On Parental Guidance

A group of head teachers has said that parents who allow their children to play computer games that are deemed inappropriate for their age will be reported to police for neglect and child abuse.

This means that theoretically, I could be separated from my 16 year old son because I choose to treat him like the near-adult he so plainly is. He is old enough to marry, to join the Army and vote in a referendum that decided the fate of his country, had we been living in Scotland.

A turn of Call of Duty, though, and he becomes a potential juvenile delinquent, while we are failed parents.

How on earth did we get here? One of the themes of this blog has always been the number of unelected, often uniformed busybodies who can increasingly determine what we do, what we choose to consume and in which parts of our common space we may congregate.

I have no idea how genuine the latest threat is – it does seem like one of those stories designed purely to provoke a reaction from the Daily Mail. Nor do I expect the Boy to be marched into protective custody at any time soon.

We have always taken a liberal approach to the sort of TV, films, books and games our children are allowed to access. This is partly because we are aware of our relative inability to exercise much control over this. Also, we believe that exposure to more grown-up material is more likely to act as a maturing influence. There are, plainly, no-go areas, but these are ones into which neither of our children seem to want to go.

We have taken a bit of criticism for this, from educators and other parents who take a different view. That is our decision as parents, and ours alone to take. They seem to have turned out well enough. I blench at the sort of carnage the Boy wreaks on demons, zombies and enemy infantrymen on the computer screen, but he has shown no sign so far of repeating it on passers-by.

What we have here, if this absurd restriction on our ability to decide what is best for our own offspring ever takes hold, is another case where the freedoms of the responsible majority must be curtailed because of the behaviour of a feckless minority. Cf sugar and fatty foods, drink, etc, etc.

The only saving grace is that nothing will ever come of it. I assume.


On “Jazz Hands”, And Students

One story has been bugging me all week. The audience at a conference of female students has been asked to refrain from applause during delegates’ speeches because this might cause “anxiety”.

Instead, they are asked by the National Union of Students to use “jazz hands”. This, derived from an earlier form of jazz dancing, I assume, involves holding your hands out, palms outwards, and wiggling your fingers.

(Thus requiring that audience to look like nothing so much as the cast of the late and deeply unlamented light entertainment show The Black and White Minstrels, though given the all-pervading political correctness the union’s diktat suggests, it might be better not to go too far down that route. Younger readers, Google it and prepare to be appalled.)

What has been bugging me is what this says about the current generation of students, apparently so emotionally fragile they are unable to countenance anything so disruptive as actual applause. The story has, to be fair, triggered a generally hostile response on Twitter.

We already know that student unions are increasingly inclined to ban speakers with whose views they disagree, in case the purity of their political thoughts might somehow be sullied by dissenting voices.

In my day, student political debate was noisy and rough, accompanied by shouting, barracking, boos, strenuous shows of support and, occasionally, unwarranted threats of physical violence.

God alone knows how today’s academic shrinking violets would cope with that.

On Fela Kuti, And Nigeria

Nigeria goes to the polls this weekend, if the ruling government allows this. As it happens, I have been listening a lot lately to that country’s best known musician, and arguably its best known political activist.

I wonder what Fela Kuti would have made of Nigeria today, Africa’s most populous country and one of its most troubled, in a field not short of competition. Kuti was not exactly sparing in his condemnation of the various regimes foisted on his homeland during his lifetime.

As it happens one candidate, the former general Muhammadu Bihari, was one of them, ruling oppressively between 1983 and 1985. Kuti was jailed by him on a charge of currency smuggling which most neutral observers believe was groundless and motivated by his political activism, expressed through his music. He was released by Bihari’s successor and continued to make politically charged protest music, as many as two dozen albums, perhaps.

Kuti is sometimes lazily described as the Bob Marley of Africa. Both men are dead, and they shared a prodigious appetite for marijuana. Both seem to have taken a fairly relaxed view on the pressures imposed by monogamy  and marriage – Kuti had a dozen or more wives at any time.

His  music was in a style called Afrobeat, a hypnotic, propulsive mix of west African music and influences such as jazz and funk. His band was huge; songs went on for ten, twenty minutes, with long, jazz-derived instrumental sections featuring massed horns, often played out for some stretch of time before the arrival of the  first vocals.

Those vocals featured call and response exchanges between Kuti, who sang in a just about comprehensible pidgin English, and his backing singers. If this sounds less than appealing, it is as a sound hugely powerful – it should come as no shock to anyone who likes, say, Weather Report, Bitches Brew-period Miles Davis or even Brazilian music, some of which it resembles. Not to mention American funk such as Sly and George Clinton – perhaps not surprisingly, given all the above’s shared African roots.

Kuti excoriates those corrupt rulers, the global corporations who colluded with them to loot the  country’s riches – one of his best known songs is called International Thief Thief, a play on the telecoms company ITT – the Nigerian military, and the  lack of water and denial of basic human needs and rights suffered by Nigerians.

Kuti founded in Lagos The Shrine, a nightclub, and a linked commune. His 1977 album, Zombie, which attacked the military in such terms, triggered the inevitable response. Soldiers attacked his commune, it was torched, his studio and instruments were destroyed, he was beaten and his mother suffered fatal injuries.

Kuti’s response was typical. He delivered his mother’s coffin to the barracks where Nigeria’s military ruler then lived. He also marked the occasion the next year by marrying 27 wives.

Kuti died in 1997 of complications related to AIDS. He was probably not a terribly nice person, his attitude to women stank, but he was a man who took up opposition to what needed opposing, and he was never afraid to stand at the head of the Awkward Squad.

I doubt he would have had much more time for the other candidate in this weekend’s election, the incumbent and largely ineffectual Goodluck Johnson, than for his one-time jailor. These are times, however, when Nigeria, and perhaps elsewhere, needs more Fela Kutis.

