Get moving, Quintus!

To give him his full name, it was Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, surnamed Cunctator, “the delayer”, and he was a Roman statesman and general who lived around 280-203 B.C. His masterful delaying tactics during the second Punic War worked well against Hannibal’s dreaded forces; in fact they were the earliest known form of guerrilla warfare. This makes him sound quite a fearsome character, yet his surviving statue shows a handsome, gentle looking young man, holding his chin with one hand while presumably pondering what to delay next; contemporary records describe him as being mild mannered and slow-spoken, despite holding huge power.

Now before you begin to wonder what on earth this noble character  of 2200 years ago has got to do with us here and now, let me admit that his monumental lack of urgency has made him a living presence for me, unfortunately in a totally negative way. Almost daily some news item sheds light on an urgent problem affecting us all, together with a suggested official solution to be introduced – some time in the future. The latest example of this concerns the alarming obesity epidemic spreading in this country. According to official figures, one in five children arrive in primary school being obese or overweight, and – worse still – one in three leave primary school in that condition. The serious health risks of obesity are well known; it is a contributory factor to all major diseases from heart disease to cancer, and is therefore the No.1. candidate on the list of preventable baddies.

Prevention immediately  becomes a practical task if we contemplate the dietary disaster that makes the nation fat, the evil effect of the Junk Food Industry that turns out nutritionally empty but calorie-rich rubbish, made tasty and tempting by the galaxy of chemicals politely known as “food cosmetics”. Advertising brainwashes the public to buy and eat the stuff; only a few British schools have recently begun to teach children about healthy eating.

But at last our decision-makers have woken up to what’s going on around the nation’s expanding waistline and seem to be shuffling into action. According to a recent announcement, the relevant Government department has instructed food manufacturers to cut calories by 20% – by 2024. To do this, we are told, would slash costs to the NHS by £45 billion and prevent more than 35,000 premature deaths. Terrific – but for Heaven’s sake, why wait for six years to hit the target? Why this desperate lack of urgency that would make Quintus the Delayer smile with happy recognition? Surely this timetable won’t inspire food manufacturers to start improving their output in a hurry?

Parkinson’s Law, first formulated in 1955, states that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” So if I were a food manufacturer and knew that I had six years to make my calorie-rich junk product healthier, I wouldn’t do a thing for five years or so. After all, according to another “law” by some anonymous sage , “If you wait until the last minute, the job only takes a minute to do.”

The art of delaying has a language of its own, lavishly used in official communications. “At the earliest opportunity”, “in the foreseeable future” and suchlike should act as alarm bells, warning us that again there is no hurry and therefore no fast result involved. Of course there is no reason why we as individuals shouldn’t become awkward and try to speed up events. I’ve done it many times, failed in 40%. succeeded in 30% and at least got things moving in the remainder.

And, being of an impatient disposition – sorry, Quintus the charming Cunctator- I’ll continue to fight unnecessary delays wherever they crop up. There will be plenty left for others to cope with.





Welcome to the Madhouse

“Oh, cheer up,” said my irrepressible friend on the phone, “Spring is coming, the first daffodils are out, why are you so gloomy?” I gave a non-answer and changed the subject. But afterwards I made a quick mental list of the strictly non-personal reasons, the ones concerning every single one of us, for my mood that was as cloudy and chill as the February afternoon outside, with no  precocious daffodils able to brighten it.

O.K., this is what happened that day. I switched on the radio and gathered that global sea levels had risen in the 20th century at nearly double their previous rate. Coastal habitats have been devastated, soils eroded and contaminated, flooding doubled, and with the glaciers melting we can no longer stop the process, only slow down its pace. (I live near the Thames and yes, recently the tides looked pretty swollen – surely West London isn’t yet on the list of doomed habitats?)

Switch off radio. Pick up morning paper. Long piece full of statistics about human overpopulation. Every 12-15 years we add another billion to our bulging masses, I read, and the impact on the environment is devastating. An expert called it “A barrel of explosives”. Oops – as these days explosives figure often in the daily news, this makes me shiver. Overconsumption, loss of tree cover, inadequate fresh water, starvation, increased pollution, new epidemics, you name it, we’ll have it.

As if this weren’t sufficient, the scientific journal that arrives in the mail confirms that at present  we are using up the renewable resources of 1.7 Earths, and by 2050 we’ll need three Earths to keep us going. Where on…no, where outside Earth are we going to find them? Just to pick out one grim detail, in the last 40 years our planet lost one third of its arable land, due to erosion and over-cultivation. Beyond a certain limit artificial fertilisers can’t make up for the loss of healthy fertile soil; first the quality and eventually the quantity of the crops plummets and all that remains is dead soil and the fertiliser run-off poisoning rivers and brooks. More people, less soil to grow food for them – surely something is very wrong here?

