Thursday, August 31, 2006

Shoot the Messenger

I hesitated to get involved in the debate about Sharon Foster’s single drama Shoot the Messenger screened on BBC2 last night, because it would mean being serious for once but there is a writer under fire here so I’m weighing in.

Foster, who wrote Babyfather, won the Dennis Potter award for Shoot the Messenger which tells the story of Joe Pascale, a black man who quits his comfortable job as a computer programmer to become the only black teacher in a challenging, inner-city school. Before even being aired, it had been called ‘the most racist programme in history’, by the African equalities organisation Ligali.

The story begins in a blaze of fury as Joe rails, ‘When I think about it, everything bad that has ever happened to me involved a black person.’ His crude efforts to mentor his black male students with tough love backfire when he is unjustly accused of abuse and his life descends into madness and homelessness. Joe’s fatal flaw is his failure to appreciate that oppression has within it a complex power structure and some very sophisticated coping mechanisms, all of which are interdependent. You do not cure oppression with more oppression. He pays the price for his naivety and arrogance.

Where other people thought they were looking at realism, I assumed I was seeing allegory. Where other viewers detected self-loathing, I thought I was seeing a very human response to betrayal. Joe goes into his misguided crusade with no self-awareness. His reaction to what happens to him is paranoid and his self-examination and ultimate redemption come only after exhausting all other avenues of blame. What Foster herself says about her motivation is illuminating,

‘Shoot the Messenger is a reflection of debates which are ongoing within the black community, and questions some of the stuff that black communities tell themselves and their children. It's like a fable. Some of it may be uncomfortable for people to hear, but ultimately it's about learning to accept and love people as they are.’

Foster uses the cover of Joe’s madness to air an extremity of views that are normally disguised in polite obfuscation, if heard at all. She is from Hackney, where I live. She must have witnessed, as I have, an endless stream of initiatives to mentor young black males whose disaffection and academic under-achievement are all too real. The latest of these was a visit from the homophobic evangelist Nicky Cruz, brought here by the local police to appeal to young black men not to join gangs. Now that is a cliché. But real.

Liberation is often fraught with internal disagreements and debilitating undermining of each other by group members, all of whom are pursuing the same goal. Certainly living through the feminist years there were plenty of times when I just threw my hands up in horror and felt like screaming, ‘can we just fucking get on with it then.’

Black Britain focused its criticism on the film’s director Ngozi Onwurah,

‘The film is told through the eyes of one person making general statements, which is based on Onwurah’s own perspective and feelings about her culture, which doesn’t necessarily reflect or represent the whole truth about the absolute reality lived and experienced by all black people living in a western society.’

This is eerily reminiscent of the debate about Brick Lane. The suggestion that it is incumbent upon writers and directors of fiction to represent whole truths and absolute realities is ridiculous. That is the job of reporters and documentary makers. Neither does authenticity imply uniqueness. Artists are entitled to draw their inspiration and perspective from any source. That’s a basic tenet of free speech.

Of course it’s easy for me to preach objectivity, it isn’t my culture up there being critically examined but the answer is not to shut down debate by stifling brave, young, black, female voices - surely. I saw Foster interviewed on Breakfast yesterday. She is equal to the challenge. The gauntlet has landed.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Read my lisp

There is no job interview that exists in the moment. Despite the fact that no employer is able to offer any more than a one year contract they insist that you tell them in minute detail exactly where you expect to be and what you will be doing five or ten years from now. Since CVs are mostly works of fiction anyway, why not go the whole sonic hedgehog and simply make them futuristic. All CVs should be set five or ten years in the future. At least then employers would be able to gauge if you have all the qualities they always claim to be seeking - creativity, ambition, not a time-waster (how could you be if you are able to account for time you haven’t even had yet?)

One job, however, still seems to be for life – TV presenter. Year in, year out, the same faces appear with ever-evolving eye furniture and hair styling. It’s a bit unfortunate then that the opportunity for career development has been entirely missed in their case. There is not one TV presenter in Britain who can successfully pronounce the word ‘sixth’. Instead it comes out sounding like those bad guys in Star Wars. This is a shame because the core business of a TV presenter is to pronounce. It would appear to be the only key skill needed to carry out the job effectively.

When the BBC interviews fifteen year-olds for future news presenter positions (Moira Stewart and Huw Edwards are expected to go on for another thirty-five years each), they might think about asking them if their ambitions include being able to pronounce the word ‘sixth’. The ruthlessly goal-orientated ones may even wish to set themselves a personal target of successfully announcing ‘today is my sixteenth birthday’ when they turn sixteen. This is nowhere near as difficult as ‘sixth’ but it would give a good indication of their future prospects.

Over a fifty year career and with intensive speech therapy, it may be possible for the most gifted of TV presenters to pronounce ‘sixth’. They could begin with an exercise to break up the syllables, the kind you have when you’re young to stop you saying espghetti instead of spaghetti. This may involve repeating a series of words that combine the same sounds but let you have a bit of a breather in between. Six theatres, six thongs, six Theremins, six therapists (not to be confused with sex therapists).

When Jonathan Ross first barged onto our screens around twenty-five sibilant years ago, everyone laughed at his inability to pronounce ‘r’. It was very quirky, very Channel 4. Now Ross sounds positively urbane with his crisp quips. Try saying that out loud five times Lowri Turner – or even once for that matter.

Recently I heard a news presenter give up on the word Baccalaureate. He got as far as the ‘bacca’ bit and just dissolved into a pathetic ‘lubba, lubba, lubba’ – and without apologising. Admittedly it’s not quite as easy as saying ‘A’ Levels or even GCSEs but it is doable. Everyone in France can say it – although they can’t say ‘th’ can they? It’s a bit too much interaction for me to have to pick up what a news reader is trying to communicate from the context. In fact, why don’t we go back to calling them news readers, with the emphasis on the reader bit? Calling them presenters just makes them sound like all they’ve done is paid for the production.

