Wednesday 29 February 2012

Hypocrisy on health care

How sodding typical of the sinister pomposity of late capitalism that the solution given for the undeniable problems of our beseiged health service is that staff need to be more caring. I predict the introduction of some sort of 'charter', NVQs in compassion and recruitment procedures to test 'emotional intelligence. I have already heard on the radio this morning that customer care lessons are to be taken from John Lewis...and Starbucks.

For five months of last year I watched with anger, frustration and heart-break, my mum die in an acute dementia ward.

The agony of a condition that robs the patient of dignity and of self was compounded at times by what seemed to me like a lack of compassion or respect, and even neglect. But I was also overwhelmed by the kindness and patience of many of the people working in the hospital.

In fact those qualities seemed to be most evident in some of most 'menial' support staff - auxilaries, porters, cleaners etc. The further up the chain of command the more likely it seemed to be that you would find - not  exactly callousness - but a brusqueness and general lack of warmth.

And that's a clue to what should be bleeding obvious. Doctors and nurses were universally stressed and hemmed in by procedures, policies and bureaucracy. And most of all there were never enough of them to take the precious few minutes that constitute 'kindness'.

They don't need charters and courses on caring - they need to know that they have the support and respect of the people who run the health service - and the best way of demonstrating this would be by massively increasing and improving the resources they work with. Not being treated like a failing business to be asset-stripped and flogged off to the highest bidder.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Workfare sham kicking off

Workfare looks like it's blowing up in Tory faces. 

I've just watched last night's  Newsnight footage. 

In some ways it's a return to the good old 1980's: We've got a Tory arguing the 'commonsense morality' that people shouldn't expect something for nothing. So stacking the shelves in a Tesco distribution centre is the modern version of turning the crank in a Victorian workhouse. Pointless but instilling a work ethic in the otherwise undeserving poor. Countered by a socialist - mistakenly identified as a member of the SWP (why is it they always seem to get the attention of media luvvies?) - arguing that it's all about profit from unpaid labour.

But there's also a thoroughly modern angle too: A nice middle class lad from the Labour Party with a laptop babbling about young people and social media. And best of all a morally bankrupt reptile from brand consultancy Wolff Olins not concerned at all about the morality or politics about young people having to work for benefits - but whether it's good PR for big business to be seen to support the scheme.

Meanwhile in the real world I am just back from leafleting on the issue outside  the local McDonald's - and judging from the response of people who aren't members of Trotskyist organisations, New Labour cyber-activists or brand consultants - it looks like interesting times ahead.

Friday 24 February 2012

What's in a title ?

Something on the BBC breakfast this morning about the use of Miss / Mrs /Ms. 

It comes in the wake of the campaign in France to replace ‘Mademoiselle’ with a universal ‘Madam’ for all women. Given that ‘Mademoiselle’ translates as ‘little lady’ you can see that you don’t have to be a Feminist to find the title pretty patronising.

And having been filling in more than my share of application forms over the past few moths I have been struck at how odd this obsession with ‘titles’ is. It’s the first question on most forms – yet it’s something that in the normal circumstances no sane person gives much thought to.

Like many things that are dismissed as mere ‘political correctness’, there are actually solid historical grounds for deeming them reactionary and out of place. 

As far as women are concerned the Miss/Mrs/Ms thing is quite straightforward. For centuries to be taken seriously as independent peorson a woman needed a badge of  a man’s endorsement. There were wealthy and influential merchant women even in the Middle Ages – but invariably they were widows. In a later age there was the category of ‘honorary Mrs’ for independent women.  Landladies, housekeepers and cooks were powerful players in the domestic-service hierarchy  - the fictional ‘Mrs Bridges’ of Upstairs Downstairs or ‘Mrs Hudson’ of Sherlock Holmes were not actually married, but required the gravitas bestowed by the title. And in a bizarre twist on the same rationale, lecherous toffs from Charles II to Edward VII would only take married mistresses – even to the extent of finding husbands for the objects of their desire.

When it comes to men, assuming you are not a Duke or Earl, then social implications of titles is a bit more nuanced. In some circles the use of ‘Mr’ is still reserved as a means by which a gentleman can patronize members of the working and. lower-middle class. ‘Mr’ is a tag attached to ‘tradesman’ – a gentleman will refer to his own social equals by a first name, or if he is particularly old-school, by his surname.  In the army it is institutionalised so that the use of ‘Mr’ is reserved for a particular category of senior NCOs’ – a group very much of officers BUT not gentlemen. And if that all seems like archaic pedantry – in the modern world of business the use of first names is just about universal – except as  a subtle way of patronising  builders and other workmen.

So here’s a radical thought – why don’t we just do away with titles altogether? They just perpetuate inequality and provide a crutch for the seriously insecure.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Where's the Humanity(ies) ?

