Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Defend Our National Jazz Orchestra!

This is the letter I have sent today to The First Minister.

Dear Mr Salmond,
It was my great pleasure, yesterday evening, to attend one in the latest series of concerts with The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra at the Royal Conservatoire.  Collaborating and performing with Randy Brecker, in celebration of the sublime talent of the late Michael Brecker, the Orchestra gave an outstanding performance, as its regular home and growing international audiences have come to expect.
In his plea that this Orchestra deserved support at the highest level as well as from its audiences, Randy Brecker was not the first to heap praise on the Orchestra, testifying to a now international reputation which draws admiration from across Europe not only for the musicians, for their brilliant leader, Tommy Smith, and for the innovativion and creativity of their multi-dimensional projects, but also for our nation as one which, though small in size, can nevertheless produce talent on this scale, developed over a comparatively short period and continuing to surge towards ever greater potential as its influence in music education increases exponentially and more and more young people play and listen to jazz because this Orchestra and its individual members have given them access to it.
 I know that you cannot fail to be aware of the decisions of Creative Scotland in changing the way in which it ‘supports’ the SNJO.  It seems to me beyond belief that such a lack of understanding and fairness should be considered appropriate in the treatment of such a high-profile, Europe-leading and pioneering ensemble!
It goes against all notions of equity to require the SNJO to bid, and therefore work, project by project, unable to plan long-term and therefore losing access to world-renowned international musicians with whom its creative collaborations have been so successful and who are then well-placed to spread news of the SNJO’s quality.  
Alone amongst a clutch of national arts companies,  the SNJO seems to be targeted by Creative Scotland’s imagination-deficit;  Although I detest opera and rarely attend classical music concerts , I support absolutely the need for the national companies to have direct grant support.  Yet, fine though our companies may be, I have never heard Scottish Ballet, Scottish Opera or indeed The S.N.O., described as “the best in Europe” or “the only one of its kind in the U.K.”. Both apply to the SNJO!
Yesterday saw the highly significant launch of a C.D., entitled Celebration , on which SNJO perform with Arild Andersen.  The fact that this C.D. is being issued by the highly prestigious E.C.M. label is a unique testimony to all that I have said above concerned the Orchestra’s status.  
And so, as Europe lauds the Orchestra; as the U.K. Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Ensemble goes to The SNJO , and glory for Scotland is garnered, by association   .....as all of this happens, Creative Scotland repays Tommy Smith and the Orchestra by delivering an extremely damaging blow to its ability to pursue excellence!  It is a shocking reflection on us, making Scotland look like a small country in which small minds make the big decisions and negatively target success.  This surely cannot be comfortable for a Scottish Government.
I am acutely aware that grant funding has to be ‘earned’.  I support funding for small, one-off, community arts projects.  I am in favour of increased accessibility, on the understanding that it is something different from popularism.  But we are talking here about a National orchestra ; a group of highly talented musicians led by a man of international stature who has bred in them through his teaching, mentoring and leadership over nearly two decades, a commitment not only to musicianship and innovative creativity but to the promotion of jazz education in schools and beyond.  These musicians take extremely seriously their role in the national community.  They understand accessibility and equalities and they are doing something about it!
I would beg you to use all your influence to have Creative Scotland, and indeed, the Scottish Government, look again at the securing of long-term funding for the SNJO so that it can stand shoulder to shoulder with,  if not ahead of, the S.N. O., Scottish Ballet and Scottish Opera in making Scotland a giant in Europe and world wide in its support for excellence in the enriching arts.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Is this a Cause for Concern?

It was a perfectly ordinary trip to Tesco for my husband and me.   It was a pleasant enough day outside. Parking was easy.  The shop wasn't busy.  It certainly wasn't an intrinsically stressful environment for shoppers.

But as we chatted idly about what we needed to buy and who would search for the croutons, and what we'd have for lunch, I became aware of a couple, perhaps in their late 60s, who were moving in our direction.  The male was haranguing the female, his body language very aggressive and gesticulating in apparent anger.  She was quieter and was responding but clearly she wasn't doing as he wanted.  As they passed us and he insisted that she "go down this way!"  I saw that he was gripping her arm.  It was an unpleasant scene.  "If you ever spoke to me like that I..." I said to my husband " ..... I think I'd lamp you!" We smiled at the irony.

