Wednesday, July 30, 2008

No time, no place to talk about the weather

The tedious thing about the British and the weather is when you find yourself a moment of great joy, tension or sadness and you find yourself having a conversation about the rain, the wind, the sunshine or the approaching cyclone. When you have relatives whom you have known for many years and you can't recall any conversation between you that wasn't about the weather. Or when all you ever hear about the weather is complaints, whether it is too cold, too fair or too middling.

But sometimes the weather is an entirely appropriate subject. In the last few days, we've been having a heatwave (not sure who decides it is a heatwave – when a leading supermarket claims to be selling 800 cucumbers an hour perhaps?). It is perfectly reasonable, therefore, for this event to come up in conversation; it probably impacts on all our lives in some small way. For my own part, my body has responded by sleeping half the day.

And when it comes to strangers, the subject of the weather is vital. Apparently they've published a guide for Polish people workinng in Devon which recommends breaking the ice with the natives by talking about the weather. Which makes me wonder how on Earth you begin a conversation with a stranger in Poland or any other country? I'm the last person to celebrate small-talk, but you have to start somewhere and being under the same sky is the only thing you can be sure you both have in common.

There is some skill to this, skill which the writer of this article hasn't fully mastered when he attempts to discuss the weather with his fellow commuters.
“Six were positively bright and chatty, one was too immersed in his iPod to hear me, another couldn't understand me and one gave a courteous response but then returned to reading his newspaper.”
See, one might regard it as the Golden Rule of starting a conversation with a stranger: If your intended stranger is currently reading, listening to music or engaged in a conversation with someone else, do not interrupt them in order to talk about the weather. Not only may this fail to illicit a response, but it is bad manners. And thus decidedly unBritish.

But of course, one does wonder whether talking to strangers, let alone talking to strangers about the weather, is a particularly British attribute. Clearly the London reporter wasn't used to it. Oop North, I often found myself indulging in meteological intercourse several times a day, but Down South (at least my corner of the South), one has to drag this stuff out of people.

My neighbours may be a particularly odd bunch and not representative of anyone. But they will not talk to us. In eighteen months only one person has volunteered a name. Even this most sociable of neighbours doesn't always say return a greeting but he does have a severe stammer so I might have gone indoors again before he can get it out (that isn't a joke; it is the benefit of the doubt). The other names we have learnt were obtained by direct interrogation and misdirected post. “Hello, I'm the Goldfish, I've just moved in next door.” (and not even that; I use my off-line handles for these purposes) didn't illicit any response whatsoever.

Don't get me wrong, they haven't turned against us; nobody is unpleasant and there's no community that we're being excluded from. We do hear chanting coming from the village green of a full moon, but that's probably just the Neighbourhood Watch.

Anyway, not sure what I'm rabbitting on about, except, it is jolly hot just now, isn't it?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


I've not gone quiet because I am particularly unwell, I just seem to have slowed right down. Or perhaps it is you lot who have sped up. Anyway, I am okay, merely trundling along at a more leisurely pace than the rest of the world at the moment. And I'm not getting anything done.

Friday, July 18, 2008

House Martin Drama

The house martin nest built in the apex of our roof collapsed today under the weight of the chubby little house martin chicks. It is as yet unclear as to whether this disaster is the result of shoddy workmanship or rising obesity among house martins.

One of the chicks is staying balanced inside the ruined nest. There are a couple of chicks on a nearby rooftop who apparently managed to fly to safety. But one young House Martin was found on the grass. We haven't cut our grass this year so there is quite a lot of cover, but it was still an apparently flightless black and white bird on the ground surrounded by green. It had to be rescued!

Fortunately, you may remember that we have six chronically unoccupied bird-houses, so [...] picked up the bird and delivered it to the safety of the top of this house. Concerned it would need shelter later on, he then enlarged the hole in another bird-house, one with more of a ledge, placed dry grass in it and transferred the infant.

But would parent birds feed their chicks when they are in two different places? We watched and waited. The baby bird went into his new shelter, and soon enough the parent came to visit it. The united parent and chick had a prolonged conversation, after which the youngster flew all the way up to our rooftop.

So it could fly after all. And the birds could probably have sorted themselves out without our intervention. However, after flying all the way from Africa, all the weeks it took those martins to build that nest and all the months that they've been feeding those chicks, we could hardly stand by and watch the young bird get gobbled by a cat.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What would you do if I sang out of tune?

A painting of my friend VicThis is a portrait of my friend Vic, whose thirtieth birthday we've been at this weekend. She is the first person I have painted who isn't a blood relative and thus could conceivable disown me if my painting compared to my cake-decorating skills. As she was still talking to me a full 48 hours after seeing it, fingers crossed.

