Archive for the ‘Social Issues’ Category

Do you lie on the sofa or on the settee? Do you eat pudding or a dessert? Do you wear spectacles or glasses? What does it matter? Well at one time, in post war Britain, that is after 1945, your use or choice of words was said to be an indicator of the social class to which you belonged. A lot of nonsense or a matter for serious debate? Or just lighthearted fun? It all started in 1954 when an article titled Linguistic class-indicators in present-day English by British linguist Alan Ross, Professor of Linguistics at Birmingham University, appeared in a learned but obscure Finnish academic journal.

Ross’ article covered differences in word usage, pronunciation, and in writing style, but it was his thoughts on the differences in vocabulary that received the most attention. He coined the terms ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ to refer to the differences in English language usage between social classes. ‘U’ indicated upper class, and ‘non-U’, not upper class, though it focused on the aspiring middle classes. Ross considered that the middle classes preferred to use fancy or fashionable words, even neologisms (meaning a newly coined word) and often euphemisms, in their attempts to make themselves sound more refined. The speech of the working classes was not dealt with, as in many instances Ross considered they often stuck to the same plain and traditional words that the upper classes used, since being conscious of their status they had no need to make themselves sound more refined. Ross added that ‘it is solely by their language that the upper classes nowadays are distinguished since they are neither cleaner, richer, nor better-educated than anybody else’.

nancy mitford, mitford sisters, bright young people, pursuit of love, u and non-u

Nancy Mitford (1904-1973) was one of the ‘bright young people’ on the London social scene in the inter-war years, and is best remembered for her novels about upper-class life in England and France, and for her sharp and often provocative wit.

In his article, Ross used the semi-autobiographical novel The Pursuit of Love published in 1945 by the English novelist, biographer and journalist Nancy Mitford, to exemplify upper-class speech patterns. Nancy Mitford was the eldest of the renowned Mitford sisters. There were six sisters, daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, and his wife Sydney Bowles, and they have been caricatured by the journalist Ben Macintyre, as ‘Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover, Nancy the Novelist, Deborah the Duchess, and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur’.

Mitford picked up on Ross’ reference to her novel and incorporated the U and Non-U thesis into an article she was writing, The English Aristocracy, for the magazine Encounter. Her argument was that the more elegant euphemism used for any word was usually the non-upper class thing to say, or, in Mitford’s words, simply ‘non-U’. Thus it was very non-U to say ‘dentures’; ‘false teeth’ would do. ‘Ill’ was non-U; ‘sick’ was U. The non-U person ‘resides at his home’; the U person ‘lives in his house’, and so on. Nowadays, the distinction between U words and non-U seems antiquated. Were U words really plainer or ‘better’, or did the upper classes simply need to use them so as to distinguish themselves from everyone else?

U Non-U
Lunch Dinner (midday meal)
Dinner Evening Meal
Vegetables Greens
Pudding Sweet or dessert
Ice Ice cream
Jam Preserve
(no equivalent, there would be separate containers eg. salt-cellar) Cruet
(Table) Napkin Serviette (unless you are literally in France)
Sofa Settee or couch
Drawing-room or Sitting-room Lounge or front room
Chimneypiece Mantelpiece
Lavatory or loo Toilet or WC (unless you are in Italy, where ‘toiletta’ is U)
Looking-glass Mirror
Mad Mental
Decent Civil (behaviour)
(no equivalent) Rude (indecent)
(no equivalent, except possibly ‘civilised’) Cultivated or cultured (people)
Sick Ill
Die Pass on
Graveyard Cemetery
Rich Wealthy
Smart Posh
False teeth Dentures
Dinner jacket Dress suit
Knave Jack (cards)
Scent Perfume
Spectacles Glasses
Writing-paper Note-paper
Wireless Radio
Bike or bicycle Cycle
Riding Horse-riding
Master or Mistress (also prefixed eg. maths-mistress) Teacher (children also say ‘Teacher says …’)
England (Britain) Britain



Read Full Post »

charles dickens museum, doughty street, bloomsbury, london, pickwick papers, oliver twist, nicholas nickleby

The Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, London, occupies a typical Georgian terraced house which was Charles Dickens’ home from March 1837 to December 1839. Here he completed The Pickwick Papers, and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby

There was one place in London that was open on Christmas Day, and which welcomed many visitors and tourists through its doors. Even its cafe was open. Given that the novella A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens first published on 17 December 1843 and never out of print since, has had such a significant impact upon the British Christmas, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Charles Dickens Museum just off Gray’s Inn Road in Bloomsbury in central London, should open on Christmas Day.

