Saturday, 31 January 2009
Regular readers will be in no doubt of the extent of my commitment to the most exact fairness and impartiality. Indeed, in my view anyone who does not adhere to my high standards in this regard can only be an ignorant, bigoted fool.
In the interests of equity I’ve therefore been back to Birmingham. Actually, we went to see a play, An Inspector Calls, which was fun even though it was as preachy as I remember it when I first saw it (that’s Priestley for you: J B Preachy) and the preachiness wasn’t helped by the slightly histrionic way it was played. Still, it made for an enjoyable evening.
Afterwards, Danielle insisted on getting some photos of the canals.
Highly evocative, aren't they? The second one even has a certain haunting beauty, doesn’t it? I can only conclude in all fairness that Birmingham has views with more going for them than I had previously allowed.
Under cover of darkness, at least.
Since we’ve been living in Stafford we’ve been struck by the number of Staffordshire Terriers around here. What is this? Lack of imagination or just commitment to local produce? After all, Yorkshire isn't alive with Yorkshire terriers, Scotland isn't inundated with Scotties. On the other hand, I can personally testify that Alsace is full of Alsatians, but most of them are of the two-legged rather than canine variety.
Sunday, 25 January 2009
As Islam conquered peoples from the Byzantine Empire, it came into contact with Greek culture, the most sophisticated of Europe and the Mediterranean basin to that time. As it began to exercise great power, Islam developed a taste for that kind of subtlety and depth. As it became wealthy, it found it had the leisure and the means to indulge that taste. For two and a half centuries from about 800, the Baghdad Caliphate invested colossal sums of money in what has come to be known as the Translation Movement. Nearly all the great works of antiquity, of philosophers, mathematicians and physicians, were translated into Arabic and spread throughout the Islamic world, including Spain.
There Christians, who had lost these books, rediscovered them. They worked with Jewish and Moslem scholars, translating the classical Greek works out of Arabic or Hebrew into the language of Christian intellectuals, Latin. But the Translation Movement had done more than translate. A tradition had emerged of adding notes, particularly when dealing with difficult words or unfamiliar concepts. Notes turned into commentaries and then, inevitably, new ideas based on, or in opposition to, the old ones.
Probably the greatest of the commentators was Averroes, the outstanding Moslem scholar in Cordoba, then capital of Islamic Spain. His key idea was that rational thought and belief can be separated. They are not necessarily in conflict, but they are different. The former deals with things that can and need to be demonstrated or proved. The latter deals with the teachings of God which by their nature are beyond demonstration.
By separating rational enquiry from belief, Averroes made possible the study of science. Religion studies God, but Science studies only God’s creation and uses different tools.
Fundamentalists prevented such ideas gaining much ground in Islam. Among Christians, however, things were different. Christian Europe was undergoing fundamental change, with the emergence of a significant urban rather than agricultural population. Within the Church new orders appeared, Franciscans and Dominicans, to minister to the poor in their suburban slums, badly served by traditional parish priests or monasteries. They preached but they also taught, believing that education was key to combating heresy and backsliding.
The greatest of the Dominicans was Thomas Aquinas. Aristotle became his inspiration. And whose Aristotle did he use? Why, Averroes’s, with his commentaries. This is dynamite: still regarded by Catholics as one of the 33 ‘Doctors of the Church’, Thomas turned to a pagan writer, Aristotle, filtered by the thinking of a Moslem. Admittedly, Thomas also wrote against Aristotle and Averroes, in particular against their view that the world had always existed with no instant of creation. However, that didn’t stop critics accusing him of ‘Averroism’. And that didn’t stop the Church making him a Saint.
Thomas established the principle that ‘nothing is in the intellect that was not previously in the senses.’ This extends the separation that Averroes had drawn between belief and rationality. It says that the raw material of thought itself comes from our observation of what is outside us. Modern science anchors its theories in observation. St Thomas proclaimed it could be no other way.
A view of knowledge based on human observation makes man central, rather than Divine authority. It informs what we call humanism, the current that would inspire the Renaissance. Man stands at the centre of philosophy, alongside or even instead of God.
