Category Archives: The Guardian

Harry Potter and the Gaelic Revolution [The Guardian]



Tuesday December 23, 2003


Scotland’s ancient language is making a comeback,
explains Tracey Taylor


As children, Mary Galbraith’s grandparents were belted if they were overheard speaking Gaelic in the playground, even though it was the language they spoke at home. Even as adults they never properly mastered English. Just two generations later, Galbraith’s commitment to her grandparents’ native tongue is such that although she doesn’t speak it herself she sends her two daughters, Seona and Moire, to a school where the entire curriculum is taught in Gaelic.

Glasgow Gaelic school (Bunsgoil Gáidhlig Ghlaschu) is Scotland’s only dedicated Gaelic-speaking school. Children have all their lessons in the language and only start some lessons in English after they have been there three years. However, across Scotland more than 5,000 children learn Gaelic, many of them from homes where neither parent speaks the language.

What motivates parents to have their children learn a minority language? Gaelic is in decline – 99% of Scots don’t understand a word of it and, if the number of speakers falls below 50,000 (it now stands at around 60,000), Gaelic will be officially dead. Nevertheless, the Scottish Executive invests more than £3m a year in Gaelic education. A Gaelic language bill, currently in draft stage, is due to be introduced to parliament next summer with the aim of securing the status of Gaelic in Scotland.

For Mary Galbraith the answer is straightforward: “I wanted to give my children an opportunity that wasn’t there for me. I never learned Gaelic. The girls were looked after by a Gaelic-speaking childminder so they were already bilingual. It made sense that they continued with a Gaelic-medium education.”

Reconnecting with one’s roots and cultural heritage is clearly a significant factor. Gaelic was the main language in most rural areas of Scotland until the early 17th century, but it was outlawed by the crown in 1616, and suppressed further after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. “For hundreds of years, and until fairly recently, Gaelic was seen as a second-class language,” says Margaret Maciver, educational officer at Comunn Na Gáidhlig, a body set up to promote Gaelic.

Bringing up children to be bilingual has been shown to offer other, more general advantages including enhanced creative thinking, improved test results, higher self-esteem and greater tolerance. For this reason it is not only those with Gaelic ancestry who are rediscovering Scotland’s mother tongue. “We see families who have moved from England who are having their children taught Gaelic as it is the ‘local’ language,” says Donald John McCloud, Gaelic education advisor for the Highland council which, along with the Western Islands, embraces the Gaelic heartland.

These facts are not lost on Caroline Stewart, mother to seven-year-old Alexander, who also attends Glasgow Gaelic school. “My older daughter spent a year at school in France and has spoken French since. Children who speak more than one language have been shown to have better cognitive skills. I wanted Alexander to be bilingual so I was looking for a school that taught a second language. The fact he was learning Gaelic rather than another language was secondary at first. But now I am pleased: the more I learn about the history of the language the more important I feel it is to preserve it.”

Gaelic now features at all levels of Scottish education: pre-school, primary, secondary, further and higher education, and as part of teacher training. In 2002-2003 there were 1,928 primary-level and 375 secondary-level children in Gaelic-medium education. Another 3,000, approximately, learn Gaelic as a second language, usually in special Gaelic-language units within schools. The number of Gaelic-speaking teachers graduating in 2003 was 25 (for primary school teaching), an increase of eight on the number qualifying in 2002.

These are not big numbers and, despite the avowed support of Peter Peacock, Scotland’s minister for education and young people, who has said his aim is to ensure Gaelic “survives and thrives”, the Gaelic lobby faces a struggle. Obstacles include a lack of Gaelic-speaking teachers, a paucity of teaching materials and a drop-off in the provision of Gaelic education at secondary level. Detractors also point to the limited usefulness of Gaelic compared to, say, a modern European language in the increasingly globalised career market.

Boyd Robertson, senior lecturer in Gaelic at the University of Strathclyde, which trains Gaelic teachers, says the teacher-shortage problem needs to be solved urgently, particularly within secondary schools. “At the primary level there is something of an equilibrium between supply and demand, but the numbers of secondary school teachers are not growing in the way that is required.”

