Friday, 31 October 2008

Dancing delicately around a dilemma

The Daily Telegraph is backing a campaign to set up a memorial to airmen of Bomber Command from World War 2. The Torygraph, as many of us think of it, is the paper of Queen, Country and the greater good of the Conservative Party. Picture a middle-aged cardigan-wearing man complaining about the behaviour of the kids outside his comfortable suburban house; add as subtext that he finds their behaviour all the worse because they’re probably black; that’s the model Torygraph reader.

The BBC interviewed Tony Iveson who, among other missions for Bomber Command, helped sink the German battleship Tirpitz. He spoke out against the nation’s failure to recognise the role of the airmen. Even Churchill, he said, had refused to give them credit for the part they’d played in achieving victory.

My father was a bomber navigator. He flew in Stirlings. The Stirling had short wings which meant that itcouldn’t fly high enough to keep out of the worst danger. He repeated to me the story that the wingspan had been shortened so the plane could fit into RAF hangars, although I now believe this may be a bit of an urban myth. The upshot was that the Stirling was principally used for transport after 1943. So my father was never in Bomber Command.

He wasn’t at all sorry about it. Not because flying in transports was a safe option: it wasn’t. My father towed gliders to the failed assault on Arnhem, where the British First Airborne Division was all but wiped out. It was on the return from one such flight that he was shot down himself. He also carried paratroops or flew on single-aircraft missions, dropping supplies to the French resistance or bombing precise, small targets. He told me about the bleak sense of isolation on that kind of mission, alone against the night sky, above countryside held by an enemy. They were the occasion of some of the best moments of his war: someone in a French house forming the curtains over a lighted window into a ‘V’ for victory, someone with a torch in a garden flashing a ‘V’ in Morse. Small signs saying ‘you’re not alone, we’re on your side.’

He was glad to have missed the mass bombing raids against German cities: Cologne, Berlin, Pforzheim, the long litany culminating in Hamburg and Dresden. Between 300,000 and 600,000 dead civilians. The Air Force commanders and the politicians claimed they were targeting industrial complexes that happened to be in cities so the civilians were just collateral damage. However, I’ve seen estimates of the impact on the Germany economy that placed it at no more than 1%. What’s more, the raids on Germany diverted resources from the North Atlantic convoys and it was their losses that brought the country closest to defeat as food and fuel ran perilously low. The raids took place because they were an easy way, for a long time the only way, to hit back at Germany, and because the Allies hoped it might break the German will to fight.

Killing civilians to destroy your enemy’s morale has a name. We call it terrorism. Many people get upset if you use that term for the carpet bombing of German cities. But isn’t it curious that over sixty years on we don’t have a memorial to the young men of Bomber Command? If Churchill failed to congratulate the bomber crews, wasn’t it because underneath it all his conscience was uneasy? He sent them but he didn’t like what he’d sent them to do. It’s like rubbish collectors, sewage men, anyone who does our dirty work. We need them to do it but we don’t invite them in for a cup of tea afterwards.

We may know today that Bomber Command didn’t really help the cause of victory, but the airmen thought they were because that’s what they’d been told, and they risked their lives for it: 44% of them were killed. And like it or not we’re as indebted to them as our parents or grandparents: for better or worse, our lives today are possible because of the victory in 1945, and the boys who died gave their lives to win it – however misguided the strategy they’d been ordered to carry out.

Today we’re doing it all over again. We send young people to Iraq and Afghanistan. We give them defective equipment and they get killed or hurt, physically or mentally, and when they come back they get little gratitude and less help.

At this time of year Britain is awash with people selling paper poppies to commemorate our war dead and to help support today’s veterans. I always disliked the sentimentality of the poppy pushing and distrusted the implicit glorification of war and nation, causes that did so much damage to so many who stood to gain so little. Wearing the poppy also struck me as a pressure to conform as well as a rather creepy display of self-righteousness. So I never bought any.

Last year, though, I changed my mind. I bought a little poppy-shaped lapel pin, though because I still felt bad about the exhibitionism angle, I didn’t actually wear it. But we’re being so miserly to our soldiers that I felt I had to make some gesture for them.

I’ll do it again this year. Because however awful what they did was, the boys who flew out over Germany on those night-time raids did what we asked, and in 55,573 cases paid for it with their lives. They deserve their memorial. On the other hand, I can’t bring myself to support a cause backed by the Telegraph. So instead I’ll buy a poppy in their honour and then hide it in a drawer.

