In Praise of the London Olympics

July 18, 2012

Money Down the DrainEvery Olympics contains elements of both triumph and disaster. The 1972 Olympics in Munich were notable for both a terrible terrorist incident involving the Israeli weightlifting team and Mark Spitz’s accumulation of seven gold medals, a feat not surpassed for over 30 years. The 1976 Olympics in Montreal are remembered both for Bruce Jenner’s world record setting triumph in the decathalon and for debts which weren’t finally paid off until 2006. Even the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which ran like clockwork, required the forced evictions of up to a million people. What the calamities have in common is that they speak of the weaknesses of the host nation: Germany in 1972 was still coming to terms with the difficult legacy of the Holocaust, Montreal’s government was profligate, the Chinese government still doesn’t give a hoot about human rights. We perhaps should be thankful then for the forthcoming Olympics, as it shows the problems of modern Britain in stark relief. While we rightly damn the difficulties and expense, its lasting legacy may be to present what is in most dire need of correction.

For example, a belief has hitherto prevailed that somehow “private is better”; this has been the case since Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister. After all, during the 1970’s the nationalised coal industry had failed to produce enough energy to keep the lights on and British Leyland somehow thought the Austin Allegro was a car that people might want to drive. How comforting it was to believe that such problems had a simple answer, and that one wave of the magic wand marked “privatisation” would ensure that all would be well. How much more difficult it would have been to tackle a long legacy of mistrust between management and labour, a lack of quality control procedures and an unwillingness to embrace imagination rather than cheapness as a British business virtue. Never mind that greater emphasis on the private sector meant that wages stagnated over time, while a minority, predominantly those in the financial industry, grew very wealthy indeed. At least the liability was off the government’s books and the lights stayed on: problem solved, so far as the politicians were concerned.

The multitude of failures by the private security firm G4S have re-emphasised that just because something is private doesn’t necessarily mean it’s well run. Security has nothing to do with hiring a few Keystone Cops to bumble about and wipe a few kids’ noses: it’s literally a matter of life and death. While it is unlikely, though not impossible, that a terrorist incident could be staged at the Games, there are more mundane matters of crowd control and personal safety which need due care and attention. A badly managed crowd can lead to genuine tragedy, as the Hillsborough disaster showed. Uncontrolled masses of people and alcohol can also prove to be a toxic mix. Yet, despite warnings, the organisers of the Olympics trusted G4S until almost the very last minute: even those personnel who will show up are unlikely to be of high quality. If we believe passable communication skills and good training are important in any security team, then some of the examples of G4S staff as seen on television are displaying a worrying lack: the reports are uniform in suggesting that training has been slapdash and some have a questionable grasp of English. As Nick Buckles, the head of G4S, stated before the Parliamentary Select Committee, “I don’t know what fluent English is,” Worse, G4S couldn’t keep track of its hires: according to a Channel 4 news report, G4S is presently unable to guarantee turnout of staff to its assignments. Under these circumstances, to suggest that “private is better” is to go up against the facts: if making money is the priority, then all other considerations tend to be of secondary importance. To put it another way, the police and military are far more trained and trusted to provide security at the Olympics because their primary mission as organisations is not to turn a profit, but rather, they are there to protect the public. Questions can and should follow in light of this: for example, what do we get from a health service whose main motive is to provide shareholder value as opposed to treating people?

Other weaknesses have also made themselves glaringly apparent, including the fact that far too much of modern life is taken up by corporations. Olympic sponsorship deals provide an extreme example of this infringement. As a report in the Independent newspaper stated, many words are restricted:

“Olympics organisers have warned businesses that during London 2012 their advertising should not include a list of banned words, including “gold”, “silver” and “bronze”, “summer”, “sponsors” and “London”.”

The rules will be enforced by a purple clad “sponsorship police”. Furthermore, only McDonalds is allowed to sell chips in isolation, though it can be rightly said that McDonalds’ chips relationship to genuine British chips is approximately the same as Budweiser to Yorkshire bitter: it is mass produced and bland versus authentic and flavoursome. One would think that such restrictions are a violation of free speech and indeed are an undue restraint on trade: but as the Olympics proves, this is not important so long as the corporations are pleased. We are neither living an a truly open society nor do we have a free and competitive market as originally envisaged by Adam Smith: rather, our fundamental rights can be bent and altered provided the entity which requests the deviation has a sufficient bank balance. Thanks to the Olympics, this reality is now nearly impossible to avoid.

Olympic Traffic SignsThe Games also highlight the awful state of Britain’s transport infrastructure; leaving aside the impending disaster of an overburdened Tube network, both American and Australian athletes found that their journeys from Heathrow to the Olympic Village were over 3 hours long. Indeed, the Americans were on the road for about 4 hours. The distance between the airport and the village is approximately 23 miles. Yet, Olympic officials stated that average time to get from the airport to the village is two hours. To put it another way, average traffic conditions in London, even with special arrangements for the Olympics, mean that the buses can only go 11 1/2 miles per hour. While looking at the extreme cases, there is a need to address the poverty in basic standards.

