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CARE HOME DIARIES PART 2 ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’

If you missed Part 1 it’s here. But in the second part of this short series, I get a job at Hill View House just as I start to think of social care as the new slave trade. Well, I still do. A bit.

No, of course Hill View House isn’t the real name of where I work, and we won’t be identifying any staff or residents by name or detail. But let’s just say I liked Hill View as soon as I walked in for my interview. For starters, it smelt nice. As anyone ‘in the know’ will tell you, this is usually a good sign for a care home. If you need nuclear-grade breathing assistance just to get through the front door of a care home, chances are it’ll be more than just your nose telling a bad story for the rest of the place.

I’d wanted to get back to some ‘hands on’ work but had let my my registration lapse some years ago and couldn’t go back as a qualified nurse.  So I’d been to visit a local agency  shortly before interview at Hill View. Their office reminded me of the shabby old car hire place my Dad used to run in the 70’s. Dust hung in the few shards of light that lit the shelves full of old ring-binder files with labels like ‘Helf & safety 2010’. A few wan faces looked up from their PC monitors to gaze at me for a moment. “Male, middle-aged. Looks a bit weird for this sort of thing” they probably thought before staring back at their spreadsheets.

I quickly learnt from the chap I’d agreed to meet that there “wasn’t much work for agency staff any more.” The sales pitch didn’t get any better. I would have to pay for a uniform. I’d have to pay for a CRB check. I’d have to attend 5 days of mandatory training, which is good of course. Apart from the fact I wouldn’t get paid to attend. And I’d have to do 2 ‘shadow’ shifts with another agency worker before flying solo. Yep, you’ve guessed it. In my own time. It was a very quick chat. I didn’t quite say ‘You’re [bleep] having a [bleep] laugh’ but let’s just say the agency manager wasn’t too unhappy to see me darting off into the fresh air and daylight muttering something about modern day slave labour and the taking of piss.

So back to Hill View. It was immediately clear that Hill View was a home for people with varying degrees of dementia. The more mobile residents looked bustling and alert, free of the slump and dead eyes of the Haloperidol fugue* I’d seen elsewhere. Other residents were clearly long immobile, coming toward the end of the long, terminal journey of Alzheimer’s or one of the other dementias. While I waited I could see staff engaging with people who were, in all probability, beyond comprehension of speech and certainly incapable of chatting about the weather. But carers chatted away nonetheless, knowing full well that this would only ever be a one-way conversation. With six months of these conversations under my belt I now know how difficult this is. I didn’t back then then, but it another thing I liked about Hill View.

Fortunately they seemed to like me too. With one brief but successful interview I was a relief care assistant, and with 5 days induction training and a CRB certificate to my name I was ready for my first shift and that dark Saturday morning with Ted and a very experienced care assistant called Hannah. 

Next week: CARE HOME DIARIES PART 3: ‘Pictures on a Bedroom Wall’ where dementia makes my jaw drop

Welcome to the Re-Boot!

The Stuff of Social Care blog has now moved to the newly refurbished JCK Training website. It will look a little odd until I finish the integration process, but in the meantime the blog itself is fully functional so please feel free to dig around! Now that the JCK Training website is almost fully re-booted, more content will be on here very shortly indeed, and I for one can’t wait to get blogging again! see you soon.

Connor Kinsella


As good as Twitter is for brief bursts of creativity, argument and taking the piss out of Joey Barton, there are times when 140 characters (including spaces) just aren’t enough.  So tonight I try to answer a very thought provoking question from Social Work MA student Natasha Andrews @SocialWorkKent “What glues #SocialWork together to give us a shared identity and if there is one what is it?”

Well it’s not every day I come up with ‘value-congruent’ and ‘stereotyping’ in the same sentence let alone a Tweet, but as I’m currently working on a little side project on personality and care professionals this seemed a really interesting question and deserves a decent stab at an answer.

I’m an ex-mental health nurse with many grey hairs worth of experience in all sorts of environments from forensic secure units to generic community mental health teams.  So I can only really form views about Social Workers based on working alongside many specialist Mental Health Social Workers (MHSWs) down the years, but putting that caveat aside, let’s try answering Natasha’s question.

In my experience at least, most MHSWs have been very much members of a multi-disciplinary team.  I’ve read comments online about the need to preserve the identity of social work within CMHTs, but to my mind the most effective MHSWs have been excellent team players and fellow mental health professionals first and foremost. The least effective have set themselves apart from the team, occasionally to the extent of virtually tattooing ‘I AM A SOCIAL WORKER’ across their foreheads.

