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8 ways to eat for less: a guide to savvy supermarket shopping

It’s a sorry state of affairs to see a grown woman crying at the supermarket checkout but that’s exactly how I felt today when I saw my final food bill. Prices are now so high that we all have to make some serious changes in how we shop to survive. There are the basic options: change down a supermarket or change down a brand. However with many supermarkets price-matching at the moment that might not make much difference. What are the best ways of cutting our food bills without cutting our lifestyle?

1. Know your labels.

So many people do not understand the difference between a best before date, a display until date and a use by date on food:

Best Before means just that; that the food is guaranteed to be at it’s best before that date but is perfectly fine to eat after that date provided no signs of degradation (i.e. mould/separation of dairy products/fermentation) are visible.

Display Until dates are much the same, often found on fresh fruit and vegetables these are purely for stock rotation. They tell the shop staff when they need to remove old stock.

Use By dates on the other hand should never be ignored. They are there for your safety. Usually this date is on things like meat, fish, poultry and dairy and items which may carry salmonella. Please do not attempt to eat any of these after the use by date.

Notice the Display Until and Use By dates are different!

2. Make use of your freezer.

Frozen food is much cheaper and actually fresher than a lot of the ‘fresh’ produce you get in stores, especially when it comes to fish & vegetables. You’ll also find you have far less waste.

Batch cook. Freezers work more economically when full. The less space they have to chill, the better. Resist the temptation to fill it with over-priced ready meals – shop smart and batch cook your favourite family dishes. Lasagne, curry and stew are favourites in our house but pretty much anything will freeze. Just remember: if it’s already been thawed it must be cooked before you refreeze it. If in doubt, Google it.

Be a yellow sticker shopper. Most supermarkets have a reduced section. Get to know where yours is and don’t be afraid to ask staff what time they normally do the markdowns. Remember that although these products may be on their display until or best before date if you freeze on day of purchase they will last months. Alternatively you can cook up a batch of something tasty on the same day and freeze that for later.

Split meat packs. If you regularly buy packs of meat which are large enough to feed your household for more than one meal split them into individual portions before freezing. I always freeze chicken breasts, pork chops, steaks etc individually to reduce waste.

3. Be fridge smart

Can you remember what is in your fridge right now? So much of our food budget is spent on perishable items which must be stored in the fridge. Much of it gets wasted when it’s pushed to the back and forgotten until well after it is edible. Perishables like meat, fish, fresh vegetables and dairy are some of the most expensive items on your shopping list each week so think smart. Only keep in your fridge what needs to be there. This is usually only dairy products, cooked meat and enough raw meat for the next couple of days. Get in the habit of freezing all your meat and take out what you need each morning/evening for the following day. Switch to frozen vegetables,for everything but salads and you will cut down massively on waste.

Top tip: NEVER use the salad drawer. Once it goes in the drawer you instantly forget you have it because you can’t see it.

4.Make a treat out of childhood favourites.

We all have foods that we loved as a kid that we feel either guilty or silly for enjoying as adult. Since most of us weren’t regularly served partridge in a red wine jus as 8 year olds, these meals are often cheap and cheerful dishes that can make us smile and save us pennies at the same time. In our house this amounts to spaghetti hoops on toast, potatoes and cheese sauce or fish fingers, chips and beans. Whip out one or two of these dishes a week and you’ve cut a chunk off your final bill.

Photo by rolled_trousers on flickr

5.Check your portion sizes

Once you have served a meal how much left over rice/pasta/potato goes in the bin and how much extra did you eat because it was there? Could you cut your portion sizes and cut your costs this way? Historically we have always used cheap carbohydrates like bread and potatoes to pad out a meal but often we take it too far and make portions far too big, making us both fatter and poorer at the same time. Even if you think your portions are about right try cutting them down a little. If you are actually still hungry finish off with some bread.

6. Dish up in the kitchen, serve to the table.

Unless it’s a special occasion, plate your food up in the kitchen and then bring to the table. By placing self-service dishes on the table you are likely to:

a) Cook more. A ramekin of peas doesn’t look right on a table so you’ll do a bowlful of unnecessary and wasteful peas to fill the space.

