Saturday, 30 June 2012

Banking: don't turn culprits into scapegoats

When Bob Diamond, Chief Executive of Barclays Bank, appeared before the House of Commons Treasury Committee in January 2011, he proclaimed that ‘there was a period of remorse and apology for banks – I think that period needs to be over.’

This week Barclays was fined a total of £290 million for having repeatedly lied about the amount it was costing the bank to borrow money. The time for apology may need to be kept open a little while longer.

Why did they lie? Because along with those from other major banks, their figures fed the rates for loans between financial institutions, notably LIBOR (the London Inter-Bank Offered Rate) and EURIBOR (the Euro Inter-Bank Offered Rate). Misleading figures could nudge those rates up or down to suit the bank or individuals within it.

The disclosure of this behaviour has unsurprisingly led to a hue and cry for Diamond. The haughty contempt he displayed to the Treasury Committee makes one feel he brought his own fate on himself. Besides, he took – he certainly didn’t earn – £18 million last year which makes it difficult to feel he deserves much pity.

Diamond in the rough:
his ilk need controlling not witch-hunting
However I’m grateful to @mulberybush, who gave me a timely reminder on Twitter that witch hunts are always ugly. Whether the victim’s a misguided youth drifting into criminality, an unorthodox thinker speaking out against received views or even an an enormously wealthy and arrogant banker.

The inclination to reach for a pitch fork and a torch, literally or metaphorically, is deeply entrenched in all of us and needs to be resisted.

So let me say at once that it’s all very well for David Cameron and George Osborne to hint that the behaviour of the bankers ought to be subject to criminal sanctions. If the behaviour wasn’t illegal at the time the deed was done, then it would be far worse to take legal action against its perpetrator than to let him get away with it: retrospective legislation, making it illegal today to do have done something legitimate yesterday, is the hallmark of the vilest dictatorships.

But in any case I’m not interested in seeing Bob Diamond sitting in a prison cell. I’m entirely indifferent to his personal fate. He stays as Chief Executive, he goes; he finds another job in the banking sector or he retires to live off his millions; I don’t care either way.

What matters to me is that he’s announced that he expects no bonus this year. Stephen Hester, his opposite number at Royal Bank of Scotland, has said the same, after the computer glitch that meant millions of accounts failed to update correctly. That has to be a good thing, because it was the temptation of taking casino or Mafia-style incomes that incentivised the bad behaviour of the banks.

Britain is preparing legislation to restore, at least in part, the division between retail banking, the kind most of us use, and merchant banking, the financial gambling where fortunes are lost (ours) or won (theirs). Though it won’t happen until 2019, it is a relief to know that the measure will in a few years begin to undo the damage done by the US repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (which enforced the separation between the two sides of banking) in the 1980s.

That Act was introduced in the wake of the last great depression, in the 1930s. It was designed to limit the chances of such a depression happening again. Those previsions were repealed by Ronald Reagan, and his example was enthusiastically followed by Margaret Thatcher and all those who favoured making a ‘bonfire of red tape’ by removing regulatory safeguards.

The effect? 25 years of irrational, unfettered fortune-hunting in the finance sector followed by the collapse of 2008 from which we’re still suffering. We need to remember that particular chapter of recent history when people sing the praises of Reagan and Thatcher, as they do rather too often these days.

Such understanding matters far more than what happens to Bob Diamond or any other individual. It says that banking is supposed to serve industry and society, not to be their masters; but it recognises that the people who go into it are driven, as most of us are, by the desire to better themselves, or even by inordinate greed; without safeguards against that greed, the sector will poison us all. As it has.

That’s why the Bob Diamond and Stephen Hester affairs are important and encouraging. They are helping to create a healthier set of attitudes. And not a day too soon.

Having said that all that, I am still human. And when I see a man who said it was time for the banks to stop apologising being forced to apologise for the behaviour of his own bank – well, though I have great admiration for @mulberrybush, I can’t help feeling a certain satisfaction. I can’t help smiling.

Schadenfreude, I know, but it’s stronger than me and I enjoy it too much to stop.

At least I’m not hoping to see Bob Diamond in a prison cell, far less on top of a bonfire.

Just with the smirk off his face.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

A handshake marks the end of some things, the continuation of others

When it comes to historic handshakes, it wasn’t right up there with the best of them – one thinks of the Bill Clinton-sponsored greeting between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, for instance – but even so something important happened when the Queen shook Martin McGuinness’s hand yesterday.

It was all so laden with significance. 

On the one hand, an anachronism symbolic of our times: a former leader of a terrorist organisation. But this one has laid aside the gun for good to embrace the opportunity of pursuing a political career (and is proving rather good at it). 

On the other hand, another anachronism symbolic of our times: a head of state who owes her position to birth alone. Sadly, she provides a fittingly reflection of the desire of a substantial majority of British people to be treated as subjects, not citizens.

A historic moment.
And she was in green. Is she a secret Republican?
Still, the Queen and McGuinness represented former adversaries – actually, former enemies – and by shaking hands they signalled the commitment of everyone involved to settle their differences peacefully in future. That is massively significant.

In addition, however, I’m also enthusiastic about how this event shows up those who make absurd claims along the lines of ‘we never talk to terrorists.’ Michelle Bachmann (remember her? she used to be quite prominent in US politics) said it last October, tackling Ron Paul (remember him? he had a brief moment of minor celebrity too): ‘We have an absolute policy: we don't negotiate with terrorists’.

The position is nonsense because the people it most makes sense to talk to are your enemies. You can talk to your friends any time, and there’s a real chance that you’ll all agree, but you won’t be a jot further forward. If you want a breakthrough, it has to be across the table from the people who would otherwise be trying to shoot you.

The policy of refusing to talk reached its zenith of stupidity under Thatcher in 1988 (something to remember when people wax nostalgic about her).

In an attempt to ‘starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend’ Thatcher brought in regulations to prevent Sinn Feinn leaders’ voices being heard on broadcast media. Unfortunately, since the only way we were ever going to make progress in Northern Ireland was by finding common ground with Sinn Fein, what they had to say was of particular interest to the public.

So we had the glorious sight of Irish republicans being interviewed on British TV, their lips visibly moving, their expressions changing, their body language fluent, but their voices silenced. Only their voices. We could hear their words – just not spoken by them. Instead, actors would read out the words, precisely the same words the Sinn Feiners had used.

