Left on the shelf

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It was my last lesson with the year 10s (15-year olds) and I’d invited them each to get up and tell me and the class about their favourite book.

Public speaking being a route to self-ful lment (ask Dale Carnegie and Toastmasters), this was in any case a chance to practise the speaking element of the GCSE and also to start a list for a class book club maybe?

The first three I called on had not read a book. I turned to one of the brighter in the class. Mercifully, he had prepared his presentation: I shall be speaking about Diary of aWimpy Kid. If you have no idea what that is,count yourself lucky. Astonishingly, secondary school libraries stock these “silly, popular” (I quote Wikipedia) part-comic books along with the Captain Underpants series (written for primary school level) so, not so astonishingly, that is what the kids read.

Still no surprises then to find a report this week from Professor Keith Topping stating that “Worryingly, by the later years of secondary school many students are reading books that are no harder than those in primary school.” If they are reading at all… And you don’t need to be a professor to share his insight that “good literacy is the single most important educational building block from which all other learning follows.”

 

Now I’ve finished weeping for the generation of non-readers we’ve raised; I’ve wiped my nose and wrung out my sleeve – I’m emboldened. So here goes: I would remove from school libraries all books not written in recognisable English that enables readers to establish a solid relationship with literature, build their vocabulary and an understanding of good English syntax. I would provide them with this list of recommended reading that would, in addition, they’d lay down a store of cultural capital. What would you add?

Alice inWonderland, Lewis Carol

Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
The Hobbit, J R RTolkien
Treasure Island, R L Stephenson

1984, George Orwell
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

I’d interleave those with books that can’t fail to cheer you up. Researching such books online produces a dismal slew of titles on how to overcome depression, ready to spoil any spirit that had the temerity to be glad. Let’s do better than that!

Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K Jerome
So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, Douglas Adams

Anything by P G Wodehouse
Winterdance, Gary Paulsen
How to make a Jewish Movie, Melville Shavelson

Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth

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Me too? Not quite

I revel in the advances of feminism. My life is a testament to what the movement achieved for us females, and for the record – I celebrate it. But it is also a fact that paradise this isn’t. I clicked on a link at Christmas, thinking to be diverted for 10-15 minutes, and saw a full half-hour documentary of women in their early- and mid-sixties lamenting that they can’t draw the state pension they expected at 60 because the rules changed and the pension now kicks in (for them and us) later.

A campaign has been launched, and the documentary made. Its focal point, believe it or not, is Ken Loach being interviewed. Seriously, Ken Loach! Never mind…

You know me: I’m ready, at the drop of a hint of unfairness, to take up the cudgels and battle for justice. I’ll be there at the demonstration with a slogan and a placard, and will overcome my natural shyness [cough] to speak up at a protest meeting. So upon seeing this programme, did I leap up and click to sign the petition? On the contrary – it depressed me unutterably. Here were bright, capable women, all vital, articulate and brimming with wisdom and energy holding their metaphorical hand out on my screen: “Giss the money.” It left a bad taste in the mouth. It had a whiff of entitlement, but also of despair. Many of these women are on the verge of penury; many depressed; some gone by their own hand.

Ken Loach it was –bless him– who made the obvious point: women of that age run our communities. Look around Barnet: the activists in community, voluntary, and campaigning groups are constituted of that very demographic. “The glue that holds our communities together,” said Loach.Too true! Why are they reduced to begging? Why are they not earning the money they need? Why are they not paid for what they do do?

Their plight is not theirs alone – it is shared by all of us over 55 without independent means. Look around the workplace: where are the older workers? But especially where are the older women? Better still, look at the job ads: Where are the recruiters boasting of their “older teams”, or that “we offer exciting opportunities for the middle aged”? Laughable, aren’t they, those phrases? Therein lies the tragedy of our dysfunctional labour market. Older women in corporations are etiolated like a dumbbell: either at the very top – the few, lucky ones; or staffing the reception desk and the cleaning rota. What about all those roles in between?