I have to clarify.  This was not in the nature of marital niggling and low-level squabbling: couples who've been together for 40 years recognise the day to day affectionate grumbling that comes with closeness.  This wasn't even a full-blown "I -don't-care-if-we're-in-public-we-are-having-this-argument-right-now!" kind of thing.  They looked like a well dressed, ordinary couple; they showed no signs of being under the influence.  Even given the current heightened awareness of Alzheimer's behaviour and consequent partner frustration, I didn't read their interactions as one of carer and sufferer.  I believed that I was seeing a bully in action and their age made it shocking.

However, the parmesan cheese had to be bought and on we trolleyed.

In the wine aisle, as we debated tempranillo versus merlot, I was utterly astonished to find another couple right beside us, in what could have been a rerun of the previous scenario!   This pair seemed to be in their 70s and he was actually dragging her hand back from her choice of wine as he said loudly 'NO!  Not that!"  He muttered and moaned "For godsake! I told you ...."   Again, no sign of drinking or of dementia behaviours:  just bullying.  Another male talking 'at' a woman as though she were dirt and verging on physical contact to make her do as he wished.

 I've since wondered if perhaps these incidents did indeed betray the very early signs of dementia taking the form of unreasonably aggressive interactions.  I can't possibly know.

But I did worry that those women seemed so cowed and accepting.  My husband thought maybe they'd been treated like that for so long, they hardly even noticed.  I wonder.

Friday, 2 March 2012

'Acquisitive Individualism in Childhood'?

I have really enjoyed Alastair Campbell's e-book, 'The Happy Depressive'.  He is searingly honest about his challenges and characteristics.  On the way to drawing conclusions about his own happiness, he quotes a Rowan Williams article for the Telegraph on childhood materialism.

"The selling of lifestyles to children creates a culture of material competitiveness and promotes acquisitive individualism at the expense of community and cooperation."

Campbell also notes that research by York University for Child Poverty Action showed that children in the U.K. are the least happy of any wealthy European country.

Also currently in the news are opinion pieces critical of the fashion for  rose-tinted nostalgia, particularly in the BBC Sunday evening 'hit' Call the Midwife, but also in Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs & co. Strenuous journalistic efforts are made to coat these sugary products in reminders of the despair, dirt and deprivation which would apparently make them more true to reality.

These two strands come together for me in memories of the playground of the 1950s and two activities to which little girls were particularly drawn and which perhaps saved us from the materialism of our 2012 counterparts.  Playtime and after school would find us bringing a hardback book out of the schoolbag, not to read but to open, page by page, revealing to our admiring friends our collection of 'scraps'.  Fairies, flowers, rustic scenes, pretty little girls like ourselves, but most important of all, giant cherubs, seemingly head & shoulders only, leaning nonchalantly on a cloud; or full length angels, gazing wistfully into the heavens.  Towards the back of our book would be our 'swaps'; the scraps of which we had duplicates and which we were happy to exchange with a friend.  And this cooperation was a key element; the greatest satisfaction came from interacting with another child rather than enjoying the solo activity of a PSP or football on the Wii.

The other activity also involved trading and swapping and we called it 'Treasures'.  We would produce a small tin or box which contained precious items.  Negotiations would  begin:  would we be prepared to swap that item?  For what?   I should make clear the nature of these items; we were not dealing in DVDs or electronic wizardry: our treasures were glass waistcoat buttons; a single 'emerald' droplet earring; pieces of embroidered ribbon; cheap brooches with some of the glass stones missing; groups of 'poppet' beads or perhaps a single stray pearl from an unstrung set; a hair clasp with damaged fastening.  Obviously, some of these were so dear to us that we could not part with them, but we could fall back on exhibiting them for the admiration of our friends.  What fascinates me all these years later is that the acquisitiveness which is the most natural of childhood pleasures was, for us, essentially communal rather than individualistic. We learned to live with the pang of envy which struck when a friend had some unique and desirable thing she would not swap; the lesson was absorbed that you could not have something just because your friend had one; you could enjoy the possessions you had, but the real joy was in sharing!

