Monday, 29 August 2011

Pronouncement of God. Or just pronunciation?

Back on a train again. The latest public announcement was ‘this is your guard speaking. It is no longer possible to upgrade to first class, first class is completely full’.

‘Do you know,’ one Australian-sounding fellow passenger told her travelling companion, ‘I thought he said “this your God”.’

It’s true that the Newcastle twang of the announcement had taken the pronunciation of the word some way in that direction.

‘Yes,’ replied her friend, equally Antipodean, ‘that’s what I heard too. “This is your God speaking. Any chance of first class existence is gone. Your only hope now is the afterlife”.’

If he's everywhere, why be surprised to meet him on a train?
Readers of this blog will know that I’m a great fan of railway travel for the glimpses it provides into the human soul and related matters. But not even I would invest it with quite that level of significance.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

When a good memory is bad news

An excellent memory is a real blessing. A memory that's merely good, on the other hand, can turn into a curse.

My memory is good enough for me not to have to write down quite a few things. Dates of appointments, for instance. Or of course PINs. And most of the time that’s fine, but the difference beetween a good memory and an excellent one, is that every now and then a good memory lets you down.

Because it’s good, I rely on it, so when it fails, I’m in trouble.

The first time was in a supermarket a couple of years ago. I’d picked a bad time to go. All the checkouts were packed. I queued for ages and it was with a real sense of relief that I got to the front. As the woman on the till was ringing up my purchases, I was doing the good shopper thing and packing them neatly into bags, and moving them into my trolley.

‘How will you be paying?’ she asked me.

‘By card,’ I said, proud that I’d already got the plastic out ready to stuff into the reader.  I’m not one of those people who leave it to the last moment to get ready to pay and then have to spend minutes searching for a card they can no longer remember where they put. I’m ready in plenty of time.

And then came the moment of ghastly truth. I keyed in my PIN with complete confidence: ‘Code Incorrect’ the machine rudely and inexplicably told me.

Of course, I’d reversed two numbers. I tried again with them the other way around. Same result.

Behind me the queue was getting longer and longer. Everyone was wearing the expression of people who are making a major effort not to let their expressions reveal their irritation, but I could read their minds. ‘Come on, you moron,’ they were thinking, ‘get it right and get out of the way.’

I tried a third combination of numbers and my card was blocked.

Fortunately, the supermarkets are used to this kind of incident and a well-oiled machine went straight into operation. The trolley was wheeled to one side and I was allowed to go outside and kick my heels in the car park until, as inexplicably as it had vanished, the PIN returned to me. I seized the moment to draw some cash so that I could settle up without relying any further on my card. Or my memory.

Last week the same thing happened to me. I was introducing a colleague to the delights of Indian cooking in Luton. My favourite restaurant serves food which is extraordinarily good and stupidly cheap. Unfortunately, crazy technological gimmicks like card readers have passed them by. I stopped at an ATM to get some cash.

A potentially daunting sight

And the blasted PIN gap opened up in my memory again.

This time it took a very particular form. I couldn’t remember the position of one particular digit out of the four. I was convinced it was the last, but that didn’t work.

‘Of course,’ I remarked to my colleague, lightly, ‘just got the figures out of order.’ I tried again with the renegade digit in second place but with no better luck.

‘That’s funny,’ I commented, sounding less confident, ‘I can’t imagine what’s happening.’

I tried with it in third position.

That was it. Card blocked.

‘Why don’t I pay?’ my colleague asked. She was being polite and generous, not at all suggesting that I was cutting a pitiful figure. But I felt pitiful. However, given that I had little choice, I just nodded glumly and she paid. Which made it hard for me to play to the role I was rather relishing, that of the welcoming host.

The PIN, as usual, came back to me a couple of hours later. And in a new humiliation for my fallible memory, I had to recognise that I could have searched for ever for the position of that awkward digit. It doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the code.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Transport of delight

It’s wonderful the impact a little misfortune can have on people who are sharing it.

I’m on a train to Berwick upon Tweed, on my way to rejoin Danielle and our family up there, including our granddaughter Aya.

Gone are the days of my youth, when I would turn up three or four minutes before the departure time and belt along the platform, dragging a door open while the guard was already blowing his whistle. These days I’m much too neurotic for that. So I was at the station by a quarter past four, for a five o’clock train. Time to buy myself some food to eat on the way, time to hang around in what is currently about the most ghastly of the London terminals, King’s Cross: it’s having a face lift done but it’s taking for ever. Thank God for the Olympics – that might spur them to get it finished by next year.

