Dabbler Diary: Phlegm, Flimflam, Slam

There’s a new self-help book out, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. The nub of the thesis appears to be as follows:

…saying positive affirmations to yourself in the mirror can make you feel worse and … visualizing the future can make you less likely to achieve it. And so what I wanted to do in this book was to explore what I ended up calling ‘the negative path to happiness,’ which involves instead turning toward uncertainty and insecurity, even pessimism, to try to find a different way that might be more durable and successful.

Isn’t a good part of this to be found in what is more traditionally known as British phlegmatism? I don’t know about happiness but it’s certainly had some success as an approach to the world, not least in winning a very large empire, two world wars, etc, etc. Most recently it did the trick with organizing an Olympic games. It’s not so much a ‘can’t-do’ attitude – more a ‘can-do but it will probably be rubbish so let’s not get too excited and actually prepare for the worst’ attitude.


I think this ingrained habit of thought is why most people are finding British politics so satisfying at the moment (the 15% turnout in the recent elections surely represented a clear demand for no change). Today’s politicians are all much-of-a-muchness with very little to offer; perhaps, at best, one might hope for a reasonably competent level of managerial oversight. This is as it should be. The brief periods of insane optimism many of us experienced under mid-period Thatcher and early-period Blair are almost forgotten. It’s now back to what we like best: a good, solid stretch of negativity and low expectations.


Outside a small circle of evangelical optimists, we all knew that messing around with Bible translations would come to an unsatisfactory end. The other day, an imperishable phrase from Ecclesiastes made a welcome appearance on the blog: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ (how’s that for the power of negative thought?). Out of curiosity I wondered what modern translations made of the same passage. Here’s the most egregious:

“Absolutely pointless!” says the spokesman. “Absolutely pointless! Everything is pointless.”

Sounds like a British civil servant in the early hours of a Euro-conference.


Thought-provoking question from the eldest (7) this week: how did people work before computers? I was initially stumped, being not quite old enough to have experienced that era and struggling to imagine what it would have been like. Was it a question of spending ages writing at a desk? Or was it a matter of continuously wandering round having conversations with people? One thing I do recall about my early working life is talking for long periods on the phone (hair dryer handset attached to a curly cable) – strangely, more so than nowadays even though I’m almost never without my mobile.

As well as work being different, a great many memoirs suggest that people did a lot less of it before things became so technological, at least in most white-collar jobs. There was certainly more time to go down the pub. Various biographies featuring Fleet Street provide corroboration, as do recollections like this amusing one of life as an ad man in the ’80s.


I’m about halfway through Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie’s memoir of being a hunted man. It’s fascinating, not least because of the insight one gets into how Special Branch works.

As for the author, he comes across as in possession of reasonable principles and a great deal of courage and fortitude. Those critics who blamed him for bringing the rage of Muslim fanatics onto himself look even worse now – post-9/11 – than they did at the time. And the decision not to prosecute Kalim Siddiqui – a rabble-rousing, glove puppet of the Ayatollahs, referred to by Rushdie throughout as a ‘garden gnome’ – really feels as if it’s from another time. I doubt he’d get away with it now, especially if he were on twitter (this may be for the better or it may be for the worse).

Anyhow, despite Minerva’s owl having flapped off a while ago now, some people never learn. I shall leave you with a clip of a sound pasting given to an incorrigibly thick-skulled pol on this topic. I recall it being something of an internet sensation so you may have already seen it. But it’s worth catching again, involving as it does some Hitch/Bozzer tag-team slams – a dream duo for full-on intellectual wrestling.

By the way, I never got through Midnight’s Children, despite trying twice.

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.
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13 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary: Phlegm, Flimflam, Slam

  1. jgslang@gmail.com'
    November 23, 2012 at 12:59

    Work prior to machines? I bought my first (seven grand! but then that included the external tape backup and add-on 20MB – that’s MB, boys and girls – hard disk) in 1984. My first move was to take the 44,000 5×3 file cards I had accumulated (dictionaries of quotations) and toss them in a convenient skip. A tramp meandered by. Reached in. Brandished a card. Spat noisesomely thereupon. Tossed it back in. ‘Famous Last Word’? ‘Cynical Quotation’? I shall never know. What I do know is that if the slang dict. had been done on file cards there would have been around one million. And that is only slang: I have been into the room in which the OED still holds the first edition’s slips. How on earth did they manage? They did, but even on my far smaller scale it is a nightmare that I am infinitely relieved to have been spared.

