What happened to the charabangs?

2 04 2013

The idea of community has changed a lot over the past two generations.

My paternal grandparents lived in a terraced, back-to-back in Liverpool. My mothers parents in a terraced, back-to-back in Widnes. Their parents lived in the same street, as did an assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. The furthest away that a relative lived, other than those who had emigrated to America after the second world war, was Altrincham, just 30 miles away. To be this far away from home was considered exotic behaviour. Each year the whole street piled onto a couple of charabangs and we all headed to Southport for the day. There was a steady stream of people passing the door. My Nana would whitewash her front step and chat to her neighbours, all engaged in the same task. Services were provided by real people; a man from the Pru to collect insurance, the pools man with the coupon each week, the tallyman to collect payments for goods bought on tick. Groceries were bought from Sharp’s on the corner, fruit and veg from Appleton’s on Peel House Lane and a pint of beer enjoyed with friends over a game of dominoes in the local pub that everyone simply called “the bottom”, as it was at the bottom of the street.

I’m not trying to paint a picture of some idyll; having an outside toilet, no central heating, a tiny kitchen and even smaller bathroom, working at what my grandfather himself called “ignorant work” simply to pay the bills is not a state I would wish to go back to. What that life did have was a sense of community. People were linked to other people and to their businesses.

When my grandmother went to buy groceries she did so at Sharp’s, from Mr and Mrs Sharp, who owned the shop. If something wasn’t right, fell below standard or was otherwise defective my Nana could take things back and complain, if need be, directly to the person she bought it from. The same with fruit and veg, or meat. If the meat was tough or off, then a complaint could be made to the butcher. Or you could buy from a different butcher next time, as there was more than one on the main street.

With my parents generation came many improvements, better access to education, better jobs, more opportunities. They were able, and encouraged, to buy their own home. Not in the grim terraces of the old cities but in the new housing estates that were springing up on the outskirts of the old towns. So it was that my parents moved from Widnes to a new house on a small estate in Great Sankey, some 5 miles from Widnes and a dozen miles from Liverpool. If you go there now Liverpool, Widnes and Warrington have all merged into one massive housing estate pock marked with B&Q’s and IKEA’s, but back in the day this was open countryside. Shopping was still local; a ginger haired man in a red van delivered bread, the Alpine man delivered fizzy pop and old Mr Davidson, of Davidson’s the Grocers, delivered the weekly shop in his big green van every Friday. If we ran out of anything during the week I’d be sent out clutching a string bag and a couple of shillings to Davidson’s. If I hadn’t enough money it didn’t matter as Mr Davidson would make a note on the receipt and stick it on a spike next to the till. At the end of the week these odd pennies owed were added to Mum’s bill for the weekly shop. I should say, however, that it did matter to me! I could never understand why my Mum didn’t always make sure that I had the right money as I found it excruciating to watch as the pink receipt was speared and put on display for all to see. I can see now that it didn’t matter to Mr Davidson or my Mum. They knew each other and there was the trust that came from that personal relationship.

But then came KwikSave, the first supermarket round our way, closely followed by ASDA. KwikSave was truly dreadful, with cardboard cartons stacked on cheap metal shelving so it never caught on with my Mum, but it was a great adventure to shop in ASDA. Long wide aisles packed full of food and small electricals, with a bakery, greengrocery and butcher’s in the same store, plus cards and toys and all manner of other stuff. And slowly, just as the new out of town estates broke the link between people and the place they were born, the supermarkets replaced the small corner stores and broke the link between shopper and shopkeeper.

My generation moved further away from their place of birth. I was born in Widnes and spent the first 15 years of my life within easy walking distance of the maternity home I was born in. But my parents moved to upmarket Cheshire as my Dad’s career blossomed, then came my own university education and aspirations and then marriage to an ambitious young graduate, all of which conspired to take me further away from the close knit community of my grandparents. And the same is true of all my cousins, my generation. We are spread throughout the UK and beyond. We are still a close family but can no longer just pop across the road to see how each other are doing. And so communities have dissolved. Not because of the bulldozing or our inner cities to be replaced in the ’60′s by high rise blocks, though that didn’t help, but by the creeping aspirations of my generation.

Now aspiration is a fine thing but we now find ourselves hankering after the benefits that the communities of my grandparents took for granted. We have older people who, having bought their own house away from their birthplace, are now finding that they have a lonely old age in a big empty house. No one calls to collect the insurance money or HP payments. There is no front step to whitewash as a reason to stand and chat to neighbours. Their children have also taken the decision to move away from the place of their birth. No one calls. As a colleague of mine says, “we have a generation long on capital but short on care.”

