25 April, 2013

"....No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should....be at peace with God" (Max Ehrmann) - well not in my kitchen!

Dave Flatt  was a great teacher and a great Headteacher. I worked for him forty plus years ago for about three years. Dave was also an unashamed “bloke”. He smoked continuously – when you entered his office to speak to him you did so through a fog!  When he left school each tea-time he would stop for a few beers with drinking companions in a local village pub. And he openly admitted that it was a great sadness to him that in this modern world women’s lib and other such trendy ideas were becoming fashionable. “The rot set in” he would say “when women were allowed into pubs! If we have to have them then they should use a separate room!”  Dave longed for an age gone by – where the old songs were the best songs and the only good values were traditional ones – a good pint of English ale, a good lady to have his tea ready when he got home and a the world was a place where “fashion” and “trendy” were unknown words.

Professionally he was at the top – children, parents, inspectors, and staff loved him, the school was very highly regarded, had high standards and would stand scrutiny with the best. But despite Dave’s many professional strong points he also had a weakness.  He hated leading school assemblies – which as Headteacher was not insignificant. He was very uncomfortable with any religious element and clearly felt ill at ease with anything that might, no matter how vaguely, be termed an “act of worship”.   He used any ruse to get out of leading a traditional assembly - all staff had to be on a rota for leading assemblies, assemblies were consciously not to be religious, children and classes were timetabled to be responsible for leading assemblies. And the result was that it was only once every week or so when Dave found himself standing, looking uncomfortable in front of the whole school. When this happened, we, the staff knew what would occur. The assembly would be one of three types – a moan and a telling off for the children about some poor behaviour, an espousal of some school event like the football team winning a game or, lastly, a series of announcements about forthcoming events – summer garden party, trip to the zoo, parents’ evening and the like. And, when all these failed there was always Dave’s fallback – the crisp packet!

You see - Dave was right screwed up packaging
 springs back into life to threaten our world
The eyes of staff (and children too) would glaze over, when two or three times a term, Dave would revisit his crisp packet story. Not for Dave tales from the world’s great religions, no reminding of great moral truths or references to tales from our cultural heritage from which children could learn, no singing of hymns or the reciting of a quiet prayer. No, instead we had the crisp packet - a time when Dave would remind the children that progress wasn’t always a good thing and that “old fashioned” was good! He would always illustrate his point with a crisp packet – which he would bring, especially for the event. He would stand in front of the rows of assembled children and open crisp packet and, as he talked, eat the crisps. He could time it to perfection - as he finished his brief talk he also finished off the last crisp. Then he would screw up the packet into a tight little ball and throw it into a waste bin (usually by this time there had been a number of low groans from the children who had seen all this before while staff tried desperately to stay awake or at least look interested!). And then the “punch line” – Dave would peer into the waste bin, reach in and pull out the packet. Instead of the tight little ball of screwed up paper ball that he had thrown in the packet had sprung open again – it wouldn’t stay screwed up. “In my younger days” Dave would tell the children “crisp packets were made of a different material and when you screwed them up to throw away they stayed screwed up but modern crisp packets don’t!” These new fangled packets, suggested Dave, might be good at keeping the crisps fresh but because they don’t screw up into little balls they are causing havoc with our refuse dumps and land fill sites. The whole country, according to Dave, was going to sink under a sea of wayward crisp packets! The staff would sit squirming, kids yawned and Dave, empty crisp packet in hand, would scurry from the Hall of the sanctuary of his office – leaving the Hall filled with people pondering Dave’s wisdom!

I mention all this merely as an introduction. In the past week or so I have found myself muttering Dave’s long forgotten words and thinking of those far off assemblies. For the past few days I have been eating cereal for my breakfast and each morning as I struggle to open the plastic packaging I curse – it always ends in the same way. I fight to open the tightly wrapped cereal bars and eventually the wrapping bursts, and cereal crumbles and spills everywhere. I stand and curse – and Pat raises her eyes to heaven!  Then I mutter “Dave was right all those years ago – crisp packets, cereal packets. and the rest, they were much better when I was a lad!” and when the cereal box is at last empty and I squeeze the plastic wrapping into a tight little ball ready to be thrown away it suddenly leaps into life again. Just like Dave’s crisp packet it refuses to stay in a little ball but flaps around the table or the floor with a mind of its own scattering residual crumbs of cereal everywhere! And we call this progress – I’m sure that I heard Dave say that too!!!! It’s all very frustrating.

But it isn’t only cereal packets that confuse and frustrate me. So often now I begin a conversation (Pat usually calls it a “rant”) with the words “And we call this progress!” Each morning, having cleared the detritus from my battle with the cereal packet from the floor and the table I look around me and reflect that I increasingly seem to grow out of touch with what the rest of humanity accept as normal, acceptable or good. I suppose it is what many would call being a grumpy old man. I’m quite prepared to accept that verdict – but at the same time my grumpiness does, I feel, raise questions about where the world is heading. My grumpiness can range far and wide....... it can encompass the trivial and the temporary but also the serious and, in my view, the potentially worrying. It can be concerned with purely personal foibles or the great issues facing mankind. Hardly a day goes by without my feeling at odds with some aspect of the modern world and these wide ranging grumbles could fill all my blogs from now till the end of time. I will save you that experience but I will, however,  continue on the theme of packaging!
The ring pull.Guaranteed to snap off in my
 hand - then it's back to hacking with a
screw driver! This is progress I am told.

When lunch time raises its head there is often another reason for me to reflect on Dave Flatt’s wisdom. With what seems monotonous regularity a can has to be opened or a new jar of mayonnaise unscrewed or a sealed pack of meat slices or cheese unsealed. Each of these presents its own peculiar set of problems. All too often the tin of corned beef or luncheon meat ends up being hacked at with a screw driver because the ring pull has broken off while I was trying to open the can. The electric can opener is no use on a rectangular shaped can so in the end I resort to a blunt instrument and dark mutterings. On another day Pat might hand me a jar of mayonnaise or sauce of some kind and plead “Can you do something with this?” And so will begin more tensing of muscles, raised blood pressure, curses and discussions about the stupidity of modern packaging as I pit all my might against the screw top lid . Or what about trying to open a pack of sliced meat? You first have to find the little tab and peel it back.  Invariably, however,  when I pull it breaks off in my fingers so once again I hack away with the bread knife!

And when the lunch is finally on the plate and I have breathed a sigh of relief that I have survived another potentially life threatening few minutes where I ran a serious risk of hacking off my fingers or severing a major artery as I did battle with scissors, screw drivers and sharp knives there is the ultimate irony. As the unused piece of corned beef or slices of meat sit there on the working surface Pat will remind me that they need to be wrapped up.............in cling film. I now steadfastly refuse to use cling film and if forced to it is only a short time before Pat whips it out of my hands. Whenever I touch the stuff it wraps itself round me and tears in the wrong places. Instead of a neatly wrapped piece of meat or cheese I am left with a crumpled mess. I shake my head in frustration and confusion – having suffered the trials of unpacking items we then have to put the remains back in equally frustrating wrapping. And, in the case of cling film what confuses me even more is its clear gender preference – the stuff hates men! I have noticed that any woman can pick up the roll of film and without even looking tear off exactly the amount required and in one smooth movement wrap it around the object. Clearly, I missed out on that gene!

