Universities, what are they all about

Monday 10th July

I was destined to go to University.  I was in the top stream in Grammar School.  I had passed the eleven plus.  I can remember being told we were the ‘crème de la crème’; we would be the administrators, the doctors, the lawyers, the law-makers even.  Well, it didn’t turn out that way.  I didn’t go to University.  I left home and school, ran away actually in 1968 – and had to work for a living ever since.  Mind you if I had gone, it would have been free – and a grant too.

Now, you may say that I have a chip on my shoulder – but all things considered I do not regret not going to University.  At that point in my life I would have probably succumbed to drink and drugs, whereas I soon became a parent (no regrets there either) and was working too hard to indulge in either.  But there is definitely a snobbish element in going to University, with many of those who went automatically assuming that they are both more intelligent and somehow more complete humans than those who didn’t.  On several occasions I have encountered this, they look down their book-worn noses at us plebs….well, all I can say is that I am more than a match for any of them.  And I have no idea of the difference between an MA, a BA, or any of that crap.  It doesn’t mean a thing, except that you learnt how to play the system and gave the examiners what they wanted.

But the idea that the brightest and cleverest should have an extra level of learning is a good one.  In my day it was free, but restricted to the very best students.  In the Nineties there was a huge increase in university places, far more kids went to Uni than before.  The net result is that in general University degrees have become less valued; many graduates not being able to achieve their aspirations, or even utilizing their skills – many ending up in mundane jobs for which a University education was never a requirement.

Add to this the fiasco of the Student Loans system where many now leave with debts of £50,000 and we have somehow managed to create a crazy mess.  Universities are now largely money-making machines.  Many students opt for University rather than face the reality of work, another three years of relative leisure and freedom before the inevitability of becoming an adult hits them.   Many students will never earn enough to pay off their ‘debt’, which incidentally has an interest rate of around 6%, far higher than the 0.25% Bank of England rate.  The whole Student Loan nonsense is just another Accounting Swindle designed to disguise Government Spending and must cost a fortune to administer.

So, what are Universities actually for these days?   Some are excellent centres of research.  Some are attracting record numbers of Overseas Students (hardly helping the UK economy).   And some are simply there to perpetuate their existence.

But there has never been any sort of economic planning; where there are Labour shortages, where Doctors are needed for example – there seems no attempt to persuade kids to study Medicine.  And of course, after University – there is no requirement to stay in the NHS, or even in this country.  And now even some Tories, partial architects of the current mess, are calling for a ‘National Discussion’ about Universities, mainly because of Jeremy Corbyn’s hugely popular idea of free University Education – which was exactly where we started just a few years ago.  Except that now many more ‘qualify’, as of course, the ‘raison d’etre’ of Universities is no longer as place of knowledge, but as yet one more way of making money.

Everything Put Together Sooner or Later Falls Apart

Sunday 9th June

This was a lovely song from Paul’s first album after he split from Artie.  A sad, but true reflection of the impermanence of everything.  The atrophy of the Universe, the slow decay of all our achievements etc…   And yet these sort of songs do give me hope in a funny way.  Every Government which comes in has a certain reformist agenda.  Institutions, education, health – all seem in constant need of reform.  Sometimes it is just sticking plaster, sometimes wholesale reform.  And yet inevitably, in a few years’ time, they will need reforming yet again.  And it seems we are no cleverer as the years slip by.  It is easy with hindsight to deplore the errors of the past, and yet we seem condemned to repeating them.  Who would have thought that ‘modernising’ those ugly old concrete tower blocks of the Sixties and Seventies with brightly coloured panels would have been such a disaster?

And yet….we are living in a small town in South West France.  The castle is falling down, but has probably been falling down for centuries.  It will almost certainly outlast most of the houses in town.   And slowly things improve.  They have been replacing water and electric services all around town – we had months of chaos.  But most of the work is finished now, and it all looks much the same as it did before they started.   Maybe we will still be around when they dig up and repair them again.

Sometimes you just want a rest from it all, the constant updating and renewal….of, well everything.  When I return to London, the City is forever throwing up new skyscrapers, if you stayed away for ten years you wouldn’t recognize the place I am sure.  But of course, I am looking at the World through cynical old eyes.  To the young it is still a time of opportunity.  New stuff is simply exciting for them – the next phone or tablet or gadget which bewilders and confuses us is simply the next thing to have for them.  And sooner or later everything put together falls apart.  But that is simply an opportunity to renew, to replace, to rebuild….and so life goes on.


