Are we all separated by a common language?

rsn2016I’m sure I can’t be the only person who has annual landmarks that witness the passing of the year. For me, one has become the six nations rugby championships. As they draw to a close each year, I know that spring has arrived and lighter, longer days will soon be on their way.

This year, as England try to achieve their first Grand Slam since 2003, it is perhaps appropriate (and entirely coincidental) that my first blog for some time should have a rugby connection. However, the inspiration originated far from the rugby field and has more to link it to Ireland or Australia than England, but accepting that, it still brought me back to blogging.

Yesterday, my Australian partner posted an update on social media in which he said how annoyed he was to have lost his Irish rugby jersey, particularly given that it is Saint Patrick’s day and would therefore have been his clothing item of choice.

Little had he (or I) expected this to be so controversial. Enquiries from his mum wondered “What is this jersey business? You turning into an Englishman? … It’s either a rugby jumper or a wind cheater.” A friend, Caroline explained “Posh people call it a jersey. Us lowlies call it a jumper!” This led to a friend of mine correctly assuming that Caroline was northern claiming “Jumpers north of Birmingham, pull-overs south”

Add to this comments made to me saying they were all wrong and it’s a shirt and I started to wonder just how divided we are by words to describe the same fairly innocuous item.


New Zealand rugby ‘top’

So what exactly is this item (please note the carefully observed national neutrality). So far we have offerings of Jersey, Jumper, Shirt, Pull-over and wind-cheater. Perhaps more interestingly what drives these differences. Clearly nationality plays a part; I remember once asking someone to pass me my jumper in San Francisco – not a mistake I shall make twice.

To save you getting some very dubious search results, I should point out that in American English a jumper is most commonly a sleeveless dress that’s made to be worn over a blouse or other top. That would make it both different to the ‘woolly pully’ I had been wearing and totally out of place on the rugby field.

So I turned to a friend who has worked as a lexicographer since the 1990’s for some clarity. This comes with the caveat that it’s a British viewpoint and other linguistic branches may lead to different destinations.

windcheaterThat said, wind-cheater is perhaps the easiest to exclude in the UK. Here, a wind-cheater is a comparatively new phrase and is a wind proof jacket with a tight fitting neck, waistband and cuffs. The rubgy ‘top’ has a tight fitting neck, waistband and cuffs but isn’t a jacket (has no closable opening the full length of the front) so that’s one down off the list.

Similarly. pullover (although technically applicable can be excluded being a warm item of clothing usually woollen with long sleeves worn on the upper part of the body. It is pulled on over the head. However, it is typically social/leisure wear and not in a sporting context.

Then, according to the lexicographers, it becomes trickier and linguistics needs to be supported with history and a spattering of inherited misnomers.


Rev. William Webb Ellis

So, jumper, jersey, or shirt? Here the history of rugby itself becomes relevant. In 1823, during a game of football at Rugby School in England, legend has it that 16 year old student William Webb Ellis, caught the ball and ran with it rather than following the rules of the times of catching and kicking the ball only leading to the birth of the game.

However, it was too physical in an unregulated form for most being most popular with railway navvies who played it between working. It was 1871 before the first ‘kit’ was defined. You certainly wouldn’t recognise it today. The uniform was vest, normal white shirt with bow tie, trousers and stout walking boots.  Although very different the generic term ‘rugby shirt’ stems from the very birth of the game and persists today.

As sport developed in the early 2oth century the work shirt morphed into what we would now recognise as a cross between a grandad shirt and a vest. This rapidly became too light and cold for the newly formed game.

Whilst the precise origin is unknown, these then changed to knitted long sleeved rugby tops thought to have come from the Channel Islands who spotted a potential market for their declining woollen industry. These became known as rugby ‘jerseys’ named after the style of the knit. – Interestingly, those remaining look more like guernsey’s but putting your guernsey on doesn’t sound quite right does it?  However, all retained the formal collar style in a nod to the original formal shirts – something I’d never quite understood until researching the subject.


The last piece of the jigsaw to consider when deciding on your preferred choice is snobbery and the class system.

Whilst a jumper certainly fits the definition (a warm often woollen long sleeved item of clothing), the very type of  schools that saw the birth of rugby were some of the places that took a strong dislike to the word. Why? Well there are two schools of thought.

