Thursday, 29 December 2011

Good times, for a change...

Don't think I am unaware of my reputation as a merchant of perpetual gloom and misery. Life is shit, don't bloody blame me for pointing it out, take it up with your God or gods. However, since you stick with me regardless, I thought it only fair to report on life's little joys, when they crop up. So: I had the best day EVAH today!

Was 8.30am stand-by at Marble Arch, which, for the uninitiated, in winter generally means standing on the street for eight hours pushing leaflets onto unwilling passers by. Not my favourite shift. However, since we're busy for the Christmas holidays, I was only on stand by until noon; time which passed quickly what with my being shuffled from Marble Arch to Green Park, and there being other guides milling around between tours who I could talk to. Then I got sent up to Hyde Park Corner to start an extra tour at 12.07 (I love how precise they are with their timings. 12.07pm and not a minute before was that bus to leave). Top deck was maybe two thirds full, and most of them stayed on for the whole tour. They were undoubtedly the best crowd I have ever had. Most were native speakers, those that weren't were totally fluent (really helps with the nuances), all were competely engaged and attentive. It's like being a very minor rock star with a tiny crowd of hard-core fans.

One couple pre-emptively tipped me a fiver about 20 minutes into the tour, despite staying until a few stops before the end. I like that kind of condfidence in my abilities. About half of them at the end of the tour asked for comment cards so they could praise me - one woman even filled it out in front of me so I could hand it straight in to the office - everyone clapped and someone asked for my full name and said they were going to give me a rave review on Trip Advisor, which would be my closest brush with fame since Peter Hitchens called me a Stalinist. I'm going to so disappointed if it doesn't happen now.

Then I had a half hour break, came back to the stop and was told that I wasn't needed any longer as there weren't going to be any further extra tours and I could retire for the day on full pay at 3pm! Was home by 4.30pm, discovered my new iPhone had arrived far earlier than expected (huzzah!), and was sprawled on the bed with a Crabbies and a bowl of peanuts (really good for healthy weight gain, apparently) by the time I'd normally just be knocking off.

So that was my very good day. Enjoy my childlike excitement at the simple pleasures of life. Just don't get used to it, you know it won't last...

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

On cheese, curry, tourists and film

I let my Twitter followers dictate my next few blog topics. First up, tackling @Nickehbee's many questions:

What's your favourite type of cheese?

This question is vague - does type refer to style of a cheese (i.e. soft, blue, mature, etc) or a specific named brand (Cheddar, Gruyere, etc)? It is also hard to answer - asking me to choose between cheeses is like asking a mother to choose between her children.

Stylistically, my preferences lay with soft cheeses with garlic and/or herbs. Le Roulle, Boursin, anything you can eat on a toasted bagel (although realistically, I will end up eating it with my fingers, directly out of the tub). However if choosing a specific cheese, it would be between Mozzarella and Halloumi. Mozzarella reminds me of Bologna (and Spain, oddly enough) and the Italian (the first Italian, not the second) and is delicious whether fried (I only recently discovered fried cheese. I can't believe my arteries have remained unfurred for so long) or fresh. Halloumi is not so delicious when not grilled or fried, but is so very versatile, and my Halloumi and Chorizo wrap lunch from the Greek place at Glasto made me feel worldly and sophisticated.

Where's the best place to get curry?

Curry mile in Birmingham, obviously. I went to the first one on the row, closest to the entrance to uni once (come on, there is NO point after the first three. Students don't walk a mile in search of curry when they could walk 5 feet). It was the weirdest thing ever. My chicken Korma was almost pure sugar. I wasn't keen at the time, but I had the left over sauce, cold, with naan bread for breakfast the next morning and it was like coconut ice cream. AWESOME.

Most irritating tourist you've encountered so far?

Oh, easy, although it was a group of tourists rather than one. This has happened quite a lot, but one group were stand out. Four stops into the red tour is the stop for the blue tour, with recorded commentary in a variety of languages. So you get a few people per tour on the bus for the first four stops who clearly neither know what you're saying, nor care. This is fine. What they should do is sit quietly downstairs for four stops, but they don't, they sit on the top deck, usually right at the front, and talk loudly. You know, at the same time as me. The absolute WORST lot was a massive group of Spanish people last week, who colonised the entire front of the bus and talked loudly through all my initial commentary. When I started shouting - partially to make a point, partially because people at the back were motioning that they couldn't hear - they seemed to view this as a challenge to their authority and started shouting over me. And sighing and shooting me glances that would imply they felt *I* was rude for interrupting their conversation. Fucking unbelievable.

