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Sunday 13 October 2013

Making The Most of Middle Age

Today is my birthday. I am forty six. Saying that out loud makes me laugh since it is so patently ridiculous, yet my mother and other apparently sane people insist it is true. Given that my age appears to be a fact of life, I gave some thought to middle age - the good stuff and how to make the most of it.

Every time is like the first time

I have read many books in my lifetime and the wonderful thing about reaching middle-age is that I can't remember the plot of any of them. Every time really is like the first time. Until you get maybe about half way through and then people's names and behavioural tics start to feel uncomfortably familiar. Same with sex.

Room for improvement

Frank Sinatra once said, "I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning that's as good as they're going to feel all day." When you're middle aged the same applies to the way you look. You may wake each morning with a face like a dirt bike track, churned up and splattered with sun spots, but at least you have the satisfaction of knowing you can't look any worse. (Except for some days, when you do.)

Bucket lists

In middle-age your bucket list becomes shorter and more achievable. One of my new bucket list items is to ride on a Stannah Stairlift. There is every chance that this will come about quite naturally and with no effort at all on my part. What could be better? James McAvoy, in his shirt sleeves, making me an omelette, that's what. Probably have to put my back into that one a bit.

Modern life

There has never been a better time to be middle-aged. Beds are comfier, slippers are cosier, tights have in-built temperature controls also, LAKELAND!  Rock concerts are another example. So easy to use! This year I attended my first ever stadium gig. I was expecting a Woodstock vibe with naked nymphs getting high and writhing in mud. Thankfully, I couldn't have been more wrong. It was mostly cheery middle-aged people eating hot dogs and drinking coke like an open-air Costco.

Financial security

If you were lucky enough, or daft enough, to buy a house 15 or 20 years ago you will have sufficient equity that when it all goes tits up and it's Weimar Republic time, you'll be able to buy all the wheelbarrows you need to take your useless paper money to the bank. Trebles all round!

Losing your inhibitions

Dance like no-one's watching. Love like you'll never be hurt. Sing like no-one is listening. Drink like you don't loathe yourself.  Eat a Scotch egg in the street like a pure animal.   Middle age is very liberating I find, you lose your inhibitions. (Not to be confused with becoming disinhibited, which is all of the above but in your nightie singing, " Roll Out The Barrel". Been doing a bit of that lately, too.)

You get the gist. Now, brace yourselves, because here comes the soppy bit.

Growing older is often seen as going into a decline. I prefer to think of it as the ascent of a strange, wild, hill. An exhausting, exhilarating climb, sometimes striding out, sometimes scrabbling for a foothold, occasionally locking eyes with a stranger who may stay with you for a while. If you're very lucky, holding the hand of a small person till they're big enough to strike out on their own.

So, I've been climbing for a while, my breathing is a little ragged and I've been knocked about a bit, but the view is all my own and it makes my heart glad.

(PS Earlier birthday blogs can be found here, here and here. It's basically more of the same.)

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Democracy Max

The Electoral Reform Society Scotland (ERS Scotland) has just published a report, “Democracy Max: an Inquiry into the Future of Scottish Democracy”. The report follows a year long process of discussion and deliberation which set out to explore a vision for a good Scottish democracy. It started with the premise that politics is too important to be left to the politicians.  I was involved with the second phase of the process as a participant in the round table discussions which explored issues in a little more depth, chairing the third of the round tables and co-authoring that section of the report.

This short post does not set out the findings of the report in any detail, nor does it represent the views of ERS Scotland. These are simply personal observations on some of the broad themes.

Increasingly, it seems, people are not interested in politics. And if they are not interested in politics per se, they are even less interested in its dullard, techy, room-mate political process.

Try and run a vox pop on deliberative democratic techniques, or the case for a written constitution, and you’d have a hard job keeping the participants awake long enough to get a response. In that context ERS Scotland’s Democracy Max initiative could be seen as an anoraky exercise in constitutional navel gazing.

I disagree. Democracy Max asks a question of fundamental principle; not what party of government do we want, or even what powers we want, but what kind of democracy do we want?

And people do care about that.

People may not be interested in political process but they are interested in power. They know when they are denied it. They know when decisions are taken, not in their interests, but in the interests of powerful lobby groups, or political parties themselves. They know when politicians act in bad faith.

The clich├ęs of, “They’re all as bad each other”, or “They’re all in it for themselves”, may do our parliamentarians a disservice, but those sentiments exist because of a real and deep dissatisfaction with modern politics. It cannot be wished away as ignorance, or railing against authority for its own sake. Traditional representative democracy is faced with falling confidence, and without the confidence of the people it will fail.

