Thursday, November 27, 2003


This morning, by chance, I found myself sitting in a foyer for half an hour with nothing to do, since the guy I was meeting had been delayed. The foyer had two wide-screen TV sets side by side; the sound was on, but set low and inaudible above the background noise of comings and goings. On one screen was a home makeover programme; on the other was world news, showing a violent protest – I didn’t catch where or what about; it wasn’t the detailed content that caught my attention so much as the rather bizarre juxtaposition of the two contrasting scenes.

Chalk and cheese wasn’t in it – this was molten lava and candy floss. (Cultural aside – is candy floss a peculiarly British creation? Can anyone who hasn’t visited an English fairground or seaside town picture this fluffy confection made from spun sugar? Pink cotton wool on a stick…)

A cosy “ethnic” bedroom makeover, complete with bamboo bed-head, rough timber cabinet and cushions covered in fake fur (I kid you not); this sat side by side with scenes of people engaged in passionate protest for a cause they clearly were willing to fight for, physically if necessary. I have no idea what their cause was, whether it could be said by some standard to be just; that wasn’t the point. It was seeing those two ways of being literally side by side that gave me a jolt. Banality and passion. One in Disneyland clouds, one drowning in harsh reality. Fluffiness and triviality two feet away from violence, pain, anguish. A boisterous, incessantly (and infuriatingly) grinning presenter and a grim newsreader.

I felt a jarring and rather uncomfortable contradiction – like most householders I spend time and money making my home a pleasant place in which to live (not Disneyland though); there are also global issues about which I claim to care. So which consumes most of my time? We live with contradictions like this daily. Usually though we have space and time to move convincingly between the seemingly opposing stances; somehow the separation allows us to keep them far enough apart in our minds that we can move gracefully from one to the other without them ever having to coexist. It’s a clever trick; compartmentalising our lives so that uncomfortable bedfellows never have to meet. Until you see them side by side.

Working in London, I regularly walk past people who live and sleep on the streets, making some kind of living begging. I never give them a penny; I justify it to myself on the grounds that they’d probably spend it on drugs and it’s probably their own fault they’ve ended up on the street. That might even be true, but it’s hardly a compassionate response. Even if I only stopped to talk to them, just to recognise that they exist… but I don’t.

It seems it’s possible – in the sense of mind having the capacity to manage the contradiction - to sit in the comfort camp with just a toe – maybe even a foot - in the water of caring, but I’ve noticed though that people who care deeply, who get close enough to issues to get fully engaged, often get drawn in to the exclusion of all else; no coexistence of contradictions for them. Perhaps it’s fear of being sucked in that keeps the rest of us from crossing the threshold.

Is it hypocrisy to live – or pretend to live - in both worlds?
I don’t have an answer.

I’m reminded of a story I heard from a seminar being given some years ago when Total Quality Management (TQM) was the In Thing. The presenter, earnestly espousing the concepts of all-encompassing quality, was very clearly overweight. When it came to questions at the end a voice shouted out “If you believe so much in Total Quality, why are you so fucking fat?” Not very PC perhaps, but he had a point.

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