Issue 124: 2017 10 12: A Sense Of Belonging (Lynda Goetz)

12 October 2017

A Sense Of Belonging

A primal need.

By Lynda Goetz 

I happened by chance to listen to part of a programme on Radio 4 this morning on the choral history of Britain.  In it, the British baritone and composer Roderick Williams OBE was exploring the way music used to be much more a part of everyday British life than it is today; how, although there is currently a revival of interest in choral music, daily singing is not part of most people’s lives the way it used to be in a past when workers sang together as a way of helping to get through the working day.  I then read about the new series which Neil MacGregor, former director of the British museum, starts on Radio 4 on October 23rd,  ‘tracing 40,000 years of believing and belonging’.  I was suddenly struck by how little many of us living in modern Britain today really have much sense of belonging to anything.

A majority of us voted back in June 2016 to leave the EU, an institution in which, as Theresa May pointed out in her Florence speech, ‘The United Kingdom has never felt totally at home’.  So what do we all feel we belong to?  Britain, England, our county, our town or village, our company or workplace or simply our family?  In many ways, this is one of THE questions of our times, as countries like the UK, Scotland and Cataluña question their position within the larger associations into which they have been ‘assimilated’.  As individuals, we cannot even safely try to identify what constitutes the smallest unit of community, the family, without falling foul of some politically correct definition and upsetting others. Globalisation in all its aspects, cheap air travel and the loosening of community bonds affect all of us, and the pace of change has accelerated dramatically in the last fifty years.

Neil MacGregor posits the theory that Britain is the first society effectively to operate without any shared religious beliefs and rituals at its heart.  Mr MacGregor claims that as a result of our loss of religious faith, “We are trying to do something that no society has really done.  We are trying to live without an agreed narrative of our communal place in the cosmos and in time.”  Speaking at the launch of his BBC series, he explained: “It’s not about individual belief; it’s about how patterns of belief have shaped societies and given societies coherence”.  He also takes the view that religion and politics are inseparable and considers that it is a ‘very 18th century European idea that you can separate the two’.  All this may well be arguable, but the consideration of it is undeniably interesting.

Where then does this leave us, or the EU for that matter?  Attempts to reinvent the essential fabric of societies have of course happened in the past; a number spring to mind, with Communist China and Soviet Russia at the forefront.  These failed experiments have damaged the societies they attempted to reshape, but those societies have sprung back in many ways unchanged.  The Chinese have reverted to being the thrusting trading nation they always were.  As for religion, although China is officially an atheist country, according to a 2007 survey there were 300 million religious believers in China, mainly Buddhist and Taoist, but nevertheless with millions of Islamists and Christians (although these have been heavily persecuted in recent years).  October 2017 is the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.  Those who have studied Russian history are well aware that it was not the first Russian revolution, nor the last.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also interestingly, no real embracing of Western democracy.  Might this be partly attributable to an inherent characteristic of the Russian nation?

Royal Leamington Spa

If we Brits are no longer to be part of a larger institution such as the EU, does this mean we will be cast adrift and lost in the world?  In what do we actually believe, if anything?  Some, in response online to the article on Neil MacGregor, have suggested the answer to be scientific facts.  That is one possibility, but given the paucity of our knowledge in the overall scheme of things it hardly provides any sort of solid foundation.  It would be reassuring to come to the conclusion that these days people believe in themselves, in each other; that it is humanity itself that is the uniting factor.  However, at a time when ‘stress’ and ‘mental health’ feature frequently in headlines and discussions, it is apparent that most do not even have that reassurance.  Our vain struttings mask a fear that has perhaps never been greater.  If we are not part of anything larger than ourselves, then what are we?  Clearly, a brief column in The Shaw Sheet does not set out to answer the sort of existential question which has bothered mankind since those first artefacts, found in caves, were created 40,000 years ago.  But perhaps as we face the future outside the EU (which incidentally has ‘nurtured’ us for a mere 40) we should consider a little more, not only our history, but our communities and, to return to the musical thoughts which initiated this article, start ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ (perhaps even in harmony as opposed to the current discord).  On the other hand, however, maybe we should not even worry – according to a recent Rightmove survey, happiness is living in Royal Leamington Spa.

 

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Issue 124: 2017 10 12: Essay Shopping (Chin Chin)

12 October 2017

Essay Shopping

Room for diversification.

By Chin Chin

Some people would carp at anything and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education clearly has more than its fair proportion of naysayers.  Their latest target?  Essay websites providing material which the student can use to obtain his or her degree or Ph.D.  What on earth is wrong with that?  The website receives several thousand pounds in cash and produces the essay.  The University gets the essay it wants and awards the degree.  The student gets the degree and pays the money.  Surely everyone is happy?  Okay, I can see that it’s hard on the student who has to pay more for a degree than those who write their essays themselves, but that is the price for not bothering to learn to read or write, something tacitly acknowledged by the QAAHE’s recommendation that students be taught academic writing.

It is only necessary to read that recommendation to see the folly in it.  Reading and writing, indeed!  Why on earth should students have to waste their time on such arcana when they could be forging ahead with their careers?  Take the children of foreign political leaders as an example.  Yes, it may be a good idea to attend at graduation, an opportunity to be photographed in academic dress with the dreaming spires behind – although nowadays even that could be faked easily enough.  Still, to come more often would be nonsense.  Who would torture the prisoners in Daddy’s cells?  The stability of many countries east of Calais would be severely jeopardised.  Then there are those who immerse themselves in student union politics.  Endless meetings about unisex lavatories, endless demonstrations about statues of politicians whose history they have not taken the trouble to look up.  How on earth are they going to find time to learn to write?  It is probably a lack of talent in that direction that pushed them into student politics to begin with.

