Wednesday, October 04, 2006

my way code

not for the first time, I find myself completely at odds with the national mood. if I found it hard, at the time, to share in the hysteria or even shed a tear at the high-speed demise of the sad, cheating, doe-eyed wife of the sad, cheating, hangdog heir to the throne, I've found it much harder, now, to share in the hand-wringing tabloid concern for the health of a mildly endearing but otherwise unremarkable TV presenter who happens to have survived another high-speed car crash.

obviously, whenever anything happens to one of their own, the BBC tends to make a big deal of it. but this has gone way beyond the usual tragic loss of cameraman shot whilst filming the invasion of a minor middle east oil-producing nation - this has touched the raw nerve of the sleb-slobbering nation in a peculiarly mawkish way. it's as if this guy actually mattered in a sense greater than being a decent husband and father, which, possibly (it must be true because the TV says it's so) is the case .

Top Gear is the flagship marketing tool of the autophile lobby: its primal appeal operates at the level of massaging the hurt feelings of the driver of the beamer who's been overtaken by a skoda and then been flashed by a speed camera. its main premise is that cars - especially very fast, very expensive cars - are things of beauty, excitement, and fundamental satisfaction, and that anyone who disagrees is a killjoy. 'killjoy' is a word the Top Gear fraternity uses a lot. its main presenter - Jeremy Clarkson, whose presenter personna is a bilious cross between Terry Wogan and Anne Robinson - has become a minor deity in the brotherhood of car worship, his droll comparisons of one piece of motile metal over another elevated to the cult rhetorical status of a latterday Pepys or Pope. unutterably smug, he nevertheless does manage to exert a certain sort of self-deprecating world-weary charm that slightly sugars the pill of his regular weekly message - that cars are wonderful, wonderful things, and that anyone who disagrees is a boring killjoy. a - boring - killjoy.

Clarkson has several cronies - boring straight men (and a token female) to his jovial bullying routine, whose sideshow bob antics are never permitted to overshadow his own krusticentric performances.

it was one of these who nearly managed to kill himself.

what qualifications do you need to go as fast as possible in a jet-powered car? what's the sum total of required skills to 1) point the thing down the runway 2) ignite the burners, then 3) steer straight until the fuel runs out? piece of piss. a hamster could do it. well, almost. courage, you say? bullshit, I say. you're confusing courage and adolescent bravado. any fourteen-year-old would give his (or, sometimes, her) eye-teeth to do it.

the older we get, the more cautious - that's just the way it works: the longer we've been alive, the more chances we've had to assess the risks (of the various leaps of faith, acts of mercy, expressions of desire, contempt, commitment, or disinterest that appear to us as options at one time or other), and, the more chances we've had to experience the consequences (to others - our loved ones and friends - as well as to ourselves) of taking those risks, the less inclined we become to take them. on balance, the pain involved in suffering the consequences of a risk taken and ending in disaster tends to trump the potential pleasure of its ending in a result: the blindingly obvious fact that we're all mortal doesn't, in fact, become blindingly obvious until well past our teens (when, obviously, it's just not true), when, if we're lucky, we've actually had the chance to look death in the face, and, once having done so, choose not to do so again. probably. arguably, indeed, to choose to risk your life more than once in the pursuit of, well, anything, really, can only indicate one thing - that you've lost sight of something essential to your survival - the ability to learn from experience.

that we have lost it - or something related to it - is evidenced by the fantastic surge in the popularity of danger-related package tours. no longer is the world-tour of white-knuckle rides enough - packages that bring our flabby padded bodies eyeball-to-eyeball with sharks, white water and big number g-forces are selling like hot cakes. we can't get too much of that adrenaline rush.

pansies, all of them, of course. wimps and pattiecakes. it's all about fat wallets and crash-cages and fail-safe backup systems and full insurance. any idiot with a spare couple of million can hitch a ride up to the space station now. ditto the sorry index of current soi-disant adventurers and explorers - survival packs brimming with satellite phones and GPS, back-up rescue helicopters keeping their engines warm, and the camera crew hovering discreetly out of sight.

