Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

Too soon to tell

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Why do these landscapes make me go weak at the knees when mountains in other countries (the UK, Germany, or Switzerland to name but three), whilst very fine and wonderful things, do not? Read on…


There’s a story that the Chinese leader, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung to some of us brought up on earlier transliteration systems) was once asked by a French journalist what he thought the effect had been of the French Revolution of 1789. He mulled over this question for a while, and then said “It’s too soon to tell.”

Thus it is with Brexit. Some short-term instability was bound to occur, because the markets are always open to uncertainty. And some equally short-term rebound was always going to happen. But pro-Brexit commentators who are pointing to that rebound and saying “Ha! See? We told you it was only Project Fear! This proves it!” are being very short-termist. Then again, short-term thinking is something the British political class does very well. When I worked for Ofwat, we set water company price limits five years ahead, and were accordingly branded as engaging in some sort of dubious long-term planning. And as for the sort of planning that the private sector engages in – well, don’t get me started. When I took up my current job, I was amazed at many of the practices that the company seemed to tolerate, sometimes things that would have gotten me sacked in the Civil Service. Having spent thirty years being browbeaten by all sorts of people who said “Huh! You and your wasteful, lazy, inefficient mollycoddled public sector ways! You wouldn’t survive five minutes in the  real world of the thrusting, harsh private sector”, I found it remarkable that the standards I carried forward and lived by were seen as admirable and qualities that the company was in short supply of. And I worked a damn sight harder and for fewer rewards in the Civil Service. Personally, I would not go back, though. In the Civil Service – and, to some extent, the wider public sector – what you do is governed, not by what your managers think, but ultimately by what a politician thinks is the Right Thing To Do. But their concept of “the right thing” tends to be what will benefit them, or their party. Meanwhile, if you do a good job, a Minister will take the credit. If, on the other hand, your department does the wrong thing, everyone gets branded with that failure, and sometime branded personally. Thirty years of that is enough for anyone.

But none of that has amounted to a hill of beans in the end. The company I worked for is owned by venture capitalists, and their view after three years is that the company wasn’t making enough profit (the fact that it had been hugely profitable when they acquired it and that profitability had been on a downward trend for all of the period of their ownership  was neither here nor there). So costs had to be cut, and some things that the company considered to be on the “nice to have but not essential” had to go. Like testing software before issue. The company decided to move to buying off-the-shelf software. After all, it’s always installed without problems, always works perfectly with heritage applications, has fully compatible data schemas and always works straight out of the box. What could possibly go wrong?

I wish them well with that.

As a consequence, my work has been declared to be of no value to the company going forward, and as of today I have been served notice of redundancy.

I’ve already had a couple of interviews, but neither have worked out for me. Both employers said that I had a vast amount of knowledge and experience; the first said that I was a “poor cultural fit” to the office and the role (which was a bit odd, as it was the most mono-cultural office I’d set foot in for twenty years – I suspect that was shorthand for “too old”, but of course that’s illegal now); the other said that “he’d make a great user acceptance tester, but we’re looking for a functional tester right now”, when their job description, and indeed the mood music at the interview, had been “we need an all-rounder”. So right now, I have about a month to six weeks to find something else to earn a living doing before things get distinctly dicey. It may be that I have to take up contracting again, though that didn’t work out all that well for me last time.

Interestingly, the company I did my last major contract for, in Burton on Trent, advertised for permanent testing staff a few weeks ago, so naturally an application went in; I’d found the work interesting, the company looked pretty good to work for and had a good vibe around the office, and they’d liked me enough to set me on for four weeks and keep me for six months, and to have me back to fill in some staffing shortfalls eight months later. But most of their work was with EU countries, and I find it odd that suddenly, they have gone silent on application responses. They did do business outside the EU as well, but I can’t help thinking that the Brexit decision has thrown a spanner in those particular works; and I’m hearing quite a bit of anecdotal evidence to suggest that that’s not an uncommon response from SMEs who have traded heavily with Europe and are now having to have a major rethink about their futures.

I don’t intend to express any views on the reasons that Brexiteers had for their views. Many of them were well-founded concerns about the role of the EU and the pooling of sovereignty, the nature of international trade, or the mechanisms of democracy. As with all these things, there were arguments for and against, and both arguments had points of merit. I didn’t make a thing about my voting intentions during the referendum campaign. If anyone asked me, I told them what I thought, but always one-to-one. My reasons for voting as I did were quite personal. I suspect that most of those who voted ‘Remain’ did so because of direct personal experience of Europe, either for work, family or leisure. And whilst there were many things wrong with both campaigns, we are now where we are. I always said that whatever the result was, we as a country would have to work hard to make either outcome actually work for us.

I do think that the way the vote came out means that no-one can treat the result as a “winner takes all” issue. More than sixteen million Britons voted to stay in the EU, and the margin of victory for Brexit was just over 1.2 million. Sixteen million represents what statisticians call a “material number” in this case, “material” meaning “too big to ignore”. Some sort of accommodation for those sixteen million will have to be made in the Brexit negotiations. This is what Nigel Farage of UKIP meant when, before the vote, he said that if the result went 52%/48% in favour of ‘remain’, that “this would not be the end of the matter”. Now the boot’s on the other foot, but the same principle applies. I do not mean by this that I believe there should be a second referendum; quite apart from anything else, I doubt that any sane person could possibly stomach the level of stupidity that a re-run referendum would cause.

