Tag Archives: britain

Re-thinking thoughts on guns

Before I arrived in Texas, guns were bad. Those who kept guns in their home were backward, uninformed and quite possibly insecure. Those who advocated for the legalization of guns politically were dangerous, cunning and manipulative. They were obstacles in the way of law and order, not campaigners in support of it and wherever possible, it was the rest of society’s quasi-moral ‘duty’ to oppose them. We should disdain the lobbyists who blocked the intervention of proper controls and condemn state governors who failed to use their position to denounce their use. It was popular and it felt fashionable. Just as fashionable as denouncing Nigel Farage as a simple sideline looney, or hating on Katie Hopkins for moaning on GMTV. Britain doesn’t have a gun problem. We don’t border countries with a gun problem and airport security means that smuggling firearms is rarely an issue. We trust that our police will be at the end of the line when we call 999 and we believe that they’ll be powerful enough to support us, so why would we have guns, and why would we ever hope to comprehend the arguments of those who believe in them? They’re not relevant to our society, so we can get away with few skirmishes (and quite possibly some accolade) for hating on them and those that uphold them.

It was only once I got to Texas that I began to realize the extent of my naivety and oversimplification of the issue.

Don’t get me wrong- it’s not that a trip to the gun range has meant I systematically support guns. In my mind they still cause more harm than they do good. In a society where the monetary cost of a gun is virtually the only thing controlling who owns one, they’re far too easy to get hold of and far too difficult to monitor. Instead of warding off the culture of fear and self-sufficiency so prevalent in the South, they add to it- often leading ‘normal’ people into crime almost by accident, simply due to the lack of effort it takes to take a shot. Ideologically, I’m still opposed to guns. I wouldn’t dare to buy a gun. I wouldn’t vote in favor of them and I certainly wouldn’t feel any safer keeping one at home. But when you begin to understand things they’re always less clear than you first thought. Guns aren’t a black and white issue. There’s too much tied up in the mix.

I wasn’t expecting shooting at a gun range to be my new favorite activity, nor an opportunity for deep psycho-political analysis. It’s a popular weekend activity here. Most people own their own guns although rarely get an opportunity to use them. The Lone Star Gun Range offers gun hire, the purchase of ammunition and firearm classes to top up your skills. I was there largely for the novelty of holding a gun.

I was a medium sized establishment. There were a choice of four ranges to shoot from; a shotgun range, a children’s range, pistol range and rifle range. In theory the targets were different distances away, although actually they all seemed to be a bit interchangeable. Along a dusty track an ‘office’ held the guns. Bulky men with bit beards and tattoos hovered between cabinets and wall mounts, keys clanging in jean pockets as they waited patiently for the weapon to selected. Its a big moment of course (especially for the newbie), whether to fashion yourself on a Lara Croft type quick snap boom, or more of a forest hunter with the long tunnel at the end and bigger bullets. They came in black, brown, gold, grey, muddy green or Texan flag, and knowing nothing about guns I was even strangely excited to see something that resembled George Bush’s own from his mighty tour to Afghanistan in 2006. Maybe I’ll steer away from that one. Stick to Lara Croft.

I got outside and started setting up the target. It was a wooden frame, a bit like an easel that you stapled a sheet of paper with the outline of a human on. Specific areas were pointed out – the head, the heart, the lungs, the hands and feet. Hoping for balloons or colored blobs, I asked if I could use a children’s target. A guy pointed to a pile of reduced-sized silhouettes. I took a moment to think. I was choosing between shooting a bright pink paper adult or a bright pink paper child. I turned to look at the shooters. They all looked fairly normal; a day off with the family or an afternoon chilling with friends and pop tarts. No doubt they shopped at Walmart and paid their taxes. No signs of criminal records or recent prison escapees. Get on with it Holly, you’re over thinking. I went for the adult pink human. Thank God the bullet predictably spun off into the white paper behind.

Lara Croft I wasn’t, but shooting guns is exhilarating. The charging of the bullet and steps as you take aim, the pounding bang and drifts of smoke that liken you to a true woman of the Wild West all add to the strange notion of power that you come to thrive on. Its easy to forget that an onlooker from the sidelines would find it difficult to understand the fun, spending money to stand in the sweltering heat and dust loading up rounds and mutilating a static paper sheet.

