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Quantum Leaps

I have just made my first real visit to Florence, which is a bit rubbish. We have all gone as a family (minus one daughter, in Central America, having just recently spent 6 weeks at the British Institute in the City), behaving like proper tourists to see all the cultural sites.  At one level, it is all rather passé. The images you see are all so iconic I feel I know them.  However, seeing them up close is so different from the images reproduced in a textbook.  Not only are the textures and colours so much more alive, I found myself trying to put myself in the shoes of the artist to understand what they were attempting to achieve.  

Take the Ognissanti Madonna by Giotto (above): he was attempting nothing short of changing the way we saw the world. Before him most art was flat and stylistic: here he attempts perspective and a lifelike rendition of the human form. Looking back on it it all seems rather obvious to paint what you actually see, but at the time it was a proper hand brake turn. 

To put it into context, we are on the cusp of developing the first real world technologies using quantum physics, a bizarre world where things can be probable but not certain, and connected across space and time. No, I don’t understand it either but it is going to take every bit as much fortitude for us to digest this wrenching change to the way we perceive the world as it did for our forefathers on the brink of the Rennaissance and the Enlightenment. 

Whither India?

As I sit in the Departure Lounge (having completed an obligatory early morning yoga session before leaving the hotel – think ginger chopstick), it is probably time to set down a few thoughts from this relatively green India watcher about what the future holds for this great, extraordinary country.

The impression I had before arriving in India was of a sleeping giant, who, if only they could get their act together, might start to be able to compete with that other behemoth, China.  A few more rational decisions, much less corruption, considerably more “Western” organisation etc.  Funnily enough, now that I have spent some time here, that prescription still broadly stands: it is certainly what most Indians would like to see.  However, as I argued in my last post, it would be wrong to see India on some sort of singular Fukuyama-esque treadmill towards the West and the End Of History, and that many aspects of their culture and economy actually seem more suited to the digital future than our own.

Indeed, given the enchanting glimpse Karen and I have had into rural India, it would be immensely sad if the juggernaut (as it were) of globalisation crushed the joy, contentment and spirituality on such vivid display.  This is a risk many more erudite watchers of India have expressed (like Mark Tully, in his book “India’s Unending Journey“), where they have highlighted the dangers of rampant consumerism to traditional, mystical India.  From my (very inexperienced) standpoint, I am optimistic that India can modernise whilst retaining its essential identity: from almost all that I’ve read and experienced, India’s historic genius has been to absorb all that the World has thrown at them, from the Islamic rule of the Mughals to the Brits in the Raj, ingest what is useful, and plod serenely on, like one of the wonderful elephants we rode in Jodphur.

I would argue that the West’s consumerism is not the illness, but merely a symptom of a deeper malaise.  Western religion is different from the myriad of faiths found in India.  Contrast the “true path” language of Islam and Christianity with India, where the old sanskrit word “Neti”, loosely translated (I am told) as “not only this”, appears in much of their religious text, giving room for nuance, compromise and flexibility, allowing for continued relevance in times of change.  The cast iron Christian church has, by insisting on rigidity, been shattered and replaced by an equally insistent and dogmatic secularism, and the resultant “vacuum in wonder” that has appeared in developed countries has been filled (but not sated) by the impulse to buy things.  

