Tuesday, July 27, 2010

today: a matter of convenience?

Today's guest blogger is well known timeless beauty "The Lady of Spain" who writes as a response to this post. on the topic of blue badge parking.

"...Flo's can be a perk or a lifesaver. Just recently, she squeezed into a revolving door ahead of me and by the time my compartment had followed hers, she'd "run" out of the supermarket, into the carpark, and across a road. I had to throw all my bags to the ground and run after her, just to catch her laughing in between cars. So remember there are the ones who have their badges for mental impairment and can walk but may decide not to and just sit down in the road or maybe coaxed into a shop but then refuse to leave and have to be dragged out. Or won't hold hands and are incapable of seeing the danger in a large carpark with moving traffic. And because that is such an ordeal for the parent, (especially of an older, heavier, child) there are times when we need the child to sit in their blue badge space with a minder while we rather visibly "quickly run in" without them, being glared at by everyone as we put the badge out. Then at least there's still scope for them to need to find the parent, the loo etc. And then there are a few days when it's all going well and the badge turns out to be a bit of a perk, but we can't plan for those, it's just luck. And there are times when the child has to be strapped into a pushchair and once in it, it doesn't make too much difference for me to walk a few more yards with it (but wouldn't that be the same for a wheelchair user - isn't it more an issue of space and level access?) My compromise with it, is that on the occasions where you get disabled bays plus free disabled parking in non marked bays, I'll go for the non-marked if they are reasonably close - especially backed onto a walkway where we are a bit safer. The one that annoys me most is hospital disabled bays. There are never enough and the rules are that if you are forced to use a non-disabled one because they are full then you have to pay minimum £2.50 to park at the furthest end of the site. Grrrhhh..."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

today : middle-aged disappointment

Top Gear started back on TV recently. I watch it, but not obsessively. I am one of those people who likes cars, but am not obsessed about them. Even though I think that cars can be amazing and beautiful and the kind of thing you might covet, I never, even as a child, had a poster of a car on my wall. Never memorised all the Top Trumps style info and stats. I'm not that interested in top speeds and torque and all that stuff.

I knew one guy who was so obsessed with getting a Porsche, that the first time he had some money he frantically saved up and bought one. It was old and ropey. But it was a Porsche. Because he was barely in his twenties, the only insurance he could get was third party and almost equal to the cost of the car. Turns out that no insurance company trusted a 21 year old driving a ropey second-hand Porsche. Their estimate was based on the fact that they thought he was pretty much guaranteed to crash it. Less than a week into owning it, that's exactly what happened. He drove into the back of a truck on a rainy dual carriageway. Luckily he was unhurt, but the car was totalled.

As I've got older I have owned better and faster cars. A couple of cars ago I almost bought a sporty coupe, but settled on a somewhat sporty coupe instead. It was pretty nippy. But I never wanted to take it on a track day or test it away from lights against a hot-hatch. When I encountered someone who wanted to race I would eyeball them and rev the engine, and then watch them zoom off as I pulled sedately away in the manner of a retired vicar.

I guess I am a classic Top Gear watcher. What I like about it is what most people like. It's generally amusing and well put together. Occasionally one of the jokes will make me laugh.
There's something appealing about the sheer silliness of what the presenters get up to. It looks like fun and we enjoy it vicariously. I like the idea of randomly blowing things up for the sheer hell of it. I like the idea of the ridiculous and ambitious races between forms of transport, I like the piss-taking bonhomie between male friends and I like notion of middle aged men behaving like young boys and acting out the their pre-pubescent fantasies. There is, after all, a bit of me that wants to shoot guns, drive fast with impunity, push caravans off cliffs and just be pointlessly silly.

But I never could bring myself to commit to Clarkson.

Clarkson is a kind of industry unto himself. Each year he compiles his magazine and newspaper articles and columns into a book which sells millions. Each Christmas he releases a DVD, which I understand to be a kind of supercharged Top Gear episode, and it sells millions as a stocking filler for Dads and Uncles. But I'd never seen any of these DVDs, or read any of his books.

