Birthday

June 19, 2012

Restless BedThe night before my niece was born was restless; sleep came fitfully. I later compared how I felt to waiting for Christmas: too many thoughts were echoing through my head to allow rest to fully descend. My tussle with slumber ended when the dawn’s first light poked through my bedroom window. As I got out of bed, I heard a distant sound like footsteps on the staircase. I mused, was that my sister and her husband making their way through the house? It seemed a bit early. Nevertheless, I imagined my brother in law taking my sister’s hand and gently guiding her down to the front door. Then I could envisage him putting her brown leather suitcase into the back of the silver rental pickup truck. It’s a rather unusual vehicle for conveying my niece and sister: when he rented it, I wondered if there would be time to put a gun rack in the back and if one pressed on the horn, it would whistle “Dixie”.

The noise actually came from the air conditioning softly clattering as it switched on. Apart from that, the house was quiet. I descended to the kitchen and switched on the small LCD television in the corner of the room. I checked the news; I thought I may as well look at the world that my niece is coming into. I set the coffee maker to run: it ground the beans and then sucked water through its plastic and metal innards, making bubbling and gurgling sounds in the process. The heady aroma of Hawaiian Kona coffee soon filled the room. The news stated that Greek election ended with something like a conclusion. Pro-bailout parties will form a government, do their best to adhere to the conditions of their financial assistance but probably fail anyway. The problem, I thought, is that the Greeks need a greater change than what they will likely receive, namely, they need to leave the Euro. They also need institutions they can trust which will bring the economy out of the darkness. This won’t happen. Worse, it is absolutely appalling that the Greek Nazis, the Golden Dawn party, managed to maintain their vote share: 18 freshly minted MPs who moonlight as jackbooted thugs. My thought was, “Sort your lives out, don’t you know what day it is?” My niece deserves to live in a Europe that isn’t littered with such refuse.

Nevertheless, the news carried on with further entries from its miserable litany: Spanish bond yields were going up. Europe is still strangled by recession. Our political leaders seem more interested in momentary advantage than the interests of the nations they serve. Some of our business luminaries seem to think Windows 8 on tablets is a good idea. I sat at the table and sipped my coffee. I thought, we adults have done a terrible job in arranging matters for those who follow us. We succumbed to foolishness, not just once, but often. We seem unable to break out of our love affair with nonsense. We embrace the ephemeral at the expense of the truth. The bills for this folly are so great that it will be beyond my generation’s power to pay them all. My niece will pay too. Perhaps her children will also have to pay.

My reverie was interrupted by my sister entering the kitchen. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt: the shirt was brown and emblazoned with the motto, “Keep Calm and Carry On”, the legend neatly outlining her protruding baby bump. I looked at her.

“I thought this was an appropriate motto for today,” she explained. I couldn’t help myself, I burst out laughing and said, “Wonderful!” I snapped a picture and put it up on Facebook. My brother in law arrived; he wore a dark shirt and trousers. He told my sister that it was time to go. She nodded; he led her out the door as he held her hand.

“See you at the hospital!” he called over his shoulder.

I took a shower. I got changed. I’m a new uncle and a suitably eccentric one: I wore a short sleeve shirt, a pair of black jeans and grey trainers. To protect my head, I wore a Barcelona FC cap. I slung my iPad case over my shoulder and along with my parents was swiftly out the door.

The maternity ward in my sister’s chosen hospital was entitled the “New Life Centre”. I found my aunt and her partner waiting for us, both were happy but had that slightly frazzled quality that comes from persistent overwork. Hugs were distributed as the golden sunlight blazed through the plate glass windows. I looked out and saw that the skies were a perfect blue.

We sat and talked a while as we waited. My aunt, a nurse, informed me that whooping cough was making a comeback: as we sat there, my mother rang her doctor and arranged for me to get a vaccine booster. Whooping cough, I said, sounded like one of those 1930′s diseases that one had hoped medical science had vanquished. No, my aunt replied, people coming from Mexico where immunisation was less prevalent had carried it across the border; the disease was back. Best to get the shot. I’ll go on Wednesday.

Other families were in the same room as we. Fathers and grandparents went in and out of the delivery ward. One young father wore a Yankees baseball cap as he entered the ward. One red haired middle aged gentleman wearing a bright yellow polo shirt burst out after his grandchild was born and told us, “There’s nothing like it!”

My family and I ate cinnamon scones and talked about the baby. Nine months seemed like simultaneously an eternity and an all too brief time. The clock ticked on: the hands marked an hour after my sister had gone in. Then it was an hour and a half. At long last, the first of the doctors emerged: this was our extraordinary paediatrician who had looked after me when I was small and had been present at my sister’s birth. He had ostensibly retired, but couldn’t resist seeing one of the children he had helped into adulthood have a child herself. His kind brown eyes were lit up with happiness. He had taken a photo of my sister, her husband and their new daughter just after the procedure and e-mailed it off. I saw it on my iPad: my sister looked tired but happy, my brother in law looked elated, the baby had her eyes shut and her mouth open, crying out as if she couldn’t understand who all these people were and why she had to leave her quiet, warm cocoon. Our paediatrician was closely followed by the surgeon. He beamed and said that the baby was healthy, everything had gone well: my niece had entered the world with a yell, apparently.

“She could sing Aida,” the surgeon stated.

We then had to wait for my sister and niece to come out of recovery. As we sat, another pregnant woman came into the room; she had dark, curly hair and pale brown skin. Her tight facial expressions and the way she moved made it clear that she was in severe discomfort, most likely due to labour pains. Strangely, she was given forms to fill out before anything else happened: she worked on them slowly. She told the receptionist she needed to use the restroom. She was not offered a wheelchair in order to get her to the bathroom: only her sister helped her as she struggled, though my aunt offered to assist. All the time, the staff were more focused on doing administrative work. I wondered: is this nonsense born out of the necessity to protect the finances of the hospital or the insurance company? Does it arise out of the hospital’s need to ensure all its processes are pristine to prevent lawsuits? Shouldn’t medicine be mostly about the patient? Why was that woman particularly ill treated?

My sister and niece are fortunate; with excellent doctors and persistent parents and grandparents they can overcome all other hurdles. But this isn’t the experience that everyone has; I wonder how much priority that other woman got. She did not protest, she was in too much pain: perhaps on the other side of the delivery room door, things improved. I doubt it. The inequity of medical care in America means that some, like my sister, can get care that rivals the best in the world. Most, however, have to do with the scraps that fall from the table.

Infant Hand Reaching OutEventually, my brother in law emerged. It’s rare that one sees a look of pure transcendence settle on someone’s face, but he had it. It was if his eyes were focused on a point in his daughter’s future which we could not see. He invited us in. Beyond the delivery room door, my niece awaited, propped up by the nurse in her clear glass basin. Her little shoulders were adorned with small striped blankets; seated there, it was rather like she was holding court with us. She was impossibly tiny. She tried to open her eyes and look around. She alternated between periods of quiet and crying. The world was all so confusing. She sneezed for the first time: she scared herself in the process. She cried. It was a powerful reminder of how frail our beginnings are: we come out with a few instincts but knowing nothing. A sneeze is something commonplace to the adult or child, but to the newborn it is frightening until proven otherwise. All she had was the warm hand of the nurse behind her, a grip on her father’s hand, and these tall shapes surrounding her in the dim light, speaking in warm tones, telling her she was beautiful and we were so glad to see her.

She continued to struggle, trying to look us up and down. As I looked back at her, I realised that I was radical before, but now having seen that little face and her earliest efforts to understand what was going on around her, I not only want a far better world for her than the one we have at the moment, I demand it.

After a bit of a wait, my sister and my niece were taken up to their peach coloured room in the maternity ward: it overlooks the hospital parking lot, which is surrounded by trees and was in prime position for the afternoon sunlight. I got to hold my niece in my arms; she was so light, her tiny little hands reached out of the blanket towards my face. I found that all the stories about newborn babies having a unique and pleasant smell were true. She blinked, her large eyes having trouble focusing. I wanted to tell her that everything lay ahead: life would be fulfilling and wonderful. I made do with softly saying her name and telling her that everything was all right. Later, I got to see her smile for the first time. My understanding is that this was a sign she may have been passing gas.