No doubt other harsh realities will be exposed before the Games finally come to an end. We will probably find out the depths of embarrassment we can plumb by having a notable buffoon as mayor of the nation’s capital and a corrupt Culture Secretary as a figurehead. We will likely learn some ugly truths about how devoted we are to the mawkish and cloying through the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Because he can’t help himself, we are certain to see David Cameron at his smarmiest as he tries to associate himself with any and every British gold medal winner. No doubt there will be much finger pointing when the Games’ debts prove larger than expected. We also will probably discover how terribly inaccessible London is for disabled people when the Paralympics follow on. Of course, there will be contrasting highlights: I still look for an equivalent to that beautiful moment during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when Linford Christie won the 100m dash. London may provide this. Such achievements are wondrous, worthy of national pride: but nevertheless there is much more to be gained by looking the problems and failures with clear eyes. The Olympics are a wasteful £9.3 billion extravaganza, coming at the expense of cuts to the police, the health service and education: we are unlikely to turn a profit on it, but at least perhaps we can profit by its exposure of the truth. Unlike the airy talk of Britain becoming more of a sporting nation, this epitaph has real value and consequence.

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Breakfast with Sexism

July 13, 2012

Waking UpI usually get up early, just before “Farming Today” and just after the extended weather forecast on BBC Radio 4. After my clock radio goes off, I sit up, take my vitamins and medication which I store in my night table drawer: this morning I washed them down with lukewarm Diet Dr. Pepper. Generally, two of my cats are waiting for me either on or beside the bed, their bright eyes expressing joy at the prospect of breakfast. When I peel back the duvet and stand up, they run ahead of me down the stairs: I can’t help but think of the Madness tune “Baggy Trousers” as my cat Thomas races to the kitchen. Upon catching up with him, I feed the cats, make coffee and switch on the television; usually I’m greeted by the BBC’s “World Business Today” programme. They often have on some anonymous luminary who is probably notable solely for being able to wake up at 4 AM cheerfully. He or she reviews the papers with two presenters who do their best to not seem overly fatigued.

There is a cumulative effect to such mornings: by the time the work week draws to a close, I find that it takes a bit more time for me to fully awaken, a tad longer is required before there’s no sleep in my eyes and there’s clarity instead of fog lingering in my brain. This morning the anonymous luminary’s words flowed in one ear and out the other. At such a time, I’m ready to have issues reduced to the intellectual level required by the average tabloid reader and simply happy when the weather forecast doesn’t indicate a heavy rain storm again. In other words, I was primed for the somewhat chummy and mentally untaxing BBC Breakfast programme.

I suppose there’s something genuinely humourous about a news programme that, for example, reports on milk prices by having their reporter visit a dairy farm. This is presumably to remind the viewers were milk comes from; the reporter’s obvious disgust and difficult trudge through a field whilst wearing sticky Wellies also probably serve as reminders that cows don’t excrete sunshine nor always give off the most pleasant aroma. However, it’s one thing to be silly and brainless, it’s quite another to indulge in casual sexism: this is what occured on this morning’s show during a feature about car parking. Apparently the mayor of Triberg, Germany, decided to allocate “easy” parking spaces for women and “difficult” ones for men. In response, BBC Breakfast asked this question: are men or women better at this?

This query disproves the notion that there are no stupid questions. Regardless of gender, we are each born with differing abilities when it comes to visual estimations and understanding of geometry. To suggest that one half or humanity or the other has a superior ability to reverse a Nissan Micra it is to oversimplify matters terribly: I am probably better at it than many men and women, but there are many men and women who are better at it than me. Contra to what the producers of BBC Breakfast and the Mayor of Triberg may think, the BBC ran an item earlier this year that suggested women are better at it than men. No doubt another study would say the opposite. What none of these “popular” studies talks about is the role of practice, which probably has the greatest influence; these adventures in research appear to be there merely to stoke cheap controversy.

BBC Breakfast didn’t make matters any better with their vox pops: some men proclaimed loudly that they were much better at parking than women, even if their other half was within earshot. One gentleman in a Land Rover stated his wife was superior to him. Another woman stated that women were better at it. I was glad when the item ended and moved on to security at the Olympics or the lack thereof.

I generally don’t write about sexism as it is not something I “feel on my skin”: as a man, it would be ridiculous for me to suggest that somehow I know precisely what it’s like to experience such discrimination on a day to day basis, or that I fully comprehend the pressures that society puts on women. I have sympathy for the idea that men can’t ever be true feminists precisely because of this gap in knowledge. I believe I have an inkling, little more: for example, I imagine that the waif-like body images that one gets just from watching television or reading the newspaper must make women feel as if they have to adhere to some impossible ideal. It’s no wonder bulemia, anorexia and the like are endemic. I see an item like the one about parking and imagine that a lot of people were just as indignant as I was.

Cup of CoffeeAs I sat there and finished up my coffee, I thought of my new niece, who will shortly be one month old. I can’t fully know what it will be like for her to grow up in modern Western society, but one quality I hope she will possess is a healthy sense of disbelief when other people try tell to her about her limitations. Her dad is fantastic at driving and parking, her mother is a confirmed petrol head who wants to acquire a bright orange Dodge Challenger: there’s no reason to believe she hasn’t inherited their propensities. There aren’t as many women in technology as men; but if that’s where my niece’s interests lay, there’s no reason for her not to go for it. I intend to give her an Meccano set as soon as she’s old enough; her dad and I will teach her how to build her own PC. My aspiration for her is that she grows up to be a feminist, because I hope that she insists on making her own choices in life rather than have the bounds of her imagination confined by societal norms and that she never has to kneel before the wagging finger of disapproval. Perhaps uncles, brothers, fathers and grandfathers can’t be true feminists, but we can assist feminism not just by denouncing the likes of BBC Breakfast programme producers but by also by proclaiming to our nieces, sisters, daughters and granddaughters that the only real confines on ambition are those imposed by the self. The others are constructs which may seem to have the force of reality, but when shown to be mendacious, should be made to dissolve into the morning air.

