Monday, December 18, 2006

Merry Christmas from Spain

To fully enjoy my first Spanish Christmas with the in-laws I´ll be setting aside my keyboard until January 2. Madrid is very lively at the moment for the madrileños know how to to party in the run-up to the festive period. I had a home-cooked Paella yesterday and I will be having problems curbing what the Spanish call La Curva de Felicidad (literally the curve of happiness but referring to the stomach that newly married men acquire) as I am plied with fine wines and all sorts of food. There is a leg of Jamón Ibérico (almost certainly the best ham on earth) and the collection of cured meats kicking around the house look quite exquisite.

Feliz Navidad, as they say in Spain!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Taking Charity Seriously

Many of us, myself included, do not donate to charities as much as they should. In the day-to-day battle to get through life, earn a living, pay taxes, fund holidays and buy a new computer, charitable causes can often be overlooked. An argument given by perspectives that oppose high rates of tax is that the funds colourlessly taken by the taxman in the UK end up in Whitehall and local government to be squandered by inefficient and lazy officials. If this rate were lower not only would it take away the disproportionate power wielded by civil servants and politicians but the bonus we are told will happen is we will suddenly become philanthropists. Bill Gates is often toted as the role model example. The Microsoft millionaire will solve Africa’s problems with his money and the value of entrepreneurs being allowed to get on with business away from the dead hand of the state and its ridiculous regulations will finally be proved.

Despite its growth throughout New Labour’s troubled time in power, the state is in disrepute, to the extent that this friendly Economist-style argument to strip it back can tempt those such as myself who love the ideal of the Welfare State. For welfare is in disrepute. In the UK, the NHS, the pensions systems, our schools and the welfare system in general are facing spiralling problems that our politicians shirk from confronting. Bullish critics of the system point to the even more depressing decline of the French and German economies who didn’t go through the seemingly brutal slash and burn dismantling by Thatcher of the unions and her basic call to put business first. It can seem despite our prosperity that we may well be entering the end of a golden age which provided health provision free at the point of care for everyone and was meant to educate all,

To take one key example, the way modern healthcare has progressed also means it has become astronomically expensive. The NHS has serious difficulties providing a free service of the quality we demand and the only way we can supplement it for certain minority problems is by charitable donation. The new doctors’ contract is the second time a Labour government have stuffed their mouths with gold in order to keep this vital heart of the country’s health service on-side. It has succeeded in keeping the NHS plugging on, but, as many of us realise, the £1.2 billion deficit must be related to nearly doubling the salary of the highest paid members of the workforce as well as the cost of our astounding technological advances. The demands on the state to control the spiralling costs of this organisation are shirked by our leaders who realise the political suicide it is to try to bring this spending to heel but who will also refuse to put up taxes.

Come the time, come the individual and it seems it has to be our responsibility to begin taking charities seriously just because the terror our leaders face on the deadly tight-rope, they walk between providing high-quality services and keeping the economy ticking over, looks like it might lead to a catastrophic fall radically changing the basic services we hold dear. The Economist-style argument above has too much faith in private companies, for as we know from bitter experience the profit motive when treated as a religion can often sabotage the basic humanity of many and seems to lead to a fetishization of money, where need is ignored and commodities are endlessly desired. Yet sadly due to the way that governments function, characterised by a refusal to take hard decisions that may displease the multi-faceted group that elects them, yet finally annoying everyone, means that we better have faith in philanthropy because the state is in trouble.

Thank you to Angela Francesco for fearlessly raising the topic of charity and Huntington’s Disease on Frank Fisher’s crazy blog. Huntington’s is an example of a disease for which drug companies are unwilling to fund research in to a potential cure because of its rarity and therefore profitability. Donations to her charity jump to raise money for the disease can be made by contacting her by e-mail at Her blog documenting her mother’s mental decline and her attempts to deal with the disease can be found here

Friday, December 8, 2006

Last Days

Here is a hypothetical scenario from anticant - "You are reliably informed that you are going to die twelve months hence, and that for the first eleven of them you will remain strong and healthy.What are you going to do during that time that you have long wanted to, but have been repeatedly putting off because of all the hum-drum pressures of daily living?"

My wife and I have several plans which would need to be accomplished in that time.

