A Canary in the Mine

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This is my second attempt at this topic. In the first, I fell into the trap of talking about myself. Endlessly fascinating, is oneself. So I’ve titled this one differently, in case I get distracted and forget the thrust of this argument. I do indeed wish to talk about myself, but only in so far as I reckon to be typical of human beings in general. I know all about uniqueness, and we spend a lot of our energy expressing ourselves, fearful we’ll get lost in the multitude’s hum. But it is how typical we all are that I wish to emphasise here, because I’d like to put myself forwards as being well placed to judge on matters that we tend to leave to experts. Not because I have particular knowledge, but because I am typical … a word I’ll probably use often

There are certainly plenty of us; many millions; about seven thousand million in fact. Most have ten fingers, stuck on similar hands, on a pair of arms that in turn protrude from similar bodies, with legs that propel us at between two and twenty five miles an hour, all beneath heads that weigh about ten or eleven pounds. As complex as our bodies are, medicine has evolved to recognise even the strangest ailments among us and our multitude of bits.  

However, we are surprised that a sea bird can hear its offspring among a colony of thousands, although we ourselves can identify a voice on the radio with no other clue to its identity. Though one of many millions, I’d like to put myself up as a test subject, and see how I’d fare. For example:

What have been my doubts of Jeremy Corbyn? Probably the same as most erstwhile labour stalwarts of the so-called ‘red wall’, that swathe of middle and northern England, the old manufacturing centres, which had become wastelands in post-industrial Britain. He may be well-meaning and honest, saying all the right things … but who really wants to be ruled by a geography teacher? How could I be so shallow as to go by appearance rather than listen to what he had to say? Okay, let’s look at these prejudices:

The only thing I’ve studied with any sort of intent is Art History. One of the things that always surprised me was how quickly a new way of painting was picked up by other artists. The early Renaissance artists, like Masaccio or Brunelleschi had only to glimpse reproductions of what the Van Eyck brothers and their ilk were up to in Flanders to get the gist of atmospheric perspective, and likewise their own experiments in real perspective and shading were picked up by the Northerners beyond the Alps in no time at all. The ideas spread like wild fire. A painter has only to see once – and briefly at that –  what another is up to. It doesn’t mean lessons learned could be copied; modern attempts at Impressionism, despite the simple directives of open air painting, usually fail, and testify to the historical processes that make for originality and uniqueness. But the understanding IS immediate. I had an intuitive grasp of Cubism at the age of twelve or thirteen, not because I was unusually perceptive, but because the transmission of art is instinctive and fast. And when it comes to reading people, there’s no one quite like other people, to do it fast and unerringly. I am confident that my perceptions of Corbyn were shared by many (that I was mistaken in thinking that everyone would see through Johnson’s bluff vacuity still galls me!)

I mention similarity between people, how we all resemble each other. This does not mean to diminish individuality. There’s only one Einstein a generation. We confer genius on the few who manage to speak for us all, and at least acknowledge the specialness of each of us. As do I. It is the common language we share that I emphasise here. But the difference between Usain Bolt and the second fastest man over 100 metres is fractions of a second. If it wasn’t for Usain, no doubt we’d applaud Tyson Gay ( a full tenth of a second slower!). The cacophany of  the colony  might guide the approaching albatross, but the mother booby recognises her infant among the cries of thousands. Given enough generations, even Einstein loses his uniqueness. Galileo, Newton, Darwin … plenty of contenders for greatness, and plenty of fields of endeavour to excel in. We love to clap. It is because we are so similar that we applaud difference.

