Turning out some old papers I discovered a diary I'd written in 1967, when I was '16 going on 17'. It was the usual adolescent angst, except for the fact I did have something to be 'angstious' about, for my family were the wrong side of dysfunctional. My mother had MS in a bad way, my father was absent as much as he could manage and my 13-year-old brother had more or less left home to live with his girlfriend, leaving me as what would now be called a carer for my mother, whilst trying to maintain the ridiculous academic standards required by my hot-house girls' grammar school. If this sounds somewhat Dickensian, I also wrote appalling poems about misery and death and how I was misunderstood by the world (actually that last bit is true).
I also had very vivid dreams, which I haven't had since, for some reason centring on my dilemma about Charles I. Politically I was, as now, totally on Cromwell's side, but I wrote that I felt sorry for Charles, for as I pointed out, 'both of them thought they were right'. Interestingly, Cromwell was a distant ancestor of the late Mr B. In one of my diary entries I wrote that Cromwell really had no choice as if he had just exiled Charles he would have come back with a vengeance. Nowadays I would take the opposite view – don't turn the guy into a martyr but show you can govern better than him. Oh, and don't abolish Christmas – actually, Cromwell didn't want to, it was his more extremist chums.
But all this stuff wove its way into my dreams, in which it seemed I was from a parliament family but personally had royalist sympathies. Cromwell was the dead spit of Harold Wilson, who I assume was the PM at the time. I was always trying to rescue Charles from him, but the latter was so dozy and stubborn that he kept objecting to escaping as it was so undignified – he probably was like that, judging from my later reading of history.
Apart from all this dream life, looking back now it seems that I was actually quite a bright child – several years at a very academic school and four years at Oxford later convinced me I was a bit thick. If I could go back in time now, I might do things differently – or would I? I wonder what Cromwell would have decided…
Gas and gossip
For the past week, our bit of the road in beautiful downtown Banchory has been full of holes dug by the gas men – they are all men – in their efforts to discover a gas leak. A dog walker had smelt gas and sensibly contacted the emergency number. The guys themselves have been polite, helpful and communicative. One even offered to put an extra board over the big hole so Freddy the cat wouldn't decide to explore it.
I forget the detail, but it turned out the leak was a caused by a crack in a pipe that could be repaired. The whole street is scheduled to have an updated gas mains established in two years or so, as one gent informed me, so I didn't need to worry that my house would blow up before I sold it. I told him it was all very interesting as I had never really thought about gas pipes until something went wrong with one, so my knowledge was very limited. He said he thought gas must be boring to the non-specialist. I suppose it was unusual for someone to show any interest and so I got a potted history of the gas mains of Banchory.
What I would have liked to have asked him was how someone decides they want to be a gas expert. I can't imagine it would be proposed by a career advisor, yet the job must have some attractions – it's outdoor, there's teamwork, you are providing an excellent public service and presumably you get a call-out allowance. Not glamorous, it's true but you could do a lot worse these days…
One of the gas men definitely thought so – he's Polish but has lived in Scotland for many years and thought we couldn't afford independence as we were too poor. I quickly disabused him of that idea and asked him how Poland had managed in that case. However, he thought we Scots were too lazy, as 'in Poland, if you don't work, you don't eat!' and here people were reluctant to take on difficult jobs – like mending gas pipes, presumably.
I'm not sure he was altogether right about Poland as I've heard Polish workers have been attracted back there by higher wages and improved benefits, but he was a good example of how people's voting decisions are often less than rational. However, he was very helpful with preventing the cat escaping so he will be spared ignominy come independence.
I'm sure all of us 'hard working' types know at least one or two examples of folk who genuinely abuse the social security system – one lived in the flat below my son and managed to trash his own place – rented from the Council – twice, as the Council forgot to change the locks after evicting him following the first incident. But generally, the less well-off people I know are all struggling to pay the bills even after juggling two or three part-time jobs.
I occasionally buy The Big Issue
from an exotic gent who sits outside Tesco here – partly as I suspect he may be Father Christmas in disguise and is keeping note of who patronises him – and was surprised to read the magazine's founder, John Bird's, views about ending poverty. If I have understood him correctly, it should involve shifting resources to better education and early years intervention, the idea being that this would make people better educated, more skilled and entrepreneurial.
But what about those of us who will never be educated, skilled or entrepreneurial? Even those like me who were educated to the gills may not have the skills that modern employment requires? My son is away on a training week in Wick of all places, and if I can't work the email to send this piece off you will be deprived of reading it.
But seriously, there are not enough paid jobs to go around for those who through no fault of their own lack the skills and abilities to hold down the sort of employment on offer – some of which, like 'internet influencer' is hardly useful anyway – and yet there's so much work that needs doing in our society – supporting vulnerable people, improving the environment, assisting in education and health. Answer, surely: a citizens' wage provided to let people do all these things, while the skilled, educated and entrepreneurial get on with changing the world.
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant