Saturday, 25 June 2016

Brexit, The Luvvies of London and the Special Snowflake Generation

I’m no grass, London, but I’m going to tell you to your face what people are saying behind your back.

Everyone knows that social media is an echo chamber. You surround yourself with people who think the same as you, they like the same kind of music as you, they play the same kinds of sports as you and you reinforce each others thoughts and opinions in a mutual back-slapping exercise. I watched this incestuous phenomena take place on my Twitter timeline during this week's EU referendum debate and, thankfully, I have the sense to follow a wide variety of people and so I was aware that opinions were strong on both sides. When the vote for Leave came in, my timeline went bananas. How could people vote this way? How could this happen? It happened because, believe it or not, not everyone in the world thinks exactly the same as you. We’re not living in a computer simulation where your thoughts are the only ones that matter and everyone else secretly shares them. Some people I follow on Twitter genuinely couldn’t accept that people out there would defy them and they reacted with a ridiculously dramatic outburst, pointing fingers and issuing demands like they are the Queen and the country should be punished for committing treason.

So what happens when a decision doesn’t go your way? Well most people kick off at first, they shout and scream but then they eventually come to accept that the majority of people hold a different opinion that has greater support and they go along with them, albeit in a grump. But no, we’re not doing that, are we? We’re busy constructing petitions, having protests on the street, pointing the fingers of blame and hunting out Brexiteers in order to rant at them. And it’s only the second day. I will watch the reaction of the Remain camp with interest over the following weeks because I hope that they are simply in the 'shout and scream’ outraged stage of accepting the result, however I suspect that there is more to it and their behaviour will confirm an inkling that I have about both the younger generation and the folks living in London and the way in which that they focus inward on themselves and share their opinions with the rest of the country...

For some time now I have worried that we are raising a generation of special snowflakes who do not know how to accept defeat. Every single kid in a class wins a prize at sports day, they all get a shot at going to university and they’re all going to win the X Factor and get a multi-million pound record deal. My neighbour has a son who regularly wins trophies at his football club, even though he can barely kick a ball. Another friend has a daughter who brings home trophies from dance class every week, even though she’s the most ungraceful, unwieldy child I’ve ever met. Losing is hard for the younger generation because they’re not prepared for it and we’ve taught them that they will always get a reward no matter the outcome. To make matters worse, many have realised that if they shout and scream then they can get their own way and so, rather than deal with childhood tantrums, we’ve pandered to them and encouraged them into early adulthood as a type of behaviour that produces results.

This tantrum-like behaviour has been creeping into our collective consciousness via the dramatic reactions that people have these days whenever something offends them - whether they are armchair activists tapping away on their laptop keyboards or street-level activists digging out their Guy Fawkes masks to march against the bankers and big businesses, to fight against women being forced to wear high heels at work, for transgender toilets etc. These people claim to be fighting for ’the little guy’ against The Man. But attempt to make a counterargument or question their motives and this open-minded tolerance will quickly turn into vicious aggression. Are these championing-the-people activists the same people now directing all their anger and vitriol towards 'the elderly, the poor and the uneducated’ because they believe them to be responsible for the Leave vote? But surely if the vote came from ‘the elderly, the poor and the uneducated’ then these are the people that we are supposed to protect and nurture? How come we're not protecting ‘the little guy’ now? Why the sudden siding with the bankers and the rich folk against them? Why are you suddenly aboard Geldof’s posh yacht swigging champagne with his Hooray Henry friends? Where are your Guy Fawkes masks now, guys??

I’ll tell you why the Remain camp are attacking ‘the elderly, the poor and the uneducated’ right now. I said it in an earlier blog post and I’ll repeat myself again here: 

‘Maybe in our current climate of moral masturbation it’s simply not cool to help our own people in the UK. Maybe it’s cooler for Londoners to sit around in coffee bars bragging about how they helped a Syrian family than it is to say that they helped a homeless old man in Birmingham. How many more Twitter followers do you get for being photographed hauling a dinghy ashore? How much more does your ego inflate when your fellow girlfriends fawn over you at dinner as you brag about how much cash you donate to refugee organisations? And how many more DVDs/tickets/books does a celebrity sell for opening their doors to an immigrant family?' 

The sad fact is the ‘the elderly, the poor and the uneducated’ are just not cool enough to get behind. I suspect that most of these London-dwelling ‘activists’ are ashamed to even admit that these people exist. And they’re so desperate to be seen participating in the cool crusades that they’ll trample over anyone who opposes them, even if it means turning on the weaker, suffering people in their own society.

A bevy of luvvies were paraded across our TV screens to argue for the Remain camp and the disconnect between these bubble-dwelling, London-centric people and the real people on the street was painfully obvious. Sheila Hancock, for example, started blathering on about the impact of a Brexit on the arts. Really Sheila? Really? Do you realise how much of a monumental arse you sounded like to the people on my estate? There are families losing their homes and being forced to live in hostels and there are people dying because they can’t get hospital appointments and you’re worried about the cultural diversity of the arts? Christ woman, take a look at yourself. And the ‘tragedies’ that these bubble-dwelling people fawn over are called ‘everyday events’ by the people on my estate. Yes there are refugee families fleeing wars who do not have somewhere to live and we should do what we can to help, but have you walked around a city centre recently and seen how many homeless people there are? 

