In Sickness and in Health

There’s something called the Overton Window. Google it (other search engines, less cavalier with your data, are available).It’s a concept of what policies a government or a politician can propose (get away with) without appearing extreme or losing public support.

You can move it, and a lot of journalism is geared towards that end. Nudge theory is designed to do it as well. It’s not just about trying to get people to exercise more or get vaccinated without draconian legislation.

I have noticed its effects, particularly after events like the attacks on the Twin Towers when anti-terror legislation that would never have been countenanced before, swept away decades and in some cases centuries, of hard won civil liberties and rights in the West.

But this shoulder to the window, sliding the acceptable limits of interference in our lives is at work constantly. It normally moves so incrementally slowly, unlike the 11 September attacks, that we don’t notice it, and that is most of its attraction to those pushing it. Just occasionally something brings you up against its movement in a sudden harsh impact.

For reasons that needn’t concern us here, I’m not employed by anyone and have no reason to concern myself with whether I tell anyone I am too sick to work, I searched for ‘NHS advice on going to work when ill`.

This used to yield the advice from the NHS that you should not attend work with an infectious illness, cold, flu etc so as to avoid spreading sickness and causing more problems in the long run. Not now.

The first three pages were taken up with advice on rights in the face of pressure to work while sick, about NHS sickness policy towards staff (go to work), about how to return to work before your sick note ends, how returning to work is great for mental health issues, how you should….WORK!

Sick leave rates in the UK almost halved between 1993 and 2017 according to the Office for National statistics, from an average of 7.2 days to 4.1 days per worker.

Is this because medicine has improved dramatically? Because general social hygiene has soared to dizzying new heights? Or because there was a concerted effort by employers and government to scare workers back to work when ill? Presentism before Covid was at an all time high. Being there, being seen to be there, was vastly important. It didn’t matter you were inefficient and wrecked; ‘What a guy/gal! Showing up even when they were vomiting blood! That’s corporate loyalty!’

No it isn’t. It’s fear, because having created a caring society where the NHS could sensibly advise you to look after yourself and your fellow workers, people took the advice and stayed home when sick. Cost cutting measures with GPs led the government to say you didn’t need a certificate to authorise sick leave for the first seven days. So people were off work with no need to ‘prove it’. Employers went mad.

So the squeeze against ‘sickies’ was on. There was no actual evidence of the anecdotal misuse of self certification, but the idea was so strong that the whole issue got caught up in the fad for ‘metrics’. So averages were calculated and targets set. Think about that for a moment. How can you have a target for sickness? If the average was 7.2 days, some must have had more and others less. I have had years when I took way more than 7 days sickness. I had glandular fever as a 32 year old. It was horrible. I have also had years when I took no sick leave at all. But I still bumped into this insane obsession with driving down sick days rather than sickness, when I went over my ‘allotted’ number of self cert days one year and was asked to sign a document agreeing to take fewer days the next year. I refused. As I said I would be lying if I promised to do something I had no control over. At the time I was working in a job where a third of my year was spent flying and travelling overseas and the rest of the time travelling around the UK. I came into contact with all sorts of illnesses and sometimes they did infect me and I had to take a couple of days to recover. My boss said he had to say he’d tried. Instead of signing the paper I wrote a version of what I said in the previous sentences. I never heard another word.

But it is difficult to stand against bullying like that, and the rise of zero hours, and ‘flexible’ contracts designed to defeat workers’ rights legislation has eroded workers’ security and the ability to avail oneself of that protection that still exists.

The reduction in the number of sick days the average worker takes is trumpeted by many in government and employers organisations as a great battle won. And from the point of view of those trying to squeeze the last drop of blood from employees no doubt it is. But from the point of view of common sense, the health of the nation and the awareness of reality, it is a horror show. And the shifting of the Overton window that buries that still extant NHS advice to not go into work when ill, under a mountain of fear riddled Google returns about getting you back to work regardless of health, is a shaming indictment on us all. Not just those who pushed it for their own unscrupulous money grabbing ends but on the rest of us for not pushing back harder to protect those  rights so hard won by the welfare state that protected us all.

So when we nod at the bumbling rhetoric of a politician explaining that it is only reasonable in the short term to surrender our rights to do something because of the current emergency (whatever it is); stop. Stop and look who’s pushing that window of acceptability, where they are pushing it and what serious erosion of our liberties follows on that ‘reasonable’ request.

