I held the tenner out to him. He was Reebok Classics, drainpipe pale blue jeans, ellesse sweater and at least a foot taller. A thin gold chain snaked around the back of his neck. I smelt CK One. He pulled out a Zippo and in one flick lit his cigarette.
Three bottles of the cheapest cider. Big bottles. And a packet of Benson & Hedges Gold, I said.
Classy. What do I get?
What would your mummy think? He held his cigarette between his index finger and thumb, examining the stub. Ok. Wait behind the recycling bins. I’ll be back in ten. He swung into the passenger seat of a Vauxhall Nova 1.6i GSi, White Town playing from the stereo.
Fucking kevs, said Jon, walking towards the bins. Do you even know him?
Seen him hanging around the car park sometimes.
How do you know him?
I don’t. I just asked him if he would do it.
He could just take our money.
What else are we going to do? The teachers have been into the Spar, they know who we are, and we’re in uniform. We won’t get served. I don’t have any ID. There’s nothing else to do.
The recycling bins fanned out in a circle at the edge of the carpark, leaving a hidden patch of concrete in the middle. Cigarette butts filled the cracks and corners, a choice hideout for schoolboys. If you poked your head around Brown-Glass Only you could see the latch-gate leading to the corner of the boarding house.
I looked at my faded lace-ups. Jon wore Kickers, despite, or because, they were against school regulations. He kicked out at the bins, scuffing the base with black rubber. An empty gong went out among the assorted Mondeos and Astras, company cars out on the weekend’s chores.
Subtle. Real subtle.
We’re not doing anything wrong.
What was that song they were playing? That song is so old.
Pretty ancient. At least a year.
I heard the latch go and watched two sixth-formers make their way across the half empty car-park. Jon backed up against the side of the bin. Last time we managed to get alcohol, some prefects blackmailed us. Give it up, or explain yourself to the housemaster, they smirked. A letter to your parents, how very disappointed everyone is. Three weeks of detention. Gated all weekend, signing your name every hour into a battered green A4 book, watched by the housemaster, giving your excursions a maxim radius of thirty minutes. There was nowhere to go in town anyway, but sometimes you wanted to stay there. The sixth-formers made their way past the public toilets and round out onto the road towards the station. Jon gave them the finger, well out of sight.
After a while, the Nova made its way around the edge of the car park, weaving in and out of the empty spaces.
Here you go. He handed me the white plastic bag. There were only two two-litre bottles of White Lightening. I fished out the B&H.
Where’s the other bottle?
They only had two.
Why didn’t you get me something else?
Can I have the money then?
You said keep the change. I reasoned he had been waiting for this line for the past five minutes. Someone revved the Nova.
Anytime you gays need anything, let me know, yeah? He smiled. Got a spare fag?
I looked up at him. How much change is there?
About four quid. He jumbled the coins in his pocket, thrusting his hips at me.
Seeing as I fucked your mum last night, let’s call it even, I said.
He stopped jangling the coins. I had that warm feeling that comes with the knowledge that you are going to be telling this story for the next week, miming his traumatized face, puffing out my chest, flicking my wrist at the punch line. I also had that feeling that it was only a small matter of time before he punched me in the face. I turned, pushing Jon between Clear Glass and Cardboard and Paper Only. Running towards the gate, he shouted Run the Cunt Over, and I heard a door slam and the Nova lurch into gear and for a moment it felt like some ridiculous Pamplona and I did not feel so clever. I stumbled, catching my palm on the concrete and as we clattered into the yard, bag flapping against my chest, I heard laughter and the screech of wheels.
Fucking Kevs, said Jon, crouching behind the wall. I picked the gravel out of the palm of my hand and looked at my Casio calculator watch, scraping off the dirt caught among the maze of tiny buttons. The on-duty teacher would be doing the rounds in the afternoon, checking that those off-games were busy being useful, remaining on the straight and narrow path, becoming all-round individuals.
Why did you run away? said Jon.
I don’t know. I wondered if Jon thought I was a coward, or just winding me up. I doubt he would have stayed much longer either. He spat at the wall, as if to make his point.
