Prejudice, Elections and Eavesdropping

Eavesdropping on conversations can be rewarding and annoying in equal measure.. here’s my metaphorical take on some of them, and on some of the more irritating leaflets we’ve had through the door lately.

“So it seems like we’ve got new neighbours. Well, to be honest I’d only seen the removal van until last week, but I got a note from the couple inviting us round for their housewarming barbecue on Saturday, which was nice. Yes, I know, it is unusual, isn’t it? But I thought it was a nice gesture, if a bit over the top. But that’s not the problem.

The thing is that they’re short-sighted.  Now, you know me, I’m not sightist in the least – but I got the shock of my life when I saw both of them wearing glasses! It’s certainly going to take a lot of getting used to and I’m not really sure about going to this barbecue now. By all accounts, they socialise with other short-sighteds and a lot of them wear glasses too – I’m beginning to feel like a minority. It feels odd to think I might be the only person with 20/20 vision in my street, now that the Wilsons are thinking of downsizing, and we’re getting more and more short-sighteds looking around the houses. Some of them like to put large numbers on the door as well, you know, as a sort of adaptation thing? The neighbourhood won’t look the same at all.

I’m a bit worried about the effect on the schools, to be honest. Of course I work with a few short-sighteds,  but they’re very discreet about it in the workplace – most of them wear contact lenses so you’d never know, they’re more like us in that respect. I don’t mind short-sighteds with contact lenses at all, but with all the laser eye surgery available, there’s just no need for glasses any more, is there? It’s a bit medieval if you ask me. And they even make their children wear these things! Poor mites, it’s not their fault. But I think the parents really need to take a look at themselves, making their kiddies wear those heavy things on their little faces like that. Take a look at themselves! See what I did there! Ha ha!

Oh dear, I shouldn’t laugh. Naughty me. Anyway, there’s the adaptation – the short-sighteds have to sit near the front in class, PE lessons are a minefield because they have to consider the short-sighteds and their glasses all the time, and I’ve heard that some of them need specially adapted books with bigger letters, eye checks at schools and the like, which is another expense that the taxpayer doesn’t need. I’ve heard that in some parts of the country, they have really hardcore bespectacled people who claim that laser surgery doesn’t work for them – do they call themselves astigmatics or something like that? I lose track. I don’t know much about it but it doesn’t sound like it really has a place here, does it? I mean, did Queen Victoria wear glasses?  No. I’m just not comfortable with it all.

Of course I’m not prejudiced. I have to say that the short-sighteds I work with have been really pleasant, but they’re discreet – they’re not really the same as short-sighteds with the glasses, are they? They say that short-sighteds tend to be better at working with screens, and the programming jobs are filling up with short-sighteds, but you can’t deny that it’s taking jobs away from the ordinary sighted people. Funny how there just seem to be more of them these days: there are parts of London that are practically short-sighted ghettos, with those big glasses everywhere. I went through one of those areas once: it was horrible, like being in a town full of owls. I remember there was only one short-sighted in my school – poor lad, he got beaten up all the time for being a four-eyes, it was a shame. Not that you can say that these days, the PC brigade would be on you like a shot.

I don’t agree with the BSP, Clear Vision For Britain and the sightists, of course, that they should be forced to have laser eye surgery or deported. Of course that’s a bit extreme, but I do think USEE talk a lot of sense.  We’re not asking them to leave, just to pay the extra taxes it takes to keep them. Let them have their own specially adapted schools that can really deal with the children with glasses properly – and give jobs to the specialist short-sighted teachers – rather than having this invasion into the mainstream schools. Yes, you can have your glasses, but no tax breaks, and keep the opticians to specialist short-sighted areas where they’re most needed – we don’t need them on our high streets, do we? And I don’t think it’s wrong when employers put their foot down and say – nobody wants to see glasses, or outward signs of short-sightedness, it’s contact lenses – which are an option – or you go into a specialist, short-sighted industry. I mean they have laws about that in other countries, don’t they? I don’t really think we should be so accommodating towards the glasses-wearers – it’s not about tolerance, it’s about saying no to extremism, isn’t it? No, I really do think I’ll be voting for USEE, this time round. It’s not that I don’t think the short-sighteds down the road are lovely people; I just worry about how things are going these days. I think normally sighted people have been overlooked for too long – it’s time we were really seen properly for a change.

Oops, did it again, didn’t I? Naughty me!”

brioche in glasses

It’s a sad fact that prejudice is alive and well, however silly it may be – and around election time there are plenty of people trying to prey on fears of ‘otherness’ to gain votes. Fortunately there are a lot of people and organisations who try to challenge this. Here are a few:

European Network Against Racism

IMADR (worldwide)

International Disability Alliance

International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission

Totalitarianism in Thomas the Tank Engine

Simple stories of little engines on the Island of Sodor. Could there be a political subtext? Or have I just read them aloud once too often?

