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

Friday, 29 November 2013

Coffee with Lexi

Recently I spotted a former colleague *Lexi in the street. 'I'm so glad I ran into you!' she exclaimed. 'Did you get my Facebook invitation?' I had to admit I seldom checked my Facebook invitations. 'I'm going back to New Zealand for my 30th birthday and I might not be coming back.' she explained. As it turned out, I could not make her leaving do, but luckily she was free for an impromptu coffee there and then.
Lexi still loved Oxford it seemed, but she was stuck in a dead end job and the immigration people were on her back again. In additon the latest boyfriend had just fallen through. On the plus side, the economic situation in her home town had improved in the seven years she had been travelling and she was very much looking forward to her 30th birthday bash. 'My parents have clubbed together to buy me a car and they will both be there for the first time in sixteen years.'
'How come?' I asked.
'Well they split up when I was fourteen, so I normally have two birthday celebrations, one with my mum and one brother and one with my dad and other brothers, the following night. Now they are finally talking to each other and being civil and I am so chuffed. It's almost as good a birthday present as the car.'
'That's great', I said.
'Of course, Dad's remarried now, so they'll never get back together again.. They fought like cat and dog besides, but I still never expected them to split up. Y'know, some people, that's just how they go on. Argy bargying all the time. They always used to pretend it was 'play fighting' in front of us, and I believed them when I was little, but then I realised there was more to it as I got older.'
'How did their split affect you?' I asked
'Oh I was a complete bitch to my mum for at least two years. I blamed her for everything. Even though I knew she wasn't to blame for everything. She was just there. But I had to show her much I was hurting. By hurting her, I guess. I mean the grown-ups are meant to be in charge, right? How could they f*** things up like that? How could they fail me and my brothers?''
'And your dad...?' I asked
'He lived round the corner with his new woman. Which was f***ing hard. I would only meet him in diners and give him a hard time. For years. But credit to him, he never refused to see me for his latest ear bashing and would listen patiently 'til I ran out of steam. And he let me have anything on the menu I wanted, which mum didn't.'
'What about your brothers?'
'Oh they would move to mum's for a while and then back to dad's at various times, then they each finally left home, the three of them being quite a bit older than me. I was my parents' 'bonus baby', the one who stayed with mum all the time.'
'Did your mum ever meet anyone else?'
'Yeah. About a year later. But I soon nixed that for her by making her choose between him and me. She never met another bloke after that. I feel bad about that now. I never thought about how one day I would be all grown up and she might be lonely. Now she's over sixty and I guess she'll be alone for the rest of her life.'
At this point, Lexi grew tearful.
'Now come on Lexi, she's had at least seven years to meet someone while you've been globetrotting. You can't blame yourself for any decisions that your mother has made. She's a grown woman.'
'Yeah. I s'pose so.' she agreed. 'It will be so nice to see the parents together for my party though.'
'Yes, it will. You can have full family photos again at least.'
'Oh I used to cut them up and splice them together anyway and pretend. It was such a relief when my mum finally stopped slagging my dad off and blaming him for everything except the weather. At first I used to join in because it felt good and he was someone to vent at. And it was the b***ard's fault that he had fallen in love with someone at his work and left us, but in the end it started to feel bad, as if me and my mum were slagging part of me off too, and I had to ask her to stop, especially when she said things like; 'I wish I'd never laid eyes on the bugger!'
'Where would that have left you and your brothers????'
'Exactly. She once let slip it was hard to look at me sometimes because I reminded her of him with the same eyes and mouth and how I looked much more like him than her. But she was in a very bad mood. I remember she'd had a patient die unexpectedly on her watch that morning.'
'Is all of this why you are so interested in self-esteem classes and motivational workshops?' I asked, remembering our last meeting where she was just about to drive off to a weekend in Bristol to unlock her true potential..
'Probably' she replied. 'I hadn't really thought about it, but a divorce definitely rocks your world and brings up some core identity issues and a person can spend years sorting their head out. The other thing is there's no one to talk to when you're a kid. Adults, I mean. No one wants to get involved and wind up piggy in the middle dodging the bullets between your folks. And  they're all terrified of saying the wrong thing so clam up or change the subject, just when a kid needs someone to talk to and help them make sense of things the most. You only have other kids to talk to who've been through the same. It's like some secret club you never asked to belong to. Even my nana would quickly change the subject when I tried to tell her how I was feeling or what was happening at home. Baking cupcakes was her answer to everything. They were yummy cupcakes.'
'What about your parents?'
'They were too wrapped up in their own problems and slogging it out in the courts with their divorce for ages. My mum also had to work extra shifts as a nurse to make the mortgage payments until she got promoted. All she wanted to do was sleep when she got home. Helping me with my homework or listening to me were not high on her list. In fact it was often down to me to do the shopping, do the housework and put dinner on the table for her. I guess I wasn't really able to be a kid any more once they split so I ended up with a bee in my bonnet about that too.'
'You seem in a good place now.'
'I am.' Lexi smiled. 'I mean sure it was sad about Mikey and me, but I bounce back far quicker from these kind of things than I used to. If someone's not quite right for me,  I figure that must be because someone even better is waiting in the wings'
'Do you think you'll ever have kids yourself?'
'Well that's the plan, but only when I've found Mr 100% Right and finished doing some living first.'
'So you're determined not to end up like your parents.'
'Not if I can help it. They were the prototype. I'm the finished product!' She giggles.'Sorry.' she added. 'I didn't mean to go into all this stuff. I don't normally.'
'On the contrary, it's fascinating' I replied. 'You could write a book.'
'I could.' Lexi smiled. Then, with a twinkle in her eye; 'I might!'
I wished Lexi all the best and we parted. Her Facebook page duly delivered photos of a beaming birthday celebration several weeks later, one with Lexi cutting the ribbon on her new car, one with Lexi cutting her car-shaped 30th birthday cake and another showing Lexi with an arm round each proud parent.
Although I didn't see Lexi that often after she left my workplace, Oxford suddenly seems very empty without her. She was a real ball of energy, always on the go and into everything from choirs and country rambles to am-dram, not to mention as many parties as she could fit in. Out to get the most out of  every minute of her 'British experience'. I also miss her refreshing Kiwi bluntness and how she would talk about anything and have an opinion on everything, yet display surprising largesse when anyone had an opposing view.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Little House on the Prairie revisited