And the supply chain for our food has become longer and more complex. The local butcher might have charged for a quarter of corned beef when the weight was only 3.5oz but these seem small faults compared to the large scale fraud that allows horse meat to enter the food chain purporting to be beef. With a complex chain of suppliers, speculators and middle-men between the animal and the processed beefburger it has proved easy to perpetrate large scale fraud. It is much more difficult for a butcher to look a customer in the eye and tell them that the joint of beef they are about to buy is real beef if they know it to be horse. The personal, one-to-one relationship between customer and supplier is a better guarantor of veracity than can be expected from multinational food conglomerates who seen their customers not as people but as profit centres.

It’s no wonder that we are looking back to communities as they existed a couple of generations ago for inspiration in creating the communities we would like to see for our children’s generation.





Abuse against a backdrop of privilege

24 03 2013

A short while ago I wrote about entitlement. I did so in the context of the gang rape and murder of an Indian medical student, Jyoti Singh Pandey.

As I listened to a newscast from CNN relating to the conviction of two men for their part in the rape and humiliation of a 16 year old girl the subject of entitlement came again to mind.

What was prominent in the reporting of the case by the media, CNN being particularly culpable, was the detailed description of the rapists. Much was made of their position as stars of the local football team and of the place that gave them in the local society. These young men were local heroes. The point made by CNN et al was that their promising futures, which now includes a short period in youth custody, lay in tatters.

What was not considered was the possibility that it was the very fact of their celebrity that made them feel that it was their right to act in such a barbaric fashion. Maybe because of their elevated status, they felt able to act outside the law and in a way that demonstrated that they had power over their victim, repeatedly raping the urinating over the young girl, before posting their exploits on social media sites. Making their crime so public demonstrates that they did not feel that they had done anything to be ashamed of. Any sense of guilt would have stopped them from boasting about their acts.

That they seemed not to understand that what they had done constituted assault is staggering. They appeared to think that what they had done was just a bit of fun. Yes, it was at the expense of someone else, but a bit of a lark nonetheless. They were demonstrating, and then reveling in, the power that they were able to exert over their victim – a sense of power that they had been encouraged to believe that they were entitled to.

It wasn’t many years ago that there was a widespread acceptance that husbands were entitled to use physical violence against their wives, ‘to keep her in line’ or so ‘she would know her place’.

The recent case of Chris Rennard highlights this change in attitude. While being groped at work was an acceptable, occupational hazard for secretaries a couple of decades ago, women are now starting not only to object to this abuse but to talk openly about it in order to expose the perpetrators. The institutionalised sexism which was once tolerated is now open to question, which is, unquestionably, a good thing. But the mutterings of the chattering classes, which may well be silenced by the incarceration of one or two minor celebrities in the aftermath of the Jimmy Saville case, does not yet address the bigger issue.

Gender and power imbalance is played out against a backdrop of privilege and entitlement. While the use of a quick slap to keep the wife in line is no longer acceptable the incidents of domestic violence continue. Celebrities in the 70’s were able to abuse back then and schoolboy footballers in the US are able to abuse now in this setting. Sexual exploitation will not be truly eradicated until we are prepared to look at the reasons why some in our society feel entitled to behave in a way that degrades others.

I express the hope that we may address the issue of entitlement at a time when the ability to express dissent appears to be eroding. Look at the outrage directed towards Hilary Mantel when she aired views that questioned the role of the wife of a prince within our royal family. If ever there was a bastion of entitlement then the royal family is it.  If a respected academic like Hilary Mantel is unable to pose questions of this sort without suffering personal attack then I fear for our ability, and desire, to address the culture of entitlement which allows the abuse and exploitation of the powerless.





In praise of making stuff

4 03 2013

I want to write in praise of making stuff.

When we were children we understood the simple joy of making things; houses, even whole towns made of lego, fuzzy felt pictures, plasticine figures and stickle brick towers, but as we got older we grew up and we grew out of these simple pleasures.

In early communities people made things out of necessity; clay bowls to eat and drink from, flint tools to cut straw for building, bows and arrows to fell large animals, but we now troop off to the shops to buy Kath Kitson tableware and our meat comes in shrink wrapped polystyrene trays.

As the industrial revolution took hold labour was massed in factories to make the goods the emerging economies needed; clothing, ships, cutlery, pottery and more. How many of are now employed in manufacturing industries?

What the world has become focussed on is the making of one thing – money
Money was designed as a transfer mechanism to allow stuff – real tangible stuff- to be exchanged. The recent financial crisis came about from using money to create money. Entirely virtually you understand. No actual paper notes were produced. More and larger complex financial instruments were created to package up debts and investments, so complex that no-one really understood what was debt and what was credit. All that mattered was that money was made. No real stuff was made along the way. No benefit, other than the enrichment of the money managers, accrued. Great art wasn’t made, great ships weren’t built.

