Saturday, 31 July 2010

The turning of the wheel

Some years ago I was involved in a two-day multi-cultural workshop, an introduction on things Chinese for an executive and his wife about to move to Shanghai. My job was to do a brief overview of Chinese history. This was something I particularly enjoyed because I knew practically no Chinese history from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards, and none at all from earlier. So it became a splendid illustration of the Alexander Pope principle that a little learning is an immensely useful thing (I may have got that quotation wrong).

It turned out that you really can do a class by being one book ahead of your students.

What struck me most about the extremely superficial knowledge I gained of Chinese history was that it is profoundly cyclical. Again and again China would rise to peaks of peace and prosperity that were literally unrivalled: at different times, Nanjing or Beijing would be the world’s biggest city and China would be the world’s most populous nation. It achieved technological advance far beyond any other nation. Canal locks. The chest harness allowing horses to be used for far heavier work than in the West, where they were harnessed by the neck. Paper allowing learning to be spread throughout the nation. Printing, which would revolutionise our societies when it reached us, or gunpowder whose impact was even more dramatic.

And then China would be plunged back down the slippery slope. By the end of the Song dynasty, for instance, China had a population of 120 million when Britain had not reached three. Then the Mongols arrived and the invasions reduced the population to 60 million. This isn't decline, it's catastrophe.

Things went well for a while after that, with the Ming dynasty giving the country another age of power and prosperity. Sadly when decline came again, it coincided with Europe’s surprising irruption on the world scene as a great power economically and, since the things go together, militarily. The Europeans, though perfectly happy to stab each other in the back whenever possible, managed to work smoothly together to make China’s life pretty miserable throughout the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth. Today, though, the country is clearly on another cyclical upswing and likely to overtake not just Europe but the continent’s upstart cousins across the Atlantic within a generation.

European history could hardly offer a starker contrast. Since the Renaissance, these nations have known almost constant progress in wealth and power. Yes, there have been setbacks. The thirty years War springs to mind, alongside various natural disasters and epidemics, to say nothing of convulsions such as the French revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars. Since the twentieth century however, progress has been pretty steady, if we set aside annoying interruptions such as a particularly ugly world war. And, OK, yes, there was a second one a bit later. But apart from those jarring incidents, it’s been peace and prosperity all round, especially since we learned the American trick of fighting our wars in other people’s countries, which keeps our casualties down and our infrastructure intact.

All this has conspired to give Europeans a shared sense of sustained progress. Things have got better and better for so long that we see no reason for them not to go on getting better and better for a lot longer still.

Perhaps it’s time, though, that we learned to look at history the Chinese way a bit more. Nothing guarantees our continued progress for ever and ever. Right now, the nations of Europe seem far more intent on proclaiming their independence from each other than in making of the continent as a whole a force to reckon with in the world. As for the Americans, they seem to have fooled no-one more than themselves with their constantly repeated claim to be the ‘greatest nation on Earth’. This may have caused them to lose sight of the fact that it wasn’t always so and needn’t always be so in the future.

Maybe a cycle can be broken. If so, I think we need to set about being a lot more positive about doing it than we have so far. Perhaps use a little less energy. Perhaps wage a little less war. Perhaps ignore poverty a little less in the midst of obscene wealth.

Otherwise I think the wheel is turning and, while China rises, we may be forced to find out that cycles have troughs as well as peaks. The hard way.

Monday, 26 July 2010


Some months ago, a French family moved in a few doors away from us. Since I’m married to a Frenchwoman and we have three sons with joint French and British nationality, this was an event of some interest to us. That was particularly as Stafford, where we live, is a sleepy market town where one doesn’t expect to meet many residents from the Continent.

He was a doctor who, to my amazement, had left a job in a French hospital to come and work in the emergency department of ours. He explained that the money was better here than there, but it was striking that within weeks he’d left the hospital to go working as a locum GP instead, as he found accident and emergency services in Britain much too much like hard work. Certainly, it isn’t an environment in which staff have a lot of time to draw breath. He complained that he had to do things that in France would be done by nurses, which must have been hard for him, though I can’t help feeling that it’s rather a good thing when nurses stop being merely glorified assistants to doctors.

