Christmas Does Not Come In A Delivery Van

An extraordinary flyer flops through the door, glossy and obviously expensive. There is a company that will select, buy and then decorate my Christmas tree for me. Price unspecified.

I had always assumed, though I am fairly unsentimental about Christmas, that part of the fun of a tree was choosing it, dragging all the old, familiar and battered ornaments down from the attic, and then dressing it en famille. Ideally with the odd decent glass of something.

Apparently there are some people for whom this is too onerous a task. They probably get someone to choose, buy and wrap their presents too. It reminds me of the classic 1977 episode of “The Good Life” when Margo orders Christmas over the phone, and some of it fails to arrive. Margo recoils with horror. “Christmas hasn’t been delivered to our house.”

Except that the firm in question obviously hasn’t seen that episode. “Designer Christmas Delivered”, the flyer promises, without apparent irony.

We live in a part of town where there is the Rich Bit, and the Other Bit. The Rich Bit has houses worth multiple millions, inhabited by investment bankers, City lawyers and their pampered wives. It contains two or three of the most expensive streets in the London suburbs.

The Other Bit, inhabited by ordinary people, used to be affordable, just. Such is the unstoppable march of London house prices that the last home to sell in our road changed hands for almost a million. Presumably the company thought that if anyone could afford that, they might be interested in paying some ludicrous price for a decorated Christmas tree.

The people who live in the Rich Bit are just the sort to want an overpriced, designer Christmas tree. You can imagine the scene. “Blue and white is rather last year, madam. This year, the colours are gold and green.” And God forbid, when you invite your fellow investment bankers and City lawyers around for Christmas drinks at your multi-million pound mansion, that your Christmas tree should be decorated in last year’s colours.

Some people have too much money.


A Hand in the Cookie Jar

In an ideal world companies we have control over, like Government departments we fund out of our taxes, we should be able to compel to behave in a moral manner. This is not an ideal world. Royal Bank of Scotland, which is about four fifths owned by the state, that is, the taxpayer, has been revealed by two separate reports as behaving in an entirely immoral manner.

The bank pulled lending on a large number of businesses so it could buy them on the cheap after they collapsed. This is disgusting, shocking behaviour by anyone’s standards. It is tantamount to theft. We will never know how many homes were lost, how many marriages collapsed, how many of RBS’s lenders were driven to suicide, as a consequence. But this will have happened. It always does.

Listen to this response, from an RBS spokesweasel. “GRG (the part of the bank involved) successfully turns around most of the businesses it works with, but in all cases is working with customers at a time of significant stress in their lives. Not all businesses that encounter serious financial trouble can be saved.”

This is the sound of a corporate caught with its hand in the biscuit barrel. No apology, just obfuscation and lies. “I didn’t really mean to steal any biscuits, Mum, I was just checking how many were there. Honest.”

I have suggested before that corporates will behave with absolutely no morality whatsoever, if they are allowed to. Corporates like RBS and all the others have no conscience, no sense of right and wrong. They have to be controlled, and regulated, to prevent them behaving in such a deplorable manner.

But to whom does this task fall? If we have learnt anything over the past few years, it is that the system of regulation and oversight over the financial services industry has failed utterly and is not fit for purpose. Those same regulators who allowed a coke addict and expenses cheat to run our most “ethical” bank. If we cannot compel moral behaviour on a business we control and own a majority of, how can we expect to control any of the others?

Education, education…

There was a profoundly silly woman on the radio the other day bemoaning the practice of the middle classes to pay for extra tuition for their children to get them through important exams. This is apparently a big issue in educational circles.

Pass over, for a second, the notion that they might be doing this because of the failure of those same experts to construct an educational system which provides sufficient learning in the classroom. The argument appears to be twofold.

One, children who are pushed into passing exams risk ending up in a school where they cannot cope, once deprived of that additional coaching, and therefore fail. Two, it is unfair on classmates whose parents are unable to afford such coaching.

