Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Caps lock will not kill you

One of the caseworkers in my office is going to visit a client at home tomorrow. While we do have various safeguards, it's still not really a good idea to make these visits solo, and my colleague was getting more and more anxious thinking of The Possibilities.

Looking through the file, another colleague said, "Look at this. You can always tell if someone's a bit mental if they write perfectly normally, followed by one sentence all in caps."


1. "It is universally agreed that the majority of the mentally ill who are receiving appropriate treatment, do not carry more risk for violence than the general population."

2. The second colleague? The one who made the super-speedy logical leap from caps to mad to probably homicidal? Knows that I have a mental illness.


Monday, 28 March 2011

Build me a path from cradle to grave: class and culture part 3

Sit down kiddies, your friendly neighbourhood llama is going to tell you a story. An uplifting, heart-tugging story of triumph over adversity, of beauty and determination and the resilience of the human spirit.

It's cool though, it ends with a lonely death in a failing hospital, so the tweeness will not be overwhelming.

When my maternal gramma was little, she had to visit the local wool factory every day to bring her dad his lunch. The place terrified her: it was noisy, and dangerous; dirty, and ugly. The idea of working there when she grew up - like her mum did, like her cousins did, like everyone did, because there weren't a huge array of options in a collapsing little town somewhere east of Manchester - horrified her. So she decided one day, at 8 or 9, that she never would. She'd find a way to do something else. Anything else.

She wanted to be a teacher. But she was poor and she was a girl and even secondary school, let alone university, was a ridiculously impossible dream. But she never did go to the factory - she became a clerk in the town hall. A respectable job, a cushy job, a job that is extremely unlikely to cost you any of your fingers. A job that - to her mind, at least - put her a cut above the hoi polloi. (Bless her, she was a great old lady, but an incorrigible snob.)

My mum wanted to be a teacher too. So she went to grammar school, then to uni, then did her PGCE and a TEFL course, and the woman can rule a classroom like nothing you've ever seen. (OFSTED inspector: "Never before in my life have I been moved to tears by the sheer quality of a lesson. You are amazing.")

Ladies and gents, I give you the finest invention ever conceived by western civilisation: The Welfare State! Can we pause for a round of applause for Clem Attlee?

I like my heroes with pipes.
I have a thing for making possibly spurious links between personal and historical events - like how the IRA and BNP conspired to break my parents up, or how Thatcher played a prominent role in my teenage mental breakdown - but this dude, more than any other, is who made my mum's glorious career possible. He catapulted both my parents, along with millions of others, into the middle classes, and changed the face of the nation beyond recognition.

Plus: pipe.

And it's this that makes the British class system such a complicated beast to wrestle with. Post-war baby boomers came of age in a magical moment, in a time that almost certainly offered more opportunity for social mobility than any other in the nation's history. But that social advancement didn't occur on a simple straight line, from poor to rich. Because although some kids from working class families rode the welfare state gravy train all the way to Parliament or the City or the boardroom, lots of others gained something less tangible from it, less easily measured.

My parents, for example, became effectively culturally middle class: they have values and aspirations and reading habits and culinary tastes which are virtually unrecognisable to their own parents. They live deeply middle class lives, with their fresh coffee and their Radio 4 and their French literature, but these cultural signifiers disguise the fact that they're both still pretty broke.

And yeah, whether you listen to Radio 4 or Radio 1, whether you like your cheese on toast with brown sauce or oregano, doesn't make a massive difference to your Relationship With The Means Of Production - but the values, attitudes and aspirations of the middle class mindset (which I've drawn a brief sketch of in parts one and two) give you so many more options in life.

When you know your family will fund you safely out of your fuck-ups, you have options other people don't have. When unemployment benefit forms the safety net between you and destitution, you take chances you wouldn't otherwise risk. In a way, the welfare state performed the same function for the many as inherited wealth always had for the favoured few, allowing poor kids to dream big. And despite the never-ending attacks on the welfare settlement - sometimes tentative, sometimes an onslaught - they've bequeathed that attitude to me. I've been able to act as if the safety net's there, even as Thatcher, Blair and Cameron have inched it out from under me.

