Saturday, 28 April 2012

A voice to the voiceless

Curious how interesting conversation can be on Twitter despite the draconian limitations of its format.

Today an exchange with a fellow tweeter Diana Smith (@mulberrybush) introduced me to a remarkable video, Game's Over (@GamesOverFilm):

Ironically, Diane is based in Stafford where we used to live. A shame our paths didn’t cross at that time. Still, at least our 140-character exchanges are making up for it now.

What frightened me most about the government that took power in Britain in 2010 was not so much its delusions, its mendaciousness or even its incompetence, but its indifference to the plight of others.

‘Lack of compassion can quickly slip into cruelty, and this is going to be a cruel government,’ I told a friend who’d voted Tory.

‘Oh, come on,’ she replied, ‘you’re not giving them a chance. And how can they be worse than Gordon Brown?’

That comparison with Brown was striking. In trying to understand politics, I find myself increasingly using two sets of polar oppositions based on terms which might at first glance not seem that opposed: politician and statesman on the one hand, empathy and charisma on the other.

The essential task of a politician is to win office, and charisma helps enormously. David Cameron had bags of it, as did Nicolas Sarkozy in France, and they won the highest offices in their respective countries.

Gordon Brown, on the other hand, was a hopeless politician and short on charisma. He came across as boorish, churlish, uncouth. His defeat came in large part because voters chose charm over unsmiling competence.

For competence is what Brown had in spades. And he made up in empathy for what he lacked in charisma. He could understand the pain felt by people whose suffering he didn’t necessarily share.

The effect was striking. Within eighteen months of the most serious economic crisis the world had seen for a century, the Brown government had Britain back to growth with unemployment falling.

That’s statesmanship.

Cameron’s crew have taken us back into recession and sent unemployment climbing towards record heights, and it isn’t just incompetence. As Game's
 Over shows, the fundamental problem is that they don’t care.

Their charisma makes them articulate, even inspiring. Most of the people they are harming are tongue-tied or even voiceless.

A politics that matters, a politics that leads to justice will set as its key goal to give such people their voice. To speak for them when that’s necessary, but far better, to help them speak for themselves. For that we need statesmen not politicians and, while charisma will do no harm, what matters far more is empathy.

That’s why next week’s election in France is important. Sarkozy has panache  but no empathy and, as he
’s shown over five years, precious little competence. His challenger, François Hollande, has made a virtue of his very ordinariness. What he has promised to do is to speak up for the powerless and he shows every sign of meaning it. 

Of course, like all leaders of the Centre-Left, he can disappoint too. He’s started talking about the need to limit immigration, a subject he’d studiously avoided previously. But then, you do have to get elected to do any good and, with 18% of the electorate voting for the far right, he presumably feels he owes them some concession.

Still, he’s ordinary and empathetic, and he’s up against charismatic and remorseless. And at the moment the polls are showing him on 55% to the incumbent’s 45%, with nearly a quarter of even the far right voters coming over to his side.

Maybe, just maybe, the French are showing us that our celebrity-obsessed societies are beginning to see through charisma and understand that a good politician can’t hold a candle to a real statesman.

We in Britain also have a leader of the opposition who’s having trouble connecting with the electorate, a Gordon Brown rather than a Nicolas Sarkozy. Though his Labour party sits on a comfortable lead over Cameron’s Tories, Ed Milliband is simply not setting the electorate alight. On the other hand, every time he speaks out he does so with increasing authority and he shows his ability to empathise with the marginalised, the underprivileged, the suffering.

A government led by such a man won’t be perfect, any more than a government led by Hollande would be, but it will at least aspire to social justice and decency. There’s no such aspiration today, as Game
’s Over shows. A society which at least sets out to ensure none are excluded, all have a voice, is a better and healthier place for everyone to live, whether we are among today’s victims or not.

Mr Ordinary may win in France next Sunday. And if he does he will set an example for us on this side of the Channel.

One I hope we shall emulate at the earliest opportunity.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Sixties were roaring. But when exactly?

The conference speaker, no doubt wanting to get going on an informal, personal note, started his presentation by telling us that he’d been brought up ‘in the roaring 1960s of the last century.’