Jo Cox’s death was a terrible tragedy and the guy who killed her should be hung-drawn-and-quartered, but these kind of tragedies happen all the time in my area. Mothers get killed by their violent partners, kids get shot by gang members and young women get attacked, raped and killed just walking down the street in the middle of the day, but no-one seems to care when it happens here. I can’t tell you how many people living in my area have said to me ‘it was a shame about Jo Cox, but why are the media obsessed with this?’. Even my own mum, who is the most gentle of souls, tells me that she turns the news channels over every time there is a news report on Jo because she’s getting sick of it all. The message from the media is that if you’re a well-educated, upstanding member of an affulent community and you’re killed then you deserve to be worshipped as a martyr and a saint, however if you’re a chav on a council estate and you’re killed in a random attack then shit happens and you’re faceless Soylent Green fodder. At what point will we admit that we check the length of a CV and the number of Instagram followers that a person has before we decide whether we will be outraged by their death?

Friday morning was a massive wake-up call for the Luvvies of London and it was also a massive wake-up call for the rest of us, like waking up one morning and realising that the person that you married is actually a bit of a pompous dick. London is special snowflake central, everyone knows that. It’s basically the Ice Queen’s palace. And it’s been having almighty tantrums like a spoilt child in order to get its own way for some time now. The rest of the country has been very tolerant of this selfish behaviour until now but its patience has worn thin, and so on Thursday the country voted to deal a hard slap in order to sober it up. And now the Luvvies of London have gone crying to daddy that the big boys have beaten them up and they want to take all their toys and go play with someone else. For God’s sake, someone give them a winner's trophy to keep them happy while the rest of us get on with adult life...

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Axe Grinding for the EU Referendum

I try, I really do, to keep a balanced view on most things. Never jumping to conclusions, listening to both sides of the story, unafraid to throw my hands up and admit I’m wrong and completely change my mind. I’ve tried to take the same approach with the EU Referendum and I’ve listened to friends, family, politicians and the media to build up a balanced picture of the options that we are faced with. I also have my own life experiences that feed directly into the arguments that are being made and I know that these will be a factor in my decision making.

I’m your classic sitting-on-the-fence voter, Mr Cameron, and here is where my mind is at right now...

Border control and immigration will be a major factor in my decision making. Don’t groan, I need to thrash this one out because it’s a biggie. I’ve seen how population growth has eaten into my quality of life and the lives of my family and friends and it will have a major impact on my future. I'm rational and sensible enough to ensure that race and religion do not influence my thinking and I will be extremely angry if anyone plays that hand with me - I don’t care whether the individuals that enter the UK come from Syria, Poland, Russia, China, Lilliput, Hobbiton or the moon. I honestly don’t care where they come from. Population increase is putting a major strain on my immediate, day-to-day life and I worry equally about the impact of dinghies full of young men that are arriving on our shores as much as I do about the UK-born families in my local area that are knocking out babies on a conveyor belt like their lives depend on it, but we’ll come to that later...

As young women growing up in Birmingham in the nineties, my friends and I first encountered newly arrived groups of immigrants when on nights out in the city centre. We were very aware of the dangers that they presented to us, but we didn’t feel comfortable talking about them because the media and our older peers told us that speaking about immigrants in a negative light was frowned upon. Groups of ‘foreign men’ (we didn’t know where they came from, since the news didn’t offer us handy diagrams at the time) would follow us around clubs and try to buy us drinks, they would hassle us on the street when we were trying to get home at the end of the evening and, even when out shopping in the day, there would be large groups of men hanging around in town taking photographs of themselves and shouting abuse. They became a constant feature of our evenings out and eventually my friends and I stopped going out in town, or we would leave early in order to avoid them. The ‘call me when you get home’ rule had never been applied so strictly.

When older friends moved into the area and they told me that their teenage daughter was going out for the first time in town, I didn’t know what to say. I politely reminded them that town could be a dangerous place and she should be careful, but bit my lip and said no more. Why? Because most of the men that gave us trouble were non-white immigrants that had recently arrived in the UK and I was afraid that my older friends would think I was a racist, when actually I just wanted their daughter to be safe. The more I thought about it afterwards, the more I realised that I should have said something. What would be the worst outcome? That they think I’m a racist? Or that their daughter avoids being attacked and raped? Next time, I promised myself, I will explain everything to them. Why should my fear of causing offence be more important than her safety?

Now, as I have grown older and entered the work sector, I have come to see the positive side of immigration. I work in the higher education sector that employs many talented, professional workers from all around the world and each one brings something different to my working environment. I talk with them, I eat their food, I learn new skills from them, I meet their families and I call many of them my friends. But here’s the thing. They are a) skilled people that in some cases have been invited to work in the UK because they possess skills that surpass those of equivalent UK workers, b) they came to the UK through an official route and hence c) we know pretty much everything about their history and where they have come from. These people are making a valuable contribution to society and I welcome more like them into the UK. However the real problem is this - how can we guarantee that the people who are walking into our country right now are like these skilled workers and not the dangerous men that walk around town at night? Any argument that can seal the deal on a distinction being made will get my vote.

