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British values?

July 8, 2014 1 comment

I’m late to this particular party because I’ve been distracted by other commitments and events including a couple of deaths in my wider family. That’s to the good, though, because I’ve had some time to read, reflect and research.

What follows is a commentary on the idea of ‘British values’. It’s prompted by the ‘Trojan horse’ episode a couple of months ago, in which it was alleged that four schools in Birmingham (and ultimately 21 schools in total) that already had substantial proportions of Muslim students had been targeted by radical Muslims who were planning to gain majority representation on the schools’ boards of governors, and put pressure on the schools to adopt a range of Islamic values and practices.

A subsequent investigation concluded that the evidence for this allegation was fabricated; but also that there were other cases in which such plots had occurred. It also concluded that some schools had already and willingly gone down this route – to the point that some schools with a majority of Muslim students had expunged almost all traces of Christian influence; they were for example unable to provide teaching of religious education to Christian students.

All this led to a more widespread debate about ‘extremist’ influence in schools, the extent to which it’s appropriate for any school to be operated on the basis of religious rather than secular values, and other matters I don’t particularly want to comment on here.

However it also prompted the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and then the prime minister, David Cameron, to fulminate about the need to ensure that schools promote ‘British values’. Policy proposals followed quickly – there’s a story on the BBC website about this and one in The Guardian (19 June 2014) that will get you somewhat up to speed on these. I don’t particularly want to to comment on the policy issues either, but they do give me a point of departure for the post.

What exactly do we mean by ‘British values’? Because my instinct says that:

(1) like other terms such as ‘popular culture’, the idea of ‘British values’ only looks coherent from a distance. As soon as you start to investigate it close up, it’s suddenly a lot more messy.

(2) any ‘officially approved’ list of British values is going to be as complete and coherent as the idea of ‘officially approved’ art, or ‘officially approved’ pop songs. In other words the idea of a government telling us what British values are is inherently idiotic.

It’s a long discussion and, unusually for me, hits on quite a few political themes. So if you’re interested hit the ‘read more’ tag.

Read more…

Contains or may contain rant

June 12, 2014 Leave a comment

A few days ago I went to a local supermarket. One of the things I intended to buy was meat. Avoiding the freezer section (where many meats are clearly labelled as containing water, maize flour, maltodextrin and various other things) I went to the butcher’s counter, where meats that have been jointed in-store are packaged and displayed.

As you may have picked up from previous posts here, I have to be careful about my food shopping habits because I have a partner with multiple food allergies – gluten, dairy and eggs being the main ones.

So I picked up some pork. I always check the food labelling, even for products I’ve bought many times before, because manufacturers occasionally decide to change food ingredients or refresh their product line. Packaging flashes like ‘New and Improved!’ often mean something she’s been able to eat before needs to come off the shopping list because suddenly, there’s a source of gluten in the ‘improved’ product.

There was a new, though very small, label on the pork that said ‘Contains or may contain traces of allergens’. I checked all the meats on offer and they all had that same label.

OK. Which allergens?

I asked at the butcher’s counter. He couldn’t tell me. His supervisor couldn’t tell me, because apparently the meat arrives from a distribution centre without any specific markings as to whether it’s had any kind of preparation that would involve allergens. He called the area manager who didn’t have any information sources on which meats might contain which allergens. I haven’t bothered to phone the head office because I somehow doubt they’d have detailed tracking of all meats they buy in – or at least, not the level of tracking that would include this information.

The best explanation the butcher could give was that the labelling about allergens is a blanket policy, and the meat ‘probably’ doesn’t contain any allergens. I observed that if someone has a gluten allergy that causes a five-day bout of IBS, ‘probably’ doesn’t cover it. I didn’t mention that if someone has a peanut allergy, buying meat that ‘probably’ doesn’t contain peanuts means buying meat that ‘probably won’t result in anaphylactic shock or death’.

