Sunday, 27 March 2011

The logo that spells discord

We’re getting terribly excited in London about the forthcoming Olympics, now less than a year and a half away. The place is being absolutely plastered with the logo.

Ubiquitous logo
Those Olympics are already proving a tremendous success. As is well known, the primary purpose of the Olympic movement is to foster discord between nations. These particular Olympics set the right tone from the outset, when the French had their noses put completely out of joint by not winning the competition to the stage them. I mean, then President Chirac knew it was in the bag for Paris, so he went round irritating other nations on the International Olympic Committee. For instance, he made some derogatory comments about Finnish cooking. After all, who cares about the Finns? Poor old Chirac. The Finnish delegation’s votes turned out to be pretty essential.

There was never any danger of our behaving that way, of course. I mean, given the traditional delights available in English cuisine, we were never going to cast aspersions on others. Not even on the Finns. Dried reindeer meat? Bring it on. It can’t be worse than smoky bacon crisps.

More recently, the Iranians have got upset about the logo itself. They reckon the it spells the word ‘Zion’. Funnily enough, the US television presenter, Glenn Beck, who has left no doubt concerning the moderation and liberalism of his views, agreed with them.

The Iranians feel that the logo demonstrates that the international Jewish conspiracy has been exerting its malign influence. Again.

Now this is obviously rubbish, and on at least three counts.
  1. I don’t believe there’s any such a thing as an international Jewish conspiracy. Or if there is, let me just point out to the people behind it, that my mother is Jewish which automatically qualifies me for membership. So I deeply resent the fact that no-one has ever tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘hey, want to join this conspiracy?’ World domination – I’d be into that like a shot. I could become a banker and get paid a hell of a sight more for doing a lot less work.
  2. If there were such a conspiracy, no-one with the brains to organise it would ever waste their time getting the word ‘Zion’ into the London Olympic logo. What? You think they might feel that words like ‘Zion’ and ‘Zionism’ aren’t getting enough exposure in the world press already? That Jews don’t get enough publicity?
  3. The word is obviously not ‘Zion’ anyway. If it’s anything, it’s ‘Zior’. My guess is that ‘Zior’ is a word in some long-lost language meaning ‘bloody ugly logo’
The worst of it? It’s plastered all over London.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Is the legacy of the IRA a load of old rubbish?

The central problem in Anglo-Irish relations is that the Irish remember too much, and the English forget too quickly. Most Englishmen barely remember who Oliver Cromwell was. In Ireland, his armies might as well be rampaging through the land still, slaughtering the people in an orgy of self-righteous fury.

The same forgetfulness afflicts us now. We’re losing sight of how things were only twenty years ago. Throughout the 1980s, when I regularly travelled into Central London from the suburbs, it became a routine to check for abandoned packages on the overhead shelves or under the seats every time I got into a train. While I never saw a bomb go off, I twice heard them: it wasn’t Belfast, far less Beirut, but London was an uneasy place.

Today, practically no trace remains of those troubled days. People, and above all politicians, love to whip up anxiety over Moslem terrorism, but they’re not even in the same league as the IRA. Why, apart from the casualties, the IRA regularly shut down the main stations or other public places by the simple expedient of phoning in a bomb warning, sometimes without going to the trouble of actually planting a bomb. You had to admire their economy of effort, to say nothing of their sheer deviousness.

Still, if there is little trace of those times today, they have at least left one small legacy. I’m reminded of it every time I go through the glorious, airy and brilliantly constructed main hall of St Pancras International station, something I’m obliged to do a couple of times on most days. The architecture is wonderful, the layout charming, the atmosphere uplifting – but there isn’t a single litter bin.

Now this is a direct result of the IRA campaign. Bins were far too easy places to plant bombs, so in the course of the eighties, they were done away with throughout London. In recent years, they’ve been gradually coming back, usually in the form of clear plastic bags, in which I presume it would be relatively easy to spot a bomb (if, say, it comes with trailing wires or perhaps a helpful label ‘bomb’).

But St Pancras is hanging on grimly to the tradition of the last two decades and resisting the reintroduction of waste bins. I asked a cleaner once ‘so where do I leave my coffee cup?’

