"You may say that I am a dreamer/But I am not the only one" John Lennon: "Imagine"

"So come brothers and sisters/For the struggle carries on" Billy Bragg: "The Internationale"

Elizannie has a reading room at 'Clarice's Book Page' http://www.villiersroad.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

November 30th

Today is the anniversary of lots of things including St Andrew's Day [Patron Saint of Scotland]; the author Mark Twain was born in 1835; Winston Churchill, war time British Prime Minister, was born in 1874.

But this year there is a different meaning to the day. Many public sector workers are holding a day of action today and are on strike because of what they see as an attack on their pensions by this government.

The government claim that the taxpayer cannot afford to pay the promised public sector pensions. Why don't the government admit that these pensions are not 'privileges' but deferred wages that have been negotiated in wage deals over the years? Surely the government wouldn't dare ask for a cut in wages [yet] but in effect that is what they are doing with this pensions 'scam'.

David Cameron claims [in his usual bullying tone] that these individuals have played into his hands. One of my friends who is on strike today has written this. And a big thank you to him for letting me publish it here. Please read it and decide who is right. I know who I am behind and it is not Mr Cameron.
I am on strike today. I do not want to be on strike. I have not been told to go on strike by my trade union. I have made an intelligent decision based on the information available. I purchased a product when I joined the local government pension scheme, which at that time was sold to me as 'it cannot change & is enshrined in law'. I am now being told that due to changing circumstances, the terms of my pension are to be torn up before my eyes, and that I will have to
1: Pay more in contributions, as much as £50/60 per month, when in the last 12 months my post at work has seen salary reduced by £5000 & I have not received a cost of living pay rise for 3 years.
2: Receive a large amount less than the frankly modest pension I am currently due.
3: Have the possibility of any early retirement removed
4: If I don't like the changes being made to my pension, sold as 'enshrined in law', then I cannot have my own contributions back, they are keeping them!!!

One word - NO!!!

Please do not cross picket lines. Solidarity to all those on strike and thank you for all the work you do every day for poor pay and conditions. You deserve to have the promises made to you in the past fulfilled.

Photograph courtesy of the http://www.unison.org.uk/n30/

Monday, 28 November 2011

Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and its relevance today

I want to look at A Christmas Carol from a different, less literary perspective to the usual discussions at this time of year. I want also to look at it’s impact on society and popular culture from it’s ‘birth’ and its relevance to the present day.Very many people may not have read Dickens’ story but ‘know it’ never the less, either from one of the many film adaptations or from hearing the story read somewhere. It has never been out of print since it was first published in December 1843. So many names, phrases and ideas from the story - and remember it is not much more than a long ‘short story’ - are in every day parlance and our collective consciousness: “Bah humbug!”; “God Bless Us Everyone”; “Marley’s Dead”; Scrooge; Tiny Tim; The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future; Bob Cratchit and more....

Why has it been around for 164 years and is still going strong? There have been many theatre and film dramatisations and it can be seen in children’s cartoons as well as in ‘serious’ dramatic versions. At Christmas time every year there are new lovely children's versions produced and every couple of years a new film version seems to arrive.
Dickens manages to create believable characters, communities and families in this shortish story. Because it is a shortish story and although he does not have time to ‘build’ on these characters, it was no mean feat to have produced such a memorable tale in such a short piece of writing. Perhaps it was Dickens’ journalistic training that gave him the tools to produce this story, perhaps it was because he had a passion for the story and the message he wanted to spread? You decide. It may be appropriate to ask what were Dickens aims and objectives when writing A Christmas Carol. What do we think they might have been? Possibly to make money? Sell his magazine? Change society by getting a message across? Or a mixture of these?

Well, he probably had several reasons, some altruistic, some financial. Dickens was not having a good time financially, he was half way through the serialization publication of Martin Chuzzlewit, which was selling badly and he was consequently being threatened by his publishers with a reduction in finances. At home, his fifth child was on the way and Dickens needed money! So the idea of publishing and selling a Christmas tale to boost his finances was obviously a very good idea!
However Dickens had been shocked by the Royal Commissionon on the working of the Cornish Tin Mines and was worried about the employment of children and had been preparing to write an article on this. Also in October 1843 Dickens had been fund raising for the Manchester poor and possibly the idea for the story had begun to ‘grow’ then. Dickens had stayed with his older sister Fan (Mrs Henry Burnett), who had a young son who was frail and disabled. Dickens shared a platform with Disraeli and Cobden, and spoke about Ragged Schools which he had visited during the previous month. So the idea of writing a story which illustrated the plight of the poorer part of contemporary society to highlight the need for social reform must have also been an important motive for Dickens.

