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My day at the Olympics

Yesterday I joined London’s Olympic party, when we went to see the gymnastics at the North Greenwich Arena, better known as the O2 (but the company isn’t an Olympic sponsor…) or in its prior guise as the Millennium Dome.  It was the women’s artistic individual overall final.  All too brief – but I’m glad we made it, for once in a lifetime!

The event was due to start at 4.30pm, but we decided to make a day of it.  We set off at 11.30 in the morning, and took the river bus to Greenwich.  We opted to lunch there, about 2km from the arena, since we’d heard so many scare stories about the dominance of the Olympics sponsors (McDonalds for restaurants, Heineken for beer, etc).  Greenwich town is near another Olympic venue – Greenwich Park for equestrian events – so had plenty of Olympic atmosphere.  After a long but rather mediocre lunch at a Tex-Mex restaurant, we set off by bus for the arena, as directed by one of the many Olympic volunteer helpers.  London Transport nearly undid the glow of goodwill by taking out of service the bus that was due to take us, with a long wait for the next one shown on the indicator.  But another bus turned up, untracked by the indicator, a few minutes later, with space enough for everyone.

At the venue we were cheerfully herded through the security checks.  All very quick, but it was quite early (about 3pm).  It didn’t help to try and figure out what was going on in the complex system of queues and barriers, just follow the crowds and go where people were pointing.  In the Dome we found a profusion of restaurants (but no McDonalds, or Burger King, come to that), with no conspicuous restrictions.  The scare stories were overdone.  But a sign at one of the bars in the arena itself said “proud only to accept Visa cards for payment” or some such.  I think most people, me included, find that the Visa monopoly on payment cards quite offensive, so they should have put “ashamed” instead of “proud”.  We paid cash, which was fortunately allowed for a bottle of water (though not for tickets or merchandise…).

So we took our seats perched up high in the arena with over an hour to go.  But they kept us entertained and warmed us up, with videos and explanations and previews, and finally a dance by the English Ballet from Swan Lake (from their current show which coincidentally we are due to see next week).

And then it all started.  There were 24 gymnasts (limited to two from each country – a bit hard on the Americans and Russians) divided into four groups, each taking on one piece of “apparatus” – the beam, the vault, the uneven bars and the floor (which is not an “apparatus” in my pedantic book) – the last set to music.  It was quite a lot to take in.  The top contenders were all in one group, so the pros could concentrate on just them.  But the two British contenders (Hannah Whelan and the 15 year old Rebecca Tunney) were in another group – and the predominantly British crowd were keen to give them full support.  And again, the floor exercise tended to draw attention, with its sheer size and, of course, the music.  There was a screen and a scoreboard, and a bit of commentary – but it is easier to follow on the television at home.  There were one or two performances that I wanted to see but missed – like the American Gabrielle “flying squirrel” Douglas on the uneven bars.

The organisers could have helped us a bit more.  They were selling a daily magazine for £5 on the day’s events, but this gave just two pages to the gymnastics, gassing on about the two British girls, with two thirds of a page on the the girl they considered the favourite (the US Aly Raisman), who did not end up with a medal, plus a brief profile for the main Russian contender (Victoria Komova) and an even shorter mention of her team-mate (Aliya Mustafina) – these ended up with Silver and Bronze respectively.  So they almost failed to mention the winner, Ms Douglas, at all!  Still, better than the forecast at the beginning of the magazine which predicted an American who failed to qualify for the final at all (Jordin Wieber).  This whole things misses the point about people who turn up for the events – who are unlikely to be attending more than one event in a day – so don’t want masses of superficial waffle on everything – but some substance on the event they are watching.  A list of the 24 finalists, and their scores in  earlier rounds, and perhaps a little profile would have added to the event.  All the magazine could do was while away 15 minutes on the train home.