‘On a table or a chair, anywhere you like,’ came the answer, ‘we’ll clear it up.’

So that’s what I do. I dump my rubbish any old where in the station, and each time I think of the IRA.

My personal tribute to the IRA
A fitting monument, I’d say.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

A day in two lives

As a District Nurse, Susan (not her real name) started work at 8:30 by popping into the health centre for messages and to deal with any urgent problems that might have come up. She and her colleagues then met to check work allocations for the day.

Andrew (not his real name either), head of the investment branch of a major bank, also started his day at 8:30 when he met his closest associates. They had been researching the financial standing of various rivals that were beginning to show signs of weakness. He was proud of these bright young people and the reports they had prepared, insightful, concise and closely argued, just as he had trained them. He knew, however, that the closer they studied their targets, the more enthusiastic they would have become about them. He would have to allow for the distortions to which this might lead. He would also have to rein them in during the meeting if they were to stick to the scheduled time.

Susan visited three patients in the course of the morning. Two were terminal and she was particularly careful over their treatment, above all to ensure they had sufficient pain relief. One, a man not out of his fifties but who would never see 60, was nearing the end of a long but hopeless fight against MS. Usually highly controlled, he surprised her by a sudden outbreak of fury. Though he could no longer use his legs, he showed that his arms still retained some strength when he flung his chamber pot at her. Fortunately, he missed and it was empty. He then broke down in tears and she had to delay her departure, overcome her own anger at his behaviour and comfort him back to calm. She had to remind herself that he was divorced and estranged from his only other relative, his son.

One of the presentations Andrew heard that morning caught his attention. The views of the young man who had prepared it betrayed the partiality that Andrew expected, but even after allowing for that, there was a kernel to the argument that felt like the real thing. The target was a prestigious name from the world of merchant banking, the kind of organisation which would boost the standing of any acquirer. It had been made vulnerable by recent financial difficulties and was probably open to an approach. Andrew had an intuition this was the right target, and while he knew better than to be carried away by a hunch, he also knew better than to ignore one. He cleared his diary for the morning and held a series of further meetings to probe and test the advantages and difficulties of the project.

The delay with her last patient meant that Susan had little time for lunch, so she stopped at a local supermarket and had a sandwich over a cup of coffee, taking the opportunity to phone occupational health to see whether a new mattress could be provided for one of the patients she had visited that morning and whose bed, too old and damaged, was seriously adding to his pain. She also took a call asking to add one more visit to her round that afternoon.

Andrew’s meetings had left him little time for lunch, so he had sushi brought into his office to share with the associate whose project he was now inclined to take up. Together they finalised the paperwork for the proposed acquisition and a presentation that he would put to the executive board of the bank that afternoon. He found the time to make a call to the Chief Exec’s PA to ensure that his presentation could be added to the agenda, even at this late stage. His associate had had the forethought to include mochi as a dessert to their lunch, a particularly tasteful touch.

Susan called first on the patient who had been added to her schedule for the afternoon. He was in the final stages of cancer. One look at him was enough to tell her that he wouldn’t be making it to the evening. His daughter was by his bed, holding his hand while tears coursed down her face. Susan sighed and stepped outside to phone in and ask the receptionist to reschedule her appointments. It would be a blow to her colleagues who would have to cover for her, but there was no way she could leave now. She felt sorry, too: she knew like any professional that an emotional bond with her terminal patients was not an investment likely to give much in the way of dividends, but this one had shown such courage and good cheer in the face of great suffering that she was going to feel real sadness at losing him.

Andrew’s executive board meeting went superbly. The case he had built with his associate was ironclad and the chief exec was more than predisposed to be convinced, so the other directors were quickly won round. After the meeting, he had time to brief his associate again and start the process of acquisition. Informal contacts were made that very afternoon and were met with warmth, not to say alacrity, promising an easy negotiation and an advantageous price. The day called for a celebration and the meal that the chief exec and several directors shared with Andrew later was a fitting gesture to the scale of the achievement. He particularly enjoyed the St Estèphe they drank with the main course, one of his favourite wines.

