Planting Trees

This week I took my children to see “The Man Who Planted Trees”.

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This is a puppet-based adaptation, by the Puppet State Theate Company (http://www.puppetstate.com/) of this short story (http://www.perso.ch/arboretum/man_tree.htm) by Jean Giono.

If you get a chance to see it, do.

The story is a tale of the selfless commitment of one man to a grand vision – the greening of a barren valley – without thought of personal reward. The shepherd in the story, who later becomes a bee-keeper, plants a whole forest during his solitary walks in the mountain-valley where he lives, eventually converting it into an earthly paradise that attracts 10,000 new inhabitants, none of whom knows how much they owe to a single man with a pocket full of acorns and a willingness to ‘invest’ for the long term without expecting a personal return on his investment.

Peter Doyle’s translation, which I have linked to in this post, sums up the meaning of the allegory like this: “In order for the character of a human being to reveal truly exceptional qualities, we must have the good fortune to observe its action over a long period of years. If this action is devoid of all selfishness, if the idea that directs it is one of unqualified generosity, if it is absolutely certain that it has not sought recompense anywhere, and if moreover it has left visible marks on the world, then we are unquestionably dealing with an unforgettable character.”

I dont have the exceptional qualities of Elzéard Bouffier, the shepherd of the story, but I do want to plant something for the future. Something that will have meaning and be a force for good long after I’m gone. Something that will have a bigger footprint than I could hope to have on my own.

After the show, I walked all the children from the South Bank to the occupation at St Paul’s. There we could see people taking time out of their lives to create a space in which to generate and discuss alternatives to the current undemocratic, unjust and unsustainable system. I told them about the occupations in hundreds of other cities across the world, about the unfairness of a situation in which rich banksters make a mess and ordinary people are made to pay to clear it up. They could see the connection between the politician in “The Man who Planted Trees” who was so quick to claim the shepherd’s natural forest, to want to exploit it for the war effort, and our own politicians as they grab the outputs of ordinary people’s hard work and use it for their own enrichment and that of their friends. My children already understand the importance and value of caring for people and our planet and it’s my job to make sure that as they grow up they don’t get cynically persuaded that caring about the military, corporate profits or the rich are more important values.

The children asked intelligent questions. They got honest answers – including some “I don’t knows”. They were once my seedlings and now they are saplings “tender as young girls and very determined”. They studied the messages on the railings and fencing at the occupation, checking the meaning of the images. They posed for a photograph in front of the banner announcing “This is what democracy looks like”, or at least, some of them did. In true democratic style, there was a dissenter. And her wish to stay out of the photo was accepted by the others. After a long day, as they squished together peaceably on the train to make space for other passengers, I admired their sweetness to one another. Late in the evening, when the others were in bed, the oldest came back down to ask me some more questions. I hope I always remember to give him that time and those answers.

It seems I may have planted some trees.

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A tale of three houses.

House 1: I am a 4 bedroomed house with a large garden, occupied by a couple in their 70s. They bought me in the 1970s with a mortgage based on the husband’s income alone. They own me outright. I am now worth 15 times what they originally paid for me. Their two grown up children are raising families of their own in other towns, but twice a year they come back to visit and I am full of laughter and noise again.

For the rest of the year, the couple who live here have three more bedrooms than they really need and a lot more garden than they can manage.

A think-tank has suggested that the couple should be given tax incentives to move to a smaller home. Perhaps one with only two spare bedrooms rather than three. Maybe a stamp duty rebate? It’s just a suggestion. No one will be coerced or punished for not moving. It’s just free money if you do. Think about it, eh?

(Naturally the couple who live here are outraged by the disrespect for the older generation that this idea displays).

Follow the discussion here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/23/housing-shortage-old-peop…

House 2: I am a small two-bedroomed social housing flat. My occupiers are a couple in their early thirties. They long to have children but the husband’s long term illness rules this out now. He does not work due to his disability. His wife is his full time carer. Both are on benefits. Two days a week they look after, for free, her young niece so that her sister can go out work. I like those days the best – I am at my liveliest then, and I can see that my occupiers like to be close to their niece and are pleased to help out.

The govt regards me as under-occupied because I have a ‘spare’ room. My occupiers must move out. If they do not do so their benefits will be reduced. There are no local one-bedroomed flats available so my occupiers will have to relocate to another town. They will no longer be able to care for their niece, whose mother will – in turn – lose her job. It’s a shame I suppose but why should taxpayers money pay for a half-empty house?

