Friday, 31 May 2013

Meeting every problem

You have to admire the talent in public and private sector management, that enables its possessors first to identify a matter that needs urgent attention, and then to take immediate, decisive action to address it.

By calling a meeting in ten days time.

One of the important things about a meeting is that you really need everyone there who might have something essential to say on the subject. And because we’re all really good at our job, what any of us has to say on a subject has to be essential. So it makes sense to invite as many people as possible. 

That’s why the meeting can’t possibly take place until the week after next.

Next a decision (it’s all about decisions) has to be taken about the length of a meeting. Two hours is suitable for a routine meeting, the kind you have every week whether there’s anything to discuss or not. Three hours says ‘this is a bit special’. Four hours tells you ‘really important’. But five hours or more means ‘urgent – urgent – urgent – don’t miss this whatever you do.’

You probably know the story about the wine expert who, asked how to identify the best wine on a menu, said ‘look to the bottom right where the prices are highest.’ We truly value what costs the most, and a five-hour meeting of a dozen senior managers isn’t going to leave you much change out of £2000 in staff time alone, and could be a lot more expensive still. So it just has to be really, really good.

Bored meeting
Because a couple of grand is quite a lot of money, it’s probably best to save a bit by not spending too much on preparation. After all, the goal of the meeting will probably emerge from the discussion. And agendas are such a constraint on a good, wide-ranging discussion. They tend to cut out the possibility for those wonderful, philosophical debates which to a pedant may seem irrelevant to the subject in hand, but which provide most of the charm of such sessions.

The other limitation on a genuinely enriching conversation is the keeping of minutes. So tedious and bureaucratic. After all, there won’t be many decisions taken, so everyone who was there will have a memory of what proposals were adopted, and most of the time, the differences between their recollections will be small and easy to reconcile.

Perhaps at a subsequent meeting.

Out of all this a goal generally does emerge. Often it takes the form of a consensus that there’s a need for further information, followed by a firm and unshakeable decision to hold another meeting in a couple of weeks to review the options in the light of new data.

I say ‘unshakeable’ but it is in fact subject to change if another matter becomes urgent, causing the follow-up debate to be pushed back. By which time, the issue it was due to address has probably become significantly less urgent anyway: the patient has died, the deal at risk has been lost, the need for the new equipment has been overtaken by events. So the problem has been resolved anyway. 

In some sense.

A few years ago I had to work with a Finance Director in the NHS and he was immensely boring in his refusal to apply any of the principles outlined above. All meetings I attended with him were planned to last an hour; they were never extended beyond the planned finishing time even if he was delayed getting to the start. There was always an agenda, and he always got through it even if the meeting started late. Several items had supporting documentation which was always distributed before the meeting, and if you hadn’t read it, you were in trouble: no-one was going to take the time to explain it.

Every item led to a decision, usually in the form of an action assigned to a named individual, with discussion limited to the minimum needed to reach that point.

It was so dull, my dear. We knew what we were aiming for, and we always got there. And we left with clearly defined tasks that we just had to undertake before the next meeting, which is just so like turning work into a task. 

To make things worse, decisions were minuted, so there wasnt even any wiggle-room for creative recollection about which jobs had been assigned to whom.

All the charm, the amusement, the comfort of those lovely rambling five-hour discussions of general philosophy, well, they were just gone.

Now where’s the fun in that?

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Guns or butter, trade or war?

International trade often has pretty appalling effects, such as the exploitation of some of the world’s most vulnerable people or damage to the environment, but as a general rule it has some beneficial effects, including boosting prosperity and avoiding war. After all, it’s not particularly good for business if you open fire on your client or your supplier, or they open fire on you. Not good for health either.

That’s why I’m terribly keen on the new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, catchily referred to as TTIP, being negotiated at the moment between the United States and the European Union. If it’s concluded, it’ll be the biggest trade deal in history.

David Cameron has played a significant role in trying to win support for the agreement in Washington. Which is curious. On the one hand, he goes out there to bat for the agreement, as well he might: experts are suggesting it might be worth 1-2% on GDP on both sides of the Atlantic and, boy, do we need any growth we can get. Nothing else the government’s doing seems to generate any.

Sadly, on the other hand, David Cameron is in awe of the right wing of his own Conservative Party, and of the far right grouping UKIP, currently enjoying a bit of a bubble in the polls. So he keeps tossing them bits of raw meat, apparently unable to understand that each time he does that, they only come back for more. The latest raw meat is the offer of a referendum with a single question: should Britain remain in the EU or not?

The mere fact of having made that commitment has upset the negotiations, as the US has pointed out: the Obama government is already in a fight to get the agreement through Congress and any disruption only makes things worse. But even if it is adopted, the US has made it clear that it would not apply to Britain outside the EU.

So Cameron bats for the agreement on the one hand, for sound economic reasons, and undermines it on the other, for lousy political ones.

Meanwhile, with the support of the French, he has managed to bring an end to the embargo on arms sales to Syrian rebels. Immediately the Russians have announced they will sell powerful and sophisticated anti-aircraft systems to the government there, which is interesting: there’s not much air power on the rebel side, whereas there is, of course, in Israel – which is extremely unhappy about the Russian move and threatening military action.

Preferable to a trade agreement?
So we’ve just seriously ratcheted up the chances of escalating the war in Syria, having it spill out into a regional conflict.

The biggest trade agreement in history in jeopardy. A growing risk of war in the world’s tinderbox.

Am I alone in thinking that Cameron has got everything exactly back to front?

Monday, 27 May 2013

Multiculturalism: a crass Prime Minister refuted by events and a fine pianist

To have an incompetent as Prime Minister may be regarded as a misfortune, but to have a crass incompetent looks more like carelessness.

