You can find out more about his work on Nick Bostrom’s website.
You can find out more about his work on Nick Bostrom’s website.
We all know that giving to charity is a good idea. You may genuinely care, you may wish to remove some guilt and hope to improve your karma, or perhaps it now seems, you may just want people to you leave alone.
In the last few years there has been a dramatic increase in the call for donations and aid to the extent where frankly it’s time to put a stop to it, and it’s edging dangerously into our personal autonomy. You can’t walk down the street without some overly excited 20-something student come bounding up to you with some poor introduction about why they want to talk, or turn on a TV without being faced with images of starving children or dancing bears that put you off your food or hurt your senses. It’s everywhere and it’s endless.
I appreciate that the idea behind these adverts is to have exactly the effect I’m talking about, and the hope is people will feel bullied, I’m sorry, encouraged into giving, but there comes a line where it has gone too far. In fact, this line is so fundamental and important, it’s governed by law.
The law states the no man (or woman) will be guilty for an omission, save for special circumstances. These circumstances include relationships of responsibilities such as parent and child and similar alternatives, but on the whole, not TV-viewer and charity organisation. On face value it seems a cruel rule, and very anti-social – to have no legal duty to help your neighbours and friends – but the reasoning behind it is understandable. It’s a floodgates problem. You make someone liable for one person and without a logical reasoning for why it is just that one person, suddenly they are liable to everyone in the world. Where is the line to be drawn?
The law does not feel there is a need to make a legal obligation, regardless to the fact it would be near practically impossible, because society works well when we feel morally obligated. We help our friends and neighbours because we can and it’s a nice thing to do, but somewhere along the line the charities started taking advantage of this. The activity of those high street volunteers we all try desperately to not make eye contact with has been called ‘chugging’ – charity mugging. It has now gone too far and started to step into our personal living.
The worse thing about it all is that the charities that are trying to get us to give money are going about it the wrong way. The people of Britain do give donations, billions in fact. The problem is not that we aren’t giving; it’s where it’s going. Some years more money is going to animal charities than to children organisations. Perhaps this should be addressed and a solution found here, instead of simply asking for more money.
My issue is not charities asking for money, or even necessarily the guilt trip that I’ve failed to avoid, even though I donate each month myself to Cancer Research and volunteer in a help centre each week. My problem is that when you have seen the same advert so much you change channels, or when you purposely take a different route to college to avoid being harassed by people asking you to give them you card details, it’s gone too far and the situation needs to be evaluated and reigned in.
Christmas makes people irrational. It is the one time of the year when people suddenly discover an urgent need to visit all their long-lost (probably long-hated) relatives; use of credit cards goes into overdrive; and it becomes acceptable to bandy about clichés such as “the spirit of giving” even as we are mentally compiling our wish lists and plotting ways to ensure that we are paired with someone more thoughtful and generous at Secret Santa than last year.
Yet even as many people forget or ignore the religious purpose of Christmas, they still seem to search for some kind of deeper, ‘real’ meaning of 25th December. As spending a day or two with the whole family becomes ever more tiring, the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas is moving away from the ‘family’ theme towards the idea of ‘giving to charity’.
Charity Christmas cards are therefore becoming ever more popular among the British public. The concept is appealing: you combine the unavoidable task of sending out cards to all your relatives, friends and acquaintances with the soul-warming act of donating to charity. Moreover, charity Christmas cards are a very public way of doing so; each recipient will be able to see, on the back of the card, that you have been a Good Citizen who has carefully chosen to transcend the commercialisation of Christmas by using the opportunity to donate to charity. Even if you have always walked past Oxfam and the Red Cross or ignored those annoying pamphleteers on Cornmarket Street, Christmas seems like a good time to give something back to society.
