Saturday, 27 June 2015

A Proper Job?

"Virtually everyone on the front benches has never had a proper job in their lives" - Nigel Farage MEP, on "Any Questions" on R4 last night.

It's been said a lot about the present generation of politicians, as an explanation of their seeming unawareness of the ways of the world, and the lives of ordinary people (whether "hard-working" or not, although obviously only the hard-working matter). They leave the grander universities, get internships doing spin for their chosen party, get selected by Central Office, and off they pop, to represent the great unwashed without ever having visiting their bathrooms. Of course, there's nothing to stop them visiting the great unwashed, and seeing if they are actually welcome in the front room, let alone the bathroom, and they could exercise perhaps a little imagination, if they have it, about other lives than their own. Maybe some do it. Economic policy in recent years has suggested that they don't.

The phrase "a proper job" has a resonance for me. I grew up with a father who was very fond of "real work". Not "hard work" - although it was a necessary quality of real work that it should be hard too - but the reality was not to be found in the money it made, the hours put in, the skills, the concentration, the effort, the focus, the social usefulness. I've thought over the years it might be any of those things, but now I sit down to type about it (not itself real work, obviously) I realise it's a more elusive quality than I thought I knew.

It's easier to know what was NOT real work. Generally, thieving and trickery wasn't (although there were blurred boundaries here if the people tricked were either much richer or entirely undeserving). Art, music, literature, likewise. Teaching in a difficult school possibly would qualify, but a school like the one he worked his socks off to send me to, no, teaching there wouldn't be. University teaching certainly wouldn't. Managing wasn't real work - whether money, or farms, or people. No, it had somehow to involve your own hands - not just the finger tips - and it had to involve sweat. It had to make you fitter. Not just physically - going to the gym was most definitely not real work - but morally too. He genuinely dwelt under the Genesis Curse that Adam would live by the sweat of his brow - would live, and must live.

Then there was "women's work". You don't often hear that these days, although it's a category we can all instantly recognise - anything involving babies, small children, nursing, cleaning, or catering. This was real work, but only if done by a woman. He believed strongly that a mother should stay at home and look after her children every hour of the day - at the very least while they are small - although the corollary was that a father should work every hour of the day to pay for them all. That the father might therefore see very little of them was of relatively little consequence to him. This was "duty". Duty was like real work, and if anything, on higher plane, so that derelictions of duty were grave sins in his catechism, but the thing about duty was to get the job done. So, although to have a nanny, or send a child away to boarding school, or to have made enough money not to have to work, was cheating, nonetheless duty was still being done, so that was OK.

What was odder still in this irrational, but not uncommon, moral universe was that he also believed in education - in the hope that his son and daughter would never have to work as hard as he had. Turn that round, and it's a colossal investment in perpetual moral superiority. His scheme - certainly for me - was that I should be entirely unfitted for practical work of any sort, because it didn't pay enough. And I should one day live the life of Riley as a lawyer or (better - because you choose whether to buy newspapers) a journalist, and he would be able to lord it over me as someone who'd "never done a day's work in his life". When I went to Oxford, I could change a lightbulb, but I'd never wired a plug. I did ask, but his idea of "teaching" was to do it for you, then so "there, it's easy" and walk away. Maybe that's why he had such a low opinion of the teachers whose private-sector wages he was paying? If my teachers had taught me like that, I'd never have got to Oxford.

The experiment went wrong, alas, and my sister left school early, and I wasted my Oxford degree on footling about teaching for crammers (trying to educate the failures who didn't, in his view, deserve another chance) and then threw it away completely by becoming a priest. For all that, my sister was redeemed by motherhood, at which she is very good, and he'd even sometimes grudgingly admit that her drawing skills are far above and beyond the ordinary; and there was one job he admitted I did better than him - planting chrysanthemum cuttings by the thousand - and one he couldn't do at all - taking the funeral for Auntie Margaret, my godfather's widow, someone we all loved immensely.