No matter! It was lovely to be there, and to make your own choices as to what to follow, rather then the choice of some television producer.  The performances were astonishing.  I am no gymnast, and don’t know much about the sport.  But I am irrestiably drawn to it each Olympics, and have been watching the drama of the team finals and the men’s event on the television.  There was a thrilling finish on the floor exercises as the Americans and Russians slugged it out.  But Ms Douglas was already in a significant lead, the others having wobbled a little in earlier rounds and she clinched the deal with confidence – quite wonderful to watch.  Interestingly the leading women contestants did not seem to be so pally with each other as were the men – they seemed a bit more absorbed in their own worlds.  Tears from the Russians in the end as they failed in their bid for Gold, in spite of the American favourite having come a cropper in qualification.

Alas for Ms Whelan.  She was already struggling after a poor beam and indifferent floor, when she came a cropper on the vault and score zero points (the only gymnast to do so on any apparatus) – she ended up 24th by some distance, though she would not have done much better in the placings if she had got a middling score there.  Ms Tunney did better, ending up 13th after an uncertain start on the beam -she should still have her best years ahead of her.  After her vault (she led and so was the first score to be posted in the third rotation), she even topped the leader board for a minute or so – as my picture shows.

What a wonderful experience!  My head had was never really convinced by the economic case for London hosting the Olympics, and still isn’t.  But the gain is deeper than economics.  It makes us Brits feel world class again.  The organisation is generally excellent, the spirit wonderful.  The tone set by the opening ceremony was shear genius – celebrating Britain inclusively for what it is, and not trying to wallow in past glory.  We can be cynical about lots of it (the scare stories about transport chaos, the sponsors’ monopolies), critical about details (the daily magazine) – but it feels good.

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Football: after optimism fails, England fans try low expectations.

I’m not a football fan, in any of its forms.  I don’t follow a football (soccer) club.  But I do get swept into the excitement of the big international championships that take place every two years: the European Cup and the World Cup.  The European Cup for 2012 has started but there’s almost no visible excitement in this football-mad nation (England – here not the other British nations) – so there’s nothing to be swept by.  The Jubilee Union Jacks are slowly coming down – but few George Crosses are replacing them.  What is happening?

I think that what we are seeing is the playing out of two competing theories of motivation amongst pop-psychologists and sports coaches.  First: nothing succeeds like optimism.  Second: excessive expectations only bring disappointment.

The first theory has become very fashionable.  Various statistical studies, at least in the myth, have shown that high expectations improve performance.  So it helps to think that you are going to win.  This type of thinking is now deep in the popular culture – as you can see from the silly boasting by contestants in reality TV contests, replacing the formerly very British (or anyway English) modesty.  But England football fans have tested this idea to destruction – going into contests with high expectations, and much talk of how we can win.  The results (especially the 2010 World Cup) have been dismal.

So the alternative theory gains ground.  Teams can be paralysed by the weight of high expectations; they often peform better when they have less to prove.  And indeed some of the most memorable England football performances have been when the team has been written off (I still remember beating Germany 5-1 in a qualifying match a decade or so ago).  It seems that the county’s fans have taken this idea seriously; keeping mum about the side’s chances, in the hope that this will improve the performance.

Meanwhile I may well miss England’s first match tomorrow – consciousness is so low that somebody is try to arrange a meeting that conflicts with it!

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Are introverts on the autistic spectrum?

I haven’t blogged on psychology so far – it’s not a subject I know much about, academically at least.  But this blog by Sophia Dembling in Psychology Today (thanks to Nic Prigg @nicola_prigg on Twitter) has really set me thinking.

Ms Dembling highlights a recent suggestion by a young research, Jennifer Grimes on introversion.  Instead of thinking about it as part of a spectrum with introversion at one end and extroversion at the other, might these not be entirely separate characteristics?  Instead try thinking about introversion on an autistic spectrum – with autism at one end, introversion at the other, and Asperger’s syndrome somewhere in between.  That’s not to suggest that introversion is a disability, as autism can be, but as a more helpful way of thinking about both it and autism.  It also opens the door to thinking about people who are both extroverted and introverted at the same time.

