Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Why it has all gone wrong within our Public Services: from an ad published in today's The Guardian

I thought this piece, published as a self-financed advertisement in today's Guardian, was worthy of further distribution. With the permission of the author, Mike Ledwidge, I am republishing it here on my blog.

Our public services have been devastated over the last 25 years and the reasons have been hidden in the complexity of detail. I am so angry about what has been done that I have actually paid for this page out of my own money. How angry have I got to be to do that! And yes, I do know what I am talking about.

The problem goes back to the Thatcher years. Since then, one goal and three assumptions appear to have driven government’s treatment of our public services. Their goal has been to make the public services do things to make government look good, to win votes. The three assumptions have been, firstly that you can measure the ‘complex systems’ of our public services in the same way as the ‘simple systems’ of private businesses, (Read Checkland and Seddon) , secondly that all public servants are lazy, and can only be motivated by threat or reward, (Read McGregor, Hertzberg and Mayo), and thirdly that private business is more efficient than public services.

As a direct result of the way government have managed our public services they have killed many people through the proliferation of hospital superbugs, criminalised a generation of young men by giving them convictions for crimes they have not committed, driven over a million children out of education without any qualifications, almost caused our doctors to go private like the dentists did, made the court fine system a joke, and allowed the criminal seizure of your motor vehicle when all you have done is overstayed in a parking space for a few minutes.

You CANNOT performance measure a ‘complex system’ by outputs. Now if you do not understand EXACTLY what that sentence means let us hope you are not involved in anything to do with the management of our public services. Sadly we now have thousands of senior public servants who think they do know what they are doing with targets and measurement, and clearly they don’t. Complex systems have more than one purpose. If you measure the police on arrests and detections any prevention they do will muck that up. If you ‘performance measure’ on crime reduction, officers will find ways to not record crimes. The awful tale of the rape unit in Southwark trying to improve their stats is an example of the result of government pressure and targets.

During the time of ‘hospital targets’, on issues like waiting times, they halved the number of cleaners, and gave cleaning contracts to private companies who made their money by employing cheap staff who had no idea why cleaning was important. Hence hospitals became filthy, allowing the proliferation of the superbugs to kill thousands of people.

Within two years of the Conservatives starting league tables for schools exclusions quadrupled, because if you are measuring a school like a factory they will have to get rid of what is affecting their performance. The current trick is to not allow the children who will do badly in exams to take them at all. Tens of thousands of children leave our education system each year without a single GCSE.

In policing we were being told that there were not enough ‘convictions’, so one of the tricks was criminalise drunks. Being simply ‘drunk’ is not a crime, but a process offence. Yet, they have been persuaded to sign cautions for the criminal offence of ‘disorderly conduct’, which turns a ’non crime’ into a ‘crime’ plus a ‘conviction’ for the government statistics. Because courts were being performance measured on the amount of outstanding fines they had on their books 40% of fines were never paid, because to satisfy the targets everything outstanding was written off after less than 2 years.

The bullying of the public services has resulted in a far greater turnover of staff than ever before. At one stage we were 20,000 teachers short, and some have been replaced by people who, like some doctors, are not easy to understand. We have stolen 70,000 nurses from abroad, yet British nurses currently being trained in the UK are being head hunted by Australian hospitals, which are now full of our prized British trained nurses.

Altruism, and the willingness to take poor pay in our public services for doing a well respected job, with a good pension, has been completely denigrated. My best friend walked away from a top job in social services, not because his team were performing badly, but because the bullying inspection process was so stressful and disrespectful that the pension was just not worth waiting for. Government thought to make doctors work harder by introducing a new pay scale as they believed they were lazy. But most doctors were already doing at least 20 hours a week for free. This resulted in us paying a great deal more for no extra hours from the doctors, who have been further insulted by the dirty tricks now being done to claw that money back. I know of NHS dentists who do extensive unnecessary work on healthy teeth but the NHS trusts appear to do nothing about it, perhaps because they fear losing someone who still does NHS dentistry. These are criminals committing GBH on healthy teeth.

