Friday, 30 November 2012

The Book I Read In November

‘Germany 1866-1945’ by Gordon A. Craig
Though published in 1978 this book comes over as a work of an earlier era.  There is an assumption that the reader has a good grasp of German.  Though there is a list of translations of the longer passages at the back of the book, I imagine on the insistence of the publisher rather the author, Craig keeps on slipping in short terms and phrases untranslated.  I studied at a German university for a period, but often I could not make out the correct meaning of these phrases and this often made it difficult to comprehend the precise point the author was making.

Another factor that I doubt one would see in a modern history of Germany is on the cultural wellbeing of Germany during this period.  These days I do not think many readers would be overly concerned if classical composers or literary authors were supportive of authoritarian government or not, in fact we would often assume that they were.  Certainly we would expect a greater focus on the popular media which influenced the viewpoints of many more Germans.

I find Craig’s conclusions on the Nazi regime and the resistance to it, unpalatable.  Craig emphasises that a redeeming feature of Hitler’s regime was that it so destroyed everything that had been inherent in Germany since the 1860s.  He sees the reduction of the influence of the Army into the shadows of the SS and especially the purge of the nobles following the failed 20th July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler as necessary for Germany ever to change.  He is very disparaging of the plotters of 20th July, seeing them as simply want to install a different form of dictatorship, little better than the Nazi system.  I have often been struck by how people of Craig’s generation (he lived 1913-2005), A.J.P. Taylor (1906-90) is another example, so dismiss the resistance to Hitler either as foolishly idealistic or sinister.  I guess, in a quiet way, our views on this topic have shifted over the past three decades.  Similarly the view that Germany had its ‘Stunde Null’ as Craig puts it, i.e. its Zero Hour, in 1945 marking a whole new beginning has also been discredited.  These days historians note the vast continuities that persisted from the Nazi regime and before right into the post-war Germanies, in fact, in different ways in both West and East Germany.  Many on the left and in the centre would argue that Germany did not have the clean break in 1945 it actually needed; even in East Germany, the regime was in many ways little different from the preceding one.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Dangerous New 'Games' On The Road

Back in a job, I am driving daily once more, not the hundreds of kilometres I used to do in a week, just 140 Km these days.  However, this does take me around the M25 and into West London, so does expose me to quite a lot of traffic.  In the past:  and   I have noted trends in bad driving that seem to suddenly appear.  Some such as driving with headlights on full beam or using fog lights at all times of day and night except when there is actually any fog, seem to be continuing with us for now.  Tailgating is as popular as ever as is undertaking and slaloming between the lanes of vehicles.  However, ahead of this Christmas season two new bad driving trends have appeared that you might like to keep an eye open for.

One of them was actually suggested in the media a couple of years back when petrol prices rose sharply.  This is the impression that if you drive with your wheels on the white lines you can reduce your fuel consumption because of the reduced friction between your tyre and the road.  Back then I saw a few people try it, and now it is back in fashion, certainly through the areas I drive.  The only problem is the white lines people seem to be favouring are those running down the middle of the road.  I have had to move over hard towards the pavement as cars charge towards me not really straddling the line but certainly with their right-hand set of wheels (given that we drive on the left-hand side of the road in the UK) riding on the white line.  On many roads in London and the Home Counties, with the size of many ‘family’ cars these days, squeezing down the narrow streets, passed rows of parked cars is a challenge, but this is increased if certain drivers intend to dominate the central line.  Of course the ‘law’ of British roads is that larger, more powerful and newer cars always have right of way, anyone in a smaller or older car must give way, no matter what the actual laws, or face a stream of abuse or even being followed until you reach a convenient location where the other driver can get out and either assault your car or you.  I imagine that the amount of fuel saved by driving this way is compensated for by how much such drivers rev up and accelerate away from junctions anyway.

The other habit which certainly seems to be a ‘game’ of some kind or about asserting the size of a driver’s ego over that of people around him/her (and such habits are not confined to men) happens at traffic lights.  What happens is when the lights turn to green, the driver at the front starts off but only moves so far that half of their car is over the stop line.  They then wait until the lights go to amber (in the UK a single amber light precedes the lights turning red) and then accelerate away, meaning that all the cars behind them are compelled to wait at the red for the cycle to go through once more.  I do not really see the purpose of this, I guess the driver pulling away can drive around any lane they choose, as this often occurs, in my experience at traffic lights on roundabouts.  Given how people like to cut across or block people moving to the correct lane, I can imagine this is something desirable.  However, blocking a whole batch of vehicles from proceeding, further congests what in and around London, is already very dense traffic.  The first few times I saw this happen I had assumed that the driver had stalled, though the cars that this happens with are new models and generally powerful or that the driver was on their mobile phone (drivers holding mobile phones in their hands while driving is still incredibly common in the areas I drive through) and was not ready to drive on.  However, it has now happened to me so often in the same way that I can only assume it is deliberate.