Consider this issue here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/oct/23/social-housing-windows-welfare…

House 3: I am a large family home in a lovely seaside location. I say ‘family home’ but I don’t actually have a family that lives in me all the time. ‘My’ family lives somewhere else, but they bought me as an investment holiday let which means that for 70 days of the year and sometimes more, other families do come and stay in me. That’s nice. The rest of the time I am empty. There are 245,000 other houses a bit like me. Empty most of the year. We’re a bit like spare bedrooms in a way. Only we’re ‘spare houses’. When my family first bought me they used to say that I was “a luxury from which it was hard to derive a significant income”. But now that’s changed. I have become a “year-round investment”.

That sounds good, doesn’t it? Although it might be nice to be actually lived in all the time.

Still there are already lots of good tax breaks for having a spare house.

Find out more about them here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/7948047/Number-of-second-h…

So to summarise:

If you are in social housing and have one spare room, shape up or ship out. We’ll take your benefits away to help you focus your mind.

If you own your own home and have more than two spare rooms, have a think about whether you might want to downsize. If you do, there’s some money in it for you.

If you’re part of the 1% of households* that’s got a whole spare house, well just keep on making the most of those tax breaks.

The Tale of Three Houses. In case you’re wondering…it’s the worst of times.

(*Calculated on the basis that there are approx 245,000 second homes in the UK and approx 25million households. Roughly.)

This blog is NOT about YOU. (Unless it IS about you).

Two different things have been troubling me in the same way this week.

The first is the narrative coming from the Defence in the Joanna Yeates trial (outlined by the Independent here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/jo-yeates-killed-after-failed-kiss-2373211.html and Guardian here:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/oct/20/joanna-yeates-killer-speaks-crime) which suggests that Tabak, accused of her murder, 'simply misread' a social situation when – the Defence alleges – she invited him into her flat. An invitation the QC for the Defence describes as 'an unfortunate starting point'. Followed by a 'flirty' remark, it seems her fate was sealed.

The Independent article prompted me to Tweet: "How many times do men need to be told? Simple courtesy is not a sexual invitation."

The second is the Welsh police anti-rape campaign which makes victim-blaming its focus. The poster (which the force claims to be 'old' from 2009, but which appears to be still in use) is here:

I responded to that poster appearing in circulation on Twitter by asking: Where's the poster that says "Rape. Don't be a rapist. Drunk women are not fair game." and was pleased to receive responses (from male and female tweeters) which included links to both these posters, which I think are great, and which I retweeted.

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Of course, the consequence of my tweets was, from some, a predictable response: "It's not all men you know" and a suggestion that the 'Teach your Son'…poster implied something pretty disgusting (possibly that violence against women is exclusively, as opposed to merely mainly, the fault of men; or possibly, that men are never subject to acts of domestic abuse, which isn't true either).

So I'd like to be clear. I know that not all men are murderers and rapists.

A tweet is 140 characters long. If my tweet contains that disclaimer every time I reference the violation of a woman, then I've used up 50 characters before I've said anything else. I also know that people of any gender or age can commit violent acts or be victims of such acts. 158 characters in total. So now I'm already onto my second tweet.

There's a poster I see at the station which reminds me, and all other travellers on the rail network, that violence against rail staff is not acceptable. I have never yet complained that it doesn't contain a disclaimer to point out that not everyone assaults ticket collectors. I haven't complained about the one that asks me not to eat smelly food on the tube either. I know that it doesn't apply to me. I already don't do that. The Drink / Drive campaigns don't rile me either because I don't drink and drive. So why do some men get so cross about posters intended to send a supportive message to women that rape or or other violence against them are not the woman's fault, but the responsibility of the perpetrator, whose attitudes need to be changed.

Does anyone seriously believe it is possible to tell a potential rapist or murder just by looking at them? (Those who do believe that perhaps spend their time working for tabloids and hounding people like Chris Jefferies) No one holds a database of misogynist sympathisers to whom we can present a targeted campaign. So what exactly is wrong with a simple, effective, general poster that conveys a message that the whole community should buy into?

"Don't rape". "Respect women".

Do they need to contain a disclaimer like "Misogyny levels can go down as well as up; other perpetrator and victim types are available?"

Edmund Burke is often paraphrased as saying that "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing". Good men – you significantly outnumber rapists and murders – so, please don't do nothing. We can and should be revolting against the idea that women can be treated as a target for assault if they have been drinking or if they invite a man into their home. All genders alike should refuse to accept a society in which women are required to constrain their behaviour just in case it will later be made out that they are somehow responsible for a man's unwillingness to control his own.

Good men, if even for a nano-second, you find yourself thinking "well surely there are times when the signals aren't clear", please have a look at both of these websites:

http://www.thisisnotaninvitationtorapeme.co.uk/

http://www.notever.co.uk/

…and then ask yourself if you feel clearer now about the fact that violence against women is NEVER acceptable.

