Thursday, June 03, 2010

Celebrities, Trade Unions and Christmas

Created 8th November 2009


If the title of this posting reads as a list that lacks a certain creative edge, it's deliberately so. The three issues are hardly related, but have developed their own connections in my mind over the past few days, taking on the usual narrative life of their own that pre-empts a far too occasional blog rant.

An alternative entitled "Don't Watch This At Home" battled its way to the fore once or twice, but the constructive emotional impetus was insufficient. By this I attempt to draw the reader's attention to my acceptance that the postings one can read here are often driven by negative emotional states - depression, anger, frustration, confusion, disappointment and so on - but with the intention of honing in on the positive energies that such emotions can affect.

Thus, the subject matter of puppy mills and Cesar Milan's recently screened episode of The Dog Whisperer highlighting the despicable conditions that dogs endure in these places evoked a despair I can not transform into anything inspirational. I know of animal rights activists who entered the labs of ICI (Dulux) to film dogs being force-fed paint in order to test its toxicity, who were permanently scarred by the requirement to collect evidence and take no direct action. My admiration for them and for the work of Last Chance for Animals is beyond words; the bravery and control they demonstrate through their actions and the animals they save as a consequence is something to be celebrated and recognised.

Cesar's message at the end of the programme was simple: you help animals far more by being rational if you truly want to act in their best interests. Our instincts towards pity and revenge must be controlled. On a more practical level there are two simple things that we, as those who claim to care about dogs, can do:
  1. Don't pity the animal that was abused.
    Helping it to recover requires us to be emotionally strong and reassuring. Pity is the for the past; rehabilitation and recovery looks to the future.
  2. Don't buy puppies that have been bred in puppy mills.
    I'd even go as far as saying don't buy puppies from breeders, although Cesar is more practical in this regard. He knows that people want puppies because they are cute, so his advice is that we do a full check on the breeder and carefully select the right puppy for our own social situation.
    My thoughts are along the lines of most of the animal rescues - there are millions of homeless dogs and no need for us to create more through lucrative breeding businesses. Adopt a dog from a rescue instead.

So Cesar Milan is part 1a of this blog list of My Current Trains Of Thought. Not many celebrities impress me, mostly because they are egotistical, hedonistic, semi-talented sociopaths who do everything in their power to make it in the world of showbiz, welcoming all publicity, good or bad, and then have the audacity to complain when the press won't leave them be. You pays your money and all that.

Celebrity no. 2 is even a shock to me. There I am, going about my usual Sunday morning business of trying to figure out what on earth we're going to have for dinner today and I find myself struck by a certain delight for the fact that there's cabbage and carrots in the bottom of my fridge. Perfect, thought I, to make a coleslaw, to go with sweet potatoes, sweetcorn and some southern american style chicken legs.

What now? Home-made coleslaw? An interest in authentic American food?

Domestic goddess I am not. My relationship with the duties of homemaker is by and large conducted through a process of careful negotiation with the other members of my household (for careful negotiation read threats, guilt trips and nagging until someone else does it, bitter complaints for eternity if I have to, or if the task has been completed at a level below my acceptable standards).

And who is to blame? No other than cheeky chappy Jamie Oliver, who I refused to watch on TV for many years and only thought about in a fleeting and vaguely complimentary when he did that whole school dinners thing. I'm 'well up' for trying to change our attitudes to food in the UK. We are rubbish at it, but some young bloke from Essex telling us all how to cook when he lives in the home counties and doesn't look much like he's suffered from the 'how to feed my family something other than beans on toast with a minimum wage and those prices' scenario? Let's just say it lacked a certain credibility.

As a teacher I hear it from colleagues all the time. They were born into the middle class, have never had to face the food or fags decision and haven't the capacity to understand that it is virtually impossible to afford anything like a healthy, balanced diet in a culture where the good food has become a lifestyle choice and is priced accordingly. But, they argue, a bag of supermarket apples is only a pound and you get at least seven. The 'value' ranges offer similar great deals and on the breadline you can't stop too long to think that these prices are keeping people like you as poor as you are and still they are beyond affordable. A bag of apples becomes a tasteless, unappetising accessory to the need for staple foods that fill up the family so they stop complaining that they're hungry when they're not and the additives are undoubtedly to blame for that. It's a cycle of nutritional deprivation that's difficult to break.

We have no time to grow our own produce, but we do have time to watch TV. We can't spend twenty minutes preparing a meal, but we can spend twenty minutes texting our friends. I'm not making a moral judgment here, really I'm not. It's just somewhere along the lines the social activities that could repair our terribly broken lives have been replaced by those that created this situation in the first place.