It could be that jumpers first became popular as a term in the 1850’s. Then they were derived from the french word joup which can best be described as an artist or workman’s smock. Alternatively, when these ‘jumpers’ became popular, they did so in the very working class northern mill towns, usually with a close association to the wool trade. Either way, certainly not what 19th century public schoolboys should aspire to be wearing.

So in my most Dr Sheldon Cooper stylee, I have to discount wind-cheater and pull-over on the grounds of definitions. Jersey goes because it’s not a jersey, I might as well call it an Aran and down that road leads madness.Jumper would have been ok if it were woollen so I’ll go with the generic and historically consistent ‘shirt’.

Others are of course welcome to make their own choices. However, dipping my toe into this entomology shows me just how much we remain bound by nationality, class prejudice, regionality and history. So my thanks to Cynthia, Vaughan and Caroline for sparking my interest and to James for help with the lexicography. Isn’t language just fascinating?

Syria: Substantive issue or sideshow?

This week in the UK has seen an understandable focus on the Parliamentary debate concerning the bombing of ISIS/Islamic State/Daesh positions in Syria. The decision to commit UK air power as part of the international coalition followed a ten hour debate in the House of Commons and a free vote.

MPs voted by 397 to 223 in favour of sending Tornado and Typhoon jets to seek out Isis targets in Syria. Less than an hour later, jets were scrambled from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus bombing the Omar oilfield. Additional jets and support aircraft have been arriving during the course of the last 12 hours.

Whatever your view on the outcome of the vote, the process must surely be an improvement on the run up to previous ‘wars’. In those cases (most notably Iraq), forces were committed by the Prime minister using prerogative powers. Having watched large portions of the debate, I was at least encouraged by the quality of some of the debate of both sides of the argument. At least decisions of this magnitude are being taken by the elected commons.

That said, much has been made about the bombing of positions in Syria. I certainly don’t seek to reduce the significance of committing UK air power to another conflict. However, I am increasingly worried that this is just another step in a range of events which has remarkable similarities to the run up to global conflicts.

As significant a step as the bombing of Syria by UK forces is, it may be worth putting the current coalition activities against ISIS in context against other conflicts. It doesn’t diminish the importance of the decision, but it does raise another question. In none of the other conflicts all of which had much heavier air force engagement were any won without significant ground forces being committed.

The decision to send RAF planes to Syria can be seen as an almost inexorable progression towards ground forces being the next logical step. In that sense, this week’s decision is important but merely a precursor to a far greater commitment and escalation.

Important as engaging in a new conflict is, I can’t help but see some wider similarities with a gradual reduction in civil liberties, labelling of minorities and increasingly blunt instruments being applied in the name of security.

Looking at the first world war, there was an increasing reluctance in the UK to be seen as being of German descent. Thousands of families Anglicised their names to be seen as more socially acceptable. Perhaps the most notable being King George V. His proclamation of 1917 changing the House of Hanover and Saxe-Coburg Gotha to the House of Windsor. Worryingly, the first signs of Muslim families Anglicising their names was seen as early as 2002 following the attack on the twin towers.

More recently the same phenomenon has been observed in Europe and Canada. In his recent book Muslims in Australia, author Nahid Kabir notes the same process happening in Australia.

Of course, many other actions were taken against minorities in the run up to World War II. At least we don’t have those extreme measures being carried out – or do we?

At the outbreak of World War II there were around 80,000 potential enemy aliens in Britain who, it was feared, could be spies, or willing to assist Britain’s enemies in the event of an invasion. All Germans and Austrians over the age of 16 were called before special tribunals and were divided into one of three groups:

‘A’ – high security risks, numbering just under 600, who were immediately interned;
‘B’ – ‘doubtful cases’, numbering around 6,500, who were supervised and subject to restrictions;
‘C’ – ‘no security risk’, numbering around 64,000, who were left at liberty. More than 55,000 of category ‘C’ were recognised as refugees from Nazi oppression. The vast majority of these were Jewish.

Donald TrumpAlthough no such steps have been taken in the UK or elsewhere, there is a worrying trend emerging in some quarters. U.S. Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump recently called for a register of all  Muslims resident in the United States to be created.

The next step was the simplistic thinking from some in the first and second world wars that all Germans were a national security threat and should be excluded from Allied countries.

