Friday, October 30, 2009


A calendar depicting pastoral scenes of Alpine life published to promote the beauties of Switzerland is causing a furore. Upright Swiss citizens have objected to the image conveyed by this typical mountain scene - a charming shepherdess with goats, dressed in suspenders (the shepherdess, not the goats - now that is a thought). You can understand why. The woman is German!


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lard for brains

I now have to admit that obesity does have an adverse effect on my blood pressure. This is nothing to do with my waistline, rather it is the result of reading articles like this by India Knight - a journalist with form.

All the tired old arguments are there, including this spectacular mixture of Madeleine Bunting style emoting with gratuitous abuse.
...overeating isn’t simply a question of being so greedy that you’re compelled to stuff your face all day. It’s to do with emotional states, unhappiness, anxiety and thinking about food as a friend and comforter rather than merely as useful fuel. So I can see, perhaps better than people who’ve only ever been thin, that this issue is about more than just incontinent lard-bucketry (although there’s that, too).
Then we have to endure usual guff about the cost of obesity to the NHS and, rather than face the fact that the greatest avoidable cause of poor health is poverty and thereby argue that it is necessary to end it, it is safer for a well-heeled columnist with a diet book to sell (please don't buy it) to attack fat people for their sins and moan about paying tax to pick up the burden of our gluttony. Oddly, the same sentiment isn't applied to booze.

Yet that was not what really got to me. Instead it was this breathtaking assertion that left me spitting feathers.
Abusing people is wrong, whether they are gay, straight, black, white, young, old or fat. But there’s only one group in that list that can physically do anything about the way they are. If they don’t feel like it, that’s fine — but enough of the whingeing. You gets your trolley and you makes your choice and then, because you’re a grown-up, you live with the consequences.
In other words, just like the women who asked for it because of the way they dress, abuse, prejudice and discrimination against us fatties is perfectly acceptable because it is really all our fault. What did you expect you slothful glutton? Mend your ways if you want to avoid the righteous wrath of the slim.

Anti-fat prejudice is not the worst thing in the world, but school bullies can still make fat kids' lives a misery, teachers and employers can fail to see your qualities and label you, body image can erode self confidence and it would be great not seeing a headline like this in the popular press. It is still the permissible prejudice of our times, increasingly remote from serious studies of physiology and epidemiology, locked into mediaeval concepts of sin and punishment and revelling in the joys of self-righteousness. And it is seriously bad for my health!

Thanks Will - I think

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Objet d'art

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

John Keats

It's amazing what you find when you move. This stunning object, beautifully crafted out of plastic with my name misspelt by the engraver on the small metal plaque, was awarded for the great achievement of running the line in the Central Manchester Sunday Football League Cup Final in season 1977/1978. It was presented by a very bored looking Mike Doyle.

The trophy has been languishing for many years in a dusty box in the attic. How could I have lived without it?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Six out of ten

I have just spotted that I am listed here. I may not be a barrel of laughs but I do get 'the "blog most likely to feature random John Cage performances" award'.

Who am I to disappoint my fans?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Managing the mail

One of my more frequent big speeches is about the dire quality of some management and its remoteness from, and ignorance of, the real work that we all have to do. This has been reinforced by a doctrine of managerialism that has de-democratised work, thereby empowering (and enriching) managers and elevating the curious notion that generic management skills are more important than any expertise in the industry or service to be managed. It would seem that appointing the chief executive of the Football Association to run the British postal service was an example of just such folly. I am not surprised that there is now a major industrial dispute and I know where my sympathies lie.

