Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Sandy and the fair value of people

It was great to get this picture from friends in the States, in the wake of super-storm Sandy. 

As always in such cases, if there is a positive message to come out from a disaster, it’s that of human courage and selflessness. And in this case, the humans are manual workers many of whom are unionised. 

The unions are the organisations that, somehow, it has become fashionable to belittle. Bureaucratic. Obstacles to progress. Sinister even.

So they’re easy game. To a governor of Wisconsin, for instance, intent on dismantling all collective bargaining arrangements. And the onus of proof seems to be on those who oppose him, who say that rights should be defended, while the common view seems to back his onslaught on them.

It’s as true in Britain. The latest government wheeze is to buy out rights: smaller companies could offer share options in return for workers giving up for example, on suing over unfair dismissal. Odd that government seems to view unfairness as something of a good thing.

Which ought to be a warning to anyone in the States who depends on employed work and who’s tempted to vote Romney. Take a look at what his brother-in-outlook Cameron is doing in Britain, and think again. Just how well will you do out of unfairness?

There’s certainly plenty of unfairness around. When Bob Diamond stepped down as Chief Executive of Barclays Bank, he had the decency to waive £20 million of bonus. Perhaps that’s not unreasonable: after all, the justification for high pay is the responsibility its recipients take, and on his watch Barclays had lost half its share value and engaged in practices that are still the subject of investigation that may lead to criminal proceedings.

That left him with only the relative pittance of £2 million to soften his departure in disgrace.

Which is only 80 times the yearly salary of a fully qualified nurse and only 25 times the salary of a top nursing manager in the NHS. And the NHS is in the second year of a pay freeze.

So that picture really is quite a useful reminder. After all, when a storm hits, I think I’d much rather have those workers up the pylons repairing the lines, rather than rely on a banker. And if I’m ill I’d much rather see a nurse. It may be heretical to say it, but when things get tough, I
’d value those low-paid workers rather more than the prosperous financier.

Which suggests that it would be no bad thing to redress the balance a bit, to stop making quite such a virtue of unfairness. And if the unions can help make things fairer, the playing field more level, well, perhaps it’s time to review our image of them too.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Rutting or no rutting

For a couple of weeks each year, stags turn from placid, timid creatures into fearsome brutes. In the main they turn their ferocity on each other, though they’re perfectly capable of picking on any human rash enough to get close.

Not wise to tangle with one of these...
See more?

That happens is the rutting season when the females are fertile and the males battle for the right to impregnate them. They famously bellow as they do so, making the sound of their aggression as awe-inspiring as the fights themselves.

Over the last two years, Danielle has taken groups of friends to see the sight, but I’ve been unable to accompany them on either occasion. That’s a pity because I’ve always wanted to be there, if only in honour of William Harvey. Yes, that’s the man who did the work on circulation of the blood, way back in the seventeenth century; what’s less well known is that he also did some ground-breaking research on reproduction.

In the days when I was working on eighteenth-century French science, one of the controversies I came across owed much to his account of the eggs he found in the wombs of rutting does from Windsor Great Park. 

For my part, the only bit of this story that I disliked was the idea that he’d been cutting up females for no better reason than they’d got pregnant. That’s the kind of behaviour that I would associate with worst kind of fanatical extremist rather than a leading scientist. Perhaps with even certain excrescences of the Tea Party, though I suppose they’d be less likely to be that punitive about a female getting pregnant than over her not being pregnant any more.

Harvey: a fine physician but no friend to does
In eighteenth-century France, less squeamish about causing torment or death, but much more prickly about dignity and status, fashionable ladies were appalled by the idea that they might produce eggs.‘What? Like hens in a farmyard? Who do they take us for?’ 

If, like their successors today, you think yourself a cut above other people and born to rule the roost – to use, I think, le mot juste – I suppose the idea that anything links you with animals you roast and eat must be pretty shocking.

Harvey, however, reported what he saw, and I was hoping to pay a small tribute to him when we stepped out of the car in Ashridge forest yesterday.

The forest is one of those places that makes living nearby a privilege to be treasured. Heavily wooded over a large area, it’s the perfect place for country walks at any season, though at its most striking in late spring when the ground is carpeted with bluebells or, indeed, in the autumn when the deer are rutting and the stags bellowing.

Ashridge bluebell carpet
Alas, I was destined to miss that spectacle again this year. We were too late. There were lots of deer and very attractive they were too, but they’d returned to their customary docility. No bellowing. No clashing of antlers.

Getting ready for a clash?
But this was a picture of Danielle's from last year, when I wasn't there

The disappointment was, however, limited. In the first place, should we really be encouraging that kind of behaviour? Rutting stags hardly show an enlightened approach to females, do they? To say nothing of the approach to each other. Why, outside a British pub on a Saturday night, where you’re likely to witness similar scenes, it could lead to an arrest and a night in a police cell.

In any case, an autumn forest walk in good company is sufficient pleasure in itself. And one of my favourite Ashridge characters, a gloriously friendly grey horse I always make a point of visiting if I’m nearby, was in his paddock and only too glad to have me pull up grass to feed to him.

Always good to catch up with an old friend
So it was a successful outing even without the deer making a scene. 

And, in any case, there’s always next year, isn’t there?

Saturday, 27 October 2012

In praise of aimlessness

‘If a fish came to me,’ the Mock Turtle tells Alice in Alice in Wonderland, ‘and told me he was going a journey, I should say, “with what porpoise?”’
The Mock Turtle and the Gryphon with Alice
Recently Ive begun to realise, however, that some of the best excursions in life require neither a cetacean nor any other kind of purpose. That’s not a lesson that I’ve learned on my own: it took my dog Janka to teach me.

Natural indolence makes me generally unwilling to venture out of doors unless I have a pressing reason to do so. You know, something rewarding, like going to work or buying toilet paper. Otherwise I’d be perfectly happy just to stay at home and vegetate.

