Archive for the 'current affairs' Category

On intelligence

February 17, 2019

I know I’m not the only person deeply concerned by the growing evidence that human activity is irreversibly altering the planet’s climate, and not in a good way. Similarly, the growing evidence of the extinction of species, particularly of insects, is very worrying. Fairly well on in years myself, I perhaps have little to worry about in my lifetime, but I have children and grandchildren, as well as having friends and acquaintances among those who I used to teach not that long ago, and who in theory have the best part of a lifetime ahead of them: the future may not be very kind to them.

In my thinking about what is wrong with the world, I reached the conclusion long ago that a combination of greed and scarcity was at the root of most of our problems: greed on the part of relatively few, and scarcity, or many different kinds, for far more of the planet’s inhabitants, short of food, water, shelter, freedom, affection…

I’ve read widely in the literature of utopias, and have encountered many visions of how humans might do it all differently. Some of these visions are more attractive than others, but what the writers have in common is daring to dream of humanity living more harmoniously, as a species and with the rest of creation. Unfortunately – or inevitably? – the writers mostly fail to tell how we get there, and that’s the biggest problem. The visitor from our world to the utopia represents us and our collective failings, and is wowed by the alternative future s/he encounters. About thirty-five years ago, Ernest Callenbach, in two novels, Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging, attempted to show how the California of his own time gradually separated itself and seceded from the United States, and founded a nation based on true ecological principles. I remember thinking what a brave and wild idea it was, and almost plausible too, way back then when I read it. It hasn’t happened.

So here is the real issue: there are many possible maps out there. We can have the anarcho-syndicalist utopia of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the rural idyll of William MorrisNews From Nowhere or W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, we can have the feminist utopias of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time – if someone can show us how we get there.

Back in the real world, the forces of wealth and greed are firmly embedded, and are not about to give up without a struggle. Logically, one might argue that nobody needs an income of, say, more than £100k per year; anything in excess could be taxed away at 99%. Nobody needs more than a single residence, or a single vehicle. The Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of the world will never spend all those shedloads of money, but they aren’t going to give them up either. And don’t kid yourself about their being philanthropic: they still retain power and control.

When the Bolsheviks seized power after the Russian revolution, they eliminated the wealthy and the aristocracy and commandeered their assets: that was one way of tackling the forces of wealth and power decisively. And yet, we see that ultimately what happened was that one wealthy and powerful group was replaced by another… and so it goes on. However hard I try to visualise the transition to a better world, I cannot see beyond the powerful digging in their heels and using their power and wealth brutally to hang on to it, at horrendous cost to everyone else, or else another group replacing them. Can you visualise anything different?

Is there something deeply rooted in the human psyche which drives us to seek power over our fellows and to accumulate surplus just in case we ever go short? And can we never forego this desire, or educate ourselves out of it? Is there time? We live on a very bountiful planet, capable of supporting large numbers in comfort and sufficiency. Digging more deeply, when, in the millennia of our development and progress as a species, was the tipping point? Clearly, hunting and foraging was not enough: we craved more and had the brainpower to pursue more, with the results we see today. Are we a highly intelligent species that is unable to use that intelligence in our own best interests? So many questions, so little time.

My father used to say, ‘you can’t learn everything from books!’ He was right: sixty years of reading have not shown me the answers to the questions above. I would be very interested to know if any of my readers can cast any light on them for me…

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On the quality of attention

January 30, 2019

This follows on from my recent post on the quality of information, in a way: my simple premise is that in the past, when there was less – in terms of quantity – information generally available, what there was received rather more of our attention, whereas nowadays it washes over us, and we take in far less.

Let me give personal examples. Back in the olden times, we bought The Guardian newspaper every day, and read it from cover to cover, pretty much. A single source of news well-scoured. Now I have the internet, and look at the stories in The Guardian that grab my attention. But, because of the way web pages are constructed, I have no real way of knowing what I’ve missed, and never come across. I’ll glance at the BBC news and The Independent too, and check the New York Times and perhaps Le Monde too. I’m casting my net a lot wider, but often grazing rather than reading carefully: has my attention-span changed? Much more to read, much less depth to what I’m reading? Not only that, but the way articles are presented, how they’re written and who writes them has also changed; everything seems less detailed, briefer, more ephemeral: designed to grab my attention briefly… then what?

