Nothing much too see here, but I just thought this was funny. I’m not too versed in poetry, but would this be classed as a Haiku or a Haipu ;-)
In most of my working experiences I have been welcomed quite warmly by the boss. In the first couple of weeks of my job the boss would typically offer a reassuring smile and enquire as to how I was settling in. I believe this is standard practice in most civilised work places; it’s certainly something that I have always done with the new employees who have joined me. The Curriculum Manager at Manchester Adult Education Service (MAES) was a towering, upright, scruffy, Northern Irishman who for all the world looked like an old, bitter, greying version of Beaker from the Muppets. He was as welcoming as herpes. If being dour was an Olympic sport then this man would be the Usain Bolt of dourness; but it isn’t, and it shouldn’t be an attribute of anyone in a management position whose role should be to not only effectively organise, but also to motivate and inspire. This man was the antithesis of both of those things. This man could deflate the enthusiasm of a children’s TV presenter on MDMA.
Having worked for local authorities before in one capacity or another I do understand how bureaucratic and frustrating those organisations can be to work in. I also understood that under the austerity conditions imposed during a recession due to the greed of banks and the failings of government, it was even more difficult for those heading departments within the public sector. However my understanding comes from what I like to think of as the capacity to empathise. This capacity to empathise is something that helps engender good relations with staff in difficult working situations – any half decent leader would know this. So whilst I don’t really want to just slag off the boss, as that is all too easy, I can’t help but resent a man who offers not a jot of motivational support to a new employee who is new to a profession and has just been thrown – neigh, tossed, like some cheap cut of meat – into a meat grinder of a working environment without an induction or formal easing in period of any sort. A man who instead just highlights understandable deficiencies in what he well knows to be a very difficult and thankless task. The closest utterance of any note that would constitute ‘understanding’ was, “Look, it is what it is and we [you] just have to deal with it”. So with those wonderful words of support I proceeded to go from confident, enthusiastic, graduate teacher, to exhausted, insecure, failure.
Not a great deal worked at MAES. We had four photocopiers between two floors servicing approximately 35 staff. These photocopiers were also used as printers and fax machines. With the voracious appetite of a teaching department for copying, these machines frequently broke. There were another two printers in the teacher’s room, but only one of those was in use – when it wasn’t broken. The other printer spent the entire six months of my employment sat on top of a cabinet, unplugged. I started to see this printer as an ornament of mockery, smiling at me as I panicked and scrambled around when its overworked colleagues failed to perform. To make things even more difficult, when the copier ran out of paper, teachers were required to walk the 50 or so metres down the corridor to ask for a key and fill in a form to get a refresh from the stock room.
Modern teaching relies quite a lot on I.T. The computers at MAES were as old as the teaching materials and just as shit. They took almost ten minutes to boot up and then would often not connect to the network or the external devices. We shared an office where teachers would ‘hot seat’ – which sounds exciting, but really just means you have to grab whatever space was available because there isn’t enough room for people to have their own desk. This meant that you never really had too many options if the computer you were using wasn’t working properly. There were computers in all of the classrooms, but for some reason these were not connected to printers – that would have made too much logical sense I guess. Our technical support consisted of two people who were expected to service all the old computers and other technical equipment in five centres spread around the city. These technicians also had to be booked in advance! It was a joke.
Everything in the teaching department at MAES was set up like an obstacle course to make the job just that little bit harder. For example, there were two floors of classrooms and those that were on the upper floor were easily accessible by a flight of stairs that were right outside of the teacher’s room. However that would have been too easy, so those stairs were declared unusable due to ‘health and safety’. What particular aspect of health and safety was being breached by using these stairs was never explained. Apparently it was something to do with them being a fire exit stairway. Yet for several weeks this stairway was the home of pots of paint and at one point a trolley full of decorating equipment. What was even more puzzling was how that stairway wasn’t used when we actually had a fire drill, and we had a few of those during my time there. So, with these stairs out of bounds, we had to make our way through around 100 metres of corridor separated by 10 sets of doors in order to get into our upstairs classrooms.
Between the malfunctioning computers, malfunctioning photocopiers, malfunctioning printers and interactive whiteboards, manoeuvering through doorways and along lengthy corridors in a building under refurbishment, actually starting a class on time was a feat in itself. Watching teachers get to their rooms for each session was like a cheap, school version of Wipe Out. Add to the maelstrom of malfunction a timetable from hell and manager with all the charisma of a haemorrhoid, I became as deflated as a dead mans scrotum. I completely lost my mojo and my ability to consistently perform my teaching duties to a standard that either the school or I were satisfied with. Furthermore, I was so miserable and depressed, I had no enthusiasm to do anything in the little time I had to socialise – and that really isn’t me.
