Thursday, 8 December 2016

The words to say it. Though they sometimes don't

Today I had some grapes that, unlike most of those sold these days, weren’t seedless. I wondered what to call them. Seeded? Hardly. Seedful? I’m not sure there’s such a word. Or ought to be. Seedy? Seems unfair. They were rather good.

Words aren’t always there when you need them. Expressions, too, can be slippery. The elephant in the room? Who has rooms that big? 

OK, some people do have rooms big enough~
but most of them, I suspect, are short of pachyderms
I always love “at the end of the day”. The one thing you can be sure of at the end of the day is that it gets dark. And don’t you admire people who say “if I’m completely honest”? Does that mean anything they tell you without that preface isn’t to be believed?

I once worked with colleagues who used to tell me, when they wanted a report or some other material written, “it doesn’t have to be War and Peace.”

Just as well. I’m not sure if I could bring the Battle of Borodino to life like Tolstoy. And in any case I suspect most of my colleagues would have found one of the films or TV series far more up their street than any War and Peace presentation I could have produced.

Then there’s an expression I use a lot. It helps me get started on jobs that are going to take a long time, and any job that’s tedious is long. I say, sometimes to myself, “I’ll just break the back of it.”

Gratuitously cruel, isn’t it? I mean, breaking a back? It’s a horrible thought.

But just think if the job’s particularly hard. If it’s back-breaking, say. Then I’d be breaking the back of a job’s that’s breaking mine. Where does that get any of us? You remember Gandhi? “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” Breaking the back of the back breaking only leaves more of us crippled.

Like I said. Slippery things, words. And expressions.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

An anniversary. With a message for today

Seventy-five years ago today, a powerful military nation made a fatal military error.

Instead of swinging northwards from its conquered territories in China and tackling the Soviet Union, then gripped by a life and death struggle against Nazi Germany, the Empire of Japan chose to go South and attack the Far Eastern possessions of Holland and Britain. If it had done only that, it might have achieved its aims: its forces on both land and sea quickly overcame the British and the Dutch. But they weren’t satisfied with so much and overreached, attacking the United States too.

Had Japan taken on the Soviet Union, the world might have been a profoundly different place. The Soviets might have had to divert forces from the Western Front and weaken the fight against Hitler. The United States might have felt it impossible to join the war at that stage. The outcome might have been a great deal less favourable to the Western powers.

It didn’t happen. Admiral Yamamoto had opposed the Southern strategy but, bowing to the orders he was given, decided the only way to make a success of it was to launch an attack on the US so powerful that it would knock them out in one strike. He combined careful planning with intensive training of both naval and air forces, and finally a brilliantly executed attempt to destroy US naval power in the Pacific with a single blow against Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese embassy in Washington had trouble translating and typing its government's warning to the US, with the result that the attack occurred before the the message was delivered. That led Franklin Roosevelt to describe 7 December 1941 as a day that would “live in infamy”.

More to the point, it was an attack that looked like a victory – it wreaked huge damage on the US Pacific fleet – but it failed to deliver the knockout blow Yamamoto sought. Instead, it led to a war that would ultimately cost Japan as many as three million dead, culminating in the double atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was the end of the expansionist dream of the Japanese Empire. Instead, the United States emerged as the major power in the Pacific.

Pearl Harbor: it looked like a victory for Japan
but it ultimately ensured the Empire's defeat
That’s a position the US has held on to, sometimes grimly, ever since. It’s flexed its military muscle, not always with success – viz. Vietnam – but it has relied above all on its huge economic and commercial strength. The greatest challenge in recent decades has come from a new source, China. That was a threat that Obama spent a great deal of time and effort countering. Notably, he negotiated the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between twelve nations not including China.

The election of Donald Trump, however, killed the deal. He made it clear that he would drop it on his first day in office. That was a piece of news that must have been received with celebrations in Beijing: it marks a withdrawal by the US leaving the field open to China.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a triumph of wishful thinking over good sense. By overreaching, Japan ensured the victory of its enemy. Ideology led to a reckless military act that rebounded catastrophically on its perpetrator.

