Sunday, 14 September 2008

On the nature of things

And so the recession is finally upon us like an apocalyptic tidal wave, sweeping along with it all the property shows, home improvement magazines and ‘buy a new place in the sun’ paraphernalia that has been ubiquitous over the past decade. In much the same way the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah must have gossiped excitedly at drinks parties about the meteoric rise in value of their riverfront property, oblivious to the deluge of fire and brimstone sweeping up behind them. Despite innumerable warning signs, the collapse of the sub-prime market and the accompanying economic downturn were not expected by many people and were met with incredulous disbelief. My theory is that this is due to a secular reinterpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. With the arrival of Christianity, it came to be believed that history had directionality and a predetermined goal, which was human salvation. In the enlightenment this idea was hijacked by intellectuals like Rousseau, Saint-Simon and Comte who instilled the belief that civilisation is moving towards some kind of a global society based on science. In the 21st century, having shorn the past and future of its metaphysical significance, people seem to believe that history’s goal is to increase the value of everyone’s house, ever onwards and upwards till we reach some glorious utopian future where the British middle class are enthroned as the privileged aristocracy of Europe, all the menial jobs are done by Polish wage slaves and everyone owns a second home in Bulgaria and the Algarve. In pre-Christian Europe and eastern cultures, human life was understood as a series of cycles and history was seen as tragic or comic rather than redemptive. I would argue that in terms of economics this view is of considerable merit. Events such as the ‘South Sea Bubble’, the ‘Dot.Com’ boom and the ‘House Price’ revolution can best be understood as a series of tragic-comic cycles with people becoming overexcited and irrational about the value of their over inflated assets, only to be brought back to reality with a resounding thud once the market begins its customary plunge. The nature of the economic asset changes, whether it be shares in non existent companies, barrels of oil or bricks and mortar; but it is usually accompanied by the same cycle of greed, volatility and hubris; and finally nemesis, decline and eventual collapse.

The central tragedy of my life is that people are always phoning me up to ask me questions on topics I couldn’t care less about. Perhaps the best example of this occurred a couple of years ago when the office switchboard number was mixed up with the information line for Marks and Spencers travel insurance. As a result I was subjected to a torrent of enquiries from holidaymakers looking for information about their potential coverage and eligibility. When I told them that I couldn’t help them they sounded deeply wounded and had enormous difficulties coming to terms with the fact that they had the wrong number. Above all they were extremely resentful, as if, despite not being an employee of Marks and Spencers, I should at least have the decency to find out something about their travel insurance to pass on to them, or that I had fooled them into calling me through some piece of Machiavellian trickery. If anything I should be the one who is justified in feeling aggrieved. I would have few complaints if my number were to be advertised as ‘The Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow hotline’ or the ‘Battle of Stalingrad information desk’, as then I would have something to say to people. As it is, people assume I must be the world authority on such matters as ‘the availability of parking spaces in the vicinity of Edgware high street’ or ‘the layout and topography of British motorways’ but are loathe to question me about things I actually have some knowledge of. Unfortunately tedious information is the currency of the universe.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

As some of you might be aware my wife is an American citizen and therefore regarded as suspicious and ‘foreign’ by the U.K’s bureaucratic establishment. As penance for this we have had to undergo many hardships, including queuing up with the asylum seekers at UK Customs and immigration in Croydon and having to shell out vast sums of money to get permission from the state to marry, live in the same country and, most ignominiously of all, to take the UK Citizenship test. This vile assessment contains such questions as ‘How much does a colour TV licence cost?’ and ‘What percentage of the UK’s population are Catholics?’. I find it hard to see why knowing the extent of the UK’s Catholic community is in any way a useful requirement for being a fine upstanding citizen. The only scenario I can envisage is if I happened to be reincarnated as Oliver Cromwell and charged myself with exterminating the ‘ungodly papist religion’. One wouldn’t mention this in the citizenship test of course because it would almost certainly fall foul of the new laws governing incitement to religious hatred; especially ironic given that our constitution and national identity were mainly founded by inciting religious hatred. All one had to do in the 16th century to be a good citizen was to own a well-thumbed copy of ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’. In the 21st century the only things you really need to be able to call yourself British are an unquenchable sense of self-loathing and a hatred of ones entire history and culture.

The most infuriating part of the test is having to shell out for ‘Life in the United Kingdom, a Journey to Citizenship’, the official government booklet which has all the questions and answers. On the first page The Home Secretary, John Reid’s ugly bald head stares back at you with a short forward written underneath. I regard the first paragraph as a personal insult. It reads

‘The first edition of this handbook became a best seller when it came out towards the end of 2004. Some people will have bought it out of interest, or a wish to know more about the United Kingdom’s history or institutions. And many more will have obtained it as a study guide for the new tests for knowledge about life in the United Kingdom, which we brought in during 2005 for people who want to become British citizens’.

Well yes, it is a best seller, in the same way that Chairman Mao’s little red book sold between 5.5 and 6 billion copies, partly because if you failed to produce it you were liable to be belaboured around the head and genitalia by Red Guards and sentenced to years of hard-labour. It’s certainly no cause for self congratulation.

To me the citizenship test is oddly reminiscent of some of the first IQ tests, which the United States brought in at the height of the worldwide Eugenics movement during the 1920s. These were drawn up in order to allay fears that the "American" gene pool was being polluted by a rising tide of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, who were thought to be ‘imbeciles’, ‘feeble minded cretins’ and ‘moral defectives’. Upon the ‘discovery’ by H. H. Goddard that all immigrants, except those from Northern Europe, were of ‘surprisingly low intelligence;’ tight immigration laws and IQ testing were enacted in the 1920s. These tests were also influential in some states for legitimising forced sterilization of ‘defective’ individuals who had scored badly. The tests themselves that were introduced were very crude and culturally specific; immigrants tended to do very badly indeed. Sample questions included ‘who won the baseball batting title in 1925?’ and ‘Which one of these is a stop sign?’. As a result 87% of Russian immigrants and similar numbers from other nations were found to be feeble-minded, a result so ludicrous even H. H Goddard couldn't believe it. Eventually the same test was introduced to estimate the intelligence of the armed forces and so many of the people serving were found to be imbeciles and idiots worthy of sterilisation – a lot of them war veterans - that the test was immediately ditched.

I move that the present day UK citizenship test be similarly scrapped, and in this particular incidence the only person that should be sterilised is the Home secretary.