APRÉS MOI…LE WHAT?

I have a guilty secret.

It’s a kind of addiction.

I gave the game away in a recent post here, but I think I may have gotten away with it too,  if it hadn’t been for those pesky kids

Which kids?

Those on University Challenge.

I have been watching UC and attempting to compete with the contestants since its inception in 1962. Given I was seven at the time, you might have thought that this was a forlorn hope. I was however a precocious little person. Although I doubt my memories of each week being in with a shout at the gong which ends each episode in those early years, I had been attentive enough to my father’s readings to me of Norse and Greek mythology, Roman history and basic science, to get one or two answers each episode. The canon of academic knowledge seemed narrower then.

Which is why contemporary questioning has exposed some lacunae in my knowledge base, and led to this confession.

My interest in a TV programme which asked questions with definitive right or wrong answers based on a well bounded sphere of academic, cultural and political knowledge played right into the strengths of my ASD brain. Read these works, study these equations follow the news in reputable papers and all the knowledge worth knowing was available and could be remembered.

Not only that but I could test and compare myself with the contestants.

I answered the questions where I could, but early on I began a quite strange, now I look back on it with more insight than I then possessed, habit. I would count the answers I got correct, but they only counted if I said them out loud before anyone on the two competing teams or the host, Bamber Gascoigne initially, now Jeremy Paxman, announced them.

I considered for a while the idea of marking myself in terms of the show’s  marking schema; with ten points for a starter question and five for a follow up bonus, to see, presumably, if I alone could have defeated the accumulated brainpower of St.John’s College Oxford or Durham University or Manchester. I am still tempted, but I drew a line. Somewhere a warning note regarding the dangers of stepping over the line of casual enthusiasm into obsession, sounded. Some may say it sounded a little too late.

I was distraught when he show disappeared from ITV in the 80s. But it had sown the seeds of a slight quiz mania. I was already part of the Pub Quiz boom in that period and played for a team in a local league and joined peripatetic quizzers looking for fresh challenges and cash in the tough semi pro world of quizzes for cash. I’m joking of course, it wasn’t bare knuckle boxing, but sometimes the distinction blurred. There were bans on some itinerant teams who showed up to local pubs running cash prize quizzes and some people could and did get quite shirty about the presence of (mostly mythical) quiz hustlers in competitions.

When UCt returned in 1994 I was elated.

So why has the current iteration of UC brought me to this confession?

Well I still watch, and I still count my scores in terms of questions answered. Okay, so far so weird I know. The thing that has concerned me is that my number of questions answered correctly before the students can, or before Paxman can put them out of their misery should they not know the answer, is declining.

In the first round games I have been still okay. I scored 31 in one round this series and I was regularly in the high twenties and convinced the old brain was still ticking along. The subsequent rounds I believe get harder, at least they do for me, but this week I was reduced to 16. I’m not saying I’m grabbing the mess Webley yet, but I am wondering where we put it.

On a seriously anal note I had a deeper think about the reasons.

Obvious answer: they were asking questions I didn’t know the answer to. (I know where prepositions go, I’m embracing the vernacular) But why? The answers thing, not the vernacular.

In some cases even this is not true. I have noticed that although I know the answer, my recall is too slow to beat the 19 to 20 something brains. The number of times I have been tempted to ‘cheat’ and count the answer if I knew it but couldn’t spit it out fast enough is increasing dramatically. Thoughts of normal age related impairment reassure me a little, but don’t waft away the various dementia concerns that start to gather in the darker moments.

But a less threatening answer also raises its head. I just don’t keep up enough with the changes to the modern academic and cultural canon. An average awareness of Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner no longer suffices to cover questions on serious music, and don’t even start me on contemporary music – is it music? (Oh Guy! ‘Modern beat combos’ anyone?) Similarly Titian, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, van Gogh, don’t appear as much while Banksy, Emin and Hirst will only get you so far. As for the proliferation of subatomic particles in common circulation since 1962…

I realised many years ago that to attain the Renaissance ideal of knowing everything had become less likely to put it mildly, but I still tried. To what purpose I was never sure, save emulating my father who was my internet. But not only has the canon grown exponentially it appears the relevance of the earlier iterations has declined or in some cases disappeared altogether.