It’s a lesson Trump could do with learning. Governed by his ideological concerns, he too has behaved recklessly, in the commercial rather than the military field, and with a withdrawal rather than an advance, but, in all likelihood, with the same drastic effects. A decision his compatriots could well come to regret.

Especially if he persists with his apparent addiction to picking fights with China.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The noir in the next field's darker

Nurtured as we have been for some years on the TV genre known as ‘Nordic Noir’, no Englishman could be blamed for feeling a slight tingle at the idea of visiting one of the Nordic countries. Dangerous places, it would appear. Why, there’s even an apparently pleasant little market town called Ystad down in the south of Sweden where for a long time there was a new serial killer at work every week for a great deal of the year.

You understand that I’m not talking about a mere murder a week. No, I mean a series of murders a week.

Fortunately, they were blessed with a local police detective of almost superhuman ability, Kurt Wallander, who week after week identified the perpetrator and arrested him, often in spectacular fashion. Oddly, for a small seaside town, there always seemed to be a camera crew standing by to record the event. Not that I’m complaining: how would we have been able to enjoy it if they hadn’t been there?

One of the obstacles to Wallander’s success was, as so often in TV views of police work, his own hierarchy which never seemed to believe in him. Of course, I sympathised with him, but I have to admit that I can’t help wondering whether his superiors didn’t have a bit of a case: after all, just how useful is it to solve this week’s serial killings if it doesn’t deter next week’s?

Wallander: gets it solved but can’t stop it happening again
Still, I shouldn’t be too harsh. Swedish detective work is clearly recognised as outstanding even in other nations. Why, the Metropolitan Police in London seems to have appointed a Swede, John River, as a Detective Inspector, and ensured his doings (rather ghostly doings, considering the state of animation of his partner) are faithfully recorded in the aptly named River.

If things were so awful in Ystad, you can imagine how much worse they must be in the capital, Stockholm. It seems that this city is the hunting ground of an absolutely weird woman you really don’t want to cross. She’ll hack your computer and your phone, find out where you are, track you down and exact harsh, not to say bloodthirsty, revenge for any offence you may have caused her.

You can imagine how careful I was in Stockholm when I was there myself last week. I tried to work out whether any woman I saw might have a dragon tattoo on her shoulder but, hey, it was winter time and everyone was wearing coats, so how could I have known? For safety’s sake, I just kept out of the way of any of them.

I didn’t really feel safe until I got to the meeting for which I’d flown to this bleak and forbidding capital (which, to be fair, turned out to be neither). It was with a group of librarians, and it’s hard to imagine a less threatening profession (even if Professor Plum did get scragged in a library with a candlestick).

There’s that moment at the start of a meeting which pretty much decides whether it’s going to be a success or not. It’s when people are taking off their coats and getting out their notepads, deciding whether they want tea or coffee and whether they want a biscuit with it or not, and above all making small talk.

It struck me that I might start by mentioning how keen an admirer I am of the Nordic Noir genre. So I told them that I had enjoyed Broen/Bron, the series whose double name reflects its mixed Swedish/Danish origins. They all looked at me blankly, until the penny dropped with one of them.

“Oh, you mean The Bridge?” she said. It may not have helped that I had called the series ‘Broen’, or possibly ‘Bron’ (my pronunciation is far from reliable), which may have been the wrong language, or possibly neither. Anyway, The Bridge was indeed what I meant. They told me they’d liked it, but without the slightest trace of enthusiasm, like someone drinking your home-made wine who has decided not to offend you.

Warmth improved when one of them said, “I liked The Killing”, which they all seemed to have done. So had I, but I hadn’t mentioned it since it’s Danish rather than Swedish.

Then she added a comment which really surprised me. “I watched the American version too. And it was much better.”

What? The remake was better than the original? What world was I living in?

Finally, the truly astonishing revelation came out.

“I’m watching Line of Duty now,” another one of the librarians told me.

Now they were all enthusiastic.

“Oh, yes,” said another, “that’s a really great programme. We’re on season 3 now. It’s great.”

Line of Duty? That’s an English police series. I enjoyed it too. But it had none of the exotic content, the originality, the innovative viewpoint of Nordic Noir.

But then I suppose Nordic isn’t exotic to Nordics.

