Monday, 29 November 2010

Racism: a constant value for our times

Walking the dog the other day, I came across a gate on which someone had scribbled the words ‘No Pakis’.

When I was a child, I used to resent the way many people of my parents’ or grandparents’ generation would tell me that ‘things were very different when we were young’, by which they meant things had been far better. This always struck me as slightly odd, because one of the things they had been doing when they were younger was killing each other in historically unprecedented numbers, in a world war in each of the generations in question.

It appals me how often people of my generation now tell me, and expect me to agree, that things were better when we were younger.

The Vietnam war? The attacks on Civil Rights protesters in the States? Apartheid in South Africa? The Berlin Wall? The assassinations of Kennedy, Luther King and Kennedy?

But of course what they really mean is that at an individual level we were so much nicer. When our parents complained about the drug-taking, foul-mouthed long-haired louts who thought society owed them a living, they were just bigots. When we complain about the violent, drug-taking hooded louts of today, we’re being enlightened upholders of civic values.

It struck me that the sign scribbled on the gate should reassure people who are nostalgic for the sixties and seventies. Even though so much else has declined, at least our fascists are as good as the ones we had when we were younger. They have remained true to the values of brutality and offensiveness that we came to appreciate so much in our teens and twenties.

But then I got to thinking about the words themselves. What is about the ‘Pakistanis’ that these people dislike so much? After all, as I’ve pointed out before, a lot of them aren’t really Pakistani any more at all, but wholly English – and by that token, wonderful individuals. And even if they weren’t, so many members of that community contribute so much to our society.

I mean, I agree with the extreme right that the country is overcrowded – after all, this very morning I had to walk for ten minutes along the Euston Road and, because of the tube strike, even the pavements were almost impassable, forcing me to walk far less quickly than I wanted – which didn’t stop me shooting past the cars, gridlocked on the roadway itself.

Clearly, we could do with having fewer people. But why would we choose to start with the ‘Pakistanis’? As well as their traditional occupations, in corner shops, restaurants and minicab firms, members of this community have branched out into other key services – from running our trains to running huge swaths of the health service. Many are achieving prominence in journalism, politics and the law, but hey, no community is entirely without its flaws.

No, I have a much better idea of how we could set about reducing the numbers living in this country. I saw the other day that the public service cuts this year are set to be around £7bn. Bankers, many of them working for organisations baled out by the taxpayer, are about to award themselves bonuses amounting to – wait for it – £7bn. And, surprise, surprise, the total long-term cost of the bank bale-out (taking into account the sums the public purse is likely to recoup from tax or selling shares) is likely to be getting on for £7bn.

It sounds to me as though we’re suffering major reductions in service and forking out money to the banks that caused the problem in the first place and watching the people who run those banks paying themselves about as much as we put in.

In the meantime, every time someone suggests taxing the leeches, we’re told that if we do that, they’ll all head off to Shanghai or Hong Kong or somewhere.

See where I’m going with this one? Let’s do it. Let’s slap punitive taxes on obscene bonuses in the financial sector. Either these fine gentlemen will stick around and we’ll get some useful funds flowing back into the Exchequer, or they’ll clear off to the Far East, and at least someone else will have to pay for them. 

Another advantage? Most of the plans put forward by the fascists to get rid of the people they regard as unwelcome involve some kind of repatriation plan, for which we’d have to pay. The bankers would pay for themselves. Can you imagine? It’s like having your waste bin emptying itself. Win-win all round, I say.

All these thoughts went through my mind as I stood there by that gate. And then I looked at the slogan again – and noticed that what it actually said was ‘Paki’s out’.

Ah, that misplaced apostrophe. It made all the difference. I could push the gate open and pass through. Because I felt a quite palpable sense of relief (as did Janka, my dog, at finally being on the move again).

Why the relief? Well, obviously a semi-literate fascist can be just as vicious and violent as a literate one. But at least he’s less likely to be any good at getting organised.

At the elections last May, the British National Party was soundly defeated in its stronghold in Barking, with its leader failing to make a significant mark in the parliamentary election which was massively won by the former Labour Minister Margaret Hodge, while also losing every one of the local council seats it had previously held. Wipe out.

Well, if you don’t know how to write a plural, how can you be expected to win a plurality in an election?

My advice to those of my compatriots who some like to think of as ‘Pakistani’: while the fascists can’t raise their game any higher than this, I shouldn’t let them disturb your sleep at night. And in the meantime – thanks for providing such an excellent service at my local GP surgery. And such excellent Bombay Mix in my local shops.

Saturday, 27 November 2010


The first time I heard of Ignrid Pitt, once a Hammer horror star, was when I came across her obituaries this week.

In a radio programme, I heard her daughter talking about Pitt’s attributes, apparently her hair and her ‘bosoms’, a word she kept repeating. This seemed to be her delicate way of suggesting her mother wouldn’t have fitted into a small-size bra. Having checked the photos, I think this is probably true.

