Madazine - Part Six

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
Another collection of zany items.

Submitted: January 18, 2017

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Submitted: January 18, 2017




On Longevity

Recent suggestions that the average human lifespan might be increased to at least 130 years sent various authorities scurrying to consult actuarial experts, and show other signs of concern. As seems almost inevitable in these confusing times, the question wound up on the desk of the man most widely thought able to give us sound advice. The decision-makers must have heaved a collective sigh of relief on learning that Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of our foremost towers of tutelage, had a window in his hectic schedule. He lost no time in dealing with the matter and reported as follows:

As I recently addressed the issue of our ageing population in another paper, this new commission was hardly a three-pipe problem – one fill of strong dark flake sufficed. Frankly, I fail to understand the excitement, especially as there is no question of a solution here, but rather one of appreciation. My first impression on receiving this brief was to recall an interview in a film I once saw, when an insurance salesman, endowed equally with enthusiasm and incompetence, was trying to sell a life policy to the notorious Jesse James. As I remember it, the bandit (or hero, according to your view) listened patiently, then said something like: “Let me get this straight. Are you saying you want me to bet on how long I’ll live, and you’re willing to take the rough end by guessing that I’ll be around for a long time?” If that isn’t succinct, I don’t know what is.

In my earlier report, I alluded briefly to the aspirations of older people, and I would like to expand on this theme. A recent radio phone-in filled me with gloom. Listeners were invited to offer their views on the revelation that an American team claimed to have found a method by which we could on average live nearly twice as long as we do now. If I remember rightly, there were twelve respondents, one of them a scientist, who had a detached interest. Of the others, only one – a woman of fifty-seven and in good health – had no wish to exceed the biblical span. The rest wanted to reach the age suggested in the US report, in each case expressing a desire to fulfil some humdrum personal ambition – tap-dancing, mandolin playing and so on. Of course, travel was in first place. Nobody wished to be involved in generally beneficial activities, such as producing clean renewable energy, a panacea for ills, improved housing, or any of the other things that are important to all of us.

I asked myself whether I would like to spend my later years in the company of people regaling me with accounts of their holidays in an ever-decreasing number of exotic locations, or telling me how they had learned to pole-vault at the age of eighty, or describing their elation at being among the first group of centenarians to cycle from Lands End to John o’ Groats. The answer was a resounding negative.

My pondering on the implications of living to 130 or more led me to think also of the time I spent in the commercial and industrial spheres. In those days, I frequently found myself surrounded by elderly men, all too often venal and obsessed with maintaining their positions of authority and privilege, notwithstanding that they were provided for in ways that should have detached them from such base considerations. It did not seem to occur to most of them that they were removed from material scrabbling in order that they might concentrate on the common good, rather than their further personal advancement. Imagine spending many decades clambering beyond your contemporaries, thrusting and kicking your way to the heights, then clinging like a limpet to a leading position in your hierarchy, lest someone – probably better than you – should be a threat. For goodness’ sake, you people at the top, take the fruits of your selfish toil and hand over to the young ones before they become too disillusioned to care. Remember that the interplay between change and continuity requires that the former must not wreck the latter and the latter not stifle the former. I realise that some readers may consider this paragraph something of an aside, but I might not get another chance to air these comments.

As indicated above, in this case I am not being paid for a solution but an appraisal. The task is an easy one. In my view there is a limit to the number and variety of experiences and impressions a human being can digest in one visit to this plane of existence, and if they have not been acquired in about seventy years, a further six decades are not likely to help much. My message to the obtuse is that they should leave us and try again in a later lifetime. Those who reject the advice are welcome to be condemned to plod on. Though still in demand, I have toiled long and hard and am profoundly relieved at the prospect of my earthly demise. Proceed if you wish. I shall watch your progress from another level.

* * *

Bottling It Up

An audience of leading international scientists was spellbound yesterday when Professor Ovis Jopp, the lean, seven-foot-two, green-bearded ‘Sage of Trondheim’ gave details of his latest – some say greatest – exercise in physics. The professor stated that he had become the first person to conduct a two-way experiment in which mass was converted into energy, which was then changed back into mass. Jopp said that he had in effect released the genie, then reconfined it.

