Inside Llewyn Davis

It says much about our expectations of Hollywood films that Inside Llewyn Davis should have arrived garlanded with so many awards and so much praise – five star reviews from The Times and The Guardian.

It is a well-scripted, well acted film about a folk musician who has the misfortune to emerge just before Dylan – on the intellectual level of a middle-brow popular novel.  Jonathan Coe, Nick Hornby, Iain Banks, David Nicholls, say.

It isn’t, like most blockbusters, half an hour longer than it needs to be, to be fair. I grew up around failing musicians, though I never had any ambitions, and much of this rings true. The belief that what you are doing, playing to a few people in a small pub, is somehow worthier than getting a proper job. At some stage, the real world intrudes. You accept you are not going to make it, and music becomes a hobby.

What the film brings out, inadvertently, is the sheer awfulness, the greyness, of the times. It is set in 1961, just 16 years after the end of the War, an event as near then as the second year of the Blair administration, the Kosovo War or the founding of Google today.

The ugly hairstyles, the drab, fuddy-duddy clothing – Mad Men was happening elsewhere, in a parallel universe, presumably. Even in hip, happening Greenwich Village, the music was dull, po-faced, cable-sweatered. No wonder Dylan went electric.

That was the US. Over here it was worse. You have to have lived through the Sixties to realise this. Visionaries such as Terence Conran, Robert Carrier, Elizabeth David were beginning to show us that meals could be a thing of joy, that furniture did not have to look like it was designed by an MoD committee circa 1942.

But fashion, haute cuisine and design were still only for the rich. For most people, olive oil was something you bought in an Italian shop in Soho to cure earache. You went out seldom because there were not a lot of places to go. And there wasn’t much money around. The cinema, the pub – though these were almost exclusively places where males drank beer.

If you ate out, there was no point in complaining that the food was awful. It’s food. What did you expect? The acme of culinary exploration was the local steak house. Where you ordered steak, a dish as easy to prepare in your own home. You ended the meal with one of those sorbets that was a real orange or lemon, scooped out and filled with water ice. With a green waxed paper on a wire on top, to imitate a leaf. So sophisticated. I wonder if they still make them?

That was in prosperous, vibrant London. Elsewhere it was even worse. If, as Larkin said, sex began in 1963, then for most people the Sixties, in terms of social, artistic and cultural freedom, started about ten years after that.

When I had my first Chinese meal, in the Kings Road, circa 1966, it was so exotic, so outré, that if you had told me it was Martian, I would have half believed you. The opening of our first local Augustus Barnett, where you could actually choose from different bottles of wine, lots and lots of them, was a revelation.

Sometimes we don’t know when we’re well off.


On Banks and ATMs

Three banks, Lloyds, TSB and the Halifax, have suffered one of those unfortunate computer glitches that prevent customers from paying for goods purchased or getting access to their money.

These are not uncommon; I am not a banking IT expert but I suspect that retail banking has provided so little in the way of profits for years, by contrast with the sheer joy of playing the world derivatives markets with shareholders’ money, that little investment has gone into those systems.

Retail banking is free because no one is prepared to pay for it. It shouldn’t be, but people have become used to not being charged if they stay in credit, and no bank is going to be the first to bring n charges. So you get what you pay for.

In a high interest rate environment, banks made money on the amounts you kept in your account to tide you over to the next payday. With rates virtually zero, the bank sees little in the way of profit unless it is stinging you for an unauthorised overdraft.

Last summer RBS, the Natwest and Ulster Bank had a similar problem. Ulster Bank, which serves the north and the Republic, saw its machines frozen for weeks, with house purchases delayed and some genuine cases of hardship.

Halfway through this process, its boss made a magnanimous gesture. He would not be taking this year’s bonus.

You have to wonder how the terms of that bonus were assessed, and in what mad world the person responsible for this abject failure could expect that extra reward in the first place. You and I, unless you are a banker, get a bonus only if our performance is rather better than expected. If the department you run shut up shop for more than a month, your performance would hardly be deemed good enough to warrant an extra discretionary payment.

