6 Miles

It may not seem much, but I was inordinately pleased with myself for cycling six miles yesterday. It was a lovely ride out of Loughborough to the North-East along mainly country roads, though coming back into town on the A60 was less fun as it’s a single-carriageway road with lots of traffic. I’ve never been a competitive person; if I ever try to compete I always lose, not necessarily because I’m bad at whatever it is, but because my heart isn’t in it. I don’t see the point of winning for its own sake because in the end, what does it really mean? It means you were better at that particular activity on that particular day against those particular competitors and in those prevailing conditions. I don’t wish to dismiss the achievements of anyone (and if by any chance Andy Murray should win Wimbledon I’ll have a completely different take on this) but winning per se has never appealed to me. Overcoming odds, surmounting obstacles, beating your own shortcomings – yes, I can see the point of that, but competing with others seems largely meaningless. Suppose I’d been in a competition yesterday with someone to see who could cycle the furthest; what would it mean if I beat them or if they beat me? Would it mean one of us was ‘better’ than the other? No. Yesterday I was feeling very tired; hence the six miles was for me a great achievement – but someone else might not be so tired, so they’d do it easily and go on to do double that distance. Comparisons, in short, are odious, and whilst sport is undoubtedly good for the soul, too much emphasis on winning emphatically is not.

Lecture over. I was going to write about something else entirely today, and now I’ve forgotten what it was. Oh yes, books. Under the radar there’s a significant ‘trade’ in swapping books for free. Shops have shelves of them outdoors; villages have old phone boxes full of them, churches and town halls have them and friends have them. Lately I’ve been swapping books with a friend, who has lent me Shuggie Bain (which I hated) and The Shadow King (which I mostly enjoyed); and recently, Amsterdam, another Booker Prize winner (from 1998) by Ian McEwan. I have no strong opinions about Ian McEwan so I approached this with an open mind and found it – well, not bad but somewhat underwhelming. The title refers to the practice of legal euthanasia available in that city (for a price) and a feud between two friends, one a newspaper editor and another a composer, who make an agreement following the painful death of a mutual friend to each take the other to Amsterdam to end their life, should they be terminally ill. None of the characters are particularly agreeable; the newspaper editor is trying, Murdoch-style, to make a respectable broadsheet profitable by publishing the ‘scandal’ – already outdated – of a cabinet minister’s crossdressing. But the tide of opinion is against him and he loses his job. Meanwhile the composer, trying desperately to finish his symphony before a concert in Amsterdam, goes away to the Lakes to clear his head. He’s just getting an amazing idea when he sees a woman in an altercation with a man, but instead of intervening he carries on composing in his head and rushes back to get it down on paper. He is justly punished for this act of selfishness; not only does the man turn out to be the Lakeland Rapist but the crowning theme of his concerto turns out to be a cheap rip-off of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Both friends meet in Amsterdam, their careers over, each with the intention of bumping the other off. I’ll let you guess the outcome.

I found Amsterdam entertaining but for 1998 quite dated. It was a very male world – all the women referred to as ‘girls’ and defined by their appearance – in fact it could just as well have been written in the ’60’s. It’s also quite a slight book – only 150 pages – and lacks either depth or breadth. Still, it’s a load more fun than Shuggie Bain – but then again, so are most things. Including Dostoevsky.

Happy Tuesday. We’ve got some better weather here – hurray!

Kirk out

Shorthand and (Stereo)typing

In the old days everything was simple.  Your social status was immediately obvious because your clothes, your accent, your demeanour, everything about you – all spoke of your position in society.  Though there was some level of social mobility, it would have been almost impossible to ‘pass’ as someone of a different social class, else there would have been no ‘Pygmalion’  – and even no ‘Educating Rita.’



The advantage of this (if you want to see it so) was that it operated as a kind of shorthand.  You could tell at a glance who someone was and how you should treat them.  They could tell at a glance how to behave towards you; whether with deference or brusqueness, whether to give an order or hail you as a fellow.  It made life easier and more straightforward.  It also made it terrible.  It put people in strait-jackets; it consigned individuals to oblivion or slavery before they were born.

