Archive for March, 2010

Yesterday I had an informal interview to talk about doing an “internship” with a local council’s child protection services team. I have registered here in England as a Qualified Social Worker, which basically required having a bachelor’s degree in social work from a recognized school and at least one year of experience in the field. In the aftermath of the deaths of a few children, the warning signs missed by health professionals and ultimately social services professionals, the country has stepped up the requirements for being called a social worker, as well as added more rigorous specifications for registering with the General Social Care Council, the major professional body for social workers in the United Kingdom.

As is frequently the case in many fields, new workers are passed over in favor of people with experience in the field, and adding on to this my status as an American social worker has resulted in a dearth of job options for me. When I finally realized what was happening, I began to research what I would need to do to put myself in a better position to get a job, and started asking people in the field what graduates of programs in the UK would know after going through their social work coursework. Specific laws came to light, such as the Children Acts and Disability Discrimination Acts, both of which are similar enough to laws or broad ideas already at work in the United States that I feel pretty confident on that front, but another is the Assessment Framework, which is slightly different in most, if not all, of London’s councils. This brings me to the topic of “councils”, and London’s city government, which has confused me since I got here. The UK civic framework work is different to anywhere I’ve ever lived; in the States, there is city government, county government, state government and federal government. Different states have different rules regarding which set of lawmakers trumps which, but the balance between states’ rights vs. federal and what is laid out in the Constitution and its ammendments is the framework overarching all of it.

That is the quick and simple explanation of the US system because that’s all I remember from civics class and exposure to local and national news (including teh interweb, of course). Having been in the UK less than a year, I have less of a grasp on how the government works here but for me, the most striking difference hasn’t been monarchy or parliament but the councils that I mentioned above. From what I understand, anything located inside the M25 is considered Greater London. It is separated into areas known as councils, which, now that I think about it, must be somewhat similar to NYC, which is comprised of five boroughs, and is headed by a city mayor with each borough sub-governed by a president. London is governed by a mayor, Boris “Look I’m One Of You Because I Don’t Fix My Hair” Johnson, and split up into 32 boroughs, run by councils. What confuses me is how none of them seem to have any sort of interconnected, overarching government body to streamline city services (Oh look, I’m wrong. And here’s the LGA, an “advocate for the local government sector in England and Wales”). Some councils have plastic bins for garbage collection, some allow their residents to feed the urban foxes by having them keep garbage bags outside by themselves. Various public service operations in place in different councils also have different systems for determining the levels of need for access to care and no real interconnectedness. I think that this probably contributes to people slipping through the cracks, benefits fraud, child welfare problems, and other issues relating to social service use and funding as well as the problems within the NHS. It’s like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.

And to finally bring me back to my title and main purpose for this post, my days of leisure and crushing boredom are numbered. I am proposing to enter this melee, and hoping to be able to help in the effort to make a difference for the children of one particular patch of London. I am nervous about how I will be received by families, both as a foreigner and as a social services worker. Apparently the UK has a strong history of distrust of social services, the use of which is widely stigmatized. The idea of safeguarding children by watching for signs of abuse or neglect, and also simply assessing children and their families to see what help they may need to enable them to conduct their lives with purpose is noble and interesting, but the difficulties on the ground for workers seems exaggerated here by high levels of paperwork required by social workers, that don’t seem to be all that helpful in and of themselves. Streamlining services, allowing various agencies and areas of government to better communicate with one another, all these things have always interested me a great deal. Maybe I’ll end up in policy, where I always thought I might.

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photo courtesy of the London Cycling Campaign

As a cyclist, knowing the dangers of the road is paramount. Governments spend much more time and money into making sure drivers are knowledgeable about the rules of the road than any other group of road users, but I’m starting to wonder if there ought to be some sort of similar mandatory road training for cyclists as well. I can see this being roundly criticized by most cyclists I know, but for instance, I took to the streets of London without being fully aware of the rules for how to navigate roundabouts, X crossings and T junctions, both. Same rules apply to both situations. The person on the right always has the right of way, just like at a four-way stop sign junction in the States.

