Seven Reasons to Dislike January

It’s far too long

It’s named after Janus, that singularly unattractive Roman god whose two faces, looking left and right, only appear on coins – did he have no body? He was the god of beginnings, of doors and gateways, provider of the first hour of the day, but looking at his grumpy old face I personally wouldn’t feel like beginning anything new…

The first fortnight is schizoid – partly hung over, partly hyperactive because of the sales

The cold/flu epidemic reaches new heights

Snow and ice cause schools to shut down, creating extra problems to parents already exhausted after a very long break

It’s a favourite time for boilers and radiators to break down and/or leak

Bills arrive in bunches while long overdue cheques don’t.

The only comfort comes from the motto engraved in King Solomon’s ring: “This too will pass”.

 

 

 

 

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Porch Door Blues

My house, in a quiet nook of West London, is officially described as a Victorian workman’s cottage, and as it is one of a terrace of similar buildings protected by a conservation order, a Victorian workman would easily recognize it. True, before the order came into force, a few residents attempted to turn their houses into Regency “villas” by demolishing the bay windows and investing in fancy door furniture, but the total impression is that of solid, no-nonsense redbrick houses, with porches.

Until you’ve had a porch with a custom-made door (be warned, it costs a lot) you don’t realize how useful a thing it is. It puts an extra layer of defence between you and the road and saves some heat in winter;  it’s a fairly safe place to leave smallish parcels, dripping umbrellas and muddy boots and, fitted with an automatic sensor light that comes on after dark, it makes would-be burglars and other no-good boyos depart pretty fast.

The only snag with my porch door is that some callers don’t shut it when they leave, so that the prevailing easterly wind knocks it against the neighbour’s fence, damaging the paintwork and making an annoying noise.. So I started creating appealing notices, using the best colours and fonts my computer could produce, saying “Please shut this door – thank you”. I thought this would do the trick, but I was wrong: every day several callers, including those undeterred by my stern “NO JUNK MAIL” notice, come and go —and leave the door open.

Now there is more to this than damaged paint and noisy knocks. What it’s really about is the culprits’ total disregard of other people’s wishes, in this case mine, as the owner of the door. It’s the same disregard that makes people in crowded cafés pull out their chairs when they leave and not push them back, turning the place into a kind of obstacle race, or that lets women in public places concentrate on their smartphones while their infants scream, roar or sob (the smaller the child, the stronger its voice), making no attempt to calm them, while the rest of us suffer mutely and/or send forgiving thoughts to King Herod.

This social trend, to give it a polite name, reminds me of the teaching of the great  Austrian philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) who first formulated two modes of existence as the “I – Thou” and the “I – It” varieties. These refer to human relationships: in the case of “I – It” the “I”  regards the other person as a separate object which can be used or experienced; in the “I – Thou” variety there is a relationship between equals where the other is linked to, not separated from the “I”. Granted, Buber had in mind one-to-one relationships, but his idea can be stretched to cover the” Individual – Collective” juxtaposition as well. In everyday life, out in the world,  most of us manage in the “I – It” modality, but switch to the “I – Thou” version when disaster strikes and helping others, relating to their distress, becomes as natural as breathing.

Bang – there goes my porch door, being left open once more,  as usual, by our grim, humourless postman who may be suffering from “job fatigue” or permanent indigestion: no good trying to talk him into better ways. I’ll just let him go and then nip out to shut the door. Meanwhile, to let off steam, I draft the text of the notice I’d really like to display on the central glass panel of the door. Something like “Unless you can’t read, don’t understand English or are hopelessly stupid, please shut this door!”

But then of course the individuals I have in mind wouldn’t read my notice anyway.

There are times when the only correct attitude is to admit defeat. This is one of them.

 

 

 

 

 

Use It Or….

Two recent news items have lowered my spirits and raised my blood pressure in equal measure. Both concern students and therefore our future, and the picture they paint is not reassuring. Firstly, I learn, students’ handwriting has become so illegible that Cambridge University is considering letting undergraduates use laptops in exams, since – according to examiners – a reliance on computers has left young people unable to use a pen. Well yes, for some time now I’ve been noticing some truly alarming  signatures on impeccably typed official letters, nasty scrawls bearing no resemblance to the name of the alleged signatory; indeed, looking as if the writer had held the pen in his clenched fist, not knowing what else to do with it.  Is this becoming the New Normal?

Secondly, freshers at universities across the country are being issued with colourful wristbands printed with the name of their hall of residence, to help them get home after a night out. Apparently this will be useful for those who get so drunk that they can’t tell the cab driver where to take them.

Ouch, twice over. Not being able to use a pen slams the door on a peak achievement of human beings, the ability to make marks on a surface – mammoth tusk, clay tablet, parchment, marble, paper – that translate into words and meaning. These marks have to be made, not delivered by a clicked key. But once this unique ability is lost, and if for some reason one day laptops no longer work, what remains? Do we have to start all over again, trying to remember which line goes where, meaning what? As for those colourful wristbands, they could cost a lot of money to a sloshed reveller who happens to collapse in the cab of a less than scrupulous driver and is taken home via a long, meandering route.

What I find so depressing is that in neither case is an attempt made by the powers that be, in this case the university authorities, to correct what is  obviously wrong. By allowing the use of laptops in exams they sanction the loss of handwriting skills among our future intellectual elite. (The rot has already set in: an apparently well educated young woman I know prints all her messages in wobbly, childish block letters, joined-up writing being beyond her.) Besides putting the few remaining graphologists out of work, the end of individual, highly personal handwriting is an impoverishment, another loss of our modest uniqueness. (By the way, I have nothing against laptops: they are good servants but  make dangerous masters.)

As for the wristbands – well, their official message seems to be that it’s perfectly all right for a student to get hopelessly, idiotically drunk, as long as he or she lands in the correct hall of residence. Wouldn’t it be better to launch a culture of intelligent drinking in which alcohol heightens enjoyment, creativity and camaraderie, instead of turning the drinker into an irritating, helpless oaf? Sorry if I sound virtuous, that’s about the last thing I am, but I lived long enough in France and Italy, neither country being remotely teetotal, to know what I am talking about. In my view  binge drinking and enjoyment exist on different planets.

What links these cases is their drift towards the line of least resistance. “Let’s make it easy for the users” seems to be the official line. And ease is, of course, the highest value of the consumer society. Things have to be co-operative and  friendly in order to be desired and bought. I often feel baffled when something I buy claims to be easy to use – well, of course, I don’t expect my new dress to resist when I try to put it on, or my ballpoint pen (yes, I do write by hand) to spit ink at me when I pick it up; nor do I like to be assured that the book I’ve just bought is easy to read. I’d rather decide that for myself, thank you.

O.K., I’ll come clean. I’ve come to hate the supremacy of “ease”. It removes the need for effort, for using our abilities to achieve small victories and keep the flab off body and mind. (I’ve just noticed that the most topical rhyme for “ease” is “obese”, the plague of the so-called developed countries which is also spreading to others where people adopt the Western diet. It was an American friend who pointed out to me that the acronym for the Standard American Diet is SAD…) C.G.Jung once claimed that the human being’s greatest passion is idleness, and he was probably right. Of course the ideal consumer is passive, idle, easy (here we go again) to brainwash into consuming ever more stuff that’s neither wanted nor needed. “Death is the consumer’s last resistance,” wrote Ivan Illich. I like to think that there are less drastic escape routes, too, even though far from being easy they require some effort and plenty of common sense.

I’m already working on mine. What about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wish It Were Here

The popular “Today” programme on BBC Radio Four has been running for sixty years, and to celebrate the occasion several high spots of long-ago programmes and then-and-now comparisons  were broadcast. “Today” being an essential part of my breakfast, with the voice, if not always the manner,  of the great John Humphrys as a special treat, I enjoyed the occasion, but it also started me off on a private memory trip. Meandering through the last two decades or so, I found myself listing a few things that I miss. Things such as:

A switchboard operator. A real human being with a pleasant voice who put you through in an instant to the person you wished to talk to. Just like that. Instead – oh, you know it all, there come five options, followed by three, an offer of  items you neither need nor want, sometimes the demand for a password, meanwhile adding insult to injury you are thanked for your patience when in fact you’re growling with homicidal rage at this wasting of your time – and finally the person you want isn’t available, please call back later. Whose interest does this idiotic method serve? Dropping it would create jobs for real human beings with pleasant voices.

Face to face arguments, conducted  with due tolerance and openness. This kind has its built-in boundaries and, with a bit of luck, follows logical lines. It may end with the classic formula of agreeing to differ, or else descend into a flaming row, but it would remain above board, free from the anonymous online poison-spitting that has grown into an epidemic. I often wonder what kind of person threatens me with rape or murder or both, simply because he dislikes something I’ve written, or doesn’t recognize a joke when he sees one – is his thinking apparatus in his head or somewhere else, lower down in his anatomy?

Hand-written personal letters and notes from people who really matter. You don’t need a diploma in graphology to sense the link between handwriting and personality: I certainly get a sense of the writers when their postcards arrive: P’s delicate, finicky style, Y’s energetic sweep, J’s dance-like linking of characters are unmissable. Only postcards give me this pleasure of recognition. Communications in e-mails don’t. It’s all uniform, Bookman Old Style, font size 14 or  Copperplate Gothic or a batch of other styles are fun to play with but they lack the personal touch, which is what I miss –

Hey, looking at these few things that I miss, they are all about lost human contact! I live in a world where being contactless seems a desirable aim, but one that doesn’t suit me at all. I like, love, need contact with my fellow beings and will maintain it, come what may.

