May 22 2011

Much Ado About Something!

Category: Generalfootlight @ 21:13

The power of laughter can never be underestimated. Neither can the power of live theatre. Or the words of Shakespeare. Or the genius of the polished performer. Put the four together and you have the current production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at Wyndham’s Theatre, London. (May 2011)

If you had expected to see the cast dressed in Tudor clothes, you would have been disappointed, but ‘modern’ dress to them and ‘modern’ dress to us are different. It seemed perfectly right that the style was straight from the eighties. The set was clean, bright and very versatile, pivoting around four pillars on the revolving stage. The semi-circular ‘backdrop’ was a continuous wall of slatted doors, all giving the impression of a hot, sunny environment.

Tennant and Tate (catchy, eh?) were wonderful. Their sense of comic timing was perfect, their interaction with the cast and the audience was a delight and they worked together as only two actors who are comfortable with each other can do. David Tennant was an extraordinary Benedick, playing every line to the hilt and shining, particularly, in the scene where he ‘overhears’ the conspirators talking about Beatrice’s love for him. It would be cruel to give away the funniest moments, in case any of you are still lucky enough to see the play, but there is more than one moment where you find yourself saying – yes, out loud! – ‘No! I can see where this is going!’ but you are not disappointed by the knowing.

Catherine Tate carried off Shakespeare very well. She was clear and really felt the lines. Occasionally, there was a fleeting appearance by one of her many comic characters, but this enhanced rather than detracted from her portrayal of the heroine. She, too, really showed her comic mettle in the ‘disclosure’ scene. Surely all the audience were waiting for the line ‘Kill Claudio’ – we were. It was delivered coldly after several minutes of ranting which, sadly, some of the audience, who perhaps did not know the play well, did not recognise as distraction and saw only as another comic moment.

It goes without saying that the rest of the cast was superb. Even allowing for the one or two fluffs and possessed props (it was a preview night, after all) I would go and see it again in a heartbeat. Throughout the performance, the audience were treated to one magnificent moment after another. We laughed almost non-stop. We applauded individual performances as they happened. We sighed aloud at the beautiful moments and we cheered – yes, right out loud – when the two lovers finally kissed! It felt as though we were that first audience watching it in Elizabethan England, so strong was the atmosphere.

There is currently a petition asking for this to be recorded as was ‘Hamlet’. I have signed it. Will you?

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Jan 15 2011

Cancer – Cure it or Live With It?

Category: GeneralDave @ 22:51

A friend of mine posted as her Facebook status a link to an article in the Guardian newspaper. The article is  Now this is the introduction written by the Guardian’s editorial staff:

 

As our population ages, the question is not if we will encounter this illness in our lives, but when. Is it time we stopped fighting and learned to live with it, asks Siddhartha Mukherjee.

 

It’s an interesting article. I usually like The Guardian editorial writing – but the comment “Is it time we stopped fighting and learned to live with it?” is, to my mind, not a reflection of the original author’s intent. The author never considers stopping fighting it but not attempting to cure it. These are two different things.

The quoted author’s idea – and at first glance, I think, a reasonable one – of not always seeking treatments that will cure a cancer but instead one that will allow the individual to survive, with a good quality of life, whilst the cancer is held in check. This might avoid the draconian treatment regimes often necessary to totally defeat cancer with their concomitant negative effects on the sufferer’s quality of life. These effects are often very hard to live with initially and can have permanent debilitating effects for the remainder of one’s life. Instead, perhaps some less unpleasant interventions will bring the cancer under control and a more-or-less normal life becomes possible.

But wait a minute – that implies taking possibly (probably?) quite expensive drugs for what could be an extended lifetime. Now I wonder what Big Pharma thinks of that?

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Mar 22 2010

The US AHCA.

Category: GeneralDave @ 12:29

Most of Europe (I don’t know about other places) has long been bemused by the fact that a country which aspires to be the greatest in the world doesn’t have something as rudimentary as free, universal healthcare. It’s great to see the US getting there.

The UK’s NHS has its problems but on the whole it’s not bad. The important bit is that anybody in this country who falls ill and needs urgent treatment gets it. Doesn’t matter who they are, what nationality they are, no questions asked. To me that’s civilised; in this 21st C, anything else isn’t. If you’re not entitled to free treatment here, they’ll try & recover the costs – but afterwards. You don’t have the worry of paying to stay alive whilst trying to heal. The NHS gets it wrong at times – wrong or inappropriate treatments and long waiting times are some of the ills that beset it but it’s still infinitely better than the practical alternatives. I have read of people in the US pointing at NICE and calling it something like the “death panel”. All I can say is: go read what it actually does then eat your words! Of course NICE can get it wrong sometimes and it can make decisions which are bad for some individuals. No regulatory mechanism, of any kind, is perfect.

