Monday, 31 December 2012

The event of 2012: Obama's re-election

Before wishing everyone much pleasure and success in 2013, and in the midst of all the retrospectives for the end of the current year, I want to concentrate on just one of its many events: the re-election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States.
Obama: his re-election the defining moment of 2012?
This was in a way more remarkable than his original victory in 2008. That was won in the shadow of the lamentable presidency of Dubya Bush, a front-runner in the race to be the worst in US history. Facing him was a ticket which included Sarah Palin as possibly the worst candidate for vice-President: Aaron Burr was even creepier, hard though that may be to believe, but was probably less intellectually challenged.

So the first Obama victory might have owed a little to chance. To be re-elected, though, was a confirmation that enough at least of the US electorate really meant it.

That’s a great outcome, and not just because Obama is one of the brightest US Presidents there have been – though certainly he benefits by comparison with his predecessor – and, if the Tea Party can be persuaded not to take the country over the Fiscal Cliff or some other precipice – he may yet achieve remarkable things. What’s even more fascinating is what it says about how far the US has come.

Back in July 1776, one of the outstanding figures in history, Thomas Jefferson, drafted the Declaration of Independence. The first couple of paragraphs are extraordinarily impressive – you’ll remember all that stuff about ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ – but then comes all the stuff people tend to ignore because it is, frankly, rather dull: a long list of all the grievances of the British colonies against the British King.

Thomas Jefferson: admirable, though not without faults...
For instance, ‘he has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures,’ we’re told, and I have to say that as a rallying cry to armed revolution, it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, doesn’t it? These days we have a European parliament that travels, with all its papers, from Brussels to Strasbourg ten times a year and though that’s led to some pretty horrible consequences (e.g. UKIP) it still hasn't gone as far as a descent into bitter war.

Interestingly, not all the grievances originally intended for inclusion by Jefferson were adopted by his colleagues. In particular, they left out one that starts:

‘He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain.’

Great, isn’t it? Denouncing the slave trade as un-Christian. It’s like telling today’s Christian right to be nicer about the rights of, say, Moslems.

Now Jefferson of course never freed himself from slavery, even fathering several children on Sally Hemings, who as well as being his slave was even, by today’s standards, under age when he first began his long relationship with her. However, it is admirable that he at least rose far enough above the sentiments of his time to want to denounce the trade in slaves.

His colleagues would not go that far. Jefferson's denunciation was cut from the final draft of the declaration, and this was not without significant consequences.

In 1857, 81 years later, with the country Jefferson helped found slipping inexorably towards Civil War, a powerful push in that direction was provided by a majority decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case. In the judgement, Chief Justice Roger Taney pointed to the founding documents of the United States and in particular to the Declaration of Independence, declaring that they made it clear that blacks:

‘had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.’

Roger Taney: vilain of the piece. And doesn't he look it?
Hardly what Jefferson intended in his original draft, but what far less noble men among his successors made of the final version. Blacks had no rights in law; whites had no obligation to treat them with respect.

It took 155 years to achieve the re-election, and not merely the election, of a half-black President of the United States. But given Roger Taney’s words, the road travelled is still extraordinary, even in such a time.

Enough on its own to make 2012 a seriously important year.

And now, as promised, I wish you all every possible prosperity and joy in 2013. Wouldn’t it be good if it contained at least one event as outstanding as that one from 2012?

Friday, 28 December 2012

Gotcha! How the Argentinians won the Falklands war

If I ever decided to pick a particularly inglorious day from within the span of my lifetime (not a pastime I’m inclined to indulge at all often), 4 May 1982 would be right up there with the worst.

At the time I was in the delightfully ironic position of teaching part-time in the French department of King’s College, University of London, where I had previously contrived to fail a physics degree. On Monday 3 May, as I was walking along the Strand towards the College, my eye was struck by the headlines in the evening papers: the Argentinian warship Belgrano had been sunk by a British submarine the day before.

As a rule, I tried not to talk politics in class, but on this occasion I couldn’t avoid an outburst.

‘Hang your heads in shame! A bunch of kids who had the misfortune to be doing their military service were killed by a sub yesterday, in our name, as part of the campaign to recapture a bunch of rocks we’d barely heard of a few weeks ago.’

My words were met by stony, embarrassed silence. That really shocked me. Students, in their late teens or just 20. And they cared that little?

But the worst mortification was reserved for the following day. In its issue of 4 May, the Sun, which likes to masquerade as a British newspaper and, inevitably, belongs to the Murdoch stable, carried the headline ‘Gotcha!’ 

The depths of infamy? Delighting in death

The then editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, later had a change of heart and came out with a different headline about how many Argentine casualties there had been, but since he used the word ‘Argies’ he’d barely moved a notch above the depths of playground language the original had plumbed. And ‘Gotcha’ was already out there.

It was a reminder of just what the glorious practice of war can do to an otherwise relatively civilised society. There are certainly needs so pressing that they can only be met by war, and perhaps the imposition of foreign military occupation on a bunch of peaceable islanders who’d done nothing to deserve it, falls into that category. But war remains a last resort, never a matter of joy or celebration. 323 young lives had just been snuffed out and we proclaim ‘Gotcha’? That’s pretty much the pits.

Why am I writing about all this today? Because the British thirty-year rule means that a large number of previously secret government documents have just been released. They include papers showing that then Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher was taken unawares by the Argentine invasion and was open to a negotiated end to the conflict, even if it involved a continued Argentinian presence on the islands, up to well after the sinking of the Belgrano.

That last piece of information rather does her credit, I have to admit, through gritted teeth. A diplomatic solution would have saved lives, though it would have cost her the credit she gained from being a ‘victorious’ war leader.

She never denied any of this information so it’s not really news. It simply comes as a reminder of a dismal time, specifically the tipping point in the Falklands war that came with the Belgrano sinking. That was the moment when the Argentinian victory was secured.

