Sunday, 30 September 2012

Terrorist or Freedom fighter?

The phrase ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter’ is generally greeted with cries of horror.

‘Bankrupt relativism’, ‘an apology for terrorism’, ‘softness on crime’ are the most common, or at least most printable reproaches. Inevitably it’s supporters of the establishment who most loudly voice them, those whose outlook is essentially conservative. Unforgiving towards crime of any kind, and certainly towards any threat of violence, they are uncompromising towards a stance that seems ready to make concessions towards illegal military activity.

So this is a good weekend to look back at a time when the British establishment at least took a completely different view. And what emerge was exactly the same kind of moral relativism that it otherwise denounces so robustly.

It’s a commonplace to define the state as the body that holds a monopoly over ultimate violence. Only the state can make arrests (even in that extremely rare occurrence, a ‘citizen’s arrest’, the citizen is acting on state authority, and had better be able to justify himself in those terms if called on). Only the state can legally imprison. And only the state has the authority to raise and use armed forces.

When occasionally groups of individuals try to form themselves into organised armed groups to achieve their political ends, the state tends to take a dim view and most of society usually agrees. The people who try to to do so and, sadly, quite a few who are simply suspected of helping, get gaoled for a long time. Indeed, many of those who make the attempt outside the US may even be granted the privilege of a free trip to that country, where they receive free board and lodging indefinitely, and even have their clothing costs covered, at least at the orange jump suit level.

So it’s instructive to discover that if the establishment itself is sympathetic towards the cause espoused, it tends to be a lot more indulgent towards illegal military activity taken to advance it. When Edward Carson launched the Ulster Covenant 100 years last Friday, he threatened to use ‘all means necessary’ to resist the pressure towards home rule for Ireland.

Since he had already helped found the Ulster Volunteers, which would later accept support from Germany to become a paramilitary organisation, it was clear that the means necessary would not stop short of the use of armed force.

The British establishment was facing a serious threat of violence. But it was aimed at preserving Ireland within the United Kingdom, which wasn’t a view entirely frowned upon by most members of that establishment. A quandary for those fine upstanding figures in society.

So it will come as no surprise that Carson didn’t find himself in the 1912 equivalent of a jump suit, behind bars or in any other way incommoded in his political or social career. Not that he never faced a judge: in fact in February 1921, he faced six of them, all Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. The effect was slightly mitigated, however, by the fact that he had just become the seventh member of their august band, with in compensation for his efforts a peerage to go along with the appointment.

It seems that one man’s jump suit is another man’s ermine cloak.

Lord Carson's statue outside the Northern Ireland Parliament
Honouring a fine patriot or a dangerous rebel?

Since this is the weekend of the centenary of Carson’s insurgency, I intend to raise a glass to the historic event this evening. I hope you’ll join me, in spirit at least. Let’s toast that much-maligned though wonderfully expedient stance, that of moral relativism.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

A big hand for handiwork

Wouldn’t it be great if we learned to value manual work properly? Especially if that meant being in less awe of the men (and tiny number of women) who draw their seven-figure salaries by getting others to push ten-figure numbers around computer screens. Particularly since manual work doesn’t usually put the whole world economy into a tailspin.

All these thoughts came to me yesterday morning while visiting old friends in Alsace. Regular readers of this blog will remember that this region is in eastern France. I stress the fact because just before I left I had a kind e-mail from a friend wishing me a good break ‘in Germany’. Three moments of extreme unpleasantness in three generations (the second and third better known as the First and Second World Wars) tested whether Alsace was in Germany and established that it wasn’t.

we were visiting a family of Germans who came to live here over sixty years ago. The founder of the dynasty died earlier this year and his son René and son-in-law Tibi have taken over the glassblowing business he set up and lived from for half a century. Tibi embodies what it means to be a modern European: he’s a Hungarian-speaking Romanian, married into a German family living in France. 

He showed me around the workshop.

‘Artistic glassblowing is great, but you can’t live by it,’ he told me, ‘so we build precision glass equipment for chemistry labs.’

Fun to put grapes inside a glass but it doesn't pay the bills

The works are only minutes away from the Swiss city of Basel with its huge pharmaceutical and chemical industries.

‘We blow the end of one short tube of glass into a concave shape, another into a convex one. My job is to grind both ends until they fit together perfectly: the pieces move unhindered against each other but without allowing water or impurities to slip between them.’

The work is slow and painstaking. But it has one huge advantage: no-one has yet come up with a way of automating it.

It also belongs to along tradition of scientific work. My physics teacher at school had done his PhD under no less a figure than Ernest Rutherford, the Nobel laureate.

‘He illustrated a principle of his work to me once,’ my teacher told us, ‘with a story about C. T. R. Wilson.’ Wilson is best known to the general public, if he is known at all, as the inventor of the cloud chamber.

‘Rutherford met him in Birmingham when he was over on a visit from the US, and found him grinding a glass stopper to make a hermetic seal with a bottle.’ Watching Tibi on his grinding machine this morning reminded me of the story. ‘Five years later, Wilson was back in this country and Rutherford saw him in London. And, unbelievably, he was grinding the same bottle stopper.’

The story was told to show how patient scientific work has to be. Now I don’t believe Wilson had really been grinding for five years, but I do believe Tibi when he says that on top form, he can finish 35 pieces of his work, but it can be far fewer. And a batch contains 1000. He grinds them all to an accuracy of a hundredth of a millimetre.