Birthday Thoughts

Recently I experienced a birthday. Now I’ve never been a big one for arbitrary celebrations of orbits around the sun. I remember thinking early on that it was a lot of fuss for not much emotional enlightenment. Of course I didn’t realise I had ASD at that point and that all that noise, fuss and adherence to bizarre ritual that the experience entailed was supposed to be enjoyable. And then I did, and that made it worse. I derived no enjoyment from it at all, simply a feeling of bemusement that I was obviously not like other people. If it had turned into a contempt for others would that have been worse than the self doubt and fear I developed about myself not being ‘normal’ and not knowing why? Contempt may have given me a better shield to deal with the weirdness of the world until I was diagnosed and understood why it was all so confusing, and I could stop worrying about it.

Back to the recent birthday. It was quiet. I spent it with my family and I enjoyed it immensely. It wasn’t a significant birthday if such an animal exists. There were no zeros involved, it was not a number celebrated or venerated in any system of cultural approbation I am aware of. But as circumnavigations of the centre of our solar system tend to do, it made me think.

I am probably of an age where fear and abandonment of dreams should be going hand in hand. Fear of my own demise; one would confidently calculate that I am nearer the end than the beginning of my journey on the face of the earth. And abandonment of those hopes and plans one has in the first part of life, however unlikely and unattainable they may be under the microscope of a realistic appreciation of one’s abilities and starting position in that race of life.

Taking the dreams; well even I have to admit the chances of me playing flank forward for Wales in the Six Nations have slipped way down the probability tree at this point. As for being Prime Minister or a doctor, time has also eroded the shifting sands those hopes were erected upon.

Of course there were other factors than time – size, speed, skill and ability in the flank forward case, schmoozability in the greasy pole climbing aspects of political advancement, and, well I probably could have been a doctor, but for self belief and application.

The latter two points deserve more attention, but another time perhaps.

That appreciation of my tumbling dreams suggests my statement about having a good time this birthday was either a big fib or that mood was swept away by my contemplations. Not so.

I may not have the time left to become many things but I retain the essential spark of self belief and interest in the world to redefine existing dreams and to find and develop new ones, realistic or not. And I find that encouraging.

Maybe that is why the fear is absent. Or if not absent then at such a low level I have not yet found myself reaching for the crutch of those contemplating the end of life, religion.

I don’t look down on anyone who does believe in a god, or God. I think I probably used to myself when I was young but I was taught to and you tend to soak up the values and beliefs around you don’t you? My problem, or release depending how you look at it, came when I was introduced to, and encouraged to exercise, critical thought. Sure they were looking at calculus and political direction in the long nineteenth century when they did so, but there was also divinity on the curriculum and that history module on the Wars of Religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries didn’t help blind faith.

Belief in God, any god, falls away as critical thought is applied. There are too many inconsistencies and obvious flaws in the idea and that’s before we address the concept of competing claims to be ‘the one true God’.

So I have no consolation of eternal life to sustain me against the looming exit doors. On the bright side, there is no threat of eternal life to terrify me on the other side of those looming exit doors.

Not looking over my shoulder at divine judgement or the dreams lying in the dust is a difficult thing for me. I don’t know whether it is part of the ASD or simply part of my own make up, but I have a horribly retentive memory. This can be pleasant if a little poignant if remembering past joys but generally the unbidden memories that pop into my head at inopportune moments have tended to be of gaffs and missed opportunities. So the knowledge I do not have to worry about all the times in the past I may have pissed off various deities is a huge relief. Similarly the knowledge that there are new opportunities to miss and dreams to trample in the future, of whatever length, is a source of great comfort.

Now where is that tackle bag? Justin Tipuric is out for a few months and Wales need a flank forward.

RIDDLE ME REE

I have always hated riddles.

The English have a penchant for them apparently. It comes from the Saxons’ idea of how to beat boredom and passed for humour amongst the type of people who invaded other peoples’ lands on the pretext of ‘helping’ them.

You may have heard of the thing, though they appear to be less popular now than they were supposed to be when I was at school. They go – Question: What has six legs but no brain, three heads but cannot be driven by a hammer and is scared of a woman’s tongue? Answer: three drunken Saxons.

Oh! How we laughed.

