Category: Culture


AMDG

Amazon.com arguably is changing the world now more than Google or Facebook.  The online retailer is now more akin to a conglomerate, having long left behind just being a place to go and buy books. Now it is the world’s leading provider of cloud computing, this year it will spend twice as much on television as HBO, a cable channel, and developing its own range of Amazon-brand physical products including batteries, almonds, suits and speakers linked to a virtual voice-activated assistant.  This last product, Alexa, has a ‘must-buy’ buzz around it, many of my friends got it for Christmas. Alexa can control, among other things, your lamps and sprinklers, ‘she’ is your own digital personal assistant. However, before I start pontificating about the technological dystopia we are heading into, at least we can acknowledge that Alexa has some theological literacy as this great story shows.

Of course, the ‘tech-lash’ is just beginning, with grave concerns about Amazons growing dominance, it being both marketplace and retailer has an anti-competitive feel about it, and its ability to steamroll future regulators is worrying.  However more than the other tech giants, I think to understand Amazon you look no further than its intense bordering on sociopathic founder.  One of the most disruptive companies, it has been dreamt up and run by one of the ‘disrupters in chief’ Jeff Bezos. It’s revealing that the original name he dreamed up for his company was Relentless.com, in fact if you put that into Google you are taken directly to Amazon.   That one word, relentless, says something about Bezos that explains his success but also sums up something about his unsettling dark side.

I have recently finished reading a fascinating book, ‘The everything store – Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon‘.  The author Brad Stone has done a good job portraying the strength of this character – his unbounded drive and ambition, his unnerving search for truth at whatever expense. Stone recounts one incident which sums this up and is chilling and compelling. He describes how Bezos publicly humiliated one of his senior execs by calling Amazon’s number during a team meeting, in front of his colleagues, to check the man’s assertion that its phones were being picked up promptly. “Bezos took his watch off and made a deliberate show of tracking the time. A brutal minute passed, then two … Bezos’s face grew red; the vein in his forehead, a hurricane warning system, popped out”

What I found most poignant about the book was the narrative around his two fathers. His biological father was a circus unicyclist, Ted Jorgensen, who abandoned his mother when he was only one. His stepfather was a Cuban-American Miguel Bezos who was rescued from Cuba by a scheme sponsored by the Catholic Church, ‘Operation Pedro Pan’.  From December 1960 to October 1962, more than fourteen thousand Cuban youths arrived alone in the United States, it was the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere.  It puts the current British governments’ paltry response to the refugee crisis to shame.  Miguel Bezos left the Jesuit school (that, ironically, Fidel Castro had also attended) and was relocated and educated in the United States under the leadership of a young Irish priest, Fr Bryan O Walsh.   The Diocese of Miami organised the program created by the Catholic Welfare Bureau (Catholic Charities) of Miami in December 1960 at the request of parents in Cuba to provide an opportunity for them to send their children to Miami to avoid Marxist-Leninist indoctrination.  O’ Walsh died in 2001  and was an old boy of the Crescent, the Jesuit school in Limerick.

When you hear the backstory of his stepfather, meticulously researched by Brad Stone, you get an insight into this relentless drive. The stable and aspirational background Miguel and his mother gave him, with a strong awareness that all could be taken away from them at any stage. However most poignant, for me reading the book, was the courage it took the now famous Jeff Bezos to track down his real father – maybe it is that wound of abandonment that explains his uncompromising search for truth. Jeff Bezos is a disruptive leader and Amazon has ripped up the retailer’s rulebook in many ways.  Not least because it was the first online company to allow hostile reviews of products that it sold.  Relentless and truth at any cost – but perhaps driven by deep and disruptive events in his own childhood.

Funeral Speed

AMDG

A while back I had the unusual experience of a 45-minute journey, in a hearse, to a graveyard after a requiem mass,  longer than usual.  Often it is a much shorter journey to the place of committal from the church.  In this instance, the person had insisted that their funeral take place in a church that was precious for them, that they frequented even though it was about 12 miles from where they lived.  They also wanted to be laid to rest in the local graveyard where it was easy for family and friends to visit and tend the grave.  So his final journey was longer than normal.

