Are we all going the way of the knocker-uppers?

As someone who has spent some time researching my family history, I remember the surprise when I found a distant relative of mine had been a dog-whipper in the mid 1700’s.

The Dog Whipper

The Dog Whipper

As an avid dog lover this was something of a horrific finding. In fact, after a little research although not wonderful, I found that this late in century there was no longer any whipping involved. In fact, this job was a type of church-warden who’s role was to chase off (or in extremis remove) dogs during church services.

Historically, it had not been uncommon for dogs to accompany their owners to church, often with interesting consequences. The preferred tools of the trade were actually a large pair of wooden tongs often padded with leather pads  or netting with which to remove the errant hounds. The dog whippers had disappeared shortly afterwards as it became socially unacceptable to take dogs into churches.

Searching through census returns of the last hundred years it started to become something of a side interest when I found a particularly interesting occupation.

lamplighter

                Lamplighter

The most likely reason for the disappearance of occupations before the industrial revolution was a change in social convention. However, after the industrial revolution the introduction of technology takes over and makes roles which were once considered indispensable redundant.

One of the more common roles was the lamplighter who wandered the streets of 19th century towns lighting and extinguishing the gas lamps of the time. It was seen as one of the more secure semi-skilled jobs of the time – after all what could replace gas lights. When automated town gas and early electric lighting emerged, this didn’t stop the occupation from disappearing in little over 10 years.

A Victorian Knocker-Upper

A Victorian Knocker-Upper

This then brings us to the deliciously named knocker-uppers who were key to the maintenance of an effective workforce until well into the Victorian era.

Shared houses held several families, clocks and watches cost the equivalent of several weeks wages and those late for work were simply replaced by willing replacements queuing for work at factory offices. Given that, for our Victorian forebears, having a reliable timepiece could provide one of the most lucrative if antisocial jobs of the time.

Charging each household a weekly fee of between a farthing and sixpence, the household could ensure that they would be woken (or knocked) up in time for them to start work. Some contemporary authors indicate that the knocker-upper was often paid second only to the landlord. Without turning up on time the likelihood of the workhouse or penury increased beyond measure. This role continued to be vital until the introduction of factory clocks and systems such as steam whistles indicating the start of the working day. However, the demise of this job is perhaps the most sudden with the role disappearing entirely within a period of three to five years.

Fleet Street Typesetters

Fleet Street Typesetters

Of course, those with skilled occupations have managed to fight off the rise of technology for longer. The dexterity, attention to detail speed and ability to work in reversed text had made the typesetter a skilled occupation from Tudor times until well into the 1980’s.

However, this has changed with the growth of computerised technology, mobile working and the introduction of laser and thermal printing.  These developments have seen the typesetter consigned to the list of historic occupations. It was perhaps the earliest example of technology moving into and replacing skilled workers.

Despite these advances, the rise of technology was typically limited to replacement technologies or the introduction of computer processing making many administrative roles redundant. Until recent years, it was more uncommon to see more complex functions replaced. That may soon change with a new range of robotics making new inroads into areas previously very much the domain of a human workforce.

In this Sept. 2, 2015, photo, a cow voluntarily gets milked by a robot at Lambert Farm in Graniteville, Vt. With trouble finding reliable labor and technology more readable available, some family dairy farms from the Northeast to the Midwest are turning to robots to milk cows to stay competitive. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

Now, robots are making significant inroads into the workplace, again following the same pattern with less skilled work. Farmhands, milkers, stockmen and cattle herders are being replaced across the United States and Europe.

Cattle no longer graze in fields with scheduled milking times but instead attend a robotic milking parlour when they want food. On arrival a robotic milking arm identifies the specific cow, scans the udder to ensure the optimum milking technique for the particular animal. It then applies a milking cup and orders food for the cow to be dispensed.

Meanwhile a second robot monitors the feed ensuring waste is reduced by sweeping feed back towards the cattle and dispensing food only to the bays where cattle are waiting. Whilst farmers report up to 30% increase in yield these advances have been far from universally popular. Concerns over the welfare of grazing animals being permanently ‘housed’ and significant reductions in workforce make this an innovation feared by many. The parlour can replace a team of 5-6 herdsmen with a single ipod or tablet control.

amazonWith increasing amounts of retail transactions completed online we have already seen retail jobs reducing as large warehouses servicing internet orders increasingly take their place.

Even here, human interaction is becoming entirely optional. The new Amazon warehousing systems have replaced significant numbers of fork lift drivers, warehouse workers, packers and dispatchers. Automated pallet, storage and picking robots ensure that goods are picked within seconds of an order having been placed. It even has hidden impacts such as the fact that fewer safety/health and safety officers are required as the warehouse spaces have effectively become human free zones reducing the opportunity for injury significantly.

robot2Now, using similar technology, the robots are starting to breach the semi-skilled and skilled environments. Hospitals are now reducing the number of pharmacists as medicine storage, replenishment, distribution and delivery are run via a fully robotic pharmacy.

