If you're jobless the unemployment rate is 100 per cent

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I have been at my most Gradgrindish for the past few months. At conferences I appear doomed to parade the view that capitalism is really doing pretty well for the world's poor. I patter out my routine that the world is feeding, pretty well, a hugely increased number of people. I say - this is very Gradgrind indeed - that a larger proportion of this hugely increased population is doing well than ever before in history. I point out that I understand well enough that the absolute number of poor is rising, but with comforting slowness. I tease out for bemused audiences that these two positions aren't incompatible.

It was clearly time to reread Hard Times, with its anti-hero, Thomas Gradgrind, the businessman in Coketown, who turned out to be even more telling a figure than I recalled. You probably remember that he adored statistics, but couldn't see the people that stood behind them. So the poor horse-mad Sissy, the circus-girl marooned suddenly in a fact-orientated school, is left pointing out that though it may be a huge success that "only" 25 people starve in a city of a million, it's as bad for each of the sufferers whether the well-fed number a million or a million million.

The point was brought home when one of my businessmen friends bowled up for dinner hot from a week's work for his new firm, during which he plotted the downsizing of a layer or two of management. Has to be done, best for the business as a whole, and Britain plc, etc, he said. But he has been unemployed himself and found himself quoting, he thought, Harold Wilson, to the effect that for the unemployed individual, the unemployment rate is one hundred per cent.

Seeking to escape the curiously saddening business of pointing out to greens the jollities of modern industrial life, I took my copy of Hard Times and made my way to Brighton College to see the work of Sir Edward Poynter (who had been a boy at the school). Poynter's message, that drawing from the nude is important, seems to find an uncanny echo in David Hockney's remarks about the importance of drawing. The Hockney show at the Royal Academy is perhaps the best counter-Gradgrindish experience I have had in years.

Charmed and softened as I was by the exotic tiles, the discarded dress, the plump softness of Poynter's Diadumene, I could not shake off the gloom of my new profession of romance-buster to the conference circuit.

Indeed, I fancied that I saw a perfect and salutary Sissy just outside Salisbury. There was a young girl standing by the railway track. She was clean enough, and smart enough. Doubtless she was well fed and well schooled. But she wore the look of a child who knows she's about to be ticked off, as she stood among the brambles and weeds beside the slowing train. She was breaking every rule. She had doubtless been drawn to a hole in a fence, as all lively people are to gaps in the orderly world. I hope she wasn't about to vandalise the track. I hope she was there just to hear the roar of trains. I hope she was just mucking about in the way that I was free to muck about as a boy.

Pleasure in an adventurous child glimpsed from a train window, the paintings of a busy and public-spirited Victorian artist, the drawings of a savage, acute and affectionate son of northern England: these are the very things with which a modern Gradgrind can comfort himself.