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.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Where were you when that Creep got on TV?

Historic TV isn’t necessarily outstanding TV. Yesterday a little bit of history was made when the BBC invited Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party and recently elected Member of the European Parliament, on to its prestigious Question Time programme. It wasn’t great TV, but it is going to become one of those ‘where were you when…’ moments. The assassination of JFK it wasn't, but it had its significance all the same.

The BBC came in for a lot of criticism for inviting Griffin at all. This is a Party that doesn’t allow non-white members (though as a result of a court decision last week, it will be forced to amend its constitution shortly) and many of its members have a frankly fascist past (it’s hard to judge the present: they’re careful what they say).

Griffin’s a pretty loathsome individual, but banning an elected MEP from the BBC strikes me as a bizarre way of asserting democratic values. After all, it’s easy to favour freedom of speech if we’re only going to grant it to people who express palatable views – what dictator doesn’t allow people freely to express views he likes? The real test is whether we allow the people whose views repel us to speak out – whether it’s Griffin or some fundamentalist supporter of the Taliban.

In any case, it’s not for the BBC to decide who should and who should not be entitled to appear on publicly owned TV. I’d hate the idea that some committee of BBC grandees was taking that kind of decision. A properly run Democracy has to limit free speech, by banning incitement, conspiracy and libel (though in this country we’re much too tough in our definition of libel), but those limitation are stated in law made by elected legislators. That’s the right way to deal with those things. The BBC just has to make rules to ensure impartiality and apply them even-handedly, and when they invited Griffin, that’s what they were doing.

So much for the principle. The practical argument is just as strong. Because what Griffin did last night was squirm in the very spotlight into which he’d worked so hard to crawl. Did he deny the Holocaust? He couldn’t say – he’d changed his mind but couldn’t say why, what from or what to. Why did he attend a meeting with David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan? Duke is non-violent, claimed Griffin to general hilarity (a gentle Klansman? That was probably Griffin's most amusing idea of the evening).

He won’t have lost any of his core support – those guys aren’t open to rational persuasion. But people vaguely attracted by his party, perhaps as a protest vote, saw a sight that must have made them think again: he was evasive, disoriented, intellectually far weaker than the other panellists. Given the choice on offer of representatives of Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, all simply and obviously far more competent than Griffin, such voters must have been left wondering whether choosing him could be a solution to any kind of problem worth tackling.

If that’s as good as he gets, and I suspect it’s as good as he is, I think Griffin should be trotted out every few months to amaze everyone as he cuts the ground from under his own feet.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Parallel lines don't meet

Do you ever get the sense that your life runs along multiple parallel tracks? And as with all parallel lines, those tracks simply don’t meet? My life is certainly like that.

That was brought home to me forcefully this week. Danielle, my wife, is away on a business trip – her first ever I think – to one of her favourite countries, Ireland (she’s enjoying it enormously, I like to think because of the wonderful personality of the Irish and not because she’s being accompanied, from luxury hotel to luxury hotel, by a male colleague from another of her favourite countries, Scotland). I thought I’d take advantage of her absence to have dinner with an old friend and business contact who happens to be working not that far from me for a few months. I’ll refer to him as ‘Geoff’, which happens to be his name.

So I got in touch with Geoff and suggested I’d come and see him on Wednesday night. We fixed it all up and several times in the last few days I planned how I was going to organise things – leave the office in time to walk the dog, get on the road just as the traffic was starting to die down, and so on.

But at other times I also devoted a little thought to the knotty problem of how, in a busy week, I was going to get my homework done for a course of evening classes I’ve been taking recently. Classes that are held on a Wednesday.

So at different times I was carefully planning how I was going to get to events taking place simultaneously, about 100 miles apart.

It was last night, Tuesday, as I was saying goodbye to a colleague after a presentation, that I mentioned that I would be having dinner with Geoff tonight. ‘Oh, wish him well,’ my colleague told me. A few minutes later, as I drove on to the motorway, my returned to the problem of the evening class. ‘I’ll be home too late, again, to do the homework tonight. Could I get some time over lunch tomorrow? Or perhaps tomorrow evening before heading to the class?’

Deep in the dim recesses of my mind an alarm bell started to ring faintly. ‘Tomorrow’. Hadn’t I referred to ‘tomorrow’ just recently? My stomach began to sink. Slowly the two versions of me, each on his own parallel track, turned towards the other, their eyes met, and a terrible awareness dawned.

Fortunately, Geoff took it well. In fact, he split his sides laughing. I expect I shall be in for a little gentle ribbing when we meet on Monday evening (he did check whether I was learning Swahili or Origami on Mondays).

