96. Watching their Rome burn.

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Sorry, I’ve not written anything for a while. The daily news has become so outlandish that the art of wry observation has been killed off. It’s like a weather report has been interrupted by an extinction event meteor strike.

People keep asking me to explain why the UK is shooting itself in the foot and I suppose the easy answer is that Britain hates itself deep down. Britain is one of the first industrial countries and is the first one to become sick of industrial endeavour. The jadedness is pervasive. No-one’s really facing it. Employment is historically at a high level, but most of what people do at work they freely accept is pointless.

If Britain turned up in outpatients we’d send it to the crisis café, where it would do breathing exercises and group drumming therapy. Britain is paranoid, but not in a psychotic way. Britain is using the primitive defence mechanism of projection to blame its problems on others, much as Gotham City eventually turned against Batman. Britain will not be given drugs and universal benefit; it will not be allocated to a care coordinator. Britain will be given a self help leaflet and ‘signposted’ to the Tuesday allotment project. Sadly there is no therapist designed to treat whole countries. Although we have Prince Harry ‘starting conversations’ and the government’s behavioural insights unit.

But will that be enough to rescue us from our angry self loathing? Or do we need a proper superhero? Or even a more universally hated enemy, now that ISIS is receding and Northern Rail have settled their strike?

Beneath paranoia lies a longing for there to be someone out there who is interested in us– preferably in a good way, like a guardian angel, or Nick Knowles from DIY SOS. If they care in a negative way, such as a stalker or the taxman, that is still better than the complete indifference of a dark, empty universe. If Brexit is a cry for help, rather than a death throe, it relies on someone taking notice.

We cannot rely on International Rescue since David Milliband took over. I seriously doubt whether David has got the time to monitor every radio network in the whole world 24/7 like the Tracey brothers used to do. The closest we can come to Thunderbirds is the Air Ambulance, which is why we love it so much and keep putting coins in the collecting tin.

Maybe the giant corporations will look after us. I know that Google Rewards checks up on me regularly, knowing which shops I have been into or near. Unlike my guardian angel or Nick Knowles, Google Rewards reveals itself to me regularly with short survey messages. At the moment it wants to know whether I have spent any money in the shops and in particular what means of payment I used. Quite often it asks me how I feel about Argos. I don’t think Google would come to my rescue in an emergency, but importantly it does pay a small fee for each bit of information I send in. It might only be 6p each time, but it means at last I can say I am a paid writer.

Up there somewhere, my imagination tells me, there’s a person at a monitoring station looking at a screen, looking at what I am doing, ready to beam me up out of any trouble spot – this is what I call the rescue fantasy.

If I break down in my car I will call the AA. If I’m in a road accident the ambucopter will arrive, circle overhead for a while and land in nearby school playing fields. If my tooth breaks off the dentist will fit me in the same day and fix it during the Ken Bruce Show on Radio 2, both of us muttering answers to the popmaster quiz.

The local GP surgery reached out to me recently, inviting me for my 5 yearly check up. It’s called Health Check with the Nurse, though it is a health check with a health care assistant nowadays. In some more prosperous parts of the world it’s maybe a Health Check with a Regional Dean of Internal Medicine, or an underemployed WHO ambassador like Robert Mugabe. Next time here I suspect it will be health check with youtube and a mirror.

Anyway, the point is there is someone out there who cares about you, even if they have ulterior motives, like targeted advertising or stopping you getting diabetes.

And we’ve looked upon our parliament and political leaders to take an overview and guard us from our own foolishness. In return for their efforts we scream ‘nanny state’. But now we find our elected leaders fighting among themselves. Our ambucopter has landed, only to reveal the pilot and paramedic beating each other unconscious in a fist fight.

Some good things are happening, like the minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland, limits on fixed-odds betting terminals and quiet carriages on LNER. The police are asking us to report motorcyclists without helmets, accepting they will be anywhere within a ninety mile radius by the time details have been taken on the non-urgent line.

If The Rescue Fantasy was a movie here’s how it could all still work out:

Prince Philip has a dream of a devastated Britain that looks ever more like the set of a Mad Max movie. No More Heroes by The Stranglers plays loudly in the background.

He sends for Harry and symbolically hands over the key to the Royal Land Rover and Harry’s old army pistol. ‘You’ve got exactly 40 days to save this country from its own danged-bone-headed foolishness. You’ve been talking a lot about starting conversations, Harry. (eyes narrow) Now I’m telling you to finish the conversation.’

Training montage of Harry ploughing through piles of books: Freud, Durkheim, Nelson Mandela; exchanging ideas with world leaders; mindfulness exercises with the Beckhams; in the lab with Brian Cox; and finally, on the firing range with Prince Philip.

