Words and wars


Whilst catching up with my backlog of queued podcasts earlier this week, I heard a phrase in reference to the current global war on terrorism that caught my attention.  I don’t remember it exactly but it went along the lines of:

“There are only ever conversations and then wars”

The point being that all we ever have to secure peace is dialogue, discussion or negotiation and once that ends all we have is a reversion to violence on some level.  It’s when talks stall that violence starts, and that’s true whether it’s a local neighbourhood dispute over loud music, or two nations disputing the ownership of land. The magnitudes and implications may be very different, but the processes of negotiation on every level lead ultimately to only one of two outcomes:

negotiate -> compromise or agree -> resolution
negotiate -> fail to reach solution -> violence

It’s rather obvious I guess, but I’d never looked at it in this way, that at a very basic level, all we have in life, to safeguard our desire for peace, safety and happiness, comes down to words and exchange of ideas. Just that. Nothing else.

Whether spoken or written, words give us the ability to set ourselves apart from all other species, to truly become great. Carefully constructed groups of words form ideas and underpin arguments and reason, leading to cures against disease, improvements in technology that lead to improvements in the quality of all of our lives, and the ability to change opinion, to reach consensus, to compromise and reason, ultimately underpinning the very fabric of civilisation as we know it.

And given the importance of words, it is becoming increasingly worrying how social media echo chambers are distorting how we all perceive the world, and therefore how we communicate and interact with the world in our daily lives.

Such echo chambers have always existed, albeit in slightly different forms. Some people always buy The Daily Mail because it satisfies their right wing leanings. Most importantly and most dangerously, it closes the circle by emphasising and endorsing  pre conceived thinking and opinions. If you read The Daily Mail, you read how immigrants are to blame for the economy, lack of housing, demise of the healthcare system and so on, because you read it day after day after day in your newspaper.

Of course this isn’t just a right wing phenomenon. If I care about animal welfare, with a few clicks of a button, all I see all day are stories of cruelty to animals. If I believe the world is run by an elite lizard illuminati I can surround myself in conspiracy stories to back up and endorse my concerns. If I believe man never landed on the moon and it was all a hoax, there are over 137,000 online articles to immerse myself in to ‘uncover the truth’.

And today we don’t just have newspapers to construct our echo chamber, we also have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat etc, where we get to select and customise our feed content to suit. We determine who makes up our timeline, and so if I am a racist I choose to follow racists who also follow racists, so when I wake on a morning and turn on my smartphone I am bombarded by memes, opinion pieces, photographs and videos that underpin my pre-formed views of the world. Many of us get most, if not all, our information from such places these days. And with fewer and fewer news corporations with increasing levels of power, we are starting to see this also on our TVs and radios.

With very little effort at all, before long, we are all cocooned into our own customised, polarised, filtered views of the world. We experience the same world events but have our own personalised echo chambers to do the interpretation for us, serving it up to us on a 4.8″ super AMOLED HD touchscreen platter.

And if you are President of the United States of America, you follow just 43 people on Twitter, most who either have the word ‘Trump’ in their surname, or who conform to the very same views of your own.  27.7M followers, following the most powerful person on the planet, who in turn follows just 43 people.  This is Trump’s echo chamber. This is the source of his words, the cradle of his ideas. This is where his opinions are formed, where legislation is constructed. This is Trump’s World.

Words and wars – Ne’er a truer word.


The Downton Way – a lesson in life

My wife and I have recently got into Downton Abbey.  Whilst the rest of you were watching it over the last couple of years it somehow passed us by, and so we are now watching the DVD box set, kindly loaned to us by a friend.

I love the history, but especially the characters and the interplay within the social classes (the upstairs ‘Toffs’, and the Downstairs ‘Oiks’).

There’s a whole society there in the house, an entire ecosystem built on hierarchy from the scullery maid right up to the Lord and Lady. And within each strata there are rules and strict protocols, taboos and principles that run high and deep. The roles are defined, limits are set and boundaries are drawn, and everyone knows their place.

The cook and her underlings are not allowed upstairs and don’t even get to eat with the downstairs elite – the valets, footmen, maids and butler. The housekeeper is boss of the women – maids, cooks, cleaners. The valet looks down on the footmen, junior valet aspires to become senior valet, senior valet aspires to be butler, and in fact everyone looks up to the butler, the CEO of Downstairs.