Also got a group of teenage girls who stayed on for ten stops and spent the entire time on their mobiles. They were the only people on the bus. It's so frustrating when there's literally no point in you speaking, but you have to carry on. I'll never get people who seem to use the tour bus just as a method of transport, with no regard for the commentary. It costs €27! A taxi would be cheaper!

Also group of French tourists at a stop, wanting to buy tickets. Quite apart from the fact that I'm not sales staff and it wasn't my problem anyway, they were getting REALLY angry at me for not being able to speak French. WTF?! When I work in France and don't bother to learn a few token words of the language, get pissed off with me, but are you seriously going to get arsey with me for not happening to be fluent in your particular language when you're in MY country?! Also got a family of German who thought I couldn't understand them slagging me off.

Really, I just fucking hate tourists.

Worst film you've ever seen and why?

I saw a film at the cinema once, and I can't remember what it was called, or what it was about. All I remember is that it starred George Clooney, and there was a scene where he wallked through his house in the twilight. That is literally it. There have been lots of films I have hated, but I think the fact I can remember a single thing about them implies they were a hell of a lot more interesting than whatever the fuck it was I saw that day. Although The Singing Detective remake was pretty fucking horrific.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

First date feedback

1.) On a scale of one to ten, where one means "unsatisfactory" and ten means "very satisfactory", how satisfactory was our date?

2.) Will you be calling me?

Yes/No (Delete as appropriate)

3.) If "no", why?

You did/didn't put out and I only wanted sex/You're a horrible human being and the thought of speaking to you ever again makes me physically sick/Other (Delete as appropriate)

Where "other", please specify:

4.) What improvements could I make?

5.) Other comments:

Maybe I've just been rejected without any explanation too many times now, but I can't help thinking that getting the above questions printed up on comment cards to hand to any future dates is the singular greatest idea I've ever had.

I get asked out about once a year; in fact, last week's date may actually have fallen EXACTLY 12 months after the last one I had, in Berlin. That'd be freaky. And both times exactly the same thing - we had really long, deep conversations, we laughed a lot, we had tonnes in common, we seemed to get on really well. In the case of the latter, there was an amount of slightly inappropriate touching. And then he says he'll call, and he doesn't.

I'm just so sick of the disconnect between my perception of things and the reality. I can never stop being confused by thinking things went really well when the guy obviusly thinks I'm a douche. Couldn't we all just be more honest? God, if a man stood up midway through a date with me and said "You're not as pretty as I thought you were when I was drunk, and your left wing politics bore me, I'm off", I think I'd applaud.

I am not actually that insecure about my looks. I know I'm passably attractive in a weird, fashiony kind of way. I'd far rather be commercially, classically pretty like Victoria's Secret models or my friend Hanna; the kind of pretty no one can argue with, but I know I only scare maybe 60% of the horses. And my friends keep telling me I'm hot (although friends are liable to lie on this front), and scientific theory has long held that we're generally friends with people on the same scale of attractiveness as ourselves and my friends are all coupled up; so either I'm an anaomoly, or it's my horrible personality that's to blame.

Obviously there is something wrong with me, and if I knew what it was, maybe I could do something about it. And I know my friends are all going to say "there's nothing wrong with you, he's a twat", but it's a simple numbers game. Not every bloke I've ever been rejected by can have been a complete twat. It's like with email boy. I'm tortured by the dichotomy of the fact that I fell for him because he's so motherfucking nice, and the fact that I recognise he has treated me in a pretty horrible way. But if you asked his girlfriend of god knows how many years, of course she would say he was lovely, and not at all a twat. It was email boy who said once, not to me, but to one of the other models, that men treated her badly because she allowed them to. Obviously there is something about my character that is the equivilent of my having "doormat/disposable" or just "horrible person" tattoed on my forehead.