‘Argentinian victory?’ I hear you cry. 

Yes, because though they lost the Falklands, they gained freedom from a brutal military dictatorship. Many in Britain, on the other hand, completely ignored Thatcher’s unpreparedness for action and her willingness to negotiate, greeting her as the greatest female military leader since Elizabeth I, or perhaps Boudica. Her popularity sky-rocketed.

In 1981, Labour had been consistently in the lead in the opinion polls; as it tore itself apart in needless, senseless, in-fighting, it drifted into a position in which it alternated between a small lead and a small deficit in early 1982. It seemed that only if Labour pursued its insanity would Thatcher be re-elected; otherwise, she was going to be a single-term Prime Minister.

Then the Belgrano was sunk and some voters, indulging instincts as bloodthirsty as the Sun
’s, gave her a double-digit lead for the first time since the previous election. Within a year, that lead was firmly established, and at the next election, she was returned with a 15.2% majority in the popular vote.

The sinking of the Belgrano wasn’t just a shameful moment, it was the point at which the survival of the Thatcher government, with all its cruelty and divisiveness, was assured for another eight years.

So what is my prayer now, under another deeply unpleasant Conservative administration (masquerading as a coalition)? That no tin-pot dictator decides to invade any piece of territory held by Britain. Or at least, no tin-pot dictator this government could possibly hope to defeat.

Postscript. What to do about the Falklands?

It’s well known that the Falklands are known in Argentina as the ‘Islas Malvinas’ but not everyone knows that ‘Malvinas’ comes from the French word ‘Malouines’, identifying the islands as belonging to the glorious city of St Malo in Brittany. That port was one of the great centres of the long-haul shipping trade that opened up the prospect of globalisation, and it was malouin sailors who set up the first anchorage in the islands.

So it strikes me that the most imaginative solution to the Falklands problem is to hand them back to St Malo. That way neither Britain nor Argentina could gloat over the other. The French would be so taken aback that they’d forget to put on any airs either.

A neat solution, or what?

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Christmas time is outlaw time

Christmas has always been a season for families, and it was great to have a visit from our youngest son, Nicky, and our daughter-out-law, Nicola, together known as ‘the Nicks’. His parents-out-law joined us for Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, leading to much good cheer and amusement, for instance in the form of well-lubricated charades, a game that declines in quality but improves in enjoyment as the alcoholic content climbs.

My son also took the opportunity to introduce me to the logical conundrum known as the Monty Hall problem. It’s called after a game show host, who at the climax of the game, called on the contestant to select one of three doors, behind two of which there was a goat, while behind the third was a car. While I might prefer a goat to certain cars I’ve come to know though not necessarily to love, you’ll understand that the premise of the game was that the contestant would win whatever was behind the door chosen and the desired outcome was to find the car.

Monty Hall and the game that left a problem

The special feature of the game is that after the contestant had chosen a door, the host, who knew what was behind all of them, would leave it shut but open another that revealed a goat. He would then offer the contestant the option of sticking with the first choice or changing.

At the heart of the Monty Hall problem is the question whether it’s better to stick or switch, or whether it makes no difference.

It seemed clear to me that there was nothing to choose between the options. That the probability of choosing the car was initially one in three and, with the elimination of one losing option, it had improved to one in two. To my embarrassment, it took me the best part of two hours to understand why this is not the case.

In my defence, I was in good company, as shown by the reaction to the journalist and populariser of mathematical oddities, Marilyn vos Savant, when she published the explanation: thousands, including many specialists, wrote to point out that she was wrong. But she wasn’t.

Vos Savant argued that it made much more sense to switch than to stick. In fact, switching doubles the chance of finding the car from one in three to two in three. It took me ages to grasp that, offering Nicky manifold opportunities for gentle but nonetheless mocking derision.

It’s one of those particularly irritating truths in mathematics that is completely counter-intuitive but utterly obvious once you
’ve grasped it.

Over to you. If it takes you less than two hours to work out why in the Monty Hall game it’s twice as good a tactic to switch than to stick, then you’ll have beaten me and I congratulate you.

Not that you’ll have had as much fun as I did whiling away the dying moment of Christmas Eve over a few glasses with a mocking son and a bunch of outlaws.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Hopeful times

Hope springs eternal in the human breast, Alexander Pope told us. The Romans put it even more succinctly: dum spiro spero, while I breathe, I hope. It’s no accident that was was left in the chest Pandora opened, to console us for all the evils she’d released, was hope.

Like all human qualities, even hope isn’t completely impervious to the worst other humans can throw at it. One of the grimmest images I have of the extermination camps of the last world war is that they were places were spirits were so broken that hope was at last driven out. The worst of afflictions, as Dante knew: he put those most chilling words to go above the gates of Hell: ‘abandon all hope ye who enter here.’

Generally, though, hope keeps up going, making us believe there’s something to strive for, to plan for or at the very least to wait for. That deserves celebration, and when better than now? The nights are long, the days are cold and grey, the trees stand leafless, the flowers without blooms, but we know that, all things being equal, life is going to get better again. Quite soon.

So we choose this moment to make merry, to encourage each other to hang on a little longer as better times are just round the corner. That’s something we’ve done for millennia at this time of year: long before anyone had thought of Christmas, it was the Saturnalia or the birth of Mithras or Chanukah or some other winter festival near the solstice.

As it happens, it works perfectly well for Christianity to adopt it. Belief in a redeemer to save us all from our own sins is a doctrine of hope. It makes sense that the great festival of hope has become the key point in the Christian calendar, when it should have been Easter, the feast of the resurrection. It’s just worth remembering that the hope was there long before the Christianity.