My last impression before I left for the day was a rather simple one: my sister lay in bed, holding the baby. My brother in law gently embraced both of them, and they, in turn, held him. It dawned on me that what happened this day was more profound than any cliché about the circle of life taking another turn, rather, their family had once had an empty place. Now it was filled. Now that my niece was there, their lives were complete: they needed little else besides togetherness. Leave it to the crazy uncles to mount Rocinante, go forth and charge at windmills: mother and father and baby are at peace. As the sun sets and the house falls quiet again and the earth sleeps, that’s really all that seems to matter.

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Letter to My Niece

June 17, 2012

My dear Niece,

An Empty CribI am writing this letter to you on the day prior to your birth while sitting in your grandparents’ kitchen. This June 17 is perhaps an unremarkable day in many respects: the sun is inconsistent, I can hear the birds singing to each other in a high pitched tone out in the yard. The multitude of flowers that your grandparents have planted in their garden are in full bloom, a riot of purple, orange, pale pink, yellow and red. The rich smell of freshly baked scones is wafting from the oven; your grandmother is now preparing chicken for dinner, the sharp scents of lemon and soy sauce indicative of it being ready to roast in the oven.

Earlier, your grandparents and I went out and found that this neighbourhood is just as much at peace as this house. The trees along this road are in full leaf, adding a softness to the houses they shelter. A neighbour across the way said hello and wished your mother well for tomorrow. Another neighbour walked his dog, albeit the fluffy white and brown puppy was more preoccupied with something buried in the deep green grass than taking a constitutional. Overall, this is a quiet, friendly town. I cannot imagine a better place for your first experience of home: it’s tranquil here and you will be surrounded by people who love you.

As I write this, your mother is lying upstairs, sleeping. We talked about you last night while sitting around the same kitchen table at which I type this letter: we remarked how simultaneously wonderful and strange it is that soon, so soon, there will be a whole new person in our lives, a member of the cast who will just appear on stage and alter the entire course of the play. We’ve all tried to prepare for it: yesterday, your mother and father demonstrated for me a new toy that you’ll shortly be receiving. It is a soft purple mat adorned with smiling planets and stars. Above it enfold two padded arcs from which friendly shapes dangle. Pull a switch, and active music will play, to encourage you to reach for the heavens. Pull the switch the other way, and you will get soft tunes which will tell you the stars and night sky are there to shelter and protect you as you sleep.

But these and other preparations are for nought: the assembly of the crib, the careful folding of infant clothes, the stuffed animals with shiny glass eyes that await your little arms to enfold them are all well and good, but your arrival is an event that becomes ever more profound the more that we reflect upon it. Everything is about to change.

Perhaps it’s because your father, mother, grandparents and myself have all been working towards the vague goal of making the world better for the future. We saw waste, inefficiency, mendacity and ignorance and took them on. But what was the future for which we struggled? We all had a notion that the future and children were somehow equivalent: you, my dear niece, give it true form. And from here on in, when your mother works hard to spread education and your father builds solutions which make technology perform better than previously thought possible, and your grandparents add to the world through their charitable works and I set my virtual pen to electronic paper, our collective focus will be much clearer. We want a world that is fit for you.

I look out onto the yard again: the outside environment that your grandparents have created serves as a strong reminder of the seasons. When winter comes, the front of the house will be decorated with lights and garlands. You will get your first whiff of pine and peanut butter cookies at Christmas. What will you make of the tree in the living room, I wonder, adorned with coloured glass baubles and its base covered in brightly wrapped presents? Will it be the most beautiful and magical thing you have seen hitherto?

Conductor and BatonThe seasons will cycle around and you will be back at Spring again. You will say your first words, take your first steps and with your parents’ firm but gentle guidance, be set onto the path of knowledge. Your father and mother will do their utmost to fill your life with learning: your grandparents and I will add to the rich store they have to offer. I hope that soon we will converse, and that “stories from Uncle Christian” will be a feature of your life. I am already ready to tell you tales about talkative cats and teddy bears that are passing brave; I will introduce you to Mozart and Dvorak, and perhaps my awkward attempts to use a chopstick as a conductor’s baton will be a funny story that will linger in your memory.

The seasons will cycle many times around. In my mind’s eye, I have vague sight of your first day at school, the prizes you will win, the triumphs you will have, the hopes that will arise so you can and will be everything that you wish to become. Your parents, grandparents and I will all be on hand to help you in whatever way we can, offering the benefit of what we know, assistance when it’s possible, and always, always, love.

The day is just turning a corner now, and the sun is beginning its long trek into night. Soon we will sit down to dinner around the long table in the dining room; your grandfather will sit at one end, your grandmother at the other. We will say a quiet thank you to God. Then your mother, father, grandparents and I will quietly celebrate this day which may seem ordinary to some, but to us will ever have a profound significance. Tomorrow morning, we will all go to the hospital. Your mother and father will likely hold hands, a gesture of the profound love they share which I assure you will always be your comfort. The doctors will do their work, and then you will be here.

Though I won’t be the first to welcome you, my dear niece, to this life and all that it has to offer, I will be among the first. Right now, as your mother lies sleeping, you perhaps have a dim sense that your time as a passenger on a journey to this family is near an end. Tomorrow, you join us. Tomorrow, we will say hello. Tomorrow is just the beginning.

Love,

Your Uncle Christian

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Insomnia

June 15, 2012

Thomas SleepingThere is something to be said for being completely exhausted. Two days ago, I had a morning that began with waking up at 5:30 AM in order to feed my three cats and change their litter trays, followed by doing some final packing for a trip to New York, followed by a commute, followed by a meeting with an important client at my Leeds office, followed by a train trip to London. All along the way, the flow of productive work did not abate. Questions were posed and answered, documents were written, edited and sent. Upon arrival in London, I dragged my heavy case down the winding passages of Kings Cross St. Pancras Tube station, took the Metropolitan Line, got off at Liverpool Street, negotiated frantic lunch hour crowds of nondescript office workers who all seemed to be stuffing ready made prawn sandwiches in their mouths while simultaneously talking on the phone, and then dropped my bag off at Left Luggage, only blanching slightly at the extortionate price. Then I took a train to Chelmsford, directed a cabbie with no sense of direction to my next client, and then had a lengthy and involved meeting which lasted 1 and 1/2 hours. Then I went back to London, retrieved my case from Left Luggage, again took the Tube, got off at Paddington and after standing all the way on a rush hour train, I arrived at long last in Oxford. The best part of my day may have been the slight thrill at discovering the West Oxford exit to the station. The golden early evening sunlight lit the way and I stepped out, hardly believing my luck at finding a place so relatively lacking in bustle and noise. Even the birds in a nearby tree were singing.

After a meal with my brother-in-law, I sat on a couch and answered some more work e-mails. However, my eyes grew heavy as the consequences of the day finally caught up to me. The sun was long gone. There were no cats needing attention; I had bidden my other half good night via Facebook. The world was letting me go, and I felt like I had permission to depart till the morning. I slowly climbed up the stairs: an unfolded futon and some cotton sheets awaited me in the spare room. With the help of these, I was soon gone. When I awoke the following day to gentle sunlight streaming through the window, there was a calm that came from having genuinely rested. It was all too soon shattered by another challenging morning, but nonetheless, there was a space, a pause, a sheltering from time, and in that tidy gap lay a capacity to heal.

This highlighted for me that sleep is something more rare than it should be. We all know that we should get more of it: the Mayo Clinic suggests that adults need at least seven hours a night. Motorway signs warn that tiredness can kill and we should take a break. But apart from when I’m on holiday or selected weekends, it’s rare that I get it. I’m not alone.

It is a function of our current economy, perhaps, that we must remain awake. Companies who downsize in staff don’t necessarily scale back in the work that needs doing. Instead more is demanded; people are expected to be flexible. After all, they should be grateful there is any work at all. I recall when I was a child: my father would get up at the break of dawn and only return quite late at night. His industriousness was considered extraordinary and it led to a brilliant career in his chosen profession. Nowadays, his commitment would be considered normal: I too go to the office early. Indeed if my workplace represents a balanced sample, the numbers of early arrivals are growing.

