Monday, 28 November 2011

Small talk

Here's a couple of lines from the Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, much of which I seem to be quoting at the moment, or at least searching for inspiration within the text: 

One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious, as in It's a nice day, or You're very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you all right? At first Ford had formed a theory to account for this strange behaviour; if human beings don't keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up.

After a few months' consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favour of a new one. If they don't keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working.

Conversation with other human beings is still the main method we use to communicate with each other, at least in a face to face manner.  There's nothing particularly personal about email after all.

Small talk is the glue that binds social gatherings together.  Social gatherings such as weddings and house parties tend to be characterised by a lot of people standing around making small talk, usually holding a glass in one hand and a food morsel in the other.  The mouth opens and shuts, and the brain spends most of its time wondering when is the right time to attack said food morsel and whether it's a one or two-bite canape. 

There's nothing wrong with small talk, in fact it's vital to the success of any conversation.  It's like the suet the holds the Christmas pudding together.  It provides a vehicle for the good bits, and otherwise you'd just be eating mouthfuls of dried fruit laced with alcohol (actually, maybe that doesn't sound too bad).  However, suet on its own makes for a pretty dull pudding, and small talk on its own makes for very dull conversation, and I'd argue that small talk alone becomes conversation simply to avoid the alternative: silence.

Just as Christmas pudding needs the fruit, small talk needs to be laced with occasional moments of big talk.  I define big talk as matters which are personal, matters which are important, matters which are controversial.  Small talk is the low-risk inoffensive patter that skirts these bigger topics.  

I'd like to see some rules invoked nation-wide, so that people are clear on the small talk/big talk balance.  These rules could be displayed in wedding venues, hired-out rooms above pubs, even people's living rooms when it's time to get the street round for Christmas drinks.  Pubs generally have pool-table rules laid out clearly next to the tables to avoid confusion and argument, and this would merely be providing the same service for social gatherings.

Here are the rules, as laid down by me.  (You should feel free to add to this list, or amend as necessary.  Once people become au fait with the rules, you might want to take your A1 sheet down from the wall, but it may be wise to have small laminated rule cards on your person, just to dish out to any surprise guests, or first-time conversationalists.)

1.  Always start with small talk

Never bring out the controversial topics too early.  Everyone likes to settle in with a nice wide loosener or half-volley, and you'll swiftly find yourself on your own if you come in with a rant about the immigration problem in the area.  Try kicking off with a conversation about how you know the host, or maybe a query about what your conversation partner happens to be driving at the moment.

2.  Choose your moment to bring in the big talk

Wait for an appropriate prompt.  If your chosen chat-protagonist regularly uses a Boris bike (small talk), this is the moment to bring in your thoughts about the coalition's handling of the debt crisis (big talk).  Don't miss your chance mind, and shy away from the big talk.  Now is not the time to mention Boris' buffoonery on HIGNFY.

3.  Some small talk is too small

There are some topics of conversation that are so small, so pointless and so clearly just a way of  avoiding silence that they should be banned from ever raising their heads.  These include questions such as how did you get here? or where are you for Christmas this year?  No-one cares.

Right, I'm off to find someone in the street to ask them whether they feel that religious belief implies the existence of a God-like being.  Wish me luck.


Sunday, 20 November 2011


It's worth getting one thing straight before I start: children in need is a good thing. Anything that raises nigh on 30 million pounds for various children's charities cannot be anything other than a good thing. Whether one finds dancing newsreaders a little bit hackneyed and probably best left in the 70s with Angela Rippon and Morecambe and Wise, and whether it's patently obvious that Sir Terry should have been mothballed along with Sir Bruce years back, that doesn't make CiN anything other than a good thing. It's a British institution; it's proof that we're not all greedy bankers and we're willing to give to a good cause; it's a good thing. Have I protested too much? Probably. Have I made my point? Hopefully.

I've just watched 'teardrop' by 'The Collective', which is the official CiN single. It's a curious mix of young black British musical talent, Ed Sheerin rapping (well, speaking) in a sort of 'mock-ghetto public-schoolboy in his bed-sit with pictures of Tupac on the wall' accent, and an occasional focus on Gary Barlow doing what I presume is the face he would do were he to come across a run-over, though still partially alive, kitten.

It's a terrible cover of what is a very good song. It's basically the same music, with a lazy rap done over the top. It's got some strings in it; you can tell this because of the Gormenghast-relic bearded chap doing some conducting in the middle of the video. But, with CiN being a good thing, even this poor song represents a case of the end justifying the means. And if one sees it as nothing but a bad song making some money for a good cause, well, it's probably a good thing too, all in all. At least it's better than 'The Stonk'.

The mistake I made was to listen to the lyrics. They're such incredible dross. It takes a while to get going, but it's as if by the two minute mark, the lyricists decided that it was time to get all insprirational. Thus we have gems like:

1. 'you can be anything you dream of...'

This is patently untrue. I'd like to be a professional footballer thanks. What's that? I'm not good enough at football? But Ed Sheerin said...

2. 'value everything you own, somebody probably dreams of the bed that you sleep on'

Nice guilt trip. As long as I own a bed, that should be enough to make me feel guilty. Unlike the rabble of x-factor types in the video, who have really had to struggle with the instant fame and fortune conferred on them.

3. 'be anything, it's your choice'

A similar conundrum to point 1. It may be your ambition, but very rarely is it your choice. You can be a writer, but you still need a publisher to get your words out there. You can be a singer, but you still need a record deal to get your music heard. And you'll never be an astronaut or a footballer - best just get used to it.

4. 'always speak your mind'

This is a bad idea. Questions such as 'do I look fat in this?' and 'isn't he such a cute baby?' may get you into a awful lot of trouble for speaking your mind. There are times when speaking your mind is a good idea, and no-one's trying to suggest you should be a wall-flower at all times, but there will be times when the advice is plain irresponsible.

5. 'you can turn silver into gold with 4 coins'

A mathematical question. With one 50p coin, two 20p coins and a 10p, you can indeed turn silver into gold (a pound coin) though I'm pretty sure that they're not made of gold. Then again, the 'silver' coins mentioned above are mostly nickel-alloy; nevertheless, it works mathematically, despite the confusion between colour and value of coin. Having said it, this is probably the only true part of the song, though I doubt many people will be inspired by the basic metric system of currency.

Maybe I've looked into things in too much depth. In fact, I know I have. But sometimes things aren't glamorous, they don't represent instant gratification and they don't always end with the success you've worked towards or the success you deserve. Sometimes things only come with hard slog, and even then, you're not going to be famous doing them. But you should be happy with your own achievements, even though you have to realise that you can't do anything you want, or be anything you wish. Better to hear the truth now.

If you're after inspiriation, eschew Barlow, and head to another great man, Marcus Aurelius:

'Be like the Rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest'

Monday, 24 October 2011

Confusion reigns

Life is confusing.

It's confusing from a philosophical point of view (what is our purpose in life?) but it's also pretty confusing from an everyday point of view (what's the difference between all these coloured nespresso capsules, and how does one operate the machine anyway?)

Many people manage to avoid this confusion by choosing the simple life, and by this I don't mean heading off into the wilderness a la 'into the wild', or tagging along with Paris Hilton through the hick backwaters of the US. I mean the simple life from yesteryear, where all that mattered was having a menial job which enabled one to put food on the table, and raising a couple of kids who stayed on the straight and narrow. One can add to this the watching of X factor and the occasional KFC bucket and some lottery tickets, but for many, this is life as it should be lived in little Britain. This mass of people are required to keep the country going. They are the gammas and below of Huxley's 'Brave New World', and they represent the glue that binds society together.

There are others that ponder the big questions; the questions that are concerned with the advancement and future of mankind. Crucially, they also end up in a position to be able to do something about it. These are the betas and upwards of BNW, the thinkers and do-ers in Douglas Adams' 'The Restaurant at the end of the Universe'. In a demoncracy, these are the people (and those around them) that we rely on to get the big decisions right in order the safeguard the future of nations.