Soon it came time for my first observation with the curriculum manager. This did not go badly, but it didn’t go too well either. There was little that the Tall Grey Man liked about the lesson, but plenty of things that he found to criticise; his perception of the glass was very much half empty. By the time my second observation came, I already hated going into work and had started to count down the days until the end of my contract (there were a lot of days left to count). However, I still wanted to have a good observation. That was made impossible when the interactive whiteboard failed to play any sound – sound is important for a language lesson focusing on listening. I had stored a CD player in the cupboard for back up but that was no longer there when I looked. So with 19 students and the observing teacher all staring at me, drained of confidence, I proceeded to wing a lesson without so much as a feather in my cap. Suffice to say the lesson crashed.
At the end of my second observation the observing teacher – who also happened to be the area manager and the person who had employed me at interview – passive-aggressively ripped it to pieces, blaming my lack of preparation as the reason for its numerous failings (it’s the teacher’s responsibility to check all the equipment in the classroom before a lesson). I decided that I would take the opportunity at that time to express some of my frustrations with my job in general. In hindsight I think that was a bad move. The area manager’s only response to my grievances was that I should count myself lucky that I had been offered a full time position. Here was me thinking that it was my skills, abilities and a sterling interview that got me the job, when all this time it was just luck. That kind of burst the tiny little bubble of confidence I had left in my teaching abilities.
Having failed a second time, my third observation was ‘last chance saloon’ and I was told it would have to be a perfect performance or I would not have my contract extended – no pressure then! I had all but lost all my confidence in my ability to teach and I didn’t really know what I should or shouldn’t do in my lessons anymore. So when the time came I had got to the point where I didn’t really care. I hated the fucking job and I just didn’t want to be there any more. So it went that on a day when I had rushed into work because I had a personal problem to deal with at home, I arrived unprepared and as luck would have it I was informed approximately one minute before entering a lesson for absolute beginners (a group which I am not the best with) I was told that I would be observed – by two people.
To cut what has been a very long story short, my last observation was the worst of the lot according to the observers’ report. In fact, it was too bad to be true. It read like a report that was taking no chances in ensuring that I would not stay beyond my probationary period. I don’t think a random person dragged off the street would have got such a bad review. But I was exhausted, deflated, and despite disagreeing with much of what was said, I didn’t want to argue. To be honest, I think I had lost all perspective as well as confidence, so even I couldn’t tell what was right or wrong with my teaching anymore. After the area manager’s response to some of the views I aired about my job after my second observation, I knew I was already doomed at MAES.
I pointed out earlier in this story that part of my problem in my first job was that I came to teaching late on the back of a lengthy career as a freelancer and a lot of working experience. I think that had contributed to my failure, because I was not exactly silent about the shortcomings of the facilities and my introduction to MAES. However, I am now slowly learning that when you’re working for other people it’s probably wiser to keep your mouth shut.
My time at MAES had been the worst working experience of my life (well, perhaps on a par with that time I worked in a call centre for British Gas). There is more to any job than just grinding away like a machine. Motivation and confidence are needed to perform well; you only have to listen to any elite sportsman or woman to know that. If your management or your organisation fail in motivating you and sap you of your confidence, then they need to consider reviewing their own performance. Fortunately for me I didn’t remain down in the dumps for too long. I soon found some part-time work at a private school and regained my teaching mojo. They had a small staff team who were friendly and supportive and were more than happy with how I was going about my work. So much so, that they were sad to see me go after I took up the offer of a full-time teaching role elsewhere. My new job would take me 8000 miles away to work in Jakarta in Indonesia. That should be interesting.
Anybody who has opted for a career in teaching knows it can be quite difficult to get your first full-time job after graduating. Teaching is not a job for the faint hearted and statistics don’t make good reading for newbies staying the course in their first year, which I’m sure doesn’t go unnoticed by Human Resource departments in schools and colleges. Hiring a graduate teacher may cost less in terms of wages, but if they can’t perform then their employer has to go through the whole process of recruitment again. This is unsettling for the students and a time consuming and costly process for the school or college. The safe option would be to hire someone with experience in the first place. So when I got offered a full-time job just weeks after receiving my teaching diploma, I was a very happy man.
