Category Archives: polemic

Tipping Tyranny

Service charges, gratuities, tips in restaurants – call them what you like, they need to go.

When I’ve looked into the justifications for the existence of this antiquated convention one that comes up frequently is that it supplements the income of poorly-paid waiting staff. Another popular one is that it allows you to reward exceptional service.

Allow me to demolish both.

If restaurants are paying staff so badly that waiting staff are obliged to solicit (or at least tacitly hope for) supplementation from customers directly, it sends the message that the restaurant isn’t paying its staff a living wage. I’m not comfortable giving my custom to a business that incorporates inadequate wages into its business model. Neither do I want to see a separate “service charge” on my bill. I don’t see a “service charge” when I buy my groceries at the supermarket and I don’t want to see one at a restaurant. I’m not interested in the costs of any other aspect of a particular restaurant’s business model. Just incorporate the cost of staffing into the price of the meal and spare me the hassle of umming and ahhing about how much to tip when I’m in a hurry to leave at the end of the meal.

As for rewarding exceptional service, that logic risks over-attentive, obsequious and artificially “friendly” behaviour by waiting staff desperate to impress. I want waiting staff to provide very good service as a norm because it is the house policy to do so. If an individual goes above and beyond I’ll reward it with good feedback in social media and, most importantly, repeat business.


An exasperating battle for our children’s rights

Every year many parents of children with disabilities in the UK have to play an absurd game with their local education authority. In principle, it is a process to define the special educational needs for their child that puts in a legally binding statement the steps which the authority will take to make provision for those needs.

Providing those services, such as speech and language therapy, is sometimes expensive and the authority will try to avoid providing it, by, for example, not making mention that it is, in theory available. What should be an exercise in providing exactly what the child needs becomes a battle of wits, with parents having to find legal precedents for provision of a particular service and authorities using evasive language to shirk their responsibility to provide for the specific needs of the child. The stress this creates for both parents and children is appalling.

Parents have paid for these services through their council tax. Imagine the uproar if your council used your money to provide some sort of service such as an after school club, say, but then tried to prevent you finding out about it. And not only that, but once you have found out, the council put forward spurious arguments (sometimes involving surreal bureaucratic jargon) to prevent you using it. You then resort to legal advice or expert opinion (for which you have to pay) to establish that the council has to give you access to it, which they ultimately concede.  They know that they have to provide the service but hope that you won’t have the tenacity, wits, money (sometimes) and letter-writing skills to go all the way. You are obliged fight an expensive, stressful and needless battle with council officials whose salaries are paid for by your taxes to get something you are entitled to anyway.

The result is that disabled kids whose parents don’t have the means, financial or otherwise – whom the present government euphemistically refers to as “hard working families”- are deprived of the opportunities that society supposedly affords them as a right.

This is a scandal that needs exposing and which makes a mockery of the present government’s aspirations to build a more caring and inclusive society.

So this report is very welcome.

Ten words soon to be extinct in British English

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve been noticing changes in the words that speakers of British English use. Some of those changes are due to the adoption of American English words, others are simply through misunderstanding. Here is an utterly subjective and unscientific survey of some of the changes that I have noticed. Before I am accused of being a curmudgeon, I accept that language is always evolving, so to complain about all of them is pointless. One or two of the changes, however, do seem to me excessively PC or depressingly indicative of lowered educational standards.

Will all these words still be in common British English usage ten years from now?

  1. problem

    “Problem” has a problem. It is just too negative for our upbeat, spin-obsessed age. It suggests that something is actually, er, wrong. Oh dear. Instead we have the blander issue. Consider a parent tutting about one of her children’s more badly-behaved friends: would she say “Kevin’s got problems” or would she be more tempted to say “Kevin’s got issues“? In the workplace, problems have been almost entirely banished. Great news! Now we are left with only issues and challenges which are not so bad at all, are they?

