Late Life Crisis - July 2020

My School Song - time for a reappraisal. 

Let me explain. My grammar school was in earlier incarnation a minor public school. Because of this we had a vibrant House system, a cadre of Prefects who had power to put a boy in detention, and competitive sports. We also had a School Song, that was sung lustily at the last full Assembly of every term. I never managed to work out its genesis. Random internet research indicates that it might have come from a poem by Robert Browning. I'm not sure if I could do all the words now, but that doesn't matter, as the opening lines say it all:

"Here where the feet of Englishmen first trod the English soil, and marched in strong battalions on the foe,

Their far-off sons attentive catch the clamour of their arms, and feel their hearts within responsive glow".

Jingoistic, by Jove! Farage would have sung it lustily, and who cares that the words are not susceptible to a textual deconstruction, or put otherwise that they don't make much sense. That was irrelevant, as the song was rousing, and most of us enjoyed singing it. Even those of us from the Elysian Fields of "A" Level English felt no need to explore the large dose of imperialism that pervaded the language.

And then, when I was in the Sixth Form, we had a new Headmaster. A liberal Headmaster. He did not like the House system; he did not like competitive sports; and he did not like the School Song. So he banned the singing of it. 

We came to the last Assembly of the term in which the song was banned. The School assembled, younger years nearer the stage and the Sixth Form at the back on a slighty raised dais. Towards the front of the dais was a grand piano. At the piano sat the long-established Head of Music - hymns had been sung. We came to the part of Assembly that would normally be the School Song moment. The Headmaster droned on.

The song opens after seven heavy beats. As the piano thumped these out, the Headmaster raised his head and glared. The Sixth Form came in; those older boys from lower years joined in as best they could. I'd like to think that the Headmaster stormed off, but honestly I am not sure. What I can remember was that some of the long-established Masters stood smiling quietly at the spectacle.

Needless to say, the liberal Headmaster did not last long. And at some moment the Song will have gone too. All for the better, we can say, with today's 20-20 hindsight. The point is that at the time the Song was a tradition of the School. We sung it because of that, and we did not like the Song being wrenched out of our hands on the whim of the latest man at the top. 

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Everyone agrees that Keir Starmer has gravitas, and so far good judgement on what battles to pick. Presently it is not difficult for him to do well: he only needs to be what he is, that is not Jeremy Corbyn. It is difficult to recall a time when Gordon Brown as Prime Minister was popular, but apparently he was, through not being Tony Blair. It is said that there was a slogan for him: "He's not flash; he's Gordon". Boom boom. The time will come when Starmer will have to make his mark in revitalising the Labour Party and rendering it electable, that is if it is not happy to be forever the party of opposition and protest - Jezza would probably have been ok with that. The Left is down, healing its wounds and divided, but not yet out.

Then we have the maxim that Oppositions don't win elections; Governments lose them. The Conservatives are disgorging initiatives like a food poisoning sufferer: we have something old (Tory values), something new (slogan - Build Build Build), something borrowed (Roosevelt's New Deal, and of course it is something blue. Still it looks as though the Party is leaning heavily on Johnson to restore the country's fortunes with his unique brand of blithe optimism and (as a right of centre commentator has suggested in the last week) the alleged possession of a fifth gear not shared by his colleagues. Others would suggest that he is stuttering in third, the bags sagging under the eyes (and not from night-time nappy-changing). It does not help that he seriously needs a haircut - if one could cope with Boris BMI then turned upside down he would do a good job as a dusting implement. A problem is that the arsing around on public appearance stunts, that served him well when he was Mayor of London, wears thin now he has a proper grown-up job. The cruellest suggestion is that in order to revive the desperate position of the UK cultural economy the Prime Minister should be re-invented as a piece of performance art. 

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In a previous Late Life Crisis I landed what I thought was a glancing blow with a comment following Gavin Williamson's appearance at the Coronavirus podium that he should be renamed The Secretary of State for Undertakers. However, the columnist Matt Chorley has landed a sharp jab by pointing out Mr Williamson's resemblance to Frank Spencer: thus I offer "Ooh Betty, I'm having a terrible time trying to get all these schools back in September!" More performance art?