Upstairs life is more comfortable. A place where Downstairs people do everything for you, they fetch and carry, they hang on your every word, why they even dress you. And yet upstairs there is much more sadness, loneliness and isolation. Many of the Upstairs folk have very little to do, it’s all done for them. In fact the daughters seem to have one task which is to marry a rich man to carry on the heritage, extend the bloodline and pass the wealth onto the next generation and safeguard the family name. The happiest, kindest spirit Upstairs was the youngest daughter Sybil, and it’s no coincidence that she was the one to break from convention, someone who married for love, who worked out of passion and lived her life out of desire.

Upstairs people all drink like bloody fishes too. Wine with every meal, whisky after every meal, and when I say meal I really mean feast. Feast upon feast.  Cooked breakfasts and banquet supper seem to be a daily occurrence, washed down with several bottles of fine wine, book ended either side by copious whiskies and brandies.

Nevertheless it’s life Downstairs that leaves me feeling nostalgic. I don’t care too much for the elitism above, I don’t want to be lord of any manor, if for no other reason than I could never, ever, have another man dress me. We always see the cufflinks being fastened, but we all know, moments earlier, the Valet was politely asking the Lord to ‘raise ones right leg’ so the underpants could be dressed.

Sir seems to be hanging a little too far to the right today, Downstairs, if you see what I mean?”
“Downstairs? What, in the kitchen?”
“No m’Lord, *cough*, I mean in the old trouser department, please, allow me …

What a truly horrendous prospect.  But it’s not just the thought of having a man valet that puts me off, it just seems a lot more fun Downstairs, for that’s where the real community exists.

Downstairs you do an honest days work, you get paid, you eat to refuel, you go to bed to rest, you get yourself undressed because you still have your pride and integrity intact. OK there’s some bitchiness down there, and politics, and back stabbing and the like, but everyone has a role to play, everyone Downstairs is an important cog in the machine, whereas Upstairs that isn’t the case. Lord Grantham became depressed during The Great War as he had no role to play – he was too posh to serve and roamed his estate like a lost soul, at one point crossing the rubicon by snogging one of the maids.

The modern equivalent of Upstairs is celebrity stardom.  In 2013 most 14yr old kids are dreaming of winning X-Factor. There’s very little hierarchy left in modern society, anyone can be anyone and we all aspire to be celebrities. We watch people move Upstairs before our very eyes, be it X-factor, Big Brother, Britain’s Got Talent, … and then we watch as they lose all grip on reality, watching them crash and burn.  Car crash TV.  Modern living.

If I had a choice I would wish to be Downstairs. I couldn’t be a Footman as I would spill the wine, and I couldn’t be a Valet as I couldn’t ever, never, not ever, dress/undress another man. I would like to be a Ladies Maid but I would never get past the CV stage, so I would instead aspire to be the Butler although that would take years, and so in the meantime I would want to be the Chauffeur with his clearly defined job description and a shiny classic car. And a hat.  And gloves.

We don’t necessarily need a staircase. All anyone ever needs in life is purpose.

2012 Olympics

I have to confess, I was an Olympic 2012 cynic.  Not from a sporting viewpoint as I’ve always loved live sport, but from a corporate standpoint.  I had my fingers badly burned in the ticket lottery last year.  I banked our family summer holiday on the Olympics, committing over £2,500 in ticket applications from opening ceremonies, gymnastics, rowing, swimming, equestrian, football through to the closing ceremony.  All I got was football at Coventry.  At first I put this down to bad luck but soon realised an awful lot of people who lived in North Buckinghamshire seemed to get tickets for non GB football at Coventry.  Hmmm.

And then of course there was all the furore leading up to the events about empty seats, about corporate greed, and I became a real cycnic, so much so that we booked a week in the sun that overlapped the opening ceremony of the Olympics and I didn’t really care.  Quite glad to be out of there, I thought.

Fortunately, our villa in Spain had a TV, and fortunately, we tuned in to watch the opening ceremony.  I was hooked.  It was beautifully done, a very British affair, with real humour, humility, style and pomp which we seem to do as a nation really, really well.