But in my response to Natasha, I suggested that Social Workers ‘are the most value-congruent discipline by a long way.’ And added, running out of character by this time ‘Unwanted effect > Stereotyping.’

But what the hell does that mean? The mental health professions are as full of stereotype as anywhere else. Knuckle-dragging, depot-injection wielding nurses. Occupational Therapists called Emma with obsessive basket-weaving tendencies. Aloof and arrogant Consultant Psychiatrists. And Psychologists. Mm, better not go there even in a satirical way.

But Social Workers have a public profile and identity that goes way beyond the small enclave of the mental health universe.  They are , to the upstanding, hard-working, reasonably minded Daily Mail reading populace the very nemesis of what is right and decent. They are the friend of the feckless. The champion of the chav. The dangly-earring wearing, folk-festival going, real-ale drinking, sandal wearing, Guardian reading, vegetarian falafel eating do-gooder too busy carrying climate change placards to be bothered whipping children away from drug-addled Chantelle from the council house crack den. Oh, but sometimes they do whip children away from nice, middle-class parents because they don’t get European Unity and all that.

I’ve known many an MHSW reluctantly having to transfer a client to a colleague simply because the client “ain’t talking to no fucking Social Worker.” That’s a stereotype.

Well the nearest I’ve come to working with any of the above ‘Typical Social Workers’ is a female colleague who once succeeded in getting The Sun banned from a secure unit on account of Page 3 causing offence to women. And that’s about it really.

But one value shared by almost all of my past Social Work colleagues is this. They actually have Values. The foam at the mouth brigade will always castigate social work as a politicised profession. Left-wing liberals positioning themselves on the side of the oppressed. Whether the ‘oppressed’ means the disabled, the chaotic, the poor, the abused or the mentally ill, Social Workers are firmly on their side. This was often the cause of much sighing and harrumphing among GPs and Section 12 Psychiatrists stood on a wintry doorstep in the early hours while (the now defunct) Approved Social Worker would ‘insist’ on looking at all the alternatives to a young suicidal woman being detained in hospital against their will.

It is usually the team Social Worker who actually remembers things like ‘Nearest Relative’ and ‘families’ and ‘environment’ and ‘the big picture’ while the rest of us in the team chew on our pencils in team meetings trying to remember that very obscure diagnosis from DSM-IV and debating the relative merits of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy versus that anti-depressant that begins with ‘M’ and whose sales rep brought us those swanky new Post-It notes and a Marks and Sparks sandwich.

At the risk of waking a hundred Trolls from under their virtual psychiatric bridge, I would even go as far as to say that the MHSWs I’ve worked with have more often than not formed the ‘conscience’ of the team in a profession that is so often concerned with coercing people into things they would really rather not do, thanks very much.

This isnt to say that other mental health professionals don’t have ‘values’. Of course they do. But whether it’s through training or because Social Workers come to the role because ‘that’s the sort of people they are’ or perhaps a combination of both, it’s never very difficult to play ‘Spot the Social Worker’ in any multi-disciplinary team. And it’s not because they wear sandals.

Mental Health, MDT’s and the A-Team

I’m not usually given to talking shop on a Friday night, but my ire is piqued and curiosity aroused by a spate of recent blog posts, all of which pile yet more misery on a mental health system which, if it were a human being, would have several coppers, a psychiatrist and an AMHP all trying to talk it out of throwing itself off the top of a multi-storey car park.

In a well written and understandably anonymous post, a Mental Health Social Worker (‘Being Here’) describes their redeployment from front-line mental health care within a Community Mental Health Team (CMHT) to, well, even the author doesn’t sound too sure. But it sounds a little like pushing bits of paper around a desk and pissing many years of valuable experience into the gale force winds of budget cuts and reorganisation.

Being an independent freelancer I’m lucky to be able to write stuff like this under my own name and not to have to adopt identities, but ‘Zarathustra’ works within a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) and has some further (again understandably anonymous) scorn to pour over similar losses of Social Workers from their CAMHS team. More redeployment, more cuts, and definitely less joined up working between health care and social services. With seriously distressed people already being left to fester in their own metaphorical shite by skeletal levels of mental health provision, this in itself is inexcusable. But there’s more to the story than that.

