Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

the-quick-brown-fox-jumps-over-the-lazy-dog-is-an-example-of-what

It took a little while for us here to start wearing masks. While we were locked away at home, it wasn’t really an issue – but we now have them and hopefully wear them intelligently – i.e. when in enclosed public spaces or where proximity with others is likely. It has become apparent that wearing one also works quite effectively to remind others to keep a distance. It is not a major imposition, apart from the problem of foggy glasses.

So quite what is one supposed to make of reports that fewer than 25% of the British population is wearing masks? Experience here suggests that it may well be much less than that, and comments from friends suggest that even the legal requirement to wear one on public transport is being widely flouted.

By comparison, it is reported that around 84% of Italians and 65% of Spanish and (even) Americans are routinely wearing them.

Assuming the figures are correct, in my eyes this comes close to the indefensible. Even if there is disagreement over the impact of masks (which seems in any case to be diminishing) the precautionary principle surely applies. And the degree of difference in these figures is surely big enough to be significant about something. The question is what.

It is easy to put the hat of indignation back on; I do it easily – but then, I am a teacher. Teachers are paid by society to stick their noses into other people’s lives and behaviours and try to improve them – and I have been a teacher for a long time. Besides, when that behaviour potentially affects my well being, I believe it becomes my legitimate concern. That notwithstanding, it is still an objective fact that different societies in different places and times exhibit differing behaviours, and it is hard not to conclude that there must – somewhere – be reasons for this, given that human beings are in biological terms fundamentally the same everywhere.

Indignant or otherwise, it is easy to read this as an explicit statement of how a lot of individuals in Britain regard the wider society of which they (fail to see they) are a part. The purpose of wearing a mask is primarily to protect other people, and when widely observed, the situation becomes mutual. The impact on infection rates is becoming much clearer. There may well be widespread misunderstanding about this fact – but that raises questions of its own, both about how much attention people are paying, and the effectiveness of official communications.

Equally, it may be an expression of very low levels of concern that people have in what is left of civil society in Britain, for each other: so low that even a trivial but important obligation is too much of a personal infringement to be seen as worth making. This in turn might cause one to wonder at how it came to be like this here, when it is clearly not a universal habit.

The difficulty is, it is almost impossible to pin such things down objectively – and therefore one is left scrabbling for explanations that are all too easily distorted by confirmation bias.

As I said, the most charitable explanation is a low level of understanding – though this still does not reflect well on the country. Worse is low levels of concern, which fly in the face of much of this country’s self-image as a place of civilised values and courteous behaviours.

Somewhere in the mix this may reflect on the nation’s seeming inability to organise itself properly. Even arch-patriots seem to accept that good organisation is at best touch-and-go in this country, even if they turn the regular muddles and short-sightedness into a strange kind of virtue even as others (including me) are tearing their hair.

I suspect another facet is an in-bred tendency to look backwards: in general the British are not good as early adopters, since that involves looking positively at the future, and as a nation we are still far more in love with our past.

It seems to be true at both an individual and collective level: I saw a first-hand report yesterday from a British woman flying in from Germany, of sanitising facilities at Heathrow that had not been replenished, and of people milling around in the airport without any observance whatsoever of suitable distancing. Surely it is not beyond us to get these very practical things right? At very least, this is not the image we as a nation – and certainly not the present government – like to have of ourselves – and yet ironically such débacles are depressingly common. They are not everywhere – as many Brits seem to assume. As one commentator put it some weeks ago: “Even when all we need to do is copy the Germans, how come we still get it wrong?”

Still trying to be charitable, the only other conclusion that I can see for the traditional British cock-up (which seems to be more common than the alternative) is that there is something in the British culture or mindset that is so ingrained that we cannot collectively overcome it – even when we know we need to. It seems to be something that afflicts our ability to construct effective institutions and guide individual behaviour almost equally. I hesitate to call it a blind spot because some of us at least are aware it is there, though trying to overcome it is by no means as easy as might be thought.

What is the common trait that leads British planning law to be impenetrable, that causes so many mega cost-overruns on projects that end up being abandoned, that leaves us dithering over high-speed rail half a century after our neighbours started build theirs; that leads us to persist with outdated forms of government even though there are many examples of how they are dysfunctional – and which leads so many to neglect or even fight against basic individual responsibilities in the face of a resolutely apolitical virus? That makes it so difficult for people in this country to “do the right thing” even when they know they should, to take the easy way out even when we know it is doing us all harm?

Education might be a likely culprit. And in some ways plausibly so – but I think that any failings in that respect are more a symptom than a cause. Why is it that this country has taken such a myopic, market-driven view of education when many other countries seem to see perfectly clearly that developing minds and societies does not and cannot work in that way? That education needs to be about far more than just preparation for the workplace; that “qualifications” are meaningless if not backed by real knowledge and understanding? Arguably it is a shortsightedness that fails to cause it to be otherwise.

“The Market” might be another culprit – again reasonably so, because in reality, free markets like nothing more than large numbers of docile, compliant, identikit producer-consumers. And it is certainly not averse to trying to shape people’s behaviour (not least through flattery and the deception that people are freer than they actually are) to make them so. It seems to me that those countries that exhibit the kind of aggressive/defensive behavioural complexes that perhaps explain people’s unwillingness to take part in collective actions are more likely to have aggressively neoliberal governments and deregulated commercial sectors. But it is still not easy to say which is the cause and which the effect: in a sense people choose their economic models through the ballot box.

But I suspect that the real shapers of national mindsets are actually deeper and less obvious. For a start, I doubt that very many non-mask-wearers are actively going out to cause harm to others. The failure to make the right decision is probably less conscious than that: something that simply causes insufficient awareness of such issues in the first place, though a retail-indulged “all about me” is no doubt part of it.

Another common factor in self-harming libertarian cultures seems to be strong hierarchies. In the case of the UK this was, and in part still is, down to ancestry and social status. In the USA it is linked more directly with wealth – though the UK is treading that path too. I suspect that the resultant inequalities do not only do physical harm but also considerably wider psychological damage. The whole notion of a pecking order informs one’s sense of self; the restrictions imposed by one’s (many) superiors can be limiting and denigrating – and may well lead to a sense of powerlessness and an aggressive defence of what little remains of one’s autonomy and self-respect. Could this explain the shows of aggression seen when non-conformers were asked to comply with lock-down, sanitising or now mask-wearing?

I sense that something is different in those countries where mask-wearing rates seem to be higher (the US seems to be an anomaly here, though it reported varies massively between states – and correlates with their political allegiances). Lengthy acquaintance with some people in continental Europe suggests to me that on the one hand they are more assertively individualistic as citizens – and their socio-politico-economic systems reflect that – but perhaps as a result, they are also less aggressive when challenged or required to pool their sovereignty with others. Compared with places where there is a more overt or overbearing elite, there is perhaps a greater sense of real individual sovereignty – but also more respect for the same of others: in other words a greater sense of commonality.

It’s not an easy thing to describe – but a useful analogy might be driving styles. The UK has one of the lowest road fatality rates in Europe; this might correlate with its self-image as a polite and rather cautious nation. But it also has plenty of overt, daily aggression, often originating from those who drive the most expensive and powerful vehicles. In Germany, Switzerland and Italy, by contrast, experience suggests that driving is often more assertive – you will certainly know if a faster driver wants to pass – but there is somehow less overt aggression behind it; that assertive driver will still normally wait without hassling until you choose to pull over. Behind that, there is an implied acceptance that both have equal right to be on the road – something that road-rage denies.

I increasingly suspect that the supposed modesty that underpins the British self-image is actually nothing of the sort; it is actually harmful passivity: a kind of indifference or complacency born of the fact that in this country all the important decisions are made, and responsibility born, by Someone Else; that for many, their little lives are not felt to be as consequential as those of Important People. Such places often seem to have a strong culture of celebrity veneration, a kind of vicarious living, as though ordinary lives are not good enough.

I think it is symptomatic that here, the perceived solution to the mask problem is for the government to tell people to do it; it should not need to: they have minds of their own. And the failure of our government to do so is in any case part of the problem since governments elsewhere have done precisely that, supported by public expectations.

Somewhere in the mix persists the belief that we live in a promised land in which nothing really bad ever happens – even as it is killing more of our compatriots than almost any comparable nation. And therefore we never need to give any serious attention to our actions, because they are mostly inconsequential. Even when they are not. It is a kind of communal paralysis that is in so many ways perpetuated by the small-mindedness and belief that muddling through is still sufficient, even when we can see that it is not. It is the absence of a profound democratic belief that every life really does matter – not only those of the ruling and economic elites.

But it also allows those in the nation who are alert and ambitious (but not necessarily benign) – and not only viruses – to run rings round the lazy brown dogs of everyone else, thus perpetuating the situation and indeed making it worse.

Another objective truth about societies (as individuals) is that they are quite capable of self-harm, even knowing self-harm. Brexit is one example; the failure of civic duty in the face of the virus is another.

Britain is certainly not the only country where such phenomena exist, or where antisocial behaviours are manifest – but the disparities in mask wearing are surely significant enough to show that it is one of them. In that respect we come close to being objectively inferior to those who are getting it more right. Will we learn from them?

