We can put gap-year students like Eleanor Hawkins to better use by making them volunteer at home

A year of voluntary work should be a compulsory part of further education

Janet Street-Porter
Friday 12 June 2015 18:30 BST
British national Eleanor Hawkins (front), along with three other tourists from Canada and the Netherlands, are escorted by police as they leave a court hearing in Kota Kinabalu, in Malaysia's eastern state of Sabah
British national Eleanor Hawkins (front), along with three other tourists from Canada and the Netherlands, are escorted by police as they leave a court hearing in Kota Kinabalu, in Malaysia's eastern state of Sabah

What were the backpackers thinking when they stripped off and were accused of urinating on a sacred site in Malaysia, after a guide had expressly forbidden such behaviour? Gap years are supposed to broaden your outlook and expose you to other cultures, a chance to help those less fortunate than yourself, but all too often they seem to be an excuse to do drugs, get drunk and behave badly.

A pack mentality prevails, and the kind of prank that might have gone unnoticed 10 years ago, has gone viral, exposing this group as a bunch of selfish boors. Imagine if a Malaysian tourist had visited London and urinated in the aisle of St Paul’s.

One of the four arrested, Eleanor Hawkins – who has a degree – said she was sorry, pleaded guilty to a charge of indecent behaviour, and received a three-day sentence, which she has already served. She is being deported and will return home.

I have zero sympathy for this misguided young woman. If I were a boss, I’d be less likely to employ someone who’d spent a gap year travelling and doing voluntary work abroad. I agree with the female lawyer who had the guts to tell a schools conference last week that she is more likely to employ someone who had done a part-time job, worked in chain stores and paid for their own education. They will have acquired valuable people skills and worked at the coal face. According to this boss, a gap year on your CV simply says “rich parents”.

I’ve never seen the point of this middle-class pastime, which is something the royals and the middle classes are obsessed by. The didn’t exist a generation ago – we relied on part-time jobs to pay for foreign trips and college fees. I worked in supermarkets, sold socks in Woolworths and handbags in a fashion store. I temped in a tax office and tried my hand as a waitress, before finally leaving college to work as a journalist. I reckon I built up a huge amount of experience working for very little

David Cameron’s Big Society seems to have hit the buffers, but this country is crying out for volunteers to help the lonely, the old and the disadvantaged, all of whom have seen support services slashed by councils determined to prune costs to the bone. Why can’t we make a year of voluntary work in the UK a compulsory part of further education, a modern version of National Service?

Mummy and daddy wire money to their children, who are hugging cute babies in Africa and helping to build dams in drought areas in the third world. Of course people in poverty need help, but (to be brutal) it’s always a lot more exciting to go to deprived parts of Africa than it is to pick up litter, take an old lady for a walk or serve Meals on Wheels in a northern town.

I doubt very much that most gap-year kids return to the UK and feel they ought to give back something to the society they grew up in. Teenagers who work in McDonald’s, Asda or Poundland will be grafting on zero-hours contracts in dreary surroundings – but they will be learning how to be part of a team, how to compromise and how to treat other people with respect. No wonder that high-powered city lawyer finds them more employable.

Those annoying hanging baskets can go swing

All over the country, pubs, car parks, high streets and shops are gripped by hanging basket mania as villages and towns fight for trophies in the Britain in Bloom competition. I’m not surprised that two pensioners came to blows over how to water a hanging basket– these floral displays have become weapons in a suburban gardening war.

God forbid you haven’t got the right kind of hanging container lined with moss and packed with trailing geraniums, ivy, pansies and lobelias – plus you need the right sprinkler hose for watering them so the earth remains in place. They are the modern equivalent of the fondue set or the Teasmade, bizarre concoctions that are highly labour intensive, requiring daily watering and manicuring. I prefer my plants like my men, a bit rough and ready. Sorry, hanging baskets are naff.

Verbatim theatre goes from stage to screen

London Road, the musical about the 2006 Ipswich serial killer, was a groundbreaking work, winning numerous awards since opening at the National Theatre in 2011.

Writer Alecky Blythe recorded hundreds of hours of conversations with the residents of London Road where the victims worked, and where the killer temporarily resided, and then worked with composer Adam Cork to create “verbatim theatre”, where the actors playing real people were fed their lines through earpieces, and had to re-create real speech patterns.

Now London Road is a film, which opened yesterday, and is still as powerful, even though it’s shot on location and no longer has a small cast playing multiple roles. The movie is poignant and extremely moving, reminding me of a magical evening at the Barbican a few years ago, when Philip Glass and a small group of singers performed his score to Jean Cocteau’s movie Beauty and the Beast, matching the dialogue exactly.

London Road has moments of real menace – after the first murder, shoppers in a local market start intoning, “everyone’s very nervous” over and over again. We see how real people responded to the shocking events of 2006, when their street was invaded by the media, their privacy stripped away, and they were made to feel (unfairly) that their neighbourhood was tawdry. They retreat into their living rooms, besieged by events out of their control.

Like in a Greek tragedy, the townspeople comment on what is happening; the prostitutes explain how their lives have changed for ever, and members of the media (hilariously) reveal all, via their verbal ticks and phoney concern. The conclusion could have been sentimental – the residents come together for a garden competition (with plenty of hanging baskets) – but Olivia Colman, as Julie, delivers a killer punch in the closing scenes. She’s not sorry the girls are dead.

Perhaps Tesco could help with the housing crisis

How the mighty have fallen. According to a new survey, Tesco is now our least favourite supermarket. A consumer research company asked 6,800 shoppers to rank major supermarkets according to customers’ loyalty, ease of locating specific items and whether they would recommend the store to other people. Tesco was placed in the bottom three in six categories – but it rated best for online ordering. The message seems to be Tesco is OK, as long as you don’t have to waste hours trudging around its stores looking for something for supper.

Earlier this year, the retailer announced losses of £6.38bn, the closure of 43 stores and the scrapping of plans to build another 49. Boss Dave Lewis plans to reduce its product range by 30 per cent (hurrah!) and close head office by next year. Visiting a store last week, I could see the enormity of his task – a bit like turning around a supertanker. There are still far too many different ranges and a really confusing layout.

What is going to happen to the Tesco land bank? Why doesn’t it build affordable homes? Figures released last week show there are the lowest number of homes for sale since 1978. Perhaps Tesco could turn all its single-storey retail boxes into multi-storey maisonettes?

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