Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday 31 December 2011

Traffic jam of the vanities

The paper's description of 'a ticking timebomb' might be putting it a bit strongly, but it's true that things got badly out of hand at Bicester Village on Boxing Day.

More than 30,000 people visited the shopping centre on December 26, causing some drivers to abandon their cars on the A41.
Tailbacks stretched back to Junction 9 of the M40 while the inconsiderate parking forced police to shut one side of the road between the Oxford Road and London Road roundabouts.

Pause a moment to consider that figure; over thirty thousand people dragged themselves from the bosom of their family on a December day to join the queue for parking spaces and cram themselves into a grossly overcrowded feeble pastiche of a New England shopping street.

And then consider that Bicester Village is a shopping outlet for last season's collections and the lines that didn't sell - it seems to have escaped the notice of the teeming hordes that the stuff in the stores is permanently marked down; this was an entirely irrational feeding frenzy.

It's a measure of how the name on the label has eclipsed the product that, in these supposedly cash-strapped times, so many ordinary people considered this a worthwhile enterprise - and ordinary people they must have been; the affluent foreigners who form Bicester Village's target clientele arrive by train from London, no traffic jams for them.

Incidentally, I'm intrigued by the Oxford Mail's choice of language; these shoppers were 'caused' to leave their cars at the roadside, as if, on finding the 1800-odd spaces full, they were in some way obliged - or entitled - to abandon their vehicles and continue on foot into the temple of Mammon.

It reminds me of the woman who set up a facebook page to draw attention to the fact that residents of her town were ‘fed up having to travel to Northampton or Milton Keynes to view films in a modern big cinema’ - this despite the fact that her town already has a two-screen cinema in the centre.

Of all the bizarre January (ha!) sales stories, this mass migration and the stranding of vehicles along the A41 is surely one of the most peculiar and inexplicable, given current economic circumstances - though there could be a certain hip-pocket or (dare we say it?) demographic factor at work.

With the possible exception of Clarks shoe shop (a leftover from the Village's 1990s infancy) Bicester Village sells virtually nothing that could be considered essential to normal life - unless, that is, your continued survival depends on designer labels and overpriced luxury goods.

Perhaps there are now people who genuinely believe it does.

Friday 30 December 2011

Satirical knitting

Here at the Tavern, we preserve a childhood nostalgia for knitted social commentary thanks to The Clangers, Oliver Postgate's little woollen aliens learning from experience the dangers of unwise agricultural practices ('Sky-Moos') or industrial over-production ('Goods').

You could knit your own Clanger if you have the time and the skill - instructions here - but, as the BBC reports today, a French blogger has gone one better and produced a whole range of instantly recognisable public figures who appear on her charmingly witty satirical website, Delit Maille (loosely, 'Outlaw Knitting') - which by happy chance sounds a lot like Daily Mail.

If you have not already encountered this bizarre but utterly inspired phenomenon, the BBC has a memorable slide show of the best bits here.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Whup! Whup! merrily on high.

It was twenty years ago today that the first commercial wind-farm went live in Delabole, Cornwall.

It caused something of a stir in those parts - much of the talk at parties over the festive season centred on whether you had yet been out to see 'them thurr turboines'.

The local garages had their hands full too, as drivers, transfixed by the sight of the spinning blades, shunted into each other or the local scenery.

Meanwhile, seabirds met a nasty end and the residents complained of the irritating thump and hum - shades of what was to come on a grand scale.

Twenty years so far - how long, I wonder, before the shine wears off for the PTB?

Posting will be light for a while, partly because of seasonal commitments but mostly because I'll be busy stripping.

The Tavern's getting a long overdue makeover, so years of accumulated woodchip and paint have to be scraped from the walls. With that ahead, there's little time to do much save wish you all all a merry Solstice, Saturnalia, Yule, Christmas or celebration of your choice. Cheers, one and all!

Sunday 18 December 2011

"Is it 'cos I is a lay-dee?"

Bless her, just when you thought all was done and dusted and the fat lady was taking a deep breath, Baroness Uddin surfaces again - it's like Fatal Attraction but with ermine.