Less than two weeks into the job and I hated it. A month in and I was seriously questioning whether I had made the right choice in becoming a teacher. I don’t recall too many things in life that I’ve given up on, but after two months I was considering throwing in the towel and returning to self-employment in the arts. There’s not much long-term security, but at least you have a social life and wake up relatively happy most mornings. Since I had started working for Manchester Adult Education Service (MAES) I woke up every morning with a groan and launched myself out of bed with the words “I hate this fucking job”. Long-term security is no good if your life is going to be miserable.
I’ve come to teaching pretty late in life. Prior to teaching I had a pretty diverse and creative range of work – graphic design, performing arts, theatre, independent community filmmaking, even djing and club promotion. I’ve very much followed what I enjoy doing. But whilst many may commend or even envy a career path of such freewheeling creativity, I ultimately failed to secure a foothold in any one thing. I didn’t become an established screen or TV writer. I didn’t establish myself in the world of theatre. I’m not a superstar Dj and I don’t have a branded club night that is in demand at big venues, dance events and festivals all over the world. And even though I once designed a range of t-shirts for a clothing company, that sold so well, it transformed Ringspun into a global success and made the owner a millionaire – I myself was never more than just a jobbing freelance designer. That said, unlike many of my peers over the years, I did do well enough to secure some financial assets, and I didn’t exactly endure the life of an impoverished, suffering artist, only to find myself with grey hairs, emerging wrinkles and nothing else to show for my art at the end of it. I’ve done my fair share of partying, travelled extensively, and I’ve had some wonderful working experiences. All of that experience has given me a great range of creative skills, skills that helped me in my work as a creative project manager, which is what I did for several years prior to teaching. I managed people, budgets and collaborated in partnership with other agencies and organisations, so I was not the graduate in his mid-twenties arriving at the start of his career with no prior experience. This I think was part of the problem in my first job, but certainly not the cause.
Whatever academic course you undertake to become a professional teacher is difficult. Whether it’s a PGCE, Diploma or Cert Ed, it involves intensive study and very hard work. You learn every aspect of the profession and there is a lot to learn. It’s a profession that is always changing and developing with advancements in educational philosophies and policies. Having spent many years working with young people, I knew enough about myself and British teenagers to know that I didn’t want to teach in high school, so I opted to pursue the route of teaching in further education. Adult learners are more motivated and less inclined to the psychopathic tendencies inherent in developing adolescents. However, whilst you may not have as many difficult behaviour issues to deal with, it’s still a hard job.
Whilst lawyers have legal secretaries and doctors have nurses and teams of medical staff to support their work, the teacher has nobody but themselves to plan, monitor, review and assess students on top of the actual work of effectively teaching and all that entails – and it entails a lot more than just standing in front of a group of people talking, believe me. Yet somehow we aren’t as valued as much as lawyers or doctors. Despite the fact that teachers transform the minds of men and women to help them elevate beyond the status of eating, sleeping and excreting beasts, the teacher is the professional that is taken for granted the most. The lawyer or the doctor would never have the ability to practice without first being taught by the teacher. Yet whilst most people would willingly part with £100 plus an hour for the services of a lawyer, or accept the meaty annual wage of a doctor as deserved, the teacher is somehow considered the runt of the professional litter and seldom given the respect of those other senior professionals in society.
When you start your first full-time teaching job, it is standard practice to be eased in slowly. Your first week or so should be an induction week where you shadow other teachers in the educational establishment you have joined and maybe only teach half your timetable. You would meet the supporting staff, be given time to familiarise yourself with the school or college the resources and your work colleagues. Modern colleges tend to utilise a networked intranet that is supported by a technical team. This intranet system itself would easily require a half-day training session to get to grips with its basic functionality and content. The very, very least you would expect before you even entered a classroom would be a health and safety briefing. A couple of days before starting my first full-time job with MAES I received an email inviting me to meet the staff before I started. This was not mandatory, but an informal invitation; ‘If you have some free time’. I had the free time so I decided to go and see where I would be working, and it was a good thing I did because if I hadn’t have done I would have been absolutely fucked the following Monday!
I had been emailed my timetable a few days before my start date and it didn’t seem like my first week was an induction week, it was a very full timetable of classes. I was entering a department that was still in the process of relocating into a building that was still undergoing redevelopment work. Even the existing staff – who had all started a couple of weeks earlier – were still settling in. Yet despite this being my first full-time teaching role, despite no formal induction, I was expected to simply start on a full timetable upon walking through the door – a door attached to a doorway that led into a building that was still under construction. The timetable itself consisted of 9 sessions, each of which lasted two and a half hours. Within these 9 sessions were 7 different classes consisting of around 20 students. These classes covered every ESOL level from absolute beginner to intermediate and I shared 6 of those classes with 5 different teachers who I had never met, all of which I had to liaise with to ensure that we didn’t duplicate our lessons. When I showed my timetable to the team leader, a veteran of over 25 years, I think her words were, “Oh you poor thing!” The first couple of days of my job teaching at a language summer school experience left me thinking “WTF!” The first day of my full-time job with MAES simply had me thinking, “I can’t do this!”
