“…and He rested on the seventh day from all his work…”

Does anybody have a full day of rest during the week any more?

I remember a time when most people actually rested all day on Sundays. It wasn’t because we were all religious fanatics: in fact very few of my immediate family went to church. It seemed to me, in our family anyway, to be part of the national culture. After five days at work and a Saturday fulfilling necessary tasks not done during the week, everyone except essential workers (emergency services, hospital staff, etc) actually took Sundays off.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, my sister and I weren’t allowed to play out in the street on a Sunday despite being allowed to do so on every other day. Nobody did any DIY or even mowed their lawn on a Sunday for fear of the resultant noise disturbing their neighbours. Washing was never hung out to dry on a Sunday. I’m also pretty sure the only shops open were newsagents which were only allowed to sell newspapers and magazines. Incidentally this led to the anomaly that you could buy a pornographic magazine (so I’m told!) on a Sunday but not a bible.

I don’t ever recall any of this being a huge problem for anyone. My sister and I played indoors on Sundays. DIY, lawn-mowing and washing were done on other days of the week. Shopping was planned in the certain knowledge that we wouldn’t be able to get anything we ran out of on a Sunday and if we did go short of something we survived without it. Although we children found it strange and somewhat frustrating that our local newsagent covered the sweets he usually sold with an old curtain once a week, we just had to live with it.

It wasn’t only Sundays. I also remember that whatever the demand, no shops were open or services offered on Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Christmas Day either. There were fewer Bank Holidays back then of course but on those days I’m fairly certain it wasn’t just banks that were closed for business.

So what happened?

Well, for one thing we have become a far more secular society. Although I began by saying that the religious aspect didn’t tailor my family’s behaviour much, I’m sure the ever diminishing number of believers in society has influenced the way society now behaves. However I don’t think we can single out an atheistic upward trend as the only reason we have changed our ways.

The increased diversity in our population may have had some effect as well. There are many British citizens who don’t have a ‘seventh day of rest’ included in their cultural or religious upbringing and are therefore happy to work on Sundays.

Commercialism has undoubtedly played its part too. The Government is, I have read, constantly being lobbied by retailers to change our Sunday trading laws and what on earth would DFS do if they couldn’t start a new sale on a Bank Holiday? Our local ‘Tesco Extra’ is somewhat refreshingly closed on Easter Sunday this year but the nearby ‘Tesco Express’ is open from 7am to 11pm so you have to wonder why the big one is bothering. I also heard on the radio today that retailers are “distraught” having found out that the cold snap is to extend over Easter. Apparently the next four days are usually a ‘retail spike’ for sales of gardening and DIY products.

The media have had a hand in these changes too. There was a time when all league football matches were played at 3pm on a Saturday. Now, presumably at the insistence of the broadcasters, there are usually two premiership games on a Sunday whether the fans and players like it or not. I wonder what the audience figures are for the BBC’s long-running Songs of Praise when it clashes with a Chelsea v Manchester United game on Sky?

In my opinion the only time many of us really relax now is on our holiday (well those that don’t have children do!) For most of us that is just 14 days a year (12 if you take into account the stressful two days you spend getting there and back!) This is instead of every Sunday plus the occasional Bank Holiday that we used to have. I don’t think this is making any of us better people and may well account for the number of patients who go to their doctor claiming to be tired all the time or in need of tranquillisers to help them relax or sleep.

The late great Frank Sinatra once sang of New York: “I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps.” In 2013 he could save himself the trip across the Atlantic and stay here!

Taking Risks

There are a number of humorous emails that have done the rounds with people my age supposedly listing the reckless things my generation and our parents did. I believe there is even a tea-towel expressing the same sentiments available too. They claim, not always correctly of course, that our mothers smoked and drank during their pregnancies, we all rode our bicycles with faulty brakes at break-neck speeds without helmets, we played safely in the streets from dawn until dusk (not on Sundays though!), we rode in cars with no seat belts or air-bags, we shared a soft drink between four friends out of one bottle and nobody died from it, we had no child-proof lids on medicine bottles, etc. The import of all this being that, according to today’s obsession with health and safety, none of us should be alive!