The impact that immigration has on housing and services also cannot be ignored. In 2010 a very close friend of mine died unexpectedly. She was a single mum, she had a history of childhood epilepsy, her ex-boyfriend was threatening to kidnap her baby daughter and drug dealers were making deals right outside the window of her ground floor flat. She contacted Birmingham City Council to request a move and presented letters of support from her doctor and the courts, but she was told that she was on the third tier of priority, beneath 1) tenants needing rehoming due to their houses being demolished for regeneration of the area and 2) immigrant families moving into the area. A brand new housing estate was being built nearby, but residents had been told that immigrant families moving into the area would be given priority to apply for them. A year later her mother found my friend dead in her flat, face-down in bed with her two-year-old daughter crying in a high chair in the kitchen. Doctors suspected that her epilepsy had returned and she had suffered a fit, most likely brought on by the stresses of her situation. No-one liked to say it, but everyone was thinking it. At the time it was considered taboo to talk about immigration in a negative light, but the cracks were starting to show and fingers of blame were being pointed. Would my friend still be alive if she had been moved out of that flat? I don’t know. But it’s an opportunity that she should certainly have been given.

Many people on council estates in Birmingham are painfully aware that immigration is putting a strain on housing and they talk openly about it now. I have friends sitting on the council housing list who have been there for years. And let’s face it, if I - a childless, single woman - wanted to get a council house then I would stand no chance whatsoever of getting on and moving up the housing list. But it’s the pressures on services that are a problem too. It takes 3-5 weeks to get a doctor’s appointment at my local GP surgery. My mum recently waited two months to get a hospital appointment for an urgent test and now she has to wait from April until August to get her test results. It’s a commonplace joke in my local area that the medical centres make you wait months for an appointment in the hope that you’ll die in the interim period! And yet most days I pass through the site of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham on my way to work and the number of different languages that are spoken around me are staggering. The waiting areas are rammed with people from a variety of different cultures and you can’t even get a car or bus past the front of the hospital without sitting in a long queue of taxis picking up people and dropping them off. I don’t ever remember the hospital being this busy and feeling so pressured. And yet, although I mention encountering people from different cultures speaking different languages, I’ll happily turn the same spotlight on my own UK-born friends and place blame at their door too. It infuriates me that kids in my local area grow up knowing full well that if you knock out several babies then you will never have to work again. I hear them talking about it among themselves, sharing stories on entitlements and what you can claim from where, wearing the next pregnancy like a badge of honor and laughing at people who need to go out and work. Some of these people are my friends and so I bite my lip, but if I could deport some of them out of the country to relieve the pressures that they place on society then I would in a heartbeat.

I'm also acutely aware of a voice that isn't booming its opinion across social media. Our old folk. We're focusing so hard on reaching the young people (as Eddie Izzard ploughs his way through university campuses) but has anyone asked the older people how they feel? I wonder how many of them, like my grandmother, have been forced to sell their family home to pay for their care because the government couldn't afford to do so? I wonder how many, like my grandmother, have been sent home desperately ill in the middle of the night because the hospitals don't have enough beds? An increase in population can only exacerbate these problems. Old age looks pretty grim right now, and don't forget we'll all be old soon...

… I haven’t cast my vote yet and I’m open to debate, but these are the kinds of thoughts that are weighing on my mind. I’m exposing myself to all arguments and I’ve spent a lot of time talking to both sides, but, to be honest, I’m becoming increasingly annoyed by the condescending, sneering viewpoint that if you support a Brexit then you are some kind of vile, idiotic, racist underclass that doesn’t have a functioning brain. I am an educated, professional woman without a racist bone in her body and yet I have suffered this kind of abuse when trying to merely engage with the Leave viewpoint in order to get a balanced view. Do you realise, Remain camp, that you are forcing a class divide by casting yourselves as intellectually superior, business minded, financially secure, ivory tower-dwelling betters and viciously mocking the concerns of anyone who you consider to be lesser than you?

To these sneering Remain supporters – the heads of businesses and the J. K. Rowlings and Bob Geldofs of the world - I would say this. When was the last time you applied for a council house? When was the last time you tried to get a doctor's appointment in an area like mine or an NHS hospital appointment? Are you a woman who is intimated by the gangs of men that hang around town late at night and hassle you in the street? Are you an old person being forced to sell your house to pay for your care? Yes it’s a shame for the people who are fleeing war and my heart bleeds for the crying children that are rescued from the sea, but why should I empathise more with these people than with my closest friend who couldn’t get a council house and died as a result? Or my mum who has been waiting months for a hospital appointment and has a further five month for the results of a biopsy? Or my friend's sister who was raped by a gang of illegal immigrants on a night out to celebrate her eighteenth birthday? Or my nan who was forced to sell her family home to pay for her care and then dumped outside her care home in the snow because the hospital didn’t have enough beds to keep her?

Maybe in our current climate of moral masturbation it’s simply not cool to help our own people in the UK. Maybe it’s cooler for Londoners to sit around in coffee bars bragging about how they helped a Syrian family than it is to say that they helped a homeless old man in Birmingham. How many more Twitter followers do you get for being photographed hauling a dinghy ashore? How much more does your ego inflate when your fellow girlfriends fawn over you at dinner as you brag about how much cash you donate to refugee organisations? And how many more DVDs/tickets/books does a celebrity sell for opening their doors to an immigrant family?

