Wednesday, 27 February 2013

They order these things better in Ireland

Dublin’s one of those places that one really ought to visit frequently, simply for the good of one’s soul.

It’s been the best part of twenty years since I was last there. Previous visits had opened my eyes to many charming aspects of Irish life: 

  • the time they were gradually switching over from miles to kilometres on road signs, so a ’50’ could mean a speed restriction in kilometres or in miles per hour and the only way you could tell was if you remembered which character font was being used for which; 
  • the time we were told that they were celebrating the millennium of the city several years late because they’d missed the date, but promised to get it right next millennium; 
  • the time I watched a young man, without hope of reward or even waiting for thanks, stooping to stand my youngest son – then three – back up on his feet after he’d fallen flat on his face in Grafton Street.

O'Connell Street: 
about as far as I got into the enchanted city of Dublin today
So I was delighted to return this morning, even if only for the day. And I was even more pleased that my visit started with another illustration of the qualities that make the Irish so special.

We talk so much of the bitterness that separated England from Ireland that we often forget that there are also familial bonds that link the nations. In many respects, Ireland is not a foreign country: Irishmen never lost the right to live, work and even vote in Britain; the six copyright libraries of Britain, which have a right to a copy of every book published in the country, still include the library of Trinity College Dublin; and travel between Britain and Ireland is unrestricted, with no requirement to carry or show a passport.

That made it odd when I arrived at Dublin airport this morning to be asked to produce my passport at the exit.

‘What’s this?’ I asked, ‘I thought passports weren’t necessary between Britain and Ireland.’

‘Technically, that’s right,’ the Garda officer replied, ‘but the trouble is we don’t have any other exit we can use for travellers from Britain.’

I had no complaints. Indeed, I found the experience magical.

My mind went back to the summer of 1982 when I was in East Berlin. Heading back to the Western side on one occasion, I passed an armed guard who checked my papers; then I followed a long corridor with a chicane in it, which contained another guard, this time with a machine gun. Beyond it was a guardhouse where my papers were checked again; then a short walk across the death strip before the final wicket gate, held open by another armed guard after he too had checked my papers.

Beyond was Checkpoint Charlie, with the three soldiers, an American, a Frenchman and a Brit, sitting at their desk behind the window facing into the East. I still had my passport in my hand so I went towards them, holding it out. No-one looked up. They neither waved me through nor waved me on; they certainly didn’t glance at my papers.

I could have kicked myself. Of course they wouldn’t examine my passport. The Western powers didn’t recognise the demarcation line between the two sides of Berlin as an international border. To make any gesture of checking passports would have been to admit that there really was a border there. That would have meant denying a principle they weren’t prepared to abandon, even though, as my own experience had indisputably proved, what I had just crossed  really was a border and, indeed, was the most fearsome in Europe. Citizens of the East attempting to do the same might have paid for it with their lives.

In Dublin this morning, the principle was that no-one arriving from Britain needed to show a passport, but to honour it would have meant putting an extra channel in and another set of exit doors. Much too much trouble. So principle was abandoned and pragmatism triumphed.

Without wanting to knock what was happening at Checkpoint Charlie, I have to say that, in general, life would be a great deal happier around the world if more people realised that reality mattered more than noble theory.

Ah, the charm of the Irish people who’ve understood that crucial truth.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Too late when they're late

Death is always a shock.

Doesn’t matter how much you expect it, doesn’t matter whether it brings relief from pain or comes as a blow from the blue, when you learn about it, it’s a surprise and too soon.

When I heard of the death of an old and dear friend today, my first thought was ‘why did I delay my plan to go and see him these last few weeks?’ Useless thought. It’s too late now. And it’s a thought I’ve had twice before.

My wife points out to me that I shouldn’t be thinking that way since we saw him just three months ago, when he was still able to leave the nursing home where he died this weekend. In limpid, mild autumn sunshine, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch with him, his wife and his eldest son. It was an afternoon of gentleness and cordiality, everyone enjoyed the company of the others, he was happy that we’d made the effort to come and see him, and we were happy to see him and to see his family.

Unfortunately, as we left I thought back to the last two occasions I’d visited a friend close to death. I hadn’t gone back to see either of them as I’d planned, and they died before I returned. I promised myself that it wouldn’t happen again. And as we left the house last autumn, I told myself that I’d see him at least one more time before he went. And then I failed to do it.

Somehow, I’ve got to get over that. We exist at a frenetic pace. Most of us live far too far from our friends, from our family even, and we don’t see each other anything like often enough. And then we miss each other until it
s too late. I should blame that crazy lifestyle.

And I have to overcome my disappointment at myself. I have to remember him as he was the last day we saw him: Danielle’s right to point out that he was smiling then, and recently he was smiling much less, as decline and pain took hold. Those at least he’s free from now.

I have to console myself with that smile. I’d known him fifty years and he’d been closely enough entwined with my family to become something of a second father to me. It’s good to remember him happy.

But there is a lesson to learn: seize the moment. There may not be another one.

The grave’s a fine and private place
but none, I think, do there embrace

Saturday, 23 February 2013

George Osborne school report: could try harder, might try something else

Georgie: he may already have found a better place
in which to pursue his career
Exclusive: following Moody’s decision to downgrade Britain’s credit rating, we have received an old school report for George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who previously asked to be measured by his success in retaining the AAA rating he felt was such a source of pride for Britain.

As a public service, we reproduce it here in full.

School Report

Student’s name: George Osborne
Subjects: Economics, economics, economics

We were all pleased to see Georgie decide to take up the challenge of a tough course of study, triple economics, even though he hadn’t previously had much success in this subject area. He agreed at the time that he would have to make quick progress to catch up with other students better qualified than himself, and it was refreshing to see his attitude, summed up by his desire to set himself demanding benchmarks to judge his own performance.