Why does an iron hasp and staple bracket
need to be in an air sealed pack for which you 
need a chain saw to open?
But above all of these – the cereal packets, the cling film, the cans of food there is one form of packaging that not only increasingly defeats me but, in my view, is for the most part totally unnecessary and responsible for most of the world’s ills. I can understand why food is packed in sealed containers of some kind – but why, in this modern world is everything else. Buy a screw driver from the DIY store and it will come packaged in an impenetrable, tough plastic cocoon. So often I mumble do screw drivers, felt tip pens, electric plugs and millions more everyday items need to be sold in hermetically sealed packs – which, of course, then fill up my dustbin and have to be recycled.  How often do I stand naked in the bathroom, having had a shower (my glasses either steamed up or left in the bedroom!) trying without success to open a new toothbrush or packet of dental floss – its plastic and cardboard needing a SWAT team’s expertise to open it. How many times have I taken a knife or a pair of scissors to some plastic packet strong enough to keep the gold in Fort Knox safe from criminal hands and ended up sticking plasters on a bleeding finger.........and that is another thing! Am I the only person in the world who cannot work out the logic on the packaging of medical dressings? Of course these need to be kept clean – maybe even sterile – but am I the only person on the planet who, having sliced his finger floods the floor with blood as I desperately try to defeat (usually one handed!) the packaging for the dressing. I often wonder if, in this litigious age, Pat could sue the dressing manufacturer – if I bled to death because the dressing packet could not be undone! The whole thing is a mystery and a great confusion and frustration to me.

Max Ehrmann - such a calm, thoughtful 
man. His "Desiderata"such a quietly inspiring
 work. But then maybe he didn't have to 
deal with cereal packets or ring pull cans. 
And he probably never felt he was bleeding
 to death while trying to open the 
wrapping on a medical dressing!
So often now I look up to the space on the kitchen cupboard and shake my head. Until we had the kitchen re-vamp a year or so ago we used to have a copy of the famous verse “Desiderata” by the 20th century American poet Max Ehrmann stuck on the side of the cupboard and now, even though the verse is no more, its words ring through my head...... but somehow sounding less reassuring than they used to:  “.....whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.....” . In his lovely verse Ehrmann never mentioned packaging – maybe things were better in his day. Maybe, had he written his poem in the early years of the 21st century, he might have amended his thoughts little. It does seem increasingly difficult to accept that the world is “unfolding as it should” or indeed that I should  “keep peace with my soul” – in the face of cereal packets, wrapping paper, cling film, plastic packaging and the rest, all with a mind of their own and all beginning each day with the intention of frustrating me!

Each day, it seems a new confusion or frustration arrives. It all reminds me of the wonderful American  TV sit com of many years ago “Soap”. The bizarre and often confusing plots all based around the Tate  family in the USA were compulsive weekly viewing in the late 70s and early 80s. At the beginning of each episode the announcer would give a brief but totally confusing description of the convoluted plot. He would end this by saying “Confused? You won’t be after this week’s episode”. But of course we always were!   And as each episode came to a close a voice over would pose a series of questions relating to the episode: “Will Jessica’s affair be discovered?” Will Chester fight the duel?” “Does anybody care? And then the announcer would then say “These questions and many others will be answered in the next edition of Soap”. And that, somehow, sums up my increasing view of the world – confused and frustrated by what seems to me to be an increasingly bizarre place – a place where I look for common sense and sound judgement but increasingly seem to find only odd behaviour, and strange values – and, of course, wayward packaging. But then again, I might just be a grumpy old man! Having said that, however, I am sure that Dave Flatt had a point all those years ago!

18 April, 2013

We're all Thatcherites now - or The Road to Hell.....

“When you got nothing, you ain’t got nothing to lose”
Bob Dylan: “Like a Rolling Stone”

And so the funeral is over. The beatification of Margaret Thatcher and now, with her death, the deification process is almost complete. As the right wing press, the establishment, the Tory party, big business and the rest scramble to retell their personal anecdotes, to relate her good deeds and her great wisdom and to be, for one last brief moment in time, associated with her golden radiance we are witnessing in this a country an outpouring not dissimilar to that following the death of Diana. The only differences being that Diana, whatever her failings was viewed widely as a much loved person whereas Margaret Thatcher was and remains deeply disliked by much of the population. The emotional outpouring following the death of Diana was scorned by much of the broadsheet press and the upper echelons of British society. Tony Blair was and has  been frequently been castigated for coining the term “people’s princess”; the thousands or millions who wept as her cortège passed and Elton John sang for her at her funeral service were increasingly labelled immature and overly emotional. And when the flowers were cleared from the streets, when the handkerchiefs had been dried out and, with the passing of the years, we looked at the old footage it does indeed all look a bit pathetic and rather silly.

Tabloids whips up the Diana
And yet, here we go again – but this time it is not children and would be princesses that are getting worked up and emotional. It is not the immature and not very bright of society or those who wear their heart on their sleeves. It is not the tabloid readers whipped up into a frenzy by Rupert Murdoch’s headlines extolling Diana’s all embracing love for all on the planet – the disadvantaged, the young those suffering from Aids, the limbless and the rest – who are weeping. No, it is the staid, the stiff upper lipped, the Times and Telegraph readers and those in power who are weeping and beating their breasts – in short the very people who looked on and shook their heads when in September 1997 much of the population went on a “grief-fest”. Margaret is dead they now cry – how shall we survive, what will happen to us, to whom shall we turn? In yesterdays Telegraph - and I suspect most other papers - the first 24 pages were solely devoted to Thatcher - yes that's 24 out of a total of 44. It was deemed far more important than other national and international news. And just as with Diana, each day the mythology is becoming more outrageous as Margaret Thatcher’s acolytes seek to give her immortality.

Such was her foresight, wisdom and benign influence that I read in a letter to the Sunday Telegraph at the weekend that the miners would be grateful for her closing the coal mines and for the mass redundancies that killed their communities, their industry and their livelihoods. And the reason? – according to the correspondent - is that  mining is such a dangerous occupation that Mrs Thatcher in her wisdom, compassion and foresight, was saving their lives by making them redundant! As I read this I gasped in amazement. In another tribute I read one of her ex-ministers and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson (now a Lord of the Realm)  explain (did he really say this with a straight face?) that "Before sitting down she always had a little movement – and I've never seen another woman do it – of hitching up her skirt, so she wasn't sitting on it. Her bum was sitting on the chair – well, her knickers, of course – so when she got up her skirt was uncreased. She always thought things out. She was a great details person." Well, there you go then, ladies - you read it here first! No ordinary woman this - just as with Diana the mythology is already growing. Sadly I haven't been able to bring this skill to my wife's attention. Can this Lord and her other eulogisers really believe this, do people accept these as reasonable premises? Clearly, the answers to questions such as those are “yes” – and that is truly frightening. These are not silly, immature young people or emotional heart on sleeve tabloid readers. No, these are the “backbone of England” – the respected and the astute, the men and women of moral fibre and upstanding virtue, the people on whom the Empire was allegedly built and who wield some power in the country. In short, the establishment. And, yes, sadly they walk amongst us.

Having said that, however, I have a huge grudging respect for Thatcher the politician. I accept that she appeared to  believe profoundly in what she was doing and made things happen in order to get what she wanted. (Oh, for politicians today – of any party – of her measure!). The term “statesman” to define a politician of outstanding stature is without doubt one that could and should be applied to Thatcher. She was a cut above the rest and, by the force of her personality, her political acumen and force of argument did, indeed, mould the world in her image. Today – all parties are filled with the quick fixers, the sharp operators, the shallow and the sheep – it is a “back handed tribute” to say that there is not a Margaret Thatcher in British politics today. So yes, I can acknowledger her great political influence and stature – but despise her politics and her persona.
Saint Margaret - a stateswoman
and a super woman who did a
wiggle as she sat down.

This morning (Wednesday April 17th) as Pat and I lay in bed enjoying our morning cup of tea I switched on the bedside radio. Instead of the usual light tones of Classic FM filling the bedroom we listened to a commercial break for a few seconds. It was a commercial that has been played incessantly over the past week or so to remind the population that this Sunday the Sunday Times Newspaper will again be publishing their annual “Rich List” – the 25th anniversary of this institution - where ordinary people up and down the country pour over the fortunes of the nation’s super rich. Since the day of its inception I have wondered what is the attraction of this? Why would I, or anyone else, want to know how much someone is “worth”. In the end there can only be one reason – to compare one’s own standing to that of the super rich. And that, of course, belies its underlying function – it is an annual festival of envy and greed and a celebration of the celebrity culture of 21st century. It is the equivalent of peeping from behind the curtains to see what the neighbours are up to and what they are acquiring – the “keeping up with the Jones”.

The “Rich List” was born in the Thatcher years – it is the perfect symbol for her beliefs and premiership. Before Thatcher, in this country at least, it was still considered slightly unseemly to discuss money, how much one earned or how much one had in the bank. These were personal and confidential matters. People, of course, dreamed of becoming wealthy, but envy was not a great feature of the national psyche. People were stoic – they accepted their lot. By the time Thatcher was forced out of office, however, everyone it seemed was on the gravy train – more was good or to coin Gordon Gecko’s never to be forgotten phrase “The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good”. If you've got it flaunt it as the saying goes.
It's that time of year again - and rather nicely
it falls in the week of Margaret's funeral.
A lovely annual reminder of how she
changed our souls.

As I listened to the advert drone on I lay and reflected that it was a strange a perhaps telling symmetry that the latest “Rich List” should be published in the week Thatcher is buried. In the latter years of the Thatcher premiership a number of initiatives took hold all of which were aimed directly or indirectly at giving people a financial stake in society – most famously was the sale of council houses. Ordinary people in increasing numbers were given the opportunity to own their own homes. Another aspect of the same political agenda was that banks were increasingly freed up. I well remember my dad looking with pride and a smile as he looked at the £200 of “shares” that he was allocated when his building society was de-mutualised and he suddenly found himself to be dabbling in stocks and shares. Each morning he would anxiously look at the share price in his newspaper to see if he was any richer than on the previous day – how we laughed when he looked up from his paper and said “Vote for Maggie – she’s made me a bloated capitalist”. Throughout those years there were a number of high profile attempts by individuals trying to ensure that mutual societies demutualised and therefore issued shares to their members. Everyone – including me - wanted to jump on the “money go round”. And of course, it would be difficult to argue with my dad’s pleasure or anyone else’s good fortune – for people with little these small windfalls were undeniably “a good thing”.
Margaret and her brain dead buddy Ron

And the policies worked. Throughout the country ordinary people suddenly had a financial stake in society. Hugely increased numbers had a mortgage – they were buying their own homes. We were all shareholders now, we were all in debt. And in being so, we all had something to lose. When the film “Wall Street” came out in 1987 it struck a chord with the times. It was so masterfully and joyfully inspired and encouraged by Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan on the other side of the Atlantic – we were all now, in our different ways, little manifestations of Gordon Gecko. To my everlasting shame (now, as I look back) I never once, at that time when I so profoundly disagreed with all that Mrs Thatcher was doing – in schools, in wider society, in the Falklands and the rest – did I do anything about it. I never once had a day off to strike or to chain myself to some railing to express my disapproval. I never once waved a banner or marched through the streets.  And the reason? – I couldn't afford it, I had a mortgage to pay and couldn't run the risk of losing my job. In short I had too much to lose. People strike and stand up to be counted when they have no alternative. As Dylan said "When you got nothing, you ain't got nothing to lose".

In one fell swoop Mrs Thatcher had nullified much of the opposition - we all had too much to lose. The core of beliefs of socialism were on the ropes – only a few years later a senior Labour Minister, Peter Mandelson happily told the world that he was “completely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich......” and by the end of the century we had a Labour government in name only – its core and founding beliefs stripped from it by Blair and his ilk - all continuing in a mad helter skelter what Thatcher had begun. We were all capitalists now and none of us wanted to shoot the golden goose.

In the newspaper the other day a correspondent related the story that, many years ago, he had been talking to an ex-coal miner about Mrs Thatcher. He asked what the miner thought about the lady. “Wonderful woman” said the miner, “she made me redundant and with the money I got (£25000) I’ve bought myself a home in Spain – better than going down the pit every day”. Well, lying on a sun bed by the pool clearly beats going down the pit, but I wonder if he still thinks that now that the financial collapse has hit Spain and the Spanish property bubble has burst and thousands like him have found themselves stranded there with a worthless property and little money? And by the same token I have often in recent years reflected that by the time my dad died his £200 in building society shares were all looking a little less glossy – they hadn't really increased in value and his building society was not giving him the high interest that it had previously been giving. After all they now had shareholders (others on the gravy train looking for a good financial fix) to pay. Except these were the big boys, the big pension funds, the bankers on million pound bonuses, the Gordon Geckos who had real clout and who fill the Sunday Times Rich List each year. Against them, my dad (and millions of others like him) was a non-entity. What he would have thought had he lived to see the crash of 2008, the vilification of bankers and the Gordon Geckos – and the bottom dropping out of  his few shares – I can only imagine. But in the end, whether it was Gordon Gecko, or my dad’s £200, or my own unwillingness to endanger what I had by protesting or the redundant miner using his redundancy payment to buy a place in Spain it was all about personal wealth and inherent greed. In the final analysis we will always looked out for ourselves. In the end Thatcher’s policies had worked – just like the drug dealer gets a new customer hooked by giving him a free bit of dope we all became hooked on the drug that she offered and we all wanted more and more of it. And big business ran away with the profits – until the whole thing came tumbling down in 2008!
Not everhon approved of the lady

But it was too late – a society based upon the “Pull up the ladder Jack I’m alright!” notion had been born – and that, in a strange way, might be a good sub-title for the Sunday Times “Rich List” Everyone was an individual and responsible for their own actions and what they got out of life – there is no place for sentimentality or responsibility either by word or deed for those less fortunate. Forget the community where you worked and lived, forget the old and the infirm who cannot dash off to sunny Spain, forget those who were not miners and but who lost their employment because the pit closed down – just grab the money and run. This was what we became and have become.

But there is more than this. Mrs Thatcher was, in many ways, the ultimate fiction. She projected her image of integrity, decency, of honest work ethic and the rest and she wished these virtues on the rest of the population. “Work hard like me and you will get there” was her message. But, if you dig a little deeper you will find that so much of it is not really true. I have absolutely no doubts that Thatcher knew what she was doing - she had a plan - she was setting out to deceive and present an image that was false. What made her really successful was the fact that she also had I think tunnel vision and was utterly convinced her of her righteousness. This falseness and self righteousness showed itself in a variety of ways.

Much has been made in the press in recent days of the funeral arrangements for Mrs Thatcher. For those attending the funeral they will enjoy Mrs Thatcher’s favourite music by Vaughan Williams and Holst and hymns by Wesley and Bunyan. The pieces chosen by Margaret Thatcher, we were told, would reflect her strong religious conviction, her principles and her patriotic pride. And yet Vaughan Williams and Holst were both keen socialists – Vaughan Williams turned down a knighthood. They were both friends with George Bernard Shaw – a man who without doubt would have had stinging comments about Margaret Thatcher. Bunyan, too, was a socialist before the term was known and Wesley, amongst many other quotes said: “The person who bears and suffers evils with meekness and silence, is the sum of a Christian man” – hardly a comment to fit in with Mrs Thatcher or indeed contemporary Tory policy manifesto. And what would Bunyan have thought of the world Thatcher created - free reign to money making and greed - surely these would have been part of the many evils that  good Christian fought on his way to the Celestial City.  For Margaret Thatcher "goodness" was all an illusion – it was what she liked to believe of herself – she saw and was only what she wanted to see and be. And maybe that is the underpinning to Thatcher comments such as “the lady’s not for turning” – her tunnel vision meant that she had no comprehension of the wider world or the rest of humanity.

Other facets of the illusion are the voice and the rise to power. No one would dispute her work ethic, attention to detail and her political skills. She made things happen. But any brief study will quickly reveal that this in itself was not enough. She was going no-where as a politician until she married Dennis Thatcher and had his money and position behind her. Much has been made of her rise as the first woman PM and the "good" this did to the feminist cause. It is sadly a myth  – she did it, undeniably, on the back of her husband.  And in doing it she ensured a whole new (false) persona with voice training and the rest. What people over the following years voted for was not an honest politician, a simple housewife made good but a contrived puppet pandering increasingly to their worst instincts. She fed people what they wanted and wanted to hear – and they gave her their votes and increasingly their unabashed love.

In the end, and despite her claim that all should subscribe to the Christian work ethic - as she allegedly did - it was all an illusion. Whilst laying waste to the industrial landscape and removing for large portions of the population the opportunity to work her unfettered free market approach and rabid pursuit of deregulation ensured that on a daily basis there fell onto the doormats of every home in the land junk mail from banks and finance houses promising the earth.  Cheap loans, release of equity, second mortgages all became easily available - hard work and honest labour was not only unavailable to many since there were few jobs available as industry wasted and in any case what dropped on your doormat each morning promised you the good life without work - easy money, take out a loan, release some equity. Ordinary people were encouraged to pawn their future in the quest for the good life. And we all did. Where once banks and building societies took great pains to lend only to those who could afford it and discouraged unsustainable debt now “financial advisers"  and brokers used all means – fair and foul - to convince ordinary people that they could afford it. Now, the watchword of the banks and the building societies was not to check if clients could reponsibly afford it but to find for their clients the lender that would lend them most - whatever their circumstances. And then they pocketed their fat bonuses after hooking another unsuspecting client. And what did we do with the easy money that we had borrowed? - we spent it. The term retail therapy became the watchword, the worship of wealth and annual publications like the "Rich List" defined us. Where once there were industrial plants now, today, there are retail parks all striving to sell us goods from the far ends of the world - few are produced in the UK. Industry fills only a small part of our national fabric - we are now defined by the retail sector, the financial sector, the service sector and the like. Bankers and companies scramble to make a quick buck out of the money that still floats around in the economy whilst ordinary people look for jobs that aren't there. Our young leave school with ever more limited work opportunities and we, the populace, wander around the retail parks to see what we can spend. Each store window makes us offers we can't refuse and sells us goods that we don't need. But, indeed,  we cannot refuse the offers for we have tasted the drug that Margate gave us and which successive governments since have continued to prescribe for us. We cannot refuse the offers for since the mid 1980's and Margaret Thatcher that is what we have been programmed to do - consume.

 Margaret Thatcher projected herself as the "good housewife" who managed the family budget and who knew the cost of everything. She taught us well - we all know the cost of everything now - but sadly the value of nothing. This was Margaret Thatcher’s true legacy – the encouraging of unsustainable debt and the removal of work as being the way to happiness. Despite all her protestations and self righteousness she offered the electorate the quick fix, the easy money, the good life - and everyone greedily grabbed.

In last week's New Statesman playwright David Hare commented that before Thatcher people tended to be stoic - things were to be endured. But increasingly after her we became hedonistic. This of course had its roots long before Thatcher - in the 60s - but the Thatcher philosophy tapped into it and it has continued to be an increasing part of the national fabric since. By the 1990s we were all laughing at comedian Harry Enfield and his obnoxious Cockney plasterer who constantly boasted of his "loads of money" - we were all legitimising greed and hedonism. Enfield's character could have been one of the awful creatures who inhabited Pilgrims Progress and who terrified Christian so. Sadly Margaret Thatcher could not or would not recognise the terrible irony of the society she had created and how it conflicted with her declared Christian ethic. Her's was a hollow philosophy - her Christian values for public consumption only.

"Loads a money" - comedian Harry Enfield's face of the
Thatcher society so well built on by Blair
and all the rest
 It happened elsewhere too – most notably across the Atlantic. Thatcher’s partner in crime Ronald Reagan embraced the same philosophy and all was wonderful until the full economic cost and implications of sub-prime mortgages began to appear in the USA. Thatcher and Reagan's economics were found wanting and the sub-prime problem became the world's financial problem - a problem that is still with us. The rest, as they say, is history. I don’t blame Reagan. He was a fool with a brain containing few working cells – he saw the money and grabbed it. But Margaret Thatcher knew exactly what she was doing – she was the great pretender and puppeteer. The economic problems will one day, I have no doubt, be fixed. I am not sure it will be quite so easy to fix the ills of the society that Thatcher, Reagan and we created as we scrambled in the trough and compromised not only our bank accounts but also our souls.
Seems a good point to me.