‘Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream,’ claimed David Cameron back in February 2011, in a speech in Munich.

It may have been merely crass to make such speech in Munich, of all places, which gave the supreme mono-culturalist Hitler his early power base. The Woolwich attack against a British soldier last week has also shown it to be deeply misguided: Hazel Blears pointed out, in reaction to that attack, that it had been shortsighted to emasculate the ‘Prevent’ programme, which she had led in the previous government, and which aimed to channel local money into moderate organisations, to turn young people away from extremism.

And when did Cameron announce the plan to ‘review’ (read ‘cut to the bone’) the Prevent programme? Why, in his Munich speech.

In any case, why is multiculturalism receiving such a bad press? It is often one of the most powerful source of riches in a society. For instance, I have a superb recording of Mozart’s piano sonatas on in the background as I type this, and it’s hard to imagine a more striking illustration of the benefits of multiculturalism.

Back in the 1630s, the new rulers of Japan, just emerged from a terrible century of civil war, decided that peace required rigid controls. As well as severe internal measures, they decided to allow no further contact with the outside world: nobody would go out, nobody would be allowed in. Even Japanese nationals then abroad would be refused the right to return home.

As an exercise in mono-culturalism, this attempt at seclusion could hardly be exceeded.

In reality, small exceptions were made to these draconian measures. After all, political power’s important, but trade provides life’s luxuries, and if you have political power, luxuries are pretty much a necessity. So the Shogunate allowed limited trade with China, Korea and even with Europe.

The Portuguese had built good (commercial) relations with Japan, but missionaries had come in their wake and made some inroads into local communities. Worshippers of the Prince of Peace can sometimes become seriously troublesome, and the Japanese decided they’d had enough of the Portuguese; from 1641 onwards, they only allowed European trade with the Dutch, and only through an artificial island in Nagasaki harbour.

The trading post on Dejima island:
sole point of contact with Western culture in Japan for over two centuries
The Dutch were Protestant, which probably made the Japanese think they’d be less trouble: they hadn’t met some of the more far-out sects of our days, in the United States, say, or Northern Ireland.

The relative seclusion of Japan lasted for nearly two and a half centuries. And what centuries they were in Europe: this was the time of Galileo and Huyghens, of Newton and Lavoisier, of Fermat and Linnaeus and Gauss. A time for the blossoming of enquiry and discovery.

The Japanese have exactly the same hunger for understanding and knowledge as anyone else. So on board the Dutch ships that arrived at Dejima island in Nagasaki Bay, there were books, books, books.

Japanese intellectuals painstakingly translated these works, sometimes word for word, so that they could share in the great awakening taking place in the West.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the West forced Japan to open its doors. Force was used at first, but the Japanese leaped at the opportunities it created. The nation quickly became a world power, a huge trading centre, with political institutions modelled on Western lines, with great centres of learning in which the world’s knowledge was taught, with – and this would end in tears in the middle of the next century – great military power too, capable of inflicting a crushing defeat on the Russian navy in 1905, just 37 years after the end of the Shogunate.

In the middle of all this, Japan took up Western music as well, and learned to excel in it. Have you seen the Japanese film Departures? If not, track it down and watch it now. The central theme is the deeply traditional practice of preparing bodies for the coffin, a preparation carried out with great art and love; but the protagonist of the film is a young cellist and in an early scene we see his orchestra performing Beethoven’s ninth symphony.

Such are the deep roots that Western music has put down in Japanese culture.

I found that surprising when I first learned of it, but I also found it moving. So it was poignant to hear the Japanese pianist, Mitsuko Uchida, talking to the BBC nearly twenty years ago about her joy at being able to record the Mozart sonatas in their entirety. I could feel, even in a radio interview, all the love she felt for this great music, a love reflecting an understanding and sensitivity far beyond my powers, although in theory this was my culture and not hers.

Mitusko Uchida: born in Japan, she's made Western music her own
That’s multi-culturalism, and what a powerful source of good it is. Uchida has, since then, given it still stronger expression, taking out British nationality and becoming, indeed, a Dame Commander of the British Empire. I have my doubts about those titles and honours, but I’m unambivalent in my delight that she received one.

So I sit back and enjoy Uchida’s extraordinary, light but powerful, sensitive but humorous, rendering of some of the greatest music the West has produced. And I wonder at Cameron’s crass words against multi-culturalism.

We need to remind ourselves of those men of secluded Japan who struggled through works from an alien culture, whose contents they knew they somehow had to penetrate. And how the the seeds they sowed blossomed in work like Uchida's.

What is there to reprove, and not to admire, in their multi-cultural efforts?

Saturday, 25 May 2013


Odd how attached I can get to an inanimate object.

It’s my task in the house to look after the bathroom. I know that doesn’t sound like much, so I do the kitchen sink and the stove too. Still doesn’t sound like much? Not like a fair share? Well, it probably isn’t, but I try to make up by putting a lot of love into the work.

’s surprising because when I first faced the prospect of cleaning a toilet, the very idea disgusted me. But experience changes attitudes. It’s like the first time one of the boys peed into a bath I was about to share with him, and I emptied and refilled it; second time round, I just thought ‘screw it, the dilution must be enormous’ and got on with it. We enjoyed the bath and neither of us was any the worse for it.

These days, having got used to cleaning the toilet, I take enormous pride in a sparkling loo, perhaps because there’s real satisfaction in having turned something that is inherently dirty into something which is spectacularly clean. And it’s all the more good for my soul if I look around the whole bathroom and I see the shelves and the windowsill dustless and sweet-smelling, while the taps gleam. 

