Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Things that confuse me

This may come over as a grumpy old man, but I think that it is valuable to air one's confusion in the hope that some understanding may follow. There are of course many serious things in life that confuse me, but I want to share some lighter things, as sometimes, if I get too serious, I start to confuse myself.

The current fashion among many young men for a certain trouser style confuses me. You know the sort. They're half way down the arse, looking as if some very serious accident has happened with the persons bowl movements. Now, to me, the fact that they look ridiculous is a given, but what confuses me is not why, but how. This is a science question. How do they stay up? Is there some secret stud attached to the underpants, or double sided Velcro fastening to stop them from falling down? Obviously it's not the done thing to stare at a young man's arse, or you get a reputation, or worse, a Glasgow handshake. I'm confused, what is behind (pun intended on the word behind) the science of this fashion?

In the week before Christmas, I saw a group of young women walking along the street (that's another view from an upstairs window) obviously going out for the evening. It was one of the coldest nights of the year, and each of them was wearing the minimum amount of clothing. Now that confused me, as I swear I could see goose bumps from 100 yards away. A day or two later there was a piece, with photographs in a national paper asking the very same question that was in my mind. Why? The answer given by the girls was that they felt that this was the only way to "pull a bloke". I couldn't decide who was more shallow, the women or the men. Probably both were in equal depth. Has it always been like this? No doubt it has, but wearing next to nothing on the coldest of nights still confused me.

Now let me be honest, I'm out of my depth (pun intended on the link with shallow - do you see what I did there?) here. I've never been on the pull in my entire life, and that's 63 years now. A "friend" years ago postulated that I had been born old, and therefore skipped the growing up phase. A wee bit harsh I think. I do remember, or at least I think I do, (it could have been a wishful dream), a woman coming on to me a few years ago. I think she was drunk. My response was to turn into Mr Bean - though married twice, I've never really been any good with women. So, I get confused and I am confused. The human behaviour question is this, "What is the link between 'pulling' and clothing?" Only serious answers will do justice to the content of this blog.

Finally (thank god for that I hear my readers say), what is it about the use of mobile phones on public transport? What confuses me is why so many people can be unaware of their intrusion into my personal space. The mobile phone is not the problem, but the use of it is. It's a little bit like money. The bible doesn't say that money is the root of all evil, but that the love of money is. It's the same with a mobile phone. When you're on public transport, you're stuck there; there are only so many seats to move to, and as sure as eggs are eggs, if you move seats, some other bugger will start a phone conversation. I'll be honest, this particular issue goes beyond confusion - I suffer near apoplexy, but in the true British spirit of not wanting to make a fuss, I do nothing, but seethe. I may mind a little less if there was a conversation worth listening to, but it is mostly inane drivel. I'm confused. Why be so full of yourself that you care nothing about the feelings or personal space of those around you? I wish I had the courage to take the phone and make it truly mobile (the pun's keep coming don't they?).

I'm sure that half-arsed trousers will continue to be worn; skimpy dresses will still be used to pull, and mobile phones will continue to be used for the annoyance of others. I don't feel in the least bit educated after all of this, but in a strange sort of way this has been quite cathartic. Now that's confusing.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

View from an upstairs window

The car reversed perfectly into the allocated parking space. Straight between the lines with no messing about. What? Have you nothing better to do than blog about the every day occurrence of car parking? You really do need to get a life. Hold on a moment before you pass judgement on the paucity of my activities. Views from an upstairs window reveal much about human activity, human behaviour and human nature. It's all there, open to view, just like sitting at Trent Bridge cricket ground watching a 20/20 match unfold before your eyes (how anyone watches all day, let alone five days is beyond me - but there you are, each to their own). The little car park outside my window is a microcosm of the greater world of drivers and pedestrians. Human activity, behaviour and nature is a joy to behold.

The Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds has done some very fine work on researching driver behaviour and human factors. Examples of current and potential research in this area include:
  • Evaluating the effect of various speed reducing measures in rural and urban environments
  • New engineering solutions for safer driving, such as reducing driver fatigue
  • Examining the impact of changes in road signage and variable message signs on driver behaviour
  • Modelling driver interaction with advanced driver assistance systems
  • Assessing driver response to critical scenarios within a highly automated driving environment
  • Improvements in vehicle systems and design
All excellent stuff, but do you notice what's missing in these studies about driver behaviour and activity? There is nothing about how drivers drive and park in a small car park. Now driving safely on a motorway may seem to be more of a priority, and I don't want to take anything away from that, but as with so much in life, it's the little things that tell us most about a person. And they don't come much smaller than a ten space car park.

