Saturday, 21 November 2009

Do the shuffle

Today I have been a good little Londoner. Tempting though it is to potter about at home or hit the pub, I took advantage of living within gobbing distance of some of the world’s finest museums and went to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the Natural History Museum. It was great. The photographs were breath-taking. After pledging that I too will pick up my camera and attempt to use it for more than recording the occasional piss-up with friends or holiday snaps, I wandered down the road for a mooch around Harrods food hall and the gift section (i.e. the departments my credit card limit permits me to shop in). It was all very pleasant.
Shame half the world and his sister seemed to have had the same idea. Although it is encouraging to see lots of little people away from their computer games and educating themselves they do tend to get underfoot in museums. Oh, and they are noisy. Especially in such high volumes. And we had to queue to even get through the doors. Seriously.
Then there was Harrods. Him Indoors fancied a posh cake for pudding. We shuffled into the food hall and peered through the scrum at the counter to ogle the beautifully constructed pastries. The ticket machine dispensed number 34. They were serving number 11. We decided to go to M&S instead.
Heading down the road towards the tube, we crawled along with a throng of tourists as another throng shuffled along in the opposite direction. There was no room for over taking. Then disaster struck. The couple in front of us stopped to look in a shop window. It was total gridlock.
We finally got to the tube station. Through the barriers a small crowd were gathered. Approaching them we soon realised what had stopped them in their tracks. The top of the escalator. Pushing through the crowd we descended to the platform on the magic moving stairs, muttering about bloody tourists. We squeezed onto what appeared to be a packed train. Then I saw it - lots and lots of lovely space down the carriage. Apparently no-one else had spotted it, so Him Indoors and I sidled through a wall of rucksacks and luxuriated in our own personal space.
Yes, I am a grumpy cow of a Londoner. I accept that it is great for the economy that London seems to be attracting many tourists, the sliver lining in the cloud that is our failing pound. But honestly, please just get out of my way!

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Tinted Glasses

I know it’s been a while. Not because I haven’t had anything to say, but I just haven’t had a chance to say it. Having just suffered a “milestone” birthday I have been far too busy partying, eating and drinking. And London certainly facilitated the festivities well.
This is probably why I haven’t felt strongly enough to find time to write. It is true, when you’re too busy having fun and enjoying yourself you forget to notice the dog shit outside your front door and the rude waiter in Soho. It doesn’t bother you so much if the tube is a bit crowded - in fact you appreciate its warmth.
On Sunday a friend from “Up North” said he was thinking about moving down. With gusto I sang the capital’s praises, offering handy hints and the loan of my “London for Londoners” guide. Boris would have been proud of me I made it sound so rosy.
Having said that, two weeks ago London looked very different after two particularly eye opening incidents. I call them incidents, but they were actually events that I chose to go to. One of them was a play performed and written by ex-offenders followed by a question and answer session to a panel consisting of bigwigs from London probation, the council and the police.
The performance was excellent. The cast did an amazing job and the story told the reality of what life can be like for young men living in London.
Sadly, things went a bit Pete Tong afterwards. Tension between young offenders and The Authorities were not quashed by the positivity of the performance. Speakers were shouted down by people who did not want to hear. What could have been an open forum for discussion about the problems young offenders have and how they can be dealt with by the powers that be sadly became a circus. Sides were taken and those of us who sat on the fence felt decidedly precarious in our position.
Two days later I went to a talk about being white in the helping professions. Having never really thought about my own race I found myself questioning my culture and how people who aren’t white perceive my whiteness. I began to ponder how my relationship with colleagues, friends and clients who aren’t white were affected by their perception of white people. Which in turn made me even more aware of their skin colour. By the weekend my head was pounding as I became overwhelmed by over-analysis of any interaction I thought my whiteness might have affected.
The truth is, there is a lot of tension out there. Tension between people from different cultures, even if we don’t like to admit it. Spend ten minutes talking to the mother whose black son gets stopped by the police on a weekly basis or listen to a member of the BNP talk on the telly and its there. There’s tension between the authorities and those who have been through the system, spat out at the other end and left angry and disillusioned. Next time you pass someone selling the Big Issue or a young lad completing his community service ask them how they ended where they are now and I can almost guarantee some authority or another with have the finger of blame pointed at them.
So what can we do about it? Do we walk around pretending it isn’t there, that there isn’t an undercurrent of suspicion and even hate lurking in the streets? Or do we take the bull by its horns and challenge it?
I have decided that awareness is the way forwards for me. By being aware of my own colour and culture and how other people may perceive it I can start to understand why people might react to me in a certain way. By being aware of my perceived position of authority and power I can be mindful of how I deal with situations where this might be seen as a threat by the people I am trying to support. It’s a bit of a minefield and it can be difficult to strike the balance of doing my job and being sensitive to all of these things, but it can be helpful when dealing with what I might perceive as hostility from someone I am trying to help.
What I can also do is challenge other people. I can challenge people who see all authority figures as the enemy and try to point out to them how that power can be used to their advantage. I can challenge people who have preconceived ideas about people from different cultures and encourage them to look at the world from the perspective of others. And I can point out to those in authority where they are failing those people who can be so difficult to reach.
Will it make a difference? To a few people, I hope it will. But at the end of the day it’s those at the top of the chain who need to stop shrugging their shoulders and wake up to the fact that there is a lot of discontent out there. And I suspect it won’t go away on its own.