Funny old thing an uneasy liberal conscience.

Wouldn’t give it up for anything, though.

Monday, 27 October 2008

The happiness of the middling-distance runner

It is a truth universally acknowledged that keeping fit is good for you. And running is particularly good because it doesn’t need much equipment and you can start on your doorstep. It wipes you out, but that must be good, because if the medicine doesn’t taste horrible then it can’t be working. As for enjoyment, running gives you the same pleasure as banging your head against a wall: the relief is wonderful when you stop.

Of course, it’s important not to think of running as a purely physical exercise. It’s principally a moral activity. The first step before you even hit the road is the one your will takes in driving you out at all. Every nerve in your body is screaming at you ‘Going out for a run? In this? What’s wrong with the couch?’ but you go out anyway. A first, moral win.

The next thing is to keep going. Marathon runners talk about the ‘wall’ they meet at about twenty miles. They have to run through an obstacle of light-headedness and unsteadiness to make it to the end of the course. I’ve always admired that courage and determination. From a safe distance.

Well, now that I’ve taken up running myself I know what that wall is like. I meet one at about three minutes, a second at about ten, a third at about twenty. There may be more beyond thirty minutes but I don’t go there very often.

Though it did happen once. On that occasion, I forced myself through my successive walls, much against my body’s insistent protestations, and set myself a new record of running a full hour. Some achievement. Unfortunately I was in the picturesque, enchanting but dense woodland of Cannock Chase, and it took me less than an hour to get lost. And for the sun to set. So I was blundering around in woods in pitch darkness.

When I say ‘lost’ I really mean ‘lost’. I’ve looked at a map since to discover where I went and I’ve never worked it out. All I know is that I must have been travelling at right angles to the proper direction. I’d been going East when I thought I was travelling South. Or possibly travelling North when I thought I was going West.

Fortunately I eventually found my way off the Chase and to a road with a street name. By sheer chance, I had my phone on me, so I rang my stepson David, in Edinburgh. Once he’d stopped laughing at my predicament, made worse by the fact that it was now raining as well as dark, he went on to Google Maps to check out the street I was in and gave me not just directions, but excellent directions. Remote guidance. He knew where I was better than I did, even though I was there and he was three hundred miles away. It was Sat Nav on a mobile phone which I didn’t know had it.

He took me on roads and across open country, even through woodlands, but this time in the right direction. And eventually I breasted a hill and saw the sight I’d longed for: my car.

It was like Cortez seeing the Pacific, Amundsen realising he was at the South Pole, Marco Polo reaching Beijing. Ecstasy.

A trip that I had planned to last an hour had taken three and a half. I was exhausted, my feet hurt and the rain was pouring down my neck. But somehow I felt great. Strangely exhilarated. I went home believing that I’d had a special evening, instead of realising it was just an abnormal one.

But that’s it, you see. Running. It’s about moral achievement not physical.

No wonder my body dislikes it so much.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

My big friend is bigger than your big friend

There are times when being able to call on a large friend is a tremendous boon. Our cat Misty demonstrated as much yesterday.

Generally, he enjoys his life over here in Stafford. The only problem is the other cats – they’re not proving cool at all. There hasn’t been a cat living here for a long time and the others have come to regard what is now our garden as an extension of their own territory. Yesterday, Misty was out there enjoying the sun (you have to be quick, before the clouds come back over, but when it’s out it’s pleasant, reminiscent of places where the temperature sometimes gets into the twenties). All was apparently going well until, suddenly, he was at the back door mewing piteously to be let in (this is not our place and so we haven’t put in cat flaps).

It was Janka our dog who heard him and alerted Danielle. They dashed down to see the neighbour’s cat in the garden, behaving in a proprietorial and threatening manner towards Misty, who was scrabbling at the door to get back inside. Danielle opened the door, but before Misty could get in, the black, furry, barking bundle that was Janka was out after the interloper. The latter took one look at the noisy black mass bearing down on him and, not realising that Janka has the killer instinct of a rag doll, decamped.