The belief that we are immune to national blind-spots is our national blind-spot. The problem is that the pathology seems so deep that we still simply can’t see it – let alone escape it.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Sowing seeds

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Being a teacher is a strange job. You rarely see the results of your work – and even if you encounter former pupils in later life, it is almost impossible to identify with much confidence any specific effect that you had in them. The whole job of a teacher is predicated on the hope that you will have some helpful effect on the individuals you teach, even if you will never know what.

This is probably why ideology plays such a strong part in the educational profession: in the absence of anything more concrete, there is little else to fall back on to provide shape to our actions.

It is this problem that also leaves the profession exposed to so much idiocy. When it is almost impossible to prove anything much at all, anyone who claims otherwise can get in on the act without difficulty. So we are continually beset by the claims of ‘gurus’ bringing magical solutions, even though it means that education tosses and turns on a perpetual tide of contrary solutions, such is its yearning for answers to the unanswerable.

It is the same lack of agreed, provable outcomes that has made it all too easy for politicians to appropriate education for their agendas. It has been too easy for them to point the finger at teachers for being wrong-headed, unproductive, pointless. It has made it easy for them to impose conditions on education that attempted to twist it into paradigms derived from sectors where it is much easier to measure output. In doing so, they have turned education into a conveyor-belt industry, whose output is not educated individuals, but statistics published and boxes ticked; numbers of certificates handed out, no matter how little the real intellectual effect on the minds of those who received them.

You can’t be a teacher without having some faith in humanity – that it is possible to turn thoughts and behaviours to the good. You cannot function in a classroom without that unprovable belief that what you are doing is in some way important and beneficial. That is true everywhere: the very fact that to educate someone is to anticipate their future means that it cannot be otherwise. But the fact that education’s benefit is unprovable does not make it undemonstrable. Some countries seem to find systems that equip their citizens better for their future lives than others.

As with everything else, the pandemic has highlighted this. The responses by individuals from the most powerful to the most ordinary are the product of their thought processes – or lack of them. To some extent, that in turn is a product of the sum of the education they received, both formally and otherwise. How they reacted to CV-19 is an expression of that.

I have worked for many years in education in the same hope that I was helping to equip British people to be effective thinkers, to be able to take their opportunities and respond intelligently to their difficulties. I hoped I was helping to create a nation of thoughtful, responsible, cultivated citizens.

I always believed that education does have an effect, and that it was a positive and definite force, even if its specifics for any particular individual were unknowable. I never even considered that it was actually an exercise in damage limitation to contain the worst of human idiocy; this was just too cynical an interpretation for any teacher to entertain and still function. But the past few years have shifted my view on this out of all recognition.

In a national political plebiscite that required knowledge and informed thought, despite their so-called education, a majority of the British Public opted to side with prejudice, rumour-mongering or just ignorance. Or they abdicated their responsibilities entirely.

In the face of a known epidemiological threat, this was the response of a significant part of the British public yesterday:

4july

It is no good just blaming the politicians: all of those people have brains of their own. It is what they (fail to) do with them that is the tragedy.

It’s not only what happens in formal education that affects such behaviour: much of the national attitudinal landscape is the product of home life, the national media and peer pressure. But the same is true in all countries, and yet responses – and responsibility – in similar circumstances have not been the same everywhere. The role of formal education is to equip people to know better.

It seems that in Britain life is so cheap that it is worth risking the death of oneself and many others for the sake of a pint.

Educating the British public: how did we get it so wrong?

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Workers! You have nothing to lose but your chain stores…

chains-web

I once saw work defined as ‘doing something you would rather not’. That seems about right: I have been pretty constantly productive during the lock-down months, and yet almost nothing felt like ‘work’ ; in fact the same could be said for the last three-and-a-half years since I stopped  full-time employment and was largely confined to quarters. Now that the ill health that caused this situation has mostly receded, the revised life-balance has been very largely beneficial.

Yet the cultural wisdom of recent times has been that work should be central to our lives, that it is the most important aspect of our existence, our most significant activity. By extension, this suggests that disliking our work is the last thing we should do. In fact, we are expected to love it. (One might have another discussion entirely about what we would rather do or not, and why…)

People seemed to lap this up: in the teaching profession, I encountered many people who admitted that they lived for their work. While teaching is a rather unique vocation, I suspect that the sentiment is much more widespread, though how much of this is actually just virtue-signalling is open to question. I often wondered both what such required devotion did to the quality of the rest of their lives (I knew what it threatened to do to my own) – and what messages it sent to the up-coming generations.

The cynic in me suspects that things are not this simple though – and as with almost everything else, the Corona-virus emergency has cast a harsh light on our assumptions and choices. I wonder whether there will be substantial change in this respect – or whether we will in fact return to the good-old-bad-old days as soon as restrictions are fully lifted.

Work is not absolute: it is a cultural phenomenon – in Britain’s case a legacy of the “Protestant Work Ethic”;  it is also a complex matter that goes to the heart of existential issues that I rather doubt the average commuter gave much attention to in normal times. From birth, we are in effect programmed to expect that after schooling, we will spend most of our lives in employment, before being put out to grass at some point when the going starts to get tough. Modern reality may not be quite so predictable, but that is still the normal, if dated template.

The existential matter comes from considering what we would do if we were not at work: part of the fear of lock-down for many people seemed to come from not knowing how they would fill all those extra hours. Many seemed to go looking for alternative forms of work. And yet we have no more hours to fill in a day than people ever did. There is plenty of evidence that even at subsistence level, people in the past rarely filled all their days with work – they did what was necessary, but no more, even though that involved much more than in developed societies today. The same seems to be true in subsistence cultures today – and it can be informative to look at other species, who face the same existential issues when it comes to filling time: what is one to do between birth and death? While lower species do seem to fill almost all their time with basic survival, the same is not true for the higher ones such as big cats or other primates – nor many domesticated animals.

There is certainly a psychological aspect to work, or the lack of it. Unemployment is known for being a scourge, and yet I wonder whether it is the lack of work per se that is the real difficulty, or simply the lack of resources that it brings for doing other things instead. After all, the affluent classes whose income derives from rentier activities do not always seek work – being leisured was (is?) seen as their good fortune. I suspect that many of the problems of unemployment actually derive from the wider situations of those who are most likely to face it: lower income, less educated and with few other ways of finding meaning.

Therein lies another issue: it is undoubtedly true that work bestows purpose and identity. One of the most unexpected difficulties of losing my own job was the lost ability to say to people “I am a teacher”. Ergo, anything much at all. Again, this is probably particularly important for occupations that have a strong vocational element but it may be more widely significant too. But I also suspect it is a stronger male trait than female, which may suggest it has other underpinnings.

We might consider how attitudes to work differ between cultures. I’ve seen enough of southern Europe to know that the mañana culture is by no means dead and this is unsurprising, not least for climatic reasons – but it is also a lazy stereotype to believe that southern Europeans never work hard. There is, for example, a strong work culture in northern Italy, even if one might suspect that it may be a way in which it seeks to assert its parity with the ‘efficient’ countries further north. But that country is also famous for the imagination and richness it devotes to its wider way of life – and that to me seems to be to be a worthwhile trade-off.

One might look at the Germanic countries where there is supposedly a much stronger work-ethic. Except that it may not be all it seems. My experience of those countries suggests that while quality, efficiency and skill are very important, work is not the end in itself that one might expect. Law in those countries has established the social purpose of work – for example, providing employment is seen as equally important as generating shareholder wealth; the requirement to have employee representation at board level has embedded that. A more important question is perhaps why Germany created such laws in the first place when they would be highly contentious in the much less efficient U.K.

The division between work and not-work seems much more flexible – even blurred – than it does in the U.K. Taking sabbaticals is rather more possible – and provision for issues such as paternity/maternity leave and childcare more generally, famously more generous. Perhaps this is the future: where a highly-skilled and autonomous population checks in and out of work as required, as one activity amongst several in an average week? Once again, Britain seems to be behind the curve.

Relationships in the workplace seem more equitable and less hierarchical there, and it seems to me that less importance is attached to work as a wider social signifier than it is in the U.K. It also seems to me that there is a much more visible level of active non-work life in those countries, be that from the numbers one sees doing outdoor activities, eating out or attending cultural events. So much for the Germanic worship of work: I think their attitude is simply a manifestation of a widely more proactive culture.

The pandemic has thrown new light on our attitudes in the U.K. – and it seems that the government is increasingly prioritising the economy over public health. A recent encounter with a former Conservative councillor confirmed his view, at least, that the economy is “far more important than….” He didn’t finish his sentence. I wanted to suggest, “than the lives of little people?”.

For several decades, we have been told that work is indeed the most important thing we do. Most other aspects of life – including education – have been subordinated to getting people into the workplace. But that has not implied becoming an entrepreneur; the emphasis has been on being a ‘good employee’, working harder than you are asked, “going the extra mile” and not rocking the boat. Is it a coincidence that such a relatively poor workplace “settlement” seems to be a feature of those hawkish countries that retain neo-liberal ideologies and hierarchical societies? Is work really as essential as they would have us believe – or is it just very convenient propaganda to keep us toiling to keep them in the lives they seem to expect?

