Serious music started for me with Beethoven. I remember listening with wonder to the record of Fifth Emperor Piano Concerto I was given as a Christmas present in 1974. Shortly afterwards came the symphonies which remain some of my favourite works and which kindled a lifelong interest in and passion for classical music. However many times I have listened to them they remain works which never fail to move me.
It is only more recently, however, that I have got know very much about Beethoven the man and the details of his life, most significantly in reading Jan Swafford’s superb biography and visiting over the last couple of summers some of the places most associated with the composer.
The story of Beethoven’s life is a story of the sublime and the ridiculous and a story of how some of the most moving and majestic artistic creations of all time were born in the midst of much personal sadness and distress.
He was born in 1770 in Bonn, the son and grandson of a musician. It is still possible to visit his birthplace, full of fascinating artefacts from his life. His family was Flemish in origin hence the “van” rather than “von” in his name. He had a youthful talent although one which was not promoted with the success of Mozart. Nonetheless he gave his first public concert at the age of 7 and was heavily involved as a teenager in the music of the court of the Elector of Cologne. The Bonn in which Beethoven grew up in the 1780s was a centre for Enlightenment (Aufklärung) and the values of the Enlightenment are a lodestar for Beethoven’s view of the world. Nowhere is that more in evidence than in the famous Ode to Joy in his 9th Symphony.
In 1792 he left Bonn for Vienna, never to return. Vienna home to Haydn and, until the year before Mozart, was the centre of the musical world and the most likely place where a budding talent such as Beethoven would find opportunities for performance and patronage. However, while it was his home for the rest of his life Beethoven never developed a love for the city or its inhabitants, commenting “from the Emperor to the bootblack the Viennese are worthless.”
Beethoven was relatively successful first as a piano virtuoso and increasingly as a composer, attracting the interest and the financial support of a number of wealthy patrons. His talent, unlike that of some composers, was recognised in his own lifetime although it never made him a wealthy man, especially later on in life when he was supporting his nephew Carl.
It was in the first decade of the 19th century, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars that Beethoven started writing the works which changed the shape of music and established his reputation as one of the greats. The seminal work was probably his Eroica Symphony, premiered publicly in 1805, a symphony initially meant to have been dedicated to Napoleon and unlike any orchestral music which had come before conveying an unique sense of power and tension. In a remarkable period of creativity over the next decade he followed it with many other signature works in many different musical forms, orchestral symphonies, an opera, piano sonatas, string quartets all of which remain some of the most significant works in the whole of the classical repertoire.
It was as well that Beethoven was a successful musician because in few other ways was he a happy or fortunate man. His mother, to whom he was devoted, had died before he left Bonn after a long and painful illness. His father, a mediocre musician who took out his disappointment and a fair amount of the family income in drink, died shortly afterwards. He remained close to his brothers, but his relationships with them and their families, as with many of his friends and associates were difficult, full of misunderstandings and fallings out. Beethoven, who remains one of the greatest exponents of the idea of humanity, struggled with the day to day challenges of human relationships. He never married. Finally the adoption of his nephew Carl, the wrangling for custody with his sister-in-law and Carl’s eventual attempted suicide provided the ultimate tragedy of his life.
He suffered too from bad physical and mental health for much of his life and from the early 1800s began to lose his hearing. Beethoven frequently suffered from depression and in a remarkable surviving document, the Heiligenstadt Testament, addressed to his brothers but never sent, he hints at a desire to take his own life but ends with a commitment to live with suffering for the sake of his art.
In his later years Beethoven was for various reasons less prolific but there stand out a number of works which are amongst the greatest masterpieces of the western canon. His 9th Symphony is perhaps the most famous with its choral finale based on Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” When it was first performed in Vienna the totally deaf Beethoven had to be turned to see the audience applauding his creation.
The 9th Symphony was composed in Baden, a picturesque little town, just outside Vienna where Beethoven went for a number of summers to compose. We visited Baden last summer and the beautiful Helenental along which Beethoven himself would walk his mind full of the music, which he could only hear in his head. It was a very moving day to follow in the footsteps of a musical genius and hero.
