Monday, 18 January 2021

THE TRUTH MUST WIN

When I was small if you were caught “telling stories” you were for it. 

Yet today the story, not the truth, is what matters. That’s why the Times (once known as “The Thunderer”) is now more aptly “The Chuckler” full of stories rather than news and truth.

Last Saturday a succession of stories and articles convinced me either I (or they) had lost it. 

Does this warrant most of page 3?  ‘The original All Creatures Great and Small has becomes a hit in the USA.’ 

Maybe after Trump it’s this that resonates and maybe should have been the real insight:  “If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.” 

- The QAnon conspiracy group, one of whose luminaries claimed his real mother was a 9 feet tall, green alien, has over 650 ,000 followers on You Tube. I’m told it’s taking hold in USA and UK.  My poor head. Tell me why this is so important because it is. Lies squashing truth.

- Liz Hurley has taken up Kung Fu and is good enough now to solicit live opponents. Liz don’t be so silly. And the Times – give this stuff to Hello Magazine.

- Breaking News: King Herod in between slaughtering babies proved his obsession with small things by also being a Bonsai enthusiast. Is this a joke? It’s for WhatsApp not the Times.

- Simon Bowes-Lyon, the great, great nephew of the late Queen Mother got drunk and for 20 minutes groped and tried to kiss a guest after a dinner party when everyone including his victim had toddled off to bed. He faces up to 5 years in prison. He’s obviously a bad sort as he also has 23 penalty points through speeding convictions. This story creaks with unasked questions.

- A Norwegian Philosopher has claimed human beings suffer a blood alcohol level that’s the equivalent of two glasses of wine too low. At last something sensible. True or not? It’s a joke, I think, but with a grain of truth. In vino veritas.

This potpourri of stories represent something that’s been concerning me for a while  and which lie behind the extraordinary stories of Trump and to a lesser extent Brexit. We have become seduced by lies, distortions and drama. When you  hear someone talking about “the narrative” (which increasingly we do, by politicians and their advisors) be very, very scared.  By definition “narratives” are stories told in an engaging and interesting way, They create what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a suspension of disbelief. In other words a story – a work of fiction (maybe even a lie) becomes accepted as being a new truth. ‘That election was rigged’ is a better story than ‘it was a proper election’. If what the world wants and gets are just better stories we are in trouble because then we are living in what can be described as a post-truth era.

Post-truth is the petri-dish in which conspiracy theories and stories that excite and convince people flourish. The calm reiteration and reiteration of truth must become our mission. Calm and repetitive can deconstruct the big, lazy lie, as my friends in America tell me hopefully.

We might start with getting our  journalists to be circumspect and to get their boots on faster. Just because the story with the punchline wins more applause than unvarnished truth is no excuse to play to the audience.

We’ve has enough of that phrase “fake news” and even worse “alternative truth.”

It’s time to unravel those lies.

Monday, 11 January 2021

SAY NO TO WOE

I must be living a sheltered life because  I recently heard a word new to me. “Doom-scrolling”. It’s defined as  "an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of dystopian news" (!).  I realised I was becoming a “doom-scroller” watching the American Dream crumble as the Capitol was invaded by bearded hippies.


I then saw Covid infection rates soar in the UK, the economy totter, Brexit lorry jams and food shortages (no Stilton reaching Northern Ireland), our Government wobble, Covid naysayers like Katie Hopkins saying she’d walked through empty hospital wards so – obviously - the whole Covid thing is a sham (they’re all crammed in the Covid wards and ICU, you buffoon) and please don’t have an accident and need an ambulance…there are none.  Then we had a murder of a local celebrity in Hove…yet Hove never has murders. 

So yes, the world has gone mad, bad and sad. Scroll; scroll; scroll.


I started 2021 bounding from bed and bellowing “hurray for today.” Just ten days later I was turning over in bed in the morning after realising the beast from the east had paid a nocturnal visit and that all I wanted to do was snooze. But then I remember that horrid refrain “snoozers are losers” so I stumble out of bed and settle for another day of house- arrest. But just writing this has helped me realise how foolish I’m being. I have my health, well actually my hypochondria, which is a source of considerable comedy. 