Strangely enough, vegetating usually involves a screen of some kind: a computer, a Kindle, a TV. Particularly now that it’s turned cold, I’m much more inclined to glue myself to one of them than to take a chance on chilly streets and biting wind.

But we have a dog and dogs impose their own strict code. 

She’s very good at knowing when I’m getting ready to take her out. I haven’t worked out how she can tell that I’m not going out for fun, to the office or the shops, but somehow she can. I start to put my shoes on, and she comes over to watch me, expectantly. I put on my coat and she’s right next to me. I grab a handful of what I euphemistically think of as ‘doggy-bags’ and she’s barking.

And all for what? We’re not going anywhere. In fact on the face of it we’re about to do something as mindlessly unproductive as anything could be: walk a substantial distance through the cold only to end up exactly where we started from.

And yet, and yet. Luton has three parks that lead into each other, two on hills crowned with trees, the third flat and around an extended lake, or possibly just
a widened stream – I'm not sure what the difference is. 

Today, all three parks were flooded with golden light which somehow made the cold less painful. Janka was darting around, clearly giving not a single thought to the futility of the exercise, merely enjoying the moment. And I was listening to Ulysses on my headphones which meant mixing two sources of pleasure at once, not something it’s always easy to do.

By the time we got back, Janka’s food was ready, which gave her a more than sufficient goal for the outing. And even I was refreshed and in good humour.

Which makes me think. Perhaps she’s the one that’s right. You don’t always have to do things with a view to achieving something else. It’s time to recognise the pleasure of the activity in itself, to let myself go with the flow and enjoy simple aimlessness.

You can learn a lot from a dog. Much more, it would appear, than you can from a Mock Turtle.

Sorry, Lewis Carroll. Happy to do things without a porpoise after all.

Janka has much to teach me.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Cut the people some slack

It’s appalling just how many people feel they need to tell us what to do. Bosses, of course. Bossy relatives too. And bossy governments more than any. 

Along with the bossy priests, governments like to tell us who we should – and much more often should not – choose as partners, what things we should never read or watch, which people we should or shouldn’t live with or refuse to get anywhere near.

And yet much of the time all we really need all those judges of our behaviour to do is just act as enablers. Create a space, ensure a level playing field. And then clear off to their fashionable parties and leave us to get on with things. Because I’m firmly convinced that in those circumstances we
’d get on a hell of a lot better than if people with a questionable claim to authority keep telling people arbitrarily classified as surbordinates what to do.

Tonight I saw a perfect illustration of the point, in St Pancras station.

Some time ago, someone up there among whatever passes as the authorities of this great London station, decided to put two pianos in the main concourse. A couple of stools too.

Then they backed off and left it to ordinary citizens to take the initiative. And so it was that today, as I wandered along the shops, I was greeted by the sound of music hall classics being banged out with great gusto and, frankly, skill too.

Music hall medley, and very good it was too
A little further on, I came across a couple posing by the other piano: they seemed more interested in taking pictures of each other than in playing music, but, hey, it’s all about having fun isn’t it?

Posing more than playing, but who cares?

And everyone was. With no-one to organise them. Or to give them orders.

What a lesson for government and other hierarchies that is.

Postscript. I’ve just realised that I wrote ‘tonight’ a few paragraphs back. But this happened at 6:30. Only a couple of months ago, that would have been ‘this evening’. The clocks go back this weekend. We’re seriously into the bad bit of the year. Ah well, time to buckle down, to grin and bear it. Less than two months to go and the days will be getting longer again.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The father figure: source of authority in the family

Checks and balances, conflict and compromise. That’s what life’s all about, and that’s as true in the domestic sphere as anywhere else.

It was a lesson I learned when I became a father. It was a curious experience, as I stepped up to a role of authority – I might even say an authoritarian role – and realised I was approaching it from a position of weakness.

Firstly because I couldn’t bring myself to take it seriously. So when the kids roared and wept their disapproval my instinct was generally to laugh, which quite naturally helped things along beautifully. If things turned really bad, I’d get a camera out and take a picture which I threatened to show to their friends later. It was all part of what I saw as my mission to be a caring and supportive parent.

The second factor that made it a little more difficult to break the kids to my will was that I wasn’t very good at it. Being vertically challenged doesn’t help: my father used to tell me I suffered from duck’s disease, which he defined as having my arse (sorry, colonials – ass) too close to the ground. Severity and punishment didn’t really come naturally which meant that, if I wanted to get my way at all, my only option was compromise.

Nicky could sometimes be quite easy
With Nicky, the youngest of them, I reached a good working arrangement whereby I never insisted on anything I didn’t really care about – the kind of thing, say, which neglected might lead to our all being poisoned or burned in our beds – and on anything else he would choose to ignore me or follow my gently offered suggestions as he saw fit. 

Imposing paternal authority sometimes proved tiring

Occasionally I'd enlist the help of
the (not so) wicked stepbrother
It worked out just fine and all three boys left home without getting themselves murdered or murdering either of us, which is probably not a bad measure of a reasonably successful upbringing.

But leave home they eventually did, creating a terrible gap in a life in which I had devoted so much effort to enlightened and effective nurturing and, above all, training of others in my care.  I needed to fill that void. With the pet substitutes gone, I had to concentrate on the pets instead.

With them it’s been working just as swimmingly as with the boys. I have to confess that a spirit of compromise still reigns, though I sometimes wonder whether only one of us is doing the compromising. You know, like the special relationship that binds Britain to the US, but not the US to Britain.

Our dog Janka seems to have got her mind round the fact that she’s not supposed to get up on the sofa unless we’ve previously put a blanket down for her. She’ll even sit quietly watching me get the blanket ready before she hops up. If, however, we forget to put the blanket out and then leave her on her own, she’ll get up anyway. After all, it’s our fault for not having kept our end of the deal. She could hardly accept an infringement of her rights just because we haven’t done our work.