Two new build  hospitals in the United Kingdom also have an underground level with robotic porters. Guided beds are integrated with the door and lift controls and the underground level allows access across the entire hospital site.

The question for most of us remains, how liable is my job or occupation to be overtaken by automation. Of course in the past this would have been something a consultant or business analyst may have helped you assess. Now, the groundwork has been done and published on the web. (Another role bites the dust).

In recent years the questions being asked were around what we would do with all the spare time automation would give us. Now, it seems to me that we are more likely to be asking what on earth will people still be employed to do? Other than those selling or servicing robotic workforces, there is also the question of how we will earn money to buy whatever is being mechanically produced, sold and distributed. It’s a shame robots don’t need knocker-uppers !

Does Germany still have a ‘special responsibility’?

This last weekend saw my fourth visit to Berlin over the past two years. Although I had previously been to the city a couple of times pre-unification, these had been more ‘passing through with work’. It has only been over the last four visits that I have really come to like the city in a similar way to my existing love of Paris.

Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin

Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin

However, it is certainly my view that Berlin has changed quite noticeably in those visits. This weekend, I became aware of a strong and growing social resentment. At the risk of falling into a Fawlty Towers cliché, this is, in my view related to Germany’s psyche and specifically its continued sensitivities about its wartime history.

If you visit Berlin, the city carries these scars quite obviously. The Jewish memorial is justifiably prominent, deeply moving and thought provoking. However, arguably, it has become the singular physical representation of the nations consciousness. There is an emotional and sometimes a physical blanking out of the war years. The equally striking and emotionally charged Russian war memorial is comparatively unknown.

Berlin2If you are lucky enough to visit the revamped 1930’s Olympic stadium you will notice the almost Egyptian chiselling of historic symbols from the fabric of the building. Hardly surprising as nobody least of all me would want to see Swastikas retained for historic integrity. However, this has served as a strong symbol reflecting the ongoing sensitivities.

Within the rebuilt German Parliament, you will read a brief summary of the war years and an explanation that this history gives Germany a ‘special responsibility’ towards minorities and victims of religious or political persecution. This can appear to a non German national who wasn’t alive during the war to be over-compensation. Nobody would equate modern Germany with the days of the Nazi regime. Few consider the German people responsible for the actions of its political ruling class at the time. I have certainly seen nothing but a progressive, friendly, open and very welcoming country. I believe the rest of the world has come to terms with the actions of 1940’s Germany – I for one would like Germany to do the same.

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel

The current mass migrations from Syria led to a reiteration of this special responsibility with an open door policy announced for any Syrian refugees. It was notable on the day before I left that the definition of refugee in German media was becoming an issue. Should it be limited to the UN or legal definitions or more broadly move to what others would refer to as economic migrants.

I hasten to say that I have great sympathy and an natural impulse to accept genuine refugees (those with a genuine fear of loss of life/persecution). The current position with mass migrations across Europe is an appalling one, however, does that make all concerned refugees? The knee-jerk instinctive reaction from  German political leaders means these questions were simply not addressed.

German Protesters against refugees

German Protesters against refugees

This weekend, in Berlin, I was amazed at what appeared to be a vault face based on atypical political naivety.

In an amazing demonstration of surprise, Germany changed it’s approach on border controls stating it was surprised at the number of refugees arriving. Munich was reported by the German press as failing to cope with 30,000 people having arrived in 2 days. I wonder what was expected when you effectively announce an open door policy? Whether you agree with the policy or not, surely you can and should hardly be surprised when people offered a place in Germany head to Germany.

More worryingly, I detected a change in tone among the German public (at least those reported in the press and in the café society of Berlin. Demonstrators took to the streets in Freital, Germany demonstrating against the provision of accommodation being provided to refugees. It appeared this was a criticism of the unstructured nature of the governments policy.  Whilst protestors accepted refugees and those seeking asylum they strongly resisted economic migration on such a scale.

Alarmingly Rhabbi Barkhan, Director of one of Germany’s leading Jewish support charities spoke out publically about the concerns of the German Jewish community being able to accommodate and integrate upwards of 800,000 people with what they perceived to be a natural hostility towards them.

“We as Jews have compassion for the refugees… there are children from war-torn countries. But on the other hand, we’re afraid they may be terrorists. As Jews, we are supporting Israel and our people. Here, they don’t need us,”

Whether or not you agree with these concerns, many in Germany clearly believe these internal frictions could have been avoided with a little more thought and reconsidering what Germany’s special responsibility means in the current climate.

Berlin5What I noticed during my most recent visit was the increased number of people sleeping rough on the streets. Many of the budget hotels were being used to home migrants without any obvious support or assistance to integrate or even understand their surroundings.