Meanwhile, we’d also met his Algerian wife. She and Danielle exchanged pleasantries and gifts of food, there was even talk of a dinner invitation but it fell through and wasn’t renewed. Every time our paths crossed, there were smiles on both sides and we’d talk for a few minutes, but we never really got beyond simple good neighbourliness.

They had two children who exuded warmth and some charm, although they wore that a bit thin, particularly with other families who had children, when they took to hanging around on their doorsteps rather too long and demanding rather too much attention.

All in all, though, we kept feeling that these were potentially friends, even perhaps good friends. And yet somehow on neither side did we take the step that would have made it happen.

Then on Saturday afternoon there were removal vans outside their house. On Sunday, the place had been emptied and the landlord was clearing up. They’d vanished without a trace.

I really mean without a trace. I don’t even know their names. I have no idea where they’ve gone.

The whole experience leaves a strange feeling. There’s a little sadness, of the kind conveyed by the expression ‘ships that pass in the night.’ On the other hand, though the friendship never got beyond the level of potential, it might never have been any better. Perhaps we got close to something that could have been good, and never spoiled it by making it real.

Above all though I’m left with a sense of mystery. Who were these people really? Where have they gone? And why did I never take the trouble to find out?

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Redundancy – a message from the gods?

Some years ago, when we were living in Germany not far from Baden-Baden, we used to go regularly to the baths there.

If you haven’t been, try to go: it’s a wonderful place. You can swim or just plunge in spa water at different temperatures, can move from indoor pools to outdoor ones, you can take saunas or Turkish baths. The most magical experience is in the winter – to be able to swim out under the night sky, in hot water, and feel snow falling on your face is quite extraordinary.

Outside the men’s showers, there are a set of scales. A friend of mine has a coaster with a cartoon of a woman standing on some scales and screaming ‘What? That can’t be right!’ I had that experience. I got on the scales at Baden-Baden and I won’t even demean this post by writing down the figure they showed.

Clearly it was time for serious action.

A couple of years later, I was a lot hungrier and the exercise had made me a lot tireder, but I was also a lot lighter. I felt very pleased with myself.

However, in recent weeks there’s been some backsliding. We’ve met friends and gone out for rather good meals. We’ve visited family and had some rather good meals. Having got into the habit, even when we were alone we sometimes had some rather good meals. A week ago last Monday, the 12th, I noticed that half the weight I’d lost was back on. A disaster.

Then I went into work. My boss has an office next to mine. I noticed his smile to me seemed particularly bright that day, as though he was making an effort to communicate warmth and good feeling. But I thought little about it. Then he called me into his office and asked me to close the door.

That was the point when I suddenly realised that the day wasn’t about to get a lot better.

Half an hour later, I left the place on notice of redundancy. I went home. I’d got up a little late that morning so I hadn’t had breakfast. I didn’t feel any desire for breakfast. Lunch time came round and I didn’t feel like lunch either. In the afternoon, I decided it was time to do something a little more dynamic, so I took the dog out for a run. She must have been delighted – it’s not something that happens very often during the week, in fact recently it hasn’t happened very much at all.

In the evening I had a light meal which was about as much as I could stand.

By next morning – why I was losing weight again at a wonderful rate.

The process has slowed down a bit as I get into the routine of looking for new work, signing on with agencies, applying for a couple of jobs, chasing up my contacts. But now my weight is back down to within spitting distance of where it was before.

My conclusion? I had become complacent. Hubristic even. The gods decided to punish the sin. And, boy, it’s worked. The arrogance has been much reduced. The weight too.

And as for the dog, why she’s having a brilliant time – someone around all day and a lot more walks.

Redundancy has its downsides, much too obvious to be listed here. But there are upsides too.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

ConDem, confused

Our exciting new government, formed by the ConDems, as we affectionately refer to the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, leaves me perplexed and confused.

I mean, the idea of the huge cuts in public services that the government has announced is to save us from the kind of fate now being suffered in those ghastly Mediterranean economies, where people have too much sun, wine and olive oil, and not enough of our sterling qualities of earnestness, hard work and probity.

