Referendum Groceries

We’ve had a lot of talk about the EU referendum in the UK of late, and much of it has been pretty nasty. Occasionally, when surrounded by argument, a person has to resort to a coffee and pastry to cheer themselves up: I did, and wrote this.

I’ve made a plan for this week, for this show-down’s not for me:

The bickering and posturing between rival MPs;

Mud-slinging in the media, both social and in print:

And prejudice from journalists once thought intelligent.

 

The Leave campaign yell: “If we stay, we’ll sink into the sea

Between the cost of membership and swathes of refugees

We’ll drown in Greek-style penury and then we’ll lose our jobs

Which will probably be taken by hordes of Turkish mobs

The politicos in Brussels will take our sovereignty

And force us to adopt the single Euro currency!

We’ll have no more such nonsense! And we strongly believe

We can pay for all our hospitals by simply voting Leave!”

 

And judging by their single bit of paper through my door

The Remain campaign’s main rhetoric is similarly poor.

“If you don’t tick the Remain box on June 23

Then our entire population will attempt to flee!

For businesses won’t deal with us: there’ll probably be war

Between Britain and the rest of Europe by June 24

There’ll be no more foreign holidays to Portugal or Spain

For nobody will let us in if we don’t vote Remain

The Scots and Welsh will both devolve and be off like a shot

And we hear that even Cornwall has a devolution plot

And lastly but by no means least – who do you want in charge?

Do you really want a country led by Boris or Farage?”

 

Meanwhile, arguments fly back and forth on Facebook and on Twitter

And many sound quite personal and not a little bitter

So I’ve made a plan for this week that will keep me quite objective

And ensure that I maintain a purely rational perspective.

 

I’ll start by having breakfast, and I know just what I’ll want:

An Italian espresso and a French almond croissant

Then I’ll stroll along the pavement in my shoes that came from Spain

(With my German car as backup in case of heavy rain)

On the way to work, I may decide to make a stop

And pick up my weekly shopping at the local Polish shop

I could buy olives (which might well be Cypriot or Greek)

Or a bar of Belgian chocolate to see me through the week

If I’m feeling decadent, Dutch waffles could be an idea

And for later in the evening, a Czech or Polish beer

And perhaps I’ll buy some port (exported by the Portuguese)

Which always goes quite well with slices of Danish blue cheese.

If I get a call, I’ll answer on my Finnish mobile phone

With a tune from Mozart (Austrian) as a tasteful ringing tone

My work will be obliged to let me leave when I am through:

Since the European Working Time Directive tells them to.

Finally, I might meet up for coffee with my mates

Who hail from all around the European member states

And as Thursday dawns, I’ll sink into my Swedish-made settee

And ponder what the EU has ever done for me.

Whatever your views on the referendum, please vote on the 23rd if you’re eligible – there is some impartial information out there. I found this lecture from the University of Liverpool very informative.

What was this writer thinking?

I came across an interesting post that has been doing the rounds on facebook recently, regarding a ‘slow writing challenge’ that had been set to primary school students.

Since I quite enjoy writing myself, I was looking forward to seeing ideas to write from the point of view of a villain, for example; or of an observer – however, it appears that the challenge is to cram as much grammatical theory as possible into a short paragraph. It got me wondering what on earth would have happened if some of the classics had been subjected to a similar evaluation.

Here’s the homework:

"Sentence 1: This sentence must contain seven words

Sentence 2: This sentence must start with a simile

Sentence 3: This sentence must contain an adverb

Sentence 4: This sentence must start with an interesting opener

Sentence 5: This sentence must use personification

Sentence 6: This sentence must start with a fronted adverbial

Sentence 7: This sentence must use an expanded noun phrase

Sentence 8: This sentence must have a clause in it

Sentence 9: You must use a thesaurus to up-level two words in this sentence

Sentence 10: This sentence must contain a high-level connective"

‘Here’s an example of a 10-sentence paragraph from Charles. I won’t shame Charles publicly by giving his last name, but suffice it to say, as someone who wrote this well after his 7th birthday, he really ought to be producing better English prose than this.

charles dickens writing “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what is particularly dead about a door-nail.I might have been inclined, myself, to think a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile: and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was dead as a door-nail.”

