Late Life Crisis - April 2021

There are so many topics of thinking in life where I struggle to reach a settled view. Amongst my dilemmas is what judgement to make on the law firm that did the salads for women offer on International Women's Day 2017 - see March Late Life Crisis. However, though what follows has not generated a Eureka moment, the Overton window may help as a thinking tool. The Overton window, otherwise known as the window of discourse, is described as the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at any time. It is directed to how politicians decide what policies they will pursue. But it seems to be that the concept is capable of much wider application towards understanding what is acceptable at any time in how individuals and businesses behave. Those of you who have read the salads piece might see where I am going on this...and further that the window may be helpful but still nowhere near conclusive to guiding how behaviour should be judged.

More to follow.

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Good or bad verse? Andrew Marr quotes a poem recited by an older member of his family. It goes:

'Here's to the land of my birth,

The land where the wild wind whistles.

You may sit on a rose, you may sit on a leek,

But you won't sit long on a thistle'

 

Chucklesome slapstick humour of the bloke sitting on something painful. Marr describes it as bad verse. I don't think it is bad verse. It may be light verse, but it is not bad verse. The lines scan, there is effective alliteration in the second line, and we then have the power of three in rose, leek and thistle. And a humorous punchline in the last phrase.

Perhaps the lines are said best in a cod Scots accent and in a mock dramatic tone? In fact, I think they should be a required recitation by returning Scots at the border after independence...  

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TMS, that is The Times Diary and not Test Match Special, ran an item under the witty heading, Inspector of Vocabulary. It cited a briefing note by Sir Tom Winsor, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, in which he berated the language used in police written communications. In what was reported, he made a spectacular gaffe. Now I appreciate that Sir Tom is only a policeman, but as a top of the range PC Plod he should know better, as should the august organ that published the item without comment.

So what is it about? One of Sir Tom's strictures was that 'impact' should only be used as a noun and not a verb. Wrong! Impact exists as a verb as well as a noun. The problem is that grammatically it should take an indirect object and not a direct object. Put more plainly, what I am saying might impact upon the way that you use 'impact', but should not impact the way you use 'impact'.

But the real issue is that grammar develops, and that if enough people keep using the direct object construction for long enough then the grammar rule will become adapted by custom and practice, leaving only a railing against the dying of the indirect object by those who write letters to the Daily Telegraph. 

And if you have switched off and think that even Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway might be better entertainment than reading this, then apologies for failing to impact you.

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I thought that Theresa May was a sound candidate for Prime Minister. I thought that Ursula von der Leyen was a sound candidate for President of the European Commission. In both cases the person disappointed, although Ms von der Leyen still has an opportunity to come good.

In each case I may have fallen foul of the Warren Harding effect, where we make unconscious positive assumptions about the qualities of an individual when there is no empirical evidence for this. Harding was the 29th President of the USA, and it is said gained office as he looked the part (strong jawline) even though he apparently did not have the experience or intellectual capability of his rival.

In the case of May I thought that she would be able to steer a steady political path and corral the crackpot males in her Cabinet; in the case of von der Leyen I thought that she had the qualities to lead the EU Commission effectively post-Brexit and provide a counterweight to the nascent post-Merkel megalomaniacal tendencies of Emmanuel Macron (I had not bothered at the time to read up on her less than stellar career in German politics).

So two pieces of unconscious bias, but I suggest counter-intuitive to current fashionable narratives as they both concern a woman and both have a negative slant.

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Ham & High corner: it reports an 'elderly woman' being robbed on Hampstead Heath. That in itself is sad to hear, but it describes the woman as being 'in her sixties'. I tremble to think how it would describe an octogenarian.

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The historian David Olusoga writes of a student who was faced with a question where he was required to analyse the record of Margaret Thatcher. The student had admired some of what she had achieved. This was a problem, as under the politics of the student's tutors Mrs T was the devil incarnate. To use Olusoga's words, the student bent to the wind, wrote something damning of her, and received a good mark.

I recall an extended essay I wrote in Land Law in the first year of my University studies. The question concerned the municipalisation (aka nationalisation) of private rented accommodation. The political mood was of the nature faced by that student. After intensive research ie reading a couple of Fabian Society pamphlets, I wrote an essay that excoriated private landlords. I got a First. I had no view whatsoever on the subject, but who cared?

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Consulting Twitter soon after the death of the Duke of Edinburgh was announced I looked for anything contrarian. Sure enough, within minutes I found something saying that Margaret Thatcher was looking forward to welcoming him to hell. Nice. 

