Monday, 12 November 2012

Of Tea Strainers and Men

“Although I have read a million words on the necessity for the cuts, I have not seen a single letter on what the exit plan is: what happens in four years’ time, when the cuts will have succeeded, and the economy gets back to “normal” again. Do we then – prosperous once more – go round and re-open all these centres, clinics and libraries, which have sat, dark and unused, for nearly half a decade? 

It’s hard to see how – it costs millions of pounds to re-open deserted buildings, and cash-strapped councils will have looked at billions of square feet of prime real estate with a coldly realistic eye. 

Unless the Government has developed an exit strategy for the cuts, and has insisted that councils not sell closed properties, by the time we get back to “normal” again, our Victorian and postwar and Sixties red-brick boxy libraries will be coffee shops, Lidls and pubs. No new libraries will be built to replace them. These libraries will be lost forever.” 
Libraries: Cathedrals of our Souls - Caitlin Moran

The Second Law of Thermodynamics – bear with me – states that, in a closed system, things tend towards a state of entropy; a state of chaos. In physics and engineering, this means that no reaction or process can ever be 100% efficient, as some energy will always be lost. Life tends towards disorder too: an abandoned building will be overrun, given time, with opportunistic vegetation, as will a brand new island, created from a volcanic eruption; an untended lawn will become quickly ravaged by weeds; dead organic matter decomposes over time, its elements redistributed by scavengers and bacteria; and, perhaps most vividly, if I decide not to look after myself for only a few days, I will have a full, bushy beard and my wife will complain.

And yet, when it comes to the human world, things often tend not towards disorder but to a state of lethargy, monopoly or lack of choice. Things stagnate. Once the libraries close, they won’t come back. Once the supermarkets outcompete the final delicatessen, all independent, specialist shops will have had their day too. Everybody will go to one place for what they need, which means they probably won’t find what it is they want, purchasing what is forced on them instead. I know this all too well, because, for neither love nor money, I cannot find a tea strainer on sale anywhere in Birmingham. A tea strainer. I have been banished to using only tea bags, despite the loose leaf tea that remains, impractically, in my tea cupboard. It sits there, begging to be drunk. No supermarket, nor Homebase, nor the TK Maxx or Debenhams in the Bullring have but a single tea strainer. Tea pots, yes; coffee percolators, yes; but no tea strainers. The practicality of the tea bag and the demise of the hardware store has led to a world without tea strainers. A WORLD WITHOUT TEA STRAINERS.

Of course this is just one example of the world having gone mad, but it is indicative of the tide of stagnation. There are very few niche hardware stores anymore, so specific, individual niche items have perished along with them. Tea strainers aren’t essential, obviously, but a tea party is bereft without them; a tea party isn’t essential either, but when you get to go to one, they’re rather nice, a frivolous but enriching luxury. I’m sure you can think of other, uncommon items that, luxurious or not, have become very difficult to find in our mass produced, mass purchased world with identical high streets in every town – heck, even identical German markets in every UK city each Christmas.

I suppose what I am saying is that diversity, that wonderful article of choice, frivolity and opportunity, is something we should be fighting for.

This is not a criticism of supermarkets. They are successful for very good reasons and it would be hypocritical of me to lament their monopoly given that I shop in one every week; I haven’t made enough of an effort to support local businesses, although I do love the greengrocers in Cotteridge and the garden shop in Bournville, where I was once served by a cat. But the argument that new supermarkets bring business to an area is only true in the short term: they throttle diversity for the future. The same thing is happening in the science world, where I work, with funding restrictions resulting in a focus on applied science. Applied science is crucial, but basic science, however disconnected from application, is being destroyed as a result.

Once diversity is gone, it won’t come back. It can’t. It’s the energy that escapes the reaction, the thing that prevents a process from being 100% efficient. We need to seal the cracks and install insulation, to keep the spices of life for as long as possible before life becomes simply ‘existing’. We need more people to jump from the edge of space, more 1,000 mph cars, and fewer parliamentary inquiries attempting to make everything “Absolutely Clear”, and yet not doing so.

I was sat in the imaging waiting room in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital here in Birmingham the other day, a place rife with diverse characters and faces. The enormous hospital, a true beacon of the NHS, is itself a hodgepodge of different specialist departments, an A&E and the UK’s foremost military hospital. Somewhere in there, as we sat awaiting the call for the X-ray, lay Malala Yousafzai, the 15 year old Pakistani education activist, shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girl’s education.

Rachel was called in for her X-ray so I sat alone, watching the world go by. And what a world: men, women and children all walking, hobbling or hopping in, decorated by a dazzling array of casts and supports, looking like an advanced form of human where reinforced limb add-ons have become the norm, capable of being mixed and matched and available all of your favourite colours. Most had the standard model – grey – but some had pink or blue. And people seemed to be in good spirits, perhaps buoyed by the fact that their casts were already on, their injuries healing, chatting with others waiting and comparing accident notes. One man was proudly boasting about how he flew over the car that hit him. A man entered on a mobility scooter, the ultimate accessory, but courteously gave way to those wielding crutches, moving rather slowly.

It was good to be somewhere other than the lab. I spend all day, every day, on the same floor, seeing only a handful of people. I have absolutely no idea what happens in the real world. And here, for just half an hour, I received a dose of reality; people’s lives forced together by exceptional circumstances and from all walks of life, not knowing who might come through the door next. And the night before, at a BBC Radio 4 recording at Symphony Hall, there had been an entirely different crowd of people, another walk of life. The mundane nature of my daily routine had been shattered by being in different places and meeting different people.

PhDs force you to live in the present, to focus on getting results and a good project. To do that you need to shut off the world, to be and think of only one thing. But I can’t do that. I need to get out there, I need to see life and to have stories. I need diversity. It makes me sad when I see it disappear around me.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I think the lack of choice and diversity is still somehow seen as progress.

Oh and I know a good tea shop which sells a lovely array of tea strainers and will host a tea party for you if you want.

I think we all get stuck in our lives in the way you describe. At least I do. I think it can get lonely sometimes. Which is silly but true.