Thursday, 30 July 2009
Some superstitions, however, are less unreasonable than others. For example, take unlucky numbers. In Japan, one word for ‘four’ is ‘shi’ which can also mean death, so there’s a preference for the alternative word ‘yon’. The connotations of ‘shi’ have, however, contaminated the number itself, so four is regarded as inauspicious. If, for instance, you are giving money as a wedding present, you can give 30,000 yen or 50,000 yen, but never 40,000 yen as that might bring bad luck.
Can I just put it on record that though, after 25 years, it’s a little late to offer me wedding presents, I share none of the Japanese numerical qualms? Someone giving me 40,000 yen is in no danger of offending me at all. Even less if they give me $40,000 or £40,000.
Even if I don’t share this concern over the number four, it seems perfectly understandable. A deadly number: of course it seems unlucky.
But what about our problems, in the West, with the number thirteen?
As I’ve been driving hundreds of miles around the country recently, I’ve listened to a lot of radio. Lately, that’s meant hearing several celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the moon landing. Deep in the roots of our culture, since pre-Hellenic Greece where women held power, woman has been identified with the moon, whose cycle mirrors hers.
There are thirteen lunar months in the year. Thirteen is the woman’s number.
Hellenic Greece broke matriarchal power, replacing it by male domination. The breach was reflected in fundamental beliefs. Instead of giving precedence to the moon goddess they focused on twelve Olympian gods, evenly split at first between male and female. Then they went further: Plato, for example, replaced one goddess, Hestia, by a god, Hades, giving the males a majority. He also identified the twelve gods with the months of the new twelve-month calendar.
So here’s the sequence. Man usurps power from women. The gods get revised in favour of males. The number thirteen gets replaced by twelve. Doesn’t this sound like spin to justify a power grab? And isn’t the dislike of the number thirteen just part of it? The superstition about thirteen may not be that irrational. It may simply be self-serving and ideological.
Over the last hundred years the authority of man has begun to be eroded too. At last, you might say. I remember a friend at college who said to me, ‘What went wrong, David? For 3000 years we ran the show, and we had to be born now?’
Of course, the truth is that he and I would never have run the show. Sure, it was men who were in charge. But not us. The men who hold power in Britain didn’t study at the Cockney University, in London where we were. They studied at Oxford. We thought a great evening was a couple of glasses of wine and conversation, which we regarded as brilliant and anyone listening would have found stultifying, about whether Giotto did the Assisi frescoes (on balance, I think he did) and whether the obscurity in modern French philosophy reflects its profundity or its pretentiousness (I incline to the latter view).
The people who run the show thought a great evening was when they booked a whole restaurant, through their Bullingdon club, got totally plastered, bullied those members who had gone to second-tier schools rather than the absolutely most privileged, and trashed the place, leaving it to one or other of the Daddies to pay for the damage the next day. That’s the kind of training that qualifies you to be today’s Mayor of London or next year’s Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer respectively (George Osborne, next year’s Chancellor, a former pupil of St Paul’s School, was one of those picked on by, among others, the old Etonian David Cameron, next year’s Prime Minister).
To be a part of that charmed circle was not an honour that any of my friends at college would have sought, let alone been offered.
No, we belong to the circles that have to put up with the antics of the old Bullingdonians. We are among the victims of that seizure of power 3000 years ago by the self-proclaimed male elite that threw the number thirteen down off its pedestal.
Maybe rather than reject the superstition about thirteen, we need to turn it on its head. View it as a token of promise not of misfortune. Wear the number thirteen, in fact, as a badge.
Against the crass. The arrogant. The powerful.
Monday, 27 July 2009
Rain. Again and again. On and on. At any time of year.
Just as exasperating is the wind that blows in the gaps in the rain. It seems to follow you round corners, seek you out behind any kind of shelter, and whistle in under doors or round windows.
So what I ask myself as I sit in traffic jams watching the rain drops bouncing off my windscreen – in July, for pity’s sake – is ‘why did the invaders stay?’