But yeah, not sure what I'll be able to say to my children, other than "good luck".

Monday, 21 March 2011

Some guy's boner, and a worker's right to sneeze

Oh, commuting, you never cease to amaze me! Every time I think you've reached the pinnacle of grotesquitude, you pull some fresh hell out of the bag to torment me further. Panic attacks on the Victoria line! Fainting in the middle of a carriage, coming to with my head on someone's knee, and not one single person asking if I was okay! And today, a greasy little old man showed his appreciation for my frankly amazing outfit - his very firm, engorged appreciation, up against my left bum cheek all the way from King's Cross to Bank. Thanks, old man. I thought the necklace really set off the colour of my eyes too.

I always tell myself that in a really obvious, clear-cut scenario of harassment or tube-groping, I could be that hero who tells the attacker what-for. "Excuse me, sir, could you remove your penis from the vicinity of my buttocks please?" But somehow that undeniable situation never arises. (Har har.) Even now, I'm thinking, what if it wasn't his boner, but his hand? In his... pants? And if I'd turned round and given him an earful, I would have been the crazy shouting tube lady, and then we'd have continued to share extremely close proximity for the next ten minutes, with a whole carriageful of commuters studiously avoiding our eyes.

Which is, I suppose, the great attraction of busy public transport for the average groper: plausible deniability, and the safe assumption that your victim will be too embarrassed to challenge your behaviour. (S/he sure as heck can't find enough room to kick you in the baby-maker.)


In completely unrelated but much more cheery news, I think I'm in love with my boss. See, a year or so ago I got fined for having a heart condition. Literally! While I was lying on an operating table, floating merrily on morphine with extraneous bits of heart meat getting fried off by electricity and science, my boss was docking my pay for having the temerity to have a chronic illness.

But in glorious new job of joy and wonder, I sneezed once, and new boss said, "GET THEE HENCE! I will not tolerate germs in my office, go home and get better and do not darken my doorstep again until you feel well!" And for this fairly basic employment right, I am being charged... nothing at all. What with this and my immeasurably beautiful pay cheque I might be the only person in Britain getting rich in the third sector right now.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Good Fight, and brick walls

So it turns out that women under 25 are twice as likely as the rest of the population to be stalked or harrassed. But I guess you knew that already.

Reporting this on Radio 1, Nihal gave a brief precis of the research, before a neat segue into an interview with an expert on the topic. (Sorry, no link, and I'm paraphrasing...) His first question?

"So, will it be the police who decide whether a woman is really being stalked or if she's just being oversensitive?"


It's the kneejerk reaction that makes the difference, isn't it? When you're reporting on a bump in the murder rate, your first question isn't, "So, do we think these people were all asking for it?" Kids under 15 are 19.4% more likely to be mugged for their iPhones: "But what were they wearing?" Man dies of sheer boredom in Tottenham Job Centre: "Well, what was he thinking, going in there on his own? It's clearly the most depressing place in the western world, and I'm sorry, but you've got to admit, if you walk through those broken automatic doors, you're just looking for trouble really."

But you knew that already, too. None of this is new, but it hasn't fucking stopped, has it? Untold numbers of articles, blog posts, books, explaining this very point over and over; this amazingly simple point, that only crimes involving violence against women come with an automatic assumption that the victim is lying, and yet, here we are.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Chin liberation

WORLD: What is wrong with you, Hannah? Why is it you need a nap every afternoon? Why can't you stand for more than half an hour without getting dizzy?

HANNAH: Fucked if I know, World! Would that I did. But hey, the other day I swapped life- and medical-histories with my new favourite colleague, and when she had the same symptoms a few years ago, turned out she had thyroid cancer. So, there's that.


