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The road to salvation if you want to provide astonishing party small talk, impress those dumb enough to be impressed and want to cut a dash: read The Economist. (NB You won’t find it in doctors’ or dentists’ waiting rooms and you’ll have to buy it but there’s a downside to most things, eh?)

For several years in the 1980s and 1990s I was rather impressed by my younger brother’s knowledge - and not just his general knowledge, but his sometimes quite specific knowledge of business, politics, world affairs and I don’t know what else. If you mentioned something, he had to hand the facts and figures, the latest development, a general prognosis of how things might well develop and quite often details of a minority view, why the accepted view of matters was possibly too pessimistic or too optimistic or something. The things he knew, the obscure snippets he could - and would - come out with with startling ease was often quite astonishing. How can he know that? I would wonder, and often felt very thick.

Strictly he - Mark - was only my ‘younger brother’ until December 22 of a few years ago, but our older brother Ian died that day, so now my younger brother has been bumped up to ‘my brother’. And please don’t think me heartless for making such a quip in bad taste. My older brother would have rather enjoyed it, so as far as I’m concerned that’s me off the hook.

To be frank if that’s the kind of comment which makes you shudder and consider looking for your smelling salts, you don’t belong in this blog anyway. I like to think that my small blog readership is made of sterner stuff and can take a little rough-round-the-edges humour.

Oh, and speaking of my brother - the one who died a few years ago - remind me one day to recount the tale of the theft of my brother Ian’s ashes from a car in Kensington, how they were recovered within minutes of the theft and delivered to me at work, and how the legend has grown that I subsequently covered a friend and colleague sitting next to me with those ashes. I didn’t, in fact, do anything of the kind and that, in microcosm, is just one example of the kind of torrid and irresponsible exaggeration which hacks indulge in which in the past has led to war.

Yes, I did inadvertently manage to spill just a little of Ian’s ashes onto my desk, but that is not the story now told. So if you ever do get to hear the story about how I recklessly and quite bizarrely covered most Daily Mail editorial third floor with the ashes of a dead man, don’t believe a word of it. And don’t even settle for ‘there’s no smoke without fire and that Pat Powell has done some odd things in the past - just look at his collection of nine laptops’. It’s simply not true (later: well, the bit about the nine laptops is true, but don’t be too quick to rush to judgment, there is an explanation of sorts), and this is all quite some distance from my younger brother Mark’s - sorry, my brother Mark’s - quite startling general knowledge of this, that and I don’t know what else.

. . .

One day I discovered what was going on, how my brother was so startlingly well-informed. For years, especially when I was younger and had an older brother (the one who died a few years ago) who seemed to be able to excel at whatever he turned his hand to, I regarded myself as rather thick. I’m not suggesting I was entirely wrong, of course, and I have no idea how thick or bright I am, and I truly suspect that, like most people, I am somewhere right in the middle (I’ve found almost all of us are miserable at evaluating ourselves, our abilities and such).

But over the years I’ve learned that any such binary distinction - in this case between being bright and being thick - is so broadbrush as to be totally pointless. Life is a lot more subtle than that and, again in this case, there is an
infinite variety of different kinds of intelligence. The point is highlighted when someone regarded as very bright does something completely stupid, yet despite doing something very stupid is otherwise still very bright.

I, as far as I was concerned, belonged pretty much with the thickos and so, for example - and pertinently - magazines such as The Economist were ‘not for the likes of me’. And then I read the magazine (which likes to call itself ‘a newspaper) and discovered I had been missing out on a very useful and very interesting source of information and news.

Crucially - and this is important - the Economist is very well written as in written in straightforward, unpretentious and clear English and that, too, is pertinent point. It took me many years to realise that I didn’t quite understand or often did not have a clue,what a writer was trying to convey because the piece was so badly written (Observer and Independent feature writers please note). Until that penny dropped, I assumed it was my fault because I was ‘thick’ (and I wonder how many others have suffered from the same feeling of guilt).

