A new week begins
Once more unto the breach, dear;
Traffic choked M4
Cars, like ideas, move slow
Looking to break free
As the sun rises
Our hopes too dare to emerge
From gridlocked torpor
Slowly the way clears
The week ahead opens up
Hinting at promise
At about this time last year, I wrote about the psychological warfare that was being waged against me by my wife and daughter in pursuit of their goal of securing agreement to us buying a dog. It was a carefully orchestrated campaign, and one that led to a final, grudging acknowledgement that a dog might be a good thing for us to own at some future point.
Fast forward twelve months, and I am delighted to confirm that my resolve has held firm. We still don’t have a dog. We are though, some four months into a house share with a far more manipulative addition to the family.
Flo (or Florence to give her her full name) is a British Blue, a short hair breed that loses very little hair and so meets the dual test for any four legged incomer to this house : maximum cuteness and minimum stimulation of allergic reaction!
It’s fair to say that Flo pretty much now rules our house in a way that I would have thought unthinkable when we first brought her home. She spent the first two hours with us hiding under the sideboard in the living room but she has definitely found her feet since. There is literally nowhere that is now out of bounds to her.
I’ll be honest, I never considered myself to the sort of person who’d end up with part-ownership of a cat. Having been allergic to fur since childhood, even spending time in a house where there’s a cat usually leads to much sneezing and wheezing. I’d looked on cats as being somewhat aloof. However, I’m increasingly coning around to the idea that you don’t really ever own a cat. Rather, the cat becomes the centre of the home, deigning to all you to share her space – but always on her terms. Jean Cocteau describes this co-existence perfectly : “I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.”
However, it is H.P. Lovecraft who perhaps best sums up what it is to share your life with a cat : “In its flawless grace and superior self-sufficiency I have seen a symbol of the perfect beauty and bland impersonality of the universe itself, objectively considered, and in its air of silent mystery there resides for me all the wonder and fascination of the unknown.”
In case it’s not already abundantly clear, I’m smitten with our kitten!
There is a really interesting long read in today’s Guardian. The article examines how we have weaponised our leisure time in a way that would have been unthinkable to our grandparents (and probably even our parents). Competition and the clamour for public approbation of our sporting, baking, reading, photographic or other (insert hobby here) activities is linked to a decline in the meaning that we find in our professional lives. The argument runs that if you are in a bullshit job (and – to a greater or lesser extent – most of us are), then one way to find meaning in your life is through the things that you do in your leisure time. The ability to share our achievements, exploits, creations, finish times on a whole range of social media platforms serves to both reinforce this sense of meaning, but also increases the pressure that we feel to be better/faster/more creative. Rather than leisure time being a time to rest and recover, we use our hobbies and other discretionary activity as a way to increase our sense of personal worth and value.
There’s a lot in the article that I can identify with. When I’m running (and I’ll be back soon – see blogs passim) I do user a tracker and upload my data to Strava. I like to monitor my progress, but not in comparison to others. I keep my stats to track my own progress – when I run at parkrun or any other run, I’m running with other people, not against them. My competition is the clock. To be honest, it’s the same with this blog. I do like to see whether people are reading, and it’s always interesting to compare which posts attract more or less reader attention. But – to take the daily blogpost through November as an example – what really matters to me is the discipline of completing the challenge. Completing it as a ‘public’ diary rather than simply jotting down some thoughts in an exercise book is part of the way that I hold myself to account.
There’s an interesting section in the Guardian piece about the ways that some people are using YouTube guides and audiobooks to fast-track their social time – listening to audio-books at 1.5x speed, or fast forwarding through on-line videos. This is presented as being something new. I’m less sure about that, though. I still vaguely remember the Readers Digest booklets that were a regular arrival at my grandparents’ house, containing abridged versions of various books. Perhaps in some respects, at least, whilst the technology has undoubtedly changed, the desire to squeeze the most benefit possible from our leisure time is not so different to that experienced by earlier generations.
I’ve become a bit of a fan of Classic FM whenever I’m travelling alone in the car. I recognise that its a bit like buying a compilation album, in the sense that you only get to hear snippets of classical works and rarely in their full symphonic, operatic or other context, but on the plus side it has caused me to download much more of Rachmaninov and Shostakovich’s full works than I otherwise would have. The other great thing about the station is that it plays a lot of film music, and that’s what’s prompted today’s blogpost.
Great film music can act as a reminder of the film long after the dialogue or sometimes even the cinematography have faded in the memory. This week, on the Classic FM breakfast programme, they played Ennio Morricone’s incredible theme tune to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It’s a brilliant piece of music, and has become the standard against which all Western film music has been judged ever since. I now make a point of watching Leone’s spaghetti westerns specifically because of the Morricone music that accompanies them. I am convinced that it’s what my soundbar was designed for – cranked up to almost too loud to bear. The music is every bit as characterful as Clint Eastwood’s lone drifter cowboy, seeming to capture the essence of the Mexican desert and the discordant and unpredictable life at the edge of the law.