This isn’t always a bad thing. The removal of sub Galtonian justifications for crude eugenics is hard to shed a tear for. Likewise, for different reasons, some of the earlier explanations of life, the universe and everything that preceded scientific method. Although I note neo-Lamarkism is very popular among the epigenticist class.

So there it is.

I am an inveterate consumer of, and participant in quizzes (whether pub or TV). Preferably not involving too much ephemeral popular culture. But one who is slipping down the rankings as failing brainpower, interest in keeping up and an expanding world knowledge base conspire to reduce me to what must surely be single digit scores at the hands of Paxman et al.

Barbarism and dissolution await, I embrace them.

Goodbye To All That!

I don’t want to turn this into a diary but it is entitled ‘…and stuff.’ so I feel empowered to write a little bit about something that I have done not directly related to writing. Especially as it should, with any luck, have a positive knock on effect on my writing (volume if not quality!).

I have been a school governor for roughly the last 11 years and Chair of Governors for the last four. Until last week when I decided enough was enough and I stepped down.

It had been my intention to take a step back and hand over gracefully and help the transition. However the last three years have been fairly stressful. At the end of last academic year a natural conclusion was reached in one respect and after the holiday when I came to pick up the reins I found I just had no energy for the post. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested. I was and remain very committed to the welfare of the school. It was just clear to me that if I continued I would be doing so purely out of that sense of duty and it was also clear to me that the post required more than that. It needed a vigour and enthusiasm to move forward which I possessed intellectually but was drained of emotionally.

I had had some off line discussions with a couple of people, one a very helpful but challenging (in the nicest possible sense in that she did now want platitudes, she wanted real, genuine answers to serious questions) parent. Talking with her made it clear to me that there is a point where experience, although useful can be a drag on enthusiasm. It also made it clear that what bodies like governing bodies need is a flush of new blood every now and then, and probably more frequently than every eleven years!

So, a good decision I feel. Better to go when (nearly!) everyone is saying nice things and ‘please stay’ rather than waiting for the positions to reverse to where nearly everyone is saying ‘Thank the Lord! At last!’

I am content with what I did and where I left everyone.

What will this do for my writing?

Well with any luck it will free a considerable amount of time for the activity. How much of that will reach this blog? Who can tell? A decent proportion I hope. I also have high hopes of finishing several short stories and a couple of longer pieces fairly quickly, now I can concentrate without the telephone ringing or emails popping up that have to be dealt with NOW before going to a meeting for half the day.

Before I sent the email tendering my resignation I hesitated, wondering how I would feel after such a long association and whether I was doing the right thing by everyone. Now, after a week, it seems such a weight off my mind that I know it was the right decision for me. And if it was the right decision for me it was the right decision for the school and the other governors. They will be able to move on and others will bring different skills and talents to the table.

So onwards and upwards (might put my feet up for a week or so first though!)

All in it Together?

I’ve just read a piece in AL Kennedy’s book ‘On Writing’ prompted by the ‘Coalition’s’ cuts in their early days and a bit in yesterday’s Guardian about the injustices carried out at Job Centre’s. The latter was prompted by the suicide of an ex serviceman who had his benefits stopped for a technical infringement of the ‘Coalition’s’ new stringent rules. They both filled me with despair at what is happening to Britain.

Someone sent round one of the Change.org’s petitions about the latter case a week ago. It appeared on one of the wargaming forums I lurk on. I signed and was happy to. Many others did as well. There are several ex-service personnel and related groups on this forum and we obviously empathised. Someone else signed as well but felt it necessary to explain that he was signing on the understanding he was generally in favour of cracking down on benefits.

Not benefit fraud note.

Benefits.

When did we buy the whole neo-Calvinist bull that the USA substitutes for societal responsibility?

I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m having a go at the USA. I’m not. I like America and most Americans I’ve met. But I wonder about how the nation that nurtured the New Deal can have become happy to consign a percentage of it population to perdition because society fails to provide a job for them to take. I know there are more charities dealing with the poor in the US than the UK but is ‘charity’ really the way to go in dealing with a structural element of successful Capitalism? Capitalism requires mobile, temporarily unemployed labour to move from failing businesses to successful ones. While that is happening, what is the ‘pool’ of ‘labour resources’ (and its children) supposed to do? Go into suspended animation? Die?