“I rate this among the most satisfying of my many successes,” said the winsome wizard, admitting that his high spirits stemmed in part from a liberal intake of his greengage wine. “I grasped what others had failed to perceive, this being that what one needs is a miniature atomic explosion, one small enough to be reversed. The usual element, uranium 235, would not do, as the critical mass required to produce a chain reaction gives too drastic a result. What I needed was a very heavy fissionable substance. Learning from my experience in manufacturing ultra-light elements, I inverted my technique, to produce a massive transuranic one, which I call norwegium, in honour of my adoptive homeland.”

After much clapping and cheering, the professor went on: “The principle is the same as with uranium or plutonium, in that one must force together two sub-critical masses. However, with norwegium, the amount concerned is small, so a limited explosion results. I conducted the test in open land near Kirkenes, where I built a green chamber of lead-lined metal through which I passed a pipe, widened in the middle, with ends projecting beyond the container’s walls. I inserted a piece of norwegium into each end of the pipe and fastened powerful bellows to both extremities, then took one end, while a student manned the other. We generated an airflow, smashing together the sub-critical masses within the central bulge. The resulting denotation caused the pieces of norwegium to vanish temporarily. They had clearly been transformed into energy.

There was further wild acclaim before the professor was able to continue: “As I expected, the bubble almost burst. Now came the difficult part. To convert the energy back into mass, I had to contain it in an ever-decreasing space. I did this by lowering the roof of my chamber, as one sees in horror films, when someone is imprisoned in a room, the ceiling of which descends to crush the victim. My apparatus did the same, squeezing the energy into almost no space. Having allowed a brief stabilisation period, I raised the roof, entered the chamber and inspected the crushed pipe. I was gratified to find a number of small discs, which I analysed, finding that they were undoubtedly norwegium, and proving conclusively that I had turned mass into energy, then reversed the process. This is a masterly demonstration and a mighty landmark in scientific history.”

A swift riposte came from Jopp’s foremost foe, the shorn, stunted, ovoid ‘Swedish Savant’, Dr Terps Dunderklap. Found sitting on the gatepost of a Varberg maternity hospital, he was acerbic. “Jopp has assuredly gone too far this time,” he screeched. “I showed years ago that what he claims is impossible. I even produced a super-heavy element, similar to his norwegium. The problem, as I made clear to everyone but the fjordland fathead, lies in the fact that in order to fabricate an element heavy enough to have the requisite characteristics for low-mass fission, the substance itself would be too unstable to hold together, so would break up spontaneously. With regard to the supposed temporary disappearance of Jopp’s new element, he was the only observer, and I would remind him that there are none so blind as those who will not see. As for the recovered discs, my chief researcher acquired several and established that they were heads of hobnails, obviously from the boots worn by Jopp’s assistant. Incidentally, I note that Greenfly does not say what became of the poor fellow.”

Pressed on this point, Jopp promised to investigate.

* * *

The staff cornered me this morning, saying that we were short of material for today. I was given a stark ultimatum – write or die! I thought it over and decided to go for the first option. Here is the result. Editor

Aspects of Sport

During my many years in commerce, I often felt like a fish out of water when my colleagues debated sporting matters, which appeared to be of consuming interest to everyone but me. On one occasion, the fellow who worked at the desk next to mine remarked that I never offered an opinion on soccer, rugby, golf, or anything other than cricket. I agreed, then mystified him with an assertion that I did not consider our summer game as a sport. What was it then, he asked. I replied that I saw it as an aesthetic experience, a contrast of colours, styles and elegance – a ballet of sorts, the element of competition being incidental. I also ventured the apparently heretical view that cricketers do not normally over-exert themselves, so couldn’t really be regarded as sportsmen, admirable though their occupation may be.

My colleague demanded an explanation of what he clearly felt was an outrageous notion. I responded to the effect that I saw sport as an activity in which the participants gave their all for a short time, and that I could not put cricket in that category. Confining myself to the men’s game because I had never seen the ladies play, I cited the example of a fast bowler, perhaps the player most widely regarded as being subjected to physical stress.

As there was no argument from my workmate on that point, I proceeded to examine what a ‘quickie’ does. He approaches the wicket by running at most about thirty yards, the first few of which he negotiates at a modest pace. Therefore, he runs flat out for maybe fifteen yards before releasing the ball. That done, he rights himself and strolls back to his mark, taking forty or fifty seconds to do so, after which he repeats the process. If he avoids bowling no-balls or wides – his own fault – he bowls six balls to complete an over before retiring to a fielding position, in which his services are needed only intermittently. During his over, he has run barely a hundred yards in four or five minutes, with leisurely ambles between deliveries.

