Welcome to the Britblog Roundup’s 150th edition with the festive season gearing up for a fresh bout of inebriation and overindulgence now that the crackers have been pulled, the groanworthy jokes ritually recited, the paper hats crumpled, the wrapping paper agonised over (will I be fined by the council if I attempt to recycle it, it being so glossy and all?), the boxes which the toys were packaged in and which proved a greater source of fascination for the toddlers than their contents compacted, the mince pie fillings congealed, the sprouts digested, the air cleared, the squabbles abated with the departure of the in-laws and the Rennies gulped down by the handful.
The prevailing holiday spirit and mellow mood does not mean an amnesty for those whose job descriptions deem them our servants, allegedly acting in the interests of the community as a whole, yet who increasingly behave as our lords and masters. They cling like ticks on the body politic, frantically glutting themselves on as much blood as they can before being smothered by butter, singed by a match flame or whatever other folk remedy might be employed to persuade them to release their grip. Janine at Stroppy Blog, issues us with a reminder of their propensity for self-regard in Snouts, Troughs, on the subject of the cross-party consensus on voting through a pay rise to £100,000, which would, apparently, more realistically reflect the worth of an MP. Here we have the one issue you can count on politicians of all hues agreeing on, uniting them across the ideological divides. Janine ponders the irony inherent in their unique privilege. Conceived as a way of ensuring that talented and committed representatives from humbler backgrounds would not be barred from standing for Parliament, a wage for MPs aimed at wresting control of the legislature from the wealthy elite: “And to think, it was the labour movement that originally fought for MPs to receive a salary at all, since the unpaid nature of the position meant that only those rich enough through other means could afford to be elected to Parliament. I hear the hum of grave-turning”.
Jim Jay of The Daily (Maybe) has painstakingly scoured the net to compile a comprehensive fact file on Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Susanne Lamido, of also mourns her passing and, closer to home, that of Suzblog16-year-old Nassirudeen Osawe, stabbed in Islington: “The growing knife culture is getting out of hand. Reports about this latest killing are in all the papers and have been on the news because it seems so incredible that it could happen in public view in such a crowded place during the day”.
Continuing on the theme of violence, Jonathan Calder of Liberal England, in On letting boys play with guns opens with the stern warning from Kevin Brennan about gadgets, which inevitably cause disruption in the classroom, being taken away from their junior owners keen to show off their Christmas booty: “This sort of intervention is at once a symptom and a cause of the demoralisation of the teaching profession. In my young day teachers did not need encouragement from Margaret Thatcher or Shirley Williams before they confiscated things”.
He then moves on to consider recently published government guidance on the Early Years Foundation Stage, Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting Boys’ Achievements. According to the booklet, an analysis of GCSE results indicates that “white British boys comprise nearly half of all low achievers, with boys generally outnumbering girls by 20%”.
In an effort to account for this phenomenon the authors assert: “Creating the right conditions for children to develop confidence in themselves as learners, explorers, discoverers and critical thinkers is vital in a rapidly changing world. This is particularly important for boys as their natural exuberance, energy and keen exploratory drive may often be misinterpreted. Unwittingly, boys can be labelled and their behaviour perceived as inappropriate or even challenging. The qualities and skills that are most valued by schools, the ability to communicate orally and represent ideas on paper, are often the very aspects of learning that boys find the most difficult”.
Jonathan finds the eagerness of politicians to pronounce upon every minute aspect of school life unpalatable and Beverley Hughes’ statement that “(…) many children, and perhaps particularly many boys, like boisterous, physical activity” objectionable, responding: “Note that ‘perhaps’. We all know that boys tend to be more boisterous than girls, but someone like Hughes has spent her entire political career moving in circles where it is impossible to say so. Hence her uneasiness in voicing this simple truth”.
