The Obscurer

Category: Society

The Play's The Thing

I have just come across this article from this week’s Sunday Telegraph reporting the results of a survey of 100 primary schools across the country regarding which play, if any, they are putting on this Christmas. If true the results are pretty shocking, as they reveal that “only one in five schools are planning to perform a traditional nativity play this year” celebrating the birth of Jesus. Yes, that’s twenty percent.

Now, many people will respond to this news with understandable anger; for myself, I just find it very sad and disappointing. I’m no militant, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I really do think that it is in all of our interests if we can join together and try to promote the true meaning of Christmas.

I mean, it’s not difficult, the clue is in the word, isn’t it? Christmas? As in, err, Father Christmas? Heard of him? Now I’m not too sure who this Jesus bloke is, but I don’t see any reason why he should hijack our perfectly good celebration of commercialism, indulgence and the-telly’s-not-quite-as-good-as-it-used-to-be-when-we-were-kids-is-it that more or less keeps the economy spinning. We really must fight to get this massive 20% figure whittled down.

Perhaps this “Jesus” can get his own festival at some other time of the year, rather than gatecrash our party; just as long as it’s well away from our other great celebrations, like Halloween or Burns Night. Sometime in the Spring would be good, that is if the powers that be can actually get their heads together and nail down a single, definite annual date for the thing.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is my own survey, which I can absolutely guarantee you is a complete waste of your time. Enjoy.

Please select the one statement below that most closely corresponds with your point of view

Christmas just gets earlier and earlier every year. I mean, I saw a Christmas tree in Woolworths in September this year. September! What next? Well, August, presumably. It’s ridiculous.
Christmas has effectively been outlawed by the politically correct do-gooder liberal elite who run this country. I read in the Daily Mail that the police arrested someone for possession of tinsel the other week. It’s ridiculous.
I moan about both of the above points, despite the fact that they contradict each other. You may have seen me on BBC 2’s “Grumpy Old Christmas” which they broadcast in November, for God’s sake, and which is banned. I’m ridiculous.

Negative Publicity

Leaving Borders bookshop on Saturday, I turned on my heel when the headline on the front page of the Evening News caught my eye, and reaching the newsstand I read

‘Cool Cash’ card confusion
Ciara Leeming
3/11/2007

A LOTTERY scratchcard has been withdrawn from sale by Camelot – because players couldn’t understand it.

The Cool Cash game – launched on Monday – was taken out of shops yesterday after some players failed to grasp whether or not they had won.

To qualify for a prize, users had to scratch away a window to reveal a temperature lower than the figure displayed on each card. As the game had a winter theme, the temperature was usually below freezing.

But the concept of comparing negative numbers proved too difficult for some. Camelot received dozens of complaints on the first day from players who could not understand how, for example, -5 is higher than -6.

With that, having read enough and with my misanthropy suitably sated, I left Borders and walked the short distance to my car, where after a brief bout of weeping I drove off and thought no more of it. My thanks, then, to Chris at qwghlm.co.uk who managed to read on further than I did; I now realise that things were even worse than I had feared.

Tina Farrell, from Levenshulme, called Camelot after failing to win with several cards.

The 23-year-old, who said she had left school without a maths GCSE, said: “On one of my cards it said I had to find temperatures lower than -8. The numbers I uncovered were -6 and -7 so I thought I had won, and so did the woman in the shop. But when she scanned the card the machine said I hadn’t.

“I phoned Camelot and they fobbed me off with some story that -6 is higher – not lower – than -8 but I’m not having it.

“I think Camelot are giving people the wrong impression – the card doesn’t say to look for a colder or warmer temperature, it says to look for a higher or lower number. Six is a lower number than 8. Imagine how many people have been misled.”

Where to start? As Chris says, the phrases “Camelot…fobbed me off” and “I’m not having it” leap out, as does the assertion that “people have been misled”; but that’s not all. That the shopkeeper was allegedly as equally baffled is a cause for concern, while the politician-like diversion of stating that “Six is a lower number than 8” – true, but in this case irrelevant – is almost impressive in its own way. Of course, in her defence it is said that Tina “left school without a maths GCSE”, but I’m pretty sure “numbers” are still covered in the national curriculum at some stage; it’s not as if Camelot were expecting people to do quadratic equations on the hoof.