The sad point is, charity Christmas cards actually give very little back to society. Some would argue that buying them is a waste of time. A recent report by the Charity Advisory Trust found that the highest amount that charities can hope to receive from sales of Christmas cards is between a fifth and a quarter of the selling price on the high street. Considering that an average pack of charity Christmas cards costs £5, that is only between £1-£1.25 which goes to charity. For a good that is marketed almost entirely on its moral and social appeal, this is a pathetic amount. [Editor’s note: The Charity Advisory Trust encourages people to buy Christmas cards from organisations specifically dealing in charity cards like Card Aid, an organisation they run that gives 40-60% to charity from each card costs and all of the profit.]
Yet the most shocking finding of the report was that more than two thirds of charity card retailers give less than 5% to charity, and more than one quarter give less than 2%. This would be 25p and 10p per a £5 pack of cards respectively. The trend is particularly worrying among online retailers: the company CCA Occasions donates only 1.1% of the total cost of their cards to charity. Surely it would make more sense for people to give directly to the charity, rather than waste money on overpriced charity cards which do not actually fulfil their advertised purpose of supporting charities? Moreover, some retailers try to enhance the appeal of their Christmas cards by crowding the packaging with logos of various charities to give the impression that your purchase will support a huge range of charities; but all this means is that each individual charity gets an even more pitiful share of the small fraction of the money you spend.
So this Christmas, be a Scrooge about charity Christmas cards. Don’t waste your money on overpriced cards because you want to feel better about yourself or show off to all your acquaintances. Get normal, cheap cards (if you must get any at all) and donate a fiver directly to charity. That really would be in the ‘true spirit of Christmas’.
When driving down the M1, we’re known just as ‘THE NORTH’: a definition of a different part of the country, a different place entirely and somewhere where we say ‘bath’ and ‘scone’ just a bit differently. But after spending eight weeks in Oxford, having left the equally culturally sophisticated Manchester, I’m forced to take a perspective on my new-fangled southernness. What makes me a northerner? What makes you a southerner? Are we really that different?
My friends gave me one warning before I came up to Oxford: ‘don’t become a southern fairy’. When I’m living up north my accent is apparently posh, whereas in Oxford I’m told that I sound ‘well northern’. Should I ever want to lose my northern accent? Does being branded a northerner make me any different to anyone else here? I mean, we’re an obvious minority, but are we any different to you southerners?
I mean sure, you guys might drink wine by the glass, whereas the typical drink up north is the cheapest cider you can find. Pennying down here, we call ‘saving the queen’. We all have our fair share of lovely accents, senses of humour and ‘interesting’ people (Geordie Shore and The Only Way is Essex highlight these awkward social stereotypes). But then whilst we do have more rain up north, we’re also the home of Greggs (the bus journey to nearest branch in Abingdon gets more tempting as each week passes).
Of course these are stereotypes at their worse. Most southerners aren’t posh, stuck-up types and, of course, most people from the ‘bleak north’ aren’t completely unsophisticated and uneducated.
At this point some readers may note the emphasis on the word: ‘most’. There are of course differences between us, but my time in Oxford has proven that these aren’t as huge as first thought. I don’t think I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s treated me differently because I’m a northerner. Everyone has been hugely friendly and welcome, and although I have met people who don’t know who Peter Kay is (how this is the case, I don’t know), most people haven’t responded to me as a member of some kind of alien race. Perhaps the whole ‘north/south divide‘ doesn’t really exist, but is just a perpetuation of stereotypes.
I certainly don’t feel like I’m turning southern. I still miss certain accents, senses of humour and possibly even the rain. The water you have down here tastes funny and I’m pretty sure that cafés charge around 547 times more down south than in the north. But I’m a medic, so you still have 6 years to convert me into a southern fairy. Perhaps you’ll convert this northern lad into a proper southerner by the end of my time here.
I know that as I go back home for Christmas, I’ll return to my friends highlighting to what degree I’ve become a southern fairy. I kind of hope that they don’t think I’ve changed all that much. I hope that I’m still the normal guy they all know. I do wonder whether, eventually during my time down south, I’ll change for the good, or for the bad. Perhaps over the next year I’ll find out, but all I know is that in a few days I’ll leave the Oxford southern bubble for a while, to return in January as a renewed northerner, and for the process of becoming a southern fairy to begin again.