Ulster Bank indeed failed to provide the service its customers were entitled to for a whole month or more, yet its boss was still deemed entitled to a bonus. You can be pretty certain the people in charge of those other banks whose systems have just crashed will be equally well rewarded, whatever inconvenience the customers suffered over the weekend.

Funny business, banking.

Sexual Harassment

Some years ago I witnessed an unpleasant and embarrassing example of sexual harassment.

The venue was an early evening party being hosted by a fairly small City PR agency. This was not exactly overburdened with clients; at this level of the market, such businesses are often hand to mouth affairs.

One of our hosts was a well turned out professional woman in her late thirties or early forties. A client arrived, very drunk. Probably straight from lunch.

He proceeded to paw the woman, making a series of stupid and crude remarks. Not that crude, but certainly uncalled for.

In any other situation, the woman’s reaction would start with a stern, get your hands off me. If the man persisted, a slap might follow, a wounding comment along the lines of, what on earth do you think I would see in a shambling, fat old drunk like you, and a demand that he leave and have the decency to apologise in the morning.

This was not open to the woman. He was a client, and she could not afford to upset him. She resorted to a weak attempt at humour. Oh he’s such a joker, isn’t he? You can imagine how she had to handle it. Some of us wondered if we should say something. But it might rebound on her business.

I have no idea what Lord Rennard might or might not have done. He cuts an implausible figure as a lothario; he makes Francois Hollande look like George Clooney.

But in cases where older men in authority prey on younger women with rather less authority, it is all about power. Not necessarily sex. Most well-balanced males would derive no pleasure from fondling a woman who did not want to be fondled.

And the women concerned dare not offend the man, because his position of authority might be used to block the advancement of their career. These days, sexual harassment in the workplace is taken very seriously. But this would not have helped that PR woman trying to keep her business afloat. Or, perhaps, those seeking progress up the slippery pole of politics.

One commentator asked why if Rennard was behaving as alleged, the women concerned did not simply administer a slap. This is why. They daren’t, because it might rebound on them later.

This is why the exercise of such power by those in authority should immediately bar them from holding any such position of authority.

On Pensions

What planet do accountants and pensions experts inhabit? I ask because another po-faced study from a think-tank, backed up by the usual actuarial data, has told us that we need to put away six times’ more of our salaries towards our pensions than we do at present if we can expect a halfway decent living in our old age.

On planet Earth, many people are having to choose between feeding themselves or heating their houses. Mercifully, there are signs that wages are beginning to rise at a higher rate than inflation, but we are almost all of us rather poorer than we were five years ago.

A third of all young people between the ages of 20 and 34 still live with their parents, because they can’t afford to rent, let alone buy a house. The notion that they, or even the rest of us who are rather older and may own our own homes,  should squirrel away a further large chunk of our salary to spend  decades hence would be laughable, if it wasn’t so downright insulting.

It isn’t going to happen. It ought to, I agree, but it isn’t, so there is no point in suggesting it.

It deflects attention from the only possible solution to the pensions dilemma, which is that we are all, if we do not want to be church mice poor in our old age, going to have to work beyond our current retirement age. This suggestion is usually met with outrage, and dunderheaded headlines like, work till you drop.

Except that we are not going to drop, most of us, until we are in our 80s, and no one is suggesting we work until then. Just for a few years more. The current retirement age was introduced at a time when many people would not be living much longer than that, and many really were facing working until they dropped.

Later retirement is going to happen, because the alternative is so awful that most of us, if we think about it rationally, would prefer to keep working. The sooner we face up to it the better.

The Dark Enlightenment

When I designed this blog, I wanted it to have an Enlightenment theme. Not only was this a profoundly important development in our history and towards the evolution of a free society, it is not, it seems to me, a process that is irreversible.

