Sunday, 31 July 2011

Dressing for God. Or possibly not

There are many pleasures to our badminton game in Luton on Sundays.
The obvious one, enjoying the game itself, was a little limited this morning because of the gap of two or three weeks since we last played. We were away, or the hall was unavailable - taken over on one occasion, we were told, for a wedding over the entire weekend - and getting back into the game had a certain purgatorial quality to it. Still, it was fun all the same, though my legs are telling me noq that it involved them in some stresses to which they had become mercifully unaccustomed.
But another of the great pleasures of our Sunday ritual is that it brings us into contact with three African or Caribbean churches.
Note that I didn’t write ‘Afro-Caribbean’. Two may well be Caribbean but one, our favourite, is definitely African, Zimbabwean we think. It’s the one where the congregation is all dressed in what I absolutely will not refer to as white sheets when they are obviously white robes. We come across some of the members regularly, particularly two of the women with young children who have to step out of the hall from time to time, and they are always heart-warmingly kind and friendly. This morning, one of them presented an irresistible picture, so I didn’t resist taking it.
Churchgoer and child
The other two congregations also display some pretty remarkable styles of dress, it should be said. In fact, one tall woman whose origin I would describe as Afro-Caribbean (see? The term can be useful, if you can’t be more specific) struck us both as we drove down to the hall. She was in a figure-hugging dramatic creation of yellow.
‘What a fabulous dress!’ exclaimed Danielle.
‘It’s great what people wear for an appearance before God,’ I commented, pretentious as always.
‘I expect the husband or lover is there too,’ replied Danielle, always much more pragmatic.
I’ll bet she was right too. Call me a rank unbeliever, but I can’t help feeling that the husband or lover was rather more likely to put in an appearance.
And call me a cynic if you want, by I’m not sure it might not have been a husband and a lover. It was a pretty dramatic dress.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Who're you calling crazy?

Adolf Eichmann in all probability never directly did any harm to anyone in his life. An inoffensive middle-ranking bureaucrat, he took on a challenging task in logistics, arranging the transport of up to 12 million people over long distances in wartime. His testimony at his trial in Jerusalem in 1961 suggests that it was a challenge whose scale he fully appreciated and in which his achievements gave him some pride.

None of this, in itself, was evil. The evil lay in the purpose of the work – the attempted elimination of the entire Jewish population of Europe, ultimately half achieved by Eichmann’s employers, the Nazi SS.

Eichmann was executed for his part in that crime. Hannah Arendt, who isn’t exactly obscure but deserves to be far better known if only for the acuteness of her insight, produced an astonishing chronicle of his trial. She ends her book with the words she wished his judges might have addressed to Eichmann: ‘... just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations – as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world – we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to share the world with you. That is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.’

Hannah Arendt: extraordinarily acute insight
I don’t think any argument could ever persuade me out of my inveterate opposition to the death penalty, but those words come as close as any might.

Nowhere in Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, does she claim that Eichmann was a madman or a monster. On the contrary, she portrays him throughout as an ordinary little man, doing what he perceives to be his duty under difficult circumstances.

Eichmann was by no means alone in that: many millions did the same, often in pursuit of ends that few of us would regard as war crimes. During the Second World War, tens of thousands of ordinary young men, many of whom went on to become model husbands and fathers, teachers and businessmen, or perhaps adulterers and cheats and opportunists – in short men of every type and attitude – flew planes over German cities and dropped high explosive and, worse still, incendiary bombs on them. None or next to none of them wanted to cause children to burn screaming to their deaths, but they did it, and they did it with great courage (among British aircrew alone, more than two out of five were killed in the war) and they did it because they felt it was their duty.

Some would argue that what they did was a war crime, and I can understand the argument. All I can say is that I’m not persuaded by it; that my father, though to his lasting relief he was never involved in the bombing of cities, certainly flew bombers and on more than one occasion bombed men; and that had I been alive at the time, I have little doubt that like my father and my father’s father, I would have served in that war in some capacity or another. If such men were war criminals, then I can only accept that I would have been their accomplice, and only a historical accident, the timing of my birth, allows me to escape that complicity.

At any rate, I see nothing in those men or indeed in myself that would make me feel that any of us can sensibly be regarded as mad or monsters.

Now fast forward to 22 July 2011. Anders Behring Breivik has set off a bomb in Oslo and is now killing young people as fast as he can get to them on the island of Utoeya. A good friend of mine refers to him as ‘the beast’. Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian tells us ‘...the killings were an act of random madness.’ Today's Sun manages to describe Breivik as both a ‘mad gunman’ and a ‘neo-Nazi monster’ within the space of a few lines.