So it’s not good enough. And the labelling means I won’t be buying any meat from that supermarket any more.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, some alternative scenarios. You go to the supermarket to buy vegetables and every packet or display of vegetables is labelled ‘Contains or may contain meat products’ – or ‘Vegetables are treated with meat-derived sprays’. It wouldn’t just be vegetarians who avoid  those vegetables; members of several religions would be more than a little concerned. You go to the supermarket to buy… no, wait – anyone who has an allergy will know that huge numbers of products, from air fresheners to chocolate to ready meals to over-the-counter medications, often do contain one or more allergenic products (paracetamol, aspirin and so on are often sold in tablets formed using either lactose or gluten-based carriers). If you have an allergy, huge swathes of the supermarket will be off-limits and you do have to inspect all the labels carefully because the least likely things can contain substances you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

The numbers of people with food allergies is at an all-time high and is increasing. The need for accurate and detailed labelling is acute. I’d guess a lot of people who actually read food labels would have the same reaction as me – so this pork/beef/chicken may have allergens in it, but which ones? I’d guess that a proportion of the people in the supermarket who were involved in labelling, product sourcing and so on are themselves allergy sufferers. And yet they manage to produce a screwed-up labelling policy like this. I don’t get it – unless of course they don’t shop in their own supermarket.

We already use a local independent butcher for a good proportion of our meat. He buys form local farms, and often goes out to check on the animals he buys in when they’re still on the hoof. In future, I guess, he’s going to be the one we get all our meat from…

States of Independence

March 27, 2014 Leave a comment

This is a kind of a late review because the States of Independence event was a couple of weeks ago, on 15th March. It’s a free annual one-day book festival in Leicester that I went to for the first couple of years it ran, then missed it for a couple of years, and got back to it again this year.

First impressions: lots of stalls, and there are clearly still plenty of people out there wanting to be independent publishers. Some are producing full-sized paperback books, some are selling short collections of flash fiction and poems in a pamphlet-type format. But there are a lot of them.

Many are the same ones I remember from 3-4 years ago, though some have started to find different niches to fill. For example one  is now busy doing political nonfiction, looking at the background to recent scandals and documenting the extent to which the police and other security services have been involved in dubious practices. None of that’s particularly ‘news’ – a great deal of it has been admitted to and debated in parliament in the last year or two, and some of it has emerged in a ‘look, I told you so’ way when Cabinet papers were published in January having reached the end of their 30-year period of being kept secret (and essentially proved that the government of 1984 was in the business of provoking a miners’ strike in order to break the trades union movement, of which more below).

But there are plenty of other niches to fill and ‘tribes’ to satisfy. I’m really not sure how a market research company would classify all of them, but you could have a go at ’20-something students into horror fiction’, ‘people interested in poetry by local poets’, or ‘people from immigrant or minority communities who want to read stories based on their own cultural history, in English’.

I went to three seminars.

The first was on the 1984 miners’ strike, seen from 30 years on. This was interesting for a range of reasons. The wounds created at that time have still not healed, and because the police were in the front line in breaking the strike it’s pretty clear that there’s still a bitter aftertaste and a complete lack of trust in the police in many areas. There’s also a sense of outrage that some of the senior figures in the union ‘sold out’ and were, by their own later admission, giving information to the police Special Branch and MI5. Which also, incidentally, suggests that the remit of those agencies had a lot of grey areas that were rapidly redefined as areas where they should be quite active. That opens up a whole can of worms about the idea of the ‘police state’ and the way we should approach security issues in a democracy, but that’ll all have to wait for another blog. I will say, though, that I was active in police research in the 1980s and I can remember many very senior police officers in 1984-5 were extremely unhappy about the way they felt policing was being politicised. And what happened around that time, now we have some of the government papers published, does tend to reinforce the notion that if you’re feeling paranoid it’s because they’re coming to get you.

The pity of it all was that the basic problem the government faced was this: why have a coal industry in the UK if globalisation meant we could import coal more cheaply from China? How could coal produced at relatively high cost in the UK be run as a profitable industry? The government response was pretty brutal – close down the mines (and the hidden agenda was there too; smash the unions because they stand in the way of ‘progress’). And the union response was old-school and straight out of the 1800s. No one involved in any of this seemed to be prepared to talk sensibly about the wider context and find more constructive solutions.

The second seminar was about Indian writing today being published in English. From this I got some insights into the regionalism of Indian writers, since many are published in languages other than Hindi or Urdu; and the continuing influence of the caste system, with people often reading about the culture of their own caste. This segued for me into a bunch of issues about what the caste system really is and does, but if you need a quick rundown of this one starting point is Wikipedia. Plus it’s a little alarming (given how poorly my own horror collection sells) to hear about a country where an author is considered a failure if they haven’t sold at least 100,000 copies of their latest novel…

The third one I went to was about digital literature. I walked in late, at the point the speaker was (I think) quoting someone else. I caught the end of their sentence: ‘…if it doesn’t use random numbers it’s not literature’. That said, it was thought-provoking on areas such as ‘what counts as avant-garde?’, ‘to what extent can code be read as literature?’ and ‘are there parallels between the market for computer games and the market for fiction?’.

