Recently I decided to fulfil a lifelong love and get me a globe.
Seeing the Earth from space should have revived our fascination with globes – but maybe all those images captured from satellites have made us blasé. Perhaps the idea of our planet as a fragile orb of life and colour floating in the great darkness is now so familiar that we have lost our sense of wonder. Grotesquely, as some of us voyage outwards into space, others are going backwards, into the belief that the Earth is flat.
Well, not me.
As a geographer, I’ve always loved maps. My walls are covered with them and if I was only allowed three books I’d choose an atlas, a dictionary and (despite being an atheist) a bible.
The ultimate map is a globe. My global epiphany happened years ago on holiday in Venice, when I visited the maritime museum. They have a couple of gigantic Renaissance globes, which are so amazing that I still can’t really figure out how they achieved that perfect fusion of Art, Craft and Science.
In contrast, I dislike the way that flat projection maps make my home island of New Guinea appear small against the oversized representation of Greenland. Size matters. Africans find it equally galling to see their continent misrepresented as smaller than Europe.
Then there’s proximity. Humanity’s future may well be determined in the Arctic; and yet the distortions and omissions of most atlases have led to a dangerous ignorance about the Arctic region and the closeness of the countries around it.
So, I woke up one day and decided to tick another one off the bucket list. The problem was that antique globes are unaffordable and most modern ones are too small or poor in quality. An internet search revealed just one company that could deliver what I wanted. Bellerby & Co were set up to fill exactly the gap in the market that had kept me from sating my lifelong desire.
Bellerby’s hand-crafted masterpieces come with prices ranging from the minor-gulp-inducing to the eye-watering. From a geographer’s perspective, they are the real deal, with a level of detail that takes good eyesight to fully appreciate. My 36cm diameter globe (obviously I chose their Gagarin model) is customised with images painted next to places that are special to me, including a bird of paradise in New Guinea, Magellan’s nemesis off Mactan Island and a camel caravan on the Silk Route in Uzbekistan.
If you want to see something superb, take a look at:
Of course, no ambition is ever totally fulfilled. What I’d really like is one of their 75cm diameter globes, standing in the courtyard of that castle I’ve always been meaning to buy…
I wonder, if everyone was given their own personal globe on their seventh birthday, could we ignite the Overview Effect that so strikes astronauts when they first see the Earth from space? Ironically, maybe then we’d wake up to the reality that there is only one, which is easily damaged, hard to repair and can’t be replaced.
It is wonderful and amazing to have my sight restored. I still can’t believe how clear and bright everything seems, even to the point that I have to wear cool-dude shades whenever the sun peeks out.
I haven’t posted anything for three months because I was going blind. Cataracts: who knew? Evidently not the opticians who initially failed to recognise what was happening and then later gave me crap advice on how bad it was and what I might do about it. Should have gone to… an ophthalmologist.
Happily I’ve always been fortunate enough to live near top university teaching hospitals and their resident specialists. In the past that has saved both of my children’s lives; and now it’s also saved my sight.
The degradation of my eyesight was so gradual that I was like the frog in the bowl who doesn’t notice he’s being slowly boiled. I adapted: I got more powerful glasses and then different pairs for every occasion; I kept polishing them because they never seemed to be clean; I stopped driving at night; I squinted at the screen and put extra lights on when I wanted to read a book, which I did less and less. Finally one evening I couldn’t keep the text on my PC in focus any longer and the strain on my eyes was unbearable, so I staggered through to the living room and realised that I couldn’t focus on the TV screen either. That was when I knew something had to be done.
In these Covid times, the waiting list with the National Health Service is about a year and a half. I don’t have medical insurance but needs must. I got a private appointment in three days and the first cataract operation in a week. It was so successful that we did the other eye a fortnight later.
The way it’s done now is astonishing. After removing the cataract, they put a new lens into your eye, like a permanent internal contact lens. The surgeon was brilliant and the anaesthologist sang opera as he dosed me up. Marvellous.
So I can see clearly now, the fog has gone. My long distance vision is near perfect, like it was decades ago. I can drive at night. I have new vary-focal glasses for reading and screen work, which weigh a tenth of what my old ones did. The improvement is startling: originally I thought I’d lost maybe 15% of my vision but in retrospect I realise it must have been more like 30%.