Political censorship is generally poisonous. But when all that’s being censored is the voice, not the words, then it becomes ludicrous too.

Come to think of it, a measure that was both poisonous and ridiculous sounds like an entirely fitting monument to the Thatcher government.

That we had a handshake yesterday to seal the end of the bloodshed and the misery is hugely important. Historic. But will it also end the kind of childishness in government that led to Gerry Adams’ words being pronounced by an actor? When Tony Blair announces he’d like to be Prime Minister again, it’s quite obvious that delusions among politicians are not about to melt away.

But that's just as well. Think of all the opportunities for entertainment we’d lose. Let’s be grateful for the occasional historic handshake. But let’s also be grateful when the clowns do something to laugh at. After all, they already give us plenty to weep over.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012


It was such a sad sight, as I climbed off my train at St Pancras yesterday morning. A couple in their thirties, she wiping away his face-painted flag of St George.

The morning after the night before. We hadn't even had the party. Not really. But now we had the hangover (a state, incidentally, characterised by Dorothy Parker as ‘the wrath of grapes’).

England had yet again been knocked out of a major international football competition – on penalties. No-one had indulged many illusions about England’s chances in the European Championship, but such as they were, by yesterday morning they were crushed and bedraggled.

There are still a few cars sporting those flags some people like to jam in their windows, but even they were looking disconsolate. A mildly embarrassing reminder of a celebration that never happened, or even worse was indulged in too soon.

Disconsolate reminder
Like the empty bottles after the party. But there wasn't a party
Of course, I blame the game itself. Two hours it took, to score not a single goal, by either side. How can people sit through such a game? The players rush up to one end of the pitch to achieve nothing; then they tear down to the other end to achieve nothing more. Finally, they decide the outcome on something only marginally superior to the toss of a coin: a penalty shoot-out.

But I’d go even deeper. What is the point of a knock-out competition? I mean, in just plain utilitarian terms, it makes no sense. The greatest good for the greatest number, as good old Jeremy Bentham told us. But a knockout competition does exactly the opposite.

The European Championship finals included sixteen teams. Without even counting those who didn’t qualify, that means that fifteen nations are going to end up disappointed. Just one will emerge triumphant (and unbearable).

Where’s the percentage? With our Camerons and our Merkels, we need cheering up, not demoralising. What we need is the kind of game where everyone wins a prize. So we can say to the Germans ‘you may have won the most matches, but we had the prettiest team coach.’ Salvage a bit of pride. We need it.

Well, at least that competition
s all over for now. For us. Though of course the next disappointment is under way already. Wimbledon. Apart from the rain, we’re going to get the usual failure to break through of the British players. And worst of all, we Englishmen are going to have to get enthusiastic and then despondent about a Scot – the only Brit with even an outside chance of achieving anything.

And then – the Olympics! More silly flags. More face paint. More unrealistic expectations. More shattering disilllusion.

All against a background of the wettest summer since the Ice Age.

Oh joy.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Heart warming story

Since the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) went belly up, leading to a multi-billion pound bale out by the British taxpayer (in our generosity), the bank has laid off some 11,000 staff, a number that rises to 30,000 taken together with the National Westminster Bank, which also belongs to RBS Group. 

Last week, RBS ‘upgraded’ its computer systems. Since then, for six days, large numbers of RBS and Nat West clients have been unable to check their accounts, while in some cases salaries have not been deposited and standing payments have not been made. Apart from the union, Unite, no-one in the bank seems keen to make any connection with the job losses. 

Stephen Hester, Chief Executive of RBS Group, issued a statement announcing that ‘this should not have happened’. 

Smiling all the way from the bank:
Stephen 'it shouldn't have happened' Hester. A man for our times
I’m often told that we have to continue paying bank executives astronomic sums of money so that we can keep the best with us and not lose them to other countries. If you have to be one of the best to realise that a six-day computer failure is something that shouldn’t have happened, I dread to think what the next echelon, the ones we’d have to put up with if salaries fell, must be like.

That being said, Hester at least had the decency to turn down the near £1 million bonus shareholders voted him back in January. Not because he didn’t deserve it or anything, but because it created bad PR: a lot of people thought that it was a bit much for running a bank funded by the public and which was still making a £2 billion loss.

Instead, Mr Hester agreed to struggle by on his basic salary of £1.2 million. That’s nearly 60 times median earnings in this country, 24 times what an experienced nurse is paid.

Talking about nurses reminds me of the NHS. It’s lost some 26,000 staff in the last two years with the number set to rise to 50,000 or so. Can we expect a few glitches in healthcare too?

And will we find someone paid 24 times as much as a senior nurse to explain that deaths due to undiagnosed cancer ‘should not have happened’?

Friday, 22 June 2012

Liam Holden: slow steps towards civilisation

My father was anything but a radical lefty. In his life, most of which was spent away from Britain, he took part in only one election, in 1945, when he voted for the Conservatives or more precisely, for Winston Churchill.

Nevertheless, he held views that most conservatives would have found unorthodox. In particular, he loathed the death penalty. I think he was as moved as anyone by arguments against the cold-blooded taking of life, or against the facile equation between two lives embodied in the principle that someone who kills another deserves to die himself. But the argument that clinched it for him was judicial fallibility.

‘Death is the only sentence you can do nothing to correct,’ he would say. ‘Get it wrong and you can’t undo it.’

We can debate all the other arguments but that one does indeed seem unanswerable. Since you can never even begin to make amends to a dead man, then quite apart from any moral consideration, the only judicial system that can use the death penalty must be one that guarantees never to make an error.

So it was fascinating to read about the case of Liam Holden in the Guardian. He was the last man condemned to hang in the United Kingdom, for the terrorist murder of a soldier in the troubles in Northern Ireland. Back in 1973 his sentence was commuted, so instead he served eighteen years in gaol. Now his conviction has been overturned. Those years can never be given back to him, but at least he’s alive. As his lawyer puts it, the family are grateful ‘that they are dealing with a quashed conviction and not a posthumous pardon.’

My father would have been pleased about that, but he might also have had a comment to make about the grounds for the successful appeal.

Soon after the Second World War, having been recently demobbed, he worked with the British occupation administration in Germany. At dinner one evening with compatriots who were complaining about Nazi atrocities, my father mildly pointed out that the British too had not been above ‘taking a pair of scissors’ to captives who were suspected of having useful information they were refusing to divulge.