One habit which I had forgotten, but seems to be back in a new form, is having a car come hard up behind you, overtake you just to sit one vehicle space in front of you, continuing at the same speed as you.  I know I have an old car, but I do find it incredible that viewing it is so offensive to drivers they have to go around me.  To this, on motorways has been added a new twist.  A slip road appears on the left for you to leave the motorway.  The driver behind me wants to go down that road.  However, rather than indicating to go into that lane, first he overtakes me going into the middle or the fast lane, depending on the layout of the junction, then he cuts diagonally across three lanes just in front of me to go off down the slip road.  This causes me naturally to brake and the cars further back to do so as well.  I do not understand the motives for this behaviour and can only guess that the driver is upset that I have paid insufficient attention to his greatness and it alerting me to what I will be missing now that he is leaving the motorway.

All of these behaviours stem from the fact that UK drivers clearly see driving as an activity in which their dignity is constantly being defended.  They have to assert their right to be first and noticed at every chance.  It is like preening to scare off rival creatures.  It stems from a clear sense of insecurity, that even to have a single car, especially a slower or older one is offensive.  A sense of lanes is ignored and the driver feels he or she can simply ride across them in any sequence that makes his or her journey apparently easiest or more exciting.  The indignation at anyone who does anything which whether intentional or not, disrupts such desires is instant, withering, bullying and sometimes violent.  In such circumstances, with most speed cameras switched off and traffic police numbers continuing to fall in the current austerity measures, it is no wonder that accidents are climbing in number and that daily driving is becoming still more of an unsettling activity.

Monday, 12 November 2012

'Never As Bad As We Had It'

Living with two elderly people, as I am doing at the moment, you quickly learn never to say anything negative about what has happened to you. It does not matter how ill you feel or how bad or mad the traffic you have driven through; it does not matter if you have lost your job or your house or are separated from those you love. None of these things can even come on the scale of what the elderly have experienced. I guess if this was the 1950s and I was living with old people who had experienced the late Victorian period, then the First and Second World Wars, I could accept that they had a point. However, the two I am living with are 74, i.e. they were born in 1938. Yes, they remember the war as children and better remember the rationing which persisted until 1956. However, most of their lives have been lived in times of what seemed to be for at least two decades, increasing prosperity and improvement in society. Any elderly person, who is younger than them, say 65, has even less to complain about as they were born into the welfare state and a period of full employment. The 1980s were a horrible time but the experience varies considerably depending where in the country you were living. For many in coal-mining and other heavy industrial areas it was the end of their working lives. However, in London and other prosperous cities, it was a time of making profit from property; foreign travel and consumer goods. Even the slump of 1990-3 now seems to have been a blip compared to the decade of economic depression we are now assured.

Of course, in every period, even the greatest boom, there are people who miss out. I lived in East London for over six years and on £9500 per year in the 1990s was a wealthy man in the districts I inhabited. Even then in what now seems to be a boom time, I knew people living in bed and breakfast hotels with their babies and young children, eating in fried chicken shops as they had no kitchen facilities and never travelling more than a couple of miles from their homes, just as if they were a medieval serf. Yet, even they were better off than their Victorian equivalents and were not starving to death on the street or separated and exploited in a workhouse. They were, of course, worse off than their 1960s equivalents who could look forward one day to getting a council flat and a job. Even in the 1990s, things seemed far better than now. As yet, I have not read anything written about the impact of the introduction of the minimum wage on areas like East London. Certainly I noticed a great change, even when employers tried to claw back some of the pay they were now supposed to (and generally did) give, through various tricks. The doubling of someone's hourly rate due to the minimum wage, I saw had a significant impact, if only on the profitability of convenience stores, takeaways and laundrettes in the area I lived.

I guess I probably look back on those days with nostalgia. When I saw a programme some months ago which said that many British people would probably view the period 1997-2007 and the 'best years of their lives', I was a little sceptical but think I have now come around to that perspective myself. It is argued that the post-war boom ran from about 1948/55-71/73. However, with 2008 we seem to have ended even the post-boom period. It is as if the experiment of the third quarter of the 20th century, has finally, through the sustained efforts of hardline Conservatives been brought to an end. The sense that society needed to work for prosperity in general rather than for the already rich alone and the belief that people fell on hard times through no fault of their own so needed state support, have been crushed. That period now appears to have been simply an anomaly. Instead we are getting back to the kind of society that someone in 1892 rather than 1962 would be very familiar with. If you think of the Dickens novels so many of them could be translated to now. No, there are no workhouses and instead Oliver Twist would be in a children’s home where he would be sexually abused, just as children were in the Victorian period; the age of consent was only raised from 13 to 16 in 1861. Workers are losing rights by the day and for example, employees at Comet turn up to find they have two days work left. Housing is beyond the reach of most people even in the middle classes.