A sports presenter the other day couldn’t say Agassi. Who hasn’t heard of Andre Agassi? She said AR-GARSI, with the stress on the second syllable. I’d never heard anybody mispronounce Agassi. There are newborn babies that can say Agassi correctly. Perhaps she was thinking about where she is going to be in five or ten years time when Agassi will have retired (finally, hopefully).

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Baby boom and bust

One insidious little piece of proposed legislation presently snaking its way through what Government likes to call ‘the process’ is a Welfare Reform Bill. A cunning plan to ‘achieve an employment rate equivalent to 80% of the working-age population’ is set out in the odiously named green paper A new deal for welfare : Empowering people to work. The consultation ‘process’ for this ended last month.

With seemingly not a single Maths GCSE between its walls, the Office of National Statistics has somehow concluded that there are actually enough people available for work in the country to achieve this lofty aim. Working age is defined as 15-65. If you take away all the students Government is paying to stay in secondary school until they are 18 to create the illusion of a well-educated population, and all the people forced out of work at 50 for mingerness not conducive to Cool Britannia, and the stay at home mums and dads that are supported by their partners’ salaries, who’s left? Lone parents and people with disabilities, that’s who.

Sure enough, they want to ‘reduce by 1 million the number of people on incapacity benefits and help 300,000 lone parents into work.’ Some clever clogs has worked out that in a timeframe not so very distant, there will not be enough people paying tax to support the people who have worked and paid tax so they can retire with a roof over their heads. This is very bad. Since they would not dream of asking their rich friends who pretend to live on their boats in Monaco to stump up any money, the only alternative is to create more taxpayers.

There is the small matter that people on incapacity benefits have been assessed as, err, medically unfit to go out to work. What cruel system would attack a person’s self-esteem in such a way? These harsh assessment criteria must be changed so that ‘people can reach their full potential.’

The ONS must have really been working up a sweat for they have discovered, ‘Although since the mid-1990s the number of people coming into incapacity benefits has fallen by a third, the total number of claimants remains broadly the same because people stay on benefits longer.’ Well, I suppose if they are selfish enough to insist on living longer, this is going to happen. Never let it be said that I am not fair minded. There do seem to be some serious shirkers about. Startlingly, it has been discovered that ‘After two years on incapacity benefits, a person is more likely to die or retire than to find a new job.’ Some people will do anything to get out of putting in an honest day’s work. For shame.

There is also to be a relaxing of the Aging and Related Fashion Offences Act, (1997) as Government also wants to ‘increase the number of older workers by 1 million.’ Older, by the way, is defined as over 50. Since everyone is now buying their clothes at Primark, fashion uniformity has been more or less achieved. The resilient popularity of retro has made it all the more difficult for HR people to weed out those whose image doesn’t fit.

The midnight oil at ONS must have almost combusted when someone came up with ‘By 2024, an estimated 50 per cent of the population will be over the age of 50, due to a combination of increased life expectancy and low birth rates.’ I would point out that everyone alive has actually been born at some stage so has absolutely done their bit for the birth rate. I think possibly even more alarming is the failure to accept that, unless you are very unlucky, turning 50 is the inevitable consequence of being 49 and 364/365ths. It is about a hundred years since the average life expectancy in Britain was below 50 anyway.

It is not known how this million over 50s are going to be discovered or what use they’ll be as ‘unemployment for people over 50 is low but inactivity is high, and many people leave work early due to ill health.’ So, if you can actually get over 50s to go to work, they’ll do nothing and then bugger off home early, pretending to have a cold.

Government may live to regret its campaign to get us all to be healthier if all we are going to do is live to be very old and create a drain on the economy. Those free-range organic chickens may soon come home to roost.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Woman bites God

Politicians love to tell us about what things are like in ‘the real world’. I would like the borders of this ‘real world’ to be clearly defined, if it isn’t too much trouble. As one of the meek (all right meek-ish), I would like to see the will. I would like to be able to plan for the future by knowing what my inheritance will be now, and whether there are death duties in this ‘real world’. John Paul Getty the elder once said, ‘The meek shall inherit the earth, but not its mineral rights’, so you know straight up that most of it is going in legal fees.

I’ve already had a go at Ruth Kelly and her new Commission for Integration and Cohesion and the candyfloss speech that went with the launch last week but I want to revisit one paragraph for just a moment,

‘Even within a framework of mutual tolerance, I believe that there are non-negotiable rules, understood by all groups, both new and established. We must be clear and unafraid to say that we expect these will be shared and followed by all who live here.’

This is patently not true. The basic problem of religious pluralism is that each of these conflicting belief systems makes claims to absolute truth. Although we can agree on the whole ‘each to his/her own’ ethic, what is physically impossible to do is to confer on the believer the one thing that is really important to them, acceptance that their system is the one truth. Agreeing to disagree doesn’t cover it. They can’t all be true.

Religious tolerance used to be a sort of polite joke. You’d hide from the Jehovah’s Witnesses on Sunday mornings. When a street evangelist announced, ‘Jesus is coming’ you might merrily riposte, ‘Jolly good. I’ll stick the kettle on shall I?’ This weekend two western journalists captured by Palestinian militants in Gaza were released after being forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint. Of course, now that they’ve been released unharmed, they’ll do what any of us do when we’ve been suckered into downloading a programme we don’t want; hit the uninstall button. The captors knew that, right?

In this ‘real world’, we’re allowed to pick from a menu of belief choices, none of which has the quality of ‘choice’ inherent? Sounds like a Mcnugget of wisdom to me. You could be tempted to look beyond the confines of the book religions to one that accounts for the very likely possibility that this ‘real world’ is a primitive construct designed to explain a much simpler time. The big bang introduced us to the idea that there may well be a lot of nothingness out there.

Perhaps Zen Buddhism has the answer. It is true that you can’t think about nothing, well not consciously anyway. You can think about a lot of things that amount to nothing and you, yourself can amount to nothing. Nothing becomes something as soon as you start to think about it. Western philosophy doesn’t have an adequate definition for that which does not exist. There is no such thing as the non-existentialists. There is not a never-Sartre or an un-Camus or a de-De Beauvoir.

