Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Unfortunate Marketing Attempt, Cross Country Trains

“Don’t forget to allow extra time for your journey so you can find your way around the new concourse er . . . yeah, fink I might take the bus in that case, not too keen on getting lost on the concourse.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Europe’s Greatest Challenge

In The Economist on 4th April 2015 there was an advertisement for applications to the Nico Colchester Journalism Fellowship. Write an article of 850 words, it said, on the topic of What is Europe’s greatest challenge? How should it be met? and if they like what you have written you could get a fellowship in the offices of The Economist – it doesn’t say how long for – and an allowance of £6,000.
£6,000 would come in mighty useful but I don’t want the non-financial aspects of the prize so I won’t be submitting anything, but I thought it might be interesting – challenging even – to try writing the 850 words. Here is my piece.
What is Europe’s greatest challenge? How should it be met?
Europe’s greatest challenge in 2015 is the wish of so many people to make something better of their lives. On the face of it that should not be a challenge, it should be welcome, though in reality climbing the social ladder has ever been a struggle, it sounds fine in principle, but less appealing in practice to some in authority, and what makes it an especial challenge now is the very number of people with a foot on the rungs, their geographic spread, and their visibility.
Observing the poor in the East End of London in 1902, Jack London found people with not just a wish to make something better of their lives, more a desperation. But they had no idea how to even begin to set about it. And similarly in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, writers such as Joseph Roth and Hans Fallada chronicled the lives of those whose fortune looked mundane and bleak, but what could those people do about their lot? They had no idea and were at the mercy of fate.
War changed things. War needed soldiers and workers and in its aftermath needed investment in national infrastructure, and developing infrastructure means work – Germany was an exception mid-world wars, in the particularly dangerous position of being saddled with hopeless war reparations.
Rebuilding after a war has an optimism about it too, working together for a better world, many people keen to work to improve their lives.
The big difference now though is migration. In many ways migration is not so new, towns such as Middlesbrough grew from a population of 40 to 90,000 within seventy years as migrant workers came from other parts of the country to work in the burgeoning industry.
But then the people were moving to where there was work. Now, they move to where they hope there will be work, even though in reality there may be none, or none of the type that they can do. Migrants these days set about doing something about their poverty; they take a chance.
Ricky Igiewr left his family in Benin City, Nigeria, in 2008 and made his way towards Europe. He crossed the desert and travelled in an overcrowded boat over the Mediterranean, arriving on the island of Lampedusa. A lot of people died on the journey, says Ricky, but he survived. Yes, Ricky survived. God, believes Ricky, must have been on his side.
Transferred to the mainland of Italy where he joined the thousands, now hundreds of thousands, of West Africans trying to make a living on the streets, Ricky had no idea what work he might find, he just knew he must work, to make some money to send back to his wife and two daughters aged four and six in Nigeria, to pay for the children’s schooling.
And why could he not do that in Nigeria? In Nigeria, says Ricky, if you try and make something better for yourself you will tread on someone’s toes and then . . . and he makes a sign of a knife being drawn across his throat.
Ricky talks to his wife in Nigeria on the mobile phone every day. For some time – a year or two – this was a difficult conversation as he wasn’t making any money to send to her, and the school wanted money for books. He talked to the head teacher. I will send money, he told the teacher, I promise I will send money, I just cannot do that right now.
Now Ricky does send money. To obtain it he does what most of the West Africans in Italy do, he begs for it. First he buys a pile of goods – socks, hats, flyswatters – on credit at inflated prices from a supplier and then he stands outside a supermarket ostensibly selling them, but in reality helping everyone load their shopping into their car in the hope of a euro or two’s tip. And if someone does not give him a euro, he asks for it, he asks with a pitiful look if they can possibly help him out. Help my poor children. It seems all so Victorian.
And what a waste! Ricky is personable, well-presented and intelligent, but he is unskilled, and even if he did have a formal skill, he does not have permission to work in Italy, and furthermore he does not speak much Italian.
Many migrants travel further north. Ricky has seen the sleek red trains that someone has told him go through the tunnel to England. But he knows he would never be allowed to get that far, and actually the red trains get no further than Turin anyway.
Ricky is one of thousands in a similar position. Some people say they should all be sent home but that is no solution at all, no solution for an army of people on a mission.
The true challenge lies in work. No one should be begging on the streets in twenty-first century Europe. War must not be el dorado either. Work is the challenge. The true success is to labour.
That’s my 850-word piece. I’m not 100 per cent satisfied with it, I think it’s a bit lumpy or clunky in style, but there it is for the moment, it was a decent challenge writing it, and when the muse arrives I might try and make it a bit zippier.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Daily Mail Inflammatory Misinformation – 1

This is not the first time that the Mail has written inflammatory nonsense, it is the first time I have decided to remind myself of it in a blog piece.
The article in question is this one, published on 16 January 2015 : Less than one migrant a week sent back to Calais
‘The new £6 million centre – which will provide 2,500 migrants with beds, showers and three-course meals cooked by a Michelin-trained chef’ What’s a Michelin-trained chef. I didn’t know that Michelin trained chefs. In fact no, they don’t, this is nonsense.
Later on in the article it says this: ‘One of the four chefs is Christophe Duchene, who worked for two years a trainee chef at the Michelin-starred restaurant Auberge Du Dun near Dieppe.’ Oh, that’s it then. Disgraceful reporting!
‘The fact that only a tiny number of migrants has been sent back is being blamed on EU rules, which make it difficult to establish where a migrant is eligible to claim asylum.’ Complete and utter nonsense. The EU rules on this are very clear, as the article actually points out later, so why put that and then contradict yourself? Oh, I see, to wind people up, OK then, that sounds morally justifiable, since it’s the Mail.
There’s something fundamentally illogical about this article, too. The people getting into the UK are illegals, right? Therefore they are sneaking in behind the backs of the authorities, right? So how do you find them, in order to send them back? The Mail, of course, and logical thought are an oxymoron, so I suppose that’s a rhetorical question.
The tone of the article is gratuitously inflammatory, with not an ounce of compassion for people. Archbishop, where are you? Oh, not there, pity!

