Ghosts from Christmases past #1: What a cracker!

Earlier in the week I did one of my favourite parts of Christmas — delivering Christmas gifts for my (Moxie’s) Wellington-based clients. While I was arranging my gaudily sequined Christmas hat as jauntily as I could and wondering whether I could still get away with this look, I had one of those incredible déjà vu moments as I remembered a ghost of myself from a Christmas past.

Thirty years ago, almost to the day, a lovely friend Daniella and I, resplendently festooned in Miss Christmas costumes, were hauling sacks of giant Christmas crackers around the streets of the City of London. We were delivering the contents of said sacks to commercial real estate agents and the crackers were a promotion to announce that the owners of one of the city’s newest tower blocks had decided to break down the floor space into smaller units for rent. Well, dear reader, what a buzz! Everyone was thoroughly into the festive spirit (some literally) and we turned heads, stopped traffic and generally had great banter with the people we passed. Lot of ‘you better be good for goodness sake’ sort of jive. It has to be said, the hats were coy, the skirts short, the heels high and the legs long. Of course, the clichéd red velvet and faux white ermine outfits had their own tacky but exotic allure. In these highly PC days donning we then this gay apparel might appear like the ultimate in objectification. Back then, we just saw it as a bit of harmless fun — it was for my business, no-one forced us and, in any case, we probably thought we looked ‘hot’ and enjoyed flaunting it. A whole topic for a different blog!

This cameo role was related to a business that I tried to help a friend’s son Ralph get off the ground. He’d already started it, but it wasn’t gaining traction beyond his immediate locale. We called it Absolutely Crackers!and the giant crackers for the city building were one of our biggest successes. In its short life span, Absolutely Crackers! really rocked the corporate promotions market — we made bespoke, weird and wonderful crackers for a range of iconic brands including Arsenal Football Club and top end chocolate manufacturer Charbonnel et Walker. Then there were the sumptuous crackers designed to match the splendour of art deco Pullman Carriages on the Venice Simplon Orient Express.  Fillers for these were white silk evening scarves for men and exquisite hand-painted ones for women from VSOE’s merchandise range. For a city broker, crackers made from the Financial Times were the perfect accessory for their annual bash.

The jewel in our crown was creating the invitations to CBS Records (now Sony Music) Christmas party in 1988. I don’t recall how we got in front of CBS — might have been via my then husband who was involved in music sponsorship — but we put together a very ambitions proposal for they invites which they, somewhat amazingly, accepted. In retrospect, they probably went for it because we ludicrously under-priced the whole gig.

The theme for the party was ‘Old English’ and, let me tell you, these weren’t just any old crackers. No, no, no, these were masterpieces of ingenuity and engineering. What we proposed, and they ultimately got, were individually boxed crackers — we designed a sleek triangular box to make them easy to post or courier to the who’s who of the musical world that were on the invitation list. In keeping with the theme, the crackers themselves were made from a beautiful burgundy and gold paisley patterned paper and the gifts were boxed miniatures of Glen Fiddich. Nice touch we thought even though Glen Fiddich is clearly not English. Nor is it even that old, having been founded in 1886, but good luck getting boxed miniatures of mead! Anyway, CBS seemed to agree that the single malt met the spirit … hem hem … of the occasion.

So far so good. The glory of the piece was the invitation which was hand-written by a calligrapher using medieval ornamentation on the lettering and then reproduced on parchment style paper. Most sane people would simply have rolled the invite up inside the cracker. Not us! No, we figured that to be authentic, they needed something else. So the invite was rolled, tied with red satin ribbon and then sealed using a custom designed CBS seal and traditional red sealing wax. The scroll this made was glued to the top of the cracker and the finished articles looked amazing.

And that’s where the wheels fell off. We had to assemble 350 of them. Anyone like to hazard a guess how long it takes to hand seal 350 parchment invitations? What calibre of satin ribbon can withstand the heat of the sealing wax being dripped onto it? No clue? We didn’t either. I can remember sitting at home at my kitchen table, the ceiling paint slowly blackening with the somewhat greasy smoke from the melting wax, my fingers progressively covering with Band Aids as the skin reddened and blistered, and the frustration grew as each ribbon sample melted down. I think we finished them off in the Board Room of my day job. (Happily I had a great boss who thought the whole cracker madness was great fun and might even have been the genius behind a device that got created to allow us to make about 10 ribbon seals simultaneously.) Anyway, the crackers were a huge hit even if we made no money out of them (on account of never having done anything like this before — has anyone?  — and not being able to price them effectively). But hey, luminaries like Mick Jagger and George Michael got our crackers … and what price a few first degree burns between superstar friends!

