Saturday, 26 April 2014

So First World

Within a few days we will be moving home, despite the best efforts of two firms of solicitors to obstruct and frustrate our intentions. The new place is more compact than the present one, which means that a fair amount of stuff has been jettisoned from our lives. Far from being an unwanted consequence, this has been a deliberate objective motivated by, among other things, a desire to free ourselves from the tyranny of our possessions, along with some of our assumptions concerning life's priorities. So, rather than choose a place which will accommodate our present situation, we are moving to one which, by virtue of its smaller scale, obliges us to progress towards the new life-style we have been planning: we are rolling the dice once more before hanging the "Dun Trying" sign on our door.

During this process my laptop died, after a protracted yet undiagnosed illness, and I found myself questioning a couple of other things. Like, how did it come to acquire sentient attributes? Surely machines don't die? They break, conk-out, blow-up or simply stop working. Was it possible I had become so attached to it that I had begun to think of it as a pet or a human companion? (It did have a rather attractive dark-red case.) Perhaps I sought to justify all that time we spent together by imagining that it had an interesting personality. And why did I call it a laptop, anyway? I never willingly, or comfortably, perched it on my lap. But that's what we call them. Manufacturers have tried over the years to persuade us that they are notebook computers but, as with mobiles, aka cell-phones, the popular name prevails, pointing up our evocative use of language - a preference for describing objects in terms of what they mean to us rather than in stark terms of their functionality.

But if our laptops and our mobiles are said to have died when their circuits cease to hum, should there not be some bereavement at their passing? Maybe some of us do indulge in a moment or two of ritual mourning - a shrug of the shoulders, a tilt of the head, a brief downturn of the mouth - but it is surely and rapidly overtaken by excited anticipation of the replacement model which is always more powerful, more attractive and more desirable. We are not such fools as to mourn the demise of inanimate objects, but when it comes to their burial we really ought to take things seriously. In my experience it's not so easy to find a willing undertaker for a dead laptop - despite my recent and intimate engagement with the re-cycling infrastructure: charity shops, friends, relatives, ebay, Gumtree and the local council - and we all know by now that you mustn't chuck them into landfill or send them off to poor countries where they will be burned to extract the precious metals at the expense of poisoning the lungs of the salvage workers and releasing unwanted emissions into the atmosphere. After all, we want to save the planet don't we?

Well, yes but here again our use of language distorts the picture: Planet Earth isn’t asking to be saved. And it doesn't care if human beings are here or not. It has survived cataclysmic and catastrophic changes over millions of years, over which time it has been estimated that 99% of all species have come and gone. What we really mean when we speak of saving the planet is saving our environment. Pedantic it may seem, but if more people saw the issue as one of saving themselves, we would probably see increased motivation and commitment actually to do so. And if solicitors saw their clients’ interests as their own.....

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Taxing Issues

When the Government's Culture Secretary resigned last week I was really quite pleased: she was someone in whom I had no reason to be confident and for whom I had developed a personal dislike (based only on her public persona). When her replacement was appointed I was dismayed: his life-experience thus far is not suffused with an informed, authoritative understanding of what he is now charged with nurturing. But the tradition of the amateur manager is at the heart of the British political system so, in that respect, there has been no change. I will do my bit to remedy this at the ballot box when I am next granted the opportunity.

Meanwhile, the little things in life distract me from troubling over big issues. For example, I used to have a perfectly good arrangement with Lovefilm whereby, for a small monthly subscription, they would post me films of my choice on DVDs. It was simple and pleasurable: I liked the anticipation of opening the post box, the satisfaction of an evening's film-watching from the armchair and the smug sense of completion on posting it back. All of this was overturned when Amazon gobbled up Lovefilm, rebranded it Amazon Prime Instant Video and sent me a leaflet which must have been compiled by or for teenagers, since I don't understand what it is telling me. I have cancelled my subscription until such time as I can find a translator for its over-enthusiastic jargon.

Shortly afterwards my computer died, not only putting an end to the resentment which has built up around my paying an annual charge for data back-up in The Cloud but also freeing up some time for me to read the papers. An article which caught my eye was the sale by Southwark Council of a garage in an alleyway for £550,000 - not surprising, given the fast-accelerating property values in the capital, but a marker none-the-less: publicly owned assets being sold into private hands is never good news as it represents short-term gain in the face of declining public provision. In another article I learned that the council tax on a £136 million penthouse in Westminster is less than that for the average family house in Blackburn. But it was a third article, a review of the thesis behind Professor Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century, which helped me to join the dots.

Since the greed of the financial sector was exposed by the collapse in 2008 of its intricately constructed financial 'products', there has been growing debate around the effectiveness of the capitalist economic model to raise the standard of living for the whole of the world's population. Professor Piketty says that not only will it not happen, we will all in fact get poorer - all but the very rich, who will become even richer. The Professor has based his pronouncement on empirical evidence that inequality of wealth is accelerating around the world, undermining both social cohesion and entrepreneurial innovation.

As any determined plutocrat knows (and as Karl Marx pointed out) real wealth lies not in the vagary of employment - no matter how well-paid - but in the ownership of assets and capital. The majority of the population is not only excluded from such ownership but also denied the alternative of a decent wage by the momentum toward monopolisation of capital. Meanwhile the degradation of the public sector continues as it is forced into a fire-sale of its (our) assets. The Professor prescribes the redirection of taxes from income to property as one way to curb capitalism's excesses.

Armed with this insight acquired from an hour spent reading the paper I reckon I could do quite a good job of running the economy. I would be, after all, just as qualified as, say, the Culture Secretary. But I almost forgot: the Government doesn't run the economy, it's the other way around.  