Well, that’s that, then. Case closed and compartmentalised. We can file Breivik away under ‘monster’ or ‘psychopath’ and breathe a sigh of relief. None of us is like him, so this is a one-off. OK, another in a long series of one-offs, but still just another one-off.

Or is it? Perhaps Breivik, like Eichmann, is neither mad nor a monster. Perhaps he's another ordinary human being who has allowed himself to be duped by some deeply, unconscionably bad ideas, and unlike others who share those ideas, been prepared to take extreme action in their pursuit. No doubt out of a sense of duty. But to label him a ‘lunatic’ firstly does a disservice to the millions suffering from genuine mental disorder, the vast majority of whom are a threat to no-one, and secondly dodges the issue of the ideas that inspired Breivik, which are still around and still capable of inspiring heinous crimes.

If we accept that such ideas can drive even ordinary people – not monsters, not ‘lunatics’ – into doing utterly monstrous things, then we might perhaps be a lot warier about them. We might see that there’s nothing anodyne about David Cameron denouncing multiculturalism, about the Swiss banning minarets, about the French government banning the Moslem veil. Ordinary people can be seduced by that kind of vicious idea into doing extraordinary things. They decide they don’t need to share the earth with certain others, and in mercifully rare cases they have the determination and the means to take a gun and act on their vicious beliefs.

Let’s leave the conclusion to Hannah Arendt  – who could do it better?  Eichmann’s last words were ‘Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.’ ‘I shall not forget them’? He was about to die. As Arendt points out, ‘In the face of death, he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows, his memory played him the last trick; he was “elated” and he forgot that this was his own funeral.’

And then comes her chilling conclusion, ending with the words that are her great contribution to all such debates: ‘It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that his long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.’

The banality of evil. Evil isn’t extraordinary. It isn’t special. It’s banal, it’s all around, it’s in us all.

Probably best not to lose sight of that fact. It might not be smart simply to consign evil to some convenient box labelled ‘monstrosity’ or ‘insanity’. After all, surely we can all think of occasions when humanity has done that before, and evil in all its banality just gets out and comes back to bite us again.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Eastern food in a Western dish

I’m very grateful to Bob Patterson, a good friend though we’ve only ever met on line, for pointing out that the latest New Yorker contains an article focused on Luton, where I live. It’s not often that so august a journal turns its attention to this humble town (to be honest, it isn’t that common that it catches the eye even of far less worthy publications, such as the Sun or the Times). And when the prestigious journal is transatlantic, well the least I can do is take a look.

As it happens, the article – England, their England by Lauren Collins – is less about Luton than about the movement it spawned, the English Defence League, and the Moslem community of the town against which the EDL first directed its wrath. It also mentioned one of the more shameful acts of our present Prime Minister, who really does little quite as well as shamelessness, when he denounced multiculturalism at a speech he gave to a conference in Munich last February. He probably thought this was a bit of a vote-winner and a great way of aligning himself with the increasing Islamophobia around Europe, sparking minaret or Burka bans.

