XX

As GofaDM nears its six-thousandth page view, I thought I would tackle a subject on which I am even less qualified to pontificate than usual.

Feminism has been much in the news over the last couple of months and so I decided it was time, as a middle-aged man, to add my contribution.  To be honest, I have only one issue with feminism and that is the fact that it is so obviously still needed in the UK in 2013.  Nevertheless, I have no desire to retrain as a woman at this stage in my life – I haven’t made a particularly great fist of being a man and frankly feel the learning curve for a new gender is probably beyond me (added to which I’m not sure my current wardrobe would be suitable).

There has clearly been some progress since I was a lad, but I fear much of it has been what I might term “negative equality” – things are more equal, but this is not necessarily to anyone’s advantage.  Actuaries can now find the same stupidity bump in the mortality curve for young women that was long the preserve of only young men and traditionally male causes of ill-health caused by dissipation now afflict the distaff as well.  The England Women’s Football team in a recent international competition put in a performance so dire they are clearly now the equal of their male counterparts – though no doubt did so with a lot less falling over and for far less money.  I would have to admit that I don’t watch women’s sport (and not just because it is so hard to find on television) but then I don’t watch any men’s sport either – so I think that just shows a lack of interest in sport rather than any bias.  From the other direction, men are now being subjected to some of the same degree of objectification with the resultant obsession about their appearance that was once only visited upon the stronger sex.

I suppose it is positive that casual sexism is now often commented on with opprobrium, though I fear its eradication is a still rather a long way off.  Even the much (and probably rightly) maligned Culture Secretary has taken to upbraiding offenders – though seems much more willing to tackle the easy (but more distant) targets of BBC sport commentators and rather less keen to tackle her own cabinet colleagues (the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary to name but two in the news for their casual sexism in recent months).

We do seem to be seeing and hearing a few more women in the media and some of them are even over 30.  However, there does still seem to be the idea that women are like plutonium in that if you have too great a mass in one place disaster will ensue – the safe sub-critical mass for women would seem to be one woman.  I find this mystifying – the episode of Heresy with an all female panel (and chair) struck me as a great success and the News Quiz often survives with two women sharing a stage (though not so far as I can recall has it ever risked three).  The Nature podcast now has two female presenters and often a third being interviewed – and all female panels on In Our Time are no longer unheard of.  The top guests on the latest serious of The Life Scientific were almost all women (though an honourable mention must go to David Spiegelhalter) and they make up a good proportion of the essayists on A Point of View.  However, the best thing I have heard on Radio 4 for a long time (perhaps ever) was Gillian Tett speaking on Pop-Up Ideas – and she had tough competition from two other quite excellent talks.  This 15 minute slot was worth this year’s License Fee on its own (and that of several more years to come) and was so good I bought a copy of the weekend FT which I believe contains more of the same for the substantial investment of £3 (for a newspaper!).  I suspect the FT is no more of a fan of the BBC than is Maria Miller, but as a result of its good offices they now have some of my money.  Whether they see any more of it will depend on the quality of their own work…

I have been lucky enough to spend more than half of what I like to call my “career” working for women.  This may be about to come to an end and I may find myself working for a chap – I find this a somewhat disquieting prospect which may explain the direction of my thoughts and this post.  I fear as a society we are never going to win the Global Race (an event with somewhat uncertain rules or objectives, but which the PM seems very keen we all compete in) if we neglect the talents of a rather significant portion of our population and denigrate (or far worse) those whose talents do gain even a small measure of public recognition.  If one were to believe the media, or some proponents of the world’s major religions, it would seem that women are minority to be feared.  It seems that if they are seen wearing anything more flattering or revealing than a marquee, we poor men will be driven quite mad with desire and unable to stand against them – though I notice that this weakness doesn’t seem to extend much beyond indulgence in the more basic gland games.   It certainly doesn’t seem to have been all that effective in achieving true equality or a senior position in the hierarchy of most of those organisations claiming to represent the world’s more famous invisible friends.

This post should probably conclude with some exhortation to action – but I don’t think the readership is really large enough to effect a great deal of change.  It would seem that the phrase “do unto others…” has been around for a good 2500 years – and appears in both secular and religious literature from a very wide range of cultures.  I can only assume that despite our Linnean name (Homo sapiens – go on, tell me you haven’t missed it!) which translates as “wise man” we can be extraordinarily dense when it comes to putting such a simple idea into action.