When travelling back from an evening out in Berlin, I was amazed at the sea of bodies on either side of the river. Sheltering under boxes, blankets and plastic, these refugees whilst safer than in Syria had found a far less favourable Germany than they had anticipated.

During the day, numerous migrants were collecting discarded bottles, cans and plastics to sell in order to support themselves. A few days after announcing a welcome to all, Germany had closed it’s borders, reinforced it’s most porous borders with the military and called on the rest of Europe to accept mandated immigration quotas to help support Germany’s special responsibility. As a visitor in Berlin, it didn’t look promising at this point. Following Hungary, Austria and Serbia announcing that they were not bound by Germany’s open door policy all border controls in those countries were strengthened.

Berlin6On my last day in Berlin, the  news covered the border closures. A German couple at breakfast surprised me by saying ‘It won’t be long before they start shooting at them’. Prophetic words indeed. After landing back in the UK I remembered these words as Hungary deployed water cannon and CS spray to disperse those seeking to cross the border to Germany.

So how much has a default and instinctive belief in a special responsibility helped those attempting to cross the continent. I for one am uncertain that  it has done much to solve the underlying issues.

I hope that Germany will reconsider it’s position. Seventy years after the end of World War II the special responsibility is no longer appropriate as a default position. The impact has been much wider than Germany itself and continues to impact neighbouring states. Ironically, it may already have increased the likelihood of conflict within existing minority communities. A more controlled implementation, (which need not mean fewer people accepted) may allow the impact of a generous humanitarian policy to be more measured and less challenging for all concerned.

What price a cup of tea?

Some things have the capability to act as shorthand for a country, a kind of national image which everyone associates with a people or nationality. Often this is even the case when the object in question has very little to do with that country in terms of origin.

teaOne such example is the humble cup of tea. Few other things could immediately conjure up the British nation than it’s devotion to tea. The best estimates suggest that over 60 billion cups of tea are made each year in the United Kingdom alone.

Despite being only six major types of tea (white, yellow, green, oolong, black and post-fermented) these all come from the same species of tea bush, the difference is merely in the post picking preparation. The love affair with these steeped leaves started in the 1600’s with Portuguese traders bringing tea leaves back to Europe from China.

Indeed some people say the British love of tea stems from decisions made in Tudor times when Elizabeth I granted the East India company a charter to operate. As that company grew, it established an infrastructure which ultimately supported the British Empire in India and lands capable of growing plants smuggled out of China.

moneyWhatever the reasons, it is clear that tea is now very big business in the United Kingdom. The exact figures are hard to establish accurately, however, there is little doubt that tea production and sale in Britain is an industry generating in excess of £1 billion pound annually.

Although originally a Chinese specialist plant, the majority of the world tea production is now concentrated in the sub-continent of India. Assam and Darjeeling being the best known areas.

The Indian government recognising the importance of a stable and readily available workforce placed requirements on tea plantation owners to provide adequate homes for their workforce. A move which at the time of its introduction made the more reputable plantations attractive employment options.

tea1However, things have deteriorated over recent years with homes in many estates now being little more than shacks. Many have virtually no roofs and the original concept of a house per worker has been rapidly moved to multiple occupancy often with as many as eight families sharing one small hut.

Many of the plantation owners have also started to apply a

de-facto levy to the provision of housing. They claim these requirements provide above average living standards for their staff which means their base salaries can remain low – and by that I mean typically £1 per day.

tea2The backlog of repairs on many  of these estates means people living without running water, sanitation and even functioning toilets. Some simply have the concrete footprint remaining to indicate where former outhouses once stood. Yet despite this wages of tea workers have remained unchanged for years. This has already led to industrial unrest and even the murder of one estate owner. However, most people are simply living on existence wages so ‘rocking the boat’ by taking a stand for workers rights is simply not an option. More details of this aspect were recently reported by the BBC’s Justin Rowlat

So is there an issue with the sale of tea from these estates? Is the product over-priced or hard to sell? These conditions exist in plantations selling to Tetley, Yorkshire Tea, Twinings and Fortnum and Masons to name but a few. Hardly the cheaper end of the retail market and far from small purchasers.

tea3As an example an experienced tea worker can pick up to three bags of tea leaves during their shift for a day. Once processed these can make a pallet of tea, roughly 500 packets of loose tea such as the one shown  here.

In this example, just one of those five hundred packets within that pallet sells for £7.50. Put another way, just  one packet equates to nearly a weeks wages for the average tea picker. Someone somewhere is making a very nice living, but it certainly isn’t  those picking the leaves to provide your breakfast cuppa.

Regulation and legislation does exist in India to address these conditions. However, the simple truth is that they appear to be totally ineffective. So what are our famous name purchasers doing with their undoubted buying power to improve the situation? The answer appears to be washing their hands of the problem. It appears to be the majority view that this is an internal matter for India to resolve.