In 'The Restaurant at the end of the Universe', the residents of a planet whose future was known to be doomed, decided to leave the planet via spaceship to colonise another. They left the 'useless third' of the population behind, having taken the 'thinkers' and 'do-ers' away with them.
So can we isolate the useless third of our planet, those that are left when all the thinkers and do-ers are taken out of the equation? Not quite that simple, but with the world population having just hit 7 billion, we can't afford too many passengers on this over-crowded planet.

I'm more concerned with the state of 'protesting' in general. There's a lot of protestors out there at the moment; granted that there's certainly plenty to protest about. However, whereas you can do a menial job very well without too much thinking, to protest without thinking can be quite a dangerous thing.

If you're in any doubt what I mean, have a look at these chaps in this clip:

They're from the 'Occupy London' protest. Their names are confused person 1 and confused person 2 (not really, but that's how I like to know them). They are protesting against corporate greed, which is generally taken to mean bankers. Fine. But if you listen to their ramble, they're also protesting about lack of political intervention and control, Murdoch's control of the media and the 'rule' of the aristocracy (as if they have any actual power?). Is this precisely what all the people outside St Paul's are protesting against? I very much doubt it. At least the second chap is articulate, albeit in a rather stereotyped student way; the first guy seems to have no idea what he's protesting about, except to say that there's a lot of anger on the streets (well there is if you live in a tent on the streets around St Paul's); he seems to have been dragged along in this current of anger. He's a rebel without a clue.

More confusion: I heard a group of protestors at Aberdeen airport speaking on the radio recently. They had chained themselves to one of the runways (not sure how this is done...), and were protesting at the emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels in aircraft leading to global warming and its associated environmental problems. They had attached themselves to the runway to stop the planes from landing. That's right, landing. Not taking-off, but landing. Their protest ensured that the planes either had to stay in the air, burning more fuel, until another runway becamse available, or they had to be diverted to another airport entirely, with similar consequences. The group seemed rather crestfallen when this was pointed out by the interviewer.

Yet more confustion, from abroad this time: I was in Vienna this week, where their version of the 'slutwalk' was taking place. For the uninitiated, this involves a group of women (and men) marching the streets in protest against the remarks made by a Toronto policeman at a safety lecture earlier this year. He suggested that women should avoid 'dressing like sluts' to minimise the risk of attack from men. He has since apologised for this incredibly crass statement. I'm not sure that anyone would argue that rape is good (hence this is akin to a protest against murdering people), and I'm also unsure that one idiotic statement from one policeman should be taken to mean that every nation in which the protests have taken place gives out the message 'don't get raped' as opposed to 'don't rape', but what was more interesting was the level of confusion displayed by the participants of the protest. Some clearly seemed to have understood, and were scantily clad in 'slut-wear', which is the point of the walk, namely that individuals should be free to wear what they like without fear of being judged, or fear of assault. Others held banners of 'support feminism', which I guess is related, though I'm not sure it's a key feminist principle. Others held 'smash capitalism' banners. Surely these people are confused? Does a capitalist society promote rape? Or were they just keen to piggy-back one protest for another?

Confusion brought about by a lack of thinking. Dangerous stuff.

Monday, 17 October 2011

What if there's no future?

I was asked this morning, just in passing, which decade I would most like to have lived in. It's a question I've been asked surprisingly often, but which I mean it's been asked approximately once every six months for as long as I can remember. It's one of those questions people use to find a way in to another conversation, about the music of the '60s, or the family values of the '50s. No-one seems to be very interested in my response, which is why my standard answer of the 1920s provoked little more than a shrug this morning. Mind you, I wouldn't be very interested in anyone else's answer, whether it was the 3010s or the 1290s. I've come to justify my answer with some ramble about Fitzgerald and glamour and other such things, but the point is that it's not interesting because it's not possible. None of us ever get the choice of which decade we're born into, and so it will forever remain a little ice-breaker, along the lines of 'would you have sex with the Corrs, if you had to do the bloke too?', which I seem to remember was an important dilemma for a while, probably when the Corrs were big news, so a little while ago.

I quite like living my 30s through the 2010s, though I can't imagine that my life would be significantly different if I was this age in the 1990s. I've now reached an age where I've got about as much future as past. It's an ideal age: the past is recent enough that I can remember it, I can revel in my triumphs and I can learn from my mistakes. There's a quite a bit of future too, and I reckon I've still got quite a lot to look forward to. I asked one of my classes at School to write about the future or the past, from any point of view. All by one pupil wrote about the future. Of course they did - they've got far more future than past, and even though the future is uncertain, it's also exciting. At age 16, you're pretty bullet-proof, and there's a myriad of paths in front of you. Even if you take the wrong one, you've got time to return to the junction to take another, and it might just lead you somewhere exciting anyway. Time passes very slowly when you're 16; there's not even much past to remember, so you can recall things easily.

Being old doesn't interest me, which is a puffed-out chest way of saying it scares me a little. I remember waking up one night when I was about 8 or 9 years old, literally in a sweat from the realisation that I would die, and that it would be forever. My life would be as a flash of light between two eternities of dark, and even at 8 years old, that was a worrying thought. When you're old, you've got a very limited future, and most of what you have is past. When you're young, the future is uncertain, but that's exciting, and it's brimming with possibility. When you're old, even the past is uncertain; there's so much of it to remember, so much to regret and so much on which to ponder. You've had your one chance, and there's nothing you can do about it.

I'd like to remain in this state of middle-ground for a while. I acknowledge both what's gone before and what's still to come. I like my memories to remain vivid, not seen through frosted glass, and I like to think that my mistakes yet to come won't be un-correctable.

Dan Wheldon, the Indy car driver, died yesterday in a crash at the Indy 300 in Las Vegas. I have a picture of my School year in 1991, and he'd been at School only a month by then. His future was uncertain, and it was certainly exciting, though ultimately tragic. I wonder if he'd have swapped the excitement for a long uneventful life, Achilles-like?

Saturday, 27 August 2011

It's the sound of the police

Much has been written in recent weeks about the alienation of young people from society. I've already explained why I think this is a parental issue far more than a societal one, but I'd also add that it's actually quite difficult to bring young people into the (big) society fold. Young people (and by this I really mean teenagers) are not exposed to many of the important issues that are faced by adults. As a teenager, you are shielded by your parents, or at least you should be. You shouldn't need to worry about getting a job, renting/buying a house etc, and the people that you deal with on a day to day basis (your friends) aren't ready to contribute much to society either, and this is exactly as it should be. Teenagers are often by nature non-conformists; they're keen to rebel, albeit usually in a harmless way, against their parents, teachers and polite society in general. Very few people dress like they did when they were a teenager, and listen to the same music; many of us take up, and then give up, smoking as teens. This is all part of growing up; it's doesn't suggest any fracture within society, but teenagers are always going to exist on the margins of society - there's plenty of time for them to become their parents later on.

When one becomes an adult, it's far easier to define yourself as a useful, upstanding member of society. But what does one have to do to achieve this? I think that most people would agree with that the following is key: be employed, and to earn one's keep, ideally in a job where you are clearly performing a useful role in society, and not earning far more than perhaps your contribution would suggest is reasonable.

I think most people could suggest a job that fits this criteria (nursing, teaching), and could also suggest some that would not (banking). One job that clearly fulfils the above would be the police. It's a job with difficult hours, the pay is reasonable but no more, it's essential to society.

So why do we continually run down our police force? Why have the policemen and women become the target for such criticism and marginalisation from all angles?

To quote examples - lack of riot training/riot equipment for police to deal with the recent troubles, major Government cuts to the police, accusations of police brutality (Ian Tomlinson), accusations of police timidity (London riots), people spectating at the riots in London, the goading of the police by rioters more interested in capturing evidence on their phones than making a political point. Even the title of this piece is taken from a piece of music criticising police brutality, though the real meaning of the song has been lost amid the amusing siren sounds, and though none of us pay any real attention to them, the sentiments can become lodged. None of us are surprised to hear Dr Dre's line of 'so muthaf*ck the police', and none of us are shocked as we would be were he criticising an ethnic minority, or women. There is an inherent need for young people to rebel, but should we still be doing the same thing against our police force as adults?