Despite the best efforts of the Lords to shake her off, at least until she paid back the £125,000 she pocketed in dodgy expense claims, legal advice had it that a permanent exclusion would 'infringe her right as a peer to be called to the house by the Queen at the start of a new parliament'.

Worming her way back in thanks to this technicality would enable her to claim the full attendance allowance and - oh, the irony! - use it to pay back the money she owes. As an illustration of the difference between the law and justice, that would take some beating.

Thwarted on that front, their Lordships are now, according to the Sunday Times, proposing to suspend peers who fail to repay until the end of the current parliament and repeat the vote at the start of each subsequent parliament until the sum is repaid in full.

This raises the prospect of a vote specifically to exclude the Baroness, thereby opening a whole new can of worms. It is hardly to be expected that a professional Asian woman - in the sense of one who has made gainful employment out of the description - will sit back and allow that one to go ahead.

I suspect that left-leaning discrimination lawyers are even now beating a path to the door of her subsidised London flat, pleading to be allowed to take up a case in which a charge of institutional racism and/or sexism could be argued to trump the mere bagatelle of a missing £125,000.

We have, of course, celebrated the Baroness in song elsewhere, but this seems as good a time as any for a nostalgic and appropriate reprise of another expenses ditty:

The People's flag was deepest red,
But now its guiding lights are dead;
Their principles and lofty aims
Demolished by expenses claims.
New Labour came to rule the roost
And give their private funds a boost
And with a supercilious sneer,
To plant their skull and crossbones here.

While we worked hard to pay our tax,
These parasites upon our backs
Indulged themselves in luxury
At the expense of you and me.
They've tried to water down the rules,
And play us for a bunch of fools;
It's time to shout it loud and clear,
No more expenses scroungers here!

Saturday 17 December 2011

Toast of the week - Mr Pickwick edition

This week, we are raising a glass to Ken Atack of Cherwell District Council, whose bonhomie and benevolence belies his name and provides a minor but refreshing example of seasonal goodwill.

The Occupy protests, in the UK at least, have predictably suffered as a result of the weather - some rather more spectacularly than others: the spirit lives on, however, in the shape of a contender for the Christmas number one single.

A North Oxfordshire folk rock band is hoping to land a Christmas number one with a protest song about Government cuts.

The song 'draws inspiration' from the TUC march last spring, describing anarchists occupying Fortnum and Mason and invading the Ritz, and 'is believed to be the first pop song to make reference to quantitative easing', along with some scurrilous attacks on Cameron and the present government.

Billed as an 'anti-austerity song', it is accompanied by a video filmed at locations which include the Occupy protest outside St Pauls - keep an eye out for the dancing elves at 1.17 - and featuring demonstrators there carrying placards bearing the song's title: 'We're all in this together'.

Given the politically provocative nature of the song, the local news reporter who approached Cllr Atack was clearly hoping for some newsworthy hang-'em-and-flog-'em soundbites and a lively bit of controversy. What he got instead was this:

'Conservative Ken Atack, lead member for financial management on Tory-run Cherwell District Council, said he was more of a Roxy Music and Cream fan.

He said: "I'm sure the song will resonate with many young people and older ones, and if they get on 'Top of the Pops', if that's what it's called, then good for them."

Cllr Atack, we salute your magnanimity; your excellent health!

I can't say the question of what's number one at Christmas matters to me, though it would be good if Subrosa is right.

However, on the basis that real music matters more than manufactured pop bands and we are always ready to respect lyricists with something to say, whatever their point of view (though not, of course, to contribute financially to a cause condoning trespass and criminal damage), here is Leatherat's offering:

Friday 16 December 2011

Deep and crisp and even?

Despite the excitable prognostications of the Met Office's finest last night, quite a lot of us didn't wake this morning to a Winter wonderland.

True, there was a bit of soggy-looking snow lying about apologetically in a morning-afterish kind of way, but it's a far cry from that incredible satellite image of the British Isles unbroken white from edge to edge.

However, BBC news had decided the weather would be a major story, so when I tuned in this morning (courtesy of the treadmill at the gym), a shivering reporter was standing on top of the Brecon Beacons to interview a spokesman for Mountain Rescue.

It is a given that any extreme weather event means an interminable series of live reports from regional newsreaders dragged from their warm comfortable desks to the edge of a motorway, a sea-wall or a flood - if it's the latter, they are, of course, contractually obliged to stand ankle-deep in the water.

In this case, editors have had to exercise a certain amount of imagination to make a major news story out of an inch or so of slush and ice; this seemed largely to consist of finding a suitable hilltop - I imagine the rescue services will be less than delighted should they be called out to the aid of the camera crew intent on finding a snowdrift into which they can deposit their hapless reporter.

Two years ago, when a few inches of snow brought the UK to a virtual standstill, I was in Alberta (with downtown Calgary under 5 feet of snow and daytime temperatures of -30C in the Rockies). The valiant attempts by Canadian news teams to politely suppress their mirth as the news of UK airport closures rolled in is a spectacle I shall always cherish.

I'd love to know what they would make of today's reports.

For a reminder of just how spectacular snow can be, there's an astounding collection of Snow Sculptures over at Nourishing Obscurity.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Reasons to be cheerful

It has been pointed out by some - the Spouse among them - that I have been somewhat gloomy of late. My previous post, I admit, was particularly misanthropic, so, in advance of the festive season, I'd like to cheer things up a little.

First of all, Christmas music; while I stand by my loathing of sentimental Americana (see previous post), I am happy to admit that our highly-accomplished local brass band playing carols in town is a sound to gladden even the must curmudgeonly heart.

Meanwhile, there's a seasonal helping of Schadenfreude in the fate of the Occupy Brighton camp; first some of their tents blew away in a gale, then some genius decided to light a bonfire in a high wind and accidentally set light to the rest of them. You couldn't make it up!
And then, in the process of researching another post, I came across this gem which I can do no better than give in its entirety:
BURLESQUE comes to Fenny Compton on December 17 when Creme De La Creme Cabaret brings the latest craze in evening entertainment to the The Wharf Inn.

The compere for the evening will be Kate McGann of TV dating show Take Me Out fame, and entertainers will include the truly hysterical Nanny Dora, the Dita von Tease of the hula hoop world, Franky Fire, cheeky Hollywood siren Miss Scarlet Cuffs, vintage beauty Miss Bettie Wishes and the mesmerizing Belles Burlesque troupe. 
There will be a prize for the best dressed competitor and plenty of opportunities for audience participation.
Why does this make me laugh? Well, for those unfamiliar with the area, this is Fenny Compton.

All of it.

Reasons to be cheerful, indeed!

Saturday 10 December 2011

Christmas shopping - no thanks!

One of my favourite Giles cartoons features the family at breakfast. As Grandma descends the stairs, Mother reaches out to turn off the radios on the table:"Off transistors!" she says, "Nothing puts Grandma in her 'let's-hang-everybody' mood quicker than Wonderful Radio 1."

Regular readers will know that, for me, Christmas music has roughly the same effect. I don't mean the classical stuff; I'm very happy with the odd oratorio or a traditional carol, but the nauseating drivel that fills your ears in virtually any enclosed public space at this time of year makes my blood boil.

Prime offenders are, of course, the Americans; lacking a sensible tradition of wassailing*, yule logs or holly and ivy (all, incidentally, good Norse pagan customs), they have invented the cult of Christmas, an amalgam of drippy pseudo-nostalgia and ersatz emotion where sentimentality is viewed as a positive attribute.

Those of us who decline the invitation to rock around the Christmas tree or have ourselves a merry little Christmas are probably no great loss to the retailers pumping out this stuff; I'd like to think we have more sense than to spend unreasonable sums on overpriced tat.

As a timely antidote to the crass jollity and commercialism of the season, I'd like to offer one of my favourite alternatives, Tom Lehrer's Christmas Carol, dedicated to Longrider and his aversion to organised fun:

* Memorably described thus by Bill Bryson:
In Anglo-Saxon times, it was customary for someone offering a drink to say 'Wassail!' and for the recipient to respond 'Drinkhail!' and for the participants to repeat the exercise until comfortably horizontal.

