Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Saintly St Pancras

A little while ago I expressed a fear that Christmas, that deeply spiritual time of year, the second most significant entry in the Christian calendar, might perhaps be in danger of falling prey to creeping commercialism. 

Now I may be alone in feeling that disquiet, but I have to admit that I can’t entirely shake it off, that it remains forever a nagging concern at the back of my mind.

I expressed that anxiety in connection with the appearance of a Lego Christmas tree inside the main hall of St Pancras station. It was curious therefore that my attention was caught this morning by a sign in the same station that referred to that tree. Based on the carol ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, it gave twelve reasons for being in St Pancras:

Capturing the spirit of Christmas
One Giant Lego Tree
Two Lovers Meeting
Three Styles of Moët & Chandon
Four Sourced Hampers
Five Sporting rings
Six Tube lines stopping
Seven minutes to Westfield
Eight Monsoon scarves
Nine tales from Foyles
Ten Hamleys teddies
Eleven Neuhaus Truffles
Twelve Cath Kidston Crackers

Interestingly, fully three of these involve no logo and advertise no brand (just in case you  were wondering, the ‘two lovers meeting’ is about the rather splendid statue just inside the main entrance on the upper level – take a look, it’s great, especially the reliefs round the plinth – while the ‘five sporting rings’ are the Olympic rings up for the 2012 games, so really a bit more advertising, and the ‘six tube lines stopping’ – well, that’s six lines stopping).
Funnily enough, I don’t fully understand the need to give reasons to visit St Pancras. I mean, it’s a splendid station and all that, as stations go, but surely the only reason for going to a station is to go somewhere else, isn’t it?
That’s rather implied by the entry for ‘seven’, come to think of it. I love the idea that one of the reasons to go to St Pancras is that it’s seven minutes away from somewhere else, as it happens a major shopping centre. ‘Come here, it’s a bit of a hike to somewhere else’.  Not the most compelling advertising, wouldn’t you agree?

Perhaps if that’s the standard of commercialism, there’s hope for Christmas yet.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

When the spooks get it right...

Once again I’ve had the experience of having to reconsider some of my fondest convictions. This time I had my lesson from Eliza Manningham Buller, former head of the British security service, MI5, in one of her BBC Reith lectures this year.

Ex-spook chief with remarkable insights
The unease that comes from feeling personally targeted came when she referred to those sceptics who tended to see security and freedom as opposed, with her firmly on the side of the former. That was, I shamefacedly had to admit, certainly my position, to classify among those inclined to limit rather than to defend liberty.

Her view is that there is no contradiction between security and freedom. For her, MI5’s mission is to protect both. As she pointed out, twice to stress the point, the stated objective of the organisation is to defend parliamentary democracy.

Within this general framework she made two specific points that struck me particularly.

On the use of waterboarding by the United States, she said ‘torture is illegal in our national law and in international law. It is wrong and never justified.
Like quite a few opponents of the use of torture, I’ve tended to argue that it doesn’t generate good intelligence. She on the other hand believes that it sometimes does, but points out that the argument that lifesaving intelligence was sometime obtained by it, ‘and I accept it was, still does not justify it. Torture should be utterly rejected even when it may offer the prospect of saving lives. I am proud my Service refused to turn to the torture of high-level German prisoners in the Second World War, when, in the early years, we stood alone and there was a high risk of our being invaded and becoming a Nazi province. So if not then, why should it be justified now?’

It was chastening to listen to her. The argument over whether torture is effective or ineffective is irrelevant – it’s quite simply wrong. Turning to a utilitarian justification only weakens the moral argument, which is more than strong enough on its own.

As it happens, though, she comes out with something close to a utilitarian argument herself, almost as an afterthought.

I believe that the acquisition of short-term gain through water-boarding and other forms of mistreatment was a profound mistake and lost the United States moral authority and some of the widespread sympathy it had enjoyed as a result of 9/11. And I am confident that I know the answer to the question of whether torture has made the world a safer place. It hasn’t.

Giving up the moral high ground weakens us and attracts more recruits to the ranks of our enemies.

But Manningham-Buller made another point that struck me almost as strongly and much more personally. It concerned the rule of law. She declared:

The Security Service Act of 1989 was long overdue - the government of Mrs Thatcher was not, at first, convinced of its necessity - but its importance was critical. The Service’s experience of working on a proper legislative basis has been wholly positive. But even at that early stage in 1989 we knew its importance.