Photo by F0t0Synth on flickr

b) Eat more. No matter how much you’ve had you’ll have a little more if it’s right in front of you. If you have to walk to another room you are less likely to eat for the sake of it. This is also true of bread products. If you are eating something with bread only take one portion each to the table. Do not take the whole loaf or pack of rolls as they will be eaten just to empty the bowl.

7.Make use of your leftovers.

Always have a plan for your leftovers. You may wish to freeze them as they are ready for an emergency lunch or speedy evening meal. Most meats will make a great curry the day after you’ve cooked them. Keep a couple of premixed sauces in for this purpose and try and get them when they are half price. Alternatively, mix with a can of tomatoes and stock for an Italian style casserole or simply a little instant gravy and some homemade pastry for quick and tasty pie.You can always use roasted or grilled meat for packed lunches, sandwiches or salads.

8. Get inspired and learn new recipes.

Most of us have the same tried and tested recipes we use over and over again. As a consequence meal times can become quite boring. But with the same few ingredients it is possible to make several different meals (I’ll be showing you how later in the month with some of my store cupboard essentials). There are many websites out there, like www.supercook.com, which can help you by providing recipes tailored to exactly what you have in your cupboards. The more recipes you are armed with, the more successful your battle against waste and expense will be.

Dreams of Freedom and Pepper Spray

On January 21st 1971, Timothy Leary was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the possession of two joints of marijuana. Soon after, an additional 10 years were added for an earlier conviction, which the American Supreme Court had quashed once before when he had been tried under an unconstitutional tax law. The conviction for that previous offence, for an incredibly small amount, was 30 years in prison and a $30,000 fine.

Leary had been described as, “the most dangerous man in America,” by Richard Nixon. Leary, then a prominent psychologist, had never murdered a single person, nor had he directly incited any violence. He had just really loved LSD, and had been devoted to researching ways in which it could be used in therapy to treat long-term psychological problems. One of the areas they looked at was anti-social behaviour in criminals. At the same time, similar testing was being done by Elliott Barker. Leary and Barker had initial successes, but the long-term results suggested that some criminals, particularly those with psychopathic traits, were merely taught how to conceal the coldness within them whilst acting out human emotions for the benefit of those around them.

However, Leary lived at a time before these long-term results became obvious, and he genuinely believed in the therapeutic uses of hallucinogens. When the US government outlawed them, Leary became an advocate for their decriminalisation, and their use in treating patients with mental, and sometimes physical, disorders. Indeed, tests on various banned substances are today showing potentially positive results: LSD treatment in therapy has resumed in Switzerland, and MDMA has shown positive results when used on suffers of Parkinson’s disease. 

However, at a time when Charles Manson had his family murdering people, Ted Bundy was responsible for the deaths of college age girls, and the Zodiac Killer was most active, it was Leary that right-wing politician Richard Nixon described as the “most dangerous man in America”.

Why? There were three reasons.

Firstly, Leary popularised the saying, “think for yourself and question authority.” That same ideology was the one that eventually led to the Watergate Scandal, and the end of Nixon’s presidency, so he would be right to fear it.

Second of all, it was the beginning of the Establishment’s long running failure to fight a war against drugs. The real reason those in power so feared the drugs of that age was because what represented a quiet revolution of bands and free-love and daisies-in-your-hair, also represented a shedding of the kind of proper, mannered restraint that the right-wing saw as a moral obligation. To them, it was every Freudian-nightmare about the dark-undercurrent that dominates the subconscious mind of the masses – it was the mob breaking free of their shackles. In much the same way that Julian Assange is the current face of an information revolution, Leary was the face of a psychological revolution. “Think for yourself and question authority.”

The third reason was much, much more insidious, and seems like it comes from the realms of conspiracy theory, but was actually the subject of a public apology from Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford. The MK-Ultra project was designed to test the use of hallucinogens (specifically the same Lysergic-Acid Diethalymide-25 created by Albert Hoffman and used by Timothy Leary) in an attempt to manipulate the brain for the benefit of the CIA. It resulted in at least one death.

However, at the same time that the CIA wanted to exploit this drug, the Establishment was doing its best to slander Timothy Leary, and then lock him away using a sentence far beyond the maximum permitted sentence for the crime he had committed.

