Wednesday, 29 February 2012

A Bad Case of Wind (Ecological Interlude Part II)

Pox-faced wenches casting buckets of excrement from windows into stinking alleyways below. Children wading along open sewers. Thousands of tons of manure from both horse and swine caked onto cart wheels. The stink of a city with no sanitation where every man fights for himself, lowering his capacious drawers and crapping where he fancies.
This was Britain just a few hundred years ago. There was a general acceptance that our towns and cities were filthy, and for a long time, there was very little drive for change.
Of course, in the developed world, this is unthinkable now. The filth finally got too much, disease prevailed and something was finally done. It is hard to imagine we ever tolerated it.
Now to my point: I think the story of how we power our energy-hungry lives in a finite world will be similar. There will come a time, perhaps decades hence, when it will be hard to imagine that we ever relied on dirty oil and gas. Hard to imagine we ever drove cars that belched tons of filth out into the air and our lungs. Cooling towers will be as out-moded as chamber pots thrown in to the street and children sent up chimneys.
But unfortunately, we are still stuck at the filth-out-the-window stage. Opposition to wind farms, usually in the form of Conservative MPs and Little-Englander pressure groups is strong and Cameron is listening. Wind farm fans are often seen as boho vegan weave-your-own tofus who "simply can't understand the necessity to go nuclear".
We are still stuck in the dark ages then, when it comes to renewables. Investment is wobbling because the government's policy direction is shaky. A handful of landowners and villagers who have allowed myth and suspicion to take over are hampering the march towards a clean and sustainable future.
But when the new utopia happens, when absolute necessity compels us to embrace wind, wave, sun etc it will be hard to imagine the times before. The Nimbyists protesting against windmills will go down in history with slave-traders and those who would drown ugly women as witches.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Cameronesco and Pound Clegg

Britain used to be known as a nation of shopkeepers. This week's outcry over A4e and the government's "work experience" scheme has revealed it is now a nation of shelf-stackers.
As the economy and thus public services contract into their mossy shell, the supermarkets are left to crawl unchallenged across the land like fearsome millipedes in 100 hobnailed boots. While under Labour we all worked for the council as outreach professionals, we now all work for Morrisons.
Any villager  brave enough to defy the march of the Big Four is an enemy to "job creation". Any city councillor to oppose new developments is an opponent to regeneration.
Millions of people's lives now consist of a day's work bleeping barcodes, followed by a trip to Asda to spend their meagre wages on frozen pizza and sink unblocker.
The Waitrose workers go to Sainsbury's for their shopping. The Sainsbury's workers go to Tesco, the Asda workers go to Farmfoods. God knows where the Poundland workers get their groceries.
It's clear that for many, the supermarkets have greater influence on their lives than the mighty, but shrinking, "state".
When people are out of work, with shaky CVs and no chance of a job, the Government and its friends and their subcontracted friends and their friends of friends send them to stack shelves in Asda and Poundland. For some, it is the first work experience they have had.
Opponents of the Welfare-to-Work type schemes being operated have suggested that shelf-stacking is humiliating, belittling.
Anyone complaining about shelf-stacking has clearly never worked a 10-hour shift:

1. In an insurer's post-room tearing up little bits of paper for no apparent reason.
2. Sticking free shampoo samples on page 27 of Cosmopolitan magazine.
3. Watching widgets fly from a machine.
4. Watching photocopiers print out entire books in triplicate.
5. Operating an industrial dishwasher at a private equity-owned leisure centre.

These sort of jobs only reflect the reality of most people's work situation. Only a slim slice of society has challenging, interesting, rewarding well-paid jobs. The vast majority of 'careers' are boring, repetitive, poorly paid, but vital to the functioning of everything. That is why so many graduates work in call-centres. Someone's gotta shovel the proverbial. We can't get an Indian call centre to bleep out your hummus (although, God knows they've tried to get a machine to bleep out mine - "Unexpected pair of naked arse-cheeks in the bagging area" etc)