Misty had got indoors but turned to watch the scene. To his astonishment his tormentor was being put to ignominious flight. Slowly he came back to the door and peered out. The garden was undoubtedly his again. The sun had returned. He went back out, found himself a patch of sunny grass and started to lick himself down again. ‘This place is mine, for my enjoyment,’ he was clearly saying. ‘Come back here and my big, black, noisy friend will sort you out.’ His demeanour radiated calm self-satisfaction.

Of course, when I was at school I could never say ‘my big brother is bigger than your big brother’ because I didn’t have one. ‘My kid brother is bigger than your kid brother’ doesn’t have the same ring of reassurance to it. But I’ve always had a hankering after the joy of having a big, powerful friend to leap to my assistance.

Or at least I did until Bush and Cheney took over the White House. When I suddenly realised that one’s friends can sometimes be just as worrying as one’s enemies.

Still, at least the old arrangement still works for Misty.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Smile, Gordon, and the whole world smiles with you

It’s great to see Gordon Brown looking so cheerful.

Last weekend the Eurozone leaders got together in Paris to talk about the financial crisis, and they invited Gordon to come along for the fun. You might have expected them to look as though they were laying a wreath; instead they were wreathed in smiles. Surprising really, since Gordon isn’t known for spreading an atmosphere of good cheer. In fact, in recent months he’s been more than usually dour. As well he might.

Brown started off with a bang. We’d all got a bit sick of Blair down the years and so Brown got points for just not being him. And things kept going his way. It is said that when Harold MacMillan was Prime Minister a journalist asked him what was most likely to derail a government; ‘Events, dear boy, events’ he replied. Well, sometimes events can be a politician’s best friend. In his first few months, Gordon faced floods, unsuccessful terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow and some foot and mouth released by a government lab. Flood, war and pestilence. He responded with firmness and with calm. He was the nation’s rock. And his stock flourished. Bad times were good times.

This was odd. After all, if you took a bit of a closer look, you might have raised a smidgen of a reservation or two. After ten years in office, you’d think the government might take some responsibility for the lack of adequate flood defences. And the foot and mouth virus got out of a government laboratory. As for the terrorists, well what did Gordon do about them? They screwed up their own mission with no help from him. They couldn’t get their bombs to go off in London and the only casualty in Glasgow was the terrorist himself, dying a lingering death from his self-inflicted burns.

None of that mattered. We weren’t picking nits. We gave him credit for it all.

And then it all went wrong. Northern Rock was the first bank to go. Not so much a rock as just plain rocky. Gordon dithered over how to rescue it. Then it looked like he might call a general election. And he dithered again, finally bottling out, which just made him look frightened of the opposition. His credibility slipped away. His rock, like Northern Rock, turned out to be built on sand.

In September of this year, things hit rock bottom. Or rock bottom so far. The Conservative opposition under David Cameron were 24% ahead. Labour was lower in the polls than before its historic defeat in 1983.

Then came the financial crisis. Bad times again turned out to be good times. They gave him a second lease on life. He bought banks as though they were going out of fashion. He nationalised away as though overnight it had stopped being a taboo Socialistic practice. He acted like a man who knew what LIBOR meant, what ‘liquidity’ was, how a derivative worked. He won praise from unexpected quarters: the latest Nobel economics laureate, Paul Krugman, wrote from across the Atlantic in The Guardian that ‘the British government went to the heart of the problem and moved to address it with stunning speed.’ ‘Stunning speed’? Our Gordon? The ditherer of last autumn? Who’d have thought it?

Our wise and indomitable Gordon has returned. Gordon, you are our rock and on this rock we shall build our bank. The Conservative lead has fallen to 12%, still massive, still enough for a colossal victory, but a lot less than just a few weeks ago. And Gordon has learned to smile.

He comes into his own when the going gets tough. He flourishes on adversity. But not just any adversity. The financial crisis is a bit like the foot and mouth release: he can argue that he’s not really responsible for it. David Cameron’s Conservatives naturally say he is. Of course, the reality is that the light-touch regulation that let the banks rip and led to the present crisis, was introduced by Cameron’s predecessor as Conservative leader, Maggie Thatcher – we’re harvesting what she and Reagan sowed. Blair and Brown were so dominated by her political success they never challenged her thinking. So if we want a political scapegoat, then it would have to be Thatcherism and the baleful influence it has exercised over both main parties for decades. And if you’re going to blame one of the parties, why not start with the Conservatives who gave us Thatcherism rather than Labour who just didn’t dare challenge it?

