Friday, 31 December 2010

The right note for the New Year

W C Fields told us that ‘anyone who hates dogs and kids can’t be all bad.’ He clearly knew nothing about how very useful they can be in making friendships.

It’s amazing the people you meet through your kids. You can get to know some pretty remarkable individuals at the school gates. And the kids themselves can make some charming friends.

When my sons were at school, they brought home a great many friends. With sometimes painful frequency. In fact, one of the great mysteries of those times was just why it was always the friends who came round to our place, never our sons who went to theirs. An image I shall never forget is that of a brat of a lad, today a charming young adult, waltzing into the kitchen where I was sitting, ignoring me completely and going through our fridge choosing what he felt would make him a suitable (and copious) meal. Later I asked my son ‘why can’t you go around to his place and eat their food from time to time?’, but I never got an answer.

Dogs too are an excellent means to make friends with people. You meet them in the parks walking their owners. The dog's breed is often an excellent starting point for a conversation. In fact, given the characteristics of some of those breeds, you occasionally have to start with a discussion about species.

One person we met through such park expeditions with our respective dogs was our good friend Natasha. She’s Russian though she lives in Strasbourg, as we did at the time.

I hasten to add that Strasbourg is in France: I’m fascinated by the number of people who think that it’s in Germany. One of the issues over which three wars were fought in the space of 75 years was who would own Strasbourg. Please bear in mind that the last of those conflicts, the Second World War, ended in a narrow victory of the Allies over Germany. This should help answer the question ‘is Strasbourg in Germany or France these days?’

One of the saddest aspects of France is its terrifying formality about qualifications and age in the job market. It’s the only country I know where you can study for a diploma in selling pharmaceuticals. Not selling, mind; specifically selling pharmaceuticals.

At the end of the course of study, you’re qualified to sell drugs and nothing else; fail to get a job in that field, and you’re in trouble. Of course, get a job selling the wrong kind of drugs and you may end up in trouble too, but that’s not because of the qualification.

Natasha had been suffering terrible problems finding a job in France. She had reached an age where prospective employers looked on her CV askance, if they looked at it at all. She kept putting a brave face on things, but she was obviously beginning to get depressed.

On one occasion when they met while walking their dogs in the park, my wife Danielle said to her ‘my husband needs bright staff. Why don’t you get a job with him?’

What I needed was a programmer skilled in working with the SQL-Server relational database technology, and Natasha had never heard of SQL-Server. On the other hand, she was intelligent and a qualified mathematician, from the country which had produced most of the best mathematicians around the world for some decades. Given her lack of specific experience, we couldn’t really offer a good salary, but we could at least give her a job on financially miserable terms. That’s an admission I make with nothing but shame, but I feel that at least the arrangement was a lot better than being unemployed, as she would I’m sure be the first to agree.

She didn’t let us down. She taught herself SQL-Server from first principles, rather as though she was setting out to solve an equation that at first looked intractable but in the event turned out to be far too simple for her. Within a couple of years, she was a star whose lustre attracted a company based in Switerland with whom we happened to be working.

One day she came to see me, obviously uncomfortable and embarrassed.

‘What’s the matter?’ I asked her.

‘They’ve offered me a job,’ she told me, ‘and I feel terrible about it. Should I refuse?’

‘How much are they proposing to pay you?’

‘Well, I refused to name a figure so they came up with one.’

She told me their offer. It was twice as much as we were paying her.

I collapsed in laughter at her discomfiture.

‘A 100% increase? And you’re asking me whether you should refuse it?’ I seized her hand and pumped it up and down. ‘Congratulations. Grasp the chance.’

‘But we’re friends...’

‘And so we’ll continue to be. We don’t work for friendship, we work for money, and this is a hell of a sight more than we could offer you. You just have to take it.’

So she went off to the Swiss company, earning a proper salary at last.

At first things went well, though she had to travel to Switzerland rather a lot (many hours away by train). But she’s tough and professional and coped with the stress, and continued to shine. Then, however, the recession hit. Her employers started to make people redundant.

They couldn’t quite bring themselves to let Natasha go. She was too obviously competent, too liked by customers. Instead they just started making small changes that made things increasingly uncomfortable for her: they cut her down to four days work a week, they told her that she would no longer be able to work from Strasbourg but would have to be based at the Swiss office, they kept failing to finalise and send her the contract with the new terms.

In the end, Natasha decided she’d had enough. It was time to look for another job. Even then, in her characteristic way, she took her time and organised things methodically. She built her CV, prepared an application letter, started making lists of advertised jobs for which she might apply, and of companies to approach in case they had a position even though they hadn’t advertised one.

Finally, she was ready. She thought she’d give her approach a trial run. One Sunday morning a couple of months ago, she sent off her CV with a covering letter to one of the companies she’d identified.

‘I felt it was worth giving it a try,’ she told me later, ‘I thought it would be great to get an interview, just for the practice.’

An e-mail turned up from the Managing Director of the company during the afternoon of that same Sunday. She rang.

‘Can you come in to Paris tomorrow?’

If she was after interview practice, she got more than she’d bargained for. After a long and wide-ranging discussion, the MD asked her if she minded meeting the Development Director. Further detailed conversation took place. By the end of their time together, they were asking her to start work the following Monday. Of course, she couldn’t – even with the high-speed trains, Paris and Strasbourg are two and a quarter hours apart, and Natasha has a family (and a dog). But they found a compromise, and she’s been working in the new post for two or three weeks now. It’s early days and far too soon to reach a definitive conclusion, but so far it’s worked out pretty well.

A good story to end one year on, I felt, and start the next in a spirit of hope.

And it all started with a chance meeting between dog-owners walking their pets.

Time to review W C Fields' view. Anyone who thinks dogs and kids do no-one any good can’t be all that well informed.
Happy New Year to you all - what am I saying? - to us all

Thursday, 30 December 2010

A gleam of niceness in the nasty darkness

Its desperately unfair to suggest that the top echelons of the British Conservative Party are inhabited exclusively by figures who make Dr No look like a model of magnanimity and charm.

