Monday, 29 June 2009

George Tiller, law and lawlessness

It is often said, not least by me, that the best indication that a lawyer is lying is that you can see his lips moving.

There are, however, other things to say about lawyers, not all of them abusive. For instance, they have a deep respect for the law. That’s not to say that that they are always law abiding: Richard Nixon’s government was stuffed with lawyers, and many of them ended up in gaol, and several others should have joined them there.

No, lawyers respect the law like a cabinet maker respects his tools: it is the instrument of their trade.

This made the preponderant role of lawyers in the foundation of the United States particularly important. The first president, George Washington, was a planter and a soldier but he was followed by the lawyer John Adams. Though he would later rise in revolution against Britain, Adams showed his commitment to the first principles of justice by defending, against a charge of murder, the British soldiers who had killed five protestors in the Boston massacre of 1770. Successfully. In front of a Boston jury.

The third president, Thomas Jefferson, was the lawyer who drafted the Declaration of Independence.

The fourth president, James Madison, was a lawyer and the leading figure in drawing up the US constitution. That extraordinary document is just 7000 words in length, took 55 people to draft in under four months and has served its country well for over two centuries. By contrast, the draft European Constitution is 66,000 words long, took 105 people nearly eighteen months to prepare and has never been ratified.

Among its other purposes, the US Constitution guarantees a series of fundamental rights.

To judge by media discussions of Democracy, the most fundamental of these is the right to hold free elections. They’re certainly important, as the people of Iran are showing at the moment – their experience proves the old principle that it isn’t the vote that counts, but who counts the votes.

Ironically, it seems likely Ahmedinejad may have won the Iranian election anyway, as his support in the country probably outnumbered the opposition to him in the cities. So the leadership have almost certainly rigged an election they had won, undermining their own victory by destroying their credibility. Perhaps that’s comforting to us in the West: it suggests that Iran is run by politicians at least as incompetent as our own.

The special contribution of the US to electoral Democracy is that the founding fathers introduced what we could call mass suffrage. It certainly wasn’t universal suffrage: no women had the vote, few blacks, no native Americans. Even so, while in Britain it took huge controversy to introduce the Reform Act of 1832, enfranchising 650,000 men out of a population of 14 million, the US presidential election in the same year saw nearly 1.2 million cast ballots, to say nothing of those who chose not to vote, out of a population of only 13 million.

The beauty of a mass franchise is that you don’t get little groups of privileged men meeting in clubs and deciding the outcome of elections. Today in the US those groups still meet in their clubs, but they can’t just dictate results – they have to buy them through contributions to campaigns and payments to lobbyists. In other words, at least it hits them in a vulnerable organ, the pocket book. That has to be progress of a sort.

In any case, is the right to vote really the most fundamental in a Democracy?

The US Constitution also guarantees freedom of thought and of expression. They’re not the same thing: as the philosopher Kierkegaard pointed out, ‘People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.’ Nowhere is that better demonstrated than by the press, particularly by such toxic examples as the British Daily Mail. Some years ago, it ran a campaign against the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine. As a result, many parents refused to immunise their children. Measles is now returning and recently the Mail lambasted the government for failing to maintain a rate of vaccination that would guarantee herd immunity. Clearly, staff on the Mail feel that the right to free expression exempts them from any need to exercise freedom of thought. Though perhaps in the case of the Mail what I’m taking for lack of thought is really just lack of conscience.

These rights, however, still don’t get us down to what I believe is the bedrock of Democracy. That is the rule of law. This was brought home to me in 1982 when I visited East Germany. That was a nasty regime. If you haven’t seen that extraordinary film The lives of others, add it to your list of must-sees. Apart from anything else, where I used to think that Casablanca had the best last line of any film ever, The Lives of Others ends so brilliantly that for me it has pushed Humphrey Bogart into second place. And the film shows just how vicious and corrupt East Germany could be.

For all its brutality, East Germany generally accepted the rule of law (with notable exceptions: the rule was general, but like most rules, not universal). Though the law was often unfair, you knew what it was and if you didn’t break it, you were unlikely to have problems with the authorities. This is a crucial step forward from tyranny, where you can be oppressed just because your face doesn’t fit, because a local satrap fancies your wife or, indeed, your husband, or simply because he’s in a bad mood. By accepting the rule of law, those in power accept constraints on their authority.

But even in the US, rule of law is not universally accepted. Another film not to miss is Frost Nixon if only to be reminded that Richard Nixon really did answer a question about the legality of the actions of a President by claiming, ‘When the President does it, that means it is not illegal’. That’s the kind of claim an absolute monarch would make (Louis XIV of France proclaimed the principle ‘une foi, une loi, un roi’, ‘one faith, one law, one king’, which seems to equate faith and law with the king); it is precisely that idea of power that the founding fathers of the United States rose up to defeat.

That’s why it’s so fascinating to see the attitudes of the American anti-abortion movement towards the recent murder of George Tiller, who carried out late-term abortions in Wichita, Kansas. Randall Terry, who founded the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, said of Tiller’s killing ‘George Tiller was a mass-murderer and, horrifically, he reaped what he sowed.’ The word ‘horrifically’ is there to line Terry up on the side of angels; leave it out and you have a statement condoning the use of murderous violence against a man who has broken no law. We’ve seen plenty of examples of that kind of language recently, for instance from the wilder fringes of fundamentalist Islam, when dubious imams insert weasel words condemning terror into their statements supporting terrorists and abusing their victims. That’s perhaps appropriate, since the killing of Tiller had much in common with terrorism.

