Oh what a lovely disconnect

Oh what a lovely war !

Oh what a lovely war !

Today I was lucky enough to see and reflect upon a local production of Oh What A Lovely War by a local amateur group. It was made better by being shared with my partner who was able to make the evening. Despite being overly hot in the Arts Centre, it wasn’t a bad production given the demands of this semi-surreal play.

The Phoenix Players have something of a reputation for tackling worthy and challenging productions. Although as a group, their star may have waned a little it was a credit to their skills. Chosen to mark 100 years since the outbreak of the Great War this stretched the theatre and the available space rather more than the actors.

After watching it, I was struck with the disconnect I felt with the play. Was it the capability of the cast, the difference between the play and it’s better known film counterpart or the production values chosen by the Director and her team. After some thought, I came to the view it was none of the above !

What struck me was the lack of credibility of the leading characters – not the actors – the characters. In simple terms the dismissive view of life portrayed by the play’s characters would now be simply incredible.

This was perhaps the greatest insight I gained from the evening. If the characters (or more accurately caricatures) portrayed as army generals, field marshals and politicians were ever accurate – and I believe they were – they certainly wouldn’t be now.

Of course, I have tried to make allowances for the fact that the play originally produced by Joan Littlewood in the 30’s may have aged not the characters. However, whichever is the more accurate it’s refreshing to realise that we have moved so far from a conflict which robbed the world of a generation.

The finale was understated but immensely powerful. A stage washed in red light with two solitary soldiers with downturned rifles against a backdrop of one of the Commonwealth War Cemeteries. A welcome touch for me was that the backdrop contained markers for both English and German soldiers. Whilst the last post sounded and the poppies fell the curtain closed in silence. A brave and powerful production. I’m just so pleased to realise that this now feels so alien and impossible in today’s world.

So who turned the lights out ?

The lights are dimming

The lights are dimming

It seems no time that I was languishing in the late summer evenings until gone 9 o’clock in the evening. Not the mid-summer heights of gone 10pm but not bad nonetheless.

Then today someone appears to have rotated the climatological dimmer switch as it’s now pitch black at seven o’clock. When did that happen exactly?

This seems to happen to me each year, a sudden creeping up of the nights drawing in leading to a sudden realisation that summer has gone and we’re now deep in autumn. What’s more the calendar countdown to my Australian visit with my better half shows around 70 days to go.

Suddenly the year is very much in it’s dog days with the downhill march to Christmas now active in my mind. Some very obvious markers remain – Halloween, Bonfire night, Remembrance Parades and then we’re in to Advent season. I’m only amazed that the retailers (at least near me) haven’t yet started playing carols and erecting trees. Still – I suppose that too is only a matter of time. Watch this space and hear the annual gnashing of teeth in relation to Saturnalia !

 

Define ‘Friend’

Define 'Friend' ?

Define ‘Friend’ ?

In the world before mass transportation, the internet and social media, a friend was most probably somebody with whom you had a person-to-person relationship of some kind. At the very least, it would be a near pre-requisite that you had met and interacted with personally to a greater or lesser extent.

Today with the rise of social media actually having met your friends is now entirely optional. For fans of The Big Bang, a comment made by Doctor Sheldon Cooper sums up the views of a growing number of social media users.

Sheldon: I have a very wide circle. I have 212 friends on MySpace.
Leonard: Yes, and you’ve never met one of them.
Sheldon: That’s the beauty of it.

So today, I had three messages and contacts from ‘friends’ who started their introductions with the following lines:

“So I know we haven’t spoken for a few months – I suppose lending me £300 would be out of the question?”

“You’ve never been my cup of tea but I wouldn’t mind a go on your boyfriend if you can put a good word in for me?’

“I wondered if you could give me a reference. I know it’s been years but you’d look good on my CV”

Is it me ? Am I alone in finding both of these unacceptable (although I have to acknowledge they have the merit of brutal honesty)? I just find such a blunt, selfish and callous approach to be entirely out of bounds.

Although I rarely find myself watching and never (to this point) quoting Opera Winfrey, I do remember her saying something in an interview which strikes me as very true.

Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down. – Oprah Winfrey

Of course, I take my share of blame for falling into the friend collection trap. But the past week has helped me formulate a plan to identify those I want to keep and those I can frankly do without. Also, a subtle change of approach on my part is kicking in as a result. Best summed up in the following quote by Dale Carnegie

You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you. – Dale Carnegie 

Unrecognised by an Old Friend

Wyvern Theatre Stage

Wyvern Theatre Stage

A quick call to assist with a couple of photographs took me into the Wyvern Theatre, Swindon today to assist with a friend’s university application.

