28 March, 2012

Nothing Changes!

Last week Pat and I went to the Royal Concert Hall here in Nottingham to enjoy – and I do mean enjoy -  an  evening with Joan Baez. It was wonderful. Baez, the voice of protest and my generation is now a seventy one year old. Her long jet black hair is now cropped short and silver but, oh dear, the magic voice was still there. Immediately she opened her mouth I was transported back to mid sixties, to the college folk club and to my old Dansette record player. Transported back to when I was going to change the world – and of course, in her way, with the help of voices like Bob Dylan she did. When she sang  “With God on our side” it was just as relevant today as it was in the early sixties – and the packed audience knew it. A wonderful  night.  Gentle, inspiring and one sensed that as she took her final bow and left the stage she was leaving an audience who had not only enjoyed the show but who actually loved and had a huge respect for this woman's role in the world.
Baez today - a wonderful night!

In the days since the concert, however, I have mused upon how much – or little – things have really changed since Baez, Dylan and the rest of us baby boomers promised to make the world a better place! My musings have been fed by various events and items of news that have given me food for thought.

When Pat and I arrived at the Royal Concert Hall it was already busy. Hundreds of people were pouring through the glass doors into the vast foyer, the bar areas were full of people enjoying a pre-show drink and chat. Overwhelmingly the audience was of my generation – middle aged or older. Everyone casually but smartly attired for an evening out. On the great entry doors were huge posters with pictures of the grey haired Baez, announcing “An evening with Joan Baez”. As we stood we looked down on the entrance and noticed a large group of young men - about twenty of them - standing just outside. They were laughing and joking as they waited – not causing  any fuss or disturbance ...........but.......wait for it........they were all dressed as nuns, complete with crucifix and carrying plastic machine guns! Now I could have a rant about that but I will spare you. After a little while they all came through the  doors and into the Concert Hall. They were obviously completely oblivious to the fact that they were quite different to everyone else standing in that foyer. As they climbed the stairs to our level they were accosted by one of the Concert Hall staff and turned back. They all broke into wild laughter and turned . They had got the wrong place – they should have been next door at the Theatre Royal where “Sister Act” was playing! The Concert Hall announcer announced that this was “An Evening with Joan Baez” not “Sister Act”!
Oops - got the wrong show!

As I stood there I sadly shook my head. A simple mistake?.....Mmmmmm? Were they so besotted with themselves that they didn’t realise that they didn’t fit in with the other thousand people filling the foyer? How could the whole group of them possible have walked past the huge posters on the entrance doors without one of them noticing that they were in the wrong place. Had none of them looked at their tickets? Why do we allow these people  to walk amongst us?  Should they be at liberty – I mean, they might harm themselves or others by their crass stupidity. Yes, we can all have a good laugh; “Chill out” people will say to me – “they’re only young”. And I will disagree with you. Today’s young are allegedly the best educated ever, they are  far more street wise than my generation was at a similar age, they have access to things like the internet and computers which assist in their grasp of the world........but, they don’t have any “nous” or common sense! Have we really progressed since the 1960s  - I’m not too sure! I sadly reflected that when Baez, Dylan, me and millions of others sang "The times they are a'changing" or "We shall overcome" half a century ago - we really believed that we were striving to make the world a better place for future generations. We little realised, however, that the better place we were creating would spawn young men being so dim, crass and stupid that they walk around a city centre dressed as nuns with plastic machine guns and fumbling their way into the wrong building!

So what comes next! Ah yes, politics!

The other day I was reading in the Guardian about the educational accomplishments of our top politicians  and political commentators: George Osborne (history, Oxford), David Cameron (PPE, Oxford), William Hague (PPE, Oxford), Danny  Alexander (PPE, Oxford), Nick Clegg (anthropology, Cambridge). Ed  Miliband (PPE, Oxford), Ed Balls (PPE, Oxford), Stephanie Flanders (PPE, Oxford), Nick Robinson (PPE, Oxford), Robert Peston (PPE, Oxford).  Well, obviously a PPE  (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) degree from Oxford is the way to success in modern GB and it may well be that in order to get one you have shown considerable talent that fits you well for  a glittering career. But, I would seriously ask, in the diverse, industrial, multi-cultural, high tech, pluralistic society that we all inhabit now is it right that virtually all our leaders should all come from the same stock and have the same skills and talents? The majority of these people have swapped the playing fields and quads of Eton (or some other remote public school) for the playing fields and quads of Oxford and  have now moved in to quads of Westminster. They can have, and do not have, any sort of concept of any other sort of life or skill base or value system. In my view, that’s bad for our country no matter how bright and deserving  they are.

