The Beach Puzzle – a metaphysical speculation

Four old companions are discussing philosophy (or some such nonsense) on a beach.

As they talk, one after another, each sees the other three being borne out to sea on the tide, until only they are left standing, alone on the otherwise deserted beach.

All four have the same experience, of seeing their three companions floating away and being lost to sight, until only they themselves are left on the beach.

Yet there is only one beach.

So the four philosophers have to ask themselves in turn: were we many, or are we one?

– Uncle Bogler

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The cult of the individual pursued

Poor Mayor Boris Johnson. Been in trouble again, arguing the benefits of greed and inequality at a Margaret Thatcher Memorial Blowout last week. No-one spotted he was being half ironic.

Today we learn that some foreign poll has placed Britain 26th on the league table of academic achievement, and we’re fretting again. Why is our kids so stoopid? Must be the fualt of them teechers… Why can’t we be more like the Koreans, with their 24-hour school day?

Actually, I’m quite old and bored with these arguments. It’s been going on since I were a lad. I had a fabulously privileged upbringing with an account at Harrods and a Top 5 public-school education. Today I’m wearing a woolly hat and scarf, sitting with the lights off in a workman’s cottage sandwiched between a council estate and a thunderous main road in the outskirts of an architecturally challenged small town on the windy Welsh coast, staring in horrified fascination at the dwindling remains of my savings and wondering how to survive until I can collect my State pension.

Some disconnect there?

Despite having spent four years at supposedly one of the best independent schools in the country, and with a couple of good A-levels and a pass grade in Economics by the age of 16, my privilege didn’t get me to university. Thanks to my 98% in Latin and 86% in ancient Greek and other goodish results at Common Entrance, when I arrived at the school in the notorious winter of 1962/3 I found myself thrust into the top form of the top stream, two years ahead of my cohort. I was still only 12 years old, I was waving, and then I drowned.

To tell the truth, I was in emotional turmoil. My parents were going through a messy divorce and you had no counselling in those days. Relentlessly pursued for sex by older boys, I found myself in a world of ludicrous ‘privileges’ and bizarre made-up rules, forced to get up at 6 am, cold bath in summer, fumble with collar-studs, lesson before breakfast, banged-up with two other boys in a study for ‘prep’ in the evening, organised games every day, half-starved on appalling food and half-frozen to death. Worse was the sheer boredom.

Sure, some boys I knew then must have wound-up as generals, schoolmasters or high court judges; most would have become provincial solicitors, shopkeepers or owners of SMEs; I finished up as a domestic servant. Not so bad, eh? My seven years of working as a caretaker were spent mostly in a 20-room country mansion recently acquired by a man whose mum and dad had a barrow in an East London street market. Barely schooled, he owned over 300 companies worldwide. A lesson there, surely?

Stuck – by total contrast – in a tiny, underresourced rural Welsh comprehensive, forced to accommodate to an outlandish language and militantly nationalistic subculture, where the careers adviser would routinely suggest either the army or hairdressing as the pinnacle of aspiration, both my kids did better than me. My daughter graduated last year, the boy is still at university.

The point is, I think, that generalisations make bad practice. The PISA report is talking about tested academic performance by subject area, and (I now think) there is no correlation at all between academic performance at secondary level, and subsequent personal success or national GDP improvement.

What a pupil can achieve now in a test is no guarantee of future progress or the improbability of it. After all, I was supposedly as clever as a bagfull of monkeys. To gauge the state of a country’s educational establishment, you need to look at individual outcomes, ten or even twenty years down the line. It is a fact, or rather two facts, that around 90 out of the top 100 most successful UK entrepreneurs don’t have university degrees; while Britain far outstrips better performing countries like Norway, Finland, Singapore and Korea when it comes to individual performance in the key creative fields of science, maths, literature, music and design.

It seems counterintuitive. Is this the result of greed and inequality? I believe, yes. But not necessarily for the same reasons as BoJo. Greed and inequality are not good things in themselves: but they make for more exciting times.