In Scotland the forthcoming independence referendum is an opportunity to rethink how our democracy works. To re-imagine how power is exercised. Sadly to date the debate has ploughed a depressingly narrow furrow, with parties bickering over where to draw the line on powers and economic shroud waving.

Is this really the best we can do? Can we not take this opportunity to introduce some more radical thought to the question of how political power could be shared and exercised more equitably and with greater integrity? Are we really saying political evolution stops here, with the shuffling of powers from one established political class to another? If so, how sad, how complacent and how limited is our vision of the future, and how little faith we must have in ourselves.

No one is suggesting that we take a hatchet to the central concept of parliamentary democracy. There is much in the political life of Scotland and the UK to applaud and to be thankful for, but we have been depressingly reluctant to open our eyes and minds that little bit wider. 

There is ample precedent internationally if we care to look and to listen: citizen’s assemblies where members are selected by lot; further devolution of power to local communities who control the budget for their public services; a genuine belief in the concept of virtuous leadership - these are not ridiculous notions. They exist and work in the real, wider world

Certainly alternative models are not perfect. Neither are they a replacement for electoral politics. But they can complement, scrutinise and “round out” representative democracy, making it more diverse, more open and less susceptible to atrophy and self-interest. Any alternative systems will have drawbacks and problems and there will certainly be failures along the way. But frankly traditional policy making has produced some catastrophically awful results, yet we still keep putting our money in the slot and taking the gamble.

The Democracy max report does not pretend to offer fully thought out solutions to all of democracy’s woes. Neither should it. Far too much government is about a handful of interested, well- meaning people with a bit of expertise shutting themselves in a room and doing the policy making equivalent of the Disney Fairy Godmother’s “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo”. Many proposals in the report are embryonic and seek simply to open up a dialogue. Democracy Max is just one way of encouraging our political elites to demonstrate their willingness to talk, to listen and to live up to the rhetoric of a desire to introduce a new kind of politics.

Change is needed, but it will not happen of its own accord. I hope this inquiry will be an important early step in challenging the political system to deliver on the high hopes that voters still hold for democracy in Scotland.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Procrastination Is the Name of the Game

I like my deadlines like I like my men, urgent but not too serious.

In fact I approach deadlines in pretty much the same way I approach men I fancy - ignore them and hope for a miracle.

Well, not ignore them so much as put on an elaborate display of ignoring them, while watching their every move in my compact mirror and having anxiety dreams about them.

Some people have a very straightforward relationship with deadlines. "Aha!" they cry, training their spyglass on the event horizon, "A deadline! My favourite! I shall pack my spotted handkerchief this very day and make steady progress, little and often, until I reach my goal, in good time, with some cheese, bread and spreadsheets left over to share with the mouse I befriended on my journey."

That is not me. I am a thrill seeker and procrastination is how I get my rush. Not buying milk when you're down to the last quarter of the carton, not opening that HMRC package that says "OPEN IMMEDIATELY!",  not wiping the steam off the bus window till you're almost past your stop.

I am tingling at the very thought of the myriad ways in which the daily grind can be avoided, subverted or toyed with like, er, like, chewing gum that you can't get rid of because there's no bin and you threw away the wrapper so you can't spit it into that, you idiot. Where were we? Oh yes!

Procrastination! You sexy, maddening, Mata-Hari of time management! If procrastination is the thief of time, I like to imagine it as a dashing cat-burglar, negotiating the dangerous moonlit rooftops between Netflix and a thousand words on genetic engineering with aplomb. In reality, of course, it is a shifty-eyed nyaff, stuffing your potential down its jogging bottoms.

I know this to be true. I know procrastination is responsible for any number of humiliating failures; birthday gifts of wooden spoons wrapped in newspaper, laddered tights held together with nail varnish, unravelling hems, rambling speeches, blotted copybooks - need I go on?

And yet, I still lock horns with it, still hang onto the messed-up buzz it gives me. Let's face it, a cliff-hanger's not a cliff-hanger if you stop the coach and horses half a mile from the cliff edge, is it? Far better to walk nonchalantly backwards towards the precipice, whistling "Dixie" and teeter on the edge. I am the Harold Lloyd of deadlines, defying gravity, doing my best work when hanging by a thread.

Sometimes a bit of jeopardy is just what we need when a task requires super-human effort. Which makes me think I'd make a pretty great super-hero.

 "Shelagh! I love you! But we only have fourteen hours to save the earth!"

"Put the kettle on, Toots. Plenty of time."

(So, if I'd started a little earlier maybe we wouldn't have lost Alaska. Let's write that up as a learning point.)

Maybe procrastination is bad, maybe I should embrace deadlines, not circle them warily like a neanderthal circling fire. But maybe it's just the way I am.

Sometimes it's fun to defy nightfall and dance in the dusk till the last embers of light are gone. Unless you get eaten by the wolves.