As both a Community Psychiatric Nurse and a Secure Unit Team leader I’ve been lucky enough to have spent many, many years working closely alongside Social Workers and all the other disciplines making up the typical Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT). In the Being Here blog, the author makes a case for the inclusion of CMHT Social Workers on the basis of the oft-quoted position that the Social Work perspective adds a much needed holistic perspective to the often overly medical-model approach of the CMHT. 

Well I can see the argument there, but don’t really buy it. Not because the argument is intellectually flawed (it isnt) but because I’ve never really bought into the ‘I’m a Social Worker’, ‘I’m a Nurse’ thing. 

The most effective MDTs I’ve worked with have pretty much left the qualifications at the office door and got on with using their individual skills to simply do the stuff of helping the people we’re there to help. And the not so good teams I’ve worked with? They’re the ones with Doctors and Psychologists and Social Workers and Nurses and Occupational Therapists all sitting in their own offices with big red labels tattooed across their foreheads saying ‘DOCTOR’ ‘PSYCHOLOGIST’ ‘SOCIAL WORKER’ etc etc. You get the picture.

I’ve yet to meet a psychiatric nurse who can give a truly convincing account of the particularly special skills they bring to the MDT party, and at the risk of upsetting even more psychiatrists than I already have in these pages, there is a loudly whispered argument (even within the trade) that there isn’t much a psychiatrist does that couldn’t be done by a reasonably psych-friendly GP. 

But before making myself too troll-friendly to CMHT people currently creating voodoo dolls into which depot syringes can be sunk, let’s just say that I’ve worked with many mental health professionals who, were I given the option of hand-picking a Dirty Dozen style A-Team to staff a top quality CMHT, I would recruit in a heart-beat. Would they be Social Workers, Psychologists or Nurses? Doctors or Occupational Therapists? Would I give a toss? No. They’d be Garys and Debbies, Steves and Amandas. Just people who are really very good at doing mental health care.

Okay, I’m hearing a very loud flaw in this argument which is sounding suspiciously like the age-old ‘generic mental health worker’ mantra possibly dating from the pre-Cambrian period. Being Here refers to their skills and training as a Psychosocial Intervention specialist. I’ve worked with many individuals who have trained in this invaluable specialty. Or as Cognitive Behaviour Therapists. Or in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. Me? I’m pretty good at depot injections, but we could train a chimp to do that. I’m also pretty good at helping people understand why they’re having a needle stuck in their bum. I’m also pretty good at crisis intervention. Can’t train a chimp to do that. 

Aha. Now we’re getting somewhere. We’re now talking specific treatment skills. So now I’m not only recruiting my A-Team based on good all round skills, ability to work as a team and a fondness for getting exceptionally silly at the CMHT Christmas Party. I’m also recruiting people who are trained in specific interventions and approaches. Skills that are not discipline-centric, but based on the ability to provide a really thorough, all round service for the pot-pourri of distressed people we’re typically going to see in the course of a working day. 

And just one more thing before I press the ‘Publish’ button and sink back into the Friday night wine bottle. Zarathustra’s well-argued and highly accurate observation is this. That health services on the one hand, and social services on the other, who are meant to be working together in a lovely, happy-clappy, seamless congruence of shared meetings, shared coffee and first-name terms, are in reality batting cases between each other like a hot potato across a very scary and rather large table-tennis table. I run lots of Dual Diagnosis courses and am more than familiar with the scenario.

So the final bit of my job description for the A-Team, once again based on experience working with the mythical ‘MDTs That Rock’, is this. 

To have the imagination, the ‘thinking-out-of-the-box-ness’ and the ability to remember just why we do this job. To consider the patient/service-user/client (you choose) as being just a little more important than the petty bureaucracy, disciplinary empire building, back-covering, petty squabbling and general anal retentiveness that seems to pervade today’s mental health care. And as a UK-wide consultant working with just about every discipline known to social care, I’d like to think I’m able to say that with some authority and a not a little sorrow.

We Need to Talk about Derek

Mrs Kinsella looked at me quizzically. “But you absolutely loathe Ricky Gervais” she observed, very accurately as always. For  Derek was to be (as the C4 PR people would have us believe) thirty minutes of Gervais taking the piss out of the learning disabled.

For a social care blogger this was vitriol central, especially for one who always suspected The Office DVD box set was mainly bought as a Christmas present for ‘smart’ people pretending to be huge fans but who, if the truth be told, would have rather unwrapped  a JML Nasal Hair Trimmer.

Tuning in to Derek last night was for me a little like watching non-league football. Guaranteed disappointment, guaranteed moaning, guaranteed catharsis. The difference being non-league football is usually funnier.