George Tiller was acting within the law. The anti-abortion movement doesn’t like the law and is investing effort and money, perfectly legitimately, to get it changed. But the murderer of Tiller acted outside the law. No doubt he felt he was following another, higher law, just as Nixon did. Just as the 9-11 terrorists did. Like them he crosses a dangerous line and threatens us all. And he undermines the very foundations on which the United States was built, even though he probably believes that no-one has a greater love for his country.

Those brave lawyers who launched the whole venture in the first place must be spinning in their graves.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Celebrating the arrival of the English summer

Last Sunday saw the official start of summer. We found a completely appropriate way to celebrate the season’s arrival in England.

Our neighbours Melanie, Darren, George and Jenny invited us to join them in the village of Salt at the Holly Bush pub, famed for its good food and its large garden. Well, when I say ‘invited’ I’m overstating a little: we actually invited ourselves. ‘OK if we come along?’ we asked, always a difficult question to which to answer ‘No’. We even dragged along our friend Anne Nober, from Strasbourg but currently a student at Leicester and with us over the weekend before heading home for the summer break.

Darren’s family were going there to mark Father’s Day, which is celebrated around this time in England. Of course, I wasn’t celebrating Father’s Day. My kids have always had trouble even remembering my birthday. This always amazes me slightly since one of them has his own just three days after mine. Perhaps I should have arranged to have a birthday on the day after his – then his celebrations might have acted as a reminder. As for Father’s Day – well, that’s a complete non-starter.

So we were just freeloading on Darren’s celebration. Our pretext, if we needed one, was to mark the 21st of June, the solstice, the longest day.

And, as I say, it was exactly appropriate, fulfilling all anyone could expect of the beginning of summer in England. The day started grey. The temperature gradually dropped. By midday, the appointed time to head for the pub, the rain was pouring down.

We were there by about 12:15 but sitting in the garden wasn’t really on, so we went inside looking for a table. Sadly, most of the population of Salt seemed to have turned up slightly before us, and having reached the same conclusion about eating indoors, had taken every available space. They were all ordering their lunches and giving every sign of enjoying their tables for at least the next hour and a half.

We waited around for thirty minutes or so, by which time it had at least stopped raining. It was still cold, grey and miserable, with every sign that the rain would be back. But even so, the wet benches around the garden tables offered a somehow more attractive prospect than standing around for another hour or more watching other people eating. We headed outside.

The tables are all equipped with large, undoubtedly effective but slightly optimistic sun umbrellas. Ours proved invaluable to us: though the downpour had ended, there were several more showers during our lunch, and the umbrella proved essential protection.

Celebrating the solstice: how England welcomes the arrival of summer. An umbrella designed to protect against the sun proves invaluable against the rain. Anne, from France, looks despairingly towards heaven for relief, George in his blanket recreates a scene from Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, and is his father Darren resorting to the power of prayer?

Still, however cold and wet it may have been, the food was good, the company even better. And there was something quintessentially English about welcoming the summer this way.

Who could possibly complain?

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The curious history of Asian Leicester

A visit to Leicester today gave us the opportunity to have an outstandingly good Indian meal. Curry Fever, at 139 Belgrave Road, won’t disappoint any real fan of Indian cooking. Let me particularly recommend the Pili Pili sauce, the restaurant’s pride and joy.

Belgrave Road is in the heart of the Indian area of Leicester. It was curious driving around it: there was barely a white face to be seen. You can sometimes feel less than welcome in some heavily immigrant-dominated areas of Britain. My wife was refused service in an Asian shop in Luton, where employees simply turned their backs on her. There was a time when I would regularly walk through West-Indian dominated Brixton, south London, at night and the eyes that followed me from the youths gathered on the pavements were fairly intimidating. I would be beaming to them telepathically ‘I’m on your side, I think you’re right, I think your treatment in this society by people with my skin colour is vile and inexcusable’, but had the terrible sense that if push came to shove – literally – I might not have the time to explain all that.

In Leicester today, the atmosphere was completely different. We were served with real charm in the restaurant – by, I think, the proprietor. There was none of the obsequious reverence you sometimes get in Indian restaurants: there was just a ready smile, a courteous word, and a willingness to be helpful – he kept the place open late, and even restarted the coffee machine which he’d already switched off. We were received in the same way in the shop where we went to buy some Indian vegetables: Danielle has become a real expert in Indian cooking and she wanted Dal and Okra (lentils and lady’s fingers). The shopkeeper and his wife seemed slightly amused, perhaps slightly surprised, but behaved towards us with warmth and friendliness.

This perhaps all reflects the special nature of the Indian community in Leicester. A great many of its members are twice-removed immigrants. Britain brought their ancestors from the Indian sub-Continent to Uganda to run the railways and carry out menial work. With the thrusting dynamism of many immigrant communities they built successful businesses which became the envy of many locals, with whom they mixed little: the Ugandan Asians weren’t without their faults and have even been accused of racism towards their African fellow citizens. That however doesn’t justify the measure adopted against them by Idi Amin, president of Uganda and a man who might have taught Robert Mugabe all he knows about respect for human rights. On 26 August 1972, Amin ordered all Ugandan Asians out of the country by 9 November.

