Friday, 18 February 2011

Elitism and the 9-5

The other day I heard a student say to her friend disparagingly in the Student Union shop 'I don't want to end up in some cr*ppy 9-5 job.'

I half sympathised, half thought 'Well what does she think most jobs are? Thrill-a-minute white water rafting perhaps? And that's supposing the young madam's lucky enough to find more than a 9-1 when she graduates!' It was tempting to let on I'd overheard her, but who was I to rain on her parade that not only are most jobs 9-5, but most are getting duller and more hamstrung by red tape and other people's obstructions, not to mention lack of care for colleagues and customers alike by the minute?

Most, worse still, are victims of creeping corporatisation, if not the recession.
Corporatisation, that insidious process whereby every last ounce of creativity, humanity and job satisfaction is extracted from a role to leave a paid automaton in corporate livery who undertakes the corporation's bidding without question or contribution, taking away only a pay packet and an anti-depressant prescription. Net result: poor value on both sides it seems to me, and nothing that benefits humankind one iota (which you'd be forgiven for assuming this whole work/benefit thing was for).

Not that I should complain on a personal level as my department is probably as good as it gets. We all like each other, pitch in to help, bring in cake on our birthdays, use deodorant, acknowledge each other as human beings and do a pretty darn good job even if we say so ourselves. Though of course a Sword of Damocles is seldom far away these days and our department is no exception, try as we might to answer our calls within 5 rings and reply to every e-mail within 24 hrs in compliance with our declared 'customer charter' - well harder than any other department, it seems.

One day we shall remember these halcyon days before the corporeal hand of corporatism (not to be confused with capitalism) turned us all into a faceless One-Stop shop of the living dead, twice removed from our customers and rendered too scared to print a document on the wrong branded stationary, or take a day off, lest we lose our jobs.

What I should have said to the sneering girl in the student shop is; 'So, what is your big plan for the future to bypass the 9-5 then, and can I join you?'

Monday, 14 February 2011

Exercising Democracy

On Saturday I joined several hundred of my fellow Oxford citizens in a march to save our libraries, our youth clubs, our swimming pools, our public toilets and our disabled and elderly services.

It felt like an important place to be.

Being Oxford, it was more a saunter than a march and a samba band and a jazz band kept the atmosphere light as did the presence of many teenagers, toddlers and 'mutts against the cuts'. Police presence seemed to consist of two on foot with an accompanying Police van, and apart from a bit of traffic stopping, we gave them little to do and certainly no 'kettling' to get their teeth into, though one took lots of photographs of us with a long lens camera when we reached Bonn Square. If anything they should have joined us though, being as 10,000 Police countrywide are also for the chop!

It was highly emotional, if not highly-charged. There is nothing quite like being part of a throng embodying the true sense of community and human solidarity to bring a lump to the throat. Few better examples of humanity at its best.

As we passed by the old Queens College study window of Jeremy Bentham in The High chanting 'They say cut-back, we say fight-back!', I wondered what Mr Bentham would have made of these regressive times - these times which threaten to reverse every civil and democratic advance he ever advocated and so many others subsequently fought and occasionally died for.

My thoughts were interrupted by a young Chinese tourist stopping me to put his arm round my shoulders whilst his friend took a photograph of us sharing my placard bearing the legend 'Don't Let Councillors Cook The Books!'

He disappeared again as I wondered what sort of holiday snap he had intended and what he was going to tell his folks back home about these strange Oxford people trying to save their basic services.

Perhaps they would have a good laugh that we are evidently on the road to becoming a third world country while China's economy is on the up!

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Under the Bonnet of the Bonnet Drama

This year sees the 40th anniversary of the BBC's biggest international success story - The Onedin Line, the first series they sold worldwide and which is still big in the former Yugoslavia and selling as a DVD box set 40 years later.
Following the fortunes of a mid-19th century Liverpool shipping dynasty as steam ships aka 'floating kettles' begin to overtake sailing ships, this mix of pithy social commentary with riveting storyline devised by former real-life seaman Cyril Abraham kept viewers hooked for ten years from 1971 and formed the seminal Sunday night backdrop of my early childhood with its unforgettable theme tune of Khatchaturian's 'Spartacus'. Watching a couple of series again recently, it has lost none of its power to mesmerise, even if the stock storm footage and sets seem a little more obvious to the more sophisticated eye (and television set).

Prior to The Onedin Line, vicars were previously shocked when entire congregations stayed in to watch The Forsyte Saga every Sunday night in the late 60s and even altered their service patterns to fit in with it.

Since then, Poldark, Upstairs Downstairs, various Dickens, Austen and Conan Doyle adaptations and a myriad of other costume dramas, epic and not so epic, have all taken their turn to enthral us with their vanished values and worlds in our increasingly cynical and moral compassless times.

I for one have relished them all except for some appalling and highly unnecessary remakes of The Forsyte Saga, Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House and David Copperfield, among others.
In fact the one thing which annoys me most about costume dramas are the constant re-makes of the same dozen or so most popular titles when there are so many classic books out there which have never even been adapted. George Eliot for example has often been considered too challenging but when the risk was taken and 'Middlemarch' was produced, it was a triumph! Ditto Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Cranford' though perhaps Anthony Trollope is a slightly more acquired taste with his political 'The Way We Live Now' but I feel sure his work would have built a significant following had they taken a risk with more of his books.
'Lark Rise to Candleford' took the novel approach of using up the material from Flora Thompson's original book fairly quickly and then writing lots of new stories using the same characters to spin out half a dozen series. With mixed results I may say, though it still proved as addictive as crack cocaine and a runaway success commercially.

'Downton Abbey' albeit not based on a classic but written by the very much still alive, Julian Fellowes, has proven that our appetite for period drama remains as voracious as ever, critical as we may be that historical details are not as scrupulously poured over as in the past to leave the odd TV aerial in shot in 1913. We may prefer a classless society in real life, but that doesn't necessarily make for good or textural telly.

Another function such dramas undoubtedly serve is to remind us of our Britishness in a modern world where our national identity is increasingly blurred. Which is not to condone the less desirable aspects we have shed, more acknowledge that plenty was also lost which was worth retaining and celebrating such as good manners, concern for one another, community, backbone, moral turpitude and having both a love and a duty to one's country. And as the writer Julian Fellowes points out, not all Lords of the Manor were obnoxious users of the peasantry, many were good and benevolent employers who provided work for the majority of their villages and sponsored welfare and education for the children of their workers, even though this was also in their interests if they wished to run a thriving estate.

The original Upstairs Downstairs and The Onedin Line are notable for how much actual history they wove into their storylines, both social and national, so that viewers were educated as they were alternately affected and entertained by watching their favourite characters go through various difficulties of history and formed more understanding of how their society had evolved.
Studying TV costume drama from the 70s in particular, it seemed that every series had a killer theme tune, dramatic stories, wonderful costumes and memorable characters.

Pundits profess great surprise that the appetite for costume drama remains as unabated as ever But is it really so strange that as old certainties are swept away and challenged, we are more likely to cling on to any vestige of the past and familiar? The past may have been muddy, cold, smelly and often hungry with raging toothache in real life, but the costumes are still wonderful, the architecture beautiful, the moral dilemmas not a million miles from our own and we have the luxury of enjoying top notch storytelling in our cosy centrally-heated homes.