Posts Tagged 'state of the nation'

What happened to equal opportunity?

Brilliant articles here from Lucy Mangan and here from Michael Rosen, about inequality in the education system and the insidious, cynical and vicious way it is being perpetuated. Hurrah for these writers, articulating what I am simply too angry about to be able to articulate properly.

Go read. Get angry.

Lost [in] libraries

The peak tram was vertiginous fun. The temples beloved of police and Triads, full of huge hanging spirals of incense and piles of offerings, were atmospheric as Cantonese gangster movies. Riding the rolling Star ferries over the harbour put historic grubby glamour into a trip across town. But what I liked best about Hong Kong was the central library.

Nine wonderful modern floors of space and hush and books books books. Escalators gliding silently up and down; glass lifts. A great coffee shop. Lots and lots of people, from teenagers in old-fashioned school uniform doing their homework to pensioners reading newspapers to toddlers leafing through picture books with their nannies, from Filipino maids writing e-mails home to hopeful foreigners printing out their CVs to literature-starved travellers devouring novels as if there was no tomorrow…

Of course I’ve been starved of English books after eight months travelling. And then there’s the fact that on the shelves I found not one but two copies of a really quite obscure book I’ve been wanting to read for ages as research for the novel I’m working on. But it was clearly not just me who found it a comfortable, useful, inspiring, peaceful, educational haven from the madness of Hong Kong. I wanted to curl up under a less-visited shelf and sleep there.

It’s a legacy of the British in Hong Kong that I found so many English books alongside the shelves and shelves of Chinese ones. Meanwhile, back at home, the British are busy closing down half their libraries.

When I was living in Brent, London, I was lucky enough to have two libraries to choose from. One was small and cosy and friendly, full of mums and toddlers of numberless nationalities, and old people reading crime novels in big print. The other was big and I have to admit, I didn’t like as much; the staff didn’t seem to know much or really care about the books; and then they introduced an electronic loans system which didn’t work properly and which made it far too easy to just lose your loans and never return them. But that library was incredibly busy. EFL classes, workshops on CV-writing and job applications, extra coaching for school kids, launches for this that and the other. Always full of children of all ages who didn’t want to or couldn’t go home – and at least some of them reading books. Always a babble of a hundred different languages and accents (this library was never silent). From the point of view of pure, quiet, old-fashioned respect for books, I didn’t like it all that much, but I went there pretty much every week because as a microcosm of living and working and playing (and sometimes reading) Brent society, it was fantastic.

I’m a long way from Brent now but I am depressed and very angry at the decision of Brent council to close six of its libraries, with apparently only the most spurious logic to back up that decision and an arrogant disregard for what local people want.

What will happen to the spaces that were donated to the people of Brent to use as a community for free? What will happen to all the books?  Maybe they’ll be shipped out to China, where both councils and people still seem to appreciate them (and the power they have…)

Just over the border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen is a vast new library, even bigger and busier than the Hong Kong one. Shenzhen has one of the youngest, most varied, and most upwardly-mobile populations of all Chinese cities. People come here from all over the country to get rich – and to get self-educated.

In the English language section of Shenzhen library I found worthy Communist Chinese literature translated into fairly unreadable English, whole sets of Classics, and a selection of very intriguing titles such as The Transvestite Achilles, The Empire of Stereotype, Dracula and the Eastern Question, Beyond Arthurian Romance

Taking it for granted – update

Wonder what it is about Tower Hamlets and election fraud? But glad to see someone is making an effort..

Taking it for granted

It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in the UK, and I am frequently taken by surprise by affairs in my native land that everyone else takes for granted. For example, voting. It turns out (of course I should have known this) that all you need to vote in Britain is a name registered at an address. It doesn’t need to be your name and address, because no one will check it.

I’ve clearly lived too long in countries that do not take democracy for granted, because this fact absolutely amazes me.

In Ukraine and Russia, you have to take your passport to the polling station to be allowed to vote. These countries of course have a venerable history of mass election fraud. It was Ukrainian/Russian writer Nikolai Gogol who coined the phrase ‘Dead Souls’: in his eponymous book, these are serfs who still exist on registers despite having died, and which the main character ‘collects’ in order to create an entirely fake existence as a wealthy serf-owner.

