24 February, 2015

You Can Lose Anything - and maybe we have.

Just as I imagined Dick all those years ago
In a few weeks time I will reach my “three score years and ten” – my 70th birthday. We are planning a small family and friends get together to celebrate – if that be the right word – the event and with this in mind I have recently found myself  looking back over my life. So many things in the world have changed – some for better, some not so good. Of three things, however, I am absolutely, certain: overall there never was a golden age when everything and everybody were good and virtuous. Secondly, and having said that (and despite the many moans and groans that we all have)  the world is undoubtedly a better place than it ever has been. And thirdly, although the world is a better place it is also a more complicated world than the one that I was born into as the Second World War came to an end. It is a complex world full opportunity but also of pitfalls.
And there's Dan Dare with the evil Mekon

As I have pondered my coming birthday I reflected on one of my earliest memories. I would have been about seven at the time and a set of initials flashed across my mind as I remembered - “UCLA”.  My mind went back to this much simpler time long before the internet, social media, online and WiFi were ever imagined. UCLA in my childhood – the late 40s and early 50s - stood for United Co-operative Laundries Association  except to my eyes as a 6 or 7 year old it didn’t. Instead it stood, I believed, for “You (U) Can Lose Anything”!  Let me explain. The little terraced house that I grew up in had no hot water, no bathroom, no central heating just one coal fireplace in the front room, no modern labour saving machines. It was two downstairs rooms, two bedrooms and an outside lavatory. There was only one sink - in the kitchen - and one cold tap. Life was not easy. In the kitchen was a clothes rack suspended from the ceiling. You could raise and lower the rack by a rope. Damp washing constantly hung there drying by the heat of the oven as tea was cooked. We were not well off and it must have been incredibly difficult and soul destroying trying to keep the house clean and clothes washed in such a situation. My mother seemed always to be washing clothes in the kitchen sink, these would be squeezed in the mangle, which was kept in the tiny back yard, and then, if the weather was good, hung on the washing. Winter rain meant that they more often than not were hung in front of the fire and eventuality put on the kitchen rack. We were not well off but my mother obviously decided that it was simply too difficult to wash and dry sheets in this situation so every fortnight she would send the bed sheets to the laundry – the UCLA. The laundry man – I can picture and hear him now, his fair hair smoothed down with Brylcream and a leather money bag slung around his neck  – would collect the sheets, all parcelled up in brown paper, on Monday night at about 7 o’clock. At the same time he would return the freshly laundered sheets ready to go on the beds. You could set the time of his arrival – always about three or four minutes to seven – just as my mother and I listened to “Dick Barton, Special Agent” on the radio. The programme was, I think, on two or three nights a week – a fifteen minute slot 6.45 – 7.00 pm. In later years it was “Dan Dare”- Pilot of the Future” – that grabbed my interest – but both series were the same; Dick Barton ensured the streets were safe from the bad guys and Dan Dare and his pal Digby each week saved the world from the evil intentions of the Mekon and his fellow aliens.
Early evening listening from the 1950s

Each week the UCLA man would come into our little front room and, as he collected the laundry, laughingly tell me (as the Dick Barton tale came to its climax and Dick was in some precarious life or death situation) that this time my hero  was dead for sure – the baddies would get him there would be no more episodes after tonight! I soon realised that this was all a bit of fun and that Dick Barton and his friends Jock and Snowy would always get out of the danger they were in and get their man but each week I looked forward to laughing with the laundry man and telling him how wrong he was. One week, I remember, I asked him a question:“What does UCLA mean”? – it was printed on the label put on the parcel and on the little book in which he recorded what he had collected and returned as my mother paid the few pennies for her laundry being done.  Quick as a flash he replied: “It stands for “You Can Lose Anything” . At first I believed him – I was after all only about seven - but then I could see that both he and my mother were grinning and I knew that something was wrong – I had been fooled! For weeks they led me on – I knowing that they were joking but unsure how or what the letters could mean – after all, to my young mind, it made sense, You Can Lose Anything might very well apply to a laundry were you send your clothes and then they get lost!
The UCLA in Manchester - presumably where mother's
sheets went each fortnight