And the following day as we arrived home, the games started for real.  Rowing at Eton Dorney.  Eton where? Cycling through the streets of London out into the suburbs of Surrey and beyond.  Swimming, lots of swimming, and everywhere you turned there were crowds, huge crowds.  Gymnastics, beach volleyball in the West End!  The BBC TV transmissions were superb, every sport accessible live through multiple digital streams, excellent commentary, and those fans!

The first few days didn’t see too many medals for Team GB but that all changed midweek when the rowing finals started at Eton Dorney (ah yes, Eton Dorney, familiar by now), and the cycling began at the velodrome, and then on the Friday the athletics opened in the main stadium and Bang!, on your marks, get set, Go!

Gold medals seemed to be raining down on the home nations.  By the weekend we were third in the table which is amazing when you think about it.  Yes we are a fortunately wealthy nation who can invest in such non essential luxuries, but 21st in the world population wise, and we are third behind China and USA.  Quite unbelievable.  The country was going wild, but what was becoming interesting was that it wasn’t about the medals, it was all about the people, the individual athletes and their back stories.

I have been reduced to tears on several occasions over the last few days, seeing individuals who have sacrificed so much, people with such unrelenting dedication it makes you feel very humble indeed.  These weren’t famous people.  The majority of the people were unknown, they were running amongst us last year, 2 years ago, 3 years ago.  People who have been working a lifetime for this event.  People who sacrificed hedonism, not just for a weekend, but for a decade or more.  People who got up at 4am, day after day after day to train.  People with part-time jobs.  People who had to fundraise to get the money together for a second hand car to take them to the training ground.

People doing sports I know little of, participating in categories I barely recognise – Kirin, double sculls, repecharge, peloton, skeet, double trap – terms that come round every 4 years to most of us, but which are part of daily life for others.

To take just one example, I was utterly engaged and fascinated by the mens double trap – clay pigeon shooting to you and me.  The pressure on those guys to hit those discs in less than 0.25 secs, time after time, the amazing talent required, the hours and days and months and years of dedication and training.  And then the ultimate pressure is mind boggling.  Imagine training for four years for an event, sacrificing so much, to find yourself in the final, to find yourself one shot away away from Gold, as did Peter Wilson.  Imagine lifting that rifle, preparing to shoot for the release of the discs that would change your future from hereonin.  Unbelievable.  And the release of pressure afterwards is the end of four years of hard work, or in some cases over a decade of hard work.  An easy sentence to write but just imagine that.  We could all run our socks off on that Olympic track in London 2012, but how many of us could get up on Christmas day at 4am to go swimming, or go for a run?  How many of us could do that day after day after day, foregoing parties, take-aways, booze and all the other temptations to which most of us succumb?

The tears and emotion are because there are no people more deserving than Olympians.  The tip of the iceberg is August 2012, that’s what we get to see, but when we then hear the back stories, so excellently pieced together by the BBC, we see the other 99% of the iceberg and it’s that which makes us cry, because we see the true, naked human spirit in all its glory, and it’s just beautiful.

We see sporting excellence every week, but often its ugly.  Premiership football is the best and worst example.  Undoubtedly these footballers have innate and profound talent, but its innately unpleasant.  People who have been force fed money and wealth all their adult lives, people who abuse their position, who get drunk and smash up bars, who rape, cheat, abuse, bully.

Alan Campbell, who won bronze in the single sculls rowing, was pushing tractor tyres up a muddy hill in Coleraine on Boxing Day.  No-one outside of the sport knew of him.  He wasn’t earning vast amounts of money for pushing those tyres up that hill, in fact it was probably costing him money.  Contrast that with the Premiership teams playing football on Boxing Day, driven to the stadium in coaches, listening to ‘drum n bass’ on their Dr Dre Beats headsets as they exit the coach flanked by security gurads as they are whisked into the changing rooms.  Players who refuse to come off the bench as a sub because they are sulking as they didn’t get to start the game.