Is insomnia also a consequence of worry? My other half can’t sleep if she’s distressed: she stays up until the wee small hours, occupying herself with reading and playing with iPad apps with the television on in the background. As this all happens beside me, it can be challenging for me to get sleep. But my own workaday concerns propel me on, and I’ve had many days, too many, in which I’ve carried on only thanks to coffee and a sense of responsibility. Worry tells us that we should not sleep, cannot rest, lest something be missed: I can scare myself into almost permanent wakefulness if I so wish by thinking about the Greek elections on Sunday or contemplating who might be winning the American Presidential election. Perhaps all the turmoil of recent years has dented our capacity to really rest: we live in a time of so little certainty, and this keeps the wheels of thought in perpetual motion. The machine cannot slow, nor shut down, rather we must be on our guard against any and all dangers that come.

Maybe our insomnia is the result of us being so connected via our technology. The greater the number of the connections, the more we find it difficult to disengage. Unlike when my father began his career, my work doesn’t largely end when I leave the office. With my Blackberry, laptop and iPad, it stays with me as readily as it did as when I sat at my desk. Yes, our productivity has increased, but so has the pace of life. I found myself answering work emails all the way up to boarding the plane to New York: this is nothing extraordinary. But it also means I boarded the plane with more to consider. Sleep did arrive, and it helped drain out the hours of the flight like the water out of a bath, but this didn’t occur until after I mentally refreshed my task lists and was certain all was in hand.

Perhaps technology, worry and a bad economy are not the only factors deserving of blame; could insomnia also be a result of Thatcherism, i.e. ideology? She notoriously did not sleep much; she was up until the wee small hours on the night of the Brighton bomb. No dreams in her case were ripped asunder, she witnessed the entire incident. She brushed it off. This cold blooded wakefulness may have set an example or been a symptom: in either case her having set free the markets and ripped out the quiet certainties of life hitherto could have led to the expectation that we should be up and productive for longer.

Was there ever truly a gentler time? To be sure, there have always been insomniacs. But read over histories of previous eras and one wonders how drastically perceptions have changed. In 1780, Mozart wrote an aria, “Ruhe Sanft, mein holdes Leben”, for the otherwise obscure opera Zaide. In it, sleep is presented as something beautiful, romantic:

Lynne Dawson: "Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben" from Mozart's "Zaïde"

The lyrics read as follows:

Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben,
schlafe, bis dein Glück erwacht;
da, mein Bild will ich dir geben,
schau, wie freundlich es dir lacht.

Ihr süßen Träume, wiegt ihn ein,
und lasset sienen Wunsch am Ende
die wollustreiechen Gegenstände
zu reifer Wirklichkeit gedeihn.

Which translates as:

Gently rest, my dearest love,
sleep until your happiness awakes;
here, I will give you my portrait,
see how kindly it smiles at you.

You gentle dreams, rock him to sleep,
and may the imaginings
of his dreams of love
become at last reality.

Compare and contrast with with “Sleepyhead”, a tubthumper of a song, released in 2008 by Passion Pit. Its vision of sleep is hardly peaceful; as the lyrics state, “They crowd your bedroom like some thoughts wearing thin”.

Passion Pit – Sleepyhead

There are consequences to our collective insomnia, and not just in direct costs to the NHS. We are seeing a decline in leadership accompany our diminishing ability to rest; while there is no direct correlation, it is suggestive. Leaders in both politics and industry nowadays appear to operate with narrowed time horizons, wisdom seems to matter less than swagger, and competence and insight are in short supply. Could this be partially due to an inability to disengage?

At the very least, we are losing something. We are in a period of strange priorities: for example, people serve the economy rather than the other way around. Similarly, we crowd out biology with Berocca and Starbucks to be awake in a manner that is unnatural. The results are easy to assess medically: we perform less well, our judgement is diminished, and our decisions end up being worse. This may explain why Big Brother is still on the air, some people respond to spam and David Cameron is presently prime minister. I would urge everyone, please do yourselves a favour. Rediscover the quiet pleasures of dusk, the ascent to the bedroom, the feel of cotton sheets on a cool late spring evening. Let escape come and dreams take flight. Go to sleep.

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The Summer of Uncertainty

June 7, 2012

Jubilee Cadbury BarAt long last, the bunting is coming down. As I walked through the darkened Accounts department of my company this morning, I saw that the last vestiges of visible patriotic fervour were to be found in the scant remains of a chocolate bar whose wrapper was emblazoned with a Union Flag. The Queen has retreated into her cloistered, gilt-edged world; the rest of us are slowly adapting back to the usual rhythms of the work week. The immediate spectacle of “Circuses Without Bread” (at least for certain unpaid stewards) is behind us. More distractions lay ahead: the Euro 2012 football championship will begin shortly and then will be closely followed by the Olympics. According to the BBC news this morning, people on average will be watching 97 minutes of sport per day this summer. Yes, the message seems to be, cheer on the home side, cheer on the brilliant Jessica Ennis or Rebecca Adlington; drink deep of the River Lethe and let the wider world slip from the bounds of consideration and memory.

It’s easy to denounce these diversions; there are so many real world issues which should capture our attention. During the Jubilee weekend, the UK’s credit rating was downgraded by a minor agency, Spain admitted that its banks were in trouble, Syria continued to bleed. In order to escape the droning pomposity of Jubilee coverage over the weekend, I tuned into PBS, an American channel: it was stated on the “Newshour” programme that Louisana loses an area the size of a football field every hour or half hour due to the effects of climate change. Focus on the Jubilee, or look at the trouble we’re in? It’s no wonder that the eye turns to the brightly coloured bunting and the mind desires relief from woe by focusing on pageantry and spectacle. We are susceptible also because we lack the rhythms and melodies of happier days: I recall Shostakovich’s opera “Moskva Cheryomushki”, which was composed during the heady period after the death of Stalin. Shostakovich had hitherto been known for somewhat morose music, such as Symphony No. 7 which he wrote during the Siege of Leningrad, and the Adagio from his second Piano Concerto. In contrast, “Moskva Cheryomushki” contained a polka and suggested that everyone was going to get a nice new flat of their own. This cheerfulness existed despite the fact that the nation was by and large traumatised after Stalin’s malignant reign. Who would deem such music as being apropos now? Indeed, the Jubilee Concert held in front of Buckingham Palace showed that the optimistic tunes all arose from the past: Madness’ quirky chirpiness was imported from the 1980′s, Elton John’s vigorous piano playing was transported from the 1970′s. The Jubilee itself was a glance backwards, not forwards. Because if we look forward, what we find is a summer of uncertainty, and beyond this, we face an autumn that is shrouded in darkness.

Much can be said about the unpredictability created by the Euro crisis; as of today, Spain wants a bailout for the banks, not for the government itself. As it is the banks that are in trouble and the Spanish state has run up less debt than most of its counterparts, this is not an unreasonable stance. It’s unclear, however, that the Germans will allow such a bailout to take place. It’s still less clear that the European Union rules are sufficiently flexible to facilitate this; theoretically, bank bailouts of this kind aren’t allowed. No one really knows how this is going to play out.

Also, no one really knows what the Greek elections on June 17th are going to achieve. The polls go backwards and forwards: some days the far-left SYRIZA party is ahead, still others, the centre-right New Democracy. If New Democracy wins, then austerity will continue. If SYRIZA wins, the Greeks could fall out of the Euro altogether: SYRIZA denies this, but their thesis is that the Germans will continue to support the Greek economy even if they revoke the austerity programme. I wouldn’t be so sure: such brazen hubris is unlikely to succeed, and the Germans probably have plans ready to deal with a Greek departure. What do the Greeks themselves believe? It seems waver and twist like a feather on the wind, its destination far from sure.

Meanwhile, it is clear that the lack of courage and clarity in the Eurozone is driving both President Obama and David Cameron to distraction. Cameron let fly with the undiplomatic phrase, “make up or break up” in addressing the Eurozone. Obama can see his electoral prospects shrink as the unemployment queues lengthen. Look at the Gallup polls: Obama and Romney are virtually even at the moment. This is extraordinary considering that Obama has had much more time to prepare and his coffers weren’t depleted by a bruising primary. Yet the Democrats could not yank Scott Walker out of the governor’s office in Wisconsin: union rights in a traditionally liberal state have been curtailed. This suggests that even in progressive corners of the nation that progressive assumptions are being questioned: unions were once the cornerstone of the American auto and steel industries, now the electorate apparently wants them to be emasculated everywhere. Romney rises not necessarily because of his own qualities but because of what lay beneath: a nasty assumption, that anything collective is automatically “socialist” and therefore bad, and that any taxes paid are automatically theft rather than the price of a free society. Romney perhaps need say nothing to directly address this, he may rise higher by simply coasting along the wave and giving this sentiment an occasional approving nod.