This week I have been overdosing on True Entertainment (Channel 61's) back-to-back episodes of Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons as I battle the dreaded lurgy. I have thoroughly enjoyed this trip down memory lane as I have not seen either series since I was little. And for all the perceived mawkishness, both series dole out some tough love and some surprisingly gritty storylines crop up in Little House on the Prairie. Both series were hits around the world, especially Little House. People internationally it seemed, could not get enough of the portrayal of a happy functional family who stuck together through thick and thin, not least one assumes, if they did not have one of their own. Perhaps this had always been part of the appeal for me too I mused, since my own childhood home situation was far from happy. Both series were embarked on with trepidation after the mores of the 60s, but the TV companies had underestimated the public appetite for a return to the values and clear black and white morality of earlier ages, before the nuclear family began to be nuked and life became so ridiculously complicated.

Since the demise of these series in the early 80s, TV has largely returned to its assumption that only the salacious or an endless misery fest will keep up us glued to our screens. Not so for this viewer who yearns for more intelligence,  more imaginative use of language and better stories on screen.

By sharp contrast, the elongated commercial breaks on Channel 61 alternate between ever more gambling advertisements and ever more loan company advertisements touting loans for a mere zillion percent, with yet a third breed exhorting you to sue everyone for everything that's ever gone wrong in your life on a no win, no fee basis! - the complete opposite of the family values portrayed by the series they are screening! Is this sheer ignorance of their viewing public on the part of a new broadcasting kid on the block, or a cynical attempt to tempt those who wouldn't normally be interested in such dodgy money raising attempts to succumb?

Which led me to wonder how many people are taking part in online gambling to win enough to pay their bills, then getting into even deeper debt, necessitating yet another loan? Do they then fake an accident to sue for compensation? How does it work? In Victorian times people were sent to debtor's prisons for being in debt. Now debt has been rebranded 'credit' and individuals can only build up a 'credit record' by incurring and managing a sizeable amount of debt! Unless they fail, in which case they can now STILL obtain a credit card with a bad credit rating, if they're prepared to overlook the mere detail of a zillion percent interest.
What a crazy world of deferred consequences dressed up as advantages. And what an alarming thing it says about our country if our greatest home-grown products are now gambling, debt and sue-age.  Worse still, it's a bubble that's bound to burst when everyone is declared bankrupt who embarks down that slippery path to ruin.

Economically, we are meant to be in recovery now, yet at the weekend I find that Brighton has CLOSED its tourist information office, directing all the city's millions of visitors to a website address, and now London Transport has declared it is closing all manned Underground ticket offices within two years. Human beings are disappearing fast, but where to, and how is this helping the economy when more and more companies are seeking to reduce staff, even if they can well afford to continue providing human services (London Transport is not known for being broke).

How do people who've lost their jobs or those who are so cash-strapped with bills, they have no disposable income left to spend on non-essentials or in the High Street, support the economy and its recovery? In the same week I read that one-in-five families now cannot afford to pay all their bills, a rise of 800,000 from this time last year, yet the government is still refusing to do anything to cap exorbitant rents, energy bills, rail fare rises and petrol prices.

What would Charles Ingalls do? Perhaps Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons can teach us how to be poor and build our own houses out of planks as well as how to have happy families.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Jill Phipps - my old friend

If I can never claim specialness for any other reason, I claim specialness because I knew Jill. Accidental martyr, Animal Rights suffragette, onetime proposed new addition to the canon of Saints. One who provoked extreme love and devotion on the one hand and extreme public controversy on the other (following her 1995 death crushed under the wheels of a lorry she was trying to dissuade from shipping live veal calves to Coventry airport for export). It has taken me far too long to write about my old friend. She of the girl-next-door looks with added luminescence. Ordinary, yet extraordinary. Conventional, yet alternative. I knew and loved Jill's mother Nancy too and her shy but equally passionate younger sister Lesley.

