Monday, 8 December 2014

Once upon a time Part Two: in Limehouse...

...I was invited to speak at the launch event for the London Chapter of CASSE.  It was 2014.

As I stood up to speak, my plan was:

Fortunately Desmond Kilroy, convenor of the London chapter, recorded my utterances (and, indeed, those of the four other speakers) so I was pleased to learn that this alarming scrap of paper was not the only evidence of whatever it was I said.

The full transcript, however, was just as alarming; and it was only after some prudent editorial work that something merely unsettling emerged:

A recovering economist speaks...

I’m convinced that a radically different kind of economy is required. I’m also convinced it is not going to be worked out by economists. 

I think the new economy is going to be created by millions and millions of ordinary people changing how they live their lives; and economics is going to have to catch up. 

My main warning is that I think assuming that policy can deliver this new economy is misguided. 

I want to explain why I think this by talking about washing powder, beer, drugs, rubbish, sandwiches and hairdressers, which all seem to me to be extremely ordinary everyday activities. 

Washing powder – a small number of manufacturers each produce multiple different ‘brands’ to limit the market share that might be available to a new market entrant.  It is elementary corporate behaviour.  At the more complex end, there are all sorts of methods by which corporates pursue their own interests at the expense of others.  No big corporate will seriously consider a transformation of the economic system that would imply their extinction.  

Beer - or, more accurately, prohibition. It didn’t work, and it doesn’t work. The genie of ‘choice’ is out of the box. The idea that a great regulatory transformation, some policy-led series of initiatives will suddenly make us all adopt sustainable lifestyles consistent with this new economic paradigm is nonsense.

Sandwiches – we in this room probably all want sustainable sandwiches.  But ‘big policy’ is concerned to ensure that Londoners get fed.  So whilst the bottom-up, inclusive, sustainable sandwich bar is great as far as it goes, a food strategy for London that doesn’t include Tesco and Sainsbury won’t get very far with a serious policy maker.

Water butts – in Tottenham a few years ago I was doing some research trying to find ‘influential individuals’: not leading opinion makers but ordinary people.  There was a lady who lived in a terraced house, a single parent with three children.  And on the estate where she lived, talking to people to find out who influenced who, they all gave the same name. The lady didn’t think of herself as influential, but she had six months earlier put a new water butt in her garden. And over the course of the six months between her getting that water butt and us walking up on that estate, everyone had installed a water butt. She wasn’t an environmentalist. I don’t think she would have much truck with the phrase “sustainable lifestyles”. And she didn’t have economic power. But she was pretty together: every time you went around there for a cup of tea, her home was tidy, and she got her children to school on time. And she was just on top of her life. She was just like the other people on the estate. There is a technical word for this: it’s called homophily. She was just like them, only a bit better. Every single one of us has got someone or two like that. Just like us; but a bit better. We look up to them. And when they make a choice, that legitimizes it, and influences us.

Hairdressers - About five years ago somebody heard me talk about influential individuals, telling the story about the lady and the water butts in Tottenham, and the listener went away to research this more thoroughly, and she told me in an email that she had decided to research hairdressers as influential individuals. Two groups of hairdressers were used in the study, one group primed to talk about environmental issues with their customers. And it had dramatic impact! So much so that I learned from her a couple of weeks ago that she has secured funding to introduce environmental issues into national hairdressing training.

So a group of influential individuals is likely to be chatting about the environment with their customers.  I am convinced that this is going to have dramatically more impact – on ordinary people thinking about environmental issues and how to develop ‘sustainable lifestyles’ - than some policy that no one will even notice. I’m not saying that we pay no attention to the ‘economic system’; it's just that I’d far rather that we thought about how we help ordinary people, in their millions, to make sustainable choices, than persuade a few policy people who might be trying hard but who are locked in by the kind of vested interests I’ve talked about.

One other lovely thing happened that evening, during the presentation about the Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group at Surrey from the wonderful Ian Christie (also available on the CASSE page), when he was kind enough to put up a slide as follows:

David Fell, Brook Lyndhurst, in Guardian Sustainable
Business, 7/3/2013:

• Sustainable consumption consists at present almost
entirely of "supply push" rather than "demand pull". On
the supply side, a combination of regulatory and
legislative obligation, business-to-business peer
pressure and, slowly, a developing cultural norm mean
that a growing number of enterprises are taking
sustainability seriously.

