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Archive for August, 2010

Be honest. Keep a tally of how many minutes of TV you watch each day. Add it up. What’s the weekly total? And the more interesting question: Has this figure gone up or down over the last few years?

Chicken watching TV or TV watching chicken?

Everyone thought that the internet and social media would kill television, just as they thought that cinemas would become extinct with the arrival of the video recorder. But it hasn’t happened.

British viewers watched an average of three hours and 45 minutes of television a day in 2009, 3% more than in 2004, according to research published by the media regulator Ofcom. Here are some thoughts from John Plunkett:

TV continues to take centre stage in people’s evenings, boosted by the popularity of shows such as The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and Doctor Who.

Television’s popularity has also been boosted by digital video recorders (DVRs), now in 37% of households – and the introduction of high definition television, now in more than 5 million UK homes.

“Television still has a central role in our lives. We are watching more TV than at any time in the last five years,” said James Thickett, director of market research and market intelligence at Ofcom.

New technology offered viewers an enhanced, easy-to-use viewing experience, with 15% of all viewing time spent watching programmes recorded on to a DVR, he said.

“Unlike VHS, which was such a hassle to set up and record a programme that only a very small proportion of viewing was on video, DVRs give viewers the chance to watch the programmes they really want to watch. It is bringing people back into the living room.”

The UK’s ageing population has also pushed up the figures. Older people are likely to watch more television, with the average 65-year-old watching five hours and 14 minutes a day. And it’s to do with the increasing number of channels too:

Digital television passed the 90% threshold for the first time last year, with 92.1% of homes having digital TV by the first quarter of 2010. The average weekly reach of multichannel television exceeded that of the five main TV channels – BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – also for the first time in 2009.

“More people are getting access to a greater number of channels and that’s translating into greater number of viewing hours per person,” said Richard Broughton, a senior analyst at the audiovisual research company Screen Digest.

“Various people have predicted that the internet would kill off television but we have always said that TV would be here for a long time to come. It’s much harder for broadcasters and production companies to monetise content online, and there are all sorts of things that broadcast can do that online can’t, such as high definition.”

Broughton said viewers were using Facebook and Twitter while watching the television, rather than switching it off altogether. “In many cases television is complemented [by social media platforms] and not necessarily a direct competitor,” he added.

I was about to write that the beauty of cinema is that you are forced to give your attention to one image, and that you have to leave all your other digital distractions behind. But then I remembered a recent visit to the cinema when the guy in front of me was texting even after the film had begun. It breaks your heart…

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Finland, apparently, is the best country in the world to live in. This is good for Allen Hall, the seminary where I work. Last year we welcomed our first ever Finnish seminarian, from the Diocese of Helsinki. So there is some kind of reflected glory shining about the community. This has to be good for vocations…

Here are some passages from the Newsweek article by Tara A. Lewis:

With such a huge range of nations in the world, the question of whether there is a best place to live seems both simple and elusive. With that idea in mind, NEWSWEEK offers this list of best countries. Given that there are so many ways to measure achievement, we chose the five we felt were most important—health, economic dynamism (the openness of a country’s economy and the breadth of its corporate sector), education, political environment, and quality of life. And because it’s easier to improve quality of life if you’re tiny and rich like, for example, Finland, the list also accounts for income and size with rankings by subcategories. Like all lists, this one is not perfect, but it offers surprising and fascinating answers and plenty of insight into which country is healthiest, why Scandinavian nations always come out on top, and why the title of best country has more than one winner.

Despite the long winter, Finland is a pretty great place to be—the best, actually. It ranked the highest overall and also comes in as the best small country, the best high-income country, and the best country for education. Its students scored first in science and second in both reading and math in the 2006 (the most recent one for which data are available) Program for International Student Assessment, a test of 15-year-olds’ education skills by the OECD. Finland’s schoolkids enjoy a laid-back and inclusive learning environment where shoes are optional, all teachers have master’s degrees, and extra help is the norm: every year about one in three students gets individual time with a tutor.

With a relatively low unemployment rate—5.6 percent in 2009—and an economy that’s one of the healthiest even during the global recession, Australia has a lot more to offer than just beaches and Hugh Jackman. In the overall index, Australia ranks fourth. In the other categories for medium-size countries, it claims the top spot for political environment and ties Spain for best health care. With its high standard of living, safe cities, sunny climate, and outdoorsy citizens, Australia also has the best quality of life among medium-size countries.

