The Numbers Game

Just a numbers game, innit? Let’s see; Schiffman, talking about the art of Cold Calling, points out that a third of sales calls are guaranteed to be successful, while a third are destined to fail. He also claims that sales people make hundreds of calls to prospective clients every month, which generate dozens of appointments…and he includes the homily that ‘every time you pick up the phone, you’re getting closer to a yes.’

I was reminded of this by a recent news item concerning an unemployed history graduate who claimed to have applied for thousands of jobs.

A desperate jobseeker who applied for 15,000 jobs with no success in the past ten years has resorted to advertising himself by wearing a ‘hire me’ sandwich board.” [Daily Mail, 22 May 2012]

And I began to wonder; is there any reason to suppose that everyone will eventually find a job if they post enough applications? Will everyone find a spouse if they just spend enough time chatting people up in bars or checkout queues? Will everybody end up coming first in the two-hundred metres if they only take part in enough races? Or are there some people damned to spend their lives alone and jobless?

If an individual receives 349 rejection letters from job applications before finally landing a post, is it logical to think that the preceding catalogue of failures contributed in any way to the eventual acceptance by an employer? Or would the candidate have been better off sitting at home watching daytime TV and playing the clarinet, finally sending off a single application that arrived on the right desk at the right time?

There seems no reason to think that hundreds of job application letters will inevitably result in success; because a coin lands heads-up twenty times in a row does not make it any more likely that the next flip will give tails. There is no reason to believe that a gambler who buys five lottery tickets every week will inevitably win a jackpot after a certain number of years. The realm of fairness and balance and justice – where regular purchase of lottery tickets is rewarded by sudden, intoxicating wealth – is an illusion. Although spare a thought for poor Madame Descoings in The Black Sheep; she resolutely places a bet on the same three numbers in the weekly lottery, until one day her savings are stolen by the dashing young ex-soldier Philippe. Balzac shows no mercy, forcing us to watch helplessly as he casts this gentle creature into financial despair.

Consider the practical aspect of applying for huge numbers of jobs; if it takes twenty minutes to craft a half-decent job application, then to send out five hundred will take up about 170 hours – or seven whole days and nights. And if these letters are all completely futile, then those seven days could be spent doing something pleasant instead of generating anxiety.

Of course, part of the problem is that candidates are rarely told the reason for their rejection; normally a Human Resource department will despatch a letter containing only a soothing platitude – ‘some of the candidates appeared to have more relevant experience…’

Yes, it is just a numbers game, but for some people the numbers are astronomical, and we should teach youngsters to accept that a good job, comfortable lifestyle and happy marriage are not available to all.

Meanwhile, the lovely Adrian Beecroft, millionaire vulture capitalist and keen supporter of payday loans, has produced a report commissioned for the Government to explore options for achieving growth in the UK economy by reforming employment law. One of his proposals (to no-one’s surprise) calls for the abolition of unfair dismissal tribunals, and sets out the case for employers to be able to dismiss workers at short notice, for no reason, and without payment.
Employers’ representatives have claimed this is a triumph for common sense, and will encourage bosses to take on more workers thus leading to enhanced growth. Some of the more cynical sections of the press have suggested that the money saved by reducing headcount will end up being skilfully reinvested in Directors’ pension funds. At the same time, the Department for Work and Pensions is to gain new powers to force unemployed benefit claimants to perform unpaid work in retail outlets, and it is not hard to see how these two policies might neatly dovetail…