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And it occurs to me that this is a problem with Boris. Because we are so taken with the buffoonery and the bluster, we treat him as talking bollocks when he is not talking bollocks. Adapting the words of Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, the medium has become the message.

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The sphere of trans rights has become a difficult one in which to express opinions, and one that has caused rifts in the LGBT community. So for the moment I will just leave with you the name of Allison Bailey, a barrister who is suing Stonewall and her chambers for discrimination, and suggest that this is a case worth following.

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I was rubbish at science when at school, the nadir being my Grade E in 'O" Level Physics. This has led me to veer away from reading articles on scientific subjects. But I was fascinated to see an article on The General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans, shortened to Gebco. Merely through writing that I almost feel that I am in the penumbra of science expertise. Anyway, Gebco is a project to produce a complete and accurate map of the world's sea floor. The objectives for the chart include the formation of sustainable marine reserves, the better assessment of tsunami risks, and on the biggest scale the improved prediction of climate change. What is remarkable is that this is an inter-governmental initiative that appears to be entirely apolitical. However, please don't tell the man in the White House, as the project seems anathema to the nationalistic narrative of Make America Spike Again, sorry, Great Again. 

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In 1666 St Paul's Cathedral was saved from the Great Fire of London through the wind direction turning south; over the night of 29th/30th December 1940 the City of London was saved from a further and possibly terminal wave of Luftwaffe bombing by poor weather descending in the early hours of the morning. Those might be a little stretching as analogies, but Ministers will privately and paradoxically be thankful that Saturday 4th July 2020, "Independence Day", "Super Saturday", is likely to bring grey gloomy skies if not downpours for the whole day, to cool the ardour of previously locked down drinkers.

Though you have to admire the fortitude and resolve of pub and bar owners. A special shout-out should go to the management of Alexandra Palace, which is re-launching The Terrace, "a massive beer garden with panoramic views over London". The publicists have been on speed: "Marrying sumptuous views of the capital with all the sunsoaked comforts of the beer garden. this gorgeous new spot opens for business....". Views, on a good day and at least from one end of it, I will give you; "new spot" is like Johnson's re-announcement of 40 hospitals and 50 schools under "Build, Build, Build". But sunsoaked comforts. Seriously? Even on a bright, sunny day you may need some tent rope to tie yourself down as the fresh breeze (BBC weather name for a gale) attempts to lift you off and transport you down the road to Wood Green. However, these are churlish observations given the pandemic plight of the industry. So wrap up warm and head up to Ally Pally Heights - it's all part of being British.

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Our leader: "We discovered too many care homes didn't really follow the procedures in the way they could have". Exact quote.

That is clear enough. The key word is "could". It implies that procedures were in place but that they were not followed. No amount of later No.10 spin on this really meaning that none of us knew what were the procedures (Government sensitivity on no mass testing of asymptomatic elderly patients before they were booted out from hospitals back to care homes) can get over this. He "misspoke". Calculated deflection blame? I don't think so. He is a sloppy, lazy communicator, surfing a wave of recklessness as he thinks he can get away with it. Not good enough for a Prime Minister. Johnson Minor, you must do better or else it will be newspaper down the back of the trousers time.

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Comedy at the Drive-In Club, London NW4. "Live comedy returns at last...in a car park in Brent Cross". That is the exact newspaper line. NB You can sit in your car or outside, but in latter case brng your own chairs. In years to come people will marvel at the lunacy we descended into in an attempt to prove that we were returning to normality in the culture scene.

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Eat out with some dishies for Rishi. Sorry. "Eat Out to Help Out". That'll do it. So on the one hand we are implored to do our bit for the restaurant economy. Which is totally right, spoken as someone who at cost to his waistline has more then done his bit over the years. But on the other hand we have the assessment from the health pros that in a closed environment with limited air circulation we are more at risk, and it's pretty difficult to eat a meal through a mask. That Covid 19 can be a touch nasty in certain circumstances. So what do you do? Invoke the Cheltenham Festival spirit - "Begorrah, I'm not letting that virus nonsense get in the way of a good day's racing!" - or stay cautious and for the time beng leave restaurant eating inside to those more able to shoulder the risk?