Or could it be that my first impression was right? That those Nordic series are only Noir to us? That to people on the ground they’re just a rather pedestrian description of everyday life?

Saturday, 3 December 2016

A triumph for the LibDems. A defeat for the Tories. A warning for Labour

It’s always satisfying to see a Tory government being given a bloody nose. 

It’s even more satisfying when it’s a victory for those who don’t accept the Brexit verdict as irrevocable. 

And it’s best of all when it’s administered to an unpleasant individual of thoroughly toxic views.

All that happened this week.

Zac Goldsmith ran an unpleasant Tory campaign to be Mayor of London last year, calling on racist and Islamophobic notions to try – and, fortunately, fail – to beat Labour’s candidate, Sadiq Khan, whose name is probably enough to explain the racism and Islamophobia. Not to justify them, of course, but certainly to explain why an unprincipled candidate would resort to them. 

This year, he resigned from the Conservative Party and from Parliament to precipitate a by-election in his constituency of Richmond Park, where he ran as an independent against the government’s decision to build a new runway at nearby Heathrow airport.

The Liberal Democratic candidate, Sarah Olney, a strong supporter of continued membership of the EU, chose not to campaign on the airport but to focus on Brexit instead. To widespread surprise (including my own), she snatched the seat from Goldsmith, converting his majority of 23,000 votes into her own of nearly 1900.

An excellent result.

The defeated candidate (for local MP and London Mayor)
and the victorious LibDem
If I have a quibble it’s that we had to depend on the Liberal Democrats to win this victory. The main party in opposition to the Tories is my own, Labour. It should be the one challenging the government, and all the more so since the Liberal Democrats were in coalition with the Tories between 2010 and 2015. That was both a betrayal of principle and counter-productive: it reduced the party’s presence in Parliament from 62 to eight. The Richmond Park result may suggest that things are turning around for the LibDems (though one win doesn’t make a resurrection)but it certainly reflects a Labour failure.

Why do I say that?

If Sarah Olney’s win owed a great deal to the LibDems’ position against Brexit, undoubtedly the biggest question for the vast majority of voters, her party was able to make it their own because Labour’s silence on the subject has been deafening. 

Why is it so quiet? Silence is always hard to interpret, but occasionally it gets broken. John McDonnell, a close ally of the party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn, recently described Brexit as an “enormous opportunity”. This seemed to confirm a suspicion many of us felt that the Labour leadership wasn’t particularly comfortable with the party’s official policy of backing continued EU membership. 

Meanwhile, siren voices on the right of the Labour Party are calling on us to address anxieties over immigration in Labour’s traditional voter base. Again, this provokes suspicion, in this case that we are being urged to move rightwards, to counter the challenge presented by the extreme anti-EU and xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP. As another of Corbyn’s allies, Diane Abbott, recently pointed out – correctly – Labour can’t win by being UKIP-lite. If people want UKIP policies, they’ll vote UKIP. Labour doesn’t beat them by accommodating them, but by explaining that turning against foreigners won’t address any of the real problems affecting our supporters, which are poverty, insecurity and joblessness. Instead, we need to tackle the causes of economic decline – not least of which is the decision to leave the EU.

That’s hard to do if you’re not too sure about the EU yourself. Hence the silence.

The problem is that silence isn’t leadership and leadership is what voters are crying out for. Labour isn’t doing leadership right now. There was recently a Parliamentary vote, on a motion advanced by the Scottish National Party, to investigate Tony Blair’s role over the Iraq War and his possible misleading of Parliament at the time.

There are two positions one can legitimately take on the issue. 

The SNP’s would be that Blair behaved unconscionably and needs to be held to account by Parliament. 

The majority Labour position, with which I agree, isn’t simply one of “hands off our former leader” but rather argues that the problem was that Blair had far too much authority, allowing him to commit the country against its will. So it was an institutional issue, not a personal one, and it needs to be tackled at that level. That ties in, for instance, with the calls for Parliament and not just the present Prime Minister to have the final say over Brexit.

A third position is illegitimate. That’s to have nothing to say on the matter. It’s striking that all three of Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott stayed away from Parliament at the time of the debate.

