09 August, 2011

Reading, Recession, Riots, Redundancy and Roses!

The sun is shining but all is not well.  London is burning as riots and criminal activity sweep the capital and other major cities across the UK, my daughter has just been made redundant from her IT job and recession is again in the air as stock markets crash. I could start anywhere to blog on this – and wax long and not very lyrical about it. None of what I would write would be complimentary but can be summed up in a very few words – “we’ve had this coming for a long time” -  about thirty years, to be exact, since the time of the Thatcher/Reagan financial deregulation and the adherence to a free market. It seems to me that there is a terrible symmetry in the events of the past few days. Thirty years ago Mrs Thatcher proclaimed in two much misquoted statements: “You can’t buck the market” and  “There is no society” – well, that has become almost  a terrible self fulfilling prophecy in recent hours.   The deregulated free enterprise capitalism  spawned cultures defined by greed,  get rich quick and winner take all outlooks. In the quest for another million pounds in city bonuses people throughout the country – like my daughter – suddenly find themselves redundant as companies are bought and sold, or slimmed down to make a quick buck and to reduce costs so that the firm looks attractive as a sale item, or to encourage the next venture capitalist, or ensure the profit for shareholders. And those at the bottom of the social pile - perhaps  who live in poorest areas of our capital and perhaps, unlike my daughter, are not well qualified  but at the same time they live live within sight of the obscene wealth of places like Canary Wharf  - riot. Should we be so surprised? This, of course, doesn't excuse the huge criminal activity that we have seen on our TV screens – and that is what most of it is – criminal activity. But, it is the society that we have created and will not change until we change that society and its values. ”You can’t buck the market" and "there is no society” said Mrs "Torture"– a terrible symmetry.
A Lewisham street today - 2011

But no – I will not get into all that. Like millions of “little people” around the world I  just have to stand and watch while the shakers and movers shake and move. There is absolutely nothing that I can do about it so I will leave my thoughts and comments for another day – I warn you they will come! Instead, I will think of pleasanter things and perhaps continue a little from where my last blog left off.

Today, August 9th, is our wedding anniversary. Pat and I were married 43 years ago (1969) in Lewisham, London (where Pat had grown up). It was a hot day, like today – the only difference was that unlike today  there were no riots (so far as I know!) in Lewisham. My friend Vicki, who lives in Lewisham, has just e-mailed and told me that “It’s all pretty scary down here, to be honest. Riot van stopped outside our house at 3.30am this morning. They were trying to block a car. I am hoping it all calms down! Cannot believe the behaviour of these people. Just at work now, trying to go home at lunch time as the rioting started at 4.30pm yesterday and I want to be through Lewisham  and home by then  - just in case!!” Boy, it would sure have spoiled our wedding day all those years ago if we had had riots to contend with  – and I’m not sure what it would have done to my future mother in law’s nerves which were already shredded from all the stress of organising the wedding!
At a church in a
Lewisham street 1969

 But back to our wedding anniversary! In 1969 we had just qualified as teachers and were about to set off on our life together. We had very little money and were both a lot slimmer! Like millions of others we have had our ups and downs but so often say we can’t believe how incredibly fortunate we have been.  Like many of our generation we were lucky – for the first twenty or so years of our marriage we benefitted from the certainties of the politics and economics based on consensus and Keynes – full employment, a slow but steady rise in the standard of living, a value system within society that rewarded hard work and at the same time promised a bright future for our young. Then the whirlwind aggression of unfettered free markets hit the world – the rule of the jungle both in the city and throughout industry, politics and society. The “Big Bang”, “Bull Markets”, "aggressive capitalism" – even the language of the system has an undercurrent of aggression and violence. It’s a very fine line it seems to me  between the aggression and financial brutality of Gordon Gecko portrayed by Michael Douglas in the film Wall Street a few years ago when he says “ I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.” And the looter breaking into a London shop? – Oh, he isn’t stealing plasma screen TVs, he’s liberating the item! 
Gordon Gekko - "greed is good"
(So long as it's in the City and not
on the streets)

Yes, unsurprisingly, we have seen society, too, become aggressive and those that can’t win are thrown on the scrap heap. We should not be surprised at what is happening in the present world for that is today’s society – it reflects the values we have promoted and prized over the past three decades. I fear for the futures of  my grandchildren. My grand-daughters (and, I believe my grandsons too, but they are still very young) are two bright little girls – the sort who in my day would have easily been bright enough to go on to university and get a “good job”. But now, we say to even our brightest and best, being bright isn’t good enough – you must now get 5 "A stars", jump through more hoops and if you do work hard and get a university degree you may not be able to get a good job. If you are lucky you may get some casual work in McDonalds. And if this is the future for the brightest and best should we be surprised at disaffection and  discontent amongst those not so intellectually fortunate or those in  in the poorer, disadvantaged areas? The greed, aggression and financial “mugging” that goes on daily in the City and Wall Street and is given a veneer of respectability by sharp operators, analysts, bankers and politicians is just the same as the greed, aggression and mugging going on in the streets of London – it is part of the same territory. It is what our society has become.
No riots in 1969 - thank goodness!

