Monday, 3 February 2014

I am a Champion.

When I started in youth work I was first assumed and then told to be a "young people's champion". As so often with such terms, it has both survived and obscured a number of changes in how young people are seen by governments and by society in general. Usually these changes are resource-driven and justified post hoc and ad nauseam, although in fairness they have occasionally resulted from prior thought.

So young people may be impressionable innocents, misunderstood deviants, fully-formed mini-citizens, social victims, claimants of rights or idealistic counterweights to adult cynicism, but so long as we "champion" them, preferably as indiscriminately as possible and without too many questions about what it is we're championing and why, we - and of course they -are just fine.

But right now I'm confused: I'm not sure whether being a Champion of Young People requires me to lament or to gloss over the fact that, of a pretty representative sample of 19 of them aged 14-16 on a residential trip this weekend, well over half couldn't identify even vaguely the location of Scotland and Wales on a simple map of Britain. Which means that they can't identify England with any certainty either.

After a somewhat stagey rant, an attention-seeking crawl under a desk, the application of salts and no little assistance with uncoiling from the foetal position, I was told not to worry because "History and Geography are only options at school".

Leaving aside the fact that we're almost daily asked to believe that education in England and Wales has never been better (why, look at the exam results!), I think that if people don't leave year 3 of primary school with a pretty good idea of which country they live in, where it is, who their neighbours are and what shape it is on a map, there's not much championing to be done about it and they'd damned well better be given no option about learning it when they start their GCSEs in year 10.

One of the key tests of a "young people's champion" over the years has been the belief that young people should get the vote at 16. And, for the first time in a national election in the UK, they will be eligible when the Scots vote on independence in the autumn.

Scotland has a different education system than we English. I hope for their and our sakes it's a better one.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

This film is not for spurning.

Having missed it in the cinema, I have just watched 'The Iron Lady'.
Meryl Streep is absolutely - no, COMPSOGNATHEOUSLY - brilliant: what an actress, whose every tic, stoop and intonation so bit home that by the end of it I couldn't remember what Margaret Thatcher looked like or where the hell I’d been at the time.

More than anything there was - for me - a gradual realisation that she lived - no, survived - a life more ordinary for over twice the length of time she spent in power. If I'm right that puts her second only to Sir Paul McCartney and leaves Nelson Mandela still in his blocks.
I liked the neat opening scene in which "the milk snatcher", having eluded her captors, complains about the high price of that essential calcareous bovine nutrient: 49p a pint - and from a corner shop too! For once she should have followed her own advice instead of her father's and shopped at Tesco's.

But why did the Falklands war occur after the miners' strike? Where was Europe and all who sank in her (mostly over here)? Where Westland? And why was Heseltine played by Richard E. Grant, who only ever convincingly plays Richard E. Grant? Where were Tebbit and Lawson, Big Bang and Gorbachev?  Could Reagan do nothing more than dance? (OK, don't answer that one.)
And above all, why the leap from 1984 to 1990 – and with no mention of the World Snooker Final between that other Dennis, Taylor, and Steve Davis?

I think she'll be back.


Saturday, 4 January 2014

Are we there yet?

There was an interesting question from Jan Greenwood on Facebook today: "Is it reasonable to assume that all-year Christmas shops don't have after-Christmas sales?"

The answer - as all-year Christmas shops are good enough to be open about - is that there's no 'after-Christmas' any more. Like children, but with fewer grounds for it, we live in a perpetual state of pre-things.

Unlike children, we are encouraged to do so, and it must be said that we respond magnificently and above all with great financial generosity.

For example, it is now the pre-Valentine's Day period. When that's over, although Easter eggs will already have been in the shops for a fortnight or so, we will be pre-Easter, then warming up during the pre-Summer Holiday period, pre-Hallowe'en before the tan has faded, pre-Bonfire Night, with fireworks a fortnight either side of November 5th, and finally (except it isn't) and with barely enough time to catch an autumn chill, pre-Christmas again.

The only thing we prefer not to be thought of as pre- is the one thing all of us are, and that's death, which only those we leave behind are authorised to celebrate - in the nicest possible way of course.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Consume and Live

Charity shops are the answer to middle class moral agonies about obsessive consumption: I get to indulge myself at minimal cost while kidding you I’m thinking of others. (And kidding myself: when deceiving people it always goes so much better on the conscience if you bamboozle yourself first - in fact, that's the main difference between theologians and politicians.)  And of course charities get the money and the high-street, supermarket and internet chains don’t. Then, instead of feeling guilty when I get home I can look down on everyone else. It doesn’t get better than that.

These are just some of my purchases since Christmas:
Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ will cost you £7.99 in Waterstone’s but I parted with just £1 in Age Concern, Chalfont St Peter. OK, less than half a lateral inch on the bookshelf  but an eighth of the price in the wild and, being second-hand, it will look to others like you’ve actually read it.

