Thursday, 31 December 2009

The Muezzin and the New Year

It had been our intention to have a holiday in places starting with 'Ma' but time, and money, ran out before we could take in Marseille, Maputo, Madeira or Manhattan (either in New York or in Kansas), so we've had to limit ourselves to Madrid and Marrakesh. Not that we're complaining: they're fine places to celebrate Christmas and see in the New Year.

Marrakesh is a wonderful place in which one of my favourite figures in history, the intellectual giant Averroes, died. So did one of the finest and still underrated British generals of the Second World War, Claude Auchinleck: Churchill, who combined extraordinary charisma and courage with an incompetence in military matters equalled only by his certainty that he was outstandingly gifted, replaced Auchinleck by that champion of vanity and ineptitude Montgomery, just as he, Auchinleck, had finally overcome Rommel at the Batlle of El Alamein in Egypt.

Fortunately, Marrakesh isn't just a place to die, but a pretty good place to live too. The Medina, where we're staying, is magnificent - though it could benefit by being pedestrianised. The bustle and the crowds are exhilarating, the noises and the smells mindblowing, but the motorbikes weaving in and out of the crowd are a real pain, and when a car or van tries to make its way through, it's a disaster.

But my most telling experience has been one that has forced me back to an earlier post, about the
Swiss decision to ban Minarets. Here they're everywhere, and of course five times a day they are graced with muezzin's cries. In the spirit of tolerance that I constantly try to cultivate, I have absolutely no objection to this, particularly since it contributes to the specific atmosphere of the place, so I'm happy with it even at quarter to six in the morning. Unfortunately, though, there is one muezzin, and apparently the closest to where we're staying - or perhaps the loudest - who doesn't believe in just addressing a swift prayer to the Lord, but delivers a full little homily every dawn.

Why is that necessary? After all, we're talking about an omniscient being here. He surely already knows about the devotion of his adepts. So presumably a quick reminder, in the form of a memo or post-it note, would do. You know, something along the lines of 'God is great. I devote myself wholly in full submission to his will. And I wish to express my gratitude for another day in which to prove that this is so.' The Lord could take note of the prayer and I could get back to sleep.

Why instead do we need a full quarter of an hour about all the different aspects of the devotion and submission on offer? Unnecessary detail. The bane of the office e-mail of today. And an obstacle to my getting my much-needed beauty sleep.

Apart from that, though, it's brilliant here. Wonderful food, excellent fruit juices, charming people. A great way to end the year.

So it's in that spirit that I wish you all an excellent 2010!

Friday, 25 December 2009

Carols, a story for Christmas

Happy holidays to you all! It being the 25th of December, I thought it was time for a short story, encapsulating the spirit of Christmas.

But perhaps it doesn't...


The children sat across the table from him. The eldest seemed almost motherly towards the other two, though she was young enough herself, so young, a child really, her hands wrapped round the cup of hot chocolate (when had he last made that?) to warm them. Protective of the other two, but with eyes full of trust when they met his.

Next to her was the younger girl, not yet ten he imagined. Self-assured, though, somehow, well beyond her years. And the one with the best voice of the three, clear and pure. She smiled at him as his eyes settled on her face.

And finally the little one, the boy, incredibly young to be out in the dark. Not that it was late – little after five, he guessed, though he’d been asleep when the children had come knocking and he’d not yet checked the time. He felt he knew that little boy, who’d not wanted to be left out, who’d wanted to tag along with the other two despite the dark and the cold. He pulled the dressing gown tighter at his throat at the thought, and pushed his toes deeper into the slippers, warm though it was indoors. When he’d been five or six himself he too had always wanted to be with the others, out doing the things they were doing, not left behind at home while they were enjoying themselves. And no doubt the eldest, the one he thought of as ‘Miss’ – and yet that seemed unfair: she seemed warmer, kinder than so prissy a nickname might suggest – took pleasure at being given charge of him.

‘So,’ he asked, ‘do you do this each year?’

‘Oh, no,’ the girl with the voice replied, ‘this is the first time. And it’s only because Daddy’s been collecting for the lifeboats. We thought it would be fun to help.’

He smiled. At first it hadn’t seemed fun at all. He’d been deeply asleep, not something that often happened these days, and the knocking had startled him and irritated him. It had been light when he fell asleep and in the dark he’d had trouble finding his slippers. Struggling down the stairs had been difficult, and he’d felt a twinge of returning pain that he’d blessedly forgotten for the short time of his sleep.

When he pulled the door open, he was in little mood for joy, and more than ready to complain at being disturbed. But he’d been greeted by three children’s faces, vaguely familiar from having seen them in the streets or green places of the estate, all illuminated from below by the candles they carried in glass jars.

‘Sing a carol for you?’ the eldest had asked.

‘Why… I don’t know…’ he’d replied, and then he’d looked around. There was a sprinkling of snow on the ground, a slight smell of snow in the air. The street lights shone on the wet surfaces of the roads, the children’s candles were reflected by the snow-covered leaves. And though it was cold he felt freshened by it.

‘Why, yes,’ he said, ‘please. I’d like that.’

And then they’d sung In the bleak midwinter of all carols to choose. Christina Rossetti’s words somehow never failed to move him for all their mawkishness, and Gustav Holst’s music fitted them so well. Suddenly he was drawn back to a different world, one where music and even more than that, poetry, had meant so much to him.

The elder girl and the boy joined in every other verse but the middle girl did the rest as a solo and her voice was quite extraordinary for someone so young. She sang softly but the purity rang in his ears and somehow the sound seemed to rise and fill the air around them. He remembered Christmas Eves at home with his parents when they’d listened to the King’s College choir from Cambridge, on a record which year by year grew more cracked, singing The Holly and the Ivy and I saw three ships and he wondered how people could make such sounds with their voices.

‘Would you like another one?’ they asked him. He realised then that they’d finished their song and were watching him.

‘Yes, indeed, that would be nice.’

‘What would you like?’

‘Whatever you’d most like to sing,’ he told them.

They sang him Good King Wenceslas and he smiled at the memory of teaching it to his son, who’d been so keen to learn the words. He’d particularly liked the strong verses, the ‘bring me flesh and bring me wine’ which he would sing in the deepest voice he could manage, playing the king. His son. Those were the days when he had a family. His son was still close to him even though so far away geographically. He was travelling towards him right now, though it was a time when most would have wanted to stay with their own families. He hoped he wouldn’t be too late, that he wouldn’t have made the sacrifice of his family Christmas and yet not be with him on time.

Afterwards he’d invited the children in for hot chocolate, and had enjoyed fussing around in the kitchen, looking for the chocolate powder, relieved to find he had enough milk. Now they sat around the table looking at him.

‘Are you brothers and sisters, then?’ he asked.

‘Alice and I are,’ said the eldest, ‘but John is from the house next door. We thought it would be fun for him to come too.’

‘It’s been great,’ agreed John.

‘But we can’t stay long,’ she went on, ‘we have to get him home.’

‘Of course, of course,’ he told them, ‘drink up your chocolate and I’ll put some money in your collecting box.’ His wallet was on his desk. He found a few coins and then thought ‘what the hell – what do I need it for?’ and pulled out a note too. When he put them all in the children’s box, they looked at him with huge eyes.

‘Wow, Mister,’ said John, ‘thanks. That’s great.’

‘You sang so well for me. You’ve given me a marvellous time.’

And they had. One brief moment had given him back something he hadn’t felt for many years – the magic of Christmas, so often drowned by its tawdry commercialism. It surprised him to have that feeling back, one last time.

From his front window, he watched the children running home, delighted with their takings, looking forward to tell their parents how well they’d done.

He smiled and turned to go back up stairs, still buoyed by the joy of the carols, which he’d always felt were much the best religious songs. But the pain was getting worse and his morphine was upstairs. He knew he wouldn’t be suffering long, and he smiled at the irony: for once, there was little comfort in the idea that an unpleasant experience soon be over.

The children with their candles had been a spark of light and the pleasure had stayed with him. Once he was back in bed, he would be able to wait for his son in rediscovered peace.

So far his last Christmas was turning out better than he’d expected.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Seasonal themes, solstice thoughts

It’s pretty miserable in England at the moment: it’s the time when we have to wrap up warm, grit the footpath and scrape the windscreens. The depths of winter, in fact. But it’s the 21st of December, the solstice. From now on, though it will certainly get colder, it’ll get no darker. We’re still in the tunnel of winter, but at least there’s the beginning of a light at the other end, the first glimmer of Spring.

Of course, that’s only true of the Northern Hemisphere. My commiserations go to friends south of the Equator, of course. But I’m afraid not even thoughts of their discomfort can make me feel any less pleasure at the turn of the season here.

What this this does make me wonder about is the images we hand around at this time of year. Pictures of bleak night skies, for instance, with a few glittering but comfortless stars that somehow make you feel even colder. Or a robin sitting on a bare branch, with a frozen stream in the background winding between snow-covered banks.

Why do we do this? Why do we need to remind ourselves that it’s miserable outside? That the air is frozen, the ground slippery? We can tell the former by looking out of the window, the latter by stepping onto the path outside our front door.
No, I think we need some much more consoling or warming images for this time of year. The kind that reminds us less of the tunnel around us, more of the glimmer ahead.

