Thursday, January 31, 2013

The trouble with posh boys


It's been a while since I've written about politics or ruffled a few feathers at the bike shed. Although I never quite reasoned it out, I think I've been concerned that readers of my book might be put off.  I've been anticipating a rush of visitors wanting beautiful words on family and landscape -  not me ranting about the wrongs of private education or the demise of the UK pension system. 

The assumption is flawed.  

Firstly, it presumes my book would attract readers here - a hope which the stat-counter confirms isn't happening, or at least not in volume. Secondly it's dried up my output so that even the regular visitors are tailing off.  And thirdly, I've a list of political issues clogging my head - and blocking the route of things less contentious.

So if you're new here and expecting something more on nature or landscape, bear with me  a while, or try clicking the sidebar - meanwhile I'll start with an anecdote that set me thinking.

The proper post starts here.

The other week my son related a story of a 'rich girl' at his school who'd blithely asserted, 'all of us have smartphones that our parents pay for'.  No we dont! was the firm response from her peers. 'Really? But I thought...'

Whilst the tale is not quite on the level of 'let them eat cake', it reminded me of how easy it is for the privileged to lose touch with the lives of those less flush. I'm sure I've been guilty of this - probably most of the middle classes have at some point. George Orwell, whose writings are currently being celebrated on Radio 4, argued it was impossible for the upper classes (of which I am distinctly not a member) to fully understand the realities of the working class.

My son's story also brought to mind the MP, Nadine Diorres' recent description of Cameron and Clegg as two arrogant posh boys. The country, she claimed, was being run by public school toffs with no understanding of those who can't afford to fill their kids' lunch boxes. What's more, she added, they dont care!'

I disagree with Diorres and (dare I say it) to some extent with Orwell. Aside from the occasional backbench rant I don't see any evidence that this Government is entirely ignorant or uncaring of those on low incomes. Indeed they overtly state that those with the broadest shoulders who should carry the biggest burden - and whilst we might argue about what constitues 'broad', most of their fiscal policies have reflected this. 

But what I think the annecdote illustrates is something more subtle - and it get's to the heart of the trouble with posh boys...

Drive through any middle class housing estate and you'll see rows of properties looking very much alike, cars on the drive, gravel round the plant pots. From outside appearance you might reasonably conclude the lives and incomes of the residents are much of a muchness. But you'd be very wrong.  

Scratch the surface, and you'll find that number 26 is mortgaged to the hilt; next door they're debt free but under threat of redundancy; the chap at number 32 has no pension and will be working till he drops; the bungalow at the end is being sold to pay for care home fees... The middle classes of the UK may all look alike - but the deeper reality is that their only commonality (quoting Orwell again) is a fear of becoming working class. 

And it seems to me that this hints at what posh boys fail to understand. It's not that Cameron and Clegg can't recognise and empathise with those on truly low incomes. Rather, it's that if you went to a school costing £12,000 a term, then it's hard to see a problem with university fees of £9000? If you're set to inherit millions and a mansion, then what's all the fuss about the demise of pensions? If your family is rolling in cash then surely the difference between individual and household earnings is just a technicality? 

Well no it isn't. 

Take, for example,  the patently unfair arrangements for removal of Child Benefit. This doesn't affect those on low or average incomes - but it is classic 'posh boy' to think there's no  difference between a household with three children and one earner on £61,000p.a. (entire benefit of circa £2,300 removed) and another with two adults earning a combined income of £98,000p.a. which retains all of the benefit.  For clarity, I'm not arguing here that benefits shouldn't be removed; I'm saying the way they have chosen to do it shows a  certain disregard of the difference £40,000 per year makes. 

And it's classic posh boy to argue the provision of bursaries to students from lower income families makes the system of fairer, and by implication more palatableOf course, we need to encourage social mobility, that's obvious - but let's not be ignorant of the impact on a lower middle class teenager who wants to become a teacher and is facing the prospect of £50,000 debts. 

As an aside, one of the few truly 'fair' aspects of the university fees system is that students repay loans when they earn above a threshold. Ironically for the posh boys this means that subsidising students from low income families is potentially a gross injustice. Imagine a fully subsidised student who has no fees to repay but who then goes on to earn a multi-million salary (they become an investment banker perhaps).  Now imagine an average income student whose parents  struggle to support through university and whose career takes them to a socially valuable but middle income job (a policeman perhaps) - but who then has repay over £50,000 in fees and loans! That simply can't be fair. 

But then you see fairness is a tricky concept. And our view of it is highly dependent on the company we keep and how we experience the world around us. 

So next time you hear Cameron, Clegg and their chums promoting this Government's policies, ask yourself  how aware they are - not of the obvious income gaps, but of the subtleties that lie behind appearance. Ask whether their kids might think that parent funded smartphones are what everyone teenager enjoys.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


There are times when resistance is pointless; when whinging and railing is as far as you'll get. Like Canute, great warrior though he was, you learn it's folly to fight the tide.

Any parent knows there are days when it's best to give way. I recall weekends nursing fevers; cleaning up kiddie puke instead of the walks and picnics we'd planned. Once, the car packed and the weather set fair for a trip to the Lakes, Daniel ran full pelt into the door, blood gushing and a swelling the size of an egg. Two hours and five stitches later we phoned to cancel the hotel. 

But those days were few. When I set my mind to something, I'm more determined than most. I'm diligent too - it's seldom a lack of organisation that leads to failure or disappointment. If things go wrong, I swear more than I should, curse the flat tyre, the sod's law, the bloody weather, the idiot who caused the traffic jam...  And after Jane's calmed me down, I find we're usually not quite as late or as ill prepared as I'd feared. There is little that actually stops us.

Snow is the one big exception. 

I hate snow with a passion reserved only for things most foul. It comes from childhood I think - the knowledge of certain disappointment; that the car wouldn't start, that we'd not see our grandparents, that on Monday school would be open regardless. Why doesn't it ever snow when nothing much is planned?

So this weekend I've been in lockdown, physical and mental - keeping my frustration in check with a mixture of good whiskey, bad banjo playing, and the odd walk across the fields. Don't fight the inevitable, I told myself - look for the positives. I even had a shed-night sleepover with Dylan so we'd get our 'sub-zero' wings.  

Has it worked?


I still long for what might have been; I calculate the lost opportunity, can't quite embrace the second rate options.  But at least I'm not punching the walls, and interestingly (a sign of age perhaps) I'm not trying to ride my bike or paddle my kayak regardless. There are even some aspects of the weekend I've truly enjoyed - the whiskey for instance, the meal I cooked last night.

I wish I were more sanguine about the weather - it would make for a happier life. 

But If I'm honest I wish even more that the darn snow would go.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

In praise of parks and their keepers

Image shamelessly stolen from my friend VP's blog Veg Plotting

Opposite my house in Wiltshire is a large Edwardian park. Within its steel fenced boundary is an  arboretum of mature trees which act as backdrop to my garden. There's also a large playing field,  three tennis courts, a jogging trail, bowling green, toddler's playground, snack-shack and even a bandstand which hosts Sunday concerts throughout the summer.

John Coles Park is then, a quintessential civic amenity: accessible, free to use and beyond what any individual could afford or would want to maintain. It's one of the chief delights of living where I do. And yet before I moved to this side of town I don't think I'd walked there more than twice in fifteen years.

The reason is I was sniffy about public spaces. They were second rate: not the same as 'proper landscape', cultivated and false - and frankly, full of lads in hoodies playing keepy-uppy with empty cider cans. Given the choice I'd head to the hills or, more locally, the woods at Castle Combe; I'd seek out true nature and preferably not to have to share it with others.

There is still some truth in that attitude - parks are not the same as the fells; they can't compare to Bamburgh beach on a crisp winter's morning; there isn't the view, the space, the sense of perspective that wild places offer. And many are spoiled by yobs and winos - there's one the other side of town that I'd not walk though at night.

But I've come to learn that at that their best they are worthy in their own terms.

Last Sunday the clouds parted for a couple of hours and our park had well over a hundred visitors.  There were folk walking their dogs, kids on bikes (and scooters - oh, so many scooters), some playing tennis, a chap on power-risers, another sprinting between the trees.  There were families and couples and groups of teenagers - I'd reckon the age range spanned eighty years. We had a coffee at the snack bar and Dylan defied the seasons by demanding a tub of ice cream.

And I've come to realise how important these facilities are to the community. Not everyone has access to those hills and woods I casually assume are available to all. And those who do, might justifiably not have the time or inclination (or cash) to travel and sort maps (let alone the gear) only to drag their kids through an unfamiliar landscape. Wilderness is an acquired taste ; it requires knowledge and skills that aren't gained overnight, let alone a break in the clouds.

An irony perhaps is that our park is best open space round here, precisely because it is closely managed. The gates close at dusk; there are uniformed keepers, the litter is picked; offensive youths are asked to leave. That's not to say it's policed, nor is it tended like a National Trust property - but there's sufficient control to 'keep it tidy' as they would say in Wales. I often think of it as an example of Liberalism in action -  we are free to do as we please - so far as it doesn't stop others doing the same.

The park from my garden

Of course, the presence of careful (if understated) management is essential to our so called wilderness too. I might fantasise about an unspoiled landscape offering free and open access, but the reality is that without the management of bodies such as the national park authorities (and the aforementioned National Trust) there would be precious little of it. And it's not just yobs or selfish landowners who'd be the threat- take at look at, say, Keswick High Street or Bourton on the Water, to see how rampant commercialism can destroy the character of a place.

It's 11.00am and I need to finish this blog.  The sun has come out and the frost is finally melting. But it's too cold to cycle and the big boys are revising; Dylan is playing video games and needs some air; Jane has plans this afternoon.  I wonder where we can go for an hour or so?