Even when I was growing up in the ‘sixties, three distinct social classes were still in operation.  It would not have been remotely funny for two Ronnies Corbett and one John Cleese to do the famous ‘I look up to him/I look down on him’ sketch if it had not expressed a visible truth.  (Women didn’t even figure in this scenario because they derived their social status from the men in their lives; any unmarried working women were either definitely working-class or else practically classless.)

But now we have thrown all this out in the name of equality.  I’m more than thankful for that, don’t get me wrong: the class system perpetuates privilege and injustice and ought to be abolished (insofar as it actually has been.)  But there’s a problem.  Because now that we have no shorthand telling us how to treat people, some of us are resorting to typing.  Stereotyping, that is.*  If you rely on appearances to judge the person in front of you, that’s called prejudice.  We seem as a society to be particularly bad at taking people as we find them.  We seem to need a kind of shorthand to help us with short-term encounters or first meetings.

*see what I did there?

Nowadays men know that they shouldn’t patronise women; white people are better-informed about how to treat ethnic minorities and I hope we are all much better at talking to people with disabilities.  This is not to say that prejudice doesn’t exist; of course it does, but we’re more clued up about it.  We have strategies – and in some contexts, laws – to deal with it.

The problem is that the progress towards equality has taken place – in this country at least – within the context of individualistic captalism.  We may all be equal, but we are all in competition with each other.  We live in a ‘me too!’ society where everyone wants to be at the top; and we deal with this by means of competitions.  Everything’s a competition now – just look at the TV schedules.

There must be a better way to do this.  I just don’t know what it is yet.

Kirk out

PS  Oh, and while I’m mentioning ‘Educating Rita’ I must recall a brief sojourn into the limelight by a friend.  He phoned into Dermot o’Leary’s show on radio 2 to protest at the amount of rap music he played, and was invited to come on the programme and choose one word to describe a song they had just played.  Words such as ‘bilge’, ‘offal’ and ‘dross’ received an outing: the item was called ‘Educating Peter’.






Thatcher Review No. 2 – The Economic Legacy

OK let’s start by trying to be fair: the world in 1979 was not a perfect place.  Inflation was high and looked uncontrollable – and it has to be admitted that there were abuses of power by some unions.  Here, just to prove they too were fair-minded, is another clip from Not the Nine o’clock News:


This is the best I can find, though it just seems to have stills instead of video, but the dialogue is there, including my favourite line: ‘Brother Jameson became subject to involuntary immobilisation…’

It has to be acknowledged that the unions did not play a clever game against Thatcher; they didn’t see the writing on the wall at all.  Still, hindsight is 20/20 and all that – and now the unions have been emasculated so far beyond the dreams of Thatcher that to see them in action is quite embarrassing.

I guess the whole thing can be boiled down to three main points: monetarism, global capitalism and ‘there’s no such thing as society’.

Monetarism was a philosophy espoused by Milton Friedman (not Milton Keynes, LOL) which centred on keeping down inflation by restricting the money supply.


This led to a rise in unemployment which her government considered ‘a price worth paying’.  That’s easy to say when you are not the one paying it: it might have been forgivable – just – had not her government subsequently done what all governments do, and blamed the unemployed for their condition, the condition which her policies had caused.  It’s no wonder she engendered such fury: no wonder that at times Neil Kinnock, standing opposite her in the despatch-box, could barely keep his temper and on occasion lost it.  It was her complete lack of compassion towards those who were suffering as a result of her policies; the total hypocrisy in telling people as she frequently did about how her father ‘got on his bike and looked for work’, that caused so many to loathe her.  Had she been honest and said, ‘Look, we need to get inflation down and as part of that, some people are going to lose their jobs.  We’re really sorry about this but bear with us and we’ll get back on track as soon as we can.  In the meantime, do your best and we’ll support you as much as we can.’

But no such thing happened.  I can testify from my own experience how awful it is not only to suffer unemployment in spite of strenuous efforts to find a job, but to be blamed for it as well.  These wounds have not gone away, as we can see from the reaction to her death.