Problem was I took nothing in from that point onwards. It’s the kind of sentence that gets me musing.

First, I wondered idly whether any century other than the last could be said to have had any ‘1960s’. 

Probably not, I decided. On balance.

Next the reference to the last century set me thinking. The conference was about ageing, so had the speaker been brought up in the sixties of some earlier century, not just the contents of his paper but the mere fact that he was giving it would have been exceptionally interesting.

But then I naturally realised that though amusing, this again was idle speculation. No-one addressing a conference today could possibly owe his upbringing to the sixties of any century before the last.

Unless, the thought flashed into my mind, it was a conference of spiritualists. And one of the participants had performed the appropriate rituals and summoned a presence in the approved way.

‘Brought up in the sixties of the sixteenth century,’ the chairman would announce, ‘our next speaker is going to talk about Elizabeth I
s attitude towards ageing, basing himself on his numerous conversations with her on the topic.’

And as the incantations started a figure in a ruff would slowly begin to take form behind the speaker’s lectern.

I checked out the conference. As far as I could tell, there were no white sheets or clanking chains, no one who appeared transparent or even diaphanous. With disappointment, I had to resign myself to the evidence: there would be no 150-year old speakers at this meeting.

No-one wandering around the place with his head under his arm. Though maybe one or two with their heads up a different part of their anatomy.

Not likely to appear at a conference on ageing near you any time soon

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The pets take over from the pet substitutes

It’s always seemed to me that children are really only pet substitutes. So it’s perhaps not surprising that since Danielle and I became empty-nesters, we made up for the departure of our children by investing an unhealthy amount of time and attention in our pets: Janka, our rastafarian dog, and Misty our self-assured cat.

This all came to a head when we spent what struck me as an eye-watering sum on the biggest sofa we’ve ever owned. It’s going to be a factor if we ever move: we’ll have to measure any house to establish its capacity to accommodate our sofa.

In the meantime what the sofa itself accommodates is Misty. He approves. It meets his exacting criteria for comfort and size. He has made it clear that this is his sofa to lie on, just as it is poor Janka’s to be ordered off.

Misty will share the sofa as long as it doesn't interfere with his plans
Danielle rather likes the sofa too and complained the other day that Misty was taking up a lot too much of it.

I have no idea how she could voice such a clearly irrational complaint. If a piece of furniture turns up in Misty's house it’s clearly for his enjoyment.

Not that he’s unprepared to share it. All we have to do is fit around him. He’s prepared to be tolerant, certainly, but not if it means giving up his obvious prerogatives.

It’s as though all those years of fitting our lives around our kids’ convenience had taught us nothing. We’re suckers for punishment, for being pushed around by others under our own roof.

Before it was the pet substitutes; today it’s once more the pets.

Janka, not allowed on the new sofa, makes do with the old one

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Enter the Lord's house if you wish, but without compulsion

It was touching to read the account, in ‘Our local rock’, of a priest with that mixture of sensibility and wisdom that helps the best Christians make life richer for those around them.

I too have had the privilege of meeting men and women like Father R, among senior and junior clerics, and among the laity. 
And I’ve met them among Hindus, Jews and Moslems as well as among Christians. There’s no doubt that they bring comfort in a world that’s often short of it, making us all better off for their presence. 

It is the behaviour of such people that helps reconcile me to their beliefs. Because in what I admit is a relatively simplistic attitude on my part, I find it hard to accept that principles developed by an essentially agrarian society 2000 years ago are going to be helpful in understanding where we stand today. Particularly as I often find them deeply flawed.

Take the story of the prodigal son. Isn’t the gross injustice of his being rewarded out of his brother’s inheritance after running through his own, blatant to anyone who reads it? What about the Gadarene swine, driven to their deaths with not a thought to their owner’s livelihood? But the worst of all is Luke 14:23:

And the owner said to his servant, 'Go out to the streets and to the place of hedges and compel them to enter, that my house may be filled’

That’s provided justification for forced, often violent, conversion down the ages.

Still, faced with people like Father R. I find it easy to say, ‘if it generates such goodness, perhaps I can live with the incoherence of the Church’s principles.’

