Monday, 29 March 2010

A fearsome anniversary

Today, the 29th of March, is the anniversary of the bloodiest single day’s fighting in the entire history of England – indeed of Britain. The key battle of the Wars of the Roses that took place near the village of Towton in Yorkshire on this day in 1461 confirmed the grip on the throne of the White Rose of York, in the person of Edward IV, and ensured that the Red Rose of Lancaster, represented by Henry VI, would never win it back.

Estimates vary but most commentators agree that about 28,000 were killed at the battle of Towton. The notoriously awful first day of the Battle of the Somme in the First World War cost just over 19,000 dead.

The dead at Towton represent about 1% of the English population at the time, which is pretty scary. To give a sense of what that means, it would take between eighteen and nineteen days for the number of passengers travelling through Heathrow airport in London to reach 2.8 million; the equivalent of Towton would involve something like 150 to 200 crashes over that period of just more than two and a half weeks, with every passenger lost.

Of course, as a friend pointed out, estimates suggest that the Black Death a bit more than a century earlier had killed between a third and over a half of the English population; without the Black Death, the Towton dead wouldn't have represented such a high percentage. Equally, by causing two or three million deaths, the Plague showed itself to be a more impressive killer than our puny little wars (only by the twentieth century had we progressed enough to become as efffective as diseases in killing our own kind).

Even so, wiping out 1% of the population in a single days remains prettry remarkable – the First World War achieved a bit over 2% in four years. Towton achieved that distinction with swords, arrows, axes and spears. There were no machine guns, tanks or modern artillery pieces.

Perhaps all this proves just how bitter civil wars are. After all, despite the terrible bloodletting in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War, despite the senseless butchery of Vietnam, the single conflict in which the United States suffered the greatest loss of life remains the Civil War. Americans have never died in such numbers as at the hands of their fellow Americans.

It’s also amazing how pointless Towton was. After all, who cares today whether the Wars of the Roses were won by the house of York or the house of Lancaster? Edward IV and Henry VI were both Plantagenets – they were cousins. We sacrificed 1% of our population to sort out a family tiff.

The spin masters of the time dressed it all up as a matter of noble sacrifice, heroism and glory. Shakespeare, over a century and a half later, made a pretty good job of giving the whole sorry tale the nobility of an epic in the third part of Henry VI. In reality, it was just two branches of a family sorting out their naked drive for power and possessions by means of violence. The poetry was better, but Shakespeare’s history plays were really just the equivalent then of The Sopranos today.

At Towton itself, there’s not much to mark the site of the Battle, no real monument. Perhaps it’s more appropriate that way.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

FOOC, CITES and the minefields of international relations

It was my son Michael who persuaded me that I should listen to that great BBC Radio 4 and World Service programme, ‘From our own correspondent’ – FOOC, as we aficionados like to call it, as in ‘FOOC, that’s a good programme’.

The BBC is a much maligned institution. It has become so thoroughly paranoid that it recently announced a series of cuts which, though it denies this, seem designed to pre-empt the far worse hatchet job likely to be done to them if the Conservatives form a new government in a couple of months, as most of us expect, or dread, depending on our point of view. Sadly, Labour has not been particularly well-disposed towards our great broadcasting institution either, but I imagine the BBC rather fear that compared to an incoming Tory administration, persecution by the present lot will look like gentle chiding by a kindly parent. And I suspect they’re right.

Of course, the Conservatives may still not get in – their lead has fallen from 18% to 4% – but that’s another story.

Anyway, I’m deeply irritated by the British tendency to undervalue the very things that we actually do well. The BBC is one of them. And though it’s best known for its TV, it does excellent radio too.

The format of FOOC is simple. A few pieces read directly to the microphone by a correspondent in some out of the way place, like Ashgabat, Kabul, Paris or New York. There are no interviews or studio guests. It’s basically a transposition to the radio of the format of a comment piece from a newspaper. One of the better newspapers.

