Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Computer Let Me Be! 2

Last July I posted a posting about how I hated being patronised by my computer which seemed unwilling to accept the proper UK spelling for things and tended to shove everything into active US grammar. Another thing I mentioned was how the computer constantly wants to shove downloads at me. This is still going on. I find that I am mid-way through writing an email for work when I am told I have to exit and shut down the computer because some download I did not request is complete. Again I feel patronised that my work counts for nothing compared to what the machine feels is more important. Of course it is not really my machine, which is loyal to me, it is the company at the end of the internet connection that keeps on wanting to remind me that it is there and install some incremental change. They did not provide me the computer for free so I do believe that my priorities should outrank theirs, but that does not seem to be the case.

It is far worse when the computer is provided to you for free, namely at work. In my company IT support did not feel we were paying them enough attention so now they have changed all the screensaves to simply show their name and have disabled us from putting any other screen saver on. They have done the same for the default internet page so that a dozen times a day I am told how wonderful the IT support team are and by implication how grateful I should be to them. I know IT staff feel undervalued now that so many of us can edit our own webpages and set up email accounts, but the finance department does not keep sending me reminder cards now that I can make payments to temporary staff employed electronically; the canteen does not pile cakes on my desk now that I can go across the road to a bakers instead of to them. I would like the ability to personalise my computer at least a little bit, but now, it is now a servant of IT support to force me to bow down to them with the respect they feel is due.

The other thing is passwords. Anyone could access my computer and find nothing of commercial or personal sensitivity. No-one has even tried to hack into my machine, I am sure they have better things to do with their time and if they really want to see a series of dull reports I am more than happy to email them to them. So, why do I have to keep changing my password? I have enough trouble remembering all my pin numbers (needed even to operate the photocopier these days, let alone to open doors) and now the passwords to get into my email account, to access this place, to shop online, to restart the computer when it has gone into screen save and so on. To make it harder every four months I have to change my password away from the one I have become familiar with to something else. At my last employers it was worse, you had to change it every month and you had to have 10 different ones as they would not allow you to repeat the first password until you had used 9 others. Consequently, what do you do, to stand any chance of remembering not only the current password but also the one you used 2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 months ago especially when you come back from leave? You write it on a piece of paper which you stick next to the computer. So this is supposed to increase the security? IT staff need to realise to hold all these passwords we need another computer to put them on. I end up emailing it to myself and then at least I can go to a cybercafe and access the list of passwords so that when I get to my office I can get into my own computer!

IT support we love you, you do not have to keep on thinking up rituals to insert yourselves into our everyday life and make us poor workers exasperated as we watch your name scrolling across our screen as we struggle to conjure up yet another memorable password.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Not Forgetting and Not Forgiving 2: Teachers

While I was ill last week I was haunted by memories of those teachers who humiliated me in my youth. I am sure everyone has teachers who made their young lives a misery. I realised that this blog was the ideal environment to purge myself of those ghosts that for more than thirty years have angered me for what they inflicted on me in my youth. I know what they did will probably seem very minor to many people, especially those who suffered harsh abuse, but I think it is important for me to get them out there and away from my psyche.

I thought about whether I should use my former teachers' real names. I do not know the first names of any of them anyway.  I realised that so much time has passed that the bulk will have retired; some I know, are dead.  Those still at work will be in high positions, close to the ends of their careers, so more than strong enough to weather the negative comments of one small boy they taught in the 1980s.  If they continued behaving in the way they behaved to me, I am sure they will feature in the curses of a thousand adults. I now detail those teachers I can neither forget or forgive, in rough chronological order of when I encountered them:

Mrs. Simmons - art teacher
Now, in the UK, most primary school teachers stick with a single class of pupils each year and have to teach them all the subjects. This can be pretty challenging for them, though to some extent it is leavened by the fact that handling pre-11 year olds (in my county we stayed in primary school until 12, out of step with the rest of the UK) they do not have to go into a great depth on any subject. Some, however, do not seem to even work at the level of reading the text book a couple of pages ahead of the children. I met a German researcher at a party in Oxford once and she was investigating how many British primary school teachers believed dinosaurs and humans had co-existed.  She had been stunned at how many had held this view, despite the fact that even basic books on dinosaurs make the 64 million year gap between them apparent. 

Anyway, that is the contextualisation on the type of primary school teachers of which Mrs. Simmons was one.  She taught a class I remember very well about British kings and queens and got most of those of the 20th century in the wrong order. She might be excused as she was employed by the school to teach art to different classes as well as holding down her own class, so it may have stretched her abilities far further than she anticipated. To lessen the burden on herself she forbid us from using certain English grammar in our writing, such as direct speech, we were only allowed to use reported speech which she found easier to mark and correct. (Thinking back on such deficiencies I remember clearly a trainee teacher we had had the year before, while our main teacher was off ill, and when doing addition she would 'carry' the number as you are supposed to do and then 'give it back', so making, for example, the units column have one extra than it should have. She had to be corrected in her ways when our teacher returned, but how this trainee could function in everyday life, let alone as a teacher working with such a fundamental error in her mathematics, I have no idea).

There is another common issue which I realised as I began writing this posting, that applies to teachers working at all levels and that is how self-righteous so many of them are. It is a trait I kept on encountering during my school life. On reflection, I guess you have to believe in your views on things and feel that you have to impart them to others to have the motivation to actually be a teacher, but many of the worse go far too far. I remember one religious education teacher we had who promised to show us so many horrific videos that she felt every girl in the class would never consider having an abortion. It was her first post and I was glad calmer heads stepped in and stopped her distorting things so greatly. Such an attitude also inflicted Mrs. Simmons. Foolishly she told all the parents coming to the parents evening that she saw one of the greatest problems of (her 10-year old) pupils was their immorality around sexual issues and felt that this had to be stamped out. We were oblivious to this crusade of hers but it was going to cause problems. Superficially she appeared the 'cool', trendy teacher but had an approach to schooling more suited to an old fashioned 'school ma'am'. 

In the UK you are supposed to receive your first sex education at the age of 8. It is basic stuff which is mainly about what all the sexual bits of your body do. This is built upon when you do biology at 12. However, I was at school during a period of great industrial unrest so the teachers were often on strike and so somehow we had reached 10-11 years old before anyone realised we had not had our sex education. It became apparent as my year (of three classes) were clearly less well informed about such matters (and the associated emotional issues) than the years below us, let alone children of our age from other schools. Mrs. Simmons, of course, was not happy to have to do this, but she bit her lip and did so, but in such a desultory way that my class was now out-of-step with the other two classes in my year.

Another theme, aside from self-righteousness, that I will return to in this posting as a failing of teachers, is their use of humiliation. I will do anything to avoid humiliation and will intervene or leave a room rather than watch others humiliated. I accept that that is a phobia of mine, but using humiliation on children as so many teachers do, is a terrible tool that can cause problems for years to come. Following the sex education lessons, two girls in my class, one rainy break time, sat and wrote a fake letter (something girls often did, usually on a romantic theme) and in fact an activity Mrs. Simmons encouraged. This time, however, they used their newly found knowledge and wrote as if it was to a boyfriend they had had and saying that they had got pregnant as a result. Now, this may seem a bit mature for girls of 11, but given that now in the UK some are getting pregnant at 14 or younger, probably not too early to discuss the issue. Did Mrs. Simmons use this in a positive learning way when she uncovered this letter? No, of course not. It gave her the opportunity to lay down her strong views on sexuality and not only humiliate the two girls in front of the whole class, but also made us all feel that what was discussed was evil. I discussed this incident a couple of decades later and the two women who had written the letter as girls remembered it vividly. I blame Mrs. Simmons handling of the issue for making it very hard for my class to get on with the opposite sex.  This was something which became very apparent when we all moved up to the secondary school and mixed with children who had not had such warped teachers or delay in the education they needed to mature at a proper pace. Given that the UK outstrips every other country in Europe in terms of the number of teenage pregnancies, people like Mrs. Simmons need to be kept out of the teaching profession.

Mrs. Webb - music teacher
There must be something about music and language teachers as they fill up the bulk of this posting. In those days, long before the National Curriculum, all pupils had to do music. Those who were talented took proper lessons with an instrument, but the rest of us has to do an hour of music per week. We generally listened to classical pieces and heard about the history of composers and played a few percussion instruments. Mrs. Webb resembled Rosa Klebb in the movie 'From Russia With Love' the kind of woman to terrify any eleven year old (the age I was when I last met her). I lack any musical ability and, in particular, rhythm which makes it had to play percussion instruments.  Consequently I was in line for attack from her. In those days teachers could insult you in a way they would not be permitted these days. She felt I was constantly playing out of tune deliberately and would level invective against being 'an individual'. Of course, flushing with embarrassment I was even worse at playing again, triggering the vicious cycle. I was also clumsy and being terrified in her room would knock over things (we had to balance the wooden chairs upright on the tables at the end of class again something else that would be banned these days and I always struggled to achieve it). I do not think I was alone in her attacks as one day when the school hall was being re-decorated we had to eat our packed lunches in classrooms and I was assigned to her room with about 30 other pupils. I hid in the corner and stared at a poster about wind instruments. The room was silent as everyone ate; clearly everyone was in terror of her picking on one of us. She found this strange and told us we had permission to speak, but no-one said anything still and I wondered if she realised how much she terrified us.

Mr. Atherton - language teacher
The language teachers at my school, despite all being British, eerily seemed to match the stereotypes for their respective countries. The French teachers were often relaxed, urbane, with young wives and stylish clothes, the German teachers were very austere almost rude at times and the Spanish teachers, unsurprisingly had similarities with the French but dressed more casually and could be really flirtatious or, if female, looking like the matriarch of an extended Spanish family. 

