Little Bird

23 Nov

This week I went to my Nana’s funeral. My Little Nana to be exact, such as she has been known for the entirety of my life. Both of my Nanas were called Margaret. Both of my Nanas were also called Nana so, to avoid confusion for small people who are easily confused, my parents made most of the fact that there was almost foot’s height difference  between the two women, in order to devise the subtle monikers Big Nana and Little Nana, Big Nana being my maternal Grandmother and Little Nana being my paternal one.

You personally might not have a Nana, maybe you have a Gran or a Granny. The term Nana is said to derive from St. Ann, mother of the Virgin Mary and grandmother of Jesus. A Nana is the natural order of lineage. Me, Mum and Dad, Nana and Grandad. The female first as it is clear to me that it is the women who are in charge. A child’s world is the home and thus women rule the world. It is somewhat a shock as you approach double figures and have the realization that this is not in fact the case.

As said, Little Nana is my paternal grandmother, she has made my Dad. She is 4 feet and 11 and three quarter inches standing, the three quarter inches being particularly stressed after my mum tells her that 4’11” is the height at which one might be legally classified as a dwarf. My mum does not really like my Little Nana. My Little Nana left school at 14 in the not so distant past when childhood did not extend until 25 years old and does not think to question the veracity of this statement. We go to Little Nana’s house on a Sunday for Sunday dinner which my Grandad makes because my Grandad used to be a cook in the Navy. My Grandad also used to be a fireman. He has hair which is slicked back with Bryl cream and wears a Bolo tie like a cowboy. He tells us that there are lions which live in the unused outdoor toilet in the back yard. I think my Grandad is impossibly exciting.

Little Nana and Grandad live in Crumpsall which seems a long way away from our own house in Salford but in reality is less than five miles away. Whilst we can get to Big Nana’s house to play in the garden by walking around the corner and crossing the “busy road”. To get to Little Nana’s four children must be squished into the back of the orange Volkswagon Polo and later into the black Ford Capri. My little brother sometimes goes in the footwell whilst me and my sisters kick him accidentally on purpose for being the most loved by my mum as the youngest and the only boy. Occasionally we get the train from Victoria Station which is now the Metrolink line. Victoria Station is full of polished wood and glimpses into a different time. Trains are exciting and I feel as if I have been on a very long journey, when in reality I have travelled less than five miles.

Little Nana gives us jelly and ice cream in plastic bowls which are kept in a cupboard in the back room. Little Nana’s kitchen always smells like roast beef. She has a white dresser with a drop leaf compartment where glasses are kept. We play in the back room after dinner and she records our chatting and singing onto cassettes which are painstakingly labeled in neat, cursive handwriting. She records our height and the date in a small notepad after we have been measured with a large wooden ruler. Little Nana’s banister is made of wrought iron and there are knick knacks at the top and the bottom. The carpet has different coloured swirls on it and you must hop from one to the other else you might fall in the carpet and drown. Little Nana has a dolly on her toilet roll. She has a small plastic motorized doll which crawls across the carpet. She thinks the doll is very funny. Little Nana talks a lot and she knows a lot of people.

Little Nana and Grandad are members of the Crumpsall Conservative club. There is a large portrait of Margaret Thatcher in the entrance hall at which my Mum sneers when we visit. There is another large portrait in the lounge of Winston Churchill. We are allowed in the lounge but not in the other room where Grandad plays billiards because that is only for the men. There are dominoes but they are not for us to play with. Little Nana plays Crown Green bowls and at the back of the club there is a bowling green upon which it is expressly forbidden for us to play, walk, run or stand. At the back of the club is a fire escape which looks to me as if it goes right up into the sky.

On our birthdays, Little Nana sends us a card in the post, even if we see her on that day. The card is always addressed to us using our full name, middle name and title which makes me feel very important indeed. The card is covered in many little stickers which to this day I have never seen for sale in an actual shop. The cards continue until we have our own children and then cards with sticker arrived addressed to them and it makes me smile to see my children referred to as “Miss” and “Master” as if we were right and proper Edwardians and not the feckless, slouch backed New Elizabethans that we are.

Little Nana takes me and my older sister to the see the Nutcracker Suite and we go to see my first musical, Oklahoma at the Opera House in Manchester. I have never been in a theatre before and I cannot understand how they have fitted something so colossally large into the building that I saw from the outside. Little Nana wears a lot of gold and always smells perfumed. As an adult I realise that some of what I thought was perfume when giving goodbye kisses is actually the taste of brandy.

Mum and Dad split up when I am 10 and we don’t go to Little Nana’s as often. Little Nana comes to visit us when we are at Dad’s. Little Nana works in the bakery on Lansdowne Rd and brings cakes for us. The bakery has a “brick lined oven” and this is apparently what makes the bread taste so nice. She brings flapjacks, crumbly mince pies dusted with half an inch of icing sugar and rings of honey buns in white paper bags which you eat with butter on and are the most delicious things in the world. As adolescence hits I realise that some of my Little Nana’s language is less than politically correct and as I reach adulthood I realise that whilst language is indeed a powerful weapon, it is always better to judge someone by their actions than their words.

Little Nana spends a lot of time on the phone and the first five minutes of any conversation are given over to Little Nana telling you off for the fact it has been too long since she last spoke to you. It is for this reason that sometimes phone calls from Little Nana are avoided. Little Nana knows a lot of people and Little Nana’s stories can involve casts of hundreds and span many generations. Little Nana’s stories are always full of moral certainty. Good things happen to good people and the bad are punished. Little Nana knows every single one of her neighbours and all of their children. Little Nana is good with money and has religiously put her cigarette money into the bank since she gave up smoking before I was born. Little Nana runs the diddlum which is where people who are not as good with money as my Little Nana give her money to save for them until Christmas.

After I become a mother myself, Little Nana initially refuses to call my son by his given name of Patrick, because it is a “navvy’s name” and insists on referring to my sister’s first child as “number 8” as he is her eighth great grandchild. As young women Little Nana’s appreciation of the male form becomes apparent to us as all of our partners regularly have to find themselves some distance to avoid a wandering hand. After the death of my Grandad, Little Nana has a social life better than that of much younger women and is constantly busy. She makes regular trips to Cleveleys where she fastidiously follows a lounge singer from her hotel and befriends local aged drag queens.

At Little Nana’s funeral there are approximately 100 people. Little Nana was 82. Until it gets to my children’s birthdays and the stickered cards don’t arrive in good time in the post I can’t quite believe that Little Nana has gone. I look at bits of myself and my siblings and I see how they are actually bits of Little Nana and this makes me feel better. I hope I live to 82 and have 100 people at my funeral.

Inner City Blues

23 Aug

It’s August and as ever in August I have been exposing myself to as much fresh air as possible, being of the Victorian mindset that a bit of fresh air is generally beneficial for the self. I wouldn’t care to explain that premise with reference to any empirical evidence but I am almost positive that it belongs with such maxims as, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, “Do as you would be done by” and “There’s nothing that can’t be fixed with alcohol and cheese” as being an excellent truth by which to live your life. It’s not just the fresh air which is good for you. I think there’s something to be said for the green as well, or the sea if you end up on the coast. It’s like a soothing wipe for the mind. As if someone has taken your overstimulated, cross and ratty little brain, given it a bath, wrapped it in a warm, fluffy towel, applied some talc to its chubby joints and creases, popped it in its jamas and settled it with some milk under a cotton cellular blanket. It’s as soothing as that.

I know not everyone finds great solace in the countryside but these people are cretins and should steadfastly be ignored. I am a born and bred urbanite. I have never lived in a city of less than a quarter of a million people and live in an urban conglomeration of over 3 million. I know it’s not London, New York or Mexico City but whilst a whiff of the small town mentality may still hang around the North West of England like the smell of meat and potato outside a bakery, it is still an urban environment. I love cities. I love visiting cities. I love living in a city. I love being the poncey arsed kind of urban dweller who feels perfectly justified in being slightly patronising to anybody who grew up more than three miles outside of the city centre. I love being from a city because it makes me part of a history of protest, politics and revolution. It makes me part of a cultural avant-garde. A part of music and literature which have sailed all over the globe. It gives me a commonality with the vast majority of humanity who live in different versions of the same city that I do. It allows me to be the smug, self satisfied get that I am and yet, despite all this, I love the countryside. So those people that don’t are frankly just wrong.

