Saturday, 3 December 2016

Australian Growing Pains

It was while taking a break from snorkelling over the Great Barrier Reef that I learned of Trump’s triumph. The Americans sitting next to me on the boat were pretty chuffed about it: I shrank from pointing out to them that one of Trump’s pledges was to cut funding for climate-change research, thereby multiplying the chances of the demise of the very phenomenon of Nature that they had travelled all this way to enjoy. No matter: American taxes will be diverted to space research instead, so future generations of tourists may have other planets to exploit and degrade.
We’ve been in Australia visiting friends and relatives. It’s been 15 years since our last visit and almost 40 since my first but I still get a sense of a place that is a pastiche of America – the vast territory accommodating generous plots of land per house, the big skies urging people out of doors – and of Britain, as evidenced in the tangible traditions and trappings of governance persisting from colonial times. No doubt much has changed since then – my expertise does not run to a proper analysis – but wherever we went our chaperones would to say “Of course, it’s all changed since you were last here”. Some of this would be down to recent influxes of migrants who have brought with them different customs and practices but, more prosaically, there are cumulative pressures on the cities which face the global trend of population concentration. And in dealing with this, Australians have a particular crisis of sustainability to resolve. Much of the housing stock is low-rise and widely-spaced in a suburban idyll which lacks adequate public transport infrastructure. The resulting reliance on cars is disturbing: in the households we encountered it was common for each adult to own a car and to drive it to the nearest shop.
And the architecture of the houses themselves is environmentally unfriendly. Traditionally, in very hot climates, houses were built to take advantage of whatever naturally cooling properties could be exploited. In Egypt and in parts of southern Italy, for example, houses would have thick walls and high-domed interiors with vents to allow cooling breezes: in colonial Australia they were built of wood, raised from the ground, surrounded by overhanging verandas and, ideally, situated so as to take advantage of natural shade and prevailing winds. But nowadays all of this is ignored in favour of universal modern building techniques and the panacea of air-conditioning. In the face of 30 degrees Centigrade I appreciate air-con as much as the next person: but what does it ultimately cost us in degrees of climate change?
Then there is the other kind of climate that is changing: the geo-political one. The shifts brought about by the economic rise of Asia and China now loom large over Australian politics. Its alignment with the economies of the West can no longer be taken for granted and, especially now that Trump proposes to abandon free-trade negotiations with Australasia, Australia will be obliged to take its business elsewhere.
Perhaps this is all too much for the “Grey Nomads” – the baby boomers who have taken to their mobile homes so as to follow the fair weather around their vast continent and take advantage of the zero costs of clothing, heating and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses. They may just be able to see out their time in the remnants of the old Australian dream while the young generations forge a new one.

But what of the dispossessed aboriginal people? I have never spoken to one, though I saw groups of them sitting under trees in Perth, performing for tourists in Sydney and wandering disengaged, like ghosts, through the streets of Cairns. Perhaps they are just biding their time until, after the climate-change apocalypse, they can once more take custody of the land and nurture it back to health.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Streetlife


One day, quite recently, I got out of bed on the wrong side and slid seamlessly into a default state of irritation. My wise, caring (and occasionally irritating) partner quickly spotted this and offered me some constructive advice. She explained that irritation is a useless, counter-productive emotion in which one may choose not to indulge. In order to be irritated we need to believe we're not getting something we deserve – thwarted expectations are the cause – and, although irritation tries hard to persuade us that we are justified in our reaction, if we choose to adjust the expectation, we negate the anguish. After a week in which circumstances have tested the theory almost to destruction, I am pleased to report that this works.
It happened that the weather was set fair and we had packed our bags for a couple of days hiking the coast of Anglesey. In excited anticipation we went to load up the campervan (which is kept in a "secure" underground space) only to find that someone had put a brick through the window, stolen some of the contents and vandalised part of the interior. It put paid to our plan for a getaway but we resigned ourselves, nevertheless, to Plan B which involved going to the movies. But then it fell to me to spend the next three hours on the phone to the insurers, the emergency glass replacement company and the police. As it was Saturday afternoon all their offices were closed and calls diverted to 24-hour out-sourced help-lines, each of which required me to recite my name, DOB, postcode and full address before allowing me to explain my situation, on the hearing of which I was passed quickly on to someone else who went through exactly the same procedure. It was... exhausting. But, eventually, the vehicle was dispatched to a repair centre and I went home.
The walk home is just two blocks and passes a bank of ATMs, a favourite spot for street-beggars, one of whom happened to be sitting on the bag of bedding stolen from our campervan. My first reaction was outrage, turning quite rapidly to anger, but I walked on a while before pausing to consider my response. I can't deny that I felt like taking physical revenge for the damage done to our beloved campervan, but your average white, middleclass, liberal-leaning leftie knows that violence is never the answer and so I restrained the instinct to lash out. Anger-management technique is quite similar to irritation control but it's more important to master it because of the consequences: whereas an irritated person might be inclined to harrumph, sulk or raise their voice, an angry person treads the tightrope of violence. And so I consoled myself with an empathetic reflection on the social ills that are the cause of homelessness, addiction and the resulting petty crime. “I am not the real victim”, I recited.
I took a photo of the beggar sitting on the bedding and, along with some evidence he left at the scene of the crime – a tube of medication issued at HMP Strangeways – gave it to the police to deal with. They still have been unable to apprehend him, despite his obvious presence: perhaps they think, as do I, that it would do no good; perhaps they are just under-resourced.
And so, days later, with the campervan in a compound awaiting the manufacture of a new window ("sorry sir, it's not a standard size – no one keeps it in stock"), the beggar still to be seen on the streets, the police sending me conflicting messages and the insurance company finding obscure get-out clauses, I remain adamant in choosing to be neither irritated nor angered. In fact, having mastered the techniques for the subjugation of irrational human behaviour, I am now considering signing up to a Vatican correspondence course, Sainthood: the Next Steps.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Trumpery: The Forgotten Noun