I took a break to get water. A 30 something year old couple and their child were standing nearby. Hearing my non-native accent (very rare in much of rural Texas), we started talking. We went through the motions of them loving the english accent and asking what I thought of the Queen, I asked them how often they went shooting. They proudly informed me they were Lone Star members, meaning for $100 a year each they have free access to any Lone Star gun range. I tried to look like I found that impressive and  asked if they usually bring their son. The dad confirmed that 8 year old Cody had apparently been shooting since he could walk, and was well versed in the safety implications. His aim was so good, he had even won competitions in the under 10s category.

I felt myself slipping into that all too common terrain of totally disbelieving what I was hearing, but also desperately trying to comprehend it. These were friendly people. They weren’t trying to kill anyone or out to start a gun war. They weren’t training up their child in any suspicious Texan militias, nor did they have tattoos giving away allegiance to a notorious gang of outlaws. I was highly aware that to them, the idea of me opposing the use of a gun on your own personal property probably seemed just as strange as I found their enthusiasm for it. If my time in Texas has taught me anything, it’s to not make it obvious that you think a person’s crazy too soon. If you don’t hear them out, they’ll probably always seem crazy. If you go along with it for a bit sounding vaguely empathetic in your questioning, you’ve at least got a chance. These are the moments you’ve got to walk the line without giving yourself away.

As far as I understand, they explained guns in terms of two necessary functions in society. First and foremost is the social aspect; the ownership of guns forms a central part of their culture, and family gatherings are rarely complete without a hunt. Unlike in Europe, few rural Texans don’t own vast swathes of land, and with the ownership of land comes the ‘ownership’ of any creatures that inhabit it. Instead of driving to the Walmart or HEB 30 minutes down the highway, they can hunt deer, rabbits or boars to supply the barbecue, equally central to any get together. With so much land, so many animals, so few people and such a deeply ingrained sense of property rights, even for the most ardent opponent it’s not difficult to recognize that the social, geographical and economic structures that make up Texan society orientate it towards a culture of hunting.

But more important than that is the idea of protection. If us Brits had any vain hope that our Guardian columnists and Green Party campaigners could single-handedly take on the gun-crime culture of the American South, we can stop now. It’s not going to happen.

Texas is a rural place. Almost two-thirds of its landmass have less than ten residents per square mile, far from Sheriff’s offices, Town Halls, or neighbours. Even if they did live within reach of a Sheriff’s office, (effectively a police station), it may be so small an ill-funded that it would of little additional benefit in case of a home burglary. Either the homeowner uses a gun to ward off the intruder then and there, or they wait up to half an hour for the police to arrive and do the same. Furthermore, as isolated and obtuse as we may portray the state in Europe, Texans are highly aware of the issue of police brutality in their own nation. Perhaps it comes under a respect for human rights. More probably it’s a manifestation of the general skepticism of authority and idea of self-sufficiency, but images of the incompetence of the police are widespread, and who can trust someone that does’t have a vested interest in protecting you and your family? They’re just doing their job. If the criminal runs off into the plains, its another sheriff’s county office that’ll deal with them. For you, your livestock, homestead or children have been under threat and who knows if they’ll return. Under Texan law (as well as many other US states), if you kill someone in the act of defending your own property, i.e. an intruder, it is considered an act of self defense. The intruder, if not dead, is accountable to the full force of the law. If a group comes in together and one is killed, the fellow intruders can be found guilty of the murder of their friend and sentenced to life imprisonment, or in some cases execution; if they hadn’t collectively trespassed on the property, their friend wouldn’t have died. The factors of geography and the law therefore inherently favor the gun owner and encourage them to take security into their own hands.

But it doesn’t stop there. Gun ownership is as much a political as well as practical issue. An estimated 1 in 26 people in Texas are illegal immigrants, and fear of the Mexican border is very real. If people can get in undocumented, guns can too, and banning them among law-abiding Christian Americans would only leave the Texan population at the mercy of genuine criminals and criminal gangs of Central America. If guns therefore can’t be eliminated from Texas, at least they can be distributed to those who will use them for their own defense, as well as those who will use them for aggression.

