being shed by the thousand. Customer feedback surveys such as the easyJet one I just completed are evidently geared towards dispensing with the check-in staff and reducing the number of flight attendants. Even Tourist Information offices are suddenly closing as if to say. 'Sod off tourists - you've all got smartphones so you don't need human beings to welcome you to this area and assist you any more!' Yet who do the powers that be think they are catering for if not the normal average-earning individual whom they are so quick to shed?

And where are all these people going to go and what are they supposed to do for the rest of their lives? Claim benefits? Emigrate? I know I've written similar postings in the past, but there are few subjects that remind you of them on a virtually daily basis quite like this subject does. Since I have been away for a week two of my favourite stores have closed down. Meanwhile in Ireland my old once-prosperous hometown of Ballymena is looking increasingly ragged round the edges and the poor old county town of Antrim has been decimated altogether, its once-gleaming and bustling 'Castle Centre' now like the Marie Celeste!

The top 10% of UK households are now said to be 850 times wealthier than the bottom 50% and the wealth inequalities continue to widen.

At the top end of the scale company director salaries have increased from the traditional 8 x the average worker's salary to 25 x and beyond, the justification being that 'you can't get the best for less', despite some spectacular and even criminal falls from grace by selfsame 'top' company directors and bankers. This also fails to take into account the inevitable drop in morale, and therefore productivity in the staff under such an overpaid chief, not least if they are being treated in a way engineered to subsidise the cost to the concern of this director's (and sometimes co-horts) salary, whilst simultaneously being patronised by company literature and events pretending they are valued. In the last fortnight it has emerged that the chief of Save the Children is earning £234,000pa, a fact which has outraged donors and the many volunteers who work for the charity for free and naturally consider a great deal more per £ should be going to children. It is all very well some pundits commenting 'Well you can't have a muppet running an international charity', but who is to say that someone who did it for say a quarter of that salary would be a muppet? Or any more of a muppet than the individual currently running it? On this basis I hereby allow my name to be put forward to do at least as good a job of saving children at a fraction of the salary...

While Mr Getty may well have been a miser on the personal front, he took his responsibilities as an employer generating wealth and employment very seriously it seems, and never lost sight of the bigger picture. In his view too, managers were there to 'direct' operations, not dictate or micromanage them, and imaginative thinking was always encouraged in employees, as was the feeling they had a personal stake in the success or failure of the company which inspired them to think of their own efficiencies and improved ways of doing things. He also found that formal education was little indicator of what made the best employees and was never scared of competing internationally, decades before most companies began to think globally. Could that be why so many of his companies and enterprises still exist and thrive today, nearly 40 years after his death? 

Friday, 24 January 2014

Marriage Licences and Driving Licences

In response to the rumour that it is now easier to obtain a divorce than a driving licence (not true, unless both parties are prepared to be 100% civilised and amicable, in which case the question might well be asked; why are they divorcing?), a family law judge has decided to found a charity known as The Marriage Foundation to defend the ever-crumbling institution.

It freely admits there can be no legislation to inure against the vicissitudes of the human heart, let alone to prevent couples evolving in differing directions as they grow older or one or both stumbling and falling at life's hurdles or temptations.

And as a friend recently commented, so many couples don't see too far beyond looks and sexual chemistry when they first meet. Making a supreme effort to be on our best behaviour and impress the other in the early days, leaving our oddities, anger management issues and screwed-up bits to emerge or be discovered at a later date doesn't help in relationship mistake prevention either. Or 'heart and safety' as I like to call it!

That said, it would take a naive individual to regard the past through rose-tinted spectacles and assume that just because more marriages lasted, they were happy and successful. Many a tale could probably be told behind the local newspaper photographs of smiling golden anniversary couples cutting their celebration cakes..

Until relatively recently, aside from the social stigma and shame of divorce, there were prohibitive socio-economic reasons why unhappy couples couldn't part, particularly for women, if they did not have their own bank accounts or resources.  The  law did not make it possible for most ordinary people to access or afford divorce until after WWII, and even then the grounds were severely limited, and often involved a private detective being hired to track illicit couples down to seaside resorts to provide grounds. People also tended to have shorter lifespans so lengthy marriages were not such a scary prospect for the majority, and for some, freedom was likely to present itself by the pre-deceasement of at least one spouse.