Good Girl. On her blanket. Not eating my lunch.
The other day I was delighted to take some of Danielle’s excellent cooking for my lunch at the office. It was in a Tupperware container, inside three plastic bags, inside my rucksack. But then I went out leaving this beautifully aromatic temptation provocatively displayed in the middle of the sitting room. How could I reasonably complain if on my return the packaging had been ripped open and every last morsel of the food was gone, except for the bits that have been rubbed into the carpet?

Generally, though, things are going well in bending her to my will. Success has been just as marked with Misty, the cat. They say that cats can’t be trained, but I’m living proof that it just takes a certain attitude. 

Our cat is very pleased with the lovely cat flap in the back door. Occasionally. however, he prefers to go out of the front door. After all, if he uses the flap, he has to climb a gate and then walk metres and metres round side of the house. So, if I’m around, and he wants to get to the front, he makes his desire perfectly clear to me, perfectly clear to any but the most obtuse fool. He sits by the door. He comes back towards me and then looks at the door. Sometimes, if all else fails, he mews. If he feels so inclined he can do that piteously.

If even that fails, what can he possibly do but remind me of his requirements? And as he has been equipped with four sets of claws and an excellent set of highly penetrative teeth, what else is he likely to use to deliver the reminder?

It works too. Danielle has a different attitude: she just belts him if he starts getting uppity. But I think initiative has to be rewarded. If he bites me hard enough, of course I get up and let him out of the front door.

You see? I’m getting him completely trained. Breaking him to my will as becomes an authoritative father figure.

It’s working just as well as it did with the kids.

Misty faces the day and decides to do some more training.
I mean, to get trained by me

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Why bother to attack Toffs who self-destruct?

What goes around comes around.

The problem with clichéd expressions is that they become so threadbare that they lose all their effectiveness, so it
’s great to see one spectacularly vindicated.

In April 2008, Gwynneth Dunwoody died. She was a veteran Labour Party Member of Parliament, with a reputation as a battleaxe, not afraid to speak out in favour of individuals and causes needing support, however unpopular they might be.

At the by-election for her Crewe and Nantwich seat, Gwynneth’s daughter Tamsin carried the banner for Labour. Now, I’m not terribly keen on dynastic arrangements in politics. After all, we only have to look at Prince Charles to see that the hereditary principle doesn’t work terribly well. And the US provides a powerful counter-example: where George Bush senior is in the running to figure among the ten least impressive presidents, his son Dubya has an excellent chance of winning the coveted title of all-time worst.

In this country, it’s usually the Conservatives who go in for this kind of thing. Joseph Chamberlain won something of a reputation as a campaigning politician; his son Neville signed the Munich agreement with Hitler. Winston Churchill’s grandson of the same name had a parliamentary career of well-deserved obscurity.

Still, there have been Labour examples of political families too, and Tamsin Dunwoody clearly wanted to be part of another. Unfortunately, she decided to run a campaign based on denunciation of the ‘toffs’ in the Conservative Party, of politicians banking on their inherited privileges. Unfortunately, building a campaign on a rejection of inherited power is perhaps not the smartest thing to do when you want to take over from your mother. 

A misguided campaign?
The campaign backfired. She was accused of waging class war, and this was seen as poor form not just by the usual suspects in the media, but by much of the Labour Party and by enough of the Crewe and Nantwich electorate to see her mother’s substantial majority turned into a healthy one for her opponent – the heir to one of Britain’s bigger industrial fortunes and therefore a member of the very class Tamsin had ridiculed.

Curiously, now that we’re living under a government run by those toffs, it’s becoming clear that if Labour feels it shouldn
’t sink so low as to engage in class war, that’s not a view shared by its opponents. The war hasn’t ended, it’s just become one-sided. The government has cut tax rates for the 1% of top earners while savaging benefits to the poorest: the unemployed, the disabled, the working poor who have seen tax credits withdrawn and support for their children's education abolished. Food banks are proliferating throughout the country.

Many of the senior politicians responsible are also tainted by their association with figures who left much to be desired, and not merely for being rich but for actions that may have involved malpractice or downright offences. The Prime Minister himself is the most prominent among a group that includes the Mayor of London and several ministers who were a lot too close to Murdoch corporation executives and bankers now under investigation for highly dubious activities.

These are serious and well-founded allegations against the government. What
s most striking today, however, is that charges are also beginning to rain down on it based on no more than the appearance of impropriety.

Last week the Conservative Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell felt he had no choice but to resign, in the face of the sustained opposition to him in his own party. His offence? In a burst of temper, and according to the officers involved, he called some police ‘plebs’. Can any of us say we have never in our lives sworn at a policeman, if only under our breaths? It’s hardly a resigning offence, but that word ‘plebs’ hanged him: the Tories are now seen as so entrenched in privilege that many believe that, despite his denials, he used the term out of his inbuilt belief as an Etonian in his superiority over ordinary mortals.

And then on Friday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, was spotted travelling in first class on a train despite having a second class ticket (‘standard class’ as it’s euphemistically called). He apparently paid the upgrade but nonetheless there’s a widespread presumption that he was trying to get an unfair advantage, to cheat the regulations because he doesn’t believe they apply to him as they do to others.

In other words, Tamsin Dunwoody’s accusations are believed these days not only when they are incontrovertibly true, but even when there’s the slightest appearance that they might be. What went round at her Nantwich and Crewe by-election in 2008, is coming back round now with a vengeance.

My congratulations to her for her prescience, though it did her no good then and it’s far too late for her to profit by it now.

But let us also admire the government for mismanaging its public relations to the point where an increasing proportion of the electorate is unprepared to give it the benefit of any doubt, instead preferring to believe the worst of it as soon as anything even slightly discreditable happens, however flimsy the evidence.

Labour must be beginning to feel growing confidence over the General Election of 2015. I wonder whether it might even take back Crewe and Nantwich?

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Unblessed are the cheapskates for they shall not inherit the earth

A real Ancient Mariner experience awaits me most mornings as I arrive at Luton station. An old man acosts us all, hurrying passengers, his eyes boring into us with wild earnestness, as he tries to foist his miserable story on us. In his case, its a story that takes the form of one of those ubiquitous free newspapers. 