Franz Schubert, himself no slouch as a composer, said “Who can do anything after Beethoven?” In literature it is probably Shakespeare who most sublimely captures the essence of the human character and condition. In music, without a doubt, it is Beethoven.
In the midst of challenges we are facing as a society today, is a sense that the model of 20th century capitalism which did so much to generate the prosperity which we have enjoyed since the end of the Second World War, is no longer working to our interests. Inequality is growing, wealth is becoming ever more concentrated and economic growth is no longer able to deliver a sense of benefit for all. Multinationals seem able to outmuscle national Governments and dictate the terms on which they contribute to society through taxation. Capital is mobile and business models shift relentlessly to create increasingly insecure forms of employment. And, as I highlighted in my last blog We Robots, if we are concerned now wait until we see the impact of mass automation on both unskilled, and increasingly skilled, jobs.
It is hard to see where these changes will lead to. Socialism remains discredited and, as events in the last year illustrate, the wider public, and in particular those from communities most left behind by processes of economic change, are increasingly dissatisfied with what the traditional political system has to offer by way of solutions. While, personally, I believe that popularism and protectionism have nothing to offer to those on whom they most target their enticements, there is very clearly an issues to address.
In all of this there is an important question of agency. If believe the world needs to change, to what extent are we prepared to modify our own actions to contribute to that goal? Political actions are important, but we also have an important role as consumers, in particular if we act in sufficient numbers.
There are important precedents. The intellectual argument to abolish slavery in British dominions was won a long time before measures were passed to end it. Political pressure and the work of campaigners such as William Wilberforce were crucial but so were the actions of many individuals prepared to boycott sugar, demand for which had been the engine house in the growth of slavery. Nelson Mandela was vital to the end of Apartheid in South Africa but so was the boycott of South African goods. Fairtrade, initially a fringe movement aimed at offering the producers of tea and coffee a fair return for their products, has now become a mainstream economic activity with its distinctive logo visible all across our supermarkets. Where consumers come together capitalism does listen, perhaps at times quicker than politicians and Governments.
With at times some resentment or, more often, gentle mockery from my family I have tried to align my decisions as a consumer with my beliefs. At times, such as with Fairtrade, it has been gratifying to be part of a growing movement for change. On other issues, such as boycotting Amazon, on the grounds of not paying tax in the UK and their exploitative employment practices it has felt harder work. In all the cases, however, I have felt it has been the right thing to do, however many others are prepared to act in a similar way.
I am not claiming that consumer power, in itself, can solve all the problems in the world but it can make a contribution and it provides an important statement that people are prepared to make some sacrifices on behalf of their moral and political beliefs.
Individuals will vary in what they think is most important to try to influence in their actions as consumers. For me there are three general priorities. First is an assurance that companies I buy from are prepared to make their contribution to society through corporate taxation. Second is a desire to support companies which treat their workers fairly in terms of both pay and working and conditions. Linked to that is, increasingly, a desire to support those activities which value human labour and to avoid unnecessary automation and self-service. Finally has been a desire to support activities and goods which respect the environment, either because they are produced locally or because they are, in others ways, environmentally sensitive in the way they are produced, distributed or delivered.
I recognise my principles are not the same as those of others. I am not a vegetarian or vegan but I respect those who do not buy meat or other animal products for reasons of principle. Similarly I was prepared to pay for my children’s education, initially because it was clear to me that state system was seriously failing one of my sons. I know others would feel strongly that private education reinforces inequality.
Some will argue that such choices of principle are easy for someone like me, who is pretty well off, to make. I am sure that is a valid point and I would not wish to be critical of those for whom price has to be the sole determinant of their purchasing decisions because they do not have the income to do otherwise. I would, however, be more critical of those who have the income to make choices which align with their principles but still choose not to.