Don’t get me wrong, there are superstar athletes in Team GB too, and there are no better examples of this than Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah.  Perhaps not as wealthy as the footballers, but almost as famous.  Yet what a contrast.  Jessica Ennis is beautiful, and I don’t just mean physically (although she is that too), but she has such charm, such grace.  She makes time for people, she is modest, self effacing, totally charming but also passionate and successful. It can be done.  Mo Farah is no different, a beautiful man.  The image of Mo repeatedly slapping his head after winning the 10km last night is so humbling.  He couldn’t believe it, and there it was for all the world to see in all it’s raw glory.  Contrast that to Maradonna smacked off his tits on coke screaming into the camera after scoring in the World Cup, overweight and bloated on drugs.  Or Joey Barton kicking a player to the ground and swinging out with his fists after receiving yet another red card for physical abuse.

I didn’t want this to be an indictment of football, but it helps provide a contrast to all that’s wonderful about the Olympics.  I’m a real convert from the cynic I was two weeks ago.  My corporate cynicism still exists but has been swamped by the emotion of the games and most importantly the athletes that make it all happen.  And of course its not just Team GB as there are beautiful examples everywhere you turn, from Michael Phelps superhuman achievements, to Usain Bolt, to the new generation of athletes coming along like Missy Franklin.

But I don’t think I have ever seen my nation get together like this, certainly helped by the fact we are Team GB, not individual countries, but it’s really underpinned by the fact that we are watching the human spirit in its most beautiful form.  We can all relate to these people in ways we will never be able to relate to Wayne Rooney.

I would give anything to be competing in London 2012, or any other Olympics for that matter.  Ever since I was a child I have had a dream, always of me entering the stadium at the end of the marathon, in second place, the roar of the crowd as I entered the stadium making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as I closed in on the leader, overtaking him in the home straight to win gold.

I still have that dream now, 40 years on.  It will never happen, it can never happen,  It never happened.  That makes me a little bit sad. But then I look at the other qualities people like Mo Farah, Peter Wilson, Becky Adlington, Missy Franklin, Chris Hoy, Michael Phelps, Vicky Pendleton and Jess Ennis have – humility, passion, respect, dedication, commitment, all qualities which don’t have to be just consigned to the sports field.  They can apply in equal measure to all of us, in any, and every, walk of life.

The Olympics are beautiful.  I contend there is no other event on the planet that comes close to showing all of us how life should be lived.  It’s surely the greatest spectacle ever.  And if we can all take something from watching these heroes, it should be that we can all become slightly better citizens of this planet.  We can all watch and learn from what’s happening here.  Because it’s all just so fucking beautiful.

The power of advertising

I’ve been travelling a lot lately.  Different countries, different continents and therefore different time zones, different foods, poor sleep patterns, a little extra stress, and as a result I suffered with what I can only politely describe as ‘constipation’.

I know I am straying off the conventional blog path here, but with a fully signed up blog membership of 1, I hardly risk losing many punters.

I think it’s all part of getting old, one of those annoying conditions that as a younger person you only ever heard about from your grandparents, or read about in the back of newspapers.  It’s the stuff of jokes.  I wonder what’s next – uncontrolled flatulence? acid reflux? incontinence?

So there I was in Texas, feeling a little, shall we say, backed up.  And it isn’t trivial younger readers, it becomes quite demoralising after a while, and when mixed in with jet lag and solitude, it can make you feel quite down in the dumps.  So I was feeling a little moribund, it was Saturday morning and I was scanning the 76 channels on my Hyatt TV, when I chanced upon an advert.  Here’s how it played out …

Attractive looking lady, mid 30s, rather dowdily dressed with dull hair, sat in an aeroplane seat with a real frown on her face.  She’s not happy, and then when a man tries to squeeze past her she frowns even more as he rudely pushes by, rocking her chair quite violently.  She has one hand gently clasping her stomach. 

Now I’m no media ad expert, but I think the man squeezing past was a metaphor for a ‘blockage’.  What I did know was that I recognised that frown on her face, for I shared that frown.

Cut to the same attractive lady, this time now dressed in bright colours, with beautifully conditioned hair, drinking a glass of water and taking some DULCOLAX, beaming a radiant smile, so brightly that it made me smile too.  I wanted to wear a smile like that.  Cut back to lady sat in aeroplane seat with NO-ONE sitting beside her and she wears that same disarming smile.