At this moment a letter arrives from my bank, sending me my new card, with full instructions. “Simply touch your contactless card against the card reader,” it says. What? Touch? But that’s CONTACT!

There are times when it’s best to give up with quiet dignity. This is one of them.

 

 

 

“When will they ever learn?”

That question, the last line of that  lovely old song, “Where have all the flowers gone?” came to my mind the other day, on reading a news item in the paper, under the title of  “Dramatic fall in sperm count”. Now before you try to work out the connection between disappearing flowers and falling sperm count, I’d better admit that there isn’t one, except that the news caused me a great sense of deja vu, of having been here before, and of no lessons having been learnt.

“Sperm counts in the Western world have fallen by almost 60% in the past 40 years,” I read. Although this study didn’t look into reasons for the fall, (why ever not?) previous  research had linked the problem to everything from stress, obesity and – wait for it – exposure to pesticides. Yes, I remember that previous report of some years back; it concentrated on the damage caused by pesticides and stated that the highest sperm count in Europe belonged to Danish organic farmers who didn’t use anything ending in -cides. This led to some frivolous comments about the likely boost to the Danish tourist industry caused by this disclosure, but that was all that happened. Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides have continued to be used lavishly, leading my local greengrocer to liken his lettuces to Rolls Royce cars, as, he explained, both were sprayed seventeen times.

Since then, according to this new report , things have got worse. “I think health authorities should be concerned,” said the lead researcher, noting with surprise that sperm counts were not falling nearly as fast in the developing world. As a non-scientist citizen, using ordinary common sense, I don’t find this surprising: farmers in the developing world simply can’t afford agro-chemicals, hence they remain healthier. Clearly, powerful substances used to kill pests remain on the non-organic  fruits and vegetables that we eat, and equally clearly they continue to do a bit of killing inside the body, hitting sperm hard in men, and who knows what in women.

“We have a huge public health problem that was until now under the radar,” the lead researcher added. I fear it’ll remain there. Scientists keep issuing well founded warnings about hazards to public health, decision makers keep  ignoring them. They also ignore the importance of diet in in the same area and the damage caused by chemical-rich but nutrient-poor junk food,  but  complain about the horrific cost of looking after an increasingly sick, largely overweight population. According to psychology textbooks, after the age of seven children understand the link between cause and effect; can it be that our politicians, policy makers and, above all, our medical Establishment have all somehow missed that connection?

Here are just two examples of how little food is considered in the health-disease equation, although it’s the only substance besides air that we consume from our first to our last breath. The first example comes from a booklet issued by Age UK, advising older people how to enjoy life while ageing. It’s all good stuff about exercise, satisfactory social connections, sound sleep and so on, and somewhere a mere six lines mention the importance of a good diet, adding that “beans are a good source of zinc”. That’s it.  Put it in your pipe and smoke it, of course metaphorically, because smoking is bad for you, too.

The second example comes from my recent thorough examination, a kind of human MoT, at my GP’s surgery. The nice nurse asked innumerable questions, examining my various functions and abilities, and ended the session – without asking anything about my daily food intake. When I asked whether that major subject didn’t figure in her list, she looked surprised and shook her head. (I described that meeting in detail in a recent blog.) No, diet wasn’t included, she said, and wished me well. This omission at the very heart of my health care was depressing and made me ask once more, somewhat despairingly, “When will they ever learn?”

Not that I’ll wait for that. Excuse me while I go and prepare my large, fresh, crisp, beautiful and totally organic dinner. Bon appetit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Wéod

First, consult the dictionary. “Weed: a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.” And the ancestor of the word is wéod, “of unknown origin”. Might just as well be mysterious, with that alien accent on the “e” and of unknown pronunciation.

Dictionary apart, what this is all about is that, in order to make savings, the local Council has withdrawn some services, including the regular visits of the Weedkiller Man with his toxic spray and ill-smelling procedure that used to leave us with dead brown weeds instead of green ones all over the road and no obvious advantage. Well, he no longer comes. As a result there is a profusion of weeds bursting out along the kerbs, between paving stones, through holes in the asphalt and in garden walls. And instead of tut-tutting and worrying about this part of West London becoming unkempt and undesirable, I feel delighted. For the first time in my life I am looking at weeds properly and am astonished by their beauty: so many shades of green, such a variety of shapes, from ethereal and lacy to muscular and tough, and such a wealth of small flowers in subtle colours, from pure gold to dreamy pink, white and sky-blue. Compared to this wild show, garden flowers seem  less interesting, almost too obvious.