I scratched my head and wondered what the hell they were on about, but apparently it was risqué and clever and amusing all in one, which made the English the cleverest race on God’s Earth. So they said.

But I knew a Gaelic proverb which, translated into the cleverest language on earth, goes: ‘Three things come without asking: fear, love and jealousy.’

That tells it from the shoulder without the hiding behind the addled humour of the riddle. That sums a man’s soul and warns you of the pitfalls of life, though no warning can prepare you for that triumvirate when they come.

I was delivered of them each in turn and had I thought of it, would have paid the price of the two for the chance of the one.

I looked at the lock of hair and wondered if there was a riddle in her going. I could only feel the pain. The fear of life without her and the jealousy of the man she went to. There may be life after loss but many is the day I have wished there weren’t.

The riddle was in the living.

Excuses

July has been a quiet month.

For writing at least.

Life however, has been hectic.

Yes there has been the rollercoaster that was the Euros, although the fairground ride crashed a little earlier than the final for me, when the Welsh eleven suddenly looked down and realised how high they were and crashed out in the quarter finals.

And then England.

It’s a good job I’m not a football fan is all I can say.

So there is the British and Irish Lions tour, if eight cobbled together matches can be called a tour. When I started watching Lions tours they were three months long and comprised twenty four games. Now that’s a tour.

Away from the ‘when I were a lad’ appreciation society moments however, real ‘real things’ were happening. My daughter finished her degree and got a 2:1, well done her, and we moved her out of her Uni house, having to fit around various Covid scares (without fruition I am pleased to say).

Her graduation ceremony has been on/off ever since, depending on the balance of rising Covid case numbers versus ‘we need the cash’ cries from Rishi et al. Currently the University says it is on so we are having the travel, who is going to attend – only two allowed, what to wear, debates.

She is currently working in a (probably) interim job in the nearest town and as public transport is patchy at best and she does not yet drive (lessons underway) I am spending a fair amount of time in unsocial hours taxi work.

Meanwhile my son continues his home education and time zone shifting – he appears to be running on something approximating US Central Time at the moment and that is time consuming for me, whatever zone I am in.

The local child catcher (actually a very charming and helpful Elective Home Education official bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the stereotypical wannabe Education Welfare Gauleiter from a neighbouring Authority who threatened everyone he met with legal action) has called, and ensured that I have not buried my son in an unauthorised planning development on the premises (not sure which is the greater sin in the local authority’s eyes, breach of planning regulations or murder).

Ah yes – the PS5!

How could I forget the great triumph?

Well it was at the end of June rather than in July but for these purposes it counts.

The great quest continued after my cri de coeur in the last post, and at stupid o’clock BST one morning I managed to download an android phone emulating app and snag an Argos middle of the night drop and defeat the security on my account which didn’t want me to spend 450 quid on a gaming console in the middle of the night at my age (trust me I didn’t want to either but that, apparently, is what being a father is all about). It popped up on ‘collect’ rather than deliver but given the speed with which these things sell out I said sod it and pressed on. The next afternoon, and only fifteen miles away, we collected the gleaming cup that was the PS5.

Personally, having watched it in action, I couldn’t tell the difference from the PS4, but hey that’s me and rampant consumer capitalism for you.

So:

Grail: tick

Golden Fleece: Next maybe?

(racking my brains for other legendary quests to add in here, I innocently searched online using a well known Internet Search Engine, which shall remain nameless, but Google it if you are interested). Any combination of ‘Mythic’, ‘Legendary’, ‘Quest’, ‘Grail’ yielded millions of hits, all of them about ******* online games of various types. Thousands of years of western, nay, world culture wiped out in the stroke of a trivial gaming obsession signifying nothing. There is an irony here whose true import currently defeats me.

I have the urge to go and write something profound and very pretentious.

I may lie down and weep.

Stupid ****ing Grail!

I’d have been a lousy Knight of the Round Table.

I mean leave aside the whole religious problem for a moment (if only we could do that so easily outside the world of blogs and docufiction).

I’ve been on a quest this week. A selfless quest, not for my own glory or aggrandisement but for a higher purpose.

A PS5

Those of you who are gamers or who keep a cynical eye on the world of overhyped digital frippery will be aware that calling a week’s search for a £449.99 PS 5 Console and controller at a figure below £800 pales in comparison with the travails many have undergone in the search for this semi-mythical object.