Now, let’s evaluate this piece against our Slow Writing requirements.

Sentence 1, as you’ll have noticed, is one word shy of the quota. There is no simile in sentence 2: a pity, as there’s quite a good one later on, but that doesn’t go by the rules, so we’ll mark it wrong anyway. Charles missed an excellent opportunity for an adverb in sentence 3, and frankly, since sentence 4 merely reinforces the previous sentence, we can hardly regard the introduction of the book’s main character as an ‘interesting opener’. Charles obviously doesn’t understand the difference between personification and a simile in sentence 5 –we recommend that he has a few catch up lessons during break times to address this. Sentence 6 – I can’t begin to describe everything that is wrong with this sentence. Not only are there no fronted adverbials, but a single word followed by an exclamation mark is not a complete sentence according to our KS2 guidelines. Charles must try harder. Once again, Charles misses a good opportunity in sentence 7 to use an expanded noun phrase – we’ll return to this when we revise the paragraph. Sentence 8 just about passes muster as a subject-verb clause – if an obtuse one, and we can award a recognition mark for ‘unhallowed’ in sentence 9 – well done, Charles! It would be preferable for Charles to have used one of the more common connectives but we’ll give him half a mark for ‘emphatically’: sadly, we don’t see any of the curriculum-approved connectives in sentence 10.

How should Charles have approached this piece of work? With a little adjustment, Charles could easily have met all of the requirements of the exercise using the knowledge he should have gained as part of the KS2 curriculum.

“Marley was definitely dead, to begin with. Like Christmas falling on the 25th of December, there was no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed clearly by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. With a scowl and his customary speedy signature, Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. The wind whispered all around that Marley was as dead as a door nail. Whatever you might think in your own case, I don’t know what is particularly dead about a door nail. An old, rusty door nail might be worn and weathered, but I don’t think it is the deadest thing you might imagine. Many people, who are interested in nails, might think of a coffin nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile: and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was dead as a door nail, moreover, Scrooge knew he was dead.”

Isn’t that better?

pag

Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of low marks in this Slow Writing challenge. I hope you will all take this in the spirit of constructive criticism, but Jane – your extensive use of dialogue means that you’re not showcasing all the grammatical requirements you need to demonstrate. Try using description instead of introducing the conversation between Mr and Mrs Bennet in your opening paragraph. Mary – sorry, George – you have done well on your expanded noun phrases and your similes, but remember, don’t use too many of them: I’ve not seen a single fronted adverbial from you this term. And as for you, Geoffrey – not only does your spelling and grammar leave much to be desired, but that story was completely inappropriate for a school essay. Oh, and Mr Cummings -I shouldn’t have to remind you –  Remember Your Capital Letters!

Keep using all the grammar you’ve learned, and your writing will really improve!’

 

The Doctor’s Lament

To be sung to the tune of Que Sera, Sera

When I was just a little girl

I asked my mother – what shall I be?

Can I help people when they are sick?

Here’s what she said to me.

“Join the NHS

You would be a good GP

A job and a family

Join the NHS!”

 

When I grew up and went to school

My teacher told us in History

Aneurin Bevan changed the UK

With a new policy

Called the NHS

All medical care for free

No health inequality

1948 – it’s the NHS

 

When I was in my early teens

I asked my teacher what I should be

“I like helping people, and I like science,”

Here’s what she said to me

“Join the NHS

You’re good at Biology

Make sure you’ve a good degree

Join the NHS!”

 

When I grew up and left my home

I studied medicine at university

It cost lots of money, I studied for years,

But here’s what they said to me

“Join the NHS

People always get sick, you see

They’ll help you pay back your fees

Join the NHS!”

 

Now I’ve a doctorate of my own

Spend all my hours in A&E

I see lots of patients, day after day

And I am proud to be

In the NHS

From scrapes to neurology

We treat everyone for free

In the NHS

 

BUT…

(this verse to be sung in a minor key)

Yesterday in the House of Commons

A politician called Jeremy

Said we should treble our working day

‘Do more with less – for free:

Or the NHS

Is consigned to history

We’ll bring in a PLC!”