Some of them cheated. At one time, I used to feel sorry for the poor Romans standing guard on Hadrian’s Wall in the bitter nights, when they could have been in Rome, the Tuscan hills or the Bay of Naples. Then I found out that for the most part they didn’t do it themselves, but sent German auxiliaries instead. A good plan, with a double benefit: for the auxiliaries it must have seemed like a home from home, and for the Romans keeping the Germans in Britain stopped them clogging up the beaches in Italy.
But take the Vikings. I can understand why they came. After all, their countries might have spectacular fjords and wonderful snowfields, but it’s winter for nine months of the year and pretty much night-time for six of them. Nothing more natural than to want to get away.
As I learned the story, the first incident in the Viking invasions was the killing of an English customs officer. I’ve often tried to imagine the scene. For some reason, I picture the customs man with a leather satchel over a shoulder, arriving at the beach on a mule. There he’s confronted by a Viking long boat, adorned with a slavering dragon’s head and bristling with spears. He approaches a group of brawny, heavily armed blond men, and says:
‘Welcome to England, gentlemen. On behalf of the Kingdom of Northumbria Tourist Board, let me wish you a pleasant and profitable stay in our country. Now, may I enquire whether the purpose of your journey is business or pleasure?’
‘Pillage, slaughter and rape,’ they reply as they slice him into little pieces. ‘So a bit of both.’
Up to that point, it all seems reasonably understandable. But what happened next? That evening, in the village pub, they ask the drinkers before putting them to the sword, ‘is the ghastly drizzle ever going to stop?’
‘Tomorrow starts fine, but with a risk of scattered showers in the afternoon,’ they reply with their dying breaths.
But the forecast turns out to have been over-optimistic, and the next day they get the usual downpours alternating with drizzle with intervals of wind in between. This probably goes on for day after day, hope springing up each evening to be dashed in the morning, just like in our own times.
So I can’t see why they didn’t, at some stage, say, ‘hey, France is next door, where they have summers when it actually gets hot, and good wines and decent cooking. Let’s get out of this dismal place, and head there.’
But they didn’t. Like so many other waves of invaders, they stayed and blended their specific contributions into our culture. Amazing, isn’t it?
Of course, I can’t really criticise. After all, I actually got away, and lived in France and Germany for fifteen years. And came back. To enjoy the weather and the traffic.
The traffic! The problem with England is that it’s the wrong size. It’s just small enough to get around by car, just too big for that to be easy. Like France, it has a capital-centric railway system. So to get from where I live in Stafford to Brighton, which I did last Thursday, I’d have had to take a train to London, struggle across town and then take another train to the coast. The inconvenience and the time involved are just enough to tip the balance in favour of using the car. So I drove the 215 miles.
Railway systems don’t have to be that inconvenient. In Germany, you can get across the country without going through the capital. Berlin is way off to the East and was, in any case, for a long time surrounded by hostile East German territory; at that time the capital of the Federal Republic was Bonn, altogether far too insignificant a town to be the hub of the railway system. So Germany has developed a genuine train network: you can get from anywhere to anywhere by changing between Inter City Express trains that criss-cross the entire country. Each change involves a five or ten minute wait for a train coming in to the same platform or the one opposite. A fantastic system.
Unfortunately, lots of people in England apply the same reasoning as I do and take the car instead of the train. As a result, your journey takes forever and demands constant concentration as you weave around the other vehicles, particularly if it’s raining. Which it’s practically bound to be. So you arrive shattered, and turn up in your hotel room wet, having left your car a couple of streets away because among its many delights Brighton does not include a friendly, accessible or even reasonably charged parking system.
But for all that misery, English life somehow continues to charm many of us. Invaders or returnees, something holds us here. Perhaps it’s the sense of humour, honed down the ages to cope with the conditions. Certainly, I enjoy the constant touches of irony. For instance, shaving in my Brighton hotel, I was struck by the notice glued to the bathroom mirror: ‘South East England is the driest part of the United Kingdom. Don’t waste water’. I walked out of the bathroom and looked out of the window at the spectacular vista across the seafront to the beach and the English Channel.
