Anything I could say is said much better here. Thanks, Jack!
Having recently given theatre critic and broadcaster Libby Purves the push, The Times has now done likewise to the distinguished children’s book critic Amanda Craig. Does it matter? Well, enough for the Society of Authors to write a letter of protest and for over 114 well-known writers, including Philip Pullman and Frank Cottrell Bryce, to add their voices to the campaign.
But they’re writers, aren’t they? You would expect them to look after one of their own. What about ordinary people? As one such person, I’d like to speak up and say I think it matters a lot, and I think that over the last 12 years of work as librarian of a primary school, I’ve earned the right to have a view on the subject.
The school where I work is nice, middle class and generally privileged. Nevertheless, many parents and even some teachers feel they haven’t really got the time to encourage children to read as widely as they would like. The days of browsing public libraries as I did as a child in the 1960s, picking up half-a-dozen books a week, are becoming a thing of the past. Partly that is due to library cuts, and also because parents find it difficult to make time for such unpressured Saturday morning activities. In these days of wraparound childcare, that’s unlikely to change any time soon.
There are, of course, an awful lot of children’s books getting published. Are they any good? Some of them are brilliant. But authors are at the mercy of publishers, who are, in turn, at the mercy of the market. Branding has always been a force in children’s fiction (look at those interminable Blyton series) but never more so than now. These days, syndicates of talented writers find themselves subsumed into the identity of a Daisy Meadows or an Adam Blade (Beast Quest), churning out formulaic fiction with a gender bias that would have horrified progressive parents in my childhood. A child can read a Rainbow Magic book every week for two years and never venture onto anything new. For slightly older kids, in this web-driven age where concentration spans last seconds, the next step is likely to be something dominated by cartoons and five wacky fonts on each page.
That’s not necessarily bad. I happen to think Diary of a Wimpy Kid is pretty good, and Cressida Cowell’s wonderful How to Train Your Dragon series takes the formula to inspired heights of boy-friendly lunacy. But anything that becomes a formula is in danger of discouraging experimentation, and the only way most kids are going to get the chance to do that is through a library. Even reasonably well-off parents are understandably reluctant to spend £5.99 three times a week on books their kids will either race through in one night or discard completely.
And that is why we need knowledgable, experienced reviewers like Amanda Craig. Yes, there’s the Internet, and literary festivals. But it’s not cheap taking your kids to a literary event, even if you manage to resist their pleas to buy the books. Unbiased literary criticism is vanishing from the general press, in favour of lack of innovation in a market-driven culture. Only a few weeks ago, in a wonderful speech, Neil Gaiman was pleading more eloquently than I ever could for children’s fiction to be taken seriously as an absolutely vital part of an innovative and imaginative culture. The sacking of Amanda Craig is another nail in the coffin of such hopes.
- A champion of kids’ books (standard.co.uk)
Recently, I’ve begun to read about the 1930s, a period that never particularly interested me before. That “low, dishonest decade” has disturbing parallels with our own troubled times. A decadent, glamourised upper class, increasingly out of touch with ordinary people living insecure lives in inadequate accommodation and desperate poverty. The grim fallout from a financial crash. An upper class showing enthusiasm for jumping on the bandwagon of right-wing racism and anti-Semitism. Most of all, the ghastly feeling that we are hurtling towards some sort of crisis, Armageddon looming as we dance and party with increasing frenzy.
Are these chilling parallels the product of my own fevered imagination? Or are the times we are living in particularly ominous? I notice that social campaigners are being added regularly to my Twitter feeds, and I spend time reading and thinking about what they have to say. Yesterday I added my name to a petition expressing my disgust and abhorrence of the Bedroom Tax, presently being debated in Parliament. I don’t claim any moral high ground for this particular little act of protest. It was easy enough to do. It’s one very small step along the road to activism, marginally better than hurling abuse at the telly or retweeting the protests of others. Meanwhile, each day that passes brings something to the surface that challenges my comfortable existence.
