Thursday, 29 March 2012

Fuelling a well-deserved reputation for political cunning

Tanker drivers in British trade union Unite are threatening to strike, which might leave the nation without fuel.

Unite is the main contributor to the opposition Labour Party, which has so far failed to denounce the threat.

So here’s how the present government would use competence and cunning to turn the situation to its advantage.

As the threat of the strike grows, it keeps calling on the union not to take action. ‘Don’t do this,’ it says, ‘you’ll leave the British people without their cars. Worse, you’ll leave them without deliveries to their shops. Worse still, you might leave them without ambulances or fire engines.’

As time goes on, David Cameron ratchets up the rhetoric. ‘A 78-year old grandmother in Leeds recovering from a stroke will be unable to stock up with food or get to hospital. Don’t strike! Surely you don’t want her death on your conscience?’

You understand that there’s always a 78-year old grandmother somewhere whose life would be threatened by a strike, so no-one can deny the claim.

Meanwhile, Cameron and his colleagues would pile the pressure on Labour. ‘Come on,’ they would say, ‘you owe it to your voters to tell your friends in Unite to think of the suffering they would cause. Tell your friends not to inflict such harm on the country. Speak out for your electors against your friends.’

From time to time they would replace the word ‘friends’ by ‘paymasters.’

Whether or not the strike happened, the government would emerge as the voice of sweet reason, the opposition as accomplices in an attempt to blackmail the nation. 

And that’s how it would play in the press.

Here’s how the same government would attempt to turn the situation to its advantage if it possessed neither competence nor cunning.

It would say to itself, ‘time to maximise the potential damage of the strike.’

No-one would say ‘hang on, it hasn’t actually been called yet. The arbitration talks haven’t even started. And the union has to give seven days notice of a strike anyway. So don’t go over the top, hold something back for later.’

Instead Cameron and his friends would try to maximise the pressure from the outset. They would call meetings of emergency committees. They would go on radio to predict dire consequences. They would call for calm but at the same time recommend filling up fuel tanks as soon as possible.

A senior minister, perhaps Francis Maude, might even advise storing fuel in garages, even though it’s illegal as well as dangerous to keep more than half a tank’s worth at home. A spokesman might have to go back to the media the following day to apologise for that advice.

Maude: yes, he's as hapless as he looks

The effect would be panic buying of fuel and queues at filling stations.

Quickly a backlash would set in as no strike is called. People would start to say that the government is fostering panic and talking rubbish. The opposition would come across as balanced and calm.

And that’s how it would play in the press.

And today’s test question is: guess which approach the British government has taken?

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Science and the gospels: best not to confuse them

On a radio programme about the forensic investigation service the other day, Helena Kennedy QC, one of Britain's leading lawyers, pointed out that it would be wrong to put science on a pedestal and take it for gospel.

Helena Kennedy: a powerful statement on science and gospel
I immediately thought of the case of Shirley McKie. A former police detective in Scotland, she was accused of having left a fingerprint on a door frame at a murder scene. Because she denied ever having been in the house, she was suspended, then dismissed and finally charged with perjury. But in 1999 she was acquitted of any wrongdoing and eventually won £750,000 of compensation from the police for her treatment. 

Shirley McKie: rather proves Kennedy's point
I imagine McKie would not be at all inclined to put the fingerprint experts who testified against her on a pedestal, unless it was a very high one from which she could push them off. Two other experts later maintained that the fingerprint wasn’t hers. The whole business did little to enhance the standing of forensic science.

But then I got to thinking a little more about Helena Kennedy’s statement. It occurred to me that, while it is perfectly true, it becomes much stronger if you turn it round.

Don’t you get tired of all those people who keep telling us that revelation is the best guide to understanding nature? That scripture shows that the universe is 6000 years old? That the creation of the world in seven days isn’t to be seen as a metaphor for a long process but has to be accepted as a statement of literal truth?

Helena Kennedy is right. We shouldn’t take science for gospel. But I'd like to put it to her that we make an even worse mistake if we treat the gospels as science.

Monday, 26 March 2012

The 250K dinner that adds a little spice to the weekend

Political news is so dull, isn’t it, when there’s no juicy scandal doing the rounds?

Fortunately, this weekend the British were served a real treat. It turns out that the man the Conservative Party appointed as its treasurer had been suckered, by a team of journalists posing as foreign businessmen wanting to make a donation.

‘You’re based in Liechtenstein? No problem. You just set up a UK subsidiary or channel the funds through employees over here,’ he apparently said, or words to that effect. Smart, right? The law takes a bit of a dim view of political donations from abroad.

And this fine gentleman — Peter Cruddas, since you ask, but don't bother to learn the name as he’s already gone — made it quite clear that for a couple of hundred grand, or call it quarter of a million, they could have dinner with the Prime Minister and, indeed, get their complaints taken up by what he wittily refers to as his Policy Committee.

This is hardly the first time that journalists have mounted a sting of this kind, pretending to be wealthy businessmen with money to burn. Prince Edward and his charming wife fell for something similar just a few years ago, rather suggesting that the Tory Party is appointing to senior positions men whose intellectual acumen is fully up to that of the royal family.

