Where are you from?

Today’s title is a question I was asked earlier in the week, but to which I found I lack a good or ready answer.  I know where I was born and where I was brought up – but I don’t really feel I am “from” either of those.  This lack of belonging to my place of birth can be explained by my forced departure before I was even six months old.  I’m less sure where my lack of belonging to the location of my childhood originates – perhaps just prolonged absence?

I could – and did – list various of the places I’ve lived over the years since my body (though not my mind) reached adulthood.  However, this does not seem a terribly good answer to a perfectly banal question.  I am clearly from the UK, but this only works as an answer if the question is posed by Johnny Foreigner, so am I somehow rootless beyond my basic nationality?

The (relatively) recent house move had already led me to ponder the nature of home and where it lies.  For quite some time, I continued to view Cambridge as “home” – and I can still catch myself thinking in that way even now.  Still, since the arrival of the new sofa (the old one being too large to make the move), Southampton has been fairly securely established as “home”: hat location is surprisingly unimportant, despite what Paul Young would have you believe.  However, Southampton is not alone in holding this honour.  Cambridge is still “home”, particularly when I am there or I see it on the screen.  After an absence of 25 years, a couple of trips back to Oxford over the summer have made it clear that the city of dreaming spires is also still “home” – I suppose I did live there for three years (well, nearly half of three years – during term time – to be strictly accurate) but its continuing claim on me is a little surprising.  More surprising still is that Edinburgh also qualifies as “home” despite the fact that I have never lived there (or even owned so much as a deck chair there, let alone a settee) and only visited the city sporadically for the last 6 or 7 years – but I am quite familiar with the bus routes (or at least some of them).

I’m struggling to find any obvious common link between my various “homes”, which presumably means I must blame affect (or go the way of Dr Freud and blame my mother and/or a childhood trauma).

Do others have the same issue responding to the question “where are you from”?  Or, is it just me?

Anyways, the originator of this question was much clearer about where she was from as she cut my hair.  She hailed from Middlesborough, or more accurately Great Ayton, and so my list-based answer of places inhabited was sufficient to spark lively conversation.  We chatted about the joys of a night out in the ‘Borough on the lash and the beauty of the Cleveland Hills with particular reference to Roseberry Topping (a hill rather than a dessert) and the simple pleasure to be gained from a beer and steak sandwich following its evening ascent.  So, despite my failure to properly answer the question and the subsequent soul-searching, the interrogative device served its purpose admirably.  I suspect there is a lesson here for me to learn…

Moving to the Hamptons

An aspiration, I believe, for many a New Yorker though my own move was not to Long Island (though I do remain resident on a much longer island).  Whilst Southampton shares a name (and given the etymology of said name, can be considered the original) with one of the Hamptons most desirable villages, I doubt the folk of the four boroughs are queuing to move here.

After three months as a resident, I can say that Southampton is no Cambridge – the architecture would (on the whole) be considered less attractive and despite a river I have yet to see a punt.  Some of the dodgy architecture can be blamed on the Luftwaffe, though I fear the British must take the blame for the re-building.  It does, however, have some history – it claims it was from here that Cnut failed to command the sea (wisely eschewing use of the Illearth stone) – and has a long naval tradition.

When I moved from Crouch End to Cambridge, I noted the increased obesity of the residents in my new domicile.    This effect was repeated with my most recent move.  I believe this is a class (or socio-economic effect); it is extraordinary that within a century obesity has gone from being a signifier of extreme wealth to one of near poverty.

It is also quite astonishingly green in many parts with a very generous provision of parks surrounding the city centre and the Common just to the north.  My new demesne lies within a Georgian crescent (well, demi-crescent) facing a small park and the main law courts (so, I still see plenty of police action).  Whilst the frontage and hall floor are original, the rest is more recently-built and so offers the high ceilings and tall windows of the past but modern levels of sound and heat insulation.  It lies betwixt the soi-disant Cultural Quarter and the Common and the older of the two universities – so little that I might want to visit is more than a mile or two away (including those vital pillars of a chap’s life: Waitrose, John Lewis, the main library and the railway station).