What’s so great about the countryside? I hear you holler through the cyber ether. Surely we’ve evolved beyond living near cows? Apart from those unfortunate serfs that we need to grow our food and service our nuclear waste disposal plants, why should any of us have to suffer the incivility of living there? The city can offer us a cornucopia filled with trendy bars, a variety of takeaways and ready access to an inquantifiable amount of illegal substances, the countryside is bereft of those things. To you I would say firstly, you are wrong. The countryside would appear to be slowly filling with a large variety of local produced liquor and Class A drugs and secondly I will tell you exactly what the countryside has to offer us in abundance, freedom.

It might appear at first glance that the city would have the edge in offering us freedom.  Undoubtedly what the city can offer us is choice. In his excellent book The Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser makes the valid point that living in such close proximity to several hundred thousand other human beings allows for a pooling of resources which gives us access to things such as regular public transport, museums, and a wider variety of deep fried food. That’s simple maths. He also makes the point that living in a city allows for a more effective transfer of knowledge from human to human. Like minded groups are more easily established, specialists in their field can congregate more easily, networks can grow more quickly and profusely without the barrier of geographical distance. In this regard then the city does offer us a certain kind of freedom which the countryside does not. An intellectual freedom, a political freedom, a cultural freedom in that, regardless of whether we are IT specialists, hard-lined anarchists or fans of French Chanteuses both past and present, having ready access to those hundreds of thousands of people means that, at some point, we can easily meet face to face with others of our ilk. It is for this reason, he argues, that most of the important social, political and technological advances from antiquity to the present day have been developed in a city environment.

The freedom that the countryside offers us is precisely the opposite of this. The countryside offers us freedom from this network of hundreds of thousands of people. Ultimately, although you may live in close proximity to hundreds of thousands of people it is unlikely that your social network is larger than that of someone living in a village of 1000 people, or on a clifftop by themselves. Your network is just more niche. Access to all of those people just means that you have the indulgence of not having to spend a lot of your time with people who are not like you. I live in a massively diverse area of Manchester. The specific area where I live is predominantly Muslim. I am on speaking terms with all of my neighbours and my children go to the local school. None of us yet has any local Muslim friends. Why? Because the area where I live is also home to a ghetto of left leaning, arty-farty, psuedo-creative individuals like myself. My son has made friends at school, one of their mums got in touch to see if the kid could come round to play. I don’t want to make any snap judgements about people but she is also a teacher and was wearing harem pants. In a diverse environment like often seeks out like. Even if inadvertently so and a generation removed.

So what the countryside gives you then is not freedom from people in general but freedom from the hundreds of thousands of anonymous faces who you will never know. Whilst doing the same things, at the same time, in the same places in the city will inevitably mean that you can get on speaking terms with people in your local area , what it does not mean is that you will know any better the thousands of other people who are doing the same things, at a different time, in the same places as you. WIthin two hundred yards of my flat there must be at least 500 people in residence. That is half of the size of the small village of Seascale I visited recently on my holiday in Cumbria, (yes, it’s an overflow town for Sellafield, no, it’s a great place, especially if you are a fan of bleak, like me). With the best will in the world those faces are going to remain largely anonymous to me if I stay here until my dying day. I’m largely positive about humanity but living in a city introduces the social anxiety of living in close proximity to other people who you just don’t, and never will, know.

Being in the countryside also gives you the freedom from being observed. My partner moved to a semi rural part of Staffordshire aged 10. He spent his late childhood and adolescence roaming in woods, canoeing to his friend’s house and being able to get pissed in a variety of local sites undisturbed and without causing anybody any grievance, I spent my late childhood riding my bike around the supermarket car park across the road from my mum’s house and my adolescence hiding in a variety of back alleyways before having to run away from the police. In some respects, I think he got the better half of the deal. In my role as a teacher I have helped to run the Duke of Edinburgh scheme which is a means of taking inner city children out to Wales, getting them lost and laughing at them when they push each other over whilst wearing a really very heavy rucksack. Many of the students are astounded at the scale of the land in which they have to roam about. Being in a heavily populated environment as an adolescent means they rarely get the occasion to either be themselves or make any noise without being scornfully regarded by a member of the public who has forgotten that teenagers are not yet socially fully formed and has consequently become fearful of them. Being in the countryside gives them the freedom from external regard in an outdoor and public space, which is very difficult to find in a city without being chased by a policeman.

I think the countryside should be mandatory for all children and young people. Maybe in some sort of large scale evacuation project as in the Second World War. Likewise those young people who have grown up in a rural environment should be allowed access to the city, maybe in a reverse of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme where they show leadership skills by being able to get across Piccadiily and onto a bus at 9.30pm on a Friday without being sexually assaulted or accosted by a person of questionable mental stability. I haven’t addressed the issue of people who live in small towns because really, I think all hope has passed for them and they have ready access to both sides of the equation anyway. Inner City Blues don’t make me wanna holler, they just need to be complemented with a bit of countryside green occasionally.

Happy Fathers Day

16 Jun

Out of all of the familial roles in the past century, it is arguably that of the father that has changed the most considerably. Whereas it was once only necessary to clothe and feed your children, teach your sons in the ways of manhood and keep your illegitimate offspring at a respectable distance, now the modern father has to contend with a whole host of parental duties and  responsibilities which formerly would have been the sole preserve of female family members. We should consider how recently this shift in parental responsibilities has occurred. I was born in a family in Salford in 1981. Throughout my childhood I knew of very few, if any, fathers who took on an equal share or the majority of caring responsibilities for their children. A generation on and, whilst this situation is possibly not the norm, it is commonplace enough not to be considered particularly noteworthy.

Fathers must no longer solely provide, they must also care. They must spoon and wipe and cajole and encourage and smile and wipe and rock and bounce and wipe and nurse and wipe and soothe and wipe in the same way that females have done for millennia. You know why at some point in your life your mum spat on something and rubbed your face with it? Because no person on earth has access to a sufficient amount of pre-moistened wipe material to keep your average child clean enough not to provoke judgment from those people who have forgotten the unquantifiable amount of tasks and things to remember that your average parent of a child under 5 has on their plate in a typical day. Yes, I forgot to put the fucking wipes in my bag but I remembered to put on the sun cream, pack a drink and a snack, time the whole fucking escapade so that it could be accomplished in between meals/naps/grumpy time and did a full week’s paid employment. Yes I just licked a tissue and rubbed my child’s face with it. So what? You want to be the person that pushes me over the edge with that look? Go ahead. Make my day.

A father’s role seems to me to still be quite ill defined. After giving birth I knew immediately what my responsibility was, feed the child and keep it alive. My life became a long game of Don’t Let the Baby Cry. Of course Fathers are also active participants in this game although they often only have the opportunity to play it for a very short time before they have to return to work. Nevertheless, children are babies for only a very small proportion of their time in your care. Once a child is no longer physically attached to your breast, then a father can take on as active a role in its care and upbringing as a mother can. A quick glance around society would reveal however, that many do not. I believe that the role of a father is ill-defined because society’s expectation of what constitutes a good father seems to have set the bar so low. A good father appears to be one that stays around.

As a disclaimer, it should be said that I am no longer with the father of my children, at which point it will be perfectly acceptable for you to write off any of my further points as that of an embittered, battle-scarred harridan who has been wearing her man hating goggles for so long that they have left unattractive red welts right across her face. The truth remains that fathers can, and do, walk. The truth is also that the majority of fathers do not walk. The truth is that mothers can, and do, walk. The truth remains that there are more absent fathers from households than there are absent mothers.

Of course, a father may leave a household and yet still be in contact with their children. I have been repeatedly told that I am ‘lucky’ because the father of my children still sees my children twice a week and that they stay at his house one night out of seven. In some respects I am lucky; there are children who see their fathers far less. In other respects I am not lucky at all. I am sole carer and provider for my children 141 hours out of 168 in a week to be technical about it. Clearly that figure includes sleep and school, however I am still legally responsible for my children during those times so I think it is OK to count them. My children’s father is not absent in the sense that they don’t have any contact with him but in real terms he is absent a very great deal of the time. To tell another truth, this is not an arrangement that troubles me greatly. Whilst it would be nice if we lived in a sitcom style scenario where my ex-partner could move freely in and out of mine and my children’s home, this is the real world and we don’t.  My point would be that if I were a mother who did not live with her children and only had contact with them twice a week, I doubt very much that anyone would be telling their father about how lucky he was to be in that situation. Someone would have probably wiped shit on my front door.

It’s important to note that of course relationships break down. Not all fathers walk, some are ejected. Some fathers do not live with their children but speak to them daily and are as much a part of their lives as their mothers who are in the same room. Likewise there are fathers who live with their children who are as absent as any father who lives 30 miles away. For every point I make about fathers the same can equally be said about mothers. I’m not arguing that there is no such thing as a good father. What I am arguing is that if as a society we set our bar of what constitutes a good father so low that it is leaving an imprint in the soil, how do we ever expect future generations of men to have any idea of how to fulfill their parental role effectively?

