Remembrance Sunday

November 11th, 2012

Today is Remembrance Sunday, and this is also one of the rare years where it falls on Armistice Day itself – the Armistice is remembered on the 11th of November, at 11am, but traditionally this occasion was marked on the second Sunday in November by services and ceremonies in churches and at war memorials all over the country.

I grew up in Liss, a small village in Hampshire. Remembrance Sunday was a hugely important fixture in the village’s calendar, much more so than in most other places I’ve visited since. I’m not quite sure why, but I suspect that the presence of a very large number of retired servicepeople had a lot to do with it – we had a lot of military facilities close by, and a large and active branch of the Royal British Legion. I was in the Scouts (starting as a Cub Scout, later a Scout and a Venture Scout) and it was always made clear to us that attendance at Remembrance Sunday was absolutely compulsory. I have to say that I found the whole thing rather scary when I was young. We would assemble in our uniforms by the War Memorial, which was in front of the Junior School in the village centre. As well as all the various branches of the local Scouts, there would be the Brownies and Guides, the Army Cadet Force, a military band, and then a huge formation of members of the British Legion, probably 50-100 people, the majority of whom were wearing medals. We stood in groups facing the Memorial, and then a military officer (probably the gent that ran the ACF, I think) would bark “Parade, attention! Slow march!” (or words to that effect – it took me years to work out what he actually said) and we’d all march down the hill through the village, over the level crossing and up the hill the other side to the church. The church was comprehensively redecorated for the occasion: all the usual bright flowers were replaced with arrangements made from paper and plastic red poppies. As we approached the church, the standard-bearers for each group would line the church path with their flags, and after everyone else had entered, they would then process up to the altar rail and hand their standards over to the clergy in the sanctuary, to be racked up alongside the altar while the service was in progress. The service took the same format every year (in fact, the same ancient typewritten orders of service were given out year after year) and completely replaced the usual Sunday morning parish Holy Communion service with a service of remembrance modelled on that being held at the Cenotaph in Westminster. This included the two minutes silence, the reading of the famous poems, the playing of the Last Post and the Reveille by a lone bugler, and the singing of various traditional hymns, like O God Our Help In Ages Past, and at the end O Valiant Hearts. The latter I used to find pretty execrable as a young man – the hymn is only just about acceptable on its own (as the lyrics come extremely close to the glorification of war), but combined with the maudlin tune played slowly on the organ and all the rest of the military ceremony, O Valiant Hearts was just too much.
Anyway, after the service, we would process out again (the standard-bearers having collected their standards from the altar rail), and would first assemble by the smaller War Memorial in the churchyard, where wreaths were laid, and then we would then march back to the village memorial by the school, for a further laying of wreaths before we could all disperse.

As an inquisitive child, I would ask various people questions about why the ceremony was held, and why it was felt necessary for us as young pre-teen Cubs and Scouts to stand there in just our uniform shirts on some freezing wet November morning (you learned to wear multiple vests and if at all possible a thin pullover under your uniform…). The only real explanation I got from the adults involved was “These people fought, and their friends and relatives died, for your freedom. It means a lot to them that you are here, showing them respect for what they did. You won’t ever really understand what they went through, so just shut up, show some respect, and do as you’re told!”

Ironically, as an adult, I learned that in most other parts of the UK, Remembrance Sunday is nothing like it is in Liss. Most churches will pray, and hold a silence, and people will lay poppies on war memorials, but the parade and the “takeover” of the parish church by the British Legion is not a widespread phenomenon. Having had it laid on so thick as a child, I sometimes find myself surprised at how little fuss is made elsewhere, and the radio coverage of the Westminster Cenotaph ceremony can bring tears to my eyes, for reasons I can’t really explain. I do think that the dead of all wars deserve to be remembered, with respect, but that the church and society must always be wary not to glorify the wars of the past in their remembrance. We will remember them…


Border control on Eurostar

October 11th, 2012

I’ve just been to Dresden by train, to attend a work-related conference. This, in many ways proved remarkably simple: travel down to London, take a 4pm Eurostar to Brussels, connect to a convenient Thalys train to Cologne, have dinner in Cologne and then take an overnight sleeper to Dresden, arriving at 7am the next morning.