So I was in my seat in plenty of time. I was with a charming couple who are due to be married in two weeks – they've been planning the catering as we travel along and it's obviously going to be quite a party. Before we left, we exchanged a few comments and settled down to what was going to be a pleasant journey up the east coast.

A happy couple who made for good travel companions
The first indication that things weren’t going to be quite right was the announcement as we were pulling out of the station, that there would be no trolley service on the train. ‘Due,’ we were told, ‘to a shortage of trolleys in the London area.’ A shortage of trolleys? Go down to any canal and you’ll see them sticking out of the water.

Then things started to unravel seriously just beyond Peterborough, not quite an hour out. Signalling failure. Why does that keep happening? What’s so fragile about signals that they can’t keep them in better nick? Do the bulbs blow or something?

And then just before Doncaster, another hour on, it was a broken-down freight train in front of us. And that’s when the ice really broke in the carriage. It was partly because of the charming lady who checked our tickets and made the announcements, in one of my favourite accents – Newcastle. I can’t hear it without smiling.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ she would say, ‘we apologise for the delay to your journey. This is due to a broken down freight train on the line ahead of us. We regret the obvious inconvenience.’

She didn’t just say it once, she must have said it half a dozen times, always explaining again about the freight train. It got us all chatting.

‘Does she think we’d forgotten about the freight train?'
‘What’s so special about obvious inconvenience? What about the hidden kind?’
‘What does she mean ‘your journey’? She’s on the train too isn’t she?’
‘Yes,’ the bridegroom-to-be pointed out, ‘and she may have a hot date at the other end. I hope the guy is keen enough to wait.’

Those bubbles we usually travel in have been well and truly dispensed with.

The girl opposite has been doing her make-up. ‘I thought I’d have the time to get ready for the party once I was there,’ she explained, ‘but I’m just going to have to get ready now.’

We’re an hour and a half late now. My neurosis about being on time for the train clearly isn’t shared by the train itself. Lots of phone calls have been made, lots of complaints. But none of it has really been bad-tempered. After all, we’re perfectly comfortable. It’s Friday night, we don’t have to be up early tomorrow. The couple at my table have been told the hotel will send a car for them even though they’re late. The old lady next to the party girl has complimented her on her make-up. The  girl herself has gone off to try on two dresses – sorry, frocks – to see which she likes better. The chap two seats away shares a grin with me every time a particularly inane statement comes across the public address system.

Above all, there’s nothing we can do about any of this anyway. Hey, we might as well enjoy it.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Kate and Di may be beyond our aspirations, and some of us know it

Train travel continues to enthral me with the vignettes of English life it provides.

Yesterday I shared a table with a young man and woman who kept up a lively conversation all the way into London. Not a couple, just colleagues and friends travelling on the same train.
She wasn’t looking forward to the day, because she was going to be working with a group women she simply couldn’t bear.

‘We’re all such a different class,’ she announced, ‘they’re really nice but there’s this one that goes out on a different date each night. So she just sits there talking about her dates, with her fake tan and her impossibly high heels, and in a voice you can hear across the whole office. She’s nice but she’s really not my cup of tea.’
The picture forming in my mind was one of the classic ‘Essex girl’. In case you don’t know that image, let me just say that the answer to the question ‘how does an Essex girl turn on the light after sex?’ is ‘she pushes open the car door.’ This is, I’m sure, an unworthy calumny on the fine old county of Essex and the tens of thousands of irreproachable women from there, a slur promoted no doubt by the surrounding counties who’d like to pretend that they are strangers to anything remotely like sluttishness.

Meanwhile, there was more to come about the tiresome colleague.

‘I don’t think she gets it. I mean it’s her first job, working with us as an intern... I mean she’s just out of university...’

My ears pricked up. A degree? Essex girl has many fine assets but educational attainment isn’t generally one of them.

‘I mean, good on her, I think she’ll make it because she’s the right social class.’

Really? This didn't sound like the snobbery I was expecting.

‘I’ve never talked to her but I know a lot about her,’ she went on.

‘You’ve had to listen enough,’ commiserated her companion.

‘Exactly. She had fourteen people to dinner the other day and she takes a taxi to work. I’ll bet she doesn’t live in some little flat share with people she doesn’t know, I bet it’s her own, which her parents bought her.’

And there we have it. Not a cheap but cheeky Essex girl at all. More like a Sloane Ranger.

You don’t know what a Sloaney is? The name is derived from their tendency to congregate around London’s glorious Sloane Square and the elegant districts of Kensington and Chelsea nearby.

What’s the first thing a Sloaney makes when she’s laying on dinner for her friends? A call to a caterer.