Try to name the current coalition front bench. Better still, do your best impressions of a few ministers and see if anyone can guess them. Go on, have a go at ‘doing an Andrew Lansley’. No? Well, it hasn’t always been like this. Our politicians used to be interesting. Lord David Owen was one of them.
David Owen belongs to that generation of politicians who were around in that fuzzy period after the war but before us. Some of you may have heard of him, a few might even know the rough outlines of his career, but, sadly, to most, he is just another irrelevant historical figure – one of those odd characters who crop up in textbooks and documentaries, but are strangely still alive. Most of these people are too old to do anything newsworthy, but not only is Lord Owen still very much involved in politics, he is no less charismatic now than he was at the zenith of his career.
The former Foreign Secretary tore up British politics in the early 80’s, as one of the ‘Gang of Four’ who left Labour to create the Social Democratic Party (later merging with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats). An instinctive iconoclast, his bravado and self-assurance were legendary; the satirical show Spitting Image once imagined him leaving the SDP to form the David Owen Party for all those who support Social Davidowenism. He went on play a controversial role in the peace negotiations between the warring sides in the Former Yugoslavia and now serves as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords.
And he hasn’t mellowed with age. During the BBC election coverage last year, a short interview with him conducted by Jeremy Paxman provided the most acerbic two minutes of the entire broadcast (a taster: “you must think I’m an idiot to ask me that question”). Last week, during a visit to the Oxford Union, in between charming the Bursar and upbraiding his fellow speaker for their naïveté, he took some time out to share the fruits of his vast experience. Evidently still passionate about politics and equally enthusiastic in pointing out exactly where the current crop of ministers are going wrong, the past master at ad hominem now speaks the truth to the man. The easiest man in politics to caricature is now the one providing caricatures of our leaders.
Lord Owen, reclining in a suitably old-looking chair, looking rather like a caricature of himself and surrounded on all sides by ancient tomes, stares purposefully into the middle distance and launches into his analysis of contemporary politics. The travails of his progeny, the Lib Dems, and in particular of the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, are never far from his mind. Clegg “needs to have the backing of a full government department. He’s not well briefed, he doesn’t understand many of these issues and he needs more support. He needs a big department – where there are economists and lawyers – so when he goes into meetings with Cameron, he is as well-briefed as him.” Owen is clearly still in the loop: the Constitution Unit, a respected think-tank, subsequently published a study which argued that the deputy prime minister’s office is indeed ineffective, under-resourced and over-stretched.
Praise does not come naturally to Lord Owen; heavy-handed criticism and scathing condemnation slip off the tongue far more easily. Clegg may escape his wrath, but there is no shortage of alternative targets. First on the list: the House of Lords. “An awful place” according to Lord Owen. “It was better in the old days, when we had hereditary peers. We now have a patronage House of Lords par excellence, even Lloyd George would blush. Blair packed with his people, you can see them there – that person was a friend, that person paid a cheque – and now Cameron and the Lib Dems are doing the same”.
David Cameron recurs often during our conversation. While justly bemoaning the “endless presentism” of modern-day politicians, he rather loses track of his point as soon as he mentions the prime minister’s name. “If you’re prime minister, you don’t go on interviews every day…He’s just like Blair: constant comments. If he wants to last as a politician, he will ration these things…He’s got to learn pretty fast”. The subsequent brief pause in the conversation represents an invitation to offer a separate, entirely unrelated, critique: “He behaved very badly to Clegg. Allowing the ‘No to AV campaign’ to make such a personal attack on him was not fair. Of course he could have stopped it.”
The policies, no less than the personalities, of the current government are ruthlessly dissected. Before his stellar career as a politician, Lord Owen was Dr. Owen. He thus feels particularly strongly about the coalition’s putative health reforms. Though change is certainly necessary – “there is no status quo for the NHS” – evolution, not revolution, is called for. “Medicine is about the individual relationship between the doctor or nurse and the patient. You can’t organise this on purely commercial principles. Bring in the disciplines of private sector and of good management…go on slowly, making these evolutionary changes. We know what is best practice and what is cost-effective.”