This carries me way of my depth.  I am familiar with autism in theory, but I don’t now any people with more than mild personality characteristics that I would describe in that way.  But I do know what it’s like to be an introvert – as I am a rather extreme version myself.  This comes out of the various psychometric tests I have taken, as well as a life time of personal observation.  I am very shy, introspective and do like to spend periods of time alone to collect myself.  I also spend a lot less time than most grooming social and family contacts – which means that I have a smaller close social circle than most.

But I can do empathy – and rather well.  In the organisations I have worked with I often take up the role of reconciler and peacemaker, seeing both sides to a dispute.  I usually read between the lines quite well, leading to an ironical sense of humour.  My friendships are stable and long-lasting, and only wither if I don’t devote enough time to them (which unfortunately happens quite a lot).  I can do politics – rather well when I put effort into it.  This is all somewhat opposite to how I’ve understood autism.  I would say the same for other introverts I know too.

So my first reaction is to think Ms Grimes is barking up the wrong tree.  But then perhaps that’s what she means by a spectrum – I’m not autistic, but share characteristics with those that are.  It has certainly set me thinking.  Perhaps a lot of my empathising skills are learned rather than innate? It would explain flashes of extrovert behaviour when my inhibitions are overcome (very rare).  And I do sometimes miss things in social situations too.  Which is no doubt what the what a lot of this is  about – trying to think of old problems in new ways.

The other thing that strikes from this article is how difficult psychology is as an academic discipline.  You are chasing shadows the whole time.  We can’t physically see what is going on in our minds, and be sure what is generating the same symptoms in different people has the same cause.  There is little that objective analysis can grasp on.  But we know the subject is important – a better understanding of the mind is critical to the well-being of us as individuals, and of society as a whole.

 

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Time to wake up to the de-industrialisation of advanced economies

Trying to understand the global economic crisis?  This article from Joe Stiglitz is required reading.

I have flagged it already on Facebook and Twitter, but without much in the way of reflection. In fact it has produced an epiphany moment for me.  I have maligned Professor Stiglitz in a past blog as producing only superficial commentary on the crisis, alongside his fellow Nobel laureate Paul Krugman.  This was based on one or two shorter articles in the FT and some snatches on the radio; I wasn’t reading or listening carefully enough.  Professor Stiglitz is one of the foremost economists on the current scene.  He used to be part of the Clinton administration, and worked at the World Bank in the 1990s, but his views proved politically unacceptable.  He also wrote the standard text book on public economics, which I used in my not so recent degree course.

The article is wonderful on many levels, but the epiphany moment for me came with his observation that, underlying the current crisis, is a long-term decline of manufacturing employment in the US, and by implication, other advanced economies too.  He draws an interesting parallel with the Great Depression, which was caused, he claims, by a comparable shift from agricultural employment – again in the US; I think that such a shift was less marked in Britain, but the depression was also less severe.  This decline in employment brought about a doom-loop of declining demand across the economy as a whole – which was only reversed by World War 2.  The war effort caused a boom in manufacturing industry which was readily redeployed into the postwar economy.  This view of the Great Depression rises above the fierce controversies over fiscal and monetary policy, and places them in a proper context.

We have been witnessing the decline in manufacturing employment for some years, and grappling with its social consequences.  The important point is that it is mainly irreversible. It has been brought about by technological change, which has improved productivity.  There is a limit to the number of manufacturing products that we can consume – just as there is a limit to the food we can consume, and we are at that limit.  So the number of jobs declines.

Of course the picture is complicated by the rise of manufacturing in the developing world, and especially China, and their exports to the developed world.  In the US I am sure, and certainly in the UK, more manufacturing output is now imported than exported, causing a further loss of jobs.  This is reversible, though, and in due course will reverse, as the developing world advances and loses its temporary competitive edge.  But this won’t be enough to reverse the overall trend of rising productivity.