A Young ZombiePerhaps the common element to all the uncertainty is a sense of powerlessness. Yesterday’s lunchtime conversation at my office focused on films and the popularity of zombie movies; indeed, there is a pervasive if somewhat light-hearted concern about a “zombie apocalypse”. I mentioned that architects have designed zombie-proof homes. There were a few laughs around the table; after all, zombies aren’t real, at least not the brain-eating, horror film kind. In fact, given that zombies shuffle along pretty slowly and seem relatively easy to dispatch provided the hero has a sufficiently powerful shotgun or chainsaw, why are they so frightening? Is it the idea that death is not permanent, or is it the idea of being lifeless, dragged along by forces that supplant free will? I suggest the latter; if we accept that the interest in the meandering, ravenous undead is a symptom of our times, then perhaps it sends along a message from society’s subconscious. The forces of war, economic decline, environmental catastrophe, these are man-made; if there was sufficient will, we could stop them. Yet they control us, rather than the other way around. We are driven, like zombies towards a destination we cannot foresee by urges we cannot restrain. The invisible hand of Adam Smith’s imagining has turned into that of the puppeteer, yanking on strings, making humanity do a Dance Macabre. This is perhaps because the definition of self interest has become ever more narrow: what is good for me today prevails over what will be good in a larger sense tomorrow. Merkel refuses money for the Greeks and Spanish because this bolsters her reputation with her own people today; what will she say tomorrow if she is the instigator of the Euro’s collapse? She has perhaps convinced herself that it won’t happen so long as her remedies are applied, and even if it does happen, that it’s because her prescriptions weren’t followed with sufficient rigour. Remember: this was same argument deployed by ultra-capitalists after the collapse of the housing bubble in the United States. But take the blinkers off and it’s easy to see that austerity is not making anyone prosper, something must be done to protect Greece and Spain. But it’s more comforting to remain blind, thus the uncertainty goes on.

This would merely be annoying if the consequences weren’t so severe. We’re not in a position whereby we can simply hope that nothing will happen if we do nothing; the forces which have rendered our leaders into limping, shuffling avatars of the political undead are driving the rest of us over a cliff. The collapse of the Euro can be easily foreseen. It’s distinctly possible that the current recession will get worse. In my mind’s eye, I can see the confetti and balloons come down on a smiling Mitt Romney and his picture-perfect cookie-cutter family on a cold November night; I can imagine, in contrast, the downcast look of President Obama as he addresses his disappointed supporters. We may want to look away and watch the Olympics or the football, but this future may have to be faced anyway. If it does happen, however, we shouldn’t be fooled: none of it had to occur.

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The Jubilee in Bradford

June 3, 2012

Bradford ASDAOn Saturday, I went to the ASDA just off the A6177 Bradford Ring Road to pick up my other half: she was volunteering there with Bradford Trussell Trust Food Bank. The Food Bank are desperately short on supplies; she and others were giving up part of their weekend to provide shoppers information about their work. I helped in a minor way: I went shopping for boxes of juice and tinned meat on the Food Bank’s behalf. As I pushed the cart through the long aisles, I noted that ASDA was a bit less ostentatious than other supermarkets in the area. The bunting wasn’t quite as “in your face” and the patriotic items on sale had more to do with the Olympics than the Diamond Jubilee; I didn’t see any portraits of the Queen.

After a bit of searching, I picked up some apple juice, orange juice, chunky chicken and tinned steak and then proceeded to the checkout counter. Ahead of me, there was a mother, father and their small daughter. The mother looked thin, pale and somewhat worried. Her curly brown hair was dishevelled. Her blue eyes darted back and forth as if she was tallying up in her head every item that was rolling across the till’s scanner. The father, tanned and muscular, I presume due to long hours spent working outdoors, appeared just as concerned. His eyes were downcast; he quickly grabbed the items and stuffed them into plastic bags as if they would be taken from him. I suspect the grey hair in his bushy moustache had prematurely arrived. The family’s purchases were modest: they mostly were buying ASDA own-brand “Smart Price” goods. There was a clear preference for pasta and sausage rolls; additionally, they had splurged a bit on a £3 family sized pizza. Only the little girl, dressed in a bright pink t-shirt, seemed truly happy. Her bright eyes peered over the stacks of goods sliding down and being quickly packed up. She was too young to know that money was something to worry about, rather, it magically appeared in Mummy and Daddy’s wallets and allowed them to buy milk and chocolate cereal. As they finished packing up, paid, and departed, I could imagine them retreating to a modest home. Perhaps utility and credit card bills lay stacked on the kitchen table, promising retribution if debts remained unpaid. The father had an almost wistful quality to his look of worry: it was easy to imagine him sitting on a sofa quietly, staring into the middle distance and contemplating all the problems he had to face while sipping an ASDA own brand lager.

I thought of the Queen. I saw from my Twitter timeline that the festivities at Epsom racecourse were imminent. In contrast to the couple who were going to treat themselves on £3 family sized pizza, I guessed she and her entourage probably were going to quaff the finest champagne. I suspect even Cristal was too déclassé: perhaps a special jubilee champagne from a distinguished Maison was on offer. No doubt smoked salmon was acquired from a royal purveyor. The afternoon’s entertainment was surely viewed from a comfortable distance, only subject to the vagaries of the weather. Around the Queen, I was sure, there were the gentlemen and ladies of name and fortune: no doubt shirts from Turnbull and Asser, top hats from Lock and Co, and handbags from purveyors on Old Bond Street prevailed. Is it the same country, I wondered: the distance between Epsom and Bradford seemed vast. No wonder our leaders make policy in such a cack handed way, I mused: they don’t see the families at the McDonalds’ concession at the Bradford ASDA. The Big Macs and fries they people are eating there are not some sort of personal indulgence, this is their main meal. This Britain is not a Disney-like pastiche of Victoriana, rather it is a place where deprivation is all around and there are days even when the sky itself seems to hang too low. The clink of champagne glasses isn’t heard here; the jubilee is for an old lady who seems disconnected and distant. Yes, there will be some festivities. And yes, thanks for the extra days off. However, I get the sense that by and large, there is tolerance, not enthusiasm: the Queen is a marginal fact of life and she rarely intrudes on daily existence. There is as yet no confidence in an alternative, no hope that different would be better. So the system survives.

Food Bank BrochureYet something is deeply wrong. As I waited for my other half to finish up, I read through the brochure the Food Bank was handing out. At the top it stated clearly, “People are going hungry in Bradford today”. It also said that it some wards there is an unemployment rate of 25%; worryingly, the statistic cited is from 2004, prior to the crash. Nevertheless, there were positive stories to be found: a group of students had come into ASDA for some basic supplies and returned with a cornucopia of food to donate. Generosity, warmth and basic decency still exist, despite all the challenges; perhaps, I thought, we ought to take the time to celebrate ourselves.

Bradford does contain glimpses of what such a celebration might look like. My local church had a Jubliee lunch after the Sunday service; the service itself contained barely a mention of the Queen. Rather, the Gospel reading came from St. Luke, chapter 14; specifically, the portion in which Jesus related the parable of a man who invited all his friends to dinner, yet they found various excuses not to attend. Instead, the man invites the poor, the lame, and the blind from his community and decides to shun his rich friends in future; somehow I had doubts this was how the guest list for dinner at Buckingham Palace was composed.

I looked up Luke 14 as I sat in the pew; verse 11 leapt out at me:

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The lunch was a homemade affair: it was held in the church hall, which had been painted a lemon yellow probably in the late 1970s. People brought in and consumed sausage rolls, fresh sandwiches and strawberry pavlovas. They drank coffee and talked. Children wore paper hats made out of paper plates and adorned with glitter. The bunting in the hall was modest, just red, white and blue flags: no Union Flags were in evidence. Only one gentleman, elderly and wearing a tweed jacket, stood up and asked us all to toast the Queen. The few supporters of a Republic kept quiet. After all, it was the only praise she’d received all afternoon.