Ooh my foot, ooh my head, ooh my leg etc. I eat well. I drink well. I have many friends and my wife, nurse, chef, psychiatrist, motivator and chum is keeping an eye on me. As Matthew Parris wrote on Saturday:
“Covid, Brexit and Trump have created a national mood of anxiety but don’t despair – the future looks a lot brighter.”

He advises that we write lists of things to do … because as you get them done the ‘black dog’ that’s terrorising you is tamed. So no more snoozing. Just lots of listing.

And of course he’s right. Despite the government being allegedly in despair at the civil disobedience the electorate is showing, I’ve been impressed by how little traffic there is and how empty the streets are as we go for exercise (another thing ticked off the list.)


In fact I think people are being amazingly compliant and tolerant. When two young women drove five miles to a beauty spot in Derbyshire for a walk clutching a coffee and were fined £200 each by a intimidating squad of coppers for not following the spirit of the lockdown and claiming coffee constituted a picnic, I stopped being like the legendary Victor Meldrew and spluttering “I just don’t believe it” but instead started laughing, certain that the fine would be revoked. It was. 

Living in this Monty Pythonesque world in which “not following the spirit of the lockdown” are deemed criminal offences is silly and it’s comedy and satire and burlesque are what will get us all back to calm and sanity. 


And that’s why I’m creating an even newer word. One we need to use and celebrate every day for the remainder of this lockdown. Laughter-grafting. Everyday we all need to find at least six things that make us howl with laughter. If in doubt look for the funny side. With politicians and activists like we have it shouldn’t be that hard. 

Which is not to ignore the misery and loss many are feeling right now. But even when events  hurt we need to recall Ken Dodd’s words  “laughter is the greatest music in the world”… and, of course, the vaccine our greatest hope.










Monday, 4 January 2021

LOOK TO THE FUTURE NOW, IT'S ONLY JUST BEGUN

When Slade first sang this iconic Christmas song in 1980 it was against the background of the worst recession for over 30 years, inflation of 18% and mass unemployment. Slade’s lead singer, Noddy Holder, said it was their attempt to cheer up people and get them to visualise a better future. It’s how we need to begin 2021 when all many see is Casper David Friedrich’s extraordinary painting ‘The Sea of Ice’ (1824) depicting a shipwreck in the Arctic where the ship has been overwhelmed by a compressed mountain of ice.

Where are we? 

Intriguingly we moved up to 5th in Global Economic League of 2020 (source: IMF data from 2019) mainly because India’s economy did so badly. The top ten are shown below and in bold on the right the ranking of each of the top 10 in the 2020 Global Happiness League (source: United Nations/Gallup).

Economic rank

Country

GDP (US$ trillion)

Happiness rank

1

United States

20.49

18

2

China

13.4

94

3

Japan

4.79

62

4

Germany

4.00

17

5

United Kingdom

2.83

13

6

France

2.78

23

7

India

2.72

144

8

Italy

2.07

30

9

Brazil

1.87

32

10

Canada

1.71

11


Despite our problems we seem to be doing well. People like being British more than say the Germans like being German or the French are content with being French. So much for those lamenting how wrecked we are. But let’s not get complacent – there’s a lot of work to do.

What do we want to become?

Increasingly it became clear that the Brexit argument was not about negotiating a trade deal but about who we want to be. Like it not Brexit is done.


‘Sovereignty’ (which, allegedly, whenever he heard it used - which was often - reduced the European Commission's Head of Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom, Michel Barnier, to uncomprehending rage) was the core issue for the Brexiteers. They believed we needed to feel free, to be on our own, to control our ‘identity’. 

Which is what? 

That’s the problem. No one seems to have nailed this down. Over Christmas I read an engaging book by Cees Nooteboom called ‘Venice. The Lion, the City and the Water.’ In it he quotes academic and author, C.P. Snow, from over 50 years ago, comparing the history of Venice and Britain:

“The Venetians  knew, just as clearly as we know, that the current of history had begun to flow against them. Many gave their minds to working out how to keep going. It would have meant breaking the pattern into which they had crystallised. They were fond of the pattern, just as we’re fond of ours. They never found the will to break it.” 