But how did crackers get incorporaed into the Christmas lexicon in the first place? It’s not like Matthew’s Gospel told us of wise men bringing gold, frankinsense, myhrr … and … er … crackers. You can sort of understand where Christmas trees and all the Easter paraphanalia like eggs and bunnies got adapted from the pagan festivals the Christian ones replaced. But crackers were unashamedly commercial. Wikipedia (bless) tells the story of how one Tom Smith was first to market.  He apparently created crackers as a development of his bon-bon sweets, which he sold in a twist of paper (the origins of the traditional sweet-wrapper). But the novelty wore off, sales of bon-bons slumped, and Smith sought new promotional ideas. Apparently, he added the “snap” when he heard the crackle of a log he had just put on a fire. The size of the paper wrapper had to be increased to incorporate the banger mechanism, and the sweet itself was eventually dropped, to be replaced by trinkets. This new product was initially marketed as the Cosaque (i.e. Cossack), but quickly morphed into the onomatopoeic “cracker”. The other elements of the cracker we all know and (many of us) love —the gifts, paper hats and mottos — were all introduced by Walter Smith (Tom’s son) to differentiate their product from competitors who’d grasped the opportunity and got on the cracker bandwagon.

Back to Absolutely Crackers! Despite the genuine success of some of our promotions, the cracker empire never eventuated. Behemoth’s like Tom Smith still dominated the retail market and made it pretty much impossible for us to succeed. Without cracking (sorry couldn’t resist it) the retail market, relying on promotions was too random as they didn’t happen evenly during the year. Our vision was to make the cracker a ubiquitous part of the corporate party circuit, not just at Christmastime. Instead we coped with high stress peak times during October – December which, fun though they were … and they were … were also unsustainable. In any case, as with CBS, we didn’t really know how to price the jobs properly and lacked the confidence to just think of a big number and double it, then double it again, so we didn’t manage to build any reserves.

We did try quite hard to get into the ‘high end’ retailers like Harrods, Fortnum and Mason and Asprey but other independents peddling top of the line product, had got to them first. Asprey in particular offered eye-wateringly expensive crackers at around fifteen hundred quid for a dozen. Think gold plating and diamonds designed for wealthy Saudis! We didn’t have the working capital to really get stuck into this level of ostentation. In the end, we decided to throw in the towel and, with extreme regret, closed our little factory unit outside Hereford. I re-focused on my day job which likely pleased my long-suffering boss, and Ralph went off to study drama.

Despite this, I loved Christmas crackers  long after Absolutely Crackers! went to the big Christmas party in the sky and have re-prised my cracker making skills for family and friends on many occasions over the years. To me, specially designed crackers are like icing on the cake of my table setting themes. I also found them to be a very personal and loving way of wrapping carefully chosen gifts. I guess my feelings about table settings and crackers were akin to the way others offer love through food. However, it’s increasingly hard not to be sickened by the overt consumerism of this time of the year. All the advertising for too many things we don’t need and there’s no place to hide behind the knowledge of the damage we consumers have wreaked on our environment.

Apparently there’s a memorial water fountain to Tom Smith and his family at Finsbury Square in London. Perhaps this is another monument that ought to be removed? Crackers may well be a beautiful augmentation of the Christmas table and add some fun to the moment. But it is only a moment and they are just another layer of landfill when it all comes down to it and we need more of that like we need to colonise Mars. Well actually, we probably will need to colonise Mars if we don’t stop creating landfill like crackers, but I’m sure you know what I mean. I’ve stopped making or buying them even if I have to psyche myself to step away from the tantalisingly presented boxed sets in stores and mourn the creative opportunity loss for my table decorations.

Having said all that, all that remains is to wish you a cracker of a Christmas and a very happy New Year full of peace, joy, hope and love.

Smile … an everlasting smile

I smile a lot. You might even say I’m a positive little joy germ … I’ve even been known to sing first thing in the morning. I see this as a great way to greet the day, others find it annoying. But I can’t help it, it’s just how I am. My rellies call me Tigger after the irrepressible bouncing tiger in the AA Milne’s wonderful Winnie the Pooh stories. Hopefully you get the picture? I’m one of nature’s smilers. Or at least I used to be. Life kind of got in the way for a while there and it felt as if Tigger had bounced up one tree too many and got stuck. Happily — smilingly — Tigger’s back bouncing around on the ground searching for adventure.

But my point? Other than smiling, walking is one of my great joys in life. When I walk I think, I process, I solve problems and dream up ideas. Some people smile while they dial. Me, I smile while I walk. Weird you might say, but why not? Walking makes me feel great, all I have to do is leave my house to do it. I usually walk in glorious places which make my heart sing and, even better, it’s usually free. What’s not to smile about? So what if I look like some scary humanoid version of the Cheshire Cat to the rest of the world?

But I think smiling’s great and an encounter I had a couple of weeks ago is a perfect example of why. Picture the scene. I was striding happily along the waterfront near my home, inhaling the beauty of a glorious day and enjoying the antics of the canines on parade. I’m wearing scabby old exercise clothes, but I figure glam shades, some violent red lippy make up for that … and the beaming smile. Of course, most people scuttle away when this apparition goes past. A few manage a muted ‘Hi’ in response to my breezy greeting — usually this comes with all the enthusiasm that you might put into acknowledging a slimy thing that’s just crawled out from under a stone. Sad … as he who should not be named would say.