The populace also tended to have far lower expectations of what happiness was (take Jane Eyre - beautifully written - but are she and Mr Rochester really the great romance the reader is lead to believe?), though some would argue that expectations have become unrealistically high. Women's Liberation has been no mean influence in this and the relationship power balance has had to shift significantly from former times in order to accommodate the relatively recent notion of equality between the sexes. To this day, not all individuals find themselves emotionally and intellectually equipped to conduct a relationship on equal footing and therein will always lie tensions, sometimes in the form of a timebomb for the future of that marriage or relationship.

Just as society adapts to gender equality and all that that entails, it emerges that many modern youngsters are seeing hardcore pornography years before their first kiss with a real girl or boy, risking serious psychological and behavioural consequences as a result, not least the ability to form loving and meaningful real-life relationships with partners who don't resemble porn stars in looks or behavioural extremes when the time comes.

Once successfully formed however, relationships face financial pressures like never before. An unintended consequence of Woman's Liberation was that two incomes coming into a household quickly equated to house price rises commensurate with two incomes coming into the household. Couples may have hoped for a surfeit of cash to spoil themselves with when both were working, but that's not what happened. And part-time working or being a full-time housewife/mother was quickly taken away as a choice for many married women, adding to the pressures on a marriage, if that was not what they wanted. Now even two full-time average incomes are no longer enough to get on the property ladder for most young couples and 50 year or even lifetime mortgages are being devised. This on top of enhanced University fee loans which will take as long as 25 years to pay off and parental help to pay the large deposit required. Is it any wonder that the age at which couples marry is getting later and later, ditto the childbearing age for women? Debt has become the uninvited third party in the marital bed for many, as capable of rending a couple asunder as any other risk.
Another modern relationship risk is the societal shift towards child-centredness, particularly amongst women, so that you hear many men complain that their wives seem to have lost interest in them and stopped making an effort since the children came along, and much though they also love their children, they mourn the relationship that they used to enjoy with their wife and the effort she used to make for them, though of course raising children is genuinely exhausting, not least when the woman is often required to hold down a full-time job as well to pay the bills. In the 1950s however, it was customary for the (house) wife to prioritise the father in the knowledge that the strength of the family depended on the parents having a good relationship. They also viewed themselves as guardians to their children rather than possessors of their children and never lost sight of the fact that one day their offspring would fly the nest to lead their own lives, leaving the parents alone again.
Notwithstanding some Irish friends did adopt the healthy stance of 'There was a *John and *Sophie before *Carmen and there'll be a John and Sophie after Carmen' when their daughter was born, and from an early age resumed their romantic weekends in Paris whilst Carmen stayed with her grandparents, and their child-free 'date nights' once a week, despite both having full-time jobs. Twenty four years on, John and Sophie are still together, the only couple still married of the three couples that married in the same church 27 years previously. Meanwhile their bright and lively daughter Carmen remains close to them and visits regularly but leads her own life, her mother only twitching nervously when she decides to go backpacking solo in a far flung country.

To get back to the posting, one effect of recession is that greater numbers of miserable couples remain together because they cannot afford to part. But while divorce may have become a more democratically accessible option, it is by no means free of ruinous cost in its own right, not to mention emotional trauma, if one or both parties are determined to make it so.

In a sense, it is too late to try and reverse the trends of the last few decades without starting in schools. It is finally being realised that trays of condoms passed around are never going to teach youngsters how to navigate the choppy waters of inter-personal relationships or about the benefits of stable relationships to themselves and wider society. Financial responsibility tuition is also being introduced at long last, which in itself forms a major factor in the success or failure of relationships.
As for the Nanny state contribution, not a whisper of reinstating the married couple's tax allowance in terms of incentives to restore family life. Rather they continue to reward the young woman who falls pregnant with a flat and generous benefits and financially penalise her the moment she forms a relationship which might in due course help lift her out of the benefits trap.