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'I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales'. It ought to have been a Noel Coward piece, but it turns out to be be a song written in 1927 by Herbert Farjeon and Harold Scott, the Prince of Wales being the future Edward VIII. But today, so many people apparently know somebody who knows somebody who met the Duke of Ediinburgh.

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I believe that most of the important issues in the world have been aired at some time or other in 'Dad's Army'. In one episode, Captain Mainwaring is mercilessly taunted by the despicable Captain Square over having no medals to wear at an important parade (Mainwaring had only been sent to France in 1919). Prince Harry will be spared the humiliation of having no uniform to wear at the DoE funeral, through a neat dress code sidestep by the Queen that will have all men wearing dark suits (Harry, no shorts, please - this is not California). Rumour has it that Prince Andrew wanted to dress up as an Admiral, but that has been scuppered. I wondered about an alternative costume - piazzolo?

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However, Andrew is lucky to have to escaped a humiliation after his one appearance in front of the cameras. We all saw it - he did describe Prince Philip's death as a 'miracle'. Too literal me went to the dictionary: 'An extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency'. The immediate exorcising presumably came after impassioned pleas by the Palace to the media for the Queen not to be upset. And quite right too. But my God Andrew is dense. Giles Coren has criticised the 'sadly' in the expression 'sadly died', as being otiose. Clawing with my fingernails, I could just about contrive a counter of 'happily' died, say when a person of sound mind maturely decides to end their life. Maybe Andrew thought that the old buffer had said that he had had enough (unlikely as by all accounts Philip fancied a century). But still difficult to see the Duke deciding that a miracle was in order. 

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10% of the congregation for Prince Philip's funeral will be German. Leaving aside Dad's Army quips that the Hun have landed, it reflects the Prince's mixed heritage, and you will not get far in certain newspapers before seeing the word 'mongrel'. It is both playful and perverse to question what Priti Patel of Ugandan Asian heritage would have made of Philip if Home Secretary in another generation. Over the years I can remember people whispering, in terms of tabloid revelation: 'Did you know, he's actually Greek?'. Well, his father was born and raised in Greece, so with my English father that would simplistically eliminate the Irish side of my the family coming from my mother. Dig in further and the Duke's background gets complicated, demonstrating that he could also call upon Danish, German and Russian heritage.

Any 'foreignness' was knocked out of Philip at public school, and he emerged paradoxically as quintessentially 'British', which only serves to show the challenges of analysing what that term means. However, it might or might not have served Philip's sense of humour for the celebrant of the Duke's funeral service to revert to the man's birth name and start by saying that we are here to celebrate the life of Filippos.

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So, what to make of the man, he who was best known for being someone else's husband? It is an odd collection of factors, if you stand back and consider them. Much said of a challenging childhood - tell that to millions who have had the same; much said of naval career opportunities he forewent in order to be the Queen's consort -  tell that to millions who did not fulfil their potential as a result of lack of education opportunity. He has had some positives in the balance sheet of life: the DoE Awards programme, to which he lent his name (programme not I believe conceived by him); a far sighted interest in conservation (although a few points off for that tiger).

Yet I am still troubled by the gaffes - see March Late Life Crisis - and I have honestly tried to put a supportive spin on this. I have this vision of the 'native' (a term Phil might well have used) tribal leader, waiting in line to be introduced to the Prince, wondering what joke Philip might crack to 'lighten the mood' in the room, and knowing that if this 'native' were on the end of something painful then the only response would be to squirm inwardly and smile sycophantically. The ultimate sycophancy came from DoE's biographer Gyles Brandreth, who described him as being capable of quips that were 'off-colour' (no irony intended), a term hauled up from the inner recesses of a Pall Mall Club.

Anyway, we do even cut-down ceremony well, and most people deserve a respectful funeral. It was the media that determined the agenda - after wall-to-wall Duke of Edinburgh from news of death to immediately after the funeral, the tap was peremptorily cut off, Philip suddenly become so last week..or last century.

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I am a mere man, but I struggle to see how the model centrally featured in the photograph below could be described as being androgynous.

Model

 

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The Times reports that in his annual letter to shareholders the CEO of JP Morgan talked of how his bank had '..long championed the essential role of banking in a community'. As Yoda might have said, '...uncomfortable this is to set alongside JP Morgan's role in financing the possibly never to happen European Super League'. But what I find astounding is the reported comment from a Bank spokesperson that: 'We clearly misjudged how this deal would be viewed by the wider football community and how it might impact them [sic - see above] in the future.' Can't disagree with that, but should they not have been able to 'judge' the potential outcome better?