And following this, and more seriously, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has announced that he will stand down later this year. There seems universal agreement about Williams - an overtly good man given an impossible job. A brilliant mind but a poor communicator – people didn’t understand him. The stresses and strains within the Church – gay bishops, the ordination of women and the rest meant he was always going to miss out.
A saintly man with a great intellect -
why should he have to work with "numpties"?

Well, for me I think it is all very sad that when a man who everyone agrees is good – many commentators (including, even, the secular Guardian) even suggest that he has an aura of "holiness" about him – can be judged a failure by that society. It perhaps says more about the society than it does about Williams. Similarly everyone acknowledges that  he has a brilliant mind – but that same society  does  not applaud this. Instead,  it marginalises it by  suggesting he is a poor communicator who found it difficult to get down to the level of ordinary people. Mmmmmm? I think I agree with my wife on this one – when she read it she exclaimed “It’s not his fault he has to work with “numpties”.  She is quite right – why should the Archbishop of Canterbury dumb everything down for Mr and Mrs Joe Public – perhaps we, Mr and Mrs Joe Public, have a responsibility to try  to understand rather than always want the idiots guide or the comic cut version.

I’ve thought about this in relation to the young men dressed as nuns and  carrying plastic machine guns and who did not have the common sense and sensitivity to get into right theatre. Is it the responsibility of a spiritual leader, one of the great men of the world (and I am not particularly religious), a man who has a brilliant mind and is allegedly “saintly”.....is it really his responsibility to get down to their level? I think not – there is an imperative here for the rest of us and especially those  young men –grow up, wise up!  If it is the Archbishop’s responsibility to dumb down everything in an effort to be a “better communicator” then it says much about the aspirations and motivations of that society and the individuals within it. It’s not about the communication skills of the Archbishop it is about the lack of those skills in the rest of us. We are aspiring to become “dummies” - an attribute that those machine gun toting nuns have clearly acquired.

And then in the last few days we have had the Peter Cruddas affair which is still rippling through English politics and may well do so for a little time. For those of you unfamiliar with the story Cruddas, the millionaire Conservative Party treasurer and fund raiser, was secretly filmed offering places at the Prime Minister's dining table and possible political influence to the wealthy and powerful for about £250,000 a seat. I am not naive, I’m sure this sort of thing has always gone on and  that in  some way it will go one which  ever  party  is in power. It merely reminds me of the eleventh commandment “Thou shalt not get caught”. In this case Cruddas, and by implication the Prime minister and his party, were well and truly caught with their proverbial trousers down!
Rich as Croesus -
 but not quite "top drawer"

What I did find interesting and perhaps a little disturbing was the way the thing was reported and the comments that it generated. As it emerged Cruddas was portrayed as someone not quite “top drawer” – to use an old fashioned term from the age of the British Raj. The Guardian’s commentary was not untypical:  “Raised on a Hackney council estate, Cruddas left his Shoreditch comprehensive at 15 with no qualifications. His father was a porter at London's Smithfield meat market and drank too much. There was little money to go around. His mother, who was an office cleaner, was the backbone of the family. She survived the Blitz, spending days sheltering in Bank tube station. He peppers his conversation with stories about his mum. His two brothers, including his twin, did what might have been expected and ended up as London cabbies. But somehow Cruddas  defied the odds. Today he runs his own online trading business, CMC Markets, and is estimated to be worth £860m. He was named the richest man in the City in a Sunday Times ranking, beating Lord Rothschild into second place. So how does that feel? "Fantastic," he says with a smile. "Fantastic, fantastic.” He has  two Bentleys, a Porsche Cayenne Turbo, a  private jet;  homes in Monaco, Antibes and Hertfordshire. "I sometimes have to pinch myself to see how far I've come." he continues "I mean we're talking about a 15-year-old Hackney boy that really has started a company that's worth about £1bn with no investment from anybody."

 A real rags to riches story but as all the papers indicated the top Conservative echelons are washing their hands of him – he isn’t “one of them”. In another Guardian  article he is described as a “city wide boy”  and that his lack of finesse and social graces meant that he was rarely  invited to dinners at the Conservative top tables.

It all reminds me of the epic book by Paul Scott – the “Raj Quartet” – or “The  Jewel in the Crown” as it is more usually referred to.