However, we are a little concerned that he may not have picked his benchmarks well. Choosing to eliminate the structural deficit before the end of the course was always ambitious, and it’s unfortunate that he has had to abandon the goal early, as deficit is growing again.

The decision to abandon the goal was no doubt justified, but Georgie does need to ask himself whether he was right to have made so much of adopting it in the first place: he will undoubtedly have created disappointment among his examiners and possibly in himself (though his wonderful self-confidence seems to be protecting him from showing any).

Equally, he is having to overcome a possible sense of failure over his objectives on debt, growing rather than falling as the deficit is creeps upwards.

We are also concerned that, if the end of this quarter sees us in a triple-dip recession, he may begin to wonder whether he made the right course choices.

Finally, it was a great regret to us that he set himself the task of holding on the AAA credit rating. We tried to warn him that he was perhaps attaching too much importance to a rather discredited measure, but he did insist on turning it into a ‘benchmark’ against which he expected to be judged. Since that rating has now been lost, he may wonder whether he ought to look at different career options.

Georgie has made it clear that he intends to persevere with his selections for now. But we feel he needs to be thinking about possible alternatives. The end of the course in May 2015 is not that far away and he has to be aware that things at that point may not work out as he hopes.

At any rate, the signs are not particularly encouraging for the moment.

Effort:- B-
Achievement: D
Overall: Might consider a change in career

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and fine consort to our noble Queen, long to reign over us, popped round to see us yesterday. 

I mean, he didn’t drop in to my place for a cuppa and a chat, but he did go to our local hospital, the Luton and Dunstable, and open a new cardiac care unit there. Which was kind of him: I’m sure we need one. Not, you understand, that he paid for it himself or anything, but it’s the thought that counts, not what you spend.

He has a bit of a reputation for his little quips, and he did tell a Filipino nurse that her country must be half empty, as her compatriots were all over in Britain running the NHS for us, but that got him a smile and no-one seems to have been offended. Getting up someone’s nose wouldn't have been at all unusual: for instance, he told a bunch of British students in China that if they stayed too long they’d end up ‘slitty-eyed’, or commented on some lousy electrical work that it must have been done ‘by an Indian.’

Prince Philip chewing the fat with a Filipino nurse at the Luton and Dunstable
... and, miracle, not getting on anyone's nerves

The official comment yesterday was that hardy perennial of all royal visits: it provided a great boost to morale. Naturally, I’ve nothing against that: today’s economic woes rather tend to undermine morale, so anything that builds it back up is to be applauded. It just worries me that we get such a kick from something as banal as a visit by someone whose most striking achievement was getting born in the right place.

OK, in his case, he followed that one up by making an expedient marriage. Because he was born into a family justly celebrated for having done little of value for generations, and married into another, it only takes him to show up somewhere for us all to feel better. It may just be me, but that sounds basically nuts.

These issues have had a little more ventilation than usual this week thanks to comments by Hilary Mantel. They came from a thoughtful and thought-provoking speech, as one might expect from a talented novelist, well worth reading in full here. However, it contained a few uncomplimentary sentences about a woman I persist in thinking of as ‘Kate Middleton’, though I’m told she ought now to be referred to as ‘Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.’ Sorry, Kate, too much of a mouthful.

Now this is a blog and I try to keep the posts short, but I’m nonetheless going to quote a little more of Mantel’s address than the papers have tended to reproduce. Mantel was talking about Marie-Antoinette, the unfortunate Queen of France, who:

as a royal consort was a gliding, smiling disaster, much like Diana in another time and another country. But Kate Middleton, as she was, appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished. When it was announced that Diana was to join the royal family, the Duke of Edinburgh is said to have given her his approval because she would ‘breed in some height’. Presumably Kate was designed to breed in some manners. She looks like a nicely brought up young lady, with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ part of her vocabulary. But in her first official portrait by Paul Emsley, unveiled in January, her eyes are dead and she wears the strained smile of a woman who really wants to tell the painter to bugger off. One critic said perceptively that she appeared ‘weary of being looked at’.

Unsurprisingly the papers who sprang to her defence, supported by that intellectual heavyweight David Cameron, have fixated on the remarks about Kate’s plastic smile and design by committee. But it’s much more telling that Mantel focuses on our strange view of royal women, viewing them as people whose main purpose is to be looked at; I love the suggestion that Kate ought to be telling some of the spectators to bugger off. That sounds like a call to Kate to stand up for herself, to assert her personality and to stick a finger up to the whole complex of image and flummery and obsequiousness which, by her marriage, she sadly joined.

If Mantel criticises Kate, it’s principally for being the accomplice or the dupe – possibly both: a willing dupe – of a thoroughly unhealthy set of social relations which it would be an immense emancipation to reject. We suffer so much indignity, and indeed privation, for the belief that there are some who, by birth, marriage of simple naked wealth, particularly deserve our deference. Mitt Romney ran a whole presidential campaign on that premise, and what a relief it was that he went down to defeat.

Mantel does us all a great service by drawing our attention to the problem. Even poor benighted Kate with her permanent smile could benefit.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

When losing even one mother looks like carelessness

Traditionally, there was nothing safe about giving birth to a child. 

In many parts of the world, it’s horrendously dangerous even today: in Chad, according to the CIA (yes, these guys taken an interest in everything), the rate of maternal death is 1100 per 100,000 pregnancies; even in far wealthier South Africa, it’s still 300.

That figure is particularly worth comparing with the rate in England as late as 1935, when it was between 500 and 600. In living memory, the rate of maternal death in England was getting on for twice as high as in South Africa today.