That means it doesn’t matter whether I wish you a happy Christmas or a happy Saturnalia or, indeed, a completely secular happy Solstice time. Whatever festival we celebrate at this time of year, let’s all enjoy the fact that things are as bleak and miserable as they get and from now on they’ll be improving again. So – lots of season’s hope to you all.

Happy Saturnalia and a hopeful New Year

Of course, none of this applies in the Southern Hemisphere where everything’s back to front. All I can say to my Australian friends is don’t eat too much turkey in all that heat, make sure you’ve got the sun block on, and enjoy the summer. We’re looking forward to getting back to one of our own in the very near future.

Or, at least, that’s what we’re hoping for, here in England. Summer’s been the season of disappointment for years now. But who knows, next year might be different. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

Hope springs eternal, you see.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Ah well, it's not the end of the world

It’s wonderful how moments of high drama steal up on you, catching you unawares, springing out when you least expect them and overwhelming you with their scale and general awesomeness.

That’s how it was yesterday. The day dawned clear and bright; it was cold but not unbearably so, well above freezing, and walking the dog was pleasant.

There was of course a sense of ominous foreboding in the air, butI coped with it as best I could.

At lunch, the day continued pleasant and untroubled. Nothing untoward during the second dog walk of the day but obviously this could only be the calm before the storm. I was, however, finding it increasingly difficult to sustain any sense of dread. Complacency was setting in, and what could be more dangerous?

Infuriatingly, as it does at this time of year, the sun took its leave at around 4:00. Four o’clock? How can that be nightfall? It isn't even late afternoon.

Now that should have been the sign for things to turn seriously sinister, but all I could work up was a sense of mild irritation at the bad behaviour of December. Not smart if, as I said, catastrophe doesn’t necessarily announce itself hours in advance. It sneaks and takes you when you least expect it. By the evening, I was as vulnerable as one could be to sudden, massive cataclysmic events.

That’s it. The scene was set. Bring it on.

And that was precisely the moment when absolutely nothing happened. I turned in. I fell asleep. I woke up again when Danielle got home from the outstanding Christmas Party she’d organised for her colleagues. And then I slept through till this morning, when I woke up to pretty much uninterrupted rain, with standing water everywhere and rivers bursting their banks.

So what happened to the catastrophe prophesied for yesterday? The end of the world those self-appointed interpreters of Mayan calendars had announced for 21 December? Had I missed something?

The Mayan inscription that created
all the fuss in the first place

I did check up a bit on all that Mayan stuff. As it happens yesterday was just the end of the thirteenth toucan (it’s not really called that, but I can remember toucan and I can’t remember Baktun. I to do what I toucan). The way the Mayans saw it, the end of a cycle is also the beginning of the next cycle – it’s numbered zero. 

So what happened yesterday, and was always going to happen, wasn’t the end of the world but just the end of one era and the start of another. But that’s not as exciting a message as ‘it’s all coming to an end’, is it?

It’s a relief, of course. It means I can get on with griping about the crappy weather and the miserable days. But more importantly, instead of associating 21 December with some kind of calamity, it is the occasion of an excellent party for Danielle’s hospital department: zumba, karaoke, huge quantities of Indian food, dancing, smiles and laughter the whole evening through.

Danielle's colleagues showed how to mark the day of dread
Definitely not the end of world there
And, of course, there was the the solstice. The point at which, for this year, the days stop getting shorter, at least in this hemisphere (sorry, Australia). Proving the good old Mayans’ point: the end of one cycle is just the start of a new one. Day by day, the light will be lasting a touch longer. In two or three weeks, the difference will be appreciable. In a a couple of months we’ll be surging ahead.

Back towards the Spring. Bet the Mayans knew how to celebrate that.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Newtown and free speech

Much of the debate since the Newtown shootings, as after every other such tragic incident in the States, has focused on the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Nothing surprising about that, because this is the amendment guaranteeing the right to bear guns.
The fundamental problem may however lie not so much in this amendment as in the First, which guarantees freedom of speech, belief and assembly. It’s a powerful illustration of how something that on the face of it seems entirely good, can produce terrible effects in certain circumstances.

The ten amendments to the US Constitution form the Bill of Rights

Kierkegaard got it right when he said ‘people demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use’. All the same, most of us would probably agree that free speech is an important right. Certainly, I regard it as crucial whenever I want to exercise it, though I have to say I wish I could occasionally selectively suspend it for certain other people.

Desirable though it may be, however, the right to free speech can’t be open-ended. The classic counter-example is that there’s no right to shout ‘fire’ needlessly in a crowded theatre. Civilised societies also prohibit libel, incitement or conspiracy, thought these are also constraints on free speech.

There are other, more subtle aberrations in the application of this right. The First Amendment was the basis on which the US supreme court chose to allow the so-called super PACs to operate. These are organisations that can channel unlimited sums of money into political activity, allowing them to make or unmake politicians.

It is also the first amendment that guarantees that politicians can continue to back their campaigns with TV advertising. Funding the astronomic expenditure that involves makes them more than ever dependent on donors.

Those two effects create circumstances in which political lobbies flourish. And here we are back with the problem of guns and tragedies such as Newtown’s: no political lobby is as well organised, and few are as well funded, as the NRA, the main pro-gun lobby.

It is currently following its usual tactics, of saying very little in the immediate post-massacre period. It can see the writing on the wall, and the head of steam generated by Newtown is such that the writing is powerful: there seems a real chance of some significant steps towards tighter gun control this time.
So watch the NRA, once the dust has settled. It is going to give a master-class in the use of lobby muscle in a political system more prone to it than any other in the world.

At which points its opponents will need to ponder the effect of abuse of not only the Second Amendment to the Constitution, but the First as well.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Unmissable anniversary of a missing link

Cast your minds back a century and imagine how different the world looked. 

It still seemed, particularly to people living there, that Britain ruled the roost, globally. It was sitting at the top of a colossal Empire. It was resting on some impressive laurels as a trading nation. It had a track record for innovation and scientific advance that led the world.