Fantastic Fluidity


Some more thoughts as we travel around India, especially on their wonderful railways.  To many in the West, any discussion about India is typically framed around the challenges the country faces – its corruption, its journey from a heavily regulated past, its crazy traffic habits and its lack of quality infrastructure.  There seems to be the view that the more “westernized” it becomes, the better.  However, from a number of angles India may in fact be better positioned for the future than we are in the West.
Let me explain by starting with the astonishing traffic experience you get, right from the moment you leave the curb at Delhi Airport.  From my British standpoint, it’s absolute madness: constant tailgating, cars meeting each other head on and only veering away at the last minute, incessant hooting (indeed their favourite saying is that to drive well you need good brakes, a good horn and good luck…).  It is interesting that when you look at the road stats, deaths per capita are higher, but not that much higher, than the developed world (see WHO stats here).  This is partly due to lower levels of car penetration, of course, but its also due to the serenity I was referring to in my last post: despite the truly acrobatic nature of much of the driving, I have yet to see a single instance of lost temper or panic, which is why most accidents happen.  Their tolerance for constant road negotiation seems bottomless, whereas we act with brittle, puffed up anger at the slightest sleight.  And, when you stand back at look at it, their traffic is astonishingly efficient at pushing the most through the smallest openings – it seems to imitate water through a course, rather than the prussian “keep your distance” protocols I was brought up on.  That got me thinking: rather than trying to get robotic cars to imitate brittle westerners with their low boiling points, it would be much better for the machines to imitate the Delhi rush hour. The obvious point is that it would take some time for Westerners to get comfortable in this new, fluid world, whereas Indians would take to it like ducks to water.

From traffic, you can get to other areas where India’s sometimes alarming framelessness is in fact its greatest strength.  Many people have remarked that, given the advance of mobile telephone technology and the relative paucity of fixed line infrastructure, India is “missing out” that stage of development.  But this is really only half the story: yes, they are making their calls on their mobile phones, but the real story is what else they are doing on them.  Apps like Uber have opened up new avenues to match buyers and sellers of services, but this is causing severe indigestion in the rigid, “switched circuits” of the developed world, where value chains have ossified into tightly delineated, company intermediated exchanges where most Westerners have managed to avoid the indignity of having to pitch (and possibly fail) for business.  Cue attempts by Western courts to hem the new technology into old cast iron cages of twentieth century labour relations, like insisting on a saddle in a car.  Good luck with that.  India, by contrast, is already the ultimate “gig economy” where value chains form and reform with great flexibility, allowing the real economy to operate at digital speed, the challenge facing everyone in the twenty-first century.  

Of course, this is not to say that India, like all nations, does not face any serious challenges.  Any visitor will be struck by their levels of poverty, and despite my protestations about their driving, 140,000 are killed on the roads each year.  However, they possess great strengths, and it remains to be seen whether that brittle Western ego that prevents us from enduring the tiniest roadside affront will also deign to see what we can learn from them.  If so, it is truly an Eastern future.

Indianness

Dwelling a bit on one of the subjects of the last post, I thought I’d spend a little time on the nature of Indian identity.  I do so, dear reader, as a man whose only understanding on India hitherto has come from sport, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and reading The Economist, whose single lens is one of government deregulation like a stuck record blaring out peons to free trade, drowning out other perspectives but appearing to inform.  So, if I appear gauchely simplistic, or indeed step in the cow poo of historical inaccuracy (a particular crime in this bovine hero state), please forgive me.  My intention is not to be authoritative but to pass on what strikes me, as it might other chaps from my generation similarly starved.

I remarked that Indian history seemed less Hindu than I had been expecting: the religion of the ruling Mughals had in fact been Islam, and whilst they destroyed many Hindu temples, they did not seem too keen to subject their newly conquered peoples to much forced conversion.  Over time, they seem sensibly to have assimilated many of the native traditions and beliefs, blending what they regarded as the best of all the traditions into an imperial humanist creed – a sort of Now That’s What I Call Religion 1.  Thus the Mughal Emperor Akbar, arguably the greatest of the great Mughals, could fashion a column (below) upon which he sat to receive counsel from his advisors that incorporated both Islamic and Hindu imagery, and even Graeco-Roman columns, acknowledging the influence particularly Alexander the Great had on the country.  


At the same time in Europe, the French were massacring each other on St Bartholomew’s Day, the English were burning each other, and the Germans were gearing up for a Thirty Year War that seems to have been every bit as defenestrating (as it were) for the common man as the Second World War.  And all over (simplistically) liturgical differences.  Of course, it was more complex than that: ambitious would-be kings clothed themselves in religious grievance to surf to power, but that is my point: there doesn’t seem to have been this rigid church-state attachment in India, giving the lie to my lazy assumption that the world has become more ecumenical as it has aged.