These ideas developed further in the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Voltaire, in his Letters concerning the English Nation, gave political expression to the idea that belief and reason are separate: ‘An Englishman, in virtue of his liberty, goes to heaven his own way.’ It is not for the State to prescribe what I believe; politics is one thing, religion another. And the first amendment to the US Constitution proclaims ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’. Similarly, Rousseau opened his Social Contract with the words ‘Man is born equal, but everywhere he is in chains’. When the American Colonists declared themselves independent of Britain, they wrote ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution draw on a tradition of thought whose fundamental ideas matured down the ages. Their source was the rediscovery of the great Classical Greek works by the Translation Movement and they were transmitted by the major thinkers of the Islamic Empire. In a sense then, when Barack Obama pronounced, or at least stumbled through, the oath of office as prescribed by the Constitution, he was taking his place in a tradition which doesn’t just go back to the founding fathers of the US, but to Thomas Aquinas, Averroes and the Baghdad Caliphate.
No-one embodies that tradition so well as Averroes, who launched that other Declaration of Independence, asserting the autonomy of rational thought. So for a name to conjure with in the week of Obama, I choose his.
But perhaps I ought to choose ‘Cordoba’. At least we can still visit the city. There we can stand in the great Mosque with a Cathedral in its centre, and say to ourselves ‘so this is where peoples and ideas flowed together to inspire the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the founding of the United States. And to make Obama’s presidency possible.’
Thursday, 22 January 2009
‘Terribly surrey, old man,’ it seems to be saying, ‘that I’ve got so much more money than you.’
The workshop took place in one of those modest little places in which Surrey abounds. For instance, the Rolls that former boxer Prince Naseem Hamed got out of at the main entrance was quite a small Rolls, driven by quite a small chauffeur. Though Hamed himself has become pretty massive. Featherweight? He couldn’t have fought in the heavyweight class. More of a hyperweight.
And he wasn’t the only celebrity. There were lots of others. I had no idea who any of them were but fortunately I was there with my good friend Stuart, who recognised them all, and he made a point of going up to them, his hand outstretched.
‘Great to see you. Can’t tell you how impressed I was by your race/record/film [delete as appropriate] at the weekend.’
It was slightly embarrassing. Though I was mistaken to think that what made it embarrassing was that they didn’t recognise him. It was far worse when I started getting the impression that some of them did know him. Just how often had he forced his attentions on them before?
This was the setting, anyway, for my encounter with Alain Enthoven. And what did that have to do with Camelot? Well, nearly half a century ago, Enthoven had been Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy administration. Or was it Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense? Either way, it was wonderful to renew the link with that fabulous time so long ago, on the very day when Obama was sworn in (well, sworn in for the first time – he had to go through it again, with the words in the right order, the next day).
Funnily enough, some eighteen years ago I drove Enthoven round the country (this one, not his) to a series of meetings. We spent hours together in cars and had some pretty fascinating conversations (well, I found them fascinating). In fact, I’ve used most of the anecdotes I learned from him over and over ever since, placing them cleverly and appositely in conversations. Or at any rate placing them. And some of them I stopped repeating before people got completely bored of hearing them.
So of course Enthoven was really an old friend. And my chance to get one back over Stuart.
‘Hello, Professor,’ I said to him as I thrust my hand into his, ‘we drove round England together to a whole series of meetings eighteen years ago.’
‘Ah,’ he said, smiling but completely blank, ‘did we?’ And shook my hand.
Ah well. The wonder of Camelot people is that their magic rubs off on us mere mortals. Not that mere mortals leave a mark on them.
Sunday, 18 January 2009
An illustration is the story of Shlomo and Moishe facing a firing squad. The officer approaches and asks them whether they have a last wish.
‘A cigarette,’ says Shlomo. The officer gives him a cigarette and lights it for him. He turns to Moishe, who spits in his face.
‘What are you doing, Moishe?’ exclaims Shlomo, aghast, ‘You could get us into trouble.’
In a sense, what Israel is doing in Gaza today could be viewed as a massive sense of humour failure. Presumably when Israeli soldiers moved a hundred civilians into a building for refuge, only to shell it the next day, it wasn’t as some kind of practical joke. At any rate, it’s hard to see it raising a laugh.
Admittedly a constant rain of Katyusha or Qassam rockets on your frontier communities must put your sense of humour under considerable strain. Israelis live in fear and they have the power to hit back at those who frighten them, a lethal combination. It would have been admirable if they had retained their wry warm-heartedness, but OK, when all’s said and done, they’re no more admirable than anyone else. But even if the sense of humour goes, it would be good to retain the sense of humanity that inspires it. That’s something that might actually help Israel achieve its goals.
In one of the other intractable conflicts of the last century, in Northern Ireland, Britain also resorted to force against insurgency. In 1972, paratroops went into Derry but all they achieved was to make martyrs. Droves of young men were recruited to the IRA. It took 25 years of vicious troubles to get to the Good Friday agreement and the current slow process towards lasting peace.
