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On the Thames

Picture yourself in a boat on the river

Picture yourself in a boat on the river









Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes …

The girl may have been the sort you see in paintings by Renoir or Manet. She may have been a gorgeous actress like Julie Christie. She may have been a phantasm, an archetype, a figure in a dream. She may even have been a model…

Let’s see her as a Russian model – rich and famous and living in London. The Russian model has a sparkling intellect; she’s studied for a law degree in the United Kingdom and, almost unexpectedly, she tells us that one of the reasons she likes living in England is because of the long and deep tradition of ‘justice’. She thinks that concepts of justice are part of the modal english psyche. She knows her history and she knows her jurisprudence.

As luck would have it, she lives in a gracious part of London not far from the River Thames. And she knows that the river is intimately linked to the tradition of justice to which she refers.

We can picture her ‘in a boat on a river’ as she travels upstream from the heart of London and as she travels onwards you can even hear the rhythmic dip of the oars. Ripples shimmer and spangle in the tranquil sunlight. She edges towards the marshy riverside meadows of Runnymede.There she stills her boat but remains seated in the bows. And, in imagination, she thinks of the famous meeting between King John and his adversaries so many years ago – in 1215 – on the marshy softly-yielding fields of Runnymede. It was here, on the banks of the Thames at Runnymede, that the barons first presented their ‘Articles’ to the execrable King John. The articles were a design to limit the abuses of power which the King had displayed. (We are told by the historians that John had been deemed too vile to be worthy even of a place in hell. Hell would rather freeze over than find a place for John. He was that bad.)

The Articles drafted by the Barons were, in time, to become the Magna Carta. And the Magna Carta is almost a sacred text for the English. Why? Well, although the Magna Carta – the ‘great charter – does not make explicit any general principle it ‘implies’ one. It is based on the idea or principle that no one is above the law. No Royal, no demagogue, no religious zealot, no person however powerful – is above the law. (And the Rule of Law is one of the most central elements in the social and political life of the United Kingdom.)

But not only did the evolution of the Magna Carta give implicit voice to this principle it also began the process of securing certain basic liberties for the people of England as well as guaranteeing a right to justice.

And so the Russian model – the girl with kaleidoscope eyes (who has studied law and who appreciates the ethos of ‘justice’) feels a deep sense of personal security as she gazes from her boat over the water meadows at Runnymede.

Note: The Russian model was recently featured in a television programme about some Russians who live in London.

Postscript: ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds‘ begins with the line: ‘Picture yourself in a boat on a river.

London: the Houses of Parliament with Thomas the Tank Engine

The Houses of Parliament by Claude Monet

The Houses of Parliament by Claude Monet









Unsurprisingly I like having breakfast and I like spreading old English marmalade on my toast. Did the English invent marmalade? I don’t know. Anyway, as I eat my toast and marmalade I sometimes listen to Radio 4 and, because an election is on its way, I tune in to a programme called ‘Yesterday in Parliament’. It’s a well-wrought programme and the astute editors somehow manage to piece together a precis of whatever of note took place during the political debates in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The editors provide a narrative that is supplemented by recordings taken during the debates themselves. It’s strangely beguiling – although I’m not quite sure why.

There’s often a current of humour that characterises the utterances, the speeches of the parliamentarians; the humour is often wry or sardonic, witty or laconic – and sometimes very clever. Sometimes it’s just knock-about; sometimes it verges on farce. One of the great things about this humour is that it reminds everyone that most of life is arational – and not to be taken too seriously. (I think this is one way in which the French and English differ.)

Last week during Radio 4’s ‘Yesterday in Parliament’ the editor decided to include a short piece on a debate about the actual running of the Palace of Westminster – the famous building which accommodates both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It’s all rather expensive: apparently it costs £200 million pounds to keep the show on the road and there are something like 200 staff whose job it is to maintain the buildings and help with the overall management and administration of the place.

Members of Parliament then pitched in with their ideas about the future ‘effective and efficient’ management of the distinguished Houses of Parliament – and this is when things started to get funny in a typically British way. This and that (processes and procedures) were in need of an overhaul.

One former semi-socialist Home Secretary complained about the failure of proper project management and took as his example the refurbishment of the gym. (Goodness! I didn’t even know that there was a gym in the Palace of Westminster.) Anyway, the plans to enhance the gym had been revised and then re-revised several months after the original work had commenced; the whole project was a shambles.

Then, in the same debate a Liberal Democrat MP (from heaven-knows-where) urged the house to grapple with the fact that much of the Palace of Westminster was ‘redundant’: he then added that the problem was trying to determine what actually was truly redundant. No one knew how to pinpoint the irrevocably redundant. So a project group was necessary to identify the genuinely redundant bits of something assumed to be redundant. (I laughed.)

But the piece de resistance in the debate occurred when a notoriously right–wing Conservative Member of Parliament voiced the result of his thinking about what, indeed, to call the creation of a new post that would have responsibilities for managing the Palace. The Member in question is almost a caricature of an ‘old-style upper-class Englishman. He came up with the suggestion that whoever was appointed to fill this demanding and imperious role might be called ‘controller’. What about having a ‘controller?’

However, he had tested this idea with a well-known journalist of a national newspaper. He had asked the journalist what would come to mind if he thought of the word ‘controller’.

Without a moment’s hesitation the journalist replied ‘fat’. (I laughed again.)