Mr. Atherton fitted his language with casual, bright clothes and a moustache that would have suited Errol Flynn. He came from northern England and I made the mistake of encountering him in his early days in southern England when he seemed to be on some crusade to hammer southern English children as soft and deserving of harsh treatment. He was very tricky and I fell into one of his traps about when you could and could not speak and got a detention, the only detention I ever received in my whole school career, something I was so ashamed of that I never mentioned it to my family. He was one of those teachers who pretend to be your friend but in reality hold you in contempt. Thinking about his smug attitude really riles me even now. Fortunately his career was brought to an end a few years later when I had left the school as, despite having a young wife, he was caught having an affair with a sixth form girl (sixth formers were 17-19 years old, so it was legal, but obviously disapproved of).

Mr. Marks - language teacher
Mr. Marks was upfront nasty. He would give you small scraps of paper to put your answers to tests on and when you found it difficult to fit the answers on one line you would lose marks as he would say the answer, though correct, was written wrongly. Such behaviour is soul destroying, because you think: what is the point of even trying to get it right? So many of these teachers do not realise how by such behaviour they turn you away from their subjects, let alone making it hard to truly know how you are progressing. He seemed to want to humiliate me all the time (I doubt I was alone in being picked on, but, of course, I can only talk from my personal experience).  At the time of a general election he made me stand up and outline my political views so that he could spend the rest of the lesson explaining why I was so wrong: he was a grown man, I was thirteen, but, of course, he thought it was impertinent that I felt that I had political views at that age. 

The worse case was the following year when I was sent to his class by mistake due to an administrative error and he ordered me out of the classroom (blaming me for the error).  I had to wander the school trying to find someone to tell me where I was supposed to be. He had very dodgy Social Darwinist ideas and would question children waiting to buy crisps and drinks at break time about what ability level of class they were in, assuming less intelligent children would eat more.

Mr. Shoveller - deputy head
My school had loads of deputy heads for different functions. The worst was Mr. Shoveller who looked like a textile mill owner from the 1840s. His attitudes to any physical interaction between boys and girls was much the same and he would prowl around the school disco moving the hands of miscreants dancing during the slow dances (the hands were not permitted to rest on anyone's buttocks) and on school trips arms were not permitted to be put around anyone in photos taken.

For some reason he treated me reasonably well, but I do not forgive him as I witnessed his real side. Every day at the school one pupil was taken out of class to serve as an errand boy/girl to the secretary of the school. This meant that you were positioned for the day in the administrative heart of the school and hence near Mr. Shoveller's office as he was the most junior of the deputy heads. That afternoon, a sunny one when all the windows were open, a boy was brought to him who had been trying to spend a £10 note (worth a lot more in the early 1980s than now) in snack shop. 

The boy, (I knew him reasonably well but we were not friends) was questioned at length about where he got the money from. Shoveller did not believe his explanation that his mother had given it to him to get drinks and snacks for a party (I knew this to be the truth as he had earlier spoken about the party). His mother worked and could not be raised during the day (this was the age before mobile phones and at a time when employers often did not permit outside contact during working hours, again a sharp contrast to today). So, having heard the evidence as he could gather it at the time, Shoveller acted as judge and jury and beat the boy for theft (in those days corporal punishment was still permitted in schools by senior staff). The number of beats seemed excessive to me and the boy was howling for all to hear, no doubt the pain worsened by the fact that actually he had done nothing wrong. I was sat outside the window and realised how arrogant and callous Shoveller was, self-righteous too in that he felt he could beat the wrongdoing out of the boy. It still sickens me to think of how terrorised children were in those days by bullying teachers.

Mr. Salmon - science teacher
This man retired while I was at school meaning he would in his late eighties by now, though he told us he would be dead three years after retirement anyway. With him there was no single incident to point to, just how harsh he was in every lesson. I used to leave with a stomach ache caused by his snide, acid comments about people and their failures. You were terrified of doing anything wrong in his lesson but knew that you could not avoid it. Again he was one of these who liked to be tricksy with his challenges. He always said he only bet on certainties but would cajole us to take the losing side just so that he could subsequently ridicule us. Even for a school that seemed to employ misfits he seemed to have stepped from the 1950s or even 1930s in his behaviour and attitudes. He was very proud that he did not own a television without being aware of how out-of-step that made him with all of us. 

I am beginning to see common themes arising here as, like many of the others, he was self-righteous and clearly loved the extent of his own knowledge and parading it before us, portraying us as poor specimens (in a district where all the most intelligent went to private school, maybe that was his true perception of us state school children). He believed that radioactivity did no harm to the human body which seems a very dangerous belief for a science teacher.

Humiliation and stress began to impact on me medically while at secondary school. There was another teacher who when he realised how I was suffering stopped slapping me around the head (I was not alone in experiencing that, he did it to many of the boys) and ridiculing me, realising that he had probably gone too far. He spoke to me one-to-one about the issue, and it is that realisation on his part that lifts him out of my condemnation today. Mr. Salmon, who literally made me ill with worry, (I can so clearly remember the stomach aches after his lessons) had no iota of an idea of how much discomfort he inflicted, it probably would not have penetrated his thinking even if he had been told directly.

Mrs. Williams - music teacher
You can understand how pleased I was when I reached the age of 14 and music stopped being a compulsory subject. This woman was rather odd and there were many rumours about why that was, maybe it was simply she was a musician. She had performed in alternative music groups in the 1960s, at one stage just making peculiar sounds with her voice. It was said she had had a miscarriage after having been struck by lightning but that sounds like the kind of story that schoolboys make up. She certainly stuck out in what she wore, predominantly leather clothes - jackets, skirts, trousers, tops, boots in a whole variety of shades, of course black but also maroon, olive, red, various shades of brown. I know it was the 1980s and leather clothes were popular but did seem rather outre for a teacher at work. She fostered a clique of admiring pupils around her. Obviously, many of the keen musicians were in this clique, though not all, and pupils with other interests were permitted to enter her ranks of acolytes as long as they did nothing to displease her on the basis of one of her cryptic rules. This 'in' and 'out' division with her obviously caused tension in an average class where he clique members would be favoured over the rest of us. 

The key problem, though, was her general set of quirky rules that you learned through error. She would not accept the word 'hey' to be said in her class and if anyone used it they had to undergo a humiliating ritual. Humiliating rituals were favoured by her for many errors against her rules. For boys she would have you stand on your chair and rotate like a ballerina whilst she played tinkly jewellery box music. In contrast to Mrs. Webb, Mrs. Williams seemed to accept that I had no musical ability in me and left me pretty much alone. However, humiliation to one's friends and classmates can be painful to yourself too and I cringe as I remember pupils being treated that way. She had no realisation that to use such methods signals to children that humiliation is a permissible tool and they need discouragement on that basis, rather than a green light.

Miss. Brook - English teacher
I have now reached the aged of 16 in my school career. This woman I know retired a few years later, probably something like 22 years ago now, so again, she is probably at least 82 if not 87. I know that if she was in education today she would have been charged with some some. Again, like Salmon, she belonged in a previous age. Like Marks she was self-centred and arrogant and like Shoveller, Williams and the rest, self-righteous. The fact that she had less physical and mental impact on me probably reflects that have experienced 6-7 years under all these nasty people I had developed a much harder shell and could see her for the sickening individual she was. She was not even very good at her subject with views that dated back thirty years and she made no attempt to catch up with current thinking. 

In common with many of these teachers she liked to exercise an acid humour on pupils (maybe that is all that a career in teaching leaves you with). However, she also exhibited her prejudices very actively in class. She questioned us about our religion and seemed to particularly dislike Roman Catholics (who made up a sixth of our class) and seemed it incomprehensible that any of us were not Christians (she felt you had to know the Bible intimately to be able to study English literature). Such things are private, not to be dragged out into the open in class. 
Brook had nothing good to say about contemporary culture as if all us teenagers should listen to nothing bar Beethoven at the most modern. She openly criticised how we dressed as if out of school we would dress the way she did as a 60+ year old woman. She also felt that the concerns of no-one else in the school were marginally as important as her concerns (for example if you had to go on a history trip). The fact that the English teachers had their own separate staff room, I think simply illustrated the difficulties they caused for the rest of the school. Her greatest problem was how lowly she perceived her pupils. Owing to the fact that none of us subscribed to the culture she liked and because we often espoused new ideas she was convinced that we were going to fail, especially if we were Catholic or Scottish or thought about going to university. She gave the lowest predicted grades of anyone I have encountered and clearly signalled that we were an embarrassment to her and the best we could hope for was to train as a manager for a supermarket.  Again I think much of this stemmed from the area where we lived with its high level of private schools, though at 16+ many of the private school children had come back into the state sector, something she did not seem to comprehend despite her regular cross-examining of us in class.

A teacher has to have faith in his/her pupils, especially when they become teenagers, otherwise they are going to abandon all hope. Maybe that was what she wanted so that we achieved nothing more than she did. Clearly she felt we were contemptible and deserved nothing better, a bad attitude for a teacher who is supposed to raise, rather than douse expectations.

Recent reports say that there are 17,000 incompetent teachers working in the UK at present teaching 100,000 pupils at some time or another during every school week. I do not know whether the teachers I discussed above were incompetent but they were bad teachers in other ways. Teachers should not be self-righteous, they should not bully and especially not humiliate pupils. They should give constructive criticism not patronise people. They should expect the best of all pupils not dismiss them and push them away from opportunities. They should not make arbitrary decisions but base choices on sufficient evidence. They should also be aware of how much they screw up people's lives for decades to come, when they behave in nasty ways. They are in a position of immense power and should use it responsibility or should be kicked out of the profession as soon as possible. 

Now, I estimate around 100 teachers taught me in 14 years I spent at school and college and only a fraction of them remain in my memory for what they inflicted on me. No-one pretends teaching is an easy job, but it is clear that no-one who enters the profession should be allowed to treat pupils in a way which causes mental and emotional difficulties as all of the teachers highlighted here, did for me. Some of them may be dead and gone but their impact lives on in the way my life turned out and I am sure there must be thousands of people they have screwed up in similar or worse ways. I remember the nasty teachers not the good ones and I imagine I will continue to condemn them for as long as I remain alive.

