Monday, December 29, 2008

what bus?

one of my boys had one of those never-again experiences with a National Express bus driver back from London before Christmas, so I checked on the complaints procedure and whacked one in.

fourteen days later, and still nothing, I thought I'd do some delving, and came across this.

UK and US unions call for investigation at National Express Group amid resignation of Chairman David Ross

so I don't think I'll be wasting any more time with procedures.

Friday, December 26, 2008

You deserve to be happy

says who?

the militant be-happy hitlers trot it out at every opportunity. it's the kneejerk there-there hankie-proffering accompaniment to any emotional knock-back of the he/she dumped me why o why my life is over kind. it amplifies the less convincing, patently untrue "Everything's going to be alright", and imbues the miserable with a momentarily distracting sense of moral outrage: my fundamental right to happiness has been infringed. it's illegal! who can I sue?

simple answer: Thomas Jefferson - he who in 1776 promoted "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as top three of the "inalienable rights" of man in the United States Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, however, was actually paraphrasing John Locke, whose 'Two Treatises of Government' were approved in Virginia only a few days before the Second Continental Congress, but whose own top three were, actually, "life, liberty, and estate". clearly, the Locke route would have precipitated much less self-indulgent misery down the years: estate (property), after all, can be acquired, with money - something we can all understand - whereas Money Can't Buy Me Love (=happiness).


mumbling nitpickers have pointed out that the right to pursue happiness isn't quite the same as the right to be happy - but as this comes into the same category of bar-room banter surrounding American creation myths as the perennial to-ing and fro-ing about the right to bear arms, it's really not worth getting into a lather over.

Jefferson, of course, was naïve to imagine that something so nebulous as the right to 'happiness' could be included in the welcome package at the birth of a nation - although such apparent naïveté perhaps masks a less smiley-faced political agenda: the late eighteenth century was after all a period bursting with Utopian as well as Revolutionary ideas, and what could have been more populist, at such a time, than to propose hitching the impossible to the contentious and stamping all three together under the imprimatur of constitutional legislation. (the French - doyen of the European Revolutionary Age - pointedly omitted le bonheur from their own top triad of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.)


what's done is done, and the consequence of such flimflammery is that we are obliged now to listen to the brattish bawling of that righteous legion of jilted, dumped, double-crossed, shafted and like so totally pissed off people who genuinely believe, poor dears, that they have been cheated of their right to be happy.

I could have been a contender! boo-hoo.

the truth is, we barely have the right to breathe, let alone to act freely, without acquiescing to the implicit contingencies of those rights: the terms of these freedoms are going to appear either reasonable or tyrannical depending on your point of view. we might, for instance, consider that we have the 'right' to roam wherever we like, do whatever we like, whenever we like, take whatever we want, in whatever circumstances we discover it, and we might believe that property is theft, that the stress should be on the commonality of the common wealth, and that authority is definitively synonymous with oppression. or we might believe that the health of the body politic is only maintained at the expense of a defined set of legally enforceable limitations of such 'rights', that the price of such social must-haves as universal franchise, free education and health care, the 'right' to free expression of our opinions and religious foibles, freedom from want and hunger and the depredations of pirates and highwaymen and teenagers in hoodies is a fractional tax on our behaviour as well as our income - that liberty, in other words, is not a given absolute, but a relative condition, something that only exists in relation to other things like social responsibility, self-scrutiny, and vigilance.

obviously, it's preferable to be happy rather than miserable. this is why Buddhists, whose premise, more pragmatically than most, is that the ground bass of life is suffering, feel obliged to walk around with that idiot fixed smile on their faces all the time. it's very nice when it happens. and it does happen from time to time. even to me. but, if it's not happening, it's not something to get all litigious about.

ever the fan of Diogenes, I have been known to play a game inspired by his glorious and legendary cynicism. called Hunting the Happy, it was predicated on the understanding that it's really quite easy to spot someone who's genuinely happy, because they're the ones who aren't either fake-smiling and wishing one all the benefactions that the best of good days can shower upon one as they count out one's change, or they're the ones who aren't shuffling along living-dead style with an expression of grim endurance on their face as they suffer the endless loop of transit from the hell of home to the hell of work or vice versa. so, on any given journey (from home to the shops usually used to work, but the longer the better), I would set out to count the number of happy people I saw. the number was always low, but when I started to apply a few reality-filters - my Evil Conditions of Exclusion (no children, no lovers, no alcohol or drugs involvement, no hippies, no Buddhists, no cultists or village idiots), the number dropped to zero. always. and it became too depressing so I had to stop playing it.