The trouble is not these individuals, it’s the institutions, the churches, to which they belong. Those institutions are far more than the sum of their parts; above all, they’re far more powerful than the sum of their parts. And, sadly, some of the individuals are a lot less nice than Father R.

Look at that quotation from St Luke again. ‘Compel them to enter’. It’s that compulsion that’s the fearful key to much religious behaviour. I can’t imagine Father R behaving that way, but what about Scottish Cardinals fulminating against homosexuality, or fundamentalists picketing abortion clinics to intimidate women who are already going through a difficult and unhappy moment?

I don’t call on any devout believer to be well-disposed to homosexuality or abortion or any other aspect of human behaviour they dislike. You don’t want a gay sexual experience? Don’t have one. But don’t dictate their behaviour to other people who don’t share your view. When a TV programme turns up that shocks your religious sensibility, change to another channel. If you don’t like a full-face veil, don’t wear one, but don’t shut out a woman who does.

Father R draws strength from the Church behind him and uses it to spread harmony. That’s religious behaviour at its best. He has entered into the lord’s house and it gives him solace which he shares with others. But he isn’t trying to compel anyone else to enter too.

When religions learn to follow Father R’s example, society will become an immeasurably more civilised place. But while they continue to apply the principles of Luke 14:23, anyone who believes in decency or tolerance has to oppose them. And this applies to any belief system, not only to Christianity.

Which means, by the way, that it applies just as much to militant atheism. Followers of Richard Dawkins, please take note.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Curse the weather

Glorious piece of conversation overheard on the bus today.

The speaker was a young woman clearly not inclined to make any concessions to conventional standards of good language.

‘[Adjective drawn from a verb representing the act of sexual reproduction] [noun denoting a place of punishment in the afterlife]! Why did I put my nice new £120 boots on today? The rain’s just ruining them! I should have come out in my Wellies...’

Don’t you love it? I’ve always thought that complaining about the weather was one of the most completely pointless activities imaginable, even though we all enjoy indulging in it. It's like moaning about a fundamental law.

‘What can they have been thinking of? The ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter isn’t a rational number. Who works that way?’

‘I know, it’s appalling. And the atomic number of Uranium is 92. It isn’t even prime!’

But complaining that the weather has spoiled your nice new boots takes the ticket.

I tried to conjure up an image of possible responses. Dark clouds rolling sulkily away and slinking off in embarrassment to rain on someone else? An offer from the meteorological office to pay for a new pair of boots? Or at least a decree from the Pope ruling such behaviour an intolerable breach of divine subordination of nature to man, or in this case woman?

I found myself smiling as I listened to the outburst. Especially as the sun had come out. A refreshing change: all those grey skies, all that drenching rain were beginning to drive me crazy.

After all, it’s nearly May, for God’s sake.

Why does this keep happening to me?

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Healthcare: the kids are as bad as oldies

I was intrigued by an article I read recently by Denis Piveteau, a member of the French equivalent of the Supreme Court (the Conseil d’Etat) and also chair of the Commission into the future of health insurance in France.

We all know that one of the great issues of our time is the ageing population and the impact it has on health services. We all know that because it keeps being said. In the same collection as Piveteau’s paper, David Oliver from the Department of Health in England pointed out that ‘people over 65 account for 60 per cent of admissions, 70 per cent of bed days, 80 per cent of emergency readmissions or deaths in hospital and nearly 90 per cent of ‘delayed transfers of care’.’

But Piveteau recommends that we distrust simplistic soundbites. It isn’t just the old who consume healthcare services. He tells us that in France, at least, ‘people aged over 75 represent about a fifth of the total expenditure on healthcare of the population, or roughly the same as is consumed by people under 30, and those who are over 85 represent about the same as those who are under 10. And yet no one would ever think of claiming that people under 30 or under 10 are responsible for the deficit in health insurance in France’.

Now it’s true that the proportion of the population under 30 or under 10 isn’t growing, while the proportion over 75 or 85 certainly is. The ageing population is going to be a much bigger factor in determining the future of healthcare over the next few years than the younger age groups.