Few people in the English-speaking world will be unaware of the Thomas the Tank Engine series, where a fictional island based loosely on the Isle of Man is populated almost entirely by talking steam trains with human-like faces. This series, which began in 1946 as a series of whimsical tales for children written by a country vicar, has mushroomed over the years into a huge franchise that the reverend could hardly have imagined (and apparently disliked). The talking steam engine has featured in a television programme, been relocated to an Appalachian village for a Hollywood film, and been the subject of a huge spin-off series of books featuring tractors, barges and diggers. There have been studies showing that the “cheeky little tank engine” is a comforting focus for children on the autism spectrum. But as I settled down to read yet another book from the modern series to the mini-brioche, my inner academic surfaced once again, and the totalitarian subtext became disturbingly clear…

We begin with the first page of the book “Thomas” and the introduction of a concept which is prevalent throughout the series – the desire to be a Really Useful Engine (sic).

Thomas - Right-to-Buy adherent?

Thomas – Right-to-Buy adherent?

While the phraseology appears innocuous enough, a glance at the context reveals an underlying reinforcement of post-Thatcherite societal norms. Thomas surmises that only with “his very own branch line” can he be valued as making a true contribution to society – without this sense of individual ownership, Thomas feels invisible in the social structure of the Island of Sodor.  Was this subliminal propaganda for the Right To Buy policy? Perhaps.  And yet, Thomas is no oppressed hero for the masses. The property owning (or kulak) class, represented here by Gordon the Express Engine, is relentlessly mocked by Thomas without apparent provocation – or punishment from the real power, the Fat Controller (Sir Topham Hatt in the – ostensibly – more politically correct US version). We shall examine his role in more detail later.

Furthermore, if Thomas is supposed to represent the proletariat striving to make good, we see no solidarity with the truly oppressed – the Trucks.

The Trucks - systematically oppressed

The Trucks – systematically oppressed

These anonymous figures function as a universal scapegoat, to an extent that draws chilling parallels with the Cultural Revolution.  The Trucks are rarely even mentioned without the disapproving epithet ‘Troublesome’ – an echo of Mao’s ‘class enemies’? –  and are blamed automatically for every mishap on the line. Once again, “Thomas” sets the tone here. On hearing the news that another engine has derailed and that a breakdown train is required, his first reaction is to blame the trucks – “Bother those trucks and their tricks!” This is reinforced by the ‘official’-style figure of the Driver, who states that the accident was the fault of the Trucks without seeking a fair hearing from their side. Outright victimisation of the Trucks is the norm in this series – in the later story “Gordon” , we see Edward the steam engine behaving aggressively towards the Trucks, and although their obvious distress is noted – “’Oh!’ they cried, “Whatever is happening?’” this is not only dismissed as harmless horseplay but is positively encouraged between the engines. When they attempt revolutionary activities (pushing Emily into a pond) we hear nothing of any subsequent attempts by the governing powers to find the root of the issue – we can only assume that a depressing cycle of arbitrary arrest, show trial and punishment ensues.

Gordon – kulak representative?

Yet ‘Thomas And Friends’ also casts a critical eye on the Tender Engines – sending the message that over-achievers must be cut down to size, and that total conformity must be adhered to at all costs. Gordon the Express Engine is shown as ‘a proud engine’ that is mocked by the others.

Notably, it is Gordon who is the only engine to express any degree of recognition of the trucks’ plight, albeit with a dubious moral disclaimer – “Don’t play around with the trucks, Edward. It isn’t wrong, but we just don’t do it”. Admittedly Gordon displays snobbish behaviour in other areas – he pours scorn on engines who shunt trucks based on their position in the class system, and defends outmoded convention (again echoing the ‘Olds’ of the Cultural Revolution) by declaring that Henry should stop whistling at stations. However, Gordon’s supposed redemption by suffering the mockery of others after a humiliating accident is one which cannot withstand any degree of liberal scrutiny. Humiliation is used as a tool of the State to ensure conformity.

The Fat Controller wields absolute power on the Island of Sodor, though satellite regimes are alluded to at the Quarry (Miss Jenny) and the Mountain Pass (the Thin Controller).