In Jonathan’s youth and mine no teacher intervened during playtime except when a fight broke out. The children split into groups, the girls swapping scraps, skipping, playing doublers, hopscotch or tig (as it was referred to in my local dialect), the boys kicking a football or competing to win marbles off each other. With games such as Red Rover, Carrot, Carrot, Neep, Neep or What’s the time Mr Wolf? it would be a gross distortion to pretend that the girls were uniformly prim and sedate whilst the boys spent their entire fifteen minutes of freedom tearing around and skinning their knees. The “sugar and spice and all things nice” versus “frogs and snails and puppy dog’s tails” division is too categorical and limiting on both genders. I do not believe that either boys’ or girls’ energies or curiosity should be stifled, but the social pressure on girls to sit quiet and cultivate greater demureness to render them properly “feminine” (and correspondingly passive) is undeniable. Contrast this with the contemporary construction of masculinity, which certainly does incorporate a tolerance of aggression (the will to conquer and forcibly possess as the less attractive aspect of the active principle).
Jess McCabe of The F-Word, covers the same ground from a feminist perspective in Government encouraging boys to play with toy weapons, demonstrating that the truth is not quite so simple after all. She quotes Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters-Union of Women Teachers, who rightly points out that the assumptions that lie behind the guidance constitute a clear instance of gender stereotyping.
To return to the original document for a moment: “Images and ideas gleaned from the media are common starting points in boys’ play and may involve characters with special powers or weapons. Adults can find this type of play particularly challenging and have a natural instinct to stop it. This is not necessary as long as practitioners help the boys to understand and respect the rights of other children and to take responsibility for the resources and environment”.
The toys we are given by relatives cement gender roles at an age when we are as yet unable to adopt a critical distance from them. My miniature vacuum cleaner might have been intended to make me feel more grown up, but it was also calculated to reconcile me to the drudgery of unremunerated labour in the form of housework. My parents would never have dreamed of buying my brother a plastic rolling pin and mixing bowls in matching colours. I had Tiny Tears, fed her with a bottle and changed her nappy (preparation for future child-rearing), but I also pinched my brother’s Action Man, fascinated by how his Y-fronts were welded to his skin (maybe he hadn’t ever bothered to wash them), tortured him in ways that would give even the most hardened interrogators pause for thought.
Jess questions the appropriateness of the Children’s Minister reiterating the conventional wisdom that girls do not enjoy rough and tumble in their games and highlights the contradictions in the recommendations: “So children absorb and internalise messages about gender roles, but they should be unambiguously supported when they act this out at playtime? Not that they shouldn’t be ‘valued and supported’, but (…) the guidance just acknowledged that children’s play choices are heavily influenced by adult expectations (…) How is that allowing their ‘own personal narratives to flow’?”
We live in a culture saturated with images of violence. Toy guns are so true in every detail that they can easily be mistaken for the genuine article. When little boys tire of plastic replicas and withdraw to their dens as teenagers they might switch to the virtual weapons of FPS games, such as the tongue-in-cheek BFG in Doom 3, all of which conspires to desensitise, make wielding weapons second nature. Not that girls are left out altogether: after all, we have Buffy and Lara Croft to emulate these days. The lesson taught by the superheroes is that we can distinguish between good violence and bad violence. Bad violence is the preserve of the villains who want to subvert the established order or amass fortunes by dishonest means, whilst good violence is any kind the Government approves of and the Church gives its blessing to, whether that involve defending the homeland or invading a foreign state to ward off a potential threat. All the while the newspapers lament the random nihilism of drive-by shootings and the glamorisation of guns as a symbol of gang’s power. Too many youngsters are afraid to step outside their doors without the requisite “protection”. As a confirmed gaming addict I do not mention these trends as a prelude to a call for a ban of the intestine-splattering gorefests. As the mother of a well-adjusted 16-year-old boy I adopted a pragmatic approach, which did not involve banishing toy guns from my household. Instead, I seek merely to illustrate the sheer breadth of the issue.