Ingrid Pitt: attributes that could hardly be missed

Pitt had an extraordinary biography: she was in a concentration camp during the war, with her Jewish mother, but they both survived. After the war, she worked with the world-famous Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin. But she fell out with the East German authorities and fled to the West by attempting to swim across the River Spree. She underestimated the current and was swept away. Fortunately a US solder was out on a boat on the river, saw her and fished her out of the water.

Knowing what one does about soldiers, it’s not hard to imagine the effect on one of rescuing a young woman from a river. Especially one with capacious ‘bosoms’ whose clothes were wet. He must have thought he’d gone to heaven without even having to die.

And indeed it didn’t take long for them to be married. The daughter I heard on the radio was the fruit of that encounter on the Spree.

A real fairy tale ending, wouldn’t you say? Well, yes. Except that actually the marriage didn’t take. A couple formed in such romantic circumstances separated in the divorce court.

That got me thinking about ‘real fairy tale endings’. Though I’m not sure it’s entirely true, I’m prepared for the purposes of argument to accept the received view that young children should be given a vision of the world as a wonderful place where people really can live happily ever after. However, there must come a time – perhaps at eight, perhaps at ten – when a child needs to start to learn what the world is really like. For kids that age, we need endings which actually show what is really likely to happen next.

It might also be an improvement if the stories themselves dealt in more realistic terms with the impact of apparently extraneous considerations such as ‘bosom’ size.

Here then is a first sample of what I see as a ‘real fairy tale ending’, where ‘real’ actually means ‘reflecting reality’. In place of ‘and they all lived happily ever after’, my modest proposal is an article from The Fairyland Examiner, a tabloid handed out free at station exits and supermarket checkouts throughout the land where tales are set. This is from some eight years after the marriage that concludes the traditional version.

Who’s Charming who?

Is it over for fairytale couple?

‘She’s always talking to the birds,’ claims former Prince

‘He’s always shooting birds,’ counters estranged wife and bird protection specialist.

From our own correspondents Ronald O’Sleaze and Jemima Gutta

Following the publication of photos of former Prince Charming leaving a Biarritz hotel with Lola Luvalot, Lady Apoplectic (see pages 4,5, 8, 10 and 11), questions are being asked about how long his marriage can last.

‘Just who is he being Charming to?’ asked long-suffering wife and former scullery maid, Cinderella, Lady Charming, 25.

Lady Charming rose to prominence following her shock win in the ‘Royal Ballroom Dancing’ competition eight years ago. She astonished judges and voters alike by dancing throughout the evening in crystal slippers. Since then, injuries sustained by hopefuls trying to use similar footwear has led to its being banned by a government obsessed with so-called health and safety.

In particular, Cinderella beat early favourite Luvalot, 32, known for her skills as an exotic dancer. Luvalot's chances were spoiled when a too-tight top burst revealing that she must have been using padded bras, to produce the effect that accounted for much of her early hopes of success.

As shown by photos published by this paper on page 3 some days after the competition, Cinderella suffered from no such shortcomings. Her feet were by no means her only remarkable feat. No glass was needed to appreciate her other attributes

Illicit romance never ended

The Biarritz photos seem to confirm persistent rumours that the romance between the former Prince, 35, and his old flame Luvalot had continued despite his marriage to Cinderella. Curvaceous Luvalot, who became Lady Apoplectic on her own marriage to a husband (57) now said to be living up to his name, was unavailable for comment yesterday.

The former Prince, who has been living in straitened circumstance since the collapse of the monarchy, following the national outcry over the King’s decision to run away to Patagonia with a sergeant from the Royal Guards, has remained equally tight lipped. However, a reliable source close to the Prince, told the Examiner ‘she seems to think that life consists of nothing but dancing at balls and talking to birds. The loss of his fortune, however, means that the Prince now needs real help, the kind of thing a former maid of all work ought to be able to provide.’

I won’t go back to cleaning grates

Meanwhile, Cinderella, as outspoken as ever, was not afraid to share her feelings with us. ‘If he was in love with that floozy all along, why didn’t he just marry her instead of leading me such a merry dance?’

Asked about the suggestion that she ought to be helping more around the house, she retorted:

‘You must be kidding. It took a lot of effort to win that competition and marry a Prince. It’s not my fault that he isn’t one any more. I mean, as well as my natural talents, I was helped by supporters who now expect me to live up to my victory. Take the birds: they handled so many of my household chores. And then, of course, my fairy godmother went to quite extraordinary lengths to help me get the result I deserved. I owe it to them as much as myself not to be forced back to the scullery now.’

The role of birds in supporting Cinderella is well-known. Would they not help again?

‘Not bloody likely. They feel they’ve given already. They now think that it’s up to me to give something back. I’m already honorary president of the National Society for Bird Protection, which has got to be about the most boring organisation anyone ever invented, but they want more, more, more. Meanwhile, my bloody husband goes out there shooting them which doesn’t exactly help my popularity either.’

End of the road?

The charm certainly seems to have gone out of the Charmings’ marriage. But does that mean it’s over?

For the moment, there’s no talk of divorce. But the Biarritz incident suggests that Lord Charming isn’t prepared to put an end to his old attachment.