P.P. Andrew White - university tutor
Recently I saw an old Volvo car and it brought back to mind a tutor I had at university who caused me so much problem by his incompetence that it was clear that I had blotted him from my memory. The man is Andrew White and I imagine that he is now about 45/46 so probably in a similar sort of position as to when I met him. I see he has gone from where I encountered him, though one of his colleagues who was not much better, is not only still there, but has been promoted. I never met such a patronising woman who seemed to hold her students in contempt and loved playing mind games with us. However, she did not have as direct input into the problems I experienced as White did.

White was simply incompetent, completely out of his depth and we students suffered as a consequence. I failed the course that I had saved thousands of pounds for. He had given minimal feedback and then turned up at last stage, at my house with a feedback form jammed with criticisms that he insisted I sign. It said if the university authorities wanted more information of how poor I was at my course they should contact him. This damning document was only produced in the final month of the course.  If I had truly been that bad the suggestions should have come much sooner. I did not roll over in the way he and his colleagues expected. I scrawled over his feedback form saying I totally disagreed with it (never be compelled to sign anything and if they insist make sure you spoil their document with your comments written over it, very visibly) and took his improper behaviour to a formal university complaint. I never found the outcome but I trust that they booted him out of the university.

White drove around in an old Volvo in which the seatbelts did not work and I wished that I had shopped him to the police. I saw the car again a couple of years later outside a restaurant in London and it was only because I was with a girlfriend that I did not attack it or storm into the restaurant and seek to humiliate him for what his incompetence did to my life and his arrogance in seeking to cover-up his blunders. If I ever see him again when I am alone I will probably end up in prison for assault. My hatred runs that deep.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Do Greener Paths to the Future Need to Be So Conflicting?

This afternoon the Virgin airline company is flying a Boeing 747 from London to Amsterdam with one engine powered by bio fuel made up of oil from a nut grown in rain forests and ordinary coconuts. This event in the past might have been praised as finding a way to provide sustainable airline fuel, which is daily used in vast quantities, as a substitute for fossil fuels. However, the event has been severely criticised as nothing but a publicity stunt and green groups such as Friends of the Earth have pointed to the fact that bio fuels produce more greenhouse gases both in their growth and in their use than conventional fuels. They also argue that growing bio fuels takes away land that should be used to produce food. They also dismiss Virgin's plans for developing algae-based fuels as impossible in decades. Sir Richard Branson the head of Virgin is probably wondering why he even bothered. His argument is that the nuts will make rain forests more necessary and so people will be less willing to deforest and that the coconuts come from plantations where people cannot even sell their nuts normally.

Now it is clear that there are differing views of the future and most greens would like all of us to stop travelling away from where we live certainly by aeroplane and to only eat locally-produced food. We would go back to a kind of 18th century model of living. As it is, in the UK mobility is being reduced greatly given the sharp increases in fuel and public transport prices, but that is not being done on any environmental basis, simply due to the greed of companies. Trains are lesser polluters than cars, lorries and aircraft but it is now more expensive to go by train from Cornwall in South-West England to West Scotland than it is to fly to Cuba and stay in a hotel for a week. You can have a holiday in Egypt for less than a train fare from London to Newcastle in North-East England.

The world as a whole produces too much food and has been wasting vast quantities of it for decades. The European Union has long encouraged farmers to 'set aside' land from production for other uses or just to lie fallow so as to reduce food production. Now I accept that much of this land is not in regions of the world producing tropical fruit but rape seed which grows in vast quantities in the UK is a bio fuel too. The world can feed everyone who currently lives on it, it is just that the food resources are held by the rich and the agricultural economies of much of the world is distorted to satiate the rich, at cheap prices, rather than feed locals. Fair trade approaches are beginnning to assist a little but will not alter two centuries of distortion overnight.

As I have noted before, control of oil has taken over from first religion and then politics as the prime cause of wars in our contemporary world. So whilst bio fuels may have difficulties at present if more people can grow fuel in many parts of the world it should reduce the fighting to capture what is becoming an increasingly rare resource and we have known that for the past four decades.

Branson represents one view of the future which is a capitalist, global economy that pays attention to its impacts on the environment and on people. There is a much more popular model which is that simply capitalism proceeds as it is at the moment chewing up everything and everyone in its way. Now, I am no advocate for Branson, but I am relieved that he seems to behave more in the way that many Victorian businessmen did, tempering his drive for profits with other concerns. He could simply continue to run his airlines on the fuel they currently use and not bother to experiment, but he feels it is important to do so.

The green movement keeps making a huge error that undermines its campaigns. It keeps offering us one option: return to the 18th century or die. Now for the bulk of the population sitting in brightly lit houses, microwaving their meals, playing with their ipods, flying for holidays in Spain, the 18th century is not an attractive prospect. They are willing to take that gamble than give up all the things that they feel they have worked hard for (and which it is becoming increasingly difficult to get hold of as prices rise and wages stay stagnant). So, the bulk of us are not going to listen and we are not going to alter our behaviour to benefit the planet.

Personally I have long encountered this 'all or nothing' approach from the greens. Back in 1980s I was an enthusiastic youth and with my housemates recycled and did all we could living in a Midlands town to address environmental issues. Then I went to a talk which featured all the candidates in the local election. Me and my friend were on the front row knowing that the Green Party candidate was going to be there and were interested to hear what she had to say. That was the day we abandoned all attempts to be green. When her turn came she made no effort to try to win over anyone in the audience and simply said in the following words 'you will never be like us, you will never really understand'. She made it appear that she would feel dirtied to receive the votes of the audience. In addition, it seemed to me as an impressionable supporter that however hard I worked I would never be able to reach the perception or the status of this 'us' she spoke about. She left that hall with less support than she had entered it with, but probably felt righteous through her patronising of what she saw as the greedy idiots killing her planet.

Green movements no matter what their focus need to learn from religions. Christianity offers the model of Hell but it also offers Heaven as a reward for living a good life. At the moment the greens simply keep showing us different versions of Hell without any suggestion of how a green, sustainable world could look like (and not just one that is the 18th century recycled - people are not going to give up on high tech); this is why Branson is popular he seems to indicate a time when you could travel without damaging the Earth in doing so.

Another aspect that the greens overlook is that those religions that have an 'elect' that you are born into, die out, they do not grow and they do not prosper in the meantime. Addressing environmental issues is too important to adopt that approach. You need to win over a much larger chunk of the population, because even if say, 75% of the ordinary British people supported green movements actively their influence would be minimal against the 0.1% of the population who are super-rich. However, the greens seem to be making no effort even to address the bulk of the population. Again they need to look at how religions did it. In the past some men and women would become monks and nuns. They were a small elite in society, living godly ways. However, many would reach out into the local communities and some people would become lay brothers, associated with the monastery but not taking vows and other people would help the monastery with money and labour. A successful movement needs to ripple out into its community or it becomes cut off. Those bodies which have a single rule and turn away anyone who does not match their standards will not thrive. There are millions of young people who could support green movements but if it has strict rules they are never going to participate. There are millions of families who could reduce their consumption of fuels, plastics, paper, water, and so on, but they need it set out in easy steps otherwise like me twenty years ago they will simply give up and go for the easy option of not bothering at all.

It is a great sensation to feel righteous and patronise the idiots in society, however, more greens have got to give up this power trip and realise that if they are going to lay foundations for real change for our planet's benefit they need to come up with an offer to the bulk of the population which is more appealing than 'change or die'. Despite what you might think most people will gamble on the 'die' option especially when so many scientists and politicians give us conflicting information about what that entails or what causes it. It may be uncomfortable to sit down with Branson who you see as a self-publicist, but at least he has made more steps in your direction than the bulk of businesspeople and if you avoid ridiculing you may find you can get his money and influence behind you. It is better to show people, gently, the error of their ways, than to dismiss their efforts which have often been at heavy cost to them as worthless. When the green movement lost me in 1988, it probably did not notice, but there are others who have a lot more power and influence than me who could accelerate achieving many green objectives. Responsibility for the destruction of the planet will not lie with the attitudes the green movement adopted, however, responsibility for not changing the minds of sufficient people to stop that destruction will lie with them.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Northern Rock and Nationalisation

I acknowledge that I am pretty tardy with this posting but illness has kept me away from my blog. My irritation about comments on the nationalisation of the Northern Rock Building Society last week remains sufficiently high to prompt me to cast off another tablet of lead about this issue. The main thing that rankled me was that the Conservatives said that the nationalisation showed that the Labour Government could now not be trusted on the economy. I would accept this as a criticism if Northern Rock had got into trouble whilst it was owned by the government, but the difficulties it encountered were engineered by those running the building society, not the government. Even the Conservatives have had nothing to complain about the low inflation, reasonably low unemployment and not too bad growth of the UK economy since the 1990s. What you can argue is that the government has drawn been unwilling to allow the harshest consequences of the undemocratic capitalist economy we live in, biting. Northern Rock has 1.4 million people who save with it and 0.8 million people who have mortgages with it. If the government had allowed the building society to collapse these people would have all lost their money. This would have led to a dent in expenditure at a time when the Bank of England is concerned about slowing consumption. It would have also thrown all these borrowers into the market desperately looking for mortgage replacements. The nature of many of the products that Northern Rock sold meant that many customers would have found it difficult to relocate their mortgages. Repossessions are currently 20% higher than they were in 2006; 27,100 houses were repossessed in 2007 compared to 22,400 in 2006 and 10,260 in 2005. This is lower than the 70,000 per year in the peak of the 1990-3 slump, but is clearly a bad sign for the British economy which is so focused on house ownership. In addition, Northern Rock, though it now has branches across the UK is heavily focused in northern England and so the impact of the first British building society collapse since 1892 (The Liberator Permanent Benefit Building Society, at the time the largest one in the UK, wrecked by the activities of its founder) would have fallen more heavily in some towns. The other thing was the impact of seeing queues of people outside Northern Rock branches in September 2007 when the building society's problems began, some crowds of whom had to be dispersed by police, was not a good image, being to reminiscent of the crash images of the 1920s and 1930s.

