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Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Development of a Sense of Humour in Children

I used to read a lot of stuff on child development: the growth of language, stages in children's drawings, counting, singing. Things like that. I don't recall reading anything on the growth of a child's sense of humour. This is odd because humour plays a huge part in the life of babies and young children. Are there stages? Are there cross-cultural universals? Are there cultural differences? Are there humour prodigies?

Babies quickly discover that adults do things to them which are fun: throwing them in the air and catching them, tickling them, blowing raspberries on their stomachs. These are things which make babies laugh. Adults also succeed in making babies laugh by pulling funny faces or doing funny dances - I guess this comes a bit later, these are things which the baby finds funny. Then comes Peep-Bo  and Hide and Seek - it's probably hard to sort out the differences between making jokes and playing other sorts of games since for babies and young children, jokes are very much practical jokes (Peep - Bo is maybe the earliest practical joke you can play. Fooled ya!).

When do babies get the idea that they can  try to make adults laugh? Of course, adults laugh at them - babies do amusing things without meaning them to be amusing. But what does a baby have to realise (what cognitive developmental stage must it have reached) to realise that it can try to be amusing and that it's fun to try to be amusing?

And when a baby realises that, what are the first things they do to try to be funny? I really don't know what comes first other than to repeat that the earliest things are surely practical jokes. Babies don't stand there and say, Have you heard the one about ... (And when they get to school, it's not part of the curriculum to learn how to tell jokes that begin Have you heard the one about  ... Surely something missing there, Mr Gove?)

Anyway, telling jokes comes later than making a joke out of a situation.

And where does a sense of irony come from? Maybe that has its roots in pretending. A young child develops a sense that not only can you be naughty but you can pretend to be naughty. That's maybe the heart of making mischief. So the child makes the gesture they would have to make if they were really going to knock the cornflakes off the table and the parents make the gesture of saying Oh No You Don't. And the child repeats the gesture with a smile. And so it goes on.

There must surely be a very big book on this subject somewhere. I must Google.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Brighton and Hove: The Stench of Decay

We have had a few days of hot weather recently, here in Brighton and Hove. And it hasn't rained. As a result, the pavements stink.

Walking into the city centre this morning, it was impossible not to notice. Sometimes the stench rises to a local crescendo, as if some under-pavement heating system was propelling it upwards.

Look down at the pavements and it's relatively easy to work out the causes.

There is spillage from street food, either accidental or from discarded left-overs. I guess it doesn't take long for cheese or fries, ketchup or mayo to begin to stink. The same is true for spillage from ice creams and fizzy drink cans.

This food waste produces black patches and, at its worst, greasy black slicks and puddles.

Then added to that is urine. Sometimes you can work out from the location whether it's dog piss or human piss - dogs use lamp posts, humans use entrances to buildings. Multi storey car parks are a favourite. But I suspect - and it's only a suspicion - that it's the rat piss which smells the strongest.

There's some shit too - dog, landgull, pigeon.

The pavements are in a terrible state anyway. The city authorities have a large budget for road works, but pavements don't seem to count. If they had an even surface, sloping towards the gutter, it would help. Then when it does rain, that would wash down the pavements, at least superficially. But the pavements aren't like that at all. When it rains, all you get is puddles.

Some cafes and restaurants with outside pavement seating realise that they need to take matters into their own hands, so they do wash their own stretches of pavement. But others can't be bothered. Perhaps they have become insensitive to the smells.

I walked maybe a couple of miles. I gave up the idea of sitting down at a pavement cafe, just did my chores and came home.

