Tuesday 20th October
Sometimes you stumble upon a gem on TV. Not very often of course. But on Sunday night I watched, more by accident than intention, a very different documentary – that wasn’t even a documentary. It was presented by an American comedian Rich Hall, famous for his dead-pan delivery, and various modern-day red Indians. And it was about how the Red Indians were invented by the white man, and how they have been treated throughout the last few hundred years. It was unsentimental and ironic and quite revealing.
I read ‘Bury My Hear At Wounded Knee’. I watched ‘Soldier Blue’ and bought the record and many others by Buffy Ste. Marie. I thought I knew quite a bit about the Native American Indians and their treatment. I have read quite a bit about Leonard Peltier. But I learned from this programme that just like everything else, the Wild West Shows and the Movies, all of this was simply the white man’s way of inventing the Red Indian. The true story is not of noble savages or a proud people. It is a simple story of Genocide and Theft. And the ultimate theft is of their identity, as we continue, each generation in a slightly different way, to re-invent the Red Indian.
And the only message the Red Indians seemed to be saying about them-selves is that whatever ideas you might have about them, they are still here. They are no different from anyone else, except they have almost been eradicated and re-invented, and yet despite Wild Bill Hickock and Hollywood and all the romanticism and lies, they are still here. The film concluded, or did not at all conclude really, that it was for the Red Indians themselves to write their stories, to make their films – one of which this was in a way, and they had no need to invent themselves because they are still here. At last a programme by the BBC (on BBC4) which lived up to it’s charter – to Enlighten, Educate and Entertain; which it managed to do in a slightly ironic and quite different way.
Monday 19th October
As so often seems to happen – a solution to one problem creates a different one. The Labour Government, headed first by Blair and then by Brown, despite many mistakes and lost opportunities did much to help alleviate some of the worst aspects of poverty. The current Government is rapidly trying to reverse that of course. It was soon realized by Chancellor Brown that despite the introduction of a National Minimum Wage (opposed incidentally by Cameron and the Tories, who claimed it would lead to mass unemployment) many people could barely drag themselves out of dire poverty. And these were people who were working, not those on any benefits. The solution was the creation of the Tax Credit System and a pretty revolutionary idea at the time. Everyone would pay income tax, but many on low wages could claim a credit and get some of their tax back to supplement their low wages. The Tories hated it, and are now trying to dismantle the scheme by reducing the amounts paid and raising the eligibility bar.
Now, there is some truth in their argument that many employers are deliberately paying low wages because they know that those employees can supplement their miserable wages by Family Tax Credits. I have knowledge of the way employers think and have witnessed this in action, where a single mother was told to accept a lower wage and that she could get the rest paid by Tax Credits. Disgraceful, yes – but that is just one of the unexpected consequences of an originally good policy. Another; incidentally, is that for millions of workers, many of them young, the Minimum Wage will also be their Maximum Wage ever. The Tories argue that by increasing the minimum wage they can afford to reduce Tax Credits. But we live in an imperfect world. What will happen in practice, and again I have been privy to discussions by bosses on how to deal with this new increased wage cost, will be either reductions in staffing levels or fewer hours allocated to do the same work. So despite earning more per hour, for many workers their hours will be cut so they will earn the same or even less. And their tax credits will be being cut at the same time. So, yet again, an answer to a problem – Government inadvertently but effectively subsidising employers low wage policy by tax credits, may well create more poverty than it is ‘supposed’ to alleviate. More and more workers are being asked to be more flexible, work unsociable hours, zero hours contracts, temporary contracts, less protection at work, attacks on Trades Unions etc – and all to compete in the Global Market (or chasing down low pay in competition with China and other emerging nations).
Now there is no easy solution, and certainly increasing the Minimum Wage is a policy we can only applaud (though there needs to be rigorous enforcement of this) but cutting Family Tax Credits is not any sort of solution. Guaranteeing minimum hours would certainly be a step in the right direction. Unfortunately whatever laws are passed Private Enterprise will try to find ways to subvert them, so we have to be constantly vigilant and keep closing down loopholes – because this is not a level playing field, and Companies will do whatever they can to protect their Profits, so Government needs to do whatever it can to protect its citizens.
