Saturday, 3 October 2015


Having just spent three weeks touring Canada - well, a small part of British Columbia and an even tinier part of Alberta, actually - I am more convinced than ever of the value of preserving cultural diversity. While grateful that the lingua franca, English, was convenient for me, I note that it came at the cost of the annihilation of most of the aboriginal peoples and their 230 languages, to be replaced by the ecological disaster that is global capitalism. Having said that, there are things to enjoy that are uniquely Canadian and the Government does allocate some resources to the preservation and restoration of the environment and to the remnants of the cultures of the First Nations.

As a young man I was once on the verge of emigrating to Canada, tempted by a promotional film which featured all its natural beauty in “glorious” Technicolor and a commentary which emphasised opportunities to prosper on the back of abundant resources - timber, fish, minerals etc. In the end I didn’t follow in the wake of pioneering Brits such as those who left clues to their origins in place names like Didsbury, Tweedsmuir and the Birkenhead River, or those who, more sensitively, stuck with the exotic-sounding native names like Squamish, or those who imaginatively named Muleshoe and the Kicking Horse River. Instead I turned up years later, as a tourist, to see what became of the country I might have helped to shape.

After a few days in the impressive city of Vancouver (which, apparently, is regarded as Hicksville by residents of Toronto) we picked up a campervan and headed towards the coast, the mountains and the valleys - a tall order in a continent which has more of these features than you might possibly imagine. We soon found that in the land of monster trailers and RVs our modest, European-style campervan was something of a curiosity: one Park Ranger was incredulous and asked what it was like to drive a vehicle that didn’t have a 5.5 litre engine. My answer was diplomatically calibrated so as not to give offence by making us sound like invading eco-warriors. Small it may have been, but the van was loaded with so much electrical gadgetry that it would have been impossible to ‘camp’ in it without a 30 amp hook-up: even the bed could not be made up without pressing a button. No problem: the region is awash with fully-serviced RV campgrounds and it’s easy to see why. The great outdoors beckons big-time in this part of the world: it’s vast and beautiful. The tourist industry is geared to it, each centre vying to out-outdoor the next. Whistler, famed for staging the 2010 winter Olympics without snow, is a sophisticated resort, but drive further north and you come to Pemberton - strapline, “the real outdoors”  - and, further still, you reach Lilooet  which is "guaranteed rugged!”

But nature on such a scale is not without danger: on the coast near Tofino we noted the road-signs for the tsunami escape route; in the mountains there were warnings of bears, cougars and moose; in the forests there were graphics indicating levels of fire-risk; and on the roads there were regulations concerning snow-chains, winter tires and mandatory seasonal route closures. We experienced only fine weather, fortunately. And, although we saw a bear ambling along a railway track, a whale to starboard of our ferry, a coyote slinking through the bushes, a marmot and a great many tiny black squirrels, none of them appeared threatening. Nor did we encounter any dangerous Canadians: those we interacted with were invariably polite and always urged us to “have a great day” - even the lady ‘flaggers’ at the numerous road-works gave instructions smilingly - particularly the one who was smoking a joint.

Canada is too big to explore in three weeks but just think: if King George III had played his hand more adroitly, it might have been even bigger.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Marriage: Be Careful What You Wish For

It began last Sunday, a warm summer’s evening deep in the English countryside, where the whiff of money mingles with the sweet scent of new-mown hay and no immigrant has ventured since the Norman invasion. The rural quietude was invaded by the sound of a prop-driven aircraft performing an aerobatic display above the fields, trailing smoke to draw the outline of a heart in the clear, dusking sky. It had been commissioned to make a very public statement of one couple’s love for each other on the occasion of their wedding party and it marked the start of a week during which the custom and practice of marriage has dominated my thoughts.

The next evening I caught up with the film Wild Tales (Spoiler Alerts!), a series of short stories, one of which is about a big wedding party at which the bride discovers her husband’s recent infidelity. She reacts immediately and without restraint, causing the guests a good deal of discomfort - or entertainment, depending on their point of view. The havoc she wreaks on the party is considerable but, in confronting her disillusion head-on and at the beginning of the marriage, she may just have salvaged the relationship. In contrast, the next film I saw, 45 Years, depicts the devastating effect on a wife who realises, after 45 years of marriage, that she was second choice to the woman her husband had always loved but had been unable to marry. In the first film there is hope that the marriage might endure because the skeleton is out of the cupboard, in the latter it is too late to make amends: both ask the question - what are peoples’ expectations of marriage?

Why do people get married? For a variety of reasons, I’m sure: one can only hope they know which ones. The contract of marriage was conceived, originally, as a way of keeping possession of property: it was an alliance, arranged so that land and other assets would remain within a defined family structure - a system which was useful for medieval landowners, who ensured that it was tightly underwritten by laws (which they created) and sanctified by their clergy so as to put the fear of God into dissenters. That love played any part in this process is unlikely.