But advancing productivity should be good news in the long run.  It releases the workforce to do other things, or, if people prefer, to increase leisure time.  So what replaces the manufacturing jobs, in the way that manufacturing took over from agriculture?  Services, of course.  What is, or should be, the product of these services?  Improved wellbeing.

Services have rather a poor reputation in our society.  Traditionalists see them as ephemeral, compared to the real business of making things – a bit like Soviet planners were obsessed with producing steel rather than consumer goods.  More thoughtful people associate them with poor quality jobs in fast food restaurants or call centres.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We need to develop clearer ideas of what tomorrow’s service-based economy will look like. That’s important because the way out of the current crisis is through investments that will take us closer to this goal, just as war led to investment in manufacturing in the 1940s (and earlier in Europe).

And the key to this is thinking about wellbeing.  This is important because one of the answers could be an increase in leisure, hobbies and voluntary activities – which is not normally regarded as economic activity at all.  Reflecting on this, I think are two areas whose significance will grow and where investment should be made, both of which raise awkward political problems – health and housing.

It is easy to understand that health and social care will take up a higher proportion of a future economy than they do now, and not just because of demographic changes.  These services are vital to wellbeing.  But we are repeatedly told that we can’t afford to expand them.  And that is because we are reaching the limits of what state-supplied, taxpayer funded services can deliver in the UK. (In the US it’s another story for another day).  The health economy of tomorrow will have a larger private sector component, whether integrated with the NHS or parallel to it.  But what should our priorities now be, while this private sector is on the back foot?  It seems sensible to make the NHS more efficient and effective, but foolish to cut jobs.  We should be building the skill base alongside the reform programme.  The chief critics of the government’s NHS plans (including the Labour front bench) are that NHS reforms should be stopped so that they can focus on the critical business of raising efficiency.  But maybe it should be the other way round – we should be pushing ahead with reform, but relaxing the efficiency targets and letting the costs rise a bit until the economy starts showing greater signs of life. then, as any cuts are made the private health sector can take up the slack.

Perhaps housing is pushing at the boundaries of what “services” are.  We traditionally view this as a capital investment.  But what I mean is providing more and better places for people to live in, whether they own them or not.  Most of the country is quite well off here, but poor housing is probably what divides rich from poor more than anything else – and more investment in the right places (decently sized social housing) could rebalance things nicely and dramatically improve wellbeing.

But beyond this we badly need to get out of a manufacturing mindset, both in the private and public sectors.  We should not view division of labour and specialisation as the ideal form of organisation (massive call centres, and so on), and we should value listening skills much more – I nearly wrote “communication skills” but most people understand this about getting over what you want to say, not understanding what your customer or service user actually needs.  This is happening only very slowly.

So I would add a third priority: education.  We need to greatly expand the teaching of life skills at school and elsewhere.  This would not only help build the skills that tomorrow’s economy needs.  It would help people make better choices in a changing world.

 

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Capitalism, crony capitalism and neoliberalism. What’s in a word?

Are the Occupy protesters on to something?  Or is theirs just a hopeless battle against abstract nouns?

I have been rather exercised about some abstract nouns recently.  First was the word “Neoliberalism” selected by Simon Titley of the Liberator as one of three Bad Ideas to have infected British politics over the last 30 years, sweeping along the Liberal Democrat leadership with the rest of the mainstream.  The other ideas were the “Westminster Bubble” (the idea promoted by a lazy media that only ideas that have taken hold in Westminster matter), and that the Westminster elite have a monopoly of political wisdom (expressed by contempt both for grassroots activists).  Neoliberalism had a starring role in the previous month’s Liberator when Mr Titley and David Boyle roped it into their narrative of what went wrong with British politics in their article “Really Facing the Future”.  Mr Titley felt he had written enough already on the subject to explain what he meant by neoliberalism – unfortunately before I have been subscribing to Liberator.