Anyone who knows people with mortgages could have told you ten or fifteen years ago that Northern Rock was going to be in difficulty some day. The trouble is that bankers and politicians do not listen to ordinary customers. In the 1990s I never heard a single good word about Northern Rock from anyone I knew who had a mortgage with them. There were constant complaints about their customer service and the poor level of information that they provided. Consequently for the past two decades, in an increasingly complex mortgage market (now you can get mortgages from all sorts of businesses including supermarkets), the only way they were going to win and retain customers was through making more and more attractive products. This is how they ended up with the extremity of 110% mortgages. Anyone could tell you such products were a high risk. By definition they appeal to people who are less financially secure. In addition, with the rapid move away, in the mid-1990s, from endowment mortgages marketed so aggressively in the 1980s, anyone would have advised you to avoid any mortgage which did any more than help you secure your house. Of course, in an economy which I have highlighted time and time again emphasises house purchase as the means of effectively becoming a citizen and making any provision for your future security, of course there were people willing to gamble with such products. At the start of 2007, one out of five new mortgages were with it. The government could have been criticised for not restraining Northern Rock from pandering so greatly to this market or at least doing so with insufficient reserves and back up. In particular Northern Rock borrowed far more from the financial markets than its competitors and was far less wedded to actually how much people were saving with it, which in the past was the basis on which building societies operated. In 2005 the government decided the British economy could not tolerate the collapse of any of its banks and so it would have to intervene if one appeared to be in trouble which is why Northern Rock got £55 billion in loans and guarantees at the end of last year.

What the Conservatives and people in the financial sector want is for the government not to spend money assisting failing businesses and yet they do not want it either to impose regulation, they complain about the nanny state. What they want is to charge around making billions of pounds of profit and for ordinary people to lose their houses if the company makes a blunder. In a democracy the government cannot allow so many ordinary people to suffer and in an economy where housing is such a bedrock for other activity, really the bankers have to face the fact that however they feel about making the ordinary person pay it could wreck everything for them. I believe the government should have stepped in and having taken the decision in 2005 that it could not allow a collapse to have severely reined in the very risky behaviour of Northern Rock rather than allow them to make excessive profits for another two years that are now costing everyone dearly. We are not bailing out the ordinary borrower, we are effectively subsidising the income of incompetent bankers, they should be the ones to suffer.

Another problem is the death of mutual building societies. Mutual building societies were non-profit making credit bodies and this made them distinct from banks. As they had no share holders they could offer better terms and rates of interest but often lacked the facilities of things such as current accounts. In the wave of privatisations of the 1980s, from 1986 onwards building societies were allowed to turn themselves into banks. In 1989 the Abbey National was the first to change to a bank and most other building societies made the change in the following years, in many cases because those with accounts got a pay out of a couple of thousand pounds at the change over. In 1995 the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society became a bank and was aborbed by Lloyds Bank, the first time a converted building society had been so taken over. A milestone occurred in 1997 when the largest building society in the UK, the Halifax became a bank. All building societies after 1986 could act like banks with the types of accounts and other products such as insurance that banks offer, it did not mean they had to stop being mutual to do that, it is just as with all privatisations, people wanted short term gain at the expense of the economic stability of the UK.

Now there are very few mutual building societies, the Nationwide (with 10 million customers; £75 billion in assets in 2004) is the largest. Ironically many of the remaining mutuals have characteristics of the first building societies in being focused on a region especially in northern England. However, being mutual does not mean they are not commercially successful: Coventry Building Society (1 million customers: £9 billion assets in 2004), Leeds & Holbeck (8th largest building society; 600,000 customers; £5.3 billion assets 2004), Newcastle Building Society, Britannia Building Society, Skipton Building Society, Scarborough Building Society, Nottingham Building Society, Buckingham Building Society are the others (Leeds, Holbeck, Skipton and Scarborough are all in Yorkshire in North-East England; Coventry and Nottingham are old industrial towns in the Midlands). Not being driven by shareholders who want profits and good returns on their shares rather than their savings, distorts the policies that 'bank' building societies adopt. Everyone who has an account in a mutual building society is effectively a share holder and votes at the general meetings. This means they can stop the building society being taken over by people focused on a quick return and keep it on track with doing what building societies are supposed to do which is providing well founded credit to its members primarily to buy houses. If Northern Rock had not become demutualised in 1997 I doubt it would have got to the situation it is in now.

The other thing is about nationalisation. Nationalisation is the government taking anything from a majority share holding to total ownership of a company. There is a whole range of models of how nationalised industries can be run, but in the UK we tend to do it at 'arm's length' leaving business decisions up to the boards of the nationalised companies and often not compelling them to fit in with broader economic plans for the country. This contrasts sharply with other countries who have a so-called 'mixed' economy notably France which used nationalised industries to shape and stimulate the economy after the Second World War. Weaknesses in nationalised industries in the 1970s, mainly because they were heavy industries whose time had passed in Western Europe anyway, tarred the approach with a negative view. In addition, the British government seemed to put poor business people in charge of these companies, mainly because competent business people have no patriotism at all only personal greed and want ridiculously high salaries that governments cannot afford. In the 1980s-90s all the nationalised industries in the UK were privatised generating huge profits for already wealthy people and leaving us with poorly run, fragmented industries such as all the railway and utility companies which I often complain about.

Nationalisation is most associated with Labour governments but was started even before the Labour Party existed in the UK: effectively the economy of India was nationalised in 1857-8 when it was taken over by the British Government from the control of the East India Company; 1875 - Suez Canal Company, 1916 - parts of the alcohol business, 1926 under the Conservatives electricity was nationalised, 1927 - again the Conservatives - British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) - state run radio and television body set up (the BBC was only a 'Company' for some months in 1926 despite what a lot of novelists and historians write in their books), 1933 - National Government (a coalition dominated by Conservatives) - London Transport, (1938 - the royalties from coal, the industry was not nationalised until 1946), 1939 - National Government - British Overseas Airways Corporation. Between 1946-51 the following industries were nationalised: coal, Bank of England, electricity, Cable & Wireless, railways, canals, Thomas Cook & Co. (travel agents), road haulage, hospitals, gas and steel. All former owners were bought out, the companies were not seized the way they were in Communist countries. At its peak only 20% of the economy was nationalised, but the focus was on the so-callled 'commanding heights' things which were handled best with a national perspective and which could direct the rest of the economy in healthy directions. However, unfortunately, they were left too free and there was no overall plan for the economy. Though it is interesting to think as a 'what if?' if things like coal and the railways had remained fragmented how much worse the British economy would have been in the 1950s and 1960s given how poorly especially coal had been run before the war. Similarly with only private hospitals the productive health of the country would have been much poorer. Even Winston Churchill, the Conservative leader defeated in 1945 had had plans for nationalisations in line with what the Conservatives had done in the 1920s and 1930s.

The problem is that from about 1967, when steel was nationalised for a second time (it had been privatised in 1953) onwards nationalisation was about saving companies on the verge of collapse, such as Rolls-Royce engines in 1971, British Leyland cars in 1976 and a number of collapsing aerospace and shipyard companies in 1977. The bulk of these companies were beyond saving and to some extent they were taken over to slow the loss of jobs. However, they weighed down the government's expenditure and suggested that nationalisation in itself was bad. There was no attempt to really use them to stimulate the economy. Under Tony Blair the government shied away from anything that seemed to associate his regime with what was deemed 'Old Labour' attitudes and instead encouraging the 'fat cat' capitalists who as we know actually now run the country. The trouble is if nationalisation is always really about a rescue package then it will always fail. The government should have taken over Northern Rock in 2005 and used it to begin stabilising the housing market and to some degree regulating house prices by example. Northern Rock was taking about 20% of new business so by say limiting the lending, then house prices could have been reined in without sending them into collapse and houses would still be within the reach of more people. Of course the capitalists do not want the risk of nationalisation hanging over them, it annoys them when they cannot allow their greed to run unfettered through the lives of us ordinary people who count for nothing in their books except how much we can give them in terms of fees, our happiness is nothing in their excessive Social Darwinist economic view. Nationalisation will always fail when it is used as the last resort. Capitalists need to pay for their blunders and greed, however, not us. It is clear from the British Gas results, a five times increase in their profits their year and a 15% increase in their prices, that we are being bled dry for the insatiable greed. There is clearly a cartel between the 6 energy providers in the UK with no more than a £13 difference between the most expensive and the cheapest, and yet no-one is willing to nationalise fuel provision nor even to enact anti-trust laws of the kind the USA has had for ninety years. Utilities and the railways need to be nationalised now and not when one of the greedy companies loses its profits gambling with our interests.

The government could have acted faster on Northern Rock, but its biggest failing is to be unwilling to rein in even to the slightest degree the greedy billionaire parasites of the British economy.

P.P. On reflection, I realised that my sense that I was moving in an anti-capitalist direction was unfounded. No-one would have accused Clement Attlee or Herbert Morrison or Harold Macmillan of being anti-capitalist and what I am advocating is nothing different to the lines they took on having a mixed economy. In fact it can be argued that it would be a more efficient form of capitalism than the current pattern in which equity funds are simply stripping away assets from successful businesses (Pret-a-Manger is currently in line to be abused) for the greed of the super-rich. Directing business people to act in a responsible way with concern for the rest of the system in which they are operating will actually sustain capitalism, otherwise in a couple of decades there will be no businesses actually producing products or services and equity funds simply fighting to eat each other up. Putting the 'commanding heights' of the economy into state control allows other policies to be pursued such as those around green issues like efficient use of fuel and recycling more effectively than regulations and fines.