Notwithstanding this somewhat relaxed schedule, we often hear commentators speaking of how desperately tired old Whatshisname must be, having toiled through twenty overs in a day. Oh, come on. Twenty times a hundred yards is little over a mile, and that spread over six hours, interspersed with generous breaks for lunch and tea, plus three official stoppages for drinks all round and goodness knows how many individual pauses for imbibing. One’s heart bleeds.

A batsman, in the extreme case of his being at the crease all day, will probably score rather over a hundred runs, usually about half of them in boundaries, so will have dashed between the wickets maybe fifty times. Let us be generous, allowing him twenty-five yards per run, and further accepting that in addition to his own efforts, he covers the same ground in responding to his partners’ shots. He has then racked up a distance fairly close to that galloped by the fast bowler, and he also has had numerous rests between his bouts of work. He may be fatigued psychologically but surely not physically. After all, he is supposed to be an athlete of sorts, is he not?

The fielding is shared among eleven players. While one or other of them may have a short sprint on occasion, he will usually have plenty of time to recover before any possible repeat is necessary. I do spare a thought for the wicket-keeper, who must be on the alert for every ball, and who is the target of too many verbal brickbats. Anyone who opts for this job must be either astoundingly valiant, or of questionable sanity.

I finished my appraisal of cricket with a reference to the attitude of its organisers, officials and players toward spectators, who having paid up are often treated with disdain. Assuming that a game starts on time – always questionable because of rain or bad light – many ruses will be employed by those on the field to slow or interrupt play. A batsman declines to face a ball because someone moves behind the bowler’s arm. A bowler aborts his run-up, having got it wrong. Sunlight falls on a window, dazzling a batsman – that’s good for three or four minutes’ delay. The ball will be inspected repeatedly, following complaints about its shape. And so it goes on, with the gladiators and umpires apparently intent on ensuring that actual play is kept to a minimum.

Perceiving that the rant had ended, my colleague said I had given him food for thought, adding that since he had finally got me going on this subject, perhaps I might have something to say about other sports. This was a tricky one. I had  nothing of a general nature in mind, but his prompting led me to wonder whether I should touch upon a point I had long thought of raising. The trouble was that we were in sensitive territory.

After a few seconds of inner debate I plunged, saying that I considered my interlocutor a kind of sportsman. He asked why. I remarked that three times a week, he spent part of his lunch break playing squash with the office mathematician, a young woman of formidable physique, possessed of venomous powers, both forehand and backhand – I once saw her in action. Invariably, she won and the pair would return to the office at two o’clock, she flushed and cheerful, he exhausted and morose, eyes protruding like organ stops and tongue lapping his knees.

I pointed out that he truly exerted himself, thus qualifying as a sporting type in my book. What I did not say (I chickened out) was that for the rest of the afternoons following his battles with our number-cruncher, not only was he an uncongenial companion, but he exuded an odour like a fat-rendering establishment – having lived close to one in earlier years, I knew. I also bit my tongue with respect to his habit of turning up late each day, owing to his seemingly persistent failure to judge the time required for a three-mile jog to the office. Further, I was quite diplomatic in overlooking the fact that though he was vociferous in advocating vegetarianism, he was always the first to fall prey to whatever bug was going round, in addition to which he had his own crop of obscure ailments, which caused me to spend much of my time taking his incoming phone calls.

All things considered, I felt I had legitimate grounds for protest, but made allowances, as Mr Nextdesk was a marketing man and therefore not entirely responsible for his conduct.

* * *

The Node Bulletins : Number Seven

Kashmir, 26 July. My political knowledge is scanty, but I understand that we are now in the last of the ‘stans’, as I believe this area is under Pakistani administration. We emerged from our ordeal on the high pass minus our porters, who refused to go on. Now we are burdened with much equipment. However, Flatpole has been an example to the rest of us by carrying a hundredweight load on our twice-daily four-hour marches, without batting an eyelid.

Thoroughbrace amazed us today with his first show of initiative for some time. He disappeared for eight hours, returning with a vast chunk of meat which he claimed to have hacked from a tusked creature he found entombed in a glacier to the north of us. I believe we may be pioneers of a kind by having probably tasted mastodon flesh. It was quite good and a welcome change from Gannett’s usual efforts, which normally plumb progressively greater depths. Yesterday, when he left us briefly during preparation of the evening meal, I enlivened the repast by tearing up the cardboard cartons in which our spices had been packed, and adding them to the pot. Nobody commented.