But, as I say, back our wedding anniversary. This morning we lay in bed and opened our anniversary cards, the kids rang us to wish us a good day and I have just been down to the shops to buy my lovely wife a bunch of red roses (that should earn me a few Brownie points!)  – the flowers that she had on her wedding day all those years ago . And, as I write this, on the table in front of me lays my copy of this morning’s Guardian newspaper – something that has been part of my (and our) life for the whole of our marriage.
Red roses 2011 style!

Pat always says that one of the first things that she can remember about me was seeing me (before we actually knew each other) day after day in the college lecture room waiting for our lectures to begin and I always had my copy of the Guardian with me. She is right – the Guardian has been my companion for most of my life. Pat has never been a Guardian reader.  To her everlasting shame she insists on reading the Daily Telegraph – an anathema to good “Guradianistas” like me! I often used to say that I would take a brown paper bag to the newspaper shop to put her copy of the Telegraph in so that no-one would suspect that the dreaded Telegraph rag comes into our house! Perhaps it’s a good measure of the strength of our marriage that a Guardian reader and a Telegraph reader have been able to survive together for 43 years!

My love affair with the Guardian began over half a century ago – before, even, my love affair with my wife! When I was about twelve years old I began to work as a paper delivery boy I thoroughly enjoyed walking round the narrow Preston streets  reading the newspapers as I delivered them. The majority of papers I delivered where everyday tabloids – Mirror, Express, Herald, Pictorial, Mail etc. It was very much a working class area I was living in and delivering to. One house, however was special  –  the house just about at the furthest point of the round  - 17 Brockholes View. I never saw the house itself as it had a high wall around it and I posted the newspaper in a door in the wall. The only time I saw the owner was at Christmas when he would meet me to give me a small Christmas tip. But, he took the Manchester Guardian (as the Guardian then was) and I quickly learned that this was the only paper worth reading – by 13 or 14 I was an avid Manchester Guardian reader.
Today's Guardian

As I walked the streets I soon became aware that all the other papers were trying to manipulate me. They were producing articles for their readership – truth and accuracy had little to do with it. Initially, I noticed it with football reports – reading reports of games that I had attending and seeing how different papers reported and distorted the "facts" to create the impression or viewpoint they wanted. Then I realised this was also true of politics or other reporting. The right wing press I noticed always wanted to extol the virtues of the Royal family or the city gent. The rest of society was beyond the pale – but I was part of that rest. Equally I noticed other papers such as the Herald or the Mirror took the opposite stance – they were the voice of "the workers". I would read the "Cassandra" leader in the Mirror (we had the Mirror each day at home) and although I could agree with much of what it said, because it reflected my life, I wanted to make my own mind up by knowing the facts not having them presented in an edited, biased manner. The Manchester Guardian gave me that – I read football reports that bore a resemblance to the games I had witnessed. I read political and news reports which  seemed, so far as I could judge, to be factual with little or no attempt to influence me  by emotive language or appealing to my class or background or baser instincts. Political parties of all persuasions seemed to be praised or chastised in equal measure - but always with an argument based on fact rather than prejudice, inference or emotive language.  I didn’t know then that what I was reading was a reflection of the views of Guardian editor C.P. Scott – “Facts are sacred but comment is free”
My Guardian as I
 walked the Preston streets
 over fifty years ago

Of course, in those days I didn’t know that the Guardian was, and still is, unique amongst  newspapers being the only paper without an actual “owner” with any kind of  "axe to grind." The Guardian is run by a trust and its constitution requires that the membership of that trust reflects the widest  possible political, social and economic opinion. It does, of course , have a “position” an matters. Currently it is broadly supportive of the coalition government  and was increasingly  scathingly critical of New Labour. But its position is based on the breadth of argument expressed through its columns. It is also, of course closely linked to its history.  The Guardian was originally Manchester based and  originally set up by local philanthropic businessmen.   It quickly gained a reputation not as a socialist paper but as the "thinker’s paper" and as such a reputation for reporting fact and reasoned argument rather that emotive prejudice and vested interest.  Of course, many do not like it because it pricks the bubbles of vested interest and prejudice but that is its strength! It was founded by a young cotton merchant called John Edward Taylor in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which soldiers had killed 11 people at a public meeting in Manchester. Taylor was a reformer and religious nonconformist, and he wanted a paper committed to political change but even more, wedded to truthful reporting. His prospectus for the paper promised to "zealously enforce the principles of civil and religious liberty, warmly advocate the cause of reform, endeavour to assist in the diffusion of just principles of political economy, and support, without reference to the party from which they emanate, all serviceable measures". I have absolutely no doubts that over the past 190 years Taylor’s ambition and the steadfast ethos created by CP Scott and successive editors have ensured that the paper has remained true to its calling. In modern times, The Guardian is the most cited British newspaper on Wikipedia as of August 2009 with 106,424 citations. The Times was second with 52,457.

