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...

Carols

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-W├╝rttemberg. 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?