Why are people so afraid? That a smile is the façade for an out of control lunatic? That they might somehow get caught up in my life if they smile back? That I’m on the make?Makes me think I need to carry a placard, “Really it’s OK. I’m smiling at you because I’m having a Zip-A-De-Doo-Dah day. I’m high on the sun, the sparkly sea, all those wonderful dogs, the way the rhythms of walking make my body feel and, by the way, I would like to share my joy with you.” Don’t other people feel the same?

Imagine my surprise  when I find a kindred spirit in amongst all the avoidance — another happy smiling face. I see her dog first. I love dogs (in case you missed that) but there are some breeds I particularly like and hers happens to be one of them. Patrocles (as I find out he’s called) is a liver spotted Dalmatian that would have given the leads in 101 Dalmationsa run for their money in terms of street appeal. I turn to compliment the women on the gorgeousness which is her dog and ask if I can pat him. That’s when I really clock her. She’s staring out over the water with a radiant smile that would make Julia Robert’s best look dim. I take it she’s as intoxicated by the day as I am. She turns to answer my question … our eyes meet … and we share a ‘moment’ as we acknowledge that we both get it. That whatever else is going on in our lives (and it’s not been a good year on a number of counts in mine) we’re smiling because right now, in this moment, the world is a wonderful place. Even Patrocles is smiling!

Anyway, after mouthing platitudes about dogs and the loveliness of the day, we have that conversation about why people look away when you smile at them. Then, a little reluctantly it has to be said, I walk on. But somehow, I can’t let the moment pass and turn back because I want to tell her she’s made my day with her beautiful energy. It’s the same for her she says. I pat the pooch again and continue on my walk feeling good at having had such a random and uplifting encounter.

It really did make my day and I’m still smiling thinking about it. Was such a good reminder of how much we can influence our world through the energy we bring and the simple gift of an open and genuine smile. So smile people, because nothing shakes the smiling heart and remember that happiness looks gorgeous on you. As Chris Hart said, “All the statistics in the world can’t measure the warmth of a smile.”

So get your smiley face on and dazzle everyone you meet. Tough shit if some people think you’re deranged. You’ll have a great day and hopefully also make those of of the people you cross paths with.

Happy World Smile Day!

(5 October 2018)

 

 

 

Thrift — the new black?

I read a great article the other day about a trending topic, ‘The Cult of Thrift’. The gods of this cult are minimalisation, debt-free living, frugality, decluttering and zero waste, gods I’ve been progressively bending the knee to over the last few months. In fact, it was so similar to my own experience, the article felt as if it had been written by a doppelgänger. Hadn’t realised I was part of a new wave — how advanced of me!

The main difference between us was that the writer has consciously embraced the thrift ethos whereas I’ve kind of blundered into it in a necessity being the mother of invention sort of way. In fact, after a couple of financially disappointing business investments, I’ve really had no option other than to pull my belt in big time. Thinking about it, said tightenign of belt was purely metaphorical. As the funds ran out like beer from a leaky barrel, epic levels of comfort eating kicked in meaning that I actually would have had to let out the  belt a few notches … if I’d wanted to wear one that is. During this nadir, I pretty much stopped wearing belts or any other clothes with shape given the results of all the snout in trough stuff. However, I’m sure you’ll be as uplifted as I am by the knowledge that not only have I started wearing belts again, I’ve actually clawed back one of the lost belt holes and have confidence a normal waistline is in sight!

So much for metaphor! In any case, what started out as necessity quite quickly morphed into choice and I appear to be well on my way to becoming a paid-up Thrifter and feeling more virtuous by the moment.

So what has given me the keys to the Thriftdom? Unsurprisingly, given the above, a fair amount of it revolves round food and eating habits. For starters, bargain food hunting has become an obsession, if not actually a new sport. This has led to the dark art of cooking proper meals again instead of giving in to the Siren call of endless takeaways after too many stressful and long days at work. Sometimes the new me even cooks a casserole or soup or similar at weekends to stretch over several weekday meals.

I finally get the joy of auction sites like eBay and Trademe although I continue to try and buy as ethically as possible. I can’t exactly claim that Upcycle has become my middle name, but I have looked at a few things and had an ‘aha moment’ about refurb rather than trash. ‘Pre-loved’ clothing shops are very much on my radar. Having moved into a much smaller apartment, I no longer get small space envy whenever I watch a George C Clarke TV programme and I feel positively virtuous for the level of de-cluttering that’s resulted. I can thoroughly recommend this tactic to wannabee Thrifties. When you have limited space, it makes you think long and hard about what stuff you actually want to shackle yourself to. Choices have to be made people! It won’t all fit! In the spirit of transparency, I have to fess up to the fact that I haven’t yet been able to get myself to offload the many boxes of books I’ve been trailing around as I’ve moved into successively smaller homes to a second-hand book seller or book fair, so my sister’s enormous garage is currently multi-tasking as my library.

Limited closet space is also a great incentive to apply some of the anti- clothes-hoarding rules. You know — if you  haven’t worn it in the last two years, it’s toast. If you buy a new garment, something must be consigned to the outer darkness of the clothing bin to make room for it. If it doesn’t work with something you’ve already got, put it back on the rack. And how many pairs of shoes does anyone not called Imelda need?