Is it too much to suggest that our crouched huddles round these treasures were one of our most valuable preparations for adult life?  We became a generation which loved life all the more because we feared the threat of nuclear war; when our parents told us to stop being so silly, we shared the fear through action, like sitting down in the road to protest and wearing the CND badge; we talked about psychedelic fabric patterns, but our mums made our Mary Quant dresses following Butterick patterns and arguing with us over the final length.  We went barefoot or fell off our wooden Scholls'. We sang songs about parents getting out of the way of a generation they couldn't understand .... only we understood, together, the messages on the 'eve of destruction'!

It is becoming almost mandatory to criticise the 'baby boomers'; we all have these damned pensions, you see, and have retired in an unseemly manner, having the audacity still to clutter up the shops, bars, restaurants, tennis courts, greek islands, european city centres while damn well enjoying ourselves. We threaten to live until our 90s, spending the kids' inheritance along the way. And we still have opinions!

But I am tremendously proud of my generation. We didn't start the fire! We were idealistic and obsessed with the power of flowers but we worked together.  As instructed by Jimmy Reid, we were not rats! We made a lot of noise, some of it sublimely musical, and we made it together, not in the isolation of our electronic fiefdoms.

It is in being with other people that we really find ourselves.  By negotiating our way through relationships we make our mark on life.  I have a vested interest in the well being of today's young adults, pre teens, rising fives and toddlers.  I hope that materialism begins to lose its shine for their generations, that they always know the fun of activity which comes cheap or free, of digging channels in the sand, collecting sea glass, building a garage out of a shoe box, making muffins, dancing in the kitchen, singing in the backseat of the car  or drumming with wooden spoons and pots and pans; and that they understand that it is in sharing the activity that real joy is to be found.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Young People Today .....

As someone who writes, I am a shameless 'listener-in' to other people's conversations!  Sometimes the listening is quite demanding but often the conversations are so loud they are easy to hear;  this is particularly true of teenagers, who are of the view that their opinions and experiences are so deeply fascinating to us all, we should have them conveyed to us at megaphone pitch!

However, a few days ago I heard a conversation which gave me real cause for optimism.  A group of girls had been to see 'Woman in Black' and the station platform was loud with their exclamations and shrieks as they recounted their recent shock and terror.  In the middle of this entertainment, the following exchange fitted seamlessly.

"Oh, and d'you know who was at the cinema too?  Mr X from xxxxx (school subject) ! "
"Aw, I like him!  Who was he with?"
"His husband.  And he said "Hi, girls.  Enjoy the movie!""

And the conversation rolled on with further shrieks and giggles about the ghost movie, as I thought how wonderful it was that these girls showed how far we have come, probably because of civil partnerships, marriage for gay as well as straight couples but, I hope, also because of the good work being done in schools to counter homophobia, gender stereotyping  and the ignorance which gives rise to fear.  As so often before, I was heartened by young people, although I know we still have a long way to go.

Then, yesterday, a different experience, again on a station platform where a group of adults with learning difficulties, with their carers, were waiting for the train, as they regularly do.  Only a couple of the men communicate verbally, but I chat to them in passing if they signal or look at me, just as I would with anyone else. One of the wheelchair-using men communicates by clapping his hands, slapping his own forehead and also by an occasional very loud yell.  Immediately after the first yell, a young woman of about 17, who had been sitting on the bench listening to her ipod before the group arrived, leaped up and moved swiftly up the platform, away from them.  Her expression said it all; she was afraid.

Initially, I felt cross with her. It reminded me of 35 years ago this month, when I arrived at a local bus stop to find a young woman standing at the edge of the pavement with her severely learning disabled son who was making one hell of a din while rocking back and forth and hitting his hand against his head.  The other folk in the queue were crammed in at the rear of the bus shelter!  I was eight months pregnant.  I began a friendship  that day simply by standing with G and her son and sharing a quiet laugh at the rest of the queue's discomfort.   In the intervening years we have seen progress in the perception of people with extensive learning difficulties.  But we have such a way to go.

The young woman on the platform was afraid.  There was nothing to be afraid of.  How can we teach future generations and help them see humanity rather than difference? For all the work I have seen in schools on issues of equality and diversity, I don't recall open discussion of the nitty gritty of serious learning disability and on public behaviours which may catch us by surprise.  Even though we teach respect for all individuals, perhaps we need to be honest and say ... 'You might find yourself embarrassed or nervous if someone behaves like this; but here's why it happens and why you need not feel afraid"

The group enjoyed their train journey; F showed me the fabric daffodil pinned to his jacket and waved as he left.  I felt uplifted by sharing in his pleasure and my day was the better for meeting him.

