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!