So, myself: a baby boomer, born with a plated silver spoon in 1951, educated in a Catholic boarding school where my father taught piano. The Tory instincts of such a privileged up-bringing  were mitigated by the times. When I entered the sixth form in 1967, Lyndsay Anderson’s film ‘If’ came out, describing the spirit of rebellion that was ‘cool’ back then at Ampleforth. On leaving school a couple of years later I was a little surprised and disappointed to see most of my fellow rebels heading off to uni, or perhaps Sandhurst. But I was not unique in managing to fall off the allotted path to power and responsibility that was expected of us, though it felt a rather lonely path to be beating. Working in a factory, where the principles of fairness that I’d been led to believe underlay everything were conspicuously absent. The hypocrisy of those brought up surrounded by privilege still galls me. I was once accused of buying my way into the working class, an accusation that was not far off, and I remain conscious of the articulation and presumptions of success that a comfortable up-bringing afford. This doesn’t make it fair, or dissolve hypocrisy, but it at least absolves me of that irksome charge that Tories have of the left, of bearing a ‘chip on the shoulder’. Perhaps it moderates revolutionary zeal though … these are the questions that continue to plague such as I, and this essay is partly an attempt to justify my precarious political position. 

The only thing I can bring to the table in this discussion is honesty, to be as truthful as I can. It is only in the last few years that I managed to shed the last vestige of racism from my character. Despite what I thought of myself, I still considered Africans to be not quite as bright as us white guys. You know, good at rhythm, closer to their jungle roots, but also more prone to violence and robbery than a well brought up caucasian. The presumptions that I grew up with, telling Rasta jokes at school, and referring to the domestic staff as ‘skivvies’ took a long time to dissolve. Laurie Cunningham and Cyril Regis bucked the trend of black footballers not really having the metal to compete in the English First division … the exceptions that proved the rule. This was despite the fact that the best player in the world had long been recognised as being the Brazilian black player Pele. If I met a black guy who was  as bright, or brighter than I, he too somehow didn’t  count.

There was an interesting discussion on the World service last night, between the interviewer and a scientist, trying to make head or tail of the high mortality rate of BAME groups (during the Covd epidemic, of which we are in the middle) If it is genetic, that opens the door to racial differences that make us uncomfortable, unless you’re a Britain First member. Even the scientist admitted it was an intricate problem, not really solvable with the analytical tools currently available. But the data is inarguable. For now, we have to accept the unpalatable suggestion that their front line jobs endanger their lives, that while caring for whitey they are at risk. From my sofa I observe on the telly a doctor from war-torn Syria working to save lives in an NHS hospital. Wow.

It has been heartening to see the global ‘I Can’t Breathe’ protests, started in the US by the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd, while Trump, leader of the Free World cowers in his bunker. Way to go Donald. Even his supporters are quiet. Might this be a change in the spirit of the age, a tipping point where we admit some humility for the grief we have inadvertently caused? I am after all the indirect beneficiary of slavery and various other inhuman behaviours of Empire and exploitation. Black athletes were the first to bend the knee, but it has become a moving symbol for all of us.. There are no doubt other presumptions of which I and most of us are guilty, such as those that derive from the raising of humans to a semi-divine status, above other animals, and to the detriment of the planet. Humility never ends, but it’s good to start with our own human race. 

We are what we do. The first question we might ask of a stranger is “what do you do?” … it gives an indication of where we are at. I run a small business, so that perhaps suggests an inclination to the Right, and a sympathy for private enterprise. But I still put on a boiler suit, and do not consider a day’s work complete without getting my hands dirty … so an appreciation as well of the interests of the working man. So like my background, a bit mixed. And like my background, perhaps influential in my political opinions. Strictly speaking, I might be said to understand with intimacy only the stance of the working man with a privileged up-bringing who happens to run his own business, and has done his time on the shop floor. Not so very representative after all. However, if we restrict ourselves to accuracy, there would be nothing that unites us at all; we would just have to admit that each of us is unique and leave it at that … all very well to speak as ‘everyman’, but if we were exact in this there would be only silence. I find it more conducive to conversation to look for ways in which we are similar. We can, after all and on the whole understand one another.  If we don’t, or have difficulty it might be the first indication of disconnection, of not speaking the same language (something the far Left might be accused of). As I present myself as speaking for the majority, might I suggest that we like whoever we want to, irrespective of political stance. 