Universal Free Healthcare has to be paid for: Europeans pay far higher taxes than Americans and a lot of that is accounted for by healthcare and other kinds of social welfare. The idea that a free market will (or even can) result in full employment and therefore everyone will be able to afford the basics of civilised life is, to say the least, questionable. I think the US also needs to get away from this “work ethic” thing as the UK rulers kinda did, on the quiet, years ago. I’ll explain why…

Western economies all have much the same basic rule: A public company’s first and overriding duty is to maximise shareholder value. It therefore behoves the directors to minimise costs;if they don’t, they can be sued. One major way to reduce costs, which is generally followed religiously, is to decrease headcount/staff costs. This is done largely by increasing automation and outsourcing to lands where labour is cheaper. This, of course, applies mostly to enterprises which actually make or produce *things* – cars, food, furniture, etc., although it’s being increasingly applied to services as well. The theory is that the workers thus displaced will move into so-called “service industries” (until their jobs are outsourced). Huh! There aren’t enough remaining workers in “real jobs” to support that much service industry and so you end up with permanent, structural unemployment. One way to mitigate this that they’ve used here (and, to a much lesser extent you see it happening in the US) is that they pass laws which create the need for Agencies to oversee the execution of those laws, soaking up some of the excess workforce. In the case of the UK, it’s quite a large proportion.

The net result is that a minority of the population generates the real wealth of the country & their taxes pay to keep much of the rest of the erstwhile working population off the streets doing “makework” jobs. Full employment is a myth that I don’t think will ever be seen again, certainly in the West and this is something that I think our politicians have been lying to us about for years. The permanent structural unemployment I referred to is going to get worse as automation gets cleverer. The whole work ethic thing needs to be rethought; I don’t know what the final numbers will actually be but, as an example: What do we do with the other 90% when 10% of the possible workforce (workforce, not population mind) can produce everything a country needs? The real figures might end up at 80/20 or even 70/30 but I very much doubt they’ll go beyond that.

I think the link between the above & Universal Free Healthcare is fairly obvious but just for a change, I think something good will come of it 🙂

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Feb 28 2010

Our new leader?

Category: Generalfootlight @ 11:03

In the news on 28.2.10:

“David Cameron is expected to declare that it is his “patriotic duty” to oust Gordon Brown when he speaks at the Conservative’s spring conference.”

Not sure this should be his overriding priority. Surely something about making the country a better place to live in would have been more appropriate and, whilst I understand that losing Gordon Brown would be a strong contributing factor, this sounds like a personal vendetta. Badly done, Davie-boy. Badly done, indeed.

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Jan 01 2010

Happy New Year!

Category: Generalfootlight @ 12:19

Another new year. Welcome to 2010! As a species, we have wallowed in the booze, eaten far too many chocolates and cakes, and said things to people we see once a year that we have already regretted. We have been to parties that were just noisy accompaniments to silly dancing. We have worn clothes that will live in the depths of the wardrobe until next year, when you hope no-one will remember them.

Christmas is a time for getting together with your family (check), eating too much (check) and drinking too much (check). It is a time for the card makers to rub their hands with glee, shares in wrapping paper to rocket and the turkey farmers to sit back and listen to the ‘chink, chink’ sound of money hitting their bank accounts. Surfeits are essential and the wave of regret and self-loathing that follows as inevitable as night following day.

This year, we didn’t send any Christmas cards. Apart from the fact that they don’t say what we want to say, the cost of sending them is greater than the original purchase! Consequently, we turned to a less tree-destroying, money-eating method and emailed our greetings around the world. In some ways, I have been resisting this turn for quite a while. I am saddened by the passing of letter writing and wish I did more of it. Unfortunately, it is much easier and quicker to contact people via the Internet – and a damned sight more reliable than most postal services! I’m thinking – you’re still making contact.