What do we do now? He asked.
We can’t go into the House with all this. Guess we wait until they leave the car park. I spat as well, the summer dust spinning and falling in the two domes of spit. We looked at the 60-boy boarding house, a red-brick new build, extending out from the back of an 18th century housemaster’s residence like the barrel of the gun, finishing with a square patch of grass large enough for frantic football games. No-one was around. I crept up to a bottom floor study window, taking a handful of primary colour textbooks from the ledge, the covers curling up under my arm.
Let’s go sit on the bench. I want to know where Willoughby is.
Why have you got those?
Props. We sat down facing the House. On the housemaster’s side lay a gravel driveway bisecting a manicured lawn. A bed of Louise XIV roses were in bloom. Ivy clung to the front of the housemaster’s home. This was the side where parents dropped off their children. On the other side, behind the ivy, striped lawns and dormitories, lay a thin elongated concrete yard, penned in with an eight-foot wall, topped with galvanised wire. This is where we milled in breaks, playing variations of basketball and cricket, ending in scuffed knees and tears from the younger boys.
Willoughby was my English teacher, and also the on-duty tutor in the boarding house. With Willoughby, there was no ‘Dead Poets Society’, no self-realization through Shelly and seizing the day. Instead, during his allotted hour, he made us read in turn from Conrad’s Lord Jim, turning seconds into minutes like a macabre alchemist.
On the bench as the two bottles of White Lightening expanded in the summer heat, I scanned the windows of the housemaster’s study hoping to see the Willoughby head, easily identifiable by an almost impenetrable wave of hair circling his cranium. A uniform hirsute plane, without hesitation or deviation, whirling and waving like a primitive helmet. Finally he moved past the study windows, settling at the far end where a desk sat, stacked with homework and hiding a 12-year old Glenlivet. Jon and I made our way back to the car park, ever watchful for hatchbacks and the smell of CK One.
Our drinking hole was a clearing by the river that meandered past an orange-brick supermarket and out the bottom of town, through countryseats and market towns that litter this part of England. Getting there was “a fucking mission,” according to Jon. I saw it as part of the enterprise, stuffing the textbooks around the cider, waiting until finally out of sight so I could tear off the foil of the cigarette packet and fumble for a lighter. Keeping a lighter in your pocket was a risk in itself. Teachers needed little evidence to cast a guilty verdict. Clemency was a capital offence. But leave the lighter in your room, and sooner or later it would be taxed by some opportunistic boy. This is why cargo trousers were so popular.
Eventually, we slipped between the fence and crept along the wall that separated a supermarket loading bay from the Bermuda Triangle of vegetation that you so often find at the base of car parks, too small to catch the eye of an hyper-active urban planner, but big enough to become overgrown sinkhole for empty multi-pack snacks, and made our way along the river.
The clearing itself was well used by schoolboys and a collection of vagrants passing through town onto bigger things. In mid-Summer, boys and bums continually fought an encroaching guerrilla army of nettles, setting up a barricade of empty beer cans and cigarette stubs. The similar needs of the homeless and boarding schoolboys were lost on us as we sat down on the bank, legs dangling over the river, passing the first bottle between us.
The silence, away from B-roads and weekend shoppers, also helped us hear company snaking its way through the nettles. The school had recently introduced a policy of paying teachers a commission per-boy caught flouting the school laws. These proctors prowled the cubby holes and recesses of the town, even in the dead of night. I imagined them standing in the headmaster’s study by candlelight, felt coin pouches plopping into their hands. Confusingly, these sentries of proprietary, eager for the thrill of the chase, were often the chummiest of teachers, slapping backs and ready to please. While we waited for sounds in the undergrowth we finished the cider, hiccupping and burping, tearing pages out of the textbooks and sending paper airplanes floating down the river.
While writing this, I checked my email four times, my facebook twice, I texted two people, I checked my twitter account, I looked at a news story about a bull that jumped into a crowd of spectators at a corrida in Spain, and I clicked on three more sites to find out what happened to the bull. They killed it.