In all seriousness, after the initial trauma, de-cluttering is a very liberating activity. It’s not just stuff I’ve been getting rid of either. The thrift thing can be applied across all the facets of life. I’ve shed one business and stepped back from a couple of other professional involvements so I can concentrate fully on doing one role well. I’m also training myself to say no to all those ‘should dos’ that my inner crowd pleaser sees as obligatory.

Although thrifty has been a virtue since Adam was a boy (actually since around 1300 if you read dictionaries), the Thrift evangelists are out in numbers these days. You’d have to think that’s a direct result of the all the inconvenient truths we’re facing as a society and the fear the we might be going to Hell in a handbasket sometime soon if we can’t get the lid back on our contemporary Pandora’s box. Among the evils unleashed on the world when some fool opened it in this is the spend-thriftery (extravagant, irresponsible spending) that has come to define our consumerist western lifestyle.

But how could it be otherwise? We’re literally bombarded with subliminal and not-so-subliminal messaging carefully crafted to make us dissatisfied and want more, bigger and better everything. But don’t worry, if you can’t afford it, someone will lend you the money, up your credit card limit or provide ‘interest free credit’ so you can keep on consuming and owe a bit more of your soul to the company store. It’s unsustainable on so many levels — personal, community wide and for our equally stressed planet.

Actually, it’s obscene. Or at least in my rapidly de-cluttering life, it seems so. The concept of retail therapy — when the going gets tough the tough go shopping — sits at the centre of the problem. Particularly when the results are growing mountains of recycling that can’t (yet) be re-cycled, oceans stuffed with plastic and other toxic detritus and all the rest. Maybe we should create a new mantra; when the going gets tough, the tough go … on a peace march?

Shopping as our primary leisure time activity is particularly ironic given that we humans have so much innate creativity. Less time spent shopping leaves time for things that so often go on the back boiler. I love writing this blog as it helps me sort out my priorities, worldview and values. But when I get stressed and my life and mind get cluttered, I can’t write. There’s just no headspace to think about anything other than whatever is causing the stress, and I have sometimes gone for weeks without writing anything.

It has to be noted that the cult of thrift is not a judgement on the genuinely poor for whom thrift is not a virtue but potentially a life sentence. Rather, it is being held out as an alternative for people with means who want to get off the consumer treadmill and start living within them, taking responsibility for how their actions affect the present and future. It’s not about austerity, just changing our personal values and thinking more deeply about how we live.

Taking my own recent experiences, while I’m as keen to have the good things in life as the next person, I’ve found a lot of joy in appreciating what is instead of lusting after what isn’t. In this context, less is most definitely more. Getting my thrift on has become a highly creative and engaging new way operating which ironically becomes a much more sure-fired way of being able to afford to do the things I would like to. I feel up-lifted by the challenge not deprived. There’s certainly more time to smell the roses.

 

 

 

 

@shitcreek #nopaddle

Taking stock at the beginning of a new year, I have to admit that 2017 was largely shit! No really, it was! This is not something I’m particularly proud of I can tell you. It felt like I was mired in miasma of misery and mental fatigue and couldn’t fight my way clear. In fact, I was languishing in (at?) Shit Creek.

It has to be said, Shit Creek is a place with which I have had some familiarity at other times in my life so you’d think I’d be able to recognise the warning signs and take evasive action. But no, it’s the same story every time. There I am, enjoying a leisurely paddle in my trusty (metaphorical) canoe along some tranquil, pristine waterway, full of hope and anticipation about where it will take me. Somewhere along the way, without me realising it, I’ve unaccountably veered off course up a tributary that looks superficially just like the main river itself. But the previously crystal clear water sliding past the canoe has inexplicably morphed into a brackish morass and it becomes progressively harder to keep making way. Despite all the growing evidence of imminent disaster, I struggle on determinedly until I’m irredeemably bogged down with nothing but the brown stuff to be seen in every direction. And where the hell did my paddle go?

It’s not as if anyone thinks,‘what do I want to do today? I know, I’ll paddle upstream to Shit Creek for a bit of a nosy around, drink in the aroma, have a relaxing slurry bath and head home for a well-deserved shower.’ Well, you don’t do you? You make what seems like a great decision or series of decisions, and it’s not till later you realise they were actually crap (sic) choices that should have been avoided like dog poop on a walking trail because your gut was shrieking ‘don’t do it, don’t do it!’ Yet, you pursue logic at the expense of your strongest instincts and oops, there you are back in it up to your gills. Or, to follow the analogy, trying to scrape it off your shoe with a stick. Merde alors!

We’re taught that logic trumps (in the card playing sense rather than the bozo in chief one) everything else. Societal conditioning in this regard is very strong and accepted wisdom is deeply engrained. After all, it stands to reason that basing critical decisions on analysis of  facts and figures should offer a better steer for decision making than relying on intuition and inner truths with their overtones of new age woo woo. And yet … that amazing warm glow when you make a choice that just feels innately right. The antithetic dread when you decide to do something that tears at ‘your truth’, to paraphrase Oprah at the Globes last week.