Which is why “getting back to normal” has always seemed to me such an anathema. We’ve has a far bigger shock to our economy in 2020 than any for around 300 years. GDP fell by 11% (only Argentina did worse). The Government has categorised swathes of what many thought made life worth living as “inessential”: bookshops, theatres, concerts, restaurants, hotels, travel, museums, sport and hugging.

That pattern of normal that’s crystalised in Britain needs breaking because as things stand we shan’t be Good Britain (let alone Great Britain after the Covid crisis ) unless we make some hard choices about where to focus next.

More good news

We have a certain inbuilt resourcefulness and resilience that we saw in action in the 1980s.  That’s when creative industries thrived most and our entrepreneurial boom began. We need more of the same. Much more. 

We need to become Silicone Island (we’ve already made a promising start in boom sectors like gaming) and the big techno-giants are investing in huge look-at-me HQs in London employing talented young people whose ambitions for independence will outstrip their employers soon enough. 

In film, music, fashion, theatre, literature, events, environmental technology and restaurants we have the talent and capacity to continue leading the world.  Treat these half as seriously as we treat fishing and the rebirth of  tourism and the hospitality sector will follow. By looking to the future and reinventing rather than restoring what we once had we will have a great opportunity to create important global businesses.

Pricking the Covid Bubble and learning some lessons

Lessons we must learn as the vacillating vaccination programme trundles through 2021 are:-

i) How to manage risk well. We’ve flip-flopped from reckless to paranoid in 2020.  We cannot and should not completely avoid risk. We just need to manage it and mitigate it. Risk management is a key theme for the next decade.                                   

ii) There are going to more Covids – this one was just a dress rehearsal. We need to invest in planning protective measures for round two and three now.

We need to think the unthinkable. We need to re-think education and examinations, hospitality, cities and towns. As Shopping Centres become increasingly defunct with old shopping venues like Westfield emptying of tenants the opportunity for creating world-class entertainment centres and tourist magnets exists. Time to blow away the dust of uncreative, profit-focused and old-formula thinking of developers and landlords.

Economists are always wrong

That’s one thing to be sure of. The fallibility of economists. So far I’ve heard two rock-solid predictions from them. First that we are on the brink of a boom the like of such we’ve never seen before, thanks to all that cash poured into the ailing economy to keep us afloat. Secondly, we’re doomed. Double dip recession, raging unemployment and company failures on an epic scale.

Long experience suggests it’ll be neither but a mixture of both - the first half of 2021 a storm to make 1980 look like a breeze but with boom sectors emerging in the second half with possible strong resurgence in some sectors. But the scale of sustainable growth will not depend on economics alone. It will depend on people.

So how do we feel? How will we react?

We learnt some strangely alien habits in 2020: working from home, missing those ‘off the record’ lunch conversations, Zoom, no informal meetings, social distancing, not being able to affirm our feelings by hugging, shaking hands or just brushing someone’s upper arm. We’ve become less human.

People are for the most part rule-abiding, well behaved and resilient. Overall we’ve done brilliantly in 2020 even if some of us feel a bit robotic sometimes. There’s a problem though. The excess of information, astoundingly clumsy communication from Government and the conflicting views of experts have made us, most of us, cynics about our leaders and about Professors, Doctors and other “important people”. Cynicism and a profound distrust of government is the biggest negative legacy of Covid.

I think the quest for transparency and full disclosure has damaged us all. Life is too busy and our individual tasks too demanding and important for us to spend our energy on subjects we don’t and never will understand. Social media has become a disruptive and corrosive influence in this respect so it’s interesting that a lot of young people I know have abandoned it completely as a time-waster.

Ultimately how we feel is mostly up to us but we can feel better just by looking at the future and determining that we, not a grey shroud of characters we call “they”, will shape our future.

A cautiously optimistic expectation

I believe in humankind, in our ability to help each other, to do creative things, to invent new ways of improving the world in which we live. We’ve just undergone what we can describe as global chaotic incompetence or, from a more optimistic perspective, a phase of “creative destruction.” No longer are we in an era of business as usual. The game has changed and all the pieces – education, housing, government departments, shopping, working, taxation, the environment and yes even the NHS – are in different places, in different shape and all need to change and be changed.

