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Friday, 27 August 2010

Vanity is a Human Right - does that include the Pope's shoes?

I am always pleased to see people dress well and often tell them so. That does not necessarily mean dressing expensively, but it does of necessity involve letting other people know you care about your appearance. It's not quite the same thing as having a sense of style, but if you have no sense of style, you won't get very far in dressing well.

Whether cheap or expensive, overstated or understated, dresing well means you are going to have to look in the mirror. That's fine by me. Vanity is a human right. It goes hand in hand with maintaining self-respect even when the going gets rough.

But should the Pope agree with me?

The other day I tried to imagine the vehicle which will accompany him on his upcoming tour of Scotland and England and containing his wardrobe. I tried to imagine the roadies who will look after the costumes and wondered if he has a personal hairdresser and make-up artist. And, I suppose, he must have a dresser who serves as the mirror.

And I wondered, How much do his shoes cost?

When I posted that last question on the Guardian website, a Catholic groupie calling herself "Rosary" came to the Pope's defence: she just loved the Pope's "Super Kool" shoes. And the outfits he wears.

The problem for me is this: I thought the Pope was supposed to think vanity a bad thing and modesty a good thing. I thought he was supposed to think poverty a good thing and wealth - and certainly the ostentatious display of wealth - a bad thing.

But his wardrobe is in the same league as those of pop stars and dictators.
His role model could be Elton John.
The only thing missing is a pair of shades.

I haven't even mentioned the jewellery.

I wonder, Can the Pope really be happy with the thought that there are followers out there who get giddy over his shoes - not to mention his hats?

I imagine that if I asked him that question, he would take me aside and, with a smile, say to me, "Have you never heard of showmanship?"

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Claudy Bombing and the Catholic Church

In 1972, three bombs went off, without warning in the Northern Ireland village of Claudy. Nine people died, the youngest eight years old.

It appears that the police suspected - and had evidence for suspecting - that a Roman Catholic priest, Father James Chesney, masterminded the operation, either on his own intitiative or following an IRA decision(the IRA as of today does not accept Claudy as one of its bombings).

The police alerted their superiors, who alerted the Northern Ireland minister in the British government (Willie Whitelaw), who spoke to Cardinal Conway, Roman Catholic primate, who moved Father Chesney across the border into Donegal, where he continued working as a priest until his death in 1980. The police never questioned him.

We have got used to the fact that the Catholic Church moves sex abusers from parish to parish. We understand that the United Kingdom's law enforcement agencies will never move against members of the Catholic hierarchy who have been accessory to covering up for abusing priests.

Now we have to take on board that a UK government - and a Conservative one at that - was happy to see a priest moved on when he probably took the decisions, including handling the explosives, which resulted in nine deaths. Cardinal Conway appears to have had no compunction in co-operating to protect a possible murderer.

I begin to wonder for how long has the Catholic Church been so completely above the law. I suppose the Pope is coming here next month to ensure that things stay that way.

Eccentricities, Habits, Life Style Choices, Comfort Zones

This is autobiography.

There are things about myself which I understand by linking them to early experiences. We took a daily newspaper when I was a child and I am pretty sure that among the earliest newspaper headlines I read were those which catalogued Comet air crashes. There were lots of them in the early 1950s. In my child's mind, aircraft became things which crashed. I doubt that my mother did anything to disabuse me; she was full of anxieties and would simply have refused to fly if the opportunity had presented itself. It never did.

So I am not that surprised that for most of my life, flying has been a source of anxiety and, for many years, something which was simply impossible. I flew once in 1967 or 1968 (in a Comet)on a very short haul; I did not fly again until about 1995. Then I flew intensively for a few years, most of it with Ryanair and easyjet on short hauls. I even began to make day trips and I flew in BAs small turbo props, which are surely not for the faint hearted. I ventured as far as Israel, Ukraine, Armenia. I have never flown across the Atlantic.

After several years in which I lost my anxieties, a couple of bad trips put me off. A very bumpy, crowded flight to Dublin; a flight back in a storm from Munich with a loud bang which the person in the next seat told me was lightning striking the plane. I did make a point of flying again soon after that, but then I did not get on a plane for four or five years; I started again in 2009 but made just two trips.

There are other things about myself which I cannot link in an obvious way to things in my past and which I do not really understand.

I live a very silent life. I work at home but almost never play music while I am working. I never, ever listen to the radio. I have a new and fancy home cinema system and in the evenings I watch dvds. But the system has no aerial and is not tuned in to receive TV programmes. I never watch TV and do not have a TV licence. In the past five years, I have watched a handful of programmes: during the UKs recent election, I went to my daughter's to watch one of the Leaders' Debates. Before that, I can't remember what I last watched. Certainly very little after 9/11, which I did watch all day.

My car is equipped with a sophisticated sound system (I bought the car second-hand) but I never play CDs or listen to radio, even on very long journeys across Europe.

I have a landline phone for broadband connection. The phone itself is switched permanently to silent; I don't answer it. If someone rings me on my mobile with Number Witheld, I don't answer it. Most of the time I use text messages and emails to communicate with family, friends and clients. I love sms and email.

So what is this? Is this silent world an eccentricity? A habit which I don't challenge enough? A life style choice, screening out a cacophony of media babble? Or simply my comfort zone, outside which lies anxiety? And, for the purposes of this piece of reflection, why?

That is the question to which I don't have a clear answer. I know that one of my motives for switching my landline phone to silent was my irritation with timewaster calls. Now I listen to the messages but I don't always return the call. The same motive may explain why I don't listen to radio or watch TV: I am too easily irritated by them. Bu that doesn't explain why I listen to so little music when I belong to a generation - and I was part of it - which grew up on rock and roll. So it's not just about irritation.