And they would have succeeded, too, had it not been for the fact that the Establishment of that time was as stupid as it was brutally criminal. The tests administered to Leary to rate his psychological condition, and determine whether he would spend the next twenty years in a minimum- or maximum-security prison, had been written by Leary himself. Leary decided that, not being The A-Team, he would go the maximum-security route. He promptly escaped, and was smuggled out of the country, eventually ending up in Switzerland. Timothy Leary Arrested by two policemen

Leary was eventually returned to America, where a judge commented that, “If he is allowed to travel freely, he will speak publicly and spread his ideas.” In 1976, three years after his recapture, he was released. Whilst in prison, he told notoriously-hard-to-define writer Robert Anton Wilson that he believed he had more freedom whilst imprisoned than most people had on the outside. To Leary, the idea of freedom was not physical, but mental.

Wilson had his own revelation about freedom during a sit-in at a segregated barber-shop. The shop’s owner refused to serve black customers, and so those in the local community who were aware of the importance in fighting racial segregation decided to sit-in his shop. Eventually, the police were called, and the protesters, rather than the racist barber, were arrested. Wilson later commented that it showed him that to the Establishment, even your own body is not yours, but theirs, to do with what they want.

These topics rest forefront in my mind at the moment not because of Julian Assange, who was mentioned earlier, or because of the economic hardships robbing so many people of their own freedoms, or because of the reaction to the strikes by public sector workers (told that they should feel grateful to receive less for more, in a staggering reversal of the very nature of capitalism). No, the events described above are at the forefront of my mind because of the Establishment reaction to the Occupy movement, especially in America.

Occupy is said to have started on Wall Street, and in San Francisco this past September, but the date the movement began on, and its original location, are less important than the ideas it claims to represent. These ideas are varied, but the are predominantly about a form of responsible capitalism. Not anti-capitalism, as if so often claimed, but responsible capitalism. Responsible capitalism is, of course, about as anti-capitalist as you can get to the current Establishment.

The current Establishment is against any form of regulation, or protection for the general public, from the forces of the market. As was mentioned earlier, one of the great fears of the Establishment for most of the last century and the start of this one has been the dark subconscious desires of the masses, so often referred to in the common lexicon as “the mob mentality”. The war to control this, to manage by consent, has been at the centre of modern political thinking. However, when the masses seem to turn on the Establishment, or any part of their dominant ideology, management by consent becomes management by terror. (Of course, the exception to this is when the dominant ideology is challenged by the market, such as the events of Black Wednesday here in the UK, and the politicians learn who really has their hand on the whip.)

It is tragic, rather than ironic, that those in positions of power cannot see the direct correlation between the gunning-down of protesters during the Arab Spring, and the brutal evictions across America. Those who believed, like Leary, that you should, “think for yourself and question authority” are now finding themselves, like Wilson, learning that even their own freedoms will be denied them should they act out in a way considered to be against the beliefs of the Establishment.

In this sense, it makes a mockery of democracy, but to understand democracy you have to understand the simplistic ideas of democracy which a government will allow, verses the reality of democracy that we have been denied all our lives.

The simplistic form of democracy is as follows: each person, regardless of their ignorance, is invited to vote after a period in which they are bombarded by propaganda controlled by the dominant political classes and those who own the media.

In Leary’s instance, the dominant voices were the likes of Richard Nixon and his then media consultant, now Fox News President, Roger Ailes.

Now-a-days, it is the likes of Ailes (still), Rupert Murdoch and Goldman Sachs.

In this model, you have only as much power as the amount of information they allow you to have. This is why the likes of Occupy, Anonymous and Wikileaks terrify the current Establishment, as they are weakening the level of information control they have over the public, and ruining the illusion of a society that is “in this together”. Occupy London tent slogan- real democracy now

The other model of democracy is one we will likely never see, but is the one that most of the counter-culture has tried to popularise in one way or another since the term was first coined, and perhaps back to Adam Weishaupt and the Bavarian Illuminati, and perhaps even back to Jesus (if you believe in him or not, the important thing here is the message, not whether or not he existed).

It goes as follows: each person is expected to learn as much as they can about what they are required to vote on, and is relied upon to make an informed choice about what they have learned through both mainstream and more marginalised means of delivering information. Or, arming yourself with information, if you will.

