Things that have bugged me…

…this week, last week and if I’m honest, perpetually. I should probably stop letting things bug me quite so much, but I’m English, and whinging is fun.

 “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”

No it isn’t. It is dark, cold, wet, windy and I’m starting to wonder if I’ve got Seasonal Affective Disorder. Then again, maybe I’m just a grumpy git. It isn’t the most wonderful time of the year, it’s one of the worst, that’s why we stick Christmas in the middle of it. I don’t mean that Jesus was conveniently born at a time when everyone in the northern hemisphere needed a bit of cheering up. I mean the old pagans knew that the time to celebrate was just after the shortest day, just at that point when you knew you were over the halfway mark and the days would ever so slowly start to get longer. Then the Christians nicked the festival in the hope that everyone would join in with them.

Because it really is a shit time of year. The sun just about crawls above the horizon some time after 8am, doesn’t bother going very far above it, knowing that it’s going to disappear again less than eight hours later. If you work full time, you’re just getting to work as it’s light and you leave again in the pitch black. Unless you’re as fair skinned as I am you run a serious risk of vitamin D deficiency and rickets. When you’re not flooded out, someone is warning that there will be a drought in the summer unless it rains between now and then. And it’s either unutterably bloody cold or so mild that people go around saying ‘ooo, there’ll be too many bugs around, I don’t like it when it’s mild at this time of year’. It’s all just black ice and tissues.

 People who boo the Strictly Come Dancing Judges for giving any mark below 10

Do you have to do that? Really? Why? It’s a dancing competition, not a pantomime. If Craig wants to give constructive criticism, let him. He does at least talk sense and the only way to reach a high standard in something like dancing is to look for the detail and strive to be the best. But of course the British don’t really like that. I mean god forbid you should be talented. No. Really you need to be like Chris Hollins – a nice enough bloke who seemed to try hard but he wasn’t actually very good. But give him a 10 anyway, because he’s unthreatening. And if you see a tall poppy, cut it down, whilst giving a nice pat on the back and a 10/10 to some also ran you feel sorry for.

 “Real women have curves”

I’d like to pretend I have no idea what this means, but I do. It’s generally said by women who are overweight as a defence mechanism against the frankly vile, misogynist claptrap peddled by the tabloid press in the UK. Heat, the Daily Mail and others of the same diseased ilk like to mock any woman who isn’t a toned size 6, with preternaturally huge boobs. If you don’t look like Katie Price, they will mock you. If you do look like Katie Price they will still mock you, whilst simultaneously saying that that is your ideal shape.

But my problem is that rather than counteracting the message put about by the tabloids that women should be a certain size, it actually feeds into it. First, it divides women into real and unreal, which, unless you’re dealing with blow up dolls, is offensive nonsense. No woman is any less real than another, whatever her shape, level of fame, or time spent on appearance. And second, it argues that women should be a certain shape – curvy. The reality is that some women are flat-chested and/ or slim hipped. They are no less female for all that. And certainly no less real.

 “How to cope at Christmas when you’re single”

Eharmony have sent me an email in which they apparently tell me how to do just that. No idea what it says as I didn’t bother reading it. I find it odd, as I intend to spend Christmas in my PJs, eating lots of food and watching telly. I’m not sure which bit of this they think I need to develop a coping mechanism for. Personally I found Christmas in a couple more stressful, as I ended up worrying if I would have to spend more than a microsecond alone in the company of his mother and also why he A. thought a packet of dried pineapple chunks constituted a present and B. wrapped them up. Though with the distance of time I can see that working out A might have helped with B.

For all I find mid-winter a generally depressing time of year, I have no idea why having a partner would make it any less so. The only way your partner could increase day length would be if the sun shone out of their arse. Since this isn’t generally the case, I’d rather be stress free and single.