A few weeks ago I was delighted to hear that I'd got a place in September to go back to university for teacher training and do a PGCE. And I still am. Although I will be ducking and diving until then, it has given some sort of shape back to me life. However I also was half way through an application for the other sort of teacher training - the learn whilst you earn 'teaching apprenticeship' - the GTP scheme. I'd done what I thought was the hardest part and found a school who would take me on - but I heard yesterday from the university who accredits the scheme that they had been told they would receive no funding this year for Humanities GTPs.

I'm not really in a position to compare the differences in the quality of training between the two schemes. But I do know the financial difference - about £40k. In inner London, that's a salary of £18k for the GTP versus a debt of about the same amount for the PGCE. Fortunately I have redundancy, savings and an understanding family so it won't deter me. But for many 'mature' students the GTP is the only route they can consider.

But setting aside my own money  problems - why the blanket refusal to fund Humanities ?

Supply and demand in the teaching labour market is the easy answer - but in reality there are bigger political issues relating to the curriculum. And the consensus that school should be some sort of pre-training for work shapes this. 

So we are fed  for example a mantra that ICT in schools is an essential part of the country's economic revival. We witness classes full of a generation who have evolved an intuitive grasp of ICT in every aspect of their lives, taught  by older people who struggle with their mobile phones. And they learn on equipment that is more antiquated than anything they will encounter at home or at work. I suspect that for these kids having a distinct subject called ICT makes about as much sense as having a subject called 'eating breathing and sleeping'.

Or there is the dazzling variety of vocational options in supposedly work-orientated subjects. I'm on home ground with these having worked with Modern Apprenticeships for several years: Sadly for the kids who are directed towards them I have to say that they are generally worthless in relation to the practical world of work. Forget graphic arts, media and D&T - the only subject that seemed to have any correlation to trainees' ability in my old world of print and design was good old-fashioned Art.

I know everybody lobbies for their own pet subject - but I can't believe that it is an accident that it is the supposedly 'liberal' arts - the Humanities -  that are getting squeezed out of the curriculum. History more than any other subject encourages you to try to understand the world around you and question what you see. It is consequently the most overtly political of school subjects which is why the Daily Mail et al are so obsessed with the History curriculum as a benchmark of government thinking. 

The UK is the only country where History is not compulsory until school leaving age. And I don't think that it is stretching the point too far to see some correlation between this and our position near the bottom of just about every other index of educational standards. Or the low level of political engagement.

Saturday 18 February 2012

All the world loves a toff ?

It's a depressing phenomenon that recession seems to go hand in hand with an upsurge of deference. When times are tough maybe it's just easier to look upwards that around you.

This weekend we have the return of the BBC's antidote to ITV's toff-fest Downton Abbey - the revived version of Upstairs Downstairs. The BBC push it even further - their toffs don't just swan about in their big house whilst the rest of the country are up to their necks in shit in the trenches  - theirs' actually flirt with the Mosley and the BUF. But it's OK 'cos you can tell by their fresh complexions, defined cheekbones and vaguely vacant pain-ed expressions that they are just so much more sensitive than the likes of us.

I even see today that there's a new story about Lord Lucan re-surfacing. If ever there was an utterly  pointless and odious toff it was 'Lucky' Lucan - a playboy gambler who did a bunk after killing one of the servants. And had the distinction of coming from a long line of similarly dim-witted morally bankrupt absentee landlords in Ireland - the most famous of which has the dubious distinction of having presided over the charge of The Light Brigade.

What's the fascination ?

Thursday 16 February 2012

A disappearing name

Being on the cusp of a new life I now find myself having to answer the question - what did you do used to do ? The poncey answer would be 'media-production' - but nobody knows what it means - and it throws up altogether the wrong image of Hoxton-ite wankers. I also have a sense of wanting to capture some industry trivia before it rapidly slips into obsolete obscurity.

I'm inclined to just say that I worked in printing - but just as it did back when I actually was in the industry, that often provokes requests to knock out people's wedding invitations and parish newsletters on the cheap. And I was never that kind of printer.

In fact we would never have used the word printer to describe ourselves. We were 'litho planner/platemakers'. The planning bit has nothing to do with making strategic decisions about the future but comes from the type of printing plate used - which  was flat or planographic.  (A litho plate is flat because lithography relies on the mutual repellence of grease and water to keep the ink where it is meant to be and away from where it isn’t and not a raised or engraved image as in Letterpress or Gravure). If that's confusing - in the 'states the same trade was known as 'film-stripping', which conjures up quite a different image again.

The job of a planner was to get all the elements that make up a piece of print – the photographic images, the illustrations, the text onto a set of four printing plates – one for each  ‘process ‘ colour. And that’s all we did.  We didn’t set type - that was the job of the typesetter. We didn’t lay out the page - that was the job of the paste-up artist. We didn’t proof the page - that was the job of the proofer. And we certainly didn’t print it.  Printers were a different species altogether. If they were feeling particularly precious about it, some of the older guys would refer to themselves as ‘lithographic artists’ or ‘photolithographers’ - but never printers.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Racism. And class-hatred.