But this will take time. Consistently we’ve been promised quick fixes. It’s time to think longer term and forget tomorrow’s headline. Time to start under-promising and over-delivering. Time for calm and patience. Time for ambition, sure, but not for being reckless.

This could be the most exhilarating time any of us have seen for 40 years or longer.

Welcome to a truly Brave New World. 



Monday, 21 December 2020

'TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS...

Christmas has always been about anticipation; a build-up to a magical event. Whether  you’re Christian or not the Christmas story and carols are wonderful. Through the year we drearily sing hymns like “We plough the fields and scatter” (enough to put anyone off farming.) At Christmas we have gems like “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” or “Adam lay ybounden” or the glorious prose/poetry of the King James Bible readings. 

Kings College Cambridge and their Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols becomes more glorious than the Royal Opera House or Glyndebourne for that afternoon of December 24th. Agnostics begrudgingly, albeit briefly, put aside their doubts.

Christmas presents are beautifully wrapped and ribboned - “I need your finger” I’m warned -  as a pair of socks resembles a treasure from Harrods with ribbons and bows whilst I anchor the ribbon with my finger.

Our house has lights and wreaths and music. We are celebrating. We are waiting. We are crossing our fingers that this is a special event and not a disappointment or a hangover.

Commercialisation has not spoilt Christmas although starting it in October seems a touch opportunist. It’d just that Christmas has become all about value as opposed to values.

It was Dr Mark Carney, ex-Governor of the Bank of England, in his recent Reith lectures who observed this distinction. Globally we have become obsessed with money and are forgetting the values that underpin our civilisation.

Two recent examples struck me: the recent IPO of a US business called DoorDash (a glorified Deliveroo). It has not recorded a profit since being founded in 2013 although it’s gained share from other home delivery companies. In December 8th its valuation amidst investor frenzy exceeded $68 billion. Funds like Citron, who’ve derided this business valuation, have cooled the price but this seemingly worthless company is still ‘hot’.

The second story is about the madness of ministers. The Right Honourable Robert Jenrick (who’s neither right nor particularly honourable given this proposal) has floated the idea of shifting our major celebration from Christmas to Easter so everyone gets to party in safety. 

Trouble is Bob, that plays havoc with the Christian calendar unless you are proposing ‘Speed Christianity’. From Birth to Crucifixion to Resurrection all in three days. Roast Turkey stuffed with hot cross buns. Lovely. No values there.

Back to anticipation on a more personal level. My car broke down. All battery life gone. As I waited and waited for the RAC I felt the increasing need to pee. But it was in the middle of a town and doing it in the street and a lamp post like a dog was a no-go strategy. From the first yearnings to eventually getting home was around four hours. But when I did it was worth waiting for.

Despite what promises to be a messed-up season of jollity because of the new strains of Covid that are spreading much more rapidly than expected, the sense of anticipation remains, hopes as well as fears:

Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight

This painting by the Dutch artist Avercamp in the early 1600s is all about community, cold and fun. Yes, I hope we have snow. I hope we get outside and have some fun at last. 

Meanwhile, have a great, bibulous celebration, better than you’d feared and count your blessings. “Ding dong merrily on high”


Monday, 14 December 2020

HOW ABOUT SINGING FOR A CHANGE?

It’s odd how a tune you haven’t heard for decades suddenly leaps into your mind together with the lyrics. This happened to me last week. It was sung by Bing Crosby in a successful 1949 film called ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’.

“La-la-la-la-la-la
La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la
La-la-la-la-la-la
La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la

We're busy doing nothing
Working the whole day through
Trying to find lots of things not to do
We're busy going nowhere
Isn't it just a crime
We'd like to be unhappy, but
We never do have the time.”

The film based on a book by Mark Twain explores the clash and chemistry of two cultures 1500 years apart. In a way it’s a story of our times with that song an anthem to Covid and its effects. 

I’ve felt as though I was “busy going nowhere” recently. The Brexit negotiators on both sides of the table must have felt the same too.

