Quote of The Week

"The rewards for being sane may not be very many, but knowing what's funny is one of them"

Kingsley Amis

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Bon Voyage

Long distance flying doesn’t get any better. Nobody really chooses to have a flying habit, any more than they choose to have cats or arthritis. It’s just one of those things that happens to us, part of the eternally restless pattern of modern life.

My occasional flights are nothing compared to those of a celebrity, an international businessman or a Secretary of State. But I suspect that such privileged passengers somehow avoid the long lines at check in and passport control, as well as the increasingly humiliating “security” procedures, and have an altogether less stressful travel experience.

At least the airlines have given up trying to pretend that flying is a pleasure. Forty years ago they tempted us with seductive advertisements promising delicious meals, luxurious seats and smiling flight attendants. Now all we get is a paper e-ticket with about five pages of warnings, admonitions and instructions that remind me of daily orders in the army – all threats and no promises.

A particularly nasty threat comes from one major European airline, which encourages passengers to choose their seat partners according to their profiles on Facebook or LinkedIn, thus eliminating just about the only pleasure of a long flight – a few hours of quiet and solitary time. Another promotes its service to France with the slogan “I Care” which, as my wife pointed out, is French for Icarus, the man who flew too close to the sun and crashed to earth. There’s not much thinking going on here, and perhaps none. I suspect that airlines have simply dismissed all their advertising and public relations people and replaced them with hard-hearted drill sergeants whose main job is to keep the paying customers in line and obedient to discipline.

Geography is the fundamental problem. Geologists tell us that a billion years ago Europe and America were a single land mass. You could go to the eastern end of Long Island and just step over into the west of England, thus saving an enormous amount of trouble and expense. But the appearance of some thousands of miles of ocean in between created a problem, at least until the invention of the luxury liner.

An aunt of mine had a job that involved a lot of international travel and, in those days, flights were enormously expensive, unreliable, and rather dangerous. Instead she floated around the world on a series of great ships – the Queen Mary, the Normandie, the Mauretania, although fortunately not the Titanic. Each new assignment began and ended with a week or two of vacation at sea when my aunt, who was unmarried, was likely to be one of the few unattached females on the ship. She loved her job.

We can stay at home of course, and we’ll have to stay home anyway when the jet fuel runs out. But much better would be to bring back those old luxury liners. There are hundreds of huge cruise ships drifting pointlessly around the world, and sinking from time to time. If they could be pressed into service as real passenger ships to transport the world’s restless millions it would slow us all down, help the environment, and make every trip truly a bon voyage.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Talk to the Animals

Among my many bad habits, all of which I blame on my parents, is the habit of talking to animals. I talk to our domestic cats all the time, and to any other cats I meet although this was always my mother’s definition of futility.

“You might as well talk to the cat,” she would say, so I did.

All through my childhood I talked to my various pets – mice, hamsters, goldfish – and to every dog I ever knew. Dogs are by far the most rewarding conversationalists. My father tried to cure me of the habit. “It’s anthropomorphism,” he said, which sent me running for the dictionary.

“Anthropomorphism: The ascription of human characteristics to what is not human.” It sounded perfectly reasonable to me, and my pet rat agreed. My parents assumed that I would grow out of it, but I haven’t. I talk to bees and birds and, when I was painting the porch the other day, I found myself apologizing to a spider I had disturbed. But that’s fine, it can be discounted as merely a mild eccentricity.

The slightly worrying thing is that I have started talking to machines. I thank the automatic gas pump and the ATM when they have performed their duties. My pocket voice recorder says “See you” when I shut it off, and its hard not to respond. I argue with the computer all the time, although the wretched thing always wins, and I have been known to address encouraging words to the vacuum cleaner and the food processor (“Go on, you can do it!”)

This suggests that I can no longer distinguish between interlocutors who are intelligent, like cats, and those that are mere objects, which in turn suggests the onset of true madness, The line has to be drawn somewhere.

Talking to machines, and having them talk back to us, is a phenomenon of the last century. My grandmother refused to use the telephone – she said it was unnatural to talk to a machine, and I think she had a point. But that attitude has gone the way of flowered hats and manual typewriters. Now I get the impression that people love their cell phones and Blackberries much more than the people they call on them. Indeed, there are often only machines at the other end – answering machines, automated information systems, and more computers. Perhaps eventually the machines will just cut out the middleman and talk between themselves. This would leave us with more time to talk to the animals, who are more like us. Even a goldfish has more personality than a Blackberry.