In most EFL schools the teachers work from an English language learning book. You have chapters which you follow each day and there are supporting materials and teacher’s notes for you to work from. MAES were working with the materials from Skills for Life, an ESOL resource pack created by the government in 2006 that is now so referentially obsolete as to be almost useless. There was always the option of creating your own material, and of course planning is a large part of an ESL teacher’s job. However, with each hour of teaching requiring anything between one to two hours of preparation, it helps to have a single piece of reference material to work from. Filtering through a yard sale pile of old books and being expected to prepare work for a week of two-and-a-half hour lessons without any formal induction was an utterly ridiculous expectation. But what was I going to do, complain before I even started? Of course not; so I just carried on regardless. But deep down the weight of the task and the fear of failure in my first job felt like a black hole of burden. A burden I believed and hoped was just a teething anxiety that would go away; it didn’t. By Thursday I had developed a tortuous knot between my neck and shoulder that remained there for the entire six-month duration of the job.
First of all let me start off by saying that despite the significant shortcomings I will highlight here, there was much to enjoy during this summer school ‘experience’. This was mainly due to the infectious enthusiasm of the young post-graduates who were responsible for activities, but also largely due to the fact that, at between £600 and £800 per-week per-head, we were dealing with predominantly sweet, civilised, respectful and polite adolescents and teenagers from wealthy European, South America and Saudi Arabian families, rather than the borderline, psychopathic, lunatics that inhabit a lot of British secondary schools. If you want to reclaim the self-esteem and respect that all teachers deserve from students, spend a summer working at a language school – just don’t expect much from the employers, you are business collateral – and it’s a lucrative business!
I already had an EFL qualification that I’d gained years before taking my Teaching Diploma, so having just graduated and with no plans for the summer, I decided to do a stint at a summer language school for six weeks.
When I arrived at St. Mary’s University College in Twickenham, I was suitably pleased by the grounds and the standard of food in the refectory. Mo Farah was having a little bit of a run on the grass alongside the running track (I understand that, being a record breaking Olympian, he resented having to pay the £4 to use the running track) and news was that it was going to be a glorious July, which made staying in the affluent Borough of Richmond all the more appealing, with its numerous al fresco bars and restaurants and riverside drinking culture. However, a week in and I started to wonder – WTF!
The summer didn’t disappoint, but the living quarters at the summer school certainly did. At first I had no qualms about my summer school residence. I knew from the offset that as a live-in teacher that summer I would be staying in what would have otherwise been the students’ accommodation – essentially a studio (minus kitchen area) with basic furniture and a wifi connection. I could easily live with that for a couple of weeks. But after almost five hours of driving from Northern England to Twickenham before humping my baggage into my dorm in the sweltering heat, I was told after the initial group induction lecture with the rest of the summer school team, that I would have to move to different accommodation to make room for the first cohort of students that were moving in.
I really didn’t fancy repacking all of my luggage, humping it across the campus and unloading it into another room – I mean it was really hot and I really just wanted to settle down and maybe have a beer or two on the grounds with the rest of the team and get to know who I would be working with. But when I finally did move into my new quarters, I wasn’t happy. I mean, I really, really wasn’t happy!
