20 October, 2007


A thin veneer

One anecdote from the Telegraph obituary of the redoubtable David Muffett (with thanks to Laban for the link) which lingers in my mind is this one:
In 1960 he apprehended the Tigwe of Vwuip, a northern Nigerian tribal chief who had eaten the local tax collector. The Tigwe had apparently been so impressed by the man's ability to acquire money on demand that he had — understandably — decided to try to assimilate his powers.

It was not so much this particular misdemeanour that bothered Muffett; what really worried him was the fact that a UN delegation was due to visit the area, and "I wasn't about to have one of them eaten. I considered that it would be a highly retrogressive step."

The Tigwe, who was surprised to learn that the colonial authorities disapproved of his eating habits, was duly sent to jail — but only "until the delegation had departed beyond the reach of his culinary aspirations".

What sticks in my mind here is the year: 1960. This is not some tale from the semi-mythical halcyon days of Empire in the 19th century; this actually took place within my lifetime. In 1960, while this was happening in Northern Nigeria, I was a 12-year-old schoolboy in Manchester. The indiscriminately omnivorous Tigwe was a contemporary of my father or perhaps my grandfather. It shows my numerous Nigerian neighbours in a new light. No, I am not expecting to be kidnapped on my way to the station and placed into a cooking pot, but you do begin to wonder about the deep cultural beliefs of people who are only two, at most three generations away from this sort of stuff, particularly when taken in the wider context of other, ongoing, African beliefs like kindoki, muti killings and the like.

What are we letting ourselves in for?



"Shibboleth" is a ragged fissure stretching across the vast ramp of the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern gallery.

My attitude to modern art, and in particular the self-important sub-genre called "installations", is that it can be enjoyable if you do not attempt to take it seriously. Sometimes it can be quite fun, like Gormley's figures that were recently spread around unlikely sites in central London, or the 30-foot figure that appeared to be swimming through the earth near the glass testicle recently. Taken simply as a spectacle, "Shibboleth" is quite impressive, breaking up the emptiness of the Turbine Hall ramp in a striking way, and I am quite happy to appreciate it on that level.

Apparently, bourgeois middle-aged middle-class bigot that I am, I have got it all wrong. According to an interview with the artist (installer?) Doris Salcedo, in a handout written for Tate Modern by Time Out staff, it is a metaphor for racism.
In essence, this crevice represents the divisions between creed, colour, class and culture that maintain our social order, precariously balanced as it is on the precipice of a chaotic void of hatred. 'It's about racism and segregation,' says Salcedo, and about inscribing a perspective in the museum that was not already there. The museum is the centre, the very heart of high, refined European culture. This culture is what the right-wingers are trying to 'save' and what the immigrants are jeopardising.'

Shibboleth is also a specific comment on London, a place we like to think of as multicultural, inclusive and ethnically diverse. 'You have on one level a society that considers itself homogeneous, but I've been wandering around, visiting estates near here, and the north/south divide is very evident.' Indeed the two halves of the Turbine Hall represent the two sides of the Thames; the haves in the City of London on one side and the have-nots residing in Southwark and beyond.

The gap also crosses generations and harks back to the influx of immigrants who came here to boost this country's industry, at the same time as the turbines housed in Gilbert Scott's original Bankside power station fired up in 1947.
Well swipe me. So much latent significance in a simple piece of licensed vandalism. I am suitably chastened.

14 October, 2007


The joys of the internal market

This is old news, which I have just stumbled across while re-reading old posts in Megacorp Inc's internal company newsgroups, but it deserves a fresh airing in my decidedly flabbered gast.

It transpires that, due to a quirk of the NHS's bizarre internal trading rules, a hospital loses fees if it treats patients too quickly, even when resources are available. To maximize revenue, the hospital must ideally schedule operations for between 4 and 6 months after referral. Later than 6 months and a Government target is missed. But earlier than 4 months and the referring Primary Care Trust does not have to pay.

This is typical of the unintended consequences of "internal trading" structures, and not just in the public services, either.


English as she is increasingly spoke

This morning I was standing on London Bridge station waiting for a connection. Announcements for my platform were being made by a woman with an African accent so thick as to be barely comprehensible. At least I think she was attempting to speak English. Perhaps it was Yoruba or Hausa. It might as well have been. I was able to interpret the announcements from context, long familiarity with the station's routine as a regular commuter, and by cross-referencing with the display screens. How less frequent travellers were getting on is another matter.

Now the point of this is that this woman was functionally incompetent. The job of train dispatch staff at London Bridge includes making announcements, as well as answering individual passenger queries. If she cannot speak English to an adequate standard, ie in a manner comprehensible to a native British English speaker, then she is unqualified and should not be working in that position.

Of course, I have encountered this situation on many previous occasions, but it would be counterproductive to complain to the railway; I can live without a couple of coppers breaking my door down and hauling me off to jail for speaking less than deliriously positively of a "member of a minority community", thank you very much.

This is nothing new. About 30 years ago I was in charge of a team which trained operators for what would now be called a high-end call-centre function. On one occasion the recruitment team (separately managed) took on a Ghanaian gentlemen whose Twi or Ewe or whatever was doubtless impeccable, but whose English was just not up to an adequate standard. He should have been terminated as close to immediately as employment legislation allowed. Instead, because middle management were as terrified then as they are now of accusations of racism, we had to devote resources to attempting to train this geezer, with entire weeks of individual tuition repeated two or three times. It took over four months of wasted resource to demonstrate to the management's satisfaction that he could be safely sacked for incompetence.

13 October, 2007


Progress -- of sorts

I am sure that there are plenty of ethnically-themed social events at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) which pass without comment and are indeed lauded as celebrating various exotic cultures, but when Timothy McLellan organized an "English party", all hell broke loose.

So far so predictable, but this pleasantly surprised me

Aileen Puhlmann, co-president of sports and society at the SOAS student union, said: "When I saw the poster I could see the irony in it but at the same time you could make a big deal of it, especially here.

"You could blow it up into something it clearly wasn't meant to be other than a good night out."

"It could either make people laugh or offend and, unfortunately, it offended."

What a sensible girl. Maybe there's hope for us all yet.

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