Saturday, June 28, 2008

Open wide.

I've spent the last couple of weeks with an infected salivary gland, which I'm refusing to accept is tooth-related as that would mean a trip to some hyper-expensive private dental cosmetician thanks to HM Govt's refusal to provide NHS dentistry in Lincs, in revenge for us all voting Tory. Instead, I'm on antibiotics and painkillers and talking out of the side of my mouth like a New Joisey gangster, due to my jaw having locked up. It was worst last Wednesday, when I had a morning appointment in London. So bad that the only thing I could think of to eat for lunch were matchstick-thin McDonalds fries. I could just about poke them through the gap between my teeth and managed to suck the burger in by squashing each half of the bun separately. Nobody noticed. Or if they did, they were only Japanese tourists who always look bewildered anyway.

So on the grounds that the surest way of cheering oneself up is to laugh at the suffering, no sorry.. feel the pain of those who are even worse off, I thought I'd spend the afternoon watching death, desolation, persecution, destitution, unrequited love and torment, with a matinee of Les Miserables at the Queen's. Wonderful.

Anyway... this morning, in a rare listen to the Today programme, I heard Humphries and two elderly historians wondering aloud whether Zimbabweans would rise up and shake off the Mugabe yoke much in the way, they said, that the peoples of the Soviet Union did when their own tyrannies were imploding. I can tell them, the answer is 'no'. Africa isn't Europe, it's just not ready or mature enough for it.

Consider this. It's the church in the hamlet of Thorpe St. Peter, near to here. The first word in its name says it would originally have been a Danish settlement - it stands just beyond the foot of the Lincolnshire Wolds, where the predominant place-name suffix is '-by' and which, before becoming part of the Danelaw, was occupied by the Romans. It would have been founded by a french-speaking lord, whose title and lands were granted by William the Conqueror just a few generations earlier and it represents a British Christian tradition that, even then, was 1000 years old. The doorway, evidently, was built in about 1200, the window to the left made about 75 years later and those under the roof a century or more later still.

The resources for its building and upkeep together with the administration of services and ceremonies, the employment of clerks and vicars, regulation from the Diocese, enforcement of Laws and customs, the collection of tithes... all meant that a hierarchy needed to be in place that possessed literacy, numeracy, technical skill and submission to the discipline and authority required to organise its affairs. There needed to be a reliable system of land-tenure, a currency and a means of settling disputes. It couldn't exist in isolation, it was part of an enterprise that exported the goods it produced throughout Europe, as far afield as Northern Italy and could extend its military reach right to the gates of Jerusalem itself, from where ideas and loot flowed back to it.

All these things were in place. The fulfillment of the needs of Thorpe St. Peter were the nursery for our modern State. Those are our folk-memories. At about the time the porch roof was being finished, the Barons of England were at Runnymede forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta. 800 years later, we're a fully fledged democracy - it's taken that long. A thousand years previously, we were near-savages and Roman invaders looking at Britain's rudimentary technological and social infrastructure would have justifiably thought we were born with the IQs of gnats. It takes those sort of timescales to build up a cultural intelligence. Individuals can learn almost overnight - societies, I believe, can't. Or at least, don't.

So, what happens in Zimbabwe when Mugabe goes will most likely be a civil war, of the kind we all know, that bedevils the whole of Africa. Because the historically-rooted tribal rifts that lie at the heart of the current struggle for supremacy will erupt there as surely as they do from top to bottom of that continent. It shouldn't take millennia for African nations to make the same journey as the West, because they have some benefit in being able to see working models of functioning states; but it will take generations, until civil society based on meritocracy fully replaces those based on tribal loyalties and a social infrastructure capable of peaceful transition becomes embedded in consciousness.

I saw no black faces in the audience last Wednesday. Even an afternoon's light entertainment like Les Mis is full of those recognisable historical and cultural references that reinforce an indigenous Westerner's sense of self and place, so maybe that explains the lack. There can be no African equivalent, yet. Except as a drama, it wouldn't resonate, it can't, it's not their personal history. No more than I can put myself in the mind of an African and, except in the intellectual or emotional sense, relate to being on the victim's end of the slave trade or to being a Ndebele on the receiving end of a Shona thug's baton. It's not how people want it to be, or how with good-will it possibly could be... but it does appear to be how it is.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Fall

