In 1971 I had just finished a teacher training course and was teaching at a comprehensive school in Hackney, now a flourishing educational establishment, but then a place where the sixth form consisted of the highest achievers doing their CSEs in the near forlorn hope that they might get work in a bank. When I first started teaching there, none of the kids had ever taken A-levels or gone to university. It was a place where good teaching really meant doing social work and trying to pump up the kids’ ambition and interests (it was an all girls’ school) beyond getting free from school and family by getting pregnant. At the same time, I was involved in a freeschool I’d started with a friend, for seven siblings and a couple of others from the locality I’d got to know from their hanging about in the local playground, and whose real social worker had come to me and said that unless I invented a school for them over the weekend, they would be taken into care for non-attendance at school.
The new rules that govern what prisoners can be sent in the post by families and friends have caused small tremors in the social media, calling them and their perpetrator, Chris Grayling, the minister in charge, mean, vicious, offensive and disgraceful. The aspect of the changes that has upset people most is that books are no longer allowed to be sent to prisoners. Other 'small items', such as underwear and handmade cards from children, are also prohibited. One odd thing is that these new rules were put in place in November. I remember there being some pieces in the newspapers and comments decrying the changes on Twitter and Facebook. But it didn't take fire as it has now. I don't know why an article about it by Frances Crook has gripped those who care about books and prisoner rehabilitation now, rather than in November when it actually happened.
Nembutal, an old friend of mine from other days, turns out to be pentobarbital, US executioners' drug of choice for lethal injections. Now a problem has arisen. The licensed manufacturer refuses to allow it to be sold for that use, and so it comes about that the state of Missouri, which has an inmate, Michael Taylor, on death row waiting to be dispatched this month, has no stocks to hand and can't get the wherewithal. Unable to source the real thing, they looked around for someone to cook it up for them. Homemade pentobarbital can apparently give you a very nasty death – on top of the already nasty death you get from judicial execution. In a recently recorded use of it, the victim's heart continued to beat for ten minutes after he had stopped breathing; last month another recipient of such an injection said after 20 seconds: 'I feel my whole body burning.'
Being told to say sorry for my wrongdoings was my introduction to the double bind. I got the hang of how it worked, but never figured any way out of it. 'Don't just stand there. Haven't you got anything to say for yourself?' It became clear pretty quickly that a rational discussion of the pros and cons of my misdemeanour was not what the parent had in mind. 'Well? And you haven't even got the decency to say sorry.' Deep breath while I prepared myself for entering the mire. 'I'm sorry.' 'No you're not. You're just saying that, because you think you should.' This was almost always true. I was certainly sorry for the trouble I was in, but rarely sorry in a contrite way. It would go on like this. The demand for an apology, the apology, the rejection of the apology and further fury until some punishment was decided on and I was sent in disgrace to my room.
The Duke of Cornwall, heir to the throne, Prince of Wales, wealthy in his own right (£18 million a year from the Duchy of Cornwall) and in receipt of state benefits (£2 million a year), also gets the money of the dead. Die intestate in Cornwall, without heirs, and whatever you've accumulated in your life (aside from your joys and sorrows) goes into the bank account of Prince Charles. It isn't quite like the wealthy pensioners who were urged by Ian Duncan Smith to return their winter heating allowance to the cash-strapped government. Charles isn't spending last year's windfall of £450,000 on dancing girls and kedgeree; he's using it – well, some of it – to fund his own special charities.
There was a funeral today. I'm really very bad at ceremony. I giggled at both my marriage ceremonies, and for grief I much prefer to be alone than in a crowd. But there wasn't much grief at this funeral. For one thing Margaret Thatcher had been felled long ago by strokes. She lingered. And it's not sad when people in that condition die; if they are old, it's a relief. Funerals are a time for memories. I cherish the memory of Thatcher ousted by her own party, leaving Number Ten. The miners will remember her making sure that the strikers' families didn't get any benefits. We are all beholden to her for beginning the boom in private greed and the rampant capitalism that has got us where we are today.
By now, if you're British, you've probably taken the test based on a new study of social class for the BBC by Manchester University. If you're not British, you won't know what I'm talking about – just move along. The old three-class structure is irrelevant and outdated, the survey found. It's too simplistic and no longer 'nuanced' enough. The new nuanced British class structure looks like this, with seven classes: the elite, the established middle class, the technical middle class, new affluent workers, the traditional working class and the precariat or precarious proletariat, which comprises 15 per cent of the population. We're all middle class now, except for 3/20ths of us, and they, it seems from their name, don't know whether they're coming or going.
I'm not one to talk. I know very well about the befuddling spell of clothes, the nature of desire fulfilled for just a moment by the perfect this or that, and then the need to find it again. What I want is the elegant, the perfectly simple and comfortable that tends to come at a bit of a price. It's at this point that Buzz Bissinger, the writer, 20 years ago, of Friday Night Lights- and I part company. Though had I known about it we would have parted company when he endorsed Mitt Romney. He spends all he wants on clothes, and at a rate I could only nightmare about, but what he's after is 'rocker, edgy, tight, bad boy, hip, stylish, flamboyant, unafraid, raging against the conformity'. You don't spend $13,900 on a Gucci ostrich skin jacket to achieve comfort.
Neanderthals again, and why they died out. Of course, perhaps they didn't die out, and just mingled themselves into non-existence with us. I suspect we find that idea a bit distasteful, like discovering that we have the servants in our genes. Much better that they died of lacking something we most value that we had more and better of. The latest theory is that their eyes were too big. They've measured the orbits in the skulls and yes, they are larger than Homo sapiens skulls. So they saw better in the dark, but more of their brains were devoted to interpreting the messages from their great big eyes. Eyes bigger than their cerebral cortex. But Homo sapiens with their smaller, less efficient eyes, had room in their brain pan to develop their cerebral cortexes and use them for social networking and therefore learning and making the great cultural leap forward. Oh dear, yes, 'social networking' is the phrase they use. In my anthropological day, it was just called 'socialising'. But our clever brains are too smart to settle for mere socialising when they can come up with social networking. Evolution. There you have it in a nutshell, or a network.
We should all use language carefully. That is an obligation on the literate. But carefully doesn’t mean fearfully. There is a danger that concern about insensitive use of language can be cynically used to muddy reasonable debate about political issues, and close down criticism. The Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, David Ward, has been under pressure and finally apologised for saying at a Holocaust Day ceremony: I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza. Ward failed to specify that the Jews he was talking about are those who agree with destroying the livelihoods of Palestinians, building Israeli settlements on much-reduced Palestinian land, and with Israel retaliating incommensurately against Palestinian provocations, rather than considering and dealing with the reasons for them. Ward’s statement doesn't seem to me to refer to me or anyone else who is Jewish and does not support Israeli policies in Palestine. He was wrong; he shouldn’t have conflated ‘the Jews’ with ‘Israel and its supporters’ – or, to put it another way, me with Netanyahu. But that doesn't mean he didn't have a legitimate (if naive) point, that the memory of what the Jews went through ought to give Israeli politicians pause for thought before subjecting other groups to persecution. As a Jew I've thought so with great sadness myself, while understanding that the argument about Israel must be a political one.