But it isn’t just these few who are affected.  University is about personal development.  If students spend their time learning to read and write they will have to cut their activities elsewhere.  Less sex, less drinking, less drugs, less sitting about in safe spaces wondering whether they really feel as secure as they ought.  Start challenging them with how to write things down and the shock might stop their development altogether.  Much better to let the essay factories take their cut and allow everyone to graduate effortlessly in an aura of mutual congratulation.

Now at this point I have to confess to a conflict of interest.  The Mr Chin Essay Agency has been rather a profitable sideline and, if I say it myself, has done a great deal of good.  Several world leaders have buttressed their authority with degrees which they would not have received without our services and in most cases they have managed to charge the expense to “image”, rather as they might charge the cost of a new military uniform.

Caligula’s horse 2017?

It isn’t everyone who could be said to have contributed to world peace in this way.  Still, I can see that it’s coming to an end.  The QAAHE is determined to do us down and will soon be using computerised programs to work out whether essays are by a particular undergraduate or not.  Really, you would think they had better things to do.  Caligula made his horse a consul without requiring it to write anything down at all and many honorary degrees are given on much the same basis.  Why is it just our clients who should be victimised?

Still, there is no point in railing against fate.  A businessman merely has to decide what he will do about the circumstances with which he is faced and in this case there is only one answer: diversify.  If we are not going to be able to sell as many essays to students we will have to find other markets.  What about personal letters, for example?

It is not an age of letter writing.  Most of us do little of it, but have a guilty conscience that we ought to be doing more.  What about selling pre-written letters which just need to be signed off by the sender?  You would have to fill in a few details, of course.  Quite apart from the name and address of the recipient there would be a questionnaire as to their relationship (great-aunt, old friend, mentor, mistress, acquaintance, etc…), the tone required (loving, obsequious, admonishing, businesslike, discouraging, etc….) and subjects of mutual interest.  The letter would then be generated with the appropriate platitudes but with one or two gaps for more specific content to be inserted.  Things like “I am sorry that I forgot to mention that the cream I sent should only be used externally” or, to someone who will leave you their estate, “I gather expensive foreign holidays are completely passé and everyone is spending their summers at home practising their tennis.”

The letter would then go back to the agency which would, of course, have a specimen of your handwriting.  Back would come the final draft realistically smudged and, if you live outside the M25, with a sprinkling of grammatical errors.

From a marketing point of view it would work a bit like a self-drive car.  To begin with there would only be a few automatic letters about but gradually the number would increase so that everybody wrote them.  Then the system could be augmented.  For example once you had described a particular person to the computer it could begin to write regular letters without any further input.  If their computer was doing the same, it would be unnecessary for either party to take any action.  That, when you think about it, has a philosophical ingredient.  When we are dead and buried, our correspondence would roll on indefinitely.  Perhaps that is the nearest that most of us will get to achieving immortality.

 

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Issue 123: 2017 10 05: Are You Very Satisfied? (Lynda Goetz)

05 October 2017

Are You Very Satisfied?

Really we don’t want to know.

by Lynda Goetz 

Last week the National Trust published its annual report and accounts.  Although it reported an encouraging increase in visitor and membership numbers (visitor numbers are up by almost five million since 2013, to 24.5 million this year) it failed to reach its target of 59% of visitors rating their visit as ‘very enjoyable’.  In 2011, 71% did so.  In the face of this lack of ringing endorsement, the charity has interestingly decided to move from ‘using visitor enjoyment as our single measure of experience and will instead focus on two areas – service, and emotional and intellectual engagement’.  If you don’t like the answer, change the question.

However, given the increasingly demanding nature of modern consumerism, can you blame them?  A simple question like ‘did you find your visit enjoyable/very enjoyable?’ does not really fulfil the current need to break everything down into its component parts and acquire the appropriate statistics for each part.  A spokesperson for the National Trust told reporters that ‘Visitor expectations continue to grow… and increased numbers put pressure on infrastructure, including cafes, car parks and toilets’.   Ah, of course, more people, so more car park spaces, more café tables and more loos needed.  The simple question will no longer suffice as feedback.  In this instance one can see easily enough the logic of this – clearly the feedback form needs to be more complex.

How complex such feedback needs to be should perhaps depend however on the nature of the transaction.  The increasingly one-size-fits-all nature of modern life can lead to problems.  In a letter to The Telegraph on Tuesday, one Piers Casimir-Mrowczynski recounted the experience of buying a pair of socks online.  All very efficient apparently, but marred by the automated online requests for; ‘a review of the ordering process, a review of the product, a review of the product packaging, a review of the delivery experience and a three-minute customer satisfaction survey, with the option of speaking to an advisor’ (honestly, really actually speaking to a real person?).  That does seem a little excessive for the purchase of a pair of socks!  Sadly, though, not as uncommon as it should be.  In September alone I have had requests for feedback from my oil supplier, the suppliers of garden furniture covers (which I have had for a whole month so am now apparently a ‘long-term user’) and a spare part for the dishwasher, not to mention the inevitable requests for reviews of holiday accommodation on TripAdvisor.  All of these wanted to know about my ‘experience’.

Experience?! With the exception of the holiday, all I did was to purchase something online (or in the case of the oil through a local buying group).  Does it really qualify as an experience?  According to one dictionary definition, an experience is ‘an event or occurrence which leaves an impression on someone’. Unless the business or company concerned has made a monumental c…up, then little or no impression is usually made.  In exchange for the depletion of one’s bank account one should hopefully have received that which was ordered, which should be ‘fit for purpose’.  ‘End of’, as they say.  Whether or not it was delivered in oversize packaging (as in the case of a recent Amazon parcel which would have quite easily fitted into a C5 envelope but was packaged in file-wallet-sized cardboard) or within 2, 3 or 4 days is usually a matter of supreme indifference.  These purchases are rather more in the category of essential life ‘admin’.  Having dealt with them I personally have little desire to re-live the experience via a time-wasting online survey which needs to know my age, gender (that’s a minefield these days), buying habits and level of satisfaction.