I always regarded sight as the most important of the senses. Now I realise that it is truly priceless.
So, normal service has been restored. I am back at my desk; and if I want to remind myself of how lucky I am, all I have to do is look out the window with my new eyes.
I just got burned on social media for criticising the poem by Amanda Gorman at President Biden’s inauguration. Silly me: she was about to be carried to superstardom on a tsunami of adulation and it was not the time to be picky. But stupidly I said, “Very good – but needs to also learn the power of brevity”.
In return I was called, in summary, a mean-spirited misogynist with the attention span of a goldfish, who was pissing on their parade. When I made the further mistake of replying, I got a glimpse of the almost impossible task that Joe Biden faces in his quest to bridge the great divide.
The root problem is that we have reached a stage where very few people will listen to any point of view that does not exactly mirror their own. The thread I posted to was populated by Biden and Harris lovers, of whom I’m one. If they react that way to a dissenting voice from an ally, what chance is there of them finding any kind of agreement with their opponents?
I seem to be in a tiny minority of people who are actually interested in different views. I watch Fox and CNN; I read the Independent and the Daily Mail, the Guardian and the Sun; I listen to Hartley-Brewer and Laurence Fox (who I loathe) and to James O’Brien and Owen Jones, (who I quite like); and all of them at least occasionally make good points, even if I may hate to admit it.
Perhaps it’s because I spent my career in inter-governmental organisations, working with people of just about every nationality, race, creed, age and gender. At college I was taught to seek, analyse and critique different sources before reaching my own conclusions. I believe that the freedoms of one citizen end where those of the next begin; and I’m happy to live and let live up to that point.
Why is this so rare?
During Trump’s last days, I saw a very decent CNN anchor say disgustedly of a racist Trump supporter, “I have nothing in common with that man!’ I wanted to shout at the screen, ‘Yes you do! You are both human beings, you are both men of similar age, you are both Americans, you are both politically active and you both care about your country.’
A visiting alien would have struggled to understand why they couldn’t even imagine finding common ground. I also find it easier to forgive the Trumpite. He was ignorant, born to prejudice and misled. The CNN guy had none of those excuses but he was black, with centuries of oppression weighing on him.
Joe Biden said all the right things: the need to listen to opposing views and focus on what unites us instead of on what divides us; the importance of treating each other with respect and courtesy; the valuing of facts over lies; and the determination never to cease finding ways to improve democracy, always in pursuit of a more perfect union.
I received a weird brickbat about that last point, namely, “You have confirmed that you are mean-spirited by admitting that you prefer to focus on improving something good rather than celebrating it. That’s perfectionism. In my experience perfectionism is mean-spirited.”
Maybe she had a perfectionist boss who always found her work unsatisfactory. But you know who else is a perfectionist? Joe Biden. Famous for it. I thought about pointing this out but clearly it wouldn’t have gone down well.
In any case, perfectionism isn’t mean-spirited. It’s exactly what it says on the can: a determination to pursue perfection and not be satisfied merely with the good. That’s why the two are enemies. It’s also why Biden exhorted everyone to keep driving forwards, towards that more perfect union.
And Amanda Gorman? By rights she will shine for decades to come.
Nazi and British flags together on a hotel in Jerusalem, 1933
Most people believe that British society has changed greatly since the 1930s, what with the Second World War, the creation of the welfare state, the triumph of capitalism, the onset of mass immigration and the transformative impact of new technologies.
They are wrong. Our society has changed very little in the past century. If you read the text below and then note its source, I think you’ll see what I mean.
“The not inconsiderable upper class consists of rich families as well as the old and new aristocracy, whose assets together make up the main part of the nation’s wealth. Next, with its own elaborate internal hierarchy, comes the extensive middle class, whose members enjoy sizeable incomes and considerable prosperity; in general, they have a more comfortable lifestyle but lower level of education than in Germany.