When I was a sixth former in the 1960s, I used to read Penguin and Pelican books. One of the first to grab my attention - I knew its main arguments by heart - was J K Galbraith's The Affluent Society (1958). He describes how private affluence and public squalor co-exist side-by-side in America. We thought then that Britain had less of a problem. Today, Brighton's streets show that we are now where America was in the 1950s.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

A Surfeit of Circuses

From a distance, there are things to envy about Britain (that part of the United Kingdom which is not Northern Ireland).. For example, as things go, it's not a very violent society. Very, very few people carry guns and probably very few people carry knives. There aren't many murders or kidnappings or kneecappings or even many armed robberies. Fewer people die in road accidents than in many other countries

But like Italy, it is absurd. Right now, my fellow citizens remind me of French geese, being force-fed to produce liver pâté. The Royal Baby is being stuffed down their throats by our newspapers and (I imagine - I don't go near them) our TV channels and radio stations. The aim is to produce the kind of greasy stupidity which - with any luck - will give Conservative leader David Cameron a majority in the 2015 Elections.

Life in Britain is constantly disrupted by the circuses mounted by the Royal Family and its outreach workers in all the Media. It's a big Family - it calls itself the Firm - big enough to ensure that there is always a death, a marriage, a divorce, a baby, a scandal, not to mention yet another Jubilee to take over from News about the weakness of the economy, poverty, unemployment or the way we prefer dogs and horses to children.

I just want you to know that there is a minority of us - maybe 25% - who are Republicans, people who dream of an elected head of state. Not a Chief Executive - not like the USA or France - but a ceremonial Head and unifying figure. Maybe like the Republic of Ireland. Someone who is just decent, competent, kind - and not trying to maintain the position of hereditary landowners,the hereditary wealthy, the Conservative Party, people on horseback, people who shoot animals for pleasure.

Best of all, without the Royal Family we would not have to fight colonial wars in order to provide photo-ops for young Princelings.

Friday, 19 July 2013

What is Your Crime Excess?

I am moving home and yesterday had to insure my new house - the building itself. I did the job over the phone. Before they could finalise a Quote for me, I had to pick an Excess. That's the amount I will contribute to the cost of any repairs myself before claiming money back from the insurance company. Offered a range between £50 and £1000, I chose £1000. I would rather simply pay for small works to be done than get on the phone, fill in forms, arrange inspections and all the rest you have to go through before you get (maybe get) a pay out from an insurance company which then promptly increases next year's insurance premium.

Yesterday I also read that police numbers in the UK are falling and that at the same time crime is falling. That sounds to me like cause and effect.

Some people will go to the police if they think they have suffered £50 worth of harm; others will only go if the harm exceeds £1000. Make the police less accessible - fewer police, fewer police stations, longer waits in line - and the average harm level at which people will go to the police will rise. So reported crime will fall.

Some people will think that some things are so trivial that they should not bother the police with them. Others will think about the hassle, the waits in line, the low probability of the police doing anything, the even lower probability of anything coming to court .. and they will decide it's not worth going to the police.

In other words, everyone has a  Crime Excess in their head and it's different for different people. Let me give a small example.

Some years ago, I was leaving my office in the city of Brighton & Hove.As I turned round from locking the door I noticed three or four teenage boys on the other side of the road. For some reason they started cat-calling me. I found that odd; I wasn't wearing my funny hat (I sometimes wear funny hats) and I wasn't behaving oddly. I was clearly someone leaving work. Maybe they were a bit drunk. Daytime drunkenness is not unknown in this city. So I simply began my walk home. The boys stayed on the other side of the road and continued to jeer. Then something whizzed across the road and an egg struck the pavement in front of me. I looked across the road and the boys ran away. I walked home thinking, What was that all about?

In those circumstances, someone with a mental £50 Crime Excess would have phoned the police station and reported the incident. Maybe the police would have been interested if it added to a pattern of reports. Maybe they would have asked for a Statement. Maybe not.

But I have a £1000 Excess in my head. I preferred to go home, eat my dinner, and read my book. I had no desire to spend time on the phone to the police, reporting a very small incident. In any case, I could not have given any useful description of the boys.

Had the incident been repeated, then I would no doubt have begun to approach my £1000 Crime Excess and maybe on a third occasion I would have reached it. But the boys never re-appeared. So as far as crime statistics are concerned, nothing ever happened.