Through torrents of rain sleeting down from a slate-grey sky.
Saturday, 25 July 2009
Many seemed to feel that this reflected badly on the government, others that it reflected badly on the economy.
Am I alone in thinking that it reflects badly on experts?
Wednesday, 22 July 2009
Canada is a country that I’ve liked ever since I first went there. In my experience, and I’ve been there twice in February, it has pleasantly mild winters, although I’m assured that my experience isn’t universally representative. It has spectacular landscapes, plenty of cheerful warm-hearted people – as long as you keep away from officialdom – and some extraordinary writers, such as Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood (though I have to say I retain little of the whole string of Davies’s novels that I’ve read, whereas Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was so powerful that it has left an indelible mark on me).
What I didn’t know until ten days ago is that Canada is also a model of economic good management. It is the benchmark for what can be done to cut national debt. This is an increasingly strident concern amongst those in Britain whose political sympathies are somewhere in the range from near George Bush Senior – you know, the one who was at least recognisably in possession of a brain – to somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan. The argument is that Labour – try to think of the word being pronounced with a sneer – has plunged Britain into desperate debt with no prospect of ever getting out. With debt at the unprecedented level of 60% of GDP and rising, Britain is facing the prospect of losing its AAA credit rating, which is apparently only marginally less catastrophic than the prospect of a German invasion in 1940. Everything that makes life precious to us will be lost if that rating goes.
Interestingly, Japan has a debt level of 160% of GDP and a credit rating of AAA. Italy is on 100% and is triple A rated. China, a nation not generally regarded as a minor economic player, has a credit rating below triple A. Brazil has a credit rating in the Bs but is the emerging economic giant of South America.
Somehow, I can’t help feeling that even if we lost our triple A rating, the sea really wouldn’t fall into the sky and the trees wouldn’t hang with fishes. And in any case we’re a long way behind Italy or Japan in our indebtedness, and they still enjoy the top rating.
All the same, I’m sure it would be a good thing if we could start to pay down debt in the relatively near future. So I was fascinated to discover that Canada took a huge bite out of its debt in the 1990s. It’s the kind of achievement that inclines me to forgive a people that takes a noble game like hockey and uses its name for some kind of pugilistic encounter on ice skates. Above all, it justifies finding out more. So naturally I consulted my good friend the journalist Mark Reynolds (www.strasmark.blogspot.com) who, among his many other shining virtues, shows admirable forbearance for someone labouring under the burden of being Canadian.
Mark confirmed it. Canada really did reduce its debt significantly under Jean Chrétien, the Liberal Prime Minister from 1993 to 2003.
And here comes the coincidence. Within twenty-four hours of having learned all this, I heard it being discussed on the radio. It seems that the British Conservative Party is promoting the Canadian experience as a model of what it intends to do once in power over here. To examine what this meant, the BBC had got hold of Mary Clancy, one time Liberal MP for Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Apparently the cuts made by the Chrétien government were deep indeed. She estimated that overall they amounted to 40% of public expenditure. Mark, for his part, suggested that the Federal government made many cuts indirectly, by reducing the budgets of the Provinces, leaving it to Provincial governments to make the tough decisions such as cutting healthcare.
According to Mary Clancy, that wasn’t enough to protect the government. It was returned in 1997 but with a reduced majority and, in particular, the Liberals lost every one of the eleven seats they had held in Nova Scotia – including her own.
There is no equivalent in England of the Canadian Provinces. If the Conservatives want to take on sacred cows, and healthcare is as revered over here as in Canada, they’re going to have to do it themselves. And the price in terms of loss of electoral momentum will be significant. Will they do it? Maybe. But it’s a lot easier to be bold from the safety of opposition than when in government.
