Home Thoughts From Abroad


I’ll return to putting the world/economy right soon, but currently I’m on a brief break in Brittany. I looked up at the splendid Town Hall in Auray today, and read the mission statement of the French republic – liberty, equality, fraternity. There are plenty of countries with a motto (thanks, Wikipedia) but I can’t think of another country which wears its heart so obviously on its corporate sleeve. Brazil maybe – though who could be against the ‘ordem e progresso’ motto on their flag. Comments and suggestions welcome, even of what country mission statements should be. I remember at the height of Israel’s military triumphs, someone suggested “Visit Israel, before Israel visits you”. Or, for the USA, “what a place this could be with gun control and a health service !”.

The importance of the French statement of ambitions was shown in the way that the Vichy government felt they had to replace it in 1940, choosing “work, family, homeland” instead. Read Petain’s reasons for the change to get an honest view into the crannies of the reactionary mind.

A thought – maybe the left in Britain have concentrated on equality, and the right given too much weight to liberty, when what we lack (banker bonuses, social security fraud) is fraternity – an idea that what makes for a good society is recognising we need to do the decent thing by the other guy. Perhaps that’s what people liked so much about the atmosphere of the Olympics. Or what the Big Society might be without the cuts.

The Dan

Having had to wrestle with difficult choices in my working life – what to recommend for Manchester’s post 16 system, how to organise the development of educational policy in the UK, what changes might release the potential of IT for adult learning – I now get asked a really difficult question by an American friend.  What are Steely Dan’s best three albums ?

This is not the sort of dilemma that should be sprung on a man without notice.  I might need post traumatic counselling.  I mean, obviously you include Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy but then … what … ?  I suggested Aja, because it is a more developed jazz-rock piece, but The Royal Scam is pretty wonderful (Haitian Divorce and all that).  Pretzel LogicKaty Lied ? Both better than almost anything else recorded as rock music in that period, but suffering by comparison.  A lovely comment from the anonymous American – that the Dan make better use of the spaces between the notes than anyone else.  Yep, and the notes are pretty good.  I’m went to Newcastle to see a Dan tribute band (Nearly Dan) a few years ago.  They were excellent – and the gig was acres and oceans better than some self-expressive indie band doing their own stuff. No-one complains that the LPO playing Mozart is derivative, do they ?

OK, some footnotes.  Firstly, the view that the seventies was full of empty melodic kitsch that had to be livened up by the punk explosion.  Well, I guess I’m showing my age, but I prefer the insights of Jackson Browne to John Lydon any day: just compare the lyrics, almost embarrassing.  Minority view, I know: popular culture is constantly in one of the stages of revolt into style (George Melly’s insight), but that doesn’t mean that the revolting bits are always superior to the styled stuff.  I just worry that the ideas that are delivered unchallenged in journalists’ copy/BBC2 documentaries by people who grew up in the 70s becomes the received historic view. Mercifully, the great Danny Baker is on my side on this (not that he knows).

Radical … whatever

Just a brief note today.  I enjoy Twitter – not so much sending tweets as getting them.  It’s often the best way to enjoy public events – whether the Eurovision song contest or the closing ceremony of the Olympics.  I’m not sure it can claim to create a sense of community, because people tend to choose tweeters of similar views/nationality/class for their daily input.  Nevertheless, it gets you into news events, and often alerts the world to abuses or idiocies.

And sometimes you get great wisdom in short packages.  Just yesterday someone retweeted a note from someone who calls himself Kurt Vonnegut (surely not a spirit message from the real one, who died in 2007) – “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance”.  This rang a bell with me after a life in public administration under the rule of people who want reform and restructuring.  Structural reform is easier than doing it right: think how easy it is for a politician to change the funding or governance systems of schools, rather than improve the teaching (which is the only proven way to raise standards).  Orwell was onto this – in the 1940s he was mocking people who were promising ‘radical transformation’.  The promise of change is so seductive – witness the 2008 Obama campaign (‘change you can believe in’) and Francois Hollande’s 2012 campaign – when I reckon what most people actually want is not restructuring, but the current system run better and more cheaply.  Which requires competence rather than vision. As one Victorian aristo said – “Reform ? Reform ? As if things aren’t bad enough already !”.