SAFETY AND DANGER: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

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There are a number of posts I could write about the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London.  How the best way of retaining your sanity is to avoid television, news websites, the radio and social media, once you’ve got the basic information.  How you need to remember how many people die of diseases and medical conditions that could be treated or avoided if more were spent on research and health and social care.  How it’s essential to keep a sense of proportion.  And how desperately tragic it is for all those affected – the victims and their families and friends; witnesses; the emergency service personnel.

But as I set off for Prague at the end of last week, it occurred to me that a trip to Czechoslovakia would have held more than a frisson of danger 30 years ago.  And now, many consider it safer than London.

I started to work out where else was considered to be off-limits during the 1980s.  Large parts of Central and South America ticked the box, as did parts of New York City.  (I remember my aunt making me promise not to take the subway when I visited in 1991 and I walked so much that I returned home an inch shorter.)  Parts of Yugoslavia and Bulgaria were mainstream holiday destinations for Western Europeans in the 1980s, but I don’t recall anyone going to Romania or Hungary.

Going back a little further, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were places to steer clear of in the 1970s, but they’re a mainstay of the averagely adventurous traveller’s bucket list now.  China, the same.

Depending on the decade, various parts of Africa have been worth avoiding and some still are.  Egypt is potentially combustible, but was safe enough ten years ago.  The Middle East has been volatile for most of my lifetime, with short intervals when trips have been perfectly feasible.

Many countries and regions go through periods of comparative violence and peace.  Paris is safer now than during the Second World War and during The Terror at the end of the eighteenth century.  The UK is safer than Northern Ireland was during the Troubles of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Violence and danger ebb and flow across the globe and over time, even though we want to live in a peaceful world.

I know I’ll struggle to remember that when there’s another attack in the UK, but I will try to do so and I’ll also pray for peace.

Yet Another Election

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The weeks of posturing, polls, predictions and promises that mark the run-up to an election have passed me by.  I’ve been very busy with work and I didn’t know about the UK general election until a friend in New York asked me what I thought of it.  A quick trip to the BBC News app explained which election he was referring to.

Over the last few days, I’ve surfaced enough to take the pulse of the campaigning and rhetoric and I’ve been underwhelmed with what I’ve heard, seen and read.  More specifically, here are my thoughts.

1          I sense that Theresa May has lost her way.  She doesn’t seem as capable as she did before the election was called.  I’ve heard snippets of the flip-flop on social care costs, which has the hallmarks of a last-minute idea that shouldn’t have made it anywhere near a manifesto.

2          Apart from the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, appearing in a televised debate last week, Tory cabinet members seem to have been conspicuous by absence.  I don’t know whether that’s because they’ve absented themselves or they’ve been told to stay on the bench, but I’m confident that we’ll hear a lot from them if the Tories don’t hit a landslide at the polls.

3          I sense that old allegiances on party lines have been muddied by Brexit.  For many people, Brexit is the defining issue and they see neither Theresa May/the Conservative party nor Jeremy Corbyn/the Labour party offering anything that appeals to them on that crucial topic.  I wonder whether we’re heading for a political realignment that takes greater account of Brexit and who has a say in the form and terms of the UK’s exit from the EU.  Just a thought.

4          Labour’s campaign message – For the Many Not the Few – struck me as being more likely to resonate with voters and hats off to whoever came up with it.  Not so convinced by what seems to be Theresa May’s slogan, rather than the Tory party’s campaign message:  Strong and Stable.  From where I’m sitting, it only seems credible if the alternative is having Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister.

5          That said, with the television on mute, Jeremy Corbyn appeared more Prime Ministerial than Theresa May last week.  He looked purposeful and confident.  His head was held high.  He exuded authority.  But the television was on mute.

6          Personally, I’d like to see a hung Parliament and a coalition government.  I don’t have confidence in either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservative party or the Labour party, to run the country or negotiate our exit from the EU.  It would be ironic if a coalition required a deal with the Scottish National Party, which would no doubt want a further referendum on Scottish independence and might also seek to re-visit Brexit before forming a coalition government.

7          What I really wouldn’t want is another general election in short order, as happened in 1974.  We had a general election in 2015 and we have another one this year.  Last year, we had the EU referendum and we had vicarious participation in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and the US presidential election throughout the whole of 2016.  Even though I’m a staunch advocate of democracy and I’ve missed most of the campaigning this time round, I have a severe case of election fatigue.

 

London. 22 March 2017.