Yep, Eton really does prepare you
for running a  modern society
India is governed by the Raj – comprised of the brightest and best of English aristocracy and the upper class. It is a paternalistic and patrician rule. At one stage the well intentioned upper class officer, Teddy Bingham says to one of the Indian soldiers under his command “I am your father and your mother” – in other words, “I will make decisions on your behalf for your own good.........because it’s the natural order of things. I am a member of the ruling class and that is what we are good at”!  (Teddy, like most of the other officers in the tale is the product of Chillingborough Public School - the fictional Eton). Maybe he also had a PPE degree!.  And, of course, at the same time running through the wonderful  book,  is the brooding and nasty presence of the “grammar school boy” (as opposed to the Eton educated top brass)  Ronald Merrick. He is someone who very definitively isn't “pukka” or  “top drawer” – but who makes his way by doing all the nasty stuff that  the “brightest and best” won’t dirty their hands with or don’t want laid at their doorstep.
And when you get to Oxford to read PPE you
can  join the Bullingdon Club and wear more
silly suits that prove you are "top drawer"
and ready to rule the country.

It all seemed to me as if Cruddas was filling a similar role. I’m not excusing him or condoning his behaviour but I’m tempted to think that there is more than  a whiff of  good old fashioned snobbery and hypocrisy  here! Don’t get me wrong I’m not a Cruddas fan. I despise his politics and how he has been operating but I can admire that he turned a very humble background into this rags to this riches story.

To go back to the beginning of this blog it all looks a bit cosy when we look at all the PPE degrees from Oxford that continue to exert an unacceptable level of influence throughout our national life in modern Britain. In days gone by these people would have comprised the Raj – but the Raj is long gone, there is no India to rule.   They are still, however, making the decisions  on our behalf , even though they have little in common with the rest of us...........and they still have their equivalents of Ronald Merrick to do the dirty work – except now he’s called something like Peter Cruddas. As one newspaper commented:”He (Cruddas) has the kind of background that most Conservatives would kill for: a council estate childhood, no formal qualifications and a fortune made via financial spread-betting, a trade given a huge boost by the big bang of 1986. He and David Cameron, it's fair to say, are from completely different worlds........”

So where does all this rambling leave me?

Despite all our claims to have a better educated society, more tolerant, more caring, more democratic  and the rest  I’m not so sure. Despite all the advances and expenditure in education and the availability of the information society we still have a generation who have not got the common sense and basic awareness to get into the right theatre! At the same time as a society we find it difficult to accept the goodness and intellect of an Archbishop – and actually chastise him for being too bright! We have a government and political hierarchy who are overwhelmingly drawn from the same remote  and far removed background –and  possibly totally out of touch with the lives, aspirations, dreams, ambitions, and problems  of the modern and diverse society over which they rule. And finally there is still, in modern Britain, more than a whiff of class differences still at work within this political elite and government.

I wonder – did Baez and our generation really make significant change? I'm tempted to think perhaps not!

Barbie & Ronald Merrick in the
TV production  of Jewel in the Crown.
Part of the Raj - but not "pukka" or "top drawer"
Going back to the “Raj Quartet” two events spring to mind.  The magnificent  put down by the lowly “paying guest”, Barbie,  when, after her small wedding present of silver apostle tea spoons has been ungratefully received by Mildred the upper class matriarch and bride's mother,  she bitterly comments “The twelve apostles would have got short shrift here in the Officers Mess at Pankott” . Such is the snobbery, egotism and out of touch world of the upper class. And the second quote – from the wonderful Mabel Layton  as she stood in that same Officer’s Mess and reflected that it hadn’t changed in forty years since she first came there as the bride of the young officer who became Colonel Layton. She recognised that the Mess and the people who inhabited it, the Officer class, the "brightest and best" of England's upper class society were totally out of touch with the reality of  India and the millions that they governed as the Raj crumbled and India gained independence.  She commented ruefully –“I’m not even angry – but someone ought to be!”

As I reflect on our society today and think of the aspirations many of us had half a century ago then I can only sadly conclude that perhaps we haven't made much real progress. Cosmetic changes? - yes. But changing people, values, beliefs - no. In fact, I'm even tempted to think we have gone backwards.  Perhaps, like Mabel Layton suggests, we should all be a bit more angry!

06 March, 2012

Being A Grumpy Old Man!