Like most people, I would have expected the spooks to do all in their power to resist legal oversight. So it was a bit of a surprise to find that Manningham-Buller was, on the contrary, only too pleased to have a proper legal framework for her work.

Funnily enough that chimed with a personal experience of my own, though not perhaps at quite her level.

My work involves using large quantities of healthcare information, often including confidential material about identified patients. Following a series of scandals some years ago – you know, the usual things: lost USB keys, stolen laptops, all the mundane disasters that can happen with unsecured data – regulations were so massively tightened that it became almost impossible to do my job.

Recently, though, good sense has prevailed. Regulations have been revised and intelligent procedures put in place. People have realised that there is no point in having a system so restrictive that it’s impossible to do the very things they regard not only as legitimate, but actually necessary for the sake of good healthcare.

For instance, a key thing when looking at how an individual case has gone is to be able to look at other cases for the same patient – but that means knowing who the patient is, which in turn means working with ‘patient identifiable data’, the very stuff the regulations had originally made inaccessible.

The problem's been met by setting ways of doing things that mean that, as long as we stick to rules about who can see what, how it needs to be handled, how long it is kept and so on. And, funnily enough, I find it surprisingly relaxing to work that way: I know that what I’m doing is within the rules, it isn’t going to expose me to any unpleasant consequences with the law, and at the same time it’s making sure that patient confidentiality is preserved. 

And since, in other conditions, I’m a patient myself, I’m really rather happy about that last point.

So it’s good to be able to say with Mannigham-Buller that my ‘experience of working on a proper legislative basis has been wholly positive’. I know what she means.

On the bigger points, though, about the morality and nature of a security service – well, I can’t claim to have anything like her insight – only, despite myself, to rather admire her point of view.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

A safe haven, but short on appeal

At the risk of making it look as though I spend a disproportionate amount of time in our smallest roomw, I can’t resist the opportunity to share another toilet sign with you.

It read ‘Out of order. Please do not use.’

What’s special about that, I hear you ask? We see it all the time. Very irritating it is too, but profoundly banal.

Ah, but you’ve missed the point, I reply. This sign was on the inside of the door. What it was saying was ‘this loo is absolutely fine, but out there things are seriously messed up. Probably best not to take the chance of going back.’

Probably good advice
Not far off the mark, I’d say. Probably good advice. Sadly, though, even if I do spend longer in toilets than is strictly customary, I have to confess that I find the possibilities they offer frankly limited. Not that attractive a spot in which to take refuge from the evils of the world.

So I screwed up my courage and plunged back out into the maelstrom we call daily life. Scary stuff, but more entertaining.

Still, I appreciate the advice from the lavatory. Nice to know someone is looking out for us that way.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

What's to be so relaxed about?

It’s sometimes worrying how easily one can be sucked into a superficially plausible view to which normally one wouldn’t give any house room at all.

For instance, like rather a lot of other people I’ve tended to go along with the idea that it’s no bad thing that Greece and Italy now have ‘technocratic’ governments. I’m not quite sure why I should be relaxed about this idea, because ‘technocratic’ only seems to be a synonym for ‘unelected’. I like to think of myself as a bit of a democrat, so how can I reconcile myself to this obvious travesty of accountability?

And yet when I saw an Italian being interviewed on the streets on that heady day when Berlusconi finally fell, and heard him say ‘now, we just need to get things sorted out, there’ll be time for elections later’ I caught myself nodding and agreeing. But what happens to the principle of one citizen one vote?

In the cases of Greece and Italy we seem to have reduced it to 15 or so non-citizens, one vote.

On the one hand, we have Merkozy, one half of which at least has the merit of being relatively civilised, though the other half is just a would-be Napoleon who worries all the time about his physical stature, presumably because any other kind is beyond him. He has all the qualities that won Berlusconi the general admiration he so richly deserves, as well as the career exit he had done so much to earn himself and which, we can but hope, Sarko might soon emulate.

Less impressive half of Merkozy
Then there are two or three international financiers, the heads of the European Central Bank, the IMF, whatever.

And there are the credit rating agencies.

Because let’s not forget that one of the main drivers behind government policy and government changes recently is the need to satisfy the ‘markets’. 

And that means the credit ratings people.

Have you noticed  how people talk about them as though they were impersonal? I heard it last week. ‘Standard and Poor’s are considering downgrading France’s debt.’ Standard and Poor’s? They make it sound like an oracle of some kind, a handing down of tablets of timeless truth from the Lord himself on top of a mountain in a desert.