We had a very good weekend. Vic rented out an enormous house called Black Dyke Barns, not far from here, where a small gang of us hung out and lounged about for a few days. Apparently (according to the guest book) the place has been used for filming by the adult entertainment industry. This knowledge haunted us throughout the weekend.

Other highlights included our performance of With a Little Help From My Friends on guitar, ukelele, tin whistle and a string instrument which is possible a zither (we weren't sure), played in a key that none of us could consistently sing at. There were also sparklers (see below), my decisive victory at Bagpuss, the boardgame and the formation of a top secret underworld organisation of as yet indeterminate purpose. A shadowy figure drawing a V with a sparklerWe came up with a really good name but it is top secret.

Having borrowed and learned to play Don't look back in anger on aformentioned ukelele I have fallen in love. It only has four strings! My guitar is broody! And I've already seen a purple one on eBay!

Anyway, had a really good weekend, made new friends and probably didn't knacker myself too badly.

A belated Happy Bastille Day. Vive la France!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Mon amie la rose

A very pink roseWe've got a rose in our garden. I had noticed the beginnings of a bush but I don't think it flowered last year. It is a big fat gorgeous rose, the size of my fist.

We've also been watching bats in the evening. When I first saw them I hurriedly closed all the windows to stop them coming in the house and nesting in our underwear.

Incidentally, the best version of Mon amie la rose is by Natacha Atlas, who gives a little more welly than the original.

I am off partying for the rest of the weekend (seriously). Hope you all have a good one.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Why Positive Discrimination is a Bad Idea

Whilst I've been writing all about privilege, the government have been talking about the new Equality Bill, which is suring up age-discrimination legislation and pay transparency. But the biggest story form this concerns a backwards step.

I guess the reporting of this story proves a point I'm about to make. What is being proposed is that rules about discrimination will be loosened up so that in some cases, people can discriminate between groups where discrimination has previously been illegal. The legislation will make it equally legal to discriminate in favour of men as in favour of women as it will vice versa (if this can be justified), but it has been presented as exclusively about promoting the interests of women and minority groups to the extent that even the Observer ran with Equality move could hit white men

There are a few different terms for this practice; in the UK it is generally called positive discrimination, but some people prefer the more euphemistic and American term of affirmative action. The Equality Minister, Harriet Harman, has opted to combine the two into positive action (full of meaning, that one). In any case, it is all very disappointing.

The only way to achieve equality is to win the argument. People think that a particular difference matters when it doesn't matter at all. Through the power of reason, the truth is revealed. Unfortunately, it is not just one argument that takes place at one point in time, after which everyone is convinced - if this were the case, we'd have eliminated every conceivable form of prejudice several millennia ago. So the argument must be made and repeated again and again. Even after societal consensus is achieved it bears repeating so that we remember why we behave as we do.

Legislation which outlaws discrimination supports this process in several ways. It raises the profile of the argument and provides an official line. Age discrimination now has official disapproval. It is also effective against the worse excesses of discrimination. The matter is taken more seriously because it is the law, as opposed to a nice idea, to treat people equally. And by enabling some people to get the jobs they deserved (or whatever else), it provides empirical evidence as to the wisdom of equality; look what these folks have achieved when just a short time ago they wouldn't have been given a chance.

However, legislation can only ever support this process. The more entrenched a prejudice is, the longer it takes and if society is fundamentally against a thing, it cannot work at all. And anyway, equality legislation is fantastically difficult to enforce; it is the civil law so affected individuals need to litigate to have their rights upheld. And unless the defendant has been very careless, discrimination in something like recruitment is almost impossible to prove; there are lots of subtle factors that can distinguish any two promising candidates. Excuses can often be found.

Positive discrimination actively stalls this process. One cannot argue that men and women should be treated equally and then choose a woman over a man because she is a woman. Any more than you might address sexual harassment in the workplace by making sure that male subordinates have their bottoms pinched on a regular basis.

So it's unfair and contrary to all arguments for equality and that's the most important objection. But it is also very dangerous.

Victimhood is the very first refuge of the bigot. Racism in post-Imperial Britain is all about victimhood; the outsider is allegedly invading, stealing our jobs, housing and resources, corrupting our young, conspiring against us, pushing their political agenda with undue influence. White people are treated like a minority in our own country and the language of racist movements is always about preserving an imaginary way of life, protecting white people as if they were the ones who were hard done by. Of course, many white people are hard done by, so it is only a small step to blaming their misfortune on an even more disadvantaged group.