My return journey went pretty well, too – I had an hour in Cologne to have some breakfast and then took a train back to Brussels in order to get the Eurostar. The border crossing between Germany and Belgium happens between Aachen and Liege, and the only thing that you notice is the beeps from people’s mobile phones as they switch to a roaming provider! If you’re a train nerd like me you also notice the brief flicker of the lights in Aachen station as they switch from German to Belgian electrical supplies (there’s a change of voltage AND frequency, how exciting!)

At Brussels South Station, I joined the queue for the Eurostar terminal. You queue first to scan your ticket on the automated gate, and then immediately join a queue for baggage security – there’s the usual bag x-ray and metal detector. Following this is outgoing Belgian border control, quickly followed by British border control. Just before the border control point, a door marked “Lille” allows passengers travelling to that city to skip the unnecessary border control – this is because Belgium and France are both in the Schengen Area which allows free movement without border control.
Finally, you reach the Eurostar lounge, which is actually a bit pitiful – a coffee shop, an expensive chocolate shop and some seating. But you only need to check in 30 minutes before departure, and the train usually boards 15-20 minutes before departure, so most people needn’t wait in the lounge for long.

Upon arrival at the still-fairly-shiny terminal at St Pancras, passengers queue down the platform and then onto a long escalator. At the bottom of the escalator the huge horde executes a brisk u-turn and joins… a British immigration queue! “But hang on”, I thought, “didn’t we do border control in Brussels?” I asked the border control officer (politely but firmly!) why they needed to check everyone’s tickets and passports again on arrival. It turns out that this is to do with Lille. I dimly recall a media hoo-hah a few years ago about immigrants getting into Britain on Eurostar, and this is the result. If you buy a ticket from Brussels to Lille, you are very likely to travel on Eurostar. Passengers travelling to Lille avoid border control, but no-one can actually guarantee that they leave the train at Lille –so some took advantage of this loophole to enter the UK without the necessary visa documents. The British press (predictably the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph) kicked up a fuss about this, and so the British border control agency attempted to close the loophole. Now, the problem is that the British authorities can’t legally interfere with passengers travelling between France and Belgium (in fact, an attempt to do this provoked a brief diplomatic row between the UK and Belgium, and the threat by Belgian authorities to arrest British border control officers in Brussels that attempted to do this!) and the Eurostar system was designed to make the border crossing as painless as possible when it first started. In fact, when Eurostar first began, the border checks were conducted on the train – but since a 2004 agreement, UK border staff have been stationed in stations in France and Belgium. The reason for this change is the perceived problem of political asylum. Under the terms of the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, and the 1950 European Declaration of Human Rights, persons persecuted by foreign governments may claim asylum when they arrive in a foreign country. This is a headache for the UK government, as it means that they’re obliged to decide whether such persons are genuine refugees or “undesirable” economic migrants. Because the asylum rules kick in as soon as your feet touch the soil, the UK government tries hard to keep potential asylum-seekers out – even more so because they could (and should) be claiming asylum in France or Belgium. So, in order to maintain the “fortress Britain” idea and appease domestic political audiences, the UK now perversely has decided engage in extra border checks at St Pancras. The joys. As I said to the German couple ahead of me in the border control queue at Brussels – “I’m terribly sorry that we didn’t join the Schengen Agreeemnt, but it’s politically unacceptable!”.


Letting agent fees – write to your MP!

June 12th, 2012

When we moved to Oxford, we rented a flat. We found one we liked at a price we were prepared to pay. When we said “we’ll take it” to the letting agent, he said “that’ll be £210 in fees to secure the tenancy”. A couple of hours later he rang back: “Sorry, I should have explained – that’ll be £210 *each*”. What do you do for us, for this sum, I asked. “Oh, we draw up a contract, make sure that the place is fit for you to move in…” Oh, so all the things you ought to be doing anyway. Right. I was incandescent, but we paid. Adding insult to injury, the agent *didn’t* actually do their job properly and our moving-in had to be postponed by a week because the gas inspector (who’d seen the flat literally the Friday before were due to move in on the Monday) condemned the boiler installation and it took a week for the gas fitters to rectify it…

Now it’s payback time. I’ve written to my local (Labour) MP, suggesting that the government make this practice illegal in England & Wales. It already is illegal in Scotland. Here’s the letter that I wrote (with a few personal details removed). If you feel similarly about this issue, please write to your MP – the excellent WriteToThem.com will let you do this quickly and easily.

Here’s the letter I wrote. Please don’t copy it verbatim.