The innovative country that brought the world sushi, Nintendo, and the Kyoto Protocol is also the one with the most healthy citizens. The average person in Japan lives to the age of 82; the average woman lives to be nearly 86. (Japanese women are the longest-living women in the world.) What explains their longevity? No one knows for sure, but it’s likely a combination of preventive medicine, diet, health education, high standard of living during old age, and universal health care. Japan also ranks first among large countries in education and fourth in quality of life.

And Albania gets an honourable mention:

Albania rarely makes headlines and seems an unlikely model for other countries, but this new democracy actually outperforms all other low-income countries. Among the nations in its category, it consistently ranks highest in education, health, and quality of life. Nearly 99 percent of Albanians are literate. Despite being a citizen of one of the poorest countries in Europe, the average Albanian can expect to live to be 78, the average Albanian woman to be 81—a pretty good statistic, considering that the average citizen of wealthy Germany will live only until age 79.

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Despite enjoying Toy Story 3, I am still not convinced by 3D cinema. In fact the reason I managed to enjoy the film so much was because the 3D was far less intrusive than with most films.

David Mitchell has a rant here about 3D films. It’s well worth watching. There are some serious points amidst the humour, e.g. that the effect of 3D is to make you more conscious of your own relationship to the medium, and less able to lose yourself and escape into the world of the narrative.

He draws a parallel with painting and sculpture: when you go to see the Mona Lisa you don’t come away disappointed by the fact that Leonardo didn’t present you with a marble carving of the subject instead. You went to see a painting, and you were happy with that.

My main gripe is about picture quality – it simply isn’t as good with 3D films. And I think this is unavoidable, it’s not to do with the present state of technology. It’s because of the double image that you are seeing. You might say that our eyes see the natural world stereoscopically, which is true. But part of the wonder of painting, of 2D cinema, and of any flat visual surface, is that it gives you a clarity that is not possible in the natural world, which has the effect of highlighting the scene before you.

Painting and 2D cinema allow a depth, or rather a super-imposition of different depths, which creates a sort of hyper-realism. They allow you to focus on what you would not, naturally, be able to focus on. 3D, by making the experience more like the real world, takes away the magic and immediacy of the artistic surface, the same magic that they discovered 20,000 years ago in the caves of Lascaux.

I dread the day when all the films at the local Cineworld will be in 3D…

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Bridges and Tangents is one year old today. 365 days, 190 posts, 1500 tags, goodness knows how many words. You can read the first post here – about ‘wonder’ in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Amazing how a hesitant step into the unknown future quickly becomes a moment of nostalgia. The exhilarating adventure of ‘being-for-itself’, as Sartre would say, of reaching beyond, easily slips into the familiarity of ‘being-in-itself’ – the world that we know and depend on.

San Francisco, Bay Bridge

I am not seeking comments or accolades here, just letting you know that I intend to keep going, for now. Blogging in this way is simply part of life for me now. I enjoy the excuse to think (if one were needed) and to write; every now and then I’m delighted with a discovery and get huge satisfaction from sharing it; and the rhythm of reflection and writing isn’t too time consuming. The danger is that something once fresh will become staid; I’ll just have to watch out for that, and perhaps circumstances – or some new form of social communication – will take over before then.

Ancient clapper bridge over the East Dart River at Postbridge

The effects are still largely unknown, but it’s good to get feedback and conversation in the comments, and when I bump into people who have come across the blog. Thanks especially to those who have been reading regularly, to those who have recommended the blog to others, and to those who have taken the time to comment.

Tangent by Whatknot

To celebrate, as you can see, I’ve hunted out some beautiful images of bridges and tangents.

Tangents by Seth Anderson

Let’s see how it all develops over the next few months.

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Why is it that tourists want to see Michelangelo’s Pietá in St Peter’s Basilica and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre, but show little interest in searching out other staggering works by the same artists just a few minutes away? Only certain stellar works have this mysterious power to attract huge crowds.

Tourists in St Peter's Basilica, Rome

Martin Gayford thinks it’s because contemporary cultural tourism is not about our appreciation for art or the pleasure we take in visiting new places, it’s about a raw obligation we feel to pay homage to certain objects, and to tell ourselves and others that we have fulfilled this obligation. He recalls standing in front of the Pietá:

Around me there broke a ceaseless tide of humanity. Some, a minority, simply looked at it, one touching family — from, I think, South America — holding tiny children up to gaze at the distant Madonna with her dead son. Most simply took a photograph, often on their mobile phones. As I stood there, a burly American shouldered his way forward, bent on displacing a small man of East Asian appearance who was busily snapping on his iPhone, and as he did so he assertively barked out, ‘Next!’

He had, I realised, understood precisely what was going on. This mêlée in which we were jammed together had nothing to do with art appreciation. It was a queue to take a photograph. The urgency of the desire to capture the famous object on your camera makes it nearly impossible to contemplate. Every day at the height of the season, thousands of pictures are taken of this object, all largely identical and all bad — since it is impossible to get a good image of a work like this from 20 feet away through glass.

Gayford notes the suffering that the tourists have endured to get this close to the sculpture: the Roman heat, the queues, the airport-type security. It’s like Dante’s Inferno.

But in a way, modern tourists are more like pilgrims than the damned. They share the same focus on a few closely defined sights. I saw a similar torrent of humankind — indeed much greater — at the shrine of the eighth Shia Imam at Mashhad in eastern Iran, all bent on getting to the grill that surrounds his tomb. Once there — a place too sacred for unbelievers to intrude — they cling on to ironwork, which is worn away steadily by their touch so that every few decades it has to be replaced.

The contemporary tourist-pilgrim must visit Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, ‘Pietà’, and ‘Moses’, just as in France they must form a crocodile round the flower beds of Monet’s garden at Giverny, or in Egypt sweat it out at the Pyramids of Giza. Enjoyment has little to do with it.

The mystery, perhaps an insoluble one, is what anyone gets out of mass cultural tourism. The appeal of other varieties of popular travel — the beach, the pool, the ski slope — is obvious enough. But what satisfaction can be found in pounding round hot and packed streets, probably following a guide with a little flag, and stopping at certain points to take a photograph of something the appearance of which is completely familiar to almost everybody alive in the first place?

The difference between modern tourists and the visitors to shrines and relics is that religious pilgrims get some spiritual benefit — at its most concrete, so many years less to spend in Purgatory, a step towards salvation. Whereas the 21st-century, postmodern tourist gets nothing but a digital photograph, perhaps to be posted on a social-networking site sometime later. As a reward for the expense, the weariness, the sunburn, the boredom, the hours spent at airports and in coaches, the sore feet, the headaches, it just doesn’t seem enough.

It’s the same for me whenever there is a new ‘five-star’ exhibition in London. Yes, a genuine excitement, but also a sense of obligation, and a fear that if I miss it this will be a failure of duty, and I will be forever relegated to the ranks of the culturally unwashed – those who were simply ‘not there’. Our language reflects this, when we talk about a ‘must see’ event.

I’m getting better at saying to myself ‘What would you actually like to see this afternoon? What would you enjoy?’ Perhaps this is just part of growing up.

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Six entries have been shortlisted this week to be the next sculpture on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth – ‘probably the most important single public sculpture in Europe’ (Hew Locke).

Meerkats at the Fourth Plinth by Swamibu http://bighugelabs.com/onblack.php?id=2300966128

An older meerkat proposal by Tracey Emin

You can see a photo gallery with some critical comments here at Time Out, and some extra shots of the models with their artists here at the Guardian. And you can visit the models themselves at St Martin-in-the-Fields church crypt foyer from now until 31 October.

I like the blue cockerel for visual impact and fun; the mountainous map of Britain because I love maps and mountains (and I like the way it simply doesn’t fit on the plinth). But I’m persuaded by Adrian Searle that the rocking horse child should be the clear winner:

Elmgreen & Dragset‘s golden boy on a rocking horse is by far the best. Like Fritsch’s cockerel, but unlike Locke’s work, it avoids being kitsch. The simplified detail and expression feel just right. Leaning back and with one arm raised aloft, he’s more than a toy boy. This is the child as hero of the battles of his imagination.

There’s something poignant but unsentimental about the relationship the sculpture will have with all those sombre bronze generals on the other plinths.

Golden boys don’t always grow up to be heroes. They might end up cannon fodder or unemployed, or fighting only private wars against the world. It’s a rich sculpture, playful but also serious. This is the one.

But they might grow up to be heroes, or ruthless leaders. So this isn’t just about innocence and unknowing – it’s also about the quiet genesis of war and violence, from the playroom to the battlefield.

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I’m not using Twitter much. My blog posts get tweeted automatically from my account, just as they get sent to my Facebook feed. But for those of you who are still hooked on Twitter, there is now an easy tweet button at the bottom of each of my posts, so that you can re-tweet from your account, and increase the digital cacophony.

Here are the details from WordPress:

For those of you who have been dreaming of an easier way for your readers to share your posts on Twitter, that day has come. We’re pleased to announce that we’ve added an official Tweet Button as an option for all WordPress.com blogs.

How it works: When one of your readers hits the Tweet Button, they will be shown a popup that includes a shortened link to your post. Readers can add in a quick message, and then hit “Tweet” to send the post to their Twitter feed as a tweet — all without leaving your blog.

Additionally, each time a reader tweets your post, you’ll know it: The tool keeps a live tally of tweets, so you’re never in the dark about how your blog posts are performing in the Twittersphere.

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When I was working in a parish in north London we had a standing agreement with couples that if they needed help we would provide an all-inclusive wedding for them at no cost. This would include: church building, music, minister (me), flowers (a modest display), limo (my Nissan Micra), confetti, and reception in the parish hall. We couldn’t do the free bar, or the honeymoon in Thailand, but I would gladly have thrown in two tickets to the local Cineworld at Staples Corner, and a large bag of sweet or salted popcorn.

It was a serious offer. Why? Because so many couples said to us priests that they wanted to get married but couldn’t afford to. It wasn’t, as the Rev Dr Giles Fraser said recently, because of the narcissism of brides. It was because of the social pressures on couples to turn their wedding day into a carefully choreographed production of mammoth proportions. And, it has to be said, because many cohabiting couples didn’t feel any urgency about bringing the wedding forward, and were content to save for a big wedding in the future instead of embracing a smaller one much sooner.

Rebecca Mead, who has experience of reporting about US weddings, is sympathetic to Giles Fraser’s criticisms of contemporary weddings:

“I’d even say they were becoming a threat to marriage itself,” he said, speaking on Radio 4′s Thought for the Day – his words were, to me, not at all unfamiliar. I spent three years researching the American wedding industry for a book I wrote a few years ago, and during that time I discovered that clergymen and clergywomen could often be vocal critics of the brides and grooms whose unions they were sanctifying. Jody Vickery, a minister in Georgia, summed up the prevailing mood in an article in Christianity Today. “I hate weddings,” Vickery wrote. “Funerals? I love them. At funerals people are shellshocked by the ultimate realities of life, death, grief, and God.”

According to both ministers, self-centred brides are to blame for the state of modern weddings – events that Vickery calls “narcissistic cleavage conventions”. And bridal mania – the belief on the part of an engaged woman that the world revolves around her, her dress, and her floral-design choices – is unarguably a genuine phenomenon.

When a wedding seizes the public, or at least the media, imagination – as Chelsea Clinton’s did last week, with American television reporters breathlessly noting the rumbling arrival of food-service delivery trucks outside Astor Courts, the venue in Rhinebeck, New York, where she wed Marc Mezvinsky – it only amplifies the bridal imperative to ensure that the day is perfectly orchestrated, beautifully conducted and exquisitely memorable.

Yet are narcissistic brides solely to blame for the way in which contemporary weddings are, as Fraser put it, “specifically designed to be all about ‘me’”? Or might some of the blame lie with an ever-proliferating wedding industry – one that seeks to ensure that for every vow exchanged there is a sweeping gown of satin and tulle to be sold, or that every kiss bestowed at the altar is, potentially, an occasion for the use of a leatherbound guest book, a frilly lace garter threaded with blue ribbon, and a chocolate fountain?

The cost of the average wedding in the UK is estimated to be about £20,000 – even higher than the cost in the US, where, according to wedding-industry figures, the estimated amount that brides and grooms are spending in 2010 is averaging about $23,000, or £15,000. American brides – or their parents – are spending, on average, just over a thousand dollars on a dress, more than $2,000 on flowers, nearly $1,000 on beauty services (including an average of $183 on teeth-whitening) – and almost $3,500 on a photographer and videographer to make sure the expense of all the above is captured for posterity.

Jemima Lewis is less critical of the brides, and more astute about the real social and psychological pressures involved:

Granted, there may be some brides who get carried away for the wrong reasons. They see Katie Price marrying a luminous orange, cross-dressing cage-fighter while the paparazzi attempt to batter down the church door, and they want a piece of the dream. But most big weddings get that way for reasons of tact, rather than egotism.