We would like to go to Northern Spain doing an eating and cultural tour from Galicia to Catalunya. The inverse pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Galicia is famous for having the best shellfish in Spain and we would gorge ourselves on Oysters and the Spanish delicacy Percebes, which is a goose-neck barnacle and the Galician variant is so expensive I have never tried it. Other highlights along the way would include the Basque country's unsurpassed Tapas, a stop off in Rioja, walking in Asturias and the beautiful Spanish monasteries and towns of the north.

Ana is desperate to see the tomb of her favourite poet, Luis Cernuda, in Mexico City, so we would need to head there after our three months in Northern Spain. I would love to go back to Palenque in Chiapas and Tikal in Guatemala (both of which I visited on a gap year at 18) allowing us to explore the magic of Central America together. Perhaps we could settle in the countryside of Guatemala for a few months so I could finish and publish my novel, The Man whose Face was Grey (it's on-the-go and I will hopefully finish it by the end of next year) while living in relative isolation.

Then we would head to China where my brother lives and visit him. Something we've failed to do due to lack of funds but I guess this whole expedition of world tourism could be paid for using all the reserves we had in the bank. Exploring China, and Asia generally, would be an alien and novel way to enjoy the last few months of my existence.

Finally I would like to have a good reunion at the end of the 11th month with all my friends and family toasting the crazy joy of life and saying goodbye. Then presumably I would wallow in bed with requiem music playing, watching Bergman films and pondering with Ana why it all has to end.

Feel free to try this thought-experiment out but I have no intention of press-ganging or nominating anyone for fear of sardonic comments.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Ours is not to reason why?

How do we escape the banal pressures of this world? Keeping integrity and being a journalist (or pursuing many other professions, I chose journalism because it’s what I’m doing) seem to be mutually exclusive in this world. Why do we stand for it?

The general logic seems to go like this, so young and upcoming person, to get to a position where you might do something useful you first need to do something that is totally pointless, and another, and another… until you feel the crazy need to perpetuate this Sisyphean cycle of pointlessness.

As a writer the development of blogging has to be regarded as an exciting development simply because of the gradual capitulation of many publications to faff. That this faff is driven by a commercial agenda must be true because it is not the case that the readers stand anything to gain from it. When we buy something to read, our desire to consume things is generally latent in comparison to our desire to be provided with interesting objective information. Yet, even when we buy Time Out or some other listings magazine we want it to provide honest opinion.

Recently one of my journalism lecturers was explaining the way the advertising department and editorial in local papers combine in an effort to tie in the article with a commercial interest. Potential clients drive this trade to the extent a bad review of a restaurant will lead to a stern word from the advertising department. As a reader knowing this, would you want to take the advice of this magazine as to where to eat? Surely, you would begin to realise that the publication only ever writes good reviews. Also, if you ever went to a place that was genuinely bad on the recommendation of an article you would not trust the source again. Even the advertisers lose in the long term with such a policy, for the publication, having been dismissed as useless, will be consigned to the dustbin and any true opinion will be treated with scepticism.

The modern journalist keen to write about things in the world that actually matter, but determined to earn his shilling, is in a dilemma. Endless publications flourish perpetuating cynicism towards the trade, yet because they agree to act as the Pravda of certain companies, these bulldozers of the Amazon for Amazon provide the starving journo with a ready source of cash. On the other hand, the journo can launch out to limbo trying to carve out a precedent of value but with few means of publishing or being provided with payment. The latter has to be the noble option, yet the cycle of madness and its control over us can sometimes seem inevitable. To the writer sitting shivering in the garret the temptation of writing for the quick buck can be overwhelming in the desperation to survive and be read. He reaches for his quill agonized by the way his ideas only seem to have an outlet if they are used to sell something and gradually descends into a useless prose machine. Why do we let this continue? How do we change it?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Drawing limits to experience

Complying with the bastardisation of a concept that I used to like, the meme. Given that it now seemingly includes everything connected to language I've become more sceptical. Meme means "idea gene" and was first coined by God's enemy, Dawkins; God is a meme that has mutated and is now a protected idea species, when once it was top dog discussed by all .

Yet as the "I would never" meme was sent to me by the fantastic Yellow Duck, to add some mutations to this meme the duck suggested giving some free publicity to this book. YD is a man of very good taste and Dave Hill's blog is very enjoyable, so if you're at a loss this Christmas and a member of my family why not get the book for me.

