Sunday, 11 July 2010

What Annoys Me About The End Of 'The Golden Child' (1986)

Yes, this is another one of my commentaries on things that annoy me in second-rate movies of the past.  I was reminded of this one in a round about way.  I was watching 'The Shadow' (1994), which I enjoy as an action movie with nice 1930s styling, somewhat reminiscent of the first three Indiana Jones movies and with a superhero who is a reformed drugs dealer with simply mental powers battling a resurrected Genghis Khan in 1930s New York.  It was one of those movies in which, following on the success of the gothic-styled 'Batman' series of movies, 1989-97 other superheroes from old comic books were sought to hopefully turn into successes.  Other examples were 'Dick Tracy' (1990) stunning in terms of the style and imagery but rather dull; 'The Phantom' (1996) which was pretty poor all round and 'The Rocketeer' (1991) which was enjoyable, not least because it was an archetype of dieselpunk.  These had a 1930s-40s setting which I guess appealed more to the older members of the audience rather than the average teenager; perhaps to zenith of this trend was 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow' (2004).  More successful were superhero movies set in the contemporary world, notably the three 'Spiderman' movies, 2002-7 and the newly revised 'Batman' series 2005-8, though I found them dull.  Less successful were 'Daredevil' (2003), 'Hulk' (2003) and 'The Incredible Hulk' (2008) and 'Superman Returns' (2006), but not outright failures.

Anyway, what is the connection between 'The Shadow' and 'The Golden Child'?  Well, it is Tibet.  At the start of 'The Shadow' Larmont Cranston is an American (played by Alec Baldwin) who has managed to establish himself as drugs baron in Tibet, living a classically debauched and violent life until called to book by a local Buddhist lama.  Redeeming himself and learning how to manipulate the thoughts of others he returns to New York to fight crime in the classic superhero way.  In 'The Golden Child', Eddie Murphy plays Chandler Jarrell (all male American names now seem to consist of two surnames from somewhere else) a kind of self-funded searcher for lost children in Los Angeles.  He is employed by a Tibetan woman, Kee Nang (played by Charlotte Lewis) to search for the so-called Golden Child who is also being sought by a demon, Sardo Numspa (played by Charles Dance).  The movie is an awkward mix of fantasy and Murphy's gritty humour, toned down for a 'family' movie.  Jarrell encounters a Chinese woman who is half-dragon and Numspa travels to Hell to commune, we assume, with the Devil, in a scene reminiscent of the portrayal of Hell and travel to and from it in 'Constantine' (2005).

Jarrell ultimately travels to Tibet and through a series of tests, partly motivated by lust for the woman who recruited him, he is deemed worthy by the Buddhist monks to track down the Golden Child.  The child has magical abilities, able to subsist on single leaves and to animate a tin can into being a dancing toy.  We are reminded of the way that on the death of the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist monks would go into the community to find a child who would be seen as the next incarnation, something he would prove by selecting particular items when presented with a choice.  Led by the demon Numspa the kidnappers seem to have stepped from the 15th century, armed with a crossbow.

Despite coming between the very successful 'Beverly Hills Cop' (1984) and 'Beverly Hills Cop 2' (1987), 'The Golden Child' really began to establish Murphy's career in making rather lame movies that did not know which genre they fitted in and tried to shoehorn Murphy's loud mouthed humour into them.  After 1989/90, Murphy has been best simply voicing the donkey in the Shrek movies, (2001, 2004, 2007), though I quite enjoyed 'Vampire in Brooklyn' (1995) on a cheesy level and 'Bowfinger' (1999) was a real exception to the rule for both him and Steve Martin.  It also marked a step on Charles Dance's woeful Hollywood career.  Dance, like Tim Piggott-Smith, Art Malik and Geraldine James came out of the incredible success of 'The Jewel in the Crown' (1984) television series, though unfortunately none of them really was able to live up to the expectations raised at that time.  All four have appeared in very dodgy stuff, but I always feel very sad for Dance.  The roles he had seem to be set on humiliating him not only as an actor but as a person.  'The Golden Child' is probably the least worst of these, he brings gravitas and the right sinister level to playing a demon manifested as man.  However, it is painful to think of his role in 'Last Action Hero' (1993) and especially the utterly humiliating part at the end of 'Ali G Indahouse' (2003).  To some degree this has forced him to stick to classic upper class Englishmen and we have not seen the spread of characters that might have come in the wake of his role in 'Aliens 3' (1992).  He is great in 'Michael Collins' (1996) and is a stalwart of many British television series.

Anyway, back to 'The Golden Child' and why it riles me so much.  It is not that it is a rather confused movie or that a lot of things with Eddie Murphy in are not worth the entrance ticket price, it is the ending.  Having gone through all the trials to prove himself and to defeat a demon, Jarrell rescues the Golden Child.  The last scene is with him walking with Jarrell and Nang dressed as an American boy.  He is wearing a baseball cap and Jarrell tells him to ignore the children in the playground who tease him about having a shaven head (his head is shaven like the Buddhist monks who he grew up with) because it would soon grow back.  This ending is not a happy ending, it shows that the Devil is more adept than we might think.  The Golden Child has not been restored to his rightful place as a religious leader, he is being forcibly enculturated into American consumerist culture, so far removed from the values of the Tibetan Buddhist monastic culture he came from.