A used set of a rare Marx Brothers 6-DVD boxed collection is £54 plus P&P on Amazon, but I saw just £25 Go West in The Hospice Shop, Gerrards Cross.
A Paul Smith shirt that looks like a tube of Refreshers would have cost me an arm and a leg at £125 from the eponymous retail outlet - which, incidentally, rather defeats the point of buying it in the first place - but I secured it for the mere toenail clipping of £5 from Cancer Research in Beaconsfield, and with not a soup stain to be seen.

I wouldn’t be seen dead wearing it, but you know what I mean.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

A Christmas reflection on the significance of continuity.

Christmas having been with us for nearly three months now and showing no signs of going away, I have retreated to my bunker, the approaching red, muzak-wielding Nicholine hordes nearly inaudible down here, to consider why, even in multi-billion dollar films and with the power of CGI and modern editing techniques at the fingertips of highly observant and gifted men and women, the continuity between one shot and the next is so often absolutely shocking

I invite those likewise disposed this Christmas eve to peruse, as only two of many pieces of supporting evidence, the opening scene of 'The Sound Of Music', in which Julie Andrews runs up a hill in bright sunshine to belt out the most famous opening line of any film beneath a sullen, grey sky, and the one on the snowy mountainside in 'The Fellowship Of The Ring' in which Boromir spies and covets the Ring in a blaze of sunlit colour and Aragorn promptly intervenes in ghoulish twilight.

Shocking. Just shocking. Do any more spring to mind?

And while I'm on the subject, why, in 'Calendar Girls', after shooting the whole film on location in lime- and gritstone-built Yorkshire, is a dispensable part of the final scene - supposedly taking place in the same village - shot in the very red-brick and southern hamlet of Turville in Buckinghamshire? OK, Pinewood is nearby, but if they'd forgotten something why set the conversation outside?

It really gets me and it threatens to ruin my Christmas. And because this is a time for sharing, here is a final thing that, if you have a beard, I hope will ruin yours too: do you sleep with it inside or outside the bed covers?

I know: it's Christmas and all I do is moan, moan, moan.


Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Way We Live Now (3)

Tesco’s again.

I chose an orange juice and a lemon chicken wrap from the ‘Snacking’ fridge. Each had a “Meal Deal for £3” sticker, so I took them to the till with the specified coinage.

“Would you like any help with your pack...”

“Don’t fuck with me, lady.”

“Of course, Sir. That’ll be £3.30, please.”

“I think these are on your £3 Meal Deal offer.”

A quick scrutiny of the till. “You didn’t get any crisps.”

“A correct observation in which, however, I fail to discern the slightest relevance to the comment I have just made.”

“It’s only £3 if you get crisps too. That’s the Meal Deal. It’s a deal, you see.”

“A deal that appears to mean the less I buy, the more I pay. I really must present that idea at our next sales conference. It'll go down a treat with hard-pressed consumers.”

“No, it’s a deal. You have to get crisps to get the deal. “Meal Deal” – look, it says it here.”
She looked a bit annoyed.

“Madam, please don’t take this personally, but does anything seem strange about the fact that your company is asking me to pay less for buying more? On that principle, might I be allowed to have one of your excellent 60-inch flat screen TVs in lieu of the crisps?”


Friday, 29 November 2013

The Way We Live Now (2), or Never Ask How, Only Why

Another supermarket just yesterday, but it wasn’t Tesco’s. It could just as well have been another organisation, though - let me see now  ... your local council, for instance? I should warn you that this has a happy ending.

Lady at the ‘Baskets Only’ till: “I’m sorry, Sir, but you’re not a basket.”

Hang on, let’s start that again. Bloody pikeys.


Lady at the ‘Baskets Only’ till: “That’ll be £1.78, Sir. Would you like help packing?”

Myself: “I beg your pardon?”

The Lady: “Would you like any help to pack your groceries?”

I look carefully at what I have bought.

After a while: “No ... no, it’s just two small bags of lemons. I think I can manage.”

I lean against the counter for a short while, breathing as deeply and as evenly – and, indeed, as crisply – as I can. A late autumn fly dances the dance of love and death among the late autumn corporate Christmas decorations.

Myself: “Excuse me, but may I ask you why you asked me if I needed any help packing a total of 8 lemons?”

The Lady: “Our manager says that we have to ask everyone that, however little they buy.” She gurns conspiratorially.

Myself: “So the manager of a flagship branch of one of the most ruthless retail empires on the planet asks its employees either to take time away from serving customers or to call another member of staff away from whatever carefully planned and rationalised task they are supposed to be doing in order to help a physically able man pack 8 lemons in a bag?”

The Lady: “Yes. I did ask him why but he said we just have to do it. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? But I did ask.”

Myself: “Madam, you are a heroine, the golden leaf that fell at the flutter of a butterfly's wing in that northern forest!”

The Lady: "Enough of your sauce, young man!"

More conspiratorial gurnings, this time shared. There is hope after all.