I don’t know about you but I tend not to buy that many books these days. When I do get around to parting with my sheckles, whatever I’ve purchased then tends to sit in the bookcase unread for an age. My reading list has grown at such an alarming rate over recent years that the book collection now resembles the stockroom of a recently closed library branch…
So, with that in mind, I was somewhat surprised when I found myself wandering into the local branch of Waterstones the other day. I suppose that, as is often the case, it was more the actions of a scholarly inquisitive automaton, rather than any particular desire to consume the latest artistic masterpiece and bestseller. You see I’ve never really been a great lover of novels or fiction, my reading has normally always revolved around subjective reference and/or biographical works.
I know electronics have taken over from real books for many, but as a result of my brief sojourn into this literary emporium, I got to thinking about the subject of books and reading; why is it there appears to be an ever decreasing number of people who actually read?
Apart from any enjoyment or relaxation aspect of the process, reading has also long been considered a mark of someone’s academic ability. Whilst thinking about that part of the process, I was reminded of Bamber Gascoigne and that iconic TV series University Challenge. In my youth I was often intrigued at the student’s introduction before taking part in the competition; “Smythe – Oxford-Baliol – Reading Quantum mechanics and classical physics.”
Some used to suggest the whole university thing (then) was all about privilege and class, many socialists seek to continue that somewhat juvenile (pureile) argument. But for me, having grown up in Oxford, one of the most famous seats of further education, the whole process of university study was a perfectly natural progression through life and, one that was in reality, actually more ‘available’ than some of those socialists would be prepared to admit. But only available to those of sufficient academic ability after all, is there really any point in dumbing down educational standards, simply so they’re available to all, irrespective of ability, as often appears to be the case now? Doesn’t it simply devalue the whole process?
And, before anyone offers up a “bloody uni toff he would say that” I didn’t actually go to university per se, although I did understand the values of further education and studied at The Open University later in life, whilst holding down a full time career.
Over the years there have been considerable changes to our UK education system. The Further and Higher Education Act resulted in the conversion of Polytechnic’s to Universities back in 1992. Many new universities were created and (arguably) access to quality higher education was enhanced. But, as with all the (supposed) advancements within our schooling, many of the changes and standards in higher education would today tend to make me expect; “Smiff – Teesside – Reading Geordie Shore and Big Brother.”
In those halcyon Gascoigne days I didn’t really know anything about ‘quantum’ whatever and, I’m happy to admit, it’s highly unlikely the subject would have interested me in any case. But it was that quest for knowledge that I found interesting. Finding out about something new, irrespective of whether or not it resulted in any subsequent personal interest, was the interesting part.
But TV, like books, can also be a useful medium for providing avenues of greater understanding, about all manner of subjects. We all need to learn about life, society, the world, history and science, we need to understand what goes on outside our own microcosm. In short, it’s all part and parcel of the important personal educational process but even TV is being dumbed down. Unfortunately today too much of it is often inane superfluous shite, virtual this and reality that. Simple escapism for the amusement of the uneducated and mostly socially inept and uninterested masses.
I’m one of those who has absolutely no interest in the immature ramblings of the inebriated and illiterate. Self-important orange stained oiks, pumped up on legal/illegal performance enhancing substances and destined for a booze induced NE Shag Fest each weekend. It defeats me how the mating habits of testosterone posturing ‘cocks’ chasing the vacuous air headed surgically and chemically enhanced bimbos can be seen by anyone as entertainment.
Viewing figures tend to suggest that this sort of tripe is actually enjoyed by many, that fact alone is socially worrying. It’s more worrying when you consider, how many of the ‘followers’ take it as indicative of real life. But even worse, many are also intent upon modeling their life around the antics of those they revere. Watching the likes of Geordie Shore or TOWIE (simply for research purposes I hasten to add), does however help you to understand why we are surrounded by so many materialistic self-interested plastic people.
Couple all this with the rest of this latter-day ‘specialist subject’ and I’m concerned. How is it that so many in our society can be glued to a TV screen, observing the inane mutterings of often educationally challenged muppets and wannabe celebrities? It’s sad that so many people have been happy to live in the BB House goldfish bowl of public voyeurism. Perhaps there’s no limit as to what some people will do for the prospects of a little fame and fortune?
Despite the inane and frivolous entertainment value aspect, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing, the fact that so much of this innocuous shite has also become an acceptable and popular scaffold to our social framework is sad.
But before the staff at Teesside University explode in anger at some of the above, I have no wish to detract from the undoubted value of the education they provide. As many of the Alumni will no doubt attest, this is now one of the finest, critically acclaimed and multi-award winning academic institutions within the UK. I merely wished to illustrate the changes that have occurred to our social and academic framework within my life thus far.
Neither am I falling into that all too easy trap suggested by Owen Jones (now blogging at The Independent) in his book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. For a start, many of those people don’t work, have never worked and probably, have absolutely no intention of working. Yes, I acknowledge that real and meaningful work is more of a rarity now than was once the case however; our social and political attitude to work (and life in general) has changed. Too many are now content to be little more than party animals in a world of virtual reality, mostly at someone else’s expense and often, wholly to the detriment of those around them.