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Wheel of Ill-Health

At our local GP practice, the drawbridges have finally gone up. Pour the boiling oil on the sick and fire the poison arrows on the invading cancer patients.
Receptionists were once quite happy to field anger and abuse from behind their desks. They now have the protection of a large perspex screen with just a few holes for the ill and dying to mumble through.
It is interesting that after several decades breathing the germs of their "service users", reception should now go into lockdown. It coincides exactly with staffing cuts which make it impossible to get through on the phone to book an appointment.
Only last year somebody would answer promptly and politely, and appointments were scheduled with only a short delay. Now it's not worth calling, unless you fancy "Greensleeves" on a relaxing loop.
I overheard a feeble old man complaining about this to staff recently. The receptionist replied wearily that she would have more time to answer the phone if she didn't have to speak to moaners like him. Goodness, ouch. He really was quite old and infirm. Not some hyper-paranoid mum like me. A really weak old man who had to walk to the surgery to book the appointment. Anyway, at least it means those strong enough to walk down there to make a booking get the best appointments. The genuinely sick can just sit listening to the hold music.
Meanwhile, I picked up the glossy flagship brochure of the "Not Always A and E" campaign, designed to stop people with hangovers rushing to casualty for a paracetamol.
It's a laudable campaign. People do indeed misuse the service. But it is hardly surprising they do, when the GP is uncontactable, the out of hours service is non-existent, and emergency appointments seem reserved for babies and children.
I had some fun at home with the reassuringly expensive brochure. It invites the user to "find your symptom" on a revolving wheel, then turn to different numbered sections. I spin the wheel for "choking, chest pain, blacking out, blood loss and stroke". Thankfully, I'm referred to A and E, as these are classed as "serious emergencies".
A simple case of vomiting or "a sore tummy" takes me to my GP, but diarrhoea can be "treated by health a professional at your local pharmacy".
Excuse me, but why is "a sore tummy" more serious than the runs? A sore tummy could just be a case of a Gaviscon and a lie down. Who put this together? HOW MUCH did all this spinning origami cost? Interesting they have the cash to tell me to "self care" if I have a hangover, but they can't be bothered to run a national flu-jab publicity campaign.
I shall be keeping my "wheel of ill-health" to hand for the next time  I or a family member becomes ill. It should help me penetrate the moat and castle walls of the health services I have helped pay for.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Full English Cous Cous

A fantastic foodie row has broken out in Stoke Newington, where the "poshing up" of a cafe  menu has got grease lovers weeping into their quenelles of blanched quinoa (or whatever).
Local newspapers reported that Clissold Park cafe regulars were furious that instead of chips and chocolate pudding, they would now be fleeced for the delights of couscous and roasted carrots with cumin.
The affair got me thinking about Britain's vile food culture. A culture where you can be judged on what you eat to the same extent you are judged on how you speak. And a culture so in thrall to food fashion, people barely have time to down their duck fat-roasted potatoes and polenta chips before they are horribly out-of-date.

For example:

Kentucky: Officially The Food of the Proles.
Homemade beetroot pie: Middle class boho (possibly Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall fetish)
Roast grouse: Posh, but becoming less so.
Sundried tomatoes: So nineties.
Any kind of flan: 70s tasteless opulence.
Prawn cocktail: so much maligned and hated it is now officially in fashion again.
Hummus: Was posh, but now very popular in Asda so officially plebeian. Possible trendy resurgence circa 2030.

How on earth does one send out the right message? How on earth does one keep up? How do you manage to eat "neutrally," without sending out a vast illuminated streetsign with your social status all over it?
Can I safely eat a humble bowl of porridge, safe in the knowledge that it doesn't "say" anything about me? No. Porridge eaters are clearly show-off health-freaks afraid of the chocolate muffins.
Is it safe to eat a plain ham sandwich? Probably not, depends if you are eating it ironically.
The trend towards inverted snobbery is an interesting one. The young posh and middleclass won't shut up about their passion for their "local greasy spoon", as if they are some sort of gastronomic trailblazers with a penchant for fried eggs.
Pop into any dubious cafe in London and it will be bristling with boatie-shoe wearing graduates lapping up the oil. Chances are they will be braying about how they would much rather a bacon sandwich and an overfilled mug of builder's tea than the latest from Heston Blumenthal.
It's somewhat of a shame, as there's very little space in the cafes for the old ladies  who simply like fry-ups in an uncomplicated, un-postmodern way.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Ecological Interlude

Driving down the M4 this weekend I saw a solitary wind turbine. Its sails were stuck fast for want of a gust of wind. It looked sort of sad standing there. Yesterday it offered so much promise, but today, nothing. It made me think how the economic crisis has diverted our attention from ecological panic and investment in renewable energy/recycling and the like.
I wrote this in jollier times, when every business in the world was cynically cashing in on the mania for all things "green". Now they just offer two-for-one deals.


The Eco-Beast has risen from
Its Fairtrade cave
Rubbery free-range arms flailing
Embracing passing humans

The Eco-Beast has risen
A recycled energy-saving
Lightbulb in its hot and greedy hand
A carbon-neutral festival field
Littered with compostable plastic cups.

The Eco-Beast has risen
It’s plastic-wrapped organic charms
Glistening in the sun of global warming

Follow me! It calls
As a wind turbine groans overhead
Follow me! It calls, as vegan superfoods
Rain down from above.
And dollar signs swivel in its yellow eyes.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Yvette for Statsminister

After feasting my eyes and mind on BBC Four's Borgen these past weeks, I have been thinking long and hard about my lady-heroes. Who are they? Who exactly do I look up to in awe and wonder? Who do I admire? Who, if I was a teenage schoolgirl, would I like to be?
Obviously, if she was real, I would be putting up posters of the fictional Danish Statsminister Birgitte Nyborg all over my bedroom wall. The way she gave Troels the boot and forced Bent to resign whilst perched on the edge of a fountain just rocked.
Unfortunately, she's actually a rather attractive actress and not someone I would hold up as a fine example of feminist triumph. A lovely actress though she is.

(browses the internet briefly...)

Bugger, I've just realised Borgen is actually completely true to life. The real Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, is also a rather attractive actress.

Oh well, good luck to her. Absolutely nothing wrong with being a political success and a Viking goddess. Maybe everyone in Denmark is lovely.
Anyhow, back to my topic. Who are my lady-heroes?
My first thoughts turn to the prominent "media/comedy lesbians". The fabulous Sue Perkins, the wonderous Sandi Toksvig etc, have all achieved great things in the face of the patriarchy. Sue brings her sharp wit and student ents officer dress code to prime time TV. Sandi holds her own in the comedy sphere despite the vertical challenge. She even wrote an important play.
Clare Balding too, while not fitting the mould of telly totty, brings her own brand of calm old-skool BBC presenting to a modern audience. She has a reassuring air, whether she's presenting Crufts, cycling around the country, or bigging up Olympic athletes. With Clare, you know things are going to be all right.
She fights for the top prize for best tall posh woman in showbiz from the majestic Miranda Hart.
But who else, who else? Well, there are those  who have been mocked for their outspoken character and unwillingness to conform to the norm. Street-Porter, Widdecombe, fine examples of women who just don't give a flying spider crab.
Vanessa Feltz - my talk-radio hero - has been royally dragged through the gutter for being a bit fat. Then a bit thin. There are Facebook sites allowing people to express their "hate" of her. But her BBC Radio London phone-in show is a triumph. I simply don't understand the haters and all the antagonism makes me love her all the more.
But surely I have more lady-heroes than comedians and under-dogs? What about the world of politics?
While I admire Clinton, Merkel's ability to "deal" with that stunted self-seeking prune Sarkozy takes my breath away.
Back in the UK, I am in awe of any woman brave enough to enter that braying hive of masculine childishness - the House of Commons. But a special mention must go to Yvette Cooper.
Oh wonderful Yvette. Men love you. Women love you. You have to deal with three quite young children and a frightening husband and you still stand head and shoulders above the rest of the shadow cabinet.
You even went to a state comprehensive. I know it is pandering to the patriarchy mentioning her appearance, but I love her sensible, undistracting wardrobe and speaking style.
While transport secretary Justine Greening looks and sounds like a local government bureaucrat and Theresa May clatters around like a nervous puppet, Yvette looks like a devilishly competent headteacher.
Last month, I read about Yvette's alleged "plotting" for the Labour leadership with husband Ed Balls. Newspapers alleged they used lasagne to woo supporters, awaiting to unseat the troubled Ed Miliband.
The question is, though, could Ballsy ever step aside for his wife? Is she really the one wearing the trousers, as it were? Would he settle for being "husband" to the Statsminister? Really? Ed Balls? We shall see. But in the meantime, I'm enjoying watching her rise and rise. And I hope she's been watching Borgen.