So when I came across a couple of the books I decided to read them. Compiled columns, when put into book form, can often be less than the sum of their parts and quite disappointing. For every Dave Barry (whose compiled columns are genuinely funny and have a similar momentum to something like an Eddie Izzard show in that they create and then invite you into a world-view) or Joe Queenan (whose books of compiled articles are engaging and entertaining, and who writes like a dream) there are examples like John O'Farrell (whose book of compiled columns has a great title 'Global Village Idiot', but for some reason doesn't work as a book).

I thought: If Clarkson sells millions, then maybe his books will be good (as in engaging, entertaining and sprinkled with good jokes and some spiky opinions). Or even okay (as in mildly diverting and with the occasional good joke and/or spiky opinion). Even admirable, in the way that you can admire Dan Brown's construction of easy myth, simple mystery and fast paced action.

But Clarkson's books are terrible. Sure enough there are jokes aplenty. But the problem really is that they are Clarkson jokes. And Clarkson himself comes across as painfully average and predictable. You could easily write a Clarkson book yourself. Reduce the world to keywords and Clarkson will always have an opinion. Speed cameras, freedom, guns, men, women, Brits, foreigners, Thatcher, Blair, speed, petty rules. You know what he's going to say. Yawn.

I imagine it is his sheer averageness that makes him such an apparent hero to so many. He quite funny sometimes, but only a smidge funnier than anyone you know. And his opinions are the same as pretty much every half intelligent bloke who thinks he knows stuff like politics, but is really looking through self-centred blinkers and only knows enough to complain. Except Clarkson, unlike everyone who blathers their ill-thought out partly-informed and self-centred opinions in the pub or on the golf course or wherever, gets to do it in print and on the telly.

It is this that disappoints me. Because that's the feeling I get when I encounter Clarkson on TV radio or in print. I am always disappointed when he cuts to an obvious comment, or when he repeats his wilfully reactionary shtick in response to one of the key words or topics. I just don't want someone to complain about the council and traffic wardens and the government and political correctness. For one thing, it's as boring as endlessly watching different cars repeatedly going around the same track. For two things, there is no real value in simply whinging about things. The don't you just hate it when...? school of comedy pretty soon gets tied up in its own negativity, until it's just negative. And there's this nagging feeling I have that he clearly is an intelligent bloke, and that there's a distinct possibility that some, if not all of his shtick, is a put-on. I wonder if 'Clarkson' is not really real, but an invented character that succeeds by reflecting the feelings and thoughts of his constituents. The voice of the dullard, disappointed, every middle-aged man who never quite became a racing driver or a secret agent.

My own middle-aged disappointment is that things supposedly aimed at me - a middle aged man - are so cruchingly dull and miserable.

Dave Barry avoids criticism by rarely straying into politics. When he does it is generally surreally silly and contains more than one level of irony. But 'Clarkson' repeatedly puts himself forward as some kind of political commentator. Except reducing the issues to the level of one-note ranting is no kind of politics at all. It's just a middle aged man complaining that the world doesn't do everything he wants it to.

And I guess this cuts to the heart of my dislike of his writing. His brand of moaning is selfish and one-dimensional. For example, there are some extremely valid arguments to be presented regarding global warming. I personally am open to all opinions on the matter. But Clarkson's vehement global-warning denial, although often underpinned by some use of evidence, is ultimately all about 'Clarkson's' love of big, fast, noisy, petrol-driven machines and his dreaded fear of them being made obsolete. Nothing wrong with loving cars, but preserving them at all costs is not just 'small c' conservatism, but a position of fearful stasis. His position on guns is because he likes guns and comes across as someone who wishes he had the guts to join the army, but doesn't, so makes do with shooting at such dangerously armed enemies as badgers and pigeons.

Whether left or right, radical or conservative. That's not the issue at stake. I will happily read and enjoy Joe Queenan as much as Christopher Hitchens or Greg Palast. But the published 'Clarkson' possesses the one thing that is the enemy of interesting writing. A closed mind.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

today : I address an uncomfortable truth

Anyone who might look at my blog would rightly conclude that I have two major obsessions. The first is teaching and education (main sub-category: teacher stress). The second is disability (main sub-category: disabled parking). You might as well plug away at things that interest and affect you.

So I do. Hence this piece about disabled parking.