Enough is enough. Can’t take any more gloom and doom. Instead, I browse the sunnier uplands of the internet and read the messages of  the various civilian groups that, scattered all over the world, swim against the mainstream, trying to mitigate the damage caused by the unwisdom of the Establishment. Crowd funding, signatures by the milli0n, powerful  grass root initiatives  which succeed against heavy odds: things begin to look and feel  hopeful. No, perhaps it’s not too late, it’s still seven whole minutes to midnight. If those in power, the global decision-makers applied themselves to the task, they could stop the rot and start the healing process. End spending unimaginable fortunes on arms and plant forests instead. Feed the starving. Make contraception available everywhere to curb population growth. Educate and empower women and girls to add their special gifts to community life. Teach men to express their anger by non-violent means.

Wow, what a beautiful programme. It covers several topical needs. The next step is to involve those in power, the ones not caught up in corruption, fraud, nepotism or sex scandals to get going, inspire and lead us towards success. Surely they are aware of the huge risks of the moment and are busy seeking solutions?

So what does President Trump, head of the world’s No.1. superpower  think about all this? Well, actually he doesn’t. He’s preoccupied with the utterances of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and sends him this message: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

If it weren’t about the possibility of nuclear annihilation, this would remind me of nothing more important than small boys arguing behind the bicycle shed, on the level of “my Daddy is bigger/stronger/richer than yours”, or, more ominously, “my knife is bigger/ sharper/more expensive than yours”. Unfortunately this time the parallel doesn’t work, except in the lunatic logic of the madhouse.

And then my friend on the telephone wonders why I sound so gloomy.




Let Them Eat Plastic

“Let them eat cake” is what Queen Marie Antoinette was supposed to have said on being told that the poor peasants of France had no bread to eat. From what is known about her kindly nature she probably did n0t say it, but even if she did, she would have been motivated by ignorance and royal remoteness from the realities of poverty and famine.

No such excuse applies to one of the greatest powers of today, namely the Food Industry. According to a recent report in The Guardian, “Half of all the food bought by families in Britain is now ‘ultra-processed’, made in a factory with industrial ingredients and additives invented by food technologists and bearing little resemblance to the fruit, vegetables, meat or fish used to cook a fresh meal at home.”

Wow. So now it’s official. “The Food Industry makes us sick,” says a weary doctor friend of mine, “then passes us on to Big Pharma which extends our lifespan, allowing us to eat more junk food.” He is exceptional in realizing the food-health link: medical training spends scandalously little time on teaching the subject. Hence the vagueness of otherwise excellent doctors when asked about dietary matters. “Try eating a good balanced diet”, they say ; the rest is silence.

Having spent half my adult life studying the connection between food and health, viz. ill-health, I can’t fault my doctor friend’s diagnosis. Ultra-processed foods look good, taste reasonable and smell authentic, thanks to some 3000 “food cosmetics” used Europe-wide to produce the taste, looks and smell of emasculated foods that have been stripped of  their own natural characteristics. Or even of their substance, like fake noodles that consist of oils, starch and additives…

So if half of all the food  bought by families in Britain belongs to this ultra-processed variety, it’s time to look at the cause-and-effect side of the story. Psychologists tell us that children understand the link between cause and effect from the age of seven; can it be that some adults, including decision-makers, don’t? Yes, we all want the NHS to be properly funded and able to function at its best, but no amount of funding will be sufficient while people methodically eat themselves sick and obese.

What’s the answer? Not official guidance from above; as a rule that sparks off immediate resistance in suspicious citizens, with shouts of “No nanny state!” as a soundtrack. My answer is a new brand of food populism, a recognition and use of consumer power which is often obscured by brilliant advertising and avalanches of special offers. Yet we consumers have the power of choice, of saying yes to some products and a resounding no to others.

This food populism has already started at grassroots level,  led by an – as yet – small minority of rebellious consumers. They buy fresh organic produce wherever they can find it, cut down on red meat and cut out sugary snacks and  soft drinks. Some club together and arrange with an organic farmer to grow the foods they require, against guaranteed payment. Others subscribe to a weekly box scheme.And no, this needn’t be the “niche” indulgence of the well-off:  the money you save by boycotting non-foods and spending it on the real stuff leaves you well within your budget.

One of my informal rules is to avoid any food that has a long list of ingredients, many of them positively alarming. Again thanks to the Guardian, I now know that a Mr Kipling Angel Slice, a  top national favourite. has 22 ingredients, including red colour derived from insects. Compare this to a tin where under ingredients I find “Organic Red Kidney Beans and Water. And that’s it!” Rather endearing.

Lots more to say, but the long and the short of it is that we have choice in matters of what we eat and we have only ourselves to blame if we don’t use it.

We don’t have to eat plastic. Honestly.




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”.





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.