There is also a lower class, fairly substantial in size, of workers on poor to average pay and the long-term unemployed, who have a surprisingly low material and intellectual standard of living. They inhabit the slums with their poor sanitary conditions, filth and at times morbid forms of social existence (e.g. child poverty), in a state of poor health and in some cases long-term malnutrition. Some of these negative developments must be put down not to undeserved poverty but wholly or in part to insufficient competence in domestic matters, specifically among women, as well as to a lack of mutual encouragement.
The most striking features displayed by the more disagreeable section of this class include a lack of personal ambition, indifference to the demands of community and nation, and interests that stop with sport and frivolity, the sensations of city life.”
(Translated from the German general staff’s August 1940 report on the military geography of England, as republished in 2007 by the Bodleian Library, Oxford, under the title, “German Invasion Plans for the British Isles 1940”.)
When I first read that text, I was amazed at how accurately it describes modern Britain and at how little our society has changed in the 80 years since it was drafted.
Above all, it is profoundly disappointing. As John Lennon said in one of his more hard-hitting songs, “You think you’re so clever and classless and free, but you’re still just fucking peasants as far as I can see.”
As we drift towards Brexit on our national ship of fools, I do wonder what it would take to really improve our society. Despite the advances of 1945-50, all we seem to have accomplished since is a gradual degradation. Profound and sustained improvement is evidently beyond our collective will and ability.
Could it be that we would have benefitted more as a nation if we had gone the way of France in 1940 and been forced to confront our shortcomings, rather than wallowing ever since in the myth of having “won the war”?
Truth is the first casualty in war: and the war against Covid-19 is no different. From the start it has been characterised by lies, misinformation and the suppression of truth; and although this has varied in degree from one place to another, the contagion of deceit has left few places uninfected.
Just before the pandemic broke, I began writing a novel about an alien virus taking over the world. It’s been educational to see that for many of our leaders, the instinctive response would be denial. Some go on to be systematically untruthful; some are selective with the truth for the best of intentions; and some cannot ever bring themselves to admit there is a problem. Each society puts a cultural stamp on its falsehoods: we can tell a lot from the different ways in which we dissemble.
The clearest trait is that totalitarian regimes announce death rates that are unbelievably low. The more authoritarian the regime, the lower the figures. They try to use that as evidence of the need for control, whilst open societies bemoan the vulnerabilities that go with freedom. This is a mistake: anyone who thinks that Russia doesn’t have a runaway epidemic, or that Iran has got things in hand, needs a cold reality bath.
The Chinese government, battered by accusations of cover-up, have recently amended their figures for the early stages of the epidemic in Wuhan. That 50% increase restores a shred of credibility; but the great unknown is the extent to which the severity of the subsequent lockdown and surveillance was effective. We can’t trust their figures, so we don’t know how well it worked.
In the UK, with no systematic testing, government and media cling to the only certainty they can find, which is the number of deaths in hospital. Although forced to admit that this is only part of the picture, they continue to downplay deaths elsewhere, stating them as 10% of the hospital totals despite evidence that 40-50% is a more likely range. This bumbling around the data reflects a British establishment who generally gave up maths so early in their school careers that they never developed a grasp of statistics.
The most open and well educated societies have either combined strong, early measures with excellent campaigns of public information, thus preventing the disease from getting a hold (e.g. New Zealand), or have challenged the whole scientific basis of lockdowns (e.g. Sweden).
To understand the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches, we first need to acknowledge that everyone is confused about what’s really going on. The epidemiologists are almost as lost as the rest of us. Why do death rates vary so wildly? How many people have been infected? Do they then gain immunity? After six months of pandemic, our ignorance still exceeds our understanding.
One mystery of Covid-19 is why its impact varies between ethnic communities. In the USA, 30% of identified cases are Afro-Americans, who form only 14% of the population. In the UK, three quarters of the healthcare workers who have died are from BAME backgrounds. The reason is unlikely to be genetic but a consequence of lifestyle, poverty, associated conditions like obesity – and the fact that they also provide roughly half of our frontline heroes.
Early on, the Chinese thought only 17% of those infected showed no symptoms. Yet when whole communities have been tested, like the crew of the USS Roosevelt, the real figure appears to be almost 60%. Iceland has tested 15% of its entire population and reckons the figure at near 50%. Incidentally, cooping people up in a confined space like an aircraft carrier demonstrates that in similar circumstances, most of us would get infected.