At the time, Ted Heath was Prime Minister in England. I didn’t think much of him, but the next Tory Prime Minister, Maggie Thatcher, gave me reason to look back on him with something close to nostalgia. I’m not sure she was capable of compassion for any group outside the mainstream of what she regarded as ‘respectable’. Heath had the courage to stand absolutely resolute, and against opposition, on the principle that Britain had a moral obligation towards every Ugandan Asian who had a British passport (to our lasting shame, many had been issued passports that didn’t automatically entitle them to residence in this country).

In the end, 30,000 out of the total population of 80,000 came to Britain.

Quite a few of them already had relatives or friends in Leicester. The City Council became aware that large numbers were planning to come there. It took out advertisements in the Ugandan newspaper, the Argus, pointing out that there was a long waiting list for housing in Leicester, the schools were already over-full and, generally, that it would be far better for them not to go there.

Large numbers ignored the advertisements and came anyway. Their second-phase of immigration didn’t blunt their entrepreneurial skills. Many were unable to get their money out of Uganda; they often turned up with nothing more than a suitcase. But they set to work and rebuilt. Estimates suggest that when the thirtieth anniversary of their arrival came round, in 2002, they had generated something like 30,000 jobs in the city.

The council at least had the decency to admit that the adverts against the immigration had been a shameful episode and officially apologised for them. Thirty years earlier would have been better, but it’s never too late to do the right thing.

The City has benefited enormously from the influx of Ugandan Asians. Personally, the only aspect of their contribution that I’ve seen was today’s excellent meal. But that’s quite enough to inspire my profound gratitude.

Friday, 19 June 2009

The Dickens of a time for marketing

Marketing isn’t as easy a job as some might think.

The big problem is how to grab someone’s attention quickly – you probably only have a few seconds – and then hold it long enough to communicate your message.

There are rules of thumb. For instance, using superlatives is good: if you’re not the best, try to be the biggest, or at any rate the first. Though I have no idea why any customer would actually like to be the first to try a new product. I always keep well away from the bleeding edge. Every now and then Microsoft releases some brilliant new product, and I can hardly wait for a year to go by, so that I can install it after someone else has had the pain of trying it first.

Still, it’s true that people do like the idea of something that is out of the ordinary, superlative in some way or another. I keep toying with the idea of a strapline saying ‘you thought you already had the worst possible product, but wait till you’ve tried ours’ but have never actually had the gall to use it. I suspect it would attract attention, though.

There are of course other techniques. A good picture often works, usually with little relevance to the product itself – it just needs to be striking. Less convincing is the use of some supposedly learned quotation from a classic, usually encased in quotation marks to make clear that the writer is being erudite. I’m never too sure about this approach. ‘To thine own self be true’, I always say.

So I was amused by a mailshot I picked up the other day. Times are tough, as we all know, and marketing companies are frantically promoting their own services right now, trying to get us to use them instead of doing our own work. So it’s interesting to see how they market themselves, as a measure of how well they might market us.

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ proclaimed the document. It’s a good quotation, if perhaps not the most original: it’s been used for a lot of book titles, particularly on tough times in history. Even so, it has a ring. It also acts as a good introduction to the theme that precisely because the times are difficult, it’s a good time to do some effective marketing.

The letter itself was written in a chatty informal way, using first names. ‘Dear David’, ‘David, you may be wondering’. Well put together, though they’re in for a disappointment if they think I'm going to be impressed by evidence that they know how to use the Mailmerge functions in Word.

In any case their very first sentence let them down completely: ‘What, you may ask, does this quote from Charles Dickens’s ‘Hard Times’ have to do with me?’

Now there are two unequal categories of people when it comes to Dickens. The vast majority got bored to death in school struggling through one, or part of one, of his books. A quotation from his work would probably inspire no enthusiasm in them and might even just awaken uncomfortable memories.

Then there is a small minority, to which I sadly belong, who have some affection for Dickens and have read at least a few of the novels. Most of us would recognise ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ as the opening words of one of the more readable of them, A Tale of Two Cities. Nothing to do with Hard Times.

Call me a pedant – many people do – but I feel that if you’re going to be so intellectually pretentious as to quote Dickens at me, you could at least take the trouble to get the source right. Otherwise the quotation will have no more positive impact on me than on the Dickensophobe majority.

You can imagine just how keen I am to hand over responsibility for my communications marketing work to these guys.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Transport of delight

Train travel is wonderful. So much more comfortable than a car. And so much safer: when you stop to think about it, the idea of several million people simultaneously on the road in a tonne of metal at high speed, is pretty terrifying. You’re relying on them all staying alert and focused all the time.

In the train, if you’re not feeling alert, you can fall asleep. No problem. It doesn’t mean you’re going to hit a tree or kill other travellers.

And as long as you are awake, look at the things you can do.

You can go for a walk. You can even walk to the toilet. No more desperately counting the miles to the next service station as the pressure grows in urgency. The worst that can happen is that you have to walk through a couple of cars because your closest toilet is out of service.

Actually, that is a bit of a problem. Virgin runs England’s premier trains, the ‘Pendolinos’. In the early days they had constant problems with their toilets, leading to a curious reek, or as we like to call it, ‘pong’ in carriages nearby. There are those who still refer to these glorious trains as ‘Pongolinos’.

Other things you can do on the train? You can catch up on the reading you’ve been finding it difficult to get around to. Why, you can even catch up on writing: it took the railway companies an extraordinary to time to work it out, but with thousands of volts on tap to drive the train, they’ve realised they can spare us twelve to drive a laptop.

So I love trains. But I do have one major problem with them.

