Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Peaceful protest - the public fights back.

No, I'm not talking about the demonstrations today on campus, important though they are.  The demo on our campus was very civilised, and was robustly policed by two PCSOs and a PC.  Both sides seemed to be studiously ignoring each other last time I looked out at the grouping freezing outside the library.  Em and I considered that walking out of our own research really didn't make any point at all - nobody would have noticed - so I confess, this time I supported the demonstrators in spirit, and in the warm.

Recently, I've become a little too obsessed with the really important issues affecting the country at the moment.  I caught an episode of both Strictly Come Dancing, and X Factor at the weekend.  This is not something I do on a regular basis, and I wouldn't like you to think that I watched them for pleasure, but I am genuinely very interested in the phenomenon of continued success for both Anne Widdicombe and Wagner.

It's not much of a secret, but Anne Widdicombe cannot dance.  Poor old Anton du Beke seems to be working like stink to get her to perform the most basic of moves, and clearly the "judges" are getting increasingly annoyed that the public are still voting for her to remain in the "competition".  Over on the other side of TV Land, I was bemused by the performance that is known as Wagner.  And, I was also bemused by the attitude of the "judges" on that particular show.  I missed the repartee between Wagner and Cheryl Whatserface, but from the popular press (that I read because it's part of my work - honest) seems to reflect the fact that she may have come off worst.  Plus, rumours are flying that Wagner's not scraping through the public vote every week - he's well up the leader board with plenty of people voting for him.

In my relative innocence, I had understood both 'Strictly' and X Factor to be talent shows.  I have to say, from my limited contact with X Factor, I'm not sure where the talent is represented at all.  I am also fighting off the urge to smack the television screen every time Craig Revel Whatsit or Simon Cowell put on their pantomime villain face.  Clearly, these programmes represent limited talent at best, and concentrate on "the journey".  Uh?  "The journey"?  I can see the point of 'the journey' if we're talking about trekking through the jungle, but not about living all expenses paid in what seems to be very nice conditions for a few weeks being 'mentored' by some celebrity.

But, and here's my point ("at last", they cried), the public seem to be fighting back.  Voting for the most hopeless of contestants on both shows.  Why should this be, and does it even matter?

Are we tired of faux talent shows?  Are we irked by the BBC for giving Arlene the boot in favour of a more telegenic poppett?  Are we showing our preference for the underdog?  Do we want to show Simon Cowell what for and wipe that smarmy grin off his 'orrible face?

I think that the answer's actually pretty simple.  The public are treating this for what it is - a popularity contest - they've seen through this conceit of 'talent'.  Both Widdicombe and Wagner seem to be very self-aware, saying it how it is - that they know they're not the best in the world, but they're having a good time, and hey - why not enjoy it while it lasts?   Widdy certainly has no delusions of adequacy (but, I have to confess, I do worry a little about Wagner), and says quite openly that while people continue to vote for her, then she's going to stay on the show. 

As for does it matter?  No.  I don't think that it does, not too much.  If we choose to cast our votes for Widdy on Strictly, the profits go to Children in Need, and that can only be a good thing.  If we cast our votes for Wagner, then Simon Cowell still gets the money, but sweetly might be faced with having to make a silk purse out of a pig's ear and launch a career for Wagner.

But, it's nearly Christmas (not Winterfest, as my University would have it - but that's another matter entirely), and I have something else to put on my list for Santa, at the risk of alienating myself from all my friends who watch one or another of these televisual delights. 

Please, let this be the sign in the heavens that the programme schedulers need to start to bring to an end this cycle of tedious talent shows in prime time. 

I'm voting for sanity and for Widdy and Wagner.  Go on - you know it makes sense!

Saturday, 20 November 2010

I can see birdies...

Now, this I like.  Quack Quack Man

Clearly, somebody at the BBC has a sense of humour. 

I particularly like the last sentence.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

You know you're getting old when...

The incident in Thames Valley, involving a white van, firearms officer and a victim who died later is clearly serious.  I can't imagine the horror of being fatally injured and dying in the back of a van.  Neither can I imagine the feelings of the Police Officers who stopped the van and found out too late that there was someone in there.  I can't imagine the feelings of those same Police Officers who attempted to save the man's life with first aid. 

But, one thing caught my eye in a picture from the Daily Mail at this link.

Look at the fifth picture down, and the Police Officer on the far right standing next to the police car.  Is it me, or does he look as though he's about 12?

I think I'm officially getting old.

Monday, 15 November 2010

God. I was so angry....

I received an email over the weekend, from Kool Stoodent, expressing her dissatisfaction with the NUS  Executive's condemnation of the violence at last week's student demonstration at Millbank in London and suggesting that the PGs should attend the AGM of our Student Union to tell them to 'man up'. Apparently, throwing a fire-extinguisher from the top of the building isn't ok, whereas scaring the shit out of the people legitimately minding their own business while at work is.  I really hadn't realised that there are levels of violence, some of which are acceptable and some of which aren't.

