Thursday, 28 June 2012

Dusting a Living

Every day after I have gone home from work, an army of cleaners arrives to cleanse our office of a day's worth of filth deposited by several dozen slovenly media professionals.
I've never stayed late enough to see them. I only have the word of my employers that they come: hunch-backed in their industrial tabards, tired from their bus journeys from the grimmer suburbs, they push their Henry hoovers across the floor and run their dusters across my keyboard. The very keyboard that earns me a tidy graduate wage as I sip tea at my ergonomic desk in my futuristic mesh chair. It is fortunate I have not met these people, as I have a deep aversion to watching anyone clear up after me. Lazy though I am, the thought of someone on bended knee scratching a toilet bowl in my wake is horrifying. A bit like asking a stranger to give you a sponge bath. There is something intimate, a little shameful about my dirt, the dust I spread, my filthy handprints on the computer screen. I'll clean it myself thank you very much. Sit down and and have a rest, Mavis.
Nonetheless, it is lowly, invisible cleaners like these who make our lives tolerable. Nobody notices that they have been - the absence of dirt is unremarkable in a regularly cleaned office or house. But everyone notices when they haven't. Bins overflow. Toilets back up. Washing baskets creak and stink. Kitchen sinks turn brown with tea stains.
Which is precisely why these cleaners deserve to be valued: not in the form of a patronising Christmas bonus, but with an honest living wage. I was moved by the experience of the poverty-wages cleaners at John Lewis Oxford Street, who, facing severe cuts to jobs and hours, held a "noisy protest" outside the store at the weekend. I can barely survive on £28k in London, let alone £6.08 an hour with irregular and uncertain shifts.
John Lewis has been able to sidestep responsibility for the low-pay scandal (hardly in line with their goody-two-shoes image) because the cleaners are subcontracted through a separate company. The cleaners' union said the company only won the contract because it promised services at a price it could not deliver without cutting jobs and hours.
And this situation is set to get worse - as more and more services in the public sector are contracted out (see: those lovely health service reforms) we are going to see more of the same. And more politicians shunting responsibility.
The recent bus strike over Olympic bonuses was a classic example - Boris claimed to be powerless as the buses are run by a private company. It was their fault, obviously. The bus service is only his responsibility when he's getting rid of bendy buses and introducing Routemasters and posing for press photographs. Not when things actually get tricky. Running a capital city is so easy when you've contracted it out.
So, hats off the those John Lewis cleaners bashing their brooms and bottles of Mr Muscle outside the company's flagship store. Let their protest ring in the ears of people buying £60 perfumes and £350 Samsonite suitcases on expertly hoovered carpets. Let it ring in the ears of the mums in the baby-change booths as they drop another disposable nappy into the emptied bins. Let it ring in the conscience of those John Lewis managers when they share the year's spoils among the company's partners.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Attention Wonks: No Views Here

Until this week, I was doing well sticking to my resolution not to write about education. As it is my day job, I made a decision to keep it off the blog. It's simply too emotive a topic to be written about coherently. (mops brow with pedagogical flannel).
However, I have to make an exception this week. The mysterious "leak" of "top secret" documents revealing Michael Gove's plans to axe GCSE sent the Twittersphere alight from the second the Daily Mail rolled off the presses.
The left made the appropriate squawking statements about the return to divisive two-tier education systems. The right cheered a return to the good old days.
And no doubt Gove's wonks sat down with a cup of tea and a note pad (do wonks still use notepads?) and absorbed the reaction. Consultation via Mail scoop.
"Boss, they're liking the academic rigour but not the pigeon-holing at 14..." I can imagine one saying as he surfs the social networks.
"Is this going to help us win an election or not?" I can hear Cameron sigh as he delights in the doctors' strike being relegated to the inside pages.
It's like an episode of The Thick of It as seen from outside.
I've decided not to give my view on any of this. If the wonks are reading, I don't want to give anything away.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