But, it is her son Mark who really belies the Thatcher lie, the illusion, the pretensions and the pulling of strings.

Margaret, the wife of wealthy business man, sent her son, Mark, to a private “prep” school and thence to one of the great schools of England - Harrow. A place famed for its academic rigour and the great and good who have passed though its doors and thence become part of the national and international social, political and financial fabric: Winston Churchill, Robert Peel, King Hussein of Jordan, Lord Byron, the Duke of Westminster and so the list goes on. Mark left Harrow with the grand total of 3 ‘O’ levels – hardly a shining example of academic brilliance. A child leaving any “bog standard” comprehensive school today with such a meagre haul would be judged a failure. Indeed, had OFSTED been around then the school might have been accused of failing. But, maybe, the little lad was probably not very bright – nothing wrong with that. But if so, then how did he get in there in the first place?  It's a bit of a mystery? Did he get there on merit or money? But, this small academic blip didn't matter to young Mark. Suddenly and magically he became a trainee at one of the world’s great finance houses Touche Ross. this also is a  mystery - how someone with such meagre academic qualifications should be able to gain this position – a position usually reserved for the brightest and best. And this especially so in an age when people with good degrees are only finding work in MacDonald’s – and that if they are lucky. But clearly young Mark had that magical something. Sadly, however, it didn't go well – he failed his accountancy exams not once but three times and at last he was released by the company. But, hey, not to worry. In the twinkling of an eye something quite unique happened. Margaret, by now a leading politician was soon able, like the now much maligned Jimmy Savile, to “fix it”. By a skilful negotiation and manipulation she was able to make a gold plated provision for her son. She insisted that the Baronetcy which was being bestowed upon her family be made hereditary – a quite unique constitutional occurrence. And in doing so ensured once her husband died his title would pass to the son and thus provide social standing and entry to the very best that society could offer – all on 3 ‘O’ levels. No hard work, no talent, no merit - but an influential mum. What more could a lad need. Oh, that good fortune should work in such mysterious and wonderful ways for all the population and not just the chosen few.

I don’t blame young Mark – it’s not his fault and in fact it hasn't done him much good. He now resides in Marbella one of the great homes of the world’s criminal fraternity and has been involved in a number of shady deals. He’s a bit of a laughing stock – but he still, in this class conscious country, has the title and the old boy network. The lad will be alright!
One sandwich short of a picnic in the brain department
but no matter, with my mum's influence I can still get
to the top.

But Margaret Thatcher’s personal morals and motives are something else. Here is the fine morally upright woman who espoused to the importance of Christian values, of integrity and godliness, of hard work and decency and that anyone can do it if they strive and have talent - I seem to think she called it a meritocracy. But it was all a lie and a sham when it came to her own. The term meritocracy is much ill used and when scrutinised is full of conflicts and misunderstandings (see blog: “A broken contract, the meritocracy myth” Nov 2011). St Margaret so often reminded us that her own industry allowed her to work her way up. Others must do the same. What then of her son? Did he not work hard enough? Did he have no talent? And if by some misfortune and despite his parents, and despite the “best” education that money could buy he still couldn't “cut the academic mustard” then how was he able then to obtain a position few in wider society could access or even contemplate? Where did meritocracy fit in? I think it might rather better be called nepotism – and try as I might I can’t find anywhere in the world’s great religions – last of all Methodism - a sanction for that.

No, Margaret Thatcher in the end was a lie. She preached the virtues of thrift and good housekeeping but created a society based upon excess, greed and debt. She applauded hard work and honest endeavour but instead ensured that for huge swathes of the population and country there was no opportunity to work. She told the young to work and study hard - and they would all end up like her. But the reality was that she used nepotism and money to ensure her own son did not have to subscribe to that ethic. She portrayed herself as a good Christian and often used religious references to justify her actions but the reality of the society that she lead was that it was increasingly uncaring, selfish and divided.

Margaret Thatcher was a great politician. Her attention to detail and diligence was legendary. She would be horrified at the errors of the present government and their inability to think things through. She would not have tolerated  the "about turns" caused by badly thought out policy and would have sent packing those unable to meet her high standards.  She had the gift of all great politicians – she could fool most of the people for most of the time. But despite these political skills she offered a policy which appealed to the base human instincts of greed, envy and pride. She hooked the electorate on the drug and once they were caught they couldn't let go – “more is good - pull up the rope Jack, I’m alright”. Society is still reaping the harvest both economically and in what we have become and what constitute our values of the seeds that Thatcher planted. She made the whole thing into an even richer mix with a few other base instincts – a bit of jingoistic nationalism here or a dollop of campaigning fervour there. And to complete the cocktail she developed a totally false persona which millions of otherwise intelligent people swallowed – her ideals, motives, voice and homespun philosophy constantly reminding people of virtues that they should follow and the evils of which they should beware.

Margaret Thatcher once famously said “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul”. This was one of the few honest things that she ever said. That was her crusade to change the heart and soul of a nation – and she did. It mattered not to her that her crusade was based on amoral actions and a toxic composite of the seven deadly sins each of which she was prepared to use in turn to influence, cajole, threaten and fool ordinary people. That was, and is, the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. And the really frightening thing is that, as David Cameron said at today’s funeral service, “We are all Thatcherites now”. Like the unleashing of the four horsemen of the apocalypse Margaret Thatcher unleashed and legitimised an outlook on life and a value system that has irretrievably changed us all – and for the worse. In 1989 as the Thatcher premiership came to its close the seminal and allegorical song Road to Hell by Chris Rea became popular.

"........She said "Son, what are you doing here?
My fear for you has turned me in my grave"
I said "Mama, I come to the valley of the rich
Myself to sell"
She said "Son, this is the road to Hell"
On your journey 'cross the wilderness
From the desert to the well 
You have strayed upon the motorway to Hell.... 
...And all the roads jam up with credit 
And there's nothing you can do
It's all just pieces of paper flying away from you
Oh look out world, take a good look
You must learn this lesson fast and learn it well
This ain't no upwardly mobile freeway
Oh no, this is the road to hell......"

The song was prophetic - as a society we were indeed on the road to hell and Rea's words encapsulated exactly what we had and have become. Bob Dylan, too, was right; it is only when you have nothing that you are prepared to fight for what is right. When you have a little then you want to hold onto it - you become part of the establishment and you don't rock the boat. Margaret Thatcher understood this well. It underpinned her crusade to change the heart and soul of the nation. At the same time it made us all both victims of, and flag wavers for, the seven deadly sins. We should all be ashamed.

12 April, 2013

Gender sensitivity training!