Eventually the family sold up their business in London - taking advantage of the property price boom, and selling their scrap yard for what turned out to be, for once, the top of the market price. After that he never really made a living. The nursery where I planted all those chrysanthemums never engaged his attention in the way that metal, and building, making, breaking, dismantling, things did. He was angry that though he continued to toil, he was barely rewarded financially. He never quite accepted that the glory days of paying off mortgages, buying freeholds, having children in private schools, were all paid for by brains, not brawn. He was the smartest accountant I have ever known; the taxman would have been most surprised to learn about our education. He knew how to load a skip so that however it was unloaded, the good stuff, for testing, would be on the top (and he'd taught himself the testing, too). There could be a 1000% mark-up in that. He could have done all that from a wheelchair. And yet, it was never real work.

And here I am, a "Jobseeker". Am I looking for "a proper job"? No, I'm looking for money. I don't want any more life experience - frankly I've had more than enough - I just want freedom from the fear of bills and debt and the insecurity of living in someone else's house.

Have I ever done a "real day's work in my life"? Since planting all those chrysanthemums for him, quite possibly not. But I've had work, as a priest. Work that made me feel completely alive. From time to time I have bursts of it still. And when I get lost in my genealogical researches, sometimes I remember sitting next to my father in Canterbury Cathedral library, looking at the bishop's transcripts of parish registers, trying to find his ancestors, and I still have the meticulous notes he took, utter attention to detail, just like his accounts, totally absorbed. And I wonder if we were so very different.

Would Mr Farage think I, an Oxbridge twit, and worse still, a failed vicar, had ever done a proper job? Maybe not. But if he'd asked me to bury his granny, he might change his tune.

Some work is not a curse.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2015






Monday, 22 June 2015

One of those days.

One of those days. What to choose? Do I try to destroy Church House, or the Home Office? Or myself? It's obvious we can't all co-exist. Mindful of Housman's word's "though both are foolish, both are strong", reckon there's only one answer. But I so dislike fuss. Curious how sometimes it is only mimsy bourgeoiserie that keeps one alive.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

A Thought or Two about Bullying, and the Triumph of Mrs Cranmer

Most of us think of bullying as a childhood thing - perhaps that's when most of us experienced it, or saw it done, either at home or in the playground - but then we grow up and realise that we haven't left the playground far behind. Or rather, we don't realise it, because we were taught that adults stand up for themselves, and if they can't, they are pathetic. I spent nearly eleven years working for an institution - the Church of England - which is wedded to bullying as a means of hierarchical control, and the guarantee of preferment. I now work for the Department of Work and Pensions - as a dole scrounger - which seeks to bully us into meeting its targets with no real concern about the harm that might do to us (the dismal record of deaths by neglect, and the suicides committed since the hated Atos threw people off incapacity benefit and onto a "Job seeking" regime for which they were not ready tells its own grim story about that).

What's got me thinking about it today is the first case to go to an employment tribunal since gay people were allowed by law to be married, and the Church of England (by law established) said that their clergy were not. The extent of gay people, male and female, in "the clerical profession" has been an open secret in most church circles for generations. Bishops selected and ordained and promoted people they knew to be gay, and in many cases, knew to have a committed partner. In public, like the vicar of a church where I used to serve, they said "I've knowingly met a homosexual". I'd never knowingly met a homosexual in the town that Father Robert hadn't tried it on with. But somehow this would do. They knew, and we knew, and we each knew the other knew, but the deal was we kept our mouths shut and all would be well. Now, I think that's institutional bullying. It reminds me of the story I read somewhere - so long ago that I'd ask you not to rely on it as historical fact - of King Henry VIII saying to his married Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, "we don't approve of married clergy, do we, Thomas?" "No indeed, Your Majesty". Obviously, the tyrant Henry was capable of considerably more drastic bullying than some flyweight suffragan bishop, but that's scale, the quality of the mindset is the same.