Soon after that unfortunate comment, he found himself being energetically thrown, fully clothed, into the hotel swimming pool. His dinner companions’ had just underlined the inanity of the statement that the truth never hurts. Only the truth has the capacity to hurt.

Liam Holden’s conviction was overturned because, among other things, he was held and interrogated illegally by the British Army in Northern Ireland. In particular, he was subjected to what we now call ‘waterboarding’. As the Guardian points out, Holden ‘loathes the term waterboarding.’ In his view, ‘It wasn't waterboarding. It was torture.’

Curious way to fight for freedom

In the West, we like to present ourselves as the moral superiors of those, in particular Moslem fundamentalists, whom we fight in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s interesting to find that our habitual use of torture gores back a long way. We might do well to learn a little humility.

Doing away with torture and the death penalty would be the kind of advances my father would probably have classified, using one of his favourite terms, as ‘civilised values’.

Nearly 30 years after his death, it’s good to see civilisation taking another small step towards adopting some of them.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

The longest day

This morning, when I looked out of the window at the muggy grey beyond, it became clear that the only times when there wasn’t a threat of imminent rain was when it was actually raining. That made it hard to believe that this was the day of the Summer solstice. Up here in the northern hemisphere, at least. The height of summer. The longest day. 

And with that rain sheeting down, it seemed to me it might feel extremely long indeed.

The date got me thinking of Stonehenge. Full of mystery, sometimes baleful, always inspiring, it’s an extraordinary place. It was built to align to the seasons and accommodate celebrations of the equinoxes and the solstices. I like to think of the druids out there in December, celebrating the turning point at the depth of winter when the sun turns and the days at last begin to lengthen again; and in June, surrounded by ripening crops, when they would thank the powers that govern the world for the blue skies and the warming suns of summer.

Their latter-day successors were out this morning to celebrate this key point in the calendar. Sadly, this is England. As the photos show, there were more anoraks around than long druidical robes. And they didn’t get to see the sun.

Sunless celebrations
Which makes me wonder whether my long-cherished image of their paleolithic ancestors doesn’t need revising. So I’ve come up with a new narrative which I believe is more plausible.

Picture an irascible stone age lordling summoning his Chief Druid to a conversation that might have gone something like this.

‘So, this Stonehenge thing. The one you’ve been building since my grandfather’s time. Is that it now? It’s finished, is it? Nothing further you’re going to ask me to fund?’

‘No, no, sir. It’s complete as it stands. Nothing more to add.’

‘Just as well. Bloody Sarsen stones. You’ve no idea how much the things cost, do you? And transport from Wales! Never did understand why you couldn’t use local stone. Wiltshire’s made of bloody rock, isn’t it?’

‘The Sarsens are special though, my Lord. And our Stonehenge is the very latest in Europe. We wouldn’t want to use anything but the best for it.’

‘Special, is it? I mean... I don’t want to point out the bleeding obvious... or encourage you to spend any more than you already have... but you do realise you haven’t put a roof on it, don’t you?’

‘Sir, a roof would be completely out of place. No, our Stonehenge is exactly right as it stands. A great monument of man’s gratitude to the spirit world for the clemency of the weather.’

‘Well, that’s not exactly working, is it?’ adds the king, glancing out of the window where rain is continuing to drizzle down the sky. ‘One of the reasons I was wondering about the roof, matter of fact. I mean, celebrating the solstice and all that stuff, you’re going to need umbrellas. And they haven’t even been invented yet.’

‘We shall manage, Lord, we shall manage. And a little rain will not dampen the spirits of your druids, knowing that they are surrounded by Sarsen stone and celebrating in the most powerful stone circle of the known world. Even though there's not that much of the world that we actually do know.’

‘Powerful, is it? Not working is it, though? Weather’s still crap.’

‘Well, sir, it may need a little help.’

‘Help? I knew you’d be asking for money.’

‘No, Lord, no. Money will not be required. A little sacrifice.’

‘Sacrifice? That is money.’

‘No, no, sir. The powers of the earth and air, fire and water, desire only human blood. No payment is required for humans.’

‘Well, that’s true. We seem to have plenty of people.’

‘Indeed, sir. With unfettered immigration, they have been pouring in from the continent.’

‘Yes, yes, I know. You’re always going on about the need to set quotas for immigrants. Well, maybe we can make a start on reducing the numbers through a few sacrifices. Not a bad idea.’

‘And, as you were saying yourself, Lord, some of the young people from the troubled inner villages have been restive. We could surely spare a few of them. They would make a fine sacrifice and also set an example to others.’

‘But will the powers of air and water and all the rest make do with all that? I mean, if we don’t want this riff-raff, why should they like them?’

‘Trust me, sir. They just require human blood. And the victims are all human. Even the foreigners.’

‘And it’ll work? We’ll get some decent weather?’

‘All the authorities agree, sir. A great Sarsen-built circle. Some sacrifices. Wiltshire will be the new Costa Brava.’

‘Well, I hope you’re right. Because if there’s another group we could do without, let me tell you, it’s Druids who don’t deliver. So be warned.’

But as we saw again this morning, it didn’t work. Not that the Chief Druid ended up on the sacrificing slab. He led a coup d’état supported by the faithful against the lack of true belief on the part of the Lordling. Who ended up on the slab himself. 

This led to the establishment of a theocratic regime in which the weather remained as lousy as ever but, with the Druids rooting out and sacrificing anyone who complained about it, everyone quickly realised that it was as good as it could ever be and it was a lot safer to be perfectly happy about it.

Thereby demonstrating the inexhaustible capacity of religion to bring consolation to Man for his painful lot.

The wonder of Stonehenge. And the English summer sky.

Monday, 18 June 2012

French tales of two sad women

How tough life is in politics. It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for politicians. Were it not for the fact that for every one that gets into the game, there must be a couple of hundred who would leap to take over from them if they could.

It was yesterday’s French elections that reminded me of the tribulations of the politico’s life. I was moved by the sad cases of two fine women. 

Well, perhaps not that sad. And you’d have to be a slave to a kind of thoroughly inappropriate old-world chivalry to apply the word ‘fine to the second of them. 

The first was poor Ségolène Royal. She ran for president against Nicolas Sarkozy last time round, in 2007. Hers must have been one of the weakest campaigns I have ever been horrified to observe. The culmination was when a comedian phoned her pretending to be the Premier of Quebec, and she walked straight into the trap eyes wide shut, making indiscreet comments about regional independence movements that Sarkozy then used against her.