Another reason for less historical religious heat and light in India is that those religions originating here are less about preparations for the next life, and more about how to go about this one.  Perhaps that’s why they can be blended more easily than “true path” religions, where borrowing suggests apostasy.  Which gets us back to indianness: from the very ancient civilisations that grew up around the Indus, through the Mauryan Empire and onto the Mughals, there has been a strong strain of non violence and a sense of the pursuit of transcendence (India gave Buddhism to the World, after all) which gives them a general serenity that I find remarkable and charming.

Before you charge me with having a few too many Kingfishers, I’m not blind to some of the rough edges in their past.  Karen and I visited the site of Gandhi’s assassination (of course by a Hindu nationalist upset by his tolerance of Islam), where the pain of the partition is particularly evident – there was violence on scale that dwarfs Aleppo.  Talking to Indians today, that decision to create Pakistan in 1947 still rankles and methinks there might be a few more chapters to go on that one.  All I’m saying is that India seems not to be an idea dependent on a particular religious creed, battle or sense of injustice (and, believe you me, they’ve had a few of those, particularly from us British), in great contrast to some European states I could mention.

Delhi Thoughts

Karen and I have just spent the last 24 hours in the extraordinary city of Delhi.  For those who don’t know, the real Delhi (or the “Old” one, according to the British) is actually eight cities, and both old and new (the one laid out by Lutyens, the Art Deco designer of the Cenotaph) contain fully 17 million people.  It is a return for me, having played a hockey tournament here in 1994.  It captured me then, and I vowed to come back: it hasn’t disappointed.  

Why? There’s something releasing about Indians: to this stuck-up and stiff Englishman, their joy, their charm and their sheer delight at being alive (despite some pretty obvious poverty) is an inspiration.  What I’m discovering is that this isn’t new, and the same captivation was felt by those Englishmen coming in the days of Empire.  Freed from the rigid conventions of Victorian uniform and cooking, arriving in India to the sight of such a cornucopia of colour and of taste was clearly impactful then and it retains its impact now, even though we English have loosened a bit since the days when a chair leg was seen as impossibly erotic.

We have spent the last day and a half visiting a series of historical sites, which has taught me a little more about Indian history, and reinforced the gut instinct that history rhymes in a big way.  My impression of India has always been of a restless Hindu majority rather sitting on its Muslim minority: the latest hooha over Prime Minister Modi’s links to Hindu nationalists only goes to illustrate this in my mind.  However (and, reader, you may already be aware of this, so humour me), the reality is that the Muslim faith was that of the Mughal rulers who held sway for almost 200 years, and Delhi is full of their triumphant architecture, and indeed of their pious vandalism, where Hindu temples were destroyed and the idols contained therein had their faces defaced – Isis, anyone?

Of course, I have to admit that part of my thrill of being in India is an association with a time when Britain led the World – the Indians harbour still a respect for its old oppressor that is sadly so at odds with its 21st Century reality: health and safety mad (completely absent in India, it seems), cringing insularity and the ascendancy of the little people.  Heho.

Why Go Private?

Much is being written about the effectiveness, public-spiritedness and even the morality of sending one’s children to private school.  This old ground has been raked over by news of the Government’s supposed attempts to encourage employers to “aim off” for candidates from the state sector and give them preference over an equivalently-qualified candidate from a private school background.  This all seems a non-issue, as I suspect that most employers already do that, on the grounds that a candidate that achieves “against the odds” is more likely to exhibit the sort of character the employer is looking for.