One printed periodical still finds its way into the house: I’ve subscribed to Le Monde Diplomatique for some twenty years or so, not because I’m a closet diplomat (though my teaching job used to draw quite heavily on what I used to call my Kissinger skills) but because as a publication offering thorough and detailed information, and serious analysis of and commentary on world affairs, I have yet to find its equal. Is it because of my age that I read it so carefully and thoroughly and treasure it as a source of my understanding of the state of the world?

I’ve come across references to academic studies that suggest that our attention to what we read and take in is changing because of the internet, that the human brain may well be being ‘rewired’ in ways that we don’t yet completely understand. Such changes, if they are taking place, will inevitably have a greater effect on those younger than me, it seems. Already I am aware of an attitude in people younger than myself, that it’s less important to know – as in the sense of retain in the memory – information, because it can so easily be accessed on a device that one always has to hand. That’s as may be; certainly my brain is cluttered up with things like phone numbers and addresses from twenty, thirty, fifty years ago that are of no use at all, but if not committing information to memory becomes the norm, what does that say about us, our brains, our futures?

The act of writing as a physical skill and as a need is dying out, too. Phones, keyboards and predictive text are ensuring this. Students complain about having to write essays in exams; they now find it hard and haven’t the stamina.

There has always been the ephemeral – mental pabulum – cheap and trashy magazines, newspapers and TV, but it does seem that there is so much more of it in the world of social media, which appears to suck up many hours of many people’s attention. I know that I may just be an ageing and increasingly out-of-touch dead colonel type for noticing and commenting on this; I do know that times change and one cannot swim against the tide. What I do think, though, is that more of us ought to be reflecting on what is going on, what is changing, and loudly asking what it all means…

On the quality of information

January 27, 2019

I’ve always read quite widely, beyond my own specialisms as an English teacher and student of literature and into other areas which I could understand, and used to find it rather disconcerting as a teacher when I would mention a fact or some information outside our subject, and a student would ask, “Sir, how come you know so much stuff?’ because it seemed natural and normal to know such things. I don’t think I ever gave a satisfactory answer to the question, but one of my lines was that I always liked to learn a new fact each day, and would offer them that fact as their knowledge gained ration for that day.

There is now an incomprehensible amount of information available, at most people’s fingertips, instantly. Several billion pages out there on the web, last time anyone informed me. And yet, how reliable, how accurate, how findable? The school librarian used to describe the internet as the world’s largest library, but with all the books thrown randomly on the floor.

Back in the past, a learned person could know everything. Reading Pliny’s Natural History is eye-opening: that’s what was known about the world back then. A few hundred years later, in the early seventh century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, which has a claim to be the world’s first real encyclopaedia. In a few hundred pages we find everything that was known: as the author, he knew it all… and for that, he has been named patron saint of the internet by the Catholic Church.

Athanasius Kircher lived in the seventeenth century; a polymath, some regard him as the last person able to know everything that was known, in the days before the explosion of knowledge in all areas.

I love the internet and the access it gives me to so much information, and I have learned to be very cautious and very sceptical too. Wikipedia is a stunning resource and one I am happy occasionally to donate money to, and one of its virtues is that anyone can contribute to it, but this obviously raises the question about how reliable some of its information is. Back in the old days of printed reference books, these were compiled by experts, checked before printing, and expensive; the gold standard for more than two centuries was the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But who goes there as their first call for information now? A search for anything throws up hundreds or thousands of hits; who ever goes beyond the first couple of pages? And how many look carefully at the source of the information? If we are dubious, we can’t easily check, so we just move on to another result.

In former times, we could assume that information was accurate because of how it was collated and disseminated; nowadays I suggest it doesn’t often occur to us even to question the accuracy of what we find in a web search, and this does disturb me. Inaccuracy is possible accidentally, because of carelessness, and when anyone can post information online, inaccurate information can be deliberate, and increasingly is; if we are not alerted to engage our critical faculties, this is surely dangerous.

Money is involved behind the scenes, of course. The Encyclopaedia Britannica cost hundreds of pounds, and once printed, a good deal of its information was already out-of-date. Smaller reference books – dictionaries, gazetteers, atlases and the like – all cost money. Nowadays because “free” information is available in vast quantities, we feel entitled to have it for nothing. A good deal of quality information online is only available by subscription, and our first reaction when faced with a need to shell out for information is to look elsewhere for a free source. This is even more true when it comes to news, current affairs, and analysis thereof: we used to buy newspapers and read them without too much complaint; now we expect our news free.