I mention this long past tale as some sort of illustration of how much simpler and unassuming life was in bygone days and, now, looking back, how naive we all now seemed. And as I thought about that little piece of my past and the meaning of UCLA I reflected on another abbreviation that has been much in the news in recent days - HSBC. In the last week or two the media has been filled with exposés and speculation about the mighty HSBC banking group and the Swiss arm of that organisation with its secret accounts, alleged tax avoidance strategies   and tales of the great, good and not so good who secrete their wealth there or maybe even used the bank’s dubious systems to launder illegally obtained money. It is a most unseemly tale of dubious practice, greed and dishonesty that goes right to the very top of the banking and "establishment" tree. Indeed even the CEO of HSBC, Stuart Gulliver, was using these Swiss accounts  to secrete away millions of pounds of his own money to allegedly avoid tax – so not only was he in charge of a global banking empire that stands accused of shady, possibly illegal practices he was also allegedly using it to line his own pockets. Mr Gulliver, of course, denies any wrong doing and says everything he did was above board, but at the same time he offers his “sincerest apologies” and goes on to say:  “I would say that a number of us, myself included, think that the practices at the Swiss private bank in the past are a source of shame and reputational damage to HSBC”.  I’m sure that Mr Gulliver would disagree with me here but from where I stand there seems to be mixed messages coming out! In Shakespeare’s words (almost!) I  fear that the gentleman doth protest too much. In short Mr Gulliver was caught with his trousers down!
HSBC -  a greasy plateful - maybe not what the Hong Kong
and Shanghai Banking Corporation had in mind - but what they
eventually got when computers spilled the beans!

As I have followed the story my mind wondered back about 20 years to a school playground. At that time I had child in my class whose parent worked in the accounts department at the Midland Bank here in the UK. The Midland Bank was a long established and well thought of bank but in the get rich quick, deregulated and global world market place unleashed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the late 80s, the Midland was swallowed up as part of HSBC – the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. The child excitedly told me one day as we walked around the playground together that his dad now had a new job at HSBC. “Do you know what HSBC stands for, Mr Beale?”  the ten year old asked me. I didn’t and with a smile he said “Ham Sausage and Bacon Cob – my dad told me”. We laughed but a few weeks later when I met dad at a parents’ evening I commented on dad’s new employment. Dad frowned – “I’ve handed in my notice”  he said, “I have a new job to go to. The bank has been taken over by a bunch of cowboys, anything goes now – wouldn’t even buy a ham sandwich from them!”  HSBC – “Ham Sausage and Bacon Cob” – maybe the writing was already on the wall twenty plus years ago.
The dubious Swiss office of HSBC - they claim that the sheer
complexity of the modern banking world is a factor in the
problems at HSBC. Sounds like a lame excuse to me! Would
Dick Barton have accepted that plea from some villain - "Sorry
 Guv. it was all so complicated that I didn't know what I was
doing when I stashed away all those illegal millions! 

In this more complicated world in which we live, far removed from the world into which I was born, it might be argued that there has been an apparent demise of what I will loosely call “the old standards”. If there has I am not sure that it is due to any great deterioration of behaviour, outlook, morals or thinking on the part of mankind but rather a reflection of the fast changing and uncertain word in which we live. Look back at old films and read old newspaper reports and we seemed so innocent in years gone by with many more (at least on the surface) “certainties” . In bygone years people knew their place, accepted things at face value much more readily than today, we largely had “jobs for life” and took pleasure in more simple things – for these were all that were available. I vividly remember as a child going, on a summer weekend evening, with my mother and dad down to the end of the main road near where we lived and sitting on the bench there – simply watching the traffic going past. Of course, as a ten year old I found it boring but it never occurred to me that it was unusual – people did things like that in that not too distant past; my parents didn’t have the money to go out for meals or to own a car of their own, TV was in its infancy – so this was an acceptable  pastime. But today is different; the world is filled with distractions and allurements – and, yes, temptations. I have absolutely no doubt that if a modern day time machine could suddenly transport someone from, say, the year of my birth 1945 to the present day then he or she would make very similar decisions and mistakes to those that we today make. People of the past were not, I believe, inherently more virtuous – they simply didn’t have the opportunity to access the sorts of situations that appertain today. When the laundry man called at our house in the early 1950s my mother paid him in real money, he would call each week, a relationship of trust and expectation was part of the arrangement. Today, we need never meet another person in order to live our lives: I can order all my shopping with the click of a computer mouse, pay all my bills in the same way, exist almost entirely without having to handle a single coin of my salary or pension for it is all done digitally and by plastic card. I can transfer amounts of money from one bank account into another, without ever seeing that money and without visiting the bank. And at a global level companies like HSBC can manipulate huge amounts of money that can affect the smooth running of the world’s commerce and society (as in the financial crash of 2008) again at the click of a computer mouse.
Where have all the people gone who used to talk, smile,
 explain, sympathise,understand, assist - now we relate to 
binary code? Are we in danger of losing our very humanity?

