Thursday 15 February 2007

The Butcher's Shop

The butcher’s shop on my street has halal meat delivered twice a week, in a big white van tall enough to stand up inside. As I walk past, three or four men in blood-stained white aprons unhook whole carcasses, skinned and raw, and carry them over the pavement to the huge stainless steel worktops in a special room beside the shop, leaving ten or so at a time still swinging with the rocking of the van.

Because I don’t eat meat I don’t often have to deal with the sight of it raw, its bloody smell or its similarity in texture to parts of my own body. I am not often confronted with such graphic reminders of death, so this sudden proximity to so many large dead bodies has a capacity to shock me that is probably lost on most meat-eaters. Other passers-by show little interest in the meat deliveries and carry on walking, negotiating their way around the pallets of vegetables stacked up on the pavement at the front of the shop.


In the early stages of a change from democracy to brutal dictatorship, many ordinary people must feel deeply uneasy about what is done by authorities in their name, at least while the pretence is sustained that authority is still held in the name of a people. Those who are not directly persecuted themselves are not necessarily on the side of the oppressors, but while it remains possible to do so, people go on with life much as they always have. They shop, wash clothes, make dinner and go to bed each night much as they always have, and houses and trees stand where they have always stood, with familiar people and shops and schools where they have always been.

Even a familiar dread of the news reports, of the next government policy, the next initiative, the next prosecution, the next bout of mass hysteria can seem normal when our immediate surroundings are kept reasonably constant. A gradual deterioration is borne like this, living from one moment to the next, right up until the fa├žade of denial is finally, irreversibly cracked. Then our horror is compounded by our knowledge that, while the massacres took place, while the gas chambers were filled, we ourselves were washing clothes and making dinner and creating a normality for ourselves, our fear and doubt squashed firmly to the back of our minds in order to concentrate on doing the washing-up.


So it is in my nightmare.
I know that somewhere in this country, out of my sight, this government on this soil tracks down people fleeing for their lives and sends them back to their deaths. I know that some of the weapons used to torture and kill people – for believing what I believe – are made and sold by my own country. They have nuclear warheads enough to kill us all many times over on submarines moored off the Scottish coast. And yet this knowledge lives most of the time on the very edge of my consciousness, as I go shopping and wash clothes and make dinner, much as I might in any other deteriorating situation, waiting for reality to bite.

In my dream I am walking along my street and everything is where it always is. The houses and trees stand where they always stand, with familiar people and shops and a familiar white van parked outside a familiar butcher’s shop. Three or four men in white aprons unhook whole carcasses, skinned and raw, and passers-by show no interest as they walk around the vegetable stalls on the pavement. And I see hair. The door of the white van is open, and on the carcasses swinging from the meat hooks I see human hair, human faces, human feet hanging six inches above the floor of the van.

For a moment the feeling of shock is disconnected, suspended without quite attaching to any meaning or consequence. Then cold realisation rushes through me, horrible clarity and fear and sickness, and I keep on walking around the vegetable stalls, normality forever shattered and in its place a trap.

Because I knew all along. I have known for a long time that they were killing people, I just never saw the bodies. And everyone around me, if they think about it at all, has accepted this as normal long ago. Some have had their own moment like this one but my horror is worthless now, coming so late. Human corpses have been incorporated into the unending pretence of normality, since after all it is such a small incremental change to the contents of the same white van that’s been delivering to the same butcher’s shop, on the same street with the same trees that have stood since anyone can remember.


Tuesday 13 February 2007

Budget Bender Greenhouse

Now I've got my camera working again I can post pictures of the home-made polytunnel I've been working on. It's tiny, but any extra greenhouse space is going to be useful this year 'cos I've been digging over the patch of weeds that I've had under cover for a year, so this time I'll have twice the space for planting that I had last year. That means I'll need twice the number of seedlings, and my windowsills aren't any bigger than they were…

I found a small willow tree on a footpath near the allotment, with nice straight branches just right for building a bender. The number of suitable branches really limited the size of the bender, but it's still big enough to be worthwhile. I've never built a bender before, and had to take it all apart and start again a couple of times until it came out a good shape – having used a tee-pee shaped greenhouse last year I really wanted to make sure this one would have a good amount of headroom, so I kept rebuilding until I made the sides go more or less straight up instead of sloping inwards towards the top.

I ordered clear polythene (guaranteed for five years against deterioration in sunlight) off the internet from here
and only realised when it arrived that I'd struggle to get it from my house to the allotment without a car. I managed by kind of folding my arms around the roll at its balancing point and stopping a few times for a rest. But I was glad after all that I hadn't saved up for a bigger roll which would have been cheaper but harder to move.
It would have been harder to unroll, too. Luckily I'd measured up ok – I'd been worried because the bender's shape was so irregular that I wasn't sure I'd got the highest point, but 7m x 7m turned out to be just right. I dug a trench around the base of the bender and got help from another plot holder to unroll it over the frame, and then spent a whole afternoon folding it neatly to fit flat into the trenches and filling them back up with soil.