Fat Controller / Supreme Leader

Fat Controller / Supreme Leader

It is the Fat Controller who dispenses bounty or punishment as he sees fit; it is the Fat Controller who determines the function of each of the engines; and it is the Fat Controller who ensures that the engines maintain absolute obedience to the regime – or, as he himself puts it, “Engines on my railway do as they are told!” The ‘Thomas and Friends’ series can show the Fat Controller in the Benevolent Dictator role– sourcing ‘special Welsh coal’ for the ailing Henry, or accommodating the refugee engine Oliver – but his absolutist style of government is apparent throughout the series. His own story (“The Fat Controller”) tells of his suppression of a strike – the striking union of Tender Engines are replaced by smaller engines who pledge total obedience to the regime:

“’If I choose you, will you work hard?’ he said.

‘Oh Sir! Yes Sir!’ peeped the little green engine.”

The tender engines, meanwhile, are imprisoned and basic utilities withheld – “There was no coal for them, no washdown and they missed their passengers.” The eventual collapse of the strike, along with the subsequent “re-education” of the strikers, is achieved by humiliation and deprivation of basic rights –illustration of a state ruled by fear. The Fat Controller states again and again throughout the series that non-conformity will result in exile, at the very least – “Only Really Useful Engines can work on my railway!” We can only speculate at what form of gulag-like ‘education’ programmes might be employed for habitual dissenters.

Nowhere is the totalitarian ethic more apparent than in the stories of Jack the Front-Loader and Alfie the Excavator, two Stakhanov-like figures with a near-obsessive devotion to manual labour.

Jack and Alfie - idealised worker figures

Jack and Alfie – idealised worker figures

These propagandist tales go even further than the utilitarianism demonstrated in earlier ‘Thomas and Friends’ stories:  demonstrating to workers that work must be an ideal in itself, without reference to personal reward or to the purpose of the work done.

“Jack and Alfie were loading the dump truck, Max. Dust and dirt were flying everywhere. Work had never been such fun!”

In each story, the absolute work ethic is augmented by a theme of self-sacrifice – Alfie risks himself in a building declared unsafe by the Foreman to rescue a family of kittens, while Jack endures significant injury in holding up a damaged bridge to save Thomas. It is made clear that while his peers admire him for his heroic act, and while the State is prepared to cover his medical care, he must expect no reward or special recognition – indeed, his only reward is to stay with the Pack and be allowed to continue his labour.  Consistent with the ‘idealised worker’ model used by many totalitarian regimes, Jack is keen to be part of the collective, work as hard as possible without question for the good of the State, and provide unthinking devotion to the State’s ideals. The workers of the Pack are all shown as productive, but Jack and Alfie’s preparedness to sacrifice themselves unquestioningly for the good of the  State is presented as the ideal to which all workers must strive – even as Really Useful Engines.

So amid this propaganda, what subliminal messages are being fed to impressionable minds? Will they latch on to the Thatcherite theory of property ownership, the class struggle against the Tender engines, the systematic legalised oppression of the Trucks or the unquestioning ethic of the Pack under the totalitarian regime of the Fat Controller?

I posed this question to the mini-brioche.

After some thought, she sighed. “It’s just a story. Trains don’t actually talk in real life, you know.”

Oh well. It’s still better than Barbie.

American History X – Talking By The Book (or not)

I have to admit that I’m not terribly good at small talk. It isn’t that I’m naturally shy – avoiding speaking to people isn’t part of my genetic makeup. However, the ability to engage an acquaintance in light conversation while sticking to topics that can never be taken as offensive –  the weather, for instance, or the state of the roads, or which junction is better for avoiding the roadworks on the M25 – is something that I can’t say comes naturally. Over the years I’ve learned to curb my natural tendency to blurt out a philosophical question two seconds into the conversation – “Lovely weather we’re having this morning. Do you believe that true democracy exists?” – but real small talk is something that’s never really been an automatic thing for me.

The M25 - a safe subject for conversation

The M25 – a safe subject for conversation

Talking to small children falls into the same category, and since I have one of my own, it should perhaps be a matter of concern that I’m not a ‘natural’ at that either.  At various occasions in the mini-brioche’s life, I have been given helpful advice on how to talk to her – from the baby-talk that would encourage her to form words, to the open-ended questions that might encourage her to reveal more than a ‘dunno’ about her day at school. I was even recommended a book with ‘How To Talk To Your Child’ in the title, so it can’t be an isolated problem. Looking at all of this official information, it’s amazing that the mini-brioche can say a single word. I failed to double-barrel everything I said (‘is ba-ba hungry? Does ba-ba want din-dins? Yummy din-dins!’) or refer to her  (and myself) in the third person. I failed to make affirming statements  – “it makes me so happy when you remember to pick up your things” as opposed to “Aaargh! Who on earth left that Lego on the floor?”