There was such a warmth about the Phipps family and how they welcomed every stray, whether it be animal or human, into their bosom and made them feel special. They had nothing but gave everything with a generosity of spirit seldom seen. I was not a stray as such, more a lost soul who sought to appease her conscience by doing something to help the animal kingdom, aside from being a vegetarian. To this end I joined Coventry Animal Alliance run by Nancy and helped man their stall each week handing out literature and collecting money towards animal rescue activities. Jill would often join us, with her cheeky smile and ready banter, sometimes with her lovely little boy Luke in tow. During the lulls in between customers we would discuss literature and lend each other novels. Jill was a voracious reader of both literature and newspapers and was always well-informed. She also loved cooking and I remember her giggling that she had made a veggie shepherd's pie so scrummy that she'd had to get up in the night and help herself to another portion! At our regular meetings Jill was often to be seen in the corner playing with the pet rat nestling in her dreadlocks. Her mother Nancy would regularly sigh; 'I don't know why you had to do that to your beautiful hair!'  Jill would grin good-naturedly. She hadn't washed her hair for more than five years either, but the 'self-cleaning' theory seemed to work for her and those locks not in dread were always radiant and glossy. Pale blue drainpipe jeans and a green oversized army surplus jacket typically encased what hinted at a model-girl figure.I felt awkwardly square by comparison with my conventional haircut, conventional clothes, day job in a card shop, and worst of all, extreme cowardice. I was in awe at the courage of Jill and her family in engaging so fearlessly in the cause of combating animal abuse, though I did take in a stray cat which Jill rescued and pressed upon me and Moggins the Mog and I became inseparable.

However getting arrested in a failing Birmingham fur shop (where the owner had pre-empted our visit by squidging eggs in the pockets of several fur coats so he could get us charged for criminal damage) was not my idea of fun on a Saturday. Nor were the harrowing and frankly terrifying hunt sabs through the Warwickshire countryside on a Sunday following a nailbiting drive in Jill's rusty old Renault, a wheel of which looked about to rust off its axle, where I tried to restrict my activities to the liberal spraying of Citronella to confuse the hounds, but was aware of a constant need to pee in my quaking terror (and the brutality of huntsmen is not to be underestimated when they spot anyone trying to spoil their fun - a couple of hunt saboteurs have indeed died as a result of such retribution). However I forced myself to do these things and when Coventry Airport started a live export trade of baby veal calves to Amsterdam, I was there at weekends when the day job permitted. However to my shame all I could do was burst into tears when the large Scanias rumbled along to turn into the high security gate full of scared and lowing baby calves. Jill and her comrades would stand in front of them until the Police dragged them away, but somehow my legs would turn to lead and root me to the spot, waving my Ban Live Exports placard futilely.

I was on a course in Manchester for my new job working in a bank when I heard the news on my hotel room TV. Our beautiful Jill had been crushed to death by a lorry driver who claimed not to have seen her. Her weeping mother Nancy was interviewed. I was in bits and struggled to absorb any information on my second training day.From that moment on, Jill's death became a media circus with every newspaper from the Coventry Evening Telegraph onwards writing endless articles about Jill, her family and animal rights. I bought them all. Some were quick to condemn a young mother for taking part in direct protest, but actually Jill had spent years following the birth of her young son Luke, focussing on more passive means of protest for his sake, and nothing was more important to her than Luke. It was only because the Coventry live exports were happening on her own doorstep that she became more involved. Jonathan Miller wrote a particularly vile article in which he pretty well accused Jill of throwing herself in front of the lorry deliberately for her own 'vainglorious' purposes. But even if there were the slightest grain of truth in this absolute lover of life (and her family) deciding to sacrifice her life for animal rights, such was Jill's humbleness, there is no way she could have anticipated how her death would have gripped the public imagination as it did, therefore no incentive to be 'vainglorious'. In fact for months afterwards we all kept looking at each other and saying how astonished she would have been.

Later at the inquest two policemen who tried to insist that Jill had deliberately thrown herself in front of the lorry were disproved in their assertions by CCTV footage showing otherwise. Despite the assistance of Michael Mansfield QC though, a verdict of 'accidental death' was eventually returned.