A final contribution on this topic comes from Reynolds of Random Acts of Reality, who in Cliché expresses his outrage at domestic violence, articulating his frustration at the system’s inability to assist women whose self-confidence has been so battered that they stay put rather than fleeing their abusive partners.
Gavin Whenman of The Whiskey Priest, pours scorn on an initiative to encourage more women to voice their political opinions in Patronising the little women – the Gender Balance Blog Awards: “(…) honouring these wee little ladies that have both the ability to type and are doing so online…Presumably after their men have set up their internet connection and installed the necessary software that their women’s tiny brains simply cannot comprehend”.
His conclusion: “The Gender Balance Awards is a bunch of patronising bollocks designed to cure a problem that doesn’t exist. There are no historical or actual roadblocks stopping women from blogging and to launch a whole awards for them reveals the deeply offensive and chauvinistic attitude of those running the scheme”.
There are several reasons why I fundamentally disagree with Mr Whenman. Women have only too readily been pronounced incompetent in matters of technology on the basis of the ancient slander associating women with emotion/intuition and men with reason/logic. The computer industry remains male-dominated, the geek by definition male. A woman might not have much time left over for blogging, too busy ironing his shirts and socks after a hard day at the office whilst he vents his spleen over a hot keyboard in the knowledge that when his stomach starts rumbling his dinner will be on the table. Whereas a handful of women bloggers might have secured book deals these are almost completely confined to the “personal”, “autobiographical” or “confessional” categories. If you don’t write about your sexual exploits, your boyfriend’s foibles (however charmingly), child-rearing or dieting you don’t stand much of a chance of receiving any recognition (whenever the mainstream media devote a column or two to the personal publishing revolution or whatever new coinage has become fashionable you will only ever see a token woman).
In the realm of “political” blogging women are particularly thin on the ground. This is not because we prefer to discuss Gordon Brown’s dress sense rather than his policies, but because the “political” is routinely defined too narrowly along Party lines with feminism automatically discounted (just peruse the sidebars of a few of the better known political bloggers for corroboration of this). Natalie Bennett, for example, founder of the Carnival of the Feminists and regular host of the Roundup only began to attract attention when she joined the Greens. Quite iniquitous. “Intellectual” women, women able to argue a point are assiduously ignored (glance down the index of one of the compilations of political blogging articles), perhaps perceived as too unfemininely assertive, too threatening. In other words, the failing is not on the part of women, but on the part of those who airbrush them out.
Then there is the phenomenon of trolling and hate mails. When the bombardment is ceaseless and unremitting it can be quite disheartening. There are some petty-minded individuals who take pleasure in dedicating themselves to putting women down, particularly those who openly identify as feminists, presumably because of the challenge to male privilege that their mere existence represents. Mr Whenman can be forgiven for being unaware of this.
Therefore, whilst I concede that there are no overt, socially prescribed obstacles to women blogging there are other factors at play and the Awards provide a useful corrective, generating publicity for serious writing by women. Ros Tyler of Liberal Democrat Voice and one of the panel of judges summarises the philosophy behind the exercise: “(…) the dearth of women blogging about politics has had an uncivilising effect on the internet. Too many established bloggers, unconsciously or otherwise, consider the web a perfectly egalitarian place where women suffer no discrimination and should not expect special treatment.
Unfortunately, like every other utopia, that meritocracy simply doesn’t exist. Call it an innate unwillingness to pronounce on subjects in which we don’t have a doctorate, blame it on a lack of time, point to the lack of women at the highest levels of politics – whatever the cause, and despite the best efforts of a few individuals, the political blogosphere is still dominated by men. On a few non-Liberal Democrat blogs, scepticism about female bloggers has hardened into outright misogyny”.
A fine example of a woman political blogger, Molly of Gaian Economics examines the impact of the severe flooding in Gloucestershire earlier in the year in Turning Towards Each Other. Not by any means a depressing tale of calamity, Molly’s evaluation includes the rediscovery of a sense of community through shared adversity: “Surviving the floods was a salutary experience, and a very uplifting one after the initial panic had subsided. We amazed ourselves with our resourcefulness, as we found Heath-Robinsonesque ways to channel rainwater into our toilets and wash five heads of hair with a bucket of water. We found out who our neighbours were (and looked after the vulnerable ones) and we found out where our electricity and water come from”.