At one point, I did try the techniques outlined in one article I’d been sent, and posed some of the open-ended questions that are supposed to encourage your school-aged child to open up a bit about playground politics, but it didn’t quite work in the way the article had suggested.

“So,” I began, “if you could sit next to anyone at lunch, who would it be?” This question is apparently designed to highlight any particular friendships that you might not be aware of.

She thought for a minute, and looked puzzled. “We sit next to whoever we like,” she shrugged.

“Oh.”  I tried another. “If you could arrange it that anyone in your class could be abducted by aliens, who would it be?” Apparently this one helps to identify anyone that your child might not be getting on so well with.

“Jake,” she said promptly. I was surprised – Jake seemed like a nice lad, and I couldn’t imagine the mini-brioche not getting along with him. “Because he really likes aliens, so he’d like it best.” A nice answer, I felt, and left it at that.

Socks - a typical flashpoint

Socks – a typical flashpoint

One book in particular explained that parents must express empathy for a child whenever the child is kicking off, so that you encourage them to express their feelings and enhance their natural bond with you. A typical flashpoint with small children is the clash over hurrying up in the mornings – as all the books will tell you, small children don’t wear watches, and parents do. According to the ‘empathising parent’ book, the best approach is to say “I know. It must be so tough and upsetting for you to get your socks on, and you wish that you could just stay here pretending to be an astronaut – a barefoot one at that – rather than doing something really boring like putting your socks on. Wouldn’t it be lovely if socks didn’t exist, or if they flew to our feet with fairy wings so that we didn’t have to do anything about putting them on ourselves?” The effort of all this, combined with the sing-song voice I felt had to adopt to make it credible, resulted only in me feeling like screaming, and the mini-brioche asking me why on earth I was talking like that. Clearly, the book’s approach was not really helping us. Tough-love enthusiasts reckoned that a barked “SOCKS! NOW!” followed by the threat of some dire consequence, whether a clip around the ear or no TV for a week, would be sufficient, but I didn’t really see that working either.

I stuck to the straightforward approach. “Put your socks on, or we’ll be late.”

She looked cross. “When you say things like that, it really makes me sad. And angry.”

A flash of inspiration crossed my mind, and I mentally sent all the manuals flying out of the window. “That’s a shame,” I said briskly. “But you can waste your energy getting angry about small things like putting your socks on, when there are other ways to use your anger that get to the root of things.”

“Like what?” she said, as I handed her a sock.

I said the first thing that came into my head. “Have I ever told you about a man called Malcolm X?”

Malcolm X

Malcolm X

My summary of Malcolm X’s autobiography – judiciously leaving out the Harlem hustler phase – was met with open-mouthed fascination. How ridiculous that people might be judged on what they looked like! Do people still think like that? Why didn’t people agree with him? Why were people afraid of him? The discussion continued through a brisk application of socks, shoes and coat, out the door and down the road: by the time we got to the school gates I felt I’d planted some sort of seed. Malcolm X had been an angry person – angry at the rules that judged people on the colour of their skin rather than their actions or what they were really like inside, angry at a whole people losing everything they had and everything they were, and angry that people had been treated so badly for so long with nothing getting better. He had said some things when he was angry that he regretted later, but he had been open to learning from new experiences. And when we looked at what he had achieved, we could remind ourselves about how we can use our anger to change things that really need to be changed.

This wasn’t small talk – the parenting books would consider it inappropriate for a five year old.  It didn’t tell me a thing about playground politics, and it won’t help her with the phonics or handwriting tests that will come sooner than I can blink. But it was real conversation about something that matters, and maybe it helped her think a bit more widely. It might spark an interest in history, or law, or social justice. She might remember it the next time she’s about to stamp her foot, or if she sees someone getting picked on in the playground. It might not come to fruition, but the seed is there. And she got her socks on without either of us yelling.

Perhaps an inability to make conversation in an ‘approved’ way isn’t quite so bad after all. If nothing else, I’m beginning to suspect that the lack-of-small-talk thing might be genetic. And next time there’s a stand-off over footwear, we might start talking about glasnost.

World Book Day – A Feminist Dilemma

“In the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,” said Alfred, Lord Tennyson, probably while looking out untroubled over a sunny meadow. But then, he wasn’t a teacher, didn’t have children, and World Book Day hadn’t been invented yet. This event, which will be going on in schools across the UK this week, is designed to encourage a love of reading in children and teenagers of all ages, through extra-curricular activities, book tokens, and above all, the chance to come into school dressed as your favourite book character.