With that in mind, here’s my image for the season. Naturally from my favourite local place, Cannock Chase.

A much more appropriate image for the time of year, I feel. Enjoy it, bask in the atmosphere – and remember, up here at least, we’re on our way back towards it.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Death, thou shalt die

News of an excellent trend reaches us from the US. A report by the Death Penalty Information Centre – not a cheerful name, but the organisation’s role is positive – points out that death sentences in the country fell in 2009 for the seventh year running. They are down to 106, under a third of the peak in 1998.

The report suggests that much of the decline is related to the sheer expense of capital punishment, particularly given widespread doubts of its effectiveness as a deterrent. I have to say that I like any argument against the death sentence, but that highly practical consideration doesn’t have quite the nobility of some of the more powerful and more moving objections on moral or philosophical grounds.

Still, the report also suggests that a major consideration has been what I’ve always regarded as the single unanswerable argument against the death penalty: the system sometimes gets it wrong. With nine exonerations of death row inmates in 2009, and a total of 139 since 1973, it seems to get it wrong quite a lot (how many other miscarriages of justice have taken place but not been discovered?)

That’s the nub of the problem. Jail an innocent man for even a short time and you damage his life, perhaps irreparably, but you can at least do something to try to right the wrong – indeed, if we were more generous with compensation and support after release, we could do quite a lot. Kill him and anything you can do is about as useful as saying ‘whoops’.

To me, the most chilling words in the DPIC’s report were:

In Texas, a prominent forensic scientist commissioned by a state legislative panel reported that arson evidence used to convict and sentence Cameron Todd Willingham to death failed to show any crime had been committed. Willingham was executed in 2004.

The man is dead and it’s possible no crime at all was committed. I’m reminded of Mr (later Lord) Justice Donaldson. He presided over the 1975 trial of the Guildford Four, accused of IRA terrorist attacks in Surrey and south London, and expressed regret that they had not been charged with treason, which still carried the death penalty at the time.

In 1989, they were released following conclusive evidence that the police had lied at their original trial and they’d had no part in the bombings for which they’d been sentenced.

It was bad enough that they had been wrongly deprived of so much of their lives. How much worse it would have been, however, had Donaldson been in a position to deprive them of their lives altogether.

Until judges, and indeed juries, can be shown to be infallible there can be no good case for retaining the death penalty. Moral and philosophical considerations aside.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Crisis of faith

One of the unusual characteristics of British life is that about a third of our state-funded schools are associated with particular faiths: the Church of England, the Catholics, the Jews and most recently, perhaps to prove how wonderfully open in spirit we are, Islam.

Many people think that these schools, which make up about a third of the total, are rather better than the ordinary, run of the mill secular kind. A Christian education makes a better person, they feel, which rather flies in the face of the fact that Henry VIII, Generalissimo Franco and Tony Blair all thought of themselves as God-fearing Christians.

This inclination towards faith schools has led to the phenomenon of some middle class parents suddenly rediscovering God, usually when their eldest child is about four. They frequent the Church assiduously for the year before admission decisions are taken. I’ve often wondered whether they behave like the villagers in that excellent novel, George Eliot’s Silas Marner: they didn’t go to Church every single Sunday but would miss one here or there, so as not to give the impression they were trying to take an unfair advantage over their neighbours in the race to heaven.

I wonder whether the parents looking for a quick route to the local faith school do the same? Do they miss the occasional service so as not to be thought too zealous? Do they say ‘We’ll both do Easter, of course, but perhaps you can handle Whitsun on your own and I’ll do the Harvest Festival.’ The important thing is to make sure their faces are recognised in time for the Admissions interviews, so the child gets the important acknowledgement of belonging to a Church-going family.

I assume, though I don’t know, that this behaviour continues until a few months after the last child starts school. Then presumably they can allow their attendance at Church, their helping with Fetes, their contributions to the good causes to tail off. Which is all very well and fine, but what would happen if they had a late addition to the family? One of those children we tend to refer to as an afterthought or, less flatteringly, an accident? What then? How awkward it would be to have to start regularly attending Church again, with no good explanation of why they’d stopped.

All these difficulties surrounding Christian schools are multiplied many times over when it comes to a Jewish school. After all, to be born Jewish you have to have a Jewish mother (makes sense – you can never be sure of the father: where things go in from may be unclear, but there’s little doubt where they come out). This means if your mother isn’t Jewish, you actually have to be converted to become a Jew.

This can be extremely painful. At one time I worked with a young woman who was as Jewish as anyone I have ever met. She stuck firmly to the dietary rules, she kept all the festivals, she went to services in the local Synagogue. But it was her father, not her mother, who was Jewish. So when I met her she was undergoing the demanding process of conversion, poor thing, and was extremely nervous about being accepted.

My mother is Jewish, which gives me a free pass to Judaism. I kept wanting to say to my colleague, ‘here, take my entrance ticket. I’m not going to be using it.’ Sadly, however, that isn’t how these things work.

Fortunately, she had a sensible rabbi. Long before she had completed the process of conversion, she was called in to face a panel charged with deciding whether she could be accepted. Inevitably, that made her even more nervous. However, the panel had realised, as anyone who knew her had, that she was deeply Jewish, to the core of her soul, and as sincere a convert as anyone could possibly want. The panel was delighted with her, she was accepted and was over the moon with the decision.

Not so fortunate was a woman in a recent case before our brand new Supreme Court, here in Britain (founded in October). She had converted to Judaism from Catholicism, but before a congregation not recognised by Orthodox Jews as valid. So when she and her husband, who was born Jewish, applied for their son to be admitted to the Jewish Free School in North London, they were turned down, on the grounds that the boy was not a Jew.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that this was racial discrimination against the boy. The decision has greeted with consternation in the Jewish community. It seems that the greatest objection is that the decision means that non-Jewish judges will decide who is and who isn’t Jewish.

All this reminds me of the wonderful man, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, who spread his message of kindness and tolerance in this country right up to his death in 1996. Unfortunately, he was a Reform Rabbi and many in the Orthodox Community refused to pay him any tribute on his death, on the grounds that he was not a Jew.
I heard one of his friends responding on the radio. ‘What a pity they didn’t tell the Nazis he wasn’t Jewish,’ he pointed out, ‘it might have spared him the time he spent in Auschwitz.’

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Where should we be looking for the war criminal?

Sad news. Tzipi Livni, former Israeli Foreign Minister and current leader of the Opposition, has cancelled her planned trip to London. The reason? A court in Westminster has issued an arrest warrant for her on charges of war crimes.

This is an outrage. If we had any doubt about how outrageous it was, we had only to wait for the explosion from Israel. ‘The lack of determined and immediate action to correct this distortion harms the relations between the two countries,’ the Israeli Foreign Ministry told us. And worse was to come: ‘If Israeli leaders cannot visit Britain in a dignified manner, it will naturally be a real obstacle to Britain's desire to have an active role in the peace process in the Middle East.’ Another fantasy political football match is under way in the Middle East, in which noble words get kicked around for a while, and then everyone goes home feeling they’ve done their best for the good cause while things just get worse on the ground. And if we’re not nicer to the Israelis, our fine British leaders won’t be allowed to play.

Still, it’s an interesting development that judges over here should try to hold politicians to account for their war crimes. On the other hand, it feels odd that these particular judges should be concerned with those particular crimes. Whatever the Israeli Army may have done in Gaza when Livni was in office, don’t British judges have other fish to fry?

Some years ago, when he was still Prime Minister, Tony Blair looked into a TV camera and told us all that he was ‘a straight sort of guy’. Since leaving office, he has found his way to God, converting to Catholicism. It’s a good faith for straight guys. Blair is, incidentally, a longstanding friend of one fine Catholic, the present Prime Minister of Italy.

Now when honest Blair took us to war in Iraq he told us his aim was to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction. Last weekend, he told the BBC that even if he had known there were no WMD in Iraq, he ‘would still have thought it right to remove’ Saddam Hussein. It sounds like the saintly straight guy of today is undermining the good faith of the straight guy then.

You see, our international obligations unfortunately only allow us three grounds for military action, that (a) we are under attack, (b) we are under credible and imminent threat of attack or (c) our action has been explicitly authorised by the UN. We weren’t under attack and Blair couldn’t get the UN to endorse the war, so that only left an imminent threat of attack. That would have been hard to prove even with WMD in Iraq, since the country didn’t have missiles capable of hitting Britain. Without WMD, the argument becomes flimsy to the point of being threadbare.

But Blair has gone further still. By declaring that he would have gone to war even if he had known there were no WMD in Iraq, he is admitting that he was prepared to wage war without legal justification. An illegal war, in fact. It’s hard not to feel that a man prepared to wage an illegal war fits pretty precisely the textbook definition of a war criminal.

So the only question that really matters is – did he honestly believe that Iraq had WMD? Or did he actually already know and go to war anyway – as he says he was prepared to do?

Now the evidence for Iraqi WMD was weak at the time – the UN weapons inspectors were checking out location after location identified by the Western Allies, only to find them empty of WMD – and the invasion showed conclusively that Iraq had none.

Isn’t it just possible that he might have had an inkling of the truth? OK, OK, it’s a harsh charge to bring. It suggests that a man who told us himself how honest he was may have been a little economical with the strictest truth. Perhaps it’s an unworthy thought, but it’s one I’d love to see tested in a court of law.

