Saturday, 16 November 2013

16th November 2013 - I Cycle Better Than You Drive

So. There's got to be a first time for everything. In this blog I'm taking the position of a Dutchman.

This is actually quite a serious problem. In this country, cyclists are generally seen as morons with a death wish.

Near Bow, three cyclists have met their deaths in the past week. I sort of know the area, as friends of mine live nearby. One of them had a collision with a car on Wednesday as he was cycling to Queen Mary, University of London. He got off lightly, with some bruises and a coat less waterproof than it was before.

As a cyclist in London - I've had a bike since the Tuesday before last - I do not agree with the view that all cyclist are out to disrupt traffic or chase an early death. Although the day after I bought my bike, I was cycling on Oxford Rd and I saw the cyclist in front of me slam into a pedestrian. AND THEN HE JUST FUCKED OFF!!! This was completely out of order. I stayed behind to make sure the lady was OK. Partly because that's just what you're supposed to do, secondly out of a sense of guilt for cyclists in general. The girl was shaken but would be able to go on without further medical attention.

Being able - after a week and a half - to slice my travelling time from 3 hrs to 1 to and from uni, has been completely worth it. Being able to move around, not pay massive amounts of money for tube fares to and from gigs and sing loudly whilst on the move is all worth it. It is also great physical exercise that picks you up, especially in the morning and at night, after gigs. 45 minutes of cycling is a great way to get rid of the adrenaline after killing the living daylights out of a gig. But, I have to admit, it's a bit scary. It's like 150cc in Mario Kart, where Holland is the Mushroom cup. I avoid rush hour, so I don't tend to leave until at least 9 am and leave for gigs (from uni or from home) around four. If that means I will have to do some work in the pub where the gig will take place, then so be it. Euston station at 6 is a nightmare.

Ridiculing cyclists has become the topic du jour, it seems. I saw a very good sketch group called Making Faces (follow them on facebook or twitter or wherever they are) do a song about how silly and suicidal cyclists are. Now, I'm not taking their song on its face (and a very funny face it is. Go and see them) value. But the general opinion of cyclists by motorists is generally not far away from the opinion of Clint Eastwood of Japanese Kamikaze pilots.

Here's one thing. Cyclists have NO interest in a. dying, b. obstructing you, c. running over pedestrians (apart from that total c*** on Oxford Road I told you about), d. subverting the rules of traffic to our own will, and e. dying. I have had truck drivers shout at me that I was "GOING TO GET YOURSELF KILLED YOU STUPID C***!". What I had done was to go past a red sign, on the left, leaving plenty of space for drivers coming from the other side. Which there weren't any. I know I've gained some weight over the past month (cycling helps getting rid of that, thank you very much) but I'm not as wide as you. I can slip in and out of traffic. If I take a left turn and there are no pedestrians, I'm allowed to ignore the red signal. But mostly, I am Dutch. I have been cycling for nearly 23 years. I know how to do it. Properly. I probably have more experience cycling than you have driving. I'm not going to go around and tell people that, waving the flag of the 1688 Glorious Revolution (look it up). I just expect you to be a bit less of a dick toward everything cycley.

Another issue is clothing. Why, for the love of god, do you need SO MUCH protective clothing? OK, I have had a period in my life when I thought bike helmets were cool (I was 8. Anything you can put on your head is cool then, am I right fellas?), but surely no longer. Lights should suffice.

The main problem is, as a wise green thing in a film once opined, not hatred, but fear. Drivers in London have NO idea how to deal with cyclists. We bamboozle them. Look at this bit out of one of the articles above:

Johnson and Gilligan's proposed model, outlined earlier this year, is a Dutch-style system of mainly segregated lanes and cycle-safe junctions. However, the Dutch warn that there is a long way to go. Weijer Losecaat Vermeer from the Dutch embassy admits that he has abandoned a traditional upright bike for a lightweight machine and specialist clothing. "If you come from the Netherlands and find yourself in a London traffic situation, the first thing you notice is that cyclists don't seem to be an equal road user," he said. "They don't seem to be thought of. The other thing is, in the Netherlands, every motorist is a cyclist as well. This thing you have in London of motorists versus cyclists doesn't exist."
Despite his profoundly silly name, the guy form the embassy is right. Cyclists never get right of way, even when we deserve it. London drivers are, on the whole, very good, sociable and not afraid to improvise. Cyclists, though, are quite literally a blind spot. I do not wish to die in traffic. Therefore, if I feel like I'm in danger, I will take to the pavement. If I feel like I'm in danger, I will get off and start walking. I will use walking crossings if I need to. I don't want to get in your way. Just be realistic about how big I am (which is, I suppose, big enough to total your stupid car) and take that into account. Let's all be friends, eh? And don't kill me.

