Friday, 16 December 2011

“Dictators and Desperados..... Delegation and Democracy”

This article is really about those who are marginalised in the world; but, on a more serious level, it is particularly about the plight of Greece and its people and those of the other EEC countries, Italy, Spain, Portugal, who are facing a similar plight; not forgetting that it wasn't so long ago that the Republic of Ireland was plunged into economic gloom and bust! But is there any reason why we should not begin to worry about the core countries of Europe, Germany, France and... the UK?
It has been on my mind to write an(other) article about the human condition for some time, but with a different perspective. It has to do not only with entrepreneurs, adventurers and leaders; people who stick their necks on the block for civilisation, to solve great human challenges, resolve seemingly irresolvable issues, achieve the impossible, lift us from darkness and create order out of chaos; but it also has to do with how they rise to preeminence, how they deal with it; and how they fall... or rather when the powerful effects of wealth and fame can turn them into bullies and control-freaks! Or cause them to ally themselves with people of such character, in order to retain control. 
I recounted in recent blog post the lesson I learned from an inspiring geography teacher - that "the solution to the problems of the world lies in harmony with the distribution of raw materials"; still relevant in some ways to this debate, but I just remembered another memorable fact he taught us: about the rise and fall of civilisations, of empires. We in the 'West', notably in Britain, whose Empire once painted most the world's map pink, are now in the declining phase of civilisation. So too other European powers and the USA. And the rising powers? The BRICs perhaps? Watch this space! 