Anyway, we don’t have that infrastructure of charity designed to deal with the product of failing Capitalism in the UK, although thanks to the ‘Coalition’ a tottering and shabby simulacrum is growing up. So the ‘Big Society’ ends up being food banks and suicide.

The Welfare State (not a pejorative term, but a shining product of the real idea that ‘We’re All In It Together’) meant that those who were not required by ‘capital’ at the moment were kept alive, healthy and ready for redeployment, when the opportunity came, by the society that benefitted from their existence. Now the new bottom line oriented corporations don’t even want to do that. Globalisation has meant that there always pools of poor starving workers who’ll work cheaper and harder when and if the time comes. The rationale seems to be ‘as long as they breed faster than they die we don’t need to worry about a ‘pool’ of ‘labour resources’.

From a morality free view of the accounts – that works fine. And that seems to be where we have landed. The pay off in the UK is that ‘we’ abandon the unemployed, terrorise them, bully them and shrug our shoulders when a small percentage of them despair and die.

And if there are some who ‘cheat’ the system? What do you want to do with them? Kill them? Imprison them? (costs a lot more than benefits), force them to work? (do you want them in your business?). There will always be cheats – the most successful run global corporations, the least successful blag a few benefits. Do we re-jig our systems to penalise, harass and demonise hundreds of thousand in an attempt to prevent a few misusing the benefits system? A few who probably get round the new laws anyway leaving the people who need help, without friends, helpless and in despair?

Something has gone badly wrong with our society if we can be tricked into persecuting the many to catch the few.

Capitalism can work and work well, but it has to be capitalism tempered by morality and mercy. The market, red in tooth and claw, fails to satisfy that and a Capitalism that eschews morality is sowing the seeds of its own destruction.

 

NESTS AND STUFF

My daughter is on her way to Turkey as I write. Only for a holiday with a friend and her family. At fourteen she is nervous but excited. I am just nervous. And a little sad I suppose. Obviously I want her to have a great time but I also know it marks the beginning of the cutting of that emotional umbilical cord. In four years time, all being well I guess, she will be off to University. And then she will, if everything goes right, and globalisation hasn’t reduced us all to indentured labourers, be pursuing her own life and career.

 

Part of me still wants it to be one of those seemingly always sunny, summer Sundays, back in 2004 or so when I used to take her out to the park in Chepstow and push her on the swings, bounce on the seesaw until my thighs quivered and then take her to the little shop by the castle for an ice cream. Then it would be a walk back up the hill to the car with her on my shoulders, her shouting; ‘run faster Daddy’.

 

But of course I would be desperately sad if we were really stuck there. Much of the joy is being part of the change and development of your child, wondering how they will turn out, what sort of character they will have, which traits will become dominant and which will be a branch line never pursued.

 

I have no problems with how my daughter has turned out. Of course my judgement is probably a little clouded, but I think she is marvellous. I remember the first time her mother went away for a weekend conference and left me in charge. I can remember suddenly being absolutely terrified. I had never been left alone in charge of a child before. It all suddenly seemed so serious. The nearest relative would be hundreds of miles away, many over water and accessible only by air or sea.  What if the poor mite, about 2 and a half at the time, wanted her mother and was inconsolable by a hairy lump like me?

 

After the first hour pottering about the house, we took the high road for Raglan Castle. As we played in the grounds and she chattered away about Jeremy Fisher and the lily pads that covered the moat, I realised that not only did I love my daughter as I had from the moment she appeared in the world, but I liked her as a person. That she was fun to be with. That I enjoyed talking to and listening to this person who suddenly seemed so much more than simply a responsibility on legs. I know I had and still have a residual function as an authority figure, mentor and guide but I can’t help feeling that as she moves into her own milieu, one of the best friends I have ever had is beginning a journey that will distance her from me. And oddly, just as I made that discovery in Raglan Castle grounds, I am beginning to realise that is exactly what she needs and I want.