Nevertheless, the Jubilee is just hitting its stride. The Sunday papers were all emblazoned with the Queen’s portrait. The Sunday Times offered a free spotter’s guide to the Jubilee flotilla; its progress was remarked upon in every last minuscule detail on the BBC. Anneka Rice was drafted in to comment on a series of pictures painted in the rain; many of these were washed out. She suggested they were “impressionistic”; she compared one artist’s work to that of Monet. Other commentators spoke of how “normal” the Queen is, as if it was some sort of praiseworthy quality that she would deign to experience the emotions of less exalted souls. The flotilla’s grand fanale was marked by a series of atonal fog horns being blasted at full volume, and carried live on television by the BBC, Sky and CNN. The news channels are unrelenting in their focus on the Jubilee: it’s so much that I slightly wonder if the midnight broadcast will speculate about the Queen’s sleeping patterns, if she lay on her side or on her back. Bradford, so far away, will finish the last of its beer or celebration cava, turn out the lights, and go to sleep.

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Toadies of Tyranny

May 30, 2012

William Joyce aka Lord Haw HawIt’s upsetting to see a defence of tyranny coming from a citizen of a free nation. Lord Haw Haw, otherwise known as William Joyce, did his level best to demoralise English-speaking Allied soliders with his radio broadcasts during World War II; he performed this service for a regime that slaughtered 6 million Jews in the Holocaust and inflicted unfathomable suffering on the nations of Europe.

Apologists for Stalin abounded in the 1930′s. Even the great writer George Bernard Shaw was taken in; he believed that all was well in the Soviet Union after visiting there in 1931. The prelude to his 1933 play, “On the Rocks” contained a robust defence of the Soviet regime, including its use of secret police and liquidation as a method of social control:

But the most elaborate code of this sort would still have left unspecified a hundred ways in which wreckers of Communism could have sidetracked it without ever having to face the essential questions: are you pulling your weight in the social boat? are you giving more trouble than you are worth? have you earned the privilege of living in a civilized community? That is why the Russians were forced to set up an Inquisition or Star Chamber, called at first the Cheka and now the Gay Pay Oo (OGPU), to go into these questions and “liquidate” persons who could not answer them satisfactorily.

It’s just as unforgiveable that a man of Shaw’s intelligence and erudition didn’t know or rather, didn’t allow himself to know about the Russian state’s tradition of organising Potemkin villages nor had sufficient curiosity to delve into the reports about widespread famine in the Ukraine which was created by forced collectivisation of agriculture. To this day, it is difficult to say precisely how many millions died of starvation and the Great Terror, both of which were imposed by Stalin. Estimates range up to 12 million in total.

It’s distressing that denials persist in spite of the truth having been revealed. The mass graves filled with victims of the Soviet famine and purges have been dug up; people can go visit Auschwitz. Kneel among the tall grass near the crematoria. Stick your finger in the dirt: there are still flecks of human bone which were belched out of the chimneys. Yet, neo-Nazis across Europe say it never happened, it’s all a fabrication, or if it did, the death toll is exaggerated. Unreconstructed old-style Communists don’t want to talk about the casualties inflicted by Stalin’s Russia and for the most part the remains of labour camps scattered throughout the former Soviet Union lay rotting. People rarely read Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” these days and thus are less aware of the grisly conditions once suffered by Soviet political prisoners. Forget, forget, let mass murder be obscured and disappear from the memory of the living, the avatars of fascism and Stalinism suggest. Indeed, the process of forgetting is so pronounced that as the BBC’s Panorama programme recently pointed out, Neo-Nazism has made inroads with football supporters in Poland and Ukraine, two nations which suffered terribly at the hands of the Fascists. It makes absolutely no sense: but then again, perhaps the Polish and Ukranian Nazis don’t mind racism so long as they’re not on the receiving end of it.

Those who defend the current regime in Syria are just as disgusting as their Fascist and Stalinist counterparts. There is no doubt that the Assad regime is butchering its own people. The government even tortured and killed a 13 year old boy, Hamza Ali al-Khateeb. However, when perusing arguments about this online, I’ve found statements such as this one:

Vile Comment

Note the words used: the protestors are “losers” and the “Syrian Soldier” considers them “brainwashed”. He could not do more to malign, defame and debase those who have been protesting for both dignity and freedom; he doesn’t want to acknowledge that rising up was the only option left, given that the regime’s response to any form of dissent was arrest, torture and repression. The overwhelming body of evidence is that this is happening: yet servile, feckless and frankly nasty avatars of the Assad regime hope to swamp such arguments in a sea of bile. It is difficult to accurately describe such people without descending into a cellar full of colourful epithets. It would seem opprobrium does not deter them: on my Twitter stream one such individual dared to reply to a comment I made about a documentary concerning the Assad couple. I merely told him that he was a servant of a vile, murderous regime and “Good-bye”. I blocked him.

It would be pleasant to think that merely saying “Good-bye” and clicking a link would push such people to the margins of discourse; what’s frightening is that they share the mindset of those who are doing the killing. “Brainwashed losers”, the “Syrian Solider” says. Dismiss, dehumanise, then ready, aim, and fire.

Houla drowns in a sea of blood: the front page of the today’s Times reminds us that women and children were executed in an indiscriminate fashion by Assad’s thugs. Nevertheless, Russia Today has hitherto spewed forth nonsense backing up the regime and the Russians show continued reticence in dealing effectively with Assad. We in the West sit on our hands, unable to act in a meaningful way, indeed barely able to speak with one voice; the co-ordinated expulsion of Syrian diplomats is unlikely to trouble the regime substantially. The West frets and wonders what might have been while Syria bleeds and the likes of “Syrian Soldier” suggest this is precisely what the “brainwashed losers” deserved.

It’s tempting to think that the facts are too potent for even Assad’s most ardent supporters to deny, that they might cast an askew glance in the mirror and be horrified by their own reflection. However, the kind of arguments one would have with Assad’s supporters or neo-Nazis or Stalinist throwbacks are not the sort of disagreements which arise from a differing interpretation of the facts, rather it is a contest between the truth and falsehood, between objective reality and propaganda. Those who say that the Nazis didn’t kill 6 million Jews are completely inaccurate. Those who say Stalin wasn’t behind the Ukrainian famine and the Great Terror are not being true to history. Those who say Assad and his thugs are not responsible for the massacre at Houla are perpetuating a lie. No doubt they regard themselves as defenders of the truth, an easy, simple delusion which soothes whatever pangs of conscience may remain, but reality does not support their precarious position. Nevertheless, presumably they would rather fall with the lie than accept the rigours of the truth, hence the violence and vehemence in their words.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Tyranny only works if people are willing to accept falsehoods, either wholeheartedly or by being resigned to them. The latter category deserves sympathy and support: as it was during Soviet-style Communism, people could not be free without the ability to embrace the truth. Doublethink is a recipe for an ill society, as the last gruesome years of Ceausescu’s Romania showed; those who rise above it are the truly brave. In contrast, the former category are, frankly, monstrous. An alliterative moniker I once heard on American talk radio will suffice in labelling them: they are the “toadies of tyranny”. They aid it, abet it, propagate it. It is with these people that battle is joined: not just by those who resist on the streets of Homs or Houla, but also by those elsewhere who can respond to blatant, twisted propaganda with an unending chorus of fact, reportage, free debate and a stubborn refusal to accept lying.

I have no doubt that Assad will fall; he lacks the guile of his father and the oil revenues of his deceased counterpart in Libya. At some point, the majority of the army will be unable to stomach any more killing of their own people; this was the case during the last days of the Soviet Union when the hardliners attempted an ill-fated coup. Once the Assad regime is gone, then there will be a point of decision as to which way the Syrian people will want to go: the direction they will take is entirely up to them. That moment is laden with hope. Regardless of the path chosen, there will be those who will continue to harp on the days of Assad as some sort of halcyon era, one to which Syria should return: they will hope the passage of time will cloud the memory of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb’s broken remains and the innocent dead of Houla lying in a mass grave. The toadies of tyranny will still need to be defeated long after they are vanquished.

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Taxi for Warsi

May 28, 2012

Sir Clement FreudI wish Sir Clement Freud were still alive and serving as the Liberal MP for the Isle of Ely or North East Cambridgeshire (for purely stylistic reasons, I prefer the “Isle of Ely” as a constituency name). I’d like also that he was in a position to speak up about the latest expenses scandal which has embroiled the Conservative Party co-chairperson, Baroness Warsi. No doubt he would say something laconic and brilliant; Warsi would be cut to shreds by his rapier wit, a quality which in contrast she noticeably lacks.