It’s the class structure. When you’re caught in second class, maybe struggling even to find a seat, there’s something insufferable about all those stuffed shirts making their way effortlessly to their wonderful, wide and comfortable seats in first.

‘Smug bastards,’ you think. ‘Look at them: unruffled, cool. Arrogant.’

It may just be me, but when I see somebody doing something that I regard as enviable, I always assume that they do it regularly. You know, I see some guy dining in a great restaurant: my first reaction is that he goes there all the time. Lucky bastard. It never occurs to me that he may have been saving for the last twelve months to take his wife to a restaurant he’s never going to visit again, to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Because he forgot the anniversary last year.

The same thing applies to all those guys in first. They look to me as though they do it all the time. Swan about the country in luxury while I have to sweat with the common herd. A different world, a different life style.

But that’s only half of my problem. You see, I don’t book my train tickets. The colleague who does has really mastered the system (I have to say ‘mastered’, because ‘mistressed’ doesn’t seem right). She’s worked out just how to get the sharpest prices, so that sometimes I actually find myself in first class. She tells me this may be because it was only a few pounds more. Or because it was the same price to get me on first for the return trip though on the way out I was in second. I don’t pretend to understand any of this. I just pick up the tickets with a gambler’s thrill. Am I in second? Am I in first? It’s a roulette.

So what if I’m in first? You think I can calmly enjoy the comfort, the space, the peace?

You’re not allowing for the nature of a neurotic.

I obsess about all those guys in second. Who suspect I do this all the time. Who think I’m a smug git. Someone enjoying undeserved luxury when they have to rough it in second.

So I hurry to my seat to avoid any air of calm superiority. I try to broadcast telepathically the message ‘no, no, I really don’t do this all the time. I’ve just been lucky on this occasion.’

And I hide behind my paper to avoid showing the slightest trace of self-satisfaction.

It seems I’ll always be condemned to some form of discomfort in the train, either physical or moral.

Tough isn’t it? And what a metaphor for life itself…

Monday, 15 June 2009

Optimism in Israel

Binyamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, is an extraordinary statesman. He brings together within his own frame the qualities of so many other great politicians that he emerges somehow larger than human scale. Bibi, as his friends call him (is that not an honour to which we all aspire?) brings together the compassion and the broad-mindedness of a Margaret Thatcher, the clarity of vision of a George W Bush, the commitment to transparency and fair play of a Richard Nixon.

Some have claimed down the years that if the United States started putting the pressure on Israel that their financial aid warranted, they would soon have the Israeli government ready to compromise with the Palestinians. Well, recent events have certainly shown them up.

It’s true that Barack Obama has been making some pretty tough statements about Israel’s intransigent opposition to a two-state solution with Palestine. At times, there has even been a threatening undertone to his comments. Where a lesser man might have been offended by such discourtesy from the US President, Bibi rose above all that and, entirely independently and of his own volition, abandoned his long-standing opposition to any kind of Palestinian state and agreed to the need for negotiation.

You see? It didn’t take pressure. Just a man of Bibi’s stature.

Even in Israel, not everyone showed Bibi’s generosity of spirit. Some have been protesting in Jerusalem with placards denouncing Barack Obama as an ‘anti-Semitic Jew hater’. The sensitive might regard that as offensive, but at least its logic can’t be faulted: the statement is internally coherent. I mean, what would it have meant to have called him a ‘philo-Semitic Jew-hater’ or an ‘anti-Semitic Jew-lover’? That would have suggested a split personality and, as well as criticising his ethical and political stance, would have called his very sanity into question.

At least we were spared such calumny. A small mercy, maybe, but in that part of the world we need to be grateful even for them.

Not entirely unrelated postscript

A group of Israelis meets regularly in a café in Tel Aviv. They discuss the political situation, not a subject calculated to raise many smiles.

One day a particularly worn-out looking man announces, ‘you know, I’m an optimist.’

The others look at him in astonishment. ‘What do you mean, an optimist?’ one of them asks. ‘How come you look so down?’

‘In Israel today? You think it’s easy being an optimist?’

Sunday, 14 June 2009

A sense of proportion

So Christiano Ronaldo is going to transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid for a world record transfer fee of £80 million.

In Britain, the Department for International Development has paid £12.5 million in aid to Sri Lanka since September 2008. You may remember that there was some recent unpleasantness in the north east of the island, involving shortages of various creature comforts such as clean water, shelter, food and medical supplies. There were also quite large numbers of displaced persons to look after. I suppose it’s a good thing that we’re making a contribution amounting to over a seventh of what it costs to displace one person from Manchester to Madrid, if that person is the FIFA footballer of the year.

The media have given mixed reports on the Ronaldo transfer. His skills will be missed in the premiership, but the player perhaps less so: the fans and, by most accounts, his team mates never warmed to him that much. It seems that his own high opinion of himself was not universally shared.

A common point across the media seems to be breathless admiration at the sheer size of the fee. A new world record, my dear. You don’t see that every day.

In the meantime, the British media have continued to delve into the expenses scandal involving our Members of Parliament. The European election results showed that the scandal has seriously damaged established politicians. Labour has suffered more than most, but others have been hit too, leading to significant protest votes for non-mainstream candidates, including a number from the extreme right.

The total amount involved in covering MPs’ expenses, if they all claimed every penny, would be a shade under £16 million a year.

Ronaldo is set to make £106 million over six years at Real. That works out at a shade less than £18 million a year.