Sloaneys also have their own special way with English vowels, so a ‘Kensington crèche’ is not a fashionable place to leave the children, it’s what leads to a dent on the Range Rover when the nanny’s taking them to school.

Now the young lady being complained of probably isn’t quite a Sloaney, the social category made famous by Princess Di in the eighties and revived recently by our new Princess Kate. No true Sloaney would have a fake tan – it would all be genuine, from St Moritz in the winter and somewhere exclusive in the Caribbean in the summer. But obviously the woman being complained of was somewhat closer to those exalted circles than the one complaining.

Sloaneys present and past: Kate and Di
So I’d got it exactly wrong. The problem was class, certainly, but the speaker regarded herself not as superior to the other woman but as her social inferior.

Instructive, I thought. It seems to me that the dividing linees between classes are sharpening  in England at the moment, and the recent street disturbances shows how they can explosively transform into battle lines. And that conversation in the train showed how heavily they weigh on our general consciousness.

Between the two friends there had been that cordiality and ease that the French sum up so eloquently as ‘complicity’. Their gender difference wasn’t a problem. Nor was racial difference: he was white and she, while her command of the language showed her to be entirely English, belonged to the group that we lazily refer to as ‘Indian’. Which suggests that a religious distinction also separated them, but seemed to affect them no more than the others.

So is that the nature of the moment we’re going through? Gender, racial and cultural differences are fading in importance in comparison to that age-old bitterness we call class division?

Sounds like a simplification. Though not one that will make our lives any easier.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Confusing parks and larks and lakes

One of the best aspects of the work I’m doing at the moment is the people it lets me meet. I suppose down the years I’ve come to like healthcare professionals – you have to if you’re going to stick with the utter frustration of this field for as long as I have.

Recently I’ve been working closely with a wide range of people around Luton, where I live, and where coincidentally the company won a major contract recently. It means working with managers and with General Practitioners and with GP Practice staff. They differ from each other in their intensity, their seriousness, their charm, their smiles, but they’re all bound together by being utterly, though politely, demanding of the system I’m putting in. Each constantly challenges me to give of my best. And none of them is dull.
One of the practices rejoices in the name ‘Lakeside’ in the NHS list. A lovely idea, wouldn’t you agree? One imagines that the front gives onto a pleasant semi-rural street – this is Luton, let’s remember, we don’t do fully rural – while the back gives onto a short stretch of grassy bank down to a patch of blue water with rushes on this side, willows on the other, swans on the water, a stream bubbling in at one end and trickling sedately out at the other.
Kath, the practice manager, is a real pleasure to work with: she combines enthusiasm and effectiveness, while contriving at the same time to be warm-hearted and cheerful. It's a great spur to doing all I can to hone the system to her and her colleagues’ requirements.
The other day I told her about the mental picture the name of the practice conjured up.
‘Yes,’ she said, I felt a little wryly, ‘that would be nice.’
When I got there I discovered that the view wasn’t quite as I’d imagined it. The front does indeed give on to a quiet side road. The back gives on to a car park.
‘Not quite as I’d expected,’ I told her.
‘No,’ she nodded, ‘there was a temp working at NHS Luton when the names of the practices had to be registered with the NHS. She put ours in as Lakeside. I’ve been trying for years to get the error corrected. This practice is actually called Larkside. But there seems to be no way of getting the records changed.’
I glanced out of the window. There may have been a lark somewhere in the vicinity but not that I could see.
Wardown Park: there is a lake in Luton.
But nowhere near Larkside
‘Parkside might have been better,’ I thought, ‘or even Carparkside.’
But I didn’t say it. It wouldn’t have been fair.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Not so modern times

One of the documents I’ve been translating recently speaks highly of an idea from a book published in 1943, declaring that it ‘prefigures’ a ‘modern concept’ in medicine.

Is it just me or is there a whiff of condescension here? A sense that we, modern people, have established some universal and deathless truths and it's just extraordinary how people from the past managed to get an inkling of the vision that only we, with our greater insight and the benefit of a few more years, have the capacity to encompass fully? 

There seem to be two fundamental delusions at work here.

The first is that the passage of time is synonymous with progress. In some respects it is, of course, but there are plenty of instances where things are a lot patchier than that. You want an example? Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush were both Republican Presidents of the United States. Call that progress?

The second is that what is ‘modern’ is also in some sense ‘conclusive’, the final word on any matter, the benchmark against which any other pronouncement must be measured. In other words, the modern view is the one that wraps it up and is proof to any further challenge or modification.