It appears to me that the Leave and Remain supporters boil down to two kinds of people - the people who are fiercely defending the future of their families and the people who are fiercely defending the future of their investments. The Remain camp appeals to me in the sense that I would take a financial hit if a vote to leave was cast, but, in the grand scheme of things, can I morally defend protecting my investments at the expense of making life for the people around me more miserable? I don’t think I can. The Remain campaign keep telling us that businesses will suffer and we will all be worse off financially in the event of a Brexit, but I’m starting to think that if it means that my friends will be housed, my family can get GP appointments, I will feel safer on the streets and the old people are treated better, then pass me my cheque book… I’ll pay you right now whatever the cost to get out.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

To All The Kids Who Think They're Not Good Enough For University (And The Teachers Who Agree)

Xylophones have a lot to answer for in terms of my educational development. I was obsessed with the xylophone when I was a child. I wasn't confident enough to sing, I wouldn’t be seen dead with a shaker or a tambourine and the recorder required too much effort, so the xylophone was the perfect choice for making a pleasant but substantial noise in primary school assemblies. It was during one of these assemblies that the local vicar, who was tasked with directing our cacophonous shambles of a school band, noticed the wild enthusiasm with which I bashed the bars and asked whether I had ever considered playing the piano. I was completely enamoured with the idea and promptly began pestering my parents for a piano and piano lessons. My mum worked evenings as a cleaner in a school and my dad worked shifts in a foundry so this wasn’t something that they could easily afford, but they eventually caved in to my persistent nagging and approached my teacher at a parent’s evening to ask whether the school had any provision for music lessons. The teacher consulted with Mrs. Guest, my strict and rather rotund and red-faced headmistress, to ask whether piano lessons could be arranged and Mrs. Guest’s answer was sharp and to the point: children from my council estate did not ‘do’ things like learning to play the piano and it was ridiculous of my parents to encourage a child like me to aspire to do such things. 

My parents accepted this response and broke the bad news to me, however the school vicar was not going to allow me give up on my dream that easily. He arranged for me to have piano lessons with an elderly lady who lived locally and charged very little for lessons (she lived alone and I suspect the company alone was payment enough) and my parents bought me a second-hand piano which we shoehorned into my tiny bedroom in our two-bed council house. When I passed my Grade 3 piano, my mother confided in me that she was pleased that I had persevered with my lessons because my parents had thought (hoped) that my musical ambitions were a passing phase and she told me what my headmistress had said when they had enquired about piano lessons. The headmistress’s comments were like a red rag to a bull – how dare she say that my friends and I shouldn’t aspire to achieve our dreams just because we live in a deprived area! I would like to say that I rattled through my piano grades so that I could entertain the masses, teach a new generation of pianists and learn a skill that would enhance my cognitive development, but my main, if not sole, motivation was to prove that headmistress wrong. I have a distinction in Grade 8 piano now. Fuck you Mrs. Guest. 

Growing up on a council estate in Birmingham, I encountered the ‘children who shouldn’t aspire’ attitude numerous times throughout my school life. My high school hit the very bottom of the league tables while I was in my GCSE year and it was widely expected amongst both the staff and students alike that girls would fail their GCSEs and banging out a dozen babies while sitting on the dole and the boys would also fail their GCSEs and become career criminals, winding up in trouble with the police or locked up. One teacher even told my class that we should start to plan a family early because there was a good chance that some of our babies would die due to the deprived nature of the area. 

It was when a child challenged these preconceptions that things got really interesting. My best friend at high school desperately wanted to be a lawyer but she needed A Levels in order to apply to university, so we bravely asked our teachers if it would be possible to study for an A Level together. No-one from my school had ever taken an A Level let alone applied to a university before so the teachers thought that we were crazy and completely out of our depth, but they agreed to let us sit A Level English Literature on the condition that we did the required reading and research ourselves with some guidance from a business teacher who had experience in teaching A Level courses. I took the class to support my friend and I had no intention of applying for university myself – after all, no-one from my school went to university and my parents certainly couldn’t afford the fees - but when I accompanied my friend to university open days I liked what I saw and began to think seriously about whether I wanted to pursue the same educational path… 

I enrolled on a series of A Levels at evening classes and cobbled together a mishmash of grades that made me a pretty poor candidate for a red brick university. Nevertheless, I bit the bullet and applied to the University of Birmingham. The admissions tutor was bound by the entry requirement grades, but after a short interview he surprised me by saying that he would make an exception in my case because ‘I had a something about me’. Throughout the entire first year of my undergraduate course I felt like I had broken into the place or stolen a legitimate student’s identity. Some students had come from well-performing schools and they had been rigorously trained to perform to a high standard, but there were also a few students like me from less privileged backgrounds in or around Birmingham who had similar educational experiences to mine. By the end of my first year, it was clear that some of the high performing students were struggling to function when separated from a controlled, classroom environment. They could swallow and regurgitate information but they could not think for themselves and many of them started to drop out of university as a result. On the other hand, those of us who had been previously cast adrift with our educational development and forced to think for ourselves were thriving in this environment and most of our group achieved a 2:1 or higher (I graduated with a very high first class degree, winning a series of prestigious scholarships, moving quickly onto an MPhil and finally completing a PhD). I suspect that the ‘something’ about me that the admissions tutor had spotted was the same ‘something’ that each one of us in the less educationally privileged group of students possessed; namely the ability to think for ourselves and to cope when left alone to conduct research and develop our own arguments, independently of a teacher or classroom environment that dictated these things to us. 