Supporters of Gaelic tend to look for inspiration to Wales, where concerted efforts since the 1930s have resulted in census figures that show that 26% of people under the age of 35 can now speak Welsh, which has been included in the national curriculum since 1988. One in five primary pupils are taught in classes where Welsh is used either as the main medium or for teaching part of the curriculum; one in seven secondary school children are taught Welsh as a first language, and four in five learn it as a second language.

One technique used to accelerate the take-up of Welsh has been “immersion education”, a concept that is now being put into practice in Scotland. The idea is for children as young as nursery school age to “plunge” into a language completely speaking, reading and writing it all day.

In order for Gaelic to have a good chance of reproducing itself, at least a third of under-25-year-olds need to speak the language. Scotland is a long way off achieving this. The Scottish Executive, which earlier this year set up Bórd na Gáidhlig, a development body to promote Gaelic, has given itself a target of a 5% annual increase in the number of Gaelic medium-educated primary school children. Privately, however, civil servants admit they would like to see a much higher take-up. “To be truthful, we are very jealous of Wales,” says one.

The pupils at Glasgow Gaelic school can take credit for a small victory in the crusade. Fed-up that they couldn’t read about their favourite fictional character in Gaelic, this summer they sent dozens of letters to Bloomsbury, publishers of Harry Potter. As a result, a Gaelic edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone looks set to appear next year.

Online Support: Berkeley Parents Network [The Guardian]



The Guardian, March 30th, 2005


Tracey Taylor was blown away by a Californian online network for mums. But is there anything like it here?

Earlier this month, Maria was feeling desperate: alone at home with two young children and a husband who worked all hours, she was sleep-deprived and depressed. She submitted a posting about being at the end of her tether to an online parenting network. Within two days she received 27 email replies from mothers in her neighbourhood. They offered practical advice on good therapists and playgroups that would give her a break from the children, as well as many sympathetic reassurances of the “You are not alone” variety.

This was Berkeley Parents Network, a US service I discovered when preparing for my family’s move this summer from London to California. Since subscribing to the free network, I have received an overwhelming amount of information about this leafy suburb of San Francisco.

While worrying about how I could avoid becoming either a “soccer mom” or a Desperate Housewife, I also needed practical information such as: which neighbourhoods were the most desirable and/or affordable, how to find a house for rent and schools to shortlist. I now know which paediatrician my two boys “must” sign up with and where to find a babysitting cooperative, as well as a multimedia summer camp (whatever that is).

Angela, who recommended her paediatrician, has been a regular correspondent. She has already done extensive – bordering on obsessive – research on schools for her offspring and, although my views do not always correspond with hers, her advice has been welcome.

Berkeley Parents Network was started by Ginger Ogle in 1993 – before the worldwide web in its current form even existed. Ogle was a computer science graduate student at Berkeley with two school-age children. Originally a list of 14 student parents campaigning for improved parental leave, the database grew to encompass all parents on the campus, then, eventually, was made open to all parents in the community.

Today, this non-profit-making, parent-run email forum has a subscriber base of more than 10,000, most of whom are parents or carers who look after young children and who live in Berkeley, with its population of around 100,000.

BPN works entirely online, predominantly by email. Busy parents post questions about child-rearing, local resources and community events, look for childcare and sell household items. Newsletter digests with dozens of parents’ questions and the responses they generate are emailed to subscribers eight-10 times a week. As Ogle puts it: “Our success is a combination of an early start, my technical background and an unending supply of smart and altruistic parents.”

What is surprising is that such patently useful grassroots services have been relatively slow to take off, even in tech-savvy America. “I hear about other lists for parents but they are much smaller – at the level of a neighbourhood or a school,” says Ogle. “There are for-profit efforts too that have mostly not worked out, although I continue to hear about these.”

So, does the UK offer anything as useful and well-run as Berkeley Parents Network? No – but there are encouraging signs., for instance, bills itself as a “local network by mums for mums” and hosts local sites around the country that include forums such as Meet a Mum and Buy and Sell. Some are more trafficked than others. When I looked up my area in south-east London it had only one posting listed under Childcare, two items for sale in the Nearly New listing and a mere handful of email exchanges from mothers wanting to meet up. However, the Bristol section is very active. And the Harrow and Hillingdon section, where the site has its roots, has 5,000 members and its discussion boards are buzzing.

