Friday, February 29, 2008

we need post-offices

An air of apprehension lies over the draughty old fen like a fog in a horror-film as we wonder about the future of our Post Office.

The post office is a local hub, where people meet and chat. It has, true, been less and less frequented in recent years, as people claiming certain benefits (pension, child benefit, widowed mother's allowance etc), have them paid into their bank accounts. It's not that they choose to do thus - new claimants aren't presented with a choice.

My friend Barbacana wasn't presented with a choice. He was told he would have to have his pension delivered into his bank account.

"What bank account?" he asked.

"The bank account we're going to pay your pension into," the functionary answered.

"But I don't have a bank account."

"Then you'll have to get one."

"But why would I want a bank account?"

Barbacana could hear desperation starting to set in. "So we can pay your pension into it."

"But I collect my pension at the post office."

"We recommend that you have it paid into your bank account."

"What bank account?"

"The one you're going to open so we can pay your pension into it."

"I don't want to open a bank account. I enjoy going to the post office and chatting to the other customers and the staff."

After a strangulated pause and several more sessions of going through the above dialogue, which Barbacana thoroughly enjoyed, it was decided that he would be sent a cheque for his pension, and he took great joy in informing his much-reduced interlocutor that he would cash it at the post office. He didn't tell the poor boy that he'd then put the money into his bank account. Lesson for civil servants: when dealing with people twice your age, resistance is not only futile, it leads to humiliation, ulcers and piles. Bully them at your peril.

The original plan was to close 5000 post-offices, on top of previous closures, but resistance was massive. So now 2500 closures are planned - but these are only the rural ones, the total cull could be much larger.

Of the planned closures to rural post offices, the size of the village and the frequency with which the post office is used will not necessarily be criteria. What the government wants is for 95% of people in rural areas to be within 3 miles of a post office (and 95% of people in "remote" areas to be within 6 miles of one). These criteria can, however, be met by a "mobile" post-office service (a post-office in a van, like a mobile library). I have to wonder, if you can only access a post office within three miles (or six, if you're remote) by being in the right place at the right time once or twice a week, how far away will the next nearest post office be if the mobile times clash with your district nurse coming, or you can't make it out of the house at the required time because removal of another local facility has left you feeling even more lonely and/or depressed than you were in the first place?

There's been a lot of business taken from the Post Office - TV licences, for one thing; alternative outlets for car-tax and premium bonds, etc. Yet the government report refers to the possibility that "some might guiltily embrace the increased convenience of on-line services" - it's there, on p11 of the .pdf file linked to above.

Is this about cost? In one sense yes: during parliamentary questions in May 2007, Alistair Darling, shortly before becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, was unable to deny Nigel Evan's assertion that the Post Office was losing £4m per week. But in the light of the cost of the war in Iraq to Britain, according to the New Statesman (so it must be true) hitting £5 billion, surely this could be covered?

In steps the European Union. According to Article 87(1) of the European Commission treaty on competition:

"Save as otherwise provided in this Treaty, any aid granted by a Member State or through State resources in any form whatsoever which distorts or threatens to distort competition by favouring certain undertakings or the production of certain goods shall, insofar as it affects trade between Member States, be incompatible with the common market."

In other words, the British Government is banned from providing financial aid to the Post Office by the EU on the grounds that the aid might be successful - and in the present context success means keeping rural community facilities open. I would have absolutely no objection to Article 87(1) if I thought there was the remotest possibility of FedEx taking over the running of the post office in the draughty old fen, or Parcelforce running the one in the sunny old fen ten miles down the road, or even Interflora providing a service in the muddy old fen, where if houses are two miles apart the occupants qualify as next-door-neighbours.

But I don't see this happening. I hope voters of all parties remember society's duty to those who aren't able to get around as well as the rest of us, and the damage to villages that subtraction of a post office could cause. And if the Government forces through this scheme, I hope voters of all parties remember that as well.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Chuck Norris and the perfidious bookseller

Having touched on the subject of Darwin's dachshund previously, I thought I'd do some Dawkins-related research while in Cantabrigia today.