I watched the first 10 minutes with a set of blades and a knife sharpener, smugly tweeting ‘Verdict so far. About as funny as Ricky Gervais’. But I clung on. Only because I felt I had to and certainly not because the opening scenes (involving a dodgy haircut, comedy custard and a fall into a pond) were exactly rocking my world of laughter.

But by the time the titles were rolling I found myself deeply disappointed. I had to put my knives away. I actually bloody liked it. Had I finally ‘got’ something by Ricky Gervais?

And it made me ask two questions. First up. Just how often do we see either care of the elderly or the learning disabled feature in any sort of TV drama, let alone one created by a bloke who hosts Oscar ceremonies? Almost never, so a doffing of the hat for that alone.

And for the second big question. Was Gervais taking the piss? Well I for one didn’t think so.

It’s easy to understand why many would take offence, especially those of us with personal or professional ties to the subject. In an excellent interview with disability-rights campaigner Nicky Clarke, Gervais is guarded about whether or not Derek is meant to have a learning disability. But few who have worked or lived with a ‘Derek’ would have failed to pick up the cues.

To the uninitiated our anti-hero is a scruffy, greasy haired, socially awkward oddball. Surely he’s living in some sort of supported accommodation and working at Remploy (ahem) sticking labels on coffee jars? Well, no. He shares a flat with a friend, goes for post-work beers with a female colleague (the ‘Glasgow Kiss’ scene was deeply satisfying) and he works in an elderly care home. 

For me at least this was a sharply and well researched study of those of us who don’t spend hours being acerbic and witty on Twitter, who don’t give a monkey’s toss about the politics of anti-disablism, but who can be refreshingly honest (and funny) about the stuff many of us would rather not discuss. And while he might may not care a fig about the latest in SuperDry casual wear or snappy Hoxton haircuts, he does care deeply about other human beings. Give me a Derek over a MENSA membership any day.

Call me old fashioned but if a TV show looks like a comedy, sounds like a comedy and your PR people say it’s a comedy, then it should be a comedy. But putting that to one side, when Kerry Katona’s pubic topiary provides a cultural highlight I for one can only applaud original drama starring positive portrayals of the vulnerable, the awkward and the uncool. 

‘Just a little scratch': Care, Compassion and the Health Care Professional

He was once much better accustomed to putting words to music, but a recent hospital experience and a little nudge from me brings you a short but telling little addition to the ‘dignity in care’ issue from Frank Kinsella, my Dad.

Christmas 2004. A small group of elderly cancer patients sit in a Waiting Room at a well-known London hospital.  One patient begins to sing ‘Silent Night’. Then another.  And another. In her wheelchair one obviously ill lady without the energy to sing raised her bowed head to reveal a smile of pleasure. And maybe hope.

Remarkable? Yes. But completely unexpected? No. Such was the atmosphere created in that particular hospital, from the point of reception to the moment of departure, that all things seemed possible. Hope was conveyed in ready smiles and familiar greetings.

March 2012, and onto another hospital for a blood test. The two electricians working in the long corridor were more than helpful in providing directions, even to the point of one of them descending from his long ladder to provide exact information. So far  so good. The tall young lady with the short old lady got into the lift. “Do you know which level we need for Phlebotomy?” they asked. Smiles all round and inconsequential but friendly chatter. A little further and still good. Another long corridor and there ahead was a welcome sign indicating that the friendly electricians directions were on the button. Unfortunately that was the end of either’ friendly’ or ‘welcome’.

The blood test department was filled to overflowing. The  many who stood were envious of the seated and made any recognition of the correct ‘procedure’ difficult at very least. Behind the mostly hidden desk the blondish head brusquely indicated the general direction of the equally difficult to see ticket machine, from which a number was required.  The desk was apparently for selected patients and perhaps the blondish head resented those without the gift of psychic perception who presented themselves at the desk.

The white uniforms called out the numbers and Number 38 was directed to a booth with a cursory wave of a disinterested  arm and no eye contact.  The conversation went something like this: (Smile) “Is the department always as busy as this?” Reply: (No eye contact) “Mornings.”  The blood was easily taken, the only cost a sense of civility and a feeling of well-being.

Thoughts turned inexorably to one particular nurse who trained at that hospital and worked there for many years. For much of that time she worked under the long shadow of Matron, for whom order, cleanliness and high standards were not a ‘mission statement’ but just how things should be done. But to both Matron and the nurses who worked under her long shadow attitude and compassion were at least as important as a clean trolley.  They would have been sadly disappointed at this blood test clinic. Disappointed that so little compassion was evident and relief from anxiety absent, not least for those with more serious illnesses.