Susan spent her patient’s final hours doing what she could to make the end as easy as possible. She remade his bed, made sure that catheters were working and she kept the flow of painkiller high. He died soon after 6:00 and she stayed a little while helping his daughter prepare the body for the undertakers, not because it was necessary or part of her job, but because the work might give the daughter a little comfort too. By the time Susan had returned to the Health Centre and finished her paperwork, it was too late for her bridge evening. Her partner was polite but clearly disappointed when Susan rang to tell her. She then phoned home. Her husband had eaten the dinner she had left for him, so she called in for fish and chips on the way home, and ate them in front of the television before heading to bed early, to be ready for the next day. At least she knew that a few people were in slightly less pain, were slightly less disconsolate thanks to her efforts, probably including the patient who had turned aggressive: at least he had got something off his chest.

Returning late meant that Andrew owed some explanation to his wife but she had long since grown used to the high-pressure existence he led. He sent her to bed and booted up his laptop, knowing that even at 11:00 at night he had to prepare some documents before he could turn in himself. He did so satisfied in the knowledge that though a substantial proportion of the staff in the bank they were acquiring would inevitably lose their jobs, a number of people in his own would be made a great deal richer by his efforts, and he would be one of them.

For his work, Andrew was rewarded with more than £30 million worth of shares over five years on top of salary payments totaling in excess of £5 million. Thanks to a promotion, Susan made a little more than £160,000 over the same period.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Heavy plant and identity confusion

Signs at two gates to the same industrial compound, a few metres apart, suggest a degree of confusion over identity.

OK, but which of you is in the plant sales business?
Still, if I've understood anything about existentialism, and I can't pretend to have understood much, the key principle seems to be that what you are is what you do. At least the signs suggest that Mr Gill knows what he does.

Come to think of it, what he does isn't that straightforward, is it? I mean, not linguistically at least. I see 'plant sales' and I think 'garden centre' rather than heavy machinery. That in turn puts me in mind of a road sign I've seen a few times 'Caution: heavy plant crossing'.

Sounds like a warning against triffids, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, I wish Mr Gill well with his business. Perhaps someone to proof read and edit his display material might be a good investment?

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Spring of Human Kindness

It took me over an hour to buy the newspaper today, and not just because I’m an exceptionally slow walker or unusually tired.

The main reason was that Janka likes to get a good walk on a Saturday. She likes me to take her down to the park where she can terrorise the ducks and try to nick the bread left for them. I do my best to stop her, though she’s usually much too smart for me. I wish she wouldn’t do it. It may be natural for a dog to want to eat a duck, but a bit shabby to try to steal its bread.

The second reason that I was out so long is that spring seems at last to be here. It doesn’t officially start till Monday so it’s great to have it early, something for which I feel I can legitimately claim a measure of credit. I’ve been travelling to work without a winter coat for a couple of weeks now, despite the bitter cold that has often left me shivering at bus stops. Somewhere inside me lurks a belief that behaving as though spring had already started will usher it in more quickly. This morning, with glorious sunshine and temperatures in the mid-teens, though it's still only the 19th of March, it was obvious my sacrifice had worked. And been worth it.

Wardown Park willows in the spring, with duck bread thief
 The third reason I go so far for a paper is to avoid a surly individual in my nearest shop, less than half as far away. Every time I’ve been there he's been glued to a laptop computer on the counter in front of him while talking into a mobile phone jammed between shoulder and ear. He removes one hand from the keyboard just long enough to take my money and the only sign he gives of thanking me for my custom or even recognising my presence, is the briefest of curt nods.

Isn’t it curious how some shopkeepers think that incivility isn’t going to do their business any harm?

So I walk twice as far to be served by a shopkeeper who, on one occasion when I turned up just as he was locking up, immediately reopened the shop so that I could get my paper.

Both shops are run by people of Indian extraction, a striking illustration of the fallacy of racism. People can be perfectly unpleasant whatever their race. The trick is to find the ones who make up for them by their cordiality and kindness

That’s why I walk an hour to get my Saturday newspaper. Janka’s delighted. I did it even when the winter made it a bit of a daunting proposition, preferring external cold to cold behaviour in the shop.