Last week, for example, it was the sight of a forty-something man, clean and well-presented (though admittedly with a half-empty bottle in his pocket), literally banging his head on a wall and sobbing, “Please help me, they’ve taken everything away!” in the middle of a Manchester shopping street ten minutes from my home. A young mum, to her credit, had stopped and attempted without success to call the police. Nobody else had stopped. Unable to think of what else to do, I hurried round the corner to the Parish Office of the nearest church, where I used to worship for many years. I had a naive hope that someone, preferably ordained, would drop everything to play Good Samaritan. Isn’t that what Christians do? But no such person was around, and to their credit they were able to give my the right number to summon help. One can’t help wondering why it isn’t more widely publicised, but considering that we have a Government that regularly keeps victims of crime and people ringing up for advice on what to do after someone dies holding on and paying premium call rate for the privilege, perhaps it’s only to be expected.
When I returned, a police van had shown up and the distressed man was being dealt with. I was free to go. But the thought lingered – what had driven him to such public anguish and lack of dignity? Had he had his benefits removed for some trivial reason? Had his kids been taken into care? Was he mentally ill and desperate for help that would only be forthcoming if he collapsed or tried to murder a member of the public? All are frighteningly likely in the current climate of savage, vindictive attacks on people in need.
And so it goes on – an anecdote here, an incident there, and each one pushes at the boundary of what you, who consider yourself to be a decent, moral and reasonable citizen, find acceptable. You catch a train to Birmingham New Street station, and find that its redevelopment is so completely slanted towards the neighbouring shopping centre that it’s easier to find John Lewis than to find the platform to catch a train. Your local CoOp supermarket has a refurb, and fills with pretty little Waitrose-y islands selling olives and fancy cheeses; a market research person approaches you to ask your views and seems quite surprised when as an un-marginalized middle-class shopper who presumably quite likes her olives, you point out that it’s impossible to get a wheelchair, or even a double buggy, through the store now. Your daughter catches glandular fever and has to interrupt her university studies, and the financial fallout is terrifying – you can afford it, but you can’t help wondering what would happen to her if you couldn’t. You hear of three-bedroomed housing association homes in Liverpool facing demolition because of the Bedoom Tax, and similar three-bedroomed homes in London boroughs fetching £750,000.
Each time you think, “That’s not on. I really don’t like the thought of living in a country like that any more.” Everyone seems to be making the right noises – protesting because poppies aren’t being worn enough, or allegedly racist remarks are made, or Hallowe’en costumes mock the mentally ill. All quite legitimate concerns, of course, and apologies follow protests. Rightly so, yet the nagging thought remains – is it possible that by shining the spotlight on such infringements of good citizenship, our lords and masters are diverting our attention from worse abuses elsewhere?
You follow a few links and find yourself reading about the rise of National Socialism. It sends a shiver of recognition down your spine. How did decent German people reach the point where something like Kristallnacht, let alone the Final Solution, seemed okay? Wasn’t there ever a moment when enough people said, “That’s not on, etc” to change the course of history?
In 1981, an American journalist of German/Jewish descent interviewed ten law-abiding, respectable German citizens, asking them precisely these questions, and published their responses in a book called, “They Thought They Were Free.” Here’s one of them:
“You will understand me when I say that my Middle High German was my life. It was all I cared about. I was a scholar, a specialist. Then, suddenly, I was plunged into all the new activity, as the universe was drawn into the new situation; meetings, conferences, interviews, ceremonies, and, above all, papers to be filled out, reports, bibliographies, lists, questionnaires. And on top of that were the demands in the community, the things in which one had to, was “expected to” participate that had not been there or had not been important before. It was all rigmarole, of course, but it consumed all one’s energies, coming on top of the work one really wanted to do. You can see how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things. One had no time.”
In these days of endless form-filling in educational professions, and the proliferation of initiatives and campaigns, how very familiar these words from a quiet German academic sound. But it gets worse. One is reminded of the fable of the boiling frog by this testimony from another interviewee:
“You see,” my colleague went on, “one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don’t want to “go out of your way to make trouble.” Why not? – Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty. Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows.”