So at the beginning of another year, I am mindful of the definition of insanity — doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. I’m all for going with my inner truth. Facts and figures, probabilities and statistics, logic and rational thinking will always be part of the deal in terms of making decisions. They have to be, because they are important. But of equal importance is how I actually feel about the decision under consideration. In future, where logic and intuition are at war with each other, I’ll give the casting vote to intuition — after all, intuition’s much more likely to have my has my best interests at heart and, let’s face it, logic hasn’t entirely delivered. If I do this, I’ll be swooshing happily downstream — going with the flow as it were — instead of fighting my way against the current and landing back where I started; pooped and bewildered in the waiting room for the next Shit Creek Express.

Thanks for the image to http://illegaleldredtwplanduse.blogspot.co.nz/2017/

 

Carpe Diem Baby!

Sometimes I feel that my life is shrinking before my eyes. I’m nearly sixty — how on earth did that happen? I don’t feel old and we live in the world where 60 is the new forty don’t we? So, clearly I’m not. In any case, my soul or whatever you want to call the internal entity that feels like some sort of mini-me remains obstinately and happily oblivious to the passing of the years. Seems there’s a reason why they’re referred to as our ‘inner children’! I think of mine as my inner-Barbie because — like Peter Pan, she seems to inhabit some sort of Neverland where she is forever young. However, unlike the redoubtable Pan who remained a child, my Barbie seems to have cleverly arrested her growth at that beguiling mid-thirties stage. That wonderful place where chronology hasn’t yet won, the body is still beautiful and the spirit is beyond the myopic self-obsession of earlier ages and stages.

Just for the record, I do know I’m not stuck in a time warp circa 1995. I kind of get that every time I’m called to the dark side and consider buying a pair of flat shoes. (Instead of the gorgeously impractical and increasingly hard to walk in high-heeled varieties I have been seduced by all my life.) In recent years two schoolmates and a couple of dear friends have died, among them my first love. That’s certainly chucked a bucket of very cold water in Barbie’s youthful smiley face I can tell you, and accounted for a fair amount of the feelings of shrinkage. But I’m now also facing that old clichéé where time is speeding up. When you’re young the minutes pass like hours and there is a constant feeling of boredom because time stretches out to infinity. Now, I’ve got to that place the young can’t understand where the hours, days, weeks, months and years speed by like the counter in HG Wells’ Time Machine.

Time to carpe diem I say. Grab each day firmly by the throat and make it count. So much better than being subsumed in a myopic obsession about some much desired future state. Whether this state is a new job, a palatial home, a more exciting partner, a super-yacht, some publisher discovering you, winning a career changing award, the in vitro treatment delivering the longed-for and almost given up on baby, running away to live on an Ashram or joining the crew of the Sea Shepherd, putting everything else on hold until some new state arrives seems to be just plain dumb. Let’s face it, scenarios like the current Trump’s/Jong-un brinksmanship play merry Hell with all of our aspirations. But I’m still loving that it’s a gorgeous winter’s day and I’m free to sift through the Op-eds and indulge myself in writing this post. No fires to fight, no ferryman to pay. The future can go hang. I’m happy in my moment. After all, WTF can I do about the mine’s bigger than yours thing that’s going on between those two equally unappealing and childish so-called men?

The carpe diem aphorism comes from Book 1 of the Roman poet Horace’s work Odes written in 23 BC. Carpe diem has long been used as a standalone phrase which people like me think of in terms of living in the now. But the context from Horace is carpe diem, quam minimum credula poster — “Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow (the future)”. Horace’s point being we can’t see what the future will bring, but we should do everything we can today to stack the odds. Not to trust that everything will randomly fall into place.

When I thought about it, the gnarly problem of retirement planning sprang to mind. This is something of a sensitive topic for me at the moment as I’ve taken some significant risks with my financial future by treading the path of an entrepreneurial wannabe. The pot of gold at the end of this rainbow has yet to materialise and was looking frighteningly empty for a while. Putting all your financial eggs in the startup basket is a genius strategy if your name happens to be Bill Gates, but not so flash if you’re a John DeLorean and the expected high returns turn out to be little more than surf breaking on the rocks of hubris and self-delusion. While my investments are currently looking a bit healthier than they were a few months ago for a number of reasons, I still have anxiety dreams about becoming an ageing bag lady wheeling my few possessions round in a shopping trolley — pretty certain that the amount I’ve paid into my pension fund won’t cut it on it’s own.

