Privileged? Moi?

Years ago OH and I tried to make a series of these jokes, such as ‘Pretentious – moi? Pedantic – I? Repetitive – me myself personally? and so on. It was necessarily quite a short series but it amused us for about five minutes.

Then this morning I was wondering what it must be like to be privileged; to have doors open for you, taxis waiting, queues jumped, money always available and waiters jumping to attention. I can’t imagine it. And then I thought, what about the kinds of privilege I have – like education, race, class and so on? And I guess the answer is that when you have privilege you don’t notice it. I don’t notice that I’m driving and NOT being stopped by the police, or walking down the street and not being abused, or not being being able to access certain classes or join in certain discussions; not being able to climb steps or negotiate kerbs. When you have privilege it’s like the air you breathe; you don’t notice it till it’s not there.

From time to time there are people – usually journalists, sometimes politicians – who deliberately put themselves in the place of the less privileged; sometimes to make a point, sometimes just to find out what it’s like. George Orwell did this when down and out, doing some of the worst jobs and living in the filthiest holes in London and Paris; Polly Toynbee (in Hard Work in Low-Pay Britain) did some of the worst women’s jobs in the country and from time to time politicians have tried to live on the dole for short periods; the one I remember most is Matthew Parris who thought he was going to save £3 a week and ended up sitting in the dark for three days because the meter had run out. But noble as these efforts are, they are transient; at the end of it you know you’re going back to your old life and even if you don’t, you generally have the safety-net of family, friends, contacts etc who are all likely to be well-off and able to help. You have hope; more than that, you have a time-limit when you know you’re getting out. You may be in purgatory but you’re not in hell.

I don’t really know where I’m going with all this, except that when people like Lawrence Fox say there’s no such thing as male privilege, I think ‘how would you know?’ Because basically unless you’ve had your oxygen taken away, you don’t know what it’s like not to breathe.

One privilege I shall definitely enjoy soon is Wimbledon. It’s late this year, presumably because of Covid, not starting till June 28th but I’m looking forward to it. Andy Murray has a wild card so it’ll be interesting to see what he can do.

Have a good weekend. We’ll be doing the non-Sabbath thing tonight and tomorrow so I’ll be incommunicado for that period.

Kirk out

Room at the Top, Room at the Bottom

Last night I was at a loose end browsing my father-in-law’s bookshelves.  He no longer reads, which is sad, because over the decades he’s accumulated yards and yards of old Penguins and Pelicans (the blue, non-fiction ones).  I love Penguin books and as a child I was reared on Puffins, their junior choice (so to speak).  There was a lot of stuff I didn’t care to read but then I came upon John Braine’s ‘Room at the Top’:

This handbook-of-the-working-class-lad-who-makes-good was published in the late fifties, though it savours much more of the sixties: but what struck me in the first chapter was the obsession with clothes, manners and food; these markers of class which he must learn to mimic if he is to ‘pass’ for middle-class.  (He hasn’t yet mentioned his accent though, which I’d have thought was the primary marker: as Professor Higgins says, he can tell as soon as someone opens their mouth, where they come from ‘within six miles’:

This preoccupation with clothes reminded me of George Orwell who, in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London,’ was making the opposite journey by being born into a relatively privileged family and wanting to experience the life of a down-and-out.  Downwards mobility is always easier than upwards; no-one questions him as a tramp but when he tries to get work as a waiter he has to use boot-black on his heels to cover up the holes in his socks.  Presumably he didn’t change his accent though, unlike lots of posh people today who use the fake glottal stop when they want to sound ‘down with the people’:

Orwell was writing in the ’30’s; the cities he describes seem very distant from us now, but you’d expect that.  What’s extraordinary is how social classes have broken down since ‘Room at the Top’ was written.  In theory we now have much more social mobility; but now what we’re seeing is the soaring rise of a super-privileged, super-rich class who are, ironically, the untouchables of our age.  The government doesn’t even try to curb top people’s pay and though Labour will give it their best shot when they get into government (yes, when) it remains to be seen how far those efforts will succeed.  After all, the first task of the rich is after all to hold on to their wealth: the second is to increase it.