The daily grind: Tibi inspects his work for accuracy
 They all help support research which might ultimately benefit the whole of mankind by increasing the efficiency of processes or delivering new cures for diseases.

They aren’t likely to cause the whole of the world’s financial system to fall apart at the seams.

They are never going to give the skilled artisan working on them a seven-figure bonus.

A useful reminder that we may have some work to do sorting out our sense of priorities.

Part of the latest batch of a thousand

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Shakespeare at 14, Joyce at 60

It’s extraordinary how many self-appointed experts claim that what modern education needs is a proper grounding in the basics. You know. Shakespeare. Dickens. To say nothing of fractions. And dates in history.

Pontificating politicians from across the political spectrum make this claim. Pundits of the right unsurprisingly proclaim it, but to my disappointment so do people who ought to know better on the left.

In my view, those who feel kids ought to learn dates lack a fundamental quality for the study of history: a memory. They’re obviously incapable of recalling their schooldays and the murder of memorising dates, particularly at an age when dates are things you crave for not things you learn by rote. A sense of chronology is useful in history, but you could probably work out that the Second World War came after the First without precise knowledge of the dates of either.

The study of fractions is even more ghastly. Who on earth has ever needed to know, outside a classroom, what 4/17 of anything was? The only time you ever get anywhere near this kind of division is when you’re cutting up a cake and, hey, all you do is cut the slices small so it goes round with some left over for the greedy ones.

And it’s just as bad with literature. Great books? Oh, you mean Dickens? Or Shakespeare? I bet you the Bard would be mortified (if he weren’t already dead) at the idea of nearly twenty generations of kids being bored mindless by great chunks of incomprehensible blank verse. What fourteen-year old know or cares what it means to make your quietus with a bare bodkin?

A really inspirational teacher can bring all this stuff to life. I remember my boys quoting chunks of Macbeth to each other, at home. Forsooth. It was the most striking testimony to a fine teacher. But such teaching is rare and most kids leave school convinced that there is nothing duller than Shakespeare, except perhaps Dickens.

It’s curious, however, that there comes a time in life when you can suddenly discover a taste for all these things. I read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was about sixteen and was fascinated by it, as well as appalled by the description of hell. I switched to Ulysses. Utterly turgid. Stream of consciousness? It left me unconscious within minutes.

And that view stuck with me for over four decades. Until a couple of weeks ago when I downloaded an audio version of the book. What a fabulous novel! A pace that just whips along. Writing full of humour and charm. A real delight.

I had to get the Kindle version too so that I could check up on some of the material and it’s as much fun to read as to listen to. Turgid? You’ve got to be kidding.

That fine Dublin fellow Joyce.
Worth waiting to get to know
But Ive realised all that as I approach my sixtieth birthday. Trying to foist Ulysses on me in my teens would have put me off completely. 

What we need to communicate to teenagers is simply a desire to read anything at all, a sense that there’s pleasure in it. And let them read what they like. Pride and Prejudice if they want, Harry Potter if they prefer.

So why is there this deadly consensus that we need to force kids to deal with the classics at a time when they have no interest in them? Why impose on them what we found deadly when we were their age? Why do we think that what we hated is good for others?

But here we’re at the central question of power in society. It’s wielded by people who have little feeling for other people’s concerns.

And the worst of it? Some of them get into positions of power precisely because they share those concerns and want to help. Somehow it’s the very fact of holding power that drives the fellow-feeling out of them.

My message? Wake up. Don’t tell others what they should be doing, particularly if you wouldn’t be prepared to do it yourselves.

And, in particular, stop forcing Shakespeare on fourteen-year olds. Let them decide when they want to get to know classic writing. Even if they only meet Joyce at sixty.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Our glorious colours: launching a Frenchman

It’s one thing to make a Frenchman, and only a few days ago I described some of the obstacles that give the process its charm. But just making one is only the first step. Another challenge arises when the time comes to launch your Frenchman on the great stream of life.

My son Michael was my first contribution to the land of liberty, equality and fraternity. I’m glad to say that he has a great many sterling qualities, but have to admit that getting organised isn’t always one of them. In fact, getting up isn’t always one of them.

Some years ago, the French government decided to listen to its military leaders who argued, as they argue in most places, that a bunch of frustrated and unwilling young men is not the stuff with which to build an effective army. So it abolished conscription.

But governments don’t like simply giving things away, even when making concessions to the people, so they kept a symbolic memento of military service, the ‘day of the citizen’: young people have to spend a day at a military centre being taught and tested about the rights and duties of citizens of our great Republic.

Demanding, and deserving, honour.
And Michael and I did all in our power to serve her well
The family was living in Strasbourg at the time but Michael was studying in Paris. As a result he missed the first session to which he was summoned.

A friend of ours was a sergeant-major in the army. We spoke to him when Michael was back in Strasbourg.

‘No problem,’ he said, ‘I’ll get him enrolled for another session.’

On this second occasion, Michael failed to set his alarm and missed the day by oversleeping.

Back I went to the sergeant-major. ‘I’ll do this one last time,’ he said, ‘but he’d turn up because he won
’t get a third chance.’

Our friend cruelly arranged the session not in Strasbourg but in another town an hour and a half away by train. This may have been punishment aimed at Michael, but I shared the pain with him: I was up at the crack of dawn to ensure that he was at the station on time.