Cut to Parliament. Just like in Crimson Tide, at gunpoint, Harry relieves the prime minister of command, ‘You’re unfit for duty madam. And that’s the end of the conversation’.

Epilogue scene, the truth and reconciliation committee, chaired by Ant and Dec, symbolically reunited, takes evidence from the perpetrators. Harry, in the background allows himself a half smile.

Brief shot of angry Putin, smashing his vinyl copy of No More Heroes.

The End.

Post credits shot of the new Nissan X Trail, made in Sunderland after all.

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77. Imagine there’s no Santa.

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The UK version of Village People.

In Buxton, Derbyshire, Father Higgins is in big trouble this week, for telling the kids that Santa isn’t real. Sections of the media pretended to get upset.

Father Higgins doesn’t like fakes. He thinks we should be judged on what we do rather than what we say. He’d rather see people carrying out charitable works than mumbling prayers over their rosary beads. People say to him, ‘I’m not a religious man but…’ and he interjects ‘neither am I really’. Father Higgins has a tendency to go off message at times, but there is no Bishop in Nottingham in post at present to tell him off. And besides that, he’s of an advanced age, he’s been at Buxton, Derbyshire for decades and he knows very well there’s a drastic shortage of priests in the UK. No Martin Sheen character is going to set forth up river to finish him off like in Apocalypse Now. He’s just not expecting the Spanish Inquisition.

Religions have to be careful about debunking mythology, not just because of the pot -calling – the – kettle proverb. Reality is too harsh to tolerate full on, so we have to create a buffer zone of fantasy around it. Some fantasies are shared, like talking animals, royal families and Santa, while some are highly specific to individuals. Mark Chapman fantasised about killing John Lennon for a long time before carrying out the act. Allegedly, Chapman was a fervent Christian and Beatles fan, and had come to regard Lennon as a kind of false prophet. He was influenced by the character of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, who hated phonies, yet was something of a phoney himself. It takes one to know one, or as a psychoanalyst might say, it takes one to project one.

Since Lennon had taken the trouble to call his last album ‘Double Fantasy’ rather than say, ‘Double Truth’,  Chapman’s reaction was harsh, to say the least. He should have paid more attention to another contemporary New York musician, Billy Joel, who wrote ‘Angry Young Man’ as something of an antidote to political protest.

Despite that song, which seemed to punctuate an ‘end of history’ moment for over-righteous indignation, people still queue up to denounce perceived hypocrisy. Just think about the Critical Psychiatry Network, who stay up at nights raging about made-up illnesses and pretend drug therapies. Just think about the people who hate the Band Aid single, just because it sometimes snows in Africa and nearly every African person knows it’s Christmas time.

Could Holden Caulfield find anyone around today that he could believe in?  I suspect he’d have to settle for a pet dog. He’d never find a human being he could tolerate. People are intrinsically irrational and hypocritical and contradictory. It’s the way the mind works, isn’t it Mr Spock? In acknowledgement, we have seen a shifting emphasis in therapy away from ‘rational / emotive’ towards ‘acceptance / commitment’, the acceptance being that humans have messy wiring diagrams. We are all phonies now – get over it.

The problem seems to occur not so much when someone creates a fantasy world around themselves, but when they create the wrong alternative reality. In the news today we hear that pets are getting more likely to attack their owners, supposedly because they are not given enough exercise. People are getting dogs that are much too large to live in ordinary homes. Bonsai dogs have been around for a while, but they are not popular. When you buy a dog you are buying a fantasy companion, not an ergonomically-correct domestic appliance. Not that you would really want an appliance whose main function was generating and randomly distributing hair and faecal material. We have an old Dyson for that job.

Though the media have profited greatly from the expanding market in fantasy, the main losers appear to be those bastions of rationality, maths and science.

A large number of our children don’t understand that 85 is a smaller number than 90. If you ask them, ‘if I buy an orange for 20p and an apple for 15p and I pay with a pound coin, how much change will I get?’, they will answer £1.35. But then we do have a thing called Quantitative Easing, which means they are probably right. And what’s more they can all sing all the songs from Frozen.

 

 

 

 

27. Saying sorry, properly, to Desmond.

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Everything is permitted.

One of the projects that Blue Peter never attempted was to set up your own Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That’s a pity, because a TRC in your own home would be a lot more useful than, say, a separate dining room or garden shed.

Taking the example of South Africa, it looks as though we need three subcommittees: human rights violations, reparation / rehabilitation and amnesty. The first one looks at what went wrong, the second at what can be done to put things right, and the third invites further business from those who want to confess.