In all likelihood, Horace’s contemporaries weren’t agonizing about whether their KiwiSaver contributions would see the distance. In those days, apparently if a baby made it through its first year, it could expect to live to the ripe old age of 34. Reaching your fifth year delivered the heady possibility of making relatively ‘old bones’ at 48. That’s a total of 17,520 diems to carpe if you want to get granular. Just as an aside, I wonder what went wrong between the Old Testament expectations of three score years and ten and Roman times? Must have been something to do with all that endless wandering around in the dessert as opposed to stagnating in the stews of Rome. Of course there’s also the thing about being God’s chosen people…

Anyway, in Ancient Rome, it’s thought that less than 5% of the population at any one time would be over 65. What a sensible arrangement!  All those lovely younger generations oozing tax denarii into the exchequer leaving no question about the state’s ability to provide for its aged and infirm. Not that Rome was exactly a trailblazer in the realm of social welfare, so this line of thinking is somewhat pointless. But the Roman equations are interesting in comparison to our ageing ‘Boomer’ reality, which is leaving many people angsting about their financial futures. The upside is that this is a temporary blip. Assuming that the militaristic fat boys step away from their nukes and stand down from the standoff, with the rate at which birth rates are levelling off of or falling in the west, we’ll be back to the healthy Roman proportions of youth to age before you can say “climate change is killing us”.

All joking aside, there’s a balance between living in the moment and leaving the future to chance. In the context of financial planning, for sure there are many variables such as how long we’ll live, how much money will be needed to achieve the twilight years lifestyle we aspire to and what environmental factors will kick in to derail it all, not to mention the whole Pandora’s Box of our health. But that doesn’t means there’s no point. Yay, this is where I get to use all those cliches like failing to plan is planning to fail (Alan Lakein after Churchill and Franklin).  Like, if one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable (Seneca the Younger — and didn’t those ancient Greeks knew a thing or two BTW? Bet their life expectancy was higher than the Romans). Then there’s, it does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations if you live near him (Tolkien). For decades business gurus have been preaching the gospel of vision, mission and values as the foundation to success. Rightly so. Businesses are much more likely to achieve more, do better, make their shareholders wealthier, trade ethically etc. if they have some inkling of what they’re aiming for. It’s no different for us as individuals. Visualising what we want is much more likely to deliver than chasing a series of shiny new things down rabbit holes.

I used to have a friend who was obsessed with spontaneity. She didn’t like being tied into commitments or rules and regulations, preferring instead to live her life on ad hoc terms. We often used to argue a lot about this. Apart from anything else, it was deeply irritating that her need to be spontaneous resulted in her total inability to get anywhere on time. This fed my position which was that I don’t think you can actually be spontaneous unless you live within a structure from which you can break out. If spontaneity is your life mission it’s got to lead to chaos because nothing can ever be achieved. In a similar way, having no life plan invites chaos in. Seizing the day is not only  about visualising and working towards a desired future but also about enjoying the journey no matter what the outcome. As Robert Burns knew so well, “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.’ Pity to get to where they’ve gone agley and there’s only disappointment and a black hole which sucked in time passed in waiting. The best bit is that with a vision, the whole concept of retirement planning becomes moot because we already know which port we’re sailing to. That we want our days to end in a Disney Castle or an Indian ashram or somewhere in between. Clearly circumstances do frequently rain on this planning parade, requiring regular recalibration, but to me that offers better odds than relying on a Lotto win.

In terms of feeling that my life is shrinking before my eyes, I’m determined to make better use this precious and diminishing time resource that once seemed a commodity. Stop bleeding out on things that don’t matter. Letting time slip away like Dali’s Melting Watch in the featured image. For sure, I need to do what it takes to get some decent returns from all the time I’ve invested in my businesses so the ageing bag lady scenario remains simply a bad dream. But I’m visualising as I write and my scenario always includes enough money to see me out in style and allow me to do all the other things I have factored in.

In this vision, when the bell tolls for me, I plan for it to interrupt something amazing. To continue the annoying references, I will be living my days rather than counting my years. Go to India and Antarctica. Take the sentimental journey home to Scotland and write my memoirs en route. Get therapy for the rampaging arachnophobia that makes any attempt at gardening feel like a journey to Mount Doom! Actually turn up at my orchestra having done more than one cursory run through of the music. Or better, stop beating myself up if I don’t! You get the picture I’m sure? Carpe diem indeed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick!

Don’t you just love Alec Baldwin’s oh-so-close to the knuckle portrayal of Donald Trump in Saturday Night Live? Last week’s show offered up a short-term (no-one mention multi-term) future in 2018 with the US facing an alien invasion force from the planet Zorblatt 9. The ‘skit’ featured Baldwin/Trump visiting a military base with the irrepressible ‘POTUS’ trumpeting (sorry couldn’t resist it) inspiration to the troops via a classic piece of tawdry trumpery (aka a speech). If that weren’t enough to keep us rolling in the aisles, guest host Scarlett Johanssen did a total number on ‘First Daughter’ Ivanka Trump in a spoof commercial promoting a new perfume, Complicit. Genius!

I read a report a while ago that laughing at other people is very good for us. Not WITH you understand, AT. Who knew? To be honest, I think we all did, but there’s nothing like a report to add legitimacy to what the world, his wife and dog already know! Anyway, turns out there is a fair body of scientific (and not-so-scientific) evidence that advocates the healing power of laughter. In fact, help is even available through the counseling services of ‘laughologists’ and ‘laugh therapists’ … yes really … try Googling them! That laughter is good for us is hard to argue with as a premise. Seems more like a statement of the bleeding obvious as it is, after all, “such fun” (thank you Miranda).