Yesterday I went to
Ikea. Because I can't walk and Ikea is designed as a walking experience, and because they had a sale on and the place was crazy packed, and because I never buy anything from Ikea having become bored with it in the mid-1990s, I stayed in the car whilst that day's missus and a couple of other friends went inside to ooh and aah over furniture, rugs and the like.

I'd initially planned to go in, but on top of everything I'm suffering shin splints at the moment and couldn't face it. Still, I needed to park the car in a place where I might nip into the cafe for a coffee or use the toilet. I waited for a disabled spot for five minutes or so.

There was a space available, but it was being occupied by a young couple who were loading their car with probably
unnecessary dowel and canvas laundry hampers, throw cushions and what seemed liked a dozen flat-packed book-shelves. They knew they were in a disabled space because I waved my blue badge at them and, having seen it, they carefully made sure they didn't look my way after that. When they finished loading I made sure I encroached on their reversing space as much as I could. The guy carefully reversed out of the space, still desperately trying not to catch my eye as he turned his head. He couldn't help it, and all four of the occupants of my car made obscene hand gestures at him.

After parking I did go inside to use the toilet, but skipped the cafe because the queue was huge. Like the kind of queue that would form if George Clooney and Megan Fox were giving out free sex. It seems that Ikea, for some people, is as much about meatballs, hot dogs, fizzy drinks and crisp-breads as it is about household goods.

Back in the car I decided to just listen to the radio and/or read to pass the time. I soon started to watch the people who were using the disabled parking bays. Over the course of the next hour I saw about 30 different people come and go. I counted two who had a discernible disability and two whom were elderly.

Disabled parking is a knotty issue both for the disabled and also the non-disabled. The disabled get angry and frustrated when there is one disabled space for an entire theatre or supermarket or when the disabled bays are used at will by people who are not properly credentialed and whose only impediment is sheer laziness.

Non-disabled people often feel that the disabled are getting some kind of privileged treatment. All those lovely convenient spaces by the door at Asda are a forbidden foreign land. And we all want what we can't have (and it's driving us mad, and it's all over our fay-ay-ay-ay-Ace).

I can understand their sense of
aggrievedness. So many of the people with Blue Badges apparently have nothing wrong with them. I watch people pull into the reserved spots and plenty of times they will RUN into the supermarket. These people with restricted mobility will skip and gambol like young foals across a Spring meadow. You half expect them to do flick-flacks past the trolley shelter and end with a piked double-back.

Outside Ikea I got out of the car to stretch my legs for a minute and was standing on my two walking sticks. I watched as four youngsters in a Vauxhall Corsa pulled into a space right in front of me. Hopping out, the male driver said something to his female companion. I could tell that he was showing off how easy it was to park using Granny's blue badge. They laughed smugly and then both momentarily looked at me. I saw the micro expressions (the ones that Derren Brown or Tim Roth in that TV show are so good at spotting) of sheer guilt and paranoia that crossed their faces for half a second. Two young couples - probably nice enough people, but choosing to abuse the system for the sake of a few yards and a bit of convenience. My unexpected presence reminded them of how they were behaving.

But who can blame them? After all, EVERYONE does it. It's like driving at 38 in a 30 zone, or torrenting a few albums and films. Everyone's life is hard in its own way, and saving a bit of time and energy isn't surely a crime?

I have a relative with a Blue Badge. The other week we were at some family do and bemoaning the fact that parking near the restaurant was hard. There were no disabled spots at all - just a general on-street pay-and-display that Blue Badge holders could use for free. She told me that, since a couple of years ago when her
Motability car was done over and her badge stolen, she never used it in town.
"I always park in the Wunda-Park Multi-storey. They have security patrols." In fact, that very evening, she informed me, she knew what the parking round the restaurant was like and had used the Wunda-Park.
"It's only a ten minute walk," she said.

About half a mile.

"It's only about half a mile from the restaurant."

What amused me more than anything is that she didn't seem to have a clue that she was making herself look stupid, or worse than that, fraudulent, given that her car is paid for by higher rate
DLA, and her blue badge is predicated on her inability to walk any significant distance, and she lives in a house specially provided for, located and designed for the ease of the disabled. My conclusion is that she has convinced herself that she is entitled. And she feels so entitled that she has lost sight completely of reality.

