Breaking down the barriers between town and gown

It may have Cambridge University’s rubber stamp on it, but the Festival of Ideas (19-30 October) goes beyond the ivory towers. For those who want to see what’s on, have a look at the programme. (PDF file)

This year, the Festival strands are ‘Communication’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Revolution’

This tells me that followers of both my blog and of Puffles the baby dragon fairy on Twitter are more than likely to be interested in some of the things that are going to be kicking off. Comedy, poetry, politics, history, art, drama, film, science, music and lots of complicated stuff! Not a copy of celebrity magazines in sight! (Hopefully).

I never even knew Cambridge University had a ‘Community Affairs’ team until…oooh…about two minutes ago. The history of town-gown rivalries in university cities is broadly well-known. I came across the institutional barriers of ‘You’re not university types so bugger off’ comments from university staff during my childhood in Cambridge – which is why I’m glad that at least part of the university has realised that Cambridge is more than just a university. It is in its interests to look after and take care of the communities that live around it too.

One of my biggest criticisms of Cambridge University I’ve thrown is that for too long its isolated itself from the rest of us that have grown up either in its shadow or completely oblivious to its presence. Other than Homerton College bringing in lots of us schoolkids to help train their teachers (my primary school was in walking distance) by just being there, the only active engagement I can remember was when we were driven to university labs for some “Science at work” workshops. In cash-starved state schools (this was the early 1990s) there was only so much science teachers could do. Science lessons in mobile classrooms? Yep, that was my experience too.

Yet when taken to state of the art laboratories and given lessons in chemistry using sweets of various flavours, to seeing what happened to various types of class when you threw raindrops at it…at the speed of sound…exactly.

One of the biggest missed opportunities having grown up in a place like Cambridge was the lack of interaction between the two universities (Anglia Ruskin is also there) and the local schools around them. Fortunately there seems to be (for whatever reason) a greater awareness and desire by universities across the country to engage with schools in their locality – and events such as the festivals of science and of ideas as those that take place in Cambridge are positive steps. But they can go further.

I wonder what impact it would have on our children and young people if the engagement between schools and universities was systematic – where there was this automatic expectation that university departments would open their doors and access to their students and experts that, for cities that have universities in them are on their doorsteps? What would the impact be of University College and Imperial College London’s students and staff engaging with schools in some of the most deprived parts of inner city London? Ditto with universities in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol and Southampton to name but a few?  What would the impact be on the students studying at our elite universities if those institutions said that part of the deal of studying there was to share their knowledge with the schools around them? (Or at least inside those institutions making it clear that there was a culture of expectation that this was what was expected of them).

Rather than having lots of ‘Private, keep out!’ signs all over the place, how about ‘Welcome – come inside and have a look around!’ signs? The Festival of Ideas will be about not just having a look around, but engagement and taking part too. I’m planning on attending a number of events. For those of you who live or are able to visit Cambridge for this festival, which events interest you?

Public understanding of science

I wandered along to the Cambridge Skeptics’ event The Public Understanding of Science where the lovely Dr Alice Bell was holding court at an evening in the Maypole pub that was standing room only. An excellent event not for the faint hearted. The discussion that took place was all the more poignant with BBC Newsnight covering the hotly-debated issue of the provision of abortion services.

The end of my ‘formal’ scientific education came with my GCSEs. I thought science was great. I still do. The problem at the time for me was the limited number and range of A-levels combined with shockingly bad careers advice. These factors plus an appalling lack of courage at the time on my part led to decisions not to keep up with languages and sciences – things that (with varying degrees of success) I have been trying to redress post-full-time education.

It was just over a year ago that I was introduced to the delightful Sarah Castor-Perry who, at the time was working for the Naked Scientists. The piece of work that caught my imagination was that of the chocolate teapot – and the saying that something is as useful as. (i.e. Not very). But what the Naked Scientists do (amongst other things) is they make scientific experiments to turn some of these sayings and idioms on their head; they made a chocolate teapot and tested how useful it would be. Accordingly, they found out how thick the chocolate that makes a chocolate teapot needed to be in order for it to be useful – i.e. not melt AND make a nice cuppa!