Talking of the universities, my new gym is associated with the johnny-come-lately uni (made famous as the seat of John Lloyd’s professor of ignorance in this latest series of the Museum of Curiosity).  This gains over previous gymnasia in its cheapness and proximity, but mostly in that it has both a tower and crenellations!  As the building seems less than a century old, I presume these are a decorative flourish and have never been used to repel an attack but do make a pleasant change from the retail “barns” which house so many modern fitness (and other) facilities.

The old university is comprised of modern buildings but in rather fine, tree-filled grounds.  It also house an excellent music facility in the Turner Sims and a decent theatre in the Nuffield.  I may talk more of these anon, but they do boast a very fine range of both ice cream and beer at very competitive prices!

Southampton provides a river and the sea at close hand, though I have yet to actually see the briny (however, I have seen some very large boats dominating the skyline – my first being the Queen Mary 2).  It lies within easy cycling distance of the New Forest: yet another trip I have yet to make.  What it also offers is very, direct good rail links to a surprisingly wide area of the UK – though Network Rail is contriving to make weekend or evening trips to London rather undesirable unless one wishes to invest an awful lot of time (and probably a bus journey) to return home.  As a result, I have visited Oxford, Salisbury and Chichester for weekend fun since my move – all take less time than going to London from Cambridge and by avoiding going via London are a surprisingly cheap option (even without booking months in advance).

More of Oxford and Chichester another time, but I shall mention Salisbury now.  I used to go there when but a lad, but the city now seemed very unfamiliar – even the cathedral.  However, I did find Reeves the Baker (fitted with somewhat different signage than in the 70s) and they still offered lardy cake.  Proust had his madeleine, for me the first mouthful of lardy cake and my temps perdu flooded back like soapy water to a badly-plumbed washing machine.  The city costs only pennies more to visit than the cost of visiting Cambridge by bus from Sawston – and takes less time to reach despite the substantially greater distance.

Perhaps Salisbury’s greatest asset (or at least one of the greats) is the Playhouse.  I have seen a truly excellent production of 1984 (which will soon drive me back to the book, which I last read when 12 – which might have been a tad precocious , or merely premature) and my first taste of Ibsen with Ghosts (the hammer-blow ending of which reminded me of Katya Kabanova – pretentious, moi?).  Even better, it is amazingly cheap for a matinée seat at a mere £15 and offers a decent interval refreshment.

So, all-in-all, the move is proving a success – though I do miss Cambridge – and my plan to see the UK by living in its various parts (so much better than being a mere tourist) proceeds apace.

Notes on (many) a scandal

Scandals do seem terribly important in the world – without them the media would have to fall back on celebrity trivia, the voluminous output of the world’s PR machine and speculation for even more of their “news” content than is already the case

The media have themselves been rather mired in scandal of late which has allowed politicians, an unsavoury group that the fourth estate is supposed to keep in check, to gain the upper hand.  I’m not sure this is terribly healthy in a democracy – I was under the impression that a free press was quite an important element of maintaining a nominally free society. I’m not at all clear what this new Royal Charter is supposed to achieve – other than as a piece of political mis-direction – as all the recent press naughtiness it is supposed to prevent already seems to be covered by existing (if unenforced) laws.  Perhaps the money and time might have been better invested in improving enforcement of existing statutes rather than creating new ones not to enforce.

The press and politicos regularly come very low in measures of public trust – probably somewhere around the estate agent and second-hand car salesman of popular stereotype.  Rather than doing anything which might improve their standing, their main response seems to be to try and degrade public faith in much more popular and better trusted organisations (I’m sure attacks on Judi Dench and Stephen Fry can’t be far off).  I guess this is on the same principle that if you want to appear thinner, rather than losing weight you could save yourself effort by just hanging around with much fatter people.

Frequent targets for such attempts at public degradation would seem to be the Police, the BBC, the NHS and schools.  All have the major disadvantage that they are large, highly visible organisations heavily beholden to government (so are limited in how much they can fight back) and which have been used as political footballs for a very long time.  Being large organisations they make mistakes, sometimes terrible mistakes, as all large organisations do – but rarely receive huge bailouts using public funds in response as, to take but one example, the banks did in the not so distant past.  In common with most large organisations, they are all pretty dreadful at dealing with mistakes after they have been discovered – we don’t have to look far to see large private corporations with very well-funded PR departments making similar or worse messes.  I will, however, admit to frank amazement at how few corporate sex scandals dating back to the 1970s or 80s have yet surfaced which would suggest that some damage limitation is working very effectively (or is it just the lack of a celebrity angle preventing traction in the media?).