The Enlightenment saw a number of trends come together. The idea of basic human rights, though philosophers such as Hugo Grotius had already been moving towards that concept, the separation of church and state, the belief that a proper society could be constructed by rationalism, the codification of the sciences, even a different relationship between the armed forces and the citizen.

This was not inevitable, and there are people for whom it is anathema, and who believe the above gains should be reversed. The religious right in the US, say.  And I could step just a few streets away from my office and meet plenty of people who would prefer to live in a medieval theocracy.

And now I read of the Dark Enlightment. This is a political movement that lurks on the extreme fringes of the Internet. It seems to be made up mainly of angry white males. They want the demolition of democracy, which they see as “fundamentally degenerative”, and a return to what looks like feudalism.

They believe that civilisation is about to collapse, and must be replaced by an autocracy where the strong rule and the weak go to the wall. They describe themselves as neo-reactionaries. They do not seem to have much time for women’s rights. Some of them are plainly highly intelligent.

It is hard to know how seriously to take this lot. There are pop culture references in their work to Star Wars, the Matrix films and even Harry Potter. They believe they are opposed by a shadowy movement or ideological network they call the Cathedral, built on top of the university system and the media, which administers the state religion of liberal progressivism.

I have a feeling we may be hearing more of the Dark Enlightenment.

Of Juries, and the Police

There is a computer at Kingston Crown Court that loves me deeply. It is so impressed by my charisma, my intellect, my deep understanding of jurisprudence, that it has selected me for jury duty three times. In less than 40 years.

This is, statistically, out of the ordinary. But it has given me an an usual insight into the working of the jury system.

We learn that, post Hillsborough, post Andrew Mitchell, etc, fewer and fewer people trust the police. This will have an unforeseen effect on the jury system.

The average jury, and I speak as one who knows, is made up of a majority of Sheep and a minority of Wolves. Most people are unable to decide on a matter as important as whether someone is guilty or innocent. We weren’t there. How can we know what really happened?

It is the job of the Wolves to drive the Sheep to the proper conclusion. Most defendants who have made it as far as a jury trial are guilty. The alternative is that they are the victim of some ghastly conspiracy, involving the entire local constabulary. All the police are lying. Or of some weird, unbelievable coincidence.

In many juries, there is the odd Anarchist. Someone who believes that no one is guilty, on ideological grounds. That the police fit people up. They cannot be trusted. Some will be minor criminals themselves, unwilling to convict on the basis of, there but for the grace of God…

If trust in the police ebbs further, the number of Anarchists will grow. The number of majority convictions already reflects those people who will not convict, despite all the evidence. Get beyond a certain percentage, and the jury system becomes unworkable.

Take my advice. If you are guilty, opt for a jury trial. Your odds are better than 50/50.

Not that the jury system does not throw up the odd piece of genuine folk wisdom. As I walked out of one courtroom, a fellow juror turned to me. “He’s just a piece of Sarf London rubbish. I should know. I was married to one.”

The Power of the Brand

My daughter, who is reading history at Cambridge, has been studying early Rome, and King Pyrrhus or Pyrrhos, one of its first enemies. He, of the Pyrrhic victory, was murdered in the Greek city state of Argos.

My daughter and her fellow students cannot stop laughing at the idea of King Pyrrhus dying in Argos. Probably still waiting for his number to come up…

Some Myths About Afghanistan

It has been said repeatedly, during our withdrawal from Afghanistan, that no one ever managed to conquer that country, and our attempts to do so always ended in disaster.

This has become received wisdom. But the historical record shows it is untrue. There have been three British-Afghan wars; the score is the Brits 2, the Afghans 1, which is not what most people would assume. Furthermore the British Empire has never tried to invade and conquer Afghanistan. This was never seen as either achievable or necessary.

Our earlier adventures in that country  involved replacing a ruler who was not to our taste, and seen as too close to the Russians, with someone more amenable. All part of the Great Game. One could say our most recent involvement there was an attempt to do something similar; such are the times changed that the enemy is no longer Russia but Islamic-inspired terrorism.