It seems to me that successive generations have accepted this largely unquestioningly; on more than one occasion in my own working life I was lectured by colleagues that I needed to “learn to play the game”. But it increasingly seemed to me that it was less of a “game” and more of a racket. Or at least an excessively hierarchical, quasi-feudal, exploitative set-up that was increasingly tilted in favour of those at the top – and those who gained their favour. My not “playing the game” was simply an attempt to be a reflective professional – one who was prepared to entertain difficult truths in the interests of doing an excellent job – and ironically, trying to help develop the institution for which I worked. But it proved unacceptable to those who ran the place.

It is quite difficult not to come back to the cynic’s interpretation. At present, it seems that health-protection measures are increasingly being compromised in order to get people working. While we hear that many have experienced hardship in lock-down, very many from whom I hear have actually found it a positive experience. They have discovered a new way of life that does not revolve entirely around the rat-race – and also that they can survive without the 24/7 conspicuous consumption melée that our country has become.

This may be the real agenda: making people work so hard they have no time to think is in reality a form of social control: over our place as consumers who keep the economy churning, who provide often-expendable work-units that are needed by the owners of businesses who in recent times have taken more and more of the proceeds of our work for themselves, and who have eroded employment rights in order to keep it thus.  And because the political class fears a population that actually has time to stop and think, and perhaps to find a way of life that does not involve compliance with a status quo than disproportionately benefits them rather than us?

Work is certainly important for many reasons, not only keeping food on the table. The sense of purpose and accomplishment it can provide can be good for mental well-being; it also provides social contacts and structure to our days; it of course creates wealth and innovation and gets things done that society needs done; it is perhaps even reasonable to accept that it does involve a degree of societal control, because there are still many who seem not to know how to use their non-work time constructively.

But the prioritising of work above all else has actually made those problems worse. It has eroded civil and communal life, it has made family life more difficult – and it has removed from people the autonomy to know how to rely on their own resources and to find other aspects of life by which to define themselves. Reducing the long hours of my own work and taking more control has been a significantly good thing. The small town where I live is noticeably different now too: quiet – but inhabited – not emptied-out, as it feels in a normal working week after the commuters have left. The endless (and often needless) consumption and the income to afford it, which is the quid pro quo for the long hours – (and which actually feeds our income back to those who own the organisations that employ us in the first place) – is having a disastrous environmental impact.

In other words, excessive work is actually the cause of many of our other dysfunctions, not the solution.

If the pandemic has made people question these things, it can only be good. The pendulum may have swung too far to sustain – there will always be a trade-off between time and money, though new technologies may be part of the solution here, as indeed electronic technologies have shown in recent months.

Giving people the freedom to choose how to balance their lives seems to me to be an inherent component of a good quality of life – and it already exists to some extent in similar countries; it should be up to people to choose how to spend their lives most fruitfully, not the nation’s patricians to dictate.

That is entirely consistent with the nature of Sprezzatura: the scope to run your life rather than it running you. And I suspect that is the real reason that the powerful in Britain are concerned that it does not go on much longer.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The Ref.

ref

 

Twenty-five people strode out onto the grass. Several of them were carrying balls, which ever-shifting groups proceeded to kick about among themselves.

As time wore on, an air of uncertainty seemed to descend, as though they were waiting for something. Eventually, one of them decided to make off up the grass with one of the balls, towards a goal post. There was a cheer from the spectators. But some of the others on the grass seemed not to have noticed; they were still occupied with different balls.

Gradually, however, a few more started to join in a repeat of the above movement, even passing the ball from one to another as they went. Others tried to stop them. But it wasn’t easy to tell who was on which team, since there were ten different colour schemes visible on the field.

After about ten minutes, one of the people deliberately tripped up another who had a ball, and then dribbled it around behind the spectators before coming round the end of the field and through a goalpost that had, in the meantime, mysteriously been replaced with one four times as wide as that at the other end of the field.

Some on the field protested vigorously, at which point they were set upon by the others, and a full-scale brawl ensured. Some of the spectators gladly joined in, while others lost interest and sauntered off home. The ‘game’ was eventually won by those who were able to punch the hardest, at a score of 13-0 and five dead.


 

Times of emergency often provoke people to face issues that they would rather not. Currently, that includes some pretty fundamental questions, such as whether it is possible to run a country under conditions where close interaction between its residents is potentially fatal.

One might also ponder the importance, or otherwise, of Trade in a situation where matters of mutual survival are suddenly of much more immediate significance. Public Opinion in the U.K. apparently still supports an extended lockdown until the risks of infection have fallen much further. When it’s a choice between cash and life, most people don’t hesitate to choose the latter.

But another rather existential question concerns the nature of human interaction. Since the time that there was first more than one person alive on this planet, there has been a need for some kind of accommodation of the possibly-conflicting interests of multiple sentient beings. It is evident, too, that by virtue of existing, those individuals cannot help but have an effect on everything around them, including other beings. The question is, what type of effect. It also apparent that individuals’ good can be furthered by interaction, thereby achieving things that neither could alone. It is not as simple as just allowing the economy to perish, since people do need to interact for all sorts of things, while isolating people totally is potentially to leave them to perish from all sort of other causes. This is the argument being made by some for ending the lock-down.

How to reconcile these two grossly conflicting needs is the conundrum that Covid-19 presents. It is also the subject of social and economic theory down the ages.

There can be few who would advocate running Premier League football along the lines described at the top of this post – and yet there seem to have been plenty over the past decades who thought it was a good way to run society more generally.

They are the ones who describe taxation as theft, who claim that there is “no such thing as society”, and that “the invisible hand of the market” is the best mechanism for running things. They tend to claim that competition is the natural dynamic of society, as of Nature itself – competition which they evidently intend to win. They are the ones whose attitude towards the State is hostile, who portray the organs of the state as either megalomaniac or lumpenly jobsworth, intent on depriving them of their “rightful” freedom to act as they alone choose.

These attitudes may reflect more on those who express them than anyone else: on what grounds might one really object to the presence of any form rules – except because one wishes to flout them? Most of the “bureaucracy” that such people wish to hack away exists to protect the many from predation by a few. Why else would one wish to loosen safety standards or conditions of employment?

Yet a version of such market-dominated views is prevalent in the U.K., to the extent that even the more thoughtful among the younger generations who have never known it otherwise, seem to find it very difficult even to conceive of society being run any other way. This is probably no surprise, since in that time, even the State itself has been run by those who held such views, and whose overriding aim was seemingly to remove its influence from as many areas of national life as possible. They argued that the State was inefficient and inept. At what, one might ask. Selling burgers – or saving lives?

 

I’m old enough to have been brought up with a different view, no doubt reinforced by the fact that most of my family has worked in various state enterprises. I grew up with a view of a benign State as the guarantor of basic standards and needs. It was the State that provided electricity and water, and co-ordinated train and bus services. It oversaw the provision of universal standards of healthcare and education. It underwrote those things that are necessary, but where profit is not the most important or viable consideration.

It might have been a bit dull, but it nonetheless had a showroom on every High Street rather than a call-centre in cyber-space, and you knew that the prices it charged were not fuelling the mega-profits of a few private individuals living in tax havens or the zero-hours contracts of unfortunate operatives. You knew that the head teacher was answerable to the County Council rather than his own pension fund. You knew that train fares would be consistent, not run by “yield management” techniques designed to maximise income for the operator.

You had some faith that the State would take a long-term strategic view of the needs of society as a whole, and plan accordingly, that it could act where there was no profit to be made. In short, the State was arbiter, the provider of the social goods that underwrite the basic needs of society, which it provided without fear or favour irrespective of people’s private interests.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that the State got everything right, or that the divide was always in the right place. It was probably never a good idea for the NHS to be the sole provider of spectacles. The consequences were visible on the face of every citizen with less than perfect eyesight. I also know that innovation can be messy and unpredictable, while self-interest is a strong (but not the only) motivator. The important thing is to balance conflicting interests.

I suspect that the shortcomings of the State peddled by free-marketeers since the 1980s were less inherent, and more to do with poor practice. The State is not inevitably bad: just look at the German, Swiss, Scandinavian or New Zealand ones. It is just that the British State has been badly run – not least because it was perpetually starved of funds by those who were able to avoid contributing, and often run (with little accountability, but plenty of condescension and entitlement) by those who had few personal interests in its working well, since they had already bought themselves out of it.

It is not as though the free market does any better. The myth of market efficiency  has been exposed: what private companies crave is not competition, but monopoly: a private monolith instead of a public one. A situation where they have the rest of society over the barrel of their own corporate interests – and these they  will conspire to create when the State is too weak – or negligent – to prevent it.

The pandemic response is simply the latest, most extreme demonstration of what happens when you try to run civil society without the impartial, logical, consistent organisation that only a disinterested entity can provide.