Another tiresome abstract noun has been even more prominent: “Capitalism”.  This has been the main target of Occupy.  It was recently brought into further focus by Tory MP Jesse Norman in an FT article based on his pamphlet “The Case for Real Capitalism“.  This pamphlet is not a particularly coherent or convincing piece of work, though to be fair he does say that a longer, and presumably better argued, version is in preparation.  But by harnessing a couple of qualifiers (“crony” and “good”) he tries to make sense of capitalism, and brings neoliberalism into the picture too.  It’s good place to start a probe into whether these words have any useful purpose.

In Mr Norman’s picture the world has been suffering from “crony capitalism”.  He identifies various strands (e.g. “narco-capitalism”, taking it well beyond what I would call “crony” capitalism, which should really involve cronyism – business leaders being too close to political leaders.  Still he does offer a workable definition of bad capitalism:

Crony capitalism is what happens when the constraints of law and markets and culture cease to be effective.  Entrepreneurship and value creation are replaced by rent-seeking, and certain groups become enormously wealthy without taking risk. These factors in turn lead to long-term economic underperformance, and sometimes to social unrest.

Apart from the use of “crony” and the economics jargon of “economic rent” (which means profits accruing to a business over and above the opportunity costs of inputs) this is quite useful.  Something that is recognisably capitalism – an economy based mainly on private enterprise – can look like this, and when it does, it is bad.  But capitalism doesn’t have to be this way – hence Mr Norman’s employment of “good capitalism”.  This version emphasises the need for free competition and the consistent application of the rule of law.  But that by itself is not enough.

Mr Norman contrasts “good capitalism” with our friend “neoliberalism”, which does not have a moral dimension.  Like Mr Titley, he does not bother to define neoliberalism.  But from context I can identify it with what the FT writer and economist John Kay called “the American Business Model” in his 2002 book The Truth about Markets which was part of my Christmas reading.  This elevates the simplifying assumptions of classical economics (rational behaviour, consistent and stable preferences, perfect competition, and so on) into a moral value system.  In particular it idealises a ruthless focus on maximising personal gain in the framework of impartially enforced rules (property rights in particular).  This way of thinking remains very popular in America, with the Chicago School giving it considerable intellectual heft.  But it has never taken off in Europe, and Britain is very much part of Europe on this issue, as in so much else.  The emphasis on personal gain – greed – and antipathy to social solidarity are too much for all but a lunatic fringe to accept.  And that includes Conservatives like Mr Norman.  Good capitalism has a moral dimension – and one that celebrates the virtues of hard work and social responsibility.

Meanwhile the use of “neoliberalism” on the British left (including Mr Titley) clearly does not conform to the definition that Mr Norman uses.  Within its scope are swept Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the “Orange Book” Liberal Democrats such as Nick Clegg.  But none of these are or were Chicago School types.  Apart from Mrs Thatcher, maybe, all see a huge role for government in our society and would expand its remit.  But they have criticised the way producer interests have captured public services, profoundly undermining its quality.

Another issue needs to be mentioned here: and that is financial explosion in the UK and US that occurred in the period 1997-2007, and which ended so badly in the current crisis.  This is closely associated with greed in the public’s minds, of bankers mainly, but also chief executives and (whisper it) all those ordinary members of the public that racked up credit card and mortgage debt.  This is swept into the general idea of “capitalism” and “neoliberalism”.  And indeed neoliberal ideas were used to justify the behaviour of many of the more egregious participants.  But true believers in neoliberalism have little difficulty in shrugging such criticism off.  To them what caused the crisis was excessive government intervention (e.g. by encouraging subprime lending in the US)  and the failure to uphold proper open markets (through the implicit government guarantee of banking activities, for example).