Against this background today is a minefield of temptation and opportunity where much of the human aspects of society and commerce has been removed in favour of digital connections and binary code. For every great virtue of the wonders of the internet there are many, many down sides.  I would not like to be growing up in today’s world with its mixed messages, its uncertainties, its rush and push and its breath taking capacity for rapid change where mere humans, it increasingly seems to me, are swept along in a torrent of 24 hour news, internet, fast food and fast living. But despite the problems and anxieties it is a society and a whirlwind ride that we ignore at our peril - we might not like it but we have to be part of it. As the world becomes increasingly computer dependent those without access to this digital world – either through choice or circumstance – are increasingly denied its benefits, be they senior citizens who might not be able to access the best deal on their insurance or their energy bill, be they young working families for whom ordering the week’s groceries on line would be an immeasurable help or be they young people increasingly being denied the access to the vast wealth of knowledge and skills that are there at the click of a mouse.  Pat and I have just returned from a couple of weeks in the Canary Islands – we booked online, printed out tickets and boarding cards online,  booked our airport car parking online, selected our seats on line – and all at discounted prices because we were online. And when we got to the hotel, we commented that each night as we sat in the hotel bar everyone was reading their ebooks or using their tablet computers and the like. WiFi is no longer an optional extra but an essential part of human life – and those without access or desire will without doubt be increasingly disenfranchised. And we all now accept that within a few months or certainly years things will have changed again as technology takes us somewhere else and provided new opportunities - Apple or Samsung or Microsoft will have brought out some new gadget or system that will mean that what we do and how we live today will suddenly look very old hat.Within this fast moving and uncertain chaos people are tossed around like flotsam and jetsam clinging to whatever small certainties they can find for it is for certain, one can’t stand still. To do so is to be an ostrich burying its head in the sand – and as the world crashes ever onwards those who won’t or can’t run with the herd will increasingly fall behind and be increasingly disadvantaged.

Mmmm! The pitfalls of the modern world. Computers hide
misdoings with a click on the mouse but boy, when they give
 up their secrets everyone runs for cover - their misdoings
exposed for all to see. 
Despite the pace and frenetic way of modern life; despite the stranglehold that the internet and its spin offs have on us I am firmly of the belief that the world  is a better place.  We are, by most standards, generally better off, better educated, better housed, more tolerant, we live longer, we are healthier....... and so it goes on. But in this anonymous, fast moving and uncertain environment where the old wisdoms and standards are increasingly under threat, where more and more people gain their social interaction not through a real person calling to collect the weekly washing or by a visit to the corner shop but via SKYPE or Twitter or Facebook, where mankind as an individual is increasingly subservient to the digital and global onslaught of big business, social media, the prying eyes and ears of the internet and all the temptations that these bring maybe we are facing our biggest challenge – the safeguarding of mankind’s essential and basic humanity. For in our increasingly anonymous world where we communicate with cash machines, enter car parks not via a smartly dressed attendant but by number plate recognition or fulfil our every desire not by discussing the merits and costs of a product with a helpful shopkeeper but by clicking the ‘Buy Now’ button on Amazon we are perhaps losing the very relationships, systems, checks and balances that ensure that we develop basic human characteristics: empathy, tolerance, nuance and yes, wisdom.  Perhaps the challenge for the future – long after I have gone – is that hinted at by  Robert Pogue Harrison, professor of Literature at Stanford University when he recently commented: “Our world has become as rich in genius.....in the proliferation of techno-scientific  innovation – as it is poor in wisdom.”  Harrison’ s comments rightly identify a world which is a long way from the simple, human  and naive world of  UCLA – “You Can lose Anything” or indeed from the fast buck, deregulated bonanza of Reagan and Thatcher which spawned the get rich quick, me, me, me era of 1980s and 90s; the world that allowed HSBC: the “Ham Sausage and Bacon Cob”  company to develop its shady systems.  Preserving and developing a wisdom for this modern world is probably the most pressing need facing mankind; it  might just be the biggest challenge mankind has ever had to face