Since Sony launched this thing at the back end of autumn last year (where I was raised we called autumn ‘back end’; so in my vernacular this would be ‘back end of back end’) there have been a ‘few problems’ with availability. As in ‘Noah had a few problems with light showers’.  They have been like any of those proverbial imaginary objects; rocking horse droppings, hen’s teeth, the Grail, difficult to pin down.

There are allegedly many reasons for this from the technical: shortage of microprocessors, via the trade wars angle: China v US slowing down movement and production of elements of the machine, to the socio-economic: scalpers buying up thousands from unsuspecting retail outlets, creating a shortage and hiking the price.

You can theoretically get them – on ebay and other less well known ‘reselling sites’ – for vastly inflated prices, but in the first months there were as many straight scams as overpriced reality, so even if you feel like paying £900 for a £449.99 object – it is most definitely a case of caveat emptor.

Now I’m not a gamer. Well I am, but a generally analogue one vice digital. I did play Lego City through to a conclusion on the PS4 and if I could get a few minutes on the PS4 I enjoyed bits of others – Call of Duty Modern Warfare for example, but mostly I play board and toy soldier wargames.

My son however is a big fan of digital games.

He had until recently however been extremely scathing of the PS5. He has a PS4 and had set his heart on a gaming computer as his next step up in the online gaming world and had been saving diligently to that end. Until something, I am still not sure what, happened about ten days ago. At that point what had been an object of, if not derision then bemusement, became a matter of deep and personal engagement for the two of us.

I started reading twitter feeds and predictions of ‘drops’. I stayed up until 5 in the morning chasing an Argos online drop which didn’t materialise, backed up with rising to pursue an 0800 Amazon drop which didn’t occur and then queuing for an hour a time on various retailers systems to be met with the lingering smell of the beast disappearing behind a cloud of smoke and messages of condolence, red lettering, no entry signs and blank screens depending on the whim or efficiency of the programmer of the purchasing ‘software’.

All this time my son’s hopes were raised and then dashed as he endured what I hope will be a salutary lesson in the smoke, mirror and lies of the retail marketing industry and associated flummery. That lesson doesn’t help his current mood nor my feeling of inadequacy as mighty hunter/warrior/pater familias or shopper.

This morning Argos was supposed, according my native twitter guides, to be, at last after several false predictions, releasing a large number of console, controller and game bundles (this is where, supposedly offering you a great deal, they force you buy crap you don’t want alongside what you do, in order to boost profits. It’s not just Argos, it’s an industry wide scam). Argos are known (apparently by those who claim to know, though their predictions are like Nostradamus’s- they work after the event by tracking backwards and ignoring the failures) for dropping between 0100 and 0500 hours. I had stayed up all night waiting for this release once this week already. The smart money said it had happen now. At 0230 I crashed after c10 hours sleep in the previous 72. I told my son to wake me if anything happened. At 0330hrs he was bouncing around – it was live, apparently on app only. We tried on his phone app and then on a laptop. Both got us to the trolley and once to the checkout, but each time it crashed or blackholed or came up with weird messages about errors placing it in the trolley although it was clearly marked as being in the trolley and then disappearing as you clicked on it.

At 0515hrs we both went back to bed and I crashed out. I had promised myself to check out a possible Amazon drop (‘smart’ money says this will happen next week) but I slept on until just before 1000hrs.

As I logged on it became clear from the backwards predicting native guides, that everyone had been stuffed by the same problems. I have no idea what happened but the sale only went properly live apparently c0800hrs, the rest was the work of a Morgan le Fay to lead the pure hearted knight to madness.

I tried for forms sake and everything worked on the site right up to payment then there was a glitch, and then there were none left. Then there were some elsewhere, then there weren’t. I suspect the evil spell is still cast on the works of the fair Argos, and the Grail of the PS5 remains as much an object of mystery and legend as ever.

I have come to believe that, like the Grail legend, in the case of the PS5 the pursuit itself is the aim of the exercise and not the possession of the object. The quest  itself is the real Grail and self knowledge and metaphysical awareness of ephemeral nature of existence is the reward.

More drops next week!

Mystery of the Missing Mummy

When I was young one of my favourite days out was to Macclesfield Museum, situated at the Prestbury Road entrance to West Park. I always lived what seemed like miles from West Park, either way down south, near South Park in fact, or way out East, over the Bollin in Hurdsfield.