Here’s why I am in favor of anthropomorphism. It’s opposite is anthropocentrism – the belief that we human beings are Lords of Creation and we can treat other living creatures as we like. The Humane Society could give us a million horrible cases of man’s inhumanity to just about everything. If deep down we believe that only human beings matter, that only our species has thoughts and feelings, it’s a short step to believing that only our particular kind of human beings matter: and there in a nutshell you have the root of all the miseries and cruelties of the world.

Anthropomorphism is a step in the right direction. If we talk less to machines and more to cats and spiders, we may eventually learn how to talk to each other.

Copyright: David Bouchier

In Praise of Suburbia

The suburbs are America’s greatest gift to the human race. Already, they have changed the world. The suburbs of New York stretch north and south for seven hundred miles, from Massachusetts to Virginia, and sprawl far westwards into Connecticut and Pennsylvania. It’s only a matter of time before they meet up with the expanding suburbs of Chicago, Kansas City, and Phoenix, which in turn will melt into the agglomerations building eastwards from Los Angeles and Seattle, creating the first one hundred per cent suburban nation.

The early immigrants were astonished at the emptiness of America. When I first came here as a tourist in 1966, I was amazed by its fullness. Subdivisions of substantial houses, many of them with multiple garages and swimming pools, seemed to cover the entire landscape. These were nothing like the narrow, dark London suburbs of my childhood. American suburbs were expansive, generous, light and open. They were exactly the kind of suburbs that you would expect cowboys to build, once they quit the trail and settled down.

Another twenty years passed before I was able to enter this Promised Land myself. I moved here permanently from England in 1986, to teach and to write, and I was delighted to find myself living, with my wife Diane and our cat Bertram in deepest suburban Long Island. This is quintessential American suburbia. William Levitt build the first large-scale housing developments here in 1947, and building has never stopped since.

People back home asked me eagerly about my new life in America. They assumed that a “New York” mailing address meant that I lived in the fibrillating heart of Manhattan itself, and they were puzzled and disappointed when told them I lived on Long Island, and liked it. The emigrants and refugees of the world flock to New York City and Los Angeles and Miami, not to Hicksville or Smithtown. Most immigrants to Long Island arrived here accidentally, often because a wrong turn on the way to Greenwich Village carried them helplessly through the Midtown Tunnel, and they never found their way back.

As for me, I had met my destiny. We settled in, put our names on the mailbox, bought a lawn tractor, set up some deck furniture, and learned to commute. Within a matter of months I has become a trained and dedicated suburbanite, often to be seen pushing a three-wheeled trolley in supermarket, washing the car in the driveway, and even riding the law tractor in ever-decreasing circles on a lawn that seemed (to me) as big as a whole prairie.

This is probably the closest thing to a secular utopia that we will ever achieve. In suburbia, we are insulated from the hothouse of the city and the idiocy of rural life. In suburbia we can have privacy, that precious commodity destroyed by the intimacy of a village or the crowding of a city. We can choose exactly how many or how few people we want to interact with every day. For many suburbanites, the answer seems to be “none,” and that’s fine.

Suburbia is a green anteroom to heaven, and this benign state of limbo may be the goal to which all human life has tended, the evolutionary Ultima Thule – no surprises, and unlimited shopping opportunities. Properly understood and lived in, suburbs make the business of getting from birth to death virtually painless. Who could ask for anything more?

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Idea of the South

When we say “The South” we usually mean the group of red states below the Mason Dixon Line that share a particular history and culture. In Europe “The South” is also a term that carries more than its simple geographical meaning. In the European imagination “The South” is a fantasy land, rather like California or Florida or Hawaii in the American imagination, a place where you can escape and enjoy the good life. In the Northeastern United States we get a tantalizing hint of the The South every summer when the temperature rises, and the pools are opened. But it doesn’t last long, and it doesn’t bring with it the whole landscape and lifestyle that make up the year-round southern dream. Even as we stand sweating at the barbecue, we know what’s coming next.