Breakfast with sexism was an unpleasant way to end the working week. Tomorrow promises much, not least it offers the opportunity to sleep through BBC Breakfast. I suspect my heavy hand will reach out from under the duvet tomorrow morning just after that boundary in time is crossed. It will rest on the nighttable for a moment, then reach for the radio and switch on “Saturday Live”.

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Fifty Shades of Dull

July 11, 2012

Cover of 1st edition Grapes of WrathThe Great Depression and the rise of Fascism aside, the 1930’s was a golden era in many respects. For example, the literary output was first rate: Orwell’s talent was in full bloom, Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” flew off the bookstore shelves. Indeed, according to the New York Times, “The Grapes of Wrath” was the best selling book of 1939 and 430,000 copies were printed by February 1940. That same year, it was adapted into a powerful and memorable film starring Henry Fonda: this movie won two Academy Awards in 1941.

More than 70 years on, and trapped in a pernicious recession which resonates with disturbing echoes of Steinbeck’s time, we seem unable to produce cultural riches that possess the same lustre. I look on Twitter, I see discussions online and overhear them elsewhere: the literary work being discussed most of all these days is “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E. L. James.

For those who have heard of this book but are unfamiliar with the plot, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a tale of sexual obsession and sado-masochism. The main character is a deranged billionaire named Christian Grey who proceeds to deflower and debase a 21 year old virgin and “total babe” named Ana Steele. In other words, it’s cheap, tawdry pornography which the average bookstore in 1939 would not have deigned to put on its shelves. Indeed, the concept is riddled with clichés: the scandalous man of means is hardly new, the dewy eyed young woman who has her innocence robbed from her is an idea that goes back to Hogarth’s “A Harlot’s Progress”. Yet, this is the work that is being bought in such vast quantities that it makes the Grapes of Wrath’s once impressive figures seem a mere pittance by comparison.

Why? My other half pointed out that its popularity could be rooted in the attractions of simple escapism: we need a break from the humdrum and exotic and salacious tales help release us from the mundane and often painful realities of living in a diminished era. She also suggested that it could have something to do with an absence of Thirties’ stoicism: in the past, people were more willing to accept fate and look it in the eye. Thanks to consumerism and marketing, we now all believe “because you’re worth it” that we should live the lives of celebrities. We are all geniuses too, why aren’t we recognised for it? Face the grimy realities of living in a 2 up, 2 down semi in Basildon or Trenton, New Jersey? Unlikely: much better to see oneself as a “total babe” or a billionaire who can get away with anything. After all, this better suits the self-image we have been promised, sold and for which we are trapped into a terrible repayment.

But look back at “The Grapes of Wrath”: it is sublime precisely because it holds up a mirror to ordinary human beings and shows their real virtues and faults, both their kindness and propensity to violence, their ignorance and enduring wisdom. Fifty Shades does none of this; furthermore, it brings the spectre of social decline to the fore. Shock entertainment and its need to resort to ever greater stimuli can signify that a society is cracking. The spectacles at the Roman Colosseum grew ever more shocking as the public grew inured and the polity creaked. Two gladiators fighting each other to death wasn’t sufficient: the Emperor Trajan apparently celebrated his Dacian victories in 108 AD by employing 10,000 gladiators. Wild beasts tore each other and people to shreds merely to amuse; Trajan utilised 11,000 animals to supplement the gladiators. The Victorian author Charlotte Mary Yonge captured the spirit of this accumulative degeneration in her “Book of Golden Deeds”, published in 1864:

Sacred vestals, tender mothers, fat, good-humored senators, all thought it fair play, and were equally pitiless in the strange frenzy for exciting scenes to which they gave themselves up, when they mounted the stone stairs of the Coliseum.

Considering this history, a young girl being beaten by a sadistic billionaire to achieve perverted ends may seem mild, yet it is not tame in comparison to what we previously considered art.

It’s also not particularly exciting. The true thrill and beauty of sexual relations need not be solely contained in its culmination, but in the promise of it, the point at which all outcomes are possible. Furthermore, it need not be considered the sole preserve of the supremely rich or particularly alluring. It’s plausible to have a potentially erotic scenario that occurs between people who are not necessarily attractive in a setting that is normally considered dull.

Accountancy in ActionPicture a firm of accountants somewhere in a Northern English city: the building is from the 1970’s, it’s box-shaped, with dark grey concrete and perfectly rectangular windows. The panes haven’t been replaced for some time, and many years of being pelted by city rainwater prevent them from ever glistening again. The grey skies which prevail mean that shadows dominate the narrow street on which the edifice stands. There is a hint of diesel exhaust in the air; pools from early morning rainfall have accumulated on the pavement. Inside, the offices are open plan: the desks are made of chipboard, fronted by peeling brown veneer. There is an aroma of instant coffee and milky tea. Focus, if you will, on two accountants, one male, one female, sitting with their desks facing each other. The man is in his late 40’s and wearing an ill-fitting dark grey suit from Marks and Spencer, his shoulders stooped and slumped from many years of leaning over his computer. He is negotating his surrender to baldness; his blonde and grey hair is cropped closely and rings a growing bare patch on the top of his head. His complexion is pasty; his brown eyes are a stark contrast to his pale visage. His gold wire frame glasses slide down his nose as he dips his head to look at a set of figures. He has a tendency to stroke his thick moustache with the length of his right index finger as he examines the numbers. He has lost weight recently: he also twirls his wedding ring around and around in endless loops. A pity that his wife didn’t live to see him make such progress, if consuming only packages of Super Noodles as an evening repast can be called that. He doesn’t see that his gold and red patterned tie, the only spot of colour in his wardrobe, has a slight oil stain from some chips he consumed for lunch.