Today, of course, with a real touch of spring in the air, it wasn’t just the shopkeeper’s smile and civil greeting but the walk itself that made the experience pleasurable.

If only the conditions would last…

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Not so much a death wish as a death data wish

A terribly exciting development at work: I may soon be able to count hospital deaths. Properly.

End point. And the starting point for some interesting work.
This fulfils a bit of a longstanding ambition. For years, I’ve watched people who really ought to know better abusing mortality statistics to assess the quality of hospitals. This hospital, they tell us, has a far higher death rate than that one, so it must be a lot worse. When you object, ‘but that hospital is basically a baby factory, delivering thousands of children a year, while the other one is a major cardiac centre’, they sometimes come up with ‘risk-adjusted’ figures, which sounds great except that no-one’s ever proved that risk adjustment methodologies actually adjust for risk.

At least the ones who make adjustments are trying to be conscientious. I know of one consultant who submitted a report to a hospital showing that a cardiac surgeon had a one in three death rate for a particular procedure, which was frighteningly high compared to national values. It turned out that the surgeon had carried out just three of those operations in a year and one patient had died. So it was a meaningless statistic and the report demonstrated nothing but the incompetence of the consultant.

Besides, in doing these studies, people generally base themselves on in-hospital mortality. You may know the story of the man walking home one night and finding another on his hands and knees underneath a lamppost.

‘What’s the problem?’ asks the first man.

‘I’ve lost a contact lens and I’m looking for it,’ replies the second.

‘OK , let me help.’

After twenty minutes of fruitless searching, the first man says, ‘are you sure you lost the contact lens here?’

‘Oh no,’ says the second, ‘it was nowhere near here. But this is the only place with any light.’

In-hospital mortality is like that. Hospitals record deaths meticulously, so the figures are there. But that doesn’t mean that they’re a good place to start looking for answers.

First of all, they're a lousy indicator for something like Obstetrics. In the developed world, deaths in childbirth are now incredibly rare (though there are indications of a worrying tick upwards in the United States) so the numbers don’t tell you much. On the other hand, in palliative care, mortality is extremely high, but that’s the nature of the discipline, so again the rates aren't particularly helpful.

Mortality is only useful when you apply it to areas where there is a relatively high risk of death, but specifically of avoidable death. Stroke care. Cardiology. Various types of organ failure. That kind of thing.

But also it’s no good using just in-hospital deaths. Cases get transferred between hospitals. A general hospital might move a particularly ill patient to the specialist centre up the road. If the patient dies, which hospital should be concerned, the first or the second?

Incidentally, it’s a curious peculiarity in England at least, that if the patient dies in the ambulance between the two hospitals, neither gets the death assigned to it.

Again, some hospitals keep their lengths of stay low. This is a good thing from the point of view of financial efficiency and may even be good for patient care: hospitals are dangerous places (full of sick people) and the sooner you get home the less likely you are to pick up an infection. But, if a patient is discharged quickly and then dies at home, that death won’t be recorded against the hospital either.

What has got me enthusiastic recently is that a body in the NHS, the Information Centre, has for two or three years been linking English hospital data with general records of deaths held by the Office of National Statistics. This means that they can now make available information about patients who died following hospital treatment, whether or not the death took place inside the hospital.

So we can get a clear idea of how many people are surviving or dying after hospital treatment for a stroke or an aneurysm, even though the death took place after the hospital discharged the patient.

I'm about to apply to be given access to the information. That may give me some better ways of understanding how well individual hospitals are delivering specific types of care for specific types of condition.

It’s a bit sad to admit, but that’s the kind of thing that makes me excited about the work I do.

Monday, 14 March 2011

A sign of the (passing) times

Amazing how a simple shop sign can set a whole train of thought going.
A sign to conjure up dreams. Or nightmares
It happened the other day when I walked past the ‘Little Beirut’ sign in Luton town centre.

Ah, Beirut. They used to call it the Paris of the Mediterranean. My mother loved the place when she was there for some weeks back in 1947.

Her hotel was on the beach, with sun during the day and the sea breezes at night, and it took only fifteen minutes to drive into the hills and Lebanon’s emblematic cedars. Further up in the mountains, you could go skiing while watching bathers swimming from the beaches below.