Today, FOOC included a piece from the CITES conference in Doha which, and I only mention this because it will come up again later, is the capital of the Gulf state of Qatar (Gulf as in ‘the one we don’t call the Persian Gulf any more, since we fell out with Iran’).

For those who haven’t been following this event, CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. It recently refused to ban trade in blue fin Tuna. That decision was a victory for Japan, which used all its diplomatic muscle as well as its financial strength (they used promises of aid to buy votes, which in my book is pretty well indistinguishable from bribery) to prevent the ban being adopted.

It’s curious that people can decide not to make any sacrifice from their Sushi platter now, even at the price of having no blue fin Tuna for it at all in a few years time. Or ever again.

As it happens, I’ve noticed that people seem to get pretty strange when it comes to fishing. In Europe too, fishermen get terribly upset whenever a new quota is proposed. They resist any steps that might harm their living today, even if the alternative is to have no living at all tomorrow. They should take a look at the Grand Banks off the Canadian Atlantic Coast: it used to be said you could walk ashore on the backs of the cod; today fishing in the Grand Banks has collapsed.

Then again, if you’ve ever been cornered by fishermen telling you about the joys and excitements of what they wittily refer to as their ‘sport’, you won’t need me to tell you that they’re a pretty special breed.

In any case, it wasn’t what FOOC had to say about the content of the CITES conference itself that tickled me, it was the account of what happened when delegates were called on to test their voting machines. The chairman asked them to vote on whether Doha was the capital of Qatar – just as a test, you understand. Virtually everyone answered ‘yes’, but Cameroon and Croatia answered ‘no’.

Now is this simply ignorance? I’m sure that there are lots of people, myself included until a couple of hours ago, who might have struggled to name the capital of Qatar. But these guys have been living there for the last year or two, for God’s sake.

Or were we being given a glimpse of a hidden agenda? Are Cameroon and Croatia working on inevitably rival plans to incorporate Qatar into their own territory making Yaoundé or Zagreb, respectively, the capital?

Even more interesting was the case of China, which abstained. Is this because China just likes to abstain? Letting things happen but not being seen to support them? They do it all the time at the UN. Or perhaps they just don’t like casually using their vote, on either side of a question, without having extracted some concession first. You know – for recognition, even by CITES, of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, they would be prepared to acknowledge the status of Doha. With all the necessary reservations, of course. Then again, given what an extraordinarily centralised and bureaucratic regime China is, perhaps they felt that they weren’t authorised to express a view without consulting their government first. Finally, perhaps it was simply a consequence of Google’s withdrawal from mainland China, leaving Chinese delegations without reliable access to general information.

So a few minutes of FOOC this morning gave me a good half hour of amused speculation this afternoon. Well done BBC. And good call, Michael.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Spring in our step

It’s with trepidation that I tempt providence by saying this, but there’s a distinct feel of spring in the air in Staffordshire these days.

Last weekend, Danielle and I took our dog Janka out for a walk on Cannock Chase, that great area of relatively wild land nearby. The fact that we stayed out two hours is testimony to the improved weather, though it was interesting that we were wearing winter jackets and zipping them up whenever it began to blow, opening them up again as soon as the sun came out and the wind fell. Typical transitional weather – but a transition in the right direction.

On the other hand, soon I'll have to get the mower out again. No pleasure comes unmixed in life, does it?

Cannock Chase attracts not just walkers but riders and mountain bikers too. Meeting the mountain bikers is always a little strange. Once we get talking, I find them courteous, friendly and pleasant, but when I first see them they strike me as threateningly sinister. It’s those terrible helmets – they make them look like imperial storm troopers from Star Wars.

That was an extraordinary series of films, wasn’t it? I’d love to meet the guys who had the imagination to come up with some of the themes. For instance, someone must have said to a creative meeting:

‘OK, so these imperial guys can fly across interstellar space in the batting of an eyelid, using unimaginably sophisticated technology. Then they arrive on some planet they want to devastate and break to their will. Let’s see, how will they get around that planet?’