If you cut police numbers, close police stations, reduce opening hours, create longer waits on the telephone you just make it more likely that people won't report what they regard as minor crime. It just ain't worth the trouble. And in any case, the newspapers at the moment are telling you that the police are really only interested in crimes committed by celebrities or committed many years ago.

Postscript 10 April 2014:

I have been tested. Last week the building in which I have a small office was burgled. I discovered the burglary when I was first-in on Saturday morning. All seven offices had had their doors smashed in. I phoned the building Manager who came in and reported the forced entry to the building and each of the offices to the police. Over the phone, the Police gave him a Crime reference number. Six or seven hours later Forensics came to investigate. I had told the Manager that uninsured items had been stolen from my office with a value well into four figures. And I told Forensics the same when they came to look at my office (but really to make conversation since I assumed it isn't their job to interest themselves in such things). But I have not mademy own Crime report to the Police and weighing up the relationship between the time and effort that would take and the probability of recovering my lost items, I have no plans to do so. So it looks like my Crime Excess is currently well into four figures. Nor have I turned detective and gone on ebay or round local second-hand shops or whatever you would do if you wanted to be a Do It Yourself sleuth.

Added 25 July 2018: the ideas in the Blog post are now developed in the chapter "Crimes and Punishments" in my book, The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Is Democracy about voting for "people to run the country"?

Well, Yes and No. It's only half the story but it sometimes gets billed as the whole story. And that's one reason why "the country" is often badly run.

The other half of the story is that democracy is about having influence over the legislation under which you live. This is obvious in a country like Switzerland which - much to the embarassment of the rest of Europe - makes frequent use of Referenda. People vote on whether they want to live under such and such a legislative proposal and their votes are binding. Ouch!

In the UK, Parliament which is supposed to be a legislature is pretty unfit for that purpose. One half of the Parliament - the House of Lords - is an unelected fraternity of lobbyists paid to insert clauses into legislation which favour those who have paid for the clauses to be inserted. Let's not beat about the bush. People in the UK would live under better legislation if the House of Lords was simply abolished. It would save money too.

The House of Commons, the popular chamber, conducts its business in such a way as to make it difficult to get any legislation - good or bad - onto the books. It spends a lot of time on holiday. It spends a lot of time in schoolboy debates (sorry, they are schoolboy debates even if some of the boys are girls). It struggles to pass legislation in the time left so that important pieces of legislation often don't make it before they are timed out. It is at the mercy of government whim so that legislation which has been promised can simply be withdrawn and legislation no one had previously thought about can be rushed through. Ordinary members have little scope to introduce legislation themselves - everything depends on the government, "the people elected to run the country".

If someone inspected the House of Commons in terms of its efficiency in passing legislation, it would fail the inspection. It would fail even more if you assessed legislation in terms of its clarity or simplicity - let's say, the ability of a court or a jury to interpret it without too much difficulty.

The media play a very large part in ensuring that we think about democracy in terms of Who Should Run the Country: cuddly Boris or nerdy Ed? A re-balancing of political debate would involve giving much more emphasis to such questions as , What old legislation would you like to see removed from the statute books? What new legislation would make the country a better place in which to live?

Remarkably, these two questions are ones which are rarely asked. Except in Switzerland.

Monday, 8 July 2013

One Parking Permit per Household, One Dog Permit per Household

In crowded urban areas of the UK, you need a Permit to park your car on your local street. No Permit if you have a driveway or garage; one Permit maximum per household. It's not a perfect system - far from it - but in many areas it does mean that residents can usually park near their own homes and it does prevent streets turning into battlefields strewn with badly parked cars.

In those same crowded urban areas, you should need a Permit to keep a dog and there should be a maximum of one Permit per household. Why?

It could be an effective way of discouraging what is basically an anti-social habit. Like smoking, dog keeping is not something which has no effects on others. Here in Brighton, the dog-dependent part of the population has basically taken over the streets, the promenades and the seafront. Instead of being discouraged by the city authorities (ha! I wish) they are indulged. Green areas and beach areas which should be great places for children to play are instead areas for dogs to shit. Noise is not so much a problem, except for the immediate neighbours of barking dogs, but lurking in the background is the knowledge that dogs do attack humans (especially children) and that, even when on a leash, their owners cannot control them.

