You could admire the snowdrops starting to show through in earnest now and be pleased spring is here.

Snowdrops on a verge

Spring, surely, has sprung

You could dodge the pot-holes (new and old, often very old) and cut the responsible councils some slack because, after all, the weather’s been awful.

Or you could find yourself wondering, yet again, how it is that so much money is wasted on sub-standard road repairs that fail at the first inclement weather – and from there start to ponder ‘the system’.

Forget all the talk of ‘austerity’. The system is massively rich. Huge amounts of money are sloshing around in local and national government, and vast amounts of that money get wasted. It’s wasted on road repairs that are repairs only in name, obviously, but in all sorts of other respects too. The staggering sums being siphoned out of the NHS spring to mind readily – not least because every passing week, it seems, word leaks out about another Tory/Tory donor with their snout in that particular trough. Whatever way they dress is up, it all comes down to public money being drained away from health care and into private hands for ‘consultancy services’ and management and failed IT projects and the private provision of the previously publicly owned and funded.

In short, a very few people are getting rich out of the public purse on the back of providing ever poorer, ever more expensive, ‘services’.

Nothing about that is news. What is interesting, therefore, is why we put up with it.

Today, riding along debris-strewn roads, I concluded because we’re being fleeced under the cover of politics, and the Brits have a) always been generally disinclined to take much interest in politics and b) when they do show an interest, these days find themselves wholly disillusioned with what’s on offer. And so we give up caring. And so we’re fleeced, royally.

I suppose that does leave us with the question of whether the disillusionment has been deliberately engineered. After all, it suits those who are in a position to do that engineering.

Charity Aftermath

It doesn’t take much to spot charity activity – the direction signs for events left around for a day or two after the weekend. The tell-tale signs were there today, on a short-ish ride taking in Henley and Maidenhead and the lanes thereabouts.

The charitable detritus, and the news today, prompted me to wonder whether charities merit the effort.

That’s a tough one to ask. A lot of people give a lot – time and effort – to fundraising, with the some of the most generous, noble intentions that humans are capable of. No-one should take anything away from that – least of all me.

The ‘however’ comes with the charities themselves. In the news today were reports about the Charities Commission warning that the high salaries being paid to charity bosses can bring ‘the wider charitable world into disrepute’.

Inevitably, the charities shelling out the big salaries defended their actions. What struck me as I read the reports and reactions were three things:

  • That there’s an Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO). That such an association should be necessary is a warning sign: the Chief Executives need a mouthpiece, someone to provide PR puffery, a media ‘turn-to’ spokesperson. I’m not sure they’d need it without having something to feel defensive about. (And who’s funding it? Where does that money ultimately come from?)
  • That the chairman of the ACEVO denies high salaries among charity bosses puts people off donating. (Let’s face it, the chairman of the ACEVO would say that.) That just doesn’t correlate with my experience – on the personal giving front, and amongst friends and family. Time and time again I hear of people re-focusing their giving on small, local and transparent / accountable charities, because they’re sick of their money going to ‘fat cats’.
  • That the fallacy of having to pay top money to get top people is repeated in a charitable context, without question, as it is in any other context. Plainly, there’s no logic to it. Some of the highest remunerated people in the Western World brought about the current recession. Top money buys people who are motivated by money. That doesn’t make them ‘good’ people by any worthwhile measure – it doesn’t mean they’re good at their jobs, good morally, good ethically, good professionally … it just means they think money is good, and that they’re worth lots of it. They can’t even understand that money will never buy happiness.

Perhaps the best thing to hope is that all the charity runners, cyclists and whatever else people get up to for ‘a good cause’ are discerning in their choice of good cause. The information is out there to enable us all to make sensible decisions; the onus is on us all to do the scrutiny.

The BBC on the issue of charity salaries.
The Independent on the same.
A nice piece on why money doesn’t buy happiness, and the associated articles are worth your time.

Enjoying Inequality

Cycling and walking around the Stonor Park estate near Henley, on a good, warm but not stupid-hot day, and

  •  yes, as claimed, it is a beautiful setting for a house;
  •  yes, the whole valley is lush and attractive; English Chilterns countryside at its best;
  •  yes, the whole area is criss-crossed by footpaths and bridle paths and so there’s plenty of access for the likes of Josephine and Joe Public (albeit some of it in a fairly poor state – broken stiles, overgrown tracks etc); and
  •  yes, for sure, the whole area wouldn’t look the way it does if it hadn’t been owned by the same family for centuries: the land doesn’t just look after itself; it has been managed to end up the way it is; it has been kept the way it is only because this particular ownership model (repeated with variations all over England) has allowed it to happen.

And it’s disconcerting to realize that something I’m enjoying and valuing can only exist by dint of extraordinary inequality. I have no ready response to that realization.

Stonor House

Stonor: made possible through inequality

I suspect the extent that that inequality is acceptable hinges on the social quid pro quo between the rich and the rest of society. I also suspect the newly rich in our current society don’t understand that implied contract. There seems to be a grubby, base greediness about today’s ‘fat cats’ and many other ‘successful’ people in the news that puts them at odds with those who society rewarded in the past.

But then again, time mellows things: quite possibly the people who first established Stonor and all the similar estates were just as venal in their day, and it’s only over the years that any kind of social responsibility developed.

