Kindness, Courage and Truth

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All of us depend for our self-esteem and happiness on the loyalty, encouragement and the occasional mild falsehoods of our friends. In those things that matter most to us – playing a musical instrument, driving a car, looking good, never ageing, public speaking, acting, singing, dancing, dressing, writing, cooking, perhaps even performing stand-up comedy – we’re probably neither as good nor as bad as we believe we are, or fear we are. ‘You were absolutely marvellous, darling,’ we say to our acting friends when we go round to their dressing rooms at the end of a show. How fortunate that we neither hear what our friends really think, nor they what we really think, even if our praise is more or less sincere.

Of course, our feelings also make the truth what it is. Attitude influences our perception and judgement. ‘I love it if it’s Lacroix,’ says Edina Monsoon in Absolutely Fabulous. It doesn’t matter what it looks like.

But sometimes all the attitude in the world won’t make things right. Kind, well-meaning, gracious, and well-heeled society hostess Florence Foster Jenkins never hit the right notes, however much she believed she had, but her loving, loyal friends supported her delusion (possibly caused by damage to her own hearing by syphilis) that she sang as accurately, musically and beautifully as any of the world’s greatest divas. Indeed, so kind were her closest friends that they bought every copy of the New York Times to avoid her seeing the savagely truthful review of her Carnegie Hall concert. All other critics were bought.

Florence Foster Jenkins, the film, is a touching account of the triumph of kindness, love and loyalty over truth, and the courage of Florence Foster Jenkins herself, who lived a long life despite the syphilis her abandoned first husband gave her on their wedding night. She was kind, generous and loved music above all else. The illusion that she sang well harmed no one, and though we laugh at her as well as with her, her life contained joy.

That’s not to say that we must always be untruthful. Unsparing truth is a necessity when harm is being done, when strutting arrogance must be brought low or hypocrisy revealed, but gentle untruths do no harm, especially if it encourages improvement rather than discouraging effort.

Meryl Streep is magnificent as Florence and she manages to sing very badly very well, note perfect at Florence Foster Jenkins’ imperfect notes. Hugh Grant is touching, too, as her failed actor, devoted, grateful second  ‘husband’. Simon Helberg, playing Cosmé McMoon, her half-lucky young accompanist, is superbly eccentric and lovable,  and he almost steals the show.

The arrogant always deserve the truth, the lovingly deluded deserve consideration. Dear friends, bear that in mind when you’re weighing up my own pretensions.

What not to wear

When I was very young in the 1960s and lived with my parents and brother in a small Midlands town in the United Kingdom, I remember my mother announcing one day that a man had been arrested in the town for wearing women’s clothes. It was an astonishing idea. Why would any man do such a thing? It could hardly be an accident, the result of dressing in the dark. The idea seemed to tear at the very fabric of the universe, and challenge the logic on which the whole of human life was built. It was as challenging to convention as the suggestion that 2 and 2 might equal 5. Perhaps that was the moment when I realised the world was not as simple as it seemed, or as society would have us believe. Tragic moment.

Those were the days when ‘confirmed bachelor’ wasn’t a euphemism. The surface of life was simple and binary, and if there was turbulence down below, it rarely ruffled the surface. Men were men, wore trousers and went to work. Women were women and wore skirts, stockings, and suspender belts, and mostly stayed at home. There was nothing beneath the surface to threaten the natural order of propriety.

I wondered, though, even then, why the man had been arrested, and I wonder to this day whether he was charged with a crime. Perhaps he fell foul of that cruel catch-all that panders to public or police prejudice – ‘behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace.’ I wonder still if he was doing it for a laugh, or for a dare, or whether he was the town’s only brave transvestite. Or perhaps it’s all a false memory, or wishful thinking on my part.

As far as I can remember, my mother’s tone wasn’t particularly condemnatory. I think she shared my astonishment and knew as little about the outer peripheries of human need as I did at the time. I also remember thinking about what ‘women’s clothes’ meant, and how you might define what women should wear and what men should wear. Perhaps that quandary sowed the seeds of my interest in philosophy. I’ve ever since been asking, even as a consultant in business systems, ‘What do you mean by so-and-so?’