The proposed meme is to write a list of ten things "I would never do"

I would never physically hurt anyone intentionally.
I would never support an aggressive invasion.
I would never read the Da Vinci code.
I would never fail to respect the humanity of one of my future employees or interviewees (if I am ever an employer, which is probably unlikely).
I would never leave Ana, my wife.
I would never work for the police.
I would never smuggle drugs.
I would never plagiarise.
I would never put forward an opinion that I do not believe at the time.
I would never use any of the big fast food giants, McDonalds, Burger King, etc. (Although I did until I reached about 18 when I made this vow - if that doesn't count I'll need to think of another one).

Given I know few other bloggers, anyone who reads this who fancies doing the exercise please volunteer. Anticant wasn't nominated by Yellow Duck so I nominate him.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Invisible Hand versus the Hidden Hand

How do you choose to explain what goes on in the world? Are events stuff happening or do the authorities carefully orchestrate our reality and circumstances? My general inclination is to stress the former overall, and in cyberspace, at least, this puts me in a minority group.

In his highly interesting book Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick made a distinction between the invisible hand and the hidden hand. The invisible hand, of Adam Smith fame, is in some ways a terrifying prospect to confront. Its existence (or lack of one) means that in our everyday comings and goings the great changes that happen in our society are not the result of conscious thought and effort but instead the inevitable force of the market.

The hidden hand has connotations that can seem far more sinister. The idea is that the state or some evil demon is controlling our day-to-day lives. This is Winston Smith territory and Big Brother is watching you. Our worst fears about anti-terror legislation, ID cards, the Masonic cult of the ruling classes and perhaps a deity that deliberately allowed suffering and evil to exist are played out in this kind of scenario. Our own underachievement, worldwide hunger and the inexorable desolation of our planet through carbon emissions are because those in power refuse to share it with anyone, because agricultural companies seek a profit over providing affordable crops and because the executives of Exxon Mobil prefer Foie Gras today to saving tomorrow.

What seems clear is that hidden hand scenarios can sometimes briefly take the ascendancy. The perfect dictatorship would lead to those in charge of the party machine controlling the actions of everything that goes on in their country. For example, the Russian people seem to have been repeatedly victims of meticulous rulers who tried to control everything that went on in that huge country. Yet even Stalin’s iron grip softened on his death and Putin’s attempts to revive Pravda and the KGB will fail eventually.

This is the insight that should be taken from the way we see the hidden hand lurking behind injustice. The actions of the few are often the cause of great pain and suffering for many. The decisions to go to war in Iraq or to fly planes in to the World Trade Centre will shape our age, yet what must be conceded is the thoughts in Rumsfeld’s or Bin Laden’s head, whatever they may have been, have taken and will take shape in ways that they could not control.

So if, as it can sometimes seem, we are gradually marching towards an environmental and perhaps nuclear apocalypse, remember it won’t have been because of the nasty figures who dominate the front pages of our newspapers with their attempts to puppeteer the rest of us. It will have been the far more alarming failure of all of us to coordinate our actions in such a way that our sophisticated race can curb our pursuit of momentary pleasure. How can we stop the general orgy of destruction before it is too late? If the invisible hand explanation of events is true it may turn out to be far more worrying than the idea of conspirators controlling our lives because it may also be the case that we cannot control what happens to us in the future. Ironically most of us view the fable of Winston Smith as the worst case scenario for human existence, yet perhaps it is the case it is Adam Smith whose way of explaining events is the most scary because if the lack of control he emphasises is true then there is seemingly little we can do to change our fate. Perhaps, however, we will continually evade our worries. If so it is far more satisfying to live in a world with no possibility of one group taking over the reins of power. Hopefully life will continue to surprise those who attempt to control us as they continue to fail in their attempts to keep the population of the world in check.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Do you think Rousseau would like this?

Blair's new social contract should be viewed with scepticism. My hunch is this is little more than a publicity stunt pledging "a new more explicit contract between the state and the citizen on agreed public outcomes" but failing to change much of what is already in place.

The two key policies mooted are "that a local health authority will only offer a hip replacement if the patient undertakes to keep their weight down." This seems fair but how it can be assessed and implemented will be another matter. It will certainly victimize those who are already suffering and is a very nannying approach. Why cannot Doctors' simply advise patients that they must diet and exercise regularly without the dead hand of the state drafting a condescending contract for these people to sign? Due to my failure to slim I have been a bad citizen.

