Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Having your cake and not eating it.

I was struck at work the other day by a bizarre but extremely common phenomenon. In an earlier post I explained how biscuits are frequently on offer in my office, and the same is certainly true of cake. We're blessed with some excellent bakers, and there's often a cake sale for some cause or other which, purely in the spirit of good citizenship you understand, I'm always happy to support.

A couple of weeks back one of the more renowned makers brought in a Victoria sponge, an impressive thing of several inches in height, looking like something out of a fine patisserie. What followed can only be described as an Andy Capp-style melee, with a big cloud of dust, hands and forks swarming round it like it was the only watering hole left at the end of a very long dry season.

As the dust settled and the victors, for that's the only word to describe them, moved away from the plate with their slices, you may well expect there to have been just a few crumbs on a slightly battered plate. Remnants, nothing, only a suggestion that there was ever cake there in the first place. But that's where the First Law of Cake kicks in, the bizarre phenomenon I mentioned. There was, entirely untouched, standing alone as if on guard over the plate itself, a single slice remaining. The scrum had somehow contrived to contain exactly one person fewer than there were slices available (not that it had turned up pre-sliced - how does that happen?).

That slice stood lonely vigil for much of the rest of the day, for the First Law of Cake is immutable - 'Thou shalt not take the final slice'. Some part of the collective subconscious dictates that it would simply be bad manners. Certain form must be observed, a ritual carefully followed if some curse is not to befall us all:

1) After a decent interval, it's OK for somebody to make some comment to the effect that 'nobody seems to want' the last bit.

2) Later still, it should be remarked that it can't be left there overnight because it'd 'go hard' and be wasted.

3) Finally, somebody shall announce, such that the whole office hears, that they're going to have cake, so there, and help themselves, but under no circumstances must they take the whole slice. They shall cut a piece of it off, leaving a stub. The same shall happen with the next person, and the next, cutting the remains into steadily smaller chunks until the last piece is so small that nobody feels bad about leaving it.

4) The last rites. (I only assume this happens, because I've never been the person responsible for this task). One of the last people out of the office, on the pretext of clearing away the plate and cutlery, finishes it off in the kitchen. Either that or the routinely-blamed-for-everything and possibly mythical 'cleaners' finish it. Or that final piece goes in the bin, that it too takes its share.

This has been the case wherever I've worked, however large or small the cake, however many people involved. People are funny, ain't they?

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Methinks the ladies (and laddies) doth protest too much

Got caught up in the demonstration in central London on Bonfire Night, trying to get home from work on a bus. Just as the crowd left Trafalgar Square, so did my bus. The driver tried to nip ahead of them to get clear, but was stopped by the police, and within moments there were hundreds swarming past, down Whitehall, many of them thumping the bus windows as they went. Journey over – after a long wait, I bailed, and had to make my way home another way.

"I don't know, a bit of everything," the woman behind me said to somebody she'd called to tell she'd be late. Clearly she'd been asked what they were protesting about, and she got it pretty much spot on. I saw, variously, anti-fracking, anti-corruption, anti-government, anti-corporate anti-bloody everything else banners. But I also saw some nonsense about a 1066 law being invalid ('No to your feudal system!' - WTF?), the usual Class War banners, Anonymous banners, etc - a motley lot.

I've written on here before of my belief in the right to protest, even of my admiration for people who bother, but this sort of stuff frankly winds me up for the sheer juvenile, unfocused pointlessness of it. Every generation a group of disaffected young people take up this same cause, raging against the system that so down-treads them and promising 'revolution'. Every generation the same result – nothing. Hundreds of those same people were filming the march they'd joined on cameras or camera-phones – hardly the accoutrements of the starving, huddled masses. Glowing torches, if you like, with their myriad lights pock-marking the thousands; standards borne for the very consumer society of which these young ones are so contemptible. Who do they think makes those devices, runs the networks, provides the bandwidth to 'share' the results on bloody Facebook or wherever? Greenpeace?

Similarly, hundreds of them wore the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask which has become so popular as a symbol of this movement. This is, apparently, one of the top-selling items on Amazon and eBay(!) and the best-selling mask in the world. And for every one of them sold legitimately, Time Warner, another business-world behemoth, picks up a few coins. That'll show 'em – well done, all.

This ignorance of these basics is not what really irks me, though – it'd be an odd demonstration indeed if every person who turned up was focused exactly on what were the real causes of our societal problems, and fully availed of all the facts of whatever matter troubled them – who among us is? What irritates me is the plain fact that nobody seems to be offering an alternative among all this naysaying. Down with the system, they cry - to be replace with what? Something else! What? We don't know, but something else.

Even 'opinion formers' seem to have this problem. I listened, last night, to the interview between Russell Brand and Paxman, which has gone viral lately. Brand attended that same demonstration and is one of the more visible speakers of the movement. He has, importantly, access to the mass media to shout about it. I have a lot of respect for him – he's genuinely and extensively involved with charities in the prison/drug addiction sectors, and is an eloquent, passionate, even angry campaigner on behalf of a movement which needs visible proponents like him. But even he fell short during this joust on what form his ideal system would take. Challenged on his never having voted, and asked what the system he'd have would be, he answered only what it would not be, listing again the failures of our present political system. He said there are better-informed, better-educated and better-placed people to make those decisions than he. Where? Who are these people, and why aren't they more visible? Revolution is coming, he proclaimed. The same cry we've heard ad nauseam for generations, with no actual plan for bringing it about.

It isn't coming. Not with the present tactics, at any rate. This system changes only from within. It may well cater only for a corporate and societal elite, as Brand complains, but not voting, marching down Whitehall and hurling fireworks at the Palace of Westminster is not going to change anything. The only real power of the people is the vote, and nowadays our right to withdraw spending, ironically. If you don't like it, you have to work with the system as it stands to change it – set up your own political party, tell people what you will do, not merely what you won't, galvanise voters to your cause and make changes from inside the system. Two World Wars, for all the huge social, political and economic upheaval they wrought, could not change the fundamentals of the way that system works, so a few banners and a mask are not even going to get noticed. Changes may have occurred but the basic structure is the same so you have to work with it if you want to alter it. You don't vote? Then why should the politicians give a fuck what you think? They have nothing to lose in ignoring you.

Even assuming this movement somehow gathered the wherewithal to bring their revolution about, would it do us any good in the long term? The last genuine people's revolution in a major capitalist society was that of Russia in 1917, and look what legacy that left – something so fundamentally corrupt, so vicious, so open to abuse by the power-hungry that it only lasted two generations or so itself before it too crumbled, brought down once again by the people it purported to embody. What do they have now? A capitalist democracy, of sorts.

I can't see it happening here. We're too comfortable – however many people live in poverty, however much inequality of wealth and power still dominates our socio-economic landscape, we've been willing players in this game, and have little excuse in particular since, as a nation, we bought into the Thatcherite 'money is God' ethos of the eighties and early nineties. Nothing to do with those kids on the march, I know, but then many of those eighties voters were the similarly disaffected youth of the seventies. See how this wheel keeps coming round and round?

So. They will continue their marches. Continue their 'broken society' trumpeting. Continue their entirely negative, entirely unfocused, entirely non-constructive message. All they'll achieve is what they did on Tuesday night – piss off a few thousand commuters and maybe get themselves nicked in the process.