Except that the royals seem a little smarter at learning from mistakes.

What I found most fascinating about the Cruddas business was the answer it provided to an issue that has long troubled me.

I couldn’t work out why the government seemed incapable of developing a coherent policy on anything. It was going to privatise the forests and then it wasn’t; it was going to launch an aircraft carrier without aircraft and now it’s decided that perhaps there should be some; it was never going to build a third runway at Heathrow, and now it says it might.

Obviously we could just put this down to the kind of moronic incompetence that led to the appointment of Cruddas. But these men shone at Eton and Oxford. There had to be another explanation.

You have to bear in mind that David Cameron prides himself on having practically wiped out the the Tory Party’s debts of £20 million. So, as they would say in the US, do the math: at 250 grand a pop, that’s 80 dinners.

Can you imagine the torrent of brilliant ideas that must have rained down on the Policy Committee? Perhaps Cameron started by seeing the characters who were against the third runway. Now they’ve seen a bunch who are for. And the policy of course follows.

And see how clever Cameron’s being? By saying that he hasn’t quite gone over to backing the third runway, he leaves the door open to a few more meals with the pro lobby. And then he can get going on the backlash from the antis, again at 250K a time.

He’s in clover. Just think of the war chest the Party will have for the next election!

Makes one proud to be an Englishmen to know we’re governed by such giants.

A political giant, as much for his intellectual as for his moral qualities

Friday, 23 March 2012

If you can't say it short, it's probably best not to say it at all

If this is a short post, that’s by design and not accident. 

Pascal once wrote ‘I'm sorry to have written you such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one’. Writing well, but short, is my driving aspiration, however mixed my success in achieving it.

Some epochal documents have, after all, been strikingly concise. The Constitution of the United States has been the rock foundation of a system of government now into its third century and which, for all its failings, has prospered and guaranteed a surprising measure of freedom. 

The Consitution is 7000 words long and took four and half months to draft.

It drew much of its inspiration from another text nearly six centuries older, Magna Carta. The Charter remains the foundation document of many legal systems around the world, not because its provisions have survived, but because it sustains the principle of the rule of law itself. 

Magna Carta is 3000 words long and took less than five days to draft.

Magna Carta: concise and to the point and it resonates down the ages
So it’s curious that the present British government has taken 22 months to enact its Health and Social Care Bill. It is 16,500 words long. It is confused and potentially extremely damaging to the NHS. The vast majority of clinicians and healthcare managers find it toxic, as do their professional associations. The groundswell in the electorate against the measure is only likely to grow as the consequences of its adoption this week become clear.

The moral of this story? If it takes you a long time to find the right words, you’re probably saying the wrong thing.

And for the rest of us? When the government starts pouring out the verbiage, take cover. The bullshit’s about to turn into a torrent, and what comes behind is likely to be a lot worse.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Wouldn't it be nice... a fable for our times

It was irritating when Carol, in all her cocky self-assurance, interrupted the professor to contradict his views.

‘But... honestly... come on... It was an incoherent mess. They weren’t even consistent with their own stated principles...’

But the professor had seen, and indeed seen off, a lot of over-enthusiastic undergraduates in his time.

‘You have to be careful. You’re trying to judge a historical subject by today’s standards, standards that are recent and didn’t necessarily apply then.’

‘But surely — we’re talking basic credibility here... even they must have seen that their words and deeds were in total contradiction?’

‘I think they would have said,’ the professor replied again, infinitely tolerant, speaking slowly as he considered the subject with the respect it deserved, ‘that it was the objective that mattered. Don’t forget that this was a time when there was a tendency to take an almost religious view of goals, as though they were divinely ordained and fulfilling them was a quasi-religious duty.’

‘But they didn’t! They failed dismally to hit their stated objectives.’

‘That was their tragedy. But it didn’t mean that they weren’t sincerely bent on achieving them.’

‘I thought religion was about the pursuit of virtue. What virtue was there in lying to achieve goals which they then failed to reach?’

‘Religion was by no means about virtue. Often it was about mere ritual. The repetitive incantation of meaningless formulas with little relation to reality.’

‘What sort of things did you have in mind?’ I asked, if only to put an end to Carol’s monopoly of one side of the conversation.

‘The kind of things we were talking about. ‘The surest way to growth is by cutting debt’. Obviously when no growth occurred and the debt remained stubbornly high the emptiness of the claim was clear to all who had eyes to see it. And it can’t have been a surprise: they knew their economics, they knew it couldn’t be true. But it’s as though they thought that saying it often enough would make it so.’

‘What about ‘we’re all in it together’?’ That was Carol again.

‘Well of course, that was the wildest claim of all.’

‘It was a blatant lie!’ She almost shouted.

‘Well, was it? Was it really? Certainly, it’s true that the 2012 budget benefited only the wealthy, allowing them to escape the effects of their own errors, while the poor bore the pain. But when the inevitable backlash set in, didn’t that turn the consequences of the policy back on its architects? When finally the majority rounded on the feckless minority and drove them from power? Didn’t they too find they had to pay a price?’

‘Out of power for a generation,’ I agreed.