However, his colleague at the desk opposite notices. She too is in her late 40’s. She has dyed her hair repeatedly with products bought in the beauty aisle at Tesco, going for blonde highlights in her auburn hair which are never quite ash enough. She too wears grey, a smart, better fitting suit, which covers her somewhat plump and ample figure. She wears glasses as well, her blue eyes having diminished in sight due to many long hours spent bent over ledgers, both electronic and paper. Her glasses however, have a thick black frame. She presses Page Down repeatedly on her keyboard trying to get to the pertinent information. Her thick lips pucker slightly as she finds an incorrect figure. She looks across to her colleague; she sees he is locked in concentration. The chips at lunch left a mark, however. She has a packet of wipes in her drawer, they say they’re good for spills and stains on their bright green wrapper: perhaps she ought to offer one?

Now envisage a boss coming up to them; he is completely bald, and his head shines as brightly as his smile. His shirt is white with a thin red pinstripe. He is jolly and has the girth to go with it, a victim of too many sandwiches consumed at his desk.

“Nigel, Nora,” he says in a jovial tone. Both Nigel and Nora look up.

“Come into my office,” he beckons. They cast a quick glance at each other and stand up. This is not unfamiliar to them as they’ve often been tasked with working together on some tricky assignment. Nigel adjusts his shoulders back and thinks of the time when they had to wind up a company whose director absconded with a substantial amount of money. Nora had traced where the money had gone. The police had done the rest. He recalls how she dressed when she had to go to court: was it the same grey suit she’s wearing now? No, it was with a faint pinstripe, and the skirt was a bit higher, stopping at just below the knee. Grey stockings, yes. She wore grey stockings which clung to the curve of her calves, the seam forming a perfect outline.

Nigel’s breath catches slightly.

Nora thinks of another case when Nigel was working late into the night. She had to get home to Geoff and the kids who all had runny noses and fevers and so he stayed behind long after the sun set and the main office lights had been turned off. As she wiped small faces and made chicken soup, she thought of him sitting there, desk lamp switched on, computer screen glowing, that same grey suit jacket still slumped on his shoulders. He wears that suit rather a lot, she muses. Or does he have multiples of the same one? She doesn’t know how to ask.

They go into the boss’ office and sit at the two blue fabric and aluminium office chairs positioned in front of their superior’s desk. The boss has a red cricket ball sitting next to the computer monitor and a small statuette of a cricketer in what looks like bronze, swinging a bat. A faded picture of a county cricket side, lovingly cut out of a local newspaper is Sellotaped to wall behind him. The boss sits in a black leather chair which is set quite low, so the desk seems bigger than what it actually is.

“N squared,” the boss says, smiling. His little joke. Nigel and Nora working together: “N squared,” the boss thinks. Nigel and Nora both suppress the urge to shrug.

“I’ve got a big job for you to do,” the boss continues. He then speaks about another company going into liquidation due to the recession and that its affairs need to be wound up. Nigel tries to suppress a bitter taste in his mouth; he wonders if butchers feel something similar in an abattoir when they see the next animal that is to be killed and cut up. Nora hangs on every word waiting for the name of the company; Geoff says that his job is in trouble and that she is probably going to have to pick up the slack for him. It doesn’t matter that much, he was earning minimum wage anyway and barely able to help with the grocery bills. The big blue ceramic jar they keep on top of the refrigerator to hold spare change has long been empty anyway. Nevertheless, the thought of Geoff sitting around all day wearing that tired taupe cotton bathrobe and watching morning television causes her stomach to tighten. She looks at Nigel; he seems calm.

“You probably want to know the name of the firm,” the boss continues.

Nigel nods. “It’s Rothglen Limited.”

Nora exhales quietly. Not this time.

“Is she OK,” Nigel wonders. Nora bears a lot of signs of worry: he sees the bags under her eyes, the way her hands shake slightly whenever she takes a cup of tea or coffee into her hand. There’s a slight smudge of pale peach face makeup on her starched white collar. She’s got a bit of a cold. Nevertheless, the perfume she’s wearing is as pleasant as ever: citrus, somewhat sharp, it doesn’t smell expensive, perhaps something picked up on sale at Boots around the corner, but it mixes well with her body chemistry.

“No, no,” he thinks, “don’t think about that.”

He studied chemistry while at university and thinks of elements interacting in a test tube, bubbling and fizzing. He tries not to, but looks out of the corner of his eye at her profile. The curve of her neck is really quite beautiful, her hair rather delicately frames it.

No, no, don’t think about that.

Nora wonders, “Is he looking at me?” The boss is nattering on, his jowls quivering as he speaks, his words trying to carry an elegance that they cannot bear. Nigel could be elegant however. What was it that he said in her last birthday card? Something about familarity breeding contempt most of the time, but when it came to working with her, the direct opposite was the truth. The handwriting was slanted, shaky, not the same confident swoops and curves he used to sign off official letters.

