All come to look for America

Taking a moment recently to vote in the  TimeOut poll on the best Christmas single ever, I could have chosen half a dozen but couldn’t resist voting for Mary’s Boy Child by the great American singer Harry Belafonte – a voice I grew up with, mainly because his immortal version of There’s a hole in my bucket (yes, really!) was on the BBC’s Children’s Favourites just about every Saturday morning.

Mary’s Boy Child – I love the song anyway, not because I’m a conventional believer but because of its sincerity, simplicity, directness, storytelling and great tune. Belafonte’s version gets all those things right, doesn’t outstay its welcome and still sounds contemporary. And he is a man of humanity, thoughtfulness and compassion. Recently a dear American friend of ours drew my attention to this piece he had written in the New York Times. Click on the link to read it.

I can’t add to what he says. He is far more qualified, far more eloquent and far more entitled than I am to write about the present state of his troubled country. Read it and ponder.

As we step out of the alarming year 2016, hoping against both logic and experience that things will somehow be not only different but better three weeks from now, I am going to fall back, as you know I do, on a few quotations which give me something to cling to, trusting that wisdom from the past will somehow give pointers in a world more uncertain and difficult to interpret than I have known in my lifetime.

I make no comment on any of these, and will leave you to reflect on what can be found in each of them. I am going to sign off from blogging for a spell: time to recharge, refresh, rethink and renew. Lately I’ve been rather more active on Twitter, doing what little I can to promote sensible thinking in the wake of this year’s preposterous, destructive and unnecessary referendum.

My best wishes to all.

I had the great advantage of being born at a time when the greatest events which agitated the world occurred, and such have continued to occur during my long life … Thus have I attained results and insight impossible to those who are born now and must learn these things from books that they will not understand … What the next years will bring I cannot predict; but I fear we shall not soon have repose. It is not given to the world to be contented; the great are not such that there will be no abuse of power; the masses are not such that, in hope of gradual improvement, they will be content with a moderate condition.

Goethe

Better be roughly right than precisely wrong.

John Maynard Keynes

I am more and more Christian as I walk the unchristian ways of Christendom. Already I have comprehended a light which never will filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was: Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace; but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill. It may be a chimerical and an ignominious principle, but there it is. It can only be ignored; and I think pulpit professionals are ignoring it very skilfully and successfully indeed.

Wilfred Owen

The noble art of losing face may some day save the human race

Danish  proverb

On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?

Lord Macauley

The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.

Abraham Lincoln

It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.

Mark Twain

Before you set off on revenge, dig two graves.

Old Chinese saying

We have just enough religion to make us hate one another and not quite enough to make us love one another.

Jonathan Swift

Those who make you believe in absurdities can also make you commit atrocities

Voltaire

Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.

Mark Twain (again)

You do not exist to impress the world. You exist to live your life in a way that will make you happy.

Richard Bach

If you can’t be kind, be quiet.

Anon

I’ve tried to be kind. It’s for others to say whether I’ve succeeded. For now, I’ll take the other option, and be quiet. Bye for now.

 

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The past is another country

I’ve recently written about a couple of events that are, by any reckoning, traditional – steps into the past, glimpses of an old England. But, as LP Hartley wrote in The Go-Between, ‘The past is another country: they do things differently there.’ There is no rule that says we can never change the way things are done. So what is tradition, and what is it for?

Certainly it’s a glue that holds together societies and groups that media commentators like to call ‘closely knit’. Try this, the opening chorus from Fiddler on the Roof, which sets the tone for the whole show:

Who, day and night, must scramble for a living,
Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers?
And who has the right, as master of the house,
To have the final word at home?
The Papa, the Papa! Tradition!

Who must know the way to make a proper home,
A quiet home, a kosher home?
Who must raise the family and run the home,
So Papa’s free to read the holy book?
The Mama, the Mama! Tradition!

At three, I started Hebrew school. At ten, I learned a trade.
I hear they’ve picked a bride for me. I hope she’s pretty.
The son, the son! Tradition!

And who does Mama teach to mend and tend and fix,
Preparing me to marry whoever Papa picks?
The daughter, the daughter! Tradition!