The most obvious contrast from the police would be the British Army. My brother was an officer in the cavalry for a decade, and has since joined the metropolitan police. I've never had the conversation with him, but I suspect that he's quite surprised about the difference in public feeling towards the two (fairly comparable) roles. The British Army are often referred to as heroes, and the charity 'Help for Heroes' is now one of the richest in the UK. How about a similar charity for police officers wounded in the riots? Would there be a similar outpouring of national feeling (and cash)? Maybe it's because the Army are sorting problems in foreign lands, where the local people there deserve all they get, and maybe here our natural inclination is an anti-authority standpoint where we regress to our teenage feelings of rebellion towards those that enforce polite society, but it seems like a confused message to give.

So who feels more alienated from society - the teenager, who has yet to have the chance to contribute, or the police officer, providing a vital role than many of us wouldn't do for twice the money, and being pilloried by the very society that they protect?

Thursday, 18 August 2011

I predict a riot

Actually, I didn't predict the London riots, but at least I had the excuse that I was abroad, on holiday. Whilst I was away, I watched Question Time on the BBC Parliament channel (it's amazing that I have a girlfriend, isn't it?), and from listening to those sage political commentators, you'd be convinced that each of them had predicted these precise events a long time ago. Many of them (Prescott, Paddick etc) spoke of a kind of inevitability about the London riots, which was surprising, as no-one to my knowledge had warned the country of this powder keg about to blow at any point before certain areas of the capital were on fire, by which time most people would agree that it was a little late. The shocking events of last week are made even more shocking by the fact that they came as a surprise to most people.

Public (and media) reaction has broadly fallen into two wildly simplistic categories. The liberal view is that we have a mass of young people (mainly young black males) that have been 'failed by society'. This failed by society line (henceforth to be known as FBS) is trotted out often, but no-one has yet to give a satisfactory answer as to what it means. Still, it sounds good, and it gave the Guardian a chance to wheel Russell Brand out to emphasise the FBS point. Mr Brand clearly gave so many soundbites after the death of Amy Winhouse that he's now required to comment on all major news stories. I await his coverage of the US presidential race with baited breath. Back to the main point, but in what way has society failed these young rioters? One news channel suggested that it was the fault of the 'nice things' industry, which has created 'must-have' items such as iphones and D+G clothing. The theory is that young people cannot afford these things, therefore their self-worth is defated, meaning there is nothing left for them to do but smash things, and nick things. Does anyone actually believe this is the truth? There's lots of things that I can't afford (a yacht, for example), but you won't see me down at Brighton Marina at midnight in a hoodie, making off with someone else's.

Having nice things doesn't make you happy and content. These young people are angry because they don't aspire to anything, and the majority of the fault lies with the parents. Quality parenting is about setting your child up well for life, and guiding your child as best you can until you are able to remove the stabilisers, and they are free to make their own way in society. This usually means some form of understanding of what is right and wrong, a respect for your fellow human beings, and a little bit of education along the way. Is that too much to ask? Only yesterday, my hairdresser was bemoaning the fact that so many of her friends are pregnant (they're all about 21, and the babies are unplanned in general; I did a bit of research). Why are these people so happy to have kids, when they're generally so unhappy with the raising them properly bit? True satisfaction comes from earning things: not having them given to you, and not from nicking them. There's a good message from which to start. Labour were totally wrong in the assertion that 50% of people going to university would be a good thing. In fact, fewer people going to university would be a good thing, and more people doing apprenticeships and learning a trade would be an even better thing. All young people have talents, and the sooner they find out what they are good at the better.

On the flip side to the liberals and their seeking to justify this behaviour comes the 'lock em up and throw away the key' brigade. Those that think it's reasonable to lock up two morons from Cheshire for 4 years each for trying to incite a riot via facebook. I don't know what's more tragic, the long sentence or the fact that nobody came. This knee-jerk reaction attempts to placate a public that is baying for blood, but we cannot allow public opinion to override rational decision-making. Handing out over-tough sentences as an 'example' has been proved not to work; someone isn't going to refrain from hurling a brick through a window because the sentence length for criminal damage has increased by 33% in recent times. We need to consider the root causes of this anti-social behaviour to prevent it - to cure the cause, not to hammer the consequence.

We are a confused country. Are you proud to be British? Am I? Do we know what it means? The spectacular failure of Cameron's Big Society suggests that the Thatcherite ideal of greed is good still looms large over the country. Better parenting to start, more opportunities for kids to learn a trade early, less emphasis on having to go to university (fewer universities even) and far less exposure for Russell Brand.

That can't be too tricky, can it? Or maybe Huxley had the best idea after all?

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

You're the one for me, fatty

It's been a week of grim news, and as I keenly scanned the BBC website for an uplifting tale, instead I can across this depressing headline: 'calorie counts on menus prompt healthy choices'.

This research comes from across the pond, where calorific information has been displayed on New York menus since 2008. The results of this survey do seem patchy, with the headline being just one conclusion from a scattered set of data points. Subway, for example, showed an increase in calorific intake by customers once the calorie information was displayed on menus. This is likely to be due to the fact that people have decided to eat twice the portion of a 'healthy' option that contains only 75% of the calories. The Yanks have few faults, but maths is clearly one of them, at least amongst Subway customers. UK restaurants have now begun to ape this trend of putting calorific information alongside food options, from the lowly (KFC and McDonald's) to the Michelin starred emporium of Alexis Gaultier in Soho. We ignore much of what is best about the US (cheap fuel, good service) and yet copy some of the worst (American gladiators); this is another fad that we would have done well to leave alone.

I am all for education regarding diet and healthy living, but this should come from parents and in Schools. It is important that children are made aware of what is meant by a healthy diet (to my mind there are no such things as 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' food items, seeing as no one food can supply all the nutrition that we need); it is important that we are aware of portion control (something which the Americans have lost sight of); it is important that we are aware of seasonality and its impact on lowering food miles; it is important that children are encouraged to eat a varied diet; it is important that they are able to cook.

Placing calorie information on menus seems to ignore the education side of food (as above), and instead looks to the strategy of trying to catch the horse's tail in the stable door. Healthy eating is not all about calories anyway; avocados are very calorific, and yet most people would say they are a 'healthy' option. Iceberg lettuce has virtually no calories, and yet it has no nutritional value either, and therefore can hardly be defined as being healthy. Education via calories might teach people how to become thin, but that's not the same thing as a good diet. Also, whatever Kate Moss thinks, some food really does taste far better than skinny feels (I'm looking at you, foie gras).

I don't think that calorie information works at either end of the gastronomic spectrum. Take Gaultier Soho, a fine dining restaurant (tasting menu £68 pp). How often are you likely to go to this restaurant, or any restaurant like it? Once a month, if that? This is an occasion restaurant for a partner's birthday, or a significant anniversary. This restaurant represents the opportunity to be decadent and hedonistic, to start a meal with champage and finish with a cognac over coffee. It's certainly not your everyday meal. Surely the last thing you want to do is to make meal choices based on calorie content? If anything, let's live like it's the last days of Rome, be perverse and have the most calorific choices on the menu. Part of the pleasure of fine dining is that it's totally out of the ordinary, a one-off treat, and one about which you shouldn't feel guilty. On another note, if you're eating at a place like this and you can't tell that the grilled fish is less likely to clog those arteries than the foie gras on brioche, you probably wasting your money as you're someone who eats only to live.

At the other end of the spectrum we have KFC and McDonalds. I'm sure that some people think the food here is great, but these people are mostly 12 or under, and as we've already discussed, it really is the parent's responsibility to educate children about food. For most of the rest of us, the output of McDonald's or KFC are pre-football food, hangover food, bored at the airport food; some don't touch them out of principle, but fast food provides an important option when needs must. I don't think anyone would argue that a standard meal of fried chicken/burger and chips is not brilliantly healthy, and it's not good to eat them too often; I hope I'm not overestimating the intelligence of the average Brit, but I think this should be a given. Placing the calorie information next to a Big Mac, informing us that it's got a lot of calories, shouldn't be a surprise, and neither should it put us off buying one. The introduction of the McGrapes and McCarrotsticks about ten years ago was truly bizarre; surely people go to McDonald's for only one thing: some greasy cheap food. If you wanted some grapes, just go and buy some from the nearest supermarket, though maybe I'm underestimating how ubiquitous McDonald's really is.