The verb “obambulate” – to walk around – could have been coined to ridicule President Obama’s indecisive approach to foreign policy. But it wasn’t. And Donald Trump, if he were less of a blunt instrument, could have used it effectively to make fun of what he considers to be weak presidential leadership. But he didn’t. The clever or poetical use of words to score telling blows against opponents is an art he has not mastered. His catch-phrase – Make America Great Again – may appeal to an audience of recently dispossessed blue-collar workers but otherwise lacks the nuanced subtlety and precision of lines such as, say, Bob Dylan’s ...they may call you Chief/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody...
But if the Republican candidate has not capitalised on the power of word-play, the same can be said of the Democratic candidate, who appears to have ignored the open goal offered to her by the word “trumpery”, defined as: 1, something showy but worthless; 2, nonsense or rubbish; 3, deceit; fraud; trickery. And “trump” which, in colloquial English, means fart. I may be getting carried away with personal demonization here when I should be making judgements more impartially based on policies, but it’s an easy rut to fall into as concrete proposals are submerged in the cut-and-thrust of campaigning. Precisely how, for example, would President Trump propose to reverse the fortunes of the Rust Belt manufacturing towns, home to so many of the unemployed who have put their faith in his powers? Does the New York property developer really have an economic formula to counteract the industrial decline which has impoverished them? I think not: but desperation, not logic, drives their thinking and the certainties spouted by a blustering liar are the straws to which they cling. Obamacare? Who needs it?
From my perspective there are some scary things coming out of America – and I don’t just mean masked Halloween clowns. Having just seen Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie I worry that swathes of its population show that tendency to moral certitude which is characteristic of ignorance. This is not to single out America for judgement but, because the current Presidential election focuses our attention on its global power and influence, the spotlight shines brightly upon it right now. Trump epitomises my worry precisely because he projects the kind of unquestioning moral certainty that is the hallmark of an uncivilised person. All human progress has been the work of those who have questioned or doubted current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The more uncivilised the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. My recommended antidote to this condition, should the patient be willing, is a dose of metaphorical obambulation, by which I mean the healthy exercise of consideration of all aspects of the human condition; or, in other words, education. On current form there is little chance of converting Trump to this way of thinking: he is, whether he knows it or not, living proof that politics comprises “the systematic organisation of hatreds” (Henry Adams, 1838 – 1918). He is a small man and “when small men begin casting big shadows, it means that the sun is about to set” (Lin Yutang 1895-1976).
It may be coincidence that the committee in Sweden just awarded the Nobel Prize for literature to Bob Dylan, but I prefer to imagine that they intended a kindly and timely reminder to Americans that there is good stuff in their cultural cupboard with which to counter the wearisome, blind-alley rhetoric of their political discourse. There is someone who can prick the bloated bubble of self-aggrandisement that contains Donald Trump with nothing more than a catchy tune and a pithy, home-truth, such as: You got a lotta nerve/To say you got a helping hand to lend/You just want to be on/The side that’s winning. I hope they’re paying attention over there.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Neither One Thing Nor T'Other