It’s worth making some space around the home for the proper infrastructure. Very few people, even catholics, go to confession in church nowadays, and the shortage of mobile priests has led to a decline in the domestic confessional box market. Modern architects wouldn’t even know how to design a priest hole. Most people consequently don’t get much opportunity to take a long look at their behaviour, with the help of a moral philosopher in antiquated neckwear.

Whereas the confession box requires a twin booth, soundproof module with a tiny curtained window – even Homebase seems to have stopped selling them – a TRC unit can be much more transparent and even Scandinavian-looking, in light wood.

The South African prototype required at least 18 people. The domestic version has to make do with a few co-opted members. Its unlikely you’ll get Desmond Tutu, but a distant relative from Canada, or another country with an impeccable human rights record, might be available. Failing that you can try a community psychiatric nurse, mobile hairdresser or peripatetic guitar teacher.

The agenda is to bring to light all the mistakes you have made and the transgressions you have committed; admit you would have done things differently if you had thought about it a bit more and hadn’t drunk so much; you’ll mend anything that you broke, once you get your giro and if there are replacement parts available; and you’ll accept a reasonable penance suggested by the committee.

Something similar has been developed by therapists, in particular so-called ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’ or ACT. Instead of conducting a battle against negative thoughts, ACT helps people forgive themselves for their human frailties in return for a positive attitude toward the future. It looks like an attractive antidote to all the hypocrisy and  finger – pointing we are seeing nowadays.

It’s a bit like confession, but it has to be said, confession has several advantages. Firstly the church has a ‘walk in centre’ approach to confession, so there is no waiting list. Secondly, anonymity is preserved, unlike Therapy, where you will be shopped if there are public safety considerations. And thirdly, the penalties – typically two ‘Hail Marys’ – are really very minor in comparison with those a domestic TRC will hand out, such as taking everyone out to Prezzo.

In confession you are really pleading guilty to Original Sin, but with ACT it turns out your sins are entirely unoriginal.

21. Judging. Not.

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This panel comes with price tags.

I feel a bead of sweat run icy cold down my forehead, even though it is baking hot in the room. The inquiry is not going well.

My inquisitor puts down his stack of documents and looks at me accusingly.

‘So you were eating a chocolate bar in your car?’

‘That’s correct.’

‘While driving it along the A46 at 60mph?’

‘That’s correct.’

‘Could you tell the panel please, what kind of chocolate product was it?’

I hesitate for a moment. There’s no point – they probably have forensic evidence.

‘A Cadbury’s flake, I believe.’

There is a long pause. The chairman is polishing his spectacles. The scribe is making notes on a yellow pad. Its time for the killer blow.

‘What slogan is generally used to describe the Flake bar ?’

I shake my head. I tell them that slogans are outside my field of expertise.

‘Just answer as a layperson then,’ I am directed, but I decline to speculate.

The inquisitor asks whether I have heard the slogan: ‘the crumbliest, flakiest chocolate in the world’?

I nod.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you. Did you say you were familiar with the slogan, the crumbliest, flakiest chocolate in the world?’

I ask the chairman whether that might be a leading question but I am directed to answer. I agree that I have heard the slogan, and I agree that the slogan is probably accurate. I am careful to mention that I have not studied any systematic evidence that has reviewed chocolate products on a global basis and stress tested them with crumble and flake gauges.

The inquisitor is on a roll. I’ve seen enough Perry Mason to know that this is the point where I could easily burst into tears and confess.

I drink some of the tepid water from the glass in front of me. I try and shrug in a French way, supinating both hands and making a pffffff noise with my lips. The panel don’t like it.

‘Yet you drove one handed along the A46, eating a flake. And as a result, now, we have a very difficult…’ he pauses for effect, ‘a very ugly…,’ again he pauses to pull out a ball pen and tick a box on the document in front of him, ‘an almost indelible mark. A stain, if you will. On your front seat.’

We have already heard from expert witnesses that ivory cloth isn’t the most durable seat material. We’ve heard how, recklessly, I turned down the Scotchgard treatment when I bought the car. Clearly, I was an accident just waiting to happen.

My mind started to wander for a moment, as I awaited the verdict.

Just how long had car service departments been holding panels of inquiry?

I wondered whether this was just BMW*, or whether all the dealers had taken this high handed approach to customer behaviour.

The answer of course is that there is an inquiry panel going on pretty much everywhere  nowadays, as some kind of convulsion of guilt and recrimination shudders through our society.