This is the thinking behind such terms as ‘Modern Art’. Even ‘postmodernism’ which contains the delightful paradox that to be really modern you have to move beyond it, nonetheless sets the ‘modern’ as its point of reference.

When I was still a child being dragged around art galleries – sorry, having my horizons expanded by being exposed to new aesthetic stimuli – I’d be amazed by, say, the Impressionists: wonderful paintings but so obviously not modern, not of our time. Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières was already eighty years old when I first saw it.  Modern art was something else.

Seurat: on older style of painting. But not by much
But time, as it inexorably does, rolled on. Take an iconic work of Modern Art, Matisse’s two Dance paintings: they’re over a century old now. Further in the past from us today than Seurat’s bathers were from me as a child.

Matisse: still modern a century on?
I’ve often wondered how we’d ever deal with this. At some stage, we need to decide that we really can’t keep calling these paintings ‘Modern’. New York’s ‘Museum of Modern Art’ is going to have to change name or shift its collection to, say, the Metropolitan to make place for something rather newer.

And as for us, the general public, we’re going to have to rethink how we use the word. We’ve got to stop thinking of it as a kind of culmination point and realise that it’s just a transition. Just like every previous moment of modernity. ‘Novelty, novelty,’ says Garance in Les Enfants du Paradis, ‘there’s nothing older in the world than novelty.’

Some day people may look back on our modern times with amusement at our quaintness, mixed perhaps with slightly condescending admiration.

‘They prefigured some quite modern ideas,’ they might say. ‘I mean – you can see the stirrings of awareness that wealth shouldn’t grant impunity from the law. And some voices were raised against corruption in public office. Who would have thought it, before the adoption of modern ideas?’

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Zero tolerance from the barely tolerable

You can imagine my relief at seeing how our leaders are reacting to last week’s terrible disturbances in England.

David Cameron, and we all know how much lustre he has added to the office of British Prime Minister, made it clear to Parliament that he was far from pleased with the dilatory response of the police to the troubles. Far too slow, far too little, far too timid.

Presumably those guys under the bricks and facing the petrol bombs should have been modelling their behaviour on Cameron’s own: he stayed on holiday in Tuscany until it became really impossible for him to put off coming home any longer.

Personally, I'd have no problem with David Cameron remaining out of the country quite a lot longer. Perhaps until all the current crises are over. Don't hurry back, I'd say, stay away as long as you like. But he came home last week, and I have to admit that since then he's made up for his earlier absence by throwing himself with real passion into the huge task of claiming credit for quelling the disturbances.

Inexplicably, the police seem less than happy with the politicians’ comments. Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, is one of many who are a little miffed. He thinks that the plans to flood London with 16,000 police had been taken rather before David Cameron, or indeed  Teresa May, the Home Secretary, had even got back to the country.

Oh, well. That’s torn Orde’s chances of getting the vacant position as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London, Britain’s top police job. Indeed, Cameron has taken on the services of Bill Bratton, formerly of the Police Departments of New York and then Los Angeles to advise him on controlling gang violence, and certainly those are cities which have a great deal to teach the world about such violence.

It looks as though Bratton may even have a chance of being appointed Metropolitan Police Commissioner himself. After all, he’s so much better qualified than Orde, whose only previous top police job was in the provincial backwater of Northern Ireland.

Cameron, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, have meanwhile made it clear that they still intend to slash police budgets, presumably on the basis that you can do more with less.

Now Cameron’s hitting out again. ‘Zero tolerance’ towards crime, he’s saying. I’ve never really gone with that idea. I mean, are we saying that the police have been easy-going on crime in the past? You know, saying ‘oh, well, young people will be young people. You’ve got to see the funny side.’

Strnagely enough, a couple of years ago ‘zero tolerance’ of crime was the slogan of Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, though these days he’s treading a little more carefully and has even expressed reservations about certain government policies. In particular, he’s not keen the police budget cuts.

Anyway, in taking their uncompromising stance on crime, both Cameron and Johnson reflect the anger of so many over the levels of violence in society. People smashing shop windows and looting the stock. Why, somebody even put a flower pot through the window of an Oxford restaurant – it’s just unbearable.

No, hang on a moment. The flower pot event wasn’t last week. That was back in 1987. And it wasn’t London looters – it was the Bullingdon Club made up of thirty of the wealthiest students in Oxford University. How wealthy, you ask? Well, their smart uniform of royal blue tail coat and trimmings costs £3500 a head. That’s two months gross earnings of a Brit on median earnings.

The club’s members have a reputation for going out to dinner, drinking themselves into party mood and then trashing the restaurant, after which they pay for the damage in cash. The flowerpot through the window was just another burst of high spirits from these charming revellers on their way home.