Being the sort of person that leaves a trail of books wherever I go and would be happy to live in a library, I am all for anything that encourages a similar enthusiasm (or addiction) in the next generation. From a distance, it all sounded like a lot of fun, and up to recently I would wonder wistfully why World Book Day hadn’t been invented when I was of the age to dress up as Encyclopedia Brown (of ‘Encyclopedia Brown Takes The Case’ and ‘Encyclopedia Brown Finds The Clues’ fame) or Sherlock Holmes. I wondered why my similarly bookish friends would go into meltdown at the mention of World Book Day – it all seemed like a pretty sweet way to encourage discussion of the books favoured by each child in the class.

Encyclopedia Brown - image taken from openlibrary.org

Encyclopedia Brown – an easy costume

Then my own child started school, and I’m beginning to understand the angst.

I should have seen the clues – Encyclopedia Brown would have done. First, the mention of World Book Day – an event that takes place in March – in the school newsletter that was issued around Halloween.  That level of warning implies that parents will need plenty of preparation time. However, like so many innocent parents of small children, I was too busy kitting out my child with a witches’ costume and a broomstick to take note. Then there were the numerous photos appearing on Facebook of children dressed in their World Book Day costumes – a natural admiration of how adorable a seven year old looked dressed up as a knight or Gobbolino the Witches’ Cat, I thought. Now I realise that this marks the pride and relief of a parent that has spent the previous night assembling an alien costume out of tin foil and a tablecloth in the hope that it might bear a passing resemblance to Dr Xargle, and stay together long enough for the child to get through the school gates.

And so, like the disorganised pastry I am, World Book Day escaped my radar until last week, when I suddenly realised that I, too, would have to assemble a costume for the mini-brioche to wear into school for World Book Day. I approached it all the wrong way by asking her what her favourite book was, so we could construct a costume around it.

Image taken from fantasticfiction.co.uk

The Worst Witch – another easy costume

Had the answer been ‘The Worst Witch’ we would have been home and dry. A recycled witches’ costume from Halloween (check), a broomstick (check), disheveled hair (not difficult at the best of times) and striped tights (not too difficult to get hold of, and not entirely essential anyway) – and we’d be ready to roll. The outfit would be practical enough to run around in, unlikely to disintegrate, represented a realistic, well-developed heroine and crucially, required minimal effort from me. My daughter would not be relegated to a simpering, drippy princess, and I would not be reduced to a quivering wreck by a complicated costume. Sadly, this was not to be.

“Hm,” she mused, “I think my favourite book of all is… Fantastic Mr Fox.” Oh.  It’s a typically well-written book by Roald Dahl, of course, with a resourceful lead character and a nice message about sticking together in adverse times, so in that respect it was a heart-warming answer. However, my sewing skills extend no further than sewing on name tapes very badly, and I was pretty sure that rustling up a fox costume in three short days would be far beyond my capabilities. Ordering one online seemed both extravagant – fancy-dress companies can smell costume-related desperation from miles away – and optimistic. I began to suggest that she had also really enjoyed The Worst Witch, when she reached into her wardrobe and pulled out a frilly concoction with a crinoline that, despite my best efforts, she loves.

“Or I could go as Beauty and the Beast!” she said brightly, assuming a celluloid-friendly smile and waltzing around the room. “I’ll look really pretty!”

I felt instantly relegated to feminist purgatory. Evidently my five-year old child is already obsessed with external appearance – which is ironic, given the subject matter of the fairy tale – and prefers to be the simpering Disney heroine with a crinoline than the more believable female leads of the BFG or Harry Potter. I didn’t expect to send her in as A Vindication Of The Rights of Woman – well, not this year, anyway – but the feminist in me felt a pang of disappointment. Had she really chosen ‘looking really pretty’ over representing a book that interested her more? I hoped not.

But the costume is ready-made, said my practical side, like a devil on my shoulder. You need do nothing whatsoever between now and next Thursday. She gets to dress up, you make no effort at all, and everyone’s happy. Plus the fact she is unlikely to be the only one dressed as such – after all, you’re not the only harassed parent with a daughter that caught the princess virus despite all your efforts to the contrary.

In the end, my aversion to sewing has won out over the radical feminist in me, and in all likelihood she will walk slowly into school on World Book Day wearing the frilly dress, clutching a single rose and simpering all the way. With luck, she’ll get it out of her system this year, and want something both feminist-friendly and easy to assemble to wear to next year’s World Book Day (a Rosa Luxemburg costume can’t be too difficult, can it?). In the meantime, I might get into the spirit of World Book Day and throw together a costume for myself. I wonder how ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’ will go down at the school gates?

brioche in a hat

The official site for World Book Day is http://www.worldbookday.com, which has a really nice ‘start your story’ tool, amongst other activities you can do when you’ve recovered from the costume angst. Courage, mes braves!