There were two unusually harsh winters in England immediately after the end of the Second World War. Just to enjoy more merciful weather must have been a blessed relief, to say nothing of the pleasure of a gentle and friendly welcome into a city of charm and elegance. ‘It was a lovely, clean, pleasant city,’ my mother recalls, ‘a tourist town.’

But she adds ‘I was privileged to see it before it got ruined.’ The golden days of Beirut weren't going to last. As she tells me, ‘there were murmurs of things not being as they should be, but we weren’t really aware of anything.’ The murmurs turned into something much louder just a few months after her visit, when a bomb exploded in the Jewish quarter, though it caused no casualties.

Beirut: appealing...
...and rather less so
Since then there have been many more bombs and they have caused innumerable casualties. The Jews have gone, those who could heading south into what was Palestine then and is Israel now. They've been replaced by many thousands of Palestinians living in the refugee ghettos of the city. Christians have fought Moslems, different groups of Moslems have fought each other, peace keepers have come in, been blown up and gone, Syria has sent forces and so has Israel (again and again), Palestinians have been massacred and have fought back. If you haven't seen the Israeli film Waltzing with Bashir, the most powerful cartoon I know, watch it and see how far the Paris of the Mediterranean has been plunged into carnage and shame. 

So I hesitated when I stood in front of ‘Little Beirut’ in Luton. What would I find if I went in? It would have been wonderful to recapture the atmosphere of the city my mother visited and loved half a century ago. But what if it had conjured up the bloodied bodies and the heaps of rubble?

And how disappointing if it simply turned out to be yet another of the countless kebab shops that keep cropping up on our street corners.

Best just to walk past and meditate on how difficult we find it to preserve peace and harmony if we can even build them in the first place.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Foresight saga

The Scots have a great saying, ‘the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley’. It's a quotation from Robert Burns. The last three words are completely incomprehensible and yet the overall meaning is obvious. I’ve often laid meticulously crafted plans that have gone agley (or should that be gong agley?)

A great example of the problem is provided by Philip II of Spain. He married devoutly Catholic Mary I of England and wasn’t a man to take his kingly duties lightly. During his time in England, he worked conscientiously on a number of projects to improve the state of the nation, in particular putting the navy on a new footing. Small but effective in the time of Henry VIII, it had declined worryingly since his death. Philip II reorganised it to make it a redoubtable weapon for the defence of the realm.

But then things went agley. Or perhaps I mean ugly. Or both.

Because in 1588, with Mary dead and England under the rule of her Protestant sister Elizabeth, Philip decided to invade the country and sent a fleet to carry the troops across the Channel. The Armada was catastrophically defeated and though the debacle owed a great deal to the weather – winds blowing the wrong way, that sort of thing – what made the conditions particularly difficult to contend with was persistent harassment by the more powerfully armed English warships. In other words, the Spanish took a battering from the very navy Philip had done so much to overhaul.

The Armada in trouble at the hands of the fleet that Philip built
Shame that Philip didn't enjoy better foresight, in 1554 when he’d been King of England.

Fortunately for his memory, he’s far from alone in having courted disaster in this way. Back in the fifties of the last century, bright minds in London and Washington, acting in the interests of oil companies (and isn’t that a refrain with a great tradition behind it?) decided to do away with the reforming Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh. Enjoying the fruitful support of the Shah for the next 25 years, how could they guess that the reaction would lead to relations that have fallen a little short in the loyal cordiality department?

And again, it seemed a great idea to arm the Afghan Taliban when they were fighting the Soviet army in 1980s. Who could have foreseen that they might turn their guns against us later?

Oh, well. These things happen.

Why, they even happen to mice. According to the Scots.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Oh, that emerald isle and the characters it produces

The best known fact about Ireland is that its main export is people.

But then that’s not so surprising: they produce some fairly special ones. Not necessarily admirable, or even nice, but special all the same. This post, the third in my occasional series on remarkable images from advertising, is dedicated to some of them.

One of the less appealing Irish characters around today is Michael O’Leary, chief executive of the low cost airline Ryanair. His arrogance makes it difficult to avoid disliking him, but his cheek makes it difficult not to be amused.

