Monday, August 30, 2010

Want a successful career (and not just on a newspaper)? Just say Yes

This picture (below) appears on page 27 of the Daily Mail on Monday, August 30, 2010. When a similar picture was lying around the picture desk here at the Mail several years ago, I was tempted to stick it on one of the columns here in the office and add a particular caption. Wisely, I thought better of it. Although many individuals at the Mail have a very good sense of humour, there comes a point where that sense of humour tends to fail, and given the caption I planned to add to the picture, such a failure was a racing certainty. (In fact, more than a racing certainty, because many such ‘certainties’ in racing are nothing of the kind.)

When the picture below appeared this morning, the opportunity is proving to great to miss given that I can publish it here in my blog where the chances of discovery and a consequent sense of humour failure in Northcliffe House are pretty low.

'Yes, Paul'

My caption will be rather obscure to many, but my sense of self-preservation obliges me not to elucidate, even though few, if any, read this blog. For greater impact, the reader would be best advised to substitute the name of his or her boss.

I should add that I hold a minority view of the chap in question. Those higher up the food chain are often subjected by him to frequent and profane invective, whereas I am of such sheer insignificance here in Northcliffe House that such bollockings blow right over my head. On such occasions it is reassuring to belong to the rank and file.

Understandably, senior and junior execs are inclined to be less than charitable about their boss, and no one can be quite as bitchy as male journalist. On the other hand, I think this guy, who is a tall chap, is essentiallty rather shy, and very private who does not like the limelight. Furthermore, I suspect that he is a very good and loyal friend to those he regards as his true friends. And from where I sit - i.e. as someone not exactly in the loop - there doesn't seem to be any side to him, which, for a newspaperman is nigh-on unique. If, on occasion, he stamps his foot - once quite literally - to get things as he wants, it has to be said that his insistence on getting things spot on in the way he thinks is spot on most certainly plays a significant role in the Mail's undoubted success.)

Friday, August 27, 2010

There’s one born every minute (more or less)