Now it is worth saying at this juncture that we should be careful about what has been attributed to this poor unfortunate. Newspapers have been known to bend the truth at times and so we should perhaps be wary about relying on direct quotes that may well have been edited (or made grammatical); far better to stick to the facts as far as we know them. But one fact that is particularly nagging at me is that it appears that only the M.E.N. has covered the story, there’s nothing in the national press. Why? Could the answer lie in the fact that our interviewee is, in that immortal phrase, “from Levenshulme”? In which case I think we have reached the end. Here is someone so ignorant of the most basic mathematics (which is lamentable enough), who then compounds the offence by stubbornly refusing to accept and learn from her error, who though wholly in the wrong still complains to the company and is subsequently offended when pointed in the direction of a simple arithmetic truth, and who finally responds to this outrage and injustice by going to the papers!

If these were the actions of one solitary moron we could laugh it off; so why aren’t we laughing? It is enough surely that “Camelot received dozens of complaints on the first day” that the game came out; but that knot of dread we feel in the pit of our stomach is because we fear this is symptomatic of something much bigger, and much, much worse.

Long Agos And Worlds Apart

Some things make me feel stupid, some things make me feel old; University Challenge usually majors on the former, as questions I don’t understand are answered by students who do, and then some. But on Monday it managed to do both, and the guilty party was the one round that normally cheers me; the “music round”, where I can usually knock off the starter for ten and the supplementary questions with aplomb. Ha, I mutter to myself; you kids may look pretty smart when the matter is one of quantum physics, but your floundering ignorance when presented with a series of album covers from the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal reveals your feet of clay. While I may lose ground on the swings, I can at least gain some on the roundabouts.

But this week was slightly different. Sure the premise was the same; a short clip of an easily identifiable song – in this case The Smiths’ “London” – and eight clueless geniuses staring out time, waiting for Jeremy Paxman to move on and ask them a simple one on the early history of the Ghaznavid Dynasty, or something. That minor obstacle overcome and the music round duly recommenced.

Only this time I couldn’t take it in, I was still reeling from the starter question. Let me restate what I have just said; not one of the students knew “London” was a song by The Smiths. The Smiths! Students! And The Smiths! I thought they were inextricably entwined. I thought the terms “Smiths’ Fan” and “student” were synonymous. When I was at college not only would almost every student have instantly recognised the band, but also around 20% of them at any one time would have had Louder Than Bombs on their Walkman at that precise moment. What has happened to the youth of today?

So that made me feel pretty old; but I feel even older the more I think about it. After all, in the contestants’ defence the last proper Smiths album was released in 1987; that means that for some of today’s university students The Smiths will occupy the same space in their consciousness as The Beatles do in mine, and I grew up considering The Beatles to be ancient history. Worse, to my kids The Smiths will be seen as a band that split up way, way before they were born; they will view them from the same perspective as I view Buddy Holly. Now I reckon I would still recognise just about any Beatles or Buddy Holly song thrown at me on University Challenge, even while I must hold my hands up and admit I haven’t memorised the periodic table by rote; but I think that’s beside the point. It doesn’t make me feel any better. It still makes me feel old. Perspective? Too much fucking perspective.

But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised; perhaps today’s students are a different breed entirely? That’s the way it seemed the last time I knowingly entered what I believed to be a student pub, one Sunday afternoon a couple of years ago during my short break in the Cotswolds (and environs.) Back in the day you could instantly spot a student bar by the profusion of black cotton and Doc Martens, the vast array of Goth gear; but not here. Instead I reckon I must have clocked more navy blazers and tweed sports jackets in that half-hour in the pub than I did during my entire three-year stint at Bradford University. I even overheard students making arrangements to meet up later for something called “supper”. It was weird.