In uncertain times, even decent people want a quiet life, and from there it is a short step to craving the security of authoritarian government. Fascism frees us from thinking by telling us who to hate, and blaming the misfortunes of others on their own moral weaknesses. And we are all so uncertain. There are no safe jobs any more. The NHS is apparently collapsing and each week brings fresh horror stories about the abuse of frail people at the hands of market forces. If we have little children, we panic about the lack of primary school places. If we have older ones, we wonder if they’ll ever be able to live in their own home or start a family without working two jobs to pay for childcare. If we are 50 or over, we wonder what on earth will happen as we age. And everybody shudders at the thought of fuel bills. How we long for leaders who will answer all those troubling questions, and make us feel good about our own industry by comparing us favourably to the indigent disabled, the benefit scroungers, the health tourists and the illegal immigrants.
Surely, though, some basic standard of disinterested compassion remains? Not enough to make us a pushover, of course. We know all the tricks, have heard all the hard-luck stories, We are sick and tired of running the gauntlet of charity muggers and beggars every time we nip out to the shops. But obviously there are genuine cases that inspire compassion. People who have lost everything in tropical storms, for example. The more liberal among us might even shed a tear for desperate Eritreans drowned in the Mediterranean.
What does it take to reach the moment when we say, “Enough is enough?” The moment when we realise that we no longer live in any semblance of a decent society? The moment when the frog leaps out of the pot of boiling water? Perhaps it’s when your first grandchild dies in an understaffed maternity unit somewhere. Or your friend’s daughter who became a social worker has a breakdown. Or that nice old lady down the road is found dead in her own body waste because the carer didn’t call.
Or maybe you’re flicking through your tweets one morning and you come across a story like this:
Jenny came to the Chester and Ellesmere Port Foodbank last month, having been diagnosed with terminal Cancer. Her prognosis was three to six months. She already suffered with several chronic illnesses preventing her from working over the last two years and was in receipt of Disability Living Allowance. Having no family she was trying to “put her house in order”, ensuring all her bills were paid and saving up for her funeral. Her DLA was stopped; the reason given was that as she was not expected to survive the required time, she did not qualify for this benefit! She came to the Foodbank not for herself but to bring a neighbour who had mental health issues and short term memory problems. He had been 30 minutes late for his appointment at the Benefit office (he had forgotten the time!) and had therefore been sanctioned. He had not eaten for three days. They were both given a meal and the time to talk of their problems and referred to the appropriate agencies for food vouchers and further support and help. Several weeks later Jenny came to the Foodbank to thank everyone for the help and food that was given and the kindness and support that was shown in their time of need. Jenny died three weeks later.
That story has gone viral, and rightly so. Will it go down in history as our boiling frog moment? I think what stays in the mind about this story, what makes it stand out among so many equally horrifying ones doing the rounds, is the contrast between Jenny’s non-judgmental compassion and the punitive, cynical heartlessness of the system that condemned both herself and her neighbour to such suffering. And you reach a point where the arguments don’t matter any more, and you see past them to the man sobbing in the street, or the mentally disabled neighbour set up to fail by a system that finds him surplus to requirements. And you recall that the Hitlers and the Stalins of this world don’t have a monopoly on moral simplicity. I end with the words of Jesus Christ, quoted on the home page of the Tressell Trust website:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me…”
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
It’s that time of year again. When your offspring are medium-sized, that statement covers new school uniforms, shiny clean shoes and pristine book bags. When they’re bigger, and they only live at home over the summer, there are different considerations.
It’s the time when the detritus of the half-remembered college year that ended in early summer – the cheap washing tablets that are adequate for student launderettes but bring suburban families out in hives, the key texts for next term’s modules that, despite all good intentions, were never opened, and the piles of cast-off kitchen utensils – have to be collapsed into the boot of the family car. When the frantic last-minute checking of baggage allowances and weighing of rucksacks is replaced by working out how you fit two bass guitars, an amplifier and a TV into the back of a VW Golf. When there are always five pairs of jeans on the washing line and people still end up travelling with the pockets still damp. And when you realize something profound about your young-adult offspring, or at least I do.