The rise of sites like TripAdvisor, Rottentomatoes, Trustpilot, Surveymonkey and others is of course a by-product of the internet.  At their best, these sites enable us to assess whether or not we’d like to stay in a resort or hotel, watch a film or TV show or use a particular business or company to provide goods or services.  However, at their worst, they are a constant bane and ever-present irritation of the digital age, perpetually enjoining you to share your experiences and promulgate your views.  How on earth did we survive before we had everybody’s opinions on everything under the sun?  Formerly, of course, you would have relied on the information and advice of friends or relatives, who had been to different places or purchased certain items, to decide whether you might wish to go there too or whether to use the same supplier.  Your knowledge of places or things would be garnered from a few people whose opinion you trusted (or didn’t, as the case may be).   If Uncle Sid said he’d been to a lovely hotel in X, you’d know to avoid it like the plague, whereas if your friend Jane advised you to buy your curtain fabric from Y, you’d be able to order with confidence.  Now we are all seemingly reliant on the opinions and views of thousands of strangers who may share neither our taste nor our opinions.

Are you one of those who leap to leave their review the minute they have returned from holiday or purchased a new washing machine, or are you one of those who are reluctant to enthuse or carp publicly?  It does seem that these days, as the National Trust spokesperson pointed out, people’s expectations are greater.  They/we demand more.  In many ways that is good, but the downside so often seems to be that we demand more for less.  We want superior quality for a cheaper price; a better service but for less money.  Perhaps the key to the issue is that expectations and demanding behaviour grow as personal interaction diminishes.  After all, it is so much easier to throw one’s weight around anonymously, to complain to faceless bureaucrats, to whinge in online questionnaires or to get angry with people we never have to meet again; how much more difficult to do so when you had to face the same individual the next day in the shop, hospital or hotel.  Whilst much is made today of ‘customer service’ and many thousands are seemingly employed in this area, the fact of the matter is that general levels of satisfaction are probably lower than ever.  We can spend literally hours on the phone to customer service departments without any resolution of our problem: the larger the organisation, usually the worse the problem.

Is this in all respects a numbers game?  The more people in the world, the greater the problems and the higher the personal dissatisfaction levels; the larger the business, the more impersonal the treatment of individual customers so the greater the need for increasingly complex customer satisfaction surveys?  Is there any way we can increase customer satisfaction or should we just accept that democracy rules, we all have a voice and in the words of the Mitchell and Webb sketch “You may not know anything about the issue, but I bet you reckon something.  So why not tell us what you reckon.  Let us enjoy the majesty of your full uninformed ad hoc reckon”.

 

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Issue 123: 2017 10 05: Top Facts (Chin Chin)

05 October 2017

Top Facts

Their use and the Zulu principle.

By Chin Chin

Well, strike me purple.  There I was with a really top fact, convinced that I was the only one who knew it, when the first person I tried it out on came up with the answer in seconds.

It all comes of reading French history.  That is not real history, of course, not history as read by the academics, but rather that marvellous book A Holiday History of France by Ronald Hamilton which was published in 1985. And  a very good book it is too, with three or four pages for each King, Emperor or President since the accession of Hugh Capet in the tenth century, together with short summaries of advances in architecture and art.  Even I can concentrate for four pages at a time, so a rough understanding of the chronology can be obtained by a quick dip into the book every night before going to sleep.  It isn’t just the chronology either.  There are top facts a’plenty and the one I was hoping to use on my friends was that Richard the Lionheart and Philip Augustus of France, who went as comrades in arms to lead the Third Crusade, actually shared a bed while on campaign.

Needless to say such camaraderie, and as far as I can make out it was only camaraderie, ended in enmity with Philip trying to prolong Richard’s captivity in Austria whilst his brother John was undermining him.  Still, the fact itself is remarkable and dropped into conversation the right way could give an appearance of learning.  How to introduce it?  That was the question.  In these cases it is no good beginning with the words “bet you don’t know that”.  That makes it look as though you yourself have only just come across the point.  Ideally, of course, someone else raises the topic and you can drop your fact in as part of a reply.  That, however, requires engineering worthy of Brunel so I decided to take the intermediate route of putting it as a question – rather as if I was composing a quiz.

“I wanted to try an interesting question on you,” I hazarded, with the air of one who had pondered and then solved the conundrum himself without looking up the answer.  “When was the last time that the monarchs of England and France shared a bed?”  I stood waiting.  Would my companion come up with a Royal marriage or one of those periods, say just after the crowning of Henry VI, when you could just about argue that the Plantagenet for the time being was the de facto King of France?

“That must be Richard and Philip” he replied, as if everybody knew.  Net result: he was not in the slightest impressed with my knowledge whereas I was knocked sideways by his.  There is such a thing as being just too erudite!

“Oh well,” I said to myself, “it is just an isolated fact, and in the scheme of things isolated facts are not all that important.”  That may have been consoling but it was also wrong.  Isolated facts can be very important indeed.

Jim Slater, joint founder of the investment house Slater Walker which collapsed in the 1970s, wrote about a system of investment which he christened “the Zulu principle”.  His idea was that you become specialist in a very narrow area where there was little general interest so that you could be the most knowledgeable person in the marketplace and make profits accordingly.  He chose the name because his wife was reading a book about Zulus at the time and it seemed to him that one could become a leading expert on that topic fairly easily.