The gravitational pull of The South is familiar to anyone who grew up in a gray, chilly northern climate. When I was a kid it was a ritual for our family to travel sixty miles to the south coast of England for our summer vacation, because the rain was a couple of degrees warmer there. Millions of optimists join the annual southward trek, some only as far as the south shore of Long Island, but others adventuring all the way to Costa Rica, or Greece, or Morocco, or the South of France. In a couple of weeks almost the whole population of Northern Europe, and quite a few Americans too will be on the move, all in the same direction.

The South is romantic territory – think of the music, the poetry, the love stories, and the sun-drenched movies that are set there. Picasso and Matisse were drawn by the southern light, composers like Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky offered lyrical tributes to Spain and Italy, Shakespeare put his doomed young lovers in Verona, not London, and of course just about every celebrity in the past two centuries has taken up residence in The South at one time or another. Right now you might encounter Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, or Johnny Depp for example. Even I have heard of them. The southern scenery is so familiar that we feel we have been there even if we haven’t: the cypresses and palms, lovely stone houses, the blue ocean and exotic flowers, the animated outdoor cafes and festivals. It’s all there, and it’s all real.

Yet the romance of The South goes only so far. Once we pass the Tropic of Cancer we arrive in the equatorial zone that contains some of the most turbulent and violent places in the world. Here the southward migration goes into reverse. Everyone who can is doing their best to move north in search of security and freedom, but that’s another story.

The regular inhabitants of The South see its golden reputation mainly as a way of attracting tourists, and just get on with their ordinary lives as if they were living in Kansas. But northerners can’t get enough of it, at least for a short time. They arrive at the beginning of summer full of joyful anticipation. But within a few days they begin complaining about the heat, the biting bugs, the prices, the food, and the fact that nothing happens quickly enough. Then they go home to tell their friends and neighbors what a splendid time they had down there, in The South. That’s the nature of paradise, I suppose. It’s a wonderful place to visit, but only the most decadent and self-indulgent people would want to actually live here.

Copyright: David Bouchier

From Not Quite a Stranger: Essays on Life in France (2016)

The Plastic Horse of Troy

Last time I visited the ruins of the fabled city of Troy, some forty years ago, a man in a faded robe intercepted me at the entrance and offered a genuine piece of the original wooden horse. Now I am a sucker for relics of all kinds – I treasure my lock of Patrick Stewart’s hair for example – but I was doubtful about this one. Not only did the wood look suspiciously like fragments of a modern packing case, but also I had my doubts about the very existence of the original wooden horse.

Consider the story line. It comes from Homer who is the ultimate unreliable witness and would never survive questioning by a Congressional committee. As Homer sketches the tale in The Iliad and The Odyssey the Greek warrior Achilles came to Troy to rescue the incomparably beautiful Helen, whom the wicked Trojans had kidnapped. After a siege of ten years, and the death of Achilles, the Greeks hit upon the clever wheeze of pretending to retreat, leaving behind a keepsake for the Trojans in the form of a large wooden horse. The Trojans were doubtful about this Greek gift but wheeled it into the city anyway. That night, soldiers hidden inside the horse crept out and opened the gates, and Troy was doomed.

Homer wrote this tale in about 900 BC, which was already hundreds of years after the events it purported to describe, which is roughly equivalent to a historian of today writing a history of the Wars of the Roses based on hearsay and without the benefit of The History Channel.

But it is a splendid story nevertheless and has survived three thousand years of skepticism from cynics like me. When I returned to Troy with my wife three weeks ago I was looking forward to both of us meeting the man selling genuine relics of the wooden horse. Relics never run out, that’s why they are miraculous. This time I was determined to buy one for my collection. But, alas, the imaginative salesman was gone, replaced by a tacky gift shop. And there, outside the gate of Troy, was a huge brand new shiny reproduction of the famous wooden horse. I don’t know how stupid the Trojans were, but this horse wouldn’t have deceived a five year old. There were windows all along the sides through which the Greek invaders would have been clearly visible.

But we hadn’t yet plumbed the depths of this particular fantasy. In the nearby Turkish town of Cannakale we found another Trojan horse on the harbor, a splendidly dramatic sculpture made (we were told) of fiberglass reinforced with steel. This horse was a replica of one used in the 2004 blockbuster movie “Troy” starring Brad Pitt as Achilles. I haven’t seen the movie, and hope not to, but the critics said that, in terms of historical accuracy, it made Homer’s epic poems look like scientific reports.