The pay of people at the top is out of control; the pay of people at the bottom oozes and stagnates, which makes the death of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Leicester City’s owner, all the more tragic.  There are no further updates as yet and no indication of foul play, unless you suspect a malevolent universe of keeping Phillip Green alive and murdering a generous and supportive man.

Kirk out



Hell and Hull AND Halifax!

Well!  Today is one of those days when a post just flings itself together; jumps out of bed, throws on a few clothes and ends up looking like a cat-walk queen – all without any effort on my part.  And today’s random ingredients that have flung themselves together are hell and Hull and Halifax.

First of all, hell.  Hell is represented on iplayer this week by a Channel 4 programme about OCD.  I watched this with our son, who has tendencies towards OCD, and found it both interesting and unusually (for reality TV) compassionate.  The idea was to pair people with obsessive cleaning rituals (some taking up to 16 hours a day and using several bottles of bleach – ugh!) with people like Mark’s Grandma, a woman who never tidied or threw anything away, EVER.*  The result was predictably explosive, but oddly compelling – and what was interesting about it was that whilst the untidy people grew and changed as a result, the tidy people didn’t: they’d parachuted in and done their stuff – cleaned and tidied and disinfected and de-moulded the place – but once they got home again they were left with their own neuroses intact.  So I felt they needed a show where the tidy people had their houses professionally untidied by the slobs.  But that didn’t seem to have happened.  Maybe it’s planned for a future series.

So much for hell.  Hull is of course represented by having won the award Leicester was pitching for, ie 2017 City of Culture.  The consensus seems to be (on Facebook at least) a brief shrug of the shoulders, a ‘good for them, they probably need it’ and a ‘we’ve got lots of culture anyway.’  Which we have – whereas all Hull has is Phillip Larkin, a great poet but the North’s miserablist answer to George Orwell.

So that’s that… and so to Halifax, where I came across an engaging drama on BBC which I hadn’t seen before.  This is the first episode of series 2 of ‘Last Tango in Halifax’.  Starring Derek Jacobi as a cheeky ageing Northerner marrying a childhood sweetheart, it’s an engaging watch and not horribly cynical and dystopian as seems de rigueur these days.

God, that makes me sound old!

So there we are – Hell and Hull and Halifax, all in one post!  Hope you enjoyed the trip.  Going to see Chris Conway tonight at the Criterion – looking forward to that.

Kirk out

*Mark has had a distressing tendency to take after her

Don’t Mention the War

OK so here was my schedule for last night:

10.30  – 3.00: sleep

3.00 – 5.00: cough

5.00 – 7.00: sleep again

The coughing was so persistent that it barely stopped at all: at one point I counted the gaps between spasms and the longest was 15 seconds.  That’s probably more information than you need, but I wanted to get that off my –

– er


OK then… in other news, George Orwell has now returned from Paris to London and is trying to live for a month on ten shillings.

His account of the ‘kips’ he dosses in, what with the coughing, the unwashed sheets, the filth and the poor nutrition, make it sound almost as bad as the Mid-Staffs hospital:

though perhaps not quite as bad as anything Vera Brittain had to deal with: I have now finished ‘Testament of Youth’ and found it a remarkably clear-eyed account of her experiences in the years 1914 – 25; doing war-work in French hospitals, surviving bomb-blasts and infection, horrendous conditions, shortages of supplies and frankly ridiculous disciplinary rules which make the average convent look like a holiday camp.  Literally everyone she cared about was killed in the war: her fiance, her brother and her two best friends – and the transition from youthful enthusiasm for the war and the bitterness which followed are handled with a remarkable lack of self-pity.  To my mind the worst thing, though, was the aftermath: far from receiving a hero’s welcome, they were regarded as an embarrassment.  No-one wanted to talk about the war after it was over: the whole thing was revealed as a ghastly mistake and everyone involved in it was tainted.  In the words of Eric Bogle,

and the band played Waltzing Matilda

as they carried us down the gangway

and nobody cheered

they just stood there and stared

and they turned all their faces away.

