Monday, 20 April 2015

I am an immigrant.....

If you have been on the London Underground recently you may have seen posters with this title. The individuals featured are not actors or models but immigrants stating simply how they have contributed to our society.

This poster campaign has been launched by a campaign called No Xenophobia as an antidote to the hype and hysteria being generated during the current election campaign.  We are not alone – people are being murdered in South Africa because they are from outside South Africa (black not white) with riots in the streets, refugee camps being set up and even the Prime Minister finally saying something.

There is a natural tendency for “us” and “them” and it extends through nationality, skin colour, religion to football teams!  It is when this tendency becomes xenophobia – an unreasonable fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners or of that which is foreign or strange – that the trouble starts.

Firstly here is my personal experience over the past couple of weeks. The following people were not born here – not all immigrants some are EU citizens working here: GP, nurse, the audiologist, person who took my blood at the hospital; dentist, dental nurse, waiting staff in every restaurant/coffee bar I have eaten in; mini-cab driver; cleaner, gardener, window cleaner, postman; post office counter staff – the list goes on – just too boring to list any more.

Secondly, I am an immigrant. I didn’t grow up or receive my education here.  I have worked almost my entire adult life (and still some) paid taxes, National Insurance, created jobs, with wonderful colleagues raised and invested millions of pounds into breast cancer research; raised two children who are now paying taxes ....  that’s what immigrants do. I have never drawn benefits for unemployment but I have benefited from the NHS, the public library, I draw a state pension into which I paid, I received child benefit when my children were small and many other “benefits” available to all.

So the next time you moan about immigrants – I am an immigrant! 

PS  This is what an immigrant looks like - yes, I snaffled one of those as well.

Monday, 13 April 2015

No, my husband does not need to be there!

We have come a very long way since the 1960s when it was almost impossible for a woman to get a mortgage without a male guarantor but clearly not far enough.

Over thirty years ago our electricity supplier offered a free survey to see if any of the electrical points needed updating.  Someone came round and looked at a few and said that probably some of those in the older part of the house did.  I asked him for a quote and he said “I will come back when your husband is here”.  Number One Son was sitting in the living room and heard this and as the front door closed he said “I guess he’s not getting the business then....”

A decade or so later we put in a new kitchen. We received several quotes.  During one of the surveys, Number One Husband was wandering in and out during the process.  I asked the (male) designer to show me their cheapest range so that I could get a benchmark price. “Oooh you don’t need to go for the cheapest one – I’m sure he would want to buy you the best”.  I asked him politely to leave. 

Why should he assume (especially as the appointment had to be in the evening because I was AT WORK during the day) that I wasn’t paying for it?  When customer service phoned with a follow-up call the next day and I told the woman who called what had happened, there was a silence and then she said “I can understand why we are not getting the business”.

Here we go again!  Some of the kitchen cupboard doors are showing wear and I don’t want to replace the kitchen, just the doors. I called two companies – the first referred me to someone local who called to make an appointment (without any questions or requiring anything beyond my address).  The second put me through a dozen “marketing” questions including if I owned the property (fair enough), how long I have lived here, etc etc.  But then she insisted that both my husband and I had to be present.  Erm, no.  Short explanation of why this was neither appropriate nor required and end of conversation.

Friday, 13 March 2015

I’m sorry if you think I offended you...

For those of you living without television there is a hoo-ha, or should that be a “fracas”, going on about Jeremy Clarkson, the main presenter of a television show about cars called “Top Gear”.  He allegedly had a “fracas” with a member of the staff and has been suspended by the BBC and the remaining shows cancelled. We wait to hear the outcome – if you want to know about his history put his name into google and you will get 42,500,000 results in 0.25 seconds.

At the time of writing over 750,000 people have signed a petition to have him reinstated. His show is hugely profitable for the BBC and is sold around the world. He is very talented, very funny and, at times, quite offensive. For me the offensiveness outweighed the rest a while back and I no longer watch the show.

It may be regrettable but we all find someone else’s discomfort funny at times. Otherwise we would not laugh at someone slipping on a banana skin – real or metaphorical - not play practical jokes or laugh at them.  As someone who was bullied at primary school I find these things less funny than most – but when does this “jokiness” cross over into bullying, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism etc.  When someone said to me that his family called a Jaguar car a “Jew’s canoe” is that funny or a racist slur?

Then there are apologies: when is an apology not an apology?  The title of this blog is an example. You may not have thought (!) what you said was offensive but I was offended. You either say, “I am sorry I offended you” or shut up. 

Last year John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, criticised MPs for being “sexist, snobbish, yobbish” at Prime Minister’s Questions. This didn’t stop him from intervening when a female Government Minister was answering her 14th question on mental health saying, “I am reminded of the feeling when one thinks the washing machine will stop — but it does not!” In the scheme of things this is not the most offensive thing I have heard but would he have interjected in this way had a man been speaking? 