The most successful countries in terms of the test results are all countries where the society is flatter than in class-ridden old Britain. But which country has the greatest number of Nobel laureates, patents filed, world-changing inventions, Top 20 chart hits worldwide, successful transfers of TV comedy shows and stage musicals, global movie- star-names, innovative architects, car and fashion designers working at the top level for the leading international brands, company start-ups, advanced motor engineering labs, victorious military engagements, world-renowned research institutions, medical advances, financial service providers, etc., etc.?

One Nokia, Proton or Daewoo doth not an innovative national culture make.

I believe that highly stratified societies generate more creative energy. But that is not to support inequality, only to celebrate difference.

While our society is highly stratified – the ‘class system’ at work – it is not wealth and privilege that buy success. Quite the opposite. True, the upper echelon all went to schools like mine. So what? Google as I might, I cannot find that any of my cohort has gone on to achieve great things in the 50 years since we were parsing Cicero together (actually, I forget what ‘parsing’ is! But we did a lot of it). Some successful people may have emerged from privileged backgrounds, inheriting seats on boards or doing well in the traditional professions, the military, academia or the law, but many more live on their income from family investments and contribute little to innovation.

And many like me may have subsided genteelly onto the scrapheap, perhaps cushioned by their dwindling Trust funds but essentially economically useless. Privilege makes no difference. Looking at the leading innovators, we tend to find that countries with more stratified societies like Britain do better when their teenagers go through an average, general education of no great distinction, doing neither badly nor spectacularly well.

Coincidentally, there has been quite a number of top British scientists on the radio lately, talking about their careers. All of them were pre-eminent in their field, noted for their discoveries, laden with awards and gongs and prestigious professorships. What struck me about all of them was how they related being only average at school, being educated in the state sector – some had dreadful reports and tales of being told they would never succeed at anything. Several of them had come to science, only after awitching out of Humanities degree courses at university.

Last night I watched an interview on the news with a Korean girl of 15. She starts school at half-past six, finishes at 5 pm then goes straight on to a crammer, where she has more school until 10.30 pm, when she comes home and does homework. She goes to bed at 2 am and gets up at six. Her mother says she is ashamed to have to make her daughter live like this, but it is the only way to succeed in the competitive Korean society.

Western psychologists agree, the average 15-year-old’s healthy mental development depends on getting nine hours’ sleep a night. Adolescence is a time of tremendous changes, and the last thing an adolescent needs is more stress. The child spoke in a flat, exhausted monotone – which is how she will probably spend the rest of her life, working long hours in some low-grade banking job and going home alone to a numbered box-room in a featureless apartment block.

In a society where everyone is on level-pegging, that probably counts as success. In a more stratified society, there is an incentive to obtain more from life, whatever hand it has dealt you. Greed? Inequality? If you believe in those, the natural corollary is to value the criminal urge too! Look, flat societies are more, not less competitive; but for a limited range of jobs, in which opportunities to innovate are few and far between. In a stratified society, there are more options. They are less competitive in that sense, making it easier to stand out. They value individual creative expression over uniform greyness.

Increasingly, though, we are coming to live more like Koreans. North Koreans! Headline-averse politicians with their endless ‘initiatives’, successive meddlesome education secretaries cheerfully ‘learning lessons’ from ghastly, uniformitarian regimes elsewhere are seeing to that. Uniformity is being forced on us by rafts of oppressive new social legislation imposing rules on every aspect of human behaviour; upheld by morally rigid, intrusive policing. It is living by numbers. (Meanwhile I read that 350,000 Britons are dependent on free food banks to get enough to eat. I am in favour of inequality, but it is inexcusable that our politicians haven’t the guts or the nous to deliver a fairer society.)

All, save for the cult of the individual, which we must protect at all costs. Individuals like BoJo, in fact.

Dr Who? Oh, sorry – wrong number!

A propos the possible problems of mistaken identity, referred to in an earlier Post…

I mentioned in passing that when I Googled myself once, I discovered I was a black Baptist minister in Georgia, USA, desperately hoping on his website to overturn a criminal conviction for playing not-nice with the little choirboys and girls.