Clearly the movie makers (director Michael Ritchie; writier Dennis Feldman) see their culture as the only 'right' one that all children would love to be part of and would thrive in.  Ultimately Jarrell is as much a kidnapper of the child as Numspa was; he corrupts him as much as Numspa would have sought to have done, and is actually more successful at it.  You feel that the US audience would be blind to what is so wrong about this ending.  However, as I have noted before US movies are compelled to follow very set paths in terms of narrative in order to make them acceptable to this core audience.  This culture is so supreme that so many people cannot even step outside it to reflect on movies properly or accept ones that do not follow these paths precisely.  I know it is only a trashy comedy-adventure movie, but it irritates me and nags at me whenever I am reminded of it.  This blog is my way of getting such things at least a little out of my system.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Public Sector Staff Cuts: Impact on the Ground

We have been told by the coalition government that in tackling its key objective of reducing the UK's deficit the whole public sector, bar the National Health Service and international development, but including the Armed Forces, will face a minimum of 25% cuts in staffing and perhaps as high as 40% in the next five years.  Before I proceed, if you are interested in where I get my figures from see:  and the reports from the Local Government Association (LGA): and 

I noted in a recent posting the size of different sections of the UK public sector.  It employs a little over 4.5 million people, only 16% of the UK workforce.  The thing is, when you speak about 1.1 million people losing their jobs by the end of 2015, it is difficult to comprehend what that will mean to you.  Of course, we could simply put every teacher and every social worker in the UK out of work and that would still only have removed about 490,000 people from the public sector.  There are 225,000 administrative civil servants, people working on the kind of grade that you meet if you go into a job centre or your local tax office.  In fact the Department of Work and Pensions and HM Revenue & Customs (which handles tax) take up 49.5% of national civil servants between them.  Defence has a further 15.8% and 'Justice' has 17.1%.  As it is, even if you took out every single administrative civil servant working for all national department (as opposed to local government departments) and added these to all the teachers and social workers, you would still be at only 615,000 and would be looking for another around 500,000 people to lay off.  This means you could also remove all of the 217,500 executive grade civil servants, so the people who manage your job centre or benefit office or are the actual tax inspectors and still would need another 280,000 redundancies.

Of course, the government will not expect the full weight of cuts to come from the national civil service, but also from local authority bodies too.  There are 34,400 people working in libraries in the UK, many part-time.  So you could close every single public library in the UK without making more than a minimal impact on the figure the government is aiming for.  Of course, selling off the books, computers, buildings and the land would help a little towards the deficit.  Getting rid of all of the 5,800 trading standards officers, all 38,000 housing welfare officers, all 8,000 school crossing patrol staff, all 15,000 nursery school nurses and 9,000 playgroup leaders, all 36,000 people working in refuse collection and recycling, every one of the 11,800 people who work in public theatres, galleries and museums, all of the 66,700 people who work in every public swimming pool and leisure centre, so closing all of these things down, still does not take us to the desired total.  Yet, even wiping out all of these jobs will mean no refuse collection, no sports or cultural facilities, no state schools, no social workers, no playgroups that are not in private, profit-making hands.  The government says these positions will be taken over by the private sector, so you will have to pay to have your refuse removed and to sign up to a private sports centre if you want to swim.  As for social work who is supposed to take this on?  The new poor houses?  I know back in the 1980s there was talk of 'Victorian values' but purging the public sector of so many jobs will plunge us back into that kind of society.

Of course, rather than take out whole sectors, national departments and the local authorities will carve chunks off individual sections and will hope the remaining staff can continue to deliver as good a service as before.  There is a belief that there is so inefficiency in the public sector that the remaining 75% staff will be able to increase their efforts by a third (not a quarter, think about it; 25% is a third of 75%) to lift their output back to just 100% of the current level.  As it is, there is a shortage of social workers and we have had extensive recruitment campaigns, now we are scheduled to lose a quarter of those we currently have.  Of course, there will be more children dying unprotected by social workers.  They are stretched now, it will get worse.  Of course, in the government's view this is a worthwhile sacrifice to pay back the loan that kept the wealthy bankers afloat.  Another thing, with all these teachers, social workers and librarians being out of work, who is going to process their unemployment claims and benefits with job centres having lost 1 in 4 of their staff?

Big numbers of thousands and millions of people are often difficult to assess, so I will finish off looking at a human-level example.  There is a primary school at the end of my road.  It is a very popular school, so for the 60 places each year there are at least 90 applicants.  It covers the school years from Reception (i.e. Year 0, though given the connotations of that name it is not called that) for children 4+ through Years 1-6 with children leaving aged 11-12.  There are two classes, each of 30 pupils, in each year so it has a total of 420 pupils.  Each class has at least one teacher and classroom assistant usually to help children with learning difficulties.  Some classes have two part-time teachers.  There is also the deputy-head and head, the former also does some teaching.   There is one caretaker for two sites and about six administrators.  So, I estimate about 45 staff for the whole school.  Now, remove a quarter of these, say, 11 staff.  You could remove most of the 14 classroom assistants.  You could take out all the teachers for years 0-4 and one from Year 5.  You certainly could close down the Reception year and take children at 5 as was the case when I started, but then how do you reach the government targets for children's achievement.  You could combine the classes, but that is not permitted and no school has room to have 60 children in a class.  You could only accept 30 children, but then where do the remainder go, given that every other school in the district will be facing similar cuts?  We are lucky that this is not a rural area and there is a choice of schools.  I suppose the government would argue that you could shave more staff from local authority running of schools, but it seems impossible that that could spare every teacher.  Even taking out just 5 staff from a school of this size would disrupt its working; teachers will have to do their own administration as well as teach and prepare and mark.

