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

Tuesday 31 January 2023

Starting them young...

With the day of strikes upon us, a snapshot of how things are done across the channel; at today’s protests against the proposed pension reforms in France, the CGT union launched its new initiative for children, ‘Ma premiere manif’’ (‘My First Demo’).

According to 'Le Dauphiné libéré':

Children are invited to visit the union’s official vehicle to collect a pack containing a certificate of participation, along with games and a colouring book to ‘help children and parents enjoy their day’.

Meanwhile, in the UK, teaching unions, having urged their members not to help schools or parents with planning by giving advance notice of their intention to strike, are now encouraging children to make banners and put together food boxes to sustain their striking teachers on their (long) march, a concept so far beyond irony that we surely need a new word for it. 

Although some of the damage dates from the activities of left-wing teachers half a century ago, the death knell of modern teaching sounded in the early nineties, when two Cs at A level were enough to get you into teacher training and the NUT set about building the militant super-union behind today’s mass walkout. Fuelled by the anti-elitist attitude that saw better-qualified subject specialists hounded out of many state schools, a culture has grown up in which pupils appear to be, for some at least, a means to an end, rather than their raison d’être.

Now it looks as if, along with their efforts to destroy the education system from within, the unions are soliciting a public show of support from those who will be most harmed by their irresponsible and cynical actions. There must be a technical term for this sort of thing, but I have a horrible feeling it is likely to be in Russian, or possibly Chinese.

Saturday 21 January 2023

WFH: Won’t F***ing Help

Over the past few weeks, some of the older members of Clan Macheath have had occasion to contact a variety of organisations by phone, including banks, boiler manufacturers and electricity suppliers.

By choice or necessity, our elders eschewed the internet and called the customer service telephone numbers provided by the organisations only to receive a variety of unhelpful responses from staff who, as far as they can ascertain, were working from home.

There were several helpful clues to indicate this, from the background sounds of of televisions, washing machines and noisy children to “I’m just putting you on hold while I let the dog out”, followed by a five minute silence. One caller was baffled by an irregular repeated pinging noise until, with the help of speakerphone, a visiting younger relative identified it as social media notifications and ‘likes’ from a nearby phone, which presumably explained the operator’s frequent lapses of attention during the conversation.

All of this suggests an environment less than conducive to concentration and focus on the customer’s needs and a lack of responsibility, an impression which is borne out by the repeated abrupt ending of calls mid-conversation. After calling back - and giving her details in full - for the third tIme, one of our tribal elders asked the operator point blank whether they were paid and assessed by the number of calls they took rather than whether the issue was resolved; the answer was yet another hang-up.

All in all, the overall feeling is that these home-workers, freed from the supervision of the office, are simply time-serving; nominally putting in the hours while paying very little attention to the requirements or needs of the customer - how else could one explain the cheerful complacency of the representative of a heating firm who, during last week’s cold snap, happily told an eighty-four year old with no heating or hot water that she would send someone to look at the boiler in two weeks’ time? 

It looks as if the practice of ‘driving customers online’ continues to permeate the business world; in any other circumstances, would employers be willing to allow their customer-facing staff to behave like this? (In the private sector, that is; the phenomenon of the self-indulgent time waster is sadly all too alive and kicking in hospital administration, social services and local government). Even when a call has been referred upwards, the managers seem unwilling to make much effort to help.

These days, customers who seek help via a phone line rather than online are likely to be elderly or unable to use a computer for reasons such as visual impairment or arthritis; to provide them with a second-rate service at the whim of inefficient and unhelpful home workers seems more than a little cruel.

Tuesday 17 January 2023

The Long March through the teaching unions

Two years ago, when the Association of Teachers and Lecturers completed its merger with the National Union of Teachers, I returned my membership card and cancelled my subscription in protest.

There was an interesting precedent for this; half a century earlier, my father did the same thing with his union membership when a teachers’ strike was called. Aided by a number of like-minded colleagues, he rearranged the timetables and took on extra lessons and duties to ensure that the school stayed open and pupils, particularly those in exam years, received as much of their normal education as possible.