The consequences of her policies are still felt today.  I won’t enumerate them all as that would be tedious; suffice it to say that a cat was let out of the bag: and that cat was global capitalism.  I guess it could be argued that global capitalism was on the rise anyway, but even if that’s true we didn’t have to open the door and welcome it in.  And I think the most significant change since 1979 has been this: that money is now of primary importance in our society.  Yes, money was important before: but we had other values.  We had communities; we had other priorities – people did things for reasons other than money.  Now, someone who does a thing with no pecuniary motive is the exception rather than the rule – and as a society we are at the mercy of global capitalist forces and the government has stopped even pretending to do anything about it.

And thirdly, perhaps her most famous statement, that there is ‘no such thing as society’.  The context of this was as an anti-communist/socialist stance, but has more far-reaching effects than that.  What if she had said instead, ‘there’s no such thing as community’?  Because that is what it boils down to, in the end.  And that statement proved to be prophetic: ironically for one who was so bad at prophecy, by the time she left power there was very little community left anywhere.  It is not only mining and steel-working communities that were destroyed by her policies: pubs closed in towns and villages (and are still closing), schools and colleges were set on firmly competitive and economic lines and – oh, I could go on and on but you can supply loads of examples yourselves, I’m sure.  Community is not only important – it is vital: we need each other in order to survive as a species, and her idea of ‘individuals and their families’ all competing with each other is just about the most repellent image I can think of.

What Thatcher started, Blair continued.  But that’s for another day.  Next time: the international stage.

Kirk out

More equal than others?

So: following on from yesterday’s post on the causes of rudeness, let us consider the dictum of ‘equality’.  You won’t find me opposing equal rights for anyone: you name it – gays, women, gay women, disabled people, gay disabled people, transgender disabled people, Blacks, Asians and Poles – everyone should be treated equally; that is, of equal importance.  But! there’s a perception that ‘equality’ means treating everyone the same, full stop.  Regardless of what talents they may have; regardless of experience, maturity, attributes, and so on.  It doesn’t: all equal ops means is that you can’t discriminate on the basis of factors which make – or ought to make – no difference at all.  As per the above list.  It does not mean that you have to employ any idiot who walks through the door, just to make yourselves look good.

That’s the first point.  The second is to do with competition.  Now that we have a wrong-headed notion of equal ops, we have replaced prejudice and the ‘old-boy’ network with competition (yes I know the old-boy network is still alive and sucking in some quarters, but not nearly as much as it used to be).  And so we have become a society where virtually everything’s a contest.  Not only aspects of the economy where competition might conceivably be beneficial or appropriate; but places where it should never go: the NHS,  prisons (prisons!), education education, McEducation – and so on.  I can’t be arsed to complete the list – you can fill in the rest yourselves.  These are places where market forces have no business (sic) to go.  Not only that but practically everything, it seems, has to be decided nowadays by some sort of contest.  Who’s a good cook?  Who gets to host a TV show?  Who’s going to be number 1 in the Xmas charts?  Who will be the next Director General of the BBC?  (all right, it probably won’t quite go that far – though in an interesting side-note, David Dimbleby yesterday referred no less than four times to the next ‘man’ to run the BBC.  Presumably they will now appoint a woman whose first act will be to send Dave on an equal ops course.)

So, it’s my contention then, that in a society where everything’s  a competition, it’s not surprising that everywhere becomes a battleground.  If ruthlessness, competitiveness and a desire to win, ar ethe qualitites we nurture in our citizens, it’s hardly surprising that our streets are war-zones where pedestrians and drivers alike jockey for position, all trying to be no. 1.  If winning is everything and not-winning is nowhere, as I hear depressingly often from the media, then what you’d expect is exactly what we’ve got: no respect, no patience, no consideration, no courtesy.

No unity.

And so to the theme of tomorrow’s blog.  Until then…

Om shantih

Kirk out

Waiting for the News, Are You?

Did ya get it?  The answer to June 25th’s brain teaser was – yes, The Magic Roundabout.  I refer of course to the excellent programme said to have been “translated” by sheer guesswork (much the best way) from the original French.  www.bbc.co.uk/cult/classic/titles/magicroundabout.shtml –

– and not the vastly inferior CGI film version.

Which leads me to wonder about the nature of success.  Often, those things which are most successful are those whose inventors are just having a laugh, who don’t care too much about “winning”.  I could rant for ages about our society’s love of competition – but I’ll spare you.  Still I have to ask – how much do I care?


That’s a question whose answer changes like the wind.

Gotta blow!