As I said, not all of that is true and the authors of such passages often have somewhat dubious memories of their childhood or have understandably use hyperbole to make their point. I’m not really concerned about how much of it is false memory syndrome or exaggeration though, I believe it does make an important point: Twenty-first century society is, in my opinion, incredibly risk averse.

For example: My church holds a Christmas lunch in the church hall every year for the those who would otherwise be alone on Christmas Day. Such an event obviously requires a number of volunteers, one group being those prepared to give up their time to drive the attendees who can’t make their own way to and from the venue. With the introduction of a ‘Safeguarding Policy’ by the Church of England some years ago it was deemed necessary that we asked each volunteer to supply details of their driving licence and car insurance to ensure that we were not sanctioning the transportation of anyone by a disqualified driver or in an uninsured car. Needless to say some, particularly those who had volunteered for many years before, were extremely offended by the inference they took from such a measure (i.e. that we didn’t trust them!)

I should state here that I don’t know if this condition was actually stated in the church’s safeguarding policy or if it was down to the interpretation of the policy by those tasked to implement it. In a way I don’t really care. The Christmas lunch function had been held for many years without anyone feeling the need for a driving licence and insurance check so what had change?

I would suggest absolutely nothing had change. My view is that organisations or perhaps more correctly those bureaucrats who advise them, have become obsessed with extrapolating the circumstances surrounding things about which they know very little. They then seek to implement unrealistic and unnecessary control measures to prevent accidents or injuries occurring when the chances of those mishaps actually taking place are astronomical.

My other concern about safeguarding is this – Did we really ask to see those driving licences and insurance policies because we feared for the safety of the old aged pensioners being ferried to and from our church hall or did we just do it because policy said we should and we wanted to ‘tick all the boxes’ in case something did go wrong?

I believe one of the overriding factors here is the ‘blame culture’ and litigious society we now live in. Solicitors advertising on television inviting you to contact them if you’ve had an accident at work hardly helps. Are we all now so concerned about health and safety that we want to metaphorically wrap everyone in cotton wool or is it that many of us live in fear of being sued by an accident victim and have therefore ‘lost our nerve’ when it comes to taking risks?

It’s not just employers though is it? Parents now seem unbelievably more worried about children’s safety than they ever did when I was a child and I’m sure that isn’t my memory playing tricks on me. On average only 11 children a year are abducted by  strangers and this figure has not risen since 1970 (source http://www.netmums.com). There are over 11 million children in the UK so, just for once, the phrase ‘the chances are one in a million’ is pretty accurate. Some child experts have suggested that children today have been robbed of their independence and self-confidence, and in turn have failed to develop a hugely important life skill: that of being able to assess risk.

Here’s a thought – Have some of those children now grown up and got jobs as health and safety advisers?

Early life records

One of the strangest yet most nostalgic things I possess is something I inherited when my mother died. It’s a small yellow book published by Collins and it would mean very little to anyone else who read it. It reignites in me fond memories of my mother and the way she felt about me and my arrival into this world. It’s my baby book.

It contains all sorts of rather personal data which in 1956 I don’t suppose my mother really intended to share with anyone else. A lot of it is written in the first person by the book’s author and my mother has apparently willingly copied that style into some of her her entries. For example: After the riveting information about when I cut the first ten of my milk teeth (seriously – it is all there!) my mother has written “Mummy lost count after this but at 15 months I had 15 teeth.”

One of the most remarkable things in there is appended to the record of my first haircut (8th May 1957 for those that want to know!) It is not the ‘Before’ and ‘After’ black and white photographs but the small lock of my fair hair still stuck there in some bizarre tribute to the durability of 1950s Selotape!

My point about this book is, apart from the pleasure it gives me to read my mother’s observations and attempts to second guess what I was thinking, that I find the whole thing rather personal. I don’t feel incline to share much of it with anyone as it seems to me like some sort of early life communicational contract between me and my late mother (albeit she was the principal contributor).