This ‘child that shouldn’t aspire’ now has a PhD and she is on the senior professional management team of the same university department that she hesitated to apply to in the first place. It’s strange to think that I felt so nervous and inadequate when I first arrived as an undergraduate and now I play a key role in its day-to-day activities! Having experienced higher education from both sides - from the point of view of the ‘child that shouldn’t aspire’ and the point of view of a university graduate and member of staff - if I was to turn back the clock and speak to my fellow cohort of children at a school assembly then I would give them the following pieces of advice... 

My first piece of advice would be this: don't be put off by thoughts of inadequacy based on perceptions of higher education that you might have in your head. I spent years passing by the red brick wall of the University of Birmingham and believing that the Hogwarts-like building in the distance was full of pompous professors who wouldn’t give disadvantaged students a second thought and wouldn't know real struggle and hard work if it bit them on the ass, but now I’m one of those people behind that red brick wall and let me assure you, I’m still very much in touch with that little girl who played the xylophone in school assembly and I know what it’s like to dream big, work hard and have real monsters stand in your way. I am no monster and neither are my colleagues. My university is nowhere near the snooty bastion of pomp and ceremony that I expected it to be as an undergraduate student and any feelings of inadequacy had dissolved by the time I reached graduation. Most people that I encounter on campus are lovely, down-to-earth people who have a lot of time for students from all backgrounds and I regularly speak to colleagues and students who have had similar educational experiences to mine (I currently work with a very talented doctoral researcher who grew up on murder mile in Hackney!). If you’re still unsure then book onto an open day and speak to some of the staff and students about what it’s like to study at their institution. Hopefully just taking the first physical step into the institution and engaging with the people there will eliminate a great deal of your fears. And take it from me; do not be intimidated by class perceptions or how someone looks, behaves or speaks in a higher education environment because these things are certainly no indicator of intellectual ability. Hard work is a very good leveller of all people.

My second piece of advice is for the kids who feel that they are being pushed into higher education when it really isn’t ‘their thing’. Parents and educational authorities alike can be guilty of this. We try to encourage children to fulfil their educational potential but some children just don’t possess the capacity for academic study. For instance, I can play the piano very well, but I struggle to play the drums and there are lots of other things that I’m terrible at. I can’t swim and I can’t run long distances without collapsing in a sweaty heap. I accept that I do well in some things but I’m awful in others. Likewise academic ability is something that you either possess or you don’t and some school leavers are just not cut out for higher education, in the same way that I’m not cut out to swim the channel. Simple as. There is no shame in accepting that you are not academically minded and many students leave school without qualifications and develop specialised and valuable practical skills that allow them to become experts in practical roles in society. These practical roles are often undervalued due to our obsession with pushing students down the path of higher education when in some cases the student feels that it isn’t a good fit for them. As a graduate I find this obsession with the pursuit of higher education at the expense of practical skills difficult to understand because university education is *not* the be-all-and-end-all that some people talk it up to be, it is not an open door to a guaranteed dream job and it certainly doesn’t make you any better that the next person. I have seen how genuinely grateful the professors in my department are when an IT person comes to fix their computer or a maintenance person comes to fix a light or repaint their office - no matter how academically qualified you are you will always depend upon and value those around you with practical skills. 

My third piece of advice is a warning. In addition to the academically minded and the practically minded, there is another type of school leaver that educational bodies need to be aware of; the chancer. Thinking back to the student cohort at my school, there were a number of kids who exhibited a genuine flair for study or practical skills, but alongside these students there were also out-and-out chancers who wanted a piece of the same opportunities and achievements without putting in any effort or hard work whatsoever. And coming from a disadvantaged background gave them the claim to preferential treatment and the free pass that they were looking for. Dangers arise when admitting these free-pass-grabbing students to a higher education institution just to tick a quota box or feel like you’re helping the disadvantaged in some patronising and self-righteous way. If every single school leaver, regardless of academic ability, demands that they must have equal access to higher education then we will end up with a quagmire of students who blindly dredge their way through a course of education that they care very little about, dragging the genuinely capable students down with them and at best leaving with the same qualifications. Employers will struggle to differentiate between a job application from a genuinely capable student and a chancer and eventually the qualifications that they both possess will become worthless. After all, if we give trophies to everyone who runs a race then how are we going to pick out the ones that we should train to be Olympians? As gratifying as it would have been to see everyone in my high school class achieve a university place and prove the Mrs. Guests of the world wrong, I’m also a realist and I’m well aware that amongst the genuine students seeking help there are also chancers looking to take advantage of freely available opportunities and milk them for all they're worth. If a student from a disadvantaged background expects to be handed a qualification on a plate simply because they plead for special treatment and they do not intend to apply any hard work or effort, then there is a very good chance that they will fail and educators should not feel guilty or responsible when that happens. It's tough, but that’s life. 