Neither of us was in particularly good mood when we turned up on the platform, at 6:00 int the morning, unrested and with insufficient coffee inside us. Once there, however, our mood changed. The great glass vault above our heads was filling with bright dawn sunshine. The deserted platforms alongside the glistening rails conjured up all the romantic dreams that seem to follow those tracks into the unknown.
Haunting images of difficult farewells

And simultaneously we both felt the sense of being in a scene we had each watched countless times in films in time of war, which the father accompanies his son on the fraught journey to the train taking him away to serve his nation.

I turned to Michael and solemnly shook his hand. ‘Son,’ I said, ‘remember that what you do today you do for France. Do nothing that will bring shame to our glorious colours.’

He shook my hand back with equal seriousness. ‘Dad,’ he said, ‘don’t worry. I’m sure it’ll all be over by Christmas.’

In the event it was all over by that evening.

Friday, 21 September 2012

The woman in white

Picture a young woman living in her childhood home, with memories, comforts, sorrows all about her. At the back is a garden that grows and changes through the year, blazing and subsiding, following and moulding her moods.

As she grows older, it’s the sorrows that grow with her. Death haunts her. She chooses men as mentors rather than lovers, but they die around her, some of them lamentably young: one who had been sending her the books that fuelled a blossoming imagination, at only 25. ‘Some of my friends are sleeping,’ she sighs, ‘sleeping the churchyard sleep.’

She is hemmed in, at first metaphorically but soon literally. And voluntarily. She stops leaving town, even for short journeys. Next it is her house. Increasingly, it is her room, except to return to the garden. She starts to dress only in white: ‘a solemn thing – it was – I said – a Woman – White – to be.’ She would rather conduct conversations with visitors from behind a door than face to face.

And yet, she’s a social being. But at a distance. She prefers to correspond with her friends, her tutors, her companions in thought. And correspond she does, prolifically, hundreds of letters. With one in later life she exchanges letters every Sunday, since they both prefer communicating with each other to communing with their co-religionists. ‘Tuesday,’ she says, of the day after she receives his letters, ‘is a deeply depressed day.’

For words are her consolation. Words that well out of her, words that capture essence, words that express what escapes most of us.

Yet generally we need a subject before we can produce words. In her room, what could she find to talk about? Certainly, hers was a life not marked by dramatic event. Except of course for death, and mortality, immortality and eternity are recurring themes.

But spellbinding words don’t have to have grand themes. From her window, in her garden there was more than enough to paint: the slow effects of time, the changing of the light and the colours, the succession of the seasons. And with her words she painted them all.

The summer came late in England this year. Not fashionably late, to ensure that we were all ready and waiting before it arrived. Practically at the end of the party, with some of the guests already drifting away to more congenial settngs, it showed up like someone who has been out to dinner with more favoured friends before making a token appearance among us.

That hasn’t stopped it dazzling us with its charms. The summer’s far too vain to turn up looking less than its most impressive, if it turns up at all. Here in the South of England we’ve had the pleasure of warmth, without the oppression of heat; sudden blazing sunrises; floods of horizontal light in the afternoon; majestic sunsets flowing into balmy evenings. 

But summer's late arrival has not been free of consequences. Glorious they may be, but those sunsets come much too soon. I need a bike light these days for the ride home from the station. And when I take my dog Janka for her morning walk, as often as not I have to wait for the sun to show itself.

The sun keeps Janka and me waiting in People's Park
So it was with a shiver of recognition that I listened, out on a walk, to these words of the woman in white:

As imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away,
Too imperceptible, at last,
To seem like perfidy.

There is a strange poignancy in hearing a poem that expresses the very feelings you're experiencing.

The dusk drew earlier in,
The morning foreign shone
A courteous, yet harrowing grace,
As guest who would be gone.

Summer was a gentle guest here too, so welcome when it turned up at last. But now it
’s leaving us just as it left her. A melancholy moment, and yet less so because I know I’m sharing a sentiment so delicately expressed by that wordsmith in white, a century and a half ago, sitting in her room or in her garden in Amherst, Massachussets.

For that consolation 
  thank you, Emily Dickinson.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Syria: when the West sits on its hands

It’s harrowing to watch the news footage from Syria. A warplane turns gracefully in the sky, taking its time to choose a target before it glides in and bombs another house, killing some more children, a family, some old people, occasionally a rebel or two. On the ground men and women scream and cry and plead for help from the West. 
Syrian warplane gracefully killing women and children in Aleppo

Of course they call on us: in their position my anger at the wealthy and powerful nations who are sitting on their hands would be exactly the same.

‘Why don’t you intervene?’ I would scream, ‘Why don’t you help? Is it because we don’t have oil? After all what’s happening here is just what you set out to prevent in Libya.’

But that’s just the point at which natural sympathy for a people being massacred by a vile government has to pause a moment and take stock.

Because how well did that go in Libya? Did our military intervention there usher in a new era of peace and democracy? With the US Ambassador, Chris Stevens, killed there a week ago, is that even a question worth asking?

There are no doubt people in Libya keen to build a new nation conceived in liberty. But there seem to be many looking for something quite different. Perhaps a theocratic autocracy. Perhaps an opportunity to settle scores with another tribe. Perhaps just the perpetuation of a low-intensity conflict which serves them well.

The idea of perpetual conflict is hardly unrealistic. The fighting shows no sign of ending in Afghanistan. Today we learned that NATO has decided to suspend joint patrolling with Afghan forces in small units, since there have been so many occasions when Afghan soldiers have rounded on their supposed colleagues in NATO and killed them: 36 attacks this year costing 51 lives.