So back to Jamie Oliver: it was a curious set of events that led to my discovery that he might not be so bad after all. It started with the decision that I really needed to sign up to Twitter before someone stole my user name, the need then to 'follow' some people who I thought might be interesting, the decision to follow Jonathon Ross, who 'tweeted' that Jamie Oliver was one of the guests on his show, which I happened to tune in to because there was nothing else worth watching. He was fairly entertaining, but I still wasn't convinced. I couldn't get over the possibility that returning to one of my favourite places in the world (Watergate Bay) might reveal that his opening of a restaurant there had destroyed everything I loved about its undisturbed, uncontrollable, natural beauty.

As he described the project that led to the opening of this restaurant, I started to soften a little; after all 'Fifteen' is a project aimed at providing training and an occupation for disadvantaged young people. So he went up in my estimation sufficiently enough for me to watch an episode of 'Jamie's American Roadtrip', whereby his shock and horror at the racism in the South of the USA was impossible to miss. Finally, thought I, he does have some balls and they're not made of humous or some such posh stuff. What's more, I followed his instructions for making mayonnaisse and actually managed to produce something that didn't look like the sort of thing the dog brings up after eating grass.

And here endeth the rather rambling explanation for why Jamie Oliver has unexpectedly become someone I respect and also why I am making coleslaw.

On to trade unions, a much briefer escapade, which, in spite on my claim that it is not related to what has gone before in this post, is featured because my sentiment about racism is one that I find is shared by Jamie Oliver and also by my union. However, their recent request that I sign a petition to keep BNP members out of the teaching profession presented me with a terrible dilemma.

I have students who claim to support the BNP and I don't wish to belittle them by phrasing it this way, but quite honestly they have no idea what they are supporting. Soundbites of the BNP's more acceptable public face do not provide sufficient information for these young people to make an informed decision and I am certain (or at least hopeful) that once they have the knowledge they will run a mile in the opposite direction.

It's easy to imagine how teachers holding extreme political views at either end of the spectrum could be banned from entering the profession, because it has happened before. Frankly I'm surprised that so-called educated people can be as stupid as to believe that everything that is wrong with this country is because of immigration when it is clearly down to the destructive nature of advanced capitalism. Should I be banned from teaching for thinking this? Here's an idea - let's just send people to prison for having views that oppose the government.

There is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with members of the BNP becoming teachers (other than that they probably don't have the intellect to qualify as teachers). The problem comes when they start to impose their views on students. Socialist that I am I still try to give students the opportunity to make up their own minds. One would hope that teachers who are nationalists would also take their responsibilities seriously.

I suppose my greatest strength and weakness is that I am a utopian. Human beings have such great capacity for rationality and compassion, such great forces for change. We are able to contain our emotions, look for explanations, work to improve our own lives, all of which can be harnessed and utilised for common good. Regardless of whether I believe that Jesus was the son of God I am Christian in my beliefs about the sanctity of life and the need for respect, forgiveness, tolerance and understanding.

My thoughts turn to Christmas, not because the shops are full of Christmas tat, or that the TV networks are already overwhelmed with Christmas advertising, or that I spotted Christmas programming on one of the music channels. It's arguably not even a Christian festival. Regardless of all this it's one of the times those of us who celebrate Christmas get it right. Peel off the overspending and it reveals some of our better qualities, where we try to spend more time with our family, relish their joy at our gifts, share meals and appreciate the magic of nature that exists every day but takes on a special significance on 25th December.

Utopian? Perhaps, but the greatest human minds are universally accepted as those who disproved the impossible.

A Word of the Wise

Created 23rd June 2009


There are times, even at my increasingly ripe age, that it is not the lessons we learn via discovery that are the greatest, but those that are bestowed as statements of tried and tested fact by others. Their confidence in the rightness of what they advise is sufficient to warrant treating it as such without further redress to dipping one's toe in the water.

Thus I present, for my own reflection mostly but also in gratitude for some of these have been life-changing, on some of the wisest words given to me.

"Get a drainer"
This may well be the most life-changing words ever spoken to me. How can I describe Stella Devine? Intelligent, assured, dignified, honest, cantankerous, awkward, rude - these last three were her own. A retired probation officer, successful single woman, who I had the privilege of assisting in maintaining her lifelong independence.

One day I was lamenting the toil that is drying the dishes and, in the way that only Stella had, she ordered me to get a drainer. Elaborating, she highlighted the stupidity of my insistence on removing clutter from my own kitchen whilst putting germs back on to the dishes. Better still, she added, get a dishwasher.

I didn't get the dishwasher, due to lack of space and spare crockery mainly, but I did go straight out and buy a drainer. It's the best thing I ever did.

Thank you Stella Devine, wherever you are.