I’ve found recently that when it comes to economists I prefer those likeable ones. Rather than what they say. Mark Blyth, I find a bit too knowledgeable for my taste … he talks too fast. The Greek chap, Yannis ??, likewise seems to know it all. Whether these guys do or not I’m in no position to say, being a bit slow and knowing very little. Stephanie Kelton and Bill Mitchell on the other hand I find rather likeable. The fact they’re both full of Modern Monetary Theory, which appeals to me, is secondary to their amenable manner. I know I know … shouldn’t judge people by things like manner and appearance. But when faced with a bewildering range of views, where do you start?  The fact that Thomas Picketty is willing to put in the hours on collecting and collating data make him more likeable to me than someone like Paul Mason, who says all the right things, but seems to depend on having strong opinions. Shifting sands; how to judge … why not by how something strikes us? I maybe depend too much on how bilious the last meal made me, but it’s as sound a test as knowledge. You can have too much of it. I remember being faced with a similar problem when reading art history. I found there were some historians, like E.H Gombrich who I enjoyed reading, and others would irritate me, like that other Swiss bloke (specialist on Durer among other things). I decided eventually that those I liked wrote about art to illuminate life in all its mess and mystery, while those I didn’t wrote about art to illuminate art. … too dry, and loving the discipline for its own sake. Perhaps something like that will emerge from my current research … best not to force it. And quite important to remember, things aren’t actually too bad at the moment. Perhaps this is how it starts, the swing to the right that seems to happen with getting older.  To conserve things as they are, and suspect change … is that not part of the same syndrome? 

  • sorry, a senior moment –

So what unites us? Being human is a good starting point; being of the same species. Being able to mate and have fertile offspring is an indicator that biologists use to describe a species, and works well here as well. Of course, it is not the only one, though it might have more influence on our social behaviour that we care to admit. Dance, pop music and expressions of war and romance are driven by the interest to mate. But interests in science, politics and religion are also best served by sharing with others. Likewise research, into history and academic pursuits. Especially relevant at the moment, in the middle of a pandemic, is medicine, and biological research. How the threat of disease impacts our society gives us a genuinely global dimension, and in the UK it has been heart warming to see the NHS and other front-line services being applauded. Expressions of gratitude are  appreciated and understood internationally. The growing divergence between rich and poor is similarly much noted, and even the right wing press excoriates privilege, such as tax havens, or the PM’s personal advisor Dominic Cummings stretching his own lockdown rules for personal advantage.  Whether we do anything about this is down to us. Do we have the will to change things for the better? 

I hadn’t meant to write about this, but it seems relevant, so why not?

Let’s list the good things that the pandemic has made happen (as opposed to feeling sick and dying, or being stuck in a high-rise bedsit):

1. the environment: nature seems to benefit from humanity taking it’s foot off the pedal, from clear skies above cities, to the increasing health of fauna and flora 

2. changing the social hierarchy: nurses and care workers; binmen and shelf-stackers in supermarkets; mountain rescuers and lifeguards; farmer workers and fruit pickers … the lowest paid are the ones we need most right now. Bankers, estate agents and hedge fund managers are way down the list. Might this be reflected in future pay negotiations?

3. International co-operation: despite the likes of regressive leaders like Trump, the world recognises that on the whole that we all benefit from working together.  

These three changes may reflect the same altering of perspective: global realisation that the virus does not respect race or national borders for example;  that the benefits of improved international cooperation might be due to a similar change of social priorities. Could it really be that the high mortality of black and minority groups are due to there being more immigrants working in the ‘at risk’ professions? … the Grenfell Tower effect is harder to deny when spread throughout a society. A whole building in Kensington, West London, despite repeated warnings from tenants burnt inhabitants alive because it was clad with dangerous materials, in order to prettify the view to other wealthier residents … tenants of the tower were mainly BME. And it seems the same cross section of society is taking the brunt of Covid mortality; what price immigration now, that the caring profession seems to be dying first? That the rich West might be initially vulnerable because they can afford to travel more? The pandemic shines a light across the world on humanity’s activities. Environmentally, the raising of the smog that befouls cities is most noticeable in the manufacturing countries of China and India.  The fallout is clear to see, but hard to justify, especially for those of a conservative prejudice, and so we all draw breath at what humanity does. 

