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Thursday, 26 November 2009

Anthropogenic relativism

In some respects, Brian is a Scot plucked, in a phrase borrowed from a friend, right out of central casting. The son of a Glasgow (pronounced 'Glasgae') sheet metal worker, he is, (physically at least), a bear of a man, of the type that only Hibernia can produce. In fact, on first meeting Brian, I immediately formulated one of my brilliant anthropological theories, something to the effect that the reason the Scots eradicated ursa minor and major (and all the ursas in-between) from the Highlands was to allow space for men like Brian to grow. It is also not incompatible with Brian's physical appearance to imagine him naked (except for thin smearing of blue wode) bearing down on Hadrian's Wall to the terror of Roman Legionnaires. But the eyes of these same Picts shone, (after the raid), not with a messianically idiot bloodlust, but with a steely intelligence, fully aware of the effect of their appearance - one of the first examples of effective psychological warfare in Western Europe. Brian's eyes have the same quality - they can either invite you to an intelligent discussion or pin you to the mast of your own stupidity between blinks. In Walter's, a glance from Brian at an acquaintance at the other end of the bar talking about his "brilliant" business strategy, then a similarly quick glance at me illustrated the difference, and too my relief, it was the portly grey panted businessman who got the killing look. We moved away from the bar to chat.

I was meeting Brian, not really to "get the job" as RHB wrote it, but to network. My plan, over the next few months, is not only to destroy my fellow students in History debates, but also to get a "jump" on future employment, and the strongest advice I have been given, from all quarters, is that the best way to achieve this, in the field I wish to pursue, is by volunteering to teach, mentor or advise people until they cannot be taught, advised or mentored any further. On first receiving this advice, I assumed that volunteering was a snip - one simply had to walk into the nearest service that seemed appropriate and announce that one's hard earned world wisdom was available, (on a non-sale basis), and when would the service like to start to receive the benefit of one's brilliance? Reality however, as usual ,soon put an end to my insomniac fantasies: achieving pre-eminence as East Riding's most sought after volunteer is more much more difficult than landing a paid position as an astronaut (let alone the World's First Scouse Astronaut).

This is understandable, on reflection - charities, especially educational charities, have been left, thanks to successive governments, with the task of educating, training, supporting and helping the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of society and given that this is the case, the charities need to be especially careful when engaging people. It would be unwise in the extreme, given the load of responsibility (unwillingly?) assumed by charitable organisations, for them to put their users at risk by failing to vet applicants more thoroughly than the average paid employee is vetted.

If this situation (ie charities as the major providers of service to the most disadvantaged people) was not such a depressing indictment of societal failure, it would be marvellously easy to write a humourous blog about the twisted logic of this state of affairs. One could jokingly imagine scenarios where major thematic elements included politicians getting themselkves into all sorts of ridiculously convoluted "situations" as they tried to pretend that poverty, appalling living conditions and large scale societal inequality didnt exist. Unfortunately, although true comedy is best when reflecting the truth, there has to be an element of exaggeration in the best humour, but the picture I have painted, at least when cycling round HUll looks more like an underexaggeration. In reality, Blair et al's vision of an England where everyone is flying off to Spain on Easyjet every five minutes, buying second homes and investing in private education, is, I would claim, more of a fiction than my snapshot.

There is certainly a middle class here in the UK, but instead of "raising" everyone else to that middle class level, all that seems to have happened is a consolidation of class divisions. Those of us who are relatively well-off, or able bodied, or articulate are fully provided with the best services, education, health care, transport and acceptable housing. The best medical clinics, and schools, in the city are the ones scattered around the University. Even the bus timetable in our neighbourhood is superior - it is not possible to cross Newland Avenue, our neighbourhood shopping area, without getting run over by some form of omnibus, whereas in the area that Blessed Mandy lives - a sprawling council estate on the northern fringes of the city (the same area where the sewerage facilities are located) - buses are more expensive and about as common as red alligators. In Blessed Mandy's area, it is charities that run everything, from the stores where people buy clothes to the youth club, the sports centre, the drop-in centre for elderly people and the buses for the physically disabled.

NOTA BENE: It is not acceptable these days to use class titles - middle, lower, upper - everyone is said to be middle class. So I am forced, in future, to use a different name to describe what used to be the working class - I'll call them the Undiscovered. The middle class, I will call the not-entirely(yet)-dispossessed. Upper classes, I will refer to as "The Guilty".

The situation of the Undiscovered, then, is unpleasant and difficult. This is of course all relative. Because I am not claiming that all of us in the Western world are not much better off than the majority of the planet's population. Opportunities do exist for people, even those disadvantaged in our society, that make all of us kings in comparison with the rest of the world. Helping people to realise this, through education, and then take advantage of opportunities that do exist, is an integral part of my plan. In short, I plan to save the world by teaching anthropology. If necessary, I will do this one street-kid at a time, until our whole society is so excited by Nuer culture that we'll all be too busy debating kinship to take drugs.

Bearing in mind the difficulties I mentioned previoulsy in respect of obtaining ungainful volunteer employment, it is perhaps unsurprising that without an introduction, most of the charities I have pitched my idea to have looked askance, wondering in many cases where the funds for a field trip to Namibia might come from, and whether they would prioritize said trip over getting the leak in the roof of their office fixed or not. This is where Brian re-enters the discussion. Introduced to me by the marvellous JJ, Brian works closely with the volutary sector. It is from him that I hope to establish contacts that will allow me to work voluntarily and this advance my teaching career.

Me and Brian leave the pub after a good four hours drinking. I can read my handwriting on most of the notes I met at the start of our meeting, but as the drink has been taken, scrawl has appeared. As we hardly knew eachother at the start of our meet, we've swapped the legends of our backgrounds and established good, solid working class credentials over a couple of glasses of red wine and some environmentally friendly organic real ale in one of the most expensive bars in the city. We get taxi's home, and as a special treat, ordered whatever we want from a local takeaway. It has been a delightfully civilised occasion. If I had to be perfectly honest, one of the reasons I want to teach is because I dont want to live with the Undiscovered. I feel - as I suspect my other 'working class hero' friends feel - I dont mind working for a charity, but I never want to apply to one.

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