Pardon Me, Sir – On the Limits of Manners in London

You’ll excuse me, I’m sure, for my lack of blog posts. I have been busy preparing for, and then finally settling in to, University life in the great city of London. London is, of course, notorious for the hustle and bustle of its somewhat grubby – yet somehow attractive – streets. The question is then, I suppose, how is a Home Counties boy settling in to a place where street manners are somewhat non-existent? Or if they do exist, I am yet to fully experience them.

The Brits, I am told by American friends, are considered to be perhaps a bit too polite for their own good. I too, on reflection, would say that manners is most certainly our niche. In my hometown of High Wycombe, and many other places around the UK, you can hardly go anywhere without having a door held open for you, or being on the receiving end of a quick and light-hearted apology as you accidently knock into somebody on the street. Being from Buckinghamshire, a place where “excuse me” seems to be every babies first words, I have found London quite the culture shock in this sense. I wouldn’t be so harsh to say that manners are not appreciated here, but they are certainly not expected.

My journey to rudeness began inside my local Primark, where I turned a corner and almost bumped into one passer-by. “I’m sorry” I said with a smile, expecting the young chap to return the sentiment. However, he simply glanced at me, and continued with his trek through the store. At the time, I didn’t think too much of it. But now I have been in London for a few weeks, I have come to learn that this is quite the norm. London being London, and busy streets being busy streets, taking the time to apologise for harmless occurrences such as the one above is simply not expected of you. They say that ignorance is bliss, and my inner Buckinghamshire trooper of manners refuses to let the ritual of apology go without a fight.

I hope, dear reader, that you will not misinterpret this as a slur on London nor its noble people. There is, as far as I can tell, a reasonable explanation for this. It could be argued that London is simply so busy that if everybody stopped to apologise, hold open doors, say hello or wait for a fellow pedestrian, nobody would get anything done. It is, in essence, a cultural and environmental phenomena. Living in London, as well as mixing more with others from all over the country and the world, has truly made me realise that every area of the UK is different in some small way. I have come to the conclusion that people from the Home Counties are quite keen on their manners, and this is one of the very few things I will not apologise for!

However, this is simply no excuse for some behaviours I have seen during my time here. London is the only place I have witnessed an old lady, walking stick in hand, almost toppled over by a group of men in suits during rush hour. Partaking in such an occurrence in Buckinghamshire would probably have you named and shamed in the Bucks Free Press. But perhaps rudest of all is the Lewisham air itself. The borough of Lewisham has some of the most polluted air in London, and I dare to even consider what is happening to my insides as I breath in the ghastly poison during rush hour. I now picture myself as a fermented egg (though I am sure that is somewhat of an exaggeration).

Some things are still off bounds in London, I am pleased to say. I am yet to see, hear or smell anybody pass wind in a public place (although I am finding the small possibility that Londoners don’t find farts funny somewhat disturbing). Surprisingly, I have even seen the odd person yell “thank you!” to the bus driver whilst exiting from the busses side. There is something sorrowful about laying eyes upon a London bus driver – they so rarely experience that infamous “thank you, driver” mantra from exiting passengers; a social ritual that,for some biased reason, I have come to solely associate with High Wycombe.

All in all, London is an amazing city, and it is most certainly an experience living here. But I am feeling rather nostalgic about the small town manners of my hometown, something that I have failed to appreciate (or even recognise) until London became my official residency. I have a few years left until I return home for good, but until that day, I’ll fly the flag of the swan high… And I’ll keep on apologising for anything and everything.

How can the Conservative Party win over the Youth?

Firstly, I feel obliged to point out that I actually didn’t vote for the Conservatives in the 2017 General Election. Instead I voted for the Labour Party, despite being fairly torn towards the party leader Jeremy Corbyn for various reasons (none of which I will cover in this blog post). This seems to be a consistent theme for my fellow millennials. Under Corbyn’s spell, the turnout for 18-24 years old surged from 43% in 2015 to 66.4% in 2017, with 63% of those young people voting for Labour (source: Sky News). So, given the statistics, it was no surprise that Tory MP Damian Green recently said that the Conservative Party must “change hard” to win over the youth. No matter how old (or young) you are, or where your political allegiances lie, it is simply impossible to deny that the Conservative Party are failing to win over young voters, especially when it comes to getting those voters to turn up to the ballot box in the first place. We must now ask ourselves, with Damian Green’s comments in mind, what must the Conservatives do to inspire the youth?

To begin with, we must contemplate whether the problem is actually the Tories, or is it perhaps the millennials themselves? Yes… We need to talk about my fellow millennials, and I’m no longer afraid to say it. (although, as an anti-Tory, I will rush to say that I think the problem lies with both the Tories and the youth). The “problem”, so to speak, with the millennials is clearly reflected on many of our university campuses and social media platforms. A huge proportion of the politically engaged youth, for various reasons, seem to have an obsession with playing the victim. “Safe space policies” are ripe on our university campuses, and identity politics is seemingly more popular than ever. However, I feel as though it is important to remember that the youth have always been radicals; which 16-year-old doesn’t want to free the working classes from their chains, right? So, naturally, many of these millennials may shift to the centre of the political spectrum, in that all-so cliché way. Corbyn has, to his credit, hacked into this social climate. His slogans, campaign material and policies were often centred around equity, state-funded opportunity and giving the future of Britain a helping hand. But before I put forth a potential Conservative alternative to solve such issues, I will swing the gun of criticism from the youth, and point it firmly in the direction of the Tories.

One of the most obvious problems with the Conservatives is their image, or at least how the youth perceive that image. Despite Theresa May’s fairly modest upbringing as the daughter of a vicar, the Conservatives still continue their age-old tradition of being a posh boys club. Everything from the media to technology has changed, and it is very easy for the computer savvy youth to look past the mainstream media and discover the history behind key Conservative figures. It is only natural for an 18-year-old working class student to look at Boris Johnson’s Etonian upbringing and think: “How could that person possibly know what is best for me?”. Something simply must shift in the Conservative Party’s image; they cannot survive on their current dose of Etonians and Bullingdon Boys. As history proves, Prime Ministers are more than often elected based upon how connected a television viewer feels whilst watching them deliver a speech in the comfort of their own home.

But, of course, politics shouldn’t be about personality. The Conservative Party’s policies are unpopular with the youth, as well as many older people too. Most strikingly, it is the economic policy of austerity which has disgusted and angered the vast majority of young voters. The education, NHS and Social Care systems seem to be severely underfunded, and understandably this is a huge worry for many a voter. In order to win over some young voters, the Conservative Party simply must make a giant U-turn on austerity, and bring it to an end once and for all. Some have argued that they should do the opposite, and make the noble case for austerity. However, with many economists torn on the issue, it seems near impossible to sell the policy as an “economic necessity”, as they have done in the past.

As equally as damaging as the problem of austerity, in my opinion, is the lack of Conservative principles. With Labour’s shift to the Left, Theresa May scrambled desperately in the dark chasms of Blairism in a pathetic attempt to snap up those Labour voters who felt alienated by Jeremy Corbyn. But, as Fraser Nelson said in his latest article for The Spectator, “If voters are sold Labour ideas, they’ll buy them from the Labour Party”. So, what should the Conservative Party be offering the electorate? And more importantly, which kind of alternative to Labour and the status-quo can the Tories offer young voters?

Of course, given my political preferences, I am more than happy to be accused of being biased at this point. But, I feel as though a shift towards Classical Liberalism and conservatism (with a small “c”) would offer the youth something to believe in. It feels as though the Conservatives have abandoned the importance of liberty and the individual. By developing such principles, and deeply rooting them in their future policies, the youth (and everybody else, for that matter) could have an alternative to the identity politics which is flourishing within our university campuses, faculties and society in general. It seems cliché and predictable, especially coming from myself, but if the Conservative Party even want me to consider donating my vote to them, they must make an extreme shift away from their fetish for the Neo-Liberal economy, and place all emphasis on the crucial values of freedom, individuality and opportunity for all.

Part 1: What is Meaning, and is Our Society Meaningless?

I would like to, if I may, begin this series by starting at the very beginning of all things (according to some): The Book of Genesis. As many of you will already know, according to the Biblical story, God created the world and the universe in seven days (but resting on the seventh), and from the hand of God sprung the human race and all other life forms. God’s first two humans, Adam and Eve, were placed in the wonderful Utopia of Eden. I’m sure many of you know what follows: Adam and Eve ate fruit from the forbidden tree, after caving in to the temptation of the Serpent. They did, as you could probably imagine, enjoy the fruit. It was, as pointed out by God in the Bible, the most succulent and delicious fruit in the entire garden. However, despite its luxurious taste, eating it came at a cost – the cost of unleashing pain, sin and suffering upon the entire human race, forever and always.

If you do not take kindly to religious stories, then I may be able to tempt you with the fantasy world of JRR Tolkien. (For those of you who have not read The Hobbit or The Lord of The Rings, I will warn you that this paragraph contains “spoilers”). In The Hobbit, a young hobbit by the name of Bilbo Baggins wins a magical ring from the creature Gollum in a game of riddles. Over the years, thanks to the powerful spell of the magical One Ring, Bilbo begins to wither and feel “stretched”. When the time comes for him give up the ring he does, at first, refuse bluntly. The spell of the ring, despite tearing a hole within him, makes him feel good, powerful and can be used as a quick escape from his fellow Hobbits (who Bilbo considers to be an annoyance). But when Bilbo finally gives up the ring – with a bit of help from his old friend Gandalf – he goes on to live a tranquil life in the company of Elves. Perhaps a more striking example from the world of Tolkien is the story of Isildur, who was handed the chance to destroy the ring many years before Bilbo was even born, ridding the world of its evil before it could do any further harm. But instead Isildur gave in to temptation – he thought of only himself in the present, not himself in the long-term, or the rest of Middle-Earth for centuries to come.

I will now move away from the tales of religion and fantasy fiction, and enter the realm of real life. Picture, if you will, and twenty-five-year-old female. She is unemployed by mere choice, and spends most of her time sat on her sofa smoking cannabis, whilst watching daytime television. This is a very real scenario for some, and I’m sure that we all know somebody who lives a similar, if not mirrored, lifestyle to the semi-fictional person I have just described. She could, of course, logically justify her lifestyle: she doesn’t have to work, so she can just sit around all day relaxing, doing what she enjoys, living responsibility free on her regular state benefit. The cannabis she smokes leaves her relaxed, it makes her feel happy. But, the real question, which is also raised in the two examples given above, is what does this do for her life and the life of others as she goes on, as she ages?

Some of you may have already noticed, but there is a common theme running throughout the given examples. Some might say we have stumbled upon an Archetype. Stories of people doing long-term harm to both themselves and others in exchange for quick and often sensory pleasures have existed within our societies for thousands of years. It’s here, I believe, that we discover the answer to the first part of the titles question (what is meaning?). Meaning, in the sense of having meaning in your actions and life, is doing something that is not only good for yourself, but good for others too. But more specifically, it is doing those things to cause good in the long-term, not just the short. As demonstrated in the above examples, it is easy to sacrifice long-term prosperity and meaning for extremely short-lived feelings of positivity and pleasure. To a lot of us, it may seem logical to chase as many of these highs as we can, and just hope that they last and recycle themselves enough times so you can go to the grave a happy man. But as the wisdom of our elders teach us, this is simply not the case. Many middle-aged and elderly people – and even some young people – will openly tell you that they regret the time they spent “fooling around”. It would, if Adam and Eve were to take greater responsibility and look for deeper meaning in their actions, have been wise of them to resist the Serpents temptation, and refused to have eaten the fruit in order to blockade the terrorising rage of their creator, and therefore saving themselves and their descendants from the pain of suffering. The same applies with Isildur – had he cast the ring into Mount Doom, destroying it once and for all, he would have saved millions of lives, including his own. So, what do these fictional characters, and real people, all from completely different worlds, have in common? It’s extremely simple: they all made the common mistake of exchanging long-term peace and joy for instant and short-lived pleasure.

Now that I have explained what I believe to be the definition of meaning – in the sense of having a meaningful life – we must now ask the second given question: Is our society meaningless? Firstly, and above all, it is important to understand that the title of this series is, in fact, bogus. When I say “finding meaning in a meaningless society”, what I really mean is finding meaning within yourself and your own personal life, whilst living in a meaningless society. But, nonetheless, the content of our society, so to speak, is more likely to lead you towards the “short-term pleasure” path, rather than the pursuit of meaning. Also, if we all stride to live a life of meaning, then our societies too would look, to some extent, different. So, what are these traps laid out by our own society?