‘Cheap!’ he shouts, ‘totally free. You like money? Here is a free paper. Straight in the bin when you have finished it. Completely cheap.’

Every fibre in the marketing bit of my soul – and I like to think that marketing occupies only part of my soul – revolts at his patter. Because no-one likes ‘cheap’. Why, even when I was being taught German, my class learned that the word for cheap, ‘billig’, should be avoided in favour of ‘preisgünstig’, which basically means good value.

People buy value; if they can get it for less that’s great, but it’s not the price they want to be reminded of, it’s the value. You’re telling me the paper can go straight in the bin? Then why would I take it at all, even for nothing? What I put in my bin is rubbish; are you offering me more?

Maybe some people take copies but I absolutely refuse. I stalk by with my nose in the air. Well, metaphorically at least. Not so as you could tell from the outside. Marketing may not be the most admirable of professions, but it has been mine for many years and I owe it more consideration than to give into that kind of promotion.

His misguided message got me thinking about other cheap things. Airlines, for instance, which don’t call themselves ‘cheap’ but ‘low cost’. It’s an important difference: if you keep your costs down, you’re being smart, showing good husbandry or perhaps the ability to negotiate intelligently. Buying cheap, on the other hand, just means settling for less.

No wonder that Fascinating Aïda wanted to satirise that particular industry, they called their song ‘Cheap Flights’. It includes the memorable line:

Cheap flights, cheap flights, we should have gone by sea, 

There's no such fecking thing as a fecking flight for 50p

The song doesn’t name an airline though it does talk about Ireland, which for some may seem a bit of a give-away. 

At one time I relied pretty heavily on the Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair, but the more I flew on it, the less I liked it: there was the increasing sense that anything they could stick a price tag on would pretty soon be given one. What finally finished them for me was when they did away with reclining seats, as though being able to lean back was a luxury too far for a ‘low cost flight’. 

Travelling with Ryanair became the airline equivalent of catching a bus, except that I rather like buses.
Unbeatable on the price tags
The only time I enjoyed flying with Ryanair was on a trip from Belfast, when a hostess with a strong local accent announced that there were ‘sex emergency exits’ on the plane. It was only a forty-minute flight, but that was quite long enough to come up with a mind-blowing list of situations that might be classified as sex emergencies. Obviously, it helps if you have the right kind of imagination. I leave that as an exercise to yours.

So I gave up on Ryanair, despite its claim, probably justified, of being the cheapest – even once you’ve paid for the extras. But that only proves my point. They give ‘cheap’ a bad name. And they certainly they have nothing to do with good value.

Still, I mustn
’t complain about the man with the papers at the station. At least hes provided me with a few thoughts to toy with in an idle moment, and for that I’m grateful. Perhaps I should return the favour, and offer him some advice.

Why not try, I
’d like to say to him: ‘all the news you need! right here, right now, with no waiting. And – it’s free!’

Maybe it wouldn’t appeal to him. But it works a lot better for me. Though that still wouldn’t persuade me to take one of his grotty free sheets. I mean – if it’s free, what can it possibly be worth?

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

We all need Obama to step up to this presidential legacy

For my introduction to politics, few experiences can have been as seminal, in my delicate formative years, than seeing posters proclaiming the president of the United States a traitor to his nation.
Shocking sight for an impressionable 10-year old

Since he was assassinated the following day and, even at 10 years of age, I had grasped the fact that an only recently abolished tradition made the sentence for treason death, I could hardly fail to associate the poster with the execution. My parents were horrified but, even without their example, I think I would have been just as shocked myself.

Why am I talking about this now? Partly because we are in the middle of the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, when that President, John Kennedy, stared done Kruschev and drove him to withdraw Soviet missiles from the island. He did that without firing a single shot or mobilising a single soldier.

It was one of the accusations on the poster: ‘Missile removal - Cuba’ appear among the examples of the ‘innumerable issues’ on which JFK had been wrong (or rather, WRONG). Funnily enough, most of us who lived through the crisis rather thought he’d got it right, and were grateful that he’d found a way out without precipitating a third world war.

Which brings me to the other reason why I’m talking about this now. Last Thursday Joe Biden and Paul Ryan met in the Vice Presidential debate for the 2012 US election. Among other things, Ryan criticised the Obama administration for having ‘called Bashar Assad a reformer when he was turning his Russian-provided guns on his own people’. It’s not strictly true: Hillary Clinton said that people had regarded Assad as possibly a reformer, but that was rather a long time before he’d turned his guns on his people.

However, it isn’t Ryan’s mendacity that interests me here. It’s the implicit accusation that the Obama team is soft on Syria. He wants to get harder? He doesn’t feel that we’ve had about as many entanglements in the Middle East as we need? He thinks the other ones have worked out just dandy for us?

Perhaps he feels it’s time to be more supportive of the friends of the US and tougher on its enemies. That was a concern of the authors of that poster all those years ago: ‘He is betraying our friends (Cuba, Katanga, Portugal) and befriending our enemies (Russia, Yugoslavia, Poland).’

In particular, Ryan’s not keen on working through the United Nations or, as he put it on Thursday, ‘outsourcing our foreign policy to the UN.’ This reprises a theme he announced in August, when he pointed out that the ‘Obama foreign policy is to subjugate ourselves to the United Nations, which gives Russia and China a veto power at the Security Council’.

Curiously, the authors of the JFK poster wrote ‘he is turning the sovereignty of the U.S. over to the communist controlled United Nations.’ It’s less fashionable than then to accuse people of communism, but in other respects the idea is the same.

All this is causing bells to jangle in my mind. Perhaps Ryan is a less extreme version of the men behind the ‘Treason’ poster, but his thinking’s very much the same. And I remember that Kennedy had the strength to stand by his position but also the strength to resist the siren calls of the hawks.

Just imagine if he hadn’t. The world might have seen the outbreak of a most disastrous war. And for what? Just over a quarter of a century later, the Soviet world collapsed anyway when the Berlin wall came down.