To anyone outside the profession, it may seem odd that either of us belonged to a trade union in the first place. However, as I have mentioned before, union membership was, until the recent emergence of an independent and apolitical service, the only way to gain access to expert legal protection and advice in the case of allegations of professional misconduct - a necessity when your job places you at constant risk of accusation based on the unsupported word of a child or teenager, however far-fetched or malicious.

Joining the profession therefore effectively meant signing up with a union. With the avowedly militant NUT and NASUWT available, those who instead chose the relatively genteel Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association, as the ATL was known until 1993, almost certainly did so because its policy of no strikes and minimal political activism was the best match for their own beliefs and opinions.

Unfortunately for these principled and peaceful souls, their good nature was to be taken advantage of in a cynical and manipulative coup. Starting in the early nineties, a concerted power grab by left-wingers led to the union’s first ever strike, affiliation with the TUC and finally the ‘merger’ - effectively a takeover by the much larger NUT - to create Europe’s largest teaching union. It is a virtual certainty that Labour supporters like General Secretary Mary Bousted, the hard-line Corbynite who masterminded the merger, joined this non-striking union with the specific aim of converting it into a militant organisation (in Bousted’s case, actually moving from the NUT in order to do so). 

Sadly, the apolitical stance of most ATL members was no match for the warlike ambitions of Bousted and her cohort; very few ever bothered to attend meetings or vote in union ballots, giving her and her associates an easy route to the top and to full control of policy. Even when their union’s very existence came under threat, a paltry turnout of 25% for the merger ballot suggests that three quarters of them just closed their eyes and hoped it - and she - would go away. Instead, they found themselves trapped in Bousted’s new super-union which, within a year, was demanding the restoration of flying pickets and the return of the closed shop.

It’s hard not to feel a deep sense of betrayal at this imposition of militancy on those of us who rejected it on principle at the outset. I am surely not alone in saying that neglecting pupils for political reasons goes against everything I believe about the importance of my chosen profession. I could understand taking part in a demonstration during the holidays or at the weekend, but to use children’s education as a bargaining chip seems to me despicable - to say nothing of the impact on parents in low-paid jobs obliged to take unpaid time off work if a school closes.

The NEU ballot turnout was 53% - a scant 3% above the legal threshold - suggesting that many of those apolitical ATL members are still out there, even if they are now so outnumbered by militants that their votes - or abstentions - can have little or no impact. For the sake of a generation of pupils whose education has already suffered considerable disruption, I hope that, when the strike days arrive, they will uphold the once-proud ethos of the union they originally joined and, in Churchill’s immortal words, keep buggering on.

Sunday 15 January 2023

Now every man (and woman) is an island

Had you been a fly on the wall in a certain library in Southern England some thirty years ago, you might have been startled by a heavily pregnant woman slamming a book down on a table with a most unladylike exclamation.

The book was a then fashionable guide for new parents and I had just reached the chapter on childcare, which suggested that a mother could return to work as early as six weeks after birth; ”You may be concerned”, it said loftily, “that your child’s caregivers do not have your level of education or language skills, but these worries are unfounded; studies have shown that this will have no long-term detrimental effect on your child’s development.”

The book did not, as far as I could see, offer much information about these ‘studies’, or what evidence they provided for their findings, but it was clear in its message that ‘quality time’ at weekends more than made up for a baby being farmed out for the majority of its waking hours (in educational terms, at least). Breathtaking intellectual snobbery aside, there was something disturbing in its complacent assertion that, while the child may repeatedly cry or show distress when left at nursery or with a nanny, this should not prevent the mother from returning to work (the same advice appears on today’s NHS information website).

The Shadow Education Secretary’s recently announced plan to make childcare available for all children from the age of nine months is another manifestation of the belief that children will thrive away from their mothers from a very early age. What concerns me about her arguments are that, while she cites mothers who ‘have to give up jobs they love’ because of a lack of childcare and the need for single mothers to be able to work, she makes no mention of the effect on the child.

Raising a child is - or should be - a huge responsibility. Every experience and every new piece of knowledge will contribute to the adult it will eventually become. I find it hard to understand how a mother would willingly - or even cheerfully - pass her infant over to the influence of relative strangers for almost the entirety of its weekday waking hours rather than be there herself to oversee its development and provide comfort whenever necessary. In any case, children under 3 naturally suffer from separation anxiety; it seems inhumane to override this by making the mother’s interests paramount.