Whatever the merits of this as an investment strategy, it certainly has lessons for those who wish to pose as knowledgeable.  Take your topic – the history of France being a possible example.  Learn 10 top facts and drop them into conversation when the opportunity arises so that they end up broadly distributed like currants in a spotted Dick.  No one will realise that those are the only interesting facts you know.  Rather they will imagine that your mind is like an iceberg with the bits you can see a small reflection of the weight and depth below the surface.  Before long you will hear yourself referred to as an expert and, if you keep it up long enough, honorary degrees at one or two of the new universities will probably follow.

To really exploit the approach, however, you have to go a little further.  Find groups of facts in, say, three different areas and use them liberally.  No one ever says that “Mr X is expert in the history of France, mathematical theory and French philosophers”.  They will assume that if you know something on each of these diverse topics you must be incredibly learned generally.  If you pull this off successfully the honorary degrees may turn into a chair.

Still, it isn’t all show.  To a point these little islands of knowledge do give you access to wider learning. They may suggest to you the reading of books which you would not otherwise touch or the answering of questions which you would not otherwise ask.  Just what did Richard and Philip talk about in that bed which led them to spend the rest of their lives at war with each other?  Perhaps it was the true ownership of Poitou – or perhaps it was just that one of them snored.

 

Issue 122: 2017 09 28: Freshers’ Week (Chin Chin)

28 September 2017

Freshers’ Week

Horticulture can breed distress.

By Chin Chin

I do not know whether Jacob Rees-Mogg objects to being known as the hon member for the 18th century, but I certainly resent it when changes which took place in my lifetime are described as ancient history. There was a bad example of it in The Times this week.  The education correspondent, Nicola Woolcock, described the origins of freshers’ week as “lost in the midst of time”.  Her piece dealt with a report by Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of Buckingham University, which criticises excessive drinking and drug-taking by freshers as endangering their mental health.  Well, that is as may be, but the modern approach of treating the first week is an opportunity to drink and drug yourself  insensible is something which emerged in its current form after the early 70s, when I was myself a fresher.

We did it slightly differently then.  That isn’t to say that the period before lectures began was entirely devoted to prayer and contemplation.  We had to get to know each other and bars and pubs were good places for that.  Also we had to decide which clubs and societies we were going to join.

Most of the clubs and societies were anxious to recruit freshers to bulk out their memberships.  The captain of boats was looking for tall fit people to power the eights.  The rugby and football clubs were looking for the same sort of people to boost their chances of success.  Then there were the political societies, the debating societies, drama, minor sports and even a tiddlywinks club.  All gave drinks parties in an attempt to seduce the new blood into join them and – free drink being free drink – the parties were well attended.

The difficulty was of course that it requires a certain amount of bluntness to explain to the head of a society why you are not going to join when you still have the third of its free drinks in your hand.  How much easier to temporise and to say that you will give it a go.  That is how I became a member of all the major political parties and a number of different religious societies, all of which began putting propaganda and tracts through my door.  Had I taken up all the sports to which I committed myself they would have had to extend the decathlon.

Obviously once you had had the free drinks you completely ignored the commitments you had made, but that could make it difficult when you met those who had recruited you around the University.  One problem was that it was impossible to remember who was who, a difficulty aggravated when there was some special greeting involved.  “Death to the capitalist oppressor” was fine if addressed to a member of the Communist league but not so good when the recipient was the secretary of the banking society.

Anyway, we did not drink as much as they do nowadays – perhaps we were saving more capacity for the next three years – and I certainly don’t think that people risked their mental health.  According to Sir Anthony, however, inappropriately heavy drinking is now the norm and he feels that this should be balanced by “providing alternatives for students”.  Sir Anthony’s ideas for positive alternatives are not restricted to fresher’s week but would run for the whole of the first year.  He is in favour of mentoring, of quiet rooms for meditation, and of campuses with plenty of trees and water.  He also suggest that opportunities for growing vegetables and plants be made available.  That is an area in which I have some experience.

I arrived at my first boarding school aged eight, and although at that age we were every bit as mature as the modern fresher, it was a stressful change; and the school, early pioneers of Sir Anthony’s methods, made allotments available to those boys who wanted them.  Mine was about 10’ x 6’ but it came with a surprising bonus.  The previous user had planted sweet williams across one end and they produced a blaze of colour in my first year.  All year I laboured in the vineyard growing radishes, carrots and other vegetables which are dear to small boys.  I was careful, however, never to disturb the bed of sweet william which lifted the plot from a mere vegetable patch into a garden.  In March I began to look out for new shoots.  There were none.  Never mind, it was still early spring.  I looked again in April.  Still none.  Well, perhaps this was a late year.  By the time that May gave way to June the dreadful truth dawned. The sweet williams had gone.  Nothing would bring them back.  It only remained for me to dig up the bed and contemplate vengeance on those who had destroyed them.

Who could it be?  There were a number of candidates.  I had the normal share of enemies and had boasted a great deal about my flowers.  Anyone could have sneaked down at dead of night with weed killer in their hand and herbicide in their heart.  Perhaps though the plants had been stolen.  I went round surreptitiously looking at the other allotments.  No sweet williams.  Then I started to ask oblique questions of the type asked in detective stories.  “Do you happen to know anybody with some sweet williams for sale?”

Gradually I became paranoid, listening for clues among my fellows, sharp eyed around the locker room, and then suddenly the mystery was solved in a most unexpected way.  The radio was playing a gardening programme, and they referred to sweet williams as ‘biannuals’.  “What is a biannual?” I asked a teacher.  Ah, yes, I see.

I wish Sir Anthony all the best introducing his undergraduates to gardening, but if it is to improve their mental health he will need to see that they know a bit about plants before they start.  Maybe another of those “lifeskill” subjects that so many are keen to add to the school curriculum.