We were shaped – manipulated, perhaps – in the past by the power of the wealthy to control the publication and dissemination of knowledge: no change there, then. And it continues today in different ways, and not many of us are wary enough. All I can hope to do is make more people aware of this; I have no solutions to offer to the problem.

On responsibility

January 24, 2019

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realise that I’m a thinker and not a doer by nature; from this blog you can see I read and reflect and write a lot. I’ve been considering this in the light of what I perceive to be the parlous state of the world at the moment, and wonder what my contribution has been.

From my teenage years, I’ve been aware of the state of the planet and the effects of pollution on it, after reading The Doomsday Book by Gordon Rattray Taylor, an eye-opening moment. This led me to explore the realm of speculative fiction, in which writers consider what ifs, both in term so what may happen if things get worse, and what we may do to improve things. So the fiction of John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, for instance, is balanced by the more positive imaginings of Ursula Le Guin and Ernest Callenbach (Ecotopia), and I spent several years researching into science fiction with a social slant in my younger years.

I’ve worked for food co-ops and housing co-ops, as radical alternatives to the usual ways of feeding and housing ourselves, and learned much from those experiences; I’ve been vegetarian for over 40 years, converted others, spread the message about responsible eating. I have done my best to recycle, and not to over-consume (I’ll polish my halo now).

As a career, I taught, in secondary schools, and think that I always did my best to have students read and discuss texts of all kinds that would make them think about the world they were going to live in and the choices they would make. I was radical without preaching, and enjoyed playing devil’s advocate, as many of my former students would recognise. This was a difficult but enjoyable line to tread, and one I feel I had no choice about; only once did a parent challenge me about my political views in nearly 30 years.

Politically I have supported organisations which espoused issues I felt strongly about – CND, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Soil Association; I can’t remember ever having been a member of a political party, which I know some may think is a fault. I have always voted: I believe this is a civic duty, and anyone who doesn’t vote has no right to complain about the outcome of an election. I have never voted Conservative, and could not. I have never supported tax-cutting, privatisation, selling-off national assets. But obviously we have benefited (?) financially, in crude terms of having more money in our pockets…

At one level, I can tell myself I’ve done OK there: smug, white, middle-class, keep your head down. But. When it came down to choosing a career, I chose something safe – teaching – rather than anything which challenged the current order, though it was a career of service, which I think is important. When it came to having a home and family, I went down the conventional paths; we have a decent home in a decent town, and decent pensions. I drive a car, but do not fly. So I’m not completely blameless in terms of environmental footprint.

And yet this is clearly not enough, either for me, or for my generation: during the time of our stewardship and responsibility for the planet through our political and economic decisions, things have gone from bad to worse. We haven’t been responsible for events like the two world wars, but we have surely benefited from warmongering policies followed by our governments and allies, and the continuing exploitation of other countries by our companies and businesses.

Now that I’m retired, I feel as if the baton has passed to younger generations, who I hope will have more clarity of vision and courage than ours, which has benefited from the sixty-plus years of peace since 1945 and the welfare state put in place after it. I’m not happy with where my generation has left things, and often ask myself: could I – should I – have done more?

Thirty glorious years?

January 24, 2019

Warning: politics ahead

The French call the decades in which I grew up ‘les trente glorieuses’ – the thirty glorious years, harking back to (another) lost golden age, in this case of unparalleled economic growth and prosperity as their country, along with others, gradually recovered from the nightmare of the Second World War, in an era of relative peace, security and a real welfare state. And no, I haven’t forgotten that this was the era of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis; I do feel somehow, though, that saner heads were in control then, than are now. Then, both sides were almost too afraid to do anything really risky, and we did all survive the risks of nuclear annihilation.

Those decades were also the years when the European project was hatched and developed, bonding nations ever more closely in the effort to ensure that the nineteen thirties and forties were never repeated; so far they haven’t been. Looking back on those years now long ago, I’m quite happy to have grown up during them; yes, I know I would say that, wouldn’t I? But they were relatively prosperous, carefree and stress-free times, compared with today.

Something happened at the cusp of the seventies and eighties which began to throw everything out of kilter. Reagan and Thatcher came to power in the West and unleashed a wilder form of capitalism based on selfishness and unrestrained individualism – perhaps an inevitable outcome of the urge for individual self-expression and fulfilment seen in the sixties and seventies, but definitely driven by people with a much harder-nosed agenda than the blissful hippies that some of us once were… and there was the determination, too, to destroy the Soviet bloc by out-spending it, which ultimately succeeded. Having family who lived behind the Iron Curtain, I know how much they craved our freedom and prosperity, and yet it’s now evident that not everyone saw 1989 as an unalloyed blessing.