Still, it did elicit much comment about the iniquity of private school parents unfairly giving their children a leg up. There are quite a few parts to this debate: the alleged poor quality of the state product, the private schools’ tax status, and the amazing concentration of those from the private sector in certain professions like the Law.  I want to concentrate on where I think most people are missing the point: the reasons for sending your child to a private school in the first place.  Most of the commentators (both for and against) regarded it as obvious that parents are choosing private education to allow their children to “get on” in a way that is not so possible in the state sector.  That, to me, a private sector parent, seems wrong-headed and far too narrow, and it may all hinge on what we call these schools.  I send my children to a public school, which, confusingly, I pay for, at which point most people will sigh and tell me to stop being so parochially English and use the international “private” description.  However, there is a difference, and it’s bound up with why I choose to pay for my children’s education.  Let me explain.

Public schools are called public because in the dim and distant past they were set up to educate children who could not afford to be educated at home.  The best public schools tend to exude a service ethos (which isn’t surprising, given their history of supplying the British Empire with its administrators), where the pursuit of high standards in many different areas of life is championed, giving a child self respect and not a little humility.  Thus excellence on the sports pitch is given almost as high a priority as achievement in exams.  This seems to be the opposite of the state sector, where there is a requirement to demonstrate excellence, and the grades are bent to suit. Smaller, “private” schools simply play this grade game more effectively, using smaller class sizes and fewer disruptive students.

How quaint and out of touch, I hear you say: the modern world has moved on from such Victoriana.  What really counts are the grades and who you know for the internships.  Well, I disagree, which brings me back to the first paragraph.  Employers, faced with a blizzard of top grades, are desperate to find a good level of intellectual attainment coupled with evidence of character, that difficult to define quality that hints at grit.  Given the fact that our children’s working lives will look very different to those we experienced, they need resourcefulness, self sufficiency and a positive outlook on life to solve problems.  It’s just such a shame that the public schools are so damn expensive.

 

 

Fitness

I thought I’d write a little ditty about something that many people feel is a simple concept, but is in fact very complicated.  When asked “are you fit?”, the correct answer ought to be another question: “for what?”.  It is one of those words where the received meaning has escaped the actual definition – suitability.  In this modern world where the pursuit of fitness is the new religion (see the last post on the parkrun), the word takes on a binary, “either you are or you’re not” – type feel, the inference being that to be unfit is tantamount to be morally deficient, rather than simply not suitably prepared for a given activity.

So what? I hear you say.  At least this modern religion is healthier than some of the guilty, self-flagellatory variants of the past.  On the other hand, however, it is actually very similar: one of the pernicious consequences of this binary, moral approach to fitness is that training becomes an exercise in proving self worth.  Every session is a test to be passed, not a period to prepare.  The result? Chronic overtraining and underachievement, leading to lower self worth and redoubled, disastrous efforts to prove oneself on the training ground.

I have had a many and varied relationship with physical training.  Indeed, those who only know me now would be surprised if the relationship had ever been anything more than a long distance correspondence course (I do love my wine).  However, I did spend 10 years as a professional athlete whilst serving as an infantryman in the British Army, two very different fitness regimes.  Let me explain.  On the one hand, the life of a professional athlete was all about shepherding oneself through the minefields of potential injury: you worked with your body, you listened to it, you respected it.  On the other, the military training was about “conquering” the body, “beasting yourself”, being proud of the dissonance between mind and sinew.  Of course, both approaches were right for their respective contexts, but its fair to say that whilst the military approach makes supreme sense as preparation for war, it is flippin’ dangerous in any other environment.  Maybe it is the gnawing feeling of banality in some people’s lives that attracts them to the drama of such military approaches, but it is depressingly common in pastimes that are meant to be fun.

That is not to say that an athlete does not know pain on the training ground and in the competitive arena: there were plenty of occasions when interval training sessions were distinctly barfworthy, and boundaries were pushed in the big games.  However, such sacrifice comes from the thrill of competition, not the desire to conquer yourself.  To give you an example close to home, my wife (a Great Britain marathon runner) was coming second into the finish of the Edinburgh Marathon after a gut wrenching last few miles into the wind.  With 200 metres to go, her legs simply gave way and she collapsed in the mud of the home straight.  Hauling herself up on the advertising hoardings, she staggered through the finish, muddy hands held up to revel in what she had managed to do.  That’s what sport is all about.