The debate that Dr Alice Bell hosted this evening opened up the issue of the public understanding of science – and made me realise that it is far more complicated than getting more school children to do science post-16, getting more scientists into politics and public administration and getting the media to feature far more science in the news rather than featuring what celebrity forgot to put on which item of clothing yesterday morning.

My question for Alice was about how we can encourage scientists to increase their participation in politics, policy-making and public administration. Alice pointed out that in terms of public sector officials, there is a sizeable presence of people with science degrees across the various professions within that sector. However, there is an issue with scientists within elected public office – something that was covered by Dr Evan Harris and Dr Julian Huppert in September 2010.

I follow a number of scientists and science journalists through Puffles’ twitter feed. One of the things that I have found that has increased my understanding of science has been using social media to interact with people who have specialist interests or an expertise in an area that, for example happens to be newsworthy or in the public eye that day. One of the things I’ll be observing over the next few years is how people in science will be using social media to improve not just the public’s understanding of science, but also of politicians’ understanding of science. This, as Alice told me is just as important as trying to get scientists into politics.

Why are shoes not feet shaped?

Simple question really but one of those questions that is both child’s play but also a serious design issue.

During the 1980s back in the day, a trip to the shoe shop meant having my feet measured not just for length but also for width. Clarks had this strange machine that we had to stick our feet into that the movement of four metal blocks would help decide what our shoe size would be. I want to know who stole that machine. My issue being that they don’t seem to have it any more – nor do any other shoe shops.

At the moment I seem to be restricted to shoe shops that have understood the concept of people’s feet not being the same width – yes, it’s a problem for us blokes too.

That’s not my only moan about shoes; I also have an issue with leather-soled shoes. Why are they so uncomfortable? Much as I sympathise with the concept of shoes that breathe, walking in hard-leather-soled shoes has the feeling of walking on granite in bare feet. For someone like me that means knees getting shot to pieces. Not a good feeling.

Therefore I’m in this minority of people who find that the high street doesn’t really cater for them. This means spending months at a time waiting for TK Maxx to come up with a pair of shoes wide enough that boutiques cannot get rid of that I find are reasonably suitable, or having to search online. My record of searching for shoes online is not a good one. Call me old-fashioned but I prefer to try on my shoes before buying them, avoiding the hassle of having to pay for the return postage when I inevitably find the first pair don’t fit.

The wider societal issue is that of general health. Bad backs and bad shoes? Bad feet and bad shoes? Internet searches will come up with lots of articles on these issues – and a number of health product manufacturers have been providing solutions to the symptoms of feet problems. What I’ve not found are any studies that comprehensively look at the issue of how our choice of footwear affects our health. I’m interested in your comments  (and links) to sound articles which look at these problems and anything that makes a reasonable effort to quantify what the impact bad shoes have on people and society. Should we be asking shoe designers to design (fashionable) footwear as if feet matter?

Clothing

They say getting your first suit is a ‘right of passage’ for a young man growing up. Ditto a tailor-made suit if you head into a career that is predominantly office-based. But I’m no longer based in an office.

So why blog about clothing?

Well, it’s one of society’s constants along with food, water and air. (Shelter should also be on there but given the state of our housing problems, I’m refraining from adding it just yet). I also have a love-hate relationship with clothes, as well as a dress sense that has only recently begun to settle in recent years. It’s also one that has made me look far beyond the label and brand of item that I am buying.

In the late 1990s I received a very rude shock when I got to sixth form college and found a very ‘designer labels-driven’ culture around a lot of people. Prior to then, with the exception of sportswear or a new pair of trainers, school uniforms kept a lid on this phenomenon. Ironically it was that culture that has to this day kept me far away from a number of fashion labels because of what I associate them with. In part it was that experience followed by spending 3 years in that alternative hotbed that was Brighton that changed my mindset and attitude towards clothing, labels and brands. In a nutshell brands were evil – every other weekend there would be someone handing out a flier exposing the latest misdemeanours of another multinational. Remember that this was around the time of Naomi Klein’s No Logo flying off the shelves and the peak of the anti-globalisation protests.