Of course the department was busy every morning and perhaps the working conditions for the white uniforms were not perfect. Of course those who waited for their number to be called were sometimes a little confused, or difficult or even occasionally a little smelly.

The white uniforms were presumably healthy. They were without pain or cause for serious concern. It could be reasonably assumed that the only real pressure in their comparatively secure situation is choosing lunch or affording a night out in hard times. It could equally be assumed that those taking numbers from the machine did have real life or death concerns, but were regarded as just that. Numbers.

Those who trained there as nurses in a bygone era may take some consolation in the fact that the white uniforms are not nurses. Maybe the white uniforms are only trained in the mechanics of taking blood and hopefully the nurses are selected and trained in both the mechanics and the compassion. It’s said that a smile or a kind word can go a long way.  Sadly it seems that they don’t always travel the short distance from one hospital to another, and sadly the the Matron, the Nurse and the Christmas Carols are no longer with us. But they have left such loud echoes behind them.

A Few Notes on Twitter from a Weymouth Pub

It was the ‘great punk trouser disintegration incident’ of 1977 that taught my teenage self that blindly following trends wasn’t really for me. It’s a long story, but involved desperation to be an ‘angry punk’, the dyeing of hair, the fashioning of a pair of trousers out of a bin liner and safety pins, and a homecoming gig  by The Dammed at some dingy dump in Croydon.  Needless to say I returned home with little more than a ripped T-shirt, a pair of pants and ridiculous hair which copious amounts of saliva and lager had turned green.

I was determined not to follow the herd and Twitter was never going to be my thing. “Huh, just another fad” I thought, especially as my radio stations of choice (5 Live, Radio 4 and 6 Music) couldn’t manage three and a half seconds of air time without mention of the ‘T’ word. Grrr.

But eventually even Mr Independent here started to feel like the chubby kid with two left feet who always gets picked last for the playground footie match, and as the old saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So in February this year I signed up and entered the Twittersphere.

And then what? Where do you start? Well of course, we can follow whoever we like. My own community is made up of people I know from the real world, people whose writing I admire, people who can make me laugh in less than 140 characters, and people who share my eclectic views. And while I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in what Jedward had for their fecking breakfast, there are a few well known broadcasters and journalists who I feel I sort of know through the radio and TV but have come to know even better from their Tweets and even the odd online conversation. 

Which is a very cool thing about Twitter, and brought me to an ‘overheard’ conversation between the writer and documentary maker @jonronson and a few of his followers, who had begun to think that Twitter had not only started to dumb down but was also getting intolerant and nasty, particularly in the light of recent events in Norway and the death of Amy Winehouse. It’s hard to paraphrase Tweets, but “the overall vibe has changed for the worse this past year or two” is, to quote Mr Ronson, more or less the nub of the argument.

Now this chimed very loudly with a theme I’d been discussing with my old mate @RJSwitterings a few nights before. Every fortnight or so we meet up for what we ludicrously and somewhat menopausally refer to as a ‘sesh’, which in our language means ‘session’. This generally involves circling a few of the harbour-side pubs, generating a brand of conversation which generally gets increasingly daft as the evening wears on. For example, this week’s ‘sesh’ was dominated by @RJSwittering’s truly shocking confession that he had virtually no knowledge of the puppet-powered genius of Gerry Anderson, and my attempt to inform and educate as to how Captain Scarlet became indestructible. I could tell my lecture hadn’t really got through when my partner in beer asked if Captain Scarlet could revive himself from being decapitated and dissolved in acid. Yep, it was that sort of evening, and I gave up. And so the conversation turned to Twitter.

Now this natter came to several key conclusions, and they are so important to the future of the internet that they deserve to be heard far beyond the confines of two blokes in a pub and the nervous looking family of tourists who were inching away from our table and giving us those “Mummy, those men are frightening me” looks. So here goes.
Conclusion Number One:
There really ought to be a facility for unpopular dudes like us (at time of writing, 44 followers between us which will inevitably drop once this blog post appears) to actually know why so many people ‘Unfollow’ us. Nobody, according to our edict (5 pints plus by this stage) should be able to click the red ‘Unfollow’ button unless they complete a compulsory text box saying why they have cast aside a former object of digital affection. 