Testing in most developed countries is between 2% and 0.5% of the population and suggests that the total number of infections may be 50 to 70 times the number of identified cases. On this basis, over a hundred million people already have the virus, maybe a third of the population in some countries. Together, these statistics call into question several aspects of the lockdowns.
Big events cause big disasters: Italy and Spain owe most of their pain to a single football match in February. Big egos are worse: super-idiots like Trump and Bolsanaro facilitate contagion more than super-spreaders.
What policy guidance can we draw from all this? Firstly, in countries that have failed to contain the virus it’s likely that most of us are going to get infected whatever we do, so the main purpose of any policy is to manage the flow rate of cases through the health service.
Secondly, viral load is a major factor in determining whether someone lives or dies, so PPE for all frontline workers really is vital.
Thirdly, Sweden was probably right with its approach of focusing on social distancing rather than lockdown, at least once the disease was already present.
Unless Covid-19 mutates into a more deadly form, it is probably going to kill about one of us in every thousand, mostly the old and sick. Balancing this against the human and economic cost of lockdown is a tough call.
In any event we need to become more pragmatic in our policies. Crowding together in a confined space is bad; sunbathing in a park is not.
We also need to recognise that most of us have been very lucky. A flu-like pandemic was top of the risk register for decades: Covid-19 is probably the least deadly disease that could have forced us to make such huge changes.
This will not be the last pandemic. Will we learn the right lessons, before the next one? It would certainly help if we could clarify the truth of what is actually happening. Yet irrespective of the statistics, one lesson is clear. Our chances depend on how we load the dice. Minimising surplus capacity in emergency services is a false economy; but money spent on boosting our disaster preparedness is the wisest investment any politician will ever make.
In my forthcoming novel, After the Event, different governments respond to an alien virus in very different ways. In this respect I’m finding it highly instructive to watch how the Covid-19 pandemic plays out around the world.
In the middle stages of the original epidemic, when Chinese officials briefly stopped trying to suppress the truth, there was a deluge of reportage coming out of the country. It’s not surprising that this has now reduced, given the tight lockdown, the evacuation of foreign journalists and the media’s shift of attention to the impact of the pandemic elsewhere. Yet if one scans the international media, the coverage of what is happening in China is now so limited that it is hard not to be suspicious.
The official line is that the draconian measures imposed by the government of Xi Jinping have been extraordinarily successful. According to this narrative, China has gone in the space of six weeks from having a runaway epidemic with 60,000 confirmed cases in mid-February, to reaching a plateau of 80,000 at the beginning of March and a recovery to just 1,863 active cases now, most of them caused by people coming into the country from abroad. There have really only been two stories from China in the past week: a travel ban against foreigners, to prevent a “second wave” of infections; and the lifting of some internal restrictions so that people can re-enter Wuhan and start going back to work.
Really? Even given the omnipotence of the Chinese state and its instruments of control, is it credible that a lockdown could be that successful, that quickly, in a country where tens of millions of people had been moving between regions for the New Year festival during the epidemic’s early growth period just two months earlier? If experience from Italy and Spain is anything to go by, even the most rigorous of lockdowns could not have achieved such a fast turnaround.
The countries that have managed to contain the epidemic, at least for now, did so with a comprehensive programme of testing and tracking. This was also the approach in China: but can we believe that it was achievable on the vast scale necessary there, especially in light of emerging evidence that their tests have a high error rate? Spain and Turkey have found that tens of thousands of the test kits sent to them by China are unreliable (the batch in Spain were accurate only 30% of the time). Meanwhile the Dutch authorities have recalled 600,000 Chinese face masks as being unsafe.
We should also recall that during the epidemic, the Chinese authorities ran a massive programme of censorship against anyone who tried to highlight uncomfortable facts or question the official line. Some of the bloggers involved were forcibly put into quarantine and have not been heard from since. So there is really no other lense through which to view the situation in China today, except that of the government.