So what on earth has happened in Greece...
Never more was there a need for significant enlightenment, and leadership, in European economics, as right now. But I should point out, before you read any further, that this is not going to be a learned economic treatise; it will be a philosophical and social commentary if it is to be anything.
And so it is... 
The trouble with any kind of 'progress', howsoever forged by great minds; the inherent fault built into the human condition, the way we are wired if you like, is that even for those, who have the greatest integrity, are the most philanthropic and have the highest motives at the outset, it seems to me that we are programmed to fail; that no human being is perfect or capable of resisting the drug of wealth and power, which always turns so called 'progress' into a crusade. And this will be true at whatever level of society, be it political, religious, commercial, military or social; global, national or local. I can think of few exceptions. 
Whether you are the billionaire owner of a multi-national corporation, general manager of a medium sized company or Chair of the committee at your local Club. The quest to get more and more of it with the inevitability of its desire for supremacy, driven by the desire to rise above the rest, to eliminate challengers, is ever present; and I feel the spirit of Charles Darwin stirring. It may be easier to resist when you occupy the unpaid job of administering the affairs of you local Club, but when it comes to the clearly intoxicating high risk game of power-politics, business and banking, not so!
Competition is healthy, you might say. Yes, I agree. But what is happening to political democracy, to which, I think, the same rules apply as to the world of invention, trade and commerce. 
Let me say this...
In every walk of both my working and social life, I thought I'd seen it all. Democratic team players and delegators at one pole; control freaks and extreme control freaks - or bullies and dictators as we may better know them - at the other pole. In between, a whole array of personality types that bridge the spectrum of humanity, each one of which is a unique representation of its genes and environment. There are other spectra that cross this one; one of them is what I’d call the ‘lucky-unlucky’ spectrum. So much depends on where, when and to whom you were born, as to where you might get to in life. 
I know, you could give me any number of examples of people born into a lowly environments, who subsequently clawed their way to success and riches, using what God-given intelligence they had along with extreme hard word and risk management - perhaps with a bit of luck every now and again. These are exceptional people. I am, however, talking about the general majority of populations, who are not wired in such a way. We are not all born equal; that is with the same wiring, brains, intelligence - the X-Factor if you like - to enable that kind of success. If we were all born equal, into equal environments, with equal opportunities, then, I ask, what would the world be like?
I know I've crossed this philosophical path before in previous blog posts as well as at other points in my life, but rather than setting out to describe this philosophy in detail, I need to get a perspective on it all. It may be perhaps a bit more intuitive and instinctive than it is based on science and proper research, but, in my opinion, it is still a very valid observation. You can be your own judge of that.
For the world to change; for there to be an alteration to the - and some would argue a fairer - distribution of its assets, there would firstly have to be a seed change in the attitude to 'human rights'. I think there is a need to understand what a human being, from birth onwards, is entitled to. How much of their privilege, or lack of it, of their inherited wealth, or lack of it, are they entitled to? How much can they reasonably 'earn' by merit; how can we define 'merit'. Is a Premiership footballer a one hundred and fifty or two hundred times 'better' player than a professional footballer in National League 2; but not just as a player, as a human being too? Is the CEO of Shell as many times better a hard working and dedicated human being, manager, director, creative organiser, motivator.. as his salary bears in multiples of that of the lowest paid in society? I suspect the answer is no! How often is the CEO and highest paid management of companies of such stature born into poverty? And when they do rise from lowly backgrounds, how much of the way they were wired at birth influenced their ability to achieve such high office. Not an easy question to answer, but I suspect it is greed that is the primary fuel of all ambition at this level, at any level. Tell me I'm wrong.
We will always need exceptional individuals, the best and most talented people, to be leaders; to rise and take the greatest responsibilities in the world. But if the posts they fill and the motivations that drive them end up being self-serving; if they are only to generate as much personal wealth for themselves as possible, then where is the justice in that? We all of us need to try our hardest to be the best we can be, given our environment, genetic heritage and opportunities, and there should always be recognition of endeavour.
If materialism isn't going to go away any time soon, how do you motivate people to be the best they can be, when the gap between the rich and poor keeps on widening? At the moment, particularly in the age of materialism - and maybe for the duration of human existence on earth - this seems to be increasingly driven by material greed. We would all like to be rich, some of us famous, but all would like not to have to be a slave to another master.
All of this is grist to the mill of political debate over the ages: socialism vs capitalism; the market economy vs the (perhaps more difficult but not impossible to finance) caring and equitable welfare society.
Oh, I hear someone retort, it's about perceived market value, merchandising, image, branding... I'd like to use stronger language here, but "utter nonsense" is all I shall say (because I want this blog to be read!). Get human, try to get a handle on an alternative reality, because, unless you are amongst the top 1% of the world's rich - and if you were, I suspect you wouldn't be reading this essay - then you have the same motives as the rest of us. We all aspire to be better off, but beware of being a sycophant; allying and associating yourself with a grouping you are unlikely to join in reality, but merely aspire to be associated with. You won't get rich by association, although there may well be exceptions to this. 
That all sounds a bit radical - and maybe it is - but I wasn't born a radical and I'm not one now! In fact I was born into the traditional aspiring, privately educated middle class and was brought up always to believe in taking personal responsibility for my actions and achievements and not blaming someone else for my woes. But, as in any life, there comes a point where ones perspective changes as a result of experience, observation of injustice and a sensitivity to the enormity of the inequality in the world and, perhaps most important, an ability to think more clearly about what is really important about our lives on this earth.
We all need desperately to think, think, think and think again, in spite of the temptation to say "what on earth can I do" and then bury our heads in the sand. Without thought and subsequent conviction and, most important of all, a commitment to vote at every democratically devised opportunity that develops as a result of studied philosophical thought, our democracy will ebb away. It is already looking like it is doing so on the fringes of Europe in the cradle of European civilisation and democracy, Greece.