But what was it that inspired Dickens to bring to his reader images of joy, warmth and life, and to contrast it with unforgettable images of despair, sadness, coldness and death? Dickens’ sources for the tale appear to be many and varied, but are principally the humiliating experiences of his childhood and his sympathy for the poor. So what happened to Dicken’s when he was a boy?

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born 7 February 1812 in Landport, Portsmouth in England, the second child of John and Elizabeth Dickens, who went on to have five more children, two of whom died in infancy. John Dickens worked as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office in Portsmouth, but he didn’t manage his finances very well and lived beyond his means, and the family moved home frequently. In 1816, they moved to Chatham, Kent, where Charles spent much time outdoors but he also read voraciously. The family moved again in June 1822 to Bayham Street in Camden Town, London, though Charles remained in Chatham to continue his education, where he lodged with his schoolmaster William Giles. Charles joined his family in September but didn’t attend school as his father could not afford the fees.

At the end of 1823, the family moved to a brand new six-roomed house at Gower Street North in Bloomsbury, with the intention of opening a school in a better part of town to be known as ‘Mrs Dickens’s Establishment’. But the school never got off the ground, and there is no evidence that a single pupil ever enrolled with Mrs Dickens.

charles dickens, hungerford stairs, blacking factory, charing cross railway station

Hungerford Stairs at the river end of Hungerford Street, Strand, London. The blacking factory where Dickens laboured as a boy of 12 was at 30 Hungerford Street, where Charing Cross railway station is now sited

1824 was to be a nightmare for the whole family. When the family’s cousin and former lodger, James Lamert offered employment for Charles at his blacking factory, his parents immediately accepted as the income could help to pay for the extra expense of their new home. On 9 February, only two days after his twelfth birthday, Dickens left his home in Bloomsbury and walked the three miles to Warren’s Blacking Factory close to Hungerford Stairs from where a ferry crossed the River Thames.

But on 20 February, John Dickens was arrested for his failure to repay a debt of £40 and he was sentenced to Marshalsea debtor’s prison in Borough High Street, Southwark. Under English law at the time, offenders were imprisoned indefinitely until the debts were paid. That someone in prison was unable to work to earn the necessary money to repay those debts, nor the accumulating prison fees, did not enter into the logic of the punishment, and debtors often died in these prisons through starvation and the terrible living conditions.


Read Full Post »

What does Hoy No Circula in Mexico and Cane Toads in Australia have in common? The law of unintended consequences. This says that the actions of people – and especially of government – often have effects that are unanticipated or not intended. Unintended consequences are usually seen as being negative such as when an intended solution perversely makes a problem worse, or when although the solution produces the desired result, there are also detrimental side effects. However they can have a positive, unexpected benefit, and because of this they are often seen as the result of luck or serendipity.

murphy's law, train wreck, montparnasse, paris, france

An extreme case of Murphy’s Law. In 1895, an express train overran a buffer stop in Montparnasse Station in Paris, France due to a faulty brake. It careened across the station concourse, crashed through a thick wall, shot across a terrace and plummeted onto the Place de Rennes below.

Unfortunately although the law of unintended consequences should be seen as a warning to tread carefully when it comes to intervening in complex issues, politicians and popular opinion often don’t seem to learn this. The adage that ‘anything that can go wrong, will go wrong’, known as Murphy’s law, should remind us against believing that we can fully control events.

What are the causes of harmful unintended consequences? They have been categorised: perverse incentives, human stupidity, self-deception, incorrect analysis of a problem, immediacy of interest (ie. someone wants the intended consequence of an action so much that they purposefully choose to ignore any unintended effects), failure to account for human nature, and the world’s inherent complexity.


