Tuesday, 13 January 2015

I think I'm offended part 2: this time it's very annoying

KStop it, stop it, stop it. All of you, please cease the incessent whining.

Since those three demented fools went on a rampage in Paris last week the Internet has been awash with people getting their knickers in a twist about the giving or taking of 'offence'. On the one side we have what I affectionately call the Whitehouses, adherents to the Mary Whitehouse School of Propriety, or the 'I'm offended by that' Society. Free speech must have limits, they cry. One can't give offence willy nilly. What about child pornography? What about disabilities? What about religion, hmm, hmm? 

On the other side we have the Absolutists, who say free speech is the freedom to say what you want when you want to whom you want without repercussions. 

I have news, kiddywinkles - you're all wrong. Free speech has limits. Always has had. And it's right that it should, but those limits are there for very good reason. Sorry to break it to you, you odious little ignorant preacher of complete codswallop @anjemchoudary, but 'thou shalt not give offence' isn't one of them.

Once upon a time, in 1919 (at just about half past three) a chap called Oliver Wendell Homes Jr gave an opinion in the case of Schenck v United States. He said:

"[t]he most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."

Ever since then, we've been using the example of an irresponsible fool in a packed theatre to explain when it is that free speech is protected, and when not. Take another look at the quote, and in particular the word 'falsely'. If you happen to be in a packed theatre and there really is a fire then you'd be fairly within the bounds of normal behaviour if you were to decide to shout about it. But if there isn't a fire, then what you're saying is false, and you deal with the consequences.

Why's that relevant here? Well, we don't have an unfettered right to free speech, so all you Absolutists out there, tough luck. Time for bed, off you go, please stop bothering me. And all you Whitehouses out there? You can fuck off as well. Why? Because any limit on free speech is there to protect from a distinct harm, and dealt with under specific legislation. You can't tell lies about someone because that's libel, and you can be rightly sued. Lies can affect people's livelihoods, their reputation, their ability to work and their relationships. Lies are bad. Naughty naughty; Oliver would waggle his finger at you. You can't wander about being racist or discriminatory either. Racism, bigotry, prejudice, it's been the scourge of society for centuries and caused misery to millions. It's morally indefensible and flies in the face of our ideals of equality and fairness. It's also illogical, and frankly that's enough to annoy me. Don't fall foul of the Race Relations Acts, kiddies, or the Disabilities Discrimination Act or a whole bucketful of other legislation. 

But what you can do, what you can and should carry on doing again and again and again, as loudly and as widely as you could possibly want, is offend people. I've said this before, and I shall say it again, and again, and again - there is no right not to be offended. You can complain as much as you like that something I say has offended you, but that's your affair, not mine. Offence is taken, not given. "I'm offended!" It's a meaningless whine, a toddler's stamping of the feet.

I've used Mr Fry to illustrate this very point before, but I suffer no shame in using it again:

"It’s now very common to hear people say ‘I’m rather offended by that’, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually no more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive’. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I’m offended by that’, well so fucking what?"

You may believe in religion if you wish. Monotheistic, nontheistic, polytheistic, pantheistic or plain old deistic? Believe in the big bearded fellow suffering from a sense of humour failure? Base your moral code on a 2,500 year old book that says wearing a polyester/cotton mix shirt is the devil's work? That's fine, off you trot. Dislike the idea of man on man action? Fickle about the notion of frottage? Not a problem. Find @frankieboyle a bit much? That's your prerogative. But so is it mine to point out the madness of religion and to call you out on the idiocy of your prejudice. 

Offence is healthy. Offence is necessary. Another quote, this time from Philip Pullman:

"I think there's a difference between (a) offending people for its own sake, which I don't necessarily want to do, because some people are good and decent and it would be unkind to upset them simply to indulge my own self-importance, and (b) challenging their prejudices, their preconceptions, or their comfortable assumptions. I'm very happy to do that. But we need to be on our guard when people say they're offended. No one actually has the right to go through life without being offended. Some people think they can say "such-and-such offends me" and that will stop the "offensive" words or behaviour and force the "offender" to apologise. I'm very much against that tactic. No one should be able to shut down discussion by making their feelings more important than the search for truth. If such people are offended, they should put up with it". 

I'm not saying that we should offend for the sake of it; that is, as Philip Pullman says, unkind. But neither should you seek to stifle debate by the expediency of taking offence. Offence is subjective, offence is hurt feelings. It's not an impact on livelihood, it's not the suppression of a part of society, it's plain old moaning. 