I went into two large bookshops and decided to look where The God Delusion was to be found.

In Waterstone's, it was in the Popular Science department, with Dawkins' other titles which were mainly on genetics - The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, etc.

In Border's, I found a whole display of Dawkins' books set under a poster which said "Feed Your Mind", including The God Delusion. Inside each copy of a special paperback issue of Delusion bearing the legend "The Alternative Christmas Gift" was a mock-Christmas card titled "O come all ye Faithless." It was in the science section.

One of Dawkins' publishers, Transworld, does indeed identify the tome as popular science. This allows Borders to display it along with his other works - including A Devil's Chaplain, which the author himself describes as a collection of "articles and lectures, reflections and polemics, book reviews and forewords, tributes and eulogies": a book by a scientist, perhaps, but this does not make it a scientific book.

I would rather trust the British Library classification of Delusion into four areas, which are: atheism; God - proof; God; religion. No mention of science.

The "O come all ye faithless" greetings card, moreover, is more than it seems. It caused a stir in the Christian community, certainly, which probably provided the double return of offending believers and generating publicity. But what it seems to be about is a snipe at a 2005 Spectator article of the same name which in fact mounted a robust defence of Christianity. The waspish nature of the card would undoubtedly make Delusion its natural home.

It's not just about arguments over where books belong in bookshops, though. It's about right and wrong and why we need to know the difference.

Of course, there's a sense in which we create God in our own image, just as we ascribe human feelings to battery-farmed chickens, just as the Victorians affected a crisis of faith over the reproductory methods of a wasp, whereas if they'd really wanted to see proof of evil all they needed to do was look in their own workhouses.

Sometimes people reputed to be good do bad things. If this were not the case many of the world's ethicists would find themselves out of a job, reality TV would be even more boring than it is now, and the Bible would be a far shorter compendium, if indeed its existence were required at all. But that doesn't mean that we need to postulate God to explain why we feel a nagging compulsion to want something better. It means that we miss the mark (the Greek meaning of "sin") because we constantly fall short in our lifelong struggle to raise ourselves and those around us to the level of the Creator. If we decide by infallible atheist fiat that God no longer exists...I don't need to labour the point; just look at the killing fields, read dispatches from the rehabs, consider the lives cut short before breath is drawn.

Better, read how Chuck Norris puts it:

"We teach our children they are nothing more than glorified apes, yet we don't expect them to act like monkeys. We place our value in things, yet expect our children to value people. We disrespect one another, but expect our children to respect others. We terminate children in the womb, but are surprised when children outside the womb terminate other children. We push God to the side, but expect our children to be godly. We've abandoned moral absolutes, yet expect our children to obey the universal commandment: 'Thou shall not murder.'"

The God Delusion opens with a quote from Douglas Adams, author of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "Isn't it enough to believe that the garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" It's slightly confusing, as I don't believe in faries and haven't met anybody past puberty who does - and I may never know what it means, as Adams died five years before Delusion was published. But in Hitch-Hiker, Adams writes of a "Babel-fish" that can be put in the ear; it is so improbable unless one presumes the existence of God, Adams writes, that the certainty of God's existence thus implied negates faith and God vanishes "in a puff of logic."

It's a passage often quoted in sixth-form debating clubs - but nobody seems to take much notice of the sentence following straight on, in which Adams seems to warn us from the grave of the danger inherent in the moral relativism, outlined in Norris' quote above, that results when we relegate God to an also-ran and present ourselves as both the winner and the judge of the race:

"'Oh, that was easy,'" says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

keep going left at the shibboleths

How Mumbo-Jumbo conquered the World
Francis Wheen
pp 338
Fourth Estate 2004

I was interested to be given this account of how the big ideas of the last 40 years arose more through a ping-pong game of necessity and luck, than through ideology.