Of course, these grass roots challenges, as this single example makes clear, are of absolutely no personal interest to government ministers, their children go to fee-paying schools so will be exempt from any cut backs.  This means that ordinary children in the UK who coming through the school system in 2011-15 will be in more crowded classrooms with fewer teachers and poorer equipment will be further disadvantaged than they are now.  The number of working class people going to university has not risen since 2002 and adult learning has slumped since the mid-2000s.  The coalition government's policies seem to be driving yet another step towards Victorian style division in which the rich can afford to benefit from opportunities and the rest of us have to scrabble around for what we and our children can get.  This is far more sinister than it is being portrayed in the media.  People still talk of the blight for the generation that grew up in the 1980s in Britain and it is clear that such a disadvantage is going to be imposed on the children and others of the 2010s.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Laund(e)rette Life

The demise of launderettes/laundrettes (the first 'e' seems optional and however it is spelt, it is most often pronounced simply as 'laun-drette'; apparently called laundromats in the USA) has long been promised, but they still seem to cling on.  I have spent a lot of my time in launderettes over the years both in the UK and in Germany and have a wide range of experiences in them.  They are a feature of many high streets in the UK and other countries and though their purpose is the same, i.e. to provide somewhere for people to wash their clothes and bedding, they vary considerably.  For someone, like me, who enjoys mid-20th century modernist architecture and typography, launderettes often have a wonderfully dated feel.  You certainly can have the sensation when sitting in one that little has changed from 1975 and, in some cases, 1955.  In contrast, some have become very funky.  The one I used to see in central London in the mid-1990s equipped with sofas and a pool table seems to have gone, but I passed one the other day offering coffee and a chance 'to chill out' and it is the second one in recent weeks that I have seen offering internet access while you launder.

The reason why launderettes persist is because many people live in small, jammed flats, bedsits and other facilities without a (working) washing machine.  With local authorities housing people in bed & breakfast hotels and other such locations there are many dependent on a laundrette to wash their clothing.  Though I know some universities have closed their campus launderettes, students living out in the town often still need them, because landlords/ladies are often slow to replace washing machines which are liable to break down quickly if five adult residents are using them week in/week out rather than a nuclear family.  In addition, even in family homes, having a washing machine can be a challenge.  I used to live in a well-equipped flat in Poplar, East London, but the kitchen had been designed to hold only a very narrow washing machine.  When this broke down there were no longer any washing machines on the market that could fit the slot in kitchen unit.  It subsequently turned out that the machine had been sabotaged by the plumber.  Upset at being chastised by the landlord when he found him lying in the bath smoking, he rearranged the pipes so they flowed upwards and wedged a sponge into the pipe for good measure.  The advantage of that was it only blocked after a while.  Anyway, before all this was uncovered I ended up using the launderette from which many of my stories come.  Even in the house I live in at present, the previous owners put the washing machine into the kitchen unit so precisely that it was impossible to remove when it broke down.  A lot of people seem to forget that the way to get a washing machine (and I have installed a handful) into a slot is to 'step' it, i.e. move it side-to-side as if it is walking.  With insufficient or no gap around the machine, you cannot step it out.  It is impossible to pull out a washing machine especially one that has been allowed to settle in its slot over months or years.  In this case we literally had to saw off the side of the unit before we could remove the washing machine and get a working one in.

So, as a student, tenant and home owner I have had recourse to use launderettes.  There seems to be an infinite variety, but if I outline some of the ones I have used over the past 20 years, I think it will give you a flavour of the kind of establishments you can find in the British high street.  I first regularly used a launderette when I went to university.  There was a spin dryer in my hall and an ironing room, but no washing machine.  Probably sensible given there were 20 people per kitchen.  The campus laundrette was a classic of its kind, built in the late 1960s it looked a decade older.  It was all linoleum on the floor and large, pale yellow, upright washing machines and vast hot dryers.  It was always very busy, but unlike launderettes in the high street its clientele were all of a particular age, usually 18-19 and 20-1 (1st and 3rd year undergraduates) with the occasional older postgraduate thrown in.  Many of these people were inexperienced at washing clothes.  Many got distracted while doing the job and it was not uncommon to find a full set of cold wet clothes left in a washing machine long after their cycle was over.

Living out in my second year, I started using a launderette at the end of my road.  It was small and the washing machines ran parallel to the street rather than at right angles as is common.  It was all dark wood panelling.  Nothing exceptional happened there.  It was near enough to my house that I could leave clothes there and go home so there was little time for interaction with other customers.  Back on campus in my third year, I realised I could save money by handwashing my clothes in my bath.  I was fortunate to be among some of the first students to have an en-suite bathroom.  These came in the late 1980s when universities realised that if they built accommodation like that they could charge conference attenders a daily rate that was the same as the weekly rate paid by students during term-time.  Business people do not want a student room, they want something looking like a hotel room, so some lucky students, me included (being slightly older than the average undergraduate I believe helped my luck) got our own bathrooms/laundry.