The Examiner is clear. It’s time for him to come clean. If Lady Apoplectic is the real love of his life, then he owes it to his wife and to the people of this nation to say so. If that means divorce, we say so be it. Our readers will be only too pleased if Cinderella, a princess from the People, were given back her freedom and the chance to make a new start for herself.

The Examiner will be launching a fund to support our Princess. She deserves better than a husband who neglects her. A career in TV beckons, perhaps on one of the many channels owned by the Examiner’s own proprietors.

We say to Cinderella: leave that no-good waster. You know the love you’ve won from the people the Examiner is proud to represent. Count on us, not on those who don’t appreciate you. That’s the way to live happily ever after.

The Charmings have three children, aged eight, six and three. The former King is 68.

I suppose it would make a far less satisfactory ending to the story, something a lot harder to turn into a Christmas pantomime.

But it would be a much better preparation for the realities of adult life, wouldn’t it?

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Northern Line: adventure and delight

 You can keep the Metropolitan, Piccadilly or Circle Lines, along with the Central, Bakeloo, Jubilee and Victoria Lines. To me, in the London Underground system, the only one that really counts is the Northern Line. As its name implies, it's the line you take to travel North. Except when you're on it to travel southwards. It covers all of London right out to the northern suburbs. And right down to the southern ones.

The Northern Line, serving North London. And the South

It was the line that my mother used when she was living in London, at her parents’ place more or less half way between Golders Green and East Finchley stations. And so it was the line that we used most frequently on the many occasions in my childhood when we went to stay with my grandparents.

It was the scene of a significant rite of passage of that childhood. One day, when I was eight (if my memory serves me), I helped myself to some money that my father had left on his bedside table. I think it was about two shillings, which translates into ten (new) pence in today’s currency, which would cover one tenth of the cost of my daily newspaper.

With this fortune in my pocket, I walked resolutely to the 102 bus stop on the main road and waited for a bus to Golders Green. I particularly liked this trip because there was a stop, at what later came to be known as ‘Henlys Corner’, which was close by a statue of a sartorially challenged winged female representing Victory. She gave the place the name we used then, which was ‘Naked Lady’. It always tickled me to hear the conductors yell those words up the stairs, in their distinctively London accents.

At Golders Green I did my calculations carefully. I could get a child ticket to Chalk Farm, for four (old) pence – basically nothing in today’s money – and still have enough money to get back, including the bus fare. So that’s what I did. Not because I wanted to go to Chalk Farm, but just because I wanted to prove that I could get all the way there, and back again, without any catastrophe and without getting lost.

I have to admit that at Chalk Farm, I came to the surface, looked around, bought my return ticket and headed straight back again. I couldn’t actually think of anything to do at Chalk Farm but, more to the point, I also began to get nervous at having travelled so far on my own, if the truth be known.

Anyway, I walked back into my grandparents’ house not long after, full of pride at having pulled off this achievement, a real journey involving two modes of transport, all on my own, without suffering harm or losing my way. Brilliant. My sense of triumph was slightly marred by the realisation that no-one had even noticed my absence, but hey, that didn’t reduce the scope of the achievement at all, did it?

Today all this came flooding back to me as I spent nearly an hour and a half on the Northern Line. That’s because I went from Kentish Town in the North to Tooting Broadway in the South and back again – forty minutes each way.

And the line didn’t let me down. It gave me another one of those little moments to savour. A highly pregnant woman across the aisle from me was wearing a badge bearing the official logo of London Underground and the legend ‘Baby on Board’.

Wonderful, particularly as she had, indeed, been given a seat. It seems so much more sensible a use of the ‘Baby on Board’ message than putting it on the back of a car. After all, what’s that suggesting? That if you didn’t have one up I’d happily run into the back of you?

A pregnant woman wearing the badge on a coat. Now that’s useful, original (for now) and, most important of all, witty. Good old Northern Line. It hadn’t let me down.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Minutes away but worlds apart

Leave Luton towards the South and within ten minutes by car you get to Harpenden. It’s the next town, but it’s in a different world.

Luton is an old industrial centre that has fallen on hard times. At first they made hats here, and the local football team is still called ‘the Hatters’. When making hats virtually died out as a means to earn a living, the town switched to building cars, but today there’s not much left of that industry either. So we have many of the characteristics that go with poor towns: relatively high unemployment, a high proportion of underprivileged ethnic minorities, a fly-blown and rather ugly town centre, the result of the usual ghastly post-war attempt to ‘improve’ the urban landscape, which ended up replacing the old and picturesque by the brutal and modernist.

Harpenden on the other hand is... well, it’s nice. The centre is all lovely old buildings with beams and gabled roofs, good shops and an attractive village green on which cricket is still played. Behind are leafy and well proportioned streets. It’s a desirable place to live and property prices reflect that fact. Its population is, of course, massively white and British born.