Even so, it’s great to have a little context, a little perspective. Expenditure on the very old is certainly high, but so is expenditure on the very young. We don’t resent the latter; it might not be a bad thing to be more tolerant of the former.

And that is the balanced view on an impartial observer of the human scene. Who, you may be surprised to learn, will be 60 next birthday.

You think we're the problem? Take a look at the kids.
And we don't make as much noise.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

No reason to whine about an English bottle

Years ago, living in France, I introduced a role-playing exercise into a course designed to give the staff of a French company enough multi-cultural sense to handle relations with their English colleagues.

One group had to play the role of a French wine importer — that’s right, importer — selling English wine to a French potential client. To make the whole thing more realistic, we provided some Kentish wine from for them to propose to their prospective clients.

I won’t name the vineyard, partly to protect the guilty, but above all because I (mercifully) can’t remember what it was called.

The role-playing was a disaster. Group after group would start brilliantly, with the ‘salesman’ extolling the virtues of ‘his’ product, the ‘client’ questioning the assertions with scepticism but courtesy. Then they would taste the wine and all attempt at pretence would collapse, just as they themselves collapsed into hopeless laughter. The stuff was undrinkable. Ghastly. In the end, we used it for cooking a couple of times until we decided that it was spoiling the taste of the food and threw it out.

So it was with pleasure that some years later I bought a bottle of English sparkling wine for a French friend who is by a long stretch the most sophisticated wine connoisseur I know. He drank it with some reticence, and then with delight: his verdict? Outstanding.

Things have moved on still further since then. I read in the Observer at the weekend that production of English sparkling wine is growing at an awe-inspiring rate. And indeed that Champagne growers are beginning to look at the possibility of buying into English vineyards.

What I particularly liked about the article was its reference to the Cornish wines from the Camel Valley. We tasted a still white during our recent visit to Cornwall, and liked it so much we had some more the following evening. It has been winning international competitions, and it was easy to see why.

Another good reason for a trip to Cornwall
A long way indeed from that multi-cultural exercise with bottles that only strengthened the cynicism of the Frenchmen taking part.

Always nice to see a historical stereotype being reversed.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Oxford: a different take on time and a surprising profession

Language is such a rich tool. It allows us to say so many things we mean. And so many things we don’t mean at all.

Our visit to Oxford yesterday added two more examples to my collection of fine signs to amuse the palette of the connoisseur.

Merton College is one of the world’s great seats of learning, so it was intriguing to see how they chose to keep their back gates clear:

So just how much time is there?
Merton’s intellectual power is such that I can’t rule out that they might have been thinking of time-dilation as expounded by Einstein, but my simpler mind is still having trouble imagining a time not covered by the 24 hours.

Tired by the intellectual strain of coping with Merton concepts, we made for a pub. But there too, Oxford being what it is, we were introduced to another interesting and unfamiliar idea.

Don't they get emotionally involved with pies they hand rear?
What kind of training do you need to learn to rear pork pies? And how dangerous is it to the hands? When the pies are young and lively, do they ever nip a finger?

Saturday, 14 April 2012

The love of the Irish and great fish

Everyone likes the Irish. Well, apart from other Irishmen. Though even their internecine feuding can sometimes be overcome by some overarching cause, such as their shared animosity towards the English.

I have to say that I only have to hear that brogue to expect to like the speaker. It happened today, in Fishers in Oxford (don’t know it? Make a beeline to the place: an outstanding fish restaurant for mid-market prices). My mother wasn’t well and couldn’t cope with the wholemeal bread on offer, so our Irish waitress popped out to the local supermarket to buy some white for her.

Well worth a visit
It put my wife Danielle in mind of an experience she had two or three years ago, travelling around Ireland with a salesman. They got dangerously low on diesel and popped into the post office in a tiny village.

‘Well, I know just the place for you,’ said the postmistress. She quickly shut up shop and took them out of the village and up rutted back lanes to a farmhouse.

‘Why, of course I can help you out,’ the farmer assured them, taking them to his personal diesel pump. Minutes later they had enough fuel in the tank to get them to the next town and filling station. When it came to payment, the farmer was adamant. ‘To be sure, it would take me longer to work out than the money would be worth,’ and off they went, not just rescued but rescued free of charge.