And what about the longest-standing of the Western attempts to force enlightenment on the Arab-speaking world? In a burst of optimism, Iraq brought in a power-sharing regime in 2005. Tareq al-Hashemi served as Vice President under a Shia President. Last December he fled for his life, a decision he presumably regards as one of his more judicious, since last week he was sentenced to death in his absence. Only on Monday, he accused his former colleagues in government of helping Iran pass weapons through to the Syrian government, rather confirming the widespread view that if there was a victor in the Iraq War, it was the Tehran regime which hugely extended its influence in the country.

Coincidentally, Monday was also the occasion of the latest in the unbroken series of bombings that have rocked Iraq ever since Dubya Bush declared his ‘mission accomplished’. The latest left at least seven dead in Baghdad and 24 injured.

The West has proved itself good at taking military action but lamentable at building a legacy behind it. At least, not the kind of legacy anybody would honour.

Meanwhile, back in Syria itself, a report issued on Monday by Human Rights Watch suggests that there are elements of the rebel army whose behaviour is no more commendable than the government’s: they have been torturing and killing their opponents just as the regime tortures and kills its own. Perhaps we are beginning to discover, in time on this occasion, what we discovered far too late in Libya: just opposing Basher al-Assad or Muammar Gaddafi doesn’t necessarily make you a nice guy.

Supporting disreputable characters wouldn’t be new in the history of Western intervention in the region. Let’s not forget that the West spent a long time supporting and arming the Taliban against the Soviets in Afghanistan before we decided these erstwhile friends were a pretty nasty bunch too. If you haven’t seen Charlie Wilson’s War make a point of watching it now (and not just for the lesson: the script’s by Aaron Sorkin, of West Wing fame).

That news footage from Syria is as harrowing as ever. But, though my heart goes out to them, when I hear the persecuted civilians on the ground calling out for Western help, my inclination now is to say ‘be careful what you wish for.’ We’re good at delivering poisoned chalices but they’re not good presents.

It sounds heartless to say it, but bad though things are, I firmly believe that the West should hold to its present attitude and stay sitting on its hands. The alternative could be a lot worse. And last a lot longer.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Making a Frenchman

It isn’t generally considered a pleasure to be questioned by a security service anywhere, so when it happened to me it came as a surprise to find it a congenial experience. 

Imagine a scene straight out of a French police thriller. A nondescript and anonymous office, desks piled high with files and fitted with anglepoise lamps. Among then move, with surprising lightness of foot, burly shirt-sleeved men in their thirties or forties, who look as though they should be sweating even if they aren’t, and younger men, thin and wiry and dangerous. The younger ones are in dark teeshirts and jeans, the elder ones in white shirts and suits from which they have discarded their jackets, all of them purposeful in their actions, as though whatever your concerns, theirs are higher, more serious and far more urgent. 

The setting. Well, something like it

In my memory, there was a smell of gitanes in the air, though that can’t be right: smoking in French public offices had already been banned. Nor were there small empty coffee cups on the desks though there should have been.

The scene was in the Strasbourg offices of what in those days were called the Renseignements Généraux, the French internal intelligence service. My interrogation concerned my request to be honoured with citizenship of the Republic. Would Marianne gather me in as one of her own or not?

Marianne: would she make me hers?
Danielle had been placed on a chair a little way behind me, so I couldn’t see her without turning; that focused my attention on the shirt-sleeved burly inquisitor in front of me.

It had taken a long time to get to this stage. French administration is Olympian in its majesty but far from Olympic in its speed. Danielle and I had previously found the conventional way of producing Frenchmen a lot quicker, though it did involve her in some uncomfortable moments nine months in. The bureaucracy, on the other hand, grinds forward glacier-like and your best bet is to adapt to its pace, because nothing you can do will speed it up.

I learned that lesson early in my time in France: do things the way the Administration wants or you won’t do them at all. France introduced me to the obligation to produce utility bills – it was a shock to discover, when we moved back to Britain, that the habit had wormed its way in over here too. A phone bill? To me it had always been a grubby piece of paper with irritatingly large figures on it. Now it was an essential component of my identity.

In Britain, face to face with officials, you can occasionally persuade them that you don’t fit a particular category and get things done in a slightly different way. In France, no chance. It’s by the book or not at all. And not just in the public service. A friend had successfully negotiated all but the last step in obtaining a French mortgage. As he was about to sign the agreement, the junior employee in the bank said to him:

‘Now I only need your payslips for the last three months.’

Payslips? My friend was self-employed. He had no payslips.

‘Well, I am sorry, it is necessary to see three months of payslips. Without them we shall be unable to proceed. I regret it.’

My friend stepped out of the bank. Opposite was a stationer’s. The sight was the trigger for a Damascene moment.

‘The bank wants three bits of papers. Stationers sell paper.’

He went in and bought a pad of pre-printed payslip forms and filled three of them in for himself.

‘Ah, but Monsieur,’ said the previously regretful employee in the bank, ‘why did you not give these to me at once? These are exactly what we require. Now we shall happily complete our transaction.’

And my friend got his mortgage.

I had learned that lesson and had gone with the flow over French naturalisation. The interview with the security service was merely the next, necessary step in a long process, and though nervous I was more than willing to undergo the questioning.

It didn’t take long for the officer handling the ticklish matter of interrogating this representative of perfidious Albion to turn his attention to a matter of real concern.