Dickens took sole control [printing, arranging the illustrating etc] of his Christmas story to maximize profits but was so eager for it to ‘look good’ that he did not gain the profits he had hoped. The story was ‘pirated’ [a dramatic version from a pirate copy was staged within a couple of months!] and although he took offenders to court the legal fees ate up monies he had made from the high book sales. But there was an excellent long term effect because A Christmas Carol helped bring Dickens’ work back to popularity and set a ‘trend’ for Christmas stories and – more importantly – certainly caused a pricking of the national conscious!

Looking at the story in the context of the times that it was written explains some of the devices Dickens employs in his work. For instance there are references to the Industrial Revolution in the chains that surround Marley’s ghost. The exploitation of the poor [and especially children] such as the Cornish Tin Miners can be seen with the street urchins and the beggars and the children of Christmas Present: Ignorance and Want. The fact that the two gentleman are taking up ‘subscriptions’ for the ‘Poor and Destitute’ shows the 19th century Patriarchal Society in full flow, and the thought of the ‘deserving poor’ is not far behind. Scrooge mentioning the Treadmill, Workhouses and the ‘Surplus Population’ reference current political theories such as those of Malthus and Bentham.

There are many misconceptions about the book - almost as many as there are film adaptations!:
  • Scrooge is a miser: Although his name has almost become synonymous for a miser he is not, although Scrooge could be described as mean when he will not give to the charitable gentlemen. But is he even mean when looked at in his contemporary context? He is an upholder of the Protestant Work Ethic and believes in many of the values of his contemporary society including the workhouses and jails and Malthus’ theory regarding surplus population. So according to the times was he really so unusual? We don’t get a description of how Scrooge is dressed, apart from him changing into his dressing gown and night clothes. But he is often portrayed in shabby clothes as befits his miser status. Dickens left a lot to the readers’ imagination and over the years we have all built up ‘pictures’ and ‘memories’ that may owe more to the films we have seen. The patriarchal system Scrooge supports as the story opens worked quite well *if* the patriarchs were sympathetic enough, and sometimes it seems as if our present government would like to return to this with David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ for example. Is this Dickens’ intention – to remind the rich that they must be more generous with the poor? If so perhaps Scrooge is meant to equal the emerging middle classes? He is a ‘self made man’ - the hero of 19th century capitalism! Just because he went to boarding school in those times does not mean his father was rich. Scrooge’s first job was as a ‘humble’ clerk to Mr Fezziwig, so Scrooge knows the value of money and wants to retain his own. But what he does not seem to realize – and perhaps this is what the ghosts are truly showing him – is what good his money can do for others rather than remaining in his 'hoard'. What he considers a good wage for Bob Cratchit would be a good wage for a single man like Scrooge but not for a family man like Bob. And the ghosts are also showing Scrooge that although Scrooge is acting like a good early Victorian man of business, paying his rates and taxes and believing in ideals like ‘surplus population’ and the workhouse, when he sees the realities of this – that Tiny Tim could be considered ‘surplus population’ - statistics translated to flesh and blood make the reality something very different. Something a lot of our present cabinet need to think about? And when Scrooge sees the advantages of a family life, at the Cratchit home, at his nephew’s home and at all the poor but happy homes to which the Ghost of Christmas Present takes him, he realizes that his money can perhaps be spread a little further. He realizes – courtesy of the Ghost of Christmas yet to come that he will not be able to take his money into the grave with him and all that will live on will be the memory of him – and it would be better for people to have a happy memory of him than to be happy that he is dead. He does not want the only emotion shown at his death to be the happiness of the family that are not now to be evicted. This reaction to Scrooge’s death is contrasted with the genuine grief of others to Tiny Tim’s death.
  • The novel is overly sentimental and miserable: Many people on first reading this story are really surprised at the tone, how light and humorous it is. They just don’t expect to laugh. There are pathetic and sentimental parts – especially about Tiny Tim – but again Dickens knew his reading public and knew when to ‘lay it on thick’ and when not to. To me the ‘heaviest part’ is at the end of the story of the Ghost of Christmas Present and the appearance of Want and Ignorance and again Dickens knew when to push his message home.