In what Collins rightly calls an ‘unseemly coincidence’, Cameron gave his speech just when the EDL was preparing to march through Luton, precisely to denounce multiculturalism.
Having seen some EDL members on a train to Luton, it’s not clear to me that they’re ready to grasp multiculturalism. I can understand why they’d be keen on mono-culturalism – it didn’t strike me that they had learned to cope with even that much – in fact the only culture they seemed to have any affinity to would be the kind you might find adorning a Petri dish in a lab somewhere. This lot took up a lot of space on the train, metaphorically but also physically. They had also taken steps to keep the level of blood in their alcohol streams within reasonable bounds, and they expressed themselves in a language of astonishing richness – every third word or so seemed to be concerned with procreation or bodily waste.
At first glance, it’s a little difficult to understand the bad press that multiculturalism has been getting all round Europe recently. After all, its basic proposition is that people of different faiths or races should be able to get on with each other without either forcing any of them to change fundamentally or spilling any of each other’s blood. I can’t quite see why that shouldn’t be rather a good thing. Being against it feels a bit like telling a new beauty queen that ‘actually, world peace isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.’
In any case, since last Friday in Norway it feels as though it’s Geert Wilders in Holland, Nicolas Sarkozy in France and, yes, David Cameron in England who need to do a bit of explaining. Anders Breivik has shown just how far you can go when you start getting really passionate about your opposition to multiculturalism. Not that any of those politicians would back the action he took – but they might like to reflect on whether their stance doesn’t give some kind of endorsement to the views he holds and encourages those who share their more extreme forms.
Where anti-multiculturalism can take us
As for me, well I’m just going to stick with my attachment to multiculturalism.
To me, multiculturalism is the woman I saw in London the other day, in black Moslem dress from head to – well, actually not quite to toe. The dress stopped just above the ankles so we could all admire the elegant pale blue leather and cork creations she was wearing on her feet, with their three inch heels. The Islamic extremist would denounce her for the display of flesh and fashion, the EDL for the headscarf. The multiculturalist just smiles at the contradictions.
To me, multiculturalism is the cricket team that occupies the best ground in Luton – ‘Luton Town and Indians’. ‘Indians’? Most of the ‘Indians’ in Luton actually have their roots in Pakistan. Did they play for the old ‘Luton Indians’ club? And some years ago it merged with Luton Town. For her article, Lauren Collins interviewed Abdul Kadeer Baksh, who leads the Luton Islamic Centre’s vigorous campaign against Moslem extremism. Responding to the EDL’s taunts he told her, ‘when they say we don’t integrate, they mean we don’t assimilate.’ Well, quite – and why should they assimilate? Surely I can cope with not being the same as my neighbour? To be honest, I’ve had neighbours I’d hate to resemble, but that doesn’t stop me living next door to them. ‘Luton Town and Indians’ – in that preservation of both names, don’t we have a wonderful illustration of integrations without assimilation?
And finally, to me multiculturalism is my wife going into a butcher’s in Bury Park, the ‘Indian’ area, to buy halal chicken last week. The butcher’s astonished response was ‘Why?’ And Danielle had the best possible answer: ‘because we have friends from Pakistan coming round for a meal.’ The friends wanted a typical European dish, so Danielle roasted chicken for them (though by its quality it was nothing like typical). Western cooking for Moslem friends required halal meat.
You know, Cameron, it wasn’t that hard. It didn’t require us to compromise any principles. And we all had a great time.
Remind me – just what is it that you, Wilders, Sarkozy – and Breivik – have against multiculturalism?

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Bubble Syndrome

An amazing insight struck me recently, though I admit that to others it may seem blindingly obvious. In a nutshell, it's what I like to think of as the ‘bubble syndrome’ in travel. Essentially, this means that when we travel we like to occupy our own little bubble, alone or at most with intimate friends or family.

I noticed this not in a car, where it’s perhaps most evident, but in a train. The public nature of train travel seems to make creating a bubble impossible, so it's all the more obvious when we try to build one anyway. And it became particularly clear to me because I deliberately punctured it.

The instrument for this piece of sociological research – carried out at no charge, you’ll notice, and with the results made immediately and freely available on the internet – was the sneeze. Whenever anyone near me sneezes, I immediately say ‘bless you’

Reactions are varied and interesting. Occasionally, I’ll get eye contact, a smile and a ‘thank you’

Sometimes I get grunted thanks and averted eyes.

Most frequently, I get a tilting of the head, a half glance but no eye contact. The message is clear: though the sneezer feels obliged to recognise my good wishes, he or she nonetheless wants me to understand hat they are an inappropriate and therefore unwelcome intrusion into the virtual bubble they have created around their personal space.

To be fair, I’m just as inveterate an offender in this respect as anyone else. The moment I get on a train, I get my laptop out and bury myself in it until it’s time to leave again. The only time I didn’t do that recently was when the laptop battery was flat, in a train without power points. I got chatting with a fellow passenger and was far better entertained as a result for the whole of a four-hour journey. Why, I even got a new Facebook friend out of it (hi there, by the way, in case you’re reading this). But despite that good experience, I still resort systematically to the laptop defence and keep contact with other passengers to a bare minimum. Only if they sneeze, in the main.

Having established the existence of the syndrome in trains, one can see how well it applies to cars. Little cocoons, they provide precisely the kind of bubble we need for travel pleasure. Which is presumably why we go on using them in such massive and growing numbers, even though it may cost us the planet – and travelling by car is one of the most dangerous things we do. Death is ever-present on the road, but leaves little trace in society: a bunch of flowers on a roadside, perhaps, telling us that someone somewhere is grieving, but leaving the rest us barely affected.
<>   
Tribute to an anonymous road crash victim
A tragedy for a few, a matter of indifference for most 
In Britain, we’re delighted that road traffic deaths are down to half what they were in the nineties – but that’s still nearly 2000 a year. It means that every eighteen months we kill more people than died in the 9/11 attacks. And yet soceity isn't traumatised by these losses, we don’t launch wars and spend trillions to avert the ever-present threat that the car represents. A war on traffic  alongside the war on terror? It would make just as much sense, surely.