Right beside Hollywood’s steel and fiberglass wooden horse was a stall selling miniature plastic wooden horses. So here was a plastic representation of a replica of a movie representation of a highly unreliable three thousand year old story describing events that probably never happened. – a copy of a replica of an imitation of a symbol of a myth. I almost bought one of these miniature plastic Trojan horse, to assuage my disappointment at not getting a piece of the real thing. Then I remembered that there was no real thing: only the myth is real, except of course that it’s not.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that all of us – Homer, the archaeologists, the tourists, the cinema audiences, Mr. Brad Pitt, and possibly even bold Achilles himself – have been conned.

Copyright: David Bouchier

A Modest Proposal

It’s no secret that we have a problem with health care, in part because it costs twice as much as anywhere else in the world and in part because of the huge population of seventy million baby boomers who are just entering that stage of life when their bodies are like cars with 130,000 miles on them. They keep going, but they spend a lot of expensive time in the shop. The resulting repair bill could bankrupt the nation. You could say of health care what Mark Twain said about the weather: that everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Well, perhaps there is something we can so.

Browsing in the pharmacy, reflecting on how many self-medicating pills and self-administered tests you can buy, I was struck by a brilliant idea. If we seniors are such a big part of the problem, we can become a big part of the solution. We have time on our hands, most of us have a few brain cells still functioning, and we grew up at a time when people were taught to rely on themselves. So why not encourage every retired person to become his or her own physician? The training would not be too arduous – a little biology, a little physiology, a little pharmacology – and we’ve all spent so much time in doctor’s offices that we already know the drill for most basic medical procedures. It’s not that complicated, not like high-energy physics. Everyone agrees that it’s good for seniors to stay mentally active, and this would be more challenging and a lot more useful than golf.

After a short intensive course leading to the degree of Doctor of Individual Medicine or DIM seniors would be licensed to practice medicine (and “practice” of course would be the operative word) on themselves and anyone else of the same age or older, but not to charge any fees. Just imagine the benefits. Costs would plummet, malpractice suits would vanish because you would have to be more than usually stupid to sue yourself, there would be no more grumbling about physicians getting younger, and every new illness would be a learning opportunity, if you survived it. If your old physician didn’t seem to care enough, your new one certainly will.

Surgery would be a problem, of course, but a little friendly co-operation in retirement villages and senior centers would take care of that: you replace my hip and I’ll take a shot at your heart bypass. Seniors would not just talk about their surgeries but actively participate in them.

This idea may seem revolutionary, but it’s really nothing new. Before medicine became such an industry most people managed medical problems by themselves most of the time. In my family there was a big fat book called The Home Doctor that was considered more or less infallible. Most of The Home Doctor remedies, as far as I remember, involved resting in bed and taking hot drinks with lemon and sugar or honey and cinnamon. It was a lot better than hospital. My grandmother was the ultimate authority on all medical matters, even above The Home Doctor book. She had eight children, and her preferred remedy for everything was a large slug of brandy. She never saw a real doctor, and she lived to be a hundred.

I’m ready to start my medical training. I found an old mercury thermometer, a blood pressure gadget which I never use, a lot of aspirin, and some Band Aids. Once I get a white coat and stethoscope I’ll be good to go. I can hardly wait for the results of my first checkup.

(*With apologies to Jonathan Swift.)

Copyright: David Bouchier

Spring Song

Early on Saturday morning everything in our neighborhood was quiet. Nothing could be heard but the squirrels eating the last of the crocuses, and a bunch of grackles fighting over the bird feeder. Suddenly, a hellish noise broke out – a howling, roaring mechanical cacophony – and we knew that spring had really arrived. The recent rain had encouraged the grass to grow a fraction of an inch, activating the usual suburban hysteria. Our new neighbor had started up his powerful lawn mower to save himself and his family from the terrible fate that would inevitably befall them if the grass were allowed to appear above ground. In fact he used three different machines for a full hour, at a combined decibel volume way above the pain threshold, pretending to cut and trim a small yard of barely-alive grass that has scarcely thought of growing yet. Clouds of toxic fumes drifted across our property. I stayed indoors with wax earplugs stuffed into my ears

These are the sounds and smells of springtime on Long Island. Grass is generally regarded as a poisonous substance that must be cut down and hauled away as soon as it appears above ground. If we just let it grow we’d have suburban meadows instead of suburban lawns – meadows that could be habitats for wild life, and wild flowers, and silence. But nobody wants silence. Noise indicates activity, which is why it is so popular. Even more important, noise indicates masculinity – and those who want to be considered “real men” must make a lot of it.