Priest, Schubert, etc…

It does seem odd that Donna Summer should have died on the same day as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Dieskau…’disco’…geddit? Oh, suit yourself…). DFD was of course famous for his performances of Schubert, and one of my final memories before leaving Cornwall in 2010 is of listening to selected Schubert songs as part of the journey From Enlightenment to Romanticism, which I was making with the Open Uni.
Returning to the notes from that course, I find that Fischer-Dieskau appeared in only a single performance, the Zeller setting of Goethe’s Harfenspieler I. All the other songs are taken from recordings by a range of different artistes: Felicity Lott, Olaf Bär, Matthias Goerne etc.
In particular we were required to discuss how Schubert settings of Goethe could illustrate the idea of a ‘family resemblance’ between typically Romantic works of Art, rather than there being a ‘common essence’.
In 1980 I do not think I had ever heard a note of Schubert, and I had never heard of the writer Goethe; nor had I ever attended a rock music concert. Which is a great pity, for in 1979 Judas Priest released their live album ‘Unleashed in the East’, which included in the LP sleeve a chart of merchandise and forthcoming tour dates. March 1980 would see the lovely Rob and his merry men scampering about the UK, from Bristol to Manchester to Leicester to London, and so on before finally arriving in Birmingham for a grand pulsating climax at the Odeon in New Street.
(It was so common for people in B’ham to arrange to meet outside the Odeon that I formed a theory; if you waited there long enough, everyone you had ever known would at some point walk past…)
And in addition to the tour dates, this pull-out chart carried details of ticket prices for the various venues: mostly £2.25 to £3.75, except for the Hammersmith Odeon which charged a ruinous £4.00 for their best seats. Disgraceful!
I imagine the band was keen to make the most of their fifteen minutes of fame, and they would have laughed if anyone had said that thirty years later JP would release an album called ‘Nostradamus’.

Journal Entry, Fri 6 Feb 98:
Several weeks ago at work, Mike told us that we would soon be informed of the nature of lab reorganisation. Today at 1.30 we had a meeting in the Boardroom and he explained that the lab would now consist of five teams – Vehicle, Industrial Development, Process Improvement, Health & Safety, and Colour.
Proc Imp consists of me, Graham and Andy. Need I say more?
Everyone was in uproar because we were given no warning and no consultation. Made it obvious that I wasn’t happy, saying that it was cause I’d been moved out of Ind Dev.
Should be fun on Monday when Mr Squirm gets in.
It turned out that we had quoted a range of prices to VL based on incorrect RM resin cost, and that to fulfil this commitment would cause a shortfall of 300 grand.

11 Feb 98:
Today at work we were discussing the reorganisation and Mark said “No-one seems to have thought out what these teams are going to be like, for example Tim and Andy might not even get on together.” Which was hardly subtle.

13 Feb 98:
Today Mike called us in one-by-one to discuss our roles in the new reorganised lab.  I told him that the changeover has been badly handled. Also mentioned to him that appraisals (according to an article in JOCCA by some famous bloke called Deming) were counterproductive, causing divisiveness and friction.
Possible salary review in Summer: I said that ‘everyone in the lab thinks talk is cheap, and we reckon the company pays what it can get away with.’
Every time we have a team briefing, the report opens with “Sales continue to be below budget making it essential to keep all costs to a minimum.”  Like a mantra, bleat bleat….

17 Mar 98:
Last Friday zoomed down to Wood End, arrived at Robbie’s to find house empty. Five mins later he returned avec les chiens, saw my hair (shaved head) and shrieked ‘Oh My God!’ then spotted the new bike (CB500) and said ‘You’ve never ridden down on that thing? My, we have got a silver machine!’

Twenty Kilos of Pu

In the news, 20 May 2012: convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi has died, three years after being released from prison. Apparently he was seriously ill with cancer and had just a few months left. The whole case has thrown up loads of conspiracy theories regarding who actually carried out the bombing…

Journal entry, Sat 3 Feb 2001:
Rejection letter from Avecia. Not brisk and rude, but fairly long. Spent last night writing out German notes.
On Radio 2 – early Cliff Richard recordings in Spanish.
In the news:
Corus (British Steel as was) to cut UK production by 20 percent and get rid of 6000 workers. Chairman Brian Moffat has blamed the gov’t for creating unfavourable economic conditions.
Meanwhile Khalifa Fhimah has returned to Tripoli after having been acquitted of the Lockerbie bombing (Pan-Am flight 103), and is pictured with Col Gaddafi (who looks like a drag queen).
BBC coverage of the forthcoming Gen Election is to be handled by a team of women reporters.
The Pine Island Glacier, largest on West Antarctic, has started to melt away rapidly.
Gov’t has announced a £600m pay deal for teaching industry. Starting salaries outside London up to 17k. Wow!
Following Indian earthquake (Bhuj, in Gujarat) about 15000 bodies have been recovered but the same number is trapped beneath destroyed buildings and epidemics of cholera and typhoid expected.
Have just noticed that my NI number is incorrect on Allied Dunbar pensions letter.