What a charmer, huh?

Scene 2: the subject of age-related bodily changes came up in the pub the other day. Grey hairs, chin bristles. At a table full of middle aged women, at 24 I had a forest of each to their sparsely covered grasslands. And yet every single one of them looked at my silvered tresses and spiky chin and said, "Just wait til you get to our age!" Despite hard physical evidence right in front of their eyes, despite my own express testimony - why the flip would I lie? "I'm going grey and have a hairy chin! That's cool, and hot, right?" - I am apparently not an authority on my own experience.

Similarly, a young woman without any outward signs of disability - other than, y'know, what she actually says - can't have any reason for taking a siesta, or taking up a bus seat, besides sheer laziness. This is how age speaks to youth, and there's no speaking back, because that would be disrespectful.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Take me back to beautiful England: class and culture, part 2

Remember that list that went round Facebook a few weeks back? One hundred books, and the BBC claimed (or people on Facebook claimed) that most people have only read six of them. So it was a wonderfully smug way of making oneself feel happy and secure in one's intellectual wallop, and sneering at anyone who clocked in below 30.

Of course it's a rubbish test of aforementioned Intellectual Wallop (almost exclusively European authors, lots of dead white dudes, what about people with learning disabilities or whose first language isn't English or just don't have the damn time to wade through 500 page Russian doorstops, and on and on and on).

But that, if you were wondering, was what got me thinking about a particular kind of English middle classness, and the subtler privileges that don't have that much to do with money.

Until three weeks ago, I was mired in a deeply boring, soul-destroying Canary Wharf news agency for three years. When I'd complain about it to my mum, she'd say, with infinite love and understanding, "Well, yeah. You're capable of so much more. Of course you're bored." There was always the assumption, the expectation - never suffocating, always encouraging - that I'd do something wonderful with my life, something that justified my excellent education and infinite abilities. (Her estimation, not always mine.)

When I made the same complaint to my granny, the "well, yeah" was less understanding. To her, work is something you have to do, you have to suffer through, because you have to eat. Work is not a medium for self-fulfilment. To her mind, the idea that I would be unsatisfied in my job because it wasn't stretching my abilities or keeping my interest was preposterous. Self-indulgent. Incomprehensible.

Earlier still, when I was languishing on the dole, I made some crack about becoming a lorry driver like my grandad. She nearly took my head off. Searching for meaning in employment was beyond her worldview, but the idea that I would slide back down the social ladder - after all the work she'd done to give her boys a better chance than she'd had, after all my opportunities that she'd never even dreamed of - was, to her, a real insult. She loves us, my sister and my cousin and me, and she's so happy that we're able to travel the world, or train to be radiographers, or work for an organisation we can really believe in, but there's a part of her that despises us for our easy lives.

A lot of the difference is historical: she has the attitudes not simply of a working class woman, but specifically of a working class woman who was born in the 1920s, whose major decisions in life were made before the NHS or National Insurance or free university education were even thought of. You can't afford to take chances when failure isn't cushioned by housing benefit and JSA. My parents' generation - born into a blissful Welfare State security that I can only dream of, catapulted into the middle classes by the free education that's been chipped away at every since - had that freedom, to take those chances; to bum around Europe for a decade, picking up odd jobs here and there, stretch their wings and see what they were capable of before deciding on a career at closer to 40 than 30. We've lost that security, but the attitude - that you should take chances, that there is virtue in dreaming big - lives on. A privilege far greater than an internship could ever confer.

I was made in middle England: class and culture, part 1

Social class in Britain is such a peculiar beast. We're renowned as one of the most class-obsessed countries in Europe - and hey, here I am, obsessing over it. When we talk about class privilege - and by 'we', I guess I mean The Progressive Blogosphere - so much of the conversation is focused on money, and while this is (fairly obviously) a massively important part of it, I think this lets some of us off the hook to an extent. For a long time, I've been able to avoid thinking too hard about my own class privilege because my family was never that rich: not dangerously poor, even by western standards, but there was nothing to spare, no option for my parents to pay my rent at uni, or support me through a fancy internship, or any of the other obvious, concrete ways in which money gives you options in life.