This is some of the glue that holds together – obviously central to the survival of groups who, like the community in that powerful musical, were subjected to savage oppression and injustice. Equally, I remember the former politician Edwina Currie, talking about the faith she was born into, quoting with admiration a rabbi who told her that her faith was her home, not her prison: tradition in its best sense, I would say.

Politicians and moralists love to appeal to tradition. The trouble is, where’s the consensus about what it means? Traditional family values? Like the Victorian ones where incest and prostitution were rife in Britain? Like the ones from the dawn of time that treated daughters as the father’s property, to be disposed of at will, barely pubertal?

What is tradition, and what is it for?

Tradition ist Schlamperei, Gustav Mahler said: Tradition is sloppiness – an exclamation provoked by what he found when he took charge of the Vienna Court Opera in 1897, and decided (against his own interests) to scrape as many barnacles as he could off that listing ship. Following tradition can, of course, be a lazy substitute for stopping to think.

But plenty of traditions are entirely benign, harmless and make people happy. Staying on the Vienna music scene, no one seriously objects when the traditional New Year’s Day concert ends with the (supposedly unscheduled) Blue Danube Waltz and the Radetzky March. There would be riots if it didn’t. Is it a problem if, the night before, we link arms and sing Auld Lang Syne – even if most of us don’t have the faintest what some of the words mean? Or if people go on dressing up to go to the opera at Glyndebourne? Or the Worshipful Company of Carmen go on year after year with the purely ceremonial marking of carts in the Guildhall Yard?

These are things that make people happy, and the world would not be a better place if we stopped them just because they are old. My best friend, in many ways a much more conservative thinker than me, is a passionate republican. My view is that the monarchy just happens to work – maybe, to develop Winston Churchill’s famous remark, democracy with a constitutional monarch is the worst way to run a country – apart from all the others. Royalty with its barely changing traditions just makes people happy, provides a purely symbolic headship and is, for all practical purposes, harmless. In any case, what happens when a country elects a President? Look around you.

Plunging into another round of Christmas traditions, there’s no harm in just deciding what works for you, and doing it. Those sad people who think it’s clever to say I’ll be glad when it’s all over wouldn’t dream about not doing it at all! They love being slaves. Christmas though, because inevitably it reaches back deep into childhood, gives a decent clue about what tradition really is.

It was Napoleon, no less, who said If you want to understand a person in authority, think of the world as it was when they were 20 or 21. As far as I can see, appeals to tradition (think of politicians talking about supposed family values, Sunday trading, nationalism, constitutional arrangements …), usually boil down to one central thought: if we’re honest, when someone speaks noisily of tradition, what they usually mean is:

What things were like when I was growing up

Christmas

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees
T.S. Eliot

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish – which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St.Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

Being in the mood to write about traditions lately, I was going to write something about Christmas traditions – in other words (as there’s no consensus) what I/you/he/she grew up with.

But TS Eliot – intense, intellectual, difficult, dry, serious, reactionary, opinionated and low on humour – says here everything which seems to me important. In this simple little poem, written in 1954 at the age of 66, he reaches back across the years in which he sought, in revolutionary language and intense personal depth, to find truth and meaning in human thought and experience. Having reached back, his quest ends in simple, childlike wonder.

If it ever puzzles you why Christmas carries a special magic for huge numbers of people, why it is such a special time, the poem says it all. You don’t have to be religious like Eliot, and I’m certainly not these days, to identify the awe and wonder and feel it acutely. I’m not a literary critic, but even if I were I can’t see any reason to comment further on the poem. I certainly can’t add to it.

Writing today, with the tree up and ready to be decorated, listening to Trinity College Choir sing O little one sweet by my beloved JS Bach, which we sang at primary school, planning a trip to the butcher to order some specials for the coming feast, getting ready to visit the National Gallery to see their new display of Maino’s Adoration of the Magi, looking at the lovely home made card now bearing the names of three grandchildren, and musing on Eliot’s penetratingly simple poetry, the tears prick in my eyes. It’s a special time, and I defy anyone to prove me wrong.