In terms of laughing at, rather than with, I’m thinking all those TV shows where people submit their home video ‘funnies’ in order to win what seems like a small amount of dollars in relation to the humiliation quotient involved. Then there are the formulaic Wipeouts and Fear Factors where we can voyeuristically enjoy other people making complete prats of themselves. And talking of prats, we do love our ‘prat falls’ don’t we? If you think you’re made of better stuff, cast your mind back to any episode of the above mentioned Miranda and consider whether you were able to keep a straight face as she literally went arse over tit in front of Gary, the man she so desperately wanted to impress.

Prat falls are a reminder that random shit happens, and to anyone. A queen can just as easily slide on a banana skin as a commoner, or a president trip on an uneven path and do a spectacular head plant in front of the world’s media. And the more celebrated the faller, the funnier it actually is. The Germans call it schadenfreude or pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

But there’s a darker truth running through all this mirth. Since ancient times, writers have understood the potential for laughter to undermine authority and fuel regime change. The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or send up to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices —the medium known as satire — has long been used to shape opinion. At its best, it is extremely witty and often very funny, although the subject matter can be deadly serious. While making its point by entertaining, it holds human, societal or individual vices up to censure through ridicule. To succeed, its subject must be widely known.

For more than a decade between 1984 and 1996 Spitting Image, the hugely successful television programme starring latex puppets of celebrities and politicians, wowed people with the accuracy and malevolence of its send ups. No cow was sacred. Targets included the British Royal Family and Ronald and Nancy Reagan who starred in a spoof drama, The President’s Brain is Missing. Then there was Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet of Vegetables. Besotted, with Reagan she (the puppet) became progressively more demented as the series went on. Underlying the humour were hard-hitting social and political commentaries about what opponents saw as the harsh realities of Thatcherism. This portrayal may even have contributed to ‘The Iron Lady’s’ ultimate fall. Go Baldwin, McKinnon and the other Saturday Night Livers — on this basis, if you keep up the good work, you might achieve the same result with Trump!

Satire played an important role in the fight for the basic rights and freedoms that the Western world now takes for granted. But its golden age was the period from the end of the seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth, a time of enormous social change in Europe as industrialisation transformed how people lived and worked and how societies were organised. From the pens of the great novelists of the era came biting attacks on social wrongs, corruption and moral lassitude; Charles Dickens took on the atrocious conditions suffered by the growing urban working class; Jane Austen shone a spotlight on the plight of women; Jonathan Swift savaged the corruptness of the political establishment and William Thackeray and Anthony Trollope skewered the double whammies of class and privilege. Other leading satirists from this period include Moliere, Ben Johnson, John Dryden, Alexander Pope and George Meredith.

The title of this blog post is taken from the play School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751 – 1816), the archetypal ‘comedy of manners’.  First staged in 1777 in London, School for Scandal is a social satire that portrays English high society as being mired in gossip, calumny and sexual intrigue. The intention of the piece was to highlight the lack of honor, lax morality, and superficiality of the idle rich, whose primary pastime is jockeying for advancement by destroying the reputations of their peers. Sheridan used exaggeration, clever language, rapier-smart dialogue and telling character names (Ladies Sneerwell and Candour for example) to send up their frailty and folly de grandeur.

During this golden period, cartoon and caricature also came into their own as compelling additions to the satirical toolbox. In eighteenth century England, the etchings of William Hogarth such as Gin Lane, showing the horrific effects of gin abuse by the urban poor, were a powerful protest against prevailing social conditions. In France in the following century, Honoré Daumier created some of the finest political caricatures for the magazine La Charivari during the 1830s. Henri Toulouse Lautrec, at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, continued this graphic tradition of social satire in his depictions of Parisian society.

While Daumier was creating for La Charivari until censorship drew its sting, in England Henry Mayhew established Punch Magazine in 1841. It began as a democratic weekly, regularly featuring harsh depictions of Queen Victoria and her family, particularly the foreign Prince Albert who was deeply unpopular with the British public. It later became an upper class weekly whose readers enjoyed seeing their own foibles, and those of their servants, tradesmen and recognizable types like social climbers, being exposed. Vanity Fair was launched in competition in 1868. Both publications aimed at a public “in the know”, people who enjoyed the send-up of famous figures and types in every strata of life. Publications of this sort sprang up throughout Western Europe and were forceful channels for molding public opinion. The editorial cartoons in all our current newspapers continue this tradition.

To achieve their goals, satirists often knowingly risk reprisals. The genius of good satire has always been in the cleverness of the disguise. In masking the individuals or issues in question and avoiding libel whilst still ensuring the audience is in no doubt who or what the subject is. Roman poets Horace (65 – 8 BC) and Juvenal (active in late 1st and ealy 2nd centuries AD) went to extreme lengths to stay on the right side of their political masters in their work. In Medieval times jesters or fools provided a mechanism to filter unpalatable issues and opinions to the monarch through the parody of court politics and personalities. They trod a very fine line between mockery and treason. Getting this balance wrong could result in a short, and very unfunny, step to the gallows. Voltaire, one of the greatest of the Enlightenment’s writers and philosophers, famous for his wit and advocacy of civil liberties including freedom of religion, freedom of expression, free trade and the separation of church and state, was an outspoken supporter of social reform. His work and ideas influenced the key movers behind both the American and French Revolutions. In an era of harsh penalties for the breaking of censorship laws, Voltaire was an occasional visitor to the Bastille prison in Paris, as was his compatriot Daumier.