The work of Mcgregor shows that just ‘money’ is a very poor motivator, yet the whole premise of government motivation has been one of ‘threat and reward’. Thatcher thought all teachers were lazy and so made them write down everything they did every day. This multiplication of their paperwork resulted in the loss of much of their goodwill, and their willingness to do the extra things like sport and music. They then sold off those unused playing fields to the lobbyists clamouring for places to build in the profitable south east. Little wonder most of our top athletes don’t discover their talent because they never even run round a track, or that the sports we are still good at tend to be the ones based in the private schools, where children still do sport.

The idea that private business is more efficient than public services has some merit. But there is a huge catch with that premise. Firstly private business is a predatory shark that will take it’s profit wherever it can, (like hospital cleaning companies) especially if it has a monopoly. And the only way to offer out parts of the public service is to make it a monopoly. Once someone has the right to deal with parking on the street they will obviously tow any car away they can, because they can then demand hundreds of pounds back from the ‘captive’ customer rather than hand out a £40 parking ticket. Yet if their vehicle is not causing a genuine ‘obstruction of the highway’ which can NEVER be the case if the vehicle is in a parking space, to tow it away is the criminal act of ‘blackmail’.

We have had 8 billion pounds worth of hospital construction, (much of which was not needed), but will be repaying 50 billion over 25 years, and after 25 years we still will not own the buildings, but will have to rent them back from those PPI sharks. Hence we have hospital trusts going bankrupt paying for these loans. I even know of an American who could not find anyone in a hospital to take her money for the expensive treatment she had been given. We have been screwed by foreign countries who charge for the treatment of British citizens abroad. Yet we claim almost nothing from these countries for the huge number of their citizens who should be paying for their care here. Citizenship, or illegally obtained NHS numbers appear not to be challenged, because too many of our gatekeepers now appear to be corrupt.

The government still continues to surround itself with advisors from private business. They are people who appear not understand how to manage the complex systems of our public services, or how to motivate the altruism in people doing a vocation. Cameron even has the gall to call for the gaps created by the bullying of our public servants, to be filled by the ‘big society’ and volunteers being altruistic. I suggest that, if any member of parliament ever tries to tell me that the pro bono work I do is for their ‘big society’, they will be taking a considerable personal risk.

To enable government to get away with this they needed the autonomy of people like Chief Constables under their control. This they did with short term contracts for senior officers. Anyone who would not play the game was ousted. Middle ranked officers could not advance unless they also played along. In my police force we tore an excellent policing system apart with a new policing plan that was literally just ‘made up’ so that we could play the numbers game. I even had to sit and listen to a senior officer telling us that we were not being sued enough, and that we should be ‘pushing the edge of the legal and ethical envelope’ when finding reasons for authorising house searches, to try to satisfy those performance targets. Most of the targets in policing have now gone, but we are stuck with those managers who think they know how to measure, and who will do anything to get noticed. Even the one big current government target of ‘cut crime’ just means that many crimes are not now recorded.

Because all public servants were seen as lazy government decided that our basic jobs could be done by people who had very little training. Hence we have nursing assistants, teaching assistants and police community support officers (PCSOs). The snag with that is that they have replaced an important developmental part of these public servants career path with lower quality service. I know the person who did all the research on PCSOs and none of those police services from other countries were as good as we were. We had to introduce them because the real officers were taken off the streets to satisfy government ‘targets’ and this was the only way government could force uniforms back onto the street and keep them there. I have spoken to many PCSOs, some struggled to communicate and none of those that I have spoken to had ever been taught their civilian powers of arrest.

With the reduction in police numbers we have now effectively replaced 16,000 police constables with 16,000 PCSOs who do not pay any of their wages into the police pension pot. The police pension pot always used to be in profit, but it is now ‘in the red’ to the tune of many millions every year because of government interference. A problem they are resolving by shafting public servants once again.

We are heading towards public services run by people who can only manage by bullying, threats, or by dangling carrots. Public servants will continue to be treated as if they are on a factory floor, as supposedly self interested, work shy, employees. Many good people with a vocational bent, or a desire to ‘make a difference’ have, or will do something else, or work abroad where they are appreciated. Many managers will progressively be the ones McGregor describes as X personalities, and like certain politicians they will bully their staff as they try to get noticed by making changes, regardless of how stupid they are. The recent ‘quality of care’ issues were ultimately our own government’s fault.