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Gender Specificity

Women endure pain without complaining, whereas men like to let everyone know they are suffering. Generalisations of this kind are complete tosh, of course - until anecdotal evidence pops up to lend them credence, as it did in the case of my partner who, after walking 27 miles a day for five days, acquired so many blisters her feet were in danger of disintegration. Yet she never complained of pain or hinted at capitulation, despite the five more days of walking ahead of her. I cannot confidently claim that I would be as stoical in the circumstances.

With a swell of pride, a nod of admiration and a wince of empathy I watched her hobble off at the start of day six before directing my curiosity at the swarm of motorhomes and campervans which had begun arriving at our campsite. They turned out to be full of enthusiasts of a pursuit I had never previously come across - radio-controlled model yacht racing - and they were gathering for the National Championships about to take place on the adjacent lake.
"Nice boat," I said to a couple of chaps fixing the mast into the hull of their 1.5 metre long pride and joy. "Is that made of carbon fibre?" They looked up from their task - I had caught their attention by admiring their craft and, at the same time, flourishing a scrap of technical knowledge.
"Yes", they beamed.
"It's a very expensive material isn't it?"
They beamed even wider. "That's right. But we don't tell the wife," said one, while the other glanced sideways at a motorhome where a woman could be seen busying herself in the galley.
But I could not hold their interest for long: they probably detected the tone of incredulity in my voice and, besides, their attention was focused on the contest. Although I was tempted - briefly - to stay and watch the start of the racing, they took so long with and were so absorbed in their preparations that I grew restless for the open road. Fully-grown men racing radio-controlled model yachts: who knew?

When I stopped for lunch I made the by now ritual round of phone calls to solicitors and estate agents in order to chivvy along the process of selling our flat and buying another. "This", I said to myself, "is going nowhere (rather like a yacht with a defective radio control). It's time to get a grip on the situation." But my calls always seem to be effective only in irritating everyone - including me - while the process itself remains deadlocked. So deeply ingrained in our legal system is the adversarial mindset that even conveyancing solicitors seem to feel obliged to adopt a 'let's see who blinks first' technique, each side waiting for the other to send documents, then subsequently apportioning blame for the resulting inertia on the other's lack of competence. I was glad to get back to my duties as logistics manager for my partner's walk, in which capacity I could at least be effective.

On day ten she reached her intended destination and, after a celebratory lunch with family and friends, we drove back to Manchester. Once home, my duties were re-defined: I became medical orderly (all those awkward-to-reach creases under the toes) and fetcher/carrier for someone whose feet had quite suddenly become incapable of another step - due, I am sure, to the realisation that her mission had been accomplished. Stoicism, no longer needed, melted away as she went deep into recovery mode. It was then I heard the first expression of pain.
"My feet hurt," she said.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Historical Diversity

At seven a.m. on day seven of Rachel’s walk from Manchester to London via the canal towpaths, she set off across the fields to where she left off yesterday - Bridge 63 over the Grand Union. According to our rough estimate her average progress is 27 miles per day and she should arrive at her intended destination, The Rosemary Branch canalside theatre pub in Islington on Sunday night, after nine days of relentless toe-bashing. Her blistering pace (now I see where the phrase originates) has created extra work for logistical support (me) in the form of medical care. This morning I lanced a blister so swollen that the fluid squirted into her curious face. My daily shopping list now includes plasters as well as food and drink.

But, despite my onerous duties and our rapid transit, I have found some time to appreciate the route itself and the opportunities it presents to experience slices of England’s history at first hand. Through unpopulated farmlands there are stretches of canal which still have the feel of the 18th century about them: the silence of the pre-machine age, the grooves worn by tow-ropes on the edge of a bridge - even the act itself of walking to London evokes a time when travel did not generally involve wheels. Then there are the reminders that canals were built as vital transport for industry: the ancient and often ruined mills, factories and kilns; the abandoned quays and warehouses – the numbers of which demonstrate the huge scale of enterprise during the industrial revolution. At times the railway runs alongside illustrating the fact that technological innovation disrupts status quo. Elsewhere lorries on the motorways thunder close by, in their turn replacing the trains as the preferred means of transport for industry.

Now that we are in Northamptonshire, the Pennine hills at the start of the walk are a distant memory. The terrain has been flat through the Midlands and will remain so until we reach the Chilterns on the outskirts of London. What does change, however, is the colour of the soil and, as if sympathetically, the local accent. I like to think it is no coincidence that the stony soil on the fringe of Manchester is a suitable match for the clipped vowels and abrupt speech patterns of the locals; and as we moved through Cheshire the relaxing of the Northern voice seemed appropriate to the fields of reassuringly dark brown earth. Around Stoke, famous for its clay, I noticed a peculiarly sticky, rounding of the accent which made even large, macho-looking blokes sound slightly camp; the terrain of the West Midlands is particularly flat and dull which, around Droitwich, is reflected in the accent – unenthused and pessimistic sounding, with hints of Brummie; and in Northamptonshire, with its tilled fields of rich, reddish-brown earth, the local accent comes across as relaxed and imbued with the confidence of  a predictably good harvest.

Nor is it really true that all towns are now the same. Along with their traditional patterns of speech, some retain a good proportion of the buildings and layouts that formed them in the first place. In many of the High Streets it is evident which towns evolved from rural markets as opposed to industry and, despite the omnipresent national retail outlets, there are local names lingering nostalgically over the offices of solicitors and estate agents.  On the outskirts they do all look the same: but when you are in a hurry and in need of a supermarket, there is some satisfaction in that. No responsible logistics support person has time for searching out local organic produce in specialist shops.

I would like to tour the shires of England in a more leisurely fashion one day but, for now, I must make haste to the next rendezvous. I phoned to book a pitch for tomorrow night near Iver in Buckinghamshire: the lady sounded awfully like The Queen.