Thursday 22 September
Consider the prospects of a child whose early life is as follows. He is put up for adoption shortly after birth. His adoptive parents are wealthy but not well-equipped for parenthood. The husband is a successful businessman and the wife, his third, is a socialite. Although intelligent, the young boy does not adjust well to school. He is expelled from one establishment, thrown out of a military academy and asked to leave college for missing classes and refusing to attend church. Relations with his adoptive parents become fraught and break down completely when he is in his late teens. In later life he said that they had wanted him to become a 'corporate thug’, a career that would have been anathema to him.
Given this background, which involved alienation, conflict and fractured relationships, it might be expected that the young man would have found it difficult to make his way in the world. Add the fact that he realised he was gay at the age of 12 – at a time when homophobia was widespread – and the scene might seem to be set for a sad, dysfunctional life. In fact, the person I am describing turned out to be one of America’s most successful playwrights, Edward Albee, who died last week. His best known work, 'Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, was turned into a highly successful film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
The turmoil of Albee’s early years was an important influence on his dramatic output. The frustration and anger which he must have experienced enabled him to portray powerful, often destructive, emotions that struck audiences as conveying something important about the human condition. If, as a child, he had been loved, nurtured and allowed to express his true self, we might have been deprived of his literary output.
Albee’s life shows up the shallow sentimentality of much of the currently fashionable discourse around child development. Policy documents talk endlessly about the importance of 'wellbeing’, which is a hopelessly vague notion designed to make professionals feel good about what they are doing. The concept does not begin to touch the reality of many children’s lives. What is needed is some appreciation of the role of adversity in human experience. Genuine 'wellbeing’ often involves overcoming disadvantage and is best understood as a by-product of striving and achievement, not as a conscious aim.
Friday 23 September
The proposal to increase the penalties for using a mobile phone while driving has been widely welcomed, following a number of horrific accidents attributed to this practice. Commentators have, however, raised two concerns. At present the law relates only to 'hand-held’ devices but there is research evidence which suggests that 'hands-free’ devices are equally dangerous: both involve distraction from the task of driving. The other concern relates to enforcement. Using phones in cars is so widespread that the police cannot hope to catch the majority of offenders.
There are many laws that are difficult to enforce effectively. 'Fly-tipping’, for example, which serves to deface the countryside, often escapes punishment. Likewise, gathering evidence about the behaviour of anti-social neighbours, strong enough to stand up in court, is far from easy. Again, recent reports suggest that the ban on dealing in products made from 'new’ ivory (less than 70 years old) is not always observed by operators in the antiques trade.
What are the consequences of having laws on the statute book that rarely lead to prosecution? People are likely to lose respect for the framework of law and those charged with maintaining it. They may not bother to report minor offences on the grounds that the police are under pressure and unable to follow up the complaint. And where prosecutions are pursued successfully, the culprit is likely to feel hard done by because many others, guilty of precisely the same offence, have escaped punishment.
When politicians boast about bringing in new laws in response to public concerns, they need to be questioned closely about the practicalities of enforcement. This is particularly important in relation to 'cyber-crime’, an expanding and rapidly changing area of criminality. As in so many aspects of politics, practical effectiveness is more important than reassuring words.
Saturday 24 September
Recently I have started to travel by public transport more frequently. I would like to claim that this is because of strongly-held environmental principles, but that would be untrue. My reasons are twofold. First, my enjoyment of driving has diminished and I now prefer to avoid city centre congestion and parking problems. Secondly, since the Scottish Government has generously provided me with a free bus pass, I feel I should make use of it, especially as I can also obtain reduced fares on local trains if I avoid peak travel times.
Watching the conduct of other passengers on buses and trains has proved fascinating. People reveal themselves through a variety of small actions: in the way they queue to get on or get off; in their territorial behaviour in relation to seats and luggage racks; in their desire to attract attention or merge into the background once on board; in their fixation with mobile phones and other electronic devices.
I have observed (and experienced) many examples of courteous and helpful attitudes among my fellow passengers, but also a few cases of self-absorbed and unreasonable behaviour. On one journey a middle-aged woman boarded a bus and proceeded to rummage, first in one bag, then in another, looking for her purse. She had been waiting at the stop but had clearly given no thought to the fact that she would be required to pay. Her search took some considerable time, during which the bus could not proceed. Despite the fact that his tight schedule may have been affected, the driver was remarkably patient. The woman herself showed no sign of embarrassment or apology, seeming to take it for granted that the driver and passengers would be content to wait at her convenience.
Perhaps, you might think, she suffered from some form of learning disability. What happened subsequently indicated that this was not the case. When she had at last paid her fare, she sat down behind me next to a man she clearly knew. In the course of their conversation, I learned that she was a businesswoman who owned several properties. She then launched into a litany of complaints about other people, some of whom were known to her companion. When the man ventured mild disagreement with one of her comments, she rounded on him, repeating: 'I am entitled to express my feelings’, several times. There was not the slightest glimmer of self-awareness about her own inconsiderate conduct.
Just occasionally, I wonder what other travellers make of me, assuming they bother to give me a second glance. I like to think they see me as a quiet, inoffensive old codger. But appearances can be deceptive. If I see that woman again, I could be transformed into something quite different.
Monday 26 September
The UK political scene doesn’t get any better, does it? The re-election of Jeremy Corbyn has pleased his many supporters but it leaves moderate Labour MPs with stark choices: seek an alternative career; play the long game, anticipating the party’s defeat at the next election, thereby re-opening the leadership issue; or join others of like mind in a breakaway move bound to provoke bitterness and accusations of disloyalty. Anyone who believes Mr Corbyn’s promise to 'wipe the slate clean’ after all the recent unpleasantness is likely to be disappointed.
Among Conservatives too there are all sorts of tensions. Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former director of communications, has revealed in a memoir that Theresa May gave very lukewarm support to the PM during the EU referendum. He claims that on no fewer than 13 occasions Mrs May turned down or ignored requests to become actively involved in the Remain campaign. The implication is that she was positioning herself for her successful leadership bid post-referendum. The vagueness over what Brexit will mean ensures that old enmities within the party continue to fester. Add to that the ill-judged decision to give the green light to more grammar schools and the scene is set for more internal squabbles.
In contrast to the Westminster parties, the SNP shows a remarkable degree of internal unity. This is because party discipline is strict, with anyone who reveals a tendency to deviate from the official line soon subject to pressure to conform. But the party shows no inclination to address the deep national divisiveness which its relentless pursuit of independence has produced. Instead of focusing on the issues that really matter to the majority of Scots (inequality, health, housing, local services), Ms Sturgeon prefers to continue with ineffective posturing on Brexit and a series of carefully choreographed (but meaningless) photo opportunities. And her deputy, John Swinney, is not helping by his hastily produced (but poorly thought through) initiatives on education. Someone in the Scottish Government really needs to take a hard look at the quality of recent policy documents: in too many cases, they are barely literate.
Public despair at the political landscape among the majority of the electorate, both north and south of the border, is growing. The increase in Labour and SNP membership gives a misleading impression of the overall picture. Most people are sick of the lot of them.