During the recess, I walk to the newsagent to look at the cards in the window. I could do with a little inquiry work myself, something small, that would only take a few hours and not cost the taxpayer millions. Preferably I won’t have to wear a wig and gown.

I wonder if there are any small domestic inquiries going on, like the spills and stains tribunal at the car service department.

I prefer spills work to be honest. I am pretty familiar with the Spills Police and their activities, having followed the cases against Macdonalds between 1982 and 1992.

I’d probably attribute my fear of spills to a genuine scald at Macdonalds, although much earlier in life I remember being told off furiously by Sister Clare for leaving ink blots on the school savings bank ledger. Rorschach tests and banking just don’t mix.

The Spills Police will be very happy today, as it is reported in The Times that someone has invented a ‘Floating Mug’ that is also a coaster, and therefore will not leave a ring stain, even if it drips.

One of the inventors, Tigere Chiriga, apparently was ‘terrible at putting coasters under mugs and so kept leaving stains on furniture’.

I notice there is no lid however. Not even the little fold-over ‘that’s torn it’ spout device. Hmm…. Not sure about the Nobel Prize without a lid.

Many of the Spills Panels recommendations over the years have yet to be implemented. For instance, there are still a large number of small ‘comedy teapots’ in circulation at motorway service areas and  tea-rooms, the ones that seem to defy both gravity and surface tension effects, in order to pour tea over your fingers.

Everyone is on some kind of panel or another at the moment, as society heaps blame on itself. Ever since the McCarthy period, inquiries seem to be an excuse for a bunch or people getting together for a bit of bullying.

Along the street, I find there is an inquiry at No.38, regarding poor use of spelling and grammar. Apparently someone has been spelling ‘liaison’ wrongly for many years, and has been saying ‘infer’ instead of ‘imply’. Somehow the Mixed Metaphor Commission got involved.

Over at the arts centre the drama group are looking into suspected over-acting at their Gilbert and Sullivan festivals, and some abstract expressionists are answering questions about the massive carbon footprint they left behind.

A whistleblower at the council has revealed that billions of wasps were slaughtered in the decades before it was realised that wasps were our friends. At the library, a panel struggles to unravel how Grapes of Wrath got filed in the gardening section.

I wonder if any inquiries take place out of doors now its the summer? Badgers seem to be facing awkward questions and / or awkward firing squads at the moment. I’m sure Brian May needs help defending them.

Inquiries are so stodgy and they drag on for years. As an antidote, I’m thinking of starting a ‘street inquiry’ movement – I will call it ‘Knee-jerk Reaction’ – where fast moving, dynamic and punitive panels work with mime and street artists to create impromptu, judgemental scenarios, probably on skateboards and posting their findings with graffiti.

If you suffer from Depression you probably have an inquiry panel in your mind a lot of the time. One of the worst things you can do if you are depressed is dig out an item from your own past and go over it again and again.

Its unlikely that your memory of the event is accurate and it’s unhelpful to ‘ruminate’ the same material over and over. Any judgement you make is likely to be over-punitive and self deprecatory.

Like Sister Clare, your panel is likely to maximise your misdemeanours and minimise your achievements, as well as knock you on the head with a special ring used as a knuckle duster.

If there’s a stain on my car seat, lets try the little steam cleaning machine I got at British Heart Foundation before we bring an inquiry upon ourselves.

Oh dear! The steam machine has spouted out some rusty water. But we have Vanish. And Stain Devil for chocolate, and now one also for rust.

But something is wrong with the Stain Devil. Instead of colourless solvent, the can releases material of the deepest scarlet. Quickly, the scarlet stain becomes a hideous creature, with a forked tongue and dragon’s tail….

‘My name is on the can,’ it screeches.

That’s when I awake from the inquiry panel nightmare. Coming to my senses, I realise I am not on trial at BMW any more.

But from now on, ‘issues around chocolate’  are going to be included on the risk assessment form I complete each time I use the car .

Best practice guidelines seems to suggest Twirl is 90% as good as Flake with only 10% of the scatter. And 7 Up is a thousand times less staining than Coke, yet equally wholesome.

Some people have even learned to drive short distances without eating anything.

Do not Judge, says the mission statement, this from the organisation that gave us the Spanish Inquisition.

More accurately perhaps, the message is not to apply standards to others that you could not live up to yourself.

Even more accurately than that, the message is to stop lawyers – and talent show judges, for that matter – pocketing huge sums of public money.

We could have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Or we could just accept that we are humans, we make mistakes, and move on. Which, really, is the same thing.

Sister Clare, you are forgiven.

*No cars (or chocolates) were really hurt in the making of this article.