Dear Andrew Smith,

I’ve recently changed jobs and moved to Oxford, becoming a constituent
of yours. My partner and I initially rented a flat in Headington,
although we’ve now just bought a house in . Anyway, my
enquiry to you stems from our experience as tenants in Oxford. The
market for rented property is extremely busy, with high levels of
demand, and a large number of letting agencies operate within the city.
I was stunned to discover that the agency expected us to pay an upfront
fee to secure a tenancy on a rented flat – in fact, they wanted £210
from each of us – and checked up on whether this was a common practice.
It is, apparently, extremely common in England – but it is illegal in
Scotland. I last rented a house in London in 2005, and at that time
tenancy fees were not routinely charged by any of the agencies I dealt
with.

I feel strongly that a letting agent is appointed by the landlord, and
acts in the landlord’s interests. They should therefore not be allowed
to charge the tenant a fee – as the tenants are not operating in a free
market. This situation is compounded by the fact that no agencies
include the associated fees in their online advertising – you only
find out exactly what fees they are charging once you make more
detailed enquiries.

Furthermore, the changes introduced by the last Labour administration
to provide statutory deposit protection have also contributed to fees
charged to tenants. There are three deposit protection schemes: one is
free, but keeps the money in escrow. The other two are insurance
schemes, which allow the landlord or agent to keep the deposit and
resulting interest themselves – these charge a fee for the deposit
management service. Our agency (and it seems that this is also common
practice) charged us an additional fee of £30 on top of the £420 we
paid up front in order to cover the cost of the deposit management. So,
as tenants we benefit from knowing that the deposit protection scheme
will ensure that our deposit is returned, but we are expected to cover
the agent’s costs in using an insurance-based deposit protection scheme
that allows them to profit from the interest on our deposit! Again, we
have no choice in the matter: the agency chooses to operate in this
way.

I would suggest to you that in the present financial climate, with
increasing demands on the private rented housing sector, that
unscrupulous exploitation by letting agents is likely to become ever
more common. A manifesto commitment to prohibit agents charging any
fees to tenants in England and Wales would undoubtedly be very popular.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Prior-Jones


Anoka

February 2nd, 2012

My history teacher, Mr Emerson, talked about the origins of the First World War as “a long fuse and a short spark”. This blog post was triggered by the short spark of an article I read today, but the long fuse goes back at least twenty years. It’s going to be somewhat more personal and emotional than usual.

First, the short spark: this article in Rolling Stone. Not a publication I’ve previously paid much attention to, but I saw this particular article linked to by Kevin Arscott (Media watcher extraordinaire, writer of butireaditinthepaper.co.uk and editor of The New Journalist). The article is six pages long – a very potted summary follows: in the town of Anoka, Minnesota, pressure from parents led to the introduction of a school board policy that “homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle”. This led to teachers and school staff not being able to act against homophobic bullying of teenagers, for fear of losing their jobs for breaching the policy. This, aggravated by the presence of lots of kids who had been told (at home and at church) that homosexuality is morally wrong, led to the suicide of nine teenagers in two years.
Read the rest of this entry »


Business hours and ‘housekeeper culture’

November 27th, 2011

An article in today’s Observer made mention of a service called Hubbub, started in Islington (of course! Honestly, the Guardian should change its name to the Islington Gazette…) which offers an online ordering and delivery service for buying food from local independent shops. In a similar tone is another article from the Guardian about the value of traditional markets in towns and cities. Now, I entirely buy into the argument that food purchased from independent retailers is often better quality, cheaper and more sustainable than that from supermarkets. I would dearly love to wander, wicker-basket in hand, around a lovely old covered market hall and buy my fruit, veg, bread, meat and other delights from jolly local traders who know and understand their produce. However, I don’t. Almost all the food that I buy comes from Sainsbury’s or Tesco. Why? Because they’re open at times when I can go shopping.

Now, I’m not working silly hours, either: I leave my house at 8am to be at my desk (12 miles away) at 8:45 – and I leave work at 5:30 and get home by 6:15. However, that effectively excludes me from dealing with all independent shops except at the weekend. Now, I could, of course, go and do my weekly shop in the city market, and perhaps visit Northrop’s the butchers’ in Mill Road on my way home. The market trades primarily in the morning – by mid afternoon the produce has been sold – and Mr Northrop doesn’t trade on Sundays (he is due a day off, after all). So that effectively means that Saturday morning has to be earmarked for food shopping, and of course there are lots of other people in the same boat as me, and so the city is heaving. This also limits what you can do with your weekend, and means you have to be out of bed on a Saturday morning before 10am…

So far, so much whingeing. However, I think there are a couple of wider points worth making.