I wish the young woman could have got something positive from her experience.  Where will she stand on the platform next week?

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Reclaim the Pavements

Two events came together in my mind last week, each concerning cyclists.

There were reports in the press of another  'reclaim the streets' gathering by cyclists seeking to draw attention to their concerns.  I have a measure of sympathy with them, not least because of the worrying number of fatalities in London and other cities.

But there is a danger in a mindset which decrees all cyclists 'good';  all drivers 'bad': demonising the majority --of careful, considerate drivers -- is patently unfair.  And it is naive to paint all cyclists as faultless victims.

Just as vehicle drivers must take on board a need for greater awareness of cycles, so cyclists need to recognise those behaviours which reflect badly on them or cause great frustration.

This was brought in to sharp focus for me this week.  I was walking in Glasgow's Bath Street at a point where wide pavement narrowed because of the basement railings and steps on my left; cars were parked on my right. I paused briefly to glance up at the numbers above doors.  Suddenly, a cyclist flew past me ... on the pavement.... at a speed which would have been questionable on a busy city street.  Having barely missed me, he swerved to avoid two other pedestrians and rode on.  He was a heavily built young man; had I stepped six inches to my left as I paused he would have hit me and the combination of his substantial body weight and the speed at which he was travelling would have led to my serious injury; you will understand that had he injured himself I would have had no sympathy for him.

I was very shocked; arriving at the tearoom I had been looking for, I know I must have seemed garbled and semi coherent.  As the shock faded, I felt increasingly angry. This is the closest I have been to serious injury for a very long time.  What if a baby or toddler in a buggy, or a frail elderly person had been walking where I had been?  When he had arrived at the traffic lights, did this selfish man choose to be a 'pedestrian' or 'vehicle' depending on what suited him best?  Any vehicle driver will have seen the cyclist who breaks the lights, drives the wrong way on the one way street. These are not rare occurrences.

I am fighting the urge to think of this man as the representative of all cyclists.  He is, no doubt,  as much of an embarrassment to decent cyclists as the speeding, exhaust-roaring, baseball cap wearing car driver and bullying white-van-man are to responsible motorists.

But the selfishness and arrogance of this one cyclist made me feel vulnerable and dented my confidence; and for that I cannot forgive him.  Sadly too, he has dulled my ear to the pleas of the cycling community.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Outing My Inner Meldrew

There is something about January that brings out my inner Meldrew!  I find my tolerance of the arrogant, the bullying, the silly, the mediocre, the unnecessary, is at its lowest ebb.  Given that one of my targets this year, as ever, is to be a better and more compassionate human being, I am acutely aware that such intolerance is going to be a problem.  Therefore, I have decided to air the issue.  Why keep secret one's serial grumps when one can spread the misery and act as a beacon for other Meldrews?

I have already started my grumping day on a relatively serious note by dashing off an email to Ruth Davidson, MSP and new leader of the infinitesimal Scottish Conservative and Unionist parliamentary flying wedge, drawing her attention to the bully-boy tactics of her shiny faced colleague the Prime Minister, with regard to who is 'the boss of us' , just in case she hadn't noticed his incursion.  There is an irony here, given that few physogs so invite a skelp as the smug visage of Scotland's First Minister, but by comparison with the man I call 'botoxboy', he has a lot to recommend him.

Thus limbered up, I am of a mind to rant on other topics as well.  Last week, just when I thought I had entirely detached from my former calling, I found myself rising to the bait of a bit of sloppy language.  An 'Advisor' I had never heard of to a Commission I have never heard of appeared to find that most Scottish schools are 'bog standard'.  Being in a position to know this is not true, I dashed off a quick rejoinder to that little bit of slapdashery!  No response yet: what a surprise!

One of my usual targets, the Met Office, is lying fairly low at the moment but I am alert to possible future opportunities.  It was also disconcerting to find that recently the Police seemed to abandon their much vaunted  " ...not to undertake a journey unless it is really necessary", which is incomprehensible as advice, in favour of the more useful "Stay off the bloody roads! They're all shut anyway!  And that's you tell't!" which presumably means that if your employer demands that you skid 25 miles to get to your snow-buried place of work, you can at least sue them should you or your vehicle suffer injury.