We went to Harpenden on Saturday for a concert in the Methodist Church, and very beautiful it was too. The high point was Mozart (no surprise there): the Solemn Vespers which contains a soprano aria that is apparently famous – and I can confirm it deserves to be – but which I had never heard before, so the evening filled a gap in my education as well as being generally uplifting.

It took a while to get parked when we arrived because someone was struggling to get a 4 by 4 into a space which was big enough for the car but too small for the elderly lady behind the wheel. Eventually she got to within a metre of the kerb, which seemed to be about as good as it was going to get, and she let us past. I have no idea why people drive these cars. They’re ostensibly designed to be used off-road, though the closest most of them ever get to that wild state is when their owners park them on pavements. They’re far too big for our roads – particularly in this country, where every trip in the south takes at least 50% longer than you’d expect, because of the traffic – and they guzzle fuel.

When we were finally allowed to park – which, as my wife was driving our family saloon, was a process completed quickly, easily, efficiently and well – I was a little irritated. But then we walked back up the road and were confronted by a pitiful sight. The little old lady driver was still struggling to park the SUV, and her little old lady companion was on the pavement ineffectually guiding her in towards the kerb. It was a kerb that seemed to have a sort of Holy Grail quality to it: it was there, they could see it, but somehow it remained unattainable.

So our better natures took over. We parked the car for them. They were effusive in their thanks – absolutely charming. I really couldn’t maintain my irritation. Such nice people. They were even going to the same concert as we were.

And we found the same at the concert itself. People were just so pleasant. They smiled at us as they, or we, held doors open. They chatted pleasantly over a cup of tea in the interval (no real drinks of course – this was the Methodists, after all). They were people that I felt at home with, people of a kind I’ve known all my life, people who speak the same language as I do. Nice people.

The programme for the concert listed the patrons of the Harpenden Choral Society which was performing it. Among them was one name I recognised, that of Sir Peter Lilley. He’s been the local Member of Parliament for years. I remember him from when he was Social Security Minister at the fag end of the last Conservative government. At a Party Conference he sang an adapted version of the Gilbert and Sullivan song, ‘I’ve got a little list’. His list was all the people whose lives he was going to make miserable: the benefits scroungers, the lone mothers taking child allowances rather than working, the shirkers who avoid a job.

It’s so easy to target such people. No-one sympathises with them. But we tend to forget that the vast majority of social security payments are absorbed by pensions. Of the minority left, only a tiny percentage is taken by cheats. The total of benefits fraud represents under half what is lost to the country through white collar crime each year, though that’s hardly ever prosecuted. And the action taken by people like Lilley to stop the benefits cheats generally has the effect of limiting entitlement, so the people who suffer the most are often those who weren’t cheating at all but had a genuine and legitimate need. The poor, in fact. Rather a lot of them live in Luton, little over ten minutes drive from Lilley’s constituency of Harpenden.

Charming people, with winsome smiles and easy warmth. I share their taste in music, their appreciation of gentleness, their cultivation of casual ease. I genuinely like them and feel comfortable with them - far more comfortable, for example, than with a group of tattoed youths much the worse for drink, hanging around on a Luton street corner. But I simply can’t comprehend their indifference to suffering just out of their sight. I can't understand why they don't see that threatening and ill-behaved as those youths may be, they have rights too. The same rights as I do, they same rights as those lovely people at the concert do.

So as soon as I got home I did something I’d been planning to do for a long time but hadn’t got round to. I rejoined the Labour Party. I’d let my membership lapse before, partly just because I was living abroad, partly as a tribute to Tony Blair. Now it’s time to join again because, though at its worst the Labour Party can be wretchedly disappointing, at its best it speaks for those people who most need a voice. For the people who need someone to say ‘no’ to the Peter Lilleys of this world.

It’s pretty obvious I can’t do much to stop injustice in our society. Probably the Labour Party can’t do a lot more. But maybe it can make some very little contribution to closing the moral gap between Luton and Harpenden. And that might do some good for the poor in Luton. And who knows? It might, in a perverse sort of way, do some good for the comfortable of Harpenden too.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Forgettable and unforgettable

My friend Ian has pointed out to me a shocking omission in my last post on memorable events: I failed to mention the recently announced engagement of ‘Wills to Kate’. I have, therefore, taken a look into the matter and it turns out that ‘Wills’ is a junior officer in the British Armed Forces whose only claim to fame is that he is in line to succeed to the British throne some day, a prospect he made possible by successfully pulling off the draining achievement of being born. Kate, it appears, is some even more obscure lady who has had an on-off relationship with Wills and they’ve now decided to get married. It’s hard to imagine anything more banal.

In any case, I refuse to get even interested in all this, because I seem to remember going through something similar with respect to his mother, and look where that led. In fact, thinking of her does remind me of an event for which I really can say that I know where I was when I learned about it. My wife and I were in Alsace, in Eastern France, and our friends Mary and Patrick had come down to visit us. They were staying in a hotel not far away and turned up as we were having breakfast.

‘Did you know that Princess Di had been killed?’ asked Patrick.