• Turn to the consumer side of the equation, however,
and the story is very different. The number of people
taking sustainability seriously has remained
stubbornly low for the past 20 years.

• Perhaps two or three consumers in every 100 are
actively trying to minimise their environmental
footprint on a consistent, across-the-board basis.
The majority find it too hard, too overwhelming, too
complicated – too much hassle given all the other
things they need to think about.

Sometimes it almost feels as if all this stuff joins up.  Time, methinks, to move from 'tell me' to 'show me'... Roll on 2015.

Once upon a time Part One: in Leeds...

...I contributed to a conference organised by the Centre for the Advancement of Steady State Economy (CASSE) entitled 'Working towards an alternative to economic growth'.  It was 2010.

I ran and spoke at "Workshop 7: Changing Behaviour (the Psychology of Consumerism)"

I prepared a paper in advance; and, after the presentation and the workshop, amended the paper for inclusion as a chapter in the report of proceedings.

Here it is.

Chapter 10: Enough Materialism

“How can a ‘mass behaviour of enoughness’ be brought about?”

David Fell (Workshop Speaker)

Consumer spending typically accounts for about two thirds of economic activity in industrialised economies.  As such, consumer behaviour strongly influences the behaviour of the entire economy.  Under the current system, consumer spending and economic growth are inextricably linked — increasing consumption spurs the economy to get bigger, with all the accompanying side effects.

The character of consumer spending has evolved since the mid-18th century.  Contemporary “consumerism” — a social norm that gives pre-eminence to “consuming” rather than “doing,” “being” or “producing” — emerged in the 1960s and is widely seen as a dominant driver of behaviour by individuals, corporations and governments.

Since Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in the late 19th century consumerism has been the subject of continuous critique by economists and social scientists. The negative consequences of consumerism, as outlined by David Fell in his [work on] the 'economics of enough' can be summarised as follows:
  • It is a behavioural paradigm (“more”) that is fundamentally inconsistent with the finite quantity of material resources on the planet;
  •  It is a behavioural norm comprising an unsustainable “hedonic treadmill”.  No matter how fast individuals run toward happiness and fulfilment, they are always one step away, a setup that may contribute to widespread mental ill-health;
  •  It co-creates and reinforces systemic inequality both within and between nations and communities.

Given the negative consequences of consumerism, the challenge is to create an alternative model of consumption in which the vast majority of citizens are routinely choosing “enough” rather than “more”.  Hence, “enough” would become an inherent feature of a new value set that would drive positive changes, such as reduced resource consumption, improved psychological well-being, and greater equality.  Such a revolutionary change in values — and it is a revolution rather than a series of incremental adjustments to the prevailing orthodoxy — is unlikely to happen quickly or easily, given the forces lined up against it and the anxieties that will inevitably arise about such a transformation.

In summary, the challenge is to seek ways to instigate a shift to a “mass behaviour of enoughness.”


It is no simple task to bring about a “mass behaviour of enoughness.”  To understand the proposals that follow, it is worth analysing the context of this behavioural shift.

The revolutionary change in values envisaged would be enacted within an economic system which is complex, open and dynamic — a system in which the objectives of institutions and groups are not fixed but are, in large part, emergent properties.  Social norms can be conceptualised as the emergent properties of social groups, and they are enormously powerful determinants of behaviour.  The contemporary social norm of consumerism is one (powerful) set of emergent properties that dictates significant behaviours for many individuals in industrialised economies.

Not all behaviours, however, are subject to this social norm.  Older people, for example, often spend less of their income on “things” and more on “experiences,” which tend to have a lower material impact.  In addition, increasing numbers of people, either as individuals or as groups, choose to live “downshifted” lifestyles or choose to live “off-grid.”

This context (consisting both of norms that emerge from social groups and of pockets of people already possessing a value set consistent with the desired model of consumption) contains the starting point for bringing about a “mass behaviour of enoughness.”  The main proposal offered by David Fell in the Workshop on Changing Behaviour is for a rapid diffusion of new values through the manifold networks that comprise contemporary society.  Such an exercise would be system-wide and would entail multiple points of influence, many of which would be beyond the remit of government.  Some mechanisms which would help make this proposal a reality include:

·         Influential individuals:  Influential individuals occupy pivotal positions in social networks and are key figures in the processes by which new social norms emerge and diffuse through those networks.  Such individuals need to be recruited as agents of change.

·         Community activism:  Organisations with objectives that challenge or contradict consumerism need to be supported and encouraged, both to expand their membership and to transmit their values and insights to the wider community.