So the question for British judges is, did they miss a trick when they issued a warrant to arrest only Tzipi Livni?

Monday, 14 December 2009

Schneider’s: in memoriam

The internet, or at least the English-language version, is unlikely to be alive with tributes to the sad passing of the Schneider department store in Kehl. So to ensure there was at least one, I thought I’d better write it myself.

Kehl is a pleasant little town in South West Germany, just across the border – just across the Rhine, in fact – from the city of Strasbourg, in France. To say ‘in France’ is, incidentally, as much a statement about history as about geography: Strasbourg has been German twice in the last 150 years. At those times, Kehl was a suburb of the city; at other times, it was a little market town in Baden-Württemberg. Today, it’s the market town again, but also, funnily enough, increasingly a suburb of Strasbourg too. Even to the point that right now the main bridge across the Rhine is being widened to take Strasbourg trams.

Kehl is also the place where Danielle and I were living until eighteen months ago.

Schneider’s was the department store in the centre of the town, on the market square. It was a bit old-fashioned, both in the sense of being a little dingy but also in the sense of offering good products and, above all, of having outstanding assistants. That made it a place where it was a real pleasure to shop.

I judge shop assistants on the ‘bookshop’ scale: have you noticed that it’s bookshops that generally have the best assistants? They know where everything is, they can recognise a book from a vague description of its contents without the name of the author or the title, they can advise you on the kind of book you want. Well, the Schneider assistants were like that. Helpful, well informed, good at their job. I always used to go in there with a few badly constructed sentences in German ready for use. It was easy enough when I wanted socks, slightly less easy when I wanted short-sleeved shirts, absolutely impossible when I wanted one of those round, flat batteries for the kind of electrical gear you get in kitchens these days – I don’t know what those batteries are called in English, let alone in German.

Every time, though, I came out with what I’d been looking for. I was served with a smile, by people who replied to my halting sentences in fluent, courteous German which they would explain when I didn’t understand it.

The real irony is that when I speak German, I sound French. I actually know French properly so I suppose that subconsciously I speak one foreign language with the accent of another foreign language I know rather better. Ironically, I realised over repeated visits to Schneider’s, that practically all the shop assistants were French. They spoke German as though they were from that side of the border, but they actually came from the other.

And they resisted the temptation to show me up by replying to my cracked German in their native French, even though they must have guessed it would have worked better. It would have been easier for me, it would have made the conversation quicker and simpler, but it would have been a sad dismissal of my poor attempts at speaking what I thought was the right language. Now being that respectful to a customer gets you way up on my bookshop-scale of shop assistant excellence.

Well, all that’s over. A new mall has opened in Kehl, closer to the main road where the Strasbourgers arrive and where the tram will stop when it reaches the town. Old Schneider’s couldn’t compete. The market square branch and the two others in nearby villages are all gone, and with them 145 jobs. Jobs occupied by some of the best qualified people I’ve ever known to hold them.

Time is the devourer of things, I’m told, and it has devoured Schneider’s. It only remains to raise a glass to the memory of a fine old institution. In Kehl, many of us will miss it.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Is it time to give the bankers a break?

There’s something deeply unattractive about the way we tend to look for scapegoats for anything that causes us pain. It’s so facile. Something’s gone wrong so let’s blame somebody, just as long as it isn’t ourselves. Once we have identified our culprit, rightly or wrongly, we can turn our anger on them and enjoy the glow of self-righteousness.

This kind of behaviour may make us feel better, but its ugliness is encapsulated in one of the central parables of Western culture. Faced with a woman about to be stoned to death for adultery, Christ tells the crowd ‘he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone’. Only if you’re pure yourself can you indulge yourself in judging others.

Right now we have a particularly egregious set of scapegoats, carrying on their shoulders the weight of arguably the greatest calamity to beset the developed world since the end of the Second World War. The bankers are the objects of our wrath for having brought the financial system down around our heads by their fecklessness, and then demanded that the rest of us bale them out of the problems they created. Turning the bankers into scapegoats is obvious and easy. On the other hand, it exonerates us of our own substantial measure of blame: we took the cheap credit when it was available, and we enjoyed the fruits of a prosperity largely fuelled by their activities.

So should we perhaps recognise our share of responsibility and relativise our anger with the bankers?

This was a question I felt was posed particularly strongly last week when I heard our Business Minister here in Britain, Lord Myners’, telling the bankers to get back into the ‘real world’ when it comes to pay.

It transpired that there are 5000 bankers in the City of London expecting a bonus this year in excess of a million pounds. Of course, a lot of them are prepared to settle for the frugal end of the bonus scale and only take a million or little over. There are some, however, who expect real, substantial bonuses, in some cases of 15 to 20 million. Since a worker on median wage can expect to earn about a million in a whole, 40-year career, this means that some of these bankers want bonuses in a single year – on top of their salaries – that represent the earnings of 15 to 20 whole careers of ordinary people.

In total this group wants to take at least 5 billion pounds out of the banks, possibly as much as 10 billion. We, the taxpayers, put in 170 billion to bale them out of the trouble that they created for themselves and us. Now they want to take up to 5% of that sum, one pound in every twenty that we contributed, and stick it straight into their own pockets.

This week the government announced a new, one-off levy on high bonuses (any bonus over £25,000). The banks themselves would have to pay 50% of the bonus sum in tax to the government. Many bankers have reacted by threatening to move out of Britain.

There’s a suggestion floating around that they might head for Shanghai. The sheer layers of irony in this rumour make the mind boggle. Bankers going to an ostensibly Communist country to be free to pay themselves what they like; bankers seeking their freedom in one of the most authoritarian nations on Earth; and that regime accepting, in the name of socialism and proletarian values, that they should be able to do just that.

All this means that I think I have an answer to my question: is it time to relent towards the bankers?

Like heck it is. No way. The ‘he that is without sin’ bit has no place here. We’re talking about ‘he that is without shame’. The bankers may have redeeming characteristics, but if so they keep them well hidden.

You want to turn them into scapegoats? Be my guest. Go right ahead. Nothing you can say can possibly be too harsh. After all, you don’t have to worry about hurting their feelings. They can’t have space for other feelings once they’ve accommodated that level of greed.

The worst they might do if we get really, really rude about them? They might clear off to Shanghai.

If they’d sink so low as to travel in my car, I’d be only too willing to take them to the airport.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Getting ahead of the news

So many of us are so busy these days that anything to help us save a little time has to be a boon.

One chore I’d love to cut out is having to troop down to the newsagent to buy the paper each day. I don’t get it delivered as I’m often away, and I don’t like missing it because I usually find it reasonably entertaining.

Wouldn’t it be helpful if the papers just published every day’s issue on a single day of the week? In other words, you could go to the shop on Monday and collect not just Monday’s paper, but Tuesday’s, Wednesday’s and so on right through to Sunday’s. Or, if you’re like me, through to Saturday’s: I find the Saturday edition quite big enough and don’t have time for a Sunday paper too.

Now I know that you’ll object that this wouldn’t be possible as no-one could know the news before it happens. Well, I agree that this might be a problem for what used to be known as the broadsheets (these days, these papers are usually printed on smaller formats than the old broadsheet, but I don’t know what other term to use: given the rubbish in some of them, I’m not prepared to call them ‘quality papers’). Broadsheet readers, and that includes me, may just have to resign themselves to keeping up the daily trudge to the newsagent.

But for the tabloids, what would it matter? The tabloids don’t contain news in the sense of something that actually changes from one day to the next, but those glorious recurring stories of everyman that provide a reassuringly permanent background to our lives. This means that you can write next week’s tabloid ‘news’ now – all you have to do is keep the pieces generic and leave it to the reader to substitute a name on the relevant day. For instance:

  • former model leaves celebrity reality programme and patches up her differences with footballer boyfriend

  • sex fiend strikes again leaving dismembered body in pub car park (pics page 13)

  • sports star’s wife lashes out at estranged husband with his own sports equipment and tries to pass it off as an attempt to rescue him from crashed car
and so on.

Who needs to wait until any particular day of the week to write those stories?

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Rite of passage in Manchester

A good weekend, even if Danielle had to go and see her infirm mother in France. Indeed, a memorable weekend, since it included my first ever professional football match.

To avoid confusion, when I say ‘football’ I mean what 95% of the world’s population understands by the word. The game for which the other 5%, living in the US, use the term, is ‘American football’.

Funnily enough, I attended a professional American football match ages ago, when I sawn the New York Giants hosting the Cleveland Browns back in the seventies. It was fun, though I remember little of the detail. It would probably have helped had I understood the rules. The problem is that, just as you have to be American-born to be President of the US, you have to be American-born to understand American football by your twenties, my age at the time: it takes the equivalent of a complete childhood and adolescence.

My one clear memory of that match is of a man not far from me wearing a brown hat and scarf. At one point, when the Browns had done something or other particularly good under the arcane rules of the game, he made the mistake of cheering them. He was greeted by growls from the Giants fans all round him, to the effect that he was probably quite attached to his limbs – and I think some of them included his head in that category – and if he wanted to stay that way, he’d do well to keep his mouth shut.

It seems that in any game sporting the ‘football’ label, passions run deep, and being an away fan in the home crowd isn’t good for your health. Yesterday the away supporters were completely surrounded by stewards to stop any threats moving beyond the word stage.