It is the “lean and efficient” commercial sector that largely replaced such an entity in the U.K. which has been exposed as having neglected investment and strategic planning. It should come as no surprise that when one promotes profit-seeking, it is entirely predictable that that is how many people will behave, both individually and in groups. It is inevitable when such organisations tend to be run by self-selecting, profit-seeking individuals whose personal perspectives align with that worldview.

The Coronavirus pandemic has put the shortcomings of this approach up there in huge, illuminated letters for all to see. When it came to the crunch, it was the large corporations who struggled to keep supplies rolling, who were ill-equipped to cater for a suddenly-much-wider range of needs – not that it stopped them propagandising as vigorously as any State, telling us how they were “here for us” and were “looking after the nation”. No: they just knew the alternative was oblivion.

It was quasi-commercial policies that deprived the NHS of the strategic reserves it needed to respond fully to the emergency – and the altruism of its ordinary employees that largely saved the day while the executives were struggling to work out what to do.

The same could be said of the government: at a time when the guiding principle has needed to be social solidarity and welfare, grass-roots society has largely risen to the need. But the libertarian free-marketeers in charge have found themselves bereft of the insight for far-sighted decision-making. Even now, their approach is more public-opinion than public-service. And as if that wasn’t enough, the experience is being daily rubbed in by the very different situation in those nations that never lost sight of the need for an effective social contract in the first place.

Perhaps the most ironic sight is now the self-same private sector that has spent the last decades demeaning the State and profiteering from its neglect, now coming cap-in-hand to the State for support, supposedly in the interests of its vital social function. So much for the “invisible hand of the market”: when the chips are down, it is the very visible hand of the State that is needed to save the day, just as ever.

Those who advocate competition fail to notice that in even nature, co-operation is at least as effective a survival strategy. When individuals compete, the strongest normally wins; when disparate individuals compete with an effective team, the team does.

Because those existential questions dictate that, whether it is a game of football or the functioning of a complex society, few things can operate properly and equitably without logical, consistent and fair rules – and their enforcement by an impartial Referee.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

David and Goliath

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There is a battle brewing. The enemy is anything but unseen: it dominates life in this, and to varying extents most, countries. The early skirmishes have already been seen: the calls from the harder Right for lock-down to be ended in the interests of getting the Economy back working; in the headlines in the less responsible press announcing that from next week Everything Will Be Alright again.

Even The Guardian’s economics correspondent Larry Goddard wrote a piece a few days ago arguing that people balance their economic interests with life-or-death situations every time they get in a car to go shopping or to work.

It’s a persuasive argument, and not without some sense of course – but it seems that even Goddard is in hoc to the Great God Economics. So are all those people in other fields exhorting an early end to lock-down. They can’t get sufficiently far outside the box to envisage what might now be necessary. Could it be that many of them are precisely those who have driven our societies in the direction they have gone in the past few decades, those who real priority has been (and still is) to make as much money as possible from the rest of us, even if it means working us to the bone? It’s not as though we’ve not seen their like throughout history. As with everything else it touches, the pandemic reveals their true selves, and the priorities that drive them. 

On the other side, there is a growing body of comment pointing out the benefits that the slowdown has brought; that were it not for the health fears and the tragic news, day to day life would in many ways be much improved. The early apprehension that lock-down would be unbearable has been at least tempered by the discovery that it is possible not to run one’s life against the clock and still enjoy it. In fact, quite possibly to enjoy it more.

I spent three decades in a hectic career; I still cannot quite believe that thirty years went by almost without my noticing. What I do remember, though, is a constant nagging voice telling me that the pace at which I was living was not right. Life was tearing by in a blur, many experiences barely touched upon as I sped on my way to the next deadline. Had it not been for the mental health difficulties that precipitated it (and which, after all, were all the proof needed that the pace was not good for me) the slowed-down period of my life since 2016 has had much to recommend it. At last I feel I am living my life, rather than watching from the side-lines. And even though that life has had to be pared back in some ways, there has still been a net gain.

The battle to come will be that between the huge interests that want to get us back to ‘life as it was before’ as soon as possible, and those who want lessons to be learned, and things to move in another direction. A recurring theme is the fact that the odds are stacked against the latter. Modern society is so controlled by commercial interests and their political puppets that the hope of radical change seems to be slim.

This too is a depressingly persuasive argument. But it overlooks one thing: for those systems to function as they did, it requires the complicity of the rest of us. It requires people unquestioningly to buy (literally and metaphorically) all the unnecessary stuff that the commercial world needs to flog to survive – and which even now, elements of it are still trying to flog us. It needs people to accept ever harder working lives in order to maintain the income needed to support this. It needs people to buy into the myth that their lives will be better the more they buy or consume,  the further and more often they travel, and so on. And it relies on people being willing to sell their souls to accept that More Money is the answer to all their problems.

It is easy to criticise this as being a middle-class morality – and to some extent it is, at least if you consider class to be defined these days by income. Although this household’s past four years required a severe pruning of our consumption, we still had enough money coming in, plus some savings, that we were never at risk of starving, or losing our home. Plenty are.

But in another way, the fact that there are many in society who do not have such a buffer is the fault of the rest of us too. It is precisely the middle classes whose endless, mindless consumption fuelled the corporate policies that treated the less-fortunate increasingly badly. It is precisely the earning classes who prioritised bonuses and tax cuts over investment in the essential services and social safety-net that we now all need; who tolerated increasingly insecure work for the low-paid so long as it meant they could carry on buying more for less. In other words, the plight of the less fortunate in our society, is to some extent in the hands of the middle classes too.

And it is also the middle classes who were in the vanguard of the wave of angst that swept the country at the news that their chock-full consumer lives (and own long working hours in their dream careers) were going to be curtailed for the foreseeable future. It is they, after all, who are most afflicted with Affluenza, and who felt they had most to lose when those hell-for-leather lives ground to a halt. Anyone would think they never moaned about the impossible conflicts they faced in managing their daily routines…

The battle to come is definitely a matter of David and Goliath. But we all know the moral of that story. Life As It Was Before will only resume if sufficient people cave in and let it. There are of course many who desperately need to secure their incomes in the short term – but this is a battle with a longer time scale. It is not about not earning a reasonable income – it is about what we then do with it. And about what we more generally consider to be ‘reasonable’  (and unreasonable) in the first place.

There are signs that resistance is building: not only in the predictable (but sensible) calls from the Unions that workplaces need to be safe before people return to work – but also from those who  support an extended closure of schools even at the (supposed) cost to their children of the lost hot-housing that formal education now is. It is also there in the numbers of people who have rediscovered that places are nicer (and cleaner) when not choked with cars; in the people who have actually appreciated more time spent with family or who have re-connected with their communities; in those who have discovered new pastimes and skills. And in the general sense of a life that is being lived at a more sustainable and in many ways more pleasurable pace.

The battle to come will only be lost if all those things are forgotten in the coming months and years. All that is needed is for sufficient numbers of people to change – and then sustain – their ways of life, so that they are no longer duped by the call to resume a life that returns us to all those unmissed routines.

It is not easy to change one’s way of life. Managing with less stuff takes determination; if you’re hooked on it, finding other things to do than recreational shopping requires determination too. As does not getting in your car and travelling for every need. It is especially difficult since so much of our infrastructure is now geared to people doing exactly those things. But this emergency has shown that another way is still possible, when we put our minds to it. The question is, how many will actively, determinedly do so?

In the longer term, education, economics and commerce are all human constructs. The Virus, to say nothing of the wider ecological crisis are not – except inasmuch as we caused them. Pretty much any aspect of human life can be reconfigured, as it has been in the past weeks (political claims that “it can’t be done” have been shown for what they are). Except for whether you are alive or dead: in that respect, there is no contest.

The battle to come is going to be one of determination – between the vested interests who would get us back to a “normality” of whose detrimental effects we have been graphically reminded – and those who now see that something else is both possible and desirable. In the decisions we make as and when the immediate crisis winds down – the things we do, and perhaps more significantly the things we refuse to do – people-power must be able to send a loud message to those in power, about the changes that have to be made.

Because try as they might, neither corporations nor politicians can implement their programmes without the complicity of everyone else.

Opinion & Thought

Half-baked

“If you want to see what education does to a country, just look at one that has none”.

It was perhaps the most convincing argument I ever encountered for doing the job that has occupied the bulk of my working life.

It also provided the perfect justification why someone like me, not a particularly outgoing person and with no children of his own, might go into that line of work. While I was perfectly prepared to support individuals when they needed my help, I never really subscribed to the view of my role as a somewhere between a pal and a life-coach, that has become the mainstream view in recent years. The job of the teacher is to be more impartial than that – a mentor, a critical friend, not a yes-person.

That is not to say that the individual is unimportant: a happy society has to be produced, as far as is possible, from happy individuals – but there is another descriptor that one might use too: Balanced. We all need a well-balanced society, not one that is simply pursuing individual self-realisation at all costs; all the more so when it is equated solely with career and income. This, I am less convinced we are achieving.

A balanced society is perhaps Wise: one that appreciates the perpetual, inescapable and uncomfortable compromise between our own interests and those of others around us. It appreciates, too, the subtle point that even self-interest is not simply a matter of who acquires the sharpest elbows and the largest bank account. It hopefully also sees that many of the things that make life worth living are not a product of ruthless ambition, nor the status that may result.