Journal entry, Tue 11 Sep 2011:
Quiet day; nothing much happened until this afternoon when the World Trade Centre and Pentagon were attacked by suicide bombers using hijacked passenger jets.
Colossal mayhem and destruction: all flights suspended, London Stock Exchange closed for security.

(May 2012 Commentary: one of the passengers on board United Flight 93 at 9/11 was a keen rugby player called Mark Bingham, in whose memory an international tournament is held every two years. The Bingham Trophy games are due to start in Manchester in a week’s time)

Journal entry, Fri 27 Apr 2001:
Went up to Hilton Hotel on the A6 (interview). Met David Keen and chatted all about my career etc. Mentioned karate; his colleague does some and is giving a demo at the NIA tomorrow.
Talked about bike rallies – MAG – German classes – ECDL – UV moulding of things from resin.
Went along to Mason’s, found the place in upheaval, lots of people made redundant, shifted out to W Brom and Bury. Saw Mike H, Daves Williams, Tommo and Redfern, and Keithy W.
Went to Bike-Tec, booked in for new chain and sprockets.
Today’s post: application form for Malcolm Enamellers – wanted lots of info; bank details, trade union membership, number of children etc. But form carries no company name, address or phone no, so I tore up and threw away.

Three Systems

So, farewell then, Tamworth;
For even as we speak there are
Twenty kilos of plutonium heading
Your way. And while it won’t exactly
Break my heart to see
You looking like the surface of the moon
I have to say it won’t
Have come a day too soon.

Goodbye, my home town, Tamworth;
Would anyone have ever guessed that
All those years of mining coal
Had left you sitting on an empty cave?
And though it’s obviously for the best
It was a shame, that cold October night
When cars and houses, people, trees
And dogs were swallowed by the friendly earth.

No-one bought a mirror in Tamworth
After the day the virus came to town;
Some people kept their sight if not their faces
And stepping round the pools of blood
Continued on their merry way, in search
Of all the cheap distractions that you find
From time to time in quiet places
When all one wants is to be left behind.
(25 Nov 2000)

Other news: Donna Summer and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died on Thursday. How spooky is that? There is widespread alarm at the prospect of the Greek economy imploding. Fortunately, the ECB is ready to come to the rescue by pumping untold billions of Euros into struggling financial empires – Ireland, Portugal, Spain. It’s great to know that countries can receive endless bail-outs whan they can’t export any manufactured goods; a bit like the UK, where the jobless are paid to sit at home and fester. Welcome to dystopia!

Work Hard, Young Man!

The other day I spotted a news item in which William Hague, UK Foreign Secretary (and one-time Conservative Party leader) announced that the only way for the  economy to escape from the current recession was for people to ‘Work Harder’.

‘Yes!’ I thought, on reading this: we need someone young and dynamic to revive the good old work ethic. ..think of how many opportunities there are for people to work harder.

For instance, there are  over 500,000 lorry drivers in the UK hauling their cargo of chemicals, components and clothes. Surely each of them could be persuaded to drive a little faster and spend a few more hours behind the wheel?

The fast food industry employs thousands of people in Britain; they could work harder by hurling burgers and fries at customers instead of handing them across in a pleasant manner.

The UK also has about 3000 undertakers; surely they could be made to work harder, by conducting two or three funerals together instead of the leisurely one-at-a-time approach. Of course, this leads on to the Dave Allen comedy sketch in which two rival undertakers take part in a race to the cemetery.

There are 11,000 dairy farmers in the UK; they could work harder, for instance by fitting their cattle with roller-skates to get them around the yard more quickly. And there are about 120,000 bus-drivers, who are obviously not working hard enough; if they were to ignore waiting passengers it would improve efficiency no end.

