Waking before dawn I first reached for my phone to check on England’s latest reassuringly routine cricket thrashing by Australia, then groaned out of bed to descend and in the kitchen force tea and toast into unwelcoming guts. Twice since the last diary I have had long work days in London and they have already melded in my memory. A silent taxi ride to Temple Meads station in the dark. Nobody much around save a squad of glum Slavs at the bus stop on Church Road and oh dear me the cold, the cold, the bitter cold. I emerged from the cab into the cold and the blaring of gulls beneath the glowing uplit clocktower now showing something past six. A coffee for the journey from AMT and a cash withdrawal from the ATM against London’s relentless money-sucking. Temple Meads was built by Brunel as practice for Paddington, which waits at the other end of the line. Two great glorious transport cathedrals vastly exceeding in design their practical necessity, but there aren’t enough places to sit in either station and always there are too many of us climbing into these tin-can carriages and we resent each others’ legs and elbows and laptops and pastry-fattened bottoms.
To the West End for meetings, the second a late coffee at All Bar One on New Oxford Street with a twerp. His name was Phil; my heart sank as he approached in his finery. A twerp, a twonk, a twit in round red rimmed specs and a Shoreditch beard, short back and sides side-parted, drainpipe-legged suit. They all dress this wacky way and thus make themselves indistinguishable and interchangeable (‘Yes, we are all individuals!’). Phil’s accent was Lancastrian beneath the Mockney so I identified him as a contributor to the supposed Brain Drain that draws the nation’s ‘talent’ to the capital (or, as the Daily Mash perhaps more accurately put it: the ‘London twat drain’: PROVINCIAL cities have hailed the capital’s boom in knobhead jobs as the best thing that’s ever happened to them. With more than 80% of new jobs for complete tools being created in London, cities like Manchester and Newcastle are seeing record levels of twat migration). Phil was the new marketing manager at a large firm, so I expected his stupidity to be as profound as it was deep and wide, and so it proved. The larger the organisation, the dumber the management is a reliable rule. This is because the staff of big companies don’t actually do anything themselves but simply choose which agency to outsource to. Promotion is based on the Peter Principle but more importantly on the career usefulness of suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect: the confidence bred by a complete lack of awareness of one’s own incompetence. Phil had all that in spades.
Depressed from this meeting and with a few hours to kill I wandered hatless in plopping rain through Soho Square, at the entrance to which I was nudged into a giant puddle by a passing twonk. Distate blew into the poet’s heart like a damp gust, as Anthony Burgess put it in his novel about Shakespeare. Even China Town with its shops of baffling tat and unseemly rows of duck carcasses couldn’t cheer me, so I carried on southwards, thinking to catch the Tube from Charing Cross but first popping in to the National Gallery to restore my faith in humanity.
Idling gently about London is the most exhausting activity known to mankind and one needs constant calorific and liquid topping up, which is the source of the city’s money-sucking and bottom-fattening. A good place to flop and collect one’s personality is Room 34, which contains plush green leather seats as well as Stubbs’ Whistlejacket, Constable’s Hay Wain and Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed. Without wishing to overegg it, such is my pride and gratitude when I think that my country has put this building here in its heart and allowed anyone to come and view all this supreme art for free, that often I feel watery pinpricks behind the eyes (this actually helps when viewing the Turner, it being a cataract’s view of a train on Brunel’s Great Western Railway).
Room 34 also contains An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, and pondering this famous painting I heard myself say to myself: “The real power of this painting is to reveal the callous wickedness of the male sex compared to the innate goodness of the female, and all the horrors and terrors of man’s bleak history could have been avoided if only men were more like women.” “Yes,” I heard myself answer myself, “and if my auntie had balls she’d be my uncle. What rubbish you come out with when you’re hungry.” And laughing at both myself and myself I headed towards the café, to spend some more money on cake.
Speaking of Dunning-Kruger effects, Twitter has a particularly foul one which convinces panel show comedians that they are public intellectuals, superior in their integrity and insight to the corrupt political class. The phenomenon finds its apotheosis in this BBC news story. A panel-jockey with the admittedly rather good stage name of Rufus Hound and nearly a million Twitter followers has decided to save the NHS from the evil Tories by standing for election to the European Parliament (which has no control over the NHS) for the National Health Action Party (a new single issue party which will at best split the Labour vote and thus electorally assist the evil Tories. You can see how well he’s thought this through, can’t you?).
Hound says it’s time to ‘get serious’, so he has launched his serious political campaign with a blog post entitled: “David and Jeremy want your kids to die (unless you’re rich)”. I for one excuse the unusual crassness of that… what? joke?… on the grounds that (1) he probably forgot that David’s own son Ivan did actually die (and in circumstances which have sometimes prompted Cameron to say positive things about the NHS); and (2) it’s early days in Hound’s tricky transition from professional offensive gobshite to smooth-talking politician. What puzzles me is a neurological conundrum. Why do so many people who are sufficiently sharp to earn a living by their wits lack the facility to recognise the very first intellectual signpost that greets sixth-form firebrands upon entering adulthood? That is, the realisation that those who disagree with you about some political matter aren’t necessarily motivated by evil, but might simply think the end you both want is best achieved by a different means. It’s probably too late now to use Harold Pinter’s, but when Steve Coogan, Russell Brand, and Rufus Hound die they should consider bequeathing their brains to science so we can work out which bit was missing.
To a basement in Shoreditch – different day, same pre-dawn train – to hear self-proclaimed experts talk of emails and marketing. I feared the worst; what I got was a man called Tim. Tim was squat, simian, toddler-faced beneath a ginger beard and talked at a rattling rate and with undisguised glee at his own cynical knowledge of the dark arts of persuasion. Whenever I encounter marketing ‘expertise’ I have to filter out what I refer to as the ‘hipster bias’ – that is, the obsession that marketing types have with what kids are doing on social media (as if teenagers had any money to buy anything). I mentioned this and Tim identified it straight away as the ‘Soho Effect’, and he cackled ecstatically as he reeled off examples. He spoke warmly of Cialdini’s weapons of influence, of con-artists creating a pretence of authority (hang an out of order sign over a paying-in machine, stand next to it in a uniform and tell people to leave their cash deposits with you, and they all will) and of scarcity (hurry, only three of these chocolate teapots left!). He told us of the ‘extra sweet’ trick, whereby waiters can increase their tips by over 40% if they dish out a ‘bonus’ after-dinner mint ‘just for you’ with the bill.
Hopping about and rubbing his palms, Tim made no attempt to hide the approving gleam in his eye nor to halt the goblin grin that wanted to stretch across his face when he related these strategies for manipulation. God he was a villain, but he knew it and was comfortable with it, with no phoney self-justification required because, after all, it’s all just a game in the end. I liked him immensely, but then I also found Iago to be Shakespeare’s most likeable character.
Have you noticed that although men are generally still pretty smart in the professional environment, shoe-polishing seems to have become extinct? I’m as guilty as anyone, I hardly ever bother polishing my work shoes. On the train from Paddington, braindead and chilled, I gazed down the aisle at row after row of unpolished shoes. Pitch dark at 5.30 and there we all were, hurtling through Berkshire along Brunel’s lines in our overcrowded tin-can, with our electronic devices and our sniffles, our elbows and knees, and our secret cunning plans and our scuffed shoes. I emerged from Temple Meads into the bitter evening cold and blaring gulls, beneath the uplit clocktower again saying something past six, to hail a taxi. A silent ride home, past the stop where a squad of glum Slavs waited for the bus back to Church Road. Realising I’d forgotten about the morning’s cricket, I checked my phone. Yes, another reassuringly routine thrashing.
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