Therefore my own motives for teaching were more concerned with the role of education in creating a civilised society for all – including those without their own children – and for the transmission of the cultural and intellectual capital that is the very necessary inheritance of all. Looking after the individuals was just a (very important) part of the bigger picture.

I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the view (of not only, but seemingly including many teachers), that the purpose of education was to pass exams, thereby progressing to the next stage of this supposedly pre-ordained, homogenous process until wealth and influence eventually landed in your lap. It is probably no coincidence that such views were peddled most strongly by those within the profession who had themselves followed that trajectory…

My discomfort reached a peak when I was being actively being prevented from teaching in a way and using materials that I knew enhanced understanding, on the grounds that they would not specifically appear in the exam. To me, this was the pinnacle of the narrow-mindedness that I always believed education was meant to counter: a view so limited as to believe that we should only teach things, and in ways, that would supposedly enhance exam performance – at the expense of precisely the breadth of understanding and insight that exams are intended to sample. If this is so, then it is indeed true that the whole thing has been reduced to a pointless exercise in hoop-jumping.

I could not escape my unease that this outlook, which reduced the essential, life-enhancing experience of wonder at, and learning about the world to little more than box-ticking. I could not ignore the sense that is also self-defeating, because when the acquisition of something as indefinable as Wisdom is reduced to such, it does indeed become all but meaningless. Wisdom, by definition is not something that can be either acquired or exercised according to a pre-written formula – as many of the exponents of the hoop-jumping approach unknowingly demonstrated all too well.


 

These conflicts have been much in my mind again in recent times. First Brexit, and now Covid-19 have severely tested our resilience as a society, and revealed the strengths and weaknesses of different systems, approaches and mindsets around the world.

As everywhere, my own local community has been tested by this unexpected adversity. In the past weeks, people have been taking conspicuous care with social distancing, while a number of local support groups have sprung up, as one would hope. And yet it seems that a few weeks of this are as much as some people can support. There are growing numbers of people appearing in the streets; while our weekly market has done well from people shopping more locally, I find myself incredulous at the speed with which self-discipline seems to be breaking down.

It seems that now the initial shock of the situation has passed, people are increasingly cutting corners; that faced with the choice between immediate convenience and potentially fatal infection, more than I am comfortable with appear to choose the former. Perhaps they think they are invincible; I wonder how many know that we have had the virus here in this community of five thousand…

There are some here (as presumably in all societies) who seem to have a casual attitude to Risk, or who simply can’t be bothered to sustain previous efforts. This might not matter so much if the consequences of their decisions only affected themselves – but the cruel tragedy of this pandemic, is that careless behaviour is at least as likely to harm others as themselves.

I know that some of the local traders have noticed – and have not missed the irony, either, that many who are currently patronising them have never been seen before – and will probably never be seen again once ‘normal’ life resumes. Such is the superficial transience of some people’s behaviour – and, it seems, their ability to learn lasting lessons. It often seems to be the same people who show little awareness of others around them in the street, and who seem to think that social distancing means that everyone else needs to give way…


 

There as an inherent contradiction within the idea of education: by cultivating people’s resourcefulness and potential, one makes it more possible for those individuals to stand on their own feet; to make decisions about their own lives and interests that are freed from the overwhelmingly-communal concerns that still govern less educated societies, ones where community really is an insurance against adversity.

Strengthening people’s minds really does give them more autonomy – but there is no guarantee that the result will be used in an enlightened way. The process that we in Britain currently call ‘education’ taps into very strong instincts for self-advancement, even greed: its singular emphasis on personal fulfillment has downplayed the interconnectedness of us all, which the current situation has temporarily re-emphasised. It has led people to become self-focused to the extent that they fail even to consider the impact of their behaviour on others – even it seems when that behaviour can potentially cause death. Not all restraint has gone – but a virus does not negotiate; it does not make allowances for human weakness or stupidity. In fact, it exploits them.

The problem with education is this: done well, it does indeed lead to a more effective, more ‘free’ society – and one in which people might be expected to acquire more than a passing attachment to the currently-required behavioural changes that exist for everyone’s benefit. Where people are wise enough to have a sensible perspective about the situation; where they actively take considered and responsible decisions. Where lessons really are learned.

But done badly, all it does is exaggerate people’s sense of autonomy – empowerment without the necessary wisdom to appreciate the subtle limitations on that autonomy. It leads to a determination to have one’s own way no matter what the consequences; eventually it becomes so habitual that people cannot do otherwise. First Brexit and now the pandemic seem to be showing that for enough of the population to cause a problem, it is indeed such attitudes that now hold sway. No doubt the same people will be the first with the hysterics should there be another spike in infections.

This is what education as hoop-jumping achieves: giving people an exaggerated sense of their own importance, even invincibility – and a diminished sense of the many ways in which that is nothing more than an illusion. They may lose dependency – but they replace it with half-truths. Half-baked education is only concerned with what superficially seems to be the ‘right’ answer – not the imponderable dilemmas and uncertainties that a truly-wise perspective can see. And it fails to equip people to know how to change their minds.

This is where my misgivings came from – for as has been said before, a little education is a dangerous thing.

Opinion & Thought

About time

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This is Loch Laidon on Rannoch Moor in Scotland. Perhaps half a dozen times in my life, I have gone there and just stood. It is perhaps the most timeless place I know. The nearest road is several miles away, the nearest settlement perhaps thirty. Even though many years sometimes pass between visits, on each occasion that I visit, for all intents and purposes, it is exactly the same. It is there now – being more or less exactly the same as it always is. Maybe a few trees have fallen, but that is about it – nothing very perceptible, in a landscape whose bones are getting on for 500 million years old.

On the other side of the Moor, near Loch Ba, there is a viewpoint by the A82 road, where the view is so stupendous that people voluntarily interrupt their journeys quite literally just to stand and stare. If you can access Google Earth, you too can go there now, stand and scroll through 360 degrees: the effect will be at least a little the same.

There has been much gnashing of teeth in the British media recently about the effect on our perception of time of the lockdown, entering its fifth or sixth week. I don’t know which: I’ve stopped counting. Or rather, I never started.

A piece in The Guardian yesterday commented on the way in which time itself distorts under such circumstances, and how it is incredibly difficult not to go mad without a tight drumbeat by which to live one’s life.

I disagree. If you want to experience the true nature of time, go to somewhere like Loch Laidon. Ideally, do it on one of its less inhospitable days, when the sun is shining, and the water clear and blue in the way you forget water really can be, if you live in, say, East London. Sit on the small beach by the loch and feel the sun on your skin, breathe in clean air, wine-like in a way it never normally is in, say, North London. Watch the wind rustling the heather and bog grasses – and realise that it has been doing this – exactly like this – every day for at least the last ten thousand years. On one occasion when I was there, a stag appeared: jumped out of the trees a little way up the hillside; stood and stared at me for a few moments, then trotted off down the path, back into the trees – and out of (my) time, forever.

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Even if you are there in a storm, as you shelter, appreciate the place’s shift to a brooding melancholy as something happens that has come – and passed – countless times before down the millennia.

The problems that people have with Time are not of Time’s making. They are to do with the ways we are conditioned to use – and think about – it. I suspect this is a relatively recent, and largely western phenomenon. Contrary to popular thinking, indigenous peoples across the world tend to spend plenty of time just sitting around or doing things that are low in the list of survival essentials. The same appears to have been true of our own ancestors. Buddhists are known to approach such things in a very different way.

We, on the other hand, have allowed ourselves to become defined by constant action – and in particular, constant consumption – for which we must also constantly work. It is all about consuming life itself, where quantity appears to governing rule, but which may not be fundamentally in our own interests. We are encouraged to consume without thinking, moving ever onward, before we have even digested what we encountered last…

So the problem with people who are struggling is not Time: it is themselves. I don’t say this to be unkind – but to point out that all human routine is simply conditioning, and it can be changed. Quite often it is conditioning that we did not even choose to receive; much derives simply from growing up in certain societies and being subject to their influences. When it comes to the pace of life, each new generation picks up where the last one left off. Change may not be easy – but it can be done.

Routine and habit of course give shape to daily life, but when we lose the ability to regulate the drum according to our own needs, those things perhaps become less beneficial. Much of the beat originates from forces that have a vested interest in our dancing to their tune; it is not in their interests for us to be able to define the purposes of our own lives. The most obvious examples of this are economic, since we have built an economic system that requires constant consumption in order to keep it functioning – and more importantly for those who control these things, the flow of income into their offshore accounts. Their empowerment is our loss – and it is more than just financial.

The same forces shape the world of work: while productivity pays our monthly way, I have my doubts that the pace and duration of modern work is strictly necessary. Much of it is directed towards objectives that themselves are largely confected, the benefits of which I suspect tends to accrue to others rather than ourselves. It is really necessary that so many things be done by yesterday? Go and stand on the beach at Loch Laidon and ask yourself the same question.