I won’t go into details. But if digital fiction or e-fiction interest you, a useful place to start is probably this collection at eliterature.org.

Overall, I had a good time. Once of the independent publishers is about to open its own bookshop (and also sells coffee); the masked booksellers were there and I bought stuff from them. The only thing that struck me as odd was that I didn’t see any of the people who are normally active on the local literary scene. Doesn’t mean there weren’t there, and while I went to three seminars there were another 20-odd running. Never mind, no doubt I’ll catch up with them another time.

It’s later than you think

January 4, 2014 1 comment

Oh right. So it’s been about 4 months since I was on this blog. Time goes quickly, huh? I’ve been busy instead doing the kind of writing that earns me an income. But I thought I’d just do a roundup of a few things that have been occupying my headspace recently.

Personal goals for 2014: be irascible and swear more. Why not? I’m old, or feel old anyway, and I don’t have the time to mess around.

At New Year I caught Jools Holland’s New Year TV thing and it wound up, as I think it usually does, with the Guy Lombardo song ‘It’s Later Than You Think’. If you want the full lyrics they’re on Metrolyrics.com, and the 2013 Jools performance is on Youtube (the elderly trombonist, incidentally, is Rico Rodriguez – one of the living legends of ska, if you don’t already know that. He’s a bit shaky on the performance but dammit, the guy deserves respect). The song’s a hurry-up call to do the things you want to do before you’re no longer in a state to do them. And for all I know it’s later than I think.

Apart from that, Christmas Eve was somewhat spoiled by this:

Poisoned meat

Poisoned meat

When I first saw it in our local woods, I wondered if it was the result of some occult rite. The woods local to me do have a few people from time to time who are prone to marking out pentagrams and such, and doing late-night ceremonies. On the other hand, as best I can gather from the cans they leave they’re mainly doing them while drunk on cheap lager and (probably) trying to emulate stuff they’re seen in horror films. They’re essentially harmless (because I, erm, know other people whose take on pagan beliefs is rather more effective).

When I got close, however, my dog wouldn’t touch the meat, which seemed to be ox or cow livers and hearts. Some other dog walkers came along and their dogs wouldn’t go near it either. Dogs have a sense of smell, you see, and they probably figured it smelled funny. Someone else who came along had a sniff and reckoned it smelled of arsenic. One of us who had a carrier bag gathered the stuff up and took it away to be disposed of. I keep a good lookout now in the woods for anything that looks like this, hidden under trees. We all have some suspicions about who might have done it, and also figure they’d thought no one would find or disturb the stuff over the Christmas period. But dogs need walking every day… And if they were after foxes, which have a sense of smell similar to dogs, they’d have been unsuccessful anyway. They’d probably have killed the local owls and some woodland birds, though. And, yes, poisoning wildlife is a serious offence in the UK. If you come across any suspected incident of an attempt to poison wildlife, Natural England has a dedicated helpline and and a Wildlife Incident Unit whose inspectors will investigate. To report the suspected poisoning of wildlife or pets call: FREEPHONE 0800 321 600. The RSPCA also has a useful website with contact details.

Oh, and dog walkers – you know the thing in murder mysteries about how dog walkers are often the people who find bodies and such? That’s because our dogs need to be walked and in a big chunk of countryside, dog walkers are the people who are out there from early morning to late evening. So the chances are, anything from dead bodies to poisoned meat or flytipping, it will be a dog walker who first finds it.

There are plenty of other things locally to get irascible about, and plenty in the national and international news that also make me want to puke, preferably over those responsible for various government stupidities. But there’s also this, which made me scratch my head. Under the headline ‘Destruction of ancient woodland “highly unlikely”‘ it turns out ancient woodlands probably won’t be destroyed by changes in planning and development laws. Or at least, lost trees could be replaced by planting more elsewhere in a process known as ‘biodiversity offsetting’. Don’t get me wrong – offsetting is a decent enough policy, but in relation to ancient woodland?