And just what do MPs do for their money? Very little more than tackling questions such as the worst economic crisis since the great depression or the threat of global warming.

Ronaldo scored 118 goals for Manchester United over six years, an average of just under twenty a season. For the best team in Europe. Sorry – second best. When it came to the Champions League final, Ronaldo couldn’t quite deliver.

Still, that only takes a little of the shine off his achievement.

It’s a matter of pride to belong to a civilised, Western Society. Above all because we have our sense of values sorted out. We’ve got out priorities right.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The importance of not being Michael Allen

Cold callers ring me at work rather a lot. Mostly it’s to offer me unbeatable opportunities to advertise in journals read – or, more likely, binned – by a lot of people none of whom I want to promote products to. Sometimes it’s to invite me to attend an exhibition which is completely unique in its kind, if you don’t count all the other identical exhibitions I’m invited to attend week in, week out.

Recently however I’ve been getting a lot of calls from pensions advisers. Strange, I never used to have any calls from them. It’s almost as though there had been some sudden problem in financial services out there.

Anyway, one of the callers told me that they would like me to meet a representative – sorry an adviser: representatives try to sell things and these guys weren’t going to do anything so vulgar – who would offer me the opportunity to pay less than I do now and still get a better pension when I finally retire (which will be at about 80, I suspect, as things are now going).

Pay less? Receive more? Who could ask for a better offer?

And the amazing thing is that I hadn’t even told them how much my contributions were now or what they were likely to produce by way of a pension. They’d worked it all out for themselves. Someone that smart you have to see, so I agreed to an appointment, which duly took place yesterday.

The day before, I got a call on my mobile while I was at home for lunch. Yes, for the first time for a quarter of a century I live within a mile of work and can get back for lunch if I want to. In fact, since I now have my bike again, I can cycle each way. It’s brilliant. It’s also given me a completely new outlook on the journey. I’m sure I must have been intellectually aware of the hill up to my house while I was using the car, but to be really conscious of it, I needed to start using the bike. I can now say without a shadow of a doubt that I understand that there’s a climb to get to my front door.

But enough of that digression. I was at home the day before yesterday, at lunchtime. My mobile rang. Was it in my bag? Was it in my jacket? Was it on the table? By the time I’d found it, it had stopped ringing. But I could see the number, which I didn’t recognise – though I knew the area code, the same as that of a key client, so I rang back.

‘Hello,’ a woman said, ‘who’s this?’

‘It’s David Beeson.’ No reaction. ‘You rang me. I’m just returning your call.’

‘Do you know who we were trying to reach?’

‘No. Me perhaps?’

I had a mental image of someone scrolling through a list of names and phone numbers on a computer screen.

‘Ah, yes. Are you Michael Allen?’ She’d found the entry.

‘No,’ I replied, ‘still David Beeson.’

‘Strange,’ she said, ‘we have this number registered to Michael Allen.’

I couldn’t think of anything useful to say.

‘Sorry to have bothered you,’ she went on.

‘No problem,’ I replied and hung up.

A little later I was back at the office, after an easy downhill ride. My colleague – and friend – Emma was on reception. She was just finishing a phone call as I came in.

‘Ah, David,’ she said, ‘that was somebody who was trying to contact you. Though she said she was looking for a Michael Allen. But she had your mobile number. Something to do with pensions.’

Right. It was the pensions thing.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘she tried to call me – or rather Michael – on my mobile.’

The mobile started to ring again.

‘That’ll be her,’ said Emma, and she was right.

‘Is that Michael Allen?’ asked the woman. A very young woman, it seemed to me.

‘No,’ I said. ‘This is David Beeson. This is my mobile. I quite often answer it if it rings. I wouldn’t expect Michael Allen ever to answer it.’

‘But, I don’t understand…’

‘No, I can tell.’

‘You see … we have this number registered to a Mr Michael Allen.’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I’d gathered as much.’

‘But how can that have happened?’

‘Perhaps someone recorded my mobile number against Mr Allen’s name? You know – by mistake?’

‘But we don’t do that kind of thing…’

‘Well perhaps you don’t. But how is this really a problem for me?’

‘Well, do you know Michael Allen?’

‘Fraid not. There’s no-one by that name working here either.’

‘I see. That’s bad news. I really need to speak to Michael Allen.’

I took a deep breath. ‘I’m not sure how I can help. I’m not Michael Allen. I’ve never been Michael Allen. I don’t expect to become Michael Allen. I have no plan to try to turn into Michael Allen.’

She finally asked me the question I’d been waiting for. ‘Are you expecting to see a pensions adviser tomorrow?’

‘As it happens, yes. But he’d better ask to see David Beeson if he wants the meeting to take place.’

With that straightened out, we confirmed my appointment.

The adviser turned up yesterday morning. Quarter of an hour late. I didn’t care: I was at my desk getting on with things and quarter of an hour one way or the other wasn’t going to make the slightest difference to me. He, however, clearly felt the need to apologise.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I was practically here on time. But my Sat Nav told me to go on past the roundabout. Instead of turning left.’

I wanted to say ‘your company isn’t lucky with communications equipment, is it?’ but felt that would be cruel.

As it happens, the meeting wasn’t all that useful. He didn’t really want to talk to me about my pension. He wanted to talk about switching the whole company from its existing arrangement to one organised through him. For that he needed to speak to the Finance Director. We don’t actually have one, but I didn’t tell him that. It shouldn’t take him more than a few weeks to find out.