Silence, like over the EU.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Similarly, voters abhor silence. While it stays quiet and on the fence, refusing to lead, the group that technically controls the Labour leadership leaves the Party vulnerable to attack by those who flow in to fill the political vacuum – whether from UKIP or from the LibDems.

So the Richmond result isn’t just a victory for the LibDems. It isn’t just a black eye for the Tories. It’s also a serious wake-up call to Labour.

The leadership needs to make up its mind: start leading, on the issues that matter to the electorate, or see our support continue to erode. Otherwise – please just stand aside and let someone else take over. 

Someone who has something to say. 

Someone whos prepared to get out in front and lead.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Parting of the ways with my oldest friend

The one benefit of a boarding school, from a kid’s point of view, is that you’re with your friends all the time. They’re within walking distance. There’s none of that phoning their parents to check whether they can come over and establishing when is convenient for both families. You just pop round, convenient or not.

The first step, of course, is to make some friends at the school.

Fortunately, when I showed up at the boarding school I attended – Dartington, now sadly closed – I found myself quickly thrown into the company of one boy of my age. In fact, he was a couple of months younger, which was a shock to me: I was used to being the youngest in my group. He also had a name that struck me as weirdly spelled: Alasdhair (pronounced Alastair).

We had a number of interests as well as our relatively young age in common. We both liked languages, for instance, and we shared an interest, passing as it turned out, in physics. However, it was neither of those things that first formed a bond between us.

One of my earliest memories of Alasdhair was cycling with him to a poetically named village near the school, Landscove. Isn’t that evocative? Coves are things you get on the coast. What’s one like when it’s inland?

It turns out, nothing special. Landscove is in Devon which is known for its hills. That made it a struggle to get there on our bikes. It was little reward for the effort to discover that it was a pretty little village but with nothing to distinguish it from any of the others around.

Alasdhair was fortunate in having his mother, Barbara, and sister, the equally strangely-spelled Shellagh (pronounced Sheila), living at the school. Shellagh and Barbara were as charming and fun as Alasdhair and it was balm to my soul to be adopted by them. They offered me a welcome which I’m sure I outstayed by repeatedly visiting their flat in the evenings to enjoy the atmosphere of family life while away from mine.

But inevitably I spent most time with Alasdhair himself. We listened to comedy radio programmes, in particular I’m sorry I’ll read that again, featuring the team that went on to launch Monty Python along with the one that launched another TV programme, The Goodies. We cultivated our taste for science too, notably by stealing rather a lot of wire at one point, laying it around the roofs of the school and using it to run an illicit radio station. Fortunately, we were caught before we ran out of enthusiasm for becoming DJs.

We also tried fermenting potato juice and then breaking into the chemistry lab where we tried to distil the product into vodka. Our pains yielded a lot of broken lab equipment and a tasteless, murky liquid with absolutely no intoxicating effect.

What else did we do? We walked on Dartmoor until our feet felt like lead. We bored our contemporaries by talking about relativity theory without understanding it. We maintained a friendly rivalry over linguistic ability, which I probably edged over him in French, but he won hands down overall by also learning German.

I don’t want to give the impression that we lived in each other’s pockets, because we certainly didn’t. We each had our own circle of friends, his significantly larger than mine; our orbits simply intersected more often than most and we had too much in common not to keep gravitating towards each other.

After school, we kept up our bond by making for London to study Physics. We both got involved with the radical left and took our eyes off the study ball with the result that neither of us covered ourselves in academic glory, though he got closer to it than I did. We lived with some other friends in glorious squalor, in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of the unfashionable east of the city. We even took in a group of young West Indians we met locally, which led to some interesting and colourful experiences, not always with the most successful of outcomes.

After college, our ways parted, as he made for the States and I stayed in Europe. Even so, we spoke or wrote from time to time and met occasionally. We went skiing together, with the woman, Danielle, who became my wife and another who didn’t become his, and we spent time together in Danielle’s home region of Alsace, enjoying the life, the food and the drink of the three countries that join there, France, Germany and Switzerland.