How far away from that thinking is the Twitter comment issued by Donald Trump on 19th November in which he said “Eight Syrians were just caught on the southern border trying to get into the U.S. ISIS maybe? I told you so. WE NEED A BIG & BEAUTIFUL WALL!”

Of course the views of one radical politician don’t indicate a groundswell of opinion. However, the fact that he feels confident enough to voice such thoughts is in itself telling.

Religious FreedomSome of the legislation being considered and passed in the UK and elsewhere has some worrying similarities with legislation of the late 1930’s.

In the run up to World War II the Dutch Government required citizens to register their religion. Similarly, pre war Germany required leading non Christian leaders to register with the State. These laws and requirements were some of the first ‘impositions on personal liberties’ to be swept away in post war reconstruction and during the founding of the embryonic European project.

Given this it is perhaps troubling that the UK Government is consulting on legislative changes requiring religious leaders of all nominations to register with the State. I certainly don’t seek to encourage or defend religious extremists of any creed, but I would be one of the first to defend anyone’s right to the freedom of religious belief (or lack thereof).

East End ShopFinally, a picture of a rally in Madrid reminded me of the actions taken by Russian and Polish immigrants in both World War I and II.

Those families with Germanic sounding names often found their shops and premises subject to attacks and isolation. This became so problematic that many of the families wrote their nationality on their premises to avoid attack and victimisation.

Whilst it appears these tactics were often successful it shows a deeply ingrained air of mistrust and suspicion which can have done nothing to build social cohesion and inclusion.

terrorA recent rally in Madrid showing support for the victims of attacks in Paris showed some worrying parallels. A young Muslim woman held a card in an act she described as silent reassurance. It read ‘Keep calm. I’m Muslim not a terrorist.”

None of these incidents in isolation mark an indication of immediate conflict. However, it does worry me that a number of these together show striking similarities with the descent to major conflicts of the past.

I fear that steps taken this week will ultimately lead to ground forces being committed in the medium term. I have no idea whether it will make the people of the UK or elsewhere any safer. However, I fear this is merely the start of something far more complex.

My hope is that we have learned some of the lessons of past global conflicts and we can recognise that ISIS doesn’t equate to Muslim and not all liberties are worth sacrificing in the name of security.



Strictly in defence of Jeremy Vine

come dancingAbout ten years ago, the BBC made what could now be described as a brave and inspired move introducing Strictly Come Dancing to the UK.

Replicated across the world, most famously as Dancing with the stars in the US, all were based on Come Dancing which ran on and off in the UK from 1949 to the late 1990’s.

The original was noted for its amateur dancers and their tendency to sew on sequins to any possible item of clothing. The participants were highly skilled and experienced dancers albeit rather plastique at times. By the 1980’s it had a rather stayed, conservative and unexciting reputation which consigned it to a dwindling specialist audience until it was finally scrapped by the BBC in 1998.

After a brief absence from our screens, a re-vamped version Strictly Come Dancing was introduced in 2004 becoming the must-see programme of that and subsequent autumn season viewing.

I should state my position at a fairly early stage; I was a fan of the early series but that interest has gradually waned over

Strictly Come Dancing

      A BBC hit – Strictly Come Dancing

the past few years to such a point that I had not followed or watched the 2015 series. The reasons for this are varied. It feels as though just about every ‘celebrity’ has been put thought the strictly ‘journey’. The inevitable churn of professional dancers means some favoured cast members have left and the focus of the show seems  to have shifted in my view – in a way that made it less attractive.

So what was it that made me catch up with the series (or at least its highlights) this year?  The answer is simple, a twitter message sent to one of the participants, BBC journalist Jeremy Vine,

One of the reasons I became jaded with the series in recent years was the sense that some of the participants were using the series as a means of self-promotion. Clearly as ‘celebrities’ this will always be a consideration, but it appeared to have become the driving factor in some cases. Given that, it was perhaps no surprise to read the message on Mr Vine’s website.

messageOne contributor called Martin posted a message stating ” Def time for Bovine to leave the show. Great for a laugh but not a natural dancer. Sorry m8 but time for you to MOVE ON”

Firstly, I have no issue with Martin or his right to make such a comment – I just strongly disagree with it. In fact, I felt so strongly about it that I reviewed highlights of the series so far to see what could have led to these comments. After all, he isn’t the first contestant to be less naturally talented than his fellow competitors.