It is the only   national daily to conduct  an annual social, ethical and environmental audit in which it examines, under the scrutiny of an independent external auditor and its own behaviour as a company. It is also the only daily national newspaper to employ an internal ombudsman (called the "Readers' Editor") to handle complaints and corrections. It daily prints corrections and clarifications – both factual and typographical.   Indeed, the nickname The Grauniad for the paper originated with the satirical magazine Private Eye. This anagram played on The Guardian's reputation for frequent typographical errors, such as misspelling its own name as The Gaurdian. The domain grauniad.co.uk is registered to the paper.

You will by now have grasped the fact that I am a committed Guardian reader. The points I made above I only discovered later in life but they confirmed my belief of the paper’s integrity. There is, however, another dimension which, over the years, I have come to realise and was perhaps instrumental in my becoming ‘hooked’ on the paper – although I didn’t know it at the time.
Smile please - little did we
know that 43 years later
a quiet part of SE London
would see rioting!

Presentation of facts, clarity of expression and analysis of argument is what the Guardian has always been about. Someone once said to me that they preferred The Times it gave them information in small doses but they found the Guardian too heavy it went into the detail. Exactly - and it is only by going into the detail that one can tease out what beguiling phrases used by politicians and others mean and imply. The Guardian gives me that precision and integrity – this was its appeal as I walked the streets of Preston all those years ago with my bag of newspapers around  my neck! I knew it was quite different from every other paper that I pushed through letter boxes. And as I walked the streets  all those years ago I saw other newspapers – influencing opinion by either a sloppy use of words or an intentional skewing of the facts. The Guardian, it seemed to me, went to great pains to detail and analyse what politicians and other said or meant – and then leave me to make up my mind. It satisfied my inner desire for clarity and detail.  Each day I took this paper out as soon as I left the paper shop with my full bag and read it all the way round the streets - it was very crumpled by the time I delivered it. I devoured it and dragged my feet as I approached the house and knew I would have to push it through the letter box. Once I began to buy my own paper there was only one for me! 
A few years later when I attended Blackpool Technical College to study for A levels we had, once a week, a General Studies lesson  and the teacher  -  a strange man called Dr Proudfoot (who was rather like Kenneth Williams from the ‘Carry On Films’!) - spent some weeks on what I suppose we would now call Media Studies. In the first lesson he reviewed various newspapers and I felt very self important when I was able to comment on the various Manchester Guardian columnists. No-one else in the class had any knowledge of the Guardian and at the end of the lesson he kept me back to congratulate me on my awareness! I have been a Guardian reader all my life – apart from one very brief spell in the mid-eighties when, I believe, the paper “lost it a bit”.  It became a victim of the political polarisation of the  Thatcher era  and it lost readers because, I believe, it took up a polarised position on the left and Guardian readers like me don’t like to be told who to vote for – they want facts from both sides and then make up their own mind. Undoubtedly, I believe the vast majority of the Guardian regulars will be left in their politics – but I also profoundly believe that the reason for this is that above all the Guardian is a “thinking person’s” paper – and anyone who is concerned for the facts rather than unsubstantiated opinion, who thinks seriously and objectively about issues, who tries to be aware when prejudice is clouding their view  and who  believes in the  virtues and ambitions of the Guardian’s founder John Edward Taylor cannot be anything else other than compassionate, aware - and politically left.  

Off on our honeymoon to
the Isle of Wight. No cars
ablaze here!
But, enough. I've looked back on what I have written and sadly see that despite my promises I have strayed into the occasional rant about our society, our politics and our economics.I began writing this blog several hours ago. Pat has returned from the hairdresser, we have had lunch and been for a walk around our local Country Park. I say walk – actually it was a shuffle – Pat has a bad back at the moment and my heart condition means that I am hardly likely to be competing in next year’s Olympics! We are just about to sit down to have tea together, as we have done for 43 years. I will read my Guardian while we eat and (sadly, since I can’t convince her of the error of her ways!) Pat will scan the Daily Telegraph – but hey, that’s what marriage is all about – rubbing along together – putting up with the foibles and annoying traits (yes, even  having to have the Daily Telegraph in the house!) of the other! 

And anyway, tomorrow (August 10th)  is Pat’s 65th  birthday so there’s more cards to open and presents to unwrap as we lie in bed in the morning. Hopefully the world as we know it will not end before then!


  1. While I do not have time to read the whole blog at the moment, I just wanted to say I was thinking about you as I listened to the news the other day and I am glad to hear you and your family are safe. I hope for you and all of us that this ends soon and the world can go back to a bit of sanity for awhile!

  2. Well done Tony.