So we’ve gone on strike.

We’re the NHS

Not a PLC

Healthcare should be free!

Liberal Angst Will Eat Itself

Being a self-confessed woolly liberal (the Guardian quiz confirmed it) I have a lot to feel bad about. If there’s one thing us liberals are good at, it’s feeling guilty. We feel bad for our class, racial, national or educational privilege (often, all of the above). We purposely choose houses near good schools and then feel bad that we’re not ‘supporting’ the sink school in a completely different area by sending our children there instead. We hate McDonald’s from an environmental perspective, but don’t want to criticize others for seeing it as a cheap treat for the kids. We eat quinoa because it’s supposed to be healthy, and then worry about its impact on Bolivian agriculture. We check labels for supply chain transparency and worry about being an inverse snob for refusing to buy fast fashion. (Never shop with us, it takes hours).  And over the last few months, my pincushion-like conscience has been prickled once again by something I hadn’t considered in depth before – cultural appropriation, and specifically, the contents of my jewelry box.

There have been a lot of articles on cultural appropriation (the Wikipedia definition is here; I found Derek Clifton’s article helpful). Others have summed it up better than I can – perhaps, as a white person, I ought to be cautious about even trying to define cultural appropriation. Leaving that aside for a second, a quick definition of cultural appropriation might be ‘the adoption of an element of someone else’s culture by privileged (usually white) people, and trivialising that culture by doing so’. A fairly straightforward example would be the use of a Native American ‘war bonnet’ on the catwalk – turning something that has a specific meaning in Native American cultures into a dumbed-down oh-so-alternative (and expensive) accessory for the very rich. Imagine Vogue writing that Buddhist robes are ‘all the rage at New York Fashion Week’ and that Summer 2016 will be ‘all about that sexy saffron vibe’ and you might get an idea of why cultural appropriation makes people cross. Similarly, pop music is often cited – Elvis was celebrated as the ‘King of Rock-And-Roll’ for doing what many African-American musicians had been doing for years, and Miley Cyrus managed to offend everyone on pretty much every level with her infamous twerk. So far there have been no statements about Victoria Aitken’s rapping being culturally appropriative – perhaps because everyone is too busy cringing – but it opens up some interesting questions. So far, so clear cut – cultural appropriation is a Bad Thing for the woolly liberal.

rihanna-mosque-00-600x450

Rhianna uses a mosque for a fashion shoot. Not OK.

However, having read a lot of articles on cultural appropriation – and the inevitable below-the-line comments that accompanied them –  I found myself following my usual trajectory from ‘how terrible’ to ‘oh God, have I done that without realizing it? Does that make me a bad person? Help!’ Sure, I hadn’t done anything as daft as dress up as a ‘Pocahottie’ for Hallowe’en (as well as anything else, the ‘hottie’ ship has well and truly sailed) or had the Mahabharata tattooed across my backside because the writing looked pretty, but there are a lot of grey areas to think about. A lot of the music I love is made by people who have different social, national or ethnic backgrounds and experience to my own – is there a problem with my listening to K’naan when I am not myself a Somali-Canadian? I hope not.  Is there a problem with my learning flamenco if I don’t have Spanish Gitano blood? I hope not, just as I hope there wouldn’t be a problem with anyone of Spanish Gitano descent learning Irish dancing if they fancied it. However, there are even greyer bits of grey areas. I saw a slew of comments on a cultural appropriation article debating the usage of the word ‘ghetto’, a term which has become associated in the last 20 or 30 years with American – usually Afro-American or Latin American – urban culture. A quick Google of the word ‘ghetto’ reveals some deeply misogynist lyrics I won’t reproduce here, a discussion about the origins of gangsta rap, and photos of people (of all colours) in baggy shorts wearing a lot of jewelry. In the more mainstream sense it is used to describe a poor urban area, specifically in the USA, populated by an Afro-American and/or Latin American minority. However, the word ‘ghetto’ originates in 12th Century Venice and refers to an area in which Jewish people – also an oppressed minority – were forced to live. Discussions flew back and forth on whether it was really appropriate for non-Americans (my italics) to use the ‘ghetto’ term. Could a Venetian be accused of cultural appropriation by referring to an area of their city as ‘the former ghetto’? It was all too confusing.