Some idiot will say ‘but you have to measure the public services’. Doh! Well of course you do. But if you do not know how to do it, you should not be doing the job in the first place. ‘Output’ data is valuable, but in ‘complex systems’ you have to measure ‘quality of process’ to get positive changes, especially as there is no ethical control of some of the ‘inputs’ to the system, and resources are limited.

In ‘simple systems’ the failure to achieve suitable ‘output’ targets means the company goes bust. We have given private business our public service monopolies, which means they make their profit by failing to maintain or replace infrastructure, or by disbanding repair services. Hence our rivers regularly flood with sewerage and power cuts take much longer to deal with. Even the banks are not ‘simple systems’ as they could not be allowed to go bust. So, because banks are ‘complex systems’ and not just about making a profit, being given ‘targets’ and ‘bonuses’ for sales of mortgages has bankrupted the western world for a generation.

Mike Ledwidge has a degree in Systems Management and Statistics, an MBA, and 29 years of public service.

Review of 'The Perils of Being a Wallflower'

Another romcom with mental illness overlay, only this one is more of a high school teen comedy, with occasional romcom elements. Mainly a coming of age film, quite gentle and funny. The main character starts out as awkward and isolated at the beginning, but he soon finds the school misfits (actually not all that misfitted themselves - the girls just wear a bit too much eye shadow, and one of the blokes is gay) and soon has a full and happy social life.

Liberal heart firmly on sleeve. Unusually none of the drug-taking here leads to any sort of problem - they don't die from over-doses, crash cars, jump off buildings, as drug-taking characters usually do. They have a good time, are funny, and recover. They don't even get into trouble. Even the scenes in which they listen to music very loud while driving their cars (not under the influence of drugs or drink - it's not that liberal, or that stupid) don't result in fatal pile-ups.

Some of seems particularly implausible, though - is it really possible that in the most advanced English class in an American High School no-one knows that Shakespeare didn't write novels? Or that none of the kids even claim that they will read for pleasure out of class? Really?

One nice thing; there is a bit of a time capsule dimension to it, because it's based on a 1999 novel, and so no-one has mobiles or internet. They make mix-tapes on cassette. The only phones are enormous home cordless ones. Curiously the kids don't seem to have any difficulty arranging their social lives. Why aren't they wandering around not knowing where to meet each other?

So is the mental health (and child sex abuse) angle there just to give an otherwise pleasant but unremarkable teen comedy a bit of gravitas? Or is this in some way autobiographical. I think we should be told.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Review of Silver Linings Playbook

Watched this in freezing cold Ghent, so enjoyment may have been influenced by the fact that it was experienced in a warm dry place. Subtitles in French and Flemish did not contribute significantly to the pleasure, but didn't detract that much either.

Just your basic romcom, with a mental illness overlay. Nice performances, especially by Robert De Niro as the OCD dad. Sentimental and manipulative but it worked for me - lump in throat and tear in corner of the eye by the end.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Review of Beowulf (2007)

Nicely done with CGI, but why change the story? In the epic Beowulf does kill Grendel's mother. He does not have sex with her, and the dragon that comes to terrorize his kingdom is not his son by an adulterous cross-species sexual liaison with Grendel's mother.

Is this some sort of therapy for the director? Did a producer say there wasn't enough sex in the original story line? Did somebody want there to be 'closure' or something like that? I dunno, but I think we should be told.

I remember the earlier version from the late 1990s that I watched with my kids as part of their introduction to great literature (well, that turned out well, didn't it?), which I liked better - more faithful to the story line and to what I think ought to be the look and feel of a cinematic depiction of Anglo-Saxon literature.

One touch that I did like, though, was seeing Beowulf in his hall as an older man, watching his epic being acted out while a bard recites the epic in the original Anglo-Saxon.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Z-Day at South Bank University

To South Bank University, to a meeting of the London Futurists group, held in conjunction with the Zeitgeist Movement and branded as Z-Day. I went with some trepidation, because pretty much all I knew about the Zeitgeist Movement came from this article, which made them sound like conspiracy nutters. I expected a cross between the 9/11 TruthMovement and the School of Economic Science.