Boys love noise. In childhood they always choose fireworks over embroidery and, when they are more or less grown up, many of them won’t tackle even the simplest job without starting up a very loud machine.* I’ve seen strong men use an earsplitting electric circular saw to cut a piece of wood 2″ by 1″, that could be cut quietly with a handsaw in ten seconds.

As spring turns into summer, the suburban power tool symphony inexorably increases in volume. Mowers are joined by leaf blowers and weed whackers, tillers and shredders, chainsaws, pool vacuums and drills, pneumatic hammers, and pressure washers. Long Island is the home of what I call “backhoe gardening.” This takes the last bit of physical effort out of yard work – unless you count the effort needed to press the starter button on the machine. Another of our neighbors actually has a miniature backhoe in his yard, which he uses to dig flowerbeds and pick up small rocks. No exertion is too trivial to be avoided. Men who must go out to work, and so leave their patch of suburbia unnaturally silent during the day can call in lawn services and contractors to keep up the decibel level.

This is a particularly revealing study in human nature because we all know that noise is bad and exercise is good. The National Institute of Health reports that ten million Americans now have hearing loss caused by too much noise. The same organization reminds us almost every week that obesity is our number one health risk and that physical exercise is the cure for it. Does anyone put the two things together? No!

We are doing our best to improve things, in a very small way. I went to the local Home Slavery Warehouse and came back with a hand mower – a neat little machine that I will have to push, and that makes no noise at all. The exercise will certainly be good for me, and I plan to test the new mower any day now, as soon as I’ve gathered enough energy to take it out of the box. I’m just waiting for the grass to grow.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Dear Reader

Am I the only person who has problems these days with writing letters, and especially with beginnings and endings? The rules used to be extremely clear: you started a letter with a salutation: “Dear Mr. Jones,” “Dear John,” “My Dear John,” or “Dearest Emily, don’t let John see this letter,” according to the degree of intimacy, and signed off with “Sincerely” or “Very truly yours,” or “With love.” That’s how I’ve been writing letters all my life, allowing for some small transatlantic variations, and I feel comfortable with it.

However, as you know, these old-fashioned rules have completely evaporated. The freewheeling world of electronic communications doesn’t seem to need any such formalities. Young people send e-mails and text messages with no salutations or closings at all, and no names. I suppose the recipients can figure out who sent them, but it seems rather abrupt, not to say impersonal.
I haven’t learned the new style yet. One of my correspondents complained “You write an e-mail as if it was a letter.” Well, as far as I’m concerned, it is.

But it’s true that the traditional forms do now seem a bit archaic. Consider the salutation “Dear” as in “Dear Mr. Jones.” It is oddly intimate, and the longer you think about it the stranger it seems. How can you address your accountant, for example, as “Dear” without seeming to make a veiled complaint about his fees. Just how dear to your heart are most of your correspondents? When it comes from a business it’s even stranger. Corporations often address me as if I was both a friend and a complete abstraction: “Dear Valued Client” (if I was so dear and so valued you’d think they could remember my name), or “Dear Frequent Flyer” as if I was a migrating bird. On the other hand informal salutations like “Hi” or Hello” seem too juvenile to use in writing to another adult.

Closing a letter or e-mail is even more difficult than opening it. Instead of the familiar phrases of formal correspondence we have a chaos of slipshod and meaningless exit lines: “Regards,” “Best wishes,” and sometimes simply “Best” (which leaves the recipient wondering, best what? I sometimes receive “Warm wishes,” presumably from Florida, “Cheers” and, most desperate of all “Have a nice Day.” As the late Peter Ustinov once said, when so addressed: “Thank you, but I have other plans.”