 

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Issue 122: 2017 09 28: It’s still September for heavens sake! (Lynda Goetz)

28 September 2017

It’s Still September, For Heaven’s Sake!

Christmas is three months away.

By Lynda Goetz 

Last Monday was 25th September, the birthday of one of my nieces, and also three months before 25th December, Christmas Day.  A few days earlier I was shopping and thought I should get a card and some wrapping paper for the small gift I had purchased.  I was horrified to discover that I probably had more choice of Christmas wrapping paper on offer than birthday paper.  It is September.  The leaves are still on the trees and have barely started to change colour; there are still flowers in bloom in the garden; I for one have not yet even bought my autumn bulbs, let alone planted them; we are over a month away from Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night.  Why on earth are the supermarkets and garden centres already full of Christmas stuff?

I know this is not a new thing.  Every year as soon as summer holidays are over and children are back at school the shops start bringing out the Christmas cards, the baubles and the boxes of biscuits.  But why?   Do people really start squirreling away tins of Christmas sweets and rolls of wrapping paper the minute the buckets and spades and swimsuits have been consigned to the back of cupboards?  Do one’s thoughts really turn to Christmas before the apples are off the trees, and while the grass still needs cutting and the sea is warmer than it was in May?  What on earth has happened to our sense of the seasons?  Christmas and Boxing Day are two days of the year.  Two days out of 365.  There is still 25% of the year to go before we reach this major festival in our calendar.  Surely we really don’t want to spend the next three months planning for those two days of consumerist madness and major gluttony?

Well, perhaps we do, since presumably the retailers would not take up floor space if there was no profit in it for them.  Perhaps making us think about it this early causes us to overbuy, to overspend, to end up buying too many things.  Perhaps it is simply part of the whole system on which our modern economy depends.  Maybe I should stop being so curmudgeonly and accept that Christmas effectively starts in September.  Personally, I will continue to refuse to countenance any Christmas purchases until late November at the earliest.  I will continue to ignore all blandishments to buy gift boxes of hand cream, shower gel and body moisturiser or candles, scent diffusers and pot pourri.  That I am able to do so is possibly because I bought all my wrapping paper, cards and even some of those gift boxes (if not biscuits and chocolates) back in January during the sales.  After all, who on earth wants Christmas stuff in January?  It’s all over by then – at least until the following December.  Now, shall I just throw a pack of Hot Cross Buns into the trolley whilst I am here?

 

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Issue 122:2017 09 28:Hypothetically( J.R.Thomas)

28 September 2017

Hypothetically

A suggestion to Mr Hammond.

By J.R. Thomas

We live in a world which our not so distant ancestors would have found very surprising.  Not the invention of the motor car, or the mobile telephone, or women being allowed to work in offices alongside men, or even free education for all. No, what would have amazed them is the way we all accept that we pay taxation so regularly and willingly and in such large amounts.

In the 1640’s Englishman fought Englishman for six years in a vicious and ruinous war that had many causes, but the immediate trigger of which was the King’s insistence on raising money for his navy by the imposition of a tax popularly, or unpopularly, known as Ship Money.  Like many taxes, Ship Money began as a narrow tax payable only in seaports for fighting ships but the clever men of Whitehall (Palace, at that time) soon loosened things up so that it covered many areas of military expenditure and was widely levied, all without the consent of Parliament.  As we know, that attempt to raise tax did not end well for the executive, but it did create the circumstances which led to both our modern democracy and to our modern political parties.

It also made direct taxation generally an unpopular subject among the citizens of these United Kingdoms, and a great deal of thought went into how otherwise to raise the money which governments needed.  General income tax was frowned upon, although seen as a necessity in time of war when the well-heeled accepted that if the poor must do the fighting, the rich would pay for it.  As every school child used to know, the first real instrument of general taxation was the window tax, a sort of poll tax which fell principally on the rich (and led to the first avoidance scheme – bricking up windows). It was the main source of tax revenue throughout most of the eighteenth century; until Mr Pitt in 1798 introduced the income tax levied at 10% top rate and 2d in the pound on more middle class incomes.  In its way that was a hypothecated tax; it was specifically to pay for the costs of the war against France and Napoleon, and such was the uproar and hullabaloo that Pitt promised it would be temporary.  It was abolished for a year in 1803; and again from 1816 to 1842, but was brought back by that otherwise conservative Conservative Robert Peel who again promised it would be temporary. Perhaps one day it may turn out to be so.  But the truth is that it is too useful in its ability to meet governmental costs without alerting the public too much as to what they are actually paying for ever to be done away with.

In more recent times hypothecation of taxation has been avoided if at all possible; mainly to try to avoid the arguments of those who would, for instance, not wish to contribute to military expenditure or to the police or education (“but we have no children”).  After the First World War the rapid growth in ownership of motor vehicles led to the introduction of the road fund license, the income from which was dedicated to improving roads and building new ones.  We still have that, now made more sophisticated by linking it to the size of car engines (and thus, roughly, to the price of cars).  We also have fuel tax, a remarkable tax in that the tax, like that on cigarettes, is several times the base price of the product.  If all that were dedicated to road maintenance and building we would have the finest road system, and the best maintained, in the world.  As it is. somehow we have ended up with about the worst public roads in Europe, and most motoring taxes go to other causes – such as subsidising our public transport systems, though mysteriously, they too suffer from underinvestment and skimped maintenance, and yet are among the most expensive in the world.

There are in fact still some quasi hypothecated taxes in the road system – more commonly in Europe where many countries have toll roads.  But even in Britain we have toll bridges, a few ancient and long since having been paid for, some modern (and in the case of the Humber Bridge, from nowhere to nowhere by way of some marginal Parliamentary seats, never to be paid for).  And there is one great dedicated tax which we all seem to accept quite happily, the National Insurance Fund, which is a flat rate tax, almost impossible for an individual to avoid, set at a rate of around 11% on employees depending on exact circumstances, with further hefty contributions by employers, and different rates for the self-employed. This pays state pensions and some other lesser benefits. It is immensely profitable; perhaps not quite the right expression; but it certainly makes a sizable annual surplus which is then on-lent to the Treasury, mainly to help meet the costs of UK health services.