Sunday 18th October
I went to Grammar School. I was lucky. I used to love ‘Pit Your Wits’ on TV and had even been bought a couple of books full of these sorts of puzzles and so I passed my 11 plus, as did 5 others out of about 80 kids in that year of Junior School. We had no preparation at all, we had no idea why we were asked to return to the Assembly Hall and sit at a desk. We were told to turn the paper over and fill it in and answer as many questions as we could. There was a blackboard at the front and the Headmaster pointed out Name – Joe Bloggs. Address – 6 Brick Lane. At least two boys filled their exam paper in with those details.
When I eventually got to Grammar School after my parents had bought the ridiculously expensive Uniform and Sports Gear from the sole retailer in town allowed to sell them, who happened to be one of the School Governors, I discovered an interesting fact. All the other kids in our year came from Private Prep Schools. I hadn’t even realized there were such schools. I simply thought everyone went to a State School, as I had. And these kids had been drilled in the very same sort of exam papers for months before-hand, and almost all of them passed and went to Grammar School.
I was lucky. But my old friends weren’t. They went to the Secondary Modern School and got a much less academic education. There was no chance of any sort of re-evaluation at a later stage for slow developers. The 11-plus was a one-off chance which we didn’t even realise we were being given.
And now the Tories are allowing the re-introduction of Grammar Schools by the backdoor; as so-called Satellites of existing Grammar Schools. Which may well be great for those lucky or with wealthy enough parents to ensure they get there, but not for those left behind.
Who know how I would have fared if I were born a few years later and had attended a Comprehensive. I didn’t actually do that well at all at the Grammar School. 6 O-levels and I ran away from home and school a few weeks before my A-levels. But the Grammar School did open me up to new ideas, and to the concept that education and enlightenment were good things in their own right, that Art was important, that there was a whole world of opportunity out there. Maybe that was more to do with the Post-War expansion of ideas anyway, who knows? So I don’t regret my Grammar School education, but I am glad that Comprehensives eventually gave that same sense of opportunity to everyone. As so often in the Modern World, what is good for a few individuals is not that good for the rest of us.
Saturday 17th October
I have been meaning to write about this for some time but was prompted by my flight back to Stansted on Thursday. While waiting in the departure lounge, surely the most desolate place in Bergerac, I spotted her. She was a Princess. Princess Aleya to be precise, from Frozen, the Disney film which seems to have taken over every small child under 10 (I know it was Princess Aleya because I had to sit three times through the wretched film a year ago with one of my granddaughters). Dressed all in blue (makes a change from Pink I suppose) she looked every inch the Princess. Or what we (and those at Disney) have made us think Princesses look like. This little Princess was prancing about, much to her mother’s annoyance and kept climbing over and under seats and annoying other travellers. She must only have been about four or five but I gave her a wide berth.
Not wide enough, as unfortunately she had the seat next to me on the plane. Thank goodness she wasn’t behind me, as she constantly either kicked the seat in front or undid and refastened the tray in front of her. Her mother was hapless and hopeless and had no more control of her than I do of the dogs when out walking – but at least they are on leads. The mother was desperately placating her, and exclaiming that she was making her Mummy sad and upset, and please please please sit still. Which of course she didn’t. I tried my best to ignore her and resisted the temptation to tell the mother she needed a good smack (which of them I am not sure).
At last the flight was over and I could escape this right Royal little pain of a Princess. But what is it with parents, why are we indulging them in this fantasy? The whole point of being a Princess is surely that everyone else patently is not one. But now they are all allowed to be Princesses, with pretty dresses, nail varnish, fake jewelry and even make-up. And when they grow up and realise that the world is a hard and gritty place with little room for Princesses, what will happen then? Or is it just a childish fantasy, an innocent indulgence. I wonder. I actually wonder more at the sanity of the parents, my own children included, who pander to this nonsense. Ah, but then I am just a curmudgeonly old commoner (my mother obviously never let me be a Prince), and commoner than most I can assure you.