There then followed the battle of Coventry Cathedral. Such was the public outpouring of shock and sympathy at Jill's death, it quickly became obvious that her local parish church in Hillfields was woefully inadequate to contain the number of mourners who wished to attend. Canon Paul Oestreicher visited the Phipps to offer Coventry Cathedral for the service, and was roundly slated for his Christianity by the local Tory MP (ironically named John Butcher) in particular, who felt that a single mother from a council estate did not merit such an honour. The good Canon, supported by other high-ranking clergy, refused to be cowed, and the service went ahead. Some of the more thoughtful media opined that actually it was Christianity which had turned its back on animal welfare and buried its head in the sand on animal issues, having been at the forefront of Victorian reforms such as the foundation of the RSPCA, and frankly, the least it could do to make some small reparation would be to pay tribute to a young woman who was in effect, doing their Christian works for them, even if she never declared herself a practicing Christian. Ironically Jill had also carried out a number of peaceful all-night vigils for animals outside that very cathedral, for some of which I and others had joined her. Personally I agree with the latter opinion and also Harry Enfield's lovely article that he was happy that nought.point whatever percent of his taxes had gone in supporting an unemployed young woman who devoted her life to raising awareness of animal abuse and then actually doing something about it on his behalf. It was those who just sat on their backsides on benefits that he had a problem with.

The cathedral funeral on Valentine's Day 1995 was intensely moving and did not turn into the 'political protest' that local politicians tried to use as an excuse to ban it, but a beautiful and completely apt farewell to a soul who shone a great deal brighter than her detractors, and to whose utter goodness I could only aspire. Film star Brigitte Bardot and MP Alan Clark attended and Ms Bardot made a moving speech in which she promised 'to make things happen for Jill'

My late friend was now officially public property, but I didn't mind. Humble as Jill was, she too would have wanted something good to come of her death, albeit unintended on her part.

Protests naturally stepped up a few gears as a result of Jills' death, and veal calf exports from Coventry Airport ended months later, when the aviation firm belonging to the pilot responsible for the veal flights, Christopher Barrett-Jolly, went bankrupt following accusations of running guns from Slovakia to Sudan in breach of EU rules. In 2002 Mr Barrett-Jolley was charged with smuggling 271 kg of cocaine from Jamaica into Southend airport and is now serving a 20 year prison sentence. The continuing level of protest was such that several local councils and a harbour board banned live exports from their localities. All live exports of calves later stopped due to fears of BSE infection. In 2006 this ban was lifted, but Coventry Airport pledged that it would refuse requests to fly veal calves and has so far honoured this. So the battle against live exports goes on, but not at Coventry airport. However for those lacking the stomach to protest, they can at least feed their stomach locally-sourced, free-range organic meat, if not become a vegetarian. No demand, no supply. Besides which it is hardly environmentally friendly, let alone humane, to fly either live animals or dead ones around the world.

*Note: A nameless individual did the sums during the Coventry live export protests and found it could not possibly be economically viable for Mr Barrett-Jolley to bear airport, plane, crew and fuel costs to fly baby calves to Amsterdam alone, so was his live export business Phoenix Aviation merely a front for earlier drug smuggling and gun running activities, in view of his later convictions? In which case the Police operation to enable him to fly at all costs in the face of protest (and a plane operated by him also crashed with the deaths of 5 crew during his live exports from Coventry Airport, so Jill was not the only victim of Phoenix Aviation), would have made the Police an accessory to his criminal activities! We may never know. And the debate about whether taxpayer-funded Police should ever act as a private security force to controversial businesses liable to attract public protest (or if they do, for how long), goes on. Certainly the good people of Coventry paid a high price for its live exports phase. In more ways than one.


Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Beware the Haters!

Last Sunday I attended a self-improvement workshop where the first slide the facilitator projected had 'Beware the Haters!' emblazoned across it.
For a moment I was puzzled. Then she explained that whenever an individual seeks to improve, grow or evolve themselves in some way, they will invoke the wrath of the 'haters', even surprisingly, among friends, lovers and families, and to be aware of this.

Apparently some people are so fearful of change or perhaps cannot bear the thought that someone they know might become happier, more fulfilled or more successful in life than they, and even worse, 'leave them behind', that they make it their business to undermine them in various ways from minor digs and put-downs to major show-downs and ultimatums. If the individual under such 'psychic attack' has a shaky or uncertain concept of their own self-worth, these detractors often succeed.

However if one had the courage to fight back, or rather, assert one's right to better oneself, and accept one is likely to lose a 'friend' or two in the process, we would be rewarded in this painful process by making room in our lives for the more positive friends we were about to attract through our new more positive way of being and accompanying vibes. Besides which, if certain individuals in our lives wished to hold us back, even through the fear that we might leave them behind or outgrow them, rather than wishing us well and offering their support, how is that 'friendly'? In what way are they a big loss to us if they are not going to behave in a friend-like manner?

She also made a valid point that if all these people emitting negative energy were to direct that same energy to focus on what they wanted in life, rather than spending all their time resenting others and what they have, dwelling on what they don't want or on what makes them unhappy, and generally letting their fears rule them, they too could take advantage of the same self-improvement benefits open to everyone and enjoy happier and more fulfilling lives.

