The BBC is very good at congratulating itself on its own achievements. No anniversary is allowed to pass without a well-trailed programme to mark the occasion. The latest example was a special edition of the Radio 4 Today programme to celebrate 60 years on the air. It was broadcast from the Wigmore Hall in London with an audience of suitably appreciative listeners.
John Humphrys, noted for his sharp interviewing style and reputation for roughing up guests on the programme, had an uncharacteristically matey exchange with Neil Kinnock, a former leader of the Labour party, and Michael Gove, currently secretary of state for the environment. The topic was changing styles of political interviewing, from deferential to inquisitorial.
Kinnock's contribution showed that he is still over-fond of long, baroque sentences, with many subordinate clauses and parentheses. To his credit, however, he usually succeeds in holding the structure together, unlike many present-day politicians who can only manage ungrammatical sound bites or (in the case of Boris Johnson) unintelligible harrumphs.
Gove provoked laughter from the audience (and caused offence to many listeners) when he said that being interviewed by Humphrys was rather like being invited into Harvey Weinstein's bedroom – there was no certainty of emerging with one's dignity intact. Outraged comments on social media led him to issue an apology. Kinnock, who had added to Gove's tastelessness, received only minor censure.
My favourite response to Humphrys's aggressive style came a few years ago from rather an unexpected source – Eric Pickles, then Conservative secretary of state for local government. After Pickles had been subject to premature interventions several times, he paused and said smoothly: 'I do apologise Mr Humphrys if my answers are interrupting the flow of your questions.' The chippy Welshman backed off.
I can foresee a time, in the not-too-distant future, when I will happily give up owning a car. This will not be because my insurance premium might become prohibitive as a result of the accumulation of penalty points. Nor will it be because of a principled stance on environmental issues. The only gesture I have made in that direction is to have a vehicle with such low emissions that I don't have to pay any road tax. The reason I would consider disposing of my car is quite simple: the experience of driving has become thoroughly unpleasant. Wherever possible, I avoid driving into city centres, with their attendant problems of parking and lane restrictions designed to trap the unwary.
On the few occasions I now have to negotiate the rush hour, I quickly conclude that I could not put up with it on a daily basis. An observer from another planet, witnessing the delays and long tailbacks, would certainly conclude that earth creatures must suffer from collective madness if they are prepared to tolerate such frustration and time-wasting. It is no wonder that, when people are given the opportunity to work at home for part of the week, they generally welcome it.
Even short, local journeys can be a source of irritation. It is advisable to avoid the school run, where parents stop in awkward places to deposit their children, regardless of the congestion they might be causing. Again, busy shopping centre car parks are often the site of minor incidents of road rage. Some drivers of 'look-at me' vehicles (large 4x4s with personalised number plates) seem to feel they have a right to occupy spaces reserved for the disabled. If challenged, they resort to Trump-like blustering – not a good look.
I realise, of course, that being without a car would have many disadvantages. It would reduce my freedom of movement and necessitate changes in my lifestyle. These would not be insuperable. I could order my shopping online and have it delivered. I could resolve to inform myself about bus routes and timetables and make more use of the free pass which the Scottish government has kindly provided. And, if required, I could afford a taxi from time to time, given the considerable saving I would make from not having to shell out for insurance and servicing.
A friend of mine recently had a minor accident and she was without personal transport while her vehicle was being repaired. I asked her how she was managing. She said that, while it was inconvenient, she also felt a sense of liberation, not having to worry about all the responsibilities associated with driving, not least trying to anticipate the alarming antics of other drivers.
A report on health at work suggests that up to 300,000 jobs are lost each year because of lack of sympathy by employers for people suffering from mental illness. This is despite the fact that mental health is now less of a taboo subject than it used to be. It may feature on television programmes and in general conversation, but in the workplace it is still generally regarded as a topic to be avoided. The report, 'Thriving at Work,' gives examples of people who, when they admitted to having problems, were treated unfairly or encouraged to look for other jobs. Some employers simply lack understanding of conditions such as depression, while others may be suspicious that staff who claim to be suffering from stress are simply using it as an excuse for days off.
'Thriving at Work' makes a number of recommendations for employers, designed to improve the situation. These include encouraging open conversations, making information and support accessible, creating a mental health at work plan, and trying to ensure that employees have a healthy work/life balance.
All this sounds commendable but a number of difficulties can be anticipated. Some employers might feel that they should not bear any responsibility for mental problems that have their origins outside the workplace (e.g. in complex family situations). Moreover, we know from the experience of trying to stop discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, disability and sexuality that it is one thing to produce a seemingly enlightened policy document, it is quite another to ensure that it is translated into good practice. Deep-seated ignorance and prejudice may persist despite a stated commitment to changing attitudes. Management staff may need training if they are to communicate effectively to ordinary employees. If policy documents are regarded simply as a means of allowing another 'politically correct' box to be ticked, nothing much is likely to change.
There is also a broader issue to be addressed. What is it about modern society that causes so many people to suffer from various manifestations of unhappiness? The pace of living? Transient relationships? Unreasonable expectations encouraged by advertising and the media? Financial insecurity? Dependence on drink or drugs? A deprived or abusive childhood? Set against all of these possible causes, a well-meaning policy document seems rather like applying a sticking plaster to a major haemorrhage. A sick society is bound to produce many casualties.