Sunday, April 30, 2006

Understatement headline of the week

Leader: Blair needs a reshuffle

It is my experience and possibly the best argument against immortality going that anything that goes on for too long goes bad. Into this category comes the first series of 24 (derailed completely around 8:00 pm by the increasingly lunatic behaviour of Senator Palmer's wife and the ludicrous decision to make Nina a CTU mole)... and governments. How did Japan manage, I wonder? And when is Polly Toynbee going to remove her head from the sand?

Saturday, April 29, 2006

When will they learn

That if you're a politician whose having/had one or more affairs, don't use your family as a selling point on your leaflets. It's only going to come back and bite you on the bottom [all references to porcelain lavatories removed].

Starting at the beginning and giving up before the end

I'm still hacking periodically through the smörgåsbord of literary treats that I got as part of a 'spend so much and get 10 free fiction books' from The Book People. Like a chocolate selection, it's luck whether you get the fudge or bite into something sickly and creamy (replace with toffee if you have false teeth).

I have a habit of dumping books if I can see where the author is leading and can't be bothered to see how he got there. And it is for this reason I gave up Whisky Galore about 30 pages in. Loads of Scottish caricatures have unthreatening personal issues on a small island. Mostly they moan about the shortage of whisky due to WWII. The obvious development was for them to discover some whisky and for the 'crises' to be resolved in an unedgy and undemanding explosion of drunkenness. When I say 'crises' I mean, of course, the sort of wholesome, chocolate box incidents encountered by characters on Heartbeat. Since the book was alleged to be 'comic' then I assume there would also be lots of falling over and general slapstick. The reason to keep reading was to find out where they found the whisky and how this unsubtly signposted plot unfurled. But this would require wading through more of the filler material; a sticky, unswallowable mess of dubious accents deployed upon the concerns of the excessively provincial.

I'm finding Flaubert's Parrot a tastier morsel. Although it doesn't really seem to be going anyplace, at least it's unpredictable and quirky in failing to get there. This was always the problem with Quicksilver - the plot was moving too slowly to be discerned by the reader and what happened in between drifted with such verbosity that you were gagging for the author to get on with it. At 229 pages, Flaubert's Parrot is a much faster moving volume and if one random digression doesn't appeal then at least another will be along imminently. I can't really say what the book's about. It appears to be the travels about France of a somewhat Flaubert-fixated doctor, and his various musings on the author of Madame Bovary. The title refers to his visit to various Flaubert museums and his attempts to authenticate which of two stuffed parrots sat for several months by Flaubert's desk.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

In search of the intellectual...

I've avoided blogging the developing multi-Minister pile-up that's the Labour government and picked up on an interesting piece about intellectuals in Britain. Comment is Free is the independent State of Sanity in the People's Republic of Grauniad - the temptation to tack towards the shores of sensible argument must become overwhelming if there's going to be an inviting-looking comments box on the bottom of your rant about how much you love Soviet-esque dictatorships.

I've always seen 'an intellectual' as being someone who displays intellectual curiousity. This makes it an equal opportunities label; the best arguments don't necessarily come from the people with the most bits of paper. Intellectual curiousity causes people to stumble upon injustices and creates a lively civil society. It's this mindset that oppressive governments are afraid of - if we taught critical thinking at GCSE and not at university then the world would be a better place.

The intellectual has an image problem because a fair bit of 'intellectual' social science and political writing is not about communicating but about self-defining as part of an elite group. To be part of this elite group, you need to write very turgid prose using words like hermeneutics and dialectics. This has become associated in the public mind with intellectuals along with black polo-necked jumpers, bad cardigans and appreciating the underlying meaning of two bricks stuck in a corner in the Tate Modern. If you don't tick any of these boxes then the public doesn't regard you as an intellectual unless you're terrifically clever, probably absent-minded and write popular science books like Stephen Hawking. Since most people don't fall into either category (me included... except for the scatter-brained bit) then they'd never dream of defining themselves as an intellectual. And this is why Timothy Garton Ash misses the point when he writes:

British empiricism's dislike of various continental forms of more abstract theorising... part of what Orwell was getting at when, in a private letter, he described Jean-Paul Sartre as "a bag of wind"...British communists talked quite happily of "Communist party intellectuals" (which helps explain Orwell's hostility to the tag)

Abstract theorising isn't a problem. Using 2000 letter words and long paragraphs whilst conveying a simple concept like "oppression is bad" is a problem. It is not part of abstract theorising; it is part of being a pretentious windbag who tries to make them and their colleagues feel cleverer by deliberating obscuring the blindingly obvious.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

More than 1 shag

I'm torn between falling about laughing and feeling genuinely sorry for Pauline Prescott and Tracey Temples' fiance. But how does The Scum know he's only had two shags? Surely this is the perfect opportunity for other ladies who have worked under the Deputy PM to crawl out. Ms Temple's fiance was quoted as saying:

“I feel sick. I can’t believe the woman I wanted to marry has slept with John Prescott."