Saturday 8th July

At first everyone thought Harriet was terribly hip and cool, maybe this was that famous University chic that they all imagined, but pretty soon they were all bored with her too.  Where she used to be scintillating, she was now blasé, where she had once dazzled, now the glare of her unrepentant belittling self-centred smile turned everything to a dull blur.  And at last Jane confronted her about it, and as Harriet recounted her little druggy experiments, as she told her how she got the stuff, how she mostly smoked it, as she revelled in her alter-ego, Jane was sickened.  Almost straightaway she knew it was over; whatever they’d once had was blown apart by this habit.  Heroin had obviously replaced everything in her affections, especially Jane.  She knew that unless she joined her in her drugged-up state she would never have her again, but something stopped her; miserable as she was, constantly hurting herself, constantly needing to hurt herself, she knew she couldn’t go down that route.

Maybe she had found her own heroin in the private bleeding rituals she was indulging in; maybe that was her very own drug.  Whichever reason stopped her, that same reason also stopped her from saving Harriet, because despite her own attempts at rationing herself, at limiting her excesses; it was becoming obvious, at least to Jane, that she was beginning to crave it, that classic junkie desperation was beginning to overtake her at times.  Jane didn’t think she ever did it at home, during the weekends she was at home with the family, she can only remember her being pissed at everyone, she can never recall her being ecstatic during those weekends at all.

*  * *

Phil was becoming worried about Harriet, where he never had before.  Harriet was always so confident, so aware of herself, so much older than her years that he had never needed to worry about her before.  He knew that she had her spats with June, some bad chemistry between them he supposed, but Harriet and he got on so well he just put it down to women never being happy with life.  June never seemed satisfied with anything Phil did for her, the house, the car, the freedom of not having to worry about money.  God knows he was doing enough of that myself, so he could not understand why she was never really happy.

And now he had Harriet mooching around the house, pulling faces and swearing all the time.  Some weekends he was mightily glad when she went back to University.  She had this remarkable facility for spreading her misery around the house, even Jane was moody most of the time Harriet was home.  And money, the girl was always after him for money.  He had had to manage on his grant and wouldn’t have dreamed of asking his father for a penny, not that he would have thought it appropriate to give him any he was sure. So why was Phil such a soft touch?

It was now becoming a habit that as he was carrying Harriet’s weekend case to the station for her, she would slip her arm in his, lean in close and whisper ‘You couldn’t lend me tenner, could you Dad?  I’m really skint.’  And he, like the mug he felt he was, already had a note folded in the palm of his hand ready slip to her.  As long as June didn’t see, that was his biggest concern; stupidly he never asked himself what she kept needing money for.

*  * *

Life was beginning to close in on  Harriet; she thought she could handle it all, her studies, her drinking, which like her doing stuff was getting out of hand, and the wretched visits back home, where she was expected to behave as if Stowmarket was somehow the centre, rather than, as she knew only too well, the arsehole of the Universe.  Jane was moping around, and was really quite censorial when she told her about the junk she was doing.  What had happened to the girl, she used to be up for anything a year ago, thought Harriet.  She felt her  mother never stopped moaning at her, what with her precious ‘at your age, we never dreamed of staying out so late,’ and her ‘Harriet, mind your language, please, Jane is listening.’  As if Jane hadn’t heard a few shits and buggers, she was sixteen after all, and it wasn’t as if she saying f…  or c….  all the time – by Harriet’s standards, she was really quite restrained.

The only one who seemed to understand her was her Dad, he’d been to Uni in his time, so he must have understood some of the pressures, and he always came across with a bit of cash if she asked him nicely.  But Harriet just couldn’t hack the workload, why had she chosen History, of all subjects.  She wasn’t remotely interested in History.  Somehow she wasn’t interested in anything she could think of.  She knew that she had better start pulling her socks up; she was getting poor comments from her tutors, and was always late with any assignments.  At least no-one seemed to mind if she missed lectures, because, as Harriet stated, they were boring as fuck.