What’s more, there’s a huge difference between today and 1997: today the world as a whole is in recession. Back in 1997, a still growing world economy could be expected to help take the strain, allowing Canada to absorb through growth some of the unemployment that the cuts would create. Conservative cuts in Britain would send unemployment sky-rocketing, increase social security spending, reduce the tax take. All of this would significantly limit the debt-reducing effect targeted in the first place. It would also further depress demand, as unemployment increased, deepening and extending the recession.
Am I alone in seeing this? Of course not. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, may be many things but he’s no fool (to misquote Groucho Marx, I have nothing but admiration for Cameron, and not much of that). He understands all this and shares with his Party a passionate commitment to the one thing it’s really good at: winning elections. In the last century, the Conservative Party was in power alone for 51 years and in coalition with another party for a further 15.
Will Cameron push his luck? Will he really set out to be as tough as the Canadians to get debt down to pre-recession levels? Or will he say ‘what the hell – we’re nothing like as indebted as the Japanese or the Italians, we’re not even as indebted as the US – let’s live with it and get re-elected’?
Monday, 20 July 2009
Attitudes in much of the British press sometimes make it hard to believe that everyone agrees. Of course, I’m not so naïve as to have anything but the lowest expectations of our press. Of just under 11 million papers sold in Britain each day, over 10 million are partisan in outlook, with 9 million right wing of which a large minority is increasingly virulent and extreme in tone. Just half a million papers sold by The Guardian and The Independent show any commitment to recognisable standards of journalistic independence and accuracy of reporting.
The baying majority reacts to any particularly unpleasant crime with an outcry in favour of the law taking the victim’s views into account (sometimes that means the victim’s family, though wouldn’t it be fascinating if they really consulted the victim in murder cases?).
In reality, basing yourself on the victim’s views is exactly what you shouldn’t do: if I or any member of my family were the victim of a crime, I’m sure I’d want to do something horrible to the perpetrator. When my bike saddle was stolen, I thought it would be wonderful to sit the thief on what was left and push down on his shoulders. For a more proportionate and moderate response, it’s probably best not to ask the victim. You ask someone capable of taking a balanced, dispassionate view. In fact, you ask a professional judge.
Similarly, for the investigation of the crime you turn to people who are seeking a prosecution, not people who are looking for revenge. You use a professional police force that you hope is accountable to society generally. There are times when they don’t seem that accountable, for instance when the Metropolitan Police in London shoot dead an innocent Brazilian because he looks like a terrorist, or cause the death of someone who merely had the misfortune of being near the anti-G20 protests. These are inexcusable breaches but they don’t make the principle any less important.
So it’s interesting that the Italian government legalised vigilante groups last week. The government argues that they are regulating what those groups can do, for instance stopping them carrying arms. That’s fine but it ignores the issue of principle that they’re authorising private individuals to enforce law. Private law – as that brilliant British novelist Terry Pratchett points out – is what the Latin root of the word 'Privilege' means. Private law serves the privileged.
The Italian legislation is part of a package that launches an assault on the already limited rights of the most vulnerable members of society, specifically immigrants. It becomes a criminal offence to be an illegal immigrant in Italy, or to offer an illegal immigrant accommodation. The new law has been denounced not just by the usual organisations such as Amnesty International but even by the Catholic Church.
With his under-age girlfriends and his paid-for female party escorts, Berlusconi just seems a clown. But look under the surface and the show’s not that amusing, unless you like the spectacle of privilege feeding on the weak.
This isn’t just the weird behaviour of southern Europeans. I've found it instructive to listen to British Conservative supporters recently. They’re becoming more strident by the day, as their victory in the next election becomes more certain. They proclaim the superiority of the private sector over the public, of wealthy individuals over the poor, of privilege over disadvantage. They sound like Berlusconi and his mates.
They're trotting out the mantras of the past whose failure was most glaringly revealed by the collapse of the financial system last year. They're trying to make them the mantras of the future. It feels to me as though we're going to find ourselves before long dealing with a bunch of jokers as amusing as those we have in Italy.
The kind that doesn't generate a lot of laughs.