On the contrary, once in every generation, there appears among leading Tories someone for whom it’s possible to feel admiration and goodwill. Sometimes it even happens twice.

Back in 1988 or 1989, Britain was in the grips of one of the great natural disasters that afflict mankind from time to time. In this particular case, it was the high tide of the Thatcher government. Like every government in this country, it was tinkering with the health service. This is something that happens in country after country, but it feels rather more often here than elsewhere.

Driving such so-called ‘reforms’ is a quest as enduring and as ultimately hopeless as the pursuit of the Holy Grail. Every now and then the government decides that it’s going to improve the quality of healthcare while reducing its costs. This is generally a fond desire of a new government, whatever its party make-up, but even when they’ve been around a while their naturally naivety sometimes re-emerges and they have another go.

The big problem with healthcare is that we are constantly finding new ways of treating all sorts of diseases, usually at colossal new costs. The internet makes sure we all know about them and when we get sick, we naturally insist on them. This means hospitals can treat lots of things much better than in the past, but at much higher cost.

So when governments start getting keen on an exciting new initiative to improve care and control costs, what they really mean is control costs. They never succeed, of course. What happens is that they try to find ‘efficiency savings’ by reducing the numbers of managers, and they achieve that reduction by introducing new structures to run the service. Those structures need managers, and mostly they’re exactly the same managers who just lost their previous jobs.

While the government is making the latest futile effort to control the uncontrollable, it becomes pretty massively unpopular with the National Health Service. The managers who are about to lose staff, or even worse their own jobs, get terribly upset about it, particularly as it’s not always immediately clear that they’re going to get new jobs shortly.

Back then, the Thatcher government was in the throes of another of its periodic health service reforms. The man in charge of seeing them through, the Secretary of State for Health, was as popular among healthcare managers as a paedophile in a primary school. So I was amused to see that he was going to be speaking at a conference of the Institute of Health Services Managers which I was also going to attend.

‘Daniel in a den of lions,’ I thought, ‘this I have to see.’

He was extraordinary. He turned up in his trademark get-up: a crumpled, ill-fitting suit; a shirt that straining to hold in his capacious belly; suede shoes, a particular indulgence of his at the time. Everything about him declared him to be exactly what his reputation suggested: a pleasant, amusing man, more at home with a pint of beer in his hand swapping jokes with his friends in a pub than in any other context. He was clearly likeable and what in Britain we call ‘blokey’.

What wasn’t immediately apparent was the quality of the brain behind his cheerful countenance. And his capacity for intellectual honesty. After his speech, he called for questions from the floor, and took them as they came, free and unfiltered. He even called on the president of the Institute, though she was bound to launch a ferocious attack on his policies. There were many questions to which he didn’t know the answer, but he didn’t reply with bluster or evasion – he simply said he didn’t know, outlined what he thought the answer might be if he had a tentative idea and said he’d get the information.

It was a masterful performance. It completely disarmed the opposition to him – by the end the audience wasn’t exactly eating out of his hand, but it was quietened, listening, prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Quite remarkable.

Who was he? Ken Clarke. Since then, he has been beaten twice in contests for the leadership of the Tory Party – the Nasty Party certainly wasn’t going to have anyone as emollient as Ken as its leader. Even so, they’ve had to learn to live with him, and even the present unappetising bunch had to make him Justice Minister. In which role, he has recently announced that no, he would not be honouring a manifesto commitment to lock up anyone involved in knife crime, on the grounds that there are already more than enough people in our gaols and we should actually be getting a few out rather than adding more to them (only the US imprisons more people than Britain, in that part of the world that likes to think of itself as free). And he’s even dared to speak the truth from which all other politicians slide away, that prison doesn’t, actually, work – if by working we mean reducing the overall level of crime.

Ken Clarke: endearing exception to prove the rule for the Nasty Party
Extraordinary. He impressed me twenty odd years ago, he impresses me still. He’s standing up inside the Conservative Party for values which ultimately can only be described as Liberal. Indeed, within the so-called Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition we have today, he strikes me as the only genuine Liberal in the whole sorry crowd.

You can sometimes find gems hidden in the manure heap. It may be a pretty big heap but, hey, it's encouraging when you occasionally find that gem.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Family gatherings and logistical cock-ups: a Christmas story

Nothing could make me regret the end of the Cold War.

Even so there are iconic images from that time that remain burned into the imagination, to the extent that one looks back on them with something akin to nostalgia. One of these must be a scene that we’ve all watched countless times in innumerable films.

Usually the backdrop is Berlin, at night. A street runs along the side of a waterway. In the background is a box-girder bridge, one end of which is adorned with barbed wire and a watch tower. Along the street are lampposts so widely spaced that they seem to obscure more than they illuminate: between them, there are patches of deep shadow into which any passerby vanishes momentarily before reappearing many seconds later into the next pool of cold light.

The camera briefly focuses on the watchtower where a sniper in the uniform of the East German border guards stares intensely into the Western street, his look somehow contriving to express both malice and boredom. His gun, which we somehow know is a high-velocity rifle equipped with a telescopic sight, is slung over his shoulder. He pauses to strike a match: momentarily the flame lights his face from below making his expression even more sinister. As the camera slides away, his cigarette glows red in the newly-dark guard box.

Down in the street, the silence is broken by the sound of footsteps on the paving stones. A man, carrying a suitcase, leaves one of the pools of light and disappears into shadow. He may have vanished, but his footsteps continue. And suddenly they seem to have provoked an echo – but then we realises that we are hearing no echo, but a second set of steps, irregular and slower, as another man, coincidentally also carrying a suitcase, limps into the camera shot from the opposite direction and disappears in turn into the shadow. The two sets of steps continue until a few moments later, both men reappear into the light, moving away from each other. Each still carries a case. But is each man holding the same case as before? Or have we just witnessed a crucial exchange between agents, right under the noses of the East German guards? Has there been a handover of crucial material? And if so what was that material? Documents? Photographs? Money? Weapons?