The only alternative to a big wedding is a tiny one – you, him and a couple of witnesses snatched off the street. Any more than that, and people start getting offended that they haven’t been invited. Once you’ve invited Uncle Bob, you have to invite his alcoholic wife – and next thing you know, the guest list is littered with dipsomaniacs, sex-pests, embittered divorcees, drug-addicts and bores. At that stage, the only solution is to throw a party large enough to absorb and dilute the difficult guests.

What this means is that you need a serious frock: you cannot have hundreds of people staring at you while you make the most intimate public declaration of your life without some kind of body armour. Getting togged out like Barbie on acid is a symptom of stage fright, rather than vanity. It is what happens when a generous impulse (wanting to invite Uncle Bob) spirals out of control.

Likewise, the obsession with table settings and floral arrangements – though “expensive and distracting”, as the Rev complains – is born of anxiety rather than pride. No one wants to be found wanting as a hostess, though every bride knows she will be.

A big white wedding is a huge fandangle for not much return. The guests carp about their placement; the vicar, it turns out, would rather be at a funeral; and the happy couple are either rigid with stress or flaccid with drink. But, like democracy, it remains the least worst option: formulaic enough to contain the chaos of the modern extended family; romantic enough to entice the faithless masses up the aisle. If I were Dr Fraser, I would be grateful for that alone.

A common option amongst north London Catholics was to fly to Rome with a handful of relations and close friends and have the wedding there. If it meant the difference between getting married or not, I always encouraged this option. There was no pretence: “We want to get married; we can’t afford a big British wedding; we are just going to do it; and we’ll have a great party for all our friends when we get back.” The strange thing is, I think people understood. Couples are doing the £20k wedding because they think everyone else expects it. But if they had the no-cost wedding in the parish hall I think most of their guests would actually be delighted.

I’m not against big weddings; I’m not puritanical. I think we should celebrate sacraments lavishly. But if the wedding gets in the way of the marriage, then something has gone wrong.

[Addition to the post: A friend who is a priest just put this comment on my Facebook:

I had a couple came and asked if they could have a blessing after a registry wedding. Seeing an ounce of hope I asked why they wanted a blessing, why a registry? Church too expensive, they said. I said to them: If I wave the church fee, little service in the chapel, walk to church, wear what you like, go home for tea and biscuits they would be married. They opted for smart clothes and a buffet in the parish hall afterwards. Good wedding!

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I know you are on the edge of your seats waiting for part 2. Here are the other five ‘greatest novels’, following on from the previous post. I’ve already apologised for the thoroughly misleading title.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.

Gilead

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

 E. M. Forster, Howards End.

Howards End

Michael D. O’Brien, Father Elijah.

Flannery O’Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge.

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Well, I needed a catchy title. What I mean is: Out of the handful of novels I have read in my short life, and out of those I managed to remember driving up the M1 to Leeds a few days ago, here are some that have touched me profoundly and stayed with me. Another title could be, ‘Summer reading suggestions – if you are stuck for ideas’.

Oh, and one isn’t quite a novel, more an autobiography (but on the novel end of autobiography); and another is quite definitely not a novel but a collection of short stories, but I can’t leave it off a list of books like this, and they fit together like chapters in a novel.

This all started because I re-read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road while I was in Lourdes, which moved me even more than it did the first time, and got me thinking about other books that have shaken me to the core, or just shifted the axis of my being a few degrees. So McCarthy takes first place.

I was going to copy the publishers’ blurb below, but even that would break my rule about giving away plot details. If you are intrigued enough you can click on the picture links and read the Amazon reviews etc.

So here is the list:

Cormac McCarthy, The Road.

The Road

Don DeLillo, Underworld.

Underworld

Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory.

The Power and the Glory - Vintage classics

Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding.

The Member of the Wedding

 Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), Out of Africa.

Out of Africa

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British attitudes to disability are so contradictory (following on from the last post).

On the one hand, things are getting better for those with disabilities in Britain. There is better access to buildings and public spaces, stronger legislation against discrimination, and more integration in ordinary sociaty generally of those who are disabled. And, of course (this gives me another excuse to refer to my groundbreaking post about traffic management), there are fewer pavement curbs – at least in Kensington and Chelsea.

Two examples caught my attention recently. There was an article in the Times on Tuesday (I can’t link to it because of the paywall!) about media preparations for the Paralympics. It points out how much interest there has been in the Paralympics over the last few years, and how people with disabilities are much more present in the mainstream media than they used to be, e.g. as presenters and not just as guests.

And last week I had a tour of a newly constructed hall of residence at Leeds Trinity University College. The facilities were really impressive. Not only were there rooms for wheelchair users and the physically disabled, but these rooms were integrated into the sets for able-bodied students.

So your own room has all the facilities you would expect (accessible bathroom, accessible wardrobe, etc.), as well as some wonderful features that I never would have anticipated, like two spyholes in the door – one at about 5 feet for those who are standing, and one at about 3 feet for those using wheelchairs. And the shared kitchen that you use with other students has an extra cooking hob and an extra sink, both designed so that they are at the right height for someone using a wheelchair, and – equally important – enough space for you to get your knees underneath them.

These are all positive signs about how British society is becoming more inclusive and more open to those who live with disability.

On the other hand, if you are an unborn child and you have a disability, you can be aborted simply for the fact that you have this disability.

Even the Disability Rights Commission (which merged into the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2007), which you wouldn’t expect to comment on abortion law, recognised this contradiction. It wrote that the section of the Abortion Act concerned with disability:

is offensive to many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability; and there is substantial support for the view that to permit terminations at any point during a pregnancy on the ground of risk of disability, while time limits apply to other grounds set out in the Abortion Act, is incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally…the DRC believes the context in which parents choose whether to have a child should be one in which disability and non-disability are valued equally.

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There are other kinds of healing that take place in Lourdes (see earlier post here), not least the healing of the relationship between those who are sick or disabled and those who are in good health.

I’ve always thought that the greatest miracle in Lourdes is the fact that you can go into a bar in a wheelchair or on a stretcher and order a beer without getting any strange looks from the staff or the other customers.

In one sense, the sick and disabled are given special treatment: special care in the hotels and hospitals, special places in the religious services, etc. But the really impressive aspect of Lourdes is that in the ordinary cultural life of the town – shops, bars, restaurants, cinemas – there is absolutely no distinction made between the sick and the healthy. They are all, equally, part of the same society.

In many ways attitudes to sickness and disability are getting better in Britain. But there are all sorts of contradictions, and I think this needs another post…

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It’s good to know that David Cameron has been reading my blog. Or at least that he has come to appreciate the cultural significance of the British pier since I last blogged about this in March. When he chose to give his vision of a Big Society another push earlier this week, he sent Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, down to Hastings to see how the locals are trying to save their pier.

Hastings pier

You can see ten minutes of Newsnight documentary about Hurd’s seaside visit here; and there are some nice reflections from Max Davidson here on the strange pull of the pier on the British imagination, occasioned by the opening of Weston-super-Mare’s new £51m Grand Pier.

For they were, in their heyday, romantic places. The ingenuity of Victorian engineers, building out into the sea, when it would have been far simpler and cheaper to build the same structures on shore, stirred the imagination. There was a kind of poetry in the conjunction of the lapping waves and those jaunty pavilions, shimmering in the sun. They were places of adventure, glamour, innocent merriment. No Mediterranean beach could match the splendour of an English pier in its pomp.

When I was a child in the 1960s, an outing to Margate Pier was an event of knee-trembling excitement. I laughed myself silly at the Punch and Judy shows. I guzzled huge sticks of rock. I thought the ghost train was the single scariest thing that had ever happened to me. It didn’t matter that paint was peeling off the skeletons, that the spiders were made of shoe-laces or that the driver of the train looked like Albert Steptoe. I let my imagination roam.

Most of all, I loved those old coin-slide machines where if you rolled a penny at the right moment, you could get ten, 15, 20 pennies back, as a gleaming pile of coins toppled over the precipice. It was my first introduction to the thrills and spills of gambling.

Like pantomimes, with which they have much in common, piers bewilder foreigners. “This is your idea of fun?” asks the bemused German or Frenchman, as giggling English families pile on to 5mph trains, puttering along to the end of the pier past speak-your-weight machines and candyfloss stalls. But they retain a nagging hold on our imagination, for that very reason. They are not sophisticated. They are the reverse of sophisticated. But they connect us to childhoods past, when the world was simpler.

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A nice post from Geoffrey Webb here about how technology can get in the way of ordinary human interaction. As much as anything, it’s about how easy it is to become bad mannered with other people, and to use new technologies as an excuse for a simple lack of attentiveness to those around us.