It sucks that it is not generally the done thing to ring men up ask them why they hate you. Because I need to know what is wrong with me, because I don't think I can face the idea of going through this again. I know most of you wont believe me when I say this, but I'm an eternal fucking optimist. Every time I meet a man I idiotically think he really likes me, and every time he just ditches me, and I end up getting crushed again. I genuinely don't think if anybody asked me out again I would say yes, no matter how I felt about them, because there's no point, I KNOW the same thing will happen again, it'll be one date, and I'll never hear from him again.

Nothing my friends can say can make me feel better. People tell me that I'm smart and talented, as though that somehow makes up for the fact that men find me about as attractive as a recently exhumed corpse. Men don't give a shit that I got all A*s in my GCSEs, or that my Popdash article was the most read for one whole week. I'd far rather be thick and happy than clever enough to realise I'm miserable.

I don't mean to sound like I don't appreciate my friends and their tireless efforts to bolster my self-esteem. I'd probably be in the nuthouse without them. That I probably belong in the nuthouse anyway being beside the point. I just really, really want to know what's so fundamentally unloveable about me. I feel totally worthless at the minute; I've been bursting into tears all day. I feel supremely lucky to have my job, because after so many menial office jobs, this is the first job I've had where I literally do not have the time to get sad, and that's probably what's keeping me from being more depressed than I already am.

So yes, I think this is a splendid idea.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Parents, stop Sexualising Your Children

So I'm sure everyone who reads the papers is aware of Cameron's big new initiative, halting the "sexualisation of children". On the surface, it's something we can all get behind. No one want to see eight-year-old girls in padded bras and Playboy knickers, under t-shirts reading "Daddy's Little Porn Star" - apart from, presumably, the people buying them. As Barbara Ellen beat me to saying this morning, they don't jump into little girls' underwear drawers all by themselves, do they? I'm a liberal, and as such am supposed, apparently, if you listen to Tories, to be all in favour of any and all governmental supervision of personal matters. And I'm not opposed to this plan per se, for the reasons stated above, but I can't help but thinking it's kind of pathetic for parents (the plans were drawn up by the head of the Mothers Union) to whine that the government needs to sort out a problem that is almost entirely of their own making. So henceforth, I offer you my handy print-out-and-keep, two part parenting guide to stop the sexualisation of children:

1.) When your daughter asks why she can't have a Playboy branded pencil case, choose the most appopriate of the following three answers:

*For the under 12's - "Because the man who makes them is a very bad man who wants to hurt women and little girls like you and we musn't let him."

*For the tricksy 12-16 demographic -" Because I bloody well said so, that's why. Now stop complaining or I'll make you start taking the Westlife one you had when you were 11 to school."

*For the over 16s (imagining you retain any shred of control over what they do) - Presuming you have been a responsible parent and already given them a grounding in the basics of feminism, start introducing them to statistics on the number of women working in the sex trade who were a.) trafficked, b.) victims of childhood abuse c.) drug or alcohol dependent d.) all of the above. Ask if they want to lend tacit support to an industry that preys on vulnerable young women and does nothing to offer them the support they actually need. Show them evidence demonstrating that rates of rapes and sexual assaults increases dramatically in areas with a preponderance of sex-encounter establishments (the new Playboy club, for all its claims, is nothing but). Explain to them, if they don't already know, that Playboy and its ilk objectifies women. Ask how they feel about being judged on their looks above anything else. Ask if our cult of beauty ever makes them feel bad about themselves; explain that this is a direct effect of our pornified, Playboy culture. If, after all this, she still wants Playboy branded anything, consider disowning her.

Take control over your daughter's underwear drawer. You buy her bras until she starts earning enough to buy them herself - don't buy a nine-year-old a bra except in the unlikely event that she needs one. If she complains of feeling immodest, buy her a vest. When she does need to start wearng a bra (not that anyone *needs* to, but you know what I mean), select non-wired, unpadded ones. Explain to her that breasts come in all shapes and sizes and small ones are just as nice as large ones. Instill her with self-confidence. Similarly with knickers - do not buy your child thongs. Do not buy your child lacy, see-through knickers. Do not buy your child knickers that have anything approaching a sexual slogan. If in doubt, avoid anything with a slogan at all.

