Tuesday, 17 October 2017

When the family shows up

“The family, that cage with living bars,” wrote the French novelist François Mauriac. There must be families like that, just as there are families which are pleasant holiday chalets with open doors to let the air in with the visitors, and the residents in or out as they want. Equally, I suppose many families mix their open rooms and their cages, often right next door to each other.

For my own part, I’m always pleased when my family comes to see us. This weekend, it was the turn of my youngest son Nicky and daughter-out-law Sheena to add considerably to the pleasure of the household. We did lots of things which might not otherwise have done, some highly successful (a walk in Ashridge Forest, for instance), some less so (a Motown concert which we left early, after raising my understanding, if only of the question why I had never attended one before).

Inevitably, we ate too much. Somehow, whenever we do anything for the sheer pleasure it seems to lead to a series of meals, many of them far too big.

In any case, it didn’t much matter what we actually did or how well it went, since what made it most fun was the fact that we were doing it together. I even took pleasure from going bowling, a game I usually delight in because I play it well, though on this occasion – when I notched up some historically abysmal scores – I could only enjoy the simple fact of participation. .

It was ironic playing such a quintessentially American game with my family. Not a week before, my American boss had been in town, and I enjoyed introducing her to that fundamentally English game, snooker. American games with an Englishman, English games with an American: the simple symmetry’s a joy in itself.

Nicky leading the way in the Wardown Park run
but the threat's on his shoulder...
A more successful sporting event took place on Sunday when Nicky decided to take part in a park run in one of Luton’s pleasanter places, Wardown Park. Some 300 people took part; he led for a short time and eventually came in second, behind a worthy winner (“perhaps I should have tried harder to catch him,” he however claimed). With several friends among the runners, it was good to be there, and the dogs enjoyed it too – they’re keen fans of Wardown Park, where there are ducks, squirrels, kids to play with and, if they’re quick and we’re not watching, occasionally the opportunity to gobble up some ghastly piece of food discarded by a careless eater (or possibly an eater more discerning than they are).

Watching those runners got me checking my phone for the records of the days when I used to go running regularly. It shocked me to discover that at the peak of my performance, I was achieving speeds that would have hardly have got me out of the bottom half of the field in the park run. My son achieved over twice that. No wonder I gave up running, switching instead to badminton: at least it’s a game that allows me to take out my frustration at my ineptitude by occasionally viciously punishing the shuttle and smashing it beyond my opponents’ reach (worth it, even though they do the same back to me even more frequently). .

As it happens, not only do I not have the energy these days to do any running (except over the narrow distances of a badminton court), I find it effort enough just to keep walking. I remain under the dominion of my fitbit, obsessively piling up the steps each day. That can be painful, but it does have one advantage.

Like a great many people – even another French writer, Proust – I’m neurotic about remembering to undertake routine tasks. He talks about having to turn off the gas very consciously, so that later on he can remember having done so. With me, it’s locking doors. “I’m locking the front door, now,” I have to think to myself, or “I’m locking the car,” so that when I get a sudden rush of anxiety I can remember clearly having done so.

Of course, that means having to remember to think consciously about those tasks, and I don’t always. Often I have to go back to check. With the car, that isn’t so easy: I can’t test the door handle because, with the clever new technology we now have, if I do that the car unlocks anyway. So instead I just look at the wing mirrors: has the car tucked them away? If it has, then it’s locked.

Still, just being obliged to go back to check is a pain. Except that – now it isn’t. Because it’s steps. I’ve actually found myself deliberately walking all the way around the car to lengthen the process. Because it’s all steps towards the target, all grist to the mill.

No good for my fitbit obsession. But maybe good for my body.

When it comes to my soul, it was the family visit itself that did me good – there was no cage there, no bars. Well, except the kind where one might celebrate over a drink. As is only appropriate when family shows up.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

None of the above, when October feels like November

October in England this year has had many days that felt like September at its best, but a few that resembled November at its gloomiest. That’s how today dawned. Grey, dull, wet, not exactly cold but far from inviting. The kind of day that makes you want to pull the covers back up and pretend the day’s not yet begun, or perhaps wallow in a bath till you outwrinkle a prune while you read the paper.

Except, unfortunately, the news in that paper only adds to the November feeling of such a day.

Honestly, the state of British politics is enough to make you want to turn to the sports pages instead. Personally, I find the underperformance of the grossly overpaid on the pitches of the English so-called premier league (more of a might-have-been league these days) more edifying than the political news these days, and Lord knows the self-styled premiership’s pretty dire.