In this way, the truth about Occupy is that it is an idealised form of democracy taking on a corrupt, manipulative form of democracy. And, just as Leary was punished because they couldn’t allow him to spread his message, so the evictions and the restriction of media coverage were set up to muddy the true message of the protest: a need for economic openness.

There have been many commentators that have disputed this message. One of the most spurious arguments came from Louise Mensch, MP, who, on Have I Got News For You, commented that they can’t have an i-Phone and a Starbucks coffee and be against capitalism. This was later followed up by comic book writer Frank Miller, who, like Nixon perverting Leary’s advocacy of LSD-use, sought to write off the Occupy movement as a group of “liars, thieves and rapists.” This is to be expected. After all, when someone comes into contact with something they can’t comprehend or understand, they often say something stupid. (Another example would be David Cameron’s attempts, today, to turn the word, “leftist”, into an insult.) If a UFO made out of liquid that bent at angles our eyes were not able to fully see landed outside your house, you would either misunderstand what you had seen, or you would act in fear.

The lesson to be taken from all this is a simple one, though: the Establishment has always acted in the same way towards ideas it considers dangerous, regardless of how dangerous those ideas are. The true heroes of recent memory are not usually those who agreed to go and be shot at in a war, in exchange for financial remuneration, but those who gave up their time to be beaten, maced, shot at, killed, and abused in public because they stood up for their beliefs against an Establishment that neither cares to listen, nor cares for the numerous bones that are cracked under their oppressive heal. There is no guarantee that you will be proven right, and there is no guarantee that you will be remembered as a hero. But, when the Establishment send in hired goon squads, or hand down sentences far exceeding what is required by law, it is time to admit that something has gone wrong with our democracy.

Prisoners, Suckers and Rioters

At the heart of modern political, economic and social thinking there is a belief in the purity of numbers. This notion has, in times of economic stability, been presented as an example of the triumph of rational thought over the chaos bubbling beneath the surface of our society. However, this presumption has been the driving force behind some of the worst decisions made since the end of the 1970s, and has provided justification for a selfish, dispassionate attitude which has eroded the moral heart of government, business and society.

The popularity of this ideology has its origins in the Cold War. John Williams, founder of the RAND Corporation, began using game theory in order to predict what the Russians would do during a nuclear conflict. It wasn’t long, though, before they began applying game theory to every facet of society. Soon, the RAND Corporation began to hire mathematicians and game theorists such as John von Neumann and John Nash to work for their policy think tank.

Our approach to think tanks is especially important to understanding how this ideology became popular. Generally speaking, it is assumed that think tanks are bodies created to perform research that will inform policy decisions. Although this may be the case in some instances, a typical think tank will often be a lobbying group set up to promote special interests. They start with an answer, and then find people to tell them that answer, thus lending it greater validity. Mechanical Calculator with numbers showing

The RAND Corporation had a serious problem. They were using game theory to reduce individuals to a numerical value. People were expected to behave in a dispassionate, rational way because the numbers said that it was the only logical way to reach a beneficial outcome. In reality, people did not behave the way that the numbers dictated.

For example, in one of Nash’s experiments, “So Long Sucker” (also known as, “Fuck You, Buddy”), the only way to win is to betray your partner. In another, two criminals are being interviewed by the police about where they stashed their loot. If they confess, they will get a reduced sentence. However, if they don’t confess, there isn’t enough evidence to convict them. The only way to win is for neither to confess.

The mindset that these experiments promote has more in common with Factor 1 of Hare’s psychopath checklist than with the way that most people behave. This includes, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning or manipulative behaviour, lack of remorse or guilt, lack of empathy, and a failure to accept responsibility for your own actions.

In fact, when Nash ran his experiment, they found that people did not behave in the way that the numbers said that they would. This should be a relief as it suggests that most people are not psychopaths. Yet, what was cause for celebration then, may now be cause for concern.

As mentioned earlier, think tanks tend to promote their ideas, rather than researching a concept and then publishing the findings. This meant that those who bought into the RAND Corporation’s intoxicating beliefs saw flaws not in the pure mathematics or game theory, but in the imperfect world around them, and sought to change it.