Friday 9 December 2011

Exam cheating - everyone's a loser

The news this week that exam boards have been running courses at which teachers were told which subject areas would come up in exams is, alas, less of a surprise than it should be.

The existence of rival exam boards competing for custom means the system is inherently flawed. There is far more at stake than the simple exam fees; when a school adopts a particular syllabus, it will then buy appropriate textbooks and teaching materials (to say nothing of pupils buying past papers and revision guides) and send staff on courses run by the board - all of them nice little earners.

This willingness on the part of both exam boards and teachers to cut corners is an illustration of the way education in this country has been undermined; the undignified scramble to an end result inevitably means compromising the vital process of education and instruction.

It's reminiscent of the rival undertakers in Dave Allen's sketch:

This matter has been written on with more inside knowledge and eloquence than I could ever muster at Going Fast, Getting Nowhere - if you haven't already done so, I urge you to read the post.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Losing the swings - and the roundabouts too

The Mail is exercised this morning about a children's playground dismantled because the equipment failed to meet European safety requirements.

Perhaps the most striking thing about it*, for those of us on the downhill side of 40, at least, is that the offending equipment illustrated looks distictly tame by the standards of our childhood.

When I was young, our local park featured a slide of such vertiginous altitude and gradient that users regularly overshot the long horizontal run-out; a cage at the top of the ladder was the only protection against plummeting to the tarmac ten feet below.

Meanwhile, the swings described vast and graceful arcs from a massive frame and the see-saws were long planks of wood balanced on a central pivot; no springs or rubber matting - if you didn't get your feet down in time to break the fall, the end would hit the ground with a spine-jarring crash and your opposite number would be flung wildly into the air.

Best of all was the roundabout, a flat octagonal arrangement of planks on a central pedestal strangely reminiscent of our dining table at home. The resemblance ended there, however; in the hands of determined ten-year-olds, this contraption could generate sufficient centrifugal force to catapult its gleeful occupants a distance of several yards.

It is, perhaps, a good illustration of how expectations of children's behaviour have shifted over the past four decades. Certainly we sported an interesting variety of grazes and bruises, but the incidence of serious injury was, if anything, lower than today.

Regardless of European directives, we have seen an increased insistence on monitoring and restricting children's ability to decide for themselves or to take responsibility for their actions - small wonder, then, that a generation has grown up expecting to be provided for and entertained by others.

And just as the relaxing of discipline in schools has led to appalling behaviour as pupils try to find the limits of what's allowed, so the reduction of risk has taken all the fun out of the playground and surely contributed to risk-taking behaviour elsewhere.

*apart from the blatantly misplaced apostrophe of the caption - 'Before: The playground with it's full complement of equipment'.
I mean, we're all vulnerable to the occasional typo but they get paid to produce this stuff.

Incidentally, a trawl through the Mail also turned up this festive headline:
'Father has finger bitten off in parents' brawl at school NATIVITY PLAY'
I can't wait to see what JuliaM makes of that one!

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Cancer statistics and the blame game

There's been a distinctly statistical flavour to this week, what with the question of lessons in gambling and The Moose's musings on child poverty.

I'll be the first to admit that, while I can more or less follow the reasoning of such Titans in the field as Mark Wadsworth (at least as long as he keeps explaining things so clearly), my grasp of the finer points is a little shakier than I'd like - I don't gamble, but if I did, I'd be the one standing in the bookies muttering "Each way? Er, is that r factorial divided by n minus r?"

Even I, however, have no difficulty working out from today's headlines that if just over 40% of cancers could be prevented by lifestyle change, then nearly 60% are determined by factors beyond the patient's control.

Unfortunately, this reasoning still seems to be beyond the grasp of some of those who work in the field. I make no apology, therefore, for recycling part of this post on the subject from last May, when similar statistics were published for breast cancer.


The other 58% of cases may be linked to environmental or genetic factors or other causes not yet established. Information like this, however, proves a logical step too far for many NHS staff, for whom the mantra runs thus:

Cancer is caused by unhealthy lifestyles.
You have cancer.
ergo You have an unhealthy lifestyle.

In the past few years, several of my friends and family have been diagnosed with so-called ‘lifestyle cancers’, and, to a man (and woman) subjected to lengthy instruction by medical staff about their supposedly unhealthy habits despite a clear family history of the disease in each case.