But culturally, we were solidly middle class, with middle class values and middle class accents and middle class cooking habits, and it's only recently that I've started thinking about all the ways that's smoothed the way for me. This post has been brewing for weeks now, because it keeps getting bigger every time I talk about it: from my reading habits to the post-war establishment of the welfare state to how my great-grandfather's lunches started a minor revolution, so I shall attack in stages to ensure that I cover every single aspect of The Relationship Between Class, Culture and Privilege in England Since World War II.

Oh yeah.

So today: Reading is FUN!damental.We will be approaching this via case studies: Middle Class Clever Clogs, Working Class Hero and First Generation Immigrant With Library Card. (A comic series featuring these illiteracy-fightin' masterminds is the next logical step - submissions welcome.)

Middle Class Clever Clogs
Is me. Reading is one of those things that marks you out as officially intelligent, regardless of whether or not it's actually true: I've had someone say, "Wow, you're reading, you must be well bright," when I had my thumb in the middle of a Phillippa Gregory, for heaven's sake. I read a lot, and I read fast, and that's cultural shorthand for Brainy. And not to take away from my own cleverness - my amazing barrels of cleverness, of which I have several - but I didn't get here solely through my own brilliance.

Growing up, the house was full of books: between them, my parents had a century of reading behind them and they had the filled shelves to prove it. If my precocious nine year old self decided she was going to read the collected works of Dostoyevsky in old-school Soviet editions bought in Prague before the Wall fell, she could go ahead and try. (And fail, obviously. I was nine.) My dear old mum taught me to read long before I started school, and she was always there to recommend books, to talk about them, to make me feel clever and valued for reading.

Working Class Hero
My gentleman admirer likes the books too. He's damn near as obsessive as I am, and much more dogged when it comes to chomping his way through footstool-sized classics: I mean, this is a guy who's actually read Moby Dick. And yeah, people think that makes him bright too, but he didn't get shiny gold stars of social validation every time he cracked a book back in the day.

There is no bookshelf in his parents' home. His dad is not just indifferent, but actively opposed to reading: sample quotes include "What did you do today? Read? Oh right, so nothing then"; if he sees someone with an open book he seemingly can't stop himself from talking incessantly, with ever increasing volume, until they've no choice but to give up. He's not a monster; he encourages his kids in lots of other ways, when it's things he can participate in. But he left school at 14. And reading as a leisure activity was never something he understood. So it threatens him; he's scared, with the vertigo of watching your children disappear into a world where you can't follow.

First Generation Immigrant With A Library Card
So I was encouraged to read, and my fella was sometimes mocked for reading; my BFF, when he started school, could not read, because he couldn't speak English. So while academia was prized by his parents and he was supported in learning for fun and profit, he was starting several steps behind. There were no books in English in the house - and because he never became fully literate in Chinese, those in his native tongue were no good to him either. Nowadays, he's quite the reading fiend, and one of the cleverest people I know, and he's had to do a hell of a lot more work than I have to get there.

It's not that being middle class makes you bookish, or being working class prevents you from it; it's never that simple, or inescapable. But growing up middle class can make it easier for you to be bookish. And being bookish has loads of social, academic, and career-wise potential advantages, as well as being super fun.

In short, as should be branded on every social science student on their first day, It's A Bit More Complicated Than That, and far more interesting.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Girls say yes to boys who say nothing

You know when I politely asked the non-uterus-enabled to avoid pontificating on the morality of what goes on inside uteri?

I flipping well love these guys.

More! So much more! I've laughed, I've cried, I've tried to avoid shouting "Roe, Roe, Roe your vote" out loud in a quiet office in only my third week on the job! I hope this brings as much light to your day as it has to mine.