I shared my concern with my friend Amanda who runs her own ‘profit centre’ at a corporation. How about hiring women our age, I asked. Her answer broke my heart.The couple of times I tried, she said, it ended badly. Remind you of anything? It’s akin to someone protesting: “But some of my best friends are Jews/gay/disabled!” I forbore to ask Amanda about those occasions when younger employees ended badly…

God knows there is much wrong with the workplace. But –shall we coin an ugly verb– scrapheaping so many talented people with rich life experience to the unpaid margins must surely top that ugly, hierarchical pile.

I’m envisaging a workplace where all kinds of people occupy every function; where if you are ready to work remunerative employment will be yours; where you are paid fairly for labour you do (and so carers and dustmen are among the highest earners); and where you are valued for your work and for your other contributions.

I quote my hero John Lennon: You may say I’m a dreamer. But I still want to live in a world where I never need to draw a pension.Where I will always be making a contribution and it will be remunerated, and provide me with a living. And you too of course.

Amen to that, and a Happy New Year to all my readers.

Neuropolis reclaims science for real people

I am interested, as this blogsite demonstrates, in sex and politics: in how we manage our dealings with each other – whether intimate or collective. Whereas objective facts about the laws of nature and how they play out in the material world hold far less attraction, sorry. Science is vital and the technology it produces is both essential and mindboggling (to me. Well it would be…). I give thanks daily that others with great minds and aptitudes pursue a scientific vocation, but…
Here I am reading a book about science! Because it relates science to people. It looks at how science looks at people and, oops, it finds outrageous fallibilities.

In Neuropolis, the book and the Radio 4 series, Robert Newman targets a sub-species of pop-neuroscience that he dubs bro-science – a pessimistic, denigrating take on the brain that is based more on macho posing than on research. He sets out to destroy it using proper science.

Really? Is Newman a scientist? No. He is a comedian. He defends his exercise by quoting Köhler, who praised “trespassing as a scientific technique”. Thus Newman, the outsider trespassing on science, is reclaiming science for real people like me.

I remember listening dutifully to V S Ramachandran’s brain science Reith Lectures in 2003, hearing him speak a variety of curiosities –including that our minds are made up a few seconds before we know it in a process hidden from our conscious decision-making– and thinking, where does this fellow get off? Here at last Newman provides the answer. Ramachandran is a bro-scientist, whose evidence is dubious, and he seems engaged in a contest to posit human life as less autonomous and less worthy than the next man. That man being maybe Yuval Noah Harari who claims that “the free individual is just a fictional tale concocted by a set of biological algorithms.”

This “dehumanising and pessimistic agenda” (typified by Stephen Hawking’s remark that “the human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate sized planet…”) gives rise to a variety of reductive fallacies Newman calls magical scientism. These fallacies include a view that in science “there is physics, and there is stamp collecting”. Newman sees this notion lurking at the back of physicist Stephen Hawking’s claim that philosophy has not kept up with science – for which no evidence is adduced. (This –you heard it here first– will be the subject of Newman’s next book.) It isn’t true! he says.

Uploading consciousness onto a computer –a prospect so beloved of chauvinistic futurists– is just as fallacious, says Newman. Based on a clockwork vision of the world, it models our behaviour on machines, and leads Professor Brian Cox to state that “there’s nothing special about human brains that a sufficiently complex computer couldn’t do just as well”.

Then there’s the modern mythologising of the brain by researchers looking for human responses in specific parts of the brain using the very dodgy fMRI (imaging the brain so bits light up in primary colours on a screen).

The book demolishes these fallacies, and here are a few takeaways: Science is a precious process that is physics yes, but also chemistry and biology. Above all, it is about empirical evidence.
We are not machines, we are animals who are first and foremost emotional beings – no machine has ever been that.
As a result, there is no totally disinterested science. Bro-values produce seriously dodgy, life-denying neuro-bollocks that eco-warriors such as Newman are motivated to dismantle. (The chapter on Pavlov and his citadel of silence is as chilling as it is revealing – highly recommended).