You may wonder why it is that I care so much about how good fathers are anyway. Surely as a Single Mother Superhero I am of the opinion that mothers can do the job just fine by themselves thank you very much. Well, yes, that is what I thought. And it is what I think to a certain extent. It  is lazy politics and victimising an already vulnerable group to argue that a crisis in masculinity is caused by a generation of young single mothers. It is bloody hard work being a single mother and watching a woman raise you single handedly could equally be said to give boys a solid respect for women as it could be argued that they end up of out of control through a lack of positive male role models. Positive male role models are also found frequently outside of the family home. There are many men out there running sports teams, community groups and the like out of nothing but the goodness of their heart, and the satisfaction from shouting at teenagers, who deserve a little bit of credit.

Sometimes, however, there are things that you see with your own eyes that you can’t really argue with. I didn’t realise how much my children had missed having a father figure in the house until they got one. I know that my children’s lives have been enriched by their stepfather, enriched being the keyword. Were they happy, well-balanced children before he moved in? Yes. Does he provide another role model that I could not provide by myself? Also yes. My children behave and interact in a different way with their stepfather than they do with me. I don’t think it’s worthwhile for me to note how because that’s not necessarily anything to do with gender. It’s mainly to do with me being a big fan of quiet activities such as sitting down and reading a book. The point is that a two parent family is better than a one parent one to some extent solely because of the presence of another person. Given that said person actually has an interest in taking on a parental role and isn’t a sociopathic, abusive oddball. Note my use of parent. I’m talking about number of parents. Not one of each gender.

Once again I don’t really know what point it is that I am trying to make here. Society has changed a great deal in 30 years. Now that we’ve made it socially acceptable for fathers to take on an active role in their children’s lives, maybe we concentrate the next 30 in making it socially unacceptable for them to abandon them. Maybe we should raise the bar of what it is that makes a good father so that men should be pole vaulting to reach it rather than accidentally tripping over it. We do too many excellent fathers out there a disservice by lumping them into the same category as someone who speaks to their kids twice a week. Either way, if you have someone to celebrate Father’s Day with tomorrow, then enjoy it. For many reasons, there are plenty enough children who don’t. And if you are a good dad yourself then start expressing a bit more social disapproval about those who are creeping into your category by default. Happy Father’s Day.

Leaving of Liverpool

5 Apr

There are some things in life that set you apart from other people. Sometimes you will follow a path which is not the same as the path followed by most people. Whilst we are all individuals, it is unarguable that the vast majority of our choices will take us down the equivalent of life’s motorway, choices made by so many before us that they’ve built a service station with a Marks and Spencers’ food outlet along the way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a buccaneer, I haven’t macheted my way through the jungles of interesting career choice, living on a canal barge or being a lesbian, rather aged 23 I decided that I wanted to move away from my home city of Salford and move 30 miles down the road to Liverpool. As path cutters go, I just took the East Lancs road as opposed to the M62. Moving away from the city of your birth is not a particularly adventurous thing to do, lots of people do it, often through necessity as much as choice. Some people travel continents, cross language barriers and never see their extended families again. I’m not labouring under any misconceptions about my adventurousness. My initial plan was to live in Spain but I quickly realised I was far too attached to British cultural norms, and the physical proximity of my family for that to be a reality. Nevertheless, the fact that within any given area you will find a large amount of people with a common language, accent and dialect however, belies the truth that the majority of people do not move, we stay put.

I swore to myself aged twelve that I would not be born, live, work and die in Salford. It may seem odd to stick to a decision that I made when my most significant life experience thus far had been successfully getting kissed during a game of Spin the Bottle despite my double track dental braces, but it was something I still felt strongly about over a decade later. I don’t want to give Salford any more of a hard time than it already receives. Salford is primarily known for violent crime, feral youth and the front of a Smiths LP. In my adolescence, and the years since I left, it has undergone a massive regeneration, most recently with the relocation of the BBC to Salford Quays, the city’s defunct docks which were once part of its industrial lifeblood. The city remains stubborn to complete gentrification in some respects, given the fear of non-Salfordians to mix with the unwashed and the proximity of Manchester’s already gentrified southern suburbs. One of the reasons I love Salford, but also wanted to leave, is that it has a very low tolerance of pretentious twats like me who want to ponce around wearing a headscarf and pretending that they are culturally relevant.  Salford has a reputation of being very white and very working class although in truth it is as diverse a metropolitan area as any other largeish UK city. Not as diverse as Manchester or Birmingham but a lot more diverse than the majority of places you might find in say, Herefordshire.  It has a proud history of socialism, trade unionism and matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs. And Ewan Macoll. Is Ewan Macoll from your hometown? No? Well shut up then.

At this time, I hadn’t moved away to go to university, I had a 1 year old son, I knew that it was now or never to get out of there, so when a teaching post in Liverpool, at the kind of inner city school my Socialist Warrior dreamed of working in, came up in the TES, I applied. Like most other of my life decisions, I made it without a great deal of forethought. I am a very anxious person, if I thought too much about anything I would rarely leave the house and thus I have always found it a good idea to gung ho my way through important matters with scant regard for detail, potential long term consequences and my fingers firmly crossed. Shit usually turns out for the best. It’s not the most poetic of epitaphs but I think it’s pretty accurate nevertheless. I have spent near on the next nine years in Liverpool, the majority of my twenties and the remains of my youth. I left the city last week to return to a life in Manchester. Manchester, obviously, not Salford, sometimes you have to stay true to your 12 year old self, even if that self is an overweight, over-developed, self-pitying little shit who wrote dreadful poetry and was really quite irritating to the vast majority of people for the following three or so years of their life. I have had said a partial goodbye to Liverpool and in six weeks’ time when my contract finishes at my present school I will say a final one. Whilst it’s good to be home, I am sad. Whilst it is heresy for someone from my part of Lancashire to say so, I love Liverpool. This is why.

Liverpool is a beautiful city. In this day and age with the prevalence of cheap flights to other European cities, we often fail to appreciate the civic genius which is on our doorstep. Liverpool is breathtaking, undeniably built on blood money and slaves but aesthetically a wonder. Standing beneath the Anglican cathedral for the first time I felt the same sense of awe and wonder at the magnitude of the thing as I felt when I saw the Sagrada Familiar in Barcelona. Manchester is a great city, but it is not a pretty one, it is a Workers’ city grown from 19th century cotton and smoke. Liverpool is a city of 18th century merchants who built the domestic,civic and commercial structures, they felt their stolen money deserved. If you have only ever been for a dodgy hen or stag do where you were dragged around the shit bars on Matthew Street, then you have done the city a disservice. Go back, look around a bit, it is worth it. Liverpool is beautiful and true to my shallowness, I love it for that.

Liverpool is a major port. The odd looking brass structure on the dock road outside the offices of the Liverpool Echo newspaper proclaims it to be a “Gateway to the World”. It unarguably is. Working at an inner city school in the city, provides real human evidence of the massive variety of communities there, some of which have been established for centuries rather than decades. Unlike in many other British cities, these communities have become mixed and integrated. Every child born in a Liverpool hospital receives the injection to protect against sickle cell anaemia, despite this being a condition that only affects people of Afro-Caribbean heritage. Communities are so well integrated in Liverpool that there is no immediately quick and reliable means of identifying who might be of Afro-Caribbean heritage or otherwise. This is another reason why I love the city. Liverpool is a massive melting pot and no matter from whence you arrived, you will end up Scouse in the end.

Liverpool is often derided because of its strong cultural identity. At times, the city can be insular but this is an inevitable consequence of that, furthermore  I don’t know if it is any more insular than anywhere else. Liverpudlians are often criticised for having a chip on their shoulder, primarily by Mancunians such as myself. A short examination of Liverpool history would reveal this to not, in fact, be an irrational paranoia but a legitimate reaction to decades of social and political neglect and demonisation in the media. When Jimmy McGovern’s film Hillsborough was shown some years ago, it was taken as evidence of the Scouse tendency to victimise themselves, in reality, it was a conservative representation of the actual facts of the tragedy which were revealed last year. When you’ve grown up in a place where one of the pillars of civic pride is rested on the fact that the actor who played Gandhi comes from your city, it’s refreshing to be amongst people who go to great lengths to celebrate their history and birthplace. I have always loved that about Liverpool. I’m not romanticising here, Liverpool has more than its fair share of wankers. I don’t think it’s fair to judge a place on its wankers though, wankerism is a universal human condition.