I read last week of the little “scrape” that president Obama had got himself into with the California Attorney General  Kamala Harris. The President praised Ms Harris’s brilliance, her dedication and her toughness as Attorney General to a group of wealthy donors  but then committed the unforgivable sin in this politically correct world of suggesting that she was also “the best looking Attorney General in the country”. The knives were soon out and the President soon had to call the lady concerned to apologise for his gaffe and women’s groups and would be politicians throughout the US were putting in their two pennyworth on how Obama should mend his ways. “My stomach turned over” wrote one pundit and another said that this was “something the President needed to work on”. A third advised the President that he needed “Gender sensitivity training!”
Obama and the beautiful (sorry!) Kamala Harris

My own feeling was “Get a life”. These are people who are navel gazing and incapable of finding anything more worthwhile to comment upon. “Gender sensitivity training? – whoever thought that term up needs to get training in being a member of the human race – and, indeed, if there is such a thing as “gender sensitivity training” then there is something profoundly wrong with the society that encourages it! My, what George Orwell would do with such a title and conception! For me, in the great issues of the world and the things with which the most powerful man on earth must be dealing with on  a daily basis I find it refreshing that Obama can still quip and pay a compliment -  even if some do judge it sexist. For me the criticism and complaining says far more about those wanting Obama’s scalp than it does about Obama.

By a strange coincidence I was taken to task a couple of years ago because I wasn’t sexist enough! Pat and I were in Lanzarote  and I walked down to the local sea front bar for a beer in the early evening. Pat was getting ready for dinner.  I sat at the front of the almost empty bar enjoying my cool beer. Sitting a couple of tables away were a young family – mum, dad and little boy aged about 5. They were having a meal and as I sat I could not help but hear their conversation. They were from America – from Florida, I think, judging by the places they mentioned. I sat for about half an hour enjoying my beer and then decided to go back to the hotel for dinner. As I stood up, I turned to the family and smiled – I said that I hoped they were enjoying their holiday and could I congratulate them on having such a well behaved little boy with impeccable table manners. Mum and dad smiled and then dad said “Thank you why but  didn’t you  congratulate me too on my beautiful wife!”

Taken as I sat at the bar that night
To say that I was nonplussed is an understatement. I was, in fact quite hurt. Maybe I was feeling a bit sensitive but I had complimented them in all good faith and to be “corrected” seemed to me to be a little churlish. I walked away confused -  a few steps down the road I stopped and considered walking back and saying “I do hope that your son grows up with more graciousness than his parents.” Needless to say I didn’t – in the end I put it down to experience – and grumbled to Pat all night about it!

In the brash world in which we all  now live, where “transparency” (whatever that over used sound bite means) is all, and where the “in your face” and “tell it how it is” culture so often appertains and passes for acceptable behaviour it seems to me we have lost something. What we have lost, I think might be lumped under a number of titles – tact, subtlety, delicacy, discretion, graciousness, the ability to unreservedly accept a well meant compliment or to comprehend a gentle bit of chiding. Everything today has to be spelled out and “in yer face”. And, no matter how you try it seems increasingly impossible to please people – especially when “people” see only what they want to see and refuse to see the bigger picture. And the two cases that I cite seem to prove to me what I have long believed – those in favour of plain speaking, transparency or telling it how it is are all in favour until someone tells them “how it is”. Obama’s open and generous comment on the lady’s attractions was given in all good faith and maybe, just maybe, reflected the huge amount of time and money that the lady in question spends on turning herself out each day looking impeccable – so why cannot it be accepted as just that? But no, honest comment is now frequently to be checked and “approved” to ensure that it does not offend. That’s fine – except that the guy in the bar didn’t apply the same rules when he chastised me for not recognising his wife’s many charms – he cared not one jot that he might just have offended me. He was quite happy for me to be sexist about his wife when it suited him. I've often wondered what he might have said if I had commented on his wife's charms rather than his son's manners! Certainly, I think if I was Barack Obama I think I might just have gone home that night and quietly banged my head against the bedroom wall when Michelle Obama asked if he had had a good day at the (Oval) Office!

The old children's rhyme "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names (words) will never hurt me" is manifestly wrong. The power of words to hurt and to cause a longer lasting hurt is all too obvious. In a small way I was hurt that night as  left that seaside bar, I'm sure that even the tough politician Obama must just occasionally  wonder is it all worth it when he is lambasted by one side or the other and I am utterly convinced that in this strident world in which we live great hurt is caused on a regular basis because of what comes from the mouths of people - usually because they have not previously weighed up the consequences of their outburst. In writing this I am reminded of one of my oft told assembly stories from school – it encapsulates exactly what I mean and is a lesson I never ceased to tire of reminding children about. It is a tale from the Arabian Nights but appears in many forms in middle east literature. It is a story of tact and graciousness and seeing the bigger picture and in these loud crass times something that serves as a good reminder to the strident voices of the societies in which we live.

A tribe of poor desert people are thirsty – the water holes and oases have dried out. Despite travelling many hundreds of miles water cannot be found. The chief instructs several of the men to go out on their horses and camels to seek water on behalf of the tribe. One of these men travels for several days – without success and at last takes rest in a cave. It is dark and he falls fast asleep. When he awakes he realises that his hand is wet – it is lying in water. He quickly scoops some of the water into his hand and greedily drinks. Refreshed, he fills his various water bottles up and hurriedly sets off back to his tribe.

One of the many pictures and prints of the
story of Harun-al-Rashid's wisdom when he met the
As he gallops across the desert he comes upon the king – the great and wise Caliph Harun al-Rashid - out hunting with his courtiers. He approaches the Caliph who asks where he is going in such a great hurry. The man gasps out his story and tells the Caliph he has found the most wonderfully refreshing water, “the water of paradise” he calls it. “Would your majesty like to drink some?” he asks. To the horror of the courtiers the Caliph readily agrees and takes the man’s grubby water bottle to his lips. The water is foul smelling and brackish – scooped up from the earth of the cave. The Caliph drinks, and then smiles kindly “You have indeed found the water of paradise, my friend” he says “ it is the most wonderful taste I have ever tasted. Thank you for sharing it with me, your King. I am honoured indeed.” The Caliph then takes out of his saddle bag a pouch filled with a thousand gold dinars and passes it to the man. “Take this”, he says “and return to your people. Use the money to build a well near where you have found the water of paradise and your tribe and their children and their grandchildren must then guard the water for all eternity so that if I wish to drink of it again I can come to you”. The man is overcome. He falls to the ground and worships the Caliph and promises he will do as instructed. The money is such a vast amount that it will indeed keep his tribe in food and water for years to come. He climbs back on his horse, bows again to the Caliph and disappears into the desert. And, the story tells, his family and their descendents are still, today, guarding the cave and that “water of paradise”.

When he had gone the Caliph’s couriers gathered around and expressed their horror – how could he drink such foul water? Why did he not take the man back to Baghdad where the man could have seen the clean water of the great city and the mighty waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates? Why did he not simply tell the man the truth and send him packing? The Caliph listened and then quietly said “But, he thought he was bringing me the water of heaven. He gave to me the most precious thing that he possessed – the water that will keep him and his family alive. Who am, I a mere King, to tell him otherwise. It would have been disrespectful to a good man. If I had taken him to Baghdad he would have been made to look foolish and his gift of water small. He would have been shamed at giving his King so worthless a gift. His was a noble act in sharing his greatest  possession with me -  if I, too, wish to be noble then I must treat him with the nobility that his kindness demands.”

Maybe there wasn’t a lot of nobility going on in California last week when Obabma visited  – or in Lanzarote a couple of years ago when I sat in the sea front bar. But hey – tact, subtlety, delicacy, graciousness and noble word and action are probably long dead – long live crassness, transparency and “telling it how it is.”

11 April, 2013

“I see a little silhouetto of a man........”

Although I’m a bit of an idealist – a dreamer maybe – I’m also, I think, pretty practical. I always spend a lot of time planning things out – usually because I anticipate something’s going to go wrong! I’m not one for making hasty decisions or doing something on the spare of the moment. I definitely don’t “do” surprises – if anyone springs  a surprise on me I feel very vulnerable and I certainly don’t go in for springing surprises on others – mainly because I don’t know how they will pan out – and that is something I find difficult to cope with! Indeed, some years ago when I wrote what I laughingly describe as “my book” - the story of my life – this feature was one of my “regrets” – that I’ve always been cautious, never comfortable with a quick change of tack or having what might be called a “wild fling”. In fact, I openly admit, I’m a pretty boring bloke! My wife might say I’m a typical “Taurean” – steady, hard working, stubborn, never giving in, but at the same time a bit predictable and dull! She has learned to live with the fact that I’m not likely to ever sweep her off her feet with a spare of the moment holiday, a romantic evening out or a diamond ring!
So, when something happens to me that is quite unplanned and unexpected – and in this case fantastically enjoyable – it really bowls me over. Let me explain.

Mercury & Queen at Live Aid in 1985
A couple of weeks ago (sorry about the delay in blogging about this – I’ve been busy with other things!!!) Pat and I went to the Nottingham Arena together with a few thousand others to see the musical “We Will Rock You”. The show is currently touring the UK and Nottingham was its opening night. I had booked the tickets months ago – again the result of a lot of heart searching – at over £30 each I gave it a lot of thought and then often wondered whether, in these austere times, it was a good use of my £60.00! “We Will Rock” you is a show based on the music of the great supergroup of the 1970s & 80s Queen – one of my favourites. One of my regrets is that I’ve only ever seen video footage of the group’s appearance at the Live Aid Concert at Wembley in 1985. The concert, and more especially Queen’s performance that day, is often said to be “the greatest live concert ever staged and a day that no one who saw it will ever forget” (Daily Telegraph). And, of course, central to it all was the magnificent Freddie Mercury – sadly, now dead. On that day Queen and Mercury stole the show - they were the undeniable stars in a show packed with the world’s pop and rock royalty. Back in 1985 I had a young family, work commitments and all the impedimenta that were always going to stop me hiking off to Wembley to see Queen – so I never got there! And now Freddie Mercury is dead and Queen are no more as a group - but their music lives on with tribute bands up and down the country and in this wonderful celebration of their music in the show “We Will Rock You”.
The iconic video clip from Bohemian Rhapsody
So, Pat and I joined a few thousand others at the Arena. Luckily our seats were right at the front and we loved it – loud, brash, silly, pathetic story line (as with most musicals) but wonderful, wonderful music. Many on the audience were like us – pensioners re-living our youth but there were too many “youngsters” – all dressed up in colourful and glittery “Queen-type” get ups.

I would not want to spoil the show for anyone who hasn’t seen it but throughout the story there are many references to Queen’s great hit Bohemian Rhapsody – but, strangely, the song is never actually sung. All the other hits are sung – but not “Rhapsody”. Youngsters stood up in their seats and danced and clapped and waved their arms – more sedate people like me quietly nodded our heads in time with the music. Everyone was having a wonderful time.
With the cast

And so at last the final curtain came.............we all clapped and cheered – well worth every penny of my £60 plus pounds. But, even so, as the actors and singers and dancers took their final bows I had just the tiniest tinge of regret – no Bohemian Rhapsody – the song that defined Queen and one that often tops charts as the greatest pop song. The cheering continued -  a great night.........and then, when all seemed over, there flashed up on to the stage screen “Would you like Bohemian Rhapsody?”. Everyone cheered in agreement and the band struck up.......

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality.
Open your eyes,
Look up to the skies and see,
I'm just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,
Because I'm easy come, easy go,
Little high, little low,
Any way the wind blows doesn't really matter to me, to me.......

We all joined in with the cast – everyone enjoying this final reprise.  And then, and then............it happened!

I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?

One of my illegal pics
And at the back of the stage – in silhouette at first - emerged a man – playing the guitar – and making a sound so well known and imprinted on minds that every person in that arena recognised it. The man, long coated, bent low over his guitar was instantly recognisable. But it couldn’t be...... could it?  It looks like him.........it can’t be........it  must be him.........it is! There was a quite audible intake of breath and gasp from the entire audience. Pat and I like thousands of others turned to each other in disbelief. Despite the strict rule about no photography, I like everyone around me, took out my mobile phone and began snapping. I wasn’t going to miss this.

Totally unexpected, not advertised, a fantastically well kept secret – the iconic Queen guitarist Brian May was on the stage in front of us – just a few feet from where we stood. His long coat that became a hall mark of his when he was playing with Queen trailing on the floor as he played his guitar and the music got wilder. In one of the breaks in the music he threw off his coat and played solo – and how the crown loved it. We that we were present at something very special. Never in my wildest dream had I ever thought that Brian May would be present at the show. It might not have been Live Aid – but it was a good substitute!

Nothing really matters,
Anyone can see,

Nothing really matters,

Nothing really matters to me.

Any way the wind blows.

Brian May in full swing

And as the final guitar chords at last drifted away, as the final words to Bohemian Rhapsody disappeared into the night Brian May lay down his guitar and stepped forward. A microphone was thrust into his hand and the cast gathered around him. Suddenly the whole Arena became totally silent as if a switch had been flicked – several thousand people all wanting to hear him! And he explained his presence– after thanking people for coming and congratulating the cast on a wonderful performance. The show was the very first night of the national tour and he felt it right to be there on that opening night. And we all cheered.
The famous long coat (and long hair)!

He could, I suppose, have easily sat unnoticed in one of the many hospitality suites, he could have simply walked on the stage at the end to say a few words – but to come on playing the guitar and making the sounds that millions across the world loved and instantly recognised as his was fantastic and right. It was, in a small way, the sort of outrageous action that Queen and Freddie Mercury made their own in their great days. Mercury had such stage presence and charisma that he could hold hundreds of thousands of people in his hand but I’m sure that if he was looking down on Nottingham Arena that night even he would, I think, have approved and been quietly impressed with his friend May’s action. 
Explaining his presence in Nottingham

Brian May made a lot of people in Nottingham very, very happy – and without any doubt made it a very special treat! It made front page headlines of the local papers and news and for me, this totally unexpected, unplanned almost surreal event will live long in my memory. In the great scheme of things it is no big deal - I expect Brian May has forgotten about it by now - but to a lot of people, myself included, we all felt that we had been present at something a bit special and never to be repeated. Maybe surprises are good after all!!!!!