Over that time, as well as attempting to crush terrorism directly, Britain adopted a strategy on two parallel paths. The Security Services carried out outstandingly effective intelligence work. By the end, the IRA was shot through with informers. At the same time, a new framework of law required fair treatment of both communities. The Chief Executive of a Northern Irish hospital told me that he had to show fair representation of the communities at every level, from porters to Board. And that didn’t mean the same proportions as in the province as a whole, but the same proportions as in the drive-to-work area around the hospital. Nor was it easy to define a Catholic or a Protestant: it was no good asking them because what mattered wasn’t how individuals saw themselves but how others classified them – that’s the basis of discrimination. The ultimate test was which primary school the person had attended: primary schools are heavily segregated, so the one you went to defines how you’re perceived.
As well as enforced fairness at work, heavy investment also took place in infrastructure and, in particular, in housing. Many of the old slums have gone and been replaced by attractive new estates.
The result? When Collum announces that he’s popping out to spend a little time with ‘the boys’, his wife replies, ‘the boys? The boys? You’ve got a job to hold down, a mortgage to pay, a child upstairs, another on the way. You can forget the boys. You get a pint on a Friday night and you’re lucky to have that.’
Cut off the basis of support in the community, turn what’s left of the organisation inside out. Now that’s smart work against terrorism. And for all the abuses, it has its essential humanity.
So what has Israel been doing? Terrorising the population of Gaza. Destroying its infrastructure, housing, schools, hospitals. Killing hundreds, starving the rest. Creating a whole community of traumatised, bitter people with nothing left to lose.
Not particularly humane. Not particularly smart. And not at all funny.
Afterthought. The key to all this may be the impact of Israel on the Jews. Most of the jokes came from Europe, specifically Central Europe, from Jews who spoke German or the Jewish version of the language, Yiddish. Their cultural roots were in the humanist Renaissance, running back to that melting pot that was twelfth-century Cordoba, where Jew talked to Christian and Christian talked to Moslem, and all three learned to think together. Humanist Jews sought to end not just their persecution but all persecution, they sought for a tolerance which they felt that they in turn should extend to others. They produced outstanding figures: Moses Mendelssohn, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx. Though on reflection perhaps Marx wouldn’t appear high on a list of tolerant humanists.
Then came the Aliyah, the ‘return’ to Israel. The Jews who went learned Hebrew and changed their inspiration to a book in that language, the Old Testament. Of course, the jokes continued and many still come out of Israel today. However, when we think of Israel it isn’t wit that comes to mind, but the doctrine of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – though Israel likes to take rather a lot of teeth for any one tooth, to make sure the message gets across.
In the move from Yiddish to Hebrew, something essential was lost in Jewish culture. Which is why one of my favourite Jewish jokes is the bitter-sweet one of the mother with her son on a Tel Aviv bus. The boy talks to her in Hebrew, but she keeps replying in Yiddish. Eventually one of the other passengers intervenes.
‘Madam,’ he says, ‘your son is a citizen of the State of Israel. Our national language is Hebrew. You should not prevent him expressing himself in it.’
‘Yes,’ she says, ‘I understand. I just don’t want him to forget he’s Jewish.’
Thursday, 15 January 2009
In the run-up to the 1979 election, when that woman first got in, they launched an advertising campaign designed by the Saatchi brothers. It showed a long queue of people waiting for unemployment benefit with the slogan ‘Labour isn’t working.’
It was brilliant. The pun on ‘labour’ and ‘work’ had an internal dynamism that made it memorable. And the impact was powerful, associating mass unemployment with Labour, whose supporters most feared joblessness. And this was from a party which, in power, would take unemployment to 3 million within four years.
When it comes to spin, that has to be up there with the all-time greats. It deserved an award. Come to think of it, it got one. A group of advertising people brought together by the trade magazine, Campaign, voted it ‘Poster of the Century’.
Now the current leader of the Conservatives, David Cameron, has shown that he’s got good people too. They’ve launched a campaign based on a newborn child. ‘Dad’s nose. Mum’s eyes. Gordon Brown’s debt’. The central point is that every baby born today is inheriting a share of public debt amounting to £17,000.
Again, it’s good. Labour, it suggests, is sacrificing the innocent, condemning kids to repay a debt they played no part in incurring. Gordon Brown is sullying what should be a moment of joy, the birth of a child. And isn’t there just a hint that this is a peculiarly British phenomenon? Something, that is, that can be specifically laid at Gordon Brown’s door?