It came as a surprising shock. Surprising because I didn’t expect to be moved by any news about her. It was only a few days earlier that I had been inspired to great heights of cynicism by the sight of photos of Di sunbathing on the roof of a holiday house she had taken in the South of France. When I say ‘roof’, please don’t think of something flat and comfortable – she was lying on the ridge of a normal, gabled roof, with slates and gutters and everything. The only possible purpose for choosing somewhere so unpromising had to be that it was the only place that gave a really good view to all the photographers on boats in the bay, whose pictures she complained about endlessly when they came out the next day.

How could I possible feel any grief over somebody so completely self-obsessed? And yet when I heard the news I felt it as a terrible blow and somehow shared in the sense of mourning of so many of my countrymen (though, I’m glad to say, not enough to go and put flowers anywhere or stand among the massed crowds to watch her coffin go by). Strange. I’ve never understood why I found the event moving.

There is another event for which I can truly say that I knew where I was when I heard about it, which was the attack on the Twin Towers. I was being driven by a colleague and friend – funnily enough, the same Patrick who announced Princess Diana’s death to me – round the M25, London’s orbital motorway or, as so often happens, London’s orbital car park. A call came in from another colleague, Erika – actually, our only other colleague (it was a very small company).

‘Did you hear about the plane flying into the Twin Towers?’

Now, doesn’t that sound like the start of a joke?

‘No,’ I said with a chuckle, ‘what happened next?’

‘No, no,’ said Erika, ‘I mean it. A plane really has flown into the Towers.’

Over the next half hour or so we followed the unfolding tragedy on the car radio – the confirmation that we weren’t talking about some small plane but an airliner, full of passengers as well as the fuel that made it into a bomb; then the second plane; then the collapse of one tower, followed by the collapse of the other.

As the sheer extent of the horror sank in I was assailed by a sense of guilt. I’d received news of this tragedy as though it were a joke. It wasn’t strictly my fault but I still felt terrible about it. How inappropriately can one respond to something? It left me really quite uneasy.

So two events to which my reaction surprised me. At least the effect is that I really do remember what I was doing when I heard about them. Curious that it’s less because of the shock of the event itself as the effect of the strangeness of my reactions to them.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Unforgettable moments

Certain moments are iconic. And it’s become a received expression to sum them up by saying ‘you’ll never forget where you were or what you were doing' when the event took place.

‘You’ll never forget what you were doing when Kennedy was shot.’ That was probably the moment that enshrined the saying in our culture. And indeed if you’ve been around long enough, the Kennedy assassination – the first one, John F.’s – is very much that kind of brutally unforgettable event. Followed within five years by Martin Luther King’s and the second Kennedy shooting, Bobby’s.

But this kind of event isn’t limited to bad news, or indeed to the United States. In 1989, there was the fall of the Berlin Wall, and little more than a year later, the release of Nelson Mandela. Who could forget those young people, perched on top of a symbol of division and death, chipping away at the concrete of the wall with their hammers? Who could forget that proud but jailworn figure walking down a driveway to freedom?

Glorious moments forever seared into our memories.

Now we’ve had another one.

I was saying to myself just the other day, ‘I’ll never forget what I was doing when I learned that Aung San Suu Kyi was released.’ That frail figure with the warm smile and the message of forgiveness and reconciliation. Just what the world needs in these times of terrible division and tension. A little Burmese grandmother carrying today’s torch of hope for better things – the best news we’ve had for ages. If only she’s allowed to carry on.

And yet. And yet. When it comes to the expression itself – can I really remember what I was doing when all those things happened?

The clearest memory I have of all of them is when I learned of the assassination of John Kennedy. I can picture the scene in detail, playing with my brother and being told by a visitor. Except that the memory is of a weekend morning and the event actually took place on a Friday and, by our time in Europe, in the evening. So I have a brilliantly clear memory which is completely wrong.

As for King and Bobby Kennedy – no idea what I was doing when I heard about their deaths. Even the Berlin Wall and Nelson Mandela: I remember watching the news coverage, I remember the excited discussions, but the precise moment when I first heard? No trace. Complete blank.

And I hardly dare admit it, but I can’t remember what I was doing when I learned that Aung San Suu Kyi was released, even though that was just a few days ago.

‘You’ll never forget what you were doing.’ Sadly, that doesn’t seem to apply to me. It may of course just be my memory. Or maybe it’s just another one of those received expressions that aren’t to be taken too literally, like ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ (I’ve had a few and, far worse, I’ve given a way a few, to people who have promised the earth in return and delivered nothing).

I suppose it isn’t the truth of the expression that matters so much as the truth of the thought behind it: it’s the events themselves that are burned into the memory. Certainly I won’t forget those devastating assassinations in the sixties. Equally, I’ll treasure those glorious moments of hope rekindled – after all, I need them as antidotes to the terrible killings.

As for where I was and what I was doing – well, frankly, who cares?

Monday, 15 November 2010

Getting it wrong isn't so bad if you say it right

The elegant use of language has always struck me as a highly desirable goal. I don’t claim to achieve it all that often, but I always aim for it, on the basis that if I try hard enough, I might actually pull it off from time to time.