While I'm scanning the horizon for other prey, could I just draw attention to the fact that even when they are two years old and repeatedly washed, M & S's navy blue bath towels shed enough fluff to intimidate the dust in any self respecting bathroom, and that is in addition to the dust other people are somehow leaving around our house ... it can't all be ours!

Then there are the people who stand in groups in the middle of the swimming pool, having a conversation!  I accept the social function, but I'm fed up swerving round them when I'm puffing my way through my lengths; and that's before I encounter the single person who is doing breadths so as to maximise the irritation of all his fellow swimmers!

And what about 'recent research'?  Isn't it comforting to know that scientists, having spent millions in funding on their research, are now in a position to tell us that people who report themselves to be happy tend to smile more; that children who are never cuddled by their parents tend to do less well in their Higher exams; that some men are taller than some women; that starving in a developing country makes you less likely to watch reality TV.  If I hear one more po-faced stating of the blindingly obvious I will ..... well, I don't know what I'll actually do, but it won't be pretty!

I could go on for hours about the mining of January irritations and grumps, but I've decided the best way to deal with this is to get into the cage with the lion!  So I'm off now, to meet with three representatives of different replacement window companies to decide who gets the job of fitting four new windows for us!  Yippee!  What a source of Meldrewing material!  And if just one of them says "I just need to phone my Manager ....."!!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

In the Teeth of a Storm

A few weeks ago Scotland experienced a day of very strong gales which caused severe disruption and structural damage.  With immense good humour, we called the gales "Hurricane Bawbag" and posted very funny video footage of an escaped trampoline and of flying Greggs' bags.  It was the country's way of taking the "Smeato" approach to weather; a kind of "Here's tae us! Wha's like us? Damn few, an' they're a' deid!" attitude, applied to the wind and rain.

Today, the younger folk who thought there had never been a wind like that before;  who didn't remember the death toll of the 1968 hurricane, who thought only snow could stop us in our tracks, have discovered that December was just the practice run!

It is a frightening thing to be woken by the ever-louder howling of the wind; to hear the roof creak and groan and bounce as though ready to fly away; to hear thumps and crashes in the darkness as bins capsize and gates bang; to scan mentally for lantern torch, candles, matches and think how cold it will be if the heating goes off.

 The 76mph breezes of December are replaced by gusts of up to 100mph;  the ever-open Kingston Bridge closes in both directions as do the Forth, Tay, Erskine, Skye. Trees crash through cars; walls blow out.  On Facebook the word 'apocalyptic' surfaces through the storm.

BBC Radio Scotland gives over its daily phone-in programme to the weather situation and folk call in with tales of terrifying abandoned car journeys, closed roads, cancelled trains and power outages.  There is no humour this time, not yet.  In many of these voices there is real fear.

And then comes the call from a priest from Bridgeton who tells the programme's host that he has been 'praying hard' since 6.00 a.m. because he is in an old house and this feels like the end of the world!  At first it sounds like a hoax call, but perhaps not?  Then he announces that "as Christians, we believe" that this could be a sign of "God's anger"!  And he seems to be serious; the host shuffles him quickly off the line.

There are the usual criticisms of the government and the met office forecast;  who is to blame?  We seem to believe that someone could have prevented this.  Even with my snow phobia and resultant ongoing animosity towards the met. office, I can see that they were caught out by the sudden escalation in the ferocity of the wind. Most callers to the show also accept that.

As we wait for the winds to die down, I am left with the unsettling sensation that weather displays such as this carry a salutary message.  I may consider the priest ridiculous and abhor his citing of 'God's anger' ; I may remain sceptical of the excesses of the environmentalists' direst warnings.  But a primal fear is engendered by our inability to carry on with our hi-tech, urban, commuting, materialist lives in the face of a storm.  We can build walls and bridges and even storm barriers, but the wind will win.  We can sit on our beach mat and tweet across continents, but the tides will come and go.  We can travel miles to our 'plum' job everyday, but blizzard or flash flood will stop us.

We are very small.  We really do need to reflect on that. On a day like this, we don't even need Professor Cox to remind us of our place.