So what do mums do now nearly sixty years later? (I say ‘mums’ not to be sexist but I am comparing my own experiences and my dad’s sole contribution to my baby book was to sign his name under ‘Father’ on the first page.) Well if my group of social media based friends are a typical cross-section of 21st century parenthood they put much of the detail my mother recorded onto Facebook.

Now much has been written about Facebook security and how easy it is to see material posted there. I have no idea how many of the proud parents I know have their accounts locked down to ‘friends only’ or to the riskier ‘friends of friends’. I am equally unsure for how long status posts are retained. However since I realised how personal I found the entries in the record of my own early life I’ve had second thoughts about what I post about my children.

Many comedy scripts have been written where a mother on first meeting of a new boyfriend or girlfriend of their daughter or son gets out the family photo album and offers to show embarrassing pictures of their offspring. Will future script writers pen the line: “No thanks Mrs Jones – I’ve already seen them on Mum’s Facebook “

Just a thought…..

The Possessive Apostrophe

There was a small amount of press reporting last week (it must have been a slow news day!) when a local council somewhere in the West Country decided to drop the possessive apostrophe from its road signs to “avoid confusion”. The BBC subsequently followed the story up today (Sunday) on their breakfast programme by interviewing a language expert and someone from the Plain English Campaign.

Needless to say, the Plain English Campaign representative thought the idea of dropping any apostrophe (possessive or otherwise) was outrageous. He suggested, quite correctly, that there was a huge difference between Bakers, Baker’s or Bakers’ Street but somewhat reduced the weight of his argument when he could only cite historical research as an example of where the various meanings might matter.

The language expert on the other hand, as you’d expect, was far more relaxed about the whole affair especially as it only involved road signs. He countered the Plain English Campaigner’s premise by mentioning Earl’s Court and Barons Court as being two adjacent London Underground Stations where the origins of the names are unknown and the apostrophe in one and lack in the other doesn’t really help.

Now, trusting that the manager of my gym doesn’t read blogs, I have been know to deface the odd poster or two. The staff in my local gym insist on displaying posters entitled ‘Members Notice’. Now without the apostrophe this, to an old pedant like me anyway, is a statement that members of the gym notice. I suppose if you were to add an exclamation mark you could take it as an abbreviation of the imperative ‘Members Take Notice!’ Whatever the case it is wrong and despite correcting the occasional poster with an indelible marker the staff don’t appear to have taken the hint.

I fully accept that the missing apostrophe in a notice to gym members is hardly earth-shattering but what happens when such mistakes are made in legal or official documents? Lawyers are paid enough already for arguing about what was intended by legislators and will makers. Grammatical errors in such cases can mean, in the extreme, miscarriages of justice and the beneficiaries of wills not getting their due inheritance.

So I think on balance I don’t really mind too much if it’s St. James, St. James’ or St. James’s Park – I think we all accept it is a park associated to St. James in some way or other and only a determined historian would worry if he owned it or not and if that ownership had been correctly expressed. What does worry me is that those who are not properly versed in the rules of grammar and punctuation are vulnerable when it comes to reading and signing documents prepared by those that are.

So by all means ignore all the rules when you send a text message (not to me though!) but be careful when preparing or reading documents where the meaning is now, or going to be in the future, of great importance. You can’t be careful if you don’t know the rules in the first place!

Turning Nouns into Verbs

There is absolutely no doubt that language develops and changes. Some new uses for words and even the creation of brand new words is inevitable in the fast-moving world in which we live. Let’s face it, many of the words and phrases we use in connection with technology today would mean nothing to our grandparents or in some cases even to our parents.

The habit that annoys me though is the increasing tendency to turn nouns into verbs. Of course it is easier to say someone was “Helicoptered off a mountain” but they weren’t: they were “Flown off a mountain by helicopter”. It is only two more words to express it correctly and trying to make the name of an aircraft into a verb is just lazy and ugly. When someone asks how you travelled on your holiday do you say: “I was aeroplaned out of Heathrow”? Of course you don’t. You say “I flew out of Heathrow”. (It is an indication of how common place these non-verbs have become when my Google Chrome spell-checker underlines aeroplaned as a spelling mistake but not helicoptered!)