This brings me to the crux of what inspired me to write this post.
I recently received from a friend a 'forwarded' email, the text of which I have copied for you below. It is about the purported causes of the economic crisis of confidence in our southern European neighbour, Greece. I'm not going to say anything about it before you read it, but it will be followed by the comments I received from a Greek friend, whose opinions on the subject I respect and whom I asked to do so, in order that I could personally get an inside view of what is happening in her country and perhaps the veracity of the statements in this email as well as a feeling for the true plight of a majority of honest Greek people; people who, like you and me, represent a majority of the world's population, who are tasked with doing their best and surviving in the environment into which they were borne... mostly by chance, yes, by chance! 
Here goes the text of that email: -
"Even on a stiflingly hot summer's day, the Athens underground is a pleasure. It is air-conditioned, with plasma screens to entertain passengers relaxing in cool, cavernous departure halls and the trains even run on time. There is another bonus for users of this state-of-the-art rapid transport system: it is, in effect, free for the five million people of the Greek capital.
· With no barriers to prevent free entry or exit to this impressive tube network, the good citizens of Athens are instead asked to 'validate' their tickets at honesty machines before boarding. Few bother.
· Indeed, as well as not paying for their metro tickets, the people of Greece barely paid a penny of the underground’s £1.5 billion cost — a ‘sweetener’ from Brussels (and, therefore, the UK taxpayer) to help the country put on an impressive 2004 Olympics free of the city’s notorious traffic jams.
· The transport perks are not confined to the customers. Incredibly, the average salary on Greece’s railways is £60,000, which includes cleaners and track workers - treble the earnings of the average private sector employee.
· The overground rail network is as big a racket as the EU-funded underground. While its annual income is only £80million from ticket sales, the wage bill is more than £500m a year — prompting one Greek politician to famously remark that it would be cheaper to put all the commuters into private taxis.
· Ridiculously, Greek pastry chefs, radio announcers, hairdressers and masseurs in steam baths are among more than 600 professions allowed to retire at 50 (with a state pension of 95 per cent of their last working year’s earnings) — on account of the ‘arduous and perilous’ nature of their work.
· Take a short trip on the metro to the city’s cooler northern suburbs, and you will find an enclave of staggering opulence. Here, in the suburb of Kifissia, amid clean, tree-lined streets full of designer boutiques and car showrooms selling luxury marques such as Porsche and Ferrari, live some of the richest men and women in the world. With its streets paved with marble, and dotted with charming parks and cafes, this suburb is home to shipping tycoons such as Spiros Latsis, a billionaire and friend of Prince Charles, as well as countless other wealthy industrialists and politicians. One of the reasons they are so rich is that rather than paying millions in tax to the Greek state, as they rightfully should, many of these residents are living entirely tax-free.
· Along street after street of opulent mansions and villas, surrounded by high walls and with their own pools, most of the millionaires living here are, officially, virtually paupers. How so? Simple: they are allowed to state their own earnings for tax purposes, figures which are rarely challenged. And rich Greeks take full advantage.
· Astonishingly, only 5,000 people in a country of 12 million admit to earning more than £90,000 a year — a salary that would not be enough to buy a garden shed in Kifissia.
Yet studies have shown that more than 60,000 Greek homes each have investments worth more than £1m, let alone unknown quantities in overseas banks, prompting one economist to describe Greece as a ‘poor country full of rich people’.
· Manipulating a corrupt tax system, many of the residents simply say that they earn below the basic tax threshold of around £10,000 a year, even though they own boats, second homes on Greek islands and properties overseas. And, should the taxman rumble this common ruse, it can be dealt with using a ‘fakelaki’ — an envelope stuffed with cash. There is even a semi-official rate for bribes: passing a false tax return requires a payment of up to 10,000 euros (the average Greek family is reckoned to pay out £2,000 a year in fakelaki.)
· Even more incredibly, Greek shipping magnates — the king of kings among the wealthy of Kifissia — are automatically exempt from tax, supposedly on account of the great benefits they bring the country.
· Yet the shipyards are empty; once employing 15,000, they now have less than 500 to service the once-mighty Greek shipping lines which, like the rest of the country, are in terminal decline.
· With Greek President George Papandreou calling for a crackdown on these tax dodgers — who are believed to cost the economy as much as £40bn a year — he is now resorting to bizarre means to identify the cheats. After issuing warnings last year, government officials say he is set to deploy helicopter snoopers, along with scrutiny of Google Earth satellite pictures, to show who has a swimming pool in the northern suburbs — an indicator, officials say, of the owner’s wealth.
· Officially, just over 300 Kifissia residents admitted to having a pool. The true figure is believed to be 20,000. There is even a boom in sales of tarpaulins to cover pools and make them invisible to the aerial tax inspectors.
· There has also been a boom in London property purchases by Athens-based Greeks in an attempt to hide their true worth from their domestic tax authorities.‘These anti-tax evasion measures by the government force us to resort to even more detailed tax evasion ploys,’ admits Petros Iliopoulos, a civil engineer. Hotlines have been set up offering rewards for people who inform on tax dodgers. Last month, to show the government is serious, it named and shamed 68 high-earning doctors found guilty of tax evasion.
· Greek school system is now an over-staffed shambles, employing four times more teachers per pupil than Finland, the country with the highest-rated education system in Europe. ‘But we still have to pay for tutors for our two children,’ says Helena, an Athens mother. ‘The teachers are hopeless — they seem to spend their time off sick.’"
My friend works in the private sector in Athens. Her commentary is as follows:
"I really don’t know where to start with this as it ‘attempts’ to address so many issues, suffice to say that this is the kind of propaganda that fuelled the EU mass media machine in the first place.
Kifissia and Ekali are the wealthiest neighborhoods in all of Greece so painting pictures of Kifissia as representative of Greece is tantamount to using Beverly Hills and Hollywood as the example for the United States. 
No doubt a Greek in London is already a Greek of above average wealth - so ‘reliable sources’ may not necessarily be representative of the majority. Ditto for UHNWIs (ultra-high net worth individuals) purchasing property - these are not average Greeks.
There is no doubt that corruption is hugely problematic in Greece - as it is elsewhere (‘off shores’ and Swiss bank accounts = not only a Greek problem). The current Greek government is trying to lure investors (UHNWIs) to Greece with the promise of no taxation. But this is a 99% vs. 1% problem. The same everywhere. Greek shippers have their companies off shore. Again, that's not particular to Greece.

