Friday, May 30, 2008

"Free" rather than "Uncontacted": Leave the Amazon Tribe Alone

There is something inspiring about the Amazon tribe who are described as "uncontacted". "Uncontacted" I understand to mean that they have had no contact with anyone in the "modern world". This probably needs a bit of context as if they are homo sapiens (which they certainly look like) they must by definition have a common ancestor with someone living in Croydon or indeed Tokyo. Therefore it is probably more accurate to say they have over time lost contact rather than being eternally uncontacted.

That said I hope, possibly vainly, that they can be left as they are. To be forced into contact with "modern civilisation" will quite possibly kill them as their immune systems would be unable to cope with modern diseases. If that doesn't the thought of them being exposed to all the drivel of the modern world such as reality TV or being signed up for advertising is too horrific to imagine. Fancy one of them be hauled before Richard and Judy in a few years' time !

They look physically stronger than many of us on this planet and as they are completely self-sufficient they have a state of independence from oil companies, banks and the other shackles of modernity that the rest of us can only dream about.

Leave them to be free. The rest of us can only wonder at such a state of freedom and independence.

Ukrainian Orthodox procession

Below is a clip from my recent trip to Ukraine. The scene is an orthodox procession in the town of Vinnitsa. It's a pity they didn't stop the traffic but I guess that adds to the sense of contrast between the stoical procession and the hustle and bustle of buses and trams going past as the rest of the town goes about its normal business.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


From Peter Brookes in the Times (of London)

What is particularly depressing about the latest wave of youth murders in London and beyond is the trivial subject matter they start over.

Not that murder over a "big issue" can be justified. However there is at least some rationale, however twisted, over a gang murder than for example seeks to protect a multi-million pound drug business. The mafia and their criminal like tend to kill for a reason, albeit their own distorted reasons.

The youth killings that this weekend reached just two miles from where we live saw the death of an aspiring 18 year old actor who had made it into the latest Harry Potter movie, seem utterly pointless. At most this murder was over a mobile phone. Others apparently occur over a "look".

It comes down to the notion of "respect". A strange notion almost completely divorced from the original definition of the word whereby those willing to use violence expect utter subservience from those around them. To act otherwise is to show "disrepect" and leads to a "punishment". Respect was once a voluntary act showing admiration to those we looked up to. Now it is some fear induced inaction towards those who use violence by those who do not.

It is a sad state of affairs and I am struggling to understand anything more at the moment.

For now, I remember a local family who have lost a son and a brother to senseless violence.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Back home

I have now been back in England for a few days. I am living a "bachelor" life for a few weeks as my wife and son are with her family in Ukraine.

It is actual rather dull and the house needs a good clean ! I am feeling much less creative than I was hoping.

Maybe this will change. If you hear nothing, then it probably hasn't !

The meaning of work

Below I reproduce an excellent essay from Lucy Kellaway, sometimes known as "agony Aunt of the FT" ! She was talking about the perceptions over work needing to have purpose on BBC radio 4's "A Point of View". I found it incredibly insightful and I am sure many in work especially in offices will find it so too. Lucy Kellaway is nearly always this perceptive and it would be good to hear more from her in future.

It pays the mortgage and gets you up in the morning, but these days workers want more from a job - they want meaning. Just don't go looking for it, says Lucy Kellaway.

Not long ago a man came to our house to unblock the drain. He peered into the stinking manhole, stirred the sewage with a stick and gleefully pronounced that there were several months of back-up in there. He then got to work with a rod and a plunger, and finally with a high-pressure hose - which sent the filthy, stinking mess flying into his face and all over the garden.

While he toiled he cracked jokes, gave me a lesson in the engineering of Victorian drains, and eventually, having cleared the blockage and tidied up as best he could, he got into his van, whistling to himself as he drove away.

We start to demand that our work has a larger meaning. This almost always ends badly, meaning is a bit like happiness - the more you go out looking for it the less you find

Since then I've kept thinking of this contented sewage man, and wondering what exactly it was that he got from his job that so many people doing grander and cleaner ones don't seem to get from theirs.

It strikes me that we are in the middle of an epidemic of meaninglessness at work. Bankers, lawyers, and senior managers are increasingly asking themselves what on earth their jobs mean, and finding it hard to come up with an answer. As the agony aunt on the Financial Times I get asked all the time by successful professionals - what is it all about?

The Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl wouldn't have been in the least surprised by this. In 1946 he wrote Man's Search for Meaning in which he argued that that our deepest hankerings are not - as Freud thought - of a sexual nature, but are a lust for purpose in life. Frankl spent five years in Nazi prison camps and during that time he worked out that there are three paths to meaning - work, love and suffering.

Gordon Brown, a man who has been doing a certain amount of suffering of late, seems to think that the answer is to strive harder. In a speech last week he said "I aspire for everyone to reach for the light - their ambition. Very simply, I aspire to create an opportunity-rich country where everyone can get on and get up in the lives we live. Never to level down, always to lift up."

Stamp of approval

This doesn't sound much more profound than James Brown's song Sex Machine - Fellas, I'm ready to get up and do my thing - get on up.

It's also dreadfully bad advice, as Brown should know from personal experience. For all those years when Tony Blair was at Number 10, Brown reached for his ambition - but now that he has got on and got up, has he found the light? No, it seems to me that the poor man is floundering around in the dark.

This doesn't mean that ambition is a mistake; it is just that there is no magic to advancement per se. The status and the money go up, but that's it. And then, beset by affluence and by introspection we start to demand that our work has a larger meaning. This almost always ends badly: meaning is a bit like happiness - the more you go out looking for it the less you find.

So where is the real meaning at work? Last week I put the question to various people - starting with our postman. Do you think your job has meaning, I asked him, as he stuffed a fistful of junk mail through our tiny letter box. He looked at me and shrugged. "I'm trying to pay the bills".

Getting paid to do a job is surely the most important sort of meaning there is. Earning enough money to feed and house one's family might be at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but the rest of the edifice depends on having this solid base.

Is the job sick?

As for the work itself, the postman said: "It's not the best job in the world, but I try to keep cheerful. I've always said that if you are unhappy at work, there must be something wrong somewhere else in your life."

He may have been on to something here. In the last few months three people with grand jobs have been involved in three horrible, violent ends. Mark Saunders, a successful barrister, was killed in a police shoot out; Mike Todd the chief constable of Greater Manchester police force was found dead on a hill, gin bottle by his side. And last summer the insurance millionaire Alberto Izaga, suffered a shocking breakdown and ended up beating his two-year-old daughter to death.

It is tempting to conclude - as many columnists have - that there is something about the intolerable stress and emptiness of these top positions that lead people to breaking point. The jobs are sick and they are making us sick too.

Possibly; but overall, I'm with the postman, in thinking that such problems come from us. I don't believe that these jobs are terribly sick. Instead, these were three unrelated personal tragedies that tell us nothing about work at all.

My search for meaning - and for a pint of milk - then took me to the Turkish corner shop where I asked my question to the man behind the counter. He was looking tired: his shop is open fifteen hours a day so one might think he had no time for meaning. But he said there was a lot of meaning in what he did. "I make a living and I like the people who come to my shop." he said.

Parenting craft

A good point, too. According to a recent survey of work place satisfaction, liking one's work-mates is as important as money in persuading people not to quit. Simply by being friendly and chatting by the coffee machine one is creating meaning... of a sort, which, given how much chatting I do, is quite a comforting thought.

When you have spent a couple of days changing nappies and grilling fish fingers, to be surrounded by adults who don't want their bottoms wiped seems pretty meaningful

The shopkeeper also said he liked the work itself - he takes pleasure in stacking his tiny premises so high with goods that he has just the thing you want when you find the cupboard is bare at 10pm. It's hard running a successful corner shop, and he's good at it.

According to Richard Sennett's new book, The Craftsman, this ability to master a skill and then practice it well satisfies a basic human need. For Sennett, a craftsman doesn't have to make beautiful inlaid cabinets or chisel stone. He could be a software programmer, a cook or even a parent.

This satisfaction in the job itself seems to me the best sort of meaning there is. As a journalist, I survive on those rare jolts of pleasure that come when you find just the right words and get them together in just the right order.

Yet this sort of "craft" meaning isn't open to everyone. Shoving junk mail though letter boxes isn't a craft. Neither, at the other end of the spectrum, is being prime minister. Indeed no jobs that involve managing or leading are crafts, which is one of the things that makes it so particularly hard for managers to find meaning in what they do.