Curious though one might be as to why someone should wear a particular garment, that’s not the greatest obstacle in telling people what to wear, or what not to wear. Apart from the problem of definition, there’s the massive problem of justification. What harm was this hapless Midlands transvestite doing to anyone by putting on a frock? What harm does anyone do, by wearing a hijab, a burka, a tutu, a mini skirt, a wetsuit, a space suit, on the beach, or in the office? Behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace? Well, only if the wider population is bigoted and prejudiced and enjoys a good lynching.

I’m afraid I take a liberal view. I don’t care what people do or don’t wear. I believe that we should be sensitive to local culture, but as far as I know that’s always been a matter of not baring the flesh; it has nothing at all to do with covering it up. I’m not religious, and I would actually welcome a uniformly liberal world where nudity goes as unnoticed and unremarked on the beach at Dubai as it does in Western Europe, but that’s not something I can yet impose. But I also believe that being able to see the face is an essential aspect of education, and in order that children should grow into adults who are capable of relatively free choice, children MUST be educated. So, just sometimes, the calculation of rights is a little more tricky. But I presume in favour of freedom if no harm is done.

In the adult world we should be entirely free to wear what we like, however silly, however dull, however fashionable, however scruffy, as long as we do no harm. I no longer care what my colleagues wear in the office, though I do believe that we must wear suits when we meet our clients, though only because we might lose business if we didn’t. Why should we wear Black Tie at Glyndebourne? Why should we wear top hats at Ascot? If I ruled the world I would banish all such conventions and let anyone wear as much or as little as they like, wherever and whenever they wish, as long as they do no harm, and I would limit the concept of harm to cover only such offences as obscenity or the undermining of public health.

stagnight

Prague is the stag-night capital of the world and I often see groups of merry young men staggering off flights from London. I saw one man, some years ago, dressed for the London Marathon rather than for easyJet, wearing a wetsuit, fins, mask and snorkel. He removed the mask at passport control, and the immigration officer didn’t turn a hair. Why should he? Silliness rarely does harm to the spectator.

bathing machine

By contrast, France’s rules against the burka and the burkini do much more harm than good. They stoke resentment and exacerbate the problems they seek to solve. I happen to think that the burkini is as silly as the ‘bathing machines’ of the Victorian era. These were huts that were hauled down to the water’s edge by donkeys, and they more or less concealed bathers from public view, but their bathing clothes did that too.

But, silly or not, I would defend a woman’s right to wear a burkini and if there’s a Midlands man who’d like to wear one too, then why not? Feel free.

burkini

Sandwiches & Dreams

I’ve been dreaming about sandwiches. I’m a middle-aged man who’s been denying himself carbohydrates, and this is the consequence. Sadly, wilder, youthful dreams are long extinct; calories, rather than hormones, dominate my sleeping hours.

I dreamt about the modern sandwich, of course, but in those (many) minutes before hauling myself from bed and considering the world’s more serious woes, I thought about how sandwiches have changed over the last fifty years . When I was a child, long before Jamie Oliver and his like inspired us to buy ingredients and prepare dishes our parents had never heard of, and long before Pret a Manger offered us sandwiches of chicken, coriander, lemon juice and avocado (this is the one I dream of more than of any other), or hummus and watercress, or God knows what, the institutional tea – at weddings, speech days, funerals, and confirmations, and held in the brocaded ‘lounges’ of three-star hotels , or on lawns –  provided us with only half a dozen miserable varieties of sandwich, most of them of mean and miserly composition. There are places in the world where sandwich fillings must be thicker than the two slices of bread that contain them – the United States and Israel come to mind – but in the bad old days of the English sandwich rarely would the filling be half as thick as a single slice.

There was the salmon sandwich (salmon neatly combining the virtues of daintiness and luxury, even if it came out of a tin). Making the filling involved mashing tinned salmon with malt vinegar. The result was fishy, acid and wet, but at least it glued the slices of white or brown (more sophisticated) bread together.