Re: the transport system, there are ticket inspectors and rather expensive fines for people who do not pay for tickets. Personally I do not know anyone who travels on public transport for free - there are not closed turnstiles in Athens as you would find in London or Paris, but the Athens Metro is only one line, connected to 3 suburban lines. It doesn't service much of the population of Athens. The expense to install turnstiles probably wouldn't justify the potential gains; and the ‘plasma entertainment screens’ on the train platforms are simply screens for advertising and to state the weather. It makes me wonder whether the writer of this email has ever taken a train in Athens. 
The school system: teachers get 550 Euros per month, 630 for experienced teachers. This is not enough to live on if you pay rent. Greece has London prices and Bulgarian salaries. This year students don't have books and many schools have been shut down. Class sizes = 30-35 students, but there are no books in schools & very poorly paid teachers... ‘over-staffed’ is not an adjective I would use to describe the school system... ever!
Here's a more realistic picture: my partner works full time, 10 hour days but hasn’t been paid for 4 months since there is no cash flow in the company. Why doesn't he quit? No jobs to go to anyway. His colleague, a 45 year old man with 2 kids, bought a modest apartment 2 years ago in Athens center for 100,000 euros. He hasn't been paid for 4 months so mortgage repayments can't be made. His wife had to go to her village in Crete to find work during the tourist season to pay for food for the family...
…the 90 year old woman on 300 euros/ month pension, who couldn't pay her ‘property tax’ which is now added to the electricity bill. She has her electricity cut off and with winter coming in the Balkans, she may well not survive. 
…I see people sleeping in the streets, the new homeless, and middle classes sorting through bins for food.
Now what's obvious is that the rich make more money during these tragic times, whilst the poor suffer.
Will austerity combat corruption - no it will not! Austerity taxes the poor and the rich will find ways to cheat the system. 
The system is sick, but it's not particular to Greece"
She went on to say...
"’s difficult to answer these things and NOT feel emotional about it. But facts are facts, and the "better off" do not know what regular people are experiencing. Only yesterday my partner and I renegotiated our rent with our landlord - fairly common since rent prices have fallen and salaries have been slashed (if you actually receive one). The only way we could convince them (since they're not in economic need & don’t care if the space is rented out or not - so they say..) was if it was win-win. So the result was a 22% cut in rent for us, and a 50 euro increase for them. How so?
They will be giving us a receipt declaring half the amount we actually give them - so they aren’t losing as much in taxes (which is 40-45%). Did we have a choice? No -- otherwise we'd have to move out and bear the cost of relocating. This is a small example of how the wealthy benefits from times like these -- 
I telework (communications /social media manager) for a US technology company. They had an EU office in Greece (VP of marketing was Greek American) - but the office closed in May. I will be finishing my contract with them at the end of this year - the VP of marketing wants marketing US-based (she's in San Francisco) as she finds the time difference hard to manage (and she isn't the best communicator - bit disorganized too, so makes things harder). At the end of the day she just didn't want to adjust her schedule to work around meeting me online - fair enough. I'm not upset about it, I have been working 10-12 hour days including often to 10pm or so in the evenings just so that I could catch her online. It’s been exhausting and not at all enjoyable. 
So yes, employed and paid till EOY. Already looking for work for 2012."
"at the end of the day John, I have dual nationality (Greek & Australian) - I'm mulitlingual and have worked in different countries, so I'll manage. If Greece becomes a fascist state (the way it’s looking now, that's promising) I will leave. The thing is, most people here do not have any choice at all - they just don’t know or can't imagine what they'll do, it's too scary, or they really don't have the means to relocate. The other side is also: why should they be driven from their own country, their homes and families...
People have been scared into complacency - it feels like everyone is just waiting for things to get worse - and more people will join in protest as they have less to lose. By then I suspect that things will have become much more dangerous. I don’t feel like I'm exaggerating - there has been a dangerous shift in politics in Southern Europe. Our government has a united coalition government (EC seal of approval) with far right members - Greece's "neo-nazis". That would never have happened if we'd been allowed to vote/have a referendum. The new unelected PM (former VP of the ECB) has demanded all party members sign that there will be NO early elections and all members must agree to the proposed bailout agreement - they must SIGN the agreement. What does that mean? The government - all parties, have the same political agenda, the same policies, same agreement with EC, and are bound by that agreement. We will see where that takes us..."
So please remember that you don't have to believe everything you read or hear at first sight, just because it fits with your own preconception; nor take what you read or hear in emails, or even in the press and media, as gospel, at least without first questioning it; delving a little deeper and thinking about it to test its slant and its objectivity and its truthfulness. Things are never what they seem to be. 