There is a saying about money; that you can’t take it with you.

Our ancestors in Egypt, in Anglo Saxon Britain, in India and in South America knew this. They turned their money into stuff which they then did take with them. The treasure uncovered at the tomb of Tutankhamen and the grave goods found at Sutton Hoo attest to this. Today we benefit educationally from what these goods tell us about the civilisations that created them but we also benefit as the stuff itself is beautiful.

We know that the Pharoahs had great wealth through the stuff that they had made. We know the love that Shah Jahan had for Mumtaz because of the Taj Mahal. He used his wealth to build a temple to his wife. A far cry from Sir Philip Green using his wife as a way of hiding wealth from the tax man.

Wealth was used to create something tangible and physical rather than burying money in a box, the ancient equivalent of stashing the cash offshore. The money sitting in these accounts does nothing to enrich anyone. It simply appears as a series of zeros after a dollar sign and a number on a computer screen or a banking statement.

Now I know that my argument is simplistic; that the pyramids were largely built by slave labour rather than a paid workforce so that the building of them probably did little to stimulate the Egyptian construction industry, but artisans and craftsman did create the stuff that was buried inside. The wealth of the pope did create the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

My grandfather was a foundryman, ignorant work as he himself called it, but he could sit at home at the end of his shift knowing that he had made, or helped to make, an object that existed and had a real use.

And it is not as if our adult selves do not still yearn to create things. Sit a grown up in front of a set of lego and see what happens!

So go on, you know you want to. Go ahead and make something. Something that you can touch, hold, caress. How fantastic to eat from a bowl you threw on a potters wheel or eat with a spoon you carved from green wood. It needn’t be perfect, it almost certainly wont be, but you will have made it. On an Armageddon note, when the hole-in-the-wall machine no longer spits out cash, and we were minutes away from that last crash, and goods no longer fill the Tesco shelves you might need to make stuff.

At the very least if you are sure that the only thing you can make is money then don’t leave it in the bank. Give it to an artist and let them create something beautiful for you.





What the woman’s hour list really reveals

21 02 2013

Earlier this week a message appeared on my facebook page, “woman’s hour top 100 women, what d’ya think?”

Leaving aside that I am a middle aged woman from Liverpool and not a teenager from the ‘hood, I’ll tell you what I think.

My first thought is that the list says more about the women who voted than it does about women as a whole, or at least I hope it does. Nothing screams Middle England more loudly than Radio 4 and the Woman’s Hour top 100 list reflects their prejudices – lots of middle class white folk with a few darker faces included so as not to appear racist. How else would The Queen have come out as number 1 with the judges?!

That she has influence is without question, but how has that influence been used other than to foster privilege and enforce the entitlement that the upper class feels in ruling over the rest of us? A situation never more obvious than with the current crop of Old Etonians and Bullingdon Boys who populate the cabinet. The judges, in placing The Queen at the head of the list, have served to reinforce the paradigm that it’s not what you know but who you know that matters in 21st century Britain. And that it’s not what you do but how much money you have that is to be admired.

What message does this send out to the millions of young women setting out on their careers? Just this, that if you study hard enough, go to university, get a good job and work hard you might just be lucky enough to be born Queen of England.

I have no truck with any of Margaret Thatcher’s policies but would have been happier for her to head the list as it is undeniable that she reached her position of influence from personal ambition and determination (and OK Denis’s money helped but she could have settled for a less high profile position as did most Tory wives).

And so few politicians on the list? I can’t argue with that as where are the female leaders to take over from her, Shirley Williams, Barbara Castle? Theresa May, the invisible Home Secretary, is another example of a senior woman who should have influence but who has exerted none. That she came second on the list is a disgrace.

I suspected that I would be less than impressed by the list and avoided listening to the awards programme but I did catch the last couple of minutes, just long enough to hear the presenters making their closing remarks.

What struck me was the immutable smugness of Jenny Murray and Jane Garvie. Remember the story of the dog riding a bicycle? It’s not done well but amazing that it is done at all. The tone of the closing remarks was just like that: “Thank you to all you lovely ladies here today, the lovely ladies who voted, the lovely ladies on the list. Aren’t we all wonderful? We’ve managed to come here this morning, without our lovely husbands even managed to find 100 lovely women to vote for.” Rather than lamenting the lack of real influence and the clear gaps that the list threw up they were more than content that they had actually manages to find 100 women from whom to create a list.

Staggering complacency.