At least, for many of us it will not be a pain to see branches of Burger King closing. There will be deprivaton for those who now only have the option of a drive thru Macdonalds after two hours queuing to get into T K Maxx (God, I sound so North London middle-class snobbish!). Then you take in that the closure may involve the loss of up to 1,600 jobs, and you think about what sort of people, notably young people, may be affected. Not so funny. 

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Rain, rain, rain. My grass is starting to look positively Chernobylic.

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You may not have heard of Kevin Hurley. Nor had I, until I read an article he has written. Mr Hurley is a former serving policeman, in his service days a borough commander in West London. His article is about the challenges of policing in the UK, and my assessment is that he talks a lot of sense. I cannot do justice to the full article, but here are some of the messages.

Hurley's beef is that policing has become over-politicised, and that it would help if we understood the challenges that police have on the streets, notably that they can be told simultaneously and contradictorily that they are too aggressive and too politically correct. To develop his argument, Hurley uses the Betari Box model of human behaviour. This is that your behaviour influences my behaviour, and my behaviour influences your behaviour. It goes on, iteratively. Hurley gives the example of a PC in an inner London borough where black-on-black stabbings and murders are commonplace. The PC approaches a couple of known criminals to ask them what they are doing in a location. The individuals will respond by alleging that the PC is only approaching them because they are black. A crowd will gather and insult and threaten the PC. The PC will call for help. Cars will arrive with sirens blaring. The police wil either then dominate the scene, or withdraw (run away, in Hurley's terms). 

So the Betari box is set, and with it the dilemma for the serving officer. If the PC pursues suspected crimes (and for a moment let us assume proper performance of duties) and the large majority of arrests are of black youths, then he may be accused of beng racially biased. Aware of the need to have a career, the PC may then seek to focus on crime types such as burglary (which according to Hurley is mostly the work of white criminals), with the result that black families will be less safe in their communities, parents losing their sons to knife or gun attack or a lifetime in prison. Here is his conclusion: "If black lives really mattered, we would change the conditions that result in this carnage. But we don't. That is real institutional, systemic racism"

Hurley's words make clear the self-evident point that we need to look below the surface. It is not good enough to point out that George Floyd had a conviction for armed robbery, and leave it there. It is not good enough to say that the police were justified in dealing with Bianca Williams and Ricardo dos Santos in the way they did, as black drug dealers may be seen driving around from time to time in top of the range flashy cars. But equally it is not good enough to say that whenever a police officer stops a black person then this must automatically be a case of irrationally prejudiced racial profiling. The challenge is what Government and society can do to "change the conditions".

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He's at it again. "I want people to go back to work as carefully as possible...". He wanted to say "as soon as possible", but he realised that he had to put in "carefully" to keep the health pros happy. So he ended up with a phrase that lost the sense of imperative that he had intended. Sentence continues: "...it's very important that people should be going back to work if they can, now." That "now "gets in the imperative. But it seems to miss two points. The first is that where someone works depends upon the nature of the work, and employment is under a "contract for service", where you act on your employer's instructions under the contract, subject to employment law protection. 

The second is about changes in how pandemic Britain views work, or at least any office work where broadly an equal degree of productivity can be delivered from home. Take my own industry. The receptionist, the security guard, the IT operations person looking after hardware, have to do their job from the office. For the lawyers, it is different: remote working is perectly feasible, perhaps as long as you are near enough to the office that essential bulky paper can be couriered. Evidence is still emerging, but there are strong suggestions that staff, at least, do not want a default position return to as things were before. One large firm has already announced that two of its smaller UK offices will close and that partners and staff will work entirely from home. That will leave law firms with a headache, sitting on expensively rented space that will become underutilised. But given that the scenario I have explained can be applied analogously to other businesses, the issue will be an even bigger headache for the Government: less time "at the office", even if the working week becomes, say, two days in and three days "WFH", means less time popping out for lunchtime shopping; grabbing a takeaway sandwich ; meeting friends for an early evening drink or a meal.