The fourth piece of advice is intended for a different audience: my former teachers and those teachers who still advocate the Mrs. Guest approach to educational privilege. Resist predicting the growth potential of students based entirely upon whether a student comes from an impoverished or affluent area or what their parents do for a living because, if anything, you’re probably showing your age. Gone are the days when library access was restricted to wealthy schools and knowledge was passed down from parent to child; we are living in the age of Google where children grow up with access to more information than ever before, they are taking control of their own educational development and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to restrict knowledge to a social class or geographical location. There is a world of knowledge at every child’s fingertips these days and it is their personal motivation and inner drive that will determine what they do with it. My undergraduate course taught me that battery farming students in a well-performing school is no guaranteed indicator of success and ‘children that shouldn’t aspire’ can be just as capable, if not more capable, than the children that are naturally expected to succeed. I would suggest that children who work independently to achieve something that they desperately want for themselves are often the ones that are best equipped to persevere with a course of study, to be intensely self motivated and weather the challenging times that all students face. A tough skin and dogged determination cannot be taught in a classroom and yet these are the tools that are most essential to carry a student through a university education. 

My final message is directed to those who, like me, have followed an unconventional route through higher education and still work within it. Talk to the kids out there who demonstrate academic potential and express an interest in applying to university but have had their confidence knocked by poor educators or feel somehow inadequate at the thought of attending university alongside the privileged kids. Tell them about the scholarships and resources that are available to help them to gain access to courses (I am living proof that these work) and give them the confidence that they need to go to open days and submit applications. And, most importantly, show them that there are no monsters behind the red brick wall and many of us in university departments are just like them and we understand what they are going through. Who knows, they might just end up running the place…

Helen Ingram (@drhingram)

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

My Great-Grandfather and the Peaky Blinders

I was around ten years old when I first heard my grandfather mention the words ‘peaky blinder’ and it was my father who, after much enquiring on my part, reluctantly explained what - or who - my grandfather was referring to. I wasn’t a delicate-natured child by any means, but the thought of someone’s eyes being slashed with razor blades would have kept me awake for more than a few nights had it not been for the warm affection that my grandfather had for these individuals and his reassurance that I wouldn’t come to any harm had I encountered one of these suspicious characters on the street.

I stumbled across mention of the peaky blinders purely by chance. At the age of six I expressed an overwhelming desire to learn to play the piano and my parents were unsure where this aspiration had come from since most of my family were musically illiterate and they had no interest whatsoever in playing a musical instrument. Four years and many piano lessons later, I overhead my father mention in conversation with a neighbour that my great-grandfather, James Aloysious (known as Curly), was very musical and he played the piano and the mandolin. My father mused that perhaps I had picked up an idle musical gene from him. Then, in conversation with my aunt, she told me how she would sit on my great-grandfather's lap and put her tiny hands over his large hands while he played the piano. She remembered how beaten up his hands were from the fights.  I questioned my aunt about this strange comment and asked for more information about my great-grandfather and when she showed me a photograph of my great-grandfather I was surprised to see that James Aloysious was the absolute spitting image of my father.

I felt a close connection with James and pestered my father to tell me more about James’s life. And the more that I discovered about him, the more I found him to be a fascinating individual. James lived in Harborne, he was ex-army and he was a bare knuckle fighter at Smethwick market. Every Sunday morning he would walk from Harborne to Smethwick to fight and when he returned home he would give his wife Florie all the silver from the win money that he had earned and the copper he kept as beer money. He seemed to make a fair living out of it.

Many of these stories that my father told me involved shady characters such as the mysterious Italian Mr Mansini who found my grandfather a job when he came out of the army ‘because he was Curly’s son’. It seemed that James and his family were well looked after because they were in with the right crowd and knew the right people, although the company that James kept seemed to be very dubious indeed. For instance, James played the mandolin in the Green Man pub in Harborne and one evening there was a huge fight between his group of friends and the police. It seemed to have been some kind of sting operation targeting them all. James took out three policemen, he smashed his mandolin over the head of one policeman (thereby ending his musical career) and he threw another policeman through the front window of the pub into the horse road. The police took him to Steel House Lane police station where he ‘fell down the steps of the police station’ (beaten up) and my great-grandmother claimed that he was never the same again afterwards.

James certainly seemed to have lived a violent life, but the most memorable – and disturbing - thing that my grandfather told me about him was this; if James was going to the pub or going out for the day with his family then he would wear his ‘ordinary cap’, but if went out of the house wearing his ‘working cap’ then my great-grandmother would stay awake and wait up all night in the front window until he came home because she knew that there was going to be trouble. When I asked about the significance of the caps, my father explained that the ‘working cap’ had razor blades in the rim which came in handy if there was ever a fight.

I remember this conversation well because I was not only shocked by the thought of slashing someone's face with razor blades, but my father is a calm and gentle man and he is not predisposed to glorifying violence, so this was something that he would not normally have discussed with me at that age. But although James’ group of friends and their activities were very violent, it was somehow acceptable for my father and grandfather to talk openly about them because the group had ‘principals’ - they had a strong family-like bond, they would watch out for one another and one another's families and they were very firmly ‘on our side’. I took comfort in knowing that, due to my surname, I would have enjoyed the same protection and I would have been accepted into this extended family. (Interestingly, my auntie tells me that James’ death was quite a talking point. The story goes that a gypsy came into the Green Man pub and started reading palms. James paid her to read his palm, but she took one look at his hand, refused and left the pub straight away.  James died only days afterwards).