Ah, the atmosphere, the excitement, the suspense. It would be a pity to see that kind of scene lost for ever.

Well, I can now reveal that the tradition is continuing despite the end of the Cold War. But instead of Berlin, the venue of the classic scene may be less predictable than it was. And all thanks to another tradition, that of bringing families together for Christmas.

My son Nicky and his girlfriend Nicola, collective noun ‘Nick-Nick’, both live in Madrid. Both were due to fly into Liverpool to join their respective families for the holidays. Nicola’s family lives in Southport, not far from Liverpool, and at the time we made the travel arrangements we lived in Stafford, not that far from the airport. Then, however, we moved to Luton. The idea of a long drive northwards on Christmas Even didn’t appeal to us, so we contacted Nicky and he agreed to fly instead to our local airport. Crucially, as it turned out, his Luton flight was scheduled to leave Madrid at pretty much the same time as Nicola’s to Liverpool.

They turned up at Madrid airport together and handed their bags into the Easyjet desk. Fond goodbyes followed and they boarded their planes. The first intimation that things might not be going right came when Nicky looked out of the window and saw what looked distinctly like Nicola’s case being loaded into his plane. And no sign of his own.

His worst fears were confirmed by the luggage carousel at Luton airport. He had indeed been delivered Nicola’s suitcase, and she had his.

‘No problem,’ I told him, ‘I’d be quite amused to see you in a bra and I’m sure we’d get a lot of pleasure from Nicola’s gifts to her family.’ She had, apparently, bought and lovingly wrapped rather a lot of fine presents.

Nicola sadly took a more jaundiced view of the situation, and showed absolutely no inclination to adopt my relaxed solution. So we resigned ourselves to having to give up on our cherished desire to avoid a long drive on the icy roads. We loaded Nicky and the suitcase into the car and drove the hundred miles or so to a deserted service station on the M6 motorway north of Birmingham.

There, in the fleeting light and shadows of a windswept, icebound car park, at midnight, the exchange took place.

The Nick-Nick handover takes place in the sinister surroundings of Hilton Park Services
It was pure John Le Carré. Two people approach each other, each with a case, two people separate and go their ways, each with a case – but not the same case.

The plot possibilities are endless. However, I’m glad to say that in this instance the outcome was much less exciting, much more banal but a great deal more enjoyable than in most of those classic espionage films. Too much to eat, far too much to drink, excellent company and a pleasant holiday break.

Just the kind of break that I hope anyone reading this enjoyed too. And the kind of pleasurable interlude that I hope will set the tone for us all in 2011.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Words, meaning and train times

Words don’t mean just one thing. They cover an area of meaning, and the meaning is less and less closely associated with the word as you get to the edges where it starts to merge with the meaning of the next word. Somewhere yesterday’s charming young seducer turned into today’s dirty old man, or as I heard a US senator once say, sensuous senior citizen; the art of definition is to draw the line where the transition occurred.

Way back when I was studying all that kind of stuff (the stuff about words, I mean, not the stuff about dirty old men) I was fascinated by an illustration given by Ferdinand de Saussure, regarded as the father of linguistics. Basically, the example goes like this: the 8:05 train is still the 8:05 when it leaves at 8:10, even when it leaves at 8:15, but when it leaves at 8:20, the departure time of the next train, suddenly definition breaks down – we have ambiguity. Which of the trains is the 8:05, which the 8:20?

Ferdinand de Saussure: master of linguistics and of train timetabling?
What Saussure may not have realised, probably because he was Swiss and they handle this kind of thing better than the English, is that all it takes is a bit of snow and you can put this thinking to a practical test.

Yesterday I turned up at Kentish Town station in plenty of time to get the 17:46 home, only to discover that the train company had switched to an emergency timetable. The emergency was that there had been snow two or three days earlier and the rails were still a bit wet. In places. So the 17:46 was done away with, replaced by the 17:49. Which was now due to leave at 17:56. Or, as we were told two minutes later, at 17:58. Or shall we say, four minutes later, at 18:02? At 18:04, they stopped giving an estimated time of departure, and the display changed to the simple message ‘delayed’. At least that was honest.

Underneath it, the display proclaimed that the 18:19 was running on time. At 18:10, I began to wonder whether I was finally, thirty years on, going to experience a Saussure moment. At 18:15, the 17:49 pulled into the station.

Note the linguistic analogy: we’re getting close to the borderline where meanings merge, but there’s still no ambiguity. On a more pragmatic note, we could also tell, by using our eyes, that it was packed like a sardine can, containing not only the passengers for the 17:49 but also those for the cancelled 17:19. Not sure what Saussure would have made of that one. With no Japanese rail employees to push us into the carriages, I simply couldn’t board the train.

Then, oh height of Schadenfreude, a voice came over the public address system inside the train. ‘This is your driver speaking. This pile of shit just won’t get above a snail’s pace. I’m taking a couple of minutes to take a look at it to see if I can’t knock some sense into its sorry brain.’ I think he may have used different words, but you get the drift.

Those of us stuck on the platform tried to hide our smirks at satisfaction looking at the mass of humanity crammed inside the carriages. But we didn’t try too hard.

Then came the blessed voice of the public address system on the platform. ‘Passengers waiting for the 18:19 train should cross to platform 3 where it is about to come into the station.’ It wasn’t as claustrophobically packed as the other one had been, so with cries of glee we poured aboard, making it just as horribly uncomfortable.

And that was it! Pure Saussurian ambiguity. Both trains were in the station at the same time. So which was which? The passengers in each train curiously and narrowly observed the passengers on the other. Would we demote the 17:49 to 18:19 and take its place? Suspense never gets sharper than this. You see how exciting railway commuting can be?

You want to know the outcome? It could hardly avoid being an anti-climax after that build-up, but, since you ask, the 17:49 did indeed leave first, respecting the rules of definition. However, the driver hadn’t managed to fix it, so we crawled along behind it. Breathing down its neck, I like to think.