In this instance, the away team was Chelsea. In every generation, London produces at least one successful side viewed as glorious by fans who love the Club, and as boring, dirty or otherwise despicable by everyone else, who loathe it. Once it was Arsenal, today it’s Chelsea.

The home side was Manchester City, which likes to present itself as the real Manchester club, since Manchester United actually plays in Trafford, a suburb of the city. This intensely annoys Alex Ferguson, the legendary manager of Manchester United, which may explain why City keep repeating the claim.

I was there as a guest of Ronnie, who with his wife Breda have been close friends since the eighties. We had hoped that Breda might join us for one of Manchester’s rightly-famed curries after the game, but unfortunately she had been laid low by the wine served at a dinner the previous evening, though whether the problem was the quality or the quantity of the wine I was unable to establish.

Having given no previous indication of this inclination, Ronnie has recently emerged as an avid fan of football and above all of Manchester City. With roots in Ireland, it’s hard to understand why he chose City. Clearly it can only be a coincidence that his admiration of the Club has emerged just when as it has gained an Arab owner and, at last, sufficient funds to buy players to challenge for a spot in the top flight.

The game itself was excellent. We went with low expectations, expecting the steamroller that is Chelsea to roll right over City. Indeed, within ten minutes, City was a goal down. It looked as though we might be heading for a rout.

But then things changed: City equalised before the interval. Few could have believed that they would have been going it at 1-1, and I’m sure most of the City fans would have been delighted to accept that half-time score line had it been offered them at the beginning.

The real wonder began in the second half when unrelenting City pressure was rewarded with a second goal and the lead. With more than half an hour to go, though, it was hard to see how they would hang on. Everything seemed to fall apart twenty minutes from the end, when City conceded a penalty. Chelsea would of course convert it, and the success would be the platform to take them to victory.

Then a miracle occurred: Chelsea’s Frank Lampard, one of the most successful penalty-takers in the world, saw his shot blocked. Commentators have described this event as Lampard missing a penalty, but those of us who were cheering from the City stands know that it was a brilliant save by keeper Shay Given. Given the chance, he took it.

And so the match ended 2-1 for Chelsea. Ronnie and I went on to enjoy our Manchester curry, raising a glass to our absent wives as we did so.

A memorable weekend indeed.

Friday, 4 December 2009

The dirty dozen

A great storm in a teacup last weekend. We were glued to our TVs and our newspapers. Well, perhaps not glued. Fascinated. Maybe that’s overstating it too. The stories caught our attention at least. And we talked about them. A lot. For an hour or two.

The subject: the ‘dirty dozen’ most underperforming hospitals in England.

The report that identified these citadels of shame came from Dr Foster Intelligence (DFI), a company that established its credentials a few months ago when it denounced Mid Staffs NHS Trust as an organisation that had chalked up 400 more deaths in three years than one would expect. Hospital leaders resigned. Auditors audited. Journalists journalised. All very exciting. Particularly as it’s my local hospital and a good friend works there.

So when DFI spoke out again last week, obviously they got an audience. And this member of the audience took a look at their website and at the methodology they’d used.

They had judged English hospitals on the basis of fifteen indicators. Most hospitals have 20 to 30 specialties, so the report didn’t even use one indicator per specialty. Four of their indicators concerned mortality – but only mortality after a specific type of case. Six of them concerned readmissions, i.e. when a patient has to return to hospital to fix problems that emerged after discharge – but again, the study looked only at certain types of readmission. And the other five indicators were all very specific – for example, the surgical technique used for gall bladder removals (and no other surgical technique at all).

A bit limited, you might feel. To give you an idea of how limited, if you were going to evaluate just one specialty, obstetrics – one of the biggest, since delivering babies is a major part of the work of hospitals in the West – you’d want to look at least at caesarean rates, episiotomy rates, perineal tears, forceps deliveries and post-partum haemorrhages. Five indicators. As a minimum. And you’d want to adjust them for risk – after all, if you’re treating high risk patients, you would expect a high rate of difficulties. Failing to take risk into account just penalises those hospitals with the guts to take on the toughest cases.

And then there’s the use of mortality as a measure. The study only considered mortality in hospital. That means that an institution which transfers its sickest patients to another hospital or sends terminal patients home (which may be a good thing to do, by the way – many dying patients prefer to end their lives in their own beds) will have an apparently lower mortality rate than others.

So a pretty flawed study. A flawed study which didn’t, by the way, class Mid Staffs among the dirty dozen. In fact, Mid Staffs did far more than avoid the bottom twelve – it actually came in at number nine out of 146. ‘Good work’, you might think, ‘the new management has really turned that hospital round.’ Except that the data on which the study was based came from the period ending 31 March 2009. And it was in March that the scandal about the hospital broke.

Oh, well. It made for some amusing reading and a lively conversation, on a grey winter Sunday. Before we moved on to a more intelligent topic.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

In the gloom, there's always Pratchett. For now

Late autumn in England. The days are grey, the nights are long, and the temperature is falling as steadily as the rain. We need any spark of brightness we can get.

That’s why it’s such a joy that this is Pratchett time. Around now, he comes out with his yearly novel. Sadly, and this makes the pleasure, each time it’s repeated, all the more precious, it may not go on happening for many more years. Since he was diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s, Pratchett has thrown himself with admirable enthusiasm into the campaign to cure the disease, a campaign from which he is unlikely to benefit personally. That means that each new novel has to be enjoyed as though it were the last, because far sooner than we might have hoped, it will be.

This year’s, Unseen Academicals, reverts to the classic Discworld theme after the beguiling digression last year: Nation was about a boy on the cusp of turning into a man who finds himself the sole survivor of his tribe following a tsunami in his South Sea island home, and has to try to rebuild a society with the occasional arrivals from other devastated places.

Unseen Academicals is about football in the Discworld. No previous novel in the series mentioned football at all, but one of the charms of Pratchett’s books is that he refuses to be a slave to tedious constraints such as coherence. ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’ wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was right and Pratchet gives a wonderful counter-demonstration of that truth.

The novel is about football, but as Pratchett points out, ‘the thing about football, the really important thing about football, is that it is not just about football’. So the novel, like the game, is about life. As all his novels are.

I fell for it on page 1. It describes the form of democracy adopted by Ankh Morpork, the great metropolis of the Discworld, under the rule of its ultimately benign tyrant Lord Vetinari. ‘Everyone is entitled to vote, unless disqualified by reason of age or not being Lord Vetinari.’

It’s the classic mix from Pratchett, of disabused realism and whimsy. After all, there are plenty of real-life example of rulers who believe in one man, one vote as long as they’re the man and they exercise the vote. But where are we ever going to find a leader with either the ingenuity or the enlightened effectiveness of Vetinari?

Monday, 30 November 2009

The bells, the bells. Oh, and the Swiss

Well, that’s a turn-up for the books: the Swiss have banned minarets. And by a big majority, too. More of a turn-down, really: don’t think this has anything to do with protecting Swiss culture or values – it’s a reversal of both. There was a time when Switzerland was the most generous nation of Europe, taking more refugees per head of its own population than any other. But the trouble is that the generous, liberal majority woke resentment in a xenophobic minority that’s now kicking back, as it has in Denmark and Holland.

There was a time when I used to be amazed by how the Swiss welcomed the unfortunate of the world. There was a civil war in Sri Lanka: the streets of Geneva, Basel and Zurich filled with Tamils. There was genocide in Rwanda: they filled with Tutsis. It was a wonder to behold. Today the same streets sport posters of minarets drawn to look like missiles, to make absolute certain of the desired Islamophobic reaction.

What I particularly like about this ban is, of course, the effrontery of its double standards. Switzerland is a country of glorious countryside and charming cities. Both are dominated by the delicate churches with their graceful spires. You can have spires but you can’t have minarets? I’d have thought they would have blended right in. Of course, the other side said that minarets smacked of a striving for political dominance.

You think the people who built the spires were democrats?

The parties who tried to prevent the minaret ban sold the pass anyway. They said that the call of the muezzin would never be accepted but the minaret should be tolerated. So they weren’t really arguing for tolerance – just for a slightly less pronounced discrimination against Moslems. You don’t like the cry of the Muezzin? Nor do I. But it’s hardly the only disturbance of the peace we have to suffer in the name of religious fervour.

I used to live in Croydon, oh, donkey’s years ago. I don’t want to offend anyone living in today’s Croydon, which is a large town in Surrey or possibly a suburb in South East London, depending on your point of view. For all I know, it may today be a thriving, exciting centre of all that is excellent. When I knew it, it wasn’t so much a place as a misfortune. Drab, dull, soulless. But I lived well away from the centre, in South Croydon. That was leafy and pretty and though it wasn’t exactly animated, that very fact meant it was at least quiet.

Except on Sunday mornings. At the time I was in my early twenties and like most young men of that age, I regarded Sunday mornings as a time to sleep until recovered from the excesses of the week. It wasn’t so much a question of what time I got up on a Sunday morning, more of whether I got up in the morning at all. Normally. Except that in South Croydon I was a street or two away from the local church, and on a Sunday at some ghastly hour – 11:00, if you’d credit it – the bells started to ring.