  • The novel is about the very poor: Is it? We do not see them often, when the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge around the world to see how others are spending Christmas he does go through Almshouses, Hospitals and Jails. But the main characters like the Cratchits are not very poor. They are on the brink of poverty but Bob - although poorly paid - has a job. The lack of sufficient money was probably contributing to Tiny Tim’s illness. Dickens is encouraging employers to pay their employees fairly. Only the pleas of labour ‘agitators’ today? Dickens also points out that Christmas Day is not a statutory holiday and was only at this time granted as a favour. Statutory holidays were still in the future for a lot of workers. Dickens would purposefully not have written too obviously against the employers, knowing that most of the readership of his books came from the middle classes and not wanting to alienate them. The most important ‘poor’ that he shows are the children: Ignorance and Want:
"Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?”
“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
The bell struck twelve.
  • Dickens invented Christmas: There were plenty of previous ‘literary Christmases’ to prove that it was celebrated before Dickens got his writing hands on it! Walter Scott’s Marmion [1808], Jane Austen’s Emma [1815] or the Christmas of the 1830s as described in George Eliot’s Silas Marner. However what Dickens does perhaps is to ‘reclaim’ Christmas from the rich for the poorer classes – instead of telling the reader about the rich in their country house holiday type Christmas parties he tells instead of those like Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s nephew Fred and more importantly those that the Ghost of Christmas Present [aka Father Christmas] takes Scrooge to see, from the Cornish Tin Miners, to the sailors at sea and the ‘ordinary’ people in the streets who have one day to celebrate and then back to work.
  • There is a lot of religion in the novel: Well, the first ‘mention’ of religion in the novel appears when the Spirit of Christmas Present and Scrooge see people going to church on Christmas Day. Of course Bob and Tiny Tim go to Church, but not the whole family, which is interesting in itself. In fact Dickens has a ‘go’ at those who use ‘religion’ to inflict greater suffering on the poor when he is out with the Spirit of Christmas Present:
‘Spirit,’ said Scrooge, after a moment’s thought, ‘I wonder you, of all the beings in the many worlds about us, should desire to cramp these people’s opportunities of innocent enjoyment.’
I?’ cried the Spirit.
‘ You would deprive them of their means of dining every seventh day, often the only day on which they can be said to dine at all,’ said Scrooge. ‘Wouldn’t you?’‘I?’ cried the Spirit.
‘You seek to close these places on the Seventh Day,’ said Scrooge. ‘And it comes to the same thing!’‘I seek?’ exclaimed the Spirit.
‘Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family,’ said Scrooge.
‘There are some upon this earth of yours,’ returned the Spirit, ‘who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill–will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.’
This passage is relevant to the present day because the Spirit is telling Scrooge that those who are ‘interpreting’ religion are twisting it to suit their own ideas. Still happens, sadly.
  • Dickens invented the ‘Telling Ghost Stories on Christmas Eve tradition: Certainly Dickens invented the idea/tradition of a Christmas story/edition for his magazines – a sure fire way to make money as evidenced by the runaway success of A Christmas Carol. but the idea of telling Ghost Stories on Christmas Eve goes back possibly to pagan times with the whole idea of Christmas being annexed by the Christian Church from the pagan festivials of Saturnalia and feasts for the Winter Solistice etc. Throughout Northern Europe there were traditions that the family ghosts returned at Christmas time to share the festival with their living relatives.
The Ghosts: my intrepretations!
  • The Ghost of Christmas Past: Sounds somewhat like a candle which at the end their ‘trip’ together Scrooge snuffs out. It was a Christmas custom to light a candle on Christmas eve. This Spirit shows the reader the reason that Scrooge acts as he does but does not excuse him for those actions’'
  • The Ghost of Christmas Present: A representation of Father Christmas. Our red faced, jolly ‘Santa’ dressed in red robes trimmed with white fur is actually an invention of the Coca Cola company. Victorian Father Christmases were dressed in any colour robes but often green as a hang over from the ‘Green Man’ legend and very early celebrations. This ghost shows Scrooge what he is missing by his actions but also offers a warning in the shape of the two children: Ignorance and Want – Dickens’ warning to the reading public about the effects of the squalid conditions of the Industrial Revolution and Growing Capitalist Society could have on the very poor.
  • The Ghost of Christmas Future: Sound more like the Grim Reaper? And in fact he foretells Scrooge’s unmourned and lonely death. So he foretells the consequences of Scooge’s actions unless he changes. Perhaps he also symbolises one’s conscience catching up with one at the end....