I am nevertheless very grateful to the friend who sent me the original email, because she was, just like me, ready to forward an email that basically painted a picture that I thought to be truly representative and that agreed with my preconceived notions about Greece and Greek society. How stupidly wrong I was to adopt that unquestioning stance! But for my Greek friend, I might still be thinking in the same vein now. What her response did do was make me think about it more deeply. 

Whether or not I've got my point across in this overly long essay, it still expresses, in the best way that I can, just how I feel.
At times of difficulty in our lives, and now is such a time, a very human tendency is to polarise, by which I mean groupings of people split into opposing camps - in this case probably into the 'haves', the 'hangers-on to the haves' or the 'I'm all right Jacks' on the one hand and 'have-nots' on the other. I count myself amongst the ‘haves’, because I am better off than the greater proportion of the world’s population, who probably live below the poverty line, depending on where you draw that line.
We are all fragile creatures, in reality, and there must be a better way. But - and this is a big BUT - I take the strong view that radical physical action is not the answer; protest marches always carry with them the risk of riot, which is so often spurred by a minority - from either side of the argument it has to be said - including from those with a vested interest in the legal clamp-down that results from serious rioting. I say this because, if you study the history of the march toward fascism and dictatorship in any country, we know that the seeds of unrest are planted by economic instability, but the result of this is often civil unrest the only logical conclusion is that police and ultimately military force becomes necessary, if a breakdown in law and order is threatened. And, let’s be honest about this, quite often those that cause civil disobedience and law breaking, apart from being in the minority, do not, I believe, have the same motives as the authentic protestors.
So, we should instead, take to the pen and the paper and, audio-visual and social media; whatever peacful means are at our disposal to share, debate and lobby.  AND, above all, cast your democratic vote at every opportunity; exercise your electoral rights… whilst you still have them!
Finally, spare a thought and a prayer, if you will, for the ordinary people of Greece, for whom it may already be too late; whose freedoms have already been eroded. Take a closer look at who in that country (and elsewhere) has profited from all this, because you can be sure there are a few who have… enormously.
Some further information for your edification:
Maker of the Film "Debtocracy" and commentator Aris Hatzistefanou's interview.
And an article in Spiegel Online International about Miza and Fakelaki
...and some more challenging reading: 
"Abandoning a Sinking Ship" by Yanis Varoufakis 

Monday, 5 December 2011

But, You Signed for It...!

This poem is for Shan, who, it seems, has suffered the most shameful of Christmas greetings, courtesy the Royal Mail. She received a letter, by 'Recorded Signed For' delivery, which she did sign for, just as we all would. On opening the envelope, she read the letter enclosed and looked for the vouchers described in the message - £200 worth of them - but nothing was there. It has to be said that, apart from the fact these are for her two young children's Christmas presents, she is a single mum living on next to nothing. What is almost worse, she says, is the thought that someone - maybe a postman - is walking around with £200 worth of Park Vouchers in their pocket, and that they will undoubtedly be spent for the benefit of someone for whom they were not intended!

Spare a thought for petty thieves and stick some needles in their 'dolls'. They don't deserve anything for Christmas!


That’s what they said, in a round about way
Please call us with any concerns
We are here to help; you must have your say
(On that premium rate number!)
What! Two hundred pounds! Lost in the post?
Are you quite sure about that?
OK, it was posted, recorded, at cost
Yes, but, you signed for its receipt!
Ah, well, you see, what can we do?
Cos you signed for the letter, you see!
Enabling control by receipt, that’s you
ensuring you get what you should.
So why don’t we point out your need to make sure
what you’re signing for is actually there?
You say: they give you no time to ensure
you can open and check what’s inside.
So what would we think if the driver were asked
to wait for the opening to occur?
They work to a very tight schedule and tasked
to complete it all on one day.
Besides, it’s all in the conditions you saw;
you’ve to sign before you break seal
So we can’t do that or we’d have to charge more
And I’m sure that wouldn’t appeal.
It’s all in the terms and conditions, you know
whatever you say, we can’t help.
Excuse, if we seem somewhat keen to go
and answer the next concerned call.
But if you have any worries at all
We are here to help so please
don’t hesitate, pick up the phone and call.
Royal Mail, at your service, willing to please.

© 2011 John Anstie

If you feel like getting in touch, and able to offer advice or succour to Shan, you will find her on Twitter @awdures

Friday, 11 November 2011

At the Eleventh Hour... for the sake of humanity

Written at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year of this millennium.

I have only one thing to say about Remembrance Day: Let us simply remember it and all the lives that have been adversely affected by conflict over the years, but particularly lives lost.

That's it!

Well, it isn't completely it. I do have something else to say.

In fact, right now, I'm feeling very angry... angry at the arrogance, unreasonable partisanship and any kind of behaviour that demonstrates ignorance and intolerance - especially political or religious intolerance - or any form of drum-beating vested interest from anywhere in the world.

Leave it out, for God's sake, pack it in and leave it out!! Just start thinking about what the poppy really represents.

When I see a poppy
I see the symbol
of something that
it's easy to forget;
not a logo, a stripe
or a statement of rank.
It's neither corporate image
nor party colour,
nor crucifix.
It is not even...

...a badge of honour.

It's only a symbol,
designed to jolt
our memories.
It's not to be taken
as hostage
by those with 'affiliations'!
Nor to be hijacked
for personal ends.

It is for humanity
for non-affiliated
family and community;
national and international
universal praise and pride... humanity.