The 1935 rate, to set the figures in context, would see around 10 fit, healthy young women dying in England each day as a result of pregnancy. The actual figure is around 80 a year, and about half the women are already ill, most often with cardiological problems.

England now loses around 12 mothers per 100,000 pregnancy, a colossal improvement which perhaps represents one of the most striking advances in medicine in the last couple of centuries. The US does significantly less well despite its hugely more expensive healthcare system (21 per 100,000) but Ireland, curiously, does twice as well, at 6 per 100,000. And yet Ireland is undergoing a major exercise in soul-searching over maternal death, and with good reason.

Savita: tragic victim of rigid adherence to
one principle against all others
and not a litte incompetence

Last October, Savita Halappanavar was admitted to hospital suffering from an infection which was likely to end her 17-week pregnancy. A leaked report has found that medical staff failed to follow up a series of signs, including results of diagnostic tests, instead claiming that they thought it was someone else’s job.

The saddest aspect of this case is that when husband and wife asked for a termination of what was almost certainly a lost pregnancy, staff told them this couldn’t be done in Ireland, because ‘this is a Catholic country’. There could be no question of a termination while it was still possible to detect a foetal heartbeat.

The report concludes that the catastrophic end to the case ‘could have been avoided by earlier termination of pregnancy knowing that – without termination – the prognosis for the fetus and potentially the patient was poor.’

Yes. The prognosis was poor for the unborn child anyway, and refusing the abortion made it poor for the mother. 

In the event, after seven days in hospital, she went into septic shock and died.

Instead of losing just the baby, a rigid commitment to the principle of banning abortion led to the mother being lost too – condemned to die by 
pro-life thinking.

Commitment to principle is often commendable. But simplistic commitment to one principle above all others is miserably limited and, as this case shows, potentially dangerous. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is surely an attractive principle only to those who don’t want to see below the surface of ethics. No principle has been so honoured in the breach. Why, Christianity which proclaims it came to power in Rome thanks to the Emperor Constantine’s success in war. And that’s without mentioning the crusades.

Any morality worthy of the name has to recognise that it will be woven of a wide range of principles that sometimes contradict; the points of contradiction are its real tests, because they can’t be addressed by simply referring to a book or a commandment, however sacred. Instead they depend on the exercise of judgement by people doing the best they can in difficult circumstances.

That certainly failed lamentably in Savita’s case. But what makes it particularly shocking is that in its defence of an unborn child against abortion, this simplistic morality cost both the child’s life and the mother’s. That’s not just a dereliction of duty; it’s shameful.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

A wolf in ecologist's clothing

It’s cheering when mankind does something right, isn’t it?

After all, we get plenty of things wrong. For instance, the northern United States ran an intense eradication campaign against wild predators (no, I don’t mean red-neck Republicans, though that would have made more sense) which led to the shooting of the last wolf in the Yellowstone Park in 1926.

For several decades afterwards, elk numbers grew vertiginously and their impact on the park was massive and deeply damaging: in particular, numbers of certain types of plant, including willows, fell drastically.

Mankind got something right.
Though the elks probably don't agree

In 1995, a final legislative hurdle was overcome and wolves were reintroduced to the Park. At the latest count, there are 98 of them in ten packs and the population seems stable. A new ‘apex predator’ has apparently been successfully brought back into a remarkable natural environment, a new top added to the food chain.

The impact has been swift and hugely positive. For instance, wolves often leave part of their kill and other animals scavenge on the remains, leading to their populations growing. That includes the bald eagle, a creature so iconic in the US that it even appears on banknotes (though I suspect it doesn't fully appreciate the honour).

More surprisingly, watercourses are flowing more truly and silting less; as a result all sorts of aquatic insect populations are thriving, and with them the birds and fish that feed on them are growing in numbers; indeed, the clearer, deeper streams are themselves contributing to rising fish populations, as they find more favourable spawning grounds.

Even the beavers are doing well: from just one colony prior to reintroduction, there are now nine in the park. That also helps improve the condition of the rivers, by regulating flow and creating a new natural environment for insects and therefore fish to thrive around the dams.

How was this all achieved through the simply reintroduction of wolves?

The first and most powerful impact was on the elk population, down 50% since the wolves returned. 
Nor is it just a matter of a reduction in numbers: the presence of the wolves keeps the elk stressed and on the move, so they don’t just stay in one area and strip it bare of vegetation. 

Now I know about stress and constant movement, with a career spanning a dozen jobs and then some, so I sympathise with the elk but, hey, the benefits for everyone else are just enormous: keeping them down and keeping them moving takes the pressure off so many others. The river banks don’t get trampled to death any more, plants on which so many others depend are surviving and even the willows are making it to maturity again – which is crucial, in particular, for the beavers.

There has also been a drastic reduction in the number of coyote. The ones that remain also tend to keep away from the valleys these days, though they dominated them before the wolves came back: a wolf is likely to catch a coyote on the flat but on mountain slopes, coyotes have developed a trick I’m sure you’ll agree is pretty astute: they lead a wolf on a downhill chase, then suddenly spin round and head back uphill; the bulkier wolf has trouble making the turn, giving the coyote the chance to build a significant lead.

Substantially reducing the number of coyote has allowed foxes to re-emerge in larger numbers. They have have an impact on the rodents and other small animals predated by both coyote and foxes, and in turn that influences the proportions of different seeds that germinate and plants that flourish.

The reintroduction of the wolf has hugely changed the environment at Yellowstone, and almost entirely for the better. It’s as though well-intentioned but badly planned human intervention had been recognised for what it was, a serious error, and steps taken to correct it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that happened more often?

