On Armenia, And Armenians

This week I attended a service at Westminster Abbey to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

Not a sentence I thought I would ever write, and not one I shall write again, presumably. Armenia was ruled, at the time of the First World War, by the Russians and the Ottoman Turks. It is now an independent nation, one of those to emerge from the wreckage of the old Soviet Union, though it was semi-autonomous before then. In that anywhere was.

In and about 1915, a million and a half or more Armenians died in what is described, perhaps accurately, as the first genocide of the 20th century. At the hands of the Turks, who have so far avoided any admission of guilt.

The service in Westminster Abbey came after the decision by the Armenian Church, earlier this year, to deem all those who died then as martyrs, a little like beatification under the Catholic Church. (Forgive me for any theological solecisms, I am a member of neither church.)

It was performed by CofE worthies such as Richard Chartres, Bishop of London (good sermon, Richard), and the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of the Armenian Church, among others from that church as well. The equivalent of the Pope, I was told by an Armenian next to me who was helpful enough to interpret events. I felt truly privileged to be a part of it, though regular readers will know my own spiritual views are a little unorthodox.

No pun intended, though the church of Armenia is Orthodox, akin to but independent of the Russian and Greek faiths.

There were 2,200 people present in the Abbey, the majority, I must guess, of Armenian descent. This was, I imagine, the biggest event for them for a generation. Two things struck me.

One, how remarkably smart, well turned out and prosperous they looked. There is what statisticians call a pre-selection bias here, because those who attend such events tend to be among the more prosperous of their community.

Still, I know nothing of the Armenian diaspora but I imagine it followed the usual pattern. First generation poor, second more prosperous, middle class, so onwards, upwards. The Armenians have a reputation for being clever, industrious and mercantile. Such people are not always loved by those less gifted who live among them, or rule over them.

Ah, yes. That second perception. This is where I get into trouble, but I could not help but be reminded of the Jewish diaspora. The Armenians, and the Jews who arrived here at the turn of the last century and in the 1930s, seem to share the enviable ability of being able to ride two horses at once, to retain their cultural roots while assimilating into whatever society they adopted, be it Britain, France (many Armenians went there) or the US.

The Armenians had certain advantages over the Jews, also known for their industriousness and mercantile abilities, I would suggest. The Jewish racial genotype is a recognisable one, always the recipient over the past century of discrimination as a consequence. (Interestingly, less so today. I was brought up with Jewish friends and often had no idea they were such. My parents, and their generation, always knew. Somehow.)

Few, I imagine, over the past century discriminated against an Armenian for being so. Still, it was clear from the service that though you would have no idea of their religious or ethnic background if you met them in your everyday life, they retained an identity entirely their own, and an awareness of that background that ran in parallel with their identity as British.

I think I could spot an Armenian, though to be fair I have known three in my life, one quite well. Blue eyes and dark hair, often, and any name ending in “–ian”.

An extraordinary experience, then.  I hope I have not been patronising to my hosts in giving my untutored response to the ceremony, and a subject I know little about. It has taken me several days to order my thoughts.

I wonder if that ability to ride two horses that way might have lessons elsewhere? No more said.

“Mer Hayrenik’, azat ankakh/ Vor aprel e dare dar/ Yur vordik’e ard kanch’ um e/ Azat, ankakh Hayastan.”


On Labour, And Accountability

A week ago a piece of paper appeared through the door.Would I care to vote for XXX XXX, the Labour candidate for the forthcoming London Assembly elections?

I emailed back thus to the relevant address:

“Many thanks for your suggestion that I vote for you in the elections for the London Assembly. As a long time Labour supporter I find it impossible to vote for a party led by an apologist for terrorists with a director of strategy and communications who is an apologist for Stalin. Perhaps you would let me know when you decide to return to the path of liberal democracy, and I will reconsider my decision. Yours in deepest sadness…”

A week later and no reply.

Do you think Old Labour is relying on its core votes and refusing to engage with anyone who might need persuading of its strategy? Do they think this will win them the next election?

On Generation Selfish

This is a depressingly familiar scenario. I am sitting on the Tube, when a heavily pregnant woman gets on and stands several seats away. The rest of those seated are healthy-looking 20-somethings. They are suddenly even more obsessed than usual with their smartphones.

Not one moves, including the two in nearby priority seats, which are clearly labelled as for the infirm and those less able to stand. I get up and offer my seat. She sits down gratefully.

At this stage I normally say something loudly like, I expect all these people are far too tired to get up, even if they are half my age. This is ignored – those smartphones get even closer attention.

What is wrong with these people? Two thoughts. One, the conditions on public transport are now so horrible, so overcrowded, that in their view it’s everyone for themselves.

Two, that entire generation is irredeemably selfish, having been brought up in the belief that they are entitled to anything they can grab, and sod everyone else. They’re terribly concerned about global warming, or homophobia, or institutional racism, but unable to consider offering a simple, everyday courtesy to someone more in need than them.

Generation Selfish, then.

On China, And Business

I had a colleague once who was very right wing indeed. He did seem to have an odd fondness, though, for the People’s Republic of China, the last remaining communist state on Earth of any significance.

This week’s state visit got me wondering about this. China is a country that for several decades has been utterly focussed on prosperity by any means, mainly through self-preservation, keeping its populace content with consumer goods and a better standard of living and less likely to kick over the traces over democracy and free speech.

This has entailed a business sector largely untrammelled by environmental or workplace safety constraints. A docile, flexible workforce who will do what they are told or starve, because there are no laws to protect their jobs. No requirement for employers to provide pensions. No trade unions.

A dirigiste political culture that says, if that nuclear reactor needs to go there, that’s where it goes. Ditto, bridges, roads, any other infrastructure. No arguments, no protests, no nimbies protecting their back yards.

Yes, I can see how, to the more libertarian, gung-ho end of UK business, all the above might seem attractive. A classic example of political extremes bending around to meet in the middle.

On Music, And Drugs

A study by a professor at Cambridge University has found that people with enhanced musical abilities are more likely to take drugs.

On the face of it, this should not surprise. People who are gifted musically are more likely to make a living playing music, and musicians, jazz or rock, have tended to live on the fringes of society, where drugs are part of a non-conformist lifestyle. (As far as I am aware, this is not true of specialists in early lute music or the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Though who knows?)

QED then. Except that I think there is more to it than that. Music is an attempt to induce and inhabit an altered state of mind. This is as true of Scarlatti as in the mosh pit at a Linkin Park gig. Rock music, and to some extent jazz, certainly in the latter’s early days, is Dionysian. It attempts to break the shackles of everyday life, often by subsuming the ego within a group, and by means of wild, irrational, cathartic behaviour.

Again, think of that mosh pit. Or, perhaps, Scarlatti, if a more peaceful performance in a concert hall can be seen to serve the same function, of subsuming the individual within a mass experience.

No surprise, then, that religions have so often used music to enhance the religious experience, again among a mass of worshippers. The first primitive forms of music, comprised of rhythmic drumming and crude bone pipes, would have been used by shamans to allow early people a way of escaping, for a time, their difficult everyday lives. Drugs were often a feature of such ceremonies, in cultures as far apart as the original inhabitants of North and South America and the ancient Scythian steppe nomads.

(The writer Mick Farren, who knows a fair bit about the subject, once wrote a book that drew parallels between a music festival and a mass religious event.)

The Cambridge study set me wondering, though. To what extent is music affected or influenced by the particular drug fashionable at the time. Or, to what extent does the style of music influence the choice of drug?

I do not use drugs and believe the world would, on balance, be a better place if they did not exist. Except for my drug of choice, which requires a corkscrew to access it. Call me hypocritical.

Bebop: a frantic, jittery form of jazz, highly stylised. Drug of choice: heroin. It kept musicians going through the antisocial hours they kept. Did it influence that jittery, restless style? Possibly.

The Mods: fast, frantic, short songs, influenced by American soul. Choice of drug; amphetamines, in pill form. These, initially developed to keep combat pilots awake, were ideally suited to the Mod lifestyle. And the music.

Psychedelia: and LSD, under whose influence 20 minute song cycles about purple lizards eating the sun probably make perfect sense. The sound effects, heavy reverb, phasing, echo, were designed to mirror the LSD experience. Or so people who have tried it tell me. See also prog rock.

Along comes marijuana. This has the effect of distorting the time sense. Minutes seem like hours, or pass immediately. Ten minute guitar solos? Any form of drum solo? Case proven.

Cocaine: imparting a sense of invulnerability, and a tremendous sense of self worth. Creating some of the worst monsters in the history of drugs or music as a side product. Pretty well any 70s dinosaur band playing to a stadium of 60,000 people, then. Bombastic, huge, overwhelming. Point made.

Fast forward, very fast, to punk, and bathtub-produced amphetamine. Very fast, very short songs, using two or at best three chords. Case proven again.

 Then we come to the second Summer of Love, and commercially produced MDMA. Which induces a state in which long, simplistic, repetitive music can be endured and danced to for hours at a time. Which engenders strong feelings of affection for strangers within the group experience, the rave.