We now have a glorious spectacle in the Tory Party entirely divided against itself. It continues to rule in this country, if only by its fingernails. The parliamentary party seems split between two groups.

On the one hand, stand the archi-Brexiters who’d like to see the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, sacked for pushing a ‘soft Brexit’ approach. This would involve trying to maintain the best possible relationship with the EU after Brexit, especially as concerns trade, even at the cost of accepting some continued EU influence on British affairs.

On the other hand, the ranks of Brexit-deplorers are calling for the sacking of the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, for an altogether too cavalier attitude towards Brexit. Convinced that the British lion can emit a roar to be heard around the world, he wants the country out of the EU at the earliest possible moment with no deal for the future if necessary.

Between these two groups stands the Prime Minister, Theresa May, herself. She must at least feel a certain relief that the talk of sacking is concentrated on her two most senior ministers instead of herself. Ever since the disastrous General Election she called in June when, instead of increasing her Party’s majority substantially, she lost it and found herself heading a minority administration, she’s been beset by calls for her to go. It must be a pleasant change to see others the target of such calls, for the time being.

For a great many of us, this is all a little ironic. Because the issue isn’t getting rid of Johnson, Hammond or May. The Brexit question needs solving and needs solving urgently. A hopelessly divided government can’t do it, so why don’t we just sack the lot of them? Someone has to come up with some kind of coherent negotiating stance to try to limit the damage to Britain after the country leaves the EU. Sadly, however, there’s a sense that the Opposition may well be as heavily, if more discreetly, riven on the issue.

Labour is, in principle, committed to remaining in the EU. If we absolutely must leave, Labour should therefore be seeking the softest of soft departures, perhaps even remaining in certain structures such as the Single Market or the Customs Union. However, it’s far from clear that the leadership, and in particular the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, entirely buys into that scenario. And he’s not saying.

The Don't Knows in the lead
Really feels like November in October
That may be why, for the first time since pollsters YouGov started asking, it has found that the most popular answer to the question “who would make the best Prime Minister” is “Don’t Know”. That feels a bit like “none of the above”.

A dismal state of affairs.

Enough to make you want to pull the covers up and snuggle down for another hour or so. Except that now it’s the evening and the last of the day – which has, unexpectedly, turned pleasantly September-like. I think I’ll take the dogs out.

That at least I can be sure of enjoying. As will they.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Transient's diary, weeks 6 and 7

At last, it’s really happening. Things are on the up. There’s beginning to be a glimmer of a hint of a chance of a hope of a prospect of our moving back into our house before long.

The new kitchen has tiles on the floor. It has some kitchen units in place. Why, it even has a new boiler. No water to the boiler (or taps or anything else). No electricity to light the boiler. No gas to light, indeed. But, hey, that can all come in time.
A kitchen taking shape
Note the boiler. Not that it’s working yet or anything
And it’s not just in the kitchen that we have tiles. There are even tiles on the walls of the shower room, and very fine they look too. Of course, no water, electricity or, indeed, water heated by the boiler thats not yet working either but, again, hey, we shouldn’t ask for too much too soon.

Besides, there’s no shower head.

The shower room has great tiles
Though no shower yet...
xThere’s been even more progress upstairs. The loft no longer looks like a loft at all. It’s beginning to look like a bedroom. As well as the window with its great view (well, OK, mostly of scaffolding for the moment but one can picture the view beyond it), we now have plastered walls and a proper floor.

New room emerging with a fine view of scaffolding
But – en suite doesn’t really mean a bath in a bedroom, does it?
There’s a bath too. I like to think it’s not in the right place – I don’t think ‘en suite’ means actually in the bedroom. Some time they’ll no doubt move it into the little kind of cubile they’ve fashioned next to bedroom – yes, it’s going to be more en-cubicle than en suite, but there’s no room for a real suite under our roof.

It’s all happening, though, isn’t it? The end of the vagrancy beckons. To be capped by a place I’m keener and keener to get back to…

The end is in sight.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Catalonia: an appeal for peace with simple words to say it

It was good to see Catalans, or at any rate a great many people both Catalan and non-Catalan, demonstrating on behalf of dialogue in Catalonia this weekend. Thats to get out of the crisis brought on by demands from the Catalan government for the independence of their region. The marchers wore white, the colour of no party but of peace, they carried no national flags, and they had only one demand: let’s talk. Hablamos in Spanish. Parlem in Catalan.