Given this background, let me pose some questions about what is really going on in China. Is it possible that the death toll is far higher than the 3,318 officially cited? Could it be that the authorities have suppressed the real number, for instance by ensuring that death certificates cite other causes? (This is easy to do when most people who succumb to Covid-19 die from multiple causes, such as heart failure and pneumonia, or else die without ever being tested.) Perhaps a new outbreak reported yesterday in a region near Hubei is evidence that new infections are still occurring at a higher rate than has been admitted? And is it conceivable that the ban on foreigners has been instituted not just to prevent new infections being brought in, but also to stop the rest of the world from discovering the true situation?
The Chinese communist party can only justify its grip on power if it is seen to be solving the country’s problems and leading its people to a better quality of life. Failure to overcome the Coronavirus epidemic, or a prolonged economic downturn, both hold more terrors for Xi Jinping and his minions than they do for western democracies. In a democracy, even the people who hold power don’t regard losing it as the end of the world. But for members of the Chinese regime, failure could be fatal.
No doubt they will use every trick in the book to manipulate the truth and strengthen their grip, just as they did after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Covid-19, however, personally touches a far larger proportion of the country’s 1.4 billion people. If the recovery being presented by China is a matter of smoke and mirrors, it will be interesting to see how long they can keep up the illusion.
In my novel After the Event, the alien infection is seen by many as beneficial: and efforts to stop it rebound on those who try. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your initial mindset and whether or not you’ve been infected. You’ll have to wait for the book to be finished to find out just where that leads.
Despite the disaster unfolding in intensive care units and the awful economic impact, the current crisis may be the best thing that’s happened in my lifetime. As a Boomer, I say this in the full knowledge that Covid-19 may kill me.
In part this is similar to the wartime generation’s refrain that WW2 provided the best years of their lives. (Mind you, the ones who said that never fought in the front line but were either civilians or had support roles in the armed forces.)
There is also an element of the same dark enjoyment that drives the popularity of movies and video-games about a zombie apocalypse, or any other end-of-days scenario, from War of the Worlds to Contagion (which I believe is currently the most in-demand movie on Netflix).
This darkness is the shadow of a larger feeling that society is failing, that we are being led to global catastrophe and that there is little we can do about it. Hence we live in a state of barely-suppressed rage, which feeds a desire to wipe the slate clean and also generates a thirst for justice and retribution.
The main focus for retribution should be the failure of political leadership that has been exposed in every continent. Totalitarian China first tried to suppress the truth, thereby ensuring the virus’s success, and now stakes its dictator’s survival on proving that only the strictest authoritarian control can save the people. If Xi Jinping succeeds, then China will complete its transition into Orwell’s nightmare 1984 state. If he fails, then he and his whole rotten system will fall. I vote for the virus.
In Russia, Putin has shown himself to be just as stupid as the Ayatollahs of Iran and the petty bureaucrats of Wuhan. The virus thrives on disinformation and will shortly demonstrate the limitations of the current Tsar’s power.
In America, Trump is being brought down by the one enemy he doesn’t know how to fight. No matter how much he insults and belittles the virus, it doesn’t care, it doesn’t stop and it is going to achieve huge success amidst a population that is particularly unhealthy and ill-informed.
The democratic anarchy of Italy and the bumbling of Boris are proving neither more nor less effective than most other systems in managing the disaster. Only the rigid conformity of Singapore, South Korea and Japan seem to offer any hope of success: and even they have no exit strategy.
Religion makes things worse. In several parts of the Muslim world, imams and the faithful believe that mass prayers will protect them, thereby ensuring that the virus (aka God or the devil) will correct their delusion.
The virus mostly kills old men. Fortunately, that covers most of the world’s leaders. If I believed in God, I would see this as Divine Judgement, or Comedy.
For a couple of years now I have been telling people that our societies and especially our cities are fragile and that a pandemic or a different global catastrophe will expose their vulnerabilities very soon. With this in mind I took my family to Dubai, saying that I wanted them to see it now because it won’t be there for very long. They thought I was exaggerating but if ever there was a monument to hubris, which deserves to have the giant portraits of its rulers replaced with the words of Ozymandias, “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair”, then Dubai is it.
I thought the most likely cause of collapse would be global warming, which is set to make most of the Gulf region uninhabitable within the next 30 years. What I hadn’t anticipated was that a relatively mild pandemic would do in two months what all the world’s governments could not achieve in twenty years.