Just bear in mind that S&P’s is basically twelve guys in suits sat round a table in a board room in New York and voting  - yes, voting – about whether Italy or Iceland or the US itself deserves needs ticking off. If seven decide to reduce the grading, a bunch – which can mean some hundreds hundreds of thousands – of people lose their jobs or their pensions or their savings.

And what qualifies those seven to make these decisions?

They’re accountants. Or economists. Or they’ve spent some years in – wait for it – financial services.

Feeling relaxed about seeing them calling the political shots can’t be right. Surely? 

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Season's greetings from our sponsor

A couple of weeks ago, a friend from Marseille wrote to complain about an initiative to include the name of a sponsor in that of the City’s historic stadium, the Vélodrome

‘Will it become the ‘Vélodrome Nutella’?’ he asks. And goes on to wonder whether Bernard Delanoë, mayor of Paris, isn’t missing a trick. ‘Why not turn the Champs Elysées,’ he suggests, ‘into the Champs L’Oréal  because we deserve it?’

Funnily, not more than a couple of hours after reading his remarks, I discovered that St James’s Park, as iconic in Newcastle as the Vélodrome is in Marseille, was being rebaptised the Sports Direct St James’s Park stadium. It seems that there’s a bit of trend starting here.

My friend sees cynicism in all this, quoting Oscar Wilde’s view that a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. 

Well, maybe. On the other hand, isn’t this just a matter of turning some grand old monuments into tributes to business? And doesn’t business perhaps deserve them? After all, isnt it to some our greatest businesses, especially in financial services, that we owe today’s climate of economic stability and widespread prosperity?

On the other hand, I was a little disturbed by a sight that greeted me as I came through St Pancras International station the other day. The main hall now houses a massive Christmas tree made of Lego bits.

Lego gets the tone right
At first sight, I was amused by it – it’s striking and funny at the same time. But then I thought again. 

Christmas is the second most important feast of the Christian year after Easter (yes, though you wouldn’t know it from the scale of the celebrations, the death and resurrection trump, in liturgical terms, the birth. Youve got to admit that births more common). This is a time of year devoted, by Christians at least, to giving thanks for the birth of the Lord and Redeemer of all mankind. Turning it into an opportunity for advertising by Lego, however charming, might seem inappropriate.

After all, what would it say about our moral qualities in the West if Christmas became just another massive binge of commercialism?

Postscript with no relevance to the above: we’ve just started watching the second series of The Killing. It’s proving as gripping and powerful as the first (I’m talking about the original Danish version – I don’t know about the American remake which I haven’t watched). 

What’s extraordinary is that Series 2 manages to be strikingly fresh in feeling, even though the formula is exactly the same: a main story that is a classic thriller based around murder (but with an extraordinary central character in the detective, Sarah Lund), a family struggling with events risking to tear it apart, and a reasonably likeable political figure having to cope with a crisis of fearful complexity without being able to place full trust in his staff.

Well worth watching. 

Thursday, 17 November 2011


‘This toilet is reserved for the use of Intellect’ read the sign on the door.

Putting the works of the mind in their place
Now I have certain pretensions to intellectualism – purely amateur, you understand, I remain a mere dilettante – but I have to admit that the sign may convey a particular, and fundamental, truth .

If you'll excuse my bad language, I'm afraid that I've read rather a lot of intellectual work which I'd have to describe as such a pile of crap that I can only assume the author is simply taking the piss. It therefore seems particularly appropriate and insightful to reserve a toilet specifically for intellectual use.

Of course, the toilet may be only for the use of visitors to an organisation that has chosen to call itself, perhaps a trifle pretentiously, ‘Intellect’, and whose offices I happened to be visiting. But how much duller an explanation that would be - I reject it out of hand as unfit to puncture the monotony of the everyday.

The sign put me in mind of a note of Voltaire’s which I have never been able to track down, but would nonetheless like to believe was by him: ‘Sir, I am in the smallest room in the house. Your letter is before me. Soon it will be behind me.’

Postscript on a related subject: after a conference dinner tonight, the speaker who happens to be doctor, told the story of a visit to a toilet in the Department of Health building in London. Written across the cubicle door were the words ‘2000 people work here. Right now, you are the only one who knows what he is doing.’