Which brings me to t-shirts saying "So many boys, so little time", "Future porn star" etc. Ask if she understands what any of these slogans mean. If she doesn't, she's too young to be wearing it. Institue a no-lying-through-slogan-t shirts policy: only allow her to wear a t-shirt proclaiming her to be the next big thing in porn if she shows demonstrable desire and determination to forge a career in the adult film industry. Make her prove herself by sending her to meet with a few sleazy casting directors. If this does not scare her straight, you may wish to refer back to the advice on dealing with teenagers who wish to own Playboy branded products.

Re: the Christina Aguilira prime time X Factor performance and Rihanna's uncensored music videos (and music). Turn the television off. With older children there is only so much you can restrict their viewing if they spend time at friends houses, etc. But under your roof it's your rules; if Christina is writhing around in her underwear at 8pm, turn the television off or change the channel. If Rihanna is writhing around in her underwear moaning derivatively about how she likes to be spanked, turn the television off or change the channel.


2.) The slightly harder part. Take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself who's responsible for creating a culture in which the under-tens view Katie Price as a role model, tits and all. Got it yet? It's you, dumbass. Stop deliberately encouraging a porn culture. Turn the X Factor off when it showcases female or male artists sexually degrading themselves in a desperate bid at increased sales. Stop consuming pornography. Stop buying lads mags. Stop buying tabloid newspapers. Stop buying fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle that feature spreads using models unlikely to be above the age of sexual consent, pouting and half-naked and air-brushed to the extreme. Stop visiting strip clubs, stop buying music by recording artists who make promo videos that look like the Adult Channel's Midnight Teaser. Stop going to see films that treat women as sex objects. Stop treating women as sex objects. Just bloody stop it.

There, problem solved. You can thank me later.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Language of Adultery

This is going to be another of those posts where I essentially think out loud, and propose answers to ny own questions, as though this were an essay or thesis that someone might actually read. Sometimes I think I should have been an academic (heck, maybe I still will be one day, I'm smart and I enjoy writing essays, weirdly enough), but then I remember that I didn't much care for students when I was one, let alone devoting my entire career to them. I worked out a little too late that you don't actully *have* to teach, but even locked in the cosy security of my office, I'd still know they were out there. Thousands of them. *Shudder* So anyway, do please feel free to ignore me prattling on.

Anyway, I know I'm about a week late with this (and you know how much I procrastinate) but I've been thinking about the public reaction to Ryan Giggs' affair with Imogen Thomas (well-known football player and ex Big Brother Contestant, for those of you lucky enough to live unencumbered by the burden of celebrity culture) and how the language (and sheer level of vitriol) directed at Thomas is pretty worrying for women in general.

It started with a comment on a fairly innocuous joke a friend had as his Facebook status about Giggs "playing away". Another friend of his, whom I don't know, simply replied "I hope the whore gets AIDS and dies." Gender non-specific, I know, but we all know who was implied by the word "whore". When I countered that Giggs might in fact bear some responsibility for his own actions, I was met with the response "she was worse, because she knew he was married" - presumably it had slipped his mind then.....?

Other words I have seen applied to Thomas across the interwebs: "slag", "slut", "tart", "prostitute", "bitch", "cow" etc. Nine times out of ten, any and all approbriation I've seen has been levelled soley at Thomas. The only times I saw Giggs even mentioned in all the condemnation of Thomas' behaviour was when someone opined that while "she's a cheap little tart, he should be left alone because he's a legend."

See where I'm heading with this? A man and a woman have an extra-marital affair. The woman is judged, derided, ostracised and the only time the man is even mentioned it's to call him a legend. Doesn't seem right, does it? And here's the kicker - almost all of the abuse that I have seen has come from women.

I hate cheating, and I've never been any part of it, but I just think, to quote the old adage, that it takes two to tango, and both parties involved in the adultery should take equal blame for it. Not a difficult concept, is it?