Consumer action needs support, most significantly in terms of information and signposting. The media and campaigning groups have an important role to play in exposing the actions of companies and explaining how things really work. The tax affairs and employment practices of multinational companies is scarcely general knowledge and my own judgements and actions have been helped by those in the media, and increasingly on social media, who have set out the facts on particular issues. Good branding can also help, something which the Fairtrade movement has exemplified.
The Germans have an expression “Man ist was man isst”, “One is what one eats.” If we believe in agency then we have to believe that our actions are important and our principles are worth some sacrifice when required. On our own we are powerless but with others we can make a difference. However someone has to make the first move and others have to follow.
It seems to be a good time for dystopic novels. Sales of 1984 are booming in the wake of the election of Donald Trump and, in a wider sense, contemporary events shake us into remembering the worlds we were happy to believe only existed in fiction.
One of the most disturbing pieces of fiction I have ever read is Isaac Asimov’s “I Robot”, a chilling and very well told set of stories tracking a possible future of robots taking over from humans. The 2004 film of the same name explored some of the same issues, but, of course, with a Hollywood happy ending.
In recent weeks robots have been back in the news in various guises. Automation and the replacement of human labour and intelligence with robots is ever more regularly discussed as the key to improving productivity and even to squaring the circle in terms of the cost of public services. Only last week a report from the think tank Reform “Work in Progress: Towards a leaner, smarter, public sector workforce.” suggested that it might be possible, amongst other things, to replace both school receptionists and 90% of Department of Education administrators with robots. It was n’t just because I have been a civil servant which made me stand back in shock at the scale and implications of this change.
The arguments about automation are not new and, as a historian, I know that in the long term the Luddites and saboteurs (their French equivalent) have usually been on the wrong side of the argument. Whatever the trauma experienced by the generation and groups most directly affected, we have, in the longer term, replaced the roles we have lost with new ones and automation has generally contributed to a net increase in wealth (whether or not that wealth has been evenly distributed). Why should it be different this time?
I have a number of concerns that warrant, I believe, society considering more deeply the implications of the kind of changes which are being proposed here.
The first relates to scale. The number and breadth of roles which could be automated implies an enormous change in both the world of work and the structure of society. Given the importance of work both as a means of distributing wealth but also of providing individuals with purpose and a sense of identity, can we successfully manage this level of change without creating a level of economic and social dislocation which would dwarf the issues we are already struggling to manage?
The second is the danger of myopic focus on technical efficiency rather than wider social functions which are embedded in many of the roles which might be automated. I know, for instance, how important receptionists are in my own NHS organisation. On one level their role may be seen narrowly as administrators but often they can be a crucial source of welcome and support for anxious patients and families coming to our Clinic for treatment. We neglect those intangible but crucial social aspects at our peril.
My third concern relates to arguments about who the beneficiaries of such change might be. It is possible to argue that if more work was automated we could all have more leisure. That argument assumes however that, as individuals, we have the income to enjoy that leisure. The disturbing trends towards the ever greater concentration of wealth would be at risk of being exacerbated by wholesale automation. With declining commitment to individual and corporate taxation, employment remains one of the few ways in which wealth can be successfully distributed across society. We may create, as a result of automation, more interesting roles for those who remain in employment, but what of those who do not have the skills or attributes to get the new roles? The dangers of expanding an underclass of the workless is concerning, even more so in the turbulent political times in which we are living.
My final concern is what I would call the Frankenstein argument. I am no expert but it strikes me that some of what we are now able to do with technology is of such a level of sophistication that it is changing the relationship between humans as creators and that which we create. There are dangers here which we need to be more wary of before committing to the next generation of automation across all aspects of our activity.
Some automation is good and will inevitably happen. My plea in writing this blog is not to rubbish all technological innovation but rather to reassert a moral and ethical framework around which we decide what is best us for us as a society. The danger is that we become the slave not the master of our technological genius and if you want to know where that might lead buy a copy of I Robot.
We are living in interesting times. With the political convulsions of Brexit and the election of President Trump there is a sense of losing some of the bearings against which I have judged political and other events for most of my lifetime. I have long argued that, at a time when it is difficult to look forwards with any certainty, there is a value in looking backwards at what history can tell us about the impact of major change.