For me, my time in Brighton legitimised (in my mindset at least) of the concept of “rethink, reuse, recycle” – opening up the prospect of bargain-hunting for books, clothes and music in a very big way. When you are on a tight budget – where you stay out of your flat for as long as possible just to save on the electricity/heating meter, charity shops are a blessing. It’s in situations like that in which you are thankful for the people who choose to donate items that can be reused by someone else – one of the reasons why I still donate things I no longer want. (Or as is more the case these days, things that I can no longer fit into as my belly says “You’re over 30 now – time for me to expand and time for you to cease fitting into a 32inch waist!”)

Things changed during my civil service days. In part it was because of the nature moving from a ‘student’ mindset to ‘now I have a career’ mindset and felt the desire to dress more formally. I did acquire a number of what I still think are my ‘signature’ items – mainly as a result of targeted bargain-hunting and a level of patience that astonished nearly all of my colleagues – both male and female. That said, if I felt that a specific item of clothing was well-made and made of quality materials (and thus more likely to last), I was prepared to ‘invest’ in that item. My view was – and still is – that these items are going to last.

This is one of the reasons why if I see something I like, I zoom in to look at the label – not the brand, the label. (To the unfamiliar, it’s that little thing that has the washing instructions and origin of manufacture on it). It’s little things like buying the size above if it’s made out of wool (coz it’ll shrink as I’ve found to my cost on too many occasions) to watching out for the ‘dry clean only’ instructions.

I’ve also developed a habit of getting things altered if they don’t fit properly. Sometimes it is out of necessity – especially where the shop deliberately stocks stuff that is too long and announces upon purchase that they charge an extra fee for alterations. (I always take stuff like that to somewhere local because I think that tactic is naughty – it should be included in the sale price). Unless it’s buttons – in which case I source them and sew them on myself. My take is that my late grandfather learnt how to sew and do clothing repairs in the army and he fought in the jungles of Burma – less of the gender stereotyping please! (He could also iron a trouser crease so sharp you could cut a steak with it).

Between my sixth form years and today – a period of about 15 years I have noticed three significant changes in my ‘clothes shopping’ experiences.

  • The development of the container ship. This has made it far more affordable for manufacturers to relocate and expand in places that have much cheaper labour costs. This has led to a real price fall in most of the ‘basics’ that I have bought over the years. It has also helped drive society’s ‘consumer disposable’ mindset.
  • My increasing disposable income as I progressed through the civil service – which amongst other things also meant stability of income too. However, the only reason why that disposable income increased for many of those years was because I was living with family (parents, grandparents, siblings etc) meaning that high rents were only a factor in a few of those years when I was living in London
  • The internet – opening up new retailers (including charity shops and second hand outlets) and leaving the high street in the shade.

Now that I’m out of the civil service – and at the time of writing no longer in full-time paid employment, I expect my habits will evolve further. Not having an office to go to every day means that there is less motivation to dress up in office wear that would have been standard for me just a few months ago. Also, regular swimming means that it’s more convenient to wear looser fitting sportswear – at least until the planned refurbishments of the changing rooms at my local swimming pool.

In terms of the wider outlook?

It’s not really my business to tell people what fashions to follow and which ones to avoid. There are more than enough opinionated glossy magazines full of adverts (that people willingly pay for) around without me needing to add to it.

That said, our ‘disposable’ mindset that we have with clothing is something that disturbs menot least because of its environmental impact.

Parents will tell you of the impact pester pressure from children can have on families. We also saw the assault a number of clothing and sportswear retailers came under during the recent riots – something which some commentators have noted. We also saw lots of footage of ‘dictator-chic’ with the recent fall of the Gaddafi compound in Libya.