Actually, I did none of these things, because I wrote this piece with a pen and paper, sitting at the kitchen table. If I was sitting at my desk, writing this from scratch, such deviations as described above would a typical timeline to writing a post. These repetitions, hesitations and deviation, or how the internet has made us into easily distractible beings that find analytical thought difficult, has been described by Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
A technophile himself (he has written consistently on the social and economic implications of technology, and regularly updates his blog), Carr has hypothesised on the type of brain the web is giving us. He points towards a 2007 UCLA study, where web surfers and web novices scanned the internet while in a MRI scanner. Predictably the brains of each control group were different. The experienced surfer’s prefrontal cortex, associated with solving problems and decision making, saw far more activity than the brains of the inexperienced Luddites.
The test was repeated six days later, but in the interim, the novices spent an hour-a-day on the web. On the second MRI scan, the novices’ brains now matched the veterans. A week of bumbling online had re-wired their brains.
Is this a good thing? Surely more activity in the prefrontal areas of our brain can only be good? Unfortunately more brain activity does not necessarily mean better decision making. It does mean our brains are changing.
Thinking of your brain as a jumble of wires is slightly misleading. Your brain is perhaps better described as a series of channels and gullies in sandstone; the more you use the various channels, the deeper they are cut into the rock, creating worn grooves.
According to Carr, this cognitive erosion from using the internet may have negative effects. Researchers at Stanford conducted a test to measure concentration. The two control groups were made up of heavy media multi-taskers, and ones less so. Each group was given a series of cognitive tests. The multi-taskers, the group that supposedly benefited from the increased activity to their pre-frontal cortices, were easily distracted and far less likely to concentrate on a given task. Carr gives the memorable quote from Michael M. Merzenich, professor emeritus and neuroscientist at the University of California: “Online multi-tasking is training our brains to pay attention to crap.”
The problem of increasing our ability to rapidly multi-task is that we find it harder to concentrate and conduct analytical thought. Deep thinking involves patience, single mindedness and imagination, things that are difficult when constantly skimming from one url to the next.
A significant amount of critics have scoffed at Carr’s concept that the internet may be detrimental to analytical thought. A number of reviewers of the Shallows have pointed to Socrates (including Carr himself within the book), who lamented the invention of books, saying that they “create forgetfulness” in the soul. Other naysayers have been dredged up, against the printing press to the television, to show how foolish people are to argue against the march of technology. How foolish Robert Burton seems now, complaining about the profusion of books in the 17th century. The printing press has been one of the great game changers in history; surely Carr is not saying that the internet won’t have similar benefits?
Carr’s critics assume that because detractors of books, printing press and telegrams have been proved wrong, that Carr will certainly be proved wrong. This is understandable. Even David Hume says that “None but a fool or madman will ever pretend to dispute the authority of experience.”
But it is hard to deny that the internet is perhaps one of the biggest social changes the West has experienced, and may eventually be a greater influence than the printing press (if not already), and therefore cannot be judged on past experience. There is no past experience.
The scale of the internet may mean greater benefits, but also greater problems. Net-defenders have assumed that because there is more information available, we have the ability to expand our range of knowledge. But because of the internet’s scale, our knowledge may be wider, but not as deep.
The medium of the internet will also change the nature of knowledge. The internet has increased the demand to condense ideas into byte-sized chunks. Could Plato feed Socratic thought through Twitter? Probably not. In order to reach the masses, ideas may have to become shallower. This does not always mean they become better.
The internet may also cause ideas to be lost. The written word has given us wonderful things. If Plato did not spend the time writing Phaedrus, we would not know Socrates’ pessimistic opinion regarding books, for example. But what if Socrates decided to write down his thoughts instead of Plato? What if Socrates was a bad writer? Perhaps his thoughts would have been ignored as the sloppy work of a rambling fanatic. It will be impossible to know how many ideas internet may have atomised into tweets.