I found myself on a very familiar stage. I have been fortunate enough to perform on this particular stage more than any other locally and know it well. The challenge of some sight lines to the side stalls, the proximity of the ‘pit’ to the stage apron (potentially very easy to make an unexpected visit to the orchestra) and the relatively shallow depth from upstage to down. All very familiar to me.

However, what struck me was how much time had passed since I last walked on the stage in any performing capacity. It was most certainly as though the theatre didn’t recognise me. Perhaps that isn’t any bad thing as I wasn’t perhaps my most engaging when treading those particular boards, but I did realise how much I missed the feeling of belonging which comes with this particular stage.

Some friends now gone shared some happy times here, some friends now moved away similarly shared rehearsals filled with laughter (in the main) and the thrill of performance. Perhaps one day I may put some of the directing skills I have been working on into practice – there are certainly a good number of plays/pieces I would like to get my teeth into. However, for now I feel I caught a glimpse of a friend from the past who, to my disappointment, didn’t recognise me.

So soon for dirty politics ?

The "No"'s have it

The “No”‘s have it

Less than a week after the Scottish referendum results and the art of low politics has already made its debut onto what is turning into a particularly sordid little stage.

Having held back on my personal view prior to the vote, I’m personally very pleased that the No vote was successful. I certainly don’t see my many Scots friends as subjected to England or Britain. Nor do I fail to see the unique national identity of the Scottish people. I’m just pleased that they chose (in the majority) to exercise that distinct identity within the scope of the United Kingdom.

That said, I would be the first person to say the behaviour of the major parties (and specifically the English parties) has been nothing less than disgusting. It’s made me quite ashamed to be part of the English nation.

Of course, the expected resignation of Alex Salmond MSP took place with almost undue haste. Although it was expected that he would fall on his own sword in the event of a defeat, his speed took many (including me) by surprise. Whilst I had anticipated him stepping down as the leader of his party, I didn’t expect him to leave the political stage completely. I for one disagreed with his rationale, didn’t appreciate the way he ran his campaign (it was too presumptuous and incomplete) and disliked his personal style. However, I did believe he felt his ambition for Scotland was in it’s best interests. I certainly believe Scottish politics more generally (arguments over independence aside) will be the weaker following his departure.

However, the speed of his leaving was nothing compared to the ‘clarifications’, ‘qualifications’ and ‘variations’ uttered by the main party leaders within England post referendum.

In the days immediately prior to the vote, promises were made to Scotland indicating that far more autonomy, self-determination and decision making powers would be settled on the Scottish Parliament. How disappointing it was to see English politicians squirming like a worm on a hook three days after the vote trying to recover ground as if we hadn’t heard them make the offers to those north of the border.

The Independence Vow

The Independence Vow

I for one remember the extent of the promises made in those days and within the ‘vow’ printed on the front of the Scottish Record and signed by all three English party leaders.

Of course the issues raised by granting Scotland more independence has an impact on England and Wales, potentially it encourages more regional devolution and undoubtedly it shows that the promise has many ‘loose ends’. However, all that said – the promises were made in order to secure the union and once made in good faith, I would be shouting as loud as any Scot that those promises are honoured without the shabby examples of watering-down their words after securing their desired result.

What is worse is that this behaviour is exactly the kind of Machiavellian scheming that resulted in the Scottish arguments for independence stating UK politics was unfit for Scottish purposes.

I trust and hope that the politicians within England will realise that their actions over the next 12-18 months will either secure the union for the next generation or will merely hasten the calls for a second bite of the rotten cherry. If you renege on your promises now, you will prove the point that those calling for Scottish Independence made. A point I had hoped was just opportunistic shorthand for anti-English sentiment.

Come on political classes within England and Westminster. Keep your word !

 

Nothing for four billion years then three come along at once !

Anyone who is familiar with the public transport system (specifically busses) in the UK will be aware of a phrase not unlike the title of this posting. ‘You wait for half an hour (for a bus) then three come along all at once’.

An observer of the planet Mars may well have something similar to say today. The virtually non-existent atmosphere of that once earth-like planet has been devoid of anything other than passing space dust and solar winds for around four billion years. Then this morning the third probe or satellite from earth arrived at the planet to continue the challenging task of charting the surface. Certainly a major step-change in the level of investigation of this close cousin to the Earth.