Aside from my own personal observations with my love-hate experiences with clothing, will the recent economic crises that we have had (and the not-so-rosy outlook in the short to medium term) have an impact on the consumer-disposable mindset that has taken hold over large parts of society? What impact will environmental pressures have? Will be be able to afford and sustain our current habits with our consumption of clothes? The other question is one for the brands. To what extent (if any) will these brands be tarred by association with either the rioters or the dictators and their families who showed a preference for those brands through their large scale purchases?

Socrates and Brazil’s World Cup of 1982

One of the most painful pieces of football viewing for me is that of the game Italy vs Brazil where the Italians won 3-2 through the implosion of Brazil’s defence.

Much has been made in old school footballing circles of whether that Brazilian team was the best team never to win a world cup (or whether it was the Netherlands in 1974 or Hungary in 1954). I’d like to think it was, but Perez’s performances in goal didn’t really inspire confidence (he got off to a shocking start against the Soviet Union – who were footballing powerhouses in that decade), their defence still leaked too many goals and Serginho was always going to struggle to replace Careca who got injured just before that tournament.

The first time I heard of Careca was when he appeared in a football sticker album (“World Cup ’90”) alongside Romario. Even at that age, we knew Brazil were good and anyone wearing the number 10 shirt was worth keeping tabs on. And so it proved when Careca ran riot through a Swedish defence that never really turned up to that tournament. (I prefer the Brazilian commentary in these things). Like Sweden, the rest of the Brazil team also forgot to turn up to that tournament (that team only scored four goals in four games – their 1982 predecessors scored 15 in five – including four against a Scotland team containing Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish).

Socrates was the captain of that 1982 team – someone who achieved more in one lifetime than most of us will achieve in three. Medical doctor, Ph.D, captaining his country in a world cup (scoring against the Soviet Union and Italy in 1982, and against Spain in 1986) and human rights activist taking on a military dictatorship in his own back yard. (Brazil was a military dictatorship between 1964-85)

For the rest of us, becoming a doctor of medicine or of any other subject is a lifetime’s achievement. Playing in a world cup the same – and that’s not mentioning being captain and scoring against three of the top teams of their day. And how many of us would have the courage to set up a campaign against a military dictatorship in their own country? We are lucky in the UK never to have had to make that call. Look at the England team’s performance in recent world cups – and who has scored how many goals. How many of the international superstars of the premiership speak out on human rights abuses? Where have football’s great minds gone?

I’ve not even mentioned Zico – who scored two memorable goals against Scotland and New Zealand, but who, with the exception of setting up Socrates for his first goal, was marked out of the game against Italy by Snr Gentile – who did the same against a certain Diego Maradona a few days earlier.

My favourite piece of footage though is Zico’s goal against holders Argentina in the second round group of death (where Brazil, Argentina and Italy fought for a single place in the semi-finals). The group structure was scrapped after this tournament – this structure also led to England’s elimination despite having never lost a game and only conceding one goal in the entire tournament.

Compare the footage in the original live coverage from 3.30 in with what I found here from 3.35 – same event, different footage. Eder thumping the ball towards Filol’s goal, stinging the finger-tips of the latter – who then picks himself up to find Zico and Serginho racing towards them with none of his defenders in sight.

Noting John Motson’s commentary from the Brazil Scotland game of 1982 (scroll down to the end) he notes that Falcao was the only ‘exile’ who played abroad – with AS Roma in Italy. This meant that at world cups there was a genuine clash of footballing cultures – players were genuinely unfamiliar with each other – as were the audiences watching them.

This is not to say we should try to go back to a time that we risk looking at through rose-tinted glasses. In 1982 the players of Brazil, Argentina and the Soviet Union were all from countries that were under the rule of dictatorships – whether military in the former two or a communist one in the third. For Brazil and the Soviet Union at least, to what extent was their relatively free-flowing style of football in response to the oppression they faced at home?