Thus a friend who walks her dog several miles every day was advised to take more exercise; a lifelong non-drinker was repeatedly told to cut down on his alcohol consumption and, most bizarrely of all, a woman who has the healthiest diet I know of was constantly lectured on cutting down on fat and sugar and avoiding junk food – she weighs less than eight stone.

And each of these reported, with varying degrees of fury, a clear and consistent implication by hospital staff that they must have brought the cancer on themselves by their own failure to lead a healthy lifestyle. Their remonstrations were brushed aside - the cancer was proof enough.

It is no secret that doctors receive a ridiculously small amount of training in the interpretation of statistics, given the relevance of probabilities and incidence – I have mentioned before the GP who excused his diagnostic failure with the words, ‘97% of people with this cancer are obese; you aren’t even overweight, so there was only a 3% chance of you having it.’

That being so, how likely is it that the lower echelons of the medical hierarchy can correctly interpret statistical information, given the standard of maths in today's schools? It is a matter of record that numeracy skills are at a frighteningly low level across the population, and I doubt that hospital staff are any exception.

Tell them that cancer is linked to poor diet and lack of exercise and, unless it is clearly explained, some, at least, are going to go on with complete self-assurance to tell cancer patients that it is all their own fault.

Update: via Longrider, this BBC article includes an interesting show-trial interview with a woman brought out to make a public confession that her cancer was lifestyle-related.
Watch out for the interviewer posing the loaded question:
"Why was it you? What was it in your lifestyle that was wrong?"

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Secret Santa - a product of derangement*

It being the feast of St Nicholas for those who do that sort of thing, I thought it would be the appropriate time to fulminate against one of the more pointless activities carried out in his name.

Several bloggers have already posted on the abomination that is the employees' Christmas party - enforced crass jollity with a bunch of people whose only common factor is that they work in the same building. I'm off the hook this year - the plan for a beer-tasting at a local brewery has once again been shelved, happily confirming my metaphorical opinion of my employers.

There is, however, no escape from the horror of Secret Santa. The workplace variety is probably the most monstrous of all; soooner or later, a member of staff will get the bit between his (or more usually her) teeth and you are dragooned into the whole sorry business.

For anyone fortunate enough to have missed this creeping phenomenon so far - just wait; they'll come for you in the end - each person in a group draws the name of another and buys them a present to a pre-arranged budget. The presents are given anonymously; thus everyone receives a gift and participants have the sense of universal generosity while only making one purchase.

Now that's all well and good - and even pleasantly economical - in families, say, or groups of close friends where presents would be customary. But how many people, particularly in the current climate, want to spend money on presents for their work colleagues? How do you even know what they would like?

And don't even think about refusing; if everyone else has caved in - or, worse, is enthusiastic - you'll never hear the end of it. Politeness dictates that you agree, so you find yourself obliged to buy a meaningful gift for someone you hardly know.

Unless you a) are highly creative and b) have plenty of spare time, this will probably mean heading for one of the major retailers, who have not been slow to cash in on the practice; there are Secret Santa sections springing up on all sides on retail websites and in the high street.

So the day arrives; the spirit of St Nicholas is celebrated with a vast heap of plastic ephemera, unwanted items and cross-purposes - the law of averages dictating that every group contains someone whose idea of a joke is a mankini or furry handcuffs and a grown-up who will have taken it seriously and given a bottle of good wine.

Should you find yourself entangled in one of these schemes and unable to make a graceful exit, it's no good trying to get away with an empty box - unless you want to upset the instigator. I recommend an alternative present so bizarre and out of keeping with the consumerist spirit that you'll never be asked again.

My current favourite is Oxfam Unwrapped's £5 load of manure, but I'm open to suggestions...

*For statisticians, this means a permutation of names on a list such that everyone is paired with someone different. For the rest of us, it just means what it says.

Monday 5 December 2011

Be careful what you wish for...