08 April, 2013

"Recalled to Life........"

I have recently finished re-reading the great Dickens' novel "A Tale of two Cities" - over half a century after I first read it. It is one of the world’s very great tales which I am sure that everyone in the English speaking world must know. But if there is anyone out there who has slipped through the mesh it has one of the very great opening lines which many - including me - can quote at the drop of a hat: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.........." And several hundred pages later the last few words have also gone down in literary (and indeed cultural) history - Sydney Carton's immortal "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."  It is the story of how ordinary people can get swept up in the maelstrom of great events – in the case the French Revolution - how their own lives and personal histories and backgrounds can enmesh them and immerse them in situations they did not plan for or can control - and then years later these things from the past return to haunt or inspire them.

I have thought about this in recent weeks – and, especially, I have thought about the opening chapters of Dicken’s masterpiece – which are headed “Recalled to Life”. It is the phrase that one of the tale’s central characters, Mr Jarvis Lorry, uses to pass on the message that he has “found” a man from the past Dr Mannette who has languished, unheard of for twenty years in the terrifying Paris prison, the Bastille. And my reason for thinking of this? – I have been unearthing people from the past, not my past, but that of my friend Mary. And in doing so I have been on a fascinating, unpredictable, occasionally frustrating but always interesting journey – a journey that would not have been remotely possible without the advent of computer technology. Let me explain!  
Mary with some of the information
that we've discovered

Some weeks ago Mary asked if I would do something for her. Recently widowed, Mary had been looking back over her life and remembering the many wonderful years with her husband – my very dear friend David. Like all of as we get older (at least it’s true of me!) she also looked back to her childhood and teenage years. While thinking of this she remembered the many friends she had then – and the good times they had – this was the early fifties and Mary could remember a  group of young people enjoying roller skating, going to parties, meeting in the amusement arcades of Blackpool and Fleetwood where she grew up. She could also remember a young man of whom she was quite keen – let us call him Brian. Brian often watched Mary play the piano (she was an accomplished pianist) and they were quite close. He was a little older than Mary and went off perhaps to University or maybe to do his National Service – Mary described in detail the last time they met – by “the swan pond” she said. And she didn’t see him again for several years. She herself went off to college, became a teacher, met her future husband, married, moved away from the area and moved on.

It is the stuff of everyday life!

A few years later, however, in the mid sixties Brian visited to her to say that he was going to Queensland, Australia – and that really was the last time she saw him. But then, about fifteen years ago, Mary received a letter via a third party – saying that Brian was in Australia. Understandably (she was happily married) and because of circumstances Mary ignored the letter and forgot about it – until a few weeks ago, when, as she looked back over her life, she felt a tinge of regret that she had never replied to say that she was well and well remembered their friendship a life time ago.

So, Mary has asked me if I can trace this gentleman – and what a story. By using social networking sites, school web sites, going through Australian telephone directories via the internet and a million of other lines of enquiry I at last found a man of the right age, right name, who attended the right school – and knew Mary well. He knew the friends that went around together, including Mary and ticked all the boxes “It’s him”, I thought! It may well be him, but then I also quickly discovered that there was another boy of the same name who went to the same school and who Mary also knew! And this one also fitted the bill – and he remembered well watching Mary play the piano! Sadly, however, he had never been to Australia! And so the thing grew – what started as a quest to find one person has developed – I now have a growing list of Mary’s old friends all with their individual memories and I am trying to sift through these to make sense of it all – it gets more and more complex and interesting! Of course, complicating the whole thing is the fact that these events took place almost a life time ago and memories fade and become jumbled.
Just a few of the pages of mails and responses that the
investigation has so far generated

Each morning I switch on my PC and I can’t wait to see if any more mails have come in to help me untangle this web. Nearly every day I speak with Mary and pass on some other tit bit of new information for her to consider.  Or, I might ask a question that has occurred to me in the middle of the night as I lay pondering our progress and which will undoubtedly muddy the waters further. We’ve had many false leads, many times when the trail has seemed go dead and then re-wakened with  an e-mail from the far side of the world or by simply asking a different question. The whole thing has been quite enthralling – and slowly but surely we are getting there – we have a lot of loose ends, a lot of things that don’t quite add up – yet. But overall we are reconnecting across the years a group of people that Mary spent her teenage years with and one of whom who was very special to her. I often sit staring at my computer screen with my scribbled notes around me thinking this has all the makings of a future Oscar winning film or at least a great romantic novel – where are you Steven Spielberg or Jane Austen!

As I weave through the web of information and listen to Mary’s reminiscences I am reminded of my own youth and the memories that I have – of people that were special to me then. And I wonder what has happened to them, do they remember me as I remember them, has their pathway through life been as trouble free as mine has been (at least up till now), what parts have we all played (if any) in the fabric of society and the nation, do they, like me, sometimes step back and be amazed at all the things that have happened to them and the places they have visited or responsibilities that they have held?

And at the same time I am amazed that because of the wonders of technology I can instantly leap back through the years and across the world, and, for example, find someone who left these shores half a century ago and now lives on the opposite side of the world. I know the town in Queensland that Bill settled in and with the aid of Google have “visited” that town. I have “walked” down the streets and seen the sights that he must see each day as he goes to the shops. And no matter how hard I try I cannot but be slightly humbled and certainly amazed that this quest which is rooted a life time ago  I am now able to play a small part in unravelling.

One of the people to whom I have “spoken” across cyberspace said that “yes” he remembered Mary and that he did see her playing the piano as a teenager – “To be truthful” he said,  "she was so pretty I would have been a most attentive audience if she had been playing the comb and paper or the spoons!!! Please give her my regards and say how good it has been to have such delightful memories recalled so unexpectedly”. I have in front of me now a print off of the school Speech Day Programme from December 1954 which lists Mary and her successes at the end of her school career. It also, of course, lists the successes of all her many peers - all people she knew then and who were important to her. And now, by the wonders of technology they have all been recalled to life! And that is the nub of it – it is about or history and our hopes, fears, aspirations, dreams, emotions and ambitions. When Mary was a teenager - enjoying the friendship of a group of her peers, playing the slot machines, going dancing, going to the roller skating rink, studying for exams, playing the piano while being watched by an admirer and doing all the other things that youngsters of her generation did in the early and mid-fifties – fate was already, it seems, dictating that sixty years later, with the help of modern technology and a few clicks on  a computer button all these people, places, events, hopes, fears and emotions would be, as Dickens’ said,  “recalled to life”. Little did she dream then of what would happen sixty years down the line. Little did I know then that in sixty years time I would be sucked into this quest - trying to contact a group of people that I have never met and do not know - but in doing so getting a glimpse of their lives over the years.  We might never get right to the bottom of everything, we might never find everyone that we want to – but we are enjoying this amazing journey through time and place! And, I have often thought in the past week or two - what would Dickens have made of it all - he could not in his wildest dreams have envisaged the internet and the instant communication with far parts of the world and far people. And what glorious stories he would have woven into the characters as each was "recalled to life"!