Peace with pointlessness

In fact managing is one of the most thankless jobs in the world. What managers are mainly trying to do is to get other people to do things that they don't want to. To work harder, for a start. Their other primary function is to carry the can, and to get blamed for all sorts of things that probably aren't their fault. Not only are they creating little meaning for themselves, they get blamed for destroying meaning for people below them.

Sennett describes how the craft of doctors and nurses is spoilt by NHS managers and their punishing targets. Teachers bleat endlessly that government guidelines are taking all the joy out of teaching. The other day an RAC man changed my tyre, which he accomplished in about three minutes, and spent the next 10 jabbing data into a hand held computer. He told me that this new bureaucracy had destroyed his pleasure in the job - a complaint echoed by most workers in most jobs. The meetings, the second guessing, the pointless duplication, the politics, we all moan. Just let us do the damned job.

In some ways I'm with the managers, or I would be if they didn't so often make such a hash of it. Hospitals and schools both need targets. Businesses, including the RAC, need to be run efficiently. People hate change, we naturally suspect all new ways of doing things, we scream that the purpose in the job is going, but that's too bad.

Maybe the best way of dealing with pointlessness at work is not to worry too much about it. An acquaintance in advertising tells me how one day he and his colleagues were agonizing over a tiny nuance in a script for a radio commercial. Suddenly he had a jolt of realisation: this was utterly pointless. Since then he has made his peace with the meaninglessness of what he does, and enjoys the job rather more as a result.

Another way of finding work more meaningful is to do less of it. Last week the government extended its plans for flexible working to make it easier for parents to work part time. When I worked a three day week I found the meaning of work was complimented by the meaning of looking after children. Or rather, that each provided a refuge from the meaninglessness of the other. When you have spent a couple of days changing nappies and grilling fish fingers, to be surrounded by adults who don't want their bottoms wiped seems pretty meaningful. And by contrast, having half of one's identity tied up in the rearing of children means that one places fewer impossible demands on the job itself.

A final way of gaining meaning at work is also on the rise: and that is the threat of redundancy. As a result of the credit crunch 55,000 financial sector jobs have already been lost, and more loses are to come. While being fired is the ultimate sign that one's job was meaningless, the relief of escaping the axe could make one so grateful to have work, that one stops asking oneself such awkward questions.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Real Power

I have today removed my "No torch in Tibet" logo from my blog as a mark of respect to all those Chinese who died in Monday's earthquake.

As the Olympic torch relay is now being scaled back this seems yesterday's argument. The Olympics will go ahead in Beijing but no doubt when at least 15,000 people have died in a single event this week, things Olympic must have rather less importance than they once seemed to.

The events in China are terrible and a reminder that even superpowers such as that which China is turning into can suffer at the hands of nature in a scale that is unimaginable. A population of 1.3 billion, a vast army and navy and GDP growing at 10 % is all irrelvant in the face of real power.

Such is humanity's true power in this world, let alone this universe.

May the people of Burma also enjoy the same relief as the people of China. This seems a bit of a vain hope.

Tibet is still oppressed and people in China do not have free speech. However in the face of the earthquake this for now seems a small issue.

May some good yet come out of these tragic events.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Being in Ukraine, it is a little difficult to follow the news, but it is with sadness that I note that events in Burma are every bit as bad as I feared.

The story seems to be slipping down the news agenda but the military junta is continuing to deny free and proper access to aid agencies.

The is as tragic as it is obvious and thousands more Burmese will die (in addition to the unknown toll already)

As for the military junta's powerful ally, China, they have been silent as far as I can see. Worse still, the mainstream media seems to be missing the fact that China is alone in a position to exert real influence on the Burmese (or Myamese ?) government.

What started as a natural disaster is turning into a manmade catastrophe, aided and abetted by the Burmese government keen to keep a restive population weak and quiet. This in turn is tacitly approved by those Olympic lovers in the Chinese government.


I will be a bit quiet for the coming week or so as I am currently in Ukraine visiting my wife's family.

We are currently in Kiev but heading out into the regions tomorrow.