As far as I’m aware, Zen Buddhists are the only people who have even considered that there might be a valid nothingness that can be explained. The Zen concept of mui is the answer to the question ‘unask the question’. That could come in handy for those questions you wished you’d never asked, ‘Do you love me?’, ‘have you got any plain yoghurt?’, ‘is Victoria Beckham still technically alive?’ Thinking about nothing has proved to be entirely exhausting so I’m going back to pondering the existence of God(s). I may be some time.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Dude, where's my lip gloss?

It was almost too much to bear. Three and a half glorious hours (including ad breaks) of Dynasty : The Reunion. What better way to spend a rainy bank holiday Saturday afternoon? The soft focus took a bit of getting used to again. For the first twenty minutes I thought I’d got my contact lenses in the wrong way round. What had become of those beloved Carrington/Colbys when the series ended with the decade that had spawned it? The last we saw of Alexis Colby she was lying in a crumpled heap on top of Dex. Nothing unusual in that on the face of it except this time, the pair had been pushed over a balcony.

The Reunion, set three years on, begins with Blake being visited in jail by Jeff Colby. This is a masterstroke as it allows a complete reveal of the plot and rundown of the cast list in three minutes leaving the other 207 free for candle-lit slow dancing and failed attempts on Blake’s life. ‘What of Fallon?’.. ‘Fallon, who is as you know my wife, pending divorce, which incidentally I don’t want, is now living out in California with our children etc. etc.’ No mention then of how she escaped from the cave she was trapped in with Krystina and a cache of looted Nazi art works. ‘Any news of Krystle?’ Blake asks hopefully after articulating the main plot point which is that there is a sinister organisation called ‘The Consortium’ conspiring to annex capitalism. (You can see where Dan Brown got his inspiration). ‘Still in a coma’, Jeff sighs.

Cut to Krystle, vacant blue eyes and helmet hair, shoulders of which any shot putter would be proud, smiling her ridiculous peach gloss smile, being brainwashed (if such a thing is possible) by an evil doctor in a Geneva ‘clinique’. Yup. She’s still in a coma. Conveniently, Blake gets released from jail and Krystle escapes from the ‘clinique’ on the same day. Rather sweetly, they appear to have matching luggage. Krystle’s small suitcase is a bit of a tardis in that she manages to extract at least fifty different outfits from it.

Blake heads off to Washington to stay with Steven and his partner Bart. Steven still hasn’t forgiven his father for refusing to participate in his coming out by chanting ‘Steven is gay, Steven is gay’, with the rest of the family so things are a bit prickly to begin with. Steven is in a bit of a strop anyway because he’s just failed in his valiant attempt to save the Spotted Salamander. I assumed that this was a gay bar, but no, sensitive Steven has become an ecologist. He means the actual spotted salamander.

Having established the need for utmost secrecy, Blake and Steven then retire to a busy Washington eatery to openly discuss Blake’s conspiracy theory and speculate on how many top government officials are involved. Meanwhile half the cast decamp to Geneva where Jeff gets captured by the mysterious CEO of ‘The Consortium’. Jeremy Van Dorn is known to almost everyone and his name dropped so many times, I started to think it might be an anagram. I tested it and all I could come up with was Very Jarn Demon.

Krystle and Blake are reunited with each other and their daughter Krystina (whom they just as quickly forget about) at the California home of Fallon. The only interesting thing about Emma Samms, who plays Fallon is that her name is very nearly a palindrome. Her timing is so bad she has to answer her own questions as by the time she’s asked them, the other actor has left the room.

The reunited Carringtons set up home in a humble Virginia cottage. Once Blake has placed the martini glasses and swizzle sticks on the mantel piece, he sets about the business of seducing his wife. But wait a minute, Krystle has been programmed to kill her husband after they’ve made love. Fortunately for all, Krystle is such a lousy shot that her two attempts to carry out this mission fail. Blake’s ardour is undiminished. Remember this is before Viagra was invented. Respect.

Back in Geneva, Jeff’s idiot brother Miles hatches possibly the worst escape plan in history. He asks his accomplices Adam Carrington and some butler’s daughter who came along for the ride ‘what did the Greeks use to get into Troy?’ This yields blank looks so he takes a wild stab. I’m guessing that the Greeks didn’t send a wine vat with Miles Colby inside. The rescue succeeds mainly because the Swiss fight like girls – in fact there seem to be rather a lot of girls fighting. Alexis and Krystle find time to reprise their famous chat spat, this time in a clothing factory in a bonanza of flying beads, sequins, braids and boas. Lovely.

All’s well in the end. Blake and Krystle reinstall their matching luggage in Carrington Mansions and settle down to watch videos. Even Alexis who has to be rescued from the pool house where the evil Van Dorn has improvised a carbon monoxide poisoning device as a parting gesture, joins in the gaieties. Sadly, the careful set-up for a sequel (Van Dorn is ‘arrested’ by cronies posing as police), was never realised. The world is the poorer for it.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Noosa Equilibrium

In the mid-eighteenth century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith posited a theory that individuals acting in their own interests produce a benefit to their whole community. This became one of the main building blocks of modern economics and western capitalism. Incredibly, it was another two hundred years before American mathematician John Forbes Nash had a ‘hang on a minute' moment and came up with his Nobel winning Nash Equilibrium. There’s an impenetrable mathematical equation that goes with it, but you don’t really need it because the logic is so obvious.

If you saw the film A Beautiful Mind, you’ll remember Nash’s epiphany where he recognises that a group of men pursuing a single primary objective (impossibly beautiful woman) cancel each other out. If they co-operate, and each go for one of her less glamorous friends, they don’t get in each other’s way and everybody wins. (Except the impossible beauty but nobody’s losing sleep over her).