The unfairness of this made my blood boil even more than her subsequent struggles at Oxford, to gain equal recognition with men, where her contemporaries included some remarkable figures of the age such as Winifred Holtby and Dorothy L Sayers.  She concludes the memoir with a remarkably restrained account of her relationship with the man she was to marry.  I was struck here by how advanced her views were: not only did she carry on with her work after marriage, she also kept her own name.

In marked contrast to this were some of the contemporary women featured in the programme ‘Make Me a Muslim’.  I’m not totally anti-Islamic: I think the religion has some good points, but I do not agree with the hijab: it makes women responsible for men’s behaviour – and, frankly, if men have that much trouble concentrating around women then they should wear a paper bag over their heads.  Still, the programme is well worth watching and includes a shocking case of a woman who consented to be someone’s second wife!

Unbelievable.  But interesting.

Kirk out.

Reports of my Breath Greatly Exaggerated…

Persistent coughing, lack of sleep and enough mucus to float (though not to sink) a battleship have rendered me unable to speak to you for the last few days.  I’m feeling slightly more human now.  This reminds me of Bob (I think it was Bob) who, hung over after a drinking session, professed his deep need for Tea.  ‘Ah, that feels better,’ he said, as he downed the brew, ‘I feel more human now.’

‘Well, you don’t look it,’ I quipped.

Oh, how we laughed.  It is particularly trying to have a heavy cold when you also have asthma: coughing and wheezing, you don’t know what to reach for first as you wake in the middle of the night: your inhaler, your asthma medicine, a tissue or the paracetamol.  In the end you have to take all four of them in order, followed by a slug of sleep mix (Mark hates it that I take a slug instead of measuring it in the cap) and so back to sleep.  Mostly now I’m feeling the fatigue that follows a heavy cold and so I’m not pushing the boat out, work-wise, just reading Testament of Youth and writing my diary.

Will the Real George Orwell Please Sod Off?

That’s a little harsh – actually I like George Orwell and the recent radio series ‘The Real George Orwell’ has been fascinating.  He’s intelligent, insightful, and you could say heroic, in his intention to live the lives of those he is investigating.  He could have had a privileged life but chose instead to find out what it was like to live in poverty and hardship.  He fought in the Spanish Civil War and slept rough in Paris and London, doing the hardest menial jobs just to avoid starvation.  He was the method actor of journalism: he didn’t just go and watch, he went and took part.  And so his books have an enduring fascination and an insight born of genuine suffering.

But – and there is a but – Orwell disclaims any possibility of redemption through suffering.  To him, circumstances make you what you are, and he denies that anyone can find enlightenment through difficult or distressing circumstances.  Whilst he very properly lambasts those who pontificate on the subject without ever having experienced real hardship, we do have accounts from people who have experienced similar – or worse – and found that, along with the suffering they have found some core of inner strength, some – I can’t find a better word – enlightenment through hardship.  The fact is, Orwell was a miserable git.  You could put him down in paradise and he’d still find something to moan about; and he seemed to have the knack of finding the very worst places and generalising from there.  So you have to take account this feature of his personality, particularly when it comes to the conclusions he draws from his experience.

So the real George Orwell needs to be taken with a pinch of sugar, I think.

Or perhaps nectar?

Kirk out

Down and Out on TV and Radio

I watched an interesting film last night: called ‘Treacle Jr’ about a man who walks out on his family and disappears to live rough in London.  He clearly has mental health problems but remains fairly lucid in spite of them, and in London he is befriended by a wild and chaotic Irishman who takes him back to his flat.  At first he tries to escape the Irishman, Aidan, who lives with an aggressive and thieving prostitute, but the guy follows him around, trying to make a living by cutting hedges with a pair of scissors or by going to cafes with his cat, Treacle and offering to chase mice from the premises.  After walkout-guy Tom saves his life, they become friends and Tom moves in with him.  It’s a low-key film but it draws you in with some interesting camera-angles and a narrative which stands back and observes the characters.