In fact they turned out to be nice, earnest young people who were genuinely friendly and appeared to be open to learning from others. One or two had piercings and tattoos, but most looked well scrubbed and neat. The entrance hall had a little stall with the Zeitgeist movie on DVD and some pamphlets, and there were posters up for the Venus Project, a detailed blueprint for a high-tech sustainable world with which the Zeitgeist Movement is sort of associated. There was a very faint air of creepy cultishness in the way that some of the material looked, but perhaps that's inevitable when an unfamiliar organisation with a non-identifiable house style wants to address matters of seriousness. I know what it is supposed to look like when Greenpeace or FoE talk about climate change, and I'm just not familiar with the way that the Zeigeist Movement does this. There was no sign of any conspiracy theory material, no references to Lyndon LaRouche, no Protocols or anything like that. 

The lecture theatre was full. There was some cheesy intro music and a short video clip, and then we were welcomed by James Phillips, a  young Zeitgeister. He explained (a bit loosely, and without proper timings) how the day would work, and I was genuinely cheered to hear who the other speakers were – decent types from Positive Money, the Equality Trust, and so on. If they were involved it couldn't be all bad, could it?

And it wasn't. The Zeitgeister gave an earnest PowerPoint presentation about what was wrong with the world (inequality, depletion of resources, loss of biodiversity, climate change) that was hard to disagree with. Whereas my feeling at the last London Futurists meeting was that I had fallen among people with a radically different worldview, I could see that with the Zeitgeisters I was at least in the same moral universe. We cared about the same things. If the movement is about antisemitic conspiracy theories, it didn't show.

Sadly the Zeitgeisters ideas about how to fix what is wrong seems much less impressive. It's a good thing that they don't reject technology. There are greens around who seem to think that if we only went back to some period before the fossil fuel age all would be well. The Zeitgeisters are at the other end of the spectrum. They think that advances in technology make it possible for us to live a life of abundance without wrecking the planet. They go all dewy-eyed over Maglev trains, twelve-storey aquaponic urban farms, geothermal energy and the internet of things. There is an almost touching naivety to the way that they seem to think that technology by itself will resolve and dissolve all of the conflicts within economy and science, if only it were adopted. All that is needed is for this to be explained thoroughly, and the blueprint spelled out in enough detail, and the good society will be upon us. They have an equally touching belief in the 'scientific method' as a way of dealing with conflicts, and they appear to have absolutely no awareness at all of any of the work in academic science studies about the limitations of this idealized view of science.

It was hard not to laugh when the nice young man put up pictures of the 'house of the future', which he explained would have a dome roof because science had proved that was the best shape, and harder still when he presented the 'city of the future' – the pictures looked uncannily like Ebenezer Howard's plans for garden cities. Now I've got a lot of time for Howard, who has generally been under-appreciated as an urban theorist, but this stuff is not new. The idea that better computers and networking technology will allow us to run a fabulous, resource based economy without scarcity or money isn't new either – perhaps someone should tell them about Stafford Beer and his attempts to do just that in Allende's Chile. (Having said that, it is amazing that the USSR probably ran its five-year plans and the administration system to deliver them with less processing power than my smartphone – would it have done better if it had had better computers?)

Not knowing about this history makes you look ridiculous. I think that futurologists should all have to study the 'history of the future' before they are allowed to use their crystal balls.

In fact, the whole Zeitgeist thing is strongly reminiscent of the C19th utopian socialists that Engels derided so successfully. If the Zeitgeisters have heard of Saint-Simon and the Comptean Positivists, or even the Owenists, they gave no sign of doing so, but they need to hear about them. They need to know that there have been movements before that have thought that technology has just reached the point at which it can deliver abundance without injury to the planet and in such a way that class conflict will become unnecessary. They need to know that these movements failed, dismally, and they need to have a good think about why. The idea that the world could be better run by a scientific elite of experts has an old provenance too, as is the notion that this is somehow 'apolitical'. In fact this thread runs through the philosophies of both Left and Right, particularly in Britain, where it was a component of both Fabianism and Moseley's Fascism. Come to think of it, the Zeitgeisters could profit from some time reading H.G. Wells' “The Shape of Things to Come”. Perhaps one of the reasons why some on the Left are so upset about the Zeitgeist Movement is that it reminds us that we've been steeped in this sort of thing ourselves, at least sometimes.

What the Zeitgeisters really need to understand is what Marx meant when he said that the relations of production could turn into fetters on the mode of production. It's a tricky phrase that sounds like jargon, but it's actually very important in explaining the current crisis of our economy and civilisation.

I'm not saying that the problem with their movement is that it lacks a correct Marxist perspective, or that they fail to understand the need for a revolutionary party to lead the workers in the overthrow of capitalism. But actually old Karl was thinking about exactly the same problems as them, and he had some profound insights. It's important to learn from the past if we want to avoid repeating its mistakes.

Z-Day was surprisingly enjoyable. The Zeitgeisters seem to be open to listening to others. There were great presentations by Ben Dyson from Positive Money, by London Futurists' own David Wood (available here), and Sean Blaine from the Equality Trust. There was a good session on Non-Violent Communication by Daren De Witt, and a surprisingly interesting discussion with the Moneyless Man, Mark Boyle, who came across as a really sincere latter-day Tolstoyan. Tolstoyans, Saint-Simonians, it really was a back to the future sort of day. If this lot were all dupes of the Zeitgeisters in lending them protective colouration as decent progressives instead of antisemitic conspiracy nuts then it was a trick well done. 

The one lame spot on the day's agenda (for me, anyway) was a short film and talk by John Webster, who claimed to have uncovered the secret legal fiction that underpinned all of state power and the capitalist relations of production (see this link for a flavour of the discussion).  This was the sort of thing that I had been expecting, Webster, who apparently won a prize at the Crystal Palace Film Festival  (yeah, me neither) seemed to think that once this secret was revealed no-one need ever be in debt, or be forced to submit to authority, ever again. Sadly the audience really seemed to like this dross, and there was a mind-numbing discussion on a point of detail with someone who appeared to be advocating the even more pointless 'Freemen'philosophy.

Maybe I've been successfully duped, but the Zeitgeisters did not seem like dangerous conspiracy nuts. They are not my people, and I don't think their approach will lead to anything, but I can't see any sign that they are harmful. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Review of "Why it's all still kicking off" by Paul Mason

I really like Paul Mason. He writes very well, about stuff that is important. This book is in many ways a survey of the present moment - or rather an update of a slightly earlier survey of a present moment - and so it's inevitable that there will be things in it that look a bit dated or have turned out differently. That is no reflection on Mason, only on the limitations of writing a book versus a more 'hot' medium. Of course a book makes for longer and more thoughtful treatment of complicated subjects than a twitterfeed or even a blog, and you can read it in a different way, more slowly and flicking backwards and forwards.

This book is about the intersection of social, cultural, technological and economic trends – and shows how these have affected and driven a series of not-all-that-connected events, from the Arab Spring to the underclass riots in England. He writes with insight and passion about the places where strange ecounters are taking place, between slum dwellers (the arse end of the globalized economy) and what is in effect the lumpen-intelligentsia (the arse end of the globalized education market), which he characterises as the graduate without a future. He covers the unhappy meeting-points between the traditional organized labour movement and the more radical, deliberately non-organized horizontalist protest movements.

He has a real feel for the limitations of both, and understands the all-too-real risk that the latter will fall in love with itself. I'd say that was more of a certainty than a risk, and that in a few years time no-one but left history anoraks will remember the Occupy movement; it will be there in the roll-call of missed opportunities to build a new kind of movement, along with the Dialectics of Liberation and Beyond the Fragments.

Unlike many others writing about new social movements he's got a good understanding of the opportunities presented by new technology, though here too he is aware of the limitations and the risks. I think he should have managed a hat tip to Evgeny Morozov's “The Net Delusion”, but you can't have everything. In general the book feels well-researched and has lots of references.

Now a couple of negatives. Considering he's Newsnight's economics editor there isn't that much economics in it, which is a shame. That relates to my other criticism – that he's a bit weak on the relationship between the new technologies that he writes about and the labour market. One of the reasons why all those graduates don't have a future is that the jobs for which their institutions were created to prepare them are going away. Arts and humanities graduates were created to fill the middle layers in bureaucratic organisations of the public and private sector, because mass market manufacturing and service delivery required much complex interaction.