We even suggested a series of quick-click templates such as ‘I’m unfollowing you because you are a self-obsessed, narcissistic prick and you are so unoriginal that you actually follow Stephen Fry along with 4 billion others. Twat’. But that was quickly discarded as going well over the pre-requisite 140 characters, so we replaced that with: ‘Cos you’re a dick’. But it’s unlikely that either Twitter or a 3rd party app developer will ever be as enlightened as this.

Conclusion Number Two:
We also decided (6 pints plus) that Twitter should consider a sort of social stratification. Reason? It’s become far too bloody big, far too full of idiots, and far too full of the online version of teenage lads doing ‘wanker’ hand gestures behind the TV news reporter. Twitter needs to be tidied up. It seems that what was once a boutique little enclave of nice, well-meaning nerds Tweeting about beta-apps and Star Trek conventions has quickly become over-populated with trendy North London media types before gaining ground with PR-advised celebrities. And once ‘slebs’ joined the bandwagon and the rank and file finally realised that you could follow Wayne Rooney’s taste in Y-Fronts, that was it. Meltdown.

We can trace the chronological evolution of Twitter with the following examples:

2006: “Just posted video on how to upgrade microprocessor – cool!! http:/YouTube/GeekFest

2009: “Dinner at The Ivy. Discussing next TV project.  J-Lo at next table”

2011: “At least now Amy Winehouse can do her lines off the most shiny surface known to man. Jade Goody’s Head”

The first two are imaginary or paraphrased, but the latest is cut and pasted directly from Twitter. Coming as it does from the Frankie Boyle school of really hilarious comedy (sic) I include this unpleasantness as it says a great deal about the state of Twitter as highlighted by @jonronson et al, and as much as those extremely clever people who come up with amazing stuff like Twitter try to stay ahead of the curve, the online ‘div patrol’ will always catch up.

Try checking out a single online debate, be it the online comments section of a broadsheet article or the forum of a local non-league football club, and find examples of a straightforward discussion that doesn’t ultimately descend into personal insult, ranting, and interpersonal online points scoring. The Guardian’s Comment is Free section is as good an example of the ‘who you fuckin’ staring at’ school of online debate as any, and these are, well, Guardian readers who are meant to wear sandals and walk around folk festivals eating falafel and smiling. 

And so back to our idea of socially stratifying Twitter, or even better, the whole bloody internet. Here’s a rough sketch of how it works:

Internet One: for reasonably intelligent, coherent people who can discuss weighty stuff, funny stuff, interesting stuff and generally tweet and blog to their heart’s content without descending into the online equivalent of a Saturday night ruck.

Internet Two: for people who just want to flog stuff, write love letters to Justin Bieber, convince you to open a Nigerian bank account and become a millionaire, look at Christine Aquilera’s knickers as she gets out of a car, or browse etc etc.

Internet Three: for people you wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire.

And so by the end of the evening, we conclude that our fellow Britons are largely a bunch of ignorant arseholes apart from 1) Us, 2) the cool, intelligent people we follow on Twitter who inform, educate and amuse us, and 3) our friends and family who aren’t on the internet because they generally have better things to do.

And after Pint number 7? We forgot what the fuck we were talking about, no matter how good or clever it seemed at the time.

PS Many thanks to @BendyGirl for her very helpful comments on this post, and to @mrsnickyclark for proving that you can write about disability and ‘heavy’ issues and also do funny swearing  

Glee for Free No More

Sky One has ruined my life.  No more Glee unless I’m prepared to cough up for a Murdoch subscription. I’m almost desperate enough to dig one of their flyers out of the bin and give them a call, until I remember a previous dalliance with Sky Sports which left me with bugger all but some mediocre football, a large bill and pressure sores on my arse.

So for purely selfish reasons I’d like to suggest a few reasons why E4 should have a shufty down the back of the sofa for a few more shekels to TRUMP Murdoch and bring Glee back to a terrestrial audience. And if you’re wondering why a social care blogger is writing stuff about a slightly daft TV show when there’s plenty of far more worthy topics to munch upon, well it’s not just a TV show. It’s a weekly dose of serotonin-pumping, feel-good musical energy entertainment and source of POSITIVE MENTAL HEALTH FOR APPROXIMATELY 1.6 MILLION PEOPLE. That’s why. 

Glee is cool
I say this to most normal people and they visibly recoil. In fact, if you’ve ever poured salt on a slug the instant ‘melt’ thing is exactly the reaction you tend to get at the mere mention of the show. But Glee is gradually contagious and every fan probably has a ‘conversion’ story to tell.  You have a family member, a partner or friend who starts off being a bit sniffy about Glee. 