I love them and would be happy to have them live here most of the time, like they always used to. What I can’t take any longer, what will send me cheering and throwing open windows through the house as the vehicle bearing them away turns the corner out of sight, is not themselves but their Stuff.
The first time they went away, a general purging went on, followed by a few months of relative calm. Their abandoned bedrooms became useful overflow storage cubicles. We had space to breathe. When we came downstairs in the morning, the living room still looked the way it had the night before. It’s easy to develop the sense that life, from now on, will be like this. Even the happy chaos of Christmas and Easter seemed like brief interruptions of the new, minimalist regime.
And then they come home for the summer, and the awful truth dawns on you. They have been out there, all this time, collecting stuff of their own. And as George Carlin memorably said, “Have you ever noticed that their stuff is shit, but your shit is stuff?”
I can remember the feeling of dull dismay gradually forming in the pit of my stomach as my husband and son unpacked the car and, TARDIS like, box after box appeared. And then, a week or so later, the process was repeated with our daughter. Everything was going to be put away – soon. And so it was, if you can call the semi-permanent occupation of the dining room “away.”
I remember our daughter being furious that there was still a drum kit in her bedroom. (She plays drums for about ten minutes, once every six months, a mysterious process known as “band practice” that generally involves carrying said drum kit downstairs and setting it up in the middle of the living room, conveniently placed directly in the line of sight from sofa to television). I won’t embarrass her by posting photographs of her room; that would be below the belt, but you’ll get the idea when I tell you that when she asked if she could have her boyfriend to stay over the weekend, my husband muttered under his breath, “He’ll probably find a couple of other boyfriends under the bed that she’s forgotten about.”
With my son, the issues are different. First there is the subtle mental invasion of his eclectic choice of music streamed throughout the house, all day, every day. The eighteen different types of tea. The three copies of Cabin in the Woods that appear, a DVD that nobody actually remembers borrowing or buying. The Diplomacy game that takes up semi-permanent residence on the dining room table.
Worst of all is the kitchen equipment. We don’t begrudge either of them their domestic independence, but it’s rather startling to discover that we have 63 mugs in the house, at least half a dozen frying pans and a pile of knives and forks that have been in a box on the kitchen windowsill for the last twelve weeks. As for the books, open and bookmarked and commented on, all over the place – well, at least they’re working. Sometimes.
If all this sounds negative, it isn’t meant to be. We love to see our kids. We relish their growth and development, even the aspects of it that seem slightly baffling, like our son’s rejection of CD’s and downloads for the bulky, scratchy vinyl we regard as antique. (Thank God for the Internet, it makes it much easier to buy a new stylus, something we never expected to need again). We appreciate that they value the security of a safe nest that will always be there for them to return to, although we do question whether that really has to include every bit of Lego they ever played with and the roller skates that last fitted them at the age of eight. Damn it, we’re glad that they do, occasionally, want to come home, and hopefully for reasons other than lack of rent money.
But oh, it’s lovely when they leave. Or at least, when their stuff does. Well, some of it anyway. Come on, we’ll help you pack. No, we don’t know where their phone charger is. Or the suitcase, for that matter. But as for huge cardboard boxes, no problem. They’re in our bedroom, all 15 of them, and you’re welcome. It’ll be nice to be able to see through the window again.
When they’ve finally left, we’ll crack open a bottle of wine and get back to watching Brideshead Revisited on DVD, having abandoned Charles and Julia in mid-Atlantic three months ago. That is, of course, assuming that the remote control hasn’t ended up with the X-Box cabling two hundred miles away.
Just before I went to the Azores for two weeks, the lovely Peter Capaldi was officially anointed as the Twelfth Doctor. Given the fractious nature of DW fandom, this seems to have been a remarkably popular choice. Certainly the appointment of Matt Smith was a lot more divisive at the time.
Nothing became Capaldi less than the way the news was announced. For crying out loud, Auntie, does everything have to be turned into Britain’s Got Talent these days? The show was a vapid, overblown mess and the less said about it the better. It must piss people off royally when they spend their lives writing really top quality drama for the BBC and don’t get a fraction of the exposure of Doctor Who. And I speak as a fan.