Staying at home with a baby or a young child can be frustrating, boring and lonely at times - we were never meant to rear our children in isolation and some mothers may need support in the form of mother-and-baby groups and help to access the activities on offer - but it also means that the parent is a constant presence and a source of continuous reassurance when the child’s brain and emotional behaviour patterns are developing at their fastest rate. We may have invented smartphones but we still respond to the same pheromones and biological cues as our ape ancestors; for a pre-verbal child, being deprived of its mother’s presence for hours at a time on a daily basis must surely have a detrimental effect.

In fact, that effect may now be making itself evident. The generation born around the time that book was published (and Harriet Harmann was boasting about the number of UK working mothers with children under 5) has turned away from the institution of marriage to a startling extent: in 1976, 90% of men and 80% of women under 30 were married, while by 2019, the figures stand at a third and a quarter respectively with a further decline predicted for the future. Meanwhile, England and Wales last year passed the landmark point of a majority of babies being born out of wedlock.

Admittedly many more people are willing to embark on long-term relationships without marriage but there does appear to be a shift towards serial monogamy and away from commitments surviving long enough to rear children. The knock-on effect of universal childcare policies may turn out to be a solipsistic society composed of individuals whose formative experiences have left them unable to sustain stable relationships in adult life and a resulting manifold increase in state subsidies for single parents.

Monday 9 January 2023

Spit and Spatter

A recent exchange of comments at Ambush Predator’s place led to the discovery of the above phrase being rather vividly used by staff at a chimpanzee sanctuary to describe the primates spitting water or throwing their faeces at humans.

The latter, while generally an expression of frustration or emotional turmoil, has apparently become a common form of attention-seeking behaviour among captive chimps, encouraged by the shocked reaction of onlookers, or a means of retaliation when their keepers deny them something they want. Some chimps have even been observed defecating into one hand and carrying it around until a suitable opportunity presents itself to attack the chosen target.

In other news: ‘Harry says royals ‘stereotyped’ Meghan’, ‘Harry accuses Prince William of attacking him’, ‘Harry brands Queen Consort ‘dangerous’ and ‘a villain’ ‘(...continues ad nauseam)

On the subject of poo-flinging chimps Prince Harry, I’ve been giving more thought to the parallels with George, Duke of Clarence (him of the butt of Malmsey). Like Harry, Clarence seems to have harboured an increasing tally of petty grievances and a growing sense of entitlement (albeit less likely to have been fuelled by lavish consumption of hallucinogens and weed). By the time of - I think - his fourth rebellion, Clarence had subscribed to the theory that his elder brother was the illegitimate product of an affair between their mother and an English archer during his father’s absence, and that Clarence himself was therefore the rightful king.

While it would be out of the question for Harry to traduce his sainted mother - the ‘grandma Diana’ who was allegedly (if somewhat implausibly) the subject of Archie’s first words - it is not impossible that, if he continues in his current irrational vein, we may yet see a narrative emerge from ‘sources’ not too distant from Montecito that Diana’s first child died at birth and William was smuggled in to preserve appearances, making Harry the legitimate heir to the Crown (and incidentally explaining his ‘special bond’ with his mother).  

Having himself benefited from the covering up of some of his more egregious activities, Harry would surely be willing to believe that even something of that magnitude could be hidden and, sadly, the social media generation seem bent on undoing centuries of education and Enlightenment and returning to the open-mouthed credulity of medieval yokels at a fair. With so much to gain for so many vested interests - particularly with a mixed-race heir in the next generation - it’s all too easy, in today’s climate, to imagine the idea gaining traction on the other side of the Atlantic.

Harry’s repeated broadsides looked at first like an extreme example of sour grapes but, as he continues to bombard his nearest relatives with metaphorical shit while still clinging to the rank and titles conferred on him by an institution he claims to hate, I am starting to wonder whether the ultimate aim is to manipulate public opinion in the UK, relentlessly besmirching and bespattering his family until his brother’s position becomes untenable - after all, Harry and Meghan must be well aware that it was the abdication of an older brother that made his great-grandfather king - or until some other factor comes into play which places Harry firmly at the head of the line of succession.