Further press comments, tending to the more conspiracy than cock-up theory, suggest however that all this may have been thought through as a first wave of attack that will lend inexorably in due course to a form of Super League, with the brutish summation that out of income from TV rights, merchandising, and fan attendance at games, it is only the first two that matter.

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Boris Johnson's modern approach to tax reform:

'So I'm saying, Jamie, Jamie, Jamie,

You can have my private number'

{Private Number, Judy Clay and William Bell, 1994).

 

Sorry, for 'you' now read 'anyone'. 

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'Joe: 'Kamala, I'm having problems making you co-host'.

Kamala: 'Go and have a lie down Joe'

In an odd dichotomy, BBC News reports that President Biden is 'hosting a virtual climate change summit at the White House'.

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I can manage in life being a Colin; I'm not sure how well I would have coped with being a Cuthbert.

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So, the Court of Appeal has ruled comprehensively against the Post Office in the Horizon IT Scandal. My article on this before the judgment, refers. Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells has now resigned from more non-executive positions, and appears to be 'stepping back' from active Ministry within the Church of England  (a bizarre role to have held alongside her record at the Post Office). One might now re-label her Paul Venial, but the individuals who suffered at the hands of the institution would say that her sins are of a far higher order.

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Forget flat refurbishments. Boris Johnson is the striker who made bad decisions during the game but scored a winning goal in the last 10 minutes (vaccinations), so to be hailed a hero. But the pundits should ponder over the UK's deaths per million population. An inconvenient truth for a Prime Minister who has an uncomfortable relationship with same.

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HOOSIAL: Not the gutter outpourings of a Glaswegian after a night of too many bevvies (apologies to Glaswegians), but Alastair Campbell's acronym version of the 'Nolan Principles of Public Life':

Honesty; Openness; Objectivity; Selflessness; Integrity; Accountability; Leadership

Bojo's response is simple: 'Who cares, if I am seen to be doing the job well!' And anyway, after Barnard Castle does anyone trust Dominic Cummings any more?

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Looking in the diary, I thought I saw 'Frick". New York - how wonderful! Sadly it was the Crick, or rather the Francis Crick Institute, for my second jab.

There it was very quiet - more jabbers than punters. I was done by a lovely chap. As it was quiet, we chatted for a moment. I asked him what was his day job. He explained that he was a researcher there into the biology of flies. I felt reassured that my meaty upper arm would be more than enough as a target for his needle. 

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I have done my bit for London's re-emerging hospitality industry. But April is the cruellest month for the vicissitudes of British weather. Eat Out(side) to Help Out Mark II, but without the discount. I should make clear immediately that for each of the following experiences the food and the company were great:

Experience 1: Lunch at Cafe Murano, St James's. 

A gloriously warm day. Strolling along Piccadilly I envisaged the quiet terrace at the back (had the establishment not marketed a 'terrace'?) where we would be eating. Turning down into St James's Street it was soon evident that lunch would be on the pavement, with main road traffic passing close nearby. Nevertheless, all very enjoyable in the strong sunshine...although I had not thought through need for Factor 50 on the bald bonce, so a little stinging in the shower the following morning.

Experience 2: Early evening supper at the Duke of Hamilton pub, Hampstead.

A warm evening with little wind. Pleasant terrace at front. Lasted till nearly 9pm. But still a sense of going out solely to revive the experience of eating out. And you cannot gainsay fact that hot food outside goes colder quicker.

Experience 3: Early evening (even earlier - 5.45pm) supper at the Coal Office, Kings Cross.

Yes, it is warm in the sunshine...but cold in the shadows. It's the wind that does it. We were warmly dressed. There were heaters, but they were pointing up and down an external corridor between two lines of tables. And there were blankets, so some mitigation, only some. Within 20 minutes, the likely upshot was clear. After pouring the wine, the sommelier asked if we wanted an ice bucket: I was tempted to say that leaving the bottle on the table would be good enough.

By 45 minutes, my fingers had started to go white (I have had poor circulation there since childhood, but now was not the moment to be reminded of it). My companion was of tougher stuff, but I could have auditioned for the Chorus in that Disney musical that is due to open in the West End in September. We were not unique in reaction. Around us we could observe the rictus grins of others.

To my amazement, we did in fact last nearly two hours. No dessert (no surprise). People hurriedly finished their food and left. A table next door to us left a decent amount of wine - the waiter was disappointed. A joyful moment before departing as I went inside to the loo and ran by hands under the hot tap...

So more al freezo than al fresco. I don't regret even that last experience - the restaurant trade has suffered mightily in the pandemic - but roll on the return inside.

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The author is a writer, speaker, historian, occasional tour guide, and former Managing Partner of a City law firm.