The original set up for the sleeping arrangements involved the students and House Parents’ (these were the younger members of the team who were responsible for ensuring the students got to bed early and didn’t wreak havoc during the night) living in one section of dorms, whilst the teachers were all housed in another section of dorms away from all the adolescents and teenagers who they would be teaching during the day. And this of course made perfect sense. As a teacher of any sort working with 11 to 17 year olds, you would expect to command some degree of respect from your learners and be in a position of authority. Having studied to a degree level and [in my case at least] established your academic credentials in post-graduate education to a level where you are professionally on a par (although not in your wages) with a solicitor or a doctor and have enough professional kudos to be trusted enough to sign the back of someone’s passport photo in order to satisfactorily establish their identity for the state, you would expect at least some kind of respect from your employers. Furthermore, being the wrong side of 40 (and I wasn’t the oldest by a long shot) you would naturally expect to be afforded the dignity of being able to leave your room in the middle of the night to go and take a piss without passing the kids you are teaching on the corridor. Because let’s face it, that boundary of respect is somehow diluted if those kids get to see you in your underwear when you’re coming out of the shower or on your way to the toilet in the middle of the night. Well the summer school senior manager (she was new to the job apparently) – who was a damn sight younger than me and the other teacher who was on my corridor who was easily in his 50’s – obviously didn’t see it this way. So we had the indignity of continually passing groups of South American and Spanish kids – many of whom we were teaching – every time we needed to have a wash or purge our bodies of digestive waste. Furthermore, the rooms were as old as the original foundations of the college, and swelteringly hot. I wasn’t best pleased. Even less so when I found out that the 19 and 20-year-old graduates who were employed as Activity Leaders were living in the private en-suite dorms that I’d been moved from.
I spoke to the operations manager of the school about this (who was also in a private en-suite dorm) and was simply told that I “should” be able to move in a week or possibly two. I’m a cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face kind of guy when it comes to matters of personal respect, and I’d decided that if it did extend to two weeks that I’d be laying down an ultimatum of dignity and fucking off home. Particularly as the reason for us getting this shit accommodation was down to the fact that the company were making room for a massive influx of students in that first week – basically, they weren’t going to turn down the opportunity to make more money just to keep the teachers happy. I wasn’t getting paid enough to share my English knowledge with a bunch of kids from wealthy families, as well as my underwear collection and the swell of my man bulge too, fuck that. But sense prevailed within the management team of LAL and me and the other teachers were moved to more appropriate accommodation within a week.
The first thing that all the summer school staff did when first arriving at St. Mary’s that year was sign our contracts and receive our I.D. cards and company clothing – polo shirts, sweatshirt, raincoats and shorts for some. We had all agreed to the cursory terms and conditions of employment as explained upon accepting employment for the summer, and naturally those of us who were living-in (some who had come from overseas) had all made provision for our two to eight week stint working at the summer school. So after packing my stuff in the boot of my car and driving the 200 plus miles to the most southern part of London – at some considerable fuel cost I should add (British petrol prices are pretty damn high) – when I arrived and saw a section of the contract that waivered my right to the working time directive which limits your working hours to 48 a week, I wasn’t too pleased. I mean, what was I going to do? Turn around and say “Nah, I’m not going to agree to working an indefinite amount of hours for a measly £395 per week” and drive back home? I’d be down about £150 in fuel costs and searching for another job when I got back. So I signed in the hope that the company was only ever going to invoke this clause in the contract on the odd occasion when time and staff were stretched. This was not the case, and I don’t think that omitting to mention this section of the contract during the Skype interview process was an accident.
It turned out that, with classes starting at 9.15am and all teachers expected to report to the ‘teachers room’ at 8.45am, an hour’s lunch break at around 12.30pm (unless you had canteen queue-monitoring duty, which cut your lunch time in half) followed by a rota of excursion duties or supporting activities that went on until 9pm with a dinner slot in between (unless you were out on an excursion, in which case you had to make do with the sparsest of sparse packed lunches and the lamest of lame BBQ buffets upon return), we ended up doing somewhere in the region of 50 – 55 hours of what was supposed to be a 40 hr week! When I and another teacher did the maths, after tax, we were working for something close to minimum wage! This stuck in my craw. It really did. But I was there, and being there, there was much to enjoy.
Creating a good dynamic between a group of strangers who are all working together and come from different backgrounds, different cities and even different countries – and whose ages ranged between 19 and around 50 – is not easy. I don’t think that the LAL recruitment staff achieved this, we did. The operations manager said that the year before was very different and there were a lot of tensions between staff. Our eclectic group had just by chance made a great team and I’m glad we did. I honestly can’t say that their was a man, woman or teenager amongst the group that I didn’t warm to in some way. We all just somehow gelled.
Between the young guys and girls who were Activity Managers, House Parents and Transport Coordinators, to the wildly diverse range of EFL teachers with their variety of different teaching experiences, the summer school team that year had a really good rapport. We got together pretty much every night at ‘the benches’, drank, snacked, laughed and shared various tales of the day’s activities and fuck ups, past experiences, future plans and aspirations, and it was great fun. Despite the long hours, the shit resources and the shit canteen food – which had gone from being half decent to barely edible – there was a real camaraderie between the group that carried us through. The combination of youthful enthusiasm and professional naivety of the younger post-graduate workers (they never really complained because they didn’t really know any better) and the life experience and wit of the teachers – young and old – really made a great dynamic. When you add to that the fact that the students – Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish, Italian, Brazilian, Argentine, Chilean, German, Turkish, Saudi – were all so sweet and delightfully full of character and charm, we were all more or less happy to be exploited whilst ‘the company’ turned over £1 to £2 million over the course of the summer (there was an average of around 200 students every week, for 8 weeks paying between £600 and £800 per head). I was probably the most cynical of the lot of us and even I didn’t bitch too much. Well maybe a little, but not too much.