And look what happened when he didn’t resist hard enough: the US found itself embroiled in a long, bitter and bloody war in Vietnam which delivered his country its first defeat.

Today, in a world not much less dangerous than in 1962, I want more of the Kennedy who knew how to resist calls for military action over Cuba, less of the one who took the US deeper into the fighting in Indochina. And certainly nothing at all of the men who denounced him.

This evening Obama faces Romney for his second debate. Ryan has shown that his ticket belongs to the tainted tradition that in its time produced the ‘Treason’ poster. Obama has on more than one occasion shown the guts of a latter-day Kennedy.

I watched Obama in 2008 and he was inspirational. In his campaigning, he was already a worthy successor of JFK. But what happened at the last debate with Romney? Why didn’t Obama wipe the floor with him like Kennedy did with Nixon?

The Obama of 2008 didn’t show up then. He’d better be there tonight. Because I’ve known since I was ten that letting the other lot get anywhere near the levers of power is a recipe for catastrophe. For the US, of course; but for all the rest of us too.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

DIY: A test of character. Which I fail every time

So glad it’s Sunday. Above all because it means Saturday’s behind us. And Saturday was purgatory.

Danielle had decided the day would be devoted to DIY. Don’t get me wrong: I’m full of admiration for those who get pleasure from Do It Yourself work and are good at it. It’s just that I’m not of their number. I’m more of a GSETDI type, if I can possibly Get Someone Else To Do It instead of me. But it was made perfectly clear that yesterday I’d be doing it myself and the sooner I stopped whinging about it, the better it would be for all of us.

At 10:00 Elizabeth, a Hungarian colleague of Danielle’s, came round with her Ghanaian husband, Moses. She prepared us the most fabulous goulash, which was great, while he threw himself into the DIY tasks with a vengeance, dragging me along in his wake and keeping my nose firmly to the grindstone. I guess it was really DIYWSE, since Someone Else was helping, but that meant that I couldn’t slope off with a promise to return to the task in a week or two. Or five or six.

Moses proved outstanding at just keeping going and shoring up my flagging morale, even though said morale hadn’t been all that high to start with. So Moses turned out to be just as great as Elizabeth.

However, as day faded to evening, and sun gave way to rain, and we were still assembling a second woodshed in the garden, fingers numb and clothes wet, the enthusiasm that goes with the word ‘great’ became harder to sustain.

I tried to see some clever allusions in the work I was doing. Shades of Stella Gibbons, for instance: all that stuff in Cold Comfort Farm about seeing something nasty in the woodshed. I can affirm from experience that you don’t need to find anything in the woodshed: just building one in autumn rain is quite nasty enough.

And it was the second woodshed alongside our garden shed. There was a Monty Python sketch about Arthur ‘Two Sheds’ Jackson. Have I somehow transmuted into David ‘Three Sheds’ Beeson? If so, when did I decide to do so? Was it a choice I made at all?

Existential question for me to grapple with:
How did I become the owner of three sheds? And why?
But eventually it was done. We came indoors. Time for the DIY warriors to take a little rest, perhaps some refreshment, as a worthy reward for our labours.

It’s a commonplace that one should never ask a question to which one doesn’t know the answer.

‘Is that it then?’ I asked Danielle, confident that I knew what her reply would be.

‘Yes, that’s it’, she told me, momentarily giving me the false impression that my confidence had been justified: when I say that kind of thing, it’s what I mean, and so when someone says it to me, I believe it. I have to get my mind round the idea that for many others it’s immediately followed by a ‘but’ or, as in this case, an ‘except for’. There then followed a list of another half dozen jobs to be completed before we could down tools at last.

One of those jobs proved rather more intractable than any of us expected or its apparent simplicity suggested or, come to think of it, than it turned out to be when Danielle did it herself after we’d botched it. After struggling with it for a while, it’s just possible – and I’m admitting nothing here – that I may have given vent to some comments not overly marked by charity or forbearance.

The result was that when I suggested to Danielle yesterday evening the intriguing subject I had chosen for my latest blog post – a subject you will now be deprived of the pleasure of seeing treated with the remarkable incisiveness I was planning for it – she said:

‘You should do a blog about how absolutely unbearable David Beeson becomes when he has to do any kind of DIY.’

I was shocked but she had barely got into her stride.

‘Yes, you could describe how his whole evil side comes out. How he sits down sulking saying that he can’t be doing with any of this. How he reverts to a spoiled brat who has to be cajoled into doing the simplest thing.’

Still at a loss for words, I just had to endure the barrage, which ended with her looking me straight in the eyes and throwing out a challenge.

‘Let’s see you write that one,’ she said, ‘let’s see if your self-deprecating humour will stretch that far.’

Well, it does. So this post is dedicated to my poor long-suffering wife Danielle. With my apologies for being such a curmudgeon.

Even so, between you and me: I’m still glad that it’s Sunday and DIY day’s behind us. For a couple of weekends at least.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Fashion and mental health. And an afterthought on the Law Society

For me, the words ‘Louis Vuitton’ conjure up a sense of the diaphanous, the enticing, the luxurious. Inevitably, I picture a catwalk with women of beauty impossible to believe parading clothes nobody could conceivably wear.

That makes it all the more arresting to walk past the Selfridges department store in Londons Oxford Street these days, on my way to the office. Over the main entrance there now stands a larger-than-life size moulded statue of a woman.

A baleful figure dominates the main entrance to Selfridges

Hers is a striking presence. A little short on allure. Fairly long on grimness. A grandmother it seemed to me, but perhaps not the kind I imagine bouncing a grandchild on her knee. Unless that grandmother had previously been swallowed by a wolf. Not a grandmother, in short, I’d particularly want to meet on my own in a dark back street.

So imagine my growing perplexity when I found whole regiments of figurines of the grandmother arrayed in ranks and linked to the famous fashion brand

A regiment of grandmothers
This turns out to be the latest Louis Vuitton display in one of London’s more elegant establishments. The forbidding lady is there to help promote their gracious products.

