'It was awful. He was sat watching the voting in parliament, then his face went all red and he shouted something about spitfires and the White Cliffs of Dover, and then he just burst into flames. The Parker Knoll's ruined'.
Wednesday, March 13, 2019
Monday, March 11, 2019
I first read Living in Truth, a book of essays by and about Václav Havel that was published just after the Velvet Revolution which brought him to power as the President of post-Communist Czechoslovakia in early 1990. Havel was a fascinating figure. A playwright who lived most of his life in Prague, he became a well-known dissident during the darkest days of repression after the short-lived Prague Spring of 1968. He was imprisoned by the Soviet-backed puppet regime led by Gustáv Husák (to whom Havel – cheekily – addresses the essay that was to become the first chapter of Living in Truth, about the long-perceived shortcomings of the regime). Later, Havel become the leading voice of the Czech human rights group Civic Forum – for which he would incur yet more official disapproval – but which would propel him on to a much wider stage as a leading advocate for reform. Havel believed, at the time Living in Truth was published in 1985, that the totalitarian regimes of the former Soviet satellite states – along with that of the Soviet Union itself – had effectively run of out steam, and he, along with millions of others, were living in a ‘post-totalitarian’ period, when people would start to ‘live in truth’ again. What he didn’t foresee, however, was that the end was to come a lot sooner than he believed when he started writing. Barely four years after the essays were written, Havel found himself propelled from dissident and former prisoner to the highest office in the land, and all without a shot fired in anger. It’s the second chapter, ‘power of the powerless’ that I remember best, largely because of the story of the greengrocer. In this chapter, Havel describes the actions of the manager of a fruit and vegetable shop, who – along with many other sales outlets at the time – was expected to display signs extolling the virtues of Maxist-Leninism with their wares. In Havel’s version, the manager has to display signs, with slogans such as Karl Marx’s rallying cry of ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ or ‘socialism is the light of a child’s smile’, in amongst ‘the onions and carrots’ so that they blend with the everyday. Failure to do so, Havel goes on, could lead to the manager being officially reproached for not having the proper, approved window decoration – a failure that will be noted and could be held against him at a later date. But Havel then explains that the signs are ignored, they have no meaning, no-one – probably the manager least of all – actually believes them anymore. They are merely going through the motions of putting them in shop windows, and shoppers pay no attention to them whatsoever. The command to display them is part of the hollow rhetoric of a repressive, out of touch, and increasingly hated power structure. I can’t remember my first response to the story, perhaps I thought it was just one more stupid manifestation of totalitarianism; mind control of the masses, but something that showed that such control was essentially futile. I certainly would have felt that it would never happen in the ‘West’. Yet the story of the sign was not destined to stay among the onions and carrots in my mind. Fast forward 30 years and the otiose signage of totalitarian eastern Europe has now spread like onion blight and carrot fly throughout privatised industries and global economies. Equally pointless exhortations are laid before us in the name of professional development and human resource management (a phrase in itself redolent of repressive power control). We are now required to display the thinking of ‘owning’ our work, or to take team building and commitment to banal –even at times farcical – extremes. We might ignore messages like ‘team work makes the dream work’, but failure to display means we’re not accepting of our place in the hierarchy; a crime to be recorded and for which expiation will be demanded at the next appraisal, or kept on file for future reference, or even references. The ‘power’ of the powerless that Havel uses in the title is the essential power of dissent: the right to be able to say that the emperor is, in fact, stark bollock naked, without fear of repression or harm. That is what is necessary for a return to sanity in public and political life. The rise of populism, along with the derision heaped on empirical evidence, exemplified by Michael Gove’s ‘having enough of experts’ will have to be countered at some point. The alt-right and right wing elected politicians will have to be faced with the reality of their ill-thought through utterances. Not even President Trump can evade responsibility for the duplicity and danger created by double-speak, distortion and populist excess tub thumping. For there will come a time when ‘great’ will become ‘grate’ in his favourite red baseball cap slogan. And when that reckoning comes it will owe much to Havel’s belief that extremism can be defeated by the truth that has to be lived by each and everyone who has been damaged or denied by the politics of division and empty rhetoric. I recently saw an ID lanyard around an employee’s neck which carried the slogan: ‘I never settle for good enough’. Never, really? Not even when you’re running late and the kids need collecting from after school club, or when you’ve arrived at work angry and upset after a row with your partner? It insults the intelligence of the wearer and anyone who reads it. Instead of giving credence to the slogan, my thought was that this person’s thought processes have been commandeered by their bosses, an insult to her intelligence and the collective wit and understanding of herself and her work colleagues. Milan Šimečka, Slovak Philosopher and friend of Havel’s, described this form of propaganda as ‘the big insult’, which he defined as ‘a situation where intelligent people have to listen to bunkum and talk bunk, fully aware that it is bunk, because otherwise they would only have themselves to blame for the consequences’.