The trouble is we keep being told that the economy of the super-rich unfettered by any regulations or concern for the 99.9% of the population who are not super-rich, is the only acceptable form of capitalist economy, that is rubbish and people who are pro-capitalism need to challenge that portrayal.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Britain as a 'Soft Touch' for Terrorism

I should keep a log of how many months pass between the UK newspapers being filled with stories about how the country is open house for terrorist activities and thus how we need to have longer terms of imprisonment without charge and we need to bar immigrants and we should all have identity cards. This one seems to be a reaction to thought of cutting back UK expenditure on jobs in intelligence bodies. At the end of the Cold War these bodies found themselves without much of a job so they first hitched themselves to the issue of organised crime and then since 11th September 2001 they have had an ever re-newing reason for the existence and for large expenditure on them. The last major terrorist incident in the UK was the 7th July 2005 bomb in London and the failed attempt to run a car into Glasgow airport on 30th June 2007.

US intelligence bodies invented al-Qaeda because funding in the USA has to be targeted at an organisation rather than individuals. There is nothing like al-Qaeda that is perceived by the bulk of the population, a multi-national terror corporation modelled on the lines of SPECTRE in the James Bond movies. Rather there are individual terrorist groups, usually very small, that sometimes co-operate but often work in contradictory directions. Some of the ones uncovered in the UK engaged in training which even British intelligence officials acknowledged would not benefit these terrorists at all. Many of young men who in the USA would be in the various militia and like running around pretending to be tough because they can achieve very little in their lives. The doctors behind the attack on Glasgow airport also suffered from similar inadequacies. Everyone loves being in a secret club and as happened with the left-wing terror groups of the 1970s such as the RAF in West Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy, it often becomes an end in itself though leading to terrible consequences.

To perceive a global conspiracy is as misplaced as racist warnings against the 'Yellow Peril' in the 19th century. At the same time as governments keep telling us to fear small terrorist cells they are quite happy to go along with the Chinese government which has millions of people under arrest and adds to that number on a weekly basis, supports dictatorships like that in Sudan and habitually uses torture in its system. Surely the world is at more risk for the 'respectable' Chinese government than it is from small groups of hotheads.

So if the UK is now a 'soft touch' for terrorism what was it in the past. In the 1970s-1990s the UK was plagued by bombings by Irish Republican bodies. Suspected Irish terrorists were barred from coming to mainland Britain, the SAS (Special Air Service) operated an assassination policy of these terrorists in Ireland and Gibraltar, there was internment of terrorist suspects often in inhumane conditions not that different from Station X at Guantanamo Bay, and even innocent people like the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six were locked up on flimsy evidence and kept in prison for years. There was censorship of political parties which would not deny terrorism. The British Army was based in large numbers in Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary drove around in armoured cars and were the only part of the British police force in which every officer was armed. Was this approach not tough enough? It certainly did not stop the bombings either in Britain or Northern Ireland. It was only when these things

The latest 'warning' from the Royal United Services Institute about the UK points to all the usual solutions: more money for the intelligence bodies, a strong Cabinet committee (often called a junta in other countries) of the military and political leaders to co-ordinate the reaction and more money to all the Armed Forces. Yet the most alarming element of this report is that supposedly Britain's multi-cultural approach makes Britain more vulnerable to attack. Well, that is fine then, lets move towards segregation, say along the lines adopted by South Africa in the apartheid era or the USA in the 1950s, because that policy did very well in having peace and reducing the number of deaths (this is a sarcastic statement). Britain is already suffering from insufficient multi-culturalism, look at areas where segregation has de facto happened, such as in the Bradford riots in July 2001.

The way to reduce terrorism is to make the people who live in a country feel they have something invested in it. If you exclude them further, then of course many will throw their lot in with those who are trying to make their view of society the dominant one. This is what happened in the 1970s in Italy and West Germany when people felt society and politics was all controlled by the rich and powerful and the only way to counter them was with violence. Of course the buzz of being a terrorist soon takes over, but that was what motivated these terrorists, and more importantly, the support system of hundreds more people that built up around the core of actual terrorists.

The other thing is powerlessness. As I have noted before, anger is really common in the UK because so many people of every kind of background feel that no-one will listen to them. Is it then suprising that some people take this anger further into violent attacks? Terrorism takes many forms and we see it with people attacking speed cameras. The government is reducing the voice that everyone has in the UK and so people are angry. If some sectors of society feels that are also facing prejudice and in particular access to opportunities, then their ears are going to be open to those who tell them there is another way and it can be won with violence.

The other point about these scares is they further erode the things we are actually trying to protect. If we move to a situation with censorship, restricted freedom of movement, segregation of different sectors of the population, detention without trial, detention camps, the use of evidence derived from torture, armed para-military bodies, a junta at the centre of government, then we might as well simply become China or North Korea or Saudi Arabia or Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Taliban Afghanistan because we will have turned our back on democracy and civil liberties and created just the kind of society actually many of the terrorists want. Our government is advancing the cause of the terrorists better than they are doing it themselves. Of course these lords and field marshals want such a structure so they can be in power, but for the rest of us we lose out far faster than even if terrorism becomes as frequent as it was in the early 1970s.

Britain is no more of a 'soft touch' for terrorists than it was in the 1970s. However, the rush to establish a segregated, authoritarian Britain which seems to be the mission of so many people in power at present, will exacerbate violence and terror of all kinds. A lack of multi-culturalism is to blame for many problems and its true achievement would actually lift a lot of the tensions that these commentators blame. Of course, they want the opposite, for us to be divided against our neighbours and fearful, because a divided and frightened society is much easier for them to control. Britain is a soft touch for would-be dictators.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

No Access to the Law

As regular readers will know I am facing another round of legal problems with the representative of my former landlord. He seized the £1000 deposit back in September and now is claiming anout £400 to do up the garden and £1000 additional rent. So, I needed advice on how to deal with this. Solicitors (equivalent of attorneys in the USA and notaries in other European countries) cost about £300 (€405; U$585) per hour, some as much as £800 per hour, so well out of the reach of even well off people to consult. In the UK we have a system called Legal Aid but in 2004 limits were introduced on who could access it as it was felt it was becoming too expensive a system to run. Trying to find out the top limit is difficult. The government has a Legal Aid Elibility Calculator: Legal Aid is still available for those on benefits or very low incomes but for anyone in a job or comfortably off you are not longer entitled. It has been denied increasingly to asylum seekers too. Consequently access to the legal process is now barred to the bulk of the population. Only the very wealthy can easily access legal services. Even when you have to use solicitors as when selling or buying a house you find they give very poor service for the thousands of pounds you pay. I have already outlined on this blog how little service we received for paying £3500. There are only two solicitors companies in my town that will handle legal concerns of tenants, all the others will only take you as a client if you own a house and pay their fees. Today I met a woman, a first-time buyer who had used the same solicitors as I had done and came off even worse, they missed many legal traps in the lease she signed and she has found herself repeatedly liable for a whole range of charges costing hundreds of pounds on each occasion which the solicitors had not alerted her to.

The only other option for legal advice even (not representation, increasingly you have to represent yourself in court and battle against people using high-paid lawyers who know all the tricks) is to go the Citizens' Advice Bureau. Now, they are a wonderful charity staffed by volunteers but as a result of 'rip-off' Britain with rapacious landlords and so many scams they are terribly overworked. I tried emailing my local branch on Monday and telephoned them constantly through yesterday and so today went to their office. I was seen within 1 hour of arriving which was pretty good. It was a very unnerving situation though as the advisor laughed my concerns off as 'just a story' and said I was wasting his time. Eventually I made him see how afraid we are of people demanding money and how terrifying it can be when debt collectors turn up at your house. By the end of the meeting he seemed to take me more seriously. I guess I am in not as severe a position as many people who come and see him, no-one is trying to evict me yet or take my children into care or those things. However, it took time to emphasise to him that to us it is important and we do not have the money being demanded and if we had to pay we would begin the spiral into other problems such as being unable to pay the mortgage.

One piece of advice if you are going to a Citizens' Advice Bureau, turn up with as much paper-based evidence as you can muster. There were people in there with box files about their cases. The advisors seem to expect this and it means they are less likely to perceive what you are talking about as 'a story' and nothing more. Include all the letters you have received and all of those you have written. Despite us being in this electronic age, emails do not count. On the other hand do not make my mistake and write an explanation of what has happened to you, rather explain it orally. This will allow the advisor to engage fully with you and ask questions as you go along.

Anyway, it turns out that however much the police dismissed our concerns, we were being harassed under the 1997 Freedom from Harassment Act when the landlord's representative sat outside our house and repeatedly kept calling especially as it was causing visible stress to my housemate. We were apparently in our rights to refuse to talk to the man and should have insisted he only communicate on paper. Apparently neither phonecalls (unless recorded) or verbal statements or emails count for anything legally. We should have similarly got a letter from the bank telling us about the steps to repossess. We should have tried to get the landlord's representative to write down that he insisted on us moving out in a 2-week window of his choosing as apparently they cannot get you to move out with less than 2 months' notice. Of course people somehow make an assumption that being middle class you know all these rules, but of course we do not and landlords and letting agents always know far more than we do.

As it turns out we are liable for the £1000 rent for January as these fixed-term contracts can never be broken even if you give notice or even if new tenants move in. They are great for landlords because they can get two incomes from the same property. The issue over work on the garden apparently has no legal guidelines and though we had vacated the property we were still legally responsible for it to the end of our contract so the grass which has grown up should have been cut by us. In court, we could contest the £400 charge for cutting grass on such a small area. In addition, the landlord cannot apparently demand extra charges on top of the £1000 deposit he took from us, so even if £400 is soaked up by the garden, he has to use the £600 remaining towards the rent charge meaning we have to still find another £400 but no more. Of course this is not how the landlord's representative sees it as he took our deposit for us causing him difficulties, not to cover expenses.