Firstly, extending business hours into the evenings would massively increase the target audience of small shops, and would potentially allow them to compete more readily with big chains and online retailers. Of course, the shopkeepers themselves would need to take on extra staff to cover the extra hours, which would help with our present unemployment problem. The challenge would be to get a critical mass of shops to all open together. Cambridge supposedly has late night shopping on a Wednesday (meaning that the shops close at 7pm, woo, that’s late!) – but by no means all shops participate. For some businesses, a change in their work patterns would also be required. Bakeries, for instance, would need to keep baking through the day in order to have fresh bread in the evenings – in Portugal they do just that, and many people stop by the bakery to buy bread and cakes on their way home from work. Finally, by keeping the shops open, our town and city centres remain busy into the evening – which reduces crime and anti-social behaviour that can otherwise happen in deserted shopping streets after dark.
I’d be seriously in favour of a trial in which government under-wrote the costs of opening shops later in town centres, on the expectation that the retailers would boost their profits and the social benefits of a lively evening culture in towns would save money in other areas of spending. Managed well, I think it would be a great success.

Secondly, there’s a broader point about how we organise our society. We still seem to have a lingering social expectation that someone in the household will be not working during office hours. Courier companies and the Royal Mail attempt to deliver parcels during the day. Last week, National Grid (at four days notice) told me that they needed access to the house in order to replace the gas main. As soon as you bring children into the picture, the cost and hassle and issues associated with childcare, the desire to bond with your own offspring and the societal expectation of someone being at home, is it any wonder that so many parents -mostly women- choose to give up work?

In other countries shops trade late – why not here?


Communitarianism

October 4th, 2011

Now that I can’t write much (if at all) about what I do for a living – too much is commercially confidential these days – this blog is likely to lurch into yet another form, with random bits of comment and opinion. Here’s one such idea I’ve been meaning to write about for a while.

A couple of months ago, I read a book called “Welcome to Everytown” by a chap called Julian Baggini. He’s a philosopher, a writer for the Guardian and appears on Radio 4. The essential premise of the book is that he spends six months living in the “most representative” postcode district of England – as calculated for him by an opinion polling firm – and engages in only the most popular leisure activities. The idea is that he finds out the “essential philosophy” of the English nation – the way that the majority of people think and behave. Now, when I started reading the book I was concerned that it might come across as a “safari to see how the poor people live”, but it’s not at all like that, and contains lots of useful insights.

One such is the idea of communitarianism. I’d never heard of this particular “-ism” before reading the book, but since reading it, I’ve realised how useful it is as a concept, and thought I’d share it. Baggini highlights communitarianism (along with “small c” conservatism) as the essential political philosophy of the majority of English people.

Communitarianism (in the sense Baggini uses it) is the belief that individuals form part of a society, and that rights and privileges are conferred upon individuals only while they retain their commitment to that society. As Baggini says “this makes [communitarians] illiberal, because [they] do not believe that principles such as the right to a free trial or life have to be maintained at all costs: rights can be forfeited or suspended.”

So, we should not be surprised that our more perspicacious politicians like to play to this particular point of view. The noise being made by Teresa May today about the Human Rights Act is pure communitarianism – foreigners are not part of our society, and thus do not acquire the same rights. In the eyes of the communitarians, to commit a crime is to spit in the face of society, and society should retaliate by the withdrawal of rights and privileges from the criminal.

Of course, like all political philosophies, it becomes ludicrous when taken to its logical extreme: a society where being a citizen confers rights, whilst those who committing crime are stripped of their citizenship, denied all basic rights and required to perform forced labour until they earn their citizenship again.

Interestingly, one of the few nations with an overtly communitarian society is Singapore, where the first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew set out to create a society where “for the greater good of society” the rights of the individual are considered less important than the responsibilities of the individual towards their community. This has built a stable but rather repressive society.

Anyway, communitarianism appeals to many people’s sense of “natural justice”, and those of us arguing from a more liberal perspective need to make clear why the communitarian position, however attractive it may seem, leads to undesirable outcomes.