Which brings us to this week’s helpful suggestion to Mr Hammond, busy chewing his biro in the Treasury as he adds and subtracts for the forthcoming November budget.  Here, Philip, is the opportunity to be remembered as a great reforming Chancellor, not quite a second Gladstone perhaps, but certainly as bold and intelligent, the solver of a major conundrum.  It is simple: why not create a National Health Fund, into which those who make National Insurance contributions pay a flat rate to fund the nation’s health care.  But, you will immediately protest – I can hear you protesting from here – that imposes a further burden on the low earners and benefits the rich.  But there is no need why that should be so; the income tax rates can readily be adjusted so that the heavily burdened and indeed the struggling middle will pay significantly less income tax, and furthermore the rate of National Insurance could be significantly cut as there would be no need for cross subsidisation by those strange “loans”, which have even less chance of being repaid than the average student loan.

Best of all though, we could all at last see what the NHS is costing us.  We might think we are in receipt of the best bargain of all time; or we might think it seems damnably expensive and start to take a much greater interest in how it is run and how it might operate better and how it might do things differently, or not at all.  The socialists amongst you will say that this is an insurance scheme and so it is.  But no more than the present set-up, which is simply an insurance scheme where the premium payers have no idea what premiums they pay.  The free-marketeers might say that the next stage is to have competing schemes, where citizens can contribute to different funds with differing levels of benefits and comfort and cover.  As long as there is a compulsory minimum, why not?  It seems to work well enough for car insurance. But that would be for a future Government to consider.

It also works well enough for National Insurance, and you might argue, would work better still if there were competing pension schemes with better returns than the government has awarded in recent years.

For Mr Hammond, who may still have ambition and certainly must want to be kindly remembered, an outcome granted to few Chancellors, he can achieve greatness in reducing the income tax and National Insurance, and putting the NHS on a firmer and less politicised footing.  He need do nothing to tinker with entitlement or universality and no cuts in funding would take place (though they might take on a measure of support if the cost of the health service was winkled out in this way). He would wrong-foot that woman next door, and that blond chap down the road, and become the people’s Phil.  And make the Tory Party look as though it has thoughtful and original ideas of its own, not borrowed from the bearded chap on the opposite bench.

 

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Issue 121:2017 09 21:I Spy (J.R.Thomas)

21 September 2017

I Spy

New work from Herron and le Carré

by J.R. Thomas

If the middle years of the last century were the golden years of detective fiction, the last fifty were those of the spy thriller.  As Britain’s presence on the international stage slowly shrinks, the reader searching for perplexity seems to feel the urge for enlarged if obscured horizons.  No longer the foggy backstreets of London or the decaying country house with that strangely behaved butler; the spotlight is now on the alcoholic Oxbridge languages graduate with suspect loyalty, working for a civil service department that looks just look like every other civil service department – except that its business is secrets and death.

It is of course not James Bond of whom we speak; his input of vodka martinis, however prepared, would certainly have made him an alcoholic in pretty short order, but our preferred modern spy does not drive an Aston or constantly risk his cover by pursuit of bikini clad lovelies.  Instead he is divorced or separated, trying to keep up the payments on his ex’s Mondeo, and living in an untidy studio in Lambeth.  Eric Ambler was perhaps the earliest entrant to this new realism in tales of espionage, but the true father of the genre is Len Deighton, the creator of the immoral and insubordinate Harry Palmer (named in the films, but anonymous in the books), hero of “The Ipcress File” and “Funeral in Berlin”.  Palmer was the modern spy personified, endlessly chastised for not filling forms in on time, meeting his boss in the supermarket.

Deighton was not eclipsed but certainly challenged by John le Carré, who had had the advantage of having worked in MI6.  His intense psychological studies of secrecy and treachery and the dull routine of much undercover work, became a mirror to post imperial Britain seeking her new place in the world.  Indeed, le Carré is in many ways a modern Dickens; recording so much that is sleazy and uncomfortable about the way we live now, woven through with greed, betrayal, ingratitude; and a need to keep the filing in shape.  Anthony Price, who we have praised in these pages before, is often overlooked, but he too took as his theme modern Britain played through a cast of alarmingly human spies.  Graham Greene had worked in various capacities in the world of secrets and made it a stage for some of his best work; as has the American novelist David Ignatius, an American exponent of “Greeneland” across the Atlantic.

Spy fiction is a seam which shows no sign of being mined out; the combination of office life so familiar to us, and loners and misfits fighting danger and terrorism is irresistible.  The practitioners themselves are not mined out either; Deighton and Price are still with us but seem to have thrown away their typewriters; Ignatius and le Carré are still at work, and indeed le Carré has just brought out a new novel, “A Legacy of Spies”.  Which coincides tidily from your reviewer’ perspective with the release of a paperback edition of a rising star in the field, Mick Herron, his fourth volume, “Spook Street”, of his Slow Horses series.