Monday, 20 December 2010

The significance of distress in signs

Signs can be so significant, can’t they?

A hospital I visited recently has a café area in which there stands a quarter-grand piano. And on it is a sign inviting staff to play it, as long as ‘they do not distress other café users.’

Interesting that only staff are trusted to play without causing distress. Visitors are presumably suspect types to be handled with courtesy but scepticism.

In any case, it’s the word ‘distress’ that struck me as significant. The problem isn’t one of disturbing people, or even irritating them, but of causing them far worse discomfort still.

As it happens, the distress caused by piano playing is something with which I’m well acquainted. I played the piano for 30 years. Gosh, I was assiduous. At certain times anyway. At several stages of my life, I would frequently practice for an hour or more four or five days a week. In my late thirties, I even signed up for lessons. All to absolutely no avail. By the time I reached my forties, I was still struggling to master pieces that I’d begun to work on in my teens.

I had a limited but excitingly varied repertoire. Some Beethoven sonatas, a little Bach, bits of Scott Joplin (yes, yes, The Entertainer, of course), a little Satie, some Chopin waltzes, odd bits of Schubert. When I started playing, people were generally charmed. But after about half an hour, they were beginning to think ‘don’t you know anything else?’ If I persisted, they’d actually say it.

The worst of it was that I always made pretty much the same number of errors, just not in the same places. I couldn’t get them out of my playing however hard I tried. I’d faultlessly negotiate a bar that had always proved tricky in the past, only to make a mess of the next one that had never previously presented any kind of problem. I knew the notes, I could picture them in my mind, I just couldn’t get my fingers to go to them reliably.

Then came the day when my sons started playing the same pieces as I did. And my struggle to keep believing in myself, in the face of pretty damning evidence, was finally and definitively overthrown. In three weeks, they’d master music that had kept me defeated for decades.

Ah, well. Remember that great line from Chariots of Fire? ‘I can’t put in what God left out.’ When they were handing out the gift of enthusiasm for the piano, I was obviously way up there near the front with the greats of the concert halls down the ages; but when it came to distributing the talent to go with it, I must have got stuck in the kitchen with the curvaceous maid and the bottle of wine.

So I gave up the piano to concentrate on things I do better. Who knows? I may be able to indulge in them without causing too much distress.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Conventionally ill-prepared

The secret of success is preparation, preparation and meticulous preparation.

Different companies have different ways of celebrating Christmas. My last one put the accent on fun. The venues and the food were good but not exceptional, rooms were laid on for anyone who wanted to stay over and there was a free bar. Partners/spouses were welcome. Hair was let down and people had a good time.

My present company has a different approach. The dinner was in one of London’s better restaurants, the kind that gets rosettes or stars in various guides. Partners weren’t invited. And it was black tie.

I love that expression, ‘black tie’. It’s a test in itself. Either you know that it’s code for ‘wear a dinner jacket’ (OK, OK, tuxedo for you out there in the colonies) or you fall at the first hurdle.

Now I haven’t worn one of those monkey suits for donkey’s years. I still have one, bought for some stiff occasion with a bunch of health service accountants twenty years ago, but for aeons it has done nothing but hang in my wardrobe. I never complained about this state of affairs, as I always dread the idea of ‘black tie’ events. The sheer formality makes me cringe in anticipation, which  probably explains why I didn’t get round to climbing into uniform until late in the afternoon of the day itself.

It shouldn’t have been that late, but I went to a customer presentation beforehand, about 27 miles away. At a pinch, you can drive 27 miles in not a lot over half an hour; if much of the journey is in built-up areas, you might take an hour. Even my sat nav suggested 52 minutes. But a little snow fell, and that was it. Bingo. Gridlock. It took me two and a half hours to get home. That’s significantly longer than it would have taken in the age of horse transport.

So it was pretty last minute when I started to dress up. I turned to the suit first: to my relief, I could still get into it. Danielle thought it was horribly old-fashioned, but then isn’t it the whole point of dinner jackets to be old-fashioned?

Then came the infamous black tie itself. As I looked at mine I was struck by the dilemma that this article of clothing always triggers: can I remember how to tie it? There comes a point in tying a bow tie when it’s obvious that what you're going to do next has absolutely no chance of producing a knot; then you do it; and miracle of miracles, a knot is formed.

And before you ask, I don’t wear a ready-made bowtie because, hey, where would the fun be in that?

So I had the suit and after twenty minutes of struggle I had established I still knew how to tie the tie. Then came the sickening heart-stopping moment when I realised I didn’t actually have anything to put under the tie. You can’t wear a dinner jacket without a dress shirt, and I couldn’t find one anywhere.

Something missing

It was 7:30. I needed to catch the 7:46 train. Maybe if I got the 8:04 I could still just about make it. Later than that and, well, I’d be late.

At that point Danielle came in.

‘You know your cufflinks?’

‘Yes,’ I said. I never wear cufflinks, which irritate me as much as dinner jackets. If God had meant us to wear cufflinks, I feel, he would never have given us buttons.

So I hadn’t seen my cufflinks for months. Nor, it now transpired, had Danielle. ‘They’re somewhere safe,’ she told me. ‘I put them somewhere really secure when we moved so they wouldn’t get stolen. So you can rest assured they’re safe.’

‘But not actually available?’ I felt obliged to ask.

We leaped into the car and drove into the town centre. At ten to eight on a Friday evening in Luton, practically everything is shut, but fortunately not that great department store, Debenham’s, whose praises I can’t sing loudly enough.

Minutes later I was doing a swift change in the car, and managed to catch the 8:20 stopping train that got me to the restaurant 30 minutes late. But at least sporting a smart new dress shirt, cufflinked at the wrists, with a hand-tied black bow tie and an old-fashioned but entirely serviceable dinner jacket. And with a nagging feeling that I might have done well to check all these items earlier.