We met in England too. On one occasion he, his first wife and I met in Oxford for a picnic. We started by shopping for delicacies – smoked salmon and smoked ham, melon, salads, French bread, white wine – after which we faced a characteristically English mishap, when the heavens opened and threw down a deluge which looked apt to drown us.

Fortunately, we found a gloriously English solution. In South Parks Road there is a cricket ground with a graceful wooden pavilion and, in those days, the grounds weren’t fenced off from the road. We repaired (quickly) to the terrace of the pavilion and found all we needed: a table and benches under shelter. The picnic was all the more memorable for taking place within a metre or two of dense downpour from which we were fully protected.

In later years, I was sorry to hear that his marriage had ended, but delighted by the pride he took in his children’s progress and the joy that gave him. I was pleased too by his second marriage, to Becky Villarreal, an event I know brought him solace in what turned out to be the last few months of his life.

For he remarried not long after learning that he was suffering from stage 4 cancer, the disease that had much earlier killed his mother. Cancer has no stage 5, unless we use that term for death. Even so, his doctors held out a meagre hope of giving him another year or two of life.

It really was a meagre hope and on 4 November, it ran out.

Alasdhair Campbell, 1953-2016
in Dartington Hall Gardens, one of his favourite places
Of all friends with whom I still maintained contact, Alasdhair was the one I’d known well longest. Though the contact was more tenuous in later years, it had never been broken; but because it was tenuous, its ending feels all the more unreal. I certainly haven’t accepted it yet, and still expect to write to him or hear from him at any time.

It’s a particularly strong feeling when I visit Oxford, as I still do frequently, and see the cricket ground and its pavilion. That leaves me smiling with pleasure at the memory of our picnic and ruefully at the fence that prevents any repetition of it. I feel it too whenever I travel by air, as it reminds me of the many long journeys Alasdhair used to take for work and which he would commentate on facebook. Indeed, it is on a plane that I’m writing this testimonial now.

Odd that he’s not around any more. Terribly unfair. And poignantly sad.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Sheffield's trees: a maze worthy of Kafka

Have you been following the scandal that I like to think of as Sheffield-street-tree-gate? No? You don’t know what you’re missing.

Let me start by giving a little background. This may seem a bit of a roundabout way of setting the context, but bear with me – it will make sense in time.

It’s his novel The Trial that made an adjective, Kafkaesque, out of Kafka’s name. In it, the protagonist K (and, no, the choice of that single letter is unlikely to be mere coincidence) comes under investigation for a crime without ever being told what it is. And yet, even if he doesn’t know what crime he’s accused of, he somehow knows that he’s guilty – a neat way of expressing the universal sense of guilt, over the harm that each of us has somehow done. In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, his contemporary Oscar Wilde said “each man kills the thing he loves.”

As any of us would, K does try to deny his guilt. But the policemen who arrest him make it clear there’s no point:

”Our authorities, as far as I know, and I only know the lowest grades, don’t go out looking for guilt among the public; it’s the guilt that draw them out, like it says in the law, and they have to send us police officers out. That’s the law. Where do you think there’d be any mistake there?”

“I don’t know this law,” said K.

“So much the worse for you, then,” said the policeman.

Near the end, K explains his predicament to a priest.

“But I’m not guilty,” said K. “there’s been a mistake. How is it even possible for someone to be guilty? We’re all human beings here, one like the other.”

“That is true,” said the priest, “but that is how the guilty speak.” 

Kafka's Trial: a vortex that sucks us in and grinds us down
The Sheffield street-tree scandal concerns the activity of a private company, Amey’s, that has been contracted by Sheffield City Council to look after its trees. It has started by felling a number of them, and in one particularly notorious incident, showed up at 5:00 in the morning, demanding that residents move their cars or have them crushed by falling trees. Two women aged 71 and 70 found themselves arrested for the first time in their lives when they tried to prevent the felling, prompting protests from Nick Clegg, the local MP, who denounced “scenes you’d expect in Putin’s Russia.” I suppose that, given the President Elect’s admiration for Vladimir, one might be tempted to add “or Trump’s America”.

This is the same Clegg who, as leader of the Liberal Democrats, made a pact with the devil by entering a coalition with the Tories. That kept David Cameron in power for five years with nothing achieved for himself but the reduction of his parliamentary presence from 62 to 8. 

