Sunday, 28 April 2013

Technology and toilets

I called one of my closest friends this morning for a quick catch up. He answered the phone but immediately informed me that he couldn't talk as he was busy - he was sat on the toilet!

This got me thinking. Yes, thinking about things I wished I wasn't thinking about and thinking 'what was he doing answering the phone?!'. But it also got me thinking about technology and our instant communication culture.

Why did he feel the need to answer when the call could have waited? Why do we often feel pressured to answer emails almost before we have received them? Why do people feel the need to share their deepest feelings with the whole world through Twitter, Facebook and the like. It is too easy to blame technology when all those things require us to make a decision to take an action. But there is surely something about the instant nature of communication technology and the culture it helps to enable that drives our behaviour. We convince ourselves that we must respond straight away to any contact. Why? Because we can. This was not possible before when we used the phone after 6pm because it was cheaper. People sent each other letters, often in the second class post. And when people went travelling around Europe/the world- a friend told me that he did this recently- they used telegrams to reassure their parents back home that they were safe after three weeks of no contact!

I type this as a self-diagnosed iPhone, iPad and Twitter-addict and someone who have a thirst for constant news and sport updates. But I also say this as someone who as each year goes by realises that most things can wait, no-one should be so important that waiting a few minutes to speak to them won't be a problem and that we should we dictating our emails not allowing them to dictate to us. Even before coming to these conclusions, even my addiction to instant communication has not moved into the little boys' room!

New technology can be empowering but we should use it to make our lives easier and our communication quicker, not to be so intrusive as to follow us everywhere.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Manners at the dentist

I made that trip that fills most of us with dread today; I went to the dentist. This is my second visit in a week after a healthy (or unhealthy!) break we've been taking from each other.

I wanted to reflect briefly on the build up to today's reunion. In the hour before my appointment, I treated my teeth and gums to a thorough clean and floss. I'm not a dentist but I'm pretty sure that won't have been enough to take care of any problems he subsequently found. By the way, I need a crown!

So why did I do it? Guilt? Partly. But also a sense of politeness. Surely it is right that I present my mouth in the cleanest condition for the dentist who must see some pretty rotten things. That is just good manners. But it got me thinking. Where will this end?

Doing your hair before going to the hairdressers? Cleaning your car before its MOT? Hoovering the house before your cleaner arrives? Getting better before heading to the doctors? I hope you will agree, these are some of the great questions of our time!

In a week of unspeakable awfulness, especially in Boston, and in hearing that we lost one of the great campaigners and even better Mums in Anne Williams, writing these brief scratchings made me smile. I hope my dentist appreciate my smile too.

Monday, 15 April 2013

And the sun shines now

24 years ago today the lives of many changed forever. Ninety-six men, women and children went to a football match in Sheffield and did not return. Their deaths brought a darkness over their families, friends and many others in Merseyside and across the world. That darkness looked like it would never lift, as though it would hang over us all forever. But the families of the ninety-six never stopped fighting for justice, even though there must have been days they feared that a golden sun would never arrive. That changed this year. All changed. changed utterly.

There are so many incredible moments and images from this last year; seeing the smiling faces of the families as they left the safe space of Liverpool Cathedral on the day the world heard what they had always known about their loved ones; Everton's wonderful tribute at Goodison (hard to type that without spilling tears onto the keyboard); the humility of Margaret Aspinall as she collected an award for her courage and campaigning and dedicated it to everyone but her, and the quiet satisfaction of hearing people who doubted us for so long accept the truth in offices and cafes, pubs and on trains, in conversations up and down the country.

As has been said so many times this last year, the truth is now out. The time for justice has come. On that terrible day, the great BBC radio broadcaster, Peter Jones, tried to do the impossible and sum up the events he had witnessed. He ended his report with the words "and the sun shines now". For the first time since that day, he could be right.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Ladies first

My wife and I conducted an experiment this week. Not the most scientific one ever but nonetheless interesting.

We have recently noticed a disturbing trend when visiting restaurants. Whenever we go out for dinner and ask for the bill it is invariably given to me. When we leave a card on top of the bill, it is assumed it is my card and the pin machine is passed to me to complete the payment.

Now we know the clocks changed recently but we weren't aware we had gone back 50 years! For the record, my wife has a job, her own bank account, and oh yes a PhD! We are not sure if this trend is a gender thing or not but it is very strange.

We hit a new low last night. At the end of dinner we put the card on top of the bill and placed it right in front of my wife on the opposite side of the table from me to make it clear it was hers (the word "Mrs" which appears on the card also helps!). Yet, still the machine was given to me. We pointed out the error. My wife entered her PIN and completed the payment. The machine was then taken by the waiter and the transaction completed. He (btw this trend we have observed is not restricted to men) then handed the card back- yes you've guessed it- to me!

We have not completed our experiment yet- no conclusions to publish- but the results are emerging. We will keep you posted.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher

On my first birthday- 4th May 1979- Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. In the thirty-four years since, Britain has been shaped more by Mrs Thatcher than by anyone else in peacetime. For good or bad, Mrs Thatcher (she will always be 'Mrs' Thatcher for those of us who grew up in the '80s!) has dominated politics, public policy and public life.

There has been much written and said in the last day or so about Mrs Thatcher the leader, the woman, the bully of colleagues, the dominator of world leaders, the decimator of our industrial base or our mining communities, the Iron Lady. Whatever your view of her, you are likely to have had a view. She was a uniquely polarising politician or leader. There is very little sitting on the fence when it comes to Mrs T.

Before I offer my own reflections (minus the fence), I would like to mention- and it warrants no more than a mention- the vile behaviour we have seen by a small number who have 'celebrated' the death of an 87-year mother and grandmother. This behaviour is a stain on our country. It is disgusting. For those who have this hatred- and that is the only word that fits- it is worth remembering one thing; Mrs Thatcher was able to do what she did in government because she won three elections. She had a democratic mandate. She did not seize power in a military coup or have Jim Callaghan locked in the Tower. The people elected her. Celebrating another human being's death simply demeans those who do it. I will always defend their right to free speech but I also have the right to be appalled by their exercising of it.

So on to my reflections of Mrs Thatcher.

She did stuff. And not just easy stuff, like making speeches and having her picture taken (although she did plenty of that!) but she did important, difficult stuff. All politicians (or wannabe politicians like me!) say they want to 'make a difference'. No one could argue that Mrs Thatcher didn't do that. She made more of a difference than any single politician in our history. Our economy, our society, our political parties and our country have changed beyond recognition since she first walked into No 10. Trade union reform, re-establishing Britain's position in the world and pride in itself, reforming our economy, giving people the chance to break free of state control and own their own home, helping them buy shares and keep much more of the money they earned, totally reforming our failing state industry (her policy of privatisation was copied all over the world), gaining a huge rebate on Britain's contribution to the EU and shifting the argument about its future, retaking the Falkland Islands and helping end the Cold War which if not done could have led to the destruction of this world around us. This list only scratches the surface of her achievements. She has an 'ism' named after her and she built a political consensus which replaced that which followed the 1945 election and still lasts today. John Major, Tony Blair and David Cameron were elected Prime Minister because they positioned themselves as the heir to Thatcher. They owed their political success to the fact that they embraced and accepted her legacy.

She was a leader. Whether you agreed with her or not, you could not question her capacity to take a position- sometimes an unpopular position- and see it through. This courage is admirable in any leader but to see it in this leader who followed several Prime Ministers who had started off as radicals and then gradually retreated in the face of adversity is especially impressive. Mrs Thatcher stood her ground and delivered against the odds. She did not shirk the big calls. She had bottle. Never more so when she emerged from a near death experience in Brighton in 1984. Against advice, she said we would not be bowed. She led from the front, arriving on time and taking to the conference platform to deliver a speech that was every ounce about courage and leadership. It was business as usual. It was extraordinary.

She was respected around the world. The international reaction to Mrs Thatcher's death has been incredible. World leaders, former world leaders, opponents and supporters all have taken time out to pay tribute or reflect on her life and work. I have been reading newspapers from around the world over the last 48 hours and her death is huge news. Why? Because outside of her domestic impact she had huge impact on the world stage. Especially as a women- the most high profile, powerful woman of hers or frankly any other generation in memory. She was a major player in ending of the Cold War and the bringing together of the two greater superpowers (remember that word!). She was a colossal figure. Love or loathe her; from Russia to Rotterdam, you could not ignore her.

She was lucky in her enemies. She fought two of the most unelected Labour leaders of all time; a windbag and a donkey jacket. She was able to defeat the NUM as much because of the hideousness of Arthur Scargill than because of her own skill. The 'loony left' was so out there that it made her appear more reasonable. General Galtieri made the mistake of underestimating her. A mistake that cost our two countries many lives. Her political enemies so often destroyed themselves and played into her hands.

She was full of contrasts. This is a women with lots of grey areas; not always black and white. She was anti President Reagan's Star Wars in private but hugely supportive in public. Unionist in Ireland but signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, handing powers to Dublin. Hugely Euro-sceptic but a massive champion of the Single European Act and the enlargement of the Community. A women of principle (some would say dogma) but pragmatic to get stuff done. An advocate of 'sound money' but responsible for the biggest credit boom in history (until recently!). I spent the first 21 years of my life in Liverpool. I know first hand the damage that some of her policies did to my city. But she was the Prime Minister for the whole of the UK not one part of it and even though it hurt, it was necessary. She was what Britain needed. She was right for her time, not necesarily for all times. Too many previous governments had bottled the big choices because of the pain and political risk. Until her. By the way, the real and lasting damage to Liverpool and places like it were done by the Derek Hattons of this world not the Margaret Thatchers.

She will be remembered. This week, The New York Times ran the headline; 'Margaret Thatcher Dies; Remade Britain'. Britain was on its knees in 1979. The oft-quoted 'sick man of Europe'. But in truth the patient wasn't just sick but dying. Her prescription didn't always taste good but the patient needed it. Our recovery to full health, built on by governments since, was only possible because of her.

Her impact is and will continue to be massive. Her legacy- good and bad- will be with our country, our continent and our world for generations to come. This week, our great nation lost a great leader, our greatest in peacetime. She made a difference. She united. She divided. She won. She lost. She made big calls. She made mistakes. She remade Britain. She is gone now, but will never be forgotten.