On Housing As A Foreign Investment

A local estate agent wants to sell my house to the Chinese.

It has teamed up with “the largest property portal in China” and is seeking properties worth £1 million or more to sell to Chinese investors. I am not sure my own home qualifies, but there are plenty close around that do.

What next? Will they turn up on the doorstep with interested parties, and a bag full of cash? We know that new properties, being built in London and elsewhere, are being siphoned off by Chinese buyers and others. Now this ghastly bunch of property spivs are facilitating the purchase of existing, and by London standards modest, housing stock.

These would come off the market to provide a return for those investors, at the highest rental rates the market can stand.

It is hard to over-emphasise just how damaging this would be, if the practice becomes widespread. It further stokes the ridiculous rate of house price inflation in London, while taking more property away from local buyers. My street would become full of rootless, short term renters, probably from overseas, with no connection to the local community. We have enough of these already. Locals would move out, to God knows where, so making it even harder for local companies to find employees. It’s a no win all around.

Coincidentally, we learn this week that the average price of houses in China is falling faster than at any time anyone can remember, as the wheels come off the Chinese economic miracle. The sort of growth rates that economy has enjoyed, probably illusory because the official statistics cannot be trusted, are slowing. The bubble is deflating. While China needs to keep the living standards of its emerging middle class rising because otherwise they might raise other demands, such as a degree of democracy.

No wonder those Chinese investors want to find a safe haven to stash the funds they have already amassed before it all goes sour.

Is there nothing we will not do to prostitute ourselves to the newly rich economies in Asia?

Oh, and our estate agent promises “a strict no sale no fee policy”. This means they will not charge me if they fail to sell the property I don’t want them to sell anyway. How kind.

On Bankers, Ethics And Train Fares

If someone is dishonest in their private life, should they be sacked from their job for life? Even if there is no connection between the two?

The man who runs the organisation that tries to train bankers to operate ethically has been asking just this. If a banker cheats on his train fares, is he or she automatically disqualified from looking after other people’s money?

This is a real life case. Last summer a banker, little known outside his specialist field, was barred from working for life after it was discovered he had systematically cheated on the fares payable between his home in Kent and the City. Some suggested at the time that his behaviour typified the moral vacuum at the heart of banking. If he, who could easily afford the fare on his £1 million salary, thought it was acceptable to cheat, what did it say about the morals and ethics of his colleagues in the Square Mile?

 Simon Culhane, who runs the organisation setting the exams bankers and brokers have to take before they qualify to work, thinks the banker was hard done by. I have known Culhane for years, and he is a long way from being an apologist for the breed. The exams administered by CISI, the body he runs, contain complex questions on ethics that those who take them have to get right – whether or not they go ahead and adhere to those principles in their subsequent careers.

Culhane argues that, while bankers should behave ethically at all times, the actual offence of fare dodging had no bearing on how he looked after clients’ money or carried out his duties. A period of suspension would have been more appropriate than a lifetime ban.

I wonder. If you are found guilty of shoplifting – no, me neither – should you lose your job as a banker? Or a shop assistant, in a different shop? Or a bus driver? Or a low-paid charity worker? In reality, most contracts of employment have some catch-all clause about “bringing the company into disrepute”, which can be stretched to justify dismissal.

Many employers, though, would take a view that, rather than have to replace unnecessarily a valuable member of staff, it might be best to turn a blind eye. Plenty of such cases probably go through the magistrates’ courts without the employer even knowing. Our banker’s mistake was being a banker. He paid the money back and was not prosecuted. The ban was imposed not by his employer but by the City regulator.

Now extend the question to taking illicit drugs, or even a little light dealing in them among friends. Not necessarily class A, in an employee’s own time, in a way that does not affect his or her work. Do we fire every 20-something who indulges thus? The law has been broken.

No, I rather think not. Which suggests there is a degree of hypocrisy here.


Be honest. When did you last buy anything at BHS, or British Homes Stores, or whatever it is called these days?

If you want bland, middle market, fashion, go to Marks & Spencer. For something a bit racier, and probably cheaper, TK Maxx. Socks and knickers, your local grocery superstore, as you do the Saturday shopping. One sock is enough like another. Alternatively, for something fashionable, the usual expensive boutiques, probably conveniently located in a clump in your local high street department store. What, of the above, would you buy at BhS?

Yet an obscure bunch of investors have agreed to take BHS off the hands of Sir Philip Green, the at times irascible retail entrepreneur who has finally tired of trying to turn  the loss-making chain around. Two pointers to the future of BhS: I have known Green for two decades or more, and he is, ahem, not exactly crippled with self-doubt or one to give up on a challenge. If he can’t do it…

Second, Harriet Green, someone else I know from her time turning around Thomas Cook, has reportedly declined the chance to get involved. Thos Cook was on its deathbed when she took over; if even she doesn’t think she can rescue BHS…

Still, hope springs eternal, especially among the sort of private equity princelings who tend to get involved in such last ditch rescues and are constitutionally unable to accept that any task is beyond their innate genius. The shrinking in the high street since the start of the century has failed to keep pace with the growth in the amount of stuff we buy on line, which suggests there may be more pain, closures and bankruptcies to come among established retailers.

Some chains have no rational reason to occupy the space – remember the awful death throes of Woolworths, another chain whose entire raison d’etre evaporated some time around 1996, a decade or so before it finally closed its doors. Remember Habitat, still hanging on in there somewhere? We furnished our first home from Habitat. Mind you, it was 1985.

About the only sectors of the high street that are growing are the pound stores, where you can get a random selection of goods cheap if you are prepared to queue, and the charity shops. I give BhS three years.