saints bracelet And then there was my jewelry box. Being frankly too old and too skint for bling, my jewelry box wasn’t likely to be a cesspit of cultural appropriation. Then I remembered a ‘saints’ bracelet’ I’d bought from TopShop ages ago. Originally, the bracelets came from the Catholic tradition – my own – as an aid to prayer, but I’m pretty sure that TopShop (or the magnificently named ‘bling, inc’) weren’t really expecting their customer base to see it on their shelves and think “that’ll come in handy during Mass!”. Did this mean I was guilty of culturally appropriating my own culture? Did it trivialise my own culture if I, as a now- not-really-a-minority-and-at-least-middlingly-privileged sort, wore a saints’ bracelet? Would it be disrespectful to Catholics who were still oppressed, even if I wasn’t?

Ready to implode with liberal angst, I remembered a wise statement from an Indian friend who had passed a rather lovely salwar kameez on to a white British colleague. “She originally asked for it to wear on holiday in India,” she explained, “which made sense – she was wearing it in context. Then she started wearing it when she got back, which was OK if a bit impractical. But it does grate a bit when she wears it down the pub to get pissed and tell everyone who will listen how authentic she is.”

So, perhaps the shorthand for it all should be “wear stuff that you like, have some respect for the context, and don’t be a prat.” I think that’s easy enough for most of us.

A Letter to the Education Secretary

My child is not a genius. He’s fairly bright at best,

He doesn’t have attainment medals glowing from his chest,

He’s pretty well behaved – at least, I don’t hear that he’s naughty –

He’s not a music prodigy, or known for being sporty.

He’s reading not too badly, can decipher what’s on signs,

His writing’s not too scrawly if he keeps between the lines,

He doesn’t have additional needs as far as I can tell,

And up to yesterday, I thought that he was doing well.

 

But then I got the test results, and thanks to you, I’ve learned

That instead of being proud, I really ought to be concerned.

A five year old that reads and writes seemed pretty good to me –

(Even though he gets confused between the letters B and D)

But it seems he’s way behind, and the levels that he meets

Only indicate a future washing cars or sweeping streets.

His spelling should be perfect, and he should be writing prose

That echoes that of Dickens’ or Edgar Allen Poe’s

He should know abstract maths and science, engineering too,

And write in perfect cursive – which I know that I can’t do.

 

And since he can’t, say experts, then the problem lies with me:

I clearly feed him crap and let him watch too much TV

I believed it when the experts said I ought to give him space,

To let him do the things he likes and learn at his own pace,

I didn’t teach him how to read before he started school,

Because they said I’d do it wrong and he would look a fool,

I don’t know what the others did, but rest assured, I see

That my five year old’s a failure and the fault is down to me.

 

You told us in the news last night that kids need to be smart,

To concentrate on SPaG and STEM and not on books and art,

Our children should learn more and more, enjoy themselves far less,

And the best way to ensure this is by giving them more tests.

Well, Education Secretary, I guess I don’t agree

For knowledge for its own sake’s an important thing for me

I want my son to love to learn, be curious, be keen –

Not just be another product of the UK’s test machine.

 

So when my son looks scared at every piece of work he gets,

When he only reads and writes under the greatest of duress,

When his teachers are burned out and stressed with no time to inspire,

And you tell the schools they’ll close unless results keep getting higher,

When all the joy of learning’s gone and there’s no time for fun –

That’s the kind of education you’ve created for my son.

Laundry

10th October is World Mental Health day. Depression is something that many of us will experience at some point in our lives, but is still something of a stigma, with many people feeling they need to manage on their own. I’ve tried to encapsulate a little of what it feels like.