I suspect Sir Clement would point out that she had a deficit of common sense as gaping as the hole in the country’s finances; I can imagine the laughs he would get from some well-crafted witticism which would illustrate this fact. The point, no doubt, would be that given the furore over expenses, it behooved everyone in public life to be completely open. After all, faith in politics was severely damaged by the scandal: politicians earn much more than the average worker, what is more, their income comes off of the toil and sweat of millions. Few receive a gilded pension or work in an exclusive Central London location with a subsidised bar. I dare say Sir Clement would suggest that the taxpayers have a right to expect not just honesty, but also the highest standard of ethics, which is separate from the law. One can step up to the edge of the legality but still be way beyond the boundaries of what is right. It is not right that a well-off person shifts the burden of paying for their lodgings onto the state; it’s worse when the well-off individual gets their room for free and pockets the expenses anyway. Sir Clement could point out that he initially paid for many of his researchers with his own money: he placed a bet on himself winning the Isle of Ely by-election in 1973, a 33-1 gamble which paid off handsomely. Why did Warsi, who is by no means destitute, decide to claim for anything in particular: what part of the term “public service” escaped her attention? Did she not see how austerity was affecting the country? What happened to “we’re all in this together”?

I can imagine the soft echoes of “Hear, hear” in response. Conservative MPs would likely be subdued, their faces fixed with a variety of stony expressions. His time to speak at an end, I suspect Sir Clement would sit down and his thoughts might then have turned to lunch, perhaps he’d consider having quick meal down at the Criterion accompanied by a fine claret. Then he’d be off to record another episode of “Just a Minute”; overall, the nation would be a more jolly place if he were still around.

Baroness WarsiWe’re not sufficiently fortunate to have a notable raconteur amongst our parliamentarians; without such an esteemed personage, the words which must be used to describe Warsi’s imbroglio are sharper, less elegant. Quite frankly, she shouldn’t be in her current job. Her career is a marked by a series of mismatches between her station and actual achievement. First, she was a failed parliamentary candidate for Dewsbury in 2005: even though the Conservative Party’s overall electoral performance was far better in 2005 than in the 2001 General Election, she managed to accrue fewer votes than the last Tory who ran for the seat. This should have said something. Nevertheless, Cameron insisted on having her in a leadership position, and thus arranged a peerage; she was made Shadow Communities Minister. He also elevated her to the co-chairperson role with specific responsibility for cities. Veterans of political television programmes are still confused as to why: her answers to pointed questions mostly indicate a lack of intellectual discipline and depth of knowledge. She is also extraordinarily gaffe prone. For example, she once stated she didn’t want to see any further Muslim MPs as “Muslims that go to parliament don’t have any morals or principles”. Additionally, she once stated that supporters of the racist, far-right British National Party had legitimate concerns which should be taken into account.

It is reasonable to suggest that she is as hypocritical as she is incompetent. It has been reported in the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday as well as a number of political websites that the Baroness’ second husband, Iftikhar Azam, obtained a divorce from his first wife Massarat Bi by apparently underhanded means. Ms. Bi, with whom Azam had 4 children, supposedly doesn’t have full command of English; nevertheless, it was reported that she was presented with divorce papers she couldn’t understand. Azam’s brother Ghafar stated Ms. Bi was entirely in the dark about what was going on. Shortly afterwards, Azam went on to marry Warsi; according to the Mail, Ms. Bi was left living with her 4 children in a 2 bedroom house. This episode stands in stark contrast to Warsi’s charitable work for the Savayra Foundation, whose aim is to supposedly empower Pakistani women so they achieve a fair deal out of divorce or bereavement.

So why is she where she is? Why is it that she gets to proceed through the iron gates protecting Downing Street and enter through the heavy black door of Number 10? Why does she get to wander through the corridors of power? How did she get the Prime Minister’s ear and patronage? The precise reasons may never be known, but one can take a reasonably educated guess. Remember: David Cameron’s background is in public relations. This implies that he has a predisposition to be mostly concerned with how things look. I believe that he glanced at the white, Anglo-Saxon and almost exclusively male faces of his immediate colleagues and realised that this didn’t reflect the diverse nation he sought to lead. Baroness Warsi kills several birds with one stone: she’s Asian, Muslim and female! What a symbol of how much the Conservative Party has changed! Therefore, her rise could be due to tokenism; her continued presence in government could be due to what has been termed “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. She is presently Minister without Portfolio, yet somehow her making a hash of nothing is expected.

Illusions only work to a point: the most long lasting are the least obtrusive. The general public has only just woken up to the perils of fractional reserve banking, for example: the image of bankers prior to the credit crunch was of grey suited men who take lunchtime dips into pools of money ala Scrooge McDuck. Mirages disappear the moment genuine scrutiny takes place: the financiers were shown to take gambles that Sir Clement would have abhorred, Warsi’s image as a successful Conservative Asian woman in high office was always made of brittle glass. Thanks to this latest scandal, it has finally shattered as spectacularly as a champagne flute impacting on a stone floor. The fantasies are more than merely dented, they’ve dissipated: order her a cab, it’s time for the Baroness to depart.

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Review: The Eurovision Song Contest, Baku, Azerbaijan, May 26, 2012

May 27, 2012

Logo of the Eurovision 2012 CompetitionI don’t remember the first time I saw the Eurovision song contest; I presume it was not long after I moved to Britain. I do recall being appalled: bad, tuneless song followed bad, tuneless song. Worse, the performers were often off key, as if they hadn’t sufficiently rehearsed or were tone deaf. What on earth is going on, I wondered. Why were the nations of Europe participating in this contest? Why were the people around me talking about it so effusively? The only saving grace was the inimitable Terry Wogan’s commentary: he punctured the dreary silliness of the proceedings with sharp and hilarious quips. Nevertheless, I didn’t make a point of tuning into the competition until the advent of the internet: the fun of it is talking about the contest with others, and seeing hundreds, if not thousands continue in the tradition that Wogan set for us to follow. Although his departure from presenting the programme was a great loss which is still keenly felt, at least Twitter is a veritable fountain of verbal barbs that are worthy of the master.

It was in this spirit that I approached this year’s contest. Usually there are camp songs and insane songs and tedious songs. There are ballads sung in languages too obscure to make a dent in the top ten. There are daft costumes and intriguing gimmicks; this year, Russia put forward a group of grandmothers who were trying to raise money to rebuild their church, and Slovakia entered a “hair metal” band which had fallen through a hole in the space-time continuum from the year 1988. Additionally, there is always at least one song that makes you wonder what the people of that particular country were thinking: Montenegro’s “Euro Neuro” was so lacking in musical coherence that it seemed unlikely that anyone had seriously vetted it. It’s very rare that one finds a genuine keeper, like Raphael Gualazzi’s “Madness of Love”, which was Italy’s entry in 2011: this tune was deemed so high quality that it was used as part of the soundtrack for a Robert De Niro film.

Raphael Gualazzi – Madness of Love (ESC Version) OFFICIAL VIDEOCLIP

The only song approaching “keeper” status this year was the Israeli entry, written by the band “Izabo”; their claim to be European is not geographically justified, nevertheless, their song “Time” seemed to be not only apropos but a winner. It was musically interesting, plus the lead singer Ran Shem-Tov plays the guitar well and has developed a unique style. Of course it failed to get through the semi-finals: this was more than likely due to political reasons.

Izabo – Time (Israel) 2012 Eurovision Song Contest Official Preview Video

Those behind the United Kingdom’s entry, which was sung by vintage crooner Englebert Humperdink, probably would love such an excuse: certainly, bad luck had a role in it. Being first in the queue of 26 was not optimal. However, much of the blame should reside with Mr. Humperdink himself: he was terribly off key. I believe he was befuddled for some reason: his answers in a brief interview during the programme were less than fully coherent. Furthermore, his song wasn’t particularly memorable: the title, “Love Will Set You Free” was ideally suited for sarcastic ripostes: e.g., Love will set you free, but not win you anything. Or: Love will set you free, nul points will leave you empty handed.