But far from attacking the car, we keep indulging our passion for it. And we do so as far as possible in private, in our little bubble. Strange, isn’t it? After all, the other things we do in private are associated either with erotic pleasure or with the elimination of waste.

Cars are certainly supremely wasteful. But do they provide us with some kind of near-orgasmic pleasure as well?

Thursday, 21 July 2011

A tale of two cities. And two meals. And two friends. And two remarkable women

The last two days have provided me with a couple of good meals out in London.

One was with an old friend from college days and it was great to catch up. I found out about the new exhibition soon to open at the British Museum, which takes as its theme the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. It’s apparently going to be based principally on personal recollections – you know, ‘what I did on Hajj last year’. I’m not sure that the compulsion to go will prove irresistible.

It was London in July, so we ate outdoors and had finished – well practically finished – our main course before being forced indoors by the returning rain.

And yesterday evening I had dinner with a  Ukrainian friend and colleague, on his first to Britain.

‘The people seem, I think, more friendly and more relaxed,’ he told me.

Friendly and relaxed? In London?

Once I'd dropped him off at the end of the evening, after a pleasant stroll through the rain in Regent’s Park, I hopped on a bus where I had one of those experiences that are aboslutely characteristic of our majetic city.

I was in the presence of a woman who had clearly not always been blonde. She was in her forties, overweight with an air of not being happy about it – or much else either. In one hand, she was clutching a cigarette from which she had clearly squeezed the burning tip before clambering onto the bus, intending to light it again at the earliest opportunity, and she was, as we like to say, well lubricated.

In lesser countries than England, accent tells you little more than where someone comes from. But in this great nation it gives you a pretty good indication of their social class, or at least social pretensions, as well as their education. When it came to this woman, perhaps I’ll just say that in this country you can leave school voluntarily at 16 and if she didn’t, I would rather suspect that she was pushed out by way of recognition of her achievements to that point.

Nothing she was saying undermined that assessment. Next to me was a tall young man I’d have said came from sub-Saharan Africa. He had one of those white caps that Moslem men wear there. He was talking quietly into a mobile phone.

No doubt reinforced by the liberality with which she'd applied her dose of alcoholic protection against the bitterness of everyday life, the pseudo-blonde had decided to make a contribution to the on-going and vital debate between the West and the world of Islam.

‘Why don’t you fuck off back to Afghanistan?’ she was saying, repeatedly, and with only minor variations in the words. I assume that geography hadn’t been one of the subjects that might have persuaded her teachers to keep her on at school. Or history either. The target of her advice simply kept talking into his phone.

Friendly? Relaxed? Oh well, perhaps an exception only proves the rule. In any case, my Ukrainian friend was no doubt comparing London with the US cities he knows, where life is indeed a tad more frenetic, and with his own Kharkov where anxiety perhaps takes the edge off even the sunniest disposition (though I’m not sure we have much less to worry about in this country).

In any case, at dinner we didn’t just speak about England.

‘How’s Yulia Tymoshenko’s trial going?’ I asked at one point.

‘I don’t really follow it,’ he said. I must have looked surprised - a former president on trial, one feels, might be a tale worth following. ‘There are so many lies,’ he explained.

‘She’s accused of corruption?’

‘Abuse of power,’ he told me, ‘well, it is perfectly true.’

‘But she denies it?’

‘She says it is political.’ He paused. ‘Well, it is also perfectly true.’

‘So both sides are telling the truth?’

‘Yes, but they use so many lies no-one believes them and they do not prove anything.’

I could understand why he didn’t feel inclined to follow the case.

Of course, over here we’re still absorbed by the exciting turns and twists of our own corruption saga. I’m particularly delighted by the  revelation in the Murdoch case, detailed by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian and denied by no-one, that David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, had come close to appointing Guto Harri as his director of communications in 2007. Harri is a former BBC correspondent and enjoys a high reputation for honesty.

Before Cameron finalised the appointment, he was approached by Rebekah Brooks, then Chief Executive of News International, and told to appoint Andy Coulson, her successor as editor of the News of the World, instead. It seems she felt that giving Coulson the job would strengthen the links between News International and the Conservative Party. And Cameron did what he was told.

Coulson later had to resign because of the current phone hacking scandal and has recently been arrested in connection with it.

Isn’t it wonderful that the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition and Prime Minister in waiting felt obliged to follow the instructions of the Chief Executive of News International? And isn’t it splendid that Rebekah Brooks knew she could dictate the actions of a political leader in this way?

Especially as she’s been arrested herself now?


