Author Archives: Pynto

Cuts

Just had a bit of a break for the extended holiday and thought that I really show write another blog before the end of January. So here it is.

I have long argued that for many of us, me sometimes included, fact often is less important than perception. I, after all, am a Spurs’ supporter. So why is this important? Well because when we make decisions, especially important ones, they need to be based on reality and not what we would wish it to be. Also because sections of the media and government peddle opinion and lies based on these perceptions so that we have to sort out fact from reality even before we start. This is not just the prerogative of this government, although it does have an appalling bad track record in this respect. Getting people to believe that the current economic situation is due to government overspending and not the fault of some within the banking industry being a notable example. This enables them to penalise those on the receiving end in our society, yet again, while letting those who really caused the problem off the hook. Yet again.

So now we have further cuts of £12m proposed from our benefits system; this largely on the basis that some in our society are strivers and some shirkers. The use of the term “hardworking people” carries with it the implication that others are feckless. The truth is that, although there may be some who are one or the other, most of us can be one or the other at different times in our lives but that, mostly, we try. Quite why, to get wealthy people to work harder, you pay them more, whereas the opposite is true for everyone else, is beyond me. It, also, is a perception.

So, to try to set the record straight, it needs to be said that a substantial part of our social security payments go on those in receipt of a state pension while far more is spent subsiding employers who pay low wages. What this mean in practice is that many of those on benefits are actually in work. They are strivers even though they receive benefits that the media tell you are spent on shirkers.

Some other interesting figures are, according to a recent survey, most people think that 41% of the welfare budget goes to those who are unemployed, whereas the real figure is 3%, that 27% is claimed fraudulently, whereas the figure is actually 0.7%. In reality, this amounts to about £1bn which is still a great deal of money until you realise that the estimated figure for tax evasion is £70bn. So, when the media and some of our politicians throw out these figures, remember that they are, largely, inaccurate to say the least. As was demonstrated recently with the distinct shortage of immigrants that we were led to believe would flood in from Easter Europe.

What’s interesting about this debate is that my perception is that most politicians are hard working and honest (yes, silly really but there it is). So that, when they do come out with such lies, they become hoist with their own petard. Ironic, isn’t it.

People and their circumstances

As you may have gathered if you have ever read anything that I have written, I am fascinated by people and their circumstances. I have, for example, never bought into the idea that the world is made up of the simple stereotypes so beloved by our popular press. These are the used to create as much discord as possible setting people against one another. So, not only do we have “shirkers” and “strivers” but then, “shirkers v strivers”.

Now I will not argue that some people may actually work harder than others, either at all times or in particular circumstances. Indeed, as someone who is past retirement age and embarking on my sixth and, probable, final career, I may have a predilection for work myself. Then again, I have, at least for the past 37 years, managed to make a living out of what I have enjoyed. However, there are many other things that I enjoyed and I never got the chance to pursue some of these. Still, it’s been an interesting journey, to say the least. Which, once again in my usual roundabout way, brings me to my subject matter.

Last week, the press reported the head of OFSTED as saying that (and I paraphrase) that the quality of education that anyone received was largely a matter of luck. Given that one’s education largely determines one’s livelihood and quality of living that is a pretty crucial matter.

Now I was lucky enough to go to a good school which, if it did nothing else, gave me a thirst for knowledge; not a bad result for an educational institute. It stemmed from a number of things to do with the relatives that brought me up, the times that I grew up and, crucially, the quality of the teachers and their modus operandi. They may or may not have been better at their jobs than today’s teachers, but they were valued for what they did. Yes, society was more deferential, something I have railed against for much of my life; however, those teachers were respected for what they did.

In today’s world, they are often denigrated by this government which then complains about the behaviour of pupils who, reading their pronouncements, treat teachers in exactly the same way. Have they so little understanding of human nature that they can see no link between these two sets of circumstances? Don’t answer that one as you don’t need to. This lot embark on their pet projects of Free Schools and Academies on the basis of little evidence and, in the process, start to dismantle a comprehensive education system that has value. Oh and, by the way, they do the same to any other non private institution such as the NHS and the BBC. Now I am not trying to pretend that these bodies don’t have their faults, but that as organisations and the service they are set up to provide, they represent something that I hold to as good about this country. As, interestingly enough, do countries other than our own.

I may be old fashioned and am certainly not a nationalist or a patriot, but I like being English and what is represents to me, best summed up by Billy Brag in his anthem, “Between the Wars.”