In the high-and-far-off-times, O Best Beloved, when the Coalition was so-new-and-all, I exhorted them thus on the subject of gambling, in a post on punters taken for a ride by dodgy fairground stalls:
Here's an idea for Michael Gove & Co.; if you want lessons in school to be relevant and useful in later life, you could forget about Citizenship GCSE's and teach some basic probability and a realistic calculation of the chances of winning.
And behold, not eighteen months later, a plan is afoot to introduce lessons on gambling. But it isn't what I meant at all!

Instead of incorporating into maths lessons the ability to work out odds and calculate risk, the proposed course will be part of PSHE and include a class discussion in which pupils are asked 'to identify some of the more positive aspects of gambling'.

This, together with the stated objective - "to enable students to increase their knowledge and understanding of gambling" - is, I suppose, hardly surprising, given that the project is the brainchild of an industry-funded organisation specifically to tackle problem gambling and its given aim is to teach "responsible gambling" instead.

Since my main area of concern is the 'tax on stupidity' aspect of the situation, I don't hold out much hope that this will improve matters; according to The Times, 'In its submission, Gamcare admits that an initiative in Canada left pupils more aware of how gambling works but 'not more likely to know about the signs of problem gambling''.

Now I ought to declare my position on this - I have a long-standing aversion to gambling. This is due in part to generations of Calvinist ancestors glaring down from the hereafter (even atheists sometimes find themselves looking over their shoulders) but mainly to my experiences at school.

The annual bazaar was the province of Sister Patrick, who ran a bottle stall from which nearly all the winning tickets had been extracted in advance. Pupils also had to run the gauntlet of Sr Mary's dartboard (blunted darts), Sr Seamas' coconut-shy (glued down) and Sr Clare's tombola (you've guessed it). Most of us had worked it out by the time we left, but by then there was always a new crop of bright-eyed youngsters, eager to win and well-supplied with pennies.

The nuns had it nicely calculated - just enough pupils won prizes to keep everyone's hopes up while extracting the maximum amount of profit. I may not have derived much spiritual benefit from that education, but being thus parted on an annual basis from my hard-earned pocket-money gave me a lifelong aversion to risking cash ever again.

One of the problems with lessons on gambling is that teenagers' brains are hot-wired for risk-taking and primed to respond to the prospect of reward. Some never grow out of it; the same phenomenon sells millions of scratchcards and Lottery tickets every week, even when the purchasers are struggling to make ends meet.

Instead of appealing to a judgement and reasoning ability pupils are unlikely to have, surely it would be better for government initiatives to use maths to illustrate exactly how remote are the chances of winning.

But then, of course, no-one would play the National Lottery*.

(*Nick M at Counting Cats sums up the situation admirably in a comment)

Saturday 3 December 2011

The price of compassion

It would probably be fair to say that teachers do not rank highly in the public sympathy this week, which is unfortunate for this man.

Teacher Martin Davis was suspended for giving a lift home to a 17-year-old pupil who had forgotten his bus fare.

Mr. Davis, a maths and science supply teacher for 23 years and a father of two, was employed by an agency to give one-to-one support to boys with dyslexia in a Newcastle college.

One afternoon in November, one of his pupils approached him and said he had no money for the bus fare home; as he would be passing the boy’s house on his way home, Mr Davis offered him a lift.

“A week later one of the office staff at the college pulled me to one side, having heard about me giving the boy a lift, and said it was a stupid thing to do because I was opening myself to all sorts of allegations.

I said I was sorry and she just told me not to do it again, and that seemed to be the end of the matter.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Davis, it was not; the agency, presumably alerted by college staff, promptly removed him from his job there and suspended him without pay pending further investigation. Official statements have been produced and the words ‘safeguarding’ and ‘procedures’ bandied about in justification.

Career-wrecking events like this happen with depressing regularity, although in this case, at least, there is no question of malicious allegations by a pupil; in fact, according to Mr Davis, the boy concerned was ‘upset and angry’ about the dismissal.

Quite apart from the incongruity of applying child protection policies in this case – the 'child' was old enough to be in full-time employment, join the army or be legally married – I’m shocked by the lack of respect and trust for someone who has dedicated his working life to educating the next generation.