And if you think all this – and the poem for that matter – is a bit on the mawkish side, stop and examine yourself. You do buy into it, don’t you? And if you pretend you don’t:

  1.    I don’t believe you.
  2.    You are denying yourself the pleasure and the privilege of being a child.
  3.    You are a miserable old sod.

Let yourself go!

HAPPY CHRISTMAS.

What – me worry?

Baby I see this world has made you sad
Some people can be bad
The things they do, the things they say.
But baby I’ll wipe away those bitter tears
I’ll chase away those restless fears
That turn your blue skies into grey.

Why worry? There should be laughter after pain
There should be sunshine after rain
These things have always been the same
So why worry now? Why worry now?

When I was growing up I loved an American comic called MAD. Its strapline was What – me worry? It poked gentle fun at all sorts of shibboleths, bringing aspects of that country, which finds it so hard to laugh at itself, well and truly down to earth. I’d find it hard to quote anything from it now, but its basic message passes through my mind most days: What – me worry?

The great EM Forster is supposed to have said “One has two duties: to be worried and not to be worried”. I’m with him. Like you I have my demons, which usually lie down obediently but occasionally leap up and bite – typically when I’m imagining scenarios that haven’t happened – and lead to conversations with myself that I don’t need to have. This brings on real anxiety which changes nothing – simply feeds fears and keeps them going. Why worry? You can give yourself permission to stop.

I wonder what put all this in my mind right now? I guess more than a few people are feeling a bit theatrical about even switching on the news – there’s been a  bit too much news around, to put it mildly. The best tweet was posted earlier this month:

Time to go home, 2016. You’re drunk.

Too right there. What – me worry? Well, I grew up in days where the threat of a catastrophic nuclear exchange was (believe me) even more real than it is now. A vivid memory is the day in 1962 when our primary school headmaster, Mr Callery, came into our classroom, hung a world map over the blackboard, pointed to Cuba, explained solemnly why there might be a world war before the day was out, and moved on to the next class, leaving us impressionable ten year olds with our hair standing on end.

Why worry? Well, that was a day for worrying, though I remember thinking even then that there wasn’t actually much I could do about it. It turned out to be the day when President John Kennedy faced down the threat of Russian missiles, ably advised by his brother Bobby, who as Attorney General delivered what might have been the most important political advice of the 20th century: When the signals are ambiguous, put on them the interpretation you want. Nepotism may have something going for it after all, though whether or not Trump’s family are endowed with similar wisdom remains to be seen.

Moving up a gear or two, Jesus had a few words of advice:

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? … Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Words of wisdom, and you don’t have to believe in anything supernatural to see their value. Whatever he intended, his words lead me to the Stoicism that underpins the way I now see the world: life’s complicated, stuff happens, and the only thing that makes any difference is how we respond to it. Or, as I read somewhere recently, Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s learning to dance in the rain.

Why worry? Worry when there’s something to worry about, not before. That’s what I say anyway. These days.

Where did I start? With a song from Dire Straits’ mighty album Brothers in Arms, which swings between tracks (Walk of Life) which have you up and dancing, to a soulful freedom song (Brothers in Arms), to this one – called, funnily enough, Why worry? – the gentle vocal line supported by a guitar solo as calming, reassuring, tender, consoling and, well, right as any modern song I know. It’s one to hum gently to yourself, every day if you like, but certainly whenever you need to.

 Why worry? There should be laughter after pain
There should be sunshine after rain
These things have always been the same
So why worry now? Why worry now?

A Day in the Old England

Sometimes you just need to walk backwards. OK, it’s not the best experience when someone suddenly does that in front of you in the middle of Oxford Street (which they do), but there’s a time and a place. The time was summer and the place was Glyndebourne in Sussex. Backwards to a day in the Old England.

Not my natural habitat, you understand: I’d been twice before in my life – or rather I’d been taken twice. And, although I did the organising this time, you could say I was still being taken again. It’s the kind of place where it’s best to be taken.