Note the dainty use of the parsley sprig

sandwichspread

Then there was the cheese sandwich, usually  containing a single millimetre-thick slice from a pack of Kraft Cheese Slices (remember how you had to peel them carefully from their plastic backing sheets). Those were the days when nature could be improved. Placed between two slices of buttered white bread, the end result had a single soft unresisting consistency that became, when chewed, a ball of glue in the mouth.

Entirely artificial

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Fish paste sandwiches were even worse. What’s become of fish paste? These pastes came in thick glass bottles, as if they might explode, smaller versions of the old Coca Cola bottle. I presume they harked from a time before refrigeration. You pulled a thin metal cap, sealed to the rim with a strip of red rubber, from the top to reveal a grey-surfaced sludge. The smell was from the 19th century. They were made from pilchards, shrimp, bloaters, mackerel, salmon, and other marine substances, but they all tasted the same. Spread thinly on buttered bread they became no more than a dark stain between the two white slices. These grenade-like bottles were stored against a rainy day at the back of the kitchen cupboard, next to the John West salmon, ready for the unexpected visit of a peckish Great Aunt. You don’t see them any more. I think they’ve morphed into cat food.

Immortal but repulsive

paste bottle

Egg sandwiches, at least, offered a kind of challenge. There was, of course, the smell of methane, but the greater difficulty was that they would fall apart if you didn’t handle them correctly. After all, there was nothing to hold them together (unless they were pre-slathered in ‘salad cream’ (another abomination)). I’ve never known eggs boiled so thoroughly, nor since seen eggs sliced so thinly. And if you were careless, greyish yellow crumbs of egg yolk might catch in your throat and set you off coughing. Daintiness lost in an instant.

Cucumber sandwiches, slithery and hard to hold as they were, were always delicious. They have survived the revolution and always will. Even Jamie offers a recipe.

As for sandwiches made with ‘sandwich spread’, these were the most utterly repulsive of them all. Sandwich spread is a kind of sweetened vomit, perhaps the most disgusting substance that has ever been served as food. I can’t remember ever seeing it in its fully exposed form. I hope that I never will. It is too revolting en masse to be exposed to human gaze.

A banned substance

sandwich spread

Calorie-starved as I am at this moment, nothing (barring starvation or little else to eat on a delayed Wizzair flight) would induce me to eat any of these horrors, except perhaps the cucumber sandwich. The others are the stuff of nightmares not dreams, and I hope that we’ll never see them at Pret.

 

 

 

Just as…

Just as playing a musical instrument or singing musically is far more important than playing or singing accurately (indeed, a friend of mine sings the right notes only rarely, and most of those accidentally, but his musicality is profound – imagine a male version of Florence Foster Jenkins), and just as a good consultant needn’t know anything about anything in particular (it’s more important that he or she should look smart, ask good questions and listen well, than spout dry technical truths), and just as sales is more about being liked than knowing something about what you’re selling, and just as speaking eloquently is more important for a politician than having anything useful to say, so what software actually does is far less important than how it looks.

Well, perhaps I exaggerate, but there’s an iota of truth in some of this nonsense and I’ve reluctantly accepted the view that what’s called the ‘functionality’ of software (how I hate that word, but continue to use it) is by no means the only thing that matters.

I design a configurable software system called time@work. It’s designed for Professional Services Organisation such as lawyers, engineers, and consultants, indeed any organisation that needs to record the time and expense incurred on projects. We have nearly 300 customers around the world, and we meet our customers requirements without needing to change the underlying software code – we click and build and configure the basic software to do millions of different things.

Of course, we bring out new versions from time to time, and most of the changes we make are inspired by our customers’ needs. We add new options and checkboxes and functions, and I doubt that we or our clients will ever run out of such ideas, but we keep fast to the rule that we’ll only have one version that’s ever more capable. I was once a programmer (and yes, once a programmer, always a programmer (it’s like being a Roman Catholic, I believe)), and it has often seemed to me that adding more ‘functionality’, ever greater capability, is more important than anything else. More important, for example, than that the system should look attractive.

But of course I’m wrong about that, though less wrong than I used to be, and I have to remind myself from time to time of that old adage in the business software implementation that projects fail more often for other reasons than that the software doesn’t do exactly the right thing.