For example, the concept of "Victorian values" was suggested to Margaret Thatcher in an offhand remark by her interviewer, the former Labour MP Brian Walden, in 1983. Prime Minister James Callaghan introduced the concept of monetarism to British politics in a speech to the Labour Party Conference in 1976 (a time when a policy could still be adopted by the British Communist Party one year, be put in front of the TUC the next, and osmose onto Labour policy books the year after that). And the greatest period of economic growth in modern British history was in the early 70's, a period of strong unions, power cuts, and a democratically-elected government brought to its knees by a union whose hubris set the scene for much of the strife of the 1980's. All of these are matters of public record, as is Francis Wheen's tenure at the New Statesman.

Wheen is a signatory of the Euston Manifesto, which aims to take the left-wing beyond socialism. One Manifesto point states, "We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently "understand", reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy." As a sign of good faith, he points out that somebody who read only the Reader's Digest for the best part of the last half of the 20th century would have a better idea of what was happening in the world than someone who exclusively read the New Statesman, because the latter would not publish essays criticising régimes that it judged provided an alternative to capitalist oppressors. Thus, we are told, Noam Chomsky wrote that the horrors wrought by Pol Pot upon his own people were in no means a genocide, but rather the result of frightened refugees telling interrogators what they wanted to hear, refined further by tame journalists to deflect Western attention from the effects of US military action in Cambodia. I would also note that a left-leaning philosopher who once had a good idea about the acquisition of languages, then spent a substantial part of his life at free lunches by re-writing his theory time and again, perhaps is not as much of a man of the people as he seems.

Chapters have invigorating titles like The Voodoo Revolution and Old Snake-Oil, New Bottles. A favourite theme is our distraction from the facts of history by various deconstructionist narratives wherein there are no lies, only differing perspectives. It's a prescient observation - three years after the book came out, Great Britain's "diversity tzar", Trevor Phillips, announced that history should be "rewritten" to show that the Turks saved us from the Spanish Armada.

Wheen certainly lives up to the Euston Manifesto's commitment to return to Enlightenment values.

And yet...and yet...

The text is ostensibly very reasonable and fair to all who are fair-minded, but an anti-religious theme surfaces occasionally. And, as in so many cases, for "anti-religious" read "anti-Christian".

For example, in the chapter entitiled The Catastrophists, amid a session where he debags various astrologers and fortune-tellers, Wheen tells us that Glen Hoddle's comment about disabled people paying for karma gained in a former life "was not discernably more offensive than the doctrine of original sin held by many...Christians."

More tellingly, he follows, for the most part, the convention of referring to somebody by their whole name for the first mention then by their surname, eg "James Callaghan" and thereafter "Callaghan". However, when Darwin's daschund pops up, he is only ever "Professor Richard Dawkins" or "Richard Dawkins", never just the surnominal reference reserved for mere mortals. One wonders what Wheen's Enlightenment values were to tell him about Dawkin's statement in 2006's The God Delusion:

"I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing up the child up Catholic in the first place."

It was puzzling, therefore, that towards the end of the book when he introduces Mohammed, Wheen refers to him as "The Prophet"; and the only references to Allah are within quotation marks, which allows him to report the speaker suffixing the name with "Subhana Wa T'ala", which means "may he be glorified and exalted". In my opinion, it would only be consistent also to refer to Jesus as the Saviour and God as the Almighty, but Wheen chooses not to take this step.

It's a maneuvre that's symptomatic of left-wing intellectuals' propensity to present themselves in surrender to a figure or group they perceive as being more powerful, more violent or more ideologically sound (or all three) than their own leadership - witness Edward Hallett Carr's repeated entranced mentions of "Mister Hitler" in his eve-of-the-war book "The Twenty Years' Crisis: 1919-1939."