On the flip side of my family coin there is my great-grandfather on my mother’s side: Sam Richards. Sam’s portrait hung in my grandparent’s front room for many years and he looked like a lovely man wearing a sharp business suit, well slicked hair and a kindly smile. Sam started out as a boxer, then he became a book maker and freemason and he owned a boxing ring in Selly Oak.  Although he was deep in dodgy book-making dealings, he presented a business-like front to his activities and he clearly had the police under his influence. The police would tip him off before a raid and when passing on their regular beat they would bang on the wall of the house whenever he needed to clear the house (which most often involved sending my grandmother down to the bottom of the garden with the betting slips in her dolls pram). Sam made a great deal of money, he bought a lot of local property and he contributed to the community by buying shoes for the local orphans. He certainly didn’t hide the fact that business was very lucrative and he once caused a stir by buying my grandmother a silver handled umbrella (which she subsequently left on a bus).

Sam Richards (centre)
My mother recalls that the words ‘peaky blinders’ were banded around the household when she was a child and she was aware that Sam mixed with both well-heeled and shady groups and individuals who looked out for his business, but I had the feeling that the James Aloysiouses of that world were on Sam Richard’s payroll rather than sat drinking with him in the pub. In fact it is a running family joke that my father’s family were on the rough-and-ready side of the Birmingham gangs, whereas my mother’s family were much more discreet with their dealings and ‘higher up the food chain’.

I have portraits and photographs of James and Sam, I have paraphernalia from their lives, I remember visiting family living in their old terraced housing with tiny rooms and open fires, I remember how my grandparents spoke about their lives and I grew up in a community in Birmingham that could also be a violent place to live at times but it also valued strong generational links forged between large, gang-like families that looked out for each other. Things haven’t really changed much in that respect. Loyalty and family names still carry a great deal of weight around here. And seeing how closely I physically resemble James and hearing how similar our characters are (even down to our piano playing!), things haven’t really changed that much within my own family either.

So, as you may well imagine, hearing about a TV series focusing on the blinders felt as though someone was making a documentary about a close friend or relative and I watched the first episode of the first series of Peaky Blinders with mixed emotions and expectations. A writer who was unfamiliar with the true spirit of these individuals could be tempted to ridicule the blinders and/or cast them as heartless gangsters. However I wasn’t disappointed, in fact a great deal of content made me smile because it cut very close to home. Pretty bang-on in some cases. I’m pleased that the series didn't shy away from the brutal, frenetic violence that these men were predisposed towards because that was certainly the case from the stories that I heard (and I still see it around me in Birmingham communities these days), but it also highlighted the strong allegiances, friendships and family ties between the gang members and by portraying the central characters as both hero and villain it gave the viewer the uneasy experience of both fearing and admiring them, which was the exact same uncomfortable feeling that I grappled with upon learning about my family connections with the blinders as a child.

Perhaps the fondness that I have for James, Sam and their friends is borne out of a realisation that although they were violent men who sailed on the wrong side of the law, they also had strong family values, they were loyal to those who were loyal to them and they would protect their friends and loved ones at all costs - values that most modern-day, law-abiding people would do well to aspire to.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Building the Future, Burying the Past? The Modernisation of a University Library

Last week I was informed that The University of Birmingham will be demolishing its main library and building a new one. As a current member of the University, I have been aware of a furore surrounding the demolishing of the grand redbrick building in favour of a modern alternative for a while as I was invited to sign an online petition set up in opposition to its demise. The plans for the development look very interesting and I look forward to seeing how they are executed, however there appears to be dissent among the ranks about the message that accompanies this move.

When it was pointed out that the new library looks smaller than the present one on the plans, the justification for any downsizing was ‘because students don’t really use books these days’. Ouch. Chicken and egg, anyone? Was that the death knell for the written word I just heard? Libraries and book shops across the country should take heed.

There appear to be two issues that are raising concern: the library building and the books within...

The Books

Hopefully the redevelopment will take place without the loss of any books and with the addition of extra facilities. But as a former student I worry that the redevelopment will be an excuse to lose one or two volumes that are considered outdated, given that apparently students ‘don’t really use books these days’. Please please please, University developers, don’t throw out the books and replace them with huge computer screens and online resources. I agree that technology is essential for futureproofing, but holding onto these dusty books is futureproofing in itself, if not a step further.

What developers need to realise is that we might be in the age of digital downloads but all the cool kids collect vinyl. How many teenagers do you see in the street wearing huge earphones? Why are China selling mobile phones to teenagers that *just* make phone calls? It’s handy to have books on my Kindle but I prefer to display them on my bookshelves. I store all my music on iTunes but I still buy CDs because I like the artwork. However you feel about the intrinsic value of the written word, if the University wants to futureproof its business then it must keep its books for people like me who will always prefer a balance and to guard against a turn in the popularity tide back to hard-copy resources. Besides, technology can all too easily go the way of the minidisc player...