A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment is quoted as saying the idea of using offsetting to replace destroyed ancient woodland is ‘very hypothetical’. What does that mean, exactly? That ancient woodlands won’t be destroyed in the first place? Given local experience with the way developers seem to be able to get their way through threatening to bankrupt local councils due to the legal costs of fighting a planning appeal, I’d say ‘very hypothetical’ probably means no one is planning to build on ancient woodland for at least a couple of months.

And what part of ‘ancient’ woodland, and the biological significance of it, is not understood by government people who deal with offsetting policies? Using offsetting in this situation isn’t ‘very hypothetical’, it’s impossible.

I’ll find more to be irascible about shortly.

A sharp issue

September 18, 2013 Leave a comment

A couple of days ago I was out walking the dog. We were on a main road, heading towards the meadows where I usually let her off-lead to chase sticks. And we found a slightly hysterical woman with two small dogs and a toddler. The reason for her hysteria was that her toddler had just tried to pick something up off the ground, and then she’d seen what it was: someone’s shooting-up kit – a couple of used syringes, one with a needle that looked like the end of it had been seared with a cigarette lighter or something.

Yes, of course there are places where heroin users leave their old needles and such, but it doesn’t happen round here – or at least that’s the first one I’ve come across in a couple of years of living here. And the neon green of the plunger inside the syringe did make it the kind of thing a toddler could be attracted by.

Long story short: since I have a dog, I carry plastic bags with me. So I carefully picked up the kit without touching it, took it home and found a tin to put it in so I could safely carry it for disposal. But yesterday, disposal was surprisingly difficult. The local pharmacy said, disingeuously I thought, that they don’t have sharps disposal. I can’t imagine why any pharmacy shouldn’t have sharps disposal since they issue and accept needles for people who have a range of medical conditions. My doctor’s surgery did take it, but only after I explained the whole situation to them and they finally accepted that removing a used needle from a public place where a toddler had been at imminent risk and other people and dogs could hurt themselves on it wasn’t an unreasonable thing to do.

Then I asked what I should have done. Their reply was that I should phone the local council street cleaning department, identify the location to them and they’d send  out someone with a sharps box and armoured gloves. But it might take a day or two. My thought was that in that time, either someone else (or a dog) could injure themselves on it, or it could just get kicked around by careless passers-by and be lost.

It wasn’t so long ago that advice on finding used needles was to do pretty much what I did; pick it up safely and dispose of it at any pharmacy, surgery, or any other place that had a sharps disposal facility. True, I initially picked it up and carried it in a plastic bag – in an ideal world I would have had something more secure, like a plastic or metal container, though it was in one of those within a couple of hundred metres.

I’ve just checked online and the current official advice is, actually, what the surgery said: not touch it and inform the local council’s street cleaning or waste management team.  I can see the logic of this in terms of health and safety for the person finding the needle; and I guess any council that says ‘Just pick it up safely’ could open themselves up to legal action. But this seems to be a situation where doing the ‘right’ thing also seems to create risk for other people in the meantime. It seems to be a small example of the way everyone is increasingly treated as incautious infants rather than responsible adults who can recognise and deal adequately with risks at their own discretion.

Faith in human nature?

September 7, 2013 2 comments

We recently bought a new campervan – well, not exactly new, it’s almost 20 years old.  So we decided to sell our old one, which is smaller and now 10 years old.

This has resulted in a string of people turning up to look at it.

This has become rather tedious, because according to the visitors it has severe rust (yes, it has some but it’s cosmetic). It also has severely corroded brakes, a master brake valve that’s leaking (the ‘evidence’ is there’s some oldish insulation on it), a broken suspension, illegal tyres (they’ve all been replaced recently), and numerous other major faults including the plastic end caps on the side body trim – which cost about 70p or $1 each – being  too old. Oh, and someone told us in all seriousness that the wheels are ‘too round’.

About two-thirds of the people who’ve turned up only want to use it to do ‘fishing trips’. What they want to use it for doesn’t really matter to us; and it doesn’t explain why when a pair of them turn up they discuss how much profit they can make when they resell it. Nor does it jive well with them having trade plates in the back of their car, which are only used by motor traders.

Some have tried to bargain on the basis that it will cost them money to take it to a garage to get X, Y and Z fixed. But then they let slip that actually they are mechanics.