The author is fond of referring to the "shibboleths" of those he criticises. In letting the mask slip as regards the contradictions between his withering views on religion and his wish to appease radical Islam, Wheen shows that his own shibboleths remain intact but, like the prettiest girl at a prom when the new football captain comes in, he has merely transferred his affections to the bigger player.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Education's for life, not just sex

CAVETE - contains offensive material

There's a furore about teaching sex-education to young people.

No - let me rephrase that.

There has been another peak of anxiety about sex education within the context of the running crisis in Great Britain concerning our rate of teenage pregnancy being the highest in Europe for, at the Government's own admission, the last decade.

In 2004, some government members' brainy pals in Exeter University decided they had the solution: give youngsters lessons in oral sex. Teachers were trained in telling youths about "stopping points" before full sex. The brainboxes in charge had obviously not heard of Newton's principle of momentum. Had they come to Cantabrigia, home of Isaac's alma mater, they might have investigated the experience of riding a bicycle down a hill and trying to brake at various points - basically, the further you go, the harder it is to stop. (The biggest challenge, of course, is finding a hill in Cantabrigia.)

The idea appears to have been shelved, but the concept of throwing more and more sex education at younger and younger children survives. Sex education, however, involves more than learning how to put a condom on a cucumber, no matter how worthy the government's solicitude for the sexual health of garden vegetables might be. If they emerged from the turrets in their think-tanks, they might see that the act of sex is only one of the multifarious aspects of the gender-relationship spectrum. It should also be said that whoever decided that his member was the size of a cucumber must have been the object of an inferiority complex of epic proportions.

When I was coming to the end of my journey through primary school, I was starting to notice that some girls were pretty, true, but then Kenny Dalglish left Celtic and all other concerns were obliterated from my mind. A lesson in protecting vegetable matter from sexually transmitted diseases would have gone over my head. We were taught the mechanics of sex in my second year in secondary. We thought, oh, that's interesting, then went back to what really mattered: rock versus pop. (I still go into spasms of indecision if I have to decide between Thin Lizzy and Billy Joel on Youtube.)

Towards the end of my secondary education, my RE teacher, a nun, wanted to bring a health visitor in to give us a talk on contraception, but the acting headmaster barred her from doing so. So Sister Seditiosa smuggled the health-visitor in, and we got the contraception talk at the appropriate time in our lives, our mid teens. In the weeks after the talk, Sister led us in so many group discussions about sex and the role of respect therein that we would groan, "oh no, not sex again!"

So I was somewhat taken aback to find that Chris Bryant, Labour member for the Rhondda, had produced a guide on teenage pregnancy, in both website and .pdf/pamphlet form called "Teenage Mums", which included the proposal to send parents a pack to help them talk to their child about sex once it reached nine.

(I can't help wondering why contumely is heaped on the Pope for commenting on contraception on the grounds that he is ruling on that in which he is not experienced, yet nobody thinks it out of place for a gay man to pontificate on teenagers getting pregnant.)

Why are we sexualising our children? One compelling answer is that turning children from human beings in their own right into tokens in the business game makes them suitable vehicles to generate revenue in the marketplace. Unfortunately, the American Psychiatric Association and The Australia Institute indicate that the business often ends up being the children themselves. This point is driven home by the title of the Australian document: Corporate Paedophilia.

When we can finally cast a vote on the matter, perhaps we should reflect on whether it is enough for sex-education to reflect what ticks service-commissioners' boxes, or if we want schools to help us empower our children to enjoy loving relationships with more subtle skills in their emotional toolboxes than how to put a johnnie on a jalopeno. Essentially, do we care enough to want to bequeath them the ability to find a loving relationship after the manner of the gentle erotica of Song of Songs? Because if kids don't get their sexuality and relationship education from responsible adults, they'll find it scrabbling in the subcultural hip-hop hell of gangstas, bitches and whores.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

mad about the fen

Cycling back to the draughty old fen one night, I found myself hotly pursued by a giant flying Weetabix. Being manic-depressive (bipolar), I didn't start to realise until soon afterwards that my perceptions of the event and reality might differ.