In the meantime, I got to my class OK. Though I never did find the time to get the homework done.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Persecution - pass it on

It’s fascinating to examine the way human tolerance, or perhaps I should say intolerance, pans out. For instance, I used naively to think that people who’d been victims of intolerance would be more sympathetic to other victims and would not behave intolerantly themselves. What an illusion. The reverse is the case. It’s as though someone who’s been regularly kicked around likes nothing more than to find someone else they can kick in turn.

An example. Back in 1848, the Hungarians got very fed up with being pushed around by their overlords, the Austrians. They rose in revolt and were fairly ferociously put down for their pains. The Austrians, however, got the message. In 1867, the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary was set up and the Hungarians were made more or less equal partners in the Empire. Celebrations all round? Not quite. The Slovaks, the Croats, the Galicians, the Rumanians – they had nothing to be cheerful about. In fact, the Hungarians were pretty much as nasty to them as the Austrians had been to the Hungarians.

Then came the First World War and the Empires were broken up into the so-called Successor States. At last an opportunity to satisfy national aspirations. But again there were lots of dissatisfied people: the Slovaks, again, weren’t happy about being absorbed into Czechoslovakia, the Croats, again, weren’t happy about being a part of Jugoslavia. The Jews were recognised as a minority more or less everywhere but got their own state nowhere.

Then the Nazis came to power. When they invaded Czechoslovakia, that was pretty bad news for that new little nation. Or at least for the Czech part. The German-speaking Sudeten people were only too pleased to be absorbed into Germany. And the Slovaks, believing that the ‘independent’ state they were going to be given would actually be independent, were pretty pleased too.

Czechoslovakia was one of the nations reconstituted after the end of the War, so the Slovaks lost their illusory independence again. But then in the nineties, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, they got it back and for real this time, when the Czech Republic had its reasonably peaceful divorce from Slovakia. At last there was cause for celebration, or so you might think. I met a young Hungarian-speaking citizen of Slovakia at the time, very worried about being part of a minority in the new country – previously his people had enjoyed some protection against the Slovak majority, from the government of the unified nation in Prague.

So it seems it doesn’t matter how bad a time you’ve had as part of a minority yourself. When you finally get to be the majority, you’re likely to be just as ghastly to other minorities. Perhaps it’s just like most child abusers being people who were abused as children themselves: the victims become the perpetrators.

So when I see Israeli soldiers firing on schools where civilians are sheltering, I have to learn to stop saying ‘how can they, of all people, behave that way?’ Instead, I have to learn to ask ‘how is it that we all, humanity, persist in behaving that badly?’

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Spin zero

A curious experience yesterday: I accompanied a couple of colleagues to a meeting with a customer who wanted to complain about some software we’d delivered. There were too many defects in it, and though they’d been fixed since, they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. It was my job to explain, as the person responsible for Development, how this apparent failure of Quality Assurance could have arisen.

The secret to making a success of a meeting is in the preparation. That’s generally true enough, but it’s hard work, not something I try to do too much of unless it’s really necessary, and quite a lot of the hard work may be wasted anyway. E-mails or even phone conversations don’t always give you an accurate view of what a client’s concerns are, so you may well be forced to improvise pretty extensively once you get into the meeting and find out what you really need to be addressing.

In a general sense, however, I was well-prepared for yesterday: my task was justify the way I do my work, and that’s a subject I know better than any. So I just told them. I explained how many people we have in QA, how many we use from time to time from offshore, how many we have in documentation. I pointed out that if they told me that double that number would be a good thing, I would probably agree, because you can never do too much QA or write too much documentation – the more you do, the fewer the problems downstream and the less time other staff have to waste correcting them – but you have to balance that kind of effort with the general demands of work on products themselves. I told them that I was already taking 20% of the company’s revenue for Development and didn’t have the gall to ask for more (the standard in our sector is 10-11%). I showed them how we were changing the structure of our products to make defects less likely and easier to fix. And I pointed out that even with the most extensive QA, the ultimate test could only be carried out when we got onto a real system, with real volumes of data, and find the problems we couldn’t even guess at beforehand.

Finally I tried to demonstrate to them why I felt we were getting the balance about right, because although they’d had an unfortunate experience, generally defect rates were falling although we were delivering more and more complex products.

Interestingly, by the end they were nodding and agreeing, and the whole meeting lasted little over half the time allotted for it. They even agreed to our using their own test system for validation on real data at full scale in the future. So what I expected to be a tough meeting turned into a good one.