 

runner 102 finish line

Parkrun – a new religion?

Let me tell you about the Saturday morning ritual that is parkrun (www.parkrun.org). A free event, parkruns are staged all over the country (and now, internationally) at 9am every Saturday. With only three paid employees, it is a remarkable story of how a wad of enthusiasm, a pinch of technology and a sprinking of social media has created a truly game-changing experience for thousands of people. If I was so minded, I’d call it the Big Society at work. It all starts with the race briefing. Newcomers, the week’s volunteers and those winning trophy shirts for completing lots of runs are all applauded, the sponsors are thanked and the details of any post race cakes are spelt out. There is a vital unstuffiness about the whole thing which results in many people attending who would otherwise be put off by too much sinewy lycra and bustling (but well meaning) officials.

Whilst all parkruns are 5K long, of course, each parkrun is different: in our time, Karen and I have run round sports pitches, an old airbase from the Cold War, parks and a steam railway. However varied the surroundings are, each parkrun has the same effect on me. The start hooter goes, and I’m away in a joyous whooosh, thrilled to be gambolling in the countryside and not cooped up in the office. A swift realisation that I am 46, not 26 quickly brings about some sanity, my pace dropping to something manageable. A third of the way in, my early discipline leads to fatal over confidence: this is the week that I break out of my mediocre boundaries and, miraculously without actually doing any training, leap to another level. This feeling tends to last about another third of the race, before I get the creeping sense that I am, in fact, going to die.

One-and-a-half-kilometres, something that felt like a trifling bagatelle at the gambolling stage, now goes around my head like “hamburger” must have done for poor old Captain Oates. I feel the hot breath of those I breezed past getting closer, “I told you so” seemingly on their lips. The line drifts into view, prompting a final desperate dash to salvage my time. I collapse into the tunnel, clutching my position token, vowing never to do it again. Queuing to have my time recorded (they use an elegantly simple system of barcodes) the first tendrils of endorphins creep in, lending my hopelessly misjudged efforts a heroic hue. I am now convinced of the rightness of my cause, like an evangelical being born again.

The religious analogy works more generally with parkrun: every week, congregations join together in their struggle to better themselves, leaving refreshed and renewed. No doubt many will recoil at such a trite link, but I could think of worse ways to get together.

The Balearic Crossword

After all the exotic excitement of the Trans Siberian and Japan, I have settled for a familiar location with very familiar company for the last leg of the Great Relaxation. Majorca is a favourite family haunt: it has great beaches, stunning mountains (they are not very high, but have mountain-like peaks – is there a minimum height for a mountain?) and dependable dry heat. In many ways the story of our Majorca is intertwined with its namesake, Majedie: We have been coming here almost every year since the business was well enough founded for us to afford the outlay of a villa with a pool. Drinking in the mountains in the evening light (so different from the ubiquitous tablet/computer/smartphone screen) has always represented the real year end for me, taking me away from the minutiae of each daily business challenge, each small ball dropped and allowing a proper taking of stock. And, thanks largely to the efforts of my colleagues, that stock has risen steadily from those early days. How thrilling.

There is also time for proper reading outside the straightjacket of the pink pages: I have read David Kynaston’s excellent series of social histories on post war Britain, Anna Funder’s astonishing book on the East German secret police, “Stasiland”, Max Hastings’ book on the end of the Pacific War, “Nemesis” and Robert Service’s History of Modern Russia. Oh, and the book that all us middle aged men read, “Stalingrad” by Anthony Beevor – the fifty shades of grey for husbands.