The reality was that the temple of British greatness was already nothing but an imposing fa├žade. Inside, the rot had been working for decades and it would only take the impact of the First World War to bring down the whole edifice. As 1066 and All That points out, by the end of that war ‘America was thus clearly Top Nation, and history came to a .’

It sometimes seems to me that in the years leading up to the Great War, many in Britain could already see that full stop approaching. It may have made them a little defensive, anxious to find ways of bolstering their country’s prestige. Anything that seemed to detract from its air of superiority was an embarrassment and a matter to correct if at all possible.

The work of Darwin and his successors suggested that man had developed from apes and it was a matter of some interest to find the ‘missing link’ between apes and men. Many remains of early humans had been discovered, in particular in some of Britain’s neighbours in Europe – and, as is still the case today, ‘European neighbour’ is just a euphemism for ‘deadly rival’.

That made it galling that Britain had no such remains. None of those ancestors had chosen to come and live in this blessed country, superior to any other on Earth. Frankly, a bit off, my dear.

So it was a the best of news when, on 18 December 1912, a hundred years ago today, Charles Dawson, amateur archaeologist, told the Geological Society of London that he had found remains of a pre-human hominid in a gravel pit at Piltdown in Sussex.

This was simply marvellous news, don’t you know. Not only did Britain now have its own prehistoric inhabitant, within Britain he had chosen to inhabit England. And not any old bit England, either. Not the cold North where those working class people lived and kept ugly industry going to make the fortunes of the wealthy people wise enough either to have been born in the South, or to have moved there when they’d amassed enough money. No, he had chosen the delectable counties near London where those fortunes were spent. And not just any part of the South but the fragrant county of Sussex, all gentle countryside rolling prettily down to the English Channel to cock a snook at the French.

There are always killjoys, of course. Some character called David Waterston published an article in Nature suggesting that what Dawson had presented was an ape jaw and fragments of a human skull. But who was going to accept such a preposterous suggestion and lose their very own national missing link?

The party sadly came to an end in 1953. It took 41 years, which is pretty good going, but it couldn’t be kept up forever. To add insult to injury, the offending article was published in some American magazine called, I believe, Time. And to everyone’s astonishment it announced that what Dawson had presented was an orangutan jaw and fragments of a human skull. Who could have guessed?

By then, of course, Britain had already had to give up the jewel in its crown, India, and the rest of the Empire was rapidly unravelling. Giving up Piltdown man no longer really mattered. Just another one of the blows that accompany national decline.

Eoanthropus dawsoni: Piltdown man.
Not so much a missing link between apes and man
as a symbolic link between imperial grandeur and national decline

It had been a good hoax as hoaxes go. A lot better, say, than the hoax call to the King Edward VII hospital in London which drove a nurse to suicide ten days ago (coincidentally, she was buried yesterday, the eve of the Piltdown anniversary).

A hoax that worked and really did very little harm. Sounds like a centenary worth celebrating. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Newtown: the long view

A people fighting for its freedom: what could be more inspiring? Even we know that even in victory, they are only swapping one set of problems for another, that what they conquer may be new liberties but it won’t be Liberty, that the process won’t be complete but simply reach a stage from which the next can be contemplated. 

Along the way, as the process extends, there are many diversions, as early principles are deformed and misapplied by those who follow behind. Still, the original leaders remain impressive and, to me, among the most striking are those craftsmen, lawyers and farmers who mounted the campaign to free the North American colonies of British domination back in the eighteenth century.

At the time there was only one standing army in the colonies, a foreign one, Britain’s. The insurgents could only call on the militias of the individual colonies, and arm them only with whatever weapons they had in their homes. Britain, of course, banned the colonists from holding arms, making acquiring and keeping weaponry a key issue.

In 1791, with the British expelled, the newly formed United States decided to add to their Constitution ten amendments that would form a Bill of Rights. There was nothing new about this demand. It had been raised by Englishmen since the reign of Charles I in the early seventeenth century, and we tend to forget that it was above all Englishmen who set up the United States.

Curiously, the English back in England had to wait for a written Bill of Rights until 2000, when the Human Rights Act came into force. Ironically, there’s now an intensifying campaign in Britain to repeal it as ‘too European’, i.e. foreign. The notion of guaranteed rights has never really fully taken root in Britain.

When the American founding fathers came to draw up their Bill of Rights, their views were naturally influenced by the circumstances in which they lived and the experiences of their political careers. And a matter that concerned them, though by then the United States had its own standing army, was the difficulty of forming an effective, well-armed militia.

So they included a second amendment among the ten adopted in 1791:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

It’s always difficult to try to work out exactly what was intended by men long since dead. But surely both the wording of the amendment and the personal histories of the men who drafted it, suggest it was designed to ensure that the people could defend the state against anyone attempting to use violence against it.

Possibly, as the US Supreme Court argued in 2008 and 2010, this could be extended to include defending one’s own home and family.

What it was clearly not designed to do was to create circumstances in which it is easy for deeply unfortunate, unhappy or ill individuals to walk into a high school, a college campus, a temple, a cinema or – for Pete’s sake – a primary school and deal out arbitrary death.

Surely the framers of the amendment would be the first to cry in horror at the idea that they intended to allow citizens to hold lethal weapons for any purpose they chose, independent of the defence of the state?
James Madison, father of the Constitution.
He would be shocked by the travesty made
of the Second Amendment

It’s my suspicion that if James Madison, the father of the Constitution and fourth President of the United States, were to return to Earth today and see what happened in Newtown, Connecticut, yesterday he might say, ‘what? And they turn our second amendment into a defence of a situation in which this can happen? It’s time to revise it.’