The part where I answer my own questions: if I were to surmise why women are so quick to turn on women who have affairs with married men, I'd say self-preservation through denial. It all feeds back to the pretty life-changing explanation the wonderful Ms Saunders gave me as to why my own friends were so quick to belittle my feelings when I stood up to the sexist dicks on the BSP forum who had taken a photo of us from a website and proceeded to start making vile comments about our appearance by appearing *after* it had largely calmed down and those involved had even gone so far as to apologise to say how they hadn't been at all offended and thought strangers ranking their fuckability out of ten was just hilarious, actually. That's self preservation, side with the dickhead and he won't be a dickhead to me any more. In this case, women side with the man because for their own sake they want to believe that men never ever cheat unless some evil harlot woman forces them to. Seduces them against their will. That way, they can believe that their boyfriends would never betray them, so long as they're on guard for scarlet women; and even if they do, it won't be their fault, so it'll be fine. Sadly, this insecurity probably stems from another relationship mistruth: that all men cheat. I hear that phrase a lot and I staunchly believe that the people who say it are men who do cheat and are either projecting their flaws onto all others, or trying to justify their own actions to themselves. Bollocks all men cheat. All bastards cheat, maybe. A lot of people were saying "oh, but it's understandable, she's fit." Have they seen Giggs' wife? She's stunning. She looks like a French movie star from the 40s. I'll wager sexual attraction ahd little to do with the affair on either side, but particulalry his. Same as Tiger Woods, it's hubris. I'll cheat because I can. And because I'm a dick.

Away from the microcosm of Facebook status comments and to the world at large, I think the tendency to blame mistresses for cheating husbands is obviously yet another facet of how women are expected to curb male sexual desire. You see it everywhere. In religion, where women have to cover their hair, their faces, their entire bodies because otherwise they might whip men into a frenzy of sinful lust. In our ever-present rape culture, where the Slutwalk protests currently going on all over the world demonstrate how we as a society still think women 'invite' their own rapes by not dressing modestly enough. In cultures where women are stoned to death for commiting adultery and their male sexual partners mildly chastised or let off completely. To this day there's still a "lie back and think of England" thing with sex. Men are supposed to be ones who want sex and women are supposed to either deny them it or bravely suffer it. We're petrified to ruin the little virgin/whore dichotomy we've got going on with out attitude to women by admitting that we actually like and actively want sex too. I wonder if this idea that men are incapable of controlling their own desires was invented to protect rapists (rape, after all, being as old as sex) or if it was merely designed to keep women in their place (at home, covered up, neither seen nor heard) and the rape get-out-clause is just a happy co-incidence.

What all this means is, if you're happy to call Imogen Thomas a slag and pass no judgement on Ryan Giggs, not only are you a sexist, you are propping up rape culture. So yeah. stop doing that please. As my good friend and penny philosopher Don Piano once said: "infidelity is about two deceitful sacks of shit." Two.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Day Democracy Died

So this morning, I was feeling pretty sunny. Shallow creature that I am, cute boy in the office telling me I was beautiful yesterday brightened up my mood no end. It's not like that; he has a girlfriend, and it's not like *that*, for those of you who are unfortunate enough to know me so well they're about to point out that men having girlfriends hasn't exactly stopped me falling head over heels in love with them in the past, it's total harmless fun. I wear short skirts and bend over the photocopier, he stares at my arse, everybody goes home happy. If I were his girlfriend I'd probably not be best pleased, but recent experience has left me feeling rather unsisterly, to be honest. I'm not interested in this guy in that way, but I'm coming round more and more to my friend's saying, "girlfriends aren't mountains, they can be moved" - prefereably to the bottom of the ocean, weighed down by their giant noses, in some cases. (To my loved up female friends I should probably mention I'm still all talk, and I don't fancy any of your boyfriends. To the boyfriends: sorry. You're nice people though.)

Anyway, I was in a good mood. And like most of my good moods, it wasn't to last. If you want to feel the full extent of my incomprehension of what happened next, check my Twitter feed from about 9.30am, where I live-blogged my rage. Otherwise, read on. Up fairly early for a Saturday (and a little pleased for it), I stepped, blinking, into the early morning sunshine and went to buy a paper. I already knew about Alternative Vote (AV). Last night, as the results filtered through, I wasn't even angry. Just sad. Sad and incomprehending how anyone could turn down the first and probably last chance we'll have in our lifetimes of a real democracy. Obviously I'm doing my stages of grief in the wrong order, because anger came this morning when I was halfway out of the shop door, Guardian in hand, and caught the front page of the Daily Flail:

"The Day Britain Stood Up For Democracy"

I thought until very recently that that comedy skit thing, where people are so shocked by something their jaws drop open was nothing more than a comedy device for sketch shows and cartoons. But I stood there, literally agape. They were crowing, triumphantly, about *keeping* FPTP. WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCKING FUCK?!?!?! Because of FPTP our Prime Minister is the leader of a party that won 35% of the vote. That's democracy? Our deputy prime minister, who literally decided what shape our government would take, having the official responsibilty of choosing between the Tories and Labour as coalition partners, is the unpopular leader of a party that won less than a third of the popular vote. That's democracy?! AV isn't perfect, but at least the winning candidate has to have accrued 50% of the vote, even if it's on aggregate. Under FTPT we've ended up with a government who more than 50% of the electorate didn't vote for. How is that fair? All the main parties elect their leaders using a form of AV or Single Transferable Vote (STV). Cameron went through four ballots before winning the Tory leadership contest on aggregate. Using FPTP it would have gone to David Davis. Is that how Cameron governs? Sticks his fingers up and says "do as I say, not as I do"? How is that fair? Plus, if I were Australia I'd have something to say about the Tories and the fucking Dail Fail labelling AV "undemocratic" - Australia have been using AV for more than 100 years. Oh, and the NO campaign argument that AV results in more hung parliaments? Australia have had one, in 100 years. We've had two in 50 under FPTP. Maths - not a Tory strong point.

So now all that is left to do is apportion blame. I'm not blaming no-voting Tories; they're Tories, they're evil, that's just how they roll. I blame fucking lefties. Yeah, like a cannibal, I'm savaging my own. Deal with it.

Not all lefties, obviously, all but one of my friends who shared their voting preferences with me voted yes. That's not surprising, my friends are all lovely, intelligent people. And the YES campaign didn't even fail because of people voting no. It failed because of idiot lefites NOT VOTING. It breaks down like this:

Idiot Group One - Those who didn't vote because they felt AV was a compromise when what they really wanted was Proportional Representation (PR). Is your face sore, since you cut off your nose to spite it? It's called progression people - AV, like cannabis, is a gateway drug, nobody *starts* on crack. For fuck's sake, you morons, SEE THE BIGGER PICTURE.

Most bile however reserved for:

Idiot Group Two - Those who didn't vote because AV won't stop the cuts/end world hunger/solve every problem that has ever existed ever. A dichotomy of our times is that younger people are more politically aware than ever before, and yet more apathetic than ever before. Fringe reactionaries like Laurie Penny have devoted their entire careers to getting young people to pay attention to politics, but by convincing them that all MPs are facists, all governments are oppressive, and there's no point voting because the only person who speaks for the poor and socially disadvantaged is her. One might question how much insight Laurie really gained into poverty and social injustice during her time at a fee-paying secondary school and then Oxford University, but obviously she's learning by Cameron's example.

I'm not saying if you're wealthy you can't care about poverty, or that anyone naturally doesn't care about something that doesn't affect them directly, but honesty is key. My upbringing was nowhere near as privileged as Penny's obviously was, but I've still lived a comfortable lower-middle class lifestyle. I live in a small house in the nicer part of a run-down town, but I never wanted for anything I really needed. I was pissed off that when I was at school because I never got to go on the foreign exchange or the big trips with the school choir, or have dance lessons or horse-riding classes or any of that because my parents couldn't afford it. But I had my own bedroom, I had access to books and a computer, and I had nice clothes and good food on the table every night, and as you get older, and you realise that a lot of children grow up without those things, you realise how lucky you really were. And part of that is owning up to your relative privilege. There's something so snide and slimy about the way Laurie Penny is always reporting from "inside" the squatters camp, how she's always pretending to be "one of them", but at the end of the night she goes home to her nice flat, or by her admission, to drink free champagne at posh parties with all the other media luvvies. It's no different from all the upper class Gap Yah! kids going to piss all over Africa for their holidays and then talk about how it like, *totally* changed them - it's poverty tourism in its purest form.

