Friday, 30 December 2011

Submerged by the Brazilian surge

There was some shock in Britain this week at the discovery that the UK had been knocked off its position as sixth largest economy in the world to be overtaken – oh, indignity – by modest little Brazil. Modest and little because it has a population of only 190 million compared to our mighty 62 million, making Brazil barely three times bigger.

Well, OK, just over three times bigger.

I’m not quite sure what losing sixth slot means. We don’t make the cut? We don’t get to play in the final? That can’t be right. If you listen to the doom and gloom merchants, the final is already under way, and not the final match but the final act, and we’re all in it.

What I don’t understand is why it was such a big deal that most of the papers carried the story, as did the BBC. Surely if it's interesting at all, it’s a matter for congratulation, isn’t it? For far too long Brazil was struggling with poverty, crime and vile military regimes. They’ve apparently successfully put the military back into its box. Crime seems pretty much as endemic as ever. If they’ve started to make some inroads on poverty, well that has to be good news on two fronts out of three, and not something we should be getting upset about.

If anything, a bit more of the same would be good. Leaving to one side the issue of how much growth a resource-constrained world can stand, a bit more GDP per head would be good: in Brazil, its still about a third of Britains. So great that theyre doing better than they were, but a bit more of the same might be no bad thing.

As it happens, the people who brought us the news about Brazil’s move into sixth place do reckon they will keep doing better. Here’s the league table they produced:

  Source: ECBR

Now that table is just brilliant, in so many ways. Look at Germany dropping like a stone, leaving it hovering only just ahead of the UK; France even falls behind us.

And look at Russia and India just powering up the rankings. Heady stuff.

But that’s not what I mean about the table being brilliant. The brilliant bit is the stuff around it. Let’s start with the word ‘forecast’, on the column for 2020. Did they imagine that without it we would believe that they’d built a time machine, travelled to some time after 2020 to take a look at the state of the world, and then had the goodness to travel back and tell us what they had found out, not as a forecast but as a matter of historical record? 

Even more important is the source of the information. The ‘CEBR’ is the Centre for Economic and Business Research. That casts the notion of ‘forecast’ in a completely new light.

A Centre for Research of any kind just demands your respect, doesn’t it? 
If I pop down to the pub with four or five mates and we talk about the dire state of the world, that’s just whinging over a drink. But if we raise some money and take an office in a prestigious location and stick a brass plaque on the door with ‘Centre for Research’ on it, we become a reputable authority deserving to be taken seriously. Even if round the meeting table it’s the same five guys, with the same beer and the same brand of crisps.

Things are pretty much the same in those great centres of contemporary power, such as rating agencies. As I’ve said before, they’re seen as forces of nature expressing the will of God, or perhaps the will of the Market, insofar as they make any distinction between God and the Market, but in fact they’re just twelve guys sat around a table condemning Greece or Italy or anyone else that attracts their ire, to several more years misery.

Of course, you can't really compare these people with my five mates. These are experts in economics or business. Which makes them special. And I really mean special: economics and business experts are the only people who prevent weather forecasters being at the bottom of the mockery pile. Which presumably making them fundamental to the forecasting profession. If only in the sense that the fundament is the bit we all sit on.

Here’s a little illustration.This is the Guardian on 27 December talking about the Italian plan to sell more bonds in an auction over the following two days: ‘In an indication that traders fear the auction could prove expensive for Italy, the indebted country saw its 10-year cost of borrowing rise by about 11 basis points to 7.13%, before settling back below the psychologically important 7%.’

The following day, when things turned out rather better than expected in the first phase of the bond sale, the Guardian blog ran with the headline ‘Successful Italian bond sale cuts its borrowing costs’.

Then on the 29th, after the second auction didn’t raise quite as much as the maximum hoped for, the paper gave us ‘full details of today's Italian debt sale’ and commented ‘analysts aren't impressed.’

Yeah, right. Would these be the same analysts who were so concerned about Italian debt on Tuesday, reassured on Wednesday, now reverting to pessimistic type on Thursday?

Personally, I’ll reserve my admiration for economists until they get that time machine built.

In the meantime, all I can say is – ‘good on you, Brazilians. Doing well. Keep it up.’

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Crazy about the Moon

The word ‘droll’ is one we don’t use enough these days. 

It means humorous, but in an odd or whimsical way and, since I rather like whimsy, I feel the word deserves an effort to rescue it from its gradual disappearance. To that end, what could be better that to dig out a little drollery from amongst the general misery that is the news these days?  