C. and J. are planning their own cinema trip this weekend to catch up on the recently released Nutcracker movie. I think a couple of hours on the sofa with a bottle of red and a Netflix re-run of Clint and Ennio may well be in order!
It’s been an interesting weekend for news watchers. The headlines have been dominated by coverage of events to mark the hundredth anniversary of the end of the Great War (1914-18). Almost inevitably, yesterday was dominated by the sorry excuse for a human being that temporarily occupies the Oval Office at the White House. I don’t know who if anyone actually advises Mr Trump, but I can only assume that he completely ignored their exhortations yesterday that whatever the weather, he simply had to fulfil his commitment to attend a memorial event at a US War Grave site in France. His decision not to attend, and then to compound that gross error of judgement with a spectacularly ill-judged tweet about the wildfires in California, simply served to reinforce the view that this is not somebody who is fit to represent his country on the world stage.
Comparing Trump’s behaviour with that of other world leaders over the weekend is fraught with difficulty. It feels like damning others with faint praise to say that they are so much more impressive than Trump. He sets the bar so low that even common decency appears like the most incredible selflessness and compassion in comparison. Contrast Trump’s decision to stay warm and dry in his Paris hotel room, with the hugely symbolic gesture of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron holding hands at a ceremony marking the signing of the armistice in November 2018. This symbol of togetherness, of unity in seeking to strengthen peace and solidarity, stands in stark contrast to the isolationist approach of a US president who appears not to understand that a world divided is a world that has failed to understand the lessons of the Great War, and the 1939-45 War that was directly linked to the punitive peace imposed on Germany at Versailles.
Learning from history so that we avoid repeating the same mistakes again is the action part of remembrance. Quietly acknowledging the sacrifice of the countless millions on all sides who have suffered directly and indirectly as a result of war is necessary and appropriate. But if we don’t also strive to ensure that similar things can’t happen again in the future, then remembrance becomes an empty gesture. The sacrifice of those who have suffered is rendered worthless, meaningless.
In his speech in Paris today, Macron echoed the earlier words of leader of the Free French during the Second World War General (and later President) de Gaulle when he decried the re-emergence of nationalist policies and agendas across western democracies. Comparing patriotism (the love of one’s country) with nationalism (hate for others), Macron concluded that : “By saying ‘our interests first and never mind the others’ you stamp out the most precious thing a nation has – its moral values.” I actually paused in the writing of this to watch the latest instalment in the new Dr Who series. Tonight’s story centred on the partition of India in 1947 and the slaughter of Hindus and Muslims that followed on from the fatal decision to establish the border between India and Pakistan on religious grounds. The forced displacement of millions of people that followed is a clear example of a destructively nationalist approach – our interest first and never mind the others.
It’s the sentiment that underpins Trump’s withdrawal from the international treaties that seek to mitigate the worst excesses of humankind’s on-going impact on climate change; and it was the sentiment that drove so much of the narrative behind the Leave campaign in the lead up to the UK referendum on membership of the European Union. It’s a reductionist approach that diminishes all of us. The League of Nations (the fore runner of the United Nations as we know it today) recognised that peace and prosperity were most likely in a world of mutuality and co-operation. That world consensus was tested and strengthened during the Second World War.
Active remembrance today requires us to re-focus on a positive and proactive patriotism that celebrates the values of democracy, co-dependence, and mutuality that bring us together across national, religious and political boundaries. That would be a fitting tribute to those who paid so heavily for our chance to be better.
The good thing about blogging is the almost instant feedback that comes in following each post. I included a couple of jokes in blog posts over the weekend. The reaction from readers was mixed : some asked me very politely to think carefully before including any more; while others threatened me with direct physical violence if I didn’t stop it immediately. It turns out that my readership is the very definition of a tough crowd!
As it happens, the whole issue of when it is appropriate or sensible to attempt humour in a professional context has been a hot topic in recent weeks. First there was the ‘outing’ of Sir Philip Green as the businessman at the centre of a controversy around the use of so-called gagging orders to prevent the public disclosure of allegations of harassment by former staff members. And then came the resignation of William Sitwell from the editorship of Waitrose Food following an email sent to a freelance journalist that included allegedly jokey references to vegans.
Green is reported to have dismissed the allegations as misconstrued office banter. And supporters of Sitwell have been quick to suggest that whilst what he wrote may have been ill-judged, it hardly warrants the loss of his job. In both cases, the context within which these events took place seems to have been afforded less significance than it probably deserves. Green and Sitwell were in positions of power and influence over the people who were on the receiving end of the banter or attempted humour. As CEO and editor respectively of their company or magazine, they are also the human embodiment of the organisation. What they do reflects on the organisations they represent almost as much as it does on themselves. This is particularly the case for Sitwell, where the magazine that he edited is commissioned by an upmarket supermarket chain that has invested heavily in its vegetarian and vegan product range.