This reminded me of a book I once read concerning cancer sufferers who had volunteered to try out a special (largely vegetarian) diet designed to boost their immune system without feeding their cancer. A number of volunteers did really well for a few weeks or months, to the point that their consultants were lengthening their prognosis by up to a year and one or two tumours were visibly arrested or shrinking on scans. Then all of a sudden the researchers started to notice that their star volunteers, mainly women, were going downhill again. They made tentative enquiries and found that the women had decided it was too much trouble to cook a special diet for themselves and eat separate food from their families. Even the woman whose family had volunteered to eat the same food as her had eventually capitulated when she realised from a few unguarded comments how much they were missing their normal diet and normal family mealtimes 'just like they used to be'.

Some had even had blatantly disparaging comments made to them by children or spouses, or scorn or doubt expressed about the diet, which had persuaded them to abandon it to win back loved ones' approval..
I found it sad that these sufferers did not receive the support from their loved ones that they should have been able to expect when they needed it most - ie to fight cancer in the way that they wished to and some of them were doing really well with. It struck me they were almost signing their own death warrants in the name of not wanting to be 'too much trouble' and upset the family and its routine. Or at least preparing themselves to leave these same families earlier than expected.

So in a sensitive situation even a mild comment or lack of support from someone who is not a witting 'hater' can cause an individual to abort what could have been a life-changing or prolonging course if they are not prepared to assert themselves in the face of challenge. This includes the natural nay-sayers who might not even realise that that's what they are doing and the effects of their behaviour.

Whilst it is harder to turn one's back on a negative member of the family than a relationship or friend, ultimately one can only win respect through stating one's own truth and doing one's best to be true to it. There are times in life where other peoples' opinions and approval are secondary, if not irrelevant in the bigger picture. And if their opinions are formed by their fears rather than the reality of a situation (ie you have no intention of abandoning them just because you seek to improve your confidence or learn a new skill etc), that is even less reason to pay them too much heed. I certainly think there is room to challenge friends and lovers on whether they are friends or lovers if they are not behaving in a friendly or loving manner. Then there's the risk of 'haters' on the internet for those who share tmi (too much information), so again, Beware the Haters!

It was interesting that so many concerns were voiced in the workshop Q & A about what others might think if a person followed their chosen path. And fair enough; 'You can't just abandon a disabled husband who needs you 24/7' as one woman in the room pointed out. 'Agreed. But you can't walk around labouring under the misapprehension that his life is more important than yours either. Your life is also of value. Equal value.' smiled the tutor. 'And even if it's only baby steps, you can find a way to live for your own sake as well. I suggest starting with ten minutes meditation each day to help you identify who you are and what you want and then, how you can find a way to combine your needs with your husband's, rather than sacrificing your needs for his. You've made a start already. You've managed to attend this workshop. The other thing to remember is that just as you are instructed to put on your own  life jacket first in a plane before helping anyone else on with theirs, you make yourself fitter to care for your husband if you look after yourself first.'

The physical needs of dependents aside, which is altogether a trickier subject since these individuals may be 100% well-meaning and loving otherwise, Quentin Crisp had an interesting maxim on the subject of living one's life to court the approval of others: 'If there were no praise and no blame, who would you be?'

I am still trying to answer that question. Amidst wondering if all the individuals in my world similarly put themselves through apoplexies worrying about what I think of them and constricting their lives to live as blamelessly as possible according to my perceived opinions of them! Answers on a postcard please. Should I worry about what you think of me, and if so, why?

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Crying Game(show)

Opinion is divided as to whether it was Gazza the footballer or the late Princess Diana who turned a nation of stiff upper lips into today's nation of quivering-lipped cry babies with all the backbone of a jellyfish.

As one who has applied to appear on some of the higher end reality shows, of the life or career transforming genre, I found it noticeable how I typically had to fill out a ten page personality questionaire as a part of the interview process with endless elements trying to ascertain by various means how emotional I was and what made me cry and, in particular, how often.

Needless to say when I confessed I didn't cry very often, any other characteristic that might have made me interesting or entertaining viewing was hastily dismissed. I came to realise TV companies are deliberately targetting the emoters, despite up to 70% of viewers now opining that they can't stand the constant crying and histrionics on TV and are beginning to turn off from such formats.

Well I am heartened to find that I am not the only one who can't take any more cringe factor on the X Factor or fake-off on the Bake-Off . As for Ruby's current antics on the Great British Bake-Off, it is nothing short of disgusting that she is turning on the waterworks to get her own way, and worse, being allowed to get away with it, unimpressed as Mary Berry looks (well as a fellow female, she does know all the tricks of the trade, even if Paul Hollywood is taken in.) Someone should also tell Ruth and her fellow over-emotional cooks that it is unhygienic to snivel unabated into one's cooking. Cookery shows should make it a disqualifier if entrants don't leave the kitchen before blubbing, not forgetting to put germy hankies away and wash their hands again before returning. Ditto spoon tasters who return said spoon to saucepan after putting it in their mouth.  And while we're on the subject, where are their hair nets? No one wants to find unwelcome ingredients in what is supposed to be competition-winning fayre.

