Category Archives: Deep Thought

Philosophy, morality, the state of the world, and so on.

Halloween, or How difficult it is to be this uptight

When I was a little girl, on a random Sunday morning one autumn, a chap stood up to address my church. I noticed this, because he was a) someone whom I had never seen addressing the church before, though I had seen him playing an electric organ there on many occasions, and b) I wasn’t usually there when people stood up to address the church. This wasn’t the sermon, when I would normally be in Sunday School with all the other little darlings, this was an additional message for the church, and it caught my attention.

The chap concerned – Keith, his name was – had stood up to regale the church about the the evilnesses that schools were inflicting on their children under the guise of Halloween. Witches, wizards, ghosts and gouls, spells and potions – it was all bad, and evil, and wrong, and the children’s heads were being filled with it all.

His message hit home, with me at least. I was nine. I realise now, of course, that his message wasn’t targeted at my nine-year-old self. It was aimed at my thirty-something-year-old parents, who needed to Be Aware of the Danger, and Do Something About It. But I was there, I was listening, he didn’t explicitly exclude me from his intended audience, and in my innocence, I took his message to heart.

School that week was very uncomfortable for me. Mr Liddle, in his wisdom, had decided to use a large navy blue sheet to mock up a kind of a spooky corner at one end of our classroom. I forget the details of what was in there, or what we were expected to do about it, but I remember the overwhelming feeling of wanting to avoid the Halloween corner, because it was BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil. I said nothing. I just fretted. And, a bit, hated myself for not telling Mr Liddle about the BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, thereby enabling him to see the error of his ways, and take the blue sheet down.

Imagine my relief, then, when he came over to where I was sitting, and said, “You’re not at all happy about all this, are you?” I shook my head, miserably. He smiled at me encouragingly, and my spirits lifted. He understood! About the dilemma of BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil. He’d stop, now. He’d take the sheet down, and stop.

Oddly enough, the unarticulated discomfort of a nine-year-old girl was not enough for Mr Liddle to change his plan for the week’s lessons. I quite see, now, that it would be an extremely odd state of affairs if it had, but the realisation that the Halloween stuff was going ahead anyway, in SPITE of that conversation, was something of a blow, at the time. I avoided it as far as possible, and took comfort in the fact that once Halloween is over, it’s downhill all the way to Christmas, a festival I felt much more comfortable with.

I’m telling you this story, because I still get that feeling about Halloween. That uncomfortable feeling that I’d prefer it just not to be there. That it would be better for everyone if we just didn’t do it. All the spooky-spooky programmes on CBBC; the trick-or-treating; the randomly ghoulish fancy-dress of the staff in the Pizza Hut – all of it. Bobbing for apples, is, as far as I can tell, harmless, but my gut instinct is to bob for them another time. So that it’s a fun game, rather than a Halloween Activity.

We carved pumpkins in church*, on Sunday. My initial reaction was pretty much the same as that of the nine-year-old in Mr Liddle’s class – Why? It’s uncomfortable. It’s associated with the BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, and it’s not necessary. Why would we choose to do something that’s neither comfortable nor necessary?

Well, I can tell you that, having never carved a pumpkin in my life before, it’s a lot of fun. We sort of justified the event by discussing All Saints Day, and the remembering of Those Who Have Gone Before, which seems like a very Catholic thing to do, for someone of my religious background, but not beyond the pale. Besides, we all knew that we were REALLY there to carve pictures into fruit, because that’s fun. And you can’t get a pumpkin for love nor money at any other time of year, so unless you want to switch to carving strawberries or clementines, it’s not easy to break the link with a certain late-October festival. But I really wanted to.

It’s all part of a very confused thought process surrounding a great number of things, of which Halloween is the pinnacle. I blame Keith from church – I think I’ve probably been confused from that day forward.

I am not against Harry Potter. I have friends who are, and when I’m with them, I feel lax, and naive, and foolish, and like I’m taking massive spiritual risks with my children’s well-being and future. But I have other friends who produce pumpkins to carve in church situations, and when I’m with THEM, I feel uptight, paranoid, and like I need to Get A Grip.

Don’t tell me that I primarily need to drop the angst over what other people think. I know that already.

I’m definitely not against dressing up – I love that my seven-year-old still dresses up, and whilst finding dressing up clothes to fit her is getting trickier (apparently, dressing up is an under-fives activity), I think it’s a fabulous part of being a child. But perhaps not dressing up on the night of BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, in case that which is usually fine suddenly becomes BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, by association (I’ve now got “BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil” in my Copy-And-Paste clipboard, because it’s awkward to type).

Can you see how utterly tangled up and irrational my thinking is on this? I’m finding it all very confusing.