If I were him and I found my fiancee had slept with John Prescott, this would sum up my sentiments exactly. Although to be fair to Prescott - he might work for Blair and look like he's a basketball player who had an accident with a falling anvil... but the Mirror article made him sound like he was quite a jovial chap. Unless you throw an egg at him, of course.

NB: For the benefit of Mr Eugenides, the wardrobe/doorkey quote was attributed to an ex-girlfriend of Nicholas Soames and referred to technique and not (just) his size.

Choke on that

On Monday the Grauniad published extracts from Chew on This: Everything you don't want to know about fast food by Eric Schlosser in an article guaranteed to have soggy socialists across Britain sobbing into their cereal. You can buy the book here but I don't know why you'd want to - the article has more holes than a bag of french fries after a drive-by-shooting.

Here are the top 6 ways the article smells like fortnight old fish and chip wrappers:

1: The implication that McDonalds is a cult that turns its businesspeople into crazy brandwashed zombies:

In late August 2004, on the island of Singapore, John Pain asked a large gathering of business people from Malaysia, China, Indonesia and the Philippines to stand up. Then he asked them to raise their arms and form the shape of three letters, one after another. "Give me a Y!" Pain yelled out. "Y!" they yelled back. The auditorium was suddenly full of people looking like Ys. "Give me a U!" "U!" "Give me an M!" "M!" "What's that spell?" "YUM!" "What's that spell?" "YUM! YUM! YUM!"

When jumping about and yelling is common teambuilding practice in Asia. Ask my friend who taught in Japan for a year and started his school day by leaping about in the playground along with the rest of the teaching staff and the town mayor.

2. The 'absent parents':

At a focus group, kids are paid to sit around and discuss what they like to buy.... Advertisers study children's drawings, hire children to take part in focus groups, pay children to attend sleepover parties and then ask them questions late into the night... The latest scientific research is also being used to make kids buy things... The average American child now spends about 25 hours a week watching television. That adds up to more than 1.5 months, non-stop, of TV every year... Aside from going to school, American children now spend more time watching television than doing anything else except sleeping. The average British child spends two hours and 20 minutes every day watching television and 25 minutes playing video games. In the UK, more than half of children under the age of 16 have a television in their bedroom.

Who aren't mentioned until about half-way through the article and even then are assumed to be entirely passive: Children's meals often come with different versions of the same toy so that kids will nag their parents to keep going back to the restaurant to get a complete set. Unless McDonalds operatives kidnap 6-year old investment bankers from US malls then someone consents to children attending these sleepover sessions, someone gives them money and someone takes them to McDonalds for 3 meals a day and plonks them in front of the TV for the rest of the time. These 'someones' are in most cases the parents. They have the choice to switch the TV off when they're there, to take their children to an after-school club when they're not... and to save their kiddiewinks months of therapy caused by a yellow and red clown waking them every hour in the night to ask them their opinion on ice cream.

3. It's news that fast food is homogeneous, overprocessed and loaded with additives:

The shakes and soft drinks begin as syrup. At Taco Bell restaurants, the food is "assembled", not prepared. The avocado dip isn't freshly made by workers in the kitchen; it is made at a gigantic factory in Michoacan, Mexico, then frozen and shipped to the US. The meat at Taco Bell arrives frozen and pre-cooked in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. The beans are dehydrated and look like brownish cornflakes. The cooking process is fairly simple. "Everything's add water," a Taco Bell employee says. "Just add hot water."

No s**t, sherlock. There's a definite case for making people aware that additives are unhealthy and burgers can make you fat, just incase they don't already know. But most people don't go to McDonalds expecting a Michelin starred chef to be hand-preparing organic vol-au-vents round the back. When restaurants like McDonalds first appeared in 1948/1955, eating out was something elitist and expensive. If you wanted to eat out cheaply, especially away from home, you'd have to risk a greasy spoon where you weren't entirely convinced you wouldn't be served up rat roadkill a la carte. McDonalds gave an affordable, consistent quality product that was an occasional treat. As society became more wealthy, it became less of a treat and people could eat there regularly. Now we see the backlash.