Apparently the best thing for us to do now is to get the landlord to take us to court. Of course we cannot afford legal representation (you only get it free if you have been charged with a crime, not in a civil case like this) so I will have to defend myself. Fortunately once I had managed to get the Citizens' Advisor to see how much trouble we were facing he advised me to come back for further advice about the legal documents once they are issued, so I did not feel so guilty about seemingly wasting his time. People need to understand that legal threats are frightening; the law is incredibly confusing and seems to be very imbalanced to the bulk of the population. We need help to deal with it or there is no point in having laws we might as well simply go back to Stone Age society in which the strongest one in a fight comes out on top.

Sorry this posting has gone from a general issue back to talk about my housing woes. However, it is a slice of the challenges that UK people face in dealing with the law. There were ten people in the waiting room at the Citizens' Advice Bureau when I arrived there this morning and I am sure they could tell similar stories of how hard it is to contest things legally in the UK, in fact two of them did tell me.

As I have noted before, power in the UK is in the hands of the very wealthy with the bulk of the population stripped of rights to oppose the bullying we get put under. It is no different to the Victorian times, we are simply supposed to put up with our maltreatment and be grateful for it. Our landlord's representative clearly believes that we should be so grateful for him letting us live in the house and that we should keep paying for the privilege of the months of pressure he put us under. Fixed-term tenancy contracts should be banned, they are not feasible to work with in a country where jobs are ever changing. It is perverse to be able to charge people rent for a house they are not living in. Greed seems to have become king in this country and (lots of) money is the only definition of power. As our rights and access to the law are regularly eroded it simply exacerbates this situation further in favour of the rich. Is it no surprise that people turn to rage to get some kind of recompense when there are no longer any legal means open to them? The British are too passive to revolt, but I am sure increasingly frustrated people will strike back locally against these fat cat lawyers and Rackman landlords and who can blame them?

Why It Would Be No Surprise If Berwick Went Into Scotland

The town of Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumbria (population over 26,000) lies on the English side of the border between England and Scotland. It has changed hands between the two countries 13 times since the 13th century and looks on the verge of changing hands once again. Ever since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999 there has been talk of shifting the border and now it has reached the state that a motion is going through parliament to effect the change. The majority of the local population support the change. It will not be without challenges. Scotland has a different legal system to England (for example court cases can have a 'not proven' verdict in addition to a 'guilty' or 'not guilty' verdict) and on an increasing numbers of points of law there are differences. The two systems were never combined when England and Scotland were joined by the Act of Union in 1707 and since the creation of the Scottish Parliament the laws have diverged further. This means lawyers from England cannot practice in Scotland and vice versa, so all the solicitors in Berwick will have to go for retraining. The same applies to teachers. If you are trained in England you cannot teach in Scotland which despite the so-called National Curriculum introduced in 1992 has different subjects (for example Citizenship was introduced a lot earlier there than in England) and examinations. Scottish children do not sit SATS at 7 years old, they have qualifications called Highers rather than 'A' levels and Scottish students studying in Scotland do not have to pay fees in the way English have to pay in England. Despite their smaller population the Scots had five universities when England only had two and education is much more respected in Scotland. Anyway, the differences mean that for some people in Berwick it is going to be a question of moving away or getting new qualifications. Estate agents (there are 3 companies based in Berwick) are already complaining as they would apparently have to be retrained (and there was me thinking that all estate agents had to be amateurs!).

Why then is this desire to migrate to what is becoming increasingly a distinct country from England? Scotland covers 78,772 km² compared to 130,439 km² of England, making Scotland 60% of the size of England but with its population of only 5.1 million compared to 50.7 million in England, having a tenth of its population. Scotland has 72 MPs (though there are plans to cut this to 59) who sit in the UK Parliament in Westminster, London, compared to 529 for England, so in Scotland you get 1 MP in London for every 53,000 people compared to 1 per 70,000 people in England. In addition in Scotland you also vote for 129 MSPs who sit in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh (England has no regional parliaments despite attempts to establish them), so you get more democratic representation in Scotland. In addition, Scotland, partly because of the influence of the SNP (Scottish National Party) a nationalist party which pursues rather Socialist policies, welfare provision is better in Scotland especially free care for the elderly and I imagine that has been a key issue to swing the population of Berwick towards Scotland. If you have children or are old or have elderly relatives then generally you are better off in Scotland than England. About 400,000 English people live in Scotland and about 700,000 Scottish people live in England (many of them in London). Even Scottish newspapers note that there is prejudice against English settlers in the country, though this is less in the big cities. Little attention is paid to Scots in England and certainly there is no resentment towards them as is reserved for the Irish. It will be interesting to see how the population of Berwick is received given that they live so close as it is anyway. Maybe it will be perceived as a victory for Scottish moves towards independence and certainly for the policy line that has been adopted on education and welfare since 1999. Are places like Longtown in Cumbria, Wooler, Belford and Otterburn in Northumbria opt to cross the border next? What would happen if Carlisle (Cumbria) opted to move? Could we see in a few decades time Newcastle-upon-Tyne as a border town between the two countries?

To some extent this whole issue casts doubt on all the references to patriotism that people claim so much. Maybe it is not that serious, given that it is about regions of one country. Parts of the Nord Rhein-Westfalen and of Rheinland-Pfalz provinces of Germany once belonged to Prussia (most of which is now part of Poland anyway) and Bavaria and most of Nieder Sachsen was British until 1866. However, what it does say is that patriotism matters less than having a social policy which serves the needs of the bulk of the population. I think that is a stronger driving factor than any references to flags emblazoned with the Cross of St. George (England) or the Cross of St. Andrew (Scotland), and the shift of Berwick demonstrates that. English politicians should wake up to the fact that people would rather shift country than put up with the ever deteriorating welfare and education situations in England.

Monday, 11 February 2008

The Olympics and Dictatorships

The modern Olympics started in 1896 and so far, since then have been held only twice in non-democratic countries:

1896- Athens
1900- Paris
1904- St. Louis
1908- London
1912- Stockholm
1920- Antwerp
1924- Paris
1928- Amsterdam
1932- Los Angeles
1936- Berlin
1948- London
1952- Helsinki
1956- Melbourne
1960- Rome
1964- Tokyo
1968- Mexico City
1972- Munich
1976- Montreal
1980- Moscow
1984- Los Angeles
1988- Seoul

1992- Barcelona
1996- Atlanta
2000- Sydney
2004- Athens
2008- Beijing
2012- London

Now you could argue about Seoul in South Korea in 1988 could count as it had only had had democratic elections restored in 1987. To some extent this shows the power of the Olympics. In 1980 the USA and some British teams boycotted the Moscow Olympics over the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan the previous year at the height of the so-called Second Cold War. The USSR at the time was clearly a one-party dictatorship, but of course the Olympics are planned well in advance as you can see from the list regarding London and back in the mid-1970s when the location had been established it had seemed that the Cold War had been thawing with detente and Ostpolitik. The other, probably more (in)famous Olympics were those held in Berlin in 1936 at the height of the Nazi regime. These had been allocated to Germany in 1931, two years before Hitler came to power. Adolf Hitler attended the games but was humiliated by the success of the Black US athlete Jesse Owens who won four gold medals seemingly disproving Hitler's beliefs in the superiority of Whites. Hitler left so that he did not have to present the medals to Owens. The Olympics for both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were about showing the best of the country to the democratic media and trying to demonstrate that they were people that could be done business with despite all the human rights abuses going on behind the scenes. China is using them in the same way. Hitler released a number of political prisoners before the games, only to have them re-arrested afterwards. China, as I have noted, is busily doing the opposite, seemingly fearful that dissidents will have freer access to outside media during the Olympic period.

The reaction of democratic countries to the Olympics hosted by dictatorships has varied. In 1936 whilst there were no national boycotts of the Olympics though Barcelona hosted the so-called People’s Olympic Games (Olimpiada Popular) in July 1936, the week before the official one in Berlin, and 22 nations signed up to it. It particularly attracted competitors from workers' sports clubs which were common at the time. The Spanish Government was a centre-left Popular Front and wanted to provide an alternative to the games in Berlin which were emblazoned with Nazi insignia. Unfortunately the coup which triggered the Spanish Civil War broke out before all the competitors had arrived and these alternative games had to be abandoned.

In 1980 the USA still under Jimmy Carter boycotted the Moscow Olympics in protest at the invasion of Afghanistan. Argentina, Canada, Chile, China, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Norway, South Korea, West Germany and many others barred their athletes from attending. The UK, France and Greece supported the boycott but allowed their athletes to make up their own minds and most from the UK went (though notably none of the horse jumpers); four athletes from New Zealand defied their country's boycott to attend. There were the so-called Olympic Boycott Games in Philadelphia. For the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics there was rather a tit-for-tat reaction and the USSR and 14 Communist states bar Romania which was pursuing an independent line, did not attend. The Soviets blamed anti-Soviet propaganda in the USA, which had actually been very prevalent in the previous three years since Ronald Reagan had come to power in 1981 and started talking about the 'evil empire'. The Soviets put on the so-called Friendship Games in Moscow. Since these tense days of the late Cold War things have settled down.

Political issues have not been confined to tension between states. The one incident that the media is currently pointing to is the Black Power salute given by US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. They wore black gloves and black socks rather than shoes to reference Black poverty in the USA. This was at a time of sharp battles in US society over civil rights for Blacks. In 1972 at the Munich Olympics, the Palestinian terrorist organisation, Black September shot dead eleven members of the Israeli team and one West German police officer. There intention had been to draw the world's attention to the Palestinian situation in Israel and surrounding countries.

Boycotting of sports activities in apartheid South Africa began in 1956 and stepped up from 1963 onwards as more sports bodies came on board. South Africa was barred from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and thrown out of the IOC the Olympic organising body in 1970. Some bodies took more persuading, but there was an increase in the face of public protests through the 1970s, of those sports cutting ties to South Africa. These boycotts were not lifted until the disassembling of the apartheid system in 1991. Thus, despite people constantly saying that sport and politics should be separate in fact they often inter-mingle.