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It’s not that there is no benefit in speed: it can be exhilarating. But when speed comes to rule us, its effect changes. Its adrenaline becomes addictive: the problem some people are having with slowing down is simply that they are not used ever to having to do so. They have become so used to living life as though it is supermarket sweep that they simply don’t know how not to do it like that. If you are used to living in a constant state of external hyper-stimulation then like stopping any other dependency, it will be difficult.

If you blast through life in the fast lane, simply trying to sweep as much as possible into your trolley as you go, you tend not to leave time to reflect on whether what you are doing is either helpful or necessary. The human brain does have a physical limit to how quickly it can process information; the more demands we place on it, the less likely we are to be able to deal with anything in more than a cursory way. In that situation the immediacy of Quantity trumps the subtlety of Quality.

But right now, quantity is suddenly in short supply – and people are being forced to sit and contemplate the quality of their lives. I suspect it was apprehension about this that caused the consternation of some weeks ago. But along with those who are still struggling, there is now much evidence that people are finding new things to do with their time, as I suspected they would, and even quite enjoying it. They  are perhaps beginning to see more clearly what many have sensed for some time – life as it has recently been is neither good for us, nor even as much fun as it was supposed to be.

I’m not the only one talking about a rediscovery of core values, of community and self-help, and hoping that at least some of the current calm will continue once the health crisis passes. The Slow Movement has been saying as much for years, of course, and now Danny Dorling has joined in, too.

I suspect that individual struggles are largely in proportion to the levels of conditioning. People are not fundamentally so different – but the ways in which we are conditioned (or condition ourselves) perhaps are. Those who are most used to having their lives filled externally probably will encounter most difficulty when that changes. Perhaps it’s thirty years of having been ruled by hourly lesson-bells that cause me to relish, rather than fear, the sense of time stretching endlessly ahead, to be used just as current circumstances suggest, moment by moment; hours when I rule my time, rather than it ruling me.

If there is a knack for doing this, I think it comes down to expectations. If you perceive time – and hence your own life – as a constantly-moving conveyor, a bit like the last stage of The Generation Game, with an endless supply of goodies passing in front of you, your only job being to grab them – then the point when the conveyor stops will be difficult.

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It’s not a lot better to consider it as a jigsaw puzzle – because then the value of each piece is only its relation to a picture that you may only see fleetingly at its very end.

But time is a slippery concept. For all that Physics says it moves forward, there is plenty in the way we experience it that can make it seem to slow down or even stop. Change may be endemic – but it does not always happen at breakneck speed. In fact, for large tracts of time, left to its own devices, not much happens at all. It is breakneck that is the lie. That, I think, is the lesson of Loch Laidon.

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There are things you can do to assist this: practising Mindfulness is one, where you learn to focus on just your own breath; sitting watching the play of light and shade on the wall of a sunny room is another. Contemplating a still-life painting is another: things that are not dependent on the passage of time, of constantly living in the future at the expense of appreciating the present. Ironically, the more you do this, the more the burden of time seeming to drag, recedes.

The health benefits of natural environments are widely-known; I suspect these too stem from the sense of un-changingness that they exude. Time spent experiencing the wind, the movement of the trees and the plays of light and shade – things that have been going on for millions of years – can give us an entirely different perspective on time – one where the future is characterised not by the next deadline or appointment – but by their absence. Of sameness – which is perfectly alright if you accept it – and of apparent randomness, of things that just come, pass, and go, a bit like the stag. Of its being entirely acceptable to exist in each moment, as it happens, just for its own sake. This too can become a form of conditioning – one that actually enhances the quality of our lives, where we experience things at a pace more in keeping with our own comfort and understanding and ability to savour.

I think another trick concerns how you define the ‘purpose’ of something. The pleasure of daubing paint on canvas for its own sake can be far greater than the reputation or wealth that most of us will (n)ever get from doing it. Playing a musical instrument is no ‘use’ to most of us, except in the pleasure it gives to do so. The trick is to do it for its own sake, rather than simply as a step on the way to something else that somehow never arrives. I think it’s no surprise that many people seem to have resorted to cookery and are finding again pleasure in a thing that is often debased as a chore to be got out of the way, rather than done for its own sake.

The whole point of standing by Loch Laidon was just to stand there. It all depends on what you define as the journey, and what the destination.

Much of what we rail about in life, what stresses us, concerns our unrealistic expectations of time. When we slow down, we can start to focus on detail rather than a blur, and we can perhaps rediscover that life does not need to be lived at break-neck speed in order to be fulfilling. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be the case. It is possible to travel across Rannoch Moor at sixty miles an hour on a train – at which point one admires the distant views but sees no more than a blur of the never-changing minutiae of that place. It’s only when you get off the train, that you can really drink it in.

A poor life this if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Il Dolce far Niente

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A deep silence is descending. In our small town, during the day almost nothing moves. It’s the same kind of silence that you normally only find in villages in La France Profonde, or parts of high-summer Italy; the early warmth and sunshine only reinforces the impression. Or perhaps it reminds me of my West-Country childhood, where the summers seemed to go on forever…

A trunk road passes near the town; often there is a ceaseless, low-level roar of lorries heading for the East Coast ports, and cars heading to workplaces, or the nearby retail centres. That has gone. So have the aircraft in this most crowded of airspace. Even in the town centre, except for the occasional vehicle, and the singing of the birds, the silence is near-total. The town is never exactly busy, though over the years the influx of commuters has upped the tempo. It has a rush-hour; not any more. In twenty years here, never before have I heard my footsteps echoing in the streets. Human voices, when heard, have an unusual clarity…

Somehow, there is a depth to this quietness that isn’t normally there. The tempo of life is slowing. Apparently, seismologists say the country has stopped vibrating.

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On our occasional forays, one gains snatches of voices out of sight in back gardens, or glimpses of people lolling in rooms. Now and again, a conversation is had (from a safe distance, of course), in an unhurried way that rarely happens when people have busy-ness to get back to. A sound-track for this would shatter the silence of course, but it seems like the right time for Prelude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune, or The Lark Ascending. Or perhaps La Mer.

It is of course not like this everywhere; it would be monstrous not to acknowledge the duress of those working to keep the rest of us serviced, let alone in the hellish places that some hospitals must be.

But for many, it is a matter of sitting and waiting. And from this, we can learn much. The country that originated il dolce far niente can be frantic too; life has to go on, everywhere. Here too, there is plenty of activity; the difference is the pace at which it needs to be done. But we can learn something valuable about a benign pace of life. We can remember that plenty of stuff can just Wait.

Even the names of the days are blurring; when it’s no longer a matter of work routines, do even they really matter? Did our ancestors get depressed about Mondays?

The meaning of that phrase does not refer to laziness, so much as the ability to stop and do nothing when circumstances permit. To linger over lunch or a chat, or just to sit and watch the play of sun and shadows on the wall. It is perhaps related to doing things well, rather than just quickly. It’s akin to mindfulness: an ability to be in, and to savour the present moment, to put one’s schedule on hold and just be.

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No doubt there are many who are finding confinement extremely difficult – even holidays these days seem to be a mad rush for the coast or places to keep the kids entertained. In this pressure-cooker of a country everything, it seems, need to be done at break-neck speed, as though people are scared of simply slowing down.

Is it too much to hope that they too might eventually break through this, and also learn what our particular circumstances here admittedly make easy – that quietness is restful and restorative, that boredom comes from within, and that forever revving the pace of life is not the answer? That, insofar as there is one, seems to be in the quality of lived experience, not the quantity.

Even in cities, the pace does seem to have slowed; much of what we admire about the world’s most liveable conurbations relates to their pace of life – not only the buzz of things to do, but also the ability to step off that conveyor and just chill. That’s perhaps what makes continental cities so charming; maybe now is the time to see that it is possible here, too?

What does seem to be hurrying is Nature: the speed at which the air and water have cleared has been quite breath-taking. Maybe there is a desperately overdue lesson in there too. Even pandas are breeding, now we have learned just to leave them alone…

It might seem self-indulgent to talk about the benefits of the current situation, when there is so much tragedy unfolding. But even a cloud this dark is not without its silver lining. Perhaps we should be reading James Lovelock or E.M Forster – and pondering the world we have made? Deciding what positive things can come from this?

Surely the best way of commemorating the tragedy of lost and shattered lives is to learn how to live that which remains for the rest of us, less cheaply?

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Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The Reckoning

In global terms, I am not widely travelled. But in my frequent journeys around Europe, I have learned one ‘truth’ that I believe can be applied everywhere: people and places are not all the same. At one level, that’s a truism of geography, but it also applies to the social and economic landscape that people overlay on the places they inhabit.

It’s been a nice conceit for Europeans to think that the increasingly close relationships between our nation-states have made us “all just European now”. But it’s not true: the differences remain as strong as the newer realisation that we have more in common than we thought.

It’s not only a national issue either; the tendency to think in terms of national blocs frequently masks the differences that exist within nations. Things can be very different over small distances, even between more and less advantaged districts of a single town. The same tendency also disguises larger patterns, such as the fact that the USA has more coronavirus cases than Europe. I haven’t done the maths, but physical size and population of the USA make a comparison with Europe as a whole more valid than with much smaller political units, before we Europeans go crowing too loudly.