Moving to Norwich began my real encounters with the more eccentric side of launderettes.  I lived equidistant from three and went round and tried each out.  The first was quite small, but looked fine.  There were two attendants, it was bright and airy and had comfortable chairs to sit on.  It seemed that this would be a suitable launderette for me.  However, by the time of the second visit, I realised that a trip to that launderette would always be a lengthy one.  It was a place where the customer came last.  The two attendants spent all their time simply washing the clothes of their clearly very extended family, each huge bag was referred to by name and you soon learnt all about their various aunts, sisters-in-law, cousins, etc.  If you got a machine they would glower at you and hassle you to use a shorter cycle and trying to get a drying machine was impossible as they filled them with enough coins to keep them running for an hour.  I guess the owner simply made their money off these two women.  It may have been the time of day I went (early afternoon, which I had imagine would be a quiet time), but given that there were two other launderettes around I went off to try them.

The second one was in a strange little shopping centre with a flat roof and dark wood panelling that made it look like a ski resort from 1966.  The launderette here was run by a man.  It was immaculate.  The linoleum shone as did the stainless steel machines.  The walls were decorated with huge jigsaw puzzles made up and sealed behind plastic.  The man trouble was the owner who seemed to want to instruct you in minute detail about every aspect of his launderette.  If you spilt even a few crumbs of washing powder he would rush out and wipe it up all a terribly over-solicitous manner which made you feel guilty for dirtying his pristine establishment.  Everything worked well, but I found the experience so stressful that I never returned.

The final launderette was fine and was the one I used throughout the rest of my time in Norwich.  Some of the washing machines leaked, but it was clean enough and the attendants neither cared too much nor too little.  It had the bright blue style and big windows of the family-obsessed one, with more space and an 'L' of machines with the join of the shape facing outwards to the door.  You went in, did the business and came out.  It was in this launderette and inspired by it that I wrote: 'Sure Plays A Mean Pinball' -  though I relocated it back to the West Midlands which I had just left.

After Norwich came Oxford.  A wonderfully richly wood panelled launderette, the shade of walnut veneer.  A standard lay out with a line of washing machines facing a line of dryers, perpendicular to the pavement.  It never seemed to have many customers and many evenings I would be in there alone.  I never saw any workers associated with that place.  It was just open and closed.  I once encountered two American women, students I guess from their age.  They asked me for change for the dryers, which in this time, all took 20 pence pieces, no matter where you were.  I kept a stack of these and was happy to give them the change.  They were surprised when I gave them five for one pound.  It turned out they had thought the 20 pence pieces to be 'quarters', i.e. 25p, just like the 25 cent coins in the USA, so had been taking only four of them in exchange for a pound.  I explained they should think of them as 'fifths'.  This launderette, once when I was walking past it going home, was the first place I ever saw anyone using a laptop computer.  A woman was sitting on the seat which was the sill of the main window, parallel to the window with her legs stretched out and had this computer on her lap.  It was to be another 13 years before I would get to use one.  It was quite incongruous seeing a young woman with such an expensive piece of computer hardware (this was 1992) and yet using a launderette.

The next launderette I used was the one I was with for longest (1994-2001) and is probably the most famous one I have been in.  It used to feature in the title sequence of the British police series, 'The Bill', in the late 1990s.  If a bus had not pulled up at the stop at the precise moment you would have seen me standing watching the camera crew from the pavement.  It is also passed in a scene in the movie 'Secrets and Lies' (1996) when a car drives down Mile End Road - Bow Road.  Knowing the area you know that when the shot switches from the driver to the passenger and back again, what is in the background is not on corresponding sides of the road. 

The laundrette was located in Bromley-by-Bow (which as the name suggests is next to the district of Bow and not the Bromley in Kent).  I used it first when living in Poplar to the South and continued going there once I had moved to Mile End to the West.  Sometimes, especially in London, it is difficult to find laundrettes tucked away down small streets so a prime reason for using this one rather than one nearer to where I lived was because I found it when cycling around looking for one.  I could have easily ended up using the one opposite.  There was a launderette nearer my room in Mile End and the Afghan man who ran it, did wonderful tailoring on the side.  He sewed a pocket in a suit jacket for me which looked so good you would have believed it had originally come with the jacket.  His boss always tried to get me to come to his laundrette, but I explained my loyalty to the one I had been using for five years by then and he seemed to understand.  The launderette was narrow but long with a single row of washing then drying machines down one wall and the seats facing them.