‘Have you ever murdered anyone?’

Funnily enough, this rather took the sting out of proceedings. I briefly considered breaking down and confessing in sobs that I had indeed done away with the infuriating neighbour with leaky earphones and lousy taste. ‘Would you like me to show you where I buried the body?’ I would have blurted out. But fortunately cooler counsel prevailed and I toned down my reply.

‘No,’ I said after reflection, ‘though I’ve frequently been tempted.’

‘Your wife?’ he said with a broad smile that quickly turned into a gale of laughter.

I turned to look at her. She was making an admirable effort to join in the hilarity but the smile looked wan.

The final stage of the process was an appearance in front of a judge. We turned up and found the waiting room filled with perhaps fifty other couples, but we were the only one in which both partners were white. It therefore came as no surprise that we were called first: the same phenomenon occurs at border crossings where, if we have a coloured friend or relative in the car with us, we can be sure we'll be stopped and questioned, whereas if there are only whites present, we get waved through.

The judge took very little time over us.

‘I only wish to know,’ she said, ‘why it is you ask for French nationality. As  British you have the right to live and work here anyway.’

‘Oh,’ I floundered, ‘I suppose I would just like...’

‘Please don’t worry,’ she helped me out, ‘this will not prevent you obtaining the nationality. I only ask from curiosity.’

‘Well, I’d like to be able to vote.’

‘As, yes, I see,
 she said, already signing the papers, ‘you wish for complete insertion into the civil life. I understand.’

And that was it. A brand new Frenchman had been minted.

But not a new supporter of the rugby team. At least, not when it turns up to face England.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Royal Indifference

On 31 August 1997, we were staying at my mother-in-law’s house in a little village in upper Alsace, France. 

I stress ‘France’ because of the widespread confusion over whether Alsace is in Germany, a confusion the Germans spectacularly shared on three occasions between 1870 and 1945.

Friends of ours from England were staying in a hotel nearby and joined us for breakfast. Their first words as they came in were ‘do you know about Princess Di?’

We hadn’t heard about her death in a car crash that morning.

In a matter of instants I travelled from incredulity to grief. And that grief led me straight back to incredulity. Why on earth was I so upset?

After all, not a week earlier we had been royally dismissing her highness. She’d been on holiday in a seaside villa where she had complained vociferously about being photographed from boats on the bay and had then chosen to sunbathe on the roof of the house, in about as perfect a position for the photographers as any imaginable.

It seemed an odd way to avoid publicity.

And yet I mourned her death. As did most of my countrymen, though some went a lot further in their grief than I was prepared to follow them.

I never went down to St James’s House to lay flowers. I really couldn’t work up any enthusiasm over whether the Queen had flown a flag at half mast or not. I couldn’t get passionate about Tony Blair’s intense reaction to the event, which I assumed had owed a great deal to perceived electoral advantage anyway.

A sea of flowers in the ocean of grief for Diana's death

Even so, I'd joined many of my countrymen on the roller-coaster ride from disdain to despair, by which we had illustrated, as if illustration were needed, that the opposite of love isn’t hatred but indifference. Clearly, though I had thought myself indifferent to the royal family (a bunch of polo-playing jet setters: how could they possibly speak for me?), I had been less indifferent than I hoped. 

I was apparently caught up in that bizarre love-hate affair between the British people and the royal family that shows no sign of dying down to this day. The Queen’s Jubilee, her cameo performance at the Olympic opening ceremony, stoked the love; but it takes only the slightest provocation to bring out all the worst in prurient spite again, as we’ve seen in the publication of the nude pictures of Prince Harry and now the topless photos of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge.

Ironic that we should have a row over Kates breasts just days after the relaunch of the campaign to stop the Sun newspapers topless page 3 girls.

I seem to have made a little progress since 1997. Had they not been reproduced in a mass-circulation tabloid on sale on every street corner, I would have seen none of the photos of Harry; at least, I didn’t go looking for any.

Similarly, it was a relief to discover that I not only avoided googling Kate’s breasts, I didn’t even have to resist a temptation to do so. I found it more interesting to read about the murder of the US ambassador in Libya which struck me as potentially more significant in our lives. After all, the Kate business had generated vitriol, but Libya produces oil.

Perhaps I’m learning a little of the indifference I was lacking before. It would be a comfort to know that the nation was doing the same, and for two reasons.

First, because this swinging backwards and forwards between adulation and contempt can’t be doing any of us any good.

Second, if we’re ever going to solve some of the problems that beset society, we need to unlearn our cult of deference towards those who claim the prerogative to be considered our betters. Then we’ll be able to learn how to insist on the right to make our own destiny.

It will be a measure of our success that we stop ogling the royals and buying the papers that feed us all the titbits (and the pun
’s deliberate). That will mean mastering our thirst for publicity about them. 

Taking their statements at face value, that ought to please the royals. However, I wonder how happy they would really be at the prospect of drifting out of the public eye.

But by then, in our blessed indifference, why would any of us care what they thought?

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Time to turn page 3?

A new campaign is under way against a hallowed British tradition, that of the ‘page 3 girl’, an institution blessed by 42 years of existence and very little else. For those not fortunate enough to be familiar with the tabloid press of this country, the page 3 girl is the photo of a bare-breasted woman that appears daily on the first inside page of the Sun newspaper.