But we don’t need the resurrection of James Madison for Americans to understand the need for revision. An American friend, talking about what pushes anyone to acts of mindless violence, wrote yesterday ‘sometimes it is mental illness, sometimes it is being fired, sometimes it is heartbreak, sometimes it is hate...but the common denominator is always access to a gun, and without the gun there would be no killing.’

One of those attending the vigil in Washington pointed out a stark truth: ‘assault weapons are designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. They have no place in our society, they have no place in our communities.’

I’d love to think that the cumulative effect of the repeated massacres would lead to an unstoppable momentum for change. Perhaps it will at last. But the forces against are powerful and well-organised. 

Among the many statements of sorrow yesterday, there were also eloquent silences. John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, offered condolences but said nothing about gun control. And the great pro-gun lobby, the NRA, followed its usual tactic of saying little while the wounds are fresh, saving its powder for any proposals that emerge, which it will use its financial strength to derail.

There’s a long way to go to achieve gun control in the US. But the Founding Fathers didn’t give up because the forces against them were apparently overwhelming or the battle was likely to be long. And, as I said at the beginning, no revolution is ever complete, it’s always a work in progress.

What better tribute could there be to the drafters of the Constitution than to take that process forward, campaigning for as long as it takes, to modify one of the provisions they added to it? To review a second amendment perverted by misinterpretation and bring it back in line with the spirit that they embodied?

Then perhaps we can turn the Auroras, the Columbines, the Newtowns into what they should be: ghastly reminders of a past long buried.

Why not put a stop to this terror?

Friday, 14 December 2012

Making a fool of myself and a mountain of a molehill

It’s depressingly easy to turn a misfortune into a catastrophe.

This week I started a new job and I’m delighted with it so far. I feel I’m a slightly bigger fish in a far bigger pond, which actually feels a lot better than being a big fish in a small pond: there are more places to swim to.

However, my general sense of satsifaction was brutally shattered last night when I decided to put my work phone on charge. And discovered that I couldn’t find it. Or found that I couldn’t discover it.

Worry began to set in. I checked the jacket and coat I’d worn to the office. Then I went through my backpack. Unsuccessfully. So I went through it again in the hope that doing the same thing twice might lead to a different outcome, whatever Einstein may have said on the subject.

By this time fear was mounting.

‘Empty the bag completely,’ said Danielle, ‘you’ve got so much rubbish in there. It looks as thought it weighs a tonne’ (note that Danielle is French, which is why I give the metric version rather than the British ton).

I emptied the bag. Danielle leapt on various desirable objects – plug adaptors – and undesirable ones – old railway tickets, crumpled documents – finding drawers for the former and a bin for the latter. But there was no phone.

I hadn’t checked the trousers before. Perhaps the phone had been in a pocket. Of course, since they were now hanging upside down in my wardrobe, it was unlikely the phone would still to be there, a suspicion I was quickly able to verify. Nor was it on the floor under the trousers.

Panic was setting in. But a train of thought had started. Trousers. Pockets. Slipping out. Perhaps it had fallen out during my drive home. I plunged into the Arctic night and searched around the driver’s seat of the car. I saw no sign of the phone.

It was time for panic to give way to resignation or, at least, heartfelt depression.

And yet... It wasn’t exactly a disaster was it? I mean, just a few days ago a nurse committed suicide following a silly prank phone call. Now that was heart-rending.

Far worse, in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, civilians are living without power or running water, as winter starts to bite, food runs out and the artillery bombardments continue. Now that’s a disaster.

We have friends dealing with cancer diagnoses, facing a potential death sentence for no offence either they have committed. That's a cruel tragedy.

What misfortune had I suffered? I’d lost a phone. What was the worst that could happen? Possibly I’d have to pay for it. Certainly I’d lose a bit of credibility.

But that’s just it. A loss of credibility! Too awful to contemplate. I would forever be the new recruit who received a nice new company phone on Monday and lost it on Thursday. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. For a moment, the tragedy that mattered most to me was that of having made myself look a complete idiot. And so quickly too.

Neither of us slept well, Danielle kindly sharing my increasingly bleak mood.

This morning we decided I’d head back to the office early to see if the phone had been handed in. I opened the back door of the car to put my bag there and, on the floor behind the driver’s seat, where I hadn’t looked the night before, was the phone.

A flood of relief swept over me. I might still be a complete moron, but at least I hadn’t given my new company irrefutable proof of it. Yet.

Hardly a suicide, a city under siege or a life-threatening disease
But last night this was the source  of my major woes
The nurse, meanwhile, is still dead. Syria is still paying the excruciating price for the continuation of Bashar (or is it Basher?) al Assad’s rule. Our friends are still fighting a cruel disease.

At least my own little problem had been cleared up and I can now view these other, serious ones in a more rational perspective.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Gay Marriage: Christians show their love

Isn’t it fascinating that there’s such fierce opposition to the legalisation of gay marriage?

The Bishop of Leicester tells us that the move is leading to divisions between politicians ‘and the vast majority of practising religious people’ in this country.

Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester
Spoke out for the offended majority of believers

That was quite interesting because there’s been a lot of talk this week about the findings from the latest census, held last year. It showed, for instance, that those who regard themselves as ‘Christian’ are now down to 59% of the population of England and Wales. 

The second biggest group, dwarfing all the minority religions combined, is those who classify themselves as non-believers: they’re now up to 25%.

But those who call themselves Christian are by no means all particularly assiduous in their practice. Other studies show that only about 15% of the people attend church regularly – and that doesn’t mean weekly, just once a month or more.

My suspicion is that ‘the vast majority of practising religious people’, for whom the Bishop of Leicester chose to speak, would come to around 10% of the population. And gay people probably represent around 6%. So we
’re faced with two substantial though hardly huge minorities, one of whom we have to offend to please the other. What a dilemma. 