Proper scientists (and pseudo scientist) are sniffy about Newman, pointing out small errors, and dismissing him for his very unorthodox writing style. True, he elides comedy with fact; recounts true and invented anecdotes without distinction. Newman accepts this can be a barrier for some, and so he intends to make his next book less eccentric. But he says, “I like that switching as a reader – when a book switches from one point of view to another”.

Some people are hostile to Newman because they fear Newman’s flippant critique might be lending unwitting support to the nutters who reject science, assert God’s supremacy, and reject global warming while voting for Trump and his ilk. Newman won’t have it: “It’s hard to think of an idea more inimical to the spirit of free scientific enquiry than ‘you are either with us or against us’,” he told me when we met. After all, scientific critique is one way of describing the scientific method.

Would Newman have brought me to this and his earlier book The Entirely Accurate Encyclopaedia of Evolution without the flippancy? Without the radio comedies? The silly, fictional touches are what led me to the life-enhancing, fun, and enlightening experience of reading his books. I overlook the stylistic eccentricities, (and the numerous typo’s – HarperCollins, I’m available for proofing!) because the message is important.

Perhaps machines will develop consciousness one day; perhaps it will be discovered that we are predestined creatures coded into being by a greater intelligence not living on a moderate sized planet; perhaps it will be found that the brain is mechanical wetware. Let science keep searching – please. And I will believe it when the evidence shows it. For now, the evidence is against it. It points to people being autonomous creatures capable of nobility, creativity and intelligence, which is quite exciting in itself.

If there is justice, Newman’s efforts will prove a major contribution to the defeat of the mechanistic, reductive strands in our public conversation about the mind, and rebuild a humane discourse that takes full cognisance of how vital human love, empathy, contrariness, and co-operation are to us and the biosphere’s survival.

In defence of “Naked Attraction”

My for-the-moment final column for the local newsletter EN4 and EN5 has been published. You decide whether I mean the title sarcastically or not.

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I watched the first episode of Naked Attraction on Channel 4’s online catch-up service. Someone had described it to me. What would you do if you were told of a dating show where candidates are revealed naked, very slowly from the feet up?

Here are its strengths. Someone’s gotta list ’em; the online reviews all crackle with prudish outrage while displaying pic upon pic of the show. The naked hypocrisy of it is enough  to make one want to strip off and streak through the offices of the Mail OnLine peeing on their monitors as one goes!

In this first programme, two girls pick a naked date. By elimination. Bit by, erm, bit.

Aina is a musician with interesting hairstyles. She has six willies, bums, and then chests to choose from. She picks the fellow with the false leg and the elephant face tattooed around his ‘elephant trunk’ – not because of them, but despite them: Matty, their owner, loves his legs and regrets the tattoo. He uses the couple of sentences allowed to him to say that in a way that conveys he has a hinterland and a sense of humour. After the date the two certainly look in love, and Aina admits surprise at how much compatibility they have found. Surprised? No kidding girl!

Mal has three boys and three girls to choose from. Across the show, rejected boys say something snide or self-defensive to save face (despite that being the part of them we see least). “Actually, she’s not my type”; “I didn’t like her legs anyway!” etc. However, the last boy, Lorenzo – rejected clearly because his English is too poor even to make knob jokes with – looks into the camera and says: “She is very beautiful and I’m feeling very very sad now.” I was moved; I wept for him all evening.

An unmistakable strength of the programme is that all the naked candidates are gorgeous. Mal says so, and she’s right! Sadly, little else is. Mal called the obese candidate “like Botticelli” (she meant Rubenesque). The dating ‘facts’ that punctuate the programme are pure piffle on pillars, peddling evolutionary psychology bollocks and talk of human pheromones none of which is worth a bad smell.