The worst of it is that they rang not only loudly, but badly. People tell me there’s music in church bells. Yeah, right. Four notes played on a descending scale. And even though anyone who has read about my attempts to learn Salsa knows I have no sense of rhythm, I know how to space four notes evenly. But when it’s church bells, it’s inevitably ‘dong, dong,…,do-dong.’

The worst of it? I said this disturbance was limited to Sundays and I thought that was true until I got home early one Thursday evening which, I discovered, was bell ringers’ rehearsal night. Can you believe it? They had to practice to produce that incompetent cacophony.

You don’t like the muezzin’s cry? OK, why should you? But don’t come to me and tell me you like church bells. It’s just another way of making a lot of noise to tell people who don’t share your views that you’re keen on your beliefs. You think it’s musical? You’re just giving way to that oldest of prejudices, acceptance of what is familiar and rejection of what is strange.

Just like the Swiss and the minarets. Tall graceful church spires? Fine of course, because we’ve had them for centuries. Tall elegant minarets? We don’t know them, so we’ll ban them, and take xenophobic pleasure from the offence that causes.

It’s like a kid who refuses to try some new food, on the grounds that he doesn’t like what he hasn't tasted. But much more dangerous.

Oh, and I moved away from South Croydon within three months. Liked the place. Couldn’t stand the racket.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Sea, sand and cynicism: Britain and Oman

A couple of weekends ago I travelled out to Oman, to give a presentation to a small meeting on the fringe of a scarcely larger conference. I didn’t see much of the place – I was only there for 48 hours and travelled straight to the meeting venue, a luxurious but isolated hotel resort on the sea, where the only Omanis were on the staff. Stuck in the resort for the bulk of my time, all I really got to enjoy was summer in November – lovely for someone in England, but not exactly extraordinary, specially as I didn’t even manage to have a swim, enticing though the Arabian Sea looked.

So my exposure to anything really new was limited to the forty minute taxi drive back to the airport. At last I got to seem some of the landscape and it was certainly impressive: dun-coloured rock piled up into steep cliffs plunging down to the deep blue of the Sea. The thing that struck me most, however, was a song on the driver’s radio. It was in the traditional harmonic minor of Arab music, which gives it a lilt and a delicacy that appeal to me – we generally use the minor in Western music to conjure up sadness and melancholy, but in Arab music it can be joyful too.

‘This is good,’ I couldn’t help telling the driver.

‘You like our Omani music?’ he replied with clear pleasure. ‘This is for the national feast tomorrow. It is for Sultan Qaboos.’

Sultan Qaboos. Of course. Suddenly I realised that the word ‘Qaboos’ was returning a lot in the song. Now I’m told that the Sultan is pretty popular. He has brought prosperity to his nation, despite its relatively low oil reserves. That prosperity may not have been shared equitably, but it has at least been shared.

Certainly the Sultan is omnipresent. There were portraits all over the hotel complex. On the drive to the airport, I saw him smiling at us, with or without his wife, from the side of many of the buildings. The song itself in his honour lasted twice as long as most popular songs. Clearly, you can’t get enough adoration. Sincere or sycophantic, it’s difficult to tell: the gentleness of the regime doesn’t, I suspect, allow an opposition outspoken enough to say.

By a strange coincidence, soon after my return to England I heard a radio programme about the moment when Qaboos came to power in 1970. At the time, Britain was still a presence in the area. Officers from the British Army ran the armed forces, some of them on secondment, others directly employed by Oman as ‘contract officers’ – basically mercenaries. One of the latter was Colonel Hugh Oldman who held no less a position than Defence Minister under Sultan Said bin-Taymur.

Britain was worried about its commercial interests, particularly in the face of an insurgency in the South backed by Saudi Arabia. The Sultan was perceived as unable or unwilling to defend the British position in the region. There was a feeling that his son, Qaboos, might be a better bet.

Sultan Said was no fool. There was something of tradition for a Sultan to come to power by ousting his father, so it’s not surprising that he’d kept Qaboos under virtual house arrest for several years. But it wasn’t enough. On 23 July 1970, Qaboos struck. There was brief struggle in the palace, and Said’s reign was over, Qaboos’s beginning.

That easy success might seem suspicious. The BBC have found evidence that Colonel Oldman had put plans in place to slipstream in behind Qaboos if the coup was successful, and to support him with force if it ran into difficulties. What’s more, he had approval for these plans from London: documents making this clear were briefly published a few years ago, apparently in error, but have been locked since (you might almost think the government had something to hide).

So that cheerful song I heard in the taxi was in honour of an absolute ruler who owed his position to a coup against his own father. A benign ruler, maybe, but nonetheless not perhaps one whose route to power was the most edifying.

And isn’t it wonderful that Britain supported him? What a fitting tribute to our commitment to democratic principles. To say nothing of family values.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

What do bankers really earn? I mean, really?

The British government is planning to ‘force’ banks to publish the number of their staff who earn more than a million pounds a year.

The quotation marks around ‘force’ are there because I suspect that they’ll be falling over themselves to publish the figures. Each bank will want to show that it has more high-salary executives than the others. The one with 150 £1,000,000 plus men (because you can be sure that virtually all of them will be men) will want to hand out increases to get closer to the competitor with 250.

But the real issue isn’t with the act of publication but with the value to be published. The number of executives earning over a million is easy to work out – it’s zero. The number they’ll be publishing will be the number being paid over a million.

This slack use of the word ‘earn’ is one of the great instances of loose speech in English these days. You earn what you deserve. Given the financial state of the world today, and the role that bankers played in getting us into it, I can’t imagine a single one of them is worth a million a year.

But as we’ll soon find out, that doesn’t stop them pocketing the loot.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

What's in a name?

It’s curious how mental blocks work, isn’t it? I have a colleague called ‘Jon Astbury’. We work together, we get on fine, we talk most days, sometimes several times a day. But he recently he broke some bad news to me. Not that I immediately recognised it as bad news.

‘Have you heard about the new project manager we’ve appointed?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘though I’m glad we’ve made the appointment. We need a few more.’

‘His name is John Astley.’

It took a moment for the significance to sink in.

‘People will constantly be getting us confused,’ Jon added, to make sure I’d grasped the point.

That was it. Complete mental block. The new John started work but there was no way I could remember his surname. All I knew was that it wasn’t ‘Astbury’ but it wasn’t a lot different. Apsley? Asbury? Aspley? No way I could work it out.

The worst of it? I spend a lot of time working with him too. We’ve frequently gone out to see customers together. I have to introduce him as ‘John, why don’t you introduce yourself?’

I finally had to come clean and tell him. He gave me an easy way to master the problem.

‘Just think of the eighties singer Rick Astley,’ he told me.

I didn’t dare admit I’d never heard of Rick Astley. I just smiled and thought to myself ‘right – so now I’m going to learn to remember a name I’ve got a mental block about by thinking of a singer I’ve never heard of.’

But here’s a funny thing. Ever since I heard about Rick Astley, I’ve had no trouble remembering John’s surname. Odd thing, the mind.

Anyway, now I have to move on to the next conundrum. I’ve worked well over the last few years with my colleague Paul Cooper. Today we have a new staff member who sits at a desk not ten feet away. His name? Paul Cooper.

Anyone know any singers whose names could help me tell them apart?

Saturday, 21 November 2009


Talk about being in the right place at the right time!

Peter Mandelson, the grandson of a former Labour Foreign Secretary, made two attempts at being a Cabinet Minister in his own right. Both occasions ended badly, with resignations in disgrace following scandals. He had, however, been a major architect of Tony Blair’s three successive election victories, having proved far more effective at running election campaigns than at building his own career. So when Blair appointed him a British Commissioner to the European Union, it felt a bit as though he was being awarded a consolation prize.

Not a bad consolation, by the way. The salary of a Commissioner is not far short of quarter of a million Euros a year. That would certainly console me for quite a lot of disappointment. But perhaps I’m being too mercenary in outlook and don’t share the selfless spirit of dedication and commitment to principle of most failed politicians.

Talking about failed politicians takes us seamlessly to the subject of Gordon Brown, who swiftly squandered the useful poll lead he’d enjoyed when he first became Prime Minister. He had to face up to the fact that he was going to need a touch of the kind of magic he had shown he couldn’t generate himself, if he was to have any hope of winning an election of his own. Now Mandelson had that kind of magic. Unfortunately, though Mandelson had initially been close to Brown, he had later on thrown in his lot with Brown’s colleague but rival Blair. It must have hurt Brown to have to turn to him for help, but, hey, any port in a storm. Brown bit the bullet and summoned Mandelson back from Brussels.

Incidentally, Mandelson’s salary as a Cabinet Mister is about 160,000 Euros. So, if it’s true that his original European appointment was a compensation for his British disappointment, it would seem that the quantitative, indeed financial, measure of the demoralising effect of losing a Cabinet position is some 90,000 Euros a year.

The recall to London created a gap for a British commissioner to fill the last year or so of Mandelson’s term. Fortunately, there was a candidate available. Never elected to any national post, and only in politics since 1999, Catherine Ashton been appointed to the House of Lords and had held a number of junior minister posts. In her last role she had ensured the House approved the Lisbon Treaty. She might have been obscure but she was loyal, competent and, through her work on the Treaty, familiar with European Union matters. She stepped in to replace Mandelson.

