Saturday, 25 June 2016

Birthrights?

There are little corners of England, by-passed by major routes, where the progress of civilisation is impeded by geography and it is possible to imagine that time has stood still. One such place is Arnside & Silverdale, a chunky peninsula to the west of the M6 just above Lancaster. Here I walked all day through a landscape in which the traces of human habitation are fainter, lighter on the ground than usual. It’s not absolute, of course: there is a railway line that courses doggedly North-South following the coastline as close as it dares; there are defunct smelting chimneys left over from earlier industrial enterprises; farms double-up as holiday retreats and there is a large (but well camouflaged) settlement of chalets nestled into a small bay. Still, on a summer’s day in June, when the countryside is wearing its cloak of a thousand shades of green spotted with flowers of every imaginable colour, it seems there is no finer place to be than in England. How easily we are duped.
England is, in many respects, a fine country, but so are many others and none can claim to be top of the pile: there is not even a possibility of ranking them since we cannot agree a common matrix of measurement. Objectivity is impossible as long as our minds are fixed by feelings of patriotism or claims of ownership and our understanding is limited by ignorance and fear of the other. This is why phrases such as “putting the ‘great’ back into Britain”, or “making America great again” are so ridiculous. It is also why you should go and see Michael Moore’s latest film, Where To Invade Next?
The film highlights some key social policies in various European countries and compares them with American practice: during its course I was provoked to laughter and tears but, in the end, to outrage. If you see the film you might, like me, watch in amazement as French primary schoolchildren sit down, every day, to a three-course lunch prepared by a chef and served by waiting staff; envy the Italian workers who go home for a two-hour lunch break and get eight weeks paid leave; cheer the Slovenians who provide free university tuition for their people – and anyone else who cares to enrol; applaud the Finns whose kids attend school three hours a day, take no SATs and are the world’s best-educated (they also have no private schools – rich and poor grow up together); congratulate the Icelanders, the first to elect a female president and the only ones to have prosecuted, convicted and jailed their bankers; admire the Germans whose generous and sympathetic approach to mental healthcare is respectful and wise; nod to the Norwegians who actively rehabilitate their prisoners; praise the Portuguese who refuse to criminalise drug-users.
All right, there are probably some aspects of life in all of these countries which are less than satisfactory, but the common thread is their embrace of a basic principle – nurturing citizens so that they in turn nurture each other: the wellbeing of society is thereby addressed organically. The examples in the film highlight the fact that the policies pursued in the USA are exactly the opposite.  America puts individual gain above social harmony and appears not to see the cause and effect. This should worry us all – and it should particularly worry Brits, because Michael Moore saw no reason to come to here.
I like being English/British/European (though I prefer to think European/British/English) if only because there are nations less fortunate that I might have been born into – just ask any refugee. Better still, however, I like the notion, expressed by Marguerite Yourcenar*, that “one’s true birthplace is that wherein, for the first time, one looks intelligently upon oneself.”


*Novelist, 1903-1987

Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Language of The People

Lawrence Lessig* contends that ‘Writing’ is the Latin of our times. The modern language of the people is video and sound. I suspect he has a point. In fact, it could be one of the reasons why there has been a less than stellar increase in the number of Wonderman readers over the years. Still, there is the possibility that writing will linger awhile yet, since we now have longer life expectancy: writers – and their readers – will be around for some time yet, resisting progress with a determined, if ultimately doomed, rearguard movement.
In the longer term, however, it won’t matter what happens. ‘Statistics’ show that we devote more time and money to medical research – i.e. prolonging human life – than we do to finding renewable energy sources in order to prevent the destruction of our habitat. The net result – more people sharing fewer resources – might explain why we spend even more money searching Space for habitable alternatives. The absence of joined-up thinking here is frustrating and one can only hope that Margaret Mead** was right when she said Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
But if the future, such as it might be, belongs to vloggers, film-makers, musicians and sound-bite practitioners, it does not necessarily imply there will be a dumbing-down of standards: there is sure to be constant competition among them not only to perfect techniques but also to provide the best content. The process has been underway for some time already, although there is still much amateurism to endure. We can, for instance, all be DJs now – all you need is a Spotify account or similar and you have the means to compile playlists – but the trick with playlists is to play them at the appropriate time and to an appreciative audience. At a smart restaurant last week our conversation was spoiled by the dance music which, I suspect, was the choice of the very young-looking staff.
I had a similar experience in a real-ale establishment where, as the sole customer, I talked with the young barmaid while I waited for my pal to turn up.
‘Do you stay open until four a.m. like the place next door?’ I asked.
‘Oh no. This is the kind of bar where people like to come for a quiet chat, not to rave all night,’ she said.
The soundtrack she was playing made this hard to believe and, when my pal arrived, we took our ale to a table as far away as possible from the speakers. But I think she turned the volume up to make sure we could appreciate the skill with which she had put together her favourite tracks. We did not stay to double her turnover. At the professional end of the scale there is more likely to be a market-led approach to playlists. They may not always get it right but when they do it works well – Caffè Nero had it spot-on with a mix of soothing jazz last Wednesday morning. Or perhaps it just suited my mood.
Other people’s playlists can grate on the ears and nerves, but try creating your own and you will be surprised at how many hours are consumed in the process. Perhaps it’s best left to the professionals who provide those themed playlists on internet ‘radio’ stations – Throwback Thursday is one of my favourites – so that you can deploy your time more profitably. Last week I was persuaded (in cash) to attend a focus group and to bring along a short video-recording of myself: a vlog. I took up the challenge enthusiastically. Vlogging may be a useful skill to have, given the predicted lack of demand for writing.