There's an added moral corruption here because our archdeacons and bishops are supposed to be, above all, pastors to the clergy in their charge. All they do is done out of love. My eye. When I was small I remember annoying my father with endless "but why, but why?" questions, and his saying "Because I say so, and I'm bigger than you, so I'm in charge. And one day you'll be bigger than me, and you can be in charge". Somehow this felt entirely rational and fair. I did grow bigger than him, and picked my fights, and sometimes won, or found the freedom to move away to other pastures to fight with other people. But that's not happening in the Church of England. Their pronouncements on first the civil partnerships, and then the marriages, of their gay clergy are designed to weed us out. They tell would-be ordinands that they must affirm the church's "teaching" about sexuality and marriage which is enshrined in a small, rather tedious, and theologically incompetent, little pamphlet written in 1991 and since disavowed by two of its four authors. So there will be no more ordinands who are OK about their sexuality and about gay people entering the sort of committed relationships that everyone else can have (if they can find them). We are slowly being bullied out. We will never grow up and be in charge and call the shots - they are not going to let us, and precious few of us will be allowed even to stay where we are, as happened to me.

And there is the bullying behind the language. I've been told at the dole office not to call it that (still less the labour camp), and when I don't apply for a job not to say that I have the "wrong experience", even though the words are precisely accurate. The truth is what they say it is. In the same way, our bishops mouth the words of their implacable opposition to "homophobia" - not because it is a vilely mongrel word but because they believe in the image and likeness of God in all people, and the dignity of all God's children whatever their God-given sexuality. Except when it comes to selection, or employment. Or preferment. If they did this to black people - there are so few black clergy I don't know if a sample study would be big enough to test whether it actually happens to them too - anyone would say "institutional racism". But when you say "institutional homophobia" to a bishop, he goes red in the face and says he's not scared of gay people, and doesn't hate us at all. No, indeed, I don't suppose he does. But his church does. The church that says our relationships are grubby, and therefore not suitable for priests as leaders of their flock setting an example. "Oh but we didn't say that ...." Oh yes, but bishop, you did. And you continue to. "Unwholesome and sinful" one of your number said in court today. But you're not homophobic? If you believe that, you're not sane.

Sanity is perhaps at the heart of the problem. There is a kind of madness in the cruel dark heart of the bully. He will sacrifice anyone else to his own security, and will use any perceived weakness in his victim to bring them down. He will even welcome them with open arms - there was an area bishop in London who had something of a taste for "birds with a broken wing" - but the moment the victim's back is turned, he feels a knife in it and hears the whispered words "I'll take you on, no one else would, you owe me, don't let me down".

Madness, deceit, inadequacy and violence are all part of the make-up of the bully. But remember Henry VIII and Archbishop Thomas. "We don't approve of married clergy, do we, Thomas?" Are you married, bishop? Are you free like any other Christian man to marry at your own discretion according to the Articles of Religion, drawn up by Archbishop Cranmer?

Bullies always lose in the end. And we should strive to bring about that end as soon as possible.

Perhaps Mrs Cranmer should be our patron saint.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2015



Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Thoughts on a ramble through time and anniversaries and kalendars and such

Why do we remember dates? It's such an arbitrary kind of thing. The day of the week changes every year. We age by the moment, not just by the calendar. Sometimes we mark things we weren't there for, and don't remember at all. What's it all about?

