Sunday, August 31, 2008

Wiff Waff is Coming Home

The Duke of Wellington is often quoted as saying that "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton." What is less well known, is the history of Wiff Waff and how the world was colonised through the medium of the dining table. I'll leave it to Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and Old Etonian to explain (1m 28s).

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On Education

"I never learnt anything useful at school that helped me at work - I don't really see the point of it." You hear people say this a lot. I suspect they're a vociferous minority but it is, nonetheless, a fairly constant refrain. I've heard it from people of my own generation, I've heard it from my parent's generation, and you hear it from kids today just coming out of the education system. So, even though I've not experienced any education outside of my own, you can sort of make it a sweeping truism that this statement has run through the generations.

I don't actually buy in to this view myself. I can remember things I learnt at school, and whilst I may not apply them much directly to my work, I certainly remember them and I use them in many other situations. Studying Shakespeare taught me not to be intimidated by something I did not instantly understand. It taught me an appreciation, albeit perhaps not a love for literature, and that with a certain amount of perseverance, if you encounter initial confusion stick at it and it might sometimes develop into ultimate enlightenment. It also helped, that once you understood it, you realised he was a helluva a storyteller as well. The maths I did - in pre-calculator days - gave me a certain agility for mental arithmetic - not just the dartboard variety - that I still use on a daily basic. History and geography gave me a perspective on the world today and an appreciation of my surroundings. Physics and chemistry taught me you can reduce complex ideas and concepts to very fundamental levels and apply them to things you see happening every day. And the French (and a dose of German) I learnt taught me not only how to get by in a French restaurant, but also the similarities between languages, meaning you could make an educated guess at words in lots of other languages and have a fair stab at knowing what they meant.

But all these things I learnt (one of which was never to start a sentence with "But" or "And") can often described as fairly soft skills. They're pretty abstract although I would also say, pretty useful. School didn't teach me how to process insurance claims which is what I did for a while. It didn't help me diagnose (and sometimes fix) faults in cars which is another stalled career move. And it didn't help me a jot in IT which what I do now. A potential career in the computer industry was barely conceived, let alone taught, back in the 70s when I was at school.

We've just had the annual TV event of witnessing 16 and 18 year-olds joyously jumping up and down (always in groups of three, usually two white girls and one other girl of an ethnic background I notice) celebrating their record-breaking GCSE or 'A' Level results. This is usually played off with somebody from the CBI saying kids coming out of the system have never been more poorly educated in the basic skills. Is it true? I don't know. Are exams getting easier and the ability to pass them almost a formality for the averagely intelligent? Probably.

We now hear schools teach increasingly abstract subjects. Environmentalism, shot through the prism of Al Gore, is now on the curriculum. Citizenship is a subject that can be learnt and studied. Personal finance lessons. The latest thing I heard is schools are going to indoctrinate us white folks about the collective guilt we must feel for slavery.

What I'm sort of getting at here is what does education, certainly up to the end of secondary school, really prepare you for? It still doesn't teach you to dig holes in the ground and fix broken pipes for the gas board. It doesn't teach you how to speculate on futures in The City. It doesn't teach you how to sell used cars. Basic education is still a fairly abstract concept that's tied up not only in what you learn, but also how you learn it and who you learn it from and it should also imbue in you a desire to learn more.

I was going to finish this piece of flim by speculating that schools were no longer places of education but were merely holding pens where increasingly semi-feral and spoilt children could be kept whilst their parents went out to work. I wanted to say it's where teachers plough through an increasingly bizarre and silly subject list. Damn me though, I think I've talked myself out of it. Sure you can make snap judgements based on what you see in the press about where our schools are going but I think the only thing I can conclude is that all basic education is mostly abstract. It was, and it still is. It happened to us and it's still happening now. It's not meant to prepare you for work. What you end up doing at work is too big a subject to learn. Even further education doesn't really prepare you for work. It just teaches you to go beyond the stage of absorbing facts, and starts encouraging you to move them around a bit, and then perhaps drawing your own conclusions. It's only a start.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Pool Britannia

Well, that seems conclusive enough.

Rowing, cycling, dinghy racing. I think we can safely conclude that Britain leads the world in sports performed while sitting on your backside.