There are other theories such as Freudian: The Id, the Super Id and the Ego: Regina Barreca[1] links the three spirits to the Freudian dimensions of personality, “the Spirit of Christmas Past . . . with Scrooge’s id impulses (the emotional, irrational child – ‘I want it and I want it all now’), the Spirit of Christmas Present with his ego [Ego too strong = extremely rational and efficient, but cold, boring and distant ]. . . and the Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come with his super-ego (to imagine the effects of his actions on himself and others. The Superego is the last part of the mind to develop. It might be called the moral part of the mind. . . .)”

Has the book made any difference within society? After we have read the book we may understand why Scrooge became like he did pre Ghost visits – but not excuse him. Can A Christmas Carol be read on two levels? On one level as almost a fairy tale about a rich, selfish man who eats the wrong sort of supper, has a nightmare which is real enough to make him realise that he is wasting his life and the riches he is amassing and could lead a better and happier one helping others and when he wakes he does. The other level is a deeper warning about how laissez faire economics can eat away at society from within and whilst killing off ‘expendable parts’ in the form of ‘surplus population’ something more precious and vibrant – happiness and innocence – will also be lost unless the selfish giant [to borrow from the future yet to come, Oscar Wilde] becomes less selfish a sterile and unloving, uncaring society will develop. Is this the reason that the story is still popular – because deep down we all know that we cannot afford to forget it? Charity is not just good for those who receive it, it is good for the giver too? Are there lessons there still for all of us and for our present government?

The biggest ongoing lesson, and one we should never forget are the two children, Want and Ignorance. They are pictured above, a little 'statuette' which I bought in Glastonbury. Those children constantly remind us that if the children of the world are allowed to grow up surrounded by Want and Ignorance we are - in the words of Private Frazer - all doomed. As a Christmas Wish: "Please do not let this happen".

My twin Clarice has written a literary appreciation of A Christmas Carol here: http://villiersroad.blogspot.com/2011/11/christmas-carol.html

[1] Professor of English Literature and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut

Friday, 11 November 2011

My Remembrance

Last year I wrote a blog for Remembrance Day which was picked up by another, far better blog than mine and caused a bit of discussion. As usual, whenever I state that I am a pacifist, a lot of the comments were very aggressive and some commentators almost seemed to want to wilfully misunderstand my reasonings. Fair enough, their privilege.

So this year I thought I would celebrate publically all those whom I personally remember each Armistice Day as well as all the other days throughout the year.

My Welsh Grandfather, who was so badly injured in the First World War, during the campaign in the Dardanelles, that he was invalided out of the army. This was after being posted as missing for many months and my Grandmother believed he was dead. He was awarded the Silver War Badge at the time, which given those honourably discharged due to wounds or sickness. This was to be worn on 'civvies'only, so that those wearing them would not be presented with a white feather [I daren't comment on the practice of presenting white feathers, you will understand why, I hope...] Also remembering all Granfa's brothers, friends and military comrades.

My English Grandfather, who served in the First World War at Ypres ['Wipers'] as well as other platforms of war. he became a member of the Fleet Air Arm and finished the war as a member of fledgling RAF. He came home physically unscathed but emotionally scarred, like so many. Also remembering all Granfer's brothers, brothers-in-law, friends and military comrades.

My English Grandmother, who worked in a munitions factor during the First World War whilst her husband served in France, whose wages plus his pay were not enough to keep her and her son and led a strike for better pay for munitions workers - and won. And all her sisters and friends who did similar, ill paid war work but were not celebrated. And were so debilitated at the end of the war that many died of Spanish 'flu.

Other Half's Grandfather who wanted desperately to become a regular soldier and tried to enlist as soon as WW1 started but was turned down on ‘Health Grounds’. In 1916, when the heavy losses were beginning to decimate the pool from which the military could recruit, standards in physical fitness, health and height were relaxed and Grandfather-in-law was allowed to join up. He stayed in the army after the end of the war, was in the Guards and eventually qualified to become a Chelsea Pensioner.

All those family friends who were members of the International Brigade in Spain in 1936. Often forgotten. And all the displaced persons, many of them children who were refugees and lived with so many East End families.

My Uncle who was a Chindet in Burma in the Second World War and suffered recurring bouts of malaria all his life.