I couldn't believe it.  Because of the violence at Millbank, the reporting of the demonstration has been about the riot, and very little about the rightness or wrongness of our cause.  I'm also a law-abiding Old Girl, who would no more think of throwing something through a window than I would cut off my own hand.  But, Em and I appear to be out of step with some of the other students on this occasion (to be honest, it's not the first time we've been out of step, and it certainly won't be the last).  In addition, one of the senior members of academic staff of the Uni has been reported as saying that he did not condemn the violence - and that it was a reasonable reaction to the mauling that Higher Education is about to get.

So, I started to examine my reactions, both to the violence itself, and to those who were in favour. of that violence

One thing struck me immediately.  Kool Stoodent, and the member of academic staff concerned, are very much of the trendy left - that is the hard left - and I wondered how much of this is about their desire to affiliate themselves with a cause, and with a future 'class war'.  Looking at the reports of those others who have glorified the violence, again I wonder how much of this is about rebelling in a self-conscious fashion - a need for self-definition, perhaps?

Back in the 1980s, it was easy for us - we had an awful lot to fight, and we didn't have to look too hard for a cause.  I marched with CND to protest about the possibility of Armageddon.  I marched with NUS to protest about the withdrawal of housing benefit during the long vacation.  I marched in support of the miners during Thatcher's major assault on the unions.  And, I demonstrated on behalf of Paramedics and Ambulance staff when they were getting a raw deal at the end of the decade.   I fought because I believed in the causes.  I stopped traffic by obstructing the public highway, and one day I swung a punch at a police officer who was getting a little too close for comfort.  I missed, thank goodness, he was clearly more used to this kind of situation than I was. 

But last week seems to have been different for me.  Not the rightness of the cause - I do believe that the cuts in education need to be resisted - but in the hunger for the direct action and violent behaviour that a few have - we always tried to avoid violence in the 1980s in the belief that I still hold that it would weaken our message.  I have read that organisers have said that the invasion of Millbank was needed because other methods of demonstration had failed - kind of hadn't given them a chance in my opinion.  I have read that most of the agitators are in fact students - we weren't infiltrated by anarchists, apparently - and that many of them were A level students in their late teens.  Looking at the photographs in the media, there is also a gender disparity - far more young men than young women seem to be involved.

So, the question to which I return is whether or not it was acceptable to invade Millbank and commit criminal damage.

I think that the answer depends on whether I believe that this is the start of a 'class war'.  I'm not sure that it is.  For sure, Clegg and Cameron represent the upper classes, and the majority of those who will suffer will not have the financial resources required to get through University without building up huge loans, and some may be prevented from getting a degree at all.  But, what seems like a significant proportion of those involved with the violence are reported as coming from a middle class or privileged background.  If I were to be charitable, I might say that standing up and being counted is laudible - fighting on behalf of one's fellows is a good thing.   But I can't shake this feeling that this is more about self gratification and self definition than it is about working towards the common good.

So, my opposition may be because I'm too old to understand the cause.  It may be that I'm betraying my class consciousness.  It may be that I'm just plain stupid, and that I don't have the imagination to see the importance of direct action.   But, I don't think that any of this is the case.  I suspect that there are some who feel, subconsciously, that they have been denied the excitement of protest, and that this is a chance to make up for it.

The wisest words on this come from Em - "I guess that they've looked at other countries and seen where people have fought for political freedom, but then violence was a last resort whereas here it was one of the first moves.  Not good." 

Not good indeed.

One final word.  I was at the demonstration - Kool Stoodent wasn't.  So, which one of us was standing behind their beliefs?

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

No Ifs, No Buts, No Education Cuts

Back in Seasidetown after a day in London on my first student demo for 25 years.  Demos haven't changed much - the majority of students were there for a peaceful protest, and the first part of the march went off in a good atmosphere - drums, bands, dancing, posters, slogans - pretty much as an Old Girl might expect.  It seemed right to be protesting against a Tory government.

But, something was bothering Em and me - there just didn't seem to be a lot of police officers around - I estimate that there were about 30 on Whitehall that I could see.  They stood by when students dismantled some of the barriers and used both sides of the road.  Wasn't a lot else that they could do really, kind of outnumbered.  We wondered where all the rest of them were, and I concluded that most of them must be lurking round the side streets in case something untoward happened.

Em and I made our way though Parliament Square, and along Millbank.  There seemed to be even fewer high-vis jackets in evidence - I can't recall seeing any, but that doesn't mean that they weren't there, just that I didn't see them.  But, at that point the atmosphere still seemed good natured, although I was aware of the Met helicopter hovering overhead, and I wondered if they were watching something in particular.  We left the march, and went over Lambeth Bridge to go and eat our lunch in the sun on the other side of the river on a bench opposite the Houses of Parliament.  As we sat in the sun, we counted 6 police vans, and numerous motorbikes screaming along behind us to go back over Lambeth Bridge towards Millbank.  Clearly, something was up. 