In the meantime, I hope he has a more productive meeting with Michael Allen.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Unsinging Sopranos, friendly footballers and copying without plagiarism

Plagiarism is unattractive, and so are other forms of copying: film remakes, for instance, are generally pretty dismal, as the successive versions of The 39 Steps show: just four steps but they head steeply downwards.

There is, however, at least one form of copying which is not just legitimate but highly fruitful. This is when a theme from an earlier work is picked up and turned into something different, and sometimes far superior, in a new one.

For instance, lots of people have told me what a fine writer EM Forster is. I’ve therefore read several of his novels – at least three – each time with the hope of finally being overwhelmed with admiration. Still waiting, I’m afraid. In particular, I find A passage to India deeply unsatisfactory: poorly structured, unfocused, disappointing. Interestingly, the theme of an inter-racial relationship in India, between an Englishwoman and an Indian man, leading to the man facing an accusation of rape, is much more brilliantly handled in Paul Scott in the first volume of his Raj quartet, The Jewel in the Crown. The story as he tells it is far more convincing, but it also has much greater drama and a much sharper poignancy: in structure, in dramatic tension and in emotional impact it’s far better than Forster. Scott must have set out consciously to draw the comparison with the earlier book, and demonstrates that he handles the theme far more successfully.

Of course, Scott is far less well known than Forster. This is presumably because Forster is a far better writer, in every respect other than his writing.

Tolkien does something similar. Now, I’m certainly not going to argue that Tolkien is even comparable to Shakespeare, let alone superior to him. Even so, there are two aspects of Macbeth that I’ve always left me deeply unsatisfied.

Burnham Wood, we are told, comes to Dunsinane – but actually what happens is that MacDuff’s soldiers rip branches off trees in Burnham Wood (eco-vandals) and march on Dunsinane holding the branches in front of them. I’ve never really understood why they would do this. Did they think the defenders in the castle would say ‘Hey! Burnham Wood has come to Dunsinane. Let us cast ourselves down and despair’? Personally, I believe the conversation would probably have gone like this:

First Soldier: What are those twits doing carrying branches?

Second Soldier: Dunno, but let’s use them for target practice.

Equally, Macbeth is not going to be killed by any man born of woman. So things turn sticky when he realises that he’s up against a man who ‘was from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd’, i.e. delivered by Caesarean. OK, call me picky, but I reckon a Caesarean still counts as a birth, and his mother was still a woman.

So what did Tolkien do? Well, he had a forest actually travel to a battle: the Ents shepherd trees to Helm’s Deep. And the one who couldn’t be killed by man of woman born knew he was in trouble when he found himself up against – a woman.

Much more satisfactory.

Danielle and I have enjoyed two great reworkings of earlier themes recently.

One was The Sopranos, the most successful series ever shown on cable in the States. You can feel that David Chase, who came up with idea, had probably seen that inferior film Analyze this in which Robert de Niro plays a Mafia boss in psychotherapy. An idea with potential but the film failed to develop it effectively. Chase took that idea and turned it into an 86-episode, six-year long series of sustained brilliance. As it happens, the psychoanalysis theme rather declines in importance as the episodes advance; instead we get powerful characterisation and writing that makes you sympathise with people who are fundamentally vile. You’re seduced by their charm, however flawed it may be, so you’re all the more shocked when they turn vicious, yet again.

Then we saw Ken Loach’s latest film, Looking for Eric. Loach tends to send you home from the cinema knowing you’ve seen something powerful and inspiring, but you don’t usually feel uplifted. The final scene of Sweet Sixteen is outstanding, the perfectly appropriate culmination of everything that went before, searingly touching despite the calm and lack of drama. Extraordinary film-making, but if you’re looking for feel-good, look again.

Now Loach has shown he can do comedy. And surely the inspiration of the film has to be that excellent early Woody Allen, Play it again Sam, in which the Woody Allen character finds himself being accompanied and mentored by the ghost of Humphrey Bogart – not the real Bogart, but the Bogart character we’ve all come to know and love, the tough cynic with the heart of gold of Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon. Eric, the protagonist of Looking for Eric, is a passionate fan of Manchester United and above all of its great star of the 90s, Eric Cantona. As he’s drowning in the difficulties of his life – Loach’s opportunity for some of his trademark gritty social realism – Cantona himself turns up to offer him advice. There’s some glorious self-parody: Cantona is famous for his obscure sayings with no obvious meaning, and much of the advice he offers in the film is similarly incomprehensible.

To top it all, the film includes clips of the great moments of Cantona’s footballing career, worth seeing even if like me you’re no great admirer of the game.

So two great film events that take up themes from elsewhere and build on them to give something new and fresh. Well worth seeing if you haven’t already.

And they show that copying isn’t always a bad thing.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Taking a little irony may be good for your health

Irony is the weapon of choice of the powerless against the over-powerful. This is because irony delivers its blows in disguise and the powerful are often too self-obsessed to be aware of them, while others see the joke immediately. So a laugh spreads among the powerless, at the expense of the overbearing, the arrogant, the oppressive and, who knows, perhaps builds up a pressure of ridicule that might eventually bring them down.

We can at least live in hope.

I once met a former airman who’d been in a Japanese prisoner of war camp with the writer Laurens van der Post. The prisoners produced a camp newsletter, which van der Post edited. He would come up with headlines along the lines of ‘Japanese Imperial Navy sinks British battleship for fifth time’. Japan is a nation of extraordinary subtlety and cultural sophistication, but those weren’t the hallmarks of their army in the thirties and forties; and few armies set their brightest and best to guard prisoners. So I can imagine that the censors simply felt that sinking a ship five times brought five times the glory of sinking it once.