Many of the errors made by the public entities I have mentioned relate to, or are exacerbated by, the organisation tending to close ranks to protect apparent (or, indeed, actual) wrong doers.  Given the record of almost continuous attacks by both government and the press on these organisations for at least the 30 years when I have been (in age terms at least) an adult, this tendency to defensiveness is not so very surprising.  I have lost count of the number of major revolutions our schools and hospitals have been subjected to over the last couple of decades – any country or company treated this way would have been utterly destroyed by such treatment, but somehow education and the NHS struggle on surprisingly well.

Clearly, large publicly funded organisation require oversight – and this is, I believe, a role our elected representatives are supposed to fulfil.  However, this role seems rather incompatible with a number of other interactions between the overseers and the overseen:

  • the tendency of our representatives to use them as guinea pigs for any pet theory being hatched in the fevered mind of a cabinet minister (or his – or very rarely her – inconceivably highly-paid and unelected “advisers”);
  • their convenient status as a diversion from inconvenient political realities when the “bread-and-circuses” of celebrity tittle-tattle seems in danger of failing to placate the plebeian hordes; and
  • their role as a convenient source of savings or spending (delete as appropriate) to attract the floating voter in a very small number of marginal constituencies to allow our representatives to return to the Westminster gravy train.

Perhaps we need an apolitical elected body for such oversight, which might also be able to train its gimlet stare on the politically elected and the press?  The omens are not good, recent(ish) elections for the rather nebulous role of police commissioner were fully hijacked by the existing political lobbies and largely ignored by a disenchanted electorate.  How does one make electing an auditor seem worthwhile whilst keeping those already in power (or with hopes of quickly returning thereto) well away from it?  (Audit is always a tough sell, the role being likened to those that go around after a battle to stab the wounded).  Clearly we do not want to end up with the US system which, on recent showing, seems even worse than our own.  I’m open to ideas – or failing that, does anyone have Mary Warnock’s contact details?  She has a good track record in tackling very thorny issues as I was recently reminded by Lisa Jardine on A Point of View (discussing, as it transpires, an important issue unable to gain any attention from a scandal and celebrity-obsessed press).

Targetted advertising

Our privacy is under threat as never before – or so we are told – either by governments spending our money to spy on us or by mega-corporations trying to flog us stuff we neither need nor want.  I think I would find this much more terrifying if either group had shown themselves to be even remotely competent in using the information they have managed to inveigle (or just plain steal) from us.

Governments seem incapable of delivering any IT system larger than a small Excel spreadsheet without the cost over-running by multiple billions and the system arriving so late that being merely obsolete is a pipe-dream.   As a result, I shall focus my attention on the mega-corporations which our governments see as a universal aunt to solve all societies ills and to which stock markets attach quite extraordinary values.

I am a member(?) of Facebook and occasionally post my thoughts upon its willing platform – mostly whilst on long train journeys (any TV execs reading: I could be the next Michael Portillo – though I may struggle to seem quite that smug).  In return for this “free” service, Facebook delivers to my incredulous eyes a series of adverts which it has chosen specially for me.  It would seem that I am in need of a high-value divorce, a bevy of single girls (in my area!) and a discrete catheter.  I don’t recall ever mentioning problems with the female sex – either an excess or a lack – or any infirmity related to my bladder.

Twitter is no better: it too offers me soi-disant “promoted tweets” as compensation for offering me the ability to infrequently post poor quality jokes.  Most of these, along with many of the offerings from Facebook, could only be of interest to a reader resident in the US – and I have made no secret of the fact that I am not a US resident to both social networks (it is one of the few pieces of “personal” information I have vouchsafed to them).

If this is really the best they can do, I must wonder at (a) the due diligence performed by those advertising using their services and (b) their current stock valuations.  I fear the leader of the empire may be in state of some undress.