In my researches – done exclusively for you dear reader, of course – the most common Twitter comment for #nakedattraction is, “This is the weirdest show ever!” Quite – given the excruciating awkwardness of picking dates naked, especially at 10pm in the evening!

The second most common comment is, “Why would anyone go on this show?” It’s easy – look them up! The contestants are aspiring actors and models, former strippograms and lap-dancers. They’re not looking for lerv, but to enhance their careers. Why else would anyone demean themselves on the most regressive, oppressive, body-fascistic, objectifying, infantilising (fannies are all shaved to pre-pubescent girlishness), prurient, voyeuristic, embarrassing, sexploitative show our public broadcasters have aired before midnight?

Psst – it’s on Mondays!

abandoning the blog

Over the summer, since the referendum delivered its hammer-blow to the British body politic, I have neglected this blog-site. The world of politics, which has obsessed me for years, went into a Catherine-Wheel-like spin, meriting more comment and insalubrious scrutiny (and getting it) than the most outlandish soap opera. I was sated with it. But more – I was disillusioned.

For a while, both the UK’s leading parties were leaderless and loopy. I assume that the smell of power emanating from the vacuum that opened up as a result of the referendum-quake drove Westminster’s denizens out of their minds.

The Conservative party recovered quite quickly, found itself with a new leader while no-one was looking, and went gratefully into recess. Labour, assisted on its way by its new super-democratic (?) leadership election rules, has been going through the inevitable death or metamorphosis throes of a party that has lost its raison d’être.

Throughout a metaphorical whiff of stench was in the air. The referendum campaign made obvious the post-truth political era we are in, and only confirmed my olfactory sense – that political discourse, the whole conversation, has become debased. So much so, that to participate in it left me feeling tainted. So I have absented myself from it. I should clarify what I mean, and intend to do so soon. Watch this space.

Shopping at 90

This column is my latest published by EN4 and EN5 newsletters.

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At about 50 I gave up acquiring clothes. I was unwrapping a late Christmas gift, and there was yet another damned top. I felt a slight nausea. Ungrateful me. I couldn’t help it – my wardrobe was bulging and it staged its revolt through my psyche. Enough.

I soon discovered that (of course!) there’s a movement out there to support me*, but honestly I don’t need it. My resolve arises from a deep place. My mum.

I come from puritan stock (albeit Jewish, Anglican, and atheist). My parents grew up in a time of genuine want. In the War, there simultaneously grew a rich devotion to the life of the mind, to which my begetters were fully in thrall. My mum had been an active member of the CPGB, and set me an unambiguous example. I’ve never seen her wear a lick of makeup. She wastes nothing; always turns lights off in empty rooms; never eats meat. (Her bed of nails is probably here somewhere.)

She hasn’t shopped for clothes for over 30 years. Then an invitation comes for a summer wedding this year, and suddenly it’s, “I don’t have a thing to wear for this.” A crisis that, at 90, mum can’t face alone.

Thus come I to be shopping. Mum is browsing v-necks, bright colours, broad-shouldered, tall-woman garments for a little old lady shaped exactly like Tenniel’s portrayal of Tweedledum (or was it Tweedledee?)

Clearly, the problem is too big for the both of us. I enlist the help of John Lewis’s personal stylist service.Victoria is lovely. She comes back after 10-15 minutes with a rail full of dresses for mum to try on. This is not when the trouble starts. It started a fortnight earlier, when mum started trying to precipitate the cancellation of the appointment. The arctic chill coming off her feet was palpable. Denying the ravages of the years is very hard to maintain while trying on new clothes.

We start critiquing – not ourselves, of course, but the dresses. Mum was right about the necklines – wide, revealing openness doesn’t
suit. Nor do flouncy, fabric-heavy skirts. We agree on two challenges, the first being age. Most of the items are too young. Can’t define it, but can see it when on, unmistakably. The second is shape. If a dress allows the rotund middle to be noticed, it is rejected. This is going to be tough!