So, what is the response to China. It has not actually invaded anywhere since 1979 invasion of Vietnam. The Chinese have, however, occupied Tibet since 1951 and surely this is as worthy of protest as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a country they left in 1989 whereas China remains in Tibet. The number of Chinese political prisoners is uncertain but over 800,000 people were arrested in 2004 alone for crimes that threatened the state. It is likely that millions of people in the country are held for what are called 'crimes of conscience', some on religious grounds, others for political reasons including pro-democracy and pro-human rights protests. China has over 700 prisons and other prisoners are detained, as they used to be in the USSR in psychiatric institutions. Torture and the death penalty are commonly used in China. As we know from Tianamen Square in 1989, the Chinese government will suppress pro-democracy movements brutally. We only hear about a fraction of protests in China and it is estimated there were over 10,000 local protests in China last year, not all aimed at political change, but at altering economic and environmental aspects too. So why is not the USA boycotting the 2008 Olympics? Why have British athletes had to sign a document saying they will make no comments on China's human rights record? South Africa in the 1970s and the USSR in the 1980s were weak economically whereas China is rapidly becoming the dominant economy in the world. Germany in 1936 was seen as strong and a bastion against the threat of Communism, so like China today, it was fine to go there. Attending the Olympics in China gives credibility to the dictatorship which persecutes millions of its people. Ordinary people will think, 'well if all those athletes are going it must be an alright country'. This is what China wants.

So, you can conclude, yes the Olympics and politics have nothing to do with each other, what it is about is the Olympics and money, as money and trade deals suppress any qualms about the kind of society that generates them. Come on athletes, recognise that China's policies are an anathema to the Olympic spirit: there is no equality for ethnic groups there and there is no opprtunity for any athlete to succeed who does not bow down before the will of the Chinese Communist Party. Boycott Beijing 2008.

Property in the UK 8: Problems Rise from the Dead

For much of 2007 this blog had me ranting about the constant problems I faced renting a house and trying to sell a flat and buy a house. By December it seemed that everything was resolved. I had sold my flat, though for less than it was worth, I and my housemates had got away from the rented house where the landlord's representative had incessantly harrassed us and I had bought and moved into a new house jointly with said house mates. It seemed to be all sorted and we all looked forward to a quiet year ahead. We were careful not to leave any details at the old house because we knew how nasty the representative was, what a fantasist he was and how he believed he had the right to bully us to keep paying him hundreds of pounds. He had taken our £1000 (€1350; U$1950) deposit off us even though we had left the house in an immaculate condition and we hoped that would satisfy him. The letting agent encouraged us to raise a complaint of harassment against him for constantly phoning us, telling us we had only a 2-week notice period at some date selected by him and sitting outside our home photographing it. However, we wanted to draw a line under all that and hoped to move on to our new place without hassle.

Since late December we seemed to have achieved that until today. The letting agent called my housemate's mobile phone saying the representative was demanding our details so he could bill us for a further £1400 (€1890; US$2370). Apparently he is demanding £400 to have the grass on the back lawn cut and the garden weeded and another £1000 in rent he claims we are due for January. The garden was left in a good state, but of course with the warm weather the UK is experiencing plants have not stopped growing and given we left the house seven weeks ago it is not surprising it is all grown up. It does not cost £400 to have that work done. We had three trees chopped down and removed for £80 when we first moved to the new house, much more work than a small bit of mowing (the lawn is 2m x 2m) and some weeding. He is also claiming for a glass lampshade which is broken. The thing fell down one day all most showering us with glass. It is a small sphere that could fit in your hand which was made in the 1980s and no longer made. Surely out of the £1000 he could pay to have the whole light fitting replaced. We do not have the £1400 he is asking and we feel we are not obliged to pay him, but you can guarantee he will soon have debt collectors after us.

The greed of the man is astounding and the sense that he can still keep charging months after the tenants have left indicates how avaricious he is. He has taken £11,000 from us in one year and yet this is not enough for him, he effectively wants us to pay to do up the house so he can sell it. The obligations of tenants do not extend that far whatever he and so many other landlords believe. By definition tenants are not the richest people in the community so why should we be pressed for more and more money for very spurious reasons? I suppose it is because it is actually more expensive to be poor in the UK than it is to be rich. We have to cough up many charges that richer people never do. If I could threaten this man with my own lawyer then I am sure he would not think twice about even trying to press these costs on us. It seems that the next stop is court and my housemate is bullish to face the representative in a legal setting. However, before then I am sure we will have to face debt collectors and all the pressure they can bring plus the damage to our credit ratings and attempts to seize items from our house. In the UK you have no defence against a financially more powerful person who just keeps on squeezing. What makes it worse is that this man lives in a fantasy world and cannot disassociate his lust for revenge on us from business dealings. He cannot be negotiated with the way a more sane person could. How I curse the day we ever saw that house to rent and how I wish the other people who wanted it had beaten us to it. I do not know how the representative would have dealt with a lone mother with five children, but she should be grateful she never had to face him.

I thought this strand of my blogging was dead and buried, but it seems to have risen up and come back to plague us even when we thought we had escaped. In the UK do not dare be even comfortably off let alone poor, you have no rights; no power and the greedy will consequently exploit you.

Rooksmoor's Guide to Staying the Weekend

Recently I posted my guidance on attending weddings in the 21st century and this provoked thoughts about similar guides I could produce. Though I do not come close, it reminded me of Victorian guides to ladies and gentlemen about social interaction, so I feel that such things fit with the Gothic and steampunk genres I admire. So, today's guide is about staying at people's houses for the weekend. Something I seemed to do a lot of in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The Reason for the Stay
In my experience there are usually two causes for staying at someone's home for the weekend (I exclude family events because they have very different motives, though some of the guidance I give here is still applicable), one is to attend a party and the other is for a weekend visit. Now there are important differences between the two, most notably on how long you stay, so throughout this posting I will distinguish at times between the 'party' and the 'visit' stays.

You need to strike a balance between arriving sufficiently equipped and yet not having to lug half your house with you. If you have a car it is less of an issue because you are effectively taking part of your own space with you and can stash back-up supplies in it. However, I generally went to these stays by public transport and this means the balance is all the more important. You need to work out what you are going to be doing at the event. If it is a party, you probably need to take party clothes. Also take a change of things for the following morning as you often do not want to be seen going home in clothes that clearly belong to a party (especially if it is fancy dress or something). Also there is nothing worse than not having fresh underwear to put on, this means socks too and I advise a change of top at least. There are sometimes mishaps and you do not want to spend three hours in your car or on a train smelling of someone else's vomit.

In 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' (radio, book, TV series, movie) they reckoned you could not cross the galaxy without a towel, for me it is carrier bags. I find them immensely useful for putting round dirty washing, muddy boots, gifts, medicines, tootbrushes. Take a handful with you you will find they then invaluable.

Preparation can also depend on whether it is a party or a visit stay. Some party stays shade off into visits as the morning after some people want to get out and walk to the nearest beauty spot or whatever and you find your party shoes are no good for trudging through muddy fields. As I explain later about exit strategies, it is generally best to avoid these spill over party events, but if you suspect that that is going to happen at least make sure you have some clothes for it including waterproofs.

Make sure your mobile phone is charged and has credit. If you can, take the charger with you. Make sure you have a reasonable amount of cash as there is nothing worse that traipsing around a district you do not know trying to find a cashpoint machine. As you will be in someone else's house it is generally up to them to use their plastic for purchases such additional alcohol, pizzas, etc. and you will be expected to chip in with some cash. Taxis generally take cash and you may be using them as people's houses are generally a lot farther from the station than they say and again walking around a dark district can be difficult.

Know where you are going, precisely. To locals it may be easy to know where the precise number 3 house is, but I wandered up and down a Worcestershire village trying to find the right house. Their phone line was engaged and I must have tried all the wrong houses (the numbers of number 3s was stunning) before finally getting to the right one and the host had left to find someone else who was lost. Hosts find it easy to find their own houses, but do not realise the rest of us do not, especially in the UK where towns often have streets with very similar names. In this particular case a taxi driver coming to collect me could not even find it and said no-one was at the house I was supposed to be calling from, when in fact we were standing outside. Sat-navs help a great deal so get to know the (correct) postcode of where you are going.

Have all the addresses and phone numbers in multiple locations. You can guarantee that your phone will run out of charge just as you need to call or the piece of paper blows off down the platform before you can even tell the taxi driver where you need to go. Telephone your mobile and leave yourself a message with the details even email them to yourself so you can go in a cybercafe and find them if you need to. More than once I have arrived in a town realising I have lost the details and have no idea where to go or the number to call. Have back-ups!

Take a toothbrush but no toothpaste. Generally you can get towels and toothpaste from the people you are staying with. If the house is overcrowded, give up on having anything more than a basin wash. However, being able to clean your teeth the morning after is a great benefit. Comb and brush similarly can really help you to feel human again which is quite important especially if you are going to be travelling back. Depending on the circumstances, i.e. whether you get a bed to yourself or end up sleeping on the floor. It is worthwhile taking a cushion/pillow. There is nothing worse than waking up with a stiff neck and a rolled-up sweater is no substitute for a half-decent cushion.

One of the hazards of staying with people is being incredibly dependent on others. Often you will wake and not know where the coffee is or be banned from making your own food until breakfast time (the things that divide the world are not religion or politics but the little 'house' rules that are enforced differently in everyone's house) which may be hours away. So make sure you can nourish yourself. Vital is a bottle or two of water as there is nothing like waking with a mouth like a carpet and then being shooed from the kitchen when you are gasping for water. Have your own supply, plus easy to access foods like biscuits (rather than crisps which can make you thirsty again). You may be obliged to leave the house before people are even thinking about meals and there is nothing worse than being trapped on a train with no food in sight. Do not assume that people eat the same way as you, sometimes they wait until 3pm on a Sunday afternoon to have a meal and you have been awake for six hours by then. Also remember post-party houses have often been denuded of food by hungry party-goers the night before: have your own supply.