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Last week was a grim time for London.  I don’t think it’s going too far to say that most Londoners felt there was bound to be an attack in our city at some point, but it’s still a shock when it happens.  It feels personal when it’s your city, when you have to go around police tape to walk home, when you have to look each way before crossing a lane of the Embankment because unmarked police cars are driving the wrong way to avoid the traffic jams.

The obvious things have been said.  Above all, there’s the mix of horror at what happened and deep sympathy for those who lost their lives, for their families and for those who were injured. There’s the observation that London has been through far worse than this and that those of us living in, and coming to, London should all carry on with our daily lives.  But these things are no less true for being obvious.

Our Common Good

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It’s the most important book I’ve read in years.  Our Common Good, by John Nickson, looks at the state of UK society and sets out inspiring tales of projects and initiatives around the country that are trying to level an unequal playing field as public resources dwindle and new solutions are needed.

It’s convincing because each chapter sets out what interviewees have said.  Historians – including Mary Beard and Peter Frankopan – tell us about giving, philanthropy and society across millennia.  We have assessments of inequality in various guises, including access to health and the legal system.  We hear from people working with teenagers in East London and Oldham, children in Blackpool, communities in Northern Ireland and deprived areas of Surrey and Cheshire lying cheek-by-jowl with some of the most prosperous parts of the country.  There are tales of what hasn’t worked, as well as what’s turned out to be a success.

The book is in two parts.  The initial analysis of UK society and the inequalities within it is the best I’ve read.  Some of the points were familiar, but they had greater resonance because of the different voices used.  Until reading this, I hadn’t focused on:

  • The extent to which asset inequality in conjunction with generational inequality is impacting society and feeding a breakdown of trust between generations; and
  • How that breakdown of trust between generations is exacerbating (as well as being fuelled by) the disappearance of traditional community life.

The importance of community and the need for community-based solutions is one of the key themes of the book.  I think it’s also one of the reasons government-led initiatives are unlikely to succeed.  The initiatives I found most inspiring are small-scale, locally-based and punching way above their weight as they tackle problems in their immediate neighbourhood.

As I read the book, I realised that this is how people will make a difference in the future.  Yes, there’ll be transformational gifts for research projects, but even those are now looking at delivery – say, in the health sector – on a smaller-scale, focused on localities and communities.

I was also struck by the analysis of millennials’ giving and how many are more likely to give to causes than to charities; causes aren’t institutions.  The emphasis on volunteering and giving time rings true, along with the desire for businesses – particularly their own employers – to focus on customers, suppliers and employees, rather than shareholders/investors and ROE.  The most fascinating part of the book is around comments by Dame Zarine Kharas, co-founder of JustGiving, on how business and ethics should be inextricably linked.  If you read nothing else in the book, do read that – oh, and the comments by Peter Frankopan and Ben Elliot.

John Nickson is a friend, but that’s not why I’m waxing so lyrical about this book.  I’m singing its praises because it holds a mirror to our society and shows how it could, so easily, improve for the benefit of all of us.

TRANSPARENCY, TRUST AND TRUTH

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Every human institution, from marriage to the army to the government to the courts to corporations and banks, religions, every system of civilisation is now in jeopardy because of this new transparency.  So spake Professor Daniel Dennett over Lunch With the FT in an article that appeared in the 4/5 March 2017 edition.  He was criticising the blinding light of transparency from digital technologies that’s permeating institutions, producing a world where it’s near-impossible to keep secrets.

I’ve also been reading John Nickson’s latest book Our Common Good, which looks in detail at the erosion of trust in institutions and what’s often referred to as the establishment:  the media; the police; our MPs; car manufacturers, banks and other businesses; sporting bodies; the Catholic Church; care and other social services … the list goes on.  But one of the points made in Our Common Good is that the level of trust in institutions is unequal and there’s a correlation with inequality of income.  Put bluntly, the so-called elite (or more informed) public is more likely to trust government, business, the media and other organisations to do what’s right than the majority of the population.

Where problems have been concealed, a blinding light of transparency – and truth – can help to put the record straight.  But it’s hardly surprising that a stream of disclosures breeds suspicion, cynicism and distrust and feeds alternatives to the establishment.

But Professor Dennett’s concerns appear to be wider.  He argues for institutions to have “membranes” that allow them to retain some privacy and control over their information.  I think he’s saying that the transparency pendulum has swung too far, too quickly, and we need both time to adjust and the opportunity to dial back to a moderated position.

My concern is that the genie has been let out of the bottle and, even if it could be put back, it might not be wise for that to be done.  If it’s accepted that levels of trust are generally low, establishing a wall of privacy around institutions that are perceived as bearing some of the responsibility for that lack of trust doesn’t seem to be the best approach.