The PIIGS, as these Mediterranean nations are collectively known – Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, and of course Ireland, which is Mediterranean by religion – are in desperate trouble. They were spendthrift and foolhardy and look where it’s got them. Why Greece is having to make public spending cuts of 40% or even 50% just to try to avoid bankruptcy. We don’t want to share their fate.

So to avoid it, we’re making huge cuts in public spending. Health and international development are being spared, though ‘efficiency savings’ look like leading to tens of thousands of redundancies in the health service anyway. Imagine how awful it would have been if healthcare weren’t being especially protected.

Other Departments are expected to make cuts of 40%. Some, such as Culture – but who cares about Culture for God’s sake? – look like they’re going to have to cut 50%.

Now hang on a minute. Those figures look familiar. Am I missing something here? Are we trying to avoid the fate of Greece? Or to do exactly the same?

I merely seek clarification.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Roman Polanski and overturned prejudice

It can be a terribly painful process to have your prejudices overthrown. You know, for years you believe that the US Republican Party is incapable of putting anyone into the White House who isn’t either a crook or a fool, and then suddenly you find a Republican President who’s decent, tolerant, honest and reasonable. You’d have to go through a fundamental realignment in your views and a probably quite painful reassessment of all your most deeply held opinions – or rather prejudices, as you would have to redefine them.

I’m not saying that anything like that is going to happen any time soon, of course - the Republicans don’t seem to have finished plumbing the depths of inadequacy that they seem to have made peculiarly their own. I’m just trying to illustrate the depth of readjustment that I’d have to go through if they ever did find a wholly human candidate with more than half a brain.

Just recently, I’ve had to review some pretty fundamental prejudices in a different area. Specifilly, I’ve had to reconsider my views of Roman Polanski. For a long time I thought that he was simply experiencing the legal troubles of a convicted paedophile trying to escape the consequences of his acts, and there was no reason to expect him to be treated more leniently just because he’d made some indifferent films.

Now I discover that his judicial issues aren’t quite as clear-cut as they seemed. I hadn’t realised that he’d had a deal with the prosecutors in his case, and only fled the States when it became clear that the judge was unlikely to abide by its terms. In other words, he went on the run when he realised that the judge was about to impose a far harsher sentence than had been agreed.

More fundamental still, I’ve had to revise my view of his films. They weren’t all Oliver Twist. First of all, I saw The Ghost some months ago and had to admit it was a good piece of work, close to the book, well acted, well adapted and well directed. I had to start rethinking my assessment.

Now I’ve finally got around to seeing The Pianist. It always takes me a long time to see films about the Holocaust: I just find them hard to take any more. A little girl in a red coat trailing along behind long lines of people heading for the gas chambers: I can’t bear that kind of image any more.

So it took me the best part of five years to see the film. And it has completed the overthrow of all my earlier prejudices. There are many brilliant details, not least the point at which a guard allowing the protagonist to flee shouts ‘don’t run’. In the book the instruction, on the contrary, is ‘run’. Polanski changed it because he had the experience himself and had been told not to run, not to attract attention – and it’s much more forceful to have that sharp reminder that survival can sometimes mean behaving counter-intuitively.

But much more powerful still than the detail is the overall structure. You have to wade through all the pain of the Holocaust material, the usual casual murders, the cruel humiliations, the transports leaving for the death camps. But it’s all made worthwhile by the climax, a moment of calm poignancy, of beauty and pathos, that not only justifies the pain of the build up to it, but actually needs it to generate its full force.

So now I have to say – congratulations, Roman, on your escape. And thanks for a great film.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Roman Catholicism: protection of minors, protection from women

You can really tell the nature of an organisation by the way it prioritises the issues it faces.

I was saying just the other day that the Christian Churches seem to be obsessed with sex. Fairness (and when am I ever anything but scrupulously fair?) obliges me to admit that my good friend San objected to my failure to distinguish between gender and sex. He’s right, though in my defence I would maintain that both gender and sex ultimately depend on genitals, and so though distinct they are at least related.

Now try, if you will, to imagine two scenes.