Another ritual unique to the Hazlitt sojourn in Majorca is the crossword. Due to the aforementioned pink page (and Economist) straightjacket, and the fact that I am, frankly, monosyllabically tired by the end of each working day (what a delightful husband), these “mind games” (as the excellent Times iPad app calls them) are not attempted at any other time. It is with great gusto that Karen and I open the relevant page each morning, dreaming of its subjugation by lunch. Oh no. With every passing year we seem to get worse, or at least the setters get more fiendish: you have odd clusters each day, where knowledge of Greek philosophers will get you three clues, and, bizarrely, three clues all asking for a “small burrowing animal (6)”. Then there is the classic mangling of the typeface on the app whereby apostrophes become a^, or maybe it is meant to be? Hmm. All in all, we gently drift away from it as the morning progresses, the siren voices of google ringing in our ears. Perhaps it will keep the Alzheimer’s away for another year.

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The Japanese and their History

We all went to Hiroshima yesterday, one of the highlights of the trip. From Kyoto, where we were staying, it is a 90 minute whiz in the fastest of their bullet trains, still an incredible experience. Kyoto itself is lovely: living as we do in Winchester, the old capital of England, I felt an immediate affinity with its Japanese equivalent (the actual similarities are pretty thin on the ground – it has over one million inhabitants and 1,600 Buddhist temples). Interestingly (given the previous post about the seeming lack of planning considerations here) Kyoto restricts the height of all buildings to that of the tallest shrine, which gives the city a more villagey feel despite its size. No ridiculous golf nets here.

Hiroshima is a bustling seaside city of similar size to Kyoto, with at least three big rivers running down into a big delta. It was an important centre for naval construction during the war, with a number of their great battleships built here. It was also an important embarkation point for the Army in their various twentieth century wars with China. However, it was not for that reason that the Allies chose it as a target for their new “Little Boy”(it was in fact one of a number of targets, all kept clear of the firebombing that afflicted so many other cities so that the effects of the bomb could be judged more accurately), rather it was a large population centre that could feel the shock effects of the bomb so that the leadership could belatedly smell the coffee and save the US from costly ground operations on the home islands. I have been reading Max Hastings’ excellent book Nemesis on the closing stages of the war, and he brings to life some of the extraordinary dilemmas facing the Allied leadership with the information and prejudices of the time, not those of subsequent generations, an important service a good historian can provide.

I must confess to being a little peeved by what the Japanese have made of the event. They have preserved the shattered remains of an export hall close to the detonation point, its dome starkly skeletal (pictured) and walls scorched with the heat of an atomic explosion. However, its new name Peace Dome gives away the use the Japanese have made of this awful legacy. The bomb seems to represent to the Japanese an opportunity to present themselves as the victims of something dreadful and existential, rather than the consequence of a war they started and then refused to end on terms other than those preserving their leadership (and, bizarrely, much of their new”found” colonies), thus condemning their people to further suffering, whether by A blast or invasion.

In place of any public utterance about the awfulness of the carnivorous military regime that reaped what it sowed (recent history as taught in schools is “quite blurred” on the subject, according to one local I chatted to, which is in stark contrast to the efforts the Germans have made to reconcile themselves to their past), there are pious exhortations at the bomb memorial for world peace, and on the walls copies of stern letters written by the Mayor to countries testing nuclear devices. It is pretty damn rich. I presume someone was as assiduous writing letters of condolence to all those civilians they raped, bayoneted and experimented on. Or maybe not.

It has been such a pity to end the trip with the sour taste of Japanese chutzpah in my mouth. In so many ways Japan has been a joy: its scenery truly wonderful, its cities vibrant, its people delightful. However, the shame I sensed below the surface that acts as such a powerful force for compliance also seems to have prevented them from fully digesting the events of the last century. Far from being a war crime (which is strongly implied by the museum at Hiroshima), the detonation on 6th August 1945 was the essential midwife that delivered the modern democracy we see in Japan today. Maybe they know it, but just aren’t saying. But until they do, I will.

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