He rejects out of hand the notion that the government’s plans are merely continuing the gradual reforms of the previous government: “This is an absolutely massive piece of legislation. One of the most senior people in the NHS said you can see it from space. It’s far bigger than the 1948 Act which introduced the NHS.” Owen offers a stark vision of what the Health and Social Care Bill could lead to. “It’s a dog’s breakfast. It’s conceptually flawed. I hope it will be withdrawn…The government is stepping away from even providing a comprehensive health service…this is not just about GP consortia, there is a stepping back from very idea of a NHS”. The spectre of Cameron looms again over the conversation. “This man actually convinced us that he did believe in the health service, that he was not going to go on with the Blairite reforms. The effect will be very, very bad. It’s bad politics, bad economics, bad health care. He will have it wrung round his neck.”
Still very much a performer, an orator, a caricature; Lord Owen plays a role brilliantly. There is, though, no detectable element of dogmatism or arrogance within him. He mercifully adapted his interview style to the interviewer (I doubt he would have advised Paxman to “make sure the tape recorder is on”) and was generally even-handed in his appraisals: Cameron is “very intelligent”, Miliband needed to show “more passion and emotion” but had “done very well” and Clegg has been “outflanked by the knowledge and seriousness” of the prime minister. He came across as thoroughly reasonable and decent, but offering a caricature makes for a more interesting article.
Caricaturable politicians make for more interesting politics. Lord Owen hasn’t ruled out a return to front bench politics. The satirists are counting on it.
1. Was going through last week’s paper and saw the pages and pages of election manifestos for OUSU positions. My first reaction was “oh no, not this shit again”. Hundreds of personality-free people running for ‘elusive’ positions such as Common Room Support Office and Student Trustee. Who the hell are these people and don’t they realise that nobody gives a damn? Let me rephrase your question: “Agony Lad”, will you be voting for one shlad against another for a position void of any importance?” Like fuck I am mate. Some may think that this is a strange reaction coming from someone that frequently writes for the student union’s newspaper. I’d beg to differ. I am but a hired assassin of banter who could quite easily cross over to the dark side of the Cherwell at any given moment.
2. Hi, I was just wondering what your view is on this whole OxStu “Wage War” thing for scouts. I can’t read your paper without being bombarded with demands to “JOIN THE WAGE WAR!” As probably the only student journalist I would ever trust, may I ask you: is this a worthy cause or is this simply a case of your newsroom having nothing else to write about? Beloved disciple, the only part of the OxStu I ever read is Agony Lad because it’s fucking funny. The rest of the dross I just ignore, unless of course there are pictures of some fit birds that I’ve no doubt shagged. Those go straight into my scrapbook of conquests. As a result, I’m sorry love but I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. All I know is that my scout is an absolute saint. To clean my room after a night of lash, stash, and gash is a harder job than cleaning up the fallout after Chernobyl. There is a reason why on a night out I go nuclear.
3. So I met this girl at a club two weeks ago. We pulled and I got her number. We’ve met up quite a few times since then and we’ve had sex on a couple of occasions. She is really nice, at least three grades out of my league, and seems really keen on me to boot. The only problem (and I know this going to make me sound like such a dick) but she actually goes to Brookes… I have no idea why, but I can’t help but feel a little bit ashamed about her for this reason. I haven’t even told my friends about her! Am I just being a total intellectual snob and shit lad or is this concern actually justified? In the words of Joe Cocker, “Love lifts us up where we belong.” Love transcends class, race, and intellect. Brookes is another matter entirely. Yes, the bird may be quite hot and really fun to have a night out with in Fuzzy Ducks, but in reality she’s not going to have much to say for herself and your relationship will be based purely on the physical.
Hmm, on second thoughts, it sounds like you’ve got a good thing going on. Bravo mate!