This is not a problem in many respects. Socratic dialogue is not necessary for day-to-day living. Not everyone has to be an intellectual. Penny dreadfuls and celebrity culture have been around far before the internet came into being. But to assume that human nature is shallow and that we are naturally drawn to photos of cats looking like Hitler and inane status updates is highly patronising. People care about their own consciousness. For example, most people are adverse to the concept of subliminal messaging. It changes the way we behave. If people saw how the internet is changing their neural pathways, making us more easily distractible, they may change the way they use the internet.
Some commentators have pointed towards how the internet is changing for us. Freedom is a productivity application that locks you offline for up to eight hours at a time, available to download for $10. But this is like buying a car, then clamping it for eight hours to stop you driving it. The solution would be not to by a car in the first place, or get a cab (in other words, not signing up to facebook, or using an internet cafe).
Pro-net partisans are also quick to point towards research highlighting the benefit of computer technology. Studies have shown that computer games increase visual perception and concentration, and have been lauded throughout the media. First, this is unsurprising; the media has a vested interest in the power of the internet. Second, it is hard to believe that a 10 year old playing GTA IV is preferable to one reading Roald Dahl or, god forbid, playing outside (incidentally, a study from Michigan University found that people learn better walking in the woods than walking in an urban environment. Wordsworth walked five miles a day in the Lake District).
Those defending the untold benefits of the web within the mainstream media are also those who are above 30 years old, and not brought up with the internet. Although their neurological grooves may be worn, they may be nowhere near as deep as those brought up on the internet and instant social networking.
Unfortunately, research into how the internet affects the brain is in early development, with many contradicting studies. One example is a study by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health. The N.I.M.H followed 5,000 children, from three years old to 16, to see how much a child’s brain changed during the course of its development. The researchers expected to stop the research when children hit 16. Eventually they kept the study going until the children reached 25 years old. Each time the children came back, their brains had changed. One area that saw most change was the prefrontal cortex, which we know is responsible for decision making, but also responsible for managing your emotions.
The researchers also saw a difference in the speed of development of the limbic system, which is where your emotions originate, compared to the prefrontal cortex. You limbic system grows rapidly during puberty, but you prefrontal cortex keeps growing until you are a young adult. If your limbic system is more developed in your youth than your prefrontal cortex, this might explain why teenagers are emotionally volatile. So perhaps increasing the use of the prefrontal cortex through using the internet is a good thing, balancing out the early development of your emotions.
Unfortunately, not enough research has been done to prove decisively one way or another, but assuming more internet usage is good in teenagers because their prefrontal cortex sees greater use falls into a trap. As Carr puts it, more brain activity is not necessarily better brain activity.
Another problem may be the tests themselves. As mentioned earlier, those who are heavy media multi-taskers are more easily distracted. The decision to ignore what is in front of them is not exactly a positive attribute, but other tests have called this ability to flick from one thing to another improved decision making and an increased ability to multi-task, often seen as a positive quality in our media friendly age. After all, the more you move from one thing to the next means the more opportunities there are to sell you something.
Obviously, there are great benefits to the internet, a number of articles were located online and printed out for this post. But it remains to be seen how the internet will affect the balance of limbic and prefrontal cortex in the under-25s, or put another way, their emotional wellbeing. Perhaps growing up with the internet will make them better at decision making, or it will make them more easily sidetracked and incapable of analytic thought, important factors when the teenagers of today become the CEOs and leaders of tomorrow. This unknown must make those who assume the internet only holds benefits to cognitive ability think twice (unless they have clicked on something else by now).
Sometimes the value of something can only be realised when it is taken away. A recent article from the New York Times followed five neuroscientists on a trip to the wilderness, without any communication to the outside world. According to Matt Richtel, the author of the article: “It was a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.”