Marching for peace and dialogue in Barcelona
The absence of flags was a good move. Flags stand for nations and nations stand for far more than just the good. You can point with pride to a Dalí or a world-cup winning football team? Just remember that you also have to take on board the persecution of Jews and Muslims and nearly four decades of Fascism.

Instead they sought communication. “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war,” Winston Churchill said, and the words ring particularly true at a time when the Catalan leadership has pushed its case to the brink of conflict, and the Spanish government has stepped right over the line into violence which, if it wasn’t lethal in its police action against a referendum on independence deemed illegal, was nonetheless brutal.

So “let’s talk” sounds like an eminently sensible response. Watching people demanding it was heart-warming. It left me feeling hopeful for once, as few political developments do.

Though I have to admit it wasn’t just the sentiment that touched me. The words themselves struck me. They awoke memories from decades ago, memories of an amusing discovery during my student days.

It may seem odd that of the two great languages of antiquity in Europe, Greek and Latin, only the former is still spoken. There is apparently no “modern Latin” as there is a “modern Greek”. That is, however, only an appearance. The only reason there’s no modern Latin is that there are, in fact, multiple modern Latins.

Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, even French are all in fact the descendants of the language spoken across the Roman Empire at its height, altered by the successive waves of incomers that have affected some regions far more than others. French, for instance, has come a long way from the original language, heavily influenced by the Germanic speech of the invaders from across the Rhine – Burgundians, Goths, and of course the Franks, who gave the country its modern name.

The Latin from which those languages developed, however, wasn’t the elevated language spoken from the Senate. “Latin’s a dead language, as dead as dead can be,” goes the schoolboy doggerel, “it killed the ancient Romans and now it’s killing me.” Even those ancient Romans realised it was far too complex a language. Pliny the Elder admitted he spoke a different language in the market than in the Senate.

The language of the marketplace was, above all, far simpler. For instance, the word for ‘to talk’, loqui (think of ‘loquacious’ or ‘eloquent’), is particularly painful. Its form is called ‘deponent’ so it looks passive when it’s actually active (so a classical Latin scholar would say ‘I have been talked’ when what he meant was ‘I have talked’).

The more sensible kind of people who would sell you a water melon or repair a broken shoe don’t speak that way. So they looked around for different words to us.

Two are particularly simple. To tell a parable – ‘parabulare’ – and to tell a fable – ‘fabulare’ – are nice, easy, first conjugation verbs that are entirely regular and therefore behave predictably. The common people chose one or other of those two to mean “to speak’ in preference to loqui

The Italians, the French and the Catalans chose ‘parabulare’, shortened to ‘parlare’ (the word in Italian), giving the Catalan ‘parlem’.

The main branch of the language in the rest of Spain chose ‘fabulare’. The Spanish have a way of replacing the initial ‘f’ by an ‘h’ – smoke, for instance, which is ‘fumo’ in Italian is ‘humo’ in Spanish. The Spanish for ‘to speak’ morphed into ‘hablar’ and hence ‘hablamos’.

The marchers in white were therefore demanding that the two parties tell some fables or some parables to each other. What they meant was that they should speak. Any of those would be great.

Isn’t it great that they chose to say it with a particularly easy word – not a derivative of the ghastly Latin ‘loqui’?

In the end, chatting to each other instead of fighting isn’t all that difficult. It just takes a simple word. And a bit of goodwill.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Spoil the child - and get an adult you don't want at the top

When a young person commits a crime, we’re often told about the way he – it usually is a he – was moulded by his upbringing into the criminal he became. The parenting was too harsh, or too lenient, or too neglectful or simply too lacklustre. It was inevitable that a child brought up this way would turn into an adult who went off the rails.

Think of this upbringing.

You are born into a household of considerable wealth and a globalised lifestyle – indeed, though British and born of British parents, you enter the world in New York. You attend arguably the most prestigious school in Britain, Eton College. Attending the school costs £32,000 a year, a third more than the median earning level in Britain of under £24,000 – for a household of two people.

Let’s get this clear: half of parents in Britian are on less than a level of income which, if they paid no tax, and avoided spending on luxuries such as food, drink or a roof to shelter under, they’d still be £8000 short of the cost of a year at Eton.

I confess that I attended a down-market version of the same kind of school. The teachers keep telling the kids that they need to remember how privileged they are. The ostensible aim is to teach the kids some humility; the reality is that it just teaches them that they’re special, that they deserve colossal sums of money to be spent on them.