Well worth reading the piece by
Caroline Criado-Perez (Week Woman)
and the Guardian blog covered the campaign too
I use the word ‘newspaper’ loosely. ‘News’ is the contemporary equivalent of history: it covers the great disasters and occasional triumphs that make one day different from another. It deals with the events that will bore the children of the generation after next when they have to learn about them by rote.

The main concern of the tabloid papers is the story of Everyman: the murders, infidelities and domestic disasters described in the paper today are indistinguishable from those it covered over 40 years ago, when the page 3 girl first began to appear.

Indeed, if the Sun had been around in antiquity, it would have found exactly the same grist for its mill, and would have treated it in precisely the same way: ‘Exclusive: cheating charioteer’s wife stands by him despite naked romp in Rome’.

The page 3 girl is exactly part of that Everyman tradition. It isn’t telling us anything about what makes today different, only about what makes all men exactly the same.

The debate also brings to my mind an old personal experience of my own. Decades ago I worked for a couple of years as a National Insurance Inspector, a licensed busybody making sure everyone was paying their contributions to the State. Hard though this may be to believe, it was enjoyable work, mainly because it got me out of the office about as often as it kept me in it.

On one occasion I had to call on a young woman who’d been doing self-employed work and had got deplorably behind in paying her contributions. I think she was about nineteen though she may have been younger.

I turned up at her family’s large house and was let in by her mother.

‘She’s still in bed,’ the mother told me. It was 10:30 in the morning, but, hey, at 24 I wasn’t at all averse to staying in bed until lunchtime and was only up myself because I had to work. ‘You can go up and see her.’

Again, at 24 the idea of visiting a nineteen-year old in bed didn’t strike me as unduly odd, and the experience certainly wasn’t erotic: she was in a nightdress with a wool cardigan on top (this was an English summer after all) and kept the bed clothes demurely wrapped around herself throughout our interview. Certainly, I had no trouble playing the whole encounter exactly by the book: I asked a few questions, wrote down the answers in a statement, and had her sign it. It took a few minutes.

Back at the office, I was amazed to discover that word of my meeting had spread and caused a considerable buzz. It turned out that her self-employed work was as some kind of minor model and, in particular, she was due to appear in the near future as a Sun page 3 girl.

Coincidentally, the day her picture appeared was the day she came to see me in the office. The interview room had a glass panel set into the door and even I, unobservant as I was, couldn’t but be struck by the number of my male colleagues (including two gays) who trooped past during the meeting.

What surprised me was that the young woman was far from extraordinary: she was simply pretty and pleasant. She behaved towards me courteously and as cordially as one could expect, given that (a) the first time we met she was in bed with a stranger in the room, and (b) I was in a position to create some minor inconvenience in her life over a small offence (but I'm glad to say that didn’t happen). Though I loathe using it, the word that best qualifies my memory of her is ‘nice’ and everything about her was, well, wholesome.

The picture in the Sun (of course I looked: what do you think?) was unrecognisable. Above all, what was wholesome in the flesh became aseptic on the page. The photograph could have been of someone moulded from plastic and had all the allure of an illustration from an anatomy handbook. And whatever life 
I’d seen in the woman I met had been drained from the picture.

In fact, it stood to her just as the story of Everyman stands to news: a little abstract, divorced from actual experience, with none of the grit that makes life puzzling and irresistible.

By today, she will be in her fifties, if she’s still alive. She may be a young grandmother, peacefully married to her husband of thirty years, she may be going through her third divorce and fighting a drink problem, or she may be anywhere else on the scale of human happiness and misery. She may have known great joy or great bitterness or, more likely, the mixture of both which is our general lot.

She will have taken into all that mess and confusion the niceness I saw in her when she was young. It will have been battered but I suspect it is likely to have survived. Then again, I may be wrong and it may have succumbed to difficulties I can barely imagine.

What I’m sure of is that her life was no more aseptic than mine or anyone else
s. It will have been full of pain and dirt and celebration and pleasure. In short, it must have been a great deal more interesting than that dull little picture 35 years ago.

She grew up. I grew up. Perhaps the campaigners are right and it’s time we all grew up.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Winslow Boy: come back, we need you again

Courtroom dramas, even the ones that don’t actually have a scene set in a courtroom, I just can’t resist. 

But I have to admit that my real weak spot is that I’m an absolute sucker for sentimentalism. An apparently deeply unsympathetic character who suddenly breathes some noble sentiment finds a sure way to my heart, if not my tear ducts.

So Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, whether as a play or a film, is my kind of show. A fourteen-year old wrongly accused of stealing a postal order; a father prepared to court ruin to clear his name; the hard-boiled lawyer, perhaps a little taken by the boy’s radical sister, persuaded to be his advocate.

It’s that lawyer who, faced with the quandary of a subject trying to sue the Royal Navy, and therefore his monarch, turns to the archaic device of a petition of right. Whenever I hear him explain that the words on the petition read ‘let right be done’ it brings a lump to my throat.

In other words, the play has everything you could possibly want. Or at least that I could possibly want.

Curiously, however, this is a wonderful illustration of the principle that fact can be far stranger than fiction. Behind the play stands the real case of George Archer-Shee. The defence of young George, who was indeed a Cadet at the Royal Naval College at Osbourne on the Isle of Wight and expelled for stealing a postal order, was taken up by one of the great barristers of the day. His name? Edward Carson.