Apart from the manner in which the Brazilian teams of Socrates’ era played the game, Socrates demonstrated an awareness of wider local and global issues around him. If only more footballers of today would follow his example in terms of his intellectual pursuits. (He smokes like a chimney and can drink me under the floor). I had the opportunity to go along to see him in London last year but bottled out. Hopefully he’ll recover from his recent operation and make another public visit sometime soon.

*Get well Dr Soccer!*

Parliamentary Select Committees

I’ve been a Parliament-watcher for some time now – almost to the stage where during my final days in the civil service I felt myself being more on the side of Parliament than the executive that I served. Having spent time inside the corridors of power has given me insights into the strengths and weaknesses of our system.

I am still of the view that most people who are elected to Parliament do so because they want to make a positive difference to the world. As for the calibre of people who become MPs, comments against individual MPs and ex-MPs are also a reflection of the processes that led to their selection (by political parties) and their election. Around one in six MPs will hold ministerial office. Those MPs who serve as ministers are thus not in a position to properly scrutinise the actions of the government that they are part of. (One of the weaknesses of the system I think). But when it comes to scrutiny, the real detailed stuff comes not in Prime Minister’s Question Time (which is yah-boo pantomime stuff), and nor is it in departmental questions – when every month the ministerial team of each department has to appear in front of MPs to answer questions. It is in the departmental select committees which are charged by the House of Commons to scrutinise the work of both ministers and of officials – civil servants.

Have a look at the kicking Sir David Omand (then Permanent Secretary of the Home Office) toom from Charles Wardle, then of the Public Accounts Committee after the chaos at UK passport offices following the problems there in 1999 that led to lots of passports not being issued in time for people to go on holiday. The film footage is even more painful – so painful in fact that the National School of Government included it as part of their materials in the basic training of Fast Streamers in the Civil Service. (It was on that very course that I met Jon Worth for the first time – and have kept tabs on his adventures in the EU and in the social and digital media world ever since).

I became more aware of select committees when I was tasked with providing briefing for ministers and senior civil servants appearing before them. In the news I also became aware when newspapers made hay with select committee reports that criticised the governments of the day – especially as Parliament had such big Labour majorities in those days. Then there came the banking crisis.

John McFaul’s Treasury Select Committee went after Northern Rock after that bank faced a run from investors. This short clip from the BBC gives a feel for what things are like on a select committee when the proverbial hits the fan and those responsible have to be hauled before our elected representatives to account for it.

Select Committees got further publicity following the election of John Bercow as Speaker – in particular because of the reforms he has driven forward. One that has made a subtle but significant difference has been the election of select committee chairpersons by secret ballot. The nature of the current make up of the current Parliament is that select committee chairs must have the confidence of MPs across the different political parties. Inside the Commons, I have noticed that this has had an impact on the type of questions select committee chairs ask. They tend to be less party-political and far more focussed. The respect with which ministers treat them in their responses is also noticeable – irrespective of which party the select committee chair happens to be in.

There are however, two key weaknesses of select committees as they are currently constituted.

  1. They do not have full and clear powers to summon people to appear before them or for papers to be submitted to them – with clear penalties well-publicised for those who treat committees and by extension, Parliament, with contempt – or behaviour that is close to it. We know this from the treatment of the Business Select Committee by the Chief Executive of Kraft Foods following its takeover of Cadburys. of which the exchange of letters between the Business Select Committee speaks for itself. My take is that Parliament should be able to fine businesses whose executives ignore ‘invitations’ and summons to appear before them.
  2. Select committees are not nearly well resourced enough. I’ve met a few Parliamentary officials in my time and I have been astonished at how few people support select committees – especially when considering what and who they have to scrutinise. There needs to be a much stronger support system for select committees – both in terms of full-time staff and in their ability to bring in people on short secondments when and where a select committee is carrying out an inquiry.