But when my little legs did carry me out West the museum was a goal worth the effort. The Park itself was always fun too in the way it held out strange tales and mysteries. I was told about two Russian cannon that used to sit in the park allegedly captured from the Crimea. That story may be truer than some of the others as it is recorded as fact on the Historic England Website. That august record also notes however that the cannon were ‘removed’ during the Second World War. That was also part of the story I was told: to make Spitfires, although that bit I am sure is wishful thinking at best. There remained a 30 ton boulder which I was told was a leftover from the last glaciation. Whether this was true or not, it didn’t arrive in West Park via an ice flow, but rather via a carter’s horse drawn truck from a field by Oxford road under supervision of the Borough Surveyor in 1857. No one seems to know why.

The whole area was one of Victorian hubris and make believe, and across the valley of a small stream through the wooded dell lies the town cemetery, formally delineated and separated from the park in 1860. That last stopping place for the Victorian obsession with formal ceremony marking life’s way stations, birth, marriage and death.

The Museum was part of the Victorian age’s obsessions too. Collecting and exhibiting one’s collection from the Empire and the world which was the playground of the British nineteenth century equivalents of modern internet billionaires.

In Macclesfield’s case it was textiles and more particularly silk that paid for the foreign jaunts and hoovering up the remains of lost civilisations and endangered wildlife. In the museum were swords from Egypt and the Sudan, courtesy of one of the local businessmen who had trundled up the Nile. He, or perhaps other local worthies, had shot a Panda in China and had it stuffed and brought home. There were obviously exhibits praising the silk industry which had paid for the collecting trips, there were bits of mail armour from the middle east, not from the Silk industry, and best of all a collection of Egyptian artefacts. There was a mummified cat, statuettes of goddesses and priests, rings, small stones, whose purpose I forget and of course most fascinating of all for a small boy, a real life, so to speak, Egyptian mummy!

Except apparently it wasn’t.

The case, belonging to a temple girl called Shebmut was on display and the story was that another of the Brocklehurst clan of silk entrepreneurs, this time a woman called Marianne, had, with her female companion, Mary Booth, bought the case containing the mummy, and I had naturally assumed the two were a fixture standing by the entrance to the museum. Certainly the case, linen wrapped around the girl, plastered and painted with her likeness and hieroglyphs and scenes from Egyptian mythology, looked to be intact and therefore one supposed as a naive, child containing its original occupant.

However, having had a virtual trip down memory lane I see it is now, and according again to those tales, was then, empty. The ‘is now’ bit I assumed was a recent separation when I read about it. The case was being moved and going on display in the Silk museum, the council having neglected to maintain the West Park Museum to the point things were decaying in it. Given recent concern about the removal of objects, artefacts and remains during the Imperial past and repatriation of some I presumed the council had returned Shebut. Not so apparently.

The display had always been of a case only. Possibly.

Yet what happened to Shebut is unclear. A 2011 article in Cheshire Life suggests ‘the body was removed and reburied in Egyptian soil’. They also suggest the mummy was in the case when in the possession of the Brocklehurst family in the UK, if not in the museum itself. The timing of the return? Unstated, the article declares ‘the case is now empty’ which doesn’t suggest that long ago. When was it removed and returned?

Or indeed was it?

A 2019 BBC piece about Marianne and other North Western women who were obsessed with Egyptology suggests Marianne was worried about being discovered smuggling the mummy home, and dumped the body on the journey home, possibly at sea. While this may be possible it should be noted that this version comes from a piece selling a Radio 3 documentary which has the usual modern day slants expected about such a subject. The then current display is castigated for not mentioning that it was smuggled nor the body discarded (maybe because its fate remains unclear?) and Marianne and Mary are outed as being lesbian life partners (I have no idea if this were true nor why it is relevant to Egyptology but it fits with modern sensibilities).

So spare a thought for Shebut, wherever she may be. I may not have been seeing her as I thought, but her mummy case and the thought of her, inspired a small boy with visions of a land far away in space and time. It was probably not the best way for it to happen, but given it did I am glad the case was on display, for free and available to widen my horizons beyond the expectations of a northern mill town, and to sow the first inklings that there were more people, more cultures, more things worthy of interest, of study and respect than I imagined in my everyday experience there.

The Best Person to Decide

‘How many today?’