And who had been out with the Bullingdon Club on that historic night in 1987? Well, since you ask, both David Cameron and Boris Johnson. A couple of years later, it would be George Osborne’s turn to grace the club with his edifying presence.

Don't they look smart? That's Cameron, second from left standing,
and Johnson, third from left sitting in the front
Some might say, ‘ah, well, youthful exuberance isn’t to be confused with looting; if you have the money to pay for the damage, having a riot isn’t rioting.’ But I don’t go along with that. Instead I salute Messrs Cameron, Johnson and Osborne.

Only they had it in them to make the policy of zero tolerance seem appealing to me.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Mortifying the body to exalt the spirit. If that makes sense

My heart goes out to my Moslem friends: it’s the middle of Ramadan and in these latitudes that means the dawn to dusk fast lasts for around eighteen hours each day. And it’s going to get worse for the next couple of years, as Ramadan comes earlier and therefore includes more and more of the year’s longest days

It wouldn’t be so bad if the fast merely meant taking no food, but anyone following it strictly also takes no drink. Eighteen hours of dehydration? And this is supposed to be good for you?

In the heartland of Islam, the day never gets muuch longer than thirteen and a half hours, which means that the fast doesn't become quite as excruciating as it can here. But like all religions, the rules are the rules, and if you live by them you have to live by them in their rigid entirety, in spite of local conditions.

It puts me in mind of so many other bizarre restrictions imposed on their followers by organised religion. Take my own, Jewish, cultural roots for instance. Danielle, who likes milk in her coffee, couldn’t have it at an otherwise wonderful dinner at a Jewish friend’s. We’d had meat with the meal, so naturally no milk could be served.

We of course accepted the constraint with the best grace possible – with complete equanimity on my part, as it happens, since I prefer my coffee black, but that doesn’t stop me feeling for Danielle – and nodded our heads as though the word ‘naturally’ somehow summed things up completely. But what was ‘natural’ about it?

The basis of the interdiction is in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 14:21. It tells us: ‘Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.’ That, by the way, is the King James Authorised Version of the translation which people keep telling me is wonderful for its ‘poetry’. It always me wonder whether they’re confusing ‘poetry’ with ‘incomprehensibility’. What on earth is ‘seething’? Apart from the state into which such obscure language puts me?

Deuteronomy: making sure you understand the law.
When you can make sense of it
Let’s assume, as other translations do, that it means ‘cooking’ (New International Version: ‘Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk’. Less poetical, is it? At least I know what it means).

So we’re not supposed to cook a young goat in its mother’s milk. It’s not clear to me just why that should bother the creator of the universe and legislator of all life but, OK, maybe that is one of the miracles of the Godhead – infinite in his scope but able to focus on a matter of infinitesimal, even baffling, detail. So fine. As it happens I wasn’t planning on cooking kid in its mother’s milk anyway. We’d not eaten goat at dinner. And it was cow’s milk we were planning to put in the coffee.

But the wise have decided that applying the restriction from Deuteronomy means that you can’t serve any kind of milk at the same table, within three hours – some schools of thought say six – of using it to serve any kind of meat. Naturally. If I can’t see that, it’s just further evidence of my denseness, already displayed by my inability to appreciate the beauty of the King James Bible.

Incidentally, can you stand a little more poetry? Here’s the rest (actually the start) of Deuteronomy 14:21: ‘Ye shall not eat of anything that dieth of itself: thou shalt give it unto the stranger that is in thy gates, that he may eat it; or thou mayest sell it unto an alien: for thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God.’

Isn’t that nice? Don’t eat carrion yourself, it’s unclean, and you’re holy. On the other hand, if in your holiness you can make a buck or two by selling it to a foreigner, hey, why not? We’re not working to some kind of anti-business agenda here.

Not sure I understand the holiness any better than the poetry.

Meanwhile, back to my Moslem friends. Nearly half way, guys. Good luck with the rest. And just remember – at least you’re not living in northern Norway or Canada, where the sun doesn’t set at all in the summer.

What on earth do Moslems do in those regions, actually? Move away? Or try to fast for the entire month?

Thursday, 11 August 2011

When the streets of England exploded

It’s touching to have received messages of sympathy from abroad, even if at least one of them was a little supercilious, during the last four days of – what shall we call them? – troubles on the streets of British cities.

Firstly, let me say that I know exactly as much about them as anyone who reads a paper or watches news about Britain abroad. My commute to work takes me nowhere near any of the affected areas so my total exposure to the troubles was through the headlines in the papers of my fellow travellers and the lurid descriptions on the TV news.