They paved paradise

As my time as a resident of South Cambs draws to close – well, probably draws to a close, you can never by entirely sure with the rather painful process of moving house in England and Wales (Scotland, as so often, has its own programme) – Cambridge conspires to remind me of what a splendid place it is to live.  Joni Mitchell was right,  “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” – and some of her other lyrics still ring worryingly true more than 40 years later.  Given the current plethora of newly introduced tree diseases afflicting these shores, a tree museum may soon be the only option for those of an arboreal bent in the UK (and not just Honolulu).

A real summer has been delivered to much of the UK after a gap of several years, and a trip to the Proms last week reminded me of how good it is not to live in London at such times.  Trying to live in a city where most of the infrastructure was built before the invention of air conditioning (and cannot be retrofitted) is no fun at all when the temperature rises much above 20°C – and above 25°C it becomes seriously unpleasant.  The RAH was as hot as Hades (though had been worse earlier in the week, added to which I’m not entirely sure that the ancient Greeks considered the underworld to be especially warm), though luckily unlike the poor musicians I was not having to work in that environment nor wear a lounge suit.  However, I am of an age (or social class) where I find it impossible to wear shorts to see classical music or theatre – despite my relatively nicely sculpted lower legs – and so was somewhat formally attired.

Cambridge too is alive with the sound of music (though mercifully free of singing nuns) as the Summer Musical Festival is in full swing.  Thursday night I had the joy of seeing the Aronowitz Ensemble at the St John’s Divinity school.  This is a period building on which a serious amount of money has been spent recently – so much so that it puts most London corporate headquarters to shame (or at least those the day job has allowed me to peruse internally) – and which included the joy of efficient air conditioning.  A really fabulous concert at a comfortable temperature, with the first piano quintet by Dohnanyi a particular highlight (and one previously totally unknown to me).

Friday night saw me at a garden party in the garden of Clare College with, among other luminaries, our previous Archbishop of Canterbury (who was not only less tall than expected, but much more slender.  I fear an Archbishop’s vestments are less than flattering to the slighter figure and I think I shall eschew episcopal purple myself in future).  This was followed by a stunning performance of the Monteverdi Vespers (of 1610) in the chapel of King’s College – and I had a seat in one of the few areas of that elevated building with decent acoustics.  My own singing has a way to go yet…

Over a beer after the concert, the organist claimed to recognise me – which was odd, as he is quite famous and I am not.  Even stranger, perhaps, as I take the word “voluntary” in the phrase “organ voluntary” very seriously and tend to opt-out wherever possible – except for one famous occasion in Edinburgh where I learnt the important lesson that clavier does not always refer to the piano and had to sit through nearly two hours of organ recital (it was tough, but good old English fear of embarrassment got me through – or at least prevented me from leaving).  Still, many other musical shibboleths have fallen in my time in Cambridge, so I am (bravely) going to see this chap perform next week – well, he was good to chat to and the main work is called Cycles, so I felt the cold, dead hand of destiny on my shoulder and will face my phobia.

Talking, as I nearly was, about celebrity encounters – earlier in the week I bumped into Stephen Hawking multiple times at the flicks.  As a result, I caught a prolonged glimpse of the screen of his speech synthesiser and it would seem to have a special function to produce puns – well, there was a section headed “\pun” and I extrapolated freely.  I find it very reassuring that a man of his eminence still enjoys a pun – and so what little guilt I feel about including them in this blog or in my Twitter ravings has been assuaged.  (Insincere apologies to those of you hoping I might grow out of this habit.)

Cambridge is pretty good for spotting those that I consider to be celebrities – generally academics and intellectuals – but annoyingly has never managed to furnish me with a close encounter (of any kind) with Mary Beard.  If I were to have heroes, should would definitely be one.  Still, I’m young(ish) yet and so there is always hope – or I could venture up the Huntingdon Road towards Girton, but that feels like cheating.

I console myself that Cambridge is not that far from the south coast via the miracle of the railways (larger water fowl permitting), so even once I’ve departed these shores (or should that be “banks” in the case of a river?) I’m planning to be a pretty frequent visitor so that I can continue to enjoy its musical, architectural and intellectual delights.  Anyway, my new home will be surrounded be stacks of new delights (a river, a forest and the coast to name but three) – so with a little low animal cunning (perhaps that of a stoat or weasel, the giraffe – for example – lacks cunning) I should be able to have the best of both worlds!

Selling your grandmother(s)

Long ago, I devised a measure to rate the naked ambition of one of my then colleagues.  This was based on the number of his grandmothers he would be willing to sell to climb the next rung up the corporate ladder.  In those more innocent days, I was not positing that the sold grandparents would wind up in a 100% beef lasagne, probably just on a quay-side in Valparaiso – a location for some reason linked in my mind to the white slave trade (I have no idea why and I would like to apologise unreservedly to the Chilean port for this base canard).  On this scale, my ex-colleague scored significantly above two – thus requiring the imagining of a thriving secondary market in female grandparents.