·         Promotion of alternative hedonism:  Innovative media outlets can promote the benefits of non-materialistic lifestyles to specific target groups in a proactive manner.

·         Enabling new forms of institutions:  A particular role for the state lies in creating the enabling infrastructure in which new forms of corporate and civic entities can emerge.  Examples include organisations that manage assets for the purpose of delivering long-term well-being to asset owners, rather than delivering short-term financial returns to managers (e.g. land use planning, innovative taxation arrangements, and new classes of legal vehicles).

·         Overcoming resistance:  Resistance to the scale and type of change implied is sure to come from large corporations and the state.  Mechanisms to overcome that resistance (e.g. consumer boycotts, support for new forms of enterprise, organised media campaigns, political lobbying, etc.) needs to be developed and enacted.

Workshop participants expressed broad agreement that the mechanisms for behavioural change outlined in the proposal provide a solid start, but they also felt that, in some cases, it is necessary to examine more deeply the root causes of the problems raised by consumerism.  As one participant put it, “It is not enough to bring about change at the level of fashion.” 

Four main themes ran through the discussion and characterised potential paths to develop the proposal further: (1) values, (2) motivation, (3) dealing with power, and (4) visualisation of change.  These are explored below:

·         Values:  There is an implied acceptance across most of society that the self-seeking, individualistic values which form the backdrop to consumerism are reasonable and necessary.  Part of this acceptance has been brought about by an evolution from community-based values to individualistic ones.  This trend needs to be reversed.  There was a very strong feeling in the workshop that people could and should take a personal stand.  As one participant said, “We need to set an example by living our values and rejecting unnecessary consumer items — otherwise we lack the moral authority to inspire change.  We need to be aware of the importance of our prophetic voice.”

·         Motivation:  Motivation is key to the process of behavioural change.  People who are happiest are those who have intrinsic motivation and inner contentment.  There needs to be a greater focus on the positive image of the alternative life and a demonstration that a consumer lifestyle is deadening and boring.  Consumerism only appeals to some of the core human motivations (hedonism, status, achievement).  Love, connectedness, friendship, spirituality and creativity are equally powerful sources of motivation, and it is crucial to tap into these.

·         Dealing with power:  There is an urgent need to curtail the power of large corporations and the media, both of which exercise so much control over people’s lives.  It is important not to underestimate this power, which often resorts to subtle and even subliminal methods.  Bankers, advertisers and manufacturers, however, are simply responding to consumer demand (including demand they create themselves).  The shift needs to originate from people’s personal values, and from understanding the “mass infantilisation” programme to which the public is subjected.  Such a shift requires greater awareness of communication methods, persuasion, and psychology.

·         Visualisation of change:  Alternative hedonism is an attractive concept.  People need to be able to visualise what a sustainable lifestyle looks like in concrete terms.  Celebrities can be helpful in providing highly visual role models, but celebrity culture is also part of the problem.  As one participant exclaimed, “We should recognise that we can be the influential individuals.  We don’t have to ‘buy in’ to celebrity!”

It is possible to use existing networks and leading-edge projects to elicit change.  There are opportunities for change within our work places and local communities.  The Transition Towns Movement is an effective approach; it has captured many people’s imaginations and catalysed the formation of new social groups.  If politicians see change happening on a sufficient scale, they will be under pressure to respond.  Potential also exists for initiatives connected with a shorter working week and a citizens’ income to contribute significantly to a different way of thinking about consumption.

In the light of the proposals presented to the workshop, and the subsequent discussion, the following “arenas for action” were highlighted as worthy of further exploration:

·         Taking a strong personal stand, based on non-consumer values and motivations;
·         Community activism based on local initiatives to develop alternatives to mass consumerism, either by buying less, producing locally, or boycotting mass consumer outlets;
·         Putting pressure on local and national government through specific lobbying campaigns;
·         Influencing institutional culture (for example through places of work) to change patterns of consumerism in large and medium sized organisations (with the National Health Service as a prime potential candidate);
·         Influencing professional practice (again within the workplace, especially those with ‘levers’ in society like law firms); and
·         Systematic use of the power of consumer pressure to influence manufacturers and the media.

The main obstacle identified was one of complexity in that big changes in consumer behaviour require massive shifts at a personal level and a societal level.  Hence the questions for ongoing investigation can be categorised into the same themes that spanned the discussion and reflect the need for dealing with this complexity at both a micro and a macro level.

