Sunday, 28 December 2008

In Praise of the Strange

Here we are in the hiatus between Christmas and the New Year, work has either stopped or, if still going on, does so in a rather lacklustre manner as everybody waits for the next party to get underway.

This is, of course, a season with as many obligations as delights and it was to fulfil one of these that I and, so it seemed just about everyone else in town, headed for the local cemetery on Christmas day afternoon.

As usual the resulting scene was a somewhat hectic one as cars struggled to pass each other on paths built to be wide enough for a hearse and a horse and crowds of distracted relatives wandered here and there looking for the final resting place of Aunt Mabel with, more often than not, a pack of wailing children in tow. I have long imagined a cartoonist looking at the resulting scene and drawing a latter day Derby and Joan standing poised mid wander as the former says in exasperation ‘well they can’t have moved her.’

For the past decade of so the annual trip up to the cemetery has been cheered, for this visitor at least, by the site of a tree at the edge of the most popular plot decorated, by whom I have no idea, with tinsel and a fine selection of glass baubles, the latter, we have this year been helpfully informed by the industrious Education Minister Ed Balls, present a greater danger to the continuation of human life that the bomb and the cholera bacillus put together.

The survival of this instance of public eccentricity in a world bothered more with each passing year by the battalions of earnest types employed a the public expense to prevent almost any activity you can think of on the grounds of health, safety or its potential to cause offence provided a lift to the spirits and a reminder of just how often the strange intrudes upon the mundane business of everyday life.

Take, for example, the sight that confronted me when, whilst walking down an unremarkable suburban street one evening, I happened to glance into the front window of one of the houses only to see a man wearing a brightly coloured shirt, sombrero and Zapata moustache dancing enthusiastically to some unheard flamenco rhythm. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, that night the court jester was clearly working overtime.

Another instance of the strange intruding upon the ordinary occurred late last summer and this time made the front page of the local press.

One morning in August this year staff at a branch of Wilkinson’s in Newcastle under Lyme found to their surprise a deer, don’t ask where it came from since that is a mystery likely to remain unsolved, perusing the shelves of their store.

The response of the staff and manager, as relayed to a local journalist who must have been no less gobsmacked that I was reading it later, was so wonderfully British it deserves to win a prize. There was no panic, no wild shooing and shrieking as they tried to drive the beast out, they just watched calmly as it trotted up and down the aisled and then back out into the street as if having decided to take its custom elsewhere. Afterwards the only comment passed by the store manager was that the deer seemed to find the floor of the shop a little slippy.

Whatever shocks and scares the year to come has in store for us all I am sure that so long as the great British capacity to remain eternally unfazed by the strangeness of the world we should just about muddle through.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Christmas on the Credit Crunch.

The festive season is upon us again, and, if the newspaper editorials are to be believed, it is going to be a rather grim affair this year. An impression only reinforced by the ‘helpful’, in their view of things, advice on how to celebrate the season on a budget being dished out by the BBC on what feels like an hourly basis.

As the old song put it, there may be trouble ahead, quite serious trouble since unemployment levels and government borrowing have both been on the rise since the autumn.

Anyone wandering the streets of an average British city would be hard pressed though to find any specific signs of impending doom. There are no fewer houses decorated with lights to look like cut price versions of Las Vegas than there were last year, although now homeowners are more likely to switch the lights off when they go to bed rather than leave them burning all night long. Whether that is a consequence of higher electricity prices or year round lecturing on environmental issues changing public behaviour is anybody’s guess.

In the high street the shops are full although their windows are uniformly papered over with large SALE signs this isn’t, perhaps, such a gloomy time at which to be a consumer. For the first time in recorded history the great British customer is being treated like something other than a nuisance by retailers who until recently would have referred to him or her as ‘footfall’, mostly because they are desperate to have the customer’s feet fall through the door of their shop rather than their competitors.

There is a definite feeling that change is imminent, Christmas and with it everyday life from this year onwards may well be less about aggressively aspirational consumption and more about valuing the things you already have, and that may not be such a bad thing.

For all its manifest faults Britain is still a remarkable country. It is blessed with countryside of unparalleled beauty, which since the exchange rate is pricing more and more Britons out of foreign travel we might be persuaded to visit and, more importantly, value far more than we have previously. The British people have a residual stoicism about the slings and arrows thrown at them by outrageous fortune that has been masked, but not entirely erased, by the ‘where there’s blame there’s a claim’ culture that has been to the fore in recent years, as times get tougher expect it to make a comeback.

We have one other and precious thing for which we should be thankful, Britain is and will always, I hope remain, a free country. Journalists and angry men in saloon bars can call the government a pack of fools without fearing arrest, while the jury remains out as to whether Gordon Brown can revive the economy in the same way he revived his political fortunes over the past few months, but if he should prove not to be up to the job the public will be at liberty to vote him out of office, something people in far too many other nations can only dream about doing to their leaders.

The good news, and boy do we need some of that just at the moment, is that bad times like good ones do not last forever. Whatever the coming year may have to offer in the way of shocks and scares one thing remains certain, for all that the credit crunch has knocked it down somewhat Britain is anything but out of the game.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Childhood As It Used To Be.