‘Dead souls’ is now a common phrase in Russian. Dead souls are deceased citizens still on election registers who manage to vote, or living people whose votes are cast by someone else, or even non-existent people invented in order to create an entirely fictional electoral majority. It’s claimed that in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections, there were up to three million false or dead soul votes.

Sixty-one percent of registered voters used their ballots in the last UK general election. That means there were just over seventeen million potential dead souls. Anyone inspired by, for example, the post-Soviet idea of democracy, would not have had to invent people, or bring them back from the dead, to get a majority. They would just have had to take advantage of the apathy of seventeen million people.

I had to leave the UK and live abroad to come to appreciate Britain’s tradition of democracy and civil liberties. Sure, there are many things wrong (as there are many things wrong with the way we use that word ‘democracy’). But the fact that we are still so confident of our basic honesty and our right to be heard or to keep silent that we will take our ballot papers on trust is at once wonderful – and strangely depressing.

In Ukraine, even with the passport system, no one can assume that their vote is not going to be cast by someone else. In Britain, we just can’t quite be bothered to either use the voting system as it is meant to be used, or even to exploit its potential for abuse.

Books and blooms

It took my friend in Barcelona to remind me about St George’s Day. He’s a bit of a promiscuous patron saint, George; the English share him not only with Catalans but with Ethiopians, Georgians, Palestinians, Russians… you know, all those people the BNP and the Tories want to keep out of Merrie Englande.

The Catalans celebrate St George with gifts of books and roses. Isn’t that a great combination? I feel sure Shakespeare, who had the impeccably good timing to die on St George’s Day, would have approved.

Slightly less great is the fact that boys get books and girls get roses. But hey, it’s still better than my local supermarket in London, which had dismal red-and-white face paints and England football key rings on offer in celebration. Or than David Cameron informing us that what we want is a ‘bigger, richer, and stronger’ society – richer for whom, exactly? And I don’t suppose he meant culturally the richer, by gifts of books and roses.

The F word

“I’m not a feminist,” a friend told me decisively today. A little earlier she’d given me a bunch of flowers for International Women’s Day.

She’s an intelligent, articulate young woman, married, travelling on her own in London from Ukraine, doing a well-paid job, well aware that she’s highly-enough qualified to be head-hunted.

I like to think she said that because she has what she wants from life and so feels she doesn’t need to be a feminist.

Later, she said that she thinks the women in London are more attractive than their Ukrainian counterparts – not because they are fundamentally any more or less beautiful, but because they seem far more free to be themselves, unconstrained by the need to conform to any particular idea of beauty or behaviour.

That showed me that she is a feminist – she just doesn’t know it.

How did feminism become such a dirty word? Why are women ashamed or reluctant or downright offended to be associated with it?

Of course, there are controversial and difficult things associated with feminism, as there are with any social movement. But all of us women today owe it a huge debt – and an obligation to carry on the good work.

I’m glad my friend saw British women as being free from social demands to look and behave a certain ‘feminine’ way – but I can’t say I agree with her. Instead, it seems to me that women have simply internalised the demands and the objectification to such an extent that now we impose them on ourselves and call it being in control. Being post-feminist.

There’s no such thing as post-feminist. How can there be, when the fight hasn’t been won?

Here’s my bunch of flowers. Happy International Women’s Day, all you fabulous females out there.

Five hundred thousand light bulbs

and the climate goes up in flames…

According to the woman standing near me on Monday watching this madness, the Somerset carnivals look set to suffer as incandescent light bulbs are phased out. Not that you could have guessed it in Weston-Super-Mare on Monday night. Those floats would have been visible from miles up in the atmosphere, a fabulous blaze of grinning pumpkin faces and spinning kaleidoscope pin-wheels; fire-belching dragons, ten-foot knights, blue leering tigers, giant chess pieces and playing cards; marching nightmares and dancing dreams all illuminated by enough wattage to light a small town for six months.