 

Yes, that selfish bit inside me wants her to stay 4 years old forever. But more than that I am excited to know how my friend will go on to enjoy her life without me hanging over her shoulder going: ‘I wouldn’t do it like that love.’

End of an Era

A bit like a walk through town brings the old observation that the police are getting younger, the news brings evidence that my lifetime has seen myriad social and technological change that has made the world of my memory and the present, different countries.

Last night, Jeremy Paxman presented his last edition of Newsnight.

Paxman has been a polished and shining jewel in the crown of Britain’s Fourth Estate for over thirty years. I remember him reporting on the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ in the mid 70s and moving seemingly effortlessly to a position of Inquisitor General on behalf of the people of the UK. It was obviously not really effortless. It took time, effort and some luck but above all an intellect steeped in a tradition of not accepting simple, trite answers to complicated situations.

Politicians have probably always liked to wrap up their own dubious motives in the rags of altruism and ideology. The modern era has added a layer of pseudo intellectual gobbledegook, crafted in business schools and MBA courses, to the subterfuge that appeared to blind many inquisitors. Not so Paxman. Attempts to obfuscate the issue were dealt with by Paxman in a trice as he punctured pomposity and hacked back the excrescences of policy wonk and management guru twaddle to expose the usually unpleasant facts behind the smokescreen.

Why is his departure from Newsnight the end of an era? Could not others perform the same function?

Well they could, although increasingly the breadth and depth of knowledge Paxman exhibited in his interviews appears to be lost amongst younger journalists. But even more than the lack of attention paid to a liberal education is the craven way news media is knuckling under to political pressure. If this were simply politicians whining it would be bad enough, but at least they are elected in a process which pretends to reflect public wishes. Increasingly however there is an unholy alliance between politicians who dislike having to account for their policies in clear speech and big businesses which have vested interests in neutering the type of investigative journalism Paxman exemplified.

The BBC’s days are numbered. Unless people get off their backsides and realise what is happening we will wake up to a country where the media is entirely controlled by parti pris companies, and public service broadcasting, if it exists at all, is confined to producing wildlife documentaries about furry animals that can be sold overseas for a boost to government earnings. Production has already been outsourced and privatised and now news is under increasing attack from competitor companies who don’t like the heat or the political impartiality of the BBC. The politicians have learned that taking the BBC head on as a whole institution looks bad, so, like the NHS it is being privatised by stealth, a function, a department, a ‘tier’ at a time. It is all so reasonable.

The resulting private news with political agendas and the rump fluffy bunny PSB will not grow and nurture a talent like Paxman. I see no young replacement able to drag a government minister over the coals like Paxman used to. An unholy alliance of Politicians and Global business is seeing to that.

So farewell, Paxo. Thanks for keeping the body politic on the straight and narrow and here’s hoping there is another one just like you in the wings. I shan’t be holding my breath.

Childhood Imagination and Explosions

I recently wrote a piece of very short (Flash in the modern vernacular) fiction, based on the memory of walking home in winter on Friday nights after school from Film Club. This meant coming home at about 7 o’clock in the evening in the dark. A friend of mine lived a couple of hundred yards away from me and we would walk home together. On some nights first to my house and on others to his. The other one would then walk home the remaining few hundred yards alone. The trouble was that those few hundred yards were down a country lane lit only by gas lamps, later converted to poor electric lights in the old gas standards, past Bailey’s farm and the Old Hall with its wooded pool running by the side of the lane. Depending on the film that had been shown, this could be a more or less terrifying experience to a 12 year old. These days I suppose we wouldn’t have been allowed to walk down a poorly lit country lane past a large pool, woods and a canal, alone and in the dark. But nothing ever happened to either of us except some raised heart rates and invigorated imaginations. We could have walked home alone through lighted streets to our respective homes, but where would the companionship and terror have been in that?

Much of that lane has now been tamed. Houses have sprung up on the fields by my old house and by his, the stretch of countryside between the two is reduced to a rump and the lane has electric lamps on proper posts that actually illuminate the road. The old farm gate that was locked to traffic between the two ends of the lane has been opened and cars regularly go up and down the road. It has become a suburb. Progress I know, but where is the fire to the imagination in that?

