Christina Patterson: Cry freedom – but only if you are rich

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The Independent Online

It started a long, long time ago. Hundreds of thousands of years, according to liberal theologians, or 6,000 if you believe Mike Huckabee. But let's not worry about the technicalities. The point is this. It started when that skinny creature in the snake-skin coat (I see him as a kind of Russell Brand) brandished a nice shiny Braeburn and whispered in Eve's ear. "Get a load of this", he said, or perhaps the Hebrew equivalent. And so it was that free will, or what the Government likes to call "choice", was born.

Like so much in life, it proved complicated. On the one hand, you were free to wander out of your celebrity jungle in your white bikini and party, party, party. On the other hand, you faced the future knowing that little Ava (or Cain or Abel or Seth) was stained not just with your spray-on-tan, but with the eternally weeping wound of original sin. On another hand, too, God knew that this would happen and had ordained it. He knew the elect (no premium-rate phone-ins for Him) and he knew the damned. Gosh, we need as many arms as Shiva.

If God knew that "choice" was a minefield, heaven help the rest of us. Opinions are divided on the best way to tiptoe through it, but we can all agree on one thing. Choice is fantastic. In the old days, you had to queue for hours for some manky old vegetables, as in Cuba, or the Soviet Union or Stoke Newington farmers' market. Nowadays, you can wander through aisle after aisle of strip-lit baked beans and biscuits. Cup of tea and a... digestive, HobNob, custard cream, bourbon, fig roll or Jaffa Cake? McVities, Cadburys or Tesco's Own? Of such ingredients – wheat flour, hydrogenated vegetable oil and inverted sugar syrup – is human progress made.

In the old days, if you wanted to get a train to York, you had to go with British Rail. Now, you can choose between Grand Central Railway and National Express East Coast and East Midlands Trains. And for only £199 return, you can flit between the three! In the old days, you could only get instant coffee on board. Now you can get a cappuccino. If the machine is working. If they've got the cups.

In the old days, you had to be treated at your local hospital. Now you can be referred to the specialist at the hospital of your choice. If your GP will let you. If your primary care trust will let them. You can choose between a private dentist and, er, a private dentist. And you can choose your children's school.

You can send them to Eton. Or Harrow. Or Westminster. If you live near me, you can send them to Stoke Newington Secondary School, or Hackney Community College or any number of city academies. Sprinkling of Catholicism with that, sir? Our Lady's Convent High School. Dash of Judaism? Yesodey Hatorah Secondary School. With an extra topping of hijab? Tayyibah Girls'.

Some people choose to send their children to schools which catapult their kids into Morgan Stanley or the media or the House of Commons. Others choose to send them to schools which catapult them into crack and crime. Strange, isn't it? But there's no accounting for taste.

As the Schools Commissioner, Sir Bruce Lidington, said this week, the national schools' admission policy isn't actually about choice, but "stating a preference". And it will stay like that until standards rise across the board. Which they won't while private schools remain and while the state system is held in a stranglehold by the middle classes.

My local train company has a name which says it all. It's called "One". Technically, I think, choice starts at two.

Living off the fat of the land

Well, the self-confessed nerd from Enfield done well. Yes, Paul McKenna, the man who promised to Change Our Lives in 7 Days and Make Us Thin and Rich has just signed a deal worth more than $23m (£12m) to become America's hottest diet guru. He will certainly have his work cut out. A bit of a glutton for the instant fix (and indeed the chocolate muffin), I have to admit that I devoured I Can Make You Thin. It took about five minutes, and I'll sum it up now. When you're hungry, eat. When you're full, stop. No calorie-counting or carb-eschewing or flapping around on stage like a chicken.

Twenty-odd million for that? Now that's what I call genius. That, in fact, is what I call hypnosis.

* Congratulations to Transport for London for making our journeys to work such a multi-sensory experience. There are the smells, of course. The sweaty armpits, the stale beer breath, the rancid kebabs. There are the physical joys: the groins pressed against bottoms, the umbrella tips in the eye. There's the feast of faces, taut with tiredness, a cornucopia of humanity peppered with copies of London Lite. And, increasingly, there's the sound of Big Brother bossing you.

Most journeys are now accompanied by what train announcers would call a "non-stopping" soundtrack of information and fierce instructions. The guy on the loop at Bank, in particular, is clearly a headmaster manqué.

Which makes me even more grateful for Poems on the Underground, which have been soothing fractured souls for 23 years. One of my favourites, by Sharon Pugh, begins: "Sometimes, things don't go, after all, from bad to worse." But sometimes, Sharon, they do.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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