He also described life as a bowl of shit, and a doctor’s role as steering patients to the shallow end. Not perhaps the most noble description I’ve heard of medicine, or of life for that matter, but is it wholly without merit?

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Back to the quiet life...

Such a relief to be out of the woods at last.

No, no, I don’t mean that the Euro crisis is over, or that Italy is back on an even keel. On the contrary, Italy’s new Prime Minister is going to have to live up to his name: Monti has some steep hills to climb.

What is finally over is the bad time for poor old Janka, our black-haired, rasta-curled dog. 

She and I have a ritual of slipping out at the end of each evening for the final walk of the day. It’s a precious time for us both. Conversation is, I will admit, limited but she trots along perfectly happily sniffing the curious smells she comes across, while I listen to an audio-book or a podcast on an i-phone. We may walk in silence, but it’s a companionable silence, which helps us drain the last of the day’s stress before settling for the night.

But between mid-October and mid-November all that gets seriously subverted. It starts with Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, enlivened with its fireworks. It builds from there to Guy Fawkes Day, when we Brits lay on a special feast for our young children, to celebrate the torturing to death of a Catholic dissident four centuries ago – and we celebrate with fireworks. In between, there’s Halloween which has nothing to do with fireworks but, hey, if you’ve been letting them off for Diwali before and will be letting them off for Guy Fawkes immediately after, you might as well keep letting them off for Halloween too.

Since the people who set off fireworks seem to feel the need to get some serious practising done in preparation for the major festivities, no night goes past without bangs occurring somewhere.

And as a result, at home Janka cowers at our feet, while on the street she turns and bolts for home, only restrained by her lead, by which she drags me back towards the house.

This evening, however, we had our walk without incident. As we strolled home, I realised, with blessed relief, that we had emerged from our bad times for another twelve months. 

Janka: able to relax again at last

Janka has regained her composure. And we can enjoy our evening ritual again, in perfect contentment. 

Next: how we got Italy back to stability and solved the Euro crisis.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

We shall not see his like again. Or won't we?

It has taken until today, we hope his last day in office, for me to understand something that had been bothering me about Silvio Berlusconi: something about him seemed strangely familiar, but I couldn't place it. 

What was it that I was reminded of whenever I saw him?

Then this evening, as I watched film of him being driven away from the Parliament in Rome and bestowing on us that smile with all the charm we’ve come to expect from him, it suddenly struck me: he reminded me of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland.

Judge for yourself.

The Cheshire Cat as seen by John Tenniel

Berlusconi demonstrating his charm.
Spooky, isn't it?
Obviously, the resemblance between the two characters isn’t total. The Cheshire Cat did have a certain air of mystery about him, whereas the only mystery about Berlusconi is how he managed to maintain his hold over the Italian people for so long. And the Cheshire Cat, though he could often be deeply irritating, did have some redeeming features.

The similarities, though, are striking. And one of them is a matter of concern: the Cheshire Cat would gradually disappear with the smile going last, and Berlusconi is doing the same; the Cheshire Cat would then reappear unannounced at inconvenient times, and Berlusconi has shown a tendency to do that too; so the frightening thought is, could he pull the trick off again? 

I find myself looking around for a wooden stake.

Still, let’s stay positive. For now he’s on his way, and for that let us be properly grateful. It’ll be wonderful to see the Cavaliere’s back – if only so that we don’t have to see that smile.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Lest we forget

Today was the eleventh day of the eleventh month and, by happy chance, of the eleventh year of the present century.

At eleven o’clock this morning, Britain held a two-minute silence in memory of the dead of the First World War. And the Second World War. And all the other wars we seem to keep on fighting with monotonous consistency, generating ever more dead. Even though the number of dead we suffer tends to be incomparably lower than the number we inflict, particularly among civilians, every single one of them is a sad blow that deserves to be marked.

So 11 November is not a cheerful moment in this country. The French have a holiday; we have two minutes silence.

Many people like to tell me about the timing of the First World War Armistice. Their voice becomes incantatory and their eyes open wide, as they intone with mystic solemnity ‘the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’, with awestruck resonance.

Now I like to think I’m as sensitive to symbols as the next man, but this particular instance leaves me uncomfortable. To explain why, let me just mention four names: George Edwin Ellison, Augustin Trébuchon, George Lawrence Price and Henry Gunther.