“DULCOLAX, gentle, predictable, overnight relief”.

That sounded beautiful, I muttered the phrase again “gentle, predictable, overnight relief”.  It was like a sign from above.  Here I was, bored, time to kill, dollars in my pocket, and constipated. There was only one thing for it.

Google -> CVS Pharmacy, Richardson, Texas -> DULCOLAX -> AVAILABLE IN STORE!!

And before I knew it I was haring down North Central Expressway 75 faster than a speeding bullet.

Pharmacies in Texas are big.  In my local Co-op in England there is a small corner of the store that does medicines.  It’s tucked away at the back, but what’s good is that you can stand in front of the entire range of medicines, and without making it obvious that you are looking at BOTTOM REMEDIES, for example, you can casually stare, feigning interest at the Aspirin/Ibuprofen in case someone you know passes by, and then slowly look down to your left at the 2-3 medicines of shame which are of real interest.

The CVS Pharmacy, Richardson, Texas is the size of a football field.  It makes a Tesco Extra/Superstore look like a corner shop.  There must have been 20 rows, each the length of a cricket strip, each specialising in a different “condition” or “genre’.  So that’s good, should be plenty of choice, I thought to myself as I entered.

In I walked, looking all casual.  I knew I couldn’t meet anyone I knew which was good.  In situations like this I craved anonymity, but being in the USA you just never know when a stranger might come up to you and chat, the one thing any Brit fears above anything else, anywhere, at anytime, but when you’re in a pharmacy looking for BOTTOM tablets you definitely do not need that, and I was becoming anxious at the prospect.

Aisle 1 – baby stuff, Aisle 2 – more baby stuff, Aisle 3 – shampoos, Aisle 4 – teeth, Aisle 5 – cold/flu, … I walked on, …. , Aisle 19 – ARSE PROBLEM RELATED MEDICINES

And then it dawned on me that there is no hiding here.  You can’t use the old Co-op trick and pretend to be reading the back of the Lemsip packet whilst casually looking down at the BOTTY tablets.  In CVS Texas, once you enter Aisle 19 you are committed, you can’t be there for any other possible reason than for ***ARSE MEDICINE***!


And there was so much choice – active bacteria for the gut, haemorrhoid creams, suppositories, embarrassing itching.  I was beginning to feel stressed, my back was starting to feel sweaty and I was suffering uncontrollable hot flushes like a menopausal fish wife (Aisle 13 as I recall).

The back of my neck was prickly with sweat, a sure sign I was feeling pressurised, as I scanned the aisles trying to make sense of the cornucopia of choices laid open to me.  Finally, I saw the word DULCOLAX and zoomed in on Aisle 19, sectors 37-63, rows 4-28.  They were located next to suppositories.  Nice move CVS Pharmacy shelf stacker.  You bastard.

At that moment a woman walked past with her two children.  She was using Aisle 19 as a cut through, her ARSE was just fine, in tip-top condition, but as she passed by me she held tightly onto the hands of her two children who were staring boggle eyed, and in awe, at the awesome array of chattles on offer in Aisle 19.

“Come on Zach, Cory, stay close to Momma, that man has ARSE PROBLEMS!” I heard her think to herself …

By now I had a decidedly waxy pallour, this was very traumatic, but I managed to focus – DULCOLAX 20, DULCOLAX 50, DULCOLAX 100.   Never wanting to go through this appalling experience ever again in my entire life, I calculated that, aged 47, a packet of 100 would hopefully see me through to death, meaning I would never have to experience such trauma in the few years I had left.

To give me strength, I closed my eyes briefly and tried to conjure up the image of the attractive lady on the plane and that beautifully relaxed smile.  I wanted that smile, this would all be worth it.

A bolt of electricity shot through me as I picked up the rather large box of DULCOLAX 100.  It was at this point that I thought about the unfortunate name.

The ‘…LAX’ part obviously screamed LAXATIVE!!!  Why make it so obvious?  I might as well have been wearing a t-shirt with ARSE PROBLEM written on it.  It’s embarrassing enough buying this stuff without plastering it all over the box.  Why not call them SOFTABS, or at least put RE on the front of LAX to make them RELAX-TABS?  I didn’t want anything to do with the word LAXATIVE, I wanted gentle, predictable, overnight relief, that was far less scary and certainly way less embarrassing than buying something so forthright as LAXATIVES.