Soon after her defeat she separated from her partner of nearly thirty years and father of her four children, François Hollande. Yes, that Hollande. In a move that does her great honour, she supported his campaign for the presidency this time round, which meant overcoming her animosity towards the woman Hollande left her for, Valérie Trierweiler.

In a move that does her far less honour, she offered that support as part of a deal that would see her appointed president (speaker) of the French lower house of Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies. Of course to be given the job, she needed to be a Deputy (MP) herself and Hollande organised for her to be adopted as candidate for the seat of La Rochelle. Unfortunately, La Rochelle already had a perfectly good candidate from the Socialist Party, Olivier Falorni. 

He wasn’t wholly overjoyed with the decision to push him aside for Royal and refused to stand down.

Many, many years ago I lived for a while in the seedy but interesting borough of Leyton in London’s distinctly unfashionable East. Leyton had been the setting for a remarkable event in British political history. In 1964, Labour returned to power after 13 years in opoposition. Sadly, the Labour spokesman on Foreign Affairs, Patrick Gordon Walker, lost his seat in the general election. The new Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, however refused to give up on his desire to appoint Gordon Walker Foreign Secretary. The sitting MP for the solid Labour seat of Labour was persuaded to resign to make way for Wilson’s man.

The people of Leyton were having none of it. For the only time in its history, the constituency elected a Conservative and Gordon Walker was left to lick his wounds.

It’s a good lesson. It isn’t always smart to treat the electorate as if they were just ballot fodder, only there to help stars of the political scene further their careers. 

Poor old Ségo. She’s just made the same discovery. The people of La Rochelle turned out for the dissident Falorni and denied her the seat she sought.

What makes her case all the more curious is that Trierweiler, the new girlfriend of her ex-boyfriend and new President, who it seems loathes her predecessor, had tweeted her support for Falorni. The scandal that ensued may not have lost Royal the election but it certainly didn’t help.

Who said that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? In this love triangle, you might have thought Trierweiler was the woman blessed. But it clearly doesn't do to cross her. And apparently you cross her just by being the wounded party in the triangle. 

Ségo: just one things after another

Whose was the other sad, or perhaps not so sad, tale? 

Why, Marine le Pen
’s, in the northern constituency of Hénin-Beaumont. The worthy daughter of Jean-Marie le Pen and his successor as leader of the National Front, she has done much to raise the tone of political discourse in France. For instance, by launching a controversy over the domination of the French meat trade by Halal products. She turns out not to have been completely wrong: it seems that as much as 2.5% of meat on sale in France is Halal. That means that you only have 39 chances out of 40 that any piece of meat bought in the country will be non-Halal.

It seems that not enough people are that bothered. Despite her remarkable score in the presidential election, where she took 18% of the votes in the first round, she lost in Hénin-Beaumont. And by a mere 118 votes. How frustrating must that have been? Particularly as her upstart niece has managed to get herself elected in the South, to become the youngest MP in the country.

Oh, the bitterness of it for Marine. 

My view? Couldnt have happened to a more deserving person. 

Marine: deserving case

Saturday, 16 June 2012

In praise of childishness

I’ve not been able to track down the quotation, but I remember someone in David Cameron’s circle pointing out, at around the time of his election, that complaining about unfairness was something indulged in only by those who hadn’t outgrown childhood.

The line stuck in my mind because it seems to me to sum up an attitude that marks the political right around the world.

What flows from that attitude is often comic. For instance, when Mitt Romney wanted to prove his commitment to US industry, he pointed to the four American cars his family owns, including the ‘couple of Cadillacs’ driven by his wife – one on each coast, as it happens. Clearly the fact that those who struggle to fill a single car with fuel might feel it unfair that he has four luxury models, simply didn’t occur to him.

Often, however, the injustice is tragic. In Britain, the Romney lookalikes are in office and have turned their baleful attention to the poor. Not sparing, by the way, the ‘deserving poor’. It’s difficult to know just who is ‘deserving’ but one might imagine that people in hard but poorly-paid jobs might be included, though they’ve just had tax credits withdrawn from them.

Even more shameful is the denial of benefit to the sick and handicapped. The iconic figure of this onslaught is Karen Sherlock who died soon after discovering that she had been found fit for some work and her benefit would be cut off within months.

Her case is representative of the most vulnerable who are being sacrificed by a government that has granted those with incomes of over a million pounds a year, a £40,000 annual tax reduction. The reduction alone is sixty percent more than median average earnings across the country.

If it’s childish to find this kind of injustice insufferable, I’m proud never to have fully grown up.

There’s nothing new about any of this. I’m enjoying Marion Meade’s excellent biography of Dorothy Parker, wittily entitled Dorothy Parker. Meade gave the book a more inspiring subtitle, ‘what fresh hell is this?’, but that came from Parker’s way of answering the phone.

I’ve just discovered that in the summer of 1927, Parker was arrested in Boston protesting against the forthcoming execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. 

Sacco and Vanzetti:
powerful symbols of insufferable injustice
Now I don’t know the truth of the case: Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants to the States who were undoubtedly members of an anarchist organisation which took part in criminal activities, including bombings. Did they commit offences? They may have. Was either of them involved in murder they were charged with? Perhaps. Were they given justice? Absolutely not.

Michael Dukakis, as Massachusetts governor at the time, got it right in his proclamation to mark the fiftieth anniversary of their execution on 23 August 1977: ‘any disgrace should be forever removed from their names’. But he didn’t pardon them, which would have been to recognise their guilt, or declare them innocent, which he didn’t have the evidence to do. What he knew was that the trial had been mishandled from the outset, principally because the two defendants were assumed to be guilty by ‘right-thinking’ people including the trial judge.

When Parker was arrested, voices in the crowd called for her too to be hanged.

It only heightens my admiration for Parker that she chose to speak out against those voices, and more generally against those who deny the right of others to be treated as human beings deserving precisely the same treatment as anyone else.

Of course, being Parker she found an inimitable way of expressing her feelings about the people she found insufferable:

If I had a shiny gun,
I could have a world of fun
Speeding bullets through the brains
Of the folk who give me pains;

Or had I some poison gas,
I could make the moments pass
Bumping off a number of
People whom I do not love.

But I have no lethal weapon –
Thus does Fate our pleasure step on!
So they still are quick and well
Who should be, by rights, in hell.