Two members were in Carr’s camp, the others convinced that technology does not have a negative effect on your well-being. After five days in the wilderness, despite their differences, all members of the trip took back something positive from being away from ‘civilization’, either professionally or personally. Whether or not the internet is good or bad, being away from it once in a while cannot do any harm. Now I have to go and type this up, and check my email four times, my facebook twice…
n.b – I have avoided using hyperlinks in the text. Research has shown that the more links you place in the text, the less likely the reader will remember what they have read. So I will list the links below in a bibliography, which is what hyperlinks used to be called:
What Is It About 20-Somethings – Robin Marantz Henig, New York Times, August 18, 2010
Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain – Matt Richtel, New York Times, August 15, 2010
Losing our minds to the web – Evgeny Morozov, Prospect
The Shallows -Nicholas Carr
I say Tarka, you say otter. Tarka and his Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers. But actually no, not the bloody otter, I’m talking about Tarka L’Herpiniere, one half of Primal Journey; the brainchild of the insufferably twee, half-French half-English boy from the mountains and Katie-Jane Cooper, the striding toff who went from French knickers to the French alps in one.
“Some of Tarka’s friends have been quoted saying they first realised that he wasn’t ‘normal ‘ when he turned up on foot to a holiday gathering in the South of France, having run all the way from the UK because he couldn’t afford the air fare.”
Not only did he shun a career in professional rugby, instead following his primal “dream”, he counts his main interests as rock climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering, touring, telemarking, cross country skiing, mountain biking, road cycling, paragliding, skydiving and BASE jumping. As it turns out, despite the stomach churning sacharine nature of his website, which explores his family tree and how he is from a long line of explorers, while at the same time labours the point that he is not from a wealthy background, it all does add up to quite compelling reading. Between all the quite riveting stories about climbing Everest with acute mountain sickness and spanning the poles and the great wall of China, I happen to know he is widely regarded as being a bloody nice bloke to boot, I know this first hand in fact because I went to University with him, and despite my bitterness, good luck to Tarka the bloody Globe-otter. http://www.primaljourney.com/
Like many men, I dream of life as a professional explorer, but then I notice there’s a spare pork pie going and it all goes straight to my thighs. That said, I am still captivated by the idea of going on an adventure, however big or small, I suppose it’s man’s desire to get oneover on each other to claim ownership on an achievement or better still a mountain. The absolute need to conquer, probably very Freudian and quite apparent in all men, well all the men I know but that might be because my friends aren’t pansies!
A lot of these thoughts spill out in the pub amongst friends, always proposing various plans or telling witty stories of oneupmanship, which could always be misconstrued as male bravado. On the topic of bravado I was slammed the other day by a close female friend of mine who said bravado onlys serves to highlight ones insecurities or inferiorities “a false attempt to impress and, because it is false, doesn’t approach propriety or authenticity, and is in a sense, hypocritical”. Seeing that particular gauntlet clatter down amongst the scampi fries, I have authentically decided to pick it up and in doing signed up to go and trek to Everest base camp next April.
The Everest base camp trek, along with the Annapurna, are both firmly drodden paths and whilst I may have fancied something a little more off the beaten track, the allure of seeing the big mountain was too great. Hopefully this will act as a catalyst for further trekking, which has led me to compiling a list of some of the most interesting and varied other packages on offer.
High Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Centred on Jebel Toubkal (13,665ft/ 4,165m), North Africa’s highest mountain, the rugged wilderness of the High Atlas are also home to the colourful and hospitable Berber people. A 15-day visit with Explore (www.explore.co.uk, 0844 499 0901) costs from £599 (plus £65 local payment) and includes a return flight from London and a 10-day guided trek with an optional ascent of Mt Toubkal. Accommodation on trek is in a mix of Berber village houses, gîtes, mountain huts and fixed camps. Mules carry all food, equipment and personal gear.
Tour du Mont Blanc, Alps
This 100-mile/161km epic circumnavigates Mont Blanc, crossing between France, Switzerland and Italy and takes in 12 cols, including the Fenêtre d’Arpette (8,743ft/ 2,665m). A 13-day guided trek with Himalayan Kingdoms (01453 844400, www.himalayankingdoms.com) starts at Chamonix and climaxes with views of the north face of the Grandes Jorasses. The price of £1,250 includes accommodation in hotels, mountain huts and under canvas, all meals on trek, porterage and guiding.