But Capaldi managed – just – to retain his dignity, and I’ve a feeling that will be a keynote feature of his performance. Lord knows we could do with it after Matt’s hyperactive bounding around. I think we are all ready for an older Doctor who does, occasionally, feel truly dangerous. Not in Ten’s smouldering emo way, but wearing the ancient robes of a proud, remote and inscrutable race.
It took me a while for the penny to drop that Capaldi got his first big break in Local Hero, which happens to be my all-time favourite movie. There are lines in that film that have passed into our family vocabulary (“IT HAD A NAME! YOU DON’T EAT THINGS WITH NAMES!” “It was a clean break. You can check the bones if you don’t believe me.”) Okay, it’s as much a period piece in this age of instant, portable digital communication as Audery Hepburn’s Roman Holiday, but I’ve always been a sucker for quirky, gentle humour and a strong sense of a place that is both beautiful and remote. And Capaldi…well, there was the wonderful meeting with Mac at the airport when he offers to help with Mac’s luggage and takes the briefcase, leaving him to struggle with his huge suitcase…and who could forget the look on his face when he discovers Marina’s webbed toes?
But I digress. In all honesty I’ve never really got into The Thick of It – it’s not the swearing as such that bothers me but I do like to have at least one likeable person in something I’m watching (in fact that’s been a lot of my problem with recent episodes of Who, come to think of it). Capaldi broke my heart and won me over in the unforgettable Children of Earth as Frobisher, the flawed but ultimately decent civil servant who went home and shot his kids rather than have them abducted by the monstrous 456. He’s an actor of great presence and range and I look forward very much to see what he’ll do with the Doctor.
I know it upset some people that the Doctor wasn’t cast from a conspicuous minority group this time around. I think they may be saving a big surprise like that for the tricky Twelfth Generation. But there’s another reason why I didn’t subscribe to the view that casting the Doctor should be subservient to political correctness, and hear I risk making myself unpopular.
The point is, most SF and fantasy is heavily encoded with the political characteristics of its period. We do tend to forget that when shows go on for 50 years and become a fixture, but just as Star Trek is basically a Western in space and HG Wells’ War of the Worlds is about the jittery decline of imperialism, Doctor Who is a product of the long, elegaic, post-Suez sunset of Britain’s influence on the world stage. At its heart is a mixture of nostalgia and wish-fulfilment. It looks back to iconic images of London invaded by Nazi-like monsters and meeting plucky resistence, defined by Churchill as Britain’s finest hour. And it hugs closely to itself, like a hot-water bottle brandished against the cold winds of change, the illusion that a well-intentioned British amateur can save the world.
Cast in the mould of the Edwardian gentleman adventurer of private means, the Doctor has massive cultural clout and operates from a position of assumed authority, but skirts the edges of being a pathetic, irrelevant and isolated figure for all that. Ten’s tip to Martha at the start of The Shakespeare Code, “Just act as if you own the place. Works for me,” is freighted with all the unquestioned and unjustified self-confidence of an Eton education. It’s said by someone who not only is able to carry that off, but can’t conceive of anybody not being able to do so.
Never was this clearer than when the fob-watched Doctor found himself in a boarding school in 1913, and felt right at home. Gallifrey was conceived as something very similar – sexless, communal living arrangements with beautiful buildings, emotional sterility and a veto on emotional expression. The Doctor can afford to remember it fondly because now he can never go back. He is vulnerable and adrift, his moorings gone, and as Joni Mitchell famously said, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.”
Classic Who exploited this abrasive relationship to the full. When he revived the franchise, RTD made the bold decision to blow the rug away and leave the Doctor utterly alone in a postwar society that he had to figure out how to negotiate. He captured that vulnerability in his writing and it defines the RTD era, though both his Doctors interpreted the brief very differently – Eccleston by being defensive, spiky and abrasive and Ten by being needy and manipulative. Billie Piper’s presence was crucial; she was the Doctor’s eyes and ears in a new society, and the audience joined her by proxy on the journey. It was a casting choice of extraordinary boldness and did much to sell the show to a new generation – just like Rose, everyone was asking, “Who is this weird bloke – where has he been for the last 20 years?”