Pugh’s pathfinding becomes increasingly esoteric. He now reckons that we must proceed down this valley then – I quote him: “Bear right across the top end of Mount Rakaposhi, go downwards over the flat bit and we shall find our goal just this side of K2.” I am no geographer, but I had expected more technical jargon from Pugh, who has not once mentioned map references during our trek. I was obliged to correct him again this morning, when he marched us due west, over an apparently limitless expanse of scree. I suspect his heart is not really in this expedition, as he has repeatedly tried to head us back towards London. I am considering relieving him of his duties.

Though I try to keep up morale, the bickering is incessant. It is lonely at the top.

* * *

Fourth Reply From Planet X To Emissary

Dear Dweedles

We have assimilated your latest wordathon. Let us say first that you should not underestimate Dwolf, who is fully limbered-up, tense as a bowstring and ready for the starter’s gun. We can hardly restrain the Great Hunter. Do you hear those gnashing teeth?

Your cheapskate jibe is unwarranted. Dweedie, there is such a thing as economics – a point you would have understood, had you had a wider education. In fairness, you may be right about designation from birth. A more comprehensive curriculum is being implemented here, within the framework of a wider social study which would be more advanced but for the near-intolerable heat we are experiencing.

As for your provisions, we did our best with the resources we had to hand. It is unfortunate that you are having trouble in this respect but really, one atom per cubic metre seems adequate, bearing in mind that space is, as you will have noticed, quite voluminous. What has become of your self-professed ingenuity? If you still have that quality, now is the time to invoke it. Do what you can and be assured that we are applying ourselves to your predicament.

So, you assess us as control freaks, eh? Well, what else did you expect? For goodness’ sake, this is a control centre, you chump. We don’t know when you got this idea of individualism, but you must shed it. Think of yourself as a tiny part of the whole. Consider the terrestrial ants you mentioned earlier. They seem to have the right collective mindset.

Dwee, nobody questions your integrity – well, maybe some have doubts – but there is a general feeling here that you are out on a lake and that the boatmaster is saying “Come in, number whatever. Your time’s up.”

With regard to philosophers, don’t dwell on them. We know all about angels dancing on a pinhead. All the information we have gathered confirms that these ‘thinkers’ are as useless in one place as another. They seek vainly to influence their complanetaries. That’s a nice one, don’t you think? It’s a composite of ‘compatriots’ and ‘contemporaries’, extended to embrace all dwellers on a celestial orb. We’re becoming quite good at inventing words.

The concept of warriors is also familiar to us. No need for you to worry about them. They are invariably limited in terms of mental capacity and the most they can do is delay the inevitable.

Now, we have a couple of bones to pick with you – as if we hadn’t already had a few. First, regarding your comment concerning heart, we do not understand this notion, but will try to analyse it. For the moment, stay pragmatic. Second, you mention sport. What is this? It doesn’t appear in your unbearably long appendices, so why raise it now? Is your mind drifting – again?

Finally, we adjure you most earnestly to think hard about your entanglement with humankind. Mark our words, no good will come of this.

Regards from the extremely warm staff here at Mission Control

* * *

Flat Earth

We are accustomed to sensational offerings from Professor Ovis Jopp, the lean, seven-foot-two, green-bearded ‘Sage of Trondheim’. Only the themes remain mind-boggling. Speaking today to an invited audience in his fjordside home, recently enlarged by the addition of a lecture hall for delivery of his famous talks, the jolly giant unveiled his latest scheme.

The listeners, all science journalists, sat enthralled as Jopp, sipping greengage wine, told all. “I got the idea by noticing that the Earth is not quite spherical,” he said. “The equatorial diameter is slightly greater than the polar one. Now, it is clear that the difference concerned arises from centrifugal force, caused by the speed of our planet’s rotation. For an intellect such as mine – of which there is admittedly only one – it was but a hop to realise that a higher rate of spin would produce a more pronounced effect. I took the notion to its logical conclusion. If the Earth were to rotate fast enough, it would change from a near-sphere to a disc.”