It’s about a sense of fairness, a care for the underdog, a self deprecation and quirky sense of humour and is represented in the reason that those organisations were created in the first place. Someone once said that you don’t miss something until it’s gone and then it’s too late. I fear that we are losing some of those qualities and what is happening today in education, the Health Service and other organisations as they are forced more and more into the hands of people whose sole aim is to make money at whatever cost. Death by a thousand cuts with, we are told, greater ones to come. I do wish this government had the imagination to see the damage that these will do to our social fabric, although I am, probably, hoping in vain. As a member of that lucky, post war, generation, it saddens me to see that little of the luck we had in being born into the society and the times that we were, is being passed on. More of this after Christmas.

Nelson Mandela

No one of my generation could let the death of Nelson Mandela pass without comment. In my lifetime there have been two giants on the world stage. Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi. Ghandi was from a previous era and, so, left less of an impression on me. However, I read somewhere that when he came to England during winter in the late 1940’s, clad only in something resembling a bath towel, he was asked what he thought of Western civilisation. His reported response was that he thought that it would be a good idea! With such quiet but devastating humour do some people deal with patronising comments. To me it demonstrates an inner strength and security which is what probably enables them to deal with situations in the way that they do. In their cases, directly facing up the brute force that governments can bring to bear on those who oppose them, for no personal gain whatsoever. In fact, at enormous personal cost; in Nelson Mandela’s case, nearly one third of his life in prison. In fact, the exact opposite. As someone who hates being separated from his family, I can only imagine the resolve that that must have taken, especially when it is only with hindsight that we know that it was only (only?) 27 years. In other circumstances, it could have been considerably longer. Does anyone doubt that he would have had the resolve to see it through?

Both these men seem to have had a humility, on ordinariness that the rest of us relate to in a way that we don’t to others with great power. Amply demonstrated, in Mandela’s case, with an incident recalled by Peter Hain. The former government minister was meeting the great man and happened to mention that his mother was in hospital with a broken femur. Mr Mandela insisted on speaking to her using Peter Hain’s mobile phone. On getting through, he said, ”It’s Nelson Mandela. Do you remember me?”

Which, in my usual roundabout way, brings me to my point. How is it that those who are truly great, the giants that occasionally visit us on this Earth able to retail a sense of humility and humanity, when many of those who strive for power, do not? Maybe it is that they are truly great, although I believe that many people have within themselves that ability. I think that it is that humility and humanity that they manage to retain despite the power that they attain. The rest of us may be smaller in comparison but we do recognise those qualities in the same way that we recognise fraudulence in others who exercise power or aspire to. You know who you are unless the biggest fraud is one that you enact upon yourself.

Which also brings me to my last point which is that, why do, seemingly intelligent men and the occasional women, behave so stupidly at times?  And, yes, I know that we all do, it’s just that we don’t usually do it so knowingly and with such forethought. In this respect, unless someone else buys it for me, I plan to myself a Xmas present, a book entitled, “The Blunders of our Governments”. In one particular instance, it mentions Nicholas Ridley, a government minister of the time who, when being warned about the dangers of the Poll Tax and how poor people would not be able to afford to pay it, said, “Can’t they just sell a painting”.

Now Mr Mandela and Mr Ghandi may have visited us from other planets but such as Mr Ridley, actually lived on one.

Grammar school

I went to a grammar school, the first generation of post war, south London, working class boys to do so. I had been preceded by my cousin, David, on my mum’s side of the family and followed by Mike and Richard on my dad’s side. Many of the teachers would have had direct experience of the Second World War in a school that was situated on the edge of the London Docks that, 13 years before I joined, had been subject to the blitz. It probably gave them a certain view of life which I experienced as wanting something better for the children they taught. There was an ethos about the school which instilled in me, a desire to learn; something that sticks with me to this day. What my wife calls “my insatiable appetite for knowledge”. Not a bad result for a school.

Interestingly, I was also interviewed for Alleyn’s School in Dulwich where, I am told, the headmaster’s first question was “What car does your father drive?”. This, I feel, tells you a great deal about the values he was looking for in his pupils. So why am I writing this? Well, because that prize bozo, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, has done it again. What has he done? Well he has opened his mouth and, in his usual inimitable fashion, nonsense has come out. Moreover, it is of a level of intellect that you would dismiss even from the bore in the local pub. Appropriate, as his topic was, among other things, IQ.