BPN demonstrates how “nappy valley” neighbourhoods can exploit the web to help create dynamic and mutually supportive communities. Clearly these online tribes can go some way to replacing the extended families of past generations. When I move to the west coast and am looking for a soccer club for my football-mad nine-year-old, I’ll know who to call.

Tea with the FT: Barbara Ehrenreich [Financial Times]



Financial Times, February 18th, 2006


First it was blue-collar misery in America – now the writer has exposed the lot of its corporate workers, writes Tracey Taylor


As soon as I meet Barbara Ehrenreich, renowned chronicler of America’s working class, we are thrown into an awkward social moment. Our plan is have tea somewhere inside the swanky Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco. We wander into a restaurant off the hotel’s lobby that looks appropriate but a woman behind a desk stops us and says we need to be club members to eat or drink there. As we turn on our heels, Ehrenreich mutters: “You see, you come somewhere as upscale as this – which I’m not used to at all by the way – and you think you have reached the top. Then you realise there is a whole other level.”

The incident doesn’t phase Ehrenreich. You sense that there isn’t much that would. This is a writer who chose to work as a waitress, stack shelves at Wal-Mart and clean “three different kinds of shit stains” from toilets as a housekeeper to gather material for her best-known book: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. And this at an age when most people would be comfortably retired.

Ehrenreich, who is 64, has a brisk manner and a practical appearance: her hair is cut in a bob and she is wearing black trousers, a coral shirt and what she describes as “slouchy” flat sandals. She assumed a new identity to see at first hand how the other half live for Nickel and Dimed, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for almost two years after it was published in 2001.

The “immersion” style of writing is in the tradition of George Orwell, whose descriptions of coal miners in The Road to Wigan Pier aimed to shock middle-class readers out of their complacency. Ehrenreich herself has spawned imitators in the UK and Australia. Her new book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, (which comes out in paperback in the UK in March) takes the same approach but this time her focus is on the white-collar world – the middle managers and account executives who toil at the corporate coalface.

These are the people “who did everything right”. They earned degrees, postponed child-bearing and dedicated themselves to climbing the career ladder. But now, as Ehrenreich describes it, they are in trouble. Setting out to find a job as a PR director or speechwriter, Ehrenreich found a white-collar netherworld full of people who have been downsized or outsourced or were still employed but heard “the drumbeats of lay- offs”; or had survived cuts but were burning out doing the jobs of two people.

Ehrenreich found the project hard-going, she tells me, as we settle at a table in a rather soulless dining area where we have been assured we will be served tea. “It was more enjoyable with Nickel and Dimed,” she says. “I liked the camaraderie of the workplace. There might have been similar camaraderie in some white-collar places but I got the feeling that it is very different, that people are more anxious and mutually distrustful in the white-collar world. A lot of people described the workplace to me as cold and unwelcoming. “I don’t mind manual labour,” she continues. “And I like the straightforwardness of the blue-collar world in that there is a job, youdo it and you get paid fo rthe job. There is not all this . . . ” – she pauses before choosing a word that she thinks can be printed in the Financial Times – ” . . . this manipulation about attitude and personality.”

Ehrenreich, who has been gesticulating to make her point, stops talking and looks flustered. She explains she is concerned that our waiter, who is standing some feet away, may have interpreted her hand movements as a rather cavalier summons. She mouths apologies to him. Maybe her experience as a waitress explains why Ehrenreich is going out of her way to be nice to the waiter. (I, on the other hand, am feeling less sympathetic and would be happy if this particular one did his job: we have been in the deserted restaurant for more than 10 minutes and he has not yet taken our order.)

The manipulation Ehrenreich refers to is most apparent in what she discovers is called the “transition industry” – the career coaches who help reveal one’s “true occupational passion”. What Ehrenreich finds galling, rather than amusing, however is the message the coaches invariably impart to their vulnerable, often depressed audience, about blame. “I could see this philosophy being dumped on people – this new-age idea that it is really your fault because you control everything with your attitude,” she says.