We must begin with ideology. Practically all of us are invested in an ideology for one reason or another. Whether you’re a Marxist, a Fascist, a Liberal, a Conservative, a Humanist or a Christian, you have an ideology. For many, their ideology is relatively harmless. For some, admittedly, it may even give them some purpose and, dare I say, meaning in their lives. It is not so much the political allegiances or set of religious beliefs of your ordinary man/woman that causes you and others harm, rather the arena in which these ideas manifest and clash (society). It would be too much for me to ask every individual to shred their ideology, and I would even argue, to a huge extent, that having a set of fixed beliefs is simply part of being a modern and evolved human. However, there is one huge problem with ideologies: they are fixed ideas, and for many, causes people to refuse to accept questions or criticisms of their beliefs without becoming defensive or upset, let alone giving them the openness to change their beliefs. Truth is key to finding the meaning in your life, as in order to discover what is good for both you and others, you must be open ears to all sides of the spectrum. In other words, we all must accept that we get things wrong in order to better ourselves and our society, no matter how attached we are to a certain set of beliefs.

Perhaps one of the most obvious threats to finding “deeper meaning” (a rather hippyish phrase, I must admit), would be the current economy of consumerism. We know, or at least those of us who follow economics know, that the success of an economy, and to some extent a society, is measured by economic growth. Of course, we should be very thankful that we live in such a rich and vibrant country, but it feels as though many of us are falling into a trap. The craving of clothes, superb mobile phones, jewellery, and many other material things, is at the forefront of most of our lives; it’s what makes the economy tick. This is not to say that I do not enjoy indulging myself in such things from time to time, it would be hypocritical of anybody to say they don’t. However, what one owns, particularly when it comes to products branded by a simple logo or name, dominates and drives a huge section of our society. Material possessions and money, for many people, are easily used as a short-term stimulus (like the One Ring or the forbidden fruit).

The rise in Liberalism has also had, in many aspects, a negative effect within our societies here in the West. This is not to say that it is a bad thing (I would consider myself a Classical Liberal, if I were forced to put a label on myself); I would much rather live in our Liberal society rather than, say, Saudi Arabia; and I am a passionate believer in freedom and personal responsibility, which Liberalism opens up for us. However, it is vital for us all to remember that Liberalism does not mean discarding all responsibility for both yourself and others, and I feel as though some use Liberalism as an excuse to do this. Although we have the freedom to sit around all day doing nothing, spend hours doing drugs, refuse to work, abandon your children or partner, does not automatically mean that that is the right thing to do.

I could, if I really wanted to rant (which is tempting), write paragraph upon paragraph of what I think is wrong with our society. However, I will not burden you with such a painful course of reading. This is mainly because finding meaning within our society has more to do with yourself than it does with those around you. Yes, as I have pointed out, there are a lot of material comforts, time wasting and instinctive actions to achieve short-term pleasure within our lives, but that does not mean you have to abide by the ways of others.

So, in short, to answer the question of is our society meaningless?; yes, our society is meaningless… But, that does not mean life is and that your own life must be. In this series I will be looking at unavoidable aspects and stages of every human’s life, from growing up to stabilising oneself. It is important to realise and remember that this isn’t, and never will be, a moral guidebook. In fact, this series has absolutely nothing to do with morality, and I have never believed for one second that I, or anybody else for that matter, is in the position to give advice on morals and ethics. It is not my intention to demonstrate how people should live their lives, but rather to express ways in which I believe can help us in our quest for a meaningful life (something we all want, I would hope).

To conclude Part 1 of this series, I would just like to expand on the importance of your own individuality. In the words of the great Carl Jung (the father of Analytical Psychology) – someone who will be getting another mention in this series later on – “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become”. No matter what your position in life may be, there are always ways in which we can strive to better ourselves, and by bettering yourself you naturally better those around you by sheer influence, and from that will spring the meaning of your life. As the old saying goes “charity begins at home, but does not end there”, and in this case, each individual is their own “home”, and fixing your home will only have a positive effect on the whole neighbourhood.

 

Don’t be a Utopian

Have you ever dreamt of an ideal world? A world where humans can co-exist in perfect harmony? You have? In that case, my friend, you could well be the most dangerous person on the planet. The Utopians have been, undoubtedly, the most dangerous people on the planet, and many of us today have fallen for the very same trap. This is not to say, of course, that we shouldn’t aim to improve our society. But I am suggesting, however, that we improve our society keeping one fundamental key in mind: the key of personal freedom.

To understand why we shouldn’t be Utopians, and why liberty is so important, we must first of all understand what being a Utopian actually means. For God knows how many years,  and partciuarly in the 20th Century, there have always been Utopian thinkers. The Utopians have created, or at least taken to, various ideologies in order to create a “perfect” society. From Marxism to Nazism, Mao to the Medieval Crusaders, the dream of a perfect society was at the very core of their ideas and actions. After studying the book “Hitler’s Table Talk”, a collection of notes compiled by Martin Bormann (Hitler’s own personal secretary), I discovered something quite shocking: Hitler did not think himself to be evil. Of course, many of us (I hope) would have no hesitation to say that Hitler was at least one of the most evil men to ever live… But he didn’t think so himself. Like most people, especially when I was younger, I pictured the likes of Hitler and Stalin to be Sauron type villains – people who knew what they were doing, enjoyed being evil, and only used their political “beliefs” as a way to manipulate and disguise this evil. But as the deeper historical records prove, this is not the case. Even Hitler, the genocidal murderer and war monger, believed himself to be good and sincere – Hitler believed in the perfect German, and global, society. Hitler was a Utopian, and that should scare us all more than anything.

But what connects all these Utopian thinkers? What can an innocent, caring and optimistic 16 year-old Communist possibly have in common with Joseph Stalin (somebody who many Communists are extremely critical of)? The connection is quite a simple one: Utopians believe in one moral truth; a truth that the economy, society and political system must be based upon. This is the danger of Utopianism. You might think that you are noble, and perhaps even moral, for believing in a world where everything is perfect, but ask yourself this, how do you know your vision is perfect? According to who and what do you have the moral high ground over everybody else in society? And believe me, some of the most common answers to these questions would have been like a twin to the answers given by the likes of Hitler and Stalin.

In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece critique of the Soviet Union, Stalin and Communism in general, “The Gulag Archipelago”, he wrote the following on the topic of Soviet”traitors” being jailed after returning from the WW2 battlegrounds:

“Capitalist England fought at our side against Hitler; Marx had eloquently described the poverty and suffering of the working class in that same England. Why was it that in this war only one traitor could be found among them, the business man “Lord Haw Haw” – but in our country millions?”  

The above quote is, perhaps, a prime example of the difference between what we might describe as a “normal” society and a – aspiring – Utopian society. For all its flaws, in Capitalist England there are very few moral codes to abide by; and the codes – or laws – that are already in place (like murder being illegal) have been engraved within global societies for thousands upon thousands of years, and have stood the test of time and critique from a wide range of opposition beliefs. Utopians, on the other hand, have set the rules based on their ideology, and those who do not obey are for the Gulag. If you don’t want to give up your farmland to the collective, to use just on example, then you are a traitor to the revolution, and you must be punished. You can see just how quickly and logically people could (and do) jump from “peaceful theory” to brutal totalitarianism.

In order to maintain a fair and functioning society, one antidote must forever be present: individual freedom. As we already know, a Utopian is somebody who believes their own personal moral point of view is the only acceptable one, and that it must be forced upon all others in order to create a better world

 

But as history proves, when such people gain power (often by violent means), it does not end well. Freedom, and in particular freedom of speech, is crucial for all people to engage in debate and discussion, and then come to a conclusion on which way is the best way forward. But, perhaps most importantly, a free mind living within a free society has the right to choose his own way in life and find his own meaning. Or, in other words, he does not have to obey by the ideas and teachings of Marx, Adam Smith or any other figure.

In order to move ourselves forward as individuals, and with that comes the rest of society, we must all accept one brutal truth: we are not nearly as moral as we think we are. There is always room for improvement, always room to learn, and most importantly, there is always time to consider an opposing point of view. So, if you are a Utopian, if you believe that entire civilizations should be built around your own personal moral code, then you are far more dangerous than you could ever dream of being.