The French economic journalist Frédéric Bastiat understood the fact of unintended consequences when he wrote in 1850:

“There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.”

But even with foresight, economics seems beset with unintended consequences. Raise taxes, and more will find ways to avoid it. Guarantee bail outs and banks will take more risks (this is called a moral hazard). Reduce taxes for fuel-efficient cars and there will be slide in tax revenue as more cars will be made that use less fuel. Is this why it is said that if you ask five economists the same question you will get five different answers?

Examples of unintended consequences are found in every sphere of human endeavour. Here are some of them. 

Social Behaviour

In 1830, Wellington’s government passed the Beerhouse Act, which abolished the beer tax and allowed any ratepayer to sell beer on payment of an annual fee of two guineas (£2.05). The idea was to encourage the drinking of beer, and stimulate the depressed and potentially subversive agricultural sector, at the expense of spirits, most commonly associated with excessive consumption in the disreputable ‘gin palaces’. However beer house numbers exploded with more than 33,000 vendors having paid their two guineas by 1832. Sometimes called ‘Tom and Jerry’ shops or ‘tiddlywinks’, they sprang up in alleyways and cellars and were impossible to police. Many beerhouses became the haunt of criminals, prostitutes and some even became brothels. It was only with the Wine and Beer House Act of 1869 that the law was changed to bring licensing back under the control of the local justices.


Read Full Post »

PointofViewIs competition always a pre-requisite for efficient and economic delivery, or is it sometimes just a blind dogma?

In the UK we have a mixed economy with both public and private services. Currently, most if not all retail outlets are in private hands as are most industrial and financial services. Alongside these we have a range of public services funded from taxation which are provided to us, arguably designed to enable us to live a decent and productive life, such as the National Health Service, education, highways, waste collection and disposal, plus personal care services.

Since the 1980s this convenient distinction between public and private has become blurred by a process of privatising public services. Today, for example we have the utility services of energy (gas and electricity) and water provided by private companies. In recognition that such services still have a significant economic and social impact, government has created public regulators to oversee the operation of these utility companies. These are essentially there to protect the ‘public interest’.

There has been a growing pressure since these privatisations to diminish the power of the regulators in favour of introducing more competition within the utility markets. The argument has been made that where competition can take root then the inherent trading practices will progressively make those services more efficient and the retail prices would fall as a result. Thus the regulators would not be needed.

Clearly where competition can be seen to flourish such as in food, clothes and cars, the consumer is faced with a huge range of options to consider. They stretch from cheap budget goods and services to luxury brands that spare little in the craftsmanship and quality of the materials used. Retailers also compete on price for the same branded goods in search for a customer. Therefore the consumer is able to exercise a rational choice, not just of the supplier but also on price and more importantly, for example, of the model of car, the colour and cut of a shirt, or the type of cereals to eat for breakfast.

margaret thatcher, privatisation, britain, electricity, edf, big six, shareholder, france, state-owned

Margaret Thatcher spoke of privatisation giving ‘power back to the people’ and freeing British enterprise to lead the world. Now in 2013, small shareholders have no influence, and EDF, one of the ‘big six’ UK energy suppliers, and owner of a large portfolio of our power stations, is a French state-owned company.

When the utility services were privatised, the previous publicly owned national utilities were broken up into a number of independent companies. In both the gas and electricity utilities, retail companies were set up to compete with each other for customers. The government deliberately engineered this arrangement in the belief that competition would work its magic and customers would benefit from cheaper energy and could choose which supplier they wanted largely based on price. (Currently the UK market is dominated by six energy providers). Government has also encouraged the creation of ‘swapping’ websites that make it easier for customers to seek out an apparently better deal and to swap from their existing supplier to a new one.

Most consumers today see this artificially created energy market as dysfunctional and not operating in the public interest. Competition has not worked and most consumers have little faith in the swapping process to help them find a cheaper energy provider. Why is this?

gas, supplier, distribution network, britain, wholesale price, demand and supply

All UK gas suppliers use this same distribution network, and the wholesale price of gas is determined by global supply and demand. And the gas that comes out the pipe, is the same for all.