‘And it was the turning point that made Britain the kind of society we see today,’ he concluded, almost triumphantly, ‘where despite our problems we seem to have understood that means based on falsehood can’t achieve an honourable goal, and no policy built on social injustice can lead to lasting gain.’

Osborne and his budget: a painful hangover from the past?

Monday, 19 March 2012

What goes around comes around. Sometimes like a boomerang

The film 300 earned its makers some $456 million, a tidy return on an investment of $65 million. But then the heroic tale of 300 Spartans battling to the death at Thermopylae against a Persian army of thousands has so many features to commend it, even if historical accuracy or simple plausibility aren’t among them.

Bloody and dramatic but not as bad as today
The background to the film is the long hostility between the great powers that faced each other across the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. What’s fascinating is the way the players have changed down the ages but the essential conflict has persisted. 

The Persians at the time of Thermopylae were the Achaemenids, the dynasty that gave us Xerxes and Darius, and their adversaries again and again were the Greeks. In time, though, Alexander the Great led the Greeks in bringing down that great Empire. Out of its ruins rose another, founded oddly enough by a bunch of nomadic tribesmen from the north-east of the country, the Parthians. Meanwhile, the Greeks had fallen too, passing under the dominance of the Romans.

So for the next four centuries, Romans and Parthians faced off across that great border. For Roman leaders, the debate was always whether it was perhaps best to leave well alone and avoid picking a fight with the Parthians, or to take a chance in the knowledge that victory would lead to triumph, though defeat might lead to loss of power if not of life.

The same fighting and the same Roman soul-searching continued once the Parthians had in turn been replaced to the Sassanian dynasty, another 400-year Persian Empire. Its triumph came in the killing of one Roman emperor and the capture of another, said — with probably as much historical accuracy as exemplified by 300 — to have been used as a footstool by the Sassanian ruler to mount his horse.

In time, the Roman Empire morphed into the Byzantine, but between it and the Sassanians, unstable peace continued to alternate uncomfortably with bitter war until the seventh century. Then a terrifying new power emerged from the South to batter them both with the power of a hurricane. The prophet Mohammed died in 632; within two years the first Caliph Abu Bakr had welded the Arabian tribes into a single fighting force; within two years after that his successor Umar had beaten both those Empires, capturing key territory from Byzantium and entirely overwhelming Persia.

So it’s with a certain sense of irony — ‘amusement’ would be too strong a word — that I watch the present deepening dispute with Iran. We’re right back there again, among the Achaemenids and the Greeks, the Romans and the Parthians, the Sassanians and the Byzantines. Once again, the area of conflict is Mesopotamia, Syria, the Levant. And the Levant, of course, includes Israel.

Even the sabre rattling is the same. Peace? War? Is victory worth the risk of defeat?

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

And yet, and yet, there’s a fairly major difference. Leonidas, king of the Spartans at Thermopylae, is said to have replied to the warning that the Persians would turn the sky dark with their arrows, that the Spartans would therefore fight in the shade.

If only Israelis and Iranians were only armed with arrows. Sadly, it’s a bit harder to make brave jokes about the shadow cast by nuclear weapons.

It feels as though something old and familiar has come round again, another twist in the spiral of the old conflict with Persia. Still, if it’s not to be last twist, perhaps this time we ought to try to find a way of calming things down a bit.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Enjoying St Patrick's: a cautionary tale

It being St Patrick’s day, I’m reminded of an occasion when I took two doctors from Belfast to visit some US hospitals. Our American hosts had issued us with name badges, and those for my guests were marked ‘Ireland’. Not ‘Northern Ireland’, just ‘Ireland’.

Isn’t that kind of historical ambiguity absolutely wonderful? At that time, there had been some seventy years of pain and bloodshed about whether there was a distinction between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island. Indeed, since the Good Friday Agreement was a long way in the future, we were still caught up in the depths of that misery, the murders, the bombings, the atrocities. So a blissful unawareness of the issues had a certain charm. As I
d found when a colleague of mine due to accompany me to Belfast came to ask about it.

‘Do I need to change money?’ she asked. ‘And will I need my passport?’

I tried to explain to her why the State in which we lived was called the ‘United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland’. But I probably confused her still more by telling her that we wouldn’t have needed passports even to travel to Dublin, although that city really is the capital of an ostensibly foreign country.

‘No passports to travel to the Republic of Ireland?’

‘Nope. It’s probably because we
ve been such enemies for so long. It’s bred a sense of trust in each other.’

As I tell these stories, it occurs to me that they aren
’t really a reflection on the people who prepared those name badges or who didn't understand the chaotic arrangements between countries of the British Isles. It isn’t the people who are stupid, it’s the arrangements.

The visit with the Belfast doctors to the US happened, fortuitously, to include St Patrick’s day. And even more fortuitously one of my guests turned up on the day wearing a green sweatshirt. 

A badge marked ‘Ireland’. Green clothing. On St Patrick’s day. In a nation where everyone, but everyone, claims Irish ancestry. Wherever we went, he would find complete strangers coming up to him, seizing his hand and wishing him a happy St Patrick’s day.

Now this particular doctor was no extremist, but he was very firmly a Protestant and a Unionist. He lived in North Antrim, which made Ian Paisley his Member of Parliament and, while he didn’t speak as loudly, thank God, he certainly had much the same accent.