All of which renders the words “capitalism” and “neoliberalism” as useless abstract nouns.  There is little consistency in their use between the different political factions; their use by one faction is misunderstood by the other in an endless cycle of talking at cross purposes.  The Occupy movement seems particularly bad at this.

To make headway in the political debate we need to move on from the abstract to the practical.  What is the best way of providing health and education services?  What should the scope be of social insurance?  How can we get private businesses to invest more in the future and distribute their profits (or economic rents if you prefer) more equitably?

 

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Could the hacking scandal threaten David Cameron?

Am I being too sanguine?  I asked this of myself a week ago after posting on the Euro crisis.  Now I’m asking myslf the same thing over my recent posting on the hacking crisis.  Could there be a lot more trouble than I was predicting for David Cameron and the Police?

Consider this article in Lib Dem Voice on Cameron.  This develops the idea that there was a lot of railroading of the rules when the PM hired Andy Coulson as his Downing Street (i.e. Civil Service) press adviser.  The pressure building up on this story could prove intolerable.  Of course the public at large won’t take a great deal of interest in this, but it’s sort of thing that can obsess people in the  Westminster bubble.  And this bubble, to switch metaphors in midstream, is the pond in which Mr Cameron swims; he can’t survive if it becomes poisonous, even if the world outside is fine.

I also bought Private Eye for the first time in years this week.  This is thick with innuendo about actual police bribery, using travellers’ cheques, which goes against my suggestion that this is quite rare in the modern force.  And lots of innuendo about the closeness of the Murdoch empire to both the Police and government.

The problem is that I share a characteristic with Mr Cameron – my first reaction to trouble tends to be to play it down.  This can be be very useful; it tends to calm people down, buy you time for a more considered view, and stop time-wasting.  Too many people have the opposite tendency to panic at everything.  But it can leave you flat-footed on those occasions when trouble is both real and unexpected.  I remember being most senior person in our Moorgate office when the 7/7 bombs went off; for the first few hours I was behind the curve.  To compensate what you need is to have some good advisers close to you who can challenge your assessment.  Ironically this was one of the things that Mr Coulson did for Mr Cameron, and did very well, as far as I can make out.  In fact it’s because he was so effective in the job he was employed for that Mr Cameron has difficulty in understanding that the fuss amounts to much.  But if Mr Coulson used his privileged position to improperly advance the interests of the Murdoch empire, then there’s real trouble.

Still, I may have been right on the Euro crisis.  The can has been kicked down the road again.  There was a lot of relief after last week’s summit of the Euro leaders; no doubt as the detail comes to light people will be less reassured.  In one sense it gets more and more difficult to kick the can each time – but it is equally clear that the Eurozone’s leaders have the political will to do the necessary.  Gradually a new architecture for managing the Euro zone is emerging.  It is one that condemns the UK to the sidelines, but that’s another story for another day.

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What will the hacking scandal change?

I’m afraid I’ve been swept along by the drama of the hacking scandal, even as the Euro heads for meltdown, the US for financial suicide, and famine ravages the Horn of Africa.  I watched the Murdochs before the Select Committee on Tuesday afternoon, and spend more time than I should reading online articles.  The human drama is compelling, with a steady stream of people coming a cropper.  But as I posted last week I am a lot less sure about longer term consequences for the press and politics in general.

There may be further damage to come for News Corporation.  Rupert Murdoch at the hearing said that “this is the humblest day of my life”, and that was his clear intention – to halt the damage at that point.  He was appropriately contrite and respectful.  But he clearly equates his organisation with himself.  He seemed puzzled with the suggestion that he might resign.  He feels betrayed by people he trusted, and that’s it.  The success of his damage limitation depends on what further comes out.  Anything that gives the affair legs in the US could be toxic; he has plenty of enemies there.  In the UK the worst is probably over; there will be prolonged skirmishing over who said what to whom, which will get insiders worked up, but not the public at large.  People already suspect the worst, so the damage is already largely done.  It would help him a lot if similar issues emerged at other newspapers.  If everybody is to blame, nobody is.  The Murdochs quite rightly steered clear making any suggestions that other organisations were just as bad, but it must be on their minds.