Friday 16th October
-[Isn’t life interesting? Just when you feel that boredom may be overtaking you a problem like Janek falls into your lap. As you know he was technically working under my supervision, although we had never met, even on camscreen. But I felt somehow responsible when he disappeared. But despite not hearing anything for a few months I was quietly confident that he would pop up somewhere. And of course he did. He became careless, (as they all do) and forgot to keep his face well-hidden. He had somehow evaded our surv-cams all this time, but he let his guard slip eventually.
I was quietly reviewing the latest stats on the anti-deceiver programme, and of course they showed a slight but noticeable dip in our success rate ever since Janek’s absence. It s almost as if his not being there has affected the whole team; they seem a bit disparate and lost without his quiet presence. We had promoted another to fill his place, but he was far slower and most of his ‘guesses’ led nowhere. I was quietly wondering if we would ever again achieve the old rates when my screen quietly spoke to me. It informed me that an 87% face-rec match had been found with lost operative Janek Smith. “Janek”, I almost cried out loud, “welcome back. You’ve been away too long. Hang on there a bit longer; I’ll be over to see you soon.”
Of course 87% was nowhere close enough, but I had the new images and library images beamed up in parallel, and I felt my heart surge. Yes, dear reader, contrary to rumour, I do have a heart. Damn these stats I thought, I could see the resemblance straight away. Strip away that bushy beard, cut back the hair a bit, it surely was him, even in three-quarter and head down view, it must be him. Involuntarily my hand closed around the crystal goblet I was drinking from. I had my man, 87% or not, I was sure I had my man.]-
Thursday 15th October
There can rarely have been a ‘pop-star’ so sure of his ability, his talent and his brilliance than Steve Harley. He wrote his own songs and taught himself guitar as a teenager and then when he had enough material for an album he hooked up with a friend who played electric violin and tried to recruit a band. The band became Cockney Rebel, but it was Steve who was the star, he wrote the songs and he sung them and the band simply accompanied him. His first album had great production and orchestral arrangements too, and a star was born. Or not quite. Despite a fair share of music press hype, not that many people bought the record. But I did, and loved it. It was sort-of prog-rock but with that orchestral and violin edge, and Steve’s voice and mannerisms were certainly distinctive. There were two epic songs, “Sebastian” and “Death Trip” and a few rockier numbers and even a couple of very short little songs. The second single “Judy Teen” was a minor hit and Cockney Rebel were on TV. They wore very flash, satin-collared outfits, which chimed with Bowie’s just emerging Ziggy style and T. Rex and the beginnings of Glam Rock. But Steve was no simple follower of fashion at all. His second album “The Psychomodo” soon followed and had the hit “Mr. Soft.” (which incidentally has probably earned him more from the Andrex adverts than the charts).
Then Steve’s ego started to break up the band, and he wrote a vindictive song and sacked them all except the drummer. He recruited more mainstream replacements and recorded “The Best Years of our Lives” where that nasty little song morphed into his only No. 1 single “Come up and See Me (Make me Smile)”, which is always being played at Disco’s and on the radio. The band was now known as ‘Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel’ made three more records before he dropped them completely and went solo.
Well, he has had a pretty long if uneventful career. He still makes the occasional new record, and often performs under the Cockney Rebel name where he plays lots of his old stuff. I find him, just like the title of one of his songs “Irresistible.” He is still pretty obnoxious and puts lots of people’s backs up, but he has a great voice, great songs and a devoted following – me included.