After an outbreak of gasps, the professor went on: “I immediately seized upon the beneficial implications for humankind if the required spin-speed could be achieved. Within an hour, I had the eureka moment. What we need – and I have designed it – is a series of thrusters, mostly land-based, but with a few at sea, placed around the equator. I considered jet engines, but rejected that idea as too crude. Securely anchored rockets would do better, their velocities being made incremental, according to the number of sites. They would be ignited serially rather than simultaneously and could impart speed to any desired level. If hydrogen and oxygen were to be used, the exhaust velocity would be, I believe, 17,000 feet per second, which could be repeated as each stage burned out. With appropriate fuelling arrangements, the potential is virtually boundless.”

The assembled experts showed their appreciation with prolonged applause, then Jopp continued: “We could flatten the Earth to any degree, my preference being a disc with only a nominal rim-thickness. The Earth’s surface area is about 197 million square miles, so omitting the trivial width of the final edge, the top and bottom would each be about half that figure. We could drive shafts through the disc, to bring what are now antipodean places to within a few miles of each other. A good analogy is Emmentaler cheese – wheels riddled with holes, though the perforations I have in mind would go all the way. Of course, land areas would be spread out. The equatorial circumference of 25,000 miles would be extended, everything being, so to speak, hammered out. That is a small price to pay for the huge benefits in terms of travel.”

Self-appointed leader of the jopposition, the broad-as-he-is-long ‘Swedish Savant’, Dr Terps Dunderklap, was dismissive. Located in an oak tree overlooking a Girl Guides’ encampment near Halmstad, he moaned: “I would like to say that words fail me, but I usually have a few when this clown’s name turns up. ‘Sage of Trondheim’ indeed. ‘Nutter of Norway’ would be a better title. Jopp doesn’t understand that his proposed whirligig would hurl into space everything within quite a distance of his new equator, scattering the Solar System with debris. Also, he has ignored the Earth’s molten outer core, which would squish out towards the perimeter. How is he going to drill through that lot? The holes in a Swiss cheese are as nothing compared to those in the head of this ignoramus. He should place all his rockets at sea, since that is where he is usually to be found. Will nobody put him into a straitjacket?”

Further vitriolic exchanges are anticipated.

* * *

Rubber Duck

My wife and I normally have an almost entirely vegetarian diet, but we depart from this on Christmas Eve. For three years we had cooked chicken from the local supermarket. This time we fancied something different. There are several Chinese and Indian restaurants and take-away places within easy walking distance of us, so I picked up a menu from each of them and we drooled over the offerings, finally deciding on one of the most expensive dishes from the largest Indian establishment – £11.45 a head.

It was a memorable occasion. Panting with anticipation, we laid out the repast, described as a Chefs Special – succulent pieces of prime duck, cooked in a delicious sauce, with rice and a selection of vegetables. The rice passed muster, but the vegetables comprised five large chunks of boiled potato, plus about an ounce of grated onion and a tomato, both raw, per portion. However, it was the duck that gave us the most entertainment.

We sawed and tore quietly at our few bits of this alleged fowl for a few minutes before I broke the silence by remarking that it seemed like something left over from the Indian Mutiny, and that it might well have been called Gandhi’s Revenge. I also ventured the suggestion that it had possibly been supplied by the Worshipful Society of Cordwainers, or in view of the price, perhaps by Lobb of London. Picking up on the leather analogy, my better half, glumly stirring the brown sludge in which our web-footed acquaintance had been presented, countered with observations featuring the names Gucci and Prada.

At length I concluded that we were on the wrong track with regard to texture. The only similar thing I had ever previously encountered came into my life about sixty-five years ago, when my father bought me a tiny plate of whelks from a stall in Scarborough. There were four of the creatures. The three small ones I coped with passably well, but the fourth was a monster. I chomped on it for half an hour as we walked from North Marine Drive to the south shore, then for a further hour as we sat through a brass band concert. At last I dropped it, scarcely reduced in size, into a drain. I’ve never tried to eat a whelk since then.

Now back to our meal. Battling on, my wife asked whether we were attacking Bombay duck. I pointed out that that delicacy is a fish, and that there was nothing piscatorial about our treat, save that the description was more than slightly fishy. After about twenty minutes of gallant effort, we gave up and dumped everything we had left -most of what we started with ¬ into the brown bin. As we are not in the habit of wasting food, this went down badly, but I think we avoided a touch of Delhi belly.

I’m not normally a griper, but I phoned the restaurant to voice displeasure. “Goodness gracious me (or words to that effect),” said the manager. We have been selling that dish for eight years and have never had a complaint until now.”

“I’m not surprised,” I snapped. “We’re probably the first survivors. Where do you get your duck?”

“From the very best sources,” he said.