Funnily enough, I’ve been in this situation before – when you’re actually in a ‘trouble spot’ there’s every likelihood that you’ll notice absolutely nothing about it. One such incident was on 5 February 1992, when five people were murdered in a betting shop on the Ormeau Road in Belfast; within an hour of the incident I was in a taxi that took me at one point within a mile of the place, and it wasn’t until I got to the airport and saw the news that I realised that the incident had even taken place. It was all a bit spooky.

Secondly, let’s come back to that question of the name for these troubles. One word that I’ve heard no-one pronounce in comments has been ‘revolution’.

Certainly there was nothing like revolution going on here – no strikes, no armed action, no serious or sustained threat to the status quo.

But a word that has been used, a lot, is ‘rioting’. But doesn’t the word ‘riot’ suggest some kind of political content? Well, at least if it’s not being used for rather a good party.

Whatever else was going on these last few days, it certainly wasn’t political.

Those lads weren’t setting fire to cars and debating the relative merits of David Cameron or Ed Milliband as national leaders; as they put their bricks through shop windows, they weren’t comparing the relative merits of quantitative easing and fiscal measures as ways of stimulating the economy.

No, they were just looting.

The fact that rather a lot of young people suddenly decided to go out looting has led to a bit of soul-searching. Only a bit, mind: it quickly led to identifying a few usual suspects and blaming them. The police were slow to react. Society is sick. Parenting is to pot.

Now, it’s quite possible that parenting is terrible. I'm ready to believe that any parenting outside my own family and those of my relatives and friends is pretty hopeless. To be honest, I'm not that sure about my relatives and friends. But did parenting really suddenly take a huge turn for the worse just recently? Why exactly did these badly brought up kids, so similar to the badly brought up kids of the last decade who never took to the streets, suddenly decide to turn into looters just now?

Perhaps it’s the other explanations that we have to turn to. Perhaps Britain is a sick society. But you’ve probably all seen the photograph of Monika Konczyk jumping for her life from her flat in a burning building in Croydon. The friends who’d gathered below to catch her had forced their way through the police lines to get there; policemen joined them to help.

Monika Konczyk being rescued: what's sick about that bit of society?
Did you see the photographs of the people who turned out with their brooms in Clapham to help clear their streets the day after the looting there? A sick society? Well, hardly. Those two incidents show humans behaving in just the way I would wish us all to behave. Some people behaved badly, but others behaved well. A great many behaved well.
Brooms to help the clear up in Clapham
And as for the police, they've avoided killing anyone and the situation is back under control. It took three or four days. Seems pretty impressive as me.

So that leaves still looking for the answer to the question of why did it happen now, why did these particular young people take part in such mindless criminality?

Commentators have pointed out that these are the worst street disturbances for thirty years. And maybe in that statement, unbeknown to them, lies the answer to the question.

Who was in office thirty years ago? Why, the deeply divisive government of Margaret Thatcher. It deliberately pursued policies of disenfranchising the poor, the young outside a narrow circle of privilege, and ethnic minorities. And the disturbances that started thirty years ago went on sporadically over the next decade.

And who’s in office today? Why Thatcher’s heirs, David Cameron and his cronies.

I rest my case.

Finally, what about the looting itself? Things have all gone quiet. And why? A lot of police have turned out, and that’s helped. But also the weather has broken. It’s been raining. Kids don’t like to go out in the rain.

See what I mean about not being real riots, and certainly not a revolution? Can you see Lenin saying ‘hey, it’s chucking it down out there. Let’s stay inside and have a few drinks instead.’

So without wanting to belittle the achievement of the police, let's not understate the contribution made by that most reliable of Britain’s characteristics.

Yep, our lousy weather came to our rescue.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Speaking out for Canada, but not so loud as to disturb the neighbours

Danielle and I have recently been watching a Canadian thriller series called The Border.

Now, I’m not going to claim that this is anything more than light entertainment – I wouldn’t recommend that you rush out to buy it and I wouldn’t want to raise expectations about the insights it provides into the complex workings of the human soul, or anything like that. On the other hand, if light entertainment is what you’re after, you could do worse, and it does have one aspect that I found particularly compelling.

‘What marks an Irishman with a balanced outlook on the world?’ an English friend asked me some years ago.

‘I don’t know,’ I dutifully answered, ‘what does mark an Irishman as having a balanced outlook?’

‘He has a chip on both shoulders,’ he told me and we both smiled. So true, so true.