Money was slipping through her fingers like water – she never seemed to have enough.  Jim was getting shitty about giving her stuff for free, so she kept ending up having to buy it, which was a real drag.  And Harriet had no-one to help her, for the first time in her life she was feeling alone, but as if she really needed a friend to help her too, maybe to knock a bit of sense into her, or just to listen.  She hardly knew the girls on her course, and the few she got to know in the hall of residence were all so prim and proper she just had no connection with them.

She realized that she missed Jane, but even she was pissed at her, especially about the drugs, it was like Jane was turning against her too.  If Harriet suggested going out for a drink Jane would more often say she was busy with some homework or something, when once she would have gone everywhere with her.  Harriet needed a change of scene really.  Maybe she should just jack in Uni, she reasoned, before she got kicked out, and head for London.  Maybe University had been a mistake, maybe she should have just headed for London, that was where it was all happening, not here in dead and alive Leeds.

T – is, unlikely I am sure you will think, for The Turtles

Friday 7th July

I loved the singles “Happy Together” and “Elenore”.  Happy sunshine songs from the West Coast of America, but there was always that little touch of irony in the lyrics – that word ‘really’ qualifying the love for Elenore – and the slight touch of naughtiness – ‘can we’.  It was a few years later that I bought a Zappa album ‘Just Another Band From L.A.’ when I realized that the two main vocalists from The Turtles had mutated into a comedy duo ‘Flo and Eddie’.  And they went far beyond irony now, verging on extremely rude and crude – but also hilariously funny too.

So, I started to look for old Turtles records.  The first one I found was ‘The Battle of The Bands’, where The Turtles pretend to be different groups in a talent show.  Surf songs, pure pop (Elenore) and traditional country tunes mix with some comedy numbers like “I’m King Kamawanalea and we’re the Royal Macademia Nuts” and ‘Food’ where they describe their favourite snacks.  Clever, witty and great singing, especially the harmonies of Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan.  I found a few others down the years too.  And there are wacky songs all over the place, as well as a surprising number which became big hits and some lovely gentle Dylan covers.  Along the way they also ‘discovered’ Judee Sill, recording her song ‘Lady-O’, which became a big hit in America.

I don’t really know why I like them so much, but my record collection is guided by Magnus Magnussen “I’ve started, so I will continue” – once I get fixated on an Artist I have to keep buying them.  But whenever I play The Turtles songs I feel good, they always cheer me up, brighten my day and are great to sing along to.  A small entry in the canon of popular music but one of my favourites.

The Turtles Present The Battle of the Bands

But The Sun Is Shining

Thursday 6th July

Despite yesterday’s post depicting the dire situation – the sun is shining

Despite Brexit, which threatens to change the course of Britain which we have pleasantly sailed along for more than fifty years – the sun is shining

Despite the threat of GMO food, and chlorine rinsed chicken and hormone stuffed beef being allowed into Britain if we try to get a separate trade deal with America – the sun is still shining

Despite storm clouds on the horizon – the sun shines on

Despite the madman in the White House posting photo-shopped ‘tweets’ of himself beating the shit out of a supposed CNN reporter – the sun continues to shine

Despite Kim-Il-Jong, mad dictator incarnate, launching bigger and more deadly missiles and threatening South Korea (still technically at war with) and Japan and even, if news reports are to be believed Alaska – the sun shines inexorably on

Despite getting older and having all sorts of aches and pains, and hairs sprouting like mad triffids from noses and ears – the sun still shines

Despite economic woes aplenty, the rise of food banks and payday loans and zero-hours contracts and hardship all around  – the sun still shines on

Despite constant predictions of its demise, privatization and shortages of Nurses and Money the NHS limps on, borrowing more and more just to keep treating people – the sun shines away

Despite the world’s population rising ever higher, seven billion and growing – the sun doesn’t care, it still shines on

Despite starvation and famine stalking large parts of Africa – the sun still shines

Despite America unilaterally walking out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and despite raising Global temperatures which show no real sign of abating – the sun still shines away oblivious to all our concerns….oh dear.

What A Mess !!!

Wednesday 5th June

I have been back in England for a few days, and everyone I have spoken to, from old-fashioned Tory voters to committed Labour, and many in the middle who are neither; they all agree that we are in a terrible mess.  And just at such a critical time with Article 50 already triggered and nobody having any idea of what exactly our Government is planning, or rather desperately hoping for.