We walked along the river, and went back over Westminster Bridge to make our way up to the Strand to walk to the rendezvous point at LSE.  As we cleared the bridge, we saw a group of Police Officers suddenly run to their vans, ready for the off.  It would have been quite impressive if they hadn't blocked each other during the u-turns.

It wasn't until we got to LSE a couple of hours later that we found out about the trouble in Millbank - the student from Unitown recounting it seemed very shocked, and the consensus of opinion amongst our Uni students was shock, horror, and contempt for those who acted as they did.  We watched the BBC news on our iPhones (other smartphones are available...), and were appalled to see that some idiot lobbed a fire extinguisher from the top of the building that narrowly missed a police officer.  I hope they find him/her and throw the book at them.

So, what happened?  Well, I believe that we could learn from history.  Last time I was on NUS marches (when Phil Woolas was President of NUS, as it happens - look what happened to him...), we were always warned to be aware of who was around us, and that idiots were likely to try and hijack the demonstration - back then it was the SWP - I don't know who it is now.  I think that because we're out of practice at this kind of demonstration, we've forgotten that we can be infiltrated, and that we don't warn each other of the potential dangers that the few can cause.  And, I think that's what happened here.

I also think, that notwithstanding whether or not fees should be raised, today's students don't have it too bad.  Yes, we have loans, and debts when we finish university.  Yes, graduate unemployment is rising.  And yes, what is happening with the fees will change the face of further and higher education forever.  But, let's be a little pragmatic shall we?  Today, we all had access to immediate media reports on our smartphones - and most students have some kind of smartphone.  The vast majority of students have access to laptops and other technologies.  Student housing is positively luxurious compared to what I lived in during the 1980s in Leeds, many students have broadband in their houses, and some have Sky.  Universities spend a lot of time pandering to the needs of their consumers - rightly or wrongly, and while we may all struggle with money from time to time, there aren't a lot of students starving.

But, if the cuts happen, and if the fees are raised in line with the current proposals the demographic of students is going to change, and many students will be prevented from entering higher education.  And, I fear, that the more questionable courses won't suffer - it's easier to sell them, particularly to those who have more money than intellectual aptitude.

For the record, I think that responsibility for the trouble today lies solely with those who invaded Millbank.  I do not believe that it was necessary for protesters to fight with the police, and if the police had fought back, I would have supported them.  I also don't believe that the responsibility lies with the coalition - I deplore their education policies but that doesn't negate the idiocy of the behaviour of the morons of Millbank.  They are the only ones to blame. 

I'm saddened.  Our democratic right to protest was misused by a few, at a potential high cost to the many.  I'm sure that the next NUS demo will be policed much more harshly.  And, who could blame the police for that?  I certainly can't.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Driving more carefully.

It's no secret - I'm interested in the ways in which the Criminal Justice System works.  It's a behemoth of a beast, with tendrils reaching out into our lives in all kinds of ways.  I'm interested in its organisation, I'm interested in the people who make it work (or not), and I'm interested in its effects on the lives of people like me.

And, I'm a sucker for documentaries about the CJS, so this evening I watched the Channel 4 documentary, "Coppers" (available on 4oD).  I thought that it was very well made.  The first half showed the playful side of the traffic cops - explanations as to the derivation of their nickname "the black rats", the chat between officers, the silly voices and the jokes.  It showed them stopping the public for offences that may have appeared to be minimal (tinted windows), and it showed them dealing with a complete numpty of a drunk driver who clearly thought that in his world he was superior to anyone wearing a uniform.  There was the temptation to think that these police officers were fools - that somehow they deserved to be treated with contempt, as objects of fun - almost as though they aren't "real" coppers.

The second half of the programme, however, changed focus, pace and depth.  We saw some horrendous traffic accidents - fire brigade cutting people out of cars, the reactions of relatives who were told that their family had been in an accident, and searingly, the reaction of man whose wife had been killed by another driver.

There were images that will stay with me - not just the bent metal, the fragments of rubber, the broken glass, anyone who drives on the UK motorways will see that on a depressingly regular basis - what I shall remember is the shot of the police officer helping to put the body of a grandmother into a body bag, and then to lift her onto a trolley so she could be transported to the morgue.  Then, I shan't forget the sight of the same officer taking off her rings, gently and with respect, before logging them.  I also shan't forget the way in which the police officers spoke, quite gently, of helping to wash two children in the mortuary before their parents had to identify them.

My respect for these police officers grew.  The humanity with which they treated all the victims, alive or dead, participant or relative was palpable.   Let us hope that the forthcoming cuts in the CJS don't adversely affect the ways in which our roads are policed.  There are few enough cops out there as it is, and they're doing a very difficult job.