As your mother might have told you, “Listen to someone when they talk to you!”

It’s become grossly apparent to me how much we allow technology to get in the way of connecting with each other. I’m not suggesting that technology is the problem; in fact, I’m an avid and active proponent for social media and the interactive web. It’s not the technology, it’s how we use the technology.

Here are my favourites from Webb’s ten rules:

Close your laptop. If you’re working on your laptop and someone enters the room to talk with you, close your laptop and focus on them. Same thing in a meeting, close that laptop whenever you can. If it needs to remain open for reference or note-taking, try to place it at angle so the screen isn’t a barrier between you and others.

Single task during conference calls.
The temptation is huge. Odds are, no one will ever know if you’re checking email, reading a book, or even taking a nap. It’s a character and respect issue. If it’s not that important, then don’t be on the call; if it is that important, then be fully on the call.

Single task with live people.
Resist the temptation to check your email or surf the web or update your status while simultaneously carrying on a real-live conversation.

Don’t call after hours. We all have answering machines now so it’s easy to avoid the human contact by simply calling early in the morning or late at night. Have the guts to call during office hours.

Don’t let your email or phone rule you. Ever been having a conversation with someone, their cellphone rings and they just silence it without breaking contact with you. They don’t even check to see who it was. How’s that make you feel? Important? Valued? What about the opposite: You’re meeting someone in their office and the phone rings or an email arrives (bing!), and they interrupt the conversation to answer the phone or check that message. How’s that make you feel? Second-rate? Second-fiddle?

Ban phones from meetings. Like shoes in the Far East, or guns in the Old West, phones should be left at the door in corporate meetings. Some companies collect them in a box. Others charge the individual when it rings in a meeting (or they have to buy dinner/drinks afterward).

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I’m just back from Lourdes, the shrine to the Virgin Mary in the south of France. It’s a place of extraordinary healing.

The medical healings are well-documented. I was flicking through a magazine about the 67 ‘canonical’ cures over the last 150 years – those that have been officially recognised by the hard-nosed medical panel that sifts through the scientific evidence. I’m sure you can look them up on the internet somewhere.

I was struck this year by what you might call the ‘inter-generational healing’ that takes place in Lourdes. You see young people on pilgrimage, ordinary teenagers, spending time with the elderly. Doing ordinary things together – shopping, eating, drinking, partying, praying. Just hanging out together. The young not thinking that the elderly are boring or irrelevant. The elderly not feeling threatened or marginalised by the young. Appreciating each other for who they are, and growing in themselves through the process.

And this isn’t just an individual teenager showing devotion to a loved grandparent in the privacy of the parental home, which is not uncommon. It’s taking place in public, and it’s shared with their peers.

It makes you realise how strange most of Western society is, where young people and the elderly inhabit completely different territories, like two tribes living within the boundaries established in long forgotten wars.

It makes you wonder what is lost when different generations become alienated from each other, and what it would take to bring the strangeness of this inter-generational healing to the normality of a British high street.

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You have probably seen the Sky ‘no compromise’ TV advertising campaign in which Eric Cantona, Forrest Gump-like, walks through some of the great moments of sporting history.

I saw one of the associated posters driving down the A40 recently, which has Cantona looking broody beside the following caption:

WHAT’S THE POINT OF GREATNESS IF YOU CANNOT WATCH IT?

It’s meant as a rhetorical question, but surely there are plenty of answers. Even before I had hit the next set of traffic lights my mind darted from the exquisite carvings around the vault of a gothic cathedral, too distant for the unaided human eye to see, to the spiritual heroism of an enclosed nun like St Thérèse of Lisieux, to the hundreds of thousands of relatives caring for their sick and disabled loved ones without acknowledgement or reward.

But perhaps Eric and his Sky-paymasters would counter, like the medieval theologians, that all this hidden greatness is indeed meant to be seen: in the present moment by God, and at the end of time at the Last Judgment by the whole of creation. Quite an audience. And perhaps they’d give an even less theological answer, which is that I can only point to examples of such hidden greatness and humility because they have in fact come to light. I can take my binoculars to Chartres Cathedral, read a book about Thérèse, or see a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the lives of carers in modern Britain. Technology and the media have made it possible for me to discover this hidden greatness for myself and then to speak about it to others. Lots of paradoxes here.

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