In the UK, we also have 530 art galleries and dozens of concert-halls; the gallery staff could work harder by hustling visitors quickly from one painting to the next, while the concert venue managers could persuade performers to play louder and more quickly. The idea of ‘louder and faster’ could also be applied to church services, which would make it harder work for the congregation as well as the clergy (except for Ian Paisley, who has attained suitably impressive heights of volume already, thank you).

Yes, we need someone to launch a new Crusade of Zingy Wowness, to restore Vim and Vigour to Britain. I could see future vast horizons of gleaming factory towers and roads and cars and busy housing estates filled with joyous, motivated workers…

…and then I found myself going to The Richmond Tea Rooms for an afternoon drink. Civilised tranquillity; I was surrounded by light, floral curtains, elegant and unmatched furniture, and lace tablecloths. A pot of Ceylon tea arrived, with a strainer; in the background, mellow swing and jazz numbers from the thirties and forties played to create a relaxed atmosphere. And I realised that we do not need to be told to ‘work harder’; sometimes, we need to sit back and unwind, to enjoy the whimsical delights of British culture – afternoon tea, darlings? But of course!

Please, no more exhortations to hard work; we’ve tried that it the past, and it’s not really us, is it?

The Xorpyl Manifesto

Some brief anecdotes, together with a news item: The Xorpyl Manifesto

In Jan 1992, I attended a job interview at Xorpyl Paints in Birmingham. When I returned to Oxford the same day I found my housemates in a state of great excitement: “Where have you been! The agency keeps ringing to speak to you – they want to offer you the job!” Two weeks later I rang the agency to ask why no letter had arrived, only to be told that the firm had cancelled all their plans for recruitment.

In Feb 1992 I went for another interview at Xorpyl, this time in a different department. While I was describing my research work, the interviewer cut me short, impatiently saying “Yes yes, all very interesting, but you’ve got no experience. We don’t really need anyone with your background, and we don’t think you’d fit in here.”

I was eventually offered the job at Xorpyl, and on my first day was taken to see the chief accountant. ‘Right, and where have you come from?’ he asked. I told him I had been living in Oxford; ‘No, no’ he said, ‘I mean which paint firm were you at before?’
When I said that I had never worked in the paint industry, he stopped writing and turned a look of scorn on my boss.

In 1995, after I had been with the company for about three years, the production manager called everyone into a meeting. He had discovered the scurrilous graffiti in the mens’ toilets, and harangued us in furious Anglo-Saxon. The following day he arranged for the writing to be cleaned off, and had a Yale lock fitted to the toilets, so that all the lab staff had to approach the Lab Manager – like the show Blockbusters – asking ‘Can I have a pee please, Bob?’

Then in 1996, having moved to our new site at Laxworth, we were regularly called upon to carry out cleaning duties as unpaid overtime; this would typically involve one hour twice a week. However, on one occasion we were ordered to report for cleaning duties on Saturday morning; this proved too much, and I decided to approach the MSF trade union for advice – a risky move, since union membership was banned at Xorpyl.

Popular phrases commonly used at Xorpyl included ‘Is there a problem with that?’, ‘You’re not here to think, you’re here to work’, and ‘To err is human; to forgive is not company policy’. The senior lab managers operated a confrontational approach, withholding all technical information from lab staff and having no career development programmes.

The following article shows a long-term strategic approach taken by Xorpyl Paints Ltd, a small manufacturing firm in Birmingham (‘Business Credit News UK’, 15/06/97;


Company representatives attended meetings at a Birmingham hotel organised in the name of the Harland Golfing Society – but their real purpose was to agree not to undercut each other’s prices.

Their firms, which make powder paints, undertook to the Restrictive Practices Court in London last week not to enter into a price-fixing cartel in future.

Mr Justice Ferris, in making orders under the Restrictive Trade Practices Act 1976, was pleased to note that the respondents had not only offered undertakings to the court, but had also given indications of the compliance procedures they had taken or were taking.

The judge emphasised the need for effective measures to comply with such undertakings to be in place, the continuing process of compliance procedures, and that severe penalties could be imposed if such procedures broke down.

The court was told that the representatives reached an agreement to share information on prices charged to individual customers. Informal consultations took place between 1985 and 1993. The purpose was to prevent a competitor quoting to potential customers prices which would undercut the incumbent supplier.