News from around the world is a mixture of déjà vu (will I be allowed to use French words in 2021?) and aimlessness.

The virus has taken hold of parts of China – again- and airline crew have been instructed to wear nappies as the use of aeroplane loos is discouraged. Nice.

Germany, until recently a paragon, has such serious rises in infection that Christmas may be called off. Angela Merkel addressed the nation in tears begging increased caution as daily infection rates neared 20,000 and peaked last week at 23,000. 

Meanwhile California is in Covid crisis with three regions, San Joaquin Valley, Southern California, and Greater Sacramento under the Regional Stay at Home Order.

In Sweden their policy of relaxing restrictions and hoping for herd immunity, so appealing to many as they ate and drank cheerfully in restaurants, has bluntly failed.

Meanwhile the anti-vaccine movement is gaining strength in the UK and USA. In the UK one in six will not accept vaccination with a further one in six sitting on the fence.

Depressing news but leavened for me by a story of waiters in pubs in Britain where you can’t order drinks unless you are eating a main meal encouraging customers to leave food on their plate so they can order more drinks claiming, as the food congeals, “I haven’t finished yet”

But aimlessness met despair for me last week when once again Venice flooded. I am exceedingly fond of this city and everything about it apart from the acqua alta, the seasonal tide rises which devastated Venice last year. The controversial flood defence, the 78 mobile barriers of the ‘Mose Project’, have been used twice recently to good effect but weren’t in use on December 8th as stronger than expected winds and high water in rivers flowing into the lagoon created another flood in the city.

The aimless Venetian officials explained that no one had forecast it was going to be such a high tide, that raising the flood barriers was an extreme precaution as it disrupts shipping and – anyway – it takes 80 personnel and 48 hours to erect them. Bah humbug. I just don’t believe this. This is a classic case of being busy doing nothing. Venice deserves much better.

On a lighter note, Brighton has low rates of Covid infection and this has been maintained for some weeks. Infection amongst students, usually a high-risk group, is also low. There are no floods. The sun’s shining. Locally grown food is available and selling well. We are prepared for anything and though some of us might like to be unhappy “We never do have the time.”

“La-la-la-la-la-la
La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la”

Monday, 7 December 2020

I FEEL SO TIRED...

Years ago I worked with someone who was rather lethargic. One day I walked into his empty office and found written on his wall “I feel so tired” …20 times. It was eerie. Rather like finding Jack’s book open in “The Shining”.

I kept a wary eye on him after that. Then he left, started a new company and became extremely wealthy. At that point I felt really tired.

I’m constantly hearing  people lamenting their weariness. What’s going on? We don’t commute or travel anywhere. We had a lovely, lazy summer redolent of the Kinks:

“I love to live so pleasantly
Live this life of luxury
Lazing on a sunny afternoon”

But in the Kinks song all is not well. Tax burdens. Bailiffs. Broken relationships. Boredom and weariness.

Now we’re lashed by unending news and interviews with second-ranking Ministers of State.  It’s like Groundhog Day. We’re all clones of Bill Murray. 

I even know someone who, in a state of woe, stayed up very late listening to the early results of the US Presidential Election when it seemed Trump might pull it off. We’ve become depressingly knowledgeable about politics, Covid, health issues, the NHS.  It’s time to get a life instead of being self-obsessed hypochondriacs. We’re being ruled not by fear of the virus but by all the worries of the world. Like the Guardian we’ve become experts in what’s wrong.

Time to re-energise and look on the upside. I love the fresh air of change. We now live in a world where we can develop a vaccine from scratch in 10 months rather than 10 years. Quantum Computing is changing everything. Last week Deep Mind (part of Google in the UK)  has created  a programme called Alpha Fold that can predict protein shapes. This is the biggest scientific breakthrough in many years. Other scientists are saying this is a development they’d have described as having a feasibility of happening  “not in my lifetime.”  Proteins are the workhorses of life. In a human being there are 80,000 to 400,000 of them. A scientist on the Radio 4 Today programme described protein as being like shoelaces but you don’t know what shape they’ll tie into. If you knew you could anticipate diseases and shape the life of human beings positively. 