As it happens, both my children have had additional coaching ahead of exams, purely to fill in gaps left in their learning, whether by inattention in class or poor teaching.

Let’s take each argument at a time. The first falls apart immediately. What it is saying is, children should not be pushed because they might subsequently fail. It removes, therefore, the possibility that they might subsequently succeed, and thrive. Better they fail now than take the chance of succeeding or failing later.

The second is more egalitarian. But parents work hard and try to get on because they want to do well by their children, perhaps giving them the advantages they did not themselves enjoy. They may choose to forego luxuries such as expensive holidays or consumer goods to prioritise their children’s education. Other parents might have other priorities. Who are you to decide what those priorities should be? And how are you going to police it?

To take this further, our house is stuffed full of books bought for our use. Some have gone with my daughter to college because they are useful in her studies. Should we be prevented from buying them, or allowing our children to use them, because other parents do not do so? And how are you going to police that?

Take it further again. I speak rather bad French. I know a fair bit about history and science. I am therefore able, to some extent, to help my children with their homework. Is this “unfair”, because other children’s parents are ignorant? And how are you going to police that?

Truly, education is too important to be left to educationalists.

The Road To Hull.

Hull has been chosen the UK’s 2017 City of Culture. The rival candidates were Swansea and, er, Leicester and Dundee. I’d have gone for Swansea.

As it happens, I spent some time in Hull in the mid-1970s. There were just three visible outcrops of culture on what was a generally flat and bleak terrain. (The staunchly left-wing, staunchly Hullensian Housemartins hadn’t been invented yet. One of whom turned out to have been christened Quentin and raised and educated in leafy Surrey. Hey, it’s the myth that counts.)

Philip Larkin was then the head librarian at the University. He resolutely refused to discuss his poetry with anyone, so there didn’t seem much point in having him around.

The Hull Truck theatre company featured plays on either the Sheer Awfulness of Capitalism or the Sheer Awfulness of Men, depending on who was in charge of the relevant production. The one I recall best fell into the second category, various hapless males failing to achieve satisfactory relationships or much in the way of sexual relations. A musical comedy. My, how we laughed.

The third was whichever third tier visiting artists made it along the 16 miles of railway siding that separated Hull from the rest of the country. I recall attending a jazz concert. There were more people on stage than in the audience. I know it’s a cliché, but it is the literal truth. I counted.

The tour was funded by the Arts Council or some such body. You can take culture to the people, but…

And On The Seventh Day They Rested

My local train service has decided that it will not run on Sundays until close to Christmas.

This is wildly inconvenient for someone like me who occasionally has to go into work at the weekend, or for anyone keen to get their Christmas shopping in the West End done before it gets too manic. But it comes as no surprise.

One of the odder aspects of living in the UK in the second decade of the 21st century is that we no longer inhabit a country with a seven-day transport system. This makes us, as far as I know, unique among advanced industrialised economies. It is also a trend that has been introduced even as the UK as a whole has moved towards a seven day working week.

Even in the dark days of British Rail, whole lines were not shut down at the weekend to make engineering work easier. I reckon it started about 15 years ago. You can picture the scene, in the offices of whichever part of our Balkanised transport system first thought of it.

“You know, it would be much easier to do that engineering work if we could just shut the line down this weekend.”

“We can’t do that. There’d be an outcry. Anyway, we’re not allowed to. The terms of our agreement to run the franchise say we have to keep it open all week.”

“Well, maybe just this once…”

Picture the scene in the same office the next Monday. “They put up with it! They really did. That was easier than we thought. There’s nothing they can do. Now, what have we got on for this weekend…”

About half-way between then and now, by my reckoning, they even stopped apologising. Now, you are expected to log onto a website before your journey to see which lines it is convenient for them to keep open this weekend.

We would think it odd if we had to check with Tesco which stores they felt like opening before doing the weekly shop. And we would shop elsewhere. But these are monopolies. We do what they tell us.