Quite possibly though, I’m simply thinking about the wrong thing. Perhaps the real question is whether any general, to-be-enjoyed-by-all gains only possible through such gross inequality are worth the social and human costs, and that’s a question that can be asked at any and every stage of the acquisition of wealth, a question that doesn’t mellow over the years. It’s a question that could do with being asked now, of an awful lot of people.

Money Talking

On America’s Independence Day, yesterday, I found myself reading a New Yorker article about how the billionaire Koch brothers work to ensure their personal wealth and power, based on fossil fuels, isn’t threatened by any action to combat climate change. In a nutshell, they buy politicians and they buy inaction; and they fund disinformation to keep their particular wheels turning.

The New Yorker

It is as ludicrous to tar all Americans with the same brush as it is any other group of people. And after all, the article is written by an American, published in America: there are plenty of Americans outraged by what’s going on.

That said though, from a ‘rest of the world’ point of view, America as a state, as an entity, is the biggest per capita contributor to climate change, but is doing little to change its ways. America is by no means alone in having home-grown, entrenched, powerful people orchestrating opposition to climate change, but as the world’s most powerful nation, if the world were a sensible place, it would be leading the way in reacting to the threats climate change poses.

Cycling today, taking in Goring, Wallingford, Swyncombe and thereabouts, in suddenly very hot weather that no-one was forecasting even just a few days ago, I found myself wondering about any number of different aspects to that Koch-created reality – about how they sleep at night; about how the people they’re buying-off live with themselves; about how to react to it; about how can ‘the nice guys’ fight ‘the nasty guys’ with as much aggression and force as the nasty guys will muster without themselves turning into nasty guys; and so on.

But the thought that stayed with me the longest today was how far America, in practice, has drifted away from any hopeful, noble founding ideals. Whatever many Americans may feel and wish for, the future legacy of America is very unlikely to be positive. And that’s assuming there are people still around to assess it.

Red poppies, a blue sky and white clouds

An English red, white and blue


Upturned Chair

Perhaps we need to upset the whole order of things

A cold wind today but plenty of sunshine and it’s still dry – which seems something notable after all the rain of late. Hence a decent length ride was in order, taking in Sonning Common, Henley, Remenham, the Walthams and thereabouts. Even the road by the gravel workings in Sonning is looking a little less like a causeway.

I spotted two big ol’ Mistle Thrushes in a field today, I guess foraging in the mud for worms and what-have you. Also, a very plumped-up Song Thrush rootling about in dry leaves on a verge. You don’t see either very often but whether that’s a reflection of their numbers or their camouflage I don’t know. Perhaps the drab state of the vegetation at the moment means they stand out a bit more.

Talking of camouflage, at this time of year you can see all the houses (mansions and similar) of the seriously rich dotted around these parts far more easily, simply because trees and hedges aren’t so dense. It occurred to me today that I don’t really know what it makes me feel, seeing all these examples of quite high end wealth.

Even if you conclude it all comes down to how the money’s earned, there’s still a lingering doubt. Perhaps the business that generated the wealth was fair and decent; perhaps the money came through creativity – being an author or something – and it’s all been above board in every way imaginable. However honest the toil, there’s still the doubt about whether we collectively benefit from a society that tolerates – let alone lauds – a class of super-rich people; people who, in turn, are happy to be so rich when there’s so much that needs funding for the less well off.

I know it’s complicated and messy. If you’ve earned a huge sum by honest and fair means, given 50% away but found that left you with more than enough to buy a mansion – what then? Giving away half of your earnings would be generous by any measure – it’s more than I donate. Yes, it’s messy. That doesn’t mean it’s intractable.

I can’t say seeing such wealth makes me angry or indignant. It does make me question how we’re living though. Perhaps I don’t get angry about it because I’m comfortable enough; indeed, because I’m comfortable with the idea of ‘enough’. Perhaps it’s because so many of us are more-or-less comfortable that a critical mass hasn’t formed, angry enough to lynch the bankers and the politicians that have permitted the bankers to thrive.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

A reasonable length road ride heading south of Reading for the first time in ages, including going through a once-again-open-to-traffic Sonning.

All I could see was the same old same old: pot-holes that had been filled (badly) are now large and dangerous holes again. Pot-holes that weren’t quite big enough to merit mending according to whatever criteria they apply are now major hazards which will cost far more to repair. Litter is everywhere and all too visible now there’s no vegetation around, so that just – it seems – encourages everyone to throw more litter. At some point it’ll be cleared up – at far greater cost than tackling it early. Etc.

All you seem to read about in the news is the same old same old too – climate change manifestations; the US and Israel; India and Pakistan and disputed territory; corrupt policemen; corrupt politicians; Japan and China and disputed territory; government policies that will hit the poorest hardest, and so on and so on. One that particularly struck me today was a UN report that the wealth gap in Britain is the worst in the West.

That whole ‘trickle down’ approach was discredited in the Thatcher/Reagan years but it won’t go away. It beggars belief. It’s not a Tory product; it’s a product of our political classes – Tories, Labour, Lib-Dem and anyone else who’s ever had a say.

It beggars belief, too, that we just take it in the same way as we take the rest of it. We are mugs, moaning to ourselves and our mates and that’s about it; at most perhaps contriving some ‘gallows humour’ out of it. Satire might change things; gallows humour just ameliorates.

I’m as much of a mug as anyone else. I know all too well that I’ve droned on about most of this stuff before and done precisely nothing to change any of it. The question is how to make 2013 any different in any way, however small.