Got to get a gleam on them, or you haven’t succeeded
Gleaming taps: yes, that’s the real measure of success, because if you don’t get metalwork that you could use as a shaving mirror, well what have you really achieved in cleaning a bathroom?

This work naturally requires an array of tools and products. But in between all the different plastic bottles, the sponges and scrubbing implements, one object has become a particular friend of mine: an old rag. Not any old rag: we have lots, and there’s only that I particularly like. It’s part of an old sheet, so it isn’t even the only rag that looks like it, but somehow it’s just the right size to dry and shine what I want before needing to be dried out again.

My comfort rag, getting a rest and drying between work spells
And don't think I'm  happy we're still heating the house in May
So whenever I start work on the bathroom the first thing I do is try to find my old friendly rag. If I can’t, if it’s in the wash, I prefer to put off the task until it’s ready. You dont start a really key task without your old reliable mate, do you?

OK, so may be a bit of a comfort blanket, I admit it. But I’ve reached an age where I no longer have to feel embarrassed by my confessing my relance on a comfort blanket. Especially as it’s actually rather a useful one.

Now I know that the strong affective relationship I’ve formed with this particular rag is a one-way thing. Like the special relationship Britain has with the US, which isn’t reciprocated by the US towards us. But I can live with that.

In fact, the day I start to wonder how the rag feels about me, I have to say we’ll have moved beyond the level of a harmless quirk. It’ll be time for Danielle to lock me up. 

Even if it does mean she’ll have to make other arrangements to get the bathroom cleaned.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Terror and the words we speak

Often the responses to a terror attack is even more notable than the attack itself. As are the words in which they are expressed.

‘I spoke to him for more than five minutes,’ said a woman who approached one of the killers in yesterday’s fatal, meat-cleaver attack on a soldier in Woolwich, South London. ‘I asked him why he had done what he had done.’

Quietly confronting an armed killer
The man she was talking to was still carrying the cleaver and he was bespattered with his victim’s blood. Despite that she showed exemplary courage, as well as calm good sense in asking the one question which really matters and to which we shall never get an adequate answer.

The Prime Minister has also spoken out, repeatedly, and each time has reiterated how ‘shocking’ he finds the event. Well, I think most of us agree. But does it need to be said so often? The aim of terrorists is to terrorise us. Perhaps fewer references to being shocked might give them less of a sense of success.

Much more appealing were the words of a Sikh from the neighbourhood interviewed on the radio this morning. He had been upset by the reaction of the extreme right English Defence League, who within hours were calling demonstrations to demand the return of their streets to them: the attackers were Muslims and therefore from a culture the EDL perceives as alien and to be driven out. The Sikh underlined the fact that though he was Indian, he wasn’t Muslim, and he’d been brought up on those streets – they were his just as much as they were the EDL’s.

What other words did the EDL come up with? Its leader proclaimed ‘They’re chopping our soldiers’ heads off. This is Islam. That’s what we’ve seen today.’

As it happens, no-one had his head chopped off, though apparently the attackers did try to decapitate their victim. But that was one victim. Notice how one soldier has become ‘soldiers’? So a one-off gruesome event is converted, by simple pluralisation, into part of a series of attacks. And then instead of being attributed to two profoundly misled Muslims, it’s attributed to the whole of Islam, even though community leaders up and down the country have denounced the atrocity. That, sadly, did not stop a couple of Mosques being attacked.

The men suspected of killing the soldier have been caught. They seem certain to be convicted of a vile murder and will doubtless spend most or even all of the rest of their lives in gaol. Let’s take that as the right way of dealing with the attack. Let’s not use that crime to fuel an Islamophobic campaign, whose target is one of our most law-abiding communities. Let’s not use it to stoke up the fires of anti-immigrant hatred that are already generating far more than enough heat.

After all, let’s go back to the lady who spoke so calmly to the attackers. Many in Woolwich reacted well to the murder, confronting the men calmly and with courage, and they have been saluted for it. But her case is particularly intriguing.

Her name was Ingrid Loyau-Kennet. The papers took delight in describing her as a ‘British Mum’, but I think the Britishness comes with the ‘Kennet’ part of her name. She explained in a radio interview this morning that she'd been travelling home from France when she made her stop in Woolwich, and both the accent in which she told us the story and the ‘Loyau’ in her name suggest that her roots are French.

That cool courage, in other words, was displayed by one of those immigrants so frequently denounced by the likes of the United Kingdom Independence Party and the English Defence League. And the French have automatic right of residence here thanks to that maligned organisation, the European Union. That’s the union UKIP and the EDL, and many in the Conservative Party, would like us to leave.

She, unlike the Prime Minister or the far right, found the behaviour and the words that were right when confronted with yesterday's horror. For my part, I’d be delighted if we could get a few more Loyau-Kennets here, from France, from Germany, from Poland, from Bulgaria. And I’d be more than happy to send a few EDL and UKIP leaders back the other way in exchange.

But that would be terribly unfair to the countries that had to accept them.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Against Corporate greed we need to be in a big battalion

‘Banks are pretty good at getting round rules,’ a senior financier recently told the Guardian, ‘if there are restrictions on us paying bonuses, we will be looking at paying some other kind of allowances.’

Meanwhile, among all the noise about Google, Amazon and Starbuck’s miserly contribution to the national exchequer in Britain, we hear from Senator John McCain 
that even the saintly Apple corporation is ‘among America's largest tax avoiders.’ 