A second agreement was reached by seven of the companies at a meeting which took place shortly after the devaluation of sterling against the D-Mark in September 1992. The devaluation substantially increased the prices of raw materials for UK manufacturers. The seven agreed to seek a multilateral price increase of 8.5% on their products.

Miss Pat Edwards, Legal Director at the Office of Fair Trading, said: The parties appear to have been aware that their conduct was unlawful, given that they used an assumed name to book hotel conference facilities.

‘Prior to the commencement of the proceedings, some of the companies submitted to the Office of Fair Trading that the pricing collusion had been organised and operated by employees without the authority of the companies.

The House of Lords ruled in 1994 that this argument is not acceptable. Companies are responsible in law when their employees participate in unlawful cartel agreements.’

The nine companies who were party to the price notification and maintenance agreement are:

Akzo Powder Coatings Limited (Staffs), Xorpyl Paints Limited, Croda Polymers International Limited, Ferro (Great Britain) Limited (West Mids), Herberts Powder Coatings Limited (Co. Durham), Holden Surface Coatings Limited , Courtaulds Coatings (Holdings) Limited, Sonneborn&Rieck Limited (Essex) and Trimite Limited (Avon). The seven companies which were party to the price-raising agreement of 21 October 1992 were Akzo Powder Coatings Limited, Herberts Powder Coatings Limited, Holden Surface Coatings Limited, Courtaulds Coatings (Holdings) Limited, Croda Polymers International Limited, Sonneborn&Rieck Limited and Ferro (Great Britain) Limited.

Powder coatings are a relatively modern alternative to traditional ( wet’) paint and are made from various raw materials including epoxy and polyester resins, pigments, hardeners and extenders. A high proportion of these components are imported from Germany or other countries whose currencies are linked to the D-Mark.

The collusive behaviour was categorised under two main headings:

  1. Price-swapping (whereby the      nine participants agreed to exchange information on prices currently being      charged to individual clients) and
  2. Price-fixing (whereby the      seven participants agreed at a meeting in October 1992 to impose a      multilateral price increase of 8.5% on their powder coatings.)

Under the Restrictive Trade Practices Act 1976, details of agreements between two or more persons carrying on business within the United Kingdom in the supply of goods of services are required to be furnished to the Director General for registration if two or more of the parties to the agreement accept certain kinds of restriction on their commercial freedom. Failure to furnish an agreement within the time limits specified by the Act renders the restrictions in the agreement void and legally unenforceable.

Section 1 of the Act, subject to certain exceptions, requires the Director General to refer all registered agreements to the Restrictive Practices Court for a ruling as to whether the restrictions in the agreement are against the public interest. The Court may order the parties not to give effect to, or enforce, or try to enforce, the restrictions in the agreement and not to make any other similar agreement. Failure to furnish particulars of an agreement is not a criminal offence, but anyone adversely affected by its operation has grounds for action in the civil courts.

If the details of a registrable agreement are not furnished within the time required by the Act, section 35 empowers the Director General to apply to the Court for an Order to be made restraining any party to an agreement, who carries on business in the United Kingdom, from giving effect to, or enforcing, or trying to enforce, the restrictions in the agreement, or any restrictions in any other registrable agreement, details of which have not been notified in time.

Any breach of an Order made by the Court, or of an undertaking which it has accepted in lieu of an Order, may give rise to proceedings for contempt of court. The Office of Fair Trading operates a task force dedicated to identifying secret price fixing and market sharing cartels, which can be contacted on a 24-hour telephone/fax hot-line number: 0171-269 8888.

Mr Griffith said: “We are determined to ensure that UK consumers have the best protection from unscrupulous traders using unfair contracts.”