Then there’s the age-old chestnut. Any of you made any resolutions? Of course you did! All those plans to lose weight, save more money, be kinder to your friends and family. Those are common resolutions. They are always broken. We know that when we make them. Anything that requires the slightest sustained effort doesn’t stand a chance. Giving more to charity – that’s another one. That goes well until the gas bill is due or the car needs some repairs. Then, the money is always better in your own pocket.  Did you realise that buying something you actually need in a charity shop constitutes giving to charity? No-one is expecting you to furnish your house there, or renew your wardrobe, but the small gestures mount up. You don’t have to take your elderly parent to live with you.  Popping in for an hour or two once every week or so has a lasting effect, too. There is no need to join Weight-Watchers and Slimming World to lose two thirds of your body mass in three weeks. Smaller portions on a smaller plate (psychology!) and lay off the biscuits will make a huge difference.

Wait a minute. These all sound like good, common sense. Why don’t I do it? Because I’m human. It’s a sad fact that good ol’ human nature will get in the way all the time. It would be heartening to think that, one day, people will celebrate Christmas in the way it should be. Even if you’re not Christian, the sentiments bear a second look. It would be great if we could manage to stick to a least one of our resolutions. If we don’t give ourselves too hard a task, it might just work. Maybe I’ll pick one and see if I can do it. Now – which one will it be …?

Happy New Year!

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Aug 14 2009

Stop mumbling

Category: Generalfootlight @ 08:50

Ageing is something we all take for granted, yet dread in our own future. We know that we are not immortal, yet push the inevitable to the backs of our minds as long as possible. Some of us spend a fortune every year in an attempt to stave off the ravages of time, but it is only surface cosmetics. Medical research is done on a daily basis to find ways of helping the human body to repair itself – or be repaired – so that it can go on for longer than the manual states. No-one has really thought about how this will affect society. What will we do with all this nonogenarians and centenarians who will need looking after – unless the treatment of the future also makes them physically independent?
On a recent visit to a ninety-three-year-old great-aunt, this all very much came home to me. No-one has interfered with her body, except to remove cataracts from her eyes, give her eye drops (which don’t help her to see any better) and generally look after her physical welfare. They also look after her mental welfare, but that is where it starts to fall down. She is in a very good care home for the elderly. It’s like a five star hotel – three good meals a day, chosen by her from a menu the day before. That used to be the case but it is quite likely that the staff now make that choice for her. A single room with en-suite bathroom. Medical staff on call. A cafe on the ground floor that leads onto the beautiful gardens. Religious services for those who want them. Enrichment classes in pottery, art etc. Guest speakers. Trips out – yesterday’s was to the RHS garden at Wisley. Sounds like heaven! And it was, until my aunt became too weak and less mentally alert to enjoy them. For the very first time, on my visit yesterday, she didn’t want to go down to the cafe for tea. I had taken my father – her nephew and himself eighty-eight years young – as I try to do as often as possible. Neither of them are youngsters. The nurses said she only ever leaves the floor with her daughter.
This woman was a dancer. She was beautiful, graceful, a real lady. The youngest of twelve children, she managed to be the most ethereal. She is actually only five years older than my dad – she was the youngest of her generation and he was almost the oldest of his – and they and their spouses were always good friends. Now she is a thin little woman, losing body mass, sitting in a chair all day and sleeping for most of it.
I know it upsets dad to see her like this and it certainly does me, but I would not stay away. We both have our memories of her, although hers of us are just out of reach, and that is what we need and want.
I am sure that she will just slip away one day and that is what we would all want for her. Not to have her existence dragged on with drugs. Not to be maintained in a physical state of being but with no quality of life. I want to remember her as a dignified person, insisting until the last that the reason she can’t see is because of the drops in her eyes and the reason she can’t hear is because we are all mumbling.


Mar 18 2009

On yer bike!

Category: Generalfootlight @ 20:47

Once again, the country is ringing to the sound of people either lamenting the jobless figures or asking how we can get more people back into employment. There is a stunningly simple response to both these cries – forget it!

The kinds of people who used to be out of work were those who were not well-qualified enough or too well-qualified for the jobs on the market, those who for one reason or another did not want to work, those of working age but to ill or incapacitated to have a job and those who had recently left employment and had not yet started another job. There was always a rolling figure of unemployed and every successive government has had the cries of the jobless resounding in their ears. They have also all tried their best to ‘solve’ the unemployment problem. There are reasons why this will never happen. This is a problem that cannot be solved.

According to the government statistics site, ‘The resident population of the UK was 60,975,000 in mid-2007’. That figure is unlikely to have changed significantly in two years. A recent projection is that ‘the population of the UK is set to increase by 4.4 million to 65 million by 2016′. Many of these ‘extra’ people since 1998 have been immigrants, although it has to be said that a large number were legitimate and contribute considerably to life in this country. There have always been immigrants in the UK and they have usually enhanced society. The population as a whole is living longer. The number of under-16s has declined, whereas the number of people reaching pensionable age has increased. This means that many are leaving the workforce but fewer are entering it. This is a good thing, really, because there is another factor at work.