You could use it as a metaphor for the taming of nature, the Wild West, the move into the last remaining wildernesses in the search for exhausted fossil fuels and the last throws of cowboy enterprise culture in the former states of the USSR. But it’s a dystopian vision. My memories are of a feeling of being on the edge of the wild wood, of possibilities for stepping out of the cosy and constricting world of school, homework and routine. It was the possibility of a loss of certainty and control that was exciting, not the desire to tame but to embrace and immerse oneself in the other, the strange, the scary.

I’m probably just getting old but the obsession with neatness and safety and the constraining of both childhood and society at large worries me.

Recently there has been a recommendation that making explosives should have a mandatory life term applied on a strict liability basis. You make them, you get life. We have been brainwashed into the idea of a terrorist in every mosque to such an extent that I have every expectation that this recommendation will be adopted with barely a murmur. But that would have meant my uncle and my father would have been in prison for life. They made ‘recreational’ explosives for fun. For fireworks, and just for the fun of seeing the thing go ‘BANG!’ No-one was hurt and no-one bothered. My Latin master at school, when a boy, used home made explosives to catch fish (possibly poaching but that is another matter, between him and the Statute of Limitations). Do we really want to live in a world where innocent experimentation (yes I know it’s dangerous) is treated automatically as the equivalent of murder? Without recourse to police or judicial discretion? It appears we may. Yet another reason I feel increasingly out of touch with the controlled, risk averse, constricted way society is being driven.

Age? Possibly.

Liberal intellectual posing? Very probably.

A desire to treat people as people and not cyphers to be controlled like battery farmed animals? That sounds about right to me.

Distractions

I’d like to say that I haven’t had time to post anything here recently because I have been following my own advice and writing hard. I can’t say that in all honesty. I have done some work on the next part of what now looks like being a collection of modern fairy tales following ‘Wolf!’ (and perhaps including it). The second story is a modern twist on Cinderella. I have an outline for Hansel and Gretel and the other one (it’s looking like a four story book) is between the Pied Piper and Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the moment.

However, the real reason for my absence has been school holidays. As the ‘work at home parent’ it makes sense for me to be looking after the children. To be fair my thirteen year old daughter requires minimal intervention beyond me saying ‘No’ at various intervals in her conversation and the odd peace keeping foray between her and my six year old son. He, on the other hand requires more input. Sometimes, when I have an idea and sit down to scribble it down or type it up (write down, type up?…interesting), this can be a bit of a pain. On the other hand he is great fun and often provides a different perspective on the world.

Last week we went to feed the ducks at the pond in the local castle grounds. They didn’t want to play, so the fish got the bread and we went further afield. We ended up at the village where my daughter went to school. The school itself is now houses. This wasn’t the only change. The paper mill has shut, the railway line that still bisects the village main street has been shut and the four level crossings are all permanently open to traffic. The traffic lights on the bridge that gives entry to the village are even slower now however, as there has been a new housing estate built whose entrance is right next to the bridge. There is also another rail line that used to serve a naval arms store which is closed and overgrown. My son wanted to know all about this, but mostly about the railway lines and why and when and how they were shut. I told him but as I did I realised how quickly this had all happened. Six years ago it was all open, the school, the mill, railways, and the housing estate didn’t exist. To me this was a rapid change. To my son of course it is just how things are.

I expect some of this surprise on my part was just getting old. Things that seemed permanent when I was six had on reflection only happened recently. Television for a start. On the other hand I am convinced there is an increased pace of change, and not just in relation to communications. We seem to be moving to the US model: if a building last more than 25 years it acquires heritage status. Not many do.

The other thing my son’s presence helped me reflect on was related to this week’s Sins of Literature. This second programme looked at the supposed isolation of the writer and the balance between needing to be cooped up in a world of your own, writing your imaginative existence down, and experiencing sufficient of the world to have something to fire that imagination. My son certainly helps me maintain an involvement in the world, for which I am very grateful. It can be distracting when he wants to play at airports or drag me off on an afternoon’s walk but it is a rare day when this doesn’t afford me time to reflect or offer a useful insight into something I would have ignored from my lofty adult perspective.