In reality I am an underemployed white atheist with no convictions whatsoever, living in Wales. My fellow choir members are all well over 50 and, like me, have given up sex as an embarrassing, messy and pointless activity. Although we do sing Georgian three-part harmony – the other Georgia, that is. The one on the Black Sea. So there’s a connection. Sort-of.)

The minister and I share very similar names. Not the same name, but close enough to come top in the Google ranking.

Now, I don’t suppose a prospective employer is seriously going to confuse me with my near-namesake in America. But I noticed soon after mentioning it on my bogl, that I had begun to receive at least six communications a day in my e-mail Spam filter, from dating sites in the USA, specialising in matching-up black singles: one of whom I am quite obviously not. (Nor do I live in the USA.)

How does that happen, then?

Also, the number of marketing messages I get, inviting me to take out a Payday loan, seems to fluctuate quite accurately according to the state of my current account imbalance. Decidedly fishy? Or is it just the time of the month? Do you get more offers, the nearer they assume your payday must be? Only, I don’t have a payday. I’m unemployed. So no cigar, Mr Loan-shark.

Do you maybe notice these connections more when they relate to something that has immediate relevance to you, however tenuous? Or is my bogl leaking into the flogosphere*?

I think we should be told.

*Flogosphere (n): the increasing volume of internet traffic devoted to selling you totally misdirected goods and services**.

**For instance, my son once demanded that I order for him online, as a Christmas present, a deeply self-incriminating training manual for snipers (he is obsessed with military things). For months after, Amazing.uk imagined I was some kind of Special Forces operative, and tried to sell me all kinds of instructional literature for more efficient killing…

Postscriptum

Hey, my first “two Likes” Post! Progress.

The knottiness of stringiness

Compulsive Followers – those who are not still obsessed with the old Pages parked for convenience on this bogl and which I am considering taking down as they are of purely archival interest and a distraction from the main theme – will by now have resolved the many clues set for them in these, my Posts, into two key scenarios, that should (if all goes according to plan) assure me of the most bearable descent I can manage into inexorable madness and death.

Plan A merely requires me to sell my little house in the thunderous outskirts of a bustling seaside town, to take the money and acquire a retirement home somewhere in the imaginary land I call Portugal. So great is the disparity in property prices, that even after paying the sales and acquisition fees and removal costs I should have sufficient funds to swim in until I start receiving the State pension. I shall take with me only Hunzi, my best guitar and the permit I obtained last year, despite everything, to preach English grammar to the heathen.

Not mutually exclusive, Plan B is where I find work as a gardien or jardinier for the wealthy absentee owners of an agreeable chateau somewhere in France, where I do at least speak the lingo. The job provides a roof over my head and pocket money; in which eventuality, I can rent my house out and live well on the income, visiting louche cafes and jazz clubs, a boulevardier or flaneur. In a year or two’s time, I sell the house and buy a small retirement… etcetera, which I can rent out and live… etcetera, until I eventually retire there, and… so on.

You wouldn’t think it would be so difficult. But, as I have Posted several times – you may be getting bored with this theme, but hang on, because I am about to tell you something else about an extraordinary thing that happened, that only happens to be thematically related – it has been proving difficult to achieve either ambition.

Just slipping off last month’s radar is a Post in which I wrote you about how my estate agent fired me because they hadn’t sold my house, two weeks ago last Monday. Well, dear Reader, this week (despite being told to f- off) they dramatically resurfaced to tell me, as they are legally obliged to do, that one of the dribble of disinterested viewers they dragged round has come back to them with an OFFER! (Of course it is not nearly enough, I had to turn it down. Do total strangers really expect me to make them a Christmas present of twenty grand? – but the principle is the same.)