A few days ago Pat and I were trawling around department stores in Nottingham in a largely fruitless search for kitchen items – new crockery, kitchen knives, chair cushions, baking trays and the like to fill our new kitchen. I can’t say I felt inspired by this but as a dutiful  husband I carried the bag for “she who must be obeyed”, made a few (hopefully) enthusiastic utterances and silently prayed that we would soon go home!  Now, I’m ready to admit that perhaps my enthusiasm had waned a little and that perhaps I was looking at the world through less than rose coloured glasses, but, as we stumbled around John Lewis my lack of enthusiasm turned to cynicism. Let me explain.
Sebastian - steeped in good design

I stood in front of a large display in the kitchenwares department. At the side of the display was a huge  advert for items designed by someone called Sebastian Conran. The items on display seemed to me to be excessively expensive. I learned that I could buy a Sebastian Conran knife block for only £130! We were looking for a knife block – but not at £130 for a very ordinary looking bit of kit!  Putting it bluntly I think that if I had paid £130 for this then each time I walked into the kitchen and gazed upon this object of desire I would feel a little space in the palm of my hand where my £130 pounds had once resided!  I was reminded of a couple of clichés, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “a fool and his money are soon parted”.  Of course, being the liberal well adjusted guy that I am I wouldn’t dream of making pronouncements on what constitutes "good design" – and yet deep down I felt someone  was having a laugh at the expense of gullible shoppers.

Good design - at £130 a throw!
But putting aside the worth or quality of this particular knife block, my cynicism related rather more to the advert behind the display telling me all about this designer. I was told that Sebastian is the son of Sir Terence Conran and is therefore “steeped in good design” and that he has won “many awards”. There were several other eulogies extolling this man’s virtues and convincing passing shoppers that they were not just buying a pot or a knife but a well designed pot or knife. Mmmmmm! As I stood there reading this and looking at the very ordinary stuff on display it occurred to me that the ad was heavy on unsubstantiated assertions and light on facts. I suppose the thing that got me thinking was the phrase “steeped in good design” – the connection was being made that because this man is the son of Terence Conran (who is a designer I have heard of, but could tell you little about) then it follows that he will have soaked up good design and he in his turn is a good designer. Mmmmmm!

When Pat joined me I mumbled that my dad had spent his life as succesful lorry driver and was, I believe (and everyone seemed to say so), very good at his job. So, I wondered, was I “steeped in good  lorry driving”? Did dad's skill and knowledge pass into my genetic make-up? Can I recognise a good diesel engine when I see one? Do my very pores ooze the whiff of the motorway exhaust smoke  and the  transport cafe’s bacon sandwich - just as Sebastian Conran’s ooze good design? When I walk down the street do people whisper to their neighbours as they peep through their windows, “There goes Tony, the son of Fred the lorry driver – he’s steeped in good lorry driving you know!” ? If I decided on a career change is lorry driving the thing that I would naturally excel  at – it seems so for Sebastian, why not me?
My dad drove a lorry in India
during the war. He spent his whole
 life  on the road - am I steeped in good
lorry driving? Doesn't feel like it!

I elaborated on these points to Pat as we stood in the store. For some reason I can’t explain  her eyes seemed to  glaze over and I’m sure that I remember her muttering something about a grumpy old man – although as I didn’t have my hearing aids in I can’t be too sure of that! Having said that she couldn’t answer my questions  about me being steeped in good lorry driving - or maybe she had just lost the will to live!

Seriously, of course, this is, I suppose, an example of the much discussed question of nature versus nurture – how far we are affected by our genetic inheritance and how much our environment and experiences shape us. Any sensible person would realise that it is not one or the other – we are all shaped to a degree by what we have been given and by what happens to us. But my experience in John Lewis did get me thinking.

These grumpy musings, however, then  took an unexpected turn on Sunday morning and gave an edge to my thoughts.

Robin Van Persie
I was reading the report of the Premiership football match between Liverpool and Arsenal which  had taken place on Saturday. For those readers with no football knowledge this was  a big game – one of the great  clashes of any English football season. Arsenal won the game and the hero was their Dutch star Robin Van Persie who scored the winning goal in the last few seconds of the match. Van Persie is one of the world’s great players who, I learned from the article,  came into football rather than following his father’s footsteps into the world of art. Van Persie’s parents are both famous and  well respected Dutch artists whose works hang in the world famous Rijksmuseum  in Amsterdam. The footballer, however,  confessed that he had little interest in art and could not draw at all – so, going back to my previous argument he, unlike Sebastian Conran is clearly not steeped in his father’s qualities!  
Robin Van Persie's dad at work
in his studio