Then I get a short email from Will ordering me to read this from the London Review of Books. It is brilliant. You should all read it too. Here is the voice of reality, a picture of the world that ordinary workers inhabit, it is about day-to-day life experience, something that mangers can seldom even imagine. Though the article highlights something else as well - not ignorance but mendacity.
According to Royal Mail figures published in May, mail volume declined by 5.5 per cent over the preceding 12 months, and is predicted to fall by a further 10 per cent this year ‘due to the recession and the continuing growth of electronic communications such as email’. Every postman knows these figures are false. If the figures are down, how come I can’t get my round done in under four hours any more? How come I can work up to five hours at a stretch without time for a sit-down or a tea break? How come my knees nearly give way with the weight I have to carry? How come something snapped in my back as I was climbing out of the shower, so that I fell to the floor and had to take a week off work?
He provides a simple answer:
Mail is delivered to the offices in grey boxes. These are a standard size, big enough to carry a few hundred letters. The mail is sorted from these boxes, put into pigeon-holes representing the separate walks, and from there carried over to the frames. This is what is called ‘internal sorting’ and it is the job of the full-timers, who come into work early to do it. In the past, the volume of mail was estimated by weighing the boxes. These days it is done by averages. There is an estimate for the number of letters that each box contains, decided on by national agreement between the management and the union. That number is 208. This is how the volume of mail passing through each office is worked out: 208 letters per box times the number of boxes. However, within the last year Royal Mail has arbitrarily, and without consultation, reduced the estimate for the number of letters in each box. It was 208: now they say it is 150. This arbitrary reduction more than accounts for the 10 per cent reduction that the Royal Mail claims is happening nationwide.

Doubting the accuracy of these numbers, the union ordered a random manual count to be undertaken over a two-week period in a number of offices across the region. Our office was one of them. On average, those boxes which the Royal Mail claims contain only 150 letters, actually carry 267 items of mail. This, then, explains how the Royal Mail can say that the figures are down, although every postman knows that volume is up. The figures are down all right, but only because they have been manipulated.

Who can honestly say that they have never experienced lousy decisions justified by dodgy data? And this can easily be made to happen if the real knowledge of the people who actually do the job, and who are often closer to the customer, is discounted, dismissed and labelled with words such as 'dinosaur' and 'luddite' or with derogatory clichés such as, 'people just don't like change'.

I once worked for a very good manager (there really are some you know). Whenever anything had gone wrong he had a simple maxim; "don't worry, I have friends in low places". It would soon be fixed. He worked on the basis of respect for those who did the job and saw his role as co-ordination not command. It is very simple. Most of the people who work on the front line are not obstacles, they are experts. Their knowledge is far more valuable than the snake oil of management theory. The denigration of the workforce and the elevation of the great talents who brought us the credit crunch into superheroes is one of the more unlikely episodes in a class war, one being waged, increasingly successfully, against workers, rather than by them.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bad language

According to Peter Mandelson students are now "consumers of the higher education experience".

I despair.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hate crimes

News from London:
Overweight people in London have launched a campaign to make the capital more fat-friendly.
It comes after one woman was beaten up on a train for being fat.
Now read some of the comments ranging from the abusive, "Why don't fat people simply stop stuffing their pie-holes?"; the unthinking, "I wish the obese would accept that they have a problem and start doing something about it"; to the oh so caring and understanding liberals, who call for "compassion" (I think they're the worst).

It's a classic moral panic. As people become sensitised to the definition of fat people as a 'problem', then us fatties become the target of abuse, resentment, pseudo-psychological diagnoses, ludicrous newspaper columns and, worst of all, condescension.

I am a person of the rotund persuasion. It isn't a problem. People come in various shapes and sizes and it has been the same throughout history. We are different, all of us. We can be healthy, sickly, active, lazy; fat or thin, tall or short, dark or fair. And one day we will all die. It is life, simply that.

Now the attitudes of the playground bully are infecting the panic-struck media and reaching politicians in search of a cause. Let us be. Anti-fat sentiment is pretty trivial. It is a far cry from the murderous brutality of racism, there is no Action T4 seeking out the obese, these permissible prejudices are normally just an irritation and inconvenience. But this rare act of public violence, highlights the damage that can be done when we lose a sense of proportion and relapse from reality into panic. And the result elsewhere is many more victims, treated far worse than us plumps.

Hat tip Kev

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Common practice

The only other Nobel award to garner any kind of attention after Obama's Peace Prize was the shared prize in economics to Elinor Ostrom. What got the media excited was the fact that she was the first woman to win a Nobel prize in economics, rather than the work that was being rewarded. I was amused to hear her respond to a bizarre and faintly patronising interviewer on BBC Radio 4 with a polite, steely charm.