Wednesday 14th October
Well, there were no nurseries – at least not for us council house kids; it was straight from the safety and security of home and into the classroom. And I don’t remember any toys there either. On Friday after lunch we were allowed to play, but I think this was mostly painting and teacher reading us a story. Painting, we had big sweet-jar sized pots of basic colours. This was a dry pigment which had to be added to water, bright blue, red, green and yellow. We also had glue, ‘cow paste’, a thick unctuous brown stuff and were encouraged to attach old toilet rolls (harsh Izal paper not soft Andrex, of course) and bits of cardboard to our creations. I don’t remember my mother ever sticking them on the fridge though, maybe because we didn’t have a fridge…hahaha.
We were taught to write by copying our letters in big exercise books. We learned our times tables by rote, but only up to twelve. Long multiplication and division, which I can still do, were de rigeur. And Mental Arithmetic, a lost art in the age of calculators was practised; questions being fired at you at random, and a sharp rap across the knuckles if you got it wrong, or even worse hesitated. My Mum walked me to school for the first few days, but I soon dispatched her and proudly walked all the way home, something parents would never let a five-year old do now.
One incident I can remember and looking back now it was terrible, but at the time the whole class roared with laughter. There was one family, I think they were the Meekins, who were desperately poor and I suspect had mental issues too. One day Mrs. Drinkwater, a particularly nasty teacher made one of the Meekins boys who was in my class stand at the front for some misdemeanor. He had a runny nose, and the snot was dripping down his chin and she just laughed because he had no hanky (I imagine the concept of a hanky was missing in his home). He stood there crying and his tears and the snot dripped constantly from his chin. It makes me ashamed now to think how cruel we were, but any disability was fair game for the playground to pick on; one boy had to wear leg braces after a bout of polio, and we used to try to steal them so he couldn’t walk. Again, one of the Meekins boys had a streak of shit behind his knees one day and we all thought this was great fun to point out. One or two kids had to wear glasses and we had no hesitation in labelling them four-eyes.
So, it wasn’t all fun. I can remember being so bored in class I would actually fall asleep. I started off being the boy who knew all the answers, and would stick my hand up first. But the teachers soon tired of my excellence and insisted on others answering, I got fed up and decided that if they didn’t want to know the answer then I wouldn’t tell them. Possibly my first act of rebellion; and certainly not my last.
Tuesday 13th October
Firstly there was no television, well not until about 1958 or 59 in our house. I do remember the radio, listening to ‘Round the Horne’ on a Sunday lunchtime. I thought the voices were just funny, I am sure I didn’t get even a quarter of the jokes at all. Most of my fifties memories are of my Nana’s house, though we must have moved into our new council house some time around 56 or 57; my memories of that house are too mixed up with the Sixties. The radio, or ‘wireless’ as it was called, was king. ‘Sing Something Simple’ on a Sunday evening and Two-Way Family Favourites were must listen to. I can remember looking at the orange-glowing dial and wondering at the station names – Berlin, Paris, Luxembourg and Hilversum, and wondering if I would ever travel to see these exotic locations (Hilversum remains unvisited). Saturday afternoon and it was the football results. Grandad would sit in his armchair with a packet of Senior Service beside him as he recorded each and every result. I had to sit absolutely still and not say a word (children should be seen but not heard); in my naivety I thought he really must love football, only later did I understand he was just filling in his pools coupon.
We lived in a small town, no Supermarkets but a Thursday market, even a large live animal market; as a child we would play running in and out of the empty pens, careful not to skid on the ample piles of sheep shit. The milk was still delivered by horse and cart; I would feed the horse a dry crust while the farmer’s wife doled pints or quarts out of a metal churn and into an enamel jug which Nana would keep in the pantry. No fridges or washing machines of course; the pantry was North facing and she had a marble shelf for the butter and the milk, a galvanized bucket of water underneath kept it cool even on hot day. Vegetables were also delivered by horse and cart, and bread too. Later we would have the excitement of the weekly visit of the Corona lorry, and a van with brooms and dusters and all sorts of house-ware would visit once a month. All these delivery men had bells, and Nana seemed to know always which bell was which, even the rag and bone man.