And then it comes to the children. A central part of any parent’s responsibility is in ensuring your child feels safe and capable on their own. And I could totally empathize with this – the most valuable thing you can give your offspring is surely the confidence to feel they don’t have to be reliant on others. To make their own choices, believe in themselves and act on their own accord. And this holds very true in Texan culture. The parents I met at Lockhart weren’t proud of their son because he shot the pink human’s heart out of the paper it lay on; they were proud because they had succeeded as parents. They had prepared him for the world as a capable individual who didn’t have to be scared of Mexicans, or criminals, or put up with the police. He could hold his own family gatherings and source meat from his own land. He was aware of the dangers involved and how to be safe, and really, to them it would only be irresponsible not to introduce him to the culture of weaponry so essential to his heritage and surroundings.

The congressional debates surrounding gun legality are always complex and often contrived. They encompass and touch upon so much – party politics, money, political and economic goals and the interests of influential and regularly out of touch individuals. They’re messy debates that one wishes were unnecessary and we are well within our legitimacy to dismiss them as absurd. On a person to person level, however, the prevalence of guns is more difficult to refute. The arguments are too deep, thought-out and frankly relevant to downplay the way we’re used to – unsuccessfully. As I say, I’m certainly no gun supporter, but my first and last experience as a patron of the Lone Star range has undoubtedly left a mark. If our trans-atlantic struggle against guns laws are to get anywhere, we don’t have a hope or a right to focus our condemnation on the small town Americans that buy into the industry. For them, owning a gun is being responsible. It’s being patriotic, a provider and an individual. It’s looking after your family and securing your own interests- just as we seek to do in Britain and anywhere else in the world. The task is much greater than simply typecasting, condemning and blaming. It’s not just an industry to bring down; its the political, social and economic infrastructure of the state itself, and that’s no easy battle to fight and not one that should be jumped upon naively.

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Fast Food and Britain’s Glass Floor

A few days ago I came across an article by Yehong Zhu that had been sent into The Thought Catalogue as a response to the question ‘What’s it like being at an elite school like Yale and working at a fast food job?’ The author used the prompt to describe her experience of working at Waffle House through the summer months before commencing her studies at Harvard University the following autumn.

Recounting her shifts and the menial jobs involved, the jargon and memorising of orders ‘akin to that of an AP biology midterm’ and the exhaustion of standing for hours on end, her account reminded me of my first few months working at Pret a Manger, a British sandwich and salad take-away food chain.

In many ways our circumstances were fairly similar; like Yehong I had left school with the idea that I was some of ‘academic breed’ of person. I had no idea what I wanted to do in later life, but had trawled through sixth form to manage good grades and secured a place at a respected university (albeit significantly less high profile that Harvard -mine being University College London). Nevertheless, I presume it had a comparable outlook among staff and students; many of my future university friends were occupied saving turtles in Madagascar and discovering the underground bars of Berlin. Or standing in on court cases and shifting papers in Goldman Sachs; that well established territory of the future-leader-of-the-world-/-eighteen-year-old-work-experience typecast. But coming to terms with the unavoidable financial burden of studying in London, I had got to July with few plans for the summer, little to no experience of work and desperately in need of a job.

I found a recruitment centre in Victoria Station. I filled in a questionnaire, answered a few questions in person and I was invited to an experience day the following week. I swept the floor, put some toasties in the machine, made a yoghurt pot as per the ‘How To Card’ and was in.

When I started, I signed a 20 hour a week contract being paid £6.95 an hour to work at the till. In less than 3 months I was working close to full time with significantly greater responsibilities and a significantly higher wage. I couldn’t have imagined that after working so hard at school to get there, university would suddenly take such a serious back seat- and that I would have wanted it to. But perhaps ironically, Pret made undergraduate classes seem empty. I came to think of ‘the day job’ as a different sort of education – one in which I was meeting people outside my usual sphere with views and experiences of the world that differed from my own – and almost every other university student I sat in classes with. Apart from the money, there was something exhilerating about the pace of life I found myself leading. I was no longer as simply a student; I had become a ‘Pret Person’ and to me, that was no bad thing.