“I’ll bet,” I retorted. “My guess is that you’re speaking of Goodyear or Pirelli.” That was lost on him. “I do not understand,” he replied, then the line went dead.

* * *

Immobility For The Millions?

During the last couple of decades, there has been much ado about transport in the UK. So far, every proposal to alleviate the worrying situation seems to have attracted as much opprobrium as approbation. Perhaps few will be surprised to learn that this awkward question was recently referred to that icon of investigators, Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor at one of our finest academic institutes. Felicitously for everyone concerned, the Great Man returned from a holiday, spent largely in the reference library near his home, on the day he received this new commission. He cleared his desk at once and tackled the issue, reporting as follows:

What a coincidence that this matter should be referred to me only a couple of weeks after I had tinkered with one of its aspects. Heaven knows I am not a specialist in physics, though I believe I may qualify as one of the few genuine polymaths of our time. A former student of mine recently brought to my attention the parlous state of our railways. This induced me to devote a little time to that situation. I am not too proud to borrow from whatever sources are available, and in this case I leaned on US military advances, in particular the advent of the Stealth bomber, supposedly undetectable by defences. Harking back to my earlier interests, I addressed this issue for five hours, at the end of which I had devised a Stealth train, a conveyance which could pass through stations virtually unseen, thus reaching its destination on time. In due modesty, I must say that I did not get so far as to deal with the picking up of intermediate passengers at places between the two terminal points, but I shall deal with that in due course.

The above passage is merely an aside, included only because it demonstrates that my ability to grasp technological problems matches the intellectual rigour I apply when dealing with social ones. Now to the nub. Questions put before me normally meet at least one of two criteria, in that they are either urgent or important. Some have both characteristics. This matter is unusual, as it does not have either. I shall now explain why this is so.

The UK is among the most crowded countries in the world. Consequently it is a perfect place for reliable cheap public transport – so many potential customers in such limited space. But what do we have? I do not travel much, but am given to understand that we are obliged to contend with unsatisfactory and ridiculously expensive rail travel, crowded, sweaty bus stations and air services which, if we are to believe the protestations of their operators, constantly gallop a hairsbreadth ahead of gridlock. For those seeking independent solutions, we have hopelessly overburdened roads. What is to be done?

I hear that the government recently charged some old duffer with the responsibility for ‘blue sky’ thinking, and that his suggestion was that we should have even more motorways. What nonsense! This is a time for fundamental reconsideration. I do not have the exact figures to hand, but don’t need them, as it is obvious that most journeys undertaken are discretionary, frivolous or both. I remember my time in business, when I was often told that people needed to take long trips, as there was no substitute for eye-contact. Poppycock! We have telephones, text and fax machines, e-mail and remote conference arrangements. The people I have just referred to simply wished to get away from their normal workplaces, enjoy a little unsupervised activity and run up costs they would never have incurred had they been paying from their own pockets. Would you fork out £120 or more per person for one overnight stay with breakfast, knowing that you would not be reimbursed? No? Nor would I. Only a month ago, I had B&B in a pleasant boarding house for £25. Business expenses are a huge swindle.

We do not need more transport and accommodation facilities, but less mindless pressure upon those we already have. There is capacity enough for what we need, as distinct from what we want – not my first reference to this syndrome. I suggest that instead of trying to cater for apparently limitless demand, we curtail our gallivanting to what is necessary. How many Britons go abroad each year in search of the beer and fish and chips available on their own doorsteps? It is bad enough that these drunken people are often such terrible ambassadors, but even worse that their movements cause massive pollution. Aeroplanes may fly in thin air, but they do not fly on it.

As with so many supposedly large questions, this matter is basically trivial, requiring as it does only a change of attitude. If you don’t need to go anywhere, stay at home. You will find this less stressful than getting around and you will help to save the planet. I repeat my above assertion that this issue does not have either of the criteria I mentioned early, the reason being that if my advice is taken, any currently perceived element of urgency or importance will vanish as a consequence. That is all.

* * *

Fifth Message To Planet X

Notwithstanding the provocative tone of your latest missive, I intend to continue doing all I can to acquaint you with the situation on planet Earth. For a few minutes, I shall overlook your more contentious remarks. When last interrupted by technical shortcomings – where are our much-vaunted scientists? – I was about to go into theological matters.

