Monday, May 31, 2010

Layer 320 . . . More on IDS, Work, Pay and Pensions, David Laws, Magazines, Trivia, and Books of Your Own

As I was saying on Friday, Iain Duncan Smith is certainly talking the talk. On today's Andrew Marr programme he showed with his sweating upper lip and his lack of charisma why he's not natural party leadership material. BUT he explained very well why he thinks it's right to make the benefits system much easier to understand for claimants, and why it's right to make sure that nobody who takes a job should immediately lose their housing and other benefits.

It's the responsibility of the State, in other words, to make damned sure that nobody who takes a job should be worse off than they are unemployed - and in fact the system needs to ensure that people get to keep most of what they earn, on top of their existing benefits, for some time before benefits are gradually and incrementally withdrawn. By which time, we can expect that people will be settled into worthwhile jobs in which they also enjoy others' company and a place in the wider world - enjoy being part of a team, perhaps - even if their salary is pretty modest and their position fairly humble. Believe it or not, it IS possible to get job satisfaction in spite of being on low pay, or in a part-time job - providing you believe in the usefulness of what you're doing and you feel a valued member of a team.

Not that IDS said any of this job satisfaction and fulfillment stuff today, although he has done elsewhere. I hope he takes the trouble to emphasise these aspects of his strategy as time goes by.

No - he only had time to state the case for ensuring that work is not only worthwhile from a financial point of view, but also the need for government to ensure that people can clearly see that it will be worth taking on low-paid and/or part time work if it's available, without fearing immediate loss of benefits, without which they can't even keep a roof over their heads and put food on their table.

Obviously all of this ought to be seen as socialist policy - for the state to make sure that everyone is guaranteed the basics of life in return for a willingness to work -  but if IDS wants to claim it for Liberal and Progressive Conservatism, then that's OK with me, since New Labour couldn't see the need to offer it.


Dear, oh dear, David Laws. There was a bit of a hint in Layer 302, just after the general election, to keep an eye on him, but nobody could have predicted that he would be so quickly outed as . . . completely lacking in integrity and honesty. For a multi-millionaire like him to NOT own or rent his own flat in London is . . . incredible. Especially when he could have claimed for it on his MP's  expenses! Maybe he thought he was being kind and generous by handing over so much 'rent money' to the person that people will no doubt be calling his rent boy.


I hate magazines. I hate the paper they're printed on. I hate their advertisements. I hate the  pages of adverts for ludicrously expensive watches, clothes, food, cars, furniture, holidays, sunglasses, cameras, perfume, televisions, airlines, banks, booze, computers, jewellery and a thousand other things I'm not interested in and don't want to buy.

I hate their stupid articles. I hate the restaurant reviews, the lifestyle features, the celebrity fawning and pimping, the diets, the recipes, the trivia . . .

In last week's Guardian Weekend magazine, which I rarely read, I noticed in Oliver Burkeman's "Mind & Relationships" column ( "This column will change your life") his thoughts on why trivia is important . . .

In yesterday's magazine his column was headed

Make a book of your own

Don't know where to store all those random bits of information you scribble on Post-its, and then lose?

I highlight books compulsively, bookmark websites, tear out magazine articles and scribble quotes on Post-its, with the vague idea they'll be inspiring or useful at some future point. Then I reshelve the books, forget about the websites and mislay the Post-its.

I suspect I'm not alone. We tend to lack good systems for storing the kind of information that can't be assigned an immediate, specific purpose, even though it may be the most important information. The gas bill gets paid, then filed, while the life-transforming philosophical insight gets jotted on an envelope and promptly lost.

What to do with this category of information is one challenge of the modern field of "personal knowledge management", but 18th- and 19th-century literate types had a pretty good answer: the commonplace book. John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Coleridge and Jonathan Swift all kept such books, copying down proverbs, poems and other wisdom they encountered while reading. So did many women, often excluded from public discourse at the time. By appropriating others' nuggets, writes cultural historian Robert Darnton, "you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality".

In a recent Columbia University lecture, the writer Steven Johnson drew parallels between commonplace books and the web: blogging, Twitter and social bookmarking sites such as StumbleUpon are often held to have sparked a renaissance of the form. (His focus is the way some iPad apps obstruct this, by forbidding highlighting.) As with commonplace books, this linking and sharing creates not just a hodgepodge, but something coherent and original: "When text is free to combine in new, surprising ways, new forms of value are created… We have all the tools at our disposal to create commonplace books that would astound Locke and Jefferson."

Yet the reason I've started keeping a real, pen-and-paper commonplace book is that the social power of the web, awesome though it is, doesn't confer the same benefits. There's something important about exploring ideas privately as well as collectively.

The real challenge of handling stray nuggets of information isn't how to collect and organise them. Commonplacing is about internalising that information: engaging deeply, processing it so that it becomes part of you. Writing by hand seems to help; so does not instantly sharing everything. If the web is a wild, furiously creative ecosystem – a rainforest, say – the commonplace book is a private vegetable patch. Different things grow best in each.


Countdown to the World Cup
Already I'm irritated by people driving around with an England flag or two (Cross of St George) flapping from little posts mounted on their car and van windows. What is point?

We have to face facts. The team that will represent England is crap. By the eighth minute in today's game against Japan they were a goal to nil down, thanks to being unable to defend a simple corner. They were still one nil down by half time, and hadn't even looked like scoring. Lampard missed another penalty kick, thanks to completely scuffing it.

By the end of the game they still hadn't scored, in spite of much huffing and puffing by the likes of Bent, Gerard and Heskey, all of whom were crap. Thank goodness they will now be forced to play Rooney partnered by Crouch in S. Africa.

Unfortunately for Japan, their excellent team scored two more goals - unluckily in their own net.

By coincidence there was a screening of The Last Samurai on TV last night. In it the Tom Cruise character is humiliated when he's first introduced to sword-fighting, but by the end of the film he's slashing, chopping and stabbing with the best of them.

The idea seems to be that with genuine effort, experience and application anyone can become good at performing skills and arts that demand high levels of fitness, balance, coordination, anticipation and flair. The Japanese football team seem to have taken hold of this attitude. Shame about the English.


The UK's contestant (who came last) in yesterday's Eurovision Song Contest apparently says it's been the best experience of his life.

That's the spirit. Next stop Johannesburg.

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