Thursday, 16 July 2009
But then my generation moved into middle age and had in turn to deal with young adults, whether their own children or other people’s. And I was shocked to hear them come out with the same lines as our elders. It seemed that ‘when I was their age, I never smoked in non-smoking compartments/stuck chewing gum on the underside of chairs/drank to the point of throwing up all over the carpet [delete as appropriate]’, i.e. they never did the kind of things our parents complained about in us.
I learned a lesson from that experience, so I’m not surprised to find that now it’s people from the next generation to mine who are protesting at the boorish, selfish or downright violent behaviour of young people today. Whether it’s hoodies, kids with their feet up on train seats, teenagers listening to leaky ipods or groups of youths lounging in shop doorways, it’s clear that the behaviour of the current crop of young people is much worse and often more threatening than that of today’s forty-somethings when they were that age.
It’s a sad but perhaps unavoidable conclusion that there is a constant decline, from generation to generation, in the behaviour of young people. We’re witnessing a terrifying downward spiral of youth into drug-induced violence and sheer evil.
At the same time, I’ve watched with increasing astonishment the equal but opposite evolution of soap powder. It made me proud when I was in my teens to discover that all the main brands, Daz and Bold and Ariel and the rest, had developed their products to a pinnacle of quality allowing them to wash whiter than humanity had ever believed possible before. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered, in later advertising campaigns, that this apparent high-water mark had in turn been surpassed and left in the shade by yet newer powders washing far whiter still. This has gone on from year to year as ever more shocking levels of whiteness are achieved, with yesterday’s triumph being overtaken and reclassified as lamentable failure following today’s success. The glorious whiteness trumpeted when I was a child can’t be more than merely dull compared to the brilliant glow we enjoy now.
The only thing that still surprises me is that we can get down a street unharmed. Isn’t it a bit of a miracle that we can travel anywhere, especially on foot, without being murdered by a degenerate youth? Or, if we escape that fate, being blinded by a dazzling shirt?
Tuesday, 14 July 2009
As the boast seems to be made of all languages, I can only conclude that it’s always wrong. The reality is that languages have strong points in which they outshine others, which in turn will be more expressive or elegant in other respects.
To me, the great asset of English, or any Germanic language, is the phrasal verb.
Note how up to date I am in my terminology: when I was studying these things, I learned to call them ‘prepositional verbs’, but my family is full of language teachers and I know they’d be down on me like a thunderbolt if I didn’t use the term ‘phrasal’.
Anyway, whatever they’re called (I’m told a rose by any other name would smell as sweet) they’re a source of great richness to the language. For instance, if we want to move relatively quickly on foot, and aren’t worried about the strain on the ankles to say nothing of the lungs, we run. As in French courir or German rennen.
Our run might be enlivened, however, by our running into a friend. On the other hand, if on the drive home afterwards, we ran into another car, we’d be significantly less pleased and it would be much worse if we ran over a pedestrian. If a policeman who attended the accident disliked our attitude, he might run us in. If we objected to the law under which he did that, we might try to get it changed by running for parliament.
Actually, we British would be more likely to stand for parliament. It’s the Americans who run for office. In this country, we like to maintain the pretence that we merely ‘stand’ – you know, put our names forward, as someone reluctantly prepared to have power thrust on them, in the interests of the community at large. We’d never be so low as to scrabble for office like the Americans do, with all that vulgar running. The reality, of course, is that we fight and stab and lie and betray like anyone else, which makes it all the more sensible that the American usage, like so much American English, is becoming increasingly common over here.
If I were to run for parliament, the reality is that I would be run out of town by my fellow citizens. I expect my adversaries would run down everything I stood for, and they would run me through with their metaphorical sword thrusts.
A political failure but a fine illustration of the change in meaning produced by simply modifying the verb ‘run’ with a preposition. A humble little part of speech but it packs a punch.
What brought all this to mind was discovering a great line in a John Donne poem, one of the most erotic in English poetry. Here, with the previous line to introduce it, is the monument to prepositions from Donne’s To His Mistress Going to Bed:
License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
Maybe no two readers will get the same mental picture from those five prepositions. But I doubt that any will disagree about their general thrust.