One habit of English usage that always grates on me is putting a plural verb with certain singular nouns. People justify it on the grounds that the noun is a collective of some kind. A government, a team or a company contains multiple individuals and so, they say, a plural verb is appropriate. My view is that there’s only one Manchester United, Cameron government or BP drilling operation – one too many, you might feel, in each case – so let’s use a singular verb for each of them.

That’s why I’m so pleased, when standing on a railway platform, to hear announcements in the form ‘Capital Connect apologises for the late running of this train and the inconvenience caused.’ ‘Apologises’ instead of ‘apologise’ – one company, one subject, one singular verb. I’m also pleased that they’ve dropped the time-honoured formula ‘any inconvenience caused’. That ‘any’ seemed to suggest ‘well it probably isn't any real inconvenience, since wasting your time doesn't add up to much in the broad sweep of things, but for pure form, we felt we'd apologise anyway. But with bad grace.’ Now they admit that it will undoubtedly cause inconvenience and apologise for it without reservation.

Of course, if I wanted to get picky, I might say that it would be even better if we heard the apology a little less frequently. But I suppose I shouldn’t be too demanding. So my congratulations, train companies, on at least getting the form of what you say right. Working on the content and eliminating the delays in the first place: could that be your next objective?

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Who needs pretty buildings when you have a human patchwork?

Into our second month living in Luton, having left the region in 1995, I can say that it’s been fascinating getting to know the town again.

Luton is one of the great ethnic melting pots of England. That certainly gives the place a characteristic local colour in every sense of the word. This morning, for instance, we played badminton in a local Community Centre. Finding our way to the sports hall was a slightly surreal business as we kept stumbling across rooms full of different Black groups, some in neat dark suits, some in long white robes, all of them using Sunday to celebrate the glory of the Lord with plenty of dancing, clapping and singing. It made me feel slightly uneasy to be doing something so apparently trivial as playing badminton at the same time and in the same place as others were pursuing spiritual goals but, hey, isn't that what multi-culturalism is all about? Every one does what he or she wishes without putting up obstacles to others.

I use the word 'Black' because that's how I always thought of this Community, relatively well represented in Luton, although these days we're supposed to refer to them as ‘Afro-Caribbean’. I love the fact that we try to compensate for our bad behaviour towards people by changing the name we apply to them. It seems a complete waste of time. If we discriminated against Blacks, are we likely to discriminate any less against Afro-Caribbeans? After all, the people are the same.

The biggest single immigrant community in Luton, however, is from South Asia. In fact, most of them come from Pakistan and, to be absolutely precise, most of them are from one relatively small area of Kashmir. As a result, when there was that terrible earthquake in 2005, phone lines from Luton were jammed as people tried to ring relatives.

The ‘Indians’ mostly came here for the car industry, when there still was one, in the years after the Second World War. You can imagine how it happened: a handful came first and then they rang home, telling their friends and relatives, ‘grab yourself a ticket – the weather’s crap but the jobs are plentiful.’ That’s why so many came from one small area.

A result was that when we were in the region before, we’d frequently hear South Asian languages in the streets of Luton. You still do, but what’s changed is that you now see groups of ‘Asian’ young people wandering through the town centre, talking English to each other. And not just any old English: it’s the local language, with the local accent. Not an attractive accent, I should say: Luton English is like the town – lively, dynamic but not exactly pretty.

It always seems to me that language defines community even more than religion does, so these young people are clearly English. They’re ‘Asian’ only in looks. It’s fascinating to see that in the fifteen years we were away, a real generational shift has taken place. It’s a striking, and encouraging, example of assimilation.

On the other hand, the ‘Asians’ still group together, as do the ‘Afro-Caribbeans’, or the ‘Whites’ (who in Luton include Poles and Italians and numerous other sub-groups).

Still some progress to be made then. In the meantime, the pattern of widely different groups mingling together without much friction, gives the town a real buzz. OK, it’s not a beautiful place, but the human pageant makes up for a lot.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Dubya's Crusade Accomplished

Remember that ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner that George W. Bush put up on an aircraft carrier in 2003? It has to be one of the iconic symbols of his presidency, along with his sitting in a primary school classroom being read to by a five year old while New York was being attacked by terrorists on 9/11. His response to the attack was a tad slow, his claims of victory a tad premature, so the two events between them really define his contribution to history.

You may also recall that when he first set out to achieve his glorious victory in Iraq he called what he was doing a ‘Crusade’.

The Crusades were expeditions by the flower of Christian chivalry, travelling to the Holy Land to win over the locals, primarily Moslem, to a gospel of love and peace. So committed were they to spreading goodwill to all men that they were more than happy to put anyone who resisted them to the sword or occasionally the flame, or even both if the spirit so moved them. Indeed, to make sure no-one got left out, they didn’t limit themselves to people who resisted them and were frequently happy to massacre anyone who just happened to be there. Just like today, in fact.