Technology.

With the increase of technology that can ‘do the work of several men’, those several men (or women) are no longer needed. As computers become more and more sophisticated, you don’t even have to be in the workplace to carry out your job. In theory, we should be grateful and enjoy the extra leisure time, but as a species we are now programmed to feel bad if we don’t have a job. We are even penalised if we have been out of work for half a year and happen to have a working partner. Live off their earnings, we are told. Let them try it!

Governments – of whichever persuasion – need to begin to cater for a population that will not be at work all the time, if at all. The times they are a-changing and the once ill-advised words of Norman Tebbit misquoted in the title of this rant have no meaning. Even if you have a bike and are prepared to ride it around our polluted cities, there’s nowhere to go.

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Nov 22 2008

Future Fiction

Category: GeneralDave @ 12:04

The craft wasn’t that large. It contained the essentials for movement, sustenance, communications and sensing within its skin. And it was a skin. Although human beings of 10 or so millennia previously would not have recognised it as such it fulfilled the same functions as their purely biological one did. It separated the organism from the rest of the universe and was packed with sensors. The sensors in this case covered a very large slice of the electromagnetic spectrum as well as parts of other spectra. This allowed the craft’s single occupant to know what was going on around it. Actually, “occupant” isn’t really accurate – the craft and its occupant were one, a fusion of silicon and carbon-based components. It was no longer appropriate to talk of “biological” and “artificial” as the integration of silicon and carbon was complete. The brain was still mostly carbon but with silicon elements around the periphery, mostly doing a similar job for the other sensors that the eyes had originally done for “visible” radiation. The protection around the brain was rather better than the original of course, as were the other support systems, such as the blood substitute.

I was originally going to write a science fiction story based on the paragraphs above but I stopped. I realised that, although I could envisage a mode of “life” very different from our current one, there was no way I could get inside the head of such a creature. What would drive them? What would upset them? What would they spend their lives doing? I’m sure it’s possible to create a situation to put them in which would make a satisfying story for today’s readers – but how artificial would that be? Although, I suppose that’s true of most science fiction which takes place sufficiently far in the future. For example, Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy is supposed to take place thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years in the future and yet there has been no physical evolution of human beings and, more to the point, the drives, prejudices, mores, etc. of the people in that universe are no different to what we have today. I would have thought that time and expanding out into a large part of the galaxy would have changed that.

I can see how our thinking might evolve in the near future – and note that’s “might”, not “will” – but you then need to try thinking how such a changed mind might think to figure out what further changes might occur from there on. Although evolution is a continuous process, there are times one can point to and say “That’s when it changed from A to B.” This is, of course, an approximation but it works in practice. In terms of human evolution, there may come a point in time which a future generation could point to and say “That’s when we lost the habit of killing people for profit!” (Substitute your own preferred human vice here if you wish). Equally, they may view such loss as a bad thing – which brings me back to my original point: I can’t see further than one, just maybe two, imagined evolutionary step(s) ahead. I can make it up alright – that’s what fiction writers do – but it would still be from my point of view, in the here and now, or at the very best a few steps into the future. And so, any such story would inevitably be pretty much a tale of emotions, drives, ambitions, mores etc from our own era, more or less, set in an imagined physical future.

I may well still write the story of which the first paragraph is a short extract and see how far I can imagine. At the minimum, it should be an interesting exercise in imagination.

I have read much science fiction and fantasy and, although sometimes the author has given a different viewpoint, it’s not really that much different because it can’t be. Although one can try and imagine what it might be like to be a spacefaring organism that can live for as long as it likes, one cannot completely put aside what drives us today and that will colour our imagination.

So: what do you think you would do if you were that creature?

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Sep 06 2008

Islington Council is a disgraceful shambles

Category: GeneralLee @ 22:17

WARNING: this is a bit of a long one. There’s a lot to say, and a lot happened. I’ve tried to keep it brief, but even if you fold up an elephant to get it as small as possible, it still won’t fit into a juice box. That said, it’s worth reading and may, in fact, even help some people. Or at least serve as a warning. I hope it does – some practical advice follows at the end.

As you may have guessed by the title, I live in Islington, London. It’s a nice place, for the most part. There are things to do, places to shop, all the conveniences and it is very well connected to get just about anywhere else in London.

