Saturday, 27 June 2015

Revelation in Rochdale

I met a couple of refugees yesterday - in Rochdale. I knew as soon as I saw the elderly-but-sprightly couple walking ahead of me that they were displaced persons. Unlike the workaday folk of Rochdale, they were smartly dressed in traditional summer clothes and accessorised - he with a Panama hat and walking stick, she with a pashmina and trendy rucksack - in an expeditionary sort of way.  They were obviously en route for the same destination as me - the tiny museum on Toad Lane comprising the original store of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, established in 1844.

The small rooms encourage intimacy so we soon got talking and the pair told me their story. Originally from the area, they left - "as one did" - on account of the relentlessly grim industrial environment. They now live near Oxford (obviously) and had come back - despite the tedious journey - on a sort of pilgrimage to their roots. As if to justify their earlier migration he told me that "just walking through the town we noticed how tall we are compared with the locals" and she said "we saw at least two people with bow-legs. That's a symptom of rickets you know". Despite their escape they seemed pleased to be back, briefly basking in the glory of their ancestors' most famous achievement, the Co-Op. For it was here that the mighty co-operative movement was born, not the brainchild of an elite educated thinker, but of men who laboured in the midst of poverty, ignorance and extortion. They formed a mutual self-help society which traded fairly and paid a cash dividend to members.

170 years later poverty, ignorance and extortion are still commonplace - not just in Rochdale but all over the world. Despite the latter success of the co-operative movement and the efforts of many a philanthropist, the progress of humanity towards a more humane co-existence seems destined to be thwarted by our other instincts - greed and the desire for power. My "refugees" were at the lighter end of the scale - that which is more accurately described as migrant labour: they may have travelled some way culturally but their hardship was not severe. Elsewhere the problem is one of life or death for millions of individuals displaced by corrupt dictatorships, religious or ideologically fanatical militias and fighting over control of resources.

We've become accustomed to news footage of refugees languishing in far-away desert camps and, more recently, making desperate journeys across the Mediterranean to our favourite holiday resorts. The distance may have lulled us into thinking they are someone else's problem but now that we see them boarding the queue of lorries at Calais their plight presents us with an immediate one of our own: how best to help them. The humane thing to do is to accept responsibility for the welfare of these displaced people but, even if we were willing and able to do so, such action would amount to no more than first-aid. The root of the problem is social and economic instability in their home countries and, until this is resolved, there will be fugitives. People are more inclined to stay put if they have a satisfactory life.

The Rochdale Pioneers stood on the shoulders of others who strove to improve the lot of the masses. Chief among these was Robert Owen, hero of Utopian thinkers, who made a fortune in industry and spent it in the pursuit of his ideals. In 1841 he urged governments "in the interest of the human race" to promote "the well-being and happiness of every man, woman and child, without regard to their class, sect, party, country or colour". This is sound advice for tackling the causes of migration but his idea is not as well subscribed as the Co-Op's: perhaps if it incorporated a cash dividend it might be more popular?

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Blooming Anxieties

I feel as if my geraniums are deliberately teasing me. Weeks ago they threw up vigorous-looking flower-stems yet only today, as the summer solstice approaches, are the buds beginning to reveal the secret colour within. On recent journeys 200 miles south of here I have trampled on the discarded pink, red and white petals of blooms past their prime, then had my expectations of a colourful homecoming dashed by my own stubbornly green specimens.

Mindful of the theory that a watched kettle seems never to boil, I've tried a number of distractions, the latest of which was a visit to the cinema to see The Look of Silence  - essential viewing for those who need reminding that human beings are easily persuaded to be cruel to each other. Documentary films such as this are harrowing to watch but I do think a case can be made for introducing them into school curricula via history lessons. How many of us know why - and in what manner - one million Indonesians came to be murdered by their neighbours in 1965-66? No such horror has happened in England since disembowelling heretics came to be considered an unnecessarily harsh method of government. Mind you, our current Home Secretary, keen as she is to ensure that the monitoring of phones should be at the discretion of Ministers of State rather than an independent judiciary, can hardly be trusted to defend the ground gained. She may claim it is necessary for our protection but, as William Pitt long ago explained, "Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves."

Not all my distractions have been cerebral: the white-water rafting session for example. My old friend persuaded me to make up the numbers in his party of reckless adventurers at the National Water Sports Centre for a mid-week splash. It began with a chance to ride around on Segways - those two-wheeled, gyroscopically balanced vehicles you stand on. Yes, there was fun to be had whooshing around in an upright position but, after a while, it began to feel a little bit pointless (and silly) and I was eager to get to the rafting. I should have known, however, that white-water rafting is also pointless and silly: it's just more dangerous, that's all. Our instructor was an earnest lad in his twenties who must have been exasperated by having to nanny men three times his age but he did it with good grace -“Cool, guys!” - and looked genuinely crestfallen when, about two-thirds of the way through the session and after a couple of us had gone overboard; we older members of the crew mutinied and jumped ship. But - “Hey, cool, guys!”  - he carried on with the younger ones while we, taking an early shower, complained to each other of being knackered.