So stop it, stop it, stop it.


Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Je Suis Charlie

This morning some people walked into an office and killed some other people. 

The people who were killed (Jean Cabut, Stephane Charbonnier, Georges Wolinski, Bernard Verlhac, Bernard Maris and seven more, let's call them the 'Normal People') had been in the habit of drawing cartoons about non-existent characters from a millennia old work of fiction. 

This made the people doing the killing (let's call them the 'Fundamentalist Nutjobs') angry, and let's be honest, who can't understand that? We all have out favourite characters from books, don't we? And I can tell you, I get so irate when they do something that's just, well, unexpected. One of my dirty little secrets is a weakness for those Tom Clancy books, you know the ones where Jack Ryan runs about doing rightwing stuff to foil a drug runner or a dark skinned middle eastern type with designs on world domination. And how annoyed do I get when ol' Jack says something out of character, like endorsing free healthcare for example? So annoyed. Or if Harry Potter shouts "Engorgio!" when he should be using "Expelliarmus!", so so very annoying. 

You can see, then, why the Fundamentalist Nutjobs would get worked up over some cartoons of their own favourite non-existent, fictitious character from an age old work of fiction. So excuse me, would you, I'm off to shoot Colin Dexter for killing off Inspector Morse.  

Before I do, though, RIP Cabu, Charb, Wolinski, Tignous, Maris and the others killed this morning. Have this -




Thursday, 16 October 2014

Sense and Senselessness, or The Day I Realised That Everyone at Vodafone is a Git

With apologies to the Pythons, a conversation between me and a helpful soul at Vodafone in Woking last weekend:

Good morning. 

"Good morning, sir, welcome to Vodafone!"

Ah, thank you my good man.

"What can I do for you sir?"

Well, I was sitting at home just now browsing through this 'ere iPhone and I suddenly came over all irked.

"Irked?"

Vexed.

"Eh?"

Ere, ah'wor fucked off, like.

"Ah, fucked off!"

In a nutshell. And I thought to myself, 'a little finger waggling bleat will do the trick' and I curtailed my browsing activities, sallied forth, and penetrated your place of purveyance to negotiate the satisfactory resolution of my irritation.

"Come again?"

I wish to make a complaint.

"We're closing for lunch."

Never mind that, my lad, I wish to complain about this 'ere iPhone wot I bought a few months ago from this very boutique.

"Ah yes, the iPhone 5C. What's, er.. What's wrong with it?"

I'll tell you what's wrong with it, my lad. It has 8gb of storage, that's what's wrong with it.

"No no, it's, er...it's, er...."

Don't you dare try to tell me it's just resting.

"Wouldn't dream of it. Why is only having 8gb of storage a problem?"

Why is it a problem? I'll tell you why it's a problem. When I bought it you told me it was 'the same' as the phone I upgraded from. 'It's just newer,' you said. 

"Well, it is."

Is what?

"Newer."

Yes. That's lovely, but it has half the capacity of my old phone, so it's hardly the same, is it?

"It is."

It is what?

"The same."

Explain the logic underlying that statement please.

"Well, it's shiny and has buttons and everything."

Yes. Can I store as much stuff on it as I could on the other phone?

"Depends on what you're intending to store."

Tell me.

"Yes, sir?"

Do you in fact believe the statement you just made?

"Yes sir."

Really? 

"No, not really, sir."

You don't?

"No, not a scrap of it. I was deliberately lying to you, sir."

So what do you intend to do about it, then?

"Do?"

Yes, do. Something. About it. 

"Ah, we can't do anything about it, sir."

And why not?

"Well, it's our policy only to offer exchanges or refunds within 14 days. And it's been longer than that, hasn't it, sir?"

I see. So let me recap. When you sold me this phone you told me a lie.

"Yes."

You told me it was the same as my old phone, but in fact it has half the capacity.

"Yes."

But despite having told me a lie and admitting that you told me a lie you don't intend to do anything about it because I didn't come back here within 14 days?

"Yes."

And the fact that I'm well within the limitation period to make a claim for misrepresentation doesn't alter your thinking in any way?

"No."

Well I'm sorry but I'm going to have to shoot you.

"Right-oh, sir."

What a senseless waste of human life.







Sunday, 28 September 2014

Beer, dumplings and concentration camps

The continuing miseducation of La Child continues.