At your own risk…

When entering a car park, it is common to see signs on the gates: ‘The company accepts no liability for loss or damage to vehicles or contents, park at your own risk, etc…’
And likewise, a billboard poster may advertise an item of fast food, with the price displayed in huge red letters. In the small print will be found the phrase: ‘Subject to availability, price may change without notice.’
And when a company issues a contract to supply goods or services, the document will include a comprehensive list of terms and conditions which seek to exonerate the organisation in the event of anything going wrong. This gives rise to the farcical ‘Battle of the Forms’, where companies will engage in a tit-for-tat flurry of order acknowledgements, each determined to make their own terms the ones under which the contract will be fulfilled.
This is perfectly understandable, and it would be even better if all companies were obliged to include – as part of their Terms and Conditions, say – the seven Holy Assumptions of rational economics: a version of these appears in Chapter 1 of Strategic Decision Making, ‘Decision Processes’ by Chris Gore et al. These assumptions, all flawed, are:

1             We are pursuing a single economic objective which can be quantified and which maximises the utility of the decision maker.

2             Decision-makers maintain consistent and transitive preferences for their objectives.

3             All the parties involved have unlimited ability to process information and an awareness of their own self-interest.

4             There are a small number of clearly defined, mutually exclusive alternatives.

5             The outcomes of each alternative can be perfectly evaluated in terms of likelihood and cost.

6             The selected alternative will be that which maximises the ‘expected utility’.

7             We will have Immediate access to unlimited, relevant information.

By acknowledging the presence of these assumptions – and thus inviting clients and business partners to challenge them – we could arrive at a more satisfying outcome, with agents prepared to acknowledge liability for specific shortcomings.

It was while reading Gore’s article that I encountered a phrase not seen for many years: Leicester Polytechnic. This institution and others like it gave the UK a generation of skilled technical and creative workers including Kevin Whately and Rodney Bickerstaff (Newcastle), Gordon Taylor and Julie Walters (Manchester) and, from Leicester, Janet Reger and Simon Stanford. I wonder if the latter ever read a copy of Hugin, the student newspaper (named after one of Odin’s pet ravens, whose task was to fly around the world spreading truth and rumour.

The reference to Leicester Poly in Gore et al comes during a discussion of the decision-making process. A study of 280 corporate decisions found that in 38 percent of cases a single solution was proposed and accepted with no alternatives being considered. Unfortunately, no details of this study are provided; it would be useful to see the financial scale of the 38% compared with that of the entire sample of 280.

But since the upheaval in higher education which took place after 1992, all of the polytechnics have been rebranded as ‘new universities’, instead of maintaining their original status as craft workshops. A great deal of first-class research was carried out at these institutions; however, because of their close ties to industry, many of the projects were covered by confidentiality agreements and so remained unpublished. This led to the widely-held belief that Polys were dull teaching establishments where plumbers went to learn to read and write, while universities were seen as high-octane research generators.

Perhaps the current UK economic crisis (‘Crisis? What crisis?’) will prompt the revival of technical colleges where talented youngsters could learn about arcane topics such as chemistry and engineering, rather than real subjects – entrepreneurship, topline synergstic facilitating and commodity trading. After all, why should anybody bother to work for a living when you can just shuffle funds between time zones and different currencies, then persuade other people to bet on the exchange rate, a process which seems to magic vast sums of money out of nowhere?

Cosmic Steam-Room

According to Pope Pius X, the only truly acceptable form of music for Church use was Gregorian Plainsong; serene and dignified. It could possibly be acceptable for an organ to accompany the choir, but only in the most restrained fashion. He was particularly concerned about the use of any musical instruments:

19. The employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells and the like.

Writing in 1903, Pius must have been aware of Messiah, or the liturgical works by Mozart, Bach or Haydn, many of which include these frivolous drums together with ornate vocal sections. Did Pius regard their sacred compositions as wicked and depraved?

I find myself pondering the notion of Limbo, the metastable cosmic interphase at the outer margins of Hell. For many centuries, the faithful of the Catholic Church were given a doctrine which stated that only those who had been baptised could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Pagans, not undergoing baptism, were thus automatically condemned to Hell. But what of very young children who died before they could receive baptism? And what of those virtuous persons who lived in the years before the Crucifixion?

In The Inferno, Dante gives us a splendid array of torments for the souls of the Damned, whom he divides up into categories much like the socio-economic tribes favoured by market researchers, and his Limbo is an outer circle of Hell reserved for those who have committed no grievous sins. But the early Christians were hostile to the notion of innocence; all people fell into one of two distinct groups, the goodly and the wicked. The virtuous would spend the hereafter enjoying the unutterable bliss of knowing God, while everybody else would suffer everlasting torture at the hands of the Fiend.