Thus the political change of global emphasis. The UK Chancellor hands out the dough like a good socialist; hard not to applaud him, even if the Left say it is only to protect the long term interests, but whatever Rishi Sunak’s reasons, the social and economic effects of such stimulus are real. Might we even be at the tipping point that socialism hoped for, and even the crash of 2008 did not introduce? It will be interesting to see how things unfurl. Historical momentum is a rugged beast after all.

Humanity is forced to draw breath. Might it alter how we breathe? Financially, the whole world slips into debt. Will it be those who scramble out of lockdown first who benefit the most? Will GDP continue to be the main test of how a country is doing? … will we praise most those who pant hardest? After all, who judges? Who holds the debts? Even if the markets decide where to put investment, how is that choice made? Fashion and hair dressing, treats for pets … are these things really as important to us as adequate clothing, food and decent treatment of all living things? Infrastructure surely counts: a capable and well-educated populace, connected with good logistics and avenues to other countries might be a better place to build a factory than one with just cheap labour, for example. So even for the pure capitalist, how investment is made must count

Do we really want profitability to be the main determinant in how we arrange ourselves? Should threading gold braid through a billionaire’s hair be as well rewarded as tending to a dying person? And is the state an organ for bad, as the Tories would have it, or the big tool we need to address the grand issues, like climate change? Is it even a question for a puny individual to be asking?

… which brings me back to the point of this essay: How might what I want be a reflection of how society develops?

I remember reading a book by Herman Hesse (was it Tristran and Isolde??), and being struck by his foolish optimism … but then thinking, is it so foolish after all, to believe in a world I’d prefer to live in? What prevents us? About the same time as I was reading that book – and no doubt it effected my musings – I found myself outside a hotel in Leyburn with a glass of beer, while Veronica was getting her hair done down the street. Wensleydale stretched out before me; my daughter Clare was asleep in the push chair, and as a daydream I imagined that I was taking time off from designing a new hang glider in the workshops beneath; that I would need to find time for an experimental string quartet that I was premiering in Oslo the following night … all just a day dream, or, why not?

 Ok, so I’d rather not live in a world that gradually chokes me or my children; where the animals frolic and flowers abound. During this lockdown (ten weeks so far) I have done eight paintings (admittedly stuck on the 9th), made 3 new protoype stoves, one of which I’ve sent off to get tested (first for twelve years), and written five songs. I’ve not visited the pub as often as I’d have liked, and am slightly worried about the world’s condition as a result. But the men are in furlough, and government grants have enabled me to do this, as well as paying off long standing debts. If this is a taste of the future, bring it on. Re-join the rat race? Who would want to? I find I quite like inventing and making stoves, even without the demand of pressing orders.

Years ago I’d reckoned that access to capital was the main concern of the small businessman. Over the years this demand has reduced, as I’ve gradually accepted that to have something that I can’t pay for up front is foolishness. This attitude would no doubt be applauded by my accountant and my bank. I went bust after the last recession, and have been a good boy ever since (more or less). But I have not tested a stove in all that time …that would be foolishness! To borrow money to do that? But now, with the aid of government grants I’m still waiting on the results from BSRIA; if not successful I’ll try something else. At least I won’t have a debt that I’d have to service …  thanks to the government grants!

There is a presumption of fecklessness that holds back those who would decide. That investing in the individual is not worth the risk. Again, I claim to be a typical citizen, no better or worse than the next man. There are some better, but as many worse; I’m somewhere in the middle. There is even talk (for example, by the Scottish Government) of trying out Universal Benefit, whereby each person gets just enough to live on. Predictably, the chorus from the Right is No! … surely, if not whipped or rewarded into action, no one will have the interest to work. Even the Left is unsure, and would rather the decision be made on how we spend our money by those proved responsible (i.e. those in Government). And I must admit that with the onset of old age I find my resolution and daring failing slightly … thankfully, I’m not likely to be in a position where I’d have to choose. I would hope that I would say yes, trust in folk … and that this hope would be shared by others. There must be other typical people than just me!