I don’t see a lot of advertising on the television, as I tend to record programmes on commercial channels and then fast forward through the ads.  This both spares me the generally tedious efforts of the advertising industry and allows me to watch two hours of television in around 90 minutes – so much more time efficient!  However, when at the cinema, I am a captive audience and see most of my moving ads (as opposed to the more static bill-board) there.  Theatre and classical music remain largely ad-free (if you ignore the programme).  This seems to be missing a trick as you have actors and/or musicians available who could usefully indulge in a bit of selling while the audience hobble to their seats.

I rather miss Pearl and Dean, and do wonder if they are still together – or just another one of this country’s rising divorce statistics.  Once, in the ABC in East Grinstead in the mid 80s, I was the sole audience member for a film entitled Turk 182.  Prior to the film beginning, we had the usual Pearl and Dean ad reel – but the film had been fed into the projector the wrong way round and it ran backwards.  The famous P&D theme sounds pretty much the same in reverse – these is no hidden demonic message (in case any readers had been worrying).

Nowadays, most of my cinema time is spent at a Picturehouse and so I have made study of the ads which are felt appropriate for an art house cinema audience.    We would seem to be in the market for broadband, moderately to very expensive cars and vodka – there is always an ad for vodka (drinking and driving seems to be positively encouraged at the flicks).  We are also subjected to an ad by a firm called Prime Location which I find actively offensive and which has convinced me never to use their services: I presume it is paid for by a consortium of other estate agents to wreck their business.  The catalogue of ads seems entirely independent of the choice of film – but my own anecdotal evidence would suggest that the choice of film does affect the audience (and, indeed, the film trailers shown).

Frankly, advertising seems only to be targetted at me in the sense that any projectile cast into the air at less than 11.2 km/s is being targetted at “the ground”.  Both will encounter their target, but not due to any virtue imparted by their method of delivery.  There is an old saying that those that can do, and those that can’t teach.  I have heard this extended to administration if teaching is too tricky – one can only imagine that marketing is all-too-often a very long way down this chain of possible careers.

Unveiled?

The hard-drinking, hush puppy wearing former Home Secretary Ken Clarke has come out against witnesses being allowed to wear a veil in court.  I suspect his targets here are the followers of Islam, rather than peri-nuptial brides.  Would he also require the extravagantly bearded to be shaved?  In some cases, this is nearly as concealing a veil and the beard seems to be on rise in this country – something I always like to imagine is an act of solidarity between the young and soi-disant hip and their Muslim brothers.

This started me thinking as to whether it was appropriate to insist that witnesses unveil themselves for court.  The issue seems to be the importance that the court, for which I presume we must read the jury, attaches to being able to see the face of a witness during their testimony.  I suspect this might not be quite such a good idea as is commonly thought.

Examination papers have for many years, at least dating back to the early 80s, been completely anonymised so that candidates are only identified by a number (which could explain Patrick McGoohan’s lack of examination success).  This is an attempt to prevent examiners being influenced – consciously or otherwise – by their prejudices when marking a paper.  I am fairly sure we are all prejudiced against some groups of people (I certainly am, though sometimes am self-aware enough to recognise this fact).  We are also wildly over-confident in our ability to detect falsehood in others and can be very quick to judge a person’s character (and much more) from a brief glimpse of their phizog.

To avoid the jury bringing all of this baggage to their evaluation of the evidence placed before them, it strikes me that ALL witnesses should be veiled – whether their religion, martial status or personal preference requires it or not.  Clearly, at some stage they would have to prove their identity (though on the basis of my passport photo, I’m not convinced that seeing the face is as much help as is often imagined), but on the basis of my extensive knowledge of the court system (watching and reading quite a lot of detective drama) this is not generally done in front of the jury.

It would also be nice for the witnesses to join in with the fancy dress element which seems so important in the courts in this country – though, I suppose it may risk leaving the jury feeling rather left out.

I went on to wonder if the voices of witnesses should also be concealed (a ring-modulator perhaps?  Or would the dalek effect by too distracting?) to avoid bias seeping in through that route?

The regular reader will have, of course, recognised that this post is mostly an attempt to wangle an invite to appear on the next series of Heresy to allow me to hob-nob (or enjoy any other biscuit) with Victoria Coren Mitchell.  Well, you can’t blame a chap for trying…