An item that recently caught my eye and got me smiling was the announcement that a group of scientists were launching a hunt for signs of visits by space aliens to our moon. 

Desirable residence for ET and his mates?
Why the Moon? ‘Although there is only a tiny probability that alien technology would have left traces on the moon in the form of an artefact or surface modification of lunar features,’ they wrote, ‘this location has the virtue of being close, and of preserving traces for an immense duration.’

So – we’re looking there because it’s easier than looking anywhere else.

I’m irresistibly reminded of the story of a man returning home late one night who comes across another on his hands and knees under a lamppost, anxiously searching the ground.

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

‘I’ve lost a contact lens,’ comes the reply.

‘Oh, I’ll help you,’ says our protagonist who gets down and starts looking too. But after twenty minutes of fruitless hunting, he stops and asks:

‘Are you sure you lost the contact lens here?’

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

We should salute those scientists for their keenness and their spirit of enterprise. And wish them every success in their droll endeavour.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Family time

Christmas is a family time, isn’t it? So it was great having Nicky, our youngest, with us. He pulled his weight too, even to the extent of trimming and scoring brussels sprouts for us. The product would be a major contribution to a most congenial Christmas evening with friends.

Contributing to human family and friends

Unfortunately the effort exhausted him, helped no doubt by a country walk in the morning followed by a reasonably generous helping of country beer.

And then to the feline component
It was wonderful to see that even in his unconscious state, however, he continued to contribute valuably to family life, providing an ideal place for Misty to take his own rest.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

A merry Christmas in a Christian country

Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty in Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, declares that it is one of the happiest characteristics of this glorious country that official utterances are invariably regarded as unanswerable.

So when it was announced the other day, by no less a figure than David Cameron, our great British Prime Minister, or at any rate Prime Minister of Great Britain, that the country we shared was Christian, how could I possibly answer the claim except by immediately concurring?

Cameron was speaking on Friday 16 December, at Oxford, addressing churchmen at an event to celebrate the fourth centenary of the King James’s Bible. This is the one I'm always being told is admirable for the quality of its poetry. So I opened my Bible at random and found myself reading 2 Samuel 8:2. Let’s see how the uplifting message blends with the glory of the language:

‘And he smote Moab, and measured them with a line, casting them down to the ground; even with two lines measured he to put to death, and with one full line to keep alive. And so the Moabites became David’s servants, and brought gifts.

Too right: I’d become a servant and bring gifts if I’d just watched two thirds of my people cast down. Still, in that event I might perhaps console myself with the thought that it had at least been described in limpid and moving language    if that was my idea of limpid and moving language. 

But back to the other saintly David: ‘...what I am saying is that the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.’ Well, I’m sure he’s right. We don’t actually measure people in lines before we mow them down in Iraq or Afghanistan, but the rest we follow to the letter.

So it’s about values. Cameron made that explicit. And values matter to our Dave. As David Edgar pointed out in the Guardian on Monday 19December, Cameron’s speech contained a particularly telling passage:

‘A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them. We need to stand up for these values.’

So that’s the hidden agenda. The government’s going to tell us what our values are. Amazing how these enthusiasts for small government love to tell us how to think as soon as they get into office themselves.

‘We are a Christian country,’ Cameron assured us.

Interesting comment that. Lots of people say it, and I’ve often wondered how they measure it. Even Tearfund, which is a Christian charity with no obvious interest in understating religious practice in Britain, claims that only 15% of the population attend Church regularly (at least once a month). But if as he suggests, it’s values that matter to Cameron, perhaps what he means is that our society lives by Christian principle.

On the radio the other day, my favourite Churchman, Giles Fraser, quoted Luke 1:53. Luke being a book of the New Testament, as opposed to Samuel that I quoted above and which is in the Old, makes it perhaps a better test of what is specifically Christian. So what does it say? ‘He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

Well, you be the judge. Unemployment is approaching a thirty-year high. Among young people it is particularly disastrous, condemning a large portion of a generation to a life of employment insecurity. Social benefits are being withdrawn – one recent measure had the effect of plunging 100,000 children back into poverty. Meanwhile, bankers’ bonuses, after a brief dip in 2009, are back up to the pre-credit crunch level. And last year top executive earnings rose by an average of 49%.