Sunday, 12 July 2009
Today, though, it seems we’re facing something far worse. Instead of car or roadside bombs, what we’re up against now is ‘Improvised Explosive Devices’ or IEDs. I find this idea even more chilling. The image it conjures up is of young men of an elite Taliban unit, bored out of their minds somewhere in a desert plain in Afghanistan. They’ve shut the pubs to drive out drink, they’ve shut the discos to wipe out music, and the Regal Cinema in Kandahar never shows anything worth watching. Anyway, it’s 80 miles away, the 84 bus is notoriously unreliable and there’s no way they could be back in camp before lights out.
It’s all looking pretty desperate, to be quite truthful.
Suddenly, one of them jumps up.
‘I know,’ he says, ‘let’s improvise ourselves an explosive device.’
They love the idea and they all gather round, pulling a bit of wire from here, a battery there, a watch to use as a timer, some fertiliser, and all the other bits and pieces they need. Before long they’ve built themselves a vicious little weapon and they can go out to use it against some of our poor unsuspecting squaddies.
It’s rotten, isn’t it? I mean, I felt that taking on those devious planners was bad enough. But if they’re making it up as they go along, what possible chance do we have?
Friday, 10 July 2009
Well, perhaps not ‘all’. You need a white skin, really. And it's probably best if you're not from Eastern Europe. While Silvio keeps diverting us with his antics, his government is busily bringing in the most draconian anti-foreigner legislation since the time of Fascism, but hey, that only affects non-Whites and East Europeans.
The rest of us can just sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
The star has to be Mara Carfagna. I notice that she tends to be referred to as a ‘former topless model’ though I think the way she used to deliver pleasure to men is sometimes described in rather more uncompromising terms. We know she gave Silvio great pleasure, because he introduced her to his friends as the person he would make his wife if the position were not already taken. That position wasn’t available, so he made her Minister for Equal Opportunities instead.
Well, the position of wife has now been vacated, since Veronica Lario is suing Berlusconi for divorce. And lo and behold, when it came to entertaining the spouses of the world leaders in Italy for the G8 meeting, who was deputed to look after them and show them round Rome but Mara Carfagna and the Minister for Education, another woman?
In most Western countries Ministers like to pretend they have far too much to do to attend to trivial tasks, like looking after the spouses of visiting dignitaries. But in Italy there is no such hypocrisy. They’re prepared to admit that a Minister, or at least a woman Minister, can always make the time to show a little charm and be the perfect hostess. In fact, the only jarring note was that Carla Bruni, wife of the French president and herself of Italian extraction, refused to attend and be escorted by Carfagna. Instead, she showed up late and took herself round Rome on her own. The French clearly have no concept of savoir vivre.
And isn’t it wonderful that one of the Ministers in question was the one charged with ensuring that women enjoy equal rights in her country? And even more wonderful that she owes her position to the very charm that Berlusconi had her deploy yesterday?
It’s as enviable as it’s admirable to be that impervious to irony.
Monday, 6 July 2009
So Sarah Palin is to resign as governor of Alaska. Criticise her as we may, I’m in no doubt that through this final act of her term in office, she has made a real contribution to the lives of her constituents and relieved of them of a genuinely painful burden.
On the other hand, for someone who nurtures long term ambitions of high office, it seems an inexplicable move. So I’ve devoted some time to trying to understand how she reached her decision.
Here, as a modest contribution to what I hope will be the short-lived science of Palinology, are my suggestions of possible motivations for Sarah’s resignation:
1. Those nice people in the Republican Party nationally bought her such a lovely set of clothes during the presidential campaign. But they’re just so 2008 now. She needs to track those guys down again to get something more up to date.
2. She’s realised that what the American people most needed from Bush was that he resign, and she’s decided to learn the lesson and do the people of Alaska the favour he refused the nation.
3. She’s decided that having failed in getting her ex-brother-in-law fired as an Alaskan state trooper, there’s little she can usefully achieve as Governor and has decided to work on a less ambitious project.
