Deborah Orr: That's the answer to surviving the recession: a new identity

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Of course, the recession isn't funny. But sometimes you have to laugh. The media is hungry for real-life stories of sudden and decisive changes in circumstances, but Frank's picaresque is so outrageous that names have had to be changed to protect the guilty.

Frank woke up one morning to find that all his work on the building sites of a booming city had dried up overnight, so he got straight down to an agency and signed up. Because he'd worked as a bin man years earlier, he was quickly assigned to a council service. The work wasn't at all like he'd remembered it.

Now, because of all the recycling, the crews were bigger. They had also divided up along racial lines. The white guys did the old-style garbage, and the black guys did the recycling.

The two groups hated each other so much that they wouldn't even share a cocaine dealer. They'd turn up at the crack of dawn and buy their wake-up charlie from different dealers – one white, one black. They'd also buy six cans of Special Brew each, then select the agency driver they wanted.

Drivers aren't supposed to get out and do the bins as well. But because the crews got to choose, Frank was compelled to curry favour by breaking the rules. He said it was the maddest work he'd ever done, because the men were all drunk and totally wired in no time and would start fighting each other a couple of hours in. As the round drew to a close, he'd be doing it all, single-handedly, and keeping the peace as well.

For some reason – I can't imagine why – all this inspired Frank to consider joining the police. Since he was an ex-serviceman, he thought it might be easy. But cursory investigation confirmed that he would never pass the exams unless he took lessons in role play.

To join the police these days, one has to take part in a practical test at a simulation centre. You move from room to room, interacting as actors play out various crimes. So you walk in as a stabbing victim staggers towards you, and so on. After his shift, Frank would head out on a long trip to the suburbs so that he could learn about how to intervene in scenes of violent crime. There was, he admits, a lot of synergy between the two situations.

Happily, during this time of flux, Frank's personal life was looking up. He'd been seeing an Arab girl for years, and though the relationship was serious, she hadn't mentioned him to her devout family, who lived in mainland Europe. They finally decided to marry and went to tell the in-laws-to-be.

Unfortunately, Frank's fiancée blurted out to them that Frank's grandfather was Chechen, so Frank was, in fact, a son of Islam. He carried off this unusual social challenge with some aplomb, thanks to all that role-play tuition, although he foresees some further complications in the longer term.

There we have it: from single English builder to married Muslim policeman in a matter of months. Recessions change lives. But even by the standards of "these extraordinary times", it has to be admitted that Frank was quick off the mark. And to think that some of us are still reeling from the switch from Ocado to Tesco Online.

Which is the greater failure – the disadvantaged child or the school?

Good news! City academies are improving faster than the rest of the country's state schools. Bad news! They're doing this because they exclude many more "disadvantaged" pupils. Is this such terribly bad news, though? Why can't certain people just, like, learn something from it?

What, in educational context, is a "disadvantaged" pupil? Generally, it is a pupil who, for all sorts of reasons, is unable or unwilling to engage in the educational process. In a country where education is compulsory, and free, this is a tragic and appalling disadvantage indeed.

The disadvantage is all the greater, because the mainstream provision for such children is often so ineffectual. What they need is to be placed in an intensive environment, where the problems that are exacerbating their disadvantage can be comprehensively tackled, with the involvement of their families and of any professionals who may have contact with those families already. The eventual aim would be to return children to mainstream classes, if and when they are ready. The immediate aim would be to look holistically at the general welfare of the children.

No doubt many critics would dismiss the concept as the introduction of a two-tier state education system, and also fret that the children would "fall behind". (Like they don't anyway.) They should ponder on the wise old adage: "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." My own view is that it is simply cruel to attempt to force children into situations for which they are not psychologically prepared, and from which they far too often emerge branded "failure".

*One of the distinctive characteristics of the recent boom was the explosion in all kinds of weird, and sometimes even wonderful, contemporary art. It may have sold privately for a great deal of cash, but a lot of it was staged in the informal public domain, and for free. I'm probably not being too pessimistic in saying that I'll be sorry to see that part of the circus dwindle.

Last weekend I wandered, charmed, round Seizure, a condemned council flat in south London that had been flooded by Roger Hiorns with 70,000 litres of hot copper sulphate solution. When the liquid had cooled, after a few weeks, it was drained away, to leave the whole flat covered in bright blue crystals, like a cavern from a fairy story or a 21st-century folly, pictured left. An expensive and practically pointless exercise, of course, unless you think magical things are priceless. It closes tomorrow.

Again, the Conservatives have failed to respond correctly to the Government's ever-more clunking fist. The arrest and detention of shadow immigration minister Damian Green, they insist, should not have happened. On the contrary, the practice should be rolled out immediately, and every member of Parliament who has ever leaked anything to the press should be taken into custody forthwith. Then we'd really need to have that election.

I'm intrigued by just one tiny snippet among the media's many reports on strife in the household of Gordon and Tana Ramsay. That's the line declaring that the pair "held five hours of talks". I've heard of the marital state, but that makes them sound like a couple of major superpowers. Can't they just hold five hours of recriminations, bitter insults, emotional meltdowns, sulks and shamefaced apologies, like normal people?

Comments