But I digress. 

The Save Sheffield’s Trees group told the Guardian that if Ameys people “blitz the city’s trees in the first five years of their 25-year contract, they can spend the next 20 years with much lower maintenance costs”. I suppose some will see that view as unduly cynical. Not implausible, though, is it?

Another person arrested over the battle of the city’s trees is a Green Party member, Simon Crump. He apparently was held by the police for eight hours, but he believes it took that long because the police simply couldn’t find the right charge to bring against him in their computer.

“It was quite Kafkaesque,” he informed Helen Pidd of the Guardian. “I was being imprisoned because they couldn’t work out what to charge me with.”

He’s right. And no doubt, whatever it was the police thought he’d done, he was guilty as charged. 

Kafka would have been proud.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Misty's diary: coping with a puppy – principle and practice

Well, I told them. And when they didn’t listen, I showed them. I hope they’ve learned their lesson.

The domestic staff have introduced a new dog – or rather, far worse, a new puppy – to the household. I told them how badly I felt about that when they showed up with that little tyke Luci. I know I’ve got used to her and we basically get on OK now, but that’s no excuse for keeping on doing it. They can’t be in any doubt what a dim view I take of such proceedings on their part.

They went ahead anyway. The new thing’s about the size of a medium rat but with less meat on it, and apparently goes by the name “Toffee”. I’d warned them what would happen so when they blithely went on and did it, I acted on my warning. I vanished. I was gone. Vamoosed. Into the garden, over the fence and far away.

It’s true that the little Luci saw things differently.

“But you’re still coming back for your food, aren’t you?”

Well, of course I was coming back for food. You’ve got to eat, haven’t you? I mean, what does she think? How na├»ve can she be?

Still, mustn’t be too hard on her. She’s young and doesn’t get it. What I was doing by disappearing was taking a stand on principle. What I was doing by coming back for my food was taking appropriate action in practice. Principle is great but practice really has to come first.

After all, a principle stand makes you feel good about yourself, and boy do you need that when there’s a new puppy in your life. But not getting your feed can leave you feeling strangely thin, which must be a most bizarre feeling (I imagine) and would rather undo any good done by the stand on principle.

Anyway, I made my point. But you do have to show tolerance towards the benighted. So after a while I came back and hung around the house a bit, just to show them I didn’t hold grudges, and could be magnanimous towards the afflicted. Of course, I got a bit afflicted myself, by that Toffee-thing – it kept running at me and trying to nip my ears or my belly, worse than Luci when she was small – Luci was never that young, anyway – so I had to resort to some of the old tricks that I hoped were behind me for good, like hopping up on a dining chair under the table cloth, and laughing at her.

Safe on a dining chair:
out of reach but able to keep a baleful eye on puppy antics
Still, she seems less sensitive to that kind of behaviour than Luci was. She keeps coming back for more. Toughy-toffee, I say. Still, there’s nothing much a good cuff around the ear with velveted paw won’t cure, and for the few things it won’t there’s always just a gentle reminder administered with the very ends of my teeth. Delicate they are, my teeth, but if I say so myself, pleasingly sharp too.

I’m gratified to say that she seems to be a quick learner, that Toffee. The smallest of implied bites produces a little squeal and then a welcome cessation of annoying attention. Welcome peace.

What I don’t know, though, is why it’s always me that has to train these new arrivals. I did a good job with Luci, but you know how it is: a good job, well done is only ever rewarded by another even bigger job to take on. And toughy-Toffee’s certainly going to be a challenge.

Still, she has at least one weak point. I’ve never seen anyone like her with food. Once she’s got her head buried in a bowl of the stuff there’s no getting it out any more. I watched the domestics literally struggle to get a bowl away from her. She’s like a silent version of one of those ghastly vacuum cleaners they use on their carpets, though with her it only works with food bowls. Hers, Luci’s, anyone’s she can get her nose into.

I’m just glad my food’s up high, where I can get it but Luci can’t. It’s way out of Toffee’s reach. Long may it stay so.

Because if she ever got to it, I’d end up as hungry as if I’d disappeared in practice as well as in principle.