Snowman Trek, Bhutan
This trek, through the remote region of Lunana in Bhutan, crosses high Himalayan passes with mountain landscapes that include Gangkhar Puensum, the highest unclimbed peak in the world. Blue Poppy Treks (020 7700 3084, www.bluepoppybhutan.com) is offering two treks in 2008, of 31 and 26 days. The estimated price of $6,000 (£3,000) per person, depending on the final number of trekkers, includes hotels, meals, trekking equipment and the services of porters, cooks and guides, but not flights.
Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru
This sparsely populated region of the Andes, amid ice-clad summits that rise above glaciers, rolling grassland, lakes and valleys, is the location of Joe Simpson’s epic true-life tale of survival, Touching the Void. The massif forms a constant back-drop to a 20-day trip to the region with Andean Trails (0131 467 7086, www.andeantrails.co.uk). The £1,190 price includes hotel accommodation and all meals, camping facilities and guides for the 13 days of the trek.
Overland track, Tasmania
This track is consdered one of the finest bushwalks in Australia. The 40-mile route across a World Heritage area follows well-graded paths through a sub-alpine wilderness of peaks, forests, alpine heathland, glacial lakes and waterfalls. An eight-day trek with World Expeditions (www.worldexpeditions.co.uk, 020 8545 9030) costs from £810 including guiding, camping equipment and all meals on trek. Optional side trips include the summits of Cradle Mountain and Mt Ossa, Tasmania’s highest peak.
Hopefully some of these may wet your whistle and whilst they may be both physically and financially exhausting they make bloody good pub ramblings!
If you are going to talk about Italian cooking, you should talk about your mother. There is something maternal about the cuisine. A barren spinster is never going to advertise pasta or olive oil.
Carluccio’s understands this marketing concept. Despite conjuring up some of the most abysmal food imaginable, the restaurants are fronted by little stores made to look like the parlour at Mamma’s Tuscan kitchen, full of rustic packaging and pastel colours. This is because your memory follows its last recollection of an event to determine the overall experience, as pointed out by the work of Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs at Princeton and a recent economics Nobel Prize winner. One experiment tracked the report pain of two patients undergoing a colonoscopy. Every 60 seconds they were asked to measure how much pain they were experiencing. Patient B’s colonoscopy lasted 22 minutes, Patient A’s lasted only eight. Both patients recorded the same maximum amount of pain, but Patient A’s pain climaxed at the end. Patient B experienced the most pain in the middle of the procedure.
When asked of their memory of the colonoscopy, Patient B remembered a much better colonoscopy experience than Patient A –despite it being twice the length. Carluccio’s is like Patient B’s colonoscopy; the last thing you remember is a marketing illusion; faint traces of Italian kitchens, and you forget how dreadful the meal was.
The same principle applies to Ryanair. You are either coming home or going on holiday, making it easier to forget the airborne abattoir you spent the last three hours in. Only you vow never to return to Ryanair – until the next time BA strikes – which means you find yourself in that yellow plastic port-a-loo the following holiday season.
So, back to my mother. She is a good cook. When she makes something bad, she throws it away. She does not charge £13.15 for a rigatoni arrabbiata that resembled a Pasta’n’Sauce. This would not do. Instead – something else is rustled up – hastily and in a foul temper perhaps, but on the principle that no one should eat bad food. The maternal association with Italian food makes it tough for Italian restaurants. Most people rate their mother’s cooking, even if it resembles Agrippina more than arrabbiata. If you are paying around £15 for a pasta dish, the expectation is even higher.
However the waiter, with a flourish, gave me pasta in a sterile tomato sauce. Arrabbiata is pretty simple. Pasta, usually spaghetti or penne, tomato, chilli, and garlic. Pasta all’arrabbiata means “angry pasta”, so better to be heavy than light on the chilli. Also, as it is tomato season it Britain, it should be simple to make a tasty pasta dish. But somehow the tomatoes were bland and the chilli was faint. The dish was also supposed to be ‘Enriched with Mozzarella Cheese’. CSI would have had a hard time finding any rich veins of mozzarella.