In Xanadu did Michael Gove

It would be all to easy at this juncture to write an amusing ditty about Michael Gove and his plans to make five year olds learn poetry by heart.
Stuck in west Wales for a week with no access to the blogosphere I've had yonks to contemplate it.
I was planning to write one based around Kubla Khan by my old mucker Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The verse is strewn with stately pleasure domes, damsels with dulcimers, sacred rivers and sunless seas - so perfect for a little satire of Government diktats.
Alternatively, I could have re-written one of my favourite Michael Rosens about a boy holding melting chocolate or that McGough one about a teacher opening fire in a lesson. All would have been perfect.
But no, I'm going to resist it, for fear of looking like I have my head up my ars* and my brain in a Seamus Heaney trance every Sunday afternoon. (Come on, you've seen my poems in previous posts, you really don't want another one)
Instead, I'm going to rage and moan in a sarcastic fashion, the low-life, low-culture pond dweller that I am.
Of course it's nice to know poetry by heart. It makes one feel intensely smug. God is does. I knew a couple of poems once, I felt like I was the king of the world.
For instance, you can whip it out in public and inflict it upon unsuspecting passengers on the number 37 bus. Over dinner with a lover when there's a lull in conversation as an alternative to quoting The Matrix or Star Strek.
If there's nothing on telly, you can write it down in a notebook and illuminate the first letter of each line with a quill pen and ink made from herbs and roots.
And above all, you can reel it out in exams to fill space in your answer sheet. For surely, being able to quote poetry is far more useful than actually, say, writing it.
I went to school in the 1980s, before the compulsory National Curriculum stuff. We were nuts about poetry. Everything was game: bits of broken bike, tadpoles, paper bags, armies of plastic soldiers, our own navels. It was very liberating. And IT DIDN'T HAVE TO RHYME. Although rhyming is intensely fun, it was liberating to strew the page with random words and read it out in a bold and epic voice, with appropriately dramatic pauses.
What piques me in these Govian proposals is not the memorising poetry bit, but the idea that the Government - surely the antithesis of poetry - should go anywhere near it. Playing with words is surely the purest pleasure there is, and daring to share one's shameful efforts is finer than a double bill of Borgen with a bowl of Sainsbury's Soft Scoop (by that I mean good, obviously).
So, the idea of the education secretary making our little mites rattle off Wordsworth of whatever other rigorous old-skool poet they pick is depressing. Let's hope he really means he wants children to write their own and remember it. Or maybe remember each other's? Let's hope teachers find a way round this next directive. Some politically subversive poetry perhaps?

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Distinctly Vanilla Flotilla

I don't know what I was expecting really: the Mary Rose? an armada of proper-style Elizabethan galleons, all canons and rigging dripping with barnacles and seaweed and Russell Crowe? A few tea clippers, at least, surging down the Thames? Maybe The Golden Hind, broken free from its dry dock with Japanese tourists aboard?
And what did we get? Well, as far as I could make out through the mist and the wobbly long-distance view of the BBC cameras, we got Ben Fogle in a rowing boat.
Yes, the flotilla was underwhelming - at least for the home television viewer with their Sunday Times "boat identification wall chart" spread out before them on a miserable Sunday afternoon.
What I had imagined would be several happy hours of "Look! There's the Gypsy Moth" and "Gosh, is that really what Pugwash looks like now?" turned out to be 90 minutes of wondering whether Sophie Raworth was groping Matt Baker on the couch or the other way around.
Incidental views of the Queen in her light coat and Kate Cambridge Duchess Princess Thingy in her flimsy red dress only confirmed the suspicion that those royal women are pretty hard nuts.
Anyway, so the dreary disappointment of watching the "assorted flags of the Commonwealth" born by the Sea Scouts, sent me upstairs to the bathroom to shunt some stuff around and scrub the toilet. I told family members that should any impressive vessels appear I was to be called immediately. Needless to say, I spent a lot of the afternoon with the cream cleaner and a damp sponge.
Perhaps none of this would have been so bad if my expectations had not been raised. I swallowed the Jubilee propaganda whole - I'm ashamed to say. Local radio described it as a "Majestic Flotilla" before they had even seen it. We were encouraged to appreciate a sense of "history in the making".
I desperately wanted to be part of something. The thousands of people with their heads shoved up each others stinking armpits on the tubes were all desperate to be part of something. I might have felt the same disappointment with the concert on Monday, had I not accidentally fallen asleep during Elton John. I'm so glad I was spared another self-satisfied Paul McCartney retrospective as I snored into my woolly jumper.
I've been asking  myself, perhaps it was because I thought I could celebrate the Jubilee via the television that it all went wrong. Perhaps I needed to get a bit more stuck in. Perhaps I should have just got pissed a bit more?
But I'm not sure any of that is the case, I think it was simply over-sold. In these times of £1,000 overdrafts and redundancy panic, the nation needs something to distract itself, give itself a reason to crack open the Stella. The Government knows this too - surely a weekend of state-sanctioned revelry would fix things? If enough people bought union jack serviettes and paper cups from M&S maybe we could fix the economy in passing? Next up is the Olympics - but it is set to be a cold, unfeeling and corporate occasion for most of us, as we get ripped off and forced to pay by Visa for everything. I don't know about you, but I can't wait to get the telly on.