I once asked a schoolfriend, whose experience of drugs sat somewhere between mine and Keith Richards’, what sort of drug early rock and roll should ideally be accompanied by. He thought for a moment. “Alcohol.”

(One day I shall write my piece on the influence of technology on musical styles.)

On Falling Numbers of Wage Slaves

You will have read elsewhere that inflation is below zero and wages, after a period of stagnation, are rising again.

That last is generally ascribed to a recovery after the recession. With unemployment now having apparently settled below 6 per cent in the UK, people are confident enough to ask for more money, and employers are prosperous enough to afford this.

There is a much wider picture, though. The world is running out of wage slaves.

Have a look at this blog from Duncan Weldon, Newsnight economics correspondent. You can find it here. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34488950

Weldon’s thesis, and that of other economists, is that the proportion of the world population that is in work rose sharply in the four decades to 2013. The “Baby Boomers” born after the War came to maturity, and contraception kept the number of dependent children down, allowing more of them to work.

Then China and the former Soviet Union entered the world economy. Weldon says the global workforce available to employers roughly doubled in two decades.

Since 2012, when the share of the world population of working age peaked, it has been declining. The Baby Boomers started to retire. That lower birth rate meant there were fewer of their offspring available to replace them. Before that, the ready availability of labour had been driving down wages across the world, in countries as different economically as the US, Japan and Sweden.

This is why the Germans are so ambivalent about migration. They appreciate they will have to import workers from younger working populations. There is a limit to the extent that can happen, for reasons of social cohesion.

Acting against this fall in the availability of labour, of course, is automation and advances in IT, I would point out. How they will balance out remains to be seen.

This looks like a huge demographic change, though. Already the rising cost of living in cities like London is leading to staff shortages. Ask any recruitment specialist, and I speak to them regularly, and they tell of a lack of trained people, especially in areas such as IT. The IT crowd can in some places name its price. And demand offices in trendy areas such as Clerkenwell with chill-out rooms, table tennis tables and Spacehoppers to get around the office. (This is true, BTW, except perhaps the Spacehoppers. Well, not in every office.)

If that supply of available labour does tighten, then the current rise in wages, against a low inflation environment, will accelerate drastically. It has to. Those higher wages, though, may then stoke inflation. Which will trigger further demand for higher wages.

We have been here before. The Black Death in the 14th Century, when a third of the population died, led to a shortage of agricultural labour. Wages shot up. The extra freedom this gave workers was one of the factors that broke the old feudal system, and led to the rise of the mercantile middle classes, and the transfer of economic and political power from the old aristocracy to them. It ultimately led to the Civil War.

One thing that keeps the chief executives I speak to every day awake at night is that shortage of the right people for the right jobs. This is why the business community is so keen on immigration, not just to find low-paid workers but to bring in well-trained technocrats.

If the above is true, the relationship between employee and employer could be set for a radical change, to the great benefit of the former. Bring it on.

On Chief Executives, And The Blob

In my job I get to meet a lot of businessmen and a fair few politicians, obviously. I have suggested before that politicians generally go into politics to make the world a better place. Businessmen aim to make money. Their respective personality types may often reflect that.

What is interesting is when the two worlds interact. There have been successful businessmen, often entrepreneurs, who have done well as politicians – one thinks of Lord Young of Graffham, who supported Margaret Thatcher so loyally, or Michael Heseltine. Who often didn’t.

I struggle to think of a leading politician who then became successful in business. Most politicians have a legal background or, increasingly, have been policy wonks at this or that think tank or pressure group. This does not provide much training for the real world.

Every now and then a business type, having made his or her pile, decides to do their bit for the common good, by taking a post with government or another public role. This is generally a disaster, involving several frustrating years of being sidelined or ignored, publishing reports that no one reads.

Stuart Rose, who used to run Marks & Spencer, has popped up this week running one of the various pro- or anti-EU bodies that seem to have proliferated like the old breed of Trotskyist splinter groups, dividing over policy differences largely imperceptible to outsiders.

Rose is with one that wants us to stay in. I would have thought, until relatively recently, that an In vote was a racing certainty. Given the migrant crisis, I am less sure.

I suspect Rose will ultimately regret his decision. A chairman or chief executive has immense power, at least until the shareholders in the City lose patience, and can generally get things done. (Often the wrong things – see my recent post on Incompetent Leadership.)

The first thing politicians discover is a surprising impotence in office, against vested interests and obstinate civil servants. Michael Gove famously described those vested interests, when he was in charge of education, as “The Blob”. Chief executives don’t have to worry about The Blob.