Answering these questions will be a crucial step, but the journey of transitioning from the value of “more” to the value of “enough” can get underway with other steps.  Ample approaches for diffusing ideas through existing social networks are available — we simply have to put one foot in front of the other.

The Twelve Days of Christmas (Square Mile edit) 2014

On the first day of Christmas the market gave to me
a people too easy to fleece

On the second day of Christmas the market gave to me
two payday loans and
a people too easy to fleece

On the third day of Christmas the market gave to me
three dodgy deals
two payday loans and
a people too easy to fleece

On the fourth day of Christmas the market gave to me
four blatant scams
three dodgy deals
two payday loans and
a people too easy to fleece

On the fifth day of Christmas the market gave to me
four blatant scams
three dodgy deals
two payday loans and
a people too easy to fleece

[and so on, until]

On the twelfth day of Christmas the market gave to me
twelve fat cats laughing
eleven bankers lying
ten taxmen taxing
nine lenders scheming
eight traders stealing
seven dealers cheating
six wide boys gloating
four blatant scams
three dodgy deals
two payday loans and
a people too easy to fleece

Merry Christmas!

Friday, 28 November 2014

Approaching One Hundred - and Biting Through

The stampeding horses create a turbulent and luxurious supply of oxygen for the skull-fire, but now and again the wild beasts pause for water, and the air stills and the raging mindstorm subsides to mere smoldering.  There is time to look around.

Gosh! This blog will soon be seven years old!  The hundredth post is nigh! A brief review suggests that some of the past may still be useful in the present, or even later, so while the horses are becalmed, an opportunity to provide some shortcuts backwards, just in case:

The Eleven Most Read
Economics of Enough Blog Posts 

A diatribe against the shallow nonsense of corporate networking, and a plea for authenticity in our exchanges with others

A more analytical piece which uses an example from the UK property market to illustrate how meeting the short term requirements of financial markets results directly in outcomes that are bad for ordinary people and the places where they live

Derived from a presentation given to the International Water Association, eleven 'top tips for scenario planning

A theory of social and economic change in four-and-a-bit diagrams, justifying the ethical position 'On being a good grain of sand'

An argument from deep inside the economics of enough, summarised for and presented to the Schumacher Institute conference in 2013 and entitled 'Beyond Consumerism: A Design Challenge'

A pair of poems, the first of which was set in the Olympic Stadium in 2012 and appeared in the magazine Smoke.

A short prose poem explaining why I shall not be writing the book 'Deshopping Society'

A piece examining a striking result arising from some elementary economics on supply and demand in the UK energy market, the only explanation for which is a political process utterly in thrall to the wishes of big corporates 

A poem, second in a still-to-be-completed trilogy, contrasting some yearned-for or hoped-for human behaviours with the commodified simulacra we currently endure

A sketched  proposition for an aggressive, dramatic and self-funding policy to save thousands of lives each year in London by banning all commercial diesel vehicles from within the M25 from 2023

Magic Eleven
I dreamt, at a UCL seminar, that London would be a sustainable city in 2062 if there was more singing and less shopping.  The talk became a chapter in a book, as well as this blog, and last week saw the publication of 'Sustainable London? The future of a global city' in which, in the concluding chapter, the editors Rob Imrie and Loretta Lees re-print the essay and write:

'These ideas [of care and inclusion] are embedded in Fell's (2012) persuasive outline of an alternative, progressive way of re-conceiving London's future, based, in part, on a context of care, in which a flourishing and inclusive society depends on significantly different, de-materialized relationships emerging to those shaping contemporary social and political agendas.

For Fell (2012) a sustainable future for London means questioning the logics of development and modernization.  It should not mean business-as-usual development, which is not able to respond to, or even recognise as part of its modus operandum, the complexities of creating a caring and nurturing place for all to live.  

Instead, people-sensitised approaches to London's sustainability ought to include appropriate guarantees of individuals' welfare, the provision of good quality social housing, public transport, education and health and the development of a caring, collective future for Londoners rather than one mired in so-called preparedness and individualism.'

At which point, the restless whinnying of sated equines signals the end of the pause and the resumption of oxygen-red flow.  And, if not yet singing, I'm certainly humming...

Trains, planes and mischievous elves

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking at 'London Infrastructure Plan 2050 Event: Circular Economy', organised by London Sustainability Exchange as part of Mayor Johnson's consultation and held on the top floor of City Hall.

The synopsis I'd provided in advance was:

"Throughout the modern era, infrastructure and the economy upon which it depends have been (thought of as) linear.

Roads, canals and railways took goods and people from A to B; the economy was conceptualised as a machine with inputs that related directly to outputs; the future was estimated on the basis of straightforward equations so that schools and hospitals and other ‘social’ infrastructure were delivered through ‘predict and provide’.

The past may work for a while, but it locks us in to its way of thinking – and it leaves us trapped by dead Cost Benefit Analyses and in possession of unaffordable ‘white elephants’.

Now that economy and society are understood as complex, adaptive systems; now that the ICT revolution is in full swing; and now that mega-projects have become almost impossible to justify, we need an infrastructure that is flexible, adaptable, plastic, bendy and small-but-easy-to-emulate.  Rather than predict what infrastructure we’ll need, David Fell will speak about what our infrastructure will need to be like.”

My actual presentation didn't mention cost benefit analysis, or equations, or possibly even ICT, which is probably a good thing.  I did say, however, that the economy used to be thought of as being like this:

but now it was probably better to think of it being more like this:

and this presented quite a challenge for infrastructure planning and design.

I also discovered that a wonderful organisation called 'More than Minutes' were capturing proceedings in graphical format; and, since I had the privilege of giving the opening address, they decided to draw me:

In fact, they captured the whole thing:

The best bit though was that, in trying to exemplify what I was blathering on about with this flexible adaptive infrastructure stuff, I spoke of drones, and how quickly they'd gone from being hostile devices that killed people in rural Pakistan to being benign devices that were going to deliver our Christmas presents.  Soon we wouldn't need lorries, I suggested, and Santa's elves would probably pilot the drones.

And they drew that too:

After all that I need some fresh air, which was outside surrounding all this:

For a moment I thought I heard the harmonised hum of tiny engines and happy helpers...

...but it must have been a trick of the tail.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

When the universe speaks

“What time is it?”

2.15 sir

“In the morning?”

Yes sir.”

“And you’re ringing me again.”

Yes sir.  The alarm in your office has gone off again.


Yes sir.  There appears to be a fault.

“A fault?”

Yes sir.

“Your’re ringing me at 2.15 in the morning to tell me that my security alarm has a fault?”

I’m sorry sir, but our contract requires us to notify you whenever the alarm activates.

Which it did, on three further nocturnal occasions, in the hours remaining before I was due to begin my morning journey to Belfast.

So perhaps I was a little tired.  And I was certainly out of my comfort zone: I fly so rarely, as you know.  But I couldn’t have foreseen the choice by an anonymous individual of the Piccadilly Line and this morning for their Personal Decision to Exit Life.

Deprived by the suspension of the Piccadilly Line of my obvious route from Hammersmith to Heathrow, and having set off with ‘just enough’ time, I improvised the Paddington/Heathrow Express solution, and crossed my fingers.  This seemed to work – I caught the necessary train with 2 minutes to spare – until, at Terminal 1/2/3, the train doors developed a fault.  For one, two, three, four minutes we sat there.

So when I swiped my Boarding Pass across the electronic eye at the security zone, I was refused entry, it being 9.24.  My last opportunity to access my flight had expired, according to the sympathetic but powerless British Airways employee, at 9.20.

“And the next flight is?”

At 12.50”.

“And to change my booking would cost?”

A lot.

I stared at the woman behind the desk.  Then the fabulous arches of Terminal 5.  Then the painfully blue sky outside.

The universe had spoken.  I decided to listen.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Enough Light: Three sonnets, one prose poem and an asymmetric scream - 5

On grief, en verve


It is the size of
long loves lost
lovers' fading faces
fleeting ecstasy of dust
It is the size of
a daily smile
the endless thrill
of oscillating refuge and release


It is the colour of
the bare-remembered hours
holding and cooking and playing
with those beautiful children
forever gone
It is the colour of
the helping hand
extended to a stranger
in their sudden time
of peril


It weighs the same as
the misty smile
of each fallen friend

It weighs the same as
the lifted heart
that sees the dawn


It reaches as far down as
those once-upon home-bound moments
knowing that boy-child smiles
will burst and hurtle
up and down the stairs
It reaches as far down as
the mind that wraps
around you
when you are truly lost
in a fictional world


It tastes like
the repetition and assurance
of each summer following 
each ritual journey
each comforting pattern
each family game
It tastes like
the rippling joy
of new invention
each time the opportunity


It is as swift as
the cancer that
It is as swift as
the poem that


It is as gentle as
my father's parting hug
his loving life
his final ask:
Did I do ok?
It is as gentle as
the paintbrush wand
that Monet used
to tell the world:
Look! Joy!