The next film I saw, Gett, depicts a woman locked into a loveless marriage and undertaking a ten-year long struggle in religious courts to persuade her husband to grant her a divorce. The film is agonising to watch and the message is clear: the institution of marriage is fundamental to the maintenance of a strictly prescribed social structure. The wife’s responsibility is to cook and procreate. Those who uphold this system have no interest in allowing individual cases of human misery to undermine it.

All this while I have been reading Colm Toibin’s novel Norah Webster which looks at the plight of a woman widowed in her forties. It describes the way in which she copes with the loss of the husband she loved and how she subsequently cares for the children. Living, as she does, in the rural and very Catholic Ireland of the 1950s she has sympathy and support - as long as she abides by the rules. Having finished it, I picked up a novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Published in 1956, the first chapter introduces us to a newly engaged couple, part of a wealthy London set. The novel is called In the Long Term and, assuming this refers to the marriage, I am very interested to see how it fares.

And this evening I shall be at an actual wedding party where, whatever the hopes and expectations of the bride and groom, I shall be content to feast on the buffet, knock back the booze and wish them well.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land

Not so long ago the news footage on our TV screens featured migrants storming the border between the USA and Mexico. Now it shows migrants at our own border and it is not so easy to distance ourselves from the images. Nor should we: migration is an age-old phenomenon, it is universal and inevitable as long as its causes - war, persecution, poverty and famine - persist. Migrants are mostly desperate people. As Bob said, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” And so they are coming to Europe, notwithstanding the obstacles in their way.

Europe is a politically stable region with a huge economy and vast resources but it should be remembered that its riches were acquired largely by colonial exploitation. Furthermore, the turmoil now rampant in Africa and the Middle East is due, at least in part, to the legacy it has left in these regions. Europe - and Britain is a part of Europe - may not be able to undo the damage it has done but it could and should make amends by alleviating the symptoms. Some countries - Germany and Sweden, for example - appear more willing to accept the recent swell of immigrants than others, notably Britain, whose reluctance is shameful given the prominent part we have played in its causation. So why are we afraid of accepting immigrants? Here are some of the populist objections.

We are a small, overcrowded island. This perception is heightened by the fact that most of us live in cities, many of which seem crowded because their infrastructure has not kept pace with growth. High-density occupation is an inherent - and desirable - feature of cities: it is actually economically beneficial, provided it is well planned and managed. The real problem is that it is not.

Immigrants take our jobs. Jobs only exist where there is economic activity. Immigrants, having no cause for complacency, have an illustrious record of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurial activity creates a bigger economy which in turn creates more jobs for the increased population. Jobs are created as well as “taken”. And we need a bigger working, wealth-generating population to balance the demographics of our ageing population.

Our education system is overwhelmed. The children of immigrants consistently achieve higher educational qualifications than their “native” counterparts and, in doing so, are not only less disruptive in the classroom but also more likely to become net contributors to the economy.

Our social services are under strain. Social services are provided locally but funding is controlled centrally. This contradictory system will never work efficiently. Central Government should let go of this control and allow Local Authorities to allocate resources as appropriate.

Immigrants destroy our culture. If this were true then I would be worried - there is much to treasure and admire in our culture. But there is also a huge residue of prejudice, misconception and ignorance accumulated as a result of historical hogwash and jingoistic insularity. The introduction of other cultures presents an opportunity for cross-fertilisation. Because culture is a process, not an object, integration does not dilute: it enriches and enhances.

Immigrants change the nature of localities. Yes, nothing stays the same: get over it.

The plight of the refugees fleeing violence, death and destruction presents us with an opportunity, as John Buchan put it, to “pay our debt to the past by putting the future in debt to ourselves” but the main obstacle to this humanitarian approach is politics. The accommodation of refugees is a relatively short-term issue but eradicating the drivers of migration is a question for the long-term - and politicians don’t embrace the long-term until they have retired from office. There is no chance that our government will say or do anything helpful to the situation until its electorate insists otherwise.

“This land is your land and this land is my land, sure, but the world is run by those that never listen to music anyway.” (Bob Dylan)

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Another Freudian Slip

When it comes to museums, there are some I have never been inclined to visit, the Pencil Museum in Kendal being one. I have passed its door many times knowing that I can learn the history of Kendal’s pencil manufacturing industry at any time by reading it up - should I ever feel the urge to do so. I may feel differently, however, the next time I’m in the area because, having recently been to the Robert Owen museum, Keats House and the Sigmund Freud Museum - all of them small, specialised collections - I am beginning to appreciate the value of immersing oneself physically in a subject. It’s about engaging the senses in the learning experience and conjuring up that magical quality - atmosphere.