Both cases illustrate the change in attitudes towards banter and workplace humour in recent years, as employees and employers have begun to understand the damaging effects that inappropriate humour, teasing, joshing (call it what you like) can have on individuals and wider team morale. There is a fine but increasingly clear divide between the sort of informal interactions that help a team to bond and perform well, and the inappropriate words and actions that make life miserable for individuals or minorities in the workplace.
It seems that the tide is turning too in other arenas where banter is a major part of the overall experience. As a football supporter, I love the knockabout humour, often coarse but spontaneous and often very funny, that typifies the atmosphere at most grounds on any given Saturday. I have previously written on this blog about my trip to Bordeaux following Wales in the European Championships. Hal Robson Kanu was in the Wales squad for that tournament. Having previously played at age-group level for England, his Welsh qualification came from his grandmother. The affectionate chant of Wales supporters on the way to the opening fixture went along the lines of : “Hal Robson Kanu, Hal Robson Kanu, as Welsh as a zebra, but he’ll [expletive deleted] do”. And I’ll never forget the chant of Cardiff City fans towards the Chelsea left back during an FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge (I think it was Yuri Zhirkov) : “You’re just a big score in Scrabble”.
However, not all football banter is as humorous and victimless as this. There still remains an undercurrent of racism and sexism around football that occasionally rears its ugly head. Organisations like Kick It Out and many clubs across England and Wales have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to tackle this. And it seems that their efforts are starting to bear fruit. The Red Wall of Wales football supporters has received positive feedback for their behaviour from countries throughout Europe in recent years. At a recent match in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland, however, there were disturbing reports of racist abuse and sexism by some of those following the national team. What is interesting though, is that it is other supporters who have taken the initiative in calling out this behaviour and committing to ensure that there is no repetition in future.
For my own part, finely attuned as I am to your feedback, dear Reader, I’ll keep the jokes and banter to a minimum for now!
It’s been too easy recently to assume that we are all going to hell in a hand-basket. Austerity and its impact on the poorest members of our society; Brexit and the feral, anti-immigrant sentiment that it stirred up; abuses of position and sexual harassment in the corridors of political power – all suggest that we are becoming less tolerant, less social, less equal as a society.
Its good to be able to reflect on two pieces of very positive news today. The first details a change in maternity and paternity leave policy by the UK’s largest insurance company, Aviva. In future, both parents will be able to claim up to 26 weeks leave at standard basic pay in the first year following the arrival of a new child or completion of an adoption. Where both parents work for Aviva, this could allow a full year of child care to be provided by the parents without any reduction in basic pay. This is not only great for the child, but has the potential to significantly reduce the negative impact on the woman’s career of taking time out of the workplace after childbirth. What’s particularly encouraging about the Aviva initiative is the recognition that changing the policy alone won’t achieve the sort of cultural shift that they are seeking to achieve. “Aviva [will] use male role models to show it is acceptable to take up the offer of parental leave, to encourage a change in perceptions and foster a cultural change. Otherwise, male employees may still be reticent about taking time off, even if paid.” I genuinely hope that this is the start of a wider review of maternity and paternity leave policies across the private and public sectors. It’s in everybody’s best interests to support women and men equally as parents and employees.
The second ‘good news’ story this Friday comes from an unusual source. Swansea City FC and AFC Bournemouth have become the first Premier League football clubs in the country to formally recognize transgender and non-binary supporters in the way that they are addressed. In future, supporters will have the option to choose to be addressed as “Mx” as an alternative to the more ususal Mr, Miss, Mrs etc.. Explaining the change in policy, Swansea City’s equality and diversity manager said : “We’re continually looking at ways to make our services more inclusive. Language plays a really important part in delivering this and ensuring that everyone feels welcome – regardless of age, gender or gender identity, sexuality or ethnicity.” Too often, football and football clubs are associated with a laddish culture in which minorities and ‘difference’ are seen as fair game for ridicule or humiliation rather than celebration. It’s great to see some clubs now taking a much more enlightened attitude to these issues. This weekend also sees the launch of the Rainbow Laces campaign, promoted by Stonewall, and designed to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic attitudes in sport more generally. Of course, as with the challenges of cultural change at Aviva, adding Mx to a list of prefixes won’t suddenly lead to premiership football becoming a safe space for transgender and non-binary fans, but it may encourage those have been reluctant to attend football matches for fear of how they would be received, to go along. And that’s good for the fans and the clubs.
Have a good, equality-filled weekend!