Moffatt has concentrated on the legend of the Doctor, and that has a hollow heart. Myths are full of symbolism, less sure on character (unless they are skilfully reinterpreted). It will be interesting to see where he goes with the dignified and patrician Capaldi. I hope PC will stand up to him in a way that, perhaps, Smith never quite felt able to do. PC has had a lot of big breaks behind him, he could walk away from Who anytime and be seriously famous, so taking on the bullshitters would leave him with less to lose. And if there’s one thing Malcolm Tucker was famous for, it was making his opinions f*****g well felt.
So, to get back to whether a PoC could ever play the Doctor, well, “never say never,” but it would involve the show having an extremely different narrative, so much so that I’m not sure it would even be Doctor Who any more. But I could be wrong. I hope I am wrong.
So far, we’ve only had one very specific take on postcolonialism. I happen to believe that DW is, in essence, a show about postcolonialism from the colonisers’ PoV, and that does make it a big ask to turn the tables. But if there’s one constant in DW, it’s the show’s ability to surprise. Both Eccleston and Tennant, under RTD’s aegis, crossed the class barrier, something that would once have seemed unthinkable. Nine was unmistakably working-class, and Northern with it – two taboos crashing down at a stroke. Ten took it off in another direction as the Converse-wearing cockney wide-boy (said to be moulded on Jamie Oliver’s persona). Smith and Moffatt seem to have re-erected some of those class barriers. But future writers might well find a way to cross the ethnic divide with the same skill, boldness and lightness of touch as RTD tackled the great British obsession of class. It won’t be on the Twelfth Doctor’s watch. But after that…well, who knows?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Internet is the greatest timesink going. It amazes me how important things can seem online late at night, and how trivial the following morning. And how I get sucked into staying up far too late, when I know I’ll regret it the next day.
Here’s what happened. I get a weekly delivery of healthy snacks from Graze. And very nice they are. They come in recycled cardboard boxes with lovely pictures on them. On their Twitter feed, people talk about how they use said cardboard boxes. I noticed one enterprising person made hers into postcards.
Now as it happens, I’ve recently signed up to Postcrossing, a lovely exchange site for postcards worldwide. I actually did this because I buy loads of the things and then rarely look at them or know what to do with them. So to start making my own postcards would completely undermine the original plan of using up the ones I’ve already got.
But anyway, I looked at this pretty picture and noticed something:
What really caught my eye was the pretty vintage hand-stamped reverse side. Ooh, I thought, I want to do that. I want to be artistic and quirky and recycling cool stuff.
So I would need at least one stamp that said Post Card. This turned out to be something of a rarity. I browsed Etsy and found exactly the set I wanted, and somehow managed to justify spending nearly $30.00 on this so-called economy, plus extra for the special sepia-tinted inkpad, only to find the retailer wouldn’t ship to the UK.
This should have put me off but in fact it had the opposite effect. It turned the whole thing into some kind of compulsive quest and I totally lost track of (a) the time and (b) the logic of this course of action as I browsed forums and craft sites trying to come up with the perfect stamping combo. I learned a lot about mounts, embossing, distressed ink pads, and almost talked myself into spending half a day mooching around local craft stores rather than pay £3.95 to have one little ink pad shipped out to me. It scares me to think how much clutter I could bring into this already overcrowded home on the pretext of being clever and re-using stuff.
Thankfully, sanity prevailed and I decided to sleep on the whole thing (better late than never). And in the cold light of day, I remembered that a lot of the people I send cards to on Postcrossing don’t particularly want pictures of food, they want pictures of my country and my culture, and failing that cats doing funny things. None of which Graze provide. Also, their lovely recycled boxes might well not survive lengthy trips by airmail.
A madness caught me. But it has passed. I shall go into the west, and remain Galadriel, settling for pre-printed postcards. And I might even have a bit of money left at the end of the month.