You've only to imagine
you're facing an adversary,
in whose hands
your life may be held;
imagine that all you think,
in any one moment
of extreme danger,
is your preparedness
to sacrifice your life
for your friends,
who stand beside you,
your comrades in arms;
for your family
and community
and to demonstrate...

...ultimate loyalty.

It is not for self-interest
nor to promote
your image;
it is for real heroes,
whose blood we see
as a bright red carpet
of papaveraceae.

...and each flower
is a life.

Remember this and only this, please; and perhaps, one day, there will be peace on earth.

(I make no apology that the above looks like a poem, but is not necessarily very good poetry. It is, nonetheless, a way to express how I feel, by breaking up the prose into meaningful lines - maybe that's what poetry can be...?)

© 2011 John Anstie

Monday, 31 October 2011

Eat Me

An appreciation for someone, who has a generous heart and is clearly generous with her time as well. It is a sort of Ode to the Chocolate Brownie.

Known as @Mozartsgirl on Twitter, Rachel has two blogs; and yes you won't get any prizes for guessing that she's a Baker (noting the capital 'B'). These blogs are:

"Mozartsgirl's Blogspot"


"Brownies for Mozart"

Oh, and one final thing, you might not have noticed, she is a fan of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Wolfie to his friends, which does of course include Rachel.

In the course of a couple of months she sent to me, at her own expence, two large boxes of her brownies - the first were walnut based, the second revelled in the glorious title of "Peanut Butter Swirls". I hesitated at the thought of peanut butter based chocolate bronwies at first, but my hesitation was only momentary. As soon as the box was unsealed, the aroma hit me and I was in dreamland! You might not be surprised, therefore at a few references to "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland".

I hope you enjoy the poem: "Eat Me"


Thursday, 13 October 2011

Child-God: Model for our Future... or Victim of our Failure?

A couple of weeks ago, my eldest daughter delivered us a grandson. This added to our tally of grandchildren; we now have a grand total of two: a granddaughter and a grandson.

It turns out that I found myself greeting the arrival of each of my grandchildren into the world with equal awe; with equal emotion and equally special feelings. The birth of our first, a granddaughter, two and a half years ago, moved me to write my first poem after thirty years in a sort of 'creative desert'. For the arrival of my grandson the week before last, however, it may seem a little unkind, perhaps even unfair to confess that, at first, I felt my response was a little muted, perhaps somewhat underwhelming, because we had already been there two and a half years ago. So was this to be expected?

I don't think I had any expectations. My daughter and son-in-law, to their credit, apart from the fact that my daughter, in particular, had been extraordinarily tired after a few days of significant sleep deprivation, didn't bring any emotional baggage to the occasion of our arrival on his seventh day in the world; we were simply greeted in their usual way and... well, there he was in his Moses basket. I think I had just left my mind open to influence, without being afraid of expectations, with no particular air of excitement, no requirement to get excessively jubilant about the event. I just wanted to see what it felt like.

I wasn't to be disappointed.

When I say there was no expectation, it has to be said that I had a pretty good idea that a poem would be expected, and so I duly delivered one. 'A Lion is Born' was posted in 'My Poetry Library' the day before our arrival. So all seemed well, in a sort of very British, understated way; that is until a day later, when, for various reasons, I came to hold him for a few hours. This moment produced an unexpected depth of feeling; it moved me, profoundly; but not any more so than I can remember feeling when I held each of my own three children, in their first hours of life; and no greater feeling than my granddaughter had precipitated two and a half years before. But this was different somehow, almost, no, not almost... it felt like a spiritual experience!

Now, before I go any further, I need to say a word or two about religion and my own leanings.

If I were asked to describe my religion, I suppose I would have to be honest and say that I am nearly an atheist... but not quite! I was brought up as an adherent to the Church of England, not fire and brimstone stuff, just straight forward middle of the road, dutiful church attendance every Sunday and, as a choir boy, donning the surplice, cassock and ruff playing, or singing my regular part in the rituals of church and later school choirs. The other side of me evolved in my early twenties, when I'd left home. As a student metallurgical engineer, the more analytical, scientific if you like, but definitely philosophical facet of my thinking emerged, which enabled me to take a view of religion and religious belief systems as a very broad church, so broad in fact that I began to envisage the religious world as if from a helicopter, hovering at a considerable height above the earth (the psychologists among you will probably be able to attach a certain psychiatric condition to this perspective - please let me know if you do!).