On Repressive Tolerance

n 1965 Herbert Marcuse, a left-wing German political philosopher, coined the phrase “repressive tolerance”. I have not read his work in German, so I cannot say if it is more or less turgid than the extracts I have read in English.

He tried to square a difficult circle among left-wingers. What if people, the proletariat, insists in adopting political views that were at odds with those they should be supporting, that is, communism, state ownership of industry, etc, etc?

The solution was the withdrawal of tolerance, and free speech and assembly, from those that do not accept this line. As the views are wrong, ipso facto, it is in everyone’s interest not to allow them to be expressed. Marcuse himself talked of “groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.”

You will see how racial discrimination is conflated with opposing the extension of state benefits, which has an ominously contemporary ring. You can see where this is going. The hard left decided that those who did not accept their views were somehow brainwashed by liberal/capitalist society. It was in their interests to be enlightened, to see the true path, and the way this could best be done was to allow no dissenting views that might confuse them.

Some took this further. Left wing/anarchist movements such as the Baader Meinhof gang in West Germany, who were influenced by Marcuse, thought that capitalist society was by definition fascist, but disguised its real nature to fool the masses and divert them from that righteous path.

Capitalist society therefore needed to be shown up for what it really was. Acts of terrorism could do this, by provoking a backlash.  The repressive state, in acting against those who themselves were acting in the workers’ interests, would be shown to be repressive.

Some who adhered to this philosophy called themselves Situationists. They coined the phrase “commodity fetishism”, the provision of consumer goods to the masses to keep them quiescent.

So you have a political movement convinced that the judgement of democracy is flawed, because the voters are deluded into making the wrong choice. You have the belief that under such circumstances, violence is not only justified, but the only moral course of action.

I am, sadly, reminded of the only political movement today that, outside the fringes of the far right, believes that their opponents are so evil as to be beyond sufferance. That if people with whose views you disagree choose to congregate in Manchester for their annual conference, it is acceptable to threaten them, spit on them, throw eggs at them. “Tory scum.”

And that if the democratic process has failed to provide an administration of your choosing, that process must be defeated by “direct action”. Which sounds ominously like violence on the streets.

Repressive tolerance.

On Hotels, And People Power

I stayed at a provincial hotel the other day. The receptionist was surly, the room tiny and cramped.

I came down to breakfast to find no one in attendance. I found a place and helped myself to the Continental buffet. Someone bustled over and explained that I should have waited to be seated, however long that took. I was shown to a corner facing a door. Oh, and the food was awful.

What can you do? Nowadays, go to the website where you booked the room and leave a comment. Which we did, to discover that a number of other guests had complained about the rude receptionist, the small rooms, the poor food.

The power of the Internet. Not entirely appreciated, in this case. We know we can order pretty much anything online, at any time, and have it delivered almost immediately. We know that retailers can no longer get away with gouging us on prices, because we can find out first what a product should be sold for.

We increasingly realise that if a business such as a hotel is offering a poor service, we can add our voice to anyone saying the same. After a while, that business will suffer.

The same with tradesmen, on specialist websites such as Checkatrade. We recently gave one who had done an exceptional job, we thought, an exceptional write-up. He was noticeably grateful, because he knew what it meant for his business.

Power to the people. A pity we do not have the same power against the banks, the utilities, the monopoly service providers, often state-owned or state-controlled. We need a similar lever to make their lives difficult and their livelihoods less secure.

On Feudal Grovelling

Jeremy Corbyn and his team are widely seen as having committed another tactical blunder when he refused to meet the Queen for his admission to the Privy Council, citing a previous arrangement he had made. I am not so sure.

The ceremony involves kneeling in front of the Sovereign and kissing her – or his, as appropriate – hand. It is hard to see what this has to do with a modern functioning liberal democracy. By prostrating yourself, you are confirming your inferior social status, by kissing, your enduring fealty. All very feudal.

I would find it hard to offer the Royal Family the sort of obsequious behaviour they seem to think they deserve. If indeed they do. I suspect a fair few of my fellow citizens, note the word, would feel the same and would think Corbyn has found a tactful way out of a potentially embarrassing situation while sticking to his principles.

As to offering the same sort of feudal grovelling to Charles… Hell will freeze over.

Anyone half-way sane, in the early part of the 21st Century, will be aware that a hereditary monarchy requires a throw of the genetic dice each and every generation, and that while the current incumbent was the result of a good throw, the same cannot be said for the next generation. Oh no.

As to the one after, there are encouraging signs that they appreciate that the current state of affairs cannot continue much longer, and that the descendants of a minor sprig of the German aristocracy which happened to be in the right place, historically, at the right time cannot expect to be treated like medieval monarchs with the power of life and death. We shall see.