You settle back for the first scene. It might be Finn’s gormlessly handsome face registering that “Uh? What happened to my brain?” look, or a full frontal of one of Mr. Schuester’s sweater collection, but the Glee-sceptic huffs, says something under their breath about ‘High School Musical 4: Post-Puberty’ and whips open their laptop with a disdainful flourish. They’re probably reading sites dedicated to celebrity hair transplants and ‘How to lose 10lb by eating grass’ so they’re in no position to take to take the moral high ground, but you just let it pass so as not to miss a millisecond of goings on at William McKinley High. But resistance is futile. Eventually the mask drops, scales fall from eyes and the laptop is abandoned to witness the full glory of daft teenagers singing and dancing their way through high school. And then there are two of you.

The Glory of Sue
Now purely in the interests of research I’ve just taken the E4 Glee Personality Test. Fortunately, weird half-perv/half-nerd student blogger with glasses and crazy hair Jacob Beth Israel wasn’t an option, but apparently I am most like Mr. Schuester. I think for a while there I was veering toward Rachel but managed to avoid ticking the ‘I want to be a showbiz star at any cost’ option and left with dignity intact.

Online opinion seems divided as to who is everyone’s favourite character. Personally I think if there is a ‘star’ of the show it’s surely the slightly androgynous, track suited she-wolf and head of the Cheerios Sue Sylvester. I wonder just how many viewers of various persuasions have fantasised about having Sue as their school PE teacher, chasing them naked and yelping from the shower with the flick of a moist towel, and …. let’s move on. 

Glee gives good ‘issue’
With sexuality, gender, ethnicity, disability and all round ‘otherness’ hogging the plot lines, Glee ticks off more boxes than a London Borough of Lambeth Policy and Procedures Manual, and critics do complain about the almost demographically perfect spread of ‘diversities’ among the Glee club members. 

But the show has to be credited with sweeping aside political correctness and getting well and truly stuck in to some quite awkward stuff that other shows might well consider a bit too ‘gloopy’ for the target demographic.

Kurt’s struggle with his sexuality is as good an example as any. He’s bullied at school, he hangs out with girls, he squeals at the mere mention of Lady GaGa and his mechanic Dad fails to understand why Kurt thinks a carburettor is a designer shoe. The term ‘coming out’ seemed a bit of a misnomer for Kurt as he’d been showing a pretty full deck of cards ever since Episode One, but Dad proves to be a saint and transfers our glamorous heroine to a private boys school with it’s own show choir. 

The Warblers are the all-singing, all-dancing troupe who somehow manage to spend sod all time studying and huge amounts of time wearing silly blazers and flouncing about to Beyonce numbers without ever getting severely beaten up. Ever. And things get even better for Kurt when he meets all round star, man-love idol and wearer of sensible but expensive leisure-wear Blaine who finally enables Kurt to be true to himself.   

The mental illness box is ticked by School Counsellor Emma and her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a plot design that started off as caricature and the source of some rather (admittedly good) gags but has evolved into a more serious issue as time has gone on. 

The eventual and obvious consummation of her relationship with Will Schuester is comically ruined by her morbid fear of men’s bits and bodily fluids, not to mention Will’s sensitive yet rampant masculinity. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve always imagined Mr Schu’s crown jewels as the cleanest this side of the Tower of London and Obsessive-Compulsive Emma really had no need to worry. I do need to worry about the fact that I’m imagining anything to do with Will Schuster’s genitalia. Which rather grimly brings me to my final point.

Sad Epilogue
As a middle-aged bloke who likes football, beer, owns a German Shepherd and has a taste in music which usually involves moody synth people sequencing a chainsaw or smelly blokes with guitars, I’m probably not in Glee’s target demographic. I’m not in the slightest bit ashamed to say that I love the music, the characters, the dialogue and the sheer joie de vivre. But after holding me in it’s warm terrestrial embrace for two whole series Glee has finally cast me aside like a used tutu and moved across to the Murdoch table with all it’s glitter and it’s gold. Sodding hell, I’m starting to sound like Kurt. Time to go.

Review: Uncaged Monkeys Tour Oxford May 1

Spoiler Alert: You may want to read this review of the Uncaged Monkeys Tour AFTER the show – I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun!