The same applies to sexism; women are taking over the universe, becoming the oppressors of men. But the example of racism is a particularly important one because we know just how dangerous that is. Victims are justified in fighting back; victims are allowed to feel resentment and let that resentment build to a point where it has to come out. We saw that kind of mutual victimhood manifest in sectarian and racial violence in the UK throughout the twentieth century with deadly consequences.

Of course, enshrining real equality in the law is bound to piss off your true bigots; people said that things were going too far the other way when women first loosened their corsets. But, in the case of positive discrimination, the bigots get to be right for once.

Positive Discrimination is extremely rare in the UK because it has not been generally legal. Men and white people can sue and do sue for sexual and racial discrimination. In politics there have been a handful of experiments with all-women short-lists for certain posts. However, the mere concept has given many people the impression that things are being weighed against those with historic privilege. See the coverage of this news story.

This matters terribly because it stalls our progress towards equality. It provides a caricature of what egalitarianism is about – one that is totally and utterly contrary to what egalitarianism is about. It delights our detractors and alienates potential allies.

Finally, on a more personal note, I find Positive Discrimination enormously defeatist. Harriet Harman said of the proposals, "There might be controversy but you don't get progress if there isn't a bit of a push forward."

But this isn't forward. Frankly, if I believed that women and minority groups really couldn't achieve equality by other means, I'm be inclined to think we didn't deserve it.

Friday, July 04, 2008

How it should have been

Alex at the top of a slideWhen Alexander was born, I made a promise to myself not to mourn for the auntihood I might have had. Even saying that sounds melodramatic, but I have a manipulative imp and this is just the sort of thing it'll pick on when it wants me to feel sorry for myself.

Alex was born exactly ten years and one day after I acquired these limitations. I was never going to be any other kind of auntie. Before Alexander was conceived, I didn't know I was going to be any kind of auntie and whilst I had my hopes, I wouldn't have had any complaints if it wasn't to be. Alexander is a gift. And he can only be better off having me as opposed to no auntie at all.

But. This week Alex and Rosie have been staying at my folks, I've seen a lot of them both and earlier in the week I began to feel rather sad and guilty.

Alexander is the most physically active not-yet-two-year-old I have ever encountered. He can sit and play quietly or be read to, but he seems to need to spend most of his waking time hurtling about, dancing and climbing things. Fortunately he is also very good on his feet and resilient; he doesn't often fall over, but when he does he generally picks himself up and carries on without complaint. At the play park, he heads straight for the big children's climbing frame.

So there's a part of me that minds that I can't play all the games he wants to play. And I feel very guilty that I can really only cope with a few hours of his company before I am fantastically exhausted. And when fantastically exhausted, I need and desperately want to be away from him as soon as possible. Which is an awful way to feel about a small child, when they're not even playing up.

And I was thinking about this when I read (I forget where) someone lamenting the tragedy of their becoming disabled with, “I should be playing football with my grandchildren!”

The focus of loss is a personal thing - maybe this was a relative young person who had been a keen footballer - but it struck me as an interesting kind of should. Because of course, lots of grandparents can't play football with their grandchildren. Personally, I knew I was lucky to even get to know all four of my grandparents; I know people are living longer and healthier lives than they were, but still. I imagine impairment would be quite different for parents; there are some roles it must be very difficult not to be able to perform oneself, but the rest of us? We're all here to throw in whatever we've got to offer. It's all complimentary, for both parties.

Alex on a swingThen we were visiting my Gran and I had taken a very restless Alex into the garden. I followed him to the end of the garden once and back and realising I couldn't do this a second time, I sat down in the middle of the grass and watched as he ran ahead. He took his place on the bench and waited for me, rather anxious to find I wasn't right behind him.

So I waved at him and he waved back. Then he watched me for a moment and giggled. He waved at me and I waved back. Then he ran at me, with opened arms and smiling face and at such tremendous speed that he knocked me right over. This, he thought, was very funny.

After that I found several other games that involved Alex moving about a great deal while I stayed very still. My favourite was one where I threatened to come grab him and made very slight movements as if about to pounce; Alex would run away giggling, then edge back towards me, still giggling, until some twitch of the finger sent him running again. And thus I got over myself.

It has been a lovely hectic week. I shall now enjoy the silence and catch up with my blog-reading. Oh and happy Independence Day to my American friends, hope you've all had a good one.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Cake horror!

A horrifying horse cakeToday is my Dad's birthday and when I was making him a cake, I decided to try and adapt my creation to a horse theme.

Unfortunately, the result puts one in mind of that scene with the horse's head from The Godfather (it's not like in the movie of course, but this is more or less the exact image I had when reading the book).

Has anyone ever seen such a horrifying cake? Or a more disturbing representation of the equine family? I'm guessing not...