Religion is a big thing here. This is mystifying, as it induces people to kill each other in large numbers, regardless of the fact that nobody can confirm or refute the existence of a supernatural agency. Christians, Jews and Muslims continue their long-established practice of reciprocal butchery, regardless of the fact that they are, as I understand it, branches of a common Abrahamic tradition. This goes further, in that the various adherents have subdivisions, which seem to be as hostile to others of their own kind as to those they consider adversaries in a wider sense. One could be excused for thinking that an omnipotent and omniscient being would have settled for imbuing sentient creatures with a single belief system. By the way, the three strands just mentioned do not represent the whole spectrum. Don’t ask me to explain this because I would not want to insult your intelligence by doing so or my own by trying.

As for governance, once again I cannot offer unequivocal clarification, as this seems to be intertwined with entertainment, both being aspects of show-business. I recently observed a congress of European Union heads of state and government – in some cases there is no distinction. It was hilarious. As far as I could make out, the leaders went back home afterwards, claiming that they had outmanoeuvred everyone else and achieved a triumph for their respective electorates. Growing pains, I’d say, but better than the warfare that ensued from piffling disagreements in bygone days.

The position in the USA – currently top dog in economo-military terms – is not much different, as some of the citizens there have genuine concerns about the world situation, while others don’t give a damn about it, so long as they are apprised of the latest baseball/basketball/football results. I find this a little depressing.

With regard to social organisation, the capitalist system described in Appendix 9 prevails in many of the more highly developed areas, the reason being that this arrangement is the most successful in creating wealth, though it does not really address the spread of material riches. There was – and to some extent still is – an alternative in the form of communism. Regrettably, this has usually proved itself to be more efficient in the distribution of poverty rather than wealth. Still, the socialist idea may well be sound, if a little ahead of its time. I am mindful of the fact that we had similar convulsions in our society long ago. Some compromise will be necessary here. Overall, movement is slow and sporadic, but mainly progressive.

Now, I must inform you of my personal position. Frankly, I am in a conflicted state. Androgyny no longer seems the right course for me. To put it bluntly, I have fallen in love. Snigger if you will, but I am attracted to a human female. She is of Mediterranean extraction and her name is Vulpina. I believe that has some associative meaning, but am not sure what it is. Anyway, she is voluptuous, in addition to which she is also a competent amateur harpist. In fact, I heard someone ask her if she was a virtuoso, to which she replied haughtily that she had ‘never been with a man’. I don’t know what that means.

As a result of her former occupation, Vulpina is financially independent. She worked nocturnally and it is common here for night-shift people to be well-rewarded for their inconvenience – remarkably so in her case. She has a number of videotapes which she says are very valuable, though they will remain so only for as long as they are secreted. I find this baffling, but she must know what she is doing. Anyway, a little light morphing has put me in her good books, and I can think of no place I would rather be.

I have just spent some time hovering around England, home of the mongrel language which, despite its manifest absurdities, or perhaps because of them, becomes increasingly the lingua franca for many of the Earth’s people. Superficially, this tongue would appear an unlikely candidate for its leading role, as (a) writing and pronunciation seem to have undergone divorce proceedings and (b) the rules of speech are pretty much what any given individual wants them to be, though I should say in fairness that the grammar is largely uniform, which means that most Anglophones recognise good style when they encounter it. The explanation is probably threefold. First, the Britons were remarkably active in colonial times. Second, the record of their cultural spread, albeit far from unblemished, was on the whole possibly less negatively charged than those of some other nations. Third, the Anglosphere is prominent in economic affairs and currently accounts for a large proportion of the Earth’s gross international product. This will change, but the unifying effect of English will, I think, endure for quite a while.

Earlier, I studied the second-largest continent, Africa, which I must say is not in good condition – though I believe that circumstances there are likely to improve. Europeans and North Americans often deplore the violent events that occur at times in what used to be called The Dark Continent. This is strange because during the last century, the people of the countries from which this censure emanates were involved in the greatest orgies of bloodletting that even the remarkably murderous human race has ever experienced.

Much as I would like to continue, I am, as they say here, running on empty, so this is all for the moment. It would be nice to think of more backup from the place I am ever-less disposed to think of as home, but what chance is there?