Of course there were things I found difficult. I wasn’t used to standing on my feet for 8 hours. I wasn’t used to being managed by someone who was struggling with english and being part of a team whose preferred mode of communication was spanish or italian. I wasn’t used to working at such a high intensity; the idea of making a salad in less than a minute including time to get ingredients from the fridge, clear up after and not forget the cherry tomatoes baffled me. How was I so useless?

I was highly aware when I took on the job that hiring me was a risk. I was the only english person of 49 employees in the shop. I found it strange at first, but soon realised why there were so few of us- the english either become managers within 2-3 years or leave within the first month. Neither is necessarily good for the morale of the rest of the team, and being a bit out of my depths when it came to spanish slang and not so up to date with the latest Russian rap hits (although I did learn, of course…) it was a difficult line to walk. So to an extent, I can emphathise with Yehong’s feeling of ‘other-worldliness’. Nothing was what I expected. But at the same time, that in itself was just as much a challenge as perparing for the end of term coursework – only, to me, a far more interesting one to persue.

And that’s where I found Yehong’s account unusually sad.

I don’t want to necessarily critique her experience in any way; we were working in different companies for different lengths of time and in different continents. (Naturally, being part of the EU drastically alters the labour pool for entry level jobs in the UK and therefore the kind of co-workers you expect to find.) But personally, my own time in Pret only served to highlight a sickening realisation; that it’s rarely intellect that separates entry level/ minimum wage workers from those who can afford to aim high. It’s opportunity. For the majority of workers, the £56 they earn for 8 hours of watching the clock constitutes just as much of an ‘existence’ for them as it does for anyone else – not much, but it’s a temporary means to an end.

Of course you can expect to find people who (on the surface) seem to have few ambitions in life. Those who are happy working on the tills from 7am to 3pm five days a week, greeting customers, passing over coffees, retorting the infamous ‘eat in or take away?’ They know what to expect today, tomorrow and the day after that, and if they haven’t yet made it to team trainer, probably this time next year, too. It might be a bit boring, but if you’ve been packaging clothes into bags at a factory in Lithuania for the previous ten years and now find yourself learning english with a growing pension and paid holidays, for you at least, life certainly is stepping up a gear.

But in honestly these were a very small proportion of those I met. Most of them had stories well beyond my own. (See below.) They were ‘fast food workers’ with as much a planned path in life as the rest of us. Some know exactly where they want to go. Others are hopeful of opportunities. The reason they’re there behind the tills is not because of their character, lack of ambition or bad grades. More often than not, it’s because they’re starting without the base that we’ve been given. They have no backstop in life. No support network. Yes, they have degrees, yes they’ve had ‘good’ jobs in the past. But if your degree was in Czech law and the jobs you can find in Prague barely cover your rent, with a strand of courage you’re going to go look for something else, even if it is starting right from the bottom.

Alongside familiarising myself with which detergents are used for ovens, worktops and fridges and the proper security procedure if we ever come across a bomb under a table, what I really took away from my time in Pret was the extent of the glass floor problem we suffer from in Britain. Much is said about the need for social mobility. The need for fluidity within our social strata, so that familial background no longer inhibits personal merit and acumen in determining our position within the social system. In our capitalist, ‘protestant ethic’, western world the idea of social mobility is inescapably tied up with the undying aspiration for our children to exceed our own successes. Many of the parent’s of my colleagues at UCL undoubtedly saw their children’s education as an investment, paying for their clubs, holidays and school fees. They had prized the importance of ‘soft skills’ such as confidence and presentability – maybe even filtering their offspring through weekend drama schools and singing lessons. And now, on the eve of university they were once again financially supporting them during unpaid internships or work experience. For those without the means to subside for 3 months without student finance, such a luxury is naturally not an option.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The last decade has seen much development on the front of the glass ceiling in society. Additional rights and company quotas for women, the disabled and elderly workers have enhanced the possibilities of the aspirational (generally at the top of society) –  and rightly so.

But just as pressing an issue, and invariably a more sticky one to tackle is the plight of those in the lowest segments of society who find an equal struggle in reaching up. As the expectation and competition for graduate jobs becomes more fierce, parents will feel an even greater pressure to invest in and support the next generation; the invaluable trust fund or the distant relative who works in a big office (and let’s just hope won’t mind having a free assistant for a week) become not just an asset, but a criterion for economic success. This is the glass floor in it’s creation. We all have the merit – this is a race for the everything else. And dangerously, it’s in these everything else societies that economic inequality is the greatest – a comparison of social mobility in US and Canada will tell us that.