Lovers, if they write letters at all, are limited only by their imaginations and vocabularies. But the rest of us no longer know how to close a communication gracefully. It’s all too easy to strike a false note.

Foreign cultures are doubly treacherous. The British write “Love” to just about everybody of the opposite sex, and Americans may misunderstand this. An innocent greeting in French: “I would like to send you a kiss” may, colloquially, mean very much more.

I suppose that no letter writer in our busy times can be bothered with the subtle gradations between “Truly yours” and “Very truly yours.” Still less do we want to go back a century or more to the days when letters were typically signed: “I am, Sir, Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant,” even if there were any humble and obedient servants left to write them.

When I looked on the web, to see what instant up to date guidance is available to letter writers, I found that almost everything was geared to business letters and job applications. The few sites dedicated to personal letters were, I’m sorry to say, selling software containing ready-made letters and e-mails for all occasions. All you have to do is add the name. These are the modern descendants of those old-fashioned books of letter writing etiquette, that (for example) advised young unmarried ladies how they might properly correspond with young unmarried men, and vice versa. Those books don’t appear on the bestseller lists any more.

But sometimes I feel nostalgic for the stylish letters of the past. The charm of a good personal letter is that, like a dance, it combines intimacy with formality. It shows care and respect for the person on the receiving end. Totally informal communication is like yelling at someone across a street. It’s just tacky. Yours, most sincerely……

Copyright: David Bouchier

Gap Generation

“The denunciation of the young is a necessary part
of the hygiene of older people, and greatly
assists in the circulation of their blood.”

Logan Pearsall Smith

The New York Times reported on the sad fate of some teenagers in Greenwich, Connecticut. Their parking permits had been withdrawn because the school parking lots were full, so they had to take the yellow bus or abandon the idea of education altogether.

It was distressing to read about such suffering inflicted on innocent young people. One junior, featured in the story, would no longer be able to drive his mother’s Mercedes SUV to school, another had to leave her Lexus at home. It seems that seniors without top of the line cars suffer of loss of status in the high school world. “It’s what you drive that counts,” said one seventeen year old, already well educated for a life of pointless consumerism.

One of the most fundamental freedoms is freedom of movement. Young people were not granted this freedom in the past because they tend to move in the wrong direction, and much too fast. But such precautions are ancient history. The end of classes at our local high school produces a kind of demolition derby on the surrounding highways. Younger children, who are forced to travel on the bus, are met by their parents the end of the street with cars. The street is less than a quarter mile long. Do these kids ever make any physical effort, or suffer the slightest discomfort?

At times like this the generation gap seems like an unbridgeable chasm – so let’s make the most of it. Perhaps the only advantage to getting older is that we no longer have to pretend to be young at heart. Being old at heart is so much more fun. We can legitimately complain about the “younger generation,” and legitimately boast about how much harder life was for our own generation – which I will now proceed to do.

Getting to school is one of my most vivid childhood memories. My mind is virtually blank about what happened in school, but I remember those daily journeys.

I walked to my elementary school in London. My mother took me on the first day, when I was five, but I refused to go to school ever again unless she let me walk there by myself. This was a mistake. It was only about a mile and a half, but bigger kids lurked around every corner, for the sole purpose of beating up the smaller kids who had no mothers to protect them. I reckon that I was beaten up every day for about four years, until I qualified as a bigger kid and started to lurk in ambush myself. We all walked or bicycled to school every day in all kinds of weather. None of our parents had cars, and there were no school buses that stopped every twenty yards to save us from the danger of unaccustomed exercise.

When the time came to move on to high school I dropped to the bottom of the bullying hierarchy again, and also faced a much longer trip – almost five miles on a busy main road in London. Again, there was no bus so I made the trip on my bike five days a week, forty weeks a year, for six years. During that time I was knocked off my bike three times – twice by the backdraft of passing trucks and once by a speeding motorcycle.

I endured the mysterious meteorological phenomenon known to all cyclists – when you cycle east the wind blows west, and vice versa. It was often cold, it was nearly always raining, so we had to sit through the school day in wet clothes. Those daily journeys made their mark on me, both literally and psychologically. I still have the scars, chronic sinusitis and a deep conviction that education is not supposed to be fun. I like to think that my character was strengthened by this daily ordeal, but I can’t prove it. The teachers at our school weren’t much better off. The headmaster has an ancient car, but the rest walked or rode bicycles, just like the pupils. When we were wet, at least they were wet too.