Messrs Blair, Brown et al need to do some math because they still seem to think that what benefits their greedy friends is good for the rest of us. It doesn’t matter how badly they get fleeced or how many of these pals get exposed for gross incompetence or bold-faced theft. The nodding and grinning and unabashed glad-handing continues.

The perilous state of iSoft, the company contracted to upgrade the NHS’s computer system is simply the latest in a long line of egg-on-face balls-ups involving contracting with the private sector. Whereas the Tories whiled away their years in parliament getting to know the ins and outs of the sex trade and sniggeringly collecting up brown envelopes stuffed with fifties, the present incumbents are getting themselves mixed up with an entirely more dangerous crowd and putting the silverware at much higher risk than their idiot predecessors ever did.

Lap-dancing strippers have been replaced by asset strippers. This week it was reported that iSoft’s three founders made £81m between them in share sales. That’s just £20m less than the company’s current stock market value. Government may be collectively suffering from Stockholm Syndrome in which an abused party develops sympathy, even admiration for its abuser. Value to the community – a very high negative number.

I have a mind to posit a game theory of my own. This I will call Noosa Equilibrium. This theory is based on the certain knowledge that everyone in the world means you harm. Strangers phone you on a daily basis to attempt to persuade you to alter your already unmanageable domestic administration arrangements. ‘Don’t you want to save money, Ms Lee?’ What for? Some evil bastard is only going to skim it next time I use my cash card. Money just makes you a target. Friends call only to find out whether you’ve finally gone completely mad – admittedly they’ve been waiting an unreasonable amount of time for this to happen. Any transaction involving other people is fraught. Check-out people in supermarkets try to give you computer vouchers for children and grandchildren (arrgghh) you don’t have. I could go on but I want to watch Dynasty : The Reunion on TV - at least someone out there is considering the needs of others for once.

Noosa Equilibrium works like this: you co-operate with the world in absentia. Stay away from everyone, absolutely all humans. Have everything delivered. Don’t complain unless there is really no choice, e.g. if Abel and Cole kick your front door in to deliver your organic box instead of knocking and waiting a decent interval for you to answer. They are after all supposed to be an ethical company. Spend all day reading, preferably someone you aren’t likely to disagree with. Newspapers are obviously not recommended. Don’t answer the phone, ever.

Like Nash Equilibrium, everyone benefits but in the opposite way, if you see what I mean. I am saved having to consider daft questions about subjects in which I am not vaguely interested and the enquirer is spared a lashing by my acerbic wit. Suggestions for appropriate mathematical equations may be delivered via comments. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a date with some very serious shoulder pads.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Barking in Essex

'What people don't often say about Germaine Greer is that she is barking mad. She is an idiot… She's mad, and her determination to be out of step leads her into batty positions. We just watch her, and wonder why.'

Salman Rushdie in The Telegraph 17/8/06

This has taken a while to gestate. I had to read The Whole Woman again to see if I’d missed the obvious. No, it’s just as calm, reasoned and meticulously evidenced as I remembered. It’s difficult for me to come to terms with the suggestion that the firebrand who demolished the usually erudite Norman Mailer in debate and dazzled a generation with her quick wit and awesome intelligence is actually an idiot. Occasionally on Newsnight Review she’d come up with a perspective that was odd even by Newsnight Review standards. They stopped asking her after a while. Maybe that should have alerted me.

In the course of re-reading The Whole Woman I noticed that it was dedicated to someone called Flo who ‘has been called mad by the very people who most need to know the things she tells them.’ Could it be possible that Greer courts accusations of madness precisely because she has calculated that being considered mad by the establishment legitimises you as a visionary? There has to be some explanation for her insane outburst about the proposed filming of Monica Ali’s book Brick Lane in the real Brick Lane in the East End of London.

Almost everything pertinent about that has already been said but just to illustrate how off the wall Greer’s point of view is, I’d like to make a couple of points. I live in the East End and I worked in Brick Lane for about three years. Has anybody else who’s written about this subject been there recently? It isn’t actually a province of Bangladesh. In fact it’s much less of a monoculture than it was even ten years ago with the arrival of fashion and non-Asian bars and restaurants. If you say to someone in the East End ‘I’m going down Brick Lane’, they’re just as likely to think you mean the Sunday market. That it’s the heart of the Bangladeshi community in Britain is currently its defining characteristic but it isn’t all that Brick Lane is.

Accepting without challenge the word of self-appointed community representatives with a clear agenda to promote their own business interests is beyond lazy. It could even be perceived as a form of racism. Has Greer such low expectations of the Brick Lane traders’ capacity to defend their position that she feels she has to patronise them by weighing in with her ill-considered and poorly informed perspective? Natasha Walter, writing in the Guardian, quoted Baroness Pola Uddin, long established voice of reason in the area and someone who does legitimately speak for the community as she was a local councillor before becoming a Labour peer. Baroness Uddin said, ‘This book should be treated like the fiction it is. Let's put our energy into challenging real injustices. It is unacceptable that we should be asking for a book to be banned.’ Quite.

Greer should have faced a much greater roasting than she did for wading into the murky waters of questioning someone’s right to determine their own ethnic identity. Ali is not allowed to write about Brick Lane because she doesn’t live there, she’s half white and her father worked in a university. By this definition is Hanif Kureishi not allowed to write about Pakistanis, Zadie Smith not allowed to have Afro-Caribbean characters? Should Conrad not have written about Africa, Forster not gone near India, Hemingway and Orwell stayed off the subject of Spain. Am I only allowed to write about my street? Should travel books be banned?

Rushdie’s right. Greer is mad, but maybe with deliberate method. If we all think she’s mad she can get away with saying outrageous things without fear of being challenged. We’ll all just think there she goes again, raving, barking Germaine. Meanwhile she’s sitting there in deepest Essex all smug and self-satisfied thinking she’s a misunderstood prophet. Someone should turn her into a religion. Then she'd really be beyond criticism.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Who moved my multi-cultural Britain?