Amazing coincidence

Immediately before the email popped into my in-tray, I was sitting here with my head in my hands, gazing in horrified fascination at the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – a bleak future involving self-mummification, perhaps gnawed by cats. At the very same moment as the email arrived, with its offer to buy my house, and I leant forward wearily to reply to it, the phone rang. It was a French voice asking if I was indeed me? who had enquired about an advertised job several weeks ago; and, for the next hour, we discussed the role of Gardener and Caretaker at his agreeable chateau.

You would imagine that fabulous coincidences – I have been waiting for over a year for either of these things to happen, but not necessarily together in the same minute – have positive outcomes. Not necessarily. Many, many years ago in London, a city of six million souls, I met a pretty girl at a party. I was too shy to ask for a date. Two days later, I got on an underground train at Leicester Square at the height of the morning rush hour, and found myself standing next to her. The date however was a disaster, she spent the night on the floor (which indicates how disastrously things had gone, as I am a gentlemanly sort and would normally have offered her the bed) and we never spoke again.

The head is a large one, and heavy. It is once again propped on my hands (okay, poetic licence – you can’t prop and type at the same time). I am gazing once more in despair at a future I have unintentionally created for myself: making poor decisions, succumbing to inertia, swearing at people in the street, wearing a woolly hat and scarf in the house… etcetera, that I cannot apparently change.

But I am a collector of nice concidences, and for these two opportunities – I’d call them ‘serving suggestions’, morsels pictured temptingly on the microwaveable twin-pack of life – to pop up completely out of the blue and simultaneously, and so much in tune with my desires at the time shows, I think, that string theory is not so far-fetched. It’s all tied up together. And so to science, I posit the quality of temporal knottiness in the Universal stringiness!

That is, if Someone Up There isn’t taking the piss – again.

 

Postscriptum

Yep, they were. (27 June, 2014 – still here.)

Identifying the problem

One evening in 1976 my then-wife and I were leaving a movie theatre in west London to walk back to our car parked nearby, when I noticed that a drab-looking fellow in a raincoat appeared to be following us. We took a detour around the block and sure enough, he was still there. Being a belligerent sort, I marched up to him and demanded to know who he was and what he was doing. He didn’t answer, just turned and walked away.

At that time my wife had recently been in hospital, where she made friends with the woman in the next bed, who happened to be married to an officer in the Diplomatic Patrol Group of the Metropolitan Police. Over drinks, we mentioned that we seemed to be being followed everywhere. The next time we met up, the husband confided that we both had a Special Branch file. That was the end of the friendship, but the following seemed to stop.

The only thing we could think of that the surveillance could relate to was an incident earlier that year at my wife’s work. A journalist, London-born of Irish extraction, Trish was Chief Reporter at London’s Capital Radio. One day, the newsroom got a report of a security alert at Heathrow airport, to which for the first time in decades on the UK mainland the army had been called out. Trish was despatched to the airport, where she commandeered a taxi to drive her round the perimeter road.

Finding no army or police presence anywhere, Trish returned to Terminal One to try to get an interview with the BAA’s press office. At that point, armed police arrived on the scene and arrested her, accusing her of having breached a security cordon. Her press pass was taken away, and she was interrogated for two hours before a colleague turned up and rescued her, the editor having pulled strings at Scotland Yard to get her released.

This nasty and unnecessary incident had absolutely nothing to do with me, as I was off working in another part of the country. But I was still clearly suspected of some kind of terrorist link, if the surveillance was not merely heavy-handed police intimidation. (Interestingly, I have recently discovered that my grandfather was a senior officer in British Intelligence before, during and probably after WW11.)

Not long afterwards, I tried to get my old job back at the BBC – I’d gone off to work in the commercial sector – and was told nothing doing – don’t even bother applying. Was there a connection?

Over my rather strange career since, I have often found myself looking for work, and got to the interview stage with positive signals all round, only to find that my application has been quietly buried shortly afterwards.

And while I was until recently listed with no fewer than SEVENTEEN agencies specialising in recruiting people with my specific experience, I was offered only one interview in four years. That too seemed to go well, but I heard nothing afterwards, either from the employer or the agency, who ignored my email. One of the other agencies did arrange an interview for me with a client, but cancelled it the night before with no explanation.