The Police, and especially the Met, are the next victims.  But again I think the worst might be over.  People suspect rampant police corruption, with journalists paying for information.  I doubt whether much of this actually went on.  I’m sure it used to, but it really is at odds with modern police culture.  The police have provided lots of information to journalists, but not in exchange for bribes.  The police were much too close to the press, as were Tory and Labour politicians, but it will be difficult to pin this down to what people euphemistically call “wrongdoing” – i.e. actual criminal offences as opposed to the merely  unethical.  One or two individuals may get caught out, but they are likely to be more junior than those already forced to resign.

Next in the firing line is David Cameron.  Ed Milliband has decided that he is vulnerable, and has been banging away endlessly about his employment of Andy Coulson.  His discussions with the Murdoch organisation over the BSkyB bid has opened up a new line of attack.  This may have some way to run, but it doesn’t feel fatal.  The whole Coulson affair has been pretty open; there are no fingerprints on the BSkyB issue, though Mr Cameron’s evasions are not doing him any good.  There’s a good article from Steve Richards in the Independent on this.  Some of the shine is coming off Mr Cameron, but to my mind this was always coming to him.  His performance as PM has been less than assured, notwithstanding his Etonian self-confidence, and I have been amazed that it has taken this long for people to see through it.  There’s no serious alternative to him in the Tory party, and talk of him having to resign is just typical of the silly chatter that can build up.

Mr Milliband, by contrast, has done quite well.  Enough to keep his rivals at bay (and there are serious alternatives in the Labour Party), but not enough to allay wider doubts.  There are some signs of a Lib Dem  recovery – but not because any of their figures are playing a prominent role, despite efforts to boost Vince Cable for being the first to “declare war” on the Murdochs.  In fact it was his foolish loose talk that deprived him of a serious role in the affair.

One change may be long lasting – and that is the influence of the tabloids.  Tony Blair set the trend of very close relationships with them, not least by his employment of Alistair Campbell as his communications adviser.  In his time Mr Campbell was lionised, as being the power behind the throne.  He spent a lot of his energy setting up meetings with tabloid editors and, indeed, owners.  Having set the trend, everybody else followed.  Including the Metropolitan Police and Mr Cameron.  As the light is being shone on this, it doesn’t look so clever.   The cosy relationship has ceased.  Steve Richards has again written very well on this.

The tabloids play a unique role in British politics, in delivering the sort of attack material that in the US is done by television advertising.  I won’t forget the anti-Clegg frenzy unleashed by them in the last weeks of the 2010 General Election.  It’s small wonder that politicians have sought access to this power.  But tabloids are a declining market, with more and more people getting their news from the internet.  Younger media owners, not excluding James Murdoch, are more interested in readership than in throwing their weight around to influence politics. This affair may mark a decisive episode in the decline of the tabloids’ role in politics.

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The enduring legacy of paganism

Tennis stars Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray  throw their (sweat-soaked) wrist-bands into the crowd after winning a match at Wimbledon.  To me this is rather bizarre.  What on earth would I do if one of them landed in my lap?  But the Romans would have understood, and I would not be surprised if victorious gladiators did something quite similar.  The latest exhibition at the British Museum looks at another variation of this behaviour, on a massive scale, that overtook Christianity for over 1,000 years, up to the Reformation in the 1500s.  This was the collection of relics associated with saints (usually body parts) and with Jesus Christ (pieces of the cross, thorns from the crown of thorns, etc.).