‘They fly around the surface in complete silence, appearing practically instantaneously anywhere they want and destroying whole swathes of territory with a single blast of their inconceivably powerful weapons?’

‘No, much too easy.’

‘But hey – look at the technology which got them there in the first place.’

‘I know, I know, but I’ve got something else knocking at the door of my gargantuan imagination… hold on… I have it. They load all their troops into great big, slow, lumbering vehicles that look like poodles with a hangover and which can be brought down by trip wires.’

‘Wow – what a vision. Now I understand why you get paid the big bucks.’

We didn’t just take Janka on the Chase, we also took Ollie, the King Charles Spaniel belonging to our neighbours Becky and Dave. He had a great time, but he has this thing about bikes. Nothing nasty, he just likes to run up to them with his tail wagging, but when you’re on a bike trying to negotiate ruts and hillocks on a one in four slope, I guess even the wagging tail doesn’t make his approach any less worrying.

Ollie enjoys Cannock Chase while I plan my next blog post

Mostly we avoided any problem, but we got caught by surprise by one of these storm troopers on a bike, and before we could stop him, off went Ollie to say hello. The cyclist stopped and gingerly reached out towards the furry bundle bearing down on him. I moved quickly towards them to try to disarm any bad temper that might ensue.

‘Terribly sorry,’ I was saying, ‘you mustn’t worry. He won’t do anything. Just being friendly.’

‘Hi David,’ said Darth Vader’s acolyte.

It turned out to be one of my colleagues. That’s one of things I like about living in a small town – you don’t have to be there for long before you can expect to make chance encounters with people you know, which is always a pleasure. Particularly when at first glance they look like they could vaporise you with some laser weapon, and might just react badly enough to the behaviour of your dog to want to do it.

It would have been an interesting twist in Star Wars too, wouldn’t it? Trooper lifts his helmet:

‘Hey, Luke,’ he says, ‘Luke Skywalker, isn’t it? Remember me – second year electrical engineering? We built that
anti-matter vortex, remember? Often wondered what happened to Charlie. So you joined the rebels did you? I went for the army, as you can see – they offer better benefits.’

Then they all go off for a beer.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Words, words, words, all I've got is words

Curious experience today. I attended a meeting called by some academic researchers who are looking into a field in which we’re active – patient level costing for healthcare. They’d set up a workshop to which they’d invited several software suppliers, i.e. competitors. We all chatted away happily in an atmosphere that most friendly – and funnily enough, it seemed to me to be genuinely so: after all, we may be competitors, but we’ve also been dealing with the same issues for a long time which creates a bond, and in any case we may well find ourselves working together at some time in the future, so why stir up any animosity today?

On the other hand, we were all obviously being a little careful about anything we regarded as at all sensitive. Yesterday, I mentioned in a meeting within the company that I was a little apprehensive of today’s discussion and of the need to keep a close guard on my tongue. One of my colleagues laughed and told me:

‘You’ll be fine… I’ve never known anyone with such an ability to talk for so long without…’ There was a pause while he searched for his words, ‘…without giving anything away,’ he concluded, avoiding the more obvious, ‘without actually saying anything.

If he had said it, he would certainly not have been the first to express that view. Some years ago, on a trip to France, a friend of ours decided to practice her own French by commenting on an aspect of mine: ‘he talks a lot,’ she said, ‘but never says anything’ (‘il parle beaucoup mais ne dit jamais rien’).

Neither my colleague yesterday nor my friend all those years ago was trying to give any offence, and I took none. If anything, I was actually quite pleased at the comment yesterday, as I felt it reflected well on my capacity to be discreet. On the other hand, it’s a little strange to feel flattered by what actually amounts to an accusation of vacuity.

Oh, well, I suppose one should take what pleasure one can from whatever compliments one can get, wherever one can get them. However double-edged they may be.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Six Nations? How do we count six?