Food shouldn't really be complicated; people need only a few clear guidlines, and they can make their own choices from these. The '5 a day' for fruit and vegetables has passed into common parlance, though there's no real reason why it should have been 5, and not 4 or 6. If kids are given a varied and balanced diet, and taught how to cook a few simple dishes, people should be fine to make their own decisions. I'm glad that the research (despite the headline) showed no distinct pattern, and certainly didn't seem to support the need to expance the calorie information to all sorts of other menus. As with many things, it's the education, the pro-active strategy that tends to work, and as soon as one adopts the reactionary approach, we run the risk of having to deal with a nation of fatties, rather than ensuring that we don't produce these big units in the first place.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Familiarity and contempt

I've used the Stephen Fry expression to describe friendship before. The Nation's favourite Wildean uncle claimed that he 'likes to taste his friends, not eat them'. Aside from the obvious innuendo, it's a sentiment with which I agree. Some of my favourite people are those that I don't see for a couple of years, and when we do meet up, it's like we've never been apart. I've just spent a week in the states with a friend I hadn't seen for 3 years (we keep up only through twitter) and it led to some of the most enjoyable, entertaining and easiest conversation you could imagine. Some people like to surround themselves with a small group of close friends, and these people act like a kind of social comfort blanket. Friendship lines are drawn, everyone knows which topics are there to be debated and which are off-limits, opinions are generally well-known, and conversation can be dominated with everyday chit-chat.

I'm certainly not saying that the better I know people, the less I like them, or even the less interesting I find them; I do consider however that the friendship of those people that I rarely converse with and meet up with even less often can be just as valuable. It's like music and books. Some books you are happy to read and re-read, and there's some music that you never tire of listening to. There are other books that you loved first time around, but you have no desire to read again, at least not in the immediate future. Some music is like this too; I love it, and then I love re-discovering it, but only at a much later date.

As I'm on holiday at the moment, I've had the opportunity to do quite a lot of reading. I've been reading a couple of authors that I thought I liked a lot: Malcolm Gladwell and Jay McInerney. The more I've read of them, the less I like them. Maybe that's a little strong, but the less interest I have in them; their freshness is notable by its absence. In McInerney's case, I've read him pretty much chronologically, starting with the fantastic 'Bright lights, Big City'. His later novels (less so the short stories) resemble less good versions of his earlier work. The themes are similar, the humour more forced, the material less fresh. People say that you write about what you know, but he seems to have written about all that he knows in the first couple of books, and has spent much time re-hashing old material after that. Gladwell is more odd, because I read Outliers (2008), then What the dog saw (2009) then his breakthrough novel The Tipping Point (2000). Gladwell certainly has a brilliant easy-reading style, and it has been said of him that he 'makes you feel as though you are the genuis'. It's a very leading style though, and many of the conclusions that he comes to, which appear watertight at first, do not stand up to any kind of rigorous scrutiny. His standard technique is to take a one-off event, re-tell it as an incredibly entertaining story, and then to draw far reaching conclusions from this single event that usually challenge general thinking on the subject. Thought and discussion-provoking certainly, but hard evidence? almost certainly not. The more I read, the more I feel that I'm being worked on, albeit very gently, into believing the genius of Gladwell, and I find that irritating, and just a little bit subversive.

This isn't the case with all authors. If one reads Orwell chronologically, things culminate with 1984, and all of his other writing and experiences feel like a build-up to this. It helped that he died young, and knew that he was dying, and maybe that's the key: to die before one's output starts to tail off. Morrison, Dean, Fitzgerald have nothing duff in their back catalogue; they simply didn't have time. Conversely, the longer that Jagger or McCartney hang on, the more hapless the material they produce has become. This is similar with Dave Grohl, who sounds more like un-edgy bad Nirvana with each album. I used to think that Dali was a genius, until you realise that you've seen all the good stuff in the first 10% of his output, and the rest of his career was a re-hash of former ideas.

Perhaps there's a limit to creativity, and it's best to stop when you feel genuine creation is harder to come by. Bowie and Picasso manage to stay creative forever by continual re-invention. They are the genuine outliers; these are people with whom one can be fully familiar, and feel nothing but admiration for their genius.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Funny business

Comedy is the new rock n' roll. This isn't really the case of course, any more than Rupert Murdoch is the new 'all say awww', Clive Dunn-esque, loveable Grandad figure who'd slip you onto his knee and drop a Werthers' original into your mouth soon as look at you. It's a phrase that gets trotted out quite a lot though, and what it really means is that comedy has become incredibly popular; stand-up comedy in particular. Comedy has always been popular, but live comedy has really boomed over the past decade or so, such that it's not unusual to find comedians packing out huge stadia, when they used to be found in smoky dingy clubs, dealing with front row hecklers. Newman and Baddiel were the first comedians to play Wembley stadium, and whereas their show now looks remarkably dated, they were the 'comedians as rock n' rollers' trailblazers, to be followed by Peter Kay, and latterly, Michael McIntyre. Peter Kay seems to be universally popular, despite the obvious 'Northern-ness' of his humour, and punters and peers like him equally. It's difficult not to like Peter Kay.

Michael McIntyre has been in the news a lot this week, coming under fire (so he says) from others in his profession. He's clearly popular with the punters, but his peers don't seem to like him much, to the extent that his wife got a load of reflected stick at a recent awards ceremony, despite the fact she'd bought a new dress specifically for the occasion (this is the sad story, as recounted by Mr McIntyre on desert island discs this week). Stewart Lee was singled out as perpurtrating the greatest amount of anti-McIntrye bile, describing McIntyre's material as 'warm diahorrea', though he's since claimed that the material was taken out of context, and that he was in fact 'in character' when he wrote this line (a minor part of a 30,000 word show).

I'm sure that many will take McIntyre's side in this argument, and some will take Lee's. But is it an argument with any merit? Is it an argument that can lead to a conclusion?

The argument is very similar to that which tries to compare different types of popular music, and bearing in mind that comedy is the new rock n' roll, let's see how far we can get with this comparison. Arguments rage from the pub to the playground over which music is 'better', but rarely do two people agree on any definition for the word 'better', at least in this context. One can define better as meaning more popular or more influential or more original, but none of these definitions hold more universal sway than any other. One of the most obviously good things about comedy is that something with no comedic merit at all never even makes its way into the public eye (with the possible exception of Rotherham's finest, the Chuckle Brothers). This is certainly not true for music, where Jedward are able to sell millions. So that's a disappointing start.

Michael McIntyre is the Take That of the comedy world. Almost universally popular; pretty much everyone would admit to liking him (and them) at least a bit. Stewart Lee is the Elbow of the comedy world. He's someone that you know (if you consider yourself intelligent) you're supposed to like, but you can't get over the feeling that it's just a bit dreary, and takes itself a little too seriously. Michael McIntyre is trying to be as funny as he can, and is trying to make as many people laugh as he can. There's no great sophistication to his humour, just as there's no great sophistication to the music of Take That, but you'd probably feel in a better mood after listening to either of them for ten minutes. They are both unashamedly populist, and exist merely to create enjoyment for people, and by doing so, to fatten their own coffers. If McIntrye's comedy was so base and easy though, wouldn't it all have been done before? His brand of everyday observational comedy can't be that straightforward, can it? Similarly, Take That; how many other similar groups have tried and failed to recreate their success?