There’s a third. ‘This dress scares me,’ says mum about a lovely, simple, floral number that suits.

‘It doesn’t bite, promise!’ ventures Victoria. When she leaves the room, mum locates some of her marbles:
 ‘It doesn’t feel like my dress!’ So that is the third challenge: it mustn’t feel alien to the old woman.

After nearly two hours, mum is too agitated to be civil. I plead, Victoria has been so forbearing let’s give this one a final try. Blimey – it ticks all the boxes: it’s dignified, it reveals what it may and hides what it must, and isn’t alien. Phew!

Thereupon a fourth challenge rises like a zombie from the grave. I should have predicted this: at £200 the dress costs more than mum can stomach. We leave empty handed. Atavistic instincts win again – our puritanism alone is satisfied.

  •  For support in eschewing the fashion treadmill look up Make Do and Mend Life and John-Paul Flintoff’s Sew your Own

Greece – past, past and past

It’s just over a year since the EU referendum in Greece. Syriza wanted the people’s backing for their rejection of the austerity measures that the troika was imposing. I went to the Yes and No rallies at Syntagma Square. But here’s why I was in Greece. It was published in the EN4 and EN5 newsletters and I neglected to put it up at the time.

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It’s what friends are for. I said I was looking for
 a new direction. My best friend Kate sent me 
a link. I received it one midnight just before heading for bed (checking my emails against all
 the sleep hygiene advice). It promised an answer
 to all my prayers: A business in a Mediterranean island was looking for an English-speaking partner to show tourists around.The only requirements – an outgoing personality, a willingness to take the leap. How exciting. These are my best (only?) skills! Plus having grown up on the Mediterranean, the warm sunshine, stony hillsides, and the smell of oregano and pine resin are exercising an ever-stronger pull on my heartstrings.

I sent the business owner an email straightaway. I hardly slept.
The following morning, there being no reply,
 I rang his mobile number. The voice at the other
 end was warm and intelligent.

I’m your woman! I declared with the kind of swivel-eyed certainty I associate more with Tory ministers and Alan Sugar’s apprentices. “I hear you,” chuckled the voice.“I will reply to your email. But the connection isn’t great up here, so be patient.”

We exchanged a couple of emails. I’ve never tried online dating, though I have flirted with unmet contacts on email (yes bosses, that is what your
 staff are doing. It’s human nature). But this was, like football, more important! At stake was not a latter-day sophisticate’s loss of heart and dignity, but all the rest of my little life.

So when, in his third email, Stuart stated the obvious – that no amount of emails is an adequate substitute for a meeting – my mettle was tested.

I swallowed hard, booked a passage for two weeks later, and told Stuart. We e-negotiated: where
 to stay, what to expect,
 the exit strategy. It charged the emails with heavy signicance. It led, for me, to many more drafts, but also to a frankness that is, ironically, rare even with good friends. Ask whatever you like, wrote Stuart. But what should I ask? I replied. The only questions worth asking are deal breakers, and I’m desperate not to break this deal!

I arrived without mishap on a glittering, late June afternoon at the jetty of a dusty, one-storey waterfront of a classic Greek island, badly sleep deprived and dearly wishing that this stage of the adventure were already over.Would I- would the deal- survive it?

Stuart was lovely. The island was lovely. My room – sparse but with an amazing view and no neighbours – was lovely. But the business was gone. That’s what you hear about Greece. It’s lamentably true. So I ended up having a great beach holiday.

But what about Stuart? I was disappointed. He was bereft!

He did what you would advise: he wrote a book. It reveals the secrets of his beloved island. His business having been run off the road, this is tourist hosting by other means. Defying the dogs-in-the-manger who tried to crush him.

Discover Hidden Naxos is available from http://www.hiddennaxos.com