I’ll post next week on other points from Our Common Good that suggest ways forward, but our approach needs to pull society together, not drive us further apart, no matter how much we might want to turn back the clock.

 

Hockney at the Tate

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There are a very few people who are regarded as National Treasures in the UK:  the Queen (it goes without saying) and David Attenborough are obvious examples; David Beckham’s potential ebbs and flows; David Hockney’s on the list.  Before I visited the Hockney retrospective at Tate Britain, I’m not sure that I’d have described him as the UK’s greatest living artist, but I am now.

Hockney’s work feels as though it’s become more familiar over the last decade following works in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, two solo-artist exhibitions at the RA (one of block-buster proportions) and another at the National Portrait Gallery.  What I found so fabulous about the Tate exhibition is that it shows how Hockney has innovated throughout his career but with immense coherence.

He’s been fortunate to live at a time when photography has become accessible, along with video and most recently, iPhone and iPad drawing tools.  But the exhibition shows that these new media have been used in a way that’s consistent with Hockney’s pencil and charcoal drawings and his paintings.  He’s looking and seeing the same types of scenes and objects, people and places, capturing them using new tools.

Because he’s so highly-regarded and so famous, the temptation is to think that he’s painting (or drawing or capturing) significant events or important things.  But the curators make the point that he’s content to draw what he sees through the bedroom window when he’s sitting in bed, his garden, his friends – a pair of slippers, cast aside.  His skill as a draughtsman makes them special, but they are ordinary objects.

His skill as a colourist sprinkles them with fairy-dust too.  Near-neon splashes, bold swathes of magenta, orange, yellow and blue, poles of red and snaking purple roads appear in the later paintings, a warmer palette than the cooler blues and flesh tones of works from the 1970s and 80s.  Your head tells you that the vibrant colours shouldn’t work, but your eyes tell you that they do.

The final room has iPad drawings that at least one review dismissed pretty much out of hand.  But spend time there watching the drawings come to life, from blank screen to finished object, passing through that point where you think it’s wonderful and complete but Hockney knows better and shows you just what more is needed.

And don’t miss the room with the four video installations, particularly the part where the car comes down the road.  An artist approaching 80 decided to put a 3×3 rig of cameras on a car and drive down a country lane; the result is very special.  As I was saying, this is an innovator who records everyday things.

A final word on logistics:  this is a big exhibition and I’ve been twice, once for the first half and once for the second.  It’s also popular.  If you can, find a friend who’s a member (I did and thank you!) and go at 8am on Saturday or Sunday when members have the place to themselves.  Otherwise, book an early slot and head straight to the end of the exhibition so you have the video room to yourself, then linger in the room of drawings – and only then head to room one.

Counter-factual history and fake news

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Yesterday evening I watched the first episode of SS-GB, the BBC’s new Sunday evening series.  For anyone who missed it or hasn’t seen the trailers, it’s an alternative reality drama, set in Britain occupied by Germany after losing the Second World War.  It’s a story built on what I know as counter-factual history.

Counter-factual history scenarios are littered with What ifs?  What if Elizabeth I had married and had children (with all the who and when that goes with that)?  What if Archduke Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated?  What if there’d been no Adolf Hitler?  What if the Germans had invaded Britain?  What if President Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated?  These are games that Historians like to play and there’s a book of essays edited by Professor Niall Ferguson on exactly this topic – Virtual History:  Alternatives and Counterfactuals.

But let’s look at more recent scenarios.  What if Al Gore had won the US presidential election in 2000 or if the UK had stayed out of the second Gulf War in 2003?  Or if Hilary Clinton had won the US presidential election in 2016?  This is when history, current affairs and politics meet – and where counter-factual history and fake news bump against each other.

After watching SS-GB yesterday evening, I caught the first part of the BBC News and I realised that it’s rare to see or hear a news programme now that isn’t commenting on or doesn’t have some reference to fake news.  Even a few months ago, I hadn’t heard the phrase.  Now it feels ubiquitous and there’s a perception it’s playing an important part in creating what appears, to many, to be an alternative reality.

It’s not so far removed from counter-factual history, but there’s more at stake.  It isn’t a game and it isn’t Sunday evening entertainment.  It’s about fundamental issues of what constitutes the truth, but it’s also about freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  As those topics play out to allow anyone to say what they think, I wonder how truth can be presented in a way that frees it to sing out and convince those who may be disinclined to believe it.  What are the essential truths that people can agree on and what are matters of perception?  How can the meaning of “truth” be preserved and protected when it’s under threat?  And how do we start to pull together, rather than continuing to pull apart?