This view brought me to where I am today; a position, which combines a touch of angst that derives perhaps from a guilt born of my early indoctrination - and I mean indoctrination in the most benign sense of that word, not the sense that produces zealots and suicide bombers - with a feeling of calm acceptance of a human condition that will always have a need for some kind of belief system, for a faith, particularly when things are not going well for us; and particularly for those people born into extreme poverty that those of us, who live in the relative luxury of the western world, can only try to imagine. Such feelings as these have, since the dawning of our time, been responsible for the great legends and mysteries, particularly those associated with the stories of Jesus Christ and Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Unitarian Universalism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Manichaeism, Mazdakism, Mithraism, Yazdanism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Shinto, Taoism, African diasporic religions as well as a host of so-called new age religions, amongst many differing systems that have evolved over the ages of man.

So, it is the story of Jesus' entry into this world, as a babe in arms, that is for me more a point of reference that helps me draw a comparison to help my understanding of this experience; it is a narrative that helps me explain my feelings, rather than one which says that I've let Jesus or God into my life in some dramatic life-changing way and, whilst this is always possible, it is not the case at this point in time. The baby Jesus was probably a very sweet, heart meltingly beautiful looking baby, perfect in every conceivable way.

This brings me to the crux of my story: perfection.

It's simply the story of a deep insight, which I am certain will have been experienced by countless individuals, throughout our history, who have ever held a new born baby in their arms. Perhaps this is elevated by the famous Christmas narrative about Jesus' birth just over two thousand years ago. It is an insight nonetheless that I didn't expect; clearly an illumination of the capacity that is built into the human condition, that provides the strength to bind us together, to protect us against antagonistic forces and, above all else, to give us hope that the perfection we perceive in a new born child is somehow attainable, or retainable in later adult life; at the very least, it can act is a goal that we should seek, a light that should guide us through life, always aspiring to emulate this perception: the possibility of perfection in the human spirit.

It is probably the crux of the story of Jesus, that it records the fact that he died to absolve the rest of humanity of their sin and corruption. I would like to offer my interpretation of this process. He was born perfect, but in later life, increasingly committed to his mission, he became corrupted, but I don't mean that he turned bad! This was symbolic of the great strength that he appeared to have, by which he was able to absorb the corrupting influences of imperfect men, as it were, in exchange for giving them a better outlook, a more divine, less selfish, more giving character and able to go on and teach the Christian doctrine to others.

No great revelation there then, but one that always bears repetition; reinforcement. It is another philosophical observation that I have made in my life that the more you give of yourself, not only in the process of helping others physically, but also mentally and emotionally - particularly emotionally - the more it takes out of you and the more you have need to rest and refresh your spirit; to refill the fuel tank. I imagine Jesus, as a man, was probably.. if you'll pardon the use of modern vernacular here.. 'wasted' after giving so much of himself, because doing what he was reported to have done for so long would have caused weaker men to break down, emotionally. It is no wonder that he wandered off into the desert on his own to recover and renew his spirit. Any one of us, who lead busy and stressful lives can surely identify with our own human fragility.

So I had changed my grandson completely and, with his new set of clothes, he lay in my arms for the best part of the evening, whilst my close family sat and talked and watched television together. He went quiet even as I changed him and, although he had another brief bout of crying, he then remained quiet for the rest of the time that I held him, relaxing in my arms in a way that signalled complete trust and contentment. That complete trust and contentment was both awesome and infectious; in some strange way, it renewed my faith in myself and humanity.

I need to tell you that I am not in any way exaggerating the depth of feelings that came to me through this experience; there is no poetic embellishment here; it is told just as it was. I hope you will understand this feeling or will at least be able to relish it one day. 