But what pleases me most, beyond the visual pleasure added to my morning walk, is the realization that underneath the footpath, underneath all built up areas the soil is teaming with plant life and, given half a chance, starts displaying it. Just imagine, if one could roll up the asphalt along one side of the street, as if it were a carpet, within days a lush jungle of plants would appear and thrive, gradually taking over the built-up environment. Which proves my long-held suspicion that while the Earth could manage superbly without us, the reverse isn’t true. If we suddenly disappeared, like other civilizations have in the past, the Earth would probably heave a sigh of relief and start wiping itself clean, leaving only a few mementos of its previous guests. Like the Mayan ruins in South America, the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge and  the other stone circles all over Britain, prehistoric forts and tombs and cave drawings and —

Oops. What would we leave behind? It hardly bears thinking about. I needn’t spell it out, except to say that it would be an awful lot. Zillions of tons of hard stuff, mainly concrete, steel, glass, whatever. A gigantic landfill, with concrete being perhaps the worst offender, depressingly ugly even when new, indestructible when discarded. Enough to make my environmentalist heart grow heavy.

So I look at some sturdy weeds for solace and begin to feel more hopeful. Could they possibly provide the answer? Could they develop the ability over tens of thousands of years to grind up the concrete, mix it into the soil and eventually make it vanish? Why not? Nature is endlessly adaptable; it may in fact enjoy this challenge. Meanwhile let me live in the present, enjoy this free wild flower show –  and take great care not to tread on a barely sprouted wéod as I walk along…

Orphans, unite!

You have nothing to lose but your illusions – about the caring nature of our Government. With apologies for paraphrasing Karl Marx’s famous battle cry, let me suggest that we, the vast, helpless crowd of taxpayers are the orphans in need of wise counsel, care and leadership from our politicians, after all that’s partly what we pay them for, yet that is precisely what we are not getting. It took the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower in West London to make this clear, through the disclosure of how ministers had stubbornly ignored repeated expert warnings of fire risks in high rise buildings. Yes, that fire  could have been prevented; but once it had happened, the initial official response turned out to be inadequate as well. Will there be urgent expert action to prevent similar disasters in other tower blocks? Watch out for it. But don’t hold your breath.

Our politicians seem to be fully occupied with bickering and practising U-turns among themselves. This reminds me of J.C.Bossidy’s  pleasant verse, stored in my treasured collection of useless information:

“And this is good old Boston, / The home of the bean and the cod,/Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots,/ And the Cabots talk only to God.” Substitute your (un)favourite politicians for the Lowells and the Cabots, leave out the Divinity, and you get a pretty good idea of why we’ve become orphans, left to our own devices without as much as a whiff of official guidance.  Just look at two important topical problems we are faced with at this very moment, mainly in Southern and  South-East England. One is the unprecedented heat wave. Right now, at 11.40 a.m. in London, the temperature in the sun has reached 40 degrees Centigrade, equalling high fever in the human body. Moreover, this morning the  BBC weather report mentioned very high UV levels in the sunshine. Now that’s the dangerous component of sunshine that causes bad sunburn at best and skin cancer at worst. As a former melanoma sufferer, I would expect the powers that be to pull out all the stops and use all available channels to warn people against sunbathing, at least between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.,  in order to avoid boosting the skin cancer statistics, especially because some popular sunscreens are known to be of limited use. Do we get any guidance from high above? Not a word.

The second huge problem is the lasting drought in the South-East. As an organic gardener, I am painfully aware of its consequences. And I recall another similar arid spell in 1976, when the then Conservative minister John Gummer, now Lord Deben, did a great job of making us save water. He asked us to stop washing our cars, not to use sprinklers or run the tap while brushing our teeth. He even composed a little ditty about when to flush the loo and when to let it wait until – well, the next time. I don’t know how many people followed his lead – I certainly did – but at least there was a lead, a member of the Government actually connected with the general population. Which the current one is definitely not doing. We might just as well not be here.

But we are here. And there’s a lot of us wanting something better. No, I am not advocating anything drastic, it’s far too hot for that and besides I dislike harsh actions. We’ll just have to start a countrywide non-material  DIY movement. Wake up the grassroots, so to speak (yes, I know it’s a mixed metaphor.). Get informed, use sound judgment and act. Grow up. Let’s shake off the traditional passivity, encouraged by the Welfare State, which expects someone else, preferably High Up, to do the necessary. Let’s stop saying “Mustn’t grumble” – yes, we must and follow up the grumble with peaceful action. There’s already a spreading international lay medical movement to empower patients and  make them sufficiently well-informed to take responsibility for their own health. The same principle of taking responsibility can be applied to other areas of life, too. We have unprecedented access to swift, free means of boundless communication, to spread information and coordinate action.  Let’s use it all.

And stop being helpless orphans. After a while it does become a bore.

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