‘I haven’t counted yet. Hundreds.’ She said.

“Said” actually implies something more positive, more certain, more involved than the way she spoke. “Sighed” might be nearer, but may be too polite, too slight in its ability to depict the awful weight those words carried.

‘Hundreds.’

‘I’ll cook. What do you fancy?’ I tried to put a bit of a smile in the way I asked. I don’t think she wanted smiles.

‘Anything. Nothing. Look you get yourself something. I’ll pick at something later.’ She started rummaging in the bag of papers she’d brought home tonight. ‘I’d better start. They’ve got to be with the exam board in a couple of weeks.’ She dumped a pile on the table. ‘And I’ve still got lesson preps.’

I went into the kitchen and left her to it. I would prepare a Bolognese. I’d do enough for both of us and I’d freeze the rest if she didn’t want it.

I’d had a bit of a hard day myself, but you couldn’t tell a teacher that. It was interesting seeing what went on through the looking glass. When I had been at school I can’t say I had much respect for teachers. Some I liked as people. Some I liked for their ability to convey a subject’s innate value. Some combined both feelings. The majority didn’t hit either mark. Many were just plain average Joes (boys only school, one female teacher and she was the most macho of the lot of them). Many were completely useless.

Just as “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, so all good teachers were alike but each bad teacher had their own particular way of making the day a misery.

The onion was going clear in the olive oil; I added the chopped garlic and looked for the oregano and basil.

I hadn’t seen Rebecca teach of course so I couldn’t tell what she was like in class. I’d seen the amount of lesson preparation she did, had  looked at the materials, talked over some of the curriculum she had to teach and ideas for engaging the little buggers. It all seemed as good as it was going to get given the weird concepts of what kids need to get on in life that passes for educational policy these days. But I’d ever seen the performance part. The bit where she tried to turn the theory into the messy practicality of imparting knowledge and enthusing kids to learn, to see that knowledge was only the first bit of learning, of knowing how to gather information, how to analyse it, how to use it and its products to do other things; how to think.

She’d practised run throughs of new material on me. They seemed cool. I learned some things. But I wasn’t thirty mixed ability, mixed enthusiasm, mixed aggression fifteen year olds. I liked learning new stuff. I loved Rebecca. I’m pretty sure a few 15 year olds would as well given half the chance, but that didn’t necessarily encourage the mind set for learning.

The minced beef was browned and I rummaged for passata in the cupboard.

I held the bottle aloft in triumph.

‘Do you want a bit of Bolognese love?’

I listened for a reply. Nothing but frantic paper rustling.

I poured the sieved tomatoes into the pan and put the water on to boil.

She was grading. Not papers, but pupils. This was like a meta analysis of someone’s evidence for life. Government dictat had swayed from exams, to exams and course work, to exam like assessments and back to exams over the decades but this was different. This was Covid induced surrender to the idea that “the best person to judge the pupil is the teacher.”

I put the spaghetti into the largest pan we had, the water roiling in its eagerness to consume the pasta. I’d always dribbled a little olive oil in with it until I’d watched an Italian chef on an online channel use quite a lot of rude words about that idea. So I just shoved the strands in and went to put the garlic butter into the bread for a quick oven heating.

I stuck my head through the door.

‘Ten minutes love, if you want to eat.’ I said. She grunted noncommittally and dropped another set of marks onto the pile of those who had been weighed in the balance. I grabbed a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano from the fridge and wondered about what was going on next door.

Rebecca was stressed with the sheer volume of work at the best of times. The obsessive paperwork proving the prep work had been done, plus all the weird governmental obsession with various and multifarious metrics meant there was little time to actually teach. I wondered if the box ticking, hoop jumping and goal setting actually made weaker teachers better enough to balance out the drag on the better teachers. I couldn’t see it making any difference to the stinkers. They would always find a way to win the battle with the pupil.

I grated some of the cheese and checked the clock. Time to test the pasta. I didn’t adopt the Sweeney’s method of hurling a piece against the wall to see if it stuck to it, although that way no doubt still had it adherents.

My teachers had not been particularly aware or bothered about how I interacted with them and the school system. I was quiet and not problematic. That let me sit just above the middle of the pack for most subjects, below in some and near the top in a few. This largely depended on how confident and capable of controlling the class the teacher was. If I could concentrate and they inspired I would fly. If they were on the look out to pick on someone to cover the fact the class was a mess I slumped. I was lucky I guess, the ethos was to learn and only a few bothered with the idea that allowing pupils to “express themselves” was of paramount importance. It was my fellow pupils ‘expressing themselves” that bothered me most of the time.