They’re counting on the fact that few people will bother to check out the facts. But in my spirit of selfless devotion to the enlightenment of the public, I did take twenty minutes to look into it a little further. Here are the equivalent debt figures from some other similar economies:
- in Germany the figure is £16,500
- in France, it’s £17,700
- in the US it’s £23,200.
But when it comes to advertising copy, how effective would that message be?
Sunday, 11 January 2009
It now looks as though I may have to revise my view of Birmingham too. Danielle, my wife, has just got a job there. And of all the jobs that she’d applied for since we returned to England last July, this was the one she wanted. So we’re delighted. On the other hand, a potential move forty miles down the road from our present place in Stafford, towards northern Birmingham, is now beginning to be a real prospect.
Venice is justifiably famous for its Grand Canal:
It’s perhaps time that we learned to value as highly Aston Locks in Birmingham.
Down the centuries many have sung the praises of St Mark’s Square in the centre of Venice
What we need now is the poets and painters who will do justice to Birmingham’s Bull Ring shopping centre
Wednesday, 7 January 2009
Evocative words. Full of the sorrow and longing of the exile. You could write a pop song round them.
Down the centuries, the Jews who wrote the psalm have had their fill of exile. My grandmother’s earliest memory was of herself at the age of three, clutching her teddy bear, travelling to London with her mother and brother from her abandoned home in Vilna. Whatever possessions they could preserve were in their suitcases. Ahead of them was an alien land of which they knew little. None of them spoke English. My great grandmother never lost her accent and was always more comfortable in Yiddish.
My great grandfather had left a year earlier. He’d served seven years of grinding misery in the army of the Russian Tsar. He followed political developments closely and in 1902 he could see war brewing between Russia and Japan, though it only broke out three years later. The fighting was in the Far East and many conscripts in the Russian military left their bones there, following their crushing defeat. My great grandfather had realised that Jews, like downtrodden minorities in many armies, would be called up first and sacrificed with the least qualms. He got out to London before it was too late.
British Jews were well organised. My great grandfather had support from a foundation set up by some of the wealthiest members of the community, notably the Rothschilds, which helped new immigrants find affordable accommodation and jobs. Work wasn’t a problem, since he was a skilled craftsman, an orthopaedic shoemaker who could feel a deformed foot in his hands and then build the shoe upper to fit it. Within a year, his family could join him and though they faced hardships, they never had to contend with the crushing poverty that so many others experienced, including my grandfather.
And they avoided the fate that awaited those who stayed behind. Ninety of my grandmother’s relatives disappeared in the Holocaust without trace: we don’t even know where they died.
My family may have wept when they remembered Vilna, but they learned to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
It’s the fate of most migrants, today as much as then, to face fear and privation with courage and determination as their only resources. That’s why so many immigrants contribute so dynamically to their new communities: they’ve already passed a tough test. That’s as true of Hispanics in the US, Pakistanis in Bradford, North Africans in France as of Jews. In fact, the great argument against the anti-Semites is precisely that there’s nothing special about the Jews: they share the qualities and the faults of all mankind.
And that mixture of qualities and faults could hardly be clearer than in the Jews themselves. The admirable qualities that so many Jewish immigrants displayed are as strong today as they were then. What is new, but unsurprising, is to find that they behave just as badly as anyone else when they are frightened but powerful, as in the state of Israel today.
Faced with the constant threat of terrorist attack from Gaza, Israel has waded in with warplanes, warships, tanks. One and a half million people were in a sealed enclave, in what was already deemed by many to be the world’s largest open-air prison. Today, with nowhere safe left in Gaza, it is more than a mere prison. It is becoming something whose very name is an obscenity to a Jew: the world’s largest open-air concentration camp.
Gazans voted for Hamas – not all of them, but a majority. Some collaborate with Hamas terrorists – by no means all but enough. And Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel which it tries to forward by the ugliest means possible, the indiscriminate targeting of civilians. The complicity of many Gazans in vile acts is obvious. But it’s breathtaking that Israel has responded by inflicting such torment on an entire population of civilians, including old people, mothers, children. How can anything Gazans have done justify what is being heaped on them now?
The killing of the children is perhaps particularly vile. Recent pictures coming out of Gaza are deeply shocking. But it’s interesting too that just as the sorrow of the exile is in the 137th Psalm, so is the killing of children. It’s just that it’s in a bit of the Psalm people don’t tend to quote, for obvious reasons. The pop song, for instance, left it out completely. It’s at the end:
‘O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.’
From longing and sorrow at the beginning to a lust for vengeance and brutality at the end: quite a distance for a single Psalm. A powerful metaphor for the human personality with its extremes of behaviour. And the killing of the innocent isn’t a new horror but one with a long tradition behind it. The tradition of the book itself.