I am comfortable with my choices, except to the extent that I recognise that they are eccentric. There's the rub: a life style choice which marks me as a bit odd.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Alan Milburn: Social Mobility Tsar

Alan Milburn, the Mr Nasty of New Labour, has accepted the job of Social Mobility Tsar, advising the UKs Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government.

If you don't believe in Social Mobility you probably believe in Tsars of one kind or another. The last real one was Nicholas II of Russia which makes me think that Alan Milburn is supposed to act as Social Mobility's Mr Stupid.

The inhabitants of the United Kingdom, subjects of the Queen etc, are not very keen on social mobility. They simply don't believe that the top jobs should be open to all. The vast majority are in favour of a hereditary monarchy even it means Charles III. They believe that ordinary people should be allowed to get rich, but they aren't particularly keen on the idea that ordinary people like themselves should be in charge of anything important, like the country. They prefer to put their trust in those who come from good homes and good schools: David Cameron and Nick Clegg, for example. Connections to the hereditary aristocracy and that other well-known Tsar, the Christian God, are added feel-good factors.

This is a big part of Mr Stupid's problem. Then there is the other part:

In the first half of the 20th century the biggest driver of social mobility was the Second World War. Churchill's government realised that the war would be lost unless careers were opened to talents. As a result, men and women from modest backgrounds rose through the ranks, military and civilian, on the basis of intelligence and bravery. Some of them ended up in very senior roles indeed. Now they are are nearly all dead.

The main driver of social mobility after 1945 has been abolished. Crude and sometimes cruel as they were, the 11+ and (free) grammar schools plucked people like me out of their class of origin and propelled them upwards towards training and careers their parents did not even know existed.

My parents left school without qualifications. My father rose from being a delivery boy pedalling a bike to become a self-employed shopkeeper with two lock-up shops. My mother never worked at a higher level than general shop assistant.

I ended up with three academic degrees, including a doctorate, and rose to a senior teaching post (Reader) in a half-way decent university (Sussex). I am not so sure it would have happened had I not been put in a grammar school environment. Our governments seem to have the same feeling since in the past two decades they have repeatedly tried to create schools which are not bog-standard comprhensives.

Unfortunately, they have chosen to do this making great use of God and school uniform. I put it forward as a general Law, that making children do God is a way of trying to keep them in their place. God and social mobility don't go together. Ditto school uniform, though we had it in my boys' grammar school and subverted it at every moment that we could. As a general rule, school uniform is there to promote conformity.

Social mobility is about allowing people to rise through the ranks even though they hold their knife and fork wrong, have a different accent, and don't give a toss about God and the Queen. I don't think this is something our coalition government has in mind.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Crown Dependencies: time for the Treasury to take an interest

The United Kingdom government has got its work cut out to balance its books, not only to scale back the annual budget deficit but also to reduce all the "off balance sheet" debt accumulated and hidden under Gordon Brown's reign at the Treasury and Downing Street: 13 profligate years in all.

The Liberal Democrats are in government on the basis that they will push for "fairness" in where taxes are raised and services curtailed. In that case,they - and Parliament - should take more of an interest in the "Crown Dependencies", the feudal relics of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

Go on the Internet and you will find extraordinary amounts of overpaid legal faffing about these strange backyards. The simple truth is this: United Kingdom governments quietly license these local offshore territories to act as tax havens for rich people, many of whom would otherwise be UK taxpayers or more of UK taxpayers than they presently are. Live in the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man and you don't have a vote to send an MP to Westminster - and as the quid pro quo, you don't pay UK taxes. It's a no brainer. Taxes are lower or non existent in the Crown Dependencies; who cares about having an MP? And they are near enough to allow you to commute back and forth without hindrance to your office in London.

It's almost as simple as that. And the solution is almost as simple: Parliament should offer these offshore tax havens either the choice of complete independence from the UK - which would cost them, since at present we do a lot of the leg work to keep them in business - or incorporation into the UK and its tax system, in exchange for which they get to send their MPs to Westminster.

I am being generous really. On another day, I might say: just incorporate them. That's what any country really committed to fairness would do.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Simple, Complicated and Elaborated Relationships

People talk about relationships as simple or complicated.

Boy meets Girl (or vice versa) - they fall in love - they get married and live happily ever after. Simple enough, except that it rarely happens.

Boy meets Girl (or vice versa) - he is still involved with his ex. - but she decides to give it a go anyway - they argue - it becomes a habit which lasts even when he is no longer involved with his ex - she starts seeing someone because they are arguing ... This can get complicated.

These ways of talking tend to suggest that relationships, and the kind of relationships they are, are things which happen to people rather than things they make. It's true that people are told they need to "work at" their relationships, but they are only told this when the relationships seem to be going wrong. It is the stuff of parental advice and marital counselling: Try harder!

A different starting point would look on all relationships as things we make. Nothing just happens. Relationships are things of which we are capable, not things to which we are liable. (Author! Author! In this case, Rom Harré.)

Serious-minded people will make serious relationships and playful people will make playful relationships. Either way, they are working at their relationship from the very outset, in good times and bad.

Relationships work better when people understand that they need to be continuously made and re-made, as circumstances and the participants change. Habit is the background of everything we do, but habit cannot substitute for invention and re-invention.

We often describe relationships which last as "deep", but I would prefer to call them "elaborated". A great deal of detail has been filled in. There are the habits which form the background, but then there are the traditions, the rituals, the shared understandings - including sexual understandings - the attachments and affections, the trust, the humour, the projects and plans.

So a relationship is something people are always making. If they are lucky, they will be pleased with what they are creating and carry on, happy in what they are doing. If they are unlucky, one of them at least will conclude that it's time to tear up the paper and start over again. Either way, you don't rest on your laurels "till death us do part"