Any way, to return to that original spark that ignited the content of this post. In Waterstone’s I had been drawn to a title by Marcus Berkmann who, like many others, has realised that we all eventually reach a difficult point in our life. So let’s talk sheds for a moment…
Whilst using some inimitable humour, Berkmann examines how best to manage this awkward period in one’s life. In his book A Shed Of One’s Own: Midlife Without the Crisis, described by Mark Wilson (Independent on Sunday) as “a sort of “Zen and the Art of Midlife Management” Berkmann atempts to offer some much-needed guidance.
Like some others who have reached this stage in their life, I’ve got a shed load of experiences and thoughts from the past but also, my particular ‘shed’ contains considerable concerns about the future, on both personal and social issue fronts. But, as with Berkmann, I haven’t actually got a bloody shed to go and hide in. At least not one suitable as a personal escape – one where I can sit in comfort and ponder all my life issues, relaxed by a little light refreshment and some background music.
I suppose it’s concerns, like those alluded to above, which help to induce that infamous midlife crises. Is it any wonder so many of us to go scurrying headlong into our sheds, in an attempt to gain relief and solitude from all the realities of life? But this trait isn’t anything new, it’s something that’s actually been prevalent and around for generations. As our society progresses (or regresses) and we get older, we find it ever more difficult to comprehend and/or accept all the changes around us… Thank your god for sheds!
The book Shed Men examined the quirky phenomenon of sheds and sheddism, arguing that a bloke’s shed begins where a boy’s room leaves off. It can provide a “home to prized objects and boyish dreams” or simply provide a form of escape from life’s realities. The home-from-home created by a murky little hut at the end of the garden, although much maligned and misunderstood, is a vastly important male sanctuary to preserve one’s sanity.
It’s been said that a shed is to a man what a handbag is to a woman – both contain all the essentials for surviving the modern world and, in the same way that no decent man would ever consider looking in a woman’s handbag uninvited ergo, no reasonable woman should dream of setting foot in a man’s shed. In another book of this somewhat quirky genre entitled Men and Sheds, a study of more than 40 men and their sheds in the UK was carried out, which looked at the personalities and the passions hidden within our sheds. Within The Shed Book you will find that these structures are “an icon of national identity, which hold a “special place in the hearts of British men.” A shed is “a sanctuary from the outside world and the other half.”
But if I did have a suitable escape, the shed would be probably be full of beer, wine, books, a kettle and some brew kit, along with a radio and CD or mp3 player. Oh yes, and a myriad of other stuff loved by me, but probably, of absolutely no bloody interest to anyone else, except perhaps for some of the music.
You see to me, and many others I would hope, music is or can be so much more than just noise. In many ways it’s also a form of social commentary. Artists like Bob Dylan and Bob Marley or Billy Bragg and Paul Weller in more recent times, have all become renowned as sages of sociopolitical musical observation.
The ghost of a steam train – echoes down my track. It’s at the moment bound for nowhere – just going round and round. Playground kids and creaking swings – lost laughter in the breeze. I could go on for hours and I probably will – but I’d sooner put some joy back – In this Town called Malice…(Paul Weller)
The Eton Rifles (also by Paul Weller) was another one of those, now iconic, musical observations of our society, and some of its social ills.
The song to me, and our Prime Minister it would seem (see below), is one of those Tracks of My Years moments (if Ken Bruce ever asked me).
The song recounts a street battle which occurred in Slough back in 1978. As it happens, I was actually in the area attending a school Alumni event, although not an Eton one and I didn’t personally witness the battle. Elements of a Right To Work protest march had decided to take on some pupils from Eton College who had been jeering at them. Many of the participants in the fracas, rashly, thought that a bunch of ‘posh schoolboys’ would be an easy target; only for the outnumbered, but far fitter, college pupils to emerge as victorious.
The Eton Rifles: Thought you were smart when you took them on, but you didn’t take a peek in their artillery room. All that rugby puts hairs on your chest...(Paul Weller)
As I pointed out before, Weller has long been revered as a social champion and sage of the working class, something of a socialist icon. So it should hardly be a shock when David Cameron (an Old Etonian) announced that The Eton Rifles was one of his favourite songs, that it should cause consternation amongst the media and political groups.
Bands such as The Jam and The Smiths were at the forefront of the resistance to Thatcherism in the 1980s. Twenty years later, Tory leader David Cameron lists them as among his favourite acts. Is nothing sacred, asks John Harris..(guardian.co.uk)
Cameron was reported to have said at the time; “I don’t see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs” and he was right. As he also pointed out in interview (see here) at a later date, when questioned further about his musical likes; “…if you can only like music if you agree with the political views of the person who wrote it, well, it’d be rather limiting.”
Another recent Paul Weller track (from the #No1 album – Sonik Kicks) partly sums up this Dangerous Age! – “And when he wakes up in the morning, It takes him time to adjust, He’s so sick of the money, And all the life that is lost.”
But isn’t it the case that, even ‘rebels’ with (or without) a cause, often have a tendency to mellow somewhat as they gain maturity, losing some of their (mostly) youthful and petulant political ideology or expectation? Perhaps if we were all a little more educated, a lot less self-interested and spent some time in our sheds, there might be a little less anger based (mostly) upon jealousy and then just maybe, the world could be a better place?