I’ve just been reading that ‘a star with two Saturn-sized planets’ has been spotted by the US planet-hunting’ Kepler telescope and that scientists are seeing whether there might be a third ‘earth-sized’ planet also in orbit. (The Kepler telescope, incidentally, was named after the Southend-on-Sea turf accountant (‘bookie’) Jeremy Kepler, who put up most of the money for its development, and not, as you might have thought Johannes Kepler, the 16th-century German mathematician and astronomer, an account of whose life you will find here.)
Fair enough. As a lad now in his late 90s who was brought up on Dan Dare and the Mekons, the mere mention of extraterrestial life is enough to get my pulse racing. But it also reminds me of several oddities which always occur when we discuss ‘intelligent life elsewhere in the universe’. But before I launch into tonight’s diatribe (or this morning’s if, like Olly, you live in New Zealand), I must confess that I find it inconceivable that life, in some form or another, has not also evolved elsewhere in the universe.
This afternoon, on Radio 4’s Material World in a piece about black holes and magnetic stars, I heard that there are something like 100 million stars in every galaxy (with most stars having about it several planets) and that there are several billion galaxies in the universe. Well, do the maths and tell me that ‘life on Earth is unique’. If it is, then in 1966 I was the only teenage alive who thought that existence was shit and unfair, and that all I wanted to do with my life was to make fun of it so that it retreated into its cave red-faced, defeated and full of shame. Such was the scorn of my anger.
When there is talk of ‘intelligent life elsewhere in the universe’ — and future generations will fervently hope that whatever ‘life’ they do come across is ‘intelligent’, because there will otherwise be precious little opportunity to engage in trade with ‘unintelligent’ algae or what an Alpha Censorius takes the place of algae — we always seem to make the same assumptions. On the one hand that we assume that when extraterrestrials do finally spot Earth and decide it might be worth a stopover, they will always ‘come in peace’ (‘We come in peace’). And if peace is rather further from their minds than is laid down by some UN charter or other, that they are always unbelievably ferocious bastards who merely want to rape our women, steal our cattle and then destroy what’s left of Earth’s ‘civilisation’.
Now why do why think either must be the case? Why do we think that the ‘aliens’, the ‘extraterrestrials’, who make it to Earth — and who have presumably survived the vicious interrogation all aliens are subjected to by US Immigration when they arrive — are the sole representatives of their civilisations? When, finally, the US and, a little later, Russia, land four or five of their chaps on Mars (and sorry, girls, but you know as well as I do that it will initially be chaps), did they really consult Sri Lank and Venezuela and Canada and Georgia and Mongolia and Namibia before launch as to what the best approach might be if and when ‘natives’ are encountered? And what exactly will the US’s/Russia’s Mars visitors do if and when they are regarded by that planet’s suspicious natives as invaders and treated accordingly? Will they loudly proclaim in one voice and with renewed vigour repeat the declaration that ‘we come in peace’? Or will they shoot back when they are attacked? For if it is the US rather than Russia which first gets to set its foot on alien soil and which, subsequently, is the first to be made aware that it is not quite as welcome as it thought it might be, will it treat the indigenous populations of Mars and the other distant planets it visits as it treated the indigenous population if America when it first set its dainty foot on the sands of Cape Cod? Most recent reckonings estimate and accept that more than two million Native Americans succumbed as the ‘white man’ who ‘came in peace’ chose to impose his authority on ‘the savage’ in the 200 years which followed his arrival.
And why do we assume that ‘alien’ civilisations aren’t equally as riven by rivalries and paralysed by bureaucracies as the Earth’s ‘civilisation’ is? Why do we assume that the spacecraft which has recently arrived on Earth from Alpha Zeta Beta Phito II (and if it has arrived on British soil, preferably not on a weekend) speaks with one voice for the peoples of Alpha Zeta Beta Phito II? And if the ‘civilisation’ which lands its fleet of UFOs at Cape Cod at some point in the future does speak with one voice, it would be safe to assume that that one voice speaks uniquely for an authoritarian system which will brook no dissent. And thus it is unlikely ‘to come in peace’. Earlier today I read an account of the problem India and China face over deciding on the line of their mutual frontier (although they both might not regard it as a ‘problem’ but, at best, more as an ‘irritation’.) That rather puts our future concerns of how to treat visiting aliens into perspective. Will, it be: ‘OK, your Zorgon bastards, you can have Solihull and Kings Heath, but that’s it, OK, understand? You step one foot — one foot! — north of Mosley and it’s curtains. Savvy?’ I think it was something like that the Patuxet told the Pilgrim Fathers in 1622. Something like that. For all the good it did them.
Alien invasion? Bring it on! We’ll show the bastards.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hate mail in the shires or why it’s wisest to take nothing for granted, not even good manners among the self-regarding middle-class great and good