Natalie Bennett at My Paris, Your Paris, pays A visit to the Immigration Museum. “At the end of the 20th century the biggest flow by far is of Mexicans into the US – 10.3 million. But Europe also sent 7.5 million people to the US, a flow pretty well matched by thickness of the arrow from India to the Gulf States. These are movements that don’t always get the attention that their size might deserve”. Her guided tour eloquently conveys quite how politically charged migration has become.
Deek Deekster of Blog of Funk replies to the question: In the face of persistently evaluating music, how is it possible to truly enjoy that which measure up? with a fascinating close reading of what at first sight appears an entirely mundane image: “There is an implicit assumption that analysis – aka persistent evaluation – removes pleasure, conjuring the spectre of unsmiling white-coated laboratory technicians holding clipboards, observing the mechanical processes of love, sex and death, yet unmoved by the passion, fucking and dying which they witness as they measure minute electrical responses and exact quantities of bodily fluid.
Detachment doesn’t mean not caring. Analysis brings its own shiny set of pleasures to the table, which are not necessarily stainless steel cool”.
By way of respite from the murder and mayhem and allowing us to look ahead with hope rather than trepidation let us now turn to some more seasonal and comforting, log-fire and armchair offerings.
Camden Kiwi reviews the Dr Who Christmas Special, which surely qualifies as one of the few television events able to recapture the togetherness of the days before families avoided conflicts over viewing by putting a TV in every room and the advent of cable and niche channels by the thousand when the nation tuned into the same entertainments, which subsequently animated conversations for days. In that sense the antics of the good Doctor function as the latter-day equivalent of The Morecombe and Wise Show and can legitimately lay claim to the same status as a British institution.
Pandemian supplies us with an alternative version of a popular Christmas ditty, albeit not exactly replete with good cheer or glad tidings, with a little help from some tabloid journalists in The 12 News of the World Days of Christmas.
A bittersweet and poignant, beautifully written observation on loss, Rachel from North London’s A different kind of Christmas shimmers brighter than the glitter-dusted Christmas baubles of fond memory: “Mum loved Christmas, really loved it, and there was much remembering about last year; how, after the Christmas Eve midnight service we came back and got into bed and as we fell asleep, heard Mum on the stairs, clip-clopping coconut shells together and making farting noises – pretending to be a reindeer accompanying Father Christmas as he left presents. Stifling her giggles, as the Christmas stockings she loved to prepare were left outside every child’s door, though the children she left them for were all grown-up now”.
Diamond Geezer tackles a conundrum that stumps many of us around this time of year, considerately providing helpful advice on 20 ways to use up your leftover turkey (my personal favourite: “Leave it outside your local police station inside a plastic bag labelled ‘Extreme Danger – Bird Flu’”).
Finally, just to prove that we have not completely forgotten that the great outdoors awaits our atrophied leg muscles, two primarily picture-based pieces for those of us who might be inspired to take a bracing walk in the fresh air, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG, presents a series of exquisite photographs from a bygone age in Green and Pleasant Land, whilst Aunty Sarah’s Journal takes us on a trip to the Ouse Washes in Swan Lake.
If you will excuse me, I will now take my leave to introduce the neighbours to the Scottish tradition of “first footing”, since I have a tall and dark, if not exactly handsome, other half to cross the threshold with some whisky and a less austere version of the gifts of a lump of coal and black bun. In the meantime, I raise a glass to you all in celebration of the return of longer days, the lingering of the light.
Next week’s Roundup will be hosted by Cabalamat of Amused Cynicism. Nominations can be submitted, as ever, at britblog [at] gmail [dot] com
The ink has run dry, the Muse departed.