The satellite pictures are unequivocal. The great concentrations of pollution in China and Northern Italy have dissipated as quickly as the contrails in the skies. Those in Flanders and elsewhere will soon follow. Even Greta Thunberg could not make our idiot rulers take quick and effective action: but a tiny virus that only kills about one in a hundred of us, has transformed all our so-called leaders into action heroes almost overnight.
Or so they would have us believe. If the eventual relaxation of lockdown measures leads to a resurgence in the virus, they will be universally seen as super-villains. From this, two wonderful outcomes may emerge. The first is a realisation that their malign incompetence is the true threat. The second is the discovery that real change is not just necessary but possible.
When the Black Death killed over a third of Europeans, it changed society in ways that ultimately benefitted most of the survivors. Feudalism died out, wages and social mobility increased and the church’s stranglehold on thought was broken. We can achieve even greater benefits at much lower cost.
Unless the virus mutates to a more lethal form that kills the young, we have the prospect of a corrupt old political order being swept away, dead or discredited. Their worship of economic growth may be seen for the idolatry that it is; their inability to own their mistakes and change their policies will be judged unpardonable; and the hold of religious fundamentalism can be weakened from the Bible Belt of the USA to the madrasahs of Iran. We may even come at last to recognise that there are too many of us, that our lifestyles are suicidal and that we must change if we are to avoid the fate of every parasite that kills its host.
The virus is neither our enemy nor our friend: but it can be the saviour of our species, if we are willing to learn from it.
When Valencia outgrew its ancient core, its citizens took the opposite approach to those of many mediaeval towns: they demolished the walls but kept the gateways. It was a symbolic act, from which today’s nationalists (and those who oppose them) would do well to learn.
I love fortified gateways but it was only when I visited Valencia that I realised why. It’s not so much about architecture: it’s about intent. Walls are there to keep people out. Gateways are there to let them in. The fortification is to control the flow. What a perfect analogy for our current obsession with immigration and whether to integrate people or keep different groups apart.
All you really need to know about Trump is that he wants to build walls. If the man had any love for people, or for increasing the flow of trade and discourse, he would focus on the difficult issues of how many people to let in, and who, and when, and how to regulate it all. He would be talking about building gateways.
The ultimate examples of this are to be found in the Italian city of Lucca and the Chinese city of X’ian. Lucca became not merely famous for its walls but defined by them. An obsession with security and control meant that gatekeepers were forbidden on pain of death from allowing any outsider to spend the night in their gatehouse. The place was very safe but the resulting introspection restricted the city’s growth and turned it into a museum.
In contrast, X’ian became for some centuries the largest city on earth. It’s walls are so huge that one could put a four-lane highway along the top: but that was nothing compared to the gateways. They were built to contain and process camel caravans coming in from the Silk Road. An outer set of gates allowed the caravan to enter a vast courtyard that was entirely enclosed by an extension of the walls. They were crenellated on both sides, so that archers could dominate the caravan whilst it was inspected. Once it had been assessed (and any threat dealt with), it was taxed. Then the inner gates opened and the caravan was welcomed into the city. By both promoting and regulating the movement of people and goods, X’ian thrived.
Whilst I despise the mentality of the wall-builders, I also believe that free movement is no longer an option, now that we have failed to control population growth, climate change and the depletion of natural resources. Yet right now it’s not clear if we want our gates open or closed, or who we want to allow in, or why: and the rules keep changing. Our future depends upon answering those questions and keeping our gateways open as much as we dare and yet well guarded. It requires a deeper debate than we are used to, driven to the point of making hard choices and translating them into clear policies that we all accept. That process has a name: democracy.
As a writer, I have always been interested in connecting across cultures. So I guess my choice of which book to focus on next has already been made. The Happy Dancer is all about two people struggling to connect with each other across a huge divide. I realise now what I have to do, to make the book work. I have to look deep inside myself and come up with honest answers to some of those questions. I think I’m going to learn just how hard it is, to be a good gatekeeper.