I remarked on the strangeness of this several years ago to a younger colleague. She tittered nervously. “Oh, you’re such a grumpy old man…”

So there we have it. As far as her generation is concerned, suggest there is something odd about an advanced industrial country not having a seven day transport system and you are some sort of weirdo. So the previously unthinkable becomes accepted.

I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got

Some stories one can simply not make up. That the head of the country’s biggest ethical bank should turn out to be a coke-sniffing crystal meth abuser. And a Methodist minister to boot…

But what has occasioned much extra startlement over the Paul Flowers affair is that he appears to have no qualifications whatsoever to run a bank. I  know much more about banking then he does; both my teenage children would be more suitable to run the Co-op Bank than Flowers. They know as much about banking as he does, and neither, to the best of my knowledge, is a crystal meth abuser.

But with hindsight, this lack of any knowledge or ability to run a bank should not have come as a surprise at all. It is par for the course. There used to be an old joke that went around when the financial crisis kicked in. Name the odd one out: Andy Hornby and Lord Stevenson, the two top men on the board of HBOS, Fred Goodwin of Royal Bank of Scotland and Sir Terry Wogan. The answer, of course, is Wogan. He is the only one with any qualifications to be a banker.

Hornby is the interesting one here. A former management consultant, he first made his name at Asda. This means his job, as with other retailers, can be summarised as persuading people to buy things they do not necessarily need and which they may not be able to afford.

When Hornby pitched up at HBOS, his job seems to have been persuading people to take out loans they did not necessarily need and could not always afford. He can hardly be blamed; it is a seamless career progression, and he probably thought that was what they wanted. When he left HBOS, after it collapsed and took Lloyds with it, he pitched up at the company that owns Boots. Job description: persuading people to buy face creams, etc, etc.

Thereafter, he went to run the bookmaker Coral. Job description: persuading people to take on bets they are, statistically, more likely to lose than win and which they might not be able to afford. There is a pattern here.

When I first had a bank account, I went in mortal terror of my bank manager. He once gave me the choice of surviving over the next three weeks to payday on next to nothing or paying the mortgage. I paid the mortgage. Banking has plainly moved on since then, with the consequences we can all see.

One of the most closely studied economic statistics is the rate of sales on the high street, measured against the rate a year ago. The October numbers are out this week. They show a dip year on year. This is a Bad Thing. Sales, measured on a like-for-like basis, must grow year by year. Economic growth, the economy generally, depends on it.

Yes, I know, so do people’s jobs, businesses, and so on. But you do not have to be a hair shirt-wearing, “let’s all go and live in an unheated yurt and subsist on our own organically grown turnips” puritan to have doubts over an economic model that requires us to buy more and more stuff, on an accelerating basis, that we do not need and may not be able to afford. I am as guilty as any; I do not have a fashion habit, but I do have DVDs I haven’t watched, CDs I don’t have the time to listen to as much as I would like and a pile of books as yet unread. And I keep ordering more books, two this week on Amazon.

And Christmas is approaching. This is the season when we buy other people things they do not necessarily need, etc, etc. And so around and around it goes.

Dead Poets Society

One of the great things about having the education I was given, and it cost a small fortune then and would cost a larger one now, was the chance to learn things you didn’t think you wanted to know.

We learnt about Victorian poets. Tennyson was a touch early, though I do recall the line: “Though I mete and dole unequal laws/ To a savage race that know me not.” Any contemporary relevance?

We instead studied Arthur Hugh Clough and Matthew Arnold. Clough is now almost entirely forgotten, save for The Latest Decalogue, a shocking, scabrous rewriting of the Ten Commandments.

Or so it was, then. “Do not adultery commit/ Advantage seldom comes of it.” “Thou shalt not kill but needs not strive/Officiously to keep alive.” That last is the only bit that, of Clough, will survive. But it was shocking stuff, the equivalent of, “God save the Queen, the fascist regime…” Gosh, they must almost burst out of their wing collars.