In the sack of Jerusalem, for example, to underline their reverence for this holiest of sites, they wiped out most of the Moslems and also the majority of the Jews, for good measure.

But in case you were thinking that they were actuated by a desire to persecute only non-Christians, think again: they also sacked the great Christian city of Constantinople. Indeed, they did such a good job of breaking that last remaining outpost of Christendom in a region increasingly conquered by Islam, that within a couple of generations it too had fallen to the Moslems.

That pretty much sums up the Crusades: bloody, indiscriminate and ultimately counter-productive.

However, Moslem folk consciousness tends to perceive the Crusades as being directed specifically against them, ignoring the fine work they did of wiping out anybody else they could get their hands on. So it was slightly inappropriate for Dubya to use the word to describe what the Bushmen claimed was not simply an anti-Islamic action. Fairly soon he learned to drop the word.

I maintain, though, that it might actually have been perfectly accurate.

You see, on Sunday I heard a leading figure of the refugee Iraqi Christian community in London on the radio. He was appealing to other Christians in Iraq to come and join his exile in England. There is no safety, he was claiming, for Christians in his home country.

Sounds pretty much like what the Crusades achieved. In their wars against the Moslem infidels, they put an end to the last remaining Christian bulwark against the advance of Islam. So given the collapse of modern day Christianity in Iraq, maybe it’s time for Bush to put up another ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner.

After all, he seems to have accomplished pretty much the same kind of success as the Fourth Crusade.

Postscript. They used to say that there'd been a terrible catastrophe during the second Bush presidency when the White House Library was consumed by fire. What made the event so ghastly was that Dubya's book got burned. And he hadn't even finished colouring it in.

So it's fascinating to see that he's actually written one now. Or at any rate published one. I enjoyed reading accounts of Bush’s autobiography, Decision Points, though I think I might skip reading the book itself. It seems that when his mother had a miscarriage, she showed the teenage Dubya the foetus in a jar. He cites this experience ‘to show how my mom and I developed a relationship.’

Yes. Things fall into place. If that’s how he built his relationship with his mother, one can understand why it might have been a comfort that a child was reading to him when his country was under attack. The alternative of facing up to his duties as Commander-in-Chief might just have been far too painful.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Saying no to joylessness

Yesterday was the night that Luton council selected for iur great national  celebration of the torture and execution, by burning, of a seventeenth-century dissident. This, as I’ve pointed out before, is one of the great family events in the annual calendar of this quaint and traditional nation.

Fun for all the family

The commemoration is actually on the fifth of November, but the British are pragmatic people: we don’t feel obliged to commemorate anniversaries on the exact date but prefer to go for a convenient day close to it, and yesterday was a Saturday.

The dissident was Guy Fawkes, a Catholic, caught in the cellars of the Palace of Westminster with rather a lot of barrels of gunpowder (more than he could really pass of as needing for his personal consumption). The King and both houses of Parliament were due to meet the following day just above, and detonating the powder at that time would have had a very poor effect on the health of the assembled great and good. As well as being distinctly career-limiting.

So Fawkes got tortured and eventually burned, as did a number of fellow conspirators, giving rise to this delightful celebration where we light bonfires and let off fireworks.

Just what was he? A dissident, certainly. A martyr – to the Catholics, no doubt. A traitor – to the king and ministers undeniably. Maybe today we’d call him an insurgent, which is a bad thing if you’re with Nato in Afghanistan, a good thing if you’re with the Taliban. Overall, perhaps we can just say that he was a brilliant illustration that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.

In any case, what he’s become since is a pretext for a good party, and this year was no exception. Generally, Luton is not a physically attractive town, but it does have some very good parks. Yesterday, Pope’s meadow, which is sandwiched between Wardown Park and the splendidly named People’s Park, was the site of a breathtaking firework display. We took our places in the crowd which must have been several thousand strong, and I think being there with them was part of the pleasure: the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of the kids have to be one great contributory factors to enjoying fireworks.

But the best thing about the display was that fireworks serve absolutely no useful purpose at all. They cost a lot of money, and they’re gone in an instant, actually destroyed by the very thing that makes them a source of joy. Glorious, extravagant, pure pleasure.

That appeals to me more than ever in today’s atmosphere. The financiers are running Britain today. Though they precipitated today's crisis, and got the rest of us to pay for their failures with bank bale-outs, they've shown they know how to look after themselves: executive pay has risen by 23% in twelve months and bankers' bonuses remain at indefensible levels (which doesn't stop them trying to defend them). In between their trips to the Maldives or St Moritz, they keep telling us that the State has to spend less on things like schools and hospitals and libraries and public transport and decent policing. And jobs. And a government drawn from the same people has decided to do their bidding.

So congratulations to Luton Council for braving all that misery and spending the money on a few moments of pure pleasure in spite of the overpaid cheapskates. That’s just what the people who gave its name to People’s Park need right now, to give us a break from the bleakness ahead.