Even if Mr. Humperdink had been able to summon up the ghosts of melodies past, it is unlikely he would have triumphed. Victory requires navigating a series of voting blocs: he would have first had to climb over the Balkan bloc, which elevated a forgettable song from Serbia into contention and propelled upward an Albanian anthem whose singer essentially yelled for much of the performance. The latter song was so awful that it frightened my cats; they cowered under the dining table as it proceeded and wouldn’t emerge for several minutes after it finished. Had Humperdink been successful in overcoming that group’s lack of taste, then he would have had to vault over the Greco-Cypriot alliance, dashed past the Austrian-German-Swiss nexus and escaped the frosty clutches of the Scandinavian axis. Britain’s only friend in this, generally speaking, is Ireland: however they delivered the coup de grâce in this instance by awarding the United Kingdom only 4 points.

In the end, Sweden won by producing a modern sounding number which was sung by a sub-par Kate Bush impersonator; no doubt it will be played in dance clubs throughout Europe for the several days before people get bored with it. All’s well that ends well? See you again next year? Well, not quite. It’s worth noting that Azerbaijan isn’t a democracy in the traditional sense of the word: the Presidency belongs to the Aliyev family, and has already passed from father to son. Rallies by the president’s political opponents are not permitted. Political prisoners are still being held, despite protests from Human Rights Watch and the European Parliament; Azerbaijan is also noted for its use of torture and blatant police brutality. Oil revenues are what sustain this wretched state: without them, it is likely it would be just as much in ferment as Egypt or Libya have been recently. Azerbaijan isn’t an avatar of free enterprise either: it ranks 91st in the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic liberty, mainly due to its lack of protection of property rights. Hand in hand with this, corruption is rife: according to Transparency International, Azerbaijan placed 143rd in its perceptions index, tied with Nigeria and Belarus. The competition provided a blatant manifestation of this problem: the Azerbaijan entry for 2012 was sung by the daughter of a prominent general.

The organisers of the contest have made no comment; rather, they’ve retreated to the flimsy excuse that the competition is “apolitical” in nature. The artists could have said more as well; when pressed, Mr. Humperdink politely declined to answer. In essence, Azerbaijan received free publicity for the messages it wanted to send, mainly about its new-found modernity arising from its oil wealth. It also utilised the interludes in the competition to advertise itself as an ideal tourist destination. If there was an overriding message, it was “European, just like you”, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Fortunately, as Baku has recently been rejected in its bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games, this was probably the only opportunity they will have to market themselves for the time being. But should they have had the chance at all? In order to join the European Union, a nation must pass certain criteria in relation to economic and political structures: it wouldn’t do the contest much harm if it exercised some discernment of this kind.

But it won’t. The one overriding motif of the competition is that while musical styles may change, costumes may get more wild and pyrotechnics may become ever more grand, its essence never alters. It will remain as a singular form of entertainment, where the pleasure derived by the audience rarely arises from the show itself, but rather from the buzz around it. Next year, it will be held in Sweden: no doubt there will be countries who send singers dressed as forest elves, entries which stretch the English language to breaking point and yet another Maltese anthem that pairs the words “fire” and “desire” into a rhyming couplet. Despite the complaints that are made about voting blocs and the commentariat’s musings about the point of it all, we’ll all be back with quips at the ready.

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Sleeping with Leviathan

May 25, 2012

Sign on the A647The stretch of the A647 between Bradford and Leeds is a speed camera trap. At first, the signs are clear: the white circle with a thick black line struck through it tell the driver that the national speed limit applies and all’s well. On a late spring day, provided one leaves early enough, this portion of the journey can be almost pleasant. After a few miles, the signs then change to indicate a maximum speed of 60: this isn’t too bad, just a lighter application of the gas pedal is sufficient to ensure compliance. Two speed cameras go by. Then there is a more sudden drop to 40, which is located around a bend: the sign is followed on shortly by yet another camera.

I’m a careful driver and always have been: I earned my license in 1994. Hitherto, I have never been issued with a speeding ticket; however, this last trap caught me. One morning, I headed around the bend with another car not too far behind me. I applied the brakes, but given the proximity of the other driver, I knew that if I pushed it too hard, I might risk him bumping into my rear. The Bach flowing through the car radio perhaps encouraged me to be a bit more relaxed than I should have been: the speedometer did go down, just too slowly. I passed the camera. I caught the glimpse of a flash in my rear view mirror: I knew I’d been nailed. I fretted the rest of the way to the office.

A few days later, I received a rather severely worded notice of intended prosecution; as it turned out, I’d been recorded going 47 miles per hour. I suppose I could have fought it somehow, but I don’t have a great deal of time to devote to such things nor am I Chris Huhne: besides, Kirklees Council’s enclosed brochure stated that they wanted to “inform, not to punish”, so they offered me another option. If I attended a driving course, then no penalty points would be accrued. The course cost £75 and I’ll be giving up part of a weekend to do it; I repeat, I have been driving for nearly 20 years and yet never had a speeding ticket before this one. Inform, not punish? Pull the other one: I now approach this particular bend with trepidation. I always make sure I slow down to below 40 before getting near the camera; I am certain that more carefree drivers behind me are perplexed by what I’m doing. Because of this incident, I watch the speedometer quite closely: I don’t believe this is particularly helpful, as my driving style up until now has been more focused on knowing the relative positions of other cars. Inform, not punish? You could have fooled me: the reactions of myself and other drivers who slow to a crawl around this curve are precisely because we’re fearful of punishment. There seems to be no flexibility in how the council approaches matters; if you’re over the limit, even marginally, and even if it may be unsafe to go more slowly, it doesn’t matter: you’re busted.

The state can be a Leviathan, pushing and bullying its way into the most intimate corners of a citizen’s life; it can also be clumsy, corrupt and often times it can be a perfect idiot. However, there is a new trend, perhaps due to the harsher atmosphere created by austerity: the state seems to regard the citizens who sustain it with disdain, almost contempt. One gets the impression from some portions of government that they would be happier if they didn’t have to serve anyone ever again: the only exceptions arise when they can charge a fee or collect more taxes. But if one wants the public services that are supposed to come from having paid through the nose, it’s a trial. In response, citizens understandably fear and despise the state.

A case which was described in Monday’s edition of the Liverpool Echo provides a pertinent example: a girl named Poppy Young wrote a letter to David Cameron, saying “I hate the government for what it has done” to her mother. Her mother Wendy, who is disabled and often bed-bound, had been deemed “fit for work” and taken off of disability benefit: this is a very odd conclusion given that the last time she attempted to go out on her own, she apparently fractured her skull. Despite this, two appeals were dismissed. It was only after more pressure and public embarassment was brought to bear did the government relent. Nevertheless, Mrs. Young will be compelled to attend a “work-related activity group” in order to continue to receive her benefit.

Examine the subtext: the agents of the state simply didn’t care that Mrs. Young was obviously disabled. They somehow looked past her infirmity and adhered to the government’s main priority: save money. It doesn’t matter who gets steamrolled by this, just do it: the common good is only ensured by achieving a perfectly balanced ledger. Let compassion, duty, responsibility and even sense be left aside, all that matters is cost projections, financial targets, and at the end of the day, pleasing the bond markets. Never mind that it was the avatars of finance who rule the bond markets which created the bubble and the subsequent recession in the first place; I suggest if Mrs. Young was the CEO of a large bank and able bodied, should she have required the assistance of the state, she would have found it had much fewer strings attached. After all, a bank is too big to fail: a disabled woman is far too small to save.

American Airport SecurityIt would be wrong to suggest that this kind of nastiness is solely a British phenomenon. As anyone who travels to the United States these days knows, entering the country can be an extremely unpleasant experience. I am aware of a harmless looking white haired woman in her late 60′s with mobility problems who was once asked by American border officials if she was visiting the country for nefarious purposes, namely to earn income as a prostitute. This is the same country that was initially willing to let George Zimmerman off the hook for brutally murdering Trayvon Martin, and only reversed course after relentless public outrage. It is also the same country whose House of Representatives recently passed a heavily modified Violence Against Women act, which could potentially roll back protections for illegal immigrants, transgender and gay people.