So yeah, you've got the Laurie Penny anarchist-lites, who didn't vote because "no authortiy represents me man, no matter how it's elected". Then you've got people like Lisa Ansell who inexplicably is a regular contributor to the Guardian, despite not being a particularly talented or engaging writer, and only having one area of interest - herself. Everything is seen through a prism of how it affects her, as a single mother. Hence the appaling piece of trash the Gruan shamefully ran the day before the referendum where she droned on about how she wouldn't bother voting AV, because it did nothing to halt the cuts, which were making her life, as a single mother, very difficult. "Why vote for AV while public services are being cut?!", she and her cohorts cry. "Why not accept that they are totally seperate concerns whose relative merits have no bearing on one another?!", replies the voice of sanity, drowned out by all the madness.

Feeding from that, and from the whole Laurie Penny Gao Yah! thing, there are those just too *global* to care about aything as *parochial* as a national referendum. "Who cares about AV when children in Africa are starving, dude?" "Will AV stop the hurricanes? Fuck AV man. Now pass the weed." You can tell I spend too much time in Shoreditch.

To borrow a line from an erstwhile favourite band of mine, you lazy hipsters make me sick. With your one moment of arrogance, you've screwed everything, for a generation or more. Think about it. Who wants politcal reform? The Lib Dems are the strongest supporters, and they'll be lucky to see power again in 100 years after what they've done. Labour are split on the issue, but could be convinced to pursue it if public favour ever turned that way. But when will they ever get the chance? If they offer another referendum within ten years they'll be accused of trying to force people to change their minds when they've already spoken. Bring it in without a referendum, which is the better option, because the British voting public have continually proved themselves to be idiots, and they'd be slammed for bringing it in by the backdoor and get chucked out at the election along with their policies. We may never see a chance like this again in our lifetimes. And lefties, that's on you.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

David Willetts I can solve your problems - don't cut funding, cut classes

Every day this week, another university has announced its intention of charging the new maximum tuition fee of €9000 per year. Oxford and Cambridge, naturally, were first, presumably because they're always on the look out for ways to dodge their quota on state school intakes. A long line of others followed; around two thirds of British universities have so far announced they will be charging the maximum possible fee under the new system. All have trotted out the same line - with the cuts being made to their funding, they *have* to charge the maximum rate to "maintain educational standards". For the most part, I suspect, this is probably true, although there are almost certainly some liberties being taken, not all universities are actually any good in the first place, on which more later.

The only way for an institution to avoid charging the full fee, it has been said, would be for it to cut class sizes. Of course, everyone recoils in horror at this idea, with a third of all applicants already missing out on a place at university this year, so we're back to full fees again. Thing is, cutting class sizes isn't a bad idea. I wouldn't just cut university places - I'd cut universities.

The over expansion of certain areas of higher education is something that's been bothering me for years, and I always meant to write about it, even before the fees increase. I've possibly been putting it off because I fear holding this opinion is going to make me unpopular, but screw it - I'm right and Tony Blair was wrong; not everyone needs to go to university. I know the statement and the following policies were made with the best intentions - graduates (at least at that time) tended to out-earn non-graduates, due to having better job prospects. All well and good, although you have to question how much of this is also down to the fact that by and large, graduates are still from wealthier families who will always have a greater level of social mobility. But, noble as the end is, the means has actually managed to destroy it.

There is now literally no point in having a degree because EVERYONE has one. Yes, time was, having a degree opened up a whole new world of job opportunities; now walking into an interview and saying "look at me, I have a degree!" improves your chances about as much as walking in shouting "I have a puppy!". Most large cities such as Birmingham or Manchester have three universities, small-to medium sized cities have at least two and even shitty little nowhere towns have one these days - I think when I lost faith in the system entirely was when I was introduced to the University of Basildon.