You might think that, having ignored this blog for a good 7 months, we'd be fairly far advanced with our give-it-all-up and go-live-in-a-cave-somewhere scheme but, alas, no. Our grand plans, involving giving two fingers to the day job and moving out to the sticks, haven't yet quite come to fruition; too much to do, too little time, chronic excess procrastination. But the fact that La Child is no longer hampered by school timetables does mean that we can occasionally take her off somewhere without it costing the earth or it resulting in a nasty letter and a fine from an irate headmaster. 

So, here I sit, on the balcony of a rather nice Spa hotel somewhere in the middle of Bohemia in the Czech Republic, sipping tea like a good little Englishman should and enjoying the view over a lake bounded by sloping pine tree covered hills. It's my mother in law's 85th birthday, and as a birthday treat we've brought her back to her homeland. 

My mother in law (or Emily as we shall henceforth call her, because 'mother in law' is too many letters) was born here in the Sudetenland in 1929 and (you may not be surprised to learn this) had to leave in a bit of a hurry back in 1938. Her father was the head a trade union and a member of the social democrat party, which in the late 1930s put him on a collision course with that other lot over the border in Germany. When the Czech government decided that discretion was the better form of valour and went off into exile in England, so did Emily's father, taking Emily, her mother and her brother with him.

Apart from a few weeks in 1946 and a week in 1991, Emily hasn't been back.

All this is really just to emphasise that there's a bit of history here, and La Child has been immersed in it for the past week. In between drinking insufficient quantities of dunkel and eating goulash we've visited Emily's old home (which she left aged 8 in a very big hurry one day back in 1938 without taking anything with her and without realising that she'd never be back), we've had a tour of the town hall (which her father had built and in which he worked), we've met the current incumbent of her father's old office (in her father's old office), we've been given a tour of the town by the director of the local museum, we've learned about the concentration camp that was based here, we've visited the town where La Child's great grandparents were born. Yesterday we drove over the border to Germany to visit relatives that La Child never even knew she had. 

Some of this has been met with, well, a certain studied indifference, but beneath the gruff 'see this face? bovvered?' exterior lies a sponge still and it's all going in somewhere. In calmer moments when she thinks we're not looking she'll quiz her grandma about her family, or in passing will wonder how it is people could be so nasty to each other during the war. When talking to her friends we'll hear her describing her day, telling them all about what she's seen and read and heard. No lessons, no workbooks or formality, she just pretends not to pay any attention and learns.

I have to confess that I occasionally have had misgivings about this whole home ed lark. We started off terribly formally but, like everyone who does this, have mellowed with experience and now do very little formal at all. The timetable has gone out of the window, the workbooks sit forlornly, forgotten in a corner. She plays tennis, she climbs climbing walls, she cartwheels and rounds off in gymnastics, but times tables and spelling tests are a thing of the past. There have been times when I've been almost catatonic with concern about that, so conditioned have I been to believe that the only way to know is to be told. But of course it's not the only way. La Child speaks well, can conjugate verbs, can easily work out what change she's due back when she buys something, has a good grasp of history, is comfortable in groups, whatever the age. She knows how GPS works, she understands about triangulation, grasps the basics of flight and can swim like a fish. 

Point is, the longer we go on the more comfortable I become that we're doing the right thing. As I sit here on this balcony La Child lies, her chin resting on her palms, just inside the open door talking to a friend on her iPad. She's told him about the trip to Germany yesterday, she's given him a grand tour of the hotel, and she's now telling him all about her grandfather, the leader of a trade union in the 1930s and member of the Czech government in exile during the war. I smile, sip my tea, and enjoy the view over the lake bounded by sloping pine tree covered hills.


Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Where's my shotgun...?

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while now (you strange people, you) may recall a post I wrote last summer whilst drinking one too many San Miguel's at my mother's house in Spain. A strange new creature was emerging Gremlin-like from the chrysalis of my lovely innocent daughter; as if in some Faustian nightmare, my little girl's soul was being moulded by a demon's gnarly hands and foul extrusions were beginning to manifest themselves upon a world aghast.

To whit: the teenager. Puberty. Adolescence. Kevin.

Oddly, however, it all came to an abrupt halt shortly thereafter. The physical changes that we were sure would soon accompany the surliness and the antagonism simply didn't materialise. La Child continued to communicate by growls, of course, and she continued to grow. Her face became longer and her gait more assured, but all that knobbly unpleasant pubescent stuff...? No. She remains flat and childlike, and that's just fine, thank you very much.

Apart from one, minor, totally inconsequential little thing. 