And if anyone thinks ‘Ah, yes, that’s the Jews’, think again. Jews, Christians, Moslems: we’re all children of the book. Non-believers and believers alike, in the West we live in societies whose cultural roots are drenched in the thinking that inspired the Psalms.
Gaza holds up a mirror to our own culture. We may not like what we see in it. But taking a hard look at it might be a good starting point for badly needed change.
Sunday, 4 January 2009
Those who derive their views from Darwin ultimately depend on the random movement of matter. When a configuration of molecules arbitrarily appears that is particularly suited to its physical environment, it persists while others disappear. The longer-lasting forms may occasionally combine. Most such combinations die out, but small numbers are particularly well suited to the circumstances and therefore flourish. This process gave rise to increasingly complex life forms and the process of evolution leading to its pinnacle in basset hounds, the anopheles mosquito and Silvio Berlusconi.
The Intelligent Design people, on the other hand, argue that no random action could have produced anything as perfect as the eye, or the talent of a Michelangelo, or the charm of Dick Cheney. Only an architect of the universe acting on inspired design for his creation could have willed such things into being.
I have to say that these arguments are not all as convincing as each other. For instance, I’ve worn glasses since I was 25. What’s so perfect about the eye?
The debate has tended to be dominated by experts: scientists, theologians, philosophers. I think it’s time for me to give my view of the issues as a marketing man. Because as I look around, what I see is not the kind of design you’d expect from a beneficent, omnipotent being, but the kind of design you get out of a committee. Having been to a lot of that kind of meeting, I have a pretty good idea of how this one went.
Picture a group sat around a conference table. On the table there are coffee cups, notepads, pens, phones. On his feet at the front is Colin, a design engineer, presenting Earth version 1.0 – the first live release version – to his colleagues in Marketing. Most of them are lost in the technicalities and frankly bored, but suddenly something comes up that gets their attention.
‘We decided that we would extend the principle of sexual reproduction, which we think has proved its worth among other animals, into the human species. The mixture of hereditary material that this provides for will ensure a healthy level of variation which should strengthen the species and allow it to adapt better to changing circumstances.’
‘Right,’ says Alice from Communications Marketing. ‘So what you’re saying is that the production of young – of children, as you say – requires a contribution from both a man and…’ she checks her notes, ‘… a woman?’
‘And how do they get together?’
‘Well, we’ve built in a mechanism that attracts them to each other.’
‘Hold on, that’ll never work,’ says Carol from Product Marketing, ‘I mean there could be hundreds – millions – of them. How are they going to sort themselves out?’
Colin has his answer. ‘There will be couples that have particularly high affinity. They’ll be preferentially drawn towards each other.’
‘What,’ says Carol, ‘you’re going to rely on some kind of stronger attraction between a couple among hundreds of millions? How powerful is it going to have to be?’
‘Hold on, hold on,’ interrupts Nick from PR, ‘I can see some possibilities here. What if sometimes the mechanism did fail? Anne was intended for Steve but he got hooked up with Claire instead. There’d be some tension, some dramatic potential that could make for some pretty good plays and poetry, wouldn’t there?’
Alice pursues this idea. ‘What if instead of being attracted to Claire, Steve got caught up with Henry?’
‘With Henry?’ Colin speaks up for Engineering again. ‘Another man? The whole purpose of the mechanism is to favour sexual reproduction. What would be the point of that?’
‘Well,’ says Alice, ‘that’s just the mechanical objective. That would be satisfied anyway – there’d be plenty of other people. This would be a minority. They might be breaching a taboo. You can imagine that in some groups Steve’s behaviour would be regarded as reprehensible and lead to persecution, in others it would be evidence of a finer sensibility. Either way, you can imagine the films, the ballets, the operas.’
‘But… but… hang on,’ Colin feels the meeting slipping away from him. ‘Think of the pain, the suffering. The ill-matched couples. The children whose parents are looking for a soul partner elsewhere. The conflicts, the suffering. What good can come of it?’
‘What good?’ rejoins Alice. ‘Creativity. Exploration of feeling. Jules et Jim. Six Feet Under. Sex and the City. These things have a price you know.’
This feels plausible to me. Engineering gave way to marketing. Utility was subordinated to creativity.
So we end up with a model of development based on design. Just not necessarily intelligent design.
And an afterthought: what sort of design principle gave men a perfect aiming instrument for peeing through, but left them with insufficient precision to hit the bowl with any consistency?