But Gordon can plausibly argue that politicians aren’t to blame. He points out that the crisis started in the US. That’s great, because everyone likes to blame the Americans. But he also talks about the global nature of the crisis. That’s even better: what’s everyone’s fault in general is no-one’s fault in particular. And he doesn’t have to go there either: this crisis has a ready-made scapegoat. It’s the bankers with their fat-cat bonus cheques. Now there’s a target which has everything. No-one likes bankers, the men in suits who offer you an umbrella when the weather’s fine, and take it away when it starts raining. And we love blaming the bankers for lending to us because otherwise we might have to blame ourselves for borrowing from them. And then where would we be? We’d have to admit we brought the crisis on ourselves. Where’s the satisfaction in that?

So Gordon is laughing all the way to the bank, which he can nationalise with our money, and use as his launching pad for a comeback to make Bill Clinton envious (and Hillary even more so).

Events have conspired to help Gordon out of his hole when he couldn’t help himself. No wonder he’s smiling. And the more broadly he smiles, the more firmly the smirk is wiped off Cameron’s face. Cameron will probably still be elected in 2010, but at least he’s having some anxious moments on the way. Anything that shakes his imperturbable smugness is fine with me. Bring it on and give us more.

Sadly, though, no joy is ever unalloyed. The fly in this ointment was evident in the group photographs from Paris last weekend. If Gordon was cheerful, his host Nicolas Sarkozy was positively gleeful. He’s only had two years as French President and is therefore even less likely to be blamed for the crisis than Gordon. In two years, his most striking achievement has been to marry a pretty woman. Now all he has to do is slipstream behind Gordon and emerge looking like a man of decisiveness who delivers results. And get re-elected.

What a price for France to pay for a glimmer of hope in Britain! Keeping Cameron out of office is a dream. That it might help Sarkozy get back is a nightmare. The very thing that’s putting the spring back in Brown’s step boosts the chances of le petit Nicolas. Just goes to prove that in life you can’t have everything.

In the meantime, Gordon’s smiling. Let’s enjoy the good times while they last.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Misty moves in

Misty, our cat, has now joined the rest of the family in making the transition to Stafford. He couldn’t come before: British legislation against rabies kept him out until October. That may seem cruel but you only need to see the scenes outside certain pubs in England, at 11:00 on a Saturday night, to understand why we don’t need any more crazies foaming at the mouth in this country.
We made the trip over as comfortable as possible for him. The back seats were down in the car, so he had plenty of space to wander around. He’s a slightly curious cat in that he seems to like nothing more than to cuddle up to our dog Janka who, among many admirable qualities, has a scent which it would be hard to call self-effacing. Many humans among our nearest and dearest grin and bear it to humour us, but I’m at a loss to understand how a cat with his fastidious tastes can put up with it. But he actually seeks it out.

Misty exhibits his unusual predilection for the richly pungent society of Janka
On the trip over he shared his space with Janka and could enjoy her company to his heart’s delight. Nevertheless, he left us in little doubt that he wasn’t particularly enjoying himself. He purred a lot, but then he was on the feline equivalent of Valium and the vet had told us the drug would make him purr. When not purring he was wandering around the car in increasing distress and protesting loudly.

However, that all came to an end when we got into Stafford. He just took to the house as though it had been specifically designed for him. He ran up the stairs just to see how you got to the top. He then ran down again to check on the opposite experience. In the car he had disdained all food, in Stafford he kept going back for more. He jumped on the bed overnight to sleep between us, and got up with me at the crack of dawn this morning to follow me around wherever I went, purring loudly all the time.

Today he went out before it was entirely daylight. He’s learned how to get from the front of the house to the back, no mean feat since we’re in the middle of a terrace. He’s been up to the top of a pine tree after a squirrel, which he didn’t catch, and got down again eventually when Danielle stood underneath and talked him back to Earth.

Janka had always liked Stafford. With her fur, she’s not that keen on temperatures in the twenties and above. Stafford doesn’t suffer from excessive heat or, indeed, from excessive dryness either. That suits Janka.

Now Misty likes it too. Quite a vote of confidence for this little place we now inhabit.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Blurring health and virtue

‘How are you?’ I asked a colleague I met on the stairs a little while ago.