Over the years I got to know the two attendants, Liz and Lorraine very well, to the extent that they would make me a cup of tea and give me biscuits whenever I appeared.  They would also tell me their problems and I would try to counsel them.  When I first went there they earned £1.80 per hour [equivalent to £3.14 now]; they were earning £2 per hour in 1999 [equivalent to £2.85 now] when the minimum wage was introduced and their pay rose to £3.60 per hour [equivalent to £5.12 now; current minimum wage is £5.80 if you are over 22].  Their employer never paid national insurance for any of his staff but used to whine to me who he saw as an educated man who (he thought) would support his views, that the tax rate was so high that it prevented entrepreneurialism (he owned a chain of laundrettes and drove a very expensive car).  Until the minimum wage the woman kept the additional money paid for service washes, usually around £1.20-£1.40 per time.  When compelled to pay the minimum wage he started keeping this money himself.  The spending power of the women with the minimum wage immediately rose and you really saw the impact on the shops around the area.  The women could afford daytrips to the Blue Water mall in Essex from then on. They could not afford to buy anything and took sandwiches with them to eat, but the trip out to look around the shops brightened up the day of people who usually did not travel farther than 3-4Km of their home and to whom me going to Covent Garden, less than 30 minutes ride on the underground, was like me going to Paris. 

The big difference was that they could pay their television licences month in/month out.  Non-payment of television licences at that time (and it might still be the case now) was the most common reason why a woman would end up in prison in the UK.  There was a real fear when the monthly payment could not be paid (and at that time there was an additional charge for paying monthly rather than annually).  I remember one of the attendants who could not pay that month ringing the licencing company and being told to unplug and move her television into the centre of her room and to cover it over until she could pay, in case an inspector came round.  She did precisely what she was told, worried she would get caught out.  The harshness of publicity about the penalties of not paying the licence, it is unsurprising, terrified the woman.

Service washes are not a feature of all launderettes, but are present in many.  Basically you pay extra money and the attendants wash (and sometimes iron) your clothes for you in their machines.  Even for people who have their own washing machine, this feature is appealing.  As a consequence, this laundrette attracted customers from the Bow Quarter, luxury gated community that was close by.  I would chat with people who worked for a Swiss bank and regularly with a retired doctor who used to travel out to Vietnam for a month each year to help with children who had been mutilated by mines left from the war or were mutated as a result of the use of Agent Orange.  A whole host of characters came through that laundrette.  People used to say that the laundrette shown on the soap opera 'Eastenders' bore no relation to reality.  I rarely watched the series, but certainly can confirm there are launderettes in East London precisely like that often with all the drama that you would see in a soap opera.  Theft, violence, drug and drink problems could all be see in or around the launderette.  The other well-known cultural reference to launderettes was 'My Beautiful Launderette' (1985) in which a polished up launderette (or laundrette given the title) is the location of a gay love affair between a young Pakistani man and a member of the racist National Front, with Daniel Day-Lewis in one of his roles in which you find it difficult to believe he is the same actor you have seen in his other roles.  Nothing that exotic went on in any launderette I knew, but I guess it is possible.

Certainly there were more comic moments that I experienced in launderettes too.  I remember a man pulling up on a long motorbike in what appeared to be his shorts. It was only when he went over to the drying machine and pulled out the jeans that were in there and put them straight on that we realised he had been motorbiking in his underpants. This was reminiscent of the very well known Levi's jeans advertisement of the 1985 in which in a 1950s US launderette a man comes in and simply strips down to his boxer shorts [sparking the 1980s trend for that style of underpants] and puts his jeans and some rocks into the washing machine to achieve the 'stone washed' look to the tune of Marvin Gaye's 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine'.

I remember two teenage boys coming in with huge bags of washing.  They put them through the process and not for a moment in all the 45 minutes did they stop talking, often across each other.  By the time they left me and Lorraine were exhausted.  I have no idea how they managed to sustain their speaking for so long.  Another time, a French-speaking black female nurse (for some reason Poplar and Bow have a lot of Francophone people from the Caribbean and from India [though I knew the French had owned Pondichéry I had never realised India had so many people with French as their language; from a quick search I find there were over 200,000 people in India under French control at the start of the 20th century] and it was common to hear French being spoken).  Unfortunately, the only word of French that Lorraine spoke was 'oui' ['yes'] and she got great delight saying 'oui, oui' repeatedly.  I used my poor French to ascertain what the woman wanted and it turned out she had lost her nurse's uniform and wondered if it was in the launderette.  To every question, Lorraine said 'oui, oui' utterly confusing the situation.  Ultimately I had to keep repeating 'pas d'uniform' and tried to usher Lorraine off to make some tea.  The other memorable incident were the preparations for a service for travellers at a nearby church.  There was a travellers' site in Bow and you would see whole families dressed up in their finest outfits in the hours leading up to the evening service.  Many would pass by the laundrette.

I did a lot of reading (more than once having to have my book rescued from the washing machine by Liz or Lorraine when I had left it in with the washing) and met a whole host of characters in that launderette.  By the time I reached Milton Keynes, where there was no washing machine in my flat, until I bought one after over a year, I had service washes.  This was partly due to the distance to my nearest launderette.  The 'new town' Milton Keynes is very zoned and being in a middle class district there was no provision for a laundrette as it was assumed that everyone would have their own washing machine; my landlord did not provide one.  I had to cycle for 15 minutes to the Netherfield district which had been zoned for the poorest of Milton Keynes and the disabled (the district sits right next to the hospital).  In many ways it was like a slice of Bromley-by-Bow dropped into a wood.  The laundrette had the usual two rows of washing machines facing dryers and was staffed by women who looked sixteen.  They did a reasonable job, but one night left a dryer running overnight and the launderette caught light and was closed for months.  I tried going to one in Bletchley, an old town asorbed into Milton Keynes, but it was only open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. so it was useless trying to go there before or after work as I had done with the Netherfield one and it was an even longer cycle ride to reach, ruling out going there during the lunch break.  I was compelled to buy a washing machine and that ended my contact with launderettes and a slice of British culture.  Given I see having this house repossessed sometime in the next few months I imagine a future return to using launderettes lies on the horizon.  Perhaps I will pick the one that lets me 'chill out' and surf the internet rather than simply watching my shirts spin round.

