Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Cost of Everything and the Value of Nothing: #1

Thinking about the destruction of the public library service....

My first job as a school leaver was as a pre-professional library assistant. This was a post which took employees with A levels and gave them a year's work in a local authority library before being enrolled on a four year degree course to become a qualified librarian.

I loved library work, but a combination of things made me abandon this as a career. At 18, four years seemed like a lifetime's study; I was busy settling into Little Miss Home Counties Housewife of the Year mode (I had a serious boyfriend who, like me, hadn't gone to university). What really did it, though, was the pay. After four years, a qualified librarian's salary was pretty rubbish by the standards of, say, a classroom teacher, and by definition there would always be fewer librarians than library assistant posts to go around. In addition to this, it involved a lot of unsocial hours (evenings and weekends on rota), and the prospect of an office job looked more appealing in terms of hours and pay.

Librarians are massively undervalued - the ones I worked with were all fiercely intelligent, resourceful and committed (and, possibly unusually at that time, mostly female). The pay's a little better now but, given their expertise, still not brilliant. The prospect of our libraries being run by a combination of ladies-who-lunch and retired people (literally, a dying breed) is depressing. No matter how well-meaning they might be, they will not have the skills to unearth what's not on the shelves. This is fine if you want to borrow the latest Dan Brown, but not if you need the little-remembered, out-of print novel which is probably lurking in the stacks somewhere, last taken out in 1936, which the trained librarian would probably be able to unearth for you. Contrary to popular belief, there's more to knowledge than Google or Wikipedia. 

And what of 'editorial control'? How long before a Daily Mail-reading volunteer decides that a book is 'unsuitable', based on some opinion piece from one of their regular contributors - you know who I mean - and copies disappear from the shelves? With money for acquisitions minimal, what chance does a lesser-known author stand of having his/her works purchased if the alternative is to buy additional copies of the latest bestsellers to meet 'reader demand'. Very soon, libraries will come to resemble a railway station WHSmith rather than a place where one can discover new (or even old!) writers.

It doesn't strike me that the current cabinet has much intellectual heft, so it's unlikely that they will miss public libraries much (and of course they're far too busy running the country to have time for things like books). For the rest of us, though, it's another case of our cultural lives being diminished by the intellectual pygmies who now hold the purse strings.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Binge Drinking (or "Chance Would be a Fine Thing")

Thinking about the debate about alcohol pricing today.

The minimum prices put forward by the government would appear to be so small as to be meaningless - tell me when you could last get a bottle of drinkable Scotch for less than £8? - and will therefore have no impact on the binge drinking which has become such an issue. 

Conversely, if they whack the prices up to the level the experts suggest, this will impact on the 'stuck-at-home', sensible drinkers (people like me, with childcare issues which restrict our access to a night out) and will probably do little to limit binge drinking.

I don't think price is the issue here, it's culture. Britain has always had a slightly ambivalent attitude towards alcohol, informed by historical and religious influences. The uptight, Protestant distaste for drinking as sinful (funny how it's never struck Catholic countries in the same way?), the peculiar licensing laws brought in to meet the demands of wartime industrial production.

I enjoy a drink. I come from a family who like a drink. My friends can attest to the fact that in my 20s, I was able to knock it back with the best of them. My 'local' at that time was ostensibly a Wine Bar (although I seem to recall it didn't sell a lot of wine). Run by two former Met officers, in a rather lovely 15th century, half-timbered building in the middle of the cultural desert that is Maidstone, it had an upstairs and lower bar, and was frequented by the the 6th formers from the local grammar schools and some twenty-somethings, along with a small, but select, group of older punters. The upper bar was jokingly referred to as "the creche", but as they got older people somehow gravitated downstairs to where the conversation flowed along with the beer. 

It was lively, but I don't remember things ever getting out of hand. There were sports teams, poetry nights, the infamous Talent Show (remarkable chiefly for how little of it we demonstrated!) It was more a licensed youth club than a bar, and our hosts always made sure we eased up if we were the worse for wear and made sure we all got off the premises and home safely. A friend's mother has since said that she never worried when she knew we were all there. That's not to say that nobody ever got drunk or misbehaved, but for the most part it was high spirits, did no harm to the surrounding community and we could all pretty much remember what we'd done the next day. 

As I got older I drank less, as I suspect, most of today's binge drinkers will do, and these days my new year's resolution is usually to drink more! Now, it's the occasional bottled ale or bottle of wine from the supermarket, drunk in front of the TV. Nights out are a rarity when you have kids, but then I feel I had had my time for socialising before they arrived and don't regret the change.