I hope that as Parliament evolves, and as the continuing hearings around newspaper hacking take place, the role and the status of Parliamentary select committees will rise in the public’s consciousness. Whether it will depends in part on the willingness and ability of the corporate media, social media types and most importantly, of Parliament itself to reach out beyond the Whitehall bubble to communicate the importance of the work of these committees. I dare say that there’s a role for some of these committees to hold hearings outside of London – in exactly the way the Treasury Select Committee did during the banking crisis.

Music makes us one

Back in what was left of 2008 I made a short diary entry about reflections on childhood – mainly on my own upbringing, where people who had a big impact on me at the time were now, and my own personal shortcomings that meant I did not take nearly as many opportunities in life that presented themselves. Then I heard something on the radio which I tried to write down as much of it as possible.

“Music brings us joy and love; music deepens feeling.

Music feeds our hearts and minds.

Music brings us healing.

Music can be so profound, but music can be fun.

Music quickens all our lives.

Music makes us one.”

It was only this evening that I found out that it was Sir Roger Norrington who spoke those words about classical music.

My experience of classical music was one that could have been exactly that. Could have been.

But it wasn’t. The exams culture saw to that. My secondary school saw to that. Violin lessons in preparing for exams killed off any of the enjoyment that I had previously got from primary school. Lessons were there to be endured, not enjoyed. The pieces had no feeling. They broke my heart and dulled my mind. They were so profoundly lacking in emotion. They made no contribution to my life in a positive sense. Music ceased to be fun. I had become separated from those who may have made music fun.

Music should have been a major part of me during those formative years. It wasn’t.

It took fourteen years before I was able to play a musical instrument and make some sort of an effort to get back into music. In 2006 I purchased a cheap viola that was going for less than £100 with the intention that at some stage in the future, I would take it up. It took TWO YEARS before I was able to overcome the emotional and mental barriers to pluck up the courage and search out an evening class or beginners’ orchestra to get the feel of what playing a musical instrument was like. This was at the Mary Ward Centre.

I remember that first lesson – shaking the viola like a leaf – I was that nervous. The bow was bouncing off the strings as if it were me on a trampoline. Yet the nerves were to settle. Fortunately the technique came back fairly quickly – though I never managed to relearn how to do vibrato. Burning the candle at both ends in what ultimately ended up being an expensive but soulless existence in the big smoke (London) meant that my attendance was more patchy than it should have been. Much as I loved the opportunity to get back into music at a place that was close to where my flat in London was, and much as I loved the concept of the Mary Ward Centre, I couldn’t help but feel that the place lacked the sort of “buzz” that I described in my blogpost “Giving them hope” of what I saw of London back in 2006 – a buzz that I wanted to be part of.

I did try similar classes elsewhere later on within reasonable travelling distance, but again didn’t find what I was looking for. The ones I did not try were the East London Late Starters Orchestra (ELLSO) and the Duxford Saturday Workshop (one for Cambridgeshire people) – the latter of which I’m pondering over for this autumn term. I hope one day I’ll find what I’m looking for in classical music, but I fear nothing will be able to make up for my “lost” years.

Giving them hope

When McDonalds is publishing adverts standing up for young people, you know that something has gone badly wrong with how society and the big institutions of our country have been looking out for the interests of our young people.

Behind the headlines of the problems that young people face – ones which directly or indirectly the rest of us face too, the feeling that strikes me at the moment is ‘lack of hope’. One of the reasons why it strikes me so hard is because five years ago I kicked off 2006 knowing that there would be huge challenges ahead and ended up having one of the most eventful years of my life culminating on joining the Civil Service Fast Stream.

At the time I wrote a short story about what a “fantasy” 2006 would look like – my viewpoint being that if I aimed for the stars, I might get to the treetops. (As it turned out I got to the treetops but found the branches of support so weak that I ended up falling off them, but that’s another story). Halfway through that year I went out for a birthday meal with my siblings and we ended up wandering around the trendy/alt bars of the East End of London. I remember the buzz and the energy of the place pulsating through my skin, thinking ‘I want to be here!’ At the time I was based in a rudderless regional office in the civil service that was making huge cutbacks all over the place and, from my viewpoint at least the writing was on the wall if I tried to stay. Hence why I threw application after application at various departments in London for an internal transfer or promotion.

