At the End of the Day

There was a pithy French observer of humanity called André Maurois, who for some reason took an interest in the short life of the outrageous nineteenth British political figure George Smythe. Smythe was a man of great  and libidinous complexity who, like most politicians, said one thing and often did another. Maurois wrote of him:

“He was a cynical sentimentalist, a man who said life should be sipped and savoured to the full….but for his own part, drank it down at one gulp”.

Smythe died at the age of 39. Maurois died in 1967 at the age of 89. They both led interesting lives, albeit at differing speeds. But such is the nature of our species, neither of them was entirely right about what they said about others: modern neuroscience suggests that most people have certain personality traits and ‘standards’, but many of them are contradictory. “Consistency,” somebody once said – probably Mark Twain because he never stopped talking – “is the hobgoblin of small minds”.

The way neuroscience expresses this finding explains why, until the age of about 25, the very use of the suffix ‘science’ use to make me hide behind the sofa, and wait until those using it had gone away. Last year, neuroscientists set out to ‘Test Different Versions of the Affective Neuroscience Personality Scales in a Clinical Sample’. Their finding was as follows: ‘Further work needs to be done in order to realize a psychometrically sound instrument for the assessment of primary emotional experiences’. Not entirely conclusive.

‘Objective, method, materials, observations, conclusions’: How many over 50s still remember those classic sub-headings employed for every experiment done in the chemistry lab? In 1962 – in the smelly lab of Stand Grammar School – the conclusion was always the same: ‘the sodium reacted with the hydrochloric acid to produce salt, and hydrogen was given off’. (Also there was a loud bang after which Mr Revie panicked and hit the fire alarm while hurrying us out of a highly poisonous environment)  .

While this same ‘conclusion’ principle theoretically applied to physics and biology, it always left me with the question, “Why?” There was a good reason for this: a great deal of medical research and cutting-edge physics was based on observation rather than conclusion. Nobody else knew what to make of it either.

Being now much older and less cowed by technical gobbledygook, I’ve become fascinated by developments in the ‘newer’ sciences because they’re often inconclusive: everyone loves a good mystery – and few people more than me.

Last year, a neuroanatomy team I think based in Seattle postulated that brain plasticity (ie, its ability to change shape and grow in some areas) means most ‘normal’ humans are capable of having up to eight personalities – each being dominant at different times depending on circumstances and real-time influences. Suggesting the same thing the other day, a regular correspondent wrote to me with the opinion that, if you take neoliberals out of a neoliberal “situation”, they stop sounding like neoliberals. This is also my experience. It doesn’t, unfortunately, work with Harriet Harman or John McCain: they’re always obnoxious wherever they are. But again, that’s just part of the human condition: infinite variety.

I notice this myself when it comes to accents. I’ll ring my brother, and come off the phone sounding like a Lancastrian. I spend at least some time every day talking to Americans: last month my elder daughter rang me, and after a few minutes she said “Have you been with Americans today?”. After a long dinner party with middle class Brits, I sound like I did when I worked at JWT in London. The artist David Hockney’s accent is also instructive: he says the word ‘photograph’ in the most delightful way that mixes LA with Bradford, and thus comes out as “fordagraff”.

Adopting the tics and characteristics of others has often been thought weird (one of Woody Allen’s funniest movies was the 1983 short Zelig, about Leonard Zelig – a little Jewish bloke who takes the tendency to extremes) but it is, when balanced, a perfectly natural herding instinct now confirmed by studying the brain. For myself, I display the characteristic…but then can’t resist telling the herd it is talking twaddle.

When giving the herd this largely unwelcome advice, I try to be Ray Rigorous, fearless reporter upon the anti-social antics of arseholes. But when doing DIY, I am Captain Slapdash, the man for whom the hammer will always be mightier than the drill. My woodwork teacher at school told my Dad, “Under no circumstances let him loose on chisels and wood: he is a danger to himself and others”.

That’s because everyone is an individual, and some things that grip us bore others. But to remain under the safe protection of the pack, we all need the ability to sympathise and show commonality with other members: hence the apparent contradiction. I have no empirical fieldwork support for this whatsoever, but it’s long been my observation that sibling rivalry is based not on dominance instincts but on metier diversity: evolution thought (and for once, it was right) that the best way for a tribe to flourish is for each family unit to produce an eclectic range of talents that can deal with any situation. That way, every family member is employed for the good of the community.

You may have noticed that neoliberal, target-driven education denies this kind of social anthropology. Because of this, we have in the UK hundreds of thousands of unemployed 2:2 Media Studies graduates….but no plumbers or plasterers. But then, all tragi-comic situations are based on the difference between human hubris and human achievement.

Nobody understood this better than the late Peter Cook – exemplified in his wonderful monologue “I wanted to be a Judge” – and equally hilarious, his sketch with Dudley Moore, “The Tarzan audition” .

The Left-leaning concept of political correctness would militate against either of those sketches being either written or broadcast today. Just as the neoliberal ‘bums on seats’ instant-ROI instincts of the Right crush creativity in our time, so too do Left-wing ideologues vigorously discourage those things they deem offensive.

The moral of this ramble? One size will never fit all, because even within each individual, there are several potentially divergent characteristics. We are a whimsical species, and the one-dimensional Right-Left spectrum is at least 70 years past its sell-by date. The future ought to be a judicious mixture of of individual drive in concert with mutual needs.

Earlier at The Slog: the flock of pea-brained pigeons invading the BBC

13 thoughts on “At the End of the Day

  1. Sir,
    Try this simple experiment for us all, please. Take a PC about which you do not care (preferably quite ancient, small of disk and slow of CPU) and install OpenBSD onto it. Play with it, and partake of the thinking behind it, which is halfway between “Hippy” and “Paranoid Hillbilly”. Meditate upon this for a while, and partake of the philosophy behind the system; it isn’t pretty, shiny or frivolous but more the stark functional elegance of the scalpel or bolt-action rifle.

    Finally, go back to whatever you were doing but before you do anything with any other piece of electronics, remove all hammers from the room. This last part is important.


  2. Ramble is right JayDub. too long by half for an End of Day comment. I can easily have eight personality changes with each successive bottle of Down South Homeboy sippin’ bourbon i consume.

    By the eighth bottle I have no personality at all as I am in a catatonic coma until , as and if I ever wake from it to restart the cycle . APB TenFour.


  3. An essential part of being a good prisoner is the ability to adapt to whatever prison in which I find myself at the moment.


  4. The simple way to beat the PC brigade is to insist that they value diversity – and as I was brought up in the unreconstructed 1960’s they have an awful lot of valuing to do!


  5. quite intriguing…
    It was Tony Blair that deemed a University education was the answer to every successful career, which of course it is not.
    Productivity today is in the doldrums as we know. Some of the key reasons are that overpaid management is recruited on parrot style qualifications alone, but has no technical ability or even flexibility and common sense in most key areas. Regulation hampers too large a part of business. Possibly 5% max of the fairer sex are actually productive outside the home. Music in the workplace and a sugar chocolate rich diet.
    We like to manage our business with strict discipline, and only reward generously by results achieved in the past, not false promises on bogus cvs. It works for us.


  6. Superb Mr Ward. The “never mind the quality, feel the width” mentality that values certification and conformity above real ability is one of the curses of both education and corporate recruitment for the last thirty years.


  7. Two wonderful bits of reading for you. I note that the Bank of England itself is under scrutiny.:

    …and as a former neocolonial myself in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia who discussed the British Empire a lot with my Dad who was posted to ceylon in 1947 for his National Service:

    Dalrymple is a brilliant writer. He sneaked into Afghanistan way back in the 1980s I think. John if you mix at all in the “Dordogne Set” you will find that same mentality I am sure still there. It was when we were up to our arms in muck renovating the barn near Brantome.


  8. ‘The future ought to be a judicious mixture of of individual drive in concert with mutual needs.’
    But, alas it never will be all while the current shower are incumbent.


  9. “but it’s long been my observation that sibling rivalry is based not on dominance instincts but on metier diversity: evolution thought (and for once, it was right) that the best way for a tribe to flourish is for each family unit to produce an eclectic range of talents that can deal with any situation. That way, every family member is employed for the good of the community.”

    That may be one of the most profound insights you’ve had for me John. Do you have a source for this assertion? It would explain loads of having to suffer hearing either arguments between my kids boy and girl, or my wife bickering about her brother and sister. I am so bored of both parties when they let forth on this theme.


  10. Fantastic!
    Now a’daze.
    Folk are being Pavlo dogged, almost from birth.
    This is why , n my opinion: the PC shite is able to produce such a terror


  11. Troo. Once you realise that global warming, peak oil, Al qaeda conflate along with 911, Iraq, pretty much everything in the media these days (including this PC shite) is a global white lie and there is actually NO CRISIS AT ALL!


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