Late Life Crisis - December 2020

"Something for the weekend, sir?". As an eight-year old lad I am seated on a plank placed over the barber's chair. My father went first, while I amused myself with tales of Dan Dare from The Eagle magazine. Now my turn, for a brusquely delivered short back and sides. Customer care has not been invented yet for kids. As I sit rigidly in my place a middle-aged chap from another chair goes up to pay. The question is delivered, and as a result some further commerce is transacted, although what comes out from under the counter and disappears into a brown paper bag, I cannot tell. I ask my father what the words mean, and he tells me to be quiet.

In Lockdown 2.0, "Something for the weekend" has grown a different meaning, the buying of something tempting in the food department to relieve life where there is no point asking what someone is doing for the weekend as they will not be doing anything interesting. Thus now we know why God invented sticky toffee pudding.

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In defence of debate, the words from the American writer Walter Lippman: "Where all think alike, no one thinks very much". I like discussing issues with other people. If not always changing my view on something, it often refines a view, or even confirms a view because I have tested a hypothesis (that lasting until the next discussion). Yet however much I value what Zoomworld has done in 2020, I long for a return to meeting in person with friends.

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The Times reported that a master at Eton (you can't call them teachers) has been sacked for the more extreme arguments he put forward under the umbrella position that men and women are different and not all of those differences are socially constructed. It appears that he taught this line to Eton pupils under a "perspectives" course that encouraged critical thinking. The issue was that his views (aired also through his YouTube channel) included the submissions that women soldiers should not be on the front line, Amazon warriors were a myth for a reason, and that the protector role was at the core of masculinity as it was rooted in anatomy and not psychology.

Now in the realm of adult debate, to chide this chap might appear hypocritical if I applaud what Mr Lippman said. But the question is how far you should go when you are educating children. Where does encouraging critical thinking end, and indoctrination of the impressionable begin? In that glorious time known as First Year Sixth, when there were no end of year exams, there was time for us to be taught about the EEC (forerunner of the EU). This was done by a messianic languages master (our grammar school had masters not teachers so I should not be sniffy about Eton) who was an utterly unreconstructed Europhile. We loved it . We embraced the vision of a United States of Europe. I suppose it was indoctrination. But I suspect that somewhere in our underlying corpus of belief was the theory that smoking Gitanes was cool, and that French girls were exotically interesting and might get on a bit of chaleur for an otherwise uninspiring bunch of callow youths from Kent. Which proves one indisputable fact: teenage boys lag way behind girls in maturity.

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One-term Trump. Sounds good. My guess is that he will hold a rally on Inauguration Day.

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And in Home News, I usually enjoy reading the two-pager "Saturday Essay" in the Times. This week it was Michael Gove. Couldn't be arsed.

However, we have loved Dishy Rishi, at least until Eat Out to Help Out turned into Eat Out to Help Spread the Virus. Yet we all knew that the reckoning would come, so here is a new image. Those angular features; that sleek black hair; that winning smile; those gnashers.....  When he sweeps back his cloak and opens his jaws, where he is going to bite? Blood will flow.

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"' I say, Ursula has invited me to supper at her place. She says it's because all the restaurants in Brussels are closed, but I think she took a shine to me in that telephone chat over the weekend. I've had a look at her profile photo - slim thing. A bit older than Carrie, but variety is good. What ho, Gove, I sense the sweet smell of success'.

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Those of us of a certain age know that one does not go walking off hard surface at this time of the year without boots. I was therefore amused to see a photo of bf of one of my children negotiating the sloppy wet stuff in trainers, although those in their generation are more sure-footed than me and I need boots just to stay upright. A friend in their social group observed wistfully about middle age out on the horizon after a visit to Kew on a day off. I warned him about the next worrying step, National Trust membership.

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In one of the courses I teach, we look at how much you naturally decode of a person's character from their appearance, alive of course to the risk of implicit bias. So for a bit of fun, what do you make of these two?

It works best if initially I tell you nothing about them, so I will do another item and then explain.

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It's OK. No, I mean this is about where does 'OK' come from. We use OK all the time. There are competing theories on etymology. Here is a persuasive one I have heard: OK comes from a lingua franca extracted from the languages Wolof and Mandrika, as spoken in Senegal and neighbouring countries. The term then emigrated to North America with African slaves, and slowly integrated into American English. Who knows, but it's a nice theory.