The job-seekers Ehrenreich meets in the book seem prepared to take this analysis at face value. I ask her why she thinks that is. “I think this mind-over- matter idea is quite deep-seated in American culture. In fact, I encountered it and wrote about it when I was being treated for breast cancer five years ago. There is this strong ideology that it is all in your attitude whether you recover or not. It creeped me right out. You find it in the 19th century with Mary Baker Eddy, in the mid-20th century with Norman Vincent Peale and with EST (Erhard Seminar Training) in the 1970s.”

The waiter arrives to take our order and Ehrenreich again apologises to him for what he may have interpreted as her “uppity” behaviour earlier. She orders an iced latte – decaf, one shot, with 2 per cent fat milk. The waiter mishears and assumes she wants iced tea so she reiterates the minutiae of her order. She collects her thoughts and sighs. “I really don’t know what to make of the corporate world after all this. A great deal is being demanded of white-collar workers that has nothing to do with getting the job done. There seems to be so much emphasis on relationships: do you get along with people? They say 90 per cent of hiring decisions are based on an emotional response to you. I am so amazed by this world where decisions are so irrational, where there is a lot of delusional thinking going on – controlling the universe with your thought forms, for example. It makes me wonder how anything gets done.” She laughs: “Then I suddenly realised: this is the culture that leads to Michael D. Brown heading up Fema. I’m sure he’s likeable and he knew all the right people – dresses nicely, good-looking fellow. Probably a lot of fun to have a Margarita with.” [Brown was the Bush-nominated head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who lost his job after what critics saw as a bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.]

Despite almost 10 months of searching and an investment of more than $5,000, Ehrenreich failed to find a job. She had honed her CV to perfection, had a makeover, networked frantically, and displayed admirable flexibility, “applying at one point for a job as PR director of the American Diabetes Association and then switching sides and offering myself to Hershey’s”.

“I now realise that it was a kind of hubris to imagine I could find a job in half a year or so,” she says. “As I got into it and began to meet all these seemingly terrifically well-qualified people who had been searchingfor well over a year, I thought, ‘this is what it is really about, the white-collar underworld’.”

So the book ends up being a call to arms. Ever the activist, Ehrenreich urges the unemployed, and the anxiously employed, to exploit the endless networking events they attend. “If people had been allowed to, say, share their stories, that would have broken through some of the feelings of isolation and worthlessness.”

She says she wants those that read the book to realise that it’s not their fault if they are being badly treated by companies. “I see it as a possible antidote to [the business tome] Who Moved my Cheese? which says, ‘You’re going to get jerked around, get used to it.’ I would like people to read Bait and Switch and think, ‘Yeah that was ridiculous’ – to feel free to have such a subversive thought.”

Ehrenreich advocates fundamental change at policy level, too: “There is a simple agenda: one, let’s get going on universal health insurance: having it attached to your job is ridiculous. Two, let’s have a more secure and adequate unemployment compensation. And third, let’s stop tax breaks and subsidies to corporations that are made in the name of job creation but actually have nothing to do with it.”

At this point Ehrenreich’s mobile phone rings and she excuses herself to see who the call is from. “I just want to check whether it is one of my children or someone else,” she says squinting at the phone’s small screen. “No it is a publisher,” she snarls, “To hell with you.” Her phone rings again and she frowns, making clear it is her publisher again. “I see that 212 area code [her US publishers are in New York], then my cellphone died as far as I’m concerned.”

So what does she see as the way forward for corporations? “We have to find ways to make corporations more accountable to the people they serve. I don’t think they just serve the shareholders – there should be a broader vision of stakeholders, which includes consumers, communities and employees.”

As we get up to leave, Ehrenreich points to the pretty three-tier cake stand on the table next to ours. It is filled with delicate sandwiches and petits-fours in pastel hues. “Look what we missed,” she says, grinning. But somehow the image of Ehrenreich sipping Earl Grey tea from a bone-china cup and nibbling on miniature cakes doesn’t quite cut it. The immaculately groomed ladies of leisure who are doing so are enjoying the fruits of capitalism. Ehrenreich is too busy fighting its flaws.