I began to wonder whether Pius gave much thought to the idea of Limbo, or to astronomy, or to the nine orders of Angels. Of course, in his day there were no radio telescopes, so the senior Vatican scientists could not have known about the galaxies that stretch for millions of miles across space; and the atomic nucleus had yet to be discovered, so Pius and his advisers had no idea about the tiny beads of energy that make up what we foolishly consider to be the real world. Never mind the number of Angels who can dance on the point of a pin; how many six-winged Seraphim can perch, fluttering like frightened budgies, on a single Quark? Or would one of the Cherubim decide to use galaxy M81(diameter approx 95 thousand light-years) as a beauty-spot?

But Pius, conservative where music was concerned, seemed to take a tender, more humane approach to some serious issues of theology. In his 1905 Catechism, he instructed that the souls of infants who die without receiving baptism are allowed to dwell in Limbo. In this place they are not made to suffer, as required by traditional Catholic teaching; their only loss is the vision of God.
And now we find that the Church, under the supreme guidance of Pope Benedict, is to abandon the idea of Limbo. Neither the Almighty nor his believers can really say that any useful purpose is served by keeping the souls of children in a cosmic steam-room for eternity; and it is not a very far cry from that to suggest that eternal damnation is an excessive reward for human wickedness, no matter how extreme. Indeed, when David Hume claimed to be indifferent to the prospect of death, everyone was horrified. And he would no doubt provoke the same response today.

Ruined Rover

Back in the year 2000 my work colleagues were discussing the decline in standards of English grammar; so many of today’s youngsters (and adults) have a limited grasp of how to express ideas in English. I asked whether anyone could suggest popular writers whose works would give a good example to follow.

Various names were brought up; I proposed Christopher Lee. ‘What, the actor? Does he write books, then?’ they asked.
I bristled indignantly: ‘Christopher Lee is a genius, a towering figure on the European cultural landscape!’ They all looked vaguely surprised at this, then one of my workmates suggested Nevil Shute. I confessed that I’d never read any of his work. ‘Quite good stuff’ said he,‘ simple, clear and straightforward. You might enjoy it.’

So I went to the big library in B’ham and found a copy of ‘Ruined City’. This tale describes a shipbuilding town recovering from industrial decline, helped by a dynamic business manager. Simple and straightforward, yes; but after reading it I was left with something like a faint, persistent hangover, a vague unsettled feeling.

And it was just at this time that the Rover Car Company finally collapsed. What had once been British Leyland, then enjoyed brief engagements with Honda and ownership by BMW, was now given away to a consortium of business leaders who promised to revitalise the car-building trade in the West Midlands. It was poignant to be reading ‘Ruined City’ at the same time as this real-life drama was unfolding just fifteen miles away.

But now it seems the drama has finally come to an end, as the news was announced two days ago that workers laid off during the closure will receive just three pounds redundancy pay. Russian oligarchs are noted for lavish spending, but at least they have something to show – yachts, houses, jewellery – for their financial incontinence. The UK taxpayer, however, has managed to pour millions of pounds into an industrial venture so that each worker can afford to buy a single pint of beer.

The story of Rover (Leyland) will come to be viewed as the hallmark case study for industrial policy; it embodied every possible fault in manufacturing design, erratic accounting, labour management and public relations. With their three pounds payout, each worker could afford to buy two large loaves of bread, or six pints of milk, or two litres of petrol, or even 0.02 square millimetres of Munch’s ‘The Scream’, which was sold at auction last week for $120 million (about 74 million pounds). It is indeed a mad world we occupy where money has no relation to effort or value. Perhaps we need a modern-day Shute to write the story of Longbridge; an epic, expensive tragedy that poisoned the reputation of Birmingham and UK manufacturing in general.

Before reading Homer…

…I usually eat lamb chops and drink a glass of fairly rough Spanish red wine. After all, it seems that the characters in The Iliad can hardly make it through half-a-dozen pages without hurling a sheep onto the bonfire with a manly cry of ‘Have this one, O mighty Zeus!’ or something like that.