You want to take these guys on?
You're going to need the clout that only size can give.
There seems to be a mood developing in a number of countries to try to rein in corporate greed. That’s the greed of the corporations themselves, uninterested in paying more than a minimal amount in tax to the jurisdictions in which they operate, and the greed of the people who lead them, passionately interested in maximising the amount they can take out of the companies they lead.

The US has the economic might that would allow it to make a move in this direction, but it’s probably best not to hold our breaths: those same corporations are also the biggest donors to political campaign funds. While they control the ability of politicians to get elected in the first place, there’s not a lot of chance of getting the politicians to control their behaviour. I’ve argued it before, and I’ll argue it again: ban political advertising on TV and suddenly you’ve cut the cost of political campaigns and, at a stroke, massively reduced the power of lobbies to dictate policy to elected officials through their wallets.

The US has the muscle to take on the corporations. Now it needs to find the will. 

Curiously, another body that probably has the muscle, simply because it represents such a huge market, is the European Union. It has recently shown signs of having the will as well, as it starts to look at bankers bonuses and at tax regimes. Could be interesting to see what happens in the next three or four years.

Because what’s at stake is fundamental: who shall run our societies, the citizens who inhabit them and make up their electorates, or just that tiny privileged handful who control the big corporations? Right now, the power of the latter leaves very little say to the former.

What’s curious in this context is to see that it’s precisely now that there is such a groundswell in Britain to leave the EU. Bob Crow, General Secretary of National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, was recently arguing the case for departure, from the left, but the most strident voices are coming from the right.

Most people campaigning against the EU, and certainly Bob Crow, would argue that they are forcefully opposed to excessive corporate power. But if Britain were to leave, it would on its own be far too small to exert much authority, it would lose the ability to influence the EU’s decisions, and it would weaken the EU’s own stance by depriving it of one of the main economies currently in its fold.

Big corporations run the world. To take them on, we need the power that a big bloc gives us. Far from giving up our rights by being in the EU, we join 350 million citizens in giving ourselves the clout to stand a chance of defending them.

The Europhobes demand a referendum on the subject of Britain’s membership, proclaiming that simple democratic principle dictates that there should be one. What they ignore is that if a referendum were held and it led to Britain’s exit, it would further erode any democratic control of the forces that shape our lives.

Surely not exactly what they intend, is it?

Saturday, 18 May 2013

A modest proposal: solving the problem of corporate greed

Now here’s an idea I think has mileage, but not the slightest chance of being adopted.

There’s a lot of talk, especially in Britain at the moment, of tax evasion, in particular by large corporations. Amazon made £4.3 billion in this country last year and managed to pay just £2.4m in corporation tax, less than the £2.5m it collected in government grants. Meanwhile, Margaret Hodge, Labour chair of the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons the other day called Google ‘evil’ for taking £3.2b from UK customers, and paying £6m in tax.

Margaret Hodge
Do you get the impression she wasn't entirely pleased
with what she was hearing?
At the same time, we all get a bit sick of those characters who precipitated the present economic misery continuing to reward themselves handsomely, as often as not for failure, as often as not for failure for which the rest of us, as taxpayers, have to carry the can. Bankers, in particular, continue to take salaries that dwarf those of people who actually do some good (like teachers or nurses), sometimes by multiples of 10, 20 or more. They help themselves to bonuses, though their banks continue to lose value and several of them can only pay out because they’re being kept afloat by the compulsory generosity of the taxpayer. 

It’s not just banks, of course. Board room salaries across industry continue to climb, however bad the economy and however much others suffer. Cuts fall on those same teachers or nurses, and even more severely still on the ill or the unemployed, who are seeing already low living standards slashed still further.

So here’s a solution to the twin problems, of tax evasion and excessive bonuses, simultaneously.

Bonuses to highly-paid staff should be strictly proportional to the corporation tax paid by their companies.

Wouldn’t that be a glorious sight? These are the individuals who take the decisions that keep corporation tax liabilities down. Just imagine how it would be if their bonuses fell with them.

If they wanted to boost their personal pay, they’d have to boost the tax paid by the company by a proportionate amount. That would give a whole new sense to the idea of ‘win-win’.

The big question is, which way would things crack? Would they go on trying to keep tax payments down or would they sacrifice the corporation’s gains for their own?

Having seen how altruistically these characters behave, can anyone have any possible doubt which way they’d go? We might see a long-repeated claim being realised at last: their success would truly be shared by everyone.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Europe, land of ironies

Ah, the nostalgia. The British Conservative Party is going through one of its periodic phases of tearing itself apart over the European Union. 

The European Union, Achilles heel of the Tory Party
It’s a great spectator sport and normally I’d sit back and enjoy it, but this time the stakes are a bit too high. This time Britain could end up outside the EU.

Europhobia is running quite strong in Britain. V
arious undead from the Thatcher years – Nigel Lawson, Michael Portillo – have been crawling out of their satin-lined coffins to pronounce. Lawson even talked about how much better things were when we traded with the whole world, as a great imperial power, and didn’t have to get too tied up with all those dull people on the continent. 

It’s a point of view. All it leaves out of account is that all that great trade we were doing was with colonies which had to give preference to British goods. And we were a lot poorer then than now in any case.

Meanwhile, back in the present day, David Cameron is giving us a fascinating display of political leadership skills. Frightened by the emergence of an unambiguously Europobe party, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Tories are splitting between those who want to keep a clear space between themselves and the far right, and those who feel the best approach is to steal UKIP’s agenda by offering a referendum on getting out of the EU.

Now Cameron’s problem is that he governs in coalition with the Lib Dems who, insofar as they have any principles they’re not prepared to abandon to hang on to office, are pretty firmly committed to staying inside the European Union. They certainly don’t want a referendum which they might lose. So officially the government can’t back the demand for a referendum. But the Tory Party, and its leader David Cameron, can go along with the demand.