Which brings me back to the point (I think). It's the culture of drinking which has changed for the worse over the last few years. I started going into pubs at 14, under the watchful eye my parents, sat drinking Coke (after a childhood of sitting in the car with the aforementioned Coke and packet of crisps). At that point in history, I was probably more at risk from passive smoking than from alcohol. The landlord knew  his customers and, as landlord rather than manager, it was in his best interests to tell a customer when they'd had too much and refuse to serve them. No need for bouncers, just a landlord with authority and a regular clientele who would back him up if things got nasty. Going to the pub was a social occasion with added beer.

The traditional pub, with 'regulars' is now a dying phenomenon, though, having given way to noisy booze warehouses where throughput is all and the manager and his staff are there simply to maximise profit for the owner. Conversation after about 6pm is impossible, as the PA then gets cranked up (presumably to get rid of us older, slower drinkers) and if you're really unlucky, your evening is 'enhanced' by a dodgy Robbie Williams tribute act. Such places do not have drinkers' welfare at heart and rely on a steady stream of 'crawlers to keep spending and drinking long after they can remember where they are, who they are or where their wallet is.

The relaxation of licensing laws was supposed to free us from the tyranny of 'last orders', where everyone was presumed to squeeze in more drink before the bell went. With no fixed hours and bars able to choose (there's that "choice" thing again!) their opening hours, now no-one is sure when anywhere closes and so the drunken masses migrate across town like wildebeest looking for the next open bar until they collapse from the effort.

Cafe culture will not work in this country. We don't have the climate for it, for a start, and our pubs have been hijacked by 'hospitality' companies who's outlets are the same wherever you are. No wonder drunk youngsters are disoriented when a Revolution looks the same whether you're in Manchester, Bristol or London. Local councils do not seem overly worried about giving licences to a clutch of such places in one area

At the same time, traditional pubs in towns  are dying on their feet because reasonable drinkers have deserted town/city centres. Faced with the prospect of hordes of drunks in town, or driving to a country pub (and therefore not being able to drink!), most of us just stay at home.

If governments really want to address the health issues surrounding binge drinking, they need to look at the culture of drinking, so that the pleasure of people's company while drinking is valued more than the race to be first to get bladdered. I'm not advocating a return to the dingy pubs with red formica table tops and regulars who glower at you if you come in through the wrong door, but something which normalises social drinking would be good for all of us.

Heaven knows we ALL need a drink these days!

Thursday, 13 January 2011


I don't know where to start, really.

Woke this morning to the news headline that Manchester City Council is having to lose 2000 jobs this year, due to the additional £60m savings it has to find thanks to the coalition government's disproportionately swingeing, "that'll teach you to elect a Labour council", cuts to government grants.

Therefore sent my other half off to work in the knowledge that our single household income could be about to disappear just as the last of my severance money runs out.

We are (or were) both career public servants. We're not motivated by high salaries, have no interest in being entrepreneurs and are profoundly disinterested in profit. Both of us, though, are committed to giving something back to the community and our adopted city. At some point in our local government careers, have been responsible for monitoring income and expenditure and ensuring that council tax payers were getting value for money. And we were both good at it.

I got clobbered by New Labour's ill-conceived adoption of the Tory, free-market mantra that the private sector can always provide "it" cheaper and better. My entire team was TUPE'd out to a private BPO on a multi-million pound contract which had previously been delivered (under contract) by Manchester City Council. The council lost 200+ years' accumulated experience, and we (despite the 'protection' of TUPE) lost our local government pension rights and our careers.

We were told that our experience and knowledge of the schemes we had run (at cost) under local authority control were invaluable to the success of the contract and yet less than 3 years later, we had pretty much all been paid off. It seems that the private sector couldn't provide, as first one contractor was ditched and the second realised the job was effectively un-deliverable. I was one of the first out, and had thought that I would be something of an exception. One by one, the more senior staff were offered packages to go away and shortly thereafter an announcement was made that the Manchester operation was being closed down. A few doughty souls decided to relocate, only to have the Coalition ditch the biggest component of the contract, having assured the electorate that they would not do so, putting their jobs at risk.

So far, so similar to a great many other conscientious and hard-working local authority workers who don't (contrary to propaganda from the media) earn vast salaries, retire at 60, get 'free' pensions (we pay into them, just as private sector employees do), sit around town halls drinking tea, etc, etc. (Even last night's 'Midsomer Murders' had the Planning Chief as the murderer!)