Everyone, at least, is agreed that Theresa May is both the architect of her own failure and a broken Prime Minister.  But there really is no-one in the Tory Party who can or even wants to, for now anyway, replace her.  We are in such a mess and the Tory party even more so, that the last thing anyone really wants is another election – either General or for Leader of the Tory party.  This is of course why Mrs. May has brought back her arch-rival Michael Gove into her Cabinet.  It will now take a resignation from that shabby body for anyone to challenge her.  So, although weakened and a proven loser for now she is safe.  And she will take the flak.  Everything which goes wrong, especially Brexit, will be down to her and her alone.

But far more importantly the country is drifting rudderless on very perilous seas.  We are almost certainly heading for a period of economic downturn.  House prices are beginning to slip.  Inflation is rising inexorably month on month.  Interest rates may go up far sooner than later.  An emergency budget may well be needed.  But even here we have chaos.  The public voted partly for Labour because they were fed up with Austerity, now in its seventh year – and despite Tory claims we are still no nearer clearing the deficit and the actual National Debt is spiraling ever higher.  And we now have siren voices asking for, if not demanding, a softening on Public Sector wages.  Nurses are leaving the profession faster than they can be recruited.  Firefighters and Ambulancemen, so recently praised for their responses to National Tragedies are still not worth more than a 1% pay rise.

Almost all the nastier elements of the disastrous Tory Manifesto have been abandoned, with possibly more to follow as Theresa May clings to Power – or rather Office.  And still she insists on a Hard Brexit, even, according to some reports, planning to ‘stage’ a walkout of the talks.  Talk about rushing towards the precipice as we go to hell in a handcart.  British based banks are rapidly buying up Office blocks in Dublin.  Industry and Farmers, who blindly supported the Tories, are now panicking as the prospect of Tariffs loom on the horizon.

Labour are pushing hard, but the Tories are so desperate to cling to power that they will make Alliances with even the DUP and support any votes just to avoid meltdown at a new election.

What a mess.  And, even if there is to be a new election and Labour wins, the situation may be so dire then, Brexit may be irretrievable, we may be in Recession…..

So, for once I can make no predictions, except to say that I am truly sorry for my country and I fear for the future for my Grandchildren.

The Struggle of Life

Tuesday 4th June

There are many struggles in life. The very act of being born (thank goodness none of us can remember) is itself an incredible struggle.  How traumatic to be squeezed like an obstinate lump of toothpaste buffeted on all sides and dragged literally from your safe home and into the brightness of the world with cold air forced into your virgin lungs, and loud noises all around.  What an assault on the senses.  Then growing up, learning all the hard lessons of life.  Despite being dressed as a Princess – you will have to work just like everyone else my girl.  No Cowboy days for you either sonny.  And the hard knocks as you struggle to get through school and get a job.  The sheer boredom and repetition of work.  Nobody gives you a manual, an instruction book – we all have to struggle to make some sense of it all.

Then there are the illnesses, cold, flu, chicken pox, broken limbs.  Headaches – they could have spared me those surely.  And then depression.  I, along with many of you have suffered days and weeks of depression.  There is no real reason for it, you thrash around trying to find just what is making you so miserable – but the only answer is that it is all going on in your wretched head.  And then getting old, aches and pains, the weary look in the mirror as you see jowls and bags under the eyes, as you look down and see a tummy where you once had none.  The struggle to motivate yourself.  Retirement in itself can be a struggle too, trying to find a reason for getting up in the morning.

And yet maybe nothing can prepare us for the struggle of the approaching end of our lives.  Every death we hear about somehow diminishes our own lives too.  Too painful to even think about our own mortality, we feel the pain as our parents get older and weaker.  And one begins to ask questions about the nature of life itself.  Why all this struggle, what purpose does it possibly serve?

And of course we conveniently forget all the good times, the sheer exuberance of being alive, the wonderful taste of food, the marvelous magic of music, the beauty of art, the wonder of reading and writing.  And that begins to put all the struggle into perspective.   Without the struggle and pain we would never appreciate the beauty of life itself.  So, we must learn to take it all, the pain and the pleasure, and not complain.  I doubt anyone is listening anyway, too busy coming to terms themselves with the struggles of life.

Sorry if this sounds maudlin.  Must be ‘cos I’m back in England.  France tomorrow (today), so I WILL cheer up.  Promise.