Community Secretary Ruth Kelly this morning launched the latest attempt from Government to get its lobotomised head around community relations. There is of course a high level ‘commission’ of the great and greased involved. Cue endless luxury finger buffets and all day workshops with flipcharts, marker pens and post-it notes in acid colours. Sadly, I know well of which I speak as about eighteen months ago I attended the launch of their last pathetic attempt to get citizenry enthused about ‘community cohesion’ as they like to call it.

Together we can, combined the prodigious air-headedness of Hazel Blears and Kelly's predecessor David Miliband into one great confection of warm fuzziness and premature self-congratulation. This was before the bombs went off in London last year. Together we can sank into well-deserved obscurity. Government have obviously used the last year to reflect on this grave new world and come up with an altogether more stern-faced, but no less muddled approach.

‘We have moved from a period of uniform consensus on the value of multi-culturalism to one where we can encourage that debate by questioning whether it is encouraging separateness.’ Kelly announced. What? After all these years of grappling with what multi-culturalism meant and how to live with it, it’s all over. We’re to have ‘integration’ instead. There are so many elephants in this room that the only purpose it will usefully serve is to provide the raw materials for Chris Ofili’s next show.

I blogged on the subject of community relations a couple of days ago and, rather spookily I think, pre-empted Ms Kelly’s call for ‘honest debate’. I’ll keep an eye out for invitations to participate in these illuminating discussions.

One of my favourite books of last year was FT journalist Lucy Kellaway’s Who moved my Blackberry™. Deservedly sharing equal billing with R Kelly and her public pronouncements on this morning’s news programmes was the revelation that the Blackberry hand held computer is dangerously addictive. Who knew? Kellaway’s book started out as a popular column in the FT. In it she shamelessly lampoons her alter-ego Martin Lukes whose pathological devotion to and misuse of his Blackberry causes havoc in his professional and personal life.

The title originates from the popular American management book Who Moved My Cheese. This ill-conceived trifle is an allegory delivering a stupid imperative to flexibility, regardless of the circumstances. Two humans and two mice are fed by an anonymous benefactor from a room full of cheese. One day the cheese disappears without explanation. The mice respond by scuttling off in search of a new source of food. The humans show up day after day in the room where the cheese was, and bring themselves to the brink of starvation. This is perceived by the story teller as a stubborn refusal to accept reality and an inability to exercise flexibility in a world of change.

What I hope distinguishes us from mice is the ability to question injustice, a willingness to stand up to bullies if they are game to show their faces and the stoicism to risk our lives in the defence of what is right. I expect the new Commissioners for Integration and Cohesion, due to report back in June 2007, to spend their time chasing bits of Brie and Emmental around plates, sending emails on their Blackberries in the tea breaks and coming up with absolutely nothing in the least bit authentic, new or practical.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.

Slough, Sir John Betjeman

I know, I know. There I go quoting from poetry again. I’m obviously in danger of losing the common touch but stay with me, I’ll get to the point. In 2004, eight countries from the former Eastern Europe joined the EU. At this time the Government predicted that between 5,000 and 13,000 people from these countries would come to Britain seeking work. Just under half a million showed up. So the usual care was exercised in making these predictions. Obviously all possibilities were expertly considered and plans made to expand local services to accommodate the burgeoning population. Yeah right.

At the time, the only other European countries besides Britain to completely open their borders to unregulated immigration were Ireland and Sweden. Anyone trying to get into Ireland was immediately crushed in the exodus of Irish people trying to escape it. Sweden is the home of the Saab (uggh), the Volvo (double uggh) and the snow plough – arguably the most attractive mode of transport of the three. Beer is about £25 a pint and traditional cuisine goes by the name of husmanskost – literal translation, human cost. Then there’s the impenetrable language. I once learned to say ‘I’m hungry and I’m thirsty but otherwise I’m fine’, in Swedish. It wasn’t all that useful as nobody was interested in the food and no one wanted to shell out £25 to buy you a pint.

This is all topical again because there will be a new tranche of EU member countries next year which will include Bulgaria and Romania. Cue lots of boasting from Government as asylum applications from these countries plummet. I will declare here that my moral position is that anyone should be able to live wherever they wish – (I pick Mel Gibson’s Malibu house). As the fortunate holder of dual citizenship (Britain and Australia), I have enjoyed the freedom of coming and going between the two for many years. However, immigrants with language needs and no money in their pockets when they arrive need the support of the host country. We either extend that or we put our hands up and say, sorry we can’t manage it.

My spiritual home, Noosa Heads in Queensland, has a population ceiling. I’ve never worked out how they regulate this as to my knowledge, there are no border controls. I know they’re a bit funny about you moving bananas any great distance but I think that’s because they make the car pong after a while. Maybe they do ethnic profiling and I fit in because of my bleached hair. Possibly, they allow you to have only the same number of children as you have bathrooms. They may even practise euthanasia on retirees who have outlived their usefulness once they can no longer stand all day in shopping centres selling raffle tickets. They must be doing something right as they don’t have people begging in the streets.

So to Slough. Of the 9,000 applicants for a National Insurance Number in Slough in the last year, only 150 were from British nationals. The friendly bombs are indeed falling on Slough only to land in the local KFC, the modern equivalent of the cabbage patch. Commerical interests insist that unregulated immigration is a brilliant thing. They would, wouldn’t they because they can get away with paying immigrants next to nothing and capitalising on their poor language skills and lack of understanding of employees’ rights.

You can’t have a moral position with lots of break clauses so I say yes, let everyone in Europe enjoy the same rights and advantages. But please, let them all be militant and refuse to work in appalling conditions. Pray they stick it to the man – big time.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Ode on Grecian 2000

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.' These words from Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn have always held uncomfortable memories. Far from associating them with fine pottery and the British Museum, I recall a rather gawky deputy head at my secondary school prone to uttering them, apropos de nada, at the end of assembly. I suppose that was a hint that it was never going to be that clear cut.