Fortunately, these days, we have the most lethal weapon of all against the David Camerons and Mitt Romneys of this world: the ballot.

With the British opposition showing double-digit leads over the Cameron’s government, there are grounds for optimism that we can rid ourselves of it at the next elections in 2015.

Romney has yet to win office, so there’s still every chance of denying him in November this year.

It all depends on just how childish we can all contrive to be.

Dottie: antidote to the Camerons and Romneys

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Fairies and software users: not the same stories

It’s wonderful that, however long you spend in the world of software development, it never runs out of new lessons to teach you.

This is a particularly salutary lesson given that only yesterday I managed to get caught up in a twitter dialogue about which field of study mattered most, the humanities or information technology. Well, I can now positively assert that the two aren’t necessarily incompatible.

As I learned this week, it seems that in the ‘agile’ method of software design, a key component is the ‘user story’. Now, at the prosaic level of day-to-day reality, this is just a description of how people would use the application you
re trying to build, and for what purpose. But today I’m in the San Francisco Bay Area and that has always been a bit of a special place, somehow at one remove from ordinary reality.

In an office with a view over the Bay, awash with sunshine under clear blue skies, I found it hard not to let my mind drift into idle musings over the words themselves. A user story, I found myself pondering, really ought to start with the words ‘once upon a time’. The first figure on the scene might be a young man in pursuit of his fortune, his belongings in a handkerchief tied to a stick over one shoulder, his cat over the other, on his way – his agile way, with a bounce in his step – towards the big city where he’s heard that the streets are paved with IT resources.

Sadly, I didn’t get far into my story. I’d barely begun to sketch in the innkeeper with his beautiful daughter unmoved by the knights and princes queuing up to pay court to her, who would only have eyes for our hero.

Of course, these days knights are mostly grey-suited rather than shining-armoured, and they are borne aloft not by white chargers but by questionable careers in finance or politics, if not both. Princes, meanwhile, are slightly outlandish balding divorcees in their sixties with reactionary views on every subject from architecture to zoology. It’s no wonder that an innkeeper’s daughter worth her salt would see no merit in any of them.

But I couldn’t pursue this rich vein of narrative invention long before being dragged back to a much duller reality. I found myself discussing data fields and function buttons, rather than field mice coachmen or magic wands, and I was forced into the realisation that a user story isn’t necessarily the same thing as a fairy tale.

Not to be confused with a user story

Hey ho. Still, it’s been a good week so far, and I hope we’ll have broken the back of the work before I leave the California sunshine to return to the cheerful grey and invigorating rain back home.

If we do, I’ll feel we’ll have achieved a happy ending. We’ll all live happily ever after. Or at least until the start of the next project.

Monday, 11 June 2012

UK Independence: a cautionary tale

If you’re going to be a conservative, you ought at least to know what you’re trying to conserve. So it astonishes me how little people shouting for Britain to leave the European Union seem to know about the context of their views.

Naturally, I want to try to help those poor benighted people out. Above all, I want to help those who might be tempted to support them. So here’s a little fictional dialogue that may make some of the issues clearer.

The setting is Venice in about 1454. A conversation is taking place between a wealthy merchant and member of the Senate, Girolamo, and his son Giovanni.

Giovanni has become worried about the disunity of the Italian states. He has read Dante’s great diatribe against it, ‘Oh, enslaved Italy, hostel to pain, ship without a helmsman in a storm-tossed sea, no lady of provinces but a whorehouse’.

‘He wrote that early last century, but isn’t he right, Dad?’ he asks, ‘aren’t we just a patchwork of little States squabbling with each other while more powerful countries circle round to pick our bones?’

‘Nonsense, son,’ replies Girolamo, ‘Venice is a great power. Our forts and holdings extend through the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean. No-one moves there without our permission.’

‘But the French. They’ve become a great nation. They don’t need to trade with us. They can look after themselves.’

‘You’ve not been to France, my boy. When you go you’ll find a country that likes to eat well, and eating well means using all those clever spices. Where do you think they come from?’

‘Spices? Our future depends on spices?’

‘Don’t underestimate the importance of food. We are what we eat. And the French want to eat well. Not a peck of pepper comes in from the Levant without paying dues to us. And there’s a windswept island up north of France where the food’s even worse and they pay even more. We may not have them by the balls but we’ve got them by the stomach, and that’s the route to a man’s wallet.’

‘But... how much control do we still have? Really? I mean, we couldn’t stop the Turk taking Constantinople last year. That’s another one of these big powerful States. What chance has a bunch of little islands in a lagoon against them?’

‘A bunch of little islands?’ Girolamo was getting angry. ‘What about our holdings in Crete? In Greece? all along the Adriatic?’

He was afraid of his father’s reaction but Giovanni couldn’t stop himself blurting out: ‘Well, that’s just it. The Turk’s been taking them, hasn’t he? Fortress by Fortress. How long are we going to be the great power you talk about?’

Seriously put out now, Girolamo raised his voice,‘well, not long if your generation is full of that kind of defeatist talk. I’m sorry to hear it. What we need right now is a people ready to re-establish the greatness of our country, not to run it down. In any case, what would you have us do?’

‘Well, if Italy pulled together we’d be a great power ourselves. As big and richer than France. Perhaps than Turkey.’

‘‘Italy’? ‘Italy?’ What the hell is ‘Italy’? You young idealists. There’s never been an Italy. There’s a Florence, a Milan, a Genoa, a Rome, a Naples. We don’t even speak the same language, for God’s sake.’

‘Well, quite similar languages. I admit Neapolitan’s a bit odd, but it only took me a week in Florence to learn to understand Florentine.’

His father pulled open his money bag and pulled out a coin.

‘What’s that?’

‘Well, it’s a gazzetta. One of our coins.’

‘One of our coins. That’s right. Ours. It isn’t a Milanese marengo. It isn’t a Florentine florin. We have our currency because we’re our own nation. And we’re not giving it up.’

‘I bet the Milanese felt the same about their marengo.’

‘Of course they did. What of it?’

‘They’ve fallen to the French. 
You may have noticed.

‘That’s it. Now you’ve really pissed me off. Get the hell out of here. I’ve got work to do.’

Glorious legacy of Venetian grandeur: the harbour at Ragusa
Today it's called Dubrovnik and belongs to Croatia
Over the rest of the century, the Ottoman Turks drove Venice out of its East Mediterranean holdings. Meanwhile, Portugal led the way around Africa to the Indies, and Spain, while trying to find its own route westward, stumbled into the New World.