I can’t say it too often – the Six Nations rugby tournament is the most exciting sporting event of the year. But in 2010, there isn’t a six-nation contest – there are five nations bumping along the bottom, generating entertainment only because they’re so much of a muchness that the games tend to be tight and the suspense is maintained until the end. And then there’s one world-class side.

A measure of the mediocrity amongst the five also-rans is that Italy, the weakest side in the tournament since they joined, were made to look like real contenders by Ireland, England and Scotland. In fact, Scotland even managed to get themselves beaten (ironic as they then extracted a draw from England). Today, the only nation in the tournament that seems to be worth its place, France, made Italy look ordinary again, beating them 46-20.

Next week France just need to beat England in Paris to complete their full house of victories over all the other sides and take the grand slam. Might they be stopped? I can’t imagine it happening. If France have a weak point at all, it was revealed when they took their foot off the gas at the end, letting Italy score two tries in the last few minutes. Of course, France were already 33 points ahead by that time – if England have to let them get that kind of lead before they start scoring tries against them, then the French grand slam will be safe anyway.

And the secret of France’s success? As they say in rugby, they keep ball in hand. For reasons that escape me, the other sides have been kicking the ball to the opposition instead of keeping hold of it and running. Seems obvious enough doesn’t it? You can’t score if you haven’t got the ball. So my question to the management at Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Italy and most forcefully England, is – why do you keep giving it to the other side?

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Change and the perils of not keeping pace

Presumably back in the middle ages, a father could watch his son working in the fields and say ‘no, no, it’s a lot easier if you put your right hand there on the plough’, or an ageing master craftsman could tell a young apprentice ‘I think you’d find it easier with the tool at that angle’. Both generations used tools that had barely changed so they could share their expertise, and there must have been comfort in that.

Not much like that now, is it? Today we can see technology introduced and superseded within a few years. As a child I attended an exhibition which included a demonstration of fantastic new technology in the form of a teletype machine. I typed out a message to someone several hundred miles away and got an answer seconds later – it was awesome. But then we got faxes. And now we have e-mail. Who’d dream of using a teletype today?

Sometimes the potential of a new technology is quickly seen and soon fulfilled. Visionaries saw the life-changing possibilities of the internet, and they’ve been proved right. Sometimes, though, we get it completely wrong. For many years, there was a widespread sense that cinema and then TV would kill the book. Why would anyone read when they can watch the film instead? Exactly the opposite has happened: the release of the film boosts sales of the book on which it’s based (Jane Austen would be amazed if she came back). We seem to be publishing more books each year than ever before (over a million new titles a year around the world).

Back at the beginning of printing, there must have been people who got it just as badly wrong. There must have been those who said to Gutenberg ‘movable type? It’s a nice idea but it’ll never catch on. The people who buy books are connoisseurs who prize beauty. You don’t really believe that one of those mass-produced things of yours would displace a top-flight manuscript?’ I visited the Medici library in Florence some years ago and it was striking that they kept right on producing glorious illuminations twenty or thirty years after printing had become established. You can imagine the last illuminators, shutting up the workshop for the final time and saying ‘to us it’s bad enough, it’s the loss of a job, but to the world it’s the loss of something incredibly precious’.

The reaction of the individual to these transforming changes continues to be a problem to this day. One of the difficulties is that when you write a letter to someone (remember doing that?), you are engaging in an essentially private task: you are alone with your sheet of paper; the recipient is alone in reading it. There’s something intimate about the experience. That habit of thought has spilled over into the new media too. We sit at a computer and feel the same sense of privacy: there we are, and out there is the person we’re writing to, and the world shrinks to just the two of us.

This can develop into a real problem when we’re using a tool like Facebook. We may be writing for just one friend, but a lot of others can read what we write, and suddenly it can become frighteningly public. The experience feels private, but it’s anything but.

The situation can become extremely awkward, for instance if you’re an Israeli soldier who is feeling homesick and you make your Facebook status ‘On Wednesday we clean up Qatanah, and on Thursday, God willing, we come home’. Qatanah is a Palestinian village near Ramallah in the West Bank.