The fact that the Telegraph has found it necessary to shut down comments on their hagiographic coverage of reaction to Thatcher’s death is simply one of many examples of the deep resentment many people are feeling. Celebrations may be distasteful, and premature, since the divisive spirit of Thather’s legacy is still so much a feature of British politics, but they are arguably a legitimate expression of dissent from the narrative of triumph people are being coerced into accepting.
Fact is, Cameron’s reaction to Thatcher’s death has been extreme, suggesting that he welcomes it as a diversion from his own weakness and incompetence as a leader. It’s being used as an unpleasant and undignified diversion from the far more serious matter of the Coalition’s spiteful and ill-conceived attack on welfare. The Tories can fulminate until the cows come home about the undeserving poor, but they comprise a minute minority of those who will suffer under recently implemented benefit caps. It is becoming incresingly clear that for the last couple of decades the primary role of welfare has been to plug the gaping holes in a free market economy that, largely as a result of Thatcher’s attack on trade unionism and liberalisation of the labour market, no longer feels obliged to offer hard-working people job security or even a living wage. The crippling fiscal burden of a soaring housing beneft bill has become a necessity directly related to the Thatcherite policy of selling off the country’s stock of social housing, a policy that the Coalition now has the nerve to penalise the very people who are suffering its effects for by taxing them for over-occupying their homes while leaving pensioners, often a far more invidious example of such behaviour, untouched.
History is written, or at least revised, by the winners, but these triumphalist bastards haven’t even won yet. They are trying to claim victory by association by fawning on the memory of the Tory party’s most iconic figure. And, even if it wasn’t costing an absolute fortune, it would be a disgrace. Who cares about a library being set up as a memorial to the Iron Lady? If you’ve got that sort of cash to spare, it should be going on all the much-loved local authority branch libraries that are closing up and down the country, robbing some of Britain’s neediest people of facilities they badly need. Not least, a quiet place for children to do homework as an alternative to chaotic home lives. Such a policy is one of many that deprives people of the very social mobility Thatcher espoused as part of her creed of self-improvement.
So the Iron Lady is no more. She seemed so eternal, yet my father-in-law outlived her. Or did he? There’s generally a taboo against speaking ill of the dead, but I have to agree with Paul Cornell’s recent tweet – “Except Thatcher’s not dead. She’s in every bloody atom of this so-called coalition’s Britain.”
Yes, she broke the power of the unions, and a lot of us appreciated that at the time. Believe me, I lived through the Seventies and I wouldn’t want to return to the three-day week and the piles of rubbish in the streets. She took on the miners and ultimately won, and arguably that had to be done. I’ve been a Socialist for most of my life and I still accept the reality that somehow Britain had to transition to a post-industrial future.
But the brutal welfare cuts being cynically introduced today by Cameron’s government (because that’s what it is, regardless of any pretence at Coalition politics) wouldn’t have been necessary if Thatcher’s policies hadn’t thrown entire communities on the scrapheap with little thought for their social cohesion and self-respect. If people have grown up in a dependency culture, it’s generally because her poliicies left them with little alternative. They were implemented at a time when, cushioned by North Sea Oil and the short-termist sale of public assets like social housing and utilities, we could afford to ignore their social and financial cost. Now those pigeons are coming home to roost and of course the Tories are trying to blame the largely mythical feckless poor, conveniently ignoring the awkward fact that a large percentage of the people claiming welfare benefits are working poor and that the generous arrangments for pensioners, whose Tory votes can be relied upon, are far more expensive than the miserly and humiliating provision for the unemployed.
Yes, Thatcher’s achievements were monumental, though we shouldn’t overlook the role played by what Anthony Eden famously called, “events, dear boy” in securing her a second term at least. She was the first female Premier, but it’s sad that she acieved her high office by emulating the worst aspects of the male sex rather than embracing what is best in the feminine. She died in relative dignity and comfort, a privilege that has been denied to many people in the NHS or the so-called “care in the community.” Obviously there will be grief on a massive scale, but I hope we won’t see an outbreak of Diana-like, mealy mouthed hysteria. She doesn’t deserve that, and we need our wits about us to deal with the paticularly cynical, poisonous brand of Conservative politics that is running the country these days. At least Thatcher knew what it was like to stand behind a shop counter and weigh out bags of sugar. She wasn’t just a blinkered Old Etonian, and she didn’t preside over a Britain where the Prime Minister, the Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury all had that particular distinction in common.