It is as stealthy as
the life that left
the little boy
safe and happy in the womb
unable - or unwilling - 
to join us in the
airborne world
It is as stealthy as
the languid words and
songs and games
that sons and father
turn, from time to time,
to joyous moment-filling


It is as subtle as 
the mysterious fug of
a family building its myth
and leaving it
in the past
It is as subtle as
the mysterious air
of a long walk
filling limbs and lungs
and circling us back
to the beginning


It is as real as
the dreams you once had
of one future or
somehow now
impossibly impossible
It is as real as
the infinitesimal mark
the only thing
of which to be sure:
to be a good
grain of sand

Enough Light: Three sonnets, one prose poem, and an asymmetric scream - 4

Every year it was the same, crisp and bright, the sun coming into the garden at a precise, pre-solstice angle, the aching blue sky as empty as the motionless couple.  Even the first year, when it was really year zero, that was how the weather had shaped them, as if the authorial voice had read too much Dickens, was too keen to meld their characters, too keen to have a tale to tell.

There is no tale; just the things that happened.  The thing that happened.  The thing that didn’t happen.

Years later the thing that didn’t happen sat at the centre of his soul like a glacier, a solid current running through his very being and everything he did.  Strength, it gave him, enormous strength, strength to cut through the solid landscape of life, strength to destroy and carry along the greatest weights, the most fearsome barriers, an immutable power to proceed.

And rigidity, too, great rigidity, trapped in the valley of the past, bound up with the [bits of rock] and boulders of yesterday, yearning for a melting spring that somehow never came.

Once, she had been the melting force, long ago now, she had had the heat, the wit, the rushing incandescent flare of life: but she, too, and even more so, had had to bear the thing that didn’t happen, deep inside her, and the heat had gone, the magma had subsided to leave a terrible crevasse, deep into her being, a slash to the core.  Every day she had to navigate around it, jump over it, build bridges across it, waiting for the skein of life to grow across it, and the years did indeed deliver, the skein thickened, but the vertiginous gape remained, at any moment capable of appearing as a rent through the surface of day to day life.

Day to day life had been where it started, of course.  Before the glaciation, before the tectonics, they had been young and confused.  The flat was as new and chaotic as their marriage, a gambolling adventure of partial carpets, clashing furniture, erratic eating, furious sex, working too hard, laughing too loud, Scrabble til dawn, better wine than before, and more finely rolled joints.  Who knows.  Outside it was San Francisco, or Zurich, or London.  Inside, it was the late twentieth century, and the CD played loud.

Every year it was the same.  Towards the middle of November, once all the leaves had abandoned their host branches, and for a period of perhaps three or four weeks, the geometry of window, nearby buildings and lovely orange sky ball brought extraordinary light direct into the living room, light as they rose in the morning to drink tea and shave and hunt for last night’s stockings and yesterday’s shirt and the calm delivery of worldly news, light that scythed across the narrow space between the ironing board and the bubbling coffee maker, light that danced across her knees and thighs as she moved lynx-like from stockings to skirt, light that fell onto his cigarettes to leave a shadow on the tiny fragments of dust that remained invisible until this time of year.

“Remind me what time the appointment is?” he asked, staring from the window for a moment to evaluate whether the light was enough to warm the air or whether he would need a heavy coat instead.

“Two” she muffled from somewhere behind him.  “Meet you there?”

His morning passed, meetings and phonecalls, and so did hers, phonecalls and meetings.  The modern world carried them on its shoulders, provided them with a view, a fine platform of information and education, medicine and civilisation, stable political institutions and an array of entertainments, technology and holidays, things to do and things to think about.  They worried, of course.  Who knows?  There were plenty of things to worry about.

And then the doctor’s face changed shape, somehow, at the same instant that his friendly chatter had dried in his throat, at the same time as the nurse had blanched, at the same time as her hand had gripped his, at the same time as the fabric of the universe seemed momentarily to bend impossibly, at the same time as the early winter sun disappeared behind the day’s only cloud.


But there was nothing they could do.  The baby, alive and growing, his heart beating, his fingers twitching, was incomplete.  The dice had been thrown.  He could live forever in a womb; but never beyond it.