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The two are from a wealth management firm. Of course, you will say that you guessed that straightaway. And they are no doubt splendid chaps. Yes, chaps, white European and well-educated - you can tell the latter by the cut of their suits. Having had this sort of thing done on me in the past, I know about the time it takes to get the right shot . The chap on the right is the boss. You can't look too patriarchal, so the photographer has picked up on a semi-ironic, Paxmanesque expression, suggesting detached observation about the world of investment. The chap on the left is the young blood, and looks.........well, plain sycophantic, if you ask me. Anyway, your hard-earned, or even unearned, money will be safe in their hands.

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"Lingua franca! That sounds like fun - I might give it a go in Brussels". "No Boris, it's got nothing to do with what I think you are thinking". 

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I claim no expertise on level playing fields, but this is how I see it:

1. The UK was happy that if in the future it decided to diverge from EU rules on, say, environmental standards, workers' right, taxation policy and state aid policy, then it would have to accept that single market access would change, and that this would involve the reimposition of trade tariffs. One assumes that we would be comfortable here as by that stage we would have done enough trade deals with other countries, and the EU would have become less important.

2. The EU wants a reciprocal position: if in the future it changes rules on the above, then there will be tariffs unless the UK goes along with the changes.

3. We like 1. because we will be in control; we don't like 2. because they will be in control.

4. We never thought that an impasse on this would arise, as we believed that the EU would buckle under the threat of the UK leaving without a deal...

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"No one told me that Frost and Barnier would be there as well. Drat, And she served me fish, the little minx!"

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Oliver Dowden, MP: "I'm going to be on the Today Programme. What I am going to say about No Deal?"

Downing Street Spin Doctor: "You can't call it No Deal"

Dowden: "Why not?"

SD: "Because that sounds negative"

Dowden: "What can I call it?"

SD: "An Australia-style trade agreement"

Dowden: "Why is that better?"

SD: "Because (1) It sounds positive, (2) People like the idea of Australia as Australians are laid back and generally have a good standard of living (3) Australia is in the Commonwealth and The Queen likes Australia and we all like The Queen"

Dowden; "But what is an Australia-style agreement?"

SD: "It's an agreement on WTO rules, but with some additional trade arrangements. Australia has one of these with the EU"

Dowden: "But Liz Truss said in Cabinet that the deals we need are completely different from the ones Australia has with the EU"

SD: "Gloss over that. Just say UK and Australia are both members of the OECD. They'll think you know what OECD means"

Dowden: "And how long would it take to negotiate those new deals?"

SD: "A long time"

Dowden: "Wouldn't it have been easier if we stayed in the EU?"

SD: "Do you value your life...?".

 

[Honest guv, I wrote this before "Australia" was quietly dropped]

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Priti is excited. Surely those gunboats can shoot down a few illegals? Time to put in a call to Raab.

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A religious note is needed for Advent. No additional comment is required.

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If you are a City worker, here is the City to which you will return:

For those less familiar with the area often inelegantly described as Bank Junction, this is Threadneedle Street, with the Royal Exchange ahead on the right, and the side of the Bank of England on the left. Pre-pandemic it was two-way for vehicle traffic; now it is one-way coming down from Bishopsgate. The cycle lane virus has arrived. No one loves the three-lane highway that is Park Lane, but on the Northbound side the other day there was an early afternoon queue of traffic, at a time when we are told that people are largely avoiding central London. The answer is simple: the inside lane has been given over to cycle lanes, the middle lane is a bus lane, so all traffic is funnelled into the outside lane. For passenger vehicles, the writing is on the road.

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There are exciting things happening in space. But why do scientists talking about space talk so fast? Is it Patrick Moore syndrome, and if so is that contagious?

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It is the time of year for apposite quotations. So here we have Lenin from 1908 observing that "...there are decades when nothing happens - and there are weeks when decades happen". I would refashion that for 2020: it was a year where nothing happened in the lives we would like to have led, but a year where everything happened in the lives we were forced to lead.

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I know that I am fond of innuendo, but I cannot be but amused over Bojo's latest slogan that for Christmas we should keep it short and keep it small.

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On an afternoon walk to the shops, I see ahead of me a group of teenage boys slouching home from school. All I can think of as I cross the road to avoid them is "Asymptomatic Superspreaders". How sad.