He kept his cool all day. But every time he received those congratulations, he replied with exactly the same words, cooly pronounced in his Antrim voice.

‘We don’t celebrate it.’

The reactions were a delight to behold. A glance at the name badge, at the green sweater; a moment to take in the accent, undoubtedly from somewhere in the Emerald Isle; and then a few seconds to absorb the import of the words. With a shake of the head, the bemused speaker would wander back into the crowd, defeated and disappointed.

It was completely appropriate. We had once more contributed to the sense of total incomprehension which is, above all else, the hallmark of Anglo-Irish relations.

Happy St Patrick’s Day! If you celebrate it.

Best way to enjoy the day. And maximise the confusion

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Ides of March: reviewing progress

In Shakespeare’s play, as Julius Caesar approaches the forum he spots the soothsayer who has warned him against the Ides of March, and calls out mockingly:

‘The Ides of March are come.’

To which the soothsayer replies, ‘Aye, Caesar, but not gone.’

Given that we know what’s about to happen inside the Senate building, I think that line qualifies as the most sinister in Shakespeare.

Well, the Ides of March are come again. 2056 years ago today Julius Caesar was struck down by a group of die-hard Roman aristocrats, who left him to bleed out at the foot of the statue of his great enemy Pompey. 

If only he'd listened
It’s worth pausing a moment to ask how far we’ve come in those two millennia.

Caesar’s enemies were Senators, as he was, in other words members of the elite of Rome who exercised all power over the nascent Empire, thanks to their colossal wealth. Around them, the mass of Romans struggled to get through the day, finding work where they could, begging where they couldn’t, all in order to live in conditions inconceivably miserable to their wealthy masters, when they could make a living at all.

By being an outstandingly talented manipulator of the sentiments of those masses, whose support he skilfully bought, and at the same time a highly successful general who could command the total loyalty of his soldiers, Caesar was making a formidable, to some apparently unstoppable, bid for total power on his own. His adversaries decided that the only way to hang on to their own share of authority, was to kill him. The rest is a bloody body on the floor of the Senate.

Today, in many countries, wealth still often combines with control of the army to support power. Look at the Assads in Syria, revealed in their e-mails to be spending on interior decorations sums of money it would take their citizens several years to earn, while they turn heavy artillery on those same citizens when they try to change that arrangement.

In the wealthier nations, military strength is not these days a factor in determining who will rule us. Nor, fortunately, do we tend to decide the fate of our leaders by assassination. Wealth, on the other hand, remains inseparable from power: the US election this autumn is set to be the most expensive in history. And the unscrupulous and wealthy still use manipulation of the masses and purchase of our support to get and hold onto political power.

So on this Ides of March, looking back to that distant one 2056 years ago, what should the report card read? 

How about ‘has made some significant improvements but still has a long way to go; a serious increase in effort is needed if expectations are ever to be fulfilled’?

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

A couple of funny things happened on my trip to Shrewsbury...

Curious incidents abounded on today's visit to Shrewsbury, that lovely town on the borders of Wales and which I am assured I must learn to call Shroosbury and not Shrosebury as was my habit.

I stayed in the Prince Rupert Hotel, called after Rupert of the Palatinate. A cavalry officer endowed with flowing hair, dashing looks and no discernible talent, the extent of his effectiveness is probably best measured by the fact that he travelled to England to rescue his cousin Charles I, who eventually had his head chopped off. This has not happened all that often to reigning monarchs and is generally regarded as career-limiting.

Rupert is perhaps the archetype of the man of charm but no substance, confirming as have so many of his successors — one thinks of Ronald Reagan or David Cameron — that charisma is superficial froth and no substitute for competence.

The dining room of the hotel was decorated with suits of armour. Seemed slightly anachronistic. I don’t think Civil War soldiers turned out in full armour, did they? Perhaps the hotel got a couple as a job lot and stuck them on show anyway. There were also flintlock pistols, as threatening in appearance as they were ineffective in practice, and murderous pikes that were quite the reverse.

The dining room was called ‘the Royalist restaurant’. It made me feel that eating there would be tantamount to a political statement that would make a staunch republican like me deeply uncomfortable, but since skipping breakfast does even less for my comfort, I swallowed first my principles and then some (rather indifferent) scrambled eggs and bacon.

A while later on the platform of Shroosbury station, I took great pleasure from the announcer's sing-song recitation of the incomprehensible and, for me, unrepeatable names of Welsh stations, when she went on to tell us that some of the stations were ‘request stops’ only. 

‘Please tell the conductor on the train if you wish to leave at one of those stations and he will arrange for the train to stop there so that you can alight.’

Oh, how I wish she’d completed the thought by adding ‘... because it may cause damage to installations on the platform if you try to leave the train while it is moving.’

Before that I popped into the Marks and Spencer’s nearby, looking for the food hall. Imagine my amusement, and momentary bemusement, when I saw the signs to it.

Confused? So was I.
Can’t decide between right and left? Sounds like the Liberal Democrats. Or perhaps M&S have simply adapted the old Roman proverb, and now ‘all roads lead to the food hall.’ Given our dietary problems today, that may be quite apt.