George Edwin Allison fought at the Battle of Mons, one of the first engagements of the war, in 1914. He was killed at 9:30 in the morning of Armistice day, an hour and a half before the fighting stopped, the last British death.

Augustin Trébuchon was the last French soldier killed, at 10:45. He was on his way to tell his comrades that soup would be served immediately after the cease fire – talk about dying for a hot meal.

George Lawrence Price was the last Canadian and last Commonwealth soldier killed. He was hit by a sniper’s bullet at 10:57 and died at 10:58.

The last allied soldier killed, an American, was Henry Gunther; he’s recognised as the last soldier to die in action in the war, when he was charging a position held by Germans who knew the armistice was going to start – sixty seconds later – and were trying to tell the Americans to stop.

In all, nearly 3000 men were killed between the moment the armistice was agreed and the moment it came into effect. It may just be me, but that sounds like a high price for a symbol.

Perhaps it isn’t inappropriate that we mark the anniversary with solemnity rather than good cheer.

Wreaths of poppies, the symbol of World War One,
at the Cenotaph in London

Postscript. This feels like a good place to tell a First World War story.

Adolf Hitler served for the whole of the war. He didn’t have what you might call a glittering career, never making it beyond the rank of corporal – he was considered for promotion but his superiors decided that he didn’t have leadership qualities, which is amusing: the German word ‘Führer’ means leader.

Though he didn’t move far up the ranks, Hitler did win a couple of iron crosses, one second class, the other first. He was a despatch runner. The action that won him the second and superior decoration took place at a moment when communications to a front line unit were completely down. A lieutenant told Hitler and one of his colleagues that if they could get a message through, he would personally ensure that they both won the Iron Cross first class. Both got through, both got back.

That was an action that certainly took courage, but the lieutenant’s superiors felt that it wasn’t perhaps the kind of conspicuous gallantry for which a top decoration should be awarded. Hitler must have shared that scepticism: in later life, the story told was that he’d won it by personally capturing fifteen French soldiers – that certainly sounds more glorious than simply running from point A to point B, even under fire.

But the lieutenant was a man of his word and argued for a month to ensure both men got the decorations he had promised them.

Now that’s not a bad story, I hope you’ll agree.

What turns it into an outstanding one is that this honourable man, who took such trouble to ensure that Hitler was awarded his highest honour, was a Lieutenant Hugo Gutmann.

A Jew.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

I fear the Greeks and can't cope with Latin

It took me years and years to realise that I wasn’t going to master Latin. An appalling language. For instance, the subject moves around the sentence and you have to track it down which means you have to recognise it. Since it has a different form in each of the six declensions, to say nothing of the sub-forms of the third, the task feels insuperable, at least to me. 

I’m not saying I didn’t get anywhere with it. In the eighteenth century, German or Nordic scientists, aware that no-one was ever going to learn to read their languages, used to write in Latin. In fact, at the time, not many could cope with English – Voltaire was exceptional in mastering it, since most of his compatriots couldn’t even be bothered to try, a tradition proudly kept alive by their descendants to this day. Even so, though English scientists also wrote Latin (viz Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica) they would occasionally stick to English (viz Newton’s Opticks with its interesting take on spelling).

It may have been that refusal of English-speakers to use an international language consistently that eventually forced the world to adopt ours. Helped a bit by the power of the US dollar, of course. And not a little by the power of the US bayonet.

Anyway, back in the eighteenth century, much scientific material was in Latin. So when I was working on eighteenth-century science I’d occasionally have to read Latin, which was always a curious experience. I could usually work out that the author was talking about planetary orbits, for instance, but couldn’t always tell whether he was saying that they were elliptical or that they weren’t. A little learning can sometimes be a frustrating thing.

Ultimately I’ve had to accept defeat. Now my knowledge of the language – until perhaps I get another chance to have a go in retirement (assuming I get to retire some day) – really comes down to a few half-remembered tags.

One of these is ‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’, which seems to be saying ‘I’m timid when confronted by Danes and iron women’ but I’m reliably assured actually means ‘I fear the Greeks when they come bearing gifts.’

Well, last week was when the rest of Europe tried to make a gift to the Greeks. Or was it perhaps the other way round?

First the Eurozone offered Greece a pile of money, but only on condition it spent a lot less. Sounds like one of those ‘good news, bad news’ things, doesn’t it? ‘Have all this lovely money, just don’t use it.’ Then the soon to be ex-Prime Minister said he’d have a referendum and ask his compatriots whether they’d like a tad more austerity, reduced pensions and a lot fewer jobs, because people usually say ‘yes’ when asked that.