He died quickly, the medical professionals assured them.  The contractions of the womb itself are too strong for such a small baby.  He would have felt no pain.  He looked bruised, calm, beautiful, old.  They held his tiny form.  They held each other.  They made arrangements.  They kept it together.  They held a funeral.  They asked to be alone.  They stood in the garden at the crematorium.

Every year it was the same.  They no longer lived in the same chaotic flat; and their children were boisterous and growing, loud and hungry, wonderful and fulfilling.  Their jobs were stable and interesting; in the mornings, the light arrived from different angles but still brushed against hurried shirts and snapped commands and questions and clashed with worldly news.  Life rolled on.  But somehow, whenever they visited him, though he was no more than ashes, no more than a memory, a boy who had never breathed or seen or spoken, somehow the sunshine knew that he had been real, knew that without him the world would have been different, would have been less, would not have had their other wonderful sons, would not have given the father the glacial strength, would not have given the mother the precarious power to balance, and out of pure cosmic respect, every year the sunshine delivered a morning of awesome light, at exactly the right angle, and they could lift their tear-stained faces to it and be warmed, be dried, feel the billions of years of life in the light, always outdoing the death.

Enough Light: Three sonnets,one prose poem and an asymmetric scream - 3

Sonnet 510

She paints, each stroke a wafted slice of life
her colours wrought from ancient lines of sight
she sees inside with tender piercing gaze
and understands with beams of loving light

He writes, each word a fleeting glimpse of sky
his rhythm forged with mystic Celtic rhyme
he sees inside with fierce but gentle eye
and captures metered lines of frozen time

They tumble, dance, exchange and seem surprised
with each delighted step beyond the known
their laughter fills their fingers bellies lips
astonished at how swift and much they’ve shown

Inside each other now: but is it real?
How should they treat the truth of how they feel?

Enough Light: Three sonnets, one prose poem and an asymmetric scream - 2

Eulogy for John

This man, a burning oak, a solid flame
who gave me both my stature and my name
who played the game of life without a show
who bathed us in his proud and loving glow

The steady shine that helped to keep us sane
persisted through those final months of pain;
the dark disease that dimmed then stole your light
could not conceal your dignity, your might

We know you know we loved you: still we cry
we miss the canny twinkle in your eye
We cherish all the time we ever had
with this good man, this husband, with this dad

The time is done, we say good bye John Fell
The highest praise is due: you lived life well

Enough Light: Three sonnets, one prose poem, and an asymmetric scream - 1

An Elegant Ellipse

The truths expressed each night in stellar flames
by chiming primal spheres wherein they dwell
evoke the dark precessionary spell
cast once by priests who first pronounced their names

Yet those that long divined the cosmic swell
were mastered by logicians’ youthful claims
of time, degrees and geometric frames,
of ratios the myths could never quell

Such esoteric signs still shape our aims
and colour all the stories you can tell:
a seamless essence glows when all is well
while metrics count and classify our games

These formulae to factor and refine
whereby you find your light, your truth, and shine

Monday, 13 October 2014

Towards the extreme middle

“And where two waging fires meet together
They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.
Though little fire grows great with little wind,
Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all.”

Last week I riffed on an inference from the Archbishop of Canterbury that materialistic consumerism was a form of extremism.  Today I read in Prospect magazine that “Extremism, when not violent, is not illegal but a social ill that British society should be intolerant of.” Even leaving aside the poor grammar, this is a little unsettling.  Shopping? A social ill? I thought it was the bulwark of modern Britain.

Unless, of course, I’ve misunderstood ‘extremism’.  Is it not the noun derived from the adjective ‘extreme’, meaning ‘reaching a high or the highest degree’ or ‘furthest from the centre or a given point’? I decided to check.

Item 1 – The UK Government

“We will not tolerate extremist activity of any sort, which creates an environment for radicalising individuals and could lead them on a pathway towards terrorism.”

Weird comma.  Implies that the subject for the verb ‘creates’ is our non-toleration. I don’t suppose that’s what they mean, and I’m just being picky, but given that ‘we’ will not tolerate extremism ‘of any sort’ this sort of thing may turn out to be, important.

“Since the 2011 revised ‘Prevent’ strategy, the government has defined extremism as: “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas”.

