Monday, August 31, 2009

A Smyrna Air

If she loves me and it is a dream
May I never waken from it.
In the sweetness of the dawn,
I pray, let my soul fly from me.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Reality and unreality

I hate reality TV. It isn't real and is often a vehicle for narcissism or exploitation. What I really dislike though is my vulnerability to being hooked by its voyeuristic addictiveness. So I avoid it normally, but not last night. I watched Benefit Busters, a series on the work of a private training agency. I watched because I thought it would make me angry, something I enjoy in a perverse sort of way, and because it was set in Hull. Hull is an easy pick as it hits so many indicators of deprivation and annoyingly that is all the media ever seem to portray, despite it being a good city and a great place to live.

The programme was a form of poverty tourism of course, though the portrayal of claimants was not unsympathetic. Overall, a couple of things struck me. The first was the utter servility that was required of the unemployed as supplicants for work or benefits, a graphic display of their powerlessness. The second was the corrosive effects of the much vaunted 'flexible workforce', or casualised agency working, all that was available given the recession.

There was one outstanding moment when a young woman described her lack of luck in life and said she wished she had been to university. There it was again, the aspiration that lurks unmet in so many corners of Britain. This is what lifelong learning is for, this is one of the many things adult education should be doing and I have no doubt that universities should be a big part of it, they should be at the heart of their communities.

So what is happening? Funding is in short supply and lifelong learning is contracting. In the meantime fat contracts are being thrown at private training providers, to do what? Well, as I watched the cynical (intelligent, realistic, if ultimately self-destructive) being labelled as 'unmotivated', I thought that the classic comedy, The League of Gentlemen, was pretty close to being reality TV itself.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Paying for part-time

Thanks to Roger, in comments on the post below, for bringing this Policy Exchange report on the funding of part-time learning to my attention. I especially appreciated his caveat, "I normally wouldn't touch anything from David Cameron's allegedly favourite think tank with a very long barge pole".

There is actually a lot of sense in the paper and it graphically demonstrates the utter illogicality of the lower level of support for part-time students, especially as part-time study is often more effective at hitting many of the government's key objectives.

There was one thing that I thought was off beam though when they wrote,
The boom in student applications has been driven in part by major growth in interest from older students, many of whom may have preferred to study part-time alongside a job if only there was proper help available from the Government.
Actually, anecdotal evidence seems suggest that the reason for the growth in applications from mature students is not that they can't get the support to study whilst working but that they have lost their job due to the recession. For some this is a great opportunity to do something different. If work has given you up, then you don't have to take the risk of giving work up to follow your dreams. That is what happened to me. Made redundant in the recession of 1977, I got into university in 1978 thinking that after three years there would be plenty of jobs again. Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979. Ah.

Probably the most eye-catching bit for me was the light the report threw on policy making. It is critical of the new University Challenge initiative and recommends diverting funding from it to support part-time learning. (They would call it University Challenge wouldn't they? Mind you, inevitably, the report is called Educating Rita?)
Sources close to the Government say that University Challenge was a back-of-an-envelope strategy, patched together as a sign that the Government cared about regeneration following the collapse of the much-vaunted super casinos scheme in early 2008. Big universities are often the largest or second largest employer in a city, and thus provide a considerable boost in terms of jobs, revenue, skills and aspirations. If you ignore the fact that a university cannot really be developed for £5 million or £10 million, investing in new higher education institutions seemed an obvious political answer.
Yikes. So learning is an emergency replacement for gambling? And a poorly thought out one at that.

One of the most ghastly clichés that New Labour has been prone to trotting out is the need for "joined up thinking". If you want to see an example of the opposite, something incoherent, contradictory and disjointed, look at Lifelong Learning policy and, whatever the result of the forthcoming general election, I have little hope of anything better for poor old battered and marginalised adult education.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Equality matters

The line being rolled out at the start of the recession was that this time it was different. The middle classes were the ones being hit. It was the South not the North that was suffering. Now the truth is becoming apparent.