"Keep the door open"
Bob, our school counsellor, is perfect. He is unimposing, attentive, complimentary, sypathetic, earnest - all the things a good, solid humanist should be. Above all else, his hopefulness is infectious. The naughty children can be good; scars can be healed; everything will turn out right in the end.

"Live in the moment"
In January I read an article in Psychology Today with this title; it was full of advice on ways of making sure one remains conscious of life and I immediately set to the task of trying it out. How amazing! It actually works: as long as I make the effort to absorb the here and now I find that all my other concerns take their rightful and far less important place in my life.

Up until that point, I had treated traffic congestion on the way to work as a serious bind, causing me minor stress because I hated being in the car. Some days I could happily have walked away from my car forever, but not anymore. Living in the moment means I can take the time to do nothing but listen to music and appreciate the time alone, for I can't change the situation.

Since then I've become a big follower of Cesar Milan, whose message is also that we should 'live in the moment'. The liberation experienced by doing so defies description.

"Go snowboarding miss"
Thank you Ben, for this advice. I still haven't, but I'm working on it. And yes, I realise that contradicts everything I said to you and your class.

"The man who believes he will die tomorrow will find a way to make it happen"
I appear to falsely recall that this is a line from 'Star Trek: The Next Generation', spoken by Captain Picard. I like it and over-use it, because it is true, not in a fatalistic sense, but in the the same way as believing you will fall off your bike at any second is likely to result in precisely that.

"You're perfectly within your rights to fail"
Paul Reynolds is fully aware of the fact that he is one of the best lecturers in higher education, even if he occasionally feigns humility - poorly. He has neither time nor patience for procrastination (other than his own) and as a tour guide through academia, leads not by example, but by pointing at the difficult path ahead and shrugging.

"It's quality of life that matters"
The problem I have when I think about Eileen Richardson is that I get caught up in so many memories, most of them positive yet meaningful, many of them hilariously funny in retrospect, a few too sad to dwell on. Life is cruel, no more so than at its end, but this is the time when the greatest insights are to be had and it is we who go on who take with us these valuable lessons.

When Nige started smoking again after his dissecting aortic anuerism, I was furious at the utter stupidity of the man. Not only had he managed to give up for several years of his own accord and independently of me, he now had a serious health reason to remain stopped, but apparently that didn't matter.

At the time if he winced as he moved, if he looked a bit flustered or something stressful happened I was prone to panicking, so this cessation of his refraining caused me to (over)react. At the time Eileen was in a twilight zone of having ambiguous test results and a promise from the oncology consultant that if the tumours returned then he would not be able to save her. From someone who knows these things, I can not doubt the truth that it is indeed the quality, not the quantity of life that is important. Believing it and making it a reality is the battle I face daily, but it can be done. I've seen it so it must be true.

"Throw money at it"
I'm not sure how good this advice is, seeing as I've never had the money to throw at whatever 'it' was in need of an injection of cash, but, offered by the best employer I ever had, also a highly successful business woman, who am I to question the wisdom of Joan Ault? Joan started a home care agency and eventually sold it to a larger company who would never live up to her expectations, but running a care agency is one of the hardest jobs in the world, and Joan was very much a hands-on employer.

I saw her recently, now in her 70s and still a handsome woman with an absolute air of authority about her demeanour. As a boss, she was fair, refused to suffer idiots or those who thought they could somehow take her for a ride and could be relied upon to say it exactly how it was.

In return, one could only be respectful and I remain full of admiration and gratitude for the opportunity to work for Joan.

"I'm a bugger for a bit of exercise"
This also is Joan's and I hear it every time I park a long way from where I need to be, because I finally understand how it works.

"Take time to appreciate the little things"
Halfway through my degree I had to have a hysterectomy as a rather drastic precaution against cervical cancer, but it did the trick (obviously, now that I have no cervix). My friends were wonderful, as they sat around my hospital bed and we completed a group presentation for our psychology module. Indeed, if it hadn't been for their abilities in this subject I doubt I would have achieved what I did.

One of our group, Lisa, told me once about a terminally ill woman she had looked after, who was responsible for the quotation originally and Lisa had taken it with her, recounting an experience of condensation from washing up collecting on a spider's web, refracting the sunlight from the window beyond.

Since then Lisa has had her own trials and won the fight against cancer. I hope that her own words were as inspiring for her during those times as they have remained for me.

Dream Homes

Created 27th December 2007


The last episode of 'To The Manor Bowen' was aired yesterday on Living TV, a channel that has been top of my favourites for a couple of years now. My viewing diet is menial and consists almost entirely of Living TV exclusives, including CSI Miami, CSI, Criminal Minds, Boston Legal and occasionally Most Haunted. This will be of no surprise to the channel's programming executives, for I'm certain I am a perfect fit to their audience demography.