I am in good company. For example, one doctoral dissertation asserted that Ravel's repetitious masterpiece Bolero, the soundtrack of Torville and Dean's victory at the 1984 Winter Olympics, signified incipient manic depression. Winston Churchill found building walls a great mood-stabiliser, albeit one that could not exorcise his "black dog"; like Spike Milligan, I have taken that dog for walkies many times. The jury's out as to whether Nietsche's obscure aphorisms were due to manic-depression or syphilis, or a combination thereof.

One sure thing is that a routine, desirable in the best of times, is indispensable in the worst. When in the grip of mental illness, any routine is vastly preferable to none. However, a complaint of ostensibly progressive mental health commissioners was that occupational therapy consisted of demeaning drudgery like putting sticking-plasters in packets or weaving baskets.

I could say many things about this (for example that during my occupational therapy I learned how to write HTML code), but will satisfy myself with commenting that had they tasted madness for any extended period, they would have realised that it doesn't matter what you do, just that you do it. That you come to an allotted place to do it, and when there you do it for the prescribed period, interacting with peers, managers and the public, and in the break indulge in the deliciously sane pastime of slagging off your bosses. With grumbles, gripes and the odd personality conflict, it was an ideal preparation to re-enter the world of work - and though it didn't cure hallucinations, delusions etc, having to engage with the world outside your mind gave reality a fighting chance inside your mind, no matter how many cornflakes had your name on them.

With recent ward closures in Cantabrigia, places are prioritised for the most severely ill, therefore in-patients miss their peers' journeys toward wellness. There is a growing group in the community who are not yet well enough to work, but are not judged "ill" enough to merit a Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN). This group was well served by the closure of the Cantabrigia Clubhouse, which was a centre of excellence when it came to catering for individuals who fell into the cracks between other services, and also Vocational Services, which took occupational therapy to another dimension.

Case in point: recently in a café in Cantabrigia, I met a former Clubhousee, who hails from an even draughtier old fen than I. she cannot sustain a job or voluntary work so, in the absence of other engagement, sits in her house and deteriorates so she can save her money for her one voyage into the city a week, to sit alone at a table and deteriorate in an altogether classier environment. Since she is not ill enough for a CPN (ie not about to kill anybody), she is technically a victory for the mental health system hereabouts.

The local spokesman stated in the article in the Nuntii Cantabrigenses that the mental health service, having removed £3 million from its budget in 2007, now had the "appropriate number of beds according to advice from the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health" - this latter organisation commented in 2003 that the NHS was receiving more funding than ever, but mental health services received an ever-dwindling share. This is somewhat Lovecraftian arithmetic, methinks, and it'll take a procrastination of managers the appropriate amount of time to appoint a tea-party of commissioners to hire a column of accountants to sort it all out.

Not everybody with mental health problems will be able to sustain a job. But with the appropriate support, many who are presently languishing in the rather drab no-man's land between pity and prejudice, like my friend, eventually could.

And if anybody sees that damned flying Weetabix, tell it I've marked its card.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Victor Conte and Dwain Chambers' secrets

It appears that Dwain Chambers is the latest athlete to fall foul of the temptation to take an undetectable performance enhancement drug.

This drug - THG (tetrahydrogestrinone) - has been found to be more potent than the most powerful natural androgen (anabolic steroid), dihydrotestosterone, which - like high doses of any form of testosterone - has been linked to aggression in males.

It wasn't a test that rumbled Chambers, it was the desperate manipulations of his candyman, Victor Conte, to minimise sanctions after he'd been exposed. In other words, he squealed on his clients to epic proportions, which was perhaps not the best business move for somebody selling illegal substances. As the Express reports,

"Today Conte...sell[s] legal performance-enhancing vitamins and minerals while the young athletes to whom he supplied his sinister offerings are left trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered careers."