Another measure though seems far more intrusive - "Parents might also be asked to sign individually tailored contracts with a school setting out what the parents must do at home to advance their child's publicly-funded education." Whilst clearly parents are responsible for the education of their children how the hell does the state think it can draw the lines? Clearly when children behave badly something is wrong but do we want the metaphorical parents bullying dad John Reid and the insane mother, Blair, telling people what to do as part of their social contract? You must have Shakespeare in the home, play Mozart and whip the blighters if they don't attend school. What is provided in exchange is improved police response times.

The social contract should stick to states providing an agreed supply of public services and order given to the public from taxation. Obviously when citizens transgress certain laws they should be arrested or dealt with appropriately. Politicians should also respond to their constitutional obligations and should be held to account accordingly. The idea that you can draw up guidelines for parenting as a social contract is repugnant even though we probably realise certain approaches will be better than others. Yet Blair declaring from on high declaring what we should do (in a pseudo-contract) stinks.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Should the minimum wage be defended?

After Boris Johnson’s amusing article, I felt susceptible to Toynbee-baiting following the preposterous announcement that she would be a useful guru for the Tory party. What's more you have to ask how could she send her kids to a public school or own an Italian villa and really mean what she says about social integration?

Yet foraging for other ostensibly unrelated material on the minimum wage, the need arises to defend one of the poor woman’s views from Tim Worstall’s attack:

Higher minimum wage eh? We know that (at some point at least, for the doubters) this will mean fewer people have jobs and we're also certain that it will reduce the number of hours offered. How does this increase incomes? Note that while she calls for higher tax credits and benefits, she still can't quite bring herself to call for lower actual taxation of low wages.

Now, Worstall’s premises are clearly fine, a minimum wage will probably have a negative impact on employment, it will probably mean eventually that people are not employed to do certain jobs and that people are employed for fewer hours. Presumably though there will be more incentive for people to find work given that the wage they earn will be relatively liveable? In addition, shouldn’t the minimum wage lead to less inefficiency in the work place by employers firing unnecessary labour and not using people for hours for which they are unwilling to pay a reasonable wage and the other hidden costs of labour?

The straight answer to Worstall's question has to be that with the minimum wage incomes are increased for those in work and there is more incentive for those outside work to find employment. Maybe this is an ideological difference and simply involves too much state tinkering for Worstall’s happiness and there is clearly a good argument to raise the basic level of taxation instead. Yet given that governments are terrified of doing this, preferring redistribution, is it not better in the short term to have the minimum wage to aid redistribution to those in work so they can survive on a liveable wage?

If valid proof arises that the minimum wage will lead to an unbearable burden on the economy then it should be ditched but the proofs need to move beyond the insults traded between free market ideologues and mad left wingers. The electorate and those who are not professional economists need to know why both camps tear each other's throats out about an issue that could cut both ways.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Prospero's Books

A tribute to the now deceased Robert Altman is a fitting way to launch my blog. The man has inspired me so many times with his wondrous filmmaking and analysis of character that if this small venture of mine were to do the same just once for anyone I would feel proud. The film that I still remember best by Altman was The Player (perhaps because it is the first of his films that I saw). Ironically, The Player was dismissed by Altman himself as "a fake film", but despite the condemnation of the great man, the film's virtuosity can hardly be denied.

The astounding eight-minute tracking shot of the opening sequence led me to discover Orson Welles' great thriller Touch of Evil to which the sequence was a homage. If the film had gone rapidly downhill after this beginning then it would still be memorable. Yet the cold satire of Hollywood plunges on, providing the usually banal Tim Robbins with a great part as a successful producer who has murdered a scriptwriter. The curious thing about the skeleton-in-the-closet story is that this murder moves in to the background of the film, while Altman chooses to dissect the superficiality and cruelty of the Hollywood community. To Altman’s mind, perhaps, the script idea was too perfect and this was presumably compounded by the fact the people who he had sought to criticize willingly embraced the satire, lauding it, after having marginalized him for so long.

How did someone who was so wilfully anarchistic get by in the Hollywood system? Perhaps the only reason he could do was because he gave actors such a free rein with his huge ensemble casts. In comparison to many directors, his work must have been so free-wheeling to work on, a party where luvvies could hang out in the knowledge that the Prospero in charge would put a great film together even if your small moment would seem inconsequential at the time.

Altman’s best Seventies films, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs Miller are incredibly varied and virtuoso that some will think my choice of the Player as the model for the demonstration of the man’s talent is perverse. Yet my guess is most people will have a different favourite. Maybe Raymond Carver fans like Short Cuts above all? Maybe you just can’t stand the man’s films, but, if so, tell me why?