Follow this carefully. As Prime Minister of a coalition government, he can’t. But as leader of the major party of that coalition, a party desperate to grab back Europhobic territory, he can. In fact, he thinks he must.

Which means he hasn’t learned the fundamental lesson of intra-Tory fights about Europe: throw the phobes some raw meat and all they do is come back for more.

Even more fun, while Cameron is backing the people who want an in-out referendum on the European Union, he’s off in the US promoting a trade deal. With the same European Union.

In the meantime, his Chancellor of the Exchequer and best mate George Osborne, was in Brussels trying to persuade the rest of the much-maligned European Union to help him track down tax dodgers. Having been there ten days earlier in efforts to block the Union putting a cap on bankers’ bonuses (he failed). Because protecting bankers’s income is right up there at the top of the to-do list of a Tory Chancellor.

The sad thing? The people who’ve been voting UKIP include above all people who’ve been plunged into the worst kind of mess as a result of the antics of those very same bankers. Many such voters back UKIP and denounce the EU which is trying to tackle the source of their problems.

The latest? It came out yesterday. The British Office of Fair Trading recently dropped an investigation into price-fixing by oil companies. Who’s reopened it? Investigators from the EU. Those same UKIP supporters are also victims of profiteering by the energy companies. And want to take us out of the European Union that's trying do something about it.

Irony’s great, isn’t it? But a bit sad sometimes.

Monday, 13 May 2013

When the ice saints go marching by

It’s always a good moment when we say goodbye to the Ice Saints.

My wife, whose roots are in the German-speaking world where the ‘Eisheiligen’ are much better known, introduced me to these characters. They mark the definitive end of the winter and, at long last, the start of Spring. Up here in the north of the northern hemisphere, at least.

They start on 11 May, with St Mamertus, followed by St Pancras on the 12th, St Servatius on the 13th and St Boniface on the 14th. With Boniface it’s all over: the last late frosts give way to the start of summer on the 15th, St Sophia’s day (is it a coincidence that we get four ice men followed by a summer woman? Perhaps I won’t go there.)

‘Vor Bonifaz kein Sommer,’ say the Germans: before Boniface there’s no summer, and ‘nach der Sophie kein Frost’: after Sophia no frost.

No wonder, then, that’s it’s for the best when those guys have gone by. Though I should mention in passing that there’s one I have a bit of a soft spot for: I rather like St Pancras. 

St Pancras
Don't know much about the saint,
but I really like the station
I think it’s great to have a saint named after my favourite station. Now that I don’t work in London any more, I don’t go there often, but I get a real kick when I see it from time to time: the pianos are still there with anonymous members of the public just sitting down and hammering out a tune to pass the time and entertain the passers by; so’s the statue of John Betjeman, who penned an ode to the station; and now there’s even a hanging sculpture over one end of the concourse. Lots of fun.

St Pancras, where passengers get entertained by occasional pianists

Don’t get me wrong. I like Grand Central station with its huge concourse, I love the Gare de l’Est with its extraordinary destinations that I find it hard to believe you can reach by train: Budapest. Warsaw. Moscow. Moscow for Pete’s sake! But even so, you can’t imagine a St Grand Central, can you, or a Saint Gare de l’Est for that matter?

But there’s a St Pancras and when you see his station, it’s no wonder he’s a bit special.

In any case, all that ice saint stuff doesn’t really work any more. When Europe switched to the Gregorian calendar, that cost ten days. So the actual weather that goes with the old ice saints belongs a bit later in the month.

Probably safest to go with the old English saying, ‘ne’er cast a clout till may be out.’ Not that I think that’s the month of May. Much more likely to be mayflower, called after that famous boat that got the United States going. Hawthorn blossom. Don’t take off a stitch of clothing till it’s in full bloom.

The Mayflower.
Puritains to America, summer to Britain
I know who did better out of that deal
No sign of that yet in England. So I’ll wave goodbye to St Boniface tomorrow, hello to St Sophie the day after. But I’m keeping the coat on until those white flowers have really taken over in the hedgerows.

More reliable than the Ice Saints

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Magic of a second chance after a first-time screw up

Charles Venables, the government minister in J M Barrie’s play What Every Woman Knows, tells us that the man whose second thoughts are good is worth watching.

Barrie strikes me as a deeply suspect individual (what is Peter Pan really about?) and this play is a vehicle for some pretty troubling social attitudes. Despite my reservations, however, I can’t help enjoying it and I particularly like the sentiment about second thoughts.

Of course, I work in business where it’s a fundamental principle that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Where the mantra is getting things right first time. Doesn’t stop companies getting things wrong again and again, or not getting them done at all, very often, but the mantra’s there.

So it was wonderful to have a second chance to get something right this morning. I’ve already recounted how two weeks ago I screwed up by taking us to the wrong place for an early morning bird-watching walk, in the breathtaking splendour of Ashridge Forest. That meant that we were up at 5:00 a.m. for nothing, and I’d spoiled my wife’s birthday: she'd set a lot of store by the charms of early morning bird watching in a delightful setting.
Even at stupid o'clock, Ashridge is a magical place
for a walkin the sunshine
Fortunately, the Ashridge National Trust people had organised another walk for this morning and though it meant a 5:00 start all over again, it was a tremendous relief to have an opportunity to correct things so soon. This time, I made a point of checking the details the night before, even looking at the map to be sure I knew where we had to go (like instruction manuals, I feel a real wimp if I have to consult a map). We were at the right place and a few minutes before time. A major success compared to the last occasion.