Also have a good supply of tablets - the minimum are headache, anti-diaorrhea and anti-vomiting tablets as they are the most likely ones you will need. These are combined with the bottle of water you brought. Again they can help you get back to feeling human quickly and make that journey home a lot easier.

Entertainment: make sure you are well stocked with your ipod, a hand-held game (whether electronic, on your phone or something non-electronic like cards or a puzzle) and a book (or more, there is nothing worse than running out of reading material, so if you are 75% or more of the way through a book take another one too) or newspapers/magazines. It depends on how much attention you can pay to these things while travelling. I really get into a book and just eat them up while on trains other people like lighter material. Remember, however, you can really get through any reading material far quicker than you realise. You are not exempt from this need if you are driving down yourself as there will be dead time during the day if it is a visit or the next morning if it is a party stay when you will probably be left to entertain yourself and you cannot rely on what entertainment materials the hosts have or getting access to them (I generally find the people sleeping in the living room are the last to wake) and if you want to avoid bored hours waiting for people to get up make sure you have something to occupy yourself.

The key mistake I often made when going for a stay especially of the party nature, was to arrive far too early. It can be a challenge if you are coming by public transport. However, if you turn up in the locale early I suggest heading to a local pub or cafe and arriving at an appropriate time. While I do not hold with being 'fashionably late', if you arrive first then people notice this fact and it makes them later feel that you have been at the house a long time. In addition, they may not be ready and you may a) run into them hurrying around frantically and possibly having an argument and/or b) be dragged into helping setting up the party/event, either way you will actually get in their way and cause them to be a little resentful of you. Usually some local friend will arrive first, try and come in after them at least. The dynamics with local friends is usually very different to visitors like yourself as it is likely they can home more easily.

This is not a guide to attending a party or a visit, there are so many varieties of interaction which are so diverse that I will only be reduced to anecdotes from my own life and I will leave those for another day. However, I would say, do not be mean with the gifts or the drink you bring. Taking gifts marks you out as being civilised and a worthy guest to invite again (if you want to go back). Generally you will be able to eat and drink more than you bring so do not scrimp on what you contribute. Always make sure you bring something you like but make sure it is not too good (I have made this mistake, the hosts just whisk it away into hiding for themselves to enjoy later) otherwise you will not get to access it again. I usually have a 'sacrifice' and then the real item. I do not particularly like wine so I bring a bottle of that as the sacrifice and then some beers for myself to drink. You cannot guarantee there will always be something that other people bring that you like, but generally you get a reasonable mix.

For visits, I always find a tin of biscuits is a good bet as they are not gender specific and can be eaten by all ages. Chocolates can be generally sound, some wine too (but if there are children in the family take something for them, give it to the parents to dish out because they may have rules on sweets/biscuits and most children are taught not to take such things from strangers which you are in fact, this is why I say rules for family events are very different). However, do take a gift. Flowers or plants are fine if you have a car, but avoid them if you are on public transport.

Getting it On
If you are just going to a local party and are not staying over, feel free to flirt and pick up members of the opposite or same sex (in the UK generally not looked down upon as it used to be and you should know the context well enough). However, if you are staying over or it is a visit then tread carefully. Hosts get a little uncomfortable to think that their house is being used like the local night-club. Be very careful if the person in question is a local friend as the hosts often feel especially protective of them in regard to 'out-of-towners', it is safer to stick with someone like yourself who has travelled down. Conversely, of course, if you are single, they are more than likely to be setting you up with someone, but those are their rules on their turf. In addition, the man or woman you were being amorous to the night before will be seeing you soon after waking up, and the morning after you just met it is too early for that sort of thing (outside of your own house, waking up in bed with someone in your/their own house has very different rules because you or they are in control, in these circumstances someone else is in control). Better is to get the email address/phone number the next morning once everyone is scrubbed up and looking far better. Try and keep this activity out of sight of the hosts who may be offended, unless you have actually hit it off with the person they set you up with, when conversely you should make this action very visible to please them.

A visit is different, there is not the intensity of the party aspect and if you spy someone you fancy then it is very much a move into Jane Austen mode. This means get to sit next to the target or end up in the car they are in or whatever the activity is that you are doing. Gently does it in these circumstances. However, in daylight, you have a much better chance to shine. Do not dive in without information. You can easily find out a bit about the background of other guests from the hosts. They will usually help out by signalling anyone who is unavailable (including in terms of sexual orientation), due to this thing about protecting guests from unrestrained sexual hunting that can cause embarrassment to them. Be alert to things like rings (on a chain as well as on fingers) as these are still good clues about whether the person sees themselves as available or not. If the person is not interested or unavailable (and not entirely socially inept) they will mention within the first ten minutes of you talking about something their boyfriend/girlfriend has done or their boyfriend's/girlfriend's brother/sister/grandparents/parents. They may not even be conscious of it. Of course it may be a lie but one they want to communicate. Once this is out the way then you work on the assumption that they are unavailable and not interested in you. However, they are not signalling they do not want to interact with you and unless you have something/someone else you need to concentrate on you can keep socialising with them. Even if you do have someone else in your sights try not to rush off after this someone else immediately or it can be embarrassing, but think of the weekend as having five-to-six segments: morning, afternoon, evening, twice over. Now you might not be around for all of those, but most likely at least four and do not attempt to go for more than one person in each segment.

Social Interaction
In terms of interacting with the hosts and guests in general, the British rule is stay off politics and religion as topics. You will find people who say 'I'm not political but ...' or 'I'm not racist but ...' and actually then spout out very political views. This is particularly the case for right-wing people who think their views are common sense or the kind of thing everyone espouses. Now, I usually believe in defending a liberal humanist view, but when confined in such circumstance you sometimes have to bite your lip and let it wash over you. Rather, let them have their say and either then say something quite ridiculous to relieve the tension or move conversation back to anondyne topics. Of course, if you find yourself out of step with the bulk of the assembled party, get out early and remember to refuse the invite next time. Safe topics include gardening (easily caught up on even if you live in an East London flat as I did for many years by watching a single gardening programme) or children or holidays or television programmes (though harder these days with the range of channels and things to follow).

Do not expect people to engage with complex concepts (the British dislike them, partly because our politics are so simplistic) they will just get lost, their brains are in relaxing rather than thinking mode. Some people attend visits or parties with the explicit intention of riling people with their views. I met an appalling man at three parties hosted by three different people and it was clear he saw provoking an argument as a pleasant pastime. Having hounded one couple who worked in child psychology about their whole approach he complained very disappointedly that 'they did not even try to fight back'. Of course the bulk of us do not use social events this way. The best thing to do in such circumstances if go to the toilet, the kitchen, check something in your bag or your car, wherever and by the time you come back they will have latched on to another victim.

Exit Strategies
Possibly more important that coming is going. Have an exit strategy planned well in advance. Pack your luggage as soon as you can the morning you are leaving. Do not move it to the door or anything, just put it somewhere out of the way where you can find it. You do not want to waste the minutes when you have to go packing or hunting for things. Know your train/coach times and any like cancellations/delays. Find out which roads are likely to get busy at 'going home from granny's' time on Sundays. Do not plan to leave by the last train out of the village but at least the one before that. It can be very difficult to extract yourself from a house and you need to really begin the move at least one hour before you intend to go. It is far better to sit at a railway station for an hour than arrive five minutes late for the train. It can be very difficult to say all your goodbyes and take down the numbers, recipes, whatever that everyone promised.

Be careful about being drawn into things that may over-run. This is particularly a risk when staying for a party. Try to avoid being drawn into the lunch at the pub the next day and particularly not the walk to the local beauty spot or whatever. These things have a loose time frame and you can find yourself cut off from your luggage and where you have to be with the minutes ticking by when you have to be in those places. The key principle for a good escape is keep yourself independent. Avoid offers of lifts and such like. Make sure you are in taxi reach of the station and know the telephone number of a local company (easier now with all these directory enquiry numbers).

If you are staying for a party, then 11.00 by the next morning is a good time to have left. Try and avoid getting tangled in lunch as 12.00 in fact means 14.00-15.00 especially at weekends. Whatever the hosts might say, actually they want to recover that afternoon and you do to and you have to complete the journey. For visits, 17.00 on the second day, depending on the time of year, is usually a good aim. However, watch out that you might run into the home-from-granny traffic that I mentioned and you may need to leave a little earlier or later, but try and avoid being there after 18.00. Bear in mind what I said about remaining independent as this will allow you to control your exit time. If you can, have a decent breakfast/brunch as this will help with the disrupted meals. Plan to collect a takeaway when you reach home as you will not want to go out again or cook once you have reached home.

Make sure you say goodbye and thank you to the hosts. They will mentally reflect on your behaviour at their house and will bear this in mind when they think about invites in the future. So leave them with a warm feeling about you (assuming you do want to come again). Some people will be concerned about if you get home safely, some will not give a damn. You will know their concerns. However, a text saying thanks is fine, I find even elderly people like texts now. Alternatively an email the following day to say what a good time you had is also a good way. The hosts may not wish to enter into a discussion, they are recovering too, so any phonecall should be short and it is best to call at a time when you are likely to get an answerphone and leave a nice short message.

Right, you are home safely. Have a nice bath and slump in front of the television. Though weekend stays can be relaxing they can be tiring too and you need to wind down from them so that the feeling does not spill over into Monday morning making it harder than ever.

If you have any tips about weekend stays please comment them below. This is a very Anglocentric, Middle Class view and I am conscious different rules may apply in different circumstances and countries. The only Belgian party I attended ended with a police raid for apparently no reason (the whole thing had been very quiet and civilised) and we ended up literally running from the house (a very different 'exit strategy') so I imagine in Belgium the rules are very different and involve things like bail bonds and not taking your coat off. So please supplement my guide with your own experiences.