  2. invitation

    How often do you receive an invitation to a party these days? You’re more likely to receive an invite. This change of use of the word “invite” from a verb to a noun is, I believe, a result of the adoption of “invite” from American English. American software applications allow you to send your colleagues invites to meetings. In my workplace in the UK, I have not heard the word invitation used in conversation – in any context – for three years.

  3. take-away

    Take-out or takeout seems to replacing “take-away” as both noun and verb when referring to food that is bought to be consumed off the premises. In my local fish and chip shop, that most British of institutions, customers* can eat at tables instead of taking their battered cod and chips away. They are therefore asked “Is that to take out?” *Formerly known as patrons.

  4. insect

    This is now becoming only a scientific term, now replaced in everyday English by bug. I have to give bug its due: it is a short and child-friendly word.

  5. exploit

    The verb exploit is probably too resonant of those non-PC times when exploitation was the norm, by men of women, by adults of children, by the first world of the third, by the haves of the have-nots. So it appears to have been substituted by the noun leverage. Thus, where previously one would have exploited a resource, it is now leveraged. It’s probably largely used in business but it crops up elsewhere.

  6. sex

    Yes, sex will have disappeared in a few years time. But only in the sense of gender, which is now replacing it. Those with a schoolboy sense of humour will no longer have the innocent pleasure of writing “Yes, seven times a week” next to the parts of forms enquiring whether you are male or female.

  7. the

    No, we aren’t dropping the definite article entirely. Only in one particular context: in dates. These days “Friday thirteenth” is becoming more prevalent than the more old-fashioned “Friday the thirteenth”. Similarly “on”, as in “She went shopping on Wednesday” is beginning to be dropped too.

  8. shop No more shops. Only stores. One type of shop, the chemist’s has been replaced by the pharmacy.
  9. criterion

    The decline of the teaching of classics has resulted in a generation who don’t know that borrowed Greek words ending in “-on” take the ending “-a” in the plural. “a criteria” and “a phenomena” crop up everywhere.

  10. fussy

    If I didn’t eat my greens when I was little, mum might have told me not to be fussy. Today, in the same situation, a child is picky.

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Down’s Syndrome: Things I wish I had known

A contributor to the UK Down’s Syndrome mailing list recently posted this list in respect of her daughter, Karen, who has Down’s Syndrome and is in her twenties.

In many ways it reflected our own thoughts about Little A. It’s well worth reading if you have just been told that your baby has, or is likely to have Down’s Syndrome. Numbers 6 and 11 are particularly pertinent, in my opinion.

1. I wish I had known that Karen would be able to travel around London alone on public transport.

2. I wish I had known that she could live in her own flat, not residential care.

3. I wish I had known that she could use various complicated bits of technology from a young age including CD players, tape recorders, washing machines, telephones, computers etc.

4. I wish I had known that she would have choices as an adult and was not destined for the sheltered workshop told to me when she was 5 days old.

5. I wish I had known that intelligence wasn’t just about academic skills but it was about comprehension, observation and problem solving, all of which Karen does brilliantly.

6. I wish I had known earlier that you need to take the pronouncements of professionals with a large pinch of salt. That mother’s instinct (or dad’s) proves to be right in the majority of cases.

7. I wish I had known not only that she would be able to vote but that she would be able to choose the candidate based on her own ideals and not her parent’s politics.

8. I wish I had known that she would be so creative – poetry, paintings and the like.

9. I wish I had known that she would develop a wonderful sense of humour.

10 I wish I had known how courageous and confident that she would be.

11. I wish I had realised much earlier that having a learning disability is not a tragedy even if the rest of the family all have university degrees.

12. I wish I had known that having a daughter with Down’s Syndrome would bring me in contact with friends from all over the world and enable me to visit such places as Nashville and Blackpool. Also, it enabled me to meet and become friends with some marvellous people here in London.

13. I wish I had known that we would be able to do all the family things we would have done had Karen not been born with Down’s Syndrome.

14. I wish I had known that Karen was going to meet more famous people and appear on TV and in the press more than her siblings!