Seemed odd to me. Where were the supermodels with their air-brushed skin? Where the long golden hair tastefully arranged around the swan-like neck? Where the shapely legs revealed to mid-thigh?

The image the Vuitton marketers had chosen seemed wholly out of tune with the products they want to advertise. Surely they need to cultivate an association with charm and desirability?

Now imagine a woman who gradually becomes aware that some of the ideas floating in her head, which go as far as a sense of the obliteration of her self, are not merely original and intriguing, but pathological. That her moods are not only strange, but deeply out of joint. That what she took for focus might be more like obsession.

And with that awareness comes a sense that she needs treatment. So that, at the age of 48, she decides that what she needs to do is to admit herself, voluntarily, to a mental hospital. For life.

That’s what happened to the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Her home for the last 35 years has been a mental hospital. She has also declared that the only thing preventing her killing herself has been her art. A hallmark of that art is that she frequently uses just two colours, often in a pattern of polka dots.

She also happens to have worked extensively in fashion.

So maybe it’s not so surprising after all that Louis Vuitton has formed a partnership with her, recently sponsoring an exhibition of her work, and then using her vision to underline their latest display at Selfridges.

Because that sculpture isn’t of a nameless grandmother. It’s Kusama’s self-portrait. And it’s no accident she’s in a polka-dot dress. Nor, perhaps, is it by chance that her expression’s so grim. What is there to smile about after all?

When I finally worked all that out, it put a wholly different complexion on my reaction to the display. First of all, I felt ashamed of my ignorance. But secondly it strengthened something that had already begun to bubble up from the marketing man inside me: perhaps it isn’t such a bad promotional campaign in any case.

I hate to confess to two different forms of ignorance in a single blog post, but sadly without a label to guide me, I find it hard to distinguish Dior from Lacoste, Yves Saint Laurent from Louis Vuitton. And those languid maidens whose absence had struck me so forcefully are the stock in trade of them all. They're commonplace. But no-one else, to my knowledge, has ever chosen as its image a woman in her eighties glowering out on an uncomprehending world from the pain of mental illness. Now that image I'll remember. And that means I won
t forget Vuitton either.

The display at Selfridges disturbed me, but isn’t that better than leaving the passer-by indifferent? It made me take a look for the story behind it. And it made me write a blog post on the subject.

For that, I feel I owe an apology to Selfridges for having misunderstood its message. And some grudging admiration to Luis Vuitton for what turns out to have been a smart idea, because of its originality.

But above all, I
’m under a debt of gratitude to Yayoi Kusama, for reaching out from the troubled isolation of her soul to speak to me so powerfully. 

Postscript. Another take on advertising.

If there’s a profession that needs to improve its brand image, I think most of us agree it would be lawyers. So I loved the ad I saw on my station platform this morning.

A joke at their own expense,
but I don't think the lawyers meant it
What would most of us see in this image? Surely infidelity, jealousy, fury. A domestic tragedy in preparation. 
What does the Law Society see? A business opportunity.

Yep. That’s just the kind of image lawyers need to be promoting.

Monday, 8 October 2012

A day's French leave with some great NHS people

Who’d be a healthcare manager today? 

I don’t mean the high-flying executive types who are busily laying about themselves sacking people to generate cost reductions. No, I’m talking about the middle and junior managers who either become the victims of such initiatives or are left trying to clear up the mess in their wake.

These people tend to be given a terrible press because whenever the pressure comes on for economies, the hue and cry goes up to axe the back-room staff. That’s because everyone knows that doctors and nurses really contribute to healthcare, while they believe that the managers are merely leeches on the system. Unfortunately, what they leave out of account, is that someone has to make sure that the arrival of a patient is recorded, that tests get carried out and the results logged somewhere, that the patient is discharged with the right medications, that people who need to know – such as a GP – are told.

The fewer people there are to do these jobs, the more the work will devolve onto clinical staff. This is a doubly sad: clinical staff should be concentrating on clinical work and they often cost a great deal more than those who would otherwise be undertaking these tasks.

All this makes me feel a great deal of sympathy with the administrative staff in the NHS, and that in turn makes me pleased that Danielle, my wife, has joined them.

To be honest, though, what makes me most pleased is that the team Danielle has joined is made up of such extremely likeable people. They’re so well worth knowing that I was delighted to be invited to join a group of sixteen or seventeen of them (all women) for a day trip Danielle organised to Calais. Delighted even though it meant getting up at 4:00 in the morning on a Saturday to be on the coach at 5:00.

It was a day packed with incident and enjoyment.

One of the high points came when the coach driver couldn’t restart the engine when we docked in Calais harbour. A tow truck came on board to help us off but, sadly, there was nowhere to fix a tow rope at the front and no manual on board to tell us where any parts might have been stored. Fortunately, while wandering disconsolately around the coach, we found a towing ball at the back. However, that meant turning the vehicle around.

By this time, cars were already driving on to the ferry for the trip back across to Dover so we had to move fast. We called for everyone to leave the coach. Reactions were fascinating: most people collected their possessions first and then went and stood on one side watching while three or four of us pushed the coach (OK, mini-coach really) round by main force. One of Danielle’s colleagues had been so slow collecting her belongings that she was still on board when we started the manoeuvre. She sat back down and bestowed a series regal waves on us, very like our dear old queen; you can imagine how that encouraged us.

But nothing did as much for our morale as the group of ten or twelve others forming our audience. They clapped and cheered as they watched us pushing. It was a spectacular vindication of the benefits of team work.

One of the people watching us had the presence of mind
to record the moment for posterity
Picture's a bit out of focus but, hey, is this really an event to focus on?
Another glorious memory was forged for us all when we wandered through the sunshine in a local market, admiring and occasionally buying the extraordinary variety of food and clothes on sale there. Eventually we gravitated to a bar off the market square where we ran into two men who were reinforcing themselves with strong drink, perhaps to recover from the experience of having sold us some excellent garlic and met Danielles redoutable skill in bargaining prices down to cut-throat level. Perhaps in vengeance, they spent the next twenty minutes negotiating a price at which they could purchase one of her colleagues in our party.

