Sunday, 9 December 2018

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens’ cautionary tale about the emotional blackmail behind Christmas is often misinterpreted.

December is here and yet again Christmas makes its horribly garish intrusions onto our winter horizon. The nightmarish swindle now infests every nook and cranny of daily life so perhaps we should take a little time to remind ourselves of the real warning behind Dickens’ obliquely crafted tale.

It is the night before Christmas and at the end of a working day Ebenezer Scrooge, a thrifty and conscientious businessman has a few words with his clerk Bob Cratchit who timidly but firmly insists on having Christmas off with full pay.

"You'll want all day to-morrow, I suppose?" said Scrooge.

"If quite convenient, sir."

"It's not convenient," said Scrooge, "and it's not fair. If I was to stop half-a-crown for it, you'd
think yourself ill-used, I'll be bound?"

The clerk smiled faintly.

Later that evening Scrooge encounters the ghost of his erstwhile partner Marley. As any good friend would do, Marley’s ghost warns Scrooge that three more spectres will try to entice his old friend away from the paths of sober competence and do their supernatural best to persuade him to initiate the welfare state single-handedly. Lots of dismal wailing and rattling of spectral chains hammer home the message. Understandably Scrooge is somewhat uneasy as he takes to his bed that night.

The first spectre to appear as foretold by Marley is the ghost of Christmas past which appears at Scrooge’s modest bedside during the night. This first spectre takes Scrooge into his own past, showing him how he first set foot on the rungs of the business ladder, wisely ditching a clingy and potentially expensive fiancée at an early stage.

Unfortunately these pleasant scenes of his early years only serve to upset Scrooge’s moral equilibrium to such a degree that he almost regrets his outstanding success as a businessman. In particular, a former tightwad employer named Fezziwig is shown in a highly favourable light as he entertains his staff on Christmas Eve with minimal expenditure and no lost production.

"A small matter," said the Ghost, "to make these silly folks so full of gratitude."

"Small!" echoed Scrooge.

The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said, "Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?"

A small matter indeed. Crafty old Fezziwig - although by now Scrooge is so stunned that he does not see that it is indeed a small matter.

The second ghost of Christmas present is initially more promising in that he is introduced as being surrounded by a vast heap of Christmas goodies of the edible variety. It is worth mentioning at this point that Scrooge’s diet is possibly a little narrow so the abundant if ghostly Christmas fare may contain a reasonable dietary message.

Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty's horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.

"Come in!" exclaimed the Ghost. "Come in! and know me better, man!"

However the initial promise is not maintained as the ghost of Christmas present manages to insinuate the suggestion that such goodies and much, much more might be given away to feckless folk who have not paid for them. Still stunned by the whole experience Scrooge seems inclined to agree with such reckless extravagance.

The third ghost of Christmas future in more of a realist who by dramatic devices manages to suggest that Scrooge is surrounded by thieves who after his death would strip his dead body, steal his bed hangings and sell everything they could lay their hands on. So far so good but there is a sting in the tail. The ghost of Christmas future somehow manages to leave Scrooge with the impression that he may as well give things away now because after his death they will be stolen anyway.

For some unaccountable reason all this ghostly propaganda leaves Scrooge in a state of manic elation when he finally wakes up on Christmas morning. Neither narcotics nor alcohol are involved because Dickens clearly intended to highlight the perils of the most intense and unrelenting propaganda on an otherwise sober mind.

By Christmas morning Scrooge is so out of it that he even sends a large turkey to that financially feckless employee Bob Cratchit. Small income but a large family – that’s Bob Cratchit. If only we had imbibed this key message from the master story teller, but we never did.

And so began the first stirrings of emotional incontinence. One might almost suggest that Dickens invented it as a warning to us all, but somehow we turned it into soppy sentimentalism and have suffered for our mistake ever since.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Creeping uniformity

This is a trivial example of creeping uniformity, but trivial examples slip under the radar and maybe they are mounting up under the radar too.

The other morning was dull and grey, so dull that the car decided to switch on its headlights, which it often does at this time of year because I leave the lights on automatic. Had the lights been set to manual I may not have bothered as it wasn’t that gloomy even to my old eyes. But they were set to automatic as usual so on they went.

As we drove towards Matlock I noticed that cars with their headlights switched on tended to be newer models while those with them switched off tended to be older. Presumably newer cars with automatic lights switch them on in response to similar light conditions.