The right-wing Member of Parliament noted that the subsequent conversation took a detour – it went down a metaphorical branch line – but that he would desist from making any more references or allusions to Thomas the Tank Engine. (I laughed again.)

Yesterday in Parliament’ may not be a comedy programme but it certainly has many comedic moments. And the association with a children’s book reminded everyone of the hidden meanings lurking just below the surface in jokes and repartee.


The Fat Controller is one of the distinctive figures (he’s fat) in the children’s book series featuring the industrious Thomas the Tank Engine.

Just south of Paris … a micro-study in French culture

Solitude - the Lutheran  pianist

The quiet dignity of a Lutheran pianist

Monsieur Vic works in a bank – a bank situated on the outskirsts of Paris. Actually it’s in Creteil. The bank is a well-known long-established bank and M. Vic has an apparently important position within the institution. At the very least, M. Vic’s title sounds impressive – and, as matter of fact, M. Vic knows a great deal about the political economy of France. He reads not only the weekly informed magazines (which he picks up from the newsagents) but he also stays in touch with the specialist journals that discourse on things like business strategy for the supa-mega-age of ‘now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t’ digitisation. He knows about globalisation and economics in the post-Michael Porter era. M. Vic knows his onions – il connait ses oignons.

However, when M. Vic was invited to discuss the micro-sociology of his workplace he declared that his job was a ‘non-job’, that it served no real or worthwhile purpose and that it was really ‘quite superflous and unnecessary.’ According to M. Vic the only reason his job existed was because it was less costly to keep him at the bank than to make him redundant. Although he saw the funny side of this semi-absurdity it also made him depressed because it rendered much of his life meaningless.

Still, M. Vic consoled himself by playing the ‘Game of Thrones’, by eating out at reputable restaurants (his New Year’s Eve dinner was something of ‘consequence’ even though he suffered considerable and noxious after-effects), and by reflecting on the changing culture of France. Basically he didn’t have much time for the way things were going – for the new cultural ethos. M. Vic thought that the people who worked at his bank (who were mainly aged between 20 and 40) reflected many aspects of contemporary French culture. Their conversations served as a good indicator:

What are they interested in, what do they talk about?’ he began: ‘Well, first of all they are not interested in politics. They know nothing of this or that policy and they simply do not engage with the major political issues facing France.

What are they interested in? Well, a majority of the people who work in the bank are women and they talk about five things. These five things just about cover their interests – the stuff they talk about in the public arena.

First, celebrities: Who is wearing what – who was on the telly – who is on the front cover of Closer or Hello or even Paris Match; like everywhere in the western world, France has gone overboard on ‘celebrity’; it has gripped the collective psyche.

Second they’re endlessly interested in fashion and all things related to fashion – like make-up, hair-styles and so on. Of course, this also relates back to the celebrities. They are attuned to whatever is a la mode.

Third, they discuss the cost of living – bills for this, that or the other; Shopping is very important; half the time instead of working they chat away about which supermarket is offering whaten promotionor where you can buy a vaccum cleaner that talks to you.

Fourth, they share stories about their families – and the latest family encounters or what their children want in the way of clothes or ipads or computer games;

And finally they discuss their distractions – their hobbies and interests (such as keep-fit or dancing or yoga or cooking) – and perhaps most of all, in this sense, they focus on their holidays – the one that they’ve just had – or their plans for the next holiday. Holidays come around quite frequently in France (bank holidays and so on) so they are busy comparing prices or considering places to visit or commenting on the ‘gentil’ people they met on holiday. Or they are moaning about the lack of value for money a holiday yielded or, conversely, the super deal they got – or even the way they bribed someone in order to get a better room in a hotel or holiday complex.

M. Vic paused. He looked wistful.

It turned out that he was wondering why this state of affairs had been brought into being, and so he added: ‘Much of this is down to the ‘net. What has the ‘net achieved? Well it’s amplified everything. The ‘net itself is more or less neutral. However, in the sense that it makes everything available the new French don’t have to bother that much about reading or thinking. Basically, that’s taken care of by the new information and communications technology. The ‘net functions as an external source of ready-made fact and value – as well as belief. It does the work for you.

The problem is that it’s amplified the bad as well as the good.’

Paris: Cartoons and their power

The open society and its enemies

The open society and its enemies

Four days ago a BBC journalist considered the role of certain cartoons in the social and political culture of western democracies. He noted that part of the function of satirical cartoons ‘is to shine a light’ on intolerance. In such cartoons ‘authorities’ (big wigs) are sometimes associated with intolerance. So, the cartoons are intrinsically critical. At the same time they serve to remind us that authorities are always fallible simply because, as human beings, they are subject to the usual catalogue of human limitations.

The satirical cartoon highlights the shortcomings of individuals, of institutions, of the state, of ideologies and dogma. These cartoons unveil the pretensions of the powerful. In one way or another they have the potential to limit the abuse of power. In liberal democracies they undermine the pedestals upon which political and religious leaders stand. They remind us that the emperor may, after all, have no clothes.

Cartoons tell us not to take things too seriously. They are funny – and surely if there is a god then even he or she or it would see the joke.

Reference: ‘The open society and its enemies‘ by Karl Popper. (The cover of the book is shown in the photograph)

Footnote: Philosophers tell us that amongst the limitations that beset all of us (in virtue of our very humanity – our being human) are: sympathy, imagination, rationality. intelligence and, information.