Stewart Lee (like Elbow) seems to be trying to do more with his comedy; he's trying to educate, to make people consider the everyday in greater depth, to debate our beliefs and prejudices. He's probably not as gag-heavy, but the humour certainly has an ulterior motive. This is a very obvious choice that he's made, and that's why he exists at the other end of the comedy spectrum from Michael McIntyre. I like listening to Stewart Lee, but only for a while. He's certainly original and thought provoking, and there's clearly plenty of worth in listening to him; just like Elbow though, it just gets a bit too whiny and repetitive after a while (in Lee's case, literally so, as he continues to pound the same phrase down your throat). After a bit of Lee, McIntyre comes as light relief. It's not long before one tires of him too, with his skippy smily fatty routines, and there's only so much of this one can stand. You're not likely to replace one Take That album with another straightaway, but I'd be amazed if anyone wanted to sit through more than 12 songs of Elbow.

The concept of 'better' is pointless in music just as much as it is in comedy. It's probably more important to be open to all different styles of music, comedy, art, theatre, film, food etc than it is to champion some things to the detriment of others. There's merit in all sorts of diverse culture, and we have the opportunity to dip in and out of all of them whenever we please.

Wouldn't it be dull if we all liked just one thing?

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

In pursuit of happiness part 2

I've just finished reading David Nicholls' 'One Day' which I liked a lot. It didn't look quite as good on the tube as, say, Satre or Proust, but it did look a lot more believable. It's full of humour, pathos, emotion and class-related awkwardness. I really liked the book, and it was about as British as 'Friends' is American. I think that the 'cleverness' of the format (catching up with the main protagonists on the same day over a twenty year period) is actually a bit limiting, and I don't think that this gimick is necessary, but I can't remember the last time that I read a book quite so quickly, and felt as though I knew (and cared about) the characters quite so much. It's a bit disappointing that the book has to be turned into a film; the film serves little purpose, save to pander to those with little or no imagination. If the characters are as you imagined, it's just like reading the book again, and if they're nothing like you imagined, well that's just irritating.

It's the characters in any book or film that make it stand out. Getting you to care about these fictional people is a large part of the battle. The characters in 'One Day' were drawn in 3D, and when they weren't, that was clearly deliberate, almost as a way of making the key characters stand out. One of the reasons that I dislike soaps so much is that every character exists completely in 2D, and displays such a limited range of emotions at any one time as to represent nothing but cariacature. 'One Day' is about life, chance, fate, friendship and love, and despite the condensing of a year into a day in every chapter, it's clear that all of these occur in parallel, not in series.

One of the overriding thoughts I had upon finishing the book was about how unhappy the characters seemed for much of the time, and how surface happiness often masked some kind of inner turmoil. I'm sure this isn't what I was supposed to be left with, but there you go: lots of money or too little money, hectic social life or no social life, relationship or single life, unrealised ambition or unfulfilling present: it didn't seem to matter which stage we were at, there was always something gnawing away at our heroes, making sure that true happiness remained just out of reach. And maybe this is true to life; maybe we can't ever be 100% blissfully happy at any one time; there's always things going that worry us, things that could be better, and even if it were possible to attain a state of happy nirvana, wouldn't that just make us all too aware that we were at the top of the mountain, with only one way to go?

I actually find this thought that unobtainable (complete) happiness rather comforting, and it does take the pressure off somewhat. If it's never possible to be 100% happy, it should never be possible to be 100% sad: they're just opposite sides of the same coin, and there's no one without the other. No matter how rough things get, you can always grab hold of lots of happy thoughts, of things that are going well, just like golden tickets (I'm thinking more Crystal Dome than Wonka here). Each day should be a nice mix of sad and happy thoughts, of moments of elation and moments of despair (ok, maybe that's a bit strong for every day, but you get the idea). It's these extremes of emotion that remind us that we're human, that remind us that we're alive. No-one wants to hang around the person who's a perpetual misery, whose glass is always half-empty, but there's a reason why the word 'grinning' is often followed by the word 'idiot', and anyone who claims to be happy all the time maybe just hasn't got a particularly well developed sense of emotion.

So go forth, rejoice and be happy. Or sad. Just try and make sure they exist in approximately equal measure.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

In pursuit of happiness part 1

I'm currently experiencing the first few days of 'nothing' that comes with an 'all or nothing' job. The 'all' is term time, and the 'nothing' is the holidays. This is a job like no other; I reckon that I probably work the same number of hours per year as someone in a comparable Monday to Friday job, and I'm certainly not trying to suggest (as many teachers would) that I work any harder over the course of an average year. However, I cram my working year into about 35 weeks, as opposed to the 48 that is the norm. This isn't necessarily better or worse, it's just different. I have lots more days off, some that I cherish, others that bore me rigid. It's irritating that in order to attend a wedding on a saturday, I need someone to cover my lessons for me; when I go on holiday, it's always expensive flight time. On the flip side, I spent yesterday afternoon in Chelsea barracks, looking enviously at art that I'll never be able to afford and drinking free Ruinart champagne. My official next day of work is 1st September, so there are definitely perks too.

I'm always amazed at how many teachers spend term-time weeks wishing their life away, raising eyebrows in the common room towards the end of term as they wearily state 'just ten more days', as if the job they do is some kind of pergutaory before the joy of long holidays stretch out before you, brimming with exciting possibility. These are often the same people that when you speak with them at awkward staff drinks at the start of the next academic year (very probably the only time you'll talk that year) describe their summer activities as having been spent 'just pottering about'.

It's a difficult balance to strike. Most 'normal' people work very hard from Monday to Friday, and are delighted at the arrival of the weekend - Friday night drinks, saturday lie-in with Adam and Joe, sport in the afternoon, Ant or Dec in the evening. Sunday papers, late gastropub lunch with friends, sunday night work panic; it's got a nice sense of familiarity. This doesn't happen in my world. It's seven day a week boarding School life, then acres of holiday time. Monday is the same as Friday is the same as Sunday, in the holidays as well as at work. At work, my life is structured to the nth degree, and every minute tends to be planned out. The holidays hit, and my life-framework is pulled apart, and suddenly I have decisions to make. 'The Wright stuff' of Jeremy Kyle? It's not a life-or-death one, but the very fact that either have become possibilities makes it imperative to get out of the house as often as possible.

But how does one turn from a frankly boring one-conversationed teacher to exciting holiday-type fun-seeker? It soon becomes patently obvious that most people don't have the time for long lunches, and if they do, they have to go back to work at some point in the afternoon. Going on holiday is one thing, and being away from home (actually on holiday in the traditional sense) makes it easy to put work behind you. Reading is another pleasure that is curtailed for 35 weeks a year, and my rate of getting through books during term-time is embarrassingly low. I'm piling through 'One Day' at the moment, and that's the part 2 of the happiness theme. County cricket (one place where it's de rigeur to look like a lonely man) is another saviour of the summer.

One of the things that makes me feel that I'm in the right job is that I probably enjoy term-time as much as the holidays. If I were to live for the holidays, I'd consider that too much of my life (the work part) was being wished away. If I felt at a total loose end for 9 weeks every summer, that would be wholly depressing. Life's full of specks of happiness, and I probably get as many of them during work periods. The fun rarely lasts so long, and is far less hedonistic, but it's also the sneaky snatched nature of it that makes it such fun in the first place. Holiday fun can be far more more exuberant and showy, but when you've no contstraints of time or money, it's always going to feel a little more hollow. Score draw all round I say; after all, Gatsby never seemed all that pleased by the time his 'pulpless halves' went out on a Monday morning....

Monday, 20 June 2011

Whatever happened to...