'happiness', crucially, operates by a fundamentally different set of attributes than apply to any seriously comprehensive view of the world: it's a very strange person who can profess to be 'happy' at the same time as professing to care about cruelty, injustice, oppression, or inequality, in any form that contradicts our espousal to the cause of aforesaid 'inalienable rights'. such confusion is forgivable in a child, but the continuation of such childlike reconciliations into adulthood is - well - a bit gay, a bit hippy, a bit too fucking DUMB for anyone's good. and yet this is where we are. we want - we want desperately - to be happy, choosing wilfully to ignore the fact that the only way to be happy for anything other than the few fleeting moments in any given lifetime when it might actually happen of its own accord is to wrap ourselves in a cosy cocoon of pre-adult oblivion in which neither intellect nor personal moral barometer is engaged.

however, as age and experience lend unwelcome if incontrovertible evidence to the proposition that, in fact, happiness of the childlike kind is the ineluctable province either of childhood or of such childish states of mind as can only be emulated in adulthood with the assistance of drugs and booze and god, there gradually emerges the initially wearisome discovery of a compensating mechanism - that all-over glowy feeling it's possible to get from putting a smile on someone else's face. it's hardly comparable, it's true, to the passionate pyrotechnics of, say, falling in love, but, unlike that kind of happiness, it's guaranteed to stay the course. one doesn't have to be a saint to be neighbourly, polite, thoughtful, kind, and generous, but, eccentric though it might sound to a generation dedicated to the axiom that all men and a few token women and blacks are born free to pursue their constitutional right to happiness, there might actually be a grain of truth in the old saw about virtue being its own reward.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Friday, April 18, 2008

same old

whoever first suggested that the best thing to do with power was to give it away omitted the obvious rider: that this needs to be an endless event. it is not enough - having come to accept (as all but the hapless and insane needs must, in all conscience) that power is a poisoned chalice that as sure as eggs is eggs will corrode one's moral compass the longer one enjoys it - simply to pass the buck: the big question is not, to whom should one pass it (since passing it to anyone is akin to handing them a container of nuclear waste), but what to do with it, period.

it goes without saying that anyone who wants power - ie everyone who aspires to political office in any way shape or form - is as little to be trusted with it as a psychopath with a bazooka. the tricky thing for every aspiring politician is to assure an electorate that's desperate to believe that honesty in a politician is possible that they - uniquely in the history of global politics - might be that person, if we'd only give them the chance to prove it. the most successful actually believe this themselves (the art of politics being as much about self-delusion as about social deception) - I'm even prepared to admit that a lot of politicians go into politics because they passionately believe that their passionate beliefs, hitched to their starry-eyed idealism, might enable them to change things for the better.


it's hard to imagine that someone like Robert Mugabe was once a much-admired freedom fighter - a hero and a liberator in the eyes of his fellow Africans struggling to emerge from under the yoke of British colonial oppression. the path from hero to despot, alas, is all too well-trodden in the history of post-colonial statehood. almost certainly, if Nelson Mandela had remained in office as South African president, his mythical status as - uniquely - the only honest man in world politics would have become deeply compromised. whether Mr Mugabe's opposition successor-in-waiting, Morgan Tsvangirai might be able not only to rescue poor Zimbabwe from the economic ruin caused by Mugabe's inept leadership, but also to retain the supposed integrity of his position (as compared with the transparent gangsterism of Mugabe's administration) is 100% fantasy. once in power, Mr Tsvangirai would have to resort to exactly the same tactics as his predecessor in order to maintain any sort of order at all - the generals would just have different names. 'twas ever thus.

and - sad but true - it's hard to have to accept that looking back on the administration of a President Obama from some point more than ten years hence will be an exercise accompanied by any less sighing and grinding of teeth and more or less concealed mutterings about failed promises and disappointments than has followed in the wake of any one of the forty-three of the buggers. this is not cynicism. this is pragmatism, pure and simple. the only people who have anything good to say about ex-leaders are those who have benefited materially from either their economic chicaneries or their patronage. and it is they - if they happen to have influence with (or happen to own) the media - who decide the degree of hagiography that will henceforth apply to that person in the carefully constructed version of history that they will thenceforth inhabit.

now and again, however, we do arrive at a spectacular nadir of incompetence in our leaders of choice, and the examples of such catastrophes as a Mugabe or a Bush provide us with a future benchmark of failure.

so every cloud has a silver lining.

the best bit about the politics game, like Christmas and marriage, has always been the anticipation: the hope of future betterment on the new broom principle is enough to make the blood race and get us cheering for our candidate of choice. it is testament either to our obdurate optimism, hopeless laziness, or intractable stupidity that we continue to invest the collectively enormous power we have as a society in the palpably compromised hands of our so-called leaders. one day we might finally realise that this power thing is as superannuated as pack-hunting the woolly mammoth with flint spears - that power is to corruption as rat-fleas is to plague, and that maybe there are other ways of doing things that don't always end in tears.

Monday, April 07, 2008

the greeks had a word for it

as someone who has never needed a dog needing a walk as an excuse for taking himself for a walk as and when he felt like it (and is therefore doubtless considered at best eccentric and at worst - well, cry havoc and let loose the poodles of paranoia), it goes without saying that I don't 'do' sponsored: whether it be swims, runs, pub quizes, or we're all mad here gurnathons, count me out - what I do for fun, I do for fun, pure and simple, not tied to some delusional excuse that I'm actually doing something worthy at the same time.

it's become almost impossible to consider walking around the world, or indeed anything slightly more adventurous than picking your nose, simply because you feel like it, because you feel like having an adventure, any more - there always has now to be some specious charitable justification for anything that's considered in any way outside the box of normative, taxable behaviour - yet one more example of the triumphantly - and eye-wateringly cynical - rebranding of parsimony as philanthropy.

the ever-widening rift valley that keeps the ever-richening rich from having to have any truck at all with the ever-poorening poor is a landfill of reneged pledges planted with a minefield of excuses and evasions. that there should be such a shortfall between the functioning requirements of the health and education services, for example, (the two categories that spring to mind as seeming to be most commonly associated with fund-raising funathons) that they have come to rely on this regular income from sponsored haircuts and three-legged races bespeaks a doctrine of abject despair in regard to our commitment, as a society, to an equitable distribution of the common wealth to the common weal. clearly, tragically, given the choice of kicking the latest cabal of self-serving dickheads who presume to serve us out of office and back to the troughs they came from for failing to do so or helping some fake-titted and -tanned local TV newsreader airhead up the teetering career ladder by sponsoring her arduous and plucky attempt to stay awake through a repeat of last year's Eurovision Song Contest to raise funds for who cares what - we'll opt for the latter every time. it's become a cultural habit, through a very very clever piece of social engineering that's turned unofficial taxation into a feelgood whilst keeping us blind to the reasons why such extra taxation should be necessary in the first place.

I suppose if I were to try to explain this by suggesting that the only - the only - substantive purpose that slebs serve is to suck us dry of our own sense of self in order to serve theirs, which, in turn, is entirely and utterly in thrall to the relentless meatgrinders of the oil, pill, and war economies that sustain the culture that promotes them, you would (quite rightly) start looking at your watch and remembering a pressing prior appointment. it used to happen to Cassandra all the time. it happens to be true, is all. you know I'm right, really.

charity - as in Christian charity (and, presumably, in all its analogous pan-religious manifestations) - is by definition selfless - a quaint idea that got lost in all the me-me fun of the nineties. I'm not one to bash the book very often, but there is some stuff in there that's so sweet it bears as much repetition as any episode of the Simpsons. in the catchily-titled Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, for example, he talks about agape (Greek for selfless love - but you knew that of course) thusly:

*agape (chapter 13: verse 4)

* is longsuffering (i.e. tolerant, patient)
* is kind
* is free of jealousy, envy and pride

and (v 5)

* does not display unseemly behavior
* is unselfish
* is not touchy, fretful or resentful
* takes no account of the evil done to it [ie outwardly ignores a suffered wrong].

- and more of the kind, until verse 13, where he summarises, fairly famously, "And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love."

thus was born the central tenet, not only of the religious movement that dominated and defined Western culture for the next two thousand years, but of all subsequent spinoff notions concerning elevated interpersonal relationships that involve the use of the word 'love'. (confusingly, agape got translated as 'charity' when Jerome made a proto-bible in Latin from the original Greek in the fourth century, and that got carried over into the Authorised King James Version in 1611, but all that's best left to the theology scholars to explain.) it's something you either dig or you don't - the idea that love isn't on the market for trade of any kind: it's either freely given, unconditionally, or it has to be called something else. a surprising number of people don't subscribe - the ubiquitous pre-nup is evidence enough of that - for much the same reasons, I guess, as words like 'equality' and 'freedom' are bandied about as totems of belief in blatant defiance of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. the momentum of the commodification of everything is as near unstoppable as it's possible to be short of some sort of extinction event right now, but hey, who wants to live in a world where crazy men can't mutter to themselves and take solitary walks just for the hell of it?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008