She turns her eyes to cast a glance at him. Nigel switches his gaze back to the boss.

Hmm, he was looking, she thinks. The possibility that he cares for her has turned over in her mind a few times. No, he’s not conventionally attractive. For God’s sake would he sit up straight and stop bending over his computer. But she guesses that since his wife died there has been no one to tell him that.

Nigel swallows hard. Damn, the boss is impressed by the sound of his own voice. The brief has been explained; the boss is trying to just make his own superiority and brilliance clear. Nigel twists slightly in his seat and sighs. When Mary died, the bed became quite cold. He awoke in the morning to only his own warmth and the sound of Radio 4 echoing “Farming Today” in the darkness. The air in the house is musty. He hasn’t bothered to take down the textured wallpaper. The television in the bedroom was broken; he hasn’t replaced it. The last time he recalled watching it was after he and Mary had made love and they watched a film as her head lay on his chest, her breathing first in gasps and then slowly calming down. The film was forgettable; their scents combined, heat rising from their embrace, her shut eyes, shaven head and smile touching her coral pink lips were not. Oh God.

Nigel chokes. Nora notices. His hands are in tight fists on his knees. She’s seen him like this before: it happens generally when work’s pace diminishes. He must be remembering. His eyes are glassy. Can’t the boss stop now?

“I have every confidence in your ability to do this,” the boss continues, “N squared, you’re the best team for the job.”

No, he’s not done. Should she? As she looks, she can see a slight tear forming at the corner of his eye. She looks at the boss. No, he won’t see; he’s too busy talking about himself.

Yes. She reaches out her hand and places it on top of Nigel’s.

The gesture is a shock. But Nigel has touched Nora before; they’ve got a little habit of giving each other a handshake after a job well done. “Well done, Nigel,” she says, a bright smile on her face. “Well done, Nora,” he replies, smiling in kind. He thinks he hugged her once at the office Christmas party, he was very drunk on cheap ASDA Cava; he recalls her body locking into his, the momentary warmth, the feeling of comfort, an awkward pause, then the turn away.

How does she know what I’m thinking, he wonders. Her grip tightens.

“Should I?”, he wonders. What about Geoff and the kids and her life and all the permutations and promises? Is this crossing some sort of boundary?

Thought slips. He turns his hand over and claps hers.

She first wonders if it’s a gentle admonition. He then spreads his fingers open, hers interlocking with his, the palms touching.

No, it’s not a rebuke. They both tighten their grip.

If one pulls back from this scene, the larger picture is as follows: two accountants, one a widower, one in a marriage that is stumbling but not terribly unhappy, care about each other and possess all the vital ingredients for a passion. In a conventional sense, they are not attractive, but they are attracted to each other and potentially this makes their passion work. I suggest this is how most romances develop, and thus is much more relatable than dreams of some hopelessly glamorous or rich partner. Furthermore, by making this more realistic, themes of our era have a chance to seep in: for example, in response to the mention of a firm being liquidated, Nigel’s thought is that he is a mere butcher in the abattoir of the economy. But this isn’t Fifty Shades of Grey; we don’t want to talk about this. We want to be seen to be dazzling, not ordinary, rather than see the dazzling in the ordinary. I dare say, we can do better, if only our thoughts can run to the wonderful that can be found even the humblest of settings.

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Frail Convenience

July 9, 2012

A Cold ShowerThe blue LED display on the boiler flashed the letter “F” and then “L” and then “F” again; the sequence then repeated. I sighed. It was late at night, there was no hot water in the house, and this message wasn’t promising at all. I looked it up on the internet: the electrical element which causes the burner to spark into life had failed. I checked the time: 1 AM. Sunday had just crossed the border into Monday. No, I thought, there wouldn’t be any fixing this now. I climbed into bed not too long afterwards and fell asleep, unconsciousness allowing me to forget what kind of day was to come.

The next morning dawned much colder and greyer than seems apropos for July. The sun dappled memories of my youth suggest that early summer is a time of convenient night time rainstorms, so that the earth awakes the next morning fresh and renewed. The rainwater on the lawn should glisten in the sunlight; birds and butterflies should take wing, impatiens should be in bloom with blossoms of red, pink and white. Warmth should be a given. Not here, not now. I cast a look out my back window and saw my laundry swaying on the clothesline, thrice rinsed by heavy storms over the weekend. The fresh ground coffee and vitamins and whole wheat toast smeared with orange marmalade did little to awaken me. I then stepped into the bathroom and realised I needed a shave. “F” then “L” then “F”: I remembered. This would be rather chilly. I ran the tap and half heartedly waited for the water to warm up, hoping for a miracle. “F” then “L” then “F”: I mused at how we take such conveniences for granted. We wake so gently, to coffee and warm water and the breakfast news that any change or roughening of morning’s edges comes as a terrible shock. I splashed the cold water on my face and shaved; it was not unpleasant.

What was more difficult was having to shed my clothes and climb into a shower with only cold water available. My working environment has its demands: one never knows who is going to pay a call. The last CEO of my company was noted for visiting at unexpected times; this may be a tradition continued by her successor. I have been yanked into meetings with important partners of the company without any warning. In other words, it wouldn’t do for me to be unshaven and unwashed; the era in which was normal for the average person to have dirt under the fingernails and a weekly bath whether one needed it or not is long gone. I regarded the crystalline cascade coming down from the shower nozzle for a moment, took a deep breath and stepped into its path.