Monday, 5 July 2010

We All Cannot Be 'The Apprentice'

I am no fan of the television series 'The Apprentice' in which Lord Sugar is presented with a group of budding entrepreneurs who want to become his 'apprentice' but it has a cultural impact and is discussed on so many other television programmes and on radio that it is difficult to be oblivious to.  In the programme Sugar assigns the group various tasks, sometimes bizarre, involving running businesses and on the basis of their success he weeds them out over the weeks until he is left with one winner.  The job even the winner receives is often very mundane, but being on the programme can help win the contestants attention.  What is most alarming is the nature of the contestants who are all unreformed Thatcherites with a clear belief that they are God's gift to business, and yet ironically, that 'greed is good'.  The 'junior' version of the programme was very alarming, suggesting that it is right for children to be so obsessed with money that they have lost all individuality, awareness of others and, in fact, most of their personality: they have simply become their goal.

The programme reminds me of criticisms from a woman from Hong Kong who I met at university back at the end of the actual Thatcher regime.  She whined that the trouble with the British was that they saw someone in a luxury car and complained about it, whereas in Hong Kong people would be inspired by such a sight to get on in business and make themselves wealthy.  She was wrong both about Hong Kong as she was about Britain.  For a start there was no greater opportunity to succeed in Hong Kong than there was in the UK.  The privileged tend to remain privileged and so do their children.  Occasionally people make a successful business, but ironically in the UK the ones who succeed most are people who have come into the country from the outside, this is why being opposed to immigration is so contradictory with people wanting the UK to be an entrepreneurial state.  The people who succeed in that way are a tiny percentage.  This is why 80% of the UK working population earns less than the average salary and in fact 80% of entrepreneurs do not earn above £20,000 which is in fact less than the national average salary, currently around £31,000.

Thus, even a small percentage of those who have the drive and luck to become successful in their own businesses succeed; 50% of new restaurants in the UK close within 6 months of opening.  However, what seems to be forgotten is that the large bulk of us have minimal ability to be self-employed.  Since human civilisation started the majority of people have been employees, even if it has only been to the head of the family or clan or the local landowner.  Certainly since the rise of industrialisation in the mid-18th century the bulk of us have worked for other people.  You may say we are conditioned not to take the initiative.  Certainly this was the attitude in the 1980s that anyone who was unemployed should be setting up their own business and if they were not, then they had to be lazy.  I certainly had this charge laid at my door in the 1990s.  It seemed a bitter thing to say given the efforts I had made in terms of training and development in order to be an effective employee.  Why should I throw that all away and try and run a business in something which was statistically likely to fail?  It would be a waste of time, effort and education.  Such challenges to the unemployed are returning, though these days it is even harder to raise capital than it was twenty years ago.  The banks, the beloved of successive governments, have created this position through their own failed entrepreneurial efforts and ironically have created a banking market in which it is now harder than ever for new businesses to get funding and so to comply with the New Right agenda of people's business. 

I would imagine if you took 20 ordinary people in any British town 1-2 of them would be capable entrepreneurs.  When I take the boy in my house to school, out of the 60 parents/carers waiting for children to come out of the two classes that make up his year, I know that only two of the families run their own businesses and in one of these the woman only bought into a franchise when she found no-one would re-employ her having been out of work raising children for eight years.  The rest of us are either out of work or are employees.  This is in prosperous southern England too.  The woman who lives in my house, would count as the third if she ever collected her son, but in herself shows why so few, even if they have the skills, would want to run their own business.  She has been self-employed for six years and exports a third or more of her sales.  Yet, despite ploughing back around 80% of her profits into the business (a style of re-investment not common in the UK since the 19th century) she has yet to break the magic £20,000 (€23,600; US$29,800) per year mark and there is a good chance even another six years from now she will not have done.  She would be better off working in a supermarket.  The reasons why she persists is because she has a particular mental approach.  She, unlike the bulk of us, is no good as an employee and much prefers her own business.  However, on pure earnings basis she should chuck it in and head down to Asda to get a job.

Why am I getting so fussed about those who can and cannot be entrepreneurs?  Well, in fact my point goes further than just the divide between self-employed and employed.  We also need to consider the difference between public sector and private sector work.  Of course, the New Right attitude that Thatcher and now David Cameron and George Osbourne subscribe to, is that the state is 'too big'; that people are much better off doing things for themselves.  Sometimes this attitude is sold as we need to get back to small communities providing facilities and charity and that the faceless state trying to do this is unresponsive and bureaucratic.  In fact this is all just a facade.  What the New Right want is capitalism unfettered so that they can increase their profits through no safety regulations, low wages, bad conditions and a compliant workforce.  Cameron with his focus on the budget deficit has a good excuse for pursuing the New Right agenda vigorously and aiming for 25% cuts across the public sector.  Though the public sector is not as broad as, say, in France, it does encompass not only government departments but also elements such as health and education at all levels, and effectively things like transport and utilities though these are in private hands now; they still impinge on how society functions.  Around 6 million people work in the public sector; 530,000 of these are civil servants.  Ironically the greed of UK banks actually led to the increase of the public sector when the state had to take over Northern Rock, HBOS and Lloyds.  If they had been a bit less greedy these banks would still be in private hands, probably Spanish, US, Australian, Danish or Chinese hands, but still privately owned.