All the cards were thrown up in the air, and the extremely wealthy, those inveterate gamblers with other people’s lives and money, have never been happier, or wealthier.

And in my declining years I have a sense of living in a far more perilous world than the one of my youth. Terrorism and extremism of all kinds are widespread. The environment – seas and climate – is in serious danger, and there seems to be little sense of urgency about dealing with looming disasters. People have lost faith and trust in politicians to serve their countries and societies, electing the likes of Trump, voting for Brexit, allowing demagogues like Erdogan, Orban, Le Pen and others to make the running and set the agenda. I am also quite aware that the world I have been writing about is the West, where I live, and which I know, and that the experience of much of the rest of the world has been very different.

I have not chosen to be a political activist myself; in my career as a teacher I always strove to make future citizens think carefully about the world they lived in and the effects of choices they might make, and to beware of anyone who offered easy and simple answers to the worlds’ problems. And I cannot put my finger on what has gone wrong, but I do not feel optimistic about the future of the planet or the species. The generations who lived through the world wars and who used to warn us have died, and left us to unravel the lessons of history ourselves. Fail.

On contradictions

December 29, 2018

Warning: politics ahead

As I grow older – perhaps wiser, though I have yet to be convinced about this – I do find myself increasingly aware of a number of contradictions about our lives and they way we conduct them. Some of these I list below, in no particular order.

We live in the late capitalist era, under an economic system which depends for its existence on our continuing to buy more stuff. At the same time, in this country, houses are being built of ever smaller capacity; the number of “secure self-storage facilities” (lock-up sheds) is increasing rapidly.

In our country we have always wanted cheap food. Cheap food is cheap because it is full of fat and sugar (both of which are cheap). Fat and sugar are not healthy; they eventually make us ill, with ailments like diabetes and obesity.

Healthy food like fruit and vegetables can be relatively cheap if we use cheap immigrant labour to harvest them; many people do not want to let immigrants in to the country. Who will harvest our fruit and veg, those (relatively) cheap and healthier parts of our diet?

We claim to worry about pollution and the environment, and yet love the convenience of tonnes of plastic, fretting about relatively little things like straws and carrier bags. Poor air quality due to exhaust products from vehicles will shorten the lives of many, and affects the youngest most, yet the number of SUVs continues to increase and their use is particularly noticeable on school runs… because we have an education system which does not encourage people to use their local school.

We think electric cars will be the answer, while nobody takes account of the pollution involved in the production of the batteries or the extra electricity. We worry about global warming but we love the cheap flights and the cloud storage.

We want the police to keep us safe, schools to educate our children, hospitals to care for us when we are ill, social care when we are old, but we don’t want to have to pay for it all.

We fear terrorism yet sell weapons to everyone we can, interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and start and fight wars in them, too, unable to see why people might want to flee from all that.

Two years ago the British people (well, some of them) made a decision which will have major effects on the employment and travel prospects for younger citizens and limit their citizenship rights. These younger citizens did not get a vote on their future while large numbers of retired and elderly citizens who will be far less affected did, and largely voted to remove the rights of the younger ones…

It was not a sudden urge to be more democratic that gave us that vote; a political party felt that the vote was the only way to prevent itself exploding under its internal contradictions…

Increasingly I find myself wondering whether we never really were that intelligent a species, or whether the system under which we live is infantilising us, or whether we are just wilfully blind.

On another centenary…

November 2, 2018

My father was born a subject of the last Tsar, of a nationality without a nation. My researches have shown me that he will have spent the early years of his life pretty close to the lines of the Eastern Front during the Great War. And then came November 1918, the end of the war, and the re-establishment of an independent Poland, after well over a century of non-existence. The Second Republic was born.

You can read about Polish history elsewhere; if you need a recommendation, the excellent books by Norman Davies are the best I know in English. Although only half-Polish, I do feel some pride in the history of the nation, once the largest on the European continent, in the form of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Somewhere I read, the first country to abolish corporal punishment for children; not quite sure how that actually worked. But a nation which elected its monarch? A great idea in theory, perhaps, but which was one of the factors leading to its downfall. A country with a nobility where membership went with your name, not your status and wealth and importance: though my origins are in the peasantry in the middle of nowhere, our name is in the book, the Index of Polish Nobility. It doesn’t do me any good; the Second Republic abolished the nobility in 1919, I think.