On the Tuesday of this week as another wave of bad weather swept over the country, causing the usual chaos on the roads and an army of bargain hunters converged on soon to be defunct Woolworths stores the dearth of a quiet, good and never fully appreciated man was announced.

His name was Oliver Postgste and his passing will have saddened every Briton born before about 1980, he it was who gave us the sublime, sometimes surreal and always comforting world of Bagpuss, The Clangers and Ivor the Engine.

Despite the enduring popularity of his creations Postgate spent the past twenty years in a wilderness created by the people who presume to determine fashion and was only rehabilitated when it was time for the same people to deliver eulogies to his passing earlier this week.

The problem was, as they saw it, that the children’s programmes he created were too ‘nice’, meaning they all contained the subversive message that if people behave well and work together the world is a better place, they also, as the best programme making for adults and children alike always does, committed the cardinal sin of treating their audience like intelligent human beings rather than passive consumers.

The message may have been subversive, but it is also very timely, last year UNICEF delivered a damning report on the state of modern British childhood, they didn’t, even in the poorest homes, find evidence of starvation, at least not of the physical kind, what they found was evidence of a sort of starvation of the spirit. Despite the material riches available to them British children came out as being more miserable and pessimistic about the future than most of their European counterparts.

A lot of rose tinted nonsense is talked by adults about the innocence of childhood and yet something does seem to have gone badly wrong with the way this country raised its children. They, through their parents, seem to be stalked by an all pervading paranoia that sees a potential abductor lurking around every corner and a fatal accident hidden within even the most carefully supervised activity.

As a result modern children play outside less than their parent’s generation, have their imagination stunted by an education system bound by ever more prescriptive testing regimes and, all too often see the wider world only through the distorting lens of the television screen. All of which should prompt concern about what sort of adults they will grow into, crabbed, nervous and timid ones would be my guess, the sort of people dictators and charlatans have always seen as their natural constituency because their ignorance about and fear of the big bad world makes them easy to manipulate.

Whether any of this will change is impossible to guess, perhaps one should hope for the best whilst all the time preparing for the worst. It does though make what children watch on the television that may be their only window on the world beyond the confines of home more important than ever.

The need to be shown that humans, or brightly coloured space aliens made from old socks in the case of the Clangers standing in for them, are made civilized first and foremost by their ability to work together and that no authority figure is so grand or terrifying as to be immune to the sort of mockery that cuts them down to more lifelike proportions. They need, in fact, to be exposed to the sort of programming Oliver Postgate produced before people who will be remembered far less fondly at their own passing because they brought less joy into the world decided he was unfashionable. How wrong they were, he was a man ahead of his time and we are all made a little poorer by his passing.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

A New Age of Austerity? Not Quite.

The past week has been one of the coldest of the year and, with the timing that typifies their trade, it was also the week when the engineers arrived at my door to fit a new central heating system. For four days I shivered indoors and shivered whenever I stepped outside; wore several layers of clothes when I ventured out to buy my morning newspaper and went to bed wearing not much less.

At the risk of sounding like someone on the verge of delivering a homily it was an instructive experience. Not least because this week Britain has been told in no uncertain terms that it must take drastic action in order to meet its obligations on carbon emissions, that means coal fired power stations will have to close and energy prices will rise as alternative sources of energy struggle to keep pace with demand, pushing another 1.7million people into fuel poverty.

In short, wearing our overcoats indoors could be the shape of things to come for most Britons.

Certain decades seem to attract a one word description that sticks permanently in the public mind, so the sixties will always be thought of as swinging, the 1890’s as naughty and the current decade, christened the noughties, probably by a sub editor somewhere forced to work on Millennium eve, seem, if the past six months are anything to go by, on their way to wresting ‘austerity’ from the grip of its former owner, the forties.

The gloomy message being put out by press and politicians alike is that hard times aren’t coming; they’re here and they’re here to stay. While, as the word of an old song put it, there may be trouble ahead, I don’t think comparing our situation to that faced by our grandparents makes sense.

The shops may have windows plastered over with SALE signs, but there are things on the shelves to sell, if you can get the credit to pay for them. How very different from the not so roaring forties when the motto for shoppers was whatever you want you can’t have it.

Food prices may have risen alarmingly but there is still more than enough food to go around, whatever else keeps Gordon Brown and his cabinet awake at night it isn’t worrying about shortages turning into a full blown famine and the resulting public anger boiling over into revolution. The Attlee government faced just such challenges in the first couple of hungry years after the war and it is to their credit that they and the country survived more or less intact.

The current economic problems serve to highlight the differences rather than the similarities between our generation and that of out grandparents. The depression and then the war had taught them not to panic at the first sign of trouble because there may be something worse around the corner that would require all their reserves of resilience just to survive.

The world, however brightly we make it glitter with things we’ve bought on credit is and always has been built on sand, from time to time the foundations shift but they have never yet, thankfully, sunk completely. If the past fifteen years was a playground of easy credit and guilt free consumerism then the current economic crisis should perhaps be prefaced by the wording of a sign that that hung by the exit of a bar I used to frequent some years ago, it read: ‘You are now entering harsh reality.’