*Professor and political activist, 1961-

**Anthropologist, 1901-1978.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Does Better Beer Signify Progress?

The veteran Folk musician, Martin Carthy, in a fascinating interview, recalls meeting Bob Dylan in London in 1962 – a time when the city was re-adjusting itself to the social, economic and structural upheavals consequent upon the aftermath of war. Two years later Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ appeared in our record shops and London had established a new, cool identity, the vibes of which were being felt around the world.
Times, of course, are always changing, even though it may not always appear so: my recollection of the 1970s, for instance, is one of stagnation and of having been washed up in the backwaters of history. It felt as though nothing was going anywhere. But what I failed to detect at the time was the undercurrent of change precipitated by the decline of heavy manufacturing and the effects this was going to have on my expectations. I certainly never expected to find myself, years later, sitting outside a wine bar in Manchester, on a warm afternoon, sipping pinot noir: and not just any pinot noir – an English pinot noir! I was more likely to have imagined myself in a traditional pub beer-garden with its tired offering of industrial beer, cider, plonk and pub-grub. Pubs are now fewer on the ground due, in part, to the rise in the popularity of wine and of drinking at home, but beer-gardens still thrive and I am pleased to report that they offer better-quality fare – a reflection, perhaps, on the power of competition to drive up standards and of the adaptability of capitalism to switch from quantity to quality in order to maintain margins.
Not everyone likes change. Some would argue that it nurtures a dangerous tendency to discard the old – along with any merits it may have – in favour of the un-tried and un-tested new. They are right to be cautious: it is said that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. London’s post-war housing projects, for example, did not take into account the negative consequences of breaking up established communities (although the fact that many such communities were doomed anyway by disappearing employment opportunities goes to show how hard it is to predict outcomes). Perhaps we should all be vigilant for the unintended consequences of change. Sometimes they can be quite surreptitious, as I noticed yesterday when I spent some time printing out, signing, scanning and emailing back a set of documents which, not so long ago, would have been posted to me, along with a pre-paid envelope. The presumption that I possess the necessary equipment, know-how and time to perform this task suggests that those of us who do, risk becoming de facto, unpaid bureaucrats for organisations which cut their costs by outsourcing tasks to us without paying any compensation.
I was ruminating on this during my customary five-minute walk to the gym. The route goes down a busy China Town street, across a main road and continues through the Gay Village. It is always thronged with tourists taking selfies by the ornamental Chinese Gate, beggars cadging their share of the pink pound, delivery drivers causing chaos and bus drivers taking a smoking break at the bus stand. What caught my attention on this occasion was the fact that two Bentleys and a Rolls Royce passed as I waited to cross the road: normal in Mayfair, maybe; average in Alderley Edge I suppose; but unusual ‘round here, for sure. I speculated on whether this might be a sign that the economy is on the up or, more specifically, whether it could have been Jose Mourinho and his entourage driving around, acquainting themselves with their new home-town – which, I suppose, amounts to the same thing. Put simply, football replaces manufacturing as the economic powerhouse, while we are all kept busy acquiring secretarial skills.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Village Green Preservation Society

I was going to attend a party political meeting last night but I decided, at the last minute, to give it a miss. The subject was the argument in favour of Britain remaining in the EU but, as the referendum draws closer, I become less inclined to pay attention to what is being said – particularly by politicians who, whatever their true thoughts on the matter, will always have an underlying agenda of political manoeuvring which they cannot separate from the core issue. Besides, my mind – or should I say my heart, for I see no way in which a rational, balanced judgement can be made on this subject – has been clear from the start: I would like us to remain.