I had former colleagues to thank. When I stood down after seven not unsuccessful years as Chair of CILEx Regulation – the regulatory arm of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives – some little bird sang to them that as a retirement gift I wouldn’t mind some vouchers to make it possible for me to have a day out, with someone special, at this most English of venues. With extraordinary generosity they did just that. Lovely people.

We settled on a Saturday in July – The Cunning Little Vixen by the Czech composer Janáček – lyrical, charming, life enhancing and (perhaps best of all) quite short so as to allow us to enjoy a balanced day for all its many pleasures. Hedging against the sort of summer which could sabotage the traditional picnic, we booked for dinner at one of the indoor restaurants, sorted out travel and sat back to fret over the changing weather forecast.

They run the operation with a frightening efficiency which is less English than German/Austrian. Catch the train they specify and from Lewes station they ease you into double decker buses, whisk you through the lovely countryside and drop you at precisely the point where you can stroll, ever so slowly, down the herbaceous borders and round the rose gardens before slipping effortlessly into a restaurant where tea, scones, jam and the all-important clotted cream drop from the trees.

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Taking in the ambience

 

 

 

 

 

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England in July
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Looking the part

 

 

 

 

There are covered as well as open places for a picnic, a library to snooze in, clear but unobtrusive announcements to keep you to time, and careful shepherding to ensure that occasional visitors get as fair a crack of the whip as the seasoned old lags.

It’s an oldish country house onto which a smallish modern opera house has been built. It’s an entirely private affair – hence the prices – and inevitably has to live with jibes about elitism, exclusivity and all the rest. As far as I’m concerned it’s just a matter of what you want to put in your shopping basket, a treat where the experience is worth more than just the music (which after all you can hear for free on Spotify), more than the gardens (which you can find for free in most parks), more than the food (which you can find locally, or cook for yourself at a fraction of the price).

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Glimpse inside the house itself
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All a small opera house should be
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The interval: no need to rush

 

 

 

 

Dressing up? No you don’t have to and we saw some bizarre combinations:

  • dinner jacket plus walking shorts and boots?
  • ragged tweed skirt and sagging, beloved old cardi?
  • casual knitwear that would embarrass an American golfer
  • etc

But yes, we dressed for the occasion because everyone – go on, admit it! – likes dressing up. Most of the people there joined in and who can object to being surrounded by people who want to look nice? More than anything, everyone seemed excited at being somewhere, and doing something, special. Even overhearing one or two Brexit-related conversations, just a week after that referendum, served only to emphasise that we were indeed in the Old England.

We enjoyed a beautiful production in an exceptionally comfortable auditorium. The weather stayed agreeable save for a passing squall which unfortunately caught us at the wrong end of the lake, but there were plenty of trees for shelter. And everything worked like clockwork: in the 90 minute interval they serve you a three course meal (easily booked in advance online) without for a moment letting you feel rushed. When it’s all over the buses are revving up, ready to relay you to the station.

My assumption was that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and heavily subsidised at that. After about five minutes, to my alarm, my lovely partner was saying we have to do this every year. I confess I was starting to feel the same – and with suitable economies I suppose it could work. Just a matter, as I say, of what you want to put in your shopping basket. And a day at Glyndebourne may well be worth a few tins of baked beans over the winter.

Putting the Horse before the Cart

What does a – well, this – regulator do on his day off? Apart from writing blog posts of course, which come to think of it I haven’t done much of lately.

Earlier in the summer I spent an agreeable day off on what you might call a busman’s holiday. Or, rather, a carman’s holiday. Let me explain.

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London’s Guildhall Yard – the setting

The cart marking ceremony is the largest annual civic event in the City of London, barring only the Lord Mayor’s Show. It is on the eve of its 500th birthday and continues the tradition begun in 1517 – long enough ago for King Henry VIII still to be married to his first wife. Liverymen of the Carters’ Company paid five shillings (25p) a year for the right to ply for trade within the City. Now the Worshipful Company of Carmen, they were originally the Fraternity of St Katherine the Virgin and Martyr of Carters. St Kate herself would be proud to see the tradition so richly honoured: she will have been floating around somewhere, looking down and smiling benignly.