I try not to swear if I can help it. The first word that sprang to mind was “bracing”; the icy water reminded me of how my other half sometimes chills her hands on a cold drink bottle and places them directly on my back, saying that they are the “hands of doom”. In this case, the frozen grip was all encompassing, as if warmth was at the core of my body and the icy water was trying to push it into an ever more cramped space. I washed my hair and body quickly; my heart pounded. I stepped out, rubbed myself down with a fluffy white towel. I cast a glance at myself in the bathroom mirror: the visage that returned my gaze was not a happy one.

“Well,” I thought, “at least I’m fully awake.”

We take so much of our lives for granted and are genuinely disturbed when something upon which we rely suddenly disappears. The loss of hot water and heat was a physical shock. Towards the end of June, I lost all landline services with my phone and my family couldn’t phone me via that means, which was annoying. I still get irritable when my internet connection drops. I rely on my ability to go to ASDA or Morrisons and find that the shelves are stocked full of food. We expect systems to be robust and that our lives, cossetted and convenient as they are, will go on. Indeed, we think that they will get even better, thanks to constant improvements in technology.

Roman Bath RuinsI can’t help but think of the ruins of Roman baths I saw in Turkey this past April: the stones had cracked due to age and excavation; it was possible to discern how the building was put together. There were brick pillars beneath the floor of the warm baths. This created a space beneath the base of the pool. Hot air was pushed through this gap in order to ensure the water was a comfortable place to be. No doubt the Romans who used those facilities had days when the fuel wouldn’t ignite and every pool was a frigidarium. It’s likely their excellent road network probably had “bad hair days” too: sometimes messages and parcels would get lost along the Appian Way. But like us, they expected technology to provide progress too. However, their society collapsed into the Dark Ages, a time when ignorance, squalor and barbarity became the norm. It’s a reminder: the warm and gadget filled houses which we live in are but a frail bark which shields us from the forces of nature. We have what we have due to complex arrangements which we try not to think about too much, lest we become aware of their fragility. To demonstrate this, it’s worth performing this mental experiment: what would happen if suddenly we ran out of oil?

The immediate answer for most is, “Oh well, I wouldn’t be able to fuel my car.” Yes, but also petrochemicals are a basic ingredient in chemical fertilisers, so farmers wouldn’t be able to grow as many crops. Lorries wouldn’t be able to deliver whatever produce they were able to grow or any other goods: everything from cans of Branston baked beans to packages of spaghetti won’t appear on shelves. We also would lose our ability to make plastics. International commerce would stop as nothing could be shipped or delivered. A lot of homes run off of oil heat: their boilers would run out of fuel. In essence, pull out this one dependency, and it is admittedly a large one, and what we know as the economy completely collapses. Society would likely disintegrate along with it, as we would each be trying to grab hold as much of our old lives as we possibly could.

This is an extreme example: the end of oil supplies is not immediately imminent, although some scientists have suggested we have hit a point at which the amounts we can extract will begin to fall away. Nevertheless, we have time to adjust and adapt. Still, collapse can take generations to play out: consult the histories of Rome, look at the broken stones of their cities and faded inscriptions upon what once was their proud edifices, and think of what came after. We may have time, but as a species we have a bad habit of wasting time, and by the time we realise we have no time to waste, it tends to be too late. The lights are flashing; the writing is on the wall. We should perhaps stop focusing on how powerful or empowered we are, and consider our basic frailty and fragility. Of course the world will go on even if our present order does not; but we need to ask if what would follow is the kind of world that we actually want.

A long time ago, I went to see the historian Dominic Lieven give a talk at the University of London; he spoke passionately about one theme in particular. He stated that there was no school of history more “stupid” than one which suggested that some event was inevitable; he spoke in relation to Edward Hallett Carr’s assertion that what occurred in the Soviet Union was due to some historical necessity. Rather, Lieven urged us all to consider “contingency”, the fact that things can be different. I tend to think that collapse is inevitable, but inevitable is not the same as necessary: we will accrue mistakes that will eventually lead to collapse, but that day can be put off by the choices we make today. Frailty should spur us on to consider our options rather than continue to sleepwalk.

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Review: “Richard II” starring Ben Whishaw, Patrick Stewart and David Suchet

July 5, 2012

Ben Whishaw as Richard IIMy Fourth of July was not spent imbibing American patriotism; there were no barbeques or fireworks, no Star Spangled Banner hanging from my window, all of which would have stood in stark contrast to what turned out to be a grey, rainy Yorkshire day. Rather, I experienced two ends of a spectrum of English life. First, I lay in bed for most of the Fourth, ill from a cheap takeaway curry I’d eaten the previous night. The meal, which had seemed tasty and fresh at the time and was additionally seasoned by the late hour and my dozy senses, had transformed during the small hours into what felt like a sizeable mammal that was bustling and gnawing within my innards. Sleep wouldn’t come except in small fits when consciousness finally gave in; nevertheless, the animal twisted like a corkscrew whenever anything near comfort approached. When dawn arrived, my mind demanded diversion.

So, with remote in hand and my head resting on some pillows whose covers were crinkled from my night of struggle, I perused the BBC iPlayer: after not too long a search I found the latest production of Shakespeare’s “Richard II” starring Ben Whishaw.