...Steve. My colleague Steve. I only spent 2 years teaching with Steve in London, but the memory of him is so vivid it's almost as though someone has etched it onto the back of my eyeballs. In an era where it's virtually impossible to lose contact with anyone, I have managed to lose contact with Steve. It's been seven years, and most days I never think of him. One those rare occasions that he pops into my head, I can't help but smile, because he really was the most extraordinary fellow; Steve out-Spencered Frank Spencer, not just in general, but on an almost daily basis. He was remakably amusing, but one ever laughed with him. He had no idea quite how funny he was, which made him all the more funny. I'm certainly not sure that I can do him justice, but I hope if you can be bothered to read to the bottom, you'll wonder how I could ever have lost touch with such a comedy genius. He rarely failed to surprise, and during my dealings with Steve, we were treated to Steve in many guises:

Steve the awkward:

Never one to put people at their ease, the parents at the School where we taught were rather unnerved by him. We shared a Sixth Form set one year, and I can't say I was looking forward to performing a double act for the parents. Steve's opening gambit was to describe the two of us as 'bloody good teachers' to a pair of surprised Indian parents, who clearly felt that this was a parents evening, and not a second-and car dealership. This was nothing, because his next move (having noted their shock) was to reassure them that 'don't worry, we're not gay'. I'm not sure why he felt this was necessary, but the knowing smile he gave me afterwards as if to say 'that's how to do it' might have had them thinking that he was protesting a little too much. At the end of the evening, and very David Brent-esque, he got up and asked 'so where are we going now? The pub?'. My silence said it all, and we slunk off into the night, towards the same part of London, but very much in opposite directions.

Steve the navigator:

Steve decided that moving from his home in Cambridgeshire was not really necessary when he got the job in London. The communte by car was only 90 minutes. Sadly this was only the case if you left home at 5am and stayed in work until gone 8pm. Steve managed to spend 14 hours a day in the department, either in his classroom or our shared office. No-one was quite sure what he got up to during this time, though at one point he decided to bring his washing from home, in a desperate attempt to find something to do. There was a set of washing machines in the pokey staff accommodation on the other side of the School site, and Steve would wait until the end of the School day, get his washing done, and then lay his clothes out over the department radiators and furniture until they were dry on his return to School at 6.30am the next morning. For about six months our office looked like a Chinese laundry, and Steve clearly would have done this for longer, but for the fact that he decided to rent a place in London during the week...

Steve the social pariah:

Steve rented out a room in a flat in a gritty part of North London, and he clearly decided that this would solve his two problems: the three hour commute every day, and the lack of an exciting night life. Steve's landlady lived alone with the exception of her 14 year-old daughter. Within a week, the woman had added a padlock to her daughter's room. Steve was hardly a danger, but she clearly thought his manner was a trifle odd, and it was hard to argue with her. The incident with the back-door catflap can't have helped, when in true Benny Hill style, Steve was apparently fixing the screws on the catflap when the daughter opened the door from the other side quickly, knocking Steve over, who somehow ended up on the floor looking up between her legs. The mother was into the house a millisecond behind, and presumably demanded some explanation as to why he was looking 'up-skirt', with a screwdriver in his hand. These were just the sort of things that happened to Steve.

Steve the lover:

Ok, so the London flat wasn't going too well, but at least it gave him the opportunity to try out a bit of nightlife. Deciding that the best place for nightlife in London was St Albans, Steve headed out on the train, wearing a chunky jumper and stonewashed jeans. You can probably guess the rest. He claimed to have had some success with one member of a hen-party, though she was whisked away just at the wrong moment by her ladette chums. Steve's shouted question as they departed of 'does anyone know anywhere where I can get a good bop round here' must have fallen on deaf ears. I asked him if he'd then spent most of the night drinking in the corner. He answered: 'not in the corner, no...' before pausing, and continuing '...but I was pretty close to the corner'.

Steve the disabled:

Talking of deaf ears, Steve came into School one day with a new hearing aid. Nothing odd in this you might say, but he'd never had an old hearing aid. There was nothing wrong with his hearing. His dandruff was another thing, as we noted from his shoulders, and also from the pouf that was regularly left out to dry in the Chinese laundry of an office, but his hearing was fine. In the same way that some vain men wear clear glass spectacles to look intelligent, Steve seemed to be wearing a fake hearing aid to make him look....well, deaf? Did he read somewhere that women go for deaf men?

Steve the unlucky:

I guess that this one doesn't need too much justification, especially if you've read the above, but unfortunate things happened to him on a daily basis in a way that wouldn't happen to other people in a year. I remember arriving at work one morning about half past 7, to see Steve walking from the department back to his car, carrying a large bucket of hot soapy water. He had trodden in a dog turd upon leaving the house, hadn't noticed, and had spent the remainder of the 90 minute journey smearing dog poo all over his car carpets, accelerator and brake. Steve was unlucky to the last. I went for a job interview far over to the West of the country, and found myself in the same carriage as Steve, off to the same interview. 4 hours there. 4 hours back. I got the job, and when our then Head of department came in the next morning, he looked at the pair of us, and smirked '50% success rate then?'. Steve gave a good comeback, though all at his own expense: '33% actually. I didn't get the job the day before'. He then gave me a bottle of champagne.

Where is he now?

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

What's new?

This is a particularly irritating way to start a conversation; similar to saying 'how's tricks?'. No-one is quite sure how to respond to either of these, and I'm not even sure what the second one means, unless you're talking to an member of the magic circle, which seems unlikely.

The only acceptable answer to the question posed by this blog is: nothing. Nothing's new. We as a nation seem to have run out of ideas. Everything is a re-working of something else, and if it's not, it's simply a straight repeat. I do genuinely worry that in popular culture, we've run out of stuff. There is nothing new, and it's just something we're going to have to get used to.

TV is one of the worst culprits, with I heart 1975, the top 100 best family animated musicals ever, take me out (bawdy blind date), Have I got news for you, Have I got old news for you all spamming the airwaves with their unoriginal tune. TV is stuck in a mass of repeats and nostalgia, and when someone tries to be original (10 o'clock live) it's unbearably bad, pandering to a Guardian-obsessed sub-species of uber-cool City dwellers and students that don't really exist anywhere. Films at the cinema tend to be part of a 'franchise' , such as the Fast and the Furious, which I now believe has churned out 5 films (when did film sequences become 'franchises'? I'm pretty sure I never admitted to watching the later offerings from the Police Academy 'franchise'), or re-makes of successful films, such as the Italian Job. The hangover wasn't particularly original, but it was quite funny, which means the inevitable sequel (a la SATC) where the plot is indentical, just taking place in a different time zone.

Theatre, often a bastion of originality, is not immune. The Mousetrap inexplicably enters its sixth decade (surely even tourists are now bored?), the Rattigan revival continues to celebrate his centenary, and there's Jersey Boys and other assorted singalongs from the past to entertain the proles.

Music, surely? Well not really. The last really original thing I heard was The Streets in 2002, and Mike Skinner ended up sounding like the voice of the whinging chav generation. The last band I went to see was Suede, and they were going through their back catalogue of albums, one by one (again). They were great, as always, but these songs are nearly 20 years old. Manufactured pop is back in, just like the 1960s, and everyone who was anyone has reformed, from Pulp to Dollar, to feed the nation's bottomless appetite for nostalgia. The best music programme I saw recently was a retrospective of 1990s music on bbc4, and my twitter timeline almost exploded as other 30-somethings relived the days of Doc Marten boots and global hypercolour T-shirts. I listened to some Gil Scott Heron just after his death, and the commentator prounounced that his tunes were 'as relevant today as they were in 1971'. Maybe so, but that's because there's been nothing new in between. Fashion? Judging by the 70s revivial (and 80s revival) of recent years, I sense not, but at least no-one's going to force me to grow back my PJ and Duncan-style 90s curtains.

So what is genuinely new? The only thing I can come up with is reality TV, specifically to incorporate 'scripted reality'. Jersey shore, Geordie shore, Made in Chelsea. This is the present, and maybe the future.

So next time you're asked 'what's new?', assuming that you have irritating friends, you can tell them.

'Nothing's new; and so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back caeslessly into the past...'.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Cheltenham Average

I read an article by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian yesterday, entitled 'Chav: the vile word at the heart of fractured Britain'. Quite a dramatic title. The article received a huge amount of praise on twitter, presumably from middle-class Guardian readers who are far too right-on to use the word themselves, especially bearing in mind that its very use has led to Britain becoming 'fractured'; this can't be a good thing. I suspect that these folk subscribe to the Orwellian paradox in that they harbour a great respect for the working class, so long as they don't have to spend any time with them in day to day life. To quote 'Yes, Minister', they are similar to Radio 3: no-one actually listens, but it's vital to know that it's there.