Except that it isn’t, really. After all, no-one’s trying to force the Bishop of Leicester to contract a gay marriage. Apart from anything else, he’s been in a straight one for nearly forty years and it would be a bit unfair to his wife. This whole business really isn’t about foisting anything on people who don’t want it – most of us can stick to straight marriage, just as we did before – it’s about allowing it for people who do.

Christianity is based on the fundamental principle that God is Love. If someone wants to do something which affects no-one else, how could Christians, under the injunction to love their neighbours, possibly refuse them the right? Why, if they did that, you might think they’d want to impose their beliefs on people who don’t share them.

Surely Christian believers would never behave that way, would they?

Monday, 10 December 2012

English phlegm and Christmas lights

Deep into December and coming up swiftly is that great moment of the allegedly Christian nations, when we theoretically feast the arrival of the redeemer, the Prince of Peace.

A moment, it seems superfluous to say, for quiet and introspection, when we ponder the ineffable questions of God and Man and Turkey stuffing. Nowhere might one expect more inclination towards calm and discretion than in England, a nation well-known for its phlegm and self-control.

Well, it turns out that we English keep our phlegm for colds and our self-control for muffling sneezes in trains. Not that most of us are very good at that last bit, either.

When it comes to Christmas, we reveal – what am I saying? display – characteristics that other nations don’t tend to attribute to us. Flamboyance. Overstatement. Joy of living (and I only say that to avoid going all foreign and writing joie de vivre).

I was struck last year by what had to the most extravagantly decorated house in Luton. I never suspected then that I’d be living just a few doors away by this Christmas. But you can imagine that I take every opportunity to wander two minutes up the road to enjoy what, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a stupendous display.

Seasonal sight for sore eyes just up our Luton back street

Not perhaps all that strong on good taste, but you have to admit that it more than makes up for it in exuberance. Enough to warm the heart on the coldest day.

Happy Christmas to any of you who celebrate it. Season’s greeting to everyone else. And however you choose to enjoy December yourself, spare a thought for the phlegmatic English, reticent and reserved, struggling to find a way to let themselves go at this festive time of year.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

I'd be preparing for champagne in 2015, were it not for 1992

It was a strange old evening, 9 April 1992. 

Friends had gathered in our house, clutching bottles of champagne, one of them a magnum, though to be honest more in hope than expectation. It looked as though after thirteen years of Conservative rule, the first eleven under Margaret Thatcher, we might at last see Labour returned. Perhaps.

The fall of Thatcher, out of the blue nearly eighteen months earlier, had seemed to open the door a chink, giving us a glimpse of the myriad possibilities beyond. Of a gentler, fairer country, in which support for the underprivileged would not necessarily be viewed as a weakness.

The bellwether in the 1992 general election was Basildon. It would be the first of the marginal constituencies to declare a result. If the Conservatives held on to it, John Major’s Tories would be back in Downing Street; if not, Neil Kinnock might well form a Labour government.

It didn’t take long. Basildon made its announcement: David Amess had held it for the Tories, and the government clung on to office for another five years. Our friends trooped disconsolate into the night, the champagne uncorked.

The story even had a curious sequel. A year or so later we opened the magnum, and the wine was flat, the only time I
ve seen that with champagne. Perhaps I should have complained, but I didn’t: that the sparkle had gone from the wine seemed entirely appropriate to that joyless evening back in April 1992.

Now we have another dismal Tory government. It calls itself a coalition, because it includes some Liberal Democrats. The aim was that the Conservatives would get to pursue a ruthless policy of austerity to fix the country’s finances, while the Lib Dems would get constitutional reform – proportional representation and an elected House of Lords.

In the event, the Tories got their austerity and the economy has taken a severe turn for the worse, with debt climbing and an unprecedented triple-dip recession in the offing; meanwhile, both proportional representation and House of Lords reform were defeated.

Charmers all: Danny Alexander (Lib Dem), George Osborne (Con) and
David Cameron (Con) enjoy the moment they cut benefits still further

So this feels terribly like the run up to 1992 again. It’s a lousy government failing on everyone’s criteria, even its own. A little over half way to the next election, the desire for change is in the air. Labour is riding high in the polls and achieving good results in by-elections. It could be back in 2015.

On the other hand, 30 months before the 1992 election, in October 1990, Labour was averaging leads of around 10% in the opinion polls. Today, Labour’s lead is around 10%. Are we just looking at a mid-term lead that could be lost as quickly as it was gained?

As it happens, I remain hopeful. There were two great differences back then. The smaller parties represented far less. Labour and the Conservatives between them accounted for 85-90% of the total; today they’re in the mid-seventies. A 10% lead today is more significant than in 1990.

The other great difference is that in October 1990, Thatcher still had a few weeks to run as Prime Minister. After eleven years, most people had had enough of her. There’d been riots over her so-called poll tax and there was a general feeling that even her erstwhile supporters had just about had too much of a good thing. In November, she was unceremoniously ditched by the men whose careers she’d nurtured in the Conservative Party and government.

Lo and behold, the polls turned round. The Labour lead was slashed. Certain polls even showed the Conservatives in front. In the runup to the election, Labour was sitting on leads of 5% or less. By contrast, as it approached the 1997 election, which it won, Labour had leads of up to 20%.

Dumping Cameron after only two and a half years in office would feel much more like an act of desperation than the kind of renewal Thatcher's removal represented. But – who knows? The Tories are good at pulling rabbits out of hats. A 10% lead is good, but it isn’t impregnable.

To make things safe still needs a lot of work. Above all, Labour needs to realise that its lead is mostly down to the Conservatives. Their abject failure to hit their own targets, has cost them dear. The reaction against the government has taken Labour up into the low forties in the polls. But to be sure of victory, it needs to press on, up towards 50%, with leads in the high teens, as in 1997.

The Tories have done about as much as they can for Labour. 
It can’t just rely on the government continuing to shoot itself in the foot, however good it’s proved at doing that so far. Now Labour has to come up with something positive itself, convincing voters it’s ready for government. 