I would be the first to agree that, of course, some people will show the same talents as their parents or will be interested in the same things that their parents are involved with. And probably an equal or greater number will develop their own fortes – Robin Van Persie clearly falls into this category.  But  my grumble about the Conran advert was the implied assumption that  as the son of a famous designer Sebastian Conran would naturally inherit these qualities. It was, it seemed to me, simply attaching the skills and fame of the father and using them to sell the son's to goods.  Of course, we see this with other people and in other ways. I wonder, for example, if Stella McCartney the fashion designer would have been quite so famous or successful had she not been the daughter of Paul – the father’s name gave her a leg up. Would she have climbed to heights of the fashion ladder quite so easily if she was Stella Murgatroyd, daughter of Albert Murgatroyd the totally unknown, unemployed ex-Liverpool  tyre fitter? Would women flock to buy the latest dress and boast to their friends "I'm wearing a Stella Murgatroyd tonight". Would we see the glitterati at the Oscars all dolled up in Stella Murgatroyd  and would the world's fashion pundits be swooning at the display and rushing to interview Stella's dad, Albert, as he leaned against the bar in his local  Liverpool pub! I think not.

David Beckham's
underpants - definite
style. Worth every
Or, and here it really gets interesting! – what about when it goes a stage further. The Beckham’s for example have used their name relentlessly to promote themselves. David, a once famous footballer from London’s East End and Victoria an Essex girl and average pop singer made millions from their respective careers and have for years now put their names to every kind of produce – underpants, women’s fashion, toiletries, perfume.....the list goes on – all on the back of their fame and name. And I ask myself  was it in their genes  or was it the world in which they grew up that made them such arbiters of good taste and high fashion?  And, why do people think that David Beckham’s recommendation for a pair of underpants is relevant . Where did he get this skill to be able to identify a good pair of underpants when he sees one? Was his father the underpants maker to the king and so, like Sebastian Conran, David Beckham is “steeped in good  underpants”? Or, did he go on an “underpant  design course” whilst he was playing football for Manchester United – to skill himself up when his  football career was over? Or is there some other mysterious avenue by which a footballer and a pop singer can, by osmosis, soak up all the knowledge, skills and understanding to make them competent and able to make accurate pronouncements on fashion items and the like.  The answer of course is no – it is simply a case of a famous name being attached to a very ordinary item and it immediately gives it  disproportionate worth. And, the sad and terrifying thing is that people are foolish enough to be taken in. It must be good because David Beckham says so. It must be good because the son of Terence Conran is involved! Fools and their money are soon parted!

Oh! Hasn't Victoria got such dress
sense and style? Clearly something
she can pass on to the rest of us
lesser mortals
I can’t help thinking of something that was once said to me by another grumpy old man when talking about people. My old work colleague Graham once said that he never trusted people who used their hands excessively when talking – as, for example, does Tony Blair or David Cameron or Prince Charles. Graham’s reasoning on this was that people who do this do it quite intentionally. It distracts you from what the worth and correctness of what  they are saying. Over the years I've often found Graham’s comment to be accurate – analyse what people  who wave their hands about  actually say and it usually doesn't add up to much or is highly debatable.  As the monosyllabic Humphrey  Bogart once said in “Casablanca” “it don’t add up to a hill of beans”! 

And so it is with goods like the Sebastian Conran knife block  or the Stella McCartney’s dresses or the underpants that David Beckham promotes – the famous name and its associative features become the thing rather than the substance of the item itself.   Companies like John Lewis are well aware of this trick selling technique: associate an item with a name that people recognise; allude to the fact that this is good design or high fashion or highly desirable and bingo people stop looking at the quality or the value, they simply get out their credit card. They lose the capacity to look objectively at the item and assess its true value or quality.  How special or good the items in question are becomes irrelevant  - the name’s the thing in the celebrity mad world we inhabit today.  When, in the case of the Conran’s kitchenware, the main selling point appears to be a rather nebulous  association with the designer’s father you can bet your life that the goods themselves are pretty average. Would shoppers have even looked at them twice or paid £130 for the knife block if there had not been a large display highlighting the connection and the people involved. Would people have walked by and said “Oh, there’s a well designed knife block – definitely the sort of thing that Terence Conran would design – I must have one......and look it’s only £130”. Call me Mr Grumpy if you like but I think the answer to that is no. They would walk past and either not notice a very ordinary bit of kit or say “What - £130 for a knife block that’s robbery!”

For me, it all smacks very much of the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the Emperor’s new clothes,  the gullibility of people and the ease with which they are taken in and part with their money.

But  then, what do I know, I'm just a grumpy old man!