The hairstyles may clash, but in many other ways,
their Yulia has so much in common with our Rebekah
Eat your heart out, Ukrainians. An intelligent and acute countryman of yours finds my London friendlier and more relaxed than his own Kharkov. Meanwhile, I can affirm from personal experience that the standard of public debate here remains as high and edifying as ever. And when it comes to corruption and abuse of power – we’re at least the equals of anything that Ukraine can do.

It makes me proud to be English.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Civilisation

Back in 1986, Levan Merritt, then only 5, fell into the gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo. Falling onto concrete, he was left with a cracked skull and broken arm and unconscious for several minutes. The horrified witnesses, including his parents, watched as an adult male silverback, Jambo, lumbered over to the prostate boy. But instead of tearing the child apart, Jambo took a protective posture alongside him keeping the other gorillas away and even, at one point, stroking him.

Jambo's arm reaches out to sroke unconscious Levan
A few weeks ago I saw TV film of what I consider one of the more moving finds in archaeology, a withered bone from the right arm of a male Neanderthal. Why is it moving? Because he survived many years after his crippling injury, meaning that his community nursed him and then fed him – he certainly can’t have been up to much as a hunter in later life.
Withered and healthy bones of our Neanderthal
- and the skull wan't in good shape either
Several times a week I’m reminded of the confrontation that took place earlier this summer between our cat Misty and the crows from across the road. He seized one of their young that had fallen from its nest but before he could dispatch it he found himself under violent attack from the beaks and talons of the parents. Although equipped with deadly claws and teeth himself, he couldn’t fight off birds so committed that they'd run mortal danger themselves to save their young, and indeed he’s learned real respect for them: whenever they see him now they caw, and when he hears them cawing, he runs for home.

Since I work in the healthcare world, I often think of Mary Seacole. She was a Jamaican born in the time of slavery in the nineteenth century. She turned herself into something of a cross between a nurse and a doctor. Florence Nightingale, who made her name nursing soldiers during the Crimean War, refused Seacole the right to join her, as did the rest of the British establishment, no doubt convinced that no-one with skin that dark could be trusted to care for the sick and injured. Seacole travelled to the Crimea independently and set up a hotel and supplies operation for the troops, enabling her to tend to the ill and wounded. She realised her ambition to be the first woman into Sebastopol after the city fell, and nursed many Russian soldiers as well as others from the Allied side there. She struggled back to England, again at her own expense, and was declared bankrupt soon after her return. She was only freed from destitution by friends running fund-raising events in her support.
Mary Seacole at the time of the Crimean War
What do all these stories have in common?

They’re all about individuals making sacrifices to help others, to alleviate distress. In the case of the crows and the Neanderthals, the sacrifice is for kin, but Mary Seacole and, indeed, Florence Nightingale cared for strangers. And Jambo came to the rescue of an individual who wasn’t even of the same species.

It seems to be something of an instinct, to bring help where it’s needed.

And yet – all the world’s major religions include injunctions to help each other in this way, which rather suggests that while we think it’s admirable, we do need to be reminded. And when we look around at other aspects of human behaviour, it’s fairly clear why the reminder is needed.

Over the last few years we’ve been repeatedly assured by leaders claiming to represent civilised values, that it is permissible to torture those we suspect of threatening us. In Britain, it seems that according to its own own studies, the government’s policies will make 40,000 additional families homeless and Ministers preferred to try (unsuccessfully) to conceal the studies rather than change the policies. And in the name of human rights, the great Democracies of the West are engaged in three wars which have led to countless civilian deaths – literally countless in the case of Iraq, with General Tommy Franks telling us ‘we don’t do body counts’ .

So remember the Neanderthal, remember Misty’s crows, remember the Jersey gorilla, remember Mary Seacole. And then remember that they represent an aspiration not an achievement. Why hasn't the one turned into the other? I think we're back to my favourite quotation from Konrad Lorenz, about having discovered the missing link between apes and civilised man: it's us.

Feels like  it may be a while before we cross that link.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Murdoch: time to cut him some slack

Hasn’t Rupert Murdoch suffered enough? Is it time to show some compassion?

Everyone seems to have a knife into the poor fellow these days (you understand that I’m using the word ‘poor’ in a purely metaphorical sense)

My view: it’s time to stop. He’s had to withdraw his bid to buy the whole of satellite broadcaster BSkyB and with it his ambition to go from being a baleful influence in British broadcasting to becoming a veritable Sauron (OK, OK, Voldemort for the younger generation). That’s a hell of a blow and I say it’s time for decent Englishmen to stop kicking him. We just don’t do that sort of thing to a man who’s down.

Instead we should be offering him encouragement.  