Besides, reading up a subject is easily postponed - sometimes indefinitely - especially in the case of Freud. His theories and practices are famous but, for the layman at least, understood only at a superficial level and, like many complex disciplines, liable to be parodied in the process of popularisation. Nevertheless, surrounded as I was by all things Freud, I became conscious of my subconscious and found it impossible to resist indulging in a little self-psychoanalysis. That dream which features my appearance on stage wearing nothing but a vest: is it really about wish fulfilment? If so, should I sign up for a few sessions on the couch? But no: the damage was done so long ago that it’s too late or too pointless to bother with repairing it. Searching through my earliest memories I recall peering over the side of a ship into the deep green ocean. When, soon after, in my first year of school I painted a picture of a ship on a green sea, the teacher ridiculed me by insisting that the sea is blue. That never-to-be-forgotten humiliation is surely responsible for my enduring artistic inhibition - and my fear of being seen without trousers.

On a more positive note, however, the experience may also have catalysed in me a strong empathy for the tender and impressionable state of infancy. Whenever I see a toddler I think back to that teacher who sought to modify my impressions of the world - despite the fact that she had apparently never gazed into the deep green ocean. Whatever children experience is reality for them. One former child to whom I’m related has just turned eighteen. I first met him on the day he was born and have taken an interest in his progress ever since, encouraging him occasionally to assert his independent view of the world (taking care not to subvert his parents’ hopes). By happy coincidence I was present this week when his father took the three of us to the pub so that his son could ceremonially buy his first round of pints - legally that is. What happened subsequently will probably scar the young man for life.

The bar was busy and we had to wait our turn. When an opening appeared I acted instinctively and caught the barmaid’s eye.
“Three pints of Summer Ale, please”, I shouted. Father and son were talking but, as the barmaid started to pull the pints they looked up and realised that I had spoilt the occasion by calling the order out of turn. My apologies were grudgingly accepted.
“Think of it as one of life’s lessons”, I continued. “You need to be assertive at a busy bar.”
Our first-timer looked unhappy at this unwanted lesson but, I rationalised, he will at least have a story to tell the next generation of legal first-rounders. Besides, as Freud might have said (but didn’t) “It’s a shallow life that doesn’t give a person a few scars.”

Saturday, 15 August 2015

A Window Of One's Own

It’s hard to remember what life used to be like without a PC and an internet connection. How did I find time to do all those chores like banking, application forms and research? I suppose everything just took longer, in which case I should nowadays have more time to spare for loafing about. Strangely, however, that does not seem to be the case. In accordance with Parkinson’s Law, the spare capacity has become filled with other stuff. What’s worse is, despite no longer having to queue at the Post Office to renew the TV licence and road tax, little of the time saved has been dedicated to the causes of philanthropy or self-improvement - one needs a steely determination for that: mostly it’s been squandered on online shopping, interactive social media and software-management. And while I would never blame others for my weakness in the face of temptation, in the case of software I feel entitled to some help.
The last few weeks have seen the launch of Windows 10, the latest version of an operating system for Microsoft-driven PCs. I signed up and was duly upgraded from Windows 8 which, by general accord, had been proven to be counter-intuitive, difficult to navigate, frustrating and time-consuming. Microsoft, realising that frustrated customers are likely to become ex-customers, decided to fix the problem by re-designing the operating system so that it is less gimmicky and more practical. Behind this exercise lies the principle that the system should mimic the way our brains work and, in this respect, they are making some progress. When, for example, we want to find a file it is useful to see a symbol of a file prominently displayed on the screen. But a more ambitious feature - speaking a request instead of typing it - has some way to go: when I asked “Where is the Sigmund Freud museum?” the response was “I have no results for the Sigmund Floyd museum”. My diction or theirs?
But brains don’t all work in the same way - our cranial operating systems are individually developed and honed for navigation through the complexities of whatever lives we experience. We start as infants, pressing the virtual keys of life randomly to see what will happen; we progress through childhood, exploring their functions in a more purposeful way; as teenagers we focus intensely on just a few of those functions; as adults we broaden or strengthen our interests until, in old age, we are in a position to refine them by ditching those we are disillusioned with, tired of or no longer capable of pursuing.
The Windows 10 operating system, impressive as it is, takes insufficient account of this progression. When it loads for the first time the screen fills up with gaming apps and entertainment gizmos that may be crucial to some users but are of secondary importance to others. Yes, it is possible to “personalise your Windows experience” by changing the background theme and wallpaper, but I’m sure those clever people who write the code could do better than that. What I would like to see is an operating system that comes ready-tailored so that I don’t have to spend quite so much time fathoming out what X-box is and why I don’t need it - which would leave more time for my preferred interests.
How about a version of Windows with my name on it? Surely all that’s required is some input from me - date of birth, sexual orientation, cultural and educational background, degree of curmudgeonliness, inclination to pedantry, aversion to light classical music etc. - for the developers to make my OS fully bespoke? They could include, for example, the latest Saga app which could be continuously and automatically updated as I get older: font sizes would increase, healthcare apps would be introduced to remind me of doctors’ appointments and medication schedules. I might finally get some quality loafing time - as long as I can resist the ensuing bombardment of precisely targeted advertising, that is.