My first reaction to the idea of holding a referendum was one of horror. For God’s sake, I wanted to scream, there isn’t any other offer on the table. What if the electorate says ‘no’? You think Merkel and Sarkozy are going to say ‘well, in that case, we’ll dip a bit further in our pockets and come up with some more?’

So the moment I heard he’d withdrawn the referendum promise – or threat – I was relieved. But then I began to wonder. I mean, what if the Greeks had said ‘no’? Maybe it’s time someone did.

In a sense, that’s what the ‘Occupy’ protests are all about. They’re not demanding anything in particular – more money spent on schools, less on the military, or whatever. They’re saying ‘the way we’re going isn’t right. Let’s check the direction of travel before we go any further.’

And they’re right. What’s being imposed on the Greeks is just more of the same, which of course means a lot less. Less public health. Less education. Less employment. While the elite who got Greece into this mess in the first place will contrive to look sorry while hanging on to their loot. In Britain, bonuses in the Finance sector fell from £14 billion in 2008 to £12 billion in 2009 – only to go back to £14 billion in 2010. The pay of Chief Executives of our biggest companies rose by 49% last year. Some people are doing just fine in this crisis, mostly the ones who got us into the mess and then demanded we pay for it.

Those people in the tents around St Paul’s are saying that there must be a better way.

I’d have feared it if the Greeks had brought us a gift consisting of a ‘no’ in a referendum. But perhaps it would have been no bad thing to face that fear and deal with it.

Virgil's Aeneid warned us about the Greeks. I think.

Postscript. It’s not all bad news at the moment, is it? It looks like Berlusconi’s on his way out. Of course, I won’t believe he’s gone till he’s actually been replaced – he has a way, like the monster in a horror film, of re-emerging again and again when you think the hero’s finally got him. But I guess we can at least start to hope that this is, finally, the beginning of the end.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Mockery can unite us

What an edifying spectacle Europe presents for us these days!

David Cameron retains some residual popularity, in Britain, or at least England, though it stops dead at the White Cliffs of Dover.

Silvio Berlusconi is the butt of everyone’s humour, that being the only response possible, other than despair, at the idea that the fate of the Eurozone, so dependent on Italy, is in the hands of a man facing at least three separate trials on matters of fraud and moral turpitude.

No-one can stand Sarkozy, seen as a latter day Napoleon, minus the charm. To say nothing of the vision, courage, competence or ability.

Angela Merkel is running out of road. Even Barack Obama, celebrated to the point of notoriety for keeping his cool in all circumstances, seems to be losing patience with her.

As for George Papandreou, with his flip-flops between caving in to the pressure on Greece or resisting it, he has spent the last few days simply drifting inexorably towards the only solution on which his countrymen seem virtually unanimous: that he should go.

Now I’ve been a committed European for years, strongly in favour of turning the European Union into a single, federal state. 

Don’t the the present circumstances provide a powerful argument in favour of that position?

Surely, if only from the point of view of efficiency and cost effectiveness, it would make much more sense to have a single government for the whole of the Union? What on Earth is the point of having all those separate little chiefs to despise and drag through the mud? Why don’t we have just one?

Then we could channel our contempt at just one set of leaders and leave them to get on with getting up the noses of the Americans and Chinese on behalf of us all.

A convenient target for all our mockery?
Postscript – another train experience: This morning, sitting across the aisle from me, was a woman in her thirties dressed for power but with great taste and fine aesthetic sense.

As we pulled in to St Pancras station, she rose from her seat and from the luggage rack above her pulled an exquisitely tailored coat – one of those that swings through the air, like a cloak with sleeves. She wrapped it round herself in one graceful movement, hitting me on the side of my head and sweeping across my face in a way that would have sent my glasses flying to the ground had I been wearing them. Next came her handbag, large but finely designed, which she swung the other way – had I not ducked it would have taken me in the forehead. Finally, she floated gracefully down the carriage, as self-controlled and self-confident as ever, and completely oblivious to the injuries she had so nearly cause me.

At least, I hope she was oblivious. I can forgive the condescension which made her unaware of her impact, literally, on the people around her; I would find it more difficult to excuse her arrogance if in fact she knew what she’d done and chose to ignore it anyway. 

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Physician,heal thyself

My commuting has been a bit disappointing for a while now. 