Most of all I love Liverpool because of the networks of friends and places I have built there. Relationships and memories that took time to establish. I know which bars I like, which public spaces I like, which shops I like. The years of my children’s infancy and childhood are woven into the fabric of the city and moving away means I will not be able to physically revisit those on a regular basis as before. Liverpool will change, and I will not be there to mark it. Manchester has changed a lot in my nine years’ absence and whilst I have always been a very regular visitor , initially I feel a bit like a tourist. It has become a strange sensation to be surrounded by accents which are the same as mine. Truth be told, another reason why I love Liverpool is because my difference there made me a tiny bit special. My initial reference to people would be the Manc one, the from Manchester or “that fucking Manc twat” if you were one of my students on a bad day, now I must return to being “the gobby bitch with the big tits” same I was before. There is so much I am going to miss about the city that it makes my heart hurt to think about it too much. One thing I will not miss however is my friends. Unfortunately for them, and my love of social media, they are stuck with me on very much a daily basis. Life moves on and I am very glad to be home but the leaving of Liverpool grieves me. I owe it an awful lot.

Sitting in Limbo

16 Feb

“Ch-ch-changes, oh look out you rock ‘n’ rollers”. Too right David, change is indeed something for which we should be on the look out. For change can be good or bad, but it is always a sneaky bastard. Even when we effect change ourselves we do so with little real knowledge as to how said change will shape the rest of our lives. Change is always  some tumbling dice, you can’t know where they will land unless you’re brave enough to throw the things in the first place. Of course that’s if you’re lucky, sometimes we don’t have the privilege of throwing our own dice. Sometimes fate can scale the walls of the fortress of our lives, cut the glass skilfully, remove our dice of change, carefully cushioned in a high security box, and toss them out of the window on our behalf. It can take weeks of scrabbling around on a dirty embankment before we find where our dice have landed and can see how our lives might look.

I’m not a massive fan of  change. A change is as good as a rest. No, no it’s not, a rest is as good as a rest. A change, planned or otherwise, is a massive amount of emotional and/or actual upheaval, effort and stress. A rest is staying in bed until half nine listening to Sounds of the Sixties with a cup of Earl Grey. If these two things don’t seem particularly similar, that’s because they are not. Change can be necessary, cathartic, exciting but it is most certainly not restful. That’s a pile of shit. If I were to take to my well-worn psychology armchair I might speculate that I am averse to change because I have been subject to quite a lot of very sudden change. Change which happens in a matter of hours rather than a matter of months. Sometimes even change which has been effected in a matter of seconds. This is change  as a tsunami rather than a gentle eroding tide. Change which leaves behind it an awful lot of debris and tidying to be done. It’s possible to survive a tsunami, but it’s unlikely you’re going to be a massive fan of surfing afterwards.

Whether our dice are cast by our own hand after careful deliberation or cast asunder by circumstances beyond our control, change can often become cumulative. It is difficult to change one element of one’s life without recourse to changing an awful lot of other elements too, rather like a dodgy set of fairy lights. You only intended to change one bulb but before you know it you’ve come to the end of your spare bulbs and you’re back in Home Bargain buying a new set because where do you buy fairy light bulbs from anyway? And wouldn’t it be easier not to be a throwaway society if you could buy what you needed to fix things? And ooh, look Giant Parma Violets for 20p, might as well go ahead and buy a pound’s worth.

After an awful lot of discussion, I recently started to look for jobs in Manchester. The weight of evidence that it made a lot of sense to move back to where my family and a lot of my friends lived became too overwhelming for me to argue with. This needed to be something to be done sooner rather than later as my son is about 18 months away from starting secondary school; the common consensus amongst parents of older children who I have spoken to being that taking a child out of secondary school is an action filed under Ways to Make Your Teenage Child Hate You Even More, in the parental advice filing cabinet which does not exist but would actually be a really useful thing that someone should think about creating. I wasn’t expecting to find a job quickly, teaching is highly specialised and there are different types of teacher for different types of school. I was prepared for the fact that I might have to make compromises, get a job wherever I could and pretend to be a different person depending which interview I was attending. I didn’t have to do any of this however because I got a job nearly straight away. There’s no bragging in that statement, there’s a good deal of serendipity and the harsh reality that an awful lot of teachers come from lower middle class backgrounds and have absolutely no interest in dirtying their hands amongst the poor and the foreign in the inner cities. All of which leaves quite a lot of room for people like me.

Thus change is on the horizon. Not very far away, just a matter of months but far enough away for it to seem a very very long way away to swim. I’m starting to think that maybe a tsunami to help me to shore might not be such a bad thing after all. And the fairy lights are completely fucked, don’t even go there. Let’s examine in detail the process of moving jobs and cities.  Firstly, I need to relocate my children’s schools. Straightforward enough surely? Ha ha ha. What you weren’t joking? Let me run you through a few facts.  Unfortunately following a dip in the birth rate around fifteen years ago, many local authorities decided to close primary schools in their area or amalgamate them with other schools. The number of primary school places was reduced. In the following years the birth rate normalised, showing the previous dip to be just that, a dip. This was in part due to the higher birth rate amongst immigrant families moving to Britain, part of which should have been expected given that many of these families were from the Eastern European countries which joined the EU in 2003. This could have been planned for to a certain extent but it wasn’t. The subsequent situation is that there is very little room for manoeuvre in the school system. Little slack. When you’re in, you’re in. Don’t move. Two people that I have spoken to working in Schools Admissions seemed genuinely confused when I explained my situation. As if they had never considered that a family might move from one city to another, or even one Local Education Authority to another. It’s a small world after all.

The likelihood of me finding a primary school which has available places in two year groups for my son and daughter is statistically pretty low. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that we are moving to Manchester, one of the biggest cities in the UK. Essentially there can be no forward planning, I need to apply for schools near to where I hope to be living and hope for the best. At this point in time I have no way of knowing if the school or schools in which I eventually secure a place for my kids will be close enough to where I live or work, or have the  pre-school care provision for me to be able to get my kids there and then get to work on time. I like security, independence and control. I do not like the possibility that I might have to rely on other people to get my children to school or the fact that I can’t even begin to plan my day to day life until a matter of weeks before I move. It’s not the end of the world, nobody’s died, I’ve got perspective here, I just don’t like it.

Secondly, I’m going to look at houses next week with my boyfriend knowing that’s it’s a least another 6 weeks before we can think about moving house. I’m not really sure why we are going. I think it’s solely a means of making the change seem a little more real. Preparing ourselves in much the same way that young children prepare themselves for adulthood through imaginary games. Essentially, next week I am going to spend a day playing a game of “We live in Whalley Range” in a variety of settings, none of which are likely to end up being my actual home unless the landlord is desperate enough to wait or has a particular fondness for Spanish teachers, children with Irish names or mixed race couples. I’m not even going to start to think about the amount of sorting, packing and throwing away which has not even started to be done in case I cry. It’s not the end of the world, but to a lazy person like me it is mildly upsetting.

I have never really experienced this kind of limbo before. Knowing that a change is going to happen but having such a long time to wait for it to come. I can see how it’s probably a better way to do things in most circumstances. It does give a strange tinge to your day to day life. Everything has become a countdown of sorts. Shortly I will begin mentally ticking off the “last time we…. in Liverpool” list. There’s a melancholic tint to my glasses. It’s not an unpleasant, it’s just unusual. Exciting in a way. Sitting here in limbo, but I know it won’t be long.

Love to Hate You

12 Jan

As a teacher, one of my favourite things about the human race is our desire for knowledge. The ease of my day to day job kind of depends upon it. Unfortunately for me, not every small human being has a particular thirst for the quench of sawdust dry Spanish linguistic knowledge but even so, there are very many that do. At the very real risk of being a big, old, fat clichemonger, there is something uniquely lovely about sparking the interest of a child or young person and passing on knowledge. It’s a very privileged position to hold. Privileged, as there is no such thing a a sterile and hygienic transition of knowledge. As with anything handed from one person to another, the knowledge which I impart will come covered with the germs and viruses of my own very subjective world view and politics. Indeed, this is the very essence of the privilege of teaching. All knowledge belies an interpretation of the world of some kind and as a teacher you get the chance to share and propagate your own.