It’s that kind of story that gives the Irish such a soft spot in all our hearts. Kind. Welcoming. Generous. And barely aggressive at all most of the time.

Why, this year they were even generous enough to let the English not simply beat them but stuff them in the Six Nations rugby championship.

You can hardly be more decent that that, can you?

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Discovery in Africa: the limits of certainty

Challenges to deep-seated convictions can come from unexpected quarters. 

So it was with an account by Thérèse Awada, a Strasbourg plastic surgeon, of a medical assistance mission she accompanied to Benin.  

Beware, beware, the Bight of Benin,
Where few come out though many go in
And it's a testing ground for strongly held convictions too
The team travelled along the Niger river in open canoes, trekking inland as necessary to different villages to provide surgical services. Their form of transport made it difficult to carry equipment and, by the end of the trip, they were low on consumables.

As they started their last day’s surgery, a young boy was brought in. He had a strangulated hernia, a potentially life-threatening condition. The team decided to rearrange their schedule for the day and operate on the child immediately, even though the supplies they would use meant possibly jeopardising their ability to carry out planned surgery on an old man’s lipoma in the afternoon.

I would have absolutely no quarrel with this decision and I’m sure most of us in the West would feel the same. A life-threatening condition has priority over a matter of discomfort; a child has priority over an adult. It seems absolutely self-evident. And there’s nothing casual about my use of the word ‘absolutely’: this is the kind of principle that my feelings tell me is absolute, if any is.

Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Even though in the event the old man had his surgery, the villagers were appalled by the team’s decision. So much so that they expressed their dissatisfaction firstly in expostulation, secondly by letting the team wait half the next day before agreeing to take them back to the river.

What was their complaint? Well, where in the West we see the old as reminders of decline and mortality, to them an old man is someone who has got through all that life can hurl at him. He is an exceptional figure, and he is the keeper of the community’s memories, its wisdom, its knowledge of how things should be done because this is how he learned from his predecessors they had always been done.

That made the old man far more precious than the boy. Running the risk of not being able to help him, in order to treat the child, was a horrifying reversal of the natural order of things. I’m sure, if asked, they would have used the same language as I did before: they would have found the truth of their view absolutely self-evident.

Now Awada makes it clear that she and the rest of the team, faced with the same circumstances, would take the same decision, and I agree with them. But the villagers would feel just as strongly about their own convictions. And, to be honest, in their terms their position is not without merit.

So what’s the lesson? It’s surely another powerful response to those who would have us believe that there is, out there, something that is true in some absolute sense. Pronounced by a god, written in scripture, carved on a tablet. Whereas in reality there are only a culture
s shared convictions. Strongly, powerfully felt, perhaps. But always open to question by someone else, whose own convictions are as strong as ours.

With no possible grounds for deciding that one set is right, the other wrong. 

Monday, 9 April 2012

Rachida gets her claws out

One of my favourite politicians has to be the French Member of the European Parliament, Rachida Dati. Rachida is blessed with near film star good looks, and a pattern of behaviour that says film stars actually have nothing on her. That probably explains her perpetual air of being denied her proper due in life. 

How's that for winsome?
Formerly ‘keeper of the seals’ (Minister of Justice) she was so inept in the post that even Sarkozy, no slouch himself at incompetent government, had to fire her eventually. He instead posted her off to the European Parliament where she was overheard, in one of those glorious live mike incidents, complaining about how boring it was to be stuck in Strasbourg, a city where our family, presumably less demanding in our tastes, spent an excellent ten-year period.

She has now joined in the battle to return her erstwhile boss to the Elysée Palace for another five-year term. Recently the government launched a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the impoverished suburbs of France; the frontrunner to replace Sarkozy, the Socialist François Hollande, chose his words badly when he denounced the plan, suggesting that jobs and financial support were needed, not a reference to a ‘Marshall’ of whom the likely recipients of any aid would probably never have heard.

It might have been wiser of him not to appear to cast doubt on how much knowledge of history the people he was defending were likely to have. It does sound a little patronising from a member of France’s most highly-educated classes, someone who may be in the Socialist Party but is also a member of the nation’s elite.