Filling the hungry with good things? Sending the rich away empty?  Not sure that’s exactly what’s happening.

Still, it’s Christmas Eve. Not point in being a killjoy. Have a merry Christmas, all of you! Whether you’re Christian, of some other faith or of no faith at all. And whatever you think Christmas may actually mean.

Suitably Christian image for the season

... and a happy 2012! Which means one that proves the economists wrong...

Wednesday, 21 December 2011


Something odd has happened to our cat Misty. 

He’s always been good looking of course, and he’s also always been fun, but to enjoy that fun has in the past required a measure of sado-masochism. Particularly on my part.

He became quite wild and, frankly, a bit surly. He insisted on being let in early in the morning to have a bite to eat, after which he would slip out again, I presume for what the Americans so delicately call a comfort break, and then insist on being let in again. He would go and lie down for a day’s rest on one of the beds. So he was indoors at a time when, on most days, we were out.

In the evening he would have another snack and then demand to be let out, for most of the night, though he might come in for part of the evening, when he would lie on Danielle’s lap – she, by treating him with sternness and contempt, had won his respect and affection while I, by meeting his every wish and even anticipating some of them – I would stand by the back door while he primped and preened himself until he decided he was ready to go out – had earned only his utter disregard. If I tried to take him on my lap, he would scratch or even bite me. Scratching, followed by biting if I didn't attend to him quickly enough, was also the way he would attract my attention, when he wanted more food, some water or for me to get out of his way when he wanted to climb up on to Danielle’s lap.

Well, recently he’s completely changed. He comes up to be stroked, even by me, he purrs all the time, he spends far longer indoors (admittedly, the weather isn't really conducive to being outside) and he’s just generally much nicer. Why, he’s even taken to lying on my lap when Danielle’s isn’t available. When he does that my legs basically freeze so I dont cause him any inconvenience, and I stroke him as though stroking a cat was going out of fashion, for just as long as he condescends to stay.

It’s quite extraordinary. He seems to like our little corner of Luton and apparently feels more relaxed there. It’s a wonderful and most welcome change.

In one direction, though, Misty always showed great affection, even in his fierce and aggressive time. That was to our dog Janka. Misty will regularly lie on one of Janka’s mats and when she comes near, he tries to get her to lie down next to him, reaching out with a paw to try to pull her alongside him. It doesn’t often work. She seems rather to resent finding him on one of her mats, as well she might.

Not that she dislikes him particularly. She just seems to regard him as a piece of the family that she’s content to have with us, but little more.

Now Janka’s very good at divining when we’re going to bed. She’ll ignore any number of trips upstairs when, somehow, she knows we’re going to come down again. She somehow knows, however, when it’s definitive, when we’re turning in for the night. Then she scrambles upstairs and into the bedroom, to stretch out on her no 2 mat, by our bed (on Danielle's side, of course).

Not last night. I interrupted my tooth-brushing when I heard Janka emit a few low, querulous barks. When I emerged I found her trying to go into another bedroom – not ours at all. It was dark and uninhabited but still she wanted to get in. So I took a look at our room and understood why she was upset: Misty had appropriated Janka’s mat. Clearly, as always, he was hoping Janka would join her, but though that was obvious to us, it wasn’t to Janka. All she saw was a very large cat hogging pretty well all of her much cherished bed. An interloper. An occupying force. A usurper.

The usurper ensconced on Janka's bed

She barked. ‘What the hell are you doing, you crazy cat?’ she was obviously snarling, ‘find your own bed – that one’s mine.’

Eventually she drove him out. ‘Be like that,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘I was only trying to be friendly.’

Eviction by the rightful owner
Janka couldn’t see the warmth. Misty couldn’t see that he had invaded her space.

Some tension between the two of them, then. But  for my part I’m just delighted that I’m not at the receiving end of any from Misty. I can’t remember when he last bit me. Long may it remain that way.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Delicate elephant steps

Finding out where an artist turns for inspiration can often raise a smile. For instance, I love the fact that the little door in Alice in Wonderland giving a glimpse of a beautiful and unreachable garden, is based on the door cut in wall of Oxfords Christchurch Chapel, so that the real life Alice’s father could get easily from his garden into the main part of the college.

So it was a pleasure to find out why a good friend of ours in Strasbourg, Marie-Paule Lesage, decided to include images of elephants in her engravings.