This is the Treasures of Heaven exhibition.  At one level it is a showcase for many wonderful artefacts of exquisite craftsmanship.  But the exhibition also explains the practices of this aspect of medieval faith, and gives us an opportunity to reflect on it.  There are three aspects in particular that are interesting.  First is the obsession with relics – seeing, possessing, touching physical objects that have been associated with somebody holy, in the belief that some of the holiness will be passed on.  Second, the importance of saints acting as intermediaries between the faithful and God after their death.  Third, the dismemberment of saints’ bodies for use as relics.

The general idea of relics does have a strong resonance in our culture, which persist still – witness the tennis stars’ wrist bands, the obsession with original artworks over copies, and so on.  The interest is in their use in this religious context, as that is much less common.  It wasn’t part of the Jewish faith from which Christianity grew.  This looks like a pagan inheritance from the Romans.  An obsession with sacred places, to which pilgrimages are made, was also an important part of medieval devotion, but this is unremarkable by comparison; pretty much all faiths have something similar.

The practice of worshipping saints looks like an inheritance from pagan polytheism.  The jump to monotheism from animism and polytheism is a huge one.  In the Jewish faith this seems to have taken quite a long period of time; in the Far East it doesn’t seem to have happened at all, with polytheism evolving directly in atheistic faiths such as Buddhism.  Worshipping saints looks like an intermediate step; a similar thing seems to be the case in Shia Islam.

The dismemberment of bodies really is strange though.  According to the British Museum, this doesn’t seem to have pagan roots.  There is a strong human instinct that bodies should be kept whole.  Perhaps it started because so often martyrs’ bodies where dismembered in early Roman persecution.

Once the cult of relics got going, it is very difficult not to be cynical.  Most of the relics were clearly forgeries.  The practice suited clerical and secular authorities and was exploited by them.  Eventually there was a backlash, started by Martin Luther and flowing on through the Reformation.  Many relics were destroyed, including virtually all those in Britain.  A number have ended up in museums, and so to this exhibition.  The Catholic church persists with the practice, but somehow I think most of the power has gone.  Saints are seen as examples, and sainthood a sort of posthumous honour – and not as active intermediaries.  Relics might be seen as objects for meditation, and not much more.

Meanwhile in popular culture, we have reverted to the idea that dead bodies should be kept whole.  A huge fuss was created when a hospital was found to have retained some children’s body parts for research.  We expend a lot of effort trying to find bodies after a catastrophe, to act as a focus for memorial and “closure”.  As people in Britain drift away from Christianity, they drift back into to a pagan, pre-Christian outlook.  Sports and entertainment stars take up the role of deities; people collect and worship their possessions and even sweat; they conduct pilgrimages to their holy sites.  But we don’t dismember their bodies after death.

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The wonderful world of Scilly

I have recently returned from a holiday in the Isles of Scilly (note for pedants: “Scilly” for short, not “the Scillies”).  I have been going there every two years or so for over 20 years, and it’s still one of my favourite places.

Some of the attractions are obvious.  White, sandy beaches (though the water is still cold); beautiful rocks (pictured in the title to this blog); a kind climate, notably better than the mainland; the ever-fascinating and ever-present sea.  But it is also a wonderful, miniature world apart.  Everything is smaller: roads, cars, shops , castles.  Each island has its own post office, even though in many cases the number of inhabitants is less than a single London street (well not quite true; the post office on Bryher, the smallest island has closd down – but a new one is being built to replace it!).  It’s very English too; relations with the mainland may be a bit strained sometimes, but you hear nothing of Cornish nationalism.

This year our visit coincided with a daytrip by the Queen – and we did catch a glimpse of her.  It was real shock to see so many policemen, though, including ones armed with machine guns.  The islands are nearly crimeless.  One of our guests accidentally dropped his wallet on the morning of his departure.  A passing chambermaid from one of the local hotels, picked it up, took it to the receptionist, who managed to locate us before we even knew it was gone.

We’ll be going back.

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Service break

I am on holiday for a couple of weeks, and won’t be attempting to post while away.  I’ll be back later.  Last week has been busy, so I’ve not posted much – but I’ve got lots of ideas…

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