I’ve never really seen the point of brunch: too late for breakfast, too early for lunch, it just makes a mess of the day. This view probably reflects how deeply I am steeped in the traditional work ethic and the timetable for living imposed by industrialisation, but it’s a hard one to shake off despite the many who don’t share it. I suppose brunch suits people who don’t need to divide their days into conventional sections comprising a.m. and p.m. with lunch in between, people whose working day is flexible or, in some cases, non-existent. And then there are the wannabees, those for whom the freedom to brunch is an aspiration but, for the time being, must remain a weekend treat. Still, I harbour the prejudice that brunch is, if not actually immoral, at best a guilt-ridden indulgence.
Despite this however, I did meet friends for brunch last Sunday (not at my instigation). The cafe was funky and full, packed with millennials and their young families competing to be heard over their own cacophony. A waiter took our order soon enough but I suppose we should have realised all was not well when three other waiters subsequently came to take it again: but one doesn’t like to make a fuss. Sure enough, however, our order had been lost. It was just as well that I had eaten breakfast at 07.30 as usual, because by the time our food finally arrived it was actually lunchtime. The fortuitous net result was no change to my dietary routine (apart from the fact that I would not choose to have Eggs Benedict for lunch).
The following Tuesday morning I met a like-minded friend at the Royal Academy where, after a fortifying cup of coffee, we ventured into the Abstract Expressionism show. The galleries were not busy (the brunchies having not yet arrived) and we were able to get up close to the paintings – not that it was necessary: because so many of the canvasses are very large, there was more benefit in being able to view them, unobstructed, from a distance. Moreover, the galleries themselves are on a grand scale which makes the venue well-suited to the works on display.
The entry fee includes a personal audio guide which is packed with art-historical information and curatorial interpretations of key works. But the real bonus is the inclusion of a few brief passages of 1950s jazz, such as John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Their purpose is to illustrate the idea that while visual artists of the era were pushing the boundaries of technique and meaning, musicians were doing likewise. The effect of listening while viewing certainly enhanced my feeling for Abstract Impressionism: in fact the experience was so convincing that I would like to try it again, this time with iPod in pocket.
Choosing favourites from this body of work is impossible – no sooner do you decide on a Jackson Pollock than a Joan Mitchell catches your fancy – but personal preferences begin to emerge after a while, and some paintings are more “accessible” than others as far as the layman is concerned. I think, for example, of Rothko’s works. The curator informs us that the artist insisted his paintings be shown unframed, unglazed and hung low on the wall. This way he hoped to maximise the immersive experience for the viewer. It seemed to work well. Perhaps it would work even better while listening to Blue in Green from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.
The show is a big one and there is only so much exquisite art one can take in the course of a morning. As we both began to tire we realised – no coincidence, surely – that it was lunchtime.

Friday, 7 October 2016

I Don't Know

It seems to me that life was simpler back in the sixties – although, admittedly, that may have been from the perspective of not knowing what I didn’t know. But the internal combustion engine certainly was simpler. If something went wrong – as it frequently did – you could easily diagnose the problem by peeking under the bonnet, noting the symptom and tracing the cause – usually steam coming from radiator caused by broken fan belt or failed water-pump. But when my campervan broke down last week no amount of peeking could throw light on the problem. It required the attendance of an engineer – not a mechanic, I noted – whose first action was to plug a computer into the diagnostic terminal (I didn’t know there was one) and peruse the list of faults that came up on the screen. Unfortunately, however, this was just the start of an extended process which required a good deal of human intervention in the form of experts deploying their experience to identify and fix the actual cause. Their job would have been easier if the vehicle had been fitted with a computer which learnt from each fault and subsequent fix. Man and machine in perfect harmony.
Computers are being developed which attempt to mimic human thinking by learning from their mistakes (or miscalculations) and when this technology is perfected it could be usefully deployed not only for engine problems but also for the wider benefit of mankind: for whereas individual humans may learn from their experience and modify their behaviour accordingly, collective human memory is leakier than an old colander and subject to distortion, manipulation and degradation – especially in the sphere of democratic governance. It is acknowledged that leaders, not being omniscient, must rely on specialist advisors to define policies where required. Typically, this means economic and military advisory panels but, because these often have a woeful ignorance of the precedents of history, leaders would do well to augment them with a panel of history experts. In addition, and in the interests of greater objectivity, they should subject all their resulting proposals to algorithmic analysis by artificial intelligence and act only on those outcomes.
Of course this approach would not be acceptable to dictators or megalomaniacs. For them the primary aim is to acquire and hold on to power; and one way they do this is to keep the majority of their constituents in blissful ignorance. The less people know, the more meagre are their aspirations and, therefore, the more easily are they appeased. Ignorance is the biggest obstacle to progress, which is why the best thinkers prize collaboration and the pooling of knowledge. They recognise only too well the need to know what they don’t know. Some of our politicians, on the other hand, seem to manage very well indeed without such awareness: millions watched in disbelief as one American Republican politician last week proved that he didn’t even know Aleppo is a place, let alone a problem, while yet another had to be reminded that there is a difference between “strong” and “dictatorial” when it comes to assessing Putin’s style of leadership. But then they are appealing to an audience that believes that Donald Trump will revive dead industries in Virginia and elsewhere, despite his giving no clue as to how he will achieve this. It appears that the parties concerned in this process are content not to know what they don’t know.
Politics in the sixties was, rather like engines, simpler in terms of identifying cause and effect. But now the traditional parties are struggling to get to grips with seismic shifts in employment patterns, wealth inequality and shifting international power blocs. Perhaps it’s time they employed the latest complexity-busting tool: bring on the artificial intelligence and let’s see if it can introduce some fair-play to human affairs. Then we will perhaps know what we didn’t know.