A car is driven in and is faced with two adjacent spaces - what to do? Answer. Straddle both and leave no room for another. A driver decides to reverse into a space, after all they've been driving for years, and how hard can it be? They go backwards and forwards four times, and end up in exactly the same position as they started with. Someone reverses out of a space; the easiest way is to turn the steering wheel to the right, and you've a clear route out. No, they've always turned to the left, and left it will be. Twelve inches forward, twelve inches back, and after an eight point turn they're on their way. By now I'm not the only one gazing. Some drivers use reverse as if it's some illicit activity that they are ashamed to be seen doing. One mile an hour, even reversing across a near empty car park is considered to be the temperate thing to do. Though the look on the faces of other drivers who are waiting for this maneuver to be completed tells another story. A Porche driver who obviously feels frustrated at not being selected for a Formula One racing team, reverses out of a space as if his life depended on it, stops inches from a frozen in time family who were crossing the car park. (Pedestrians in car parks are another story).

Do all of these drivers have anything in common? What are the human characteristics that they display? Is it arrogance? Insensitiveness? Thoughtlessness? Inability? Lack of confidence? Who knows. It would take someone far more gifted than I am to report on this. One thing I am sure of though is that rear view mirrors and wing mirrors are merely seen as design appendages, and not something to be used in a practical way.

I thought that one way to address driver deficiencies would be to make everyone take a driving test every ten years. I'd be for that as long as I was exempt of course - I mean, we can't have our own weaknesses shown up for others to see, can we?

Yes, I know that there are more important things in life to be thinking about and doing, but sometimes you just can't beat the sheer joy of a view from an upstairs window.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Oratory - A Dying Art?

Oratory is defined as "skillful and effective public speaking". In my view, this has become a dying art over the years. I regret that speakers are told to use visual aids, because "A picture is worth a thousand words", and that audiences are told that modern man no longer has sufficient attention span to listen to a speaker for more than twenty minutes at a time. The result is that few speakers today have considerable oratorical powers, and that most people have lost the ability to listen. I don't deny that visuals can be helpful dependent on the content of the message, I just decry being told that visuals are essential for a message to be understood. For me, there are few greater delights than to listen to an Orator, hold an audience spell - bound purely by the power of the spoken word.

I have spent most of my life in one form of public speaking or another, and as arrogant as it may sound, I believe that I have been a "skillful and effective public speaker". Feedback from weekly audiences of around 500 people have encouraged me to believe this. Being brought up in Wales gave me an ideal grounding in the art of public speaking. My first performance was at the age of 5, when I delivered a poem at the annual sunday school anniversary in the local Baptist Chapel (the Church was always the Anglican Church: the Chapel was always non-conformist). There was no PA system in those days, and I was schooled in the art of voice projection, and what is now known as body language. There were also many opportunities through school for choral speaking, choirs and debating. All encouraged you on the presentation of whatever message you had. Feedback was given, even though at times it was not always wanted - it could be very harsh. I preached my first sermon in my local Chapel at the age of 15. Actually it wasn't mine, I knicked it off an 18th century preacher who impressed me, as I didn't think he'd mind as it was my first attempt at a full sermon. In those days if someone spoke for less than an hour, they were asked if they were feeling OK.

Because I believe that oratory is a dying art, my heroes tend to be from the past. I'll mention two of them. One inevitably is Welsh (by the way it is a fallacy to say that all Welsh people are great speakers, just as it is to say that all Welsh people can sing), and the other American. There is no desire here to discuss individual life or morals, simply their message and presentation.

David Lloyd George was described by his peers as someone with "very considerable oratorical powers". Put yourself in the House of Commons in 1909, when as Chancellor of the Exchequer he forced through Parliament what he called The Peoples' Budget. Listen to these words, "This is a war budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness. I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests". Feel the passion and the conviction of a great orator - there really is no need for a nice picture.

It was said of Dr Martin Luther King that, "No public figure of his generation could match the skill with which he made a mastery of the spoken word the servant of his cause". He was undoubtedly the leading light in the American Civil Rights movement. In August 1963, 210,000 people marched to the Lincoln Memorial, with the highlight of the day being a speech by Dr King, which forever since has been known as his "I have a dream" speech. Do look it up on YouTube, but choose the 17 minute version, as that is the full speech. The written text is also available on the Internet. The Guardian Newspaper nominated this as the greatest speech of the 20th Century. It doesn't do justice to the speech to pick out parts of it, but listen as he speaks, 

"In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men - yes, black men as well as white men - would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has give the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds'".