Venice became irrelevant as a major power. It remained charming and cultured but became a declining backwater until it fell to the French under Napoleon and then got passed the Austrians. Over four centuries after Girolamo’s time, Venice finally woke up to the fact that it made sense to pull together with the other states of the peninsula and contributed to the formation, at last, of Italy.

So when I hear people demanding Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, I'm reminded of Girolamo and the half-baked arguments he came up with.

Our world, dominated by the United States and China and other huge nations coming up behind, makes me think of Benjamin Franklin: ‘We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.’

Wise words. Addressed to those who wanted to break from Britain. Time Britain took them on board too.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

It takes tenacity...

Someone has surely achieved outstanding success if they become a physician in the teeth of the opposition of the medical establishment, even against an outright refusal to allow them to study medicine in their own country; then become active in fighting one of the great cholera epidemics that befell London in the nineteenth century; then found a hospital that is now part of one of the leading teaching institutions in Britain; and finally even win office as mayor of their local town despite not being a voter themselves.

Pretty remarkable, in fact. Particularly if you take into account that the main obstacle to achieving that success was that the person in question was a woman. In England, she was allowed to practice as a nurse and to follow medical education up to the point of passing, with the best marks of her year, the final examination of the Society of Apothecaries – who promptly changed their rules to prevent any further women winning admission. 

She then applied to the leading medical schools of the country, all of which turned her down. When she heard that the Sorbonne Medical School in Paris had just decided to start admitting women, she learned French and studied there, becoming the first female physician to qualify in France. She then returned to become Britain’s first practising woman physician, gaining admission to the British Medical Association which, like the Apothecaries, then changed its rules to prevent any other woman joining – for another nineteen years.

In 1908, she became Mayor of Aldeburgh in Suffolk where she lived, the first female Mayor of an English town. It would be another ten years before British women would be granted the right to vote, twenty before they were granted it on the same terms as men.

Who was this remarkable woman?

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. I first became aware of her when I visited Ipswich Hospital, in the same county as Aldeburgh, and saw its Garrett Anderson building. In London, the University College Hospital Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Wing is the heir of the hospital she founded not far away on the Euston Road.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson: trailblazer

She was born on 9 June 1836, making today another anniversary for women in healthcare. Remember to raise a glass to her achievements. Even if you're not reading this on 9 June.

Above all, remember her when people tell you that things have always been a certain way and keeping them like that is just the natural order.

When they tell you that it is unthinkable that Britain give up on the royal family, that the nation has always been a monarchy and must remain one (which isn’t even true: some of the most substantial progress the country has seen occurred while it was a Republic under Cromwell in the seventeenth century).

When they tell you that the right to bear arms is fundamental in the United States and to give it up would an assault on that nation
’s essence.

When they tell you that Europe is and must be a collection of separate states who at best can cooperate to cover their differences, but can never truly unite.

When they tell you those things, just remember the Society of Apothecaries closing ranks to keep any further women out, the BMA doing the same, the good burghers of Aldeburgh putting a mayor in office while the nation refused her the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

Then think how that behaviour now seems laughable but also a little obscene. Think that the same may happen to many of the bizarre practices we cling to today, because many believe them to reflect immutable and God-given truths. They don
t. And proving they don't just takes tenacity.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Respect for rules and the tea-time of the British soul

My friend Bob Patterson from Kansas has kindly sent me a cartoon that sums up the British sense of order.

It’s true that the British are marked by a terrible respect of rules and conventions. I’ve noticed it in myself.

For years I never wore seatbelts in cars. I just didn’t like them. Then it became a legal obligation. The very next car trip, I conscientiously buckled up and have done so ever since.

Similarly, in the days when not all hotel rooms had hairdryers, I carried a small one with me. Mine had ‘do not wrap cable round dryer’ printed on the side and I carefully followed the injunction, though I resented it, knowing that it was making the job longer and harder. One of the reasons I’m glad to have adopted a much shorter hairstyle is that it makes a hairdryer unnecessary, and lets me avoid this existential tussle with my conscience.

Of course, the British don’t always obey the rules. Last year’s looting in various English cities proved the point. But the level of shock that those events generated testifies to how exceptional they are.

Respect for rules may be an amusing and even endearing characteristic of the British. Sometimes however it becomes depressing. We’ve just emerged from a long weekend the government decreed to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee. A few hundred republicans demonstrated against the event; a million took part in London alone.

That’s fine. There isn’t so much to celebrate in life that one should turn down the opportunity for a good party. It’s just sad that it has to take this form. All these royal pageants are opportunities for people who owe their status to birth or wealth (and often both) to disport themselves for the adulation of others. It’s always us watching them.

And what about the person at the centre? I’m constantly told the Queen does a great job, but what is that job? Keeping her mouth shut on politics? She certainly does that well. Unfortunately, politics also requires people who open their mouths and occasionally take difficult decisions. Those people we call politicians and we generally loathe them. But they’re the ones with the real job.

The other side of her work is to head the royal family. There her record is lamentable. She forced her sister Margaret to abandon a love match and into a miserable marriage that ended in acrimony. Both her daughter Anne and her son Andrew had failed marriages. Most spectacularly of all, she drove her son and heir Charles away from the love of his life (who’s back with him now, as it happens) and into a marriage with a fairy-tale princess, and we know how badly that ended.

Indeed, if there was one point where the British seemed to have lost all faith in the Queen, it was following the death of Princess Diana. The depth of sorrow that followed that event was surprising; what’s galling is how quickly it’s been forgotten.

But it isn’t just because she’s done so little to merit all this deference that I’m unhappy about it, it’s because the attitude spills over into real politics. The British tend to be obsequious to those they see as ‘betters’ even though, when we inspect their behaviour, we find there’s nothing superior about it. 

Take David Cameron and George Osborne, our present Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Theyre running one of the most incompetent and least compassionate of governments in living memory. 

Following the 2008 crash, the worst since the great depression, Labour had Britain back to growth by the end of 2009; Cameron and Osborne have taken us back into recession and it looks like being a long one. They’ve done that despite harsh measures against the most vulnerable in society: the sick, the handicapped, the old, the poor.

They’re phenomenally wealthy, they were born to privilege – Eton, Oxford, open doors at top levels of the economy – and have never had to strive for anything. One of the most common criticisms of them from people who know them is that they’re lazy – they’ve never had to work hard so they haven’t developed the habit.