It’s a trivial example of creeping uniformity. Wholly unimportant in itself and generally advantageous to road users, but to end on a light-hearted note perhaps the following applies even to such trivial uniformities as automatic headlights –

10 trivial = 1 significant
10 significant = 1 important
10 important = ?

Thursday, 6 December 2018

More moor

Beeley Moor
To my eye there is something deliciously compelling about an expanse of moorland under grey winter skies. A chill breeze, a hint of drizzle in the air, a touch of mist - none of it detracts from the bleak attractions of winter moorland.

Maybe it has something to do with being safe inside layers of modern clothing. Part of the scene yet apart from it, inside yet outside and relatively impervious to the cold and damp. A kestrel hunting for its next meal is a bonus. Our next meal is in the rucksack.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Politics – it’s just too easy

Many of my friends are under the impression that I write these humorous nothings in idle moments when the wearied brain is unable to perform the serious labours of the economist. My own experience is exactly the other way.

The writing of solid, instructive stuff fortified by facts and figures is easy enough. There is no trouble in writing a scientific treatise on the folk-lore of Central China, or a statistical enquiry into the declining population of Prince Edward Island. But to write something out of one’s own mind, worth reading for its own sake, is an arduous contrivance only to be achieved in fortunate moments, few and far between.

Personally, I would sooner have written “Alice in Wonderland” than the whole Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Stephen Leacock. McGill University, June, 1912.

Stephen Leacock wrote this in his preface to Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, his comic novel which became very popular a century ago. Although we still recognise the labour and intelligence required to write solid, instructive stuff fortified by facts and figures Leacock’s quote encapsulates something we recognise less readily. 

We recognise the value of creativity and its relative scarcity, but are less inclined to recognise the wider value of creativity beyond the arts. The creativity of scientific and technical discovery or analysis, the creativity of scholarly research which breaks new ground, the creativity of building new insights into old problems, creativity which applies in almost any field. Creativity may be nothing more than the creation of a new phrase which is apt that it immediately spins off into general circulation. Yes, creativity can be found anywhere –

anywhere but politics.

Political discourse is almost never creative because political narratives are essentially clichés strung together to make a narrative which above all things must be familiar. Turgid clichés are the lazy heart of political discourse. A major consequence is that political narratives are too easy.

Anyone can talk politics and whip up a political argument from stale ingredients because we have no use for political creativity. What would it look like without the clichés? Rational discourse, analysis and investigation? No, because that wouldn’t be politics although behind the political facade it just might even if the scheming usually seems banal when exposed.

We know all this because of the people foisted on us as political leaders. We look at them and we look at them again and we listen to them and try to find some faint hint of creative political discourse, something new, some fresh analysis of old problems, something creative, something to break the mould. But no - we get clichés and we get more clichés and if we question the clichés we get even more clichés and if we question those...

This seems to be a key driver constantly nudging political life in a totalitarian direction. The essential aspect of totalitarian ideas is that they are clichés. They offer the easy direction to steer a lazy mind. The woodentop direction where creativity is a disadvantage because it exposes the clichés as empty clichés and nothing more.

This is why the EU lumbers towards ultimate failure. Its driving ethos is too simple, too beholden to old clichés lacking even the slightest hint of political creativity. This is why Theresa May struggles politically, why a Corbyn-led Labour government would fail.

Yet easy often won’t do and we have to tackle difficult. Or rather we ought to tackle it but don’t. The political approach is to leave difficult to others and so we are embraced by bureaucracy because bureaucracies are prepared to tackle difficult issues by laboriously folding them into existing processes. Why? Because they grow fat on them and in growing fat they steadily throttle the life out of democracy, freedom and creativity.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Trump triggers

I like the way this guy uses common sense and avoids overblown analysis. If you haven’t encountered him before he is a self-employed tradesman who started off as as house painter. His take on Obama and his acolytes is particularly apt.

...he is the very embodiment of the cool college professor... That professor was worldly and hip with an offhand grasp of culture and that whip-smart sense of humour that Jon Stewart later turned into a goldmine.

Not sure about the sense of humour but his point is interesting. Obama acolytes seemed curiously inclined to sit at his feet.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Isn't Macron doing well?


The French "yellow vest" troubles will be analysed to death but it isn't easy to avoid the conclusion that ordinary people want more of a voice in what the elites hand down to them. 

It isn't easy to avoid such a conclusion when here in Brexit land many are acutely aware that this is how the EU and global bureaucracies operate - the elites merely hand down their decisions and that is that. We have little enough feedback available to us now, but little enough is better than none.