Fast forward a year. As a result of the ratification of the Treaty, the EU is looking for a President and a Foreign Minister (or as we prefer to call it in Eurospeak, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy). We think Blair ought to have the top post, because he’s a major figure on the international stage, a ‘traffic stopper’ – the kind of person who causes the police to hold up cars on his route when he turns up on an official trip somewhere. He’s also British, which we like a lot in Britain, because though we’re not keen on Europe, we’re keen on Europe showing Britain respect by appointing its celebrities to senior positions.

Of course, there are a few tiny problems with Blair. There are those killjoys who feel that a man who really ought to be on trial for war crimes shouldn’t be appointed to positions of high honour. Then there are the leaders of the individual European States who would rather that no-one in a position theoretically superior to their own stop more traffic than they do. Plus they’re mostly from parties of the centre-right – with the exception of Berlusconi who has little to do with the centre – or with getting anything much right, come to that – so they're not going to appoint anyone from the centre-left, and there are still a few who think Blair can be regarded as having some connection with the left.

So Blair gets overlooked. And some obscure character from Belgium gets the job (OK, he’s the Prime Minister, but ‘Belgium’, ‘Prime Minister’ and ‘obscure’ are words that seem somehow to belong together).

So no Brit for President. The others feel bad. The Brits need to have their wounded feelings salved. Specially in a week when the French have robbed the Irish, who are practically British, of a place in the Football World Cup Finals through a thoroughly dastardly hand ball. What can we do to smooth their ruffled feathers?

There’s an easy solution. After all, if the centre-right got the Presidency, the centre-left can have the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. So – hey – how about appointing a Brit from the centre-left? A good plan. BUT just don’t forget we don’t want any traffic stoppers.

So what we need is an obscure Brit appointed by the present centre-left government. Need to get a move on, by the way – the other lot will be in next year.

Who do we have who could fit the bill? I know – isn’t there that lady in the Trade Commissioner position?

So good old Cathy got the job.

Talk about serendipity! There she was, in the right place at the right time.

I bet you one thing, though: she’ll turn out a hell of a sight better than most other potential candidates. And since I’d like to see the EU do well and, if I’m really quite honest about it, I wouldn’t be at all sorry to see a Brit contributing to the process, I’ll raise a glass to that.

In fact I’m going to stop writing and go and get that glass right now. And just say, good luck Cathy – make us proud!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

It’s not the dance that counts, stupid, it’s the dancer

In all the fuss a few years ago about sequencing the human genome there was, to my astonishment, no discussion of what has to be one of the most remarkable genes of all. Even today, no matter how I scan the net for information, I find nothing on the subject.

I’m speaking, of course, of the Salsa gene. This expresses itself in an innate ability, in men or women, to move one’s body in sinuous and graceful ways to the sound of Latin American music, displaying a highly developed sense of rhythm and a talent for gliding smoothly round a dance floor.

Needless to say, this is not a gene that was transmitted to me.

My sons have it, which means they clearly inherited it from my wife, who has dragooned me into attending Salsa classes. I find the experience fascinating. Last night I was being tutored by a pleasant but increasingly bemused woman. At one point she suggested to me that, as well as following all her other instructions (keep counting, move your feet, keep your upper body straight, etc.), I should listen to the music.

‘Listen to the music? As well?’ I exclaimed. ‘How can I do that on top of all those other things?’

I mean, I get the theory. Yes, I can see that in principle listening to the music probably increases your chances of actually being on the beat in your counting. It’s the practice that floors me. After all, I was already trying to do so many things at the same time: thinking intensely, moving my feet, keeping my hands in the right position and counting. That’s a lot more than Gerald Ford, who famously couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. And he got to be president of the United States, for Pete’s sake.

I’m constantly reminded of Einstein. I’ve been told that at one point he drove Yehudi Menuhin, who was trying to teach him the violin, to exasperation. So the outstanding musician shouted at the greatest theoretical physicist of all time, ‘One-two, one-two. It’s not that difficult. Can’t you count?’

It’s great to have at least that much in common with the father of relativity theory. Obviously, it would be more impressive if I could also master relativity, but unfortunately I find it nearly as hard as Salsa.

The real problem is in the counting. The Salsa crowd cheats. They count ‘1, 2, 3, pregnant pause, 5, 6, 7, another pregnant pause.’ Well, that’s obviously going to throw me, isn’t it? What’s the problem with admitting there’s actually a number between 3 and 5? And another one after 7? It’s not really that abstruse, surely? That’s how numbers work after all.

It’s just a conspiracy, I’ve decided, against those of us who don’t have the Salsa gene in their DNA sequence. And it’s getting to me. I keep wondering what would happen if I actually said ‘4’ or ‘8’. I haven’t had the temerity to try it yet. I keep thinking ‘If they’re so loath to use those digits, is it because with their genes they know that terrible results would ensue? Would the roof fall in? Would the wrath of unspeakable South American gods be wreaked on me?’

I suspect, though, that it would just be another terrible Salsa faux pas. And since I make plenty of false steps already, perhaps I’d better avoid that one.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Coming home

I’ve just returned to England from a short business trip abroad. It was odd returning to this country from somewhere with blue skies, hot sun and waves breaking on the beach. We flew into spitting rain on a cold night. You’d think it would have been deeply depressing, and people around me on the plane made it clear that was just how they felt about it.

Somehow, though, I couldn’t share their gloom. I’ve never understood people who say they’re proud to be whatever they are – American, British, Russian, whatever. How can you be proud of something that you didn’t actually do for yourself? All most of us did to become citizens of our nations was get born, and absolutely everyone does that. There should be medals for it suddenly?

Maybe the people who get a nationality by naturalisation have more cause for pride. At least they made an effort, even if it was just completing reams of documents and arguing with bored and possibly racist bureaucrats.

No, the positive feeling I get from England is the sense that in some strange way it’s home. It’s not a glow of pride, it’s more a sense of comfort and ease. I know how the mentalities work, I know what you can banter about and (usually) with whom, I can interpret the body language, the hints, the implications. There’s something relaxing about coming back to your community, the one you belong to, whose codes you can read. And to me at least that’s a pleasure which easily outweighs a little wet and a little cold.

It became particularly clear to me in the train, on nearly the final stage of a long journey. I was sitting opposite a middle-aged man in the uniform of a train employee. Perhaps a ticket collector, clearly off duty and heading home. After letting the first ten minutes of the trip go by in silence until tiredeness forced me to give up trying to focus on my book, he asked me ‘well, have you travelled far?’ A conversation was under way.

He turned out to be a driver. I learned about the things that can make trains late: signalling problems, track problems, even problems with the trains themselves. Recently, leaves on the line have been a major difficulty. ‘It’s like trying to drive a car on black ice,’ he explained, ‘you can’t stop, and that’s if you can get going at all.’ Overall, though, we both agreed that the service on the railways is unrecognisably better than ten or fifteen years ago. In a world where we’re all perhaps too inclined to whinge about everything, it’s good to find something that satisfactory.

He hadn’t been under any obligation to talk to me. He could have kept his own counsel. But weary as I was, I welcomed this brief human contact with a complete stranger.

That can happen anywhere, but it’s easiest in your own community: there’s so much you don’t have to explain. In some hidden corner of my being, there’s something precious in that kind of contact that makes me actually rather prefer it to the sun, the sea and the sand on the beach.

So – no regrets about being home.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Boomerang of prosperity

Alex Salmond is leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister in Scotland – in effect the head of government in his country, for all those areas over which it has devolved authority. Back in August 2006, he declared that Scotland should join ‘northern Europe's arc of prosperity, with Ireland to the west, Iceland to the north and Norway to the east, all small independent countries in the top six richest nations in the world’.

Today Iceland is broke and Ireland not far behind. Indeed, the Irish often say that the only difference between their country and Iceland is a single letter.

So, so sad. It sounded so good when Alex said it back then, just three years ago. And now it sounds so laughable. He can hardly just pretend he never said it. And the worst of it? The electorate, so often so easily fooled, sometimes remembers these things.

A couple of years ago, the SNP was on a roll. Why, even a few months ago they gleefully announced that they would gun for 20 parliamentary seats at the next election – not the Scottish elections, the UK elections: they would be taking 20 seats at the Westminster Parliament, not the Edinburgh one. That would effectively end Labour’s dominance in Scottish politics and be one more nail in the coffin of its hopes of holding back the apparently unstoppable Conservative tide.

But then we got a by-election in Glasgow North East. Labour held the seat with 59% of the vote, admittedly on a desperate turnout of under 33%. The SNP came second with – wait for it – 20%.

‘Arc of prosperity’? More like a boomerang, Alex. And it seems to have come back to hit you.

Postscript: the Tories take heart

Meanwhile the Conservatives felt the by-election showed they could increase their representation in Scottish seats at Westminster – currently just one. I suppose they took heart from the fact that they narrowly beat the neo-fascist British National Party into fourth place, taking a whopping 5.2% of the vote.

The BNP got 4.9% which is a lot too high, but I’m perfectly happy with the Tory figure. If they’re heartened by that kind of result, I wish them lots more of the same in next year’s General Election.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Did they really mean that?

Public address announcements are like cherries in the Spring: you can collect them up and treasure them for enjoyment later on.