Everyone of a certain age has memories like this – true or false – although nobody under the age of thirty will ever believe them. We older persons suffer from simple generational envy. We were born too early for the continuous party. Sex, drugs, and SUVs were not part of our curriculum. Instead we got history, Latin and pneumonia.

But mixed with envy is a sincere concern for the welfare of these young people. They are growing up without fresh air and exercise, and with very bad values. Let’s forget the buses and the parking permits and issue them all bicycles. It would be good for them, and enormously satisfying for us.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Never Trust the Experts

Remember the old Gershwin song?

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round;
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound…

“They” of course were the experts of their time, and experts never change. In 1492 Columbus had two sets of experts giving him contradictory advice. One faction – the religious conservatives – said his westward voyage would certainly take him off the edge of the earth because obviously it was flat. The other faction, the entrepreneurs led by Queen Isabella of Spain, said he would certainly discover a new westward route to the East Indies and become fabulously wealthy. Both predictions were completely wrong. He didn’t sail off the edge of the world, and he didn’t find the East Indies. Instead he found the Bahamas and, not recognizing their vacation potential, he died in poverty.

Columbus, like all of us, was a victim of the experts. Every piece of expert advice generates an equal and opposite piece of expert advice, and usually they’re both false. This seems to be as common in science as it is in religion or politics. Fortunately the experts on any subject usually divide into two camps, rather than ten or fifty. This makes our choices much easier, like chocolate or vanilla. The experts say that Iraq is a triumph or a disaster, the economy is booming or busting – there’s no need for us to worry about nuances of meaning, let alone evidence. Just choose your expert.

Columbus made the choice that most of us make. He chose the theory he liked best, the one that would lead to fabulous wealth. This is exactly my own philosophy, and I suspect that everyone else on the planet shares it. If they say that spinach is good for me I dismiss it on the grounds that the research is inadequate, and probably funded by
the Spinach Growers’ Council. If they say that red wine is good for me, I assume, without further investigation, that the research is one hundred percent reliable.
Experts are generically referred to as “they.” We’ve all wondered about this anonymous “they.” They seem to know everything. A Missouri man called Andrew Wilson has changed his name to “They” – perhaps in the hope of becoming omniscient, like them. Every one of the world’s four thousand plus religions has an authoritative explanation of the meaning of life, certified by the local experts. At best only one of them can be right, but “they” are all very sure of themselves.

We give them too much respect. We’ve all sat passively listening to doctors, car mechanics, lawyers or professors spouting palpable nonsense. Even if we think we know better we hesitate to contradict them. There’s always an uneasy feeling that “they” must have sources of knowledge hidden from us. But they don’t. Just about all the knowledge in the world is available to everybody, and it’s free. On at least two occasions I’ve been saved from dangerous reactions to medications because I checked them out on a website after the doctor had assured me they were safe. In the same simple way I’ve detected false diagnoses of car problems, and completely wrong legal advice.

We’re just too lazy to go and find the facts, so self-appointed experts can make a good living by pretending to have all the answers. A good example is that inescapable public television program the Antiques Road Show. Members of the public bring their treasures to be evaluated by the experts, and they always seem amazed by what the experts tell them. “I had no idea that the old hat stand was worth a quarter of a million dollars,” they say with a mixture of joy and embarrassment. But they could have found out everything they wanted to know by spending an hour in the library.

Experts are annoying enough, but people who have an unquestioning belief in them are even worse. All my life I’ve been harassed by good advice passed on secondhand from some nameless so-called expert reported in the newspaper or seen on TV. “They say you should eat this, or do that….” If you believe what you read in the newspapers or see on TV I have an elegant Victorian bridge in New York that I’d like to sell you.

There are real experts of course, people who win Nobel prizes and push back the boundaries of knowledge. But they’re not in the good advice business. Real experts talk to each other. The phony experts talk to the rest of us.

As Christopher Columbus discovered to his cost, it’s not healthy to believe everything we’re told. But at least he had the initiative to go out there and see for himself. We can’t have a democracy unless citizens think for themselves. At least, that’s what they say.

Copyright: David Bouchier