Martin Archer-Shee with his son George
Now there’ll be plenty more talk of Carson at the end of this month, in Britain but above all in Northern Ireland. For the moment, let me just say that it is instructive to compare his history with that of another dominant figure in Irish politics of the time, Roger Casement. The latter took support and weapons from Germany during the first World War to arm an illegal, insurgent force of Irish Nationalists for an uprising to end British rule. He was convicted of treason and hanged. 

Carson took support and weapons from Imperial Germany to arm an illegal, insurgent force of Irish loyalists, for an uprising to maintain British rule. If not in the whole of Ireland, at least in six counties of the North. His action didn’t take place in wartime which perhaps explains why he escaped the death penalty, but it might seem surprising that he wasn’t gaoled. But only until you realise that the establishment he was railing against in large part sympathised with him.

Instead, he was given a statue that stands to this day outside the parliament of Northern Ireland at Stormont. Larger than life, it’s a dominant sight, and to me at least a deeply ironic one: a legislature honouring a man to whom it owes its existence, thanks to his illegal act.

Carson: dominant as ever
And yet it wasn’t any of this that struck me as I was reading about The Winslow Boy this weekend. No, the words that sprung off the page at me came from a Wikipedia entry on the Archer-Shee case. Talking about the boy’s father, who worked at the Bank of England, it told us that one of the reasons he campaigned so hard to clear his son was that his ‘background in bank management meant all the sons had been brought up to regard misuse of money as sinful.’

Well. These days, that’s an idea as extraordinary as Carson being honoured by the establishment for rising against it. I’d nearly forgotten that there was a time when banking was much duller than today but a lot safer and a lot straighter, making a virtue of prudence, reliability and absolute honesty.

Those were the days, weren’t they? Feel long gone now, when the likes of Bob Diamond and Fred Goodwin can find themselves heading those formerly august institutions. 

Can’t imagine Terence Rattigan writing a play about one of them risking all in the pursuit of justice.

Postscript: what happened next

You might be wondering what became of the original Winslow boy afterwards.

He won his case in 1910, and his family was awarded substantial compensation. He didn’t go back to the Navy – that, as it were, was a ship that had sailed – but completed a civilian education before heading to New York to work in a Wall Street bank: yes, they too enjoyed rather more honourable reputations then than now.

But if you’ve doing any arithmetic on dates, you’ll have worked out that 1910 was a bad year to be a teenager. By August 1914, when the guns of the First World War first roared out, George Archer-Shee was nineteen and old enough to serve. He came back to join the army and lasted only a couple of months: he was killed at the first battle of Ypres in October.

He suffered injustice, but then right was done by him. And finally an irremediable wrong. All at the hands of the same establishment.

Couldnt make it up, could you?

Friday, 7 September 2012

Troubling times

Many years ago, I emerged from a meeting in a hospital, with some of the managers and one of my colleagues, into pleasant sunshine made more attractive by the prospect of a congenial lunch ahead.

Nothing unusual about that. I’ve been working in the healthcare sector since 1985. To be out with a group of executives is normal to the point of banal. The aspect most out of the ordinary, this being the British Isles, was the sunshine.

But then the everything changed. As we stepped off the pavement, we moved into what might have been Beirut. To our right and left, in front and soon behind us were armed soldiers, crouching down with their assault rifles resting in the crook of their elbows, helmets low over camouflage painted faces.

My colleague and I, unnerved, fell silent but the hospital people just kept chatting easily, implicitly answering a question I hadn’t asked: how do we behave now?

And then I had the classic experience of such situations: one of the soldiers looked straight at me and smiled. He was a soldier no more. He was a young man doing his job, and that job meant that what for me was simply a pleasant spring day, for him was a day of wariness in which he was a target.

That moment didn’t take place in Beirut but in Belfast. In the course of more visits to the province than I can count, it was just one of many times I directly felt the effect of what we euphemistically call ‘the troubles’. 

On another, I was struck by the Israeli flags flying in a loyalist area.

‘Is there an official visit?’ I naively asked.

‘No,’ laughed my host on that occasion, ‘some of the nationalist boys have taken to flying Palestinian flags out of solidarity, so the unionists put out Israeli ones.’

Whatever one side did, the other did the opposite. It was sterile, hopeless, unremitting hostility.

But then I was back again soon after the Good Friday agreement. The transformation was extraordinary. 

On my first visit to the city, I’d been put up in the Europa Hotel, which seemed proud of its status as Europe’s most bombed. One side of the building was boarded up, the rooms out of service. The approach to the reception area was through a chicane but, in a very Irish way, unmanned so I could walk through unobserved and unchallenged. Opposite were the offices of the Ulster Unionists, sporting the slogan ‘Keep Ulster British’, which struck me as curious since Ulster isn’t in Britain at all.

As I was on my own, I decided to pop out for a drink in the evening, but quickly abandoned the idea. I’ve never been anywhere so eery. Empty streets, silent pubs, at 9:00 at night. And of course no-one was thinking of anything innovative in the way of food or drink: a sandwich meant two bits of white bread with ham or cheese in between, variety being offered only by the pickle; tea and coffee were virtually indistinguishable in their appearance, and sometimes their taste, served in huge mugs. And the place was bristling with weapons.

In recent years, it’s become unrecognisable. Coffee shops serve cappuccinos and espressos. You can get salads or noodles in fast food shops. Sandwiches are offered with a choice of types of bread, even baguette, and contain outlandish fillings such as brie. Brie? In Northern Ireland? Lord Carson must be spinning in his grave.