For some years, we lived near Paris and regularly had to travel to Roissy airport to collect visitors (amazing how many more people come to visit you when you live near somewhere like Paris than, say, somewhere like Stafford). I always loved the announcement in the car park, which entreated us to pay for the parking in the terminal building ‘before regaining your vehicle’. Aéroports de Paris is a massive great company, earning, or at least receiving, large sums of money, and it amazed me that they couldn’t afford an English speaker to tell them that, with our less complex personalities and perhaps reduced tendency to get into a flap, we prefer simply to return to our cars without engaging in some kind of major combat to regain them.

Then there’s the brilliant announcement on Ryanair flights that ‘passengers may leave the aircraft using the front and rear steps’. I keep wanting to shout back ‘there’s no way I can do that,’ though of course being able to split oneself into two in that way, like some kind of quantum waveform, would be a pretty remarkable party trick, wouldn’t it?

Then today as I was waiting for a train on platform 4 at Stafford station, I heard the announcement ‘the train to Birmingham New Street will arrive and depart on platform 1’. The inconvenience of having to change platforms was as nothing compared to my disappointment at the banality of the information. Now if it had told us that the train would ‘arrive at platform 4 as planned but depart from platform 1’, that would have been startling, interesting and worth watching.

Didn’t happen though.

Monday, 9 November 2009

When a dowdy lady trumps a shiny fellow

David Cameron, leader of the British Conservative Party and barring some currently unforeseeable dramatic event, soon to be Prime Minister, continues to impress.

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the breaching of the Berlin Wall. The TV news shows pictures of a dowdy little middle-aged woman wandering around the crowd gathered to celebrate the event, shaking a hand here, pausing to exchange a smile there, engaging in conversation with some who, like her, came through the wall in the first hours that it was opened back in 1989. And who is she? Angela Merkel, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. True, the people around her seem to react with great affection to the obviously kind and approachable figure which probably explains why she was so decisively re-elected to her post a few weeks ago. But, oh dear, where’s the charisma, where’s the presence, where's that shiny smile that makes a PR expert like Cameron the man of the moment?

You only need to look at that dull little figure to understand why Cameron chose to pull the Conservative Party out of the European People’s Party to which Merkel’s European MPs belong. Instead, he built a new grouping with really outstanding figures, such as former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, of whom many have rightly said ‘Who?’

Merkel spoke out in Berlin about the demand of citizens of the old East Germany for freedom, quoting their battle cry, ‘We are the people’. So dull, so motherhood and apple pie. You really want to associate with people like Poland’s Law and Justice Party, which banned gay marches while it was in power, on the grounds that they are obscene, or Latvia’s National Independence Movement, some of whose leaders celebrate the exploits of Latvian members of the Nazis’ Waffen SS.

After all, who does Merkel speak for anyway? Leading the world’s third largest economy may win the respect of an Obama, but wouldn’t it be more interesting to work with the Law and Justice Party, one of whose members in the Polish Parliament described the election of Obama as ‘the end of the civilisation of the white man’? How many enlightened people around the world shared that reaction to last year’s presidential election?

So on this great anniversary of the end of the Cold War, let us salute this man Cameron and the courage with which he is prepared to throw off the shackles of the past, and link up with those around the Continent who really understand the needs of civilisation today.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

What the Stones and the Andrews Sisters tell us about life

A few days ago I was killing the time on some long car journey or another by listening to a collection of songs by the Andrews Sisters. In this gloomy time of year, when it’s dark at five, listening to those bright, dynamic songs can act like a real tonic. This is particularly helpful when the night you’re peering through is yet again being lit up by a long string of brake lights coming on, as you reach another set of roadworks or another accident, leaving you wondering when you’re ever going to get home.

All the same, I always feel slightly embarrassed at admitting I like the Andrews Sisters. It’s a bit like admitting I like feel-good movies, which always gives me a sense of shame as though I were confessing to arrested intellectual development. On the other hand, no-one has ever succeeded in showing me what’s so satisfying about feeling bad.

The problem with liking the Andrews Sisters is that most people regard them as outmoded, as though they had a feel to them of woolly cardigans and carpet slippers. Which leads me to my favourite theme, the transience of things.

The Andrews Sisters enjoyed phenomenal, worldwide success. But only for about thirteen years. I suppose their best period was between Bei mir bist du schein in 1937 and I wanna be loved in 1950. They went on recording songs throughout the fifties but as rock and roll took over, they no longer scored the hits that they had in the past. And the sisters, alone or together, went on to enjoy long careers beyond that time, but in a much lower key.

By contrast, the Rolling Stones started their career in 1962 and they’re still going strong today, 47 years on. Patty Andrews, the youngest of the sisters and their lead singer, is still alive today. She saw the Rolling Stones rise to fame at a point when she was 44 and her own career was already past its peak; now at 91, she can see them still filling stadia.

Curious, isn’t it? I put it down to the war. It was a real watershed. It ushered in a profound revision of attitudes culminating in the sixties. In particular, the conflict between the generations testifies to the depth of transformation of values at that time. The generation born after the war wasn’t just separated from its predecessors by time, but by a gulf in experience that left its mark in attitudes and taste, even taste in music.

Of course, many musicians from the war years kept their careers going long after. Among French-language singers, Charles Aznavour just kept right on going, and amongst English-speakers Frank Sinatra had a pretty good crack of the whip (even though he did rather have to reinvent himself in the fifties). They, however, weren’t the mainstream of popular music which was dominated in the forties by bands that faded in the fifties, to replaced by groups that have stayed at the top ever since – just as long as they didn’t break up.

That’s why two or three generations on from the fifties and sixties, the same music – or at least the same groups – retain their popularity. Whereas the bands who were singing their songs a single generation earlier now feel hopelessly out of date.

The progress of mankind isn’t even. Sometimes it moves smoothly; sometimes it goes through sudden, rapid change. The Andrews Sisters were the victims of one of those moments of discontinuity; the Rolling Stones are enjoying the fruits of smoothness.

And of course this allows the Stones to generate one of the most wonderful sounds ever enjoyed by Man, and popular in all ages: that of a cash register ringing.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Gunpowder, treason and plot

Schoolkids throughout England know the old doggerel

Remember, remember the Fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.

Today’s the day we commemorate the moment in 1605 when the Guy Fawkes conspiracy was foiled. He was arrested in the cellars of the Palace of Westminster surrounded by barrels of gunpowder that he was planning to use to blow Parliament up when the King would have been in attendance.

Fawkes was tortured and ultimately he and his fellow conspirators were put to gruesome death by hanging, drawing and quartering (though he cheated his tormentors, throwing himself off the scaffold and breaking his neck before he could be half-hanged and then ‘drawn’, i.e. have his innards cut out of him while he was still alive – governments then were even more charming than they are now).

Clearly this was an early example of religiously-inspired terrorists beaten by the unsleeping vigilance of the authorities, a model for our own times. Of course, there are those who feel he may not have been all wrong – I remember the dying days of another unloved government many years ago, when a poster campaign around the country proclaimed ‘Come back Guy Fawkes, all is forgiven’.

Nevertheless, because protecting the State is a good thing, and torturing and murdering religious minorities a matter to celebrate, we mark the Fifth of November each year with fireworks and bonfires. At the top of the bonfire, we place a ‘guy’, an effigy of a man which kids make in the weeks leading up to Bonfire Night, so that they can take innocent enjoyment from simulating the burning to death of a fellow human being. A good time is had by all.

In recent years, the tradition has begun to fade a bit, mostly under the pressure of US-inspired celebrations of Halloween just a few days earlier. This is presumably on the grounds that it is morally and psychologically much healthier to take delight from the idea that the dead, far from resting in peace, come back in monstrous form to haunt us all – and, what’s more, to extort sweets from us by threats.

There’s nothing uniquely English about celebrating the brutal. After all, the French celebrate Bastille day, commemorating the beginning of probably the bloodiest period in their history, culminating as it did in the Reign of Terror. They do it with a massive military parade, displaying the might of the State in order to commemorate people who rose to overthrow it.

At least they have their fireworks night in July, when it’s usually hot. We have our great outdoor celebration in Novmber. You see, Guy Fawkes failed in his endeavour and we remained a Protestant country, so we like to have a bit of suffering mixed in with our pleasures. So when the fifth of November dawned this morning cold and wet, it seemed completely appropriate. And I smiled to think that Guy Fawkes was getting the last laugh.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Aw, shucks. Obama don't like us any more

There was a curious piece in my favourite newspaper The Guardian (perhaps I should say joint favourite, since I have a soft spot for the scourge of Berlusconi, La Repubblica). It seems that journalist Simon Tisdall is concerned about Obama’s attitude towards Europe: ‘Obama’s coolness towards Europe worries his Nato partners’.

Perhaps it’s too cheap a crack to say ‘hold on: weren’t we supposed to think his coolness was the thing we liked about him in the first place?’, so I’ll resist the temptation.

In any case, Tisdall’s complaint does feel a bit like something from the ‘he’s-stopped-going-round-with-me-at-break’ school of international diplomacy. Who cares what Obama thinks of us? Well, apart from Brown and Sarkozy of course, snubbed when they wanted private meetings with him – but then why care about them either? In any case, if being liked is the issue, we have so much liking for him over here that we hardly need Obama to contribute any of his own. On the other hand, we might start liking him rather less if he doesn’t start delivering soon.