Dati has waded into the fray denouncing Hollande for underestimating the education of the underprivilieged. ‘They go to school, Mr Hollande!’ she declaimed, ‘they follow the same history syllabus as your children, thank you very much.’ Clearly, she felt, no-one needed to be told who Marshall was.

Well, she may be right, but I did enjoy the fact that Agence France Presse, in its report on the spat, added a final paragraph: ‘The expression ‘Marshall Plan’ has been part of the political vocabulary for some years now. It refers to the plan put forward in 1947 by the American General George Marshall to provide economic assistance to European nations after the Second World War.’

And it wasn't just for the benefit of the underprivileged inhabitants of the tough suburbs that they wrote those words.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Following in the steps of King Arthur. Or more probably not

It’s awe-inspiring, as I’m sure anyone can imagine, to visit the very place that almost certainly never saw the birth of a mythical figure who probably never existed. 

So it was with suitably rapt feelings that I walked part of the North Cornwall coastal path yesterday to reach the ruins of Tintagel Castle, reliving an experience that had remained deeply ingrained in my memory from over forty years ago. We walked rather less far each day than then, and we drank rather more cider, but otherwise my feelings at being in Tintagel were the same: reverence and humility at knowing that I was standing on the very spot which was unlikely to have been the birthplace of King Arthur, whose very existence is doubtful. 

Whether or not the King was born in Tintagel, as purely local legend claims, is however neither here nor there. What matters is the castle itself. Or it would be if there were more of it left. Not much of it gets up above head height any more. The remains are fine all the same: the area’s all slate, giving it its distinctive style of dry stone walls, and the Castle’s built of the same stuff. 

North Cornwall dry-stone walls: works of art in slate
In any case, if the ruins of the cast leave a little to be desired, the climb to get onto the headland on which they stand is certainly impressive. You go down a staircase which feels as though it’s at more than 45° to the horizontal, practically reach sea level and then have to crawl up as high again on the other side, all the time knowing that a struggle back up what had been such a pain to get down awaits you on your return.

Still it’s all worth it to be able step between those ancient walls and think to yourself ‘why, Uther Pendragon and the great wizard Merlin almost certainly never strode through these halls all that time ago.’

Picturesque, and all the more so for knowing these
were the very places Merlin didn't visit.
The heating bills must have been horrendous.

And to add to the emotions of the day, there was the sense of living on the wild side as we flouted the instructions of a sign on the edge of the village.
There was a sense of liberation in walking past that sign:
not one of us was the possessor of an ERM T.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Fun with counter-factuals

The counter-factual is one of the more amusing ways of looking at history. Completely useless, but when did that ever make things less fun? It’s entertaining to wonder what would have happened if Lincoln had not been murdered or if Dubya Bush had had a working brain. Entertaining but useless because we’re stuck with the history we have and that just wasn’t the way things worked out, whatever we might have wished.

But as well counter-factuals about people, you can also play the game with dates. For instance, 7 December 1941. That, as few Americans will need reminding, is the day the Japanese Imperial Navy launched its ultimately disastrous attack on Pearl Harbor. 

Perhaps the real key date is actually not 7 December but 12 November, the day the decision to launch the attack was probably finalised. 

Pearl Harbor: bad news for the US at first glance;
far worse for Japan (and Germany) on more mature reflection
There was nothing inevitable about the decision. The Japanese didn’t have to swing South after their successful campaigns in China, they certainly didn’t have to attack the United States. They could have chosen to go North and take on the Soviet Union, ignoring the US Pacific Holdings and West European Powers whose colonies they walked all over in South East Asia.

Had Japan taken on the Soviets, there’s no reason to assume the US would have entered the war at that time. There was massive opposition to that entanglement and Roosevelt, whatever his personal feelings, would have found it hard to get stuck in against the pressure. And joining in the war to help out the Soviet Union? That would have gone down like a lead balloon.