The Council, however, is another matter altogether. Legendary for it’s poor performance for years now – seemingly regardless of which party manages it – I have had personal experience of it’s many and varied failings.

To go into all the details would take many pages, digging through old documents and, frankly, probably send my blood pressure skyrocketing. However, I will attempt to give a suitable overview. Believe me, the prose below is a heavily truncated list of occurrences compared to what I could go in to.

First, there were the summonses to magistrates’ court. That’s plural – as in many, many times. And not one of them justified. See, for a while, I was unemployed and living with two students; this means that we did not pay *any* council tax, as all three of us were excluded due to our respective statuses. The bills came anyway, however, and I spent a fair bit of money talking on the phone with disinterested and rude people for whom, being generous, English might have been their third language. We all provided proof of our statuses and lack of income. We did everything we were asked to do, including all those little ‘just one more thing we need’ bits which I have come to know and loathe (I presume they are intended to actively discourage people for doing anything which might take money from the council, as no-one would press on through such a swamp of red tape unless they really needed to). We received our first summons, and it was not a happy occasion. I called the council and explained the mistake. The man at the other end was uncharacteristically helpful and sympathetic, apologising and issuing a letter saying that the summons was withdrawn immediately. He also said it would not happen again; I think he believed it, but he was very wrong.

It happened again. I called up again. This time I spoke to a very rude woman who informed me that I would have to go to court to dispute this. I pointed out that this had not been necessary last time, explained what had happened and received a patronising response stating, once again, that court was the way to go. After the conversation ended I called up again, spoke to someone else and immediately got the issue resolved as it had been the first time.

In total, we received something like six summonses, all but one of which were dealt with by phone, costing me time and money, causing me untold stress and being of varying levels of difficulty to resolve depending on whether the person I was talking to had the faintest idea what they were talking about, cared, had an ounce of common sense or – and I am quite sure of this – was just in the right mood to do the right thing.

The figures they demanded varied wildly, from well over £1000 to £300, then back up to around £700, then £100… it was clear that they had no idea what they were doing. I never sought any explanation regarding the yo-yoing figures as, to the best of my knowledge, we owed them not a single penny.

Finally, around a year after this had begun, they got us into court. The bill was a joke, asking about some £35 – except this time, every time I spoke to someone they insisted that we did, in fact, owe it. No-one could explain how or why, but they wanted our money and would take whatever they could get. So off to court we went. It might be worth mentioning at this point that the two people I was sharing an apartment with, my very great friends, are both lawyers. That’s solicitors and barristers. The gentleman I went to court with was virtually cracking his knuckles in anticipation of these derisory proceedings.

But there were none. We sat in a waiting room along with all the other summonees, and a council lawyer eventually got around to us. We told him we owed no money and would not pay. He was, to his credit, helpful – although his lack of interest and generally utterly disheartened demeanour almost made me feel sorry for this minion of the council. Almost.

So we went to the council offices. They explained that the amount they wanted from us was for the two weeks or so after we had moved in, but before my flatmates had provided their proofs of studentship. We went back twice, I think, arguing that not only had they only found out about this necessity after having moved in, but that the institution they were attending had been slow to provide said proof and that it was no fault of theirs. It was useless. In the end, by law, we owed them the money. We paid. My friends did the sensible thing and moved back to India. I remain.

HOUSING AND COUNCIL TAX BENEFIT

I will attempt to keep this as objective as possible, although I actually shake with frustration merely thinking about it.

Once unemployed and in receipt of Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA), one can also claim Housing and Council Tax benefit. Now, whilst the former comes from the central government and, as such, is, well… centralised, the latter is managed by each individual council directly – in my case, of course, Islington. Oh dear.

First off, I discovered that, because I was under 25, I was expected to be living in a shared bathroom, shared kitchen, dump of a home. Purely based on my age. No, it’s impossible that perhaps I had the money to rent a decent place but then fell on hard times. An outrageous concept. So the council would not pay all of my rent, I had to supplement it with both most of my JSA and help from my parents, who didn’t have that much either. The upshot was that I lived on about £5 a week, if that – sometimes much less – for several months. That was a calming and happy experience, I don’t think.

Skip forward – through the soul-crushing bog of bureaucracy which Islington Council sits in the middle of, squatting like a wart-covered and particularly ugly toad, staring with balefully yet undeniably blank and unintelligent eyes at any who might approach it. OK, so that wasn’t objective. But it is accurate.