Boys. She likes boys. She likes them so much that she has adopted one as her pet. She has a boyfriend. What, precisely, does this mean? "Well," she explains, "a boyfriend is someone who doesn't mind being kissed, who loves you and who when you're both a bit older will go on a date with you." Right. And what makes this particular boy your boyfriend? "He stopped running and let me kiss him." There you have it lads: exhaustion equals commitment, and don't you ever forget it.

This Valentine's Day she and her boyfriend exchanged gifts. She to him, a soft toy bear carrying a heart, her own homemade Valentines biscuits, a card 'to my boyfriend' in which she expressed her never ending heartfelt love and devotion; undelivered (she couldn't find a box big enough to send them with and he lives a long way away: shame). He to her, several heart shaped biscuits; undelivered (he sent her a photograph of them, and then ate them). One can see that the commitment levels here may not be perfectly in balance.
 
It's all very innocent really. But this weekend, under my roof, something slightly less innocent took place. She had some friends over to stay, including a boy we shall, for convenience, call 'The Boy'. La Child had the bed, The Boy had a mattress on the floor. One evening, amazed at the fact that it had all gone a bit quiet, I went up to check on them. At first, all was quiet, all was dark and all seemed normal. Then, like some startled rabbit in the headlights of a swiftly-approaching, toxic-waste-carrying articulated truck, a head popped up from La Child's bed. But it wasn't La Child's head. Oh no. Oh no, no, no. It was The Boy's head, a look of (entirely appropriate) horror on his face. And it was shortly followed by La Child's head, a look of (entirely inappropriate) resigned frustration on hers.

Yes, dear reader, the two of them had been caught in flagrante. Words were said. Measures were taken. Displeasure was felt. The two of them had been 'snuggling', La Child later explained. Slowly falling asleep, entwined in each other's arms. "And what," asked the 8 year old child, "is wrong with that?" Let me count the ways, Child dearest, whilst installing a perimeter of barbed wire around your bed and installing trenches, wire entanglements and other fortifications.

Oh, I know there was nothing remotely sexual about all this. For years now La Child has been jealous of the fact that Lady Branza and I get to keep each other company in bed every night while she is forced to share her bed with cuddly toys and a library. This is about companionship, comfort, feeling warm and loved, I get that. But it is just one more stepping stone on the increasingly swift passage to Grown Up Land. La Child is on a ballistic trajectory to adulthood and it scares me a little. What with an increasing devotion to boy bands, a seeming need to preface everything with the word 'like' and a wardrobe that out of nowhere suddenly includes crop tops and figure hugging leggings ("I'm sorry, in what parallel universe did you think I was going to let you wear that?") I can physically see her childhood floating away on a passing air current.

Regret and sadness I feel, and yes they're mixed with hope and expectation... and a little pride. Pride that she's so confident and content a person, pride that the result of our angst and confusion as parents is a young lady who is independent, and determined, and capable. But it's mostly regret and sadness. My little girl's growing up, and I'm not sure I like it.

Friday, 21 February 2014

The delight of indecisiveness

So.
 
Yes.
 
Maybe. Not sure. Perhaps, with a positive attitude and a following wind. Maybe, all things being equal and the ducks lining up nicely in a row.
 
I’m trying to decide whether to resurrect an old business endeavour. On the one hand it resulted in a little bit of extra cash (which was of course ploughed immediately back into the business with not a single penny taken out, Scout’s honour, learned gentlemen from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) but on the much larger other hand it took up every spare hour of every day and night and resulted in exhaustion, angst and a resigned disillusionment in the sometimes unpleasant antics of my fellow man.
 
But. But, but, but. I did used to enjoy it, I have to admit, and I don’t much like what I do now, and despite the occasional awfulness of a handful of clients the vast majority of them were quite pleasant to deal with, said the occasional thank you and quite liked what I did.
 
I speak, in case you haven’t yet wandered off bored, of photography. To wit, I used to go to peoples’ houses, take photos of them, and sell them the prints. Some, if asked, might say I was quite good at it (I couldn’t possibly comment), and there was a slight dribble of mild public fuss when I announced I was going to stop, so I suspect I could pick it up again, particularly as I singularly failed to sell any of my equipment after I did stop, much to the fragrant Mrs Branza's frustration. It’s not the ‘will anyone want me to take photographs of them?’ question that vexes me, or ‘will I have the wherewithal to do it?’ but ‘do I really want to be bothered with it all again?’.
 