At one of our stops on my journey home, the conductor announced that the platform being too short, passengers who wanted to leave there would have to move forward if they were in coaches C, D or E. ‘These carriages will not in-station here.’

In-station? A wonderful new verb. Its metaphorical use would express the need to accept one’s station in life, no doubt. To show proper respect to the fine figures who have led us down the ages to our present state of wealth and splendour, such as Prince Rupert or David Cameron.

Unfortunately, as the kind of ingrate who espouses republicanism and disdains a royalist restaurant incapable of serving a decent breakfast, I don’t plan to be in-stationing any time soon.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Allez les blancs

My wife Danielle, who is French – a point which is not entirely irrelevant to my theme today – reminds me that there’s a subject I have failed to address, much to the detriment of a blog that sets out to cover every theme that matters to mankind.

Danielle has been told by our good friend Yannick, equally French, that he was delighted by my failure to gloat over yesterday’s narrow but nonetheless famous  victory of the English rugby team over the French, in the Six Nations championship.

Now I know how to take a hint. At heart, Yannick is not in fact grateful for my silence. There is an etiquette in these matters. When your team beats your friend’s, there is an obligation to rub his nose in it a bit. If you don’t, you deprive him of the opportunity to do the same back to you when the tables are turned at some distant period in the future.

But I’m sorry, Yannick, I will not descend so low. There will be no hint of gloating from me. However fine the victory. And even though it took place in Paris. And even though France were unbeaten at home in the previous eleven matches. And had beaten England in every encounter since 2008.

Instead, Yannick, let me urge you to be philosophical. And if that doesn't work, at least indulge in a little Schadenfreude. You must be able to take satisfaction from the repeated shots we got of the face of Nicolas Sarkozy, in the crowd. He looked grim, didn’t he? You must admit that a lost international may be a price worth paying to see the usual fatuous smile wiped off those particular features.

In any case, it is not entirely in Yannick’s honour that I am writing this post. No, another and stranger incident strengthened my determination to respond to the reminder Danielle passed on from him.

Coming through St Pancras International station tonight, I happened to cross the path of Serge Betsen. He’s what’s known as a flanker in rugby and played a significant role in the French team until his retirement from the international game in 2008. Today, he plays at club level in England, for London Wasps. He was no doubt at St Pancras having caught the Eurostar back from Paris after yesterday’s superbly satisfying match.

Not that he shared my view of that outstanding game. I say that not as mere speculation, guessing that a former France player wouldn’t relish such a conclusive humiliation of his countrymen, but because I heard him express his dissatisfaction live and to camera, for the BBC. 

For reasons that escape me the BBC persist in using him as a commentator, despite the fact that his English can only be described, even in the most charitable terms, as inadequate to the task. Few sports commentators ever seem to rise far above the level of the banal; when they only have a vocabulary of 200 words, it becomes practically impossible.

Shame really. On the pitch he was fluent and graceful, though when he was wearing a French shirt, that was something I could 
frequently only admit through gritted teeth.

Serge Betsen at his best. How are the mighty fallen
I suppose the BBC stick with him because he plays in England. 

Incidentally, when the French talk about where a sportsman plays, they use the verb évoluer. In other words, they would say that Serge evolves in England.

Fortunately I have forbidden myself the slightest hint of gloating. Otherwise I might have said something ungenerous. I might have been tempted to write that on yesterday’s performance, it could do the entire French XV some good to evolve a little in England.

But that would have been unworthy of me.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Bury Park: one of Luton's redeeming features

So many attractive features mark Britain’s most beautiful towns and cities: the dreaming spires of Oxford, the hills and the sea of Bristol, the majestic architecture among the volcanic structures of Edinburgh. In contrast, Luton, where I live, relies on its redeeming features. Its a ‘but’ town, as in ‘not a very pretty town centre, but Wardown Park is lovely.’

Two recent TV documentaries took a close look at Luton. Both, I suppose inevitably, focused on two types of extremism in the town: a form of Islamic fundamentalism that comes close to endorsing terrorism, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, the English Defence League, whose violence is never far below the surface, and which was born in this town.

Proud and Prejudiced focused principally on the hostility between the two groups. An early shocking scene had a follower of Sayful Islam slapping the leader of the EDL, Tommy Robinson (not his real name: his chosen nom de guerre is that of a football hooligan, which probably tells you as much as anything else about his movement). The documentary did make clear that the Sayful Islam group are completely rejected by the vast majority of Luton Moslems and certainly by mainstream Moslems.

Stacey Dooley investigates: my home town fanatics was more concerned with Luton as a whole and had the merit of laying far more stress on the fact that the Islamic extremists represent a tiny minority of the Moslem community: they can perhaps muster a few dozen for a demonstration out of a community close to 30,000 strong.

Both films spent a lot of time in the area known as Bury Park where most of the population of South Asian extraction lives. What struck me as curious was how often Tommy Robinson said of the area that it didn't look like England. That's just beyond me. Where does he think it looks like? 

What's not English about Bury Park?
Take a look at the picture. The terraced houses. The traffic on the left. And a nice touch in the photo: on the left is the building with the COGIC sign: the Church of God in Christ. Right in the middle of the so-called Moslem area.

