Sunday, 27 November 2011

Colourful Language

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Despite the fact that this is a massive generalisation, I'm confident that anyone who has spent any time working in pretty much any role anywhere in the UK will have come across the Great British tendency to complain. 

It seems to be a quintessential feature of working life - a sort of bonding exercise that can encapsulate any subject matter, with favourite topics often including workload, the weather and (in some circles) other colleagues.

Although I freely admit to playing my part in this social phenomenon, I've recently had a rethink and am beginning to see if I can introduce a slightly different tone to my conversations. The catalyst for change is 100% selfish: my participation in the status quo just doesn't make me feel good. 

With the number of unemployed 16-24 year olds reaching record levels in the last week, being in any sort of work at all is something to be grateful for. Dwelling on the seemingly negative is also out of step with the biblical principles I profess to be committed to; the scriptural mandate is to think about whatever is true, noble and lovely and do everything without complaining.

Talking through genuine issues with the aim of achieving some sort of constructive resolution is healthy. There's also relief in 'just getting it off the chest' and being listened too - having your problems, emotions and point of view validated by someone else. 

But often when I join in the chorus, the things I'm complaining about (workload, the weather, it not being the weekend) aren't problems - it's just my choice of perspective that paints them in that light. In those circumstances, I'm trying to introduce a reality check: a dash of confidence instead of complacency and pessimism, a sprinkle of gratitude and, if in doubt, a touch of silence. After all, "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." 

It might make me a little quieter from now on, and perhaps a bit of a social pariah but I think giving myself the chance to be more appreciative will make me happier, and a better person to be around in the long run.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

I Just Can't Stop Loving You

Probably the first musical artist I really loved, even before my indefatigable devotion to all things Spice, was Michael Jackson. We would play his cassettes in the car on repeat and watch his music videos until the tape ran thin. I remember, in the absence of a poster, printing off an A5, grainy black and white photo of him performing and pinning it proudly to my Disney’s Aladdin pinboard. I was a Michael Jackson Fan, and that was part of my mutable yet vigorous 10 year old identity.
It is fair to say that my early promise as an MJ devotee was not quite fulfilled: while I enjoy and listen to his music to this day, I couldn’t help my un-fan-ly feelings of bewilderment and pity at his strange behaviour later in life. When his death came, I was saddened, enough to shed tears, and yet in many ways I felt the popstar I adored had been gone for a long time.
And so it was with a strange combination of recognition and detachment that I followed the trial of Conrad Murray, the star’s physician who was recently convicted of involuntary manslaughter. What struck me most about the criminal proceedings was the reaction of the fans. Having made their pilgrimage to Los Angeles, today’s Unreal City, they camped outside the court to signal their devotion. When the verdict came, cheers and euphoria greeted the sentencing of Murray to up to four years in prison.
A natural desire for justice for the figure they loved? Perhaps. And yet, the blurred circumstances of his death seem to confound this straightforward triumph. The doctor’s actions were irresponsible in the extreme, and I am certainly not disputing that he deserves to be stripped of his medical license and jailed. But the tragic picture that arose from the trial, of a once extraordinarily talented man dependent on painkillers and dysfunctional relationships, is the image I take away, dampening any possibility of celebration. Perhaps we can take some comfort in the thought that maybe now, more than two years after his demise, we will be able to focus on remembering Michael Jackson as the wonderful performer he was. The news that his deathbed is up for auction implies we may have to wait a little longer.

A Good Read

I have been rather guilty of late of inflicting a stream of harrowing experiences on my partner (E.), a man so sincerely cheerful that he makes Disney seem pessimistic. Having signed up to an online DVD rental service, we seize our opportunity to broaden our minds through acclaimed cinema and add a dozen impressive titles to our list. Meanwhile, I mention that after E. finishes reading whichever The Girl Who Did Something Vaguely Rebellious he is on, he should try A Thousand Splendid Suns: a superb and deeply moving novel by Khaled Hosseini.
Soon afterwards, we find our first film has arrived: Precious, the story of an illiterate teenage girl who is pregnant with her second child by her father. We watch it, are suitably humbled and impressed, and pop it back in the post. At this stage, E. has begun the book I recommended. He comes home everyday with the heartbreaking details of the story etched upon his face, professing it to be one of the best books he has read, but that he cannot read it on public transport any more for fear of alarming passengers through his sobbing. A little worried about whether this will break his spirit for good, I tentatively mention that our next film has arrived: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Both Precious and A Thousand Splendid Suns actually merit reams of non-flippant, heartfelt praise, and I urge anyone to seek them out. It is with a more sober tone that I want to say just a little about Julian Schnabel’s magnificent film and the book which inspired it- a work of art as remarkable for the mere fact of its existence as its beauty. The details of its creation are famous: immobilised by a stroke, Jean Dominique-Bauby communicated his memoir through blinking his left eyelid to indicate which letter he wanted his scribe to record. I had read the book a year or so previously, and seeing the film brought back in a rush the feelings of awe, sadness and inspiration that had struck me then. It sparks a thousand thoughts, but the one I wanted to briefly highlight was its encapsulation of why we read or watch things that make us sad. We do it to feel, to experience the breadth of human emotion and suffering that our comfortable lives thankfully do not habitually offer. We do it to realise the humour, hope and beauty that stubbornly flicker even in the darkest corners of despair. We do it, in short, to enrich our lives.
I only hope it doesn’t diminish my point to admit that Thor is next on our list.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Out Loud Living

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Reading an interview with Susan Boyle in the Big Issue* reminded me of a couple of home truths I'd lost along the way. Although I didn't follow her meteoric rise to fame as closely as some, it was impossible to miss at the time. Two years on, the interview is a bit of a recap with updates thrown in, and I was struck by two things.