But that high birth, that privilege are to a great number of people the very characteristics that qualify them for high office, as if it were their birthright.

That all fits with the inclination to take the royal family so seriously. In turn, the fixation with royalty seems closely associated with our excessive respect for rules. That’s funny when it makes it impossible to wrap a cord around a hairdryer; it’s less amusing when it leads to handing political power over to a pair of self-centred dilettantes.

Still, I can’t go on. It’s time for tea. I’ve got to leave you. Don't want to be late getting my cuppa ready.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Europe: remembering past tribulations, facing today's

Strange to think that 68 years ago today the French Chanel coast was facing a massive onslaught by American, British, Commonwealth and indeed French troops. Ranged against them were the tenacious defenders of German domination of the European Continent. 

Strange because given how well those nations are all getting on these days, it’s hard to believe there was a time when so much as a hard word passed between them. 

My father, in the Royal Air Force at the time, flew over the landing beaches. His comment? ‘I was bloody glad I wasn’t in those German defences under that naval bombardment. Even from 10,000 feet it looked fearsome.’

6 June 1944.
Nice if we can avoid the violence next time we decide to get closer
These days the stakes are different. Far from trying to drive the Germans out, the French toady are trying to lock them in.

‘You’re the ones with the money,’ they’re saying, ‘and a lot of it you made from trading on favourable terms with the rest of us. Time to give some back by helping us stop the collapse of our banking sector.’

Of course, that does beg the question of why we’re so keen on the banking sector. When the coal mines went in this country, in the days of Thatcher, no-one said ‘hey, can’t we find a few billion to keep them open and protect those jobs?’ For bankers, it seems, things are different.

Actually, I’m particularly bemused by the argument that bankers’ bonuses have to be kept obscenely high on the basis that we might otherwise lose the best ones. I mean, if those were the best – and look at the mess we’re in – what could the worst possibly be like? Wouldn’t it be great if we just regulated the banks into a corner? Then if ‘the best’ of them decided to slope off to Shanghai, we could just say good riddance. I don’t think we’d miss them.

But still, let’s allow the premiss that European banks do need baling out. It does seem to make sense that the wealthiest nation in the Continent acts as everyone’s banker. It’s a welcome consequence of the election of François Hollande in France that more people are beginning to say the same and even Angela Merkel is moderating her stance a little.

At this rate, they might save the Euro and even keep the Greeks in it. A long shot, but who knows, if things go the way they’re suggesting they might just pull it off.

Which is why The Guardian has been taking the position over the last couple of days that we are at the start of a crucial three-week period for the Eurozone. That’s a pronouncement that I’d take more seriously if I could think of a three-week period in the last few years which hasn’t been crucial for the Euro.

The result of moves towards closer economic and even political cooperation is that we might see more of a union between the 17 Eurozone members, something beginning to look like a United States of Europe.

But that means another great tradition will have been maintained. Because when those troops landed on the Normandy beaches, back on 6 June 1944, it was only the second successful invasion across the Channel in a millennium, the previous being William the Conqueror’s in the opposite direction in 1066. So the Channel has been a pretty effective obstacle down the ages. And since Britain is not in the Eurozone, if the new European Federation really does begin to form, that branch of sea will remain its frontier. 

If the United States of Europe emerges and we want Britain in, we’ll probably need something pretty well as spectacular as my father witnessed 78 years ago, though it would be a great relief if it could be undertaken with less violence.

So there are many fine traditions to celebrate on this anniversary of the Normandy landings. Still, I can't wrap up without mentioning one that is particularly British: the weather on this day in 1944 was lousy and so it is again today. Which, since I’ve just got back from Madrid and proper summer temperatures, is a shock to the system.

‘Welcome home,’ the rain and wind seemed to say me as I hunted through my suitcase for a jacket.

Still, no reason not to have a happy D-day anniversary, everybody. And if you’re in Britain, wrap up warm.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Orson Wells: pointing the way out of today's problems?

Wandering through a Madrid street the other day, I was struck by the sign on the side of a van: 'Hearst Magazines España'.

A name rich in associations
Hearst. Now there’s a name to conjure with. At a time when we’re all being put to the metaphorical sword by the immensely wealthy and immensely powerful, it was amusing to be reminded of one of the great magnates of the past.

William Randolph Hearst. Newspaper proprietor and for a while a man of influence in US politics, though perhaps not quite as much influence as he liked to believe. Apocryphal stories often contain a grain of truth, if only for what they say of the profile a public figure enjoys. It is almost certainly untrue that when Hearst received a telegram from his reporter in Cuba, Frederic Remington, saying that the situation was quiet and ‘there will be no war’, he replied, ‘please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war.’ Hearst is most unlikely to have been personally responsible for the outbreak of the Spanish-American war, but it’s telling that many believed he might have been.

That makes it all the more ironic to see the Hearst imprint alive and well in Spain, the country he was so keen to drive out of one its last colonial possessions.

My interest in Hearst, though, goes beyond the obscure complexities of a minor war. Hearst was the principal model of Charles Foster Kane and therefore the inspiration behind a film which still appears near the top of most people’s list of the best ever, Citizen Kane. The film did lasting damage to both its protagonists, Hearst whose abuse of power it denounced and Wells who found himself the victim of Hearst’s counter-attack, a withering campaign which consigned the film to the RKO studio’s vaults for a quarter of a century.

A battle of titans from which both emerged diminished: it’s the stuff of tragedy.

Hearst also marked my early career in one small way. He came up with a principle of news management that struck me as a brilliant insight, one of those truths which seem self-evident when you hear them but which you’d never independently grasped.

‘News is something somebody doesn't want printed; all else is advertising.’

At a time when I did a little PR work this became a principe that I constantly aspired to but found difficult to achieve. Press releases are so anodyne, so dull, announcing some minor success somewhere, of little interest to anyone but the company that achieved it. The only way to give them a little spice is to include some juicy titbit that will raise a little controversy, cause a little irritation. Not easy to do since the aim of most companies in their PR work is to advertise themselves without courting anything that could possibly rile a competitor.

And then the Hearst name re-emerged explosively one more time, in 1974, when the newspaper magnate’s granddaughter Patty was kidnapped by an obscure outfit called the Symbionese Liberation Front. The next thing we knew of her, she had joined the ranks of her captors and was actively participating with them in a bank raid as well as appearing in their publicity material.