Then again, perhaps that was because the pub in question was The King’s Arms in the centre of Oxford. I don’t know, I don’t know; it’s possible that representative it may very well not be.

Generation Game?

So Jim Davidson is the latest casualty of reality TV, pushed before he could jump from the current incarnation of Hell’s Kitchen because he made offensive remarks to a fellow contestant. I’ve never been a fan of the man personally, but incredibly he managed to fall short of the very low standards I already expected of him.

Jim’s response has been entirely predictable. There were double standards because apparently people were also offensive to him on the show, though examples were not forthcoming, because they don’t exist. He said that the pressures of the show made him “play up to the worst of my perceived image”; this is known as the “Chubby Brown defence”, and was bollocks when he originally came out with it to differentiate his “stage persona” from the “real him”, when they’re essentially the same. He was appalled that now it appeared that he had become the victim, as if this were some terrible, unjust reverse contrary to the laws of nature. If he was now a victim, then he wondered where all the other “heterosexual, white, normal” people like him should go now; oblivious to the fact that he could have stayed put as long as he stopped acting the dick, but that even if he had to move on his specific demographic doesn’t appear to be struggling overall so he has plenty of options. He was of an earlier generation he said (“before racism was bad”, as that line in The Office had it?) as if there were a time when rudeness was once in fashion. In the end, of course, Jim complained that this was all down to “politically correctness”, of which he knows nothing.

But I think we should give thanks to Jim Davidson for his foray into the debate on political correctness, because it has helped me in my understanding of what it actually means. There are some egregious examples of PC “gone mad” – often more urban myth than reality, in my experience – but at its heart I believe that to be political correct simply means that you don’t use terms that other people find offensive, and that you treat others with respect. It is about politeness and decency, and Jim’s behaviour has confirmed me in this opinion. Regarding the specific incident that resulted in Jim Davidson’s expulsion, it should be obvious to all that it is less than courteous to refer to other people as “shirt-lifters”, and pretty stupid to do so while in the presence of a gay man; that when said gay man admits that he finds the term offensive, apologising is generally preferred to saying “I don’t care” and accusing him of “playing the homophobic card” as that is unlikely to calm the situation; still less is it recommended to then call him a “fucking disgrace”, as that term is typically frowned upon in polite society, and absent from most good books on etiquette. This is all common sense, the basic principles of human engagement that we really should learn at our mother’s knee, rather than have battered into us on some Diversity course or other.

ITV, in sacking Davidson as he was walking out of the door, was probably trying to earn easy brownie points while avoiding the kind of furore Channel 4 was embroiled in during the last series of Celebrity Big Brother. There was no need to fire him, and to do so seems an overreaction in my opinion; but from the (admittedly) little I saw of Hell’s Kitchen, by my definition of political correctness Jim Davidson certainly failed the test, but not because on one occasion he used an offensive and homophobic term. The problem was that he came across as a picky, condescending and arrogant character who didn’t appear to understand anyone else, his fellow white middle-aged male contestants being as baffled by his behaviour as anybody; in fact he cut such a sad, confused and misanthropic figure that you could almost feel sorry for him, were he not acting the twat, all the time. It was his shitty attitude and lack of respect towards other people in general that was the problem; the supposedly PC-specific complaints such as the hateful misogyny that appeared so entwined and intrinsic to his being, and the thoughtless, casual homophobia that he brushed off, only seemed to come with the territory.

Shoehorn With Teeth

“There is no such thing as society”, Margaret Thatcher once declared, and people are still getting worked up about it. Chris Dillow points to a few posts taking Thatcher to task for her statement, but personally defends her by stating she is expounding methodological individualism. Norman Geras refutes this by asserting that there is two-way causality, while Daniel Finkelstein feels that to him, as a situationist, Thatcher’s statement is profoundly unhelpful. I have only the vaguest inkling what the hell they’re all going on about, so I will tackle this in the manner I know best; for me the line is just an example of Thatcher jibbering nonsense.