We’ve had nearly two weeks of nearly summer weather here in England, which is pretty long for any kind of summer compared to the last few years. It was no surprise therefore that we left this morning facing a grim weather forecast, with the skies turning grey and temperatures 10 to 15 degrees down on the last few days (and that’s real degrees, not the trivial little Fahrenheit ones). Why, it was even beginning to spit a little rain as we set out on the walk.

But still, England’s weather hadn’t fully plunged us back into November yet (that didn’t happen until this afternoon), and we had moments of glorious sunshine when, if we got out of the wind, it felt positively warm. As the guides warned us, we didn’t do so much actual bird watching as bird listening: the leaves are out and birds are mostly concealed, but on the other hand they’re pouring out their hearts in song. The first two species we were introduced to were jackdaws and yellow hammers, and I was just enchanted: town dweller that I am, I’m much more used to the sound of the jackhammer.

Two hours walking through fabulous scenery in sunshine that kept constant quite a lot of the time more than made up for the stupid o’clock start. And finishing it all of with a full breakfast in the National Trust cafĂ© really put the icing on the cake (not that we had cake: it wouldn’t have gone with the bacon or egg).

Second thoughts had more than made up for my total lack of thinking first time round. And my wife got her wish at last.

Happy birthday, again, Danielle. Just a couple of weeks late.

No bird pictures, I'm afraid.
But here's a Whitebeam catching the sun,
with all of Bucks and Beds laid out behind it

Thursday, 9 May 2013

What did immigrants ever do for us?

As everybody knows, that magnificent imperial power, Rome, was founded by Romulus and Remus, two twins who as babies had been suckled by a she-wolf.

Founders. Started well, ended badly. But later came glory

Later on, things turned a bit sour between the twins, and Romulus killed Remus, which is presumably why, in The Life of BrianJohn Cleese never asks  ‘what have the Remans ever done for us?’ 

In other versions of the Roman story, it wasn’t Romulus who struck the fatal blow but one of his mates. There was no doubt some squeamishness about a founding myth involving fratricide, though given the way brothers sometimes behave towards each other, I should have thought a desire to inflict fratricide is frequently a pretty strong desire in a lot of siblings, closely followed by an equal inclination in their parents to commit infanticide.

Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect two twins to launch a whole city – and anyone who has followed the story so far will no doubt have been struck by its gritty realism – so they had to enlist the help of others. That they did by inviting anyone who wished to come and join them, with no questions asked. So a great many unsavoury individuals, the kind of people with often pressing needs to be elsewhere fast, congregated to the site of the new city, which was built by as undesirable a collection of criminals and outlaws as you could hope to see anywhere.

They were all men, which rather limited the city’s hopes of longevity. They needed to find some expedient to attract a few women to join them. But these were men who were perhaps short of the capacity to attract, or didn’t think that attraction was a sufficiently reliable method, and didn
t find more energetic means unduly reprehensible. So they invited a nearby tribe, the Sabines, to a slap-up meal. As soon as festivities were over, they seized all the females in an act which set the bar pretty low when it comes to the treatment of guests, and which has come to be known as the rape of the Sabine women.
Nicolas Poussin:
a case of extreme bad manners towards guests?
When the far from gruntled Sabine men came back to wreak horrible revenge on the Romans, the women intervened between the two sides, calling on the ones not to kill their fathers and brothers, on the others not to kill their husbands and sons. Clearly, the refusal to take rape seriously and the inclination to be lenient in handling it, has long antecedents. 

But what interests me more was what the myth reveals of Roman attitudes towards assimilation: the Sabine women had been completely absorbed into the people of the city, as had all the wastrels who’d drifted to it in the period of its foundation. That Romans really believed in that kind of assimilation is revealed by their later history: huge numbers, down the centuries, gravitated to the city as slaves; in time, many were freed and as soon as they obtained their freedom, they were granted citizenship as well. The same happened throughout the empire, with Roman citizens in every province, many of them locally born.

In other words, the Roman Empire, one of the most successful the world has seen, which despite almost constant war around its periphery, kept the peace and stimulated prosperity in huge areas of Western Europe for four or five centuries, was built on the shoulders of immigrants. Romans spoke a huge number of languages and believed in a huge number of gods; the Empire testifies to the vibrancy and power that multi-culturalism, through the assimilation of the foreign born, can give a society.

Now fast forward to just a couple of hundred years ago and the words of Emma Lazarus, some of which are inscribed on the plinth of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Beacon to the world:
calling for the wretched refuse of other nations
It’s true that these words weren’t always honoured in practice, with successive waves of immigrants to the United States often having a torrid time of it when they first arrived, not infrequently at the hands of the immediately preceding wave. Somehow down the centuries, however, the US has been able to absorb Englishmen and Scotsmen, Irishmen, Scandinavians and Germans, Italians and other Southern Europeans, turning them all into US citizens. 

They took Anglicans and Baptists, Quakers and Catholics, Jews and more recently Muslims, Hindus and representatives of pretty well any faith on Earth or those with none at all. And, with a constitution keeping the state and faith firmly apart, guaranteeing that the former would be secular, assimilation into a huge, multi-cultural melting point has generally worked well.

Give the US another generation or two, and the Hispanic immigrants now forming the main inward flows, from the US's near neighbours in the Americas, will have been as well integrated as Minnesota Swedes or Chicago Irishmen. And they may even have taken further steps towards absorbing that great minority, the black descendants of the slaves who made the wealth of the south back in the eighteenth century.