This is a classic case of the ’emperor has no clothes’, especially if you are an industry insider where your thoughts are ruled by what I would describe as some kind of internal fantasy. Take energy as an example. From the consumer’s point of view the product is exactly the same no matter who the supplier is. As there is only one distribution infrastructure, every supplier has to use it to deliver the energy to your home or business, and most suppliers also use the same energy generators to source their product. Similarly from the provider’s viewpoint, in addition to being dependent on the same infrastructure they also face the same cost pressures. The price of wholesale fuel is fixed by international mechanisms which impact on all domestic generators equally.


Read Full Post »

PointofViewCan we really dress how we want and behave how we want without provoking a reaction from our fellow human beings?

In the UK there has been a succession of sex scandals involving the abuse of children – both boys and girls – by adults, some of whom are well known celebrities or personalities. Quite rightly the public discourse has universally been dominated by feelings of shock and betrayal that people we felt we ‘knew’ through appearances on TV or in film, have been shown to be manipulative and predatory abusers of children. The most notorious of these abusers was arguably, the late Jimmy Saville, the well-known (UK) disc jockey and BBC presenter.

This whole business has also had a contaminating effect on the institutions these abusers were associated with, most notably the BBC – considered to be the UK’s premier broadcaster. The media generally has been filled with documentaries and debates. Numerous ‘experts’ and commentators have been wheeled out to pontificate on the social and moral aspects raised. Unfortunately in such circumstances the most bizarre and reactionary views sometimes get expressed by people with a point to make.

women, protest, dress, provocation, empowerment. objectification

Some women have protested their right to dress as provocatively as they want. They would not accept that there can be a fine line between empowerment and objectification

Although there is a mixture of gender and sexuality represented by these cases, it’s still the prevailing view that more typically such cases of abuse involve a younger girl and an older man. Historically in legal cases involving the sexual exploitation of girls by men, the defence arguments have often sought to portray the girl as either dressing provocatively, maybe wearing revealing clothes or ‘behaving disgracefully’. Let me be very clear – there can never be any justification for unwanted or physically enforced sexual attention or contact. That could possibly be rape but is certainly sexual assault. However if we try to take a more nuanced view of what is usually going on in daily life then the complexities of human interaction can be more easily identified.

Physiologists and behaviourists have long recognised that communication between humans is not confined to the language we use. How we move, how we look and how we sound all contribute to the ‘message’ that we send out to our fellow humans. This is often seen as a danger when people are being recruited into a new role or job. We all have a tendency to make a judgement of the candidate who walks into the room based not on what they say or how well qualified they may be, but on the way they look and their general demeanour. Of course we don’t always get it right but if we have a dislike of certain types of people based on their appearance and/or their perceived social position, then we might end up making a bad mistake by letting our personal prejudices rule our conclusions and end up missing the best person for the job.

This is of course not confined to business life. In fact it’s in our private and social lives that the greatest risks of miscommunication crop up. Arguably the most telling form of communication or message sending is visual – it’s how you look and act in the eyes of fellow humans that matter most. When I walk down the street and I see a gang of hoody-wearing boys walking towards me I find myself involuntarily tensing up and my anxiety levels increase. This is because I conclude that the boys’ intentions are likely to be violent or at least aggressive. Similarly if I see a scantily clad young girl, maybe wearing a mini skirt and a transparent blouse (it’s summer), then I perceive that she is seeking attention from those who find her attractive. In both these cases my perceptions may or may not be correct, but what is beyond doubt is that the messages being sent out by the boys and the girl are pretty clear even if they did not intend it. In fact they may not even be aware of what they are communicating.


Read Full Post »

PointofViewHere in the UK and throughout most of the world there are a plethora of TV programmes like ‘X Factor’, ‘The Voice’, ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and ‘Big Brother’, that tend to encourage adults and children alike to see themselves as special. They may be extrovert or they may have a body good enough for the cover of Vogue, but are they really special?

talent show, young people

Talent shows, appealing particularly to young people, are regular events in all parts of Britain.