As with so much that is trotted out by 'columnists', it's a complete non-story. Incidentally, the rise of columnists seems to have occurred simply because we're all so busy that we don't have time to read the news and formulate an opinion ourselves; it's far better not to have to read the news, but to have a columnist that we like and trust to do the reading for us, before wrapping it up in a mass of neat soundbites for us to quote and pass off as our own. It's a dangerous development, this translation of news by the chosen few, and the lapping up of 'opinion as fact' by a public whose mind is elsewhere; certainly far more dangerous than using the word 'chav' occasionally.

The problem with the word chav is two-fold. Firstly, it's a relatively new word, in that I don't believe that anyone was using it 15 years ago. As Toynbee points out, the words 'oik' and 'prole' have fallen into abeyance, and the word 'chav' is simply a reinvention of this term. The second is a question of definition. If you asked 100 people, family fortunes-style, to define the word 'chav', would you be confident that any two people would give the same answer? I'm pretty sure that the etymology of the word is not 'Cheltenham Average', as a former colleague of mine claimed, insisting that the girls at Cheltenham Ladies College had invented the term to describe the local females (he also insisted that the word was pronounced 'sharve', thus discrediting himelf further). Toynbee defines the word purely in class terms, in the same way that oik and prole were used in yesteryear; it is a word used by the prejudiced upper classes to describe those in the lower classes (at one point she even describes these lower classes as Wills and Harry's 'subjects'). She then goes on to define 'class' purely in terms of luck and money. In the age of social mobility and widening access for university entry, it's surprising that people like Toynbee seem desperate to keep the class divide intact. We all have to earn a living.

I'm pretty sure that most people don't see it this way. The word chav is synonymous with bad and antisocial behaviour, not with the working class. The word chav tends to be used to describe groups people playing ringtones loudly on the bus, or drinking and swearing on the tube, not groups of builders sat drinking tea on the site, or people chopping lettuce in McDonalds. The 'posh chavs' who colonise Polzeath each summer are hardly traditional working class, and yet the word neatly describes their behaviour, which fails to take the feeling of others into account.

Until one is satisfied with the definition of a word, there's very little point entering an argument on whether the use of the term has led to Britain becoming fractured. I can't imagine wanting to debate the atheist v agnostic viewpoint without being sure that the person with whom I was having the discussion was of the same mind as me regarding definitions.

I'm still left with a real 'so what?' feeling having re-read the article. By the luck and money argument, Wayne Rooney should be calling me a chav. He's got far more money than I have, and he's been far luckier than me, bearing in mind that his major talent is far more widely recognised than any of mine.

I was far more shocked and revolted by the article in the Guardian weekender magazine where the young children of the columnists were invited to take over their columns for the week. Cue much middle-class smug hilarity from the mini-Petrides and Hugheses. If there's anything likely to start a class war, that was it.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Convention vs Tradition

I'm all for tradition. I work in one of the most traditional establishments to be found anywhere in the world: the English Public School. There's a palpable sense of history about the place, the old classrooms and boarding houses hang heavy with the triumphs and tragedies of former pupils, and the Sunday chapel services give the impression that things have remained unchanged for centuries (especially some of the sermons). I've never really enjoyed 'church', but I do enjoy 'chapel'; it's a focal point of the week, a time for reflection, community and a chance to lash out 'I vow to thee': stirring stuff. Our country is rich in tradition of all kinds, and it's an awareness of that tradition that makes us who we are, that gives us an identity and something to cling to in changing times. Being British is tied in with a bit of jingoism, a little pomp and circumstance, a feeling of pride in one's country, heritage and history and this country would be a sadder place if we were to disown it completely. I realise that one can't live in the past, one cannot reject all the benefits that the modern age brings but we need to retain a balance between the trappings of the past and the excitement of the future.

I draw a clear line between 'tradition' and 'convention'. Tradition is something to inspire, but convention is often something that serves only to constrain.

I went to a meeting at School the other day that lasted only about 15 minutes; a quick catch-up in late morning. It was clearly felt that coffee was essential; clearly no-one could go 15 minutes without a caffeine pep. This was doubly bizarre as the only coffee on offer was instant, which gave about as much of a pep as a cup of tepid water, which was exactly what it tasted like. We spent most of the meeting arranging china cups on china saucers, serving coffees, discussing 'milk in first or second?' etc, and concentrated little on the actual focus of the conversation. Convention dictates that meetings have coffee served, or at least coffee breaks, but why? Was anyone likely to fall asleep in those 15 minutes without the hit from a nasty cup of Kenco? Why didn't anyone bring a couple of 2 litre bottles of coke, or some iced water, or a jug of Pimm's? Does coffee really make a meeting seem all the more serious, like we're about to pull an all-nighter? Maybe we could take it one step further, and main-line some Red Bull just to show how committed we are to staying awake and focussed? I quite fancied a can of Dr Pepper during that meeting, but I suspect it would have seemed as though I wasn't taking the conversation seriously enough. Nodding sagely over a china cup of hot liquid: serious Ben. Slurping a can of unidentifiable e-numbers: not serious enough Ben.

I can ratchet up this idea of 'contstraint by convention' by what happened that very evening after the coffee meeting debacle. We were hosting an important set of colleagues from other Schools, which required a business meeting before dinner in the evening. Wine was served at the business meeting, which of course made it feel much more grown-up than would have been the case otherwise. Everyone wore suits, and everyone's partners wore the equivalent. Every chap had side-parted hair (assuming hair was present) and everyone wore polished shoes. We moved into dinner, where we were served with more wine, before enjoying a pre-starter bread roll. We then had 3 courses (2 savoury) and finished with some cheese and port, before more coffee. I'm sure that this all sounds pretty standard, but why should it? Would someone unfamiliar with the convention of dinner parties find this more normal than the following:

We all enjoyed a business meeting wearing what we chose to. Some people wore very smart attire, and some people wore less smart attire. Some people showed a little more of a sense of style than others. We drank some water, which is always sensible at a meeting where people are going to be talking a lot. We then went into dinner, and were not served with a bread roll. (Who on earth eats a bread roll just before dinner any other time than in a restaurant? Is it really necessary to prepare yourself for 3 or 4 courses by getting a few carbs down before you start? It's almost like a training session: you're going to be doing some eating for the next 2 hours, so you'd better get some practice in first.). We then ate a meal involving a few components. It was of sufficient imagination that all of the tastebuds were satisfied; we didn't need to separate out the tastes into different courses. We didn't eat cheese, because it was late. We didn't have coffee, because it was late. We still drank plenty, because that loosens up the conversation.

Very little of what happened that night made any more sense than if you'd changed every part to the exact opposite. We do it that way because everyone does it that way.

Perhaps as ever I'm reading a little too much into this. Perhaps I should just go with it, bearing in mind that all of the above was generously put on for my benefit, and I really am very grateful. I do believe however that it's not good to pigeon-hole ourselves, to feel as though we are merely children of our times, and that if we were around in a different time or geographical location, we'd be acting in a completely different way and finding that totally normal too. Enough rambling, I'm off to enjoy my breakfast of patatas bravas and lucozade. Yum.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Element

I've just finished reading 'The Element' by Ken Robinson, in which he argues that a successful future (either individual or collective) is dependent on us finding our passion in life. I think that most people would argue that discovering one's passion, and subsequent immersion in said passion is a good thing, and that many people have yet to discover that which is their raison d'etre.

The book is tricky to pin down, however, and for the most part uses examples of famous and talented people that did not discover their passion until they left School, or (in the worst cases) were actively discouraged from following their chosen path by those who guided them through School. I'm always sceptical of anectodal highly-specific and personalised evidence used to lend weight to a theory, especially when no counter-argument is put forward.

Robinson's general point is that we should all be given ample opportunity to find one's own 'Element', and this is more likely to occur if we were to lose the hierarchy of subjects in Schools, and to place more emphasis on the Arts, and creativity in general. We also need to ensure a high quality of teachers (or mentors (I like this word)) in our Schools, to make it more likely that pupils will be inspired to find their 'Element'.