Well, time has moved on, and since the Good Friday agreement, the Irish seem to have a bit less of a chip on their shoulder about us than they used to. I mean, I wouldn’t go so far as to say they actually like the English or anything – even my good Irish friends still sometimes behave as though they suspect me of having at some time ridden through their martyred land with a sword in one hand and a torch in the other.

Just for the record – I haven’t. Not in this life, and as far as I can tell, not in any other life either.

In any case, even if they have trouble forgiving me for the sins of my ancestors, my impression is certainly that they regard us with marginally less animosity than before.

So it’s nice to find another people with as big a chip as the Irish ever owned. Seems it’s the Canadians. Certainly that’s a key theme of The Border. Why, the central character is with the (fictional) Canadian Immigration and Customs Security service, but he seems to have an agent from US Homeland Security (a grim fact) more or less permanently stationed in his office.

I have to say that her presence there seems to have much more to do with a plunging neckline – whether as an economy measure or not, her shirts never apparently have buttons much above the navel – than with any particular talent as an investigator. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that the Canadian seems to have clearer and more reliable insights into cases than she ever does, and usually a great deal sooner. You’d think she might learn to listen to him a little more, but inexplicably that doesn’t  happen.

The Shirt in its starring role
He on the other hand regularly complains about the behaviour of her nation. And not without reason. Why, at one point she orders in a strike by US F-16 aircraft against suspected terrorists on the run in Canadian territory.

‘That’s a breach of sovereignty,’ he splutters.

A breach of sovereignty? Sounds like an invasion to me. Though perhaps it’s not the least realistic aspect of the series that the American character seems to regard it as no more serious than a neighbour dropping in for a cup of tea. Which, come to think of it, probably is how the US would see it.

While Canada might be a little concerned at the sheer size of the neighbour and how many people he brings with him. And how all the biscuits get eaten so fast.

What I like about the series is the way the protagonist reacts to all this with a wry smile, as if to say ‘thank God they’re on our side. Can you imagine how they’d be if they were against us?’

It all makes for some quite amusing television.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

My personal version of being lost in translation

I'm working on translation, from French to English, of the proceedings of a conference into the ethical questions associated with aging.

That's the kind of material you can take in your stride in your twenties or thirties. But I'm nearly sixties and it feels a bit close to the bone. What right do older patients have to be admitted to intensive care? Should older people be caring for each other or can they rely on social care? What becomes of human identity in Alzheimer’s sufferers?

For instance, one of the contributors tells the story of a nursing assistant who announced one day of an Alzheimer’s case, ‘Good Lord! Does Joan recognise us? I’ve spent the last couple of months working on the second floor and only came back to the third floor today, and she gave me such a wonderful smile.’

Yes. Heart-warming, isn’t it? The author of the article even referred to the ‘joy’ that comes from recognising, as well as being recognised by, the person inside the Alzheimer’s case. Wonderful. Problem is I don’t see this so much from the point of view of the carer but from that of the patient, thinking ‘bloody woman doesn’t think I recognise her. If only I still had full use of my faculties, I’d soon remind her of the time she cleared away the dinner before I’d finished the chocolate mousse I’d been saving.’

Not sure that feels quite so joyous.

I often think that translation work is like attending a church service, and not just because it’s astonishing how quickly it becomes boring. One of the things that always annoyed me on the few occasions I went to Church, was the unidirectional nature of the whole business. I mean, the priest talks at us. Why can’t we talk back? I always want to stir things up a bit with a question or two.

'What about the Gadarene swine?’ I want to ask. ‘All very well driving them into the Sea but what about the poor swineherds? What were they going to live on through the winter?’

Or the Prodigal Son. I mean, all very well giving him another share of the inheritance, but what about the other brother, the one who stayed behind and kept working to support the family, instead of having the time of his life spending every penny on the joys of the town? Why did he have to give up some of his share for his wastrel brother?

The Prodigal Son - all very well for him
but why did the brother give up part of his share?
But no. In Church, you don’t get to ask. You just have the priest telling you Christ on the Cross is a message of compassion and mercy, where to me torturing someone to death by nailing him to a piece of wood seems to be about pretty much the opposite.

Translation is just the same. Some character pontificates with a few badly chosen quotations aimed at enlivening an uninspiring proposition supported by an unconvincing argument. You want to be able to stick in a note saying ‘I’ve skipped the next two paragraphs – trust me, you’re not missing anything, they're rubbish – so here’s a joke about my uncle Moishe instead.’ Instead you have to translate the drivel into the best constructed English you’re capable of.

I mean, I’ve just translated the deathless words ‘Identity is necessary as a support for social interactions’. It is? And there was I thinking that social interactions all took place between anonymous individuals. If they are individuals.

