The New Babylon

I pulled up and parked round the corner from home as per. Switched off the engine. And fell into an unexpected fugue of gloom. I sat and thousand-yard stared through the windscreen. I thought – this country has some very beautiful scenery. Then – most of the people I meet and of those I never will are pleasant, law-abiding, non-extremist, wanting the best for their children and for themselves too. We know exactly what we want, we know it’s achievable, and in that sense this country has never had a brighter vision for the future – we all want and aspire to the best education, health system, housing, transport, law keeping, social services, support, even TV entertainment. We see clearly that gleaming end point in all these. They may be mere nebulous phrases, but we sense within us that they are attainable, that such Nirvana-like goals of excellence and happiness can indeed be reached. You don’t have to have tasted a raspberry pavlova to appreciate that when you do it will be gorgeous.

Yet I’ve never felt this land to be so unhappy, so ill at ease with its surroundings, so worried about how it’s all “not right”. And I realised it’s not the vision that’s unattainable, but that the systems and those in charge of these are utterly unfit for purpose. It’s not simply a matter of blaming the government, the default scapegoat we fall upon when frustrated beyond belief. We also need to blame scores of ex and present ministers and policy-makers, local and city councillors, high and middle-level managers in nationalised services like the NHS and education. The thousands of so-called management types promoted to way above their level of competence. This failure of state institutions to even vaguely understand their own jobs and responsibilities; their lack of good ideas; their smug diurnal arrival at work knowing they’ll be paid a wodge for having improved nothing at all – this has all been revealed in interviews, in statistics, in man-in-the-street “I-got-gangrene-when-I-only-went-in-for-a-hernia-checkup” narratives galore, the majority, ironically by the BBC, a prime example of organisational ineptitude, repeated failings and obscene overpayment.

Day after day NHS horror stories of lack of beds, lack of even vaguely decent mental health services, lack of care homes to help ease the bed-blocking which apparently is rife throughout the land, shortages of supplies like bandages, for chrissake, or vastly inflated prices paid for drugs; a failure to embrace the IT age by too many trusts leading to time-wasting on an Olympic scale; lack of communication or cooperation seemingly out of some insane snobbery between adjacent health trusts. GPs and A&E staff without doubt hugely overworked, the reception staff in surgeries grossly ill-mannered and trained to be so; their offensive unhelpful booking systems a microscopic sketch of all that’s wrong.

But we still have a faith, ever-thinning though it is, in our NHS to get us better without much bother. “Tomorrow will be a better day” really is pie-in-the-sky. If you’re lucky it’ll be no worse.

How often do we read of insanity reigning on our railways, of strikes in favour of drivers sitting mostly in front of computers, already earning more than the Prime Minister; of cattle-truck coaches for commuters who pay staggering sums for this daily privilege. Yet train travel here is booming as never before, because the roads are so bloody poorly surfaced, there’s no attempt to control car numbers by, say, tolls and 20 mile long road works reduce you to a crawl which you have to accept even when there’s not a workman in sight, as at weekends. That any even slight thought be given to the Glory Hallelujah, Brethren that is the smoke and mirrors vanity project HS2 when the whole rail network of today, in drastic need of upgrading, would benefit enormously from its £55 billion  is as fine an example of my cynicism and worry as any.

Now there are verbal, even physical assaults on teachers by parents, by children, something so unheard of 50 years ago as would have made national newspaper major headlines, but which is nowadays almost a commonplace, “going with the territory”. Exam results get better but more worthless as the boards cock up their papers’ accuracy, as grades are inflated like a car tyre on the end of an air hose, syllabuses are cut to the bone (whither Modern Languages? Metalwork?), children really do know less of their own country’s geography and history, and teachers have become surrogate parents, having to do everything now from serving breakfasts at 8 am to supervising late afternoon homework school via parping on about Personal, Social and Health Education with some teaching stuck in between the gaps. The weariness and cynicism, like the holes in classroom ceilings and the lack of textbooks rife in education must affect the students, our future. What confidence can they have?

You’ve no need to rack your brains to recall the dreadful abuses of children by teachers, entertainers, priests, scout masters, and of the blind eyes turned by those paid to quash and prosecute this vileness – police, social services, teachers (again). Yet, as if by a conspiracy with the meejah, we’re not told what happens to those blatantly to blame. No public follow -up, nothing to make whoever is in post later think hard about what NOT to do again. So we sense they could still be working their malevolence in the same post, or the same department, or in another borough, having learned nothing. And if THEY can do it…..

It would change nothing to pour endless money into any of the fields. Give the NHS more dosh and it would, it DOES waste it through appalling auditing and cost effectiveness studies time after time. Nobody knows how to do it. More money in schools will never of itself mean that vital tough disciplinary and ethical stance by governors and heads, lack of which, due to their fear of parents suing and of failing to meet unreachable targets lies at the heart of much of the teacher shortage – just another pot of moolah to let fall into an educational black hole, so that begging letters have still to go out termly, and staffing ratios get worse by the minute as nervously-broken-down teachers leave the profession in long queues of anti-depressant and tranquilised automata with all the early idealism and fun of teaching crushed out of them “Great stones they lay upon his chest” (The Crucible). It might in this respect be Salem again.

 This is all almost entirely down to these Ozymandias-like institutions being so gigantic that no one knows how to stop them, change their course, even envisage the sheer oil-tanker size of them. Money is seen as the answer to all problems, either by throwing sacksful at a problem, which has no effect at all on the blatant incompetence of those in charge; or by rewarding gross negligence with promotion and, yes, a vast raise in salary. To balance this, everyone (that’s you and me) now faces the bludgeon of cuts in budgets when what’s surely needed is a massive task force of those boring, nerdy folk called accountants with auditorial powers to at least make a start on cutting this waste in finances. For there is no public institution where any auditors have any legal power to insist on measures being taken for safe rational cost-cutting, or rather dropping spending back to sensible prudent levels. The institutions are as Hal, or Robot or the AI postulated to destroy mankind by Stephen Hawking the other day – I dream of them carrying on in the absence of any humans. And that’s really their major feature – ironically they purport to serve humanity in this country, but have become dehumanised machines running themselves. And with no eye for wasted resources or human misery or despair – machines don’t care about such things. And nobody in control of them understands how they work, or how to make them work. But boy, do they pretend to.

And nobody at the top of anywhere these days – in any field – gets sacked. Or even resigns. The standard response is “Lessons have been learned, (so back off, you bastards).” Actually this applies to pretty well all those mid-level officials clearly culpable of total dereliction of duty but let off with the standard slapped wrist. More often than not they’re rewarded for their utter incompetence and gutless character with obscene raises or promotions or, at least, sideways moves. So  don’t worry, you can do what the f**k you like and you won’t suffer. The glaring blatant fact is that there exists a terrifying and growing competence gap between what’s required and what’s in post. Yet who is there to train these incompetents? Quis custodet custodes ipsos?

Where’s the closeness, the cordial relationships we felt back in, say, the 60s with health, education and social workers and all the rest? We need it. God, we want it badly. The yawning gap between our dreams of perfection and the shambles we’re all daily affected by widens daily. We’ve little to no confidence in the great institutions of the state. Civic happiness, security and contentment are at a low probably unseen since the end of WW2.

What have we done that we have allowed this to happen to us? Nothing, for these monoliths, steered by ignorance and incompetence, just juggernaut over opposition, appeals to reason, heart-breaking stories of human suffering. They look right through us, who pay their salaries.

So, what’s the point of fretting? If getting screwed is inevitable, lie back and ignore it. Just get on with life as best. It’s all too big. We’re in a constant state of hanging on, making do and mend, putting up with, worried about the future…and this has now, in so many vital areas of life here, become the perceived norm, and that’s frightening.

Well, I’ll not need to worry much longer. But I dread the future for my grandchildren. I sometimes think only a totalitarian state could effectively make the trains of the state departments run on time. Resignation or Coup d’Etat by either extreme political wing? It’s a pretty awful choice.

I got out of the car, locked it and went home. Rather frightened. Time, I thought, to walk in the hills again, to immerse my mind in the Saturday Cryptic, in a Helen Dunmore novel, to meet with friends and have a laugh and a communal moan over a beer, the long-established antidotes to anxiety and depression. I will.

But our state will still be silently imploding around me.

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