I found a job. Yay. Big YAY. I had been unemployed for far too long, and although the job was a low-paid thing of questionable dignity (customer services in the travel industry – prostitution might have lacked dignity, but I like to think I might have made better money) I was happy as could be. The bills could be paid, the rent too (it’s the little things like that which caused me so much stress), I could buy more than cheap pasta and supermarket own brand canned vegetables to eat. There wasn’t much money left for anything else, but in comparison to the desert I had just walked out of, life was good.

Then I got another letter. It was a very polite letter, explaining that they had a few simple questions to ask me and would I mind popping over to answer them. The bit that gave the game away somewhat was at the end, when it mentioned that what I said would be recorded and could potentially be used in court against me. I took along my father and my barrister friend, and we made a day of it.

The interviewer was truly obnoxious. I am on tape asking him to kindly cease patronising me, as I had not done anything wrong and he was badgering me by asking the same few questions over and over, just phrased differently. That might be enough to fool a monkey or a scientologist, but not someone whose IQ points are in double-figures. This seemed to annoy him greatly, which in turned warmed me somewhat.

In essence, I had been receiving housing and council tax benefits for about 3-4 months since I had started work. See, I had asked the people at the Job Centre how it worked, as I rightly suspected I might need some aid whilst I re-built my fragile and functionally non-existent finances. They had told me, about three of them all together, that I could continue receiving the rent and tax help for up to six months.

It wasn’t true. The limit is one month, and then only under exceptional circumstances. I might have qualified, but never got the chance to find out. It works like this: in order to get housing and council tax benefits, you have to provide the council with proof that you are already receiving JSA. I did this, and all was fine (relatively speaking – I didn’t spontaneously burst into flames). So when I got my job, I went back to the JSA people, filled in all the forms and asked about keeping the help with the rent etc, getting the answer I mentioned above. I also sent a change of circumstances form to the council, informing them of my job. I heard nothing back (this didn’t surprise me, as the only correspondence they seem to deal with is forms for me to fill out, and simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ letters regarding whether or not you get benefits. Or asking for more information) so went on with my life, content that I had done everything I needed to do.

Yet now here they were again, the council, accusing me of fraud. I was red and shaking. Fraud. Me. After everything they had put me through: the piss-poor attitudes, the professional ignorance of the staff, the bureaucracy so thick you could almost choke on it, the mistakes made by them one after the other… I was being accused of fraud. Not only that, but by way of ‘evidence’ they produced sworn statements from the job centre people I said had misinformed me, which described the correct thing they should have said in such a flawless and uniform manner that I truly believe it was copied out of some textbook – if only because I happened to know that at least two of them could not possibly write that well from examples I had seen, and even their spoken English was decidedly sub-standard. Each one claimed they would have given an absolutely exemplary response. Really? No! When the alternative was admitting that they had said completely the wrong thing to some guy they probably didn’t even remember, and they had been given about a week to go away and do the research necessary to write such a flawless statement. The bottom line is: they lied. But, of course, I could not prove that.

I took it to arbitration. I sat in front of a lady arbiter behind a big desk, dressed as best I could in my only suit, next to a lawyer from the council who looked like an impending suicide attempt. The filthy suit, covered in dandruff, the adult acne smothering his face, the loosened tie, the battered briefcase, the soulless expression. It gave me confidence, which was a mistake.

His (literally) two-minute ‘case’ was basically ‘He didn’t tell us he had a job but kept claiming benefits, under article blah blah blah.’. That was it.

My presentation went of for about 15-20 minutes. I produced document after document after document, including the one where they demanded – on threat of legal action – a sum from a Mrs… something (I can’t put the name here, even if I could find the old letter). Definitely not me, anyway. I showed her the many summons, the withdrawals, the apologies, the reams and reams of paperwork which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Islington Council was grossly incompetent in every single aspect of their dealings with people like myself. I left no doubt. I’m being objective here: I had an inch-thick collection of documents, letters from the council mostly, showing categorically that they were mistaken in virtually everything they said and did.

I was told to pay. I could not believe it. I was told that even though the arbiter could accept that the council might not have received my letter telling them I had a job, that despite my even hypothetically being given the wrong information and therefore not questioning my continuation of benefits, I should have somehow thought this was wrong and I should have contacted them. Their misinformation and mistakes and lax checking systems were somehow now my responsibility.

