Saturday, 12 March 2016

The View From The Barber's Chair

On Wednesday morning I sat in the barber’s chair listening to Radio 1’s tribute to the late George Martin, the Beatles’ producer. Two months previously, in that same chair, it had been David Bowie’s tribute I had heard and, since both men had been significant in my life, it was beginning to feel as if the chair was some kind of vantage point from which to mark the passing of the heroes of my youth. Perhaps, I thought, I could time future haircuts purposely to coincide with the deaths of others of my era and, as I watch the scissored grey hair fall around me, reflect on who goes next: me or Bob Dylan?

I don’t know that the barber himself feels the same way about it: the little he says is confined to nuggets of his personal life - holidays, football matches etc. - that he looks forward to as distractions from his despair at what he sees as the breakdown of society, his stock reaction to which is a disconsolate shake of the head. Actually I was in the mood to empathise with him, having just returned from a couple of days in the Lake District where the snow-capped peaks looked magnificent against the cold but brilliant blue skies. In such surroundings it is natural to feel that all is well with the world and to make believe that that our minority-elected Government is not really intent on destroying society and appropriating all wealth on behalf of an elite few; that the E.U. is not really about to outsource its refugee management problem to a ruthless Turkish dictator; and that Americans are not really serious about electing Donald Trump (a dictator-in-waiting) as President and Commander in Chief.

The distraction of the pretty Lakeland landscape was powerful but short-lived. A reality check came with the realisation that, although it was out-of-season, the car park machines still charged a small fortune, while the toilet facilities which are thereby funded were boarded up on the spurious grounds of being “vulnerable to frost”. Then, over a cup of vile, brown liquid sold as espresso and charged at city prices, the metaphor for life under capitalism appeared all too plain: allow yourself to become captivated and you become a captive customer.

I am getting some historical context on power politics by reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys, the man whose famous diary is fascinating because it records not only the picaresque details of his daily life, but also the political currents in which he swam. Pepys, as was common in 17th Century England, relied on patronage for his living and, to his good fortune, had some useful family connections plus the will and intelligence to exploit them to the full. As a young man he lived through the civil war and saw the execution of King Charles 1st, the rise and unexpected demise of the increasingly dictatorial Oliver Cromwell and the power struggle that ensued. A form of democracy with a small degree of enfranchisement emerged from these events but real power resided with landowners and their agents, the legal system and state-enshrined religion, for centuries afterwards. Now that they have largely waned we should not imagine that egalitarianism has won the day. Multinational corporations are our new masters and, as a logical extension of this reality, Donald Trump and his like will be our new leaders: unless we are very careful.

And, of course, where America leads, Britain nowadays follows. It won’t be Sir Richard Branson or Sir Alan Sugar - they are relatively nice guys - but there will be a corporate contender with a fascist agenda that the by-then impoverished masses will be desperate to elect as a saviour. When this happens I can just see my barber shaking his head in despair. “The Times They Are A-Changin”, I will say.

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