In other words, kids who go through this kind of education are taught to believe themselves entitled to special treatment.

Now let’s return to our hero. After Eton, he went to Oxford university, where he became a member of the Bullingdon Club. This is one of Britain’s fine traditional institutions. Its members are Oxford students from the richest families. Even the club uniform costs around £3500 – nearly a sixth of median income.

The most charming characteristic of the club is the way it entertains itself. The members like to book whole restaurants, spend an evening eating and drinking to excess, and then trashing the place. The next day, someone’s Daddy pops around with a chequebook and covers the cost of the damage.

Boys will be boys, won’t they? And who wants to spoil a good evening? Aren’t those of us who might regard this behaviour as anti-social and even criminal just puritan wet blankets?

The Bullingdon Club just underlines the message about entitlement. It says that such young sprigs can do what they like, with impunity. They’re taught that whatever they want, they can take, and no one will ever hold them responsible for the consequences of what they do to get there.

Our hero is, of course, Boris Johnson. Now not everything in his life went smoothly. He was fired from the Times newspaper for falsifying a quotation. That must have come as a terrible surprise: he had been held accountable for an action of his.

BoJo: trained to believe in his entitlement
And he likes to be seen as a lovable buffoon
It didn’t hold him back much, though. After all, he is now Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom. However, what he isn’t is Prime Minister, and he wants to be. What do you do when you’re denied something you want and have been told throughout your life that what you want, you can have?

Over the last few weeks, he’s infuriated members of his own, Conservative, party by constantly making statements pushing a line on Brexit different from his party leader’s. And that party leader, Theresa May, is the Prime Minister.

Clearly, he has been positioning himself for a potential leadership bid against her.

The effect has been to give publicity to Tory divisions, shake the authority of the party and weaken its chances against a resurgent Labour opposition. This has so irritated Johnson’s colleagues that it has even got through to him at last. He knows he needs his colleagues if he’s ever to achieve his ambition of winning the leadership, and if his constant manoeuvring to win the leadership puts them off, it’ll be counter-productive. So he’s gone so far as to appeal to Tory MPs to rally behind Theresa May and against Labour, even though no one was doing more to damage that position than he was himself.

None of that gives me any distress. The Tories divided? The Tory image undermined? The Tory grip on power shaken? Couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch, I say.

As for BoJo himself, I suppose one has to feel a little sympathy for a man so spoiled by his unfortunate childhood and young adulthood.

On the other hand, the idea that BoJo might get anywhere near Downing Street turns my blood cold. If we have to put up with a Tory government, that’s bad enough. But that champion of entitlement, of privilege, of belief in his own impunity heading it?

An appalling prospect...

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Catalonia: another simple solution sure to fail

In the early part of last century, the American commentator HL Mencken pointed out, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong”.

In Spain, elements in the troubled region of Catalonia have felt for a long time that they would be better off outside the Spanish state.

I say ‘elements’ because a great many Catalans are far from convinced that this is the right solution for their region – even if it is, in fact, a nation. Many on the left, for instance, are concerned by a separatist movement they see as xenophobic and conservative; many in the centre of the political spectrum see themselves as Spanish as well as Catalan, feel there’s no contradiction between the two and believe Catalonia would enjoy a more secure future linked with the other Spanish regions than on its own.

So which side commands a majority of Catalan opinion?

Opinion polls are only worth so much, as we have learned to our cost in numerous elections around the world. Even so, they’re about the only indication we have of where an electorate’s view stands, outside an actual election. The Centre d'Estudis d'Opinió (Centre of Opinion Studies) is a body that is run by the Catalan regional government, so one wouldn’t expect it to be biased against the views of that government, and yet even it has found a majority against independence in every poll bar one since late 2014, and in three of the last four, including both polls carried out in 2017.

The regional government is currently held by nationalists. They have decided that they wanted a referendum on independence in the hope that it would endorse their separatist views. In response, the central government in Madrid made it clear that it regarded such a referendum as illegal and ordered the Catalan government not to hold it.

Let’s pause a moment at this point.

Here’s one approach the Madrid government could have taken. It could have announced that it would not regard any referendum result from Catalonia as binding. That would have laid down that in no circumstances would a vote for independence have had any effect on the central government or lead to any change in the law concerning Catalonia.