Having worked in the civil service, which is mainly what people think about when they refer to the public sector, I know that a lot of civil servants are perfect for the job.  They are polite and efficient but they are not sales people or marketeers.  They can run the administrative machine well, but are never going to get you to buy a used car.  With the haranguing of the civil service for the last thirty years, no-one dare be inefficient.  Often the staff work long hours and the pay is very low.  In 1994 I left a job in the civil service paying £8,600 per year; aside from me everyone in my office including all but one of the managers, had one other job, some had two others.  I was supposed to work 37.5 hours per week but regularly did 50 hours.  My next job was £9,500 per week for 15 hours.  In 2001 I applied for a job as a tax inspector and would have earned £13,000 per year at a time when the average salary had passed £20,000 per year.  I applied two weeks ago for a managerial post in the civil service overseeing a whole office of staff and yet paying £24,000 per year.  No-one works in the civil service to become rich and yet they keep being told they need to be cheaper.  In the 1980s under the Rayner reforms around 250,000 civil servants were laid off.  Since then the number has risen again.  However, David Cameron says he wants to see a reduction of 500,000 staff across the public sector.  This would mean the end of the civil service so implies heavy cuts in health and education too.  Local government, (2.256 million, including 42,000 social workers) education (there are around 460,000 teacher posts alone; some held by more than one person) and the National Health Service (1.431 million in hospitals, community health and general practice) employ 4.507 million people, 16% of the UK workforce.  As you can see taking 500,000 people from these sectors in the next 5 years is going to have huge impacts often on the most vulnerable people in society.  In addition, in times of high unemployment as we are now quickly experiencing, more civil servants are needed to administer the welfare system and employment in the civil service always rises as unemployment does.

Cameron has said there will be no rise in unemployment because the booming private sector will mop up all of these people.  For a start the private sector has shown no signs of booming in the past few years.  Second, there is an all too easy assumption that a former civil servant or nurse can simply become an effective call centre worker or sales person.  Setting aside all the education and training it has taken to get someone to be a decent nurse or civil servant, if these people had the desire or aptitude to work in the private sector they probably would have done long ago and so got higher salaries and not be abused by the public, the government and the media all the time.  One thing that the Conservatives overlooked since the 1980s is that their policy of encouraging home ownership and permitting landlords/ladies to have the upper hands over tenants, especially fixed-term rental contracts, is that it makes for a very immobile labour force.  When people will lose on their house sale or are tied into paying rent on a property they have vacated months ago, then they are going to be reluctant to move to where work is.  If they want the pool of terrified, fluid labour that they so desire, the Conservatives need to move beyond simple bullying to the structural factors which hamper that.

The New Right, in control of the Conservative Party now, has no sense of the Old Right support of public service.  This is ironic as Cameron's government is keen to laud it when it occurs in the military but no when it appears in civil society.  There will be no easy transition for many people from the public to the private sector.  Customer service in the UK is appalling, just ring up your utility company if you want to find that out and it will jar with the bulk of former public servants.  Of course, many will buckle under because they have to, but in turn they and their neighbours will suffer as the education, health and local amenities deteriorate as the nurses, teachers and civil servants are compelled to go and work for the exploitative elements of the private sector, happy to impose long hours and low pay on workers scared by unemployment.  The sense that there will be no sharp rise in unemployment as the public sector is culled, is an utter fantasy. Loss of the income for public sector workers will further dent consumption on the back of the VAT rise which will do an excellent job of slowing consumer-led recovery.  The rump public sector that will remain will be less efficient and so more ordinary people will suffer.  We cannot all be entrepreneurs and even if we were, many of us would fail or even if we succeed would be poorer.  The same applies to going into the hundreds of thousands of private sector jobs that are supposedly going to appear.  Even if they did, people are not interchangeable parts and the 'frictional' unemployment will rise sharply even if new vacancies do appear and no-one as yet is even guessing where these are supposed to be coming from.  We are heading back to 4 million unemployed as quickly as the Conservatives and their ultra-rich supporters can engineer it.  As a by-product the public services that the large majority of us depend upon will deteriorate, but of course, the true beneficiaries of Conservative policy have the money to buy their way away from that and damn the rest of us.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

University of Exeter: Home of Snobbery

I have been working quite a bit in South-West England and have stayed recently in Exeter, the capital of Devon, though the local authority for the city is breaking away from the rest of the county.  It is a pleasant enough city with nice pedestrian areas and gardens, a pleasant cathedral and some decent pubs.  It also has a university, not an ancient one, being set up in 1955 so a decade ahead of the 'plate glass' universities of the mid-late 1960s expansion.  It achieved some reputation in the 1980s, simply because of its advertising campaign which used the typography of the Carlsberg beer company and even lifted their slogan (I imagine with permission) as 'Probably the best university in the world' in the place of 'best beer'.  Aside from that it seems to have trundled along not attracting much attention, though I have been told that its teacher-training branch is rated third after Oxford and Cambridge, that sort of fact does not penetrate the newspapers, I guess unless you read specific sections.  Its Chancellor is Floella Benjamin, born in Trinidad, known to millions as a television presenter on children's programmes, and notable in that fact because she was a black presenter in the 1970s.  Recently she was made a baroness and now sits in the House of Lords for the Liberal Democrats.