What does anywhere have to look like to look English? Take Oxford. Compare it to Liverpool. Which looks like England? Even in a single city like London: compare underprivileged Hackney with overprivileged Mayfair. They don't have a lot in common but they're both definitely in England.

Bury Park is a completely English neighbourhood. Just one that happens to have a large Moslem and Hindu population. But though it contains a small number of extremists, overall far from being a problem for the town, Bury Park is one of those features that redeems so much in Luton.

Just beyond the Church of God in the photo is A-One Dosa which serves about the best South Indian food I've ever enjoyed. And it isn't just the food. There are little specialist shops, there are huge places selling clothes or bikes or household goods. When you can't find it anywhere else, you're practically bound to find it in Bury Park. And the service will be at least polite, more usually friendly.

That's the key characteristic of the place: its cordiality. After another memorable meal at A-One Dosa a few days before Christmas, we were surprised by the queues outside a Halal butcher. Danielle talks to anyone so she asked what they were waiting for.

‘Turkeys of course,’ said one of the women. I don't remember whether she was Hindu or Moslem: there were both in the queue.

‘So — do you celebrate Christmas?’ asked Danielle.

‘Everyone around us celebrates it,’ one of the other women explained, 
‘so why shouldn't we?’

That's the spirit of Bury Park. All those people who tell us that multi-culturalism has failed need to come here and see for themselves how well it’s working.

And they could enjoy a great meal at the same time.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Syrian army: lust for glory

When I see the news from Syria, I’m reminded of the film Patton: lust for glory. In the closing days of the war, a young German captain is burning documents to prevent them falling into the hands of the Russians. Finding a photograph of Patton, he pauses a moment and whispers ‘a pure warrior... a magnificent anachronism’ before consigning it to the flames.

Nothing wrong with the film. For its genre, it’s one of the best. As that line shows, the genre is the nobility of war, the larger than life characters it throws up and their drive for honour and glory.

In completely different ways, films like All quiet on the Western Front or Oh, what a lovely war bring out its horror, the sheer terror, anguish and physical damage it inflicts on combatants.

In recent years, the Americans have made films underlining the agony of the occupation of Iraq. In the valley of Elah is a powerful denunciation of the terrible things US soldiers had to do to civilians. It is, however, the soldiers who come across as the victims as the film focuses on the harrowing pain of having to do such horrible things to other people. The other people are little more than extras.

And yet all down the ages just how much has the military been about honour and glory, or conversely about fortitude in dealing with terrible suffering? Maybe it’s time we looked a little more closely on just how often soldiers have been not so much heroes as perpetrators. Less a force defending civilians as a threat to them.

Homs: monument to the glory of Syrian arms. 
After all, as far as I can tell, the Roman legions spent at least as much time fighting each other as fighting external threats, and either way, the reward for victory tended to be a nice fat city or region to sack. Where the word ‘sack’ is a veil for rather a lot of things that we generally like to think of as reprehensible.

The British Army sacked Badajoz for two days. In Ireland it left calling cards for which we’re still paying. The French tortured their way round Algiers, the British massacred civilians at Amritsar, the Wehrmacht established a probably unrivalled record for atrocities wherever German arms went in the Second World War.

The British, learning nothing and remembering nothing, are facing a litany of accusations of war crimes from Iraq and Afghanistan, but that’s as nothing to what the US has done to sully its reputation in those countries. And they’ve got Vietnam behind them too.

So maybe we need a few less films like Patton or even All Quiet on the Western Front. What we need is something that brings out that other, less talked about track record of the armed forces internationally: the great book of military honour for which the Syrian army has been writing the latest chapter.

That makes for less seductive recruitment posters. ‘Join up and shell a neighbourhood in the next town; enjoy the view from local high points as you snipe at civilians; protect security as you man road blocks to prevent casualties getting to hospital.’

Doesn’t have quite the same ring as ‘magnificent anachronism’, does it?

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The terror of everyday life

‘Anybody seen in a bus over the age of 30 has been a failure in life’: words misattributed to Margaret Thatcher (who could well have said them but apparently didn’t) and which couldn’t be further from the truth.

The opportunity to travel by bus is one of the privileges that working in London gives me, if only for the spectacle it provides of the theatre of life.

Today I found myself sitting near three young women, possibly nurses, from a comment I overheard, at least one of them from Australia, from the accent in which it was made.

The three stars of today's performance leave the stage
of the theatre of life, on the number 30 bus
My ears pricked up when I heard one of them remark:

‘He has an irrational fear of getting his foot caught in the U-bend under the loo.’

OK. Curious. One of the others asked the very question that was puzzling me: ‘Does he make a habit of sticking his foot down the toilet?’

But we didn’t get an answer. Instead the three engaged in an escalating phobia competition.

‘I have an irrational fear of sharks.’ Well I suppose that is a bit irrational on the upper deck of a London bus (what about the lower deck, you ask? No idea. I never travel there). But the speaker had been swimming from a beach near Perth in Western Australia on a coast where there had been two fatal shark attacks in the previous week. I’m not sure that a certain apprehension ought necessarily to be classed as irrational.