By week 4 most people were moving on to the next adventure in their professional lives. Those who came to fill the gaps in the second half of the summer were mostly good people too (apart from one guy – Paul – who was universally considered to be an absolute cock). But after six weeks I was glad to get back to my comfortable home and my comfortable bed. But I was going to miss the effusive energy of what I left behind. Not enough to accept an offer of another two weeks work mind you! I’d had enough. I was exhausted – and I couldn’t shake the idea that, in real terms, I was only getting paid around £6 per hour – but mainly I just missed the settled comforts and stability of ‘home’. Something you hanker for as you get older.
For any parents reading this and considering sending their young ones to a language summer school, don’t take the educational side of it too seriously. Quite frankly – from my experience at least – that part is bollocks. Irrespective of whether that school is accredited by the British Council or any other respected authority, if my summer school experience is anything to go by, it is fun first whilst the ‘academic’ side is really just an add-on. Don’t get me wrong, I would recommend it as an experience for any young person – I was envious of those young boys and girls who got the opportunity to forge friendships and lifelong memories with other young people from other parts of the world whilst seeing the sights of a city in another country. And speaking professionally, the immersive experience of being in an English or any other language environment is invaluable for learning that language. But don’t praise the company too much. The success of those schools is all down to the underpaid staff and their youthful enthusiasm (irrespective of their actual age) for teaching and their commitment to ensuring the young people enjoy themselves. Whilst the executives, directors and CEO’s of the large, lucrative, language schools will take the corporate accolades and the bulk of the financial profits for what is achieved, it is the workers on the ground that really make it happen for your children. Don’t ever forget that. And if you do decide to take time out to express your appreciation and thanks for the wonderful experience had by little Selina, Oleg, Nacho, Cristina, Michele, Ivan, Ilia, Anna, Bruno, Laura, Luca, Stefano, Khrystyna, Julia, Betel, Abdul etc – then ask your child first who helped make that experience so enjoyable and ensure that you direct your thanks to those individuals by name. The best people in this world are those who serve for the love of what they do, not for the money.
So, it’s been a while since I put fingertips to keypad and aired my thoughts into the ‘blogosphere’. As the time between my last and my next posting lengthened, finding the inspiration to write something worthy of a ten minute read that didn’t require an effort of concentration on my part has been difficult. But here I am, sat on a Ryanair flight to Budapest and the most unlikely of things have spurred me into action. The menu card. Well not the menu card itself, but the copy accompanying the advertised ‘gourmet’ hot coffee they have for sale at €3.00 a pop.
I could probably go into an intellectual examination of the exaggerated claims (lies) that advertisers and traders get away with to peddle their products, but if you can read then I’m sure you’re intelligent enough to be aware of that obvious fact. But every now and then you see something that makes you think ‘Aw cmon, please!’ My ‘cmon, please’ moment was the copy describing the Lavazza coffee. The ‘gourmet’ Lavazza coffee. A budget airline coffee that comes with a ‘unique’ lid that means that your coffee comes ‘freshly brewed just for you’. Wow! I have to have one of those.
Well check that out people – the SUPRLID. Aren’t you blown away? I want to ask the air stewardess if this amazing and unique piece of technical engineering – a lid with a piece of gauze and a raised edge – was developed by NASA. I was so excited by the idea that I was using the same space age hardware used by astronauts. I was even more excited by the idea that Ryanair had created my personal profile based on the information given when buying my flight ticket and brewed a fresh coffee just for me. Not for anyone, no, just for me. Awesome. Totally awesome. I mean, how do they manage to brew a coffee specifically for me? These guys at Ryanair must be like, wizards or something.