NASA Mars rover

NASA Mars rover

The first and arguably most challenging arrival was that of the NASA rover dropped by ‘sky hook’ to start mapping the martial terrain some 25 months ago. In the time it has been on the planet it has already exceeded expectations in terms of the range travelled, terrain with which it has coped and the reliability of its build and instrumentation.

It’s hard to imagine that the motherboard controlling this rover has more computing power in it’s compact design than was provided by the entire computer systems for the first moon landing. The pace of change in technology and computer sciences has transformed the art of the possible since the Apollo missions.

The rover will continue mapping the geological and microbiological potential of the red planet for the next few months providing an insight into the capability of mars to support life of any kind. Although no findings have been released by NASA at the time of writing this article, I suspect scientists can’t fail to be pleased with the wealth of data captured from this technological marvel. It’s hard to imagine that the constant flow of data being captured wouldn’t lead to some major advanced in our understanding of Mars and the solar system.

Indian Mars Orbiter

Indian Mars Orbiter

The second of the arrivals at the red planet was from India who chose Mars to prove their capability at some significant reputational risk.

The Indian orbiter is undertaking a complementary task to the NASA lander mapping the entire planning with particular emphasis on surface features, morphology, mineralogy and analysis of what remains of the Martian atmosphere. It is believed that Mars was once similar to Earth with a habitable surface, rich atmosphere and magnetic field. Understanding what happened to change this to the barren rocky surface it is today may be assisted by the Indian probe.

The flight by India hasn’t been without its critics. The country is one of the largest recipients of aid from first world donors to feed and educate the entire population. Many raised questions as to the sense in spending billions on building a reputation for a credible space programme whilst those problems still exist. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that particular issue, it’s certainly a hugely impressive debut for any nation to successfully arrive and orbit their satellite around Mars.

The Maven Orbiter

The Maven Orbiter

The third arrival as of today is NASA’s Maven orbiter. This successfully entered orbit around Mars on 21st September and will begin to analyse the planet’s upper atmosphere. It appears that even after billions of years the remnants of the once flourishing atmosphere are still leaking away and further exposing Mars to the impacts of the solar winds.

The combination of the data gathered by these three orbiters/probes will hopefully go a long way to understand the impacts of planetary atmospherics, including (potentially) some greater understanding of how climate change may be influenced by solar winds on earth.

The ultimate stated aim of NASA and others is to move towards a human colony on Mars. However, for me this is just as much a triumph of computer science, engineering and cooperation. Thirty years ago the idea of sharing data from a variety of competing national space programmes would have been nearly unthinkable.

Imagine you were one of those watching the moon landings nearly half a century ago. Could you have any idea that this progress would happen in the intervening period ?  Similarly, what further progress and opportunities for exploration and learning will emerge over the next 50 years. It may be the first time we have put three satellites in orbit in Mars – but I suspect this is just the start of much more to come.

Simple Pleasures

Simple Pleasures

Simple Pleasures

It’s often the really simple things that have the most impact on us and speaking personally they are the things we most often remember. When all the stresses and pressures of a modern commercialised world need to be countered, for me it’s something very simple and uncomplicated that will be most likely to do it.

The form that has taken has varied from time to time. There are the traditional (some might  say clichéd) candidates such as eating fish and chips with plenty of salt and vinegar out of paper at the seaside. Why it only works with that particular combination I don’t know – but for me it’s a constant winner.

Similarly there are the unexpected finds. On a difficult skiing holiday in Canada, I remember taking a wrong turn to find myself next to a waterfall now frozen in time until the spring thaw. Had I stayed on the more widely taken path it was a sight I would never had seen. The tranquillity in that location is something I can still recall today. It remains one of those mental retreats we all have and resort to at times of stress and when we seek some solitude.

Pie mash and eels

Pie mash and eels

Then the third category – for me the best – the vicarious gift category.

I recently took a friend visiting London to an ‘authentic’ pie mash and eel shop in Peckham. These have gradually disappeared over recent years. Manze’s is staffed by three typical ‘East End’ matriarchs – this was not a place for the faint hearted. The food wasn’t exactly cordon bleu, the bench seating was functional and not designed for comfort. The menu was limited (to anything containing eels). However, the pleasure was in seeing how much my guest enjoyed the traditional view of a disappearing part of London life and trying an authentic taste of London.

