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Guiding Principles.

Portrait of the writer as a young dodo

Portrait of the writer as a young dodo. Pan-F, Bronica SQ, self portrait taken June 2020 - you can see me squeezing the shutter release bulb.

These started off as series of 'rules' that I thought important, but it always seemed pompous in the extreme to promulgate them to, well, anyone - who wants to be lectured? Besides, Life is rich and complex, and rules inevitably need to be fine-tuned not just for the individual, but to whom the individual is interacting with at the time - and the circumstance.

Besides, I'm not sure hard and fast rules are good to live by as it brings an absolutism to society. I looked at this in Shades of Grey with the 'Book of Munsell', and the more ludicrous example of scripture-based intransigence was that in the Munsell book someone had forgotten to say you could make spoons - so I had to imagine a society without spoons.

Later on during the writing of Early Riser there was a short-lived subplot regarding Bob Beamon, he of the 1968 Olympic long jump fame, and that he was living in Mid-Wales as a sort of life guru, and he would impart some of these to Charlie, but it never quite worked out, although I liked the randomness of having Beamon turn up in Wales.

There are other issues with Rule Absolutism, too - they will inevitably be hijacked and perverted by some group or individual to further their own narrow agenda, and usually to the detriment of others.

I'm still tinkering with these 'rules' and this is about as good as any a place to publish them. Oh, and just because they are my rules does not mean I haven't broken any or all of them at some time. These are targets, not absolutes. It's probably safer to view them as guiding principles. No, wait: Vague and Nebulous Guiding Principles.

Ones that I coined - although they probably exist elsewhere in another form - have a * next to them. Here we go:

1: Look after the smaller children*

This works literally as well as figuratively, and is pretty much along the lines of 'protect the meek' but without being patronising. I still say it to my children when I set them off to school, but it works equally as well from adults, to adults. Someone new at the workplace, someone looking lost, someone who could do with a hand. (I have never thought humans really grow up in a true sense of the word - we just grow filters, set pointlessly serious and plan better. The squabbles are usually the same in the boardroom, cabinet office or playground.)

2: A large tin of resolve will achieve almost anything*

This a semi half truth, and applies more to people who are already on a level playing field, or at the uphill end - the area I was born into. While resolve can achieve most things, if you're at the bottom of the pit looking at the backs of people above you, this can come over as a little glib.

3: Time spent on reconnoissance is never wasted

An old adage, from the military, but no less useful in everyday life, although overcaution can certainly work against you.

4: You can't do enough for a good guv'nor

I heard this at work for the first time, when I was a runner on a movie. It was part of a three prong strategy: 'Three rules to being a good crew member: On time, Sober, and remember that you can't do enough for a good guv'nor'. It's a deceptively fine piece of advice. Stick like glue to the people who value you and give them your best - but when you are a guv'nor, treat your people well and you'll get the best from them.

5: Never attribute to deviousness that which is more easily explained by stupidity

An old saying, but very true. Occam's razor works in a similar way - the most likely and often most banal answer is normally the most likely one. It works well with conspiracy theories, especially if you add in 'Astonishing theories need astonishing evidence' or even 'I adhere only to the theory of least astonishment' which means that you should believe whatever outcome has the least outrageous explanation. It's about gullibility, I think, and not necessarily take things on face value.

6: Be the person you want your children to become*

One of mine, and my favourite of all of them. It's quite a good theory for bringing up children, but I do say again that all of these are targets, not hard and fast rules. Bringing up kids is HARD. But simply put, children are most likely to end up like their parents/guardians. If you want your kids to be patient, kind and understanding - then be kind, patient and understanding. The trouble is that you need to genuinely kind, patient and understanding. If you sham it up for their benefit, then they won't end up patient kind and understanding - they'll end up as someone who will pretend to be. It's as good a rule for self control and personal improvement as it is for child rearing. Be a better person - for your child's sake.

7: Before embarking on a journey, pause and consider.

I heard this one from a grizzled South African, who always sat down to have a think before embarking on any endeavour. Humans are frontal lobe sort of creatures, often too eager to do something without thinking it through. Stop, consider, rethink, reappraise, improve - and then act. Even when you've embarked on a plan, you can stop and reappraise at any point. Flexibility can be very useful, especially in rapidly changing circumstances. Gulf War II could have done with more of this rule.

8: Try to keep lying to a minimum*

Tricky, I know - hence 'keep it to a minimum'. It's a rule that also acknowledges that lying, eventually, will be inevitable.

9: You're never quite as smart as you think you are*

A good one to debase any pompous self-aggrandisement. If something gets all f**ked up, consider that you may be the one at fault, and rather than start handing out bollockings that you either have to retract or double-down upon, look for the possibility that you might be the one at fault.