Coming next: 

  • western governments correct fiscal policies based on the erroneous concept of ‘trickle-down’; 

  • western governments correct foreign policies based on the erroneous concept that decency and democracy can be exported by torture and drone strikes; and biggest of them all, 

  • western governments correct energy polices based on the erroneous concept that natural resources are infinite and their use has no impact on the environment.
Doing well in Yellowstone.
Excellent news for us all

Friday, 15 February 2013

Trust: key ingredient of the good life

We all need to be able to depend on the kindness of strangers, don’t we?

That in turn means that strangers have to be able to trust each other.

Take the time when we’d run out of fuel on a country road at night, and two fairly rough looking lads pulled up in a battered car behind us. You can imagine that we felt a momentary frisson of apprehension. But in fact they drove me to a filling station several miles away, waited while I bought and filled a jerry can, and then ran me back. They would take nothing in return for their kindness.

Both sides had decided that the others were just what they seemed: a couple who’d stupidly failed to fill up with fuel on time, and young people who genuinely wanted to help and were prepared to inconvenience themselves to do it.

It’s far better to live in a society where that kind of trust and mutual assistance are possible than in one where they aren’t.

Sadly, however, there are those who see an inclination to trust others as merely evidence of imbecility. They feel it provides them with the opportunity to help their fellows only by relieving them of the burden of carrying too much money, a task they are prepared to make the sacrifice of undertaking on their behalf, buoyed by the belief they can find a much more valuable use for it.

The other day I was driving past a car broken down on the verge of a motorway slip road. It had its hazard warning lights flashing, but in any case the seriousness of the situation was made powerfully clear by the obvious distress of the driver, who’d stepped out into the road to wave me down.

I pulled over and let down the nearside window.

‘I’m really sorry...,’ he panted as he came alongside, ‘... it’s terrible... I have two kids in the car... I’m desperate...’

There was no way I could leave him in that state, I thought, and then he added, ‘I’ve lost my money, my credit cards, everything,’ and suddenly I discovered that, actually, leaving him in that state was going to be exceedingly easy.

‘No, thanks very much, I know this racket,’ I replied, closed the window and drove away.

But then I felt my irritation begin to mount. I’d been in that position once before. A young man, son of neighbours two doors away, had turned up at my door, desperate to get across to the other side of the county, but locked out of his house and unable to get at any money.

If you believe in helping others, then helping your neighbours has be near the top of your list. I provided this young man with a little cash. But then, of course, he turned out not to have anything to do with my neighbours and, strange though it may seem, despite his earnest promises, he didn’t show up that evening to repay me.

Got to try to trust people.
But sometimes – it's wise to be a little careful
I’d long since written off the loss as the price of a useful lesson. Clearly, it had paid off with the broken-down car on the slip road. But I was still irritated as I drove away, and becoming more so.

‘Why should he get away with it?’ I thought. 

Suddenly, I headed for the next exit and drove smartly round the roundabout to head back to where I’d met him. As I got back to the spot, I could see the car still there, half on the slip road, its hazard lights still disconsolately blinking.

But as I reached the exit which would get me close enough to note his number down with a view to reporting it – why the car just pulled away and out onto the main road, down which it sped as smoothly as you could wish, clearly no longer suffering from any kind of mechanical failure at all.

We owe it to our fellow man to help when we can. Wasn’t it wonderful that I could be of such assistance to this individual and at so little cost to myself? 

So satisfactory that all it took was for me to drive back towards him for his breakdown to be miraculously repaired.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Rugby: a delight even when it's a grind

Strangely, I’ve never played rugby. Or perhaps that’s not so strange: I was always small and though, like most small kids, self-preservation taught me to be reasonably quick, I was never what could be called athletic.

So if I love rugby, it’s purely as a spectator. But love it I do, and find it enormously entertaining, at least at international level. And above all at the level of the six nations, the main annual competition in the northern hemisphere.

It’s a curious mix: two Latin nations, France and Italy, and the four ‘home’ nations, Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland. The latter grouping is interesting, since Ireland went to considerable lengths to leave that particular home. Even so, when the emerald nation plays rugby it draws its player from both the Republic and Northern Ireland, currently still inside the United Kingdom.

What’s more, to show their attachment to that home, the Scots’ rugby anthem is ‘Flower of Scotland’ whose refrain refers to how the country ‘stood against him, proud Edward's army, and sent him homeward to think again.’ And who was this Edward? Why, England’s king, second of the name.

See? Just listing the countries taking part raises all sorts of fine points of controversy.

Though it’s a rough, tough game, occasionally brutal, rugby somehow generates a surprisingly convivial atmosphere. Fans aren’t segregated at matches. Women and children attend. Whole families turn up.

And, though it’s a rough, tough game, it’s also surprisingly stimulating intellectually. Players are forbidden in front of the ball, so the game embodies a concept of territory: each team holds the territory behind it. The slow build-up of territorial control is sometimes reminiscent of chess, though generally things move a little more quickly and with rather more physical contact.

That contact, though rough and tough (of course) is also a lot less brutal than one might think. For instance, it is less dangerous than American football where the use of helmets and padding tempts players into far greater violence, leading to more serious long-term injuries. Besides, in my own lifetime I’ve watched the laws of rugby evolve significantly and always in the direction of making it safer.

What emerges from all this is an engrossing game, swinging through many phases in which a team builds its control of territory, alternating with sudden explosive passages of running and passing when one or other side sees its opportunity for a breakthrough. It can be quite breathtaking.

But not always.

Last weekend, I watched two matches, France against Wales from Paris and Ireland against England from Dublin.

The TV companies produce highlights of a game for transmission when it’s finished; I have to say it must have been hard work to find more than a couple of minutes of highlights from either of these games, even using a generous definition of what constitutes a ‘highlight’.