In our case, there are additional issues, though. Our eldest daughter has a rare neurological condition and is on the autistic spectrum. During her years at primary school, we somehow managed to maintain both of us working full time, although this was frequently disrupted by emergency calls to school to deal with a behavioural problem which could erupt at a moment's notice. She's high-functioning, though, and has no learning difficulties, so we were keen that she remain in mainstream schooling. My severence co-incided with her transition to high school and allowed us to manage that transition in a positive way. And it's been great being merely a phone call away in a crisis and not having to go cap in hand to an employer to beg for time off to deal with it.

We've also been able to economise on childcare as well, as I've had the luxury of being able to spend the holidays with the girls. Instead of having to rush out of the house (earlier than in term time, as most holiday playschemes start early and finish earlier than term-time provision), they get a chance to re-charge their batteries and lie-in if they need to. 

But here's the catch. As they get older, the options for childcare diminish. It's either not available or if it's there at all, they don't want to go to it, seeing it as 'little kid's stuff'. It's also tricky with a teenager with ASD. Normal expectations on behaviour mean that outbursts which might have been tolerated when she was 5, would now find her thrown out of a scheme. Yes, there are holiday playschemes for disabled children and their siblings, but I'm wary of that 'culture of disability' which means she doesn't mix with mainstream society. It's a tricky one, but in the main, I would prefer to be at home to manage the school holidays myself. 

So, in order to provide the best for the family in terms of meeting the needs of my daughter and the mental health of the rest of the family, I would be far better served staying at home (just what the Tories want women to do!). However, even before the threat of partner's possible redundancy, this was never realistic, so I'm having to look for work which is term-time only, where the hours enable me to meet childcare needs and where the employer would be happy for me to be called away at short notice and to take time off for the multiple medical appointments she has. Well, that's looking promising!

We have never claimed any benefits on behalf of our daughter, either. Although many people told us to apply for DLA, we didn't feel that we incurred any additional expense in terms of support or mobility than any other child of her age and as were on good 'moderate' incomes (let's be clear, though, we were in no danger of losing our Child Benefit) we felt it would be wrong to put in a claim. She walks a mile to school, goes into town unaccompanied (albeit closely monitored by us on her mobile), and can cook her own meal if necessary, so we really didn't feel that we were justified in claiming for her. Hers is an unfairly 'invisible' disability - she is capable of managing with most things, and is an intelligent child. 

We're hoping that she will be obtain qualifications (although this is getting less likely by the day, thanks to Michael Gove's obsession with making all pupils something out of Mallory Towers) and will be able to live independently. At the same time, she is subject to the funny looks when her behaviour seems strange and we need always to be 'on alert' for potential flashpoints. She doesn't need full time care in the usual sense, but we are never off duty - no-one in the current climate of "benefits scroungers", though, is going to accept that my time would be better used waiting at home for the times when there's a problem. In small, intangible ways, her ASD fundamentally alters they way we can live our lives and that's not something the state is willing to pick up the bill for. Profound physical disabilities are easier for the legislators (and electorate) to get their heads around - "poor little mite" syndrome, as I call it - but there are thousands of people for whom a disability is a lifelong impediment to success. How, in this new, "small-state" world where we are all expected to be entrepreneurial, will she manage to maintain a work record?

I've read a lot of people who expected that David Cameron, as the parent of a disabled child, would be sympathetic to (or at least appreciate) the difficulties that this can present to family life, and are dismayed that he appears sanguine about the cuts to disability benefits and local authority support. Now, I'm not callous enough to deny him the grief he felt when they lost their son simply because I disagree profoundly with his politics and world-view; no amount of wealth can compensate for the myriad ways in which living with (and losing) a disabled child affects you. To those expecting empathy, though, consider this. He has never been in a position of having to choose a course of action for economic reasons. For most of us, though, such a choice has to be made. I would love to be in a position where the next 5 years were devoted to my children as they move towards adulthood, but it simply isn't practical. Nor do I expect to sit at home letting the state support me. But the sad reality at the moment is that it is becoming more difficult to get a work-life balance. There were improvements to family-friendly employment of the last 13 years, but most of these gains are being undermined. The attack on existing terms and conditions, threats of further legislation to 'curb the power of trades unions' (Hang on, I thought the Tories had done that? That's what they tell us!), mean that working life, for those of us fortunate to have a job, will be meaner, longer and less-family friendly. For a much more erudite discussion of this particular topic, see this:


I know this post will do nothing concrete to change the situation we find ourselves in (and my partner will almost certainly tell me my time would have been better spent looking for jobs), but it has at least cleared my head of the rage I felt this morning when the radio came on....

UPDATE: Have now applied for DLA, despite partner's misgivings. The irony is that the more we try to help her be independent, the more we have to "hover" to keep her safe. We'll just have to see if she is "disabled enough"...