I love seeing new enterprise. Ours is rapidly becoming a brave, new world. Getting back to normal was a pretty unambitious aim: normal was not so great. Now we are at last rushing to try and reverse climate change – with even the Chinese setting carbon-free targets. We are changing that face of normal.  The way we do our shopping has changed and soon Amazon won’t be the only show around. Watch out for Ocado. 

The way we travel and why we do it is changing.  We’ll be working from home as well as meeting together and learning new skills. Eating out will return but quality will become a bigger factor. In the lockdown wine sales have held up well but people are paying much more for a bottle than they did last year. Local communities are beginning to thrive. I can’t influence the Senatorial election in Georgia but I might help solve the litter problems in Central Brighton.

The antidote to fatigue is exhilaration not more news. The contribution that Netflix makes to human good is bigger than the Times, BBC News, the Guardian and the Economist.

Back to the Shining.  “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. So let’s start to play again. Celebrate, talk, laugh and enjoy. 

Happy December. Ho. Ho. Ho.

 


Monday, 30 November 2020

LETTING OFF STEAM

I keep on hearing people talking about their ‘mental health’ as though it were a badly behaved pet puppy or, perhaps, a  bit like the daemons in Philip Pullman’s novels. To be sure we have probably all found the lockdown and the past year rather stressful but a bit of stiff upper lip and pulling ourselves together might not go amiss, as the Edwardians would have said. 

But there is another way. 

Swearing.

Emma Byrne has written a book called “Swearing is Good for You – The Amazing Science of Bad Language”. The book says not only that some form of swearing has existed since the earliest humans got irritated, but it states that swearing can reduce pain, help stroke victims learn how to speak again, and, even, encourage teamwork. 

The book cites historical case studies and claims to have conducted cutting-edge research. Emma writes about chimpanzees creating their own swearwords; about a man who lost half his brain in a mining accident experiencing a new-found compulsion to swear (well I’m not surprised at that). In short Dr Emma Byrne describes the fascinating science behind swearing and how it affects us physically and emotionally. More importantly she asserts that it’s beneficial to our mental health. 

What a load of old bollocks I thought.

But in my own experience swearing can indeed be a way of emphasising a fact or an intensity of feeling. An old friend who is a magically passionate presenter uses the f*** word liberally. It’s his own eccentric form of punctuation. You become immune to it after a while so when he stops using it your ears prick up and you double your concentration.

Another person I know seldom swears very seldom but when she does the effect is nuclear.

One of our grandsons when he was about 3 showed some precocious talent at invective when his mother was irritated by someone’s driving shouting “dirty nappy-man!” at the offender. 

But the vocabulary for swearing is generally rather limited and there’s a need to create some more exotic terms with which to sprinkle our vocabulary. I enjoyed a few Michael Spicer’s used. He called Donald Trump ‘a massive fart’ and a ‘puffin’ (not bad), Priti Patel a ‘brainless wasp’ and as a simple expletive ‘Jeremy H. F***ing Hunt’.

Here were a few new ones I quite liked:

- Gnashgab – someone who constantly complains

- Klazomaniac – someone who speaks very and irritatingly loudly

- Muck-Spout – what this blog is all about – someone who constantly swears

- Windf***er – archaic term of abuse but which describes someone vague and useless

But we can be more inventive and the impact can be explosive – calling someone ‘a useless smear of slime’ can be as disorientating as calling them a ‘useless turd’ (as opposed to a useful turd??)

In the Times recently the results of a three-month study into the frequency of use of swearing in different professions appeared.

The league table surprised me:

1. Banking – ‘f***’ - 960 times a week observed in their offices – extraordinary. 

2. Law – ‘bullshit’ – well that’s self-awareness at least

3. Hospitality (thanks to Gordon Ramsay I imagine) 

4. Sales – naturally

5. Media – ‘bollocks’ – which, of course, it is

What disappointed me deeply was my previous profession, “advertising,” came a miserable 9th. How times have changed. In my day we were the kings of abuse. We were so politically incorrect it makes me cringe to remember. The air around us was not blue it was technicolour with vivid, excoriating abuse.

So if you feel the need to swear just let rip. You’ll feel a lot better. It’s official.