I think we can also agree it affirms our fondness for watersports.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Message and the Medium

No, I'm not about to go on about Marshall McLuhan and his famous phrase. This is about more prosaic matters. It's about our increasing obsession with how things are delivered as opposed to what is actually being delivered. We're a society increasingly in awe of the medium when we should be looking more at the message. An obsession with style over substance.

Mundane products in fancy packaging, a bit of slick advertising and we're sold. M & S food advertising.....geez, can nobody make a salad these days? Do we really need a multi-national to employ an army of people in some warehouse up north to put together about fifty pence worth of basic ingredients, stick it in a bag, drive it half way across the country and tell us it'll make us sophisticated if we pay £4.99 for it. Yes we do. All they do is employ some breathless chick to ooh and aah over it in a TV ad and it's an M & S cash cow for the next six months.

Do we really want slick politicians who will tell us what we think we want to hear, deliver something completely different and then tell us, if we listened to what they originally said (more like take a jeweller's fucking eyepiece to the tiny nuances of what they said is more accurate) then we would realise what we have is exactly what they suggested. We've only just got rid of ten years of Blair - a man with apparently endless reserves of meaningless cliches - got Brown, whose smile looks like he's trying to pass a particularly prickly sea urchin - and want to replace him with another Blair - yes, the truly insubstantial, insincere but competently gurning Milliband.

An endless stream of TV programmes allegedly designed to unearth new talent, which are nothing but voyeuristic freak-shows to humiliate the naive and deluded non-talent that it mostly presents. Oh and they generate bucketloads of cash through manipulative presentation for either the producers who get money from the inevitable phone in, or the judges who exclusively handle the briefly lucrative career of the hapless winner.

It's relentless. We're increasingly unable to distinguish talent from celebrity, knowledge from wisdom, style from substance, wit from vulgarity, science from religion and I suspect, eventually, our wife from a hat.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Rising From The Descent

My recent blog post on sitcoms with the theme of A Descent Into Madness has been bugging me. Or more specifically, one particular sitcom I put on the list. It is still definitely about madness but it turns the genre quite brilliantly on its head. It is of course The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

Consider the evidence (I've always wanted to say that). Reggie Perrin is not mad but has strong Walter Mitty characteristics and yearns to escape his humdrum existence. He is unfortunately surrounded by mad people who vex him at every turn. Brother-in-law Jimmy is convinced communists and fifth columnists are lurking in every wardrobe waiting to take over the country. CJ, his boss, is utterly unaware of what is going on around him yet his pomposity convinces him he's the most influential man in the room. Doc Morrisey is the incompetent and paranoid company doctor. Tom, the son-in-law, combines delusional eccentricity whilst also being crushingly dull. Finally, there is Reggie's wife Elizabeth, who actually isn't quite mad, but has a mischevious desire to surprise people with moments of exquisite strangeness.

Reggie has to put up with all this, finally deciding the only way to survive these people is to pretend to be mad himself. This begins by faking his own death and then attending his funeral disguised as someone else. Realising he misses his wife terribly, he continues to adopt a series of disguises in order to continue seeing her. She of course recognises it is him immediately but doesn't tell him because he seems to so much enjoy being somebody else. Finally they remarry, him still believing she believes he is someone else. Eventually, he is so much re-immersed back into his old life, albeit as a different person, he realises he is pretty much back where he started. Brilliant.

Reggie then returns to being Reggie and decides one last throw is needed to escape the boredom. He open a shop called Grot selling things he is sure nobody will want to buy, convinced that failure is now his only means of escape. It is a massive success despite Reggie's best efforts to fill the shops with increasingly useless products. People snap them up as interesting novelties. Reggie, still determined to destroy the business which is now thriving, employs all the mad people in roles to which they are utterly unsuited, but within the culture of Grot, they of course thrive.

Of my original list, The Fall and Rise of Reginald (Iolanthe) Perrin is one of my favourites. For a sitcom, it manages to explore some very dark ideas. I haven't seen a complete episode in 20 years but I've just had a quick recap via a few YouTube excerpts and it is as brilliant now as it was 20 years ago.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

On Global Warming.....

A wonderful comment on the always entertaining The Devil's Kitchen blog by the anonymous oscar

"My local council has jumped on this green bollox like a rat up a drain pipe.
The list of what you put in the fortnightly collected recycling bin grows ever longer and more ridiculous. Surely it won't be long before they make you shit in it."