According to The Guardian last Thursday, he is quoted as saying that inequality is essential to fostering “the spirit of envy” and hailed greed as “a valuable spur to economic activity”. At which point, I feel that he displays a great deal of his own mindset. He also called for the “Gordon Gecko’s of London” to display their greed in order to promote economic growth. Please send him a copy of “The Spirit Level” someone and try to remove those horse blinkers he wears. He then went on to say that “Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many of 16% of our species have an IQ of less than 85” while calling for more help to be given to those with an IQ of 130. Of which, presumably, he is one. To those that have, shall be given and to those who haven’t, shall be taken away.

Please note the part about the value of IQ tests with its acceptance that many think that they don’t actually measure intelligence. Surely you can’t use something that is not proven in an argument to prove things which flow from the need for its actuality. Finally, he goes on to say that it is wrong to persecute the rich and madness to try to stifle wealth creation. This conflation of the two is a not untypical argument from those who are lucky enough to be wealthy, when wealthy and wealth creators are not necessarily the same thing. Indeed, in a country where much of the wealth that exists is actually inherited, they will, likely, not be the same. It needs saying again and again that those who work in financial services, despite the fact that they generate money, don’t actually produce anything. A pound note may help to pay for your washing machine but it needs a human brain or a team of people to invent and develop one.

Apart from the assumption that wealth creators are motivated, largely, by money, what really galls is not the idea that some people are less able than others but the implication that they are, therefore, of less value. Yet, as those who have read anything that I have ever written will be aware, I know of numerous examples of people who actually appeared to have less ability but went on to do what other, seemingly, more able people couldn’t do. From the people who were homeless and unemployed who built their own homes to the group of people with special needs who, with volunteer help, built their own horticultural training centre. What was even more remarkable, in this latter example, is that one of the young lads with special needs finished up supervising some of the other volunteers.

We can all contribute and we usually do. Why, then, should some receive more remuneration in a year, than many will earn in their whole lifetime. Indeed in ten or twenty lifetimes. Especially when it is from among the former and not the latter that those who bear the greatest responsibility for our current economic woes, are employed. Can we please have a sensible debate about wages, usefulness and value in our society and can someone please direct Boris to the nearest circus where his talents are so obviously suited?

Between the wars

I am currently waiting to interview a few people to provide case studies for some of the examples of the real big society that I have written about over the past few weeks. In the meantime, I will continue with a few random thoughts. These, as you will see, arise from the fact that I am now of an older generation, that lucky generation, I often talk about. Why, you might ask, is this important? Well, I think it is because we were the product of a somewhat different culture than that which prevails today and has, more or less, for the last quarter century. It is also one that I regard as alien to much of what is good about this country and best represented by some of our institutions. Pre eminent among these are the BBC and the NHS. So what is, or was, this culture and how was it different?

And this is where my difficulty arises. I like what I see as essentially English both on an individual and national level. Yet, in many respects, all of the qualities I feel as representative of this would be considered as important in most cultures and to stress them as “ours” seems contrary to what I see as just that “Englishness”. In this case, I intend to let my heart rule my head and write about them anyway as they being ridden roughshod over by much of our commercial culture.

In his wonderful anthem, “Between the Wars”, Billy Bragg sings:

I kept the faith and I kept voting
Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand
For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is my faith in my fellow man

He also sang of “Sweet moderation, heart of this nation”.

This sums it up for me. Now I will confess to being an unashamed romantic. However, I am also a pretty pragmatic one. Hence the practical and proven examples I write about.

So what are those qualities I relish. Well we could start with fair play, before moving on to a sense of what is right and what is wrong, via a care and support for those less able or equipped to do things for themselves. They would include tolerance and, one I particularly like, an idiosyncratic and self deprecatory sense of humour. Moreover, I don’t see these as isolated qualities but as patterns in a seamless tapestry; as Billy Bragg would say “from cradle to grave”.

And, before opponents cry out about strivers v shirkers, let’s change the language to “fortunate and less fortunate”. Apart from the fact that the latter are more accurate adjectives than the former, “and” is a far more useful way to solve problems than “versus”. The latter tells you far more about the mindset of those using such language. The latter phraseology also represents a far more accurate picture of the situation. The point is, as any parent knows, you support your children when they need it. That is also, by the way, true of good businesses which support the less profitable but promising or necessary parts of their concerns. It should be the same in any society and especially one that has the 7th largest economy in the world. Where does that put those who are at the top in our society on a world scale, especially when they seem to continually require greater rewards than they already have. If even they can’t manage, how do they think that everyone else does? No, the answer is simple greed and living in a world in which they mix, largely, with others are in similar circumstances.