We don’t need this list. What we need is a proper debate as to why so few women have real influence and why those that do have it chose not to use it.





Is there any sign of change?

5 02 2013

I saw only today on facebook this comment, “If the growing number of people that are openly calling for the PM and his government to be lynched is telling us anything, it is that revolution is imminent.”

I don’t agree with this conclusion but the growing unrest, at least on social media platforms, does indicate that change, if happening at all, isn’t coming fast enough.

Since the financial collapse we have seen a society that has, more than anytime in the last 50 years, been ready to contemplate change, one indeed that has been clamouring for change. In particular changes have been demanded to the way our political, financial and government institutions operate. But despite all of the noise and column inches devoted to discussing change, are there any signs that things are actually changing?

I think not, and I’ll tell you why.

Politics

  1. One of the first scandals to rock our trust in politicians was the expenses scandal. Chris Grayling claimed expenses for his flat in Pimlico, close to the Houses of Parliament, despite having a constituency home just 17 miles away. He also had two buy-to-let properties in nearby Wimbledon. His total expense claim was £127,000. To me that seems like cheating. Yet he is now a minster at the Department of Work and Pensions. How can someone with such a skewed view of what is morally acceptable still be in a position of power? Incidentally, to put his expense claim in context, it amounts to 20 years of benefit for one of the sick or disabled people, his department is responsible for.
  2. Douglas Hogg, a former Conservative Cabinet minister, included with his expenses claims the cost of having the moat cleared, piano tuned and stable lights fixed at his country manor house. He is, quite rightly, the FORMER cabinet minister. However he is to make a return to politics. The 1999 House of Lords Act retained 92 hereditary peers. When one party-political hereditary peer dies a by-election takes place to replace him with another peer. Mr Hogg is on the register of hereditary peers entitled to stand in such a by-election and none other than David Cameron has recommended that he be given a life peerage. Mr Hogg is now favourite to take up the seat in the Lords vacated by the death of Lord Onslow.

Banking

  1. You all know RBS. It is the bank which received a publicly funded £45.5 billion bail-out in 2008 and is over 80% owned by the state. For “publicly funded” read “our money” and for “the state” read “you and me”. Surely it has changed since the days of Fred The Shred Goodwin? NO. RBS is shortly expected to announce that it intends to pay around £250m in bonuses to staff in it’s investment arm. This is the same investement arm that faces a £500m fine for its role in the Libor-rigging scandal. Put simply, the individuals collectively found guilty of interest rate fixing will individually be rewarded with massive bonuses. The fine imposed on RBS will be funded from reserves, that is, it will come from our money!
  2. There was widespread agreement after the crash that the operations of retail banks, with their high street branches and conservative lending policies are a million miles away from investment banks, with their complex, high-risk products. Yet still these two banking practices sit together in the massive financial institutions that are Lloyds, Barclays, RBS and HSBC. You can be forgiven for thinking that investment and retail banking have always been close bed-fellows, but think again. Until 1986 in the UK and as late as 1990 in the US the operations were separate. Yet we are constantly told that, in the world of banking, big is beautiful and that the complexity of their offering is essential to their successful operation. Why? There is no good reason yet, despite the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Banking, nothing changes.

Government

  1. The coalition proudly announced when coming to power that the days of big government were over but has there really been a redistribution from central to local authorities? In my view it is only when power moves from Whitehall that people will truly have a say in the way in which they are governed. The coalition promised much, the Localism Act seeks to reverse much of the centralisation which has occurred over the past 50-60 years. Much of what it has to say, local communities being involved in land planning, being able to take over services from local authorities is positive but, and it is a very big but, there is little change in the way local councils can raise and distribute income. The biggest hole in the Localism Bill has been seen all too clearly in the last week. HS2. When central government has a pet project that it wishes to pursue it can push through legislation irrespective of local concerns and objections. Personally, I don’t think there is an economic or environmental case for HS2 but that isn’t the point here. The point is that, despite making speeches in favour of local decision making, the government still does just what it pleases when it wants to.
  2. Tax Evasion. I beg your pardon, Tax Avoidance. I listened, live and in full, to David Cameron’s speech in Davos and was delighted to hear that he planned to push the G8 for action against companies which “navigate their way around legitimate tax systems and even low tax rates with an army of clever accountants”. Yet the major accountancy firms told a committee of MPs this week that they received annual revenue of almost 500 million pounds, collectively, from work for the UK government. When Margaret Hodge, chair of the committee suggested that the firms involved in tax avoidance shcemes on behalf of their clients, should be barred from getting government contracts, for the entirely reasonable notion that it would avoid a conflict of interest, a spokesperson from one of the accountants said: “The role we play makes the tax system work.” Ah yes, but for whom?