As you can see it was getting dark by the time I'd finished. I went back the next day just to admire it over a cup of tea. The next problem is what to do about the door. At the moment I've just folded the loose plastic at the front to one side and weighed it down with bricks, but it's a huge hassle to get in and out, in fact I haven't been inside since I filled the trench in case it disturbs the plastic before it's settled firmly into the ground. Here's a glimpse through the side:

It's only been up a few days so I don't know if it will withstand high winds, and I still lack a real plan for the door, which I'll be working on in the next few weeks, but I'm quite pleased with progress so far!

Monday 12 February 2007

Dishwashers vs Washing Up By Hand

I finally found some source research on whether it's more economical to run a dishwasher or to do the washing up by hand. Several people have told me scientific trials have shown that a machine uses less water and less energy than washing dishes by hand, but it seems so unlikely that I've never quite believed it.
You can read some "scientific" research for yourself here:
Suffice to say, I was right all along.
The trial participants who did the washing up by hand weren't even TRYING to save water or energy. Some of them, as I had suspected, just let the hot tap run the whole time - some even when they were DRYING the dishes!
The water and energy used to manufacture, transport and dispose of the machine at either end of its useful life were not accounted for, and neither was the energy wasted by the damned things when they finish washing but don't turn themselves off. Another appliance on "standby", another huge waste of energy.
There's no mention either of the environmental damage caused by very nasty chemicals found in dishwasher detergent, which are much worse than normal washing up liquid.
They do, however, factor in the effects of running the machine half-empty sometimes. It's just a pity they didn't deal with the average washer-up's half-empty head...

Saturday 10 February 2007

“Child Genius”, Channel 4, 9pm Thursday 8th Feb 2007

This programme plans to follow ten unusually “gifted” kids through their childhoods and beyond, in a format derivative of the 7-Up study begun by Michael Apted in 1964. Since Robert Winston’s “Child of Our Time” began in 2000 with a new group of children, another series with such a similar format must have needed some kind of freakshow-factor to justify its existence. And which parents of unusual children would be most eager to get them on telly for being as weird as possible? It seems the pushy parents of “gifted” children think that a TV appearance can do them nothing but good.

To be fair, there are occasional interviews with two or three parents who consistently talk about their kids as though they are kids, rather than competition-winning machines. But they’re few and far between in this hour-and-a-half long installment, which almost entirely focusses on how unlike other children their offspring are.

So, a bunch of kids with posh accents (presumably there are no “gifted” children ever born on council estates) go around passing exams, using precocious language and reacting in various ways to the “genius” label that is the sole reason they’re supposed to be interesting. The programme doesn’t challenge this, but simply puts them all through another I.Q. test to confirm their genius and shows them doing the freaky things that genius kids do. There’s no real attempt to assess their social skills or self-esteem, and many of them are treated as mini adults and made to work every waking moment, lest they dare waste any of the precious gifts that they’re supposed to count themselves lucky to have.

The Distinctly-Odd family have five “gifted” children, and traditionally reward each child when they pass the Eleven Plus with piles of gifts and a party, saying “It’s more important than a birthday for us.” Everything has been prepared in advance before the letter is opened which will tell them the exam result, and the pressure on the youngest child when he comes to take his Eleven Plus will be staggering.

Physically isolated and socially unpopular, all the Distinctly-Odd children come across as stiff, formal and cringe-makingly polite at all times, with no sign at all of the horseplay or arguing that is surely the whole point of having brothers and sisters. Since they’re all far too odd for social workers to know what to do with, serious cracks will probably only show when either the youngest turns out not to be “gifted” after all and resorts to getting parental attention by burning the house down with them all still in it, or when the eldest finally flees the nest and discovers casual sex and class A drugs.

Many of the parents have had trouble finding suitable education for their children – not surprising if they really think it necessary for their six-year-old to learn Avogadro’s Law of gaseous molecules. But of course the official curriculum is probably the least important aspect of school life, especially for those who can already read, write and add up. What kids really learn at school is how to manipulate the system, how to make friends and keep them, the finer points of popular culture and the complex code of playground ethics that begin to form our understanding of ourselves as social beings in a wider context than that of our own family. And these kids need to learn this stuff far more than most.

If Little Miss Distinctly-Odd acheives her apparently burning ambition to become a doctor, she will be bored witless after ten minutes of interaction with her non-genius patients. Along with having to spend hours explaining food groups to fat people and expanding her vocabulary of euphemisms for diarrhoea, she’ll be socialising with collegues from one of the most stressed and alcohol addicted professions in the country. Most jobs, even those requiring the greatest qualifications, so rarely require intelligent thought that only creativity and social skills get most of us through the day. And ten ‘A’ Levels will not make anyone but your pushy parents love you, much less remove the experience of failure from your life, for which these kids are shockingly unprepared.

The fact that they agreed to take part in the programme only shows that, however intelligent, these kids are still kids and lack the ability or judgement to resist their parents’ labelling and advertising of them as freaks. From the first programme in the series my guess is that all concerned have been set up to provide us with car-crash T.V., as the mental health of these unusually articulate children deteriorates over the coming years. How many will be smart enough to opt out of taking part before the end of the project remains to be seen.