If you gently brush away the soil at the base of the shoots of human curiosity, you will uncover the delicate roots of the desire for self-improvement. Behind curious questions is the tacit assumption that their answers will bring a better understanding of the world which may enrich the life of the question-poser in some way. I know that this assertion is somewhat tenuous, I live with a nine year old boy. For those of you who haven’t lived with a nine year old boy, I’ll enlighten you as to the general experience. Nine year old boys like to use their insatiable curiosity about the world as a form of mental torture of their mothers. My son can begin asking slightly baffling science questions before 7 o’clock in the morning. Many of my son’s questions require a very specific answer to which I do not have access. Many of my son’s questions require access to a level of minutiae with which one would not trouble oneself unless one were appearing on Mastermind answering questions on said topic for one’s specialist subject. Essentially nine year old sons expect their parents to be the human equivalent of Siri, except my son doesn’t use Siri to ask it very specific questions about the universe, he uses it to repeat the word poo in an RP accent and answer the question “Who let the dogs out?” (try it yourself). Even so, letting go of the paranoid assumption that my son asks questions to hasten my decline into mental exhaustion and insanity, we can presume that he asks them because he thinks that knowing the answer will improve his life in general, (fuck knows how though, why does it matter when Stephen Hawking’s birthday is? I’m trying to put my eyeliner on, I love you kid, but come on, just give me half an hour to wake up hey?).

The desire for self improvement is a force which is particularly strong around this time of year. I personally am a fan of New Year’s resolutions, having been psychologically and socially wired to be of the opinion that there is always some part of  myself which requires resolve to be improved. It says a lot about today’s society that so many of our New Year’s resolutions focus on the improvement of our corporeal rather than our spiritual selves. That is if my Facebook feed is anything to go by. I am not judging here, two of my four new year’s resolutions are related to my physical health. I do find, however, that a bit of exercise does have the added benefit of making me less likely to want to maim people on a daily basis so I suppose that resolution does relate in part to my spiritual well being, or rather the physical well being of my partner, children, friends, colleagues and students.

There’s a definite divide between those people who feel the need to improve themselves and those who are very happy with themselves thank you very much. The split is in part, although certainly not exclusively, a gender one. This might be attributed to the very successful efforts of several industries to convince women that there is quite a large proportion of their physical being which requires improvement. Women are taught to hate themselves from a very young age. There are many explanations as to where this self-loathing may emanate. Germaine Greer reckons that our self-esteem in all regards rests on the attention of our opposite sex parent. Maybe so. I know personally that it’s probably not healthy that my daughter observes how I see myself. It’s highly likely that post puberty she will find herself landed with the body that she spent her childhood watching her mother trying to conceal and disguise. It wouldn’t be surprising if she had mixed feelings about it. If that time comes it’d be nice to blame the lack of attentiveness from her father but I think that would be letting myself off the hook quite a bit. That said, physical self-disgust is clearly not just an issue which affects women. A glance around my friendship circle would attest to that. In fact when I think about it I probably have a gender equal number of diet and exercise conversations. Maybe us self-loathers have just sought each other out, like those online eating disorder communities, or this blog.

Like all good addictions, self-improvement follows a self perpetuating cycle of highs and lows. People make resolutions because they want to feel good about themselves. Making positive change in your life evidently being an excellent means of improving your self-esteem and that being exactly the kind of revelation for which you read this blog. Thank me later. The problem would appear to arrive when we are too ambitious in our expectations of ourselves. Setting ourselves up for inevitable failure. Hating ourselves that little bit more. Feeling the need to make resolutions to change ourselves. Being a bit too ambitious. Setting ourselves up for inevitable failure… ad infinitum. I’ve tried to avoid this in my choice of resolutions this year, two of which require action on a monthly or less than monthly basis. I’ve made four resolutions all of which I have kept so far. The degree to which they have improved me or greatly expanded my general contentment in life is however debatable:

1. I will give blood regularly.

I’ve always meant to give blood and never have. I’m a very clumsy person. The chances of me being involved in some kind of accident where I will require blood are higher than your average person, it only seems right that I repay the favour in advance. I gave blood for the first time last week. I felt pretty good afterwards mainly as it was a good excuse to not do very much for the rest of the day and also to eat a massive pizza with a runny egg on top. I also took the kids for full on “Mum’s a hero” points and because I could frame it as a cheap trip out. I can’t get that high again for another four months though. It’s a good one off self esteem high but it’s not sustainable on a weekly basis. I think they’re pretty strict about that kind of thing.

2. I will go to the Spanish Language Exchange in town and actually speak Spanish once a month.

I haven’t done this yet. I will do before the end of the month. To be honest I get genuine social anxiety in unfamiliar situations. I also get quite anxious speaking Spanish and French because I know I sound like an idiot. Don’t get me wrong, my Spanish and French are alright, I’m not being falsely modest. I mean that I sound vaguely cominal in the way that people speaking a second language generally do. Maybe that’s just me. I still need to build up some courage here. The fact I have not done this yet has probably negated all of the positive self regard from Resolution number 1 so I reckon I’m probably back at equal which for me is somewhere around the Feckless Waste of Air point of the Esteemometer which I just invented but almost certainly looks like the thing they used to use to measure the Blue Peter appeal donations.

3. I will stop smoking.

I have smoked since I was 13 years old. Approximately 18 years. My smoking habit is now a fully grown adult with the right to vote and or have homosexual intercourse. I have quit before. I have started again. I am not pregnant so it’s not as easy this time round. I can also no longer kid myself that I will be able to partake in the occasional social smoke. I have tried this before and failed every time. Every time, the occasional social smoke slowly expands to an evening smoke to become the sitting on my back door step at 7am smoke. I do not have the sufficient self reserve to smoke occasionally. I’ve tried and failed enough times to know that I have to face the horrendous truth that I can never smoke again.  Of course I don’t want to die early, I don’t want my children to smoke, I don’t want horrendous mouth wrinkles, I want to be healthy and active, I have plenty of excellent reasons to stop smoking. None of them can take the sadness out of the sentence, “I can never smoke again”. Goodbye cigarettes. I will miss you. I haven’t had a smoke yet which has edged the Esteemometer up a little but I have been an absolute bitch to live with so we’re back on about neutral. I have also done an excellent job of replacing cigarettes with food which on top of my Christmas Cheese Weight means I have put on about half a stone in the past few weeks despite Resolution no.4. I think we’re back on minus figures and Yvette Fielding and Mark Curry looking very sad and disappointed in their impossibly high waisted jeans.

4. I will run twice a week and go to yoga once.

I genuinely enjoy exercise, especially yoga. I honestly think that the world would be a much nicer place if everyone did yoga. Yoga shouldn’t just be the reserve of impossibly thin, rich women with nothing better to do with their time, it should also be for chubby skint people with a career like me as well. I have as much right to be calm and bendy as anyone else. Likewise running, it gets me a bit of fresh air and I always feel better afterwards, quite a while afterwards but still, it counts. I may well be slow, red-faced and not running very far but it matters not, I am still a jogger. I’ve managed to stick to this one so far, we can edge up the esteemometer a little.

Whilst I’m not new to jogging or yoga, it’s safe to say that since meeting my current partner I had somewhat neglected my regular exercise, being busy getting to know eachother and instead pretending not to have all the faults that we have been unable to hide since moving in together . Therefore a full week of exercise has taken its toll on my muscles. I have been stiff. I’m alright with this, I know it won’t last. I was less alright with falling down the stairs in the middle of the night earlier in the week because my woolly socks and awkward gait, thanks to my running stiffness, meant that my footing wasn’t secure. I am quite badly bruised, to be frank I look as if my partner could no longer take me as a non-smoking narky bitch and beat me up. It’s not the healthy glow I was aiming for if I’m honest.

Still, it can’t hurt to keep it up for a little while can it? After a few months the Esteemometer has got to get to the point where we can let off a glitter cannon surely? Maybe at that point I might even feel comfortable in my own skin. Maybe my Love-Hate relationship with myself might be something approaching healthy and functioning? Maybe I will just be able to walk down the stairs in jaunty self abandon without fearfully gripping the bannister and watching my feet. That’d be nice. If not I can just hang on a few months and give some blood for a temporary high. I might go for a Chinese this time.

It’s Only Life

23 Nov

I generally don’t like nostalgia. It makes me uncomfortable. Not just the “Like if you were born in the eighties”,  ”Do you remember She-Ra?”, “Wasn’t life better when all you had to worry about was whether you wanted a 10p mix or two bags of potent pickled onion reformed maize snacks after school?” type nostalgia, but just the general consensus that things were better in the past. It seems very clear to me that if you are a woman, or a person on a low income, or a black person or pretty much anyone apart from an upper middle class white man, then chances are they probably weren’t. I only have to go two generations back in my family to find a host of clever women who never got the chance to stay on at school past 15, let alone go to university and attempt a professional career. Another generation back and I’d be waving my kids off to go and live in the countryside for four years whilst I spent my days working in a toxic munitions factory. Another generation back and  I’m the mother of more than ten children, waving off the eldest as they emigrate to foreign shores, never to return. A couple more generations further back and I’m starving to death in my village along with my sisters Bridget and Mary, waving goodbye to life itself. And all of this on the provision that I’ve got the Golden ticket in the childbirth lottery and managed not to hemorrhage to death.  Suffice to say that in a lot of ways that significantly matter, no, things weren’t better in the past.