1917 was one of the most significant years of the whole of the last century. Four events, in particular, stand out as having cast an especially long shadow. All those events are set in the context of the First World War and the massive effect that conflict had on the shape of most of the 20th Century.
At the start of 1917 the First World War stood in a position of stalemate. The Somme Offensive, although possibly significant in its impact on German manpower and morale, had failed to make the great breakthrough which British and other commanders had hoped for. The Battle of Jutland had failed to give other side a definite advantage on the seas. A half-hearted attempt to broker a peace had not got anywhere. More than anything there was a deeper understanding of the total and inhuman nature of modern warfare which had extracted an enormous cost from the young men fighting on the Western Front and elsewhere. Furthermore by 1917 the strain imposed by the War had reached well beyond those directly involved in the combat to challenge the very foundations of nations.
The Russian Revolution started in March 1917 (western dates) in the streets of St Petersburg. The economic consequences of the war were the spark for revolt, it turned into revolution when the military refused to put down the disturbances and within days the 300 year old rule of the Romanov dynasty had come to an end. To start with the Tsar was replaced by a provisional Government of relatively moderate socialist and liberals. But that was not the end. A catastrophic decision to continue a war which Russia could neither afford nor win led to a new round of revolution in November. On this occasion the winners were the Bolshevists led by Lenin who had been cynically allowed by the German authorities to return to Russia in a sealed train. The first successful communist revolution (brought wonderfully to life in the account of the American journalist John Reed – “Ten days that shocked the world”) left an enormous historical imprint on the rest of 20th century. It is an interesting historical question whether, without the First World War, it would have come to pass.
The second significant event was the decision on 6th April 1917 of the USA to join the conflict on the side of Britain and the Allies. While American manpower did not really make a difference until 1918, the US declaration of War on Germany had, both practically and psychologically, a crucial influence on the outcome of the struggle. It represents America’s coming of age as a world power and its first intervention in European affairs. That willingness to act as the world’s policeman, both in times of War and, at times, as evidenced by the Marshall Plan, of peace has been another defining feature of the last century. A more isolationist approach, as America pursued in the 1920s and which Donald Trump appears to be recreating, has a significant impact on events in the rest of the world.
In all sorts of ways the First World War changed the nature of war. One major aspect of this was the involvement of civilians in the conflict through the use of the airpower. On 13th June the Germans mounted their first daytime air raid on London. One of its targets was a school in Upper North Street in Poplar, very close to where I used to live when I was first in London. 18 children lost their lives. Since then civilians and much as soldiers have been the victims of warfare something which recent scenes from Aleppo brutally remind us of. Back on the Western Front the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium, which started on 31st July, and in which my great uncle was injured, epitomised the futility of trench warfare as hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in trying to secure several miles of waterlogged ground. In understanding the events which led up to the Second World War it is worth taking account of the deep psychological trauma which this conflict with its machine like brutality inflicted on a whole generation of men.
The final event does not relate to Europe but to the Middle East. On November 9th the Balfour Declaration (named after the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour) setting out the support of the British Government to creating a Jewish state in Palestine. Its value at that time was seen, primarily in terms of propaganda, but by the end of the year the British General, Allenby had entered Jerusalem. While British policy oscillated during the next 30 years of the British mandate in Palestine it set the course for the creation of the State of Israel. More generally the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War and some of the decisions taken after it by both the British and the French set the scene for a lot of the regional instability which remains a dominant issue in world affairs.
So perhaps more than what happened in 1916 which we marked with the centenary of the Battle of the Somme the events of 1917 are the key to understanding the profound impact which the First World War had on human history. As we face another time of change it is worth remembering what happened a hundred years ago and the long shadow which things which happen today can cast on the lives of those to come.
As often seems to be the case in January, the NHS was back on top of the news agenda this week. At times for good reasons as when Theresa May made a speech promising to end the burning injustices surrounding mental illness, at times for less good reasons as Accident and Emergency Departments struggle to deal with winter pressures. It is one of those moments when more fundamental questions are again raised about the future of the NHS.