That has yet to happen, so I haven’t ordered the champagne, far less put it on ice. Even so – those opinion polls, those by-election results – they at least make me feel I can choose the bottles I want to purchase, plan the celebration I hope to hold. Whether I can move from plan to action depends on the two Eds, Miliband and Balls, at the head of the Labour Party today. Let’s hope two Eds are better than one and they can give us a 1997 rather than a 1992.

’s an outcome to which I'd be happy to raise a glass. 

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Karma or synchronicity? Making a parting easy

I find it hard to disagree with people without falling out with them. It’s a major character flaw and a career littered with two redundancies and one outright sacking bears witness to what it has cost me.

So it’s wonderful that this week I’ve left a company without bitterness. This is more a tribute to my ex-colleagues than to me, so it’s in their honour and to thank them that I write this piece now.

The high point was the day before yesterday which included a meal in an Italian restaurant in London’s West End, near the office. The food was outstanding and the service hilarious: the waiter managed to drop cutlery on my phone, pour the wrong wine in my glass and bring too few menus to the table (perhaps he was fine counting up to five or six, but there were seven of us which was a challenge).

That reminds me of a moment in a DIY store the other day. With £16.47 to pay, the man in front of me handed over a twenty pound note to the young woman on the till. Then he said ‘hang on, I can help with the change’, and gave her another £1.50.

I knew this was going to be a problem. She’d already rung up the £20.

‘So,’ she said dubiously, ‘how much should I give you?’

‘Well,’ he said, ‘five pounds three pence.’ There was an implicit ‘of course’ there but he left it unvoiced. And then he added, a little too late, ‘I mean – fifty-five pounds three pence.’

She giggled. ‘I rely completely on the till,’ she revealed, which I don’t imagine was news to anyone.

People go on and on about teaching the multiplication tables in schools. Forget it, I reply. Let’s get simple subtraction covered first.

Yesterday was my final day in the office. Lots of friendly farewells and promises to stay in touch, which this time I actually think, and certainly hope, most of us meant.

But one colleague had a disappointment. He’d wanted to present me with a book, but despite being promised it for that day, it hadn’t shown up.

I told him I already had a book so it wasn’t a problem. Besides, I appreciated the gesture even if the postal service had let him – us – down.

Although my bosses had made it clear I could leave early, I felt the least I could do to repay their kindness was work to leave things in reasonable order. So it wasn’t until 5:00 that I headed for the door.

I’d been that way only half an hour earlier and the entrance hall had been empty. But this time, lying on the mat, was an unmistakeable Amazon package.

In passing, let me say that Britain is in the grips of another of its periodic scandals, this time over multinationals that fail to pay tax, by dint of registering their activities abroad. There have been calls for boycotts. One I have no trouble following: there are so many alternatives to Starbucks that it costs me nothing to refuse to buy their coffee.

But the other is Amazon. How can I boycott Amazon? Where else do I go? Am I to leave my Kindle idle? Am I to stop renting films from LoveFilm? It’s just too much.

Which perhaps explains why Starbucks has given in before the boycott can bite, offering to pay £10 million in corporation tax – a derisory amount but a lot better than before. Amazon, secure in its monopoly position, has offered nothing yet.

I was delighted to see the package and dashed back upstairs with it. I handed it to my soon to be ex-colleague who made a little ceremony of handing it back so I could open it. It contained The Collected Dorothy Parker, an entirely appropriate gift: we had frequently enjoyed exchanging some of her best quotes.

Great gift that made for an excellent exit
Now I don’t really believe in karma. Synchronicity, on the other hand, was certainly at work: I found the Amazon packet because I left a little later than I might have. Was it a reward for trying to do a conscientious job? I doubt it. But it meant that a departure without unpleasantness finally took place on a particularly high note.

Now I'm enjoying a few days off to prepare for what I hope will be the exciting challenges of a new job on Monday. 
The great Dorothy herself did that often enough, and as she made clear, it wasn't all about the money:

Salary is no object: I want only enough to keep body and soul apart.

Sounds like a good plan. And what better way to separate soul and body than by raising my glass to some warm-hearted former colleagues who made our parting so easy? Goodbye to all of you, and best wishes for the future.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

What do hospital deaths really tell us?

Fascinating to see that the publication of the Dr Foster Hospital Guide created a bit of a stir in the press yesterday.

Getting a perspective on hospital care. Or perhaps not.

Dr Foster is one of two companies, rapidly being joined by a third, that lead the way in using publicly available data to compare hospital performance. 

The main rival of Dr Foster is CHKS. The two are constantly sparring about their differences, above all over how each calculates mortality. 

In fact, both companies tend to fixate on death rates, like most of the press comment yesterday. They seem to regard them as the single most important measure of hospital quality, which is curious seeing as there are large areas of hospital care where death is so rare that it makes mortality a useless measure:  for example, a fairly large proportion of hospital work – not far off 9% from English public data – involves maternity cases and the death rate is 0.0045%. 

It’s obviously important to be aware deaths in childbirth, but a serious measure of quality would have to affect a far higher proportion of cases. It needs to look at suffering, of mother or child, the extent to which surgery has to be used – episiotomies, forceps deliveries, caesareans – or other poor outcomes short of death, such as haemorrhaging after delivery.

But still the debate seems to focus above all on comparative death rates. And the controversy rages around what measure mortality to use. Should it be Dr Foster’s Hospital Standardised Mortality Rate? Or CHKS’s Risk Adjusted Mortality Index? Or perhaps the government’s own Standardised Hospital Mortality Index?

More to the point, who outside a handful of statisticians knows the difference or cares very much?

Despite all that, many commentators regard the debate as important. So, let’s consider an aspect of it which at least has the merit of raising some intriguing questions about the main parties involved.