I’ve always respected and admired the Bard: every time I see one his plays I find some gem of truth or sparkling turn of phrase which I carry with me, ever awaiting a moment for optimal deployment. I also think much of life could be improved if Shakespeare’s words were used more frequently. For example, I would relish it if BBC Parliament carried a Macbeth inspired sub-caption during Prime Minister’s Question Time whenever Cameron speaks: “It is a tale told by an idiot; full of sound and fury signifying nothing”. If words are mighty, and indeed they have the power to make or break everything from kings to lovers, then Shakespeare was a supremely powerful man. Yet, I am no expert; I wish I was. I am thus challenged by my ignorance to take up any convenient opportunity to experience his works even when I personally am not up to full strength.

I looked at the programme description both on iPlayer and online: “Richard II” was filmed as part of the new “Hollow Crown” series which will show Shakespeare’s plays in historical sequence starting with Richard II, then proceeding on to Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and finally arriving at Henry V.

Although “Richard II” is regarded as a classic, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Much of it is Tudor propaganda which basically suggests Richard II was a weak and ineffective King whose caprice led to his downfall and the rise of Henry Bolingbroke, a direct antecedent of Queen Elizabeth I. This portrait is partially true at best.

Richard IIThe real Richard was hardly weak: at the tender age of fourteen, he played a key role in ending the Peasants’ Revolt. After William Walworth, the Lord Mayor of London, killed the peasants’ leader Wat Tyler at Smithfields during some tense negotiations, Richard fearlessly rode his horse towards the rebel army. He then shouted “I am your captain, follow me!”: this phrase was taken by the rebels to mean the King had joined them in their fight against the hated aristocracy. Rather, the King meant that they were to do as he said. The latter interpretation won out.

The authentic Richard had other virtues. He was a something of a peacenik compared to his predecessors and a patron of the arts. Westminster Hall was rebuilt during his reign. This emphasis on quieter pursuits than those achieved on the field of battle plus his insistence on strict decorum and descriptions of the delicacy of his appearance led to Shakespeare’s strong suggestion that Richard was homosexual. Given how Richard apparently mourned for his late queen, this is more than likely false.

Nevertheless, if this “history” is not history, it at least can speak about greater themes and inspire us with well crafted verse. We are warmed up with a prelude that suggests we tell “sad stories about the death of kings” and it is said in such a way that it makes one shiver. This production of “Richard II” adds to the power of Shakespeare’s words with pristine tableaux: when we first see Ben Whishaw, he sits full of his own grandeur at the centre of Westminster Hall. He holds the sceptre and orb in a statuesque manner which marks him out from the assembled nobles. Despite his confident demeanour, one immediately doesn’t envy Whishaw’s task, as he has to be the main character in a cast which features Patrick Stewart and David Suchet. Nonetheless, he is the embodiment of Shakespeare’s Richard from the moment we cast eyes on him: finespun, averse to combat, vain, capricious, scheming, more prone to contemplation than action. He is also incompetent: he banishes potential rivals without realising the limits of his power to banish danger. He dallies with male favourites and his inclinations are hinted at by a scene in which he views an artist painting a model standing in for an afflicted Christ. He can turn from despair to exultation to despair again in quick succession, as a proven by powerful scene filmed on the coast of Wales. In his last moments, Richard shows humility, humanity and depth. At no point does Whishaw falter: it is quite likely he will be considered the definitive “Richard II” for some time to come.

This is not to say that Whishaw’s performance obliterates all the others: for example, Patrick Stewart was mesmerising as John of Gaunt, reciting his lines about “this other Eden, demi-paradise…this England” in such a way as to bring tears to the eyes. It was such a pure distillation of genuine patriotism that it made American Independence Day with all its pomp, rhetoric and decorative serviettes seem paltry and overcommercialised.

Others fare just as well: David Suchet, as the Duke of York, is clear, firm and precise. Rory Kinnear as Henry Bolingbroke is the obvious hero and as a result, perhaps is purposefully less interesting. Even when he dishes out a harsh sentence to two of Richard’s acolytes, namely their immediate beheading, his accompanying speech gives the audience an excuse not to think too badly of him. Indeed, the viewer naturally rallies to him; he seems loyal to a fault and only breaks with his oaths when Richard pushes him to it. Perhaps Shakespeare’s great talent, along with Kinnear’s, is to give depth to a character who seems so straightforward. After all, Bolingbroke’s efforts end up with Richard deposed and martyred and himself as King; how much, the audience is left to wonder, was artifice, and how much was supposed to be the true Bolingbroke? Or was it that ambition and opportunity are very powerful catalysts?

It’s rare that one can look at a television programme or play and think there wasn’t anything wrong with it: there’s generally something that can be fixed or improved. Most writers are afflicted with the curse of dissatisfaction: there’s no rest. Like a gnawing, twisting animal residing in one’s innards, a belief persists that any work can always be made better, the words can flow more easily, the characters can be made more interesting or express themselves more clearly. Not this time: the play is perfectly written, the characters are perfectly drawn, and in this production, the scenes are perfectly set and the actors were perfectly chosen. In other words, it’s not only outstanding, it’s immaculate.