I've no answers, but today has three curious remembrances. The first is the 90th birthday of my late Nan's little brother Uncle Joe. He is the middle of three siblings left alive from that generation, and doing well, by all accounts. Birthdays happen every year - although the birth happens only the once, thank heavens. For my great-grandmother, Uncle Joe was her 10th child, and, by the oddest coincidence, the second to be born on the 16th of June (his eldest brother Uncle Percy was the other). I marvel at that generation - born the children of illiterate Italian immigrants in Battersea ("economic migrants", the sort of people Mrs May and Mr Farage would turn away now if they could), they grew up often cold, usually hungry, and sometimes chased down the street for being different (there are a few photos left of some of them as teenagers, with their jet black hair, and olive complexions, grounds, it would seem, for envy, from the mousey-haired, scabby, locals). Despite that start in life, all but one of those who survived childhood made at least "threescore year and ten", and the one who didn't, the youngest, had Down's Syndrome and despite her family being assured she wouldn't see 21, lived to be 54. And of the other ten, four have made their tenth decade, and a fifth, if he's spared, may join their ranks next year. Numbers, dates, times, ages. To some people they mean nothing. They fascinate me.

And then today was one of the election days for the Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. I don't know its history, but the nice lady in charge of the election said "well, the money was bequeathed this way centuries ago, so that's how we've got to do it", and it is a most remarkable thing - every Oxford graduate can vote, now, anywhere in the world, electronically. The registered electorate has gone up from 300 in 2009 to 4,000 now. The Professor serves for five years, and has to deliver the occasional lecture, and is generally a good egg. The outgoing professor is Sir Geoffrey Hill. Since 1708, luminaries like John Keble, Matthew Arnold, W H Auden, Robert Graves, Seamus Heaney and James Fenton have served their time, too (just to name people I've heard of). Today we had our second chance to elect a woman. The first time was in 2009, and the woman won, but it seems had been a bit of a naughtypop, in spreading scurril that made the leading contender withdraw, and then withdrew herself. I spoilt my ballot paper back then, by voting for the chap who'd withdrawn (he'd got a Nobel Prize, for heaven's sake, for a Trinity [Cambridge] man that is like a bell to Pavlov's dog).

Barking mad, of course, but what fun to be free, every five years, to elect someone to a public office in the university where one is a member for life!

And then there's our wedding anniversary - eight years today. Now, that can't be re-done. The Home Office is trying its best to get it undone, but not by direct assault, by starvation. They won't win, but it's telling that they don't have the balls to fight the fight. Apparently, to remain married to a foreigner in this country, you must be making at least £18,600 a year. They don't cancel your marriage, they just cancel your spouse's right to live, or work, in this country. It's subtle, and clever, and almost certainly illegal. But the only people who can afford to challenge it in the courts, don't need to.

Eight years ago, I never expected the biggest threat to our marriage to be the Home Secretary. I thought it was me. But somehow I have earnt toleration. Since then our lives have been embellished by plants, indoors and out, and Cleopatra and Ruby (likewise) and it is quite impossible to imagine any other life. He has even learnt to call Barton "Headington" - what is more English than snobbery?

I type here at the desk I've had for thirty-five years, looked down on by Three Wise Monkeys I've had for longer, and next to me a ficus plant I've had at least twenty years, and on top of the kitchen cupboard opposite, my grandmother's teapot, that I've had twenty-nine years, the wooden macaw I brought back from Brasil in 2006, the aspidistra that was my 45th birthday present from my husband of now eight years ...

Dates, and times, and numbers, I know they don't matter to everyone. But they matter to me.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2015


Sunday, 14 June 2015

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Some time ago I had a sadness with the hierarchy of the Church of England. A job I had deeply wanted was taken away from me at the last moment, thanks to one bishop’s failure to take up references, another’s failure to open a file in over three months, a third’s failure to check what was in there, and an archdeacon’s profound malevolence in secreting a malicious letter into that file knowing his bishop would be too lazy to read it. This was all a tremendous shame, as new things were on the verge of happening, both for that most excellent parish, and, I had hoped, for me.

As I struggled with a blend of deep depression and incandescent rage, a kind friend invited me to come and stay with her in a northern city I had never visited before. It was a delightful stay, and a welcome tonic in a bleak time. She is one of those friends I see rarely, but cherish much. The highlight of my visit was perhaps when her dealer called round. Yes, that kind of dealer. In parish ministry you learn not to appear surprised: “I’ve had an abortion”; “I’m leaving my wife for my boyfriend”; “I’ve never believed in the Holy Spirit”; “I was abused by the chaplain at school”; you know, that sort of thing. You may flinch inside, but outwardly, never.