She came across elephants during two trips to Laos. The first taught her to admire and delight in the paradox of the delicacy and lightness of these huge animals. She decided to go back and produce engravings based on elephants – and then have them help her with the printing, by getting them to press the plates under their feet.

But it turned out to be an uphill task. Elephants are fastidiously careful about where they put their feet, and very sensitive about who touches them. Having given up trying to get an elephant to help her with her printing, Marie-Paule decided just to try to draw outlines of their feet on the wooden plates, but even that proved elusive work.

Lively dance between artist and elephant
Her film shows how the elephant would place a foot briefly on a sheet of plywood and, as soon as she felt Marie-Paule’s pencil drawing around her toes, she would pull it back.

The result? Thin, floating, eery lines, overlapping each other and painting a picture of this strange dance between a gentle giant and an artist.

Marie-Paule Lesage tracings of an elephant's foot

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Pot-pourri, some of it seasonal

Wonderful notes, but a bit wide of the mark?

It’s the time of year - when could be better? - for listening to Bach’s wonderful Christmas Oratorio

I particularly love the section ‘prepare thyself Zion’. In magnificent uplifting song, Bach calls on the nation to be ready for great joy. But which nation is that? Why, it’s Zion, the spiritual home of the Jews. And the joy? Why, it’s for the birth of Christ. So, in some of the most glorious music Bach wrote, and by that token some of the most glorious music ever written, Bach calls on the Jews to celebrate the founding event of the Christian religion.

How can you avoid admiring Bach's sense of music? Second to none. His sense of spiritual significance? Probably right up there with the best. His sense of irony? Well, could perhaps have tried harder.

One more for my occasional series on toiletries: this WC is not disabled.

There was a time when toilets that could be used by people in wheelchairs were referred to as ‘handicapped’. But as that term came to be seen as pejorative, it was replaced by ‘disabled’, leading to glorious notices proclaiming ‘disabled toilet’, which ought to have made any possible users nervous about trying their luck.

But now I see that we refer to them as ‘accessible’. Which suggests that toilets for relatively able-bodied people should perhaps be inaccessible.

They might be up on the roof somewhere, offering a challenge to prove that users really are able bodied. While also providing them with the opportunity for a little exercise.

The Chancellor regrets

Saw a glorious sign in a hospital yesterday. It was on a blocked door, closing off access to a whole corridor. And I could hardly imagine anything more appropriate.

Appropriate. And not before time
George Osborne, our esteemed Chancellor of the Exchequer, as we Brits quaintly like to call our Minister of Finance, has been building himself quite a reputation for closing the doors of opportunity and blocking off the way through to hope. And hospitals are a lot of the punishment.

Has he finally at least found the decency to apologise for the pain he’s causing?

Monday, 12 December 2011

Cameron takes on the Eurobullies: a cabby's view

Emerging from a London restaurant recently and looking for a taxi, Danielle and I were delighted to see one for hire just across the street. I hailed it, but with no luck: the driver simply didn’t see us and drove on.

It was no great blow since there was sure to be another along in a moment. But as we started walking we were surprised to see a young man running towards us.

‘Did you want that cab?’ he asked.                              

‘Well... yes,’ I told him a little perplexed.

‘It’s waiting for you at the corner,’ he replied.

And it was. The young man had flagged it down for us. A completely gratuitous act of kindness that was as pleasant as it was surprising.

That however proved the high point of the experience. We’d barely been under way a minute or two before the driver asked us, ‘So that Cameron, eh? Were you pleased with what he did?’

There's a question I’ve never been able to resolve to my satisfaction about London cabbies. I mean, they take that immensely taxing qualification the ‘Knowledge of London’. If you see somebody travelling the streets of the town on a small motorbike with a clipboard fixed to the handlebars, it’s almost certainly a trainee cabby ‘doing the Knowledge’, trying out all the routes, noting the one-way systems and the hold-ups, cramming for a tough exam. It can contain questions such as ‘it’s 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday. You have to get from Claridge’s Hotel to Liverpool Street Station. What’s the quickest route?’ and the candidate has to provide one that takes account of likely traffic difficulties, road works and the time of day.

I’ve always admired London cab drivers for having got through such a gruelling test, though the real value of it was only brought home to me in the back of a Paris taxi. I had just watched the driver spending ten minutes leafing unavailingly through a book of street maps, only to end by asking me ‘do you know where it is?’