I've always liked Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen, undoubtedly the most successful celebrity designer of the 1990s and first half of this decade, when Makeover TV was the viewer's choice before it abdicated to dreadful 'reality' programmes and opportunities for everyone to take a bite at the apple of fame. DIY, interior design and gardening hasn't gone away, but no-one wants to watch it 'as it happens' these days.

It can't be easy to uphold one's lifestyle in the face of such movements and congratulations are due to whoever came up with the idea of combining makeover and reality to produce 'To The Manor Bowen'. There were times during the series when Lawrence's desperation to remain celebrity (financial or otherwise) were very evident and yet he never appeared to be 'selling out' as such. Needs must be met; Lawrence came across as a father and husband who was determined to provide for his wife and children.

In the event that I am ever able to employ an interior designer, it would be Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen's services that I would purchase. Changing Rooms often saw him accused of over-indulgence, ridiculous flamboyance and producing designs that were too ambitious for the programme's remit. In the making, his designs were often dreadful, with no makeover greater than the sum of its parts - the final reveal.

The ultimate outcome of 'To The Manor Bowen' was a presentation of a family who appear comfortable with each other, with the presence of the media and would do what it takes to keep what they have worked so hard to accomplish. Much of what was shown was a presentation of the daily hassles of normal people doing family life, and one imagines that they can be much more normal than that.

The end of the last episode saw Lawrence 'waking up' from a dream that they had moved to a house in the country - a fitting conclusion on the family's move from London. Their new house was essentially complete, designed of course by the man himself. Even as an admirer of his work, I was a little concerned that he lacked the sympathy required to renovate an old country manor house. I was wrong: his sensitivity to time and context were perhaps the greatest demonstration of his artistic genius.

Whatever the remit or medium, artists can't help but express themselves through the works they create. Every novel, painting, design, song and poem in existence presents an element of its producer's psyche. These are places where we can safely explore aspects of the self in ways that are no more threatening to us than dreams, and are equally open to misinterpretation, by both ourselves and others.

The places we create in our dreams, according to Carl Jung, are indeed a direct representation of the self, with revelations of things we did not know depicted as newly discovered rooms. With this premise in mind, I imagine the hotel I visited last night is me on holiday from normal life. The dream fascinated me sufficiently to deliberately memorise its content.

I started in a narrow road, steeply inclined towards to coast, walked down this road and onto a balcony, perhaps the third or fourth storey of a white building with an octagonal courtyard that had been enclosed conservatory-style. Beyond the glass wall I could see the coastal road, on a slightly lower plain than the hotel, and beyond that the sea. I couldn't see a beach, but knew there was a small cove when the tide was out. There were no stairs from the balcony, but there was a streetlamp in front of me, against the middle of the three sides of the octagon occupied by the balcony.

The streetlamp was red and cream and curved at the top and I descended it as if it was a fire station pole. Unfortunately, it was old and brittle and bent under my weight, and as I reached the bottom, I crumpled the small arm of metal extending from its base. Now at ground level, I was aware of two women in a room on the first floor. I couldn't see them, and could only see the dark corridor leading to the room, behind a closed door. One of the women, the owner of the hotel, had a Jack Russell dog. I turned back to repair the damage to the lamp-post, something which was easily achieved and in fact left it in a better state than it had been to begin with.

As I headed away towards the front wall, I was aware of the Jack Russell dog watching me and looked down, urging it not to bark. It did not seem surprised that I was there. At this point I awoke and decided to memorise the dream, as it is part of a much broader landscape that my subconscious has been building over the past few years. Within the series of dreams, there are cliffs, beaches, a large hill that I am to hike up with a group of people, a one-way system around a shopping centre and many narrow, short streets with houses close together.

The hotel has appeared in the dream before, but not as a hotel. In the past it was a large building with dark corridors and many rooms, and I am usually in the basement, so it is new to be upstairs.

I still have my doubts about the validity of dreams as a gateway to understanding the human mind. Like all creations, their beauty and mystery is largely in the eye of the beholder. However, I have documented this, for a little psycho-analysis of dream content is entirely in keeping with this somewhat egoistic blog. What Freud and Jung lacked in their dream analysis was a refusal to accept the interpretations of others. Any who wish to offer an analysis of what is written here is more than welcome to do so.

Why journey from Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen to dream analysis? It strikes me that those of us who claim not to be creative are selling ourselves short. Anyone who dreams (and everyone does) creates mysterious and beautiful portrayals of their inner-most self. The difference between interior designers, writers, painters etc. and everyone else is one of confidence. We are prepared to put ourselves on display, refuse to heed our own doubts:

If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint', then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.
Vincent Van Gogh