The Somerset carnival tradition apparently dates back to the 1600s and was a celebration of the defeat of the gunpowder plot, like bonfire night. I’ve always thought it a little ironic that something as potentially anarchic as bonfire night started as a state-sponsored affirmation of the status quo (playing with fire, anyone?) but anyway, the carnival this year was a fantastic two-hour parade, completely over-the-top and down the other side and off into the next field. There was drag and burlesque and the odd rude joke, and the dancers were rather kinkily chained to the floats, but overall it was loads of spectacular but innocent fun, as happily, indigestibly unglamorous and English as a pork pie.

No doubt behind the scenes it’s a cut-throat affair, as the clubs compete for best float and best towing-vehicle driver (in my opinion, the great big stolid tractor driver towing the Kingdom of Heaven float, his halo sprouting one tiny fluffy feather).

And then there’s the controversy of the light bulbs. It would be a sad thing if the Somerset carnival tradition went out in a whimper of energy-saving CLF lamps and a climate of governments fiddling while the planet burns.

You can see photos of the carnival here. And, in an unrelated picture, a reminder from Alan Moore of the potential anarchy of bonfire night celebrations (hey, carnival clubs – how about a V For Vendetta float next year?) It might not be quite time to try and blow up parliament again, but maybe it is time to do something more than change the light bulbs if we want to change the world.

Make do and mend part II

Illegal still for home-made vodka (samogon), Ukraine

Illegal still for home-made vodka (samogon), Ukraine

Make do and mend

home-made road sign, Ukraine

home-made road sign, Ukraine

I’m always impressed by Ukrainians’ ability to mend things that are broken. Cars, computers, clothes, washing machines, shoes, toys… if they can’t fix it personally, for sure they will know where to go to get it fixed. A British friend of mine in Kiev complains that they mend things – cars, for instance – that shouldn’t be mended, and that end up being a danger to all concerned. Being myself less than a fan of Western throw-away culture, I prefer to concentrate on how they fix things that theoretically can’t be fixed, somehow heroically overcoming the modern curse of built-in obsolescence.

Ukrainians are master menders. So why is it, I wonder, that they are unable to mend their country? Ukraine seems to go on lurching from crisis to crisis, somehow not quite collapsing but never being fixed, and the Ukrainians I know are just throwing up their hands, rolling their eyes, shrugging – or not even bothering to do that anymore; just keeping their heads down and suffering.

I suppose you could say Ukraine is like one of those cars my British friend complains about, that should have been scrapped years ago but that somehow keeps going, cobbled together with wire and string and God knows what else, presenting a danger to its menders and to everyone else.

Or you could say that Ukrainians have been stuck with some factors of built-in obsolescence – a bloody history of endless invasion, occupation and repression, a problematic geographical location between Europe and Russia, a confused cultural identity – and have achieved the impossible with them, fixing something that theoretically can’t be fixed. It might not work quite as well as a new model briefly would, but that it works at all is a testament to the heroic perseverance and ingenuity of the master menders.

The Winterton of our discontent

It’s been a long winter – 37 years – exactly as long as my parents have been living in the constituencies of Macclesfield and Congleton. However discontented people were, any criticism of MPs Nicholas and Ann Winterton was always followed by “But they’re such good constituents.” They answered letters, they turned up at events, were in all the right places for photo opportunities. A friend who worked at a home for the disabled in Sutton remembers how the Wintertons were always there at the gate or the doorway, posing for photos with the least offensive-looking of the guests – and then leaving immediately without ever once actually stepping inside.

It seems a fairly accurate analogy of the way parliament has been operating for who-knows-how-long, putting on a show of engagement and concern; relying on an apathetic public to play along.

After so many years of it, the Wintertons seem to have forgotten how to be honest. These proverbially good constituents have stated that they are stepping down because “maybe the years are taking their toll and perhaps we can no longer represent Macclesfield and Congleton with the same level of energy and enthusiasm” and not at all because they fraudulently claimed 165,000 pounds in rent for a Westminster flat they owned. And what cowardice of the Tory party to have accused them of financial misconduct a year ago and yet allowed them to stay, while now Cameron cravenly welcomes their graceful resignation statement, like gentlemen together who will collude in the face-saving photo captions to the bitter end.

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer…

Macclesfield and Congleton’s long Winterton of discontent is soon to be over; it will be interesting to see what summer will follow.

previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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