Oscar Wilde used to be my hero. I was mad about him: from my late teens to early twenties, he was the epitome of all that I aspired to be (in artistic terms, at least). Back then I had lots of heroes (and heroines). The Marquis of Montrose, Jane Austen, Brian Wilson – a real eclectic mix. But no more.
Last September I attended the funeral of an old friend. It was held in the vast cemetery of Pere Lachaise in Paris, which is so packed with heroes that you really can’t avoid them. So I took the time to visit Oscar’s grave. I suppose deep down some part of me felt the need to pay homage.
It’s rather surprising, being Art Deco rather than Fin de Siecle: but I think he would have liked that – looking forward rather than back. And of course it set me wondering, where have all the heroes gone? The world seems run by morons and scumbags and not a hero in sight when you most need one.
The cause is internal. We have been made cynical by discovering that all our heroes have feet of clay. We know too much about them. I read the entire works of Oscar Wilde when I was twenty and my hero worship survived that; but by the time I’d finished reading his biography by Montgomery Hyde, although I still admired his brilliance, I had killed the magic.
Which brings me to why I was in that cemetery. My friend, Robert Gallagher, was a larger than life character. A gourmet cook, a connoisseur of wine, a raconteur, a bilingual Franco-American draft dodger, a brilliant, scathing wit and a bon viveur par excellence. This picture sums him up.
I know that I will never meet his like again, any more than I will get to meet Oscar Wilde. I am also well acquainted with his faults. What I need to do, what we all need to do, is to relearn the ability to recognise and celebrate the heroic in those around us. And he was a hero: bold, uncompromising, ruthless in calling out bullshit or ignorance and totally unapologetic.
In short, he was the kind of person we need more of. The fact that he often made us uncomfortable is exactly the point. I lost my faith in heroes because I thought they were meant to be perfect and I became disillusioned when they were not. I should have realised that heroism is about speaking truth to power even when your voice is drowned out by a thousand blustering fools and your feet are made of clay and you can feel them crumbling beneath you.
Where have all the heroes gone? They are inside us: we just need to find the courage to give them voice.
Both the Home Office and their contractor, Sopra Steria, evidently aim to outdo the airlines in their use of vacuous phrases that combine phoney earnestness with a hint of contempt for the people they are meant to serve.
One of the favoured techniques of companies that have given disastrously bad service is to affirm what ought to be the truth, as if that turns their cock-up into an exception that proves the rule. So a services company whose system failure leaves scores of people out in the cold declares that, “A positive customer experience is vital to the service we provide…”
Indeed, one might have thought so. If only they had said, “Our customers ought to receive good service but they didn’t because we screwed up; and if we don’t fix it fast then the Home Office is going to terminate our contract and we’ll all be out of a job.” Now that would have won back some respect.
A particular favourite with companies that have stuffed up is to say, as Sopra did on this occasion, “We are working closely with our customers…” How else were they considering working with them: remotely? Doubtless they would if they could.
The Home Office trotted out the same meaningless babble: “We are working closely with Sopra Steria to ensure that any customers affected…blah blah blah.” Judging by the customers’ comments, most of them would probably prefer the Home Office to stop working with Sopra Steria altogether.
An especially annoying tactic of the services industry is to try and downplay the severity of a problem by belittling it. On this occasion the company’s spokesperson said that a technical problem, “affected our ability to process a small number of appointments”. How comforting for those affected, to know that they were just the unlucky few.
The airlines are far and away the best at this kind of newspeak. Consider that popular classic, “The delay to your flight is caused by the late arrival of the incoming aircraft”. Service companies love this kind of language because it avoids owning up to any fault, whilst not actually lying. It infuriates us because we want to know the origin of the problem; and the airline’s evasiveness reinforces our suspicion that they are concealing something that would affect their reputation, like the captain having been arrested for lewd behaviour (to cite an actual case).
This linguistic disease infects everything from the most trivial cases to the most serious. How many times have we heard statements like, “The safety of our customers is our highest priority”, in response to an air crash where the cause is suspected to be a failure in the safety procedures of the company making that claim? Orwell coined the term Newspeak in part to convey the dangers of misusing language to pretend one thing while meaning the opposite. We have a duty to call it out whenever we hear it.