This government seems to share the messianic zeal for privatisation of its ideological predecessor – well, I say ideological, though in my more cynical moments (basically, those moments between me waking in the morning and falling asleep at night) I suspect it has far more to do with the financial kick-backs.  I might take a different view of privatisation had ever proved successful, but with the mess made of the railways and with BT and the privatised utilities being among the most hated and least trusted corporations in the land – the successful privatisation (from the perspective of the UK populace) is as rare as hen’s teeth or frog’s fur.  Privatisation has often been described as selling the family silver – usually at massively below its “market” value – but I think recent news suggests we have now moved into selling the family (or at least its older, female members).

Yesterday, I gave blood – the quickest method of weight-loss I know, though one somewhat ameliorated by the subsequent gorging on free biscuits.  For my previous 74 donations, this blood was used purely for the public weal – but now, it would seem that my public spirit is also to enrich a bunch of US venture capitalists.  In the catalogue of wickedness perpetrated by this government, this sets a new low.  It also strikes me as very dangerous to introduce market norms where they do not belong – perhaps the government would do well to read Michael Sandel’s excellent book What Money Can’t Buy.  I do wonder if people will be quite so willing to give freely of their life blood if such generosity is going to reward foreign venture capitalists?  I am far from convinced that I trust commercial interest with our blood supply – let’s face it, commercial corporations have not covered themselves in glory in recent years with their probity (particularly, when they thought no-one was looking or had ensured that it was in people’s financial interest not to look).  I wonder how long we will have to wait before the horse plasma scandal breaks?

Keeping tabs on the undead

The zombie would seem to be taking over from the vampire as the undead genre of choice at the moment.  Not quite sure what produced this shift, but I guess your typical zombie is much less demanding on the script-writing front, so it may be a budget-led decision.

I tend not to be much of a fan of the zombie – my respect for the second law of thermodynamics leaves me with a visceral distrust of them.  Having said that, the BBC has produced (and in one case, rather foolishly cancelled) two decent zombie-style series in the last couple of years:  The Fades and In the Flesh.  I also really enjoyed Warm Bodies – both the movie and the original book – so perhaps my hard-line positioning is weakening(though all my examples to include rather atypical zombies).

In the news yesterday, G4S were referred to the Serious Fraud Office for allegedly defrauding the UK taxpayer of millions of pounds.  I seem to recall that it was this self-same G4S who so singularly failed to recruit sufficient security staff for last year’s London Olympics.  At that time, they were the second largest employer of their kind in the world – presumably they would have been the largest if they’d been a tad more competent with the hiring.  Casting my mind back a little further, I seem to remember this same company was also justly famed for losing prisoners or delivering them to the wrong places.  It would seem that repeated incompetence and failure is no barrier to success if your client is the government – indeed, it seems to be a prerequisite (though perhaps only if you are a private company willing to bankroll the gravy train that seems to have largely replaced UK politics).

Anyway, one of the frauds of which G4S stands accused is charging the taxpayer to monitor the whereabouts of the dead – via electronic tags, I believe.  Given their rather difficult relationship with competence, perhaps this is as far as one might expect their capabilities to run – in general, the quick are far more tricksy to keep tabs on than the dead.  But, I prefer to be more charitable – let’s face it, we all need to be a lot more charitable given the rather rapid destruction of support for the arts and society’s weakest members.  I am aware that several councils have had FoI requests to discover what disaster planning they have in place to cope with a zombie apocalypse.  My response would be a reminder of the aforementioned second law of thermodynamics – but perhaps I’m just being wilfully blind to the approaching threat.  Perhaps we will all be glad that G4S has apparently been putting in so much effort to tracking the dead when they start rising from their graves and shambling after us seeking our brains for nourishment.  Then again, the more I see of the news the more I fear that the undead will find rather thin pickings in the grey matter department when they look to humanity to provide neuronal nibbles.

Perhaps their earlier failings were an attempt to boost falling incomes in the police and military and a brave, early attempt to tackle prison over-crowding.  Or perhaps I am allowing my charitable nature to overcome my common sense..

The heat is on

Not, I should make clear, the heating.  That hasn’t been on for months – I am either very green or cheap, take your pick!