 “Make do and mend”

Not the sentiment, I like the sentiment. No. This refers to a specific sign I noticed in a shop. I sign I could purchase, if I so desired, for £12.99. A nice, fresh painted sign made from nice new timber. I can think of quite a lot of things I could spend 12.99 on, but a painted sign telling me to make do and mend isn’t one of them. If I ever do want such a sign, I will find a piece of drift wood, or an old bit of fencing thrown on a tip. Then I’ll prep it, before painting it with some old paint found in the back of someone’s garage somewhere, total cost: a bit of time and effort.

The offending article was in one of those shiny trinket tat shops that sell things also advertised in the Guardian’s weekend supplement. It appeared to be full of shrieking people who were transported to Elysium by the sight of something rustic coated in glitter. I ran away and left them to it. Still, perhaps I should be grateful. Such shops are after all part of the private enterprise that will allegedly save us from slough and despond, whereas actually making a Make Do and Mend sign yourself won’t cause anyone to profit.

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My TV advert break hell

So I thought I’d take a break from making attacks on capitalism and greed and instead poke fun at adverts. Errm. OK, that’s not much of a break from an attack on capitalism. But the thought was there.

First off, what is it with those air fresheners things that the advertisers are trying to convince us closely resemble some sort of sculpture. It isn’t a sculpture. No-one will mistake it for some piece of art work they bought on holiday, unless they’re in the habit of collecting air fresheners of the world. And no,  I’m not giving it as a present to a friend. They would be horrified. Who gives air fresheners to their friends? It’s like saying ‘your house smells, here, have this piece of plastic tat.’

If I lived in the world of advertisers, I would be convinced that the entire world smelled horrible and that the way to make this better would be to mask it with artificial scent. The thing is though, generally I find the world smells OK and if it doesn’t, I like to open a window. Whatever chemicals it is they put in those things, they give me a headache far worse than anything my bin or someone’s pet cat might be able to muster. And whilst we’re on this topic, Febreze: I don’t care what you say, it’s just an expensive way to hang things out of the window.

The adverts during films bug me as well. Not the actual advert breaks as such, those are handy if you need a pee, I mean the sponsorship adverts, particularly if they jar with the subject matter of the film. There are some little red riding hood ones. I cannot remember what channel they are on or what they are trying to sell. Adverts don’t seem to have the right impact on me, unless it’s on a subconscious level and actually I buy loads of shit when I’m not looking. Which would be as if, in some bizarre consumerist version of the biblical take on charity, my left hand didn’t know what the right was doing. Anyway, watching something about wolves, grandmas and small children being eaten by lupine predators seemed particularly inappropriate whilst watching The Lovely Bones (if you don’t know the plot, small child gets killed by paedophile).

Then there’s those bloody adverts for Wonga. Actually, they are quite funny. Deceptively funny until you have a little think about what they are selling you. The basic premise seems to be that your lovely granny will lend you a fiver. Or, well actually, she’ll lend you a few hundred quid for a few days. But this grandma has teeth. At 4000% apr,  it’s enough to make any wolf blench. And lets be honest here, if you had a choice of an overdraft at 10% or a payday loan at a few thousand %, you would opt for the overdraft. So these type of loans are generally for the desperate and nowhere does granny tell you how you get through to the next payday, when you will have the same shortfall you had before, plus a loan, plus interest. Take my advice. Don’t go near a granny selling a loan, unless you think there might be someone with an axe nearby to help you out.

As a group (I can’t really tell the fine differences between brands) the adverts I hate the most are the ones for sanitary products. My least favourite tag line of all time has to be ‘Just because it’s your period, we still believe you can be beautiful’. Great idea, thanks for that. Let’s play on women’s often low sense of self esteem and use it to sell them products. Wonderful. Feeling a bit shit for a couple of days a month? Don’t worry. There will always be someone low enough to use that fact to sell you something.

But the thing that really, really annoys me about those ads, is the fact that 9 times out of 10 they are trying to sell their product on the basis that it’s somehow more discreet than anyone else’s. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about discreet as in you can’t see them when they’re in use. This isn’t the roller skating in white shorts thing, mad and annoying as that is. I mean the way the products are sold as somehow quieter and less visible. Ooo they’re so quiet no-one will ever know you’re unwrapping a sanitary towel. Ooo, they’re so small no-one will see them in your handbag unless one of them gets stuck to your Chihuahua. Ooo, you can insert them in the dark if you’re frightened of moths or whatever the fuck that ad was about.