Information technology has done away with a lot of that interaction, replacing the live labour of the bureaucrat with the dead labour of the software programmer. Better software based on more, clever code and using more powerful processors and network protocols has done away with lots of what we once thought of as 'creative' jobs – remember how RobertReich thought we were all going to become 'symbolic analysts'? The graduates without futures are the people who were prepared for symbolic analyst jobs that don't need doing any more – software does it better.

Second negative: I don't understand Mason's bromance with Manuel Castells. I watched Mason introduce and interview Castells at an LSE event (later broadcast on the BBC) and I thought that Mason himself was much more interesting and personally engaging than Castells. I'm not sure whether Castells is as special as Mason seems to think he is, or as Castells himself clearly thinks he is. In particular, I don't think that the 'alternativeeconomic practices' that he makes so much of are all that important. In another time we used to call that the 'grey' or the 'black' economy, or just spivery. Is this really the basis for a new society growing within the shell of the old, or is it just old-fashioned cash-in-hand work and bartering, perhaps facilitated by some new mechanisms of trust and recommendation supported by the internet? And is it therefore really a basis for a challenge to corporate capitalism, or a sort of weedy consolatory 'Poujadism of the Left', to cheer ourselves up that we can't afford the stuff that we used to? I'm all in favour of people not buying crap that they don't need, and it would be lovely if we could just bypass the structures of capitalism to create a pre-figurative socialist society based on mutual aid, but I am not convinced that the 'alternative economic practices' that both Castells and Mason seem so keen on are leading us there.

Oh, and one more thing. Mason works for the BBC, and good luck to him for that. Sometimes that sends the Daily Telegraph into a howl of rage because it “proves” the corporation is really run by Trotskyists. My concern is the opposite one; who is providing this kind of coverage of alternative movements useful to? It was Susan George who said that radical intellectuals should study the rich, because any research into the poor and their mechanisms of solidarity would ultimately be used against them. I don't at all intend to imply that Mason is a turncoat or a traitor or anything like that. His book is inspirational; but not everyone who will read it is looking for inspiration.

But hats off to Paul Mason for writing what is a really very good book about where we are at and where it might go. It's made me think more than a whole lot of meetings and magazine articles, and it deserves to be read and debated widely.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Update on PaySafeCard

Finally bought myself a PaySafeCard voucher, at this place on Paddington Street, in Marylebone. The process was indeed perfectly anonymous; I handed over a £10 note (minimum amount) and the bloke behind the counter handed me a receipt with a pin code. Haven't tried spending it online yet. I'll post another update when I have.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The mystery of PaySafeCard, the anonymous online payment vendor that isn't

I was quite excited to discover PaySafeCard - an online payment provider that allows you to spend cash online, as anonymously as cash itself. It's possible to go into a shop, buy a voucher for cash, and spend it online without providing any sort of ID or using anything that is tied to ID.

Or at least it would be, if I could find somewhere that actually sold the vouchers. The PaySafeCard website lists lots of outlets where you are supposed to be able to buy the vouchers, but every single one that I have visited has never heard of PaySafeCard. It seems to be one of the things that you are supposed to be able to do at the PayPoint machine, but in practice it isn't possible. Anyone know anything about this?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Film review of Joyful Noise

Watched on DVD. As they say, that's two hours of my life I'm never getting back. Grim, loosely plotted, uninteresting characters, devoid of dramatic tension or interest. I quite liked the music (despite the dreadful lyrics of the romantic/gospel song  - funny how they work both as a song to a sexual partner and to Jesus - why has no-one else mentioned this?) but it wasn't enough to save this pile of crap. Not a big Dolly Parton fan, but she doesn't deserve anything this bad. Looking at her face all messed up with multiple surgical interventions only worsens the whole experience, as if wasn't awful enough already.

IMDB says 'People who liked this also liked', and one can't help thinking: "poking red hot needles in their eyes, or walking barefoot over broken glass".

Sunday, March 03, 2013

On the history of English awkwardness

If you are English, you've probably had the experience of being a conversation with a European – say a French or German person – and beginning to feel uncomfortable that it was going on just a bit too long. The 'are we still talking about this?' feeling. If you are the European, you may have had the opposite experience in a conversation with an English person; you are just get warmed up when they change the subject. Probably by making a little joke.