Monday, 19 September 2011

Defining Debt... Wilkins Micawber

(Warning! reading this blog post could seriously damage your mood, so readers be aware that you do so at your own risk!)
It has to be said that I have, for many years, been preoccupied with the balance sheet; my own balance sheet, in particular, but everyones including the world's in general. This is not to say I am a boring accountant, because I am not; far from it. I would never have been cut out to be an accountant; it bores me quite frankly. Finances for me, like DIY, are something I deal with out of necessity. I am perhaps more of a Wilkins Micawber, that fictional Dickensian character in "David Copperfield", who was known for his chief characteristic of being "someone who lives in hopeful expectation", and who, out of his own debt, promulgated what has become known as Micawber's Law: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery".
A few years ago, I came up with a quote for my children, in the vain hope that it might infuse them with the beginnings of some sort of financial common sense, that fairly quickly developed a 'tumbleweed' reputation; a response that was... well, "la-la-la-la-la, boring, Dad!" It simply said: "you don't get rich by spending money".
This is seemingly in contravention of the consumer economic model for growth and prosperity, which, in recent times, propelled us from the Thatcher years of economic recovery (the 1980's) to where we got to in 2007-08. Constant growth in GDP and consumer spending was the goal, the punitive consequence of which we are having to live with right now. We consumed our way out of a potential financial melt-down at the end of the 1970's, but back into another one... now! Without getting myself into the murky waters of economic theories, which I am completely unqualified to do, the one thing that sits on my mind constantly is the business of credit, or, I should say more correctly... debt!
It would appear - and we are increasingly becoming aware of that fact - that the 'boom' of the past thirty years has been built on it; credit, borrowing, loans, mortgages, credit cards, store cards, all the stuff of debt; and this seems to be true, wherever in the scheme of things you are placed, whether as an individual household or as a nation. It starts with personal debt, that you and I accrue, because we buy a house, a car, a television or two, a holiday, another car, a three piece suite and so it goes on. All built on the assumption that we can accrue debt with apparent impunity. In my lifetime I have seen the advancing nature of the individual's ability to get their hands on 'easy' money. At the beginning of my conscious adult life, there was a attitude that said, if you want something save for it, then buy.
When I first bought a house, of course we had to borrow the money, but we could borrow no more than two or, at most, two and half times our combined incomes, which was deemed to be a sensible level of debt and in proportion to what we could afford to sustain. We certainly could not borrow on a mortgage to by a car, a three piece suite; anything other than bricks and mortar. This was because, at the time, a mortgage would offer modest tax breaks, particularly if you borrowed with an associated endowment insurance policy (thereby hangs another tale of woe!). But this all changed at some point in the late 1980's, whence we suddenly found lenders not placing restrictions on what we could use this money for; that is money that we borrowed on what at one time used to be called the 'never-never'; twenty five years to pay it back, made it seem cheap and of no consequence. So the accrual of debt began, with a vengeance.
But who is to blame for this mess? Who indeed. The key to answering this question lies in your own stance with regard to personal responsibility. Before I offer my own opinions on this question, I am reminded of a couple more quotes:
"Don't go around saying the world owes you a living, the world owes you nothing, it was here first
~ attributed to Mark Twain
"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country
~ J F Kennedy
So who is responsible? In short: we all are. Why? Because we spent more than we could pay back, we defaulted on loans too often. We succumbed to greed. Whatever, it is our fault!
But yes it is more complex than that. It has many complicated causes, a number of which, it could be argued are outside our control; or are they?
Now, I am no bastion of virtue when it comes to managing money, because I have run up my fair share of avoidable debt at some points in my life; there are mitigating circumstances, not least when under pressure to feed young mouths, to feed the landlord or the money lender and the meter. But, whatever the apparent pressures... and I will qualify this by saying that there are always needy exceptions to the rule e.g. those whose misfortunes are truly not of their own making, those who are disabled in some way or have been dealt  a seriously bad blow by the hand of fate... other then these, we will almost always have a choice. 
We can choose whether or not we want to keep up the the Jones' next door, whether or not we can afford to do so; we can always choose whether we move up to a bigger house, a better car, the latest technology; we can choose. If you are not one of those who are truly unfortunate - and you do know your lot, so don't pretend - there is no point in complaining how hard life is, if you are still able to keep dry and warm, feed yourself and breath! We don't need all of these luxuries, to which we have become accustomed; some of them are nice and we need to cheer ourselves up every now and then, but we don't need that exotic holiday abroad every year; we don't need that gas guzzling four-wheel drive that comes into its own for only one week every year; we don't need to drink the amount of alcohol we consume every week, or even the cigarettes we smoke every day. I could go on, but, what this amounts to is that a majority of us in the First World have the capacity to choose, the freedom to determine what we spend our money on and, beyond the necessities, whether we spend it at all; in other words we can choose to cut our coats according to the cloth we have.
What about the Banks, I hear you ask! What about all of those huge international conglomerates, whose interests are best served by growth and enabling mass consumerism and whose every action is made to ensure they grow bigger and more powerful; what can be said of their part in all of this? I say yes, they are responsible for enabling and encouraging excessive debt over the past few decades, by means both subtle and direct that have encouraged personal debt and dependence. This became very evident over the past ten or fifteen years as personal debt reached an all time high and personal bankruptcy with it. Governments, not least our own in the UK, but also right across the rest of the developed world, could have done something, albeit electorally unpopular, but they could have imposed some regulation, put some anchors on an over-heating economy before it melted. If a simpleton like myself could see that the bubble had to burst sometime, then I'm damned certain that there are at least a few people in powerful places who could not only have seen this coming but also begun to do something about it, slow it down, regulate it; that's what we elect them for isn't it?
For the past several years, at least since my children started to become more independent, this household for one has, as much as possible, been offloading debt, certainly not taking any more debt on, trying to live within our means - and with only one income that is still challenge enough, but we are trying nonetheless. 
As a post script to my earlier (boring) epithet, "You don't get rich by spending money", in case you should wish to understand me better, it should be followed by the statement: "better to save it first for something your want... or invest it".
I think it's time for a seed change in the way we think; in the way we educate young minds to manage their financial lives. Otherwise what will happen...? We are screwing with their futures. 

What do you think?