It all seems a lifetime away, which of course it is. I just wonder what ancient memories my Grandchildren will write about in sixty years time – maybe marveling at the slowness of i-pads and mobile phones (not even holograms). Who knows? Life was undoubtedly hard back in the fifties, but I think in many ways people were happier. As a child I wanted for nothing, largely because I had nothing to compare with; kids today see the whole world on their mobile phones before they experience anything. We had to discover everything for ourselves and slowly, and I think we were better for it.
Monday 12th October
When people ask me about my favourite decade of Music they are often surprised by my answer. I say the “Seventies”, when they are expecting me to say the “Sixties”. I grew up in the fifties and remember “Rock Around the Clock” and some of Elvis, but my musical awakening coincided exactly with the emergence of The Beatles in 1962. But…..I didn’t start buying my own records until the Seventies; I worked backwards later. I think in terms of sheer diversity and musical invention the Seventies were slightly better than the Sixties. We have a couple of 5 disc compilations of “Sixties” songs in the café and amongst the gems is an awful lot of dross too (Both Ken Dodd and Englebert had No. 1’s in the sixties).
That said I was really looking forward to a Saturday special “Sixties Night” at Le Pub Gambetta. And with Geoff Barker and Rob Russell singing and playing guitar and electric piano I was not disappointed. Surprisingly they (or Rupert) decided to hold it inside the pub rather than under the arches. It is chilly now in the evenings, but the arches and the square do add something to the atmosphere, especially giving room for dancers to do their worst. But inside it was, and not a seat to be found, so I stood at the bar for a while. Another night of great music. I came in around 9.15, as I had also been invited to a birthday dinner which I couldn’t refuse to attend. On the bar was the set list, and I saw that they were about a third of the way through.
What I didn’t know was that this was just page one – and page two was almost as long. Rupert joined them for a few numbers and it was fantastic; when you know every song it is a joy to sing-along with (for me if for no-one else). I left at about 11.30, as I had to get up for the café tomorrow and the dogs were on their own. They still had at least twenty songs to go and showed no signs of flagging. However I did. The night was called “Sixties night” and I wasn’t sure if it referred to the music or the audience, barely one of whom was under that age, myself included….hahaha
Sunday 11th October
It is hard for us mere bystanders to appreciate reality from hyperbole. It seems as though every few days we are confronted by headlines stating that the NHS is in serious danger of collapse. The current issue is that in just three months the various NHS trusts have run up a deficit of almost one billion pounds. And this is at a far faster rate than any deficit has been acquired before; the implication is that it is going bankrupt. There is political row too, as this information has been held back for a few weeks – people were leaned on (a word in your shell-like) so that these figures would not be released until after the Tory party conference. Well, who knows? But one would not be surprised. And whether these deficits are a direct or even indirect result of Tory cuts is another unknown – but they sure as hell haven’t helped.
Before the election all parties promised various huge numbers of billions to prop up the ever-ailing NHS. I suspect that the voters ignored these promises, knowing the truth – that no amount of money will ever really be enough. The other truth that nobody dare speak is that if we want to continue with a first class NHS then it will have to paid for, and more money means more taxes. You cannot continue cutting taxes and give the NHS more money at the same time. I suspect that despite George Osborne’s promises to eliminate the deficit by 2020, he won’t; the clearing year will continue to slip and just enough money will continue to be found to save the NHS from complete collapse. The political price would be far too high. But that doesn’t mean we won’t continue to see crisis after crisis. Until we properly fund the NHS, either by higher taxes, or some sort of charging system the crises will continue. And the demographics are against the NHS too. We are all living longer; more and more once fatal illnesses are treatable; more and more of us are demanding its services. Cameron wants the NHS to operate over seven days, while allocating the same money; an impossible circle to square….
I just hope there is enough of an NHS left by the time Labour gets back into power. And I am realistic enough to realise that may be in ten years time.