Notwithstanding, these TV tactics are increasingly spilling over into real life. Last week for example I had a 20 year old female student in front of me weeping copiously and demanding to be released from her accommodation contract owing to the extreme damp which was making her ill. She was asthmatic she said, so it was 'dangerous' for her to remain there. I replied that the only way she could be released from her contract was to find another student with no pre-existing contracts with the university who could take over her contract. She stuck out her bottom lip. 'But how can I? It's not fit for human habitation!' she insisted. I asked her if she had reported the damp to her Hall Manager and she said that she had. I asked when they had said they would deal with it for her. She seemed vague. A male colleague affected by her tears moved to hand over the appropriate form. I stopped him, promising. 'Well you advertise your room and I will talk to your Hall Manager about getting this problem resolved. We can't have rooms with problems, whoever lives in them.' She looked unhappy, burst into further tears and left. Suspicious that a room fewer than five years old and which she had been occupying for a mere four weeks could be so damp in a Hall of Residence not previously known for that problem, I rang her Hall Manager and asked what the Maintenance team were doing about her room. She had reported no problem with her room to him. My male colleague looked stunned, but then he hadn't worked there as long as I had and seen it all. She was just another example of someone who believes that by bursting into tears or causing a huge fuss they will get their own way, never seeming to imagine that what they claim might be checked for its validity.

So not only is Britain becoming a nation of emotional incontinents, but a nation of people who use emotion as a form of manipulation, a smokescreen for untruths and even to facilitate blackmail. A friend who had fallen out of love with her needy and manipulative boyfriend tried to end it. He threatened suicide, but she insisted to him firmly but kindly that the relationship had run its course and they were obviously radically different people who would be much happier with other partners and not to be so silly. She didn't sleep for days afterwards for worry as he'd gone so far as to engrave surface nicks in his wrists with a penknife and turn up on her doorstep drunk and swathed in bandages when she'd tried to end it before, but reasoned as long as she was being bombarded with begging texts and emotive emails, he was still alive and kicking. Two weeks later, having said he couldn't live without my friend, he had found another girl. My friend was somewhat deflated by this after all his extravagant declarations, but certainly didn't cry that he'd got over her so quickly. Relief was the overriding emotion.

I fully concur with the view that we Brits were probably far too repressed in the past. But I find little authenticity in today's opposite extreme of falsely-inflated emotion and histrionics and fear it carries just as many drawbacks as the stiff upper lip, if not more, if those same individuals genuinely cannot deal with life by honest means the moment it goes even slightly wrong for them, or feel it is legitimate to resort to controlling others to get what they want through their moods. Chaotic lives and f***ed up out-of-controllers abound and are even encouraged by a surfeit of societal acceptance and,  in some cases, benefits.

Where will it end? How on earth would this nation win through another world war if one were to break out? I shudder to think.

Give me an individual with spirit and backbone as well as communication and emotional honesty any day of the week. But then I do like to have my cake and eat it...

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

An Oxford Education

I moved to Oxford the week after Princess Diana was killed. I had lived in Coventry for some years but my fiancĂ© and I had split up, the jobs were getting more and more dead-end and my late grandmother’s house, in which I was temporarily living, was about to be sold. Various friends were also moving away. 

One such friend who had already made the move said one day; ‘Why don’t you move to Oxford Laura? There’s far more going on there. There’s not much culture in Coventry.’

I couldn’t disagree. I had to move anyway, so why not move to another city?

I have never looked back. Within a week I had landed an admin job in the heart of one of Oxford’s most ancient Colleges, found a pleasant house-share with a young couple who welcomed Moggins the Mog, and begun making friends. I had always written poetry but suddenly I now had somewhere I could recite it more than once or twice a year, thus more incentive to write. The Catweazle Club became a weekly fixture on a Wednesday night. 

I joined Oxford Writer’s Group, became a founder member of Back Room Poets and started making full use of the 24-hour coaches to London to attend London’s Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Cafe a couple of times a month, making a new set of London friends. An exciting new world called ‘performance poetry’ began to open up and I entered Cheltenham Literary Festival Slams, among others, making the semi-finals one year. I've taken part in OxFringe Festival shows for six years consecutively and enjoyed many an evening watching friends perform in their shows, operettas, jazz combo's, choirs or at Oxford Playhouse play-in-hand evenings. Hear the Word and Hammer and Tongue also came to join the local spoken word scene. Borders Bookshop formed a major hang out venue for the local literati for nearly a decade, hosting various groups and events in the evenings (though sadly I missed the infamous punch-up the philosophy group descended into one night on a moot point of principle) and remains much missed, though Blackwells has tried to fill its shoes in the city centre and other muse meccas such as Jericho's Beatnik Bookshop have sprung up.

On the romantic front, seven years of volunteering on a Saturday in St Giles’ Oxfam Bookshop failed to yield a single straight Oscar Wilde, but I made friends there too (including a retired don who was a contemporary and neighbour of CS Lewis), and learned a lot about second hand and antiquarian books. Forays into lonely hearts columns and early internet dating followed with mixed results and still no straight Oscar Wilde.