The Paris game included just one try, the most exciting score in a rugby match. The Dublin games included none. Both games involved a lot of slow, grinding work to occupy territory and smother the other side’s attacks. You need to be a real aficionado of the game to enjoy it when it’s like that.

The only try in the two games I watched:
George North goes over the line for Wales against France.

Clearly, I’m a real fan, because I enjoyed both of them. You certainly won’t hear me saying that those games weren’t enthralling.

On the other hand, I do have to make a possibly damning admission: I’m not sure I would have enjoyed them as much had the results been different.

My (French) wife points out that I hold French nationality (thanks to her) as well as British. But naturalisation changes nothing when it comes to rugby loyalty and mine is to England. I’ve backed the English side for a long time, through thick and thin, and that’s meant a great deal of thin as well as occasional flashes of thick.

England won in Ireland.

And who are the great rivals of England? Why, France of course. 

And France lost to Wales.

I love the game for its own sake. Naturally. But an unlikely win for my side in Dublin? And an equally unlikely home defeat for its main rival?

It’s just possible that my pleasure at the grinding matches this weekend wasn’t entirely down to selfless love of the game. A little element of partisan advantage may have contributed just a little...

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Spite: weapon of choice of the powerless

Few people were more powerless in the nineteenth century than women. 

Women still have a long way to go before they can regard equality as achieved, but things were far worse around 1830: they didn’t even have the vote and it was simply inconceivable that they might have any impact on political processes. It’s curious to discover that an influence women were denied the right to exert openly, should have come back through the back door, if in a form one can only describe as 

The first six presidents of the United States all came from the wealthy, cultured and sophisticated Virginia or Massachusetts 
establishment, which knew how to behave itself. Each president was succeeded by his Vice President or Secretary of State, which meant that he (and it always was a he, of course) was able to get his heir fully toilet trained before handing the office on. As a result, while committed to the self-evident truth that all men are born equal, the successor wouldn’t be so tactless as to push the principle to the point where it might challenge the hegemony of respectable gentlemen, far less raise awkward questions about the rights of native Americans or slaves.

There was a brutal change with the arrival of the seventh president, Andrew Jackson. He was openly, unashamedly a democrat. So he wasn’t having any of this kowtowing to the elites, those tiny minorities that seemed to regard themselves as born to rule the country. His approach profoundly changed the way the US was governed even though, given the power still exerted by monied elites, we don’t want to overstate the extent of his achievement.

But, while most of us would probably admit that democracy demands that the majority rules, and that sweeping aside a monied minority is pretty essential to achieve that aim, the majority isn
t always as careful as might be of other minorities that don’t have the power that established wealth provides. In particular, in Jackson’s world view, there was no question of taking up the cause of slaves or native Americans. Slavery was safe under Jackson, and the Indians most certainly weren’t: he presided over acts of mass ethnic cleansing as the tribes were driven west of the Mississippi, even though that meant breaking solemn treaties signed with them.

Ugly in public, the administration had a pretty seamy side running through its private affairs as well.

To secure the support of the southern States, Jackson had chosen John Calhoun of South Carolina to run with him for Vice President. But Calhoun nursed his own ambitions of getting to the White House, and South Carolina was on a collision course with Washington over tariffs the State felt were crucifying it economically, and which it believed it had the right to ‘nullify’: it believed that a State could override the will of Federal government enshrined in law passed by Congress.

Now Jackson had an attractive aspect to his character which also had a severe downside: he was intensely loyal to those who were loyal to him. One close friend was John Eaton, a longtime supporter of Jackson’s who had served with him in the War of 1812 against the British; Jackson appointed him Secretary of War (equivalent to Defense Secretary today).

Unfortunately Eaton had married a woman, Margaret, who as well as being quite a looker, was known, in the quaint of expression of the time, to be no better than she should have been. Indeed, rumour had it that Eaton had had an affair with her before her first husband had died. This was behaviour most women in high society disapproved of at this time and, powerless to affect politics in any other way, they were perfectly prepared to affect it by acting on their dislikes.

Margaret Eaton
The face that launched a Civil War?

Floride Calhoun, wife of John, refused to call on Margaret Eaton. She was the one who’d brought the money to marriage and liked her family to respect her will; John supported her snubbing of the Eatons. 

Jackson’s Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren, was as keen as Calhoun on getting to the White House. Once he’d seen that the Calhouns had turned their backs on the President’s friend, he decided it would do him no harm to do the opposite. A widower, he was free to act on his decision, and paid the necessary visit to the Eatons.

Now fast forward a little more than thirty years. The United States was being torn apart by a brutal Civil War, which was being lost by the South including Calhoun’s state, South Carolina. He never did make it to the White House, whereas Van Buren did, and van Buren’s State, New York, was on the winning side of the war.

James Parton, looking back from the 1860s to the doings of the White House thirty years earlier, wrote that ‘the political history of the United States, for the last thirty years, dates from the moment when the soft hand of Mr Van Buren touched Mrs Eaton’s knocker.’

Of such small things are great historical events made. And behind the rift was no matter of principle, or even of wealth or fame or power, but the spiteful refusal of a group of women to live and let live.

In this way, disenfranchised womanhood played a bigger role in framing politics than one might have imagined.

And who would have simple spite could have been such a key factor?

Friday, 8 February 2013

Tradition: to be cherished, for better or for worse

I’ve had reason to say before that England is a country that values its traditions.