Youth unemployment is rocketing in the UK and this excellent post from Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammed about the situation in the United States makes it absolutely clear that recession exacerbates social divisions. It is the weak that suffer most, even to the extent of losing some of the fragile individual gains of the past. And in the USA the big division is race.
Left out of the ensuing tangle of commentary on race and class has been the increasing impoverishment—or, we should say, re-impoverishment--of African Americans as a group.
She continues
For African Americans – and to a large extent, Latinos – the recession is over. It occurred between 2000 and 2007, as black employment decreased by 2.4 percent and incomes declined by 2.9 percent. During the seven-year long black recession, one third of black children lived in poverty and black unemployment—even among college graduates-- consistently ran at about twice the level of white unemployment. That was the black recession. What’s happening now is a depression.
This is another reminder of how the smug complacency of the boom years not only ignored the instability of the financial instruments on which it rested, but also neglected to address the continuing corrosive effect of economic and social inequality and the impoverishment of those at the bottom, even in times of plenty.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Thought for the day

But the experience of this age has proven that metaphysical quantities do not exist apart from materials, and hence humanity can not be made equal by declarations on paper. Unless the material conditions for equality exist, it is worse than mockery to pronounce men equal.
Voltarine de Cleyre (1866-1912)

In Defense of Emma Goldman

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Eat, drink and be merry

Parents should not put ham or salami in their children's packed lunches because processed meat increases the risk of developing cancer, experts in the disease are warning ...

"It makes sense for children to adopt a healthy adult eating pattern from the age of five. WCRF advises it is best to avoid it [processed meat] as well as many of the habits we develop as children last into adulthood."
Eating disorder charities are reporting a rise in the number of people suffering from a serious psychological condition characterised by an obsession with healthy eating ... orthorexia nervosa

The obsession about which foods are "good" and which are "bad" means orthorexics can end up malnourished. Their dietary restrictions commonly cause sufferers to feel proud of their "virtuous" behaviour even if it means that eating becomes so stressful their personal relationships can come under pressure and they become socially isolated.
From the UN World Food Programme
1.02 billion people do not have enough to eat - more than the populations of USA, Canada and the European Union ... 25,000 people (adults and children) die every day from hunger and related causes ...
And we worry about a bit of salami.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Telling lies

Whilst I was off-line reading my day old copy of the Guardian, the dishonest and blatant lies being told about the NHS by the American right in an attempt to derail Obama's health reforms, produced a combination of outrage and a sense of 'what on earth are they going on about?'. Of course, this farrago of nonsense would not have been complete without the ubiquitous and illiterate use of the adjective 'Orwellian' to attack the plans, when Orwell himself both supported the Labour government and its introduction of universal state health care.

So will they win? Is health care dead? That depends on political will. Some encouragement for Obama comes from Joe Bageant's entertaining and bitterly angry book about redneck society, Deer Hunting with Jesus. Bageant writes about working class life in Winchester, Virginia, a home town he left physically and intellectually. It is a flawed account but doesn't fall into the apologist trap of saying that there might be a rational basis for prejudice. Instead he argues that there is a huge, systemic failure of education that, conveniently for the powerful, weds the working class to doctrines that are tailor made for its vicious exploitation. But even inside the Rapture-ready, Bible-bashing, Republican-voting heartlands, people can spot their real interests.

Bageant interviews Dottie, 59 years old, 300 lbs, started work at 13, married at 15 and now incapable of working, but can still belt out Patsy Kline covers in clubs and bars. He writes,
Although it might seem that my people use the voting booth as an instrument of self-flagellation, the truth is that Dottie would vote for any candidate - black, white, crippled, blind or crazy - who she thought would actually help her. I know because I have asked her if she would vote for a candidate who wanted a national health care program. "Vote for him? I'd go down on him!" Voter approval does not get much stronger than that.
The support is there if Obama has the courage to face down the corporate terrorists and the media poison merchants with their British collaborators. His actions could define his presidency. Though if he wins, I suggest that he gives Dottie a miss.

Restored communications

Contrary to rumours, I have not been set alight, the computer crash took on epic proportions, everything has had to be reinstalled and all files and software have been lost on this machine. And the damn scam of not providing an operating system disc with a Windows computer - unless you buy it separately of course - held things up. It is an old computer though and is about to join me in being pensioned off.

Now it is functioning again and posting will resume, just before I head back to England at the end of the week. In the meantime, I have been having fun discovering the remains of a long dead rat, destroying a wasps' nest, getting rid of cockroaches and other simple country pleasures. I have also been reading good books, eating gorgeous food and, sorry UK readers, basking in beautiful weather. The days have been hot and the nights cool enough to require a jumper as you sit out under a canopy of stars, sipping wine and watching the neighbours' cat climb up the vine and fall off onto the sunshade. Bucolic bliss.