And the evening itself? My colleagues welcomed me to the dinner with great and, to my astonishment, apparently sincere cordiality. The food and wine were outstanding, the company friendly and cheerful. What I had initially dreaded turned into a perfectly pleasant evening. More conventional than in the last place, certainly, but it managed to be just as much fun.

However, the fact that it worked out well in the end hardly excuses my woeful lack of preparation, does it?

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Words that say something else

Don’t you just love those expressions which mean something quite different from what they seem to suggest?

I’m very fond of ‘I hear what you say.’ That’s right up there with that wonderfully contemptuous phrase, ‘with respect’. It means ‘please believe that I hold you in great esteem, so that I can safely show my utter indifference to the position you’ve just outlined.’ That’s how ‘I hear what you say’ works, too. The message is that I’m aware of your view, but I intend to pay no attention to it whatsoever. ‘I hear, but I’m not listening.’

The same goes for ‘to be perfectly honest.’ You think that’s going to persuade me to trust you? You have to tell me you’re trustworthy? What does that say for the times you were talking me but didn’t assure me of your honesty? Suddenly, you’ve shaken the confidence I was beginning to feel in you.

Actually, that’s just a special case of anyone who has to tell you something good about themselves. I worked once with a colleague who couldn’t hear of anyone doing something well, or even better doing something badly, without telling you about how exceptionally good he was at doing it himself. ‘Back when I was heading that section, I’d get a job like that finished with two other smart guys in three weeks. Now we have a team of five and they can’t do it in six months.’

Note the word ‘other’ in ‘two other smart guys’. That's in case it hadn’t struck you how smart he was. Edward Guggenheim, regarded by many as the father of chemical thermodynamics, once started a lecturer with the words ‘there are only five eminent thermodynamicists in the world today’ and then named four. At least he was seriously smart, and had the evidence in a string of books to prove it.

Someone who has to tell you they’re smart is saying something else, isn’t he? ‘You may not have spotted how terribly good my work is, probably because there's not much evidence of the fact, so let me assure you that I'm really quite exceptional.’

Not to be taken at face value, these little tricks of language. But gems to be treasured for their own sake nonetheless.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Nixon and his successors: rememberance of things past, anticipation of things to come

Little incidents can bring buried memories flooding back, so that a distant moment is suddenly with you again as though you were living it now.

For Proust, it was the taste of a Madeleine cake conjuring up his childhood.

For me, this weekend, it was seeing the latest releases of extracts from the Nixon tapes. Suddenly, I was back in a New York street, in fine rain, the street lights glistening on the wet pavements, in front of a shop window with a poster whose evocative message had stopped me in mid-stride.

Tricky Dicky: man of confidence or confidence man?
Oh, for those long-lost days when the United States had a President who was clearly not a man forced into politics only because he couldn’t make a success of any other career. With his wits and ethics, Tricky Dicky Nixon could have flourished in many other walks of life. Say, as a market trader.

Doesn’t it warm the cockles of the heart to remember those glorious aphorisms of his such as ‘When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal’?

What’s been coming out now? It seems that ‘…the Irish can’t drink … Virtually every Irish I’ve known gets mean when he drinks. Particularly the real Irish.’ The Italians: ‘those people … don’t have their heads screwed on tight.’ And as for the Jews, they ‘are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality.’ Don’t limit your amazement to the sentiment, let yourself go in wonder at his command of the English language too.

As for Blacks, he commented on the view expressed by a colleague that ‘they are coming along, and that after all they are going to strengthen our country in the end because they are strong physically and some of them are smart’. ‘Some of them are smart’ and ‘they are coming along’ were, it seems, judgements that were just a little too generous. ‘My own view is I think he’s right if you’re talking in terms of 500 years. I think it’s wrong if you’re talking in terms of 50 years. What has to happen is they have be, frankly, inbred.’ Ah, yes, a little breeding is what these people need. Presumably to turn them into shining examples of humanity such as the Nixon product itself. And don’t you just admire the prescience? I mean, he was speaking over three decades before the election of Obama.

I noticed that USA Today reacted with something less than enthusiasm to one of Nixon’s utterances. Talking about the prospects of Ronald Reagan occupying the Oval Office, he had said ‘Good God, can you imagine – can you really imagine – him sitting here?’ And he added ‘I can imagine anyone ... but Reagan.’

The paper seemed to feel that Nixon had revealed a character flaw (even the finest have them) in misjudging this great man who would indeed eventually follow him into the White House.

Reagan had his own magnificent quotations. Faced with student unrest at Berkeley, he showed his resolution: ‘If it's to be a bloodbath, let it be now. Appeasement is not the answer.’ Later, he denied that he had called for a bloodbath. He’d probably forgotten he’d said it. His was another of those times that conjure up feelings of nostalgia, in his case for a President with the gifts that come from incipient Alzheimer’s.

Since then the same Grand Old Party has thrown up two George Bushes to teach us to rate Reagan more highly.

But it isn’t nostalgia that is my main emotion today, it’s that delightful tingle that anticipation of the future gives. Could the Republicans be about to serve us up another White House occupant to make even Dubya look good?

Remind yourself of gems such as:

“Refudiate,” “misunderestimate,” “wee-wee’d up.” English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!’

Isn’t that worthy of Nixon at his best?

And what about:

... obviously, we've got to stand with our North Korean allies.

The command of foreign policy and sensitivity to its nuances is deeply reminiscent of Reagan, isn’t it? For instance, in his famous statement into a live mike:

My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes.

Who’d have thought anyone could make us look back on Reagan and Dubya as men to miss? And to feel that Tricky Dicky, deceitful, racist and convinced he was above the law, represented something of a golden age?

Yep. Get ready to enjoy the Sarah Palin show.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Training a good wife, catching a good husband

If you were a woman born in the Swiss canton of Argau at the turn of the twentieth century, the younger daughter of a master craftsman, career opportunities as you reached adulthood were limited. The heroine of today’s story is Emma Lina, who faced just this predicament.