What I saw (and I appreciate others may see something different) was a rather normal man enjoying to learn to dance and doing his best to progress in sort of dance competition. It may be true to say that Jeremy Vine isn’t as natural a dancer  as some others in the series this year. However, I have to ask the question – so what ?

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a journalist the response to this call for him to leave the show also came via social media. Then again to quote Phineas T. Barnum “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”

In his response, Mr Vine explains how he doesn’t want to set a bad example to his daughters and reinforces the fact that he’s trying to do his best and improve as the weeks pass. For me setting a good example is certainly valid but ultimately a very personal matter.

Julian Clary in 2013

Julian Clary in 2013

How sad it would be if we could only participate in things where we had natural talent. For me Jeremy Vine is giving of his best – whether that’s as good as others isn’t the point. He certainly isn’t the first to suffer from this phenomena, Julian Clary seemed to me to suffer some of the same in 2013.

In fact, the rise of personality and ‘entertainment value’ over good old fashioned hard work and effort is one of the reasons I stopped following the series in mid 2014.

I may mark both Julian Clary and Jeremy Vine lower than others in terms of technical capability, but very few put in more work rate than either and I thought (perhaps mistakenly) the show was also about learning a new skill. What a great role model both men have been to men of a certain age to take on new challenges and conquer them. More power to your elbow Jeremy.

Without singling out any previous competitors it is clear that Vine is taking things seriously – or more accurately not playing the routine for mere impact or comedic value.  When competitors start to be airlifted in to the start of their routines or using stunts and gimmicks they lose so much in my eyes. Whilst it’s true there must be an entertainment value, for me it shouldn’t overwhelm the dance element. It would have been easy to venture into this space but to his credit Jeremy Vine and his coach have consistently resisted this.

MostPopularUltimately, one of my strongest reservations about the most recent series is the tendency for all things to come down to a popularity contest  among the competitors.

Any one of these perceived negatives might be a reason to stop participating (or not start in the first place) in the series. However, just because you’re not seen as the world’s best at anything doesn’t seem to me to be a good reason to stop.

I doubt I will be restarting the series for the reasons already  stated, but I really hope those taking part don’t believe the hype – after all the audience is just that. Enjoy the skills you’re learning and don’t worry too much about the views of the armchair waltzers.

Are we all going the way of the knocker-uppers?

As someone who has spent some time researching my family history, I remember the surprise when I found a distant relative of mine had been a dog-whipper in the mid 1700’s.

The Dog Whipper

The Dog Whipper

As an avid dog lover this was something of a horrific finding. In fact, after a little research although not wonderful, I found that this late in century there was no longer any whipping involved. In fact, this job was a type of church-warden who’s role was to chase off (or in extremis remove) dogs during church services.

Historically, it had not been uncommon for dogs to accompany their owners to church, often with interesting consequences. The preferred tools of the trade were actually a large pair of wooden tongs often padded with leather pads  or netting with which to remove the errant hounds. The dog whippers had disappeared shortly afterwards as it became socially unacceptable to take dogs into churches.

Searching through census returns of the last hundred years it started to become something of a side interest when I found a particularly interesting occupation.



The most likely reason for the disappearance of occupations before the industrial revolution was a change in social convention. However, after the industrial revolution the introduction of technology takes over and makes roles which were once considered indispensable redundant.

One of the more common roles was the lamplighter who wandered the streets of 19th century towns lighting and extinguishing the gas lamps of the time. It was seen as one of the more secure semi-skilled jobs of the time – after all what could replace gas lights. When automated town gas and early electric lighting emerged, this didn’t stop the occupation from disappearing in little over 10 years.

A Victorian Knocker-Upper

A Victorian Knocker-Upper

This then brings us to the deliciously named knocker-uppers who were key to the maintenance of an effective workforce until well into the Victorian era.

Shared houses held several families, clocks and watches cost the equivalent of several weeks wages and those late for work were simply replaced by willing replacements queuing for work at factory offices. Given that, for our Victorian forebears, having a reliable timepiece could provide one of the most lucrative if antisocial jobs of the time.