Most recently I was actually offered a job, and accepted it; but shortly afterwards, having briefed a solicitor to draw up a formal contract of employment for me, the employer seemed to change their mind and there was no contract. What contract? What offer? No, no, we must make sure you are a ‘fit and proper person’… Was that some kind of hint? Why wouldn’t I be ‘fit and proper’? I’d just had seven years’ experience in a similar job.

It surely cannot be the case that a dead-end police investigation thirty-seven years ago is still hanging around to haunt me? I have tried asking employers who have turned me down if they would feel able to tell me why, but have never received a reply. It’s like there is something in my background, something they can see when they check on me, that isn’t immediately obvious to me. What?

Of course, it is illegal to tell an applicant, if you have obtained information concerning their criminal past, just what that information is. Only a Chief Constable has the power to do that. Is it why I can’t persuade anyone to tell me why they have quietly dumped me? But I have no criminal past! My only convictions are vaguely Centrist. I must be one of the few people in the country who has had a clean driving licence for over ten years – and I’m not on any banned lists, as far as I know.

So could it be a problem with a credit check?

Nowadays, I don’t carry a load of debt. While the average family debt in Britain is £54,000 (a truly shocking figure amounting to £1.4 TRILLION!), the little that is in my savings account would about cover everything I owe. I own my house outright, so the banks don’t have a headlock on me. But I don’t have a regular job to provide a regular income. And I live a pretty simple life.

So my credit score is only poor to middling: my consumer economy is too far below the radar to earn a triple-A. Would an employer wanting to fill a position of trust back away from someone who repaid a £20k bank loan over six years without defaulting, even though doing it damaged their credit rating for that length of time? Maybe, if they didn’t look closely enough. Easier just to say no.

And who is the other me? I mean, the bloke on Facebook who has my unusual name posted next to the photograph of a younger, darker-looking man who is definitely not me? Are we looking at a possible case of mistaken identity? Is the mistrust a result of the disparity between my account of myself in my CV and the online Profile of someone with my name, who isn’t me?

I believe there can be only one of me, because the spelling of my family name is unique. I know of no relation of mine with the same Christian name. But a casual fly-by check on social media could produce the wrong impression, why not? I once Googled myself, only to find that I’m a black Baptist minister in Georgia, convicted of child abuse….  People need to be careful if they are running checks, to get the right guy – I don’t have a Facebook account, by the way.

Possibly, I am paranoid. A classic symptom of depression is a powerful feeling of guilt, a neurotic foreboding that you have done something terrible in the past that will one day catch up with you, for which you deserve to be punished. (See Larkin, Philip: ‘Your mum and dad, they fuck you up…’)

Whatever the reason, I don’t seem to be getting anywhere in my life at present, and it’s irking me. Wake up, world of work, you’re wasting my talent and my time, sitting here having to write this stuff.

Just sell the house. Retire. Go.

Living the artistic life (la vie artisanale)

“You’ve been blessed with considerable artistic talent. Making your own clothes, creating delicious meals out of table scraps and decorating with salvaged materials will all be worthwhile ways to exercise this gift.”

Now, after the amazing horoscope I had last week from Yahoo!, that I Posted for you, telling me with unswerving accuracy that I was severely depressed and should undertake a project, I’ve reprinted the above quote from my Yahoo! yearly forecast, which still has a month or so to run, for 2013.

It doesn’t sound like much of a life, making clothes out of fish heads and broccoli stalks (Lady Gaga is one of my very oldest friends), lining my sitting-room with shredded car tyres and a skipful of my shoes retrieved from the community recycling centre, as they weren’t being sent to India at all, they were just overflowing into the parking lot.

True, my blessed artistic talent tends to be what has got in the way of a more rewarding career. But at least I can say I have done it! I have lived the artistic life in 2013, that’s for sure. I just wish I had a pair of trousers with a working zip fastener to go out in. Zippers are the very devil to hemstitch.