Personally, I’d like to encourage him to enjoy the extended rest his long labours have surely earned him. Yes, Rupe, it’s time to get on with your retirement. In fact, why not see if you can’t share it with the only other man who can hold a light to you when it comes to lifetime achievement, that other great media mogul and present Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi?

You should retire together. Why, that would mean that a stroke you'd be immeasurably benefitting not just one counrty but two. At least.

Perfect company for each other and ripe for retirement
You could while away the lengthening evenings over a good bottle or two and have a laugh about all the people who made the mistake of trying to get in your way. I see the two of you doing that in some idyllic setting – I understand that Silvio has a lovely place, just right for the purpose, on the island of Sardinia. And it’s not just the spot that’s superb, I’m told that he’s a dab hand at making sure the entertainment leaves nothing to be desired. Or to the imagination.

What’s more, if a few Italian magistrates have their way, Silvio may not be needing to provide his own accommodation for too much longer. In that case, Rupe could have it to himself.

Of course, it’s true that Murdoch has his own minor issues to sort out with the law. But hey, let’s take these things one step at a time. Tomorrow can look after tomorrow’s problems – you know, sufficient unto the day and all that stuff.

I shouldn’t let the prospect of a judicial enquiry in Britain put you off at all from getting on with your retirement. My advice to you is get on with it just as soon as you can - it can't come a moment too soon.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Better to be a fool than a knave in a World deprived of its News

So, it seems I won’t be reading the News of the World next Sunday.

In itself that won’t represent a huge change: not reading the News of the World has been a settled part of my Sunday morning routine for a great many years. The only real difference is that I wouldn’t be able to buy a copy even if I wanted to, since Rupert Murdoch’s News International corporation has decided to bring an end to that particular scandal sheet’s 168-year history.

The last front page
For those who may not have been following the recent enthralling developments in the NoW saga, this is the culmination of a decade-long controversy of which, for once, the paper was not the purveyor but the subject.

In their commitment to investigative journalism, some people on the paper (I’m picking my words with care: nothing has been proved against those who edited the paper at the time and they deny knowledge of any wrongdoing) had employed the services of a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, now in prison, to hack into the voicemail of celebrities’ mobiles. The more was dug up, the longer the list of hacking victims became, until it recently reached 4000, extending far beyond actual celebrities to include the parents of child murder victims, the relatives of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, even and most notoriously a murdered schoolgirl, whose voicemail messages the fearless investigators deleted so more could be left for them to listen to. The deletion of the messages gave the parents the hope that their daughter was still alive some time after she had in fact already been murdered.

What of the know-nothing editors? One was Andy Coulson who later headed Conservative Party leader David Cameron’s communications unit. After his boss took office as Prime Minister, Coulson became Director of Communications at 10 Downing Street on a publicly-funded salary. Eventually, in the face of the growing scandal, he resigned in January of this year. However, he continues to maintain that he knew nothing of hacking during his editorship and, since he’s a PR man, why should we question his credibility?

Come to think of it, Cameron too cut his teeth in PR, and I’ve always found him just as trustworthy as Coulson.

The other editor was Rebekah Brooks. She’s had a personal history that would make her a perfectly appropriate subject for some lurid column inches in the paper she ran. The youngest ever editor of a British national newspaper, she’s now Chief Executive of News International in this country. All this suggests that she’s outstandingly able, although she denies it: she claims to have been completely unaware of what NoW staff were doing while she was editor.

Rebekah Brooks: picture of innocence
Fortunately, there is more than one way of getting to the top of an organisation and indeed of staying there, and some only require skills that are generally available throughout the population. The belief that she rose to prominence by such means is certainly preferable to the alternative, which would be that she actively colluded in reprehensible and possibly illegal behaviour by her staff. If that were the case it would reflect unfavourably not just on her but on the News International corporation and even its top figure, Rupert Murdoch. And who of us living in Britain would want to accept that such a huge proportion of our communications media was in the control of a man without principle and with such scant respect for civilised standards?

Being thought a fool isn’t good, but probably better than being shown to have been a knave. Especially if the knavery may have strayed into criminality.

In any case, whatever else Brooks didn’t know, it's clear that she was aware of one of the most interesting operations run by staff at the NoW on her watch. The Guardian has stated, and she hasn’t denied, that she was informed by no  less an authority than Scotland Yard that the paper’s staff and resources were being used to target a senior Detective, David Cook, on behalf of two murder suspects he was investigating. Such was their commitment to investigative journalism that these people dug out personal information about Cook and his wife in their efforts to support the suspects.

I’m no lawyer so I don’t know if this was actually illegal, but I suppose I have the same grasp of basic morality as most people, and I have to say that this feels like something that is at best in a bit of a grey area. Ethically speaking.