What I haven’t understood is whether the ‘Knowledge of London’ test also includes questions designed to weed out anyone marginally to the left, politically, of Francisco Franco. There was a time when London cabbies, if they saw white faces in the back of the cab, would open a conversation with some overtly racist statement. These days they’re more circumspect, preferring to use code and talk about ‘immigration’ instead. And certainly on matters of economics and finance their admiration for Thatcher is only limited by a sense that she was a little too pink for them.

So the driver was calling on us to join him in unbounded admiration for David Cameron’s courage in standing up to the bully boys of Europe. There seems to be a fairly general view in this country that by exercising Britain’s right of veto against plans to amend EU Treaties to allow fiscal harmonisation within the Eurozone and save the Euro, Cameron has taken a position somehow analogous to that of Britain in 1940: you may remember the David Low cartoon of a British soldier on a rock in a raging sea shaking his fist at a stormy sky and shouting ‘Very well, alone’. Ah, glorious days.

Spirit of Cameron?
Trouble is, back then Britain really was standing alone against a vicious dictatorship that had violently broken the bulk of Europe to its will, and followed up its triumph with further brutality at least the equal of any previous tyrant’s, backed by far more effective technology.

What Cameron has done is say ‘no’ to a group of partner nations who are in desperate financial trouble and have at last woken up to the need to do something serious about it. Most of my compatriots seem to think of this act as heroic; all I can say is that their idea of what makes a hero is very different from mine. 

At any rate, I’m pleased that there’s been some decision by the Eurozone nations to act. Not that decision and action are exactly the same,  and it’ll be interesting to see if they can really take the plunge. If they do, they’ll have demonstrated the old truth that crises can be opportunities: it was always a matter of some doubt whether you could have a common currency without political union. The Eurozone may at last be moving towards some degree – maybe a sufficient degree – of political union in a way it probably wouldn’t have had the courage to do without the crisis.

The ideal would have been to act with Britain; to fail to act would have been disastrous; to act without Britain is only a second-best solution, but a good second best, and it at least has the merit of getting a disruptive and obstructive presence out of the process.

And what about Britain itself? Cameron said he wielded his veto to protect the City of London. So here’s one irony: the City is doing just fine, paying its leaders the kind of eye-watering bonuses that should have gone out of fashion with the financial crisis – for which they were among the chief culprits. And the other irony? If the Euro comes through its current problems, with fiscal union of its member states, it will be immeasurably strengthened. And the financial centre of the Continent will be drawn inexorably to Frankfurt.

So Cameron, by ensuring that Britain will not be represented at the meetings where this future will be planned, has sealed the lingering decline of the City of London he was ostensibly defending.

Our driver felt that Cameron deserved congratulation. Proof, if any were needed, that though the cabby’s Knowledge of London may well have been excellent, I certainly wouldn’t turn to him for advice on either politics or economics. Even though he seemed to expect it.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

E-Mail attack tutorial: the copy list

Not enough research has gone into the use of the e-mail as an offensive weapon, and yet it must be one of the more common and effective today. In my usual spirit of willingness to contribute to the sum of public knowledge, heres my take on a particular aspect of the attack e-mail: the use of the copy list. 

Twice in recent weeks I’ve come across an interesting use of copy lists on e-mails by clients wanting to make a complaint. Let’s say, for instance, that in a piece of software, they’ve failed to notice (or rather remember, since you’ve explained it at least twice) that you have to press a button marked ‘OK’ before a particular report is displayed.

‘Please immediately address the failure of the report to display,’ they will write, ‘since our users are all expecting to be able to view it today.’

And that copy list: it includes John, Mary and George from the correspondent’s own department; Carol and Anne who were at the meeting on Thursday; plus of course Colin, Richard, Terry and the other Mary who were there the week before; their boss, the correspondent’s boss, George’s boss; the boss of the whole division; two of his colleagues from the board of directors; and the guy from administration who always seems to be copied on everything though no-one’s quite sure what he does.

You scamper around trying to find out why the report’s not working and, after an hour’s wasted effort which also involves interrupting two of your colleagues and getting them to take a look, you establish there’s absolutely nothing the matter. You reply with something tactful like: 

‘Thank you for bringing this to our attention. The report does now seem to be working correctly. Could you please try it again, ensuring that you select it from the drop down menu at the top of the screen, set the date and departments for which you want it to run and then press the ‘OK’ button?’

All that guff about the drop down menu and the selection of the department is just there as smokescreen, to save their blushes, so that it isn’t obvious you’re really just saying ‘come on, you moron, you didn’t click on ‘OK’ did you?’