P.S. I do realise that drunken and unsociable cyclists exist. I don't drink or take any medication before going anywhere. I need my wherewithal in order to keep myself safe. If you're a cyclist: please, do the same.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

6th November 2013 - I Saw the Ghost of Michael Gove Today - Political/Angry

When I was thinking of writing this blog, I felt weak and broken. I felt like a sad loser and profoundly on the wrong side of the track, rhetorically. But it didn't let me go and the article below made me sure that I not only was right, but that I needed to speak out. I will not divulge where the company I was a guest of today is, nor name any of their employees. But I do have a story to tell about what happened to me today and I think it's worth getting out of the comedy mould for what Greg Proops would call "the boring preaching part". I did not have to sign a secrecy agreement nor any other documents. This also means that my opinions are my own and nor blogger, nor the company has the right to remove it. Fundamentally, this story is about my disappointment in what the British educational system is about to become. It's genuinely upset me. I know that in context, my behaviour was not appropriate and I might have reacted differently if the first part of the seminar had gone better. This is not the reason I am a teacher or why I want to become an academic. God, it was like hell to me and I need to get it off my chest. First, read this:

Read it? I read it after the event. I don't think it would have influenced me and what I did and said today.

I had found a job advert on my university's website. It was for a teacher/tutor position. It looked good, interesting and a great way to keep on going being a teacher. Last year, I worked as a tutor and teacher with children of secondary school age. I enjoyed it a lot, I loved the sense of communality that occurs when some genuinely learns something. Be it something as ostensibly harmless as irregular French verbs and you sometimes find that what you have communicated -and this specifically pertains to history, English and Philosophy- genuinely changes the way a young person thinks. The words: "Oh, I'd never thought about this from that perspective!" are great ones for anyone passionate about education.

I was called back on the basis of my cover letter and CV and after a short chat, I was invited to come for a training day. Not for Modern Foreign Languages, in which I have most experience, but in English and Public Speaking. As I have a degree in English Language and Literature and experience as a performer, this would fit beautifully. This training day, oddly, would not be paid for, nor would travel costs be reimbursed. I was surprised, but I still came out today, in my suit, looking forward to the training day.

I arrived in plenty of time, there were oddly only men, who had found the same advert and replied. They were mostly from the science-end of the spectrum and were nice and friendly. We had a coffee and then moved to the meeting room. The man leading the training looked and sounded nice and well-intentioned. And I am sure that he was. Throughout the session, he dropped that he did motivational speaking work. I was not surprised. The style of his speech was full of the cadences of HR and positivity coaches I have encountered in my many, many years on this planet. This year, however, I was not so patient as I perhaps should have been.

The first task we were all set was to tell the group about an inspirational teacher. I chose dr. Gene Moore. I told about how his class on Borges' The Library of Babel freed up my mind to the manifold possibilities of literary studies and the freedom Gene gave to our interpretations. He taught me that if I could argue my point well enough, I could never be wrong, but that my voice would be valuable. Eventually, everyone did this in turn. I put my hand up to go first. I told the story, I thought I connected to the rest of the group. I have done this for a long time, so I was confident I could at least talk to people. 

After everyone had had their turn, the man who lead the seminar took me outside told me he was very disappointed in me and had given me a 4 out of ten. I was surprised. Apparently I spoke too quickly (I did not) and I said 'er' too often. I did not know how to react. I am willing to accept that I might be completely psychotic and that all of the teaching I have done was disgracefully bad, that all public speaking I have ever done was worthless and that I was constantly 'er'-ing throughout my life. I couldn't understand and I felt like they dropped me before they tried. I asked whether it was because I was Dutch, or whether I'd done anything that had upset them. No, apparently it was all fine. If I just spoke slightly slower and 'er'-ed a bit less I would get that 4/10 up to a 8/10. I was quite sceptical of this, since my teaching qualities would hang on my speed of speech and my proclivity to use the stopgap 'er'. And I did try to accommodate them. I lowered my voice and spoke slower in every single sentence I spoke afterwards. I did feel deflated and worthless. I was shocked that I was marked down so much just because I spoke slightly too fast for an imaginary audience of 12 year-olds (which we hadn't been told to write for). All others, speech issues galore, got higher marks than I did. But their focus in their short talks was on correctness. They were -apart from one- science and maths people, for whom correctness is more relevant.