Here’s the thing. Half the population will menstruate at some point in their lives. We spend as much of our time menstruating as we do sitting at traffic lights, a fact I just made up entirely. So, if the woman in the next cubicle to me thinks I might be mid period because she hears a rustle of plastic, I don’t give a stuff, and I don’t suppose she does either. Frankly I’ll empty my pockets out on my desk at work and if that happens to be a tampon or two, I don’t give a monkeys. It’s an entirely natural bodily function and I resent advertisers playing on the idea that it’s somehow shameful.

If there are any other ads that come close to annoying me that much, it’s generally high street opticians. There’s the whole specsavers schtick of ‘oh I know, let’s take piss out of people who can’t see properly without their glasses on’. How? How the hell does that ever work as a strategy? Taking the piss out of the very people you are trying to sell to. How? Why god, why? Anyway. The other one that also pissed me off was whichever company used to tell me that they could make my glasses in an hour. I don’t want you to make my glasses in an hour you fuckwits. They’re my glasses. I can’t see without them, remember. Get them wrong and you could make my eyesight worse than it already is. So do me a favour, take your time and make them properly.

Actually, if I’m really honest, I don’t go through hell in the advert breaks. I mute them, wander off and do the washing up, make a cup of tea or go and change my sanitary product of choice. I assume they have some effect, all those ads, or why would anyone bother making them. But right now, Go Compare are doing their best to ensure that I never use their website, on the grounds that their ads are the kind of sexist drivel that make me want to shoot someone. Oh my eyes. It’s like feminism never happened. And what is it with the Lloyds TSB music? Is it some kind of trigger? Are we being programmed so that in future generations we’ll all go out on some kind of rampage when we hear it? Right, that’s it. Time for a nice cup of camomile.

The public, the private and the thermodynamics of wealth

As I was meandering home from late-night shopping on Thursday, the man walking in front of me started to do a Charlie Chaplin walk, before fumbling around in his groin area and then stopping for a slash, right there, in public. OK, the street lighting wasn’t great but even so, I could clearly see him pissing in the street. Throughout the week I seem to have been haunted by the public, the private and the people who can’t tell when the two should be united and when we should respect a division between them.

I’ve worked in the public sector, the private sector and social enterprise. They each have their strengths and weaknesses and of course none of them is perfect. Having seen private sector models applied to the public sector, I’m far from convinced that perfection lies in the wholesale adoption of the private sector’s methods. Vital public services should not be left to private companies, for I do not wish to see public services allowed to go to the wall if they fail, as a private company would. I would rather they were supported and run efficiently in the first place, and not expected to be productive in the sense of making a profit. To me, a public service is productive by its very nature—the clue is in its name. How can performing a vital service for the public be unproductive? It won’t produce material wealth for you, but if you place the value of something above its mere price, you can see that the public sector is productive.

And yet the Tories and the right wing press (which in the UK is practically indiscernible from the press) are out to divide and conquer where public and private are concerned. It’s even clearer that they are succeeding. They routinely portray the public sector as inefficient, ineffective and a drain on resources. In this portrayal, the healthy happy few are saddled with the unnecessary baggage of the work shy and unwashed. Private enterprise they argue, is where it is at. The private sector is seen as creating wealth, the public sector as a parasitic life form holding it back. And thus this government relishes a battle with the public sector and create an atmosphere in which strikers, instead of being allowed a reasonable voice, are painted as lazy, unproductive and demanding.

However, it is easy to reframe this story. It seems to me that the private sector rarely sells me anything that I particularly need. Oh it will sell me stuff that I think I want, but not what I really need. Consider what humans need in order to live. We can assume a relatively oxygen-rich supply of air is freely available, although I will admit that in polluted areas that is a big assumption, and I wouldn’t have put it past Thatcher’s government to try to privatise the atmosphere. I assume it’s beyond the wit of Cameron to sell fresh air, but that’s because so much is beyond the wit of Cameron not because he wouldn’t try if he thought of it. So, we need water; food; shelter; warmth; some clothing and someone to tend us when we are sick. Beyond that, we don’t really need anything in order to live. These are our primary needs.