4. It’s a mountain and Mahomet thing: media people aren’t travelling to Juneau to see her so she’s planning on moving closer to them, as she misses the mockery.
5. She’s decided to spend more time with her family. No, hang on: I’ve just remembered what her family is like. Scratch that as a motivation, it doesn’t stack up.
6. She’s realised that though Obama may often impress, perhaps even occasionally disappoint, he doesn’t inspire belly laughs the way she did during the campaign. So out of spontaneous generosity, she’s decided to free up some time so she can once more inject into national political life in the US some of the buffoonery that became her hallmark in the autumn.
7. Some smart adviser has told her that the governorship of Alaska is hardly an adequate springboard for a campaign for the White House. So she’s given it up and instead will launch her campaign as a housewife from Alaska.
8. She’s motivated by the purest altruism towards the Republican Party. She knows that by standing down she can at a stroke increase the average IQ of Republican holders of State Governorships. Conversely, if she’s successful in her bid for the White House, she can increase the average IQ of Republican Presidents in the 21st Century.
There may of course be other explanations for Palin’s behaviour. These are the ones that appeal to me, but if you have your own, do please share them.
Particularly if they add to the general mirth to which she has already contributed so extensively.
Saturday, 4 July 2009
Certainly, when my wife and I were choosing schools for our kids, we wanted the choice to be our own. We sent each of our boys to different schools that we hoped best suited their different temperaments. We wanted our freedom of choice and we exercised it.
‘Keeping my options open’ was a major concern of my youth, and many people voice the same aspiration. At school, I chose subjects which would allow me to study either science or the humanities at university. In the end, I took both: four years getting nowhere in science, followed by seven years studying humanities, as my mother had told me I should, with much better success later.
That’s the problem of keeping options open. Making a choice closes them. Keeping them open means deferring decisions. There’s no guarantee a delayed decision will be better, and it may be delayed too long. Tony Soprano, in that great series The Sopranos, says something that I believed for a long time: ‘A wrong decision is better than indecision’. Today, I think that a wrong decision can be disastrous, but I understand the sentiment: it’s like driving a long way round on country roads rather than sitting in a jam on a motorway – it may actually take longer but doesn’t it just feel better to be moving?
General Patton got closer to the truth when he said ‘a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.’ I’d rather replace ‘violently’ by ‘energetically’, but otherwise I think the statement contains an important truth. In passing, it says something profound about the nature of decisions: they only really become decisions when they’re put into action. ‘Let's do it’ is just hot air until it's put into execution. In most circumstances taking action now, even if it isn’t the perfect action, is far better than waiting until you can perfect it. Returning to the travel analogy, if you set out in roughly the right direction, you can always correct your course as you go; if you sit at home, you’ll still have all the journey to do later.
So it’s interesting that so many of us spend so long trying to keep our options open.
The motive must be that we don’t like committing ourselves to a particular choice. Freedom of choice, yes; making a choice, well, maybe, and then again maybe not.
The principal of one of the colleges I attended was General Sir John Hackett. He and I had little in common: he was of another generation, older than my parents, a former Major General, a soldier of distinction as well as an author. All the same, I took enormous pleasure in his company and treasured many of the stories he told me for the wisdom they contained.
He once told me he had known no greater freedom than in the army. To me, the army, with its regimentation of men – and ‘regiment’ is a military term – was surely the antithesis of freedom. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it frees you from a lot of trivial, tedious decisions. You get up in the morning, and you don’t wonder which tie to put on. You know which tie you’re going to put on. It frees your mind to think of much more important things.’
He had never felt so free as when he was commanding a rearguard unit in the Sahara. He could see Rommel’s Afrika Korps in front of him and could work out with great certainty where it would go next. Turning around, he could see behind him the positions to which he’d have to retreat. All decisions had been taken. He could relax and just oversee operations. In fact, his whole unit was so calm that it had the leisure to stop and pick up things that had been abandoned by people leaving the same positions earlier: they, who couldn’t see the Germans, had panicked and fled leaving many of their belongings behind.