When a footballer commits a second bookable offence in a match I regularly hear the commentator announce that the player is about to be ‘red carded’. There is no such verb as ‘to card’ (although sadly golfers seem to think they may ‘card a four at this hole’) and certainly not one ‘to red-card’. To make matters worse, the player he injured in the tackle is then inevitably ‘stretchered off the pitch’!

When I first heard that someone was thinking of ‘texting’ someone else, I thought that invented verb was so horrendously ugly it would never catch on (thankfully Google Chrome still underlines it!) Sadly I think it is only a matter of time before the august Oxford English Dictionary enhances its current entry to include the word ‘text’ as a verb if it hasn’t already done so.

The above examples may not irritate any of you reading this (if anyone reads this of course!) but surely anyone with any feeling for the English Language winced when Olympic athletes spoked of being “medalled” or hoping “to podium” in a particular event.

That’s inflation for you……

The other day, on route to collect my daughter from swimming, I happened to note the price of diesel at a local garage. For many of us, particularly those of us who are parents, the price of fuel for our cars is just a ‘necessary evil’ that we have to pay otherwise our precious charges wouldn’t get to Guides, Cubs, karate and in some cases school. In any event, for the more mature drivers (for ‘mature read ‘old’), when retailers started to use litres instead of gallons, we lost our yardstick to judge how much it has risen since we started buying it.

So I did the maths in my head and worked out that diesel is now over £6.50 a gallon! Now memories have a habit of playing tricks on you as time progresses but I was fairly certain that is ten times the amount I paid for the first gallon I ever bought in 1972 for the moped my parents bought me.

This got me thinking about inflation and whether an increase of that sort over 41 years was above or below average. How much had other commodities risen since that time? What was the buying power of my weekly wage when I started work in 1975 compared with the weekly wage for the same job now?

The first thing I established, despite being fairly adept at using Google, was that reliable price lists from the 1970s were very hard to find. I found myself relying almost exclusively on press articles that referred to price lists that I couldn’t find for myself. Then I realised that journalists presumably had access to newspaper archives where they could research 1970’s reports and adverts so their references were probably accurate.

So armed with a shopping list rather shorter than I would have liked and containing at least one item that I have never bought for myself (i.e a packet of cigarettes), I set about finding out what those things cost now in March 2013. I decided I wasn’t just going to compare the prices and calculate how much they had risen but I would start by comparing my wages then and now (or more accurately with someone starting the same job in 2013 that I started in 1975).

In 1975 I was paid weekly in cash: I remember opening the envelope and removing around £28 after deductions. I judge my salary therefore to be in the region of £40 gross a week or just over £2,000 per annum. Someone starting exactly the same job today would be on £28,605 or £550 per week. That’s an increase of just over 1,300%.

So how did prices I found compare?

 1970s 2013 Increase
Mars Bar 2p 60p 3000%
Pint of Bitter 11p  £3.25 2955%
Cigarettes  27p  £7.50 2778%
1st Class Stamp  3p 60p 2000%
Mini  £600  £11,870 1978%
Gallon of petrol 33p  £6.50 1970%
Loaf of Bread 9p  £1.35 1500%
Range Rover  £  1,998  £  22,495 1126%
Pint of milk 6p 45p 750%

So a 19 year-old embarking today on the same career path that I took in 1975 will be worse off posting a letter, buying sweets, beer, cigarettes, a mini, petrol and bread as all those items have gone up more than the salary. Only Range Rovers and milk have survived the ravages of inflation!  You might also note that my recollection of the price of a gallon was faulty and it has risen by nearly 2,000%.

All that having been said, the most astonishing figures I came across related to house prices. In 1971 the average house price in the UK was just over £5,000. The average wage per annum was £2,000. So in 1971, to raise enough money to buy the average house the average worker had to borrow about 2.5 times their income. My recollection is that was the multiplier that banks and building societies used. In 2013 the average house price in the UK has risen to nearly £250,000 and the average wage is, by comparison, a mere £25,000. Surely nobody can be expected to borrow ten times their income?

Many of us who have children are worried how they will ever get on the so-called ‘housing ladder’. I’m worried. Very worried.