That doesn’t mean that you can use Microsoft Word as a manufacturing requirements planning system, or Microsoft Excel as an airline booking system, but there’s a grain of truth in the idea. Configurable software such as ours, however brilliantly conceived (!), doesn’t always do exactly what customers want, and there must always be flexibility and imagination and compromise on all sides if an implementation project is to succeed. You can concentrate on nothing else but ‘functionality’ and you’ll never produce an infinitely capable system. A year of software development work might take you from a 94% fit to a 94.5% fit.

The problem is that if you concentrate only on capability, you’ll neglect those things that sometimes seem more trivial to you if you’re a programmer – the graphical look and the ‘usability’ of the system. If there was a road to Damascus for me, it was in the development of our iPhone App. Developing the systems@work App was a great lesson. The world of Apps is unforgiving and to succeed you must meet higher standards of attractiveness and usability than in the kind of software that’s used in the dark corners of accounting departments.

And so, in the recent version of systems@work’s time@work, expense@work and forms@work we’ve spent time and money on making the software look a lot nicer and easier to use. I don’t regret it. We released Version 6 a few weeks ago and it’s been received with enthusiasm by customers and resellers alike, and I, too, find it a greater pleasure to use.

This took months!

Today

There’s still more to do. Weeks of programming time can be consumed in making paging controls and field lookups look consistent across the system, but we’ll continue. That’s not to say that checkboxes here and there that add to the capability of the system will be entirely neglected, but for a few weeks ‘functionality’ must take a back seat.

 

‘Ram Packed’

Language is a slithery thing, as everyone knows. Try to hold it down and it will wriggle from your grasp. It’s said that the French try the hardest to catch and throttle it, and the Icelanders have had a go at it too, but prescribing how language should be used, and banning the use of new and imported words is a hopeless task. Language changes all the time. The best you can do is describe, as the Oxford English Dictionary does, not prescribe. Even proud nations such as Hungary, with a language that slithered into Europe a thousand years ago from somewhere terrible beyond the Urals, and which belongs to a group to which few other languages belong, is a hotchpotch of words borrowed locally from the Turks, the Slavs and the Germanic peoples.

You notice changes to your own language most if you’re an expat, as I am. Or, I suppose, if you’re the child of a minority language group exiled to another country. It’s like seeing friends again after many years have passed. They suddenly look older, though the people you see every day never age.

And I remember working with Americans of Hungarian descent in Budapest during the early 1990s. Some were second generation Americans, the children of those who fled in 1956,some third generation Americans, the grandchildren of mostly Jewish emigrants from Hungary in the 1930s, or of survivors of the Holocaust who found a new home in the USA after the Second World War. They were eager to practice the language they’d learned from their parents or grandparents and which some of them had used at home. But what they found was that this was a charming, utterly out-of-date variant of the language spoken in the streets of Budapest today or twenty years ago.

I write this because I was perplexed by an expression Jeremy Corbyn used to describe the crowded train he boarded a couple of weeks ago. There’s a controversial video of him sitting comfortably on the floor of a railway carriage, having walked past a number of empty seats (some of them unreserved), complaining about the overcrowding of Britain’s railway services. ‘The train is ram-packed,’ he said, or something like it.

ram-packed

I’m unfamiliar with the expression. I know ‘crammed’. I know ‘packed’. I know ‘cram full’, perhaps even ‘cram packed’, but I don’t know ‘ram-packed’. It brought to mind those white-gloved train packers who cram or ‘ram’ passengers into the carriages of Tokyo’s metro, but I don’t think Virgin East Coast has yet resorted to that kind of violence.

I put it down to a local dialect that Jeremy might have acquired as a child, though he grew up in the Midlands and went to the same primary school that I went to, but perhaps his ears were better attuned to the streets than mine, as they are now to the shrill street-activists who support him.