Herron, the frontispiece tells us, is a professional writer and lives in Oxford, which does not tell us much.  But he is shaping up to be a seriously powerful writer of modern spy fiction.  His locus operandi is something which might well be MI6, operating from smart premises in Regents Park and bedevilled by all the usual office politics and budgetary constraints of modern government departments and big business.  But Herron’s characters are not using flat screens in Regents Park; they are in some tatty building in Aldersgate, each having suffered some career disaster; which condemns them to non-jobs doing filing or surveillance, and perhaps a worse fate, to be managed by one of the most wonderfully appalling figures of modern fiction, Jackson Lamb. Lamb is one of those without whose remembrance of organisational history and corporate graves no office can work properly; he is also disgusting, foul mouthed, insensitive, and politically incorrect.  Slow Horses his crew may be, but they still have their uses, to do Regent Park’s dirty work, reservists in the first line of fire, not least because of their expendability.  Lamb sort of loves them, deep down, and protects them as best he can.  In return they bicker and grumble; if they weren’t before, they are now flawed and bitter and working the system as best they can.  Some are mildly dishonest; they have problems with money, sex, drugs, and alcohol, and with each other.  They are full of human weakness and totally believable. Herron has made them into a cast of strangely likeable and sympathetic characters with whom it is alarmingly easy to identify.

Mick Herron is a writer who is exceptionally able to promote both a sense of place and a sense of person; his plots are satisfactorily convoluted if a little stretched in places.  They are certainly the sorts of books that involve you sufficiently to prevent you noticing that your train home has not moved for twenty minutes, and to enable you to identify the River Cartwright and Shirley Dander in your life. Pray that you have no Jackson Lamb, though you probably have.

Herron has been described as the new le Carré, but that is not really fair to either of them.  Le Carré is a much more serious writer, too serious some will say, with his pen a sharpened scalpel that he deploys in expressing his increasing sense of anger and injustice about modern Britain.  He is a novelist who happens to use spies as a key part of the infrastructure of his writing,  his own past full of dishonesty and betrayal but who still likes to think that the human condition can be made perfect, or that at least that we should try.  Unlike Herron, who has that discerning insight into people and their behaviour, but who one suspects is as much amused by the human condition as disillusioned by it.

Le Carré’s new work is the latest and probably the last in what might be loosely called his George Smiley sequence. Those of us who are le Carré devotees first met Smiley as a minor character in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.  When we really got to know him in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy he had already retired but was brought back to find the double agent inside British intelligence. Now we go back again to that spy from the cold – to deal with ambulance chasing lawyers who claim the Circus was in breach of its duty of care.  Nobody can remember much; the files have disappeared; the heirs of the Stasi are unlikely to help; modern careers may be made or broken by what emerges.  Peter Guillam is hauled out of retirement, but is he a reliable witness to anything?

This is classic le Carré indeed; wonderfully observed, carefully plotted, the nuances of life, the odd motives that drive behaviour, all beautifully regarded.   And that anger about the sleek façade of a society that cares only for money, that despises the little people, where a sense of care and obligation is slipping away, boils away under the surface.  Is le Carré “the most significant novelist of the second half of the twentieth century” as Ian McEwan claims on the book jacket?  Mr McEwan is perhaps being too modest about his own claim to that throne, but  insert “one of” and nobody could dispute it. This book proves why.

 

“Spook Street” by Mick Herron is published by John Murray, £7.99 in paperback

“Legacy of Spies” by John le Carré is published by Penguin Viking, £20 in hardback

 

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Issue 121: 2017 09 21: Getting fit from your armchair (Chin Chin)

21 September 2017

Getting Fit From Your Armchair

Science marches on.

By Chin Chin

A bit queasy after overindulgence on the family holiday?  A little worried that the fatigue could eventually turn into diabetes?  Depressed at the thought of going to the gym to restore yourself to a healthy weight?  Well, chaps, worry no longer.  Research being presented by the European Association for the Study of Diabetes in Lisbon demonstrates that whether or not you contract the disease depends on the health of your wife.  Apparently the risk increases by 21% for every five-point increase in your wife’s body mass index regardless of what your own may be.

That’s it, then.  Problem solved!  If your wife goes to the gym you will be healthier and the possibility of contracting diabetes will be reduced.  Right, back to the sofa, out with the deep-fried Mars bars.  Start reviewing the websites of local gyms whose membership could be your wife’s next Christmas present.

Unfortunately, however, there may be practical difficulties.  Not every wife likes receiving a gym membership for Christmas.  It suggests, you see, that you might not think that she is the ideal shape.  Of course you will know that that isn’t the point at all.  The purpose of the gift is to improve your own health not hers but to explain that could make the gift seem self-serving and less generous.  Also it could lead to some difficult conversations as you try to match her training schedule against your own overindulgence. Somehow I am not sure that “Hello darling.  Please could you do an extra five minutes on the rowing machine as I had two extra beers at lunchtime” will go down particularly well.

Hmm.  What about the children then?  Could you improve your health by sending them out for an hour’s stiff walk every day?  It certainly seems worth a try.  If nothing else, getting them to turn off the television and out of the house for a bit would probably reduce your blood pressure; but maybe the research from the EASD means that it goes further than that.  Perhaps their additional exercise will improve your health generally.

Something like this was tried in the early Middle Ages.  When a young prince misbehaved, his tutors were not of sufficient rank to inflict physical punishment on him.  What to do?  If you spared the rod you would spoil the child and tutors are engaged to improve princes rather than spoil them.  Anyway, not to react when some little tyke had put spiders in your armour would stretch self-control to breaking point. Answer?  The whipping boy.  That was another child of about the same age who could be whipped instead of the prince.  Result: the rod had not been spared and the affronted party could assuage his anger by physical chastisement.  Probably it was not too good a job being a whipping boy if the prince whose punishments you took did not like you, but no doubt it was character building.

Sending your children out on runs to compensate for your own overeating is an obvious development of this theme but alas there are practical problems.  Although the law allows you to beat children in a proportionate way, it is not clear that that includes beating them for not taking exercise to improve your own health.  Perhaps, then, it had better be pets.  It is common knowledge that people begin to resemble their dogs so if you acquire one that loves exercise you should be able to work off the pounds by watching it run.  All you need is a bird-shaped drone and a spaniel or retriever will run all day without you having to do more than move the controls.  Yes, clearly we should ask the EASD to rerun their research by reference to dogs.