A kid was getting ready to kill himself on Saturday, standing on a ledge outside the barrier, while I drove over the Humber Bridge. Three police cars, blue lights flashing, were parked in the inside lane. I slowed as I passed. He was thin, no more than 20 years old, wearing a dark hoody, facing inwards, clinging to the rail, head bowed, looking away from the drop. It looked so mundane at the time - no sense of being a dramatic scene, as I might have imagined it. Maybe he was waiting while he thought about changing his mind, scared to look weak in front of the coppers. Maybe he was wondering how the 100 yard freefall would feel, whether he'd hurt himself when he hit the water and what drowning would be like. I'm curious to know what happened next but about every 6 weeks or so, somebody jumps from there. It's such a commonplace occurance that there's no report I can find. I suppose I should feel something more compassionate than curiosity; but I've looked into myself and can't find anything else beyond a general disquiet at a life wasted.

Death itself, apart from the tragedy of loss... just the circumstance of death.. does somehow seem fairly matter of fact when it happens. Must be an inate reaction in us, there to help us cope with the inevitable. Some years ago I was fishing with some friends in a small boat about half a mile off Scotland. There was a commotion, and I turned to see everyone jumping over the stern - the towering bow of a trawler was bearing down on us a few feet away. This tale usually bores everybody shitless - no doubt it loses some of the suspense, knowing I'm still here to tell it. But anyway, here goes. It hit and we filled up and started to sink like a bucket. There was no chance of me swimming to safety and no doubt in my mind that I was as good as dead, but I wasn't fazed by it.. no despondency, no fear of life beyond the watery grave, just a sense of mild amazement that I was going to die here and like this, of all things. But it happened that, luckily, a deckhand spotted the tip of the mast just as it was disappearing under the waves, threw down a line, hauled me in. It was a day or two later before it started to seem like a big deal, when I became scared of the dark.

So now, it's just the loss of immortality that bothers me most about dying... that and hoping it's not too near on the horizon. I'd been to see family at Beverley, the day of the jumper, and toured the Minster while there. It's a gem, started in the early C13 and built almost completely without addition so that the original architect's vision exists as a harmonious whole, with little more than the developing window tracery as proof of the 200 years it took to build. Inside, it's a forest of dizzying geometry - which is the epitome of the balance and harmony that symbolises the pathway to God. The lessons are there for us. Whether we choose to believe the Bible or not, the Universal rules still apply and you can't buck them and expect to succeed. I hope the kid did survive, now that I've given him some thought. All of us looking at suicide as outsiders know that whatever drives (well) people to it is only ever temporary, at worst.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


I fear for Ryanair. For all their faults, for many of us outside the Southeast it wasn't just their low prices we wanted - they gave us destinations we couldn't otherwise have dreamed of accessing. It's only a couple of years since we flew to Jerez and back for 60 odd quid for two. Now I'm looking at going again in October, and even with giveaway fares of £nil going out and a tenner coming back, taxes and extras hike the price up to £180. £45 each/each way is still a good deal, but it's not just a question of affordability. Add another 20% to cover the pound's decline against the euro and a trip that almost everyone could take on a whim is now a subject for consideration against the alternatives. It might still be worthwhile to me, but some people are bound to think the extra isn't worth it which, given Ryanair's pile em high/sell em cheap business model, could be worse for them than most.

Still, at least a weekend of frolics and flamenco is only a discretionary purchase. There won't be the same rioting for the last check-in places as we're seeing for scarce cups of rice in the Far East. There's no spot or futures market in flights. It's unregulated and not subject to the speculation, manipulation and hoarding that pushes commodity prices to misery levels for billions. Any shakeout in the airline industry will hit only those consumers best able to withstand it and, who knows, this customer resistance to $150 a barrel oil may be the trigger that brings prices back to realistic levels. There is no serious oil shortage, there is no serious rice shortage - any more than there is a gold shortage or it was a housing shortage that precipitated the property boom. All are the consequence of an oversupply of money being pumped into safe havens and a means of generating more wealth for those holding the right bits of paper.

We're used to a balance in our transactions. We make a rough judgement as to whether the slice of our income that something costs is worth the benefit to us of the goods. We do much the same when we invest in friendships or relationships - which is why we feel cheated if we believe we've put more in than we're getting out of them. It's a feedback loop - or a kind of karma, indeed. This is what will ultimately govern reactions to worldwide energy and food prices if they get too far out of kilter with people's need for them. In the end, despite some casualties among the weak, suppliers know they can't kill the golden goose.