Why? Well on one level there is clearly such a thing as society, because the Oxford English Dictionary says so. Thatcher was pretty iconoclastic, but even she never tried to overrule the OED; she wouldn’t dare (who would). There is also a Wikipedia entry on “society”, where an online community has somehow collaborated to create an article that, funnily enough, doesn’t appear to refer to Margaret Thatcher at all, almost as if society itself doesn’t acknowledge her.

Society, ultimately, is just a word, and it can only exist if it is useful and means something; and it does. For example, I think it is true to say that British society is less racist now than it was twenty years ago; you may disagree with me, but even if you do you still understand what I mean. It is a generalisation for sure, I am not saying that society is one homogonous, anti-racist blob and that there aren’t individual racists out there – we all know of colleagues, acquaintances and professional footballers who are – but it is still a useful shorthand and an example of how the word can be of relevance.

And do you know who agrees with me? One Margaret Thatcher. Of course she does. Otherwise, why does Wikiquote record that she stated in 1984 that

I came to office with one deliberate intent: to change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society — from a give-it-to-me, to a do-it-yourself nation. A get-up-and-go, instead of a sit-back-and-wait-for-it Britain.

So her “one deliberate intent” as prime minister was to change the nature of something she didn’t believe in? I suppose she subsequently could have changed her mind – the “no such thing as society” quote was made three years later – but a quick search of her archives reveals over a thousand recorded instances where she referred to “society”, most recently in 2003, when she said

The wonderful thing about a free market is that it allows people to pursue their own interests and at the same time automatically advance every one else’s interests. As Adam Smith taught, it is not through the benevolence of people, but through their intelligent self interest that society as a whole becomes wealthier.

So does she think that the free market improves the wealth of something that doesn’t exist? Clearly not. So if she does accept the validity of the term “society”, what was she wibbling on about before? Tell you what; let’s have a look at what she actually said.

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation.

And it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate—”It is all right. We joined together and we have these insurance schemes to look after it”. That was the objective, but somehow there are some people who have been manipulating the system and so some of those help and benefits that were meant to say to people: “All right, if you cannot get a job, you shall have a basic standard of living!” but when people come and say: “But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!” You say: “Look” It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!” There is also something else I should say to them: “If that does not give you a basic standard, you know, there are ways in which we top up the standard. You can get your housing benefit.”

But it went too far. If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

For me, this in not really an attack on the concept of society; rather Thatcher’s target is those people who have stopped viewing the welfare state as a safety net but have instead chosen it as a way of life, and see it as an entitlement without any obligation. I think she is saying that people have a responsibility to look after themselves if they can and that the existence of government doesn’t absolve you of this responsibility, but she also states that we should help others; it’s just that even where government can help it is only able to do so because of other individuals who fulfil their responsibilities, and that these entitlements and responsibilities are a two-way street, which is why you can’t have one without the other. If she believes that people look after themselves first, then this is largely because we do. If we can ignore that infamous, stupid line, then I don’t actually think she is saying that there is no such thing as society at all, just qualifying what society is or should be about; she is not so much refuting the idea of society as defining what it is. And if I have accurately summarised what she is saying, then in many ways I agree with her, which makes me feel quite sick.

I think it is also important to remember where she made these comments. This was no prepared landmark speech to a conference drafted by a team of writers, but an off-the-cuff remark in an interview with Woman’s Own. She probably never even thought that the “no such thing” line would be seen as a rallying call to self-interest by the right, or viewed as an assault on the concept of community by the left, it just tripped off her tongue on the spur of the moment. I doubt it was meant to be taken that much to heart, and she probably never imagined we would be still be discussing it now, twenty years on, although I am sure she is chuffed to bits that we are. I’m not sure she ever really thought – or thought out – the idea that there is no such thing as society; but if you say “there is no such thing as society” then it isn’t too surprising if people get the impression that that is what you think.

Remember who we are talking about here, remember what we know of her; the woman’s a fucking idiot, to put it mildly. She was making a valid point, but expressed herself appallingly badly, so I don’t think we should be dancing on the head of a pin arguing about exactly what she meant in this instance and whether she was right or wrong. Let’s just try and forget about her shall we; because as a society we’re better off without her.