So next time you pay for your branded tea and wonder why fair trade tea might be more expensive this could well be one reason for the increased prices. However, reliance on fair trade isn’t sufficient in my view. Come on big brands, make a stand and refuse to accept working conditions that would have been more at home in the worst of the Dickensian novels. Food for thought when you next put the kettle on for you cup of English breakfast.

The vital Importance of Being Earnest (Vaudeville Theatre, London)

TIOBE1An unusual but not unique blog today with a set of thoughts based around (among other productions) a review of The Importance of being Ernest. This classic comedy is arguably Oscar Wilde’s true masterpiece and is currently playing for a relatively short run at the Vaudeville Theatre, London.

As a fan of this Wildian romp through Victorian social climbing I was desperately looking forward to seeing this production. With David Suchet and Michele Dotrice there was a promise which was almost always carried the risk of under delivering.  However, in this case that was an unnecessary fear.

From the very first entrance on stage by Algernon Moncriefe, it was clear we were dealing with actors comfortable with large parts. The sets had been prepared with a conservative but effective attention to detail and simplicity but allowed a modern and witty directing style to keep the actors in a near permanent state  of animation.

Whilst this was well received by the audience (and ultimately it’s bums on seats that count) I thought the amount of ‘business’ on stage might be slightly more than was called for by the original, rather more leisurely script. However, it made for both a bright and pacey first act which took us rushing to the first of the two intervals.

globe2Only a few weeks earlier, I had been lucky enough to see As you Like It at the Globe theatre, a production I enjoyed and am similarly pleased to have seen.

However, for a production which spent so much time focusing on detail and accuracy there were a few ‘liberties’ taken with the production apparently to make the play more palatable to modern audiences. Perhaps the most notable being the entrance of Audrey (a comedy foil) on stage riding a 1970’s style shopper cycle which  although effective was certainly anachronistic. For anyone other than the purist (and perhaps not even all of them) this worked well and brought humour to an otherwise ‘hard going’ part of the play. However, for me it jarred, it was almost lazy, the easy way out.

Please don’t misunderstand me, the actors concerned were both excellent and unless Audrey snuck in the cycle as some elaborate ad-lib, were operating as directed. Presumably the addition was felt necessary to lighten the mood and make the scene more accessible to a modern audience? It’s simply that with so much attention to detail elsewhere this was almost patronising to the audience. Would a wooden wheel-barrow or a donkey or anything less out of time been an impossibility? Alternatively, why not in line skates or a moped?

My concerns, such as they existed were similar for the Importance of being Earnest. The text is certainly of it’s time and even dated in parts, but directors please note – 90 percent of the audience know this before they buy the tickets.

clownFor my taste, the production fell just on the wrong side (at times) of pratfalls and farce. Again, it was clear why, to ma language more accessible, text less dense and to give multi-dimensional characterisation to characters who stretch the suspension of disbelief at times.

However, the amount of physical comedy from a cast who clearly could have achieved the same level of comedy from the beauty of the text was at times overdone for my liking – although many in the audience clearly loved it and didn’t share my concerns.

It is impossible (or perhaps more accTIOBE2urate to say) that it would be inappropriate to single out any particular cast member as they were a true ensemble acting as a traditional troupe.

David Suchet’s Lady Bracknell was an amazingly subtle almost filmic tour de force of facial expressions and comedy timing. Having seen many others including Dame Maggie Smith and Edith Evans (albeit on film) he certainly found new space for this amazing character to live.

However, even here, (whether following direction or the actors wish not to ‘parrot’ Dame Edith), there was a singular choice which left me robbed of an old friend.

The best known line in the production is undoubtedly ‘A handbag?’ asked (usually incredulously) by Lady Bracknell on learning of the birthplace (or at least finding) or Jack Worthing.

Undoubtedly for the best of theatrical reasons, this was delivered not as a statement of shock or disbelief, but rather as a swallowed laugh. The only point in a spotless performance that I felt didn’t quite ring true.

DirectorSo was I glad to have seen the performances? Absolutely.  Did I enjoy them? Undoubtedly. My only appeal would be to Directors to trust their audiences to know the work they are about to watch or to be capable enough to endure the rough patches with the high emotional and performance peaks.

So much has been ‘dummed down’ in recent years that some of us seek out challenging, thought provoking and demanding theatre. Sometimes that also includes being reintroduced to an old friend who doesn’t need to have been subject to a ‘makeover’ or turned into pantomime. Be brave, be imaginative but remain true to the text and the spirit of the production.

Regrettably you are too late to see As you Like It, but if you get a chance to see The Importance of Being Earnest and tell me I know not of what I speak, I would thoroughly recommend you to do so. Two amazing shows.