I’d been at the front of the peloton, just behind the teachers’ pets in junior school. Until the 11 plus which as an IQ test of sorts. I was top of the school and nobody, least of all the teachers, liked it or believed it.

I continually did better in most exams than I did in class with teacher assessments.

The steam billowed up from the colander before I returned the pasta to the pan and poured the Bolognese on top of the pasta. I stood it to one side, snatched the garlic bread from the oven and put the butter and lemon zucchini into a serving dish.

‘Ready if you want love.’ I smiled.

She looked up, hurled the latest paper down on the decided pile and stood up.

‘Sod it. That little bastard’s done nothing all year anyway. Let’s eat.’

Labours of Hercules? Ffft! Easy Peasy.

Nothing actually works as it should.

Now I may just be unlucky or it may be that I am having a bad day but for instance take today.

I started off trying to find out why my son’s pin number for his new bank card hadn’t arrived (‘Due on 28 May: If it hasn’t arrived by then call us’).

So I did.

Eventually I got through the labyrinthine automated tests of endurance (including a nice recorded message which insinuated that all the assistants were dealing with life and death situations and that by continuing I would probably be killing a small gooey eyed puppy) to be told that they didn’t really do customer service but they might deign to answer the phone in 50 minutes.

It was my lucky day and 45 minute later a nice lady told me that she couldn’t access the file because I wasn’t him (although as his legal guardian… well we’ll come back to that.)

However, she said it had been a bank holiday weekend and the post was always affected wasn’t it? I pointed out the 28th was before the bank holiday weekend and their note said clearly to ring if it hadn’t arrived by then. She agreed and repeated her decision. But if he registered for internet banking it would have his pin on there.

It is a new account and he wanted to use it to buy a train ticket as the company have just installed card only ticket machines on their unmanned stations. Would that work if he registered now and used the pin? Because the card wouldn’t work until it was activated by Pin? Oh yes no problem.

I put that on the back burner until he was available.

When he was, we registered him for internet banking, there’s a long convoluted saga involving changed phones, email accounts, security codes I haven’t got the will to go through, but eventually they accepted who he was, he registered and got a nice page saying that as he was under 18 they couldn’t actually grant him access to his account until they had sent a letter to his legal Guardian (I told you we’d get back to that) letting me know he had registered and I was okay with that. It should take a week, and if it hadn’t arrived by then to… get in touch with them!

So that’s off the menu for the moment.

We decided he could travel anyway and pay by cash on the train or at his destination. I wanted to check his return time so I went on the website I always use which is (normally) very reliable, doesn’t want me to register, steal my data or sell me a time share in the Algarve. Not this time. According to them there were no trains between my requested stations. At the time requested, or, on a little experimentation, ever. In fact trains seemed to have ceased to exist.

I took a deep breath and rang them (finding a phone number that actually connected with someone was a marvellous breath of fresh air in an increasingly suffocating day). The lovely person who answered found me a train going the right way at the right time in seconds and explained without any obfuscation that they knew there was something wrong with the online system, were trying to fix it but hadn’t worked why it was stuffed.

At last a straight answer!

I have many things to book online, enquire after and generally sort out via some more Sisyphean tasks.

But for now, I’ve had enough.

Ned Ludd Tweets

I have a mobile phone.

Well whoopee do!

Not earth shattering news in much of the world I know. ‘Mobiles’, ‘Cell phones’ or whatever else you want to call them are ubiquitous.

Except they are not.

I possess the cheapest (£10) most basic text capable, non Smart phone I could find, no contract and I use it a couple of times a month maximum. The reason I have it and use it is because scammers, cheats, liars, crooks and downright thieves make it necessary to have some sort of secondary check on my identity to avoid the banks, various services and online retailers giving my cash to the above scum.

You can probably sense a certain reluctance to engage in the technical ‘advancement’ of society in the above statements.

Well yes, and then again, most definitely no.