The referendum could have gone ahead. If the opinion polls had proved accurate, the result would have been a rejection of independence, massively discrediting the separatist movement. The regional government might have fallen; the question of independence would have been off the table for many years to come.

Had the referendum delivered a vote for independence, the Spanish government would simply have confirmed that it was non-binding. They would have faced a reinvigorated separatist movement but, having made their own position powerfully clear beforehand, they would have had a strong, pre-declared position from which to build a new view of the Catalan situation resulting from the vote.

That’s a complicated solution to a difficult problem. It leaves many issues undecided, requiring the government to come up with solutions later, pragmatically, in the light of circumstances. Instead, Spain decided that it wanted a well-known, neat and plausible solution.

So it opted for repression. It sent in the police. On the day of the referendum, they were shown battling with protestors in the streets, inflicting some serious injuries. The optics, as marketing people call them, were terrible: here were Spanish police, acting on orders of the Spanish government, using often violent power to prevent people voting.

When you’re acting in the name of democracy, that’s a pretty lousy image.
Unarmed civilians in fear of the police
Not a great advert for democracy
Governments seem to like resorting to the use of force. It can be domestic, as in Catalonia, or foreign, as in Iraq, Libya or Syria. It’s always a simple solution, easy to reach for, close to hand. And it usually ends in tears, as it did in Iraq, Libya or Syria.

In Catalonia, the bloodshed on the streets will have only one effect. It will unify and galvanise the opposition to Madrid. Those who opposed Catalan independence before, will come under increased pressure to change their view. If they refuse, they will be accused of treachery, of betraying the sacrifice of the dozens who suffered injury from police violence, all in the name of Catalan freedom. Some at least who opposed separatism, will change sides and back it.

Blood shed in Catalonia:
shameful behaviour to would-be voters, a boon to the separatists
In other words, from the point of view of the Madrid government, the situation will be as would have followed a referendum result backing independence. Or, rather, far worse: whatever the result, the separatists will claim they have been cheated and will draw additional strength from the powerful emotional cohesion that the spilling of blood gives to a cause.

The Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy chose a solution, police repression, that was well-known, neat and plausible.

And, as Mencken could have told him, wrong.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

On exercise. And on exercising our rights

Sarah Boseley, a fine Guardian journalist, recently shared an invaluable insight on the subject of the best way to protect health through exercise:

Incorporating physical activity into our everyday lives, from taking the stairs to holding “walkaround” meetings in the office, is more likely to protect us from heart disease and an early death than buying a gym membership, according to the author of a major new global study.

A sentiment that needed voicing.

I’ve often been struck by the number of people who apparently feel that buying a gym membership was sufficient to guarantee them good health. Actually using the membership? Three or four times in the first month, maybe. A couple in the next. But in the long term? Life’s too short, even when prolonged by exercise. It’s like War and Peace, isn’t it? How many people have bought the book and how many fewer have read it? How many holders of gym memberships go so far as to use them?

A long Russian novel and a passport to strenuous exercise
More honoured in the purchase than the use?
Still, it was good to read that walking around and using stairs is helpful. It was a relief, to tell the truth. Following my purchase of a fitbit last month, I’m still living under its tyranny. When it tells me to get up and walk a bit, or to do a few more steps to reach my daily goal, I find it hard to tell it to get lost and remember it’s only a bracelet and not my master. Of course, it would only provoke a wry smile, in me and perhaps in it too, if I did say anything like that – somewhere deep in whatever passes for a soul in a purely electronic device, it knows it’s my master.

So it’s a comfort to have it confirmed that what it’s making me do might help improve my health.

On the other hand, it’s always intriguing to see the message it sends me, from time to time, announcing that it has decided to “sync” with my phone. That gives me something of a syncing feeling, but not for what it's doing to my phone so much as for what it's doing to my language. 

That’s a fine verb, sync. An alternative, I assume, to swym, which wouldn't be appropriate for so notoriously a non-waterproof device as a fitbit. But what, I wonder, does the verb use as a past form? I feel it ought to be “sunc”. But that might lead to confusion: “I’ve sunc my fitbit” sounds like a cruel way to treat a device that dislikes water. Then again, maybe that’s exactly what I should do. Sinking the odious thing might be a blow for freedom, an insurgent act against unbearable tyranny. Perhaps under the slogan “Couch potatoes of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your fitbits". 

Chuck it in a swimming pool and escape its thrall? It might not be a bad move.

I could always buy a gym membership instead.