Friday, 6 November 2009

You know who I blame?

Him Indoors and I have a long standing joke. Whenever one of us starts to complain about something, whether it’s work, the internet not working, the weather, the price of beans, the other invariably answers,
“You know who I blame? The council!”
This is mainly because we both work in the public sector and, dealing with Joe public on a day to day basis have heard these words more times than we can remember. We do this in jest, as many people in this city (and in the UK as a whole no doubt) like nothing more than to point the finger of blame at anyone other than themselves.
However, I am beginning to think they have a point.
A couple of months ago I received a council tax bill. Nothing unusual there, but this one showed that I was in arrears of nearly £1,500. How had I managed to get into such arrears you may ask? Because the council didn’t send me a council tax bill last year. Despite me contacting them on several occasions, they had failed to register the flat for council tax.
Being a sensible type (to some degree) I had put aside money every month to pay the bill which I knew would inevitably arrive. When the bill arrived, Him Indoors suggested we ask if we can pay it off over 6 months, rather than having to take a huge chunk of money out of our savings account. I phoned up the council and asked if this was possible. No problemo! They replied. So I made my first payment and left it at that.
A couple of weeks later I received another letter from the council telling me that if I did not pay the outstanding balance I would be summoned to court! Outraged, I phoned them, guns blazing.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. You will be summoned but the court will see that you have made an arrangement and it will be dismissed without you having to pay court costs.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, it’s fine, I’ll make a note that you called and just call again when you receive the summons and it will be noted again what you have been advised.”
So, I left it at that. Until the summons arrived, and I realised that rather than being sent to the county court, it was to be listed at the court in the building where I worked.
It took about an hour for Him Indoors to talk me down from my high orbit, and funnily enough he didn’t use our usual quip for a little while afterwards. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would be sent to the court where I worked. I was fuming. I would have to explain to my boss why my name was on the list. And any of my colleagues or clients could see my name there. It didn’t bear thinking about.
A couple of days later I called the council to explain my predicament and to ask if it could be dealt with at another court. The man I spoke to understood my concern straight away.
“I’ll see if I can get the summons removed.” he said before disappearing, leaving me on hold listening to a decidedly scratchy version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. About twenty minutes later he returned, apologising for leaving me on hold for so long. He explained to me that he had managed to get the summons removed as long as I paid the balance off now or set up a direct debit.
“I know you have been paying it off monthly by debit card, which is good,” he explained, cautiously trying to appease me, “but the imbeciles next door won’t remove the summons unless you set up a direct debit.”
I was quite taken aback by his frankness and agreed to the direct debit, thanking him for sorting it out.
“That’s fine. If the person you had spoken to in the first place had explained you would have got a summons if you paid by debit card rather than direct debit, this wouldn’t have happened!”
He had a point. Of course I would have set up a direct debit if I had known I would be summoned to the court in the same building that I work. I asked about the complaints procedure. He happily gave the phone number to me.
“I would not normally encourage people to complain, but this situation is ridiculous.” he admitted.
I agree. It is ridiculous. If I had been fully informed in the first place I would have taken action to ensure I would never be summoned to court. But I think what really annoys me is that the person who had told me not to worry about the court summons had clearly not been bothered to fully explain the situation and to try and resolve the issue. I have no doubt that if I had spoken to the same person today, I would have been told sorry love, but you just have to suck it up. If people just did their jobs properly, it would make the lives of everyone so much easier. If people could only be bothered. Is it a London thing? I don’t know. But I know who I blame.