It’s because irony is a refined weapon – a rapier, not a battering ram – that I enjoy it so much. And with all the irony around today, I’m having a great time.

Our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, almost certainly only had a year in office ahead of him, even before the events of the last few days: he would have gone down with the Labour Party, now more or less certain to be heavily defeated at next year’s election.

However, he seems likely to go a lot sooner than that. A series of government resignations, senior figures calling for him to go, and a growing number of members of parliament working to oust him, seem to be creating irresistible pressure for him to leave office.

What’s happened?

MPs depend on their party leader to advance in their careers: the leader decides who gets the good jobs, which in government means ministerial office. That keeps them loyal – most of the time. However, when it looks as though a leader may be jeopardising rather than furthering their careers, MPs begin to question that first commandment of politics, of loyalty to the man (or in one famous instance, woman) at the top. Recent reports suggest that as many as 52 Labour MPs have asked Brown for seats in the House of Lords: with the prospect of Brown leading them to a massive defeat, they fear for their seats in the House of Commons, and see the Lords as their only option for staying in politics.

How have things come to this pass? There is a general anger in Britain at the way Labour has gone to great lengths to present news in the most favourable possible way, to indulge in spin as the practice is called. To be honest, to complain about a politician spinning feels to me like complaining that a stripper is under-dressed. You don’t like it? Look away. They’re not going to change.

Recently, though, there have been other criticisms: many people accuse Brown of poor handling of the current crisis over MPs fiddling their expenses. He should have spoken out sooner, he should have sacked people more quickly, he should have declared his disgust more openly.

Note that none of this relates to anything he’s actually done. Arguably, he’s been at least as effective as any of the other party leaders in dealing with the problem. He just hasn’t come across as being as effective.

The same is true of the other, far more important things that he’s doing not in his role as a party leader, but as Prime Minister: his handling of the financial crisis has been pretty generally praised, and he’s doing good work on climate change, on the continued reform of the National Health Service, and so on. But he’s not perceived as effective.

In other words, he’s doing his spinning badly. He may be doing the right things, he’s just not making it clear to enough people that he is, and that may cost him his job. So the very people who attack him for spinning are driving him out for not spinning well enough.

Ironic, isn’t it?

People are, of course, deeply upset over the expenses scandal. Some MPs have got away with hundreds of pounds of expenses they should not have received, some with thousands, a small number with tens of thousands.

Ten thousand is a number that ends with four zeroes.

The banking crisis is going to cost over a trillion to solve. That’s a number that ends with nine zeroes.

Meanwhile, Silvio Berlusconi, Brown’s opposite number in Italy, has been photographed being entertained by scantily clad young women and stars of the music world at his villa in Sardinia. The photographer also got shots of some of these people being flown into the island on official jets, at the Italian taxpayer’s expense.

A select committee of the Italian Parliament is looking into the matter. Because there are serious questions to answer. After all, if we had been dealing with a terrorist with a rifle instead of a photographer with a camera, the Prime Minister might have been shot.

So the scandal of the photographs is that they expose the poor protection the Italian state is offering to the ‘honourable’ Silvio Berlusconi.

His party is riding high in the polls. He seems practically assured of re-election next time.

Maybe that’s enough irony to enjoy for one day.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Europe’s best kept secret

As the credit crunch grips, more and more Brits are taking their holidays at home. And if they do go abroad, it’s often not to the US or the Far East, but to destinations at the end of Easyjet or Ryanair lines. They head for Spain, where you can get properly toasted in 40+ temperatures and pay a high-quality price for a poor-quality meal, or Italy where the surest way of avoiding being ripped off is to have your wallet stolen.

Actually, I don’t think of it as Italy any more, as that was a cheerful, good-tempered, tolerant land, but as the temporary Berlusconidom.

The small but vocal group of us who aren’t put off by the number of Frenchmen it contains, might well go to France.

Practically no-one goes to Germany. Cold, grey, dismal. Full of industry. We may admire it as the economic powerhouse of the Continent, or fear it as the homeland of Nazism and the Blitzkrieg, or envy it as the generator of rather more world cup success than any other European nation outside the Berlusconidom, but we don’t feel attracted to it for its natural beauty and charming lifestyle.

Well, how wrong we are.

If you don’t believe me, try visiting the Black Forest.

Dense woodland inthe Black Forest

I write these words with some trepidation, since I know that a great part of the charm of the Black Forest is the lack of tourists. It has extraordinary glories: sun-dappled woodlands interspersed with breathtaking views, streams and castles, countless little inns with food that is always good and sometimes outstanding, more and more hillsides covered in vineyards, more and more wine cellars filled with better and better wines. And you can wander through it for hours meeting only locals and not that many even of them.

Black Forest open country in cherry blossom season

Do I want to see it invaded by hordes of people who would otherwise be in Ibiza?

That was the kind of question that made me wonder for a while whether to write about it at all. But my readership fits exactly the definition of ‘select’: it massively compensates in depth of quality for whatever it lacks in breadth of numbers. You are just the people with whom Europe’s best kept secret deserves to be shared.

But how to communicate to you the real soul of the Black Forest? I grappled with this thorny problem until last Tuesday, on my latest walk there. Then I saw, and sampled, the sight that I felt would truly express the spirit of the Black Forest, if not exactly its soul.

