Atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down

It’s that time of year when people get struck down with colds and flu viruses. Well, here in the northern hemisphere anyway – to be honest I don’t know if the  same thing happens in the south or not.

In much the same way that we can predict wave after wave of low level illness in November, the same words and phrases come round too. One of my pet hates… man flu.

Used to refer to a man over-egging his illness, blowing a minor cold out of all proportion, man flu has become a two word put down, a latter-day four white feathers and a derisory way of comparing men’s frailty with women’s fortitude.

I don’t buy it. I don’t think it’s funny. Instead I think it stands in the way of sustainable, systemic gender equality. And while I can’t comment for you, I would rather live in a more equal society than continuing to enjoy a lot of unfunny banter.

Consider, if you will, a single male parent. A man bringing up his child or children alone, maybe because of the death, desertion or divorce of his female partner. Let’s assume that, like most single parents, he takes his responsibilities seriously.

If he gets a cold, do we think he succumbs to the stereotype of the man flu afflicted male, retiring to his sick bed and letting the world go on without his direct intervention..?

If there’s no one else around to help out with his familial duties the chances are he won’t. Unless he’s desperately ill.

So much for man flu. How could a man resist giving into man flu if he was ill?

I suspect I have just proved it doesn’t exist, thanks to the power of an anecdote.

Who does succumb then?

Single men? Men with no responsibilities? Men with partners who will look after them?

Well, if it’s the first two groups who cares? Whatever peace they make with their employers while off sick is their affair.

If the latter, maybe the fault (or do I mean cause) lies with the intervention of their – usually female – partner.

I find it hard to believe that in any household where the division of chores is more equal it is acceptable for one partner to flake out at the drop of a kleenex. More likely, surely, that there’s a desire not to let the side down, coupled with a recognition that everyone shoulders the burden that little bit more in the event of the other needing a bit of a breather for whatever reason.

We’ll never raise a more egalitarian male generation if we keep giving into lazy stereotypes and generalisations.

Equality, a bit like charity, begins at home.

The pleb, the whip, his bike and some bother

It’s more than three weeks since Plebgate. For once I feel ok about using the ‘gate’ suffix, as there was actually a gate involved in the story.
First, a quick recap… Andrew Mitchell (millionaire MP and government Chief Whip) was stopped at the gates of Downing Street and asked by a police officer to dismount from his bicycle, whereupon Mr Mitchell may or may not have called the police officer a “fucking pleb”.
This happened less than two days after two police officers were shot dead in the line of duty, prompting a nationwide out-pouring of sympathy and respect for the police.
Initial claims that Mr Mitchell had had a particularly “long and frustrating” day were subsequently found lacking in credibility, when it was revealed he’d had lunch at the Cinnamon Club, which is a very nice and fairly expensive restaurant in Westminster. He’d also spent part of his day at another (even more) exclusive establishment, the Carlton Club in St James’s – one of the oldest and most elite of Conservative clubs, is how it likes to be known.
Three weeks have passed and Mr Mitchell has failed to exorcise the Ghost of Insults Past. His apologies have only gone so far and his steadfast refusal to accept he used the word “pleb” have angered the police force in general, and the Police Federation in particular. Having said that, I think we all know how difficult it is to untangle one of those “he said / she said” arguments. Although it’s a “he said / he said” on this occasion.
On the BBC Radio 4 current affairs discussion programme Any Questions (aired on 12 October and repeated the following day), the government’s Defence Minister, Philip Hammond, described how no one other than those people directly involved actually know the truth over what was said.
This point of view was offered as an explanation as to why Mr Mitchell’s attempts at apology, which have been rejected by many in the police service as inadequate, ought to have been enough and that everyone (IE the media and the police) should now forget the whole thing and move on.
I witnessed something similar only a few days ago. I was on a train going into London that had been held between stations for over an hour. There was a very heated exchange between two male passengers – one accused the other of having upset one of the train staff. Several people saw their heated exchange, which almost came to blows, yet the only people who actually knew what had been said to cause the train employee to become upset, were the people involved.
There are some significant points of difference with Plebgate though, not just that there was a bike involved rather than a train.
Chief among those differences, in my opinion, is that one of the parties involved here is a serving police officer who was on duty at the time.
A police officer’s notes are generally deemed to be admissible in a court of law as evidence. As, indeed, would anyone’s eye-witness account. Yet Mr Mitchell has called on the whole country to ignore the police officer, their account and their notes, and instead to believe him, a man who’d had a long and frustrating day spending time at a nice restaurant and in a swanky club.
Of course, Mr Mitchell is not the first person to claim that a police officer is misrepresenting the truth in their account of an incident. But it’s not often we hear a member of the government claiming the police are playing fast and loose with the facts, being economical with the actualité, being less than trustworthy, making shit up… lying.
What sort of example is he setting? I don’t mean that to sound shrill or hysterical – it is (and ought to be) a genuine consideration. After all, his is the party of law and order, the party that announced very recently that it wanted a change in the law so that householders could, if the circumstances presented themselves, batter intruders to death. OK, maybe now I’m being economical with the actualité, but hey… it’s what the cool kids (by which I mean government ministers not actual cool kids) are doing these days.
This man is in government, by most people’s reckoning he enjoys a privileged position in life, a position of authority and responsibility, and yet his view is that the account of the police officer is not to be trusted.
Setting aside any opportunistic jibes I may have made, there are some very serious points here.
Only those with poor memories will have already forgotten the MPs’ expenses scandal, where our lords and masters were caught with their collective fingers in the till, trousering great handfuls of cash; sometimes out of greed and ignorance, sometimes out of a premeditated willingness to lie about where they lived or who owned the homes they paid rent on.
They were, en masse, deemed to have been acting as though they were above the law. Our Prime Minister pledged it was time for MPs to clean up their collective act.
Yet here we have the government Chief Whip and the Defence Minister both espousing the point of view that one ought not to trust the police. Their belief, one might come to believe, is that Mr Mitchell is not subject to the same laws as the rest of us.
Not every millionaire former public schoolboy is arrogant, obnoxious and self-important. But we seem to have a few of them currently ruining running the country.
So much for David Cameron’s hollow notion that we are somehow all in this together, and that we must all adopt a big society mentality.
Of course the police aren’t perfect. But they do a job that, by and large, most of us would not and could not cope with.
I wrote last year that we get the press we deserve. I think we get the police we deserve too. Accepting the fallibilities and frailties that are part of the human package, if we want a police force we can trust we surely – at some point – have to stop regarding them as untrustworthy. And if our politicians want to be believed and trusted surely it’s about time they started acting like they want to earn that trust.
Footnote: a big thank you to Brent Martin, aka @ZeitgeistLondon (“Be-wigged defence Counsel, working in the City of London in criminal law”) who, despite being on holiday, was kind enough to answer a quick legal question for me when I was writing this piece.
Links
Today’s Independent carries this piece
The Guardian produced a handy timeline to the first few days of Plebgate
Alternatively, stick ‘plebgate’ in your preferred search engine and read what has been said elsewhere.