But there are still a number of misapprehensions about Europe, and Europeanness that many people do not properly understand. Whether these are important to anyone is up to the individual to decide. For me, though, these things mean a lot.

I don’t have a well-developed sense of “Britishness”. I was born and raised in the UK, to parents whose ancestry can be traced back at least four or five generations. But I am European, as is anyone with a pale skin and whose mother tongue is one of the major Indo-European languages, such as English. The islands of Britain were first settled by peoples who migrated from the east in prehistory and who crossed into what is now Britain via the land bridge that existed up until the end of the last Ice Age. That much is proven fact, based on archaeological findings, genetic markers in our DNA and the structure of the language we speak. How much that makes us feel any affinity to a trans-national political structure that is only some sixty years old is a matter of personal choice.

This much I know: when I started travelling in Europe, I quickly found that I fitted into European life and society surprisingly well. I first went to Austria in 1994 and immediately felt at home there. My German language skills, up until then fairly untested, seemed to serve me well, and I was able to make myself understood quite easily. I found that I was being asked directions, which meant that I must have looked like a local. The way of life seemed to suit me. And when I saw one particular tract of landscape – the Drau valley in the south of Austria, between Villach and the Grossglockner massif, I was overcome with a strange and powerful emotion that I’ve never really been able to explain.

Should that make me misty-eyed over the EU? Not particularly. The Austrians certainly aren’t, though Austria’s history of deciding its place in Europe is a long and complex one. All I know is that I reacted to Austria in a particular way, and it has made me want to go back as often as I can.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time wondering why that might be; as I said earlier, I’m about as British as you can get, and I have no particular connection with Austria. My father was in Italy during the war; I had an uncle by marriage from Düsseldorf, but I would never say that we were close. And yet I have this particular affinity with Austria that I can’t explain. But I can theorise.

The following might sound like fantasy, though if you look up ‘mitochondrial DNA’ you might get some idea as to where I’m coming from. Concepts of ‘ancestral memory’ also play a part in this theory, and that’s a far more nebulous concept. And I might just be making all this up, trying to find some sort of rationalisation for what I feel. But…

Before he died, my father spent some number of years trying to trace the family tree. On my mother’s side, we got back some four generations, and could trace my mother’s lineage back to a family in Bourne, in Lincolnshire. (Like so many families, the male line couldn’t be traced back all that far before coming to a blank in the genealogical record.) Bourne is on the edge of the Fens, and the Lincolnshire Fens were drained in the middle 17th century, after King Charles I brought in large numbers of Dutch engineers to create the networks of dykes and sluices.

We were able to go to find the site of the house where my mother’s ancestors lived. The house is no longer there, but we were able to pin the location down. The site of the house was on the Boston road, stretching out across the Fen. Seeking for further information from long-time residents, we decided to call at the nearest big farm, which was just at the Bourne end of the road where the Fen ended and higher land began. We asked there, and got a few leads but they didn’t really amount to all that much. But the significant thing to me was the name of the farmer. His name was Muller.

English surnames generally date from the 14th century and usually fall into one of four categories; they can be patronymics (Johnson, Anderson, etc., indicating ‘son of John’); they can indicate some characteristic of the ancestral person (Brown, Black and so on, usually referring to hair colour); they can be locational, referring to a town or other place of origin; or they can be occupational, such as Smith, Butcher, Clark, or my own name, Day (which sadly shows that my ancestor was pretty low down in the pecking order, as ‘Day’ refers to ‘day labourer’, someone who was only hired by the day to fulfill any menial jobs that needed doing). ‘Muller’ is an Anglicisation of the Germanic ‘Müller’, or ‘Miller’ (the words being the same in German and Dutch). It seems quite likely, then, that the farmer who was my mother’s ancestor’s nearest neighbour was of Dutch origin.

Now for the real speculation.

I speculate that my mother might have had some Dutch ancestry, though that could well be as far back as eight or ten generations. Holland is at the mouth of the Rhine, which going back into prehistory was a major communication route between the North Sea coast and central Europe. The headwaters of the Rhine are in north-east Switzerland. Meanwhile we now know, from evidence gathered in the examination of Ötzi, the early Bronze Age man found preserved in Alpine glacial ice on the present Austro-Italian border in 1991, that individuals commonly travelled around the region, crossing considerable natural barriers in order to do so. So my greatest leap of speculation, the idea that I hold explaining my reaction to a particular place in Austria, is that a distant ancestor, resident in the area, heard that things were better in some valley over to the west, and so set out on a trek which always worked westwards. Some 4,000 years later, that trek resulted in that person’s descendants moving to Lincolnshire to help drain the Fens, which in turn led to the particular accident of birth that made me who I am today.

This could all be fantasy. But if any of us are to explain why we do things, from voting intentions to where we like to go on holiday, at some point a leap of imagination must become necessary. I know that I can pay to have my DNA analysed, though if I’m going to be out of work for any length of time, that’s going to be pretty low on the list of priorities (as soon as I get my meagre redundancy money, I am going to go out and buy a new suit because I need one badly!). I also recognise that such analysis might burst my bubble and leave me with no explanation as to why I yearn for the high places of the Alps. But at least it’s a coherent tale, and as good a reason for explaining my position on EU membership as any other.

(Some more Austrian mountains follow.)


Written by robertday154

July 18, 2016 at 2:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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