At the time, the government of the day was really sinking it’s teeth into a number of complex and complicated problems that had plagued our communities for decades. I wanted to be part of the solution – I wanted to be working at the heart of those teams taking on those huge challenges. Despite the various setbacks – especially those involving rejections following job interviews – I still recall having a mindset that was a combination of ‘This is happening for a reason!’ and ‘Come on Life, if you’re going to throw a setback at me you’re going to have to make it a better one than that!’ mindset. There was something strangely hypnotic about the whole thing – taking the various hits but not losing the hope.

When the letter came through informing me of my success at the Fast Stream Assessment Centre, I was floored by the shockwave that raced through my body – that life was never going to be the same again. The buzzing bright lights of Central London and the metropolitan elite of high fliers? You’re about to join them – on merit! It was intoxicating as it was mesmerising.

Now, compare all of that – and the emotions to what the prospects are for todays teenagers and students.

Tuition-fee debt aside, the costs of living while at university are still prohibitive – not least the rents. In 2002 I graduated with a £15,000 millstone around my neck. I shudder to think what it is like for students today.

Falling standards in public services – of which young people are inevitably heavy users. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear politicians say: “Young people, you are our future. We value you so much that we are going to ensure that we will provide public services to help nurture and grow your talents for the benefit of humankind.” What we do not need to see is this.

Friends have written about housing issues at http://www.rockpaperpolitics.com/ nearly all of which affect young people as well as the rest of us. The prospect of being housed by a slum landlord (I was in my second year at university – our set of hovels were shut down by the Council at the end of that year) to not being able to afford your own place – rental or purchase because of the mess of housing markets are challenges I’ve faced too. This is why I had to move back into the house of Mum and Dad. I’m one of the ‘one in five’ graduates who have had to move back in with parents – not because it was a lifestyle choice, but because we cannot afford to do anything else.

Then there is the challenge of unemployment – one that is taking a huge toll on young people as it is for the rest of us. Who would want to be an unemployed school leaver or graduate with little work experience in this market? People I speak to these days, irrespective of the job that they are in often say how grateful they are just to have something in the way of stable employment. Unemployment is a dark cloud that is on my horizon too – as unless I can secure some sort of income by the early part of next year, I’m going to be struggling too.

People – economists especially – talk about the benefits of competition in the labour market, and how those with the most talent need to be remunerated accordingly. This issue came under the microscope following the failure of the banks where executives and some staff were seen to be being ‘rewarded for failure.’ But that issue aside, my question is around the attrition rate of those industries where for most people, the prospect of making it to the top is an extremely small one. Two industries that will be familiar to young people are those of music and professional football. Anyone given a thought about all of those young boys and men who spend years in football academies only to be thrown on the scrapheap like a used contraceptive? Can you imagine how devastating it must be for someone at the age of 20 to be told that everything he has worked towards for half of his life now counts for nothing?

I think our country – our world – is better than this. I think our society can treat our young people – all of our people – far more humanely.

But…

…But I question the ability, competence and calibre of many of the leaders across our institutions to turn things around.

In the run up to the last general election, I could not recall a single major politician who gave me anything in the way of a positive vision of what they were working towards. In recent years, I cannot recall a single politician – perhaps with the exception of Obama in the run up to his election – who was able to articulate the challenges that we all face and give some leadership on how we were going to tackle them.

While the firestorms of #HackGate and the riots have occupied newspaper front pages, another financial crisis has been rumbling along. @Frances_Coppola and @RichardJMurphy via their blogs Coppola Comment and The Tax Research Blog respectively are far more authoritative on this subject than I am so consult them for the details.

That aside, what has struck me is the impotence of the global political elite to deal with the crises that we are facing. My earlier blogpost titled History vs Economics briefly alluded to this.  I’m not saying World War I will break out, but it was just under 100 years ago that royal rulers, politicians and diplomats of the world were all on holiday when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and the elites of the day were unable to stop the world from tumbling into armageddon.