Where things get really dangerous, inconsiderate or even seemingly homicidally-inclined drivers aside, is with heavy goods vehicles, or HGVs. Dump trucks (skips, in the UK), moving vans, lorries, 12- and 14-wheelers, whatever you call them, are the vehicles most likely to be involved in a fatal accident involving a cyclist in London. By mid-December 2009, 13 cyclists had died in road collisions, 9 of which were the result of collisions with HGVs and 8 of the dead were women. I don’t doubt it’s the case most other places where cyclists are expected to be on the road as well. I make a distinction because in Florida I felt it was completely unsafe to ride in the road because no driver there seems to expect cyclists. I was actually knocked partially off my bicycle by a driver looking left, edging into the cross-walk, when I had the walk signal, because she had the legal right to turn right on red (left on red in countries where vehicles drive on the left) and was not doing her duty by checking for people trying to cross to her right. As a driver, I loved that this was allowed, as it let me get where I wanted to go (seemingly) faster. As a cyclist and a pedestrian, I loathe the added danger to myself and others and think this law should be abolished. It works just fine for London and NYC, so volume of vehicles on the road may not be cited as a reason to keep it in place.

It is also important to remember that many people born and raised in cities like London and NYC have never driven, so may not know the blind spots of a normal-sized car, let alone those of a larger vehicle. Add to that the fact that driver training can be spotty; I was taught that if you can see a tractor trailer’s mirrors, the driver can see you. This might be true on paper, but in practice it is much trickier and, while drivers of these vehicles must be given every opportunity (more mirrors, larger mirrors) to see other road users, and required to be as vigilant as possible, it is equally true that road users need to treat them as the 20-ton potential death-bringers that they are.

As such, Moving Target, a courier zine dedicated to London couriers and cycling info around the UK, has published a diagram showing the blind spots of these vehicles for further safety of cyclists. Blue boxes are the HGV, green areas are visible places, dark green are those less visible and the red areas are blind spots.

Beyond simply remembering to ride on the left side of the road, beyond remembering to stop for pedestrians at zebra crossings (this one still gets me sometimes), beyond roundabouts, I must remember to flip-flop driver side and though asked to ride to the left side of the left lane in England, that it is important to remember driver blind spots are larger on that side, and comprise larger areas for larger vehicles. Be hyper-vigilant when passing to the left unless you know the vehicle can’t turn. Don’t pass to the left when the vehicle is stationary unless you know a) the vehicle cannot turn left, or b) how long the light has been red and how long it has before the vehicle can proceed. Consider obstructions to your path up ahead, such as parked vehicles on the other side of the junction. Always be alert to the possibility that the driver might plan to turn either direction and neglect to use indicators, and pass to the right so as to end up directly in front of the driver, and ensure that he or she has seen you, when stopping at a light.

In driver-on-left-side countries, remember to reverse all “left” and “rights” to follow the fact that the driver is on the left side.

Stay safe, and above all Arrive Alive.

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I have been really interested in trying out British recipes, stuff like cottage pie (it’s not shepherd’s pie unless you use lamb [Gordon Ramsay’s is the best ever]), bread pudding, yorkshire puddings, beef wellington, meat pies, finally getting a pork roast down well, and various offal and “unusual” cuts of meat, like oxtail. After watching some cooking shows and hearing about how good and cheap oxtail is I decided to search for some recipes and make braised oxtail. I don’t remember how I found this recipe. I also don’t know how much one oxtail weighs but I’m going with the 1 kilo I purchased at the butcher’s shop earlier tonight.

Braised Oxtail in Tomato and Red Wine

Take one oxtail, jointed. Brown the pieces well in hot olive oil – remove to an oven-proof casserole. Soften a mirepoix of carrot, celery, onion and garlic in the oil.

De-glaze the pan with a large glass of gutsy red wine (I suggest a decent Rioja), then add to the caserole. Add two tins of chopped tomatoes, bayleaf, thyme and season.

Bring to a gentle simmer, put on the lid and place in a low oven for appx 3 – 4 hours. N.B. It must cook very slowly and gently – I run my electric oven at just over 100C degrees to achieve a tremulous simmer.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool, then flake the meat from the bones and pop back into the sauce. Place in the fridge overnight, which will ripen the flavour, and allow you to skim off hardened fat as you feel necessary the next day.

Warm through when required and dress cooked linguine with the sauce. What’s left of the bottle of Rioja will be a perfect accompaniment.

I’ve also become interested in cooking seasonally, and inspired by the movie Julie and Julia, I kind of like the idea of finding a cookbook of British recipes that will take me through one year’s worth of seasonal cooking. I suspect River Cottage will be my best bet, but my roommate has also mentioned Nigel Slater and I also ran across the magazine Taste Britain, that looks amazing.

It also seems to be quite easy to shop locally here in Britain, there’s a big push to Buy British, and when we’re flipping out about how disgusting the beef industry’s destruction of the Brazilian rain forest is, the fact that you can know that you are buying beef that isn’t shipped overseas, that makes me feel better. G is trying to turn her household slow food/whole food but might not get very far with three young children’s picky appetites to assuage. I fare better with a much more adventurous adult male appetite to deal with.

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