And Brooks’ response when she was told that this was happening? That it was basic investigative journalism: they were checking out allegations that Cook had been having an affair with a presenter of the BBC Crimewatch programme, Jacqui Hames.

Now, it is certainly reprehensible for a married man to have an affair with a married woman, and that’s just the kind of thing the NoW liked to expose. However, when the man and woman are married to each other, as Hames and Cook were, surely it’s not quite as questionable? This is probably a piece of information that a fastidious observer might regard as relevant to such a line of enquiry. And without wanting to be hypercritical, I can’t help feeling that an organisation that prides itself on its investigative reporting might have been expected to discover it.

Thinking about that kind of incident makes it less difficult to believe Brooks’s protestations of incompetence.

It also makes it a lot easier to come to terms with the idea that I’m going to have to do without the News of the World next week.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

No worries, if you follow my pet philosophy

I worry about the collapsing economy, I worry about global warming, I worry about pitiless financiers.

I worry about my pension, I worry about my house, I worry about my kids.

I worry about the decisions I take, I worry about whether I have the authority to take them, I worry about the decisions that others take if I don’t.

I worry about upsetting my wife, about irritating my friends, about being taken for an insensitive fool instead of a wit with a ready word of banter.

I worry about the way I look, I worry about the way I work, I worry about the way I talk (or at least about how much).

Sometimes I worry about why I worry so much.

And yet right in my own household I have an object lesson in not worrying. Two object lessons in fact, since one is being taught to me with a feline flavour by Misty, the other in a more canine style by Janka. Different in their origins, the lessons are nonetheless strangely similar in their message.
Summertime and the living is easy
cats are slumping
and the sleeping dogs lie
What are they telling me? Chill out. Relax. None of these things matter. Lie back and enjoy the summer. And throw dignity to the winds as you do so.

That being said, it's not much of a summer at the moment, as Janka and I discovered this morning running in comradely solidarity through the sheeting rain. Still, not even that seems to worry her. Or Misty either, who merely demanded his breakfast on our return.

Life would be so much easier if I could be a little more like them. I need to learn to live more in the present. I need to learn to enjoy it while I can. But sometimes that seems to be beyond me.

Which is quite worrying.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Giving an outstanding figure the credit due to him

Popped down to Grosvenor Square this lunchtime, to admire the latest fine piece of statuary to adorn the streets of our great capital.

The Great Communicator and his smile, bringing comfort to us all
Yes, it’s a that fine figure of a man, Ronald Reagan, late President of the United States, smiling benignly on the world. That’s what he did so well in his time – smile benignly, possibly because he wasn't too sure just what was going on, but was basically a likeable old fellow so he would smile to cheer us all up. I’ll bet he was just as amiable to his good friends in Hollywood in the fifties, when he was spying on them during the McCarthy witch hunts.
Anyway, there he is, not a stone’s throw from the US embassy. Though I’d never want to test the distance in quite so rash a way: throwing anything in the direction of that Embassy would be distinctly career-limiting. I’ve never seen such a concentration of armed British police. I asked one of them where the statue was – it’s well hidden by trees – and the glower he gave me made my blood run cold. Fortunately, he realised I wasn’t making a subversive suggestion – to read the Koran, say, or endorse something dangerously radical such as an environmental movement – but merely wanted to admire the statue of Thatcher’s great friend, at which point he became all sweetness and light. It was with a face wreathed in smiles that he pointed me in the right direction.
Thatcher certainly thought the earth of Reagan. The man who won the cold war without firing a shot, she reckoned, and her judgement in these matters was generally pretty sound – after all, though many who were less loyal and less resolute abandoned him, she remained staunch in her support for the man who restored order in Chile, Augusto Pinochet, and she must have been among the last to give up the courageous view that the ANC in South Africa and its leader Nelson Mandela were a bunch of terrorists.
In any case, no-one can deny that Reagan never fired a shot in the Cold War. Of course in 1984, he did announce my fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes’ but he didn’t actually drop any bombs. It was just one of those endearing bits of Reagan humour and, hey, if you can't take a joke, you shouldn’t be in politics. Even in Moscow.
And the Cold War certainly ended while he was President. So he must have won it, right?
Come to think of it, the sun rose 2922 times during his reign – sorry, period in office – and that too was of immeasurable benefit to mankind. Is this another area, I wonder, where we haven’t sufficiently acknowledged his contribution to the wellbeing of his fellow creatures?

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Who needs the NHS when you've got prison?

Time to shine a little light into some obscurity. Deserved obscurity, perhaps, in at least one case, but that’s no reason not to illuminate it a little.