The eternal quest for affordable housing got me involved in Oxfordshire Community Land Trusts for many years and my appreciation of nice architecture, Oxford Civic Society.
I passed my driving test, took a C&G in Interior Design, studied The History of the English House, among other architectural subjects, and in my subsequent job at the ‘other university’ took an NVQ Level 3 in Customer Service, among much employment-related training. And did I mention the three years of Wednesday night dress-making classes at Cherwell Valley College? Suffice to say if two-dimensional fashions ever come into vogue, I possess some!

Every year Victorian Literature Day at Oxford University Further Education Department became a must. For around £40, one could partake of an Oxford University education taster in the adept hands of four experts in their field enthusiastically holding forth on their literary hero or heroine. Jenny Uglow was particularly superb on Elizabeth Gaskell, her soft mousy voice coming alive, her petite bright-eyed features transforming to resemble a latter-day Elizabeth Gaskell. It was similarly a real treat to see the doyen of Victorian Literature John Sutherland in full flow. I particularly love his cheat’s guides zeroing in on the most intriguing puzzles in Victorian literature in collections of essays variously entitled; ‘Is Heathcliff a Murderer?’ Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?’ and ‘Who Betrayed Elizabeth Bennett?’ Another lecturer whose name I now forget enthralled us with how HG Wells got his own back on the class system, of which his parents were servants in the pecking order, by dreaming up the morlocks coming up from underground (ie below stairs) to eat the eloi (the elite), avenging a boyhood of perpetual hunger and invisibility. It was wonderful to hear such talks with no coursework involved and no exams to be passed, just an optional pre-day reading list.

There are also stars to be seen for free if you can get away from work around 5pm and catch the tail end of late afternoon lectures. Such did I see the late Seamus Heaney and the late Beryl Bainbridge, in what may well have been her final public appearance. Armando Iannucci was elected visiting Media Professor by one College and duly delivered a four part weekly extravaganza on the history and future of TV comedy, liberally sprinkled with film clips to illustrate his points. I had the pleasure of meeting him at the free party afterwards in Green College observatory. Colin Dexter, having endorsed our Oxford Short Story books also became a regular fixture at Oxford Writer’s Group parties, regaling us with literary anecdotes. However I didn't feel shortchanged paying to see the likes of Alan Bennett fill the Sheldonian or Cleo Laine and the late Johnny Dankworth in action.

The Oxford Student Union is open to anyone with a friend to sign them in and I watched a number of entertaining debates in the debating chamber. Sometimes unlikely celebrities would turn up to give a talk or join in a debate, the most unlikely surely being the late Michael Jackson, who was apparently winched into the back of the building for security reasons, although I wasn't there that night. The Union bar is also a nice place to hang out in and pretty as the film set it often is.

In our office, I was twice visited by Nathaniel Parker as he looked for his coat whilst filming the Inspector Lynley Mysteries nearby and John Thaw was a familiar sight in the dying days of Morse, filming various bits of our college and others, Kevin Whately to follow in his footsteps. A remake of Brideshead Revisited claimed half the front quad for six weeks and I learned quite a bit about scenery, make up and setting up shots purely by facilitating their uninterrupted shooting. I also learned about gargoyle commission in my job and how no ‘old member’ likes their gargoyle to be too ugly!

Students? Well some are earnest and serious and you can understand how they got here, but plenty are not and you can’t. On the whole though, they do tend to have better manners than most redbrick university students (and I’ve worked at both).

Oxford is one of those places where there is always something extraordinary going on around the next corner (such as a church service on the St Giles Fair carousel) however well you feel you know it.

The only fly in the ointment is the developers’ determination to wreak the architectural destruction that Hitler failed to, having decided the city was too precious to unleash bombs on, only now in the name of profit, rather than invasion. Even the city’s historic Covered Market is perpetually under threat as a prime supermarket ‘site’. The city’s status as a ‘World Heritage Site’ seemingly affords it no protection from monstrosities such as the new Somerville College development (not what tourists board Oxford tour buses to see). As for accusations of ‘Disneyfication’, if only.  At least that would be more picturesque and demonstrate some aesthetic appreciation and respect for the city. Notwithstanding, an early member of Oxford Civic Society savoured the victory of preventing a road from being built slap bang through the middle of Christchurch Meadow in the 1950s when the architectural love affair with brutalism was in full swing. Recent members have not been so lucky in preventing the ruin of Port Meadow further out with yet more ugly student blocks despoiling the Oxford skyline (despite student blocks now being at saturation point).