And there are many, many people like her. People who perhaps have been ill at some time, or broken a limb and saw it as a chance to get free stuff. People who got better and forgot to mention it because a free car is pretty habit-forming. People whose problems are much more than physical - who enjoy playing the victim and need a reason to justify it. Or people who simply lie, exploiting a system that is bizarre and inconsistent.

I know many properly disabled people who have really struggled to get any help. They are turned down and re-examined again and again. Then there are the people who seem to get everything, in spite of the fact that they are lying. And their lying must be unbelievably brazen. When a doctor puts them through a mobility test, they must give Oscar-worthy impersonations of a real disabled person.

Between the self-deceiving, the fraudsters and liars, and the people who use stolen badges or borrowed badges, it would not be outrageous to think that a majority of the people parked outside Ikea are cheats who have nothing wrong with them apart from a burning sense of entitlement, laziness and selfishness. It's hard to measure. You could ask people if they are selfish, fraudulent liars, but I am guessing the results would be patchy.

In the meantime disabled people are further marginalised. Not only do people have the natural resentment of others getting something more, but they are led to being suspicious on top. I have heard people make comments about disabled badge holders that verge on hatred. People who are apparently decent, caring folks develop a blind-spot. Badge holders end up on a par with jobsworth traffic wardens, speed cameras and endless pointless roadworks.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

today : bad teacher

The BBC were trailing a Panorama this last weekend. The headline was that 15,000 incompetent teachers were circulating the education system and that only a small handful of teachers have ever been struck off for incompetence in the last 40 years.

Now I haven't yet seen the show but I wondered where they got the figure. It was one of those statistics with a rather fuzzy source. And like lots of statistics the more you delve into it the more complex it becomes.

The main question is 'what is incompetence?' How do you measure it? Who defines the measure?

I myself have been in the position where accusations of incompetence have been thrown. I would accept that, whilst in the midst of a stress and overwork induced nervous breakdown I was pretty bad at my job. It lasted for a few months and eventually my doctor had the good sense to stop me from working as he feared I might die. But does this make me an incompetent teacher? Well, temporarily I would say yes. At the time I was so addled that could no more keep on top of all my teaching responsibilities than swim butterfly across La Manche. But whether I deserve the label of incompetence is a wholly different matter.

What concerns about the news reports is that educational establishments are accused of recycling so-called incompetent teachers into other schools and colleges. This somehow implies that the incompetence is a permanent fixture. The equivalent would be branding 'incompetent' a footballer who breaks his leg, or a rock musician who makes one duff album. Nobody brands Prince incompetent for making the Batman Soundtrack.

Now there clearly are a percentage of teachers who are genuinely useless for whatever reason. I have certainly worked alongside some people who just didn't get it and singularly failed to discharge their duties on almost every level. Often they will do just enough to not stand out as worse than other underperformers. The problem here is that you are dealing with people - human lives. Anything less than your full on best effort isn't really good enough.

I even worked with one or two teachers who were actively incompetent. Anyone who knows me will know who I am talking about.

How or why they got away with it, I can't begin to say. Talk in the schools was of misplaced loyalty from the top brass, or even blackmail, as these teachers seemed to revel in deliberately doing a bad job. One person gloated about it. He is still, as far as I know, in situ. Still getting little promotions here and there. More responsibility for things to do badly or not at all.

But I have also worked alongside, and know many more, who have suffered periods where they underperformed. In pretty much every case this was due to stress, overwork, lack of support from their school management and in several cases bullying from other staff.

Most have gone on to achieve proper long-term success in new schools that offer them a healthier working environment.

Teachers who genuinely cannot cut it often leave early in their careers. In fact quite a few leave as soon as their training puts them into a classroom.

I am not saying that poor performance shouldn't be addressed, just that it needs to be looked for in the right places. Simplistic branding of professionals, scare stories and the reduction of complex problems to banner headlines helps nobody.

Monday, July 05, 2010

today : I listen to Janelle Monae

Sometime last year I was browsing music blogs randomly downloading stuff when I came across a track called 'Come Alive' by a singer called Janelle Monae. Because it was a kind of almost Cramps-style slightly deranged psychobilly tune that talked about being a schizo running wild, I thought that maybe it had come from the soundtrack of one of those Vampirey things like True Blood. It went onto a CD containing lots of different stuff and I listened to it quite a lot.