10: Every pound you spend is a vote on how you want the planet to be

I heard this one years ago and I still love it. It takes the power out of the ballot box and into the voting arena where we wield far more power: as consumers. If you buy right-wing newspapers, or a lucky pangolin scale, or a battery chicken at Tesco's, then that's a vote to say you approve of all these things. If you give money to charity, buy local veg or pay more for locally-sourced products and services, then you're voting that you approve of that, too. Name a big company that you despise and it would be on its knees in a fortnight if people voted with their wallets. Mind you, it's mildly depressing that so many other people are not voting the same way as you.

12: There is always a more elegant solution*

An engineering axiom of mine when I am fixing or modifying things, but it works equally as well in everyday life. Got a problem? Thought of a solution? Good. No, wait - pause and consider, do some reconnaissance - and then you will find that slightly more elegant solution.

13: Slow wins prizes*

More one for my kids - rushing to finish anything invariable creates a messy job. It's a variety of 'more haste, less speed'

14: What goes around comes around

This is an old one, but it does sort of work. Consistently show some kindness, and it will eventually come back to you. Or at least, it's a good adage to ascribe to, even if there is scant evidence of it working. We live in Hope. An alternative wording to this would be 'pay it forward', which I believe is quite a popular saying in the States.

15: Every time you lose your temper, it's a missed opportunity to have dealt with the situation better.*

It's true - although difficult to do. I came up with this one only two days ago. A loss of temper is a loss of control - and those pesky frontal lobes of ours often push past the filters and reason and can lead us to words and deeds that are often regretted - or do the situation no good at all. Patience is a hard one, I admit, but, given there is always a more elegant situation (see above) it's a loss to your circumstance if you haven't taken it.

16: A doorway is the only winning strategy with a narcissist*

This one is kind of important because you may find yourself in a toxic work/personal relationship and to think you might find a winning strategy: 'if you give it time and work' is, I fear, a waste of your time, spirit and energy. If you come across a true narcissist with the full personality disorder, you have to realise that while mental illness can and should be approached with patience and understanding, personality disorders cannot. That is, quite simply, the way they are wired. They will never admit error, never apologise. They will deny, they will attack, they will claim they are the victim, they will move the goalposts to reframe the question so they are correct. You will be gaslit endlessly and given the full DARVO - and there is nothing you can do to change them. If you are near someone like that, then the only way to win the game is not to play (Coincidentally, also the credo at the end of 'Wargames', that wonderful 1980's thriller). Exiting via the nearest doorway is, unfortunately, the only winning strategy. If for some reason - worst case scenario - you're stuck with them, then there are useful ways to deal with them that you should know about - do your research meticulously; it may save your sanity.

17: Am I actually the good guy?

From that Mitchell and Webb sketch, which I liked a lot - all about relativism. Are you one of the good guys? Pause and consider. After all, you may not be as smart as you think you are. Someone just call you a name that you feel is unjust? Muse about whether, this once, they might be correct or at least partly. It's part of the human psyche to default one's own self-perception to righteousness, but that is very often not the case - as history would attest. The world's tyrants did not get there without armies of enablers, many of them who would have considered themselves every bit the good guys.

18: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing

Another one I heard a few years back. Again, this can sound glib given a difficult personal circumstance and a discriminatory society slewed against you, but keeping focus and your eye on the ball are all good things to do to achieve your goal, whether that's writing a book, curing cancer or even - in a more modest fashion - making it until next Thursday.

19: No one is interested, no-one cares*

Although this sounds sort of nihilist and pessimistic, the statement can actually have a huge lifting effect upon the psyche. If, like me, you are someone who has always been anxious in social situations and fretted endlessly over popularity and being liked and whether I'd said the right thing, or then worry about saying the wrong thing and trying too hard to make a good impression and then overthinking the situation afterwards as to what someone meant when they said this thing, or if they were lying when they said that thing ... well, if you share similar worries, then saying to yourself 'No one is interested, no-one cares' is actually something of a relief. I'm not saying that it's true - in many cases people do care a great deal, but for the most part, life is too complex already to try and prethink other's minds - sometimes it's easier and safer and better for you if you concentrate on being the person you want to be, and not the person you think you should look like in another's eyes.

20: Character is who you are when no-one is watching

Self-explanatory, really. I've always been immensely suspicious of apparently altruistic acts undertaken with huge publicity, and while I won't deride celebrities for inclusion in this as they do have a unique platform with which to bring much needed publicity to issues, on the more macro level, the person who you really are is the one you are when you are alone. And there's a lot of food for thought right there. If you have ever been the recipient of kindness from strangers without fanfare, then you have been in the company of someone of whom the word needs more.

That's it. Vague and Nebulous Guiding Principles. I hope that one or two might strike a chord.

Jasper Fforde, June 27th 2020


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