But if divorces are being compared to driving licences easewise, perhaps a marriage licence should be more akin to a driving licence. Perhaps a marriage licence should be renewable every ten years so that couples are obliged to work at their marriage if they both want it renewed for another ten years!

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Ain't Nowt So Pretty As A Garden City (or building for NIMBYs)

Over a century after the first, Letchworth, was begun, garden cities are in the news again as news leaks that the government seek to construct two more, preferably in the south east of England. 

However after the mixed success of Letchworth, Stevenage, Hatfield, Hemel Hempstead. and Welwyn Garden City, all employing Hertfordshire as their test bed, but which quickly lost the original ideals of affordability and self-containment (too close to London so perfect for commuting, resulting in rocketing prices). Simultaneously there was an effort made to cultivate 'garden suburbs' such as Hampstead in London and these were arguably much more successful in cultivating a beautiful, vibrant and practical (if still expensive) environment for habitation. At the end of the 19th century/turn of the 20th century other worthy ideas such as 'model villages' - prime examples being Bourneville (Cadbury) and Port Sunlight (Sunlight soap) were constructed independently by (usually Quaker) manufacturers to provide decent attractive housing in a healthy environment of lifetime communities for their workers inclusive of facilities such as sports clubs and theatres. Early social housing initiatives such as London's Peabody Estate were also a great success and many are still in use today. When ugly urban development got out of hand on the South Downs, the National Trust was apparently founded in protest to protect the area!

The planning movement then lost enlightenment and focus, roughly in conjunction with the invention of and growing love affair with concrete and other cheap new modern building materials following wartime shortages, with the creation of 'new towns' such as Milton Keynes and Telford, the emphasis on an elephantine indoor shopping centre and multi-storey car parks at their soulless heart, rather than green spaces, if you can find the towns through the proliferation of ringroad spaghetti and endless roundabouts (proud English invention first seen in 'garden city' Stevenage) surrounding each. Then disastrous 'cities in the sky' and sprawling brutalist concrete 'overspill' estates came along creating more social ills than they solved. 
Here are some examples of horrific housing that post-date the 'garden city' era.

Since then Britain has seen its towns and cities mercilessly cut up by ringroads, sacrificed to the alter of the motor car and haulage lorry, and careless ribbon development (aka urban sprawl) allowed to run riot in the name of profit, despite all the lip service paid to 'greenness', 'infrastructure' and 'community', all of which are severely compromised by such short-termism. Now the green belts, intended to act as the 'lungs' of each city are under threat, as are the once-strict planning laws intended to protect them, in addition to preventing building on the flood plains and upholding the rights of historic buildings. 

A 'housing crisis' apparently trumps all other considerations be they legal, logistical, cultural, human - even down to the quality of the materials used (the majority of modern buildings may have to conform to various energy-saving standards but somewhat negate this by not being constructed to last beyond 50 years, making them little better than pre-fabs, destined not to outlive their manufacturing carbon footprint) and certainly not worth their exorbitant construction costs as the buyers are not compensated or discounted for the quality of materials employed/longevity compromised. Observe any new building, particularly those possessed of a flat roof, and I guarantee you will see scaffolding and contractors on said roof within two years of erection.

So what is to be done about the housing crisis? Well has anyone seen The Truman Show? One of the unsung stars of the film is Seaside, Florida, a  master-developed 1970s experiment in New Urbanism, whose stated development tenets are:

  1. The neighborhood has a discernible center. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner. A transit stop would be located at this center.
  2. Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk of the center, an average of roughly 0.25 miles (1,300 ft; 0.40 km).
  3. There are a variety of dwelling types — usually houses, rowhouses, and apartments — so that younger and older people, singles and families, the poor and the wealthy may find places to live.
  4. At the edge of the neighborhood, there are shops and offices of sufficiently varied types to supply the weekly needs of a household.
  5. A small ancillary building or garage apartment is permitted within the backyard of each house. It may be used as a rental unit or place to work (for example, an office or craft workshop).
  6. An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their home.
  7. There are small playgrounds accessible to every dwelling — not more than a tenth of a mile away.
  8. Streets within the neighborhood form a connected network, which disperses traffic by providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination.
  9. The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
  10. Buildings in the neighborhood center are placed close to the street, creating a well-defined outdoor room.
  11. Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.
  12. Certain prominent sites at the termination of street vistas or in the neighborhood center are reserved for civic buildings. These provide sites for community meetings, education, and religious or cultural activities.
  13. The neighborhood is organized to be self-governing. A formal association debates and decides matters of maintenance, security, and physical change. Taxation is the responsibility of the larger community.

Can we learn anything from these aims and their material realisation below..?

Well I'd live there (were it not for the years-long waiting list of hopeful residents waiting to get in!) As I've said before on this blog, everyone's a NIMBY when it's THEIR back yard, me included. That is human nature and not a fault in itself (or a legitimate excuse for the government or local authorities to steamroller opposition to insensitive or inappropriate housing schemes) as long as it doesn't lead to hypocrisy. If building has to happen however, it can at least be sensitive to its surrounds, beautiful, future-proofed and fit for human habitation without the need for anti-depressant dependency, and involve the communities which it is going to affect in its planning. There is no ruling saying new housing, especially 'affordable' or social housing, has to be ugly, poky and devoid of character. Anyone looking at most new housing plans would assume that this country was in thrall to such legislation.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Human Freedoms Under Threat

In common with many, I applauded this government's stated intention to prevent children from accessing pornography. And few right-headed individuals would disagree that websites showing how to make bombs or incite suicide or sites depicting extreme violence are also unacceptable in a civilised society and should be banned.

However it now seems the government's measures intend to go far further than that, by intruding on the human right to religious and spiritual freedom of expression via the blocking of 'Esoteric Websites and Alternative Spirituality'

The Oxford Dictionary definition of 'esoteric' is: 'intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest'
What is the purpose of this mission creep? To save vulnerable youngsters from the dangers of meditation perhaps?Dissuade them from taking up a career as a philosopher, a psychic, a yoga teacher or from becoming a vegetarian, an animal welfare activist or a reflexologist? And this only months after the EU published their latest guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief.

Far from being protected, minorities are an endangered species, it seems.

But for all its hand wringing about children and their safety and innocence, the government is apparently quite happy to allow loanshark and gambling companies to advertise unabated before the 9pm watershed. The level of sex, violence and swearing on TV also remains unabated and is in evidence pre-watershed. Few vendors of cigarettes and alcohol are prosecuted for selling to the underage. As for the 'war' against drugs, that has become something of an unfunny joke. Ultraviolent computer games too, remain freely available for consumption by our youth, and have previously been linked to a number of violent crimes. All this, despite scientific proof that developing minds are more susceptible to influence as they are possessed of less life experience and context to process what they are being exposed to.

The Open Rights Group reports that websites of organisations promoting “esoteric practices” directly or indirectly have already been blocked on Orange pay-as-you-go mobiles.

Now you may not be an esoteric or alternative person yourself, but if you are not; in the spirit of Voltaire and his famed human rights declaration; 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.'  please sign this petition 

If that doesn't convince, there is always the famous second world war speech of German Pastor Martin Niemoller;

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

I Vote For Real Life (except where amazing shower curtains are concerned)

Happy recipient as I am of all the benefits of the wonderweb and mobile phones, I am so glad I remember a time before them and grew up before the world became so overly-complicated and in a country where there were only three channels on the television, four, if you were lucky, and the latest episode of a certain soap or drama series was a shared talking point at school or work the following morning. 

Real life bullying at school was bad enough. I cannot imagine what cyber-bullying must be like. Rejection by boys who knew very little about girls was bad enough. But to be rejected by a boy with precocious intimate anatomical knowledge of the female body who expects all girls to resemble (and behave like) his favourite female porn star must be awful. I really feel for the pressures young people today find themselves under on top of the normal turmoils of growing up. Horror stories of internet grooming or girls pressured to text naked photos of themselves to the boy they fancy, only to find out they have been circulated to the whole school for their public humiliation are particularly awful, and have even led to suicides on the part of the victims.

