Sunday, 27 December 2015

Looking forward in the spirit of Pratchett

There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty.

The world
belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!

And at the other end of the bar the world is full of the other type of person, who has a broken glass, or a glass that has been carelessly knocked over (usually by one of the people calling for a larger glass) or who had no glass at all, because he was at the back of the crowd and had failed to catch the barman's eye.

Ah, the voice of Terry Pratchett. Communicating truth through humour. Presenting through his imaginary Discworld a picture of our own planet, distorted only so far as its most essential characteristics have been blown up to make them unmissable. Appealing characteristics as well as blemishes, even if there are more of the latter,

Since the superb yearly gift of a new Pratchett novel has now come to its fatal end, re-reading is now my only option. I’m laughing my way through The Truth at the moment, with its insightful treatment of the role and development of the press. But nothing in it outshines the glass-half-full quotation. And it just seems to become more and more apposite.

Another Pratchett novel, living up to its title
I was particularly struck by it when I read a post from a friend calling for sympathy for those, like doctors or petrol station attendants, who have to keep working through Christmas days while so many of us are enjoying time with our families. That reminded me of a young woman I met, thirty years ago, at a supermarket checkout on New Year’s day. Her looks betrayed her state, and when I put it to her she readily admitted that she was badly hungover from the night before. Even so, she was determined to do ten hours of work on that public holiday, because she was being paid triple time. Recently married, she and her husband were busily saving for a house purchase.

UK overtime payments have declined steadily since those days. Partly, this reflects a decrease in the number of overtime hours worked, which may well be a good thing but, anecdotally at least, I’m coming across increasing numbers of people being asked to work overtime for no raised level of payment, or indeed only for time off in lieu. The woman with the hangover might not, today, find that working on New Year’s day was quite as remunerative as it was thirty years ago.

This may be one of the reasons why the British Social Attitudes survey has found that, where 74% of people in 1986 would have recommended to a newly-married couple that they buy a house as soon as possible, the percentage had fallen to 53% in 2012. Britain is regressing towards an older dispensation in which home ownership was a privilege of the few, not a right of the many.

It’s no surprise to discover that the High Pay Commission finds that the remuneration of Chief Executives of our biggest companies is set to grow from 145 times the average salary in 2010 to 214 by 2020. It seems that the owners of the large glasses that are never full enough, are seeing their share growing even more starkly than before; meanwhile, at the other end of the bar, there are more and more people finding it difficult to catch the barman’s eye.

It all sounds pretty hopeless. Fortunately, there is a glimmer at least of optimism still. Labour has a new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is infuriating a lot of large-glass holders by refusing to stop speaking out, with energy and determination, for those with small glasses or no glass at all. Among those he infuriates are the supporters of the now old-fashioned New Labour school. When they ran the party, they were, as Peter Mandelson so aptly put it, “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” They were, unfortunately, just as relaxed about many others remaining filthy poor.

Their replacement offers a chance that we might be able to deal with the empty glasses. Perhaps that’s no bad note on which to end the year in which Pratchett left us, and prepare to push forward in his spirit in 2016.

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