I considered appealing. I had already pointed out in the arbitration that even the name of one of the witnesses, my friend, was utterly wrong. Surely, I had said, if even something as legally vital as a witness name was so very messed up, everything else they told me – and said about the case – was at the very least highly suspect if not literally unbelievable. (To give you some idea, if my friend’s name was, say, John Thompson, they would have written it as ‘Mr J. Ohnthomon’, or something like that. It was unrecognisable as his name, except vaguely if spoken phonetically. It was made much worse by my friend’s Indian names.)

I could only appeal in the circumstances I was in if it was on a point of law. I considered bringing the witness name issue back up, and therefore asking for the statements to be discounted entirely on a point of validity, but by then I had finally realised the truth: there was no way to win. It didn’t matter how right I was, how much Islington Council had screwed up or, indeed, the countless pieces of evidence I had provided to support my case against the council’s impressive number: ‘0’. Systems were in place to ensure that Islington Council could not lose – not on the big things, anyway.

I met with a couple more council workers to discuss repayment of the housing and council tax ‘overpayments’. The first seemed to me to be the definition of ‘old school’. He looked and acted like he’d been doing this for a long time and had seen it all. Again, it was refreshing to meet someone professional and, dare I say, perhaps even a little sympathetic. But the real reason I’ll remember him is this: when I asked him, unofficially, whether I had had the slightest chance of winning in arbitration, his answer was essentially ‘They’re supposed to be independent, but they basically work for the council. It’s very rare that anyone ever wins against them. You know how it is.’ accompanied by one of the most knowing looks – tinged, I am certain, with disappointment if not some fair annoyance – and we got on with things. I even felt a little better, know that I had done everything I could have despite apparently being doomed to failure.

I asked the second council worker the same question. His effuse answer was something like ‘Of course not, they’re completely independent, that’s what they’re there for… etc, etc, etc’. His look of annoyance was directed at me, and my look of pity and disgust was aimed at him.

The penalty they imposed was the entire amount ‘overpayed’ plus 33%. It came to thousands. I am still re-paying it. In the end, though, it is worth considering this: the total amount, even including the penalty, taken across all the time I’ll be paying it off at £50 a month, can be viewed as a loan with less than 3% interest. Not exactly a great win, but then at the time life without that extra money would have been very difficult indeed.

In the final analysis, there are a few simple major problems with Islington Council, some of which could be solved easily and some not so easily:

Ignorance. Very, very few people at Islington Council actually have the faintest clue as to what they are talking about. They contradict each other, insult other departments to you (the customer) in reference to their ignorance, and can actually provide 5 answers if you ask only 3 people. Mind-boggling. There needs to be consistency, and I find it very hard to believe that training and testing people properly would not improve matters a hundredfold.

Attitude. This is a tough one. The vast majority of people I have spoken to, across several departments, have exuded a lack of interest which borders on the brain-dead. They simply don’t care. This contributes to them giving you the wrong information to get you to stop talking to them as soon as possible, or to being re-directed from pillar to post because no-one wants to deal with you. It’s not that they can’t (although ignorance might be in play here again) it’s just that it’s a crap job and they don’t want to do it. They can’t be bothered. Now, I’ve done some damn crappy jobs in my time and it sucks, but if you take the money then you do the work as best you can. And come on, this is people’s lives we’re talking about here. Destitute people, desperate people, people who need someone who will listen to their problem with both ears and their brain before saying the right thing. Or at least trying. It doesn’t take much.

Language. This one’s easy enough: the people on the phones the most, but everyone who works for a London Borough, should be able to speak good English. I dread to think of the number of times someone’s life has been made infinitely worse because they couldn’t understand what was being said to them. Thick Caribbean, African and Indian accents abound at the other end of the phone when you talk to Islington Council. I have nothing against them due to their ethnicity, of course, but if I can’t understand them (and I come from a very multi-cultural background, so I’ve heard English spoken by all kinds of people – sometimes even Englishmen) then they’re no use in that job. And try to get them to repeat the garbled words they’re saying and you’ll get a snappish attitude and pushed off the line as soon as possible.

Consistency. I touched on this above. There are three main departments involved: the Job Centre, Contact Islington (a central advice line for the borough) and the part of Islington Council which deals with the benefits. Ask each one the same question and you might well end up with four different answers. Then when you go to one and tell them another told you something, you get told ‘Between you and me, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re always telling people the wrong thing’. Seriously, I was actually told that about Contact Islington by people at the Job Centre. Now, they may be right but why is this allowed to continue? It creates enormous confusion and surely must make as much work for the staff of all three departments as it causes stress to people like myself. Plus: how do you know who to listen to?

There are probably other things, but I can’t think of any right now.