Afterwards, one of my colleagues said ‘I like the positioning you adopted.’ I was a little surprised. I wasn’t aware of having positioned anything. I’d just told things the way I saw them. His reaction was curious and pointed me towards an important general principle. The truth as you perceive it is sometimes the best thing to say: it’s the easiest position to prepare, because you know it already, and it comes across most convincingly.

I wonder whether we should call that ‘natural spin’?

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Who gave birth to who? And does anyone care?

Interesting that the italian Northern League would like to ban women from wearing the niqab in public, the Islamic veil that fully covers the face. I thought at first this was just racism. The Northern League, after all, doesn’t like anyone very much outside its own circles. No time for non-Italians, obviously, but even among Italians it doesn’t have much time for Southerners. And the South, I expect, starts not far below Venice. In fact, since this initiative comes from the League in the Veneto, I rather suspect it’s backed by people who don’t like anyone from outside that province.

Since they probably only rate men, as long as they’re straight – no gays here, please – and I suspect only the ones from the cities, and they no doubt appreciate wealth, you’ll probably find that the only people they feel drawn to are a few dozen of the richest, middle-aged men, living in cities like Padua and Venice itself. Since some of those vote for other parties, that means that the people they might actually bring themselves to like can probably be counted on the fingers of one maimed hand. Since those are the very people who are their rivals for power within the Northern League, I can’t imagine that they trust even them much.

So hatred for pretty much everyone in the human race, when all’s said and done.
However, the League made it clear that they were not motivated by racism at all. At the back of the initiative is a security concern. How can you check the identify of a woman – if it is a woman – who has her face completely covered?

So that’s all right then.

And yet, and yet. Places like Saudi Arabia had a bit of a bad time from terrorism and they sorted it out without banning the niqab. They found other solutions.

One can’t help feeling there might be a touch of anti-Islamic sentiment here. It’s hard to believe, though. These guys are Catholics, after all. The central doctrine of the Catholic Church in its present form came from Thomas Aquinas. And where did he get his principles from? Why, from the great Moslem scholar Averroes. How could Catholics hold Moslems in anything but veneration?

Of course, if you go back further, you’ll find that the very founder of the religion was Jewish. The New Testament never stops talking about Christ’s work amongst the Jews, his preaching to the Jews, his desire to reform and renew the Jewish faith. The debt of Christians generally, and Catholics in particular, to the Jews is undeniable.

That’s no doubt why, when things get tough for the Jews, they can always count on the unqualified support of the Catholics. Alongside the basic Christian desire to protect the oppressed, the Catholic sense of obligation to the Jews must have inspired Pius XII, Pope at the time of the Holocaust, to take such a courageous and uncompromising stand against the suffering being inflicted on the Jewish people by the Nazis.

Or – hang on – did I get that right? Maybe that wasn’t how it worked out. I’d better just go and check my facts.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Making up for lost time

There are many things I’d like to be able to do at some time or other in the future. And then there are things I wish I had already done, some time in the past, but can’t work up the enthusiasm to do any time soon. Things like reading David Copperfield or doing a 10 km run. I’d like to be able to think ‘I’ve done that’ but I’m not sure I can inflict the sustained punishment required on my mind or body. On the book front, in particular, I’m close to having to admit that what I am is a voracious non-reader. I keep buying books I know will be interesting, and then I fail to read them. My bookshelves groan under the weight of all those volumes.

Last winter, Danielle organised a trip for a bunch of us up into the Black Forest near our then home outside Strasbourg. At one point we came across a collection of plaques planted in the snow, around a little chalet. The chalet had apparently belonged to Martin Heidegger. He was a Christian philosopher who brought a distinctly faith-inspired approach to Existentialism, or so I’m told (and who am I to question what I’m told? Especially since I haven’t read any of the work). What really amazed me was the information that Heidegger had made his peace with the Nazis and been allowed to serve as rector of the nearby University of Freiburg. He’d done this even though some years earlier he’d had an affair with a brilliant doctoral student of his, Hannah Arendt. Arendt was Jewish.

Curious stories keep crawling out of that whole pit of horror that was the Nazi time.

The reference to Arendt rang a bell with me. Nearly fifteen years ago I bought a copy of her Eichmann in Jerusalem. Seeing her name pricked my conscience. I’m finally reading the book.