I get the impression that it has become fashionable to keep more than one dog. Every morning I see people heading to the shitting grounds on the promenade with two or three dogs running around in front or behind. That must be something we should be discouraging. It's hard enough to keep a crowded urban area clean and pleasant. If the bin men go on strike (as they did recently here in Brighton), within a few days the city descends into Neapolitan squalor. The foxes, seagulls, pigeons and rats trash the overflowing bins and spread across the streets the takeaway boxes, the nappies, the broken glass .... and the dog shit.

So there's a very simple proposal from my Eco-Friendly Brighton-based Virtual Think Tank. Permits for Dogs (£95 a year), maximum one Permit (= one Dog)  per household.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Swearing and Expletives: From the Life Class to the Creative Writing Class

My mother (born 1907) did not swear, nor did my father (born 1912). That was partly a generational thing, partly an aspirational thing: by not swearing you distinguished yourself from those of your neighbours who were "common". Interestingly, the fact that he did not swear did not handicap my father when he resorted to verbal abuse. The invective which he hurled at my mother through much of my childhood was meant to be wounding and he usually chose my mother's most vulnerable side, her history of mental illness. He didn't need swear words, just the usual synonyms for "mad".

As a result of that exposure I have no talent for that kind of  invective. If I lose it, as I occasionally do, I do it fairly clumsily. I think of the Bon Mots afterwards.

But as for swearing, it is something I had to learn  in the playground. When I was eleven and it came to choosing a Grammar School for me, my mother rejected the local Dartford Grammar School for Boys since she had heard boys wearing its uniform swearing in the street. So she sent me to Bromley Grammar School for Boys with whose local streets she was unfamiliar.

Parental influence probably explains why I don't  swear very much. And I don't think I am very good at it. That's a pity, because a well-chosen swear word can help one express strong ocurrent emotions effectively: anger, frustration, irritation, exasperation, surprise, shock, amusement .... Sometimes I try my hand at it, more so now that I am older and my children older. And, of course, social attitudes have changed. It is a job qualification for a politician or a politician's spin doctor to be able to swear like a trooper.

Swearing is an art. Some people do it extremely well. I can think of only one occasion where I felt I did it to perfection.

I had set my MA class of Creative Writing students the task of reading Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters and had picked out certain poems on which to focus. We were looking at a page together, around the table in our evening session, and a student asked me what a certain line meant. I looked down at it. I was probably tired. There was an audible sigh:

Fuck knows

They found that very funny (I am sure they had not heard me swear before) and we then had a good discussion of the line and the poem in which it was housed. When I can find the book, I'll post the line here:

But to use expletives well in writing is a different art from the art of swearing. And it's a difficult one. There are two separate branches of the art to be mastered:

(1) Using expletives in dialogue attributed to a character and as part of the characterisation. Here there may be a problem of relying too obviously on stock expletives associated with a particular social group - Cockneys, for example. The problem isn't really specific to expletives: for example, there is a whole vocabulary you can call on to fix a character in the genus, English Public Schoolboy circa whatever date you choose. But after a while spiffing gets tedious.

(2) Using expletives to indicate the emotional state of the speaker or narrator (often, a narrator who is going on at length) or to indicate the attitude the writer takes towards some person or institution or argument - so the problem is not specific to fiction. The problem is this: Swearing occurs - one could say, at its best - in the context of the immediate, unreflected expression of ocurrent emotion. But a writer poised to insert an expletive into a text is not normally undergoing the ocurrent emotion he or she is trying to characterise or express. So the risks of picking the wrong word or putting it in the wrong place are considerable.

The best advice one can give is then identical to that any Creative Writing teacher will give for the use of adjectives in general: Use them sparingly. Or not at all.

Added 25 July 2018: See now the chapter "Obscenities and Profanities" in my book, Silence Is So Accurate (degree zero 2017), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers