Monday, May 25, 2009

Layer 161 Human Groups

Yesterday's Monaco GP was won by Jensen Button driving a Brawn. Crazy names, crazy guys.

Actually I was pleased for Jensen. For several seasons now, for reasons I don't understand, and in spite of being very obviously a hugely talented guy, he's driven uncompetitive cars and has struggled to even finish races, let alone win them. Suddenly he's won 5 out of the 6 opening races this season, which is phenomenal by any standards. The real measure of his talent is his ability to avoid mistakes and to consistently out-perform his team mate who's driving identical machinery - who also happens to be a guy who drove for Ferrari for several seasons, so he's clearly no mug.

Jensen's a genuinely pleasant and engaging individual – intelligent, calm, reflective, modest and level-headed. Everything that any of us should aspire to be. Frustration and failure, through no fault of his own, have clearly had their benefits in terms of his spiritual and emotional intelligence.

The same positive things can be said about Martin Brundle, who commentates on the sport, and Lewis Hamilton, the current world champion. These are three guys from fairly modest backgrounds, by Monte Carlo standards, working and living in a world of rampant egos, who make you feel that Englishness is OK after all.

On the other hand there's Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosely – two very old and wizened guys who represent all that's nasty and unsympathetic about these strange islands. Two phenomenally rich guys who are ruthless, competitive, aggressive and highly devious. Laws unto themselves. Highly intelligent, and highly able - in terms of their ability to manage, manipulate and control people and money – but so what? You don't get to be in their positions with their sort of wealth unless you have those qualities and those sorts of egos. Not unless you've very lucky. They certainly don't seem to have any other talents or skills, other than those you need for leadership and domination in a highly competitive business environment, which is all the Grand Prix circus effectively is these days.


The guy who cuts my hair was in a chatty mood yesterday. I was his final client of the day, and his place was empty apart from the two of us. We had a coffee in the 'garden', in glorious late Spring sunshine, and he rambled on about his recent trip to Australia to see his son and daughter in law, and his grandson. He's very people oriented. He talks only about people. I've no idea what he made of Australia.

He lives in the northern outskirts of London, the Home Counties, and commutes to his business in his Porsche roadster - a present to himself for having survived parenthood and marriage. He's still having problems with the new woman in his life, and seems to have decided to call it a day. Or maybe she has. The final straw seems to have been when he failed to be sufficiently chatty with her sister and her sister's partner at a dinner party.

It probably wasn't what you'd call a match made in heaven, though, no matter how much he helped her with her horses, or she helped him with his business.


There are people who like to listen to other people's stories, and there are people who like to tell stories. There are people who like to do both, and there are people who like to do neither.

My barber reckons he's a people person. He's highly sensitive to other people, in the sense that he has a very sharp sensitivity to how people are reacting to him, and what impression he's making.

On the other hand, he's useless at tuning in to other people's internal moods and feelings, and in fact has no real interest in what other people are feeling – whether they're up, down or sideways. I guess to him that sort of empathy is a waste of time. The only thing that matters is whether or not people are responding positively to him, whether they like him, and whether they currently enjoy his company. He's a pleasant guy, but suffers from a strange mixture of insecurity and egocentricity.


As far as I'm aware, dinner parties are things that happen between consenting middle class people in the privacy of their own homes. They seem to involve mainly either young 'professionals' who've yet to start families, or older people whose kids are off their hands. Though there are some people who have kids and who seem to put them to bed before the guests arrive, or take them to the 'party' and hope they'll go to sleep in a carry basket or spare bed somewhere. Others just get baby sitters.

I'm not even sure that the more discerning elements of the middle classes call these things dinner parties any more. In order to establish that they are indeed the more discerning elements, and to differentiate themselves from the petite bourgeoisie, they seem more likely to say “Would you like to come to dinner?”, rather than, “We're having a dinner party”. Followed by, “Frederika and Justin, Lizzy and Edward are also coming”.

Dinner parties are like a kind of group sex, but without the sex. The intercourse consists of everybody looking at everybody else, sizing them up, deciding just when to pull out their party pieces, their best bits, their anecdotes, and their simply hilarious stories of their latest encounters with life and humanity, and then sticking them in. The verbal replaces the physical. Everyone eats too much, gets tipsy, and has a simply marvellous time. Or not.

The competition to establish who's the one with the highest status, the most wealthy, the best travelled, the greatest wit, etc, can be quite intense if you get a group of experienced party-goers together and in the right (or wrong) mood. Things can turn quite nasty between those who don't 'hit it off'.

And heaven help you if you don't actually take part in the fun and games. Nobody likes a guest who doesn't throw into the 'conversation' something entertaining or some sort of anecdote. Mind you, the best bits probably happen before the pudding arrives, by which time people have generally run out of steam and are content to sit back and discuss property prices, the credit crunch and holiday plans.


On the other hand, I've always enjoyed outdoor lunches where three or four generations get together round a big table on a sunny day. Such occasions are fairly infrequent in our climate, but when they do happen they can be brilliant. Before and after eating, the kids scamper around, after getting over their initial shyness, and entertain the adults with their natural sense of fun and excitement. The oldies can sit back and be waited upon by their more energetic offspring, who will hopefully wash up afterwards as well. The retired folk can enjoy hearing what the others have been doing with their lives, and also enjoy chatting to the grandchildren. Just sitting in the sun is in itself enjoyable, for most of us.

Most of all, since there is continuity and love in the lives of old friends and their relatives, there's unlikely to be any sense of insecurity and or competition between those present. No-one need say anything, or feel obliged to contribute anything. And if anyone does say anything untoward you can always tell them to piss off, since they're family.

Last week I had the pleasure of eating lunch whilst listening to a young man, the partner of a friend's daughter, talking about his interest in philosophy, which he studied as an undergraduate, and his thesis, which was on the I Ching. How brilliant is that! I've always, since my early twenties at any rate, been interested in The Book of Changes, and the wisdom it contains. Whether or not you use it as an aid to meditation and a means of reflection on life's problems, it's a book that embodies the essence of Taoist thinking and philosophy, which has always appealed to me.

As it happens, the young man in question is of Chinese (?) extraction, though he grew up in Richmond on Thames. (What a brilliant name that is – literally, Riche-Monde.) It's so rare that I meet young people who have any interest in philosophy or anything metaphysical, and also a delightful sense of humour. It's a real treat to spend time with such people. His partner, my friend's daughter, who's an artist and highly creative, and whom I've known since she was about 14, is similarly lovely – humorous, clever and modest, with a real sense of the absurd and a real love of living life very simply and unpretentiously.


Mind you, it's possible to overdo that kind of thing. I've heard of people who go not just en famille but as a tribe on holiday, with a huge group of friends and relatives who meet up year after year in the same spot. I know other people who cluster together en masse every Christmas with extended family and friends for nearly a week.

I can see how it must be wonderful, on the whole, for all of the generations; but for myself I think I'd suffer quite a lot if I was constantly feeling obliged to take part in things prearranged by others, instead of being able to do my own thing and go my own way. It's sometimes very difficult to live up to the expectations of others, and I need my quiet times, my retreats, my meditations, my reading time, my writing time, my music time and my selfishly alone time.

Getting together with a group once or twice a week for an al fresco lunch is probably about perfect for me.


Last night's party, for a friend's 50th birthday, was another matter entirely. It didn't help that it took place in the upstairs room of a pub in the demi-monde of East Dulwich. But when the pub charges £3.80 for a small bottle of Budvar, then that's just taking the piss.

The live band was frankly awful – untalented local musicians churning out hopeless middle of the road easy-listening (!) so-called rock. Pap. Badly judged pieces as well – for example playing “Dolphins” at a birthday bash: “This world may never change / The way it's been / And all the ways of war / Won't change it back again
I'm not one to tell / This world how to get along / I only know that peace will come / When all our hate is gone."

Rubbish. Angsty, simplistic nonsense. I bet dolphins hate that song.

"I've been searching / For the dolphins in the sea / And sometimes I wonder / Do you ever think of me?"

Rubbish. Happy Birthday.

I was hoping that in the break there would at least be some decent tracks played from CD, but not a chance. More dire background sludge. Surprising really, because my friend really has good taste in music. With so much brilliant music in the world, how come people still manage to choose endless garbage?

A roomful of middle-class South London 'professionals', mainly in their forties and fifties, was quite something as well. As dull a bunch of people as you could ever meet. All of them absolutely lovely people individually, of course – all of them doing worthwhile things in the public services and the arts, and so on. But nobody with an aura that spoke of individuality, originality, optimism, vitality or vibrancy. Apart from my friend, who 's lovely.

And I'm very sorry, but middle-class middle-aged South London professionals with middle class genes in their blood simply have no idea how to dance. Not unless they genuinely have soul, and have a feel for music and rhythm. They just shouldn't do it, except in the privacy of their own homes. Especially when the live band has no sense of rhythm and doesn't swing either.

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