It’s an extraordinary work which, in particular, gave us the concept of ‘the banality of evil’. You can quickly see why. There was nothing special about Otto Adolf Eichmann, a middle-ranking SS official who had served under Heydrich and played a dirty but essentially logistical role in the Nazis’ so-called final solution of the Jewish problem. He had organised transport to take the Jews to the killing centres. In 1961, he was kidnapped in Argentina by Israeli agents and taken to Jerusalem, where he was tried and eventually hanged in 1962.

Reading the account of Eichmann’s trial, I realise that I’ve know lots of little Eichmanns. I’ve worked with them. They’re nonentities. They fail at school, they fail at work. They’re convinced that they deserve better from life, that what’s needed isn’t more effort from them but a proper recognition of their natural talents. They’re the kind of people who can take charge of a project but need to be chased twice a day to make sure they’re getting on with it.

Unfortunately for sad little Eichmann, the project he was in charge of was a significant component of probably the most obscene act of barbarity in history, the Holocaust. It cost him his life, having cost a lot more innocent lives first.

My conclusion, anyway, is that there’s some good stuff on my shelves. It’s time I read it.

PS. This new resolution of mine spills over into films too. Danielle’s away this weekend visiting her mother in Strasbourg. So I could without boring her to tears make up for a 44-year old gap in my cultural education: I watched The Sound of Music. It’s really quite good, isn’t it? Just strange they used all those old songs I’ve heard so often.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Oh General, my General

It makes you proud, doesn’t it, to see the armed forces of the democracies locked in struggle with the powers of darkness? There we are, in Afghanistan, showing old Johnny Fundamentalist that he’s not going to plunge the country back into iniquity and corruption. And we’ve got a President of the country with all the votes you could possibly want, and a lot more than were ever cast, to help us prove it.

Of course, on a strictly puritanical view of the circumstances, you might feel that there were some shades of grey, morally speaking, about the admirable government in Kabul. Not so on our side, though. In particular, the men of steel who fight the good fight are above all reproach. Take good old Sir Richard Dannatt, until recently Britain’s most senior soldier. He had the courage to tell the truth to power. ‘You’re not sending enough troops,’ he told the government. And the ministers quaked in their boots (though they didn’t actually send any more troops).

At least Dannatt showed what it is to be a man of true military probity. He reminds me of a wonderful story about the Iron Duke, Wellington. On his return from India in 1805 as a victorious general, not a species the English were particularly used to at the time, there was considerable suspicion that one so popular might be a political threat to those already in or close to power and who therefore knew they were there by right. So they sent him to Kent, in command of a mere brigade. Many expressed shock and asked why he had accepted so humble an appointment. ‘For this simple reason,’ he replied, ‘I am a nimmukwallah, as we say in the East; that is, I have ate of the King's salt and, therefore, I conceive it to be my duty to serve with unhesitating zeal and cheerfulness, when and wherever the King or his government may think proper to employ me.’

Warms the cockles of the heart doesn’t it? What upright loyalty and sincerity. But isn’t Dannatt a man out of the same mould?

Judge for yourselves.

Having retired from his position but remaining on the army payroll until November, and therefore still taking the Queen’s salt in Wellington’s evocative image, he has accepted a position as an adviser on military matters to the Conservative Party. The Conservatives, hard though the Party itself may find it to believe, remains the opposition for the time being. For now, the Queen’s salt is still distributed by the government, formed by the Labour Party.

Ah, well. Perhaps the salt doesn’t taste quite as good as in Wellington’s day.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Honouring those who teach our leaders

One of the wonders of English life is our great private schools, which of course we like to call public schools. They charge annual fees that correspond to around the median salary of ordinary mortals. In return they give kids a more or less good education (excellent in the top schools, pretty ropy in plenty of others) and provide them with contacts in privileged circles that will stand many of them in excellent stead throughout their lives.

The heads of public schools and the parents of the kids are, however, upset at the moment. It seems that the parents are being given guilty consciences, made to feel that the decision to send their children to these schools is ‘tantamount to treason’, according to Andrew Grant, chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, the Association of the public schools. But Grant is hitting back. In particular, he points out that without the education provided by the public schools ‘Britain would not have enough officers to lead its army’.

Now that’s a pretty strong argument when you think of, say, the Duke of Wellington. But Howe and Burgoyne who lost to a bunch of colonists and their French allies in the American War of Independence? Cardigan and Lucan whose personal animosity reached such a peak of intensity that it resulted in the Light Brigade being flung at Russian guns and virtually wiped out at the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War? Or worse still Douglas Haig who commanded British troops in the First World War and wrote them off in their hundred of thousands as though they were expendable?