Besides, it was a great display.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Time to put our foot down

It seems to me that human footwear is an area that has not attracted enough research attention. Of course, I may be mistaken, and there may already be some outstanding PhD theses on the subject out there. But I think it’s time for something more, the kind of research that can only be directed by a fully-fledged institution, and I have a modest suggestion for its name: the ‘Imelda Marcos Footwear Fetish Foundation.’

The starting point for its research would be a question that’s always intrigued me, ‘why high heels?’

Obviously, we happily married men simply don’t notice attractive women in the street. That is, if we want to stay married happily, or perhaps even married at all. Nevertheless, it has occasionally happened to me that I’ve caught a passing glimpse of a woman who might, in the eyes of another less self-disciplined man, be regarded as looking pretty good. It seems to me that absolutely nothing is added or taken away from her allure by adding one, three or even six inches to her heels. I mean, if you look like Carla Bruni or Yulia Tymoshenko, you don’t need high heels to make you look better. And if you look like Anne Widdecombe or Angela Merkel (both of them lovely ladies in so many other way), doing something about your heels smacks of forlorn hope.

In any case, since I suffer from the Nicolas Sarkozy vertically-challenged syndrome, I’d never recommend a woman making herself any taller than she naturally is. A woman who towers over me is simply intimidating. Or, since we’re talking about women, perhaps I should say even more intimidating.

In any case, the women themselves seem to find high heels hard to handle (or is the verb footle?). I happened to be walking down the street behind a woman the other day, with my eyes properly lowered, which meant that I was looking directly at her shoes. I reckon the heels were about three inches high (7.5 cms for those of you who insist on using a sensible measuring system instead of our quaint one. Reason preferred over quaintness! I ask you. No wonder romance is dying).

Anyway, this woman was positively wobbling at every step. She clearly wasn’t at all stable on those heels, and no wonder: who would be? That’s without taking into account the virtual impossibility of ever running or the fact that a simple grid becomes an obstacle as impassable as the Hindu Kush. To say nothing of the fact that our backs are our weakest areas, no doubt a reflection of the fact that we’re really not designed to walk upright, and in so far as we’re designed to walk upright at all, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it, that the heel is intended to rest on the ground? God knows what those three-inch heels were doing to that poor woman’s back.

So it comes as no surprise to see more and more women travelling into work in superbly elegant power suits, over trainers. Talk about incongruous. Gucci with Nike. Presumably the to-die-for tiny leather shoes with the elongated heels are in her handbag, ready to be slipped on, perhaps in the lift (sorry, elevator for those of you who prefer the colonial term) up to her office floor,

More amazing is the fact that more and more men are doing the same. Fine silk ties, crisp white shirts, natty grey suits. And trainers. Presumably the smart but painful black shoes are in their laptop bags.

So here’s the question for the Foundation to investigate.

Call me excessively pragmatic, but since the use of trainers suggest that there’s an increasing acceptance that it’s both more practical and more comfortable to wear flat shoes than to go for high fashion, and above all high heels, why do we cling onto those strange instruments of torture? After all, no doubt under pressure from the husband who gave his name to Sarkozy syndrome, Carla Bruni keeps her soles flat on the ground.

She doesn’t look any the worse for it, does she?

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Rubies are a knight’s best friend

This column has often been cynical about the behaviour of people in government. I feel it’s time to set the record straight by at last doing a piece about virtue in high places.

Loyalty is a deeply attractive quality, isn’t it? It becomes all the more striking when it is displayed towards a person who belongs to a group that suffers painful discrimination in today’s society. In Europe, few are subject to so much difficulty as immigrants from outside the European Union, especially those who come from Africa including its Northern countries, whose treatment reflects serious undertones of racism.

Indeed, if they are from the North of the continent, it is likely that the problems they suffer will be further intensified by the terrible Islamophobia that infects so many of our nations. The worst of it is that such people, particularly if they are women, suffer additional degradation by being sucked into the sex trade or at least into its fringes.

Protecting someone exposed to all these hardships is therefore particularly commendable. It is even more admirable if the person offering that protection has the power to give it real effect. If, say, he holds the highest elected position in his country and therefore has such influence that a simple station commander in the police can hardly deny a request from him.

So we must be moved by the sight of such a politician using his influence to secure the release of a seventeen-year old Moroccan belly dancer from police custody. If the police commander in question later goes on to a position in government, that may be a completely unrelated occurrence and, even if it weren’t, how can we cavil at a reward for contributing to an act of generosity?

Now it’s true that the belly dancer in question, who rejoices in the name of Ruby (and is sometimes referred to as 'Ruby rubacuoure', Ruby the heart stealer), might have revealed embarrassing information about her protector, had she ever appeared in court. That he had some advantage to gain from the transaction does not lessen the kindness of the gesture.

So let us offer all the admiration he deserves to Silvio Berlusconi for obtaining the liberation of Ruby the belly dancer. One understands now why he is referred to as ‘il Cavaliere’, the knight. Can anyone question his chivalry today? He clearly laid his job and his political career on the line for her.

Now it is up to the Italian people and opposition politicians, joined by his erstwhile allies, to help complete his gesture by ensuring that this act of sacrifice is taken to its conclusion.