The following is a true story. I don’t know whether it’s funny or sad, and I hope it doesn’t embarrass the chap involved. I work with him, and although I don’t know him well — he is an acquaintance from work rather than a friend — he is a nice, decent guy, the sort you (or, at least, I) always wish well rather than not.
This chap, Mark, is unusual among national newspaper journalists because although he is a freelance, he works in several executive capacities on different newspapers, and he does so on the Mail, where I got to know him. Most ‘freelancers’ are writers who are in the loop and can make a reasonably good living from their work. Other ‘freelancers’ are, like me, casuals who (in my view) only call themselves ‘freelancers’ because they think it might impress others a little. In fact, they are, like me, ‘hacks’ in the truest sense of the word, i.e. subs or writers hired by the day, journeymen. But Mark is in a rather more rarefied league, that of the true freelancers. I believe there is family money in the background, and I’m pretty certain he was educated privately. That family money might account for the fact that although he lives in London, he also owns a weekend cottage in Wiltshire. On the other hand, and knowing the range of his work and where it pops up, it is perfectly possible that Mark makes a very, very good living from his freelance journalism and that it is his sole income.
As I say, I know him from the Mail, but a month or two ago when I was staying with my aunt in Bordeaux, I came across a copy of The Spectator in which Mark had written a piece. The Spectator (‘The Speccy’ to those who like to indicate that they are somehow in the know) is not a magazine I ever buy and not one I read at all regularly. Ann, my aunt, a retired university teacher, gets it from a friend and former colleague who passes it on once she has read it. For me the trouble with The Specator is that it is eternally preaching to the converted, it always seems to be bemoaning ‘modern life’, it’s politics are always wholly predictable, and it has about it a rather stand-offish air which says ‘if you’re not one of us, you’re not worth bothering with’. (On the other hand, that might be my hang-up. Discuss.)
However, one evening, I picked up a recent copy and, flicking through it, came across a piece by a ‘Mark Palmer’. ‘Is that the same Mark Palmer I know,’ I wondered. The piece was headlined Social Pariah In The Shires and you can read the piece here, but briefly it is about how he and his family bought a weekend cottage in Wiltshire and where he hoped lead a pleasant weekend existence and build up a circle of friends, but for some reason was never accepted. He was invited to early evening drinks where he was introduced to the rest of that village’s great and good, where, a friend later assured him, he will have been given the once over but that village’s leading lights. Appartently, he didn’t pass muster, because no more invitations followed.
It is a readable, amusing and entertaining piece, though rather wistful. But after I read it, I did think to myself that Mark was making of himself something of a hostage to fortune by publicising the goings on, or rather lack of them, in that Wiltshire village.
Once back at work and when I was in (he only works at the Mail for three days a week, and our working weeks only coincide on Wednesdays), I asked him whether he was the same Mark Palmer. He said he was. So I told him what I have recorded above, that surely he was making of himself a hostage to fortune and that given their rather unwelcoming nature, some in the village would have been none to pleased to see it publicised in the oh-so-middle-class ‘Speccy’ which, even if they don’t actually read it, many in the village will have lying around the living room hoping friends and visitors will notice it and be impressed. What had been the reaction? I asked him. Oh, he said, they weren’t very pleased at all. In fact, he added, he had even had hate mail.
I started this piece by stating that I didn’t know whether the conclusion to this anecdote was funny or sad. I now know: it is not in the slightest bit funny, and it is more than sad. I am certain that the authors of that hate mail would be the first to lecture others on courtesy, manners, the ‘kind of thing one doesn’t do’ and generally how a well-brought up chap should behave. So not only are they pretentious, they are also nauseatingly hypocritical.
It makes me think that the plots of Midsomer Murders aren’t quite as far-fetched as I thought.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