Must stop. These translations have already worried me enough about getting old. Now they’re putting me in a bad temper, the kind of mood a priest might criticise for not being sufficiently kind to my fellow man. Which is pretty rich, come to think of it, for a priest, considering how many people they’ve burned down the ages. Maybe that’s why you don’t get to answer back in Church.

Anyway, I’m going back to my translations. Even if they do turn me into a grumpy old man.


Have you heard about the drive-through daiquiri bars in the US?

Yes, you read that right – drive-through establishments selling highly intoxicating drinks. I was going to say ‘only in America...’ but that wouldn’t be right: the US tends to be even more stringent about drinking and driving, or indeed about drinking at all, than anyone on this side of the water.

No, these bars are in a specific bit of the States, namely Louisiana. New Orleans struck me as one of the most magical places I’d ever been to, when Danielle and I were there not five months after Katrina. And lots of people told us that New Orleans wasn’t really the States. You can't expect a place that eccentric to live by ordinary rules.

Funnily enough, plenty of people used to tell me that New York isn't really America either, and it was the first place I fell for in America. And there are those who reckon that San Francisco isn’t really the US either, and that’s the third member of my Trinity of favourite American places.

Odd, isn't it, that the places I like most in America are ones that aren’t generally regarded as all that American.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

You don't have to be popular to pull people together

I was intrigued the other day to learn that a friend was preparing a PhD on a judgement by Lord  Halifax, British Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of the Second World War, on the Prime Minister of the time, Neville Chamberlain.

Halifax apparently said of Chamberlain that he had at least united the nation.

Neither of these men enjoys what one might call an untarnished reputation. In fact, they are probably the two figures most closely associated with the pre-War policy of appeasing Hitler, now generally regarded as at best an error, at worst an abject betrayal.

I’m always fascinated by researchers who focus on people who are unpopular or discredited – after all, my own research was on Maupertuis, who suffered from the paradox of being known, insofar as he was known at all, precisely for his obscurity: he had been rash enough to fall out with Voltaire who had lacerated him with his ridicule and destroyed his reputation.

Chamberlain with a disreputable acquaintance
At least my friend has more promising material to work with. After all, Chamberlain undoubtedly did unite the country. Perhaps not in any way he intended, but pretty thoroughly all the same.

One of my favourite moments in the long theatre that is the British House of Commons occurred on 2 Sepember 1939, just after quarter to eight in the evening. Darkness was beginning to fall, the lights beginning to come on.

At a more general level, lights were going out and darkness was flowing in over all of Europe. Just in case you’re slightly hazy about the exact sequence of events in that dramatic month, the previous day German forces had moved across the border into Poland. Planes were bombing Warsaw and other cities.

Chamberlain had given an indecisive statement to the House which made it far from clear whether Britain would honour its treaty obligations to come to the defence of Poland. He had been met with stony silence on both sides.

Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party, was recovering from surgery so his task to answer the Prime Minister, as leader of the opposition, devolved on his deputy Arthur Greenwood. Always timid, Greenwood rose in some trepidation, no doubt daunted by the drama of the occaion but determined to do his best in speaking for Labour.

And then he was called on to speak for much more.

A voice range out, not from among his own supporters behind him, but from the benches opposite. It was Leo Amery, former Tory Minister and staunch supporter of Churchill’s group that favoured war with Germany.

‘Speak for England, Arthur!’ Amery called on him, voicing the shame of so many at Chamberlain's apparent vacillation.

And Greenwood did. Haltingly, without great oratory, he said what needed to be said.

‘Every minute's delay now means the loss of life... imperilling the very foundations of our national honour...  The moment we look like weakening, at that moment dictatorship knows we are beaten. We are not beaten. We shall not be beaten. We cannot be beaten; but delay is dangerous, and I hope the Prime Minister... will be able to tell us when the House meets at noon to-morrow what the final decision is, and whether then our promises are in process of fulfilment... I cannot see Herr Hitler, in honesty, making any deal which he will not be prepared to betray... I believe that the die is cast, and we want to know in time.’

He was cheered for his pains.

It seems that Chamberlain had indeed managed to unite the country. A Conservative grandee, a nervous Labourite, the majority of the House of Commons. All brought together.

Against him.

Shame perhaps that Amery called on Greenwood to speak only for ‘England’. Still, that is most of Britain, when all’s said and done. And Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be given all the opportunity they could possibly want, and more, to share in the sufferings, and the triumphs, of the war to come.


It was on the following day, 3 September, that Chamberlain made the radio statement that has become probably the only speech of his that any of us remembers, and then only because it appears in so many films.

This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.’