Show Hide image

As if the world isn't bad enough, another landlady is resigning

Between football, Westminster and Brexit, there seems to be little good news at the moment. And now it looks like Linda is hanging up her apron.

What a funny old summer this is turning out to be. First, there’s the weather. As Jane Austen wrote in Emma: “The weather added what it could of gloom. A cold stormy rain set in, and nothing of July appeared but in the trees and shrubs, which the wind was despoiling, and the length of the day, which only made such cruel sights the longer visible.” However, there have been some remarkable thunderstorms, the likes of which one would normally expect in Kansas, or in a Hammer horror film.

Then Iceland knock England out of Euro 2016, the Duke closes down and I see that a wag stripping the pub has drawn an obscene graffito on the bar. I wonder what kind of mind is amused by drawing a spurting cock on a piece of early-Victorian furnishing. Perhaps the same kind of mind that delights in shouting at foreigners in public, which we have been seeing rather more of lately than we are accustomed to. Then again, when society collapses, it will be the moments of quiet dignity and tolerance that become the exception. And society does look in a bit of a fragile state, does it not?

As I write, one of the candidates being mooted for the Tory leadership – and therefore potentially our next prime minister – is someone who has links to a group that thinks homosexuality is a curable disease. The Labour Party has lost official count of how many members of its front bench have resigned, and a friend of mine is considering rejoining just so he can do his bit to squeeze out Jeremy Corbyn. He let his membership lapse, after a white, male heterosexual at a party meeting accused him of racism and homophobia. My friend – this may not come as a shock to people who know the Labour Party intimately – is gay and his name is Ravi.

I pop along to the Uxbridge Arms for my friend Toby’s birthday. He is a month and ten days younger than I, so, for 41 days a year, he gets to tease me about my age. I turn up to his revels in order to serve time on this unseemly behaviour and buy him a pint. This is a routine that has been unchanged for at least two decades: he holds court in his seat, known as “the Cat Basket”, as he does on the other 364 days of the year, unless he is poorly or visiting his mother in Cornwall.

I have written about the Ux before. This is the one with the pub quiz that exists mainly to infuriate the regulars and fleece those unwise enough to think that they have the edge on us. Frankly, if you’re under 45, you haven’t got a hope. The frame of reference is fixed squarely on the life experiences and knowledge of the middle-aged. It’s not exactly my local, because it’s three stops away on the Tube, but it’s the place I go to, should I want company. The Barley Mow in Dorset Street may be delightful, unchanged since the 1790s, but it’s not where one goes to drink alone unless one wants a contemplative pint in the afternoon, and not even I do that very often. The Ux, though, is guaranteed to contain, at any given time, someone I know well enough to chat to.

It is also the demesne of Linda, the landlady. To borrow P G Wodehouse’s phrase, she is someone on whom it is unsafe to try any oompus-boompus. She rules with a hand that is firm but fair, in the classic mode of her occupation, an archetype that probably dates back to before the Norman conquest. But now it turns out that she is going. Christ in heaven, is nowhere safe?

The owner of the lease has decided to sell. How long she remains in situ depends on the whim of the market. With Ragnarök around the corner, she might get to hang on for a little longer. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, eh?

So the celebrations at the Ux are somewhat muted. N–– is back from a business trip to Düsseldorf, railing against the Germans (I will not repeat her language), and I look around anxiously to see if there are any Germans in the bar. Another woman is asked how her children are. “Alive,” she replies sardonically. I suppose this is all part of the usual cantankerous banter at the Ux, or at any one of 10,000 pubs up and down the country. But still.

“Ah, love,” I feel like saying, “let us be true/To one another!” For some reason, I have been hitting the poetry hard since everything started to go wrong. It has been bubbling up unchecked a lot lately, what with us being as on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night, and all that.

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 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.