Noel listened to my story. He was a man from a different sort of world from my own: a bit rough and ready; mixed-race; he had known hardship and prejudice. He made a living, I don’t suppose I can really call it an honest one, in the only way he knew. When I was done, he said:

“That’s terrible, man. This guy needs sorting out. I can do it for you”.

I said, “Oh no, I’m sure that’s not necessary”.

He said, probably looking at the threadbare clothes I was wearing (I wasn’t poor, just don’t like to throw things out):

“Honest, I won’t charge, just tell me where he lives”.

So, for a fleeting moment there lay in my hands the chance to wreak vengeance on my enemy; if not to have him killed, at least to make sure he never walked again without assistance. It was pure, corrupting, power. And do what you will with that oxymoron.

I made light of it, and the conversation moved on.

I was tempted. Not for long, but I was tempted. What stopped me was that if discovered, Noel would have suffered far more than me, or even the bishop in question. And I suspect in his young life he had suffered enough. I am not sufficiently a Christian to have worried all that much about the bishop.

But there was in that nefarious young man’s offer a variety of compassion. Wrongly expressed, and I suspect often used amiss, but it was compassion all the same. We were strangers, and he thought I had been hard done by, and offered what he could to help, in the only language he knew. It is of course a million miles from the Good Samaritan. But then, so am I.

My prayer is that his compassion will have found a better outlet, something that may bring him joy and prosperity and peace, something to pass on, perhaps, to another generation of Noels who may never even think of such things.

And my other prayer is that the wanting to forgive those hierarchs that is in my heart, may become the real forgiveness that my soul yearns for, and must find, before it can ever find its place at the table in heaven.

I think Noel will get a better seat than me; but if I ever hear those words “friend, come up higher” it will be from him.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore
Oxford
August 2011


I Know That My Redeemer Lives - And So Do I!

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Monday , 15th of June, 2015, 9 a.m.

for the Sisters of the Love of God
Fairacres Priory, Oxford

Job 19:23-27
O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock for ever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!


I Know That My Redeemer Lives – And So Do I!

+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.


The Book of Job is a most mysterious thing. I hadn’t really paid it much attention until I was recommended a little work by C. G. Jung, written towards the end of his life, called “Answer to Job”. It’s rather a bracing read, and it caused a bit of a kerfuffle when it was first published in the 1950s, so I can understand how this parson’s son put off writing it until after his mortgage was paid off and his pension secure.

I think I read it in the bath, in the Spring of 1989, whilst being a rather inept caretaker of a little house in the corner of S. Thomas’s churchyard down by the station in Oxford. I used to do a lot of reading in the bath, and I remember clearly that there was bright sunlight. It is a most remarkable book and, if I have remembered it rightly, what it does is rather radically to take the Scriptures more literally than any Fundamentalist would dare to. Job is depicted not just arguing with God, as Abraham and Jacob had done, but telling God off.

“I know that my redeemer lives” is a challenge to God to stop being horrible and start behaving like God. Job is setting down before the Almighty and saying “you really could do better than this, and I’m waiting here until you do”.

I’m not averse to going out on a limb from time to time, but as I typed these words, I really wasn’t sure I should say them. But on the other hand, I don’t think you can read Job any other way. And Job raises the stakes. He is urged to “curse God and die” (by Mrs Job who is presumably the beneficiary of the insurance policy). Because he knows “his redeemer lives”, either God is God, and lives, or there is nothing, just the cursing God, and death. But if God lives, God the redeemer, then we all do, the whole of his creation.

That turns out to be God’s answer to Job – look at creation. And when we look, we see life, often the “life more abundant” that Jesus promised us. The sparrows of the air and the lilies of the field (or leviathan and behemoth, as Job would have it) are tokens that our “redeemer lives”. And if our redeemer lives, so do we. Not just now. For ever. We partake of eternity, by virtue of having occupied this small plot of time.