We know the NHS is much loved and cherished by the public, the nearest thing the English have to a religion as Nigel Lawson’s oft quoted quip would have it, but it is also something we find, as a nation, difficult to talk about in all but the most banal platitudes. If put to the test, an overwhelming majority of the public would vote to keep the NHS but what sort of health service do we want and at what price?
The next couple of years are a critical time for the NHS as it faces the simultaneous challenges of growing demand, the consequences of austerity and the uncertainties flowing form Brexit. For one I believe it’s time we took a more fundamental look at some of the key questions which face the service and its development to ensure that there is a genuine consensus across the political spectrum which can ensure we have a sustainable NHS which is fit for purpose in the 21st century.
There are a number of key questions which should be part of such a long term review.
The first, and most pressing, is to look again at the 1948 settlement so as to bring health and social care together as part of an integrated system of funding and delivery. Social care is fundamental to the care of some of the most vulnerable people in society, whether frail elderly people or looked after young people. When it is not there, inevitably demand on the NHS increases, often at greater cost. The issue is, at last, on the policy agenda and there is a wealth of work to draw on how this might be achieved, including the report of the Kings Fund’s excellent Barker Commission.
Secondly it is time to institutionalise the commitment to give parity of esteem to mental health. I, like others, was happy to welcome the Prime Minister’s speech on Monday on mental health but the laudable objectives she set out cannot be achieved if the underlying inequity in funding is not addressed. As the LSE highlighted in their 2012 report “How Mental illness loses out in the NHS” the treatment of mental health problems accounts for 23% of demand on the NHS but receive only 11% of the funding. I would accept that such a shortfall cannot be tackled overnight but a longer term settlement for the NHS might commit, for instance, to eliminating this differential over a ten year period with a fixed additional uplift for mental health in each year of that period.
The third issue relates to the shape and balance of services. The 5 Year Forward View, still a valid road map for the future of health and care services whatever operational difficulties the NHS is currently facing, is predicated on a vision of community care with hospitals playing a less significant role than at present. This is, of course, a journey which mental health has already been down and is, for me, the direction of travel which we must follow to deliver a sustainable NHS. Whatever we think are the causes of the current pressures on A&E and other parts of the acute sector the one incontrovertible fact is that a year on year growth of 3% for hospital services is unaffordable. While an adequately resourced and well explained model of care closer to home can be popular with the public, that support can be lost easily if community care is seen as care on the cheap and essential services are not available when they are needed. This change needs long term and unambiguous political commitment and adequate transitional funding if it is to happen properly. However, without it, our chances of sustaining the NHS for next 20 years are slight.
My fourth question relates to how we define the mission of the NHS. It might be thought that there was an obvious answer to that question but health care need is not an absolute quantum. There are always choices to be made about priorities. Beneath the surface warmth we all feel about the NHS there is a more complicated reality and some hard choices, often made now by default, about priorities against finite resources. Of course the NHS is there to save lives but, for me, I would like to see a greater emphasis on improving life chances (for instance through increased investment in children and young people’s mental health services) and relieving suffering in the decisions we make about the development of services. When much of what we can do to improve lives, in particular in the area of mental health, remains unfunded we should not assume that all future medical developments can necessarily be supported. I believe NICE has been, in general, a positive development in our health care system but I think there is a case for revisiting the basis it is given for making some its judgements.
The last point, of course, relates to funding. Just as health care need is not an absolute quantum there is no right answer for what level of funding the NHS should receive. However there is a case for taking it out of the realm of day to day political decisions and linking the decision to an external benchmark such as the average spend for comparable European or OECD countries. The NHS is, in relative terms, a cost effective system but it is striking that, over recent years, the spend as a proportion of GDP has been falling and the gap broadening in comparison to other developed economies. In such circumstances something has to give.
Day in, day out NHS staff do some brilliant work supporting the millions of patients who seek its help. However it is a system under strain. Positive change, of the kind outlined in the 5 Year Forward view, is possible but it needs a broad political consensus with the proper engagement of the public and adequate transitional funding if we are to deliver a model of health and care which is sustainable. How we do that is challenging in an era where politics has become so polarised. A Royal Commission, as some have called for, might be one route but only if there is an absolute commitment across the political spectrum to implement its findings.
We do need to talk about Kevin.
Monday 2nd January marks for me the 10th anniversary of becoming a Chief Executive. The experience of leadership, first at Rethink Mental Illness and for the last 3 years at the Tavistock and Portman, has been a dominating part of my life since. It seems appropriate, then, to offer some reflections on what I have learnt in that time.
The last 10 years has not been an easy time to lead any organisation in the sector I operate in with the long draining impact of austerity. It has meant that “the money”, always by definition high on any Chief Executive’s list of priorities, has dominated the agenda and limited, although by no means ruled out, some of the changes which one would have wanted to focus on.
But that is the nature of the task. “Events, dear boy”, as Harald MacMillan was right to point out, are central to the fortunes of any leader. How quickly you pick up on the significance or otherwise of new developments and adapt your thinking and strategy to respond to them is a crucial skill of being the leader of an organisation. There can be many false positives, issues which for a short while seem important but, in the long term, turn out not to be, but adapting to what is truly significant is the mark of a wise leader.
After ten years as a Chief Executive I have learnt that the most important decisions you make are about people. In particular the choices you make about your team, both as individuals but also how you choose to work with and develop them as a group are crucial to your ability to deliver whatever objectives you set yourself and the organisation. No Chief Executive, however talented, can do it all themselves and those who try to are doomed to failure.
A good Chief Executive should also be interested in advancing talent and leadership more widely across their organisation. Developing opportunities across the organisation, making the organisation an attractive destination for those with ambition and building a wider leadership community, should all, in my view, be key priorities for any Chief Executive. The development of future leaders is one of a Chief Executive’s most satisfying achievements and being generous in time and advice the best way of realising it
The skills of building relationships outside the organisation are also paramount. No organisation is an island and the most important issues I have worked on, as a Chief Executive, such as the fight against mental health stigma and the development of new models of care, have been the products of partnership working between organisations. While partnerships need many ingredients to be successful, commitment from and good relationships at the top are fundamental. For very good reasons I spend an increasing proportion of my time in this kind of work.
Different Chief Executives manage in different ways but a key dilemma is always around delegation. Intuitively letting others get on with the job is the right thing to do and no one person can ever be on top of every point of detail in their organisation. However as a Chief Executive you can never delegate the ultimate accountability for what happens in your organisation and therefore you always need to have a sense of what is going on. It always angers me seeing senior leaders implicated in scandals claiming that they cannot possibly be expected to know about what was happening at more junior levels in their organisation. For me they are either lying or alternatively demonstrating a level of dereliction in their duties as a senior leader. So a good Chief Executive needs to know their organisation, know where it is most weak, delegate responsibility but have systems for receiving sufficient feedback on what is happening whether good, bad or mixed. Setting a culture of honesty and transparency is crucial here making it easy for colleagues to share problems and mistakes, at an early stage, rather than trying to hide them until it is too late to do anything about them.
The importance of choosing priorities and managing expectations is another lesson I have learnt in the last 10 years. Full of enthusiasm and ambition it can be easy to try to do too much and to make too many changes. The most effective changes I have led have been a result of persistence, picking an issue and being prepared to champion it, in some cases for years. It is very rewarding when, as a result, it is possible to stand back and notice a change in how things are done in the organisation which no longer needs your direct leadership. There is also a profound need to be disciplined in how you decide to use your own time and increasingly, I find, energy. It is crucial to spend your time on the things that matter most.
It is also crucial to find the time to get out and refresh your knowledge and understanding of the organisation and its activities and to give people the chance to meet you and share their concerns. I have always regretted it when, at times, I have deprioritised these activities. The small things matter as well. The words of thanks and, at times, consolation, the time spent in engaging with the people in your organisation as people not just cogs in the wheel are sometimes the contributions which I am most proud of.
Being a Chief Executive can be demanding, lonely and, at times, uncomfortable position. It remains an enormous privilege, however, to lead organisations of the kind I have had the chance to lead, whose purpose is clear and where the commitment of staff to make the world a better place for people with mental health problems is so palpable. If I’ve been able to do anything to make those organisations more effective and impactful the experience of being a Chief Executive, with all its stresses and strains, will have been more than worthwhile.
Christmas is here and as the carol enjoins us “Tis the season to be jolly”. A time to put aside the preoccupations of our daily lives and “heedless of the wind and weather” revel in the Yuletide celebrations. But is it possible, in contemplating Christmas, to distance oneself totally from the events happening around one and reported through the incessant flood of breaking news.
By any standards 2016 has not felt a great year and this week’s events in Berlin have epitomised that sense of malaise in our affairs. For those families directly affected this Christmas will be an unexpected time of grief and for the rest of us there is a dull sense of revulsion of yet another heartless attack on ordinary people and an attempt to disrupt and terrorise the traditions of civic and civilised life. The response to the attack from some quarters, is equally depressing, stirring up hatred not just of individuals but of whole groups and reinforcing the sense of terror which, by definition, it is the first objective of the terrorists to create.
In my professional life too this has been a hard year. The NHS, like many other public services, is, after many years of austerity, under considerable pressure. There is much more to do as the demand for services increases and very little in the way of new resources to do it with. A genuine interest in doing more to help people with mental health problems in society is struggling to be realised on the ground as promises to find new investment fail to materialise or are overwhelmed by the scale of unmet need for help. Change and uncertainty abound and they alongside what there is to do create a sense of weariness and hedonic deficit. I can scarcely think of a time in my working life when I have been so ready for a break.
In general I am one of life’s optimists, my temperament and by experience. I like to believe in the possibility of positive change in both individuals and society and am not naturally pessimistic about human nature, although recognising history is full of examples of human folly and frailty. The events of the last couple of years have, however, shaken some of that optimism. Getting older is undoubtedly part of the piece, particular in a context where you have a sense of some of the things you have valued throughout life disappearing or being under severe threat. The relentless of the news and its enduring focus on the negative and shocking does not help either.
I am, unashamedly, a son of the Enlightenment, a supporter of the power of reason as opposed to fear and superstition, committed to values of openness and tolerance, delighting in difference and a believer in the possibility and reality of progress, of the elimination of suffering and the increase of human happiness and well-being. For most of my adult life, with some occasional moments of retreat, this view of the world has felt justified but at the end of 2016 it feels more threatened than I have known before. That, inevitably, feels disturbing.
Other Christmases have been different. Our first married Christmas in 1989 was one when the events of the Velvet Revolution had engendered a wonderful sense of optimism in the triumph of hope over the stale and oppressive forces of tyranny. Images of Berlin were central to that Christmas as they have been to this one but images this time of a totally different atmosphere and mood.
However, Christmas is a good time for reflection so what can it offer to counter some of the inherent gloominess of the times. There are a number of hopeful messages.
First the festival itself in its Christian and pagan manifestations recognises the need for hope in the midst of the depths of winter, for light in the midst of darkness, for a brief time of plenty before we face the time of shortage. This is a festival we have designed in the knowledge of our own need for cheer and encouragement.
Second, as I’ve seen lots of time in recent weeks on the streets of London, it brings out, most of the time, the best in us, encouraging acts of charity, an interest in the less fortunate and a wider sense of good will to our neighbours and fellow citizens.
Third Christmas brings us back to what matters most in life, to those closest to us, to our families, near and extended, and to our closest and oldest friends.
Finally Christmas has a sense of timelessness. A time to reflect on other times, on times of happiness or on times of previous difficulty which have passed and have been overcome. From that can come sense of renewed purpose in facing the future.
So perhaps this year will not be a Christmas of total merriment but it is a season to be jolly and to aim and plan for what can be different in 2017.