No, South Cambs (and much of the rest of the UK) has been basking in what I think we used to call a “summer”.  This is a season I vaguely remember from my distant youth, but haven’t seem much of in recent years.  So long has it been, that I have had to dig out long forgotten clothing, from the places I had squirrelled it away, appropriate for temperatures touching the eighties (Fahrenheit).

I must admit that I’m not terribly keen on hot weather – and hot, sunny weather even less.  I’m fine up to around 70°F, but much above that I grow rapidly less keen – though with very low humidity it can be acceptable in a holiday destination.  As a result, beach holidays do not appeal – I can spend about 5 minutes on a beach before I’m bored, you can’t even comfortably read a book because of the glare, and what something else to do.

I realise this is not a common view in the current era, where we are all assumed to want hot, sunny weather.  I have no particular aesthetic objection to acquiring a modest tan – though recognise this view is very much of my time, a few years back I’d no doubt have been coating myself in white lead to appear as pallid as possible.  Whilst exposure to sunshine is probably less deadly than lead-based cosmetics, it still isn’t terribly good for one – even ignoring the potential cellular and DNA-damage, it is terribly ageing and I’m looking quite aged enough already thank you very much.  As a result, I feel I have to coat myself in foul, titanium dioxide based gunk to protect my alabaster limbs and face from the sun’s ultry violet rays (I know, I’m not a proper Englishmen – must be my Welsh roots showing, we of the Principality are much better in rain than sun).  As this blog may have mentioned before, I hate getting my hands dirty (literally, I’m fine with figurative filth) and suntan lotion makes me feel dirty.  Roll on MAA-based lotions – well, it works for coral and seem much less objectionable (well, at least according to the late lamented Material World).

Cycling in hot, sunny weather is also a terribly sweaty experience – one is relatively fine while moving as a result of the natural, forced-air conditioning.  However, as soon as you stop at a junction, one is instantly rendered rather wet (and not in a nice way).  This is not the ideal state of arrival at a concert or theatre – few of which provide showering facilities for their patrons (or probably their performers in some cases!).  As the government seems to have money (ours) to burn on infrastructure projects, can I suggest public showers in our major towns and cities?

So, all-in-all, if we are going to be changing this climate (and we seem very keen to do so) could I put in a request that we cap the temperatures for the southern half of the UK at around room temperature with light winds and easily forecasted rain.  Otherwise, I may have to defect to Alex Salmond’s new kingdom.

Making plans for whom?

If you are a fan of Bones and have yet to see the penultimate episode of series 6, then I should warn you that this post contains a serious spoiler.

I saw this episode last night (intentionally lacking Sky Living, I have to tread the box-set route) and was shocked when the wretches killed off my favourite squint.  Not sure why I’d prefer the midland-born Brit obsessed by pointless facts (solipsistic, moi?), but nevertheless I had grown quite fond of Vincent Nigel-Murray.  And, what a wonderful – if improbable – character name.  Last night I saw him gunned down and suspect that perhaps the Yanks still have a bit of a chip on the shoulder after the whole unpleasantness in the third quarter of the eighteenth century.  We Brits are fine in Hollywood as long as we are playing dastardly villains or pretend a local accent, but are not permitted under any other circumstances.

Anyway, as I was trying to deal with this tragedy I was struck by the fact that I couldn’t think of any Americans – famous or otherwise – named Nigel (nor did a web search yield any fruit).  I can think of heaps of my compatriots, going back at least as far as the Victorians and the steam engineer Sir Nigel Gresley (immortalised in an A4 Pacific locomotive.  Talking of which, I know someone who has a Class 365 EMU named after him – I don’t think I have the hang of celebrity at all, do I?) – but none from across the herring pond.  Given their penchant for making up truly extraordinary new names, I wonder what the reason for this apparent aversion to Nigel might be?  Or is the US full of Nigels and this is just my ignorance speaking?

Over to you…

Fighting yesterday’s battles

I think one of the problems with governments is that they feel the need to govern.  This leaves them with the idea that they should be doing something, should always be busy legislating away.  This is a great way to spend money – which otherwise might have to be used to support worthy causes – and keeps our struggling management consultancy and legal sectors going in these difficult times.  Not so sure it’s doing much for the fortunes of UK plc, or its citizens…

Today, Michael Gove – who frankly could do with a time-consuming hobby – has announced yet more changes to our education system.  He seems keen on students learning the 12 times table (as I did, though in my case this was probably still a residual memory of pounds, shillings and pence at play) and learning “facts”.  He also seems keen that all knowledge is assessed by carrying out one-off tests in June.  I have much sympathy with this approach as it matches my own upbringing (I am of a similar age to Mr Gove) and I was always very good at regurgitating facts (and still am given half a chance).  I particularly like the idea of having to learn some poetry by heart – I never really got to do this, and feel it might come in handy (though would be a lot less impressive if lots of young people can do it too).  Unlike Mr Gove, I don’t necessarily think it is a good plan to inflict my ill-thought out gut-reactions on a generation of this country’s children.