But then I read the same word today. Not exactly the same, but a similar usage unfamiliar to me. In an article on low footfall over the Bank Holiday weekend at Britain’s shopping malls – http://www.bbc.com/news/business-37212179 – a man called Mr Nathan is quoted as saying, “It certainly looked very busy yesterday – the restaurants were rammed.” (I must have been desperate to be reading an article about retail statistics, but the headline caught my eye as perhaps a sign of post-Brexit-decision economic decline.)

Dictionaries appear to be more up to date than I am…

rammed

So ‘rammed’ and ‘ram-packed’ must be words that have slithered into use whilst I’ve been away and inattentive. Or rather, they’re new usages, since I know what ramming means. It worries me. I still intend to return to live in Britain someday soon, but will I understand my fellow citizens, and will they understand me? I have no wish to sound quaintly anachronistic.

On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely right about the trains. They are ram-packed and someone ought to do something about it.. I only just found a seat on the train from King’s Cross to Peterborough last Tuesday. It was dog eat dog.

Soviet Bus Stops

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I’ve collected all sorts of odd things over the last fifty years, including, when I was a very young child, a series of twelve seed catalogues produced by a company called BOCM. I never read any of them, but I enjoyed possessing them. Collecting them offered a kind of emotional security and control, an illusory feeling that the world might be manageable. I still enjoy and need this feeling today as I gloat over my things. Not for me, I think, a spiritual and immaterial life in a monastic cell, unless I could start a collection of monastic paraphernalia.

I also collect those tiny shampoos, conditioners, lotions and soaps that you find in hotel bathrooms, and I have boxes and drawers of them at home. I’m oddly reluctant to use them. If it comes to ‘having your cake’ or ‘eating it’, I’d always rather ‘have’ than ‘eat’. I haven’t yet catalogued the collection, nor have I arranged them by colour, purpose, quality, brand, or location of origin, but I might yet turn to that in my retirement. No doubt Sigmund Freud would have a few things to say about collecting, but fortunately he isn’t around to ask. In any case, he wasn’t exactly immune from the craving to take control of a small portion of the world. He collected and catalogued neuroses.

I’ve collected the ordinary too – stamps, coins, books, rugs, paintings, DVDs, CDs, etc. – but they’re too commonplace to be interesting for long. But I also enjoy the mad collections of others. I know a man who collects erasers (or rubbers as we call them in the UK) and I’ve visited some very odd museums – the Museum of Catering and Commerce in Budapest, which has a glorious collection of Soviet-era shop fittings, the Police Museum in Prague, where you can gaze in wonder at a cabinet full of poison pens, and the Museum of Humour in Plovdiv, which contains a remarkable collection of jokes, from one-liners muttered in bars in Bishkek to the whole of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Last week I marvelled at a motley collection of Allied and Axis military equipment picked up from the battlefields of Crete, and presented, with absolutely no historical context, in a private museum somewhere between Chania and Hora Sphakion.

But you don’t have to take possession of things in order to collect them. Train spotters don’t possess the objects of their enthusiasm in any literal sense, though I presume they derive a fleeting sense of an ordered world from what they do. Nor do spotters of bus stops come to possess the bus stops they spot.

Which brings me to a book I recently bought with the irresistible title,  Soviet Bus Stops, a collection of photographs of Soviet ‘bus pavilions’,  from all over the evil empire, from Kazakhstan to Moldova, by way of Lithuania and Armenia, perhaps even from places where busses never stopped (or started) at all, Soviet planning being what it was.

The photographs were taken by Christopher Herwig, who travelled tens of thousands of uncomfortable kilometres to compile his collection (and I doubt that the hotels he stayed at offered those little bottles of shampoo). It’s an utterly fascinating book and you’d certainly find yourself looking at it more than once. Who would have thought that bus stops could be so interesting, so varied and so expressive?

But of course public art always had a special place in the Socialist world (consider the Moscow Metro), and the book’s several prefaces explain how in the last decades of the Soviet era, architects and artists, frustrated by the billions of strictures applied to large scale structures, found individuality and expressive solace in the smaller scale of the bus stop.

In fact, designing a bus stop was something every architect in the Soviet world learned how to do. It was a standard exercise for design students across the Soviet world. Many built nothing larger. For some the bus stop offered a single chance  to say whatever they had to say about the world.

