We are sitting on the 6.53 train, slightly later than planned, on a Monday morning. It is forecast to rain all week. The world is hurtling towards mutual destruction. We don’t spend enough time with the kids. We never have enough time to feel on top of our chores. My job is too hard. Boo hoo.
It was one of those weekends that are so draining you somewhat look forward to going back to the office, when Monday morning comes around. We then made the mistake of talking about pensions in the car. I’m now thinking “Oh my God, I can access my pension pot in 15 years, I’ve done nothing with my life, now I’ve gone from shrugging about a wasted weekend to thinking there aren’t that many left to waste”.
Maybe having my sister whizzing off on exciting trips every few weeks gives that unwanted window into the alternative, childless life which suddenly seems quite appealing. She is off for three weeks of cross country skiing in Switzerland, taking in a few slopes in Chamonix en route, and it’s costing her not much more than a £30 Easyjet flight, because she’s made so many friends over the years she’s been freelancing and travelling that she can stay for free. She only just came back from a few weeks in Bhutan, and checked out the snow conditions in Cham after Christmas as well. Apparently the black runs are “for tourists, but sometimes quicker to get down to the lift at closing time than my usual routes”. She’ll probably enter the Tromso marathon this year, just because it might be a laugh.
But of course she doesn’t really want all that; she wants our boring family life. She wants to be sitting in a pub in Wendover, a table of six adults and four children, waiting nearly an hour for food to arrive, whilst the baby yells and wails because he wants his lunch. The older one then obviously feels he has to join in all the wailing, and gets fussy about where he sits. The slow service may have had something to do with our son saying “Oh hello, Small Man” whenever the waiter approached the table. We couldn’t even laugh it off and say something like “Haha, he says that to everyone”, because the drinks waiter was greeted with “Look, Big Man is back again”.
On Saturday we took the kids to the climbing wall, which was strangely unrewarding, and then to the shopping centre, which was a beginner’s mistake – they were a screaming morass of tantrums. So Richard said I should go out on the town with Olga in the evening. I took him up on it, and visited the purpose-built strip of restaurants and a cinema that are outside Milton Keynes Stadium. We go there quite a lot, as it’s all so easy – drive, park right outside, pick a random shitty chain restaurant and then walk next door to watch a movie. That day however there was a darts tournament on at the stadium, as well as two massive releases at the cinema, so we couldn’t find a table in Pizza Express, TGI Fridays, Frankie and Benny’s, or Prezzo, and opted for margaritas at the bar in Chimichanga (I should point out we were in a cab this time). I had forgotten that on our previous visit, there was a group there who were so drunk that one of them went outside for a tactical chunder on the terrace, before continuing to drink a bucket-sized blue curacao cocktail. Sure enough, two guys who were so drunk they could barely stand wandered up and asked us if we knew where was good to go out. They were from Bedford. I explained that since I had two kids, I didn’t go out at all. It’s a great way of cutting any chat-ups dead, particularly the fine specimens of Gareth (“Garth, I mean Gareth”. “Is it Gareth or Garth?”. “Garth is the Welsh version”) and Vincent. They had taken a cab from Bedford to Milton Keynes for a night out “because Bedford’s a bit stabby”. Gareth then makes helpful illustrative stabbing motions, lurching off to one side as he does so, and repeats himself a few times, as if he thinks it’s a great joke that we’re for some reason not laughing at. We paid the bill and escaped to the cinema, where we saw La La Land, mainly out of curiosity about the hype. I can see why it was popular with the film industry, given it was basically Ziegfeld follies with a very slightly updated storyline about the price you pay for ambition. It made me sad, in some strange way; sad that there is so little innovation in the arts, but also sad about art itself. Any artistic endeavour is a very hard life to pursue, and you will always lose things along the way, only more so the more successful you are, which is itself highly unlikely. As the protagonist (who is of course called Sebastian) says:
This is the dream! It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!
I was talking to a distant relative at my grandmother’s funeral, who said he was a musician. He still lived at home with his parents, still waiting to hit the big-time in his mid-30s. He still believed it would happen, and when I said it must be hard financially he said something like, “Well, yeah, I’ll either be poor or I’ll get really rich”. Hmm, yeah, except that even the most successful musicians on the planet are fighting to get paid for their work.
It’s depressing, somehow, the fact that society seems to only be about fighting to reach the top of whatever you do, and when you get there, you don’t feel a great responsibility for your fellow citizens, you pull the ladder up behind you instead. In boardrooms, you have a responsibility to your shareholders’ quarterly earnings, because that’s what your job security is based on. CEOs don’t talk about their product a great deal any more; it’s not really fashionable. They’re supposedly to be a transferrable skills, and if all they talk about is the widgets and how proud they are to be bringing better widgets to the world, I guess they can’t easily go and work for the company that makes soup. Similarly, they do not talk about their employees in a philosophical sense, as in, how they create quality, how much culture and loyalty matter, but about their economic value, as if economic value was anything other than wholly subjective – after all, the real reason for giant CEO packets is automation, whihc will be replaced by AI, which will replace 90% of employees, and therefore also 90% of consumers of these products that supposedly have intrinsic value. Perhaps that’s when creative industries will be more valuable, because entertaining each other is all there will be.
All this striving seems to lead to complete myopia about what the value of the top echelon is, and what the long term effect of a short-term outlook is. I feel like some reactionary all of a sudden, but I can’t see how it’s better that our politicians are merely looking to make deals for jobs and “the economy”, regardless of what that means in terms of who they’re aligning themselves with. Does the weight of history not tell them anything? How did things look in 1938? Did Chamberlain really believe what he was saying, or was it just convenient to think the best of Hitler? Is it simply expedient to do deals with Erdogan, regardless of what he has done to his country? How can Steve Bannon and Donald Trump be so bereft of any historical knowledge that they think nationalism and protectionism are the way to peace and prosperity? Or do they want power and adulation more than anything, and believe they can only obtain it by generating war? We turn a blind eye, as the worst leaders in history have. Merkel is the only politician who seems to base any of her actions in her moral worldview, in her opinion about what is in the long-term interest of humanity. She has done things she knows are actively detrimental to her career and her party’s prospects, mainly because she has nothing left to prove.
Maybe we need art more than we think. Maybe it does mean something, all the dancing and singing behind movie scenes.