what it's all about, this fascination with the thrill, this absorption in the tedious-but-compelling escapades of the jet-powered croc-wrestling slebs, is the futile stuffing with vicarious sensation of the hole in all our souls that's all that's left of one of the defining aspects of our humanity: the old, old instinct for survival, at whatever cost, has become a folk-memory, something that's so rarely called upon that, like the vestigial tail, it's all but disappeared from our repertoire of experience. the all-consuming physical paroxysm of the fight-or-flight reflex is just the somatic residue of that oldest of instincts. several hundred thousand years of cultural evolution has translated that crucial (if we are to believe that survival is crucial) relationship between terror and action into something else, a web of somethings that itself came to crystallise, long ago, into the proto-religious ceremonies and rituals from which all art evolved.

in the absence of the priests' effective adjuducation between the arbitrary terrors of the universe and our own sense of hapless impotence when confronted with them, we have chosen to anoint these clowns (who desperately want the job, let's not forget - this isn't some sort of punishment) with the holy water of superstition, appointing them as lightning-conductors of the contingent bolt from the blue that, regardless, will continue to strike at random, as it always has. and when, perchance, the clown does earth a strike, the proper reaction, rather than this incontinent burble of misplaced concern and sympathy for the family, should be to tick the box [there but for the grace of god ...] and replace him as fast as possible.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

bugger beggary

in the hectic rush to grow up, the child quickly forgets the intoxicating rush of discovering the magical power of words. how awesome was it to learn that, for this feeling, this way of experiencing the world, this previously misty sense of something, something, oh, strange, there was actually a word! a way of sharing it with others who knew the same word and felt the same thing when it was used.

the rather sad thing is that, despite there being a word (I'm obliged to talk about English here, although this obviously applies to all languages) for practically everything that matters, together with the myriad nuances of all that matteringness (for which there is, actually, a better word in German), there are some words that, despite their describing something really, really useful, get restricted to a very limited congregation of users who hoard its riches, not for selfish reasons, but simply because the rest of us have failed, as yet, to discover it, for one reason or another.

'isostasy' is one such word.

isostasy is
the equilibrium that exists between parts of the earth's crust, which behaves as if it consists of blocks floating on the underlying mantle, rising if material (such as an ice cap) is removed and sinking if material is deposited
(which is the Oxford English Dictionary summary of a rather sophisticated geophysical phenomenon involving the understanding of other such splendid terms as lithosphere, asthenosphere, and tectonic plates).

I remember thinking, when I first came across this marvellous word (in a school text-book), what a wonder, that something so huge and seemingly solid as the surface land-masses of our planet might be considered as a set of wobbling wooden blocks of different sizes bobbing about in a bath, and that this way of regarding it has a word, one word, to describe it. although I didn't, at the time, have any clear idea of how Newton's second law might apply in a global sense, or how material of any nature extracted from one environment will have to be balanced out, somewhere, somehow, by its replacement somewhere else, it was a concept that snagged on something very necessary to my own emerging understanding of the world, and it has continued, metaphorically, to illuminate it for me ever since.

the great paradox at the heart of the global economy is that, whereas the market and the work force is now, to all intents and purposes, a global entity (our Nikes and Nokias and iPods being kept affordable because they're assembled in sweat shops in Thailand and China), the individual market browsers - the rich - still have to inhabit individual sovereign states - their so-called country - which are largely populated by the poor. the officially-tagged names of countries is becoming less and less relevant: just as the global map recently acquired a whole brand new country - Terruh - upon which America and the UK have declared war, so each of the continents is partitioned into at least two major administrative areas populated, on the one hand, by the poor, and on the other, by the comfortably-off.

definitions of wealth and poverty are endlessly argued over according to whether or not the definition favours the different agendas of the wealthy or the impoverished - but it's safe to say that around 5% of the population of the UK owns around 90% of the wealth, and that this gap is steadily increasing.

one of the rules of thumb proposed by the European Union and adopted by, amongst others, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Rowntree Foundation is that you are considered to be living in poverty if you are subsisting on a net disposable income of less than 60% of the national average, which, on current figures of more or less £250 per week, makes the official poverty threshold about £150 per week.

the rich tend to cluster - in Surrey, for example - so it doesn't require a maths genius to work out that this ratio of rich to poor requires that for every county of Surrey with a small population of high-earners there has to be an urban conglomeration such as Birmingham or Glasgow with a very large, concentrated population of subsistence-dwellers.

this might be called the isostasy of economic demographics.

clearly, a finely calculated balance has been achieved in all the economically developed countries between the needs of the rich and those of the poor - the relationship between the two being moderated by tax-gathering and social funding. the acquisition of wealth is not, after all, intrinsically wrong, provided it has not been acquired through means that are wrong. the potential social value to be accrued through the establishment of a very successful business - directly, through taxation or the provision of salaried work, or indirectly, through the sorts of philanthropic ventures exemplified by the Rowntree Foundation - is a significant factor in the evaluation of wealth. on the other hand, the social harm caused by poverty - not least in terms of the measurable burdens of crime and ill-health - is an equally significant factor in the evaluation of that balance.

the very poor are, in fact (I can't be bothered to cite source for this - it's so bloody obvious) subject to much higher relative levels of taxation than the rich through the stealth forms of VAT on everything apart from food and clothing and the desperate lures of such fantastic chimeras as the National Bloody Lottery - one of the most cynical deployments of indirect taxation ever introduced in this country. whereas the rich can afford the sort of creative accountancy that makes Darren Brown's street-magic seem like fumbling buffoonery, the same advice is unavailable to the millions who are conned each week into betting their meagre savings on an outside chance so remote that it makes the tote look like a copper-bottomed certainty in comparison.

historically, the inhabitants of the country of the rich have behaved with appalling disregard for the well-being of their neighbours, the inhabitants of the country of the poor. the rich have regarded the poor as lesser beings - either too lazy or too stupid to find their way across the border between the two countries. and, alas, such are the vicissitudes of human fortune, those poor who do manage to migrate across that border tend very quickly to align themselves with the attitudes of their new neighbours on the other side. the notion that with increased wealth comes proportionately increased social responsibility is one that has never really caught fire in the west except amongst a minority of philanthropists.

there seems to exist a fundamental, psychosis-like syndrome at the root operational level of Western society: whereas all nation-states declare - some at a constitutional level - their foundation in the belief that all people are born equal, not a single nation-state - not even in Scandinavia - has managed to translate this fundamental belief into an enduring, functional social form. why - one might ask - do we bother maintaining the fiction that we believe in equality when, manifestly, we don't? is it simply a by-product of a secular society evolved from a Christian one, one which has totally trashed the sentiments of the Beatitudes in favour of rampant self-interest but still feels a residue of guilt about it? or have we really managed to persuade ourselves that, although it is true that everyone is born equal, some - through accident of birth, or some as-yet-to-be-scientifically-verified genetic propensity for the acquisition of wealth - grow up to be more equal than others? or that some, by the same quirk of pseudo-genetic destiny, are doomed to a life-trajectory that dips inexorably towards beggary?

it could be - it has been - worse. at least, that token nod at the worrisome e-word seems to act as a form of conscientious sea-anchor, constraining the worse excesses of exploitation inherent in this sad, tatty parody of a liberal democracy that we pretend to inhabit. and, certainly, the notional equality available to, say, women, or to the non-white non-Christian non-Oxbridge middle classes, is an improvement on the status quo of only a generation or so since. in reality, however, the hilarious idea that Beyoncé or J-Lo are the 'equal' of their bottom-feeding ghetto sistas is as far from the truth as the industry hype that elevated them in the first place, and nowhere better than in those gruesomely toe-curling aspirational lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous MTV videos is the inflexibility of those isostatic laws demonstrated.

the continent-sized mass of corporate villainy perpetuated by that relatively small population of publicity-shy bankers and oil-czars and insurance-walkmen who really run things globally has to be balanced, publicly, with the hollybolly bread and circus world that performs exactly the same function in contemporary society as did the Roman games two thousand years ago: distracting the taxable masses from and actually persuading them to collude in their own subservience, and to continue indulging the excesses of the rich. this appears to be as easily achievable as allowing us little folk to think that we, too, as long as we play the game and don't rock the boat, might one day be fortunate enough to make the great leap across the border that will admit us into that land of eternal milk and honey, to become - let's not mince words here - Americans. the fact that, within the borders of the cash-richest country on the planet, there exists a town called Poverty (pop. 36,000,000 and growing) is just one of those unfortunate paradoxes that there's probably a word for.