It seems ironic that Floella is Chancellor of a university of a city which seems to have one of the least ethnically diverse populations in the UK.  I have not been to Plymouth yet, it is farther South-West of Exeter and has a post-1992 university.  In the city you do see some West Asian and East Asian students, but very few people from other ethnic groups and certainly very few outside the student population.  I imagine that in part this was one reason why the actress Emma Thompson's adopted son, Tindyebwa Agaba, originally from Rwanda where his entire biological family was killed in the genocide, found studying at the university so hard.  When he graduated in 2009, Thompson spoke about the racism he had faced and assisted with a cultural awareness event at the university.

It does not seem that racism is the only problem that Exeter has faced.  Having stayed in hotels in Exeter on and off over the past year, I have encountered a few new staff and even some mature students, usually there for doctoral course meetings who have pointed out the real class consciousness of the university.  One man working as a manager there explained how he was suffering because he was felt to 'not be appropriate' for a managerial role because his family was skilled working class and on repeated occasions he had been told to apply for lower grade jobs. Having faced similar challenges in the past year, I lent a sympathetic ear. He said that it was incredibly frustrating that the concern seemed to be more with his background and there was disregard for his skills and experience.  One woman of the same grade who droned on about her aga cooker (the cheapest costs £6000) and got upset because he would not sit there and let her lecture him on the 'best way' to do everything.  When he tried to have a dialogue and share ideas she ended the meeting.  Naturally you meet arrogant, self-obsessed people in all jobs but you would expect slightly more open-minded attitudes in a university.

I subsequently met a parent, from Bournemouth, whose son had applied to the university and she said she was glad he had not got in, because she felt everyone 'looked down their noses' at you if you were not of a particular social status and did not have the trappings like a large 4x4 vehicle.  Obviously the location of the university in pretty rural part of the UK and in the southern part which is the most expensive (though it is cheaper in Devon than, say in Hampshire or Berkshire, farther East), you might expect it to attract people from a certain social class and certainly the students I encountered, even one working in a pub, are very much upper middle class or even upper class.  The University of Exeter is in step with the national trend in having a sizeable majority of female students, so the place (I wandered around the campus one day out of interest, it lies close to a pub I like) is full of flicky haired women with tops from the lacrosse club or sailing club or riding club; no-one seemed to be in the usual sort of societies you expect at a university.  The student union shop stocks 'The Lady' and 'Horse and Hounds', not the usual magazines students at university read.

Given the demands that I have noted before from journalists, parents and others that in this age of over 40% of 18-year olds going to university, there is a greater distinction made between different 'qualities' of university, favouring something even more divisive than the old polytechnic/university divide scrapped in 1992, I am surprised that Exeter University has not made more of its elitist approach.  It is never going to have the old buildings of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, etc., but it clearly has the same kind of mindset of these places (I lived in Oxford for two years and gatecrashed the odd University lecture and debate and blagged my way into a number of bars at different colleges, just for the hell of it). 

Maybe there is some website or Facebook connection which advises families of the elites that if their child has not got into Oxford of Cambridge, Exeter is the best place to send them to mix with the 'right' kind of people whether students or staff.  I imagine given the hard economic times, though Exeter University seemed to do well out of the last funding round, the university cannot be seen to be too off-putting to potential students from all kinds of backgrounds, they are simply too valuable in terms of fees.  However, as that Bournemouth mother found out, I would warn any parent who is not upper middle class or higher, to avoid the University of Exeter like the plague.  There may be advantages in your child hob-nobbing with the elites, but from the people I have heard from, they may be compelled to do a lot of 'forelock tugging' and be deferential to staff and other students unless they want to be ostracised.  If you are upper middle class or above, and your beloved has not manage to make Oxbridge, then I can assure you that they will find much the same culture, albeit in more modern buildings (and the university is currently the biggest building site in the South-West region so must be doing well financially) that they would find in Oxford or Cambridge, mixing with the 'right' kind of people and taught and administered by staff who are drawn from the 'appropriate' social class. 

I know we now have a government which favours the privileged, but I am surprised that given their desire for greater social mobility, and even Lord Mandelson emphasised this back in 2008 when reviewing the future of universities, the government did not bring the University of Exeter more to book.  It seems to be one institution that has benefited financially but has a culture which is opposed to social mobility and instead fosters social division and providing benefits to the already privileged.  Clearly the journalists whining for more distinction between universities are not looking hard enough.  Perhaps they know about Exeter but only let their friends into its approach rather than write about it openly.  Now I am no longer working in the South-West I wonder if I will come across other universities, which quietly are drawing sharp dividing lines in terms of who they admit and who they employ.  I do feel we have a duty to 'name and shame'.  Universities in my day were about opportunities for those who could take them on their ability not simply who their parents were and I fear we are running rapidly away from those days to them simply helping privileged children to be more privileged still.