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Honesty and Capitalism

Those of us who live in capitalist liberal democracies are used to the idea of businesses having “mission statements”. Indeed they are so common, one wonders if they are bought off the shelf, so evasively coy are some of them:

“To be the best supplier of X product in our chosen marketplace.”

“To be the premier supplier of Y product.” (Just what does premier mean in this context?)

And so on.

But why do you want to be the best supplier of whatever it is? I have seen only a few mission statements that actually tell the whole truth; that unashamedly explain the reason for a company’s existence. In most cases the truth is that the company exists to make money for someone.

Fine. Say so!

I would be impressed by a company that, instead hiding its motives behind PR twaddle, would state that bald truth: they exist to make money. Credit us with some intelligence!

While they are at it, why not go further by simply behaving towards us in ways that don’t annoy us? If doing that costs more money, tell us so. And use plain English.

For example:

Mission Statement

We exist to make our shareholders wealthier. We aren’t ashamed about this.

We will do this by selling x service/product at a profit.

We will do this ethically and honestly, treating our customers with respect, compensating our staff at least in line with the market-average and providing a pleasing working environment.

If we have to use call centres, we will make sure the experience of using them is brief, productive and not frustrating.

If we do something stupid we will acknowledge it quickly.

We will credit the customer with intelligence. If it turns out that the customer is lacking in that department will not make them feel embarrassed about it.

Our environmental policies will be real, measurable and not PR fig-leaves to cover lamentable inadequacies.

If we don’t achieve these goals, we deserve to get our arses whipped in the marketplace and go out of business.

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Male Bashing

This lady says some stuff that resonates with me. She’s grumpy, uses bad language and the idiom is American, but see past that and I think she makes some good points.

See Idiocy Is Gender Neutral

Incidentally, for those who have found some of my recent posts less jolly than they used to be, I’m actually in a jolly mood as I write. The link above just struck me as relevant to some of my thinking recently 🙂

Cultural prejudice and booksellers’ responsibility

I’ve just returned from a trip to a bookshop in Gloucester. Browsing the history section, I noted that the shelves containing books on German history were dominated by books on the Second World War, the Nazis and the Holocaust. One of the very few books that had significant coverage of Germany before 1933 was itself a highly controversial account by A.J.P. Taylor notable for the extremes of opinion it contains. Moving to the section on Freemasonry, I noted the unusually large number (no doubt boosted by the success of The Da Vinci Code) of books there were dominated by books pandering to the Freemasonry-as-world-conspiracy mythology accompanied by dubious (by academic standards) pseudo-historical accounts of Freemasonry’s origins.

I moved on to the reference section in search of a Welsh dictionary to help me better understand the language of the neighbouring country, a language being taught in schools less than thirty miles from Gloucester, a language that is the descendant of the original British languages spoken throughout this island, long before English arrived and a language whose number of speakers is growing. No dictionary to be found, of course. Only a couple of Welsh course books among the huge array of Spanish, French, Italian….

The choices the shop’s management (or distant corporate HQ?) had made obviously reflect what they believe will sell; choices, one presumes, based on the perceived interests and prejudices of the local marketplace. What might that tell us then about the shop’s beliefs about the typical Gloucester book shopper when seeking information on these subjects? – that Germany has little history or culture of interest beyond the Nazi era – that Freemasonry is a sinister secret society bent on world domination or something equally dodgy – the indigenous language of England’s immediately neighbouring country doesn’t matter much.

Dialect prejudice?

In dramatic shorthand, a working class character in a film is often given the dialect and/or accent of English of someone from from the southwest of the country, or perhaps a Midlands or northern accent. For example, consider the dialect and accent of Sam Gamgee, the gardener and manservant to the upper-middle class (Standard English/Received Pronunciation-speaking) Frodo Baggins in the recent “The Lord of the Rings” films. The patronising implication is that the audience will associate the “provincial” accent with a less educated, working class character, lacking in “book” knowledge but making up for it in loyalty and determination. For those of you who know the Tolkien books on which the films were based, be honest: could you imagine Sam Gamgee speaking like Prince Charles?