Her work is an answer to the conclusions drawn by Garrett Hardin in his influential 1968 article The Tragedy of the Commons (reproduced in pdf form here) that,
...the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.
Instead, Ostrom found that the very rational self interest that Hardin felt would lead to the ecological devastation of common property could, and did, result in communal and collective self-regulation and ecological conservation.

Her work is an interesting critique of a spectrum of thought from the Right Libertarian's advocacy of enclosed private property organised through market exchanges to the statist advocacy of wholly collective ownership. Instead, it is perfectly possible, under certain conditions and in conjunction with other models, for ecologically sustainable production to be maintained through communally owned common property.

There are many reasons why I find this attractive, but one is the relationship it has to my own field of adult education. The history of adult education is a fascinating one, it has always been a social movement and a cause, rather than merely a service. It's origins lie in radical movements, working class self-help, Victorian philanthropy and idealists in the universities. Government funding enabled it to grow and flourish in the post-war period. And then it became an expendable luxury. Funding was withdrawn and what remained was directed towards employment skills. The provision that generations had build up was lost. And so, once again, it is reinventing itself through self-organisation and collective action. What this has meant is the loss of a comprehensive and easily accessible system, the gain is in ownership and control. And, perhaps, permanence, as adult education becomes the common property of those who use it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

From Hull to Manchester

I'm here. When I started unpacking I found that I had a football programme from the 1970's autographed by Jimmy Hill. Well I never.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nearly there

My move from Hull finally takes place on Wednesday. I hate moving. I hoard. I have lived in the same house for more than thirteen years. I haven't thrown anything away for most of that time. I have now; mountains and mountains of stuff. When it is all over I will feel like this.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Banning pleasure

There was a really nice piece on Comment is Free (I don't type that often) about adult education by Sue Blackmore. Her attempt to do a sculpture evening course foundered on the funding regime that required accreditation with a formal syllabus expressed in learning outcomes. Hers is a classic restatement of what many of us have argued, that learning for the sake of it is both fun and useful. She concluded,
The best kind of learning is learning for its own sake – for the intrinsic reward of studying or learning a new skill. And that's all we oldies wanted to do – enjoy learning sculpture for a few weeks.
I like her sentiments, though regular readers of this blog might be surprised by the fact that I don't fully agree with her argument. There is no better or worse kind of learning. People can have mixed motives, instrumental and liberal, and either of them are fine. It depends what the student wants.

The first thing that struck me about her experience is that she was unlucky, her tutor was young. Us old lags know how to work the system to make the course fit the needs of the student, rather than the other way round. However, the mere fact that we need to do so, demonstrates that there is clearly something wrong with what is on offer.

Blackmore picks out a couple of things that irritated her. The first is the use of a syllabus with learning outcomes. Actually, it is important to have a syllabus, it shows that the tutor has thought about what is intended to be taught and has structured it well. A good scheme allows for flexibility and negotiation, the problem is if a syllabus is over-prescriptive. On the other hand, I have always been ambiguous about learning outcomes. In one sense they are positive in that they focus on what the student actually does, not just on what is taught. However, they can also be mechanistic, restrictive, and sometimes stupid and banal. It does depend how they are written. What I do know is that they can form the basis of endless and tedious debates about minutiae when you are trying to get your bloody courses approved. Written well and generically, they can be OK, but they provide ample opportunity for misuse.

The second thing she highlighted is the requirement of accreditation for funding. On this she misses the real issue. I have no problem with accreditation. A non-accredited course would have suited her, but not someone who wished to use their learning in another setting. She wanted to do some sculpture, someone else might have wanted to get into art college. An accredited class could easily allow both. However, this is the big problem. If doing the assessment for the accreditation is mandatory rather than voluntary, if the funding is dependent on the student completing the assessed work, then you start to exclude those who simply want to study for fun. And that process of driving out the non-vocational learner is a by-product of the instrumental neuroses of a government obsessed by dubious notions of the linkages between education and economics.