Essentially, it’s like this: if you have to deal with Islington Council, triple-check everything you’re told, request (or demand if you have to, sometimes they don’t want to commit themselves) to have it put in writing by e-mail or post (or preferably both, so that when they send it to you and you never get it they don’t claim it was ‘lost’ or there was a ‘computer error’) and, if someone in one department tells you something you’re not sure about, check with the other relevant departments immediately. Also, if you were expecting something to happen but it’s been a little while (don’t leave it longer than a week) phone them and chase it. Otherwise you will suddenly find them telling you that they sent you a letter you never received and are denying your benefits because you didn’t supply information you didn’t know they asked for. They will not ask again, even if you never knew they had in the first place (yes, you guessed it… it’s happened to me).

Or, best of all, don’t deal with this awful institution in the first place if you can possibly avoid it. It’s like jumping out of a plane towards a rainbow: you might be aiming for something good an beautiful, but the pot of gold is just a myth and ultimately you’ll just end up smacking into the ground and it will hurt.

P.S.: to those few who work for Islington Council and are genuinely helpful, knowledgeable and professional: thank you. You are the rare Schindlers to the council’s Nazis and worth your weight in gold.

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Aug 23 2008

Put your own house in order

Category: Generalfootlight @ 11:29

Why is it that people are generally so selfish? Always me, me, me! Wanting to be first in the line for everything; last if it’s something nasty, like an injection. Looking for the easy buck, the least work for the most gain. Just – selfish. But selfishness has many guises, not just emotional ones.

Take the person who drives down the road with his/her (although usually men) car hi-fi at full pelt, all windows open. Better yet, no windows open and still loud enough to deafen the populace in the next town. My only consolation is that he or she will be deaf long before I am. It is highly anti-social to have your car radio/stereo blaring out, but it is very hard to regulate. Try telling one of these yobs they are disturbing the entire county and the most likely response would be a stream of good old Anglo-Saxon invective. If you are really unlucky, you might get a physical response, but only if you are stupid enough to stand too close.

Then there’s the noisy neighbours. I doubt there is one person in the country who hasn’t been affected by this problem at least once. Parties that regularly go on until the wee small hours with excruciatingly loud music and people shouting at the tops of their voices to be heard over it. One of our neighbours last summer even moved the hi-fi into the garden – why!?

Intrusive music, like an MP3 player, has been dealt with on public transport in the UK and it is a recognised offence, but where does this lack of courtesy come from? Why are people so selfish and thoughtless?

I blame the parents (or whoever brings them up). No, really – I do! I am one who had a very difficult child who was damned hard work, so I speak from a position of knowledge. It doesn’t matter how much legislation the government puts in place, how many prosecutions there are over noise pollution, how many times people complain to the local Environmental Health Department. The vast number of these people have not had any guidance on how to behave in society. There is a current advertisment in the media pointing out that small children will copy grown-ups into bad habits, in this case road sense. They will also copy good habits. If a child learns at his parents’ knee that it is bad to make so much noise that you disturb other people, and this is constantly reinforced as said child grows, then he probably won’t do it! If he is reprimanded if he makes faces, or hits, or snatches, or shouts abuse, then he probably won’t do it as an adult. Of course children have to do some of their own growing and make their own mistakes and of course some will grow up unpleasant in spite of all the attempts by their parents to produce a well-balanced adult but, if they have no positive role model in the first place, they don’t stand a chance.

And don’t blame the schools! They are in loco parentis – ‘in the place of the parent’ – but they don’t stand a chance either if the groundwork hasn’t been done.

Bringing up kids is bloody hard work. They aren’t there to finish the tally – house, car, kids – nor are they there to cement a failing relationship. If you have kids it should be because you want them and it is then your duty, to your children and to society, to show them how to be good people. I don’t mean in the religious sense – that sometimes produces the worst offenders – but just good, old-fashioned common decency.

So it isn’t just the products of this lack of guidance who are selfish, it’s the place they come from – the parents and, for ‘parents’ read also ‘home’. Many children are effectively brought up by grandparents, childminders, friends. It can’t be helped in an age when it is almost impossible for a mother or father not to have to work to support the family. But that doesn’t change anything. A good start is a good start and it would make a world-wide difference if more people thought about that instead of their own comfort.

I repeat – bringing up kids is bloody hard work! When you complain about the noisy driver or the gang of teenagers you are afraid to walk past, check for a moment whether one of them couldn’t be yours. If not, pat yourself on the back. If they could ….

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