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I do not know whether the following two stories are true or apocryphal, but anyway. Story 1: A Linguistics Department in a Mid-West University is phoned up by the local Police Department to ask if they have anyone who speaks African. Story 2: A woman in a US supermarket is on her phone, speaking a language that is not English. A man comes up to her. He tells her that she should be speaking English and that she should go home to Mexico. She tells him that she is speaking Navajo and that he should go home to England.

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The Court of Appeal has ruled that Kate Scottow did not breach the Communications Act 2003 in negative remarks she made on Twitter about the trans activist Stephanie Hayden. The offence is committed where an individual "...persistently makes use of a public electronic network ...for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to others". The key issue is the standard used to determine whether the offence has been committed, set against an individual's right to freedom of expression. How far should behaviour be judged objectively, that is by what is a reasonable response to a person exercising their freedom of expression, as against how far should the behaviour be judged subjectively, that is by how an offended person feels, however objectively reasonable or unreasonable that reaction might be? In this case the Court of Appeal took the first approach. Difficult area.

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The 2020 Sports Personality of the Year is Lewis Hamilton, and he gave an acceptance speech direct from what looked like his Monaco hovel. I suggest that with Tier 4 now having arrived we should have a Hairshirt of Christmas 2020 Award. The current leading contender must be Prof. Chris Whitty, who will be "on the wards" over Christmas, but Cabinet Ministers are coming up fast on the rails, with competing narratives of 25th and 26th December (hardly worth calling it Christmas) life where contact with wider family will be eschewed. One suspects also that with the news of "Driving Home for Christmas, to Get My Eyesight Tested" being one of this year's most popular cards, there has been a stern talking to from No. 10 enforcers over the consequences of being caught out by members of the public or an ever vigilant press corps.

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From hostility to futility: Donald Trump has signed an Executive Order requiring that in future all federal buildings across the US must be "beautiful" and preferably built in classical Roman or Greek style. Apart from the irony of this alongside the design of Trump hotels and casinos, it conjures up the vision of a leader in his bunker during the dying days of his reign, giving orders that will be ignored. Yes of course this is a touch of Godwin's Law again, but nevertheless.

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Waitrose Christmas sense of humour. Bag of sprouts ordered in the big online shop. There can always be "substitutions", but.....

 

So it's a Bob Cratchit special. And as you will see, being very precise they charged £0.01 for the solitary sprout...

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If you live in London or anywhere else in the Tier 4 Club, it is difficult (unless we can have faith in the apparently just struck 'deal') to go into the 2020 Festive Season feeling festive. Nevertheless, let us finish with something lighter. I have unashamedly nicked the idea of this last item from something circulating the internet, but have expanded it to claim originality:

A festive message from the partners of Mammon & Gammon (Solicitors)

As we approach the expiry of what has been a challenging year for the legal profession, the partners of Mammon & Gammon are pleased to bring you, without charge, our end of 2020 message.

Buoyed by record income in the closing months of 2019, we sustained our efforts in the increasingly difficult early months of 2020 through to our 30th April financial year end. It is a tribute to our vision and imagination that we were able to foresee the problems that businesses and individuals would suffer as the pandemic spread and to position ourselves to respond both helpfully and profitably to these. Amongst initiatives of which we are proud are an employer package, "Redundancy Without Tears", and a service to enable high net worth individuals to avoid travel restrictions in order to assure the lifestyles to which they have become accustomed. We would also commend "Regulation Explanation", a podcast Covid service delivered in a rapping style in order to keep in touch with the younger generation, and Gammon Gowns, a PPE project from our associate Bermudian company, engineered through our Senior Partner's close connection with the Member of Parliament for North Numptyshire.

We are delighted to say that with the benefit of these and other innovations we are well on course to hitting profit targets in 20/21. Yes, some sections of our staff have been furloughed, and Government funding here has been welcome. It has been suggested that with our strong financial performance we should repay the furlough cash, but the money has enabled us to retain all of our staff, and any suggestion that the money has been used effectively to finance large profit distributions to partners is entirely refuted (and we reserve our rights in defamation against any individual who makes that claim).

So, it is our pleasure to wish you a Merry (our drink-driving hotline will be operational over the holidays) Festive Season (to include without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing both Western and Orthodox Christian festivals and further to extend out so far as but no more than necessary to encompass Eid, Diwali, and all of the Jewish celebrations) and (without representation, warranty or guarantee) a Happy New Year.

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