So just at the time that the Soviets were in a battle for their lives against Nazi Germany, whose forces came within 12 miles of the centre of Moscow, they might have found themselves oblige to divert forces eastward to counter an invasion from that quarter. Would the Germans then have been beaten in the West? And had Germany been able to extract its forces from a successful campaign in Russia, how long would Britain have lasted?

But none of that happened. On 12 November 1941 the Japanese decided that it was sensible to take on the might of the United States. The Germans who were determined to support their Japanese allies against the US, declared war, and Roosevelt was in with an excellent justification and no need to overcome public opinion.

It was probably the most stupid decision the Japanese government could have taken. As a result, where I might deplore it in the case of Dubya, I’m delighted by this demonstration that imbecility is not incompatible with high political office:  t
he alternative suggests outcomes I prefer not to contemplate.

12 November 1941: a date that deserves a glass raising to it.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Signs of satisfaction

Loved the sign outside the offices of a car park company in London: ‘where would you like to park today?’

My first thought was ‘Who are you talking to? I’m in a bus.’

But how would I have reacted had I been in a car? The question would scarcely be less stupid. Where do I want to park? What other answer would I be likely to give than ‘preferably somewhere reasonably near where I’m going’?

But hold on: the implication behind the question is that this might be a matter for some kind of choice. We might decide, say, to travel to Hull or Huntingdon not because we wanted to visit either of those fine towns but to re-live a memorable parking experience. We might choose, in other words, our destination on the basis of the car parking facilities.

It was just one simple sign but the smile it provided me was just the satisfaction I needed at the end of a good but tiring day. Previously I’d thought the most imbecilic signs were those announcing ‘Good food served here’. How often do people put up signs saying ‘plentiful but mediocre food?’ or ‘food OK but portions miserable’?

But ‘where do you want to park’ really takes the ticket. You couldn’t invent it.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Not proud of my prejudices

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s refreshing to have your prejudices challenged.

British Society has two great pillars, Church and State, and I’m not particularly fond of either. They’re still heavily intertwined over here where the Queen remains head of the Church of England. Other more enlightened countries have gone to some lengths to keep the State apart from the Church, as in France (where secularism is practically a state religion) or the US (which seems on occasion to regret the fact).

It’s not that I have anything especially against the Church of England. I’m just not convinced by two great arguments advanced for faith in general: that they bring consolation to individuals and communities together. The problem with the first assertion is that ‘because it makes me feel better’ has never struck me as the most persuasive argument for the truth of any proposition. As for the second, it seems to me that as soon as religion has built a community, it defines anyone outside it as ‘other’, and ‘other’ quickly degenerates into ‘wrong’ and ‘wrong’ in turn into ‘heretic’ or ‘unbeliever.’ That strikes me as far too close to persecution, hardly an activity for which humankind special motivation

But then along comes someone like Giles Fraser. He was Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s, but resigned when it looked as though the cathedral authorities were going to evict the ‘Occupy’ protestors from outside their front door. He reckoned that he could imagine Christ being born in that camp. After a brief period out of work, he’s about to start a new appointment, not as a Dean or Bishop (although he was apparently on the right sort of shortlists), but as a vicar of an Inner London parish with some of the toughest social difficulties in the country.

I feel almost obliged to go and hear him preach. Fortunately, he’s going to be writing a regular column in The Guardian so I can be entertained and edified without having to do anything that drastic.

So much for the Church. What about the State and its great symbol, the Royal Family? Surely I can indulge my comfortable view that they're without redeeming features? But no sooner do I reassure myself on that point, than along they come and redeem themselves a bit. On a royal trip to Copenhagen, the Prince of Wales and Camilla had themselves introduced to Sofie Gråbøl, star of the extraordinary Danish series The Killing. And then they paid a visit to the set.

Sofie, in one her trademark jumpers, giving another to Camilla

It’s appalling, isn’t it? The two series of The Killing have provided some of the best TV I’ve seen in years. And some of the Royals like it too? Ghastly. I may have to concede that they have some taste.

At least it was Camilla who persuaded Charles to watch with her. She’s not a real royal at all but just married into the family (which in passing suggests that her good taste is perhaps not that reliable when we get out of the realm of TV series). She had to fight to get into the family, against the vehement opposition of the Queen. It was that paragon of parenting skills who initially managed not only to push Camilla out of the way but to move Diana in instead, and didn’t that work out well?