All this may be making you nervous.  What if it was to work the other way round so that your wife’s vulnerability to diabetes or indeed her figure depended on how much exercise as you took?  That wouldn’t be much fun.  Imagine her coming back from shopping surrounded by baskets:

“Well darling, I bought them all a size smaller because I knew you wouldn’t mind running an extra mile a day so that I can get into them by Christmas.”

That wouldn’t be so good but luckily there is no chance of it happening.  The research shows that although your wife’s body mass index may affect your health there is no evidence that it works the other way round.  This should actually come as no surprise.  If you each affected the other then a little exercise by one of you would create a virtuous cycle of increasing fitness even though you both retreated to your armchairs.  That would break that law of physics which begins “If it seems too good to be true…”

Actually the whole thing sounds rather experimental so perhaps you should go for a more traditional solution.  Begin with a large portrait of yourself hanging in the attic…

 

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Issue 120: 2017 09 14: Raccoons (Chin Chin)

14 September 2017

Raccoons

Shock immigration news.

By Chin Chin

It is always a shock returning to England.  After days of making difficult decisions over which wine to drink with lunch, you find that you have got completely out of touch with current affairs.  Perhaps it is best, then, to glance at the news a few days before returning, just to see how everyone has been getting on.  It was in this spirit that I searched for information on Brexit to see what developments there had been.  Actually there wasn’t much of interest.  The negotiations are still at an early stage and the protagonists continue to glare at each other from entrenched positions.  No blinking yet.  I began to glaze over.  Suddenly, however, I woke up with a start.  There, reported by the BBC itself, was a headline which put the whole debate into context: “Raccoon rescued from Cambridgeshire roof is French”.

In fact the headline hardly did justice to the facts.  The raccoon, which bears a French microchip, is thought to have smuggled itself into the UK in the back of a lorry.  Who knows how many previous attempts it had made and for how long it had been at Sangatte testing the security of the Channel Tunnel?  How had the French gendarmes missed it?  Had they really overlooked it or was this a case of the restrictive French approach to employment contracts which M Macron is so keen to stamp out?

“La loi dit rien des animaux furieux, Marcel, et cela n’est pas un immigrant human.”

“Mais peut-etre, Louis, nous doisons noter le microchip?”

“Et qui va demander du raccoon le numero de son microchip? Vous, Marcel?”

“Hmm. Il a les grands dents”

“Exactement!  Ah, je vois que c’est l’heure de dejeuner.”

Be that as it may, on arrival, the raccoon escaped into the Cambridgeshire countryside (did it have to threaten the lorry driver to release it there?) and lived rough for about five months, making no attempt to contact the authorities.  Probably this was overcautious as free movement does not end until Brexit but anyway the story has a happy ending.  The raccoon is to live at an animal shelter in Kent where “she [it turns out to be a she] can live in a safe and secure environment with other raccoons to call friends”.  Probably this was the raccoon’s ambition all along, so from her point of view things have gone rather well.

But there is a more serious aspect to this story.  If you put the word “raccoon” into your search engine you will discover that there are a surprising number of them in the UK.  And very intelligent animals they are, too.  One recently entered a house in Northamptonshire through the cat flap and then started opening and rummaging through drawers.  It had to be barricaded in until the authorities arrived because raccoons are good at opening doors and it might have escaped.  Another was found at the Woodhouse Primary School in Birmingham, having taken up residence in the playground bike shed. Presumably it had heard all about the school catchment system and thought that it shouldn’t leave things to chance.  Still, its thirst for knowledge says something about it, doesn’t it?  Typical first-generation immigrant behaviour.  If you want to succeed here you need some local qualifications and to speak received English.  True, Birmingham might sound a strange choice for this but perhaps the school is a particularly good one.

Looked at from the Brexiteer’s perspective there are certainly causes for concern.  What sort of a strain are these immigrant raccoons putting on local services?  The one spotted rummaging through chests of drawers may have larcenous instincts which will require social welfare to become engaged.  As for the Birmingham one, we know that places at good schools are at a premium.  Who is being pushed out so that this immigrant can take their place?  Yes, it may be more intelligent and ambitious than some of the local children but one cannot expect their parents to regard that as a reason why the newcomers should be preferred.

In the animal kingdom too there is cause for concern.  Will raccoons take all the plum jobs?  Are they good at catching mice and rats, for example, and could they do it more cheaply than the native cat?  The animals described in the media seem to be good at foraging so would presumably be content with less food.  That could make them more attractive to the unscrupulous employer.  Perhaps the only answer is to produce some sort of minimum wage – one tin of cat meat for every three mice, or something like that.

But the real worry is that these raccoons are not in fact lone wolves but engaged in some form of jihad.  Given the signal they will rise up and seize strategic points, paralysing the UK’s response to an external threat, rather like Raymond Shaw in the sixties film “the Manchurian Candidate”.  Hopefully the boffins at MI5 are looking for the trigger – and given the behaviour of the Northamptonshire raccoon it might make sense to examine just what was in those drawers.  At the very least they should be putting undercover agents into the animal shelters as part of the Prevent strategy.

Still, we should not ignore the potential either.  We are always told that Britain has benefitted hugely from immigration in the past.  It seems that a number of highly intelligent animals have been planted in our countryside.  Well, how intelligent exactly?  Could they be employed in elite animal roles such as searching for drugs at airports, or is their potential of quite a different order?  Could they, for example, do some of the jobs currently done by humans?  Street sweeping, perhaps, or even entering politics?  “My honourable friend, the raccoon for Northamptonshire……”

 

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