But now more than ever, none of the foregoing detracts from the basic fact that things aren’t the same everywhere. My experience can hardly be claimed to be scientific, but the repeated impression of numerous countries has been that each has its own ‘way’, that seems to transcend any attempt to smother or standardise it.

I suspect the reason for this is simply that ‘culture’ is both a more and less transmissible phenomenon that we realise. While it is easy enough to identify its outward expressions, I suspect the sheer depth of that ‘programming’ is less appreciated. Because we are exposed to this particular virus literally from birth, we acquire immunity before we’re even aware that is what it is. We then get trapped within it, which makes it more difficult to assimilate others.

What both fascinates and puzzles me is the extent to which culture might be heritable – nature, rather than as one might suppose, nurture. Accepting the many limitations on one’s ability to see the whole picture of something this complex, repeated exposure to Europe’s kaleidoscope has both given me a sense that there are some grounds for national stereotypes – and made me fascinated about precisely why Italians are Italian, Germans German and so on. It almost seems as though nations are unable to escape from their own mindsets, even when it might be in their better interests to do so. It might also explain why the why the UK predictably follows US norms more closely than do other European nations – and language-dependent mindset is only part of it. What genetic cultural commonalities might also play a part?

Yet Nurture is the more obvious influence: from one’s first breath, one is programmed by an all-enveloping message about the world. The things one treats as “normal” are the product of the neural networks that grow by exposure to certain things rather than others, and become established simply by virtue of frequency of encounter. Culture shock is an expression of what happens when one confronts this.

I can find no other way to explain why a universal human aptitude for language ends up with people speaking different ones dependent on where they grow up, or how the universal human need to eat finds so many different expressions.

What we perhaps underestimate is the depth to which these things pervade our entire experience – to the extent that different individuals seem to perceive the world in fundamentally different ways. A recent example was Britons’ wildly varying readings of their nation’s relationship with its neighbours. I think it’s too simplistic to attribute that simply to the influence of the media, the choice of which is itself a product of deeper currents. British attitudes to the wider world seem to be more generally informed by a deeper perspective of isolationism – without, seemingly, any recognition that insularity is itself a form of conditioning, not an absolute of human nature. It’s a function of island-dwelling so deep that many rarely even notice it.

It seems plausible to consider that those who have been exposed to a wider range of cultural experiences (for example by living in a poly-cultural environment or simply having wider geographical horizons) might have developed more varied neural networks as a result, thereby rendering them fundamentally more comfortable with pluralism than those who grew up in more homogenous surroundings. In Switzerland, for example, it is consistently the remote Alpine areas that are the strongholds of right-wing nationalism, whereas the big cities are more liberal. But I’ve met few on the continent who seemed as inherently insular in their attitudes as many British.

Beneath this seems to lie another question: why is it, in this day of instant international communication, when the world’s cultures are interacting more closely than ever before, does our ability to learn even practical things from each other seem so slow? Why is it that the British persist in mocking Germanic ‘efficiency’ even as they might be much better off imitating it? It seems that they just can’t ‘do’ it , even when they most need to.

What is less appreciated is the extent to which culture perpetuates itself – and in objective terms, that can mean replicating and even amplifying national blind spots. The people of a nation are as much a product of its culture as the reverse.

Collectively the British still seem to find it more important to perpetuate their country’s traditions – even as they grow manifestly more and more unsuited for the present day. There is an element of bloody-mindedness when it comes to learning from others – even where it means doing things worse, rather than adopting their methods. We then tell ourselves that it is actually we who are “world class”, even when the evidence contradicts it. This deep runs the national superiority-inferiority complex.

National institutions and policies can reinforce these patterns: the British have been told by their politicians and media for sufficient decades that there is “no such thing as society, only an economy”, that they have come to believe it, and behave accordingly. Even the education system – one of the key methods of cultural transmission – has been recruited to this cause, emphasising economic outcomes at the expense of personal wisdom or resilience, or wider social values. The Health Service (as everything else) has been run as a quasi-business, even though the result has been perpetual shortages and changes of policy. The nation has been led to believe that low taxes are better than a high-quality public realm – and as for the enduring acceptance that traditional social hierarchy is a natural order, it is so “obvious” that even now it is rarely widely questioned. The excessive, futile social competitiveness that it begets is simply treated as the norm.

However, this is not just a British issue: such cultural imprisonment is visible to varying extents across the world. Such convergence as there has been, for example in attitudes towards the human rights or environment, seems to have been the product of top-down intervention by organisations such as the EU or UN.

Which is why I come back to the idea of a heritable element to culture. As technology increasingly turns human culture into a single entity, it ought to be far easier to learn and adopt new strategies and mindsets than it is actually proving.

Anyone who has travelled on Swiss public transport can hardly avoid asking themselves the question, “Why can’t everywhere be like this?” Anyone who has crossed the Belgium-Luxembourg border and noticed the sudden absence of pot-holes and road noise can hardly not reflect on the mindsets and resultant priorities that produced such a striking physical manifestation of the difference between two neighbouring states. The answer is not always money.

More generally, one might wonder why certain states globally exhibit hawkish behaviours while others are more dove-like. Why is it that the nations with serious social problems don’t look at those with fewer and find it within themselves to emulate them? Why can’t Americans look at Europe and realise the obvious, glaring causality between gun ownership and mass killings? Something deeper and more instinctive seems to get in the way.

In the case of the U.K., why is that we instinctively follow the USA’s lead, at the expense of conflict with our nearer neighbours, even while they often don’t suffer from the same extreme social and economic problems that both this country and the USA do? Something deep inside seems to prevent us from doing so – even to the extent of driving a Brexit that few now claim will bring any real benefits.


 

But now we have a Reckoning that will throw all these things into harsh relief. I am not inert to the individual suffering that the coronavirus is causing. It is a human catastrophe. But with my (compassionate) social scientist hat on, I also wonder what it might tell us, and we might learn from it.

In objective terms, this pandemic presents the closest we are likely to come to an utterly dispassionate test of each nation, as of each person within them. The systems, policies, infrastructures – and mindsets – of each are being tested against a ruthless but remarkably constant adversary, which is exposing their respective strengths and weaknesses in a way that ‘mere opinion’ cannot.

And, allowing for the imperfections of information and reporting, it seems evident that while no country has coped ‘well’, some have coped better than others. To what extent is that luck – and to what extent a reflection on the model that each country operates? Much-criticised authoritarian countries seem to have had more success in imposing measures to curb transmission than those in the libertarian West, while within Europe, the “humourless”, “efficient” and “conformist” countries seem to have suffered less than less disciplined ones.

Those that have invested in their health care and technical sectors now have capacity that others which have cut apparent “inefficiencies” to the bone (in the name of cost-savings) do not. Those that retained a stronger sense of civic cohesion seem to be having fewer problems with curfews than those with more individualist streaks. I am bound (but not surprised) to add that the British education system seems to have done little to equip the nation’s citizens as a whole with the perspectives and resilience that might have led to a calmer, more disciplined response. This ‘common-sensical’ nation has revealed itself (again) to be nothing of the kind. Meanwhile, humanitarian aid is coming from some distinctly unexpected quarters…

And the ultimate free market – the USA – sadly seems set to reap a whirlwind that even the UK may avoid, on account of a healthcare sector that was organised for corporate profit rather than universal public health. What more tangible evidence will be needed of the folly of that approach?

In the UK, the flaws of governmental libertarianism have been exposed – but so have the inadequacies of a society where social obligation has been all but obliterated; one in which inequality is so entrenched that there is no shame in depriving one’s fellows of basic needs by bulk-buying (and let’s face it, you need a certain income to be able to do that) – or by considering that one’s “right” to take refuge in one’s second home is more important than the risk of importing the virus into the remoter communities. It is the same mentality that seems to have led the lackadaisical, silver-spoon-raised Johnson somehow to think he was immune from contracting the virus when shaking hands in hospitals. The mindset runs so deep that it defies even common sense. But it can now be shown incontrovertibly to be wrong.

It is the mindset that has nationally prioritised private interests over social need for decades – the same interests that have been found wanting in a national emergency (just-in-time supply chains may cut costs but they do not work at times like this). Others, meanwhile, have been deluging us with emails of opportunism-cum-desperation assuring us of just how public-spirited they actually are, now that our patronage has dried up. Where were those values before the virus when they hoovered up our cash and funnelled it to shareholders? And does anyone really not see the irony in the multi-billionaire, non-tax-paying Branson asking for state bail-outs?

This is not pretty. We should of course balance it with the many acts of compassion and selflessness that are happening across the country, most of which are small and unreported. (Is it too much to describe it as a national reawakening? Even Johnson now accepts that there is such a thing as society…). We should also accept that negative behaviour is probably happening elsewhere, and we are simply not seeing it reported. But the balance-sheet will not inevitably be the same everywhere; I wonder how many Swiss are ignoring their lock-down. (In fact, my informant tells me it is virtually total).