It's not just quantity that devalues degrees, but quality. To meet expectations that every young person should go to university, regardless of academic ability, a lot of the new universities that sprang up had incredibly low grade requirements. I remember when I was applying to uni there was a big scandal involving South Bank University as it had been revealed in an undercover sting operation that they were offering places on the condition the candidate achieved three Es, sometimes not even requiring them to pass any A Levels at all. Back then it was a massive scandal, now, that's normal. So you end up with universities full of people aren't really suited to it, staffed by unenthusiastic lecturers (lets face it, teachers will always prefer teaching the brighter kids to the no-hopers), with lower pass requirements because otherwise the majority of the students would fail anyway and it'd all be an exercise in futility. So having a degree no longer has any cache in terms of setting you apart from other candidates on the job market, and it no longer implies that you're particularly intelligent and/or well-educated. I don't mean to sound snobby here, by the way, if someone really wants to go to university but doesn't have the grades, there should always be a way, be it resits, taking a foundation course or proving your ambition with extra-curricular activities. Universities should and do have some discretion on individual cases. But the problem we have now with the whole "everyone must go to university" drive is that people who would normally not even want to go to university drift into it blindly because the presumption now is that going to university is normal and not going is not.

I think somewhere along the line as well we're having problems with the fact that university is no longer primarily seen in some quarters as about education, but as a "life experience". Remember last year, maybe the year before when the idea of condensing degree courses into two years was mooted briefly and everyone went mental? Everybody was up in arms over the fact that if students had more classes during the week it would impact on the amount of time they could spend socialising, and they would not be able to enjoy "the university experience". What the actual? Even when I was a student I wondered what I was supposed to do with 30 free hours a week and three months off over summer. I'm not a joyless harridan opposed to having fun, but dude - you signed up for an education, not a three year party. And if I can work 37.5 hours a week and still have as rad a social life as I do, I think you can manage if your contact hours go up from seven to 14.

But, dear readers, I do not present you only with a problem, I present you with a solution. David Willetts, take note, I'm going to save your ass here:

1.) Don't cut funding, cut classes. I'd question whether every city in the UK needs two universities or even one (can't Bognor Regis just be a holiday resort?) but they certainly don't need three. Get rid of the excuses for learning institutions whose only entry requirement is a pulse.

2.) Bring back vocational training and apprenticeships. I want to reduce university numbers, I don't want to throw people on the scrapheap of life. Not everyone may be suited to university but that doesn't mean they're not suited to further education - there should be a variety of educational options on offer to school leavers.

3.) Part two of this - scrap ridiculous academic requirements for entry level jobs. Because everyone has a degree now, employers are jumping on the bandwagon. It is being brought to my attention more and more recently that entry level office jobs - office junior, admin assistant, receptionist etc - are seeking applicants "educated to university level and above only". I saw an advert for a temporary receptionist for a two week (two week!) contract last week and it specified graduate applicants only. I'll level with you - I have far more experience working reception desks than I care to think about, and at no point did I need to draw on my extensive knowledge of 17th century poetry or the fall of empires post 1945. You know how when you're a kid, say five or six, and your parents teach you how to answer the phone; pick up receiver and say hello? Yeah. That's all you need. There's something uniquely depressing about the realisation that for the majority of your working life your job could have been done by a five-year-old. Thank goodness they're all in school. Employers - stop it.

4.) If you have to raise fees, raise them for masters degrees. A consequence of everybody pursuing undergraduate degrees is that in the last five years, the number of people taking masters degrees has exploded. When I graduated, I knew two people who went on to do masters degrees; one was a research scientist, the other had done a generalised humanities degree and was now specialising in the field that she wanted to work in. Pretty normal. But now, because ev-ery-one has a bachelors degree, ev-ery-one now does a masters degree, in a desperate attempt to put something on their CV that marks them out; and a tragic number of people doing MAs and MSCs are the "university experience" enthusiasts of earlier, who just want to defer getting a job for another 9 months. I know of far too many people doing masters degrees who have no regard for their subject, but are merely pursuing a higher degree because it's virtually intertwined with a bachelors degree now, so customary has it become, or because they view it as an excuse to drink more for longer. And it's not stopping there - I'm pretty sure it used to be unusual to know more than one person doing a PhD; I know seven. How long before it becomes necessary to have a PhD to get an office admin job? Keep undergraduate fees at the current level, raise fees for unnecessary masters courses to make up the shortfall. Again, I'm not anti further degrees, I still want to do one myself, although that's almost entirely because our current climate forcing all graduates to do one makes me feel thick as hell for not having one, even though I have a professional qualification that was actually harder; I'm anti it being essentially compulsory and treated so flippantly.

So, there you go. You might hate me, but my method would work, and no one would have to pay €9000 a year.