I mean, the trains have been fine – largely on time, efficient, comfortable. But somehow I’d come to see them as more than that, as sources of edifying encounters, providing me with many interesting insights that I could share here. And yet – for several weeks, there’s been nothing.

So it was a delight last night to find myself at a table with two young women who lived up to all my expectations. 

When I first joined them, they were exchanging anecdotes, mostly drawn from one of the fine gossip newspapers with which this nation abounds. Children had been born to semi-celebrities, some within marriage, some not; there had been weddings, there had been divorces. One item was sufficiently salacious to be read out:

‘A couple have been forced to abandon plans to marry before the birth of their first child, when their parents, meeting to make the arrangements, realised the awful truth that the young people were brother and sister.’

To be honest, even I found that one interesting. A lot of stories down the ages have dealt with the fatal attraction of siblings brought up in separation – there’s plenty of mileage in that one yet.

In the meantime, my travelling companions had switched to more personal matters.

‘Do you think Anne is pregnant, then?’ asked one of them.

‘I think she’d like to be,’ replied the other.

‘Well, if she is, Astrid will get pregnant immediately too, you know.’

That struck me as quite an interesting proposition. My knowledge of human biology may not be what it was, but I didn’t think that this was how the process worked. The statement worried me even more later, when I discovered the profession of my travelling companions.

There was a fundamental problem with these putative pregnancies.

‘I don’t want Anne or Astrid to get pregnant. I’d hate to give up our skiing trips and we’d have to if they couldn’t come with us.’

That sentiment I could understand. I was beginning to feel that a week in a chalet alone with either of these two might indeed be a little painful.

At that point the train pulled out of the station. As though that was a signal, a bag appeared on the table and out came a ring-pull can of wine.

‘It’s Froglet,’ one of them announced. At least I think she said ‘Froglet’ – it’s hard to believe that anything with pretensions to be regarded as wine could be called ‘Froglet’, but that was what I heard.

She took a sip and made a face. ‘It’s perfectly awful,’ she concluded.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ replied her friend, ‘I’ve always liked Froglet.’

They stopped complaining and both continued sipping throughout the rest of the trip, so I assume they managed to reconcile themselves to its poor quality.

Next came out a heat sealed plastic box of chicken legs. The first woman made several increasingly energetic but repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to open the packet.

‘It’s like they didn’t want us to open it at all,’ she said, ‘perhaps they think the smell’s so bad no one should eat it on a train.’

They both tittered merrily, but the thought didn’t prevent the second woman attacking the lid with her teeth. She got it open, immediately confirming the first one’s judgement: the contents smelled diabolical. Like their conversation, which they’d been conducting at a level that ensured all around could enjoy it, it was clear that most of the passengers in the carriage were now being allowed to share the aroma of their meal. Why, even the young woman opposite me, of Indian extraction and therefore almost by definition trained to behave impeccably, couldn’t prevent her nose wrinkling before recomposing her features into a mask of studied neutrality.

Odd that the women only started their meal once the train was moving. Is there some code of etiquette that bans eating on stationary trains? It wasn't until the first jolt that they got the food out, but they were well stuck in  before our carriage had properly left the platform.

Their conversation next turned to that other absorbing subject, money. There were complaints about the scale of pension contributions, and then of indemnity insurance – at which point a disagreeable suspicion began to form in my mind, quickly confirmed by the next subject.

‘Yes, I really want to get into repatriation medicine. You know – someone gets sick in Australia. They fly you out there business class, you’re there four days, and then you fly back. OK, you have to have some poor bugger with you on the return, but nothing ever happens: they never let them get on a plane until they’re fully recovered. And – they pay you for every hour from the moment they send you out. And they give you a £60 allowance for every meal.’

‘£60? It’s actually quite difficult to spend £60 if you’re not having wine.’

‘Exactly – I tell you it’s brilliant.’

I felt a chill in my soul. These were young doctors. Demonstrating, as if any demonstration were necessary, that medicine is a vocation, driven by altruism and concern for others.

Wine, woman and gossip: all the elements of a vocation.
With vile-smelling chicken legs and a dose of cupidity to add some spice
Now I’m on the brink of that stage of life when things start to fail and you have to get your money’s worth for all the contributions you've made to the healthcare system. You can imagine the delight with which I was contemplating the prospect of being some poor bugger in the caring hands of these two. Especially as I rather assumed their table manners were probably a good indication of what their bedside manner would be like.