So its those without the parents, without the funds or without the contacts that are stuck underneath the glass floor. In the case of Britain, a significant proportion of those stuck are immigrants- in some (but not all) cases suffering from the added disadvantage of poor langauge skills. But immigrants certainly don’t represent all cases; those who have been in social care, those from poorer backgrounds, rural backgrounds etc etc… They’ve got the personal equalities, education and common sense.  But because that’s all they’ve got others are able to slip in ahead of them on the rungs of the social ladder. (And let’s face it – how often do we slide into those algebraic equations we learnt in sixth form in our average ‘graduate’ job?)

As I say, there are few easy fixes. It seems to me there are two strands to take – the broadly leftist or the broadly conservative. The ‘cutting in’ on the social ladder could be targeted – Ed Miliband momentarily took a stand against unpaid internships in the 2015 Labour Manifesto. This would inhibit them from becoming the reserve of the elite. On the other hand, the ability to cut in could made more widely available – particularly to those below much of societies’ glass floor. To varying degrees of success, the academy idea has paved the way in bringing students from poorer backgrounds closer to employers and corporations. (Still largely restricted to urban areas though.) At the same time, the present government’s emphasis on apprenticeships has highlighted the benefits of employees ‘working up the ranks’ rather than recruiting one level of worker for the entry level jobs and relying on a graduate scheme to fill the roles at the top. Realistically, no one can stop people from taking opportunities to enhance themselves. The only approach is to ensure that those opportunities reach the widest corners of our society.

We may still be a long way from resolving the problems and perceptions of inequality within Britain today. But let’s at least attempt to come to terms with it; my time in Pret gave me a small, valuable insight into one particular corner of the lives of those below many people’s glass floor. They’re not necessarily ‘poor’ – they work incredibly hard and get paid relatively well for it. But in many respects it’s a socially isolating life to lead. They work with foreigners, live with foreigners, go out with foreigners and, of course, when it comes to that all-important telephone interview for the next job? No, they didn’t understand what the person was saying on the phone. Talking too quickly. Maybe using some special terms. So they’re sticking around here for a bit….

Pret was tough, inspiring, and the best form of ‘education’ I could have hoped for at the time. I soon realised that the person pushing our cereal boxes through the checkout in Lidl, or the bored security guard at the Oxford Street Primark- they too are the protagonists of their own love stories, and probably wildly better than our own. They may have read more Dickens novels than our entire sixth form English class; they may have more certificates than us and they probably do speak more languages.  They have plans for their route to the nobel peace prize, or UK Top 40 christmas no 1. And dreams for their children and hopes for retirement. And being cynical about it, its only the rest of society jumping ahead of them that’s dragging them down.

In words of the College Dropout himself…..

PS- a few of those I worked alongside:

An Italian ex-circus clown who had toured across europe for 15 years and knew virtually every turkish restaurant in north london (no mean feat). He had almost finished his law degree when I met him, making a coffee each 30 secs, 7.5 hours a day, 5 days a week to pay for his course.

My manager Aga, left Turkmenistan with a friend when he was 24. Speaking no english, he got a job working in the kitchen in Pret where he met and married another employee, a Brazilian woman. He had an engineering degree from Ashgabat University as well as degrees in Computer Science and Finance and Accounting from Birkbeck and City Universities in London. When I met him he spoke Russian, Turkmen, Turkish, Arabic, Portuguese and understandable English. He used to joke about not having any qualifications in cleaning tables, having spent some much time ‘developing the skill.’

And a 22 year old Hungarian who had become redundant after the cinema he worked at in Budapest shut down. Having learnt english from Game of Thrones, he came to London knowing no one. He arrived at work at 8.30pm each evening, made sandwiches until 4.30am and after 3 buses got home at around 6am. He knew every word to every Jay-Z song, timed to perfection. (Yes, I was jealous.) This summer he went to Ibiza for the first time. He wants to be a DJ.