That was an age when the entire fabric of society underwent the seismic shift from a predominantly rural agrarian economy to an urban, manufacturing one. The Industrial Revolution saw huge numbers migrating to cities where they — particularly women and children — lived and worked in shocking conditions. Without any effective legislation, abuses by employers went largely unchecked. Archaic laws, perpetuated by absolutist monarchies and aristocratic and ecclesiastic dominated governments, protected the interests of the old order and put a premium on property in preference to people. Growing disenchantment saw electoral reform become a burning issue at a time when the right to vote was extremely limited and based entirely on property ownership. War between the old elite and a rising new liberal order was inevitable. The bloody French Revolution that erupted in 1789 attempted to create a lasting republic based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity was the most extreme example of the winds of change moving throughout Europe at the time. Satire was a brutal weapon used by both sides in this struggle.

Our current Technological Revolution has opened up a new set of social challenges not least being the replacement of growing numbers of jobs with automation, particularly in the manufacturing sector. Many people feel disenfranchised and bewildered by the scale, scope and rapidity of change and how they can assimilate into this brave new world. The rich seemingly get richer while the poor get poorer. We liberals have been well intentioned in our struggle for gender and social equity. But the road to Hell is, of course, paved with good intentions. Our intellectual elitist approach to addressing social issues is at odds with the feelings of the people everywhere that Hilary Clinton disastrously dubbed ‘deplorables’ in the US, who feel patronised and misunderstood. All of this laid the foundations for the all the unthinkable ‘events’  last year — Brexit, Trump, the rise and rise of the ‘alt-right’, the future of European liberal democracy, Putin and his monumental megalomania. It feels as if political insanity is the new black, with Trump in the vanguard, seemingly intent on reversing all the incredible advances in global stability and basic human rights. That is not to say that that things don’t need to change. They do;  conventional thinking and mores are failing us. We need new social models and better ways to prepare our children to live happy, successful lives in a very different future to the one we (Boomers) inherited.

BUT, we can change without losing our humanity. Without trashing the aspirations enshrined in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights which committed all member states to “promote universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. While this declaration is just that — aspirational — it’s language remains potent and it’s incredible that these aspirations have so suddenly come under fire. But every cloud has a silver lining. Maybe the current silver lining takes the form of a wake up call to identify and defend what we believe in. If that hasn’t yet extended to manning the barricades, people in droves have been grabbing the placards and marching to protest their indignation at the assault on these values and the lack of concern for our world and ALL its people.

Censorship of the press has been an all-too-frequent counter measure by which the establishment or ruling classes have historically gagged reformers and enforced control when pressure-valves looked like blowing. A disturbing parallel between Trump and his ‘fake news is the enemy of the people’ mantra wouldn’t you say? Satire is a powerful weapon that the liberal media is already using to great effect. In this strangest of strange times it is likely to again play a central role in keeping the metaphorical vandals from our gates. I count myself lucky to have lived in a time and place where I’ve been able to enjoy freedom of speech and expression. I’m unlikely to face any sanctions for writing this opinion piece. But it scares me to see the media, whose role is to serve up truth no matter how unpalatable, being vilified — it’s a slippery slope from this to censorship and repression. In the ‘post truth’ world of ‘alternative facts’ and outright lying, we risk that there won’t be actually any need for formal gagging orders and persecution that past writers face. We may simply lose the ability to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not and whoever shouts loudest will carry the day.

According to an article in NY Times this week, “traditional television, a medium considered so last century, has seen audiences drift away for the better part of a decade. Now, rattled liberals are surging back, seeking catharsis, solidarity and relief. The old analog favorites are in, with comfort-food franchises like “ Saturday Night Live” drawing its highest Nielsen numbers in 24 years. Despite a dizzying array of new media choices, viewers are opting for television’s mass gathering spots, seeking the kind of shared experience that can validate and reassure.”

The article argues that television offers people a sense that “we’re in this together” and that others are “equally outraged”. This bonding is not limited to the US. If the world is truly a global village, then we all bleed when the leader of  the Western alliance vents his spleen on Twitter and appears to believe, like Hitler, that if you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed. So I say to Baldwin, McKinnon, Johanssen and your ilk; I salute your activism. Keep it coming. Send up the sexism and stentorian stupidities. Ridicule the ridiculous. Make mockery of the monstrous. Lampoon the liars. Use your wit and your waggishness to protect us from the posturing, puffery and purile prattling. As Leonard Cohen so famously said, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Find the crack. Let the light in. Keep us honest, free, truthful and on the side of the angels.