The Facebook message was seen as a breach of security, so the operation was cancelled, for a few days anyway. On the up-side, I suppose Qatanah at least won a few more days of peace before the tanks rolled in and young men were rolled up. As for the soldier, he was moved to ‘non-combat’ duties. At first I thought that he would probably have welcomed the move, but then I thought how the military works: if anyone can find something so unpleasant that it can make you regret being transferred to it from combat duties, it’s surely the army.

The whole incident just underlines how careful we need to be with new technology. That’s not new, of course. That new-fangled stuff with movable type was just as bad – people took to writing whatever they felt like and distributing it to hundreds of others, and sometimes they paid for it with their lives, in some cases at the stake.

Life may have been duller, but at least it was safer, when sons could learn from their fathers to use technology that had barely changed in a generation.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Rosenkranz as entertaining as Guildenstern

Austrian politics provides wonderful entertainment for the uninvolved spectator.

A few years ago we had the flamboyant Jörg Haider. As leader of the hard right Austrian People’s Party, he turned it into a national force before not so much leaving it as storming out in a temper to found another even harder right-wing organisation. He naturally stood for everything that was pure and orthodox and traditional – white, Christian, European, German-speaking. On the other hand, he kept it quiet that he was gay, something that emerged after his death, an event lamented only by a lover who at least had the guts to come out of the closet and mourn his partner publicly.

The loss of Haider left a terrible gap on the European stage. It’s now been filled by Barbara Rosenkranz, candidate for President from the same Austrian People’s Party in which he made his name.

It would be great if she could find herself a running mate called Guildenstern, since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead is one of my favourite plays. Though it wouldn’t really be appropriate: the play features two rather inoffensive and quite attractive characters to whom everything seems to happen, evoking the sympathy of the onlooker. Nothing like Austrian Freedom Party people.

The one point on which I, worryingly for me, actually agreed with Rosenkranz was in her opposition to laws against Holocaust Denial, as exist in Germany and Austria. I find it terribly worrying when we try to ban beliefs or statements of belief: at worst, such a ban seems to breach freedom of thought, at the very least it breaches freedom of speech. And let’s not forget that, as Søren Kierkegaard pointed out, ‘people demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use’. I certainly insist on the right to talk at length about matters without necessarily knowing, or thinking, much about them. One of the great pleasures in life, I feel.

In any case, why should we care whether people think, or claim to think, that the Holocaust never happened? To me it sounds about as sensible as claiming that the Roman Empire never happened. After all, I never actually saw the Roman Empire any more than I saw the Holocaust, and all I have as evidence that it existed is documents and remains, all of which you could believe had been specifically created to fool us into thinking the Roman Empire had existed. If you’re sufficiently paranoid or sufficiently dumb.

As Tom Cruise points out in A few good men, stupidity isn’t against the law. Nor should it be.

It’s frightening to find I agree on anything with a representative of the Austrian People’s Party, so it was a tremendous relief to read that she’d dropped her objection to the Holocaust Denial law. She wants to be President. She realised that changing her position was the price – like Henry IV of France converting from Protestantism to Catholicism in order to take the throne, pointing out that Paris was worth a Mass, she understands that nothing so trivial as a fundamental belief ought to stand in the way of access to high office.

So Austrian politics continues to entertain and to edify. In this case, it offers a powerful vindication of the principle that everyone, even a radical like Rosencranz, is at heart as opportunistic as the best of us.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Polanski and Blair, so many questions, so many fascinating answers

It’s been instructive, during a swift trip to France, to go and see Roman Polanski’s film Ghost Writer. It is based on the novel Ghost by Robert Harris, and the novelist’s involvement in preparing the screenplay no doubt helps explain why the film is so close to the book – the only significant changes are on those points which really can’t be translated to the screen.

The experience was instructive because it prompted two sets of questions.

