The effects of plans being turned upside down...

01 February 2014, at 12:00am

The Mercury Column, in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

OVER the Christmas holiday period, I had two conversations with people which left me with a lasting impression.

The first was with someone who had been without power for five days leading up to and during Christmas and the second was with someone whose son, his wife and children had found themselves living in a small town where the principal, and more-or-less the sole, employer had gone into administration during December.

In both cases, the tonality was one of despair – not just because of the situation that they found themselves in but because they felt abandoned by the system.

Leading up to Christmas, we all saw the advertisements for charities representing people who might be homeless or otherwise in a situation which they believe leaves them without hope but, for most of us, such a reality is far from our own experience.

When we give to such charities, I wonder whether my motivation to give is reflecting some gratitude on my part that this is the case and that I am somehow celebrating my own good fortune as much as trying to help others.

Classic time

Of course, Christmas is the classic time for charities to be able to touch our consciences and, from Dickens to Disney, the whole gamut of entertainment concerns the seasonal swing towards a more charitable relationship with our fellow man.

However, before I verge on the saccharine side of this concept, spare a thought for the thousands of families whose plans for the festivities were turned upside down by the seemingly terminal absence of electricity.

Most of us pay some lip service to the preservation of our ecology by wandering around the house turning off all the lights that teenagers have left on and our views have shifted sufficiently over the last decade for us to experience a small frisson of outrage when we see profligate wastage of resources.

There is a mansion not far from where I live that houses a footballer, from Aston Villa, and his family. Over the Christmas period, the light show outside would have put NASA to shame and, once Twelfth Night had passed, mere mortals were treated to a nightly glimpse of consummate disregard for the world’s ecosystem as every one of the 18 windows at the front of the house remained lit from dusk to dawn. Once upon a time, I might have noticed it with curiosity, now I have a more prurient view. 

Of course, excess in one quarter wasn’t the cause of the deprivation that affected the south-west of the country and so many parts of the north-west coastline too but it is clear that attitudes are changing.

One wonders what the response might have been, in the worst affected areas, by the power companies’ claim that repairs were hampered by their desire to ensure that their employees were entitled to have a nice Christmas at home with their families. Roasting a chestnut over a camping gas stove when the contents of the fridge have putrified might affect one’s sensitivities somewhat.

Neither did it ring entirely true when the same power companies explained with patronising clarity that they couldn’t access the worst areas to restore supplies because their heavy equipment couldn’t cope with flood water.

Not to worry, though, because, with the huge bonuses that their chief executives have earned from the swingeing price increases, they’ll be able to go to Sumatra to see how third world communities manage perfectly well in restoring power supplies during the monsoon period.


The sense of abandonment felt and described so poignantly in New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina, is probably something akin to that experienced by communities all over our own country which have found themselves cut off by flood water.

At least the lack of electricity, mains water and any hope of restoring any semblance of the status quo will have been alleviated by their inability to watch millions of others fighting to get into the Harrod’s sale. It was this juxtaposition of the semi-tragic alongside the celebration of other people’s normality that resonated so strongly in the conversations I’d had over Christmas; it was almost as if there were two concurrent communities and, to a large extent, the fortunate one had only a passing, curious interest in the less fortunate one – certainly not enough to do anything about it.

I suppose that I’m not entirely sure what could be done anyway, at an individual level, and that probably encourages the otherwise normal process of watching other people’s privation – whether in Syria, Afghanistan or rural Dorset – while actually contemplating getting up from the sofa to fetch another mince pie.

Perhaps it is this sense of detachment which allows us to process such information comfortably and encourages us to deal with it remotely by sending a donation by text. 

How then do we deal with the less transient problems of privation when a whole community is thrown into disarray and despair when the main employer leaves town? However poor the response, most homes which were without power are now reconnected and the flood waters will recede to leave a foul-smelling reminder of how good it is to see the grass again.

In those blighted communities where unemployment is sometimes three times the national average, not only do families have little hope of getting back to a “normal” standard of living but many of them have little hope of ever working again.

Perhaps some form of migration is the only way forward for the more enterprising ones – and the whole concept of migration has hit the headlines again as the barriers preventing the immigration of Bulgarians and Romanians have been lifted. Our problem seems to be a partisan one or, at least, one of prejudice against a people most of us have never met.

The reality is that the UK has too few people under the age of 16 and too many over the age of 60 for the precious few to be able to keep the oldies, like myself, in the manner to which we’ve all become accustomed. Actively, we need to encourage more immigration of people who are prepared to work to pay taxes and to discourage tax evasion among those who can best afford to pay their taxes.

Both courses of action would make a serious contribution to our ailing economy but to do so we’ll have to let go of some of our older and most comfortable ideas. 

So, for 2014, my own, personal resolution is to be prepared to let go of some of my most entrenched ideas and to attempt to see things as others do. To be honest, my personal track record in such matters is disappointing and I may not stick to it very well when things become a tad challenging.

On a national level, however, those of us employed in the business of providing services for others may have to come to terms with the need to cut our cloth according to the needs of those able to pay for our services.

In most communities, there are those with plenty and many with not so much and one imagines that 2014 will be a year where we will need to more actively tailor our offering to a wider and more disparate audience. Most of us should be thankful that, for the moment at least, disparate doesn’t mean desperate – but that shouldn’t give us licence to be complacent.