"Sinister offerings" is the right phrase. Although ingestion of substances which the athlete believed would lead to enhanced performance has been known since the original Olympic Games began in 776BC, athletes now take more steroids in one cycle than athletes in the 1960's would take throughout their careers. It's about being in first place, and if I may be a little cynical, it's about pulling an ambitious athlete's strings to get the shirt emblazoned with sponsors' insignias on the world's sports pages breaching the finishing line.

There are several versions of the history of the phrase,"There's no such thing as a free lunch". Whoever said it, it's true. Anabolic steroids can give gains in strength, muscle mass, stamina or adonisation - but at a price. Steroids, if they are anabolic, share one characteristic: they are analogues of testosterone, but much stronger. It is not unknown for the male body to cope with massive amounts of exogenous testosterone by converting the excess to oestrogen, the female sex-hormone, a process called aromatisation. Most needle-exchanges worth their salt will inform body builders that, should they ever need the service, Marks & Sparks provides free bra-fittings.

A very popular performance-enhancing drug that is not a steroid is HGH, or human growth hormone. The problem is, a lot of the people who take it assume that it does what it says on the tin, is makes your muscles grow. That it does, but not directly. It causes various tissues in the body, but predominantly in the liver, to secrete insulin-like growth factor (IGF1). The science regarding the effect of IGF1 on the body isn't all in yet. One way to inject (pun unintended) cognitive dissonance into an HGH-user's mind is to ask him if he's sure his supply was made in a laboratory. Then to explain that some of us remember how HGH used to be obtained, ie drilling through the back of a corpse's head and harvesting it from the pituitary gland, and the subsequent relation to the risk of cjd-like viruses which might be present in the "donor" brain. If I want to have to twist sideways to get through a doorway I'll go to a car boot sale and buy shoulderpads left over from the 1980's - compared with the prospect of a lingering descent into dementia and paralysis, looking like a cross between Joan Collins and Margaret Thatcher suddenly doesn't seem that unattractive. Besides, although I don't generally howl about animal rights (although I like cats), the way anabolic steroids' effects are quantified leaves me cold.

The standard argument in favour of steroids has been that there has only been one known death, an Italian footballer in the 1960's. However, an Italian judge is now investigating the death of around 70 football stars from the steroids their football clubs gave them. Perhaps, after a nasty tackle, a player should choose to change places with a substitute rather than submit to the tender mercies of the magic sponge.

Steroids - or "roids" are, in the US, the drug of choice in the youngest and the oldest groups of drug users. Drugs worker Pat Lenahan, head of the drug and sport advisory service at John Moores University, Liverpool, whose book Anabolic Steroids is the most recent authoritative study of British steroid use, once did an exercise in a British primary school where children were shown an archetypal picture of a burglar carrying his "swag" bag, telling the children to write down what was in the bag. Beside the usual suspects of videos, DVD's, laptops, etc, a significant minority of the children wrote "steroids".

Steroids have been known to be used by doormen in clubs. A subset of these also use cocaine to stay awake. This is alarming, as cocaine can sensitise the heart to the effects of adrenalin for up to an hour after administration, possibly leading to a heart attack after the surge of adrenalin related to roid rage; and of course, if the paramedics don't know that the casualty's taken cocaine, it's not impossible that should the cardiac arrest be unresponsive to defibrillation, adrenaline will be administered, although cocaine involvement in cardiac arrest, possibly with steroid use, is becoming so common that medical teams are now becoming reticent as regards the administration of adrenaline.

Perhaps the villain here is not steroids or any other drug, but the notion that it is acceptable to stretch human performance by introducing exogenous factors to the human body, ie enhancements, a favourite concept of Professor John Harris, whose aquarian theories I've sat in the draughty old fen and chewed over before. I can envisage a world within my crusty old lifetime where athletes who do not partake of performance enhancing substances will be banned from the contest not because they will lose, but because if they win the purveyors of dangerous dreams will have a lot of questions to face.