For their five shillings the Liverymen got a simple ceremony for a registration number to be branded onto a wooden plate mounted on the outside of their carts. This entitled them to use the vehicle to deliver goods and services until the ceremony came round again a year later. It was the first form of vehicle registration and therefore an early and respectable example of – wait for it – regulation.

My schoolfriend Mike, who has spent his career in and around the railways, doubtless spent more than five shillings on treating me and two others to the Worshipful Company’s splendid hospitality, so later we drank his health vigorously and, being English, ribbing him mercilessly. The ceremony itself is in the open air and free to all, and consists of a parade of beautifully looked after historic vehicles, including a couple of very new ones that should (for their eco-friendliness if nothing else) find a place in history.

The vehicles come round slowly in turn, each pausing in front of the tent which is amply stocked with important-looking people, some of them in Tudor-looking robes. There, amid much bowing, nodding and doffing of caps, the Master or one of his party is handed a branding iron which is then applied ceremonially to the wooden plate fixed to the vehicle.

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The Master does the deed

Much applause, clouds of smoke, more cap doffing, excellent photo opportunities, and the driver moves off to general applause as the next one heaves into view.

It’s all very splendid and shot through with honour for the vehicles themselves, their proud owners and drivers, the history they represent, the memories they evoke and civic pride in the glorious City itself. And celebration of the noble traditions of this and all the livery companies which not only promote continuity by keeping these symbolic traditions alive but are also there to secure proper standards of professionalism among their members.

(If I were a professional regulator I would go off here into a riff on my view that education and training in trades and professions is best achieved within a ‘guild’ of this kind – individuals learning their craft, their traditions, their standards and their ethics from well-policed role models. If I say such a view is mediaeval, I mean that as a compliment, and hold it with pride. But I won’t bother you with all that today.)

A bit like the Trooping of the Colour, the slow walking pace of the ceremony is followed by a faster drive-through of all the same vehicles again – more cheering, doffing, photos …

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The worthies – being worthy

… and we all move off into the Guildhall for a packed bunfight with drinks followed by a fine lunch with the Loyal Toast, decently short speeches and much merriment around and about. Company at the table was very agreeable* and we ended in high spirits, dispersing to get lost in the streets around Bank station which, Londoner though I am, always appear to have been moved since the last time I was there.

What a good day out. The rain held off till we were safely indoors and the Guildhall Yard looked a picture. I walked away with a souvenir programme, a satisfied grin on my face, a store of memories and a camera full of photos that I was looking forward to sharing with my old uncle whom I was seeing the following day. He was stirred, of course.

*Those of you who know me well know that this is among my highest terms of praise.

IKEA: they’ve done something right

Not many people have heard me say anything nice about IKEA. Indeed, you could be the first. They have published a superbly funny sketch which pokes gentle fun at what I suppose we can call the Snapchat and Instagram generation. Click and enjoy.

Maybe I’m particularly wired up to foodie issues right now, having just returned punch-drunk from three packed weeks in Brazil, enjoying the delights of the food and drink that that amazingly diverse country can offer. You can get an idea about just a couple of days’ worth of that rich experience in the guest post I wrote for our lovely friend Rosana’s food blog.

Maybe, though, I’m influenced by living with someone who is just as much a foodie as I am and a skilled and enthusiastic user of social media. I’ve learned to draw conclusions about my cooking from whether the camera comes out, or doesn’t, before we can start to eat:

No camera, no commendation: draw your own conclusions

Camera + photo: a few seconds’ ‘immortality’ via Snapchat or Instagram

Camera + photo + invitation to present the dish so the photo can be captioned: high commendation followed by demands to reproduce the triumph repeatedly until some new triumph comes along.

Our old teacher Gerry Lafferty – a Scotsman with an Irish name who taught us English – taught us that putting food in front of someone on the table is a symbol of love and friendship. He was right about most things and I endorse this comment too.

What is better than cooking simple food that family, friends and I can enjoy? If anyone photographs it before diving in, why complain? But have a look at that IKEA film and enjoy its gentle, if not especially subtle, humour.