Presumably there is more to life than just the bare necessities. So moving on from those primary needs, I can see secondary needs that are not quite so essential, but which make life more enjoyable. Things which make your home more comfortable, things which speed communication, many of the things which aid travel, are not far from essential. Education is all but essential, and some kind of culture, art, music, literature, make our existence something more than the merely animal. If, as part of the public or private sector, you are trying to provide me with these things, you are doing something essential or close to it. But as for the rest, many of the services that the private sector tout are about as far from vital as it’s possible to be. The private sector may well need to admit that it is trying to sell me goods and services which are basically tat, and if I decide to buy them, I am doing the sellers a favour. Invention has become the mother of necessity.

So in this reframed picture, those who provide us with food, water, warmth, somewhere to live, and medical services, are of primary importance. They are the real source of all that we need. They must be at the heart of any community. Beyond that, anything else that is offered is unnecessary. If you’re selling me handbags; scented candles; insurance; DVDs; a TV; the latest wii game; Sky plus; table lamps; croquet sets; Christmas crackers; those tacky ornaments you see advertised in Sunday supplements or one of those foot snuggly things I keep coming across in Lidl, you’re not creating wealth and don’t kid yourself you’re doing me a favour. You are trying to exchange something non-vital for those vital public services. The private sector, which provides all those things that are not necessary for our living, are the parasites, reliant on public services for their very lives, swapping shiny baubles for bread. The public sector servants are the life givers, and as life givers they are the wealth creators.

Of course all this is actually quite unhelpful. I may not need services provided by the private sector in order to live, but I depend upon them to give me a standard of life that goes beyond mere survival. I don’t really feel a need to attack private enterprise, it’s just that unlike this government I see no need to hold it up as the holy grail, the answer to the ills of the world. If that were the case, Lehman brothers would never have crashed, there would have been no queues outside Northern Rock, we would have full employment in this country and the bloody fucking trains would run on time.

In a post industrial age, perhaps we should stop fixating on the notion of wealth creation. After all, the days when Britain was the world’s workshop are long gone, and they may never return. It’s not as if we manufacture a great deal or export the kind of goods we use to sell. Trafford Park no longer produces printing presses; the plant for power stations or the machinery for textile manufacturing. Instead, it is a shopping centre. We’re not creating wealth, so much as attempting to share it around, albeit distinctly unevenly. In fact I’m not convinced that in Britain at the moment we can create wealth, any more than humans can create energy. Instead, I’m reminded of the first law of thermodynamics. Wealth cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be changed from one form to another.

Recognising this, we should be able to stop the public–private battle. Instead of there being a division, with one side producing and another consuming, there becomes an exchange. And if public sector workers are striking, it isn’t just about them. They may well be trying to improve conditions for all of us, just as strikers have done in the past. This government and the media would do well to remember this.

Except of course that they won’t. Following coverage of the Leveson inquiry over recent weeks, it is clear that whilst many newspapers want to drum up a divide between the public and private sectors, they are hazy on the division between public and private when it comes to the private lives of those in the public eye. The press have gained too much power in the UK, that much is obvious. But I cannot blame the press alone for this, for anyone buying those newspapers must have had some thought about where their tales were coming from. Those who buy tabloid papers are also guilty of invading the privacy of others.

And all this from watching someone peeing in the street. Late night shopping was dispiriting by the way. I say dispiriting but something about en masse consumerism made me crave drink. I weaved my through the throngs to Sainsbury’s only to find that there were carol singers outside it. Not just any carol singers either. These were carol singers with acoustic guitars and they weren’t afraid to use them. If there’s one thing stronger than my desire for a nice rioja, it’s my horror of carol singers. I decided the wine could wait. It’s not essential after all.