So at least I can console myself with the thought that my agreement with Camilla over a TV series isn’t really a concession to an authentic royal. Which is a relief. Because though it’s refreshing to challenge one’s prejudices, it’s also tiring. Nice to be able relax back into some simplistic preconceptions.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Running like George Galloway

Just back from a run. I find it concentrates the mind, and given how it knackers the legs, what it tends to concentrate the mind on is running.

Thinking about running led to my thinking about the word itself. For instance, in the expression ‘running for office’. Now originally that was the US term, but it’s now pretty standard in Britain too, even though traditionally we tend to ‘stand’ for office. Much more decorous, don’t you know. Much more the well-tailored blazer instead of the track suit. Much better if you want to keep pretending that the voters come looking for you and demand you take office, without your having to pursue them and woo their support.

In turn that got me thinking about Bradford West. For any of you who might not be following the details of minor English electoral battles, what occurred was a by-election caused by the retirement of a highly popular Member of Parliament, in a constituency with 38% Moslem voters, held by Labour since 1974.

Unlike some of our cities which have managed to crawl out of the hole into which the loss of their earlier prosperity had hurled them — one might mention Glasgow or Liverpool — Bradford seems to be stuck in a rut of high unemployment and continuing decline, symbolised by the hole in its centre — in its heart, one might say — where a new shopping mall was due to be built but now isn’t.

Its misfortunes are laid by many at the door of the system known as ‘Bradree’. Despite how it sounds, it
’s not linked to Bradford linguistically, though it is in everyday life. It’s an Urdu word for brotherhood or family and has come to mean a local government regime where everything depends on your own and your connections’ having roots in the Kashmiri town of Mirpur. 

Into this mix steps George Galloway. Back in 1987, he won the Glasgow Hillhead constituency for Labour, unseating Roy Jenkins who had won it in a much-hyped victory for the then Social Democratic Party.

Galloway quickly made a name for himself as a maverick and a fine, daring speaker in often unpopular causes. When US and British troops were engaged in Iraq, he called on Arab nations to come to the rescue of their Arab brothers in that sad nation, even though it was still led at the time by Saddam Hussein.

Excluded from the Labour Party, he agreed to give up his Glasgow seat. But, having already claimed a major scalp in beating Roy Jenkins, in 2005 he went on to take Oona King’s seat in Bethnal Green and Bow.

Despite being suspended from parliament for bringing the institution into disrepute, and failing to find a constituency in the general election of 2010, now he’s won another famous victory, taking the Bradford West seat from Labour, and by a handsome majority of 10,000 votes.

As I pounded on with my run, it occurred to me that Galloway is a man who certainly runs for office rather than merely standing. He’s shown again and again how at ease he is with quick footwork. He did it when, called to testify to a US Senate committee on money he might have made from Iraqi oil, he accused them of putting up the ‘mother of all smokescreens’; he did it again on Friday morning when, despite being no Moslem himself, he called for ‘All praise to Allah’ following his win, a form of words unlikely to be badly received by his most active supporters, many of whom are Moslem.

Unsuccessfully opposing him for Labour in the by-election had been Imrain Hussain, deputy leader of Bradford Council, and a man who certainly traces his lineage back to Mirpur. He’s a barrister and therefore no doubt a gentleman, much more used to wielding the stiletto of the law than the bludgeon of the political hustings. He declined even to cross swords with Galloway by engaging him in public debate.

Yes, I think Hussain stood for office while Galloway ran. And Galloway left his opponent standing.

All that was going through my mind as I forced myself on to another kilometre or two this morning, with my poor dog Janka struggling breathlessly behind me. At least there was satisfaction in knowing that Galloway had proved the superiority of running over standing still.

But back at my car, another thought intruded to spoil my mood.

Because despite all that effort, all that expenditure of energy, all I'd achieved was to find myself right back where I’d started from.

Janka's new best friend (top left): ‘Stay and play. What's the rush?’
Janka, struggling to keep up: Search me. We run and run but end up back where we started.