It is no coincidence that most people refer to the decade that followed as the era of “greed is good.” Like the theoretical people in the games mentioned above, normal people were led to believe that the social conscience of post-war Britain should be relegated to the past in favour of rampant, grab-what-you-can individualism.

The media popularised these attitudes through television shows like ‘Dallas’, and catchphrases like, “This time next year, we’ll be millionaires.” The obsession with numbers and being the alpha male of the pack had found its natural play-mate at this point in the world of finance. After all, if you become obsessed with numbers, the numbers most people deal with every day are the numbers on coins and paper-money. It wasn’t much of an extension for game theory to find its way into the world of business.

We’ll jump ahead, now, to recent history, and the story of David Li. David Li was a mathematician hired to come up with an equation that would reduce the risk for investment bankers. The formula he came up with, the Gaussian copula function, essentially allowed you to make a profit on every investment. As a result, everyone started using it.

As anyone with a bit of sense would be able to tell you, you cannot have everyone profiting every time. Eventually, someone is going to realise that there is a finite amount of wealth in the world, and it is going to be revealed that the equation doesn’t work.

Which is what happened when they put their money into the American housing market, and then they found out that people couldn’t afford to pay back the loans which would have guaranteed them massive profits.

Japanese Stock Market display with man looking unhappy However, so limiting is the ideological belief in the purity of numbers that those in power, seduced to this way of thinking, have next to no idea how to rectify the situation aside from doing the exact same thing all over again.

The best way in which this can be highlighted is by the term, “jobless recovery.” In terms of the ideology we are looking at here, a recovery is when the numbers are balanced. The numbers being balanced does not mean that anyone will have a job, just that the numbers say what they need to say. In the real world, however, a jobless recovery would be devastating because it wouldn’t solve any of the multitude of social problems that have been caused by the recession.

The most worrying trend, though, lies with the effect that this ideology has had on society. The recent riots caused by the shooting of an unarmed man have been written off as the opportunistic looting by a criminal underclass in a staggering example of connective bias carried out by a government that coined the term, “broken Britain.”

Indeed, this political narrative makes sense when you consider that politicians have reduced the rioters to crude numbers of youths behaving in much the way that the RAND Corporation claimed that rational people should behave if given the opportunity.

There were two other worrying trends at work during the riots which really show the problems with this dominant ideology. Firstly, the coverage was quick to acquiesce to the official political line that this was an inevitable bubbling over of the darker forces of our nature, given expression by those in our society who cannot control themselves because they lack a proper upbringing. Meanwhile, in order to put this across, those people rioting and looting were reduced to a “number of masked youths”, and given no real voice to actually explain the reason for what they were doing. There was, of course, no need for an explanation. The ideology explained it for us: people should be expected to behave in this way.

Secondly, amongst this dehumanised number of youths there was enough behaviour to justify reporting the story in this way. But what is most interesting is not that they were stealing, but that the same ideology that damned them is also what seems to have motivated them. After all, what was this but rampant, grab-what-you-can individualism?

When we reduce people, groups or institutions to numbers we do so by removing everything that makes them who they are and turning them into a parody of themselves. The only thing worse than this is when we reduce them to numbers so often they begin to think of themselves as being nothing more than a parody of the person they are. In dealing with this ideology, we need to learn to treat it with the contempt it deserves. We should not look to the politicians and businessmen for an answer, but instead we should start with Patrick McGoohan: “I am not a number! I am a free man!”

Why I’m a Feminist

I was a student in 1980s Manchester, hotbed of student activism. And at West Berlin’s Free University, incubator of student radicalism. Feminism was a cool lifestyle choice, though of course there was far more behind it. A rapist terrorised female students in my first year at Manchester. Women refugees spoke of their persecution in their home countries. But we marched together to reclaim the night, I volunteered on student helplines, and there was a palpable shared sense of injustice and of community acting to redress wrongs.

Noughties life as a new Mum in small town Hertfordshire was a Big Shock. And yes, feminism still mattered, and yes the issues were just as present as a first timFeminism is the radical notion that women are people Mum, but it fossilised to a private belief, without the community – or probably my volition – to move to action.