I was way ahead of the technical curve for many years, decades even. I had my own computer c1983. I pulled it to pieces, put various other bits in it to enhance its performance, programmed it with Basic and learned about how the whole idea of digital data worked. I worked with computers for the next decade or so, using them to store and manipulate data, communicate with people and streamline analysis. I worked with various programming languages and whilst not a programmer, knew a lot more about how the things worked than most users. I was online with my own computer c1996 and I pulled it apart and put bits in and out and tweaked the performance. I hung on to the myriad operating system enhancements and was very aware of the possibilities of computer vulnerabilities and security issues. I still use computers daily.

I never bought a mobile until recently.

Work made me carry one, which they owned and gave me.

And right there is one of the reasons I was quietly confident in the nineties that the whole idea of mobile phones was a flash in the pan, a fad like CB radio. Who the hell voluntarily makes themselves available to their boss 24/7? And pays for the privilege of being an indentured wage slave?

Another one is probably related to my ASD. Or possibly my generally curmudgeonly nature. I don’t like being available to people at their convenience at all. One of the most liberating moments of my life was when I realised you didn’t have to answer that ringing phone. You chose whether you were available or not. I know people who have some sort of panic attack if a phone rings more than two or three times in a room without being answered. And of course a mobile makes you available all the time.

The good thing from that point of view is that few people actually ring each other to talk any more. Older people may text, or email. Young people instagram, tweet, facebook, post on TikTok, perhaps Zoom or Team (though these are probably for sad old people around 30). There are newer things out there and old media and platforms that hang on, Snapchat anyone? I read a piece the other day by a young media type who was describing an online dating experience where her prospective beau made the crass error of asking if they could continue the discussion on Snapchat.. This twenty year old swiped left asap. Who knows what systems will attract millions and which will be consigned to media limbo, to wander round after a brief burst of enthusiasm, lost souls in the phantom zone?

Is this a burst of creativity in the human journey? Or is it a side road to hell?

Probably neither. TikTok (remember Vine?) et al may produce entertaining moments and help spark creative processes but I’m not sure how much they will sustain them.

Is all that a reason to spend around a thousand pounds a year on a plastic device that doubles as a slave collar? A machine that demands constant attention for the pay off of cats falling into waste baskets? Yes we can pay for things with it, at the risk of having our identity, bank details and cash taken from us remotely. But how much does it anaesthetise us to reality?

I watch people, not just young people, who are constantly observing their phone, on trains, buses, waiting for something, walking somewhere. Do they not realise they are missing life itself?

I remember being asked in the 1990s about some earth shattering moment in a television soap opera the night before. I hadn’t watched it. As they described the background set up and convoluted denouement, I realised my own life was far more interesting and entertaining. That was not because I was such a superstar. I wasn’t. But ASD or not, I was far more engaged in the real world around me than those who avoided it through a monastic commitment to following a made up electronic life.

Odd thing for a writer to say?

Possibly, but a book can be all consuming as you consume it,. But then you emerge from that world, altered perhaps by its profundity, or maybe not, but you emerge and engage with real people and circumstances.

The electronic tsunami of distracting drivel that comes through ‘smart’ ‘phones’ does not allow emergence into reality.

I was an early adopter of computer technology because it allowed me to do things I couldn’t do before, and allowed me to do things I already, did faster and better. That allowed me more time to engage in the real, analogue world around me. We’ve allowed those who want to use technology to distort and destroy reality to gain control of it. And worse we are willingly paying for the privilege of our enslavement.

I’m not a luddite. But we need to regain control of what technology does for us and make sure it works for us not the other way round.

Flailing

I’m wondering what’s creative about writing.

I have thousands of things I want to say but doing it creatively is another matter at the moment.

Urgency seems to demand putting the raw thing down. Immediate, now without frills or fluff or camouflage.

Subtly making a point seems to require time for the anger, hurt, offence, pain, infuriation etc to be internalised, cocooned, dealt with and regurgitated when it doesn’t make me ache or foam at the mouth and yet what is lost in the process?

For one, doing something about it now.

What is it?

Injustice, falsehood, stupidity, aggression, wilful misreading, oppression, suppression, acceptance of fashionable idiocies. If the writing means something, should it be left to mature and develop until it can make a point without shouting, without screaming? Will it be too late to do something, to achieve anything when it is ready to see the light of the page?

News cycles are faster, acceptance of foolishness by default easier

Do you need to contradict every lazy assumption that leads to the defeat of thought, of reason?

Maybe.

If not; what?

Maybe just write.