Sunday, 20 June 2010

I'm late, I'm late, I'm very very late...

Browsing the net this week, I stumbled across this amazing mini-lecture on our changing perspective of time by Professor Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University, the mind behind the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.

Perhaps most interesting is Professor Zimbardo's thoughts on how technology is rewiring our brains, and why, as consequence, the traditional cirriculum of active teacher-passive pupil and rote learning is doomed to fail.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The killing fields of Cumbria

Twelve people have been confirmed dead so far today after the carnage wrought by gunman Derrick Bird in the Cumbrian seaside town of Whitehaven.

As is so often the case, news networks quickly rounded up a gaggle of acquaintances and friends, who to a man described him as "polite", "mild-mannered", "placid". His friends said he was "good craig", while his local ladylady declared he was a good egg.

How, then, do we broach this gap between the public persona and the bloody reality of events? The Guardian reports a man who knew Mr Bird telling Radio 4: ""I can't see how this piece fits into his jigsaw. It's just completely out of place."

Perhaps, scary though it is to admit, the truth is that we don't need to. Maybe it is quite possible to be a well-functioning citizen and a cold-blooded killer? Isn't that the basis of shows like Dexter, where we root for the serial murderer on the flimsy premise that he only, er, y'know, murders bad guys?

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Not So Big As You Imagined Society

One of the great fallacies/thought farts of this election has been Cameron's idea of the "Big Society", which basically translates as: "should you have any problems, it's not our fault, you're on your own kiddo."

This is politicians abdicating responsibility, giving up on The State. It harks back in the most transparent way to Thatcher, whose genius was to somehow convince the British electorate that, even after unemployment had reached 3 million, it wasn't the State's place to intervene.

And if you don't believe me, how about this from the Times, not usually the most Labour-friendly of papers:

"If the Conservatives get in, Osborne will be overseeing the biggest spending squeeze since 1945 as they engage in their traditional pastime of scaling back the welfare state. Over the decades, the main task of any Tory administration has been to come up with a new, euphemistic way of describing how it will scale back the welfare state. Cameron's pop is the coining of the phrase 'Big Society'. Big Society, charities and voluntary organisations will, apparently, step in and pick up the slack in areas where once the welfare state existed.

For anyone wondering if this might work, Cameron's former tutor at Oxford, Vernon Bognador, appeared to explain:

"That is the philosophy of the 19th century," he said, briskly. "What does 'Big Society' really mean? That if you become destitute the Salvation Army will step in? It doesn't work. That's why we invented the State."

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Frontline of Homelessness

I arrive just before midnight on a windswept Yorkshire evening (let's face it, aren't they all?) to meet Fred Tidball, 63, and Dan Copperwheat, 21, Night Support Workers at St George’s Crypt in Leeds.

The crypt was converted in 1930 by the Reverend Don Collins to provide solace to those feeling the hardships of the Depression and now operates at what Dan calls “the frontline of homelessness in Leeds", the only place prepared to take the “street homeless” (those with no bed for the night and no referral). Service-users frequently include those suffering from alcoholism, drug and gambling addictions, mental illness or domestic violence.

I am met at the door by Dan, a Sports Science student at Leeds Met University, who ushers me into a small reception area with small brown leather armchairs and a white tiled floor. First impressions are good. If this was a hotel, I’d happily stay in it, the result of an elegant refit unveiled in February this year. I hear Fred before I see him, a booming disembodied voice echoing through the corridors. A former alcoholic himself, who lived homeless for several years, he has worked at the Crypt since 2006 and greets me with a knuckle-crunching handshake.

The revamp (covered by the Guardianlocal here) was more than cosmetic though, and the hostel now offers more than just a meal and a bed for the night. Team leaders work throughout the week to find clients new, more permanent accommodation. As Dan poetically puts it: “Now it’s not just a plaster on a gunshot wound.” Nevertheless, the crypt only has fifteen rooms, so they inevitably have to turn people away, a fact sorely acknowledged by Dan, who tells me: "I’d love to be able to take everyone, but we just physically can’t.”

It’s a peaceful night tonight, a few groups of young men pass through, but that isn’t always so. Dan calls it “a challenging job, perhaps the most challenging”. Fred tells me that in the four years he has been at the Crypt, he has been threatened with knifes, broken bottles, one man told him he’d set him on fire, and one even pulled a gun. “I told him if he didn’t put it away, he’d be leaving the Crypt with metal fillings,” he tells me with a mischievous smile.

Nevertheless, the pair’s enthusiasm for the job appears undimmed. Both practising Christians (though Fred is keen to stress that he isn’t the “bash-people-over-the-head-with-a-Bible-kind”), the pair stress that the positives far outweigh the negatives and both talk of the job in terms of a religious vocation. "You wouldn't do this job if you didn't have some sort of calling," is how Fred puts it to me.

Asked of the frustrations of their jobs, they cite the fact that they often don’t get to hear about the success stories (interestingly, a paramedic friend told me a similar thing recently). Dan is pragmatic about this though: “people are not here to rebuild their lives, we’re here to bridge the gap between homelessness and sustainable, ‘positive’ accommodation.” Fred qualifies this slightly: "we're not here to rebuilt their lives, but we are here to encourage them to take the next step."

There are good news stories though, and it's those that make it worthwhile. Fred regales me with a story about a former resident at the crypt who he helped get off the drink. "He paid me the greatest compliment I've ever had," Fred tells me. "He said, "You're the most devious bastard I've ever met." But he meant it in a good way!"

As I wind the interview up, Fred approvingly quoting Muhammad Ali line "Even if I emptied garbage cans, I'd aspire to be the best garbage collector there was." It seems a perfect encapsulation of the commitment and passion they demonstrate for their job. As he says as he shows me out, back into the alcohol-fuelled chaos of a Saturday night in central Leeds: “At the end of the day, we’re all here for the folks that come through that door”.

For more information on the work done at St George's Crypt, and the work that they do, see:

Thursday, 18 February 2010

I want money, that's what I want...

A brilliant piece of spoofery from American satire sheet the Onion, daring to imagine a world in which those in control of global money flows woke up and smelt the coffee.