There are too may half-baked criticisms (voilà!) of poor cooking, usually involving death, plague, or the other two horsemen of the Apocalypse. Perhaps there is someone made earlier. According to survey by MYVOICE, two-thirds of Britons believe that arrabbiata is a sexually transmitted disease. “What is very worrying is the lack of knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases revealed in the survey,” said sex therapist Emily Dubberley.
Unfortunately, this is a lie, as over two-thirds of Britons have never been surveyed by, or heard of, MYVOICE. The inappropriately named and somewhat biased Dubberley (sounds like a boarding school sex game – to do a Dubberley) also pops up as a ‘Sexpert’; founder of Cliterati in 2001 – ‘a text-based sex website for women featuring erotic stories’ (text-based? As opposed to what? Mime?), and the author of the audio book Ultimate Burlesque: Erotic Stories Collection One. One story is described as:
“The Duck, The Mouse and the Bride”: a charity burlesque performance led to a sexual encounter in the park that would change her life.”
While the arrabbiata at Gatti’s did not give me VD or a desire to gobble a turkey, the restaurant’s fittings failed to brainwash me, the least it could do given the lack of effort in the food. The décor was like a 1970s conference centre, stuck in the soulless development of the Broadgate development in the Square Mile. The prices reflected the clientele, with most mains around £19. Fresh Dover sole would put you back £25.95. Despite the attentiveness of the staff, it looked like a place that served prawn cocktails and baked Alaska. There was even a cake trolley- all well and good, but not in an overpriced Italian restaurant. The lasting memory was a poky little front desk, much like the tired stands at Argos, battered around the edges.
1 Finsbury Avenue,
The unfortunately named Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has whipped out the axe and decided to abolish the UK Film Council and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.
Looking at the numbers, the UK Film Council has done its job. Box Office revenue generated by UK films has increased 62% since the Council’s conception in 2000. In 2009, UK films grossed just under £1 billion.
Although that money – like all cash flows – suffers from some derivative of the Pareto principle, it is still not a negative result – even if the Council does spend £3 million per annum on admin, despite employing only 72 staff.
If anything, the abolition of the MLA is more understandable – if not comprehendible. One of the major projects of the MLA, the closure of regional offices and the creation of a national structure based in London, was achieved in April 2010. In the press release accompanying the devolution, issued on April Fools Day, Roy Clare, MLA Chief Executive, said: “Our transformation comes at time when there is a pressing need for more creative planning to ensure the public get the most out of museums, libraries and archives.”
Unfortunately, the centralisation of the MLA has therefore made it easier to brush under the carpet, despite the overheads of the MLA only reaching 4.1% of turnover. As the Government cannot quantify the cultural benefit of regional libraries and museums, only the money it spends, the MLA will almost certainly be for the cut.
If it uses the public backlash against its closure, the UK Film Council’s ability to quantify its earnings may be its saving grace, although if it somehow survives, it will almost certainly be within the British Film Institute.
The problem with any attempt to trim or abolish a cultural organisation is the failure to link the benefit of the organisation to other factors.
In the 2007 UNICEF review of child-wellbeing concluded that children in the United Kingdom had the worst level of well-being out of the 21 developed countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Put another way – UK children would be better off in any other Western country.
The study focused on six key variables. In five of them the UK lay in the lowest quartile. In three of them, despite being one of the richest countries in the OECD, the UK marked bottom: in family and peer relationships, behaviours and risks, and subjective well-being.
Subjective well being is key.
Perhaps I am naïve – but museums, libraries and historical archives are some of the most important factors that can improve school life. A trip to the local museum, a library that helps promote literacy and creativity, these factors give you a far better sense of social well-being. The preponderance of urban violence amongst teenagers cannot be surprising given the UNICEF report, but it is made worse if they feel they have nowhere to go, no escapism, not today, nor tomorrow.
If This Is England has the ability to change kids perception of racism and violence, then it was funding well spent. I am pretty sure that film and history have the ability to inspire a disenfranchised youth far more than Westminster and the happy-clappy coalition ever can. Hell, the councils of Bristol and Camden even wanted kids to see This is England, despite the 18 rating.