In the first, a priest has persuaded a young choirboy to join him in the seclusion of the sacristy. There he obliges him to strip off and, as the young lad, shivering with cold or trembling with fear, stands with his hands vainly trying to cover his private parts, the priest also begins to undress… I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

In the second scene, a woman deeply imbued with Christian belief, who feels a true calling to preach the word of God to the faithful, is in a line of postulants waiting to be ordained by a bishop and about to realise her lifelong desire to be a priest. The scene is public, in the nave of a cathedral church, in front of a congregation buoyed up by the sense of spirituality of the occasion.

Do these two scenes seem in some sense equal to you? Are they similarly depraved? Are they as sinful as each other?

There's an article you ought to read in the Guardianbut if you don't feel like clicking through to it, let me quote one paragraph:

The Vatican today made the "attempted ordination" of women one of the gravest crimes under church law, putting it in the same category as clerical sex abuse of minors, heresy and schism.

The sexual abuse of children and the attempt to ordain a woman are crimes of equal gravity.

Now, remind me again, why is it that people aren’t all flocking to join the Catholic Church?

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

World Cup: the agony and the ecstasy

Now that the World Cup is over, it’s time to take stock of its contribution to our lives.

It’s well known that if the national team wins a major trophy for a significant sport, there’s a general improvement in morale of the nation as a whole. This has to be a good thing and should be encouraged, even though there is a downside to it: sadly, the government also generally benefits from the upsurge. Since governments tend to be more than sufficiently self-satisfied  anything that contributes to them feeling better about themselves is probably best avoided.

Still, whatever helps ordinary people is welcome. And obviously the people of Spain need a boost more than most, given their parlous financial state and the looming risk that it’s about to get an awful lot worse. So good luck to them.

On the other hand, wouldn’t it have been nice if the Portuguese, the Greeks and the Italians could have had a similar boost to their self-esteem? After all, they along with Spain and of course Ireland – which didn’t even qualify for the World Cup, denied by a scandalous and insufficiently punished handball by France – form the PIIGS group of Eurozone nations most badly affected by the financial crisis.

And that’s the problem with this kind of competition. One nation gets a boost, gets its spirits lifted – but there were 32 taking part in South Africa. The other 31 all came home more or less disappointed – including Ghana, denied a place in the semi-finals by a scandalous and insufficiently punished handball by Uruguay – leaving their compatriots un-lifted or even downright dejected. The latter was the case, in particular, in England, though I don’t share the general depression: I believe the England team to be outstanding only in its capacity to disappoint, so I didn’t feel let down at all.

The overall picture is of one country getting a fillip, while 31 came home disappointed, while others didn’t get to go at all.

Where’s the mileage in that? It’s hardly the greatest good for the greatest number. This really isn’t the most effective way of spreading the feel-good effect around the most possible people, is it?

Still, the upside I suppose is that 31 smug governments – not to mention Ireland’s – at least got their wings clipped a bit.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Sex and the Churches

It’s terribly unfortunate, but a great and historic institution, the Church of England, is in trouble. Again. Once more, it is being riven by controversy (which reminds me, can you be riven by anything other than controversy? It feels to me that in the same way as only cuts can ever be swingeing, only controversy can ever rive).

As it happens, right now the riving is being done on two counts. The first is about whether women can ever be bishops. The Synod of the Church of England has rejected a compromise proposal whereby women could be made bishops and Anglicans would have to accept their authority unless they really, really didn’t want to, in which case they’d get a man to do the job instead.

The other row is about whether a particular man, John Jeffries, can ever be bishop. The problem in his case is that he’s openly gay (seems it’s OK if you keep it quiet, a bit like the US Army).

Meanwhile, over on the Catholic side of the shop, the Pope is terribly upset with British equal rights legislation that might force Catholic adoption agencies to consider gay couples as possible candidates. Now, the rights and wrongs of this obligation can be argued. What I find curious is that once more the issue seems to be sex.

Not just gay sex, of course. The Catholic Church as concerned as ever with its traditional preoccupations of divorce, abortion or contraception. In fact, it seems to go on and on about sex of one kind of another, as though it was as fixated on the subject as anyone else. Obsessing about how people get laid is apparently not a preserve of the laity.

It strikes me that this apparent preoccupation isn’t really doing the Churches any good. Where are all the good old-fashioned debates about original sin, transubstantiation or the nature of the Trinity? You know, the ones that spilled so much ink and so much blood. And lit not a few bonfires.

When I see that all those noble concerns have been superseded by constant obsessing on what women can do, what men can’t do, what gays mustn’t do, I just get sad. It’s as though we were sinking into the very pit of moral turpitude about which the Churches are always warning us. And we all know where that leads: after all, look at all those sexual abuse scandals.

It’s time for the Churches to recognise that they have a real problem. Come on, guys, admit it – facing up to an issue like this is a first step towards solving it, you know.

As my friend Ian Covey puts it, it’s time for you to come out of the cloister.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Arran and the appeal of legends

We had a great trip to the Isle of Arran last week. Off South West Scotland and on the way to Ireland, it has open sea to the south and two branches of what is in effect inland sea on either side, bounded by Kintyre to the West and the coast of Ayrshire to the East. An enclosed sea has a special air of its own which is strangely attractive.

Of course, Arran’s in Scotland so visitors have to play roulette when it comes to the weather. From the ferry port, my wife Danielle announced that it was clearly raining on the island. ‘Nonsense,’ I replied, ‘what we can see is just haze.’ I maintain that to this day though I have to confess that once we reached the island, the haze just got thicker and thicker and we got wetter and wetter.

The next day was fine, however, or at any rate dry. We set out for a pleasant ramble to the King’s Cave. This is a place rich in legend. It’s said that Robert the Bruce, when his long fight to be King of Scotland was pretty much at its lowest ebb, took refuge there for a while, waiting for the beacon to be lit in Ayrshire to herald the reopening of his next campaign. It was here, they say (whoever ‘they’ are), that he watched a spider struggling up a thread, only to fall back down repeatedly and start again each time. From that sight, he drew the heartening lesson ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.’

This is one of those enchanting tales to come down to us from history. We have so many, even in Britain alone. Poor King Harold, quintessentially English, killed by an arrow to the eye by those dastardly Normans at Hastings. The dashing Francis Drake, as the Spanish Armada emerged into the Channel and came bearing down towards the very spot where he was enjoying a bowls competition on Plymouth Hoe, refusing to stop and declaring ‘we have time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards too.’

These stories all have so much in common. They’re uplifting, heart-warming and taught to every school child in the hope of making history a little more palatable. They are also all based on absolutely no evidence that anything like the events they describe ever actually happened. Did Robert I (yes, he did eventually succeed in becoming King) really have that inspiring meditation on spiders? No one knows. He certainly didn’t sit in that cave and wait for a beacon on the Ayrshire coast: it doesn’t face Ayrshire but Kintyre.

But who cares? It’s no part of the essential characteristic of legend that it has to be literally true. It just has to be appealing – ‘se non è vero, è ben trovato’ as the Italians say, if it isn’t true, it’s well invented.

We were treading soil imbued with legend, we were breathing the stuff of legend. What more did we need?

Especially as it was such a beautiful place.

The view from the mouth of the King’s Cave on Arran. And that’s Kintyre in the background, not Ayrshire.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Government magic

The key skill of the conjuror is sleight of hand. There's a brilliant trick being carried off by leading politicians in a number of countries at the moment, which consists of taking hold of widely-held views, often directed against politicians, and skilfully turning them to their advantage.

A curious trait of our democracies is that though we choose our governments, we loathe them as soon as they’re elected. By getting into office, any politician becomes at a stroke a lying, cheating snake who’s just like all the others. They get worse and worse until they’re finally forced out of public life, to general relief.

At that point a strange process of rehabilitation often gets under way. There are exceptions, of course: it’ll be a while before anyone starts to think any better of Tony Blair, for instance. But with most politicians, once they’re out of office, people begin to warm to them again. Jimmy Carter was one of the most reviled politicians in the West, defeated for a second term by a third-rate former Hollywood actor who was probably already suffering from the Alzheimer’s that later killed him. Thirty years on, Carter has attained a status little short of sainthood.

In part, the dislike of government takes the form of a desire to see more power exercised locally. The trouble is that we dislike local politicians even more than national ones. Who are they to strut around making themselves important when we know that all they’ve done is get elected to a job no more than a handful of people would consider worth doing in the first place?

Now national politicians, aware of our distrust of all politicians, and our particular dislike of local ones, have started to turn these feelings to their advantage.

In Britain, for instance, our smart new government has set up an ‘Office for Budget Responsibility’. This is staffed by economists, not politicians, and will make forecasts about future trends in the economy and rule on the advisability of financial measures proposed by government.

Fascinating isn’t it? We spent centuries wresting the power to tax from the unelected busybodies surrounding the king. Why, it was because Charles I was trying to raise taxes for a foreign war that we rose against him and sent him to the scaffold. When our colonists in North America in turn rose against us their war cry was ‘no taxation without representation’. Yet now we want to hand over financial control to a bunch of unelected so-called experts.

And what sort of experts are they? Economists. Please tell me that I’m not alone in seeing an irony here. As J K Galbraith, an economist himself, pointed out, the role of economists is to make astrologers look good. On the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England in the run up to the financial crash, only one of the nine experts called for reductions in the interest rate; seven voted to leave them unchanged for month after month; there was even one who called for them to be raised. It turns out that David Blanchflower, the lone advocate for a reduction, was the one who got it right. Eight out of nine got it wrong. Again and again.

Now we’re supposed to put our faith in experts like them?

But the real beauty of the creation of the Office for Budget Responsibility is the way it plays to the distrust of politicians in general while strengthening the hands of those politicians who happen to be in power. As ‘experts’, economists have an aura of authority which politicians don’t. This has been used to the benefit of the very politicians that make up the government: last week figures worked out by the Office for Budget Responsibility and showing that the impact of the government's economic policy on unemployment was, unsurprisingly, going to be catastrophic, were leaked to The Guardian. That proved embarrassing for the government. No problem: the Office rushed out some new predictions that ‘corrected’ the earlier ones. One might quibble that they were based on forecasts for private sector growth that most commentators think are wildly optimistic. But hey, they’re a lot more comfortable for the government, and they have the authority of having been produced by ‘independent experts’.

The other wonderful initiative in England is called ‘Free schools’. This is equally clever in the way that it plays simultaneously on the desire for local control and the dislike of local politicians.

Obviously, no school can be free, they all cost money. They'll be free to parents, of course, though not free to society: like any state school, these ones will be paid for by all of us, through our taxes. The freedom of their name, though, will lie in the fact that the parents will run them, allowing them to avoid the supposedly bureaucratic control of local authorities.

One of the most outspoken supporters of this plan is a character called Toby Young. He puts together a smartly constructed justification for why we should all fund a school he can run himself for his own kids, whatever impact that may have on any coherent educational strategy his local authority may be pursuing for children in his neighbourhood generally.

Young seems to be aspiring to be the thinking Englishman’s equivalent of what Sarah Palin is in the United States. I say ‘thinking’ because he's good at writing, if you have the stomach for his particular brand of Fox News-style ultra-right wing diatribe, and when Palin was questioned about what papers she consulted, she made it clear that she hadn’t even fully mastered reading yet. On the other hand, having heard Young in public argument, I’m not convinced he has her open-mindedness or her sensitivity to nuance. At one point he told an opponent ‘I don’t want to get personal’. Why do people say that kind of thing? Everyone knows there’s a ‘but’ coming, followed by a personal attack. Since no-one was forcing him to make it, he must clearly have wanted to.

In any case, since they take public money, the schools will be subject to the usual checks on their administration and their standards. If local authorities don’t do the monitoring, who will? You got it. Central government. So a degree of authority and the funding for these schools will have been switched from local to national control, and all in the name of local autonomy.

See what I mean about conjuring? Pick a card, pick any card, but whichever it is, the government wins. And there are even clever, articulate people like Toby Young who'll give a veneer of plausibility to the deception.

And just like any magic act, it ultimately only works because of our willingness to let ourselves be duped.

Ah, well. Hamlet got it about right: ‘what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty.’