This all stems, of course, from me wanting to tell The Annoying One where to stick it. But freedom is difficult to come by because I’ve no idea what else to do. There are some things I’d like to do, but either I’m coming to it too late (commercial flying would be lovely, but I’m resigned to the fact that I’m simply too old to go down that route now), or it would be too expensive (I refer you to my previous example), or it simply wouldn’t pay enough (novelist? wonderful; the next JK Rowling? unlikely), or it’s plain pie in the sky (form a band, win the Mercury Prize, fame, fortune, cool dad status assured). So, after months of trying to come up with a suitable single alternative I’m slowly coming around to the idea that perhaps it’s the rural community model that I should be adopting here.
 
A few years ago we went off for a long and drunken weekend to the Whisky Festival on Islay. As communities go, that’s about as rural as it gets. Amongst the drammies, mirror like waters and winding hikes around road hogging sheep to the next distillery, we'd often come across the same people again and again, but in slightly different roles. A chap we first met in the morning as our taxi driver would crop up again as a chef at dinner. We’d say good morning to the lady who ran our hotel and then walk past her later as she led a party of schoolchildren along the road. Being such a small knit community, everyone had to pitch in and often would have at least two jobs, if not more. There was no such thing as a career out there. People would have their little business – say, running boat tours – while at the same time helping out in a shop or a farm or a restaurant.
 
I quite like that idea. I’m chronically indecisive anyway, so the prospect of not having to stick to one thing but rather do several is quite appealing. Take the occasional photograph? OK. Write the odd article or blog? Righto. Write a book? Will do. Do a few hours in the local off licence? Marvellous. All adds up, all stops me getting so bored that I want to murder people with spoons.
 
We’re an odd species. We have this odd view that about the ‘correct’ way to live. To misquote Mr Welsh, choose a job, choose a career, choose a family, choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electric tin openers. We’re conditioned to expect that because everyone else does it a particular way, we should all do it that way. But popularity doesn’t make idiocy any less idiotic; you only have to spend five minutes in front of the X Factor to know that. Just because we generally all expect a career to be the pinnacle of success doesn’t make it so.
 
I came across another Alan Watts gem the other day, a discourse on success. Life, he said, is like music. There is no ‘meaning of life’ or ‘purpose of life’. Life is meant to be enjoyed. Our obsession with school, university, work, the unalterable rise up the greasy pole with the single clear purpose of achieving success is a little like only attending a concert to hear the very last note. It’s not about the climax, it’s about enjoying the entire performance.
 

 
It’s all happening a little slower than I was hoping, but I think I’m still on course to start enjoying the performance. I think I will start taking those photographs again.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

I am vexed

It's nearly Christmas. In 10 days' time, if I haven't murdered my immediate family over a disagreement about how best to cook roast potatoes or beaten my inlaws to death with the remote control, I will enter 2014 full of optimism, ready for a brand new and exciting year.

Maybe. 

In anticipation of leaving 2013 behind, here are some things that continue to vex me:

1. Enough with the class shit already. Middle this, toff that, as if it actually means anything. People are people. Move on.

2. Politics. It is a truth universally acknowledged that those who seek power will, once they have it, seek to retain it, and politics seems to me to have become nothing but the attempt to remain in government for the sake of remaining in government. Say nothing that can be misconstrued, offend no one, avoid promising anything. 

3. Decisions are no longer taken. See (2). Views are canvassed, polls questioned, focus groups formed. Government no longer governs, it follows, but those who it follows have neither the information nor abilities necessary to know how to make an effective decision. Result? Bad decisions by timid politicians taking note of an ignorant public. 

4. The X Factor. Fuck off, Cowell, and take 1 Direction with you.

5. Corporate life. Apparently I work in a "service industry" where my clients expect me to be "available". This, I now understand, requires me to respond instantly to emails received while on holiday. "This request was received at 9.30 this morning," I was told the other day by The Annoying One. "It's now 11.30 and the client has called me to complain about your slow response time." I'm on holiday, I replied, and it's only two hours. "Unacceptable!" Oh, fuck off, do.

6. One trick twitter ponies. Hate animal cruelty? So do I. Dislike the Tories? Hey, join the club, there's lots of us about. Talk incessantly about nothing else? Yes you do. #getafuckinglife

7. Tinsel. I don't care how much it costs, I don't care how carefully you drape it over your expensive mantelpiece, and no, the fact that it's Christmas makes absolutely no difference - it looks shit. 

8. It's "Christmas". Not "xmas". "Christmas". I am not remotely religious, I am not in a fervour of any description. This is a grammar ting. Get it right, you lazy feckers.

9. In a similar vein, 140 characters is plenty. Stop mangling the English language.

10. Lists.