The problem is that the factors which sway one’s decision on this vote are not common to everyone. When someone claims “it is in Britain’s best interests” what exactly do they mean? If they are referring to the economic health of the country they might consider that, as the fifth richest nation in the world, our problem is not so much the accumulation of more wealth as the uneven distribution of what we already have: a vote for more of the same would be in the interests of the minority, not the majority, of the nation’s people. The term “Britain’s best interests” is too general - too jingoistic -  to be meaningful. The definition needs to include everyone which, ultimately, means our neighbours as well. Our best interests are only truly served in a world-wide context of increasing peace, prosperity, education, cultural enrichment and environmental custodianship. Pulling up the drawbridge and disengaging from other nations will not make us masters of our own destiny; it is more likely to make us victims of circumstance. What is in Britain’s best interests, ultimately, is the well-being of all nations.

But the siren voices of persuaders on both sides seek to win their arguments by playing on our fears: they identify individual concerns and present them as consequences which can be resolved by a simple “yes” or “no” vote. For example, communities which have been disrupted by immigration have cause to be concerned, but communities will always be disrupted by one thing or another: they cannot remain static if there is to be progress. The decline of heavy industries is a much bigger factor in this respect. And those who complain that workers from abroad are taking their jobs might remember Auf Wiedersein, Pet, the popular 1970s TV programme featuring Brits who were obliged to find work in Germany. The free movement of labour works both ways: it started when the Romans brought craftsmen to Britain to build their forts and villas and continues with those who take the Eurostar train, crossing international borders to work where there is demand for their skills.

Immigration also introduces cultural diversity. Whether this is a good thing or not depends upon whether you view elements of other cultures as having potential to enrich what we already have. And since what we already have – and have had for milennia – is an evolving pot-pourri of traditions, then adding a few more ingredients to what has developed as a robust and distinctively British mix is merely a continuation of the process. Of course anyone wishing to halt progress on this front may try their luck at The Village Green Preservation Society.

And so, prior to casting one’s vote, it is important to dispel one’s fears, whether they be economic disaster, cultural displacement, Vladimir Putin or Recep Erdogan. For as the philosopher Bertrand Russell observed: "Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of great fear". 

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Papering Over The Cracks?


The other day I visited the William Morris museum at Water House in Walthamstow, where I saw plenty of gorgeous wallpapers and textiles. Just as stimulating, however, was the chance to contemplate Morris’s socio-political philosophy and the apparent paradoxes of his life: while his father’s wealth came from investments in the stock market, Morris himself made his living from writing, designing, manufacturing and retailing, all the while advocating and agitating for Marxist socialism. He didn’t succeed in defeating capitalism but he certainly added significant momentum to the cause of a fair and equitable form of society which is, after all, a constant work in progress.
  
He died, at the age of 62, in 1896 – around the time of the birth of the last known living survivor of the 19th century, news of whom last week prompted stories about the fact that we are living longer. If the current trend is extrapolated, many more people in future can expect to live beyond the age of a hundred and the phrase three score years and ten (surely a euphemism for senescence) will finally become redundant. Life may always be nasty and brutish for many unfortunate humans, but it will no longer be quite as short: in which case we had better get to grips with the quality of it.

Those twenty-somethings who currently find themselves trapped in our dysfunctional capitalist economic system may have seen the glimmer of a benefit to their predicted longevity. While it is a fact that many of them cannot find regular, well-paid employment, decent accommodation or a debt-free future, at least they have more time to sort it out. Why rush to take out a loan to get a degree so that you can search a diminishing job-market for a salary which will enable you to pay back that loan and then take out another loan to buy a gaff? At twenty, you have another 80 years to crack it.

Here’s the thing to do: bide your time. Follow William Morris’s example: live off mum and dad for as long as possible, become politically active and put your efforts into shaping a society that will serve you instead of the other way around. Do not rest until all the international tax havens are put out of business and the border-dodging corporations are made to pay their share of the cost of running society. Don’t forget that all the while robots are making jobs scarcer so your hope of finding one becomes increasingly hopeless. In any case you may never need one: today’s ‘minimum wage’ could soon, if we all push it, become a universal grant – a ‘citizens’ dividend’ – funded by the taxed profits generated by our robotic industries.

There are encouraging signs that youngsters are already making preparations for such a future. An article in the news recently described how, just when you thought it was all over for doorstep deliveries of bottled milk, a revival has been clocked in cities as diverse as East London, Bristol and Sheffield. There is, apparently, a nascent social-conscience-driven backlash against exploitative supermarkets, coinciding with a growing desire for higher-quality food and drink – as also seen in the outbreak of specialist coffee-houses, real ale micro-breweries and artisan bakeries – most of which appear to be the fruits of the labour of young people. Their parents’ generation was responsible for the degradation of foodstuffs: instant coffee, pasteurised beer, industrial bread and the invention of a whole industry called “food manufacturing” – the products of which account for the spread of obesity and diabetes. But the children are starting to take control of their diets. Perhaps today’s young, knowing that they will live longer, have resolved to stay healthier.

And perhaps they will use some of their lengthened lifespan to extend that period of youthful outrage which is a crucial force in the fight for social justice.  William Morris would have.