When does love and care overflow into a morass of sentimental slop? I’m afraid it’s when parents, friends, teachers and lecturers all conspire to convince hapless children and young people that they are indeed special and deserving of every success.

In reality by definition only a very small minority of children can be special. After all this is a relative concept that aims to distinguish the average and inferior from the ‘special’. Otherwise the term becomes meaningless.

It does appear that young girls are the most vulnerable to this misplaced ego boost. It’s not easy growing up in a social environment where celebrity culture is so pervasive and the ‘body beautiful’ is seen as a passport to popularity, sexual success and enrichment. The idea that working hard, studying, and being socially aware is the best way to achieve a fulfilling life, is not one that appears to figure very highly in many young peoples’ minds.

It often seems that in every area of our lives we can only succeed or pass. The concept of failure has to be avoided at all costs. This approach can even be found in the world of education. Colleges seem to operate a system that awards a pass to all students who just regularly turn up for lessons and who submit their work on time. Now that may well be an achievement but should it merit a ‘pass’ irrespective of the quality of the work submitted or classes assessed. It appears that there is a received wisdom that it is damaging to children and young people to label them a failure. But if this is the case doesn’t the system devalue real achievement and doesn’t it fail the students who really shine and who are arguably really special?


Read Full Post »

Food bank, operated by charities, for people affected by cuts in welfare benefitsLord Freud, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions speaking in the House of Lords on 2 July 2013 rejected a suggestion that the government’s austerity policies had led to an increase in food banks, and said that the increase was ‘supply led’.

‘If you put more food banks in, that is the supply. Clearly, food from the food banks is a free good and by definition with a free good there’s almost infinite demand.’

Tim Thornton, the Bishop of Truro, responded in the Lords saying that ‘the anecdotal experience that I have and the stories that I hear make it clear that there are some real benefit issues, which is why many people are driven to go – they do not choose to go; they have to go – to food banks.’ And Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, questioned the minister’s claim on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, saying that 35% of referrals to church-run food banks came from social services departments, who had assessed users as in need of emergency food aid. The Trussell Trust said that more than 350,000 people turned to food banks for help last year, almost triple the number who received food aid in the previous year.

Lord Freud, who owns an eight-bed mansion in Kent and a four-bed house in London, was responsible for introducing the ‘bedroom tax’ in April 2013, whereby tenants receiving housing benefit, who are deemed to have a ‘spare bedroom’, have their benefit reduced. Since the tax was introduced, large numbers of council tenants have gone into arrears with their rent. Some councils are trying to help residents by re-classifying spare bedrooms as having another use. But Lord Freud is not having it. He has warned councils who re-classify such bedrooms that they risk having their housing benefit budget cut.

Petition asking Iain Duncan Smith, Department of Work & Pensions, to live on £53 a week

Signatories of the petition outside the Department of Work & Pensions. The petition was hosted by

Earlier in April 2013, Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, was defending on the Radio 4 Today programme, the array of welfare reforms being introduced as part of the government’s deficit reduction plans. Mr Duncan Smith was asked by market stall-holder David Bennett whether he could survive on £53 a week. This was the amount Mr Bennett was left with to live on after the new round of reductions to his housing benefit and council tax assistance, and which is roughly equivalent to the lowest rate of job seeker’s allowance given to adults under 25. Mr Duncan Smith replied ‘If I had to I would’. This prompted an online petition signed by 460,000 people asking him to prove that he could live on £53 a week by doing it for a year. The Secretary of State dismissed the petition as ‘a complete stunt which distracts attention from the welfare reforms which are much more important. … I have been unemployed twice in my life so I have already done this. I know what it is like to live on the breadline.’

Duncan Smith is a millionaire, he earns £134,565 a year as a cabinet minister, and he lives rent-free in a £2 million mansion on an extensive estate in Buckinghamshire owned by his father-in-law, which has at least four spare bedrooms, a swimming pool and tennis courts.


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »