Dressing the part

August 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

Not quite a dawn raid, more an incessant thunderous knocking on the doors at 9am. It had been a late night after a long journey so I stumbled downstairs in my dressing gown, cursing the insistence of the local Jehovah Witness’ clan, to discover two burly police officers circling the house searching for a lawful means of entry. I invited them in, although loud they were relatively amiable and their English was better than my Dutch.

It wasn’t my first visit from the local police. A few weeks earlier, a Sunday afternoon, we were lazing in the back garden when a head appeared at the gate, followed by a white Lacrosse polo shirt and a pair of cargo shorts containing a tanned, fit, early middle aged man. I thought he’d got lost on the way to the tennis courts but no, he was a local police officer. We had a sociable half hour chat before he went on his way. I’m not sure what he told his colleagues back at the station about me but when the next two showed up they were side-armed, stab-vested and encased in various canisters of the pepper spray variety.

Sitting in the kitchen with the new arrivals they wanted to know if I knew the purpose of the visit. Yes, I did. I was a very minor witness in a criminal case stemming back several decades. The logistics of the case were complicated by the fact that myself, and some other witnesses lived on the opposite side of the world from where the case was being tried. The police officers informed me of the video conference arrangements being set up in a few days at the local court house, formally served me with a witness summons, and clanked their way out.

It had been a while since I had given evidence in court so I got up early. There was a moment of panic as I tried to remember if I still possessed a neck tie. I discovered a crumpled red one somewhere at the bottom of a drawer, goodness knows what I must have been doing with it the last time it had been utilized but it responded to a steam iron. I couldn’t remember much about court proceedings and giving evidence but I did recall the importance of appearance. When I first started to give evidence in court, a few decades ago, I didn’t think too much about my appearance (I have an embarrassing and hopefully false memory of having worn flairs on one occasion!) No, I wasn’t that concerned about how I looked. I was too preoccupied with the fact that the bench rarely took any notice of my reports and recommendations. There was a wise old local authority court officer in the South London court I frequented and I shared my insecurities with him. He didn’t say much but said not to worry about my reports, he’d read them and they were okay but “it might be an idea if you wore a tie, mate.” Given my timid rebellious spirit manifested itself primarily through superficial appearances it was with reluctance that I followed his advice. Oh, the slippery slope, within a couple of weeks I was polishing my shoes and wearing a jacket! Strangely my sell out was strongly correlated with the skyrocketing acceptance of my recommendations. Now, instead of basically ignoring me, magistrates were nodding sagely as they read my reports, smiling at me and largely endorsing my findings.

Experience is not however always culturally transferable. Dress codes in the Netherlands are very different. For a start people are very conformist. I sometimes feel that if I see one more 30-50 year old man, wearing pointed turd flicker shoes, drain pipe pastel chinos, and a slim fit cotton jacket, I’ll scream. And there seems to be a local bye-law requiring women to wear multi-coloured tulip skirts and leggings (why always legging?) when shopping. Paradoxically, the strict conformity of the everyday dress code is entirely undermined in formal settings. My village has an annual country and western festival the crowd of which is almost entirely interchangeable with the mourners at any local funeral I’ve attended. The dress at funerals is so casual that a local farmer barely bothers to scrape the cow shit off his Wellingtons before entering the church. The only black you see at funerals are Iron Maiden T-shirts and you see more of them there than you would see in the course of a long hot Finnish summer.

So I had some minor anxieties about my appearance when I arrived at the courthouse at 8:45. I needn’t have worried. I was greeted by a lanky bald bloke about my age, whose rumpled tan trousers and creased striped shirt (I hadn’t realised that polyester could fade and crease that badly) had stayed a considerable distance from any passing steam iron. It turned out he was an investigating judge who formally convened the video conference as part of a lawful court. I couldn’t help thinking: “I know the Dutch judicial system is based on the Napoleonic code but surely that shouldn’t mean the judges have to look like they are on the retreat from Moscow.” There were six people in court and I was the only one wearing a jacket and tie. Of the six only one was unequivocally in command, the judge. However he was dressed, he conducted proceeding with good grace and immense authority.

Half an hour later I was out in the street, enjoying the sunshine and contemplating dress sense and authority. We all know the sad seductiveness of superficiality. All the evidence suggests that we primarily judge people on how they look, and we do it quickly usually within seconds. Such judgements are profound and enduring in the way we ascribe trust and authority. One of Stanley Milgram’s central finding in Obedience to Authority was that the more someone looks like a scientist the more likely someone is to respond to their perceived authority. Okay, we may snigger at the Central Casting appearance of most American politicians but there are few bald congressmen. Even the comb-overs are masterful (yes, it’s you I’m talking about Joe Biden, though your speech at the DNC makes most things forgivable) Appearances perhaps should not matter but they are immensely influential. If you want to influence you have to, however reluctantly, accept that. Like most of us, I’m not awash with charisma or authoritative ease so I learnt to give myself an edge by dressing whatever part I was playing. I wasn’t selling out, I  just looked at the evidence and tried to get listened to.

However, not everybody needs to dress the part. Like the investigating judge there are a rare few who have such immense authority and such obvious competence that they transcend normal dress codes, although the context of the court room would have in itself reinforced his authority. Now, it is possible that the judge, knowing where the video link ended, got up that morning and thought “Strewth, I’d better dress down for this mob” so went and got changed in his garden shed rather than his walk-in wardrobe. Whatever his reasons, or lack of them, he completely commanded the courtroom. The court staff may have called him by his given name but there was no doubt who was in charge. He decided who spoke and when, and who sat in the court room, even if that overrode the wishes of the other video linked court.

Yes, there are people like the investigating judge and then there are the rest of us. Also at the far end of the continuum there are the Jeremy Corbyns of this world. I’m totally unqualified to judge someone else’s dress sense. I have after all almost confessed to perhaps, at one stage of my life, having worn flairs and even now I have a sorry addiction to ill-fitting cheap denim shirts (I cannot pass Primark without a compulsion to fork out ten quid on one) but even so Corbyn’s need to embrace grey and over-washed autumnal tones seems to almost scream “Dull, dull incompetence.”  I’m sure Corbyn and his followers believe he is being authentic and it’s Jeremy being Jeremy but for goodness sake man, accept that if you want people to listen to you, look at the evidence. However inane and superficial, people will first look at you, judge you and then decide whether to listen to you. I first started to wear a tie and jacket when I went to court not because I compromised or sold out but because I respected the people I represented. I wanted the court to hear their words and my interpretation of them. Those words and my reports were important, the way I dressed was entirely superficial, so I changed the way I dressed and became more likely to be listened to. Mr Corbyn, if you believe what you claim to, if you respect the people you aspire to represent, you have to recognise that there are few who ascribe to you the level of natural authority that I discovered in the investigating judge. So, give yourself an edge, get some dress sense. You may or may not need to change who you are and what you believe, but surely you must recognise that the way you look is entirely superficial and no great compromise to change. If you truly respect the people who most need a strong Labour Party and effective opposition, show that respect by ditching the superficial and start looking like someone worth listening to.

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Catching up with the neighbours.

August 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

We are all prone to be infected by it. The dream of leaving; the paradoxical paralysis of “Should I stay or should I go.” As Phillip Larkin put it:

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there…

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness… 

Even though my days of being stubbly with goodness are more reflective of a blunt bic rather than any sense of adventure there is still a seductiveness in just taking off. Not that I feel any grievance about where and how I live. In truth, my biggest complaint is that the Netherlands is primarily a coffee drinking nation. Perhaps for that reason a decent, basic tea bag is a miracle to discover even in the biggest supermarket. Sure, if you want camomile, fruits of the forest, or indeed any sort of obscure fruit (the kind that would have taken the late Anita Roddick months of exploration in the Amazonian forests) that disguises itself as tea, the shelves are groaning with them. But when it comes to Twinings Everyday or PG Tips the shelves are mute.

Writing that line evokes a childhood memory of visiting a zoo and watching chimpanzees have a tea party. Whatever happened to the old PG Tips ad where the Tips chimp family shared afternoon tea? Perhaps the RSPCA clamped down. Or more likely the fact that the chimps were both so like us and yet disconcertingly different that we became uncomfortable with their anthropomorphic antics. And they are very like us. Depending on the method of calculation, humans and chimps share between 96% and 99% of genes. But they are also very unlike us in, for example, their genetic diversity. Human beings are extraordinarily alike whereas chimpanzees have more genetic difference between two families living on opposite sides of a Congolese valley than exists across the whole human race.

Chimpanzees are, however, alike humans in another way. Unlike other non-human primates which rarely if ever interact with other troops of the same species, chimpanzees will on occasion interact with other troops. This may even result in exchanges of members although it can also result in genocide! So notwithstanding the shameful asymmetrical tea supplies, one of the good things about living where I do is how easy it is to jump in the car and just take off (stubbly with goodness) to visit the next tribe on the other side of the valley. And so it was a couple of weeks ago when we decided to take a drive through the Baltics and into Finland.

It had been a few years since I’d been through most of the countries we visited so it was nice to see old places and the ways they had changed over the years. Berlin is an old favourite and after visiting the profoundly moving Holocaust memorial on Cora-Berliner-Straße we noticed that a new US embassy had opened  opposite,  running through from the memorial to Pariser Platz. The embassy must occupy the most prestigious spot in Berlin. Also the most symbolic as it is in the corner of the previous Russian zone of East Berlin, overlooking the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. If there is one place in the world to remind Putin who “won” the cold war, the Americans chose the exact spot in Berlin. Of course just along the road from the US embassy, on Wilhelmstraße, lays the smaller, less impressive British embassy.

It’s not just Germany that has changed. The last time I went through Poland and the Baltics was the transition time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the joining by those nations of the European Union. Since 2004 (their accession to the EU) the modernisation and the investment in infrastructure has been phenomenal. They are still culturally recognisable as the same counties but almost unrecognisable in terms of freedom and affluence. Odd little artefacts underline the developments. Twenty year old border-posts, now rapidly running to decay, line the borders of the Baltic states. No doubt opened to mark their post-Soviet borders, they became anachronisms on becoming part of the Schengen agreement in 2007. With the exception of the UK, nowadays pretty much anywhere in the EU if you want to visit your neighbours you don’t worry about borders, you just get in your car and drive. As you travel, whatever you discover the one thing hard not to recognise is that (unlike Chimps) our neighbours are remarkable like us. Sure, there are national stereotypes (I can still see the embarrassment on the Finnish waitress’s face when she accidentally smiled at us!) but somehow cultural and linguistic differences seem to have done little to curb the enthusiasm for a collective vision of Europe.

And then there is the UK. A month after the UK voted for Brexit we drove through Europe and almost without exception when people heard us talking English they asked us about Brexit. The universal response was “Why?” Followed by “How could you be so stupid?” Everywhere there was genuine puzzlement. Many Europeans have the same gripes about bureaucratic bound Brussels and indeed concerns about immigration as the Brits but even in the face of that they are amazed that the UK could take such a blatantly short sighted, inward looking and patently self-destructive action as leaving the EU. On the ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm we shared an amiable dinner table with a Swedish woman and her sixteen year old grand-daughter who were coming back from a weekend shopping in Finland. Again their bemusement was marked, they just could not understand why the British, whose culture they admired and whose language they spoke perfectly, could be so blatantly stupid to believe they were better off going it alone in the world.

What marked these conversations for me was my acute sense of embarrassment. How do you explain to a Finn (perhaps one of the most nationalistic and fiercely independent countries in the world) that whereas they believe that their national self interest is best served through cooperation with Estonia et al, the Brits believe their superiority sets them apart and they will do better to go it alone. The Germans work with the French, the Dutch with the Belgians and so on. In contrast the Brits say “Bugger it, we are better off without them, we’re British.” I guess with Brexit the UK can move towards its national destiny of Morris Dancing and tax avoidance, leaving behind the EU as it gets on with the drudgery of building trans-continental motorways, making cars and wind turbines, and living in peace with each other. Even chimps know better. Like all primates, chimps instinctively know the value of forming alliances through the grooming process. Such behaviour moves family members up the hierarchy and promotes group cohesion thereby enhancing both productivity and safety, easing the way to visiting your neighbours on the other side of the valley without fear of genocide…or straight bananas.

So as Phillip Larkin suggests in the Poetry of Departures, it may seem exciting to just chuck it all in, damning the others and going it alone. But as Larkin concludes, it would be exhilarating

If it weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backward

Where Am I?

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