That then explains the plea (and it is a plea) at the end of the statement: "...I want to see more people feeling confident to use the shops, use the restaurants, get back to work." If there were no collateral direct economic disadvantage from a business having more WFH ie employment maintained; tax take retained, then the Government would not be that bothered about the direct consequences. It is the indirect consequences that are bothering our masters. In the meantime we have another Boris extemporising gush of wind. 

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In one of the plethora of articles on how lockdown has affected our relationships, there was the feedback from a survey: "Older men in the more affluent groups reported that the lockdown had been a period of calm when they could relax a bit more and enjoy spending more time at home." I guess I fall into that demographic, and I tend overall to agree. What I have enjoyed has been a greater degree of discretionary time to, for example, break off from something work-related and write some nonsense like this, without feeling the guilt that I ought to be doing something "more important". On the other hand, the awareness of work needing to be done provides some counterbalance against what otherwise might be a descent into lethargy. It must all be about equilibirium. 

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Wise words from the American writer Bonnie Greer: "Pandemics can strip aside the veneer of civilisation itself to reveal just how vulnerable, how fragile, how tentative, maybe even how false it all really is. And that perhaps we are, all of us, five minutes away from barbarism."

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I have fallen in love with my local Londis. It is not a "corner shop", but about the same size as a Tesco Metro. One reason for the love is that it means that I frequent less my nearest Waitrose, the latter being the scene of a traumatic visit during the febrile weekend before lockdown, when the aisles were crammed with toilet-roll chasing shoppers. (In case you are reading this Waitrose, yes I still use you for online heavy and important stuff like wine). Now don't think that I am dumbed down to low standards - after some guidance from Londis staff I did find the Parmigianio Reggiano, and I slipped into my basket a cheeky little jar of green chilli paste, half a spoonful of which in a stirfry had an almost incinerate the roof of your mouth effect. The special factor in my affection came last week. I found that the store stocks eight different brands of runny honey but no set honey. I raised the matter at the checkout, an efficient use of time as I did not have to make a separate visit to "Customer Service". The checkout person said thst they would try to rectify the position - they didn't say it quite like that, but the sincerity was clear. Here's the rub : I imagine that all Londis are franchises. So given the responsibility of getting checkout right, the person who serves you will probably be someone with management reponsibility. Meaning that something may be done about the request. I reckon that if I had time, I could write a nice little case study for the members of the LinkedIn community....as long as I could get the word "agile" into it. 

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It has been suggested that a middle-class challenge in our newly inclusive society is how to talk to someone who is not middle-class (as in you are Ronnie Barker and they are Ronnie Corbett). Getting the right language and tone in a greeting should not be too difficult, and if you need help then try a George Osborne mockney masterclass - there must be one on YouTube. The challenge is when said other person tries to get you into conversation, and you quiver on being found unable to discuss how Olivier Giroud's attitude helped Chelsea secure a FA Cup semi-final win over Manchester United. Yet dilemmas can still come at the greeting stage. On a morning run a male pair of park cleaners moved aside to let me get through on a path. As I passed, I extended the courtesy of a cheery "Thanks, lads!". Was I guilty of patronising behaviour? And there is worse. I realise now that on another jogging occasion two women with buggies and toddlers guided their children aside to make way for the hyperventilating mass that was approaching. As I passed I called a cheery "Thank you ladies!". Was that misogyny? I thought that contextually it was right on, but these days one does not know.