Re-creating a nation after over a century is a pretty impossible task, and the Second Republic didn’t do terribly well, torn between those who wanted Poland to be for the Poles and those who hankered after the old, vast commonwealth encompassing many peoples, and much wider territory. It didn’t take long before Poland was another of the fairly grubby semi-dictatorships that spread over much of central Europe. And then there were the Jews, getting on for a quarter of the population, and not always popular, in a country full of poor peasants who saw some prosperous Jews. Because they couldn’t own land, Jews turned to trade and property to make their living; my father said they sometimes taunted poorer Poles: “You may own the land, but we own what is built on it.”

My father was called up in August 1939; living in the eastern part of the country, his section of the army was not involved in trying to hold back the Germans. On 17 September he and his mates were taken by the invading Russians before they could leave their barracks, and shortly after, Poland once again ceased to exist. He and his fellow-soldiers were marched off to Siberia like many thousands of other Poles, where they endured appalling conditions in various camps for more than two years. Enough has been written about the bestiality of the German occupation; what the Soviets did is less well-known. Once Hitler invaded Russia, Poles were grudgingly allowed to leave and make their way to the West to join Allied forces for the struggle against the Nazis. It wasn’t easy; disease and semi-starvation took their toll. But my father ended up in England, joined the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade and was trained to be dropped as part of the liberation of his country – which never happened. He was part of the abortive Arnhem operation, and then Poland was sold down the river by the Western allies.

Newly ‘liberated’ Poland shifted a hundred miles or so to the West and my father’s homeland became part of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, which meant that technically, were he to return home, he would be a Soviet citizen. But Soviet citizens who had been in the West were dangerously suspect, so he did not return, one of many thousands in that plight. He knew some who did return, and who then vanished.

Under the Soviet umbrella, Poland attempted to become a nation again, with a certain amount of success, in the sense that there was stability of a kind for the next forty years or so, and also an ethnically homogeneous nation, almost entirely Polish. However, as recent events have begun to show, that has not been a wholly good thing: Poland does not welcome refugees which, given its own past, is rather sad. And the fact that opposition to the Soviet-imposed regime was centred on the Catholic church has created other difficulties, too, for a nation now free of one set of shackles but seemingly unsure of its future direction…

I’ll not apologise for that personal take on Polish and family history. I’ve wrestled with my origins for over sixty years now, and in many ways I’m as English as they come; I was an English teacher for my entire career. I’ve visited Poland five times, and I would not want to live there, not because I don’t like it – I do – but because I’m English too. I’m entitled to Polish citizenship and a Polish passport if I stump up about €1000, and I’ve been briefly tempted, because of all the Brexit insanity. But I think that currently Poland is in a different kind of mess because of its past. Collectively, though Poles are justifiably proud of their record in the Second World War, they seem as yet unable to come to terms with the fact that not every Pole behaved with honour or decency towards his Jewish fellow-citizens. And I’m not casting any stones here, because the English have not a clue as to what life under Nazi occupation for Poles, whom the Nazis also regarded as an inferior race, was like. Poles have yet to face up to the anti-semitism fostered and fanned by the Catholic church in the inter-war years.

But Poland is a free and independent nation, and has been free of the Soviet shackles for nearly thirty years, even if it has found others instead. I try to imagine what my father would have made of it all. Though he saw the successes of the Solidarity movement, and eventually free elections in Poland, he died a month before the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, six months before the collapse and disappearance of the Soviet Union, which had so radically altered his life…

On hubris

October 29, 2018

Warning: politics ahead…

As I’m in my sixties, I lived through the dangerous times that were the Cold War, old enough to have vague memories of my parents’ worried-looking faces at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, during my bedtime ritual, which always ended with Radio Newsreel at 7pm. I can remember being part of the enormous demonstrations against cruise missiles in the 1980s. And yet, I feel a much more profound sense of unease and anxiety nowadays at the state of the world: Gorbachev was an intelligent man, I tell myself, and Reaganonly’ had Alzheimer’s…

I struggle to think of a world leader worthy of any trust or respect nowadays, except perhaps for the redoubtable Angela Merkel, streets ahead of anyone else, but even today under threat from the rapidly changing political climate in Germany. And I wonder what on earth is going on in our world, that so many ordinary people do seem to have taken leave of their senses.