The target of their interest seemed to find the process highly amusing, despite the mildly embarrassed presence of her daughter, though she made it clear that not even the promise of a lifetime’s supply of garlic would persuade her to take the plunge.

An excellent and languid meal through the afternoon left us little time to get to the beach but we managed half an hour all the same, paddling in the shallow surf and then posing for a group photograph in which, as the only male present, I adopted an appropriately semi-detached stance. On seeing the picture later, however, what horrified me the most was the quintessentially Englishman-at-the-seaside image I had inadvertently adopted.

All in all, though, it was a brilliantly successful day out. It brought home to me two salutary lessons: that it’s as wonderful as ever to spend a day in France when one can, and that those much maligned NHS managers are perfect company on any occasion one can do so. Just as long as you don’t expect them to help with heavy manual work.

France will no doubt continue pretty much unchanged despite its difficulties. I only hope NHS staff will be able to do the same, rising above the offensive and ill-informed attacks so often heaped upon them these days.

A great NHS team (and some daughters).
Together with an Englishman abroad

Saturday, 6 October 2012

They died – for what?

Today’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ programme on the BBC quoted a British General in Afghanistan saying ‘don’t ask me if it was worth it. It wasn’t worth it.’

There seems to be a general conspiracy never to admit that we’ve sent young men and women to their deaths without purpose. The press is quick to accuse anyone who dares voice a doubt of undermining the forces themselves and denying consolation to their bereaved relatives – as though anything could be worse than the bereavement itself.

A few days ago I visited a church in Saverne, in Northern Alsace, and came across a plaque:

Age shall not wither them. But if only it had been allowed to...
Some eighty men from a single battalion died over eight years of what can hardly be dignified by the word war: it was a last ditch attempt by the French government to hang on to its colony in Algeria. The full story of the war crimes committed during that time has yet to be told. In any case the effort failed: France withdrew from Algeria, and all the atrocities were for nothing.

Fifty years on, a church celebrates their deaths ‘for France’. And yet it’s hard to see in what sense their deaths served their country. If anything, Algerian independence has done far less for Algeria – a string of authoritarian governments, a long and vicious civil war – while it helped free France from imperial illusions, allowing it to carve a new role for itself as a European nation.

Something Britain has still to learn to do.

As for the French people, they’re not sending young people out there to be maimed or killed. It was ending the war that served them, not prosecuting it.

When my wife, Danielle, was growing up at the other end of Alsace, she was close to her cousin, something of an elder brother to her. It was a blow when he was called up for military service, and a far greater one when he was sent to Algeria and she lost contact with him for the best part of two years.

But no blow was worse than when he returned, unrecognisably transformed. Introverted, bitter, quick to anger. Over the next two decades he sank deeper into alcoholism and watched his life fall apart: he became a chronic invalid; he was fired from his job, which took some doing since he was employed by his father; while his family stayed together, home life became increasingly fraught.

Finally, his frame could take it no more and his difficult life came to an end in his forties.

His name won’t appear on a plaque anywhere. These memorials are always big on the fallen, but they say far less about the ones who came back alive. Some of them are horribly maimed and needing lifetime care which they don’t all receive. Others are much less visibly injured and fall through the net of the care system. And some like Danielle
s cousin have wounds so deep inside them that they are often not even recognised.

He took his injury serving in a war which gained France nothing. Now we
re beginning to hear the people who know best say that the Afghan conflict will have proved as futile.

But men and women are coming back from it as damaged as Freddy was. The United States and Britain have a major problem of injured veterans unable to find the treatment they need or even regular employment.

It’s time to admit the truth about them. We sent them out there. It was a pointless exercise. The least we can do is look after them.

And become a lot less casual about doing it all again somewhere else.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Whirlwind of wine and a wedding in a non-existent land

You might be surprised to learn how much pleasure can be had travelling around a non-existent region.

The region in question is Alsace-Lorraine which vanished in 1918, along with the German Empire to which it belonged.

Of the present French region of Lorraine, only one department, the Moselle, was part of Germany. On the other hand, the whole of Alsace was included: both departments, known as the Upper and Lower Rhine, singularly unimaginative names which nonetheless threw a former colleague of mine into confusion.

‘Why did they call them that? The Lower Rhine bit’s above the Upper Rhine on the map.’

I couldn’t think of a withering reply so simply said ‘because that’s the way the river flows’, as patiently as possible. Patience was something I was called on to show a lot with that particular colleague, though I can’t say I succeeded all that often.

My wife Danielle and I have just returned from travelling around all three bits of the old German province.

In the Upper Rhine we visited friends who run a small glassblowing business, but I’ve spoken about them before so here I’ll only say how much I enjoyed sharing a bottle or two of the local Pinot Blanc wine with them and their extended family. This included chatting with a 12-year old boy and his 10-year old sister though, to be strictly truthful, it wasn’t so much a question of chatting as of being chatted to. Whatever my faults, being excessively tongue-tied isn’t one of them, so it was quite an experience to be reduced to silence by the joyous but uninterruptible flow these two managed to produce. Irresistible, though, in children that full of spirit.

Me and my (chatty) new friend Nicholas
From there we headed up the map but down the river to the Lower Rhine and Strasbourg, which is pretty much my favourite city. If it has a fault it’s that it contains rather too many fine old-stye Strasbourgers, convinced against the evidence, of their superiority over everyone else. Still, it’s hard to complain too much about that kind of mentality if you live in England, which is run by people who embody it in spades. 

In any case, those Strasbourgers count for little in Strasbourg, full as it is of so many different races, creeds and nationalities. Why, there are even some 20,000 British people there, to say nothing of the colonials – Americans, Canadians and the rest – who speak what they claim is the same language. And one of the best things about all those foreigners is that most aren’t ex-pats (semi-detached superior beings, due to leave as soon as their short-term contracts run out), but foreign residents, living there indefinitely and working on the same terms and conditions as any other local.