You can click here for more on
 Sean Fleming.

The revolution will not be televised

The revolution will not be televised. That’s what Gil Scott-Heron told us in 1970. And if that’s news to you, if that’s a piece of music you are not familiar with, then take a few minutes to click on this link and listen.

Then come back.

No, the revolution will not – in all likelihood – be televised.

Not that I am someone who blindly supports insurrection or feels that “the people” (whoever they may be) are somehow owed something by someone. I don’t condone violence, nor do I believe that simply rejecting the status quo will deliver a better future.

But I can’t be the only person in the UK who feels that something somewhere has gone wrong with the country I live in and call home.

This startling/not-so-startling insight came to me recently (last week to be more precise) in the most unlikely of settings…. while watching MasterChef – the UK flavour.

In the episode I watched four contestants were making tea for Henrietta the Dowager Duchess of Bedford, her son and his wife – the current Duke and Duchess.

According to the Sunday Times, the Duke was worth almost £500 million in 2005, making him the 102nd richest man in the country.

So, there I sat watching a show on a TV channel which is – by and large – funded by the TV-watching licence-paying public along with government subsidies, where one of the most privileged families in the country in their fabulous, inherited, stately home sampled a succession of High Tea offerings.

The same episode of MasterChef featured ex-service men and women from the Royal Air Force who served in World War Two. And as I wrote this, on ANZAC Day – when the sacrifices of the failed Gallipoli campaign of April/May 1915 are remembered – my thoughts turned to those generations that gave so much. In too many cases, they gave everything they possibly could; around 22,000 British servicemen died during that campaign.

Lloyd George promised the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the First World War a country fit for heroes. The post World War Two government set about building a network of social structures designed to bring about a greater degree of equality.

Those hopes, those dreams, the sacrifices of the fallen feel to me to be horribly at odds with the increasing inequalities of UK society that I see in 2011. According to a presentation given just a few weeks ago at the University of Cambridge, the rate of social mobility in Britain is slower now than it was in the Middle Ages.

If this is true, and far be it from me to pick a fight with the University of Cambridge, where is the incentive to work hard, do well and try to progress in a country where you are less likely to improve your lot than your ancestors 600 years ago?

Whether it’s law, medicine or politics, the most influential and prestigious professions in the UK remain dominated by the tiny proportion of the population that received an expensive private education.  Access to the top professions is probably as good an indicator of social mobility as anything else. 


I don’t want to live in a country where ne’er-do-wells get by comfortably thanks to state handouts. But nor do I want to live in a country where the descendents of a feudal elite continue to enjoy a super-rich lifestyle not because of their efforts, endeavours or enterprise, but because of a quirk of fate.  Where the sons & daughters of top professionals automatically follow in their parents’ footsteps, first to fee-paying prep school, then to top-flight public school (if you’re reading this from outside the UK ‘public’ in this context actually means private and fee-paying), then to a good university and so the cycle repeats.

The current generation of young Britons, graduates entering the workplace, could be – according to some estimates – the first that will not, en masse, enjoy a higher standard of living than the generation before it.

These are the same graduates that are leaving university with debts of as much as £30,000, at a time when unemployment is as high as it’s been for 15 years and when stringent government cutbacks have seen some towns and cities slash their spending on public services by 50 per cent or more. Public libraries are closing, museum opening hours are being restricted, and the provision of social care to “at risk” families and children is more precarious now than it has been since 1945.

Meanwhile, the cost of policing and security for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on 29 April is estimated to be in the region of £20 million.

No, the revolution will not be televised.

But that’s ok, the Royal Wedding will be.