Good men – please support these campaigns, and refuse to accept a narrative which can suggest that a 'flirty' remark can be 'simply misread' in a way that leads to murder.

Murderers and rapists – If you've read this far. Please stop murdering and raping.

Thank you.

The Tory at the Door

The Tory at the door nearly got away with it because he was so young. Not more than 25, I'd guess. And I thought I'd give him a free pass because I felt a bit sorry for him. To be that young and be a Tory seems rather sad.  Young life should have more joy in it than that. So I accepted his leaflet without demur, and when he asked if I had any issues I wanted to discuss I said "No".

And then I saw the smug look on his face, the look that said: "Yes, we Conservatives are great, aren't we? Of course you haven't got any issues." and I couldn't let it lie. I told him that I had loads of issues, actually, but I didn't think it was fair to raise them with him. And he said: "No. Do raise them. We want to listen".

So I did.

By the time he scampered off up the path about 15 minutes later, I'd only done the first two items off my list of grievances. So I didn't get the chance to give him the benefit of my canvassers' advice. Just in case he's passing, I share it here:

1) Read the newspapers before you come out.

Your Government holds parliament in such contempt that it announces new policy via press release all the time. If I know that, so should you. If the Government is about to remove benefits from people who are sick or have a disability (should they have the temerity to appeal a decision) – I'll know because it'll have been communicated to the nation from behind a Murdoch paywall. Do keep up.

2) Know your facts.

When I tell you about the successful benefit appeal rates i'm not making them up. So don't sneer. When I talk about the difference in success rates between appellants who are represented and those who aren't, these are bread-and-butter statistics for my work. I know them inside out. So don't get flabby with "most" or "the majority" – I can tell when you're making it up. If i tell you something wasn't in your manifesto, don't squeak "It was!". Because it wasnt in your manifesto. I read them all before i voted. You should read it yourself some time. You may find you don't like the party you represent.

If I tell you about specific provisions in the Health and Social Care Bill that I object to, it's not because a newspaper has misled me with distortions – it's because I looked up those sections in the Bill (in fact I've now read pretty much all of it, in chunks). I can read and judge for myself. It will help you if you read the Bill too. You are then unlikely to make the assertion that the Bill is necessary for the introduction of an entirely insurance-based model of healthcare. It'll be news to Andrew Lansley that that's how you are presenting his reforms.

3) It isn't about you.

Most of us can tell a story about when we've had less than perfect treatment from the NHS and some of those stories are genuinely appalling. But the NHS isn't your personal fiefdom. You don't get to invoke a massive, top-down re-disorganisation just because one part of the system didn't come up to scratch when you needed it. In the same way, I don't get to reorganise the whole country's road network when I've been stuck in a seven hour traffic jam. I spared you my traffic jam story on the doorstep – I can live without the detail of your family members' ailments. I won't vote for you out of pity.

4) Have some respect.

When I remind you of the numbers of clinicians, of healthcare workers of every kind, of public health experts who oppose the NHS reforms, you have to do better than tell me they're 'vested interests' and that you're always suspicious of the motives of people who work in the current system. When I tell you about the conferences I've attended where the reforms are being discussed and developed and where it's clear that the vested interests are mainly monolithic consultancies and generic 'service companies' who stand to make oodles of money out of fresh bureaucracy in a scorched earth health service, you'd better have a better answer than "it's time to level the playing field". You're devaluing decades of combined, relevant experience. You'll need it if you're ever ill. Don't knock it.

5) See the whole picture.

When I talk about benefits appeals and link that to the reductions in legal aid funding, I'm not being scattergun in my complaints – I am drawing a line for you between different areas of government policy that impact again and again on the same people, intensifying their misery. If you can't see the whole picture you're not ready to be on the doorstep.

5) Bloody well listen.

That "listening exercise" that Lansley did wasn't a good model of listening. Don't emulate it. If you tell me you want to listen, don't spend your fifteen minutes butting in and telling me the many reasons why I'm wrong. The reasons I am angry are not because your party has "failed to communicate" your intentions properly, or because I'm too stupid to understand them. I get it, believe me, I do. I just don't like it! You invited me to tell you why. Have the courtesy to keep your ears open.

6) Master the above.

Or don't come back.

Thank you.

When parents struggle…. (Educating Essex)

When parents struggle, who takes the blame? Who bears the shame?

This blog is prompted by an exchange of tweets between me (@Itsmotherswork) and another tweeter after the latest episode of Educating Essex.