Several have claimed to only be passing through, and live 50 or more miles away. They make a one-time offer based on the fact they won’t be passing by our door again. So why are they driving a company van that usually has a local business name and phone number on it?

One went as far as claiming the inside of the van was damp and would take major repair. He ‘proved’ this by bringing a ‘damp meter’ out of his car and showing us the needle flicking into the red when he touched probes to some interior metalwork. It spoiled the illusion that the gauge on the meter went to 12 volts – in other words it was just an electrical multimeter that demonstrates metal can conduct electricity, and he wouldn’t take his hand off the front of the meter to show it to us.

So my conclusion is there are a lot of people out there prepared to lie and some who will play tricks to try to get things cheap. Which is not, I suppose, a very earth-shattering insight. I’m not any more cynical now than I was before (I always was cynical) but the experience of having to deal with this stuff on a daily basis for the last couple of weeks has proven just a little wearing. I’m just glad I don’t buy and sell old vehicles for a living, and I don’t have to get used to it as a long-term issue. Even though we still need to sell the van.

Planning, chaos and creativity

August 13, 2013 1 comment

I’ve had a number of conversations recently that have revolved around the following kind of scenario and problem.

You’re a writer – or musician, or artist, or any other sort of creative person. You do your thing and you want to make money from it. Ideally, quite a lot of money. But you don’t have a clue how you’re going to achieve it. How do you get people to take notice? How do you get people to buy what you’re selling?

Well, don’t ask me – I’m hardly a model of commercial success. But here are some random thoughts.

When you first look at your situation, what probably strikes you is that it’s chaotic. I don’t have a formal definition of chaos to offer, beyond the usual one of events appearing so unpredictable as to appear random with no obvious structure or organising principle. The second thing that probably strikes you is that to get from where you are to where you want to be, there are few obvious ways forward – and they’re all impossible and blocked. Whatever you do is likely to have unknown, but probably minimal, effects. It’s difficult to read the situation in any constructive way that gives you a sensible plan.

It’s likely you’ll feel the normal advice you’ll get about how to get people to pay attention and part with money – marketing, SEO, social media – just doesn’t stack up. You haven’t got the kind of money, time or expertise that sort of marketing requires. You haven’t got the ‘social mass’ of a million Facebook friends (or even a dozen followers on Twitter) to get more people to gravitate towards you. And you don’t believe the promises of people who say they can get you high up in Google rankings, either.

[There is, incidentally, a whole literature on marketing with social media. One thing that stands out for me are is that much of it is about creating effects at the margins, so it's only useful to large companies - a 5% increase in clickthroughs on web advertising is worth something if you have a zillion ads being viewed a day, but not if you're looking for people to click a link from a blog that gets three viewers a day. And anyway, the major social networks are mostly rejigging their search algorithms to favour their big business advertisers.]

What’s next? Well, society isn’t ‘chaotic’ in any formal sense of the term. But functionally it is, from your point of view. In terms of cause and effect, you don’t even know if you have any levers available to pull or buttons to push, let alone what effects they could create. And you don’t know how the world is going to look in a week’s time, let alone a year’s time.

Business planning often revolves around identifying a goal, scanning the environment to assess your strengths and weakness, and for opportunities and threats. Then you identify ‘unknowns’ and seek to find out more about them, so you can set up contingency plans and mitigation plans.

But often this process falls at the first hurdle, because you can’t positively identify how or when something you think of as a strength might become a weakness, or vice versa; you may not be able to determine whether something is an opportunity or a threat (or both), and you can be pretty sure that whatever contingency plans you have, the contingency that actually arises will be one that won’t be covered.

For example, how many businesses have planned for the impact of contact with an alien species? And yet if you look at the World Economic Forum 2013 report on global risks, which summarises the views of over 1,000 risk analysis experts, it identifies several ‘X factors’ – important risks with unknown consequences. They include runaway climate change, significant cognitive enhancement, rogue deployment of geoengineering, the costs of living longer and the discovery of alien life forms. None of these things can be ‘risk managed’ or mitigated by any organisation operating alone, and I wonder how many religious leaders have seriously considered what their stance would be on first contact with an alien race, and how they would advise their followers and how their followers would react – and what the global consequences of the religious issues alone would be.

Under these circumstances, how is it possible to make chaos work for you? The short answer is that you can’t, in any direct way. But you can learn how to enjoy the ride.

[There's more after the break - just hit the button below]

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