‘What part of ‘no refund’ don't you understand?’ he once asked. You can’t fault him on his directness.

I’ve always particularly loved the story of the flight to Copenhagen which landed at Malmö. OK, that’s not that far from Copenhagen but it isn’t actually in the same country.

I have my own favourite personal experience on Ryanair. To be honest, it may have happened on an Easyjet flight, but I can’t let a slavish respect for precision spoil a good story, can I? A stewardess with a pronounced Northern Irish accent announced that there were ‘sex emergency exits’ on the aircraft. I think of her every time I come across a reference to Julian Assange: there’s a man who could have done with a sex emergency exit at a couple of points in his recent career.

If O’Leary provides an ambivalent example of the Irish character, when it comes to the Irish cricket team admiration has to be unblemished. Ireland has always been among the minnows in interntional cricket. The game isn’t deeply rooted in the psyche of the country which regards it as English – and few words are as disparaging in an Irishman’s mouth as ‘English’. It’s an aversion that’s hard to understand, by the way: we’ve slaved over the centuries to bring peace to Ireland, often at the point of a bayonet.

Despite their low profile in the game, the Irish have had some famous successes in the past. Notably, in 1969 they beat one of the giants of the game, a touring team from the West Indies, to everyone’s astonishment. The Irish must have been amazed and one can only imagine how the Windies felt.

Last week Ireland pulled off an even more satisfying coup, by handsomely beating England in this year’s world cup.

You can’t overstate the importance of this victory. If ‘English’ has nothing but ugly connotations for an Irishman, ‘beating England’ are words that dreams are made of. A friend of mine kept a photograph from an Irish rugby victory over England in his smallest room – the best place to ensure everyone saw it – for years. He may have it there still. And another Irish friend took delight in sending me a copy of the Ryanair advert Michael O’Leary took out in the English papers celebrating this most recent success for his country.

And getting a bit of a plug in for his airline at the same time.

A great Irish victory, shamelessly exploited by another Irishman

You can’t help smiling can you? The brazen check, the bandwagonning, the opportunism. Outstanding. O’Leary is true to himself.

As for the cricket XI – well, their country needs a bit of good news these days. What a fine way to supply some.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Parenthood: pure delight at minimal cost

For some reason, I seem to be surrounded these days by people who have young children or are thinking of producing some.

In my usual spirit of dedication to public service, I feel it’s time to add to my previous store of invaluable advice on the art of parenting by addressing some of the frequently asked questions that come up in discussions of this thorny subject.
  1. Will having a child change my life fundamentally?
    There’s no reason why the impact should be at all significant if you have already moved all breakable objects to at least one metre above floor level, are indifferent to how much sleep you get at night, aren’t interested in going out or even relaxing in the evenings, don’t care how stained your clothes get and have decided to break with any childless friends who might be upset if their precious crockery gets damaged.
  1. Does the difficult period last a long time?
    Not at all. 25 years can flash by. You’d be surprised.
  1. Is it expensive to bring up children?
    Far from it. Compared to things that we take for granted like a manned space programme, it barely registers. Why, there are football players who are paid more than it costs to raise a child.
  1. Will the presence of children means an end to all tranquillity? No reason to think so, if you can just learn to be tranquil when surrounded by hordes of children – and three kids make an impressive horde – who are rushing up and down your stairs, watching your TV and eating your food. Birthday parties are the real test of your Zen qualities. Indeed, once your kids are into their adolescence your adherence to Buddhist principles may be such that you will be fully ready to abandon your attachment to the wheel of being and, indeed, help several other people to abandon theirs.
  1. Is it true that kids are always ill and always complaining?
    This is a particularly vile slander. I know many children who are well and pleasantly disposed for several days a year.

  1. Is it rewarding?
    Of course it is. All you have to do is survive long enough to see them produce kids of their own, make all the same mistakes as they criticised you for and be subject to the same responses as they made you suffer.
Nothing to it, you see. Can't see what holds anyone back.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Debt: if this is the cure, let's stick with the disease

It’s sometimes a bit of a thankless task to keep writing these posts – people pay so little attention to them.