Back comes a response quarter of an hour later.

‘Thank you for getting back to me. The report does indeed work correctly. My apologies, but I hadn’t realised that I was supposed to click the ‘OK’ button.’

And who’s on the copy list? Just the guy from administration who always seems to be copied on everything though no-one’s quite sure what he does.

But I’m wise to this tactic now. When it happened to me most recently, I carefully copied all the names in the copy list back into my reply and basically wrote, ‘OK, so now you’re admitting it was you that was being dense all along, are you?’ Not of course that I used those terms – I said something along the lines of ‘given the position, does this mean that you are now happy that everything is working correctly?’ I then added a few more names to the copy list. Two can play at that game, you see.

Though the response was in writing, I could practically hear the gritted teeth behind it. ‘New information now available,’ his ‘unfortunate absence due to other commitments from the most recent meeting’, all the excuses, as a prelude to the admission that he was glad (yeah, right) to ‘acknowledge that everything does indeed now seem to be working correctly.’

And, I’m glad to say, there’s been no repeat of the complaint.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Why settle for second best, even in a quarrel?

Why not strive for quality in every area of human endeavour? 

Why not strive for excellence even in a field as apparently unpromising as animosity?

So when I saw an advert for ‘Better Rows’ the other day, I thought ‘yes, why not? If you’re going to have a row, make it a good one.’ 

It could be an original approach to, say, marriage counseling, couldn’t it? ‘We can’t stop you arguing with each other, but we can at least help you make sure the quarrels don’t descend into mere banality. We can make sure they have that special quality that marks them out from the ordinary. 

Yes, I can imagine there’s mileage in that. Perhaps even a little money to be made, if you play your cards right.

Then I looked at the ad again, and I realised they weren’t promoting a superior form of argument at all. They were doing that rather tedious thing that advertisers like, of making two words, on different lines, share an initial letter.

Turns out it’s just about threading which, I’m assured, is a way of thinning out eyebrows by pulling out individual hairs with cotton threads.

‘Doesn’t hurt at all,’ Danielle assures me. It amazes me the arrant nonsense women sometimes talk and expect us to believe.

At last - an end to bad arguments?
‘Doesn’t hurt at all,’ Danielle assures me. It amazes me the arrant nonsense women sometimes talk and expect us to believe.

And here's another sign:


Marks and Spencer offering 25% of men’s clothing.

But why should all men swear? Surely something to be celebrated, isn’t it?

And a last thought:

That question I started with - why not strive for quality in every area of human endeavour?

It actually has a good answer: because sometimes it isn't worth it. I can't discover who originally said it, but there's a great statement I’ve taken to quoting rather a lot recently: if a job isn't worth doing, it isn't worth doing right.

Amazing how often people spend a lot of time trying to persuade me to put real effort, real striving for quality, into doing something which there was no point in doing in the first place.

I always end up in a row with them. Which may be why I'm tempted by the idea of better rows.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Losing your shirt

Mankind loves its metaphors.

If the Euro collapses, economies will fall like dominoes. Our economies are in the hands of financial institutions playing in the last chance saloon. The leading figures in finance are heartless incompetents incapable of raising their eyes above the shortest possible term and the satisfaction of their own greed. 

Sorry, that last bit wasn’t a metaphor, merely a statement of fact, but you get the picture.

It strikes me that even quite trivial matters can be made to stand as metaphors for much more fundamental ideas. I find, for instance, that my progress through life can be traced by a humble article of clothing. It may not have the same ring as Shakespeares original words, but I might say ‘all the world’s a stage, and one man in his time wears many shirts.’

As a child, my shirts were chosen by my parents which, I suppose, meant by my mother. Little stripy T-shirts, for example, all the more comfortable for their familiarity. 

Then I went to a conventional English school with smart white shirts and ties. For reasons that are now obscure to me, I used to bite the cuffs which must have limited the smartness, but no-one ever complained.

As a young man I chose my own shirts but I was lousy at it, so I took refuge in the principle that I would never compromise so far with bourgeois society as to wear clothes that complied with its demands for conformity. I wore ghastly worn out things that didn’t coordinate with the rest of my clothes. Fortunately, the only people I was keen to impress were young women and they seemed able to cope with the idea that it was what was inside the shirt that mattered more than the outside.