I didn’t get to ask the air stewardess if the SUPRLID was developed by NASA or if it was used by astronauts. I didn’t find out how Ryanair collated information to make personal profiles of its passengers in order to provide us with bespoke hot beverages either. My daughter wouldn’t let me ask – she pleaded with me not to ask actually. However, I must admit that the coffee was quite tasty. It was by no means a great coffee, but it wasn’t the usual warm brown dishwater that’s usually served up on a plane either. I’m not sure that the ‘brewed just for you’ crew at Ryanair got it quite right with my personal profiling as it would have tasted more like a milky frothed up Douwe Egberts with demerara sugar, but if I was on a space mission for six months, living on food from a tube, then it would have tasted pretty damn good.
NO CHILDREN OR AIR STEWARDS WERE HARMED DURING THE WRITING OF THIS POSTING. ALL THE SARCASM CONTAINED HEREIN WAS WRITTEN BY A PROFESSIONAL AND SHOULD NOT BE COPIED AT HOME.
Earlier this month a judge awarded damages to the Parr family in Texas amounting to almost $3million for losses on property value, physical pain, mental anguish and suffering due to the effects of pollution caused by fracking near their home. The jury returned a verdict saying Aruba Petroleum Inc. “intentionally created a private nuisance” resulting in the Parr family suffering from symptoms including chronic nose bleeding, irregular heartbeats, muscle spasms and open sores due to the environmental effects of this controversial gas mining process. Aruba are the first company in the US to be found guilty of charges due to pollution caused of fracking.
Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) involves drilling horizontally deep under the earth and injecting fluid at high pressure to fracture shale rocks and release natural gases. This gas is then used as fuel for energy. It is considered by many to be extremely harmful to the surrounding environment and has divided opinion across the world as to its viability as a safe method of mining for fuel. Ten countries including Spain, France, Germany and South Africa have already banned this controversial mining process over concerns about pollution and the environmental risks. It’s believed by many that fracking can pollute water, release dangerous methane gases that damage the ozone layer and even cause earthquakes. The landmark verdict in Texas indicates that many of these claims are actually true, but what are the fracking facts?
- Around 600 toxic chemicals are used in the fluid used for fracking, including uranium, radium, hydrochloric acid, mercury, lead, formaldehyde and even bizarre substances like instant coffee and walnut shells.
- It takes around 1-8 million gallons of water to complete each fracking job and each gas well needs an average of 400 tanker trucks to carry all the water and supplies to and from the site. This produces about300,000 barrels of natural gas a day.
- There are around 500,000 active gas wells in the US that use in total around 72 trillion gallons of water and 360 billion gallons of chemicals in the fracking process and only 30-50% of the fracturing fluid is recovered. The rest of the toxic fluid is left in the ground and is not biodegradable.
- Canadian mining companies do not disclose all of the chemicals used for fracking or their quantities. Most oil and gas wells in Canada don’t have to go through an individual environmental assessment process or disclose any information about the chemicals they use on the Canadian National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI). This means that the companies themselves decide what information they want to release about what’s in their fracking fluid, despite the fact that tests have shown that many of the chemicals they use are known to cause serious health problems such as cancer or organ damage.
- In British Columbia, the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, who are the organisation responsible for promoting oil and gas development, are also the organisation that regulate fracking. Contamination of fracking fluids from one well to another have been reported in British Columbia and there are well-documented cases of water contamination caused by fracking in several countries around the world.
- A 2011 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirmed a clear link between fracking and water contamination and there have been over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination next to areas where companies have used the fracking process to drill for gas. This contaminated water is usually used for drinking water in nearby cities and towns.
- In Pennsylvania, USA, there has been a rapid development of the Marcellus shale site, which it’s estimated could produce 500 trillion cubic feet of gas. It’s believed that’s enough to power all American homes for another 50 years.
- In 2010 Pennsylvania officials fined Chesapeake Energy $1 million for contaminating water supplies in Bradford County. Because the company had not properly cemented its drilling boreholes, methane gas escaped from the well and contaminated the water of 16 families.
- Between 2009 and 2011 there have been a series of surface spills of toxic fracking fluids and two blowouts at wells operated by Chesapeake Energy and EOG Resources. There was also a spill of 8000 gallons of fracking fluid at a site in Dimock, Pa., which contaminated groundwater in the Marcellus Shale region.
- Supporters of fracking claim that it is a proven gas extraction method that has been used for decades. However, according to Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, a hydraulic fracturing expert from Cornell University, mining companies have had less than 10 years experience of using the fracking method on a large scale.
- Robert Mair, a Professor of Geotechnical Engineering at the University of Cambridge chaired a committee to analyse the environmental, health and safety risks of fracking in Britain. He concluded that it should only take place at depths of several kilometres. At present the fracking in Britain has been at depths of 1.06 miles (1.7km) and 1.93 miles (3.1km), which would make water contamination “unlikely”. This risk could be increased by poorly constructed and badly regulated wells, an area in which Britain has an excellent record. However, Professor Mair recommends that methane emissions and groundwater composition should be monitored at potential sites before any fracking takes place.