And in the evenings? The place is brimming with life. Young people, old people, all sorts of people, wander the streets. The pubs are loud and lively and cheerful. You can get weird cocktails (from experience, some of them very weird), wines, foreign beers. A fun, friendly, fashionable city.

So it’s depressing to see Nationalists and Loyalists rounding on each other again, over who can march where, who can shout what slogans at whom, who can sing what songs outside what buildings.

Going back to old ways?
It was a funny old place back then. But it wasn’t much fun. 

Who on Earth would want to go back to all that?

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

A worried NHS fan, as young as his heart but older than his lungs

It’s not the cough what carries you off, runs the Cockney saying, it’s the coffin they carry you off in.

My cough, with accompanying wheezing, has lasted on and off for the whole summer. I use the word ‘summer’ here in the calendar sense. A cough that lasts two weeks is neither here nor there, really, and that’s the summer we’ve had by the weather. But I’ve had this recurring irritation pretty well since June.

So today I decided it was time to follow my wife’s advice and visit my GP. Or rather not the GP, but the nurse practitioner, a wonderful institution: people with great wisdom rather than learning who can deal with the minor conditions effectively, efficiently and with great affability.

I got tests galore. From my height and weight to my lung capacity. Over a couple of visits it must have taken two to three hours. And apart from the kindness and professionalism I met, one of the striking features of the whole experience was that it was all free. No-one asked me to produce an insurance document. No-one asked me to provide evidence that anything had been pre-approved by some bureaucrat somewhere. Above all, no-one asked me for a credit card.

It always amazes me when friends or colleagues look at the States, where healthcare costs twice as much, and tell me how much better things are over there. Yeah, right.

Not that things over here are all that safe. The poor old NHS has been put through the wringer over the last couple of years by Andrew Lansley, one of the most inept Health Secretaries it’s been my misfortune to come across. He’d had five years as Opposition spokesman beforehand, which suggested he might know what he was talking about, but it was obvious as soon as he got into office that he didn’t have the faintest idea.

We’ve just had a cabinet reshuffle, the opportunity for a competent prime minister to replace dead wood by fine new brains. Unfortunately, instead of a competent prime minister we have David Cameron. I couldn’t think of anyone who might make a worse Health Secretary than Lansley, but Cameron is unbeatable: he’s found just the man.

I’d forgotten about Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary, who gave a lamentable performance before the Leveson enquiry into press standards (for which read lack of standards). He’d revealed himself to be entirely a pawn of the Murdoch family interests, with no control of either his department or his advisers. Basically a walking disaster area. I’d written him off as a man whose career was over and who would be returned to the back benches at the first opportunity.

That was to reckon without Cameron. Step forward our new Health Secretary: Jeremy Hunt. If you want an accurate assessment of the man, just remember that Cockneys like to use rhyming slang.

However, if things don’t look too good for the NHS, so far the results of my own tests have been encouraging, to the point that I’m beginning to be concerned that the condition will turn out to be mostly psychosomatic, a kind of man-wheeze, if that’s the pulmonary equivalent of man-flu.

The best finding was that produced by some little testing machine (so it must be true) that I have the lungs of a 55-year old. If you’re not impressed by that, well it’s because you’re too young. From where I’m sitting, that’s satisfactory news.

Except that I’m worried about the 55-year old. Whose lungs has he got?

Great if they're in good shape. But whose are they?
And it must be time my mother came clean with me. She never mentioned the double-lung transplant I had at four. I think I should be told.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Romney and Cameron: the platonic view

It’s a commonplace in the West, accepted by virtue of being so frequently repeated by so many people, that the great philosophers of antiquity have moulded and formed the cultural structures on which our societies are based.

I rather suspect many of those who hold this view are of the kind who regard certain literature as 
good’, though they may not have got round to reading the books themselves. Busy people, you know, but they know whats good for others. Like, say, reading Plato.

On the basis that it’s never too late for a good resolution, I’ve recently been trying to remedy that great void in my own education, and fascinating I’ve found it. There are certainly aspects of Plato which have inspired much (relatively) recent history, such as what he has to say in The Republic about children with disabilities:

‘...the offspring of the inferior [parents], or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be.’

Hardly a very Paralympian spirit, one can’t help. Not a view to find favour with the founder of that fine movement, Ludwig Guttmann, though it would not have been out of place in the mouth of his persecutor, Adolf Hitler.

So in this respect at least I’m disinclined to join in the general chorus of admiration for Plato. There are however other passages of the same book that strike me as far more useful. Take what he says about different types of government.

For Socrates, the main speaker in Plato’s dialogues, aristocracy is the best government because it is the government of the best people. Which would be fine in my view except that I find that in most such governments, the people who choose the best are, coincidentally, generally the very people who get chosen.

Oligarchy, on the other hand, was much less appealing.

‘And what manner of government do you term oligarchy?.

‘A government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it.’.
No good, Plato reckons, can come of this arrangement:
‘And so at last, instead of loving contention and glory, men become lovers of trade and money; they honour and look up to the rich man, and make a ruler of him, and dishonour the poor man.’
Overdoing respect for the wealthy, dissing the poor. If they could see in Athens two and a half millennia ago that this was a pretty bad show, maybe it’s time we relearned the lesson now.

Is that something to bear in mind in the States this autumn when voters on ordinary incomes take a look at Mitt Romney and his near quarter billion dollars? 

And in Britain when David Cameron, with the wealth he inherited and the wealth he married, decides to slash a load more benefits?

Mitt and Dave: a Platonic couple but not an ideal one?