Here we go again: I had to do a dangerous double take whilst riding on my bike when I first saw this poster for the latest Channel 4 series 'inside' the Traveller community - and its even most offensive companion featuring a couple of scantily clad young Traveller women.

I cannot think of any other ethnic group that the media would dare portray in this way. 

Maybe in multi-cultural PC Britain, the closed world of Traveller communities is the only minority left that can be safely sneered at and scape-goated with impunity.

I'd be the first to admit that I know bugger-all about Traveller communities - but I do know snobbery and racism when I see it.

One curious thing  though -  the supposed characteristics of Traveller culture that are pilloried and ridiculed in this program are a sort of caricature of the much broader white working class 'chav' stereotype: More money than taste. Violent. Uneducated. Vulgar. Orange... You get the picture. 

Here's a thought - maybe the media-middle class know they couldn't get away with such a vicious  portrayal of the working class as a whole - so they displace their snobbery on to a smaller group who it's safe to isolate.  Either way it's ugly and leaves a bad taste.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Dickens hype

I have a philistine confession to make - I just don't get all the fuss around the Dickens bi-centenary. I have never 'got' Dickens. Sorry. I have tried to  force myself to read a few of his novels because I thought it was a necessary  part of being 'well read'.

I find his style ridiculously verbose - never using one word when twenty five would do; his plot lines ridiculous and convoluted; and as for his characters - they seem to be just a parade of caricatures and stereotypes. But fair enough - that's just my personal taste. I struggle with many of the nineteenth century literary giants. Perhaps it's a reaction to be force fed Thomas Hardy at school A level.

But that's fine; Dickens had an undeniably huge impact although I suspect that rather more people have his fat volumes on their bookshelves, or enjoy the lavish TV serialisations on a Sunday evening, than ever actually read them. Still, on the basis of his undeniably enduring influence, I'll grit my teeth and suffer the excessive fuss this year over his bi-centenary.

But I am forced to spit the dummy when he his held up as some sort of champion of the working class. He may write about the poor with some detail because he knew at times real poverty himself but he does so in a way that sentimentalises 'misfortune' and above all extols the values of self help and respectability. In other words his views are typically those of the Victorian do-gooding middle classes - possibly  well intentioned but judgemental and patronising of their inferiors.

And when the royal family queue up to eulogise him - as they did yesterday - you can be pretty sure that Dickens doesn't belong in the radical pantheon.If you want a slice of social history of the same period with a genuinely  radical edge -  have a look at Zola's Germinal instead.

Friday 3 February 2012

Goodbye to all that.

Today I am celebrating the anniversary of Gutenburg and the print revolution over at 'On This Deity'.

It's quite a personal piece as it coincides with me finding out this week that I will be starting teacher training - and a whole new life - in September. And leaving the world of printing behind me.

I have been in 'the print' for about twenty five years. Although I followed my dad, and come to that my grandfather too, into the trade, it was not an obvious career choice at the time for a graduate. But I was seduced by the romance and history of printing; a proud and quirky closed world of chapels, banging-out - and journeymen. And the Gutenberg anniversary is an appropriate time to step back and reflect on just what an incredibly important part of western civilisation - and its radical opposition - printing has been for six hundred years.

But Murdoch, technology, corporate avarice  and off-shoring slowly eroded all that romance. And at the same time imperceptibly I slid up the greasy pole into a job far removed from the one I signed up for. To the point that when it all went tits up last Autumn and I was laid off - I felt a sense of liberation.

I'm actually pleased that I am now spending my last few weeks in the print in a small trade house - surrounded by the smell of ink and the sound of endless banter. It's an epitaph for a love affair that is over.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Worse than bankers ?

For many years plying my 'honest' trade in the print I thought that I had left my university years a thousand years behind me. Recently, as I have tried to change directions I have had to dig out qualification certificates - even some old essays -  and memories of it have come beck to haunt me. Then this morning thanks to the power of Facebook I saw this message: "Any management consultant alumni out there, please, who could offer some advice to a current student  who is applying for jobs at the moment? Please email XXXX XXX, Deputy Development Director" 

I was tempted to respond.To paraphrase the words of the great late Bill Hick directed at the next circle of corporate hell - marketing: "Kill yourself. Seriously you think I am joking. Kill yourself now. You are Satan's spawn"

Of all the disgusting spectacles that late capitalism throws out there can surely be none worse than that of a pimply pampered young grad eager to advise businesses how to 'downsize and synergize cost efficiencies'.

The equally late and equally great Douglas Adams postulated a future where the useless people - including management consultants - but also estate agents, personnel execs and telephone sanitizers -  were jettisoned from the planet to build a new world on a far away galactic colony. Maybe that's a more humane solution.