If these are the best illustrations of the success of public schools, I’d hate to see what their failures look like. And there would be every reason for the schools to be breeding grounds for uneasy consciences.

PS For why the private schools are called ‘public’ see The mystery of the missing days

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Proud to be crooks in Berlusconi’s Italy

In ancient Rome, it was a high honour to be able to proclaim ‘civis Romanus sum’, ‘I am a Roman citizen’. In modern Italy, that has been replaced by ‘sono farabutto’, ‘I am a crook’.

‘Farabutto’ is the term the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, recently used to describe his opponents and the defenders of freedom of expression. That’s one group, by the way: ‘opponents of Berlusconi’ and ‘defenders of freedom of expression’ aren’t two separate currents in Italy.

Berlusconi hasn’t learned much from history. The British called the rebelling colonists of North Eastern America ‘Yanks’ and they took great satisfaction in applying the name to themselves. The British Army in Belgium in World War I thought the German Kaiser had called them ‘contemptible’ and took pride in calling themselves ‘the old contemptibles’. Abusing your opponents often rebounds against you.

Sadly, though, abuse is the least of Berlusconi’s offences. Senators from his party have been drafting a constitutional amendment to limit freedom of the press formally, seeing as the media haven’t been sufficiently cowed by informal means – Berlusconi owns the major private TV channels and controls the public ones by pushing his authority as prime minister to the limit of democratic behaviour or beyond. The amendment would prohibit the publication of material detrimental to the dignity of individuals. Since Berlusconi feels he has been unfairly maligned by the press, it’s not hard to understand what the aim is here.

As it happens, Berlusconi isn’t waiting for a constitutional amendment. He’s launched lawsuits against two newspapers, l’Unità which was historically the paper of the Communist Pary, and Repubblica which has been perhaps the leading voice in highlighting Berlusconi’s contradictions and downright lies. As Repubblica points out, the suit against them is curious: he’s taking action over the ten questions they put to him on the front page of the paper. They were questions they had officially asked for permission to use in an interview which he never granted them.

So Berlusconi is taking them to court for daring to question him. There are many terms for regimes in which it is illegal to question the head of government. Democracy isn’t one of them.

So up against the biggest crook of them all, calling yourself a crook, a farabutto, in Italy today is to align yourself firmly on the side of humanity and against self-serving authoritarianism.

In that sense and in that sense alone, I’m also proud to line up with the crooks.

A crook with little to be proud of

Meanwhile, police have announced the arrest of a young man in Albano Laziale, just outside Rome. He came across a PC with the power on while he was burgling a local apartment. He couldn’t resist the temptation to get onto Facebook and chat with his friends. His personal data left on the PC led the police straight to him.

Sounds to me like he has all the intellectual and moral qualities for a career in Berlusconi’s party. If they’re still in power when the burglar gets out of gaol, he should pursue the opportunity.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Preparing for winter the cat's way

The nights are getting longer, the days are getting colder. These days, our cat Misty doesn’t just need to get out of the house from time to time. Sometimes, the falling temperature or the falling rain means he needs to get back in. We still don’t have cat flaps – this place isn’t ours after all – and the increasing cold itself makes us reluctant to leave a window open as we did in the summer. So Misty has turned again to his exceptional talents for bending others to his will.

Now I’ve already talked about Misty’s extraordinary skills in training me (see In pet training, who trains who exactly?). This has enabled him to be let out whenever he needs. He continues to use the techniques I’ve described before: first he pushes my belongings off my bedside table, starting with a pen, then a watch, finally a mobile phone in the hope that the noise and the anxiety will persuade me to deal with him.

If that doesn’t work the next step is the delicate insertion of a claw into my skin followed, in extreme cases – for instance at 4:00 in the morning when I’m less than 100% focused on his requirements – by biting my toes. That certainly gets my attention.

So much for getting out. But it’s not much use for getting back in. For that, Misty needed help from another source.

He's found out that our dog Janka has become increasingly sensitive to his mewing and he’s turned this fact to good use. When he needs to get in, he stands outside the back door and mews. If we’re downstairs, she’s the first there, staring out at Misty until we come to let him in. If we’re upstairs, though, it’s a different matter. She can’t get down to the back door. So she starts to whine. Misty continues to mew. Not that loudly, but somehow piercingly and with great persistence.

It’s another technique that works. Because eventually Janka starts to bark. And that is guaranteed to wake me if nothing else does.

So as well as training me, Misty has trained Janka to bark when he needs her to. Making another powerful addition to his armoury of weapons to get his way.