‘The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.’ Isn’t that so like the Roman founding myth? Come to us, whoever you are, and whatever you may have been in your past, to help us build a country. It worked for Rome, and it’s worked pretty spectacularly for the United States too. Just like the Pax Romana, the Pax Americana has guaranteed peace for its friends for sixty years, though at the price of more or less uninterrupted war with those threatening the edges of its sphere. And it has driven unprecedented levels of prosperity for large parts of the world.

Immigrants. The restless, striving masses, driven to achieve, injecting new blood into societies to take them to unimaginable heights.

So why do we get so upset about them?

Monday, 6 May 2013

Celebrate the gifted amateur, but spare a thought for the other variety

Don’t we all admire the gifted amateur? So inspiring. So selfless. So courageous.

Do you remember the film Chariots of Fire? Look at Lord Andrew Lindsay. He joined Harold Abrahams, the driven, striving Jew, running not just for the joy of athletics but to mark a victory over anti-Semitism, in attempting the ‘Caius dash’ round the courtyard of Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge. Lindsay helps push Abrahams along to success, while not quite making it himself.

At the 1924 Olympics, Lindsay takes a silver medal, the ideal result: so good as to suggest that he might have taken gold had he pushed himself harder like all those nasty semi-professionals, including Abrahams or the Yanks, but just off the top step of the podium, so as to maintain a becoming modesty.

Then of course Lindsay steps aside from his other event, the 200 metres, to give Eric Liddle the chance to compete in his place. Liddle wouldn’t run in the 100 metres because his Christian principles wouldn't allow him to take part in heats held on a Sunday; Lindsay’s sacrifice made it possible for him to win his gold medal at the longer distance.

Wonderful stuff, eh? Self-effacing. Noble in the truest sense of the word. All for the spirit of the thing. He even tells Liddell that he’s doing it ‘just to see you run.’ I can’t remember if he adds ‘old chap’, but you can feel the words are there. Such a decent fellow, so civilised. It would almost make me want to doff my cap, if I was into that kind of thing and owned a cap.

But Lindsay is the quintessence of the gifted amateur. What about the other kind?

I have to admit that for a long time I saw myself as one of them. The flattering idea was born in an interview when my soon-to-be boss declared me to be ‘ideally unqualified’ for the job, and appointed me anyway.

Sadly, however, more recently I’ve had to accept that I naturally belong to the ungifted category. And nowhere more so than when it comes displaying any kind of skill in manual work.

For instance, some months ago I proudly constructed two woodsheds at the bottom of our garden. I had help, I confess, but not that much. I did most of the work myself.


True I was working from kits. So the construction didn’t really require great skill. All I had to do was assemble the parts in the right order. Which makes it slightly galling that I didn’t quite manage that simple task.

Most flagrantly, I came unstuck with the roofs, These were made from overlapping planks of wood. Put them one way round, and rainwater would run delicately off one plank onto the next one, which is below it. Trouble is, put it the other way round and the rain will, equally delicately, run down to the next plank, which is above it, form a pool and then leak through.

Onto the logs underneath.

Work of the ungifted amateur:
the roof traps the water and leaks it gently onto the wood beneath
It does seem terribly unfair that, given that the roofs could only be put on in one of two positions, I got it wrong in both cases.

The result is that having gone to considerable trouble and expense to make sure we had good, seasoned, dry wood to burn in our stove this winter, my wife has struggled throughout the season to kindle a flame from damp fuel.

Fortunately a wonderful builder is putting in a path in our garden for us.

‘I can sort that for you,’ he assured us, ‘in about five minutes.’

It was welcome news as I hadn’t been able to unscrew either roof in thirty minutes of trying. And he was good as his word, correcting the problem in a way that made me understand what ‘in a jiffy’ really meant.

Fixed by the  professional
The water flows away and the shed does its job of protecting the wood

It’s comforting to know that our two sheds, intended to protect our wood from rain, will now be doing just that instead of exactly the opposite.

I suppose I can console myself with the thought that at least I equalled Lord Andrew Lindsay’s performance. I took the silver medal. Though, sadly, there were no other competitors to finish behind me. And what I came second to was a lump of wood.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Did the earth move for England this week?

Every four years we in England re-elect the councils who run our counties.

Well, that’s a summary and, like most summaries, it’s inaccurate. Thursday’s elections concerned most of the counties but not all of them. And ‘county’ means the countrified bits that may surround large towns, but don’t include them: they mostly have their own councils.

The Conservative Party being mostly led and funded by people who’ve made a lot of money and therefore don’t have to put up with living in the grime any more, it’s Conservatives who dominate the nicer areas of the country and the counties tend to be solidly Tory. That means it’s difficult to draw lessons from the results of county council elections: if the Tories sweep the board, that’s a good result, if they lose control of ten or twenty, that’s poor.

But just because it’s hard to learn a lesson never stops people from drawing easy lessons, and I’m no exception, so here are my thoughts on Thursday’s elections.

The big deal was the success of UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party.

Normally independence parties spend their time fighting some distant colonial power. In many instances, that has meant the overweening power of London. Turns out to be much the same for UKIP: little angers them so much as those upstarts who dare to rule them from Westminster.

In their case, though, what they particularly hate about London is that it’s handed over some powers to Brussels (please pronounce this word as though it were ‘leprosy’). 

That city is the inoffensive though uninspiring capital of Belgium, a fictional country bringing together Flemish, French and German speakers, and threatening to tear itself apart in regular crises every five to ten years. It’s perhaps those Belgian qualities that so fit Brussels to be the capital city of that other artificial construct, the European Union: it sits atop countries, languages and religions linked by the fact that they are all European, and divided by pretty much everything else.

UKIP hates Brussels.

So it demands the independence of the UK from Brussels. At which point it could concentrate its ire on London.