I love the fact that Susan Boyle seems to have a deep sense of self. She talks about being grounded in the village where she was born and brought up, she seems to have surrounded herself in her professional life with true friends and trusted supporters and - most of all - her non-conformist ways are well and truly intact if the interviewer is to be believed:

Boyle, has become so cosmically symbolic of 21st century popular culture that the first thing that strikes me as I’m greeted by her in her £300,000 ‘posh house’ she bought in her hometown of Blackburn to celebrate being worth more than £11million (“money isn’t important to me” she tells me later) is how unbelievably like Susan Boyle this round smiley woman is.

All the quirks that have become almost mythical traits of the celebrity are there from the moment of meeting, from the giddy outbreaks of minxy hip-flicks and peels of cackling laughter, to that machine-gun West Lothian brogue, usually delivered at great pace and overwhelming volume.

I also love the fact that she put herself out there, and in doing so enriched a lot of people's lives and became even more herself. Her vocal talent is completely mesmerising, but the interview makes it clear that she took more than a little mockery at other auditions, not just in the opening moments of the well-known Britain's Got Talent one. 

Susan Boyle definitely didn't find awe and adulation first time round. I'm sure it would have been easy to settle for a lonely, light-under-a-bushel existence. Maybe she could have even justified it by saying that the whole youth-centric, hyper-sexualised pop music culture isn't her thing. But by being brave enough to engage with the industry, and with us - the audience, she's changed something for the best in our times and (the interview suggests) is the better for it personally too.

So thank you Susan Boyle for the reminder that with a sense of self and a little courage great things can happen.

* The Big Issue offers homeless and vulnerably housed people the opportunity to earn a legitimate income as street vendors selling a weekly entertainment and current affairs magazine.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

TV Treats

Promotional Image for BBC programme "Mixed Britannia" from the BBC Mixed Race Season
(used with permission)

TV, in our house, is often something that just happens. We consciously choose to put on a range of DVDs but we very rarely intentionally switch on the TV for anything. In recent weeks, though, there have been a couple of actually really special moments curled up in front of the flat-screen.

One was the accidental discovery of the BBC Mixed Race Season. As one half of a mixed race couple, it's amazing how often that's not on my mind. But I have occasionally wondered what our children's experience of growing up might be in contrast to mine - whether they'll be more curious about certain aspects of their racial heritage than I was, whether I'll have any answers for them. The one programme  we watched together from the series was food for thought, and there was something satisfying about switching off the TV afterwards and feeling slightly more intelligent than before.

The other gem has been watching BBC One Frozen Planet. Again, we caught it by accident at first but this time we were sufficiently hooked to come back for more. For me, the beauty of the programme is threefold at least. Number one is obviously the stunning scenery - being confronted by the sheer glory of such an unattainable environment is a privilege that puts lots of things into perspective. Number two is the strength, bravery and creative genius of the team responsible for such an incredible documentary. Number three is just being a part of it all: this is our world - nature and humanity, and - for those on the look out -  maybe even a glimpse of 'the invisible hand of God': the something more that takes us beyond ourselves in awe.

I find it really nice to think that in addition to TV being a distraction (positive or negative), it can also be something that really engages us and leaves us a little  more enriched.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Pocket Money

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The last couple of days in the UK have seen the political storm clouds start to gather over the issue of high income earners. As far back as September, articles began appearing that hinted at the disparity between the general performance across the economy and senior management salaries, with one commentator noting that, if current trends continue, the UK will be back to Victorian levels of inequality by 2030.

That comment was made in response to  an interim report by the High Pay Commission, whose findings were published in September. The end of October has brought another report to light, with the BBC covering the results of a survey by the Incomes Data Services (IDS) showing an increase of 50% in Directors' pay. In an age of austerity the figures have added insult to injury for a lot of people and left me wondering where I stand on all of this.

On the one hand, I have some sympathy for the argument that shouldering high levels of responsibility should come with corresponding financial reward. I was also initially swayed by a point I partially overheard whilst cooking with the TV on in the background: someone was articulately arguing that, in an international market, high salaries can a) be justified by the overall company performance, not just the UK arm in isolation and b) are required to attract the best global talent and prevent home grown would-be Directors from moving abroad.

Even so, I can't help feeling this is an issue I should give more thought to. The protests outside St Paul's Cathedral in London have moved from a fringe protest against greed and inequality into mainstream news as the Cathedral has struggled to find its voice in response. I feel a similar struggle. It's easy to be bullied into submission by eloquent people throwing around jargon about the economy. It's easy to feel like the status quo must exist for a reason.

But in my heart of hearts, I don't believe that closing the gap between the 'haves' and 'haves nots', or simplifying pay structures to give greater transparency, or incentivising senior managers through rewards based on performance factors other than pure profit margins would be truly detrimental changes. Costly, maybe - but acting with integrity often is.

It will be interesting to see whether the political will exists to offer more than rhetoric. And whether I will have the courage to act decisively in favour of those kinds of changes too - in the way I vote, the services I use and my handling of the finances within my control. And can I honestly be bothered to engage with such seemingly complex issues as they unfold? 
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