On a requiem mass day, that is what we celebrate – both those who have occupied this small plot of of time with us, and exchanged time for eternity; and the promise of God, that he will be with us always, and redeem the time, for our eternity together, caught up in the mystery of the love of the Divine Trinity, the eternal redeemer. Who lives.



Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2015






Saturday, 13 June 2015

Thoughts On Being An Educated Dole Scrounger

By "educated" I don't mean that I've been to Oxford and collected a BA and to Nottingham and collected an MA (well, strictly speaking never went to Nottingham except for dinner with friends, the degree thing was entirely from afar) but rather that Her Majesty's government is now once more paying for my education. As anyone who reads the newspapers or experiences the system will know, we live in a world of farmed-out services. The Jobcentre sells me to Maximus; Maximus sells me to LearnDirect. All three outfits bill you, and me, the taxpayers, for this enterprise. I think I'd like to know what I'm costing, but I have a feeling the figures will prove hard to squeeze out.

At this point I want to sing a little praise. Daisy at Maximus (no longer, alas, because she has another, better, job, probably in a rather busier place) suggested LearnDirect because I said I didn't feel able to say I could handle "Powerpoint" and "Excel" which job advertisers were asking for. It is probably supreme arrogance to say that I have no doubt I could have learnt them within a few days on the job, but without them in advance I couldn't get so far as an interview, and I baulk at telling fibs in job applications. Daisy's instinct was right, this is a very good thing to do - not because I will now get a job, I still think that highly unlikely, but because it has given me a degree of confidence in applying, and, much more importantly, skills which I can use at home in my own studies and researches, which I have forgotten or would not otherwise have had. For me, this constitutes a gift from Her Majesty's government, and I am grateful.

LearnDirect has an office directly above the Oxford branch of Lidl. The desk I've been allocated is right above the fresh vegetables. Maybe this is significant. I'd hoped to buy cheaper catfood after my studies, but although it is cheaper (by 40p) than Waitrose, it's sort of freakish - whoever heard of a cat hunting "lamb and mint"? So I settled for instant coffee and an Ardennes paté instead. You reach the teaching rooms by going round the back, buzzing into a staircase, and then walking across a roof. It is a Health and Safety officer's nightmare. There is one fire exit - just one exit of any kind - and that is across the burning roof. I found this funny. You could probably jump from the window and survive. Apparently they used to have offices in the Westgate Centre in the middle of Oxford, but that is being re-developed, and one cannot help thinking that this shabby little shanty is a heck of a lot cheaper.

I arrived to be assessed and enrol. Apparently I am literate (Oxford, and Nottingham, breathe out now, it's OK) and moderately numerate, so I qualify for Level 2. I've no real idea what this means. In the saltmine, one just obeys orders, whatever the level is. So it was set that I would begin work the next day, and so I did. That was a Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday were occupied by hospitals and Maximus, and more happily by my psychiatrist and backgammon, so it was on Friday that I did my first test - on Word 2010 - and got 97%. Now I know this is a small thing - the pass mark is 75%, and when I was studying and teaching, in history or politics, that would have been a very strong A-grade at A-level - but it was a confidence booster, made me realise that the short-term memory is not yet shot, and the brain is not yet dead. So I tally'd-ho, and on Tuesday did the exam for Power Point - 91%. This pleased me rather more, as I've been using word-processing for quarter of a century (did that pesky MA on a computer, and taught myself footnotes an' all) but Power Point I'd only ever seen, never used myself, and when I'd seen it, it was generally done badly. So, this constituted real learning, against the odds.