As ever, I can’t completely commit myself to either side of an argument, so I suppose that I have to concede that maybe some things were better in the past. When it comes to wishy washy notions such as “happiness” or “quality of life” I’ll never have empirical evidence to prove that assertion. But there is one human quality that I think has deteriorated with the passage of time like a cheap plastic bin bag, causing the contents held within to spill out over society,  putrid, festering and reeking of bin juice. That quality? The human capacity to give a shit.

Many social commentators have attempted to explain the apathy that is said to be endemic in today’s society. Some of these social commentators even bother themselves with things like academic reference and research which, as regular readers of the blog will know, I don’t care to trouble myself with too greatly. That said, neither do the majority of broadsheet journalists so I suppose I’m in good company. I’m not going to try to explain the existence of apathy, I’m in no way qualified, clever  or insightful enough. I’m  going to discuss how it’s chokeweed roots have spread so far into our society that they are suffocating some of our much nicer plants. Plants which took a good deal of nurture and care to grow in the first place.  Plants will take an awful long time to grow back.

Political apathy is probably the most often discussed in the media. Discussion of political apathy usually centres around negligible voter turnout rates. The recent elections for Regional Police Commissioners notwithstanding, (come on, I’m Emmeline Pankhurst in leggings and Converse but I’m not going to vote for a position whose role is ill defined and where the amount of information given on the candidate is so negligible as to be nonexistent, I probably had a bigger influence on local policing when my sister and I successfully managed to talk two officers into not giving me a Public Order Fine on account of the fact they had caught me weeing behind a Biffa bin in a ginnel behind Manchester’s Canal St.), voter turnout even in general elections appears to be on an unwavering decline. There are many arguments why this may be so, a national politics that is based on facade, artifice and weaving the emperor new clothes being the principal one. The lack of faith of the ability of a government to change things for the better and the suspicion that real power lies elsewhere being two others. I can’t prove any of those to be true. I have worked in public service under a government which invested in the state and one which has subsequently withdrawn that investment. I know that those who suffer are the most vulnerable. I know it’s 2012 and there’s still children who live in the inner cities in real poverty. Inadequate clothes for the weather, empty bellies and dirty clothes. There’s nowhere near as many of them but they still exist. It may well indeed be their parents’ fault but it’s certainly not theirs. Apologies for the emotive earnestness of the previous two sentences but there is no frustration like that of the professional who scours the social horizon in search of an interventionist hero on a horse to rescue a child in need and is instead met with the assertion that we couldn’t afford to keep the horses anymore and they all got sent to the glue factory. I imagine that professionals in mental health, geriatric care, heath care in general, in fact pretty much any sector which works to support those people who may need a little bit of help from the state, could probably make a similar testimony. I’d say there’s definite reason to still a give a shit and go out and vote.

It might be argued that voting is only one very small measure of political activity and this would indeed be true. Political activity is that which influences our local community as well as some of the very personal decisions that we make in our own lives. The personal is the political. My sister might not consider herself to be a feminist activist because she is the Brown Owl for her own Brownie Pack in Salford but I would argue that she is. My friends who run the Community radio station for FCUM, a Manchester grassroots football team do so as much out of their political beliefs as out of their narcissistic desire to get their own voices on the radio. It might be argued that this type of political activity is also on the decline. This may be true. I have met enough volunteers in my line of work however to suspect that it might not be.

A more dangerous type of apathy it appears to me is personal apathy. It’s one thing not to give a shit about what goes on in Westminster or in Liverpool City Council Chambers but it’s quite another not to give a shit about what goes on in your own life. The symptoms of personal apathy are not as easily quantifiable as those of political apathy but they are there all the same. The current obesity epidemic might be seen to be one of them. How little of a shit can you really give about yourself if you can eat yourself to an early death? There’s no judgement in that sentence. I smoke cheap roll up tobacco and have a very close relationship with alcohol, it might be argued that maybe I am just as apathetic in that regard. I think where I might differ is in that I do not force my fondness for Amber Leaf tobacco and Morgan’s Spiced Rum onto my offspring. I am a loss to explain how obese children become obese. My children eat a lot. I am not an organic mum. My children eat homecooked food but they also eat plenty of brown food that has gone straight from box to oven to plate to mouth. We eat chippy once a week. I can still count the ribs on both of my children. We have children who arrive at our school aged 11 who have real difficulty in getting up the three flights of stairs to my classroom. Whilst genetic predisposition plays a part it cannot explain away the sheer quantity of crap that must be fed to these children in order for them to be unable to run around manically in with the rest of their peers in The Hunger Games style arena which is our Year 7 and 8 playground. It’s a sign of malignant and ultimately dangerous personal apathy.

Personal apathy extends beyond a neglect of the physical self however. It reaches into a neglect of the actual self. We have many bright, intelligent students at my school who regularly chronically underachieve in their exams, not because of poor teaching or a lack of timely intervention but because, fundamentally, they don’t give a shit. Some might argue that this is a sensible assessment of where to lay their adolescent energies. The current 20% youth unemplyment rate is no doubt disproportionately represented by Scouse children from the inner cities. Maybe they have looked at the odds and thought “Fuck it, why bother?”. The education as a means of betterment argument is certainly becoming difficult for us teachers to continue to peddle, as the numbers of graduates doing jobs for which they would have been qualified without twenty grand’s worth of debt continually increases. All of the above might indeed be true. It doesn’t make it any less sad to see.

I’ve reached the concluding paragraph and I really haven’t got any conclusions to make. Apathy might not be endemic but it certainly exists, in both the personal and the political. How do you make someone give a shit? If there’s a roof over someone’s head and food in someone’s mouth, no matter how basic, it’s difficult to inspire people to fight for better. Maybe we are powerless to stop the spread of the chokeweed or maybe we can just tend our little patch of garden and hope for the best. Why give a shit? It’s only life.

Maybe that’s the point right there, it’s not only life. It is life. It’s the most precious thing we have and it’s worth the effort to make sure that every human being on the planet has a good one. Fuck you chokeweed, I’ve got some strong gloves, a rake and some potent petrochemical based weed killer. Not on my patch.

Harder Better Faster

20 Oct

I should start by stating that this isn’t going to be a moan about work. I’ve done that. It’s hardly groundbreaking to come up with the revelation that we might be a little happier if we had a little bit less work to do. Besides, at the risk of sounding like a Victorian puritan, there is much meaning and positivity to be gained from work. Even if we labour in a task in which we may not enjoy, it is certain that there is enjoyment to be had in the purpose of our labour. We work to feed our families, to keep a roof over our heads, to keep us from the insipid decline into smothering sloth which might suffocate us if we lolled around too long on its comfortable pillow. I’m not here to assert that work is a Bad Thing. It isn’t. Work, professional, domestic or menial, either allows us the prospect of self-fulfillment or the means to achieve that self-fulfillment elsewhere. Whether that fulfillment is the chance to go watch yet another sci-fi time-travelling blockbuster which is absolutely nothing like Terminator, put another futile bet on at the bookies or lounge around on a Saturday afternoon writing your pretentious blog which is  almost exclusively only read by people who you actually know out of an admirable sense of duty. Work gives us a purpose, and purpose makes us better people. See any number of daytime sensationalist chat shows for evidence of that assertion.

Work, as we know it, is a very recent historic phenomenon. Until fairly recently the vast majority of us would have been self-employed. Working to feed ourselves, or keep our homes. We may have had a trade, we may have had an employer but we would unlikely belong to a workforce which outnumbered the fingers on our hands. There would be a very direct line from labour to product to wage to food to table. Even post-industrialisation it would be rare to find the person who struggled to articulate what it was that they actually did. Contrast this with our present situation, unless, like me, you have a job which can be dated back to biblical times, then you may be one of the many people whose job is so undefined that the title of it barely serves as an accurate description of what its function is. A mental count of my friends, and my partner, reveals the fact that I don’t actually know what half of their job titles are. You may be right, this may indeed be because I am an essentially rude and self-absorbed bitch, but it is also partly because their role as a cog in an enormous company, in a massive service industry, cannot be summed up in a neat title incorporating a verb. They are not a verb-er. What they do is more complex than that. It has to be considered if there is less job satisfaction to be gained when the immediate fruits of your labour are so obscured from your field of vision that they might as well be  in a bin bag, behind a wall,  under the contents of your neighbour’s skip. I suppose that we look for more immediate success criteria to show ourselves that we are doing a good job. Your small part in making a pizza, educating a child, or successfully organising someone’s car insurance claim may not ever be known to you in their entirety. You must break your task down into its small component parts and be relieved that you managed to complete each one.

For as well as giving us the conduit or the means with which we aim to make a positive impact on ourselves, our family or the world at large, work also gives us that increasingly fleeting of emotions, job satisfaction. I accept the fact that we will all experience job satisfaction to varying degrees. I doubt very much that my ex-taxi driver Dad used to give himself a mental high five every time he managed to drop off a passenger without getting lost but there was a part of him that would take a small amount of pleasure from getting there quickly or managing to legally avoid the red lights. It is this job satisfaction which is increasingly denied to many of us. To garner a sense of job satisfaction, it would seem to be essential that first we must consider to the job to be completed. For many of us this is less and less the case. Don’t misunderstand me, as we have discussed the modern service industry means that we may never be party to the end product of which our labour was a small part, what I mean to say is that the small series of tasks in which we have broken down our day often in themselves remain undone.

The blame for this current state of affairs can be seen to rest solely at the door of a word which has dramatically shifted in meaning in the past 30 years. The Target. Once a small collection of circles at which one might aim an arrow, the target has become the equivalent of the master whipping its workforce relentlessly until the last remnants of free time oozes stealthily from their lash wounds like congealing blood. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of the target, and I cannot believe that there are many of you, I will break it down into its unarguable truths. Get ready to trip down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass, dive headfirst into a wardrobe to end up sitting round a table drinking tea with a beaver. As a series of events, it makes a whole lot more sense than the concept of the Target.

Unarguable Truth no.1: The Target is Always Right.

It doesn’t matter on what shoddy scientific premise your target may be based, you, poor minion are in no position to argue with a target.  All targets are based on the premise that there is room for continuous growth, that processes can get faster, that you can do more, make more, sell more. This is a Fact. You cannot argue with a Fact. To do so would be to label yourself both Lazy and Troublesome.

Unarguable Truth no.2: The Target is Motivating or The Stick is a Much More Effective Weapon with Which to Beat You than a Carrot

The target makes you work harder ergo the target is motivating. The target does not make you work harder because there will be punitive consequences if you do not reach your target. There are no other motivators which may improve your performance or output such as a decent work-life balance, sunlight, a decent working environment, adequate rest and meals breaks or the opportunity to get some fresh air. The target is the most effective means to get the best from people. The target is not punitive. The target is motivating. This is a Fact. You cannot argue with a Fact. To do so will label you both Lazy and Troublesome.

Unarguable Truth no.3: There is no Such Thing as Complexity (or Humans)

As Capitalist values seep into areas of our society which have very little to do with capital and means of production, so does their inherent simplicity. So, the logic goes, if you can make twenty cream buns in an hour, if I give you twice as much money for ingredients and you work twice as many hours you will make twice the amount of cream buns. There are some shades of complexity in this logic but not many, for example if I buy finer ingredients, you will make finer cream buns, if I ask the best cream bun maker in all the land to train you how to make cream buns then you will be a better cream bun maker. That’s about as complex as it gets. This is all very well when we are discussing the manufacture of cream buns or any other inanimate object for that matter. This logic starts to falter however, when we introduce that very complex of things, the human being. This is a Falsehood. Human beings are no more complex than a cream bun. Children can get cleverer, ill people can get well quicker and troubled, vulnerable people can become stable and functioning because I gave you a target and told you to make it happen. This is a Fact. You cannot argue with a Fact. To do so will label you both Lazy and Troublesome.

Unarguable Truth no.4: Noone Owes You a Living

We are sorry to let you go. You didn’t meet your targets. This is not the fault of the target. This is your fault. You cannot argue with a Fact. To do so has labelled you both Lazy and Troublesome. This is another reason why we have been forced to let you go.

The target is so ingrained in our  culture that it has become difficult to imagine work without it. Imagine that. Imagine a working day where the emphasis was not on was not on working Harder, Better, Faster but on working well, on doing a job properly. Imagine working not with the aim of meeting a target but with the aim of doing your job well. It’s a nice thought isn’t it? Bear it in mind if you ever become an Important Person. Maybe you can help to make it happen.


What A Fool Believes

7 Sep

I am not an anthropologist but I think I am pretty safe in saying that supernatural belief has been a near constant in human history. The human brain seeks to create order from chaos and find patterns and logic where there may be none, it is a beautiful thing. Where we have been unable to find explanation we have created it. We have woven narrative to gather the tangled thread of that which we have not yet developed the knowledge to prove to be true. We take a leap of faith and take a punt on the story we like the best.

It’s paradoxically both our urge to believe our own stories and our desire to seek evidence to prove these stories which makes us so easy to hoodwink when we are children. Children are pure and trusting souls. They look up to you as a parent and take your word at face value. Not until they stumble into the shit-filled quagmire of adolescence will they feel any need to question your truth. And what do we as parents do with this purest of trust? How do we reward our angelic faced children as they look to us earnestly for truth and guidance, striving to make sense of the chaos of the world around them? Do we reward them with the shortcut of our hard-earned wisdom? No. No we do not. We fill their heads full of shit.

I’m not judging here. There’s good reason why we aim to shield our children from some of the harsher realities of life, principally the fact that they are children. I say aim to as frankly it’s not always possible, unless you are going to ensure your child is shielded from any form of adult media until they reach their teenage years. To be clear when I say adult I am not using it in the euphemistic sense in which “adult” reads as “pornographic and intended for a heterosexual male audience”, I mean adult as in not Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel  or “please so help me God spare me from the Disney Channel” as it will become known to you when you have primary school aged children. My nine year old son recently asked me to define the term offender, after I had given him the definition of someone who had committed an offence, i.e. a crime he proceeded to ask me if a sex offender was someone who had sex before or after they committed a crime. I reverted to my usual Get Out of Jail Free card of “I’ll explain when you’re older and remember we’re not allowed to use words that we don’t understand, people will think you’re stupid”. I haven’t exposed my son to anymore nefarious an influence than John Humphries and Evan Davies on the Today programme in the morning and he’s asking me to explain what a rapist is, it’s all a bit much at 7 o’clock in the morning.

Usually we deceive our children because their willingness to believe in the unlikely makes the world a little bit more wonderful, in the very literal sense of full of wonder. Sneaking into your daughter’s room to stick a coin under her pillow doesn’t feel like a deceit when you see her face in the morning and she genuinely believes that a fairy put it there. Working your fingers to bleeding, bone-exposed nubs of flesh for the entirety of Christmas Eve whilst removing the 3462 plastic tags, which Toy Manufacturers insist each toy needs in order to be securely adhered to the box, is soon forgotten when the kids come down and believe that all of those toys have been freshly made by elves and hand delivered down the chimney by a fat guy in some red felt. We know as parents that there will be a time when the truth will out and our children will be initially hurt and disappointed, this being the first and real evidence presented to them that you are not an omniscient hero, but rather a bit of a tosser. Despite this we persevere because believing in the inexplicable is a nice feeling. It’s probably why religious people do it.

As regular readers of the blog will know, I don’t have any faith myself but I can understand why it is such as reassuring thing. The belief that there is an order behind it all, that ultimately the good will be rewarded,  that it’s OK that your teeth fell out because a fairy is going to use them to build a castle is a cosy blanket to keep out a malevolent draught.  Noone likes sitting in a draught, it’s why atheists can often appear to be a little bit grumpy. I’m not suggesting that religious faith is akin to believing in clever old fairies who can fashion palatial structures from milk teeth. I am suggesting that both are stories which reference the supernatural. They require us to believe and to trust. I’ll be honest as someone with no higher a scientific qualification than GCSE Dual Award Science (NB. Dual Award Science: Not study of two scientific disciplines, two exams’ worth of general science, no, I don’t get it either) there’s a great deal about modern physics which calls upon the very same ability to believe and to trust. I watched a whole week of Stargazing Live with the lovely, but slightly horsey Professor Brian Cox and I have to say I was none the wiser as to the origins of the universe. To be perfectly honest, whilst the Big Bang Theory may be generally accepted among astrophysicists, geologists and other cleverists with wholesome hobbies and a love of Gore-Tex, if I had to pick an origins of the universe story based on narrative alone I’d probably go with the Bible. It’s just much tidier. None of this but what was there before nonsense or trying to bend my head around something constantly expanding. Expanding into what? What is it expanding into? How can it be expanding into nothing? How can there be nothing there? Where the fuck are we? Oh God, I need a lie down.

Even in our secular Western society, we all hold beliefs that cannot be proven to be true. We live our lives according to principals which are no more based in fact than the Bible is, was or might be. Talk to this year’s GCSE cohort who have been peddled the myth that hard work gets you everywhere by charlatans like me for the past five years. Hard work gets you everywhere unless the current governmental administration needs to adjust the examination pass rates for political purposes and then, it would seem, it doesn’t. Look at many of the underlying myths that get you out of bed in the morning: if I work hard I’ll be rewarded; if I do nice things for people, nice things will happen to me; everything will be alright in the end. I believe all of these things, I have absolutely zero empirical evidence for any of them.

Many of us recognise the fact that talking about beliefs for which we have no evidence may make us seem slightly unhinged. It’s why British people are always slightly wary of Americans and Europeans. Far too keen to talk about what they believe in, very uncouth. Whilst this has spared the British thus far from religious fundamentalism or far right politics creeping into the mainstream it has also made us somewhat moral cowards. Failing to be clear about what we believe can make it appear that we believe in nothing. A vacuum must always be filled, even a moral one, better to make sure that what lies in your moral core is something that you chose to put there, empirically proven or otherwise. That’s where collectivism has its value, whether it be politics or religion, we feel better protected if we can put a name to our belief system and stand shoulder to shoulder with others who profess to believe the same. It’s time that we became more comfortable in professing our beliefs to others without the fear of sounding like a moralising prick. It’s OK to believe things, it’s OK to disapprove of the behaviour of others, as long as you’re pretty sure that you would never behave in such a way yourself in the same circumstances. We can still have morals which are divorced from the supernatural, we can focus less on the fairy and her tooth shaped bricks and more on the fact that our parents did something nice for us once. If I want to think positive thoughts because I believe they might have a positive effect on an event in which I have absolutely no real influence then I can. I can ignore my impotence for a while if I so choose, what a fool believes he sees, no wise man has the power to reason away.

Prince Charming

16 Aug

I’m not a fan of fairy tales. I fell out of love with Mother Goose and Walt Disney at about the same age that I realised I was not, in actual fact, a princess and nor was I ever likely to become one. I was not a rare and delicate flower to be protected and nurtured, I was a common or garden dandelion, abundant, hardy and more than likely covered in piss. I’d be breaking no new ground in discussing the heavy sexual symbolism of your average European folk tale, read Marina Warner if that topic interests you further, no really do, it’s proper interesting. It has been well documented that, the gender roles which fairy tales teach to our young are that girls are to be rescued and it is the job of boys to save them. Another example amongst thousands whereby the female is equated with the passive and the male with the active. There are thankfully better female role models to be had in children’s art, literature and entertainment nowadays, a young girl in local authority care and a bilingual Hispanic explorer with a pet monkey being just two of them, but nevertheless the passive female still looms large, locked in her tower and overseeing all.

The male/female passive/active dichotomy is one which should bear little relationship to actual real life people or actual real life relationships. Human beings are far too complex to fit into either side of a dichotomy to begin with. That’s not to say however that within our beautifully complex selves you won’t find the odd cultural or gender stereotype, hidden beneath our sleeves like an ill-advised tattoo. Thus if you briefly survey the cultural landscape, you won’t even need your binoculars to spot the princess in the tower. She’s there in both the zeitgeist and the individual, grimly waving in between spinning her hair into gold, cleaning up after a household of dwarves and pausing to wonder when the bloody hell this prince is thinking of making an appearance.

Take romance for example. It is only ever men who are encouraged or expected to be romantic by the cultural status quo. Let’s take a take a trite and well trollied example of romance and see if we can flip the coin. Imagine a woman sent her husband a bouquet of flowers at work, a public display of affection intended to make her spouse feel special. Lacking in originality undoubtedly but thoughtful nevertheless. How would such a gesture be received by other males in the workplace? Would there be coos and shrieks? Sighs and awws? Assertions that this one is certainly a ‘keeper’?  Unlikely. More than likely it would be regarded as an emasculating gesture or evidence of the woman’s precarious mental health. That’s a nice way of saying the man in question would receive a lot of abuse regarding the whereabouts of his genetalia. Words said would be said in jest but they would be said anyway. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be men who didn’t think it was lovely gesture, just that they would probably not express such a view publicly, lest the whereabouts of their genetalia be questioned as well. I am pretty confident in stating that a woman would almost certainly not be ridiculed for receiving flowers from her spouse at work. Furthermore, she would undoubtedly receive an awful lot of positive feedback from her colleagues about the loveliness of her partner, hence why the very public display of affection is often the modus operandi of the violent and severely dickish. Maybe the issue could be with the presentation of a gift associated with femininity. That’s a fair point. I’m trying to conceive of the reaction of male colleagues to a very public surprise workplace delivery of a particularly good DVD box set but I can’t. Possibly it would be more favourable, more than likely it would still be embarrassing. If embarrassment exists then it must exist for a reason. I’d venture that reason is because metaphorically riding in on your stallion to declare your undying love is still a typically male preserve. Most boys don’t want to be rescued by Prince or Princess Charming. Well they might, but they are certainly not encouraged to express that view.

It would be nonsense to suggest that all women are looking for a man to rescue them. Insulting nonsense at that. I’m not suggesting that every woman is a princess in a tower. It’s not 1952. Women are more than active in their relationships and active in seeking them out. Look at my own daredevil expeditions on for evidence of that assertion. I should get the MBE for that. Being decisive and opinionated is a quality actually desired by a lot of men. Being a strong and capable character is attractive in both genders although again I’d venture that it’s a quality that men are less likely to admit desiring. Strength is associated with masculinity, a fact which we betray in our use of ‘balls’ as a synonym of strength of will. It’s wrong to suggest that men who highly prize a strong, opinionated woman seek metaphorical balls to make up for their lack of actual ones but a suggestion which is occasionally verified by a glance around the crowd at the gigs of many female performers. At an Amanda Fucking Palmer gig I went to with my friend last year, there were so many wet men in the audience there was the real and genuine risk of catching Legionnaire’s disease from the air but I digress. Strong men often desire strong women just as much as limp, insipid ones although they may be less inclined to admit it

The continued existence of the princess in the tower causes many difficulties. For those women who await their Prince Charming, real life actual men are never going to make the cut. You haven’t spent all that time sitting in your tower to be rescued by some hobgoblin whose shit smells and occasionally tells long, rambling anecdotes in which you have little interest. You didn’t spend all that time up there for a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of Tottenham Hotspur/Blues Legends of the 1950′s/the evolution of the graphic novel/Alan Partridge. You didn’t spend all that time up there for a man with friends and hobbies. You wanted Prince Charming, a man whose singular quest in life has been to seek you out, who needs no other interests, activities or people in his life apart from you to make him happy. Because you, you my dear, are such a wonderful, fabulous darling of a Daddy’s little princess that how on earth could anyone need anything other than you to make them happy? They must be punished for the remainder of their days.

The princess in the tower causes an equal amount of difficulty for those women who actively seek to reject her. After all, having  abseiled the sheer cliff face of your tower, hacked your way through the enchanted forest and outwitted several wolves, witches and peddlers, the last thing you want is for some Johnny-Come-Lately to trip up on his horse and take all the credit. Having plotted your whole future on the premise that’s there’s no such thing as Prince Charming it can be disconcerting to find him sitting next to you on the settee. In this scenario the temptation is to set your prince further and more difficult challenges to prove your assertion that he cannot possibly exist. Well, you scaled the tower alright but will you make a brew in the morning? You found your way through the forest but how will you fare with a week’s camping with two children in Wales? In the rain? When I’ve forgotten the footpump for the airbeds? In trying so hard to prove that you are not a princess, you can run the risk of becoming a royal pain in the arse.

The roles that we are expected to take in relationships can be restrictive for both genders, paradoxically whether we take on or reject those roles. As we’ve said human beings are far too complex to fit squarely into a dichotomy. A flash of princely behaviour may not be an attempt to squeeze you back into a tower, it may just be a genuine offer of help. Doing an exceptional job of looking after your dwarves is not a sign of passive princessly weakness but as much a show of strength as slaying a dragon. Obviously, real life is far from a fairy tale but maybe you sometimes have to acknowledge when you’ve been rescued. Just because you can do everything by yourself doesn’t mean you should. Just because someone didn’t ride up to get you on his stallion doesn’t make him any less of a prince and just because you’re not a princess, it doesn’t mean you’re any less deserving of him. You don’t have to be naive enough to believe in happy ever after to presume that something will turn out for the best. Sometimes it’s just nice to chill out a bit and enjoy a ride on a horse. Don’t you ever stop feeling dandy, showing me you’re handsome, Prince Charming.