Think about it. What must a bus stop do?

  • It must protect the People from the wind, rain and sun
  • It mustn’t obscure the People’s view of the bus as it approaches
  • It must discourage the People from vandalism and other forms of capitalist desecration
  • It must be easy for other People to clean
  • It mustn’t obscure the bus driver’s view of the People or their hailing
  • It must entertain, educate and inspire the People in their relentless construction of a Socialist Utopia
  • It must fit snugly next to the road
  • It must encourage queuing discipline – no one is ‘more equal’ in a bus queue
  • It must vanquish Nature

How many of those criteria does this lamentably simple non-Soviet bus stop meet? I wouldn’t even know on which side the queue should form.

busstop

Never mind that the bus rarely arrived on time, and was a rickety old Soviet model when it did. If you were one of the People you probably didn’t own a car, so a bus pavilion was where you spent a good proportion of your waking life (the rest of the time you spent queuing outside shops). So you were grateful for something a bit out of the ordinary to wait in or at, something that would inspire you to come back and wait all over again.

I’ve seen some of these myself. I was in Moldova a year or two ago and came across a splendid bus stop just outside Cahul. It was just like the ones in Herwig’s book, and far nicer than any other building in the village. I stopped and photographed it but didn’t go on to collect any more. I didn’t then know that the bus stop can be a collectible item.

But hats off to Herwig. I can’t recommend his book too highly. Add it to your collection.

The Cut of My Jib

Everyone knows that love can be sudden, foolish and catastrophic. On the whole it’s better assembled gradually than experienced at once as a bolt from the blue, like the stigmata. Quite how love happens ‘just like that’ no one knows. It might be an ankle, the toss of a head, an imbecilic smile, or an equine laugh. Read as many romantic novels as you can and you’ll never discover the cause. Barbara Cartland, William Shakespeare, they were sensitive observers, but they weren’t true scientists.

Spontaneous hatred is equally inexplicable but we all experience it from time to time. Flowing from us or coming at us. It might be the licking a finger before the turning of a page. It might be a matter of table manners. It might, from a different perspective, be that imbecilic smile or that equine laugh. Sometimes it’s the tiniest, almost imperceptible thing.

I was the victim of it myself, the other day, a spontaneous burst of hatred coming in my direction on the tube between Ladbroke Grove and King’s Cross St Pancras. A man sitting opposite me glared at me in an alarming way as I took my seat, and he went on glaring, even when I wasn’t looking. I could sense it. He didn’t look like a terrorist bent on the indiscriminate taking of many lives, so I wasn’t inclined to reach for the emergency stop. No, it was my jib he didn’t like the cut of, and mine alone.

As far as I could tell, there was nothing odd about my jib. There never is. I was dragging a suitcase towards Luton Airport and my jib was the usual jeans and polo shirt. I caught his angry eye, and looked away, and then back again as we passed through Paddington, and Edgware Road and Baker Street, to see if he was still looking, and then I decided I wouldn’t look at him at all. The last time I looked, he raised a finger at me like this:

thefinger

I was frightened, to tell the truth, just a little, but I couldn’t see that he was any danger. The previous evening a young man had run amok in Russell Square leaving an American woman dead and several people injured, so I was alert to the dangers of insane behaviour in a public place and ready to run should he lunge.

At Great Portland Street he tottered to his feet and lurched towards the exit, and it was only then that I realised he was completely drunk. I heard another passenger commenting on the smell of drink as he stumbled from the train. Even so, why did he pick on me?

Drunk or sober, instant dislike is disturbing. My father used to say, ‘I don’t like the cut of his jib’ when he took against someone he didn’t know. He used to say it quite often, and, to give credit where it’s due, he was often right about the people whose jibs he took against, and I often ended up taking against them too. But I never remember him raising a finger to make his point.

jib1

I looked up ‘cut of his jib.’ It’s a nautical term, apparently, from the early 19th century, the jib being the forward sail that indicated a ship’s nationality. So a ship with the wrong cut of jib is an enemy one best avoided. Wear your jib carefully.

jib2