More relaxing was a walk with friends in and around the Ribble Valley - Lancashire's affirmation of England's "green and pleasant" reputation - during which I contemplated a news item which struck a chord with my geranium anxiety: we've always known that spring occurs earlier in the south of England, but now we have research data which indicates that its northward progress averages a speed of 1.9 mph. With this in mind, I am formulating a plan for next year which would free me from bothersome - and sometimes dangerous - distractions: I will walk slowly from the first blooms in Portsmouth to my own in Manchester. If I time it just right my serene progress will be celebrated by an unfurling carpet of blooming geraniums, while my phone would be quietly transmitting geo-location data for the benefit of researchers - and the befuddlement of the Home Secretary.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The Other Half

Last Tuesday I shared a dinner table with friends, acquaintances and strangers. In such a situation it's tempting to ignore the strangers, but that would be rude, lazy and would also exclude the possibility of interacting with people who might bring new ideas and enthusiasms to the table. In any case, it's not so difficult to strike up a conversation: strangers too are looking to interact, though they might be shy of making the first move.

The topic of football soon came up (this is Manchester) and, despite my lack of enthusiasm for sporting events, I was able to contribute something.
"So, the England versus France Women's World Cup qualifier kicked off earlier," I said to the stranger from Rochdale sitting opposite me. "Why does women's football have such a low profile?"
"Because they should all be back 'ome in the kitchen," he replied. His wife did not demur. When a seat became vacant further down the table, I moved to it.

On reflection, I had raised the issue not so much to talk about football as to discuss the marginalisation of women in society: Rochdale man had seen that coming and   counter-attacked promptly. Three days previously I had been at Tate Modern where I had fallen straightaway under the spell of the colourful compositions of Sonia Delaunay (wife of the more famous Robert Delaunay). She is described as "One of the pioneers of abstraction and a central figure of the Paris avant-garde" yet I had not previously heard of her - not that I am so knowledgeable about art, but her contribution would seem to have deserved wide cultural acknowledgement.

Sonia Delaunay went to art school in 1904 at the age of 19 and worked until her death in 1979. During her lifetime "women's lib" came and went, yet she had already fought the battle and shown she could win. Recognition, however, followed much later. In this she is not alone: the expectation that those in the limelight (men) would actively encourage women to share it is akin to expecting turkeys to vote for Christmas. Education, of course, is the essential requirement for those who strive against such oppression, a fact which has always been understood by those who are jealous of their control over others: withholding education is still a primary technique they employ, fundamental religionists being the most blatant practitioners.

It may seem, on casual observance, that so-called Western societies are well beyond the stage of active suppression of women but this is only partly true. Like an iceberg, the attractive part is visible but the ugly part remains submerged and ready to do damage. Considering that it was as long ago as 1792 that Mary Wollstonecraft published her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women, progress towards equality has been slow and painful. The first women's suffrage society was formed in 1865 (in Manchester, of course) and, although women of means and from liberal families began to acquire education around that time, they remained politically disenfranchised. There were some men who took up the cause, notably John Stuart Mill who advocated their enfranchisement but, ironically, the most powerful woman in the world at the time, Queen Victoria, was implacably opposed to it: the status quo is a stubborn adversary.

The policy of restricting women to the kitchen is counter-productive: having half the human race unable to contribute to society outside of the home must be a hindrance to human development. Men may be protective of their positions and egos but they will ultimately be subverted. As the man said when I asked for the boss that time, "Would you like to speak to the man in charge, or the woman who knows what's going on?"

Sonia Delaunay

Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Far-Flung UK

They say there’s no place like home but it’s good to leave it behind occasionally - a change of circumstance has long been recommended as a way to re-boot. So, right now, we’re in the Western Highlands of Scotland for a week of hiking, reading and eating the local cattle. And, anticipation being as much a part of the enjoyment as the trip itself, I prepared this one thoroughly, making sure that the campervan was in good working order, examining maps and constructing an outline schedule. The timing of the trip was also important because the midges which infest the region - and whose raison d’etre is to torment humans - become active in the summer months: I was hopeful that the first days of June might be too early for them.

The route took us through Glasgow, where the schedule allowed a day to wander around its centre. It’s not my first visit, but what struck me more this time was the grandeur of its main streets. I want places to be as distinct from one another as possible - if they’re not it rather diminishes the thrill of visiting them - and Glasgow, to some extent and notwithstanding the trappings of the heritage industry, retains a feel distinctly its own. It’s evident partly in the architecture and partly in the zeitgeist and it’s not hard to see why the Scots feel the swelling pride of independence when they have a city such as this. Whether full national independence is viable, however, is still in debate: a walk down Buchanan Street, populated overwhelmingly as it is by the same high-end retail brands which are found in English cities, brings home the inescapable ubiquity of international economics.