Backstory: Educating Essex (Channel 4: Thursdays) is a brilliant, moving, revelatory, inspiring account of everyday life in a school (Passmores in Harlow) that is both outstanding and ordinary. Ordinary in that its intake looks and feels like any other in a co-educational comprehensive; outstanding in that the love of the staff, for all the young people and for teaching, shines through the programme like a glittering thread.

The programme underlines something that all adults need to understand; that children and young people are they way they are because we (the adults around them) are the way we are.

This week's episode focused on Vinni – a 'model student' when he started at the school, but displaying deteriorating behaviour since the break-up of his parents marriage. The programme ends with Vinni being taken into local authority care because his mother, with whom he has been living, cannot cope. He remains a student at Passmores, his Headteacher Mr Goddard and PE teacher Miss Conway (among others) wrapping him up in the care, attention, expectation and faith that his home life seems to lack.

The twitter exchange started when I spotted a comment about Vinni's mum, who had turned him out of the family home.

The tweeter wrote: Vinni's mum should feel utterly ashamed of herself.

Imw: And the Dad?

Tweeter: well, we never got to hear from him, but I'm guessing selfish and ignorant.

Imw: Very likely, so possibly a little harsh to heap all the shame on mum…

T: the Dad didn't kick him out and allow him to go into care

Imw: Of course he did. If his Dad would have had Vinni to live with him, a residential placement would not have been needed. Social workers look to family first.

T: That was never going to be an option, but yet she still kicked him out. Where did she think he would end up?

Imw: Why was that never going to be an option? Your attitude seems to be that the parent who abandons parenting first carries no responsibility and the parent who is left parenting with only half the resources carries all the shame if that falls apart. I'm suggesting responsibility is 50/50.

T: Because he had already abandoned them! Sad, but that's how it is. Being a single parent is twice as hard and twice the responsibility.

Imw: Indeed it is. So you adding the burden of all the shame when it is difficult to cope seems particularly unfair.

******

We shouldn't heap shame onto parents who are trying but failing to raise their children well alone. In principle, this isn't a gender-based issue. If you're male or female and the partner with whom you brought your children into the world, or into your family, abandons you, you do find yourself with double the work and half the resources. Some people will still manage to cope in this situation, but not everyone can. A parent who has abdicated practical responsibility for parenting remains morally responsible for what follows and is just as accountable for what happens to their children despite the fact that they have chosen to step away. Before we wag our fingers at the parent who stayed, we should consider that.

In practice, this is a gender-based issue, because more often than not when a relationship breaks down mothers and children stay together and it is fathers who disappear from the home. That's why I particularly dislike the idea that a mother who is not coping should be "ashamed" while a father who walks away is exonerated: "Sad, but that's how it is".

As well as there being humane reasons for not seeking to shame parents who can't keep their families together, there are practical reasons why shaming is unhelpful. The most obvious of these is that it gets in the way of parents seeking help early on when they have problems. The more often we reinforce a model which implies that parents have to cope alone until their shameful failure propels their children into the arms of the state, the more difficult we make it for parents to turn to sources of support earlier when they first need it, and to accept and trust the support that is available. Lots of parents, whether parenting together or alone, struggle sometimes to keep their children steady on the journey to adulthood. Wealthy parents can outsource some of their caring responsibilities (boarding schools, adventure holidays, out of school activities, extra tuition) and often do so, with no shame attached. Families with more limited resources should feel able to call on the support of children's centres, schools, youth services, parenting and family support programmes etc. without fearing any stigma.

I don't think Vinni's mum (or Vinni's Dad for that matter) should feel ashamed about what has happened to their son, though they may both feel sad and worried. I think they should both feel responsible, both be held accountable and should both be encouraged to work with all the organisations that can help and support them as they try to settle their son again and make him feel secure once more in their love, even if they can't maintain their own relationship. One of the key supporting organisations for that particular family is obviously Passmores school. A day ago the Head Teacher, Mr Goddard, tweeted in response to a question about Vinni that he had seen the boy's mum that day. Close to Vinni and to his family situation, Mr Goddard isn't wasting time blaming or shaming, he's doing the things a person can always do to help another person in difficulties – maintaining a relationship, keeping the lines of communication open, showing that he cares.

I understand that in Episode 7 of the series, we will find out how Vinni gets on in his GCSEs. With Passmores' help, I would really love to see him do well. I hope we will also find that the support of the school community, social workers and others has helped him to repair his relationship with his parents too.  

Educating Essex is compelling television, and an important and honest contribution to our understanding of the challenges and rewards of teaching in a modern comprehensive. There's a hashtag often used in tweets about the programme and the school: #proudofpassmores That's exactly right. The values that make Passmores exemplary have nothing to do with shame and everything to do with pride.