If anything, libraries and museums need more funding to make them attractive to children. If getting kids into the classroom is so difficult, then at least make the few field trips available to them worthwhile.
But money has to be saved. A generation of financial wild abandon, from holiday homes to flat screen TVs on credit, has created this mess. So it is by money that we must now be judged. It is a good thing this government is prepared to weed out state inefficiencies, it is a shame these inefficiencies are only weighed in pounds and pence. You cannot quantify the long-term benefits of the MLA.
Deep, deep, down, it comes to a fundamental and unsavoury point about British culture. We do not want to pay for anything. Put extremely crudely, if people were forced to pay more tax to keep these cultural councils, then the papers would be full of articles highlighting their waste, such as funding films like Lesbian Vampire Killers. We prefer money in our pocket. No government will be elected in the modern era on a campaign of increasing taxation to the benefit of society.
So they will keep on cutting, and we will keep on complaining, and when the government does attempt to raise money, and the VAT rises to 20% in January, we will complain again.
One utopian solution would be to understand where our tax goes to, and to let the individual redistribute a percentile of the tax he or she pays. If each person can choose where – let us say – 2% of our national insurance goes to – on health, education, culture etc – then not only will make bodies such as the UK Film Council accountable to the public, but it would also be a better indicator to the government what the public values.
Waitrose – a supermarket that tries hard not to be a supermarket. The muted green palate, the wide aisles, the itty-bitty trolleys, the multicultural cashiers and shelf stackers – it’s all a confusing mirage. Especially when someone’s smiling grandmother, fresh out of a Bertolli advert, serves you at the till. It goes to show how much working in a partnership goes towards self esteem. “I am Waitrose”, I want to hear them say, camera panning out, black, white, asian, pregnant mother, your gran, juggling with fresh Madagascan king prawns, offering you a glass of Prosecco.
But Waitrose has surpassed itself at the checkout. (more…)
A husband and wife, infertile, growing old together, a painting of their dream home on the mantelpiece, always in touching distance, but an ever-increasing fiction. Then she crumpled off the technicolor coil, and I wept into my lamb brochette with steamed rice.
I was en route to New York, sitting slap in the middle of an U-15 all-girl lacrosse tour. And as I blubbed by the aisle, the Sophia’s and Ophelia’s and jolly lacrosse sticks in the surrounding seats giggled and squirmed and were sooooo embarrassed on my behalf.
Which was very thoughtful, but I failed to notice, too busy stabbing at the air steward button in a desperate attempt to obtain more gin as my whole face lactated. Up – the 2009 film by Pixar – was an utterly misleading title. I blamed the altitude, and perhaps the gin, and on the return flight trip I choked on my grilled chicken breast with caramelised plums served in a cranberry reduction, as Wall-E faded and sputtered away.
A study in 2005 on the cognitive and emotional processing at high altitude by the Institute of Psychology at the University of Zurich exposed groups of men to varying simulated altitudes for 30-minute stretches. At each level, up to 4500 meters, they were asked to perform tasks, such as visual recognition tasks, tests in word fluency and word association tasks. Altitude had no effect on their ability to perform these tasks. An earlier study in the cognitive ability of climbers even found that those who suffered acute mountain sickness at 4500 meters experienced improved conceptual thinking. The scientists at Zurich concluded that, at altitudes of 3000 – 4,500 meters, short-term adaptation mechanisms of your body enable you to preserve the cognitive and emotional functions of your brain.
So altitude had little to do with my total lack of self-control. Plus, I was in a pressurized air cabin.
Perhaps the power Pixar seems to hold over the tear glands is down to the psychologically damaging cartoons of our childhood. Bambi was an early in introduction to animal cruelty. Animals of Farthing Wood – drought and murder. The Lion King – persecution. Watership Down – genocide.
Or perhaps I am wet, so I took the question to the locals. The three stand-out films that some gregarious men have lamented at are:
- The Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice
- Marley and Me
Perhaps we cry at anything, technicolour or not. But God help us if Pixar decides Anne Frank needs a makeover.