A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “November, 2012”

Free speech and the twitterati

Neil Pickford ponders more matters of moment

I’ve been brooding a lot recently – in fact I could have applied for a job as a Gordon Brown lookalike, so intense was this brooding.

Well, there’s only so much time you want to spend with your model railway when the Flying Scotsman keeping derailing at the same irregular bit of track and you’re not allowed to pick up even the lightest hammer to level it.  So I’ve been on the internet, following all aspects of the great Lord McAlpine false accusation story with great interest (I was getting very bored as well). And I was delighted when I learned of the panic invading the lives of those who repeated a libel against the man via the medium of Twitter.

Now I have to admit that I have an instinctive dislike of Twitter.  If I was out for a meal with someone who was in the habit of twitting their lives in frequent bursts of no more than 140 characters then they would probably find their last entry for that evening would be along the lines of: “Whoops, ‘Sad face’. Someone is about to grab my ………. ”

When I read about the first couple who decided to celebrate their wedding by each twitting: “Just got married to gorgeous Mr/Mrs Self-Absorbed Twit” while standing at the altar I was outraged. Even more so when I discovered the vicar had also been twitting: “Have just married Mr and Mrs Self-Absorbed Twit.”

I know the church has to reach out to the modern world but that struck me as going approximately 25 steps far too far.

So reading that various ‘celebrities’ such as the fatuous Sally Bercow or the not particularly amusing Alan Davies may actually be sued for breaking a very serious law of libel that the printed media has had to live with for centuries has given me a decided thrill. Their practice of twitting using their thumbs not their brains may have finally brought electronic communications in line with the old-fashioned printed media – and that’s not a bad thing.

You see, up until now, twittering has been regarded as just a sort of electronic form of chattering –something light hearted for here and now. However, that’s no longer true. Thanks to the modern cult of celebrity these gossiping individuals can actually boast more readers than the Hull Daily Mail, so if they accuse someone, without evidence, of performing a criminal act then they are making this allegation known to more people than the local newspaper would.

It’s also not as if this is just casual chiff-chaff that vanishes as soon as it’s uttered – the electronic record continues to exist and can be easily copied and passed on to thousands of other people.  But while unsubstantiated allegations of criminality would cost the HDM a considerable and very painful pile of money in damages Twits have got away with it – until now.

So, although I am, in general principle, totally in favour of free speech I also find that this grates with the fact that, for nearly 40 years I have worked within the restraints of the laws of libel, and I don’t see why venomous airheads or ‘trolls’ shouldn’t have to either, just because their medium is electronic rather than print (and digitally broadcast radio and TV are electronic these days as well, and newspapers are available on-line aren’t they, so where’s the dividing line?)

Not very libertarian of me I know but, as I mentioned above, I’ve been brooding a lot recently. And why have I been brooding?

Partly because in my own little corner of the virtual world: I have gathered all my 200+ defamation-free articles, and I haven’t got a single follower – not even my own mother.

Yes, alright, I admit it. I’m jealous too.


The cost of globalisation

Neil Pickford ponders great issues

One of the modern moral debates is over whether Globalisation is A Good Thing.  Many people are against it – so should I be?

It’s a fact of life that almost every consumer in this country currently contributes, through their democratic use of money, towards globalisation – i.e. by buying the cheapest we support a process whereby manufacturing floats around the world to wherever costs are lowest which, currently, is in China.

Size matters in globalisation: the more you make, the cheaper it is to produce each individual item, as Henry Ford demonstrated 100 years ago. Global managers look at producing items in quantities of millions, not thousands as they used to, and that means you’ve got to have a big market to sell them all – a market the size of the world.

To squeeze every last possible micro-penny profit out of each item the designs are simplified and standardised so that as many different markets as possible will find the product – and price – acceptable.  Millions of identical items are thus available for sale all around the world; the only difference being the language on the flat pack boxes they are transported in.

