Charity ends at work

Ah well, a bank holiday instead of a day at work on Monday. Thank goodness for that.

Because it is so bad at The Unpleasantness that most days I never know whether to take instruction from one of our perpetually multiplying “line managers” or check if their nappies are full. The saying “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians” hardly covers it. Everyone around me seems to be (mis)managing like their lives depend upon it.

The most worrying thing is that somebody else’s might. Though as nobody is encouraged (or even allowed) to be aware of a world beyond the spread-sheet they currently check we will never know about that. They probably think Myopia is one of the lesser known offshore tax havens.

But I shouldn’t be so disparaging of these lovely folk. Why, only yesterday they proudly announced their latest corporate charity scheme.

In a nutshell, this is that people should walk or run about more, monitor themselves and ask others to sponsor them for doing so, and the most prolific over-exercisers (rather than fund-raisers) will get prizes. For an office overrun by sharp-elbowed, cretinously competitive sports nazis, turning the need to appear charitable into a competition was seen as the perfect solution.

It got even sillier when one of the jocks suggested that, in order to get the miles up, the company should hire an exercise bike so that the numpties can pedal in their lunch hour. This will cost in the region of £100 per week, plus there is the logistic problem of what every other lycra-clad lummock does for the hour once the first has nabbed the bike.

Neither was it explained how a finite number of people in a workforce can each sponsor the other or (more importantly) how anybody knows that the exercisers aren’t just lying. Be honest, if your profession is accountancy – and specifically hiding income from tax authorities – would you ever be capable of NOT lying, or of accepting any figure a workmate quoted you as true?

Anyway, in due time we can be sure that a number of smug faces will be photographed holding one of those massive cheques with a figure plucked out of thin air written on it. That happy picture will then appear in the local press, discreetly distanced from the advertisement for our services, thus negating the idea that offshore finance ruins lives.

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Going for a song

This little item (see http://www.isleofman.com/News/details/82375/new-york-bound-choir-perfoming-this-weekend ) has been the source of some amusement to me and mine in recent weeks. If I was related to Martin Luther King Junior I might also be very embarrassed – even if the rumours that his family aggressively chase a financial percentage in any scheme involving his name did turn out to have substance.

For various reasons I knew of this sad enterprise (for it is little more than a financial enterprise) some time ago, and can safely say that media reports are a little light on the fuller facts. In brief, this isn’t so much an invitation to take part in a world premiere as a bizarre pyramid crowd-funding scheme, and both Jenkins and Manx socialites have form for this kind of thing.

It goes something like this…..

In the traditional arts model, a composer is commissioned to write a work, and in order to maximise impact obviously wants the best venue and performers for the premiere – which can require a lot of upfront funding if that work is ambitious, involves a lot of performers and only works well in a large venue. More recently, it would be quite normal for the composer or performers to get some sort of TV, DVD and CD deal to lay off those costs. But the management behind Jenkins – whose product sells well in the amateur and semi-pro choir world – found a way to take that even further.

Jenkins has built a reputation for producing safe, middle of the road, vaguely religious waffle to order for public authorities, the Beeb and Arts Council. It’s cheesy enough for any small town mayor to sit through – no controversial themes, no postmodern wierdness, just do-goody topics like World Peace with extensive plagiarisation of the words of religious “thinkers”. It has the added attraction that even a beginner can pick up the tunes in about 5 minutes, so the sheet music sales and performing royalties flowing back from small town choirs are humungous.

Then the Jenkins marketing machine had another wizard wheeze. What if, instead of paying professional singers for the world premiere, you “invite” amateur choirs to do it, then charge them an arm and a leg to perform? You can even take it further than that – having milked one lot for the world or national premieres, why not tender for places on the CD recording too?

So somebody at the IOMCS answered the web call for choirs, and oddly enough somebody in New York wrote back to say that a choir from a place known worldwide only for a tax-avoidance industry had made the shortlist.

Crikey, that must have been a surprise. Almost as surprising as the comparative absence of choristers from poorer countries with top quality amateur classical musical groups like, say, Bulgaria.

Having – of necessity – endured numerous performances by the IOMCS and other local choirs over the years, I would have to say bluntly that if the selection for the NY gig was purely on musical ability they would not have a prayer. Because Manx musical groups prefer to overcome technical shortcomings by sheer numbers and volume, rather than diligent practice.

Ten people singing slightly out of time and tune is obviously and painfully wrong. With 140 wrong, but in roughly identical ways at the same places, the audience will tend to think it’s right – especially if they are not too familiar with the music. On that basis Manx national ensembles are falsely judged “better” than smaller groups, and being both “national” and expensive to join attract socialites of minimal ability (who do nothing to drag standards up but do ensure sufficient funding).

What the local reports also neglect to mention is that (1) the real cost for each participant is around £1500, of which about a third is paid direct to the Carnegie organisers and (2) the performers are not allowed to view either rehearsals or performance of any other item on the concert programme.

But presumably the offer also pulls in more than the choirs, because relatives will pay to go and watch it too. Which is where the next sting comes in, because friends and relatives have to pay for their own concert tickets (prices start about $500) and if they want to come along to the post-gig reception with the singers (who have already paid for that as part of the package) that would be about another $500 – possibly far more depending on what Noo Yawk glitterati are prepared to pay to swan about with the likes of the Luther Kings.

So, to sum up, you go to New York at the height of winter, get herded into two long rehearsals, kicked out again and told not to come back before the night. If at any stage in this a connecting airport is closed, New York is snowed in for a week, etc., you are on your own. Nightmare if you actually have to work for a living and a family to worry about. Minor inconvenience in return for some swanky pics when you have money, time on your hands, and nothing better to do.

But something about it this also reminds me of a scam a senior Manx cleric used to run to pay for his (frequent) foreign holidays. In essence, he struck up a deal with a local travel agent to run tours to the Holy Land, or some traditional UK or European pilgrimage site. For every 10 places on the package holiday the cleric flogged, he got one free. So, 20 and he and the Mrs got a free holiday.

Being connected to charitable and government bodies, he soon branched out, to the extent he was taking maybe half a dozen free foreign holidays a year. Oddly enough, his church and various statutory bodies he chaired managed perfectly well without him, which says something else about the way such organisations work on the Isle of Man.

I hear that invitations to perform, at first restricted only to the richest members of IOMCS, are now being thrown about ever more desperately to a wider circle of less and less musically able (or even interested) punters. It is quite possible that the eventual Manx contingent will entirely consist of tone-deaf wealthy retirees.

It is even more amusing to speculate if (on the same basis as their own concerts) their duff notes will be drowned out by more able singers from elsewhere, or if this is a global phenomenon. In which case I hope at least the sound engineer at the Carnegie recording this for posterity will be a professional and get union rates for the job. If he’s as mercenary as the Jenkins machine he could even make a small fortune on the side flogging unedited versions of the master-tape.

Not unwell but….

A couple of weeks back I was joking that the blog is getting more Bernardian by the day and that, in future, each time I go a week without posting I will put a small message up saying “Manx Gent is unwell”.

This week I came close. The Unpleasantness became more unpleasant, as these things do. All the business manuals on workplace stress say that the real test of your abilities is the way in which you turn around a flow of negative feedback by staying positive, pro-active… and a bunch of other numbskull buzz words. Somehow, I think management and their stooges missed that e-mail.

By coincidence, I had been reading Hannibal, the sequel to Silence of The Lambs, in which at one point Hannibal Lecter explains to somebody that, when feasible, he chose only to eat the rude. Such a shame there’s never a helpful cannibal around when those of us trying to maintain civilised values and human decency could benefit most.

In addition, having agreed to give a daily lift to a stranded colleague the workday also became longer. So, in the 20 or so minutes which used to be my readjustment zone between home and work each morning and evening I get treated to a litany of somebody else’s work problems. What kind of screwed up world is it where even my altruistic acts are being turned against me?

But at least the week ended well.

Firstly, on Friday my first day cover of a new P.J. O’Rourke book on the Trump election, How The Hell Did This Happen? , arrived. For those not in the know, O’Rourke’s work is neatly categorised by the title of his first book, Republican Party Reptile. I discovered him back in the mid 1980’s, when a review of that very book described it as just the thing to buy a bishop for Christmas if you wanted him to die of shock.

It was a pretty apt review. It is ironic that conservatives, while wrong about everything, at least manage to be wrong with cutting edge humour while liberals… Well, when you have no choice but to deal with life’s worst absurdities up close the last thing you need is a sermon in your spare time.

Every acid phrase by O’Rourke has you screaming “No, no, you can’t say that” while doubled up laughing. A lifelong Republican, he finally balked at the idea of Trump and, like his cohort Chris Buckley, advised conservatives that there was no other choice but to vote for The Great Satan (i.e. Hillary) as someone who, however clueless, at least knew where the White House was and understood what a US president was supposed to do.

The other good thing was the remarkable kindness of some public sector employees who contested a petty restriction for me. About a week ago, I asked if I could put up a poster for From Syria With Love in….let’s just say a public building where it might be seen by a lot of passing trade. I was politely informed that the noticeboard was for local events only ( visions of the Royston Vasey shop there for a moment), so went to look elsewhere instead.

A couple of days later I had a message from a manager, who’d been out when I asked, saying the matter had been brought to her attention, that no such policy existed and that I was welcome to bring the poster in. Later, on calling in on quite another matter, I was actually told to go home and fetch it. So I did, and it’s now up there alerting decent people to a worthwhile event and annoying xenophobes and petty bureaucrats.

In short, not thriving, but not unwell either. Just middling.

The importance of not being earnest

It’s been quite a weekend for anyone interested in the social circle around Jeff Bernard.

Firstly, yesterday morning there was the announcement of John Hurt’s death. It was of particular interest to me because, in addition to being a personal friend of Bernard’s (who nicknamed him “the Naked Elephant Man”), Hurt actually portrayed both Quentin Crisp and Jeff Bernard on screen and stage. His role as Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (and later An Englishman in New York) are key elements in the virtual canonisation of that unique individual. And, as I mentioned here, he took the lead role in a BBC radio production of Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell just a year or so ago. So, great talent, one of the last of the real Soho boho scene, and will be sadly missed.

Then, last night, there were not one but two BBC productions about Francis Bacon. I missed the first, partly because I had other things to do, partly because if an “arts” programme about Bacon sought the opinion of Damien Hirst then that indicates abysmal research, and would never be worth wincing through in case of accidental delights. See Brian Sewell on both and you will soon understand why.

But the second – advertised as a bio-drama about the tragic relationship between Bacon and George Dyer (whose “introduction” to Bacon was falling through his studio ceiling while trying to rob it) – well, that was absolutely different. Even though it only started at 1 AM I was never going to miss it, especially as the director was John Maybury, who really does straddle a border between film and painting with his extraordinary visuals.

I was not disappointed, even though I’m still only waking up as I write. Now I really do understand why Bacon made that flip remark about the only way to get through life being to regard nearly everything and everyone as unimportant. Maybe Quentin Crisp’s ruling that the first rule of being a stylist has to be “Live alone” also applies.

Like both, I’m joking but seriously. It must be absolute hell for someone as driven as Bacon to portray the world in a way not yet accepted or understood yet also find love or just be close to another person.

Maybe this odd relationship between two totally different outsiders was purely symptomatic of the times in which it happened. Maybe now, with gay relationships gone mainstream, and most gays making it clear they just want to be as dull and suburban as everybody else, it would be totally different.

But somehow I don’t think so. For myself, I’ve accepted that I can’t pursue the only things that interest and drive me full time, and by so doing ignore or destroy the lives of people I have responsibilities to. I’ve accepted that I’m stuck in a job which means nothing in order to pay the bills in a venal, nonsensical world, and will have to find the discipline to do the good stuff elsewhere.

The main thing is that, like Bacon, I can regard nearly everyone and everything as totally unimportant. It’s just that the people and stuff that don’t matter are centred on my employment, or political, social and economic inconveniences of the era. I find ways to negotiate them, but will never, ever give them the satisfaction of taking them seriously or letting them get to me.

And the people that do matter are family and some close friends – the only people for whom I consider making time out from my “real work”, which isn’t strictly art, or journalism, and certainly not politics, which can’t be valued in any accounts ledger, and which doesn’t even bring me an income.

Odd and totally impractical as this all is, it is all I can do, and the ludicrous pursuit of it all that makes getting up in the morning worthwhile.

Maya culpa

A new year resolution is falling apart rapidly. With my track record I’m only amazed it has taken a month.

I’d decided that this year I really must read something more challenging than the literary equivalent of comfort food. There is no excuse. The more I root round my excellent town library, the more hidden gems I discover. In the last couple of weeks alone I found an entire aisle of world literature by authors even I’ve barely heard of or never read.

It was all going so well until this morning, when I relapsed. And the fault lies entirely with Herman Hesse, not me. But then, me and Herman the German have history, so maybe I should have known better.

The thing is, almost 40 years back I was a recent school-leaver on a night shift in one of those Victorian mental hospitals – a real gothic pile on the edge of Dartmoor, would you believe. Back in the days before round-the-clock TV I’d been warned to take a book, as nothing happened for hours and the senior nurses inevitably left us trainees to mind the fort while they slipped into a side-room and slept.

Now this was just at that cusp between the hippy and punk era, when Hesse, Huxley and similar Mystic Megs were required reading, so I thought I’d better give Siddhartha a go. It’s only 100 pages, just long enough to fill all the hours between the ward of neurotics going to bed, dosed to the gills with major tranquillisers, and the idle sod who was supposed to supervise me waking up to raid the breakfast trolley before any patients could get near it.

So, around 5 AM I was some 80 pages into this psycho-babble (and being a mere callow youth totally convinced) when a very worried patient burst into the office. He’d woken up to answer the call of nature, only to find a dead bloke in the ward toilets. The bloke had apparently gone in some time before, sat down, had a coronary and quietly died.

This, by the way, isn’t as unique as it might sound. Older patients often had bad hearts, got no exercise because they were too under the liquid cosh to walk more than a few yards and constipated due to atrocious diet, with inevitable results. I suspect that if a researcher was able to make exhaustive surveys of death certificates from such places before they all finally vanished in the 1990’s the two leading causes of death would be (1) pneumonia (known in those days as “the old man’s friend”) and (b) coronary induced by over-exertion on the WC. Of course, grieving relatives were always spared the information about the location and cause of the coronary.

Somehow, sheer coincidence as it was and completely not my fault (as I was assured at length by hospital management afterwards), I was never able to reconcile the ponderous message of the novel about everything being right in the world providing you contemplated your navel 24/7 and that some poor, totally innocent sod had died a painful, lonely death in what was supposed to be a safe place while I was so absorbed by this hippy-trippy claptrap. I have never gone near a book by Hesse or any similar writer from that day until this morning.

When I thought I should give him another chance, and within an hour of opening it at home wished I had never bothered. This time I had a fit of the giggles within two pages, was laughing like a drain within 10 and eventually chucked the book aside in sheer exasperation after about 40.

Seriously – what a premier league wibble merchant. So self-absorbed it’s a wonder he never vanished up his own anus.

I couldn’t help noticing that neither the heroic truth seeker nor any other space cadet in the book seemed to have a job, any responsibilities, or indeed any real world distraction to prevent them sitting under a shady tree for hours, days or even years contemplating the mysteries of the universe. They took it for granted that this was such vital “work” that if they needed a meal, clean clothes, or money they could stand at some ordinary person’s door until they got it, without thanking the donor, or indeed feeling the need to even speak. Apparently that would have been beneath them and the donor should just feel grateful they were chosen. And only one solitary woman made an appearance in the pages, as a courtesan, allowing our hero yet another chance to be smug.

From what I’ve read elsewhere, that seems to about sum up the lives of Hesse and his circle too – the 1920’s equivalents of trustafarians. On the other hand, people who are genuinely on the streets, reduced to begging for small change, routinely have some angry office worker snarl “Get a job” at them. If only a few world leaders (or just Hollywood airheads) could say that when the likes of the Dalai Lama or Pope are tapping them for funds, there might be less trouble in the world.

Schmuck down

Last Sunday I was at the local Holocaust Memorial Day service. This shouldn’t be a cause of merriment, except when it offers a chance to mock people with irrational prejudices and too much power. And especially when I suspect the joke was created by those who are too often their victims.

As a rule, I avoid sick-fests which pass for national remembrance ceremonies, especially faith-led ones. I despise bigots and freeloaders on any day of the year, so why would I waste time watching them pretend to show remorse for tragedies, while denying their role in causing them?

Holocaust Memorial Day, though, is slightly different. Firstly, it didn’t originate as a church service, secondly the organisers do all they can to prevent it just turning into one, and thirdly they are genuinely interested in stressing that such pointless hate still goes on.

They are handicapped by politicians who will not attend any national ceremony unless it is led by a priest, and also by the tendency of professional religionists to jump on any grief bandwagon. Despite this, some of the organisers have used the service to point fingers at hatred in all its forms, and have twice given me a chance to do the same.

So, in turn, I try to support them and, in being there, make the point that this is not just another empty prayer-fest and that the non-religious cannot be shut out. This year I wasn’t a speaker, so made myself useful by chauffeuring some people who were there to sing in a choir.

It is also quite funny watching the various churches jockey for a role in the day. One aspect is the competition to host it (as the government won’t make a public building available). This sees the different denominations take a turn but, according to their place in the religious pecking order, most still get barred from leading the service. Then there is the competition to do the various bible readings. By tradition, the Governor does one and the Chief Minister used to (but now gives a short, non-religious, address), which leaves one for another church leader from one of the minor denominations.

And this year it really couldn’t have been a less appropriate church leader, or a worse speaker. This one is “lead pastor” in an obnoxious evangelical cult with seriously dodgy links and, for the last two months, at the centre of media speculation after it emerged that his church aggressively pumped the congregation to buy him a luxury house. I suppose the choice was made before the story broke and, being so brass-necked, he probably refused to withdraw to preserve the dignity of the day. On the other hand, as his cult’s reputation has always been far from spotless, you have to wonder just how clueless his fellow faith leaders are if they proposed him in the first place.

Well, at least we had a chance to find out if he truly was the kind of charismatic who manages to part the gullible from their life savings. All I can say is, if this charmless windbag really did, there must be a substantial number of Manx people with double digit IQs and no link to the real world.

Originally from “Norn Eyeland”, he is just as loud as Ian Paisley, but slyly chose to avoid obvious comparisons by adopting a weird mid-Atlantic accent, like some pretentious 1970’s DJ. Inevitably he chose a passage from Leviticus which, equally inevitably, was totally irrelevant (seemingly only chosen because it mentions the children of Israel) and very, very long. Looking round the church, it was hilarious watching the assembled clergy cringe as he chuntered on and on, and on, shouting louder, and louder. When he finally stopped there must have been a full two minute pause before the next participant felt brave enough to continue.

It marks the first time such a solemn occasion left me desperately biting my hand to avoid laughing out loud. I almost suspect that an arrogant bigot and his supporters were set up as the punch-line in a very wry Jewish joke.

Whatever, but on the way home one of my passengers and I had to wait until I’d dropped off the god-fearing before pulling into a layby to shriek with laughter.

Oy, yoy yoy…what a schmuck!

Odd, just odd

Yesterday was……odd!

As previously announced, I spent the morning at Douglas Cenotaph. Not my usual routine, to be honest, but I’d promised to do something, so I did it.

I’d agreed to fill in for someone who usually lays a wreath on behalf of atheists (who for obvious reasons don’t do Remembrance Sunday) but this year, in turn, had agreed to help out a friend – in his case one with no relatives and facing a serious operation. So, as instructed, I reported to the Gaiety Theatre reception (just across the road from the Cenotaph) at 10.15, along with the usual gang of wreath-layers.

Two years ago, Nigel Farage was amongst them, and probably felt right at home because it did feel a bit like interloping on a UKIP meeting. These ex-military bods are hardly my idea of a fun crowd, though I have to say the ordinary World War Two vets were nice enough.

Officer class – that’s a different kettle of fish. I’ve never met a British army officer who was even halfway related to a decent human being, and doubt I ever will. But then bear in mind I lived in Belfast at the heart of the troubles, so I know which innocent civilians they “disappeared” and which Loyalist paramilitaries they paid to commit whose murders.

As for the ones who still flout their rank decades after service – pathetic sad acts all. Seeing them in their camel coats and trilbies, like so many Flash Harry impersonators at a bizarre St. Trinian’s convention, it was hard to look at them for more than five seconds without sniggering.

Anyway, the routine was that some nice ladies offered you a cup of tea and a biscuit – or as many of the old boys preferred, a tot of Jameson’s or Teacher’s (you’ll see the significance of that later). Then around 10.45 the uniformed folk formed up, got shouted at by a sergeant major, raised their flags and marched across the road to the Cenotaph, while everyone else sort of ambled across and reassembled, old soldiers and special guests in front of the Cenotaph, wreath layers to one side, everyone else behind the wreath layers.

Then, at five to the hour, the Archdeacon warbled a few words, the Last Post was played and the maroon went bang. Two minutes later a bit more bugling, some more priestly warbles, then, one by one, the official wreath layers were announced, laid wreaths, bowed, and walked back. This was followed by a couple of minutes when any casual attendee could lay a tribute, then a vet read that “going down of the sun” thing, a final prayer, and a rush back across the road to more tea and biccies, this time in St Thomas’s church.

And at this point it got odder. The key point is that I was representing atheists, who chose Armistice Day over Remembrance Sunday because the religious element is not predominant. My companions – regular attendees – remarked that this year there seemed to be far more praying than usual. We wondered idly if the church had spotted the resurgence of Armistice Day as a stand alone ceremony, rather than a warm-up for Remembrance Sunday (something the ex-service groups have been pushing), was muscling in and we might have to keep an eye on it.

We then forgot all about it until the Archdeacon, who had been merrily socialising around various big-wigs, passed us on his way out, clapped me on the back and remarked loudly ‘I suppose that was all gobbledy-gook to you chaps, eh? Never mind, never mind’, before tripping off up the church aisle and out of the door, while we exchanged startled “what was that all about” glances with those around us.

Odd, very odd. I can only surmise he was filled by the spirit – lots of it, and it was a good 40% proof.

Which leaves two more interesting questions.

Is the established church now jumping on the resurgence of a national remembrance which it does not dominate? Or was its distinguished representative just so full of Dutch (or in this case Scotch) courage he thought it was Sunday, followed the wrong script, and none of the organisers felt brave enough to point it out?