To him the mundane seemed suddenly interesting and historic. The green and white tiles missed by most observers were mentioned as adding character. The way the mash was trowelled onto the plate to stop the green liquor from overflowing was noticed and the variety of London accents was seen as a celebration of the city’s culture. Isn’t it strange how the routine and run of the mill can seem so full of charm and interest to a new pair of eyes – prepared not only to look but also to see.

Today, I was lucky enough to observe and hopefully share one of those third category simple pleasures. My partner has had a rough few days for reasons that don’t need to be explained here. A mix of the normal stresses and strains of life meant that a quiet, restful and less frenetic weekend than normal was the order of the day. Of course, he was worried that just sitting quietly reading a book in the garden (for example) might be seen as somehow impolite or aloof. I offered assurances that I would be more than happy if that’s what he needed/wanted to do. Following some additional soundings from trusted friends operation rural retreat was underway.

So my simple pleasure has been watching him relax over the past few hours. It has been like watching a wound spring gradually lose tension and gradually return to its natural state of equilibrium. Whilst I’m blogging this post he is enjoying the gentle autumn sun and reading his book and clearly enjoying the relative peace and unstructured time – by himself but not alone. His simple pleasure is that moment of personal stillness and acceptance; mine is seeing him so relaxed and at ease. My first double whammy (shared) simple pleasure – a new category!

Devolved Parliaments? – Oh grow up !

hiah2In the past day since returning from Berlin, I have had little else thrust at me in terms of ‘news’ by the terrestrial channels other than the increasingly bitter Scottish Independence debate.

Acknowledging the fact that it will be for the Scottish people (or a sub-set of them) to decide I can’t help but be nauseated by the ‘me-too’ spin-off claims, demands and proposals arising as a result of the debate.

Today, I have heard claims from Plaid Cymru challenging the UK government to match the vow given to Scotland backing up their ambition for Welsh Independence and a Welsh Parliament. Not entirely surprising I hear you say.

However, what about the addition of demands for devolution and recognition of  Statehood for Cornwall made by (among others) Mebyon Kernow (translated as sons of Cornwall) or the recent resurgence in demands for a wholly English Parliament and devolution for the English.

If that still isn’t enough, what about demands for devolved government for Yorkshire with it’s own elected assembly or regional governance for Northumbria and the return of Newcastle to Scotland?  Still not sated with calls for self-determination on an island that would fit entirely into the Australian State of Victoria – perhaps I can assist further !

Similar calls for independence or self-governing assemblies and parliaments exist for Cumbria and East Anglia with embryonic movements elsewhere such as the Black Country and even the thoughts of the city State of London.

So I can’t help but wonder whether we will soon see a demand for a ‘Parliament’ for each of the UK counties – perhaps I should poll myself and declare Unilateral Independence on behalf of the ‘men living in Wiltshire with at least one border collie owning more black socks than red’ brigade? – Isn’t this utter madness ?

I’m certainly in favour of representative democracy and regional representation. However, the thought that in an increasingly globalised world a small offshore island already struggling with it’s relationship to Europe, the US and the Commonwealth would solve things by shattering further into pseudo-ethnic enclave States is totally Barking! .. In fact it’s beyond that … more like Dagenham.

Perhaps the baby-boomer’s children with their desire for what I want, when I want it, on my terms or not at all are struggling to deal with the concept that they can’t always have their own way all the time ?

So this seems to me to be just so-much fluff and distraction. It’s not like we don’t have enough real issues on which to focus. Do any of these groups really consider they will be taken seriously anywhere outside of the nearest out-patients department. I seriously hope not.

So get a grip on yourselves people and let’s start living in the real world. Following today’s multiple call for fractured assemblies and ‘Parliaments’ I’m finding it hard to beat Shakespeare’s words ‘ A plague on all your houses’

Live in love-in’s

For three days this week, I found my self ensconced in a high end four star hotel in the Midlands. I was attending a conference as an exhibitor and as part of a team talking about transforming the way people work. A friend refers to these type of events as live-in love-in’s .. I can see why!

What disappoints me (although it certainly came as no surprise) was the distaste with which my private sector organisation was held. We were described as making a ‘land grab’ into areas on which the public sector should be focused. Similarly, we were criticised for making any amount of profit along the way – it appears a charitable non-profit making approach may have been tolerated. However, anything above break even was morally reprehensible and contrary to natural justice.
Finally, we were criticised for having too much financial clout and choosing to operate in a non unionised environment.