I had this demonstrated to me a few years ago when we discovered that USA-based relatives had an identical set of garden furniture to me – it even had the same wrongly-placed hole that made it an absolute pig to assemble properly. Thanks to globalisation consumers in Boston (Mass.), Beijing, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Bombay and Beverley were united in cursing as millions of fingers were injured during the struggle to assemble it.

This drive to reduce costs and maximise the number of units being constructed also leads to manufacturers combining their efforts, and this is particularly true in the world of motor cars which is, after all, where the process originally began. Again it was Ford in the forefront of the revolution (with General Motors close behind) as production of what we thought of as uniquely British cars such as the Capri, Cortina and Escort turned out to be shared with Germany and other countries.

I suffered from that co-production process as half the engine of my old Mark III Cortina used metric tools while the other half needed Imperial, which was a considerable pain when you were trying to replace a cylinder head gasket in the rain.

Which indirectly leads to my current beef with globalisation. Through the 1970s and 1980s I had an alternating succession of Ford and British Leyland cars and each manufacturer had their own view on the correct way to arrange the controls around the steering wheel – but at least they were consistent. Ford’s windscreen wiper controls were always on one side, Leyland’s the other and it took a few weeks for me to adjust before I stopped having to apologise for indicating right by putting my windscreen wipers on.

Well, I thought I’d got rid of that problem last year when my household eventually ended up with two cars from the same manufacturer (Citroen). I was confident I’d be able to control lights, wipers and indicators in both cars without any problems – but I was wrong. You see, to save money Citroen decided to share costs with Peugeot and Toyota to make the smaller of the two cars– and this partnership reckons the wiper stalk should operate from top to bottom (or the other way round – I can never remember).

Whatever it is, it’s different to the bigger one and so I continue to be confused.

So if you see me turning right while my windscreen wipers are thrashing away then don’t blame me.

Just take it as proof that globalisation is A Bad Thing.

The Industrial Revolution

Neil Pickford looks back

I made a promise in 2011. Today is the day to honour it.

Last week we had Guy Fawkes’ night – and as true loyal Britons we in Beverley celebrated on the 5th of November itself, not during the nearest weekend as some less patriotic towns may do.

The display this year was a triumph of choreographed explosions, flames and noise. It started gently with a mass of writhing, whirling constructs of white and finished with what looked like two giant jellyfish dangling over the Westwood and drifting gently sou’easterly. It was great – well worth all the money I dumped in a bucket, so thanks to the Lions again.

The one thing missing was any reminder of why we were doing this – the origins of what we now rather antiseptically call ‘Bonfire Night’ were completely buried under the traditions of lighting huge pyres, spending large sums on explosives and raising money for charity. Let me remind/inform you: we were celebrating when a plot by Roman Catholics to blow up the House of Lords in 1605 with all the royal, legal and political establishment of Great Britain inside it was thwarted. The aim had been to wipe out the political and religious leadership of our countries and forcibly return us to the Catholic form of Christianity after half a century of Protestantism.

However, the bomb was discovered and all the plotters, including former Beverley Grammar School pupil Thomas Percy, were either executed or died while being pursued.

It’s a less antagonistic relationship these days and to commemorate this I opened an appropriate bottle of wine on November 5th. This particular bottle had been a small ‘thank-you’ for we virgers’ efforts back in September, helping set up for the first Catholic mass led by a bishop in Beverley Minster since 1550. Then I suddenly remembered that, during last year’s Bonfire night blog, I had promised to explain why I thought creating the Church of England was an essential first step to the Industrial Revolution in Britain and thus the British Empire (which was, for 100 years, the largest and most powerful empire in human history). So (at last) here goes.