First, the content. Book and film concern a fictitious former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang. When we discover that during a ten-year period in office, Lang took Britain into an unprofitable war in Iraq at the behest of a right-wing American Administration, we can presumably all make an educated guess at the real-life figure behind the fiction.

Essentially, the book and film raise a question, perhaps best summed up in what one of the characters asks: is there any single act carried out by Lang that was not completely in line with US interests? I’d put it even more strongly: how would things have been different, at least in foreign policy, had Blair been operating entirely under the control of Washington?

But there’s a second series of questions raised by the film, and particularly by seeing it in France. It is extraordinarily popular out here. An afternoon showing was packed, and as we trooped out at the end, the crowd was already pressing to get in for the next one. With a theme so British, or at any rate ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (as the French put it), it was hard to understand why France had taken to it so strongly. The friends who came with us explained that it’s the Polanski angle: an adoptive Frenchman, in trouble with the law, attracts French interest and probably sympathy.

So question number one is, why should a fugitive from the law, convicted of sexual abuse of a minor, be a focus of sympathy if he’s an internationally celebrated film director, when he wouldn’t be if he were, say, an unemployed inhabitant of the tough districts of our post-industrial cities who had himself been a victim of abuse?

But perhaps a far more interesting question is why we’re so tough on people regarded as paedophiles – there have been many cases of vigilante action against them – when there are no doubt other people, like Polanski, who committed a single offence, and one involving no violence, and have gone on to live productive and enriching lives ever since?

I suspect it says a lot about each of us which of these questions we feel needs answering first.

The film is good by the way, and I found the book enthralling.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Practice doesn't make perfect losers

It’s always a high point of the year for me when the Six Nations Rugby tournament gets started.

It has so much going for it. First of all rugby leaves that boring game with the round ball way behind. In football, apart from the goalkeeper, everyone basically does the same thing – OK, some hang back a bit, others stay forward, while the rest mill about in midfield – but essentially they all go running up and down the field in a gaggle round the ball.

In rugby, there’s no confusing forwards and backs. As the camera pans along the teams during the anthems, you start with the giant forwards dominating the screen. Then there’s a drop of at least a head as you reach the scrum half. One of the things that made the New Zealand All Black Joshua Lomu so exceptional a player was that he was one of very few who could play as either a forward or a back.

Even within each division, the players all have roles that they have to master. A tight-head prop is not the same as a loose-head prop (aren't those great names?). Switch one to the other position and you get problems in the scrum, as Scotland discovered recently.

But that’s just the game itself. What makes the tournament particularly interesting is that it includes the four home nations – and it’s wonderful that for these purposes Ireland is one of the ‘home’ nations, and draws its players from North and South of the border – as well as France and Italy, and I can’t think of anything else that links specifically those six countries.

Italy still has a long way to go (even though they beat Scotland – again – last week) but France is a major force in international rugby. It’s hard for this England fan to admit it, but they’re probably the best side in the Tournament and are likely to take the Grand Slam this year. That’s tough to swallow, but I do like the fact that a Latin nation is able to play such a role in what remains a predominantly English-speaking competition.

And then there’s England.

Each season starts with a new flowering of hope.

Objective one is to win the Grand Slam, to beat all the other sides, which lasts until the first defeat.

Objective two is to win the tournament anyway, which lasts until someone else knocks it out of England’s grasp. 

Objective three, which I sometimes feel is the most important of all, is to beat France.

It happens much more often than one might think. Last season, the game was played in Twickenham, under historical conditions – I was in the crowd – and France was trounced. This year? It’s in Paris. France which tends to have just two speeds, full ahead and full astern, is in full ahead at the moment. As for England – well, they’re being sadly English.

What do I mean by English? They lost at home to Ireland last week. All hell broke out in the sports pages. Johnny Wilkinson, once the dream boy of England rugby has become the whipping boy, the scapegoat for all our shortcomings.

It’s terribly sad. It just confirms once again what I’ve long known: England are terribly losers.

Which is extraordinary considering how much practice they’ve had.