His apology was also somewhat hedged - “If I caused offence by what I said, I am very happy to apologise to that Member… It was an off the cuff remark, and may well have been a foolish one, and I apologise for it.”

Shall I rephrase for you Mr Bercow:  “If I caused offence by what I said I apologise to that member. It was a foolish off the cuff remark and I apologise.”

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

What is racism?

There has been much in the press recently about racism and particularly “political correctness” which appears to have prevented horrendous cases of child abuse being properly dealt with.

Trevor Phillips, the former Head of the Race and Equality Commission, said in an article in the Daily Mail that “we were wrong to try and ban racism out of existence ..... campaigners like me seriously believed that if we could prevent people expressing prejudiced ideas then eventually they would stop thinking them....... only a willingness to talk more openly about race, despite risk of causing offence, will help those in need.”

I welcome these comments. You cannot control people’s thoughts – I hope that you can change their minds and modify their behaviour but when does comment become racism?  Is it comment when someone is suspected of fraud that he is a “Jewish businessman” when other suspects are not identified as a Catholic/Methodist/Presbyterian etc.  If child abuse in a particular area is perpetrated mainly by one religious/ethnic group – is that relevant/significant? 

We are comfortable with “people like us” and there is nothing wrong with that in our immediate circles but we absolutely need to get on with people who are not like us – whether it is because of race, religion, nationality or even education and this has to be taught, experienced and practised.  The more diverse our groups are the more creative we will be.

A friend wrote on Facebook about a racist cabbie he encountered who said he isn't racist because he 'only has a problem with Polish and Bangladeshi cab drivers’.  This reminded me when I came to London in the late 1960s, as white South Africans we were vilified, verbally abused and even spat at – by white people. No one asked why we had left or why we were here.
On the other hand there were people who, when they found out we were white South Africans, made really vile racist comments and were surprised that we were offended. 

As it was International Women’s Day I should point out that prejudice isn’t only confined to race and religion. There is a large population group – too large to be called a minority – that is discriminated against and not sufficiently represented.  They are called women. I quote from the House of Commons note published on International Women’s Day.

“In the UK, on average, women working full-time earn 9.5% less than men. Although women make up 51% of the population in the UK, only 23% of MPs, 25% of judges and 21% FTSE 100 company directors are female.”

We await the results of the election in May – not holding my breath.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Look them in the eye and shake hands

Antony Jenkins, chief executive of Barclays Bank, was widely quoted last week saying that not only do young people need to develop work skills they also need to develop social skills – social media is no substitute for personal interaction.  Employers want to see your work skills but they also want to know that you will integrate and collaborate with colleagues. 

He said “There is absolutely the danger that we will have a lost generation of youngsters if we do not help them develop the skills they will need for the new world of to shake someone’s hand, look them in the eye and hold your shoulders back.”

Number One Daughter and family live in the German-speaking part of Switzerland and everyone shakes hands.  From your guests and their children, your host and their children, the plumber and electrician – anyone who comes through the door to your home and everyone in the home or office you visit. Everyone you encounter will shake your hand on arriving and leaving and the children shake hands with each other too. (That is unless you are friends in which case – three kisses – left, right, left.)

Body language is so important: I remember some years back working for a specialist employment agency where one of my roles was to recruit our own support staff.  The person who handed the job over to me advised me to “watch candidates walk to and from the lift – if they walk slowly, don’t hire them, they will never stand the pace”.  Not sure how you would square that with HR these days but she was surprisingly accurate.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

An imperfect man perhaps, but a perfect hero

Fifty years ago this weekend Winston Churchill died.

I had only been in London for a very few weeks – the first time outside South Africa. If you can imagine, coming from mid summer in Johannesburg, sunny hot days – to a London which was grey and cold. This was before they cleaned up most of the buildings and everything was so dark and so grey and the days so short.

Churchill was old and frail and yet we felt stunned. He was lying in state in Westminster Hall and we went after work. I think we queued for about three or four hours.  It was slightly surreal – cold, damp and the WRVS had trucks serving tea to the people waiting.  I felt as if I had been time-warped back to a war I had never experienced.

I have never felt the need to share in public grief or joy except for this. It was extraordinary and I will never forget it.

My parents were also pleased that we went. In WWII there was no conscription in South Africa – and it was touch and go whether the government of the day would support the Allies or the Axis powers. It was an anxious time, they knew something of what was happening to the Jews in Europe. My father felt morally compelled to act to support Britain's actions in the war – not all did. He volunteered and served as a surgeon on a British hospital ship – the AMRA. 

He felt, and I still do, that if it weren’t for Churchill we would not be here today. Certainly there would be no Jews in Europe – at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, Reinhard Heydrich said that "Europe would be combed of Jews from east to west”.

I am sure that this is simplistic but I do feel that Churchill was the only man in the right place at the right time and I will always be grateful.