Kiev is in the midst of election fever as they prepare to elect a mayor. In contrast the recent London mayoral election it is a very lively affair with an improbable 97 candidates ranging from Agrarians to communists (and plenty in between!) Nearly every street corner seems to have a tent erected with representatives from various candidates handing out leaflets and balloons to try and woo voters.

It is a bit difficult to judge whether all that is going on is particularly useful but it is certainly democratic and there is freedom of expression for the vast range of candidates, This is in sharp contrast to neighbouring Russia and their recent "coronation" of a presidential election.

Kiev is changing rapidly with a lot of construction, inflation and the usual flash cars of recently acquired wealth (Mercedes, BMW and Range Rover to name a few). That said it is still a calmer gentler version of its Russian sister, Moscow, although it sometimes feels like it is heading that way.

Monday, May 05, 2008

More important than the Olympics ?

As news begins to gather about the mounting death toll from the cyclone to hit Burma, it will be interesting to see what China's reaction is.

Burma is a country tightly controlled by a military junta that despite various mass protests, most recently in 2007 when buddhist monks lead demonstrations, still clings to power.

Burma's closest ally is China and it seems unlikely the country would remain such a harsh dictatorship without Chinese government support.

It is notable that Burma (also known as Myanmar) has so far not formally requested international aid. This is very unusual but highlights the isolated nature of the country and the reluctance of dictatorships to admit any weakness.

China, as a bordering powerful country, has a duty to step in and help quickly. The death toll could very well already be in the tens of thousands.

Never mind the Olympics, never mind the nationalist bombasts about Tibet being eternally part of China, this should be far more important. It is also an opportunity for China to show that despite how many feel about it, it can also be a force for good in this world.

Whether China does help in a tangible way or focuses more on its GDP and its flame tour (sponsored by Coca Cola, Samsung and Lenovo of course) will be an interesting test of character for the emerging superpower.

For the people of Burma, it may be far more than that- a matter of life and death.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Not a new dawn but some fresh air at least.

Untamed: Boris in his pre-haircut days
I welcome Boris's victory as Mayor of London. While the role of Mayor is not as powerful as in some other major cities (in truth largely limited to transport) it is still a significant role and one of great status as a figurehead for the city.

Boris Johnson presents a new face of London, one that has always been here but one largely hidden for many years. Boris is as much part of London as Ken Livingstone his predecessor, but was elected by the outer London suburbs fed up of years of neglect from the centre by Ken who lavished time and money on politically trendy projects in the "inner city" areas of London.

No one says, especially Boris, that everything Ken Livingstone did was awful. He was a genuine leader especially in London's darkest hour of the decade on July 7th 2005 when over 50 people were killed by suicide bombers on the underground and a bus. This, of course, came just one day after London had been awarded the 2012 Olympics. Although I feel unethused about all things Olympian this too was a great achievement.

However he did descend to cronyism and after 8 years in the job can hardly not be said to have had a chance.

There were no other really serious candidates in my opinion so Boris was the obvious choice.

Boris is eccentric and unpredictable. I think there is a certain weariness over politics these days and few are predicting massive change. However if he can achieve something especially in his stated priority of reducing crime that will be welcomed by all.

No one is calling this a new dawn for London. Such hyperbole in best left in 1997. Nonetheless eccentric, intelligent, funny, charming and unpredictable Boris Johnson does represent a breath of fresh air in the leadership of London.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The way of America ?

A key stage was reached in the housing market this week. Nationwide, the largest building society is now recording year on year falls in house prices.

Of course this does not apply everywhere and to everyone but it is the first time since 1996 that on average a house was worth less today than it was a year ago. Previously all the talking was of a slowing rate of increase.

Whether this is the start of something bigger remains to be seen.


There are elections for the London mayor and London assembly today.

For those unfamiliar, having a mayor in London is a modern creation as it has traditionally been a city comprised of strong boroughs (currently 33).

The mayor has limited power but a significant budget for transport and various pet projects.

The first and only London mayor to date, Ken Livingstone who is running again had his fair share of pet projects.

From my experience commuting to work today the sense of excitement was non-existent ! No one mentioned the elections at work and there was no real evidence apart from the signs outside polling stations.

I have voted and it wasn't for "Ken". Enough said....

Despite this sense of apathy I saw today, I suppose we should be thankful for the choice (if limited !) in free elections.