It was what I like to think of as a Schnapps Station. You know, you get one type of fuel at a petrol station (gas station for my transatlantic cousins). This provided a different type. It looked from the outside like a wayside birdbox, though inside it was more of a wayside shrine, but instead of religious objects it contained a dozen or so small bottles of different types of Schnapps. There wasn’t just Kirsch (cherry) but Sauerkirsch (sour cherry) too, alongside plum and wine lees, mixed fruit and many more besides.

Schnapps filling station

There were little glasses and even a plastic bottle of water with a convenient tap to let you rinse them out. You dropped 50 cents into a coin collector and helped yourself. The trust element alone is refreshing.

Exactly what you need to keep you going for those last few kilometres of breathtaking landscapes.

Refuelled and ready to face the last stretch

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

George Tiller: irony, error and paradox

Apart from the tragedy of the death of someone who was clearly a good man, I was particularly struck by three aspects of the killing of abortion doctor George Tiller in Kansas: irony, logical error and paradox.

The irony is that he was killed in the entrance of a Christian Church by a man professing Christianity. He presumably considers himself a better Christian than Tiller. Central to Christianity is forgiveness of those who trespass against us, as well as the older principle in the commandment against committing murder. Add to this the fact that the murderer was no doubt acting out of ‘Pro-Life’ belief, and how much more irony do you need?

The error of logic is what I always used to think of as the excluded middle. The expression isn’t apparently fashionable among logicians any more but, hey, who ever heard of fashion in logic? It would be as ridiculous as suggesting there is logic in fashion.

The excluded middle is the kind of argument that presents just two options, one of which is impossible, in an attempt to force the other person to choose the one you favour. It’s like a card trick: there are fifty-two to choose from, but you’re going to end up picking the jack of spades if that’s what the magician wants you to have.

Politicians aren’t as clever as conjurors so they keep the options to just two. Gordon Brown is probably trying it on right now, telling his ministers something like ‘back me or face a landslide defeat which will keep you out of office for the rest of your careers’, which excludes the middle, such as ‘replace me by Alun Johnson and perhaps you’ll only be out of office for one parliament.’

Even less skilful politicians – or do I mean more skilful? – propose only one option. Maggie Thatcher’s hallmark word was ‘Tina’, which wasn’t half as attractive as the singer of that name. It means ‘There is no alternative’ so the impossible option is actually non-existent. ‘Agree with me or get nothing at all’ she was saying. Brilliant stuff. It worked, too: there are still people who admire the old bat, not realising that she was the impossible option herself and any of a wide range of other choices would have been preferable to the poll tax, the attempt to outlaw gay writing in schools or the privatisation of British Rail.

More recently George Bush declared in November 2001 ‘If you’re not with us you’re against us in the fight against terror.’ At first sight, he seems to be ranging anyone opposed to his policies, such as the invasion of Iraq with all the benefits it has brought, in the camp of appeasers; but it’s probably worse than that, saying that opponents are actually siding with the terrorists.

That excludes any opinion between the extremes, such as the view that though Bush’s policies were less repugnant than terrorism they were still catastrophic and even, when they led to civilian deaths, hard to distinguish from terrorism.

Which leads us to another group which makes painfully frequent use of excluded-middle arguments. I mean the Israeli government and most apologists for Zionism. You either profess undying, unqualified support for Israel or you are (a) if non-Jewish, an anti-Semite or (b) if Jewish, a self-hating Jew. The excluded middle covers those who just don’t like, say, collective punishment of people based on their ethnicity and like it just as little whether it’s carried out by non-Jews on Jews or by Jews on Palestinians.

The abortion debate also involves an excluded middle. After all, those of us who oppose the anti-abortion brigade are what? For abortion? I’ve never met anyone who is in favour of abortion. The women I know who have been through an abortion have never done so lightheatedly or without a lot of soul-searching beforehand. What we’re defending isn’t abortion, it’s a woman’s right to choose.

The anti-abortionists tend in any case to use another label: they call themselves ‘Pro-Life’. So are we anti-Life? Pro-death? Does being pro-death mean anything? And if it does isn’t it the same as being pro-life? After all, no life is possible without death, and there is certainly no death without life.

So here we are at last in the land of paradox.

The murder in Kansas was carried out by a man proclaiming the sanctity of life. There used to be a piece of graffiti that declared ‘Fighting for peace is like fucking for chastity’. So what do we say about killing, because life is sacred?

Curiously, it’s my understanding that most people in the States who are against abortion are also in favour of the death penalty. They loathe the legal quasi-murder of a foetus; they favour the legal murder of an adult individual. A pretty paradox.

Unfortunately, that’s an argument that can be turned just as effectively against me and I’ve never found a satisfactory argument to defend my own position. I find the death penalty obscene, but I favour the availability of abortion as a choice for women, though it undoubtedly ends a life. I justify my position on the grounds that a group of undifferentiated cells aren’t a human being, but in all honesty I don’t find my own argument entirely convincing: they are after all human life.

Perhaps that just reveals something important about moral judgements. They’re difficult to make, they belong to the domain of the grey rather than black and white, they can’t exclude the middle between extremes. They depend on judging where lines are drawn and it’s never easy to say whether the lines shouldn’t be moved a little further one way or the other. And they can lead to strange paradoxes, with which we just have to live.

As, tragically, George Tiller has been denied the opportunity to do.