We hadn’t stopped though. ‘I have an irrational fear of snakes. I can’t even handle long worms.’ I wasn’t quite sure why she was being called on to handle worms but I can imagine it wouldn’t be particularly pleasant.

Finally, the one to cap it all. ‘I have an irrational fear of all animals.’

No-one raised the stakes any further. What would the next step have been? Is there one?

Well, actually there is. With the edifying display we’re getting daily from Syria, not to mention Zimbabwe, Burma or the many other inspiring behaviour models around the world, including Downing Street, surely man is the animal that needs to be feared above all others?

But that wouldn’t be irrational, of course.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

A friend slips away

One of the best aspects of company Christmas parties is that they let you meet the partners of your colleagues.

A few a years ago, my wife and I shared a table with a then colleague and his new partner. His devotion was clear to all and they entertained the whole table with the story of his pursuit and capture of her. She told us that he was the only man to join the group of divorcees who met regularly to chat at the swimming pool while their children went swimming. One day, he called across the group to spring an invitation on her to go to a film with him.

‘Well, yes,’ she said, surprised, and looking around the rest of the group, ‘shall we do that?’

‘The invitation was only for you,’ he assured her, to her considerable embarrassment.

Her best story was about the day when, against her wishes but borne down by the sheer weight of his persuasion, she took him into hospital for surgery on an eye. It was one of those ghastly 
operations where you get a local anaesthetic and remain conscious while someone inflicts brutal violence on a delicate part of your body.

She had remained among the crowd in the waiting room when a nurse emerged and announced ‘Chris Tinker doesn’t feel he can get through this operation unless his soon-to-be girlfriend comes and holds his hand.’ She did and they became, officially, a couple. Hence our meeting over the Christmas dinner table.

The stories were amusing, even charming. Above all they underlined the stubborn determination with which Chris was pursuing his hope of happiness. And the forces behind his drive were easy to understand: he had just emerged from a particularly gruesome divorce, in which he had initially had his children dumped on him, until his wife decided that she had wanted them back. At that point he had fought and lost several court cases, at huge cost, in emotional as well as financial terms.

In the end his ex-wife packed up the children and decamped with them and her new partner to Canada. Chris was a talented colleague prepared to take on a wide range of jobs, and he managed somehow to remain focused on the responsible work he did. At times though it was hard. For instance when he heard for the second time that the arrival of his children from Canada had been postponed, the sheer weight of his despair took its toll on him. This was one of the occasions when, despite his fight to keep working, migraines would strike him as his body forced him to take the time off he so obviously needed and which he grimly combated by sheer force of will.

So I shared his hope that perhaps he was now climbing back out of the trough into which he had been flung. Because he was more than a valued colleague, he was also far too likable to deserve the pain he’d been through.

It wasn’t to be. Last week Chris committed suicide. I don’t know what went wrong, I don’t know what pushed him over the edge. 

I’d failed to keep in touch with him after I lost that particular job, but I’ve heard from some of the friends I made then. They’re as shocked as I am, as much in the dark about what finally happened. Just as he’d soldiered on in the past until ill-health had stopped him, so perhaps he’d struggled recently to give as little hint as possible of whatever was tormenting him until, finally, his will to fight snapped.

Chris can't have been a particularly close friend, or I wouldn’t have lost touch with him. But whenever I think of him I’m reminded of the actor Paul Eddington’s wish for his own epitaph: ‘he did very little harm.
 Chris to my knowledge never did anyone any harm and managed quite a lot of good. Above all, he showed a great deal of kindness to a great many people, including me.

So I’m sorry to take my leave of Chris. It wouldn’t have mattered if we’d never met again. Just because he was still around, the world was by that small amount a gentler place; his death deprives us all of a little generosity of spirit.

He deserved his share of happiness. It’s a bitter shame that he’d lost all hope of achieving it.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Why separate Church from State?

Since it’s Sunday, here’s a nice story for all those who think the world would be better if Christianity were more closely involved with public life.

For the first three centuries of its history, Christians got nowhere near power, being either barely tolerated or actively persecuted by the authorities of the Roman Empire they inhabited. Then early in the fourth century, the tide turned: though not yet the official religion, Christianity won the active support of the Emperor Constantine.

So we had a chance to find out how Christianity would improve public life.

In the most recent wave of persecutions, a number of Christians, including priests, had taken the injunction to ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’ to justify them in obeying imperial edicts to sacrifice to the old gods, however false they were. In that way they at least avoided the alternative of a particular ugly martyrdom.

When the persecution ended, a group called Donatists spoke up for reincorporating these backsliders into the fold and letting bygones be bygones. Against them, those who had refused to compromise with paganism felt that these traitors and their supporters, were an intolerable presence within the Church.

Constantine organised two Councils at which these great questions could be debated. Both Councils decided that the Donatists were heretics. This unleashed the first ever explosion of violence by Christians against Christians.

To me, the most admirable initiatives of recent years have been the attempts of former adversaries, sometimes particularly bitter, to find a way to settle their differences without violence. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa showed the way, and has been followed by similar efforts in Northern Ireland and perhaps in the near future in Burma too.