And now 2010 in Nairobi, and I weep at the stories that Kenyan women in my life share with me. The mother who interrupted the rape of her eleven year old daughter by a family member. How the police wouldn’t get involved. How the family had to move districts for security. Of the lack of any support services. The woman who tells of her rape by a family member who was paying her school fees. How she ran away just before A levels, but still hasn’t told her mother. The girls who tell of gatekeepers demanding sex to introduce you to a possible employer. My friend, a single mum, who works as a prostitute when she can’t raise the school fees for her children. The young girl who tells of the night time cries of her sister, being raped by her father.

These aren’t well worn stories which have been wrung dry in the telling and retelling. These are painful explanations of why something didn’t happen as it might have. In my friends’ minds they aren’t the point of the story, but a contributing factor to be endured, a thread in the pattern of their lives. They are the stories of the powerlessness of poverty. Of the impotence of the vulnerable when a justice system doesn’t do justice. The stories of why feminism matters, why we women need to listen and to advocate, and why feminism can’t be allowed to be a dirty word, even in the cocoon of Small Town UK. Take time today to pray for the women of Kenya.

Shooting Stitchthread

My best friend Lex says I’m the most pretentious person she knows. Let that be a warning if you’re not yet aware of just how pretentious an artist writing about their work can appear.

I once read a defence of Béla Tarr’s work that went something along the lines of ‘either all art is pretentious or none of it is’. I think the trouble comes from the fact that what the artist says about their work might not match how we’ve experienced it. However, if we’re to treat art work as texts and are struggling to ‘read’ the piece then the artist’s view of their work can at least offer us away in.

So here’s me, offering you a way in to the music video ‘Last Days’ which I directed (produced, shot and edited) for Preston Doom Metallers ‘Stitchthread’.

There’s a repeating trick throughout the video, so if you’ve not yet watched it, here it is. Otherwise, *SPOILERS (& PRETENTIOUSNESS) AHEAD*

Prior to an art exhibition I did in January 2011, Ian (Stitchthread’s mandibly hirsute drum beast) had created the branding for my production company. During the process we got into discussions on Béla Tarr and this led to Ian asking me whether I’d ever considered shooting a music video.

It’s not something I’d spent too much time considering given that a large amount of them are the video equivalent of fast food and an horrendous waste of talent. Added to this is that I repeatedly see videos for Metal songs with the same lazy horror film tropes- Band performing in a cellar/ woods/ wasteland intercut with some form of chase/ torture/ murder sequence, a lot of lens flare and shaky-cam during the solos. Often a vanity project and masturbatory aid for bands who know just how cool they are.

Ian assured me that this wasn’t the sort of thing they were after, and while I can’t vouch that the video has been safe from Jim the bassist’s onanism, I asked which songs they were considering having a video for. They forwarded an 8 minute song and the 18 minute ‘Last Days’. I was veering towards Last Days, not only because most people don’t make 18 minute music videos, but also because I felt closer to the apocalyptic themes of Last Days given the reading I was doing at the time just after the 2nd Black Metal Theory Symposium.

I’d wanted to start doing long camera takes since discovering Béla Tarr and the look I’ve gone for is lifted straight from ‘Sátántangó’ (the most intense 7 hours you’ll ever spend in front of a screen). SPOLIER- Because of the non-linear story in Sátántangó, there’s a certain scene where for a moment I thought I watching a ghost and this was the most prominent scene in my mind in addition to the overall look of Tarr’s films.

With having the band disappear from the screen, my intention was to have the viewer think about the space the camera is moving through and realising how the band must be moving about out of shot, opening the 2D screen into a 3D perception. This echoes Fontana’s Spatial Concept pieces (currently at Liverpool*spit* Tate)-

and also a sequence from Solyaris by Tarkovsky (who Tarr can be seen as a disciple of).

The video for Velouria by The Pixies was another big influence in terms of intent. At the time of it’s making, bands couldn’t get on Top Of The Pops without having a music video. In order to appear the Pixies shot a 23 second clip of themselves running down a quarry and then slowed the footage to the length of the song. This sort of playing with time strikes me as something quite Deleuzian (see Cinema 2) but was also the playful kind of subversion of form I was aiming for- The Last Days video isn’t a typical representation of a metal band, they keep disappearing from view but are always present, not only in the music, but in the space of the screen world.