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character". He ends the speech with,

"Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual; 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"

This is what oratory is all about. A great message delivered with power and conviction, that can move the very soul of man. This is being lost in a world that only wants its information in bite sized chunks. We are poorer for it.

If you believe there are great Orators about today, why not post a comment and let me know who you think they are. I'd hate to be missing out on something special.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Merry Christmas


(I do hope that he's reading this)

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The gods too are fond of a joke - Aristotle

"I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia". (Woody Allen). Don't you just love humour? Some people are just naturally humourous; it seems part of their DNA, but others use humour at particular times. This can be,
  • To draw attention to ourselves - what a fun person we are to have around
  • To try and diffuse a potentially difficult situation - have you nervously cracked a joke with a policeman after being caught speeding? No! Then it just must be me
  • To compensate for perceived inadequacies - such as Chandler Bing in Friends
  • To put down those you fear, dislike, are prejudiced against or are jealous of - displaying a feeling of superiority over those you laugh at.
Then of course there are the occasions when humour simply brings joy to others.

Dr Laurence Peter, in his Peter's Almanac (1982), quotes, "It's hard to create humour because of the unfair competition from the real world". But it's precisely the competition from the real world that necessitates the need for humour. We might not be particularly humourous ourselves, but how great it is to enjoy the humour of others. I think it's best not to analyse humour - just simply enjoy it.

I enjoy reading and listening to a wide range of humourists, such as Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, The Goons, The Goodies, Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, Ken Dodd, Dara O'Briain, Stephen Fry and many others. I'm not particularly fond of so called "edgy" humour which ridicules, abuses and hurts others. I find this lazy and distasteful.

I'm a simple man with simple tastes. At the moment I'm into the humour of Tim Vine. It's silly, harmless and oh so funny. What about these crackers?

"Do you ever get that, when you're halfway through eating a horse and you think to yourself, I'm not as hungry as I thought I was".

"At the moment I'm reading 'My Life' by Bill Clinton, which freaked me out because I didn't know he knew anything about my life".

"So I went down to the local carpet shop. I said do you sell carpets by the yard? He said no, we sell them in here".

Now that makes me laugh, and the "real world" doesn't seem quite so bad for a while.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Dignity for the Retired

In last weeks Guardian newspaper, Jonathan Wolff, professor of philosophy at University College London, wrote an article about "Pensions are another way the already worst-off get a rough deal". He compared the relatively good pensions that those in academia would retire on, with "someone who left school at 16 will, most likely, spend almost 50 years in the workforce, often doing physically demanding work, before qualifying for a state pension and little else. They will then retire into poverty". He puts forward some proposals for an improved system in line with some other European countries.

I retired in January this year after 47 years of continuous employment, so the issue of pensions is right at the top of my agenda. I spent most of my working life fighting the cause of justice for many disadvantaged groups in society. I now find myself part of a group that I previously had no real contact with - the retired community. I now for the first time understand what poverty for the elderly really means. A survey by Help the Aged (now part of Age UK) a couple of years ago estimated that there were around 2.5 million older people who mostly lived in one room because of the cost of heating their home. Fuel poverty has still to be addressed adequately. The last few years of my working life were relatively comfortable, even though I lived in rented accommodation. I put as much as I could into a pension fund, but it has turned out to be too little, too late. The monthly payments are a joke.

Dignity for the elderly is not easy when you watch every penny, struggle to pay some bills, get embarrassed about paying your way when you get invited out for the evening, or worry about treating your family right when they come to stay. For many retired people these are not problems, and good luck to you, but for millions of people these are problems. A decent pension would alleviate many of these problems. Personally, I would like to see a state pension that was a minimum of two-thirds of someones final year salary. Will this happen? Currently, pensions are being looked at by the Government, but as Professor Wolff also says, "When everyone is thinking about reform of pensions and retirement, it is very surprising that there is so little discussion of what seems, when you start to think about it, yet another way the already worst-off get a rough deal".

I'm no longer fighting on the battlefield of homelessness, as I have a new cause - no doubt driven by a certain amount of self-interest - I'm now part of the "grey vote", and will fight (whatever that means) for dignity for the retired. Watch this space.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

A momentous event

Hi all - this is my first blog - I'm sat here with my son Chris in Nottingham and we've just created this - more to follow.