What are the messages, what are the symbols, what meanings should we derive? John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” However, we’re beyond being asked: shut up, pay, work harder, pay some more, do as you’re told. Take off your shoes in airports; sorry, Granny, get out of that wheelchair, oh and by the way, are you here because you’re a whore? Sorry madam, because you can actually move, albeit not far without falling and hurting yourself, get out of your sickbed and work: we’re slashing your benefit. It’s OK, George, you can shoot that kid because he looked suspicious and God knows what he would have done with that bottle of iced tea and bag of Skittles. Hey you, Mr. Motorist, deviate slightly from the limit, no matter how safe or unsafe it is, you’ll be forced to pay up and we’ll slap on some penalty points, or alternatively, you can pay more than the cost of the fine to attend a course to be lectured to as if you’re consistently reckless. It is no wonder that some people in America retreat to the wilds of Montana in order to escape the surly bonds of typical society. It’s no surprise that people in Britain vote for whatever viable opposition they can find in order to deliver a good kicking to the government of the day. “I hate the government,” Poppy Young wrote; she spoke for more than she knew.

Nevertheless, a certain amount of disdain is good, even healthy: it means that if the government comes up with nonsense, totalitarian or otherwise, citizens instinctively resist it. It also implies that authority is neither trusted nor revered: this is another rampart of liberty. It can tip over, however: the gap can grow to the point where people want to remove themselves from the political process and surrender to despair. We passed this milestone a while ago: genuine harm is being done to both society and democracy. It would be tempting to say that change will come as a result, but those who take to the streets and raise their voices in protest are a distinct minority. Many people believe that Leviathan’s stumblings and fumblings and gropings and graspings are now inevitable, and they have to merely live with it, tune in the football or comedy on the television for light relief, have a beer with their mates on the weekends to drown out the impulse to think. They sleep as Leviathan rages. They slumber as it derides and devastates. Wake up? What for?

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On Monarchy and Mobility

May 24, 2012

Harold Wilson at 10 Downing StreetWe’ve come so far, only to go backwards. In 1964, the British people elected Labour into power, and more specifically, elevated Harold Wilson to be Prime Minister; his origins were modest, he was born in Huddersfield. His father was a works chemist and his mother was a schoolteacher. He rose through hard work, guile and merit. He was followed in 1970 by Edward Heath, the son of a carpenter. Heath was then followed by Wilson in his second stint as Prime Minister and then by Jim Callaghan, the son of a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy. Callaghan was succeeded by Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter from Lincolnshire. She handed over the role to John Major, a Brixton lad; his father was a music hall performer. Major was defeated by Tony Blair, whose father was born out of wedlock to two English actors and was subsequently adopted. When Blair retired, Gordon Brown, a son of a Presbyterian clergyman, took over. Given this succession, it was quite possible to believe Major’s rhetoric about “the classless society”: it didn’t matter where you came from, the determination and effort you put into getting to your destination was what counted. The son of a music hall performer could be Prime Minister; the dreams of a Yorkshire lad were not confined to the environs of the West Riding. With grit and a bit of luck, one could ascend to high office, accept a peerage in one’s dotage, and be laid to rest in ermine.

Or so it seemed. Both London and the nation are presently run by Eton educated elitists; as per Nadine Dorries’ apropos quip, we’re being led by “two arrogant posh boys” with “no passion to want to understand the lives of others”. They are denizens of a different world; for example, despite his being the son of a Baronet, because George Gideon Oliver Osborne attended St. Paul’s rather than Eton or Harrow, he was nicknamed “Oik” by his peers; the only brush with manual labour that he has ever had was when he briefly folded towels at Selfridges. This seems like errant nonsense at first glance: Osborne’s qualifications to manage the nation’s finances look paltry compared to those of Dr. John Vincent Cable, who earned a PhD in Economics.

We should be going forward: the barriers to information and enlightenment have come crashing down with the arrival of the internet. Universal education has been around for some time; despite the rise of tuition fees, a far greater proportion of people are going to university than they did when John Major or Harold Wilson were small lads. So what happened? Why is it that Nick Clegg, no stranger to privilege himself, felt obliged to say to the Sutton Trust at their conference this week that “Class still counts. We are a long distance from being a classless society”? Indeed, the figures bear out the Deputy Prime Minister’s interpretation: according to the Trust, the UK’s poorest youngsters are less likely to advance than their peers in Australia and Canada.

Some may believe that this situation has improved over time, regardless; after all, in the 1950′s and early 1960′s, the nation was run by Etonians like Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillian. At first glance, they seem much more stuffy than the “young professionals” Osborne and Cameron. However, I dare say that both Eden and Macmillian were less out of touch than Cameron, Osborne and even Johnson are. Eden and Macmillian both fought in the trenches in World War I: Macmillan was wounded three times. No doubt this experience in the crucible of blood and torment gave them a sensitivity to the common fighting man that Cameron lacks. Macmillian as Prime Minister, for example, did his level best to deal with the unions and improve pay and conditions for the average worker. Cameron feels no such empathy and unlike Macmillan, lacks composure when faced with a genuine challenge. When faced with the Profumo scandal, Macmillan at his worst seemed befuddled; Cameron at his worst turns beet red with rage and lets fly with unflattering epithets.

So why do we have such elitists in any position of power nearly 50 years after Wilson was elected? No doubt part of the explanation is that inherited wealth is still being passed on from generation to generation; this provides an ample cushion for the blue blooded. For example, the UK’s richest native born individual is the Duke of Westminster: his wealth is estimated at £7 billion. But perhaps we ought to think also about structures and symbols, and how they cascade meaning throughout society. As inapposite as it may seem given the forthcoming Diamond Jubilee, perhaps we ought to cast our gaze at Buckingham Palace.

Some may blanch at this: what, blame the Queen? Accuse our professional, well mannered Queen, who seems more like the nation’s grandmother than anything else? Let’s be clear, it’s not her fault: she has done her duty to the best of her ability. Rather, the institution she represents is out of date and worse, it sends a terrible message to the rest of society.

Think about monarchy: what is it its basic principle? Its proposition is that individuals are born into a particular station in life: yes, the Royal Family rely to a certain extent on popular consent, and they are also expected to do good works or in the case of Prince Andrew, serve in times of war. We also expect sufficient displays of human emotion from them, whether it is in expressions of regret from the Queen regarding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, or in Prince Charles engaging the nation’s sense of humour by providing the weather forecast. Nevertheless, expectation is not the same as obligation: Prince Charles may conduct his private life with all the care of a drunken mule amidst a collection of Ming vases, but he remains the Prince. It takes an extraordinary set of circumstances to dislodge a king, as the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and Edward VIII proved. Monarchy is a fixity: one is born to it, one lives it, one dies in it. Their place in society is set, and everyone else’s place in the life of the nation is rooted in relation to this. David William Donald Cameron’s position is nearly as immovable as the Queen’s: he is the grandson of a Baronet, a descendant of King William IV, he went to Eton, he studied at Oxford. Given this background, it is highly unlikely that anything truly bad will ever happen to him; rather, because of his privileged station in life, he sits apart from the boy who grows up in Huddersfield or the daughter of Grantham grocer. This separation creates elitsm and worse, snobbery; Mr. Clegg felt obliged to remind the Sutton Trust of a Frank Harris quote, “Snobbery is the religion of England”.

Sir Jonathan IveMr. Clegg is right; he is also correct in saying that the class system is holding the nation back. An idea needs to be judged on its individual merits, not necessarily on the socio-economic background of who proposes it. It is telling that Jonathan Ive, the Chingford-born lad who studied at Northumbria University, could only achieve his dream as the famed designer of the iMac, iPod and iPad in America, not Britain. He’s honoured now: he recently received a knighthood. But he could only be the man worthy of a knighthood by going to a place where his talent mattered more than his class.

Despite all this, enthusiasm for the monarchy has never been greater: according to a poll in the Daily Telegraph, 80% of Britons want it to continue. In contrast, just 13% want a republic. This no doubt will have a chilling effect on Mr. Clegg’s programmes: I am sure that he will advocate measures to reform education and reduce taxes on the poorest and perhaps reach out to the most economically blighted parts of the country. He may even succeed to an extent, albeit against strident Tory opposition. However, he will find it difficult, if not impossible to say what needs to be said: if we want to move on as a nation, if we want to be a country that respects talent over birth, then we must ensure that the principle of meritocracy, not aristocracy, is enshrined in every portion of government. It’s time to say good-bye to the past and its bittersweet mixture of blessings and curses. The sunset of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the Second will come; the Diamond Jubilee may be a brief flaring of the light prior to this. Once night does fall, it will also be an appropriate time for the institution she has carefully and masterfully served to also disappear into the darkness.

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Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a boyfriend, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

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