As for the repeated disappearing, I’ve been fascinated with illusions and magic tricks since I was very young. The bloke who used to clean our windows showed me that trick where it looks like you’re pulling your thumb off once and I used to ask him to show me it over and over every week. I was totally baffled and it took years for me to work out but led me into learning magic tricks (I only know one decent card trick though). That kind of childhood experience of appearances and absences is covered by Paul Virilio in ‘The Aesthetics of Disappearance’, a book which has become important to my understanding of media.

We shot in early March and green shoots were beginning to show on the trees, a week later they would have been in blossom, so it was really the last possible weekend for a few months to get the video to look bleak. Although it certainly doesn’t come across, it was a glorious spring day and while we started early to minimise the amount of public about, by the last take I was nearly tripping over strangers to keep them out of the shot. Ian and I had rehearsed a few times the week before and on the day I rehearsed once with the band, who’d brought their running shoes.

There are no camera tricks or cuts in the video. The black and white, high contrast image is due to the camera used- a Fisher Price PXL 2000. This was a child’s toy in the 1980s and used to record to audio cassette tape (7 minutes of video on a C90 tape). Mine is circuit bent to allow recording to a digital device.

The use of this camera is another subversion in a world of glossy HD, not attempting to perfectly reflect reality but creating its own image world.

Gerry Fialka, champion of the PXL 2000 and organiser and LA’s annual PXL THIS film festival said this of the camera minimalism- “Giving the viewer less information might mean more involvement by the viewer…” This is something I go along with, not trying to spoon feed the meaning of the image (that’s what ‘making of’ blogs are for) but asking to viewer to bring themselves to the piece and opening up tmie and space in the piece to allow this. I was delighted when a viewer said they’d had an apophenic experience of it, seeing faces in the trees, their mind trying to create meaning from chaos.

Enough from me, what do you think?

Last Days by Stitchthread screened at Sync 4, Preston, March 2011 and will screen at PXL THIS 21, California, December 12th 2011

Philosophy for the Masses

Today is World Philosophy Day, yet most people in the UK have never studied the subject in any way. A movement to change this is gathering speed, with top philosophers and educators campaigning for philosophy and wider reasoning skills to become a central part of the curriculum.

Philosophy is a respected subject in many European schools, with all children in France, Portugal, Spain and Italy studying the subject for at least one year.  Philosophy is also popular in private schools and with home educators in the UK, with many independent schools offering afterschool clubs based on the subject for children as young as seven.   So why is it so absent from most of our education system?

The Philosophy Foundation, an organisation created to promote the teaching and study of philosophy in the UK, has released a set of resources aimed at schools, to help them to introduce the subject into lessons.  Peter Worley, co-founder of the foundation,set out his beliefs in a statement earlier today;

“We need to make Philosophy a regular feature of school life. It’s a shame that young people don’t get the opportunity to engage with some of the great ideas of the past. They still have relevance today and children have their minds stretched by exposure to big ideas, and pick up invaluable thinking skills that can be used in any context.

“The stimulation and intellectual excitement schoolchildren get from Philosophy only underlines the critical gap in our education system we continue to suffer from.”

The joy and satisfaction of considering the “big questions” is something that is being lost, which schools focusing too hard on subjects that can produce measurable results, yet it is notable that you have much better chances of seeing philosophy being taught at a private school, where statistically, the pupils are much more likely to end up in positions of power.  Should it not be a priority for those of us committed to increasing working class representation and social mobility to make sure that our children are given the tools of reasoning and debate that the rich kids get?

I am not advocating an abandonment of the creative and effective parts of the current curriculum – I’m no Gove.  I am however adding my voice to the many that are asking for our children to be given the chance to access the world of skills and knowledge that is currently being kept only for the elite.

We need to teach our children to question and to think about the way our society is structured, and what better way than through philosophy?