Charging each household a weekly fee of between a farthing and sixpence, the household could ensure that they would be woken (or knocked) up in time for them to start work. Some contemporary authors indicate that the knocker-upper was often paid second only to the landlord. Without turning up on time the likelihood of the workhouse or penury increased beyond measure. This role continued to be vital until the introduction of factory clocks and systems such as steam whistles indicating the start of the working day. However, the demise of this job is perhaps the most sudden with the role disappearing entirely within a period of three to five years.

Fleet Street Typesetters

Fleet Street Typesetters

Of course, those with skilled occupations have managed to fight off the rise of technology for longer. The dexterity, attention to detail speed and ability to work in reversed text had made the typesetter a skilled occupation from Tudor times until well into the 1980’s.

However, this has changed with the growth of computerised technology, mobile working and the introduction of laser and thermal printing.  These developments have seen the typesetter consigned to the list of historic occupations. It was perhaps the earliest example of technology moving into and replacing skilled workers.

Despite these advances, the rise of technology was typically limited to replacement technologies or the introduction of computer processing making many administrative roles redundant. Until recent years, it was more uncommon to see more complex functions replaced. That may soon change with a new range of robotics making new inroads into areas previously very much the domain of a human workforce.

In this Sept. 2, 2015, photo, a cow voluntarily gets milked by a robot at Lambert Farm in Graniteville, Vt. With trouble finding reliable labor and technology more readable available, some family dairy farms from the Northeast to the Midwest are turning to robots to milk cows to stay competitive. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

Now, robots are making significant inroads into the workplace, again following the same pattern with less skilled work. Farmhands, milkers, stockmen and cattle herders are being replaced across the United States and Europe.

Cattle no longer graze in fields with scheduled milking times but instead attend a robotic milking parlour when they want food. On arrival a robotic milking arm identifies the specific cow, scans the udder to ensure the optimum milking technique for the particular animal. It then applies a milking cup and orders food for the cow to be dispensed.

Meanwhile a second robot monitors the feed ensuring waste is reduced by sweeping feed back towards the cattle and dispensing food only to the bays where cattle are waiting. Whilst farmers report up to 30% increase in yield these advances have been far from universally popular. Concerns over the welfare of grazing animals being permanently ‘housed’ and significant reductions in workforce make this an innovation feared by many. The parlour can replace a team of 5-6 herdsmen with a single ipod or tablet control.

amazonWith increasing amounts of retail transactions completed online we have already seen retail jobs reducing as large warehouses servicing internet orders increasingly take their place.

Even here, human interaction is becoming entirely optional. The new Amazon warehousing systems have replaced significant numbers of fork lift drivers, warehouse workers, packers and dispatchers. Automated pallet, storage and picking robots ensure that goods are picked within seconds of an order having been placed. It even has hidden impacts such as the fact that fewer safety/health and safety officers are required as the warehouse spaces have effectively become human free zones reducing the opportunity for injury significantly.

robot2Now, using similar technology, the robots are starting to breach the semi-skilled and skilled environments. Hospitals are now reducing the number of pharmacists as medicine storage, replenishment, distribution and delivery are run via a fully robotic pharmacy.

Two new build  hospitals in the United Kingdom also have an underground level with robotic porters. Guided beds are integrated with the door and lift controls and the underground level allows access across the entire hospital site.

The question for most of us remains, how liable is my job or occupation to be overtaken by automation. Of course in the past this would have been something a consultant or business analyst may have helped you assess. Now, the groundwork has been done and published on the web. (Another role bites the dust).

In recent years the questions being asked were around what we would do with all the spare time automation would give us. Now, it seems to me that we are more likely to be asking what on earth will people still be employed to do? Other than those selling or servicing robotic workforces, there is also the question of how we will earn money to buy whatever is being mechanically produced, sold and distributed. It’s a shame robots don’t need knocker-uppers !

Does Germany still have a ‘special responsibility’?

This last weekend saw my fourth visit to Berlin over the past two years. Although I had previously been to the city a couple of times pre-unification, these had been more ‘passing through with work’. It has only been over the last four visits that I have really come to like the city in a similar way to my existing love of Paris.

Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin

Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin

However, it is certainly my view that Berlin has changed quite noticeably in those visits. This weekend, I became aware of a strong and growing social resentment. At the risk of falling into a Fawlty Towers cliché, this is, in my view related to Germany’s psyche and specifically its continued sensitivities about its wartime history.

If you visit Berlin, the city carries these scars quite obviously. The Jewish memorial is justifiably prominent, deeply moving and thought provoking. However, arguably, it has become the singular physical representation of the nations consciousness. There is an emotional and sometimes a physical blanking out of the war years. The equally striking and emotionally charged Russian war memorial is comparatively unknown.

Berlin2If you are lucky enough to visit the revamped 1930’s Olympic stadium you will notice the almost Egyptian chiselling of historic symbols from the fabric of the building. Hardly surprising as nobody least of all me would want to see Swastikas retained for historic integrity. However, this has served as a strong symbol reflecting the ongoing sensitivities.

Within the rebuilt German Parliament, you will read a brief summary of the war years and an explanation that this history gives Germany a ‘special responsibility’ towards minorities and victims of religious or political persecution. This can appear to a non German national who wasn’t alive during the war to be over-compensation. Nobody would equate modern Germany with the days of the Nazi regime. Few consider the German people responsible for the actions of its political ruling class at the time. I have certainly seen nothing but a progressive, friendly, open and very welcoming country. I believe the rest of the world has come to terms with the actions of 1940’s Germany – I for one would like Germany to do the same.

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel

The current mass migrations from Syria led to a reiteration of this special responsibility with an open door policy announced for any Syrian refugees. It was notable on the day before I left that the definition of refugee in German media was becoming an issue. Should it be limited to the UN or legal definitions or more broadly move to what others would refer to as economic migrants.

I hasten to say that I have great sympathy and an natural impulse to accept genuine refugees (those with a genuine fear of loss of life/persecution). The current position with mass migrations across Europe is an appalling one, however, does that make all concerned refugees? The knee-jerk instinctive reaction from  German political leaders means these questions were simply not addressed.

German Protesters against refugees

German Protesters against refugees

This weekend, in Berlin, I was amazed at what appeared to be a vault face based on atypical political naivety.

In an amazing demonstration of surprise, Germany changed it’s approach on border controls stating it was surprised at the number of refugees arriving. Munich was reported by the German press as failing to cope with 30,000 people having arrived in 2 days. I wonder what was expected when you effectively announce an open door policy? Whether you agree with the policy or not, surely you can and should hardly be surprised when people offered a place in Germany head to Germany.

More worryingly, I detected a change in tone among the German public (at least those reported in the press and in the café society of Berlin. Demonstrators took to the streets in Freital, Germany demonstrating against the provision of accommodation being provided to refugees. It appeared this was a criticism of the unstructured nature of the governments policy.  Whilst protestors accepted refugees and those seeking asylum they strongly resisted economic migration on such a scale.

Alarmingly Rhabbi Barkhan, Director of one of Germany’s leading Jewish support charities spoke out publically about the concerns of the German Jewish community being able to accommodate and integrate upwards of 800,000 people with what they perceived to be a natural hostility towards them.

“We as Jews have compassion for the refugees… there are children from war-torn countries. But on the other hand, we’re afraid they may be terrorists. As Jews, we are supporting Israel and our people. Here, they don’t need us,”

Whether or not you agree with these concerns, many in Germany clearly believe these internal frictions could have been avoided with a little more thought and reconsidering what Germany’s special responsibility means in the current climate.

Berlin5What I noticed during my most recent visit was the increased number of people sleeping rough on the streets. Many of the budget hotels were being used to home migrants without any obvious support or assistance to integrate or even understand their surroundings.

When travelling back from an evening out in Berlin, I was amazed at the sea of bodies on either side of the river. Sheltering under boxes, blankets and plastic, these refugees whilst safer than in Syria had found a far less favourable Germany than they had anticipated.

During the day, numerous migrants were collecting discarded bottles, cans and plastics to sell in order to support themselves. A few days after announcing a welcome to all, Germany had closed it’s borders, reinforced it’s most porous borders with the military and called on the rest of Europe to accept mandated immigration quotas to help support Germany’s special responsibility. As a visitor in Berlin, it didn’t look promising at this point. Following Hungary, Austria and Serbia announcing that they were not bound by Germany’s open door policy all border controls in those countries were strengthened.

Berlin6On my last day in Berlin, the  news covered the border closures. A German couple at breakfast surprised me by saying ‘It won’t be long before they start shooting at them’. Prophetic words indeed. After landing back in the UK I remembered these words as Hungary deployed water cannon and CS spray to disperse those seeking to cross the border to Germany.