Then, a few weeks ago I heard a song on the radio. Just by chance I flicked onto 6music and there it was. It was groovy upbeat funk tune with a great female lead vocal. It always happens that when you catch a tune you want to know more about the DJ segues it into another tune or a trailer and you never get hear what it was. This caught my ear enough that I searched the tracklisting of the show online. Sure enough, the track seemed to be Tightrope by Janelle Monae.

So I got her albums, and they have instantly become the soundtrack of my summer. I ripped both albums (Metropolis and The Arch Android) onto a single CD and it has not been out of my car stereo ever since. Passengers always comment on how great the music sounds. What is that? Who is the singer?

I'm sure people have said this before but they have the feel of Prince. Not that they are exactly similar, but in that they are so varied and interesting as albums. Like Around the World in A Day and Under the Cherry Moon they are kind of all over the place but make perfect sense as whole albums.

If Monae can keep up this level then she is destined to become a major artist worth following.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

today : Musical footnotes for the last post

today : 2 coincidences clash

Serendipity is a funny thing. It's basically coincidence but still has the power to surprise and amuse.

Yesterday I was on my way to the supermarket. In the car I was playing a CD I'd made that has quite a few songs that I consider summery. On the way into the car-park the song that was playing was Good Lovin by the Rascals. I parked up, got out of the car and went to the machine to get some cash. A car passing behind me had its windows down. Playing inside the car was Good Lovin by the Rascals. Now that's quite common if you're listening to something like Queen (which I never do) or currently popular songs. But Good Lovin, although not totally obscure, is not really a song you hear very often around. Don't know why - it's fantastic.

Today I went again to the same supermarket to pick up a couple of items. On the way into the car-park my CD was playing Two Sevens Clash by Culture. It took me a couple of minutes to find a space so I sat and listened to it almost all the way through. Eventually I found a spot and parked up. As I got out of the car I waited to let another car go by before I crossed the car park to the supermarket door. It being Summer, pretty much every car has windows down. The car passing in front of me was being driven by someone I know. Not well, but someone I worked with briefly a few years ago. I can't remember his name. But this was not the extent of the coincidence, as on the stereo of his car he was playing Two Sevens Clash by Culture.

I live in an area that in no way could be described as a hub of Rastafarianism. In fact there are very few Afro-Caribbean people at all in the vicinity. It wouldn't have been so shocking if I was playing Bob Marley and someone else was playing Bob Marley. But Culture? Never had a hit, never played on the radio and to all intents and purposes pretty obscure - known only by a certain generation and even then a rather small sub group of rastas and dub obsessives like my friend Guy. For it to randomly appear in my day in such a random way was worthy of a blog-post methinks.

A friend of mine (from England) was once walking through an American university town. Princeton or New Haven CT or Cambridge MA. Somewhere like that. She was talking to her companion about someone she went to University in England with several years before, only she couldn't recall the person's surname. Her memory was jogged when the subject of her story walked around the corner and bumped into them. In later discussion she wondered if she had unconsciously clocked the person in the vicinity and that was what inspired her story about them. I prefer to think it was just a freak coincidence.

I myself was once a shopping mall in the USA. I'm pretty sure it was Woodfield Mall in Schaumberg Illinois. I walked past a group of those fake market barrows talking to my friend Becky. A hand grabbed my shoulder from behind and I thought, for a second, that I was being mugged. It turned out to be one of the barrow stall-holders. He was selling slightly cheesy print-out certificates with the etymology of names on them. He told me that I was from North Leeds, and even named the suburb. I played along and he went further, narrowing my accent down to the area between two main roads - perhaps 3 square miles. I was astonished. We didn't know each other but he had grown up about half a mile from me. On further discussion we found out that his younger sister had been at my school and that she'd sung in the chorus of a couple of school musicals where I'd played guitar in the band (she must have then attended the legendary last night parties, but I cannot be expected to remember anything coherent about the parties. That's what made them legendary). I recognised the name but couldn't put a face to his sister.

But that didn't detract from the coincidence. The guy had been living in Chicago for many years. He was no linguist or expert in accents. It was just that my voice had stood out so specifically as exactly the same as his, that he decided I could only be from where he was from, almost 4000 miles away.