Duran Duran's Girls on Film.
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Who’d have thought I’d learn the meaning of life from an Avaaz petition?

Englightenment via Avaaz, Duran Duran and Bananarama.

A visit from my great friend J—. We’d been out of touch for decades but one afternoon a few years ago I was walking in a desultory fashion through the snow in Regent’s Park, looking sadly at the frolicking youngsters, when her phone number popped into my head. I remembered the number because when we were at school I had the most debilitating crush on her, and while such things are on the whole no good to anyone, they do at least have the virtue of making you remember phone numbers, whose first six digits you have dialled often and on flimsy pretexts.

It is a long shot that she is still in the same place but as it’s round the corner I think: why the hell not, and she answers it, which she says is unusual for her as we have reached that period of western civilisation where landline use is largely confined to scammers. We meet up again – and so, every few months, she pops round to the Hovel for a chat and a glass of wine and a game of backgammon.

This time she’s asked to come round at very short notice but as I am at a loose end and could do with some company this is a most pleasant surprise. I had been brooding over a petition that a friend had asked me to sign – for Avaaz, of all people. While its deeper purpose escaped me, the immediate goals of the petition were clear: it laid out three principles for living in 2015 – to show kindness and respect, strive for wisdom and “practice [sic] gratitude”.

“We will show kindness and respect towards ourselves and others whenever possible . . .” it began.

They sort of lost me at the words “towards ourselves”, on the grounds that thinking you’re groovy just for the hell of it is an obstacle to self-knowledge. I mean, Prince Charles thinks he’s pretty amazing and look where it’s got him, the meddling fool. After this, the petition invited us to promise that: “We will seek to be wise in our decisions, listening deeply to ourselves and others, and balancing our heads, hearts and intuitions in a harmony that feels right.”

I glance at the photo. In a crowd of happy disposable- cagoule-wearing people there is a young woman with a circlet of flowers in her hair and a heart painted on her cheek. I also notice that we are to listen deeply to ourselves before we listen to others. Would I want to act on the wisdom of a woman who paints a heart on her cheek and sticks flowers in her hair? That boat sailed in the Sixties. The third plank of the petition, in which we are invited to “practice gratitude”, I have no problem with, but one out of three isn’t enough.

As I’m thinking about this, I get an email asking me if I’d like to be interviewed for a forthcoming television programme. The world has gone mad, I conclude.

J— comes round with a nice bottle of white. I rustle up a couscous and invite her to talk because I gather she has been having a rotten time of it lately.

As she talks, a suspicion that had begun to form a few days earlier – while I’d stared at that meaningless petition – grows, like a crystal in a kid’s chemistry set. The details of J—’s tale will remain private but they involve legal matters, which, unusually even for legal matters, defy all notions of common sense and make the word “Kafkaesque” seem laughably inadequate. She pauses to say that, on the bright side, a plaque is to be put on the wall of the recording studio she runs, acknowledging the important contribution made to local culture by, among others, Duran Duran and Bananarama.

Now, I will not hear a word against these bands, and such a plaque will be an adornment to the area and bring a smile to the lips of many who pass that way. What with one thing and another, and considering all I’ve heard over the past few days; what with the stupid hippies, my ridiculous existence, lawyers, death, Prince Charles, the continuous underlying vapid mutterings of idiocy everywhere, I tell J— that I no longer think that life is meaningless, or a waste, or so on, but that it is, simply, silly.

I think, fleetingly, of the bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when Arthur decides, after an impromptu song and dance routine, not to go to Camelot, because it’s a very silly place. I wonder if I have offended J— after all she’s been going through but she sighs and says, “Yes, it is silly. I think that’s the word.”

Which makes me wonder: have we inadvertently achieved, as that petition urged us to, wisdom?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.