So how much has a default and instinctive belief in a special responsibility helped those attempting to cross the continent. I for one am uncertain that  it has done much to solve the underlying issues.

I hope that Germany will reconsider it’s position. Seventy years after the end of World War II the special responsibility is no longer appropriate as a default position. The impact has been much wider than Germany itself and continues to impact neighbouring states. Ironically, it may already have increased the likelihood of conflict within existing minority communities. A more controlled implementation, (which need not mean fewer people accepted) may allow the impact of a generous humanitarian policy to be more measured and less challenging for all concerned.

What price a cup of tea?

Some things have the capability to act as shorthand for a country, a kind of national image which everyone associates with a people or nationality. Often this is even the case when the object in question has very little to do with that country in terms of origin.

teaOne such example is the humble cup of tea. Few other things could immediately conjure up the British nation than it’s devotion to tea. The best estimates suggest that over 60 billion cups of tea are made each year in the United Kingdom alone.

Despite being only six major types of tea (white, yellow, green, oolong, black and post-fermented) these all come from the same species of tea bush, the difference is merely in the post picking preparation. The love affair with these steeped leaves started in the 1600’s with Portuguese traders bringing tea leaves back to Europe from China.

Indeed some people say the British love of tea stems from decisions made in Tudor times when Elizabeth I granted the East India company a charter to operate. As that company grew, it established an infrastructure which ultimately supported the British Empire in India and lands capable of growing plants smuggled out of China.

moneyWhatever the reasons, it is clear that tea is now very big business in the United Kingdom. The exact figures are hard to establish accurately, however, there is little doubt that tea production and sale in Britain is an industry generating in excess of £1 billion pound annually.

Although originally a Chinese specialist plant, the majority of the world tea production is now concentrated in the sub-continent of India. Assam and Darjeeling being the best known areas.

The Indian government recognising the importance of a stable and readily available workforce placed requirements on tea plantation owners to provide adequate homes for their workforce. A move which at the time of its introduction made the more reputable plantations attractive employment options.

tea1However, things have deteriorated over recent years with homes in many estates now being little more than shacks. Many have virtually no roofs and the original concept of a house per worker has been rapidly moved to multiple occupancy often with as many as eight families sharing one small hut.

Many of the plantation owners have also started to apply a

de-facto levy to the provision of housing. They claim these requirements provide above average living standards for their staff which means their base salaries can remain low – and by that I mean typically £1 per day.

tea2The backlog of repairs on many  of these estates means people living without running water, sanitation and even functioning toilets. Some simply have the concrete footprint remaining to indicate where former outhouses once stood. Yet despite this wages of tea workers have remained unchanged for years. This has already led to industrial unrest and even the murder of one estate owner. However, most people are simply living on existence wages so ‘rocking the boat’ by taking a stand for workers rights is simply not an option. More details of this aspect were recently reported by the BBC’s Justin Rowlat

So is there an issue with the sale of tea from these estates? Is the product over-priced or hard to sell? These conditions exist in plantations selling to Tetley, Yorkshire Tea, Twinings and Fortnum and Masons to name but a few. Hardly the cheaper end of the retail market and far from small purchasers.

tea3As an example an experienced tea worker can pick up to three bags of tea leaves during their shift for a day. Once processed these can make a pallet of tea, roughly 500 packets of loose tea such as the one shown  here.

In this example, just one of those five hundred packets within that pallet sells for £7.50. Put another way, just  one packet equates to nearly a weeks wages for the average tea picker. Someone somewhere is making a very nice living, but it certainly isn’t  those picking the leaves to provide your breakfast cuppa.

Regulation and legislation does exist in India to address these conditions. However, the simple truth is that they appear to be totally ineffective. So what are our famous name purchasers doing with their undoubted buying power to improve the situation? The answer appears to be washing their hands of the problem. It appears to be the majority view that this is an internal matter for India to resolve.

So next time you pay for your branded tea and wonder why fair trade tea might be more expensive this could well be one reason for the increased prices. However, reliance on fair trade isn’t sufficient in my view. Come on big brands, make a stand and refuse to accept working conditions that would have been more at home in the worst of the Dickensian novels. Food for thought when you next put the kettle on for you cup of English breakfast.