If a course is non-accredited it excludes people who need and want a qualification, if assessment is compulsory then it excludes those who want to study for the intrinsic pleasure of learning. The conclusion is obvious. The person who best knows what they want from a course is the student. Let them choose rather than force them down a path they do not want to go down and you will have a healthy, mixed group of people who are both having fun and studying seriously. And you know what, they both gain.

Tipping the topper to Will

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Hard times

Sometimes it is the way articles are juxtaposed that brings home the injustices of this world. Yesterday, there was this - Emin threatens to quit Britain over tax - another piece of celebrity whining. There you are, famous, successful and wildly rich and what do you do? Count your blessings? Be thankful that you live in a country that gave you the opportunity? No. You moan, grumble, wallow in self pity and feel hard done to.
"This Labour government has had no understanding for the arts," she told the Sunday Times. "At least in France their politicians have always understood the importance of culture and they have traditionally helped out artists with subsidy and some tax advantages."
Bloody hell, she is hardly starving in a garret is she? A few million tucked away and she wants a subsidy and a tax break?

There has been loads of comment on her in the press, little of it sympathetic to her plight, and I wouldn't have posted on the article if this piece had not been sitting next to it.
Benefit support for asylum seekers is to be cut from tomorrow to £5 a day – just over half of what the government says a person needs to live on, according to refugee welfare agencies.

The change means the weekly rate for a single asylum seeker over 25 who is destitute and asks for support will be reduced from £42.16 to £35.13 a week.
Do I need to say more?

Sunday, October 04, 2009

A champion day

The Indian summer gave way to an Autumn chill, but it was one of the nicest days out in the Rugby League calendar, what is now called the Co-operative Championship Finals Day, the grand finals for the lower leagues. Three matches for the price of one is a good deal, though beyond the interest or attention span of many fans who just come to see their own club and use the other games to get pissed. Despite the vast amount of drink, it is an amiable, celebratory event and this time they produced dramatic games.

The crowd was up this year, but it wasn't the sell-out event that it was when promotion to Super League was on offer for the winners of the Championship. Mind you, though I still don't like it, there might be something to be said for a lack of automatic promotion this time round. The final between Halifax and Barrow was a compelling, close match. It marked the revival of two grand old clubs. Barrow's victory was impressive, coming the season after they were promoted from league one, and the club are ambitious. Are they ready for Super League though? I have my doubts, not that unreadiness deterred the RFL giving Celtic Crusaders a place last season.

My highlights of the day were: observing the vast capacity for alcohol of the average Halifax fan; seeing two victorious Bramley players, still in their kit, standing outside the stadium entrance having a fag after their victory as smoking is banned inside; and, finally, the barnstorming late try by the magnificently named Oldham forward, Wayne Kerr (what were his parents thinking?).

Friday, October 02, 2009

Sunny days

This seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do to The Sun.

The Labour Party has come over all peevish because Rupert Murdoch's tabloid has decided it isn't going to support Labour any more.

Perhaps a better question to ask is why an ideologically committed right-wing newspaper that worshipped Margaret Thatcher, and which comes from the same stable that gave Fox News to the USA, should find it so comfortable to support the Labour Party in the first place? Shouldn't Labour people should be more troubled by the Sun's backing than its opposition?

Meanwhile, Tories gather round the piano:

Thursday, October 01, 2009


I was expecting to be sad, I wasn't expecting to be so distressed. Retiring from Hull was always going to be difficult, it was such a big part of my life. I would never have looked for a deal at my age without the changes that are affecting adult education everywhere. And I have to admit that I wept, not just for me or because I was leaving my friends, but for that marvellous, life-enhancing, vitally necessary and shamefully betrayed world of adult education.

Its time will come again and even now it is resurrecting itself through all sorts of self-help and voluntary groups. Something so integral to being human, a human need as well as a human right, will always be a cause to be fought for, politically by egalitarians and radicals, and in ordinary ways by people who simply see it as something that they enjoy and that, in its own way, brings a form of liberation.

I will be grieving for some time, though today I started a new part-time job, ironically in a building that used to be an adult education college, which was also where I started my teaching career some twenty-seven years ago. Full circle.