4. My friend is certain that, despite your quite unappealing cartoon illustration, you are actually quite fit. She says she can just tell. Would you be interested in meeting her for a drink at Duke of Cambridge at 7pm on Friday? Her name’s Sophie and if this goes in print then there will be no way she can back out! Haha. Let me know xx Ah, an admirer. I’d be lying if I said your friend was the first unsuspecting girl to get a bit of Agony Lad fever. Before committing to this possible rendezvous, could you just let me know some specifics. Sophie’s hair colour, measurements and chat. Obviously, I understand her chat won’t be great given the fact that she’s a girl, but it would be rude not to ask. Tell her to get in contact with me by emailing 2minutesinheavenarebetterthan1@ agonylad.co.uk to avoid clogging the OxStu inboxes. Women of Oxford take note, this will be my “private” email address for any future correspondence.
1. Hi Agony Lad, it’s the Feature Editors here. We both just wanted to say that it has been great working with you this term. You’re a great guy and really lit up the OxStu offices on weekends with your outrageous banter. Plus associating ourselves with you no doubt made us look cooler in the office! We should try to hang out next term in a non-professional capacity and let’s definitely get that drink sometime- how’s next week for you? I must commend the two of you for coming out of your shells somewhat towards the end of term. On our first fateful meeting I took you both for total banter vacuums- not my kind of lads.
I’ll check my diary for next week. My phone has been playing up recently so maybe best if it’s a don’t-call-me-I’ll-call-you sort of thing.
2. I am an Upper Sixth student and I’ve actually applied to read History and French at New College. Hopefully I’ll be coming up for an interview next month but was wanting to know what I should expect from those few days in Oxford with all the other applicants. Will it be really serious and dry all the time or quite jokes? Also, should I let the interviewers know that I am hoping to play college rugby (I’m in my school’s 1sts) or should I just talk about academic stuff with them? I have the feeling that you could be a future protege of mine mate. After all, one day I will have to hang up my yard glass for the last time. In terms of your interviews, this is perhaps one instance in which you should not be lad. Of course, you must regale your mates after with stories of how the Medieval History tutor was giving you the eyes and asked for your number, but in reality you must, for the interviews at least, give the impression that you give a shit about your academic future and the like.
In terms of the rugger, college rugby is a proper laugh and gives any good lad in Oxford a reason to act like a complete twat under the blanket excuse of it being “rugby banter” or “for the boys”.
3. So what’s going to happen next term? Are you still going to do Agony Lad? If not, I will probably stop reading the OxStu. As you can imagine, I have many options available to me at this point in time. But let’s presume the powers that be at the OxStu come to their senses and award my quality journalism with the position of editor, I propose to do the following:
1. Have an Oxford ‘page 3’ offering the hottest scouts, tutors and library staff bearing all. This will be complete with our ‘model’s’ weekly News Stash– up to the minute accounts of all the latest lad news from around the city.
2. An Agony Lad ‘How to…’ sextion.
3. An Agony Lad ‘whodunnit?’ Every week OxStu‘s top journalists (not including myself-I’ll be too busy, naturally) will hunt down the laddy culprits of vom stains, one night stands, and unnecessary nakedness.
(E.g. Colonel Mustard, the college rugby player, in the college dining room, vomming after seeing off the gravy at formal hall.)
4. Keep the Culture section’s Crafty Cooking feature- yum yum yum.
4. I have to admit that your column is pretty humourous (if very immature and dim-witted). As a college peer supporter, however, I would really appreciate it if in your last edition you could allude to the hard work done by welfare teams around Oxford. Could you let them know that, all joking aside, there are trained people in their colleges to responsibly handle their problems. Would be much appreciated. The expression ‘all joking aside’ has never been a favourite of mine, young apprentice. I totally agree, Welfare teams throughout Oxford should get the credit they deserve and are there to help many an Oxford student.
That being said, these kinds of students are ones with no clear emotional depth or indeed banter. I think it’s admirable that Welfare officers are so good at listening to chat vacuums (chatuums, if you will) and are so accomplished at making a mean cup of tea.
For all other students, I believe that the weekly Agony Lad column provides more than enough well adjusted advice to help the young ladies and gentlemen of Oxford to go about their day to day lives. You do your thing, I do mine.
Agony Lad wishes you all a very festive Christmas holiday.