Things were better for the elder sister, Bertha, who stood to inherit something. She lived a colourful life, including a long list of unsuitable lovers (but when was a lover suitable?) and adventures in every corner of the globe. And I mean every corner: she was someone made for the age of flight, catching planes to every imaginable destination.

In fact, she eventually became a little tired of Emma Lina’s stay-at-home prudence.

‘Some day, you’re just going to have to learn to get into a plane.’

‘A large metal thing suspended in thin air? Not on your Nelly.’

You understand that neither sister spoke English, so the expression ‘not on your Nelly’ is artistic licence by your humble narrator. But I’m sure there’s some equivalent in mid-twentieth century Swiss German dialect, and equally sure she used it.

Despite all that, Bertha convinced her eventually. Emma Lina caught a plane from Basel to Geneva – not a flight you can take any more – to see her youngest daughter there. As they approached their destination, the plane seemed to take an unconscionable time circling over Lake Geneva. A beautiful view, but it palls after a while. Still, the boredom turned out to be infinitely preferable to what it was replaced by.

‘We regret to announce,’ said the pilot over the public address system, ‘that we are unable to lower the undercarriage at the present time. We are therefore going to have to circle to burn off fuel and then force land at the airport. We regret any inconvenience caused.’

That last bit is probably artistic licence too.

They eventually belly landed on a foam-covered runway surrounded by fire engines and ambulances. Emma Lina immediately insisted that she would never fly again and, indeed, her family had better book her a railway trip back to Basel.

‘Don’t be silly,’ said Bertha, ‘that kind of thing is just terribly bad luck. It’ll never happen again.’

Bertha must have been gifted with oratorical charm, or been a highly dominant personality, or perhaps both, because she persuaded Emma Lina to get back into a plane for the flight home.

They got to Basel and the pilot came on the public address system. ‘Terribly sorry, Emma Lina, it’s happened again. We can’t get the undercarriage down.’ I expect he really used other words to that effect, but that was the effect on Emma Lina.

Unfortunately, Basel airport is smaller than Geneva and couldn’t accommodate a belly landing, so they had to fly on to Amsterdam. Check the map: Basel is a lot closer to Geneva than to Amsterdam. There they put Emma Lina through a repeat of her previous landing: foam on the runway, fire engines, ambulances.

‘Never again,’ were her first words when her family, who’d been flown up to Amsterdam, met her at the gate. This time even Bertha saw the wisdom of buttoning it. The airline had offered the choice of a free flight back to Basel or rail tickets. They went by train.

Now rewind back to the years immediately after the First World War. What to do with this younger daughter with limited prospects, poor Emma Lina? Well, her parents sent her to housekeeping school in Basel. Here the young women learned the best way to dust, to iron, to make a nutritious and succulent evening meal, to keep household accounts, to look after kids and to warm slippers in front of the fire. The last bit may not actually have been on the curriculum.

‘If she does really well at that school, who knows?’ said her parents, ‘a prosperous farmer might like her enough to marry her.’

Every Saturday, the young women of the school ran a little café where the public could enjoy a cup of coffee and a slice of the cakes the inmates had baked. Obviously, all the eligible men of the district would be there, checking out the talent on show.

By ‘talent’, I mean, of course, ‘housekeeping talent’. Anyone who thought anything else please move immediately to the back of the class and write a hundred times ‘I will not think prurient thoughts while reading respectable family blogs.’

One such eligible bachelor was a young man who had recently been made French, by ‘réincorporation’ as the government put it, i.e. by their action in taking Alsace back from Germany. He was rattling a bit from the shrapnel still inside him and which would, ultimately, kill him; I presume, though I don’t know for sure, that it was French shrapnel, received while he was in a uniform of German grey rather than French blue. His brother hadn’t made it through the war at all.

He, Prosper Brugner, took a shine to Emma Lina. The results, in April 1921, are revealed by the photo below.

Prosper was no prosperous farmer. He was a craftsman who prospered by installing shutters in buildings. His sons would later set up a whole business in that trade.

Between them, Emma Lina and Prosper had a short but happy married life, which produced two daughters and three sons. Their elder daughter and second child was Jeannette. Her only child was Danielle, who went even further out on a limb than Bertha, and married an Englishman, in probably about the best coup I’ve ever managed to pull off in my life.

As for Emma Lina, her marriage ended far too soon, in 1947, when the shrapnel at last got the better of Prosper. She found herself another husband, though, by the simple expedient of going round the village and looking at the wood piles outside the houses of all the bachelors. She reasoned, correctly as it turned out, that a man with a large wood pile would know how to look after a house and the woman inside it. It didn’t matter at all to her that he was Jewish, a pleasing and refreshing freedom of racism in the face of pragmatic good sense.

When Danielle was reaching adulthood herself, her grandmother used to say to her regularly, ‘I wish the housekeeping school still existed and you could go there. Your mother’s taught you nothing.’

Don’t worry, Emma Lina, don’t worry. She’s learned. By dint of looking after me and three other boisterous males, she learned to stay calm in any situation, keep a house that is neither too tidy nor worryingly dirty, and cook some extraordinary meals.

You don’t have to go to a formal housekeeping school. The school of life can be just as effective.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Slow learners in the art of losing

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same

… you’ll be a man, my son, according to Rudyard Kipling in his most famous poem, If. Perhaps it would be nice to add ‘you’ll be a woman, my daughter’ as well, but then Kipling wasn’t perhaps the most progressive of men. I had a lot of time for him until I discovered that he had contributed to the fund for that poor Brigadier Dyer, so cruelly driven out of the Army for carrying out a policing operation in Jallianwallah Bagh which unforgiving folk like me think of today as the Amritsar Massacre.

Spot of unpleasantness in Amritsar: a monument to Brigadier Dyer
Still, Kipling has a point in expressing the sentiment in these lines. You take part; sometimes you win, sometimes you lose; you should take either with equanimity and move on. That certainly is the ideal behaviour of the phlegmatic Englishman, imperturbable in all circumstances.