Wednesday, February 13, 2019
Two suggestions to help the government fill those vacancies Ban zero-hours contracts - the bane of the sector for anyone with a family, rent or mortgage to pay or even a half-decent life to live. Pay at least £10 per hour - Again, how can care workers afford to live? Currently, by denying both, the government and employers are expecting the workforce to pay the price for their failure to understand or acknowledge the basics of 'supply and demand'. By doing so, they're denying care workers a decent reward for their very worthwhile labours and ensuring the NHS will continue to shoulder the burden for their misconceived policies. And they could also start to realise that families can no longer be expected to pay for spiralling social care costs - much of which end up being paid out in dividends to private sector providers' shareholders.
Thursday, January 31, 2019
Just received a copy of Diana Athill's Stet, from the excellent Better World Books. I see from the stamp on the top that it came from the Houston Public Library Service. Can't help wondering if they have a depository that also overlooks a grassy knoll, like the more infamous institution in Dallas. My dad once made a worrying admission about the events of November 1963. We were watching TV together, when a voice declaimed 'everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news of Kennedy's assassination', to which dad - whose memory was never good at the best of times - replied that he didn't. I half expected the Green Berets or CIA to come bursting through the living room door...
Saturday, January 05, 2019
I was enduring yet another competency-based interview recently when a thought came to me. Although these things are intended to show a potential employer how an applicant fulfils a job spec, in reality they are deeply biased against older applicants. To illustrate this, picture Candidates A and B: A has four years recent and relevant experience in the position they're applying for. Candidate B, however, has a working life extending back 40 years, with a wide range of experience culled from working in a range of different industries or workplaces. An interview panel member asks both: 'could you tell me a time when you flange wangled a spurrfler successfully?'. Candidate A did this for the second time only last week and gives a faultless answer. Candidate B, however, has flange wangled for decades but can't immediately remember a specific spurrfler related episode; she could well be able do it in her sleep, but this time-limited interview scenario doesn't operate in her favour, and she comes across as a flange wangling ignoramus. It's only on leaving the interview that a classic spurrfler wangle from 2002 floods back into her memory, but by then it is too late, and Candidate B is well on the way to receiving a generic bum's rush rejection, along the lines of '... strong field, impressive qualifications... unfortunately...' and so joins the scrap heap. I wonder if the HR gurus who come up with this torture ever have to face competency-based interview questions along the lines of 'can you describe a time when you successfully screwed over the career prospect of older job applicants and would you like to tell us about it?'
Saturday, December 08, 2018
My reading of Ben Aaronovitch's latest Rivers of London title, Lies Sleeping coincided with a walk around Granary Wharf and the Dark Arches in Leeds last week. Watching a full and turbulent river Aire following its man-made course underneath the city's railway station, I wondered if rivers really do have spirits or deities of their own - and if so, how the Aire feels about the latest interruption to its flow. After all, the Aire's seen monks washing fleeces in its waters, powered textile mills, used its strength to forge iron - even make putty. And springs along its course have brewed beer in Kirkstall, the city centre and Woodlesford. Since 1816 it has been forced to share its valley with the Leeds Liverpool Canal. But the canal, with its stagnant, managed portions of water, that can only move through locks under human control, is not free like the Aire, whose unbridled rush and flow of water makes it a living thing, such that no-one can enter the same river twice. The Aire moves to its own rhythm and varigates its own depths. Even when forced underground, it has a raw power and strength. The city's life now travels over or around the river that even once gave landlocked Leeds a dock. In our sterile modern world where the only flow worth having is data, the Aire's spirit needs to connect again with the city it bisects.
Monday, November 26, 2018
I turned right at the end of an aisle in our local Sainsbury's yesterday to see my wife's unmistakable blue coat. It seemed odd that she was looking at passata; indeed, I breezed up to her, observing that: 'we don't need any of that, there's loads at home'. Unfortunately, I then looked down the row, to see my wife, resplendent in her dark turquoise parka and a yellow hat, staring back at me. The blue-coated imposter took it all rather in her stride, and asked me who I was looking for. Which was rather better than asking who was looking after me. We left the store soon after. I think it will be a while before I go back...