Lots of problems here, clearly.  If I’m quiet about it, it’s OK?  (I might be a stealth extremist…) And ‘fundamental British values’? Qu’est-ce que c’est? Can’t help notice, either, that both ‘democracy’ and ‘the rule of law’ have evolved and improved over long periods of time through recurring bursts of, ahem, ‘extremist’ behaviour – Emily Pankhurst, anyone?

And if ‘mutual respect and tolerance’ are fundamental British values, on what basis do we ‘not tolerate extremist activity of any sort’?

More interestingly, how does ‘materialistic consumerism’ shape up against this, er, definition?  Sticking strictly to the items cited by the UK government:

  • Consumerism is vocal and active – it’s called ‘marketing’ or advertising
  • Consumerism opposes democracy – witness the behaviour of the large businesses that maintain and benefit from consumerism as they resist regulation, fund lobbying, evade tax, and so forth
  • Consumerism opposes individual liberty – by sustaining the myth of ‘individual choice’ the beneficiaries of materialistic consumerism ensure mass behaviour consistent with their objectives
  • Consumerism opposes ‘mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’ unless and until a group within the population represents a ‘segment’ of sufficient ‘value’ to warrant its own ‘marketing campaign’ and a dedicated account manager
  • Consumerism has never, to my knowledge, called for the death of members of the UK’s armed forces.

Whilst pleased about this last point, I am forced to the conclusion that, even by the standards of the weak and ambiguous ‘official’ definition, materialistic consumerism is indeed an extremist activity.  It should not be tolerated.

Item 2 - Wikipedia

The Wikipedia entry on extremism is fantastic and ought – in my humble opinion – to be read carefully and often by the authors of the document discussed under Item 1.  I won’t even begin to rehearse the entry here, you can read it just as easily yourself: for present purposes, however, this quote from Dr. Peter T. Coleman and Dr Andrea Bartoli’s ‘Addressing Extremism’, published in 2009 by the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University, is all we need:

However, the labeling of activities, people, and groups as “extremist”, and the defining of what is “ordinary” in any setting is always a subjective and political matter(my emphasis)

Which is by way of saying: the UK government’s identification of any group as ‘extremist’ is subjective and wholly political.

So, too, is my labelling of consumerism.

Item 3 – Everybody else

Let’s see what some of them had to say:

The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.
Martin Luther King Jr

I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists.
Nelson Mandela

Extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones, but by contrary extreme positions.

Every great action is extreme.
Fran├žois de la Rochefoucauld

Much of junk culture has a core of crisis — shoot-outs, conflagrations, bodies weltering in blood, naked embracers or rapist-stranglers. The sounds of junk culture are heard over a ground bass of extremism. Our entertainments swarm with specters of world crisis. Nothing moderate can have any claim to our attention.
Saul Bellow

Consumerism diverts us from thinking about women's rights, it stops us from thinking about Iraq, it stops us from thinking about what's going on in Africa - it stops us from thinking in general.

Our own relentless search for novelty and social status locks us into an iron cage of consumerism. Affluence has itself betrayed us.
Tim Jackson

Consumerism is so weird. It's a sort of conspiracy we collude in. You'd think shoppers spending their hard-earned cash would be highly critical. You know that the manufacturers are trying to have you on.
J. G. Ballard

America is a great disappointment to me. As I said in one of my books, other societies create civilisations; we build shopping malls.
Bill Bryson

Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping.
Bo Derek

Item 4 – Enough

One of the rather lovely things about the word ‘enough’ is its dual character.  On the one hand, as it lies between too much (one extreme) and too little (the other), it connotes a middle ground, something rather bland.  Antonyms for ‘extreme’ include mild, dull, calm or moderate.  All a bit wishy washy, a bit grey, somewhat uninspiring.

On the other hand, somewhere between too much and too little is just right, exactly the right amount, perfect.  Enough is perfect.  Enough is balance, harmony.  Not stasis, not a steady state, but a positive, dynamic point between extremes: the extreme middle.

It is the nature of men having escaped one extreme, which by force they were constrained long to endure, to run headlong into the other extreme, forgetting that virtue doth always consist in the mean.
Walter Rayleigh

One cannot be too extreme in dealing with social ills; the extreme thing is generally the true thing.
Emma Goldman

Balance, that's the secret. Moderate extremism.
Edward Abbey

Best of all, when you’ve had enough, you can say things like this:

Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.
Mahatma Gandhi

Clearly an extreme remark.  Was Gandhi an extremist? Would he, in this day and age, be ‘tolerated’ by the UK government?