My Uncle [happily still with us] with a few physical scars but whose nerves were shattered by his experiences at the Battle of Arnhem in the Second World War. All those young men who were in the cementary in Arnhem when we visited in an attempt to find my Uncle's lieutenant.

All my Uncles and their cousins and comrades who served in the Second World War and their wives who kept the homes and families going.

My mother and father who were Conscientious Objectors in the Second World War but worked for others and helped where ever they could.

My father-in-law and all his brothers who could never talk about their service in the Second World War as their emotions ran too deep to express.

Other Half's Uncle who died in Belgium in the Second World War, and his brother-in-law and his brother who died the same week.

My friend's father who was in the Luftwaffe and shot down over England in the Second World War. Aged nineteen, he never wanted to fight and loved England.

All the nationalities of all the young and older men and women who have ever died in the name of whatever 'justice' is the current 'ideal'.

All those 'innocent' civilians affected by all conflicts.

My twin sister has put a poem by Siegfried Sassoon on her blog today:

photograph courtesy of www.peacemuseum.org.uk

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The danger [or not] of gender stereotyping in toys

I posted a comment on an interesting blog by Delilah

She was incensed because when she visited Hamleys in Regent Street, London recently she found that the boys and girls toys were 'segregated' and situated on completely different floors of the very large department store. Delilah objects to this stereotyping of children's toys and hence the reason for her blog, Hamleys toy shop promotes gender apartheid

As this is a subject in which I have an interest - and as Christmas is coming and an awful lot of toys will be bought and discarded in the next few months I thought I would share my thoughts!

Before you read my comment, please do not think I am in favour of gender segregation in toy shops! I would hate to think that girls were not allowed the opportunity to peruse or to play with exciting things like chemistry sets, and likewise that boys could not have the excitement of learning how to cook. Since I cannot perform chemical experiments or produce a reasonable meal I honestly will say neither is due to lack of opportunity educationally or socially-with-play-opportunities, simply I am just very heavily inept when it comes to weighing out any sort of ingredients....

However I would like to point out that I was as surprised as anyone when, in my second year at university, my own sociological research overturned my long held hypothesis that children did not have an inbuilt gender prejudice when choosing their playthings. As a mother of three young children I was convinced that we as a society 'socialised' our children into demanding gender stereotypical toys by our either influencing or applauding their choices ["Yes Maisie darling, I am sure you would *love* to have Miss Betty's Hair Salon for Christmas whilst your strong big brother Oliver has a woodwork set capable of building a replica of Stonehenge in Oak" type of thing]

In my research and after a lot of observation and note taking at various nursery schools and early play scheme areas I realised that at first babies and toddlers played with whatever was placed in front of them, regardless of gender. But by about three the little ones seemed to generally congregate into single sex gender groups and migrate to certain single sex activities: girls to the more domestic toys like 'pretend' home making skills, doll dressing etc and boys to the building bricks and toy cars. Actually this quite horrified me. Girls also seemed to be more attracted to bright,'pretty, colours when at the dressing up box - wanting to look 'beautiful' with boys rushing about imitating anyone grown-up who could rush about, basically, like a fireman or policeman.

I had previously subscribed to the theory that if a young child played with toys like building bricks it would help develop their mathematical skills in later life so had made sure that my elder two children had plenty of the old fashioned red, blue, yellow and green 'Lego' type 'opportunities'. But my eldest daughter heartily disliked such toys and had to work really hard to suceed at Maths whilst my son would play with such toys with deep absorption and was actually later found Maths an easy subject, and did very well at it. At the time of my research my youngest daughter was just coming up to the 'Lego age', so I rushed out and bought her a set of pink Lego [including a Lego hairdressing salon I believe!] hoping that the pink colour and 'domestic' subjects in the pink boxes would attract her [BTW Lego had had a lot of criticism when they introduced such a gender stereotypical collection as a pink collection 'for girls'. Me included]

Well anyway, youngest daughter loved pink Lego, played with it non-stop and was a whizz at Maths in later school life, turning out near the top of the school mathetmatics-wise and now using those skills in sales and marketing. May just be a coincidence and she would have been good at maths anyway, but I like to think my sociological research helped! And btw youngest daughter is now nagging me have I kept her sets of Lego for her 6 month old daughter. [Yes!]

So a little bit of gender stereotyping can be helpful when raising children and buying toys although nothing replaces common sense....