In addition youngsters are growing up in a world where debt is normal, binge-drinking is normal, drug taking is almost normal, gambling is normal, the divorce rate is running at nearly 50% and first jobs in shops and hairdressers to cut their working teeth on are almost non-existent, let alone opportunities when they leave school or university. To top it all they've missed most of the best music and films, despite the plethora of channels and multimedia now at their fingertips, though at least they have a 'watch again' facility on most of it.

My childhoood was by no means a bed of roses, but I treasure the memory of simpler and more innocent times when my teen self was allowed to finish growing up naturally, fantasising over unobtainable pop stars. There was no expectation to dress as a hooker or drink gallons when going to a nightclub. We literally went for the music and to have a dance and a laugh, and maybe meet a nice boy and end the evening with a snog. No one I knew would have slept with a boy on a first date and we would have been branded 'a slag' if we had, not just by the boy in question, but the whole town in general. Nothing is a secret in a small town.

The world becoming more complicated has also enabled us to be more easily hoodwinked, by complicated financial products for example, or even just convinced into buying products that we don't actually need. It has enabled our details to be more readily collected and sold and our bank details scammed (you'll never catch me using my mobile phone for or making a 'contactless' payment). Those of us who remember a time before the electronic world are better positioned to challenge the new world order. Internet addiction also inevitably takes choice away. One day you will have to create 'an account' to do absolutely everything. There will no longer be a real life post office to obtain a passport application or buy a stamp from. Banks will get their way and banish the cheque book. Everything will be online and very little will still be available for purchase in real life. Anyone not online or fully IT literate will be marginalised in our society. Self-service tills are part of the rot of a dehumanisation I for one never voted for.

My sentiment for real life has pulled me out of the fog of internet addiction many a time, but what pulls those who don't remember a time before it away from the screen to value their real lives at least equally, if not above their virtual lives? I find it ironic to observe attractive young people on trains completely ignoring potential suitors by being glued to their iPods, tuning the world out to their possible future detriment by leaving no window of opportunity for a conversation to strike up. But why risk meeting someone in real life? Isn't that what online dating is for? Screening people out has just become part of the process more literally.

Personally, I have now reached electronic saturation point. Kindles, games, apps, ipods and ipads hold no appeal. I possess a smart phone (for the 8.5 megapixel camera and large screen) but use fewer than 30% of its functions and get annoyed by all the things it tries to do when I am not looking like surfing the net at random or changing my text messages to unintended words as I am composing them. I simply don't want to be glued to a screen 24/7, however high the resolution. I want to read real books and real newspapers and feel them in my hands. I want to watch real DVD's, not downloads (how do you exchange downloads or ebooks as Christmas and birthday presents anyway?) I want to choose my own groceries. I will look something up if I need to know it, I will order something if I cannot find it in a real-life shop and I like blogging and email (and occasionally Facebook), but that's it. I order almost nothing from Amazon as I don't agree with their tax-dodging and the way they treat their staff. I did find the most amazing shower curtain and bedding from another supplier online the other day though (pictured) - something I would never find in my local high street. Ironically it doesn't seem to be available from its online shop however, so even the internet has its limits!

Monday, 23 December 2013

What's In Your Christmas Dinner...?

Gluttony has long been an accepted, and eagerly encouraged, breaking of one of the seven commandments during the Christmas season. However I must confess I find the rise of the multi-bird roast somewhat obscene.

To kill four (or even more) birds rather than one to sate one's gluttony and then meld them together as some kind of Frankenbird seems a truly revolting idea, not least when most of us are so opposed to genetically modified 'frankenfoods', which are all about defying nature. In addition it involves a level of meat processing and time of raw meat hanging about at room temperature to create which is surely not to be advised.