That’s why, every time the old lady from Buckingham Palace gets her eco-friendly, horse-drawn conveyance out and travels down the Mall with all the smart fellows in red coats trotting around her, so many Brits – and not a few tourists – all turn out to wave and cheer and generally enjoy engaging in behaviour exactly as obsequious as people have been displaying for centuries. It makes us all feel good to know that if we’re still dominated by feelings of deferential self-abasement, well, so were our ancestors.

So it’s great to find evidence of the longevity of some of our traditions. For instance, I’ve also previously mentioned Nadine Dorries, Member of Parliament for Mid Bedfordshire who, despite being a Conservative, summed up the leadership of the Tory Party in terms that I couldn’t possibly hope to better.

Nadine Dorries: no flies on her when it comes to her party leaders

She described David Cameron, Prime Minister (pro tem, scheduled expulsion from Downing Street, 2015), and George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer (as we quaintly refer to our Finance Ministers) (possibly facing an even earlier exit), as ‘two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition and no passion to want to understand the lives of others.’

She made this statement by way of clarification of a previous remark to the effect that they were ‘two posh boys who didn’t know the price of milk.’ Personally, I didn’t feel that needed a lot of clarification, but I suppose the word ‘arrogant’ sheds a little more light on their characters and the comment on the lack of passion provides additional insight too.

Now it’s curious but it seems that Conservative women are good at these things. I was amused to read, in his biography of John Adams (wittily entitled John Adams: a Life), John Ferling’s comments on the views of Abigail Adams from the time when her husband was not yet the second President of the United States, but still the first US ambassador to London. Though they were a ‘revolutionary’ couple, the revolution they favoured was merely intended to secure independence; on social issues, they were as Conservative as any Tory could hope.

In fact, they’d refused to support the Boston Tea Party – which happened more or less on their doorstep – and that would probably make them ideal material for the Tea Party today.

Abigail Adams: no flies on her eitherProbably a lot brighter than the second US President
Abigail was a smart woman, probably with a sharper mind than her husband’s. Apparently, she was ‘affronted by the manner in which the English elite treated their own people, and she expressed particular shock at the squalid living conditions endured by a large percentage of the population. She thought England a hopelessly corrupt country.’

It sounds like we were being run by some pretty nasty posh boys back in 1780s too. It’s a tradition, see, and we value tradition.

That’s why people who are facing foreclosure on their home, if they were ever in a position to buy one at all, or worried about paying the next month’s rent if they weren
t, turn out to celebrate the passage of one of the world’s richest women in her dandy little coach.

And cheer their little hearts out for joy.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Leaving the EU could have us fishing in troubled waters

Sometimes it’s the little things that matter. 

Anyone in Britain tempted by all that specious rhetoric about leaving the European Union might do well to come off the elevated level of grand principle – a whole Continent acting in concert as opposed to national independence, for instance – and consider some matters of detail, such as the European Arrest Warrant as a way of preventing easy escape for offenders, the ecological impact of agreed standards on environmental issues, or indeed joint action to prevent ourselves wiping out our stocks of fish.

By a large majority, the European Parliament today backed radical reform of the common fisheries policy. In particular, this will set out to end the disgrace of fish being taken and then thrown back, dead, into the sea. More generally, it’s designed to halt the continuing decline in stocks around Europe before it becomes irreversible.

In case you think this isn’t an urgent matter, just remember the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland: it used to be said that one had only to throw a bucket in the water to come up with fish. A moratorium on fishing had to be imposed in 1994. By 2010, after a spectacular increase of 69% in stocks in just three years, fish levels had recovered – to just 10% of where they were in the 1960s.

Fish respect no frontiers.
Fishing regulation is urgent and has to be international

The measure adopted by the Parliament is likely to be implemented because it has the support of national governments. This morning, the British minister with responsibility for fisheries, Richard Benyon, was interviewed by Justin Webb on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. Benyon was clearly delighted at what was happening, because Britain had been in the forefront of the campaign to get the ‘legally binding commitment to ensure that fishing rates are set sustainably’ which he regarded as essential.

Curious. Doesn’t it just show how much further British government representatives get inside the EU when they take the lead on a necessary initiative, instead of just sitting on the sidelines and shouting ‘no’ from time to time?

That must have been the kind of thought that went through Webb’s mind too, because he asked, ‘what would happen if we left the European Union, what effect would it have on fish in the sea?’

Quite so. One of the great strengths of the EU is that if offers precisely the kind of structure through which one can from time to obtain a ‘legally binding commitment’ of the type Benyon thought was necessary. So how did he think things would go if we left the EU?

‘I play the hand I’ve been dealt...,’ he pointed out before going on to add ‘we’re going to have to have some kind of arrangement where we talk between countries about how we manage stocks that swim across borders.’

Exactly right. Somehow we’re going to have to talk to each other anyway. Just because Nigel Farage and his UKIP supporters say we can demand independence from the EU doesn’t make us any less dependent on the other member states. We have to talk to them. We need their collaboration if 
we’re to have the kind of arrangements we all ultimately know we need.

‘I play the hand I’ve been dealt...’ Benyon said. And if Cameron lets himself be pushed by the right of his own party and by UKIP into leaving the EU, the hand will become considerably more difficult to play.

Another of the important little questions we face will become all the harder. There are lots and lots of little questions. Taken together they add up to something big.

Worth bearing in mind before casually deciding the European Union isn’t for Britain.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Valerie Beral: evidence is the challenge in medicine

‘Evidence-based medicine’: its been a holy grail in healthcare for many years. It doesn’t always stop doctors preferring their own instincts over boring tests and, say, sticking with a diagnosis of migraine until the real problem, a brain tumour, becomes untreatable, as happened to a friend of mine recently.

Generally, though, there is a growing sense that things ought to be done differently. In particular, public health medicine seems convinced of the need to collect and analyse data rigorously. So I was fascinated to listen to the BBC Radio 4 programme The Life Scientific this morning, because it centred around Valerie Beral, now Head of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford and Cancer Research UK.