Despite my disappointment and the now obvious distrust I got from the men who lead the seminar, I chose to stay. I did want the job. Sorry, I still did want the job then. It must have been a momentary lapse in concentration, surely. I was going to make up for it later. 

We started going through the book of rules for every class. Constant and repetitive attention was paid to the disciplinarian aspects of teaching with special attention to punishing disruptive students. What would students do to actively disrupt class? Because that's what students do, right? They do not want to learn, they want to be outside, playing football. And they certainly felt too good for school. This was new to me, never having had issues with this kind of motivational difficulties from students. The leader of the seminar continued sketching what all children essentially were: they were disruptive, lazy, disinterested and were going to be supermodels and professional footballers anyway. Really? Students I have worked with have always known the difference between dreams and reality. Dreams are a great thing, but the future is more complicated than that. Anyone but the most delusional ten year old knows that dreams are dreams and that they serve a purpose, but that most people don't end up becoming Hollywood actresses.

I wasn't sure. What I have seen as a tutor is a lot of children who have profound difficulty in coping with the stresses of increasingly heavy workloads in school and the high expectations placed upon them. These children are not aspirational, just in the wrong field. No, they were defeated. This was irrelevant, apparently.

Before every lesson, then, the tutors would have to outline that the students would never be popstars, but that they had to work hard to become valued members of society. Nothing wrong with that, a bit negativistic maybe, but still. What then was said shocked me: that as members of society, these children would especially make their marks within the entrepreneurial world. WHAT? Yes, you want to build those bridges, be successful (not my words) and earn a lot of money. 99% of success stories are about people working hard to attain those goals. WELL... it depends what your idea of success is.

I thought I saw a laughing Michael Gove flit past the room and back into the sky.*

I had to question this. Why were we supposed to provide these ideologically questionable ideas to children? Children are impressionable. As violent and harmful television can be, to be told, multiple times a week, that you can only ever be successful (what a word) in the world of business and entrepreneurship is more violent and repressive than that. I would not want to live in a world like that. This is where the ideological harm that Gove is doing to the next generation of children comes in. Michael Gove wants to create a populace that a. votes Tory because they value money above the wellbeing of their fellow citizens, b. does not care about art, culture or the possibility of people having a different perspective than they do, and c. unimaginative, unfeeling and apathetic. To damage children (CHILDREN!) with this is beyond me. I had to question it. 

Obviously, I was treated as a disruptive influence, had to pack my bags and leave. The leader of the seminar was disappointed, so was I. He gave me one of the least convincing wellwishes I have ever received. Lost for words, I just looked at him. I couldn't believe that he meant what he had been saying. God, it'd be worse if he did. Then, if this was his genuine notion of being well-intentioned, is exactly what scares me.

I know I should respect people with a different ideology to mine. I know my views might easily be misconstrued as being petty and that I am a bad loser because I didn't get the job. To that criticism I say: a. you're being essentially fascist, you prick, b. I care too much about children's lives to let this go without saying something about this and I genuinely believe your views are harming children's lives and c. I think independent thought is to be applauded and this company clearly did not believe in individual expression but in the depressing neo-liberal world that I fight tooth and nail to become reality.

And to Polly Toynbee I say: if you're on a demo somewhere, let me know. I'll come and support you. Also dr. William McEvoy. If you ever need me on a demo, I will be very happy to help out.

I will leave you with a video of Caroline Lucas MP, addressing the 'Say No To Privatisation' occupation at the University Sussex, earlier this year. She memorably addresses the values of the humanities, values that clearly do not chime with this company. I am very happy to say I will never work for them. Much love, J‎ 

*I didn't really, that was obviously a metaphor you literalist douchebag.