It fits in quite well with the current Orwell-fest on radio 4, and in particular the serialisation of ‘Down and Out in Paris and London.’  I read this in my twenties and it made a deep impression on me: Orwell went more than the extra mile to research his pieces; he actually lived incognito as a homeless man and experienced what life was like for them.  I will never forget his description of men sleeping on a line – if you didn’t have the money for a bed (a bug-ridden bed in a room full of other men) you could choose a room where men slept with their arms folded over a washing-line.  God only knows what that would feel like in the morning.  Men in London were also moved on after three nights, so that there was a tribe of wandering men tramping from one doss to another.

Another interesting prog I watched over the weekend was a bio of Bob Monkhouse.

Although I found his slick persona repellent, there’s no doubt that Bob was an interesting bloke: far more intelligent than he let on and, as this programme explores, with an obsessive-compulsive collecting habit.  One thing I found disappointing though was that the sexism and racism wasn’t commented on – yes I know it was another age but how can you let a joke like ‘she has to lift her blouse to count to two’ pass without comment?  I mean, this is offensive on so many levels I can’t count them without – oh, I don’t know, lifting my cranium to count my many millions of brain-cells.  Not to mention Lenny Henry’s first appearance: this was a real find for the producers as Bob had obsessively collected every script, every recording and every copy of the Radio or TV Times for every programme in which he had ever featured.  So Lenny Henry’s first TV appearance on New Faces at age 16 was discovered and is remarkable for two things – his stunning talent and the deep dodginess of his jokes (‘it’s only dirt – it’ll come off’).  Again, offensive in the extreme – and yet the programme let it pass without comment.  Yes, I know the guy is dead and yes, I know, the past is like another country – but to let these things go by with just a nod and a wink is not on.

Kirk out

Desperately dull

It is very dull here in blogland due to the prevalence of a bank of cloud called ‘vacationimbus’. For some reason these weather fronts always seem to occur on a Monday.

Here is the News:

There was triumph this morning as a 52-year-old woman overcame fear, paranoia and what commentators are calling a ‘mountain of ignorance’ to start her laptop.  The woman, who cannot be named for regal reasons, was said to be ‘overjoyed’. ‘ I’ve never managed it before, she confessed.  ‘I’ve always had to call Phillip.’

Rumours that the Queen has her own Twitter account are strongly denied by the palace.  But the palace strongly denies everything as a matter of course.  Check out ‘Maj82@buckie’ – that’s our advice.

Once I wrote a story – which also ended up as the sixth chapter of a book called ‘Seven Days’ – entitled ‘A Saturday Afternoon in the Museum of Thought’.  The idea was that at some point in the future, thoughts could be extracted from the mind and viewed in physical form.  There was a museum dedicated to this but in true Orwellian style, it denied all knowledge of everything, even of its own existence.

George Orwell was an amazing writer – but he wasn’t half a miserable git.  Summary of ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ – ‘I was looking for a job and then I found a job.  And heaven knows I’m miserable now.”

Anyway, this novel – I was quite pleased with it but it was too short – and the theme is old hat now, but still…. it dealt with a woman who found herself in a nuclear bunker.  She believes that the holocaust has happened and waits for others to come.  At first she is afraid of them coming, then she is more afraid of being alone.  After a while she comes to believe that no-one else has survived.  She is alone in the world.  That’s Monday.

She decides to keep a diary.  Since she has no present and no future, she writes about what she can remember – a kind of record of the world.  Tuesday deals with her memories of early childhood, Wednesday with adolescence, Thursday with first love and Friday with loss of love and breakdown.  Any reference here to Good Friday is entirely intentional.  Saturday tells the story of the Museum of Thought, and here comes the plot twist which I’m quite proud of.  She remembers that she has been a thought researcher, working on the deconstruction of aggressive thoughts.  She has ignored safety procedures in the rush to defuse conflict, and ended up confusing thought with reality.  It comes to her that the holocaust did not happen in reality, only in the thought-world she was inhabiting.  Sunday deals with her coming out of the bunker.

It’s not only about holocaust.  It’s about coming out of your own little world and engaging with the wider world.

Maybe I’ll rewrite it some day.

Anyway, my little bloglets, that’s more than enough for a Bank Holiday

Kirk out