Strasbourg's cathedral 
soaring above one of its mediaeval streets
Water, water everywhere: Strasbourg's a city of rivers and canals
I could talk endlessly about Strasbourg but will simply whet your appetite with the little-known fact that the city boasts one of only a couple of dozen hospitals in France which still has its own wine cellar (and Strasbourg’s contains a barrel from 1472, before America had even been invented); it is, in addition, the only French hospital to retain its own bakery. So if you visit the cellar you get served excellent ‘crémant’, as good as many a champagne, and perhaps a local Riesling and Muscat (I always say that the Alsatians apply French genius to German wine and the result is outstanding). Alongside you get a slice or two of Kugelhopf (and I’m not going to try to describe this extraordinary savoury cake to you, you just have to go out and taste it) along with brioche (and the words Marie Antoinette never actually pronounced were in fact ‘let them eat brioche’).

The cave historique at the hospital: just magic
To complete our Alsace-Lorraine visit, we ended up with a swing through the Moselle department, on the other side of the Vosges range of low mountains or large hills, ideal country for walking if that’s your bent (as it’s ours).

Natural and human ruins in the Vosges woodlands
The wedding reception was the most riotously entertaining it has been my pleasure to attend. The Moselle wine at dinner was outstanding, but the high point of the evening was the song and dance show laid on by the bridal couple themselves, ably supported by some of their childhood friends: the bride remains in touch with people she has known since she was four or five. Amazing. I can’t even remember the names of the people I knew then, apart from ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’, of course. 

She however had dragooned several of her nursery school friends into a show including a version of Thriller that proved to my satisfaction that though Michael Jackson may no longer be around, his spirit lives on.

Félicie and Yann, bride and groom, leading the floor show
In fact, my only concern about the whole event was that our friends were getting married after eighteen years as a couple. I did warn them that hasty decisions can occasionally lead to difficulties later, but they seemed to feel they ought to be able to deal with any that might crop up.

The reception was in the Ceramic Factory Casino in Sarreguemines. I loved the name of the place: it had stopped being a ceramics factory before it became a casino but, by the time, we got there, it had stopped being a casino either. Danielle, who had never been to a casino, had thought she might have a flutter, but her introduction to the thrill of the table will have to wait a little longer.

But I loved being a building that had outlived its name twice. It seemed wholly appropriate to a non-existent region. And, set as it was by the river Sarre and with walls boasting colossal ceramic decorations, it proved that mere non-existence needn’t necessarily be a block to beauty. 

Part of the front of the Casino des Faïanceries
in Sarreguemines
...and the same building glimpsed through the trees
from the other side of the Sarre
Take it from me: you can get a real kick from a non-existent region. You should try it yourself some day.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Hobsbawm and freeing England from colonialism

Every now and then I read of the death of a public figure that touches me more than others. 

I was particularly sorry to learn that Eric Hobsbawm had died. He was an outstanding historian and a fine political thinker; in the course of a distinguished career he collected many honours, one of them that of becoming President of Birkbeck College where he taught and where, unbeknown to him, I also spent most of my student career.

It was at Birkbeck that I attended a public meeting which took the unusual form of an interview: Hobsbawm questioning (none too aggressively) Tony Benn.

Now Benn is someone I find it easy to disagree with. He has a way of adopting simplistic radical positions which maintain his reputation as the champion of the left of the Labour Party, without the slightest danger of ever being called on to put any of them into practice. Besides, I always remember his time as Energy Secretary when he caved in to commercial pressure from the US to introduce a new generation of highly questionable nuclear power stations.

Even so, in that interview Benn came out with one statement of great elegance and simplicity which, in my view, summarises a vital truth: ‘the last colony of the British Empire,’ he said, ‘will be England’.

It’s a thought that has come back to me many times down the years. For instance, when Maggie Thatcher won her first landslide victory on the back of the Falklands campaign. When she insisted on banning the voices, though not the words, of Sinn Fein leaders from British radio or television. When she reacted with undisguised contempt to the initiatives of other heads of government in the European Union. It all seemed to suggest that Britain was somehow a different kind of country, more powerful and influential than our continental partners.

And Benn had spoken of ‘England’, which was right too. In the other parts of the United Kingdom there seemed to be a greater readiness to accept that our imperial role was over and that we had to carve ourselves a new one, as a middling power, with a better chance of moulding world events as part of a bigger grouping such as the EU.

Then we had the election of Tony Blair and the first fully post-World War II generation took the helm. His government incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic legislation. It granted devolved powers to the other nations of the UK. It brought in a freedom of information act. Would he free the last colony from the thrall of British imperialism?

Next came Afghanistan and Iraq, and all that stuff about the special relationship with the US. Not that I think our relationship with the US isn’t special: it is. Unfortunately, the US relationship with us isn’t.

We were still trying to punch above our weight, still trying to be a world power.

Another country suffering from the illusion that it can indulge imperial pretensions is our closest neighbour, France. So it was interesting to be at a wedding on Saturday, in a tiny village in the Moselle department of Lorraine (and I stress that Lorraine, like Alsace, is in France not Germany). The town hall contained a little bouquet of French flags, a common sight in France and rather an attractive way of treating the national colours.

The traditional bouquet of French flags
In another niche there was another bouquet: 

A more surprising but heartening collection of European flags

European colours had been given equal prominence to those of France.

If the mayor of a village in deepest France can see that the country’s future lies with the other countries of the continent, then it seems to me that the distorting effects of an imperial tradition are gradually beginning to fade on that side of the Channel.

In England, however, as David Cameron rattles his sabre over Syria, we still have some way to go. On the other hand, that public meeting chaired by Eric Hobsbawm only took place just over three decades ago. England likes to make haste slowly. Who knows, in a few more decades it too may free itself of the imperial yoke.

In the meanwhile, I feel I owe a tribute to the man who helped open my eyes to the problem in the first place. His death has reminded me that I need to do what I can to contribute to the solution. Which is perhaps the best tribute I can pay him.