Is it too much to hope that the trial-by-Armageddon of this pandemic should result in some important lessons being learned? Including the need to learn from others where attitudes and practices are better? That isolationism and social polarisation do not work? That (unprofitable) investment in resilience and contingency measures is not economically foolish, let alone socially unnecessary? That in the end, good government is essential? And that mocking nations who are less ill-disciplined, more enlightened than we – and whose citizens have enough social education to know when to curtail their personal idiocies in the name of collective survival – is foolish?

I think that various national responses to the pandemic have tended to reflect national norms more than dispel them. Some of that is circumstantial: more gregarious societies were perhaps going to have quicker contagion than less gregarious ones; on the other hand, they tend to have warmer climates, and so might experience quicker reductions as the summer arrives, that are nothing to do with policy. As I said, it’s complex. But above all that is the ability of each country effectively to run its own affairs. That will ultimately be measured by infection and mortality rates in the face of a common threat.

In the case of the U.K., it will probably be seen to have muddled through, initially over-reliant on bombast, spin and opportunism, followed by a belated but partially successful change of tack; its public services doing a good job despite long having been starved of resources; a nation that is not as sensible (by a long way) as it thinks it is, with cultural transmission systems (such as education) that are found not to have equipped the people as well as they might have, to deal with the biggest collective emergency of their lives.

In other words, pretty much the normal story for this country. But it’s a pity we still find it so hard to learn (in all sorts of ways) from those who arguably did better.

Opinion & Thought

The Sound of Silence

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“To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level.” Bertrand Russell

There is a way in which every one of us is alone in the world. Despite social media giving us a greater sense than ever of how we all belong to one great herd of humanity, there is much of life that can only ever be individual. Ultimately, it is not possible to delegate one’s experience of life, and anything that it might throw at you, to anyone else. It is down to individual resourcefulness to deal with.

Bertrand Russell had a lot to say on the subject. For me, his most memorable observation is the one above. Russell died in 1970 – but whether we have made much progress on this in the intervening half-century is moot to say the least.

The present situation, with around 20% of the global population in lock-down perhaps presents the ultimate test of his thinking. One of the things that has struck me in the past couple of weeks – and indeed continues to do so – is the level of unspoken alarm that many people seem to be exhibiting at the thought of not having work to do.

Of course, there are many pragmatic reasons why work needs to continue; we cannot press the Pause button on life, because the clocks continue to tick. People have needs that cannot wait.

There may also be a value in work as displacement activity, if it helps distract from the more anxiety-making thoughts of the current time. But I still suspect that a lot of the – frankly excess – effort that seems to be going into “putting arrangements in place” still comes back to Russell’s observations about the human fear of under-occupation, and the unavoidable contemplation of existential issues that may follow shortly afterwards.

As an educator, I find this distressing. My professional raison d’être, as I see it, is to encourage and help people to develop their inner resourcefulness, through the only media that we ultimately have available to us – our minds and bodies. That was the original purpose of education – to develop the individual – not to create efficient but unthinking work-units. Ultimately, these are the only inalienable tools we have with which to buttress ourselves against whatever life does decide to throw at us. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted exhaustive research into the experiences that people identified as giving their lives meaning and fulfilment – and he concluded that irrespective of culture, these were things that presented us inwardly with challenges that once mastered increase our sense of autonomy.

Yet somewhere along the way, this ideal has been lost. While we have repeatedly dreamed of a future with increased leisure time, the harsh reality is that we have, if anything, moved in the opposite direction. Even the world of education itself has lost sight of that holistic remit, and has increasingly focused on preparing people for a lifetime of work, a situation which, while it can present personal challenges of its own, in many cases has completely the opposite effect on people’s sense of autonomy and individuality.

This is a long-term trend that is observable in all developed societies: as economies diversify, more and more human activities are contracted-out to other providers – be that food production, child care, entertainment, or almost anything else. Modern media even, in effect, allow us to outsource our own need to think about things. We can just think with the herd – until we discover that the herd doesn’t really know how to think at all. There is a perceived lesser need to know things because we can resort to Google, and less need to develop intellectual agility as apps will do almost all of the thinking for us.

Except they won’t.

For a start, there is a huge difference between information, knowledge and understanding. In terms of the cognitive development that is so essential for a fulfilled human life, by reducing the need to work at things for ourselves, all the “conveniences” of modern life actually remove the need to work at our own intellectual development. They limit the development of our neural networks. Many of those media present us with pre-digested forms of information that require us to do nothing except vegetate and passively, uncritically absorb. The absence of the need to persevere, to struggle and to develop the patience necessary to do so, actually robs us of the mental resilience we find we still need when the world bowls us a spinner.

As I said, the education world has regrettably almost entirely colluded with this trend, in the name of inclusivity and “engagement”. The marketisation of education has turned students and their parents into passive consumers of educational services. That seems to have meant providing a wall-to-wall conveyor of pre-digested content, without any opportunity ever to stop and seriously think about it. Because anything too demanding (i.e. anything that makes you demand too much of yourself) is likely to deter – and as we know, The Customer is always right.

Yet personal development is just not like that; there is only one way to do it, and that is to struggle with something for yourself. All of the scaffolding now available to learners often does little than defer (perhaps indefinitely) the enduring need to get to grips with German genders or violin vibrato. Let alone your comfort at simply being present with your own mind…

I think this trend has now been embedded in our society for so long that it is almost invisible. As a teacher, I have seen the “helicopter parent” become a more and more prevalent phenomenon; it now extends up the age range to those who are at and even beyond university. And it has been supplemented by the helicopter teacher, who (with, of course, the best of intentions) feels the overwhelming urge to stop at nothing supposedly to assist their students. We can hardly blame them, when social disapprobation can reach the levels that it nowadays does, and when in the case of teachers their careers can hang in the balance if they are seen to be doing otherwise.

But as Russell I am certain knew, it is all in vain. All the hyperactivity to create illusory structure and ‘purpose’ for our own and others’ lives cannot ultimately deny that fact that we must all meet our fates alone. I have long harboured an uneasy feeling that the ‘contracting out’ of so much of our lives does little other than render us more helpless, more dependent on others, less equipped to face things that only we will have to face.

What’s more, we deprive ourselves not only of the resilience that comes from self-sufficiency, but also the rewards. No one can learn to play the violin or speak a foreign language for you. Ultimately, we all must make such journeys for ourselves; to avoid the pain is also to avoid the gain – the deep satisfaction and ongoing fulfillment that comes from mastering something difficult, which thereby enhances our own autonomy and empowerment. The brilliant cellist Pablo Cassals, was asked why, in his eighties, he still practised. Apparently, he replied, “Because I think I’m improving”. And to deflect others from (having to) do so is almost worse.

I don’t think any of the foregoing is to deny the need for the necessary to be done. There is no question that we can assist each other in all sorts of ways. But as a teacher, I have always kept in mind an image of young birds on the verge of flight: there comes a point when even the best teacher, even the best parent, needs to stand back and let destiny take its course. There comes a point when letting someone struggle (a bit) is the best form of support – and certainly the quickest method of learning. Perhaps the current situation is just such a moment?

I think there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is not only the young who would benefit from the need to spend a bit more time for introspection, for facing the existential realities of who they are, what they stand for, and how they face the sheer, immovable dilemmas of simply existing. I’m not sure that providing more and more vicarious distractions that prevent people from ever facing their own inner selves is ultimately very helpful. It may be why, with the current prospect of enforced leisure, many are rushing around frenziedly trying to find anything and everything that will obviate the need finally to contemplate their own navels. It is a form of helplessness that makes the prospect of months of curfew all the worse, perhaps almost worse (and certainly more immediate) than the risk of viral infection.

I’ve had experience of this. Luckily, I seem to have a restless mind that almost never tires of entertaining itself. This may be a personality trait that is not shared by everyone – but I’m not suggesting that there is only one way to address the issue. It’s a matter of finding what engages you and absorbs you – but being engage-able in the first place is a skill that may need practice. For people who are used to finding their entertainment externally, looking inward may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. But my experience of being largely housebound for much of the past three years (as well as being a lifelong hobbyist) is that, in the longer run, it is the inner world that is the more rewarding.

So if you are reading this as a home-constrained worker, a harassed parent, or an over-anxious teacher, I’m not suggesting that what needs to be done should not be done. But it is perhaps necessary to question what that “need” really is.

By all means seek ways of filling the time – but the best place to look is inwardly, not outwardly. Find a new skill, interest or ambition to fulfill. And if you are responsible for others, do not feel you have to fill their every waking moment. Now might be precisely the moment to give them the space and time to explore their own inner resources. They are there – even if they need some looking for. The teachers amongst us might benefit our students most by giving them the space they need to find themselves, rather than insisting on doing it for them: to metaphorically even if not literally, climb trees. It is not a dereliction of duty.

The current crisis might in the longer term shed some beneficial light on our modern human condition. Part of that might be to show the extent to which we have lost our resilience and self-sufficiency and inner lives. Don’t resort to wall-to-wall Netflix; find something more challenging and active to do – and encourage others to do the same. It might be tough to begin with – but you will soon learn to accept the outward silence – and listen to the internal conversation instead.