Two-thirds of people receiving benefits are in employment. I will say that again, two-thirds of people who receive benefits are in work. This is not because they are cheating the system, it is because their employers are allowed to pay them so little that the state has to subsidise their income in order for these people to have a basic standard of living. Without rent control, rents are rising, far faster than incomes. Most young people have given up on the idea of owning a home and people like me have slipped from being property owners to being tenants once again and exposed to the tricks and exploitation of landlords/ladies and especially letting agencies. Food and petrol have always been expensive in Britain and remain so in relation to incomes even with supposed competition between supermarkets. Utilities since privatisation have always been cartelised and prices continue to rise unchecked. The government continues to peddle the myth that to get into work is to solve your problems, whereas in fact that is a lie. Back in the 1980s, some Conservative argued that Britain had to become the Taiwan of Western Europe, a low-wage, high-tech economy, banging out cheap consumer goods. We are roughly in that position now, though with less of the high-tech than we might like. Yet, despite the low wages, British industry is not booming, in large part because so much of profits is not reinvested and instead goes on salaries, bonuses and paying shareholders. Apparently a company director can earn as much as 350 times what the lowest paid employees in that company earn. We have returned to a Victorian socio-economic pattern yet lacking the output and sales that Britain enjoyed back in that era.

Despite all these problems, to the elderly, it can never be as bad as the times they lived through. The traffic now, despite its increase, the presence of so many huge cars driven poorly and the disappearance of traffic police, somehow cannot be worse than it was in the 1990s. Employers with their ability to sack whomever they choose, with their obsession on minutiae and workers’ declining ability to go to tribunals, somehow cannot be as bad as twenty years ago. Yes, employment might be better than in 1952 or 1972, certainly in terms of discrimination, but it is certainly not as good as 1982, 1992 or even 2002. There is a particular challenge in being listened to in Britain and that is the country’s love of complaining. I know other countries have people who moan and complain but if it was an Olympic sport, Britain would have won gold every time. One point of moaning is to trump the others around you, something well satirised by the sketch from the Monty Python comedy team in the 1970s when a group of northern English men keep portraying their lives as worse than the others to the extent that one states he lived at the bottom of a lake and worked 29 hours per day.

There is a chain of behaviour. An elderly person says that it is not as bad as what they experienced. Thus, you being unable to cope with it shows you must be incompetent. As you are incompetent, you are unworthy of any help. The help they give, however inappropriate, they believe they give for charitable reasons. No matter how grateful you say you are for the help, you are not then permitted to criticise anything about your current situation. The elderly believe that their charity eliminates any problem that you might ever encounter for ever more. Consequently if new problems arise or old ones remain unresolved, you cannot mention these without triggering charges that you are ungrateful. You have to accept the help no matter what other costs there are or even if the help is in fact less helpful than if they had done nothing. I often use the example of my father giving a lift to my girlfriend and driving so fast and recklessly that she was terrified. Simply expressing that terror at the time means that even five years on she is regularly criticised for that statement she made as it apparently shows how rude and ungrateful she is after all this time. I know The Who said, ‘I hope I die before I get old’, certainly if I ever behave to younger people like this I insist someone comes and shoots me. Life is hard without incessantly being told you are useless and ungrateful for years to come.

Is there any risk in the elderly dismissing the challenges and concerns of younger people? Yes, because it means they do not take serious problems seriously. They dismiss them as nothing compared to the burdens they had to face. Consequently they do not give appropriate practical support or even listen to what they are being told. Sometimes just being heard can be vitally important to someone under stress. Above all they are prone to being deluded by politicians who tell them that there is no need to worry about benefits cuts as these are only impacting on the lazy and the feckless. The elderly public’s view of younger people as simply complaining about trivialities rather than the genuine problems they encountered, feeds right into this. Of course, we know that 60% of benefits are paid to people actually in work and many of the unemployed go in and out of the job sector as they are employed on short-term contracts that are so common these days. Benefits are a subsidy to employers wanting to keep wage rates down and their profits incredibly high. Cutting them off would have no impact on their behaviour, they would probably simply relish the control they have over people who had no alternative but to work for low wages in poor conditions or face starvation. The number of children in Britain not eating breakfast or not eating breakfast and lunch is incredibly high and the reappearance of rickets caused by malnutrition, an illness almost eliminated in the mid-20th century in Britain, shows that, no matter what the elderly feel, we have returned to the lifestyle of the Victorian poor.