The other sadness about Oxford is that whilst the snob factor may have softened over the years, it has been at the expense of the invasion of corporatism. If you are advertising an event these days for example, you will seldom find a friendly neighbourhood cafe or shop willing to let you put a poster up, not even the local tourist information, who have dispensed with their ‘What’s On’ board and insidiously re-branded themselves ‘Visit Oxford’. I would venture to suggest there is little more sense of community in the city centre these days than there was when town and gown tensions were at their height. Now mass (year round) tourism has come to join town and gown, regarded as a blessing by some and a nuisance by others, largely because the majority surging along the narrow pavements at the peril of unwary denizens are day trippers who don't stay long enough to contribute to the local economy in any meaningful way. Not that the facilities in Oxford exactly welcome them. The public toilets alone must be among the worst in Britain and there is no proper coach park or meeting point for them either.  The Ashmolean Museum and the Oxford Museum have both been hollowed out and turned into soulless white boxes for wine tasting evenings with gift shops attached, despite the existence of MAO (Modern Art Oxford), created specifically for the purpose.

Every day continues to be an Oxford education... 

As for that straight Oscar Wilde, he never did materialise, but would I suspect, have been far too much of a narcissist to notice little me, so I am far from disappointed that fate finally stepped in with an eminently more suitable suitor.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The REAL Dowager of Downton Abbey

The real dowager of Downton Abbey is not the one portrayed by Dame Maggie Smith  (above) but a humble kitchen maid from Hove who left school at 14, went into service, married a milkman and didn't receive any further education until her mid-50s when her children left home and she decided to attend the University of the Third Age to 'better herself', studying for and taking English O Levels and A levels. She began to write about her experiences in service in the 1920s and 30s, something few individuals of similar humble origins had ever thought to do, assuming no one would be interested in their humble and, to them, humdrum lives, even if they possessed the creative urge. Notwithstanding the working classes were very much brought up to respect their 'elders and betters' in those days and accept that they were not supposed to 'get ideas above their station' in life. Not this former kitchen maid, who had always been a spirited girl with a mind of her own.

Much to her surprise her books were a hit and she became a housewife superstar, almost akin to a British real life Dame Edna Everage! Older readers may remember the familiar features of Margaret Powell who was seldom off the TV in the 1970s, and made regular appearances on Housewive's Choice. 

Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins openly credited her book 'Below Stairs' as being the inspiration for their hit series 'Upstairs Downstairs' in the 1970s and now Julian Fellows (creator of Downtown Abbey) has credited both Margaret Powell as well as Upstairs Downstairs as being the inspiration for Downton Abbey, which is essentially 'Upstairs Downstairs' transplanted to a country house! And while Willy Russell does not credit Margaret Powell as the inspiration for his hit play and film 'Educating Rita', it is highly probable that she was.

After her initial success with 'Below Stairs' in 1968 there was no stopping Margaret Powell and the books poured out of her; 'Climbing the Stairs', 'The Treasure Upstairs' 'My Mother and I', 'Albert, My Consort', 'Margaret Powell's London Season', 'Margaret Powell's Cookery Book', 'Margaret Powell Down Under', 'Margaret Powell in America', 'Margaret Powell's 'Sweetmaking for Children' all followed and Margaret was in endless demand for interviews, openings and all manner of other excuses to don a party frock rather than a maid's pinny. 

My favourite of her books is 'Albert, My Consort',  the touching story of her long marriage to Albert the milkman, a disarmingly honest account of married life and all its ups and downs through wartime and beyond. I also enjoyed 'My Mother and I' where she interviews her indomitable mother about HER life in service, dating from late Victorian times! I have re-read both books recently and they paint a vivid picture of Hove in the early twentieth century. Hard to believe compared to the Hove of today.
Critics scorned Margaret's writing style as somewhat 'coarse' but they couldn't deter Margaret's millions of fans who lapped up her charming and witty candor and relished every detail of domestic life and servant's eye view she furnished. And she had a way with words all her own, so no one could accuse her of not having forged her own distinctive style. I first came across 'Below Stairs' in my grandmother's house when I was about ten and asked if I could borrow it. I quickly became hooked and before I knew it, had ordered every last Margaret Powell from the library and read it. Some of her books such as 'Climbing the Stairs' remain in print to this day, over forty years after she first wrote them. Most authors would be happy with that kind of shelf life.

Margaret's life even inspired a successful sit-com 'Beryl's Lot' which ran from 1973-77 featuring 'Beryl Humphries', a Battersea milkman's wife and mother of three, who decides as her 40th birthday approaches that she needs to broaden her horizons, which she accomplishes by enrolling on a philosophy course at night school. The series dealt with how Beryl's new ideas, attitudes and outlook affected her family, friends and neighbours.

Last week I listened as a Brighton taxi driver on Sussex radio related fond memories of picking Margaret up from her favourite pub and driving her home after her Sunday afternoon tipple each week, regular as clockwork, but always as nice as pie and 'merry', rather than drunk. Always 'a real lady' (well she'd observed enough of them during her life!) She liked to let her hair down, did Margaret, even in her 70s, but shy as she wasn't, she never let her fame go to her head. Celebrities of today could learn a lot.

Here's the characterful Margaret being interviewed by Russell Harty.  Note how the original Brighton accent has a hint of cockney about it, something noticeable in my mother's elderly Brighton relations.