Ever heard of Daniel Hannan? Well, why should you. He’s a British Conservative Member of the European Parliament. Being an MEP wonderfully illustrates how you can hold a prominent position without leaving a trace in the public consciousness.

Hannan did, however, have a moment of fame, if that’s the word, back in 2009 when he intervened in the US debate over healthcare. He assured Americans that he would not wish the NHS on anyone and described it as a ‘sixty-year mistake’. All this was part of a campaign against ‘socialised medicine’, apparently the thin of the wedge leading to the overthrow of all we hold dear.

Now Hannan isn’t totally wrong in all things. He’s a great admirer of the Singapore healthcare system, which costs about half of Britain’s as a proportion of national income, and delivers results which, according to some authorities, are at least as good. There really may be something worth looking into there.

Nor can anyone seriously claim that the NHS is without blemishes. The sixty-year history of the institution is littered with horror stories of patients allowed to suffer or even die through neglect, of the wrong leg being amputated, even of the wrong kidney being cut out (the patient in that case, left with only his failing kidney, paid for the surgeons’ error with his life). But I don’t know of a healthcare system anywhere that doesn’t have its tales of incompetence to make your blood run cold, and generally the NHS is at least pretty good at being there when you need it and doing a reasonable job, all things considered, at getting you better.

While the NHS may cost twice as much as Singapore’s healthcare system, it costs around two-thirds of Germany’s or France’s and little over half the US’s. Since it does actually guarantee care of some kind to anybody who needs it, it strikes me as inappropriate to describe it as a ‘sixty-year failure’ in the US, which spends so much and famously fails to meet that standard.

The other relatively obscure individual who caught my attention recently is James Verone. Not heard of him either? He’s a 59-year old with a string of ailments which may or may not be serious – he doesn’t know because he can’t get them diagnosed, let alone treated. A couple of weeks ago, he went into a bank in the North Carolina town of Gastonia and pushed a note across the counter instructing the teller to hand over exactly one dollar. He then went and sat quietly to await the arrival of the police.

James Verone:
exploring novel ways of accessing healthcare
His calculation? If he could pick up a jail sentence, he would get healthcare while inside and, if the sentence lasted at least three years, he would have cover after his release too.

His biggest problem? Because he took so little and didn’t use a weapon, he may not get anything like the sentence he needs. In the meantime, he’s been very happy to refuse bail because, while he’s on remand awaiting trial, he’ll get medical treatment.

The comments on Versone’s case are so obvious that it’s superfluous to make them.

Daniel Hannan’s view, on the other hand, might be amusing to read.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Haggling over the price

The best jokes are the ones that provide an insight into some real-life problem. It may not be immediately obvious how the one below does that, but bear with me – it makes a really good point about one of the more attractive aspects of business life.

A man approaches a woman at a party.

‘Would you spend the night with me for £10,000?’ he asks.

‘£10,000?’ she says, reflectively, ‘yes, I think I would.’

‘Good,’ he says, ‘and would you spend the night with me for £10?’

‘£10?’ she cries, shocked, ‘what sort of woman do you think I am?’

‘We’ve established that,’ he replies, ‘now we’re just negotiating the price.’

Yes, bells can start ringing when the only thing left is to negotiate the price. This week at work, we took a new order. That is a matter of celebration in itself – I know from depressing personal experience what it’s like to work in a company where it’s a rare event. But I was pleased rather than delighted, because the real celebration came two weeks ago when the customer told us ‘we can’t pay that much.’

That was it. They were negotiating the price. We didn’t have to sell them the product any more, we didn’t have to persuade them of the advantage of taking ours rather than a competitor’s, we didn’t even have to persuade them that they had nothing to gain by putting off the decision for another few months (believe me, in the NHS, that’s not at all unusual). All that was left was to agree a figure. And when you’ve got that far, why, you’re practically home.


And as a postscript, more on humour and insight, the Pratchett way

At his best
Have you read Terry Pratchett’s I shall wear midnight? A real jewel for Pratchett fans. In my opinion one of his best.

(Which reminds me: why do people say ‘in my humble opinion’? Is anyone ever likely to say ‘in my arrogant opinion’? Or is it just that by passing it off as humble, they reckon they can get an arrogant one past their listeners?)

When we get going on an important job but haven't completed it yet, we all sometimes say that we’ve taken a good first step. In this novel, Pratchett asks what comes next – and answers, not a second step but another first step.

That’s so right. If you want to do a job well, make each step on the way a first step. Second steps are about as much use as second chances – and if you need a second chance, you’re in bad shape already.

And I've got the scars to prove that one too.