‘I’m good,’ he replied.

When asked how I am, I tend to reply ‘well’, or ‘not particularly well’ or ‘less well than before I saw you’ or something else appropriate. But ‘good’? Who am I to say? Surely that’s for some properly constituted moral authority, a Creator, or at least Priest, a Judge or at any rate a moral philosopher. It’s hardly for me to make that call.

The other greeting that’s becoming increasingly common these days is ‘how are you doing?’ All I can ever find to reply is ‘how am I doing what?’ Sadly, that seems to kill the conversation.

Should I be answering ‘good’?

Friday, 10 October 2008

Whereof we cannot speak...

… thereof it might not be a bad idea to keep our mouths shut.

Calvin Coolidge was the US president who came to be known as ‘Silent Cal’. It’s said that he was approached at a dinner party by a young woman, who told him that she had taken a bet that she could get more than two words out of him. ‘You lose,’ he replied and said nothing further to her.

Told of Coolidge’s death, Dorothy Parker asked ‘How could they tell?’

Taciturn though he may have been, Coolidge nonetheless found the words to write an article called ‘Whose Country is this?’ in Good Housekeeping magazine (of all places) in February 1921. He pointed out:

‘There are racial considerations too grave to be brushed aside for any sentimental reasons. Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides. Quality of mind and body suggests that observance of ethnic law is as great a necessity to a nation as immigration law.’

There are people out there who, silent though they may be, could never be silent enough. In this world of Bushes and Palins, any of us can surely make a list of such people: I’ll leave it to you to make your own.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Carving pumpkins in Strasbourg

The secondary advantage of having Canadian friends, alongside the primary one of the pleasure of enjoying their company, is that it enables us to experience North American traditions without any sense of unease. There is in most Europeans, or at least certain Europeans, or at any rate this particular European, something that one might think of as a residual sneer towards the United States. However hard one may combat one’s anti-Americanism, there remains a little voice inside us saying ‘It’s what the Yanks do’, a judgement which by itself makes the thing seem somehow less sophisticated, more infantile, less meaningful.

Of course, the sneer is entirely reciprocated. A couple of days ago, I heard Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the US House of Representatives, at a meeting of the Christian right, describing a view put to him by a BBC correspondent as ‘very European’. I don’t think he used the phrase to communicate admiration or even tolerance. In Casablanca, Peter Lorre asks Humphrey Bogart ‘You despise me, don’t you?’ Bogart replies ‘If I gave you any thought, I probably would.’ Gingrich’s comment had the same cordiality without the wit.

This is strange. I mean this is the same Gingrich who became speaker of the House of Representatives in 1994 on the back of his ‘Contract with America’ and the Republican Revolution it embodied, and stepped down four years later when the Republicans lost five seats and the ‘Contract’ sank without a trace. He’s also the man who waited till she was recovering in a hospital bed from cancer surgery to tell his wife of eighteen years that he was divorcing her. Presumably it’s the scale of his achievements and the depth of his Christian convictions that entitle him to look down on others from so high.

Be that as it may, friendship between the US and Europeans is sometimes tinged by a little mockery. Not so with Canadians: they’re civilised. We seek their approval, we’re not indifferent to their estimate of us. So when some Canadian friends in Strasbourg say to us ‘come and carve some pumpkins’ we go, with joy in our hearts, to carve pumpkins.

And what a source of unbounded good cheer it was! The invitation suggested we bring our own pumpkin. Our flat is in Kehl, in Germany but next to Strasbourg. There was some kind of festival in the morning. There seem to be festivals most weekends, ever since the Kehlers discovered that the Strasbourgers are more than happy to travel across to buy goods of the same quality – sometimes the same goods – as they get in Strasbourg at reduced prices. Since then, excuses seem to be found for getting a lot of stalls into and around the market place on an increasingly frequent basis, to tempt Strasbourg Euros into more welcoming homes in Germany.

To my amazement, one of the stalls was selling nothing but pumpkins. Big ones, little ones, pointed ones, flat ones, orange ones, grey ones. I suggested to my wife that we pick one up to take with us. ‘Picking it up’ was the start of the problem. The Germans are sharp on quality but that doesn’t mean sacrificing quantity. My wife was soon back home without the pumpkin, saying that even the moderate sized one she’d bought was too heavy to carry and could we stop on the way to Strasbourg to pick it up. When I could carry it.