The findings of last year’s YouGov survey that showed more than half of British women and a quarter of teenage boys would consider having cosmetic surgery, leave me confused as to whether beauty and truth have any relationship at all. Sounds more like a bold-faced lie to me. That there is a ‘beauty industry’ would tend it towards tarnish, would it not? I googled ‘truth industry’ just in case I’d slept through a revolution and I’m pleased to report that there are only two entries directly linking these words. It can only be a matter of time.

You hear alarming figures like one in four women in Britain have had a cosmetic procedure. Do I know any of these women? When a friend comes back from two weeks in Spain looking really well, can I assume that smile on her face is the work of a surgeon and not the rejuvenating effects of sun, sex and sangria? I do know people who’ve had their varicose veins done and I’ve got dental crowns. Do these count? If not, I can only think of one person who has had gratuitous enhancement - my hairdresser, who at 22 had her boobs done.

To me, a boob job is a fumble beside the university lake between classes before you get, you know, serious. When I buy my weekly lottery ticket I’m not thinking, ‘I’ll get my waddle done when I win.’ I’ll admit I have my hair coloured. There are two very good reasons. I enjoy the salon experience (especially since Tessa’s boob job), and I have a big grey patch at the back of my head. The last thing I want is for someone to open a conversation with me at a party thus, ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve got a large grey patch at the back of your head and I find that absolutely fascinating…’

There is a relationship between pampering yourself and feeling good which I do understand. I did, after all spend my 40th at the Marbella Health Spa getting mineral salt wraps and collagen facials. All that does is make you think you look better and you then reflect that onto the world and, what can I say, other people are so gullible. You can get cosmetic surgery on BUPA. It’s like having your tonsils out, only pretending that they’re on the outside.

Marbella is the hub of cosmetic surgery. Some 350,000 operations are carried out each year in Spain. Scalpels, general anaesthetic, those broken lines and arrows they draw all over you with black marking pen. (Does that come off by the way?) People! Throw out your mirrors if having a crumply face is standing between you and eternal happiness. As with any surgical procedure there are risks. Last year Stella Obasanjo, wife of the Nigerian Prime Minister died from complications after plastic surgery in a Marbella clinic. Would I risk my life to eliminate cellulite and chicken neck? Not on your wannabe aquiline schnauzer!

PS. I would consider relaxing my disapproval in Roger Federer’s case.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Why buy a dog and bark yourself?

In this country we are used to paying politicians a great deal of money to do work that we end up having to do ourselves. They are forever trying to herd us into neighbourhood committees to make decisions for them on the blindingly obvious. They then act like they’ve done us a huge favour by ‘devolving decision-making to communities’. Not only do they not have to do anything, they have someone else to blame if it goes wrong. You wouldn’t mind so much if there was even a hint that any of this so-called ‘empowerment’ activity reflected a genuine commitment to power sharing. On the contrary, it seems cowardly and cynical.

There is a long history of responsibility-shirking dating back to Thatcher’s time. In fact most insidious political trends emanate from her. The severe recession of the mid-eighties led to many professional and trades people, who would not normally have faced a financial crisis, losing their jobs and then their homes. The Thatcher government completely failed to control unemployment or interest rates. We hardy souls have managed to claw our way back up the greasy pole only to be harangued by the present government for not saving enough to support ourselves in old age.

Gordon Brown, (Scrooge McDuck to his friends), treats the Treasury as his personal money bin. Rather than use some of it to fund hospitals, he’d rather let some private sector developer do it. They then sell on their interest almost immediately for a huge profit, none of which comes back to the Health Service. Meanwhile, hospitals end up with massive deficits. Whose fault is this? Ours of course. We are not taking good enough care of ourselves and this neglect is putting too much pressure on the health service. The government’s response? Order us to eat more fruit and vegetables and threaten not to treat people who make ‘poor lifestyle choices’.

A couple of years ago there was a fleeting blizzard which closed the M1 motorway. Unfortunately it was choc-a-block with commuters at the time. These wretched people had to spend the night sitting in their cars as there was absolutely nothing done to aid them. No one thought to call someone in, say, Canada and ask them what they do when lots of snow falls on roads. Happily they all survived the ordeal only to be berated by government for not being properly prepared. What right-thinking person would set out on a ten mile journey to their commuter rail station without a mountaineer’s sleeping bag, a hamper of sandwiches and a large flask of tea?

Now ordinary British Muslims are expected to take responsibility for national security. Arguably it’s a more sensible strategy than letting the police do it as they have a knack for picking on the wrong people. After decades of not managing to host sensible political debate, politicians now wonder why extremist movements are springing up everywhere. So who gets passed this hot potato? The most disempowered minority in the country, Muslim women. They are being called upon to assert a moderating influence over would-be suicide bombers. Where is the fine political oratory that should be sending extreme views packing? ‘Shall we have sharia law here then?’ ‘No’, (slap), ‘now piss off.’

We need to stand on this bad dog’s tail until it reacquaints itself with its job description and starts to bark. My personal rebellion will be to pursue the poorest possible lifestyle choices and recklessly not save for old age, (not difficult in my case as I hardly earn anything to save). I’d be quite happy to join any lobby group going as well as long as it’s not full of half-wits and meets in an ambient pub with a reasonable house white. In the meantime, someone email me when it’s time for the next belle époque. Cheers.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Don't ask me I just work here

Customer service advisor. That would be someone who, if you are very lucky you’ve reached on the phone after completing a PhD thesis in number punching. Someone who doesn’t speak your language and knows nothing of the service about which you wish to engage them in cheery banter. The only foolproof way to avoid having to deal with these offshore viral bugs in the house of happiness, is to not buy anything. Having made virtually no money this year and indulging in an obscene number of holidays, I find non-consumerism both refreshing and inescapable.

Fantasies of a deserted island with no bureaucracy, utilities or communications (but, strangely, high speed broadband – surely it’s possible in this day and age), will be realised one day. However, in the meantime and in this climate I cannot do without electricity and gas.