Portrait of a victim:
Patty Hearst in Symbionese Liberation Army propaganda
In 1976, she was convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to 35 years imprisonment. She served 22 months before her sentence was commuted by Jimmy Carter and finally quashed when Bill Clinton gave her an amnesty.

A true parable for our times. Her grandfather bought himself a slice of politics but left enough money for his granddaughter to purchase some judicial relief. One imagines that it might not have been so easy to pass herself off as the victim of the group she so actively supported had she been born in a trailer park or, perish the thought, had black skin.

What a relief that from time to time an Orson Wells comes along to speak out against abuses of power. In our own way and at our own level, we need to do the same as loudly as ever.

Amusing that a van sign briefly glimpsed in a Madrid street can spark off such a chain of reasoning.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Financial crisis: channeling help to the right people

It’s instructive to be in Spain when so many, not least those fine minds who power the credit rating agencies, are writing it off as the next European basket case.

In Madrid this morning, I helped two friends set up a stand for their hand-made products, as part of a craft market containing a dozen or more others. As well as a tribute to the talents and skills of the craftsmen and artists there, the market also demonstrated the way that the drive and entrepreneurial spirit Spain needs is still alive and well, despite the nation's difficulties.

Young entrepreneurs waiting expectantly for their first clients
Later I went to get coffee and was struck by another example: a café just opened, the seventh in a local chain launched just five or six years ago.

Rollcall of addresses: a tribute to café chain's success
Restaurants, shops, cafés were trading, employees working in them, customers spending money.

The real economy, in other words, remains alive and thriving. And yet I keep reading that Spain is lined up to be the next Greece, the next domino to fall in the slow and agonising unravelling of the Euro. There’s no sign of it on the streets, but it’s happening anyway. Why?

The august credit ratings agencies wouldn’t agree, but my feeling is that we’ve lost sight of what a banking sector is for. It’s there to support the real economy, not to supplant it. At the most basic level, it should help individuals by looking after their money until they need it. It should also provide credit to do the things that require funds up front. It can even help insure against risk.

But that’s all it should do: help the people who are making real things or delivering real services. On no account should it be allowed to take over from them and dictate the conditions in which they work.

That, sadly, is what happened back in the eighties, in the time of Reagan and Thatcher. We took all restraint off the financial sector. We said, ‘go ahead, knock yourselves out, make as much money as you want from making as much money as you can.’ And they did.

The leading lights of the finance world didn’t do that in a judicious or responsible way. If they saw some other banker making money, they piled in to try to make money the same way. In fact, they were always trying to guess how somebody else would try to maximise earnings so that they could get in there fast behind them – or even better, get in there first.

That’s why you got herd behaviour in finance, everyone scrambling into the same area of potential profit. Like eight-year olds playing football, all trying to get at the ball at the same time. Only we expect our financial ‘experts’ to be better than eight-year olds.

In fact, we have such high expectations of them, that we continue to support them in every way we can. Spain, with its 25% unemployment, is going to pump a load more money into the banks, because it can’t afford to let them fail. So bankers continue to pay themselves obscene bonuses, demand that the public finance their extravagance, and loudly proclaim the necessity for austerity which sacrifices everyone else’s life chances and keeps making things worse.

What I'm seeing in Spain is a picture which I'm sure is the same everywhere: people know what needs to be done and only need the opportunity to do it.

Its time we started to provide the support that will make that possible. Because at the moment all we seem to be doing is working for the bankers.

Wouldn’t it be great if they started to work for us again? 

Particularly now that we’ve paid to save their bacon for them? 

And especially as their way of doing things seems to be working so badly?

Friday, 1 June 2012

The plane truth

There was a time when flying was the luxury form of travel. Quick, comfortable, imbued with the spirit of service. Expensive.

Today, after a 4:00 a.m. start and trying to catch up on sleep in a seat that won’t even recline, it’s hard to believe it was ever like that. Instead of enjoying the experience, you have to look for small mercies to compensate for the discomfort. Like the young woman in the plastic coronet, on the ‘Princess Hen Party’ trip, leading her squealing friends’ mass flirtation with the nice-looking steward working the duty-free trolley.

Nice-looking but above all-gay looking. Still, I suppose that what seems insuperable at other times becomes merely a challenge if you start drinking early enough.

The Princess Hen Party hits Madrid:
and just when Spain thought it had enough trouble
Then there are the announcements. ‘Please observe the no-smoking policy on board this plane.’

I wonder what that means. Does observing the policy oblige me to scrutinise all those fine non-smokers? And if one person lights up, will the whole exercise have been in vain? Will all my observations have, as it were, gone up in smoke?

It’s enough to make me want to reach for a cigarette.

The Spanish equivalent asked for us to 'respect’ the policy. At least that’s easier to do. I admire it profoundly. Just wish I didn
t have to be in a plane to indulge my admiration.

Observation and respect. So much more elegant, I suppose Easyjet thinks, than a simple injunction: 
'please do not smoke in the plane’. I was much more impressed by the Easyjet stewardess who I heard, some years ago, announcing that if she caught any of us smoking, shed oblige us to leave the plane.

On landing, she expressed the hope that ‘you’ve enjoyed flying with Easyjet as much as we’ve enjoyed taking you for a ride.’

Though of course the real compensation for this purgatorial experience is nothing to do with the minor amusements of the flight itself and everything to do with getting where we’re going. Madrid. To two of our sons and our daughters-out-law. And the other son who’s travelled out with our granddaughter.

Worth a great deal of discomfort and expense, even the feeling that we may have been taken for a ride. And all thanks to the Old Lady of Windsor. Sixty years she’s spent on the throne, a matter a that excites the enthusiasm of a surprising number of my countrymen but which strikes me as merely a historical oddity: she
 s been around significantly longer than the first Elizabeth, a little less than Victoria. 

I’d like to say ‘a harmless historical oddity’ but when I think about what happened to Princess Margaret and Princess Diana, I’m not sure I can.

Still, it’s given us a good long weekend and the opportunity for a gathering of our bit of the clan in a fine European capital. As well as a chance to observe, and no doubt respect, a nation struggling to cope with some of the worst effects of the Euro crisis. All good stuff.

One might think it was enough to make a royalist of me, but it isn’t. Unearned privilege and status? It’s like non-reclining seats. Nothing will reconcile me to them.

Happy and Glorious:
so good of her to make it easy to get away
when she's having one of her periodic bashes