    • Gaw
      November 25, 2012 at 09:19

      But did this new technology give you more time for leisure or longer working hours? It seems strange how making things easier has resulted in more work, for example in journalism, advertising, banking. I suspect the effect is indirect, in that technology increases competition within an industry as well as the hand of management and it’s these forces that bear down on employees. As a non-employee, perhaps you could be the ‘control’?

  2. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    November 23, 2012 at 18:10

    My first office job was computerless, though all the important people had computers. Endless photocopying and triplicate filing. It’s very hard now to recall the world before email. I do remember that at first there was just one email address for the whole company and everyone was in a panic about who would be allowed to use it, and how to stop them saying things on email that would get the company sued.

  3. tobyash@hotmail.com'
    November 23, 2012 at 19:37

    Computers, internet, tablets, mobile phones…all these incredible things that have revolutionised the workplace. Yet they haven’t made a jot of difference to economic growth. Except of course in the countries that actually manufacture all these devices we consume.
    I think in pre-computer offices there had to be endless photocopying and triplicate filing to keep everyone busy. Now those ‘inefficient activities’ have been replaced with surreptitious facebooking, twittering etc and the sending of long, tedious, unnecessary emails to everyone in the company as a way of avoiding actually making a decision and ensuring that when they are made, everyone has been ‘kept in the loop’ and thus can share the blame when it all goes pear shaped.

    • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
      November 25, 2012 at 12:14

      The “endless photocopying” period before computers was quite short. Until the early seventies, most offices had wet photocopiers that produced heavy, blurry photocopies at considerable cost that couldn’t be easily mailed . It was used quite selectively and nobody just ran off a dozen copies to keep everyone in the loop.

      No photocopiers, faxes, couriers, affordable long-distance telephoning, computers or e-mail, and, of course, no Internet. As with our pre-historic ancestors, the business culture was much more oral. Imagine, they would go out for a three hour liquid lunch and call it a business meeting. Barbaric.

  4. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    John Halliwell
    November 23, 2012 at 20:32

    I remember when caller recognition was introduced on the internal phone system. Handset pick-up immediately reduced by 50%. On the first day Bob B phoned me from the warehouse, unaware of the introduction of such dazzling technology, his name boldly announced on my 3″ x 1″ screen: “Hello, Bob, what can I do you for?” Bob, as quick as a flash: “Blimey, John, is my hair straight?”

  5. kathywllms1@gmail.com'
    November 24, 2012 at 14:28

    Photocopying? None of that technological wizardry when I started work as a lowly ‘secretary’. Carbon sheets fitted between four or five sheets of paper and squeezed onto the typewriter roller. If you made a mistake you laboriously tippexed out the offence on each separate piece of paper. It taught you to be careful, at least.

    When I moved on to higher things, there was one photocopier for the organisation. All documents for photocopying had to be accompanied by a chitty signed by your immediate manager and your departmental head. You could wait days for the chitty to come back signed. In desperation, I took to forging the signatures.

    Of course, you could always go for the banda machine option, even though the purple ink got all over your fingers.

    • Gaw
      November 25, 2012 at 09:22

      I suppose secretarial work was a craft trade – however, it doesn’t seem to attract the nostalgia of others now disappeared. Computers wiped out a whole class of women workers. Where are they now, I wonder?

  6. zmkc@ymail.com'
    November 24, 2012 at 20:59

    Nobody ever got through Midnight’s Children did they? I have never met anyone who did, despite initially feeling an ‘insane optimism’ about the enterprise, similar to the one you refer to re Blair and Thatcher. Something happens about halfway through the book that makes enthusiasm evaporate; it seems to be an almost universal reaction ( although presumably the Booker judges didn’t experience it?)

    • Gaw
      November 25, 2012 at 09:23

      I know. I blame my own shortcomings rather than the book. How can so many Booker judges be wrong?

    • tobyash@hotmail.com'
      November 25, 2012 at 16:22

      I’ve read it! Ner ner ner ner ner!

      • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
        November 25, 2012 at 20:58

        So have I. A great novel.

  7. zmkc@ymail.com'
    November 25, 2012 at 20:55

    Go Toby (thinks: is he boasting or complaining?)

Comments are closed.