It doesn’t sound like it now. Bear with me. They were both, Arnold and Clough, at  Rugby School, run by Arnold’s father, Thomas Arnold. The archetype of muscular Christianity. And friends, and contemporary poets with similar concerns.

These were the disintegration of accepted cultural mores under the onslaught of the ideas of Darwin and Arthur Russell Wallace, whose centenary of his death we are now celebrating. It is hard to appreciate the impact that Darwinism/Wallaceism had on contemporary Victorian society. It kicked the props from under a society that took the Bible as the literal truth.

We tend to believe that the real shock came from the idea that the Victorians were evolved from monkeys. As one anti-Darwinist famously said, “Are you suggesting you are descended from monkeys from your father’s side, or your mother’s?”

Actually not, the real shock was the notion that if creation was the consequence of blind forces, this left no role for God. The story of Adam and Eve, and all that followed, was a myth. All could be explained by a gradual, random process of evolution. There is no God, or at least we do not need one.

Arnold is best remembered for his “The Scholar Gypsy”, a tiresome piece of bucolic whimsy, and “Dover Beach”. Arnold was at Oxford with Newman but rejected the Christianity of his father, and of Newman too. This must have taken staggering courage. He died in 1888, Clough in 1861.

“Dover Beach” may have been started in 1851, but it was completed later, in perhaps 1865. Darwin published in 1959. Hanging over the poem is the metaphor of the sea of faith ebbing and going out. The tide going out, leaving the only cobbles remaining, drying out. The light of faith, seen across the Channel in France, is dimming.

“And we are here, as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

This is Arnold, and his contemporaries, peering into an abyss of a world where atoms move within their own orbits regardless, whole clades of creatures emerge, clash and die without divine intercession, the world moves on… All is inchoate, meaningless. Difficult to understand the psychic shock this must have inflicted.

Some critics suggest those “ignorant armies” may have referred to the Classical Greece that Arnold studied at Rugby.  ”Where ignorant armies clash by night.” How prescient, over the next one hundred or more  years? How many ignorant armies clashed by night?

This is the sound of a society, once secure in its own beliefs, having the props kicked out from under it, floundering in its own inability to find a viable alternative. Any contemporary relevance?

A tragedy, and a parallel

The other day I heard a story that made me hugely upset.

92 women and children were found in the desert in Niger, dead of dehydration.

You saw it too. I have no idea who was responsible. Most economic migrants are men, 20 or 30 something, seeking work. These women and children were almost certainly shipped out by professional traffickers, probably for prostitution.

Now, this is where it gets rather controversial. If you study the slave trade, most of the traffic was conducted by people living in the same county, for profit. Say a local leader, with captives from a pre-colonial war.

Say this today and you are accused of racism. We collude in the belief that all the evils of slavery were the fault of the hated colonial oppressors. Not true. Read Thomas Pakenham’s “The Scramble for Africa.”

There is a suggestion that the traffickers were connected to Al-Qaeda, or one of the many splinter groups operating in the region in its name. This would be a way of gathering finance for jihad.

I do not know. But it set me wondering. About the philosophical roots of jihadism. This blog is an attempt by me, at a time of some personal difficulty, to understand the moral issues that confront us, and make sense of them by setting down what I believe to be true.

An interesting parallel occurs. In the chaos that ensued from the Vietnam war, there rose in neighbouring Cambodia, now Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge. The Killing Fields. You know the story.

What is not much appreciated is that the Khmer Rouge were invaded and defeated by the armies of newly reunited Vietnam. That regime, not a terribly nice one by our standards, was not prepared to tolerate genocide and fascism on its borders. Vietnam had at the time the third largest standing army on the earth. Game over, Vietnam 1, the Khmer Rouge nil. A truly moral act, though probably with a dash of self interest.

The interesting thing about the Khmer Rouge is twofold. One, they were the product of the educated Cambodian middle class. Pol Pot and several of his colleagues were educated in Paris, the home of the colonial power as was, France.