It’s not just young people in the UK – the rest of Europe has been struggling too. The eyes of European institutions have been on the bailouts and the Eurozone. The plight however of the unemployed – and in particular the young unemployed has been conspicuous by its absence on the agendas and in the reports that come from Europe.

Which of our politicians is going to recognise the catastrophe that our young people face?

Which of our politicians is going to articulate a positive vision for the future and a sound roadmap of how to get there?

Which of our politicians is going to step up to the podium and enact that roadmap, take on the challenges that lie ahead and face down the vested interests that will throw obstacle after obstacle in their way?

If you meet a senior politician – of any political party, feel free to ask them:

  • What is your vision for the future – the next 5–10 years?
  • What hope can you give us for the future given the problems we are facing?
  • Inspire me – why are you the person to take the lead in your policy area to take on the challenges that lie ahead?

Because if none of our politicians are willing or able to stand up for those who are the future of all of us, why should any of our young people – or the rest of us – give them the time of day?

Test match advertising – it’s just not cricket!

I went to my first test match today courtesy of my lovely friend and cricketing fanatic Laura – the final day of the fourth test at Kennington Oval.

The series had already been won and the match as good as over with England having enforced the follow-on and nearly 300 ahead before the final day had even begun. That said, it was well worth going to – not least to see what might be one of the final opportunities to see Tendulkar swing a bat in anger.

As with watching any sporting event inside the ground, the view and the atmosphere is one that television cannot match. Getting a feel for how fast some of the pace bowlers bowl at (faster), the distance between the slips (greater) and the overall size of the pitch (smaller) all feel different inside rather than on the big screen. Mishra and Tendulka also made very light work of any poor deliveries and short balls – bounding off of their creases like whippets on a greyhound track.

You also get a feel for the tactics that fielding captains employ – at what points they choose to pile on the pressure with close fielding and at what points they choose to back off in order to stop boundaries. England struggled once it became clear that Mishra and Tendulka were not going to surrender without resistance. At one point just before lunch I got the feeling that they were either running out of ideas or were still surprised that the two had not been bowled/run/caught out early on. You also got a feel for the body language of the players – which spoke volumes. Confident batsmen dispatched the bowling of unsure bowlers with ease – just as confident bowlers and fielders surrounded a succession of weak and/or poor performing batsmen like vultures circling for the kill.

It was only after the two went in quick succession (and what felt like against the run of play) that the rest of the team collapsed like a house of cards – with fewer than 20 runs to show for the remaining wickets. It was a shame that they didn’t score enough to get England to bat again – I’d have liked to have seen how England’s top order faired.

What was otherwise a splendid day out was tarnished by what to me is the over-commercialisation of the game. Every other bit of blank space had the advertising boards of a number of firms. You know you’re not in familiar surroundings when the boards have adverts for champagne and elite management consultancies and law firms. (Remember I was brought up watching lower-league football in the early 1990s during my childhood – executive housing developers we did not have, though the local DIY firm may have sponsored the match ball once).

The architecture of the old pavilion – which is a splendid construction in itself – has been splashed with advertising boards, which was depressing. It was like seeing a beautiful building being defiled by a pack of stray dogs marking it as their new territory – which is what it felt like the advertisers were doing. The advertising was loud, intrusive and vulgar – certainly not of the form that belongs in the realms of a test match. In a nutshell, it’s just not cricket!

The price of the food was also predictably extortionate too – unless £7 for a cheeseburger is value-for-money for you. Not that I had to worry about that. Laura’s a pro at these things and came more than prepared. (Also, I’m not good with alcohol during daylight hours so the prospect of either of us going on an all-day drinking session were remote).

We stuck around for the presentations to watch Mike Atherton’s interviewing style suck the life out of the stadium before making a swift exit to a pub far away from the sponsors’ reach and glare. A nice way to finish off my first test match. Cheers!