What is networking for?

20 01 2013

The conventional wisdom has it that networking events are a place to make contacts that will enhance your business success. If this is true then I have failed spectacularly – and am happy to have done so. The “what’s in it for me” mentality is one that I find repellant.

I am, however, a human being who loves meeting and talking to interesting people. Over the past few years I have met some amazing people, some of whom have helped establish and continue to support this magazine and other ventures, while others haven’t. Pretty much without exception everyone I have met has added to my life. And there we have it. The people I have met have added value to my life regardless of whether they have added value to my business.

I try not to use the word networking as it brings with it all the artificiality of swapping business cards and being forced to give endorsements to people you hardly know. Yet I do attend an extraordinary number of events that purport to increase my network and I am the best connected person I know. These two facts are not unconnected. I attend the events that I think will be interesting and I make lasting connections because I am genuinely interested in the people that I meet. Whether I make money out of the people I meet is, for me, not the crucial factor.

Yet I still see the old rules being touted, where networkers are encouraged to look at everyone they meet in terms of how they might be useful to their business. Women’s networking is far too often high heels, booze and power dressing. That is to say that women’s networking perfectly mirrors the male dynamic. It really is time to stop this nonsense. It no longer suits. And in a world where we should look very closely at the reasons for the current economic meltdown it is increasingly irrelevant. It is time to create a network that embraces values not gender, one that plays to the compassionate as well as the profit driven side of all of our natures.

I’m up for this challenge and am grateful that, through my network and the way that I have chosen to meet and interact with my fellow human beings, that I have met like-minded people to work with.





Challenging Entitlement

20 01 2013

Most of the blogs I write come from things that I have heard, seen or read.

This piece is no different in that respect.

Mostly I try to reflect on how an issue may be viewed in a different way in order to reveal new dimensions.

This piece is very different in that respect.

I’m writing after having read of a second gang rape on a bus in India. This second, well second widely reported incident, follows just two weeks after Jyoti Singh Pandey was raped, brutalised and murdered. Her father, contrary to the wishes of the Indian authorities, released her name and in doing so expressed his desire that the increased publicity would prevent another woman having to suffer the fate of his daughter.

That this second incident followed so closely after her death shows not only that the horror of that event has not prevented further gang rapes but might even suggest that it has acted as a template for further attacks.

I cannot find a way to view these incidents with anything other than horror and revulsion. There is no way that these events can be seen in shades of grey that could explain the actions of these men but I am moved to write this piece anyway. From any approach I take to the story there are no mitigating factors; educational, cultural, circumstantial or otherwise that can possibly excuse the premeditated assaults on two young women by two gangs of men.

The rape statistics cannot be tackled by telling women how to avoid being raped. When a similar situation as we find today occurred in India in the 1960’s Indira Ghandi was urged to implement a curfew on women to keep them safe. To her credit she responded by arguing that if any curfew was to be introduced that it should be imposed on men.

In South Africa the rape statistics are even more horrifying than those in India. What is also worrying is the response of young women who were interviewed after a rape on their university campus – it was to shrug and say, “these things happen.” Acceptance of a situation is not, of course, the same as agreement with it, but it’s close. By failing to challenge each case of inequality, abuse, assault and rape the feeling of entitlement of the perpetrators grows. Bad things happen, and will continue to happen, when good people stand back and shrug.  Margaret Hefferenan’s book “Willful Blindness” is full of instances where failure to speak out has had catastrophic consequences. More recently,  the Jimmy Savile  case has demonstrated that doing nothing puts others in danger.

My concern is to address the entitlement that these men seem to have felt in allowing them to behave in this way, as in this they are not either alone or unique. In 2012 we had US politicians touting the idea of “legitimate rape” and in the UK we were asked to consider date rape as just a case of bad form. There are countless people, no doubt many well-meaning, many of whom are women, who wish us to complete this sentence, “Women get raped because……” when we should be addressing the issue of why some men become rapists. It is much more likely, as with murder, that women are abused by someone that they know. Telling women to stay off the streets will not address this issue, it will merely reinforce the current situation where women are encouraged to live in fear of walking the streets at night.

Some men, exemplified by the apologists above, are willing to excuse certain types of behaviour, to shift the blame from perpetrator to victim. They do so from a position of power which entitles them to treat women as the cause of any of their indiscretions.

So while I cannot add to the understanding of how individual human beings can behave in such appalling ways towards other human beings I can urge that we all should challenge every single act of suppression that we see, whether that be of gender, race or class as the only way that things will change is if we all challenge the feeling of entitlement that the strong have over the weak.