It's hard to argue against either of these points, and when he writes about the need to blur the boundaries between subject disciplines, he's particularly persuasive; I've always been passionate about cross-curricular teaching. I find his jokey style irritating, like the person at a party who's unable to enter any serious conversation in case people find him boring, and I find his analogy of the standardised 'fast-food' curriculum that we have now versus the 'michelin-starred' curriculum that we should embrace to be flawed, but it's well worth a read for anyone interested in the difference between Schooling and education. Just try not to cringe when he describes Paul McCartney as a rock God.

One thing it did do was make me think. I often feel that I'm far too flexible about education, and that my views on how it should be best achieved (at least at School) vary with the seasons. I think that this is actually no bad thing, given our inability to predict what will happen in even the near future. Things move at such a pace (technology, population expansion, global climate change) that it would be foolish to present an education model fit for even the next 5-10 years.

But here's some ideas:

1. Do away with the current system of Sixth Form examinations (A-levels etc). Universities set their own entrance exams, which ensure that the gap between School Sixth Form and university learning is bridged. This encourages liaison betweeen Schools and universities, and ensures that Schools look forward to higher education and the job market rather than backward to past papers.

2. Exams should be relevant to the subject(s) that the pupil wishes to study, but should be less about rote learnign of facts and more about complex problem solving within that subject. Trundling through mounds of past paper questions is not education; it's teaching people how to pass an exam.

3. Do away with 'subjects' at School, and instead teach 'classes', similar to the US college system. This encourages the pupils to think about education not as clasified and categorised into specific subject areas. How many times have I head pupils say 'but isn't that Physics?' when discussing the structure of the atom. Being educated isn't about learning what's on the syllabus for 3 subjects in the Sixth Form. I teach chemistry, but why shouldn't I teach classes about scientific literature, the history and philosophy of science?

4. Prioritise the education that occurs outside School. We focus so much on the education that our pupils get within the School's 4 walls, and ignore what happens outside. It's so easy to communicate with anyone at any time, and yet we don't make best use of this in an educational sense. Education means much more than taught classes, and people can become more educated every time they read a book, or a newspaper, or watch a film, or listen to music, or debate a political point. If the pupils are inspired in the classroom, they'll be adept at educating themselves outside the classroom.

There you go - heavy stuff for a Tuesday morning, or does that make me sound too much like Ken?

Monday, 18 April 2011

My compressed 30 day music challenge - the first ten days

Impatience is just one of my many faults, and when I was kindly sent the link to this month-long challenge, the first thing I did was look ahead to the questions that I wanted to think about and to write about. They say that good things come to those who wait, but I like to grab things I like the look of rather than wait for them to come to me. I know that if I have too long to look forward to something, I'm guaranteed not to enjoy it when it finally comes around due to the length of the build-up. This is also a great thing to blog about, because I don't really mind if no-one reads it; it's fun to do, and therefore has some value to me. I think that people's musical choices can say a lot about them (it can certainly tell you whether or not they actually like music) and because my tastes are fairly varied and I get bored easily, I'm always interested in what other people like and why they like it.

I've not spent 10 days on the list below, but I have spent a little time thinking about them, so here goes:

day 01 - your favorite song:

I'll take this to mean my favourite song of the moment, which is 'the age of the understatement' by The Last Shadow Puppets. That's Alex Turner (of Arctic Monkeys fame's) other band. I don't think I've ever listened to the lyrics in any detail, but I love the title of the song, its epic feel and the fact it sounds a little bit like Bowie. My favourite songs ever, and by this I mean the only ones that I'll never skip on the ipod are 'Sugar Kane' by Sonic Youth, 'Davyan Cowboy' by Boards of Canada and 'A Day in the Life' by The Beatles: I don't believe that there's any song that you can hear somthing different in every time that you listen to it, but these ones go as close as any. I remember listening to 'Smells like Teen Spirit' by Nirvana when I was 15 and feeling like this was the kind of music that I'd been waiting to listen to, but this sounds so pathetically teenage that I won't mention it.

day 02 - your least favorite song:

Toss-up here. My first 'least favourite' would be the 'comedy' song, like the ones done for comic relief (yes I know it's a good cause but they always make me cringe, when a band and some comics get together for something that isn't funny, but it isn't really music either). 'The Stonk' by Hale and Pace was probably the nadir. This tripe ties with pretty much anything done by Robbie Williams. This man makes music for people who don't really like music. It's not that it's awful to listen to (apart from his rapping) but that it's so anodyne, and so obviously designed simply to be 'un-hate-able'. For that very reason, I hate it, even more than the Stonk. I don't like Kings of Leon or The Killers either, but that's mostly down to the people who feel that this really really standard music is something that borders on genius.

day 03 - a song that makes you happy:

'Barbra Streisand' by Duck Sauce. It's simple, funny, upbeat and reminds me of happy times with Victoria. What's not to like? Can't imagine I'll be listening to it much in a few years time, but it'll always have happy memories.

day 04 - a song that makes you sad:

Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks. It reminds me of my parents, though it's worth pointing out that this is not enough of itself to make me feel sad. They lived in London in the late 1960s and early 1970s and it always makes me think of them as a young couple. I'm not sure why that's sad, but that's what nostalgia tends to do to me, even if it belongs to someone else.

day 05 - a song that reminds you of someone:

Most songs remind me of someone. Anything by Steve Brookstein reminds me of my brother, who decided that his album represented a sound purchase. 'Crazy' by Let Loose reminds me of him (we have a routine) as does 'Still Take You Home' by the Arctic Monkeys, which was the precursor for a very entertaining night out on the West Coast of Ireland. The 'King of Carrot Flowers' by Neutral Milk Hotel is my choice though, because it's one of my favourite songs of all time, and reminds me of my favourite person too.

day 06 - a song that reminds you of somewhere:

'Has it come to this' by The Streets. The beat reminds me of the rhythm of the tube, and the song reminds me of London, even if it's not quite the London I know. Mike Skinner's first album was truly original, and I like the fact that his music provides an ironic antidote to American rap. He speaks about greasy spoons, public transport and going to blockbuster, rather than guns, bling and hos.

day 07 - a song that reminds you of a certain event:

'Chasing Rainbows' by Shed 7. Euro '96 will forever be remembered as halcyon days. I spent much of my time in the garden in Durham watching the football and not worrying about my degree. I remember every day as being very sunny, and even remember England playing some good football at times. We seemed nailed on to win the tournament, but were then robbed by the Germans on penalties in the semi-final. It's far more English to laud the plucky losers than the eventual winners, so I think that it's fitting that it happened like it did. This song is from 1996, and sums up how I felt about England then, and still do.

day 08 - a song that you know all the words to:

'Gold' by Spandau Ballet. This used to be my karakoe song, until my brother informed me just how bad I was at doing it. It probably didn't help that we were in a dive bar in Texas at the time, and I thought it would be humorous to wear a short-sleeved checked shirt with top button done up and then give a load of hicks some real 80s new romantic stuff that they just knew they wanted to hear. I've since experimented with 'You Can Go Your Own Way', 'True' and 'The Reflex', all with limited success.

day 09 - a song that you can dance to:

I'd like to think that I can dance to any song, but even if that used to be true, it's certainly not now. My dancing is now confined to weddings, and though I maintain my strict rule never to dance on carpet, I'm sure I still look as much of a prick as the people I'm dancing with. For this reason, I suppose I should choose (ironically) 'U Can't Touch This' by M C Hammer, if only because I think my patented dance moves that come after 'yo ring the bell, school's back in' are very special. The fact that 'Out of Touch' by Uniting Nations would have come a close second proves that any credibility I may have built up through any of these answers has now disappeared entirely.

day 10 - a song that makes you fall asleep:

'The Shining' by Badly Drawn Boy. It's the first song from his album 'The Hour of Bewilderbeast', and when I was staying in Boston with my friend Ryan in 2003, I slept on his couch, and fell asleep each night listening to this song. It's a real slow-burner and the lazy 'cello at the start is such a lovely song for late at night.