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The theory of the Conservative Cabinet was that supporting the dash and elan of Boris Johnson there would be a strong team of Government Ministers presenting policy in a persuasive way. Well, leaving aside Dishy Rishi it does not seem to have worked out that way, It was bad luck that Alok Sharma was duty media Minister the day after the Julian Lewis/ Failing Grayling story broke, but he looked inconsequential as he parroted the "Nothing to do with me, mate, try the Whips' Office" line (ignoring that there should be no overt at least whipping for the Chair of the Security and Intelligence Committee role). Rarely has such a bundle of cliches on legs been seen. Even more striking is the increasingly anachronistic Leader of the House of Commons. Standing at the despatch box, the Honourable Member for the 18th century (an old one but a good one) took us back a few centuries still for a lecture on York,  Edward IV, and where Parliament might relocate to while a little light refurbishment is done down South. It was as if a medieval historian had taken a wrong turn out of All Souls and ended up in Westminster. We listened in awe as Rees-Mogg spoke? I don't think so.

In the meantime the boss did another stunning appearance at PMQs, this time attacking the Labour Party for their leader appearing on Russia Today, perhaps a case of post-Covid confusion as the person on the other side of the despatch box was not Jeremy Corbyn. The missile landed aimlessly in the water, followed by an aftershock, more afterwhimper, a miserably telegraphed joke about more flip flops than Bournemouth Beach. Boris has lost his mojo, and he definitely needs a new gag writer.

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I confess to having been consistently unkind to the Prime Minister. However, I must thank him for the fact that my scales tell me that I am no longer overweight according to the NHS BMI calculator. Boris is the same height as me, and newspaper reports said that on entry to St Thomas's Hospital he was sporting a wopping 36 BMI. A phrase touted around to enthuse the great man was "Go Boris!", but for me I didn't fancy the thought of it.

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Reports that the redoubtable Ruth Bader-Ginsburg is battling the fifth bout of cancer in her life. Why is that new?. The answer is that she is a Justice of the US Supreme Court. On his election as US President in 2016, Donald Trump filled a vacant place with a conservative candidate, achieving a 5/4 conservative majority. If Ms Ginsburg passes away before November, he will, if he has sufficient time, install another conservative judge and move the Court further to the right. We wish Ms Ginsburg long life, both for its own sake and for what her holding on past November would mean.

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As an admitted Today programme listener, I normally run for the hills when Thought for the Day comes on. Another time to discuss the ins and outs of that, but I was drawn to one by Daniel Greenberg on what we might be reframing as "essential" and "desirable" in our not post-Covid but probably new Covid-aware world. The raison d'etre of the slot is that you must have some religion within the wise words. Greenberg told a Talmudic story, which boiled down to that out of a group of Rabbis and well-dressed folk plus two itinerants standing in a corner, it was the itinerants that Elijah thought stood the best chance of getting to heaven as they were clowns and their role rested on people leaving happier after seeing them perform. Naturally our first focus has to be on reconsidering whether everything we thought was essential in life (couched in material terms) is that essential. But Greenberg's point for including the story is that some things (there must be a common sense limit) that we might dismiss as desirables should be treated as essential to our well-being, and this could include, for some, having your nails done.

My own take, and this is perilously close to the busker at dusk on Hampstead Heath from last month, is that simple connections with the natural world, that we could consider merely nice to have, can be much more than that. Now I am not going to get off on Wordsworthian commune with nature, but take the lake in a park. I run round the same in my local park, but despite my huffing and puffing I can still take in the delight of little kids when they see the ducks - ducklings of course score even more heaviliy. I can remember as a child being taken to Valentine's Park in Ilford, a fabulous treat. Different things may float our respective boats, but I guess that if there is one thing that may come out of this weird year it will be not to take simple things for granted.

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Sir Desmond Swayne, libertarian backbench Tory MP, vehemently objects to wearing a face mask when going shopping. I would like to depict him as a Sir Bufton Tufton (Private Eye), but his background is modest, a spell of private school teaching followed by ten years or so as a computer systems manager at a bank - enough to set the pulse racing. So I cannot convincingly do a line about his not needing to go shopping as he would send the staff. Nevertheless, I think he would enjoy my School Song. 

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The author is a former City law firm partner, still teaching legal practice but also doing guided walks as a professionally qualified tour guide and writing and speaking on various things.