Valerie Beral:
intelligent use of evidence to challenge thinking in medicine

Beral is best known for having been the main voice linking Hormone Replacement Therapy with increased probability of breast cancer. Her position earned ferocious criticism but over a million women have come off HRT over the last ten years, while regulatory body guidelines continue to recommend keeping the dose of HRT down to the minimum and taking it for the shortest time possible. 

In Beral’s view this has avoided 10,000 additional cases of breast cancer over that time.

What fascinated me was her attitude towards healthcare data analysis.

First of all, she believes it matters. She first made her name working on the contraceptive pill, and she got into the subject while working at a Family Planning clinic. Women would constantly ask her what long-term effects the pill would have; she could only answer, truthfully, that she didn’t know. So she decided to find out, not just about the pill, but about women’s health and, indeed, about public health generally.

Secondly, she’s clear about the need for certain standards in analysing data. Years ago a colleague of mine published tables comparing cardiac surgeons. His tables showed that the worst-performing had a mortality rate of 33.33%. Sadly this figure was based on a sample of three patients, one of whom died. Converting that kind of figure into a percentage is meaningless. The word ‘meaningless’ was the least offensive used by the surgeon in question.

It isn’t enough just to be rigorous about sample sizes, though. Even if you’re working on meaningful numbers (and Beral set up the ‘million woman study’), you need to be careful about any correlations you think you’ve found.

A classic example came from a University of Pennsylvania study published in no less prestigious a publication than Nature in 1999. It found that children sleeping with their light on are more likely to be myopic. Only a review of the data established that myopic parents are more likely to leave the light on in the child’s bedroom, and children of myopic parents are more likely to be myopic themselves. So the two phenomena weren’t directly related but independently linked to a separate common cause, the myopia of the parents.

The third aspect that I found refreshing follows on from the previous one: Beral also points out that you don’t actually have to propose a mechanism for the cause behind a correlation. She gives the example of the link between smoking and lung cancer: no-one can explain how smoking increases the risk of lung cancer, but the evidence for the link is undeniable, and barely anyone denies it any longer.

Interestingly, the programme mentions that when that link was first shown, the British government tried to hide it, so as not to cause concern. Clearly, it isn’t enough only to collect evidence, you have to be prepared to do something about it.

That can often be uncomfortable. One of the cases mentioned by Beral, that I found most interesting was that of the far higher incidence of breast cancer in the richer nations than in the developing world. She points to evidence that the risk of contracting breast cancer falls by 10% if a woman gives birth at around 20 and breast feeds her baby; it falls by a further 10% for a second child.

Does that mean that our societies have to switch to encouraging much younger childbirth and much longer breast feeding? Not at all. As Beral makes clear, childbirth and breast feeding must be generating hormones that are giving these young women their relative immunity to breast cancer. Research should be identifying which hormones are in play and a means of delivering them without necessarily going through the pregnancy.

The problem is that the research needed to produce this result doesn’t fit with the pattern of medical research funding we have adopted in developed nations, and which is focused on three or five year programmes. The research Beral is calling for would take more like ten years.

This is where listening to the evidence becomes particularly powerful: when it challenges some of our fundamental habits and assumptions. And that’s when it becomes most exciting.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Normal Service Resumed and Tribal Warfare

The great benefit of a holiday is to come home rested and with batteries recharged, ready to face the familiar realities again with faculties restored.

Ten days ago, we left England with pavements frozen under grey skies, with gloves and scarves essential, and turned up on Lanzarote awash with warmth and sunshine; I was swiftly into shorts and short sleeves. On the airport road, I removed my socks and converted the car glove compartment into a sock compartment. The socks stayed there till we got back to the car rental place today. 

But by leaving England we got away not just from painful temperatures as much in the moral sense as the physical.

David Cameron had kept us waiting six months for a speech on Britain’s relationship with the European Union. Over that time, the Eurosceptic current of his Conservative Party, always the loudest and perhaps the most powerful, had become more confident and more outspoken; meanwhile, polls were becoming increasingly favourable to the United Kingdom Independence Party. UKIP (pronounced you kip, as in you kip while we sneak up and seize power) was initially a single-issue party, making a speciality of anti-EU fervour so intense as to be downright rabid. Recently, UKIP has branched out to embrace pretty well any illiberal cause, including homophobia and xenophobia. Watch this space: hydrophobia 
may be next.

UKIP is unrepresented in parliament, so it was curious to see it regularly scoring higher in polls than the Liberal Democrats, the third biggest parliamentary party and a partner in the current coalition government (OK, very much the junior partner, supported by the Conservatives in much the same way and with much the same results as a rope supports a hanging man).

Nigel Farage of UKIP: frightening Cameron out to the right
...and if I met him looking like that, he'd frighten me too

So it was unsurprising that Cameron, despite his stated enthusiasm for the European Union in the past, tried to outflank UKIP to the right and came out with an essentially Europhobic position in that long-trailed address. As is his hallmark, despite the months of delay, the talk revealed how incapable he is of thinking through any position he adopts. He claimed he’d speak out in favour of staying in the EU if was able to renegotiate the terms of British membership. That rather begs the question of what he’ll do if, as seems likely, he’s unable to obtain terms that the uglier circles of his party will find acceptable. 

It is interesting that significant voices not just in Europe but even in the US warned him of the perils of the course he’d adopted. What is downright frightening is how well his perilous, half-baked position served him in the polls: after many months of opposition leads in the YouGov polls that grew from 9-10% up to 10-12% (probably overstated) , the Labour Party’s margin of advantage fell to 6-7%.