The public address system announced, ‘we are now approaching our first stop, Luton.’

‘Luton?’ cried one of them, ‘oh doom.’

It made me feel quite proud to be getting off the train there. Because though I'm the first to criticise the many failings of Luton, last night it had one great thing going for it: it wasn't going to contain those two young ladies a moment longer than it took the train to leave the station. 

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Time to take back our souls. With or without the Church

It’s a tough confession to make, but I may have been guilty in the past of lying in church.

This happened on occasions when I attended Christian services, usually because I knew that it would give pleasure, or at least comfort, to someone else if I was there.

In that spirit, I intoned with the others that I believed ‘in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church’. 

Now that wasn’t strictly a lie. After all, I certainly believe that such a Church exists. Several, in fact, and each convinced that theirs is the only one. Still, I’m not convinced that my belief really honours the spirit of the affirmation.

We laid claims to lots of other beliefs too. That Jesus Christ was the son of God, begotten not created, born of a virgin. That he was taken and crucified and on the third day rose again. The whole shooting match, basically.

Except that actually it wasn’t the whole shooting match. Not by a long stretch. That was made clear to me, in the kind of blinding flash someone really insightful provides when he explains something obvious that has previously escaped your attention.

It was a Guardian article that pointed out that the Nicene Creed we so glibly repeat, jumps directly from the conception and birth of Christ to his death and resurrection. All his life in between is just left out. Gone is the reference to its being easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Gone is the driving of the moneylenders from the Temple. Gone indeed is anything that might have made a structure of power and privilege at all uncomfortable.

As the writer of the article pointed out, the Nicene Creed expressed the views of the Roman Empire when it decided to adopt Christianity as a state religion, without being keen on giving up any of its prerogatives. It marked the transformation of Christianity from a religion of the poor and oppressed into a religion of the strong and wealthy.

Who wrote that article? Giles Fraser. And last week he resigned as Cannon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Why?

Now that’s a question worth asking. And answering.

As I mentioned in my last blog, we had visitors from France over the weekend. On Saturday, we popped by the tented demonstration outside the doors of St Paul’s Cathedral. The protest is directed against the ethical decline that allowed the wealthiest members of our societies to bankrupt us and then continue to subsidise their lifestyles at our expense. Where else in England would be more appropriate for such a protest than the City of London, home of our financial institutions, as well as of St Paul’s?

I have rarely seen so peaceful a demonstration. ‘Gentle’ is probably the right word for it. When we arrived a rabbi was preaching and occasionally chanting. Near him stood a Hindu holy man, and there were priests of various denominations of Christianity around too. The atmosphere was that of religiosity, of deeply but not violently held belief.

St Paul's protesters: in tents but without evil intent

And yet the Cathedral had shut its doors, on the pretext that the demonstration represented a health and safety threat. Next the authorities went to court to ask for the demonstrators to be moved on; police action was expected within a few days, with a possible descent into violence.

No wonder Fraser felt he had to resign. As he said himself, he could imagine Christ being born in one of those tents. So what we were seeing was the clearest illustration of one of the two sides of Christianity. The official Church had closed its doors on those who were appealing for justice and charity, and now it was planning to use state power against them. It was the Nicene Creed, Christianity with its compassionate heart torn out of it.

Since then, however, the other side of the faith has reasserted itself. Graeme Knowles, the Dean of St Paul’s who announced the closure of the doors, has also resigned. And now the Church has dropped its legal action and opened them again.

It seems that the tensions that the Council Nicaea tried to settle live on unresolved in the Church to this day.

To me, though, what matters in all this is what it says of attitudes in society.

Those people in front of the Cathedral represented no threat. They were not aggressive. But they were different from the image that our leaders want to project for us all. And in today’s atmosphere of stultifying conformity, such difference is not to be tolerated.

Well, the Church’s change of heart means it will tolerated a little longer. And perhaps on the shoulders of the protest will come a more general awakening that says ‘I too have no wish to be the same as those who claim to lead us. Why model ourselves on them? They destroy and then conspicuously fail to make any contribution to rebuilding.’

If enough people pick up the challenge, then maybe we can put the soul back into a belief system hollowed out in the Nicene Creed. And give all of us, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Moslems, Christians and others better values to believe in than those of the City of London.

Even the non-believers.

Even the ones who haven’t always been strictly truthful in Church.