It was less than 30 years after the end of the Second World War when I was demonstrating against Reagan’s missiles; now it’s over 70 years since that war ended, and those who experienced those darkest days of Europe and the world are sleeping in the sleep of peace, unable to warn us any longer.

I’m not looking back through rose-tinted spectacles at the politicians of yesteryear; there were many then as vile and incompetent as most are now. But politics is now a money-making career more than anything else, it would appear, and the idea of serving the public, a nation or the world has gone out of the window. In a world in many ways more ‘connected’ than it has ever been, we are more disconnected from everyone else by technology; in a world where Amazon Prime and Netflix provide entertainment, millions can live for days, weeks even, without stumbling across the news, which one had to on terrestrial television; one can surf the web and live in a social media bubble in which no news need ever figure. How many people are aware of the unspeakable slaughter going on in the Yemen, for example, aided and abetted by British industry? And who reads newspapers? Once it’s possible to avoid knowing about what is happening in the world, all sorts of manipulation is possible.

What am I worried about? Terrorism that isn’t called terrorism by world leaders unless it happens in Western cities and carried out by certain narrowly-defined groups: the world was not like this in the 1960s. Nuclear proliferation: now that the US and the Soviet Union don’t exert the control they did, who is developing nuclear weapons? Why is Israel allowed to pretend it doesn’t have them? In the crazy cauldron created by the West that is the Middle East, who can say what may happen? Climate change that doesn’t exist because it gets in the way of billionaires’ profits… The fragmentation of Europe, hastened and worsened by the maniacs behind Brexit, and many Europeans sleep-walking into it. A united Europe was built on the ashes of the last war, to ensure it never happened again. Memories are short.

What has happened? Memories of war are too distant in time. Economic chaos only affects a relatively ‘small’ segment of the population – the poorest, or ‘unimportant’ countries like Greece. The illusion of prosperity comes from shiploads of random stuff arriving from China at rock-bottom prices, along with unlimited credit and the pillaging of the environment; never mind, let’s ban plastic straws… and those of us with some money – which is the majority, and this is a democracy, after all — can and do carry on pretty much as before.

Collectively, we all must share the blame. We are living in very dangerous times: we think that everything is fine (more or less) whereas it may very well not be, and most of us are not prepared to think about the consequences of that. That is a very false sense of security. Equally the leaders of the world are at fault. Our system allows us to delegate power to those we elect and trust to make decisions on our behalf, which we lack the time, the competence and ability to make. We have been remiss too long, and we have been blinded by the media power of the wealthy, and allowed unsuitable people to lead us. And we have been taken in by the shiny-shiny offerings of big business and their mass media for so long that we are addicted. Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad…

How do we get out of this mess? I wish I knew. Do you?

Farewell to the EU

September 22, 2018

I am becoming more and more despondent as the days tick by to 29 March 2018…

It was during a conversation with a Luxemburger whose studio I’d rented for my last walking holiday, that I realised I’d spent my entire adult life as a citizen of, first the European Economic Community, then the European Community and finally the European Union: I was 18 when we joined back in 1973. Although I felt happy then joining all our neighbours in the twelve (as it was then), two years later, in my serious but short-lived very left-wing phase, I voted for us to leave, in the first-ever referendum. We didn’t, I got over it pretty quickly and over the years came to enjoy the – mostly unseen – advantages that being part of the union gave us. Travel gradually became so much easier as borders, though still visible, disappeared in practical terms as one made one’s way about the continent. The quaint old idea of the ‘duty-free allowance’ of cheap booze as you came home vanished, and you could bring back anything you’d paid VAT on in any European country. Because travel was easier, I went to more places, experienced more of life and customs in other lands.

The real border shifted to the Elbe: Eastern Europe was still much harder and more complicated to access, but eventually with the fall of the Soviet Union, other Eastern nations eagerly joined the EU and those borders also vanished… Money – exchange rates and currencies was still rather a pain until 2001 (I think) and the advent of the euro; I’m still cross that we never joined as that would have completed the simplification of movement and travel.

Forty-six years later, all this is due to come to an end. If I can get to a port, and I have secured (bought) my authorisation to travel to the Schengen area, I could still go for my walking holiday in the Ardennes. But I will need to go to a post office and queue up to buy at least one kind of international driving licence if I’m taking my car, and currently I don’t know whether I will need to buy any form of extra, special insurance for my car – a replacement for the old ‘Green Card’. I think my EHIC – which entitles me to medical treatment on the same basis as citizens of the country I’m visiting – may still be valid, but I don’t know. I’m assured that it won’t suddenly cost me extra to use my phone while I’m abroad, but I’m not convinced. And I’m pretty sure that it will all be horrendously expensive, given that the value of the pound is likely to decrease still further.