Related post: The real predator hides behind the Tiger

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A land fit for workers

It appears that our Great Leader has given the Housing Minister, Caroline Flint, a knuckle-rapping over her proposition that tenants occupying lets in social housing, eg council houses, housing associations, should undertake skills audits and then undertake to seriously look for work as a condition of their tenancy.

This is rightly so: Mr Brown has every reason to fear a proposal to get unemployed people back to work, because it smacks of the sort of common sense which, if permitted to go unchecked, might win Labour another election instead of allowing it to head for the safe ground of being, in Labour MP Ian McCartney's words, the natural party of opposition. The scheme would also halt the drift of areas managed by registered social landlords into sink-estates that is presently ineluctable unless management committees and directors are foresightful and corageous enough to break their own golden rule and let families with members in employment jump the waiting list.

Not that pragmatism in the face of ideology has always been lacking in left-wing leaders. Labour's first Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, realised that when the Wall Street bubble burst during the first year of his second government, some tightening of the public spending belt was inevitable, and that this would have to include cutting unemployment benefit - the TUC's refusal to countenance which brought down the Labour-led Government. Socialists have detested MacDonald for his common-sense statemanship ever sinse.

Clement Attlee managed to guide Britain through the initial postwar period when Great Britain was fiscally drained, and oversee the introduction of the welfare state.

This was a truly inclusive project: under the orders of Tory premier Winston Churchill, Ernest Bevin, the Labour Minister of Employment, had commissioned William Beveridge, who would soon become a Liberal MP, to draft a plan for how Britain should unfold after the War.

Beveridge had the worthy vision of slaying the "Five Giants": Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalour and Idleness.

To pay for this, he envisaged the need for "full employment", ie an unemployment rate of less than 3%. Current unemployment in the UK is put at 5.3%, which seems not too much of an overshoot.

But the operative word in the above sentence is seems. In a documentary, Ann Widdecombe found that dole-office advisors in Barrow, where "only 20 per cent [of younger people] want a job and only 10 per cent are seeking one were encouraging people with minor ailments to register for incapacity benefit. And in Parliament, Stewart Jackson MP was presented with statistics on the amount of incapacity benefit claimants in Peterborough since 1997; but his interlocutor demurred from revealing what percentages the figures represented of Peterborough's population. A friend who works with vulnerable people assures me that Peterborough has the highest proportion of young people claiming incapacity benefit in East Anglia.

We now have the sort of situation where there can be "66% on benefits [and] marginal rates of taxation are at 75% and more, at the low end, ensuring no escape from poverty". Moreover, means-testing of benefits ensures, "at the low end", that if you get a job that does not pay the equivalent of incapacity/job-seeking benefit plus housing benefit plus council tax benefit, then the more you make the more you lose. If you have a family and earn just over the threshold for Working Families Tax Credit, which is not that high, then things are worse. I have been in this position. No wonder Frank Field, the Labour former Minister for Welfare who was fired for the unusual disloyalty of doing the job he was asked to do, said:

"The penalties means-tests impose on working, saving and honesty become apparent only later with an ever-growing proportion of the population having to think about how best to work this system. Equally importantly, this drive to even greater means-tested dependency is set to blow apart some of the key characteristics which underpin a common citizenship."

Another source "thinks the unthinkable" in the manner Mr Field was commissioned to do, if exaggerating somewhat for effect: "Would lifting the threat of economic destitution result in a flood of work-shy labourers overwhelming the public purse?" One is reminded of For the Benefit of Mr Parris, when the MP undertook to live on unemployment benefit in 1984 and found it harder to make ends meet than he had anticipated. But times have changed: even Freeview is poor man's meat, Sky or cable is de rigeur, and attempts to transcend means-tested benefits make it impossible to dress one's children in this week's latest fashion as modelled by whichever collective of singing mannequins has climbed the greasy pole today.