All such initiatives are messy. They involve people getting away with unforgivable crimes, and victims being allowed little closure for their pain. In a word, they involve compromise. What they don’t involve, on the other hand, is anyone being burned at the stake. A particularly shining example has been the way Germany has learned to come to terms with its Nazi past, without witch hunts, an achievement that has eluded Austria.

Christians have played leading roles in these initiatives, not least Desmond Tutu in South Africa. But Tutu is remarkable precisely because he’s so rare. The mainstream of Christianity, from the day it first tasted power, displayed righteous enthusiasm in its persecution of those it identified as adversaries. Even when they were members of the same Church.

And they went right on as they'd started. The crushing of the Cathars. Protestants and Catholics burning each other. Crusades against the Moslems, one of which even sacked the Orthodox 
Christian city of Constantinople. Just today Cardinal O’Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, has spoken out against gays; similar views in the African dioceses seem likely to split Anglicanism too. 

‘Blessed are the peacemakers’: they most certainly are, but whatever the Sermon on the Mount may say, they’ve proved rare in the Church. Down the ages, Power has turned Christians into persecutors, from the very first time they got close to it.

So why don’t we just keep Christianity and State Power well apart?

After all, the stake casts an awfully long shadow.

Christians exercising authority over other Christians.
Keen to try it again?

Friday, 2 March 2012

Hockney, the freedom of friendship and merchants of death

A curiously chastening experience came my way a couple of hours ago.

I was buying four cinema tickets for Best Exotic Marigold Hotel tonight.

‘Adults?’ asked the man behind the counter.

Well we’re certainly all over 18. Over 21, which was where the bar was set when I was a child. Why, even over 25 where it was in the Renaissance. Surely adults then? But I suddenly realised the problem wasn't one of youth.

‘Two of us are over 60,’ I replied.

‘Ah,’ he said, ‘two adults and two seniors.'

What? As we approach old age we lose our status as adults? What game is this? Without regaining the charm of children we lose the authority of grown ups?

Danielle wants to make a big deal over my sixtieth birthday next year. I can’t imagine what I’d be celebrating. Loss of adult status: what’s to be cheerful about in that? Even a couple of quid off the cost of a cinema ticket hardly makes up for it.

Marigold strikes me as a suitable way to wrap up what has turned out to be a tiring week. A fine and intellectually stress-free prospect which will provide a perfect counterpoint to the much more cultural experience of yesterday, when we went to see the David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy.

What an extraordinary show. As well as some strikingly beautiful paintings and drawings, what he had done with an iPad left me breathless. If Apple needed another tribute, it could only have been this one: a compliment from a major artist who managed, somehow or other, to use an i-ad to conjure up the beauty of the emergence of spring, or the tall quiet dripping trees of Yosemite, breathing majesty in their stillness.

He’s a joyful painter so I found myself smiling a lot, but the first smile came in the courtyard outside the Academy. A member of staff had the words ‘visit for free, ask me how’ on the back of his jacket.

‘Visit for free’:
sounds good until you translate it

This is a Marketing-speak statements that need translation. First of all, the ‘how’ is easy: it’s by becoming a friend of the Academy. ‘Friend’ in a special sense: it has nothing to do with disinterested liking and companionship but, on the contrary, everything to do with the purchase of status with money. When people buy love for money, we know what to call it, but what’s the word when you buy friendship?

Becoming a friend of the Academy means parting with a substantial sum in the hope of amortising it by 
‘free’. That merely means attending exhibitions several times more often a year than you ever would by simple inclination. Free, like friend, is being used with a rather special intent, not perhaps immediately recognisable from ordinary, non-marketing life.

That was yesterday. Today I completed the process of exhausting myself for the week, training software users for six hours.

One of the trainees was curious about analysis of mortality, something that has tended to be done rather badly in the past. I talked about having attended a meeting a while ago, ‘as a supplier’.

I caught myself up short. A supplier of mortality? It made me feel as though I was presenting myself as an arms dealer.

Time to go and see a good, clean, mindless, feel-good movie. What a relief I’ve got tickets for one in my wallet.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Efficiency, effectiveness: a striking demonstration

It’s often said that driving quickly to your destination is efficiency; driving to the right destination is effectiveness.

I had that point vividly demonstrated to me today. After attending a meeting together, a good friend who also happens to be a colleague, drove me to the local station. He knows the way well and I just sat back and left finding the way entirely to him. As a good family man with growing children, he naturally drives a nippy two seater, and he was racing along the straights and jauntily throwing the car around the curves with just the stylish confidence I have come to expect of him.

So it was fascinating at one point to wake up to the fact that we were going round the same roundabout for at least the second time. Since he hadn't dropped the speed any more than absolutely necessary, he was therefore providing a wonderful example of delivering maximum performance to achieve absolutely nothing.

I couldn’t help pointing out to him how much I was enjoying the experience.

‘I thought you might like a second look at the wonderful landscape,’ he assured me as he finally managed to take the correct turning off the roundabout.

He really is a good friend, and it was kind of him to run me to the station. So I said nothing more, except to thank him for going out of his way.

I only hope his way home was more direct. And more effective.

Round and round, going nowhere, but wow it's fun