Which is why it’s a major concern when Sepp Blatter, president of the world football federation FIFA, absolutely rightly accuses England of being bad losers.

FIFA handed the 2018 World Cup to Russia. So what? In the first place, it’s time more places outside the traditional regions of Europe and South America got their chance. In the second place, this is a contest with only one winner and multiple losers and the latter need to take it with good grace. It’s increasingly embarrassing to see our papers bleating on about how badly we were treated.

One reason we lost the bid was because sections of our media have been campaigning against corruption among FIFA officials, and those same FIFA officials decided to punish us by not choosing England to host the Cup. That’s not a cause for regret. It’s a cause for pride. We wouldn’t shut up about how rotten the organisation is, and it cost us the World Cup. That’s called taking a stand on principle and accepting the consequences. The opposite, if we’d muzzled our press and TV on the subject in the hope of succeeding in our bid, would have been craven.

Blatter and Putin:made for each other?

And Wikileaks has confirmed what all of us have long suspected about the debased nature of the Russian Federation. If two thoroughly dishonourable federations join up, who’s to be surprised? Again, why sulk? That’s the natural order of things.

But what shocks me most about the fact that we’re losing so badly is that we’ve no excuse for it. Kipling’s advice is excellent. But in addition, they say that practice makes perfect, and England has an unparalleled track record for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, in sporting competition after competition.

So how come we’re still so bad at losing?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The American on the Truro train

On a Truro to London train, I met a retired trial lawyer from San Francisco. He lived there from 1963, a time and a place ‘where it was good to be a single.’ But in his late forties, with the latest woman he’d been seeing heading back East, he began to wonder whether he was getting to an age where ‘no-one gave a damn any more’ and he might turn into a sad figure hanging around bars hoping for action that would never happen.

It was approaching Christmas in 1985. A niece rang him. She knew an Englishwoman – more specifically a Cornishwoman – who was living in Detroit, where she was editing a magazine. She was going to be spending Christmas in San Francisco, and it seemed to the niece that the uncle should meet her.

The uncle allowed himself to be persuaded and phoned the Englishwoman at her home. The call was taken by her then seven-year old son, who ‘for the only time in his life took a message correctly. He’s never done it since and he’s 32 now.’

As arranged, the lawyer called at the flat where the Englishwoman was staying. She sent someone else to answer the door, in case she couldn’t stand him. The man who opened the door said ‘who are you?’ gruffly.

‘I’m the uncle,’ came the reply.

They went out and liked each other. They met again on Boxing Day, at which point in his words they ‘hit it off’. I’m not quite sure what he was implying but he did add that there was nowhere open for them to eat, so perhaps he meant that they were forced indoors and indulged in more than polite conversation.

He suggested they should meet again. She had a pretty packed schedule, but said she would try to get him an invitation to a dinner she was going to. He turned up and found that of the eight people there, he already knew two, one of them a former client.

It soon became clear to the others what was going on between the two of them, particularly when she announced that she didn’t want to go back to Detroit as planned on the 31st, and not just because she didn’t like Detroit. There was, however, a problem.

‘I can’t cancel,’ she wailed, ‘I have a plane ticket.’

‘Of course you can,’ explained a doctor who was present, ‘you have terrible earache.’

She stayed on another week. He was introduced to the delights of organising babysitting so that he could meet his new girlfriend.

Eventually she had to go, however. So he went down to the local TWA office. A strike was under way; for the first and only time of his life, he crossed a picket line. ‘What you’re doing,’ he said, ‘is temporal, but this is important.’

He laid $1000 in cash on the counter and said ‘give me as many round trip tickets to Detroit as this will buy.’

The answer was ten. This meant that for the next several months they visited each other every other weekend. That phase ended only when, in the early summer of 1986, they married.

San Francisco
Today he’s in his seventies. They share their time between a place near San Francisco and another on the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall. ‘If you’d told me when I was young that I would end up living in Cornwall I wouldn’t have believed you. At the time, I didn’t know where Cornwall was, let alone the Lizard peninsula or the hamlet of 50 people where we actually live. The most active business in our village is a hole in a wall, the village post box.’

Urban life in the The Lizard, Cornwall
At least it explains why we met on a train up from the lovely Cornish city of Truro.

When you're crossing the country, you may meet some interesting people

Monday, 6 December 2010

Capitalising on the city

Sometimes nothing beats sticking with tradition.

On Saturday, Danielle and I had a great day in London. We had lunch at the Mitsukoshi Department Store, one of Japan’s most prestigious, at its branch in Lower Regent Street. The restaurant is in the basement, giving it an atmosphere of restful calm which complements the excellent food and takes some of the painful edge off the prices. Nearly all the clients are Japanese and you hear the language all around, so it’s about as close to being abroad as you can get without the tedium of the flight.

Mitsukoshi - a fine ingredient in a great day out
From there we made for the King’s Head in Islington. The name ‘King’s Head’ might suggest that it celebrates that extraordinary moment when the English actually took radical action against bad government. That is, indeed, a moment to celebrate. Viscerally opposed to the death penalty as I am, I can’t help admiring Cromwell and his mates for having the chutzpah to tell that bloody awful King that they’d had just about enough of him and cutting off his head to prove the point. As an act, it certainly had the merit of being dramatically decisive. I wish the English today could recapture some of that spirit, at least to the extent of not voting ghastly people into government instead of chasing them from it.

In fact, however, the name ‘King’s Head’ has nothing to do with Charles I’s unlamented end. It is, in fact, a traditional pub name. So imagine a U-shaped bar serving every kind of drink, wooden floors, subdued lighting, a heterogeneous mixture of seats from armchairs to bar stools, generally everything that makes for one of the pleasanter pubs, an ideal setting for a long and enjoyable conversation with just enough lubrication to keep it going over any possible rough places.