Once in Strasbourg, we set out for our friends’ new address. They live in Mill Square. We headed for where we thought it was but once there realised we were in Millers Square. We found Mill Street and Mill Embankment but it took a while and two passers-by to get us to Mill Square. By this time the pumpkin which started out weighing down my shoulder had reached a psychological weight of some 30 kilos.

We got into our friends’ new and lovely apartment. We were greeted with great warmth and kindness by them and the others already there – less chronologically challenged than we, they had been there for up to two hours by then. Our enormous pumpkin went under the table.

Now I have to make a confession. I am gifted with the same sureness of touch in matters of plastic art, whether carving, modelling or painting, as Newt Gingrich in following through social transformation or in inter-personal relationships. It had been my unstated hope that my wife would at some time be the centre of an admiring and cheerful circle watching her convert our pumpkin into some wonderful artwork. It seems, unfortunately, that she was nurturing a similar belief about me, though presumably without the same expectations of wonder.
Our pumpkin remained untouched under the table. We had chosen one that was particularly good for turning into pumpkin soup and was distinguished by its green colour, so there was no way we could pass it off as anyone else’s in among all the orange ones. I could feel its baleful presence boring into my mind and casting a pall over my enjoyment of an otherwise pleasant evening.

Our hostess started with cheerful and infrequent suggestions that we should carve our pumpkin. As time wore on, the repetitions came increasingly often and with increasing firmness. My wife’s expectations and mine were diametrically opposed but it didn’t take me long to work out whose were going to have to give way to the other’s.
So I stood knife in hand facing up to my vegetable adversary. How complicated can it be to carve a pumpkin? Even kids do it. You just have to make a hole in the top in order to scoop out the insides and then various holes to suggest a face. There’s no technique to it.

Well, actually, there is. Cut the top out with the knife angled the wrong way and you can force the top into the body of the pumpkin, but you can’t get it out. A conundrum. In the end we had to cut a second line around the top and make eyeholes big enough to push a hand through to force the extended top up out of the pumpkin. This left little room to make what might be thought of as a truly artistic face. But in the end something was done. And with the help of four people, we were able to scoop out the inside and make space for a candle. Which is now burning attractively within the pumpkin on our terrace back in Kehl.

Yes, in Kehl. Just as it was made clear that we weren’t going to get away with not carving the pumpkin, it was made clear that we were not going to get away with leaving it behind either. So it had to be lugged back to the car and then into our flat. And there it mocks us, Gingrich style, with staring eyes and sardonic grin.

A fitting tribute to a North American pastime which is a source of unadulterated joy to all.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Earth: report of an inspection

Douglas Adams’s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is about that remarkable book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The latter describes all the places worth visiting in the known Galaxy and the best way to get there as a hitchhiker.

As Adams explains, the Galaxy’s pretty big so the Guide has to be careful about how much information it gives on each interesting place it covers. The entry on Earth, in particular, went through successive stages of editing until it was pared down to the laconic ‘Mostly Harmless’.

Clearly, it must have been longer when first penned by the hitchhiker who visited us. I find it interesting to speculate about that visit and just what might have happened between us if his path had crossed mine.

Actually, it probably isn’t that interesting but it’s as good a way as any other of passing the time on a long railway journey.

Let’s suppose that, picking a historical period at random, the visit had happened in early October 2008. He got here by accepting a lift with a group of sociologists in a battered second-hand ship with a lot too many light years on the clock. They were carrying out a study into primitive races in isolated backwaters of the Galaxy and were going to be spending six months here gathering information. They dropped him at Stafford which, unbeknown to its inhabitants, is a major refuelling station for ships with proton-powered engines. This explains why they try so hard to keep the temperature in the place below 15°, with constant water cooling from low-lying clouds.

He spent the early evening with me, after which he took a lift in a freighter heading for Arcturus. It wasn’t really the direction he wanted to go but with so little passing traffic, a hitchhiker can’t afford to be picky.

Here’s the original report he wrote on his lightning visit to our planet.

Notes on a visit to Earth

Be careful if you get a lift to Earth: getting out again can be real hell as the traffic is ridiculously light. It’s not really on the way to anywhere else.