I've been the English person, and for twenty years I've been aware that English people need to change the subject of conversation more quickly than Europeans. I've also noticed that even among themselves English people seem to need to change the subject of a conversation quite often. Talking about the same thing for any length of time is considered 'getting heavy'. Perhaps I'm not quite as English as I ought to be, because I also have a bit of a tendency to grind away at a theme after others would like to switch – or just because I've noticed this. Most of the Europeans with whom I've discussed this understand what I'm talking about straight away, though they hadn't been consciously aware of it.

Why should this be? Here is a hypothesis. English people don't like talking about anything for long because it might lead to a disagreement, which might in turn lead to an argument. An argument would involve some sort of emotional engagement, which would be uncomfortable and unseemly. The avoidance of confrontation of any kind seems to be pretty fundamental to English conversation patterns. Of course there are rows, and disagreements, and there is verbal aggression – quite a lot of it. But much of the time English conversational sparring takes the form of banter – jokey teasing – rather than argument of any kind.

I suspect that this might be related to the Restoration Settlement after the Civil Wars of the seventeenth century. I know this seems a bit of a long shot, but hear me out.

In the Civil Wars the English got very serious about religion. They had massive arguments about doctrine and ritual. For a while they tortured, massacred and executed each other for believing, or affirming, or preaching the wrong thing. They smashed up churches and destroyed images in a way that was deliberately and self-consciously sacrilegious.  By the end of the seventeenth century they were traumatised and exhausted, and the settlement that they reached was that a wide variety of doctrinal positions and liturgical practices could co-exist within the same established church.

I think that this was quite unique in Europe. In other countries the church ended up following the 'cuius regio' principle, and those who didn't like it could adapt or leave. But the churches themselves were much more doctrinally homogeneous.  I don't want to hold England up as some utopia of religious tolerance; the Netherlands were much more tolerant, and the English still excluded both Catholics and Dissenters from acceptability. Nevertheless, the English church included both people who thought of themselves as Protestants and people who didn't – and it still does. I don't think this happened in any reformed churches in Europe.

I think the price that the English paid for this was an agreement not to discuss matters of religion, or rather to transmute them into matters of personal taste, about which there can be no right and wrong. This conversational convention has gradually spread to other areas of public discourse (try disagreeing with something that someone says about the weather, or try getting someone to disagree with you by saying something that's obviously not true). This might also explain why the English intellectual tradition is so resolutely anti-theoretical, in matters of philosophy and politics and even science. As Marx observed, "If the Englishman transforms men into hats, the German transforms hats into ideas."

Remember this next time the French guy you are talking with seems to be worrying a subject to death like a dog with a bone. It's not him that's got a problem, it's you.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Film review: Looper

Time travel paradox films. Once you've seen one, you've seen them all, or so it feels anyway. The fact that Bruce Willis is in it means that I couldn't help think of Twelve Monkeys, which does the same thing but much, much better.

Didn't like the plot, the characters, the way it dealt with the time travel issues. Plot full of holes, and the basic premise - that time travel technology has been developed but is outlawed and is only used by criminal gangs to dispose of their victims - is just ridiculous beyond words. I didn't even like the way the future looks, either in 2044 or in 2074, both of which are depicted. Waste of time.

Film Review: Ulysses

I've seen this once before, but didn't remember much apart from an episode in which a faux-Zionist flag is raised by Hasidim outside what looks like Dublin town hall. Watching again after having read the book, I am surprised by how good it is. This was never going to be an easy book to turn into a film, and I think Strick made a good job of it. Other reviewers are bemused by the fact that it has been brought up to date, so that it takes place in 1960s Dublin rather than early-twentieth century Dublin. That seems to me to have been a good decision, because it wasn't really written as a period piece. The stream of consciousness stuff (particularly Molly Bloom's final soliloquy) works better in film than on the printed page. Barbara Jefford is a wonderful Molly - what else was she in?

Film Review: The Pirates! In an adventure with scientists!

Watched this on my mobile, so some issues with the quality of the image, and sometimes with the sound. A kid's film really, but I am a sucker for Aardman and will watch anything that they do. No effort whatsoever at historical accuracy, but I did rather like the animated version of Darwin. And making Queen Victoria the villain (villainess?) was a nice touch; indeed making the crowned heads of the world the collective baddies suited me just fine. You can't start children early enough on resistance to authority.