This reminds me of the recent revelation that cheap poultry from the more downmarket supermarkets mostly originates from Brazil where it is frozen, shipped over to Britain and then pumped full of chemicals and water to give it the same volume and appearance as British-reared meat, subject to higher production standards and animal welfare legislation. It is then re-frozen, something British people are warned not to do with poultry for fear of Salmonella and other bugs. Finally it is stamped with a 'Produced in Britain' sticker to (legally) hoodwink the public as to its country of origin when actually Britain is just the country it has been processed in. This low-grade meat may score far lower marks on the taste test than meat sold in the high end supermarkets but if the consumers of the low-end supermarkets can't afford the good stuff, presumably they remain none the wiser.

Poor quality meat, aside from being bad for animal welfare, has also been shown to be bad for human health, containing more chemicals and a higher level of adrenalin and animal diseases from animals which have been cheaply fed and poorly treated in highly stressful and cramped conditions..

On the subject of the horse meat scandal earlier this year, I recently met a geneticist who told me that a deliberate decision had been made by our government not to sanction testing for any other animal genes as it was not felt that the British public could withstand any further revelations about what might be in their processed meat such as burgers.
'Dog'? I suggested. 'Cat...?'

'My lips are sealed' she replied. 'But you won't catch me eating anything I haven't obtained from my local farm shop.'

But since when did the idea of daily meat consumption become normal anyway? Within living memory for most families it would be a Sunday roast and then leftovers in the shape of sandwiches or curries for the rest of the week, with fish and chips on a Friday. Meat was a luxury item and people accepted that it was expensive and that it was supposed to be expensive as it was expensive to rear animals. Some even raised their own chickens and pigs in the back garden.

Surely it is better to eat less meat, but of a higher quality and a simple, traceable, organic, free-range provenance. Not just better for animals and consumers on every level, but for long-suffering
British farmers too.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Living Illegally

According to an LBC phone-in I was listening to the other day in the car, even the most basic studio flat is £1,000 + per month (bills exclusive) to rent in London nowadays and that is not even in zone 1 or 2, so add a few thousand a year travel to get to work on top of that.

This made me wonder how all the low-paid workers (legal and otherwise) manage to live and work in central London - those typically on under £15k a year such as cleaners, hotel workers, security guards, sales assistants.

Apparently when not living in hostels or on friends' floors, a growing answer is garden sheds. Also many (typically asian) landlords are allegedly buying up semi-detached houses in the suburbs and housing four to a room, one in each corner at £25 per week and passing them off as family homes, even though the denizens might be total strangers to one another. This circumvents the legal requirement that all multi-occupational houses be licenced as HMO's and adhere to stringent regulations on occupancy levels, H&S, fire and room sizes rented out.

So it is not just a question of British workers not wanting to accept employment for breadline-level wages. They are also refusing to occupy sheds or live four to a room to sustain this false situation, which is illegal anyway and would garner no formal housing assistance or wage credits for them. And on the subject of family credit and other wage top-ups, this is also enabling minimum wages to endure with the government subsidising businesses to pay as little as possible with no prospects for betterment in sight, even when the company might be prospering and able to afford to pay better.

What will happen to the London economy when its councils finally get their thermal imaging helicopters out and clamp down on all this illegal living I wonder?

Already those on the 'average wage' - said to be £26k - are deserting the capital in their droves, claiming they cannot afford to live there. And certainly with over 50% of their income going on rent and travel (not even counting the bills), they are way over the Joseph Rowntree Foundation recommendation that no more than 33% of income should be expended in rent and bills, or poverty will ensue.

Some while ago I was at a London party at a friend's flat. Half her friends couldn't afford to go anywhere or enjoy London after they had struggled to pay the rent on their shared house room and the other half were earning good salaries but worked long hours and had no leisure to enjoy London. Between the two groups, hardly anyone was enjoying the fact they were living in London and all moaned endlessly about the tubes,what zone they lived in, the crowds and other irritations of their lives.

22/12/13 Since this posting, there has been another article in the Daily Mail entitled Beds in Sheds