By Wednesday, I thought I was on a roll, and was determined to finish the Excel spreadsheet course, but alas, I only got 81% on the practice test. Each time previously I'd done better in the real thing - by 10% and 2% respectively - so I could have carried on, but I dithered because one of my scores was a very low 50%. It meant I didn't really understand what I was doing. So, I resolved (after taking Thursday out to sign on and visit my new minder, Chris, at Maximus) to do the practice test again on Friday morning and then, assuming it was better after some swotting, to do the test, and then move on to the fourth module.

But things happen to thwart you, don't they? On Wednesday night I spent an hour on the telephone trying to talk to Scottish Power about a key card for the new prepayment meter they installed after breaking and entering our flat without warning or notice two weeks before. It was supposed to arrive in the post, but it hadn't. Turned out, I could collect one on the Thursday from a BP garage on the Cowley Road - another two miles walk out of town, after the Labour Exchange and Maximus. This was rather on my mind. So, I didn't swot up on Maximus's computer for the test the next morning, nor use the little memory stick that nice Trevor the Teacher had given me with exercises for swotting. I just wanted to be sure of getting that card. A warm shower depends on it, and I didn't go to the kind of school that makes that a matter of indifference.

So, less prepared than I'd wished, I set off for the fire-trap above Lidl on Friday morning, determined to sort the Excel test by lunchtime, go to Tesco's and buy cheap dry catfood and hayfever stuff for His Lordship, and then return to make a small incursion on module 4, which is called, rather majestically, "Productivity". But no Trevor. And if no Trevor, no test. The practice test could be made available, but only if I did all the "quizes" again, and I'd done them twice (at least) already, and couldn't be doing with that, and in any case if I have a plan I have to follow it through, or ditch it for a new one. Cat food came to the fore. So I got that. After nunning on Monday morning, I shall be back to the LearnDirect saltmine, I hope to resume my plan with just one wasted day.

There are a number of things about this story which lurk with me. One is that this sort of training, for all that it is no substitute for the "experience" almost all employers demand, nonetheless is a good thing to do and to have, and it baffles me that it has not been offered before in the eight years I've been off work. Most of that time I was "signed off", which means I didn't have to look for work, and they didn't have to give a monkey's about me; but I was looking, and they could have cared. My biggest handicap (apart from employers assuming I must be a child molester if even the Church of England won't employ me anymore) is now the length of time I've been out of work. I asked, more than once, for help from the Jobcentre people. I got three sessions with a woman who said "you need to make your CV less interesting".

The next is that LearnDirect - unlike the Jobcentre, and Maximus - has a sense of busyness about it. One teacher can have a dozen students in the room, all of whom from time to time need his personal attention. Sometimes it's a long wait, and that's a lot of pressure on one teacher - a teacher, I should add, who is possessed of infinite patience, a simple and effective teaching style, and a generous good humour. He's a great asset. But he is over-stretched. And his being over-stretched meant my own timetable for completing this course is set back - there should have been someone else who could Open Sesame and make what I needed happen when he was poorly on Friday morning.

And we are all willing to learn. Most of us are in mid-life, left behind by the high tide of former middling success, or never made it even that far anyway. Some, like me, are going because we were told we could. Some have deadlines because they've been told they must. I don't hold with treating everyone the same, because that's not how education works, and coercion is almost always set to fail. We are told there's a buoyant jobs market in Oxford, but we know when we see the grey hair in the mirror and the wrong decade in the "d.o.b." column that it's not buoyant for us. If it were, we'd not be fannying about with this nonsense that any normal person learns when they have work, and by necessity. But there is consolation in having the piece of paper at the end, the thing that says "yes, I can work this-and-that programme - so employ me!". The Department of Work and Pensions is not interested in morale, but it should be, because that is the biggest problem the long-term unemployed have, and it is made worse because it is an entirely rational deduction from past failure that there will not be future success. When we were children, we were told that if we didn't learn from experience, we were idiots. Now, outfits like A4e (another DWP training gimp) say it's pessimism and bad attitude.

The conclusion is that the old dog can learn new tricks - and rather enjoy doing so. The next question is whether anyone wants to hire the dog.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2015