I was in a place called ‘Staff’d’ although my contact on-planet said it was written ‘Stafford’. When I asked what had happened to the ‘O’ and the ‘R’ he told me that this was the way the local tribe, the ‘English’, spelled it. ‘Illiterate, are they?’ I asked. ‘It’s complicated,’ he replied.

He took me out to dinner. We went for what he called a ‘curry’. It was surprisingly tasty considering how drab the surroundings were.

‘The local cooking is good, anyway,’ I told him.

‘Erm… it’s not actually local. It’s from India, which is rather a long way away. Another part of the planet which the English used to own and run.’

‘Why did you run another part of the planet? Couldn’t they run themselves?’

‘Oh no, it wasn’t like that at all. They ran themselves for quite a long time. And they’ve been running themselves again for some time now. We were just there for a while. I think we wanted to be there because it contributed quite a lot to our wealth.’

‘I see. They had more food than they needed so they fed you. And now they’re still feeding you.’

‘Well, no. They actually had less food than we did. And they’re not really feeding us. Most of the Indians over here are English now anyway. And the cooking they do is different from back in India.’

‘So it is local cooking.’

‘It’s complicated.’

Over dinner a lot of the conversation was about a crisis that was taking place at the time. I didn’t completely understand the details.

‘So it’s a really serious crisis is it?’ I asked.

‘Yes, the worst since 1929. Nearly eighty years ago. Not many people alive now were alive then.’

‘Well, that’s not bad. A whole lifetime with only one bad moment. I know places where bad things happen practically every day.’

‘Er, actually, that happens here too. And there have been some other pretty awful moments since 1929: a world war, lots of other wars, various attempts to wipe out entire races of people, hunger, disaster, and so on.’

‘But today it’s worse?’

‘Well, it’s different. It’s an economic crisis. It’s about money. About wealth.’

‘What’s happened to the wealth?’ I looked around. Everyone I could see had a fairly well-fed air. They all seemed to be living quite well.

‘It’s still there. But to keep goods moving so that every one gets the things they need, we have to have a really efficient system of exchange. We had banks taking care of that for us and now they’re in trouble themselves. When the banks get into trouble, we all get into trouble.’

‘So you’re having trouble moving goods round the system?’

‘Yes, that’s about it.’

‘Look, you need to speak to some guys I know in the Crab Nebula. They have these proton drive ships that you wouldn’t believe. Can carry any amount of payload and you can hardly hear them running. And the on-board music system is to die for. You need to get a few of those. You’ll soon have goods moving again.’

‘It’s a bit more complicated than that.’

The whole thing was apparently being intensified by the fact that another tribe, the Americans, were about to change chief.

‘So why’s that important to you?’

‘Basically the Americans are the most powerful nation on Earth and the wealthiest. What they do impacts pretty heavily on what we do.’

‘So it’s like you and India. They’re from somewhere else but they run you.’

‘No, it’s not like that. We’re friends. We talk everything over with them, to work out what we should do about different things.’

‘And end up agreeing what to do?’

‘No, we end up doing what they decide. That’s why it’s important to work out who’s going to be President.’

‘And who are you going to vote for?’

‘I don’t have a vote.’

‘So they run your life but you can’t vote? Strange kind of democracy.’

‘It’s complicated. And this time,’ he hurried on, ‘it’s particularly interesting because it looks like a black man may get elected.’

‘A black man? What’s a black man?’

‘Someone who has black blood. Well, not black blood. His blood is red like anyone else’s. What he has is a black face. Well, no, actually, not black, more of a dark brown. Although in Barack Obama’s case he’s not that dark. But Black all the same, you know. From Africa, you know.’

I didn’t know and couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

‘Let’s get this right. You’re in England which is being run by America which may be run by Africa.’

‘Not really. He’s actually American, he just looks African.’

‘If he is American he must look American. After all, how else does an American look?’

‘Well, there are white Americans and black Americans. He’s of mixed race. His father was black so he’s black.’

‘Because he has a black parent he’s black? What was the other parent?’


‘So doesn’t having a white parent make you white?’

‘It’s complicated.’

The Arcturan freighter driver came in just then to say he’d finished refuelling and wiping down his ship. He wanted to get going before the cooling system got everything wet again.

Earth seems a bit of a strange place. The locals are convinced that lots of bad things are happening, but to me it seemed mostly harmless.

If pretty complicated.