Basically, the core of new Anglicanism (unlike mediaeval Catholicism) was democratic, regarding all members of the congregation as important. Priests led services in the language of the people, not the Latin of scholars. Chairs were provided for people to sit and listen to sermons – and then debate them afterwards. Suddenly it was being demonstrated that even the ploughman in the field was sacred and had a right to question the pronouncements from on high. Oh, you still had kings and commoners, but kings were no longer Divine. The route to Heaven was through living a Good Life, not by paying for prayers.

From this grew a new British habit of group meetings for discussions and education in coffee houses and it was these social institutions which led to a new form of networking. Here, in informal surroundings, businessmen, entrepreneurs, inventors, visionaries and empire-builders could and did meet. These were fluid, creative melting pots where ideas could be floated, finance raised and projects initiated. It was in these socially-fluid institutions that mine-owners met men who produced steam-powered machines that could move coal and iron more effectively and cheaply than horses. It was in these coffee shops that men discussed laying railway lines to make the steam locomotives more efficient. Then we needed steel to make reliable railway lines, and coal to make the steam to drive the steelworks that made…. And so on.

Victorian Britain ruled the world as a result of a social structure that allowed men with money to meet men with ideas – an interplay that would have been impossible had not the seeds been sown by installing seats in the Church of England.

Well, that’s my theory. I hope you think the wait was worth it.

The other side of the curtain

Neil Pickford pushes through the veil

T’other day I went to a church service. Blimey!

Now that news shouldn’t really come as a surprise, because you know where I work. That’s right: five days a week I’m normally responsible for the routine running of a flipping big active church, so the fact that I’m involved with services isn’t really news. In fact there isn’t a service that goes on during my days of duty which doesn’t involve me in some way.

However, I suddenly realised that it was several years since I’d sat in Beverley Minster as an ordinary member of the congregation (or ‘civilian’ as I sometimes refer to them).  Now I’m temporarily ‘on the sick’ I thought I’d see what it was like.

It’s a fact of life that, once you’ve been involved on the inside of any activity then it’s virtually impossible to view that ‘thing’ in the same innocent light again. In addition, because we virgers are actively involved with the services then we have to concentrate on what is coming next – and when we are supposed to do whatever it is we are supposed to be doing. And all the time we are keeping an eye out for anything that might be about to go wrong.

In theatrical terms we’re constantly working ‘backstage’ and it’s just not possible for us to experience the service as if we were innocent members of the congregation ‘front of house’, so to speak.

So it was a very strange feeling to go into a church service as a civilian, seeing the altar set up by someone else and with absolutely nothing demanded of me. If the microphone cut out it wasn’t my problem. If the lights all fused it wasn’t my fault. If the preacher had the wrong reading then I’d never know.

And it was quite interesting.

I expect there are many readers who endured church services in their youth but have avoided them like the plague ever since – and I’m not surprised. My own spotty recollections of Sunday mornings at church merge into a general, uninvolving lump of boredom. All I ever wanted to do was get outside and play football. I couldn’t understand why adults voluntarily dressed up and put themselves through such tedium; and it was very unfair that they forced me to go through the same process.

And don’t get me started about services where they tried to ‘connect with the youth’. ‘Kumbaya’ strummed on an acoustic guitar was as repellent to me as at an embarrassing uncle dancing at a wedding. Basically, church sucked.

Has anything changed? Well, yes, although I suspect that if you’re not already familiar with the ritual of a communion service then there’s a lot that might appear mystifying.  You may also fear you’ll end up a bit like a virger, worrying about what you’re supposed to do next: stand up, sit down, face front etcetera, rather than experiencing what’s happening now. But if the service is done properly then you’re guided through the process and can instead concentrate on the now.

There’s a rhythm and flow in the formally- structured services, a logic to the sequences that actually makes sense when you pay attention. Oh, it’s easy for a poor preacher to derail the process but, in the hands of a competent leader I found myself being mentally recharged; I left with a stronger understanding of how to live less selfishly and I wasn’t bored at all. Quite a lot of good things, actually and, rather unexpectedly, I felt great.

Hmmm – I might have to try it again some time.

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