Thursday, August 06, 2009


There will be a hiatus in posting, the Greek computer has died. Repairs may or may not be affected soon. I will have to have a real holiday.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Free Maziar Bahari

My nephew has emailed me about his friend and colleague Maziar Bahari, the Canadian/Iranian journalist and film maker. He is one of around 100 people on trial in Tehran for organising or participating in the demonstrations following the presidential elections. Details can be found here and the online petition is here.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Dancin' in the street

The village doesn't have a plateia so when a summer musical event happens, the band have to set up on the jetty, flanked by a couple of tavernas on one side and an ouzeri on the other. They face the road, which is still open for cars and for people walking up and down, whilst on the other side there are a few rows of chairs for the audience. The village is packed and the atmosphere is noisy, chaotic and fun.

Last night the band played for nearly five hours non-stop until late. The star turn was the skinny pappous, dancing with an Andy Capp style flat cap and a fag hanging out of his mouth.

This rough video gives a feel of the night.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Ageing gracelessly

Norm thinks that "Retirement ought to be a choice rather than an obligation". OK, I will go with that, with the key word being "choice", especially seeing it is something that I have just chosen, from the age of 57, trading income for time. However, he then links to this article (by an economist to an investment bank) to argue that there is an economic case for being allowed to work on past retirement age.

Read carefully and I think that you will see that the subtext is not that you may be allowed to retire when you want, but that you will not be allowed to retire until much later. It's, 'back to work you idle septuagenarians, there are chimneys to be swept and it is your fault for not having enough children to send up them when you still could'. And these words chilled me.
The challenge is to think holistically about how we can raise the participation rate and productivity of people at work in general, and of women and persons aged over 55 in particular.
Just as I throw off the managerial chains and cry, 'free at last', I glimpse a malign argument that would draft me into the front line of garden tool sales at B&Q. It goes like this. People are living longer, the birthrate has fallen, pensions are becoming unaffordable (other than for failed investment bankers who need to be paid a fortune not to run banks), and people will have to accept that they will have to work a lot longer (especially those damn Europeans with their 'sclerotic' social model).

There are two false arguments lurking here. The first is that longevity is a problem rather than a huge triumph. Low life expectancy is the sign of political and economic catastrophe. A long life is the result of prosperity, so if we are more prosperous why can't we afford to offer a comfortable retirement? Why can people only live off present work rather than the results of their past labours?

Secondly, there is the idea that the only economically productive activity is paid employment. Just look at what people do in retirement (if they have the income). They participate, local government would fall apart without the retired, they join clubs and societies, run small businesses, write books, take part time jobs, do voluntary work here and overseas, make things, mend things, plant gardens and allotments, attend (and teach) adult education classes, whilst some even blog. Many wonder how they ever found the time to fit employment in. They are consumers and producers, not some horrible, wrinkly parasites.

However, that is not the fate of all. I am one of the lucky ones. For some, working beyond retirement age is not a matter of lifestyle choice, a desire to continue with a job they enjoy or a way to stave off boredom, it is a bitter necessity because they are poor. It is enforced and exploitative. Their retirement means that trips to the library are simply way of keeping warm rather than of fulfilling dreams. Life in a damp home, unable to pay the bills, and in increasingly poor health is the fate of millions.

What we are really talking about is the language of political priorities, not economic necessity, and of how we distribute wealth. It is back to that word 'choice' again. Do we choose to fund pensions, devote a larger proportion of national wealth to sustain older people in retirement, to maintain company pension schemes? Or do we bow to the gods of lower taxes and higher profits? The advocates of longer working lives are not posing this as a benefit for people who wish to continue working, but as an alternative to redistributive and egalitarian pensions policies.

The dream of technology and growing prosperity was that it would liberate (yes, liberate) us from employment and open up leisure time for creative work, lifelong learning and simple pleasures. Where has that vision gone? Isn't it time we should rethink working life as a whole. How about sabbaticals and paid educational leave? After all, sometimes retirement is wasted on the old. Instead we are fed apocalyptic gloom about a world populated by useless wrinklies, generating "financial stress for individuals and the state, rising pensioner poverty, social dislocations and the possibility of intergenerational conflict".

Rather than a lifetime locked into servile and alienated employment with little dream of freedom beyond, can't we just enjoy ourselves instead? That is the choice I would make.