My gas supplier and I have a complex and rather too intimate relationship. It began with them literally not knowing I existed. My flat was brand new when I moved in and, although I received gas, I received no subsequent request for payment. Welcome as this may have been, my keen mind perceived that, as a long term arrangement it was probably flawed. A big, fat bill would surely arrive one day and that day would most likely be a week before Christmas when I hadn’t worked for three months.

‘Your address doesn’t exist’, I was repeatedly told with confident authority when I phoned Customer Services. I learned my meter number by heart and was able to show a steady progression in gas consumption. It was all to no avail until I, overcoming the metaphysical conundrum, suggested that someone might like to come around and look at the meter since that most definitely did exist. This did the trick because the meter had the address of my flat written on it ... and … and … and, this address was conveniently right next to the existent meter. Still, Mr Gas would not entirely concede. ‘We had no record of this address’, he told me ungraciously. Whatever.

It all went quiet there for a few years until I came back from a three month trip to Australia in the middle of January to a freezing flat and no gas. It was snowing heavily and the canal outside my window was frozen over. Very jolly. I dragged out the cash guzzling electric fires, wrapped myself up in three duvets and made the call. Remarkably, an answer was forthcoming. A neighbour thought they smelled gas coming from my empty flat. Someone had come out and changed the meter but needed a signature from me to turn the gas back on. Someone came that day. A miracle. Or not …

An uneventful month passed and then I got two gas bills, both addressed to me with the slight variation that one assumed I was male. This bill was for a large amount of money and it had my old meter number. The one with the new meter number was for a small amount, about right since there hadn’t been any gas used for three months. Simple. A new account was opened but the old one hadn’t been closed and, since the meter couldn’t be located, an estimated amount was billed. Was this obvious to Ms Gas? It was not.

Ms Gas took the interesting point of view that there were indeed two customers with the same name and very similar addresses. Did I know this other Noosa Lee and his proper address? Perhaps I had married someone with exactly the same name and simply forgotten about him. Although why this intimate would need his own gas supply remains a mystery. I had gone from not existing at all to existing in multiple, possibly in parallel universes and could slip between the two. Methinks someone had been reading too much Philip K Dick.

As my ghost spouse’s gas consumption climbed to nearly four figures, after six months I was no closer to sorting it out. It was when a bailiff came around and tried to gain entry by devious means that I finally did what I should have done immediately, I complained to the regulator. I know I can change suppliers and I probably should find an ethical company that sources renewables but as I’m always thinking of moving to an island in the sun, there hardly seems any point.

Hell on Wheels

Pee Wee’s Big Adventure opens with Pee Wee (Paul Reubens) dreaming of winning the Tour de France on his very girly red bike. When the bike gets stolen, Pee Wee reveals the psychopathic single-mindedness that distinguishes cyclists from other people who use public spaces. He will stop at nothing to be reunited with the object that defines him. He sacrifices all other relationships to this end. Girlfriend Dottie and dog Speck can only stand by helplessly as the quest takes flight. Pee Wee, wittingly or not is your archetypal two-wheeled monster. When he’s on the road, he is Lance Armstrong – or whoever the 1980s equivalent was, I can’t be bothered to look it up.

The news this week that the profession known as ‘cycle courier’ is to go the way of chimney sweep as a career choice is welcome. This excuse for mad people with road kill where brains should be to terrorise our streets has been rendered redundant by the increased use of electronic document transfer. No more will the arrival of little brown packets requiring signatures cause the evacuation of reception in search of the nearest available fresh air. No more will the areas around public toilets and fast food outlets be the mobile offices of boy racers between jobs.

If ever there was a place less conducive to dangerous antics on fast moving metal objects, it’s the tiny, dog-leg streets of the City of London. Add to the mixture a generous sprinkling of large stationary objects that are apt to take off unexpectedly like buses and the ubiquitous white van, and there can’t be a person who regularly goes on foot in central London who hasn’t had a close encounter with a hell-bent rider dreaming of a yellow jersey. I habitually look before getting off buses because, yes innocent people of the world outside WC1, they will cycle up between buses at bus stops and the footpath if there isn’t room to go around the other way. Can’t keep those pen-pushers waiting now can we?

The other day I witnessed a reticent school kid emerge from behind a bus and ascertain, perfectly reasonably since the space between the bus from which he had alighted and the one standing on the opposite side was not big enough for a even a motorbike, that it was safe to cross. He reckoned without the ipod wearing kamikaze in lycra chasing a personal best. By some miracle (the cyclist would no doubt cite great skill), what looked like inevitable impact was narrowly avoided. The cyclist, as if controlled by some internal programme, immediately let loose a torrent of invective at the hapless child whose only fault seemed to be that he was there.

I have friends who cycle of course (Hi Carole and Mike) and they are civilised people who don’t ride on footpaths, at least I don’t think they do. They also don’t wear those strange pointy helmets that look like an eagle’s head. This could be the key. Maybe these silly hats induce bird of prey fantasies.

Once the cycle courier menace has been dispatched, attention must be turned to that other great two-wheeled threat, the nervous family who want to cycle because it’s so environmentally friendly and good for you and life affirming blah, blah, blah. Presumably by the same bizarre logic that created the self-righteous own-the-road ethic that has become the cycle couriers’ stock in trade, the families that cycle have concluded that it’s all right to ride on the footpath because the road is too dangerous for their children. And they have the nerve to tinkle their little bells, which these deluded souls believe, is a polite request for you to move out of their way.

My friend Katy, who’s American told me a great joke. I have, of course, embellished it for added topicality. Red Tarmac and Black Tarmac sitting in a bar:-

Red Tarmac: I’m tougher than you. People play competitive games on me. Tennis, basketball. I’m a running track. Hurdles, man that’s gotta hurt.

Black Tarmac: Yeah right. I get the heavy lorries, joy riders, roller bladders, women with those killer stilettos, ouch.

Suddenly the bar goes quiet. All attention is on the entrance. Green Tarmac struts in.

Red Tarmac: Finish your drink man. We gotta get outa here.

Black Tarmac : Yeah. It ain’t safe with that guy in here. He’s a cycle path.

