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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

German humour

The Guardian is running a story today about the death of Loriot (Vicco von Bülow) one of Germany's best known popular comedians. As far as I can see the German sense of humour is not that different from the English, though there is a difference about when people think humour, especially irony, is appropriate - not during working hours for instance. Loriot has something of the flavour of Monty Python crossed with some of the observational humour of Not the Nine O'Clock News. My favourite sketch is the delightfully silly Weihnachten bei Hoppenstedts in which the paterfamilias spends part of Christmas assembling the son's model nuclear power station (with predictable results). I couldn't find a version with a good english translation, but the Guardian links to another classic with english subtitles, The German Yodelling School.

Sociologists in fiction

On holiday I read Eric Ambler's Send No More Roses, a psychological thriller which I can heartily recommend. Written in the 1970s, it's quite different from his classic interwar adventures which usually feature a little man who stumbles into international political intrigues that put him in imminent danger. I won't give you any plot spoilers except to say that three of the main characters are sociologists (broadly speaking). That set me wondering how many other novels I could think of that feature sociologists. Alison Lurie's Imaginary Friends is one, the grotesque Howard Kirk in The History Man is another.  The principal character in Frank Parkin's Krippendorfs Tribe is a social anthropologist (I'm broad minded). There must be a sociologist somewhere in David Lodge's university novels but  I'm too lazy to check. Can you think of any others?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

I predict a riot

By the time we reach London half the city is apparently in flames and the  asinine media post mortem has begun. Not much action around our way: four hoodies battered down the door of a 24 hour petrol station on the Sheen Road and somebody tried to burn down Homebase. Pretty much business as usual rather than evidence of mob rule in leafy Richmond. About the only sensible commentary I've heard  was from a man called Tony Thompson who apparently writes books about gangs and was himself a London gang member in  the 1970s. He pointed out that when he was growing up there were lots of adolescent gangs, but that unless you were a complete nutter it was obvious that gang membership was not a viable adult life-style. Involvement with the drug trade was negligible and people didn't carry or wear enough valuable stuff to make systematic mugging worthwhile. To put it simply you couldn't make a living at it and therefore it was something that kids grew out of. Nowadays it is different. There are lots of money making opportunities for gangs to take advantage of which will sustain the consumer wants of their members well into early adulthood. Compared to the legitimate employment opportunities that gang members could possibly aspire to, drug dealing, mugging and the occasional bit of looting look pretty attractive.
One thing he didn't but might have mentioned is that a bit of rioting can be fun, as long as you are careful not to get caught walking home with a 32" flatscreen. All of the rent a mouths appearing on our screens  windbagging about  reasons and causes  might do well to remember a comment of Isaiah Berlin's: "...there is no a priori reason for supposing that the truth, when it is discovered, will prove interesting". Personal experience tells me that it frequently isn't. 
In the 1970s there was a  "riot" at my school, the  vague casus belli being that somebody  had, allegedly, been hospitalized by a boy  from another school. A pitched battle to defend the school's honour was to be staged, at lunchtime, on the playing fields. A few of the notorious psychos and sadists came equipped with bicycle chains and rice-flails but all that happened was that 700 children ran around the school all afternoon  refusing to go to lessons. The foe failed to turn up and my abiding memory is of the headmaster driving across the playing fields in his 3 litre Rover urging us, through the megaphone stuck out of the driver's window, to go back to our classrooms. The only attention paid to his pleadings was a few two fingered salutes.
Why did we do it? Two main reasons I think: because we could and because it was fun. Eighty teachers could not control so many childen  determined not to do as they were told and so many miscreants could not credibly be threatened with punishment. We knew they couldn't keep the whole school in detention or cane everybody. There was, in fact, nothing they could or would do and for an afternoon, we exploited that fact mercilessly. Next day we went back to our lessons - permanent anarchy  is not fun - and smirked behind our hands as  the Head rolled out all his tired cliches in morning assembly  about the rotten apples rising to the top of the barrel, the moral enervation associated with growing your hair below the collar line etc.
I think the usual suspects - the psychos, and those incautious enough not to hide themselves in the mass - were rounded up and got six of the best. But I imagine they thought it was worth it. And at the age of 12 I  learned a practical lesson. Order depends, even in an autocracy, on the consent of the ruled and sometimes they just don't feel like cooperating..

Tales of two classes

I spent last week in London after returning from an idyllic week on the North Norfolk coast. In Norfolk we stayed, more by chance than planning, in one of the villages of choice for the four wheel drive brigade. The vast majority of the village consists of  second homes and holiday lets and prices in the local restaurants and hostelries reflect this. I'm scarcely in a position to rail against large cars and second homes but I was given pause for thought on Saturday morning as we packed up by the sight of the infra structure that sustains civilized life in this sort of place. At 10 am the white vans arrived and out of the back  popped the minimum wage workers that clean, strip beds and tidy up. Even if you didn't see them disembark you couldn't help but notice them in the street: 30 years younger than the residents and holiday makers, different class, and in some cases different ethnicity. They must spend their days squeezed in among the mops and buckets hopping along the coast in the back of Ford Transits. I wonder where they live? Certainly for most of the week out of sight and I suspect for most residents of Chelsea-by-the-sea, also out of mind.
Back in London more examples of how the middle classes do well out of the welfare state. On Tuesday morning I drop my daughter off at the local  gallery for an art workshop. The cost, presumably subsidized, is absurdly cheap - you can't get childcare at that price let alone the attention of an artist and a handful of adult helpers. The clientele is as you might expect - I count 5 Chelsea tractors and a similar number of estate cars in the tiny car park - exclusively white and middle class. The only minorities there are myself and another dad swamped by the army of mums.
Killing time I visit the local library - a 1906 gift from  Andrew Carnegie. If you want to borrow art-house DVDs this is the place to go: Terence Davies, no problem, Bela Tarr by the sackful. While browsing  I listen in to a conversation going on behind me. A short stocky man in his mid fifties is talking to a member of staff. He wants to know if he can use one of the computers. He has been sent by the Job Centre to an interview in the afternoon and needs to prepare a CV. The Job Centre  told him that the library might be able to help him. But no joy. He isn't a resident of the Borough and though the sympathetic librarian is willing to wave the regulations nobody has time to help him with what he really needs - somebody to show him how to use the computer. The job he is interviewing for is straightforward labouring - as the job seeker explains, he's a "shovel and hammer man". It is a bone headed system (let's give the staff at the Job Centre the benefit of the doubt) that requires somebody to produce a  CV before they can pick up a shovel. I feel slightly ashamed that I've no time to help him myself. Before I go to collect the little artist I've just a few minutes to check out my choice of European high brow cinema.