The journey in the hearse was quite a revelation. Whilst on duty, a funeral cortege usually moves slightly slower than normal traffic, as a sign of respect.  I was told that this is known in the trade as ‘funeral speed’.  Sitting in the front of the hearse, I was shocked by how impatient some of the other drivers were.  Some people were irritated, occasionally overtaking in an aggressive manner,  we were even ‘honked’ a couple of times.  I was shocked although the chauffeur seemed calm.  On the way back, without the coffin and family in the back, driving at normal speed – he admitted that this insensitivity by other drivers was becoming more common, ‘funeral etiquette’ was certainly on the decline. We both agreed that ideally, you would want the procession to take place in a stately way, you can’t legislate for other drivers. I was impressed with how calm he was but sad about how the family must have felt with the ignorance on display.

A school I used to teach at, was close to a big crematorium. This meant that the students were often waiting at bus stops to come home when a funeral procession would pass by.  It was a great credit to them that they would always stop larking around, bless themselves and bow their heads when a hearse passed.  The headteacher told me that he would occasionally receive letters from families who were very moved by these schoolboys showing such respect.   These things leave lasting impressions and speak more than anything about the ethos of a school, and the culture in which someone is brought up in.  You notice when people stop out of respect when a hearse passes…. I still bless myself when an ambulance roars past.  When you are in raw grief, you are hyper-sensitive to whats happening around you, I still remember as a teenager…  the night my nan died, I needed to take a walk and felt angry that normal life was going on, people were enjoying themselves in bars, out shopping etc…..  How dare they!  As W.H.Auden memorably said…

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

 

The Crown Renews Itself

AMDG

If you are interested in how ancient institutions reform or renew themselves a fascinating case study is the British Monarchy. Currently the House of Windsor is being intriguingly interpreted in the Netflix series ‘ The Crown‘.  I have just enjoyed finishing the second series written as always by Benedictine-educated Peter Morgan. With each new series being released in December it seems to have become a Christmas tradition.  Just in case you don’t know, it follows the life of Elizabeth II, and how this unfolds alongside the history of the UK in the last century.  Written by one of the best screenplay writers in the business, beautifully shot including with some fine acting – it is fast becoming an annual treat.  Like all good drama, it touches on so many themes from our own lives, moral character, love, power, pride, hubris… etc – but essentially it shows the incredible capacity for this ancient institution to adapt to modern times, without giving too much ground (RC Church anyone?).  Morgan skillfully ensures that these explorations into the private lives of royalty never strays into sensationalism although he treads a very fine line at times.

As Santayana warns us about history repeating itself, the themes it deals with are surprisingly ‘contemporary’. In the first series, there is a fascinating programme that covers the Great Smog in London that killed thousands of people and led to the clean air act  …..  In the current series, Elizabeth’s uncle and former King, Edward,  is exposed as having a flirtation with Hitler and fascism that feels all too real in our volatile times.  Fascinatingly, this particular episode is inter-weaved with a story about Billy Grahams first visit to the UK.  The American evangelist is portrayed as making a big impression on the young Queen, his moral clarity giving her the strength to effectively banish her erstwhile uncle Edward.

Part of my conscience does sting a little bit when I think of a 91-year-old Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor sitting at home surrounded by corgies in front of the TV,  whilst her life is being interpreted and distributed around the world.   In an age of self-promotion and carefully curated public images, it takes an impressive detachment from her, not to publically comment on these things, or resist the temptation to set the record right. However, I think it is essentially a compassionate portrayal of Elizabeth.  Morgan himself takes the line that the series is always accurate even if it is impossible to be ‘truthful’. His point is that no-one knows what was said between Elizabeth and Philip on this day at this time, but with his team of historical researchers, he believes they can produce an accurate representation. That leads to another moral discussion, certainly, the BBC would never be able to make a series like The Crown.

It is also interesting hearing Peter Morgan talk about how it is a golden-age for writers…. with companies like Netflix generously investing in such projects and not interfering too much with the creativity of the writers.  I suppose the streaming model is another example of a ‘disruptive technology’ getting rid of all the vested interests of producers, cinemas etc.  They might get booed by the old-guard at Cannes, but it means that for talent such as Morgan – the creative process seems to have become much cleaner.