A few things struck me as odd. Firstly, despite lambasting my company (along with others), the organisation concerned were happy to have approached and secured a 5 figure sum to sponsor their event.
Also, what of the cries of decadent and cavalier overspending by organisation such as mine? They may have sounded less hollow if they weren’t being made from the Crystal bar in said hotel during a black tie dinner … again funded by the organisation being lambasted.
As for the land grab .. I have some sympathy. There are areas I think the state should deliver services in preference to private sector suppliers. However, speaking for my organisation, it has only moved into areas where the public sector has vacated .. or where it has shown itself completely unable to deliver services that the public want, when they want them.

As for unionisation .. I, (along with any other member of staff) am free to join a union of my choosing. I simply choose not to as .. to be frank.. they provide no benefit to me in my working life. If you wish to join then there is no issue from my perspective. However, please also respect my wish and right not to be forced to join anything I don’t wish to.

So I hope the delegates paused a little to think that if they were to get the utopia they describe the first thing to go would be these pointless live-in love-in’s.

Round 2 of the Euro crisis ?

The Euro domino effect

The Euro domino effect

Regardless of your view of the merits (or disadvantages) of the European Union, we must all be painfully aware of the risks of a crisis in the Eurozone. The potential consequences of a major euro using country entering a further round of financial crisis or worse still default can probably not be under-estimated.

Today’s quiet and surprising news of a further reduction in central European bank interest rates could be the latest indication of renewed stresses within the Eurozone area. Certainly, the reduction in interest rates can only be seen as an effort to encourage spending, investment and therefore bring growth to the member states using the Euro.

Greece has been far quieter in recent months, but has already indicated that the social pressures caused by austerity measures (unfairly seen as being imposed by Germany) are continuing to cause political and economic instability in the country. So far these have not caused repayment schedules to be amended but many believe these Greek words of caution may be testing the waters for a revised repayment plan. So is there any other evidence to support the prospect of a further Euro crisis ?

Italy: Triple dip recession

Italy: Triple dip recession

Perhaps the most obvious and worrying example is the deflation impacting on parts of the Eurozone, making debt (or at least the real value of debt) more challenging for those trying to pay off debts. There is an argument that this deflation hitting countries such as Italy could lead to a deflationary spiral such as that seen in the US in the 20’s.

Italy’s trade and GDP figures show it has entered a triple dip recession and staggeringly only two countries (Haiti and Zimbabwe) have grown less than Italy over the past 25 years. With Greece’s economy best described as fragile, the last thing needed would be a problem with the significantly bigger Italian economy.

Many economists and academics (such as Marianna Mazzucato – University of Essex) believe these faltering economies are evidence of a more fundamental issue. She (and others) argue that the diagnosis of economic malaise is flawed so consequently the medicine being prescribed is also equally flawed.

Several leading economic figures argue that productivity simply cant mean the same in Germany, France or the UK as it does in Greece and Italy. They believe that German productivity has been based around bidding the best product at a reasonable (not the cheapest) price based on demand for those products/services as a result of very significant investment in their economies. This is the very investment that Greece and Italy can no longer afford or attract in part due to their heavy repayment schedules. Default and crisis ensues; don’t default and crisis may be delayed but will ultimately break.

A further round of Quantitative easing may be on the cards from the European Central Bank – but that depends on whether the additional demands placed on the ECB by the Ukrainian crisis leaves sufficient fiscal room for manoeuvre.  Even if further QE is scheduled to assist the Greek and Italian economies not all observers believe it will have a meaningful effect. Martin Wolfe (Chief Economist for Financial Times) points out that the US has now achieved 3% growth but only after $4 trillion quantitative easing and a matching fiscal injection for investment into key business sectors – something the EU simply couldn’t replicate.

uro2Perhaps more telling and ultimately more important is the fact that the lion’s share of any bail out has (and probably will) fallen to Germany to fund.

Recent German media and social commentaries have shown a grudging willingness to provide support to Greece in order to prevent a further financial crisis. However, similar soundings of the German population now noticing tighter purse strings as a result of the support come closer to the view ‘this far and no further’

It is unclear, at least to me whether the obvious and consistent desire to make the European Union work effectively is seen as worth the cost by the general population of Germany.

So for me, a watching brief on the Eurozone at present – but the indications aren’t too positive in my view. Despite my personal views on the sense of a currency zone the size of Europe, I wouldn’t wish a further crisis on any of us. Here’s hoping my reading of the early indications are wrong.