The road accidents that were shown were caused by recklessness, by carelessness, and by lapses in concentration.  These were not crimes committed by evil people, or hardened criminals.  Just traffic offences committed by ordinary people like me, behind the wheel of a car. 

I shall drive more carefully tomorrow.

It's raining horizontally. Again

First really bad weather of the autumn today.  Because the University is on the top of a hill overlooking Unitown, we get the 'benefit' of both the wind and the rain.  Combined, when walking into the wind it has the effect of walking into a wall of metal spikes.

I quite like it - it's an opportunity to get out the cold/wet weather gear, and I have a rather spiffing new hat that makes my friends laugh.  Although Em's hat, with ear flaps and plaits is, I have to admit, even dafter than mine.  Still, we have warm ears.  And very flat hair, which isn't quite so good.

It's also very easy to spot the first years on this the first gusty day of the academic year - they're the ones fighting with umbrellas with grim determination, only to dump the skeletal remains in a rubbish bin a few steps further on. 

And, what really bemuses me, some of the fashionable young men are still wearing shorts and flip flops.  Fair makes me shiver.  Brrrrrr.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Getting ready for the fireworks...

Well, things are looking a bit better in my part of the world.  The Supervisor and I are back on good talking terms (sometimes you need to have a crisis to move things forwards), my probationary review is scheduled for next week, and I have a new secondary supervisor - one who's eminent in the field of legal history.  I'm feeling more relaxed. 

The chapter I handed in needs a lot of work - but that's why you discuss a draft with your supervisor, so that you can improve - and at least I now have a theoretical framework in which I can work.  There's a few gaps to fill (I missed out a quite important theorist - doh!), but when it's all done, then I can start working on my case studies, and have some fun.  In the archives. 

Actually, that's quite sad. 

No. 

It's very sad.  Oh well.

I  went to the Socio Legal Studies Association day conference this week.  It was good to hear about work going on else where, and I have to confess to getting a little star struck by meeting one of the academics I really admire.  Embarassing, really.  But, getting up at 05:30 to leave Seasidetown on the 07.00 train was a real challenge.  It was quite nice to be bustling through London, I'd forgotten how many people there are in the world, and I have to say, not many of them looked very happy.  Usually I bimble in to Unitown after the rush hour, and go home later in the evening, so I've pretty much forgotten what traffic congestion is!  I don't think I want to go back to that kind of pressurised life.  At least, not yet.

So, this weekend's going to be a lot more relaxed.  FHB has organised for some of us to go to the firework celebrations at a local display, and I'm not proposing to think too hard about anything.  Apart from what I'm cooking for Sunday lunch!

Monday, 1 November 2010

Ain't no-one here but us chickens

It's been a funny old week.  On the plus side I managed to finish the draft of the chapter that I've been working on for what seems like forever - and boy was I relieved to see it bounce out of my email outbox towards The Supervisor.

But, it's been an ominous week in the news - what with job cuts, terrorists finding new ways of scaring us in the skies, illegal raves and attendant fighting in London, and well - you know - it's just not looking cute and cuddly at the moment.

On top of that, Studentmum and Mavis Waterbutts, two of the bloggers that I follow have been having a tough time of it recently.  And, actually, so have I.  The draft that I have just emailed has had the gestation period of an elephant.  I have struggled with it for what seems like forever, and because of the stress associated with it, I have pretty much cut myself off from the outside world.  I spend more time in my carrel than I do anywhere else, and I've almost forgotten what Seasidetown looks like in daylight.  The Supervisor has been irritated with me - mostly, I think, because she is concerned that I may be building barriers between me and the rest of the postgrads - and it's all just been very difficult.  And, to be fair, The Supervisor has irritated me - cancelling and rearranging meetings as tho' they're going out of fashion.

I'm also feeling quite glum about being single at the moment.  I'm trying to convince myself that my status is, in fact, 'unencumbered', but I'm not totally convinced.  Still, it'll be a lot cheaper not having to buy a Christmas present for a significant other this year - more money for shoes.

I wonder if it's something about the time of year?  Are there sunspots causing atmospheric disturbance?  Is it a biorhythm thing?  Or, is there some kind of high level conspiracy directed towards mature students?  Or, is it all a coincidence?

Yes.  I think it probably is.

But, for each one of us, our problems are real - my academic confidence is pretty low at the moment - and I totally empathise with Studentmum and Mavis.  There are a zillion platitudes that I can think of for all of us, but none of them really help.

Someone wise (my first boss, in fact), when things were looking difficult, always used to say "Cheer up my chickens.  It'll all come right in the end."

Funnily enough, it always did, and  I need to remember that.  The ride may get pretty rough, but the destination will be worth all the hassle.  I hope.