Last time I opened my Odyssey, I found myself reading the footnotes which directed the reader to other volumes where he could peruse the habits of the Lotus-Eaters. Odysseus’ crew managed to join the island-dwellers and get stoned on these luscious fruits before being dragged back to the hollow ships by their irate boss, all within the space of half a page. But other 19th century scholars made a living out of footnotes like these and compiled elegant volumes describing the customs of the lotophagi (rather like painters who created forged copies of the pictures seen in the background of real Vermeers). And Tennyson managed to get 170 lines of verse, ending with the sublime exhortation:

          “Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.”

It is odd to think that educated people would once have been expected to know all the minute details of how these (imaginary) island-dwellers lived.

But surely it would be strange for scholars in 1878 to learn that the pharmacology of plants had become so detailed. By inspecting the tomb carvings of ancient Egypt (Khem, hence Chemistry) we find that the lotus was recognised for its psychoactive and aphrodisiac properties. Indeed, Drs Bertol, Fineschi, Karch, Mari and Riezzo, writing in the Feb 2004 issue of J.Royal Soc.Medicine kindly inform us that:

“…apomorphine…is a centrally acting, selective D1/D2
Dopamine agonist, and activation of dopaminergic receptors
In the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus
Initiates a cascade of events ultimately resulting in
Smooth muscle relaxation and vasodilatation
Within the corpora cavernosa, leading to penile erection.”

And if that’s not poetry, I don’t know what is! Perhaps it is no accident that the tale of the lotus-eaters crops up in Book IX of The Odyssey, a scroll dedicated to his account of the Cyclops…

I always stir my wine with a knife;
It sharpens my thoughts and makes my words turn red…

Gold and Shot

Television viewers in the early 1970s didn’t have much in the way of choice; there were three channels, but one of them was severely highbrow and made no concessions to popular taste. Fortunately, the commercial stations were more than happy to cater for the needs of the lower orders, and so on Sunday afternoons you would find my family (like so many others) intently watching The Golden Shot.

This resolutely downmarket gameshow, hosted by evergreen charmer Bob Monkhouse, featured members of the public trying to hit studio targets with a crossbow bolt. The climax of the show called for a viewer – watching on screen at home – to direct the movements of a blindfolded shooter, who attempted to hit the target positioned in the image of a halved apple. Of course, as a young lad I had no idea of the lewd undertones lurking in this spectacle. The whole thing was exceedingly Freudian, and Monkhouse – never afraid of a knowing wink – gave no hint that he was aware of the show’s erotic subtext.

Picture the scene; Bob announces ‘Bernie, the Bolt!’ and a mute assistant loads the crossbow, mounted on a pivoting stand. The marksman, blindfolded, uses his moustache as a kind of laser-guidance system as the contestant gives nervous instructions: ‘up a bit…left a bit…fire!’ The target sits in the middle of an apple’s seed-case, a vertical eye warm with promise; the unseen bolt flies forward and lands with a satisfying thud in the bullseye, and as the audience begins to applaud, a  gleaming waterfall of gold coins spills joyously from a slot beneath the apple.

It was in the early seventies that I arrived home from a carol service to be told that my Mother had died. Until then, I had not been aware that a whole world of possibilities existed around me; but in that moment of intense pain, I saw them all come into focus before receding like a burning page. The bolt had struck bullseye, but instead of a cascade of money, I found a pile of stones with which I dutifully filled my pockets. I felt too weary to bother looking inside the box to see if hope remained there; I could do nothing but endure and await the end.

Of course, we draped a black cloth over the television set, and so were unable to join in the national rejoicing as Messrs Wood and Holder vied for the coveted Christmas number one spot with their musical offerings. How strange to think, then, that almost thirty years later I would find myself happily listening to Roy Wood at a folk festival and wishing that it could indeed be Christmas every day. The old boy can still sing, and knows how to belt out a tune on the bass guitar, or the sax, or the bagpipes. No wonder the Beeb picked ‘Flowers in the Rain’ as the opening song for Radio One; they must have recognised the young Wood’s restless musical talent…