The vital Importance of Being Earnest (Vaudeville Theatre, London)

TIOBE1An unusual but not unique blog today with a set of thoughts based around (among other productions) a review of The Importance of being Ernest. This classic comedy is arguably Oscar Wilde’s true masterpiece and is currently playing for a relatively short run at the Vaudeville Theatre, London.

As a fan of this Wildian romp through Victorian social climbing I was desperately looking forward to seeing this production. With David Suchet and Michele Dotrice there was a promise which was almost always carried the risk of under delivering.  However, in this case that was an unnecessary fear.

From the very first entrance on stage by Algernon Moncriefe, it was clear we were dealing with actors comfortable with large parts. The sets had been prepared with a conservative but effective attention to detail and simplicity but allowed a modern and witty directing style to keep the actors in a near permanent state  of animation.

Whilst this was well received by the audience (and ultimately it’s bums on seats that count) I thought the amount of ‘business’ on stage might be slightly more than was called for by the original, rather more leisurely script. However, it made for both a bright and pacey first act which took us rushing to the first of the two intervals.

globe2Only a few weeks earlier, I had been lucky enough to see As you Like It at the Globe theatre, a production I enjoyed and am similarly pleased to have seen.

However, for a production which spent so much time focusing on detail and accuracy there were a few ‘liberties’ taken with the production apparently to make the play more palatable to modern audiences. Perhaps the most notable being the entrance of Audrey (a comedy foil) on stage riding a 1970’s style shopper cycle which  although effective was certainly anachronistic. For anyone other than the purist (and perhaps not even all of them) this worked well and brought humour to an otherwise ‘hard going’ part of the play. However, for me it jarred, it was almost lazy, the easy way out.

Please don’t misunderstand me, the actors concerned were both excellent and unless Audrey snuck in the cycle as some elaborate ad-lib, were operating as directed. Presumably the addition was felt necessary to lighten the mood and make the scene more accessible to a modern audience? It’s simply that with so much attention to detail elsewhere this was almost patronising to the audience. Would a wooden wheel-barrow or a donkey or anything less out of time been an impossibility? Alternatively, why not in line skates or a moped?

My concerns, such as they existed were similar for the Importance of being Earnest. The text is certainly of it’s time and even dated in parts, but directors please note – 90 percent of the audience know this before they buy the tickets.

clownFor my taste, the production fell just on the wrong side (at times) of pratfalls and farce. Again, it was clear why, to ma language more accessible, text less dense and to give multi-dimensional characterisation to characters who stretch the suspension of disbelief at times.

However, the amount of physical comedy from a cast who clearly could have achieved the same level of comedy from the beauty of the text was at times overdone for my liking – although many in the audience clearly loved it and didn’t share my concerns.

It is impossible (or perhaps more accTIOBE2urate to say) that it would be inappropriate to single out any particular cast member as they were a true ensemble acting as a traditional troupe.

David Suchet’s Lady Bracknell was an amazingly subtle almost filmic tour de force of facial expressions and comedy timing. Having seen many others including Dame Maggie Smith and Edith Evans (albeit on film) he certainly found new space for this amazing character to live.

However, even here, (whether following direction or the actors wish not to ‘parrot’ Dame Edith), there was a singular choice which left me robbed of an old friend.

The best known line in the production is undoubtedly ‘A handbag?’ asked (usually incredulously) by Lady Bracknell on learning of the birthplace (or at least finding) or Jack Worthing.

Undoubtedly for the best of theatrical reasons, this was delivered not as a statement of shock or disbelief, but rather as a swallowed laugh. The only point in a spotless performance that I felt didn’t quite ring true.

DirectorSo was I glad to have seen the performances? Absolutely.  Did I enjoy them? Undoubtedly. My only appeal would be to Directors to trust their audiences to know the work they are about to watch or to be capable enough to endure the rough patches with the high emotional and performance peaks.

So much has been ‘dummed down’ in recent years that some of us seek out challenging, thought provoking and demanding theatre. Sometimes that also includes being reintroduced to an old friend who doesn’t need to have been subject to a ‘makeover’ or turned into pantomime. Be brave, be imaginative but remain true to the text and the spirit of the production.

Regrettably you are too late to see As you Like It, but if you get a chance to see The Importance of Being Earnest and tell me I know not of what I speak, I would thoroughly recommend you to do so. Two amazing shows.