The Building

Faux modernisation is happening a lot these days and I hope that the University is not setting itself up for a cataclysmic fall if it chooses to follow suit. Many institutions have recently sought to ‘modernise’ their business by ripping out anything that smells dusty, painting everything white and scattering some uncomfortable funky chairs around at the expense of unique and irreplaceable historical aspects that makes them distinctive from their competitors. Take the Church of England, for example. It is continually falling over itself to update and modernise and as a result we have three kinds of churches: the dusty old churches and mighty cathedrals that have survived redevelopment, the dated retro churches from the first exploratory steps into redevelopment and the ultramodern futuristic churches currently in redevelopment. Now put yourself in the position of a bride-to-be. The ultramodern churches are very pretty to look at and would look nice in the wedding album photos, the retro churches would make you look like you’re getting married in the 70s with their tacky kitsch interiors, but the absolute make-your-friends-insanely-jealous setting would be in an old, untouched, crumbly church or cathedral. I was a wedding organist for 15 years and let me tell you with authority...*everyone* wants to get married in old churches and cathedrals. Ultramodern is second best, but bear in mind that the retro churches were once the ultramodern churches. New developments date very quickly, hence it can only really be termed ‘faux modernisation’...

The added problem for a University is that the average student, to whom these funky modernisations are ultimately aimed at, encounters this kind of environment on a daily basis. They see it everywhere. It’s nothing new. The older professors might be impressed by the changes but I doubt your average 19/20 year old will even stop to pop his earphones out. And the danger with modernisation is that if it’s not absolute top-end spec then it invariably becomes tacky and dated very quickly, just like the retro churches. Ill-advised ‘cool architecture’ can be as cringe-inducing as watching your dad dance.

But the base-line here is that ‘funky architecture’ is not what you expect of a redbrick University. A newly-labelled Comprehensive perhaps, but not a redbrick sitting on top of a goldmine of history. Thinking back to my expectations on my first day at University, I expected to walk onto the set of Harry Potter when I stepped inside the University gates. And it didn’t disappoint! Walking into the main hall of the University was like walking into a big cathedral, it certainly had the ‘wow factor’. I expected Hogwarts and how massively disappointed would I have been if it had resembled an Apple store?! There was a real sense of history and belonging, which was fostered in part by the visual history evident around campus - predominately the buildings, such as the library. I fell hook-line-and-sinker for this sense of history, so the University should be ensnaring other prospective students using the same method, not trying to suppress it at every turn! And there is an important business aspect to this too; any member of a group will tell you that group cohesion is better achieved when there is a unique, unifying element that is specific to the group and separates the group members from outsiders, whether that be what they wear, how they speak or what they believe. This is how armies and gangs are united. This is the way that human nature works. Each University has its own history, its own ‘unique element’ that students expect to buy into. By removing this ‘unique element’ and replacing it with a ‘ten-a-penny McDonalds element’ the group will quickly lose its sense of belonging. And that, as it has been pointed out to me, is corporate suicide...

This might all be a panic over nothing and the old library will segue painlessly into the new with no bother whatsoever. I have every confidence that this will be the case. But for other Universities planning similar redevelopments the concerns raised must be addressed. Decisions made within Universities with regard to the future of the written word should not be taken lightly as they will influence generational waves of students and thereby send ripples out into the wider society. And there is no system backup, once these hard-copy resources are lost we may never recover them again...


So the nightmare came true. The replacement looks like an out-of-town JD Sports superstore...or a Primark, at best...

Friday, 12 November 2010

Something for Dave

On Friday afternoon I was set with the challenge of writing some song lyrics by Dave Stewart on Twitter. Having been encouraged by Dave to take up song-writing in an earlier episode, I decided that it was time that I took his encouragement seriously and tried my hand once again at putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). So somewhere amidst the chaos of that afternoon I found a few minutes to sit and write something meaningful that I hoped would inspire Dave to write a melody pulling my hastily scribbled words together. I was in a particularly reflective mood on Friday afternoon so I decided to write something inspired by my good friend Kerry, who died suddenly and unexpectedly recently at the age of 31, leaving behind a one-year old daughter and a lot of shocked family and friends. Kerry was a huge music fan and music played a large part in her life, so it seemed fitting to write a song filled with my memories of her.

I woke up this morning to the start of another working week and a cold, frosty, dreary Monday morning and when I checked my emails I made the staggering discovery that Dave had not only written a melody to my lyrics but that he had recorded a rough outline of the track and sent it to me! Wow, that’ll teach me to never go to sleep again! Needless to say, I have been listening to the recording throughout the day and I’ve had a fixed grin on my face for the past 12 hours. It’s an excellent tune – mellow and soulful, yet full of optimism and guaranteed to make you smile - and I’d love to hear the finished result when it has been moulded by the hands of such an accomplished and gifted musician. I’m extremely flattered, delighted by Dave’s interpretation of my sentiments and now very motivated to take this song-writing lark seriously from hereon out!

Here are the lyrics that I submitted. Every line has a story behind it and the last verse in particular really chokes me up each time I reread it. Kerry was the eternal optimist and, as the last chorus implies, I finally took her advice on the last day I spent with her...

Cold hands
Are warm
In the heat of a winter’s day
And I trust
Your faith
When you turn to me and say

Put your best dress on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
Wear your hair up high ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
Put your best shoes on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day
And if the dark clouds come
Then we’ll blow them all away

You hate it when I play the clown
But I saw
Your smile
The day the circus came to town

Put your best dress on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
Wear your hair up high ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
Put your best shoes on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day
And though we’re miles apart
I am never far away

High chair
The night the party died at nine
And I heard
You call,
But your voice wasn’t on the line

I’ll put my best suit on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
I’ll wear my hair up high ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
I’ll put my best shoes on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day
And I won’t cry no tears
Because we’ll dance again someday…