I mean, some weeks ago, I gently pointed out to David Cameron that his picture of UK indebtedness as similar to a maxed-out credit card wasn't entirely credible. I thought I'd made it clear that personal debt had little in common with national debt. But there he was again, last weekend, trotting out the same old platitudes about ‘paying off the credit card.’ Woeful. Is he simply beyond training?

Then there's another much repeated sentiment doing the rounds, viz: we mustn’t leave a massive debt to our children and grandchildren. Stated like that, it sounds self-evident doesn’t it? It’s appallingly irresponsible to saddle future generations with that crippling burdern of debt.

The problem is that the idea only sounds plausible as long as you don’t think about the alternatives. Clearing down debt means cutting public expenditure to the point that our schools, our medical services and our job opportunities are seriously jeopardised. Will our under-educated kids with their blighted career prospects, denied access to decent healthcare services to treat  their depression, really thank us for inflicting all that on them? Might they not have preferred a bit of debt instead?

Will they wonder whether we were really thinking of them or just trying to avoid paying more tax ourselves?

This is particularly striking given that the debt isn’t even that high in historical terms. Obviously, the situation varies from country to country, but in Britain debt today as a percentage of GDP is about a quarter of what it was at the end of World War 2. The British war debt to the US wasn’t finally cleared until 2006.

I think back to my time as a teenager in the sixties, as a young adult in the seventies. Do you know, my mind was occupied by a great many things in those turbulent times but the crushing burden of debt on my shoulders never really figured among them.

The sixties: a pevious generation crushed by the burden of debt

Postscript. All this talk of debt puts me in mind of the story of Moishe tossing and turning in bed until the small hours of the morning. Finally Rachel shakes him and says, 'what is it Moishe? Why can't you sleep? You're keeping me awake.'

'I'm so worried,' he says, 'it's Shlomo next door, I owe him £500 and I don't know how to pay him.'

Rachel leaps out of bed and goes over to the window. Throwing it open she shouts out, 'Shlomo! Hey, Shlomo! My husband Moishe owes you £500 and he doesn't know how to pay you.'

She closes the window and gets back into bed.

'Now let him worry about it,' she says as she composes herself again for sleep.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Everybody loves a winner

‘If you aren't fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm,’ said the legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi, after whom the superbowl trophy is now named.

Lombardi: 'show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser'
He also said ‘If it doesn't matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?’ Clever but perhaps not that wise.

The simple answer to Lombardi’s question is that, in competitive games, the score is part of the fun. But we ought to bear in mind that, as well as being competitive, they’re also games.

In any case, I’m not quite sure when, or why, the word ‘loser’ turned into apparently the most disparaging insult we can throw at anyone – especially in the States. Losing is painful and it seems doubly unfair to add contempt to the injury.

There’s no denying that in certain situations, winning is crucial. The advantages of having won the Second World War are obvious, particularly if we consider the alternative. Besides, the victory benefited practically everyone involved, not least the Germans and Japanese, a fact which in itself rather relativises the concept of ‘loser’.

Even in marginally less significant matters, there are times when winning is important. For example, when England beats France at rugby, as I was delighted to see on Saturday, that’s an occasion for heartfelt pleasure. On the other hand, when things are reversed and France beats England, as happened last season, it’s best to show sensible restraint and silent moderation. Nothing to crow about there.

More generally, though, I’m not convinced that the winning side is always the one that has any claim to superiority, except in the most obvious sense of having come out on top. When the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, did we stand more with them or with their victims? If, as seems likely, they take over again, where will our sympathies lie?

No, the losers aren’t always inferior, the winners aren’t always admirable. Let’s not forget that George W Bush was twice a winner and we’ve all been made the losers for it.

Rudyard Kipling was wrong about many things. But he was bang on the money when he wrote ‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same,’ you’ll be a man my son1.

Great if you can always come out on top but it doesn’t happen to many of us. When you can’t and you don’t let it get you down – that’s really admirable.

In another mood, Lombardi himself saw that: ‘The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall.’

Fallen of the world stand up. You have nothing to lose but your sense of defeat.

1. Where the context requires, references to the male gender include references to the female.