Mr Davis is an experienced teacher whose background must have been repeatedly scrutinised by all the usual CRB checks, yet the protocol treats him as a potential risk to the young man he offered to help. What’s more, one of the office staff at the college considered it acceptable to describe his action as ‘stupid’ and admonish him for it.

What would have happened, I wonder, had Mr Davis followed the approved course of action and the boy, walking home alone after dark, been attacked or met with an accident? It’s a matter of record that young men are far more likely than any other group to be victims of urban violence.

Sadly, I have no doubt that officialdom would shake its collective head in sorrow while affirming that Mr Davis had done the right thing in abandoning him to his fate. However, had the boy failed to make it home that night, I am certain that Mr Davis would not have seen it that way.

Teachers who want to stay in their jobs these days must, like Caesar’s wife, be seen to be above suspicion at all times. Unfortunately, it seems that it sometimes means being above compassion too.

Friday 2 December 2011

Divide and Conquer

Unison. Unite. I'm part of the Union. One out, all out. United we stand.

Once upon a time, there was a point to all this. Combination - acting as a united group to withdraw labour - allowed poorly-educated and exploited 19th century factory workers to negotiate fair pay and conditions by hitting the mill owners where it hurt.

But what did this week's strikers achieve, beyond illustrating exactly how little difference the withdrawal of their labour would make to the country? Well, I suppose they can congratulate themselves on a mass demonstration of support - at least by those who weren't spending the day Christmas shopping.

Certainly the BBC was happy to carry repeated interviews with staff who had never considered strike action before, and who were now being provoked into it by the actions of the coalition; the subliminal message was clear; these are decent, honest workers forced into an uncharacteristic joint rebellion.

But the united facade covers a world of differences. Take for example the staff I have been dealing with recently at a major hospital. One is an administrative officer; last time I saw her, she arrived half an hour late (wiping chocolate crumbs off her face), filled in the wrong form and insisted on telling me all about the birthday party she was planning for her child.

In the same building, in a secure dementia ward, I met a male nurse who works tirelessly with his confused and sometimes violent patients; breaks are few and far-between, but he appears to maintain a calm and reassuring presence throughout, however difficult or unpleasant his tasks.

The work these two people do has very little in common; the desk-bound administrator will probably be able to keep doing her job (or, more accurately, occupying her desk while surfing the net and eating biscuits) to a greater age than the nurse could meet the demands of his, and thus retire on a far larger pension.

Meanwhile, those head teachers who closed their schools have salaries that are, in some cases, double those of the classroom teachers they led out - with accordingly higher pensions. An average salary-based scheme will hit them hardest, since senior management entails a massive salary hike in most areas.

Those striking Victorian mill-workers, by and large, were doing the same kind of work and stood to lose or gain together. By contrast, some of those marchers last Wednesday (not to mention the thousands of public sector staff who went to work as usual) have far more to lose than others, and some are already putting in their all while others idle along.

So here's a thought; why not allow certain public sector workers to keep their current pension rights because they do jobs too difficult, unpleasant or stressful for the majority of workers to tackle and because they are likely to burn out earlier? These people are generally among the lower-paid in any case.

That takes care of the front-line staff who, according to Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, 'care for the sick, the vulnerable, the elderly. They wipe bottoms, noses, they help children to learn, and empty bins.'

Meanwhile, office staff, managers and administrators adopt the new proposals and save the state a fortune.

Of course, it would never happen; the unions wouldn't hear of it.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Quotes of the day - Clarkson hyperbole edition

No, it's not the out-of-context comment that launched a thousand angry outbursts* (and 5,000 complaints to the BBC), but the Unison response. After the general secretary demanded that Clarkson be reported to the police - and wouldn't you like to be a fly on the wall in that interview? - a spokeswoman weighed in with this objective analysis:

'It's disgusting. It's like something Colonel Gaddafi would say about a demonstration.'
(Courtesy of Radio 4 news at 6.30pm)

And the ever-acerbic Longrider has just posted this memorably phrased opinion on the same topic:

'No one – except a compete fool with their head shoved so far up their arse they can do their own dental checks – seriously believes that he was actually suggesting anyone be killed.'

*If you haven't seen the footage, it's on view at Angry Exile, who finds a side order of extra amusement on camera.