God, no more, no less. Though there's rather less here than you might expect

I live around ten miles from St Endellion church (I don’t think there is a village) which, for the past 30 years or so has held two music festivals a year, one at Easter and on at the end of July and beginning of August. For the past few years I have attended many concerts and enjoyed all of them. The standard is very high indeed and the musicians and singers who take part are all professionals who perform unpaid for the sheer pleasure of taking part. (Or that, at least, is the official line, though I have no reason to doubt it.) The whole event, from the higgledy-piggledy arrangement of chairs to the long queues which form during the intervals outside the portable loos, one for men, one for women, is, as you’ll have no difficulty at all in accepting, irredeemably middle-class. Of the concert-goers, as opposed to the performers, none is obviously under 40 and the majority are at least over 60. Everyone dressess badly, or if not badly, then dowdily in the way the English middle-class has made its own. Many of the men turn up in cream-coloured trousers and a navy-blue top of some kind - a blazer, Guernsey sweater or shirt - and are more often than not white-haired. If they are not white-haired, they are bald. Other men will appear in a variety of tweedy materials and old pullovers, but however shabby they are, they are usually better dressed than the women who have apparently all given some thought to what outfit they will wear. (I enjoy the music, but it is always something of a downer to find myself in the company of other ageing middle-class folk and be reminded that I, too, have white hair and will never in a million years dress elegantly.)
Over the years I have heard the St Matthew Passion, a piece by Ravel which I liked so much that I immediately bought it on CD, Walton, Vivaldi, Vaughan-Williams — in fact all the composers whose work usually features on such occasions. Composers such as Stravinsky, Barber, Rachmaninov and Scriabin, for example, would not have a snowball’s chance in hell of being performed. At the end of the festival, there is always a mass celebrated by a variety of clergy led by the Bishop of Truro and it is as high church as it is possible to be without being arrested. (I was brought up an RC, and until that gang began holding their services in English, this was the kind of service I attended: loads of incense.) There is always a liberal abundance of female clergy (and the joke is intended), and the whole affair has about it that air of cosiness which I abhor. I have attended the end-of-festival mass twice, last year and again yesterday morning, and I shan’t be doing so again. On both occasions I went for ‘the music’ and on both occasions ‘the music’ was nothing special at all. As for the ‘worship’, well yesterday I realised yet again that it is as much a load of mumbo-jumbo as any voodoo ceremony in Haiti. But having said that, I shall say something unexpected: as far as I can tell, it is mumbo-jumbo which is very necessary to a great many people.
Despite all the pious seriousness and never-ending series of clerical intonations, there is no denying that those who took part in the ceremony and the very many who took communion are completely sincere. And it reminded me again that it is not what is believed which is vital, but the believing itself.
Beliefs vary widely. Christians believe that their saviour, Jesus Christ is divine and was born of a virgin. I think that both beliefs are complete cobblers. Shi-ite Muslims, or, at least, a vast majority of them, believe that the 12th Imam didn’t die, but is still alive (which would make the chap more than 1,000 years old) and on Judgment Day (their capitals, not mine) will reappear rather as Christians believe Christ will reappear. I think that, too, is cobblers. Yet if someone were to ask me the simple question: do you believe in God, I would answer immediately and truthfully ‘yes, I do’. But I would leave it at that. I would avoid all and every attempt to get me to elucidate and do my best to change the subject. I believe with David Hume that ‘man created God in his own image’, and I am reminded of that every time some bloody sky-pilot begins a sentence with ‘God wants us to . . .’
The God I believe in — and to give you some idea of the complexity of my belief, I think it is outright nonsense even to debate ‘the existence of God’ — has more to do with what I believe is humanism than any religion I know of, and the Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Uncle Tom Cobley and all would have none of that. Furthermore, I suspect belief, faith, call it what you like, is more a psychological facet of humankind than it is intellectual. I suspect we need to believe just as much as we need to eat and drink, although a lack of belief will not actually kill you. There are those, who ironically regard themselves as atheist, who have an all-consuming belief, a faith even, in some ideology. To me they don't seem very different to the 'believers' they decry.
The Anglican Church and the Roman Church are, I believe, going through their death throes, tearing themselves apart over, for the Anglicans, the wholly irrelevant question of whether or not women should be consecrated as bishops, for the Romans exactly what was going on when for years and years and years the activities of various paedophile priests was simply ignored as the the most convenient way of ‘solving the problem’. But those are institutional issues, difficulties facing those churches as bureaucratic entities. They have nothing to do with the 'faith' those churches have nominated themselves to purvey.
I suspect that in 200, 500 and 1,000 time people will ‘believe in God’, have ‘faith’ and ‘worship’, for the very simple reason that they need to. When we are suffering we like to hope that at some point it will end and we ‘pray’ that it will end. As far as I can see, that does not imply a ‘loving God’, a God who has ordained that women should not be/should be priests or bishops. Every Sunday morning, driving either to Exeter station or all the way to work in London, I tune in to a Radio 4 programme called Sunday. And usually there will be some cleric pronoucning that ‘God would want us to do this’, ‘God would want us to do that’, ‘God says this’, ‘God says that’, and each time I think: how the bloody hell do you know?
Yes, I ‘believe in God’, but what do I think ‘God is’? I think it is all the good things around us, the kindnesses people show each other, I think it is hope, altruism, co-operation. It (note not ‘he’ or ‘she’) is selflessness, modesty, consideration for others — you get the drift. Incidentally, I am always utterly bemused by the zealotry of some ‘atheists’ who will not rest until they have proved ‘a believer’ wrong. Surely if God doesn’t exist, they are simply wasting their time? As Oscar Wilde once said, although admittedly in a different context: ‘Violent antipathy betrays secret affinity.’