- Rex Tillerson is the CEO of ExxonMobil who are the biggest natural gas producer in the US and heavily rely on fracking to extract it. It’s his job to promote fracking and fight regulations preventing mining. However, when a fracking project was proposed near Tillerson’s $5 million Texas home, he joined a lawsuit to block its construction with the damaging consequences of fracking cited as one of the main concerns.
- The coalition government in the UK have offered tax breaks to councils who allow fracking projects to go ahead. However, Michael Jones, the leader of Cheshire East council, which is the same constituency of coalition chancellor George Osborne, opposes the use of fracking, stating: “Fracking may well be a useful technology for other areas and good luck to them if it is, however the people of Cheshire East have our assurance that there won’t be any in our borough.” Meanwhile Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to push through legislation to change anti trespass laws so that fracking firms can drill underneath private land without the owners’ permission.
- Peaceful protests against fracking at the Barton Moss site in Salford, England have resulted in violent assaults against the protestors by the police. One police officer at the site was caught on camera lying to fabricate the false arrest of a man who was documenting the events taking place. The violence used by the police prompted Bez, the maraca shaking dancer of The Happy Mondays to run for mayor of Salford; stating “I got sent to prison for being accused of doing that sh*t. Three grown men battering a woman on the floor…I’m in shock.”
- The Daily Mail reported details of the arrests of 82 protestors at the Barton Moss site in Salford, in England earlier this year, with police accusing protestors of offences ranging from ‘assault, damage, harassment of residents and workers, a flare fired at the police helicopter and threats to kill’. However, what the popular press have not reported on is the fact that no successful convictions have resulted from these arrests, despite policing and court costs costing the UK taxpayer almost £1,000,000 so far. However, the independent newspaper The Salford Star has documented the events surrounding the Barton Moss fracking protests and reported that five of those cases have already been dismissed by judges in courts in Manchester. In summing up one case the judge said that he found the absence in court of key officers involved “astonishing”.
As the fracking debate continues one fact remains certain, our society needs energy and there are alternatives that are scientifically viable. There are a number of renewable energy sources that are in use today. The most familiar ones are solar power, which generates energy from the sun, wind turbines that harvest power from the wind, wave and tidal power that generate energy from the sea, and hydroelectricity that draws energy from the gravitational force of flowing water. Other lesser known alternatives include geothermal energy which is generated from natural heat within the earth itself and cold fusion which generates energy from non-toxic and radiation-free nuclear reactions. Biomass energy uses biodegradable rubbish and burns it as fuel and also uses plant matter to generate electricity. The sunlight captured by plants is transformed into chemical energy and then converted into electricity, heat, or liquid fuels.
Aside from all these alternative energies we also have the technology to build energy efficient homes and buildings. Buildings that not only save energy, but also produce energy. So with all these alternatives to pursuing environmentally damaging mining processes and burning toxic fossil fuels, any sane man would wonder why more isn’t done to develop these alternative methods of energy production. Well the answer is simple – money. The motivation for investing in the pursuit of these alternatives is anchored to the noose of capitalism.
Whilst the capitalist imperative continues to be the voracious pursuit of wealth for individual, selfish gain, energy will always be coveted as an economic advantage and a source of control for the nation or corporation that has it. Yes it would make much more sense if governments and corporations and all of those greedy corporate psychopaths, oligarchs and megalomaniacs dipped into their Swiss bank accounts and threw all their financial resources at environmentally viable energy solutions with the same enthusiasm shown for funding commercially viable projects like an Olympics or World Cup. It would make more sense than spending billions on military equipment to go and murder hundreds of thousands of people in wars for the control of oil and gas in countries in the Middle East. It would make more sense than exploiting the natural resources and environmental beauty of South East Asia, Africa and South America and brokering deals that circumnavigate all the wealth from those countries into the pockets of a small, undeserving minority, whilst subjecting the poor of those countries to lives of impoverished degradation. It would make more sense, it just wouldn’t be financially viable for that small percentage of people in the world that have all the wealth but none of the ethics. Meanwhile, whilst those people pursue the best way to become even more wealthy from sucking OUR planet dry, we continue to fret about how we are going to pay them for it. If this doesn’t make us mad then we’re already crazy, so could the last person to leave the asylum please turn the lights out.