Yours more in hope than expectation,


* * *

Press-ganged again! Those inky blighters who do the menial work around here have locked me in my office, demanding that I ransack my reminiscences for a real-life tale, to be published today. All right, you drudges, I’ll do it – on condition that you print these few words as a caption. If you trick me, heads shall roll. One true story coming up. Editor

A Man And A Plan

Shortly before the end of my working life in the commercial world, I was charged with an awesome responsibility. “You are now Corporate Planning Manager,” they said. “Go forth and produce a plan.” The initiative was a brainchild of my immediate boss, the Director of Administration. He had attended a seminar, returning with a mountain of literature emanating from an American business guru.

In a sizable organisation – we had over a thousand people at the head office and four times that number in our nationwide branch network – I was not left without help. In fact I was assisted to distraction. Dozens of colleagues were eager to participate, especially in the area of terminology. I soon found that the idea was to mix and match impressive words and present them in any order, without varying the ostensible meaning of the expression concerned.

My chief thundered that we knew next to nothing about our affairs. This baffled me, as we and our predecessors had been running the business for about 140 years and were achieving better results than all but half a dozen of our hundred-odd competitors. Nevertheless, it became de rigueur for our leaders to stalk the corridors, wearing glazed Messianic looks and striving to outdo each other in admitting profound ignorance of our wider environment. To make any contrary claim was to court disaster.

Presentation of the plan was a big problem, revolving mainly around organisational shapes. Some preferred classical pyramids, others ziggurats, others concentric circles. The only general agreement was that whatever was offered to the non-executive directors should look nice. Many hours were spent in meetings convened to establish the relative values of the words ‘mission’, ‘aim’, ‘goal’, ‘objective’ and ‘strategy’. Invariably, the consensus was that all of them should be used, though their hierarchy was a matter of hot debate. If a mission was immutable, could a goal be changed? If an objective was quantifiable, could it be reached by a strategy which was not? Such considerations so impinged upon the daily round that for weeks it was almost impossible to find a manager who would deal with our firm’s normal day to day exigencies.

In vain I pointed out that other companies in our field were repeatedly attaining excellent annual results without the benefit of formal corporate planning. For this and other heresies, I came close to losing my job. That I did not do so was probably attributable to the fact that I was the only one doing any actual work on the new scheme. My colleagues offered much advice, while remaining sufficiently ambivalent to guard themselves against any danger of adverse repercussions. Every one of the chieftains agreed that the old baronies had to go, but all maintained their fiefdoms, prudently adding extra strata, to be removed later in the event of rationalisation, in order to restore the status quo ante.

After labouring mightily for some months, we reached accord. The pinnacle of our plan was to be the Corporate Aim, though even this gave rise to dissent, as some people suggested ‘Mission Statement’. The former term prevailed. It was a ringing assertion of our values. I forget the text, but it was to the effect that we intended to be the best outfit of our kind. Since several of our major rivals made similar declarations, I could not see how this moved us forwards. Not being of top-brass calibre, I failed to grasp the true relevance of the development.

Now came the even knottier problem of achieving our desired result. As we had well-nigh exhausted our collective cerebral power in deciding what the plan was, how were we to muster the resources to implement it? The solution came from my still supercharged chief. In one of his visionary flashes, he realised that my shoulders were creaking. We needed management consultants.

Where does one go after proceeding from the sublime to the ridiculous? Let me just say that we went there. We interviewed four prestigious consultancy firms, each of which promised us salvation. The first three did so on the understanding that they would operate for a predetermined period, their charges being fixed at the outset. The fourth refused to commit to either timetable or costs. The executive directors chose that one.

It has been said that management consultants are people who borrow one’s watch to tell one the time. They do indeed have a wondrous technique, collecting vast fees, riding roughshod over clients, whose facilities they commandeer left, right and centre, while providing very few of their own tangible resources.  They take no responsibility and guarantee nothing. There are three possible outcomes. First, one rejects the consultants’ advice, which exonerates them. Second, one goes along with their recommendations and comes to grief, in which case they will argue that their guidelines were not followed correctly. Third, one accepts their suggestions and succeeds, which covers them in glory. In any event, they prosper.

Thanks to our counsellors, we soon had flesh on the bones of our plan. Within a year, we had a magnificent document. The verbosity was intolerable, but the gist was that if we did as we were told, we would be a virile, powerful leader in our field, possessed of all the ingredients for a glowing future, surviving into the new millennium and acquiring minnows in our field as a sparrow picks up breadcrumbs.

We followed the advice and about five years later were gobbled up by a larger organisation in our own sphere. Shortly after the takeover, I met a Japanese businessman and asked him how his compatriots went about corporate planning. “Colpolate pranning,” he said. “What is that?”

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