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The Obnoxious Romance of Capitalism

July 2, 2012

Twitter ScreenYesterday, I said something on Twitter which should have been relatively uncontroversial. I stated that capitalism had evolved to the point where profits had been privatised and risk had been socialised. This isn’t an original insight; it has been stated with more eloquence and at greater length elsewhere. However I was challenged by a radical libertarian who suggested that the problem wasn’t “capitalism”, per se, but rather a lack thereof. In his opinion, the remedy was “more capitalism”. He patronised me further, stating I ought to read Hayek and Mises, which I’ve already done.

I’ve heard his point of view before; it’s nothing new. I pointed out that the banks had been apportioned “more capitalism”, i.e., reduced regulatory shackles, on the understanding that they would take responsibility for themselves. When the rain inevitably came, I stated, they turned to the government for shelter. In other words, they didn’t live up to their part of the bargain. It might have been emotionally satisfying to see the banks go up in flames, but given how many people’s lives would have been affected by the collapse of the financial system, the government probably had no choice but to prop the system up. However, to suggest that banks were ready and capable for yet more “freedom” was ludicrous: Edmund Burke once suggested that men were apportioned liberty in proportion to their ability to constrain appetite. The banks wanted to devour everything; the state should be taking away their M&S chocolate cake and sending them to Weight Watchers.

I made one more point before the libertarian desisted. I re-stated something once said by Slavoj Zizek: that true believers in the free market are as tiresome as those who still persisted in their belief in Communism despite its multiple failings. Doctrinaire Communists, Zizek stated, kept on saying that what existed in the Soviet Union wasn’t “true” Communism; the problem is that no scenario, as it involved imperfect human beings, could ever be pristine enough to match the ideal. Similarly, capitalists complain that there are too many regulations and restrictions, even though Britain’s system was so light touch as to be effectively absent. I said that anyone who makes a fetish of either the market or the state is dangerous: dependence on too much of either prevents looking at matters soberly.

Knight Errant and Lady FairDoubtless, nothing I said penetrated the consciousness of the libertarian. It’s likely he ran back to his beloved Austrian economists and reassured himself that markets were rational pricing mechanisms rather than a magnifier of people’s opinions, beliefs, passions and prejudices and thus utterly irrational. I suspect he was American; perhaps the most rare phrase I heard while I was in the States recently was “market failure”. There may be little which truly unites the folks in the States these days, but there is a majority that still believes wholeheartedly in the free market. CNBC and Fox Business News were utterly shameless in their worship of business. Bill O’Reilly stated that “letting the market rip” was the only way out of America’s present economic morass. I heard one political radio host suggest that more capitalism would make matters “perfect”. This comment in particular reminded me of the idealised phase of love, in which all of life’s answers appear to manifest themselves in the adored other: this is the point when poetry takes wing and rationality is stilled. Unlike love, fetishising the market doesn’t move on to a more sober stage in which one appreciates another person despite their faults, which in my opinion is a more profound and transcendent love than an affection for the ideal. As the ideologues can never admit that their beloved has warts and faults and failings, it stays out of their grasp, rather like a medieval narrative in which the knight errant is separated from his beloved by castle walls and catches only the occasional wisp of perfume and a sigh from afar. Because the romance is never consummated, it can remain pristine; this lack is also an excuse not to dismiss it as foolish nonsense.

The problem is that in reality the romance has not only been consummated, it has repeatedly raped the general public; we merely need to ask if since the 1980’s if there has been more stability or less, greater inequality or less. Furthermore, we need to ask if left to themselves, are the banks constrained by anything but the limits of avarice; we already know the answer to this question. We need to ask if the privatised services in Britain are delivering value for money; a look at train fares suggests that they are not. Indeed, Britain’s rail tickets are the most expensive in Europe. The facts are clear, but the fetishists persist. Perfection has not been achieved; the exquisite maiden of pure capitalism with her golden braid sits in the distant tower of the castle, awaiting to be freed and to bring to us all into her warm embrace, quickening our spirits with her kiss.

It was obnoxious to hear Soviet communists claim that theirs was a workers state given the contrast between Leonid Brezhnev’s luxurious lifestyle compared to the life of the average citizen. A joke from the 1970’s illustrated the paradox:

Leonid Brezhnev invites his mother to visit his palacial dacha on the Black Sea. Prior to her arrival, he’s extremely nervous that everything is just right; he wants to show her that he’s done well. When she comes, he takes her on a grand tour of the vast gardens, the enormous hall with marble floors and points out the huge crystal chandelier. His mother remains silent, nodding occasionally.

Unable to constrain himself any longer, Brezhnev asks her, “So, Mama, what do you think?”

“Well Leonid,” she replies, “it’s all very good, but what will happen when the Bolsheviks come?”

It’s even more obnoxious after all we have seen and experienced, to hear that the cure to what ails is more of the same poison. It’s troubling that so many people are susceptible to this idea: perhaps it’s because one of the problems with our fast food, instant finance, big broadband age is that we look for the quickest route to any solution. The capitalists say, read Mises, read Hayek, ignore objective reality and practical experience. Believe in the distant beauteous maiden and call to her, disregard the hard, malicious glint in her eye, she will respond. If she doesn’t, well then you simply weren’t pure enough in your belief. Forget having to unpick the complicated and difficult realities of being, living and working; just keep giving unto her until you have no more.

There’s one slight problem: we have no more to give. Sometimes love is self-defeating; sometimes one is defeated by it. The wise individual at this point walks away: only fools and madmen persist.

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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.


Your Uncle Christian

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

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