As with so much government policy, I feel that Mr G is preparing our children for life in the 1980s – and unless he is also working on some major advances in temporal engineering this is a decade they are unlikely to experience first hand.  I would suggest that knowledge of a barrage of facts historical (even should they be in order categorical) has never had less value than it does today (unless his plan is that the UK’s fortunes will be restored by winning pub quizzes across the world).  Any self-respecting young person can find facts in the twinkling of a smart phone, though sadly these facts may be hiding needle-like in a haystack of dis-information.  What we should probably be teaching the young to do is to separate facts from plausible and partisan fictions – though such skills may not appeal much to a politician.  I can’t imagine that knowing the data of the Battle of Waterloo is going to help much in the international job market of 2020 or 2030 – though some overview of the chronology of world history and how to understand why things happen might be.

I’m also not wholly convinced about the value of the 12 times table,: I’m a big fan of mental arithmetic, but to be honest kids would be better of learning the tricks (and cheats) of how to do this than pfaffing around with multiples of 12 (now, 16 I could understand as this has some use via hexadecimal).  I was a terrible show-off at school (and not much has changed) and learned the 13 times table – but rarely have to move beyond the 10 times table in real life as low animal cunning avoids one having to use anything higher.

I think, in general, beyond the ability to use English to communicate successfully and to understand mathematics sufficiently to know when one is being conned (as one will be on a daily basis – either intentionally or through the ignorance of others), any other skills are nice to have and could come from anywhere in the vast smorgasbord of knowledge that exists.  Education should act to pass on the joy of learning, teaching how to find out information and how to generalise and extrapolate from what you already know (and how not to!).  I’d also suggest any learning relating to the creativity or the arts might be a good bet – I suspect that even by 2030 these skills will not have been supplanted by computers and, if we manage to retain any culture of our own, might still be a valuable export (as they are today).  However, I suspect we shouldn’t be too prescriptive, we should perhaps let a thousands flowers bloom and hope some of them make sense later rather than sticking all of our eggs into rather a small basket.

This is not the only area where current government policy seems to be pandering to my prejudices – it really is the right time to be forty-something.  Despite the occasional dodgy experience, I am a big fan of the railways and have always been impressed by heavy engineering and fast trains.  As a result, HS2 would seem to be tailored to tick all my boxes (which is fine between consenting adults in the privacy of their own home).  However, with mature reflection it might perhaps not seem like quite such a great idea.  I believe it will knock 30 minutes off the journey time from London and Birmingham (and presumably the other way as well), but won’t be doing this until the 2030s.  Given that it is already quite possible to work very successfully on the train – Virgin has enviably reliable wifi, if rather iffy mobile reception on its trains – what is the business person gaining after this very long wait?  Wouldn’t they rather have a decent, reliable service today?  Will people still need to travel for business meetings in the 2030s?  Once again, this strikes me as an investment that if made in the 1980s would be of huge benefit to the UK today – but I have my doubts about how valuable it will be in 20 years time.  I think I would make a similar argument about expanding London’s airports – we are once again solving yesterday’s problems but with a delivery time in the rather distant future.

A final current example might be the willingness to throw money at EDF in the hope they will build a nuclear power station in the UK.  As recent news has shown, we are likely to suffer a shortage of power in the next five years – but sadly a new nuclear power station is unlikely to arrive until the mid 2020s.  Much of the money invested will, presumably wind up in France, so this seems to be an infrastructure project to boost the flagging French economy and to deliver a solution to the UK a good five years after the problem (is anyone else thinking of aircraft-free aircraft carriers?).  Now, if we’d done this 10 years ago we’d be sitting pretty with plenty of low carbon generation to meet our electricity needs: once again, fighting yesterday’s battles.

I’m all for investing in our young people and our infrastructure – but perhaps short-term, less prescriptive objectives might be a better route to a successful tomorrow?  Neither governments (of any political persuasion or nationality) nor major corporations have proved even remotely adept at predicting what will be relevant 20 years in the future.  Nor have either proved all that good at delivering very large projects on time or budget (or even anywhere Ryanair would be willing to land and claim was close).  So, perhaps we should favour policies which spread our eggs across a lot more (lower cost) baskets.  After all, it is an awful lot of our money they are betting on these horses – they could at least try an each-way bet, surely?