4. The hand-wringingly pretentious idea that everyone outside of the food industry does clean, self-actualising work 9 to 5:

Danielle Brent is a 17-year-old schoolgirl at Martinsburg High School in West Virginia. On Saturday mornings the alarm in her mobile phone goes off at 5.30am. It's still dark outside as she stumbles into the bathroom... Sometimes, it's really cold in the morning and it takes a while for the engine of the family's old car to start cranking out heat. There are a lot of other things she would rather be doing early on a Saturday morning - such as sleeping... Danielle soon realised that the job was different from what she had expected. Some of the customers were rude. Workers in the kitchen didn't always wash their hands... She usually doesn't feel awake until 10 or 11 o'clock, about halfway through her shift. But that grogginess never gets in the way of her job. Danielle thinks she could operate the cash register - as well as most of the other fancy machines - in her sleep.

How is this different from being a care worker in an old people's home? Or being a copy typist living a long commute from work? Or working in a call centre/on a checkout? The idea that you have a career that fulfils you, rather than a job that earns you money is the mindset of 'aghast of Islington'. Don't blame the fast food industry.

5. The suggestion that part-time/short-term McJobs full of young people are worse than full-time, life-long McJobs full of older people:

No other industry has a workforce so dominated by teens. Teenagers open the fast food outlets in the morning, close them at night and keep them going at all hours in between. Even the managers and assistant managers are sometimes in their teens... Instead of relying upon a small, stable, well-paid and well-trained workforce, the fast food industry seeks out part-time, unskilled workers who are willing to accept low pay... The typical fast food worker quits or is fired after only three or four months. One of the reasons they leave their jobs so often is that the pay is so low. The fast food industry pays the minimum wage to more of its workers than any other industry in the US. And fast food workers are the largest group of low-income workers in the US today.

Working in fast food joints is an unskilled, dirty and smelly job. Because it's unskilled, almost anyone can do it so the pay is low. Provided they're mostly quitting and not being sacked, a rapid turnover and young workers is a good thing. It suggests older, more experienced workers can find something better. And that those using a McJob as an employment stop-gap find it easy to move on to better work.

6. The idea that all s**t happening in the world is the sole responsibility of McD's

Whenever members of Congress try to raise the minimum wage (which in 2006 is only $5.15 (£3) an hour), the fast food industry always fights hard against any increase. And the industry almost always wins...

... McDonald's Happy Meal toys are manufactured in countries where the prices are low. On the bottom of these toys you often find the phrase "Made in China"... Some of the workers at the factory said they were 14 years old and often worked 16 hours a day. Their wages were less than 20 cents (11p) an hour - almost 30 times less than the lowest amount you can pay an American worker... McDonald's now tries to ensure that children aren't employed to make its toys. But the company hasn't done much to increase the wages of the workers at Chinese toy factories.

McDonalds has some ethical responsibility. But they're not operating in a vacuum. The uber- scandals here are that the US political system is far too in thrall to lobby groups, and that working 16 hours a day manufacturing plastic toys for McDonalds is probably better than the alternative for some Chinese 14-year olds. Otherwise they wouldn't be working there.

Eric Schlosser's written a few books apart from those on fast food: he collaborated on a novel about environmental activism, and he wrote a book about migrant labour, drugs and pornography in America. I haven't read either but I'd like to make some recommendations for his next book. He could write about why US schoolkids are allowed to work until 2 am on school nights, how to make US politics less tied to special interests, how attending school can become a more economically attractive option for poor Chinese teens and how more companies can feel its in their interest to be socially responsible. Perhaps this is covered in his fast food book. Perhaps I'm overly optimistic and just have to accept the lefty intelligentsia is more interested in demonising burger joints than thinking up achieveable ways of improving the lot of our fellow man.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A wandering scribe

Apologies for the interruption in blogging. I'm doing too much writing outside of the blog and am trying to keep off the computer otherwise.

This has been on the BBC website and generated a lot of comment, both positive and negative. It's definitely worth having a read and making a reassuring or empowering remark in the comments box if you have the chance.

Some negative remarks query the genuineness of the blog. You've always got to be wary, especially online, which is why I wouldn't contribute using the Paypal link. But compassion costs nothing. If it turns out to be a hoax then taking the bait makes you a fool for a moment. But if it's real then your comment could be one small step to helping someone get their life back on track. I won't even waste time on the negative remarks asking why she doesn't go and get state-sponsored help or just 'sort herself out'. If just the world were that simple...