Being truculent towards Europe is obviously still popular.

Fortunately, though, Cameron is finding his old sleight of hand less easy to pull off any more. It was good to see the YouGov lead for Labour come back up to 9% yesterday, 12% today. Feels like normal service is resuming. The nasty Cameron blip lasted only as long as my holiday.

That’s encouraging. It looks as though we can keep chipping away at the government’s standing and stay right on course to defeat it comprehensively in 2015.

The physical temperature has improved too. Super-glacial rather than sub. It feels as though I really shall be able to take up my normal life again fully re-invigorated.

Postscript Fascinated to see the row over Jared Diamond’s book on tribal societies: is he right to suggest that tribal societies are more violent, with warfare endemic, than state ones?

Jared Diamond proving too much tribalism can produce regression
The controversy seems completely artificial and irrelevant. 

We in the west are incapable of living a single day of peace; indeed nations such as Britain, France and above all the US seem not to find fulfilment unless they’re fighting two simultaneous wars. True, our countries fight those war somewhere else, which limits the damage to our own real estate. But when it comes to creating an appalling mess all around them, we’re at least as effective as any tribal society ever was; and I bet the tribes look after their injured warriors when they get home. 

When we stop inflicting our violence on others, and shamefully neglecting the young people we send into harm’s way, our tribes may be better placed to pass judgement on others.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Goodness Gracious and Bags of Fun

No holiday is ever complete without its day of disasters. Ours was yesterday, which ironically was also the day of one of the best trips we’ve had since we arrived.

We travelled to the north of Lanzarote where we caught a ferry to the neighbouring island of La Graciosa, the gracious one. A well-named place. The ferry arrives in a little harbour scattered with fishing boats and surrounded by white painted houses with dark blue doors and window frames. We had some excellent fish at a dockside café, and that’s not as unsurprising as it may sound: I’ve been to many a fishing port which sells all its produce to some distant metropolis and only serves local diners the stuff it gets back, processed and in packets. 

White and Blue, the colours of Caleta de Sebo houses on La Graciosa

La Graciosa’s only vehicles are a small number of SUVs providing taxi services. Otherwise, the only way of getting around is by bike or on foot. So I enjoyed the chance to confirm again just how awful hired bikes tend to be. If I’d ever forgotten, yesterday would have given me plenty of reminders of how to put a bike chain back in place.

Getting around La Graciosa
The only one who avoided the dreaded hire bike was my son Nicky who used his own, but he earned that privilege by riding the 70 km to the ferry terminal at Órzola, a price rather higher than I’d have been prepared to pay.

The beach on the other side of the island was quite spectacular enough to compensate us for the effort of cycling the six kilometres to get there on lousy bikes. 

Las Conchas: worth the ride even on hire bikes

Nothing dull about the sea on Las Conchas beach

An attractive aspect of the island is that that you feel safe from any kind of crime – with only the ferry to get on or off it, sneaking stolen property away is quite hard – so we just dumped our bikes and bags in a pile at the top of the beach.

One of our company who, to spare her blushes, I shan’t name as my wife Danielle, was so excited at the sight of the sea (something we only enjoy a couple of dozen times a day on Lanzarote), that she rushed down to the water’s edge with squeals of excitement and dumped her bag there. As a result, when we prepared to leave, all bags were in the communal pile bar hers. 

Consternation ensued. How awful. Had crime struck after all? Nicky leapt onto his super-bike and headed back towards the port, ready to intercept any dastardly criminal and recover his Mum’s property.

Only after he’d set off did she discover that the bag was still on the beach. Not of course where she’d left it, well below the tideline, but where the sea had dumped it, refreshingly damp through and through. I can confirm that Euro notes can be died a pleasant pink if you put them in a red leather wallet and soak it in sea water.

Half a dozen people texted or phoned Nicky to tell him his mission was no longer necessary. By then though, with his powerful legs and his super-cycle, he was nearly back at the village. He dismounted and waited for the rest of the party to catch him up. The whole group then headed back to our café for a restorative drink.

The boat was already at the dockside, a couple of minutes walk away.

‘Can we get there on time?’ I asked, indulging a misguided sense of irony, when we still had a quarter of an hour to go.

My son David gauged the distance by eye. ‘If you hop backwards on one leg you might run out of time.’

I decided to put his proposition to the test and started hopping backwards. The problem with that form of locomotion is that you can’t see what’s behind you. I’d only taken half a dozen hops when I collided with the café’s cast iron sign and opened up my ankle.

Fortunately, attention was swiftly distracted from my self-inflicted injury by Nicky’s anguished cry ‘where’s my bag?’ It felt like a particularly unhappy case of déjà vu. Not surely another bag gone missing?

Then it all came back to him. When he’d dismounted to wait for the rest of the group to catch up he’d put his bag on the ground, and there it had remained.

La Graciosa is, however, indeed an honest place, and when he’d sped back on the super-bike at super-speed, he found the bag still there. On the other hand, time and tide and apparently La Graciosa ferries wait for no man. The crew delayed as long as it could but the boat had to clear the berth to make way for the next one coming in, only seconds before Nicky reappeared on the dockside.

Fortunately, Nicky’s partner Nicola (yes, we call them collectively Nick-Nick) was able to swap their tickets for that ferry with a couple who had tickets for the next. So in the end little harm was done and we only had a half hour wait for the whole party to be reunited, bags, bike and all. Just time for a coffee in yet another dockside café.

The ferry crossing: part of the fun. 
Even if we had to split the party into two for the return
Disasters without serious consequences: that’s pretty good for a holiday. On balance, La Graciosa gave us a magical day: much to delight in, nothing to complain about, a little to laugh over.