So, yesterday, I did what I often do when I have no clear idea of what I think about something. I talked to my dad about it. And, in the way that he very often does, he threw some very interesting light on the thing for me. What if, he said, Halloween is actually necessary? What if there is genuinely BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, in terms of real spiritual influences, but that the stuff that goes on at Halloween – the dressing up, the pumpkin carving, the being delightfully scared, but not TOO scared – what if the role of those things is specifically to fulfil a need in us to acknowledge the scary. What if, without it, many more people would be driven to seek out the genuinely BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil spiritual experiences? What if Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, rather than opening us up to such things, actually protect us from them?

I had honestly never considered such an angle before, and I’m still working out whether I think it’s valid or not. It does sound a little like precisely the argument one might construct if one was seeking to justify something that was actually BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil. But it certainly gave me some food for thought.

Don’t get me wrong, I remain very much against Trick-or-Treating – it amounts to demanding sweets with menaces, and is a no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned. But maybe I might just calm down a bit over the rest of it.

* For the record, whatever picture entered your mind when I used the word “church” just there, I can guarantee it was more formal and structured than the way we are currently spending our Sunday mornings. Picture a dozen people hanging out at someone’s house, carving pumpkins and cooking lunch.

Fixing economics

Now, before I go ahead and start trying to fix economics, I feel it only fair to point out that I know almost nothing about economics. Kevin tells me that most economic theory is dependent on the assumption that the planet’s resources will never run out, enabling economic growth to continue ad infinitum. That sounds like nonsense, to me, but what do I know? I’m no economist. What follows is an unscientific economic proposal, based on almost no cited evidence whatsoever. It’s foundation, instead, is largely the floaty stuff in the back of my head, which I don’t really remember reading, but must have picked up from somewhere. Caveat over.

I have been thinking quite a bit recently about the multi-generationally unemployed, and other long-term benefit-dependent groups, who have had a lot of negative media attention, recently, on the back of (I think it’s on the back of, not resulting in, though one can’t always tell) equally negative political attention.

It’s not new rhetoric. They talk ceaselessly about people who “won’t” work, rather than can’t, how unacceptable it is for people to live on benefits if it’s remotely possible for them to do otherwise, about “making work pay” (a phrase they find much easier to say than to do, it seems), about obliging parents to leave ever-younger children in child-care while they work. And the media dutifully regurgitate it all, emphasising the exceptional cases to make scrounging look like a norm, creating an underclass of “other” for us all to resent.

I have a lot of problems with this, which you possibly detected, perceptive creature that you are, from the tone of the previous paragraph. But it has lately occurred to me that the imagined solution to these imagined problems is going to solve nothing.

The government agencies working in this area, and, indeed, lots of the non-government agencies, are fixated with the idea that getting people jobs is the ultimate goal. That with jobs, people will have independence from the state, freedom from poverty, and will generally become the sorts of people we can approve of. Their children will achieve more at school, get jobs of their own, and all will be set on an upward trajectory of joy.

The problem, as I see it, is that jobs do not give independence. Very few jobs of ANY sort give independence, but the sort of low-paid jobs for which most of the long-term unemployed would be destined, so much less so. It’s a straight swap – instead of going to government, or, perhaps, charity, and hoping to able to jump through sufficient hoops for a handout that will enable them to survive until the next handout, they are going to an employer, hoping that they, rather than the next person, will be offered the job, so that they can jump through a different set of hoops, to get a wage with which to survive until the next one.

It’s not actually any different. The hoops are different – an employer’s hoops will have more to do with the requirements of a business, presumably, and less to do with bureaucracy and appearing to deserve the money in some way, but ultimately, it’s the same. If anything, it’s more precarious – employers, particularly employers of the low-paid, are rather more likely to dismiss on a whim, and rather more likely to get away with it. Fire a rich person without due process, and expect to get sued. Fire a poor person, and expect no noticeable repercussions at all.

My point is, that the government is trying to solve the wrong problem. The problem is not joblessness. The problem is a culture of dependence. Changing on whom people depend is just moving deckchairs around on the Titanic. People will have a much better chance of raising THEMSELVES out of poverty if they are in control of the process. Being raised by someone else will always lack the commitment and investment of the individual concerned, which is, at best, a shocking waste of an obvious resource of effort. At worst, it’s doomed to failure. Today, someone pointed me towards this blog post by Kester Brewin, and this line caught my eye:

They simply await their welfare payment, and that’s it, and the huge amount of charitable money that has been put into this demographic group has done little to really change the core problem of zero positive engagement with education or labour.

Because money IS poured into trying to get poor people to get jobs, and it doesn’t work. It’s money down the drain. The defining principle behind all this financial investment is the goal of getting people into jobs. But jobs don’t pay much more, they are even less dependable than the benefits system, and most importantly, they don’t offer any direct connection between the performance of the individual and the amount of money in their pocket at the end of the day. A cleaner or a checkout assistant only has to achieve enough to avoid being fired. If by cleaning harder, or smiling at customers more, they manage to increase the profits of the organisation, they’re never going to see the benefit of that. There is a disconnect between the quality of their work, and the reward.