‘Often very desirable commodities,’ he said, ‘tins of marmalade, crates of gin. We baptised the operation ‘Retreating along the Fortnum and Mason Line’.’ Fortnum and Mason’s is the luxury food and drink emporium in London.
The men in that rearguard unit were exercising the freedom of choice to pick up what their friends had abandoned, because they were enjoying freedom from choice over their own destiny.
I often think of that story. There’s a general consensus that it’s important to be able to mould one’s destiny. But sometimes it’s much more pleasant to go with the flow. Isn’t that what makes us feel disinclined to make choices, that leaves us indecisive, trying to keep our options open?
It can be dangerous, as I learned to my cost. But it can sometimes be a tremendous relief too.
Today, the fourth of July, when Americans celebrate their nation’s birthday, is an appropriate time to reflect on the nature of freedom. And to wonder whether sometimes what we really want is freedom from freedom.
Wednesday, 1 July 2009
But as soon as you take moral and emotional qualities into account, you can see that progress is far from smooth. In a real sense, for instance, we age not at all for 364 days only to add a year on our birthday. That’s why we celebrate the occasion with such enthusiasm when we’re young, and why the enthusiasm wanes so quickly when we get older.
As well as the simple passage of time, there are also events that lead to wild swings in the tempo at which we age. The arrival of my first child overwhelmed an astonishing number of my habits of thought. Suddenly I was no longer the younger generation. I had to learn not to look behind me for a much loved, and older, man when someone said ‘Daddy’.
The loss of that much loved figure forced me to take another major step. It was bad enough when my grandparents died: a wrench, grieving, the sense of loss of people who had marked my childhood indelibly. But when my father went, it was far more devastating. Obviously, in part because he was so much more significant in my life and so much closer to me. But also because a barrier that stood between me and my own grave had gone. Suddenly I was next in line.
The impact of that moment was almost as great as the trauma of realising my own mortality for the first time. I can’t remember how old I was – under five I think – but I remember the intensity of the emotions clearly. As I became aware of the universality of death, my first realisation was that I couldn’t count on my parents being around for ever. It was inconceivable that a day might come when I would have to get by without their protective presence, but I was just going to have get used to the idea. And then another thought began to form in my mind: if death was really universal, then that meant that I too some day would die. I had a lot of trouble falling asleep at night for quite a while after that, and to be honest I don’t think I’ve ever really come to terms with the realisation: I’ve just been living in a state of permanent denial ever since.
Denied or not, time keeps going by. There was a wry moment when I realised I regarded fifty, which had always been an age of advanced decrepitude to me, as not really all that old at all. And then came the realisation that even fifty was quite a way behind me.
On top of that, there is now a little girl out there who calls me ‘Granddad’. She’s well into her fifth year now, so you can imagine that she’s been doing it a while. But for most of that time, I couldn’t really get used to it: I heard ‘Granddad’ and thought of the man who bore that title for me for so many years, irascible but kindly, white-haired but sprightly – I remember him impressing the heck out of me when he sprinted for a bus at the age of 70. But this weekend, while we were visiting our family in Edinburgh, I realised that I was responding completely naturally to being called ‘Granddad’. It had become my own name.
To be absolutely fair, I have to admit that I also kept looking up at the call of ‘Daddy’. Still not quite used to that not being me.
Oh, well. Time, I’m told, is the devourer of things. Feels more like a gentle gnawing by toothless gums, but in the end it’s as sure as anything else.
Michel de Montaigne, with no less than Cicero as his authority, claims that philosophy is learning to die. Perhaps that’s why I work on all these little pieces.
Except who needs to learn to die? As far as I can tell, trained or untrained, everyone who’s had to do it has managed perfectly well. No-one, as far as I know, has ever ultimately failed to die.
It’d be interesting to try though, wouldn’t it? Can you imagine, being the first person to have made a failure of dying?
What would such a failure make that person – a sorry loser or the most extraordinary success?