Maybe science isn’t quite the new rock and roll, but certainly TV shows like Bang Goes the Theory (pretty people with science degrees using capillary action to make boats) and of course Wonders Parts 1 and 2 (sex god does nuclear fission in designer outdoor wear) has had science teachers everywhere flinging off their white coats and doing Gangsta Rap with Bunsen burners. Okay, the last bit was a little fanciful but you get the idea. 

Robin Ince has been at the forefront of the ‘particle physics can be quite entertaining’ thing for quite a few years now, and with his rapidly growing troupe of clever people doing showbiz and the brilliant Infinite Monkey Cage series on Radio 4, we now have a theatre packed full of Oxford’s intellectual glitterati waiting in anticipation for something that will three hours later prove to have been the ultimate anti-matter/matter annihilation of Simon Cowell’s ‘chimps with self-esteem issues’ brand of showbiz.

This is essentially a multi-act cabaret fronted, curated and compered by comedian Ince and headlined by science writers Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh. Professor Brian Cox is of course a science writer as well but with the added promotion of now being a telly presenter and all-round media legend, leading to some audience members squealing and wolf-whistling his stage emergence, presumably in the hope that ‘Coxy’ would do a slow strip concluded with “Lay-deez! Would you like to see my Up Quark?” which sadly never materialised.

But what did materialise was a very smart show by smart people for a smart audience. We had Matt Parker the mathematician doing mind-boggling tricks with Coke bottle barcodes, and congratulations to the lady in the front row who did the audience parp bit. I didn’t even understand the instructions. Simon Singh riffed the power of suggestion with a take on how Stairway to Heaven really can be a Satanist call to arms when played backwards, as long as we prime our brains to expect a line that suggests Beelzebub is doing stuff in a garden shed (you had to be there), before concluding with a party piece which involved turning a gherkin into a lightbulb which I really must remember for our next barbecue.

Helen Keen rather brilliantly spiced up her history of space travel with tales of mad rocket scientists, Satanists (again), Felix the Space Cat (I think), and the little known fact that Werner Von Braun once fronted an American children’s TV show, which was bizarre enough for a rocket scientist let alone one who apparently should have been doing bird at Nuremberg if he hadn’t been rather handy with a socket set. And just to prove the bill wasn’t an XY chromosome beard-fest, another Helen (Arney, this time) provided the musical interlude with songs about Schrodingers Cat, lovelorn biochemists and a reference to Wetherspoons. She could play, she could sing, she was funny and had a Physics degree. Stereotypes, eh?

Occasionally the show did appear a little self-conscious in the way that you might imagine Comic Relief bringing together every talking head who’s ever appeared on Horizon for a nude stage rendition of Hair, but for every moment of nervous uncertainty and ‘Powerpoint say no’ moments, relief would arrive in the shape of seasoned performer and compere Robin Ince.  I used to think the term ‘non-doctor’ applied to vibrator ads on dodgy old porn mags, but it could also be applied to Ince as the only act on the bill who didn’t have a string of letters after his name. But his branch of brilliance was in using great delivery and some cracking gags to reassure the audience that this really was showbiz and not just a bunch of very clever people doing very clever things in front of paying punters.

There were of course parts of the show that worked better than others. Ince requested audience members to spend ten minutes tweeting him with questions for a  post-interval Q&A, a brilliant idea had the local bandwith not gone up in smoke pretty much as soon as he suggested it. But the ensuing ‘three nerds on a bar stool’ session which would have been brilliant in the snug of one of Oxford’s gorgeous old pubs, didn’t really offer the ‘instant gratification’ needed by an 1800-strong theatre audience. As a slight aside the panel might have been asked why the theatre’s seats were designed for midgets, and I’m sure more than a few punters were able to tweet “could the panel please use their collective knowledge of the laws of thermodynamics to switch on the frigging air conditioning. WE’RE MELTING UP HERE!!”

Ben Goldacre did his usual Gillian Mackeith routine (Snake Oil/Fraud/Dodgy PhD/ how he registered his dead cat as a nutritionist) and ranted about journalists who wouldn’t know a science story from a Kerry Gets her Babs Out! exclusive, but if you’ve read even the first half of his Bad Science book you did feel like saying “Thanks Ben. That’s great. We get it now. Enough already”.

And just as the over-running show was leaving more than a few anxious punters looking at their watches and consulting the train timetable, a slightly bemused Coxy (still at times looking a little perplexed at how a particle physicst can now get gigs on Loose Women) finished off with some huge numbers, galactic photographs, a juicy rant about UK science funding and an homage to Carl Sagan.

Brilliant stuff and thank you Mr Ince et al.