It's scary trying to get back into work after an enforced period on incapacity benefit. I know this. What is scariest is that - and this will sound astounding for a Scot to say - incapacity benefit rises every year, giving one an income that the sort of work available after a lengthy hiatus cannot compete with. No longer able to do the sort of jobs I had taken in the past, I was doing work experience as an office junior and doing it less well every day because I wasn't sleeping at night worrying over how I'd support my family if this particular job came on the market.

As it happened, thank God, a job came up that I was qualified to do that didn't involve the conditions that, while they may not have been responsible for my illness, I was keen to avoid because I was unsure if those I love could bear another stretch of coping with me at a Lovecraftian angle to the family. Perhaps one of the things that needs to change is that incapacity benefit should stay at the same level, in real terms, unless somebody is manifestly unable to work.

Sigmund Freud said that "Love and work are the cornerstones to our humanness". But sane people have also wrote on the dignity of work: for example, Pope John Paul II (a former factory-worker) commented in 1981 that "work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures", and also observed that "the sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not in the objective one".

In other words, this is just one way of saying that there's a dignity to work which is not fixed to the size of the wage that a job attracts. Let the Joneses keep up with each others' ulcers: the point is to go to a given place at a prescribed time, do certain things, and interact with different groups of people in the appropriate ways so that you feel that the world is - ever so slightly - changed because you did your job. I don't see us getting Sky or cable in the near future, but when I come home tired, my children at least know that I'm doing something that makes days off special, and attainment of more highly-valued qualifications than mine worth working for. And whether they end up renting their houses from the council or a housing association, or even buying them, I want them to experience the discipline upon your thoughts and emotions that remaining in a job imposes upon you, and builds you up to be a resource for the community. Hopefully it will be a community where the workless can look through the window at those who contribute to society and say, with aspiration rather than greed, "I want that".

Sunday, February 3, 2008

two plus two makes learning

The other night, as is my wont from time to time, I had a couple of jars with my friend Professor Calculus. Minima was with us, and Calculus was, as ever, impressed by her blessedly unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

Minora showed us how she had been taught to multiply, which left us both scratching our heads. It involved drawing out a grid, multiplying units, tens and hundreds separately, then adding them up. It takes much longer than doing the sum the traditional way, which was derived from the writings of the 13th century mathematical genius, Leonardo da Pisa (Fibonacci). The only good thing I can say about Minora's version is that I needed another pint after trying it.

It was an honour to be present at Minima's eureka moment as Professor Calculus explained the progression of the Fibonacci numbers, ie that each is the sum of the previous two. Soon she was working them out for herself - 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34...

We parted with Minima promising to remember the Fibonacci numbers - and she has done. she now plans to make a frieze going along the top of her wall of the Fibonacci numbers.

Although I'm not prone to extremes of emotion (they're too much work), I was left amazed at the wonders that can be wrought by letting a child discover the beautiful collusion between nature and mathematics ostensibly by herself, with a guiding hand which, using traditional pedagogical skills, will be invisible.

Instead, the British Government subscribes to the semi-psychotic target-and-tickbox mentality which derives from game theory as interpreted by some evolutionary biologists who see self-interest as the premier motivating force of individuals and individual organisations in a cock-pit of competing interests shriven of the concept of society and of the responsibilities that civilised people of whatever political outlook feel that society imputes. I know that where Dawkins and his daschunds are concerned I'm about as unbiased as Osama bin Laden watching The Waltons, I should note that the phrase "semi-psychotic" is tame beside the descriptions that sane evolutionary biologists apply to the unfettered application of game theory.

I have nothing against Minima's teachers, who I know want to explore other areas but cannot due to having to compile information that will enable commissioners to tick their boxes - which commissioners are allowed to do in any way whatsoever that will get boxes tick, and damn the poor sods on either side of the chalk-face: such is the application of games theory to politics. Teachers are a good lot labouring under a yoke from which one hopes they will soon be freed.

Education should be lifelong, and it should be fun. Following Professor Calculus's ministrations, I can't wait to help Minima make her frieze.

Related posts:
another attack on excellence
two plus two makes learning