First world problems – I’m complaining about my travel and holidays getting costlier and more complicated. I’m retired, and don’t have to worry about work: plenty of my fellow-citizens are likely to suffer rather more than I will. It’s the tiny-mindedness and the short-sightedness of what we are going to do to ourselves that appals me, our insular inability to see any of the bigger picture or to find common cause with others in an attempt to solve the real and pressing problems facing our continent, and our world. Never mind, when it comes up for renewal in 2021, if I still need one, I can have a nice blue passport… and if even if we are no longer in the EU, I shan’t feel any less European myself.

Frank Trentmann: Empire of Things

July 28, 2018

41dDMxF43uL._AC_US218_I have to say that, whilst this book made very interesting reading, it was also quite hard going, partly because of the vast wealth of detail and examples Trentmann uses, and also because the subject is so all-encompassing it meant that it was often hard to follow a particular thread clearly and coherently: the whole felt a little shapeless at times. But our obsession with stuff, and acquiring more and more of it, is a rather more complex issue than I had imagined. In early modern times there had been various sumptuary laws restricting conspicuous consumption on religious and moral grounds.

Trentmann notes a post-Second World War shift to a focus on creating wants, as he looks at what we prize and value, and why that should be. Over centuries we have moved from producing what we need – self-sufficiency and survival – to selling our labour for cash in order to buy things, and this clearly led to the development and manipulation of demand. The shift from rural to urban living was responsible for creating the ambience for higher consumption by reducing opportunities for self-provisioning. Ownership and consumption of stuff gradually became part of how people defined and saw themselves.

Quite early on I felt any reference to Marx’ analysis of labour and production was lacking, and when Trentmann did turn to Marx he was rather simplistic, dismissive even, in his treatment, though it is true that the latter was – as far as he got – more interested in production than consumption; nevertheless Marx’ analysis of changing labour relations over time fits in well with the development of greater consumption, and capitalism in general, I think.

Far more data is available from the nineteenth century onwards, with the growth of the ‘science’ of economics, so the book largely concentrated on the time from then, rather than comprehending the last five centuries as the book’s blurb suggests. However, Trentmann’s debunking of various myths about consumption, and his tracing of a process which can be seen to have developed slowly over centuries, is interesting. For instance, labour-saving devices actually led to the invention of new chores, and the adopting of higher standards and expectations as people became more competitive. And then there are the tricks and deceits of multinationals involved in the marketing of ‘heritage’ through so-called ‘farmers’ markets’ and ‘local’ food – yet another pricey brand, in the end. In the end, it is all about re-cycling money: higher wages and more leisure time = more goods can be sold, whatever they are; now, the opportunity for profit is even greater as the emphasis on selling services rather than goods, develops.

Home ownership led to the idea of individual rooms, either for specific activities or individuals, and thence the need for things to fill them. Increasingly, statistics demonstrate that the affluent society is about ordinary rather than conspicuous consumption. Concomitant is the necessary growth of consumer debt to sustain it all, and also the growth of public squalor as private affluence increases, and we are told that we prefer to have more of our ‘own’ money to spend on things…

More insidious is the position of the intellectual elite’s self-proclaimed position as guardians of ‘civilisation’, attacking mass consumption and seeing the masses themselves as spoilt children, permanent adolescents caught up in the cult of self.

Why do people imagine they need all this stuff? Perhaps to make up for the increasing dullness and pressure of the routine of work? In the end, self-fulfilment through stuff… Consumption itself takes time as well as money, contributing to the feelings of stress, so we are time-poor but have lots of things instead. Pope John Paul II spoke eloquently about the loss of balance between spiritual and material values.

Most interesting to me: Trautmann’s analysis of how and why Eastern Europe failed in terms of satisfying its consumers. Overall, not a book I’d recommend as a casual read; I’m glad I bought it and read it but felt it lacked political bite: issues are presented, but no solutions offered. And clearly we cannot go on like this.

Note to editors: mid-Atlantic production values for books can lead to nonsense: what on earth is ‘Scottish whiskey’ (sic) for heaven’s sake?

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