I never learned the trick the son of a friend of mine later perfected, of popping down to his local charity shop and buying a string of shirts at a pound each, then wearing them until they really couldn’t go any further without washing, at which point he’d give them to the same shop and pick up some replacements. A pound apiece, he felt, was a reasonable price for laundered shirts.

Then I started work. That principle of non-conformity had to go. I realised that I could after all compromise so far as to wear a suit, a ‘smart’ shirt, even a tie. I who had sworn I would never be a businessman, and therefore certainly never look like one, quietly slipped into the part with no sense of committing perjury.

Of course, I was a British businessman, so I dressed with exactly the casual elegance and eye-catching charm for which British businessmen have won a worldwide reputation.

And then time moved on again. A friend of mine pointed out to me how amused he was, at Parent-Teacher meetings, to see the men in casual trousers and office shirts – as though they had only had the time for a minimal change of clothes before heading out again, or at least wanted to give the impression that they were that busy. That was a sufficient spur to get me to change my shirt as well as my trousers when I got home in the evenings.

As for the ties – these days I only wear one to certain meetings and I put it on in the car park outside, taking it off the moment I’m back behind the wheel, before driving away.

So where does that take me? The Bard assigned seven parts to his view of man – the baby (‘mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms’ ’ what a way with words), the schoolboy, the lover, the soldier, the justice, the slippered pantaloon, and finally second childishness. And I’ve listed five shirts in my life – the child’s, the schoolboy’s, the young man’s, the businessman’s, the father’s.

The other day I discovered I’d reached my sixth. I got home and decided to slip into a shirt less formal, of thicker and warmer cloth. But when I reached for it, hanging in our bedroom, a room we never heat, I noticed it felt horribly cold. I decided that I was now at a stage in life when I could indulge yet another desire for creature comfort and hung the shirt on a radiator in another room for a few minutes.

Just how completely I had reached the next stage of life became clear when a little later I decided to put the shirt on. Back in the bedroom, I was shocked to discover that it was no longer there.

‘But I’m sure I had it just then,’ I said to myself. ‘Danielle must have tidied it away’ (terrible how much easier it is to blame one’s partner than to accept responsibility for one’s own idiosyncrasies, isn't it?) (OK, OK, inanities not idiosyncrasies). 

It took me a while before memory returned. By then the shirt was beautifully warm. But it certainly brought home to me how clearly my use of shirts mirrored my ageing.

The experience also rather suggested that I might be closer than I’d like to the seventh and final shirt. Which would presumably be some kind of bib.

Totally unrelated postscript

You can say what you like about Luton, but when it comes to the Christmas spirit, we know what it takes.

The Christmas spirit takes off in Luton
Not so much when it comes to taste, decorum or understatement. But revelry  for that we defer to none.  

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Words: seeking meaning, seeking action

Recently I made the mistake of making some disparaging remarks about Ludwig Wittgenstein in the presence of one my closest friends who, I’d momentarily forgotten, was a great fan of the philosopher.

I’m the first to admit that my criticism of his thinking is largely based on ignorance. But, in my defence, I would contend that I can do absolutely nothing about that ignorance. It’s not as though I haven’t tried to come to grips with Wittgenstein, but when his statements aren’t simply incomprehensible, they seem to me of such banality is to take us nowhere forward at all. For instance (Philosophical Investigations, Part I, section 43):

For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

OK, is this saying anything else but ‘meaning is generally what we mean to say, but not always’? And, OK again, I may be rather miserably pragmatic about these things, but I really would like philosophy to help understand the world or guide action in it. What I draw from this illuminating insight is that I may not always mean what I think I mean when I talk about meaning but in most cases I probably do.

Ludwig: no way through that I can see...
Enough to make me want to pick up a different book, which is what I generally do. That may explain why I don’t really understand Wittgenstein much.

Now, in one of the books I recently picked up as an alternative to his I read the words:

The expansion of choices to be made is both an opportunity (the choices can be made by oneself) and a burden (the choices have to be made by oneself).

Now that I regard as an insight. And limpid, easy to follow.

We in the West harp on endlessly about freedom, and in particular freedom of choice, but the reality – and I recognise this in myself as much as in others – we frequently want to escape the burden of decision. Not always: in some areas of work and life I vigorously defend my right to take or at least contribute to decision, but much more often I’m happy to fit in with others.