You ought to know I put the washing on

In those few hours when you both were gone

And I, left in my usual cocoon –

The emptiness I craved, my cosy tomb,

With none to disappoint or to offend

None to stand screaming devil tears

When I’d forgotten something never said,

A friend uninvited, a party not arranged

For not-your-birthday, for failing time and time again

To bear you a living playmate like the rest,

And never knowing how to treat a guest.

None to set a stony face, resentment showing clear

That belies the words – “Your mother’s not herself,”

Oh you try, you try:

But I can feel the hollowness of the words I hear

And wonder if you really believe them.

And none to scold me gently on the phone:

“I haven’t seen you, it’s a shame,”

A clumsy ‘how are you’ that sounds like a j’accuse

And I retreat with some mumbled excuse.

No people to offend, stand in their way,

Park badly in the next-door parking bay,

Miss their invisible disability

Or fail to know they’re worthier than me.

No-one suffers the fact that I exist.

And so you went, left me alone

Gave me the space I begged for

“You don’t have to do anything”

And I can’t believe that either:

Or bear for to see you paper calmly over the cracks

To do the Herculean tasks that I can’t face,

And all without an effort, without sound,

While selfish me lounges tearfully around,

Too lazy to know what brings me to this state.

And so I did the washing, proved my worth,

Put towels on the line, and rinse, repeat,

Made beds with laundered, fresh-air-smelling sheets

In the hope that it might, just perhaps, atone

For all the hours I have been undone

And answering ‘What’s wrong?’

With ‘I don’t know’ –

Small gratitudes that your clean T-shirts show.

One fish, two fish…

It’s National Poetry Day and party conference season here in the UK. Which naturally brought my thoughts to verse..

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.

This one reads the Morning Star,

This one does not drive a car.

Say! what a lot of fish there are!

One fish bends a journo’s ear:

“There weren’t so many here last year!

The Tories will have much to fear

Because there are so many here!

Here and there are lots of new fish:

(Hiding somewhere is a blue fish)

This fish is called Jeremy,

And few fish are as red as he.

The red fish all applaud with glee

Whenever they see Jeremy.

For he rejects austerity

Because it isn’t fair, you see.

Jeremy has a grey beard

And many blue fish think him weird.

“Jeremy!” the papers sneered,

“No proper leader has a beard!”

What will the red fish now agree,

At their meeting by the sea?

A fish steps up and takes the floor,

She’s one we haven’t met before.

Here is a chance to prove her worth

By showing how we save the earth.

(And don’t forget what this could mean

When lots of people voted Green)

Will she talk of car emissions?

Will she talk of air conditions?

“Please save the planet,” this fish begs,

“By avoiding milk and eggs!

Meat-eating is just for jokers,

And carnivores are worse than smokers!”

Oh well, they still have Jeremy –

Those cheery red fish by the sea –

Who does not like austerity

And wants to set the workers free

By making all the rich fish pay.

But will they pay up? Who can say?

Let’s say goodbye to all the new fish

And go North to see the blue fish.

Here things are a little tense,

Here they’ve built a great big fence

To keep all the protesters out

In case they might throw eggs and shout.

But here are lots of fish in blue,

And some have brought their spouses, too.

One fish gets a little hot:

“We’re not nasty – no, we’re not!

Whoever says so is a Trot!”

One outlines her policies

On migrants and on refugees:

“Of course we wish them every cheer –

We just don’t want them coming here.”

One dislikes the poor and needy:

“Frankly,most of them are greedy.

The reason that they have it rough

Is cause they don’t work hard enough!”

One proposes downing tools

And selling hospitals and schools.

(The doctors might get quite upset

But none of them are striking yet)

Oh dear! The blue fish do seem cross:

Let’s have a listen to their boss.

“We have to make the people see:

They should not vote for Jeremy!

His policies are far too weird

And most of all – he has a beard!”

Oh, what a lot of fish to see

In the North or by the sea.

Some are mad and some are glad

And some are very, very bad

Is politics a sort of fad?

I don’t know. Go ask your Dad.

(with apologies and thanks –  again –  to Theodor Giesl, aka Dr Seuss)