Shakespeare knew a thing or two about power. In Hamlet’s gravedigger scene, the euponymous hero holds up a skull and muses on mortality. The groundlings would have recognised his unnamed target:
Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come
Has Oxford University had its sense of proportion surgically removed or do they just have the lousiest PR operation of any academic institution in the Western world? Just a couple of months after being faced with a court case after demanding that a postgraduate student should show evidence of £21,000 a year to pay his way, or sacrifice a place, they’re back in the spotlight for firing a librarian at St Hilda’s College. Her crime was to be in the building at the time when a group of students filmed a Harlem Shuffle stunt that later went viral on the Internet.
Quite apart from the breathtaking hypocrisy of an institution that publicly bans postgraduate students from taking paid employment whilst habitually offering them posts in its own college libraries, the disproportionate reaction, lack of explanation and general arrogance shown by the College authorities on this occasion shows a complete lack of understanding of the reality of student life
Students pull stunts. They always have and they always will. In the case of Old Etonians, student high spirits (to use a euphemistic term) can cause considerable harm to both people and property. Just ask Boris Johnson, who admitted his own tendency towards such behaviour in the notorious Bullingdon Club whilst at Oxford this week in an interview with the Radio Times:
This is a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness,” admits Johnson. “But at the time you felt it was wonderful to be going round swanking it up. Or was it? Actually I remember the dinners being incredibly drunken.”
He is reminded that one riotous Bullingdon dinner ended with a restaurant being smashed up and Boris and other members spending a night in a police cell. “Yes. And the abiding memory is of deep, deep self-loathing.”
Presumably such behaviour is acceptable at Oxford when indulged in by Old Etonians wearing tailcoats and gold-buttoned waistoats. It didn’t seem to harm the reputation of the revellers, including the present Chancellor and Prime Minister, or the University. Quite the reverse – such behaviour has been tolerated, even celebrated, as part of the rich pattern of Oxford life for as long as anyone can remember.
But when a bunch of ordinary undergraduates hatch a plot to make a seven-minute video of a dance craze, thoughtfully scheduled at 11.30 pm on a Saturday night to avoid disturbing studying students, they’re slapped with fines or worse. Moreover, they are treated like ignorant, naughty children who don’t even deserve the dignity of an explanation.
I know Oxford has a collegiate system, and within it colleges have a high degree of autonomy, so it is arguably a mistake to infer general policy from the actions of individual institutions. But frankly, that’s pretty disingenouous these days. As an academic institution, Oxford University has a worldwide public profile and it is looking increasingly arrogant, insular and snobbish. I declare a personal bias – the three weeks I spent as an undergraduate at St Hugh’s in 1977 were among the most wretched of my life, and I left and pursued my academic career elsewhere. But a lot of institutions have improved beyond measure in their transparency and accountability since the 1970s. It looks as if Oxford isn’t one of them.
Back in 1981 I wrote an essay about my own experiences, and why I left, as part of my degree assessment in English and Education at York University. Its final sentence was, “The really disturbing thing about Oxford University is that they can afford not to care.” How sad to see evidence over 30 years later that this might indeed still be the case.
After the first week in ages where I got to the gym four times, I’ve succumbed to the most dreadful cold. People talk about being in bed with a cold, and I suspect it’s often an exaggeration, but on this occasion I really am. Raging temperature, aches and pains, the lot. I haven’t even felt like reading very much, though I’ve been working through a book about the Enlightenment in Edinburgh when I’ve felt up to it.
My son just called and, as always, wanted to talk philosophy. I’m afraid I politely declined. I’m in survival mode right now.
At least I’ve only been missing out on some pretty terrible weather here in England. What happened to Spring, please?