The First Afghan War, 1839 to 1842, was indeed a disaster. Virtually none of the invading force came back, though a reprisal expedition crushed an Afghan army and levelled Kabul’s main bazaar.

The Second  Afghan War was largely a rerun and started in 1878. The British got out, just about, and left “our” ruler behind as Amir. A success, therefore. This was the war from which Dr Watson returned to meet Sherlock Holmes.

The third Afghan War was in 1919, and involved an unprovoked invasion by the Afghans through the Kyber Pass. The invasion was seen off, by the use of modern armaments and bombing by the RAF.

I leave it to history to decide the winner of the latest round.

On Academe

I was sitting next to a senior academic at dinner the other day.  He made three interesting points.

One, that the coming of tuition fees was pushing our universities further towards the US model. There, at Ivy League colleges, say, the most promising students get bursaries and don’t pay fees. All the others, those that are good enough to get in and well off enough to afford the fees, are subsidising those high achievers.

This sounds to me like a good solution, in terms of social mobility. It is certainly better than allowing the dim offspring of the rich to buy their way in, at the expense of the genuinely gifted.

Second, no one in academe can understand what the Government was doing when it set tuition fees at a maximum of £9,000. Here he echoed the views of an old City friend of mine, who is now serving on the advisory board at one of the Russell Group. Both said this. How much did the Government think we were going to charge, if offered a ceiling of £9,000?

Well, £9,000, as it turned out. Charge less, if you are a top ranking institution, and you are not only giving up possible income, you are saying implicitly that your course is not as good as, and so cheaper than, the equivalent at your peers elsewhere.

Third, UK universities have yet to grasp the opportunities offered by the Internet. This is a bit more abstruse. But it seems some of the lesser colleges, often former polytechnics, have evolved skills in one particular discipline. Bath is apparently very good at photography.

The technology exists to provide these specialist courses online, using the sort of social media sites employed by those massive online games which allow participants to communicate and co-operate, along with bulletin boards to do the same.

He envisaged it thus. A college offers a specialist course to thousands of students worldwide, who sign up for the first year at a relatively low cost. By the second, those that want to persevere and show some aptitude may actually take up residence at the college for the completion of their course. Those that drop out do not first take up rare places at the college, and nor do they have the expense of physically locating there.

I have no idea if this would work. But I am not a senior academic.

On Fracking

I know someone who, for purely professional reasons, was at the anti-fracking protests at Balcombe, West Sussex in the summer. He was talking to one of the protestors. What did she have against fracking? Actually, she said, she didn’t know much about the subject. Her friends were against it, and she just tagged along.

How could she afford to take time off work, for a protest that meant so little to her? Oh, she was a teacher. She was in the middle of the long summer holidays.

That anecdote just about says it all. Most protestors over fracking are not terribly well informed. Many inhabitants of Balcombe, though they were disinclined to see their picture postcard village disfigured by industry and were presumably prosperous enough not to worry too much about their gas bills, were by the time the protest was over not too sorry to see the back of their temporary neighbours.

Fracking for shale oil and gas has been going on for years in the US. Not only has it transformed the economy, to the extent that the Americans are starting to build new chemicals plants rather than importing necessary raw materials for industry, but the scare stories about the process have been disproved. Check the website of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

There used to be a grim oil industry joke that God had located the planet’s hydrocarbons in places where they were either hard to get at or under the control of some wildly unstable regimes. God chose to place oil and gas shale in more convenient locations. In the UK, they are generally in places that would benefit from any economic activity.

Fracking causes minute, barely measurable earth tremors. So, too, does coal mining. Had the people now protesting over fracking been in positions of authority in the 18th Century, that’s it for the Industrial Revolution, then. We’d all still be living in wattle and daub huts tugging our forelocks to the local squire.

I suspect that, in their ill-informed way, some of those protestors think this would be a good thing.