The course of the road to the West Highlands and beyond is dictated by topography and getting from A to B can be circuitous. But there is much pleasure to be had in driving the relatively empty roads which snake through the mountainous terrain. (There must be a long waiting list to become a Tesco delivery driver around here.) It’s ideal motorhome country – a place where we can live the freewheeling dream - and there are plenty of campsites where watching (and occasionally interacting with) fellow campers is all part of the fun. From the comfort of our modest campervan I observe intrepid types pitch their tiny tents on sodden patches of grass; I look on as less hardy types roll up in enormous vehicles which would be more suitable as accommodation for film stars on a shoot; and I ponder the ironies of caravans named Odyssey, Pursuit and Challenger whose owners look to have come to the end of their journey, are past the stage where they want to pursue anything other than the next meal and whose ultimate challenge is attaching the awning to the side of the van.

Lovely as it is, I wouldn’t want to live here permanently: for the inhabitants of these tiny, scattered communities visits to the cinema or theatre must be very rare events. Good cappuccino, however, is to be had at The Mountain Coffee Co. overlooking Loch Gairloch, where coffee, cakes and scones are offered along with books and gee-gaws in a comfortably shabby interior full of found furniture and climbing paraphernalia. With its vaguely Buddhist ethos and nostalgic playlist there’s an appropriate feel of “dun-climbing” about the place.

Three years ago we toured this area during a week of unbroken sunshine. This time around the weather is “mixed” which means cool, wet and windy for the most part. Bad weather, however, always looks worse through a window and, while we have not had any picnics on the Munros, we have enjoyed some yomping through the great outdoors. As for the midges, there have been very few: either I timed it right or they are just weather-wimps.

Borderline Fantasy

Is it in Britain's best interests to be an enthusiastic member of the EU? This is a question which cannot properly be answered until "Britain's best interests" have been defined and agreed upon. Personally, I'm frustrated and disappointed by the overwhelming emphasis being put on trade as the pivotal factor in determining the argument. I would like to see fuller consideration given to humanitarian principles and for them to be placed at the forefront of the debate. We can expect our business leaders (hired hands of the corporations) and politicians (factional lobbyists) to bang on about economic benefits, but they should be reminded that a driving factor in the founding of the EU was a humanitarian reaction to the two World Wars which had been caused by fractious European states. With this in mind, I am prepared to embrace almost anything - even the Eurovision Song Contest - as an alternative to parochial and potentially lethal nationalistic rivalry.

I wouldn't argue that nation states are a bad thing in themselves but I am prepared to question their underlying assumptions. Some of the principles upon which they have been founded are no longer valid, especially clear now in the Middle East where religious and cultural differences have emerged to challenge national borders previously imposed by force. For example, the one thing that ISIL and I agree upon is the questionable validity of the border between Syria and Iraq. But ISIL is repeating the historical mistake of imposing borders forcibly and, to make matters worse, it is invoking a supernatural deity as justification for its barbaric methods.
ISIL may claim to be motivated by religious zeal but I am sceptical: organised religion has always been a powerful institutional tool for controlling the behaviour of populations and once you have control of a population you have wealth and influence. It has been said that "You can be sure you have created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do" and the carnage resulting from religious hatred is as evident today as it ever was in, say, medieval Europe. Religious homogeneity may form the basis of a nation state - as it does in Saudi Arabia, where citizenship is predicated on being Muslim - but the concurrence is too much of a coincidence to convince me that states don't deliberately harness the power of religious belief to their advantage. In the words of another sceptic, "Where there is a duty to worship the sun, it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat".

Consensus is the best way of defining a national entity because it is a sounder base for peaceful harmony. Today, in Britain, our Monarch and Defender of The Faith proceeded in a gilded coach to the Houses of Parliament where she announced the proposals of "her" newly installed government. Fortunately for us, her subjects (not citizens, note), this is largely pantomime: the Government is not effectively "hers" and there's scant consensus as to which faith it is she's defending, why and from whom. Consensus does exist, however - for now, at least - as to what constitutes the nation known as Britain. But to think of this as an end-point would be ridiculous. Everything moves on: hegemonies shift as power slips away or is defeated; resources get depleted; and populations migrate. Given that change is inevitable, it is prudent to consider one's nationality as of secondary importance to one's humanity. And given the vulnerability of humanity, it is prudent to form alliances. In Britain's case it would be folly to spurn an alliance - a federation, even - with Europe.  We need all the friends we can get, especially if we are to stand any chance at all of winning the next Eurovision Song Contest.