The two key exceptions to this rule which occur to me, are the self-employed, and members of the John Lewis Partnership. Self-employment reconnects the link between the work and profits. It also, as an aside, offers direct control of what the work is like – work for yourself, and you get to decide what is worth doing, and what isn’t. How far you will travel, which jobs are too dirty, which hours are too unsocial – when you’re in direct control, you’re more able to make choices. It’s empowering. It’s the opposite of dependence.

The John Lewis Partnership takes this concept to a mammoth scale. Every member of staff is a partner, and partners get an annual bonus which is a share of the profits. They are directly invested in the success of the business, because they are directly rewarded out of that success. Some of that disconnect presumably remains – it’s such a large organisation, it must make it harder to make the direct link between the size of the profits, and the quality of one person’s work. But it still seems to work – John Lewis continue to make money, to expand, to build massive new shops, even as other retailers are going to the wall. The concept of the workers’ co-operative is much less exceptional in parts of the US, and their experience, too, is that staff are personally invested, so work harder, causing the business to do better.

So my proposition is that, if we are going to pour gazillions of pounds into getting poor people into a situation of financial independence, let’s do it properly. Let’s ACTUALLY work towards helping them be independent. Let’s stop mandatory training on how to get through a job interview, and replace it with proper support for the starting of small businesses, of partnerships, of workers’ co-operatives.

Let’s stop trying to generate fodder for the existing captains of industry, so they can carry on getting richer. Let’s start giving people the chance to make their own money.

Start with why

It struck me today – I read, watch and listen to a lot of stuff on the internet. A lot of it is trash, and some of it is good. I usually assume people find the good stuff – but then that’s not always true because they don’t spend as long as me looking, reading and listening to all the trash. So I thought I might start posting the less trash here – why ? because I believe everyone can achieve great things if they just take time to think about it.

Step one: start with Why:

*blows dust off website*

Blimey. I think I just uncovered the Lost Cave of Blogginess. I feel like Indiana Jones. It’s like there’s a whole civilisation here, that everyone’s forgotten about.

I notice that the Twitter feed’s out of date – I do still tweet, so not sure why the website’s three weeks out of date. And comments are off. Odd. I shall have to poke Kevin for some kind of tech support.

What was the last thing I blogged? Ah, yes, I remember. It was political, wasn’t it? I was very political, then. That was all Before the Election, though. Everything has changed since then. The world feels different. I did sort of predict that it would, but the starkness of the difference has still taken my breath away.

The new government simply does not care about home educators. It’s not interested in us. And nothing could make me happier. They do not mind that they don’t know what my children are learning – they’re reasonably content that the evidence suggests they’re probably learning quite a lot. They do not need to control the minutiae of what we do on a day-to-day basis. They do not feel the need to protect my children from me, just in case I secretly hate them. They know that that’s very unlikely, and in any case, that all the existing mechanisms for protecting children from nasty parents are pretty much good enough as they are. They are not obsessed with power and control. They are, largely, obsessed with trying to make the books balance, and it’s a sufficiently challenging task that they are unlikely to give me and mine more than a second glance for some years to come.

After 18 months of anger and fear and outright paranoia, the change was quite a shock. It took me a while to settle into it. But settle into it I did. A couple of weeks ago, Ofsted produced a report that they were researching before Christmas, into home education. It was all the same yada-yada-yada as we’ve heard before – no-one is monitoring these people, anything could be happening, blah, blah, blah. It was precisely what we were all dreading, last year, when we first got wind of it. Except the wind has changed, and when I read the summary (didn’t bother to read the whole thing, it wasn’t important enough), I didn’t get angry. I laughed. I smirked as I marvelled at how far out of touch Ofsted had suddenly become. It was precisely the report that the last government wanted them to write – the government which couldn’t bear to leave us alone to get on with it, that wanted to pin down every possible deviation from the state-sanctioned norm, and legislate it out of existence. But this government didn’t want it.

I suspect that they weren’t supposed to publish it at all. A few weeks before, the Department for Education had told all the quangos and gravy trains to stop producing this stuff, until they worked out what the priorities were. But Ofsted had put a lot of time and effort into producing a report which helped to justify their existence, at a time when they’re quite afraid for that existence. And besides, these people could be doing anything – someone should be checking up on them! In any case, the response from the government has resembled the sound of tumble-weed blowing through the deserted town. So much so, this week, Diana Johnson felt the need to poke them, from her new spot on the opposition benches, to try and goad them into continuing the witch-hunt that she was so very keen on. She didn’t get very far. The response amounts to “Yeah, yeah, home educators, we’ll look at it later. Much later.”

It won’t be forever. Sooner or later, someone with the power to do something about it will say, “What do you mean, we don’t know how many there are?” and the whole silly roller-coaster will start again. But that day isn’t likely to come for a very long time – until they’ve got the books to balance, at the very least!