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Pride and Privilege

I have been reading Mind, Society and Behavior 2015, published by the World Bank, it’s a paper about poverty, or how those in poverty might be encouraged to lift themselves out of it. It is in the interest of the World Bank to reduce the number of people who are poor, for it is to countries with a significant number of poor people that the World Bank directs the major part of its bounty.
It’s a sizeable document, 236 pages, since lifting people out of poverty is not something to which there is a simple, or single, answer. The paper pulls together research from many sources, and as we all (should) know, academic research is bounded by its own parameters, which can sometimes be a little narrow.
It is pretty-well universally agreed that the way not to lift people out of poverty is to unconditionally give them money; that has at best only a transient effect. Rather, it takes a change of attitude or mindset of those who are poor, to take steps towards making themselves poor no longer. It is also widely acknowledged that this lifting mechanism may in many cases take more than one generation and involves among other things people taking firmer control of their lives.
An example that intrigued me was a self-affirmation experiment among people who received lunch services in an inner-city soup kitchen in the United States. Some participants were asked to take three to five minutes to describe a personal experience that made them feel successful and proud. Compared to other groups that described only their daily meal routines or watched a funny video, the affirmed group performed significantly better on cognitive tests of their executive control and fluid intelligence (the document explains what these are). In contrast, self-affirmation did not increase the cognitive function of more affluent users of a public library. These results suggest that the intervention helped alleviate the distracting stigma of poverty rather than simply improving general feelings of confidence, or that’s what the researchers believe anyway.
But that made me think: can I describe a personal experience that made me feel successful and proud? I’m not sure I can. Perhaps I don’t do pride.
The experiment on self-affirmation was undertaken in the United States, and I am British, and Brits have a cultural tendency towards self-effacement. And also I am not in poverty. It has been a knife-edge sometimes, but I’m not, and that will colour my approach to life.
But maybe I could do pride. Hilary and I often remark on how privileged we feel. We do not have debts, we understand most of what we care to read, we can do mind puzzles and work things out, we are not still trying to make it in life, in other words we do not feel we have failed to achieve anything, and we feel neither intimated nor threatened in almost any type of company. Perhaps we should feel proud of ourselves for having engineered all that. Being privileged is passive. Let’s hear it for the puffed-out chest!
Of course we are privileged as well through no efforts of our own, we are privileged to have been born in a time and place where our health, education and a large part of our safety have been looked after by the state. But there are lots of others in that position who do not feel themselves privileged in life in general like we do.
Though still, a particular personal experience of pride to describe? It’s a hard one.
Certainly in my case nothing to do with work. Mostly with work I have managed to somehow muddle through. Earning plenty while bluffing plentier. Ducking and diving. Nothing lasting really achieved there.
Relationships? Nothing to feel proud of there either. In with a rum lot of friends from the start!
Creativity? Nothing.
Altruism, metaphorically helping old ladies – aside from Hilary – across the road? Nothing comes to mind.
But perhaps that is too grandiose. Perhaps success in tracking down the solution to a programming conundrum is enough. Perhaps seeing the oddity and peculiarity in that which most perceive as everyday and humdrum is a mark of success, something to be proud of. And I do both those things most days.
So yes, now I think about it, if I were asked that question I can say that I am proud to be able to see awe in the aisles of Asda. That would be a genuine answer, certainly, though it just as certainly took me more than five minutes to come up with.
I also feel satisfaction, if not raw pride, that I seem to be able to see about me many things that others do not appear to see. Things that are there, they are not ghosts or illusions, but I see them while others don’t, and that feels like a privilege to me, a self-affirmed privilege.
And I have interests that no one else in the world seems to align with. No one I know of that is.
I was discussing the issues around self-affirmation and poverty over a gin and tonic with Sue, who as well as being a wonderful person to share a gin and tonic with is also an experienced psychotherapist. ‘What!’, she said, ‘You say that you have interests that no one else in the world has, and you cannot find anything to be proud of!’
But I replied that it is lonely at the top. The fact that I cannot find anyone else with interests parallel to mine is not something I am happy about, I would rather it were not so and that others could be found who would join the club. Sue laughs. I get on very well with Sue.
Although I get on very well with Sue I do not find her and never have found her physically attractive. I have not told her that – to do so would be rude and unkind – but I do not. And that I do not sets me apart from the majority of heterosexual men. Sue has long, straight, once blond now ash-coloured, hair, she is tall, slim and symmetrical and with regular facial features. I like her very much, but I don’t find her sexy. I have no idea what she thinks of me, notwithstanding a clear empathy over glasses of gin and tonic, which even extends to cups of tea and coffee sometimes.
Maybe that’s something else I can be proud of. That my taste in women is above the run-of-the-mill too. The more one thinks about this . . .