The King’s Head is, however, unusual in having a theatre attached to the back. Now, if that conjures up an image of a sweeping hall, with banked rows of well-upholstered seats, think again. The King’s Head Theatre would probably fit inside the dining room of, say, your average bank executive. There are a few rows of benches and an open space in front of them that passes as a stage. One merit is that, since it’s attached to a pub, you can take a drink in with you.

King's Head Theatre: makes up in atmosphere for what it lacks in size
In this unprepossessing environment we saw an excellent production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore (perhaps The Mikado would have been more appropriate after that lunch, but it wasn't on). It was performed by nine singers, down on conventional productions by about forty, and the orchestra was a single piano, which is probably thirty instruments short (but it was a big piano).

Somehow the voices were so good that they filled the (admittedly restricted) space and were able to create the effect of a chorus as well as covering the main parts (even if some singers had to play more than one). There were a few minor amendments to the words – for instance, the original’s reference to ‘his sisters and his cousins, whom he reckons up by dozens, and his aunts’ was reduced to ‘his sister and his cousin, who make not even half a dozen, and his aunt’. We had one sister, one cousin and an urn representing the aunt.

It was brilliant. And of course full of wonderfully familiar tunes. I could have sung along most of the time, if only I could sing at all. In fact, I tried to join in what ought to be England’s (not Britain’s) national anthem, with the haunting words ‘for in spite of all temptations / to belong to other nations, / he remains an Englishman’. Danielle, however, urged me politely but firmly to stop, confirming my view of my singing talents.

Anyway, we had a great time. And it was of course a wonderful celebration of English tradition. This is what we do in this country when we travel all the way to our great capital: we eat foreign, we go to the pub and we take in a show.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

The thrill of bed hopping

For aeons, indeed probably for as long as men – and quite a few women – have possessed the skill of cunning, bed hopping has been one of the great pastimes of mankind.

In the traditional form, it’s being in a bed with someone other than your partner that gives the experience its spice. Trouble is, that comes with a lot of baggage, not much of it enjoyable: suffering, recrimination and ultimately divorce. Why, it can lead to Aids, for God’s sake.

Things aren't a lot better even if you’re using the bed for its other purpose, the one that in truth it actually serves for a much higher proportion of the time. When it comes to sleeping, most people agree that no bed is more comfortable than their own. Obliged from time to time to spend nights in hotels, I rarely wake as rested as I do at home.

All of which suggests that bed hopping isn't quite what it's been cracked up to be. Not a bed of roses, in fact.

So I’m indebted to Danielle, my wife, for introducing me to a form of the game that avoids all the disadvantages. On the bed that I like to think of as ‘ours’ even if we’re not sleeping in it, we have a ‘memory’ mattress that allegedly ‘remembers’ the shape of our bodies and moulds itself to them. Now I find it perfectly comfortable. Danielle, on the other hand, believes that its memory only reminds it of all the ways it can shape itself to cause maximum discomfort to her back.

So every few months she decides it’s time for us to sleep on something a little harder. Like the other bed, in the guest room. And that’s where we went last night. As we only moved here a couple of months ago, it was the first time I’d slept in that room. It’s actually the master bedroom, but because it’s at the front of the house and exposed to the noise of the road, we prefer to use the smaller bedroom at the back.

A different bed in a new room! Just how exciting can life be? And the knowledge that I could enjoy this deliciously fresh experience without leaving home only made the prospect all the sweeter. The fact that I would be sharing it with a woman who happened to be the same woman didn't detract from the pleasure either – after all, who needs all that hassle?

Bed hopping without danger. Win-win all round.

Apparently it’s doing Danielle’s back some good, too. Though she didn’t sleep that well. The road, you understand. She’ll be using ear plugs tonight.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

It's the games people play with each other that matter

An excellent test of the character of a town is the quality of its badminton.

When we were living in the Paris region, we were in a beautiful suburb on the West of the City, St Germain-en-Laye. A wonderful town centre with all the most glorious shops you could possibly want – in fact, given the prices they charged, rather more than we could possibly want. There was also a fabulous chateau, where one of the greatest of French Kings, Henry IV was born, or lived, or something – I’m vague on the details. I can confirm that he wasn’t in residence when we were around.

Anyway, it wasn’t the chateau itself that had the charm, it was the extraordinary terrace beyond, where you could walk for ages through formal gardens with a glorious view down to the river Seine and, beyond it, Paris. Unbeatable. Wardown Park in Luton is great, but not quite in the same league, and the river Lea – well, it’s not quite the Seine.

The river Lea in Luton

Majestic view from the terrace in St Germain

Problem is – a view’s a view. You see it once and think it’s wonderful. Maybe even twice or three times. But then – what else are you going to do with it? It stays beautiful, but despite changes in light and weather, well it’s pretty much as beautiful each time. What matters is the people. That’s what really gives a place its charm.

And when it comes to the people in St Germain-en-Laye – I’m reminded of the guardsman’s comment on the Battle of Waterloo: ‘my dear... the noise... and the people.

St Germain was where friends of ours were asked, nay told, by neighbours to take in the futons they had hung out on their balcony to air. Said neighbours had ‘visitors coming round in the afternoon’ and what did our friends think? That ‘this was Naples?’

So I suppose our experience at the badminton club was hardly a surprise. We paid our subscriptions to join (OK, OK, I mean, I paid, I was the moron). We went just once. After an hour hanging around it became clear that no-one already playing was going to leave a court, ever, to let us play. So we left and never came back.

Tonight Danielle and I went to our local club here in Luton. There were only four other people there, all men, playing an intense doubles match when we arrived. It looked as though we’d be obliged to knock up on a court on our own for the whole evening.

Nothing of the sort. The four men finished their match and called us. ‘Come on, we’ll swap in,’ they said. Two of them went off to play singles, and we played a doubles match. So it went on for the time we were there – four playing doubles, two playing singles, swapping around each game.

That’s tolerance, decency and generosity. Would I exchange them for a view? You’ve got to be kidding.

Anyway, to be honest, the Lea’s not that bad. Quite pretty, isn’t it? When you look at the picture closely.