It’s a slight diversion to the story, but the only time I had ever heard of people I knew using laxatives was at university.  A girlfriend of mine shared a flat with another girl who was trying to lose weight, and I once had the misfortune of walking past the bathroom door when she was in there ‘evacuating avec laxative’.  The sounds I heard that day still haunt me 30 years on.

Back in Texas I recalled that story as I looked at my mega-pack of DULCOLAX 100.  I didn’t want that, I wanted the gentle predictable relief, I wanted to be like that pretty lady on the plane.

I was now getting in a bit of a state as I realised I had no choice and I still had to negotiate the checkout.  I could see it far ahead in the distance, the happy go lucky, oh-so-fucking cheery bloke on the checkout was CHATTING to the customer checking out.  WTF?  You aren’t paid to chat, you are paid to take the money, issue a receipt and move on to the next customer!

I contemplated the old chemist ‘condoms’ trick of buying other things, so the offending article would blend in, but I didn’t want to carry loads of stuff back to the UK with me, and I didn’t have many dollars, and I didn’t want to extend the checkout time by paying with a card that probably wouldn’t be accepted on account of it being ‘foreign’ and risk the chatty checkout bloke asking me where I’m from, etc.

So I headed to the checkout, just one in service, please, no queues.  But what if there’s a queue when I get there and the person behind me sees my LAXATIVES?  I might have to kill him in the car park, yes I’ll do that.

100 yards from the checkout and it looked like the customer was finishing up and no-one else was in line … 75 yards, no queue … 50 yards, still no queue … 20 yards, no queue, chatty checkout bloke looking at me, no turning back now, heart rate quickening, throat drier than an Iraqi’s sandal …. 10 yards, look into his eyes, not around the eyes … don’t be afraid, think pretty plane lady, remember that smile …

“Hi there Sir!  And how are you today!!?”

“Hi … fine thanks … just this *cough*” I couldn’t bring myself to look in his eyes.  I could hear someone approaching behind me …  this was just awful, I wanted to cry.

“Is that all or do you need anything else today Sir?”


“Do you need a bag for that Sir?”


I paid, I left, I got into my car, I locked the doors, closed my eyes, sat back and breathed an immense sigh of relief.

I had done it!  It was a traumatic experience but I had done it.  Yay for me!

I got back to the hotel and excitedly opened the packet.

INSTRUCTIONS:  Blah, blah, blah … “12 yrs and over – 1 to 3 tablets to be taken once a day just before bedtime”.

Hmm 1 to 3.  12 yrs old and over.  I reasoned thus – if a 12 yr old girl can take 1 tablet then a 47yr portly old bloke who weighs approx 3 x times what a 12 yr old girl weighs must need at least 2, probably 3, but what was it to be, 2 or 3?  The USA is famed for lawsuits, especially where medicines are concerned, so they must always err on the side of caution, so 3 must still be safe.  I bet you could  take 4 or 5 but I’m not going to be silly, I will stay within the guidelines and take 3.  I mean what’s the point of taking 2 only to find it doesn’t work?

So that night, after I brushed my teeth, I popped 3 tablets and tucked myself in for the night, dreaming of the beautiful aeroplane lady with the relaxed smile.

The clock was showing 04:17am when I awoke with stabbing pains in my stomach.  WTF?  Food poisoning?  Then there was the gurgle.  Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble, something was going on downstairs and no mistake.  And then that twitch of the arse that accompanies every bout of diarrhoea.  That subtle but unforgettable twitch of the sphincter that shoots an instantaneous message to the brain saying DO NOT FART.

What was going on?  What had I had for dinner?  Chicken salad, can’t be that can it?  I ran to the bathroom and glanced across at the 97 pack of DULCOLAX and the penny dropped.

I will spare you the detail of the next few minutes, suffice to say I was anchored to that piece of porcelain for 20 minutes, wailing like a deranged Banshee on acid as my life flashed, nay flushed, before my eyes.

The clock showed 04:39 when I staggered back into bed, shivering and sweating.

The thought of the smiley lady on the aeroplane made me feel rather cross.