One of the hospitals that doesn’t do terribly well in the Dr Foster hospital mortality comparisons is University Hospitals Birmingham. In particular, it has an unfortunately high value for an index measuring deaths among patients at low risk. Deaths among patients who shouldn't be danger is especially bad news.

So it comes as no surprise that the Medical Director at the hospital hit back. He was quoted by the Guardian as saying that ‘Dr Foster frequently changes the methodology of the [Hospital Standardised Morality Rate], which, in our opinion, […] reduces its credibility as a comparator.’ On the low-risk deaths specifically, he pointed out that Dr Foster were including a condition for which the death rate is around 50% which, it
s hard to classify as low.

He should know about hospital comparisons. Because the third and newest player in this field is a system developed, strangely enough, at University Hospitals Birmingham. The hospital calls the system HED, and it has taken it to market in collaboration with Price Waterhouse Coopers, the giant international consultancy. They are making significant inroads into the marketplace.

Which means there’s little love lost between University Hospitals Birmingham and Dr Foster or, for that matter, CHKS. That makes it amusing that the hospital does so poorly in the Dr Foster comparisons – amusing but no coincidence, since it was precisely out of its rejection of the Dr Foster methodology that the Birmingham hospital first got in on the act of providing its own hospital comparisons.

So what can we say about yesterday’s exercise and the Good Hospital Guide? It certainly tells us something about how well English hospitals are performing or, at any rate, under-performing. Particularly on the mortality measure.

However, it really doesn’t tell us anything like as much as more sophisticated comparisons would, taking account the characteristics of different types of care.

On the other hand, it does offer some entertaining insights into the bad blood between the different players in the field.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Delights for the eye and ear give food for thought

If music be the food of love, painting isn’t far behind. So it was good to get a good dose of both this weekend.

The paintings were at the pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate in London, and what a glorious display it is. I always think of pre-Raphaelites as being a mixed bag: the occasional outstanding piece that speaks straight to the heart; but also a few pictures that leave me wondering, ‘oh, right. And there’s a lot of fuss about this canvass, is there? With its figures that look as though they’ve been cut out and pasted in place afterwards?’ 

But there are so many of the outstanding paintings in this exhibition that the others simply don’t impinge. I was delighted to get to know some painters I knew not at all – William Dyce, for instance, and Arthur Hughes – and one at least who I knew far too little – Edward Burne-Jones. But above all I was glad to discover paintings I didn’t know, including some by John Millais, the member of the group I had always felt stood head and shoulders above the rest, a view the show did nothing to dispel. 

John Millais, Mariana. A glorious discovery (for me)
That pose – so natural and yet with such erotic overtones

The music was a completely different experience. We went to see Papatruck, a bluegrass band in a jewel of a Church, St Michael and All Angels, in the Chiltern Hills, North-West of London on the way to Oxford. The band’s sole female musician is Nia, a school-friend of my stepson’s. It was the first time we’d seen her in twenty years, but hey, blood runs thicker than water, and it was a joy to meet her again and another to hear the music.

It was also magical that they were playing in a Church whose crypt contains the remains of my favourite Conservative politician bar none: Benjamin Disraeli.

The Queen's tribute to Disraeli.
Ben's disguised as 'Earl Beaconsfield' in the
time-honoured English style of preferring aliases.
Queen Victoria, who lost her husband Prince Albert shockingly young, always adored Disraeli, no doubt in part because he flirted with her outrageously. She had a memorial plaque to him raised in the Church. It made me think of a story our history teacher told us, that she’d offered to visit him on his death bed, an extraordinary offer by a reigning monarch to a man who’d been born a commoner (and of Jewish extraction, to boot). 

‘Oh, no,’ Disraeli replied, ‘she’ll only give me a message for Albert.’

I loved it that the concert was taking place in an Anglican Church. We were addressed twice by the vicar who managed to talk about the purpose of the evening – to raise funds for the care of the homeless of High Wycombe – without once mentioning God, the Church, faith, hope or charity. You see what I meant in an earlier blog? The Church of England belongs to us all in this country – it doesn’t even make a point of thrusting anything potentially contentious, like religion, in our faces.

Glorious setting for music to set the pulse racing
Thanks to the spellbinding novels of Hilary Mantel, I’m steeped at the moment in the sixteenth-century world of Thomas Cromwell and Tudor England, when ‘our Church’ first emerged. In those days the European presence in the Americas was essentially Spanish. Certainly, there was no English presence though eventually, and long after Cromwell’s death, English colonies would take root in the northern part of the landmass. In time, some of the settlers would penetrate into a territory which they would name, after the Iroquois word for meadowlands, Kentucky. 

Eventually transformed into a commonwealth and then a State, Kentucky would grow so strongly and successfully that it developed its own distinctive style of music, called after the startling wealth of those meadowlands, ‘bluegrass music’. And the music travelled back to the old country so that in 2012, we could sit in the knave of one of the churches that owe so much to Thomas Cromwell, and listen to five of his descendants play those haunting songs to us.

Would old Cromwell have approved or disapproved?

I have a nasty feeling he would have been shocked by the irreligious nature of the music, in a place dedicated to the glorification of the gospels. I wonder whether he would have thought of Kentucky, if he had ever thought of it at all, as a savage land and its music as no better. And I imagine he would have been horrified at the secular message of the priest, as he would have been by the fact that the audience for the concert was significantly larger, I suspect, than any congregation to assemble in that Church these days.

‘Was it for this that I struggled, lived and died?’ I suspect he might have asked.

I rather fear it might have been, Tom. And I hate to say it, we had a great time. Lutheran hymns just don’t do it for us the way Bluegrass music does, especially superbly performed the Papatruck way.

Papatruck - inspirational though far from Kentucky.
Nia's on the left (of course). Her instrument's on the right.