Straw and a bluebell by Dylan
I've been troubled this last week, my thoughts not connecting in the usual way; loose strands I want to spin together, but can't quite find the means. They hint at issues we'd rather forget, or at least not examine too closely, preferring cliche to analysis, and if we must have latter, then let it be at a remove.
You get what you pay for, began a conversation I overheard in the gym. Aye, came the reply, but you have to pay for what you get. I was on the rowing machine and couldn't see who was talking. The woman who'd spoken first and sounded younger than I think she must have been, said, they'll pay us back when they're settled, to which her other half grunted, we'll be dead by then. I rowed faster to my target of 2,000 meters - by the time I reached it, they'd gone.
On Tuesday it was reported that the UK had one trillion pounds of debt - more than sixteen thousand for every person. And that's evidently not a true reflection, because it omits the mortgages and credit cards and pension black holes and corporate debts and unfunded future commitments that we're all going to pay for - and some, like my children's generation, a lot more than others.
That evening I’m discussing family finances with my parents in law. I say the idea of my boys leaving university owing forty thousand pounds appals me. Partly I fear for their future, but I’m horrified too at the message it sends about debt as a norm.
On Wednesday Bill Gates says he doesn't pay enough tax. I'm sceptical of this mantra, wondering why those who chant it don't simply write a check to their local hospital. To be fair, Mr Gates has endowed thirty billion dollars to eradicate polio and other killer diseases. Back at the gym I watch the British TV awards on the overhead screens, uneasy with the juxtaposition of jungle celebrities followed by a short clip reminding us that one million children die every year of malaria.
I come home and they're discussing the Euro-crisis on Newsnight. I find myself nodding and tutting as if I understood the complexities of global capital, and think suddenly of Dylan who after listening to Just William had earlier asked me what lugubrious meant, and the meaning of utter vacancy. Jeremy Paxman probes an expert on why the Chinese won't bail us out. She replies: because their average incomes are one tenth of ours - maybe they think we could cut back.
The comment brought back memories. When I was twenty years old I took what I regard as the only significant debt of my life - I borrowed three hundred pounds from my mother to pay the deposit on a flat. It was equivalent to a month's wages after outgoings and I repaid it in six weeks, preferring to eat soup and rice than purchase non-essentials while in hock. No doubt there was some deeper psychology going on there - but the diet did me no harm and in many ways it has shaped my 'appetite' since.
Next day, there's an article in the Times confirming we remain the world's sixth largest economy. I wonder why we need any debt, why no politician is suggesting we remove it over, say, a fifteen-year period. In the same edition there are objections to the proposed benefit cuts, to any prospect of scaling back on the NHS, to the unfairness of this or that, the impact on the arts. Overseas aid is a suggested target for reductions.
The philosopher Karl Popper described democracy as the least worst of all the alternatives. He lamented its inefficiency, its disproportionate focus on the immediate and selfish desires of an electorate - it's inability, as it were, to ever eat rice and soup. Every politician I've met has confirmed my sense that he's correct in this.
Back in my study, I'm confronted by my own contradictions. There’s a letter from our MP responding to my dismay over the increase in student fees. Next to it is another from Medecine Sans Frontier that I’m yet to open – I’m no Bill Gates but my donations are paltry compared to my needs and income.
Is it possible to be too concerned I wonder? Someone told me recently that his partner is so worried about the state of the world that she can lose sight of more immediate ills. It damages those she’s closest too, he said.
Friday, driving into North Wales there are two buzzards, circling above a wood by the Berwyn Mountains. In the mode of that dreadful pseudo-science they call bio-mimicry, I philosophise on nature not doing debt – though it can show altruism, even collective responsibility. Then I notice one bird has a carcass in its talons; the second mobs it and a fight ensues - I’m reminded that nature doesn’t do ethics or charity either.
The rain picks up and the buzzards are lost behind a swish of my wipers. I press on, the thoughts still swirling, unsure if the clouds are lifting or descending. At the farm in Llangynog there are straws in the wind.