Bring in a climate change deal that sticks, sort out the mess in Afghanistan and avoid getting us into war with Iran, and he can call us tea-drinkers with bad teeth, cheese-eating surrender monkeys and square-headed cabbage eaters for all I care. And if he sorts out those brutal little bullies in Israel, why, he’ll have earned a Nobel Peace Prize into the bargain.

Fail to deal with those things, and as far as I’m concerned he’s just another loudmouthed American blundering around doing more harm than good. Not that he’ll care if we think that of him. He’ll be blissfully indifferent to our opinion, good or bad. A healthy attitude. One that we should emulate.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

London and multiculturalism: a tonic for our time

It was a surprisingly pleasant afternoon in London yesterday, which was just as well since we showed a group of our friends from Strasbourg around the town. St James’s Park, one of the loveliest I know in any city, led us into Whitehall with its wonderful new monument to the seven million women who served or worked in the war – no human shapes or faces, just various a bronze articles of uniform or work clothes hanging on pegs.

From, there we went down to the river and combined a boat trip with a long walk along the banks. The only downside of the boat trip, to the Tower of London, was the running commentary by a man who thought himself funny but wasn’t. He had the gall to ask us to give him a a tip at the end, but we didn’t.

We then walked back up to St Paul’s, across the Millennium Bridge and to the Tate Modern. The latest piece there is an amazing box of darkness (Miroslaw Balka’s This is it), into which you walk with the light behind you so you have the impression of plunging into complete blackness – it’s really extraordinarily eerie – and when you reach the end (which I bumped into, not realising I was there) it comes both as a shock and as a relief to feel the felt-like substance with which it’s covered. It really was a quite haunting way to move from apprehension to reassurance as you walk into the dark. And it’s strange to feel yourself part of a work of art.
So we had a great time, not least because you can walk so far along the Thames these days. When I was a University of London student in the seventies and eighties, there just weren’t the walkways. Rivers can be lovely close to, particularly at sunset on a pleasant day, and opening up access to the Thames as the City has is real progress since my days.

The other change is the increased diversity of people in the streets. When I was a student, London was already cosmopolitan, with many languages spoken in the crowd, and African-Caribbean or South Asian faces, but you seldom heard Slavic languages (their speakers were securely confined behind the Iron Curtain) and saw few Orientals (those you came across were always Japanese, whereas today they’re more likely to be Chinese, if they aren’t Thai, Malay, Korean and so on). That increasing diversity makes the place more vibrant than ever. At the simplest level, we started with a remarkable Japanese meal (in the new Japan Centre in Piccadilly) and ended with our French friends at an Indian Restaurant in Bloomsbury (they were amazed by the kaleidoscope of flavours – and there’s something richly rewarding about seeing French people enjoy cooking in England).

The sheer pleasure of the cultural diversity of the capital made the band of Fascists we saw demonstrating around the Eros monument on Piccadilly Circus a particularly sad sight. They seemed so irrelevant, so out of touch with the reality of life in Britain and what makes it exciting. It was great to see that there were almost as many police as demonstrators.

It’s sad that the country seems to be going through one of its periodic bouts of flirting with the ultra-Right. As well as being brutal, they have views that are so dull, so lifeless, so limited. We need to keep them like they were yesterday, marginal and irrelevant. And enjoying the rich tapestry that is London has to be a great way of dismissing them.

Friday, 30 October 2009

A horse, a horse. Or maybe not. And certainly not here.

It was fascinating to learn yesterday that archaeologists have now established where the Battle of Bosworth Field actually took place. And it wasn’t exactly where the best-informed opinion previously thought.

Uncertainty about this battle may seem surprising. After all, it signalled the end of what must have been one of the bloodiest periods in English history, the Wars of the Roses. The worst loss of English life in a single day’s fighting occurred at the Battle of Towton, during those wars. The worst bar none. Worse than any single day in the First World War, even.

At Bosworth, Richard III lost not just the battle but his life – the last English monarch killed in battle – opening the way for the victor to become Henry VII and found the Tudor dynasty. When you think that arguably the best monarch we ever had – Elizabeth I – was his granddaughter you can see that this was a pretty key event. And we didn’t know where it happened.

Some years ago I was driving past the supposed site of the battle and pulled over to visit it. I find that I get inexplicably sentimental about being in the actual place where certain things have happened. It gave me a real thrill to be in the place where Richard III had said ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’. Though I suspect he probably never said it. But at least I was in the actual place where he didn’t say it. Except that I probably wasn’t. Leicestershire County Council had had the decency, in setting up the visitor centre, to admit that they couldn’t be completely sure that they’d got the site right.

So I was probably not in the place where Richard III probably didn’t say the words Shakespeare attributes to him. Not exactly a classic experience in historical nostalgia.

Well, now we know where the battle really took place. Now I can go there and be properly sentimental about the words that weren’t said there. It feels like the opportunity to make up for a really serious disappointment.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Brits and stones

It’s great fun to listen to Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time programme on BBC Radio 4. The latest edition was devoted to the geology of the British Isles, and it was fascinating. I learned so much, and not just about how things were aeons ago. It really opened my eyes to a new way of seeing how they are today.

It seems that a while back – a few hundred million years, if I remember – England, Wales and the south of Ireland were stuck in a super-Continent at about the level of the Antarctic Circle. Scotland and the north of Ireland, in the meantime, were up near the Equator, and probably enjoying themselves in better weather conditions than they’ve seen any time since.

Even then, though, bloody England wouldn’t leave them alone. It seems we actually came in chase of them. So fast, indeed, that we collided with them and took firm hold not just of old Scotland as we know it, but the new version too, Nova Scotia. They apparently made every effort to get away, with the New Scots actually managing to get right across the Atlantic in their enthusiasm to put the widest possible distance – clear blue water, indeed – between themselves and us. The old bit, though, stayed firmly tethered.

At that stage, England, Scotland, Wales and the whole of Ireland were part of a new landmass, though up in the northern hemisphere this time round. Being part of Europe wasn’t for us in England, as you’d imagine, so at the earliest moment we put a gap between us and filled it with water, forming the Channel. We didn’t actually get away, of course – England is still firmly attached to the Continent – but we can kid ourselves we did.

Ireland was just as keen and just as unsuccessful: it got the Irish Sea between us, but underneath, they’re still as firmly tied. Of course, Ireland’s done a better job of holding on to the North geologically than politically.

Isn’t it amazing though? Could all our troubles in these little Islands really be nothing more than the expression of the great geological tensions underneath our feet?

If that’s so, all we need is a bit of patience. We’ll all soon be part of the Continent again: in just a few tens of millions of year. The mere batting of an eyelid, in fact – in geological terms.

Sunday, 25 October 2009


We’re just back from Belfast, a city that has always held a special place in my affections, ever since I found myself going there regularly for work in the eighties and nineties. Like another of my favourite cities, Berlin, it’s somewhere that has suffered, and that suffering has marked it but also matured it, made it more interesting, both in the physical aspect of the city and in the character of the people you meet there.

In my early visits, it was a pretty surprising place. I remember coming out of a meeting and finding myself right in the middle of an army patrol – soldiers, rifles in hand, moving in short burst up the street, then crouching to check on any possible hostile movement. It was a shock but then I noticed that the people I was with were simply walking through the group as though it weren’t there – the smiling faces of the men in suits, armed with briefcases, simply weaving their way in amongst the blacked-up faces of the men in uniform, armed with automatic weapons.

This weekend it surprised me again, but for the opposite reason. It surprised me by its sheer normalcy. One of the mundane effects of the troubles, one of the effects on everyday life, was that Belfast seemed stuck in a time warp compared to Britain. At a time when British eating habits were being transformed, Belfast clung on to the old traditions – as one of my friends pointed out to me, in those days the range of sandwiches on offer would be ham and pickle or cheese and tomato. Today brie or chorizo is on the menu, in cafés where coffee, as in most places round Europe, means espresso or latte or cappuccino or Americano, not just a spoonful of nondescript powder dissolved in warm water. Just the same banal modishness that we find everywhere, you might say; but in a city whose outmodedness had been such a characteristic for so long, that kind of banality is exciting and refreshing.

I was particularly delighted by St George’s Market. It was heaving with people (in the past shopping, particularly in the city centre, was something that you did quickly, almost furtively, in order to get home fast before anything unpleasant – potentially life-threatening – happened to you). And the place was a wonderful mix of different sounds and smells and flavours – I saw food from India, from China, from Spain, from the West Indies, as well as from Ireland (the latter on a stand offering either Irish stew or Curry, a combination that has to be an eloquent tribute to how far things have come). The profusion was exhilarating, and I loved the way it showed the tediousness of all those ghastly racists in organisations like the British National Party , with their desire to replace this kaleidoscope by the dull homogeneity of mono-culture.

It was great to spend a weekend in a city which is emerging, and emerging rapidly, from a long tunnel of pain. It shows what can be achieved just as soon as we can silence those who are prepared to kill and maim in the name of religion or, even more trivially, over what colour of flag we live under.

All that nonsense produces lots of wonderful material for songs and films. But it can’t hold a candle to the sheer pleasure that Belfast is now enjoying, of being able to live in peace at last.