Princess Poppy and the Patriarchy

By Alicia Duffy

As a proud feminist mother of two small girls, I try to strike a balance between letting my daughters join in with the culture they live in and protecting them from the more harmful parts.  This has been pretty easy up to now, but this September brought a whole new set of challenges when my eldest started school…

Every week, along with the usual reading practise, numeracy tasks and games, the children bring home a school library book to share with their family.  This choice is left to the children, from a selection, and so often some pretty odd books can be sent home, but it is all there to foster a love of reading, so fair enough.  A lot of four year olds will unfortunately not had very much exposure to books and reading before school, and so simply holding and enjoying a book is an important first step to literacy.  As I have worked both in public libraries and book sales, I know how hard it can be to find books that are acceptable to the reasonably aware adult, but usually the most horrifyingly un PC can be weeded out.Princess Twinkle children's book

So, when my daughter showed me her latest school library book – “Princess Twinkle and Other Princess Stories” – I cringed a bit, but settled down to read it with her.  She had chosen it herself, and while most of the book was far from what I would want my daughter to read, I trusted that it couldn’t get too bad.

The book is a collection of stories and poems, featuring princesses in various adventures and situations, all well within the stereotype of helpless pretty girl, but nothing jaw dropping.  As I read it, I substituted a lot of my own words, but more for my own amusement than anything else – badly written children’s books can be very boring.  Then I found the story entitled “The Perfect Princess”

“The Perfect Princess” features Princess Poppy.  She is introduced as a very messy little girl, and pictured climbing a tree in jeans and a t shirt.  She does have long loose hair, a crown and appears to be wearing lipstick, but is overall dressed like a normal little girl.  Wonderful, I thought – this must be the story where all the stereotypes that have made up the rest of the book are challenged.  Poppy is then pictured at the breakfast table, as her parents tell her there is to be a garden party.  Poppy asks to be able to wear her jeans, but her mother refuses, saying she has to look like a “proper princess” and be “pretty”.

Princess Poppy looking at herself in a mirror, thumbs up.So, up to now I am thinking this is the story where the princess shows everyone that is more important to have fun than dress up.  Maybe there will be an amusing incident where a “pretty” princess rips her dress, but doesn’t care, because Poppy has shown her how to have fun climbing trees or whatever.

Poppy is then shown getting ready for the party, putting on her t shirt, jeans and trainers, then giving herself the thumbs up in her mirror, saying she doesn’t care what people think, because being a messy princess is more fun.  As she stands in front of the mirror, her posture is strong, she is smiling at herself and she is surrounded by her sports equipment.  She looks confident and happy.  This story could go well.

Here is where the story gets worrying.  As Poppy leaves the palace to go to the garden party, she spots Prince Harry.  As soon as she sees Harry, she decides that she doesn’t want to be a messy princess any more, and runs back inside.  So now my four year old is being told that a confident, beautiful girl, in clothes that make her comfortable and allow her to play football and go skateboarding, is not suitable to be at a party with a boy.

Polly goes back to her room, and changes into a frilly dress and high heeled shoes.  When she returns, Harry is enchanted, calls her beautiful, kisses her hand and invites her for a game of croquet.  The children are pictured surrounded by love hearts.  So, here is the reward for changing how she dresses- she gets the guy.  We don’t know if she changes how she behaves, beyond a picture of her playing croquet nicely on a lawn instead of climbing a tree.  The most important thing about Poppy is how she dresses.

Prince Harry kisses Poppy on the handThe last picture features Polly’s parents looking on approvingly.  “At last, Poppy had become a proper princess!”

The rest of the book was bad enough, but this story was so blatant it shocked me.  Children of this age are highly impressionable -they are learning so fast that everything becomes a learning experience.  They are discovering where they fit in the world, what is expected of them, what to aim for.  Poppy was there to show my daughter that she should forget about playing active sports, having fun, being her own person, and should focus on getting herself a nice man.  Worse still, the way to get this man is to change everything about yourself, and that is a good thing.  Messy is bad.  Fun is bad.  Pretty and sweet is good.

It worries me to think that this book was published in 2003, and nobody anywhere in the publishing and purchasing process thought to change it.  I’m hoping that it has found it’s way into the school library by accident, because otherwise I despair.  Sadly, I suspect that the school is simply too short on funds to be able to pick and choose what books are availiable.

There are so many good children’s books out there, many of which challenge the princess stereotype without being boring or preachy.  For example, the excellent Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, or Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole.  These books are a pleasure to hold and to read, with gorgeous illustrations and entertaining text – why submit children to rubbish, especially when they are at such a vital age?

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