I hold to the traditional view that the purpose of communication is to communicate successfully and that it is not to show off what superficially fancy English you can write. It’s also true that a piece is more than a tad incomprehensible not just because it is badly written but because the writer simply hasn’t thought through what he or she wants to say or simply doesn’t understand what they are attempting to write about. In fact, a very good test of whether you understand a concept, idea, political situation etc is trying to explain it to someone. If you find doing so increasingly heavy going, you will now know why.

In all these respects The Economist is a virtuous example, and I appreciate that. Certainly, it does have one or two flaws, but these pale beside its worth. It is, for example, remorselessly upbeat and positive. There’s nothing wrong with being upbeat and positive, of course, with with The Economist that is relentless. I once asked my brother, the
‘younger’ one, how he thought the first Economist leader would read after Armageddon. What he came out with does sum up up the magazine/newspaper: ‘Well, the worst is over. What lessons can now be learnt from it all?’

The Economist, I discovered, when I started reading it regularly, was pretty much the course of my brother Mark’s apparently impressive and often quite obscured general knowledge. Where once I was baffled by how he knew about the difficulties facing suburban commuters in Indonesia or how he could confidently assert that so-and-so will face an uphill struggle to retain power in local elections in Peru, I now knew: he had read about it all in that week’s edition of The Economist.

So, for example, a quick glance at this week’s edition of The Economist (date May 11) will tell, as you might expect, you all about the Trump-inspired trade war between the US and China and the danger of war in the Middle East involving the US duking it out with Iran, as well as the latest development in Britain’s Brexit fiasco, but also that taking their lead from free public transport in Tallinn, Estonia (introduced six years ago) other European countries, impressed by the success of the scheme, are considering introducing it in their cities.

There’s also an account of how Sara Duterte-Carpio, the daughter of Indonesia’s ‘strongman’ president Rodrigo Duterte is being groomed to succeed her father and that in France the decline of the Roman Catholic church has meant that more and more children are being given less traditional first names. From the US comes the most disturbing news that the nation’s pay-TV companies are facing an ever tougher time, recently losing a fifth of their customers, although somehow managing to make a third more profit (by the simple expedient of bunging up prices which would probably explain why one in five customers has called it a day and is turning to web-streaming services).

In Switzerland the country’s finance industry is somehow under threat. I haven’t yet read the story and so I can’t give you chapter and verse, but I can say with almost absolute certainty that the news will profoundly disturb those who are disturbed by such news.

So guess what I shall be talking about, casually dropping these and other matters into the conversation, when I next chat to someone whose horizons don’t begin and end at the village boundary? And guess who, with a bit of luck, will think - while staying resolutely schtumm to avoid betraying a growing sense of inferiority mixed with awe - will marvel at just how well-informed that Patrick Powell is? Unless, of course, whoever I’m talking to also reads The Economist every week. In that case I shall be rumbled, just as I eventually rumbled my brother (the ‘younger’ one, not the other one - he’s now dead and beyond rumbling).

. . .

After posting this, I seemed to remember a recent Economist TV advert which rubbed me up the wrong way. It ran along the lines of ‘Intelligent people like you and us have to be informed and read The Economist’. So I searched the web for it to post it here with a few catty comments, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. YouTube has a few Economist TV ads and the recent is dated January 2019. Here it is. If I do find the one I didn’t like, I’ll post it here.

I have to say I rather like the injunction to ‘question everything’ and I don’t find it in any way offensive. I am though pissed off that I didn’t find the ad I didn’t like just to post it here and ask whether others agree or disagree with me (not that any of you buggers apart from P. and B. ever bother to respond to posts, but - well, that’s life and I’ll have to live with it. At least I’ve still got my original two kidneys and fully functioning liver, so thank the Lord for small mercies.

PS On a completely different tack, finding out as I have just how easy it is to post videos here, I shall start posting a few more. I mean, why not?

NB The bloody video doesn’t yet work. Went to try it and no dice. It’s MP4 and sometimes there is trouble with that format, so I shall dick around a little and see if I can’t save the day by posting it in a different format. Tough, I know, but there you go.

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