A couple of pages later the same writer picks an example from healthcare, to show that freedom doesn’t have to mean the freedom to control. The fact that someone else controls making it available doesn't make a freedom any less valuable:

... the freedom to live in an epidemic-free atmosphere may be important for us, and given the choice, we would choose to achieve that. But the controls of general epidemic prevention may not be in our hands – it may require national and possibly even international policies. If we do not have control over the process of elimination of epidemics, there is no more to be said, as far as ‘freedom of  control’ is concerned, in this field. But in a broader sense the issue of freedom is still there. A public policy that eliminates epidemics is enhancing our freedom to lead the life – unbattered by epidemics – that we would choose to lead. (65)

Not just clear and insightful, this statement has immediate resonance for me, working in the field of healthcare. In Britain, governments – of either party – have long trumpeted the importance of freedom of choice. You must it seems have the choice of which hospital to go to for treatment.

But it’s a completely false choice. I don’t choose to go to this hospital rather than that one. I choose to be free of my disease. Here where I live, in Luton, 95% of hospital admissions are to our local hospital. Offered the choice, the vast majority of people choose the closest. The only surprising thing about this finding is that some people find it surprising.

My friend challenged me to name a modern philosopher I’d prefer to Wittgenstein. I mentioned a couple, but now I’d like to add a third: Amartya Sen whose refreshing perceptions on freedom I’ve been quoting (want to know where from? Inequality Reexamined, Oxford 1995, pages 63 and 65 respectively).

Amartya: possible antidote?
Why are they so refreshing? Because he uses words to guide action. Words for their own sake strike me as insipid in contrast.

Besides, if the venerable Ludwig is right, and I can’t even know whether I always mean the same thing by ‘mean’, what on earth would be the point in them?

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Time to chill

You have nothing to fear but fear itself Franklin Roosevelt told us. And in that spirit I have to say that little frightens me quite as much as how frightened we seem to be these days.

It’s doing us a huge amount of damage. We’re all worried sick about the Italian economy, so the fearful people with enough money to make a difference start trying to unload Italian bonds, so the yield rises, so it becomes more expensive for the Italian state to service its debts, so the economy gets worse. And yet, at root, the problem is only fear. If we all just said, ‘hey, it’s the Italians, it’s part of their charm,’ and had another glass of Barolo, the problem would be well on the way to resolution.

Exactly the same is true of terrorism. There was lots of fear last week about the fact that the passport officers would be on strike on Wednesday, opening our borders, or so it was claimed, to all sorts of sinister characters. There were calls for passport officers to lose the right to strike.

The 9/11 bombers got into the US through fully-staffed passport control checkpoints. What on earth difference did they make?  The bombers who attacked London on 7/7 2005 were born and bred in this country. They didn’t even need to go through passport control.

Besides, 7/7 cost 52 lives, and there have been no other deaths from terrorism in Britain since. Over that period, nearly 12,000 people have been killed on the roads. So if you’re concerned about saving lives, shouldn’t you start by banning cars rather than limiting the right to strike?

In any case, none of that is the point. The right to strike may be immensely irritating when it’s exercised, but it’s still a fundamental right. Before it was recognised as fundamental, we lived in societies which were significantly uglier than today’s – the occasional inconvenience seems a price well worth paying to block any move back towards those times.

I never tire of quoting Benjamin Franklin, who was bang on the money when he said ‘he who would give up a fundamental freedom for a little temporary security deserves neither freedom nor security’.

This constant striving for safety is bound to fail anyway. I recently quoted Eliza Manningham Buller, former heady of the British Security Service MI5, from her second Reith lecture of 2011. Let’s look at what she said in the third:

‘It’s important to keep a rational perspective on terrorist risk. Bin Laden must have known that 9/11 would make this especially difficult, for at least two reasons: the endless images of the horror, recycled and replayed round the clock by the 24 hour media, and the unrealistic view that society can become risk free. The world is full of risks and dangers, only some of which can be reduced.’

That’s right. Anyone who wants to live in a risk-free world shouldn’t be in this world at all.

So if you’re scared about terrorism, just remember it’s extremely unlikely to affect you. Worried about car crashes? Don't, you're probably not going to be involved in one. As for anxiety about the Euro, bear in mind that stoking up the general sense of panic may make the very thing you fear more likely.

Not perhaps an answer to our woes,
but a great palliative
So my advice? Relax. Chill. Open that bottle of Barolo and set about emptying it. You may do the Italian economy some good, and yourself a lot more.