Tip: This joke only works in an American accent. Enjoy.

Friday, August 18, 2006

You're A*

A level results are the highest ever. There are now so many ‘A’ grades, there is talk of adding a grade higher than ‘A’ called ‘A star’ to distinguish the very excellent from the merely excellent. They already do this for GCSEs (A*) so the silly precedent has already been set. It is therefore too late to be saying ‘hold on a minute, why add a letter to the front of an alphabet that already has twenty-six’. This is about twenty more than will ever be needed for a grading process at school level.

I understand the whole thorny issue of ‘F’, representing as it does that unspeakable ‘F’ word that can never be uttered in discussions about children and their achievements. Fine. (There’s a reasonable ‘F’ word – ‘you’ve done fine dear’). Fine. Why don’t they skip ‘F’ like they do in buildings where they don’t have a thirteenth floor? Go straight to ‘G’ – representing ‘good’, ‘great’, ‘grand’, ‘gifted’ even. I agree with the concept that everyone should get some recognition for completing school. Surviving the excruciating embarrassment of it all deserves a medal. Perhaps the ‘success-deferred’ pupils could get a little button like the stickers they give out at Wimbledon saying something like, ‘I queued for the tuck shop.’

Having created this unsafe and inequitable world, we seem obsessed with concealing its true character from children. They are going to find out about it at some stage and, likely as not, be completely ill-prepared for the obstacles they face. It has a nasty air of sycophancy about it too. If I were seventeen, I think I’d find the propensity of adults to rush up and tell me how great I am distinctly creepy, (whereas now it would be most welcome). I doubt that my parents even knew where I went to school, and that is as it should be.

Having stripped life of any genuine juvenile challenges, we now have to fill every available open space with climbing walls and paint-balling centres. There are now even attempts to discredit the ‘gap year’ tradition of young people doing charity work in developing countries on the vague grounds that it’s an uncomfortable vestige of colonialism. I may be mistaken but I thought colonialism was about genocide and exploitation rather than distributing food and purifying water.

Universities are concerned about the rise in students commissioning other people to write their essays. This territory used to be the exclusive prerogative of the wealthy dim who weren’t ever going to cause any harm because they’d be royals or go into the diplomatic service in countries where wars are expected to occur regularly. In fact they were usually an asset because they could be counted on to start wars over virtually nothing. Now the hoi polloi are getting in on the act, there are fears that seriously stupid people with no genetically-sound excuse will rise to the top without anybody noticing.

There is something very sad about not wanting to participate in your own education, particularly at tertiary level where it starts to get interesting at last. Of course writing essays is laborious, even when it is something you’re passionate about. Immediately you sit down, your capacity for logical argument evaporates and you can’t remember anything other than what happened in the last episode of ‘24’ at which point you wish you did Media Studies rather than Particle Physics. But you start writing and it eventually comes good, (in my case around the fifth draft). If you don’t write your own essays you’re going to miss out on those glorious moments when fragile self-belief gives way to genuine insight and you dig out ‘an original thought’. The ghost-written dissertation is never going to provide you with that air punch. In my sadder moments I sometimes unfurl my yellowing BA. I can’t imagine what it would be like, as a sentimental tear forms to have to utter the words, ‘Good old Essays-r-us. Those were the days’.

Weapon of Mastication

Took a short break to Vienna recently with my usual travelling companions The Wire and Mr T. This is before airport security became loony again. I could have told them that fizzy drinks are dangerous. As usual no one asked me. They use the stuff to clean coins for effsake. I always say obsessive compulsives don’t miss planes. The Wire is with me on this one but Mr T is always trying to negotiate himself an extra fifteen minutes sleep. He’s also in charge of booking the tickets so why he feels inclined to book us on 9am flights is anyone’s guess. We’re at Heathrow at 7.30, Mr T mustering his best bleary-eyed look.

We figure once we work out how to use the on-line check-in facility we’ll be laughing because we only ever take small back-packs. I’ve got the ablution kit down to a microscopic miracle of little sample jars. There’s still the tiny matter of having to take off everything that is holding something else up before they let you through that beeping machine but what’s a little loss of dignity when continental Europe is only a few short hours away?

Mr T’s pack gets put to one side. While he’s preparing his righteous indignation I remind him of what a good idea it is to get to the airport early. The steam has to beat a hasty retreat back into his ears when Mr Customs finds a knife. It was only a butter knife but we all know that knives are a big no-no. Imagine if it had been this week. “How could that have got in there?” Mr T helpfully speculates and tries to remember the last time he went on a picnic. I don’t get why round knives are such a big threat anyway. On those rare flights where they still feed passengers you get a plastic knife that couldn’t dissect spaghetti and a metal fork. I can tell you which I’d rather not have held at my throat.

While Mr T is receiving his well-deserved admonishment, my pack has come under scrutiny. “It’s a knife or some other weapon”, Mr X-Ray machine announces. As if! I quickly try to remember the last time I went on a picnic or, indeed, Nuremburg rally. The problem with taking only hand luggage on holiday is that, if they do decide to search it, you have to take out everything in front of everyone in the whole terminal. At least it was on the way out and not the return leg so the smalls were clean, folded even. I had all my clothes wrapped up in a Respect Festival hessian carrier bag. I hope the irony wasn’t lost.

Could they find anything? No. It wasn’t until I got on the plane that it dawned. It must have been my electric toothbrush, that AK47 shaped weapon of mastication. Actually, up a nostril, it could cause severe discomfort. It seems that things are getting back to normal security wise, although there was a major freak-out when a plane landed in the States yesterday with a tube of toothpaste or something on it. Talk about make no sudden movements. Some poor sod with bipolar disorder got shot a while back for acting a bit weird. You wouldn’t want to be a nervous flyer. But wouldn’t you know it, now I’ve mastered the art of travelling light, my bag’s going back in the hold. I’m going to have to get a bigger, sturdier bag and fill it up, obviously.

Photo from www.softcom.net