Concentrating ire is what UKIP’s good at. It loathes:

  • the European Union 
  • immigrants 
  • government 
  • politics 
  • taxation 
  • gay rights 
  • immigrants (in case you missed the point first time)

It’s less clear what it actually favours. As UKIP has begun to be a force in the land, stories have begun to emerge about it. One of the more amusing was leaked information about internal debates over whether to call in consultants to build them some policies. For payment, of course.

Buying policies. And they said conviction politics were dead.

Last week’s elections have shown that UKIP has struck a chord. A lot of other people don’t like Westminster and like Brussels even less. UKIP didn’t win a single council and they won only 6% of the seats, but they took an awful lot of votes. The BBC likes to work out what the votes cast in such elections would look like if they were projected across the whole of the country: on that count, UKIP would have had 23%, only 2 points behind the Conservatives on 25%, with Labour on 29% and the Liberal Democrats on 14%.

It really feels as though we’re into an era of four-party politics.

Clearly, we have to start to take UKIP seriously. We can’t just go on writing them off as a bunch of clowns with more than a trace of racism and homophobia.

Except, unfortunately, to me they seem to be just a bunch of clowns with more than a trace of racism and homophobia.

In their hatred of government and politics, they only prove that the Tea Party phenomenon isn’t limited to the United States. In Britain – or rather England, as UKIP speaks above all for English concerns – we too have a group of people whose hatred of politics has driven them to set up a political movement, whose hatred of government has led them to drive for power.

What happens when an anti-political movement takes its anti-government stance into government? The United States shows us: paralysis at the centre, where Congress can’t even act to keep the most lethal guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

UKIP in government in Britain? Well, it’s not going to happen. A protest vote in county council elections is one thing, but the Tories will tack to the right to take votes back, and faced with electing a real administration, many voters will prefer a party of government.

But what if, despite all that, UKIP really took power? It would be a lot less pleasant to be a foreigner in Britain. It wouldn’t be amusing to be gay. It would be a lot uglier to be Muslim or to believe in such radical ideas as a woman’s right to choose. And it certainly would be even less fun than today to be poor.

It’s curious that the UKIP logo builds in the symbol for sterling:

On the money? Or in the money?
Presumably the intention was to celebrate the great historic power of the pound (not even UKIP can believe it has much power today – surely?) But what it gives us is a party of the right that proclaims the majesty of money.

At least that’s honest.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Consolation of Faith

Religious belief is a source of great consolation. Particularly in today’s complex world with all its miseries. Or so I’m told.

’s leave to one side the nagging doubt that makes me doubt that, even if it were true that faith was comforting, that wouldn’t necessarily make it true. I remember walking away from a funeral and being told by the deceased woman’s brother that he ‘couldn’t believe that she wasn’t still with us.’ Sadly, I felt that told me a lot more about him than it did about her.

Instead let's concentrate on just how much consolation faith really brings.

After all, for months now we’ve had constant debate about the rights of gay people to be treated equally in our Western democracies. Gay marriage ignited terrible animosities in Britain and worse ones still in France; in the US, it continues to excite controversy. I’m not sure that a belief system that labels gays as cursed brings much consolation even to its adherents, let alone to the gays themselves.

But all the vitriol over gay marriage is as nothing compared to two stories that featured on the news today.

With elections coming up in Pakistan, the BBC this morning chose to remind us of what happened in Quetta at the beginning of this year. A suicide bomber walked into a snooker hall and detonated his bomb, killing eight of the Hazara community living in the city. People ran to the site, volunteers as well as the emergency services. That was the moment the attackers set off a second bomb, attached to an ambulance. In all, 120 were killed.

Hazara Shia burying their dead

Why? Follow this carefully. Not many of us in the West know much about the distinction between Sunni and Shia Islam. To most people, Sunnis and Shiites are all justMuslims with some differences in detail of belief. But not, it seems, to certain Pakistani Sunnis. A legal party is running in the elections on a platform that wants Shiism designated non-Muslim. They don’t want the Shiites driven out of Pakistan, far less killed, so a candidate explained to the BBC, they just want them officially declared outside the faith.

It was that party’s armed wing that carried out the Quetta attacks.

What is the religion of the Hazara community? You guessed it. Overwhelmingly Shia. And short of consolation right now, I imagine.

This afternoon, the BBC turned its attention to the fighting now escalating in Burma. That nation seemed at last to be taking important steps towards a better way of life, with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and a general relaxation of military control. But now sectarian fighting is raising ugly new concerns.

On Tuesday, a trivial accident occurred on a street in the town of Oakkan: a young woman on a bike collided with a monk. Infuriating, I’m sure, the kind of thing most of us might expect to react to with some well chosen expletives.

I remember the ghastly bike riders I came across in Amsterdam. Step into a cycle lane, and they bear down on you, bell ringing and insults turning the air blue around you. At least, I assume what I heard was insults, but Dutch is a bit like that, isn’t it? It can make anything sound like an expletive. Perhaps the cyclists were mouthing endearments, but on balance I doubt it.

Still, I didn’t feel inclined to respond to their behaviour by killing anyone or burning down their houses. But the cyclist in Tuesday’s incident in Burma was Muslim, so Buddhist monks went on the rampage, attacking mosques, burning down houses, killing one person and injuring nine.

Muslim houses burning after Buddhist violence in Burma

Read that sentence again. That’s Buddhist monks. If any religion is committed to peace and non-violence, surely it’s Buddhism. But in Burma monks are going out in gangs to terrorise Muslims. Leaving them presumably as disconsolate as the Shias in Quetta.

Remind me again. Religious faith is a source of consolation to us all. 

Have I got that right?