The Received Pronunciation combined with spoken Standard English that the Prince of Wales speaks have become the dialect of Hollywood films’ baddies, a quick and easy-to-grasp code that tells the (largely American) popcorn munching masses that the one with that James Mason accent is the sinister bad guy. Our infatuation with American culture in the form of its two principle exports, film and television have conditioned much of the English speaking world to be prejudiced against this way of speaking.

Once, such a mode of speech could once have marked a person (rightly or wrongly) as educated and trustworthy, the principle being, I imagine, that it was more likely that the person concerned had been to a good school and university, where certain timeless values (Waterloo won on the playing fields of Eton bla bla bla) were instilled. Maybe there was little bit of truth in such an assumption in the era of the British Empire when public schools were the only source of an education good enough to equip a generation with the skills to run that empire. Now of course, a meritocratic democracy rightly prevails: your accent doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter.


I unashamedly (try to) speak Standard English with an accent that, while not in the same league as that of the Queen’s, nevertheless approaches it. Why? Because I was brought up in several parts of the world. I never lived anywhere long enough to permanently adopt a dialect and accent specific to a particular region. The only traces that have remained are the pronunciation of “because” as “becuzz” from my childhood years in Cornwall and a tendency to use a Barbadian accent when I get excited. I therefore adopted a style of speech that my teachers, grammar books and the BBC advocated. It was, I naïvely thought, neutral in tone and after all, was promoted as being the gold standard of English.

The trouble with Standard English and RP is that they represent the speech of the so called “upper” class whose (in most cases unearned) privilege and wealth are rightly criticised by those outside that particular socio-economic group. Those of us who have adopted RP and Standard English but are not upper class are therefore doomed to experience a sort of prejudice. The prejudice that drives film makers to give Samwise Gamgee a Gloucestershire accent and dialect because it denotes him as servile is, on occasion, matched by a prejudice against those who use RP and Standard English. “If you speak RP and Standard English”, the thinking presumably goes, “you must think you are superior, whatever your social background or your values”. How unfair.

I’m tempted to get a T-shirt printed that declares my membership of the middle class, despite my dialect and accent.

The Society for a Quieter Barbados

I was recently sent a link to this site, which is the web presence of an organisation that campaigns for the abatement of noise pollution in Barbados. After initial prejudice about the slightly Pythonesque name of the society, it turns out to be a professionally produced affair with some interesting insights into the daily (and nightly) torments caused by barking dogs, traffic and bickering family members on that particular island nation.

You might think this was a gathering place for GOM’s (Grumpy Old Men) and indeed a fair few correspondents seem to be in that category, but there is a least one contribution from a sixteen year old who complains that he has had to do his studying for exams after midnight as that is the only time his family stops arguing with each other.

Having lived in Barbados, I can testify that there is plenty of unwanted noise about. This is not surprising in an extremely small and very densely populated country. Although our area wasn’t particularly badly affected by it, the most common noise pollution I came across was dogs barking. Dogs are very common in Barbados and many households will have several: they seem to be the most popular burglar deterrent. (Jehovah’s Witnesses will stop before your gate to ask if you have dogs before they ask you if you read the Bible.) In Barbados, most sleep with the window open to allow the breeze in. This, of course, allows the barking to penetrate and, if you are having one of those nights when your worries take on much bigger dimensions than they do in the day, you can end up raging all night at the selfishness of the dogs’ owners.

Our Sundays had, as background music, hymns and spirituals played (quite badly) by a saxophone-led band in a church held in a house across the pasture. It only seemed to stop once the cricket on the adjacent field started, confirming my suspicion that, next to one of a hundred brands of Christianity, the Barbadian’s other religion is cricket. I used to wonder if the congregation ever considered how “Christian” it was to inflict that noise on their neighbours for several hours on a Sunday without asking their consent.

I wish the Society for a Quieter Barbados every success.