An example of this blinkered thinking can be seen among many of those of us who are football supporters. We support our club, treating the opposition, especially of the local kind, as the enemy. Spurs v Arsenal, Manchester City v Manchester United, West Ham v Millwall, on the odd occasion that these later two actually meet. Yet, what we all have in common is that we are all keen on football and, in that, differ from those who aren’t. In reality, we have more in common with one another than those who aren’t interested in the game. Something we often forget in the heat of the match.

The whole point of this diatribe is to see ourselves as a society in which we support those less fortunate during any period in which they need help. You will then often find that what you see as a hand out is, in fact, a hand up. I think it could best be described as mutual self help. It has a long and distinguished history in this country, not represented in our current commercial culture of “Sod you, Jack” and the idea that those at the top have something that the rest of us are lacking and got where they did through sheer application and hard work. Something that the rest of us also seem to lack. It is a false analysis that paints a false picture and one that those at the top have an interest, indeed a self interest, in sustaining.

What we need to do in most cases is to see life from the other person’s point of view and, sometimes, this can be brought home to you in very directly. It’s called empathy. On Saturday, I was out shopping and came across someone sitting on the pavement, obviously homeless. Having run a charity that helped people who were homeless, I can’t turn a blind eye in these circumstances. Not that I would anyway. I reached into my pocket to find that I didn’t have any money. As I walked on, I found that I did have and went back. The person then said something that really made me understand how he felt. He said “My heart sank when you looked as though you were going to give me money but couldn’t find any. Thanks for coming back”. The expression, “my heart sank” made me feel how he felt. It would help greatly in creating a better society if we could all try to see life through the eyes of those less fortunate than ourselves. After all, if you don’t know the circumstances that led someone to being in the situation that they find themselves, how can you know that it is their own fault? The answer is, of course, that you can’t. Judging people, therefore, as shirkers or strivers is an opinion based on nothing other than your own way of thinking. Those who view the world in this way would do well to consider that fact.

Changing yourself

In order to change others, you first need to change yourself. Unless, of course, you’re already perfect.

Now I can’t believe that I’m the only person to commit the first part of that quotation to paper and I’m not even sure that’s its true for everyone. Yet I do feel that effecting change comes with more power when it comes from those who’ve experienced the problems that the proposed change deals with and have, thus, been part of that change themselves.

I mention the perfect bit as, like some other men, I used to feel that I was so. Literally, maybe, but not in reality. It was, indeed, a cover which allowed me to behave less well than I should have, especially in my relationships, while thinking that what the other people got in return excused that behaviour. It took me many years of therapy and the self service version that is now a normal part of my psyche, to change something that I was, in fact, extremely reluctant to change. It was the other side of the coin and I thought that changing the face of the coin meant changing the obverse. I now realise that it didn’t and I and my relationships are the better for it. Moreover, it has helped me to do things that I always wanted to but never dreamt that I could. In my case, writing, with my first book published and the second to be published before Xmas. The latter, “The Other Side of the Doors” will be launched at Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town in January. Who would have thought, when I worked in my first charity job in the 1970’s and used to frequent Owl, that I would be making use of it in this way? Change can certainly be good for you. The important part of change, however, is whether it is imposed or, worse still, arbitrarily imposed, or whether you are part of the process. Which brings me, in my usual roundabout fashion, to my topic this week.

In the 1980’s, Will Hutton described a 30/30/40 society. One in which 30% of the population were fairly wealthy, 30% not too badly off and 40% were very poor. Thirty years later and the reality is worse than he described and, seemingly, getting more entrenched. Indeed, it is now official. This current generation of young people will be worse off than their parents. The first time that this has happened that anyone can remember and beyond. It is also now admitted that work is no longer a way out of poverty and even John Major has said that privately educated men dominate our public and business life. Yet, in the same week, research was published to show that, once social factors are stripped out, a private education provided no better (and sometime a less good education) than the state variety. Perhaps what you get from a private school is a social network that will stand you in good stead for later life. When you look at the upper echelons of the present government (one of the less competent ones in my lifetime) you cannot help but feel that that is true. Could it be any different? Of course it could. As I continually remind people, the future hasn’t yet happened. Indeed, as one of the lucky generation, who were, in my view, the recipients of over 200 years or progress, to our parents, we were evidence that it could be. This can probably be traced back to the Midlands Enlightenment during which working people, through institutions they created and controlled bettered themselves as never before. In doing so, they played an active role in creating a civic society of no little vibrancy.

We can do this again and need to if we are to slow down this relentless rush to the bottom. Except, of course, for that small percentage at the top who, bear in mind, have more in common with similar people in other countries than they do with the fellow citizens of their own. Last week John McDonnell, a Labour MP, talked of setting up a Peoples’ Parliament. More power to his elbow.