Two, they were fanatically anti-education. Peasants had to work in the fields. Year Zero. Turn the clock back to a prelapsarian ideal world where the masses were not confused by education. The Khmer Rouge killed anyone wearing spectacles, the sign as they saw it of education, the middle class, reading…

The perpetrators of 9/11 and other atrocities were often middle class, from prosperous Saudi or other Middle East families. Bin Laden came from a wealthy family who control a large industrial combine.

The biggest group now operating in northern Nigeria, responsible for thousands of deaths, mainly but not exclusively Christian, is Boko Haram. Haram means forbidden, unclean, in Islam. Boko appears to be a corruption, correct me if I am wrong, of “books”. Learning is forbidden – need I say to women even more than men.

So one nihilistic death cult, in Kampuchea, morphs into another one. Middle class teenagers always rebel against their parents and believe their education is a waste of time. Then they grow up, and realise that tidying their room is occasionally necessary.

Some do not.

The God That Failed

I am too young to remember Churchill. Indulge me in a little nostalgia. One of my first memories was of playing boisterously on the landing of my prep school and being told not to make such a noise because “didn’t I know Churchill had died?”

To my parents’ generation, he was the dominant political figure, who came from out of the shadows to save the country from fascism. The face at the top of this blog is Thomas Paine. It might as well have been Churchill, I now realise.

To my generation, there are two dominant political figures. One is Margaret Thatcher, the other is Tony Blair.

You have to have been around before Thatcher to appreciate the difference she made. It is a cliche to say that we did our homework by candlelight while the bodies went unburied and the rubbish piled up in the streets. But I saw the rubbish, I lit a candle when the lights went out – I never saw the bodies. I recall that grinding sense of decline, that the country would never get better, would only get worse. Remind you of anything?

Thatcher changed it all, mainly, I believe, for the better. Tough if you were an out of work miner, I know.

Then along came Anthony Aloysius Blair. He stepped out of the ruins of a Labour Party dominated by, God help us, Tony Benn, Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot. I have met two of them. Both transparently decent, honourable people. Were we really meant to vote for them?

A digression. From where I sit, I observe the worlds of business and politics. Politicians, in my experience, tend to be nicer people than businessmen. You go into politics, generally, to make the world a better place. You go into business to make money. Go figure.

Blair was one of us. He was even in a rock band, for heaven’s sake. In the early 1970s, everyone was in a rock band. I was in one, too, for about 19 minutes, until my musical incompetence became apparent and I went off to do something more useful, like writing for a living.

Blair said to us, let me take you by the hand and lead you to the shining city on the hill. Let me make you a new Jerusalem. Let us create a fair, equitable, social democratic society where all are taxed fairly and their money is used to better the lot of those worse off.

We can be like Norway, Sweden or Holland, decent, centrist polities where no one need feel ashamed of being well off.

A digression. Try typing into Google, Norwegian death metal. Better off, don’t. Andreas Breivik? In Sweden they shot their Prime Minister, for reasons still not clear. I worked in Holland. Nice enough place, a bit dull.

We voted for Blair. I remember the day. Mayday. Beautiful, sunny spring weather. What I believe is known in literature as the pathetic fallacy,

That model is broken. No government is going to be elected again by saying, give us your taxes and we will throw billions into public services and make the world a better place. It didn’t work.

For reasons I will not go into, I have lots of experience of the public services, health, social services, the rest. Maybe for another posting, but trust me, we did not get value for money.

Koestler described communism as the god that failed. It started with the best of intentions, free the serfs, overthrow the aristocracy, usher in a new age of man. It ended in the gulags, a corrupt, bloated state that could not feed its own people and fell apart under the weight of its inherent self-contradictions.

For many of my generation, Blair is the God that failed. We will never go down that road again. The model is broken, the feet are of clay. The road to Hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

Sorry Tony. I met you once, too. A transparently decent man. And here’s a funny thing. When Thatcher died, many people danced on her grave. When Blair dies, and I hope it is a long time away, Tony, we are of the same generation, few will dance on his grave.

Make of that what you will.